The Importance of Doing the Laundry: Maintenance Matters

by Kate Roberts, 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

A little while ago, I attended a keynote on the importance of innovation in our schools, classrooms, and nation. It was a rousing speech, and I agreed with all of it. Of course, we need fresh, inspiring ideas to help solve some of our most pernicious problems in education. Of course, we want educators who are able to think in new and creative ways about how to best reach and raise our children. I left energized and rearing to go.

Kate RobertsAs I began to implement these innovative ideas, I hit wall after wall of reality. I didn’t have the resources I needed. I didn’t have the experience to truly teach or guide the new ideas I had, so that when my students had trouble, I was not sure where to go. I still had my old, “un-innovative” curriculum to contend with, plus the assessments that seem unmovable, plus the grading system of my school. My foray into innovation gave me a few days of shiny new practices, but they soon gave way to the gravitational pull of normal.

I was tempted to say, “This just doesn’t work.” (Ok, I did say it.)

I was wrong and, at the same time, right. Many innovative ideas can work – as long as we are able and supported in devoting great amounts of labor to them for the long haul.

Innovation needs maintenance. So does normalcy. In fact, without maintenance, the whole thing (our classrooms, our homes, our world) just falls apart. But there are few keynotes given or books written in praise of the need to carry on and keep things going. There are few PD sessions on the power of grinding away at the same old stuff making sure things are working well enough.

But there should be.

In their Aeon article “Hail the Maintainers,” Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel make a case for the importance of supporting the maintainers in any profession. From the fall of the Iron Curtain to the inequity arising out of Silicon Valley, they point out that while novel ideas are integral to our evolution, these ideas wind up really taking on a very small percentage of the actual work.

Russell and Vinsel argue that the hard (and mundane) work of maintenance opens up the space for innovation to exist:

“…focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation.”

I would argue we do not spend enough time talking about and celebrating the labor of teachers – all the maintenance it takes to get great and innovative ideas up off of the ground and into the world. And we do not spend enough time helping each other to find sustainable ways to practice that maintenance and keep it going.

If innovation requires the essential and mundane work of maintenance, we must carve out ways to support and nurture this unglamorous work. Here are a few ways that we can support the maintenance that takes innovation going:

  1. Consider the systems and structures first.

When an innovative idea comes along, create systems in your classroom to maintain and support that idea, keeping it accountable for you and your students. For example, you go to a workshop on student blogging and expanding their intellectual social network. Great idea. Now, how much class time per week will you devote to this practice and when will that happen? Wednesdays for 20 minutes? Every Friday? Without repetition, innovative ideas will stay flashes in the pan.

Next, ask yourself, where will they do this work? What platform will they use and how will you make sure your kids know how to use it.

Finally, what is the expectation for the outcome? How will you hold them accountable?

When creating a system to maintain innovation, lean on the building blocks of reality:

TIME: When will students practice this innovation and how will they be         reminded?

SPACE: Where will students practice this innovation and how will you know?

MATTER:  (Ok, this is a stretch in the science metaphor) How will the work    take shape, as in, what is the accountable expectation in your classroom.

Without these systems in place, any new idea will be a flash of something promising, yet struggle to take root.

  1. Listen when it feels like too much work.

If you are listening to a speaker or reading a book and begin to feel overwhelmed (like, what is being presented is way too much work for you to actually get up and going), then, honestly, it probably is, at least completely. The answer to innovation cannot be that teachers just take on more and more work into infinity. And yet that is often the implied suggestion behind every professional development session, every new idea, every exhortation to “lift the level of …”

I am not suggesting that you shut down when things feel like too much work. But when you feel like you cannot do it, I am suggesting that you pause, step back, and realize that you will not be able to get everything in place – at least not right now. Ask yourself, “which part of this do I feel like I can tackle right now? Which part feels like it will take some work, but not so much work that my sliver of work/life balance won’t be obliterated?”

This way, you can begin.

  1. Focus on what matters and be willing to let go of the rest.

Innovative ideas can often come packaged in ideals. And yet, as often quoted, perfect is very much the enemy of the good. We can strive to always ask ourselves, “what is truly important about this work? What is the heart of it? Often, when we name what the most important work is, it helps us to set priorities or to simplify the work ahead of us. We can always work on perfecting things, but let’s get the good stuff going first.

When I was in my 20’s, it felt like I was innovating my life. New relationships, new jobs, new cities and friends. But with each new huge life changing experience, I noticed things were falling apart around me. Heaps of dirty clothes piled on the floor. Stacks of bills to be paid. Unreturned phone calls. Before long, the new things  – relationships, jobs and experiences – paled in comparison to the need to maintain. I realized then that the only way I could create this new life for myself was to keep up the day-to-day stuff; this behind-the-scenes maintenance helped me create the headlines in the newspaper of my life.

We can be innovative. But in order to do so we must also maintain.

References

Russell, Andrew and Vinsel, Lee. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon.com. https://aeon.co/essays/innovation-is-overvalued-maintenance-often-matters-more. (Accessed August 6th, 2017).

Navigating The Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching

by Helen Sisk, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative Faculty

 

helen-siskTeaching in a responsive manner requires us to think reflectively about literacy growth by noticing and analyzing student talk and written work. We reflect on why students respond in certain ways and know how to help them take on next steps in building a complex and flexible literacy processing system. It takes a skillful teacher to do this effectively.

One tool that can guide our decision-making is The Literacy Continuum: A Tool for Assessment, Planning, and Teaching (Fountas and Pinnell, 2017) It is a valuable resource to support us in observing what students know and understand as readers and writers and it informs our teaching. It is organized around eight literacy learning continua that span grades PreK-8. Not only is it aligned with literacy standards, it includes detailed descriptions of student progress over time.

The Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University is excited to offer an introduction to this continuum during our summer institute for teachers of grades K-6: “Navigating the Literacy Continuum to Guide Responsive Teaching,” This institute is an opportunity to delve into the new, expanded edition of the Literacy Continuum, and learn how to use it as a guide to observe, plan, teach, and reflect on literacy teaching.

The reading focus in this institute includes extending teacher and student talk for effective processing during interactive read aloud and shared reading. Two other components that further address comprehension include guided reading and writing about reading.  All of these literacy elements will be explored.

The writing focus begins by understanding the continuum of word study and how it progresses over the school year and across grade levels. We will study student writing to develop purposeful mini-lessons and the talk surrounding teacher-student conferences to identify strengths and next steps to address in teaching.

Come hear Irene Fountas discuss the Literacy Continuum and its impact on teaching and learning. Work in small groups with literacy trainers and other teachers to refine your practice and expand your knowledge about the teaching of reading and writing.

We hope to see you here at Lesley University for our Summer Literacy Institute, July 10-13, 2017. Register now!

Making the Invisible, Visible: 5 Ways to Illuminate Learning in Our Classrooms

By Paula Bourque, Literacy Coach/Author and Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Paula Bourque

  • A student returns to class after pull-out support, looks around, and asks, “What are we doing?”
  • I’ve finished my mini-lesson and call on a student with a raised hand. “I don’t get it.” he says.
  • I conference with a student who holds out her paper and asks, “Is this good?”

These interactions remind me there is often a mismatch between teaching and learning.  Learning is that “in the head” process only perceptible through the work, behavior, or conversations of our students. So I need to keenly observe their words and actions to get inside their heads, see my teaching through their eyes, and better align pedagogy to student need. I need to find ways to make my intentions and expectations more visible and accessible to them. If I have any hope of cultivating self-directed learners they truly need to see the direction we are headed! Here are a few approaches I have found to be helpful.

Give them the box to the puzzle! For some of our students, school is a big puzzle. Routines and structure can be like the box to that puzzle for students; the big picture for how all the pieces fit together. Frameworks that use a workshop model, mentor texts, exemplars, anchor charts, and posted learning targets give a visible structure to the expectations. This predictability can free up working memory from what are we doing to focus more on how are we doing it.

For students who are pulled from our classroom for supports, it is critical that consistent structures are in place as they come and go. They should see assignments, anchor charts, exemplars, and/or learning targets posted so they can join in with minimal difficulty. They should have an idea of what the class was doing while they were away so they can continue to make connections to their learning. If students seem disoriented, confused, or disconnected, we need to find ways to take the mystery out of how school (or at least our classroom) works for them.

You can’t hit a target you can’t see. Unless students clearly understand the intended learning, it is difficult to meet the expectations. Students are shooting blind when the teacher is the only one who knows the exact location of the bulls eye. They may be aiming in the right direction, but their accuracy is severely compromised.  When we create ‘kid-friendly’ learning targets that address ‘bite-sized’ amounts of learning, it removes the blinders and allows for greater self-direction from students.  It makes the intention of the lesson visible and accessible to everyone, not just the teacher.

Try to see our expectations through our students’ eyes.  What would “right” look like? What would comprehension/understanding sound like? How will I know when I’ve “hit” the target? Many teachers use a framework for targets using this stem to increase visibility:  Today I will____, So I can____. I’ll know I have it when____. Students need to see how the activity they are engaged in moves their learning and skills forward. Time is too precious of a commodity in schools for students to engage in activities that do not explicitly advance their learning or understanding.  Making our expectations clear and visible can eliminate wasted time and energy for students trying to figure out what we want from them.

Learning Target                  LT w SC

Post Look-Fors. Anytime we hang student work in the hallways or publish it to an audience, we can’t be sure what others will notice. I encourage teachers to post Look-Fors that direct attention to the learning that happened while completing a piece of work.  If word choice was a focus for a writing project, a Look-For that illuminates this for the audience will give equal time to process as well as product. Ex: “We’d like you to notice our 4th graders worked hard on using more precise and descriptive words in this writing.”  Look-Fors invite others to appreciate the learning and encourages other students to try out those skills and ideas as well.

Student Look Fors          Look Fors

Good demonstration is good communication. Think alouds and demonstrations are nothing new, but I think they are often underutilized in classrooms that feel time-compelled to fit more and more into a busy day, but they are one of the best ways to make the invisible (thinking) more visible (words and actions).  They require us to slow down and accurately recreate the thinking and behaviors that go into successfully completing a task or understanding a concept.

However, I would encourage us to reflect on our demonstrations and consider how closely they mirror the thoughts and behaviors of all the students in our classrooms. Frequently we model or think aloud the right way to do something, yet we have students who don’t grasp what we are doing. Our modeling is outside their zone of proximal development. If we asked ourselves, “How might a struggling student approach this task?” and offer a demonstration with this in mind, we may provide a more accessible model. What are some typical misconceptions we are seeing with students? How can we offer demonstrations to address and support them? What if our think alouds walked students through common confusions?

The best demonstrations offer our students a visible path from where they are to where we want them to be. Modeling expectations without contemplating the starting point of our learners may end up leaving many behind.

Create/document a learning history.  Sometimes it takes visible proof to help students see their learning and foster a growth mindset. Because it happens so incrementally, students often don’t believe they are growing. Keeping samples of student work in portfolios (either digitally or on paper) can be a powerful visual documentation of their learning history.

Students who keep writer’s notebooks are often amazed near the end of the year when they look back at their early work. (“I never even used to paragraph!”) Students who keep reading logs/lists are frequently stunned at how much they read. (“Oh wow, I forgot I read all those Flat Stanleys!”) Keeping samples of math work can demonstrate the increasing complexity and variety of math work students worked on during the year. (“That’s so easy now.”)

Opportunities to reflect on learning over time is a powerful way to develop a growth mindset that can sustain students when they encounter new challenges. Invite them to reflect with stems like: I used to ________ but now I ______.   Some things that used to be hard for me were: _____.  Then encourage students to lean on those revelations to buoy them in the future: “When I have assignments that are hard next year, I’m going to remember_____.”

In the same way, we make physical growth visible with lines drawn on door frames, and we can make their cognitive growth more visible as well. For many of our students, seeing is believing. We need to make the invisible, more visible.

Diving in with Ownership

by Guest Blogger Dr. Gravity Goldberg, Author/Educational Consultant and 2017 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker. You can reach her on Twitter @drgravityg.

We all know what it is like to be put in situations where we are going to “sink or swim” by being pushed into the deep end of the pool. It can be a terrifying and even traumatic experience. We know that most students do not learn by being thrown into the deep end without having had enough scaffolding and teaching first, and that maybe throwing them in is not so kind.

Gravity GoldbergThe Gradual Release of Responsibility model (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983) helps teachers consider an alternative to “sink or swim” by offering a clear framework for helping students take on more and more responsibility over time. You could picture it as students walking down the steps of a ladder into the deep end of the pool. Rather than offer direct instruction and then “assign and hope” for learning, the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model moves from teacher modeling (I Go), to shared experiences (We Go), to independent practice (You Go). In this model, teachers move along this gradient of doing less over time, based on the pace that their particular students need. When we add student choice to our instructional model our end goal is not simply independent practice that is directed by the teacher, but independent application that is directed and chosen by the student because it is relevant (You Choose To Go).

What if rather than pushing our students into the deep end (sink or swim model), or telling students to walk down the ladder into the deep end one rung at a time (gradual release model), we gave students a choice about whether or not and when they wanted to go swimming (ownership model)? This helps student readers develop excitement about feeling ready to take the leap themselves into the water. Once in the pool they choose if they want to tread, do laps, or float.

Picture1

Figure 1: The Gradual Release of Responsibility Instructional Model Re-imagined with student ownership as the goal

In order for students to make choices about their own reading lives teachers must view student ownership as a realistic and valuable goal, and open up spaces in their classrooms for more student-direction.

Believe in Student’s Ability to Make Choices

The psychology research is clear that whatever we expect from students is what they will demonstrate (Achor, 2010). Positive psychologist , Shawn Achor explains, “the expectations we have about our children-whether or not they are even voiced—can make that expectation a reality.” This is called the Pygmalion Effect and means that if we believe student readers can make wise choices about their own reading lives or that they can’t, we will be proven correct.

I know not every student enters our classrooms knowing how to make choices or being confident in their ability to make choices and this gives teachers the opportunity to teach them how to make a choice. If and when students struggle with making choices about which book to read, which strategy to use, what to talk about with their book buddy, then we can take note and be grateful we now know what to teach them. We can view students’ struggle with choice-making as a necessary part of the learning process.

When we look at the steps of the typical Gradual Release of Responsibility Model we see that student’s independent practice is the last phase. But, what about all of our students who only use strategies when they are told to use them? What about all of our students who are afraid to make a wrong choice so they wait for us to make choices for them? If we believe students can learn to make wise choices about their reading then our classrooms will make space for students to be self-directed.

In my book Mindsets and Moves: Strategies That Help Readers Take Charge (2016) I included several lessons that help students learn to make choices for themselves. The lessons fall into three main categories: how to set goals for yourself as a reader, how to make choices based on your goals, and how to reflect on your learning towards that goal. Just because we believe students can make choices does not mean we don’t also spend time mentoring them in the process.

Open Up Spaces for Students to Make Choices

It is not enough to say we believe student readers can make wise choices, we actually have to create space for them to be able to make them. Let’s consider a typical reading lesson. At the beginning of the lesson are you assigning students a strategy to use that day or reminding them of their strategy choices? We often think we are offering students opportunities to make choices, but in reality all of the reading time is directed by the teachers. I suggest we all study our own classrooms and notice just how much space and time there is for students to actually take charge.

The following chart shows a few examples of what our teacher language might sound like when we are assigning and directing and when we are creating space for students to be self-directed.

Screen Shot 2017-05-09 at 5.00.40 PM

The Benefits of Ownership

There are so many benefits of teaching students to make choices and one major one is the level of engagement and ownership students experience. Rather than having to cajole a student into using a strategy or forcing them to read, they begin to self-initiate and truly transfer learning. Students begin to view instruction as adding to their toolbox and they decide which tool to use when. We can help every student shift from reading on their own to owning their reading. I have seen so many students choose to “jump from the high dive” and find joy in their decision and ultimately find joy in reading.

 

References

Achor, S. (2010) The Happiness Advantage. New York, NY: Random House.

Goldberg, G. (2015). Mindsets and moves: Strategies that help readers take charge. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Pearson, P. D. and M. C. Gallagher, “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension,” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 1983, pp. 317-344.

A First Timer’s Guide to Registering for the Literacy for All Conference

We’re excited to announce we’ve opened registration for the 28th Annual Literacy for All Conference, co-hosted with The University of Maine, and the University of Connecticut. This year the conference will be held October 22–24, 2017 in Providence, Rhode Island. While we know many of you are veteran LFA attendees, each year we have more and more new faces joining us in Providence. Welcome to all first timers!

We have made it even easier to register for the Literacy for All Conference! Simply visit www.regonline.com/lfa2017 and enter your email address to begin your registration process. We’ve put together a little guide to our online registration system to help make the process as quick and painless as possible.

An Important Note

We have created an online registration process that seamlessly guides you through the steps of registration. Please do not use your Internet browser’s “back” button if you want to go back and make a change, as it will cause errors and you will not be able to complete your registration. Instead, if you need to change something, complete your registration and then email us at literacy@lesley.edu, and we will make the changes for you.

Before You Register

First, you should make a list of all the sessions you want to attend. You can find the full list on our website. Each time block is listed with a letter, ie: LCA, LCB, etc. Then, each session within that time block is numbered. So, the full session code will read something like LCA-1 or LCC-4. You can only choose one session per time block, so you should have one LCA, one LCB, and so on.  Please note, that on our online registration system, RegOnline, the sessions are listed with only the code and the presenter name, not the session title, as shown below.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.51.23 PM

The only variation is in the In-Depth sessions, which occur either in the C or F blocks. In-Depth sessions are three hours long, not the normal 90 minutes, so if you choose an In-Depth session for your C or F, you will not be able to choose a D or G, respectively, as the In-Depth session will run through that time.

If a session doesn’t appear on the drop-down menu that means it is sold out and you will have to choose another session. Sessions do sell out, so we recommend registering as early as possible to ensure you get all your first choices.

Second, know your method of payment. If your district will be paying for you with a purchase order, you don’t need to know the purchase order number to register. If your district will be paying for you with a credit card, you can still register yourself. When you get to the checkout screen, simply choose “Pay with Purchase Order” and then have your district call us with the credit card number, or fax or email us the PO within ten business days of registering.  Please note, if you are paying with a purchase order (PO), we require that you submit a copy of your PO to secure your registration.  If your PO has not been received by the opening of the institute, you will be required to provide a credit card in order to attend the institute.

We recommend that all attendees register themselves. The process begins with an email validation– you’ll receive an email with a secure link, which you’ll need to click on in order to continue your registration. Forwarding these emails can sometimes be tricky, so we recommend you register yourself to avoid confusion.

If someone else has to register for you, we recommend that you choose your sessions ahead of time and give the list of sessions, including session code and presenter name to the person registering you.

When entering in your personal information, please note that there are separate spaces to enter your school district and your school name, as shown below. When entering your district, please don’t use abbreviations like RSD or UFSD– if the district has a separate name (ie: Oxford Hills School District) please use that; alternately, please spell out the words Regional School District. This will help us keep uniformity in printing name badges, and help match up registrants to purchase orders when we receive them.

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Confirmation

When you’re done registering, you will see a screen confirming that your registration is complete. If you don’t see that screen, you haven’t finished registering yet! Once you get to that screen, be sure to read it thoroughly, as it contains details about which sessions have required readings and materials, a list of conference policies, your own detailed agenda based on the sessions you selected, and other helpful links.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 12.27.20 PM

In addition to the confirmation page, a confirmation email will be automatically sent to the email address you provided. If it doesn’t appear within an hour of you registering, check your spam and junk folders, as some email providers mark emails from RegOnline as spam by mistake. In the past, many were not able to receive RegOnline emails, because many schools block emails from RegOnline, so if you have a personal email address, we encourage you to use it, instead of your school email, when registering.  If you don’t receive your confirmation email at all, please email literacy@lesley.edu and we will re-send it to you.

Please help us be environmentally conscious! Do not print out your confirmation message to mail in with your check or PO. Instead, just make sure your full name and district are written on the PO or in the item line of the check. That’s all we need to match up your payment with your record in the system.

Conference Events, Exhibit Fair, and Other Information

The conference registration desk hours are as follows:

  • Sunday, October 22, 2017: 10:00 am–6:00 pm
  • Monday, October 23, 2017: 7:00 am–5:00 pm
  • Tuesday, October 24, 2017: 7:30 am–9:00 am

The conference help desk will be open 7:00 am – 6:00 pm each day.

Literacy for All also includes an exhibit fair with booths showcasing classroom services and products for all grade levels and subjects. Exhibit hours are 4:00-6:00 on Sunday, 10:00–6:00 on Monday, with the Exhibit Fair from 5:00–6:00; and 7:30–3:30 on Tuesday. During the Exhibit Fair on Monday, you can enter to win something from our prize raffle, and get books signed by some of our featured and keynote speakers.

Please visit the conference website, www.lesley.edu/literacyforall, for information on hotels, parking, attendance policy and certificates of attendance, and sessions with required readings/handouts/materials.

Have questions? You can contact us anytime at literacy@lesley.edu or by phone at 617.349.8402.

Looking forward to seeing you all in October!

Setting the Stage for ­­­­Joy and Independence in Reading

by Irene Fountas, Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Author, and Featured Speaker at the 2016 Literacy for All Conference

A classroom is a place where children can thrive in a language-rich, print-rich, social environment every day of the school year. When you support continuous inquiry, children’s fascination with people and the world, and multi-text based learning, you engage the hearts and minds of your students. They learn how to learn and develop a sense of agency that will propel their literacy learning across the year.

2-kids-choosing-books

 

The foundation of growing up literate in our schools lies in authentic literacy learning that brings together children’s language and background experiences with the world of print and media. It begins with getting wonderful books in every child’s hands and selecting high quality complex texts that capture children’s attention with the language, craft and ideas of fiction and nonfiction texts. And it continues when the fabric of the classroom is reading, thinking, talking and writing about books.

The early milestones for developing students’ views of themselves as readers and writers include setting up an organized classroom library in a range of relevant and appealing categories, providing a variety of enticing book talks and teaching your students to do the same, teaching students how to select books that interest them and they can enjoy, teaching students how to talk to each other about books, and introducing the reader’s notebook as a place to reflect on reading through writing.

When students spend their time reading books, thinking about books, talking about books, and writing about them, they build the stamina and independence that places books at the center and promotes a lifetime of joy in reading.


Irene Fountas will be speaking at the upcoming Literacy for All conference, October 23-25, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island. Her sessions include:

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Celebrating the Twentieth Anniversary of Guided Reading: Elevating Teacher Expertise in Differentiated Instruction (Grades K-5) 

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH

 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Digging Deep: Teaching for Reading Power in Guided Reading Lessons (Grades K-5)

Irene Fountas, Author/Director, Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative, Lesley University, MA
Gay Su Pinnell, Author/Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, OH

Young Writers and Sensory Detail

by Guest Blogger Brian Heinz, Author and 2016 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

Brian Heinz

Remember that February trip to Puerto Rico? You stepped from the airport into warm tradewinds carrying the scent of the sea and hibiscus blooms. The chatter of fluttering bananaquits filled the treetops, and the cricket-like croak of the the tiny, elusive coqui punctuated the Spanish dialog and tropical music. Never been to Puerto Rico? It doesn’t matter. When you experience any place fully, it is internalized through your senses.

In my years of teaching Language Arts to elementary and middle school students, one of the shortcomings common to weak writing was the absence of sensory detail. Our young writers tend to be ‘visual’ writers, naming things that the reader can visualize, but forgetting that we experience places and events through all five senses. Many of my books for young readers are researched on location – riding a dog sled at -20 degrees in Canada, ten days in the Cheyenne River Canyon with wild mustangs, rafting swift rivers, or camping in wolf country. I amass sensory details that allow my readers to vicariously experience the environments and the events portrayed in my narrative fiction and nonfiction books.

With my young writers, I’ll often employ a “sensory template” to create a pool of words from which they can draw to enhance their writing. This list includes the five basic physical senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. (But remember, not only do your fingers ‘feel’ things. Our hair lifts with the breeze, our skin feels the dampness of a fog, your feet sink into mud or moss.)

We start with a statement that incorporates three critical elements of ‘story,’ the character’s name, a principal verb to create an action, and the setting (time and place.) This opening image launches our word bank. For example, if we decide to create a piece about a boy boating on a pond, the statement and choices may look much like this collection from a fourth grade class:

Michael is rowing his boat on a pond at sunrise.

See? : water, waves, ripples, flowers, grass, lily pads, fish (eel?), frogs, dragonflies, ducks, swan, trees (pines, oaks, or maples?), other boats, house, log, dock, people, clouds, bubbles, rocks, sand, reflections, alligator, turtle

Hear: croak, pop, buzz, splash, whoosh (wind), quack, crunch, plop, rustle (leaves), voices, laughing, chirp, thunder (rumble), snap, hiss, squeak (the rusty oarlocks, or a mouse)

Feel: wind, wet, rocking of the boat, sweat, raindrops, wooden oars (in his hands), tired, sleepy, warm sun on his face

Smell: roses (garden), smoke (fireplace), barbecue, dead fish

Taste: candy, chocolate, gum, sweat, peanut butter sandwich

I reminded this class that they need not include all five senses on their opening page. If Michael is rowing a boat, he may not be eating at the moment. This is the writer’s choice. The parentheses above are my doing, as I push my writers to be specific, to use precise language. Readers cannot visualize a ‘fish,’ but a mind readily captures the image of an eel. Keep a wary eye for students who generalize. Have them name flowers, or trees, or fish, or birds.

At this point, I create an opening paragraph using some of their words, which I underlined:

Michael pulled on the wooden oars. The boat rocked forward on a row of ripples. Frogs croaked from the lily pads and the sweet smell of roses drifted across the water.”

This paragraph pulls the reader immediately into the story. Now I can add another critical element: The Problem. Imagine this as the next paragraph: “At the center of the pond, Michael rested a moment. Suddenly, something large and dark raced upward and slammed into the floor of the boat, almost tossing Michael into the water.” Perhaps it’s the alligator from our word list? I haven’t said so yet. This creates suspense. Every student would want to turn the page. I could continue: “The water settled down. All was peaceful. A second time the boat was struck, splitting the floorboards, and water rushed in.” Now, I can mention that Michael can’t swim. The class is riveted. I’ve compounded the problem, still employing sensory detail.

In choosing mentor books, examine where, and how often, the authors employ sensory detail. Many of my books are used as mentor texts by teachers around the country. These include The Wolves, Cheyenne Medicine Hat, and NANUK: Lord of the Ice.

When a student, writing about being on the beach last summer, writes this – “While I was walking along the beach, I could smell food cooking on the barbecue.” – I don’t share in the experience. The sentence is permeated with passive verbs, general terms, and lack of sensory detail. But rewrite the idea this way – “My feet sank into warm beach sand as hot dogs sizzled on the grill.” We feel the sand, see the beach, hear the food cook, and smell a specific meat!

In a shorter sentence, the scene has become vivid. We have pulled the reader into the scene and allowed them to re-live the experience by using specific language and sensory details.

A word of caution as your students begin to employ their sensory details. There is often a transitional stage where students tell their readers what to experience by using preparatory terms like I felt… I saw… I heard… I smelled…  and I tasted.

Examine these two paragraphs, the first with the telling tags, the second without such tags.

“When I was at the beach I heard sea gulls screaming. I saw them diving into the water. I felt the sun on my face and I felt the wind blowing my hair. I saw a wave coming and I heard it crash on the shore. I could smell cotton candy from the refreshment stand.”

“At the beach, screaming sea gulls dove into the water. The sun beat down on my face and waves crashed onto the shore. Wind blew through my hair and carried the scent of cotton candy from the refreshment stand.”

 

Brian Heinz is the award-winning author of 18 books for young readers. His picture books include fiction and nonfiction, in prose and in verse, and in multiple genres including historical, fantasy, nature, adventure, and coming-of-age tales. His teachers’ text, Construction & Revision: A Writer’s Handbook for the Language Arts Classroom, will be released this September. A native of Long Island, he taught Language Arts and Science for 28 years. He now presents at more than ninety schools and conferences a year, and teaches “Writing for Children” at the prestigious Hofstra University Summer Writers Program. Visit him on the web at www.brianheinz.com to peruse his works, awards, and program offerings.

Brian Heinz is speaking at the Literacy for All Conference on:

Monday (10/24):

1:30pm – 3:00pm: Story: How Do I Tell Thee? Let Me Count the Ways (Grades 5-8).

3:30pm – 5:00pm: Revision & Editing: The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Grades 3-8)

Tuesday (10/25):

10:15a – 11:45am: Revision & Editing: The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Grades 3-8) *repeat session