The Teachers College Reading & Writing Project: August Writing Institute



Teachers College: Columbia University

This week I participated in the August Institute on the teaching of Writing at Teachers College at Columbia University. Upon registering, we were given tote bags with the Teachers College logo, several books and a notebook where we would be practicing and developing our own writing skills during the course of the week. As an educator who loves everything about literacy and writing, I was thrilled to be here.


We were welcomed by Lucy Calkins, the founding director of The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). She shared a very personal story about her father. I thought of my own father and how on my to do list there is a huge need for me to listen and understand his story.  Lucy’s words rang true because writing for me has always been a deeply personal and spiritual affair. It also occurred to me that I don’t always honor this personal connection of writing with my students. Unfortunately, in the game of testing, standards and rubrics, I have sometimes been more concerned with the final product than the personal connection of the story or the writing process.

Every day we broke out into small groups. In these small group sessions, we experienced what a writer’s workshop could look and feel like as a student. Our presenter guided us through mini lessons, whole group and small group instructions. She modeled different writing styles: personal narratives, small moments, non fiction, writing reviews, how to and all about books.


After she gave a mini lesson, we were sent to draw a picture/sketch to help develop our writing. This I found interesting because some schools frown upon drawing because they think it is not academic in nature. I myself have been told that the drawing portion of my interactive big books were not in line with the curriculum. As a veteran teacher, I have observed time and time again how eager kids are to share what they have drawn. And as we learned, drawing is equally important as the written word because its purpose is to tell a story, share an insight or convey a message. The presenter modeled how teachers can confer with students (individually or in a small group) and how crucial it is to take notes on what the student is doing independently, observe where they get stuck, and how to scaffold support so they use their “writing tools”.


While I am in the habit of conferring/conferencing with my students in writing, I have mostly focused on the rubric. I am sad to say that yes, I did mark up their papers, I did point out missing periods and misspelled words.  In our morning group I asked the presenter, “So if I’m not helping them edit and revise and I’m not marking their paper, what exactly should I do?” She said, “Focus on one writing point: structure, development, conventions or processThis will help the student better understand the writing process. The focus is on understanding the process of writing so that they eventually transfer these skills in their independent writing.”  “So they don’t publish a final copy?” I asked. She smiled,”No. They are 5, 6 and 7 years old. They can fancy up a writing piece by adding a cover and coloring a picture. How many times have you asked your students to publish a piece to include all of the revisions you’ve helped them with, and they still copy some, if not most of it incorrectly. What’s more important, the final draft or internalizing the writing process?”  I didn’t answer her because I was having an AHA moment. This was paramount! 

We were asked to write in our notebooks everyday. We wrote a lot. Sometimes I really understood the lesson and went for it. Other times I was at a loss. “What’s a small moment?” I asked. “It’s writing with focus, detail and dialogue.” “What?” I asked again and again. As much as the presenter explained it to me, my colleagues at my table gave examples, I still couldn’t wrap my head around it. But after writing several small moments throughout the week, I understand how necessary it is to put myself in the role of the student in order to help them navigate the process of writing.



Our final day together, we gathered for a closing celebration. I was exhausted, hot and consumed with rushing back to the hotel to pack and head back home. I sat on the steps of the aisle since there weren’t anymore seats available. But as five brave teachers shared their “small moment” writing pieces I leaned in, wanting to hear their stories. My heart pounded and broke, I wiped tears from my eyes and held my breath. While I couldn’t see any of the speakers, I could hear their words, I could feel their pain and was instantly taken to that small moment in their lives. Their stories were brutally honest and I wondered how they didn’t lose it as they shared to a crowd of over 1300 people.


I have lots of ideas brewing in my mind and I know how lucky I was to be part of the amazing TCRWP group. I also need to get my father a notebook so he can share some family stories with me.

The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. – Donald Graves




Writing Summer Camp For Young Children

e4c96e7f-5d6a-49ff-967a-d03b9a8645da.jpgThis week I taught a writing class at a summer camp to incoming first and second graders. We read several picture books where we discussed and wrote about them. We also had daily shared writing activities where each student gave their input and ideas as I scribed their words. We explored “juicy words” or expanded vocabulary like epic, wonderful and melancholy and encouraged each other to use “brave spelling” or invented spelling.

One of the stories we read was I Feel a Foot! written by Maranke Rinck and illustrated by Martijn Van Der Linden.

i-feel-a-foot.jpgBetween two trees, high above grass and ground, Turtle, Bat, Octopus, Bird and Buck are sleeping in a hammock. Suddenly, Turtle opens his eyes. “Hey,” he whispers. “Do you hear what I hear?”  Each animal’s imagination runs wild with what wild creature may be making the sound they all hear. Is it a giant turtle? Or a bird with a giant beak? Perhaps it is Bat-Tur-Octo-Bird- Buck. Luckily for the small animals, it isn’t any of these creatures. It is just their old friend Elephant who was out wandering around. The animals invite him to join them in the hammock and soon the wild imaginings about the night noises begin all over again.

The illustrations are magnificent with gorgeous black backgrounds and a collage type feel. The look of the illustrations was the inspiration for our final writing project. Our little writers watercolored the scenes of their stories, which were then pasted on black construction paper. Their stories included mermaids, Pokemon, a lost octopus, family, cycles, bad guys, destruction and American flags in the jungle! It was a pleasure to work with these little writers. They were an incredibly talented group with lots of enthusiasm and wild imaginations.

in the rainforest

In the Rainforest

in the desert

In the Desert

the search

The Search

eevee vs the bad guys

Eevee Vs. the Bad Guys

the great day at the beach

The Great Day at the Beach

in the field

In the Field

the lovely night at the beach

The Lovely Night at the Beach






Pumpkin, Pumpkin: Art & Writing Activities for the Fall

We read the book Pumpkin Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington.

Pumpkin Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington.

I love the fall season. I love wearing boots, cozy sweaters and the feel of the chilly air on my skin.  Unfortunately, we are having a major heatwave here in Los Angeles and I have yet to experience some of my favorites.  But in the spirit of the fall season, we read the story Pumpkin Pumpkin by Jeanne Titherington in my first grade class.  We looked at images of pumpkin patches and also how other parts of the country experience the fall season.  This pumpkin unit is a also a nice segue to our next unit of study in science, weather and the seasons.  What I really appreciate about this book is that it is short and sweet. The images are beautiful and held my students’ attention.  It also provides facts on how pumpkins grow.  After we read this story I asked them what activities we could do.  They eagerly offered making Jack o’lanterns, visiting a pumpkin patch, learning more about pumpkins and eating pumpkin pie.  The copy that I have of Pumpkin Pumpkin is part of our old reading series.  It has pictures of real life pumpkins and this fun poem:

Five Little Pumpkins

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate. 

The first one said, “Oh my, it’s getting late.”

The second one said,”There are witches in the air.”

The third one said,”But I don’t care!”

The fourth one said, “Let’s run and run and run.”

The fifth one said, “I’m ready for some fun!”

Ooh-ooh went the wind and out went the light,

And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.

(I’ve linked a really cute video that goes with this poem.)

jack o lantern art

So cute to hear my little first graders sing their hearts out. We also read informational books and found kid friendly websites to research pumpkin facts. Our amazing school librarian, Mrs. Fernandez helped me find this informational text, The Pumpkin Book by Gail Gibbons. I explained to the students that we were researching and gathering information to help us write informative paragraphs on pumpkins.  We also did a quick activity on the life cycle of the pumpkin. In the coming days we will use the sequencing cards to write about it.

pumpkin life cycle artIncidentally, our school has a solid writing program in place, Get Ahead Writing, that is implemented by all teachers throughout the grade levels.  So when I told the students we were going to create a shared plan, many of them were familiar with this important step.  (Big shout out to the K team!) The students then devised their own plans to write informational pieces.

pumpkin planThis was also the first time my first graders went through the entire writing process (plan/brainstorm, write, edit, revise & publish).  Let me be honest, it was not an easy feat. However, I know from previous experience that as their reading and writing skills develop, the easier and smoother the writing process will be.  Here are some of the “published” writing pieces. informative pumpkin 1

informative pumpkin 2

A pumpkin is a type of fruit. A pumpkin can be different colors. Then it takes 80-120 days to grow. In addition, pumpkins are eaten in the fall. In conclusion, pumpkins are an amazing fruit.

I will be bringing real pumpkins to the class so those who are not familiar with them have the opportunity to touch, feel and investigate this amazing fruit. And for those of you who think pumpkins are a vegetable – it’s a fruit!