Flipped Learning and Small Group Work

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Are you like me? Do you sometimes struggle to form and manage small groups of writers in the writing workshop? I feel confident conferring one-on-one with my students and teaching the minilesson, however, when it comes to small group work, I can struggle. This is an area that I’ve worked on a lot in the past three years, and I’ve found that flipped learning has helped a lot.

Why do I continue to try to teach small groups during writing workshop when I find it challenging to manage? I believe that learning is a social process and that students learn best when they talk about a strategy together and bounce ideas off each other. Small group work can be less structured than the formal class minilesson, and 2 or 3 students can work together to talk through their writing plans. Above all, small group learning switches the focus from the teacher to the students. The teacher takes a coaching role during small group sessions and students work together to tackle writing challenges. Flipped learning is perfect for small group work because it empowers students to take what they’ve learned and try it out and ask questions. Catlin Tucker, author of Blended Learning in Grades 4-12, wrote a blog post of using flipped learning in small group work and work stations (http://catlintucker.com/2016/01/inclassflip/). She says:

“Then students can watch that video in a station where they can still pace their learning by pausing or rewinding the video. Once they’ve seen the video, they can engage in a collaborative task attempting to apply the information from the video as a group.This is a great way to take the benefits of the flipped classroom and embed them into the station rotation model.”

~Catlin Tucker

Here are 2 scenarios in the writing workshop that illustrate the benefits of using flipped learning in your small groups.

Example #1: I’ve just taught a minilesson about a new strategy for elaboration in a persuasive essay. My goals for the remainder of the workshop time are to confer with 3 students and run two small group lessons. The first small group of learners need to learn strategies for writing the opposing viewpoints and rebuttals. The second group of learners need to review a previously-taught lesson about paragraph structure. Prior to using flipped learning in the writing workshop, I might have mismanaged my time by trying to juggle these two small groups of learners, and I would not have had time to confer individually with students.

However, with two flipped lessons ready to go, I am able to form the two small groups and help them access flipped lessons about the topics. This way I can confer with one student while the small groups are accessing the flipped lessons. Then I can meet with the small groups to answer any questions they might have and see how they are applying what they learned. After meeting with both small groups, I still have plenty of time to meet with 2 or 3 more students one-on-one.

Example #2: I’ve learned from Kate Roberts, co-author of DIY Literacy and Falling in Love with Close Reading, that a great strategy for managing small groups of writers in upper elementary and middle school grades is to write 2 to 3 small group topics on the white board and encourage students to sign up for one of those topics. For instance, I might write “Making your thesis statement stronger and arguable,” “3 Strategies for Elaborating,” and “Transitional Sentence Starters” on the board. Students can choose which topic to sign up for during class that day, or they can choose not to participate in a small group.

Flipped learning helped me manage these small group sessions. In the past, I would have struggled to provide enough small group options for all of my learners. I know myself, and I know that trying to run 3 small group sessions is challenging in a writing workshop period. Instead of trying to teach all of the sessions, I write FL next to a session title or titles that have flipped lessons online. This way my students can access the flipped lessons on their own, at a time of their convenience, or with a small group of students in the workshop.


Flipping Without Flipping Out

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When Sonja and I first began writing our new book, Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach, we kept referring to it as our “Flipping Without Flipping Out” project. We believe in fostering a balanced blended learning approach in our classrooms, but when we first began flipping lessons, we had some moments of panic. However, instead of flipping out, we supported each other and embarked on this journey together.

This Thursday our new book will be released. Many of you, who know us and have read our blog before, know that we love talking about our passion for digital texts and teaching our students to think critically and interpret texts through multiple lenses. We also love talking about our favorite ways to inspire our students to read and write and the challenges we’ve faced in our classrooms. This week, we will chronicle our journey with flipped learning in our writing workshops. We will take you through the good, the bad, and the ugly so that you can see what we’ve been working on and what it’s really like.

Today, we will begin with one of the reasons we began flipping lessons in writing workshop: REASON #1: INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING

Sonja and I get together on Saturday or Sunday morning at our favorite Panera Bread Restaurant in New York. We sit at our favorite table (the one near the electrical outlets) and begin typing away. We also chat about our classrooms and what we’re working on. Oftentimes, our conversations turn to the strategies we’re using in our rooms to help our students grow as readers and writers. “I’ve found this great digital text,” I might say to Sonja. And she might respond, “That’s perfect for a chart I’ve been thinking about.” We love our discussions about the ebb and flow in our workshops. We also talk about how we’re constantly trying to meet the needs of all our learners. How can we best differentiate our lessons?

A few years ago, we began talking about the different ways we could use the technology in our classrooms to help differentiate our curriculum. Flipping lessons seemed like a great way to help our students review material as well as move forward at their own pace. We never set out to create flipped lessons for homework. We wanted to flip lessons in order to differentiate. We wanted to create lessons that our students could access at home and at school that would move them forward at their own pace.

Example #1:It can be hard to learn a new writing strategy as quickly as everyone else sometimes. Occasionally, students need more time to let concepts sink in. We all wish we could hit rewind sometimes! Students who need more time developing an important skill will love flipped lessons. With a few flipped lessons at the ready, students can learn from them as many times as they need. They can work at their own pace.

Example #2: Say you have a student who is new to your school and is already familiar with persuasive essay writing. This happens each year in our classrooms. With a few flipped lessons about some advanced strategies for writing a persuasive essay, this student can move forward independently.

Individualized learning is just one way that we’ve used flipped learning inside and outside the writing workshop. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the second reason we turned to flipped learning in our blended learning writing workshops.

Peer Editing

At this time in the school year, I find that my students and I need to regroup and discuss the role of a peer editor in writing workshop. My students have made a lot of progress with peer editing, however, we need to regroup and talk about what is going well and what can be improved. This helps recharge and refresh everyone’s understanding of peer editing.

I started this conversation with this simple chart. I asked my students: “What’s helpful?” and “What’s not helpful?”

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Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 7.04.05 PMMy students wrote their thoughts on sticky notes, and we reviewed the ideas together. As you can see in the sample sticky note, my students were eager to get some constructive criticism that would help move their writing forward. They were growing tired of receiving too many compliments and not enough feedback.

We had an open conversation about what was going well with peer editing and what needed improvement. My students acknowledged that it was hard to tell their peers the honest truth about their writing. I was proud of my students. They showed great empathy for their peers’ feelings. I knew we had to talk about ways we could make everyone feel secure about their writing, while also being helpful.

My students and I agreed that it was best to offer a “Feedback Sandwich” when doing peer edits. A Feedback Sandwich is: Compliment, Constructive Criticism, Suggestion. The “Sandwich” allows peer editors to sandwich their constructive criticism between two positive comments.

An example is: 1) Compliment- “You have a good start to your story! I like how it draws me in and I want to keep reading.”

2) Constructive Criticism- “Parts of the story move slowly and I am confused about who the characters are.”

3) Suggestions- “Perhaps you could add some dialogue and action to make it move faster? That would also make it clearer who the characters are.”

What I like about the “Feedback Sandwich” is that my students must read with a critical lens in order to find what is working, what is not, and what steps are needed. This helps them read their own writing with this same critical lens.

Hopefully this will help move my students forward with peer editing. I look forward to seeing how it goes!

Please leave me your thoughts. Is there a better way to give peer feedback?


Dana Johansen spends her time teaching fifth grade in rainy Connecticut, taking long walks in the woods with her yellow lab, and reading the False Prince series by Jennifer Nielsen. Dana was very excited to find out what was at the bottom of 10x on the show, The Curse of Oak Island, this week. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She is the co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 




Legos for Writing, Reading, Building

IMG_5909Our students are writers and readers. They are also builders, makers, engineers, scientists, historians, musicians, actors and artists. The list goes on and on. I teach students, not reading and writing. And I always want to encourage my students to bring their many talents and affinities into the reading and writing workshop. Building with Legos is one way I can do this.

A few years ago, I spotted an image on Pinterest that caught my eye and made me think about ways to bring Legos into my reading and writing workshops. The image that made me pause was a picture of a child’s room that had walls made of Lego flats. I thought to myself, “How cool would it be to have a wall in my classroom devoted to Lego building? We could build our class stories and characters!”

I teach fifth grade, and just like students of all ages, they love building and making! So I went to Toys R Us and purchased 9 green Lego flats. I used push pins and a small hammer to secure the flats to a portion of a bulletin board. It was surprisingly easy to make and didn’t leave any permanent damage on my bulletin board. I really liked that the board was vertical and not horizontal flat on a table. I liked that because it saved space in my classroom and everyone could see it while seated on the meeting rug.


I have used the Lego board in many ways in my writing and reading workshops. Here are few ways that I have loved using it: 

1) Story Setting! In the first image at the top of this post you can see how my class built the setting for our whole-class fantasy fiction story. We mapped out the kingdom and the creatures who lived in our made-up land. We referred to this map throughout the writing process and it helped keep us on track.

2) Story Mapping! Teaching story mapping? This is a great wall to build the beginning, middle, and end. Make a linear BME storyboard or a rollercoaster map out of Legos. It is a great visual in the classroom, and your students will love building it and referring to it.


3) Story Characters! Students can create the characters in their story, a class story, or a read aloud. This is especially great for practicing visualization strategies in reading.

4) The Ending! We’ve all taught students who have story endings that fizzle. Students have spent all their energy writing their stories that when they get to the end, they fizzle. This Lego board revives writers. Have students create their characters with Legos and act out their endings with their writing buddies. This brings much needed energy back to the writing process.

5) Celebrations! Need a new way to celebrate? Have students create an object, symbol, character etc., from their story or from their reading that was meaningful to them. Everyone can share their Lego creation at the celebration and then they can all be displayed on the wall.


Originally from Pennsylvania, Dana Johansen is hoping that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow on Feb. 2 and there will be an early spring. In the meantime, she spends her time teaching fifth grade in wintery Connecticut, sitting with her yellow lab on the couch reading YA Lit, and watching the tv show, The Curse of Oak Island on the History Channel. They’re going to get to the bottom of 10x this week! So exciting! Dana has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She is the co-author of the books Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 

Ever Found a Minilesson at the Grocery Store?

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I get minilesson ideas everywhere- at the beach, on walks with my dog, at the grocery store, etc. Just like we encourage our students to live writerly lives and notice the small things around us, we too find inspiration for teaching strategies in the funniest places.

This week when I walked into the grocery store, I saw a small display of dragon fruit. It was mesmerizing. Just look at it. It is such a spectacular looking fruit. Look at the color- such a deep magenta. Check out the leaves that layer it all over. What an amazing fruit! I immediately put it into my shopping basket.

As I continued walking around the grocery store buying things like lettuce, chicken, and cheese, my mind was racing with exciting ideas for the dragon fruit. I didn’t want to eat it- I wanted my students to write about it. But how did the dragon fruit relate to writing?

So many minilesson ideas came to my mind. I could use the dragon fruit as a springboard to teach: descriptive writing, building plot lines, writing prophecies, magic!, creating characters profiles, setting descriptions, etc.

I decided to use the fruit to teach a lesson about “Generating Ideas” for fantasy fiction stories. It was perfect because I am launching a fantasy fiction writing unit. I kept the fruit covered in a special box until the lesson began. I said, “Today we are going to learn a new strategy for generating ideas for fiction stories. We are going to look at an object and allow our imaginations to generate story ideas when we see this object. Our ideas will be inspired by the object.”

I removed the fruit from the box. Gasps filled the room. My students had never seen dragon fruit before, and just like me, they were mesmerized. I asked my students to brainstorm what they thought the fruit looked like. They came up with many different ideas: a magical flower blossom ready to bloom, a dragon’s egg waiting to hatch, a fairytale house for elves, a mysterious magical object left on a doorstep, a precious and magical seed, the important final ingredient to a powerful potion, etc. These ideas all led to some incredible and imaginative storyline ideas. Success!

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 1.45.05 PMSometimes the best minilesson ideas are inspired by unlikely locations. The best advice about teaching writing and creating minilessons that I’ve ever received is from Lucy Calkins. She says to notice the small details in life, use what you know and live, and teach with joy.

In February, I’ll write more about other minilesson ideas that come from the grocery store. Magical eggs! Coconut portals to journey to new lands!



Originally from Pennsylvania, Dana Johansen is hoping that Punxsutawney Phil will not see his shadow on Feb. 2nd and there will be an early spring. In the meantime, she spends her time teaching fifth grade in wintery Connecticut, sitting with her yellow lab on the couch reading YA Lit, and watching the tv show, The Big Bang Theory. She has taught elementary and middle school for fourteen years. Dana is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University where she studies blended learning in reading and writing workshop. She is the co-author of the books Teaching Interpretation and Flip Your Writing Workshop. 


Providing Lifelines for Writers Who Are Struggling

Let’s face it. Helping our writers who are struggling is challenging work. Many times, we try one strategy after another only to end up just as exhausted and frustrated as our students. We know how essential it is to help our students feel successful, but creating a pathway for them to thrive as writers isn’t always clear. Some days, we simply don’t meet our goals despite all of our best efforts. These are the heavy days; the days that cause us to question our talents as teachers. But one of the best things about teaching is, as Dana says, “We get a redo” each time we return to our classrooms. Each stumble can bring us closer to achieving our goal.

My 7th graders contribute to and create a literary magazine each quarter. The stakes are high, as they understand that the strength of the magazine hinges on their ability to create unique works of art. Last week, one of my students approached me for help. Mark couldn’t generate any ideas to write about. The minilessons and instruction I’d provided just wasn’t working. So I did what I’ve done so often in the past when I’m in this situation. I turned to poetry; and poetry saved us!

Just within reach was Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Common Things. I turned to Ode to a Cluster of Violets and read it aloud to my anxious student. He listened quietly and then remarked, “You mean, I could really just write a lot about anything I love?” There was a spark. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “You could write about anything you love a lot. Your writing can pay tribute to what you love just like Pablo Neruda does.” Then there was a flame. A hint of a smile appeared on Mark’s face. “Okay,” he said quietly. For the first time, I could detect a small sense of confidence within him as he returned to his desk with Neruda’s book of odes in hand. Here’s what he wrote:

Ode to R2D2

Beep Boop

simple sounds

but a stream of consciousness

for a droid

not yet capable

of resorting to English


Beep Fweep

Off on an adventure

sliding swiftly through the sand

legs whirring under the pressure

too far

to go


Wvoop Woo

held back

by what you are

pushed forward

by what you have to do

you must


Bweep Doo


by those,


they don’t


Poetry can be a lifeline for our writers who are struggling. But on this day, Mark felt successful as a writer. He generated an idea he felt passionate about and developed it. But Mark’s ode is more than just an ode to me. It is a message. Similar to R2D2, Mark lives in a world where he feels pressure to communicate. How often does Mark feel “held back” in writing workshop or “underestimated” and misunderstood?

I’d like to invite you to join Dana and I on our Facebook Group to participate in a discussion about ways to help our writers who experience struggles in the writing workshop. Let’s share some of the obstacles we’re facing in our classrooms and some of the breakthroughs we’ve experienced. Because our students, like Mark, are counting on us.



Sonja Cherry-Paul has been an educator for the past 17 years. She is a middle school English teacher and co-author of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach. Sonja is a Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards committee member who is committed to celebrating authors and illustrators who address issues related to social justice.



Revision Toolkit- “The Sledgehammer”

It cannot be said enough how much Sonja and I admire the work of Georgia Heard. Everything she writes has practical strategies that work! Her book, The Revision Toolbox, just came out with a second edition, and it’s fabulous! If you’re like me, then revision is the part of the writing process that you cringe at. It’s easy to come up with the teaching topics: too much dialogue, not enough elaboration, lack of focus, no setting, endings that feel unresolved or end too quickly. Am I right? But then you have to decide how to teach into these issues and it just feels overwhelming.

I think it is hard to teach revision because it is not concrete. Students have to make choices about what to add, what to change, and what to remove. Revision can be frustrating for them because it’s not always easy to RE-vision their writing.

Teaching revision is teaching a critical-thinking process. It’s comprised of noticings, choices, and reflection.

One of the many ways, I try to make teaching revision concrete is with tools. Just like Georgia Heard writes, writers have tools that they use when approaching revising their pieces. One tool that my students and I came up with is the sledgehammer. Not only do students think the name and image are humorous, but they like the idea of a powerful, fearless tool that can bravely knock away unnecessary and unfocused writing. This is also a helpful way to guide my minilessons about revision in every unit.

I say, “Today we’re going to be breaking out the sledgehammer again. Let’s think about what we might notice in our writing and why we might choose to remove it. Then we’ll reflect by rereading our piece to see if the sledgehammer helped. Let’s practice on a sample piece.”

I often need to remind students to “Be Brave!” and “Make tough choices!” My hope is that they grow comfortable removing some of their writing. Always save those drafts though! Never throw writing away!

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