Tag Archives: High School

Cris Tovani on Project-Based Writing


The following, written by Cris Tovani, is the foreword to Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose by Liz Prather

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Thankfully, I selfishly agreed to write the foreword for this book. Not only did it mean I could read it before anyone else, but I could also see how another teacher implements writing instruction using a project-based format. By page seven, I was annotating comments like, “I love the voice.” “She is so honest.” “I can try this idea tomorrow.” Jealously, I wanted to be the author of the book, not just the foreword!

By Chapter 3, the jealousy was gone and I was captivated. I thought to myself, This teacher-author knows me. She knows my struggles. She knows what I care about as a writing teacher, and most importantly, she knows the wide range of students I teach. Author Liz Prather shows readers how to balance authentic, engaging writing instruction with the responsibility of meeting standards to prepare students for college and beyond. She understands that choice drives engagement and that when students have a purpose or an opportunity to investigate something they are curious about, the desire to write well increases.

There are many reasons to read this book, but I’d like to highlight two—one for teachers and one for their students:

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This is What Segregation Looks Like, and How Heinemann Fellow Dr. Kim Parker is Working to Change It


I teach at Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school. Rindge sits in the shadow of Harvard University—one of the best institutions for higher learning in the world. Yet, despite many who insist that my school’s diversity and opportunity are afforded to all students, I know otherwise. Here, students begin the ninth grade on one of two tracks: the (misnamed) College Prep track or the Honors track. The College Prep (CP) track (or “Colored People” track as some students unofficially call it) serves students of color, students with disabilities, students of lower socioeconomic class, and others. The Honors track tends to include students who are white, middle or upper class, and who have parents who are actively involved in their educations.

Students experience education differently depending on their track designation.

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Heinemann Fellow Tricia Ebarvia: All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten


In 2009, I interviewed for the PA Writing and Literature Project (PAWLP) Summer Institute. During the interview, Deb Dinsmore, one of the institute facilitators, asked me something that I have never forgotten:

“How do you teach reading?”

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The Heinemann Fellows: Amy Greenbaum Clark On Teaching Poetry

Amy Greenbaum Clark is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for 15 years. In today's post, Amy recalls writing her first poems and how they shaped her approach to other forms of writing.

by Amy Greenbaum Clark

Presented with the opportunity to conduct action research in my classroom as a Heinemann Fellow, I knew immediately where my heart would lead me. Poetry has been my passion since junior high when I started writing poems. They were poems of seventh-grade melodrama and an angsty twelve-year-old’s desire to be independent—and not very good. It didn’t matter.

I wrote poems. No one had to tell me I could. I had read poetry for as long as I could remember. I also equated song lyrics with poetry. Certain songs felt to me as if the songwriter had lived my experience, peeked inside my heart and stolen its secrets. I wanted to create a similar kind of “music.”

I felt relief when the words were no longer within. I was sharing myself in a form that invited me in, that didn’t restrict or tell me I was wrong. It was a liberating and very personal playground. I reveled in this quiet space, respected the art of it, and worked diligently to improve my craft. During my senior year my twentieth-century-literature teacher discovered that I liked to write poetry and asked to read my work. Turning my notebook over to her was terrifying but at the same time freeing. She didn’t edit the poems I’d written but talked with me about them and about the craft of writing. Suddenly I was writing more—and striving to write better. Not just better poems, but better essays as well.

I am a high school teacher now, and poetry has become a critical part of my practice, a core from which everything else emanates. Recently, I’ve had the magnificent opportunity to teach the same group of students over a period of years, thus witnessing a growth in their writing I’d not been able to see during just one year with them. I taught these students the required English courses but also designed a poetry elective for those who were interested. What I found was that my students learned to appreciate the free space that poetry offered and soon became more eager to write in all forms.

Writing is subjective: We can’t ignore the ethos of teaching poetry—as if the various forms of writing don’t inform one another!

I began to wonder. Why do so many of us hesitate to teach poetry? Why do we question the validity of asking students to work in this form simply because it often feels too subjective to evaluate? How might the study and composition of poetry affect student writing in all genres? How might I implement a curriculum that meets mandates without ignoring the importance of poetry?

Writing is subjective: We can’t ignore the ethos of teaching poetry—as if the various forms of writing don’t inform one another!

Sure, most of my students won’t become professional poets. But what if exploring the freedom and sparseness offered by the form provides the means to better understand writing well in any mode?

I am therefore seeking to discover how the study and composition of poetry impacts student writing in other forms, particularly the academic essay. I’ll investigate focus, movement, word choice/diction, imagery, evidence, sentence structure/variety, and using the form itself to create meaning. I believe that in the process these writers will develop a clear and unique voice.

I’m excited to discover more about teaching writing and eager to understand more deeply the role poetry can play in simply teaching writing well.

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Amy Greenbaum Clark is an English teacher at Christ Episcopal School in Covington, LA. Her action research focuses on the ways study and composition of poetry impact other modes of student writing, particularly narrative and scholarly essay writing.

Please visit the Heinemann Fellows page to learn more.

Children’s Mathematics: Why Every Math Teacher Should Know About Cognitively Guided Instruction

In anticipation of the new edition of Children’s Mathematics, Christopher Danielson writes about what he wishes all secondary teachers knew about Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI).

Christopher taught in the Saint Paul Public Schools for six years, then earned a Ph.D. at Michigan State University. While a graduate assistant at Michigan State, he helped revise Connected Mathematics materials. Today he teaches in the math department at Normandale Community College, in Bloomington, MN, where he teaches college algebra, Calculus, and math content courses for future elementary teachers. He blogs at Overthinking My Teaching and Talking Math with Your Kids.

Why Every Math Teacher Should Know About Cognitively Guided Instruction
By Christopher Danielson

CGI, which is summarized in Children's Mathematics, tops my list of things I wish all secondary math teachers (and college math instructors) knew. There are two reasons—the content and the principle.

The Content
CGI lays out the ideas children bring to school about addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and numbers more generally. It also identifies the four basic categories and eleven subcategories of addition and subtraction problems. All secondary math teachers should know this content.

Secondary math teachers teach algebra, and algebra is—in part—generalized arithmetic. If secondary teachers are fluently aware of the ideas children have about arithmetic, they are better positioned to help older students expand these ideas to accommodate learning algebra.

Here are two examples of how middle and high school instruction can be informed if the teacher knows how students think about basic arithmetic.


Many students, when they begin learning algebra, think of subtraction as taking away (the CGI term is separating). This idea makes it difficult to conceptualize subtracting negative numbers. How do you take away less than nothing? If this question isn’t answered, students revert to memorizing rules.

Teachers who know that taking away is how their students are likely to think about subtraction and also know that comparing is another powerful way of thinking about subtraction can help their students see 3 – -2 as a matter of the distance between 3 and -2 on the number line: how much bigger is 3 than -2? The calculation can be made by comparing the numbers.


Sometimes the expression 3x means I have 3 groups of an unknown size and sometimes it means I have an unknown number of groups of 3. To an algebra teacher, these are equivalent concepts, because an algebra teacher has an abstract understanding of multiplication. We want students to develop this abstract understanding too, to understand multiplication as an operation, so that they can use it to study and understand exponentiation, calculus, and modern algebra. But not all students achieve this.

If all algebra teachers know that their students often think very literally about multiplication and find literal and operational interpretations very different, they can design their instruction to address this misconception.

Maybe some students are better served if they write x3 instead of 3x when they first try to represent an unknown number of groups of 3. The point is that knowing how students think about these ideas helps a teacher make instructional decisions and see new instructional possibilities.

The principle
Students arrive in our classrooms with ideas; they are not blank slates. Cognitively Guided Instruction is based on the ideas students already have. This principle should inform all mathematics instruction: let’s teach algebra based on the ideas students have about variables, geometry based on their ideas about shapes, and so on. Children's Mathematics shows us what this looks like in the classroom.

To read a sample chapter from the new edition of  Children’s Mathematics click here: Children's Mathematics

Tom Newkirk on Confusion at the Core

In Thomas Newkirk’s newest book, Minds Made for Stories, he challenges readers to think about narrative writing as something more: as the primary way we understand our world and ourselves. In this blog, Tom talks about his book and explains how narrative is crucial to good writing.

Confusion at the Core 

by Thomas Newkirk
English Department
University of New Hampshire
Durham, New Hampshire

Suppose I asked you this question: “Would you prefer fruit or dessert?”

I suspect you would blink at the logic of the question. It’s a false choice. You could have both, since they are not mutually exclusive. It is an example of what logicians call a category error.

We find a similar category error at the heart of the literacy standards of the Common Core. Texts are divided into a triumvirate—narrative, informational, and argumentative. There is a note in one appendix to the effect that “elements” of narrative are present in other forms. But that admission doesn’t remedy the problem.

This category problem also mixes aims and modes. The great rhetorician James Kinneavy would term informational an aim, as a designation of the intent of the writing. Narrative is not an aim but a mode of understanding—probably our primary means of understanding. Argumentative is the logical component of another aim—to persuade; and in my view a major flaw of the standards is the failure to embrace the more robust and comprehensive aim of persuasion.

Take a recent example—is Katherine Boo’s award-winning nonfiction book Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrative or informational? The answer is both. It’s a false choice. This three-part division creates confusion where it should create clarity.

But the greatest problem, in my view, is that it diminishes the role of narrative. It treats narrative as kind of writing, a genre, often an easier one that gives way to the more rigorous work of analysis in high school, college, and, of course, the workplace.

But we can never leave narrative behind, any more than we can shed human nature. Our very sense of identity—personal, religious, ethnic, national—is built on the stories we tell. And we lose a sense of self when, through dementia or illness, we can no longer recall these stories.

So here is my modest proposition—that narrative is the deep structure of all good sustained writing. All good writing. We struggle with writers who dispense with narrative form and simply present information (a major problem with some textbooks), because we are given no frame for comprehension. Mark Turner, a cognitive psychologist and literary critic, puts the claim this way: “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, of explaining.”

Narrative (or story) is central to us because of our innate need for causal explanations. We are wired to understand experience in terms of cause and effect, and stories are the best tool we have to explain causation. That is why all religions have creation myths, why all families, countries, tribes, tell stories about how they came to be. There is even evidence that individuals who know their family history (e.g., the story of the day they were born, the story of how their parents met) have a healthier sense of self.

I understand the obvious objection—what about academic writing? Surely it doesn’t fit this pattern. But as an academic writer myself, anchored in tenure, I would claim that good academic writing feels plotted—there is a tension that is resolved. There is some problem with current understanding that needs to be rectified, some itch that needs to be scratched, some reason to read on.  Just creating a thesis and defending it won’t do the job.

The nonfiction writers that we read voluntarily—Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Pollan, Susan Orleans, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Johnson—all are experts at narrative writing, and they should be the models for student writing.

When we rely on stories we are often accused of being “anecdotal,” not intellectually serious. We are told that on the job and in college we do the hard stuff, the rigorous stuff; we analyze and make logical arguments. We don’t tell stories.

But we do. We can’t get away from it. Even the arguments we make are often about a version of story or in the service of story or in the form of a story (e.g., the Gettysburg Address).  Scientific texts regularly describe processes (evolution, the autoimmune system, the dance of the bees, global warming, the Big Bang theory, cancer) that take narrative form.

We experience our very existence as a progression though time. We rely on stories not merely for entertainment but for explanation, meaning, self-understanding. We have “literary minds” that respond to plot, character, and arresting details in all kinds of writing.

It’s useful to remember that the word core comes from the Latin word for heart, cor. It transforms to coeur in French, corazon in Spanish.  I would argue that narrative is at the heart of human identity and understanding.

Click here to read a sample chapter and learn more about Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts