“Writing is the New Black” and other highlights from my workshop with Ruth Culham

IMG_7174(1)As part of the graduate school course I took this summer in Fairfield University’s Reading and Language Development Program, I had the distinct pleasure of spending two full days with Ruth Culham,  author of The Writing Thief  and many other books and materials to support the teaching of writing. Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and she immediately hooked us in with…

Did you know, writing is the new black? It’s the “hot new thing…” 

We all know it’s not a new thing… but we need to make it “hot” again. Ruth promised to share strategies, common language, activities and materials to help all the educators in the room do this. She did not disappoint!

Here are my top 10 highlights from the day:

    1. “If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts and rework raw information… and communicate it to someone else.”  If students are to learn, THEY MUST WRITE.”  
    2.  Can a 6-year-old write a complete story? YES! “Temporary spelling” is OK!
    3. 6 + 1 Writing Traits give us a language to communicate with students about their writing. They make revision and editing tangible for teachers. Spiral each trait, don’t go through them in order.


      1. IDEAS: Content of the piece- the central message and details that support that message. Bring in any examples that are good for kids
      2. ORGANIZATION: Internal structure of the piece – the thread of logic, the pattern of meaning.
      3. IMG_7178(1)VOICE: Tone and tenor of the piece — the personal stamp of the writer, which is achieved through a strong understanding of purpose and audience. Use a highlighter to show students where their voice is starting to come through.
      4. WORD CHOICE: vocabulary the writer uses to convey meaning and enlighten the reader. This happens during read alouds…stop and point it out.
      5. SENTENCE FLUENCY: The way words and phrases flow through the piece. It is the auditory trait because its “read” with the ear as much as the eye.  LISTEN to the piece. Read above their reading level. Things that are cool and different.
      6. CONVENTIONS: Mechanical correctness of the piece. Correct use of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, paragraphing, and grammar and usage) guides the reader through the text easily.

(+1) PRESENTATION: Physical appearance of the piece. A visually appealing text provides a welcome mat. It invites the reader in.

4. BEST ADVICE TO TEACHERS: “Squeeze it once and let it go!” 

Kids cannot handle too many things… can’t take it in. Set ONE goal. Let them practice a specific skill. Hard for teachers to let it go… Less is more. Keep it simple. Don’t feel frustrated about how much there is to teach. Learning how to take one element and work it over is one of the new secrets…makes you less stressed and the kids get it.

5. When you get students involved in the writing process, writing improves. When students give effective feedback to peers in the process, writing improves. Teachers tend to take papers home because traditional peer feedback didn’t work. Give students a specific task to give feedback on. Example: “Sentence beginnings…”  “Go back and find the sentences that start with I and revise a few of them.” Don’t make the kids re-write their piece over and over again.

Here are scoring guides for K, Grades 1 – 2, and Grades 3 – 12, as well as “light” versions for students to assess themselves. Click here to view.

6. Conferring takes time. Harder to schedule. Do the over the shoulder little conferences to give feedback with a highlighter.  Goal should be that they can move on without you. Teach them to be self-reliant. Use phrases like:

  • “Consider adding a few more details….”
  • Suggest ONE thing — that makes them feel doable.
  • Refer specifically to the “trait” during feedback. Every time you are using it, it is teaching the student about it.
  • Resist using the word BUT. “Next, now, lets try… ” words that encourage

7. The purposes for writing.

  • Tell a story.
  • Provide information.
  • Construct an argument.

Descriptive has been removed as a mode. It should be taught within these others. It needs to be taught, but it doesn’t stand alone with these big “dudes.”

8. Be wary of “Curriculum by Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers.”  Use those sites for resources with a narrow lens. Active learning. Something MEATY. Here are some additional resources from Culham Writing.

9. What happens when you teach conventions using worksheets?  Students get all the questions right. There is a disconnect between worksheets and independent work. Does not transpose into independent work.

Why grammar worksheets don’t work: 

  • They make the lessons task oriented rather learning oriented.
  • Emphasize quantity over quality.
  • Teacher directed activity.
  • Unchallenging
  • Create dependents, not independence.
  • Invite conformity
  • Prevent students from devising their own ways of documenting understanding.
  • Create more work for teachers
  • Waste paper money and precious instructional time.

** There was a time when worksheets were effective. (Late 60’s early 70s).

Use Writing Wallet (instead of a worksheet).

You need: a file folder, two pieces of writing paper, a pen.

  • Decorate folder.
  • Have students create 2 – 4 raw writing pieces.
  • Choose one trait after a mini-lesson (model using a mentor text) and have the students find and correct that feature within their own writing. (for examples, transition words…. Word choice.)
  • One trait at a time!

Use different colors, highlighters, let it be messy!  After a while, have students choose a piece and clean it up… show it as BEFORE and AFTER.

10. We need to agree upon common language in teaching writing.  We understand and accept that people don’t like change but it’s not working the way it is. REALLY IMPORTANT. It’s not about us, it’s about our students. We need to build the bridge from the language from grade to grade!

Loved these two days! I left with a deeper knowledge of writing instruction and some great activities and resources to bring back to my school. The Trait Crates are awesome and well worth a look! Incredibly teacher-friendly — fantastic mentor texts with lessons aligned with each writing trait. Also worth a look is Dream Wakers: Mentor Texts That Celebrate Latino Culture.

I’ll leave you with this powerful quote from Pam Allyn that Ruth shared. It underscores the importance of the relationship between reading and writing. We need both to live! 

“Reading is like breathing in, writing is like breathing out.” – Pam Allyn

Thank you @WritingThief  and Fairfield University!


Today I was a 5th Grader #shadowastudent Day

After getting snowed out twice, I finally was able to shadow a student! Today, I spent the day as a fifth grader. Here are a few quick thoughts:

  1. I can survive for 7 hours without my phone.
  2. Even though I ate breakfast, I was hungry by 9am. Snack wasn’t until 10am.
  3. Taking a quiz when you don’t study is really uncomfortable — This happened to me when I got to Science and had to take a quiz on open and closed circuits. (EEK!)
  4. Desks are super uncomfortable, even for someone 5 feet tall. I can’t imagine what it’s like for kids who are taller. You can’t cross your legs or sit criss-cross applesauce. Who sits with their feet flat on the floor?
  5. I can still open a combination lock (thanks to my training at I.S.24).
  6. Just when I got into painting with watercolors in art or building with Keva blocks in library, class was over. BUMMER!
  7. I learned that Deborah Sampson was a Revolutionary War hero who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Continental Army (women weren’t allowed). When she was hit by a bullet, she dug it out of her leg with a pen knife so no one figured out her cover. #YouGoGirl
  8. Being forced to exercise is GOOD sometimes. And, I still know the rules for Volleyball. (Thanks, Sue Shep!)
  9. Recess is fun! I haven’t played freeze tag in many, many years. Swings are fun, too.
  10. I still have a lot more to process but I need a nap. I am too old for 5th grade!


Featured Workshop: A Panel of Higher Education Student Affairs Experts #NAISAC

It’s taken me awhile but I have finally gathered my thoughts on one of the highlights of #NAISAC – the Student Affairs Panel. The goal of this workshop was “to have a conversation about creating a culture that lessens the challenges students may carry from K-12 to college.” The session offered a wealth of information and encouraged attendees to keep student wellness in the forefront of all we do in K – 12 schools.


The panel included: Shelia Higgs Burkhalter– Vice President for Student Affairs at University of Baltimore, Cindi Love -Executive Director of American College Personnel Association (ACPA) , Kevin Kruger – President, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators(NASPA), and Zoila Airall, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs for Campus Life -Duke University. The panel moderator was Debra Wilson,  from NAIS

Sexual Assault

Shelia Higgs Burghalter from University of Baltimore began by discussing statistics of sexual assault on college campuses. She shared that  20 – 25% of women and 5.4% of men experience sexual assault while in college and that alcohol is usually involved. Sheila’s message was clear that this is an issue that needs to be addressed because college campuses care about the safety of students. Through explicit education programs, orientation activities, statements in handbooks, and mandatory training for all faculty, students, and staff in Title IX policies, colleges are exploring multiple ways to address this issue. Sheila shared that awareness-building and bystander intervention are keys to preventing sexual assault. In addition, on college campuses, there is always support (resources, crisis centers, counseling) for those who have experienced violence, harassment, and misconduct.  When students report assault, the outcome depends on who he/she reports to — reporting officials (mandatory reporters) vs. confidential advisors. In addition, students must be educated on what “consent” is defined to be in the state that the student is attending college. Consent should never be assumed, and students should also understand that drugs/alcohol have an impact on the capacity to give consent. Silence is also not a form of consent.

What can independent schools do to help?

  • Be sure students know the ways they can intervene if a friend is behaving badly or if they are in a situation where help is needed,
  • Offer education programs through High School counselors or trusted adults.
  • Teach students to trust their instincts.
  • Be sure students understand that they should always have a plan – how are they getting from place to place, what to do in different situations.
  • Share the ways drugs and alcohol impacts decision making.
  • Educate students regarding the male/ female stereotypes.
  • Teach students what “consent” means.  

Diversity and Student Activism

Zoila Airall from Duke University tackled the topic of diversity and student activism on college campuses.  Non-acceptance on college campuses has included violence, hate groups, etc. She explained the challenges of teaching tolerance with facilitating rather than lecturing, to resolve issues and maintain safety and trust. Colleges strive to find effective ways of walking in the middle when there is conflict. She expressed that the challenges are very real in these extraordinary times. Zoila asked the question — are the usual ways of doing things working? What else can we do?

What can independent schools do to help?

  • Begin the dialogue in school, home, churches, youth clubs, long before students go to college.
  • Teach civility and acceptance of differences.
  • Teach about bias and stereotypes.
  • Cultivate ability to work across ideas of identity and ideological differences.
  • Look at climate at your school. Does it support all its members? How has it changed since the current election?


Alcohol and other drugs

Kevin Kruger from NASPA then shared his insight into alcohol and drug use on college campuses where most students are underage. Colleges can play a very active role in the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse. Kevin shared that alcohol and drug consumption is in a slow decline in middle/high schools. While there is similar data at college level, the problem is still severe. 60% of college students report drinking in the past month; two thirds admit that it has been binge drinking. One in four report some sort of academic issue as a result of alcohol use. Kevin also shared the startling statistic that 1800 students a year die in some kind of alcohol related incident. Colleges can’t wait until the problem occurs. Prevention is key. Most universities have an alcohol education course. In addition, colleges are beginning to develop more alternative programming on campuses so that students will have other, safer options.   

What can independent schools do to help?

  • Educate students by developing programming around alcohol and drug related prevention.
  • Have discussions surrounding decision-making in social situations.
  • Stay up to date with the science and education surrounding drug/alcohol prevention.
  • Educate parents on the teenage brain.


Mental Health

Cindi Love from ACPA shared her knowledge and expertise about mental health, student well-being, resiliency, and grit. Mental health issues have increased significantly – 60-80% of students with mental illness develop it around the time of transition to college. Statistically 1 in 4 18-24 year olds have a diagnosable mental illness and more than 25% of college students have been treated by a mental health professional in the past year. Students cite depression and anxiety as chief impediments to academic success. Schools emphasize the critical need for mental health training, suicide prevention, peer-run mental health support, walk-in centers, 24 hour crisis hotlines, comprehensive referrals to outside services, etc. These issues of student mental health usually begin before students arrived on campus, and the majority of these students do not self-report. Cindi shared that college students need these key things: unconditional support and positive regard from at least one adult, the ability to self express, and limits and boundaries that are external, but then are internalized. We, as educators, need to impart to students the language and behaviors of resiliency:  “I am = knowing personal strengths, I have- knowing resources, I can- knowing social skills to use.”

What can independent schools do to help?

  • Cultivate close relationships between students and a trusted adult.
  • Provide experiential, project-based learning opportunities so that student can practice effective collaborative skills.
  • Educate parents about supporting their child as opposed to defending their child from fear and danger. Find ways to bring parents into conversation. Have more intentional discussions about decision making. 
  • Teach students stress reduction strategies.
  • Educate regarding the importance of proper sleep development.
  • Have students experience failure; cultivate resiliency and grit.

Moderator Debra Wilson from NAIS then fielded questions. One question that stood out for many of the educators in the room was – If it is healthy for students to experience failure before they get to college, are there ways colleges can relieve the “pressure cooker” of the college acceptance process? If colleges will only accept the top students in each class, how can independent schools cultivate risk-taking and failure? This is a huge challenge for all of us to figure out. The college acceptance process needs to change in order for us to send students who are more self-aware and possess the qualities of learning from failure. In addition, we need to reframe our thinking from the helicopter parent label. We should suggest to parents that, instead of being helicopter or snowplow parents, they should be “hot air balloons-far enough away to celebrate but not interfere.” 

This informative session was filled with good advice for all. Although it can be difficult with all of the many demands we put upon our students, keeping students wellness in the forefront of all we do should be a top priority.


Parents Who Insist Their Child Is Being Bullied (Even Though the School Doesn’t See It) #NAISAC

img_42891Day 2 at NAIS began with a fantastic session entitled “Parents Who Insist Their Child Is Being Bullied (Even Though the School Doesn’t See It)”  with Michael Thompson, Psychologist and  Daisy Pellant (Breck School – MN).

This useful and interactive workshop discussed four case studies and provided practical suggestions in managing the disconnect that can sometimes occur between families and a school. Is it bullying, social cruelty, or something else?

Here are some notes:

  • Families and schools need to build trust in order to deal with social situations effectively.
  • Parents can bring their own social trauma and situations to their child’s experiences.
  • Advice for schools re:bullying    img_4291
    • Stay Centered
    • Don’t get defensive
    • Don’t get bullied
    • Remember child development
    • Follow school protocol
  • A clear anti-bullying protocol externalizes response and creates consistency.
  • Anti-bullying law defines bullying in spirit & action. Differ from state to state.(public, charter, independent)
  • Schools should create a developmentally appropriate protocol for bullying. Different for 5-year-old and a 12-year-old.
  • Buckingham Browne and Nichols’ Bullying Protocol was noted as an exemplary plan.
  • What teachers fear re: bullying incidents:
    • fear of mistakes
    • time-suck
    • parent retaliation/ job security
    • lack of admin support
  • Admin must publicly back the process and the teacher dealing with a bullying situation.
  • Admin need to intervene at the right time. Support your teachers. “Adopt” the parent, if needed. (Meaning: take the weight off the teacher.)
  • Call in experts if you need them. (ie. Psychologists)
  • Pre-load developmentally appropriate expectations to parents-
    • Explicitly say in September -“There will be a biter. There will be a bitee. Someone will be poked.”
  • After parents explain their side, ask parents “Would you be willing to hear our point of view?” Parent opens the door.
  • Nothing like having data/observations documented for two children’s interactions to support your stance.

I appreciated the valuable advice provided in this session to help parents understand that providing a “safe” school is not necessarily the same as creating an environment where nothing socially challenging, difficult, or negative happens to a child.


Here is a link to my tweets during this session.






Breaking the Mold: 21st Century Best Practices for Women Leaders

To a packed room filled with 99% women, Amada Torres (NAIS), Susan Goodman (Greensboro Day School- NC), Tekakwitha Pernambuco-img_4258Wise (Seacrest School – CA), and Laura Blackburn Reed (NCAIS) facilitated a workshop that invited conversation and action-planning to “build a deeper understanding of the variables at the intersection of gender and culture in independent schools.”

Amada Torres began the session presenting data to frame the issue of women being underrepresented in headship positions at NAIS Schools. Why has this number remained virtually flat since 2001-2002?   There are many women in independent schools as teachers and in other administrator roles. Why aren’t they becoming Heads? Do they want to become Heads? If not, why not?img_425911.jpg

Here are some notes:

  • Women are underrepresented at every level in corporate America.
  • Good news at Independent Schools is that women are well-represented in all areas other than Head – administrators, instructional support, teachers, division heads.
  • Better chance of females becoming a head at K-12 schools, at all girls schools, and at West Coast schools.
  • Women have fewer opportunities for a mentor/sponsor — a cheerleader for her.

We began unpacking three essential questions through an Affinity Mapping Activity to see if we could come to some understanding, explanation, and plans for the future. What needs to change?



My group explored the question: How will opportunities available to candidates change when indy school communities commit to creating an equitable hiring process?


Additional notes:

Where are the opportunities/ roadblocks to creating more female leaders?

  • Put pressure on search firms to change the model.
  • Create a search firm around the work of female leadership.
  • Consider women’s ways to lead! Redefine the head’s roles.
    • Can headship job descriptions be re-written such that women will recognize all of the qualities that they can offer to a headship position?
  • Do women focus on the parts of the job descriptions they do not meet?
  • “Gender-blind” resume review.
  • Bias of committees, access to leadership PD. Do women have the same opportunities to learn about the financial and fundraising aspects at a school?
  • School communities and hiring committees need to be explicit about commitment to diverse candidate pool.
  • Interesting data from NC Schools: 80% of heads are male and they were hired under Board Chairs who will 80% male. How can we break this cycle? Change school culture.


Some amazing conversations happened in this room filled with people who care deeply about providing equitable leadership opportunities for women.

Final takeaway– we need to keep talking about BREAKING THE MOLD at our schools, within our regional associations, and at NAIS.

Thanks to the presenters for a great session!


Here is a link to my tweets during the session.

Vision and (Di)Visions: Tackling thorny issues by involving faculty, students and mission-based thinking

divisions-sessionDay 1 of #NAISAC began with an engaging session with Barry Gilmore (Hutchinson School – TN), Matthew Rush (Allen Academy- (TX), Michelle Alexander (Cannon School – NC).

Each presenter shared a “challenge” in their schools- what happened? who was involved? Barry described an issue surrounding the school’s discipline’s system, Matthew shared a challenge with the school’s Diversity and Inclusivity statement, and Michelle described how she overcame a major curriculum challenge regarding Literacy.

Here are some highlights:

  • Great organizations grow and change.
  • Preserve the core (your mission), but stimulate progress (change).
  • Dealing with thorny issues at school involves letting people talk, giving ample time for discussion, talk about culture, lay out a process.
  • Give teachers autonomy/ownership in the solution, everyone has a voice,  who are people listening to?
  • There is power in visuals. A simple chart can help people understand the issue and possible solutions.
  • What do we do to arrive at a common vision? How do you move forward without bruising egos? Who is included in conversations?
  • Include all parties, buy-in makes a difference, ask the hard questions, transparency is key. Create a plan.
  • Solving thorny issues – Get the right people around the table. Include STUDENTS when possible!
  • Allen Academy’s students were charged to write their school’s inclusivity statement. Powerful message! inclusivity
  • Give (away) power to grow as a community.
  • What does dealing with tough times involve? — Change, Community, Growth
  • Board/student connection can be powerful.
  • Be transparent about how the decisions will be made. Everyone has a voice, not everyone gets a vote. Communication is key.
  • Provide opportunities for the community to be “heard.” Your opinion is valued.

The session ended with one of my favorite quotes:

Do you have all the right people on the bus to make the changes that need to be made at your school?

Thanks to the presenters!

Here’s a link to the archive of my tweets during this session.



Three things to do before heading to #NAISAC 2017

img_4135I love the excitement and anticipation before attending a conference, especially NAIS. Whether it’s your first time at Annual Conference or if you are a frequent participant, here’s some advice before you head to Baltimore:

#1 Download the app!  Seriously, do it right now. You won’t regret it.

  • Familiarizing yourself with the app ahead of time will help you to get a handle on all that the conference has to offer.
  • Each year the app gets better. I see myself using tools such as “My Schedule,” “Workshops,” “Speakers,” “What’s on Now,” “Exhibitors,” and “Downloads.”  And there’s more, too! Check it out. Now.

#2 Plan ahead. Now that you downloaded the app, USE IT

  • Spend some time planning your days BEFORE you arrive. You can browse the workshops “by day,” “by track,” and “by type.” How convenient is that?
  • Plan multiple options for each time slot. This way, if a img_4137session is not meeting your needs, you have a backup plan. Attending EdCamps helped me realize my time is too precious at conferences like this to waste them in a session that is not meeting my needs.
  • Read up on the Keynote speakers ahead of time and if you are extra ambitious, maybe even do a little research about them. Personally, I am looking forward to Sir Ken Robinson on Friday morning!
  • Browse the exhibitors to see who will be there. Identify the vendors that you want to make sure you visit. You can view these “by category” or “by location.” Great, again! Exhibition Hall can be super overwhelming if you don’t have a focus.

#3 Follow #NAISAC on Twitter. And if you are not on Twitter, join today*. 

  • The conversations tagged with #NAISAC enrich the conference experience on so img_4136many levels.
  • Discussions are continued beyond the finite time within a workshop or keynote.
  • It’s easy to make connections with others and continue them long after the conference is over. So many amazing independent school educators will be at your fingertips through the #NAISAC hashtag.
  • Because you can’t be in two places at once, following #NAISAC can help you learn from people in other sessions.
  • If you are social media shy, the NAISAC app will allow you to see what people are talking about on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, and YouTube through the “Social Media” link.
  • If you are comfortable, share what you are learning as you go. I use twitter as a way to take notes. It keeps them short, sweet, and to the point. (140 characters or less!) And others can benefit from what I am learning and add to them.

*(Note: Here, here, and here are some resources on Twitter for educators.)

A little time invested now will pay off in the long run, making #NAISAC 2017 the best yet. See you in Baltimore!

P.S. If you have additional tips and advice, please leave a comment.