A few weeks ago, a Writing Project colleague engaged a group of us in a conversation about how teachers might end the school year.  This is typically an easy question.  Most districts have traditions and rituals in place for ending the year, along with district assessments to measure academic growth.  None of these typical ways to end will be in place this year, so this easy question morphed into several challenging questions:

How can we help students find a meaningful conclusion to this strange school year?  What important elements of ways we typically wrap the school year can we preserve in a virtual assignment?

I started thinking about the ways I typically wrapped up the learning for the year in my own classroom.  For many years, I asked students to write me a letter (or any format they wished to create) reflecting on their growth as a reader and as a writer.  I also asked them to create an “other” category to reflect on something else they felt they learned through the year. I wanted to hear what they thought about their own learning:  successes, struggles, next goals, and personal reflections to make sense out of everything.

The “other” category often spoke to my teacher heart, and that section was the reason a letter ended up in my “forever” file.  One of my last years of teaching, a boy wrote about how he learned he was not such a misfit after all.  One of my early years of teaching, a girl wrote about how journaling helped her process and figure out a way to let go of an abusive boyfriend.  This was the learning that I worry virtual classrooms cannot foster, at least not as well.

The teenage years are a critical time for social interaction.  Robbed of face-to-face connections, teens are not developing their identities through normal social interactions, rituals, and traditions.

Thinking about these issues of isolation, I brainstormed a list of key elements of an end-of-year activity.  I landed on two: reflection and choice.

Asking students to process and reflect on the realities of this school year might help them make some sense of their world.  Having worked with teenagers for more than 30 years, I also know meaningful reflection is not something all teens do naturally.  Choice is always important for teens, but distance learning elevates choice to a critical component to me.  Now I just needed to combine reflection with some choices for self-expression to create an answer to the question of how to wrap up this year.

First, students would need to review our common definition of reflective writing.  For this blog, we will use this one: Communicating your thoughts and feelings about experiences, opinions, events, or ideas; exploring your learning and gaining self-knowledge/insight.

Next, I would tap into prior knowledge by asking groups of students to post what they remembered from mentor texts we had read during the school year.  Groups could collaborate on Padlet, meet in small breakout rooms on Zoom, or use whatever virtual platforms your district provides.

Some of the mentor texts I have used for reflective writing include “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan and “Us and Them” by David Sedaris for middle schoolers; House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Night by Elie Wiesel for students in 9th/10th grade; and selections from Walden by Henry David Thoreau and from Citizen by Claudia Rankine for students in 11th /12th grade.  Students could dip back into key parts, such as the last segment of “Fish Cheeks,” to review what they had learned about reflective writing early in the year.

Because video is a key component of distance learning,  the mentor text I would use for this lesson would be in video format.  I recommend an old favorite: the Favorite Poem Project.  There are many, many potential mentor texts on this site, but the one I have used with success is John Doherty, a construction worker from Boston, who explains why Whitman’s Song of Myself is his favorite poem.  I would ask students to do what we typically do when we look at a mentor text for craft.

Noticing craft:  What do you notice about this video?  What resonates with you as a viewer and listener? What seems to be important for this mode of expression?


Listen again, and jot notes.

Then as a class, we would build a list of qualities we noticed in this mentor text, a list to help shape our idea of what reflective thinking/writing includes.  Here is an example a class might shape from the video:

  • Share a little background information.
  • Reflect on your topic:  How do you feel about it?  What makes sense to you?  What doesn’t? Why is it important to you?
  • Draw conclusions or make implications: How is this important in a larger context, such as next year (or several years)? (Older students might use a specific critical lens.)

If there was enough time, I would ask them to listen a third time to see if they wanted to add anything to our list.  Then we would discuss the list, and I would pose my typical questions: What would be easy about this kind of reflection?  What would be challenging?

Working through a mentor text to create a list of qualities would be one full mini-lesson.  If you want to extend this lesson, students could select another video on their own to “test” the class list of qualities. They could also create a Flipgrid to share a reflection on their own poem and give feedback to each other if you wanted to provide some practice.

For an end-of-year assignment, though, reflective writing (or a reflective video) would be part of a larger assignment.  I decided the best way to provide students with options would be a choice board.  Choice boards seem to be the perfect distance-learning tool, and I found some easy-to-use templates on helloteacherlady’s blog: Then I brainstormed ideas for activities at various difficulty levels.

I linked a sample board here.

All of the choices have components students would be familiar with from earlier in the school year.  My goal is that each student will find a vehicle for self-expression and reflection no matter what activity he/she chooses to complete.  There are so many potential adaptations for the choice boards, and the template is easy to revise however you wish.

After students completed the activities, another essential part would be to share and to provide responses to each other’s products.  One way students could share would be to post their final product to a Padlet wall, such as this one. Then students could provide feedback to some of their peers with a little guidance if you wanted to provide it.

While no activity can substitute for finishing a school year with friends, maybe reflecting and sharing will help students make a little sense of their current reality.  Maybe it could help us, too.





Remember assistant principal Richard Vernon from The Breakfast Club?  Who could forget his hostile approach to supervising adolescents during a Saturday detention!  We would like to think his character is more caricature than realistic, but versions of Richard Vernon seem to haunt most schools, and of course, as a new teacher, you will want to avoid being sucked in by them.

Instead, find your tribe. Teaching can be as emotionally draining as it is fulfilling, and you will need your tribe to help you along the way.

I have been fortunate enough to find many, many people in my tribe over my teaching career.  My very first department chair became my career mentor, and we still get together.  When we do, we talk passionately about education, books, previous students we run into, and we still lose track of time.

One of my interdisciplinary teams became a strong support system for the day-to-day stresses.   Anyone who needed to talk through an issue would email the group to email and ask to “meet on the square.”   The carpet pattern created a blue square in a spot in the middle of a hallway, and we would stand in a tight circle on that square to listen, to support, and to offer suggestions if the person asked.

My district committed to long-term relationships with consultants, and two became mentors for me:  Ruth Culham and Ellin Keene.

Ruth and I bonded over our love of YA literature and writing.  We got to know each other waiting in a long line for the final Harry Potter book.  What a night!  My seventh grade daughter was with us, and she still talks about that night.  Ruth used some of her experiences visiting my classroom in her book Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Middle School, which required monthly conversations and sharing of stories — such fun!  She invited me to contribute to Using Benchmark Papers to Teach Writing with the Traits, which pushed me way out of my comfort zone and created my interest in sharing lesson ideas.

Ellin came to our district to help us grow as reading teachers and to guide our curriculum revision.  We spent many long hours together on these tasks, and her quick wit and talent with students made every minute enjoyable.  She worked with me and a team of teachers to develop an in-house lab system of professional development, which was the best PD model I experienced in my career.  It remains a topic I am passionate about.  She suggested many times that I write a book, and that’s a current goal.

Find mentors that push you to grow.

My main tribe consists of all the talented, intelligent ELA teachers I worked with through the years. Members of both my high school and middle ELA departments became friends both at school and in life, and they still fill my soul with joy over shared interests and passions.  Some of them are pictured above.

How will you know if someone should be in your tribe?

This seems like an easy question, right?  Most likely, you will be assigned a mentor.  Other people who are nice, friendly, and welcoming will probably approach you.  Teachers in your hall or who have the same lunch shift will definitely want to share stories with you.  So how do you know whom to gravitate toward?

Pay close attention to the words people use when describing the students in their classroom.  While all of us have students who try our patience or who frustrate us, we have many, many more students who delight and amaze us.  Teachers who never seem to share their happy moments will probably make the job harder than it needs to be, so avoid spending your precious time listening to constant griping.  According to Raj Raghunathan Ph.D., “Constant exposure to such negativity can make deep inroads into your bank of positivity, leading you to . . .become negative—diffident, anxious, and distrustful—yourself . . . .”

Look for teachers whose philosophies and pedagogy aligns at least somewhat with yours.  While you are still growing your knowledge base, you have a sense of what feels right as you try different ideas.  Be true to those feelings.  I almost quit teaching in the first few years because I tried to teach exactly like another teacher, and it did not work for me.  Students know when you are aligning your practice with your beliefs, and they will know when you are not!

Trust your gut.  Unfortunately, many people feed off of dragging others down. Some teachers are so afraid of change that they attach themselves quickly to newcomers so they can ensure the new folks won’t initiate change.  Many people equate change with loss, as Zachary Herrmann discusses in his blog post The Challenge of Change, so it’s not a surprise that this reaction is one you can find in most schools.  Listen to your gut feelings about a person’s motives for befriending you.  Those feelings will generally be correct!

Passion is contagious. Teaching is a career that is as much a calling as it is a skill, so you probably became a teacher because you felt passionate about education, literacy, children, etc.  When you talk about what you love, don’t be afraid to let your passion show.  We all get excited when we find others who love what we love, and that shared passion will forge a natural bond.

So find your tribe, and then nurture the people in your tribe.  You will be able to withstand the pressures and stresses of teaching if you stand together in joy with other teachers.



My long-time mentor, Maridella Carter, invited me to participate in the Greater Kansas City Writing Project’s Summer Institute over and over.  She knew I would love the experience, but life kept interfering.  Finally, one summer, I could commit.

She was right; not only did I love the experience, but it was the BEST graduate class/professional development of my career, and I write these words with no exaggeration.

The SI, as it is known, is hard to describe because the experience provides each person what he/she needs.   This is in part because of the goals of the Writing Project, which builds and sustains a professional community by valuing the individual strengths and passions of each teacher.

The SI begins each participant’s journey into this professional community.

During the SI, teachers do the same work they ask of students:  They read, discuss, question, develop inquiry workshops, and write, write, write.

You might think teachers are overflowing with confidence, especially about their writing skills, but most adults are wary, even afraid, to share their writing.  Yes, even English teachers.  Maybe especially English teachers.  After all, we savor the words of the most gifted writers in the world daily. To work past this elemental fear, participants are placed in supportive writing communities in true workshop fashion.

One day during my SI experience, I listened to person after person share their literary luncheon pieces. These are not pieces writers spend weeks and weeks perfecting.  Even so, as each person read, I was caught up in the story, and all the words, phrases, sentences, and so on, seemed perfect. Not good; perfect.  Perfect because the writing matched the purpose, to share the writer’s story.  These pieces were not judged by a rubric, graded for specific traits, edited for grammar, usage, and mechanics.

They were judged by reflective smiles, out-loud laughter, occasional head-nods, and wiping of tears.

It suddenly occurred to me that I should not write any differently than I do.  I will keep practicing and improving, and I will never write as well as the writers I love to read, but that will not stop me from writing.  What a freeing thought!  I decided critical voices will always cut through my words, but unless those voices reflect purposeful, encouraging guidance, they should be ignored.  I left the experience saying in addition to all the content, skills, and connections I gained, it was like I had been to teacher therapy!

My teaching changed after this experience.  I was embraced by a strong community of professionals who encouraged my pursuit of personal inquiry.  I had also broken free of many insecurities I had about writing, which led to a more authentic writing workshop structure in my classroom.  This experience also helped me understand why some teachers resist implementing workshop in their classrooms.  It’s difficult to implement something you have never experienced.

I stayed involved with The Greater Kansas City Writing Project, which provides various opportunities for continued growth and support from this professional community. This summer, I served as the SI co-facilitator, and in the fall, I took on the role of PD Coordinator.  (Let me know if your district is interested in scheduling PD through the GKCWP.)

My only regret is not participating earlier in my career; don’t make the same mistake!

If you would like to get involved in the National Writing Project, go to and search for your local site.  If you are in the Kansas City area, email me at  You won’t regret it.