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Q&A With Arizona Teacher Mark Boen

Teacher tips for celebrating student writing and creating a CERCA culture

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How do you meet students where they’re at and personalize the learning experience? 

In every classroom across the country, our students carry the full gamut of abilities and attitudes in reading and writing. Our exhilarating mission is to meet each student from where they are at and stretch them as far as they can go. I find the ability of kids helping kids is amazing so we often work in learning communities where they gather together to work through the ThinkCERCA lesson. 

How do you share your instructional practices with fellow teachers?

The goal at our school is to carve out a time each week where ThinkCERCA educators can meet and share their challenges and successes. This has been very effective to propel us forward.

How do you provide effective feedback to students on their writing?

I have always believed in the power to kidwatch for needs and then supply strategies and plans to the students based on those needs. When we read a ThinkCERCA lesson, we always focus on the question. We make a webbing map with evidence that answers that question. This occurs in various stages of guidance depending on student need, with the goal of independence. The same holds true in writing. I offer guidance and feedback based on student needs.

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The most powerful feedback comes in the form of celebrations. As students are writing, I will take someone’s essay and say, “Listen to this!” and then read the portion that features our focus. This prompts students to think, “I could do that,” and a positive journey of success ensues. Or I will ask, “Who has a good main idea sentence for the second paragraph?” and we celebrate all the good variations of the main idea that students share.

I further provide feedback when the essays are complete with a rubric that matches out goals for that week. A rubric makes scoring so quick and easy.

What advice would you share with fellow ThinkCERCA teachers?

The goal is to move students to become independent readers and writers. But I have found the best way to achieve this goal is to MODEL and GUIDE, MODEL and GUIDE, MODEL and GUIDE. This modeling and guiding comes in various stages from doing it together as a class, where I am clear in “This is what you have to think,” to lesser forms of modeling and guidance.

Along with that modeling and guidance is the powerful act of celebration...to celebrate what good writing is! I want the introductory paragraph of our five paragraph essays to be an intriguing invitation to read the rest of it. So when my student wrote this beginning paragraph to our Grand Canyon essay, I stopped to read it to the class, drawing attention to the paragraph (and not the student). Following is her first paragraph:

“Is there a place where history is laid bare before us; where geologists can study the history of the earth? Have you ever wondered where danger meets beauty and curiosity runs wild? There is! That place is the Grand Canyon!”

When we celebrate their writing, we always talk about strategies that made the writing so good. Nothing improves the motive to write well more than the daily celebrations.

Since I teach fourth grade and this is students' first encounter with ThinkCERCA, I find they do much better on paper. The goal is to evolve them toward writing online. However, by making the webbing map from the reading on paper, they can then write the essay on paper, which makes for a successful beginning.

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What is your favorite ThinkCERCA Writing Lesson to teach?

The very best thing about ThinkCERCA is the richness of each lesson! We try to do one lesson each week to totally infuse these strategies into every fourth grader. With each lesson, there is a four- or five-paragraph essay. Through ThinkCERCA, we have experienced the Victory Gardens of WWII, discovered the magic of the Grand Canyon, and learned how wild animals and people have adapted to each other. It is the magical marriage of reading, writing and the world!

Mallory Busch

Mallory Busch

Mallory Busch is ThinkCERCA's Editor of Content Strategy. A graduate of Northwestern University, Mallory came to ThinkCERCA from stops in audience strategy at TIME magazine and news applications development at Chicago Tribune and The Texas Tribune. She holds degrees in Journalism and International Studies, and was a student fellow at Knight Lab in college.

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