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All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-Negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction

All I Really Need Is...Ten Non-negotiables To Guide My Literacy Instruction a blog post by Janiel Wagstaff
  I can't believe I haven't posted here all summer, but...I've been in the middle of moving from my Title I school, the place I've been for 10 years, to my newly assigned school.  As you can see from the mayhem in the photo above, I have a lot of teacher STUFF.  I keep asking myself, why?  Why can't I just trust my own brain, and 30 years teaching experience, and leave some of the stuff behind? I'm not worried about moving the picture books (I have gazillions), chapter books, professional books and hands-on materials.  It's all the 'papers' that get me.  Papers, papers, papers!  Papers of every lesson I've ever concocted (since I like to think things out on paper), thoughts I've had about literacy, handouts from conferences and meetings, copies of journal articles and articles from the internet...this endless sea of tattered white sheets that should all be filed away neatly.  Oh, and the files!  I actively use many of them, and I don't have an issue with those, but it's the others that are bulging with the best strategies and lessons EVER that I haven't touched in 5 years.    
     I know people will say I should be more digital (I am of the age at which saving these 'essentials' on a device and needing paper copies still feels most comfortable), but here I am.  In the midst of it all, I ask myself, after 30 years of teaching and immersing myself in literacy instruction, why can't I trust that all I really need is in my head and I can confidently enter any school without all this clutter?  I can imagine how freeing to walk away with much less and walk in much lighter, ready to problem-solve with the teachers and students that are right in front of me at that moment.  
     As I've packed in the 90 degree heat (of course, no air conditioning in a public school in the summer), I've spent time thinking about this.  All I really need is...?  What?  What do I know that are the non-negotiable practices, the ones I absolutely believe in and know by heart?  The ones that will give my students the most success? What better way to soothe the anxious mind than to write them down.

I know:
  1) Students need to read, write, speak & converse, and listen across the curriculum.  Literacy is always on the menu.
  2) The work must be meaningful and relevant.  Why are my learners engaging in this process?  What does it buy them in their world? Work that is purposeful is automatically engaging.
  3) Students need choice and voice--lots of it!  Empower your learners and they will surprise you.
  4) The foundational skills of literacy must be explicitly taught and the majority of our time should be spent applying our learning in real reading and writing contexts.
   5) Gradual release of responsibility within a balanced literacy framework is key.  Students need my explicit modeling, and to learn from each other. (The more students lead the learning the better--their models capture the attention of their peers.)  We need to puzzle through a lot of the work together.  But, students also need plenty of time to read, write, and think independently.
  6) I am a co-learner in a collaborative, student-centered classroom.  Relationships are key.
  7) Supports and meaningful references in the classroom (like Word Walls and anchor charts) are helpful scaffolds if they are co-created with students and used consistently in modeled, shared, guided, interactive, and independent experiences.  
  8) Feedback is HUGE, both the feedback I give and get from students, along with the feedback they give each other.
  9) Formatively assess--all day, all the time, and guide instruction accordingly (hold small groups, meet with individuals, whatever is needed to make learning happen).
 10) Ongoing student self-assessment and goal setting makes learning more impactful.

     There are 10 things (the number was not planned, by the way)--10 non-negotiables--I'd hang my hat on any day.  I DO feel better now that I've written them down.  I can further examine and tweak my list.  I welcome your feedback to assist me as I refine.  I figure with this taped in the front of my teacher planner, I am headed in the right direction whether I have this resource or that one, whether I can find this file or that one, and whether or not I throw out reams of these papers I'm holding onto that are simply cluttering my space.  Oh yes, clarity is a good thing.  Wish me luck as I move!

Here's to a happy and successful 2018-2019 school year!

Sharing Writerly Thinking + Balance in All Things

Blog post on the power of peer models in writing teaching, students sharing their thinking, and balance in the writing classroom.
     Yes, this partially finished comic is by my son, Max.  When it left the house this morning, it was not a crumpled mess.  But, that is not the story here.  
      After breakfast, he excitedly whipped a notebook out of his backpack and showed me the beginning of a new comic.  "Look, Mom, you'll really like this new one."  (He likes to cover all the panels and reveal just one at a time, builds suspense (ha!), but really does show the pride he takes in his work and the enthusiasm he has for it.)  We briefly discussed the work.  Fast forward...
     After school today, as we walked in the front door, I asked him, "So, what did you decide to do next with your comic?"        
     "Oh, I haven't done anything yet.  I don't know where to go next.  You see, I've thought of three possibilities.  One: Derpy Dude and Mr. Dur punch each other so only one gets the cake.  Two: They both dive for the cake and go for it at the same time.  Three:  I go back to the showdown thing with the eyes."
     I don't know about you, but if I had this kid in my classroom, I'd have him show his work (yes, only partly finished) and share his thinking with the class.  This is a perfect example of how writers think ahead, plan their next moves, debate their options, and take their time to make decisions (possibly trying more than one idea--Hmmm, this is reminding me of the moves we see Stella make in her opinion piece and story for Oma).  I envision his classmates chiming in on where they think he might take the comic next.  I can feel the charge of energy between the writer and his writing cohorts.  It really can be this simple.  Using peer models is one powerful way teachers develop their communities of writers and how they build strategic knowledge and motivation.  If Max were in my class, I'd be sure to have him share his work and writerly thinking again as he moves forward.
     I think sometimes we make writing instruction harder than it needs to be.  Always remember balance in all things.  Relevant to this story:  students need balance between assigned topics and topic choice.  They need to have balance in their feedback; some from the teacher, much from their peers.  A balanced approach also allows time to learn from one another, not just from the 'sage on the stage' (which we know does not fit a 21st Century teaching model--something our students so desperately need us to adopt for the sake of their success).  You could even consider, in this case, a balance of opportunities to write--some in school, and encouragement and celebration of writing completed outside of school.  The more volume the better.  Writing volume matters as much as reading volume matters.  
     When I taught second grade, I constantly encouraged writing outside of class.  I did lessons with the target objective being, "My students will be motivated to write outside of class!  A lot!" We used our class's Author's Chair to establish a routine.  If students wrote outside of class, they could bring in their writing and place it on the chair, signaling me and their peers they had something they'd like to share.  We used extra minutes here and there as a class, and even small gatherings (with just two or three students), to give these writers some thoughtful listening and response.  Our writing classroom flourished with this being one reason why.
Blog post on the power of peer models in writing teaching, students sharing their thinking, and balance in the writing classroom.
(I found this old picture from one of my books (sadly, black and white) of our Author's Chair.  I purchased a plastic chair, spray painted it bright blue, then used cut-outs and stickers to decorate it, finishing with a coat of modge podge.  I still have it and will use it again someday when I have my own classroom again.)
     When I retrieved Max's comic from his backpack a few minutes ago to take the picture you see above, I was disappointed to see the matted mess of papers it was mangled within.  I pulled it out and smoothed it with my fingers.  What a joy it was this afternoon to hear his writerly thinking!  Yes, we celebrated, and now you, my friend, have this blog post to read.

As always, happy reading/writing/thinking!

Winners in the Stella Writes giveaway, May 13, 2018.
     Hello!  I'm happy to announce we have our winners in the Stella Writes Teacher Appreciation Giveaway.  Over two hundred entries came in from this blog, my Literacy Matters Facebook page, my Stella Writes Facebook page, and my Instagram account (@janielwagstaff)! My son, Max, wanted to do a good old-fashioned drawing from a hat, so that's just what we did.  You can see the one minute video of him drawing the names HERE.  
     The winners of are:  Kristen Cawley, Kemberle Brown-Jones, Maria Laccarino, Msbakerteach, and Tamara Oliver Westmoreland.  Congratulations!  Since the books come out in mid-June, you'll receive the set then.  Please email me at janielwag@hotmail.com for details.
     Thanks again to SDE for their initial publication of the Stella Writes series and now to Scholastic for taking the books forward.  I'll be doing an author signing and launch at the Scholastic booth at ILA in Austin in July (more details on that to come).  Thanks to everyone who entered and for all the support shown for these four wonderful books!
Happy reading/writing/thinking and Happy Mother's Day!

Stella Writes is Moving to Scholastic! Plus a Stella Giveaway!

Hello Friends,
     I have wonderful news!  So wonderful, I made a little video to announce it!  I hope you'll check it out! (See it HERE!) 
Stella Writes is moving to Scholastic!  Plus, a Stella Writes giveaway!
     Since SDE has chosen to limit the professional books publication side of their business, Stella Writes had to find a new home.  I'm so grateful to my amazing friends at SDE for their hard work and support of the Stella series.  Their faith in the possibilities for these little books means so much.  We all feel Scholastic will be the perfect new home for Stella!
      As I share in the video, you may have noticed the new set is in the most recent Scholastic Resource catalogue, or perhaps you've even seen it on Amazon for pre-order (the books are due by mid-June).  I looked yesterday and saw that the series is the Number One New Release in Elementary Education!  
Stella Writes is moving to Scholastic!  Plus, a Stella Writes giveaway!

     Scholastic and I are teaming up for a Happy Teacher Appreciation Week Stella Writes Giveaway!  We are giving away 5 sets of the new books (to be delivered when they come out in June).  If you'd like to enter to win, just leave a comment on this blog post and I'll add your name to the list.  Winners will be announced next Sunday, May 13.
     I'm thrilled about this new partnership with Scholastic.  We'll have a Stella Writes website with teacher resources and videos, plus I've written a new teachers' guide for the four book set.  We're hoping to introduce Stella to many more teachers and students around the globe!  

Not One More Worksheet!

Blog post on the ineffectiveness of worksheets, the rationale for avoiding them, examples of alternative approaches.

      I saw this graphic and thought, I have to stop and write about this.  Again.  Yet, I have taxes to do.  I have laundry to wash and supper to heat.  But, this is more important, weighing heavily on my mind at the moment. 
     Worksheets.  Why?  Why are there still so many worksheets in our classrooms?  For more than twenty-five years, I've written about teaching reading and writing through authentic literacy contexts instead of using worksheets.  Why?  Because 'teaching' students to do a worksheet really teaches them nothing.  Never mind the poor design of some worksheet tasks.  Never mind that worksheets, piles and piles of them, numb students' brains and contribute to negative perceptions of school.  Never mind the money wasted on workbooks, ink, toner, paper...  The most important issue here is that teaching via worksheets has very limited effectiveness.  The time students spend filling out worksheets is basically a total waste.  Why?  Because what we 'teach' via a worksheet, if it is actually worthwhile to teach, must transfer to the complex acts of real reading and real writing.  Otherwise, what was the point of the exercise?  This transfer is not easy. 
     Let's take an example.  I'm a second grade student, and I have just completed a worksheet on properly capitalizing sentences and putting in the appropriate end mark punctuation. I score 100%.  All I had to think about while I was doing this task was:  "Remember to put the capital at the beginning.  Read the sentence.  What type of sentence is this?  Is it telling me something, questioning, or exclaiming something?"  Bam, done.  It was pretty simple to concentrate just on those few concepts while filling out this one worksheet.  Now, as that same second grader, when I sit down to write a story, very different processes go on in my mind:  "What am I going to write? Should I write a real story or make one up?  Where will my story happen?  Who will be in my story? What will they do?  How do I say that so others can read it?  How do I spell this word?  Wait, let me reread to see if what I have so far makes sense.  Will my readers like this?  Do I like this?  What word should I use for that?  This doesn't make sense, how can I say it a different way?  I'm stuck.  What should I write next?  What am I going to do with this character now?  How will I solve this problem?"  ETC... One of the last things that enters my mind is, "Where does that capital go?  Do I need a period or question mark?"  Why?  Because the second grader is focused on meaning making.  And, if she hasn't learned how to use capitals and end mark punctuation in her quest to make that meaning, it's likely she'll leave out these conventions entirely.  Writing is a complex mental process with many questions and issues entering a writer's mind simultaneously.  Filling out worksheets is a simple mental process and often can be done without much true engagement at all.
     So, what do we do instead?  We teach our students to read and write through modeled, shared, interactive, guided and independent experiences.  We teach in real contexts so that students understand how the 'part' they are learning fits into the 'whole.'  For example, when working on conventions, write a Morning Message to the class, have them read it, talk about it, then go back through and identify some of the conventions you included as a writer and why you included them.  This not only puts the learning into a context, it helps students understand the purpose of these conventions.  Plus, the context is engaging and the skills are situated within meaning making, not isolated as they are on worksheets.
    Another example comes to mind: the spelling test.  You know the drill: give the list on Monday, practice via skill worksheets or other isolated means through Thursday, test on Friday.  Why do students generally do so well on these tests?  Simple. The only focus when taking the test is spelling one word at a time.  We all know what tends to happen the very next week (or even that same day).  The student is writing along, composing a piece about what he can do to help the Earth for Earth Day coming up, and a few of those same spelling words are included.  Unless the student has real automaticity with the spellings, he proceeds to misspell the words.   It's so frustrating!  But, is it a surprise?  Nope. Totally different context--lots going on in the brain.  We have to teach students spelling strategies they can employ and teach them how to use them simultaneously while dealing with other issues as they are writing.  And, yes, we have to work on automaticity, just as we do with other basic, foundational skills.  But, these skills can be worked on in much more interactive ways than on worksheets.  
    So, how much time is spent in your classroom/school on worksheet tasks?  How purposeful are those tasks?  Do the skills/strategies represented on the worksheets transfer to the real acts of reading and writing?  Is there a better approach, one that is more engaging and ultimately more effective? 
    I have to take a moment to plug a new-ish book from Stenhouse, since this post has mentioned conventions so many times.  If you haven't read or heard of the approach advocated by writing expert, Jeff Anderson (author of Patterns of Power, among others), you should check it out.  Through the intentional, purpose-driven use of mentor sentences, Jeff advocates instruction that makes sense and is actually very effective for teaching conventions.  That's right!  You can get your students using conventions in their everyday writing without worksheets!  Thank you, Jeff!
    I'm off to eat dinner.  Please feel free to leave comments or questions.  Keep in mind, the more we teach the skills and strategies of reading and writing through actual reading and writing, the more our readers and writers grow, thrive, and learn. 
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