Nurturing Seeds of Writing Joy with Greenbelt Writing

A week ago, I sat down and read Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Joy Write, on a Sunday afternoon.   A wonderful synopsis of the book is posted over at Two Writing Teachers by Stacy Shubitz; for me, the book really crystallized the tension I often feel between teaching certain genres I know my kids need and the messier, experimental writing that kids also need to grow as writers.  Because I only get to see each class for roughly forty minutes each day, time has been one of the challenges as I’ve wrestled with this inner conflict.  While I don’t completely agree with everything Ralph Fletcher says (and I’ve been a fan of his work my entire career), I do love his ideas about greenbelt writing and its importance, especially for struggling writers.  I don’t feel a writer’s workshop is an “either/or” proposition for secondary grades, but instead, I think a writing studio includes greenbelt writing as well as more structured writing that includes more 1:1 help and guided instruction, an inquiry stance on writing that includes the use of modeling and mentor texts, and the use of writer’s notebooks for thinking and trying out different writing/text structures.

Fletcher introduces his concept of Greenbelt Writing in Chapter 5 and then has subsequent chapters explaining what it might look like. Fletcher defines Greenbelt Writing as:

“Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated.  I’m talking about informal writing. Writing that is wild, like the pungent skunk cabbage that sprouts haphazardly along the edge of a swamp.  I’m talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over the shoulder.”

Fletcher also says that the more “developed” and structured modern writing workshop can be supplemented with greenbelt writing, a “wild territory where kids can discover the power of writing” that is (39):

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood

In Chapter 10, Fletcher says, “…instead of giving reluctant writers more structure, let’s give them more freedom.  Invite students to try out any of the writing types detailed in Chapters 6 and 7, and especially the ideas found in Chapter 8” (85).  Fletcher then tells teachers to encourage these kinds of writing:  free-writing, journal writing, writing in a favorite genre, collaborative writing, humor, obsessions, and edgy writing.  Several teachers he interviewed who have tried greenbelt writing with their students say their students gain confidence and see themselves as writers, processes that are essential to growth as a writer.  Fletcher acknowledges teachers may not completely buy into the idea that greenbelt writing will lead to “…stronger formal classroom writing” (86).  However, Karen Huy, a third grade teacher, says “Before I can even get reluctant writers to regard themselves a writers, I have to get them to see all of their many forms of writing as writing” (87).

With these ideas and arguments (as well as counterarguments from personal experience and included in the book) in mind, Chapters 5 and 10—“Greenbelt Writing” and “The Reluctant Writers” —were the two chapters that resonated with me the most; they pushed my thinking and perspective, and as a result, I scrapped my plans for the last 3.5 weeks with my 6th grade Writing Connections and rebooted to have a “Greenbelt Writing” unit.  While a formal unit is not truly in the spirit of the book, it is a starting point for us and a space for us to experiment with greenbelt writing; it also gives us this space to simply write, share, and hopefully thrive while sustaining our writing stamina.    I also see the greenbelt writing project as a space for us to plant seeds for the 2017-18 year and to figure out how to better balance greenbelt writing with the required genres I know my students must learn.  Though I am presenting this as a unit to my 6th grade writers, I am trying to stay true to Fletcher’s urging that we not keep out as teachers but adopt a “hands off” (40) approach in terms of letting students pick their genres of writing/writing projects and evaluating their work/knowing when it is publish-ready.  Most importantly, this unit is designed to give students “spaces and opportunities to experience the pleasure of writing” (40).

Last week, we began by brainstorming topics we were interested in writing about.  I then introduced our project guidelines to both of my sections of 6th Writing Connections.  I have organized our project into two writing cycles; in each cycle, students choose two writing projects to develop and publish on our 6th Writing Connections KidBlog.  We also reviewed our calendar and timeline for Writing Cycle 1.

All of my 6th graders are struggling writers, so I thought about how to keep the writing open yet provide some flexible writing structures for those who might want something to help them start.  I crafted the following menu and stations for each kind of writing that students could visit:

Students always have the option to free-write most of the genres; some of the genres are ones we have done earlier in the year, like different kinds of poetry and personal narratives.  While I know Fletcher railed against the use of any templates in his book, the reality is that many of my students honestly have NO idea where or how to begin even with lots of modeling.  I primarily used writing/text structures  from Gretchen Bernabei (I have all of her books!) because I love how her work provides flexible writing/text structures to help students who need “training wheels” to get them going with their selected writing pieces if they are not sure how to begin with their choices as a free-write. Her text structures and “kernel essays” also give them ideas for exploring different ways writing might look within a genre.  Here are my go to resources I used from Gretchen:

After they reviewed the list of options, they visited each “genre” station and decided which kinds of writing they wanted to do.  I asked students to pick two choices, indicate the topic, share if they planned to write with a partner, and share if they planned to create any of the writing pieces as a VoiceThread (we have a district subscription).  I took everyone’s contract and created a master roster that is now posted in the room so students can double-check their chosen writing projects.  Here is a sampler of student topics and writing pieces:

  • Favorite places (local, like Mom’s house; others are more exotic like the Bahamas)
  • Medical Marijuana–persuasive/argument
  • Family stories
  • Favorite memories, like the first day of school
  • Traffic/car accidents
  • Anxiety and worry stories–one student is writing about his fear of tornadoes
  • School rules–persuasive
  • Gun control–persuasive
  • How to bathe a dog
  • Flowers
  • Made up story–the disappearing boy, dogs, the dangers of technology
  • What if humanity became extinct
  • How to make a spinner
  • Personal narrative–“my scars”
  • Readers’ Theatre Scripts–time travel, soccer, smartphones
  • How to build a skateboard
  • How to make slime
  • Assorted poems (free verse, color, Where I’m From)
  • Persuasive–why I deserve a dog, why I need a certain kind of shoe, why the school day should be shorter
  • Problem-Solution–bullying
  • Valuable advice–being a good friend, being a good student in middle school
  • How to stay organized
  • Poem topics:  flower, wildlife, nature, ocean, beach, my dog
  • Archery–how to

For the last three days, students have been working on their projects with enthusiasm.  I had three students who were ready to publish poems today in period 6-3; they LOVED seeing their work on our class blog and learning how to publish on the blog.

It’s also worth nothing that nearly every student chose to do one collaborative project, and many are interested in trying VoiceThread.  I’m excited to see what students create the next three weeks, and I will try to do a follow-up post near the end of May.  I’ll also continue to contemplate the arguments and ideas Fletcher presented in his wonderful book and dwell in this metaphor of informal writing as a greenbelt.

My Summer of Abundant Reading: Musings and Reflections


This is the first summer since 2012 that has not involved long-distance moves, major family illness, and/or other significant life upheaval.  It has been a godsend to have an extended period of time of self-care that has included regular exercise, plentiful sleep, quiet unhurried reflection time, minimal stress, and lots of reading!  I have probably read more texts (and I use a broad definition of texts) this summer than any other year of my adult life since I was last in graduate school at UGA over 10 years ago.  I have focused most of my text reading on books this summer—-it has felt like a luxury to have time and energy to do so.  Though I love reading, I have been a picky reader as an adult and have struggled at times to find self-selected reads that appeal to me.  I have been surprised by the volume of reading I have done this summer though I feel the gift of time, no professional commitments, my Kindle, a new job, and new connections on social media have contributed to my reading revival.

I have read hard copy versions of some books; however, I have read quite a few books on my Kindle Fire that I purchased last fall.   What do I love about reading on my Kindle?  I can:

  • Read while I am working out at the gym on the elliptical–exercise for the body and mind!  In addition, reading while I am on the elliptical makes gym time go MUCH faster.
  • I can sample many kinds of books thanks to the free preview feature of Kindle books—I am confident that I have tried many more kinds of books through the serendipity of Kindle book browsing than I would if I were physically browsing shelves in a library or bookstore.  This aspect of book discovery is one I find quite interesting and is making me think much more deeply about how readers connect with specific books.
  • I can use the “Blue Shade” feature on my Kindle to help ease eye strain (people seem to love or hate this feature, but I like it).
  • I can easily and seamlessly post updates from Kindle reads to my Goodreads account (and I have used Goodreads much more for book ideas this summer than ever).
  • I can easily highlight and take notes, and then export those for easy reference at a later time if I want.
  • I can add Audible narration when available (and in my budget)—I like this feature even though I don’t consider myself an audiobook person.


With that said, there are times I want the hard copy of the book to read—this desire mainly occurs with professional books though sometimes I wish I could afford both the hard and copy the e-copy as I am trying to figure out the best method of taking notes on my professional reading that fits who I am as a learner these days.  With my professional books, I often want to flip to a specific section of the hard copy of the book not just for ease of reference, but also because sometimes I just need to SEE it right in front of me.  I still like highlighting and writing out notes by hand, but I do love the ease of highlighting on the Kindle, too.


Other times a book may only be available in hard copy, but sometimes you also need the hard copy to better appreciate the graphics, art, or photography.



Here are my summer reads; the ones that I have boldfaced are my favorites:

  • Inside Out and Back Again, Thanhha Lai
  • Hour of the Bees, Lindsay Eagar
  • The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, M. Colleen Cruz
  • Shadowshaper, Daniel Jose Older
  • Road to Tara:  The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards
  • Eruption, The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens, Steve Olson
  • Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp
  • The Atomic Weight of Love:  A Novel, Elizabeth Church
  • My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
  • Simple Dreams:  A Musical Memoir, Linda Ronstadt
  • Cumberland Island:  Strong Women, Wild Horses, Charles Seabrook
  • Losing Clementine, A Novel, Ashley Ream
  • Awash, Dawn Lee McKenna
  • Being Mortal:  Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande
  • American Ghost:  A Family’s Extraordinary History on the Desert Frontier, Hannah Nordhaus
  • Lily and the Octopus, Steven Rowley
  • Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
  • The Wright Brothers, David McCullough
  • Sally Ride, America’s First Woman in Space, Lynn Sherr
  • Blue Horses, Mary Oliver
  • The Beekeeper’s Lament, Hannah Nordhaus

As you can see, I read a pretty diverse mix of books including biography, nonfiction, memoir, fiction, and poetry.  I read some things that I normally would have never picked, but I stumbled upon them through my browsing experiences in the Kindle Store and Goodreads; there were also times I discovered books to read (or to add to the wish list) through colleagues on Twitter and Facebook.  Interestingly enough, I have been watching a lot of documentaries this summer, which seems to parallel my growing love for nonfiction.  I am thinking a good bit about the core of powerful stories at these genres of film and texts, but that is another set of reflections for another day.

Being able to sample books on the Kindle or to read a free excerpt online before ordering a hard copy of a book was critical to the choices I made.  Most of the books I read this summer I liked though there were a couple I thought I would enjoy more (they fell flat for me); there were also a couple I found incredibly disappointing and didn’t enjoy at all.  I still have quite a few in progress, and I have a “want to read” list that is a mile wide!

As I mentioned earlier, my summer reading experiences have me thinking a lot more about how people find and connect with specific books as well as the experience of contemporary “browsing” and book discovery.  What is that like in a digital environment compared to physical browsing?  What do those experiences have in common?  How are they different?  What does this mean for our students or our library patrons?  Ourselves?  How and why might it differ for children/teens from adults?  Interestingly enough, I did not go to my local library for any print or digital books, nor did I consult with anyone from my local library for a suggestion or help.  Instead, I relied heavily on Amazon browsing and Goodreads suggestions. However, my reads and “to read” lists not only came from these sources, but as I mentioned earlier, Twitter colleagues.  I also belong to two Facebook groups on teaching reading and writing that have provided lots of great professional “want to reads”; I have also gotten many ideas for children’s books to read from the Coastal Savannah Writing Project Facebook group.  All of these musings have me wondering how might I draw upon my experiences as a reader to help my students during the upcoming school year.

Most importantly, my summer of reading has helped me reconnect with myself in many ways.  To feel the joy of reading I felt as a child has been energizing and has helped me remember why as a child I declared I wanted to be an “author” or writer of some sort (more on that in a future blog post).

Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read
Buffy as a Child Falling Asleep with a Good Read

This summer of abundant reading has also helped me explore genres of writing and topics I like as well as discover new favorites.  On a more personal level, my reading has been therapeutic and helped me in many ways process and cope with the profound grief I still feel over the passing of my mother who has been gone two years but whose absence is still felt acutely in my heart and day to day life.  The act of reading and the actual books I have read (even the ones that seemingly have nothing to do with losing my mother) have all in some way been healing for me.  Many of my reads also have me thinking about new dreams for myself, seeing life in a different and positive way, or contemplating how a particular book might inspire/nurture a friend or future student.  I have re-discovered just how nourishing and sustaining reading genuinely is for me.

What have you been reading this summer?  How do you discover books to read?  What have been your favorites?  Where do you like to read, and what formats of texts do you enjoy?  What are you looking forward to reading next?  How are you helping your students or library patrons connect with books?  I would love to hear your experiences and reflections!

Podcasting with Spreaker

Podcasting header

We’ve been megabusy this week in the Hooch Learning Studio learning about podcasting.  10th Literature/Composition classes from Ms. Harrison, Ms. Garth, Ms. Smith, and Mr. White have participated in a live class podcast using Spreaker, a podcasting platform that allows students to create podcasts through several mediums:

  • A web-based application that students can use (helpful in school environments where students can’t download an application like Audacity)
  • A downloadable desktop app that works for a PC or Mac.
  • Mobile apps for IOS or Android devices
  • The ability to upload an audio file a student might record with a tool like GarageBand or Audacity and then upload the file for easy publishing


After some face to face planning with Margaret Garth and then some virtual planning through emails, I began working on the project guide and looking for the best tool to fit our project needs.  Though I received many great suggestions from friends in my PLN, I settled upon Spreaker, a tool I discovered on my own.  I then began to think about what could I do to introduce Spreaker in a meaningful way to the students.

I decided to actually take on the student research task—students can choose any topic they want, but they will fold the research into the podcast they’ll create.  After much waffling about a topic, I became very interested in food deserts and went through the process of presearch, annotating articles and taking some notes, creating my Works Cited list with EasyBib, and then crafting the podcast script.  I decided to craft my podcast as an interview with a panel of different experts and individuals impacted by the challenges of food deserts in metropolitan Atlanta.  By walking in the students’ shoes, I felt I would be better able to give them some authentic tips and strategies for taking their topic and research to a podcast script and then actual broadcast.

I really enjoyed doing the research (of course, I am a librarian!), but I also loved the creative aspect of folding the research into a podcast script.  As I began working through the process of drafting the script, I decided that I would set it up so that students could actually “perform” it as part of a cold read and live broadcast to show them how easy it is to record and publish a podcast with Spreaker.  I’ve never done anything quite like that before, but I thought it would be tremendous fun and a great learning experience for all of us.  As I worked on drafts and revisions, I found that having students read it aloud with me was a valuable technique for doing traditional sorts of edits but to also “hear” how the podcast might sound and feel with the students.   I am thankful for lunch students who graciously agreed to read the script aloud with me!

It took the first day to do a little fine tuning with the pacing and order of activities, but the general game plan for the class period was:

  • Briefly introduce the research guide.
  • Open Spreaker and showcase the cloud-based “DJ Console” and how to use it to record, mix in bumper music, and add sound effects (Spreaker has a copyright friendly library of this multimedia).
  • Introduce the podcast script and get volunteers to read parts.
  • Prep the audience on how to support their classmates as listeners.
  • Discuss the best tips/strategies for approaching the assignment:  topic choice, research, text annotations and notes, resources, drafting/revising/rehearsing the script (this page has those slides plus my text set, my Works Cited link, and a PDF of my script).

The whole experience was intense, exhilarating, and tremendous fun!  Here are some scenes from the last few days:




podcast2 podcast1 DSCN2747




You can hear our live productions on this part of the research guide. Some of our broadcasts turned out a little bit better than others due to wireless connectivity issues, figuring out the best placement for students near the Snowball microphone I purchased, and varying levels of voice projections.  I am very appreciative to all of the teachers and their students for the opportunity to work with them and engage the classes as well as their positive feedback!

Reflections on Santa Fe—Teaching for Engagement, Inquiry, and Understanding: Reaching Beyond the Standards

workshop notebook

Earlier this month, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a multi-day institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico:  Teaching for Engagement, Inquiry, and Understanding: Reaching Beyond the Standards .  Led and facilitated by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels (whose work I’ve used and referenced frequently on this blog over the last two years), Nancy Steineke, Christopher Lehman, Kristin Ziemke, and Sara Ahmed, this workshop provided participants the opportunity to explore strategies for creating a culture of curiosity and inquiry-driven learning.  The workshop, which took place against the gorgeous backdrop of Santa Fe, New Mexico, was organized with multiple learning structures.  In a nutshell, here is what we were promised in the workshop flyer:

This institute is a mix of keynote sessions, breakout workshops, and “homerooms.” Our watchword is curiosity, and we’ll work to turn our own curricula into questions that kids cannot resist answering. You’ll spend part of each day in groups that match your area of expertise: high school, middle, intermediate, primary, or leadership. You’ll also join a team of colleagues in a tech-enabled, multidisciplinary inquiry project, drawing on the extraordinary sights, sounds, people, and history of the Santa Fe area itself. As curious adults, we will experience everything we want our students to do, firsthand; then, we will make the practical adaptations to our back-home realities.

The workshop indeed delivered exactly what was promised and more.  After a social gathering and mixer Friday afternoon/evening, here is a breakdown of the schedule we followed:

Saturday, 1/16 (Day 1)

The day began with a delicious breakfast and an opportunity to meet other educators participating in the workshop as well as our presenters/facilitators/co-learners.   It’s hard to say how many people were there, but I would guess 125-150?  We had educators from all over the United States; some came solo like me, and others came in teams from individual schools or districts.  Participants included classroom teachers K-12, literacy coaches, and administrators.  We then jumped in with a marvelous keynote from Smokey Daniels, “Curiosity, Inquiry, and Santa Fe.”   This opening session provided us a framework of how we would go about our learning experiences and put curiosity and inquiry at the heart of our work.  We also explored the role of curiosity in learning and how that drives an inquiry culture in classrooms and schools.  We also discussed the obstacles or forces that crush curiosity in our schools (yes, TESTING).



We then took a short break and had grade level or “Job Alike” meetings for close to two hours.  We then were provided lunch and an additional hour to walk about Santa Fe to begin noticing what we saw and thinking about questions.  Fortunately, I arrived late Thursday afternoon, so I had already been exploring the downtown area and had some working ideas of questions and wonderings.  We resumed our grade level or “Job Alike” meetings at 2:00 and met another hour and half.

I was part of the high school group with Nancy; in these sessions, we focused on ways to support more effective group-work.  The morning “job alike” session kicked off with a focus on the question, “How do we get group members to work together vs. individuals working together at tables?”  Nancy referenced a study that showed students spend close to 60% of their time sitting in cooperative groups, yet 80% of their time is engaged in individual tasks.  We explored structured icebreaker activities for building trust in groups as well as identity webs.  Other topics/activities/strategies:

  • Defining social skills with T-charts
  • Informational Text/Article Tasting (we quickly sampled a variety of articles and ranked our area of interest on a scale of 1-5)
  • Text annotation strategies
  • Modeling strategies for working with informational text (as in Think Alouds) for students

The article tasting activity was our springboard to brainstorming topics we were interested in during our afternoon session.  As we sat at round tables in small groups, we brainstormed additional topics or subtopics of some of the bigger areas for inquiry (Georgia O’Keefe, Los Alamos, Trickster tales, myths of Santa Fe culture, Japanese interment camps, and the Pueblo Revolt).   Nancy served as the scribe as she jotted down the new suggestions we had developed in our small groups.  We then did roughly two rounds of voting to eliminate topics and to see which ones had generated the most interest.  Once we had narrowed this list to four or five topics, we formed interest groups in different corners of the room.  Within these groups, we then further hashed out and refined our points of interest within our groups that would be our starting point for our group inquiry work on Day 2.  I have to say this method of forming “birds of feather” interest groups was both fun and super effective; I would love to try this with a class that is doing group projects.

The afternoon ended with a menu of choice sessions that were held from 3:45 until 5:00 PM that afternoon.    These choice sessions included:

  • Kristin Ziemke:  Amplify Literacies for a Digital Culture
  • Sara Ahmed:  Building Compassion in Your Classroom from the Inside Out
  • George Wood:  “Leaders, Deserters, and the Change Process”
  • Smokey Daniels:  Supporting Comprehension and Inquiry with Images
  • Nancy Steineke:  Content Area Writing:  Using Short Mentor “Texts” for Inspiration and Revision
  • Christopher Lehman:  When Nonfiction Reading Attacks or How to Help Your Students Survive Notetaking.

It was really hard to choose a session; I think in designing this institute for the future, it might be better to shorten the job alike sessions (maybe by 30 minutes each?) and build in time for a second choice session.  I attended Christopher Lehman’s session on notetaking since that seems to be a challenge at all grade levels.   Some takeaways and ideas:

  • Notetaking can’t be a thing with a capital N.  Keep the focus on the process and don’t get fixated on locking kids into a certain way of taking notes.
  • What are notes?  Examples: Not just information or recording facts, but what you thinking, dreaming, wondering (example:  DaVinci’s notebook);Brainstorming and reflection (Newton); Sketch Notes; not just facts but a person’s ideas
  • Give them a choice in strategies for taking notes; Lehman prefers that students not use graphic organizers.
  • We spent a good bit of time on the “Read, Cover and Sketch, and Reread” method (click here for slides from a similar presentation on this topic he did last year)

ways to take notes

Other strategies/methods: bullet points: main facts with sub points below; T-Charts: helps to compare; Post-It notes—multiple/move them around to group; write paragraphs—summary, background knowledge, cause and effect;webbing/mapping;Venn Diagram; highlighting; index cards.

In the discussion that happened in this session, I discovered/observed some points of interest that bubbled up toward the end of the session:

  • Some of the teachers in the session don’t have a school librarian to help them with research or inquiry projects.
  • Some teachers don’t consult their school librarian when doing a research project.   I personally find managing all the pieces of research and inquiry very intense, so it’s hard for me to understand why someone would go it alone though there might be valid reasons such as scheduling issues (fixed schedules can be problematic in elementary and middle schools),  lack of resources, or perhaps having a librarian who is not strong in teaching research skills (yes, it happens, sadly).
  • Many teachers don’t know that there are tools their librarians and schools can purchase for them to make citation easier, like EasyBib.  This observation worries me because students may be forced to do citations in a laborious and/or erroneous manner that is not preparing kids for the kinds of research tasks (and tools) they may encounter in high school or college settings.

I have not had a chance to read Lehman’s book on teaching research though I do agree with some of his talking points from his book outlined in this post on his blog.   This session left me thinking about how people perceive and define research vs. reporting vs. inquiry–how are they different, what are some commonalities, and how do as a school develop a common vocabulary when we talk about these concepts.   I think a choice session on these points in future institutes would be beneficial and perhaps looking at some of the inquiry models from the world of information literacy (Stripling, Kuhlthau) to contextualize those discussions would be useful for participants.

I would also like more discussion on the discursive nature of research and inquiry (too many teachers and librarians think it is linear and a single “process”) and going deep and slowly instead of making research and inquiry a “drive-by” exercise where things happen way too fast and processes are skipped.  This approach is not only difficult for students, but it is also difficult for school librarians when we are asked to teach five or six major concepts/skills/processes in 20-50 minutes!  These are not new issues by any means, but in talking with fellow school librarians, it seems more of us getting requests to teach “the research” process in a single class period, which is completely irrational and impossible.  Maybe these topics on my wish list come under a bigger topic umbrella of “Challenges of Designing and Implementing Sustainable Inquiry Driven Projects”?

You can see all the Tweets and social media curated by Heinemann PD from Day 1 here on Storify.

Sunday, 1/17 (Day 2)

This was a super intense day!  Breakfast began at 7:30 and at 8:30, Nancy led us through her keynote that gave us strategies for “Going Live with Inquiry” or ways students can report out their findings.   We looked at different methods of “live” or performance sharing to “liven up” standards for speaking and listening, reading literature, reading informational text, and writing.  Some of the strategies we learned about and actually got to test out/practice/model/sample in this session:

  • Tableaux
  • Skit with Narration (lots of room to interpret on this one)
  • Song Parodies
  • Talk Show

For our group inquiry project that we were going to finish refining, planning, executing, and sharing, the end point was developing a 2 minute presentation (low-tech using these methods or some combo) for the performance dinner later that evening!    We had tremendous fun in this session, and I feel I left with some really powerful ideas to share with teachers and kids.  This was one of my favorite sessions of the entire weekend.  They presentation methods sound simple but as we saw later that night, these can pack a powerful punch when it comes to demonstrating what you’ve learned through inquiry.  I also loved the low-tech nature of these different performance modes.  Here is a sample of us practicing a song parody:

Nancy stressed that performance projects always start as formative assessments; here are key things to remember (I have lifted this from our conference workbook we received):

  • They’re never going to be perfect the first time around.
  • If possible, video to examine performances carefully (I agree–sometimes you get so caught up emotionally in the performance that you might miss something as an observer).
  • Always have learners self-evaluate/reflect.
  • Teach specific performance skills (this is where her book is helpful–see below).
  • Value the process.
  • Ultimately, value the depth of understanding presented—we are assessing the learning that happened, not the actual quality of the performance itself.


You can learn more about these strategies and ideas in Nancy’s book, Assessment Live!

This session was followed by an hour and 15 minute session by Christopher Lehmann on “Grounding Inquiry in Hearts, Not Just Heads.”  I will say that perhaps for future institutes, substituting a slot for an additional choice session rather than a 2nd keynote might be a tweak to consider to the schedule, and I would have liked an opportunity to learn from one of the speakers in a smaller setting like the choice session. Even though we were somewhat active in both presentations, it was a lot of ideas to process.

We then went into our “job alike” groups again and spent most of this time working on our inquiry plan.  We also learned a few more techniques and strategies for growing groups, like compliment cards (group members write something constructive and specific about each team member and a contribution they made to the process/project) before going deep with our drafting our inquiry plan on large/oversize Post-It notes.

research1 research2

My group decided to investigate turquoise jewelry as we wondered who was being helped or hurt if we made a purchase of turquoise; we wondered about the different kinds of turquoise available and how did you distinguish between these different types; we also wondered about the differences of buying turquoise jewelry from high end stores vs. the Native American artisans at the Palace of the Governors vs. vintage shops.   If I had an additional suggestion for the Sunday schedule, it might be to shorten the Sunday “job alike” session to give groups more time to develop their inquiry plan in the job alike groups without feeling rushed.  We then had a short break for lunch before our groups converged again at 1:30 to hit the town and begin our investigation.

One of our group members did a little leg work during the lunch break by interviewing one of the concierge staff at our host hotel, LaFonda, and this person was a wealth of knowledge that helped confirm our framework for research was on target.  We started together by visiting a vintage turquoise shop called Rainbow Man’s.  There we were lucky to meet Randy, an employee who was like a walking encyclopedia about all things turquoise and Santa Fe.  We really enjoyed learning about the different kinds of turquoise, particularly vintage grade, and the dynamics of the different turquoise markets in Santa Fe.


We then split up with part of our team going to some high end stores; some of us went to the Palace of the Governors to talk to the vendors there.  At all times we were upfront with everyone we met and interviewed about the purpose of our project; we were very grateful for people being so generous in sharing their time, expertise, experiences, and knowledge in such a thoughtful, honest way.   After we did some our small group interviewing, we re-convened and did a quick tour of the museum of the Palace of the Governors.






We then came back together at the hotel to have some snacks and to begin planning our performance project.  We did a lot of discussion for about 45 minutes around  what we had learned through our information gathering (interviews and some reading) and the wide range of questions that this research had spawned as well as answered.   We decided to do a skit with a narrator, me as the shopper, and our other three teammates portraying a high end jewelry seller, a seller at the Palace of the Governors, and Randy from the vintage turquoise shop.  We decided our skit would end with a question for our audience, “What are YOU shopping for?”  We worked collaboratively and individually for about another hour or so writing, revising, and refining our pieces of the script both individually and together; it was like being part of a writing group.  This was a really great experience to be the learner and to go through these processes.   I loved how we had a lot of discussion and fine tuning of the project performance; no way would the experience have been the same if everyone had done this as an individual inquiry project.

Around 6:30, a delicious feast was served as we all reconvened in the upstairs ballroom for dinner and the performances from each group.  We were all nervous, but in the end, I think this was a favorite part of the entire experience for many of us.  For me, this is where it all came together and crystallized.  I got SO much from watching the other group performances as well as the experience of performing with my group.  I loved how supportive everyone was of each other and was incredibly impressed by the creativity and different range of performances groups crafted to share their insights and what they had learned about their topics.    Each was fantastic in its own way; we did a lot of laughing as well as some crying.  My favorites were a parody of “Chopped”; a group performance that involved individual reading (representing a different voice from a walk of life in Santa Fe) that culminated in a very moving choral reading that had many of us in tears.

My ultimate favorite was the final performance, which I tried to capture with some Vine videos.  I referenced it as “Intersection of Santa Fe” at the time of the presentation.    However, it is actually “The Heart and Sounds of Santa Fe” (thank you team member and narrator Charlie Folsom!)  They had a single group member in the middle of the ballroom holding a sign that had a heart and the words “Santa Fe”; four other group members spread out to the four corners of the big ballroom, each holding a LONG colored piece of ribbon that corresponded to a colored sticky notes at the tables, creating “zones”.


These ribbons went back to the group member in the middle.  A narrator instructed us to look at the color of the sticky note at the table and when he put it on the document camera, to do as he instructed (we did a little practice for each one, so for example—if you had an orange sticky note, you were to hum).    The narrator then began reading recitations representing an aspect of life, an event, or group in Santa Fe.  He would then put the colored sticky note on the document camera, and as that part of the room did their part of the performance (humming, stamping feet, etc.), the four members in the corners would move around and the ribbons would wind about more concentrically around the person in the middle, “The Heart of Santa Fe.”  See the Vine videos below (note:  look in the lower right hand corner of each video to unmute it and hear the audio):

It’s hard to find words to express how this shared experience felt, but it was incredibly moving and powerful; it almost felt cathartic in a way.  I was both energized and exhausted when we ended around 9:30 that night!  There was a fun dance party in the ballroom afterwards, but I sadly bypassed the celebration because I was so very sleepy.

You can see all the Tweets and social media curated by Heinemann PD from Day 2 here on Storify.

Monday, 1/18/16 (Day 3)

We met the next morning for breakfast with a modified agenda since many participants were flying out that morning (it’s not easy to get in and out of Santa Fe!).    I frankly was still feeling exhausted (and still grappling with the effects of the altitude there), so I decided to decompress a little bit and take a final walkabout around the plaza (you simply cannot get enough of Santa Fe).   After getting some fresh air and visiting one last time with some of the vendors (they were super friendly and interesting to talk to!) at the Palace of Governors , I returned for the final keynote by Sara Ahmed and Kristin Ziemke—they did a fabulous job wrapping our workshop with their poignant and heartfelt talk on “Student Voice:  Live and Digital.”  I thoroughly enjoyed what both of them shared, and in the future, I’d love to attend an individual session with each of them (again, more choice sessions, please!).


We then concluded with all of our teachers taking a seat up front panel style and people spoke freely with their reflections on the weekend.  It was very moving, and many of us shed a few tears as people shared successes, struggles, and insights, plus it is hard to say goodbye to people you’ve shared an amazing time with!  Here were some of my closing thoughts/observations I Tweeted if you are interested in seeing them.  You can also see Heinemann PDs Storify from Day 3 here.

Final Thoughts/Reflections

santa fe mosaic

I cannot say enough about this amazing learning experience!  I had such authentic learning experiences and left with many new questions, insights, and strategies.  I wish more professional development learning experiences were structured this way.  Being part of this institute made me yearn to have this kind of learning community with me locally in my own workplace, something I know many of us desire and have desired for a very long time.   The experiences there also reinforced for me the kinds of work I do and do not want to do as a school librarian and educator.   As you saw earlier in my post, I had a few minor suggestions for the schedule, but overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this workshop.  I think the fact it was in Santa Fe made it even more special, and I don’t know that the experience would have been the same for me had it been elsewhere.  I love and appreciate that issues of equity and social justice and how that intersects with an inquiry approach to learning were always at the forefront of conversations in Santa Fe.


I am thankful to our workshop leaders and my fellow participants as well as the people of Santa Fe for such a memorable, unique and special time that I will forever cherish.  It’s not forever you go somewhere or to a professional development workshop and leave feeling changed in some significant way.  I hope to honor all of this by bringing back what I’ve learned and integrating into my daily work wherever my path may take me.  I hope I will have the opportunity to participate again in this workshop in the future.  Thank you to my school administration and district for supporting me and making it possible for me to attend this fantastic multi-day institute.