Are you looking for new ways to give your students the confidence they need to be the writers you know they are?
Today we are joined by Matt Halpern, author of A Teacher’s Guide to Interactive Writing, the latest edition to Heinemann’s Classroom Essentials series. Joining him in conversation is series editor and author Katie Wood-Ray.
Matt and Katie talk about modeling learning through instruction, tips for integrating interactive writing strategies throughout the day, and honoring students’ processes.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Katie: So Matt, it is so nice to talk to you today and to just celebrate this book with you. It is beautiful, it is dynamic, it is fun, it's everything you are between two covers and super, super, super smart. And I have to tell you too, that six or seven years ago when we were conceptualizing the Classroom Essentials series and what our hopes and aspirations for it were, this book captures it about as well as anything I could imagine. The idea of taking a very foundational child-centered practice and just opening it up for teachers to really dig into and understand, you pulled that off nobody's business. I mean, it is amazing and I am so excited to see it out in the world. So congratulations first.
Matt: Thank you. Well, and I have to thank you because this book wouldn't exist without you. But also, I mean, I know we're not here to be thanking all the people, but I do have to say, I mean, when you left the project and I was devastated because you're the one who got me started with all of this. And I have to say Zoe Ryder White, who took over as the editor has just, I mean, we've become friends. She's just the most amazing, wonderful person. And what I have learned through this process, which is actually something that has to do with the process as well, is just to kind of go with the flow and when things happen that you don't expect, sometimes there are good things. Sometimes things happen that you don't expect, and it's not a bad thing. You leaving, in the moment, I was devastated. In hindsight, I got to work with you and I got to work with her.
The same thing happened with the design process of the book. I know you're not supposed to always talk about all the people, but my name is on the cover of the book. But I truly believe this book is a group effort. It wouldn't be the book that it is without all those people. So kudos to them and to you.
Katie: Well, thank you. But I agree with that. And having spent a fabulous morning in your classroom a few years ago and watching you do this work and watching you interact with children, I just feel like that the team who made this book did an amazing job of capturing your spirit and your energy for teaching. And I think it's a gift to the profession. And you know, you say, I think in the book, but definitely in one of the videos, which the videos are spectacular too, so helpful, that you feel so often in this work, like a cheerleader, and which as a former cheerleader, I would love to have you on my team cheering with me. Because you really do that for teachers, and I just feel like I've watched you do it with children and now you've achieved the same thing with teachers, you're going to cheer them along into what is fairly complex work.
And I guess maybe that's where I'd like to start our conversation about the actual content. You think about interactive writing as just this thing you do with the easel with kids. But what you really do in this book and in the video as well is you help teachers understand this is an incredibly complex teaching act. It is really the heart of responsive teaching. Because the main thing is, as you express so well, you never know what kids are going to do. And you have to always be ready in the moment to respond to that and turn their moves into teaching, turn their comments, turn their thinking, into teaching. Figure out how to take it from there. And it makes me think about the learning curve for teachers in doing this work. And that's something I wanted to ask you about is what do you know about the learning curve for getting better at really responsive teaching like you describe in this book?
Matt: I hate to say, I feel like what I'm going to say is going to sound very cliched, but sometimes cliches are accurate.
Katie: They're cliches for a reason.
Matt: Exactly. And so I think it's cliched to say this, but it's, the more you do something, the better you get at it. And what I have found, interactive writing is something that I have talked to teachers about for many, many years. I go to conferences and I present and I consult in schools, and I'm still doing that work now. And for the reasons that you just stated, people are hesitant to do it often, because it is unpredictable. And that is scary when you don't know what's going to happen and you feel like you don't have control. People don't like that. I mean, generally speaking, people don't like that. Right? So what I say is that's exactly the reason why you need to do it. And you need to do it often. The more you do it, the better you're going to get at it.
If you never get on a bicycle, you're never going to get good at riding a bike. And it's the same thing. And it's just like, the way that I try to explain it to teachers is it's the same message that we give to kids. If you want to be a better reader, you have to read. If you want to be a better writer, you have to write. Same for math and everything else that we do at school. Well, this is the same type of thing. If you want to use interactive writing and be able to utilize it for all the wonderful things that it can do, you have to do it. You have to just jump in. And so my hope is that when people see the book, it makes it a little bit more accessible and it gives folks an entry point. It's why I'm so happy that there are videos because I feel like, you know, can read about something for pages and pages and pages, but to actually see it, and I feel like for this, it's so important to be able to see it.
And like you said, the videos are just amazing the way that they've been edited. And they had me talk, not with the children, but just talk to the camera. I don't know what that's called. I'm sure there's some camera term for it. So I get to kind of explain what's happening and then you get to see the teaching. And then I really hope that it's going to help people use this more because I know how powerful it is for kids.
Katie: So even though it's unpredictable, you don't know what this kid in this moment is going to say, it seems to me that over time, because I know I saw this in conferring for years with writers too, over time you do start to see patterns. I've been in this situation before. This is not the first time this a child has said something. I didn't know he was going to say it, but I have heard this kind of thing before. And that's what you get better at. And I think one of the things that your book will do to give people a leg up is that you helped name some of that stuff, like what you've learned from experience. If this happens, then you can do this or this or this. You don't know which one of these things is going to happen, but here's some options. And I mean, would you say that that's true, that one of the things you learn from doing it over time is you begin to recognize situations and develop a repertoire of responses to that?
Matt: Exactly. And I feel like I tried to give a lot of those situations in the book.
Katie: Yes, you do.
Matt: So that it gives people, okay, maybe this will happen, here's something that I could do, but the reality is, and I'm pretty sure that I say it in some sort of this way in the book, I say something like, "Even though I'm giving you all these possible scenarios, something else could probably happen that is not in the book." Because that's just the nature of teaching, and that's the nature of working with children. You just never know what they're going to say or do.
Matt: It's what is fun about working with kids, but it also can be a little bit intimidating.
But yeah, I think that if you're a person who teaches, if you're a preschool teacher or you're a kindergarten teacher or a first grade teacher, you know developmentally how kids learn. And so you see... Just what you said, you start to see the patterns of, "Okay, well now we're kind of moving on to the next thing." Or, "Okay, well now we've got our letters, sounds. Now what comes next?" Okay, "Let's do some CVC words."
And it's not going to be linear for all kids.
Matt: Right? And I hope people will see that when they watch the videos. Some kids come up... And I was working with kids that were not my students, so I didn't know them so well. And even with kids that I don't know, pretty quickly you can ascertain what a kid needs. And when you're working with your own students, that you know really well, it's obviously going to be easier for you. So that's my hope.
Katie: Yeah, I mean, what you make me think about is that it's a combination of knowing the progression of things that kids need to learn, and internalizing next steps, and recognizing stages along the way that you see that kids' responses indicate, "Okay, they're ready for this, they're ready for that." So it's bringing the content and the assessment together, but in the moment: you got to do it right now. And I think that's the challenging part.
You talk the role of noticing and naming, in the work, where like with Naomi, where you named her move, that you weren't expecting to see the slide.
Katie: And just really paying close attention to what kids know and are figuring out, and honoring that by naming it, seems really critical to me too.
Matt: And I think this is kind of going back to what we were talking about before. The more that you do this, the more you begin to become comfortable with the unexpected. Sometimes the unexpected is, "Oh wow, I really thought this student was going to be able to do something, and they're not quite there yet."
Matt: But sometimes it's the opposite. Sometimes it's, "Oh, my goodness. I really thought... From what I've seen when I work with this child, in small groups or in conferences, she's not really leaving spaces between her words." And then she comes up, and she's got some new way to leave a space, that I didn't even realize that... I don't know where it came from.
Matt: And I don't care where it came from. I just want to go with it.
Katie: Right, right, right.
Matt: I love this work so much. Right now, I'm working with a school in New York City that is... They have classrooms that are dual-language classrooms. And so, I do some work with them virtually, but I also go to the school in person. And the last time I was there, it was their Spanish week, so there's no English in the classroom. Everyone has to speak Spanish the entire time, which is easy for the kids, because that's all their first language.
I don't speak Spanish, but I know a couple of words. But the teacher is completely bilingual. And we did interactive writing in Spanish, and it just was the most awesome, fun, beautiful thing to see. He did most of the heavy lifting, and I was just kind of coaching him through it, because I don't speak Spanish. But I learned some Spanish, and the principles are the same.
Katie: Right, right, right.
Matt: It doesn't matter the language. And it was just great to see how excited kids were, to see their thoughts come to life on the paper, and that they are a part of it.
Katie: It's great to get yourself in a situation where you're learning too, isn't it? Something that... yeah, yeah.
Matt: Totally, because I was feeling very unprepared. I don't speak Spanish.
Katie: Yeah, yeah, great.
Matt: And the teacher was like, "We can do it. Let's do it together." And I said, "Okay, you're right." And again, you're modeling for kids, being a learner and being uncomfortable.
Katie: Right, right.
Matt: And that's a lot... That's what writing is, especially when you're learning how to write. It's really hard.
Katie: I want to talk a little bit, too, about volume. Volume is a big theme across this work that you've done, and the sheer amount of what you're suggesting. That if you think of interactive writing instead of as something that you do in literacy block, versus thinking of it as a tool that you could use all day long to create content, to create community, to record things that are happening: the notion of volume seems really important to me, partly because you keep talking about it in there, but also when I think about all the benefits that could come from so much volume over time. And I just wondered if you wanted to say anything more about that.
Matt: Well, I think there are different reasons why I think it's important. One is I want kids to see that we have many purposes for writing. It's not just because my teacher says it's time to write, which is what it feels like, I think often, for kids. I want kids to see that people write... I mean, we write emails, we write texts, there's lots of reasons why adults write. We write for pleasure, we write for purpose.
And so I want kids to see that, as well. But I also want them to see that all the things that we talk about when we're doing those phonics lessons, that they are transferrable throughout the entire day. Because I think what happens, and this is something that I talk about with teachers a lot, is kids compartmentalize. It's phonics time, so for 20 minutes we're doing these phonics activities, and we're having this lesson, and then it's over.
Well, it's not over.
Matt: I want you to take that information, and take that learning, and use it all day, even when you're not at school.
Katie: Yeah, yeah.
Matt: And so, I think what interactive writing does, is it's a tool for that. It's a way to say, "Okay, we are..." I'm using some of the examples from the book. "We are learning about penguins, because for whatever reason... or frogs, or whatever it is that we're learning about..." Well, one thing that people do when they're learning about something, is they take notes, right? I mean, this is something that I do with kindergartners.
Matt: I was doing this.
Matt: I'm not expecting kindergartners to read and take notes on their own. That's not why I'm doing it. It's more about exposing them to the concept of, when people want to remember things, they write them down.
Matt: So let's do that.
Matt: Let's do that together as a class.
Katie: Right, and I love that about the work too: is that kids do, indeed, from the way you described this, they see so many different purposes for writing. And you do a really great job too, of helping kids think about purpose and audience. And audience is a big, huge factor. And they go together because your process changes based on purpose and audience. We don't do things the same way if someone outside the room is going to look at it versus it's just for us. And that is so true, even for very experienced writers, that you are always thinking about purpose and audience and those impact process in really important ways. And I love that the teaching captures that.
Matt: One of the things that is the biggest thing people always ask me about is spelling, which is I think what you're alluding to. And I will tell you, I go, sometimes I go to schools to work and they will tell me straight up before I walk in the door that they have a rule in their school that anything that goes up has to be spelled correctly. And it does break my heart a little bit. And I try to explain to them why I don't necessarily agree with that, but it's also not my school and I don't make the rules. But I think that as adults, like you said, sometimes when I'm making a list for the grocery store, I don't really care if I spell mayonnaise correctly. The purpose of that is for me to remember to buy mayonnaise. I really don't eat that much mayonnaise, but I was just using that as an example.
Katie: I do, it's okay, I eat tons of mayonnaise, but only Duke's mayonnaise.
Matt: And so same thing for kids. Not always are you publishing something for a greater audience. And what I want people to really think about, and this is the pushback that I try to give when people are really adamant about everything being spelled correctly, is when kids, when we look at kids who are learning to write so we're looking at our preschool kids, our kindergarten kids, first grade, even into second grade, they're still learning how to spell and write. The last thing I want to do is something that's going to make a child be afraid to write. That is the enemy to me. And for many children, if they think everything has to be spelled correctly, they're not going to write.
Katie: And since I'm retired and I don't care whether anybody hires me or not, I'll just go on record as saying that's so developmentally inappropriate. It would be like walking-
Matt: ... into a preschool classroom and saying, "You can't talk if you don't pronounce all your words correctly." Right. It is the same thing. And, yeah so and it's so sad to me too, because you know what, it belies the brilliance of children's approximations because you look at those spellings and they often make perfect sense. They make more sense than the actual conventional spelling because our language is so crazy. And it just overlooks, again, the brilliance that it took to figure that out, the figuring part of it, which is just to be celebrated and...
And I do, there's quite a bit in here about this topic. I made sure that there was, and there's that whole section that's based off of Matt Glover's amazing video. And I would encourage people to read that. And if you want to seek out Matt's video, it's on YouTube and you can easily find it because it really does make a difference when kids... I want kids... I remember this one time that this little girl was, she wanted to write the word hippopotamus. I don't think I know how to spell hippopotamus, but she wrote it. And if you looked at that word, she had every sound and if I told her that she had to spell it correctly or she couldn't write it, then she probably wouldn't have written the word.
Katie: No. No. Your repertoire is going to be pretty limited if you only can write with what you spell as is all of ours, but yeah. I also love, you talk a lot about the importance of rereading and I, especially as a writer and then working quite a few years as an editor, I wish every teacher understood the importance of emphasizing rereading. It is the crux of composition, both it's where drafting and revision come together. You draft a bit, you reread, you revise, you draft, you revise. I hardly ever write more than a sentence or two without rereading, and often several times. And I love that with even very young children who are having to focus so much on transcription in a way that adults don't have to, it becomes automatic for us over time, you're emphasizing rereading. And so much of the heady thinking happens in the rereading because you are never going to be a really accomplished writer if you don't learn the role of rereading your own work. So that's-
Matt: Well, and in addition to what you just said, which is obviously all true when kids are, when they're trying to put more words down on the paper, it's also just to help them to remember. What, wait, what did I want to say? Well, let's reread what we wrote and then it helps me remember. We can orally rehearse till the cows come home, but once I start actually putting my pencil on the paper, sometimes I forget. So if I go back and reread it.
Katie: Right and I remember I saw that you talk about that in one of your videos, and I was thinking about it when you said it. I actually wrote it down that I think that's true even for very experienced writers, that part of the reason you reread is to remember where you're going. You go back to go forward, you go back to go forward. And I've seen many drafts that are seven pages long, and I'm not sure the writer reread because the path from page one to page seven isn't clear and that really happens in the rereading and the looking at it as a whole. You can't just look at it sentence by sentence. You have to figure out how sentence one is working with sentence 41.
Matt: And not everyone is lucky enough to have a professional editor to catch all those things. And so it's beautiful when you do have that, but most people don't and certainly children don't. And so what you want them to do is get into the habit of reading the things that they write. And when we do it, and basically this goes for rereading, but really it goes for everything. What I'm doing is I'm showing kids what I want them to do on their own. If we do it enough together as a class, they start doing it on their own.
Katie: Right. And just the whole options part of that too. There's one part in there where you go, I love giving kids options. And it got me just thinking about the fact that choosing from options is the very heart of the writing process. Everything is an option. This word or that word.
Katie: This punctuation or that punctuation. Do I end here or do I do more? It is a constant process of decision making and I love that the interaction of interactive writing is filled with options for kids and it seems like you do a lot of thinking about that.
Matt: Well, this, it's going to sound like I'm not talking about writing because really I'm not, but it does pertain to writing. But one of the things that I talk about with teachers that is just an overarching teaching behavior, I don't like to use the phrase classroom management, but if you want to say classroom management is giving kids some voice and agency over their learning, and this is just one more way to do that. Instead of there only being one way to do something, if I can give kids choice. And sometimes when teachers hear that, they say, "Well, what are you talking about? I can't give kids all these choices." Limited choices, right?
For most kids, for the ages that we're talking about, little kids, pre-K, second grade kids, it's an A/B choice, you can do this or you can do that. Which one are you going to do? But what I'm not doing is saying, "You've got one choice," or, "You don't even have a choice. Here it is." And I think that it helps kids feel important and that's what we want. We want kids to feel important and we want kids to feel like they own their decisions and they own their learning. And the way that we give them ownership is to give them some agency. And the way that we give them agency is to give them some choices. So in writing, as you said, yes, but I'm thinking about how can I give kids choices all the time?
Katie: All day long. Yeah.
Matt: And it can be little things. So people will ask me, "Well, what do you mean?" So, for example, for writing, it could be a choice of paper, the number of lines on a paper, horizontal versus vertical paper. It could be on what are you going to write with, are you going to use a pen or a pencil? It seems like a silly little thing, but it gives them just a little bit of voice in their life.
I mean, what we know about kids, especially little children, is that they have very little agency over themselves. They're told when to get up, often they're told what to wear, what to eat. And so then they come to school and we tell them what to do and where to go and when to do it and how to do it. And so if we can find little ways to give them a little bit of ownership, some kids are looking for that, they're seeking it. And that's why they often will have some problems because they're pushing back. And so this, within the process, I'm thinking, how can I give students some choice? I'm always thinking about that.
Katie: Just because choice matters.
Katie: Just learning to decide. Making choices. Yeah.
Matt: I mean, this sounds like a really silly thing to say, but imagine you walked into the coffee shop and they said, "Hi, Katie, here's your medium black coffee."
Katie: Actually, that's what I would order, but that's okay. I'm pretty straight up on my coffee. But no, I know what you're saying.
Matt: But you know what? There's no choice. And that's often what we do at school is there is no choice. Everyone, you're told where to sit, you're told what to do, you're told what to write, how to write it, where to write it. So if we can find places in our day to give kids little pieces of choice that can hopefully add up, it makes them feel more empowered.
Katie: Right. Well, finally, the last thing I want to just ask you about and ask you to comment on a little bit is the idea of making sure that kids have time to write independently. The only way you're going to really see and know where this is taking hold is if there's a robust independent writing time. And it doesn't necessarily mean a writing workshop. It could just mean they're writing on their own to support their reading. They're writing their own science observations, but they're doing this... Really, you know it's coming to fruition when you see them do it on their own. Correct?
Matt: Exactly. The transfer is what you want to see. And a thing about interactive writing that blows my mind and what I hear from teachers when they start actually using it more and more and more is that kids want to write more. They look for their own opportunities. And there's some examples in the book where given free choice in preschool, kindergarten classrooms, where there are things that are quote, unquote, "way more fun" than writing, like blocks or Legos or puzzles or whatever, kids choose to write. Because what they start to see is they see the power of writing, and then in those moments, they can make whatever they want. And so that's just like the icing on the cake, right?
Matt: But yeah, we have to make sure that kids have lots and lots of opportunities where we're all kind of writing together, but then also that writing is one of many choices because kids will choose to write.
Katie: Right. Well, I, again, just want to say congratulations. I'm still so happy that I slowed down and looked very carefully at that proposal that was in my inbox all those years ago. I'll leave everyone with a little mystery and tell you, Matt, that you still had me at Lady Gaga, but only you and I know what that means. So thank you so much, and I just really enjoyed getting to talk to you about the book today. Congratulations.
Matt: Oh, thank you so much.
Matt Halpern has over 20 years of experience as a K-2 classroom teacher, literacy coach, and school-based professional development provider. He is a national presenter on the topic of interactive writing, as well as how to seamlessly embed social-emotional skills into literacy lessons. Matt is the author of Look at My Happy Rainbow: My Journey as a Male Kindergarten Teacher.
You can find more information about Matt at www.MattHalpernEducation.com.
For many years as the author of bestselling Heinemann books such as About the Authors, Study Driven, Already Ready, and In Pictures and In Words, and as a member of Heinemann’s Professional Development Services, Katie Wood Ray gave teachers resources and PD that transformed writing instruction and helped children discover a lifelong love of writing.
In 2014, Katie “moved to the other side of the desk” and joined the dynamic team of editors at Heinemann where she works closely with authors to craft powerful professional books on a range of literacy topics. Katie is also the series editor for the new Classroom Essentials books from Heinemann. Tasked with bringing foundational, progressive practices to a new generation of teachers, Katie works to ensure that the sharp focus and enhanced design of each book best serve the content. She also teamed up with her longtime collaborator, Lisa Cleaveland, to write one of the first books in the series, A Teacher’s Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers.
You can find her on Twitter at @KatieWoodRay.