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The Big Fresh August 4, 2018 Surprise

Brenda Power

No surprise for the writer,
no surprise for the reader.

                                                Robert Frost


I don’t know what you mean.

Well, nothing I guess. I mean, I wrote it.

I’ve just asked the question, “What surprises you in your draft?”

Twelve teachers with eyes on me. Some look puzzled and confused. Some look a little irritated, and are probably sorry they’ve signed up for a 10-week class on the power of teachers writing. We began as I always do in these settings, with some brainstorming and 10 minutes of silent freewriting.

I wait a bit, and then I begin. “Well, I’m surprised because I thought I was going to write about my daughter’s graduation, but what I ended up writing about was my own homesickness when I got to college.”

Slowly, haltingly, the group begins to give responses.

I thought it would be easy to write this story, but it was hard.

I wasn’t expecting to change my mind about that student.

I was surprised I could write so much in so little time.

I always begin by asking, “What surprises you in your writing?” The biggest surprise for most teachers is the question. They are expecting questions about the process, or the topic, or how they plan to revise. In reality, a question about surprise can be about any of those three arenas. Or something else completely.

Surprise can be delight -- when what you’ve experienced is more or better than what you expected.

Surprise can be tension or strife  -- when what you’ve experienced is less than you’d hoped for.

Between what you expect and what you get is a gap that is ripe for a leap in learning.

If you lose your capacity for surprise, you’ve probably lost your capacity for learning. Surprise is a kissing cousin to wonder. But I don’t think it’s possible to lose the capacity for surprise -- more likely it is just squelched and needs to be cultivated again by looking closely and looking for those gaps. If there’s no surprise now for you in your teaching, chances are you’re a little bored and frustrated.

By the end of the 10 weeks of writing, teachers in the writing group had no trouble talking about surprises in their writing, the delights and tensions that popped up as they crafted their narratives. That tiny bit of distance and reflection, stepping back to think about jolts of newness while drafting, is often just what they needed to open up to suggestions for revision.

This week we look at how your own writing and creativity can bring surprises and delight to required units of study. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Brenda Power
Founder, Choice Literacy


Free for All

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Franki Sibberson believes planning a unit of study should be just as much fun as planning a trip to Disney World. She explains her planning process for one of her first units of study, on narrative writing:


Melanie Meehan helps elementary students move from narratives to realistic fiction by beginning with "facts" about their fictional characters:


Beth Moore has advice for getting through a unit of study that seems to be going on forever:


Our new online course program launches this month!

Check out three new courses that begin this month: Getting Organized for Coaching hosted by Ruth Ayres, Gradual Release of the Classroom Library (K-3) hosted by Bitsy Parks, and It's a Cycle, Not a Hamster Wheel: Getting the Most Out of Coaching Cycles hosted by Dana Murphy.

Each self-paced course includes screencasts with the instructors, classroom videos, articles, templates and guides to download, as well as three-month trial memberships to Lead Literacy and Choice Literacy. Detailed descriptions are available at this link:



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A paid membership gives you access to all premium content. For details on trial and annual memberships, click here.

One way to keep your instruction fresh in a required writing unit is to take on the tasks and topics yourself. Dana Murphy finds completing the assignments herself is well worth her time, and gives her a treasure trove of notebook entries to use in her conferring:


Bitsy Parks is stressed from trying to "cover" all the lessons in the first required reading unit of the year with her first graders. She takes a deep breath, and decides to integrate more of her own lessons into her instruction:



In this week's video, Gigi McAllister helps her fourth graders develop the characters in their writing with a minilesson. She uses three mentor texts, and one of them is her own writing:


Shari Frost finds she has to do required, on-demand writing for a new job, and in the process develops a new appreciation for how teachers struggle with rigid reading and writing programs: 


In an encore video, Danielle French helps  a first grader set writing goals as part of a nonfiction unit of study


That's all for this week!

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Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.