Slice of Life 9: #EdCampIowa and “Can Do” Prep for Writing

(During March, I am blogging daily as a part of the Slice of Life Story Challenge!)

What an historic event yesterday!  #EdCampIowa was held at five locations across Iowa.  A phenomenal bunch of educators gave up their Saturday freedom to participate in a day of collaborative learning.

Not familiar with an EdCamp?  Official information from the EdCamp wiki can be found here. Additional information about #EdCampIowa can be found here. And Shira Leiboweitz wrote a great blog post about “Why I Hosted Two EdCamps?”

I was fortunate to attend the “Central” location organized by @JamieFath and held at #SEPolk which is 1.5 hours from my home.  Many came from the Des Moines metro area, but others came to our location from Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

The call for sessions filled pretty quickly, newbies were encouraged to tweet and make new friends and the talk quickly centered around student learning.  The sessions often were posed around a question or two:  What about those students who struggle?  How do we know students are learning?  Is it about reporting the learning (based on the standards) or is it about the grades?  And in the ensuing conversations, I loved the fact that MANY people from a variety of districts were discussing instruction in terms of the “Gradual Release of Responsibility.”  Google docs allowed group participation in note-taking with many listed/ linked articles and resources.

Were deep, thoughtful answers a result with 20-25 people in a room and a spirit of “conversation” not presentation?  

I am not sure.  One particular question stuck with me as I drove home.  A second grade teacher had students that were having difficulty writing paragraphs and limited “evidence of thinking.”

How can we create success for ALL students?

It was the last session of the day.  The room was full.  Many people wanted to talk so monopolizing the conversation was not possible. Questions immediately came to my mind. How many students were having trouble?  How did they respond to Questions, Cues, and / or Prompts – guided instruction phase of Gradual Release of Responsibility (Doug Fisher/Nancy Frey)?  I needed additional information about response to instruction. Even the questions, “What did instruction look like?  How many “models” of writing by the teacher? How many collaboratively by the students?”  In hindsight, I might query, “Do the students talk in paragraphs (more than one connected sentence on the same topic)?  Do the students ask questions?”  or in other words, “What can the students do NOW?”


What do I wish there had been time to share, demonstrate, and practice?

Writing is often the “end product” for our youngest learners after much talking with a partner. What has to happen FIRST before students can or should be asked to write?  I love to see students tell a story across their fingers, a la Lucy Calkins.  No graphic organizer needed.  What happens in the story at the beginning (touch index finger), the middle (touch 2nd finger) and the end (touch ring finger)?  The student can orally rehearse the story as he/she literally tells the story by individually touching a finger for that all-important sequence development.

I would also consider the use of communication lines with students. Again these tie in nicely with Gradual Release and Quality Instruction as well in the productive group work phase. It’s also a chance for the students to get up, move, and refocus.  Have you used them?

Typically a class is divided in half with two lines of students facing each other with about six-10 inches between the faces (Students 1 and 13 from chart below).  Students in the same line are at arm’s length between each other so they can clearly hear their own two-part conversations (Students 1-12). The first chart below shows what those two lines might look like as the two “partners from Line A and B face each other” and take turns telling their story.

Then for round two, the students in Line A move three spaces (persons) to the left while students in Line B stay exactly where they began.  Each partner group of two students facing each other again take turns sharing their own story with the new partner.

Round three is the same process with students in Line A moving three more spaces (persons) to the left and the students in Line B still do not move.  With 24 students it is possible to do a fourth round depending on whether the students need the extra oral practice.


How do the conversation lines help?

All students have at least three opportunities to “tell” their story to a peer.  They also have heard three different stories.  The teacher has just increased the likelihood that ALL students will be able to write down the story that they told or that they can modify that story based on whether they want to “borrow” any details from any of the partners!  Will it work for 100% of the students?  No.  But guess what? When a student gets “stuck” remembering their story, the teacher can redirect them to their last partner for further conversation. The students are less dependent on the teacher!  Having partners share their written work at the end of the writing time also allows the partners a chance to “hear” how the stories turned out. (A video small group demo of conversation lines with ELL students is here.)

Why is this critical?

Students with IEP’s, struggling students, ELL students, or even students who have not done a lot of writing need large quantities of oral practice telling stories before they can begin to write those stories.  It is not helpful for a student to sit and stare at a blank piece of paper.  A story will not magically appear in the brain of a child.  Quick, simple strategies to increase talk/ conversation are critical in order to maximize the amount of time available for writing!

What about older students in middle school or high school?  

Many students struggle with using a “graphic organizer” for planning writing.  They believe that the organizer is the task and then do not engage in the actual drafting.  They also worry more about filling in the boxes/shapes than they do about the content of their responses. Other students don’t know if they have anything “worthy of writing” or whether it is “what the teacher wants.”  All of these students would/could benefit from oral rehearsal before beginning to draft a piece of writing.

How do you help students plan to “draft” their writing?  How do increase the “talk” before writing so students have practiced their thinking?
If you were at #EdCampIowa, how will you use your learning?

Special thanks to the hosts of the Slice of Life Challenge:  StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth.   More Slice of Life posts can be found at  Two Writing Teachers .

16 responses

  1. I’ve been reluctant to attend an EdCamp because I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now I know that my teaching would benefit from the rich discussion! Thank you for sharing your thinking and learning about the connection of oral rehearsal to writing – I’d love to share your blog with our 2nd grade teachers. 🙂

    1. Chris,
      Feel free to share my blog with your 2nd grade teachers. #Edcamps are great places for sharing and building a rich PLN. I believe we still need other forms of PD to support deep learning for teachers and students!

      Thanks for your comments!

  2. The more I read about edcamps the more intrigued I become. I would like to attend one and be a part of this amazing learning. How cool that there were five around Iowa all on the same day. What an opportunity for Iowa teachers!
    As for oral rehearsal, I don’t think teachers realize how important this is. Writing was never taught (in my day) by talking. If you weren’t pushing the pencil you weren’t writing. Hopefully, this will change. Thanks for the sharing today!

    1. Thanks for your comments!

      This was my third #edcamp and each one seems to have a bit of its own culture. After attending one, I highly suggest visiting with a friend and proposing your own session. That’s where the greatest learning comes from!!!

      I’m not sure how much oral rehearsal and planning is currently valued. The short time to practice pays off in the long run if students are able to write longer!

  3. What a great post Fran! So much to take in.
    First off – What a great state you live in! Educators in Iowa rock. The trip is a bit far for me but clearly those as far as Colorado see the value in traveling so many miles in difficult weather.

    I love the communication line strategy! Remember you shared this with me for my personal narrative unit? Love it! I am so grateful you wrote this up, (the chart is especially helpful) so easy to share with colleagues.

    Here is my latest writing issue: argument. We have been doing debate and writing BUT the difficulty for most is discerning reason from evidence. It’s similar to the struggle students have with the difference main ideas and details. Debate helps but they often jump to the evidence and that makes everything messy. Any thoughts at edcampIOWA about that one?,

    1. Thanks, Julieanne!

      Iowa is a great state!

      We did not talk about evidence and reason yesterday. Here is what I used with middle school folks last week.

      Our goal is to collect a body of evidence. That body of evidence has to be strong enough to convict someone in court.

      Mathematically, evidence = details, facts and/or reasons

      Evidence in court typically includes:
      Testimony by witnesses who give details about the crime.
      Submissions of physical evidence that act as facts.
      Testimony by witnesses can also establish motives or reasons why someone might have committed a crime.

      To me, reasons answer the “why” question.
      Facts can be data – numbers, etc.

      Just my thinking; does that make sense?

  4. OH MY! What a great post filled with wonderful suggestions. THank you so much for going and sharing!

    1. Anita,
      You are welcome! I love sharing! It’s my life AND my work!

  5. Now I need to find one near me, Fran. This sounds like fabulous learning – especially because it’s so interactive and dynamic.

    1. Tara,

      An EdCamp feels a lot like multiple Twitter chats on the same day. Energizing!

  6. I went to EdCamp last year and absolutely loved it. A great day of learning. And I totally agree with you about the importance of talk before writing. I can’t wait to try communication lines. I’ve done a similar activity, but never with writing. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. What a great day of learning! I love how you emphasize the importance of the gradual release of responsibility and the idea that many students need to talk through their stories before writing them down. Thanks so much for sharing all your takeaways!

  8. Thanks Fran. Once again a great post that I thoroughly enjoyed. Not sure how I help my students draft their writing apart from talking it through with a writing buddy. Your post got me thinking.

    1. Alex,
      I don’t know the age of your students, but I have seen first graders jot their plan for writers’ workshop on a post-it, confer with a partner and then head off to write.

      Sometimes they meet again at mid-workshop interruption with the same partner and talk briefly about their plan, how it is or is not working as well as next steps and then again, quickly back to writing.

      The teacher may have just one partner group share with the whole class exactly how they are using the day’s mini-lesson and their plans, but that interruption is just to check in quickly and then get back to writing again.

      An end of workshop share with the same partner as the beginning of workshop is also helpful! Partners FUEL each other!

  9. […] #EdCampIowa and “Can Do” Prep for Writing […]

  10. […] response, I had them line up in two lines facing each other.  We literally practiced “communication lines” (live link) with our “favorite learning from today.”  Participants had an […]

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