Monday, March 23, 2015

Stella Writes Posters Are HERE!

I'm thrilled to announce the Stella Writes posters are available!
(See close-up photos at the end of the blog post.) 
Putting these together was no easy task.  I mean, Stella's great--a real super-star writing mentor who kids and teachers love, but trying to distill what is demonstrated in the books and best-practice writing strategies down to shortlists was tough!  I think the points that were settled on will be really helpful in classrooms--great reminders for the opinion, informational and narrative genres and writing in general (see the "Tips For Writers" poster below).  Plus, I love the pictures and the "Stella-isms" (wise quotes from Stella that come from the books). 

Oh happy day!  I love writing and it shows!  Enjoy!  :)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

FREEBIE MADNESS Weekend Happening Now!

I've avoided posting about my TeachersPayTeachers products here, but I just have to post this one little note.  Just yesterday, I started a new Facebook page to post TPT updates and other fun things:
I've been putting up many of my TPT products for free as my LIKES have been going up.  You can see all the FREE offerings on the page.  I think this is pretty nuts since I've spent like a zillion hours making these products!  But, I'm hoping, after I finish a few other projects that are on my plate, to start posting lots of great stuff to tpt. My store is just getting going...

I'll be blogging about that at .  I have 1 follower there!  Ha!  I started that blog awhile ago, but was unable to keep up with that one and this one and Facebook and Twitter and full time teaching and parenting!  But, I'll give it a good try once again.  Hope to see you there.

Don't miss out on the FREEBIES!   There may be something you really like!  Plus, I might even post more as the day goes on.  But the madness must end tonight...since tomorrow's Monday: weekend over, folks, back to reality!

Thanks so much!  Enjoy your Sunday! -Janiel
P.S. Thanks to Nikki at Melonheadz Illustrating for creating this cute graphic and for coming up with the name for my new Facebook page.  :)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


One of my good friends said she feels she's taught writing less effectively this year than any year before because so many of her lessons have been focused on the skills needed to successfully write prompt-based, on-demand essays for the new yearly writing tests.  One skill set to rule them all, I guess.  How sad.

Seems like a recipe for "Writicide."  (Tip of the hat to Kelly Gallagher...*)

Our high-stakes writing assessments just finished for the year.  Teachers have fretted and wrung their hands, but worked hard to prepare their students, in every grade, third and up (that's A LOT of students!!!) to do their best on these tests.  Now what?  What do our students think about writing after being fed formulaic strategies for responding to prompt after prompt with a focus on using text evidence above all else?  Do our students want to write?  Do our students know how to generate their own topics based on their own interests?  Do they know how to skillfully pursue these interests through reading and writing?  Do our students know how to use sources in a balanced way; noting with clarity what authors have to say then pushing beyond the text to stimulate and articulate their own innovative thoughts or ideas?  Given the test instructions and the rubrics, teachers were openly worried about allowing their students to include their own ideas in their writing on these tests.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)  To be fair, the rubric does encourage and reward elaboration, but only that which directly follows from information provided in the text sources (don't think too far outside the box or beyond the sources assigned).

I watch my son, at the age of 7, joyfully pursue writing for multiple purposes.  Yes, he completes writing assignments in his first grade class, some based on choice, but he writes at home based on his own motivations, often stimulated by what he is reading.  He has an eye and an ear for reading like a writer.  He fearlessly tries out the writing moves and writing forms of his idols.  He seeks response.  He gets it.  He asks for endless notebooks and pens.  He composes on his computer.  He wants to have his stories published.  He is a writer and he knows what writing is all about: stories, information, lists, letters, notes, labels, calendars, reminders, poems (he just wrote one this very minute), you name it, he is willing.  And, he smiles at his efforts.  (How did he get here?  Part of the story can be found here: )  Will he keep his enthusiasm for writing if he, too, is subjected to year after year of this kind of 'writing test prep?'

Smiling matters.  Writing matters for much more than tests.  Our students' conceptions of what writing is, what writers do, how they write and why they write, matters.  Balance matters.  If we're going to avoid an epidemic of "writicide," we need to stand up for what matters in our writing classrooms every day.  There is no one skill set to rule them all, though essay writing certainly has its place.  Think carefully, act thoughtfully.  What else matters for our writers?


Friday, February 27, 2015

An Analogy to Get Us Out of the 5 Paragraph Essay Rut

I spent three days this week scoring writing essays for the State of Utah’s high stakes tests (yes, folks, our test window for writing this year has already closed).  Can’t really talk much about the details (nondisclosure agreement), but working with teachers in this setting brought up the ever-recurring issue of the necessity of the five paragraph essay (cue sound effects…dun dun dun).   Teachers sometimes get hung-up on the idea of the ‘5 paragraph essay’ as the ultimate in essay-ness, the cream-of-the-crop format, the one-to-shoot-for, the essay sans pareil.  I get it.  It’s easy to teach.  It’s neat.  It’s tidy.  It often fits the prompt:  intro, three body paragraphs, conclusion.  It can also be boring, redundant, and make us want to ‘poke our eyes out with sticks if we have to read another.’  Not to mention what this might mean for our student-writers year after year after year (maybe they want to ‘poke their eyes out with sticks if they have to write another?’).

As I was driving home after three days of debating scores on papers, I was thinking how many times I’ve heard experts make arguments against the necessity for the 5.P.E. (as we’ll reference it going forward). Cue Kelly Gallagher (slides from his keynote presentation last year at the Gulf Coast Writing Conference in Destin, Florida):

I’ve made the argument that we need to move beyond the 5.P.E. at many writing conferences myself.  But, for some reason, it doesn’t seem to sink in.  I realize not everyone is comfortable teaching writing, not all teachers are writers, and not all have had a great deal of stellar training on how to be effective writing teachers.  It occurred to me, maybe we need an analogy, something to help people understand that sticking solely with the 5.P.E. though ‘clean’ to teach and ‘easier to grade,’ is doing our student-writers a disservice.  So, here’s my attempt at an analogy; please let me know what you think:

“Teaching students to write only five paragraph essays is like telling them you can’t build a house unless it has three stories.”

A one story house can have all the ingredients that make a house a house:  a kitchen, a bathroom (or several), bedrooms, a living room, dining room, etc, etc., and be as elegant, beautiful and fully livable and enjoyable as a three story house.  A three story structure doesn’t make a house ‘better’ or ‘bigger,’ and the three stories doesn’t mean it has features that one or two story homes don’t.  It’s all about how the architect plays with the pieces, putting them together in creative ways to craft an interesting whole that does the job (based on his purpose, task and audience, er…you get my drift).  Mucking around with the pieces can result in a more exciting product and can leave the crafter with a much better sense of fulfillment.  Imagine stamping out the same cookie-cutter house again and again, day after day.   Where’s that stick?  The redundancy would be mind-numbing. 

We want our students’ minds to be stimulated, not numbed.  Go crazy.  Get wild.  Experiment writing ‘an essay’ yourself, even responding to a prompt, without doing it in the 5.P.E. mode.  Get out of the box and see what it does for you.  Imagine what this freedom might do for students.  Then, imagine, just imagine, you, in front of the class, modeling writing, breaking the 5.P.E. mold, but still addressing task, purpose, and audience, while finding your own voice and having some fun, to boot.  You might surprise yourself.  I guarantee, if you widen the possibilities, your student-writers will surprise you.  Best of all, nobody will be looking for a stick.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Stark Discovery Under the Coatrack Today

Tailor came to our school as a scruffy looking, dirty eye-glassed, crazy-haired first grader.  As the literacy person, I had the role of doing some preliminary assessments to get a sense of where he was as a reader.  I'll never forget working with him that day.  He struck me as so quirky, reclining back in the seat of the sunlit library corner, smiling out of the corner of his mouth, taking his glasses on and off, on and off, squinting up at the ceiling then down at the paper, laughing, and talking about anything but what was on the reading tests.  So, of course, we talked about whatever came up, I asked him about his taped-together glasses ( "Can you see okay?" This simple question launched him into a long story; but, yeah, he could see okay.).  We actually got the tests done, too.  I don't remember exactly how he scored, but it wasn't too bad, wasn't too good (the 'move ins' usually come in a lot lower), but I do remember knowing I would know this child.  Something in him had struck a special cord with me.

The remainder of his first grade year wasn't the finest.  He was in a rough class, so he ran with the pack, spending quite a bit of time in the principal's office.  Between all my school-wide literacy duties, I'd take him aside, ask how he was doing, read a bit with him.  When I did lessons or co-taught in his classroom, he was always all smiles and generous with hugs when I was on the way out the door.

Now, it's February, and he's well into his second grade year.  He has a fabulous teacher.  He's still his zany self, of course, and we wouldn't want it any other way, but he's not hanging out in the principal's office.  I just spent two weeks in his class working on informative writing, culminating in the composition of newspaper articles.  We made our own newspaper, announced it to the school, and gave out copies today.  Unfortunately, his teacher was absent, and apparently the class had a bit of a difficult time behavior-wise with the substitute.  I checked in on them just before lunch, and there was Tailor and another boy, not yet excused, reaping some consequence for what was, I guess, a day-long deluge of miscreant behavior.  I walked over to Tailor, put my arm around him and asked, "What's wrong, bud?  You haven't been having these kinds of problems."  With that, he started crying.  

"I've been bad all day.  I just miss my mom so much."

"Oh, honey, I know how that is.  My son misses me a lot when he's at school, too."

"No, no, my mom is dead."

My heart sank.  "Oh, Tailor, I am so very sorry to hear that.  That must be so hard.  Here take a minute and sit down.  Do you want to talk about it?"

At this point, we were seated where no one could hear our conversation.  I was picking grass out of his hair (first recess must have been one to remember), when he answered,  "No, I don't want to talk about it."

I told him that I remembered when he moved into our school last year, when I first sat with him in the library, and how he struck me as such a special kid.  "Maybe your mom was looking down and sent me a message that day.  We are so glad you are here with us and I'm sure your mom is so proud of you.  Today's been a tough day.  We all have them.  It will be fine."

"No, it's not fine.  If I do one more thing there's going to be a 'parent contact!'  I haven't had a parent contact all year."

"We'll, see, you haven't had one because you've been doing so well.  Don't worry, after lunch I'm sure things will be better.  There won't be a need for the substitute to call home, right?"

He nodded.

"Hey, I know, I have a bunch of books in my office that I give out to kids.  Do you want to come to my office and pick some?"

"No, that's okay.  You don't have to give me books."  His tears had dried up by now.  

"I give away lots of books, Tailor.  I have an idea. I'll pick some for you for a surprise.  I'll put them in your backpack.  You think you're ready to go to lunch now?"

"No, not yet." We were out by the coatrack now so he could point out which backpack was his.  "See this soccer ball?"  The soccer ball was on the shelf above his pack.  He had written his name on it with black marker.


"My mom gave me this ball.  It's one of the things I have that makes me think of her."

"It's a very special soccer ball then, huh?"  He was standing, talking, and I was sitting on a step under the coats and backpacks.

"Yeah.  She gave it to me just before my birthday.  That's how she died.  It was my birthday and she went out to buy me some presents.  She stopped at a stoplight.  The driver of a truck didn't stop and he ran right into her.  The steering wheel crushed her."  

I started sobbing.  I couldn't help it.   He peered down at me straight-faced.  Somebody walking by handed me a tissue.  He held the soccer ball gingerly, rolling it between his hands.  I wiped my eyes.  "That is just horrible, Tailor.  I am so, so sorry.  When is your birthday?"

"November second."

"My son's birthday is in November, too.  I just can't imagine how hard that is.  You are such a strong boy."  I gave him another hug.  "I am so glad to know you."

He walked off.  I just sat there awhile.  Then, I went to my office, picked some books, wrote him a little note wishing him a good weekend and letting him know I'd check in on him again.  I tied everything up with a bright green ribbon.  I meandered back to the coatrack, and there, under that soccer ball, in his very empty red backpack, I left the little gift.

It was a busy end to the day today.  I was running the halls, as usual, this time making sure all the copies of our newspapers got into readers' hands.  None left over.  Not on my watch.  

When I returned to my office, the librarian told me Tailor had been by to thank me.  "He made me promise to thank you.  He was so happy."

I went out the double doors, and there he was.  He had the biggest smile.  He ran up to me and gave me a tight hug.  "Oh, thank you!  Thank you, Ms. Wag.  I love the books!"

"I'm so glad, Tailor.  Enjoy them and let me know which one you like best."  

"I will.  I will!  See you on Monday!"  Off he went, down the street, kicking the soccer ball.