The Power of Quick Writes

by Elizabeth Dobler

I have recently arrived home from the International Literacy Association annual conference, which was held in Boston earlier this month. I enjoyed delicious seafood, a tour of the Boston Public Library, and a great conference. I attended one session on writing instruction in which presenters Harvey Daniels and Sara Ahmed spoke about the power of the quick write as an instructional activity. The Common Core State Standards have brought about a renewed interest in writing instruction and practice in the classroom, but the standards appear to promote longer, more-research-focused types of writing. Ahmed and Daniels emphasized the need for shorter writing activities to build writing stamina and lead up to the longer, more involved pieces that integrate the revising, editing, and publishing phases of the writing process. Daniels’ words really stuck with me: “Students need to write two, three, . . . seven, eight times a day.”

Quick writes are short bursts of writing that can be a brief self-contained piece or one that leads to a longer piece of writing. The focus of a quick write is to get words on paper (or screen) quickly. While the author may reread and make minor changes when writing, perfecting the piece of writing is not the goal of the activity. A quick write may be a good opening activity during a writing workshop, to get students into the writing mindset; it can be used as a transition activity between lessons in two different content areas; or it may be a method for activating prior knowledge at the beginning of a lesson or reflecting on learning at the end of a lesson.

The great thing about quick writes is their unintimidating nature—asking students to write for three (or however many) minutes straight allows writers to feel successful with their writing. Letting them know that this piece of writing will not be graded and does not always lead to a longer piece of writing (which, for the student, may imply more work) frees up young writers and lets them experience the joy of investing a part of themselves into writing. These small successes can build confidence and yield long-term payoffs.

I have used quick writes with the teacher education students in my courses. At first, some find it difficult to just sit and write. They may feel that what we are doing isn’t important, so they don’t really need to participate and instead feel the pull of their cell phone or tablet to fill down time. However, when they see that I am writing, also, many will take up a pen or turn to their keyboard. I begin to see students “activate their writing selves.” They turn inward, become quiet, look down and write—sometimes two, three, . . . seven, eight times a day.

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Lazy User Model

What does it mean to have a “lazy classroom?” On Literacy Beat, Thomas DeVere Wolsey discusses the Lazy User Model, the implications it can have on learning, and how to support students as new concepts or new technology is introduced. See the full article here.

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Resources for Educators: Developing a Personal Learning Network

by Elizabeth Dobler


When I was a new teacher, thirty years ago, I joined the local reading association. We met monthly to plan literacy activities for schools and the community. Many of those in my group also joined the state and international reading association, now called the International Literacy Association, which has 70,000 members worldwide. Membership in local, state, national, and international associations provided the sources for most of my professional development as an early-career educator.

Today I still belong to these associations, but attendance has decreased dramatically. Our local meetings typically have 5 to 7 people, and our state conference attendance is down from about 800 to 100 or so. What has changed? Where are educators making connections to others, learning about their field, joining together to promote literacy?

It’s not difficult to answer this question – the Internet provides educators with opportunities to network online through webinars, podcasts, blog posts, social media, video-chat, e-newsletters, and other resources, all from the comfort of a cushy chair, in bunny slippers.

Some of my favorite online resources include:

  • offers many free webinars; I often sign up for them and view the webcast when I have time.

I love being able to find information online to match my learning interests and style.

As those who help to prepare teachers, it’s important we share our own personal learning network, or collection of resources that support our growth as educators. Whether we make use of online or face-to-face resources, our students will benefit from hearing where we turn to continue learning.

Talk about your favorite resources or organizations and explain why you made these choices. If you are a member of a local, state, or national/international association, share your story of joining and participating in the organization and what you gain from it. Display some of the digital resources you use to continue learning and provide information for finding a certain blog or signing up for a newsletter. By describing your choices and inviting new teachers to consider their own, you are encouraging the transition from student to teacher and emphasizing the fact that, for teachers, learning is a process, rather than a destination.

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Pinterest: An Interactive Tool for Instructors

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey and HHP

pinterestOne of the exciting features of Teaching the Language Arts: Forward Thinking in Today’s Classrooms is its interactive, digital content. The authors are excited to add a new community feature by introducing boards on the Pinterest page hosted by our publisher, Holcomb Hathaway.

As you know, the authors of Teaching the Language Arts are proponents of visual literacies, and Pinterest boards make use of images to enhance learning. Resources and ideas are saved by picking an image to “pin” to a virtual bulletin board. You can choose to organize topics for your own virtual bulletin boards, and then view and save your own pins. We hope you will join us by following our boards and repinning what you find helpful to your own boards. This is an effective way to organize resources for use in your classroom. Three boards that will be of particular interest to readers of Teaching the Language Arts are:

Literacy Education

Technology for the Classroom

Literacy in the Disciplines

The Holcomb Hathaway Pinterest site also offers a Literacy Assessment board.

Pinterest is easy to use, especially if you login with your Facebook or Twitter account. If you aren’t already productively pinning ideas, it’s easy to start:

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Teaching Students Digital Organization Skills

by Elizabeth Dobler

digitalorganizationA teacher, Mike, recently told me about a student who was ready to submit an assignment but couldn’t remember where he had digitally saved it, so he completely recreated the assignment. Yikes!

Technology provides us with vast ways to find, store, and use information, but students need instruction, modeling, and practice to develop the digital organization skills needed for success. Encourage students to try these tips to develop effective habits for digital organization.

Utilize an online tool for keeping track of web resources. Online tools for cultivating web resources enable the user to sort favorite websites into folders or collections that can be tagged for easy retrieval and shared with others. Zotero and Diigo, social bookmarking websites, give the option of adding an icon onto the browser toolbar so users can save websites. They also let users form groups for easy website sharing. Pinterest displays favorite websites by visual image and can be used to organize resources by topics.

Use project folders to organize resources. When beginning a project, my first step is to create a new folder on my desktop, and then I can add related resources as needed. On my iPad, I use the share symbol to put website icons onto my home screen. I can then join them to form a folder.

Learn to match information with its source. When I find useful information on a website, I copy it into a Word document and then use the comment feature to document the source URL and link it to the content. Google Docs has a research feature that lets a user search online for more information while still working within the document instead of toggling back and forth between webpages and the document.

Create a system for saving drafts and finished products. I label my documents and projects in a similar way each time, including the title, date, and draft version, then immediately save it to the project folder. I save a work-in-progress or finished product onto my cloud storage space (e.g. iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box) for safekeeping and convenience.

Share some of your digital organization disasters with students to emphasize the importance of practicing good habits (like the story of my colleague who spilled a cup of coffee on her laptop and lost everything). If students can instill these habits early they may avoid disasters and the kind of pain and anguish suffered by Mike’s student.




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Literacy in the Disciplines

by Diane Lapp and Thomas DeVere Wolsey

2 We want to tell you about an exciting project we’ve been working on that connects experts in various disciplines with teachers and literacy professors. We believe that when great minds meet, wonderful ideas emerge. In our series of vidcasts and podcasts, teachers, artists, musicians, engineers, and technologists have wide-ranging conversations about the role of literacy in the disciplines and in their careers. We invite you to take a look at this growing library of conversations about language and how it shapes thinking about a discipline and vice-versa. The voices of the teachers in these conversations put into perspective the preparation of students for college, careers, and citizenry.

These conversations suggest that while significant aspects of disciplinary work cut across the domains of inquiry, there are important differences to which educators might attend as they work with students in disciplinary classes. We found important differences, as noted by disciplinary experts, related to vocabulary, reading and writing patterns and habits, approaches to the use of visual information, and use of sources. At the same time, we found a commonality we should have expected and did not. In almost every case, the disciplinary experts were concerned about their ability to use highly technical or academic language with clients, customers, and colleagues who were not experts in their domains of inquiry. They expressed the need to be precise in their language without overwhelming their intended audience. They all emphasized that the precision of communication was the most important literacy skill in their job success.

3 The teachers as experts of pedagogy in their disciplines frequently elaborated on the points from the disciplinary expert interviews in terms of what their students should learn. Each teacher, as a content expert, understood that they were working with students who needed the ability to understand the world through a disciplinary lens that permitted them to engage in social discourse in academic, political, and workplace environments.

Take part in these conversations by visiting:

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Literacy Beat’s Influencer Series

The bloggers at Literacy Beat have begun a series of posts to introduce leaders in the field of technology and literacy, such as Kathy Shrock and Don Leu. Visit Literacy Beat to learn more or to suggest an influencer for the series.

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Use Boolify to Improve Online Searches

by Elizabeth Dobler

I have always had trouble grasping the concept of Boolean logic (the use of the words “and,” “not,” “or,” along with +, -, and <>) when searching online. Since I use Google when I want to find information quickly, I am glad to see an evolution toward the acceptance of natural language in searches and away from the need for Boolean operators. In fact, Google has progressed so far that it “seems to know what I want,” as my 21-year-old son puts it. As much as I like Google, there are times when I need to search for more specialized information or materials that can only be accessed through a database. While databases are slowly becoming more “Google-like” in their search experience, many have not yet arrived.

I began researching Boolean logic and felt like I was reading a foreign language at times, encountering words and phrases such as trawl, query structure, interface, proximity operators, truncations, wildcards, and limiters. As an educated professional, if I struggle with Boolean searches, just think what it may be like for children who attempt them. Children may look for information on school library databases such as Destiny, Kids Infobits, or National Geographic Kids and not know where to start.

I recently found the Boolean search learning tool Boolify through KidzSearch. Boolify uses a drag-and-drop interface to aid users in constructing searches (that’s “query structure” for newbies). A search begins by dragging the green box to the search space and filling in a word or phrase. The search can then be optimized with refinement blocks such as “and” or “not.” With more practice, a user might like to further refine the search with a site filter (e.g., .edu, .org) or a file filter (e.g., .pdf). The color-coded boxes for refining the search help to keep ideas separated.

Once a search string has been created the view button converts it to a text-only version (called a command line) so the user can begin to learn how to create queries independently.

Boolify was created for children; it utilizes Google’s Safe Search strict-mode, filtering out adult content. The action of dragging the box gives the feeling of actively constructing a search, thus making the process more concrete for inexperienced learners. It’s a helpful tool for people of all ages who need a little extra support (like me).

Give Boolify a try if you are looking for a safe and easy way to search for information online.

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Resources for Teaching Argumentation

Thomas DeVere Wolsey has compiled a list of literacy resources for teachers and students to help with creating and critiquing effective arguments. Read about some of the resources in his post on Literacy Beat.

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Kids’ Book Finder

Review by Thomas DeVere Wolsey
Kids' Book Finder Icon

There are so many good books for children and young adults that it can be hard for teachers and parents to know which ones will interest the young readers with whom they work. Fortunately, three professors at Brigham Young University put together a database of nearly 28,000 books that can be searched by choosing grade level, topic, genre, or by any awards it has received. Mike Tunnell, Jim Jacobs, and Terry Young are the masterminds behind this app at BYU Creative Works.

Mike explained to me in an email, “The app’s data is updated every few months. It will alert the user that an update to the data is available and by selecting and pressing the update button, the job is done.”


If your students are into space exploration, just type that into the topic field and a list of related topics comes right up. Then you can refine the search by genre. If a student is interested in informational books on the topic, they pop right up. You might want picture books about space, and those come right up as well.
Mike says, “The search tool allows for searches defined by several descriptors at once. For instance, one could search for Civil War books that are historical fiction for grades 3-4 and have won Newbery Honor Awards.”

By selecting a title, you are taken to a view that shows more information about any relevant book including the title, author, illustrator if there is one, a short description, and appropriate grade levels. Other related topics also appear to help expand or narrow the search. A neat feature of the app is that a link to Amazon takes you right to the page where you can order the book if it’s not in your school library.

The “browse” feature lets you search by title words; for example if you can’t quite remember the exact title, you can input those words you do remember to find the book. You can browse by your favorite author or illustrator, and by keyword, as well. When you find books that are of interest, just click the “add to my lists” button. The list will be stored there for your use later.

Kids’ Book Finder is available for iPhone and iPad. Just search for it in the app store or on iTunes. An Android version is in the works.

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