Just Let Them Write


I’m a strong proponent of writing workshop, of letting students choose their topics, of Lucy Calkins and Ralph Fletcher’s  school of thought. But when I recently re-entered the classroom after taking time off to have children and then work as a literacy coach, I forgot how hard it can be to do just this.

I started in January and after a few days of getting to know the students, I immediately felt the pressure of curriculum timelines, district benchmarks, etc.  We were in the middle of a unit on persuasive writing and I struggled to make sense of the lengthy lessons that came with the district’s writing program.  I found that I spent more time actually reading the information than actually teaching the lesson itself.  Not to say that the students didn’t produce good writing but I felt the need to “get things in,” as opposed to just allowing them to discover the wonder of writing on their own.

In short, I didn’t feel like the writing teacher that I imagined myself to be.

But then I attended one of three after school district writing trainings that I had registered for with my district, “Writing in the elementary classroom.”

I knew I was in the right place on the first day. Just by the feel of the room and the way that the instructors greeted us.  They instantly made me feel welcome and at home.

Our first assignment was to write about a “quality.” They shared an old book called, “The Book of Qualities,” which judging by the cover, looked like something from 1982.  As if reading my mind, Sherry responded by saying, “This book is old, but give it a chance.”

She then proceeded to hand each of us a word from the book, asking us to conjure up an image or feeling about what the word meant to us.

My word was patience. Others included, fear, frustration, joy, etc. She read some of the samples from the actual book, where the author writes a paragraph about each one, like this excerpt from Fear:

Fear has a large shadow but he himself is quite small.  He has a vivid imagination.  He composes horror music in the middle of the night.

Then she said, “Think about what this word makes you feel, or whether it reminds you of a person.Try not to let your pen stop moving.

Just write whatever comes to mind.”

Then she got quiet and asked everyone to write.


Back to the Clasroom

The next day, I felt inspired to try the idea with my class.  We had just finished our persuasive essays and I was ready to move on from the following sentence starters:
“I know you think that I should….but here’s why I shouldn’t”

Or “I know you think that I shouldn’t…but here’s why I should”

And last but not least…”________________ is the best _____.  Here are three reasons why….”


So I wrote several words on index cards, choosing some from the book and others that just came to mind. Patience, frustration, courage, fear, joy, confidence.

We briefly discussed what the words meant and I wrote a short poem  about what joy means to me on chart paper:


A fresh cup of Starbucks coffee waiting for me in the morning

Waterskiing on glass – calm water at the lake

A game of Uno with Joey and Julia

I had no idea what the students would produce and also worried that they would find the whole activity “weird.”

But I went with it anyway, handing each of them a card to take back to their seats.

They liked the novelty of this, I think, and seemed excited.

As they went back to their desks, the room suddenly became a flurry of:

What did you get?” and “Oh, I wanted that one, can we trade?

(I ended up telling them that no matter what word they got, if they preferred a different one, they could write about that instead).

I started to give more directions but then remembered the words of Roy Peter Clark from his book Free to Write, a text that I had discovered years earlier when I taught in Pinellas County, Florida:

“The most important strategy I learned as a teacher of writing was to be quiet and let the students write.” (Clark, 1987, p.23)

“I want you to write silently for 5 minutes,” I told them. “I shouldn’t hear anything but your pencil moving acorss the page.  Think about what the word means to you and write whatever comes to mind. Just write.”

“And I’ll write too. Now go!

I sat down in the rocking chair in the front of the room, with the new fancy notebook (pink, green and blue flowers on the cover) that I had received at the training, pen in hand. I decided just to write, like I said that I would.  After a few moments of doing so, I looked up at the class.

I did so with apprehension, half expecting a few of them (or more!) to be playing in their desks, staring at the ceiling or reading a book instead. Maybe drawing.

But a magical hush had fallen over the room and they were all writing! Even Kevin, who often struggled to follow directions.  Now his pencil moved swiftly across the page, as if with a mind of its own. And Pete, who left every day for reading with our learning support teacher and often only seemed to complete literacy tasks if I stayed glued to his side.

His pencil also kept moving, back and forth across the page, back and forth.

After 7 minutes, I stopped them. It was time to line up for lunch.

On a whim, I glanced over Pete’s shoulder curious to see what he had written. The language was sparse and basic, but it evoked a clear image in my mind. It was beautiful.

“Did you know that you just wrote a poem?” I asked him.

“No,” he said, looking surprised and also excited. Then, “Can you read it to the class?”


Sharing our Feelings Poems

Later, I read his, Kevin’s and Sam’s.  Sam often needs extra support with all areas of instruction.  This is what he wrote in those 7 minutes, without any help.


by Sam

In the desert.

Nobody there,

not even a squeak.

Nobody there.

Just you.

So lonely.

Sometimes scared.

At night,

your only buddy is the sand.


We soon started calling these our “feelings” poems and continued them for several days.  I eventually asked everyone to choose one favorite to publish and we displayed them proudly in the hallway, for all passerbys to see.


These poems reminded me that sometimes we forget what our students are capable of accomplishing. Instead of giving them space to write – letting them surprise us – we uninentionally hold them back.

What I thought might be an activity that the students would view as silly or trivial, turned out to be one that unlocked the potential that lies within all of our students. When I decided to trust them and just let them write, they proved that they can and want to do so.

I stayed quiet and let them write.

And they did.

Reader Challenge:

How can you try this out/adapt this idea for your own classroom? Can you connect it to beginning of the year lessons about routines and building classroom community?

Please share your thoughts and anything that you implement in your own class.

*The names of the students in this post have been changed but the poems are original.


Clark, Roy Peter. Free to Write: A Journalist Teaches Young Writers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1987.

Two Amazing Sites (and a few books too)

We often turn to our favorite professional books and web sites to start the year. What books do you turn to again and again and how do you use them? 

Teachers need books that are accessible, practical and easy to implement.  Sometimes a book looks great at first glance but can be daunting once we actually try to use it.  We are busy, of course, and don’t have the luxury of time to sit and read a book from cover to cover.  (Okay, let’s face it.  Sometimes even finding the time to read one chapter during the school year can be tough!!).

Here are a few books that that I’ve used, as well as two web sites that I recommend to help launch the new school year:

Web Sites

1. Two Writing Teachers

Two Writing Teachers

I just recently discovered this writing blog and am so glad that I did.  It’s jam packed with practical, research based ideas on writing workshop.  Sign up to receive daily blog posts through email, written by a whole host of authors.

A recent post is about A Game Plan for Transitions in Writing Workshop.  Read this short essay to help plan mini-lessons and strategies for successfully lauching Writing Workshop from the first day of school.

Another cool thing about the site is the Slice of Life on Tuesdays.  More to come on that, as I plan to start taking the weekly challenge.

2. The Next Steps in Guided Reading Companion Site

Jan Richardson Guided Reading

I learned about this site in a professional development seminar last year.  Already familiar with her book, I wasn’t sure how much different the site would be.  So glad that I took the time to check it out!  It’s definitely worth exploring, whether you use her companion text, The Next Step in Guided Reading, or not.

Click here: Jan Richardson Resources to find a whole list of free printables that you can use to enhance guided reading in your classroom. This is a site to bookmark!


1. The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo


This book is exactly what the title states: an index of reading strategies.  The chapters are divided by general reading goals, like fluency, decoding, etc.  From there, each goal is further broken down, with one page lessons for each.  For example, fluency is not just fluency, but has separate lessons for “reading with phrases,” and “paying attention to ending punctuation.”  And each lesson has specific, easy to use language that teachers can use to introduce the objective as well as sample anchor charts.

What I love about this book is that you can find an example of how to teach almost any reading strategy or skill, without having to sift through multiple pages to find what you need.  And the chapters are further divided by reading level, which also saves time for teachers.

A great resource to have for any elementary (or possibly even pre-K) teacher!!

2. The Next Step in Guided Reading by Jan Richardson

This book is used widely in my local school district and is a great resource for guided reading.  Divided into four main stages of reading development (emergent, early, transitional, fluent), this resource has everything that you need to plan and teach guided reading to all students.  What’s great is that there are several options for each stage, which makes differentiating instruction easy.

If you teach guided reading, I highly recommend taking the time to get familiar with this book!

3. Children Want to Write, by Donald Graves

I just discovered this text during a spring PD session with my school district.  There were many new ideas and strategies that I would like to try with my students this year, including a sharing protocol (ways to share during writing workshop) and also “actions” that teachers can take to better know their students. One of the Donald Graves key points is that when we truly know our students, we can better support them and help them grow as writers.  He also believes that as teachers, we should sometimes write alongside our students.

4. The Cafe Book, by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser

Product Details

I like this book because not only does it take teachers step by step through the nuts and bolts of small group instruction, it also has a handy appendix with strategies and skills to teach during guided reading (or even whole group).  Do your students need help with “using context,” for example? Or reading with fluency?  Use the appendix to find the right language to teach exactly what your students need.


5. Guiding Readers and Writers by Fountas and Pinnell

An oldie but a goodie.  When I taught third grade, I used this book as a way to introduce the procedures of independent reading and reading workshop.  Turn to The First Twenty Days to find easy to teach mini-lessons to help your students become focused and independent while you meet with small groups.  What I loved about these mini-lessons is that they came complete with sample language and even anchor charts.

Product Details


What is your favorite “go to” book or web site and how do you use it?? Have you used any of the resources above and did you find them useful? Please share your comments here so we can support each other as we begin a new year!

“Does it Spark Joy?” – A Japanese Lesson in Decluttering your Classroom

A few months ago, I discovered The Life Changing Habit of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo.  Shopping in a local bookstore, Main Point Books, for a birthday gift, I noticed the book and browsed through its pages.

Intrigued, I asked the shopkeeper if she had read it.

“Oh yes, I highly recommend it,” she replied.  “Her ideas are a bit intense but it really helps with getting your life organized.”

Get my life organized? Did I need that?


The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Classroom Connection

Maybe one of the reasons that I liked the book is that it reminded me of my prior job as a literacy coach for a Philly non-profit.  During those five years, I coached teachers on different literacy practices, such as reading/writing workshop, guided reading and Intentional Read Aloud.  We even spent time setting up their classroom literacy environments, which included organizing classroom libraries, leveling books and decluttering.

Lots and lots of time decluttering.

I’ve since returned to the classroom full time and said farewell to my job with the Philly non-profit.  But this book happily takes me back to the incredible experience that I had with those teachers.   Together we purged old materials, re-organized spaces and cleaned out clutter.

It’s a lot easier to do this in someone else’s space than it is in your own. Diving into old forgotten closets , boxes or drawers would actually give me a rush of adrenaline!  At a school where I spent two years,  the janitors would often shake their heads when they saw me coming, knowing that soon I would ask for one of the grey, rolling waste bins and a sleeve of oversized, black trash bags.

In one room, the teacher and I discovered two sewing machines during our cleaning binge.  Two!  This wasn’t a home economics room, it was third grade. She is retired now and I’m writing this post about her in the highest regard.  She was an interesting, amazing teacher, who took circus lessons in her spare time and lived in a purple house.  She also loved books (especially Babar and  Eleanor, Quiet No More  – a cool biography about Eleanor Roosevelt), science and you guessed it – sewing!

The Kondo Method

Back to the Kondo book.  In case you don’t know much about it, it’s written by a Japanese home organizing phenom, who started decluttering her own belongings as a child.  She guarantees that by following her methods of purging, folding and organizing, you will not only create more space and have a tidier house, but also transform your life.

Transform  your life?

Her method is quite simple, really.  She has a specific order to follow as you organize and declutter.  Clothes first, then books, papers, komono (miscellaneous items) and finally, mementos. She also states that you must put all of your items together in one place.  For example, if you keep seasonal clothes in the basement, you must group them in one pile for the process to work.  Sort by category, not by space.  This is one of her cardinal rules.

Another critical point is to handle each item.  Yes, you actually have to pick up each shirt, even one that you just wore yesterday from the clothes hamper.  And when you touch it, ask yourself:

“Does it spark joy?”

If yes, keep it. If no, say goodbye and move on to the next item.

Now, I’m only on the first part of the process – clothes.  But I am already amazed at the amount of space that I’ve created in my dresser.  By simply asking myself, “Does this item spark joy?” and folding properly, I have a totally new view on clothes and space.

My newly organized shirt drawer:

Kondo method

Feeling a “spark of joy” after my own success, I tried getting started with my husband’s shirts.

That didn’t work as well.

Note to readers: Do not take all of your significant other’s clothes and pile them on the bed all at once on a work night.

“There is no way that I’m doing this tonight,” he said, shoving everything back into the drawers and in a heap on the floor.

Gasp!  What would Marie think if she saw this?

As a last resort, I held up the book to him and pointed to her picture.  “But Marie says that if you do this, it will transform your life!”

“I don’t want to transform my life right now,” he said, pulling back the sheets and climbing into bed.  “I just want to go to bed and get some sleep.”

Fair enough.

Kondo and the Classroom: How to Declutter and Organize your Space

The purpose of this post isn’t to have you try this book out at home (although I certainly recommend it if you are so inclined).  Or, to urge you to dump your loved ones items in a heap as I did.

What I do want is for you to think about your own classroom as you approach the year ahead.  Close your eyes and picture all the items inside that you’ve accumulated over the years:

  • Books
  • Furniture
  • Files
  • Papers
  • Teacher resources
  • Sewing machines

 Do you really need all of them?

The Question

As you get organized and consider whether to discard or keep certain materials, ask the Kondo question for each one:

Does it spark joy?

If yes, by all means, keep it.

If no, thank it for its service to you and pass it along (or throw away).

This will allow more space for the items that you do need and appreciate.

Of course, the “Does it spark joy?” question might not always be feasible in your classroom and/or school.  For example, you might have district math materials to use.  Whether they spark joy or not is really not the issue and you have to use them.

But I also guarantee that there are some items sitting there collecting dust.  Maybe it’s an old, tattered stack of books, a dusty bookcase or a dirty rug.  With a good washing or a fresh coat of paint, maybe they will find new life.  On the other hand, maybe it’s time to say thank you and let them go.

It’s up to you to decide…


Reader Comments

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is it hard to follow this process in your classroom or have you had some success?  Whatever the case, please share your thoughts here.  I would love to hear from you!

Happy cleaning/decluttering,


P.S.  For more tips on classroom organization, check out these books:

Spaces and Places

Teaching with Intention

Or, this blog post, which gives a great overview of the Kondo method:

8 Decluttering Lessons

Also, this post from Ed Week, which summarizes classroom decluttering in general:

Declutter your Classroom, Declutter your Life