Still Teaching with Kathleen Tolan

I can honestly say I am a better teacher because I was taught by Kathleen Tolan. She taught me first at the TCRWP 2011 Summer Reading Institute and then MANY more times after that.

She died on December 4, 2016 at the age of 53. If you aren’t familiar with this amazing literacy teacher, the Heinemann Website offers this bio: For more than 20 years, Kathleen Tolan was a Senior Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She had special responsibility for the Project’s work with reading instruction, organizing instruction for staff developers and the Project’s four summer institutes. She was also instrumental in the creation of the content literacy institutes and coaching institutes. Kathleen provided staff development at schools in the South Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, and Scarsdale. A coauthor of numerous books in the Units of Study for teaching reading and writing series, she is also featured in many of the TCRWP’s online videos. Throughout her career, Kathleen remained a consummate professional and a champion for kids and for literacy.

I am still in a bit of denial that her name is now followed by “was“. As soon as I heard of her passing, I posted my remembrance HERE. I add my tribute HERE. I donated to her Memorial Fund HERE. And then I started planning an interactive read-aloud using a story she read to me – The Giving Tree.

I invited another class to join me so more kids would experience Kathleen’s brilliant teaching. I invited the librarian, the reading teacher, and the Gifted Resource teacher so they could help and also experience this brilliant teacher.

I dug out my 2010 Units of Study for Teaching Reading, 3-5 kit and found the included DVDs.


On the red CD, in Unit 1-10 is a sixteen minute video of Kathleen reading aloud The Giving Tree. She models so well how to stop and share the thinking she is doing to help students know they are to be reading/listening and thinking, too. She asks the best questions and then says “Turn and Talk” and the students erupt in talk.

My plan – Listen to Kathleen read The Giving Tree and then have a debate: Is the tree strong or weak?

Day One
First, the students enjoyed a read-aloud of The Giving Tree by watching the video of Kathleen reading it. When she says, TURN AND TALK, I paused the video and allowed the students in front of me turn and talk. Then I fast forward to skip the kid’s on the video turn and talks and we continued to listen to Kathleen read and ask us to turn and talk.


Then using the Debate Protocol taught to me by TCRWP, I reread the book and asked the students to take notes. We focused on the tree and noticed whether the tree is being strong or being weak.


Personally, I love how this protocol pushes ALL to gather evidence for both sides of an argument. And THEN has you choose a side. I will admit, allowing a group of 40 third graders to freely choose feels a little uncomfortable as the teacher. What happens if most pick one side? I learned at TCRWP that you just say, “Who feels like they could be brave and argue the other side? We need to have an equal amount argue that the tree is strong and that the tree is weak.” To help with this messy sorting part, I had those who thought the tree was weak to stand shoulder to shoulder in the front of the room. Then we counted. And it worked out – one person said he could argue either side so we placed him on the weak side. To help the 3rd graders remember, I made number cards and handed them out. Screen Shot 2016-12-27 at 9.07.07 AM.png

Then I sent Strong #1-10 with the librarian and Strong #11-20 with the other classroom teacher to caucus out in the hallway. I took Weak #1-10 and the reading teacher took Weak #11-20 and we took our groups to the front and back of the classroom. I also love how this protocol sets up all for success because within a caucus group, you have time to plan out exactly what to say. And if you aren’t sure, your group discussion helps all to brainstorm a collection of ideas. Using sentence stems, the students had this planning sheet:


And they all got busy planning!

Then it was time!!! I had already set the desks in the room to stand alone and I numbered them #1-20. I asked the debaters to go to they numbered desk and meet their opponent. I reminded them how both had an important job to do now. When it was their time to talk, they were to use their notes and be as persuasive as possible to convince their opponent of their position. The listener had a job to do, too. After hearing their opponent, they need to write down the points they heard.

Using the chime, I commanded the STONG group to go and 20 students shared their opinion in a span of one minute.


Then I called time and told the WEAK group to first jot down what they heard. Then the WEAK group had their chance to persuade their opponent. 50 minutes had passed and so much listening, reading, writing, sharing had occurred, all taught with Kathleen Tolan guiding us still!!

Day 2: We got into our caucus groups right away. We planned out our rebuttal.


We followed the same procedure as yesterday – same caucus groups, same opponent, same desk, same fired-up spirit! Then all returned to their own classroom desk and wrote long and strong about this book, The Giving Tree.

I noticed ALL in my room easily putting thoughts to paper. They had thoughts that they had orally rehearsed. First during Kathleen’s strong interactive read-aloud. Then in a caucus group. Then one-on-one with a partner who thought the opposite of them over two days.

I feel so lucky to have been taught by Kathleen Tolan and her colleagues at TCRWP. I will keep having Kathleen teach with me in my classroom. My students will be better readers and critical thinkers and writers because of her teaching with me!

How about YOU? Do you see Kathleen’s literacy spirit in your classroom?

Why I Write

Inspired by the question posed by Margaret Simon’s #DigitLit and the upcoming National Day to Write on October 20th, I took the bait and thought about WHY I write.

I write to tell, not an anybody story, but MY story.
I write to have power.
I write to share and then read others’ writing to be inspired to write more.

I learned to write by attending Summer Institutes at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. One workshop by Shana has stuck with me. She showed a first draft of Abraham’s story and then the revised story where he worked to make it not just an anybody story but a story only he could tell. (To see Abraham’s writing, click here and scroll down to my notes on Shana’s workshop.)

His revised story wasn’t something that anybody else could write. It was a story ONLY HE could tell. It was HIS story. That stuck with me. I write and as I do, I include the details of MY moment. It is my story that ONLY I can tell.

I was further reminded of this when both a friend, Catherine Flynn, and and I wrote about hearing Lucy Calkins’ keynote at the beginning of the 2016 August Summer Reading Institute. We both were at the same event. We both listened for one hour. Then we both wrote about it. Catherine here and Me here. Yet, both of us focused on very different parts. We both wrote that moment as our own story. This is ONE reason that I write. I experience the world, reflect on it and respond in a way that is unique to me.

I also write because as Lucy tells in this video, “Writing changes the world.” It is powerful tool. It is a way to get our opinion on a topic across in a peaceful way. At times, it will powerfully make change. I’m not writing The Declaration of Independence to create a county, but I am happy when I have changed a few things in my little world because of my writing!

Finally, I write and share. Teachers College Reading and Writing Project taught me the writing process and emphasized that it includes sharing/publishing. So I now write and on Tuesdays and every day in March, I try to post here  as part of the TwoWritingTeachers writing community. Because I know others will read my writing, I work a bit harder at it before posting. Because I am a part of this writing community, I get a good feeling when another reads my writing and leaves me a comment. I also take time to read others’ writing and leave a comment. Always, another writer inspires me to keep writing and often inspires a writing structure or genre or topic to write about. I write in a community of writers and in so doing, gain energy to keep writing.

As I get ready to celebrate National Day of Writing in two days, I can honestly say that I am a proud writer who writes to tell, not an anybody story, but MY story and I write to have power and I write to share and then read other’s writing and be inspired to write more. I am most grateful that I live in a place and time where I am allowed and encouraged to be a writer.

I will be celebrating this on Thursday, October 20, 2016 and every day!
Happy Writing!

Time Capsule Letter

I just finished my first year at Discovery ES, a brand new ES in Arlington County, VA. To learn more about this amazingly designed, energy-efficient and sustainable building, go HERE and HERE.

As we ended the year, students, staff and parents were asked to write a letter to themselves to place in a TIME CAPSULE that will be opened in 20 years – June 2036. (My Principal even sent out an Outlook Calendar reminder for June, 2036 – who knew Outlook even allowed accepting dates so far into the future?!!)

As a last day of school activity, my students wrote a letter to themselves, with this first line: Dear _____,  If you are reading this, it is 20136….

As I collected them, I noticed that many wrote down questions: Am I married? Did I go to college? Have the Caps won a Stanley Cup yet?!!

I wrote my letter the week before at the beginning of a Planning Day with fellow colleagues to plan out writing instruction for the next year. Here’s my letter:

June 16, 2016 (6-16-16)

Dear Sally,

Today I sit in the Blue Sky Studio. I am 7 days away from ending my inaugural year as a 3rd grade teacher at Discovery ES. I am given today to work on a plan to implement a writing curriculum called Units of Study for Teaching Writing written by the BEST educator in the world (in my opinion), Lucy Calkins and her staff at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I sit today with a pretty great group of co-workers at Discovery – Principal Erin Russo, Assistant Principal Judy Concha, Reading Specialist Jen Dodd and Instructional Lead Kathy Olmstead. It is our hope to pour our collective knowledge and passion for strong writing instruction into this day, which then can wash over our school, providing Discovery Explorers time to write daily the stories that only THEY can tell!

Erin begins by saying, “Can I add to our agenda? I want us to write for 20 minutes a reflection to be added to the time capsule to be opened in 20 years.” My eyes well up. 20 years. I’ll be 72. 72, going on 73. Many questions enter my mind: Will I be here, still living at 5218 N 12th Street (the house I started living in just 6 months ago) or in a nursing home? Am I still teaching? Am I still alive? Looking ahead 20 years when I’ve already lived more than twice that makes me pause…. makes my eyes well up a bit.

However, I hope I am here. And that, after opening this letter, I happily walk the halls of Discovery ES, now a 20-year old school and see the 2036 kids still sharing their stories and still using the latest tools to create, design, and produce. I look forward to seeing all the enthusiastic faces exploring their world  to solve the current issues of the ’30s and their excitement for what they can accomplish in the 2040s.

In 2016, I can confidently say that I am proud of all my 3rd graders accomplished this year. My 3rd graders wrote and wrote and wrote this school year, 2015-2016. We used a composition notebook and we used kidblog, a kid-friendly blogging site with easy access because every 3rd grader in our school (and 2nd, 4th and 5th graders) was given their own iPad to keep and use all year long. We also did research and shared our knowledge by standing in front of the Green Screen in the broadcast center. We made Google Slide shows about our visit to the National Gallery of Art. We used Google Docs to write an adapted fairytale. We made iMovie trailers. My favorite one was Jackson and Will’s Epic Failure with a Ball! I wonder what tools will be used by the students in 2036? I wonder what Jackson and Will (and all the Room 212 friends) are doing in 2036?! I believe all will be doing GREAT things because as 8 year olds, they were doing great things!!! I hope many come back to Discovery in 2036 so we can reconnect!

I am very proud that I  had a part in the opening this new school this year. I am proud that this school is built with sustainability in mind. It is very much like the house my husband, Brian designed and had built for us and that we moved into on December 23, 2015. I wonder if both spaces are working well in 2036? My hope is YES.

And my real hope is to have 20 more years beyond this letter, taking me to 92 years, to tell the stories that only I can tell!! Now back to curriculum planning for the 2016-17 Discovery Explorers! While it is fun (and a little scary, too!) to think long-term, it is the day-by-day short-term plans that get us there!



About my writing process: I made an effort to NAME things. Since my audience is the 20-years-from-now-me, I revised to name the people and the tools and the spaces in our building assuming that my memory may not be as sharp 20 years from now! And I’m so curious to compare the tools listed here with those used by the class of 2036.

What will YOU be doing in 2036??!!!

Not an Orange story but a Slice story!

Last week, I prepared my students to write their final on-demand personal narrative story as a 3rd grader. We gathered on the carpet first and I reminded them to use all they now know about writing a strong personal narrative to write this piece.

“What will you do?” I asked.

We generated this list that I jotted on the white board.


Then R said, “We should write Not an Orange.”

Confused, I suggested, “Say more.”

“We’ve been saying, ‘write a seed story, not a big watermelon story.’ But we’ve been zooming in to write a slice. So we should say Write a slice, not an orange.”

My confusion cleared. I got it!

And I’m happy to be a part of THIS writing community as I write this slice of life, my slice today of the larger orange story!


DitiLit – Function

This week’s DigiLit Sunday topic is “function”.
Connect to Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections On the Teche to read more.

Julieanne started her post this Sunday by stating: “I’m wondering, how are my students functioning with technology and how is technology functioning for them.” As I read this, I thought about how, by using technology, my students’ approximations look really good.

Last week I learned about Brian Cambourne’s research on the Conditions for Learning:

The idea is that the approximation step allows for the learner to be free to approximate a skill, as making mistakes is essential when learning.

This week my students used kidblog, iMovie trailers, and TodaysMeet as three tech tools, all functioning as a way to show their thinking. Because of the tech form being used, it allowed their approximations to look really good! Sure, mistakes were there but because kidblog allows for a photo to be easily added to enhance the words and iMovie adds the dramatic music to match the story line and TodaysMeet limits you to just 140 characters, all 3 tools allowed for sharing of thoughts in a form that makes all users look and sound smart.

I think it is a great time to be a digital native! So many tools are available, allowing each user to function and share their thinking to communicate with others. It is also a great (but very challenging time) to be the teacher of these digital natives. As the teacher, I will push myself to think about the function of each digital tool and help each user make wise choices so they can best share their thinking.

Celebrate – Using a new technology – TodaysMeet

Today I celebrate using new technology. I returned to school on Monday after being out last week Wed-Fri. Instead of teaching my students, I was a student myself at Teachers College. I attended their 2nd Annual Digital and Media Literacy Institute.

During the keynote by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, she suggested picking an app or a technology and trying it out for the week. In that spirit and because of the modeling of this website during the institute, I picked Todays Meet.

On Monday, I introduced it to my students through a read-aloud and called the “room” Readaloud212.

On Tuesday, a student asked if they could “say something” about their independent reading using Todays Meet. Duh! Of course!! So I set up the 2nd TodaysMeet room called IndepReading212. I set the room to stay opened for a month and for the rest of the week, reminded the students to “say something” about what they read that day during independent reading time in the IndepReading212 room.

On Wed, two girls picked the 2 copies of I Survived the Shark Attack and started reading it as a “club”. I asked if they wanted me to set us a TodaysMeet for them to jot down their thoughts to share with each other. They loved this idea so I set up a room called CarolineEllieBookClub.

On Thursday, it was library checkout time. I asked if anyone else wanted to form a book club. I suggested that they could find multiple copies of books while at the library. MANY wanted to, so I set up six more rooms to hold onto book club discussions.

On Friday, another class joined my room for a lesson that ended 10 minutes early. Whenever I have time like this, I like to fill it with a read-aloud. I quickly created another room on TodaysMeet called MadelineReadAloud and had all 44 kids access the link. And in honor of Ludwig Bemelmans’ birthday, I read aloud his book, Madeline. All in the room were engaged, enjoying an old favorite while using an iPad to jot their thoughts about the book on the TodaysMeet page!

I celebrate that I tried using TodaysMeet this week.

Form helps!

I awoke knowing I had to pack and head home. I’ve been in NYC all week attending the 2nd Annual Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Digital and Media Institute. My head is spinning and so ready to explode. The thing giving me comfort is that it is almost summer…a time for me to play and explore and try all the things I became aware of this week as the best literacy minds shared!

Then I read Margaret’s focus today on DigitLit: Form

The institute ended with a celebration involving an Ignite Session. Ignite was described in the Welcome email as:

Finally, during the last day of the institute, we will be offering an Ignite session. For those of you who are new to Ignite sessions, they are participant led presentations, which are very quick and packed with information. Like its older sister Pecha Kucha, Ignite is a presentation structure that has a strict time limit which forces the speaker to be precise and thoughtful about what to include and how to show it. It is completely voluntary. In an Ignite session, presenters will have 5 total minutes to present. They will have 20 slides, each slide automatically moving on after 15 seconds. We will offer a sign up for the Ignite session on site and will have a limited number of slots available.

You can prepare your presentation ahead of your arrival at the institute, or you can plan it based on what you learned during your week with us. If you are interested in learning more about Ignite, you might want to watch a sample. Here is a link to Penny Kittle’s Ignite session at NCTE 2013:‐GUaX2ow . Additionally, if you would like to learn how to create your own Ignite session, you might want to check out these tips:‐to‐give‐a‐great‐ignite‐talk/

As I read this in the email before arriving, I thought how I could share about blogging – my own experience, as well as, the story of my students’ experience with Kidblog since March. I had some ideas in my head so when once at the Institute, I signed up to give one.

Wednesday evening I started gathering ideas, photos, jots of why I love to blog and how amazed I was by my students’ blogging experience during the month of March (which I posted about on this blog a few times in March!).

After sitting in a day of workshops, I also thought I needed a structure to my Ignite presentation (all the wonderful staff developers had done this so well as they presented). On the first day, Colleen Cruz shared the research by Brian Cambourne on Conditions for Learning. This list seems the prefect lens to use to share my blogging story.

I was thinking of this list as the lens to see my story through but as I read Margaret’s DigiLit#24 post today, I realize it is also the FORM. I wholeheartedly agree, FORM matters, no matter the writing genre. Seeing my story through the conditions of learning allowed me to share my love of blogging across 20 slides in the 5 minute format.

I need to head to the bus station now and will plan to add MORE (like the link to my presentation!) to my post on Tuesday to the TwoWritingTeachers. But just had to celebrate now with Margaret, a day to celebrate FORM!!!

P.S. Despite being SO nervous to present, I included my favorite bloggers in my presentation. Having you along helped me to be brave and IGNITE!!

Two slides I shared:

All Aboard – Next Stop TCRWP Digital and Media Institute!!

I’m on the train!!

It’s taking me from Union Station in DC to Penn Station in NYC.

Then I’ll take the 1 Uptown and get off at 116th/Columbia University stop

Where I’ll head 5 blocks to TC’s Guest housing.

Wednesday I’m observing reading and writing workshop at PS158.

Then Thursday-Saturday from 9-3pm I will  happily learned from Colleen Cruz in a large group and Lindsay Mann in a small group and have an option to attend a closing workshop each day. I’m also being encouraged to try to present Ignite-style during Saturday’s closing.

I’m on the train!!

I’m excited to learn from the best all at the 2nd Annual TCRWP Digital and Media Institute!!

Be sure to check out my tweets (@sally.donnelly1)

and I promise to take good notes and share what I learn!!


Celebrating Poetry Writing using Online Poet Websites and Kidblog

Looking back on teaching writing last week in 3rd grade, I see it as a week with not enough time. We had a special science unit to share, led by a resource teacher, so something had to give. Instead of a good 45-60 minutes of Writing Workshop, only about 30 minutes happened. However, looking back, I can celebrate that with wonderful online poetry models and with the tool, Kidblog as a place to easily draft our poems, LOTS still got done during Writing Workshop!!!

First, I placed links to 6 poets in Google Classroom and each day held a 4-7 minute mini-lesson where I simply clicked on one poet’s website and shared one of their poems. Then I suggested that my students try either to draft their own poems now or continue to read more poems, searching for more inspiration. Then I sent all off to work as poets.

Our Google Classroom page looks like this:

For example, on Wed, I shared how Amy reads the Wonderopolis Wondering of the Day and then write and posts a poem related to the wondering (Thank you Educators Collaborative for sharing Amy last Saturday so I could learn about her and her The Poem Farm website!!)
Wednesday night,  I looked on my class Kidblog and saw that Lucas was inspired to write this after he noticed that Amy had written a 26 line poem about Compost, starting each line with the letters A-Z:
and a day later, Lucas’ poem inspired William to begin drafting this:
All because Amy showed us the ABCs of Composting inspired by What is Fertilizer?!!!

On another day, I shared J. Patrick Lewis’ page of POEMS/RIDDLES that looks like this:

Next thing I see on Madeline’s Kidblog page is this:


I also shared Kenn Nesbitt’s poem, Joe the Emoji!

My students already have been using emoji to tell their stories and I wrote about it  HERE. 
Now they are having fun writing poems and songs using lots of emoji. My class regularly takes movement breaks using GoNoodle as our guide. Now the songs we move to there are being written in emoji on Kidblog!! Here’s one example:

I recall one of the Poetry presenters during the Saturday Educator’s Collaboration Day say that when she hears teachers say they don’t have time for poetry, she will fire back, “Do you have 20 seconds to read aloud a poem?” Last week, I did not have the time to run a regular hour-long Poetry Writing Workshop. But my students proved to me that just being exposed to a poem, a riddle, or a song for a few minutes was all they needed to write some fun poetry!!

What poetry are YOU sharing TODAY during National Poetry Month?!!
Be sure to make the time! You’ll be amazed at what gets produced.

Celebrating – Connections to Smart Educators

Saturday, I celebrated connecting to smart educators by posting to Ruth Ayer’s Celebration blog. (If you are looking for another place/day to post your writing, I recommend this!!) Today I am posting my expanded revision of this same post! 

Maggie Beatty was my small group staff developer at TCRWP in 2010. I learned so much from her that summer and I stayed connected to her brilliance through #TCRWP and then when Kate and her began their Indent blog.

When they posted asking for real problems writing teachers experience, I thought why not. I’ll send them one or two.

How fun that this week, they posted their first video sharing a practical way to solve a problem by making and using a DIY (do-it-yourself) Literacy toolkit page with a small group or during a conference.

Why so fun?

Take a minute and watch their brilliance HERE!!

Immediately after watching the video, I sent it to many of my literacy teacher friends who wrote back, just as excited as I was!!


And then of course, this video inspired me to use my Michael’s coupon  on Sunday to purchase MY TOOLS.

My first page is written!!

Next update – my reflection on using it with students!

I continue to celebrate connecting to smart educators!!!
I can’t wait for the DIY Literacy book to come out.
You can pre-order it HERE