Margin Notes



Last spring, literacy coach Sonja Wright and I participated in a virtual book study with several teachers in ASD-W on Being the Change by Sara K. Ahmed.

While this book focuses primarily on building personal identity, awareness, and classroom community, it does so through a wide variety of literacy activities that span all strands our English Language Arts curriculum.

Ahmed organizes the text through a collection of 6 chapters beginning first with personal identity and then moving outward to understand the acts of listening, being candid, informed, as well as personal responsibility. The book ends with the process of working together. Each chapter provides real world classroom activities curated by Ahmed illustrating possible discussions, teacher samples (anchor charts), student work, and recommended literacy “stacks” to engage students with each big idea.

Lessons and activities allow for multiple literacy connections; from the implementation of a writer’s notebook, and personal reflections through quick writes, use of mentor texts for poetry writing, opportunities for speaking and listening with think-pair-share activities and multiple inquiry activities . This list does not begin to scratch the surface of the possible literacy learnings that could arise when implementing Ahmed’s strategies.

In conclusion, I can not recall a professional resource that I have read recently that offers more meaningful and authentic classroom learning connections for students and teachers. To find out more about Sara K. Ahmed and Being the Change click here.







In How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times Roy Peter Clark advises “if you want to write long, begin by writing short.” This really sparked my thinking on short writing mentor texts that can be used in the service of writing both short and long.

According to Clark: “If your goal is to write short and well, you must begin by reading the best short writing you can find. Start by keeping a ‘commonplace book,’ a notebook that contains treasured short passages from your favorite authors next to bits and pieces of your own writing.”

Christopher Johnson, author of Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little, recognizes that short writing reflects its own conventions—the strategies that make very short messages effective, interesting, and memorable. He explains that “if extended prose writing is like a painting or illustration, microstyle is like graphic design. It employs a subset of techniques used in more detailed arts, and because it serves different ends, it involves techniques and conventions of its own.”

Spending time close reading short writing is time well-spent for writers. Reading short writing through this lens reveals what Roy Peter Clark describes as “the most strategic moves practiced by the best writers.” We grow in our craft (both short and long) when we study the writing of others, name the moves we notice, imitate them, and adapt them to make them our own. Samples of short writing can do a lot of heavy lifting as mentor texts. Students can explore several examples in a short period of time and focus on a specific craft move or element. Their noticings can then be applied to their own short writing or incorporated as a component of a longer piece.

Christopher Johnson captures this practice in his mantra: “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity.”

Here are some excellent examples of short writing I’ve discovered (or rediscovered) recently that invite writers to reflect on the craft moves that get, in Johnson’s words, “a lot of idea out of a little message.” I’ve captured many examples from these texts in my own writers notebooks to use as micro-mentors.




Linda Rief has been an educator and mentor-teacher for a very long time. She taught Grade 8 ELA in Maine up until her retirement a couple of years ago. Writing, and the art of teaching writing, are her passions.

Her latest book, The Quickwrite Handbook: 100 Mentor Texts to Jumpstart Your Students Thinking and Writing is simply a beautiful book. The text is divided into four sections: Seeing Inward, Leaning Outward, Beyond Self and Looking Back. In each section there are a myriad of text forms to use as mentors: poetry, cartoons, excerpts from YA novels, essays and short stories written by her former students, as well as examples from Linda’s own writer’s notebook. If you are looking for quickwrite ideas, this book has you covered. Each mentor text has an accompanying lesson idea.

If you are intrigued by the idea of quickwrites, but are unsure how to begin, the introduction of the book will answer all your questions. It gives a great summary of what a quickwrite is, the benefits of using them with your writing community, as well as ideas for teaching with quickwrites.

You can learn more about this book here.




In Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s new resource, 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency, they discuss using two-page spreads as a way to generate student thinking and prepare for discussions about their reading. They begin by giving students no more direction than to ask that students use the two pages to bring evidence of what they were thinking as they were reading. They then used student models to show different ways readers might show their thinking. 

Here are some examples: 

Students used lists and categories.

Students used sticky-notes in their books and transferred them to the two-pager. 

Students organized their thinking with different colors of sticky-notes. 

Students wrote notes and highlighted the main points. 

Students took the guiding questions and created their own charts of character, quotes and craft. Making thinking visible is an essential part of any classroom. I love that these authors discuss how this same thinking model can be used in other content areas, such as this one on anatomy.  

Some students may require support with such an open-ended activity and this resource provides other options that are more guided, while maintaining the goal of student-generated talk. Here are some guiding questions that might help students get started on their two-page spread: 

  • Find a gossipy moment in the book. 
  • Identify the turns in the book. 
  • Discuss a critical decision made in the chapter or book. 
  • Capture a shift in your thinking. 
  • Discuss a minor character of major importance. 
  • Pick a passage and read it the way the author intended it to be read. 
  • Identify and discuss the most important word in the passage, chapter, or book. 
  • Annotate poetry 

You can find more student spreads under “Book Love workshop handouts” on  

Kittle, Penny, and Kelly Gallagher. 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency. Heinemann, 2021.



In Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it’s off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood), Harvard Law School lecturers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen define feedback in this way:

Feedback includes any information you get about yourself. In the broadest sense, it’s how we learn about ourselves from our experiences and from other people—how we learn from life…so feedback is not just what gets ranked; it’s what gets thanked, commented on, and invited back or dropped. Feedback can be formal or informal, direct or implicit; it can be blunt or baroque, totally obvious or so subtle that you’re not sure what it is. (p. 4)

Although it is directed toward the feedback receiver, Thanks for the Feedback offers a wealth of information for educators to consider when creating the conditions for feedback to be both given and received effectively. Because they define feedback so broadly, and because we are all givers and receivers of feedback in various contexts, Stone and Heen, have written a resource that will help every reader improve their communication.

According to Stone and Heen, there are three kinds of feedback:

  1. Appreciation “is fundamentally about relationship and human connection. At a literal level it says, ‘Thanks.’ But appreciation also conveys, ‘I see you,’ ‘I know how hard you’ve been working,’ and ‘You matter to me.’” (p. 31)
  2. Coaching “is “aimed at trying to help someone learn, grow or change.” (p. 32)
  3. Evaluation “tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, or rating…Evaluations are always in some respect comparisons, implicitly or explicitly, against others or against a particular set of standards.” (p. 33)

It is important for both the giver and receiver to be aware of three potential triggers that can block feedback:

  1. Truth Triggers “are set off by the substance of the feedback itself—it’s somehow off, unhelpful, or simply untrue.” (p.16)
  2. Relationship Triggers “are tripped by the particular person who is giving us the gift of feedback. All feedback is colored by the relationship between giver and receiver, and we can have reactions based on what we believe about the giver…or how we feel treated by the giver.” (p.16)
  3. Identity Triggers “are all about us. Whether the feedback is right or wrong, wise or witless, something about it has caused our identity—our sense of who we are—to come undone.” (p.16)

Recognizing our feedback triggers helps us manage our reactions to feedback and approach it with a stance of curiosity. Knowing our tendencies to react to certain feedback in certain ways allows us to engage in feedback conversations as learners, even when we don’t agree with the feedback.

Here are a few of the key takeaways from Thanks for the Feedback for educators to consider when creating optimal conditions for giving and receiving feedback in the classroom:

  • It’s essential to align the type of feedback with its purpose and for both the giver and receiver to be aligned on the purpose for feedback.
  • Before we can determine whether feedback is right or wrong, we have to understand it.
  • Strong reactions to feedback often result in “extreme interpretations” of feedback (for example, a suggestion to change one thing is heard as “change everything”).
  • Identity is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves and when feedback contradicts or challenges our identity, it can cause our identity to unravel.
  • Even if feedback is accurate, timely, and communicated well, if it involves too many ideas or suggestions for change, it’s unlikely to be received.
  • Feedback isn’t only about the quality of its content; the quality of the relationship between giver and receiver is just, if not more, important.

Thanks for the Feedback is not specifically for educators, but many of the ideas are very applicable to feedback in the classroom context. I found the information fascinating because it sheds light on strategies to make any interaction—professional or personal, formal or informal, planned or impromptu—more effective.



There is great grace in the teaching profession. Kind, giving, thoughtful, persistent, and devoted are some of the descriptive words that come quickly to mind about the many teachers I have worked with. It has been a privilege to work with so many gifted professionals and to watch what might be called love in motion, in the service of the many wonderful students in our schools.

Reading To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy by Kari Yates and Christina Nosek suggests these qualities of an effective teacher as the authors gently scaffold the learner through a carefully constructed methodology of how to have an efficacious reading conference. It is apparent that they have spent thousands of hours thinking about and creating this method, and at the root of it all is the care and concern they have for their students and the desire to offer them the joy of becoming lifelong and passionate readers.

It struck me that this book could be taken both as a life manual and a methodology for how to hold reading conferences with students. Advice such as “Loosen up, have some fun and trust your instinct,” “Approach students with tenacity and heart,” and “It’s not helpful to be hard on yourself, so give yourself a little love,” create a hopeful and gentle space to learn or deepen the skill of working with a reader in the most effective way possible. It encourages the reader and supports the learner to take this risk.

There are many aspects of this book to like. The methodology these teachers have created appears straightforward on the surface but, like many skills worth learning, it has layers upon layers of complexity as one reads further into the skillfully crafted chapters. It is not overwhelmingly complex, however, with a careful learning scaffold that demonstrates master teachers and writers at work, spiraling back again and again to remind the reader of what has led to this point both with visual and textual reminders.

Teachers are presented with a decision-making map to follow while doing a reading conference with students. The first decision relates to determining what is going on with a reader (the know part of the conference) and whether it is related to 1) book choice 2) healthy habits 3) strategic process and 4) authentic response. More than ample details are provided on how to ask the right questions or use the right listening skills to determine what is challenging a reader. Once this information is determined, the teacher is encouraged to nurture the reader via their response which can be via 1) affirming 2) extending 3) reminding and/or 4) taking notes for future teaching.

Each chapter of the book delves into one of the eight aspects mentioned above with the first four chapters focused on the “how” of conferring, the next four on the “what” of conferring, and the last few chapters revealing the behind-the-scenes preparation work to bring it all together. The appendix provides reproducible templates to make the whole process easier. The authors remind us more than once that we are always dealing with the reader in front of us in this moment and of the consequences of over-teaching.

The book is explicit and provides very easy-to-follow questioning guides. It is so precise that it even has reflections on non-verbal cues that can be used by the teacher and what they might signal to a nervous student. It is repetitive in a helpful way when a lot of information is being provided. For example, the decision-making map is provided at the beginning of the book and reappears again and again with an intentional “you are here” arrow to help the reader move with ease throughout the landscape of the methodology.

“See it in action” videos, accessed via a QR reader, and previewing questions to focus the viewer help consolidate the techniques. It is reasonable to expect that a teacher new to readers’ conferences would be able to implement it successfully using this thoughtful manual.

“We want to be crystal clear that this is not offered as a checklist, a curriculum or sequence for teaching reading. It is simply a format for organizing all the complex and boundless possibilities, in a way that allows us to tidy up our thinking and proceed with more clarity and intention.” Reading conferences are challenging and sometimes it can seem difficult to record all that needs to be recorded. To Know and Nurture a Reader returns the focus to the heart of the matter.


Elizabeth Ann Walker is a life-long educator with a background in performance arts and wellness. A certified yoga teacher, trained sound therapist and meditator, Elizabeth has spent many years teaching literacy in Quebec and New Brunswick.



As someone who struggles with developing a writing habit, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about a book called The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in your Nonfiction Writing. Honestly, it sounded like work. And I was not expecting to be enthusiastic about reading it. But, because John Warner is also the author of “Why They Can’t Write”, which was a book I really enjoyed, I was willing to give this one a go. And I’m so glad I did!

Warner has written an entertaining and engaging book that is a roadmap for how to write non-fiction well. He developed this book through years of teaching freshman writers, most of whom couldn’t write anything beyond a five-paragraph essay.

If you teach high school ELA, I would highly recommend this book. I can envision it being a great addition to the writer’s workshop. And, at the back of the book, Warner gives you a possible sequence of the activities that you could use as mini-lessons and guided practice over 15 weeks.

As Warner says, “This book is for anyone who wants to improve their writing, which is everyone because everyone is a writer.”

You can find out more about the book here.


NOTICE AND NOTE: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst


Kylene Beers and Bob Probst are two educators who have influenced my teaching greatly. Their book “Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading” is, in my opinion, a game-changer when it comes to strategy instruction. The pair, through many years of thinking, observations, teaching students and having conversations with each other, developed a set of “Signposts” that upper elementary to high school students can use as strategies for close reading.

Here are Kylene and Bob discussing their book:

In my role as a Literacy Coach, I have co-taught the six Signposts in many classrooms, and I can attest to the fact that they work! Students embed these strategies and use them in their own independent reading. They are also fantastic tools to support students as they discuss their reading in small groups and for book club discussions. Students can also use them to respond to text.

If you are looking for mini-lessons for strategy instruction, I encourage you to check out this book. The Signposts are strategies that students can use throughout the school year to support reading comprehension. More information about this book and the authors is available here.



Thanks to a few Twitter friends, I was introduced to the fantastic resource writer/designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects by Cheryl E. Ball, Jennifer Sheppard, and Kristin L. Arola.

The authors define multimodal as “a mashup of multiple and mode” (3). A mode is how we communicate our ideas and a text is multimodal when it combines different ways of communicating. They take the approach that “a text does not have to include bright colors or interesting videos to be multimodal (although it can). Even a research paper, which is mostly words, is a multimodal text” (4).

writer/designer focuses on five modes of communication:

  1. Linguistic- the use of language including written and spoken words
  2. Visual- images and other characteristics that readers see
  3. Aural- sound such as sound effects, volume, and tone of voice
  4. Spatial- the physical arrangement of text elements
  5. Gestural- the way movement contributes to meaning (this can also be interpreted in static images)

Each mode in a multimodal text plays a part in the overall impact and message, but the full communication of a multimodal text relies on the way the modes work together. As a result, the term text is used in this context to “refer to a piece of communication as a whole. A text can be anything from a lolcat to a concert tee shirt to a dictionary to a performance” (3).

Every writer who sets out to create a text chooses modes of communicating. Designing, like writing, is a process with essentially the same fundamental goals:

  • To think critically about the kinds of communication that are needed in any given situation
  • To choose sources and assets that will help create an effective text
  • To work within and fulfill your audience’s needs and goals
  • To improve communication through the finished text
  • To create change or encourage positive action through a text (6).

One of my favorite aspects of writer/designer is the concept that the process of writing and designing are recursive, not linear. Throughout this process of designing and redesigning (writing and revising), the author uses models and their existing knowledge of text. The use of models and the invitation to reflect through Touchpoint Activities and Case Studies makes this resource incredibly user-friendly for both a reader who is new to multimodal texts and one who is looking to enhance their current practice.



In a time when people are more and more physically disconnected due to a global pandemic and only connected by the reassuring hum of the home wi-fi router, we are longing for connection. Unable to easily meet face to face, we seek out stories via television series, movies, novels, newspapers and podcasts to hear the stories of the lives of others. To connect. Stories ground us in our common humanity.

Recognizing this desire for connection and harnessing the power tools of a good story to strengthen non-fiction writing is the topic of Story Matters Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform by Liz Prather.

Prather, a teacher and a much-published freelance writer and blogger, demonstrates how to teach writing from a writer’s perspective. She shares how the most effective pieces of non-fiction are full of techniques gleaned from narrative writing to increase the reader’s ability to connect with, and thus comprehend, the topic at hand.

Starting with the assumption that not everyone will make the link between narrative tools and their use in nonfiction, the first chapter of Story Matters, amusingly entitled

“Narrative as Home Base, Ground Zero, Mother Ship,” explores both an expert mentor text and a student text using narrative skills in essays. This chapter is truly a fascinating demonstration of ways to rapidly improve non-fiction writing and provides a solid foundation for the rest of the book.

The remaining chapters explore lessons on developing writing ideas, characters, tension, structure, details, and language. The author gives permission to read and explore any chapter in any order as well as an invitation to keep showing up, practicing the skills and trying to get better. A person could learn a lot from even reading one chapter of this book.

Story Matters offers many clever, authentic and absorbing lesson ideas for budding writers than most books of this genre.  In one idea generating activity Prather has her students create a timeline called “Your Life at a Glance.” Students record important personal life events for each year of their life and then research and record world, national, cultural and local events that occurred during these same years.  Students discover areas of interest for writing fodder and develop a greater knowledge of what is happening around them, becoming more grounded in the bigger world that they inhabit.

 Prather provides her students ample opportunity to explore craft moves and to discuss why the writer used the language they did or to bring attention to what the writer left out. “I want students to see every piece of writing as an artifact of someone’s decision-making.” She notes that only 20 percent of the research gathered for an information piece is used, statistically speaking. Students are welcomed to consider how important writing decisions are made, guided by the understanding that the goal is discovery, and that writing is full of possible right combinations. They are encouraged to play “even if it doesn’t end up in the final piece of writing.” This sense of autonomy when writing is essential for authentic voice and engagement.

In another exercise, Prather cuts up essays into sections and has the students play around with how the essays could be put back together with the discussion focus being “What delivers the author’s main point most effectively and why?” This is another effective way to have students reflect on possibilities for organizing structures that they can replicate in their own craft. Prather’s writing is full of a vast number of such activity examples.

“When we sail in with hamburgers, keyholes, and hourglasses, we cut students out of all the decisions, the measuring and cutting, that makes writing meaningful ……….no one knows where to start, and writing is frustration. There are no shortcuts. Students simply need to practice this decision making over and over to get a feel for the complementary zigzag moves writers make to structure a text.”

 Story Matters is an exploration of craft, of thinking about writing, of creating a bridge between the writer and the world and between the writer and her writing. It engagingly demonstrates how far educators have come in the exploration of teaching the writing craft.


Elizabeth Ann Walker is a life-long educator with a background in the performance arts and wellness. A certified yoga teacher, trained sound therapist and meditator, Elizabeth has spent many years teaching literacy in Quebec and New Brunswick. She is an avid reader slowly working on writing about a 12-year transformative experience with Lyme disease.