Daily Writing to Deepen Math Understanding

My ELD level 1 & 2  students took the Achievement Network “Assessment 3”(a benchmark test to collect data on their progress in specific math standards) on March 23. Though each grade level (I teach 6th, 7th, and 8th graders) showed significant growth from “Assessment 2,” and in many cases outperformed the group of schools to which our school is compared, there was still something nagging at me when I looked at the data. More than half were leaving the constructed response problems blank. ABSOLUTELY BLANK. Even with all of the modeling close reading and teaching how to write sentence starters based on questions, there were so many blanks. Scoring them was incredibly frustrating: 0, 0, 0, 0.  A realization came over me: we just aren’t doing enough writing. Having students write answers in complete sentences with their reasoning just isn’t enough. So, I started implementing daily writing in my classroom on Monday, March 28, 2016.

Day 1: Do Now: Write a letter to your little brother/sister/cousin explaining what mean is. What is it? How do you find it? Draw an example to help further explain your thinking.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Missy, this is too hard!” “Y si yo no tengo hermanito o hermanita o prima?” “Ven aquí, missy, ayudame por favor.” “I don’t get it.” “What is the question?” “How do I answer?”


Day 2: Students are handed back yesterday’s writing with my written feedback. Sentence frames to support students who have trouble starting are written on the board to help support their language development.
Do Now:  When is the mean a precise indicator of a typical value in a data set? Create an example to explain your thinking further.

10 hands shoot up in the air. “Que significa indicator?” “I don’t get it!!” “Como empiezo?” “Es que yo no entiendo, missy.” “I don’t want to write, can I just tell you?” Individual conferences occur during the 12 minutes of independent writing time.

Day 4: Write Now: What does it mean when we say a number has a specific deviation from the mean?

5 hand shoot up in the air, and some students just call out (gotta keep working on that), “Close together!!” “Spread out!!!”


Day 7: Task: Write a letter to Mr. Garcia about what we have been learning so far about statistics. Make sure you are using precise language, vocabulary and definitions, and you are telling him the purpose of what we are learning. Consider examples and models to support your explanations. Questions to consider include: Why do we use data? How can we use data to describe tendencies in our world? What is mean? What are the different ways we can find it? How do we describe data distributions? What is Mean Absolute Deviation?



Day 10: Task:
Complex multi-step constructed response ANET task that synthesizes content understanding.

Silence. Writing. Productive Struggle.

Evidence I have collected on the impact of this writing includes: increased vocabulary retention, enhanced student capacity to speak academically, deeper summary  discussions, and it has also given some students who struggle with computation a chance to shine. By day 10, all students were able to access and compete the constructed response task that two weeks ago would have been left blank. Since we began, we have built up our independent writing stamina from 3 minutes before someone interrupts with  either a question or chatting, to more than 15 minutes of engaged math writers.

By reading their writing I am able to tease out the differences between students conceptual, procedural, or application understanding of the standard we are working on. But while my conferencing is more targeted and my feedback is more concrete, there have definitely been days where I have failed at implementation: either I don’t have time to give enough or even any feedback,  or my question isn’t quite as rich as it could be, or I get frustrated with students for talking during writing time and instead of redirecting them in a calm, collected, supporting manner I was just not the best teacher I could have been.

So this is all pretty great! Right? Well, I have a confession: This past week before break I haven’t been implementing the “Write Now” as much because of excuses: artifact deadlines, practice PARCC exams, the week before break. So, I decided to write this blog. To hold myself accountable. To make what I’m doing public. To make sure I keep up with what works even when it’s hard. To ask for help so that I can think of a way to make giving feedback sustainable because when I get home giving feedback to a stack of 47 Write Nows is pretty much the last thing I want to do. The truth is that implementing daily writing has made my students better statisticians, and it has made me a better teacher of statistics. Because I am the first math teacher my students have when they come to their new, scary, foreign home, it is imperative that I not only teach my students grade-level content, but also help mold them as better writers because I truly believe that being a better writer ultimately makes them better readers, speakers, thinkers, doers, and problem solvers.

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston

We are two middle school ELA teachers who teach in different neighborhoods in the Boston Public Schools. Through our WritingIsThinking collaboration, we created an Independent Reading Pen Pals Program for our students. Beginning in October, students from each class write and address letters to students in the other class across the city several times throughout the year. At the end of the year, the two classes will come together and meet one another. The following is the first in a series of posts about our process of collaboration, the blooming relationships between PenPal writers between our classrooms, and our learnings. 

penpal letters

Post 1: The Preparation

Dear Kat,

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our conversation yesterday when we talked about creating an Independent Reading Pen Pals program between our classrooms. I’m imagining a new kind of authentic engagement from our students with their independent reading books. Plus, an authentic Pen Pal letter definitely beats a typical reading response that I’ve been using in my classroom the last few years. As we make this idea into reality, we should keep the goals we talked about at the center of our work.

The first goal we set was building a community of readers across our city. We can have our students suggest books to one another, and maybe they’ll read the same book at the same time and compare their opinions. The pen pal relationship could be so crucial to the way that students approach finding their books. Maybe we can even set the expectation that they’ll meet in person before the year is out. We also talked about authentic accountability for independent reading. Because students will be “real” with one another, we will have insights as to how our students are thinking about text  and that they will select challenging texts to impress their pals. They won’t only be doing the work to please us as their teachers, but to be able to have a conversation with a peer. Finally, we spoke about the individualized nature of letter writing, and how we want kids to value the letter because it is something that another person put time into that was created just for them. This will augment engagement and make for long, fluent letters by the end of the school year.

I can’t wait to kick this off! Talk soon.




Dear Alice,

I hope these lines find you well. I am ecstatic for my students to write to yours this week! I have been talking about our upcoming partnership with my students for the last four weeks, and now the time is finally here! To help us match pen pals, I thought it would be easiest to create an excel spreadsheet in Google drive. I have inputted all of my students and some information about them that would help us match pen pals. For each student I included some of their interests based on their “Meet the Author” pieces, the types of independent reading books they have been reading thus far this year, if they have an ELD or SPED code, and some other details about what they would bring to a pen pal relationship or what I would ideally like for them to get out of one.

I have been thinking a lot about the potential these partnerships have to lift many of my students, both in regards of engagement in reading, and friendship. Here are a few of the students I am most excited for:

  • Mitchell: A sweetie-pie. He is a big kid who loves the Celtics and spends all of lunch making free throws. He is a little lonely (social pragmatics challenges) and all of his realistic fiction stories this year center around kindness and accepting everyone. He works really hard and will be a very diligent writer. I think matching him with someone who can really affirm him will be powerful!
  • Daniela: Her disability and language needs are compounded which makes her writing very challenging to read. She does produce a lot of writing in volume though. She loves animals and wants to be a vet. I will provide her with appropriate scaffolding and read her letters with her before she sends them. I would pair her with someone who is either at a similar level or has some empathy. 🙂 She loves and is currently reading the graphic novel Drama.
  • Sergio: Loves football, has a very low self esteem with regard to writing, but is a strong writer. Pairing him with someone who will ask questions and push his writing would be awesome!!!

I have also been thinking about a few of my students who have been struggling to get into independent reading this year and whom I believe this partnership could engage. I think we should be prepared that the first few letters may not be book related at all, but may just get kids writing! They may just want to talk about social topics, but I think that’s ok, as building a sense of community is one of our objectives. I think we can teach into writing about reading comprehension once the engagement is there. One of my students is constantly on my mind when I think about a need for community, and for engagement in text:

  • Armondo: Our toughest Tier 3 kid this year. He needs a lot of love and someone to listen to him. Mom just had a baby. He has been reading the Simpsons comic books this year. He hates doing assigned tasks, but I think will respond well to someone who is focused on just him. 🙂 Would benefit from having a pen pal who models what letter writing should look like. He loves football and basketball.

Since our schedules are so packed and we aren’t able to meet face-to-face before I launch the letter writing in my classroom this week, I propose we use google docs to match pen pals. Why don’t you use your class roster to try and match students based on your knowledge of your students and what I have included in the google doc. If you need any clarification on any of the students, let me know!




Dear Kat,

That google doc was the perfect idea. I matched my students in column D of the spreadsheet and, if I thought there were things that you should know about that particular student, I noted them in column E (IEP needs, language information, etc). I’ve also been talking about this relationship for the last four weeks, so kids are itching to hear from your students.



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Screenshot of google doc used by teachers to match students based on interests, strengths, and needs.

Analysis of ELL Writing Calls for Spelling Intervention

The inquiry work described below is an Analytic Memo assignment that I completed for the Boston Teachers Union’s Inquiry Project course.  I am a member of the 2015/2016 cohort of this teacher-facilitated inquiry program. This memo provides an analysis of two student writing samples: sympathy cards to President Hollande following the November terrorist attack on Paris and essays that describe Sarah Hale, the  “Grandmother of Thanksgiving”.

My goal for this school year is to improve the written expression of my middle school ESL students. I aim for my students to develop writing skills that allow them to not only fully express their ideas but also to deepen their thinking through writing. As a 9th year teacher who has always worked with ELL students, in both ESL classes and content classes, I have noticed that writing is complex for these students at the word, sentence, and discourse levels.



In the past, I have had success in developing students’ writing skills through reading response pieces with a variety of texts as well as process writing tasks with authentic audiences (i.e. a class book of personal essays titled “How I Make Boston Strong” for the Boston Police following the Boston Marathon Bombings; argument essays on the benefits of tap water over bottled water for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority Writing Contest). My teaching strategies included setting a clear purpose and audience for writing with students, modeling using transparencies and an overhead projector, using a combination of handwriting and word process technologies for draft writing, teaching techniques for writing hooks and adding details to sentences, facilitating peer editing, using student-teacher writing conferences, and, most importantly, providing lots of time for writing in class.

Although these techniques have been effective, I am always searching to learn more about how to work with students on their writing because I view writing as an essential life skill. I know that my students will be judged on their ability to write in the future, whether in academic settings or in workplaces. From collaborating with the middle school English Language Arts teachers at my school, I know that my current ESL class is composed of students who have struggled significantly with written expression. Their ELA teachers report that these students produce poor writing during their English Language Arts classes, and many of the students are long-term ELLs, having attended monolingual “English-only” education programs since kindergarten.

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My First Inquiry Question

Before getting to know my current batch of students, my question for inquiry relied on my past experience of having shorter-term ELL students who constructed mostly simple sentences in their writing:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance the variety of grammatical structures they employ in their writing?

My students in previous years had been coded as ELLs for 3 to 5 years, and they often simply needed daily writing practice and more exposure to English in order to produce more complex sentences.

However, upon analysis of my current students’ work habits and abilities, I realize that my current students are quite different. They have more writing stamina; even when given permission to check in with a friend during writing practice, they do not even whisper to one another. They remain, for the most part, completely focused on the task at hand. Consequently, they are able to produce a sufficient volume of writing. So, what exactly is holding them back from meeting the successes I have seen with students in previous years?


The WIDA MODEL Framework

Using the introductory materials from the WIDA MODEL writing assessment has helped to clarify and categorize the specific concerns most relevant to written expression for ELLs.The MODEL recognizes that it is acceptable for ELLs at the beginning and intermediate level to use copied sections of text as well as adapted (paraphrased) text in written expression as they are learning how to use the English language. However, the MODEL also maintains that the end goal is for students to produce written language that is original in both content and form, just as is expected of native English speakers.  The MODEL evaluates student writing based on three major components: linguistic complexity, vocabulary usage, and language control.

Linguistic complexity refers to the quantity of language produced. At the sentence level, are sentences simple subject+verb+object constructions, or are they expanded from this basic kernel? At the discourse level, are paragraphs organized with topic, body, and conclusion sentences? Is the presented sequence of information or order of events logical? How much does the student write in a given time frame?

Vocabulary usage refers to the variety and sophistication of words the writer uses. Are the words general high-frequency words or more specific “Tier 2” vocabulary? Are students capable of using content-specific technical vocabulary in their writing? Are the same vocabulary words repeated, or are there synonyms that add variety to the writing?

Language control includes not only grammar (morphology and syntax) and mechanics (spelling, punctuation, and capitalization), but also precision with word choice. Is the student using precisely the right word in precisely the right place in the language sequence?

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Close Reading of Student Writing

With the lens of the MODEL in mind, I took a close look at two writing assignments from my current students. The first writing assignment was a short essay on the life and accomplishments of a historical figure. Students had about half of a class period (30 minutes) to complete this assignment. The second assignment was a sympathy letter to French President Francois Hollande following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. This assignment was completed over two class periods, and it required students to write a rough draft as well as a final draft.

Link to Google Doc with Analysis Notes

On a positive note, I was impressed by the expanded sentences that many students employed in their writing. However, I was struck by the lack of conventions in spelling, particularly those related to morphology in areas such as pluralization (i.e. countrys – This student did not automatically know to “change the y to an i and add “es” or makeing – This student did not know to “drop the e and add -ing”.) I wonder how much their writing would improve with greater use of conventional spelling.

It must be exhausting for the students to constantly have to guess at the spellings of words. Imagine how much this slows them down and interferes with their abilities to get their thoughts down on paper. For example, S. is working so hard to spell so many words through application of sound-symbol correspondence; however, this is typical of a 1st grade monolingual emergent writer, and S.is a 6th grade student who has been in the Boston Public Schools for 7 years. A., due to either spelling or vocabulary, gives up on producing original ideas and relies on copying chunks of text. I wonder if the students are even aware how much their spelling interferes with the meaning in their writing. Do they know that their spelling is irregular and would not make sense to a non-teacher reader?

Other points that struck me were lack of attention to capitalization and use of periods, as well as the erratic placement of commas. Can the students internally sense the phrasing of their writing – do they “hear their writing breathe”? When they read independently, are they able to sort of the rhythm and structures of phrases as they read? Do my students read aloud fluently? Can they mark or scoop a sentence for its breath?


My conclusion is that my students need support with writing conventions in order to improve the decisions they make about the marks they are putting on the page. It is tempting to ignore their errors and move forward with the “fun” of teaching the content of reading and writing. However, I would be ashamed had my students gone through this year with me, a professional and experienced educator, recognizing this problem and doing nothing about it, especially since my training as a reading specialist did give me some background in multi-sensory strategies for teaching encoding. So, I must plan a course of action that supports my students in developing as writers.

My Second Inquiry Question and My Plan

First, I have revised my inquiry question:

Through what metacognitive and multisensory means might students enhance their use of conventional spelling and punctuation in their writing?

Second, I have a few resources I would like to use with my students, including the spelling and word study curriculas Words by Marcia Henry and Language! by Sopris Voyager, as well as the secondary grammar text Grammar Explorer by Cengage.  I also want to explore expanding the 1:1 encoding techniques I learned as a student at the MGH Communication Sciences & Disorders Clinic for use in whole class classroom context.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 12.40.50 PMI plan to conduct a better analysis of which syllable types they struggle to encode by assessing my students using the Moats Primary Spelling Inventory. Finally, for my research articles as well as my book review, I want to seek out resources on spelling and conventions instruction for ELLs.

Right now, the goal of teaching spelling and conventions to middle school ELLs seems tedious and daunting, but I know the students really need it. I am making a promise to myself to ensure that the work ahead is engaging, connected, and relevant to my students, as I know how much they need these spelling and conventions skills for their future. Readers of their job applications and college admissions letters will be extremely distracted by the form of their writing as it is now, and most will infer that incorrect conventions are a sign of weak ideas and arguments. If this problem is not fixed, it will have future consequences for the 15 children in my classroom.


Facilitating the Writing Process in Early Career Teaching: When Students Lack Confidence

I will never forget the first major writing assignment I gave back to my 7th grade history students. It was late September, and we were mid-way through a unit on the local election for the new mayor of Boston. Students had drafted a letter to the new mayor presenting their concerns for their communities. They had spent several days typing letters full of passionate ideas and suggestions for the new mayor. I burned the midnight oil to return their drafts promptly so we wouldn’t lose momentum in our unit. I wrote all over their papers in brilliant fuschia, mint, teal, and tangerine hues, thinking these colors would evoke more positivity than the dreaded red markups I remembered receiving from teachers when I was their age. I underlined persuasive phrases and wrote encouraging comments like “Wow! This suggestion is so innovative!” and “What an awesome insight into your community!” I also looked for places where students could elaborate on a need in their community and inserted questions to prompt further explanation.

Sleep deprived from staying up so late providing written feedback, but excited to give them my thoughtful suggestions, I stood at the door, smiling, and enthusiastically welcomed my students into class. What transpired next could not have gone more differently than what I had envisioned. I handed back my students’ work, and even before I could utter how proud I was of them for producing their first draft of the year with as much creativity and passion as they had, one of my students threw her paper on the floor, pushed back her chair, and with a large “humph” sound, buried her head on her desk under her arms. This young lady’s response to receiving her work knocked the wind out of me for a moment. And she wasn’t the only one! Looking around the room, I saw many faces fall, a few students began to well up with tears, and some students tore their papers into confetti sized pieces, scattering them across the floor in their haste to get rid of the revisions. In hindsight, handing back student work without prefacing my takeaways, process for providing feedback, and introducing what we would do with the feedback, was a “rookie” mistake.

I was confused by their reactions, given that much of what I had written on their papers was positive acknowledgements of what they had done well as writers. When had their relationship with writing gone wrong? Was this developmental? Did they take feedback as a sign that they were poor writers? Did they know how to respond to or implement feedback? Was this my fault? All of these thoughts ran through my mind, as I quickly strategized to salvage the block of time and also their fractured scholarly egos in that moment. I told the students to put their papers in their desks for a moment, asked each of them to look at me, and told them how proud I was of them. I also told them that we all need at least a second set of eyes when we are publishing work. I said something like, “We want the Mayor to respect our voices when he receives our letters and thus, we need to make sure that our voices are as professional and polished as possible.” I told them that we would spend the next day working on revising our work. I told them to read my comments and circle three comments of praise they agreed with and two revision suggestions where they were going to further their work.

Once the majority of the room was focusedon the task I had given, I was able to work on soothing the few students who were still visibly upset. In talking to the young lady who physically shut down when she received her work, I realized that she had been unaware there would be more than one draft of the writing assignment. She had panicked when she saw all the writing on her paper because she thought it meant she had done lots of things wrong. She couldn’t remember ever writing more than one draft of a piece of writing. As a side note, it should be acknowledged that this cohort of students experienced a lot of schooling disruptions during their 6th grade year. I know from cross-grade collaboration with herprevious teachers however, that she and her peers had experienced the steps of the writing process in earlier grades. The more students I talked to, the more a trend began to emerge. Although students had completed steps of the writing process in previous grades, the majority had not internalized or engaged in metacognitive thinking about the steps in the process enough to implement them with independence and confidence.

Over the course of the remainder of the year, I tried different peer and teacher feedback protocols. I tried a 3, 2, 1 peer revision protocol where students use the rubric to choose three things their peer writer did well, two copy edits, and one suggestion to add or delete a piece of their writing. I used different types of rubrics, both teacher generated, and student created through examination of mentor texts and class discussion. I ended the year with one major question: How could I build a classroom culture where students had confidence in, internalized, and were able to apply the steps of the writing process to a myriad of content related writing tasks? Experiencing moments of frustration, confusion, and struggle are essential for student growth, academic confidence building, and transference of skills. I wanted to ascertain how to provide the conditions for productive struggle, not defeat.

Example of feedback provided for student on assignment rubric.


This article is the first in a series of articles that will address facilitating the writing process in early career teaching.

But How Long Can YOU Write For?

In the most recent publication of the American Educator, Daniel T. Willingham’s article “For the Love of Reading” explores several methods for engaging students not only in moments of reading, but in a life-long love of it. I was struck particularly by a section of the article called “I’m Bored. Fix it.” in which Willingham offers:

“The consequence of long-term experience with digital technologies is not an inability to sustain attention. It’s impatience with boredom. It’s an expectation that I should always have something interesting to watch, read, and listen to, and that creating an interesting experience should require little effort….we just have a very low threshold for boredom.”

As an English/language arts teacher, I see my students struggle to sustain focus while reading. Each day, we chart the amount of time we read on a line graph, one color per class. The hope is that if students are aware of good reading habits and have the incentive of seeing the line graph trend upward (perhaps faster than the other classes), they will build stamina and a love of reading will follow. The graph does not motivate students for the entire school year, but at the beginning of the year especially, it incentivizes focus and sustained reading. After the habits are solidified, the graph becomes less important.

I began to ponder how to support my students as they built that same stamina as writers – how could I structure an activity varied enough to hold interest and generate content, but consistent enough that students can recognize progress over time?

My conversations with mentor teachers about that question landed me in the pages of Rain, Steam, and Speed (Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky), which offered many ideas about how to build writing stamina in a middle school classroom. I read them, as teachers do, with my own students in mind, and took off running.

The premise was to give students a consistent atmosphere for writing, a clear expectation for what the writing should look like and how it would be graded, and engaging prompts to hold student attention and inspire thoughtful responses. The set-up also includes incremental increases in the time limit as students get more accustomed to the task.

To generate interest, I started off, as suggested, by having students personalize their journals. They spent a class period collaging, sketching, and markering their identities onto manila folders. The next day, I gave them a long spiel about the procedures for writing—the “how it works” talk—and then we gave it a go.

Scooby Journal      Carl B Journal

The consistent atmosphere for writing mirrors the consistent atmosphere that I build in my classroom for reading. The routine that Rain, Steam, and Speed suggests is that when students arrive, the prompt is written on the board. The same student passes out the journals each day. Before writing, one student reads the prompt aloud. The teacher, after thanking the student for his/her bravery, rephrases the prompt and checks for understanding. Then the music starts, and students write. I followed that routine, though I found it was easiest to project the prompt rather than write it long-hand because students had an easier time deciphering it.

As the year went on, I watched my students compete with and best themselves. Several students who started the year with only a few sentences per entry ended the year writing several pages on a single topic. This effect, which Fleming and Pike-Baky call “Writing Fluency,” normalizes the development of ideas while writing. A student does not have to be sure that an idea is “right” before adding it to an essay, nor does the student need to check in with a teacher about grammar and spelling before putting a sentence on the page.

As a result of this practice, students develop a confidence in their own work, and especially an ease to getting started that I had not seen before. This is not to say, however, that we did not hit road bumps. It took a lot of convincing for some of my students to pick up their pencils, and some of my prompts fell flat. But one of the most frustrating parts of this experiment for me was that the positive results that, though students were becoming more fluent writers in my E/la classroom, they were not applying that fluency in their other content classes.

As any teaching team begins to see students as writers in all contents, it seems that conditions, expectations, and engagement can be handled similarly across content classes to trigger that same confidence and stamina. Normalizing writing as a method of thinking and giving students practice helped them through boredom and exhibit their thought processes through writing. For example, I can see students writing in the same conditions that I used in my classroom on the many possible outcomes of an experiment before trying it out in a science class or explaining the best way to approach a thought problem in math. Once students find value in thinking through writing, they can use it as a tool to deepen their understanding of content and concepts.

Near the end of that school year, I overheard one of my students talking with an eighth grader (one year older) about high school. The conversation got a little competitive, and after the eighth grader elaborated on all the high schools where she had been accepted and the grades she had gotten that year, my student looked at her and asked, “But how long can you write for?”