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One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Choice Boards Can!

By Kelly Owens

Have you seen the excitement in the cafeteria line at your school? Some clamor for chicken patties, a few for fancy fries, and others eye salads or subs.

Here’s food for thought: Spark similar excitement in the classroom with the power of choice using Choice Boards.

This or That? It’s Fun to Choose!

Variety is the spice of life, they say. Restaurant menus please every palate and food sensitivity. Shoe store shelves feature rows of style options. Libraries house volumes in tons of genres.  This or that? Having choices is exciting and empowering!

It’s fun to decide what fits our own interests, strengths, and learning styles. Shake things up in your differentiated classroom by offering students choice via Choice Boards, Unit Menus, and Tic-Tac-Toe boards. (You can choose what you want to call these pretty similar tools.)

What Are Choice Boards?

Choice Boards are exactly like they sound. They are graphic “boards” that show students the choices they have to demonstrate their learning. Students choose how they want to engage with content for the same expected learning outcome. The added perk is the motivational option of choice.

Students take ownership for their own learning when they choose how to engage with content. Choice Boards can offer the skill reinforcement or extension that follows explicitly taught instruction. For teachers of differentiated classrooms, Choice Boards can appeal to different learning styles and address multiple intelligences. Students may be more focused and invested in their learning process when they know they picked their path.

(Click each image below to enlarge.)

Some teachers may use choice boards for asynchronous learning. They can be adapted for remote learning. The Google Slide above allows students to click on the links to take them directly to the choice activities.

Above: Differentiate the product students create by offering choice.

Above: A Tic-Tac-Toe board shows students their choices. Materials needed for each choice activity can be located in a learning station or center.

You DON’T Have to Recreate the Wheel!

On paper, computerized, a one-day project, a long-term project – spinning wheels, boxed bullet lists, bingo cards – the possibilities are endless.

As my extraordinary colleague Karen Raia often notes, old things can become new when we repackage them differently. “Same gift, different package.” Repurpose some of the assignments or center activities you have already created.

By packaging choices in a colorful and creative choice board format, the student appeal amps up a level. Use the same rubric to assess the various choice assignments, since they should all show understanding of the same learning intention. There is more than one way to reach the same goal.

I find choice boards help jazz up dry topics, like grammar. Shhhh! The skills are still there in the choice board…just hidden. It’s sort of like disguising broccoli with melted cheese for the cruciferous-shy. When students are given the power to choose how to show their learning, it seems more inviting.

Sure, it may initially involve a bit more instructional planning to develop a few different ways students can demonstrate learning of a skill. But think of that upfront planning time as an investment. The payoff is more focused, motivated, and engaged students during the lesson later.

5 Reasons to Use a Choice Board

1. Choice is motivating

Students enjoy the freedom of selecting their own learning adventures. When I conference with students about their choice assignments, I try to use language that reminds them they are in the driver’s seat. That way they are reminded they chose it and I’m there to support them.

2. Choice is empowering

Choice Boards make learning opportunities visible. Students can see the expectations explicitly presented. When students finish, they can check off completed tasks or cross out Tic-Tac-Toe three-in-a-row, adding to the satisfaction of completion.

3. Choice is appealing to different learning styles

Just like required assignments, choice learning tasks should be designed to follow best practices and meet standards-aligned learning goals. Options can offer a mix of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities. Multisensory learning employs different senses to build greater connections to learning.

4. Choice builds accountability and independence

Students take more ownership for their own learning when they have opportunities to select their learning tasks. There are social emotional learning (SEL) benefits, too. Involving students in the decision making promotes students’ choice and voice. When a teacher offers choice, it hands more responsibility to the student.

5. Choice is adaptable to anything

The design is really up to you. Choice Boards can be paper-based, computer-based, or a combination. Use them for one lesson, a project, or a unit. Decide on a purpose. Do you want to include skill review and reinforcement activities and/or extension choices? The choice is yours!

Design Considerations
  • Identify the learning goal.
  • Match an assessment rubric to the learning goal.
  • Plan explicit teaching of the skill you will provide in addition to Choice Board options.
  • Determine which activities will be required and which allow for choice.
  • Appeal to different learning styles by providing multisensory choices.
  • Consider your students’ skill levels, interests, and levels of readiness.
  • Vary levels of complexity and mediums students can use to demonstrate learning.
  • Explore what activities you already have that can be repurposed to a Choice Board.
  • Decide on the time frame for completion of Choice Board activities.

Readers who chose to reflect on their reading with Choice 1 wrote about their predictions in sentences organized in a chart.
Readers who chose to reflect on their reading with Choice 2 created a sketchnote and captions about their predictions.
Readers who chose to reflect on their reading with Choice 3 used a graphic organizer to organize their predictions. Same assignment – three choices to show learning!

The Choice Board Experience

Part of the fun of Choice Boards is seeing which choices students pick. Just when I predict an art enthusiast will choose to create sketchnotes or comic strips – surprise, they venture out and explore something new instead. Giving students the power to choose is important for young students. As they get older, they will be faced with more choices.

Helping them through their decision making process and supporting them as they follow through on their selections is part of the Choice Board experience. To adults, who make countless choices a day, it might seem insignificant. However, Choice Boards allow students to practice time management, planning, and decision making – all skills they will need as independent decision makers in the future.

Kelly Owens is a literacy teacher who helps sixth grade readers and writers overcome past literacy struggles by building stamina, confidence, and a greater love of learning. As a teacher with over 27 years’ experience, she has proudly represented Hillsborough Township Public Schools as a NJ Governor’s Teacher of the Year. She also co-created Buddies for the Birds, which was featured on Emmy Award-winning Classroom Close-up NJ. Kelly earned her Ed.M. from Rutgers University. Additional writing credits include published work with The King School Series (Townsend Press), The Mailbox magazine, and MiddleWeb.

Celebrate with Staff as a Challenging Year Ends

By Ronald Williamson and Barbara R. Blackburn

Ronald Williamson

It’s April and many schools just finished Spring Break. But for school leaders April marks the beginning of one of the busiest times of the school year. There are often end-of-year tests to administer, activities and gatherings to attend, and the first steps toward planning the next school year.

Barbara Blackburn

This year, perhaps more than any other in our memories, has been ultra-challenging in many schools. The continued pandemic and associated health requirements and parent and community unrest about curriculum and instruction – as well as the need to accommodate students and families who choose online instruction over face-to-face – have stretched resources and resilience among teachers and administrators.

Could this be a time to celebrate?

One characteristic of a school’s culture is the way success is celebrated and acknowledged. Those rituals and ceremonies are important because they transmit, in unspoken ways, the values and priorities of a school.

The end of a school year has always been a time of celebration, and every school has traditions about those events, often focused on students. Those activities are an essential part of school life. But this post will discuss what school leaders should think about when planning ways to celebrate the success of their staff.

Celebrating feels good in the moment. But it is also important for future success. End of the year celebrations not only recognize good work, they also improve morale, strengthen relationships among staff, and provide a platform for even greater success in the year to come.

Don’t be burdensome

Ron spoke recently with a teacher who commented, “I should just get an award for surviving this year.” While joking, that comment reflects the stress that many teachers – and school leaders – experienced this school year.

So for starters, any activities leaders design to celebrate the year and its success must not add to the burden. All plans should be developed with teacher leaders or your School Improvement Team. Even with the best of intentions your efforts may be misunderstood and even viewed with suspicion.

Those closest to instruction will have the best ideas about how and what to celebrate without creating additional stress or friction at the end of the year. Activities should be optional and there should be no penalties, or comments, about lack of participation. Often, the least burdensome activities are those that occur during the school day so that they don’t intrude into family and personal time.

One middle school principal in North Carolina wrote every teacher and staff member a personal note thanking them for their work and contributions to the success of an unprecedented year. Each note included a comment about something specific to that person’s work. People appreciated the personal nature of the notes, and that their principal recognized their work.

Be Inclusive

Celebrations sometimes have a way of recognizing the same people and same events again and again. Avoid that and strive to make sure that any celebratory plans are inclusive and recognize a variety of achievements.

Celebrating is not synonymous with rewarding individual accomplishment. In schools success is most often collective, not individual, and it’s important to recognize all of those who contributed in ways both big and small. People like feeling genuinely appreciated. So plan celebrations to be inclusive and recognize accomplishments of every kind. It’s an important way to nurture relationships across the staff.

Be Authentic

Teachers and other staff feel appreciated when they’re recognized for their work. Recognition contributes to employee satisfaction, and it can improve morale and strengthen connections among staff.

Regardless of design, any celebration must be authentic and reflect both the values of the school and those of the leader. Acknowledge success for “real” things rather than contrived situations.

One way to demonstrate authenticity is to praise and acknowledge specific things that employees do, much like the principal’s notes mentioned earlier. But it’s also important to express gratitude for the work and the effort that contributes to the success of a school year. Saying thank you is one way to do that and contributes to a positive work environment.

Finally, recognize that your teachers and other employees have different styles. Some will thrive on public praise; others will cringe at the idea. Spend time determining how to acknowledge and recognize each person, taking into account their personal preferences and styles.

Ideas for celebrating successes

There are a variety of ideas to celebrate the successes of individual teachers. Here are two you might adapt.

In suburban Seattle an elementary school principal celebrated teachers who took risks that contributed to student success. A bulletin board near the school lobby was used to recognize “Explorer’s Heroes.” It included a picture and description of teachers, staff, or students who reflected the school’s academic mission and commitment to “students will not fail.” For a long-term reminder of their success in the face of very significant obstacles, you might present teachers with a button saying “failure was not an option!”

Another idea comes from a principal in Tacoma, WA, who took photos of classroom and student activities throughout the year. The photos captured students and teachers doing things that supported the school’s vision. If you do this at the end of the year, you can create a presentation profiling each teacher. Again, as a concrete reminder of their achievement, give teachers in this category a set of toy binoculars, perhaps with a tag listing their achievement.

In each of these cases, you are choosing to recognize teachers for a specific achievement related to student success. Providing teachers with a concrete reminder of their actions encourages them to focus on similar actions next year.

Final thoughts

The end of every school year is frantic. As you plan to celebrate your success, assure that the celebrations don’t add to the craziness. Instead, assure that your celebration reflects your school’s values and beliefs and that it authentically recognizes everything the staff did to assure a successful school year. Celebrate the “team” and the success of the “team effort” and what that means for the future.


Clarke, J. (2021). Healthy Ways to Celebrate Success. Retrieved online at

Dr. Ronald Williamson is Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership at Eastern Michigan University. He is a former principal, central office administrator and executive director of the National Middle School Association (now AMLE). The author of numerous books on leadership, he is the co-author with Barbara R. Blackburn of Leadership for Remote Learning (2021) and 7 Strategies for Improving Your School (2020), both from Routledge/Eye On Education.

Dr. Barbara R. Blackburn, a “Top 30 Global Guru in Education,” is a bestselling author of over 25 books and a sought-after consultant. She was an award-winning professor at Winthrop University and has taught students of all ages. In addition to speaking at conferences worldwide, she regularly presents virtual and on-site workshops for teachers and administrators. Barbara is the author of Rigor in the Remote Learning Classroom: Instructional Tips and Strategies from Routledge/Eye On Education.

Help Language Learners Lead Their Own Learning

Note: This is the second in a two-part series (see Part One) on teaching all students in ways that are culturally responsive and sustaining – drawn from the new edition of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Teaching All Levels by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski. Footnotes and some references to other chapters have been deleted but can be found in the book.

By Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski


Researchers investigating the Organizing Cycle have found that good leaders and successful language learners share similar attributes including being intrinsically motivated, possessing a sense of self-efficacy (a belief in one’s ability to succeed), a willingness to take risks and learn from mistakes, and a desire to teach others.

We have heard many educators talk about wanting to “empower” their English language learners to develop these qualities. If you look up the definition of “empower,” it is generally defined as: to give (someone) the authority or power to do something. In a culturally responsive-sustaining classroom, however, power is not something to be “given,” just as self-efficacy or motivation are not “given” to students by the teacher. Instead, we as teachers can provide the conditions for these qualities to grow and flourish (an idea we have borrowed and modified from Sir Ken Robinson).


When teaching ELLs through a lens of culturally responsive-sustaining pedagogy, in addition to building positive relationships and accessing prior knowledge, centering student voice is another critical component of creating the conditions for student success. In other words, the teacher asks for, listens to, and acts on student ideas and feedback.

Identifying and Mentoring Students’ Leadership Potential

Here are some practical ways we support students in “taking power” to co-construct the teaching and learning in our classrooms:

► Engaging with students about what they want to learn, how they want to learn, and when they want to learn (in what chronological order). Asking for student input on curriculum and instruction can be done in numerous ways – from simply asking them in conversation to eliciting their input through surveys or other writing activities. It is most important for teachers to elicit student input on a regular basis (we aim for once a week at a minimum) and to act on this input by using student feedback to improve instruction, increase engagement, and affirm students’ voices. In Chapter Nineteen of our book, we share examples of questions we use to gain this kind of student input.

► Establishing Student Leadership Teams (discussed in Chapters Two and Seven). We identify students who seem to be taking leadership in group or class activities and invite them to be part of a class leadership team. Team members are often responsible for leading small group activities, regularly meeting with us to evaluate what seems to be working and not working in class, helping to identify new students who they will mentor, and completing weekly reflections on their own work as leaders. Once the team is formed, we then extend an open invitation to any student who wants to develop their leadership skills.

► Providing ELLs opportunities to teach others. As we’ve stated, the ability to teach others is a key quality of a successful language learner and a good leader. We often incorporate strategies, like Jigsaw discussed in Chapter Three, where students are supported in teaching each other through literacy activities. These can be short and informal activities where students are teaching their ELL classmates, or may involve longer, scaffolded projects where ELLs and non-ELLs come together to teach and learn from each other. Many times the content of the jigsaws are based on student requests.

One project at our school that fits into this category, but is not a jigsaw, is an annual event first organized by our colleague, Pam Buric, and named the Empathy Project. It involves intermediate-to-advanced ELLs writing stories about their lives which they then share with non-ELL students and their teachers in our school library. The non-ELL students arrive prepared with note-taking sheets to encourage active listening and empathetic responses. After writing and sharing their stories, the intermediate-advanced ELLs then “teach” students in the beginning ELL class how to write their own stories (with scaffolds like sentence starters), followed by a sharing day where both classes read their stories to each other.

Every year, English proficient students and their teachers learn so much from our students, who, in turn, share with us the power they feel in having their voices heard. For more on this project, see the Tech Tool at the end of this post.

► Having peer mentors, especially for ELL newcomers, enhances student-to-student relationships and centers students as leaders on campus. Peer mentors are different from peer tutors because they are not asked to assist with daily academic tasks, but instead provide overall counsel on school and life. Older (though not always) trained student mentors who are ELL intermediates or advanced students meet weekly with their mentees (ELL newcomers or beginners) to build relationships and offer advice. Mentors regularly meet with teachers to discuss any problems the mentee may be dealing with and how the mentor can best be helpful. 

► Asking students to share with school staff what helps them learn. Providing students with an opportunity to offer feedback on their classroom experiences can be powerful for students and teachers. One example of this kind of activity is asking our ELLs to complete a survey with questions focused on three key elements of ELL instruction – differentiation, student motivation, and affirming error correction. Here are examples of the questions we give to intermediate-advanced ELLs (beginners can be given a version that is simplified or translated into their home language):

  • What do teachers do that helps you understand what they are teaching, even though you may not know English that well? For example, do they show pictures that help you understand the content? Please try to write about specific lessons and experiences.
  • What are specific actions teachers have taken to help you become motivated to learn different subjects and the English language? Please try to write about specific lessons and experiences.
  • What have teachers done to help you not feel bad about making mistakes and, instead, learn from them? In other words, what are the best actions teachers have taken to correct English errors you have made in writing or in speaking?

The results of the survey can be shared in various ways, but we have found organizing a student panel (composed of student volunteers who meet together to practice and prepare ahead of time) to share their answers with teachers at staff or department meetings to be most powerful. In the past, we have recorded these sessions (with student and parent permission) and made them accessible to the whole school staff. See the Tech Tool below for examples of these student panels and preparatory materials.

► Distributing power to everyone in our classrooms. In community organizing, sometimes decision-makers feel that power is like a finite “pie” – if others get power, that can mean that the decision-makers have less power. In reality, organizers and others believe that the more power is distributed, the more possibilities are created. In other words, the pie itself gets bigger.

We would suggest the same is true in the classroom – the more power that is distributed to everyone in the class, the greater the motivation, the creativity, and the possibilities for everybody, including the teacher.

Learning By Doing

As we discuss in Chapter Seven of our book, the “Learning By Doing” element of the organizing cycle is rooted in the education theory of John Dewey who believed (and much research has since confirmed) that students learn better by actively participating in an experience, particularly if working with others, as opposed to just being told about it.

Culturally responsive-sustaining teaching involves creating many opportunities for ELLs to “learn by doing.” In earlier chapters, we’ve shared examples of “learning by doing” through cooperative learning activities and inductive teaching. Obviously, the activities described in the previous section on promoting student voice and leadership can also be categorized as “learning by doing.” Here are some additional strategies for ELLs that promote active learning in culturally responsive-sustaining ways:

  • Creating lessons which directly connect to students’ lives. To ensure learning happens both inside and outside the classroom, teachers need to look to students, their families, and the community when planning learning activities. Asking students to identify and propose solutions to challenges they and their families are facing can result in greater learning and engagement. See the section on Critical Pedagogy in Chapter Three and the sample Problem-Solution Unit Plan in Chapter Six for how we structure these kinds of activities for beginner and intermediate ELLs.
  • Another example of a lesson rooted directly in student experience happened when the neighborhood of our school was identified as a low response community for the U.S. Census. Students decided to create bilingual posters and materials encouraging community members to complete the census forms so that their neighborhood would receive a fair share of public resources. Students then distributed those materials to friends, families, and neighbors. During the pandemic, we did a similar student-led project on vaccine awareness.
  • Providing students the opportunity to choose what they want to read from a diverse classroom library. Rudine Sims Bishop has taught us that books can be “windows” for students (allowing them to see many different views of the world), they can also be “sliding glass doors” (that students can walk through, becoming part of a world created by the author), and, when the lighting conditions are right, windows can also be “mirrors” (that students can see themselves and their experiences reflected in books and reading thus becomes a means of “self-affirmation”). Over the years we have intentionally diversified our classroom libraries, along with the texts we share in class, so that our students are able see many mirrors.
  • Learning by doing from parents. Inviting family members of our students to come and share their knowledge and experiences can be an especially meaningful learning activity. In our experience, once we have established positive relationships with parents (using the ideas described in Chapter Two), they have been very willing to share their skills and traditions in our classrooms (like the example in Chapter Two of our book of a Hmong father sharing his expertise at making and repairing the traditional Hmong flute called the qeej)

Teacher Reflection

Though the ideas shared so far on the first four principles of the Organizing Cycle have focused on students, we are changing gears in this section to consider teacher reflection. Specific ideas on student reflection can be found throughout our book, especially in Chapter Three.

In Chapter Twenty we focus on reflective teaching and professional development. Here we would like to share some questions that are particularly important for teachers to consider in the context of culturally responsive-sustaining teaching. These critical questions come from our book The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox.

How well do I know my students?

We try to ask ourselves this question on a regular basis and not just at the beginning of the year. Our students are growing young people who change on a daily basis and it’s important we continue to seek out their interests, goals, challenges, and successes.

Do my words reflect a culturally responsive-sustaining mind-set when I am talking to students and about students?

We try to stay mindful of the ways – both positive and negative – that our words can impact students. Pronouncing their names correctly and not characterizing students’ beliefs as “right” or “wrong” through our words or even our facial expressions are two ways we honor students’ cultural backgrounds and identities.

We have found as teachers we can be far more effective in raising questions and being curious than in making judgements. We are also intentional in the way we speak about our students.

Sometimes well-meaning (or not) people ask us questions like “How do you do it?” or “How can those students learn when their lives are so crazy?” after learning that we work at a school located in a high-poverty area. While it can be tempting to tell stories of the trauma our students have faced in an attempt to demonstrate their resilience, doing so can often do more to perpetuate stereotypes than shatter them. Instead, we share about the rich cultural and linguistic contributions our students make each day to our school, their families, and the community.

How are my instructional practices culturally responsive and sustaining?

In our ELL classes, we use best practices, such as modeling, tapping prior knowledge, encouraging home language use, instructional scaffolding, and collaborative learning, just to name a few, to build the language, academic, and critical thinking skills students need to be successful lifelong learners. As we’ve described in this chapter and in many other parts of this book, building on students’ cultural and linguistic experiences is critical to increasing learning outcomes for students.

How is the curriculum I am using culturally responsive and sustaining?

Curriculum doesn’t have to incorporate texts and information about every student’s culture in every lesson to be considered culturally responsive-sustaining. Nor should it include having a token “multicultural day” once a year to “celebrate” different cultures.

Though we are continually learning how to make our curriculum more culturally responsive and sustaining, the following considerations have produced positive outcomes for our students:

  • materials representing diverse cultures and perspectives
  • curricular opportunities for students to share their cultural and linguistic knowledge with each other
  • allowing students to choose books to read from a diverse classroom library
  • inviting family and community members to share cultural knowledge in the classroom –using digital content to instantly connect students with a variety of cultural and linguistic resources
  • creating lessons on issues (like immigration policies) directly affecting students’ lives
  • facilitating open classroom dialogues about the role of race, racism, and religious prejudice (e.g. Islamophobia) in our students’ daily lives, including at school. See the Tech Tool below for resources on having these kinds of discussions with students.
Tech Tool

Resources on Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching

► For many resources on culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy, see The Best Resources About ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching’ & ‘Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy’ at Larry’s website.

► More information on the value of correctly pronouncing student names can be found at The Best Resources on the Importance of Correctly Pronouncing Student Names.

► For more resources on helping students to teach others, see The Best Posts on Helping Students Teach Their Classmates.

► A more detailed explanation of the Empathy Project, including downloadable handouts, can be found in the guest post on Larry’s blog titled What ELLs Taught Our School in a Week-Long Empathy Project.

► For more on how we facilitated Student Panels, see A New Student Panel of ELLs is Presenting at our Staff Training Tomorrow.

► For resources about the importance of diverse books for students, see A Beginning Collection of Resources about Books as Windows, Mirrors, & Sliding Glass Doors.

► For information on facilitating classroom discussions on racism see A Collection of Advice on Talking to Students about Race, Police, and Racism.

► In addition, you can find resources on teaching current issues related to students’ lives at The Best Posts and Articles on How to Teach ‘Controversial’ Topics.

NOTE: This post is adapted from The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies & Activities for Teaching All Levels (2nd Edition). Links to all the online activities shared in the book can be found at the publisher’s book page. Click here and go to the bottom of the page to find the free DOWNLOAD links for all the Exhibits, Figures and Bonus Chapters. It’s a true treasure! Many materials mentioned by chapter in this post can be found.

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English, Social Studies and International Baccalaureate classes to English Language Learners and English-proficient students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is the author or editor of twelve books on education, and writes a weekly teacher advice column for Education Week.

Katie Hull Sypnieski teaches English Language Learners and English-proficient students at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento, California. She is a Teacher Consultant with the Area 3 Writing Project at the University of California, Davis and is a co-author of The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox and Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners.

Larry and Katie are co-authors of the 1st and 2nd editions of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Teaching All Levels (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2022).

Supporting Twice Exceptional Learners

Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom 
By Emily Kircher-Morris
(Free Spirit Publishing, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Sarah E. Pennington

I spent many years working in a program for gifted students and remember many who were identified as twice-exceptional (2E).

Since these students are often misunderstood or perceived as simply lazy by teachers, I was excited to dive into Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom to see what insights and practical tips Emily Kircher-Morris has to offer. I was not disappointed!

Two core sections

The text is well organized into two main sections. The first, information on supporting twice exceptional learners, provides basics for teaching on topics such as recognizing 2E learners, designing instruction that focuses on 2E learners’ strengths, supporting 2E students’ social and emotional needs, and motivation, goal-setting, and executive functioning skill building to support 2E students.

The second section includes information about interventions for 2E students with exceptionalities, including specific learning disabilities, ADHD, Autism, anxiety, processing difficulties, and depression.

Discussion of each of these exceptionalities includes the common signs/symptoms of each, how it is identified, how it affects students in the classroom, and specific tools and ideas that teachers can utilize to support 2E students with this concurrent diagnosis.

Also included are vignettes about students who are 2E with the specific exceptionality being discussed, as well as a chart for teachers to help them identify appropriate accommodations for each exceptionality. These charts, in particular, are powerful and simple tools for teachers.

And there’s more

The text also includes reproducible pages for use by teachers, as well as activities that can be used with students to support them in building skills such as self-advocacy (asking for help) and understanding empathy. These pages are also available as digital downloads for those who have purchased the book.

My favorite tool is the very first one in the book, a checklist to help teachers recognize 2E students in their classroom. This tool provides teachers with guidance for considering the strengths and needs of students in an effort to identify those who may need to be referred for additional screening.

Overall, this is a reader-friendly text that has lots of tools teachers can utilize easily and purposefully. It clears up misconceptions teachers may have about 2E students and provides teachers with the tools to serve the needs of these students academically and socio-emotionally.

Sarah E. Pennington taught middle school language arts for a decade before returning to school to pursue her doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction. She is currently an assistant professor at Montana State University, where she teaches pre-service educators the ins and outs of supporting young literacy learners. She also provides professional development in literacy and motivation to teachers across the nation. You can visit her online at


Digital Book Talks in Middle Grades Science

By Katie Caprino and Alyssa Marzili


Book talks are common in English Language Arts classrooms and libraries. But what about in the middle grades science classroom?

In this post we – a literacy teacher educator and a future teacher – consider the qualities of a good book talk and why they are useful in science studies. We also share some contemporary middle grades titles that integrate science topics and offer five tips for integrating digital book talks into middle grades science.

What Is a Book Talk?

A student book talk is like a movie trailer for a book. It previews the major points of the book without giving away the plot entirely and highlights what the reader did and did not like. The goal of book talks is to encourage others to read the book. They are typically short, lasting a few minutes, and can be done face-to-face or digitally on tools like YouTube or Flipgrid. In this article we focus specifically on digital book talks.

Why Do Book Talks in the Middle Grades?

Having students read middle grades books that incorporate science content helps build students’ literacy skills, and, more specifically, science literacy. For example, students can develop knowledge of scientific vocabulary. And if students read fiction texts that feature science content, they are being exposed to genres not usually read in science class – and perhaps books not typically read in English Language Arts either.

The more genres students are exposed to, the more likely they will find books they enjoy reading. Having students give book talks on the texts they read will help them have a purpose for reading, develop ways to share texts with fellow readers, and view science and literacy in ways they had not seen before.

Where to Find Great Science Trade Books

Before asking students to compose digital book talks, you can help them find great reads. We recommend several sources. The National Science Teaching Association publishes an annual list of outstanding science trade books. Goodreads features a variety of lists by user contributors, with  brief summaries, ratings and additional analytical details. Reading Rockets’ Book Finder also lets you search for books by reader’s age, reading level, genre, format, and topic.

Local bookshops and larger book sellers, such as Barnes and Noble and Amazon, are also great sources (and often have science books discounted). And do not forget about your school or local public librarian! (Also see the article 5 Kinds of Nonfiction here at MiddleWeb.)

Here are seven books Alyssa recommends that have good book talk potential.

This table shares a bit more about these contemporary middle grades texts.

Engaging Students in Digital Book Talks

Here are five tips for having students engage in digital book talks in your classroom.

● Decide on the areas you want students to address. We recommend having students include the following in their book talk: title, author, brief summary, critique (likes / dislikes), and science topics found in the text. They might highlight an amazing fact they learned.

● Here is an example of a digital book talk created by Elizabethtown College education graduate Angela Carcella:

● Have students create a rough draft of their book talk and practice before filming. Book talks do not need to be read or memorized. In fact, we think that could cause the book talks to come off as inauthentic. However, a little practice will help students be prepared.

● Allow students to select their filming tool. Students can create book talks on a variety of tools. YouTube works, as does Flipgrid. We do recommend a tool that has a sharing option.

● Allow time for filming. We recommend allowing students to film their book talks during class time. This will allow them to use you and their classmates as a resource.

Invite students to comment on others’ book talks. Have students post their book talks and permit classmates to comment on others’ book talks. This sharing emphasizes the social nature of literacy, and we all know that students’ recommendations go much further than a teacher’s or librarian’s recommendation ever would!

We look forward to hearing how you incorporate digital book talks in your classroom!

The authors would like to thank the Mellon Foundation for its support in developing the content of this blog post.

Katie Caprino is an Assistant Professor of PK-12 New Literacies at Elizabethtown College. She taught middle and high school English in Virginia and North Carolina. She holds a BA from the University of Virginia, a MA from the College of William and Mary, a MA from Old Dominion University, and a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Katie researches and presents on children’s, middle grades, and young adult literature; the teaching of writing; and incorporating technology into the literacy classroom. You can follow her on Twitter @KCapLiteracy and visit her book blog.

Alyssa Marzili is a senior Early Childhood Education major at Elizabethtown College with a minor in English Professional Writing. Presently, she is the Editor-in-Chief of The Etownian, and the lead writing tutor. In her free time, she writes fictional books, mostly middle-level and young adult.

Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching

Note: This is the first of a two-part series on teaching all students in ways that are culturally responsive and sustaining – drawn from the new edition of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Teaching All Levels by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski. Footnotes and some references to other chapters have been deleted but can be found in the book.

By Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski


There was a family that lived on the Cavally River in Liberia: a hunter, his wife, and their three sons; the mother was expecting another child soon. One morning the hunter went into the forest. Night came; the hunter didn’t come home.

A week passed. A month. The boys started hunting on their own; they did not speak about their absent father. Then, the mother gave birth to a daughter. Time passed. The baby girl learned to crawl, to stand up, to walk, and then to speak.

Her first words were “Where is my father?”

“Yes,” said the first brother. “Where is he?”

“We should find out what happened to him,” said the second brother.

“Let’s go!” said the third brother.


The first son had a sixth sense that allowed him to find their father’s body in the forest; a wild animal had killed him. Only his bones were left. The second son knew a magic spell to put flesh back on their father’s bones. The third son had the power to breathe life back into their father’s body. Their father rose up, thanked his sons, and they all went home together. The whole village celebrated the hunter’s return.

“Whom shall we honor? Who rescued this man?” the chief asked.

The sons began arguing. “I found him!” “I put flesh on his bones!” “I breathed life into his body!”

The villagers also began arguing. The chief could not decide which son to honor.

Then the mother stepped forward. “Our daughter deserves the honor,” the mother proclaimed, “because she noticed that her father was missing and asked: Where is my father?”

Everyone agreed with the mother’s verdict, and they honored the wise little girl.

Noticing What Is Missing

As this folktale teaches, each person has a valuable contribution to make, and sometimes the most important contribution is to notice what is missing. What is often missing from instruction in our schools is acknowledgement and celebration of our students’ identities and cultures.

While the majority of students in US public schools are students of color from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds, the vast majority of educators (around 80 percent) in K-12 public schools are white. Many students have been harmed by pedagogy that has not acknowledged systemic racism, and educators play an important role in either addressing or not addressing these harms. In light of increased public attention to police violence against people of color and a counter-reaction by conservatives opposing anti-racism teaching in schools, educators should be intentional in addressing their own biases and practicing culturally responsive and sustaining teaching.

While we are singling out this aspect of teaching multilinguals, we in no way want to imply that culturally sustaining teaching is optional or that it occurs only on certain days or in certain activities. As we will describe, culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy is an approach or mindset that underlies and guides everyday classroom practices. It focuses on validating the cultural learning tools that diverse learners bring to the classroom and leveraging them to effect positive learning outcomes for all students.

What is Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) and culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) are two of the most-common philosophies guiding how teachers of all races can be better teachers to students of color. These approaches are built on the foundational work of educator and researcher Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. She introduced the term culturally relevant pedagogy to describe a teaching approach centered on engaging learners whose experiences and cultures were often viewed through a “deficit” lens and traditionally excluded in mainstream educational settings.

Geneva Gay expanded on the work of Ladson-Billings and identified the term culturally responsive teaching to describe pedagogy that uses “the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.”

Culturally sustaining pedagogy is a more recent perspective that builds on the tenets of culturally responsive and relevant teaching. This approach was first proposed by professor Django Paris, who defines it as a pedagogy that “seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation and revitalization.”

In other words, this approach prioritizes making sure that our educational practices not only respond to the diversity of languages and cultures in our classroom, but also that they aim to sustain these elements at the center of teaching and learning. As Zaretta Hammond, educator and author of the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, points out: all of us are doing culturally responsive teaching at all times. The question posed by Hammond is, “Whose culture?” What we want to do is to lift up the cultures of students who have been traditionally ignored or marginalized.

Viewing English language learners through an asset, not deficit, based lens guides all that we do in the classroom. Instruction that is culturally responsive and sustaining explicitly challenges the deficit perspective. We believe that recognizing, validating, and using the many linguistic and cultural tools that ELLs possess ultimately provides the best learning experiences for our students and for us.

The Organizing Cycle

In our new book we discuss how the Organizing Cycle (based upon successful strategies used by community organizers) can be applied as a helpful framework for making learning more accessible to ELLs and to all learners.

These same research-based principles of building student relationships, accessing prior knowledge (particularly through student stories), developing student leadership potential, learning by doing, and reflection can also work as a frame for discussing culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy in the ELL classroom.

Below (and in Part 2 of this article) we offer ideas and practices for each principle of the Organizing Cycle. While these elements don’t cover every aspect of culturally responsive teaching, they do represent foundational best practices we use in our classrooms.

We hope our discussion here can spur continued research and deepen learning in your own practice. And again, we want to emphasize culturally responsive and sustaining teaching is not a “program” or list of strategies. It is a mindset that influences everything we do in the classroom.

Building Strong Relationships

Many educators view positive relationships with students as a classroom management tool. However, a culturally responsive, sustaining educator views these relationships as a critical foundation of learning.

Zaretta Hammond explains the connection between our brain’s ability to learn and positive relationships: “The oxytocin positive relationships trigger helps the amygdala stay calm so the prefrontal cortex can focus on higher order thinking and learning.” To put it simply, positive relationships in the classroom help students to feel safe. When they feel safe, they can better learn. In an ELL classroom that is culturally responsive and sustaining, building positive relationships can involve:

►Taking the time to listen and to learn about our students through the relationship building and sustaining activities. We share many resources for doing this in Chapter Two of our book.

►Gathering information about students from the school (English Proficiency Level, home language survey, health information, transcripts, assessments, and so on). This data can provide context for conversations with students and their families. However, it’s important to be data-informed, recognizing that numbers do not necessarily provide all the needed information or even the most important information that teachers want to know about their students. Sometimes being data-driven can result in teachers having too narrow of a focus on numbers and statistics, which don’t provide a complete picture of students’ lives, goals, strengths, and challenges.

►Learning about students’ home countries – current conflicts/issues, specific information on the city or region they come from, language(s) they speak, etc. – from students, their families, and your own research.

►Becoming familiar with the neighborhoods students currently live in can make it easier for teachers to connect students’ daily experiences to the classroom and develop deeper relationships with students and their families.

►Gathering information on students’ academic strengths and challenges through discussions with students and their families (We like to ask parents: “What is something that has helped your child learn best?” “When has your child been most successful in school and what contributed to that success?”), regular check-ins, and close observations of students and their work.

►Giving surveys to students asking about their interests, goals, and feedback on the class can strengthen relationships if the teacher acts on this information. Asking students to fill out a Google form and then not acting on any of the feedback from students can be perceived as “performative” and can lead students to believe that the teacher doesn’t really care about them or what they think.

►Using the establish, maintain, restore framework, which has been found by researchers to be one of the most effective techniques for positive relationship building. This relationship framework involves first establishing positive relationships at the beginning of the year using strategies like the ones we describe in Chapter Two.

►Positive, trusting relationships must then be maintained throughout the year by continuing to implement those strategies and being mindful of positive and negative interactions with students (research shows teachers should aim for a five-to-one ratio).

►When negative interactions do happen, then relationships must be repaired or restored. Some of the ways teachers can help restore positive relationships include admitting their own mistakes, taking responsibility for their actions, apologizing when needed, not blaming students when things go wrong, allowing students to have a “fresh start” each day, asking students what they need to move forward, and showing empathy. It can also be important to remember that when we are apologizing to students, we want the focus to be on the student – how they are feeling, how the mistake affected them, or what they need to move forward.

►We can’t say it enough times: taking the time to learn how to pronounce each of your student’s names is essential to relationship building, and if you get it wrong, keep trying until you get it right!

We understand that many of these relationship-building activities can be challenging when the teacher doesn’t share the same home language as the student. We encourage you to see the Tech Tool in Chapter Two “Online Resources: Translating” for translation resources.

Accessing Prior Knowledge (Especially Through Stories)

Research on the brain confirms it is easier to learn something new when we can attach it to something we already know. For ELLs in particular, activating prior knowledge, also known as activating schema, plays a big role in promoting their academic literacy.

In an ELL classroom, students possess varying levels of prior knowledge in English and academic content. They also bring with them valuable “funds of knowledge” created through their cultural, family, and general life experiences outside of school.

Culturally responsive-sustaining teachers of ELLs honor their students’ experiences and understandings. They help students draw on their prior knowledge, including those outside funds of knowledge, in order to make connections to new learning.

Once teachers elicit from students what they already know and have experienced about a topic or concept, they can then decide how much additional background knowledge is needed for students to understand new content.

In Chapter Seven of our book, we include specific examples of eliciting and building background knowledge with ELLs. Here are a few more ways we support students to share and build upon their knowledge and experiences in culturally sustaining ways:

►Listening, listening, and more listening! Teachers can’t help students access and expand prior knowledge if the teacher is doing all the talking. Sometimes teachers leave out the “accessing prior knowledge” stage and move straight to “building background knowledge” by explaining every word, concept, or topic to their students. Not only can this be confusing and overwhelming for students, but it devalues students’ prior knowledge and experiences. In addition, teachers should remember that students may possess an understanding of a concept that is “different” from the teacher’s prior knowledge as opposed to “incorrect.” For example, asking students from different cultural backgrounds to write what they know about healthcare and medicine may elicit very different responses from one written by the teacher.

►Using what we call “brain sparks” to get students thinking, talking, writing, and sharing about a topic or concept we will be teaching. When starting a new unit, text, or concept, we often show students a related video (possibly at a reduced speed and certainly with English subtitles), an image, a slideshow, or other visual and ask them questions like “What do you notice?” “What do you find interesting?” or “What does this remind you of?” Simply asking students to write or talk about it with a partner can gauge prior knowledge, build background, and generate interest. Newcomers can respond in their home language or even through drawing pictures of what they already know about the topic.

►Validating and encouraging students’ use of their home language when activating and building prior knowledge (including providing texts in their home language on the topic of study). This perspective is also known as translanguaging where students are encouraged to leverage the linguistics tools of all the languages they know in order to develop their home and second (or maybe their third, fourth, or even fifth) language, content, academic, and social skills.

►Encouraging students to frequently share their cultural and linguistic knowledge with each other. This sharing can happen more formally through projects or student presentations where students teach each other about their home cultures and their home languages. Even simple, informal practices like asking students to come to the board and translate a key vocabulary word into their different home languages (followed by the teacher attempting to say the word in each language) can instantly be affirming and inject some humor (at the teacher’s expense!) into the lesson.

Providing space and time for students to consider and share the different ways they solve problems, how they might approach an activity, what works/doesn’t work best for them when learning, the similarities and differences of their home languages, and many other forms of prior knowledge and experience can help teachers create what Zaretta Hammond calls “cognitive hooks” between students’ valuable funds of knowledge and academic content.

In Part 2 Larry and Katie explore these topics:

► Identifying and Mentoring Students’ Leadership Potential

► Having Students Learn by Doing

► Questions to Promote Teacher Reflection

 ► Where to Find More Resources on Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Teaching

NOTE: This post is adapted from The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies & Activities for Teaching All Levels (2nd Edition). Links to all the online activities shared in the book can be found at the publisher’s book page. Click here and go to the bottom of the page to find the free DOWNLOAD links for all the Exhibits, Figures and Bonus Chapters. It’s a true treasure! Many materials mentioned by chapter in this post can be found.

Larry Ferlazzo teaches English, Social Studies and International Baccalaureate classes to English Language Learners and English-proficient students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California. He is the author or editor of twelve books on education, and writes a weekly teacher advice column for Education Week.

Katie Hull Sypnieski teaches English Language Learners and English-proficient students at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento, California. She is a Teacher Consultant with the Area 3 Writing Project at the University of California, Davis and is a co-author of The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox and Navigating the Common Core with English Language Learners.

Larry and Katie are co-authors of the 1st and 2nd editions of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide: Ready-to-Use Strategies, Tools & Activities for Teaching All Levels (Wiley/Jossey-Bass, 2022).

How Educators Can Reclaim Student Agency

4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency 
By Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher
(Heinemann, 2021 – Learn more)

Reviewed by Helene Alalouf

“How does someone learn to write? Certainly, one has to master language and explore the medium by wide reading. One must practice and develop the craft of writing…Style means knowing who you are and how you feel about your own experience.” – Preface of Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs of a Young Writer by Dana Gioia.

How serendipitous that Gioia’s recent book and 4 Essential Studies should both remind me of immersion and choice! Can you teach writing if you do not write? Can you support creativity without knowing digital tools like iMovie and podcasting?

Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher resoundingly assert that frequent reading and writing will inspire students to explore and write. Teachers should participate, modeling processes with their own creations in four essential studies: the essay, book clubs, poetry, and digital composition.

Each of the authors’ four studies builds on the same four elements: the authors’ beliefs in teaching about the study; the important instructional practices with suggested titles; ideas for assessment and grading focused on portfolios and publishing rather than rubrics, and closing thoughts on achieved outcomes.

You might want to argue state tests do not allow time for student choice to explore their interests and personal experiences. To succeed on the tests, their responses to literature depend on formulaic literary analysis informed by the teacher’s researched text deconstruction.

Kittle and Gallagher, instead, promote college and career readiness built upon creativity and options that include reading grade-level knowledge-rich books daily, weekly inquiry-based discussions, brief formatives with conferring, and a number of formal written assignments (p.77). We should encourage their writing with original poetry and digital presentations also.

Citing Gholdy Muhammad‘s Cultivating Genius, they propose that personal essays are as rigorous as the traditional analytical essay but are culturally responsive and honor students’ development of selfhood by telling their story.

“…[S]tudents do not achieve agency unless they are making decisions,“ they write. (p.24)

One – Teaching the Essay as an Art Form, with Range and Feedback

• Range for imagining options for form and style through text study:

Students consider a topic and organization choices by examining a range of essays – “all excellent, all different“ – noting and naming characteristics of structures and craft to emulate in their own writing.

A poignant example of how this can empower students is illustrated by Mitzy writing to her state’s senators about the lack of mental health services, and including companion arguments. Subsequently, after identifying the struggles that she and other immigrant children have faced, she started the Latinx Student Union, “[b]ringing students together with allies to study current issues, promote diversity, and show appreciation for the Latin and Hispanic community. All because of one essay.“ (p.43)

• Feedback that moves writers in Writing Conferences and Writing Groups:

My wise mother had me read my compositions aloud to her at the kitchen table while she prepared dinner. Among her questions: “What are you working on? How can I help?” And my responses: “Do my transitions work? Do I have enough evidence to support this position?”

“Four things have made students better writers – a volume of practice, choice, modeling, and feedback. Grading is not on this list.” (p.38) Reflection, rather than rubrics!

Two – Book Clubs: The Best Teacher of Reading is the Reading

I was surprised Kittle and Gallagher did not mention Reciprocal Teaching and the Fab Four as a way to raise student agency. They did promote volume, range, and talk for developing lifelong readers. Choice engages adolescents, and book clubs hold students accountable. They read more, with stamina. And because they must make sense of meaning, they apply strategies.

Though I attribute my National Board certification to student-led book discussions, implemented after reading Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups by Harvey Daniels, what surprised me here is that book clubs can transcend the classroom by corresponding across the country, balancing relevant, thematically related contemporary literature and nonfiction, and before or after core study as the second essential examination of big ideas across texts and across authors.

“Rigor is not in the book itself, but in the work students do to understand it” (p.47-49), as the authors illustrate in the student examples they display.

“Throughout the unit, we formatively assess their progress through conference, daily quick writing in notebooks, table level and whole class discussions, and weekly self-generated two page spreads“ – as well as interactions with others via Flipgrid and Google (p.75).

The summative essay prompt, given before the text-based unit began, is How did this reading experience change your thinking about [the essential question]?

Three – Poetry: The Potential for Unexpected Things

I just helped my granddaughter in third grade write a four page analysis, with prescribed questions, of “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too” by Shel Silverstein. I also visited a classroom where the teacher displayed a rhyme scheme and asked students to do the same “analysis” on the rest of the poem.

Rather than dissecting a poem using the teacher’s guide points, we should invite students to study a volume of poems and write their own. Kittle and Gallagher’s vision is “that all of our students will develop a hunger to read and write poetry” (p.81). Here are some techniques I look forward to implementing:

● Playing with language via found poems (collage of words, phrases) and mashup (select lines from different poems to fashion a new poem).

● Contributing to poetry discussions and immersive study: Big Paper exchanges; Paired Readings; and analysis based on reading a volume of 20 poems by the poet of the day, selecting the best three, and discussing, “What is the poet good at?”

● Teaching the language of poetry: A tournament requires students’ analysis of affective and technical elements in page or stage poems, then writing an analysis.

Four – Digital Composition: Crossing Genre Boundaries

More ideas I plan to explore and share:

● Let your curriculum evolve with a four-week study in two stages: co-creating a 1-2 minute documentary and creating a project of choice in one digital literacy medium (movie, podcast, TED talk, audio-recording, PSA, etc.). Use student experts who know the digital skills we do not.

● Teach the process with structures and routines: status checks, conferences and mid-process feedback, weekly progress reflections, annotated bibliographies of mentor texts for a range in this genre, checklists for project requirements.

● Mini-lessons can increase analysis of digital texts, guide students’ organizational decisions, teach digital literacy skills, and share projects to expand possibilities.

Dana Gioia writes: “The books we read are no different from the people we meet or the cities we visit. Some books, people, or places hardly matter, others change our lives. No one else will ever read, reread, or misread the same books in the same way or in the same order.” Gioia.

Whatever way you choose to approach the remarkable body of work created by Kittle and Gallagher, make the choice to immerse yourself in 4 Essential Studies. As your students gain agency, they will thank you as readers and writers.

Since attaining her Masters from Teachers College, Columbia University, and later National Board Certification, education consultant Helene Alalouf relishes opportunities to share her passion and informed fluency of research-evident principles to ensure a productive learning environment, cognitively and affectively, to support educators and families in realizing their vision. At leisure, she enjoys walking and cooking with family and friends, reading, and knitting.

GRR: When the “You Do Together” Feels Shallow

A MiddleWeb Blog

Gradual Release of Responsibility is a key classroom strategy. In a year-long series two literacy coaches, Sunday Cummins and Julie Webb, explore ways to make GRR part of everyday practice.

Ideally, the “you do together” phase of the gradual release of responsibility is a student-led experience that acts as a catalyst for learning.

Working with peers, students have a chance to clarify their thinking and gain insight from each other. As a result they expand their own understanding of how to strategically process a text, and they deepen their understanding of the content in the source.

But how often does this kind of student-to-student collaboration really happen in classrooms? In our experience, what takes place more often is that students take turns (or wait for their turn) to share their own thoughts with little regard for the ideas shared by their peers.

These types of interactions masquerade as discussions but function more like one-way communication broadcasts. So what can we do to foster true collaboration during the “you do together” phase?

Keeping our roles in mind is important. During this phase of GRR, teachers are a resource, which differs somewhat from the role of model or guide. We create a safe space for students to engage in thinking about a source in a way that may be unfamiliar or difficult.

Before and during student-led conversations, we set students up to be catalysts for new thinking to occur not only for themselves but also for their peers. Our work includes observing student-led conversations and providing scaffolds that can move them forward in making meaning, both collectively and on their own. (This is different from moving them forward in getting to the answer.)

There are loads of resources on helping students engage in making meaning with each other during conversations. And chances are you have already done some work on helping students engage in this way. What follows are a few suggestions to reflect on as you think about elevating the level of meaning making that happens during the “you do together” phase of GRR.

Make sure the conversation is worth having

During reading instruction “you do together” experiences need to balance two objectives. The first is making sense of a source by strategically processing text in a way that is less familiar (e.g., coding the text to monitor for meaning making; using a purpose for reading to determine what’s important; identifying key details that support an emerging main idea). The second (and just as important) is understanding the content of that source better (e.g., developing insight into the author’s purpose; realizing there are multiple main ideas; realizing that a problem is complex).

One way we can support students to stay focused on these objectives is to make our expectations very clear. For example, in an eighth grade classroom studying the Holocaust, the teacher might post the following:

1) As a group, discuss how you would code the ideas in this excerpt. Are they familiar? Less familiar?

2) What are you learning in this excerpt that reveals the courage of this resistance group? How does this influence your understanding of the larger resistance movement?

Nurture “responding to each other” during whole group conversations. Don’t wait for students to meet in pairs or small groups before they start responding to each other.

In every conversation across the day, coach students to build on each other’s thinking. During these conversations model the kind of thinking they need to do during student-led conversations with prompts like the following:

● Who can add or build on to what Marie just said?
● Who agrees with David? What is text evidence in the source that supports what David is saying?
● What questions do you have about what Ana just said?
● Does what Javier just said resonate with you all in any way? What are you thinking in response?

This requires intentionally breaking away from typical initiate-respond-evaluate teacher to student interactions that sometimes dominate whole group or teacher-led conversations (Cazden, 2001). One way to do this is to think about your objectives for discussions which should include making sense of a source(s) but also of nurturing conversations in which students see themselves as agents of knowledge and understanding.

Offer scaffolds at the point of need

It is tempting to provide students with a list of discussion stems (e.g., “What do you mean by…?” and “Do you agree with that…?”) in a bookmark, on a placemat, or on a poster and consider that a sufficient tool for powerful conversations. While these may give some guidance on the what and how of conversations, they don’t necessarily give students the when.

As you watch students engage in conversation, think about small scaffolds you can offer to help them move forward in making meaning for themselves. In a class of sixth grade students, Sunday noticed that some students dominated the conversations, mainly sharing their thinking and not expanding on or building on others’ thinking.


During the next “you do together,” Sunday assigned those students the role of facilitator for their group. She handed each a printed question they could ask others: “What do you think about that?” and challenged them to limit their role to helping their peers build on each other’s ideas.

Sunday then coached for this when she leaned into groups. This changed the dynamic of the conversation. At least one student in each group had to really listen to their peers and think about how to help their peers connect and build on each other’s thinking.

During another lesson with a small group of fourth grade students, Sunday noticed a student made a comment that did not make sense or that revealed a misunderstanding of the content in the text, but no one asked a clarifying question.

Instead of helping the student correct their understanding, Sunday asked the group to listen to their peer again and think about whether what he said matched what they understood from the text. When they realized the discrepancy, Sunday asked, “So how can you help your friend?”

This was done within a safe space where the group had discussed how one of the purposes of “you do together” is to help each other make better sense of the content in a source. When the students decided to ask a clarifying question, Sunday offered them the language they needed, quickly writing “Can you clarify the part about…?” on a blank piece of paper for them to use at that moment.

Remove scaffolds that limit meaning making

Scaffolds should be temporary and, if left in place too long, may begin to impede authentic conversations.

For example, use of traditional Reciprocal Teaching roles like connector, summarizer, predictor, and clarifier initially supports students in developing an understanding of how they can participate in conversations (Oczkus, 2018).

Eventually, though, students should realize they can embody all of these roles during a conversation in pursuit of meaning making. Again, just as you acted as a resource in providing these roles for students, you may need to be the one who removes these scaffolds or that, as you observe groups, coaches them to let go of singular roles.

During Reciprocal Teaching groups with fifth grade students, Julie noticed how stiff students sounded when attempting to enact their assigned roles. She suspected that many of them were preoccupied by feeling anxious about leading the group, and that this preoccupation might be interfering with their purpose of making meaning together. She switched gears and asked just one student to monitor the conversation in order to allow others to focus on strategically processing the text.

At the conclusion of the discussion, the students shared that this new structure was more effective, and they agreed to take turns in the lead role going forward. Sometimes a suggested scaffold or structure doesn’t meet the needs of the unique group of students in front of you. Teachers should feel free to remove particular supports when there’s evidence that they aren’t working and when they’re no longer needed. The removal of supports is just another sign that students have grown and are ready for new challenges.

Reflect on the “why” of “You Do Together”

Help students understand the value of these conversations by setting goals before they meet. Before students begin, remind them of the potential of these conversations for helping them expand and consolidate their learning, and for leaning on their peers as resources of knowledge and partners in meaning making.

You might set specific goals like “What’s one idea someone shared that you hadn’t thought about before?” or “How did someone help you make better sense of this source?”

Then reflect on those conversations afterward. Use what you noted during the conversations to spark reflection. You might start by asking a group you observed to share how they engaged in a particular act of elaborating or clarifying together, or ask another group how they built on or challenged each others’ ideas. Support the students in explaining what they did by adding details from their conversation that you noticed during your observation.

Trust the process and your students

A common refrain we hear from teachers is “But if I leave it up to the students, they won’t know what to do.” We understand that releasing control isn’t always easy, but with practice we can learn how to make intentional shifts from phase to phase during GRR and provide and remove supports along the way. Remember, even though students are taking on more responsibility, you as the teacher still have an active role to play.

As students act as catalysts for making meaning and improving thinking, the teacher is an important resource to help foster the building of collective knowledge through productive conversations. This certainly requires that the teacher play an active role during the collaborative phase of GRR. And yes, it’s not likely that students will launch into deeply powerful discussions right away.

But that’s what makes the teacher’s role so important. Your observations and expertise are critical for supporting students as they learn these skills. And in time they will learn them, and they’ll be better readers, thinkers, and classmates as a result.


Cazden, Courtney. (2001). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Oczkus, Lori D. (2018). Reciprocal Teaching at Work: Powerful Lessons and Strategies for Improving Reading Comprehension (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sunday Cummins, Ph.D, is a literacy consultant and author and has been a teacher and literacy coach in public schools. Her work focuses on supporting teachers, schools and districts as they plan and implement assessment driven instruction with complex informational sources including traditional texts, video and infographics. She is the author of several professional books, including Close Reading of Informational Sources  (Guilford, 2019). Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @SundayCummins. See her previous MiddleWeb articles here.

Julie Webb, Ed.D., is a former classroom teacher and reading specialist in Title I schools who now consults with districts offering training and coaching in literacy instruction and assessment practices. Julie hosts LitCentric Radio, a literacy podcast that features powerful reading comprehension and writing lessons using children’s literature. She holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership from University of the Pacific and is a National Board Certified Teacher (Literacy). Visit her website and subscribe to her podcast. Follow her on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

All the Vocabulary Help You’re Likely to Need

vocabulary-logo-550[Updated March 2022]

Vocabulary! Under the canopy of state standards, student knowledge of academic language matters more than ever, all across the content areas.

As you begin to think about what your students will need this year (with assessments looming), strategies for building vocabulary may be near the top of your list.

At least that’s what our tally of MiddleWeb reader favorites seems to suggest. So we’ve gathered together our most popular vocabulary articles for easy clicking. We’re sure you’ll find some help and inspiration.

The 10-Minute Vocabulary Lesson

clock-250Brief encounters with academic vocabulary can add hundreds of words to a student’s collection every year. How to find the time for those short lessons in a busy school day? Author and consultant Marilee Sprenger shares ten possibilities in our most-read vocabulary article.

3 Strategies Help Students Decipher Unknown Words

Vocabulary knowledge is the heart of reading comprehension and academic achievement, says literacy consultant Brenda Overturf, “and it means way more than just learning words.” Students must have the tools to decipher unknown academic words. She shares three of the best.

Low Prep and No Prep Vocabulary Activities

How can teachers be more intentional about teaching vocabulary words given the limited instructional time available? Middle school History & ELA teacher Megan Kelly shares ways she has begun to add more vocabulary instruction into small pockets of class time using some fun, sticky strategies.

Teaching Vocabulary with Digital Tools

ELA teacher and former llama wrangler Lee Ann Spillane details how she teaches content-related vocabulary using several versatile digital tools including Quizlet and

Illustration by Valentina Gonzalez

Interactive Word Walls Enliven Vocab Learning

To create classrooms where vocabulary learning thrives, Valentina Gonzalez recommends an interactive word wall – a large graphic organizer displaying critical vocabulary with related ideas and visuals added by students. Great across subjects, for ELLs and everyone else!

4 Vocab Steps Help Kids Grasp Information Text

Understanding concept words like ‘innovative’ can help students to make sense of complex nonfiction sources. Britany Harris and Sunday Cummins share a four-step process to introduce a few new vocabulary words before reading an information text and then focus on them as kids read, talk and write.

Use “Cycles” to Make Word Study Part of Everyday Learning
When it comes to learning new words, a few minutes goes a long way, says author-consultant Pam Koutrakos. Teachers can jump-start word study at any point in the year. Use her “cycle” strategy to fit vocabulary into the daily lesson flow and build students’ curiosity about words.

Vocab: How to Rock Greek & Latin Roots

When you think of Greek and Latin roots, you think high student engagement, right? No? ELA teacher Amber Chandler plans to make all those old roots rock as she introduces the concepts of language development and acquisition to her students.

Teaching Vocabulary in Word-Rich Classrooms

Students can learn difficult vocabulary when they are immersed in a rich array of words, says reading expert Janet Allen. In this excerpt from her best-selling collection of vocabulary teaching tools, Allen describes ways to create a word-rich environment. Includes reproducibles and links to two reviews of Allen’s popular flip book.

Ways to Assure Quality Exposure to New Words

What’s one of the best things a school day can offer? Exposure to newly learned words – provided that exposure is in context, well-timed, multisensory, and question-based. Literacy expert Amy Benjamin suggests five ways to achieve these “durable learning” goals.

My Students Are Begging to Review Vocabulary

Instead of just saying “study your vocabulary,” Amber Chandler is trying out Quizlet Live, an online team-based game that has students begging for more. She says the easy tech tool promotes collaborative competition, meets SEL needs, and requires little extra work.

Brain-Friendly Strategies for Your Vocab Toolbox

How can teachers use brain-friendly strategies to help students encode, store and retrieve vocabulary words? Educator and author Marilee Sprenger shares some high-interest activities designed for each stage of learning academic words. Some just require a few minutes!

Techniques and Tools to Teach Vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary instruction, teachers have many, many questions. For example: “How can I fit vocabulary in? How should I pick the words? What should my quizzes look like?” Literacy consultant Sarah Tantillo provides answers to these questions and more – including a super resource that offers vocabulary word lists for many YA novels.

Use Tech Tools to Teach Vocabulary & Useful Words Galore
What’s the best way to teach vocabulary? It’s a constant topic among educators, writes Jeremy Hyler, and not just among his fellow ELA colleagues. Every classroom teacher needs to teach academic words. Hyler shares some vocabulary strategies he’s developed over 17 years.

25 Words That Trigger Student Understanding

Brain and learning expert Marilee Sprenger highlights the 25 most high-frequency words for learners in the English language to focus upon. “I call these words ‘essential’ because knowing and using them can boost academic success and lifelong learning.” Are they on your vocab list?

Engaging Students in Middle School Theater

By Kasey Short

Middle school theater courses provide students opportunities to practice public speaking, collaborate with peers, develop confidence, and experience creativity. Aaron Mize, the theater instructor at our middle school, provides his students with those opportunities and much more.

When designing curriculum, Aaron consistently includes social and emotional skills, diverse texts, multicultural arts, and interdisciplinary connections in his unit plans.

When I asked him about his motivations, he explained that his hope is to make theater accessible to young people by making connections to their day-to-day lives and studies, giving students a platform to stretch themselves creatively, see the similarities and celebrate the differences of theatrical performance from different regions, countries, and cultures – all while letting the world around them inform their story.”

Shadow Puppetry Folktales

This unit incorporates diverse texts, Asian culture and traditions, history, visual arts, writing, interpreting texts, collaboration, design, performance, and endless opportunities for creative and critical thinking.

Students first learn how Chinese shadow puppetry is used to pass down stories between generations. They then explore how puppets are used for storytelling and the different styles of puppets. After reading various folk tales for Asian cultures, they work in groups to modify a folktale by creating characters and a script that represents their own version of the story.

Students complete character analysis questions to help them organize their ideas and think deeply about their characters. Once groups write their scripts with stage directions and dialogue, they begin creating their own shadow puppets from sheet plastic, cardstock paper and dowel rods. Students then explore various methods for creating puppets and spend time creating the visual art representation of their imagined characters.

They then rehearse using the puppets behind a screen to act out their story and finally perform their folktale for their peers. Throughout the project students practice collaborating with their groups, working together to combine everyone’s ideas into a working script, and providing thoughtful feedback to their peers to create the best possible performance.

Monologue Performance

After selecting a monologue for their performance, students complete a deep character analysis of the character they will portray. Through this analysis students practice various English Language Arts and social and emotional skills by examining a character’s feelings, objectives, and thoughts based on their dialogue and making connections between themselves and the character.

The questions below help students critically examine their character and the complex nature of human emotions, wants, needs, and actions.

● What do you know about the character?
● How is the character like you and different than you?
● Would you react the same way the character did to their situation? Why or why not?
● How do the words the character says impact others?
● What does the character desire?
● What is the character afraid of?
● What is the character’s goal and what is stopping them from achieving the goal?
● What emotions is the character feeling? What words/phrases specifically show their feelings?

After examining the character and studying the monologue, students then write journal entries from the perspective of the character with the goal that they consider the character’s thoughts, feelings and overarching objective, and then write from their perspective.

Before performing, students record themselves practicing their monologue and then are given memorization tricks to help build their confidence and prepare them to share their monologues live in front of their peers.


This technique uses improvisation to help students practice their playwriting skills and create scenes and monologues that represent something important to their lives.

Students work as a class to choose a broad topic significant to them for their skits. This year students chose to focus on the anxiety and pressure they feel related to grades, friendships, sports, etc. They then work with a partner to create an outline of a scene with a situation and characters.

Aaron Mize with theater students

Then students workshop their outlined moment using improvisation and incorporating ideas from the audience and teacher to discover new ways for their characters to interact. This activity helps them develop ideas for their scene while learning social and emotional skills by reacting to unexpected situations, collaborating, interpreting body language and tone, making decisions, and building confidence.

While they are acting, their teacher records them so that they will have a record of their great ideas. Then they use their improv to help write a more formal script.

Song in a Box

This project asks students to analyze and make personal connections to song lyrics and then create a physical representation of those emotions, themes, and ideas in a box.

Students choose a pop song that is appropriate for school and meaningful to them. Then they research the lyrics of the song and identify words of the song that illustrate the mood and themes of that song using action and descriptive words. After they identify those words, they compile a list of potential elements of design (line, shape, color, texture) and principles of design (proportion, balance, rhythm, unit, emphasis) that embody the theme and mood of the song.

Before creating their box, they write an essay that explains the following questions:

● Why is the song important to you?
● How do you feel when you listen to the song?
● What colors, lines, and images best represent these feelings?
● How will you use theme, mood, and feelings from the song to inspire the imagery in the box design?

Students then complete a visual arts representation of their song in a box.

Questions to encourage critical thinking in theater

● Do you think theater can be used to address major social topics? Why or why not?
● Do you think theater can be used to create social change?
● What techniques do directors use to connect audience members to the story and/or characters?
● How has theater changed over time?
● How are new voices of Broadway impacting the art and craft of theater? Consider plays such as Hamilton and In the Heights.
● How does changing costumes, scenery, and/or lighting impact a production?
● If plays are written to be performed, can they truly be understood from reading alone?
● Is Shakespeare still relevant to audience’s today?

Theater Production

Simultaneous to the work he puts into being a classroom teacher, Aaron Mize seeks plays for after-school productions that have diverse characters, themes, and stories including A Wind of a Thousand Tales, Myth Adventures, and The Flying Prince.

He also has found innovative ways throughout the pandemic to provide students with opportunities to perform for live and virtual audiences. He directed War of the Worlds as radio drama in the fall of 2020. All students were masked, and the production was recorded for a virtual audience.

In the spring of 2021 he directed the musical Shrek Jr. and worked through the challenge of having rehearsals and the final production outside. In the fall of 2021 he directed Myth Adventures where students performed in small groups outside and the audience traveled from one performance to the next in different outside locations on the school grounds.

Student Voices

“Mr. Mize sees strengths within me, I don’t see myself. He encourages me to step outside my comfort zone by performing skits, singing, and dancing in front of my peers, until I am confident. Everything he has taught me, will help me throughout life and in every aspect of school, from speeches, writing, and even sports. Mr. Mize makes sure that the character inside me comes to life. I am forever grateful for the time he puts in to make sure I have the opportunity to succeed. In life, I hope I inspire as many people as he has.” – Addi

“Mr. Mize has taught me so much in my 4 years with him. Not just about theater and acting, but also how to work with my classmates, and build confidence. One of my favorite things about him is how he teaches my peers and I to not be afraid to go out of our comfort zones.” – Cassie

“I know that Mr. Mize has changed my life, and many others, for the better. He sees no flaws in any person, only different, unique, and amazing traits that make them who they are.” – Sarah

Resource: Although this NPR post focuses on plays for high school it offers a comprehensive database that’s worth browsing!

Kasey Short (@shortisweet3) loves to share ideas from her classroom and writes frequently for MiddleWeb. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a bachelor of arts in middle school education with a concentration in English and history. She went on to earn a master’s in curriculum and instruction from Winthrop University. She is currently an eighth grade ELA teacher and English Department chair at Charlotte (NC) Country Day School.