When the Ponies, Unicorns, and Rainbows Finally Come: Welcome to Believeland or Growing Writers in the War Eagle Writing Studio


The first twelve weeks of school have been a roller coaster in the War Eagle Writing Studio.  I’ll share more about our struggles and successes in a blog post I’ll publish this weekend, but over the last few days I’m observing signs that my students are growing as writers.  This week we’ve been inquiring into”Where I’m From” poems with mentor texts and “noticings” activities (another blog post in the making); we began working on our brainstorming list for ideas with a graphic organizer on Wednesday, and most students began drafting yesterday or today.

I’ve been struck by how so many students, especially my 6th and 7th graders, have been writing with a very deliberate and noticeable intention and purpose the last few days.  I began thinking about the parallels of intention and process in art studio work and writing studio work after my friend and fellow teaching colleague Dorsey Sammataro (did I mention how amazing she is?) showed me a video in early September created by one of her AP Art Studio students, Megan Dammann:

In our writing conferences and observations I’ve made of students thinking and writing over the last two days, I’ve been struck by how focused and invested students have been in their writing.  There is a new intensity I’m seeing as they think and write.  Many students now are talking about their writing process, what they are thinking about in their current drafts, and/or next drafts instead of merely asking if their draft “is good” when they talk to me about their work.  They also seem more responsive to my questioning I’m doing in our writing conferences (thank you Carl Anderson) as I try to ask them questions to prompt their thinking rather than tell them what I think.  Our writing conferences are starting to shift to conversations about process and decision-making by students; they have never been about how I would suggest they “fix” anything, but I see students now are starting to articulate their own thinking more clearly and in deeper ways.





How do you assess and capture intention and process with your writers?  How do you celebrate that and make it more visible in your classroom?  I would love to hear what others are doing.

One class in particular, my 4th period group of 7th grade writers, has been especially invested in the poetry unit we’ve been doing for the last six weeks.  Earlier this week, they were asking about doing another poetry reading.  Today our principal, Jennifer Kogod, dropped in to visit and took time to chat with every writer and read his/her work.  As a teacher, nothing thrilled your heart like having a principal who is a literacy advocate who interacts with the students; for the students, her presence clearly conveyed to them that our principal genuinely cares about their work.  As we continued to conference and draft the last half of class, two of my male students said, “I wish I could stay in here and work on my poems the rest of the day!”  One asked if he could get permission from his last period teacher to come and work in my room; I told him I would email her and that if he had completed all his work and she was fine with the request, I was fine for him to join my last class of the day which is a 6th grade section of writing workshop.   The other student wanted to know if he could come in before school and work on his poems!


The class then wanted to do an impromptu poetry reading, so that we did.  The two students, Ben and Ryland, shared their drafts in progress.  Ben then asked me if I could text the video I made of him reading his poem to his mother (and I did).  His 6th period teacher graciously agreed to let him join us, and he helped me kick off my class by reading his poem in progress to my 6th graders.


I cannot tell you what this kind of cross-grade pollination does to a teacher’s heart—I literally felt like we were all soaring as he shared his draft, his advice for my 6th grade writers, and how he went about the process of getting his first draft composed.  How amazing is this kind of participatory learning where the novices become the experts and share that expertise they are growing?  He then worked on his poem for a little while before breaking off to conference with 6th grade writers and serve as a writing buddy to listen to drafts and share glows and grows to those writers.

I am sure we’ll move and back along this continuum of growth throughout the year, but I feel like I’m seeing many of my students finally start to turn an important corner as writers and learners.  I am seeing my students to think more deeply about process and to work with more intention.   I can’t measure any of this growth with a test, and I need better ways of documenting that though I’m still figuring that out.  All of my classes were so engaged in their writing—-today is the first day I can truly say that about every single section–all six of them—and it is truly music to my ears.  It’s the kind of day I thought about all summer as I looked forward to returning to the classroom and this opportunity to teach writing all day.  I’m excited to be part of this journey as a teacher AND a learner with my students, and I can’t wait to see where we go next together.  The fact I’m sharing this with you on a Friday night probably speaks to how epic of an experience the last few days have been.   Welcome to BELIEVELAND!


Growing Understanding of Genre Through a Poem Reading Frenzy


About ten days ago, I planned and implemented a “poem reading frenzy” for my middle school writers as part of my efforts to expose them to many kinds of poems, especially since the genre is new to them as readers and writers.  Like many of you, I think giving our students to read like writers and an opportunity to notice qualities of a genre of writing is essential in a writing studio.  The “reading frenzy” idea comes from my friend and fellow colleague Nancy Steineke; the basic premise of this activity is to give students an opportunity to read, explore, ponder,  and rank texts, such as informational articles or in this case, poems.

My Original Plan for Learning

When I planned the activity, I picked 8 poems for each grade level (grades 6, 7, and 8); I thought that I had picked a solid range of texts that would be on their reading level and expose each group of students to different styles of poems.  My game plan was:

1 .  Distribute the packets of poems to each student; each student would have the opportunity to read the poems quietly to himself or herself.

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2.  Rank the poems from favorite to least favorite using the form below.


3.  Do some light annotation of the student’s favorite poem using the model I provided to each table group of students; this model was housed in my “shop ticket” pouches.  I made extra copies of all the poems so that students could have his/her own copy to mark up and annotate.  In addition, I kept these “noticing” prompts on the board for annotating:


4.  Use the FSLL method of noticing qualities about a poem; I asked students to choose any talking points from the list of questions provided and complete the blank FSLL chart on the back of the “ranking” handout. I provided a completed example in the “shop ticket” pouches along with the example of the annotated poem.

Below are the examples I gave table groups to share and use for reference in my neon shop ticket pouches:




My day started with my 8th grade classes.  Since we had previously done some light annotation and used the FSLL method a few weeks ago in small groups, I started the class period with a quick overview and review of our annotating strategies and FSLL method.

*An important note about the FSLL method—this method is a strategy I discovered in June 2016 in one of my Facebook groups for the Heinemann Units of Study.  I am embarrassed to say that I am not able to backtrack through all the discussions to give appropriate credit to the teacher who posted her photos of her students’ work using this method, and since she never posted a blog post over the summer with a link to any additional details, I don’t have anything to point you back to for more details.  However, I developed my own original graphic organizer for the FSLL method based off the photos she posted of student work; you can see the guiding handout and a blank graphic organizer below:


Adjusting the Activity by Responding to Student Needs

By the end of my first class (Period 8-2), I realized three important things I didn’t anticipate but probably should have:

  1.  The students were struggling with reading and understanding the poems even though I thought I had picked accessible reading levels and short, readable poems.  I should have anticipated they might need them read aloud since they were still newbies to the genre and the ways we read a poem, especially when the thought carries across multiple lines.
  2.  Even though I thought I had been VERY clear about the ranking system in my written and oral instructions (1 is the favorite poem, 8 is your least favorite—rank them 1 to 8), at least 3/4 of the class did not understand these instructions.
  3. The students were spending an inordinate amount of time copying the titles of poems into the ranking chart.

As a result, they barely even made it to annotating their poems and needed a second day of class to complete the activity, something I thought would doable in one period.

At the end of period 8-2, I quickly decided to punt and make some adjustments for the 6th and 7th grade classes:

  1.  Revamp the ranking template/handout to  include the names of the poems so students would not have to write them down.  Here is an example of how I did this for 7th grade:

2.   I decided to read aloud each poem 2x to help students really “hear” the poems and hopefully better understand each one.

3.  I reminded students that we didn’t have to completely understand a poem to appreciate or enjoy it.

These adjustments seem to make a big difference, especially for my 6th graders.   My 6-3 class clapped enthusiastically every time I read a poem from their packet, and they were eager to rank their choices!  Each student got to take a copy of his/her favorite poem to mark up/annotate; they also were quite earnest in their efforts to choose two points of “noticings” for their selected poems.   I was surprised and impressed that of all my classes, this class had the greatest spread of “favorite poems”—-favorites tended to lean toward 2-3 poems in all my other classes in every grade level/section.

For my 6-6 class who needs a little more scaffolding, we read the poems together, and they got to annotate/mark up each poem.  Because these activities took the entire period, I modified the assignment for them and didn’t ask them to do a FSLL chart, especially since they did a lot of this work orally in our individual to pair to group share during class.   Like my 6-3 students, this class seemed to take great delight in hearing and discussing the poems.

Another part of the activity that was a big hit with both classes:  I included a two-voice bilingual poem and asked a student to volunteer with me.  The class LOVED hearing another student read the poem with me since both my student volunteers took on the Spanish speaking part and showed off their linguistic expertise! Both 6th grade classes LOVED the activity and thoroughly enjoyed a diverse range of poems.

Even with the modifications, the my efforts to do this activity with 7th grade were challenging because we had to move to a different location so that our new writing studio furniture could be set up since it had arrived mid-day.  If you’ve taught middle school, you know that any disruption of the normal routine usually results in unusual behavior or student difficulty in staying focused.   Though the circumstances were not ideal and probably impacted the quality of the learning experience, my 7th graders were able to finish their annotations and begin their FSLL charts in class; they completed these on a subsequent class day.

Below is the rubric I created to assess their work; I made some slight modifications for my 7th graders and 6-3 class, but you can see the basic elements I looked at in their annotations and FSLL responses in this 8th grade assessment rubric:

Looking Ahead and Additional Modifications

I am planning on doing a modified version of this activity again with my students next week as we look at “Where I’m From” poems (a post will be forthcoming on this poem study).  Here are a few things I’ll be sure to do:

  • I will reduce the number of mentor poems from 8 to 4
  • I will read all the poems aloud
  • We’ll annotate using a modified write-around text on text activity where students can do collaborative annotations (I’ve blogged extensively about this strategy from Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke in the past)
  • We’ll use a graphic organizer to capture and record our noticings about these kinds of poems

I am hoping that with these adjustments, my 7th and 8th graders will be as enthusiastic about the activity as my 6th graders were.  What additional modifications would you make, or how are you doing reading frenzies with your middle school or upper elementary age students?

The Joy, Wonder, and Beauty of Class Poetry Readings

poetry-reading-1This past Friday we held our very first War Eagle Writing Studio Poetry Reading.  While I have a larger poetry reading event planned for later this fall, I decided on the fly this past Wednesday (9/28/16)  that it would be a good idea to do a few small-scale poetry readings in our studio room for several reasons:

  • We were coming to the end of our 2nd week of our poetry unit, and I felt it was of utmost importance to give students the opportunity to share the poems they have written aloud to their peers.
  • These small scale poetry readings are a great way to scaffold the students to the big end of unit poetry reading where we’ll invite parents and stakeholders in our Chestatee community to join us.
  • I wanted my students to experience the power of reading their poems aloud to their writing community (classmates).  We have been knee deep in drafting, writing conference, working with writing partners, and individual work, so while students have had glimpses of each other’s work, they have not had a whole class/community opportunity to read and share together.

My strong feelings about the importance of sharing poetry aloud comes from my experiences in my graduate level course on teaching poetry that I took way back in 2003 with Dr. JoBeth Allen at the University of Georgia.  I’ll never forget the feelings and the experience of our entire class reading and hearing our poems as a group; there is something extraordinary and transformation about this kind of poetry experience, especially when you have worked together over an extended time.  The collective experience of each person contributing his or her own poem to the group poetry reading was one that changed how I perceive poetry and elevated the importance of the oral sharing of poems.  For my students, most of whom have read or written very little to no poetry, I think the act of sharing poems aloud is especially important to capturing both their hearts and their minds as fledgling poets.

I announced to the classes on Wednesday that we would be having a poetry reading on Friday, September 30.  I gave them a brief overview of what it was and told them they needed to finish their second poems (we were working on poems off a list and “old/new” poems; please see my previous blog post for more information) so that they would have a choice of poems to read.    Our wonderful school secretary Kathy Clifton helped me find a tablecloth and enlisted the help of our custodian Tim in moving a high-top cafe table plus two barstool chairs from our school bistro to my classroom.  In addition, Ms. Clifton connected me with our chorus teacher who knew the perfect AV setup I wanted—a wireless microphone with a speaker that was super easy to set up with the help of our media specialist, Ms. Kell.  Several of my fellow teachers let me borrow their floor lamps so that I could have enough additional lighting to turn off the fluorescent lights and create a cozy atmosphere.  I took possession of an artificial Ficus tree from the adjacent workroom that the 6th grade team no longer wanted to have a tough of greenery; I also borrowed a bouquet of artificial flowers from the same workroom to add a festive touch to my studio room.  I had hoped to round up some clear lights to weave into the Ficus tree, but that didn’t come together in time; however, I am now stocked up as this weekend and prepared for the next reading with two sets of lights!  I also threw down a throw rug from Target and re-arranged the room after school on Thursday to create our atmosphere.

Last but not least, I invited all of our administrators, our media specialist, Ms. Clifton, and our Title I Instructional Coach Sarah Widincamp who has been a wonderful sounding board for me this school year.  Ms. Kogod, our principal, invited the Language Arts teachers at their content area meeting on Thursday afternoon.


My students stepped up their efforts on Thursday to finish crafting their poems, and the stage was set on Friday morning!  Most students expressed either extreme excitement, extreme fright, or some combination of the two.  My 4th period class of 7th graders were the most excited as they broke out spontaneous high-fives on the way out of class Thursday shouting, “We’re having a poetry reading tomorrow!”

I decided it would be helpful for the students to have some kind of graphic organizer to help them jot down their favorite moments from the poetry reading so that they could do a reflection at the end of the poetry reading.  In addition, I set up two basket areas for them to turn in their latest poem drafts and their poetry reading reflections.  Last but not least, I borrowed a whiteboard on wheels from the media center to post instructions for the students as they came into the room (put your bookbags on the back four tables on the curve of the room, get your poems out, get your writing folders from the class bin, grab a poetry reading reflections graphic organizer, and have a pen or pencil.)



On Friday, many students were both excited and incredibly nervous.  A few asked if they had to participate or if they had to speak into the microphone; I responded “yes” in a firm but encouraging tone of voice.   As students arrived, I steered them to the whiteboard with our “warm-up” instructions as they gasped in delight; nearly every student commented on how beautiful they thought our classroom/studio looked.  One student exclaimed, “Look at our magical room!”

Students sat randomly in a semi-circle, and I simply picked a side of the semi-circle to begin the reading, and students took turns in the order they sat. This choice seemed to help facilitate the reading.  I quickly reviewed our reading and listening procedures; I also emphasized the importance of lifting up our classmates with love and support by being respectful listeners and showing appreciation with claps and snaps.    Period 6-3 decided that doing the dab in their seats was their special way of showing class spirit for each other!






What happened over the course of six classes was nothing short of astonishing.  I could see my students gaining confidence and feeling the power of the spoken word just as I did in the coffee shop warehouse where I had experienced my first poetry reading long ago on a spring day in April 2003 in Athens, Georgia.  The administrators, teachers, our media specialist, and instructional coach were blown away by the depth and heart of the students’ writing.  Adults and students alike were happily surprised to see a side of many students that had been hidden until now but was emerging just as a butterfly does when it emerges from its chrysalis and begins to flutter its wings.  Nearly every student participated; in my first sixth grade class, nearly every student volunteered to read two poems instead of one after we finished the first round of reading and sharing.   I am proud of all my classes, but the emotional investment I saw from one of my 7th grade classes and both sixth grade classes was particularly exceptional.  I saw students encourage each other, especially when they could see someone was particularly nervous or apprehensive.  I heard comments like, “You’ve got this” and “Way to go!”

Below is a collection of statements and feedback I gleaned from the student poetry reading reflections graphic organizers.  Students got to pick three favorite moments (favorite readings, favorite lines, instances where students showed courage in their readings, and/or surprising moments); they did a final reflection in the last box where they shared their big take-away from the day.  These reflections capture a snapshot of student growth and learning that will never be measured with a constructed written response on a state Milestones test.  I encourage you to take time to read every statement from my students.

I wish I could share more photos and videos of the readings from the day, but I do not have permission to post student photos and videos through social media for many of my students.   However, I am hopeful I can get permission for students to publish their poems as part of a class anthology/eBook I have planned.

In closing, nearly every student wanted to know would we be doing more poetry readings.  I would be happy to hear this kind of request from any group of students, but for my students who have not had many successful writing experiences, this level of enthusiasm is significant.  I am curious to see in the coming weeks if the poetry reading impacts how they take on the next round of poems we’ll be drafting and our work in the writing studio.  I will always look back on this day as one of the most memorable in my teaching career, and I hope we have more like this to come in the next few months!  This first poetry reading was definitely a milestone for my writers, and I am hopeful it will be a catalyst to fuel a passion for writing.   I leave with you some of the readings I videoed and that I have permission to post publicly through social media.



Showcase Your Student-Created Mentor Texts with These Nifty Shop Ticket Holders


By request, I am sharing a brief post about the shop ticket holders I’m using to showcase student crafted mentor texts.  In early September, I purchased these neon shop ticket holders from Amazon; I chose these because I wanted an easy way to showcase mentor texts in my classroom.  Bonus:  this particular kind adds a pop of color to your classroom, and you can organize mentor texts by color.


You can hang these on a hook in your classroom, or you can simply make them available for students to pick up and take back to their seats for mentor text study.  These shop ticket holders were especially helpful last week as I introduced two new poetry writing strategies to my students:

  • Poems written off a list (a method I learned a few years ago when YA author Kelly Bingham did a daylong visit to my media center and did poetry writing with students)
  • “I Am Old and New” poems, a poem writing strategy I got from the Pongo Teen Writing Project.  I learned about this group through our former Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway, a poet who inspires me as a teacher and as a writer.

Students in my Writer’s Workshop and Writing Connections classes (grades 6-8) could choose to craft their next poem using either strategy.  While I had provided a model texts for both kinds of poems (one crafted by me, one from a teen at the Pongo Teen Writing Project), I decided to showcase student crafted drafts in progress after two of my students showed me “share-ready” drafts.  With their permission, I captured their drafts as well as the planning work they put into their poems using my scanner app on my iPhone.  I then printed copies and placed them in the shop ticket holders.  I used the neon orange and red shop ticket holders to showcase Alex’s poem written off a list; I used the neon yellow and green shop ticket holders to share Wren’s “old and new” poem draft and planning template.  I then introduced them at the beginning of the class the next day for help students who were struggling with their drafting or moving from the planning list and template to a poem draft.  I also took time to read each poem aloud to every class as I introduced the mentor texts from my students.



This seems like a small detail, but I know many of us are always scouting for tools and materials to help us facilitate the flow of our writing workshop.   These shop ticket holders are an inexpensive and terrific investment for protecting and sharing student crafted mentor text and writing!  What kinds of materials do you use to feature mentor texts either from known writers or from your own students?