Breaking Down the Stronghold of Dependency: Building Self-Efficacy in Young Writers


Students will only see themselves as writers when they have the ability and the tools to transfer what they’ve learned to another day and to another task independent of our presence (and prompting) as teachers.  In Visible Learning for Literacy, Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie refer to the two sub phases of learning: acquisition of knowledge and consolidation (2016). Ensuring that students acquire the foundational skills necessary to be successful in our absence is an essential springboard into the important work that will occur in the consolidation phase.

Unpack these words, “In the absence of our presence…” and you will find the driving force behind the WHY of this lesson.  Too many times, students are simply handed a note-taking strategy to complete in an attempt to organize their own content.  These note-taking strategies are often ones they have utilized before and are familiar working with. Some examples include: Venn Diagrams, T-Charts, Webs, Timelines, etc. As if we have twenty-five identically cloned students in our class… we frequently ask twenty-five unique learners to utilize the same strategy to organize their content. All of the strategies mentioned are wonderful tools. All of the strategies mentioned have their place in a writer’s toolbox… IF the tool makes sense for the writer, fits the individual needs of the writer, and is a tool chosen by the writer. In The Journey Is Everything: Teaching Essays that Students Want to Write for People Who Want to Read Them, Katherine Bomer refers to this type of uniform teaching as “writing by numbers.” (2016) She goes on to say, “Writing by numbers is easier to teach and easier to grade.”  In other words…it keeps the teacher in control.

Last month I ran an Informational Writing Lab for students in grades 3rd-5th. The intention was three-fold: to learn alongside a mentor author, identify and study text structures utilized, and generate note-taking strategies that could be applied when collecting and rehearsing a topic within each structure.

To begin, students generated individual lists of five expert topics.  It was understood that our definition of “expert” meant that we did not know everything about the topic, but we knew enough to teach someone else a good bit about it.  Each student was then invited to choose one of their five expert topics to explore as we examined the landscape of our informational mentor text.  While reading closely we noted the following six structures to emulate with our own expert topics:

  1. Boxes and Bullets
  2. Sequential
  3. Compare/Contrast
  4. Problem/Solution
  5. Cause/Effect
  6. Pro/Con.

In analyzing the mentor’s topic and varied structures on each page, we unpacked the possible components needed to craft within each structure. We thought about how the author’s notebook might have been organized and how that author might have collected, rehearsed and planned the pages before drafting. Finally, and most importantly, we generated our own note-taking strategies that met our needs in planning for our expert topics within each structure.  Here are some of the note-taking strategies that students came up with for each of the six structures identified.


As students rehearsed their topics across each structure, they experimented with one or more note- taking strategies generated by themselves or by their peers.  In sharing through turn and talk, it was clear that each student made sense of their topic utilizing varied strategies of organization. They made sense of their topic in a way that made sense for them.  Here is a snap-shot of some of the pages in their writer’s notebooks.


Dance and Acting: Compare/Contrast notes with a Venn Diagram, a Sequential Order/How-To with Box and Bullets, and a Pro/Con T-Chart


Horses and Cattle: Compare/Contrast  with a Venn Diagram and a How-To with a Box and Bullets

Nerfing and Gaming: Compare/Contrast Venn Diagram and a Web on How-To Sing

BMX and Baseball: Compare/Contrast with Three Circles and a Math Timeline of the Process

By affording students the opportunity to generate and explore varied note-taking strategies that fit their topic across six different structures yielded a valuable lesson. It built self-efficacy in these young writers giving them the tools and the confidence to think for themselves and establish note-taking systems that make sense for them and their individual needs as writers. It empowered them to make future decisions as writers in the absence of their teachers. This work supported independent transfer to another topic on another day; in essence, it fostered problem solving and confidence in their future independent decision making as writers.

Ponder: Are there methods and practices being utilized across our teaching day that perhaps unintentionally creates dependent rather than independent thinkers and learners?  If so, how could those methods and practices be flipped to support student agency and continue to build self-efficacy in student writers?

~ Val Piccini


Working Together vs. Working Alone: Multiplying Our Instructional Knowledge Base When it comes to Teaching Writing in the Era of the Common Core


Teaching writing in the era of the Common Core requires a relentless demeanor. Being content to just survive…to chill…to relax won’t raise the level of writing in our classrooms. Consciously realizing that we are in the midst of the most rigorous standards we’ve encountered in the history of education, a different spirit is in order.  Having been there, done that in terms of “quick fixes” that do nothing, but have us orbiting and then returning to the our initial launch pad unchanged, has left our perspectives somewhat flawed. However, refusing to make excuses when we have a chance to make an impact will honor both the intent of the standards and the integrity of the student writers in which the standards were designed.

Our place in this new world of writing demands should not be replaced with anything less than what authentic best practice looks and sounds like within the four walls of our writers workshops. While considering the standards which correlate with our particular grade level, we must honor the work set out for us as both teachers of writing and students of writing. In consideration of this, adopting a growth mindset- one of resiliency and one of agency, is in order.

Although, there is a lot to be said for stability, longevity and persistence as you travel along the same path, the late, great Yogi Berra once offered these words, “When you get to the Y in the road, take it.” So now to ponder this Y in the road… preservation vs. pursuit, I ask you…what’s your choice?

Relentless teachers of writing, willingly living within a mindset of pursuit rather than preservation of existing state of affairs, will elevate both teaching and learning expectations and follow through.

Sustainable writing success can be achieved in two ways: with many members on board or with just a few, but the one way success will not be imminent, is on a solo flight. Favoring the first, supports the pursuit of an ongoing and constantly reflective collaborative approach to creating life-long writers, not just state assessment writers, rote writers, joyless writers…safe, same old writers. However, there is something about knowing that you are teaching and growing as part of a team that gives you a different spirit. Co-collaborators refuse to make excuses when they have a chance to make things better – to make things right, even when that means doing things differently than they’ve always done them. Dedicated teams hold each other accountable for the growth and joy of the student and teacher population.

With the help of my team I’ve come to realize 2 things that teachers of writing must never be content with:

  1. Status quo.
  2. Watching from the sidelines. Alone.

Reflecting only briefly on the first of these two writing enemies, not much else needs to be said in terms of resisting becoming complacent and content with status quo.  There is important work to be done when we consider the standards. Being content in doing what we’ve always done is oppression of student needs, not a plan of pursuit for customization and rigor. We are not here to just let things macerate in mediocrity and same old, same old. We are here to make a difference. To bring joy to learning…so learning doesn’t just disappear when we are not around to fuel it.  We are here to grow independent learners, thinkers and writers in the 21st century!

Examining the second culprit of complacency is where the emphasis needs to settle. Recognizing that working in quarantine with one’s self does not produce a win. We must get off the bench. Get in the game. Refuse to sit on the sidelines when we can play in the game. Sitting back and watching other people change the world of teaching, doesn’t make us part of the miracle. Step up and refuse to watch success happen through other people’s actions and efforts.

Have you ever noticed that some teachers are loners and some are leaders and some relish in the constant support of their team in pursuit of becoming better at what they do, not in preservation of status quo? The posture of people who know they have banked a toolbox of strategic weaponry against instructional defeat alongside their team to strengthen their teaching of writing- of mode, and genre, and story, and conferencing, and revision, and minilesson are not on the defense…in contrast, they are offensive. Adhering to a posture of preservation will only lead one to fester in a stature of defense. And quite frankly, who wants to hibernate in a pothole of defense. Alone.

The world of teaching writing is hard. It has challenges. Attempting to hold your ground in isolation of what you’ve always done, will not afford you or your students the opportunity to take on new ground.

My principal just recently asked his staff to answer a reflective question during grade level professional learning communities. The question was perhaps unsettling for some and yet affirming for others. The question was:

“If someone already knows how to teach something, then why would they entertain a new approach?”

As teachers, the answer to this question should spark a “don’t be content” attitude if we are teachers who are forever seeking the answer to our very own question in return:

“How can I work harder to get better at what I do?”

All responses naturally leading back to the betterment of instruction for the sole purpose of providing only the best for our students. Fortunately we have the power to change and to evolve, as wealth of knowledge and support exists in each other as team members. However, constantly focusing on what is, for example: the problems in our classrooms, the holes in our curriculum, the past efforts that failed, won’t feed us or our students forward. Rather –we must choose to focus on what can be. We will no doubt have to battle through things to make a difference. But the outcome of the battle far outweighs the mediocrity of simply submitting to status quo.

When the odds feel against you and when teaching gets harder, your power from your team gets stronger. Working alongside your team will always be greater than working alone. Togetherness multiplies effectiveness when we choose to work side by side. Combining our talents with the talents of our peers ensures that our knowledge is multiplied by the knowledge of others.

We tell our students this all the time when we coerce a Turn and Talk in our lessons. In our classrooms, we attempt to foster communities of co-construction of knowledge, of discussion and teamwork, but often our pontificating of classroom tactics doesn’t match our emulation of collegial practice. Our intended work with our students can’t be separate from our professional relationships with our colleagues. We can’t limit our teaching lives to just our knowledge base. We must consciously seek and find wisdom in the knowledge and collaboration of our peers.

Often what is found is either overestimation or underestimation of the talents in our teaching lives. Overestimating results in limiting our teaching to just our knowledge base. Underestimating of talents results in not fully utilizing the talents that exist in our very own repertoire of skills. Together over estimators and under estimators can multiply the pursuit of strategic change through collaboration and tear down the walls of solitary preservation.

Amazing things can happen when we bring our talents together for the greater good of our students. Our efforts are multiplied and we do become stronger as educators and as a result our students (and us) reap the rewards.

So now let’s return to that Y in the road. In pondering preservation vs. pursuit, I ask you…what’s your choice? Turn and Talk.

~Val Piccini

Battling Boy Writers: 7 Keys to Victory

WOW LOGO PNG ColorAs a teacher of young writers, I can relate to the unique struggles that accompany teaching reluctant writers, specifically boy writers. However, as a mother of a 13 (soon to be 14) year old boy, I can also empathize with the idiosyncratic battle of the boy.

We’ve all heard the saying that begins, “The best laid plans…” and we know how it ends: awry. Well unfortunately, we as teachers frequently experience these moments of amiss in our teaching lives.  We’re innate planners. Minute to minute micromanagers. We endeavor to run a tight ship. But in reflecting candidly on our practice, we can ascertain the repeated path that our best laid “writing” plans take, especially with resistant writers. And all too often these unwilling participants, venturing down alternate routes, are comprised of a big heap of boys.

So what is it about the combination of boys and writing that mixes up the perfect recipe for teaching and learning defeat? A recipe that puts us on our way to losing the battle of the boys. How is it that we manage to engage these same complex creatures in climbing in and out, up and down, and all over the learning landscape terrain of our day, until we ask them to tighten their bootstraps and have their way with words? It’s when we round this forbidden corner, that they instantly signal the belay and without blinking escape the opportunity, descending down to the safety of the firm ground. Arms crossed and now unharnessed. Looking back up at us on our writing mountain, with heads turning left to right, over and over again affirming that they are not climbing back up.

We’ve all been there. It’s a helpless feeling. So the question, “Now what?”  finds its way into the echoing crevices of our teaching caves. How do we overcome the barriers of these stubborn boy writers?

Being blocked out by boy writers leaves us feeling a little inadequate, however, there are pathways to experiencing a breakthrough with boy writers. Nonetheless, winning this battle does come with a catch…and there is one thing we simply cannot win without. But first let’s examine the keys to crossing over.

Key #1 

Be flexible and open to detours.

Only plan so far…leave space for wiggle room, inquiry, choice, and detours that will result at the same destination. When you are at a pass, become passive. Relinquish control. Don’t plan every step for students, or you will be defeated.

Give a good lead on the rope. Make sure harnesses are not too tight. Don’t over belay. Let choice guide which groove feet get nestled in for leverage.  In doing so, sure-footedness will keep boys negotiating their moves up their writing mountain.

Key #2  

When you win a small battle, take a big bite.

Enjoy. Acknowledge. Celebrate. This will give the writer (and you) the energy to dig his heels back into the writing process.

Key #3  

Recognize that breakthroughs are overrated.

Many times we find ourselves let down after a breakthrough. Name breakthroughs for what they really are, posers. A breakthrough shouldn’t be confused with a victory, but it should be recognized as putting us in a good position to win the battle. We may have made progress, but we haven’t won the war. We must keep at it. Relentlessly.

Key #4

Let them know that you want them to win.

Remember, boy writers are competitive by nature.  The “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just have fun” approach probably isn’t going to work.  Sharpen their tools, set them up to be successful and recognize that they can’t have fun unless they win…and you must ensure they will win.

Key #5

Balance the equilibrium of expectation.

When they succeed vs. when they are ready to succeed. This isn’t meant to be a battle of the wills, but a differentiated model of learning.  Learning is personal. Growth as a writer is personal.  The writing process is personal. We all think and brainstorm, collect, rehearse, draft, edit, and revise in varied ways, utilizing different stages of the process at different points in the writing process. Sometimes our expectations won’t equal reality.

Key #6

Know that where each writer ends up is often different than where we thought he’d end up.

Believe it or not, we aren’t always right.  We don’t always have to be in control.  We can experience success and witness students experience success in a situation that is contradictory to our initial “plan.” Be on the look-out for approximations of task and praise student efforts towards the target.

Key #7

Disarm the reluctant writer of all writing negativity.

Empower them. Encourage them to bring to their writers notebooks what they’ve got.  Reassure them that they will win because they have you.

Ok. Now for that one thing

The one thing we can’t win the battle of the boy writers without is willpower. Drive. Want to. First on our part…then on theirs. I’m going to do it no matter what. I’m not going to stop because my purpose is serious. Our students are shouting- show us your will. Fight for us.

Willpower. Get your fight back. Shout -I shall. I must. I can. He can. He will.

We can’t hide behind pride and allow passive behavior to dominate. Business as usual in a time of war is not the solution. We can’t linger behind the appearance of good teaching, we must activate good teaching.

As educators we have the honor of wearing the experience of defeat. We have had kids in our class that have turned away. Challenged us. Gave us a run for our money. But we can’t make excuses for boys who won’t write. Who don’t write.

Don’t limit them. Defy that. Win anyway.

The unique thing about teaching is that one conversation can change a life. One conversation can change a writer’s life. If they know you are for them, they will succeed.

Be committed to winning the battle. Be committed to the climb. Show your willpower through intention, initiative, expectancy and innovation.

Be victorious over the battle of the boys.

-Val Piccini

Hello from the Other Side…


Connection is the product of investment: somethings only makes sense from the inside.

As teachers, when fostering a growth mindset, we can’t just look through the window at other peoples’ efforts. In this case, the “people” I am referring to are our students.

It’s different on the inside.

Consider this line of thinking:

  • Are you on the inside?
  • Do you think it is easier to teach from within?
  • Is identifying and then mentoring student writers in a conference more manageable from the inside?
  • Do teaching points come more naturally while navigating on the inside track, alongside your students?
  • Is pedagogical dialogue more effective to have with colleagues who are on the inside?

If you answered yes…consider why this is true?

Understanding what goes on, on the inside…as a learner, as a reader, and as a writer is critical to the growth and success of both the teacher and the student.

Contemplate this. You are trying to lose 15, maybe 20 pounds and your best friend tries to give you advice. The only problem is, she doesn’t have any weight to lose…nor has she ever even had to think about how many calories she consumes in a day! Do you even listen to her? Her advice may make sense, but you are annoyed by it…by her. She says she’s seen every Dr. Oz show on weight loss and she knows how it works…but does she really? What personal experience does she have with trying to lose weight? The answer is -none.

The same holds true with what we teach. Does our knowledge of writing far exceed our experience of it? Do we “teach” kids how to write without ever picking up the pencil and writing ourselves? Now I’m not just talking about modeling a conclusion, a hook, or a detailed sentence or two that we magically craft in front of our students. No, I’m talking about the nitty-gritty, down and dirty of process writing alongside our students, step by messy step.

Writing in perfect form in front of or out of view from our students and then utilizing our work as an exemplar sends a false message of what writing is really like. It isn’t neat, pretty, or wrapped in colorful paper, topped with a bow. Writing is raw, personal, unpolished, and a constant work in progress. Affording students the opportunity to see us struggle, to hear what we wrote last night in our writers notebook (what we really wrote), to watch as we turn page after heart-felt filled page of beautiful imperfection, to see us find a line we fiddled with from last month’s poetry unit and fit it perfectly into the narrative we’ve been working to craft is the good stuff! The real stuff. Raw, authentic and true to what the process actually looks like…warts and all.

This transparency of thought and vulnerability of intention demonstrates the elbow grease that earns us the right to teach in a conference. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, but we’re also still doing it! It gives students a sense of, “I can do this too!” And as a result, it consequently makes us better writers and better teachers of writing. Our rewards can be found in the empathetic ear we now possess as we listen and coach from “within” when conferencing with our writing cherubs! Teaching points will become clearer as we carefully reflect upon each unique student piece, and the next steps that will feed each writer forward will flow from the hands-on, experienced, knowledgeable mind of the writer within us…all of this because we’ve crossed over from the other side. Welcome to their side. Welcome to the inside.

Hello from the Other Side…

-Val Piccini

Wild at Heart: The Subtle, Yet Striking Connection between Raw Hunters in the Wild and Teachers


Ok. Figuratively speaking…I’m sure stranger things have been compared right?

I recently watched a “hunting” video (of all things) that a friend forwarded to me. This friend, a hunter himself, simply sharing his passion, sense of fulfillment and glimpse into his wild hobby. Admittedly, I would not be telling the truth if I said I was chomping at the bit to watch it. Quite the opposite was the case and after staring at its’ subject line for a day in my inbox which read “This was the video I was telling you about,” I apprehensively clicked…p-l-a-y.

Leery of its content, not certain of what to expect, but hoping that I could stomach it in its entirety for the mere justification of at least relaying to my friend that I had indeed watched this piece that was important to him. Expecting a wild, cold, manly, grunting, blood-thirsty, hunting documentary, I braced myself for the next 20 plus minutes I’d never get back. Check that one off the list I thought.

However, as I slowly swallowed my predetermined reservations and let the unexpected heart-felt, passionate words of the hunters’ collaborative account of their soulful journey sink in, my mind and heart instantly softened recognizing the echoing chords of the striking similarities to the work we as teachers do each and every day as we too pursue our passion, our livelihood, our hunt.

Ugg -the admittance of this connection alone (between wild hunters and teachers) I realize makes one appear, well, nuts, to say the least. But then to turn around and attempt to synthesize its connection…in written form, is just certifiable. Call it what you will, but these incredible warriors of the wild practiced merciless, laser-focused determination and skillset to discover common trends between two things: their love of familiar western style hunting and hunting in their home in the wild, rugged woods of Pennsylvania.

Within the first minute and a half of the video, these incredible words of wisdom were brought forth from the mouths of these wild hunters, “Why couldn’t we take the skills we’d learned hunting the west and apply them to our hunts at home?” Continuing, they added, “With all our hard work behind us, it was time to put our theory to the test.” Those words took me directly to the words and the work of Calkins research and philosophy which concludes…everything we teach and learn should be transferrable to another time and another day. Yes! I thought. This is exactly what we want for our students. It’s why we work so hard to foster reciprocity between reading and writing across the content in the learning lives of our students. To read and write with the same recognition that exists in our English Language Arts literary lens in science texts, in social studies texts, and even in math! Why not? Isn’t that what we are constantly trying to help our students recognize through authentic modeling and application of these skills, common across the content…from one subject to another, just like these hunters?

Although I haven’t researched this, I’m fairly certain that hunting in the wild west can be vastly different than hunting for Whitetail Buck in the east, just as it seems reading and writing about a science or social studies text can encapsulate vast differences when compared to a literary novel, slice of poetry, or memoir for example. Nonetheless, the brilliance of strategically attempting to conceptualize the concrete and intensely innate similarities of the process, structures and tactics involved in the craft of hunting to a totally different landscape is purposeful and productive work to say the least. It is hauntingly and affirmingly evident that this same congruency also exists within the efforts we as teachers make in trying to create seamless fluidity of learning across the school day for our students.

I recently taught a unit in information writing which focused around six structures of organization:

  1. Pros/Cons
  2. Compare/Contrast
  3. Cause/Effect
  4. Problem/Solution
  5. Types/Kinds
  6. Parts

These six structures were explored at length in reciprocity in our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade ELA reading/writing workshops utilizing a social studies current event theme related article on Hurricanes. Slowly…but surely, shortly after this immersive study of structure occurred, sightings of synthesis and coagulation of similar thinking transferred to science classes when addressing global warming concepts, in social studies when utilizing current events of all types, and in its purest language arts roots when analyzing and interpreting pieces of narrative literature. Alas, transference of skills and practice and common language married in fluidity of purposeful and authentic application throughout the school day, not just in designated classrooms, on designated days, related only to designated subjects, designated teachers, and designated texts. Alas…a glimpse of harmony was spotted. Aha moments of excitement from teachers who internalized this process were noted. Now, please don’t misunderstand the message here, the war on block schedules, and isolated closed content classrooms is not in any way shape or form won…but there is definitely progress towards this powerful transition of unearthing. Experimentation and trial application is a buzz in pockets among teachers in the building. It’s invigorating! It’s contagious!

In the case of our hunting warriors, they spent an entire off season “putting boot leather on the ground” so that when hunting season opened, they were ready. Isn’t that exactly what we as dedicated teachers do? Passionate teachers, just like these passionate hunters, participate in workshop labs with students and colleagues, seek and attend professional development, read professional literature, design, test, discuss, and reflect upon new curriculum, and meet collaboratively with colleagues pouring over data and anecdotals and co-constructing responsive next steps in teaching and learning. Essentially we do exactly what these men of the wild woods do –ready ourselves for our open teaching season!

As this documentary continued to play, it unfolded the secret to their hunting success: passion, drive, and sheer persistence to achieve their ultimate and mutual goal – the Whitetail Buck. At one point, I found myself actually hanging on to the edge of my seat, cheering (come on guys, you can get one)…and sending up silent prayers that this endearing, strong, and strategic hunter would ultimately snag his prize. To draw you further into the moment, it was the last day of archery season and only 2 out of the 3 hunting heroes had “racked-up” no pun intended, their prize. Now, you might assume that the confidence level of this 3rd deerless hunter would be diminishing by now…crushed, and to some degree it was fading, but never gone, never defeated. However, considerably more important to note was the underlying, felt sense of support and genuine empathy and good will from the 2 prized hunters towards their fellow hunter. The 3 warriors hunted, grew, celebrated and struggled in a tightly knit pack. Each prize won was a success for all, each struggle was a struggle to attack as a pack. Each pack member clearly owned the ups and downs and causes and consequences of their fellow hunters.

Having viewed this, has also brought me to arrive at this additional summation, hunters hunt in a pack. Teachers hunt in a pack. We rely on each other to grow, to learn, to succeed. If we are growing, our pack must be growing too. If our students are growing, the students of our pack must be growing too. That collaborative ownership is a lesson not left unnoticed in the success of the hunters’ journey. This band of wild brotherhood offers much to emulate. They commenced their journey with these wise words, “Looking back on this past season, it is very evident that the harder you work at something, the greater the reward. We are blessed with an unforgettable season, and a new obsession for chasing big woods bucks.”

So fellow pack members, I ask you to reflect upon this line of thinking:

What’s your current open season looking like?

How does your pack function when one or more members are off-course?

When struggles occur, how does your pack attack?

What skills has your pack taken and applied to another day, another content area, another time in the learning day of your students?

During your off season, how do you and your pack prepare for the open season?

-Val Piccini



Getting Rid of the Mixture: A Lesson in Trust and Bravery

Reflecting on the universal beliefs of a true workshop teacher, I find myself opening up the transition vein of uncertainty to help fluctuating teachers set sail into the murky and sometimes choppy waters of a reading and writing “workshop.”

There’s a difference between belief in the workshop model and belief in one’s own ability to comfortably fulfill the role of an authentic workshop teacher. It’s a paradigm shift that is often stressful to overcome.

Beliefs of a workshop teacher:

  • Choice. Students should have choice in what they read and what they write.
  • Authentic reading and writing. We only ask kids to read and write for authentic purposes.
  • Teachers read and teachers write.
  • Teachers read and teachers write in front of their students.
  • Kids need lots of time to read and write.
  • Strategy and skill instruction is explicitly taught.

It all sounds good on paper…

In the ELA blocks of our weekly lesson plans, the words: Writing Workshop or Reading Workshop can often be found. However, surprisingly when that time of day actually comes…the same anthology with teacher manual in tote is pulled out; grammar practice worksheets appear; and before we know it, our readers and writers are all in unison on page 6…sleepily doing number 6. Nothing has been collaboratively “workshopped,” just independently “worked on.” Identical in form. Parallel monotony ad-nauseam.

Truth be told. It is a scary thing; cutting loose that faithful anchoring one stop shop anthology book or collection of worksheets that we’ve relied on for the greater part of our teaching life when we look to teach a certain skill. It is a scary thing to set sail on an ocean of inquiry and authentic learning through struggle- when we don’t know what’s waiting for us beneath the sea’s surface. The waters are just too murky to fathom. We are wired to want everything neat and tidy. Planned and played out. Exactly the way we envisioned.

To further add to our apprehension, it is a scary thing to “not know” everything we plan to teach before we teach it, to understand which craft moves or grammar components to pull out of a mentor text or even which mentor text to reach for. Which questions to pose and which ones to guide students to pose. It’s hard to always “see” that we use the same literacy skills in every single content area. Admitting this belief of transference would only cause more stress in knowing it is our job to help students identify those same literacy components outside of the ELA classroom and across their learning day.

I don’t know which is worse…not doing what we know is right because it’s often more challenging and we are not 100% confident in our skillset, or doing what we know isn’t right and accepting the residual feelings and instructional consequences that comprise the choice of taking the easier way out.

Begin to journey out of indecision…of temporary transition and onto the sea of discovery with these 5 steps of trust and bravery:

Step 1: Get rid of the “mixture.”

Get rid of the “mixture” of mingling the two disparate teaching lives: 1. busy work, worksheets, assigning, not teaching and 2. authentic engagement and inquiry. Like oil and water, the two cannot be mixed. They don’t go together. They never will. Either you are an authentic workshop teacher…or you’re not. Make a choice, not an excuse. Be brave. Commit. And never look back.

Step 2: Always choose the latter of the two disparate teaching lives.

Choosing authentic engagement and inquiry over monotony will liberate the inner inquiry immersion leader and learner in you. Set sail and don’t be afraid of the murky waters ahead of you.

Step 3: Expect the unexpected…and be comfortable in doing so.

The best thing about setting sail with a class full of eager learners, is that you are never alone on your journey. The beauty of true teaching is found in uncovering the unknown alongside your students.

Step 4: Share your vulnerability and adopt a Growth Mindset

Be transparent, say out loud, “I don’t know…but I know where to look to help me find the answers. And furthermore…I won’t not know for long. I have a growth mindset!”

Step 5: Focus on the learning…not the teaching

This last step singularly can take the place of the preceding 4. Adopt the Madeline Hunter Model of Learning by approaching each students learning needs with this question in mind: Think not – What am I going to teach today, but rather what is this child ready to learn today?

Get yourself out of the way. Become a learner in your own classroom. Embrace the struggle to create and embrace something new. Remember: if you’re not growing…your students aren’t either. Empower yourself by allowing yourself to think differently.

If you are working towards and committed to whole-heartedly setting sail on the waters of workshop, please share your thoughts on transitioning and your hurdles to overcome?

-Val Piccini




The New Common: Looking at the “Old” Through a Fresh Lens


A telescope is only as good as its lens. Looking at teaching and learning with the right lens will reveal fluid learning connections across the content and among varied literacy modes.

Accepting new arrows into our quiver can be both exciting and overwhelming. However, working smarter, not harder will suggest utilizing tools already present in our toolboxes to their utmost usefulness and ultimate potential across our teaching day and throughout the school year. Employing common practice in this way affords students the opportunity to focus on new information while anchoring firm to rooted schema for sure application of the building, layering, ordering, and categorizing of skills for present and future use.

A perfect example of this exists in the varied modes of writing instruction. Identifying the characteristics of the three modes of writing becomes ambiguous when students and teachers continue to grow their knowledge of multiple genres through deep immersion in varied units of study. If writers and teachers of writing are truly committed to living writerly lives, inevitably, the lines of assigning characteristics to just one genre become blurred. With increased knowledge of genre, we ascertain…it can’t be done. Characteristics once thought to only be associated with one of the three modes: Narrative, Information, or Argument, begin to be recognized in all genres when we naturally and automatically “read like writers” and work to emulate mentor craft over time. In this way, we nurture and promote the transfer of skills to flow freely between modes.

Considering modes of writing, when we introduce a new genre, we begin with immersion into that particular genre. Together with our students we learn all we can from our mentor authors, noting characteristics that are present in like texts. But the phenomenon occurs through the evolution of consciousness as readers of writing. Through repetition of process and familiar pathways towards progress, we find ourselves recognizing common patterns, structures, and craft moves previously thought only to be present in specific pieces. This eye-opening transformation of reciprocity marries the reader and writer that lives inside the holistically literate student and teacher. Growing our thinking in this way affords students the understanding of the transference of core threaded skills from one genre to another that is woven in and out of all components associated with literacy. Separating the two only results in unnecessary struggle and confusion: it’s unnatural to do so and actually more challenging to “teach” and be “taught to” in isolation. The product of teaching literacy concepts in isolation is non-transference. Doing so is counterproductive to the very reason we do what we do…to make skills transferable: from one authentic learning experience to another. We teach for life…not for school.

Recently, I was teaching a lesson in an Information unit of study to several groups of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade writers. These writers had just finished up a Narrative unit of study and their published pieces were hot off the press. As with every “new” mode focus, I began to solicit and anchor their thinking on the characteristics of our new mode: information. What I found validated what was just described in regards to the need to see “old” in new ways. Student writers generated very concrete and common characteristics associated with information writing. Characteristics such as: headings/subheadings, information, topic, bold-faced words, table-of-contents, pictures, captions, introduction of new vocabulary, facts, etc. were produced.

It was evident that they knew the surface characteristics associated with Information writing, but they failed to recognize the transferrable qualities of craft recently applied during their Narrative study to the new mode of Information writing. Was this gap their fault or the result of negligent reciprocal instruction?

Instantly, I lead them through a deliberate close read of an information piece on hurricanes. During that read, I purposed their lens to identify characteristics of Information writing that they noticed that we could add to our co-constructed Information anchor chart. Through inquiry, writers were able to identify qualities that minutes ago were thought to only be associated with Narrative, not Information texts. Qualities both genres shared such as: figurative language, story structure, and detailed descriptions of events, coupled with interesting ways to utilize punctuation to enhance meaning and the total reading experience.

As teachers we are burdened with purpose. We exist to make a difference: to grow our students. But all too often, we become locked in ineffective and inefficient ways of teaching…hanging on to the familiar security of past practice. Because of these strangely comforting insecurities we continue to allow them to take precedence in our investment of time and teaching. This is due in part to our ripened and matured perspective that we’ve developed about teaching and learning. However, in order to fulfill our innate purpose of truly making a difference, we must begin to see “old things” in brand new ways. Recognizing that the definition of “old” is not “been there, done that,” but rather in need of extrapolation and interpretation with a fresh lens. It is the conscious search for windows of opportunity to explore and sustain transference and fluidity of standards, skills, and concepts that surround the cross genre and cross curricular teaching and learning that occurs throughout the school day and year. Our purpose should include being consciously competent in the area of helping our students make these meaningful and authentic connections of content throughout their school day, school career, and life of learning.

-Val Piccini