elementary writing

Please, Not One More Assessment

As the final weeks of school approach, teachers and students alike may feel overwhelmed with assessments. From naming letters to writing essays on state assessments, children are being asked to demonstrate what they have mastered throughout the school year.  The number of assessments continues to rise. As a result, during this busy time of year, too often assessments are given, graded and then filed away, with no thought to either their purpose or the information they provide.

Before asking students to complete an end-of-year writing assessment, pause and consider the task’s purpose.  Assessment is defined as a gathering of information about student learning. While formative assessments are given frequently and used to adjust instruction, a summative assessment is given to judge the quality of student work. This quality judgement can and should be helpful for both student and teacher.

As writing is a process, students’ progress should be assessed on the process.  Most importantly, students should be able to assess themselves on each part of the process and recognize their progress. Before giving students a final written assessment, consider these factors:

1)       What do you want students to be able to do?

Clearly define the skills you want students to exhibit:

-          Are you wanting students to write in complete sentences?

-          Are you assessing students’ ability to gather ideas and create a plan?

-          Are students expected to read a text and gather appropriate information?

 

2)      How will your students know they have met their learning goal?

Provide students clear expectations and targets.  This can be done through:

-          Complete prompts

-          Specific rubrics

-          Anchor charts

-          List of skills being assessed

 

3)      How will you help students accurately measure their own writing growth?

Encouraging students to measure their own learning growth is a powerful tool.  Provide students with their original beginning of the year writing assessment.  Identify specific writing skills for students to evaluate in their own writing.  Some possible skills include:

Primary Students

-          Are my letters formed correctly?

-          Did I put spaces between my words?

-          Did I write in complete sentences?

-          Did I plan my writing?

-          Is my writing on topic?

-          Did I choose interesting vocabulary?

Primary Writing Self-Assessment.jpg

 

Intermediate Students

-          Did I plan my writing?

-          Is my writing on topic?

-          Did I include interesting details to support my big ideas?

-          Did I use details from the text to support my writing?  (If this is a requirement.)

-          Did I vary the structure of my sentences?

-          Did I make interesting word choices?

-          Did I carefully edit my writing for conventions?

- Did I carefully edit my writing for spelling?

Intermediate Writing Self-Assessment.jpg

 

As students write their new piece, they can refer to their beginning of the year writing, looking for ways to improve.  After their writing is edited and revised, they can self-assess their end of year writing, using the same criteria they used to evaluate their beginning of the year writing.

4)       Make the writing assessment useful to you and/or next year’s teacher.

Determine which type of writing will provide you with the most useful information.

·       What personal writing goals did you have for the school year?  How can you organize the assessment to analyze those goals?  Perhaps you are wanting to use your curriculum more when teaching content material.  You may want students to respond to a prompt such as the following:

We have just finished reading the book What To Do With A Problem.  As a group, we have brainstormed various strategies people can use when they have a problem.  Write an opinion essay, stating which three strategies work best for you.  

·       Perhaps your school has a writing improvement plan for all grade levels.  This plan may include writing informational essays, writing in response to text, writing narratives, etc.  Design an end-of-year assessment which will provide the next year’s teacher important information.

Think about the information you want to gather about your students’ writing skills.  Design a prompt that will best give you that information.  Whether you want to compare writing using the same prompt from the start of the school year, determine how well students can write a narrative, or analyze your students’ ability to respond to text, create a writing task which addresses your assessment needs.

Whatever choice you make, think about ways to make the assessment manageable, informative and useful to both you and your students.

 

 

 

 

 

 






The Importance of Feedback

We all need people who will give us feedback.

That's how we improve.

- Bill Gates

 

Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions in January.  By February, some of those resolutions are beginning to wane. The difference between keeping and forgetting a resolution can often be traced to the amount of feedback we receive on our goal.  Whether it be the number on the scale, a count of books read, or the steps taken on our fitness app, timely and meaningful feedback helps all of us stay on track.

Writing and speaking in complete sentences is a classroom expectation.  Including a reason or detail within that sentence is part of our daily routine.  Imagine my chagrin when a student once asked me if that rule included me. Was I expected to write in complete sentences when I commented on their work, including a reason to justify my comment?

Not soon after, I received an appreciation note from a parent. The parent expressed specific examples of why their student enjoyed being part of our classroom community. The note meant so much more than a card that stated I was the world’s greatest teacher!

In the same way, our students need and deserve specific and timely feedback from us in order to grow. An article in a 2014 issue of Edutopia lists 5 Research-Based Tips for providing students meaningful feedback.  (edutopia.org/blog/tips-providing-students-meaningful-feedback-marianne-stenger)

1. Feedback should be Specific—A star or “Good Job” on a paper does not tell a student what they have done well. Instead of “Nice Writing” on a paragraph, point out a specific strength. “You placed a transition word in every big idea sentence. These words help the reader understand your reasons in this paragraph.”

Providing students a skill to focus on and improve in their next piece of writing is also important. For example: “You did a great job writing complete sentences. Many of your sentences start with the word “I”.  Let’s work to have a variety of sentence starters in your writing next time.”

2. Feedback should be Immediate—The more immediate the feedback, the more powerful it is for student learning. Look for ways to streamline your grading process. Think about grading writing as students complete each portion of the writing process. For example, provide feedback on topic sentences as students complete them.  “This topic sentence clearly explains what the paragraph is about. I understand your topic!”

3. Feedback should reflect a student’s progress towards a Goal—Perhaps a student is working on editing their writing, including correct punctuation and capitalization in sentences. Comment on a student’s progress towards that goal.  “Wow, I can see that you worked diligently to put a punctuation mark at the end of every sentence.”

4. Feedback should be given Gently—Know your students. Feedback must be given knowing the receiver.  Choose words you would appreciate receiving if someone was giving you feedback.

5. Feedback should involve the Student– Students should be involved in choosing what is assessed. This may be as simple as asking students what writing they would like you to assess. “What would you like me to look at in this piece of writing?  We’ve been revising sentences. Put a check next to the revised sentence on which you would like me to comment.”

Feedback is essential for everyone. The growth you will see in your students is well worth the effort!

         

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” - William Wordsworth

Be sure to read the lesson adaptation for the Primary Classroom at the end of this blog!

Over the past two years, our district has put an emphasis on helping teachers and students focus on their emotional health in addition to their intellectual growth.  Much time and energy has been spent on helping both educators and students recognize and name their emotions.  At the same time, teachers and students are learning how to successfully manage these emotions.

Many students find writing to be a positive tool for recognizing and acknowledging their emotions. Planning specific lessons which provide students an opportunity to reflect on their emotions is a powerful experience for all.

With this in mind, we began the year with the poem ”Keep a Poem in Your Pocket”  by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers. http://home.nyc.gov/html/misc/html/poem/poem1b.html  This classic poem describes a child keeping a poem and a picture in their pocket to help them when they are feeling lonely at night when they are in bed. After reading the poem, students made an origami pocket and described a significant object they would keep in the pocket.  The writing provided students a safe place to express their feelings and share something personally important to them.  origami.lovetoknow.com/about-origami/how-make-paper-pocket

Pocket.jpg

As our school year came to a close, we visited the theme of things that have personal importance to us again.  The focus this time was a Special Place.  We began with reading picture books on special places, including All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan www.amazon.com/All-Places-Love-Patricia-MacLachlan/dp/0060210982 , Owl Moon by Jane Yolen www.amazon.com/Owl-Moon-Jane-Yolen/dp/0399214577 , Peek-a-Boo by Allan Ahlberg www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=peek-a-book+book+by+ahlberg&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Apeek-a-book+book+by+ahlberg and Up North At the Cabin by Marsha Wilson Chall www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_2_9?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=up+north+at+the+cabin+by+marsha+wilson+chall&sprefix=up+north+%2Cstripbooks%2C186&crid=109CNK231UQDH&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3Aup+north+at+the+cabin+by+marsha+wilson+chall

Each of these authors focus on special everyday places, using vivid details and descriptive word choices to help the reader experience the importance the place has for the characters. 

To begin, students brainstormed places which were significant to them.  After a minute of brainstorming, students chose one place from their list.  To better focus their writing, the chosen places needed to be specific.  For example, California is a broad place, but the beach is a more specific place. I encouraged the students to think about an everyday location, although they could make any choice they wanted.

Brainstorm special places.jpg

Next, students brainstormed activities they did in this place. By focusing on what they did at their place, the students’ writing became more than a list of locations.  After brainstorming this list, they chose three activities that would be interesting to the reader. 

Activities at the place.jpg

As we had read the mentor texts, we had noted the authors’ uses of figurative language. Students spent time collecting ideas of figurative language they could include in their writing.  In Up North at the Cabin, Marcia Chall uses metaphors as she describes her cabin activities, which the students had especially enjoyed. 

Figurative language.jpg

Feeling confident, the students eagerly began their writing. Their writing was truly a breathing of the heart.  One student wrote about the time she spent at the hospital while her mother received a treatment they hoped would save her life. 

At the hospital, I count the familiar squares in the ceiling. I look around at the room, watching the medicine drip into my mother’s arm, hoping it will be the cure she needs. As the hours stretch on, I wander down the hall to the vending machine, staring through its windows for a treat.

One child had lost her grandmother in the fall and remembered visiting her house.

At grandmother’s house, I am an explorer, discovering new places and finding interesting old objects. As I walk through the familiar rooms, I think back to where these items are from. Looking at the dusty pictures, I travel back in time remembering past vacations with Grandma. As I go outside, I climb up the crumbling rockwall.  I spend a moment not worrying about anything, just being a kid.

Happy times at a grandparent’s house was a familiar theme.

At my grandparents’ house, I am a detective searching for clues of sea life. Putting on my snorkeling gear, I am submerged in the great blue sea.  Slowly moving my arms and flippers, I move through the water, gazing at the ocean floor.  A school of fish suddenly surrounds me like ants on an ant hill.

This writing was a learning experience for both my students and myself.  As students reflected on places that were significant in their lives, their writing helped me learn more about them.  All of us were reminded that writing provides both the author and the reader an opportunity to connect on new levels. As I plan writing engagements for the next school year I will continue to look for ways that my students and I can use writing as a way to connect emotionally, helping us both recognize and manage our emotions.

 Lesson Adaptation for Primary Students

The lesson can be adapted for primary students.  First, ask students what everyday places are special or important to them.  Where are some places they like to go?  Gather their ideas on chart paper. As students share ideas, encourage them to be specific in their places.

Read the book All the Places to Love aloud to the class.  As you read the book, collect the places that were special to the boy and his family.  Point out the phrase “Where else can . . . “ that is repeated after each place.  What is meant by these words?  Why might the author have used this phrase?

Return to the collection of special places.  Students will brainstorm activities they do in each of these places.  What do they enjoy doing at the park or at the library?  List these activities next to the places.

Provide students drawing / writing paper.  Using the chart as a reference, students can choose a favorite place. On the top of the paper, students will draw the place they have chosen. Provide time for students to include details in their drawings.

Students will now write about their favorite place. For example:  One of my favorite places is the arcade.  After they have identified their place, students will complete the sentence stem: Where else can   . . .   For example:   One of my favorite places is the arcade.  Where else can you play games for just a nickel?  Where else can you find games for the whole family?

Students can create a book about their favorite places.

 

 

 

Does Any Topic Sentence Work?

We are continuing to focus on informational writing in our classroom.  In order to give this writing context, we have been combining it with our History unit on Trappers and Traders.  We have used this content to review different non-fiction text structures and identify prompts which required us to respond in a specific text structure.  www.writenow-rightnow.com/blog/2018/informational-writing-text-structures-and-prompts-1  As we began to respond to the prompts, students were working to write appropriate topic sentences for each text structure.  This led to a discussion in our classroom – “Does every type of topic sentence work for every type of writing?”

Using the prompts from our study of text structures, we began to experiment with different topic sentence types.  I wanted the students to have a bank of topic sentences they could draw on when asked to write to a variety of informative writing prompts.  As we experimented and wrote informational essays, we collected topic sentences which worked well with each type of text structure.

Compare and Contrast Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Both trappers and traders were involved with trapping beavers.  Write an essay explaining two similarities between these people and two ways their lifestyles were different from one another.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers and traders who worked in the Colorado Territory had both similarities and differences in their lifestyles.

“When” Topic Sentence

When studying the trappers and traders of the early Colorado Territory, historians have found both similarities and differences between these two groups.

“Number Topic” Sentence

The trappers and traders who traveled to the Colorado Territory have many similarities and differences.

Compare and Contrast.jpg

 

Cause and Effect Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers came to the Colorado Territory in the early 1800’s. Write an informative essay explaining a positive and negative effect on the environment due to the arrival of the trappers.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers who came to the Colorado Territory had both a positive and negative impact on the natural environment.

“When” Topic Sentence

When the trappers arrived in the Colorado Territory, they had a positive and negative impact on the region’s environment.

“As” Topic Sentence

As historians study the history of Colorado, they have identified both the positive and negative effects on the environment caused by the arrival of the trappers.

 

Description Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had a very distinctive appearance. Write an essay describing the unique clothing of these men.

Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Trappers were easy to identify by their distinctive clothing choices.

“If” Topic Sentence

If spotted on the trail, an early beaver trapper was easy to identify by his clothing and appearance.

“Number” Topic Sentence

The requirements of living outdoors in rugged conditions led trappers to make many unique clothing choices.

 

Problem and Solution Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Once trappers had gathered beaver pelts, they needed a place to gather to trade. Write an essay explaining how trappers solved the problem of trading with others.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Determining a way to trade with others was a problem faced by many trappers.

As” Topic Sentence:

As trappers gathered their bounty of beaver skins, they were faced with a problem.  How could they sell their pelts and purchase items they needed for survival?

When” Topic Sentence:

When the beaver trapping season was completed, the trappers were faced with a dilemma.  How could they now trade their pelts and purchase supplies?

Question” Topic Sentence:

“Now that I have trapped these beavers and collected their pelts, how can I exchange this for needed money and supplies?”  This was a question posed by many trappers at the end of the trapping season.

 

Sequential Order Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had to devise the best ways to trap beavers without harming the fur. Write an informative paragraph explaining the steps a trapper followed to capture a beaver.

 

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

In order to trap a beaver, the mountain man had to follow specific steps.

“Number” Topic Sentence:

Three steps must be followed in order to successfully trap beavers.

“If – Then” Topic Sentence:

If a mountain man wanted to be a successful beaver trapper, then he must follow specific steps in the correct order.

“As” Topic Sentence:

As men traveled to the Colorado Territory to trap beavers, they quickly learned the steps required to capture these animals.

Through our work with informational text, we have discovered that some types of topic sentences work best with certain text structures.  We have also learned a lot about the lives of the early trappers and traders!  Our fourth-grade writers have gained another tool they can use when writing informational text to a variety of prompts.

 

Informational Writing, Text Structures and Prompts

We have been transitioning from writing opinion to writing informative paragraphs.  As we began our study of informational writing, it was a natural time to review the different types of text structures. A text structure is how the author chooses to organize the information in his/her writing. To help us better understand each text structure, we created the following chart as a class.  We filled in the first three columns together. We listed the text structure, wrote a definition and then recorded signal words which would help us identify each text structure as we found it in text. The last column was left blank for future use.

Chart 1.jpg

While reading informational text, we practiced identifying the text structure used by the author. Highlighting clue words and justifying our choice of structure helped solidify our learning.

I now wanted students to stretch their thinking and practice writing informative text in a specific structure.  To begin this process, we needed to identify what structure was being asked for in a prompt. The students were ready for the next step; reading a prompt and determining the text structure they would need to use in response.

We returned to our chart. As we had been exploring trappers and traders in Social Studies, I chose that as the topic of the prompts the students would sort. To focus on the text structure required, I provided the students with five separate prompts. They now titled the final column in their chart Prompts.

Prompts.jpg

After reading each prompt, the students placed the prompt in the appropriate section on the chart. Students discussed their choices with partners, justifying their decision of which text structure to choose. When students reached an agreement, they glued the prompt in the appropriate row. 

Complete.jpg
The time spent on the chart proved invaluable.  We were ready for the next step – making plans and writing topic sentences!

The time spent on the chart proved invaluable.  We were ready for the next step – making plans and writing topic sentences!

Concrete Poetry

Don’t you love spontaneous teachable moments?  As a class, we were sharing spring poems and had read Bobbi Katz’s poem “Spring Is.” http://blog.lrei.org/ls-poetry-archive/spring-is-bobbi-katz/  The physical layout of the version we read made the reader feel as if they were running in their sneakers down the stairs.  As we discussed how the words’ placement impacted the poem’s meaning, my students began to look for other examples of poems written in a shape. It was the perfect time to change the direction I had planned for the morning and introduce the concept of concrete poetry.

A concrete, or shape poem is one whose meaning is told through both the words and its graphic shape on the page.  To begin our exploration, I simply googled “image of concrete poems for children.”  As the class viewed these images, students quickly ascertained that in a concrete poem a poet conveys his message in two ways, both through the text and through the shape in which he puts the words on paper.  

I wanted students to think about a topic for their own poetry before I showed them more examples. Each child was asked to think of a noun about which they were interested and had a lot of background knowledge. After writing their item at the top of the page, they were given three minutes to list attributes and/or what you might do with this object.  Once the attributes were gathered, students were asked to put these words into phrases.  We quickly reviewed similes and metaphors and looked for ways to add figurative language to the brainstormed list.  For example:  “spinning bike wheels” turned into:

My bike wheels were spinning in circles like planets orbiting the sun.

Wanting the students’ content to be just as significant as their drawing, I gathered some books with concrete poetry examples.  The three we used for examples were Technically, It’s Not My Fault by Grandits, Meow Ruff by Sidman and Outside The Lines by Burg and Gibbon.  All three authors write their concrete poems in unique ways.  As we read the poems, students identified different ways the poems were put together.  Some poems were written in the interior of a shape while in other poems the words were written so the words outlined the shape.

We were ready to write.  Two important decisions had to be made. Using their completed phrases, students first chose the format for their poetry.  Like the poems we had studied, some chose to write in phrases, some students wrote following a rhyming pattern and others used complete sentences.  The second decision was what shape would best convey the message. 

As I met with students, I was amazed by their creativity.  The room was abuzz with excitement and engagement as students matched their poetic words to a shape. As a class, we had spent an amazing morning learning and creating together.

 

 

 

We love to talk writing!  Please contact us at

Darlene-and-terry@writenow-rightnow.com or visit our website –

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Let's Write A Story . . . Part 2

In our last blog post, we planned our narratives and discovered different ways to begin a narrative. http://www.writenow-rightnow.com/blog/2017/lets-write-a-story-part-one It was now time to write the introductions to our narratives.  Returning to the original plan about a bear, I decided we would first practice writing an introduction which focused on the setting.  The setting includes items we might see, hear and feel. 

 To begin, I asked students to close their eyes and imagine elements they would see, hear and feel in the forest.  Together we listed these words or phrases on the board.  Examples were:  tall trees, leaves blowing in the wind, blue sky, puffy clouds, birds singing, a trail through the woods, crunching leaves, etc. Using these words, we first wrote a setting introduction together.  The students were then asked to write a Setting Introduction independently.

The next day, we returned to our chart listing ways to begin a narrative. This time, we decided to try beginning our narrative using a Dialogue Introduction.  (This also proved to be the perfect time to teach quotation marks.)  To help students refrain from the “Hi,” said the girl.  “Hi,” said the friend dialogue trap, students went back to their novels to find examples of engaging conversations between characters.   The students and I wrote a dialogue introduction together and then they completed their own introduction independently. 

Students had now written two compelling introductions for their fictional narrative. They were asked to choose the one they felt was the most interesting and put a star next to it.  With the introduction complete, they were now ready to continue writing their narratives.  We had moved beyond a basic introduction and had practiced adding the details necessary to hook our reader from the beginning.

Taking the time to plan their narratives and then write a compelling introduction gave students the confidence they needed to begin their writing.  They understood how to add details and were confident in their abilities to write a story.

 

We would love to hear about your experiences with narratives!

Happy writing,

Darlene and Terry

 

Please visit our website at writenow-rightnow.com to read past blog posts and newsletters.  

 

 

 

Expanding Our Writing - Multiple Paragraph Essays

As I recently worked with a class of 5th graders, it was apparent they had mastered opinion paragraph writing.  Their topic sentences were solid, their big idea sentences clear and their detail sentences were examples of how a long and luxurious sentence should be written.  It was time to challenge these writers.

                In Social Studies we had been reviewing and mastering note-taking skills.  The learning objective for the next few days in writing would be to combine note-taking and opinion writing, two skills the students had already mastered.  The new skill we were adding would be taking our opinion writing to a multiple paragraph essay with the inclusion of an introductory and concluding paragraph.

                We began with a prompt.  The prompt was timely, as many of the students were planning their holiday vacations.    

You will read informational articles about three different National Parks / Monuments.   Think about the reasons that encourage people to choose a historical place to visit on vacation.  Read the information about each location.  Choose one site from the list and write an essay persuading someone to visit the site you chose.  Include three reasons people would choose to visit this historical site.

These 5th graders quickly realized that before choosing a location they must first gather information about that park.  To help narrow their search, I told them they must choose between Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Mesa Verde. These parks were chosen as they might not be as well-known to the students, forcing them to use their research skills, not simply background knowledge.

                Students were asked to research all three parks, looking for reasons people might choose to visit this area.  This led to a conversation with students about what things influenced people to choose a specific place.  For example, the entry fee might be $9.00 per person.  Taken alone, that is merely a fact. How might ticket cost become a reason people would choose a destination?

                Independently taking notes on each park was the first step.  Students were given a class period to randomly gather notes on each park – no organization was required at this point.  Students independently collected their research on notebook paper.  At the conclusion of this time period, everyone chose a location in which they were interested.  Using large chart paper, common groups gathered and compiled the information they had found.

                Referring back to the prompt, students reviewed their task. Each student must choose a park and then write a multi-paragraph essay, convincing the reader that their choice is best.  Taking their notes, students sorted their ideas into three Big Ideas and composed a plan.  They were ready to begin their writing!

                The concept of taking each Big Idea and its Supporting Details and turning it into a separate paragraph was easy for these writers.  However, the question soon arose, “What type of topic sentence do we use?”  This was the perfect segue into the need to stretch a topic sentence into a topic paragraph.

                When we began to master various topic sentences, we did not learn each type in a single day.  In the same way, we learned different ways to write a topic paragraph slowly. We began by practicing three different ways to introduce a topic paragraph.  The purpose of the initial sentence is to capture the readers’ attention.   Information about the topic would follow after this attention grabbing sentence.

After dividing a piece of paper into quadrants, we labeled three of the sections Question, Hyperbole, and Statistical Information.  These were the types of attention grabbing sentences we would use to introduce out topic paragraph.  Using one of the parks as a topic, we began with writing a hyperbole, or exaggerated sentence.  (This is definitely a student favorite!) 

Mesa Verde, the best park in the world, will lead you to an explosion of exhilaration.  It is a whole new world when it comes to thrill.  

Now that you have grabbed your reader’s attention, you must now inform them of the information to follow in your essay.  As you have already organized your ideas on a plan, this step is easy. Simply list the big ideas found on your plan in a sentence.

This National Park is best known for its pueblo homes, hiking trails and tours. 

Students repeated the process using both a question and statistical information as attention grabbers.  They now had three topic paragraphs from which to choose. 

Writing the body of the essay was a familiar task.  Through the use of extended details, each big idea on the plan became a separate paragraph.  The students quickly completed this portion of their writing and were soon ready to write a conclusion.

A concluding paragraph of a multiple paragraph essay also has additional requirements. We learned that a concluding paragraph must contain the following three sentences:

·         A concluding sentence, similar to a single paragraph

·         A reminder of the big ideas

·         A call to action

As a writer, however, you get to choose the order of these sentences.  We again folded a piece of paper to help us focus our practice.  The students practiced arranging these three sentences to conclude their writing until they found the most interesting order. 

The students were proud of their accomplishments and asked to publish their writing.  After revising and editing their drafts, the final essays were ready to be typed and published.  Their notes, plans, topic paragraphs and conclusions were filed in their writing binders to use as guides for the next essay they would write.  These 5th graders had spent multiple daysengaged in a topic.  Through writing an introductory and concluding paragraph, these writers had stretched their writing from a single paragraph to a multiple paragraph essay.

 

A Very Messy Thanksgiving – Improving Sentence Fluency

Since the beginning of the school year, we have been focusing on organizing and writing complete paragraphs.  Students can now organize a plan, write a variety of topic sentences, and compose a complete paragraph.  It is now time to make our writing better – we are going to revise!

For years, we told our students to “add more details” or “make your writing more interesting.”  Looking back, I’m sure they were all thinking, “It is already interesting.  I don’t know what she’s talking about.  I know – I’ll write my final copy in cursive.”  Adding details and variety to sentence structure takes deliberate instruction and practice.

In mid-November we began a writing engagement which links both sentence fluency and preparation for the holidays – “The Messy Thanksgiving Table.”  Imagining a Thanksgiving table which has been visited by some rather rambunctious guests, we wrote a basic sentence in the middle of our paper: 

The turkey sat on the plate.

Prior to writing, everyone sketched how they imagined the turkey looking on the plate. As a group, we added a phrase to the beginning of our sentence, along with inserting adjectives and a where to our sentence. 

Sitting on the silver platter, the leftover turkey is laying in a forgotten puddle of gravy.

After sharing our expanded sentences, we repeated the process with the sentence:

The mashed potatoes dripped.

It was soon transformed into:

Dripping down the side of the bowl like an avalanche, the mashed potatoes settled on the tablecloth and hardened into rocks.

 

 

The students were ready to take off on their own.  As they chose their Thanksgiving treats, we discussed different ways to vary the sentences.  Students considered when, where, and why as they revised their basic sentences describing the messy Thanksgiving table. 

In order to transform these descriptive sentences into a piece of writing, we needed both an introduction and conclusion.  As we discussed appropriate ways to begin and end this piece of writing, the students naturally realized that the sentences would flow into a compare and contrast piece of writing.  All they needed to do was write a description of the table prior to the meal, with their newly revised sentences describing how the table looked after dinner!  Excited about the writing, they eagerly went to work, brainstorming words which would be used to paint a picture of a dinner table waiting for Thanksgiving guests.  Some student samples:

 

Before the Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey was warm and the table was shinier than a knight in shining armor.  After dinner, the table looked completely different.  

 

Before the Thanksgiving meal, the silverware was shining and the tablecloth was clean.  The lights were shining like crystals on a sunny day and the food was in pretty bowls. 

 

Before Thanksgiving dinner begins, all the food is steaming, mouths are watering, the tablecloth had no stains, all the napkins were clean, the silverware was sparkling and everyone was dressed nicely.  Thanksgiving dinner was perfect, until dinner was over.

 

 

It was simple to add their stretched and revised sentences describing the Thanksgiving calamity to their introduction.  A simple conclusion completed the writing!

It took us hours to clean up the mess.  We are never inviting those people to dinner again!

As students shared their writing with peers, they were eager to repeat this process with another topic.  Their suggestions were to describe the aftermath of Christmas, a birthday party, a sleepover or the classroom on the first and last day of school. 

As we continue writing in class, whether it be in response to text, curricular areas, or prompts, we will reflect back on our Thanksgiving writing as an example of sentence fluency!  The activity had achieved my best hope for my writers – they were engaged writers who were successful in improving their sentence fluency.

 

Enthusiasm, Interest and Good Research

We spent Labor Day weekend camping right outside of Rocky Mountain National Park.  Wandering through a bookstore in town, I picked up a book written by Enos Mills, a famous naturalist, writer and the “Father of Rocky Mountain National Park.”  In his autobiography, he states that writing well requires three things: Enthusiasm, Interest and Good Research. 

While hiking, I pondered these three words and how they link to the classroom.  Words that were true for a naturalist 107 years ago are true for elementary students in 2016.

Enthusiasm! Quality writing will not occur unless we build enthusiasm in our students.  Humans are enthusiastic about tasks in which they feel successful. We have been working on writing Junior and Varsity Team Complete sentences the first two weeks of school.  As the students’ skills have grown, their enthusiasm has grown equally.  Given a safe place to practice, students enjoy sharing their writing with their classmates and pushing themselves to be better writers. 

Interest!  Let’s be honest.  As adults, we all have topics in which we have little interest.  As we begin the school year, it is essential that we capture our students’ interest from the beginning of the school year.  We are often asked why we begin the curriculum with Opinion Writing.  The answer is simple – students want to share their interests with their class.  As we start to learn the writing process, we begin with sharing our opinions on the best activities, places, pets, etc.  Students know what they want to write about and have knowledge about that topic. 

Good Research!  The first key to teaching good research is for the teacher to be enthusiastic about the topic and the students to have an interest in the topic. We have begun this year learning about the planets and constellations, a very interesting topic for 4th graders!  We began by taking very specific notes on each planet.  There was a buzz of conversation as students located fascinating facts about the planets.  Students were interested in the topic and our introduction to research was both interesting and easy to accomplish!  http://www.writenow-rightnow.com/samples/

These three words are now posted in front of my desk.  I hope to continually ask myself if this writing will generate enthusiasm, interest, and great research.

 

Revision and Editing

Any job worth doing – no matter how big or how small – is worth doing well if worth doing at all.

While growing up, this phrase was my dad’s standard response whenever we complained about any job we were required to complete.  As an adult, this mantra has proven to be both a blessing and a curse.  A blessing, for if you’re going to embark on a task, it is part of a strong character to do your best.  A curse when I just want something to be finished and decide that good enough is good enough.

This phrase haunted me this summer as my husband and I embarked on a remodeling project.  He was in charge of the “big stuff,” such as cutting tile, hanging doors, and installing cabinets.  The progress he made each day was evident.  His projects resulted in, “Look, there’s a kitchen sink where there used to be a hole, and that doorway now has a door where there used to be an empty space.” His progress was grand and noticeable. 

I however, was in charge of grout (check out our earlier blog!), caulk and paint.  These tasks require a large amount of “touch-up”, fixing drips, missed spots, and rough edges. My progress was slow and meticulous and often focused on mistakes I had made. Trying to be helpful, my husband often pointed out the errors that needed to be fixed.  Overwhelmed, I announced to anyone that would listen that I planned to yell at the next person who used the phrase “touching up” with me.

While scraping the front door paint for the 5th time, I reflected how this process mirrors revision and editing in writing.  Revision consists of the big, flashy changes.  Sentences are rearranged, verbs are improved and adjectives are added. People notice revisions and they often leave the reader with a sense of accomplishment.  There is a feeling of satisfaction in looking at before and after, and seeing the improvement that’s been made.

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Editing, however, is tedious and often completed when you feel like you are already finished.  Instead of making things better, editing often feels like we are fixing up mistakes we’ve made, a whole different perspective.  I am sure that many of my students could echo my feelings, “I’m going to yell at the next person who tells me to fix my writing.”

So, the question becomes how we can hold our students to a high editing standard without frustrating them? A few things come to mind . . .

1 – Take editing one step at a time. Students can focus on one editing area, whether it be capitalization or punctuation.  (writenow-rightnow.com)

2 – Teach students to use the resources they have around them to spell correctly.  How many words in your answer can you find in the question or the text if applicable?  We may not be able to spell the word from memory, but we can use the words around us to help us be better spellers!

3 – Create a safe place to edit.  No matter how lovingly, “You missed a spot” was uttered, at times it felt like criticism.  I’m sure my students feel the same way when they hear, “You forgot a capital letter.” Finding a time and place to have students correct editing errors is always a challenge.  I use a few minutes each morning to meet with students individually. 

4 – Prioritize corrections.  It is overwhelming when we are faced with a long list of “things to fix.”  How can I use my students’ individual needs to prioritize their editing tasks?

My touching up is complete, at least for now!  I must confess to a great feeling of accomplishment when I crossed the last goof off the list. While often frustrating, this experience has given me new insight into how my students might feel and react to directions. 

We’d love to hear from you.  What are some methods you’ve used to help your students both revise and edit their writing?

 

A Great Teacher . . .

Friday was the last day for our student teacher to be with our class.  It had been an eventful semester, with lots of learning and laughter.  As a good-bye gift for her, we decided to create a book as a memento.  Each page of the books was a student’s response to the prompt, “A great teacher . . .

We were curious to read their responses.  We had just completed three weeks of standardized testing, which included tests in math, English language arts, and social studies.  Would the students reflect no this experience in their writing?  Would their responses include: 

“A great teacher prepares me for standardized testing.” 

“A great teacher helps me find text evidence to support my answer.”

“A great teacher explains how to eliminate incorrect answers so I fill in the right bubble.”

“A great teacher teaches me how to explain my math thinking using pictures, numbers and words.”

We all know that every item on the above list is important for our students to know.  As teachers, we are fundamentally responsible for teaching our students concepts, ideas and standards. Teaching students to be able to comprehend what they read, clearly communicate their ideas in writing, and solve real-world math problems is essential.  However, is that what they will most remember as they decided what makes a teacher great?

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Their responses were enlightening.  Not a single child mentioned a specific academic area.  Rather, their responses were:

“A great teacher knows everyone’s name the first day of school.”

“A great teacher takes the time to explain things so that everyone understands.”

“A great teacher says good morning to every student.”

“A great teacher knows when you’re feeling sad.”

Like so much of my time in the classroom, we learned more from this activity than our students.  The end of the school year, and all of the assessments it brings, can often be discouraging for teachers.  We have all worked so hard – both teachers and students – and at times the tests may not indicate that hard work.  Reading students’ responses was a good reminder to me of what is important to the children with whom we spend our days.  Of course academics are important, and naturally we want our students to show growth.  However, creating this book was a reminder to us of what students find most important in a teacher. 

Happy Writing!

A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words

 

We have been busy in our classroom – both practicing our compare and contrast skills and learning Colorado history.  We were eager to combine these skills through the use of photographs.

To begin, I compiled two sets of pictures focused on transportation. The first set of pictures were taken in 1910 and the second set were pictures of 2010.  As we began to analyze the photos we made our first discovery, in order to discuss the transportation shown, we first needed to agree on the transportation’s names.  The room was abuzz with questions . . .

Is this a carriage or a buggy?  Is there a difference?”

“What could we name a trolley that’s pulled by a horse?”

“Would you want to ride in that?”


“Is there a difference between a tram and a monorail?”

My fourth graders were involved in language, discussing among themselves the very best label for each mode of transportation.  It was the best type of “just-in time learning”, as it was vocabulary acquisition with a purpose.

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It was time to focus on our task.  I presented them with the prompt . . .

Analyze the 2 groups of photos depicting modes of transportation taken a century apart.  Choose three different modes of transportation depicted in both photographs.  Write a paragraph comparing and contrasting these three modes of transportation from 1910 and 2010.

We easily located the format (paragraph), the topic (modes of transportation a century apart) and the big ideas (compare and contrast) in our prompt.  As a group, we began to determine the best way to attack this task. 

We decided upon a two-column chart, simply listing the modes of transportation found in the photograph groups.  After listing transportation found 100 years ago and today, we were able to identify similar transportation found in both these time period.  We circled the four that were found in both lists.  Now we needed to determine similarities and differences.

The students decided that a column chart was the most efficient way to compare and contrast these forms of transportations.  As we analyzed the pictures carefully, we determined the similarities and differences between the transportation modes.  Again the conversation was rich, as we discussed whether we could use our background knowledge linked to the pictures or rather we could only use what we could see in the pictures.

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Upon completing our observations, it was time to complete a plan.  We had two ways in which we could organize our plan – either with similarities and differences as our big ideas, or with each mode of transportation as our big ideas.  Although I left the choice up to the students, the majority felt they could best organize their ideas using the modes of transportation as big ideas.  As the prompt asked us to compare and contrast the 1920 and 2010 modes of transportation, our details became how each mode was similar to each other and how they were different.  By accessing all their previous thinking, students quickly and effortlessly created a writing plan.

For this lesson, I only required the students to complete their writing plan.  I had been more concerned about the process – how can we carefully and methodically analyze pictures to determine similarities and differences.  Best of all – my students loved this learning engagement. They had been detectives looking at pictures, made thoughtful observations, and discovered meaningful similarities and differences.  Together we had experienced digital literacy – and had a wonderful hour of dialogue and learning!

Tracking Fitness

A confession - I love fitness trackers!  As a cyclist, my onboard computer tracks a wide variety of data . .  . Speed, distance, cadence and temperature.  I recently received a Fitbit and use it to calculate both exercise and food goals.  I love seeing how far I've ridden or how many steps I took during the day. These devices don't cause a guilt reaction when a goal isn't reached (I was a little worried about that), but rather help me reflect on what I have accomplished! They never tell me what I haven't done, only what I've completed.  Most importantly, I only compare my progress with me - no one else's data is considered.

My love of fitness trackers raises a question for us as educators - how can we help our students track their own growth and progress as learners?  For many of us, spring brings a time of state standardized testing.  Both students and teachers are put in a situation where our learning is measured against everyone else's data and progress is measured in only one way.  The pressure to do well increases and becomes evident in classrooms everywhere.  How can we balance out the need for assessing student growth at school and nationwide, while helping students measure their own growth?

 

We consciously decided to help our students reflect on their own learning.  In our building, spring parent-teacher conferences are student led.  Wanting our 9 year olds to put some thought into their reflections, we had them fill out a reflection sheet for every subject area. The reflection sheets were open-ended, asking things such as "My greatest strength as a writer is ______" and "My greatest challenge in math is _______________."  I was so impressed with the students' responses.  After talking through the purposes and doing some all group brainstorming to get our thinking started, students were left to complete the reflection sheets independently.  We divided up the tasks over three days to prevent some burnout.  What thoughtful responses they wrote!

 

Students had their reflection sheets ready to present during their conference times.  Although I was present, this was a time for the students to shine.  It was so fulfilling to hear what they had to say.  Some sample comments were:  "My biggest challenge as a writer is to edit my writing.  I know it's important so that my reader understands what I am trying to communicate." "The steps in long division were confusing to me at first, but I am starting to understand it!"  "The book character who has meant the most to me was Kek from Home of the Brave.  I love how he never gave up in taking care of Gol." 

The students appreciated a time to think about their own learning and sharing it with their families.  It was a reminder to me of the importance of tracking personal progress - whether that progress be miles biked, steps taken, or skills mastered!  I'm committed to adding this reflection time more consistently in my classroom. While testing is a part of our modern classroom, student progress is so much more.  What a powerful force it is to recognize our own growth!

Second Graders Write About Dr. Seuss - Part Two!

In an earlier blog, I wrote how impressed I was with a group of 2nd graders and their ability to read a prompt.  I was looking forward to returning to their classroom to view their plans and read their completed paragraphs on Dr. Seuss.

In all grade levels, we stress the need for students to both create a writing plan and then to actually use that plan.  To help students understand the importance of using their plan, I tell them a story about my drive to a birthday party. First, I confess to them that I am horrible with directions.  Prior to leaving for any new destination, I print out mapquest directions – both the map and the step-by-step instructions.  One day I was late to a friend’s party and left my carefully thought out directions laying on the kitchen counter.  They were useless to me there!  Although I was late, I needed to return home, gather the directions and then drive (later than ever by now!) to the party.  Writing plans are similar to driving directions.  They are only helpful to us if we actually use them! Like my mapquest directions left on the counter, writing plans do no good crumpled in the back of a desk.  Not only are students required to create a plan – they must also use it.

The second graders were excited to share their completed plans.  They had carefully taken notes as they read the passage on Dr. Seuss, finding details for each of their big ideas!  Use of a plan made the note taking simple for these young students and they were proud of their accomplishments.

It was time to take the plan to writing.  A “Just Say It” topic sentence was used to begin the writing.  Students easily followed their plan, writing clear big idea sentences followed by the interesting facts and details they had learned.  Students made a check mark on their plan as they completed each step.  By checking off each paragraph component as it was written, these second graders kept their writing organized and easy to follow!  It was obvious they were confident in their writing skills.

Upon completing their paragraphs, students began to edit their written work.  To help students slow down and carefully edit, we ask students to use colored pencils. These 2nd grade editors first took a green colored pencil and traced every letter which needed to be capitalized.  We ask students to go over every letter which should be capitalized – whether or not they have already capitalized this letter.  Punctuation is next traced with a red colored pencil.  Again, all punctuation is traced in red, whether or not it is present in the original text.  To complete the editing process, students circle any misspelled words in blue.  To help students concentrate on each word, we have them start at the end of their writing piece and work backwards.  In this way, they concentrate on each individual word.

The second graders were proud to read and share their work with others!  They had read a prompt, created a plan, taken careful notes, written an organized paragraph, and edited their writing for errors!  Wow – what an impressive group of second graders.

 

Writing A Narrative's Introduction!

“Well begun is halfway done.”  My grandmother began many tasks with these words – from knitting a blanket to baking bread.  Last week I heard these words come from my mouth as my fourth graders and I began to write the introductions to our narratives.

A story’s introduction is essential, as this is what hooks the reader, making them want to read more.  There are five basic ways to begin a narrative. (Description of setting, description of character, problem, dialogue, and onomatopoeia)  Instead of merely telling my students the names and types of introductions, I wanted them to discover these types for themselves.  I decided to have them go on an “introduction search” and see if we could discover the five types together.

The directions were simple – find a fictional book and copy the first two or three lines from the book on a notecard.  They could use any book as long as it was a narrative.  Students eagerly jumped into the task, searching for their favorite book to use as their introduction sample.

Now it was time to share what they had written and determine if we could find any way to classify or group these introductions.  I was curious to learn if students’ samples included all five types of introductions. Students read their introductions one by one to the group.  After they read, we discussed what was happening in the author’s words.  Setting and dialogue were the first two we discovered.  As we continued, examples of characters, problems and onomatopoeia also emerged.  The student samples were taped on our introduction chart under the correct name.

The students were thrilled with their discoveries.  Their learning was so much more powerful as they had discovered the categories on their own!  It was now time to put what we had learned about introductions to use!

Previously, we had written a plan which focused on a family camping who come back to discover a bear was sitting between them and their tent.  Using the same problem, the students had brainstormed their own solutions to the problem.  We used this plan to write our individual introductions.

We began with Setting.  After reading the examples we had collected, students were able to independently write their own setting introductions.  We then moved on to dialogue and their favorite, onomatopoeia. The students were so excited to try out these new ways to introduce their narratives.  Along with writing wonderful introductions, the students were also practicing putting details in their writing – a positive side effect.


Let's Write A Story!

A confession – I used to dread teaching narratives.  Just the mention of the word brought visions of the dreaded “bed to bed” tales or narratives filled with “and then . . . and then . . . and then.”  Now, with a solid plan on how to support my students, I am as excited as they are when I say the words, “Hey, friends, it’s time to write a story!”

Prior to writing a narrative, I wanted to review the parts of a story. To accomplish this task, I used the classic book, The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry, and The Big Hungry Bear by Audrey and Don Woods.   This easy-to-read and yet incredibly engaging book, contains all the parts of a story.  The students could quickly identify the characters and setting.  Most importantly, this picture book was a natural way to introduce the most crucial part of any narrative plan – What is the problem the characters are attempting to solve?  As we worked at summarizing the story’s problem, we determined that a problem must always begin with the word “How.”  Until the Mouse wanted to hide the strawberry, the Bear and the strawberry were simply a part of the setting.  Now, both were critical parts of the problem. Students easily identified the problem the little Mouse was facing; How can Mouse hide his strawberry from the big hungry Bear?  

Now it was time to write our own plan.  To begin, I provided the students with the narrative’s characters (you and your family) and setting (camping in the woods, a bear by your tent.)  Immediately the students wanted the bear to be the problem.  This led into a discussion of whether a bear in the woods was a problem or merely a part of the setting.  One student suggested we put the bear between the story’s characters and their tent.  By moving the bear and having him block the tent’s entrance, he moved from being a part of the setting to becoming the story’s problem.  The problem was written – “How can we get the bear to leave our campsite?”

Focused on the problem, it was now time to write our story’s events.  In a narrative plan, we attempt to solve the problem three different ways.  The first two solutions do not work.  It is only upon reaching the third possible solution that the characters are successful.  Knowing that our first idea is not necessarily our best, students were given two minutes to think of possible ways to get the bear to leave.  Choosing the best three solutions, students place their final, successful solution in the third column of their plan.  They now needed to think of reasons that the first two solutions are not successful.  Each of these possible solutions and the reasons they were not successful were placed in the second and third column of our plan.

As students shared their responses, I was delighted with their creativity. Their excitement in writing a narrative was evident by the energy in the room. There were sighs of disappointment as we put our plans away until tomorrow. Everyone was eager to take the next step of our narrative – writing an attention-grabbing introduction!


Writing from a Different Point-of-View

During the past few weeks, our 2nd through 5th graders have been practicing dissecting challenging prompts. We recently gave 4th grade students the following PARCC released prompt:

 Today you read the story “Sally’s Rescue.” Imagine telling the story from a different point of view. How would the story change? Rewrite the story you read from the seal’s point of view.

We were concerned that our students may see the word “Rewrite” and just change the seal and Sally within the original story. In order to focus on the objective of the prompt, we decided to review the concept of point–of–view using a familiar text told from two points of view  – The Three Little Pigs.

We began by having the students create two blank narrative plans to complete with the necessary story components: character, setting, problem, attempts to solve the problem and finally the story ending. To help focus on point-of-view, I brought in a copy of The Three Little Pigs and we quickly added the details from the story to our plan. As students were familiar with the story, we quickly completed this initial task.  Everyone was able to correctly add all the story elements to the plan. As we focused on point-of-view, students easily identified the pigs as the ones who were telling the story and solving the problem.

We then read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf.  Students quickly realized that the setting and characters were the same in both books.  However, as the story was being told from Wolf’s point-of-view, he was now responsible for both the problem in the story and its resolution. Students added the details from this story to their 2nd narrative plan and came to the realization that Wolf didn’t solve his problem as he was never able to attain the sugar for his Granny. Altering the point-of-view from which the story was told impacted the story’s outcome.

Now it was time to transfer this new realization to our original text, “Sally’s Rescue.” Before we could rewrite “Sally’s Rescue” we needed to understand that Sally was the main character in the original story and Sally had the problem to be solved. When we now rewrite the story, the seal will be the main character and will have a problem that needs to be solved. The characters and the setting remain the same throughout the story.

It was amazingly easy for these 4th graders to understand point of view and how it changes the problem, the attempts, and the solution of a story. Tomorrow's lesson will focus on reading the text, creating a new plan from the seal’s point of view, and writing our story starter.