Students Can Become Proficient Writers – Try a QuickWrite

The recently released NAEP report suggests that only about one-third of our eighth graders and about one-quarter of the nation’s high school seniors are proficient writers. The results are not much better than the results of the NAEP’s last report in 2002. More

If we want to bring these numbers up, students should be writing on a daily basis in all of their classes. So how do we give students more opportunities to hone their writing skills without overburdening our secondary teachers with loads of papers to grade?

Why not use the QuickWrite strategy.

  • As students enter class, they see a prompt on the front board that requires them to revisit a previously lesson. This makes more productive use of the opening minutes of class where teachers are usually tied up in “housekeeping” tasks.
  • Students are trained to write briefly, but in complete sentences.
  • After five minutes, selected students read their answers aloud to the class. Students are instructed to read exactly what they have written. This requires quick organization of thoughts and prevents rambling oral replies.

The QuickWrite is followed by short discussion. Teachers call on volunteers, drawing out divergent viewpoint:

  • “Does anyone have a different idea?”
  • “How did those two students’ QuickWrites differ?”
  • “What do these QuickWrites tell us we should study today?”

This strategy stimulates students’ higher-order thinking about a concept from the previous day. Teachers can easily check for understanding before beginning a new lesson. The class is now ready to link this newly anchored understanding to the content of the upcoming class. 

Most importantly, a QuickWrite gives students a chance to evaluate what they think is significant and share what they’ve learned with their peers. It restructures the typical teacher-led discussion that too often finds the teacher playing “guess what I’m thinking?”

For more ideas and resources, visit my literacy posts on this blog.

Students Doing History Beats Test Prep

Over the next two weeks I'll be doing presentations that take me back to my roots as a history teacher. I'll be giving the keynote at the Texas Social Studies Supervisors Association spring conference in Austin and giving a workshop for elementary school teachers in the Rochester (NY) City School District.

In both talks I'll show how history and social studies can be used to teach literacy, numeracy and critical thinking. No need to cut back on social studies instructional time to send struggling students for "mind numbing" test prep in reading and math. It begins when teachers provide students with the historical material that kids use to "do the history."  Let's look at two examples – click photos to enlarge

Goldenspike_2 First, a famous photo of the "golden spike" – the final ceremonial spike driven to mark the completion of a transcontinental railroad line in 1869. What can a student learn by looking at the image? Not much, because the important information is not in the image. It's in the background knowledge a student must already possess to interpret it. Unfortunately, this type of photograph dominates our textbooks. It's iconic – it refers to something else that we want students to know.

In contrast, here's a photograph of a city street in Rochester NY at the turn of the last century. Stonestreet_3 With very little background information, students can use the photo to do history and interpret the impact of transportation technologies and the pace of change. Then the student could write a "first person account" from the point of view of someone in the photo. They could even go on to design their own comparison of the changes in communication technology in their world today. Perhaps include a graph showing the growth of cell phones vs land lines?

We can design the learning to help our students be the historian. It begins when we allow students to make their own judgments about source material and share what's important to them (instead of just repeating the details the teacher highlights). They'll develop their literacy and numeracy skills for a more authentic audience and purpose as they share their thinking with those around them.

How do I put students in charge of thinking in my classroom?

I spent the month of February in Oregon giving a series of workshops across the state.  But I didn’t do all the talking. I had many chances to listen to students, teachers, and administrators in a variety of settings – focus groups,  planning sessions and classrooms walk-throughs.

Img_0262One question posed by a teacher captured a central challenge to education in the 21st century – “How do I put students in charge of thinking in my classroom?”

<<< North Bend OR 4th graders investigate the phases of the moon

Accountability is here to stay. There’s no going back to the “bell curve” of academic winners and losers. Life-long learning dictates that children will need to become self-directed learners. But too many teachers feel compelled to rush through course material to cover a multitude of benchmarks and standards. For them, the demands of time and testing, limit their opportunities to teach to greater depth.

My workshops attempt to point a way out of this dilemma. We take the approach that instruction must be organized to help students gradually take responsibility for their learning. We focus on idea that learning is relevant to students when the student:

  • Understands how the information or skill has some application in their life.
  • Has an opportunity to try their own learning approaches, rather than just learn the facts.
  • Is not just learning content and skills, but is learning how they learn.

Teachers need support to make the transition to this style of instruction. Administrators  need to reinforce the idea that teaching for greater depth beats teaching to the test. The curricula needs to be compacted to provide more time for students to explore their own approaches. Staff development and curriculum resources need to target more rigorous and relevant instructional models.  Teachers should be given opportunities for faculty collegial interaction and classroom walk-throughs to showcase best practices.

These initiatives  come with a reciprocal accountability. Administrators support teachers to foster greater rigor and relevance in the classroom. In return, they can expect to see those strategies being utilized when they visit the classroom. 

I’m encouraged by the bright students and dedicated educators  I met in Oregon – working together to redefine the 21st century classroom.  As one teacher commented, “I realize that all children are capable of higher-level thinking. We need to continue teaching kids to think for themselves, teach each other, get involved… their futures depend on it.”

Reluctant Reader as Author

Literacy specialist, Pat Martin,  authored this guest blog on one of publishing projects.
Pat Martin last guest blogged about the Parents’ Literacy Publishing Project

Img_0182_2Cuyler, a winsome first grader, has published his first book.  The experience encouraged him to exclaim, “I’m going to publish more than 1000 books. I have so much more to say.”

Mid-way through his second year of formal schooling, Cuyler should be reading about level 9/10 (guided reading text level as described by Pinnell and Fountas).  He’s not.  However, after reading a text created by MaryAnn McAlpin, a retired Reading Recovery teacher, for her grandson, Cuyler was motivated to create his own text using that model.

“I’m going to publish more than 1000 books. I have so much more to say.” ~ Cuyler, a 1st grader

Writing his personal text benefits Cuyler in so many ways.  His extensive daily vocabulary is supported by actual printed text.  His interests, vehicles of every description and outdoor life, become the basis of his text which further stimulates his daily effort to acquire reading skill.  As such noted advocates for boy literacy as Ralph Fletcher and Michael Gurian note, primary texts and writing prompts seldom deal with the world that interests boys.  There is scant opportunity to connect with the texts, to bring personal experience into the reading/writing or to interact with the text content.

Img_0193_2 Capturing Cuyler’s explanations and descriptions as a book’s text mimics interactive writing or the daily journal writing in the reading Recovery lesson.  And what child wouldn’t read and reread a book of their pictures and writing?  What better way to achieve fluency?  Certainly a more exciting, engaging and authentic method than grappling through Cuyler’s four inch thick stack of Dolch sight words – a practice he he finds less than engaging. Cuyler now sees himself as a literate individual.  He is excited about the growing up as a reader and writer rather than defeated by the challenges that text holds. 

By providing text that supports him as a reader and validates him as a writer, Cuyler is on the path of literacy.  And he is an excited traveler who wants to know “how many days until we go back to that learning lab so I can publish books.”Img_0192_2

For sometime now I’ve been an advocate of new print on demand technologies to give students a chance to publish their learning for an authentic audience and purpose. I’ve partnered with Pat Martin, a literacy specialist and Suzanne Suor, an educational technology consultant, to open a Educational Publishing Learning Lab in Rochester NY. We offer a variety of training packages to assist teachers and districts in taking advantage of the new opportunities in digital publishing. The lab is located at ColorCentric digital publishers, so participants can not only learn how to publish, but tour the facility to see books being made. For more information on how you and your students can publish your own books visit our website Read > Think > Write > Publish

Teacher Using Books to Form a Link with Ethiopia

Memoir Project
Memoir Project

Alicia Van Borssum is a very talented ESL teacher who has contributed to our student publishing efforts with The Memoir Project – Memoirs and artwork by three young ESL students from the Ukraine. More on the book at Read > Think > Write > Publish

Alicia is now working to raise funds to bring books and staff development to Ethiopia this summer. I’ve reprinted an article below. For more information about projects for literacy in Ethiopia, go online at  For information about Alicia Van Borssum’s effort to bring books to Ethiopia, e-mail her at Donations can be made out to Ethiopian Books for Children and mailed to Van Borssum at 15 Fairwood Drive, Hilton, NY 14468. The organization is nonprofit and tax-deductible.

Greece Teacher Using Books to Form a Link with Ethiopia
Jim Memmott
Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle

(January 27, 2007) — If all goes well, Alicia Van Borssum of Hilton NY will be in Ethiopia this summer showing teachers and librarians there about using wordless picture books for language learning and literacy.

Continue reading “Teacher Using Books to Form a Link with Ethiopia”

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