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Podcast: What Works in Writing Instruction with Kayla Dyer in RI on Teachers in America

21 Min Read
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Photo: K-5 literacy fellow Kayla Dyer

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Today we are joined by Kayla Dyer, who serves as a K-5 literacy fellow for the Burrillville School District in Rhode Island and an HMH Teacher Ambassador. Kayla strives to help fellow educators both off and online, sharing best practices on topics like small-group instruction. Most recently, she had the opportunity to be a presenter at the 2023 Model Schools Conference. In this episode, Kayla will share strategies for writing instruction.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students.

I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend to learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today we are joined by Kayla Dyer, a K-5 literacy fellow for the Burrillville School District in Rhode Island.

From fourth-grade teacher to literacy fellow, a highlight of her 14-year education career has been the connections she’s made with peers, students, and families.

In her current role, Kayla supports teachers in her district in using both HMH Into Reading and Writable. Plus she's a Teacher Ambassador for the Teacher's Corner greater community on Facebook serving and supporting nearly 39,000 teachers everyday. She also had the opportunity to be a presenter at the 2023 Model Schools Conference getting a standing ovation on her differentiated instruction.

But in today’s episode, Kayla will share writing teaching tips, including how to engage students throughout the writing process, and words of advice for new and not-so-new teachers.

Now let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey listeners, another episode of Teachers in America. And today it's not just any guest, it's actually one of our teacher ambassadors, Kayla Dyer. So, today's conversation, we're going to focus on Kayla telling her teacher journey, because I don't think you've ever really shared that or brought that into the community. So, Kayla, describe your teacher journey in three words.

Kayla Dyer: So, I would say my first word is “elevate.” I think you can elevate, like I've elevated my students, my colleagues, myself. So that word elevate really resonates with me. My students, that's the first and foremost when you're thinking about elevating. And not just academically, but also that social-emotional piece, that whole child, especially these past few years going through all COVID closures and all of that.

Really getting to know them in a way that you never had before. You were in their home with them. They were in your home with you. Seeing my kids run around and hearing me be a mom, but also a teacher. And I heard the same thing from them. So really just getting that connection with my students and elevating them academically and as a whole person.

And then my colleagues, I think that I know who to go to for support so I can elevate my colleagues. I know I can go to a certain teacher to ask her about math, or another teacher could be a really great mentor for ELA. She's been doing it for a long time, and I love to go to ask her those specific questions because I know she can help me. And then really knowing when to support other teachers. They might need that helping hand. So, knowing when to step in and give them that little push on the back to keep them going. So really just knowing my community in my school and knowing who needs what and when, but also knowing who to go to when I need something.

And then in my new role, as that teacher on special assignment, as you like to say, as my district's literacy fellow, I have the absolute privilege of being able to work with teachers in grades K to five implementing Into Reading, and I just, I love it. I get an opportunity to go into so many classrooms and see so many teachers. And I think that when I return to my classroom, when this little stint is done, that I'm just going to be such a better teacher for it. Because I get to see the way they interact with their students and present content and also work with them in different capacities, in different ways. I'm growing. And I'm elevating myself through watching my colleagues and almost working in a coaching role with them.

But I'm growing myself as a teacher as well, which is super exciting. One of the teachers, a little tidbit that sticks with me because it meant so much, she said, “You know, the way that you presented that and the way that we talked about that, I just never thought of it that way. And I'm so happy that you shared that with me.”

And it was just so meaningful to me to hear that from her because I just knew that I was making a difference. And this is a teacher that, she won teacher of the year in her school and she's been teaching for a long time and people look up to her as a teacher leader for ELA. So, her saying that to me just meant so much, and it just means that I'm making a difference to those kids in her classroom and helping her and supporting her as well.

Noelle: Now, one of your niches that you really are very confident about is your love of teaching writing. Tell us about that. Where did that come from? When I meet a lot of teachers who are reading teachers, ELA teachers, elementary, very similar to math, the next thing that you would hear them say is, I'm not the best writing teacher, but I love teaching reading. So, talk to us about that.

Kayla: So, this is kind of a funny story. My dad is well, was, he retired, a high school English teacher. I would write, and he would be like, “Oh, Kayla, let me read your essay.” I'm like, no, I did it myself. I got it. I got it. But my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Cuatroche, she would just write all over my paper. Red ink, sideways, sideways, sideways, up, and down and vertically. And I'm like, okay, dad, maybe, maybe you can help me. So, I feel like that connection with my dad and just working through that with him really made me enjoy writing. And I have this special connection with my dad because he is a teacher and we're so much alike.

And then having that, I feel like I bring that love of writing into my classroom and that joy for it, because I love hearing my students share their writing. I love to empower them. And I feel like that's what my dad did for me. Because getting those red marks all over my paper. . . and I still see Mrs. Cuatroche at the grocery store sometimes, and I'll be like, “Remember when you wrote red all over my paper? You know, I love to teach writing and . . ”

Noelle: You accidentally broke my heart with all the red?

Kayla: And I'm like, “I love to teach writing.” And she's like, “Oh, I love that.” You know, it made her feel proud.

Noelle: I think that's a moment because I'm very similar. My daughter told me very early on, “You are my mommy. Please, you are not my teacher mom.” She really wanted separation. Now that you think about it in a professional journey, do you ever think that your dad knew the teacher's approach and was potentially trying to help you?

Kayla: I think so. It was like a protective thing. Oh, I knew because he was a teacher at the high school that I attended, so I think he knew what she wanted, what she expected, and he was trying to support me. But you know what? You just had to fail and then you came to me and I can help you.

Noelle: How do you help fourth graders, fifth graders, and now you've been also working with K to two. The hardest part is them finding their voice and hearing their voice. What's one of your strategies for when students are in that process writing to hear themselves?

Kayla: I think just the reflection, the out loud, talking about whatever the prompt or the topic is. So, in the first three lessons that we teach in that process writing, we're really kind of gathering that background information. We're maybe reading a mentor text and talking about a topic.

So really just talking about that topic and having students grow that web of ideas so they feel empowered and ready to start thinking about, "Okay, now that I've got all these ideas, I can start to brainstorm and we can start to put them together." So, talking about it and really building out what they feel and their connections to things before we start to kind of dig into the real meat of the paragraphs, the drafts.

Inline Graphic 7

One of Kayla's writing teaching tips is to create a web of ideas and brainstorm aloud to help students make connections before putting their thoughts on paper.

Noelle: And I know that you're a fan of word families, right? You talk a lot about, sometimes you will make strategic decisions for vocabulary based on all the other words that they're going to be able to add into their word bank. What’s your advice to teachers to make those decisions, to be really strategic?

Kayla: I'm going to think back to the topic. What's the topic that we're learning about, and then which words are going to really support that topic and their knowledge of that topic? And other pieces of our curriculum, are they going to tie into social studies or science?

So, building out that web of words, that web of vocabulary, that web of knowledge to empower students to really know a lot about a topic.

Noelle: I was reflecting back the other day because I was looking through the community past images and pictures and up popped one of our live events that I was streaming into the community. And I'm looking, I'm like, there's Kayla! It's your first encounter coming into the community and you were in a session with one of our other teacher ambassadors. And I’m looking at your face and I’m like, look at her. Just taking it all in and absorbing. When you first came in to a new curriculum, where were you sitting as a teacher with a new curriculum, also interested in making that impact and elevating your students that really had you be in this place of, okay, I am ready to take on something new and here's how I'm going to approach.

Kayla: I think my first encounter with Teacher's Corner was a live event. I came to a model lesson that Abby had done, and I was watching it and I felt so uneasy as a teacher with a new curriculum in my hand. I felt like I was glued to my manual, and I was looking at it, and I didn't really have a solid understanding on how to plan. And just watching Abby do that model lesson, that's really similar to what I've been doing in my classroom. So, it affirmed that, "Maybe am I doing the right thing? I think I'm doing the right thing." So, it was that connection to her and knowing that I was making the right decisions by my students. And then I knew that I wanted to join the community because I like sharing. I grew up being a dancer and I was on my college dance team, and I danced in the WNBA. So I like being in front of people. And—

Noelle: Wait, so you danced in the WNBA? How have I not known this? Did you have to try out?

Kayla: Yeah.

Noelle: How many people are you competing against?

Kayla: Maybe a hundred people. I tried out for the Celtics too.

Noelle: Oh, you did?

Kayla: I did. And I made it till the very end, but that was a lot more people. I'm totally comfortable being in front. The more people, it actually makes me feel more comfortable.

Noelle: You just absorb that energy and it drives you.

Kayla: Fewer people makes me less comfortable.

Noelle: So, let's come back to the conversation about joining the community and knowing you wanted to share. What's your advice to other teachers? Even if you're still in your newness, how do you think about and know, putting yourself out there to share and support teachers, in the same space as you are.

Kayla: I think that because this curriculum is new to so many people, that everyone's in a different place in their implementation. It doesn't matter if you’re brand new to the curriculum. You still have a voice because you can be connecting with those teachers who are new to the curriculum as well. And you feed off of that energy because you understand what they're going through.

And then, as you go on in your implementation, you can connect with those teachers as well. It kind of builds that community and that trust with each other because you're in the same place and good teaching is good teaching. Regardless of what curriculum you have in front of you, you have that in you and you can share that.

I think that it’s empowering to you as a teacher, and I feel like being a part of the community has pushed me in ways that are so positive for myself personally, as well as in my classroom and professionally because it's pushing me to learn more and to grow and hear other perspectives.

You said something before about absorbing things. I feel like that's me. I like to sit back, and I like to absorb, and this community gives me the opportunity to do that. I can really take things in and kind of flip them, make them my own.

Inline Graphic 3

Kayla found a connected community of educators through the Facebook Teacher's Corner page, where she's learned and shared teaching strategies to implement in the classroom.

Noelle: I find that you're someone [that is like,] "I'm going to do it this way." And then you observe, but you don't get nervous if it doesn't work the first time. At what point in a lesson do you notice, “Mm. Okay. This is not going as I expected, and I need to pivot”?

Kayla: I think that's the biggest piece of being a teacher, that pivot, because you need to be able to say, “Oh, this isn’t going that well, and now we need to take a little turn this way.” Reading the temperature of the room, I feel that's something that I definitely do.

I think this might go back to dance because I'm feeling like I'm on the stage and I'm doing my solo. I'm up there by myself and I don't remember the steps and my dance teacher’s in the audience, and she knows every count of eight what's going on. And I completely forgot, but I cannot stop smiling. I have to keep going. Just got to do it. So, I would have to look good, right? Because my dance teacher's watching, my mom's watching me. They paid a lot of money for me to be up there to do this. And I've got this nice costume on. It comes from there—just having that confidence where I can still make this look good. I could still do this. And I know enough about it, and I'm so well planned as a teacher that I can pivot.

Noelle: And as teachers we need those moments of, “Okay, I’ve lost my train of thought” or “Oh, I need a minute.” You need to have these practice stalls where something can continue with the students while you regain “Where was I going with this? This is not working. What am I going to do?” Because as you're saying, it's like, got to keep dancing, got to keep dancing and end with a great final pose. And that's all about the same with getting to that lesson and adding a couple of different moves in there. Your students aren't going to notice. And you know the right move to add that's not going to derail an entire lesson.

When you're thinking about you're about to go into a professional learning. You know, you've chosen a session. What drives you to a session? How do you select your own session when you get that chance? And then what makes a really good professional learning experience for you?

Kayla: If I'm choosing, I love to learn. I'm totally all about researching and absorbing, like we said before, new information. So, anything that strikes my interest at that moment. Right now, it's all about I'm learning so much about the science of reading and on that ELA journey.

So, I think that things like that are really going to grab my attention. If it's a presenter or someone who I'm interested in hearing from like a specific author or something like that, that would pull me in for sure. I think the things that make for a good experience are just the ability to try it.

I think some of my best trainings that I've been to, as a teacher, were these science trainings where we actually got to be the student. They gave us the investigation, the question, and as teachers, we stood around the table, a group of three or four teachers actually doing the investigation that our students would be doing and then talking about it and writing about it as if we were students. For me, that's the most powerful, actually sitting in there and trying it and seeing where things could go wrong and how I could support my students.

Noelle: I love that because I do think sometimes, you're hesitant because you're like, how will this experiment go? Where will this investigation go and how do I predict what my students might experience? And how will I help give them corrective feedback or understand how to ask the question or find what was missed. So, I love that. I agree. Hands-on, understanding it, that safe environment.

Our profession is going through a lot of exits. You can go on any social media, you can read so many articles, and the hashtag transitioning teacher is there. But how are you helping teachers who might be in a little bit of a burnout or they're questioning, “Kayla, I don't know if this really is my professional space.” How are you helping teachers to find their why or make some of those decisions?

Kayla: I’ve had conversations like this with teachers and I think it starts with it's okay to feel like that. I think everyone feels like that at times. You're making a choice, right? To come back for a whole other year to support students and families.

We have a lot as teachers on our shoulders, especially these last few years. It wasn't just kids; it was their families too that we were supporting. And I think that just saying it's okay to feel like that and we all feel like that, but sometimes we need to work through it. And maybe this is a choice. Maybe you do need to find something else. Teaching isn't for everyone and that's okay, but we can try to work through this and see, okay, well what can we fix? Let's try to make a small change and see if that can have an impact on your teaching or your students’ learning or your feeling towards the profession. Maybe even just finding another teacher that could support you or mentor you.

Noelle: Last question. A new teacher coming in. It’s their first week. What's the first three things that they should do so that they have a wonderful first six weeks with their class?

Kayla: The first thing they should do is not fill out their name tags. Because my first experience teaching, I filled out all the name tags and then my class list changed an hour before they were supposed to come. So I had to rewrite all of them. I'd say wait till the very end, the bitter end to do that. But I would say start off with thinking about what you want your climate to feel like in your classroom. How do you want to make your students feel and you can jump off from there. You can start thinking about, okay, well I want this space to look like this because I want my students to feel nurtured. Or I want everyone to collaborate, so your classroom spaces might look like collaboration in some parts. And I would say also start thinking about your routines in your classroom. I'm such a proponent of that, routines and procedures. I said it before, I have a little manual that says, “Mrs. Dyer's classroom routines,” because for me, I need to know, and I would say for a teacher, “Hey, you should try this.”

Think about what it looks like for a day in your classroom. What does it look like when you pick them up? What does it look like when you have them transition from the seats to the rug? All of those little pieces. And then you have to add to that list because all of the things that you plan for, there's probably a hundred times more then you could even think of.

So, after that first day, that's okay. You just jot it down because, as a teacher, every night, my first few years I always went home, and I was like, “Oh boy, that was tough, but what can I do to make tomorrow better?” Just knowing that it's okay that it doesn't go well. That would be my third piece of advice.

It's okay if it doesn't go well the first day. You won't remember it, but in four weeks and you have this well-run classroom, you'll be so proud of yourself, and you'll be like, “Oh, I forgot that I felt like that on the first day, that someone was like melting on the wall or ran out of your room.”

So just going home and thinking about, sitting in it at the end of the day and reflecting and saying, “Okay, I’m going to change this one thing tomorrow to try to make the day go smoother.”

Noelle: That is fabulous advice. I appreciate it. I know new teachers out there that are listening to our podcast are going to appreciate it. And one of the things that I just adore about you in general is you really are every day, “I want to remember this. I want to grow from this.” And I think that that’s something we all, as teachers, need to continue to do, is to think about ourselves along the journey and enjoy it. And it's hard to enjoy the hard days, but they really will continue to make you stronger. Now you don't get out of my last question, which is what is your walk-up song?

Kayla: My walk-up song.

Noelle: And I know I don't have to explain a walk-up song to you because you are a sports fan, so you know.

Kayla: I'm going to go with, in college, I was on the dance team. Before the team would come out, we would be out there and everyone's getting excited because Saturday night game and we're playing U. Conn. And they’d play “Back in Black” by AC/DC, and I just love that song. It pumps me up every time I hear it. I think just from that experience of being out there on the court and the fans, the energy, so “Back in Black” by AC/DC would totally be my walk-up song.

Noelle: Oh, I love it. And I wish our audience could see your face light up because it's like you just had a flashback of living that song and those moments. So, thank you for sharing it with us.

Kayla: Thank you so much.

Noelle: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Until next time, your friend, Noelle.

The Teachers in America podcast is a production of HMH. Executive producers are Christine Condon and Tim Lee. Editorial direction is by Christine Condon. It is creatively directed, and audio engineered by Tim Lee. Our producer and editor is Jennifer Corujo. Production designers are Mio Frye and Thomas Velazquez. Shaped blog post editors for the podcast are Christine Condon, Jennifer Corujo, and Alicia Ivory.  

Thanks again for listening!


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