The Playful Classroom: The What, Why and How of Play – By April Nickell

When was the last time you lost yourself in play? If you are like me, play can get lost in the shuffle of life. I have been studying play for a number of years, but it took me awhile to actively pursue it in my life. I have long since been convinced of the developmental value of play in the lives of children, yet it can be so hard to cultivate and foster play in our busy schedules both in the classroom and beyond. This blog series will explore and discuss the benefits of play, the decline of play and its consequences, then will offer ideas on how to promote playfulness in the classroom in such a way as to leverage the cognitive, social, emotional, and learning benefits of play.

I began studying play a number of years ago as a result of my own efforts to bring playfulness to classroom instruction. In my programs in NYC public schools, I could see the increase in engagement and motivation when children perceived classroom experiences as play. However, I didn’t always know what made it seem playful to them, nor did I always know how to add play into an already packed day. These are the questions I have been addressing over the years but to explore them we need to briefly define play and its benefits.

What is Play?

Brian Sutton Smith, a leading play scholar who spent his life studying play, wrote a book called The Ambiguity of Play, which in part discusses the amorphous quality of play. Play isn’t binary, as in something is play or not play. Things can be more or less playful. On one level, you know it when you are in it but when we try to define it things get tricky. Despite this there are a few key characteristics that most scholars agree with.[1][2][3]

• Is spontaneous and Voluntary (Self-chosen and self-directed)
• Has structure or rules (that come from the players)
• Has no extrinsic goals (the means are more valued than the ends)
• Includes active engagement (but not stressed)
• Elements of make-believe or in some way mentally removed from real life
• Is pleasurable and enjoyable (often includes a sense of getting lost in it where time passes differently like the concept of Flow)[4]

Fromberg and Bergen write in the intro to Play From Birth to Twelve, “Possibly the overriding attribute that is so gratifying and addictive about play is that it is intrinsically motivated, satisfying and empowering.” Many of today’s children have limited opportunities for the fullness of the above definitions, rather they spend much of their time in adult led activities (such as sports or dance or other classes) and in the era of high-stakes testing the classroom has less opportunities for play than in decades past. (See future blog about the decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children.)

Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, argues that play is as natural a human phenomenon to humans as is sleep. He came to understand the value of play when he worked on a task force to understand mass murders and later alcoholics and in both groups he discovered play deprivation in childhood. (To hear his TED talk, click here). Play is essential to healthy development.

Historically, Play has been misunderstood from colonial times where play was seen as “moral laxity”, to industrialization during which time schools were created, up to the present with the nation’s focus on the bottom-line and observable benefits.[5] Although it is understandable that play became so disconnected with learning, it is also very unfortunate because play is so central to learning and healthy development. Below is a list of benefits of play from the Play=Learning website:[6]

Why Play?

Emotional benefits include…

  • enjoyment, fun, love of life
  • relaxation, release of energy, tension reduction
  • self-expression

Developmental benefits include…

Cognitive development:

  • creativity
  • abstract thinking
  • imagination
  • problem-solving
  • social cognition, empathy, perspective-taking
  • mastering new concepts

Affective development:

  • self-confidence
  • self-esteem
  • anxiety reduction
  • therapeutic effects

Social development:

  • cooperation
  • sharing
  • turn-taking
  • conflict resolution
  • leadership skill development (control of impulses and aggressive behavior)

Physical development:

  • gross motor experiences
  • fine motor experiences
  • physical challenges
  • self-help skills

Attentional development:

  • attention regulation
  • concentration
  • persistence

Language development:

  • communication skills
  • vocabulary
  • story telling
  • emergent literacy

Educational benefits include…

  • providing a meaningful context for children to learn concepts and skills;
  • making learning fun and enjoyable;
  • encouraging children to explore and discover together and on their own;
  • allowing children to extend what they are learning;
  • encouraging children to experiment and take risks;
  • providing opportunities for collaborative learning with adults and peers;
  • allowing for the practice of skills.

Today’s children spend 18% more time in school, 77% more time doing schoolwork, and 32% less time playing. In light of so many benefits, we are left with a challenge: How to bring more play into learning.[7] I most often find that no one is opposed to play, rather just unsure of how to fit it in, and how to maintain control while playing. These issues will be the focus of future blogs where I will share practical ideas and activities to bring playfulness into your classroom. First, I want to offer a few broad ideas to begin the journey toward your playful classroom.

How to Play
Tips for a Playful Classroom
1. Understand and believe in the benefits of play and its role in healthy development.
“Perceptive educators and scholars acquainted with the benefits of play realize that play contributes to learning and academic achievement, and is not a cause of their decline.”[8]
2. Recognize those benefits are not just for early education but for all children (and adults).
“Current emphasis on narrow perspectives of academic achievement has prohibited widespread acceptance of 8-12-year-olds right to play.”
3. Play yourself.
Play guru Bernard De Koven says “Playfulness is a gift and a choice that we often forget about but that it is the shortest road to happiness!” As we release the playful energy within us, we will begin to see opportunities to play everywhere including with students and curriculum.

4. Offer choice.
Research suggests that when children are able to choose an activity, they code it as play, whereas they code the same activity work when it is selected for them by an adult.[9]
5. Take play breaks.
Transitions can be a nice place for a quick 5 min game that is played for play’s sake. This quick activity, especially if it uses the whole body, can be enough to ignite the mind for the next block of seated focused coursework. Some game ideas are Simon Says, Table Pictionary or Charades, Zip, Zap, Zop, ball tossing games, slow motion tag, or a favorite of mine – Bibbity, Bibbity, Bop.
Or any of these warm up games used in improv-
I’m also pretty sure students will come up with many more ideas!

Honestly, sometimes play is intimidating and scary to me. It is spontaneous which makes it a little scary but that is also what makes it fun. I encourage you to journey with me through this blog series where I share specific examples of bringing more play into your life and your classroom!

[1] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis.
[2] Gray, P. (2008). Freedom to Learn.
[3] Sutton-Smith, B. (2009). The ambiguity of play. Harvard University Press.
[5] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis. P. 22
[7] Gray, P. (2011). The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463.
[8] Fromberg, D. P., & Bergen, D. (Eds.). (2006). Play from birth to twelve: Contexts, perspectives, and meanings. Taylor & Francis. P. 27
[9] King, N. R. (1987). Elementary school play: Theory and research. School play: A source book, 143-165.

Conferring with Readers 101: Strategies to Refresh your Conferring Work By Courtney Kinney

As the school year progresses and you get to know your readers better each week, have you reached the point when you sit down with a reader you’ve read with many times before and you ask yourself, “What am I going to teach this reader that I haven’t already discussed with them?” “What does this reader need for me to teach them to push their thinking?” “What am I going to say to this reader that they will take away with them and apply?”   Well, if you’re asking yourself these questions, you’re not alone!   It is with these questions in mind that we suggest some strategies to refresh your conferring work with you readers.

Note-Taking is Key

Portable and Meaningful.  Consider the way in which you record your daily conversations with your readers.  Do you have a note-taking system that works for you?  Do you have a place that you record the ideas that you’ve discussed during your daily conferring?  Is the system you have working for you or just adding an additional thing to your to-do list?  Consider using a three-ring notebook to store all your conferring notes for quick organization, but taking out a sheet with your entire class listed and attaching it to a clipboard for your daily conferring.  One sheet of paper on a clipboard is light, manageable, and easily taken on the go around your room during conferring.  Think about an easy way for you to record the information you discuss during conferring that is manageable and easily portable. Leaving tracks of your conferring sessions with your readers is key.

Artifacts.  Also consider traveling around the room with a stack of post-it stickies and a pen.  When you’ve discussed a new strategy with you reader, you may choose to write a quick reminder of the strategy on the post-it and leave this artifact behind for the reader to have.  They may choose to place it in their reading notebook for future reference.  Just as leaving tracks of your conferring sessions in your notes helps you refer back to past conversations, leaving an artifact with your reader enables them to refer back to their previous learning.

Compliments Will Get You Everywhere!

Naming It.  If you name it, so it shall be.  Acclaimed writer Katherine Bomer suggests naming things for writers that they are doing well enables them to find the hidden gems in their writing.  So it is with readers: naming the things they are doing well and complimenting them on them enables our readers to identify their strengths as readers and to continue doing them.  So powerful it is to exclaim, “Can I give you a compliment? I think it was fantastic the way you went back to that tricky word and tried looking in the picture for a clue! Whenever you get stuck on a tricky word, try out that strategy again; it seems to be working for you really well!”  If you name out explicitly and specifically what they are doing well as readers, they are more apt to continue doing it.  And, your readers will be more open to trying out the strategy you teach them next during conferring after you’ve pointed out something they are doing well.

Idea Generator.  When you find yourself asking the question, “What do I teach this reader?” it’s time to look back at the compliments you’ve given other readers!  Once you’ve researched your reader, complimented them on something you think they are doing well, it’s time to teach them a strategy they can apply anytime they are reading.  If you’re out of ideas as to what to teach about what thoughtful readers do, look back at your conferring notes with other readers and scan the compliments you gave them.  Are any of these reading strategies or reading behaviors things you’d like to see this reader do?  If so, suggest this strategy to them: “Today I’d like to teach you…”  Continue teaching strategies on the line of growth with this reader based on compliments you’ve given other readers.

Videotaping for Reflection

Digital Reflection.  Consider videotaping a conferring session with one of your readers and reflecting upon it.  Have you ever wondered what you look like teaching? Have you ever had the opportunity to videotape your teaching and see yourself in action? If not, or if it’s been a while, consider videotaping yourself conferring with a reader.  You’ll see why this can be a powerful tool in self-reflection and pushing your thinking even further.  Yes, you’ll have moments while watching it where you’ll think, “Is that truly how I sound?” and you’ll definitely say, “Gosh, I say the word ____ so many times, do I really say that word that much?”  Beyond those initial critiques that we all have, watch yourself for the moves you make during your conferring.  How much time do you spend with each reader? Do you begin with some research? Do you name your compliment specifically? Are you explicit in the strategy you teach your reader? Much valuable learning can be accomplished by simply reflecting upon our practice.  If you’re brave, consider watching it with a colleague and getting their feedback.

Conferring and Reflection in Action.  With this videotaping in mind, here we present our Co-Founder and Director Jessica Martin doing just that: conducting a one-on-one conferring with a reader and then reflecting upon the moves she made and reasons behind those decisions.  We hope you gain much valuable insight from these two videos and consider trying it out yourself this year.

Let us know how your conferring is going this year and any tips you have for making it a manageable and valuable part of your reading workshop.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Delving Deeper into Implicit Teaching through Interactive Read Aloud

The power to transform your students’ world into an alternate time period, capture their imagination during an adventure to the time of dinosaurs, and enable them to envision being an insect chased by a buzzing wasp.  You’re asking yourself, “What daily classroom practice has this power for my readers?”  The answer could be: Interactive Read Aloud.  That’s right, those 20 minutes a day of protected, coveted, dedicated time for engaging your readers with text by implicitly modeling reading behaviors and skills.

Understanding Interactive Read Aloud.  Interactive Read Aloud is that daily 2o minutes of implicit teaching when teachers gather their readers close together in their meeting area and model those reading behaviors and skills they want all readers to emulate.

  • Interactive Read Aloud is a time to build community while exposing readers to a variety of texts, genres, text complexities, and text structures.
  • It is a time to focus on listening and speaking Common Core standards.
  •  It is a time to model reading behaviors such as stamina, initiation, and rereading for meaning and fluency as well as a time to model reading skills such as envisioning, synthesizing, critiquing, or author’s perspective.
  • It is a time for revealing our metacognition as readers and making it explicit by modeling our own reading behaviors by thinking aloud, stopping and sketching or jotting our ideas, or acting out scenes from the text.
  • It is a time to model thoughtful, reflective conversations and hone in on partnership conversations that lead to whole class grand conversations, which are eventually student lead, student monitored, and student driven.

Here are some of our tips for creating a thoughtful, effective Interactive Read Aloud in your classroom.

Strategic Planning.  In order to understand how to utilize text in a more effective and engaging way, teachers need to thoroughly read through the text prior to using it during an Interactive Read Aloud.  Knowing what reading skill and behavior you want to implicitly teach your readers, what reading plan you want to highlight for the text, when to stop in the text to model thinking and reactions, or when to have partnerships turn and talk to one another takes a very planful teacher.  Using post-its to mark the spots in the text you want to engage with is a helpful way to feel prepared during an Interactive Read Aloud.  In this video clip of Erin Donelson, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, notice how she sets up her upper grade readers to make a reading plan to follow along with her in this text.  Notice how strategic her planning is, due to her thoughtful contemplation and thorough reading of the text prior to her Interactive Read Aloud.

Interactive Nature.  Implicit in the name of Interactive Read Aloud is that it is an interactive time when readers engage with the text as well as with one another.  The interactive nature can take on many forms, including interacting with the text through stop and sketches or stop and jots on post-its, acting out particular scenes from text,  turn and talks with partners, or whole class grand conversations where readers engage in conversations with one another by responding to each other’s ideas with sentence stems that promote engaged conversation, such as: “I agree with you because…” “I disagree with you because…” “That’s an interesting point…” “Adding on to what ___ said, I think…”  By giving our readers the language to help support their conversations, we are implicitly teaching readers that an important part of engaging with text is formulating ideas and expressing those to others.  In this video clip of Jessica Martin, our Co-Founder and Director of Growing Educators, notice how she supports her readers by finding points in the text that support interaction in the form of acting out scenes to deepen the understanding of characters and promoting the engagement of all her primary readers.

Navigating Through Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to implicitly model how readers, of any proficiency level, navigate through text.  Modeling reading habits can include such topics as re-reading, using a bookmark, text directionality, navigating a table of contents, book introductions or picture walks in fiction text.  With nonfiction text, such topics for modeling may include: highlighting text features, organizing note-taking for finding main idea, questioning strategies with sentence stems “I’m getting a hunch that…” and noticing writing craft moves.  Notice in this video clip how Jodi Manby, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, sets up a book introduction for her primary readers during Interactive Read Aloud with a text that will eventually be used to launch a persuasive writing unit of study.

Notice how in this video clip, Jodi enables her readers to navigate the text and engage in the interactive nature through turn and talks with their reading partners.

Supporting Content Area Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to build your reader’s content area knowledge, to prepare them for an upcoming science or social studies unit of study, to engage them with nonfiction text prior to an expository writing unit of study, or simply to implicitly model how readers plan for reading informational text differently than other genres.  Weaving content area text into your writing or reading workshop can be bridged by supporting the thinking work during your Interactive Read Aloud.   This can be 20 minutes daily of dedicated time to study a particular genre or subject such as biographies, insects and animals, or the American Revolution, while exposing your readers to complex text and supporting them with strategies that enable them to access the content while navigating the text complexity.  In this video clip, notice how Jessica Martin navigates through content area knowledge while supporting her primary reader’s access to the structure of nonfiction text.

Enjoy this sacred time with your readers and inspire them through your own love of the written word.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Making Science Content Area Instruction Relevant through the Construction of a Science Essay Aligned with the Common Core Standards

Importance of Science Essay

Science essay is a genre of writing that is best taught in the spring, when the majority of the skills and strategies have already been taught, albeit briefly for some. The science essay allows for more in-depth instruction and application of each skill or strategy. Why science? Norris and Phillips (2002), argue that a student’s knowledge of science concepts is frankly non-existent, without a strong reading and writing ability. “Reading and writing are inextricably linked to the very nature and fabric of science, and, by extension, to learning science” (Norris & Phillips, 2002, p. 226). The science essay is an integral tool in learning scientific concepts and, because it is an opinion essay, weaves in application to the real world, which provides the important relevance that students need to become proficient writers (Vygotsky, 1978). Ideally, the science essay will emerge from a student’s desire and curiosity about a science topic that was studied during the year thus far. In preparation for teaching the science essay, students need to be presented with leveled books for each topic, which have been read previously if at all possible.

Initial mini-lessons for the science essay focus on how to ask questions of the text, identify its main idea(s) and determine the author’s point of view and one’s own point of view, which are all written within the Reading Standards for Informational Texts within the Common Core Standards.


When beginning science essay, students come back to these texts with a dual lens, “Why is this important to me, my family, friends and citizens?” and “Why might this not be important?” It is often helpful for students to be provided with a t-chart to gather their ideas. Although there are several other methods, which students can use to take notes and gather ideas.



Maps (a variety to see various relationships)

Okay guys, today we are reading about Mexico. Let’s stop a minute and can you and your partner find Mexico on your maps?


Create a huge timeline in your room that starts with the current year, add birth years of students and then the timeframe you are studying to begin to see comparisons…

Important People and Places

Today we’re going to read about Albert Einstein, I think we might need to create a page for him in our notebooks so that anytime we learn more information about him we can add to it….


This is important to others/This is important to me

What I know/What I learned

I learned/I think

Lift a Line or quote

Use conversational prompts to push your thinking….

Some people think…but I think…


I wonder…

Could it be…?

Sketch and Label

Where in the text do I see… where do I need to revise my sketch now that I’ve read this part…?

GarageBand or Dragon Speak

Today, let’s record our thoughts about earthquakes and then listen back to what you said, making sure that you have all your ideas down.

Thesis Statement

From this t-chart, students often come up with a characteristic of the topic that they will describe in more detail, such as, “Tsunamis are one of the most strong and powerful natural disasters.” Students will also use this t-chart, or something similar to develop a thesis statement, or the guiding sentence for their whole essay. Ideally, a thesis statement should have three reasons to support it and stem from the t-chart, but it does not always have to. “Earthquakes prevention is important because people can lose their lives, the economy can worsen and buildings are destroyed.” But, thesis statements can also have less structure and more opinion, such as, “Weathering is very interesting and there is a lot to learn about it.” If three reasons are not explicitly stated within the thesis statement, students should have three reasons (subtopics) ready to support their notebooks. For example, the reasons (subtopics) to support weathering could be: general facts about weathering, chemical and physical weathering. It is often helpful if students write what they like and do not like about their thesis statements, so that they can have a starting point for discussion with their writing partners to help them refine their thesis statements.


Once the thesis statement is crafted, students will begin taking notes on their topic and subtopics, which are the reasons in the thesis statement. Skills that are essential to mastering note taking include: paraphrasing (switching around the words/phrases, adding or deleting words, and/or finding synonyms for certain words), writing down only essential facts and author’s viewpoints, as well as identifying inferences from the text. While this might sound like a lengthy set of skills, it provides students with the critical foundation to grasp the strategy of note taking. Students can be taught how to divide their notebook into subtopics, or students can put dividers in a binder and use loose-leaf paper to take their notes on.

Boxes and Bullets

After students have taken a substantial amount of notes (approximately one notebook page) on each subtopic (reason that supports the thesis statement), they will begin to form boxes and bullets structures for each of their three subtopics. The first box for the subtopic restates the initial reason associated with the thesis statement, and the subsequent bullets become a mix of quotes from the text, evidence from the text (paraphrased notes) and connections. Sentence starters are also critical to help students push their thinking and recognize new thinking. Accelerated writers, those who are writing above grade level standards, should be encouraged to provide different pieces of evidence to support their thesis statements.  The final box is what someone could learn from all the information and it also transitions to the next paragraph. Students then spend the next few mini-lessons learning how to create an equal balance between quotes, evidence from the text, inferences and connections. Each reason should be supported by the same number of quotes, evidence from the text, inferences and connections. Students experiment with rearranging sentences to create the perfect balance of support for each reason within the middle paragraphs.

Organizing the Structure of the Essay

Once the middle paragraphs are completed, students then receive mini-lessons on how to create a beginning or introduction. Within the introduction, students have several options. They can explain the causes and effects of the scientific topic, the history of the topic, and general facts (summary) of the topic. The conclusion restates the thesis statement in a new (the student should paraphrase their original thesis statement) way, and explains new insights that were discovered, as well as what the authors/scientists did not include in the readings that were used for the essay. Students then go through an individualized editing and revising checklist. It is important for students to not feel constrained within one set structure, and realize that the point of a science essay is to understand non-fiction texts about one topic, be able to identify sub-topics, and provide substantial evidence, both from the text and one’s own mind to support each subtopic. Whether that is within five paragraphs, or not, depends on the student. But, as long as they understand and have applied their knowledge within their writing, your students have accomplished a science essay.

Final Thoughts

Ideally, several students will have picked the same topic, but will have slightly different reasons to support it. The science essay allows for hearty discussion about varied opinions, and can lead to debates about if the topic is really important or not. Bromley (2003) notes that one aspect of a successful writing program is having students being able to write across curriculum areas, in addition to providing topic choice and authentic opportunities for students. The science essay meets all of those criteria, in addition, to building needed inferential skills.


Common Core State Standards Initiative: Preparing America’s Students for College and Career. National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2012).

Harris, K.R., Graham, S., Mason, L.H., & Friedlander, B. (2008). Powerful writing strategies for all students. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Norris, S. & Phillips, L. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87(2), 224-240.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Post written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Kate Riedell

Celebrating Writers: A Spotlight on 95th Street Preparatory School

Welcome to our new spotlight series. We hope to highlight and celebrate innovative schools and educators with whom we are privileged to work alongside in this series.  We feel the energy and passion these inspiring educators bring to their schools and we want to share this energy with you to inspire your practice.  We hope to spark some ideas you can take back to energize your school.

Here we are celebrating an inspiring school in LAUSD, 95th Street Preparatory Elementary School.  Along with the amazing 95th Street Preparatory School principal Carlen Powell, Growing Educators hosted a recent event with the prolific writer Ralph Fletcher.  During this event, both the 95th Street Preparatory School leadership and teachers were incredibly welcoming and made us all feel the energy of their school.

Writer Ralph Fletcher, Growing Educators Co-Founder Renee Houser, and Principal Carlen Powell

Writer Ralph Fletcher, Growing Educators Co-Founder Renee Houser, and Principal Carlen Powell

During our visit to the school, it got us thinking about this question: What message does your school send to visitors about your writing beliefs?  95th Street Preparatory School’s message about writing was loud and clear to all visitors: they believe in the power of process writing, writing workshop, and celebrating their writers.  Energized by their passion for writing, here are our three innovative ideas on how to celebrate writing at your school to send the message: writers are celebrated here!

1. Celebrating Writing in Public Spaces

  • Consider creating wall space in your communal school areas, like your auditorium, cafeteria, media center, or library to display student writing.
Sending a Message about our Beliefs in the Power of Writing

Writing Process Walls in Visible School Spaces

  • Also, consider not only displaying published pieces from all grade levels, but also writing in various stages of the writing process. Notice the images from 95th Street Preparatory School below include displayed writing from the collecting, drafting, and editing stages of the writing process.  What a powerful message to send to students and visitors: the journey through the process of writing is as important as the final product.
95th Street School Writing-Collecting Stage

95th Street School Process Wall-Collecting Stage

95th St Blog 6

95th Street School Process Wall-Drafting Stage

95th St Blog 3

95th Street School Process Wall-Editing Stage

95th St Blog 4

95th Street School Process Wall-Celebrating our Emergent Pre-K Writers

95th St Blog

95th Street School Process Wall-Celebrating our Emergent Kindergarten Writers

Celebrating Process Writing In Your School

Celebrating Process Writing

2. Celebrating Writing Within the Classroom

  • Consider making your writing celebration a special experience for your writers.  Kindergarten teacher, Mindy Wise, created an unforgettable experience for her Kindergarten writers: they celebrated their published pieces around a campfire in their classroom.  You’ll notice in the picture below that she dimmed the lights, handed out flashlights, and her writers shared their published pieces around a “campfire.”  Of course, your writing celebrations don’t need to be this elaborate, but you know her writers will remember this experience for years to come.  Thanks for sharing this inspiring idea Mindy!
Celebrating Writing Campfire Style

Celebrating Writing Campfire Style

  • Consider reading a poem to begin and end the writing celebration.  Photocopy the poem on colored paper and have one of your writers hand out the poems to any celebration visitors: parents, guardians, school support staff, other students, etc.  To begin the celebration, all writers and visitors read the poem aloud to participate in a shared experience.  To end, everyone reads the poem again.  What a great tradition to begin with your writers.  One writing celebration poem might be: “Catch a Fall Star, Put it in your pocket, Save it for a rainy day. Catch a Writing Moment, Put it in your notebook, Save it for a writing day!”
  • Finally, consider creating writing business cards for your writers to celebrate their new status as a published writer.  Sites like allow you to make free business cards and only charge a nominal fee for shipping.  Writers feel professional and can share with their families their new status as an author of multiple genres.
Writing Business Card

Student Writing Business Card

3. Celebrating Writing 2.0

  • Consider a digital celebration of writing using multimodal composition.  Create a classroom blog and have your writers publish their final writing pieces online.  Free sites like,, or can get you started and are user-friendly.  Sites like our host,, come with a nominal fee but offer more customization and might be perfect for your classroom blog.
  • Also, consider using the web tool Glogster, a graphical blog, to create virtual posters to celebrate student writing.  Writers can develop virtual posters that include audio, video, text, hyperlinks, and images that support their published pieces.
  • Finally, consider a podcast to celebrate student writing.  Invite family members, other school staff, and friends to join in a celebration of writing virtually.

However you choose to celebrate writing, remember the message you are sending to your writers, their families, and your community: we believe in our writers and support their successes.  We are proud of the writers in our school!

We’d love to hear from you. How do you celebrate writing in your school?  What traditions do you have during a writing celebration? What are your writing celebration rituals? Leave us a message to inspire other educators!

Primary Writing Process

Primary Writing Process

To find out more about the prolific and inspiring author Ralph Fletcher, visit his website here and follow his blog here.

To find out more about 95th Street Preparatory School, visit their school website here.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Top Three Tips For Supporting All Students During Reading and Writing Workshop

As teachers, we are detailed oriented individuals. We truly do “have eyes on the back of our heads,” constantly keeping tabs on our students’ academic and social progress. We scan our rooms looking for places to add student work, display books for our students to read, and if you are like me, you often have thought of new furniture arrangements to squeeze out an extra few inches for your ever-growing students. We, as teachers, are always evolving and looking for the next best environmental accommodations, visual supports, and how to fine tune instructional methods for our students. In our quest for improvement, it is important that we find a “balance,” especially for our students with disabilities. Our students with disabilities should be provided with a predictable routine, environment and instructional supports that they can count on. And, believe me, it is a lot simpler than it sounds. Below are my top three tips for supporting all students, especially those with disabilities.

1.     Simple, Visual Supports

  • Students benefit from a visual schedule that clearly explains what they need to do not only during the day, but during Reading and Writing Workshop.

o   Consider creating small icons next to your schedule on the board. Icons can be hand drawn (i.e. a student writing), or an actual picture of a student writing, for Writing Workshop.

o   Many students benefit from a visual schedule/checklist that explains every aspect of the schedule. The pie chart below provides students with an overview of what to expect in workshop. Although, for many students with disabilities, they do not know what it means to be “in meeting area with teacher” or “working together as a group.” We can provide pictures of what those look like and place them on the chart.

o   Each phrase could also be broken down further in a step-by- step fashion on separate sheets of paper, placed in a binder for students to reference at their desk or tables. For example, “in meeting area with teacher” might have the following steps: listen for the signal to move to the meeting area, bring writer’s notebook and writing tool, sit in my assigned spot, sit cross-legged with my materials in my lap, and listen to the mini-lesson.

o   Alternatively, students could also be provided with a short video of what the teacher expects the room to “look like” and “sound like” during workshop.

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  • Interactive charts that provide students with a map of where to sit in the meeting area create independence.

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  • Charts that support instructional content ideally have examples and pictures. Charts should also reinforce independence, providing students with strategies to help them throughout each aspect of the writing process.

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2.   Environmental Accommodations

  • Many students with disabilities do not do well within the constraints of a meeting area on a carpet. Feel free to have students stay at their desks, while you present the mini-lesson from the front of the room. This can minimize transition difficulties.
  • Students can benefit from visual timers between each component of workshop, i.e. transitioning from the meeting area to independent writing. It is also helpful for students to know the amount of time expected for independent writing. Many visual timers can often be placed on the board.

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  • If students do gather in a meeting area, students should be able to exit easily if needed. Also, a pacing line (colored tape on the floor) can be used for students who have difficulty focusing during the mini-lesson. The management of the pacing line needs to be clear for all students, i.e. students cannot freely choose to use the pacing line during a lesson.
  • Beanbags, bumpy seats and cushion supports have often been helpful for some students who need assistance focusing during a lesson and independent work time.
  • As much as possible, the environmental arrangement of the classroom should stay as consistent as possible. Students with disabilities benefit from a structured environment that stays the same all year. While minimal changes, such as a rotation of student work on bulletin boards is helpful, rearranging desks, tables and the location of the classroom library can bring unnecessary anxiety and frustration for some students.
  • The classroom library should stay consistent for the entire year. Often, we reveal one aspect of the library at a time, relishing in the element of “surprise.” Students with disabilities often appreciate when everything is laid out to them at once. If you have extra levels of books that cannot be stored in your library, try to store them in a closet that is clearly labeled.
  • It is beneficial if students do not have anything on top of their desks or tables, or even in their desks if at all possible to minimize distraction, and create a clutter free environment. The writing center should store all necessary supplies in clearly labeled bins.
  • For primary teachers who use centers, it is beneficial if every center is color-coded. When called from the meeting area, students can line up on the appropriate line of colored tape on the floor next to the center, and then sit down at the center when directed by the teacher. Then students move from center to center transitioning using the colored taped lines.
  • Cardboard from furniture stores can be cut and placed in between desks. For example, a piece of large piece of cardboard can go between six desks (three on each side), and students can use that to place post-its on, so they have more space for their ideas. It can also serve as a divider to help students focus, and is an alternative to separate dividers around each student, which can be cumbersome.

3.     Instructional Supports During Workshop

  • Students with disabilities benefit from small group instruction during writing and reading workshop. Small group instruction can take place during independent work time, where the teacher can provide additional modeling of the skill or strategy to help students with disabilities. This can be an effective alternative to partnership discussions, because a teacher can facilitate discussion among group members.
  • Graphic organizers are extremely beneficial during the writing process, and can also aid students in recording their thoughts about their reading.
  • Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), pioneered by Karen Harris and Steve Graham (Arizona State University) contains several graphic organizers that will aid students in the writing process. See –
  • Students with disabilities benefit from multi-media during the mini-lesson, especially with difficult concepts such as theme. For example, showing students a video on Michael Jordan’s career in basketball can be helpful in explaining determination and perseverance to a student.
  • Whenever possible, it is helpful to embed pictures within the sentence starters and graphic organizers. Boardmaker has excellent pictures that can be used for this purpose.
  • Sentence starters that are individualized can be particularly helpful, and also be a part of the graphic organizers. Below is an example of sentence starters used for the conclusion of a literary essay:

               I wish that ___________________.

              This book proves that ______________ and I know that people can learn from this because ___________________.

              My thinking changed because _____________________________.

  • When teaching spelling concepts, utilize student writing to make it as authentic as possible. It is helpful to score students spelling ability in terms of application. Below, I had a student “hunt” for her correct application of several spelling concepts within her writing.

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For additional resources see: I Hate to Write: Tips for Helping Students with Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders Increase Achievement, Meet Academic Standards, and Become Happy, Successful Writers by Cheryl Boucher and Kathy Oehler

Written by Kate Riedell, Growing Educators Staff Developer

Cultivating Independence During Workshop

Notebooks, journals, and book baggies counted and distributed. Check.

Writing pens (a variety of colors, of course) and stacks of post-its, ready for use. Check.

Meeting area and classroom library arranged just so. Check.

As many of us return to our classrooms fresh off a long and adventurous summer, our minds turn to planning and preparation.  Piles of post-its with long ‘To Do’ lists line our teacher’s desk, bags brimming with supplies litter our classroom floors, and books, books, and more books piled high on our student desks, ready to be leveled, ‘stickered’, and placed in our classroom libraries.  As you begin your journey of preparing for the new school year, how are you planning for your launch of an independent workshop?

We recently had an amazing opportunity to spend a day with educators from the Tustin Unified School District doing just that–preparing and planning for their strategic workshop launch.


GE Staff Developer Angela Bae working with Tustin teachers: Thinking about the Grammar Share during an independent writing workshop

Here are our top five tips for building independence with readers and writers during a strategic workshop launch:

  1. Routines and Habits: Consider building in routines, habits, and expectations for how workshop flows in your classroom early on.  As your readers and writers learn what’s expected of them, you will be able to maximize your workshop time.

    How Writer’s Can Prepare for Writing Workshop

    Woodcrest 3

    Woodcrest Elementary School: Routines for Set Up during Writing Workshop in Primary Classrooms

  2. Anchor Charts: Charts build independence for your students.  Your readers and writers will learn to refer to them for strategies and reminders.  Consider a spot in your room where you can hang these charts so readers and writers can easily access them.
    Andrews Chart

    Andrews Elementary teachers, in Whittier City School District, created a chart reflecting upon why they love charts!

    Carlos WWS Collecting Carthay

    3rd Grade Carthay Center Elementary Teacher Carlos Alvarez’s Chart for Building Independence in his Writers during the Collecting Stage of the Writing Process

    Ms. Moore's Process Board

    Woodcrest Elementary’s 2nd Grade Teacher Ms. Moore’s Writing Process Board for Building Independence during Writing Workshop

  3. Partnerships: Consider how you want your partnerships to function in workshop.  Preparing for the purpose and expectations for workshop partnerships and making those explicit to your readers and writers will help build independence.  You might choose to have partners assign themselves A and B (or yellow and orange) status as an efficient way to organize their turn and talk time.


    Building Independent Partnerships: Establish Seating Spaces and Yellow/Orange Status for Partnerships

  4. Mentor Texts and Materials.  Consider how your workshop texts and materials will be organized for independence.  Your readers and writers will learn where to access books and materials, including: post-its, pens, draft paper, publishing paper, and markers.

    TK Library 95th St School

    Lise Traphagen’s TK Classroom Library at 95th Street School in LAUSD

  5. Meeting Areas. Think about how your meeting area will flow and make sense for all your learners.  Consider accommodations you can make to meet the needs for all learning types in your room during workshop.

    Kate's Meeting Area Ideas

    GE Staff Developer Kate Riedell’s Recommendations for Sensory Supports in our Meeting Area to Meet the Needs of ALL Our Learners

Now, with just right books, journals and notebooks, writing pens, mentor texts, and meeting areas prepared and ready for building independence, enjoy your workshop launch this Fall!

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney