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!


War Eagle Writing Studio Poetry Chat: 8th Graders Share Their Poems and Writing Processes


We recently started an extended writing study/inquiry on poetry.  So far, my 8th graders have learned these poetry writing strategies:

  • Color Poems (a strategy I learned while a student at the University of Georgia)
  • Writing Poems Off Photographs
  • Writing a Poem Off a List
  • “Old/New” Poems

Poetic writing techniques we’ve focused on so far include word choice, alliteration, similes, and line breaks.  I’ll do a separate post soon on these poem writing strategies, but I wanted to share some insights from my students on how they approached their color poems.

Yesterday two of my 8th grade writers graciously agreed to share their thoughts on how they wrote their first poems in our course and how they approached their poetry writing.  I hope you enjoy the chat and their poems as much as I did!

Sharing Their Voices with the World: Helping our ESOL Students Self-Publish with Smashwords

The Hooch Learning Studio, in conjunction with Ms. Balogh’s ESOL students, is delighted to announce the publication of Twelve Worlds, One Book.  This book is an anthology of student writing created by Ms. Balogh’s students crafted as part of the work they crafted in Ms. Balogh’s writer’s workshop approach to composition instruction.  The book contains many pieces of writing, including poetry, short stories, essays, memoirs, monologues, plays, a biosketch, and microfiction.

Book cover revised version 3

How did this book project come about?  Earlier this semester as I was working with Ms. Balogh and her students on mini-research assignments, Ms. Balogh told me about the writer’s workshop approach she had implemented this academic year.  I asked her what they were going to do with their finished pieces, and at the time, the students were just keeping them for themselves.  When I suggested we publish their work as a collection of original writing in eBook format, she and the students enthusiastically said yes!  Since I had previously worked on a collaborative eBook project using the Smashwords publishing platform, I decided to use it for this project.  What is Smashwords?

Smashwords is the world’s largest distributor of indie ebooks. We make it fast, free and easy for any author or publisher, anywhere in the world, to publish and distribute ebooks to the major retailers.

Students began submitting the completed manuscripts of their works they had composed over the course of this academic year this earlier this month.  The students also chose the book title, decided how the book would be organized, and Hitoshi Akiyama designed the book cover.  My task was to compile the pieces into one master manuscript and then format it according to the Smashwords style guide.  This process took me about three full days to complete.

Yesterday, we debuted the book at our eBook launch party after school and celebrated our students’ success with each other, parents, fellow teachers, and administrators.   Students are already talking about eBook projects for 2016-17!

balogh student authors

Balogh eBook party

smashwords-our book

balogh ebooks on tablets

The class eBook is now available for FREE at Smashwords!  You can download it in several formats:

  • PDF file
  • Mobi (for Kindles or Kindle apps)
  • ePub format (works on multiple devices and platforms including iBooks (iPad, iPhone) and the Overdrive app.

Our class eBook has its very own ISBN number (!!!) and we are waiting approval for premium distribution.  We are so very excited to be able to support Ms. Balogh and her students and to help them have a medium for sharing their voices with the world!  We also plan to integrate the eBook into our school library digital collection.

Here are some reflections on this experience from Ms. Balogh and her students:

Ms. Balogh:

When I saw the book and saw the copyright page, I got tears in my eyes.  My students wrote a book!!  What an amazing experience.  This group of students is one of the best I’ve ever worked with.  I’m so very proud of them.

Vrajna P.

It was amazing to be part of this project. I would love to do it again. I learn so many things from writing and it helped me to improve my English. After launching this book I feel so happy and I feel like that I am something. I feel like I have achieved something.

Sofia R.

Being part of this book  was a amazing experience, and I’m so glad to have this journey in my story, to take with me for the rest of my life.  I can’t wait to tell everyone about this awesome project that me and my class just done.

Hyesun K.

This is first time [for me] to make books; I was the author.  I like to make different genres for us.  When I made the poem or short story, memory, essay it was enjoyable to make it,  and I think my English is better.   It’s really fantastic experience to make a book.  I am really thankful for Ms.B and Ms. Hamilton.  And to make relationships with friends.  In class we enjoyed writing and thinking about it.  I want to do it again next year.  Some of students are leaving ESOL, but they will remember the  experience with Ms.B, Ms. Hamilton and me.  Thanks for giving great experience.

Pessi L.

It was amazing to be part of this project. I really liked publishing my own work and reading other students’ writings. Usually I write essays just for a grade and the teacher is only person who reads them. But this time it was different. It feels like there is a reason to write if someone actually reads it.

As you can see, this project had tremendous personal meaning for our students.  It is my hope that our eBook project will inspire other teachers and students to think about how the media center program here can help them self-publish student work and to expand the possibilities for our media center program in 2016-17!

When Less Is More: Discovering Student Points of Need with Small Group Conversation


As any classroom teacher knows, time is a valuable commodity.   It’s always a struggle to squeeze every last drop of the instructional time we have with students and still provide meaningful learning experiences.  One of our English teachers, Kim Cooney, recognized she needed a way to negotiate two major class activities with her 10th grade students:

  1.  She needed to have small seminar discussions with students.
  2.  She needed for students to have some instruction on EasyBib and research databases for a project in which students are investigating issues related to social media.

Ms. Cooney asked me if I would be comfortable working with half of her class in the media center while she did seminar with the other half in her classroom.  I immediately said yes, and we scheduled two days with her 1st, 2nd, and 4th periods to “flip” between us.    I was super excited about being able to work with a smaller group of students as it feels more personal, and I think students get more from that setting than they sometimes do with an especially large class.

A series of events over the last 24 hours helped me craft a better approach to our mini-lessons today.  I realized after school yesterday we didn’t have enough computers available (our lab was already booked) for all sections to do some hands-on work after the mini-lesson.  I then arrived at work to this morning and learned Ms. Cooney was very sick and that a substitute teacher had not been found.   Our fantastic department head, David White, and I discussed options and we agreed to move forward with the small group plans as scheduled.  He and fellow English teachers stepped in to facilitate the seminar “speed dating” discussion style while the other class half came here for their instruction.

After wondering what to do in lieu of no computers, I decided on the fly that kicking off the mini-lessons with a conversation was the best course of action.    I quickly drafted a graphic organizer for students—-this served the purpose of them jotting down answers to these two questions as well as taking brief notes:

  1.  What topic(s) are you thinking about? ( I made it clear it was OK if they had not picked one or had time to think about it just yet)
  2.   What gives you the most difficulty when doing a research assignment?

We met in our small group area I organized this morning and students had a few minutes to jot down their responses.  We then did a whole-group conversation with each student sharing his/her responses to those two questions.  Not only did this give me a chance to get to know the students a little, but I think it also give an element of humanity to the experience, especially since I had not seen most of these students until today.

Here are some of the challenges students identified; I have boldfaced the ones that bubbled up most frequently.

  • Getting started or knowing how/where to start
  • Staying on task/dealing with distractions
  • Procrastination
  • Finding valid and credible sources and knowing that they are such
  • Finding relevant resources (to the research topic)
  • Search terms
  • Managing citations (EasyBib to the rescue!)
  • Knowing which sources to use (MackinVIA groups FTW along with LibGuides)
  • Knowing how to use the databases
  • Keeping up with notes/organizing notes
  • Pacing self through the project

We took time to talk about each student’s challenges as I wanted to be sure to validate and honor each area of concern.   This discussion was a perfect springboard to our research guide and how the resources there and the mini-lessons from today would help mitigate and address many of those concerns.  We also talked about how their responses would help me shape future conversations with teachers about research assignment design, especially with pieces like more formative assessments to help keep everyone on track and take the “pulse” of student progress (and not in a punitive way) as well as more time in-class to do hands-on work.  We also talked about possibilities for more collaboration as part of research projects and perhaps birds of feather groups to meet periodically to share successes and challenges (this was super helpful for my Media 21 students a few years ago).

The feedback also helped me collect informal data that might help me sway teachers to build in more time for topic selection with activities like reading frenzies or Think/Extend/Challenge.  These activities encourage inquiry and give students some concrete starting points to get ideas for topics or to introduce topic ideas that might not be on their radar.


In hindsight, this activity seems like it should have been an obvious starting point; I honestly feel a bit sheepish I didn’t initially plan to do this as part of the instructional time today,  but I’m glad it came to me on the fly this morning.    Sometimes we get so busy that we forget the ultimate starting point is the student point of need, especially if we as librarians get caught up in trying to work within a very limited amount of scheduled time with students.   I am excited to listen to what the kids have to say when I see the next round of small groups tomorrow as we “flip” students and engage in “research chats”!