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The 5-Minute Conference

Five minutes are not to be scoffed at! It is amazing what can be accomplished during a 5-minute one-on-one writing conference with a student writer. Here’s how:

  1. Have the student read the rough draft aloud. Your job is to protect and promote the student writer’s idea. This is accomplished by listening and caring! It was tempting to ask this CORE Level 2 student to add more details to this tiny paragraph, but in listening (and in knowing where this student was in the process of skill acquisition), I realized that this type of “ask” would certainly be discouraging. So, first and foremost, do everything to listen and encourage.
  2. Now choose your battles. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to help students open their paragraphs with a sentence that will draw the reader into the idea. This paragraph needed a HOOK. Often students, once they begin flowing into an idea, will have a sentence that, with a little rearranging, is transformed into a terrific hook. This is the case with this Section 2 paragraph inspired by Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. While there is nothing wrong with the first sentence, it is certainly more intriguing to begin: We all lived together for a week.
  3. A simple skill that young writers can learn easily during the 5-Minute Conference is to leave space on the page—space between words, space between sentences, space at the margins. A trick I’ve learned is to remind students why space matters and I do this by demonstrating somewhere within the rough draft white space. As example I might say and write: “Do you mean ‘yummyapples’ or ‘yummy apples’ here?”
  4. There are no misspellings here, but there is an opportunity to add a comma in a sentence that is made up of a dependent and an independent clause. “The word ‘if’ is the clue, “I say to my student, “Can you hear where I pause after the word ‘me’ in this sentence?” And then I plop a red comma down, right where it should be: If I had to share a story about me, I would share about Utah.
  5. The twist at the end is set perfectly for a simple OMIT edit. I simply point out that the phrase “big family vacations” is used twice in this sentence and suggest omitting the last phrase and replacing it with a single word: one. The student loved this idea!

Not only were skills introduced, I guarantee these skills were mastered during this meaningful 5-Minute Conference.

[As an aside, just to prove my point, I read this student’s work and the above post aloud to myself. This took 3.5 minutes!

FIVE minutes, once a week will make all the difference in the world!



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Editing Level 1 Writing, Part 2

Here again is an example of a 3rd grade student’s weekly writing, this time tied to the story, The Night Crossing. While it was pointed out that the student didn’t describe an inanimate “object or objects” tied to Christmas or birthdays, it is clear in the writing that it is the people who make the celebrations special, even though the idea of “presents” is offered. These are the things that are important to notice as we shelter the ideas of young writers.

At this point in the year, this was the third Level 1 journal for this student, I had the student join me at my desk and read aloud what she wrote as I made little notes directly on her rough draft.


Often times, the student has crafted a terrific hook a sentence or two into the writing (sometimes we stumble upon it at the very end!). This one happened to be the second sentence. Instead of combining the two thoughts she wrote as topic openers, we decided to rearrange and punch the sentence with a little alliteration:

I love two celebrations because they both involve presents and people.

In doing so, I got to share with her the fact that writers love to inject sound into writing and, that putting words that begin with the same consonant together is called alliteration. And then I chanted: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers…!” This lesson will likely stick more so than working through an unrelated worksheet exercise on alliteration. Why? Because this is the student’s original idea, it is meaningful, relevant.

Misspellings and Capitalizations

In this paragraph there are two misspellings. I noted them with a check mark and corrected them in a list in the white space of the rough draft. Capitalization mistakes were simply corrected as the student read and a reminder was made to copy capitalization correctly in the final draft.

What else…?

Instead of delving too deep into content changes, at Level 1, try to encourage details in the form of additions. What else do you do on birthdays? What else do you do to celebrate Christmas?


Because the student used the word “also” in the “what else” idea, I suggested omitting “also” in the previous sentence.

Next week we might focus on word choice. For example, the concluding sentence, the TWIST at the end, might become more interesting with some added specificity of “fun” and “amazing” activities. But for this week, battles have been chosen! It’s time for the student to polish this little idea.

Ultimately, the goal with Level 1 writers is to shelter the idea of the young writer with editorial feedback to grow skills.



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Editing Level 1 Writing, Part 1

There is a wide range of ability encountered when it comes to Level 1 writers as this post will demonstrate. Students entering the third grade who have been using our curriculum, have been introduced to the whole of phonics (for reading and writing), have acquired a large sight vocabulary (for reading and writing), and have been introduced to all four types of sentences—statement, question, command, exclamation. By the end of the second grade these students are confidently writing journals and simple stories. These students have been introduced to constructing the “Hook” in Storymaker, and understand it is the first sentence that gets any story started! These students are ready to embark on CORE Level 1.

But what happens when students jump into the program at CORE Level 1 who have not been using our curriculum?

When students encounter the weekly writing element in each section, they will be supported with a gentle scaffolding on the page to remind them that a paragraph has an introductory “topic” sentence (the HOOK), 3 supporting sentences, and a conclusion (the TWIST at the end).

This student, who jumped into CORE Level 1 from another program straight out of 2nd grade, is a dyslexic child who was simultaneously remediating phonics. It was important to encourage him to write his ideas even though his skills were limited.. This process would only solidify burgeoning skills. Because he was eager and imaginative, this student had no problem using the phonics he had mastered to communicate a darling idea inspired by My Father’s Dragon!

Here’s what we see:

  • Able to copy the word island from the prompt
  • Able to encode consonant and short vowel sounds
  • Able to encode a few sight words: was, and, made, to

Most important is the fact that, despite being on tippy toes with skills, this student tenaciously pressed into composing a really outstanding idea!

How we approach the edit at this level:

With a young writer, it is best to write suggestions (which takes no longer than 5 minutes!) before sitting side-by-side with the student. Then we talk about what we just read. FOUR positives were offered in this case: 1) Terrific HOOK! and 2) Splendid idea! and 3) Terrific descriptors! and 4) Terrific Twist! Then and only then, after offering genuine positives (always possible to find), do I offer constructive edit suggestions. The most significant edit offered was to correct the spelling. In the last body sentence, I asked the child to tell me more about what the mountains and volcanoes were made of and simply wrote what was spoken. Next, I asked the student  to copy the paragraph with edits. This copy work exercise, because it is tied to an authentic idea, tends to improve the application of phonics skills not yet mastered, more than memorizing rules. This student, by the end of 3rd grade, was moving toward using conventional spelling more often than not.



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Writing is NOT Calculus!

When we teach a student calculus, we are teaching them to attend to small parts of a larger form. The word calculus comes from the Latin, meaning small pebble.

When teaching our students to write, we should begin by teaching them writing is an art form!

So why have we turned the art of writing into a calculus?

Great writing never begins with capitalization, punctuation, or grammar!

Great writing begins with an IDEA!

This is the rule of art: Form Follows Function

Writers must focus first on the function or purpose of writing—the idea. Once the idea is drafted in rough form, the writer digs back in and applies mechanics—corrects misspelling, capitalization, punctuation, embellishes word choice, improves syntax, and so on. Writing is a process.

So, let me clarify, I’m NOT saying don’t teach capitalization, punctuation, or grammar.  I’m simply saying that primarily focusing on mechanics over and above actually constructing ideas will never produce exceptional writing.

The best way to learn to write is to WRITE.

Who, when asked to write a sentence about an apple, will begin like this: “I will need an interesting adjective, an adverbial phrase, plus a dependent and independent clause,” with a deep dive into grammar and mechanics and rhetoric? NO! You will pick up your pencil and you will write your idea! Once you get an idea on paper, you will, as time permits, reread and polish that idea—improving word choice here and there, possibly rearranging phrases, correcting spelling and capitalization and so on. Writing, like all art forms, requires that the writer engage in a process.

For the past 30 years, in addition to educating my own children (who are now thriving adult readers and writers), I’ve guided countless students through our CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides. And what I’ve learned is this:

The key to success over time?

Choose your battles.

Each week in the CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides, students will encounter a writing prompt inspired by the week’s reading. These prompts will require different types of responses utilizing different types or domains of writing—narrative, observational, imaginary, persuasive, and so on.

The weekly writing prompt will:

1) Allow students to write their ideas in a vast array of writing domains.

2) Move students through the process of constructing ideas, from draft to polished form.

3) Motivate students to engage in the work of idea making.

The best writing teacher is a mentor who encourages the student’s idea. This 4th grade student is responding to the Section 4 prompt in the Pablo and Birdy student guide. You can see by simply reading, that this young writer cares about the idea being constructed. You can see by examining the effort  made to communicate the idea coherently. Like any construction zone, this is messy, there are sections scratched out, there is scribble in the margin, there is darkened in pencil where spelling is being considered by the student writer. This is all GOOD!

How to Conference One-on-One:

During the 5-minute conference (keep it pithy), have the student read aloud what is written on the page. Use your red pen to make edits and suggestions as the work is being read aloud. For this paragraph, I focused on the following 4 topics:


This is something that is a focus each week, teaching students to open their idea with a sentence that moves beyond a “topic opener” toward a sentence that actually HOOKS the reader into the idea. This writer, who had been working in our CORE for over a year, opened this with a really well constructed, informative sentence—a terrific hook! What’s so great about this sentence? Consider that less experienced writers might write something like this:

Birdy left Isla to fly away.

This sentence is a very flat statement, lacking the detail that engages readers to read on. But this type of simple sentence is often where young writers begin. The goal of the teacher is never to re-write the hook, but rather to encourage the student to add details. Why did Birdy fly away? Where did Birdy fly? In the sentence written by this student, there is also a bit of intrigue in the phrase “for the first time in ten years” that makes the reader sense a bit of courage in the act of flying away!

As Birdy left Isla for the first time in ten years, her instincts told her to fly east.


The indentation is a small, but constant reminder.


I typically don’t make writers look up misspellings in a dictionary, but rather create a checklist in one of the white spaces on the rough draft. As the student reads I am checking misspelled words, then, as I discuss what I’ve discovered after the read, I make the corrected spelling list. There are two misspellings in this paragraph.

Twist at the End

The TWIST at the end has a bigger purpose than concluding. The last sentence of an idea should keep the idea in the reader’s mind to ruminate and ponder. With the phrase “in conclusion” at the beginning of this student’s Twist, the reader is jarred from the flow of the lovely narrative. Something about this phrase is out of sync with the rest of the voice. The phrase is formulaic. Simply omitting it transforms the last sentence:

(In conclusion,) Birdy will keep traveling the world for the next ten marvelous years before heading back to Pablo, and, who knows, maybe she will bring back another baby!

This statement is actually a rhetorical question, so the exclamation mark at the end is acceptable.

Imagine now this sentence with different syntax:

For the next ten marvelous years before heading back to Pablo, Birdy will keep traveling the world, and, who knows, maybe she will bring back another baby!

This rearranging was not offered because I felt the student’s sentence (minus “in conclusion”) was lovely as is. However, it’s always good to imagine possibility and to have many tricks up your sleeve!

Ultimately, if you can read, if you can enjoy an idea, and if you can be delighted in the potential of language, then roll up your sleeves and get into the garden!



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The Character of Characters

When readers open the cover of a book and enter the pages of a story, they begin a journey.

Each of our Literature and Writing Discovery Guides, Earlybird through Level 4, is a personal journal of that journey. Each section of the journal begins with the observations the reader makes about the characters. Over time, students will encounter diverse characters who introduce them to themes common to real people. At first, at the Earlybird level, the way students describe the characters they encounter will be very simple, single words—kind, happy, silly. As they progress , readers will discover that the character of the characters is complex and will want words at their disposal to accurately communicate what they observe.

How does this happen?

Beginning in the 2nd grade, we inspire our students to begin collecting words. What better way than to follow characters in beautifully illustrated books as they collect words? Operation Lexicon provides 10 years of word collecting for students in grades two through twelve!

In the 3rd grade, with Operation Lexicon: Character Traits, word collecting is specifically related to the characters we read about and the people we encounter in the real world!

Additionally, we have created FREE downloadable character trait flashcards tied to our Levels 1, 2, and 3 for students to have a collection nearby as they construct observations.


As students progress in their journalling skills, they will learn to defend their observations with examples from the story. Overtime, it is important to teach students to discover a wide variety of traits—both permanent and transient. Sometimes situations that characters encounter determine character in the moment, other times we observe characters growing and changing.

During the first two sections of The Westing Game, this student was attending to momentary reactions which is not wrong, but narrow:

When encouraged to step back and observe Turtle Wexler’s overarching traits, the task was easy because of a treasure trove of specifically descriptive words:

It is difficult to describe the power of integrating reading and writing through journalling, but it is easy to SEE, and wonderful to be a teacher whose sole purpose is to stand beside and truly mentor students in the important work of becoming literate.



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Comprehension is Comprehensive

Students working in our CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides will, each week, respond to “comprehension” questions that chronologically review the plot points from the week’s reading. But here, “comprehension” is an exercise that both draws students deeper into the heart of the story and the art of writing. Comprehension is a comprehensive exercise!

Comprehension is the act of making meaning from something heard or read.

Comprehensive includes all or nearly all elements or aspects of something.

There are many skills embedded into this complex activity beyond demonstrating that a passage has been well read. The act of responding to questions with a complete, detailed statement, is an opportunity for students to slow into the story details, but perhaps more importantly, to press into the work of constructing sentences.


Following are two examples of the vast comprehensive nature of this weekly comprehension activity.

As a teacher, I scan the following sample from a student new to CORE Level 2,  and notice common spelling errors—their, there, they’re as example. Capitalization too—Communists, Navy. But what I notice first is that each response is a complete, simple sentence construction that parallels the question asked. And this confirms to me this is not the place to be heavy handed with the red pen. Refer to the Teacher Helps for more information on complete sentence responses. I might however, write a little note in the comment space on the Assignment Checklist at the front of the student guide for this section:

Here’s a trick I use to remember the difference between this set of homonyms. Here the correct spelling is used in a correct setting:  “their dog” AND “go there” (remember the’re is a contraction: they are)”they’re friends” … create your own trick and memorize the spelling of these!

When a question is asked, students are free to respond independently:

How does Winn-Dixie make Opal’s Father laugh? 

At first, sentence responses might be simple in nature copying the syntax of the question:

Winn Dixie makes Opal’s father laugh because he opens his mouth in a funny way.

[Here the teacher might suggest ways to smooth rhythm and add descriptive details: “Winn Dixie makes Opal’s father laugh when he opens his mouth in a funny way like he’s laughing.”]

Later, as students become more confident, sentences become more fluid, adopting more sophisticated syntax as in this dependent and independent clause:

When Winn Dixie opens his mouth to copy Opal’s father, he laughs.

[Here the teacher might suggest word choice: “Where you use the word “copy” you might try “mimic” instead.”]

The teacher does not need to correct every single sentence stylistically, but rather look for opportunities over time to inspire the writer to try new things. The best writing teacher will look for small opportunities over time to help students elevate their ideas. One or two suggestions modeled to the student over time is more effective than completing years and years of skill worksheets because this activity is the meaningful of work polishing students ideas.

Each year students using CORE Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 Literature and Writing Discovery Guides will compose over 250 true sentences as they comprehend stories in comprehensive ways.  Ultimately the work—the confident, beautiful, fluid work—will speak for itself!



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Treasure Trove of Words

Exploring vocabulary is so much more than an activity to check off the list! Words are the building blocks of language, are what we humans use to communicate our ideas, and each one holds certain specificity.

Specificity is a pairing of  the word “specific” (clearly defined) + the suffix “ity” (quality or state of being).  So, this word, which arrived on the scene via the French word spécifique back in the 1600s, means  to hold a special quality.

With this in mind, using a handheld dictionary becomes an adventurous treasure hunt. Students working in our CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides will, each week, explore a handful of singular words from the week’s reading. There are many skills embedded into this complex activity beyond the obvious, vocabulary development. The act of searching for a word in an alphabetized catalog reinforces spelling skills, strengthens the ability to problem solve, and fortifies focus. Of course, this process of working for meaning and applying new knowledge, more than anything else, sets this word into stone in the mind’s eye, and places it into a growing treasure chest of words.

This student, who was working in a Level 2 unit tied to Inside Out and Back Again, did a terrific job looking up each word in a held-by-hand Oxford English Dictionary. All of the definitions were copied accurately. Next came the difficult part, using each new word in a new way.

By the time students reach this level (4th and 5th grade), they have worked through Earlybird and Level 1 units and have had this exercise modeled for them. Still, using a word in a new context is a really difficult writing skill. But it is a skill that will empower students to write their ideas with specificity!

Notice the way this student used the word “flecked” below. Even though the definition of the word is correct, the sentence demonstrates the meaning has been confused with the word “flicked” meaning to propel something with a sharp movement. One way to support the student, is to provide an example: flicked the flecked stone. Another trick, is to send the student back to the dictionary to copy the phrase that is used to demonstrate the word in a context. Here the phrase was: whitecaps flecked the blue sea. Encourage the child to craft the phrase into an original sentence. For example: Yesterday at the beach whitecaps flecked the blue sea.

Here’s a peak at the Vocabulary Section from our Level 2 Guide tied to Because of Winn Dixie completed by an end-of-year 4th grader who is delightfully engaged in the treasure hunt and confidently using new words in golden ways!

Using our Earlybird through Level 3 CORE Literature and Writing Discovery Guides, students will explore more than 100 words per year, adding significant treasure that possesses specificity. This will serve them well as they engage in the work of constructing their ideas!



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Introducing Intermediate Composition


Intermediate Composition: Little Worlds

This intermediate unit is developed to teach high school students how to translate a BIG idea tied to a little story into an essay. Over the course of 5 lessons, students will be guided into the work of crafting 5 literary essays tied to great writers—Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Alphonse Daudet, Eudora Welty, and Gwendolyn Brooks.


Intermediate Composition: The Persuasive Essay

The persuasive essay is an opportunity to communicate a point of view on a specific issue. Over the course of 5 lessons, students will explore two sides of an issue, choose a side and then craft details that communicate a position in an effort to convince readers to think twice.

Great essays have the power to encourage, empower, and enlighten. For this reason essay writing should not be treated as just a mechanical endeavor, but rather, as a pathway for the writer to communicate the depths of the heart and mind.

These intermediate courses for high school will focus on composing ideas building on the method middle school students experienced in our introductory units. This said, we’ve made sure that students new to Blackbird & Company curriculum will be supported to succeed in the work as well.



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Person, Place, Thing: Writing Beyond the Noun


Advanced Composition: Person, Place Thing as Long Form Research

Our unique scaffolding guides 11th and 12th grade students over the course of 30 weeks, each step of the way, in the process of researching and writing a long-research paper. This creative non-fiction project is an opportunity for high school students to participate in literary writing before heading to college.

While students will use the scaffolding twice (in both 11th and 12th grade), each paper will be unique depending on the topics chosen. Each year students will choose a theme that they will explore through a person, a place, and a thing. For example, our student sample explores the theme of tragedy via Abraham Lincoln, Terezin, and escalators. Another student might want to explore joy via Henri Matisse, Disneyland, and the yo-yo. Still another might tie hope to Emily Dickinson, the library, and feathers. The possibilities are endless! And because the topic is the student’s choice, and the work is scaffolded incrementally, the 30-week project is not overwhelming. Quite the contrary, students will rise into this work!


So click through to pick up your brand new copy just in time for the coming school year.

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Jumpstart Essay Writing with Pages Online!

Using Blackbird & Company composition units? Enroll now to jumpstart fall learning! We are delighted to announce the following five classes to support students as they prepare to dive deep into the art of essay writing.

We’ve something fun planned during Session 1 and Session 2! Our Pages teachers will guide students who are using Blackbird & Company middle school and high school compositional writing units through their first lesson, offering strategies to help them succeed and encouragement to press into the art of essay writing!

Session 1

Intro to Composition Vol. 1: Structure

For Who:

Middle School Students utilizing Introduction to Composition: The Essay, Volume 1


  • Starts: 9/8/2023

  • Length: 3 Weeks

  • Day: Fridays

  • Time: 9:00 – 10:00 PST

Intro to Composition Vol. 2: Descriptive

For Who:

Middle School Students utilizing Introduction to Composition: The Essay, Volume 2


  • Starts: 9/8/2023
  • Length: 3 Weeks
  • Day: Fridays
  • Time: 10:30 – 11:30 PST

Intro to Composition Vol. 3: Literary

For Who:

Middle School Students utilizing Introduction to Composition: The Essay, Volume 3


  • Starts: 9/8/2023
  • Length: 3 Weeks
  • Day: Fridays
  • Time: 12:15 – 1:15 PST

Session 2

Intro to Composition Vol. 4: Little Worlds

For Who:

High School Students utilizing Introduction to Composition: The Essay, Volume 4


  • Starts: 10/20/2023
  • Length: 3 Weeks
  • Day: Fridays
  • Time: 9:00 – 10:15 PST

Intro to Composition Vol. 5: Persuasion

For Who:

High School Students utilizing Introduction to Composition: The Essay, Volume 4


  • Starts: 10/20/2023
  • Length: 3 Weeks
  • Day: Fridays
  • Time: 10:30 – 11:45 PST