The Power of Post-It Notes

post-it notesTo ensure that students’ writing stays sacred, stays full theirs, when reviewing writing, put any comments for revision or editing on post-it notes or a separate sheet of paper. It’s important to remember as teachers that full ownership of the writing belongs to the student, whether they are 5 or 25. Thus, keeping all suggestions for improvement separate ensures they maintain ownership and the power to enhance their writing.

In addition, having the comments on the post-it, means students must transfer the changes to their paper, keeping them as the active learner and reviser, instead of the passive fixer. In other words, the hand that’s doing the writing is connected to the brain that’s doing the learning. So, give them clues and suggestions as to what changes would improve their writing. However, keep all the comments off the original work.

This small transfer of power and gesture of respect leads students to be tremendously more independent and confident in their writing because they see you, their teacher, as their guide instead of their corrector.

Just How Far We’ve Come

2023999Before spring break, several of my 2nd grade students came up to me and asked for paper to take home. My first thought was that it was so they could draw pictures and color. “No, Mrs. Plescher, we want to write!” Isabella informed me.

In that moment, I felt as though one of my year’s goals had been accomplished. I set out the year, using Writing with Design, to empower my students to be confident, eager writers. Realizing they wanted to spend time over their break thinking and writing showed me just how far they had come since September. The same students who rushed through writing, who were resistant to writing more than two sentences, who often said, “I don’t have anything else to write about,” now had the motivation, desire, and pride to write independently.

Writing is now an integral part of our classroom culture. As a teacher, I used to think, “What can I possibly write about this week?” Now, my students and I often say, “Oooh! Let’s write about that!” several times during each day. From working on sophisticated words to creative titles to strong endings, we have all come so far with writing this year!




A 2nd Grader Wrote THAT?

Just last week, I shared with middle school teachers writings created by a 2nd grade class. The middle school teachers were floored, “2nd graders wrote that?!? It’s better than most of what my 8th graders could do!”

It wasn’t the length that was impressive about the 2nd graders’ work. In fact, their writings were only 2-3 sentences long. What made the writng so impressive?
Two things: sophisticated word choice and sentence structure.
The 2nd grade teacher focuses solely on the quality of writing, not length. Without question, making length the integral foundation of writing sets students up to write more fluff than substance. Length will come naturally when students are ready, when they are confident, when they understand how language works and how to structure incredible sentences.

Top 10 Ideas about Writing I Learned or Had Reaffirmed This Week

  1. Writing with Design allows students’ brilliance to shine.
  2. Mind Designs structure and focus writing in a way nothing else can.4545336
  3. It’s transformative to watch a student gain confidence as a writer during a lesson on how to use search engines to find powerful synonyms.
  4. There is nothing more affirming than hearing 3rd grade boys comment, “This is so cool! Writing is fun!”
  5. Writing with Design gives teachers the confidence and the tools to cultivate incredible writing skills in their students.
  6. Without a doubt, transitions add sophistication to every piece, every time. Indeed!
  7. Narratives are about creating experiences for the reader, not telling the procedural actions (then…and then…and then…).
  8. Posting the Mind Designs students create as they plan their writing  along with the high quality draft is critical to show that great writing doesn’t just happen. It’s planned.It’s reworked. It’s revised.
  9. If the Mind Designs teachers and students created to plan their writing aren’t messy, something still needs to be revised!
  10.  Teachers make all the difference and 30+ % increases in state writing test scores are possible. Just ask Holly. Her story is coming soon. Be prepared to be inspired.

Thoughts on Sandy Hook’s Heroes


What occurred in an elementary school last week is inescapable. It resonates with every indivdual who has learned of the event. As a classroom teacher and now as director for TLP, I can only hope I would have been as brave and selfless as Principal Hochsprung, Mrs. Sherlach, Miss Soto, Miss Rousseau, Mrs. Murphy, and Miss D’Avino.

I struggle with whether this senseless killing should be national news with nonstop media coverage magnifying the suffering. Knowing the specific timeline of the morning does not help with healing, only vivifies the nightmare.

Instead, what should be national news every day are profiles of the phenomenal women and men across this country who welcome students into their classrooms, who teach children to write and read, think and create; who spend their own money to make their classrooms incredible places; who worry about the wellbeing of “their kids;” who put in long hours long after the dismissal bell to tutor, prepare tomorrow’s experiment, and run the arts club. I have the honor of working with them across this grand country.

The teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary are heroes. And I know thousands more teachers and administrators who would have acted with the same selfless bravery. To every teacher and administrator, The Learning Project salutes you.

I encourage us all to spend more time celebrating, thanking, and supporting the phenomenal educators in this country than watching media coverage about this senseless act. Check out Donor’s Choose to be inspired and support teachers across this country. Read this. Follow #26acts, #20acts, and #SHES on Twitter to see how others are honoring the spirits of the amazing women and children who lost their lives last week.

Schools are safe places. Teachers work tirelessly to educate and cultivate young minds. Our country is an amazing place full of compassionate people. I find solace in remembering that every act of compassion counts far more than any awful act.

While there is much to process and learn from this horrific event, there is no doubt about the incredible work educators perform every day, all day.


Mind the Gap! Understanding the spectrum of skill development


When it comes to cultivation of student skills, I usually hear, “That’s too difficult for students,” or “They should already know how to do this!” Does anyone else see the gap in logic here? For example, transitions words and phrases are an elusive component to writing that add impressive sophistication to any piece. In our research, we’ve concluded that most high scoring pieces contain about a transition word or phrase per sentence.

As part of Writing with Design, we begin teaching transitions words in kindergarten! In kindergarten! Why? Well, why not? Writing is a development of skills, skills that contain a spectrum of sophistication. Certainly, the transitions we expose kindergarteners and 1st graders to are more concrete and straightforward than the transitions we expose 4th or 9th graders to. However, the key is they are exposed to transitions. They experiment with them. They learn how to bring transitions into their writing. And guess what? Their writing sounds even more amazing!

By seeing every skill within writing as a part of every grade level’s focus, just at different points on the spectrum, the gap in logic between “that’s too difficult” and “they should already know this” is eliminated. The focus, rather, becomes “Where are they on the spectrum? What’s the next step?”


Writing skills=incredible life opportunities

As a middle school student, I had no idea just how powerful and transformative writing would become
in my life. As I began to win essay contests, the momentum began to build. Writing 2162302empowered me, gave me confidence, and helped me find my voice. By the time I graduated from high school, I had amassed over $250,000 in scholarship funds. Most of the scholarships were essay contests and every single one required written responses at some point during the process.
Why is my life’s passion to cultivate students’ thinking and writing skills? Writing transforms lives and creates incredible opportunities. As Common Core emphasizes writing across every curriculum area, the need for meaningful writing activities has grown in importance. If you are a classroom teacher, contact me for specific essay opportunities you can tie into your curriculum.
Writing is skill that opens doors to incredible life opportunities. If you are a teacher, what writing opportunities are you offering your students? If you are a student, how are you cultivating your writing skills to bring more of life’s amazing opportunities to you?

Step Right Up! Strengthening the Muscles in Sentences


What’s the difference between these two sentences:  1. Kids are amazing and creative. vs. 2. Creative kids are amazing thinkers.

A: Sentence 1 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure.
B: Sentence 2 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure.
C: Both sentences are equally as strong and sophisticated.

The correct answer is B: Sentence 2 is stronger and more sophisticated in structure. Why is that the case? It has to do with the muscles of sentences: adjectives.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with sentence 1: “Kids are amazing and creative.” It’s just there is no power in that sentence structure: noun verb adjective conjunction adjective. Predicate adjectives are weak. They just so happen, however, to be the most natural and common way of speaking and so, by default, writing.

The structure of sentence 2: “Creative kids are amazing thinkers,” is adjective noun verb adjective noun. Now there’s a muscular sentence! Do you hear the power when adjectives precede nouns? Said simply, get rid of predicate adjectives!

It takes deliberate focus and practice for writers of all ages to learn the power of adjective placement. But, when they do, their writing can flex some major muscles!

Why visuals for learning?

As a student in my mother’s 8th grade US History the way I learned was changed forever. She began to use visual patterns of thinking as a way to show what thinking looked like. I vividly remember how I felt my brain transform as I became aware of how many different ways I could think about a topic and how the visual maps allowed me to actually see my thinking, my classmate’s thinking, and even my teacher’s thinking! Whether in history, a subject I loved, or even in math, the subject I loathed, the designs provided me a consistent set of visual patterns for thinking, which helped me understand, clarify, and connect information in ways no textbook or teacher ever had. Visual maps became a foundational component of my academic success throughout high school, my undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University, and my master’s work at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, the history and trends of visual patterns for thinking, concept mapping, and mind mapping has become an area of professional research and analysis for me, from Upton, Samson, & Farmer’s work in the 1960’s to the current wave of digital mapping tools including Mind42 and Gliffy.

As a teacher, I embedded visual mapping strategies into every aspect of my classroom, from assigning student jobs to teaching area and perimeter. Whether my classroom was filled with 5 year olds or 5th graders, whether my classroom was in this country or overseas, student learning was transformed by visual maps, just as mine had been. To watch students learn to think more critically and creatively by using the maps solidified for me the power of common visual designs in teaching and learning.

From my nearly 20 years of experience with visual mapping, I consider it a great honor to have experienced the power of visual mapping from both sides of the desk. It is upon this understanding that the work of The Learning Project is built.  The Mind Designs take visual mapping to new levels of versatility, applicability, and complexity of thought. Indeed, the Mind Designs cultivate critical, creative, confident thinkers.

Want to become a better teacher?

Then get out of the classroom! Get out into the world! Get uncomfortable! Get moving to experience new cultures, traditions, and places. My first experience teaching was in Bilbao, Spain, as an English teacher for Basque and Spanish children.

English, the community hoped, would be a uniting language for the two divergent cultures. For my second teaching experience, I found myself in the Nyanga township outside of Cape Town, South Africa. With one tap of running water for every 7,000 residents and no compulsory school, I often found myself with many more students coming to learn than on the roster. The picture to the right is of me with several students. In both places, while my title was teacher, I can safely say I was doing most of the learning.

I am forever grateful for my international teaching experiences not because they were easy (that certainly wasn’t the case!!), but because they were precisely the opposite. They made me uncomfortable. They challenged me. They tested me. Upon returning to the States, I was eager to share the riches of these places with more students.

Fast forward three years, I was feeling the need to travel and learn again. While teaching 4th grade , I was selected as an fellow for the Fund for Teachers Travel Grant, which granted me the amazing opportunity to travel to 11 European countries wit

h a colleague. My teaching was yet again forever changed because of what I learned outside of the classroom walls. Upon returning from my summer abroad, I found I was more creative, more patient, more global in my thinking. Of course this had a positive ripple effect on my teaching.

Here are a few sites to get you started in finding funding for your trip abroad:

Global Teacher Fellowship

Earthwatch Fellowship

Fulbright-Hayes Abroad Seminars

It is important as educators to never stop being learners, to holdfast to insatiable curiosity and a love of all things challenging and different. So get out there. Travel someplace that requires a passport. Eat strange foods. Visit unfamiliar places where English isn’t the predominant language. Your students will thank you.Happy travels!


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