Tag Archives: Student Writing

Heinemann Fellow Kate Flowers on Working Toward “Do No Harm” Feedback


Like many English teachers, grading essays remains the part of my job that I enjoy the least. It isn’t just because of the time it consumes or the drudgery it involves. It’s because I’m afraid I’m going to do harm to a student writer under my care.

Years ago, my oldest son was in my sophomore honors English class filled with many of his friends. These were kids I had watched grow up since the second grade, kids who spent time at my house, played in my backyard, making crazy zombie movies that disturbed the neighbors, and now traveled with us to debate tournaments early on Saturday mornings. Perhaps because of my long connection to this group of kids, I put extra effort into grading these students’ essays, spending many Saturdays marking errors and giving copious feedback while I waited to judge rounds at debate tournaments. I knocked myself out for these kids.

Continue reading

The Heinemann Fellows: Tamara Ward On Multidisciplinary Learning Blocks


Tamara Ward is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for 11 years. In today's post, Tamara updates us on her continuing research project: In what ways does a multidisciplinary learning block in the fifth and sixth grade setting affect the vocabulary students use in their writing?

Continue reading

The Heinemann Fellows: Valerie Geschwind on the Fellows


Valerie Geschwind is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for six years. In today's post, Valerie begins the second round of Fellows blog posts, and writes about her time researching the fellows themselves.

By Valerie Geschwind

When I took on the role as a Heinemann Fellow, I didn’t yet know that I would be leaving my kindergarten classroom to become a Staff Developer for The Teachers College Reading & Writing Project in New York City. As a staff developer, I travel daily to schools in New York and around the country, supporting literacy instruction.

Since, in this new career chapter, I have found myself without a school community to call my own, I am not researching in quite the same way my colleagues in this fellowship are. Here is where the luck comes in: I have been charged with the task of researching the Heinemann Fellows themselves. I have been taking a bird’s eye view on their research, noticing trends in their findings as well as on their research processes. And what a journey it has been!

As I’ve pulled back and listened to each Fellow discuss their work, the very first thing that has jumped out at me is their insatiable curiosity. It isn’t a typical “How?” or “Why?” curiosity. It is a deep-rooted curiosity that fuels them to make things better for kids, for teachers, for schools. Not, “How can I make this better tomorrow?” but, “How can I make this better forever?”

What are the choices we make that impact larger changes in classrooms, schools, and the field?

As educators, we need to work to get through each day, but we also need to keep the bigger picture in mind. We need to think, “What are the choices we make that impact larger changes in classrooms, schools, and the field?” For example, you may be like Lisa Birno, who is inquiring into new ways to make talk equitable for all of the students in her classroom, or like Sascha Robinett, a Charter School Director who supports teachers in being the owners of their learning and evaluations. Or, you may be interested, as is math teacher Michael Pershan, in questioning whether written or verbal feedback is more useful for students—a question that will enable us to be mindful not only of instructional differentiation, but of differentiated feedback as well. Maybe you are an Amy Clark type—Amy is finding ways to breed a love for poetry in her students, but at the root of that work, she is modeling what it means to take risks in trying something new, making mistakes, changing plans, and persisting, through her complete transparency with students. It’s clear that each Fellow’s project has more far-reaching implications for change than those limited to their classrooms.

All of these action research projects, and the others, are bigger than the classroom or school where they originate. They already have had huge impacts for kids and educators, but even more so, they are all tied together in their quest to make things better in our educational system. As you are reading, I hope you find yourself thinking that you, too, would like to make changes that begin to cause a ripple-effect outwards. Join us! Here are some action steps that the Fellows followed to support their curiosity that you could follow as well:

  • Find your passion. Ask the question, “How can I make this better for children, better for educators?” What is your “this”? Becoming the kind of curious educators that I have the honor of standing beside in this fellowship begins with that question. This is the type of curiosity that goes the distance.
  • Read everything. If this is a burning question of yours, there is a good chance it is a burning question for many others. Get your hands on any professional text, read every article or blog post you can. Reading what has been done will help you deepen your understanding.
  • Make a plan. How will you begin? Find ways to implement change. Make sure that you will be able to measure growth not only in large ways. Day-to-day growth is important to take note of as you go on your journey.
  • Build a support system. Find colleague to be curious with. They may be in your building. If not, find a virtual connection to passionate educators through Twitter. There are teachers like you out there! They might share your same exact passion, or maybe, like the Fellows, they will be deeply curious, but all studying different topics. Regardless, make sure you a team to keep you going.
  • Celebrate often. Celebrate, when things are going well and you can see the shift. Celebrate when things aren’t going well. Congratulate yourself for being persisting through the hard parts, for rethinking your plan, for changing everything you thought would go well. Celebrate this messy process that is creating change, making our schools better for kids and teachers alike.

I can’t wait to see the work of this fellowship reach all of you. This fellowship needs to be bigger than just ten people. Share your own projects, passions, and curiosity below so we can work together to effect big change.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦


Valerie Geschwind is a staff developer with TCRWP in New York City. Her research project is the Heinemann Fellows themselves, and she will chronicle the story of this inaugural class, observing what effect each Fellow's involvement in the program has on his or her practice.

Follow Valerie's progress on Twitter @ValGeschwind.

Visit the Heinemann Fellows page.

Building the Bridge and Learning from Classmates


In her new book Learning from Classmates, Lisa Eickholdt lays out the idea of using students’ writing as mentor texts, helping students to self-identify as writers. As Stephanie Harvey writes in the foreword to the book, “When we value kids’ writing enough to use it to teach other kids, all kid grow into stronger writers.”

In today’s post adapted from Learning from Classmates, Lisa describes just what happens when you use student writing as mentor text.

Building the Bridge

By Lisa Eickholdt

I was recently in a first-grade classroom that was working on a personal narrative unit. One of my first lessons was on elaboration. I decided to use Jack’s writing as a mentor text, pointing out how he elaborated by describing what his character was thinking and feeling. Jack is a struggling writer so one of the purposes of using his piece as a model was to boost his confidence.

Highlighting Jack’s writing paid off later when I noticed that he was taking a risk with his latest piece. A few minutes into the independent work portion of the workshop, I paused to confer with Christina.

I talked to her for a few minutes about her story. As we talked, I decided Christina could benefit from learning Jack’s elaboration strategy. Therefore, I decided to use Jack’s piece as a mentor text in my conference. The teaching portion of my conference sounded something like this:

Me: You mentioned that you wanted to work on adding more to your piece. Can I help you with that today?

Christina: Sure.

Me: Great! In our lesson a few minutes ago, we looked at Jack’s piece and saw how he elaborated by telling what his characters were thinking and feeling. Let’s take another look at his piece and see how he did that. (I pull out a copy of his story and we reread it, paying close attention to how he used this elaboration strategy.) Now it’s your turn. Let’s read through your piece and see how you can use these elaboration techniques, just like Jack did.

Christina: I know where I can do this! Right here on this first page. (She quickly begins to write.)

Jack’s story helped Christina instantly understand this elaboration technique, something she wasn’t able to see as easily in the polished children’s literature we’d read and referred to in previous lessons. Later, in a conference with Joey, I noticed how he elaborated on his piece with purpose and intention. Keeping my group’s needs in mind, I made a quick note to use his writing as a mentor text in an upcoming lesson. In fact, with notes from all my writers, I was ready to plan the next day’s lesson, which would focus on elaborating with purpose and intention.

Using Jack’s writing as a mentor text boosted Jack’s self-esteem and helped him become more of a risk taker; but using his writing as a mentor text also helped other students become better writers. Conferring with a lens toward finding other mentor texts helped me develop the next few lessons in our writing workshop. It required a few small steps: I immersed the writers in mentor texts, including student writing as mentor texts; I selected Jack’s piece during conferences the previous week because I knew from my assessments that some of his classmates could benefit from his elaboration technique; and as I conferred, I set myself up for a highly targeted lesson with Joey’s piece. All of this occurred as part of my regular writing workshop, and required only a slight adjustment in how I look at students’ writing.

Using Jack's writing as a mentor text boosted Jack's self-esteem

The image below sets out the distinct steps you can take to incorporate student writing into your teaching. Each chapter in the book offers explicit instructions on how to use student writing as a mentor text. I’ll show you how to read your students’ work with the selection of mentor texts in mind. My notes on conferring and assessment will reveal how I matched writing I’d selected from among my students to other writers’ needs.


Using your students’ writing as a mentor text not only lifts the level of their writing, it lifts their spirits. Perhaps most important, it will affect you as a teacher. If you got into teaching to inspire students (and who didn’t?), using your students’ writing as mentor texts will help you do just that. Now, go forth and inspire!

 ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lisa Eickholdt has spent her entire career searching for the very best ways to help all of her students. Learning from Classmates comes from more than twenty years’ experience in classrooms as a primary-grades teacher, a Title I teacher, a Reading Recovery teacher, an interventionist, and a literacy coach. She has seen that any child can find success with the help of good teaching. Today, Lisa is Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at Georgia Gwinnett College, and she also works as a literacy consultant in classrooms nationwide.

Follow Lisa on Twitter @LisaEickholdt.

The Heinemann Fellows: Kate Norem on Supporting Purposeful Student Writing

Kate Norem is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class, and has been an educator for ten years. In today's post, Kate asks how to create a writing classroom that supports and extends purposeful writing.

By Kate Norem

Last May, my students Margaret and Bernie bounced up and down in front of me begging, “Is it okay if we bring our book home over the summer, work on it, and then bring it back to school next year?” Later that week, I noticed Maria sneaking her writer’s notebook out to recess. As much as this made my heart flutter—as much as I wanted to tell myself (and my administrators), “I did it! I made them fall head over heels in love with writing!”—the hard truth was that the writing my second graders were pleading to work on was not writing I had assigned. It was not writing I had spent hours planning and we had conferred about every day in writing workshop.

Maria was secretly writing a play to give me as a wedding gift. Bernie and Margaret were creating an “Encyclopedia of Bacteria” for our school library. Katelin and Lulu were making advertisements and business proposals for a dog-walking business, and Lucia and Cici were writing a song about composting to convince their classmates to be environmentally responsible. These very different pieces of writing were creative, ambitious, and highly motivating, and I ended the school year wondering, “What is it about them that hooked some of my most reluctant writers?”

What is it about these creative pieces that hooked some of my most reluctant writers?

In June, I had the honor to travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and meet with an extraordinary group of educators from across the country. Our task as Heinemann Fellows was to question, to share, to wonder. Three thousand miles from my classroom in Seattle I had the time and space to explore my question.

As I reflected and talked with my colleagues, it became clear that the writing pieces my students had worked on had two things in common:

  1. They were the students’ idea. I hadn’t assigned or planned the writing they had pursued in those final weeks of school.
  2. They had a meaningful and authentic purpose: they had an audience and would live on after the students completed them. The students were crafting real writing that meant something to them personally.

Could I replicate this type of writing experience in my classroom as my primary writing curriculum? How would this change impact my teaching and my students’ learning? How would I balance the students’ need for instruction with their desire for autonomy and purpose?

This year I am exploring this action research question: “What purposeful choices can students make that impact the quality of their writing and what teacher moves best support these choices?” Ultimately, I hope to create a writing classroom that supports and extends the kind of writing Maria was sneaking onto the playground and Margaret and Bernie wanted to work on over the summer. I am eager to discover what happens when I merge purposeful instruction with the student-driven writing that promotes my students’ motivation and engagement.

Although I am a teacher-researcher each and every day, I have never undertaken an “official” research project before. Where will it lead? I am both terrified and energized by the possibilities, and I invite you to join me on the journey.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kate Norem is a fourth grade and second grade teacher at the Bush School in Seattle, Washington. Her action research question asks: "What are the differences between a genre-driven writer and a purpose-driven writer?"

Follow Kate's progress on Twitter @kate_norem.

Visit the Heinemann Fellows page.