Using Quick Writes as Authentic Writing Spaces for Volume Development




Student writing volume is an under-invested component in establishing students as writers.  I have several theories for this, but all lead to the same conclusion–it’s hard.  It’s hard for kids to write more and well because collectively I don’t think we are as intentional about building student writing stamina as we are about building their reading stamina. It’s also hard for teachers because the more they write the more we have to read.  That takes time and it feels overwhelming.

While these are all very real and valid reasons, I’m still left with an itch I can’t ignore called hypocrisy.  If I believe readers need to read more to become better readers, the same has to be true for writing.  So why do my expectations differ?  Why do I encourage my kids to read more to get better at reading, but not write more to get better at writing?

Oh, yeah.  It’s hard.  But then I remember the wise words of Mary Ehrenworth and know I have to do the hard things more.  The hard things don’t get easier, and I don’t become more proficient at them, if I avoid them.

I had to scratch this itch.  To do so I began reflecting on where to start this work knowing everyone would feel its weight.  The purpose of getting kids to write more was not about giving a grade.  The purpose was about building stamina in a way that resulted in increased volume.  So, where does writing exist that I don’t grade?  I didn’t want to create something new (enter overwhelming feelings) and  I don’t want kids to feel the additional weight of it being assigned a score (doing this makes me a hypocrite again. It doesn’t match my purpose. I don’t need any new itches.)


We typically start each unit of writing with a series of quick writes over the span of several days.  This serves as the immersion phase into our new unit,  allowing students to explore and experiment with the style and genre of writing they are about to embark upon.  Additionally, it gives our students the opportunity for “joyful, ungraded practice” as advised by the incredibly brilliant Penny Kittle.  If I can center students in an environment where they feel liberated as writers, and engaged in the act of it, that’s where I can find our real potential for volume and stamina.  My quick write environment typically provides just that.

To track this goal, I have set up a graph to show progress.  It looks similar to our reading stamina graph, only we track words, sentences, paragraphs or pages, not minutes.

Our set-up for quick writes is this:

  1. Look at and examine the picture, infographic, writing, etc.
  2. Think
  3. Write
  4. Talk
  5. Write

Students get five minutes to write for steps 3 and 5.  After our very first quick write we average how much we were able to write as a class for a collective ten minutes.  This is our baseline data.  As the unit and year progresses, we work to increase this amount by words and sentences (primary level) and paragraphs and pages (intermediate level).

Just as we monitor volume for reading, I am working to do this same thing for students as writers.  When it is higher?  When is it lower?  Perhaps our volume goals will even differ by genre.  As I navigate this for the first time, I’m not exactly sure where it will go or what I will find.  I have assumptions, and I’m looking forward to seeing how, or if, students will fulfill those.  Regardless, I know the information this provides will make my instruction more intentional.

And scratch that dang itch.


Text, Tool, and Thought: Survivors Club by Michael Bornstein

Survivors Club


In the book, Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Prisoner of Auschwitz, Michael Bornstein joins his daughter to tell the tragic and miraculous story of his family and their will to survive the evils of World War II.  Michael Bornstein’s family lived in Zarki, Poland in 1939.  In October of the same year, the the Jewish community was invaded by Nazi soldiers as World War II began rearing its horrendous, hateful head.  Despite a heavy Gestapo and Nazi presence, Zarki would remain an open ghetto.  (It is still remembered as being one of the more favorable ghettos to have resided, despite the unspeakable crimes witnessed by its inhabitants).  Shortly after the invasion, Michael’s mamishu (mother) learned she was pregnant with him and he was born into the ghetto on May 2, 1940.  What transpired over the next four years of Michael’s young life can only be told by the author himself.  His family got separated time and again, but when life in the ghetto is all you know this is your norm. Ultimately forced into Auschwitz, Michael soon realized his family’s luck had run out.  They could not survive this.  Or could they?


This book serves as a powerful example of narrative nonfiction.  Michael tells his story in such a profound, yet protected, way for his young audience, without losing any authenticity of the era or his life.  As many of our students launch the year with some form of narrative writing–whether formal or informal–this book shows exactly why our personal stories must be shared.

Potential Craft Moves to Highlight:

  • power of personal accounts
  • embedding another language to connect to larger message (Yiddish terms are used consistently to highlight the family’s commitment to their faith; German terms are used when Nazis are talking to show how misplaced and misunderstood they were in the community)
  • theme–migration, war, poverty, family, faith, marginalization, death, crime, power… (the list goes on)

In connection to bullet one, having students interview family members about powerful stories in their lives could serve as a brainstorming tool to pull in those deeper, more meaningful moments in our lives.  It might look something like this:

  • What different parts of the world is our family from?
  • How do those places connect with my life today?  Food?  Clothing?  Religion?  Family traditions? Home? Music?  Art?
  • Why are these cultural components so important to our family?
  • How do we keep our family history alive?  How can I keep it alive through my narrative nonfiction writing?

The interview does not have to be long–remember, we’re just brainstorming at this point.


So often when our kids begin narrative writing they want to talk about winning a video game (likely Minecraft), their trip to the local amusement park, or that one time they got a great Christmas present.  And we sigh.  There has to be more.  How am I going to get this child to see there’s more?

Additionally, we live in a society where our demographics are changing at a steady pace. If we want to know our neighbors, we have to listen to their stories.  More importantly, if we want to know ourselves, we have to know our own.  This is where understanding and empathy are birthed, and connections to others become meaningful and lasting.  Culturally relevant teaching has never been more important, and how many of our students really know and understand their own history?

As I read this book, I could not help but think how much of this author’s young life has impacted every facet of his being as he’s grown into an adult.  Certainly, our students are not likely to have stories as harrowing.  But some will, and they can’t be ignored.  Those who don’t still have important stories to tell.  Connect with families to learn student stories through the interview builds vital relationships for the year and gets them involved in their child’s learning right away.  More importantly, for our students it creates an outlet for writing to be connected to self-discovery.  I can’t think of a more essential audience than that.


Two additional picture books that could serve as mentor text:

  1. Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruus (this text can connect thematically with migration, poverty, war, hardship, etc. and bring about meaningful cultural conversations connected to these themes.  The story is told in Arabic and English, showing the power of bringing in another language as well).
  2. Mirror by Jeannie Baker (this text shows life in the Middle East on one side of the text, and in the U.S. on the other side.  This helps kids see all the small day-to-day activities that create the culture we live in.  As they start to think about stories they have connected to their culture, this can help them see all that culture entails).

Andy Takes Action: A Text, Tool, and Thought


Andy Takes Action


This entry is introducing a new type of post that will be featured the first week of each month on the blog.  There are so many amazing books out there, and we continually find ourselves wanting to know new titles and how to use them, so that is exactly what this monthly post will do–introduce a new text, provide ideas/tools for how to use it, and capture a few thoughts on the importance of the message to our students.  And our first one is a real gem!  I know it’s the last week of August, but it’s too good to hold back.  So, what does that mean for you?  You get a “Text, Tool, Thought” post next week, too!


Andy Takes Action is a book I happened upon in a small art museum gift shop in Philadelphia.  The author, Valerie Lang, attends Moore College of Art and Design with an emphasis in illustration, and also works in the gift shop!  When I saw this book, I knew it was perfect for launching the school year.  I snagged it, she signed it, and I have dearly embraced this book ever since!

In the book, Andy aspires to be an action hero despite being mocked by his peers for having such an audacious dream.  As events play out at school where action is needed, Andy learns, with the help of his teacher, that Andy has what it takes to make his dream come true. More importantly, his peers do too.


Craft Moves:  

  • repetition
  • quotations/dialogue
  • word style and formatting–color, size
  • balancing action, dialogue, and thoughts in a text
  • symbolism–cape, helmet

Theme/Central Message: 

  • community
  • activism
  • individuality

word formatting demo notebook tool

A tool I created in my demonstration notebook outlines how word formatting impacts a text.  So many times we ask students to thread a theme or message throughout the text, or try out repetition and they struggle to do so.  Once students have written a draft, have them review it.  What words are repeated?  Why?  Do they have meaning?  Are they connected to your theme?  Could we make them look differently?

Additionally, your aesthetic learners who might resist writing, would love to start out in an artistic way.  What words are coming to you write now that are driving your piece?  Write them out in an artistic way.  What impact are you wanting them to have on your reader?  Start with a single word–I like to call it a piece’s “essence word,” and let the writing grow from there.

I also used this book with a primary teacher to help set a tone of unity while building community at the start of the year.  We had the students think about their natural strengths, and how those could be used to empower and help others throughout year.  They made capes stating how they were going to be action heroes, and then we used those words to help us draft our class mission statement.  We have coined the term ‘hero’ into our class name, and continually think about what positive action looks like in different situations throughout our day.  It has definitely established a proactive, rather than reactive, stance to our thinking, words, and actions.  It’s been wonderful to watch students help each other out, and then exclaim, “I was just an action hero!”  Yes, yes, you were.  Keep being just that.


Taking action in our world today has never been more important.  We see the news, we know the issues, and we know action needs to be taken to right them.  But too often it feels too big or our lives are too busy, and so we show compassion and empathy, and move on.

 That’s awful, but what can I do?  When would I even find the time to do it?  It seems so big.  What does the first step even look like?

Yes, these are all valid thoughts and reasons.  However, what we must remember is that systems, whether broken or functioning, were created by individuals with a vision.  The only way the broken systems are going to be taken down or remedied is in the same way.  It starts with us.  And at the even more cellular level, it starts with us being a model of action for the generation looking up to us-our students, and our very own kids.  We are in an age where being a compassionate, empathetic onlooker is not enough.  And Andy is just the character to show us that our actions being big or small is not what matters, it’s that action was taken and you were brave enough to do it.

Crashing Through Comfort Zones: Finale


new beginning

I’ve become painfully aware of the past week how demanding daily blogging can be.  As I sit at home today with a sick son, I’m finishing up my blog series.  Indeed, a few days late. Thank you for being patient.  As the members of the district I work in attend convocation this morning, I’m gathering some rousing words of my own to energize me for the year.


This week we embark on “Back to School” week and become inundated with apples, pencils, excessive wine consumption memes, and lethargic children, we need quiet.  Quiet to recharge, quiet to reflect, quiet to create a vision that focuses us in the madness.

This weekend I had the opportunity to have Saturday morning coffee (or bloody marys…) with two of the fiercest women I know.  They are not complacent, and because they are not complacent they see deeper, think stronger, envision greater.  Which also means they challenge uncomfortably and meaningfully.  I’m privileged to get to sit in this intellectual space. So as the new school year dawns, and I think about space and place, I’m making a conscious effort to fine new ones.  To seek out opportunities never before capitalized upon, growing my boundaries both literally and figuratively.   Part of my reimagine mission, includes reimagining myself.  We are built by our unique experiences.  I’m spending this year seeking them out.  I’m not waiting for them to come to me.

I’ve already got three lined up:

All events are free and welcome the entire community.  I’d encourage you to join me if any pique your interest.

I’ve also made the decision to give up television this fall.  For me this space and place breeds passivity in my life.  Complacency lurks here.  I have four 300+ page books I want to read.  I thought I’d get them read over the summer, but that didn’t happen so I’m saying goodbye to the screen.  These books are focused around community, activism, and truth. The television will never offer me that.  Even in a place as comfortable as my home, I reimagining what it looks like–what potential can exist here?

Whether you crash through your comfort zone blindly as I did with summer school, or stick one toe out in the vast waters of the ocean, I encourage each of you to truly reimagine what this year could be for you personally or professionally.  What’s that itch you’ve always had?  What’s keeping it from happening?  Who could help me scratch that itch and bring it to life?  Think beyond your comfortable circle.  Find new people, make connections, dare to think differently, and in doing so you’ll expand your tribe.  You’ll create one that raises the bar for possibilities, and stomps over every roadblock along the way, because we are doing the damn thing.  Whatever the thing is, we. are. doing. it.

The human existence was not made for boxes and boundaries.  If you do nothing else, be keenly aware of where these exist, and who’s putting them there.  Am I putting myself in this box or someone else or a system?  Does it have to be this way?  What does it look like to break down this box, enlarge this boundary?  Does it need to be here at all?

What does effective action look like?  And then take it!

Because in the words of  Denis Waitley, “The real risk is doing nothing.”


new adventures



Crashing Through Comfort Zones: Community Connections


I recently finished the book, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.  A beautiful and harrowing story of migration, Hamid addresses the delicate fragility of the unknown through the delicate placement of his words.  These particular ones caused me pause.

“…and she had known the names of almost everyone on her street, and most had been there a long time, they were old California, from families that were California families, but over the years they had changed more and more rapidly, and now she knew none of them, and now all these doors from who knows where were opening, and all sorts of strange people were around, people who looked more at home than she was, even the homeless ones who spoke no English, more at home maybe because they were younger, and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it.

We are all migrants through time.”

As a summer school principal, I was a migrant.  I traveled from a place where I knew the streets and people well, to an alien land where I became the intruder. A transplant.  Just as an organ works to connect to the new body it’s been placed, I too, sought to connect to a main artery in this community.

This foreign land was mere miles from my daily “home,” yet I might as well have been thousands of miles away.  To this end, we keep our sense of community too small. It centers around my school, my neighborhood, my church, my family.  Communities are much wider than this, but we keep them narrow. Narrow is safe and means I don’t have to extend myself as much.  I position myself in a place where I feel comfortable my needs will be met.  What about others’ needs?  Communities aren’t supposed to be self-serving. Communities are about connecting and building a foundation of belonging. It moves beyond focus on self to focus on others, upholding a more universal ideal.

So, this year I’m looking for the migrants.  The misfits, the rebels, the outsiders.

Those who feel lost amidst an educational landscape that’s become unrecognizable.

Those navigating the construct of a system to work for their kids.

Those joining new teams.

Those teaching new grades.

The frustrated and defeated.

The beaten and bloody.

Young and old alike.

I’m looking for the migrants.

I’m saying, “Let’s connect.  You are not alone.”







Crashing Through Comfort Zones: Power of Presence



For 23 days, presence was not just asked of me;  it was demanded.  Not demanded by the people around me, but demanded by the situation itself and its newness in my world.  The option to “check out ” simply wasn’t one.  And it was a gift.  An exhausting and exhilarating gift.

For those familiar with Strengths Finder, two of my top five strengths are learner and WOO (winning others over).  Those who know me well are not surprised by this.  I want to know everything, and why it works, and even after that I’ll probably still have some questions,  and I want others to like me.  Summer school left them split.  I had everything to learn, and with all the learning there was little left for WOOing.  Having to leave WOO behind was liberating.  All my energy had to be focused on listening and hearing and remembering and applying and problem-solving and negotiating and…

My physical presence, that typically displays a charismatic smile to warm others up to me, was overshadowed by the mental presence required of me to think through all the situations and tasks from the lens of student, teacher, families, custodian, cafeteria manager, transportation, administrative assistants, etc.  I left so many people off emails that should have been on them, I’m sure I drove them mad.  Typically my work evolves around teacher, student, or building.  Sometimes all three, but rarely.  But this summer, my work encompassed so much more, and so many more.  And as I was stretched to new levels of thinking and connecting, I realized how complacent I had become.

Complacency is a lurker.  A silent, profound stalker with a constant presence. But we welcome it into lives everyday like it’s the opposite.  Like it’s a long lost friend we’ve been waiting to see.  Because complacency is also sly, sneaking in at our most unsuspecting moments.

“Mommy play with me.”  // “Give me five minutes.”  (which turns to 20 or never, and we let it be. Life’s busy.”)

“Honey, date night soon?” // (vaguely) “Sounds good,” while scrolling through FB, answering an email, or adding art to our latest snap.  You fight later about never getting a date night.

I’m going to run 4 miles today.  Yes, I can run 4. // After a mile, three sounds good.  It’s just me out here.  At least I’m doing something, right?  Yeah, I’ll do three today.  Four will be my goal next week.

And so the script continues.  We become comfortable with our routines, and in turn, complacent.

As I prepare to enter my 6th year as an instructional coach, my job and the people that surround me will largely stay the same.  I feel complacency lurking.  I feel a level of knowing, of comfort, that could easily allow me to let this year pass as others have.  And everything would be fine.  But I’m not striving for fine. So, I’m forcefully shoving it away by asking myself,

“How can I keep my job fresh and new and real? What do I still want to know about those I work with?  What about my job can I re-imagine?

I want to feel as alive as I did this summer, where the newness and unknown required a level of presence I rarely give.  I’m going to sit in those disturbing places that don’t have quick answers, and really navigate the terrain.  I’m going to reach out to others to help me.  To those I don’t know as well.  I’m not going to say, “It is what it is” or “This too shall pass.”

I’m stepping in.

I’m disrupting.

I’m engaging.

Let’s leave a mark.  

Blog Series: Crashing Through Comfort Zones



Since my last post, I’ve been asked so many questions about my summer school experience.  In the coming week, I am going to challenge myself to blog daily and answer those questions through all that I learned in those 23 days.  As a payoff for making it through the last one, they will be short and sweet.  Along the way, I hope you’ll find some inspiration on crashing through your own comfort zone in the coming year.

Monday: Power of Presence

Tuesday: Community Connections

Wednesday: Trusting in the Unknown

Thursday:  Rallying Relationships

Friday:  Appreciating Place and Space

Saturday: Just Do It

Let’s go!