Ok to the KOA

by Jenn Hayhurst & Jill DeRosa

Jill is now in her fifth year discovering our majestic nation!  Consider this post a scrapbook memory, reflecting back on experiences that taught us so many lessons…. 

The RV is a smooth ride slicing due west over the open road heading towards the Badlands. Sun Hunt sings soulfully, Body Like a Back Road,  but our eyes are wide open. We are looking at the world unfold in all of its splendor, curious to know what will be revealed around every bend in the road.  This is our fourth summer exploring our great nation, and it comes with lots of questions: What route should we take? Where will we stay? What do we want to see?

Having a destination is the first decision we make, and the  KOA campground will be our home for the next few days. It’s a safe choice because we know what to expect. KOA is famous for setting up fun family tours, “Today’s KOA takes care of everything, with friendly service and great amenities, so you can have fun with the people you love.” Sign us up! 

Do we go on the guided tour and see the sights that others have planned?  Maybe, it does sound like a good time. Our tour guide will be friendly and is sure to know lots of interesting information about the Badlands. He will dedicate himself to his work and give us an incredible experience to remember.  Or… Do we decide to learn as we go?  We can map our own path and create a journey of our own design. 

So, what route would you take? The goal is to create experiences which will enhance our understanding of who we are in this great big beautiful world. Learning aspires to fill our hearts with the potential for wonder. Sometimes teachers decide to go on a learning tour, showing our students the sights in a way that is likely to generate successful experiences.  Sometimes, we will want to learn and explore alongside our students. We venture out as co-explorers and build authentic experiences that are likely to lead to all kinds of possibilities for growth for students and for us.  Name your intention, it doesn’t matter if you are teaching on tour or teaching as a co-explorer. It’s all about the learning experiences that are being created along the way.

Lyrical Lessons

louBy Jenn Hayhurst, and Jill DeRosa


Hello summah! We are heading south across the Ocean Beach Causeway towards the Jones Beach Amphitheater to see a classic double bill,   Bonnie Raitt and  James Taylor  Friends at our side, sunshine overhead, and carefree hearts. Life is good.

Our seats are way, way up. We peer down as James takes us back to his roots Carolina In My Mind and the crowd roars joyfully. Like a silver tear, the full moon streams across rippling waters.  This was the plan, fun, and nothing but fun. We all sing and sway and smile because this is why we came. Life is good!

James shows us mountains, lightning, and thunder through his song,  Montana.  Then I see it, a behemoth. A billowing black rain cloud, black as smoke rolling in from the east. I think, “It’ll be alright there is plenty of clear skies.”  But don’t we always know the truth? Disorienting disequilibrium signals things are about to change. Life is… good?

“You can play the game, you can act out the part. Though you know it wasn’t written for you.”  It is misting heavily (Shower the People).  The people, are beginning to leave. Their eyes downcast looking at the concrete steps leading out and away. Something inside me makes me look up. A heavy inky black sky menacing.  BAM! A torrent of rain streams down from the heavens, just as Arnold Rufus McCulle sings, “Let it RAIN.” Is he smiling?  Yes, a playful boyish smile, there for all to see.  I smile back, and shout “I own the rain!” Jumping up, I begin to dance and clap along. Water sputters and sprays with every beat. LIFE IS GOOD!

This moment reinforces our beliefs as teachers. Make a plan but never forget that control is an illusion. Teach in the moment that life hands you. Sometimes the best work can come out of the “surprises”  that surely wait for each of us. When you step into the classroom, you are stepping into the life of each student; and they are stepping into yours.

“Shower the people you love with love. Show them the way that you feel. Things are going to be just fine if you only will.”  – James Taylor



















A Process Mindset

by Jenn Hayhurst & Jill DeRosa

We are currently writing a book, it is a long process. Somewhere along the way, we discovered that writing and learning are soulmates. There is no arrival because it’s not about the destination. Our writing is inspired by the learning work we do with children and each other… 

There are three things we know for sure:
  1. Neuroplasticity means that your brain is not fixed. Your brain is wired for change. Your brain grows over time as it continues to learn, it rewires itself around that new learning. Essentially, your brain is writing the story of your life through the synaptic pathways it creates. Each pathway leads the way to a new perception.
  2. Teaching is messy because learning seldom follows a linear path. There are many alternative routes for learning to occur. Whether we are a teacher or a student our goal is the same to keep on learning.
  3. It’s time to consider adopting a Process Mindset 

What a Process Mindset is: Teachers who are ready to follow the path that the student cuts. It means leading by following where the learner needs to go.  Embracing choice and all that it requires from us. Student talk is essential data to inform instruction. Accepting and embracing that learning happens on its own timeline, not ours.

 What a Process Mindset is not: One size fits all learning. Assigning worksheets to fill minutes of the school day. Monolithic narratives.  Assigning unimportant homework that makes zero impact on student growth. It is not doing what others do because it’s always been done that way.

If we decide to be a learner for the rest our lives, our brains are up for the challenge.  If we decide to believe and act upon students’ potential they are up for the challenge too. When we allow students to direct the learning we are opening ourselves up to the Process Mindset. Just try it and see what happens next.

My Writing Identity

by Jill DeRosa

My writing identity is something I lived a long time without.  Until I was in my thirties, writing for me was a task to complete; a report for school, a reaction paper, a letter to a parent.  My writing was driven by something I needed to accomplish for my job, my school, or for my family.  Writing was not enjoyable for me, it was always done with a purpose that was driven by outside forces.  I did not see myself as a writer. Not for one minute.

It wasn’t until I became friends with, Jenn Hayhurst.  She is a writer who knows how powerful our words can be.  She is not afraid to take risks and put her ideas on paper and into the world. She says we have ideas to share with the world and asks if I would be willing to write alongside her.  I am afraid because I don’t see myself as a writer.  I am confident in my ability to teach but writing about it is a totally different thing.  Jenn is supportive and I decide to give it a try, starting out small.  As we write together, I start to see a change in me.  I am a writer.  I just needed to write about things that mattered to me.  I needed to write for myself first and then for my audience.  My writing had to be sparked by things I cared about and wanted to share.  

I take my writing experiences with me into my classroom each and every day.  Do I provide time for my students to find their writing identities?  How do I make room in our curriculum to provide room for choice in writing and tools?  In classrooms, I often see teachers facing a similar dilemma; when we are writing in a certain mode or in a unit of study, how can we make room for authentic writing that is sparked by what matters to our students.  We need to make the time, this is the place where our students will find their identities; writing alongside partners or in groups, creating comics, writing series about characters they have created, writing informational pieces about gross insects or dangerous animals. Nothing makes me happier than looking around my classroom and seeing kids fully engaged in writing that matters to them knowing that their words are powerful and can make a difference.  Students bringing in writing they have done at home or bring their writing to recess because they just can’t stop writing; it is a part of who they are.  

It is through a friendship and a deep appreciation for writing that my writing identity was formed. It’s never too late to find yours.  


One Little Word 2017

If you live in New York – January means crisp blue skies and frosty windows. It’s Times Square, bright lights, and bursts of carefree abandon. No sooner has the confetti been swept away when most us face this new celestial trek around the sun contemplating our lives, as we make resolutions for the next revolution. We set goals and action plans for one thing or another for example,  the long lines at my weekly Weight Watcher’s meeting can attest to the simple optimistic spirit of fresh starts and hopeful endeavors.

If all that seems too big, we can start the New Year off in a small but powerful way.  Our friend, Julieanne Harmatz, master fifth grade teacher and blogger’s recent post: One Little Word 2017  inspired us to take on this challenge. If you’re not familiar with One Little Word, it began in 2006 when Ali Edwards started a phenomena of selecting a word to focus and reflect on throughout the year.  We do believe in the power of words, because let’s face it,  we are writing the narratives of our lives. Deeming this challenge to be a worthy one, we decided to give it a go.

Imagine if you could hold a word in your hand as a way to keep a promise to yourself to keep a steady thread throughout the broader tapestry of your life. A tiny reminder that transcends where you are now to where you aspire to be:


Sunlight’s gift to earth is vitality, each ray of energy promotes growth for everything within its reach. We are drawn to energy, and energy is drawn to us.  Learning and joy are infused through vitality. When you walk into a school the first thing you ought to feel is vitality – coupling optimism, and growth. It should be contagious, a presence that makes students and teachers yearn to be there.  You know you have hit the sweet spot for vitality when you hear conversations bubbling outside the classroom door – learning is alive and well. Vitality is the spark that motivates children to get lost in their books, writing stories, or even solving difficult problems. Children are naturally drawn to energy – and that is why vitality is also a word for teachers to embrace as well. We provide environments that flow with energy – that’s what we do!


Life thrives on earth because of its proximity to the sun. If we were a little closer or a little further away, if we were not tilted on our axis our world would be a barren and desolate place.  There is untapped potential for power in the word proximity when it comes to learning. Consider  the gradual release of responsibility.  We can move from a scaffold to independence if we look at proximity through a power lens.  We are adjusting access and support. Learners are  drawn to what they need to be successful. When we use proximity to space, time, or relationships we cultivate greater independence for learning. In order to be independent writers students may need close access to tools – this is proximity in space. A teacher may set a personal reading goal for the year to model independent reading over time – this grants proximity in terms of time. Students may be working in a book club, teachers form these groups not only by interest and ability but by the potential for interpersonal growth – proximity for relationships. Although all of these examples are different they share the same root. Proximity is a link to transfer because it is a natural trigger for differentiation. It’s a simple yet sophisticated tool, one that is a readily available power source to boost or sustain greater independence. There is beauty in simplicity.

A Student’s Intention – Creativity Is Contagious:

A student came to us with an idea, what if students could had a little bit of time to work on something that was totally their idea.  She was pitching a fifteen minute creativity break during the day.  We believe in the power of choice, and we are always looking for ways to maximize engagement. Her idea was an easy one to honor.  This was her idea and she was going to be the one to share it with her peers.  Click here to read her post from Voices From the Classroom

Our Observations:

What was most striking was how clear she was when sharing her idea with the class.  She explained how this would work and what they needed to do.  The kids responded beautifully, they went off and got to work.  It was interesting to see how the students used the time to create their projects with total independence.  Not a moment was wasted.  There was a lot of diversity in the kinds of projects kids wanted to create: math games, musical instruments, mapping out summer reading, informational texts, and responses to reading and writing. Their work revealed what aspects of learning were most significant for each child.  During the share it was apparent that students were being influenced by each other’s work.  They were drawing up creativity plans for the next time.

Our Reflection:

When we give students freedom we gain control and rigor  It seems counterintuitive to many but it’s the truth.  This is not arts and crafts, this is connected work that allows students to take some ownership over their own focused learning.  This idea came from a student,, her idea matters, we value her thinking and this empowers her and challenges a student who is already performing above grade level.  This synthesis and evaluative work is just what she needs to continue to grow.  This is really just another way to differentiate in the 21st Century Classroom.  


Sending Messages for Agency: A World of Potential

The work we do in schools should prepare students to be positive members of society.  It is in every sense the work of a lifetime.  Students should be provided opportunities to practice the skills they will need to be successful in our world.  Teachers work to inspire students to create, to grow their knowledge, and to be confident problems solvers. The question, what in our curriculums can really push students to aspire to that kind of work?   Recently we saw a great opportunity to do this as we continued in our World Communities UoS.

We began by looking at the structure of problem and solution.  How could we immerse children in an experience where this would become meaningful to them?  From this question grew the idea of putting a modern twist on the “United Nations” theme that is used in so many classrooms.  We are taking a gaming approach to this concept because it’s easily understood by children today. This would help foster critical thinking skills, collaboration between classmates, and problem solving that matters; all skills so important in the 21st century classroom.

Noticing Problems Close Reading Using the Five Social Studies Strands:

  1. Partnerships gathered on the carpet with their resources in hand.
  2. A grand conversation about what the United Nations is and its purpose begins. There are many possible ways to do this; kid friendly passages, videos, picture galleries.
  3. Brainstorming problems that may exist within the five strands. We used the history strand in a different way. We used it as a  vehicle for cause and effect, our message to students was that we can make summative predictions based on historical events. We look back at history because the power of history is that we can learn from it to gauge how things come to be or what they may become.
  4. Children get together using texts to research problems, record these problems on index cards, then evaluate and rank problems according to their importance to their country. These problem cards are used later during the mid workshop interruption.
  5. Partnerships present their problems to the “United Nations” during the mid workshop interruption and we guide the discussion about which problems should take precedent: endangered kiwi bird versus famine. In the end, it is up to the children, it is their work.  We are exploring these topics together but they are the ones who have to do the heavy lifting.  This is a vehicle for this type of thought process.  
  6. The problems are then recorded for all to see and to think about.  


Creative Solutions Synthesis At Work

Understanding world problems and hypothesizing solutions is an exercise in abstract thinking for children. How do we make this relevant for students on a level they can embrace? Gamification. Educators all over are experimenting with the concept of, “gamification”  or using  game design and mechanics to enhance non-game contexts. Students quickly learn that each nation has different “powers” or resources at their disposal.  Just as with games like Minecraft, kids can draw from a bank of resources to come up with creative solutions to real problems nations face.  This makes problem solving more concrete, a way to figure out how to use your resources for the greater good. Children are asked to consider all their country has to offer in terms of problem solving. How can their country be helpful to  another country?  What does their country have that they can share with other countries? They have to take stock and think about how one country’s  natural resources, products, knowledge, technology or values may solve another’s problems.  They also need to  think strategically, if one country helps another, what does that country have to gain?  

Our role is to oversee and critique their work asking questions, pushing them to think on multiple levels as they work through problem solving.  This makes reading and writing so much more purposeful, children see it as a way to extend their own thinking rather than a task to be completed for us.

Our Thinking
Our main purpose is to get students to read, write, and to engage in discussion that propels problem solving and critical thinking.  If we take on this work, we also have to embrace their approximations for their learning.  So not everything they come up with will be perfection, and that’s because our intention is not to memorize facts about the United Nations or natural resources that France has to offer.  We want children to be able to synthesize their thinking and create solutions as a rehearsal for work they will be doing later on in their schooling experiences.  The work they do now as third graders is working on a continuum for when they are in fifth grade, middle school, and high school.  We want to awaken their curiosity and personal power so that they see themselves as capable learners who have something to say about the world in which we live.  

From Make Believe to Rigor: Play Meets Personification

The Power of Objects: Making Deep Connection to Symbols

We want reading to be an experience to be had not a task to be completed.  It is powerful to teach students to step into the character’s shoes, to become totally  immersed into the story. When this works children are transported into the narrative in a palpable way.  We can take this same kind of experience and apply it to informational units of study.  How? We can teach through this idea of becoming a national symbol. Personification offers us a golden opportunity to take very abstract ideas, like the eagle, an emblem  (strength, long life, freedom, soaring, the United States of America)  to a more concrete level, we can connect the eagle to national ideals.  This is a perfect match for children even though it seems lofty but really it’s completely doable and extremely powerful.  

Purposeful Writing: Engaging Craft and Creativity

What did students have to do? If you read our blog on a regular basis you know we are steeped in our World Communities Unit of Study.  Students are immersing themselves in the countries of their choice. As a way to teach others about their countries they had to decide which object best represents their country as way to teach others.  This lesson follows this line of thinking: If I can understand what a bald eagle is I can understand something deeper about America.  It is just like Isabel Beck’s vocabulary research putting a new label on a known concept.  This paired association is powerful because it helps to extend student thinking from more basic to more sophisticated.  It’s not about the  bald eagle it’s really about the analytical work, the connections, the inferences, the evaluations that students have to generate to participate in this lesson.   Here is the break down:

  1. Pair students in partnerships who are working with the same country
  2. Each student selects an emblem or object that is representative of their country
  3. Gather information and personify it; to decide what kind of tone their object would take
  4. Engage in craft writing merging information and tone to write an entertaining piece that would teach other students
  5. Rehearse and practice it to perform
  6. Perform it for each other

Creativity in the Classroom: Playful Performances

It looks like fun but it’s really rigor. This requires a lot of work and critical thinking.  Students are engaged with the work because it’s important to them.  Structuring the work in this way means that students won’t meet the demands of this kind of teaching unless they are really doing the work with a sense of agency:


Process Reflection: Structural Synthesis Through Collaboration

A 21st Century Education has to always hold real relevance for students.  If  our goal is to achieve critical thinking, then we need to create learning opportunities, through choice and meaningful work.  Of course it has to be manageable, the task was the same for the students, pick an object and teach others. The expectation is clear but each students’ process will be unique and honored.  If the work doesn’t make sense to the learner then what’s the point? Let’s get real. With meaningful work comes substantial reflection. This is what we observed, students are learning from each other’s process. This is collaborative, generative learning in action.  Two students (Coffee and Empanada)  wrote their pieces with a humorous tone.  Their object had a playful banter that other students tried out in their writing. This is learning on multiple levels: informational learning, craft moves, the power of writing, lifting their presuppositions of what the finished product could be through reflection.  Students were reading, practicing  foundational skills, writing (mixing modes), speaking, listening all at the same time.  Most importantly what they really were doing was thinking for themselves and experiencing the joys of learning for learning’s sake.   

The Power Is In Their Hands

Sometimes the most elegant solution is a simple one.  Goal cards are a meaningful tool that can help students take a stepwise approach to independence.  Begin with a large index card, markers, and a vision. Teachers can make a goal card  on the spot during a research conference or have it prepared ahead of time for a coaching conference.  Whatever the student need, a goal card can break down the learning into manageable bits.  They are meant to be concise and easily put to use by the student. Pairing pictures and kid friendly prompts is a way to make learning both relevant and engaging.  For example:

Goal Card

Teachers and students can use these cards flexibly  to attain quick “mini-goals” that lead towards greater independence.  They can be used in a variety of ways: nonverbal just point to the card, they can be a source for formative data during a conference, or a way to facilitate conversation during partnership work.  The possibilities are endless. Think of them as a device to help the gradual release happen for students. Once the card is inserted into the work the teacher can take a step back and observe the student put it to use.  Was it effective? Did the student get what was needed?  Either way, they reveal what “next steps” need to be taken.

A simple tool  that is easily understood and readily put  to use by students is the solution we’ve all been looking for! Anchor charts and tools are becoming much more kid friendly than their wordy cousins. The card is powerful because it can be moved around, it’s small, it fits in students’ hands as they go to work at their own learning.  Its strength is in its simplicity and proximity.  This is a tool that is made for kids and is a device for agency.  The kids are manipulating it as needed.
We believe in creating openings for students to see themselves in their own learning. We can model and show examples, and then we can explore student thinking and allow them to reveal their thinking to us. Here is a better one, as we are going through this process with children, we are giving students the power, they are creating their own tools as they construct meaning for themselves.

We were thinking about how empowering this tool can be when used strategically.  An important question came to mind, how can we do more with this tool?  A student who creates  a goal card is working at the synthesis / evaluative level. Students are vested in their learning because it has relevancy.  Agency is realized by the student as the goal card represents their best thinking at the time of the learning.  

Meet Luka. He has created a goal card that gave him the language and the actions he needs to be successful. Consider his work, it tells a story about how he is approaching word solving through both word attack and meaning making:

Luka created this card back in February, he used the strategy independently yesterday.  He no longer needs the card but he can explain the strategy and teach it to other students. This is real learning and true ownership.  

Twitter Books: An Evolution Of Our Thinking

Why Use Twitter Books?

Welcome to the 21st century classroom. Well, sort of. Twitter Books are a low tech version of Twitter.  We are bringing “social media” to the classroom by using marble notebooks. Children can “tweet” their thinking around text, both written and digital. Just like Twitter, children are limited to 140 characters, so they need to discriminate what they really want to say. They can make an illustration or use quotes that demonstrate what their thoughts are in the moment. This offers a context for children to become more efficient with “stop and jot” and yields some formative data for us to work with. We are seeing what children truly think is important and this helps us teach into what they need.  It also reveals what children really like helping us build relationships with them.

21st Century Literacy Skills

Twitter Books are a device that brings 21st century literacy skills into the classroom, a way to bring emergent connectedness. These early experiences build community through collaboration. They started as a way to respond and connect ideas within the classroom and have evolved into a meaningful way to respond to reading at home. Homework in the 21st century ought to be something worthwhile, something children want to do that will foster a sense of student ownership over reading and writing. Then homework is not a chore; instead, it enhances the student’s own thinking that is driven by their own volition. It is important that we connect this idea between school and home. The Twitter Books are a natural fit for beginning our school day allowing for authentic engagement with written text. Children come into the classroom eager to exchange their books so they can “tweet” and leave their responses to their friends’ thinking.  It sparks authentic interests in books and is the best motivator to reinforce thinking about reading.  An added benefit is it encourages wide reading, children want to read each other’s books.

Innovating Twitter Books

As with all ideas, it’s time for us to reflect on our thinking and plan next steps for Twitter Books.  It’s a new version, time to go digital.   We were thinking about Cornelius Minor and his work around digital literacy.  Why not experiment with tables on our share drive.  Our school does not have WIFI but we could do this work in the computer lab.  We can show a digital text or do a read aloud and have children tweet.  Of course, there will be wait time so that children can negotiate the text and complete their responses on the computer.  This will also help them with keyboarding, an authentic example of how to bring in 21st century skills.  We will let you know how it goes. Here is a resource we are thinking of using for this project: The Kids Should See This

We are trying to imagine what work in the future will be like by embracing the world of today.  Years ago, collaborative work was limited by access and location.  We are no longer limited by location, we have access to our greatest resource, each other. We are happy our colleague  in Kentucky (formerly New Jersey) Justin Dolci @jdolci  will be launching Twitter Books in the fall with his third graders!  

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