Coming Together Through Improv

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Sam Tanner

Larry, a 9th grader with autism, stood confidently on the stage in a small theatre. He was screaming triumphantly as the lights went out. Our small audience exploded with laughter as the performance came to an end.

“Seriously, this camp was one of the best experiences of my life,” Sarah, a 7th grader, told me a few minutes later. Sarah had just performed with Larry. In their scene, they defended humanity from global warming. And aliens.

Other students nodded vigorously as they made their way out the door of the small, black box theatre. This was where my colleagueAndrea McCloskey and I held a weeklongsummer improv camp. We taught fifteen 7th-12th graders how to improvise. We’d just staged an hour of improv for an audience of parents and friends. The crowd hooted and hollered as our students participated in a…

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#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: ogres and onions

Laura Bradley

When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.

So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:

  • the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
  • the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
  • underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our…

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Students “Spark Something” in Each Other: The Potential of Secondary Writing Groups

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

By Kira LeeKeenan

“Writing groups were so helpful, because when you got stuck, hearing just ideas–even if it wasn’t an idea you could use–might spark something.”

Emmy, 9th grade (all names are pseudonyms)

I met Emmy and 117 other high school students last year during a year-long study of writing instruction in four “culturally and linguistically complex” (Ball, 2009) English classrooms.  The high school, situated ten miles east of an urban emergent area (Milner, 2012), has “urban characteristics,” such as high levels of administrative surveillance, acute focus on standardized testing, and high percentages of traditionally marginalized students.  However, the teachers I worked with did not subscribe to the standardized instruction, and instead enacted pedagogies atypical in their school. Their instruction and curriculum drew from humanizing and workshop approaches to teaching, which positioned students’ experiences and lives at the center of their rigorous curriculum.  It was within this context…

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Shifting Note-Taking from Tedium to Authorship in a 2nd Grade Classroom

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by Sara Kersten-Parrish

When Mrs. Kona, a 2nd grade teacher at a public school in a small district in the Midwest, began planning for her academic year, she told me she wanted to better integrate content area subjects within her ELA planning in order to meet the CCSS’s expectation about increasing instruction and reading around nonfiction texts. Using her teaching philosophy around Project Based Learning, she wanted her students to learn about the genres and types of nonfiction from creating their own nonfiction picturebooks. Thus, over the course of 4-months, students selected a nonfiction topic on weather, to comply with the district’s science standards, and created their own nonfiction picturebooks on their chosen subtopic. At the end of the study, I asked Sally about her final picturebook product. “It’s awesome,” she said, and proceeded to tell me her book belonged in the school library because, “It is a…

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Put the kids in charge

Laura Bradley

There’s nothing quite like the intensity, the chaos, the one-crisis-after-another, the sorry-I-can’t-help-you-go-find-someone-who-can, the exhilaration, jubilation and exhaustion of the first day of production in a middle school broadcast media class.

My brand new group of 7th and 8th graders had met six times in the first couple weeks of school (90 minutes, every other day) and our audience was antsy for a show. Our news program delivers the daily announcements to the staff and students, and at the start of the school year there is a lot of information that students need.

KTV Sports/Weather Studio Adjusting the sports/weather camera and tele-prompter.

So after just six class periods of training 12- and 13-year-olds to write scripts, create graphics, film and edit video shorts, set up cameras and lights, read from (and pace) tele-prompters, load media onto a TriCaster, manage the audio, direct the anchors, and operate a video bus and TriCaster during filming (which…

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The Writing Lives of Students with Learning Disabilities: How 21st Century Tools Change Perspectives

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

by April Whitehurst, Amy Vetter, Annamary Consalvo, Ann David, Alison Hruby, Katrina Jansky, and Marie LeJeune

“I only write at school if I have to.”  
“I am not a writer because I am not good at it.”
“I hate writing.”

The above statements, from students identified with a learning disability (LD) under the rules of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), make it clear that these students do not consider themselves writers or enjoy writing. Unfortunately, research backs up their thinking. Studies have consistently shown that students with LD, who are identified by school personnel due to lack of academic progress, struggle in all areas of the writing process. This results in writing that is not as clear, detailed or coherent than that of their peers, as well as grammatically incorrect and unorganized. These students often struggle with executive functioning skills such as goal setting, planning, and self-regulation…

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The Reading Rules We Would Never Follow as Adults


The number one thing all the students I have polled through the years want the most when it comes to reading.  No matter how I phrase the question, this answer in all of its versions is always at the top. Sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding, sometimes just stated as a matter of fact; please let us choose the books we want to read.

Yet, how often is this a reality for the students we teach?  How often, in our eagerness to be great teachers, do we remove or disallow the very things students yearn for to have meaningful literacy experiences?  How many of the things we do to students would we never put up with ourselves? In our quest to create lifelong readers, we seem to be missing some very basic truths about what makes a reader.  So what are the rules we would probably not always follow ourselves?


Removing choice.   I have to start with the most obvious; removing choice in reading (and even in writing).   We know that choice matters, we know as adult readers we revel in the sheer experience of being able to choose what we want to read.  We take it for granted and will even rebel in small ways when someone says we have to read something. Choice is the cornerstone of our own literacy life, yet it is one of the first things we tend to remove for children, especially vulnerable or developing readers.  And I get it, we think we know better when students repeatedly choose wrong, yet, it is in the selection process that students can uncover who they are as readers, if we give them time to discuss, reflect, and yes, even try the things they choose that may not be a great fit.

Forced reflection.  We seem to be reflecting kids to death with our requirements to write a little bit about every book they read.  Or having them keep a reading journal or having them write about the signposts or whatever else they are finding when they independently read.  It is not that we shouldn’t have students reflect when they read, it is that we make these one-size-fits-all requirements where students cannot discover how they would like to digest their reading.  How often do we as adults write a paragraph every time we finish a book? Or summarize it? Or make a diorama, (which yes, I made my students do)? While I know adults that would love to do all of those things, I also know many that would not.  In fact, many adult readers I know would slow down their reading or hide their reading if they had to do all of that “work.” Often when we ask students why they dislike reading, it is not the reading itself that is the problem but all of the things we assign to go along with it.


Forced tracking.  Oh reading logs, I am looking at you here.  Yes, as an adult I track my reading on my Goodreads account.  I even write reviews sometimes. But I don’t track my pages (unless I have a bigger purpose in mind and then it is for short amount of time), or time how long I read for, or even have my husband sign for me.  I make time to read because I love reading. And while we can say that reading logs foster more reading because it is a check up system, it also kills reading for many. If you want to see if the kids are reading, have them read in class and pay attention to what they are reading.  Allow students to track in a way that is meaningful to them; Goodreads, notebook page, poster, pictures of books on their phone, or even through conversations. There is no one system that fits all and if a system we have in place is even killing the love of reading for one child, then we need to rethink it.

Points and competition.  Yes, AR, you have it coming.  Plus all of the other initiatives that we put in place to urge students to read.  And I get it; we desperately want students to become readers and to keep reading, yet this short-term solution can actually have a long-term consequence; kids who do not read for reading’s sake but for the prizes or honors attached to it.  We know what the research says regarding motivation and reading and how it can actually have adverse effects, and yet, we continue to concoct programs to try to get them reading.  How many adults though would read more because we then could take a computerized test that would give us points?  How many adults would be okay with their reading lives on display for the world to see? Some would, while others would hate for the world to know something that they see as a personal discovery.  Why do we assume that what might work for one child will work for all?

Limited abandonment.  As an adult reader I practice wild book abandonment, passing books on when I know they are not right for me, yet as teachers, we often have rules for when students are allowed to abandon a book.  I used to subscribe to the 50 page rule myself. Why? If a child wants to abandon a book, they are on their way to knowing themselves better as a reader. This is something to celebrate, not something to limit.  If a child is a serial book abandoner, and yes, I have a few of those, then we should be asking them why, rather than just stopping them. What did they not like about this book? What do they need to look for instead?  Help them explore their reading identity so that they can develop it rather than have them mimic yours.

Inane bookshopping rules.  My students used to be allowed to bookshop on Fridays.  That was it. Yet, as an adult reader I bookshop all of the time.  I am constantly on the prowl for the next great read and my to-be-read list is ever expanding.  I get that book shopping or browsing sometimes becomes an escape for a child when they do not want to read, but then we work with that one child, rather than impose limits for all.  My students know that book shopping can happen anytime during our independent reading time, or even if they have completed other tasks. I would rather want children that want to look at books, than those who abhor it.

When my students started telling me their reading truths, I drove home in shame; how many of the very things they told me had killed their love of reading where things that I had done myself as a teacher?  How many of the things was I still doing? Yet, within the words of my students, I found the biggest truth of all; different children need different reading experiences and so that means now is I try to create a passionate reading environment, where there is room and scaffold for all of my readers.  Not just those that can work in one system concocted by me. I know that sometimes large things are out of our control, yet, there are so many small things that are. Think of what made you a reader or what stopped you from becoming one and then use that reflection to shape the way reading is taught and practiced in your own learning environment.  Being a teacher means that we learn from our mistakes, I have made many, and it means that we continue to strive for better. We cannot do that if we don’t listen to the students. And you know what; don’t take my word for it; ask your own students. Then listen. Then do something about it.


34509130_1674893855893554_4637223361393459200_n Pernille Ripp is an expert in literacy and technology integration and dedicates her research and practice to developing engaged and empowered students and communities.

She is a teacher, speaker, author, blogger, and passionate advocate for education. She is a Skype Master Teacher; recipient of the 2015 WEMTA Making IT Happen Award; and the 2015 ISTE Award for Innovation in Global Collaboration. Read more of her work on her blog:

Pernille will be a keynote speaker at CEL 2018. Come and see her in action!

Go ahead: ask your students what they want to write about. They will amaze you!

Laura Bradley

On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:

If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?

Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:

I would write about…

  • a kid who is anxious about the future.
  • equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
  • social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
  • my dog because he’s really goofy.

    justin-veenema-147056-unsplash Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

  • an imaginary island.
  • people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
  • a realistic fiction novel

(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)


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Why Should They Do It if You Don’t? The Power of Sharing Writing With Students

Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

Recently, a colleague I admire told me that she asks her student teachers to do the writing assignments they create for her ninth-grade students.  That way, the student teachers understand what they’ve asked students to do and what might be challenging. Additionally, the student teachers are then able to model the steps of the process.  Often, this leads to revisions in the original assignment as the student teachers work through their own assignments. “Of course,” I agreed, “what a great idea!”

What’s one of the best ways to help students with a writing task?  Do the writing yourself. In this post, writing teacher Paula Uriarte decides to take on the writing assignments she gives to her 12th grade students, choosing a topic and conducting research herself so that she can share her process, her drafts, and her experience with them.  

Why Should They Do It if You Don’t?  The…

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Navigating Collaboration: Co-Teaching as Co-Learning

by Emily Meixner (CEL EC Member-At-Large) and Rachel Scupp (CEL Member)

Even when two people have known each other a long time and see each other regularly, a conference often facilitates conversations that wouldn’t take place otherwise.  Perhaps it’s the coffee, or the walks together to the next presentation, or the way in which shared meals lead to unexpected dialogue. Whatever the case may be, conference magic struck at CEL 2016 and led us toward a remarkable professional opportunity.


Scene: Atlanta, GA. Georgia World Conference Center, Nov. 2016.

Rachel: How was your sabbatical?

Emily: Good! I managed to do a ton of reading, but I never got to the case study part.  I said I’d identify a teacher who might be interested in developing and teaching secondary-level LGBTQ curricula.

Rachel: (enthusiastically) I’m interested! I teach a human rights, social justice curriculum! (irony: about which we had just presented).

Emily: Ah. Right.

Narrator: At the time, Emily told Rachel that she was still trying to figure out what she wanted to do (translation: I’m scared to teach your 8th graders).  Rachel was kind enough to wait several months before mentioning it again.


Scene: Ewing, NJ. Spring Break, 2017. Rachel’s porch.  

Rachel: So, how’s that sabbatical project coming?

Emily: I’m still working on it (translation: I haven’t done anything).  I haven’t found a teacher yet.

Rachel: *eyes narrowed* Um. What about me?  I teach a human rights, social justice curriculum. You could co-teach in my class.

Emily: … *averting all eye contact*  

Rachel: *shrugs shoulders* We’ll do it, and see what happens!

Emily: (hyperventilating slightly) Don’t you think we should check with your supervisor?

Rachel: Oh. Right. Maybe. But she’ll definitely love it.

Narrator: And thus began their exciting, collaborative journey together.




Immediately following this conversation, Rachel emailed her supervisor and asked if she would be interested in seeing a proposal for LGBTQ book club curriculum that could replace a short story, close-reading unit Rachel usually taught early in the school year.  Her supervisor responded with an enthusiastic “yes!”. Last fall, we taught this curriculum for the first time as a pilot with Rachel’s 8th graders. It was a wonderful experience. Rachel’s students were mature and thoughtful and ready. Along the way, we had many opportunities to think and talk about our collaboration — its benefits and its challenges.  For those of you considering collaborative endeavors now or in the future, here are our thoughts on some things to consider.

Curriculum Development


  • Identify Individual and Collaborative Contributions


Both of us brought important and different knowledge to the project.  As a college professor, Emily was familiar with middle grade LGBTQ texts, LGBTQ vocabulary, and gender theory she thought would be appropriate for and palatable to middle school students.  As an experienced middle school teacher, Rachel had a clear sense of her curriculum, its overarching objectives, and her students’ needs and abilities. While Rachel initially relied on Emily to recommend texts and content, Emily also relied on Rachel to help her pace and frame the content for this particular group of students.  At the beginning of the unit, Emily would frequently create instructional materials that Rachel would then modify in order to best suit the needs of her 8th graders–many of whom were (and are) English Language Learners. Together, we would also research and share ideas for activities, articles, and analyses that we would then discuss and build together, often assigning each other tasks (finding mentor texts, creating questions, developing graphic organizers) based on enthusiasm, time required, and confidence. By playing to each other’s strengths, our recognition and value of each other’s individual contributions made our work feel cohesive and equitable.


  • Align Instructional Aspirations


What helped tremendously as we developed curriculum was that we consistently agreed with each other about the kinds of educative experiences we wanted to cultivate for Rachel’s students.  As our collaborative LGBTQ book club unit existed as a pilot program that would later be adopted by the other 8th grade teachers within the district, Rachel decided that the objective would center on teaching close reading skills, as that was the curricular focus of the unit being replaced. Emily then recommended the vocabulary and theoretical lenses we would introduce to the students.  As we envisioned possible lessons, we needed to make sure our beliefs about best classroom practices also aligned. We both believe in student-centered methods like book clubs; in student choice when it comes to reading and assessment; in the power of focused mini-lessons that provide students with tools, with content and skills they can immediately apply; and in curriculum that challenges social norms and disrupts student thinking.  Sharing these beliefs with each other was critical as we made curricular decisions and moved into the implementation and teaching of the unit.



  • Consider Needs and Concerns


One of the aspects of our collaboration that we didn’t discuss before co-teaching was how we would enact the actual instruction of the unit.  We present together all the time at local and national conferences. As a result, we didn’t imagine we might have different anxieties or hopes in a co-teaching situation.  As it turned out we did. When the unit began, Emily was worried about overstepping, about intruding upon the culture, relationships, and expectations Rachel had already established. As the unit began, Emily looked to Rachel to infer instructional and management preferences and saw Rachel as the lead teacher.  Rachel, however, immediately invited Emily into a genuine co-teaching relationship with shared authority. Having taken Emily’s methods class as a college student, Rachel saw this as an opportunity to learn as well. And, she was excited for Emily to get to know her students. Both of us, to different degrees, felt like students.  Neither of us recognized this in the other, however, until after-the-fact conversations that often sounded like this: “You were nervous?” “You were watching me?” “But I was watching you!” “I wanted to wait to see what you’d do.” “But you taught me to do that!”


  • Divide and Conquer, but Consult


Because of our shared experiences presenting, we quickly figured out that we needed to determine who would do what in the classroom. As with the development of the curriculum, we identified moments when we could co-teach, for example modeling a close-reading of a text or facilitating conversation in the book club groups. But there were other moments when we needed to observe each other at work: Rachel running a socratic seminar or Emily presenting a mini-lesson on a theoretical concept.  As the unit continued, we became more comfortable (Emily especially) transitioning between each other’s parts of every lessons. Touching base quickly between classes about what had and hadn’t worked and making adjustments based on each other’s observations also helped.

Assessment and Grading


  • Support Innovation


As we thought about the kinds of assessments we wanted for the unit, we knew we had to make sure students were not only demonstrating familiarity with the unit’s target skills and content, but were also exerting some ownership over how to make use of them.  Rachel immediately suggested an advocacy project in which students would decide how to educate others. Emily loved the idea and recommended having the students write a proposal justifying their project’s value. Together we brainstormed examples of what this project might entail (which Rachel wisely suggested we share with her principal). Emily also wanted to try out some new educational technology she was learning, specifically screencasting. Rachel was game. Together we talked about where we might include technology purposefully in the unit (video book talks, short film analyses) and how it might facilitate demonstration of student understanding.  We ultimately decided to use Padlet to evaluate students’ familiarity with unit vocabulary and have the students develop literary analysis-style screencasts to assess groups’ close-reading skills and lens application. As we tried out these ideas, we felt supported by each other’s openness and enthusiasm.


  • Establish Mutual Expectations


Because Emily was responsible for her own teaching, grading, and administrative responsibilities at the college where she works, Rachel absorbed the bulk of the grading for the unit. Nevertheless, we both collaborated on the individual assessments and agreed upon each assessment’s purpose.  When possible we also developed rubrics collaboratively and talked about valuable feedback, for example we both read through and commented on the students’ project proposals. Rachel additionally suggested that we both respond to students’ literary letters because then students would be able to choose who they wanted to address; they could write to Emily or to Rachel or to both of us (not knowing who might respond). This was a great idea and allowed us to obtain a clearer sense of the students’ engagement with course content as well as respond to their questions and concerns.


Since our work together last fall and the pilot of the LGBTQ unit, the unit has been adopted by the other 8th grade IRLA (Integrated Reading/Language Arts) teachers in Rachel’s district. We had the opportunity to present the curriculum to them specifically this spring during an 8th grade IRLA team meeting and some of them implemented all or parts of the unit in May and June.  We also shared the unit with other interested high school teachers in Rachel’s district during an in-district professional development day. Rachel’s students even collaborated with us on a blog post in which they talk about their experience.

rainbow hands section config

Scene:  9:00 AM. Bistro table at the local Panera. Midsummer, 2018.

Emily: So, how did everything go with the other 8th grade teachers teaching our LGBTQ unit?

Rachel:  Amazing! They love it, the students love it, and we are all teaching it next year in October.

Emily: That’s great! *pauses* So, um, am I still coming in to co-teach again next fall?

Rachel: *without missing a beat* ABSOLUTELY!  

Narrator:  Emily and Rachel high-five and excitedly talk about new articles, book titles, and new avenues they’d like to see for the unit.

Narrator: As the scene sets on these two collaborators, they’ve learned that effective collaboration requires time, on-going communication (thank goodness for text messaging, Facebook Messenger, and Google Hangouts), and most of all, trust.  As you begin your year as a teacher, literacy coach, supervisor, department chair, or principal, Rachel and Emily encourage you to identify a collaborative project, seek out a partner, and they challenge you to discover what’s possible.  

Rachel and Emily: We look forward to hearing about your experiences collaborating — the problems and the possibilities — in Houston at CEL 2018!


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