elementary writing progress

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?

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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

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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. 

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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!

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” E.L. Doctorow

For the first few weeks of school, we have been concentrating on the components of opinion paragraphs.  My students have learned to gather and categorize ideas, organize plans and write opinion paragraphs which included all the essential parts.  Now that students understood how to effectively write about their opinion, it was time to take the next step: writing opinion paragraphs in response to text.

I wanted the content to be accessible and engaging for all the students. To facilitate that goal, I decided to have students read about a topic which they would easily grasp – choosing a local attraction to take guests to visit.  We began with the following prompt:

Students highlighted the format, topic and big ideas in their prompt.

Students highlighted the format, topic and big ideas in their prompt.

You have friends travelling to Colorado Springs on vacation. You are responsible for choosing one place to take your friends to show them the sights. To help make your decision, you will choose and research an attraction in Colorado Springs to visit. After making your choice, write an opinion essay explaining the attraction you have chosen to visit. You must include three reasons why this attraction is the best location to take your friends.

The focus of this learning engagement was for students to write in response to text. With that in mind, I chose two websites for the students to use as research. The websites contained information about the local attractions using words and pictures. We discussed possible factors we might use when choosing a place to visit. Suggestions such as price, discounts, activities, food options, uniqueness to the area and being family friendly were all given.

Students were assigned the websites through their google classroom accounts. After previewing the possible choices, we selected five attractions to focus on as a class. Students then selected the attraction in which they were most interested and researched the appropriate site. Wanting the information to be accessible to all students regardless of reading ability, I wanted students to share the information they had learned. I provided students chart paper labeled with each attraction. As a group, students discussed and recorded the information they had found concerning each place to visit.

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On the following day, students were asked to create their individual writing plans. Reviewing the prompt, we remembered that our writing required three big ideas. Using the chart paper, students looked for similar ideas to classify together. As they had spent time gathering and discussing ideas, the planning came easily.

Plan (2).jpg

With completed plans in hand, the students eagerly began to write. Many chose to begin their paragraphs with an “Although” topic sentence, acknowledging that other activity choices would also be enjoyable. They easily incorporated information they had learned from the text, the goal of the lesson.

The students’ engagement with their writing made it an appropriate piece to take all the way through publishing. With green and red pencils in hand, students edited their work, tracing all punctuation in red and all capitals in green. They typed their finished product, adding an image of the attraction to provide the reader with additional information.

Rough Draft.jpg

The transition to opinion writing based on text had gone seamlessly as we had the needed writing skills in place from previous lessons. The students had been interested in the topic, engaged in the research, and excited to edit their work and share it with each other!  We had definitely been exploring and learning.

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Would You Do It Again?

We just returned from a “bucket list” trip to China!  Our days were packed with sight-seeing, people-watching and eating new foods.  As we returned home and began to share our stories, we were asked two questions:

“What was your favorite part of the trip?”

“Would you do it again?”

First, our favorite parts.  Many of our favorite moments were the planned experiences.  Walking a section of the Great Wall without any other tourists was a highlight.  Visiting the Terra Cotta warriors and considering the ego of a leader who had them built so people would remember him was overwhelming.  Looking at the shattered pieces and realizing the patience needed to recreate these statues was humbling!  These experiences had been planned far in advance and lived up to our expectations.  There were also some spontaneous favorite moments.  Meeting a young local girl in line at Shanghai Disney and trying to communicate about Elsa from Frozen was an unplanned delight. Getting lost on a rainy night in Shanghai while searching for the second tallest building in the world is another unplanned, and now favorite, memory.

 

Would we do it again?  While we will choose other places in the world to visit before returning to China, I would certainly encourage others to take the trip!  I would also have ideas on “must see and do” places and experiences for those thinking of visiting China.

As the new school year creeps closer, I find myself reflecting on these same questions as I look back on the past school year. Having been away from school for a month helps me put the past year in better perspective.  I’ve been making a list of “favorite learning engagements” from last year and answering the question: Would you do it again?

Here’s a portion of my “things to do again next year” list . . .

·       Implement Writer’s Notebooks – a definite do again!  These notebooks are an invaluable organizational tool for both my students and me.  This year I plan to add an Anchor Chart section, where students can keep individual anchor charts for easy access after we have completed them together.

·       Expand Student Vocabulary, with a tweak – We have been collecting new vocabulary words in our Writer’s Notebooks, but I’m not sure that system is working as well as I had hoped.  The students have simply written the words as they found them, resulting in a disorganized list. Next year we are going to organize the words by topic.  For example, all the movement words will be collected together. We are also going to study words by word origin or roots, looking for commonalities. 

·       Focus on Academic Vocabulary – Next year I will continue to embed more academic vocabulary into student directions and writing prompts. The goal is for students to become used to deciphering and understanding directions prior to beginning a task. For this to be effective, my students will require explicit vocabulary instruction.  A great resource for teaching academic vocabulary is Teaching Academic Vocabulary K – 8: Effective Practices Across the Curriculum, by Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle and Taff.    www.amazon.com/Teaching-Academic-Vocabulary-K-8-Curriculum/dp/1462510299

·       Read aloud every day – This is my favorite time of day with my students. In our high-tech days, it is so important to expose children to the joy of listening to an engaging book read aloud.

·       Look for areas to encourage student choice – Last year students loved choices, from where they sit to how they present their learning. Although I do not have the newest flexible seating furniture in my classrooms, I allow students the freedom to work in the area that is best for them. Instead of telling them that every assignment must be completed the same way, I’ve learned to present the students an expectation or rubric for an assignment and then allow them to choose the presentation method. The increased engagement and enthusiasm has been exciting to watch! Last year, a student asked if she could type her narrative into google slides, putting each portion of her story on a separate page. This idea spread throughout our classroom and greatly increased the students’ understanding of parts of a narrative.  Click on this link for past blogs on teaching narratives. writenow-rightnow.com/blog/2017/lets-write-a-story-part-one

·       Follow the spontaneous learning moments – Just like the spontaneous moments that happen when we travel, I look forward to those spontaneous learning moments in the classroom. We never know what comment or thought may turn into a learning moment. We all spend time creating lessons and are eager to share them with our students. It can be difficult to put those aside and spontaneously follow a student question or inquiry.  Yet, these unexpected paths can often become our favorite moment of the year! 

We would love to hear from you!  What items are on your list?  What was your favorite part of last year and what are you looking forward to doing again? What goals are you making right now to improve your learning environment? 

A Successful Mistake

Sometimes we all need a different perspective!  We had been working with kindergartners on writing a narrative.  The students had drawn pictures prior to writing, illustrating the setting and 2 events that took place in that setting.  They had written about their time in the library, an event on the playground, and a special time with their families.

We now wanted to expand their writing to include a problem that the characters needed to solve.  Along with a problem to solve, I wanted to provide students an opportunity to add details to their writing.  I brought in sheets of paper cut in 4” by 18” strips for them to draw pictures onto to help plan their writing.  I folded the strips into four rectangles and we were ready to start.  Purely be accident, I taped the paper to the board vertically beside a piece of chart paper. With the paper hung vertically instead of horizontally, the order of the pictures matched the writing we would be doing on the paper.  We decided to try a different perspective on writing.

To model the process, I began writing a story about buying some apples in the grocery story. Before writing the story, I told the students we would sketch out the essential events.  The first box was for my setting. I quickly sketched a picture of me standing in front of a display of red, juicy apples.  This was where my story would take place.

The next box was for the problem.  As a group, we discussed the importance of the problem.  Just putting the apples into a bag and putting the bag into my grocery cart did not make a very exciting story.  What problem could I encounter?  In the second box I drew a picture of me placing apples in a plastic bag.  Unfortunately, there was a hole in the bottom of the bag and the apples were dropping out all over the floor.

The third picture was where we would sketch the solution. The very kind grocery store worker had come and helped me gather up all the apples I had spilled. I drew a picture showing this solution. The final box was designated for the conclusion. The story could not just abruptly end, but needed to show how the character reacted to the events.  What happened at the end of the story? How was the character feeling at the end of the story? In the final box of my paper, I sketched a picture of me happily leaving the store with a bag of apples in my hands.

Now that the story was planned, it was time to write.  Leaving the picture strip taped next to the chart paper, we began to write.  How could we start our story?  What is happening in the first box? Together we wrote:

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch.

 

We folded the first square behind the second square, so our second picture was now on top.  Students could easily see what we were writing about next.

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor.

We repeated the process for the third picture, folding the first two pictures back. The third picture was now on top.

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor. I was about to cry. A kind man who worked at the store came and helped me collect all my apples.

We are ready to conclude our story. We want to let our readers know how the characters are feeling at the end of the story. 

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor. I was about to cry. A kind man who worked at the story came and helped me collect all my apples.  I paid for my apples and left the store feeling happy and ready for a snack.

The students were ready to write on their own, with some support.  To help guide their writing, we all chose the park for our original setting.  Students drew a picture of the park in the first box.  After brainstorming ideas, students drew a possible problem they might have in the park in the second box.  The third box was used for drawing the solution and the final box showed how the characters felts at the end of the story.

Although the students wrote independently, we followed the steps together. I was impressed how easily it was for them to fold the paper and write their story in order.  They were able to write a story with a setting, problem, solution and conclusion.  Accidentally hanging the paper incorrectly had been a successful mistake!

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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.  

 

 

 

Let's Write A Story . . . Part One!

Today we are going to begin to write a story!  Although many students love to write stories, showing off their creativity, it is a difficult genre for student to master.  All too often we are asked to read pages and pages of student writing that contains the phrase “and then . . . . and then . . .  and then . . . .”  As we began to author narratives, I wanted to provide students with a structure that would help them focus their ideas to show off their creativity!

We discussed that the interest in a story comes from the problem the character needs to solve.  The plot of a story consists of the character’s attempts to solve his/her problem.  It often takes multiple attempts before the character is successful! We began with an empty plan.  Laying a piece of paper horizontally, we divided the sheet into four columns. The first column was labeled Characters, Setting and Problem.  The second column was titled First Attempt, with the word but . . . .  in the center of the column.  The third column was titled Second Attempt, with the word but in the center, and the fourth column was divided into Solution and Story Ending. 

Choosing a favorite picture book, we set off to discover if this format was really evident in books we read.  The first book we read was The Little Mouse, The Red Ripe Strawberry and The Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Wood.  The book matched our story plan.  The students easily located the story elements within the text. We repeated the same process using the book Big Al by Andrew Clements.  (This time we listened to a video of the book read!)  Although Al had more than two attempts to solve his problem, the story again followed the same format. The students felt confident that this organization would help them become narrative writers.

 

After completing narrative plans for books that were already written, we moved to planning our own story.  I provided the students the characters (my family and me) and the setting (camping in the woods.)  As the characters returned to their tent from a hike, they discovered a bear sitting in front of their tent.  What is the problem in the story?

The students immediately stated the problem was the bear. At this point, however, the bear was a part of the setting.  What did we need to do to make the bear into the story’s problem?  What would we all want to do if we discovered a bear in front of our tent?  After some think time, the students realized the characters needed an action to form the problem.  The problem was written:  How can we get the bear to leave our tent?

It was time to think of ways the characters could attempt to get the bear to leave.  Working together, students brainstormed ideas and chose the attempts they found most compelling.  These attempts (and why they didn’t work) were added to their narrative plans. The most interesting solution was chosen for the story ending.

One of the most difficult paragraphs for students to write is the opening paragraph of a fictional narrative.  I wanted the students to discover ways that authors grab their readers’ attention at the beginning of a narrative.  To achieve this purpose, students were asked to read the opening two – three sentences of a fictional book they were reading.  I placed a chart labeled Dialogue, Setting, Character and Problem.  Students shared the opening sentences they had found and determined if the author was using dialogue, setting, character or setting to begin his/her novel.  Each narrative’s opening lines were placed in the correct column. We had identified common ways authors grabbed their readers’ attention.

 

 

The time we had spent on this activity paid off when students began to write their own narratives.  In a future blog, Let’s Write A Story . . . Part 2!, we will share what happened next!

 

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.

 

Step by Step, (or not giving in to “Get it done, Now!”)

Every class has its own personality.  This is both a joy and a challenge of teaching.  Organization and classroom management styles that work perfectly one year may prove ineffective the next year.  I have been reminded of this truth during the current school year.  To insure student engagement and success with this year’s students, I need to provide instruction which adds new skills in a heightened sequential manner.  Definite strategies are needed to help students deepen their critical thinking skills.

            For the past week, we have been studying the prehistoric people of Colorado.  My goal was for students to make the connection:  As prehistoric people moved from hunter/gatherers to farmers, they had time to build homes and improve their lives. I knew that this required higher level thinking skills and that students would need to follow specific steps in order to reach this understanding.

 

We began by setting up a chart where students could record their notes.  The chart was divided into Dates, Homes, Food, Hunting/Farming and Additional Facts.  As we studied each group of people, students completed the correct portion of the chart. 

The students had acquired knowledge about these groups of people, but I now wanted them to draw some conclusions from this history lesson.  What could we learn from these people outside of the facts of their existence?

 

Using chart paper, students drew pictures of the prehistoric people in chronological order.  They illustrated the homes, food sources, weapons and tools used by each group of people.  I was thrilled to watch students use ipads to discover ways to draw a kiva or an atlatl.  Every student was engaged in drawing their chart and putting forth their best effort.

Now it was time to do some critical thinking.  I introduced the phrase: “conclude or draw a conclusion,” which means to make a judgement based on evidence.  Students studied each column in their chart and drew a conclusion.  Student examples included: “Studying the prehistoric peoples’ homes, I can conclude that the people moved from living in caves and lean-tos, to building pueblos.  When they lived in caves they moved from place to place.  As they built homes, they stayed in one place.” 

We repeated the same process for food sources and weapons / tools.  Now it was time for the point of the lesson. What conclusion could students draw on how each aspect of these people’s lives impacted other areas?  I was thrilled as I listened to students draw this important connection!

As a culminating activity, students were able to share their learning using a photo and voice recording program.  (I gave my students a choice between Adobe Spark or Explain Everything.)  As they had already given their conclusions deep thought and had written their responses, this final step was seamless and enjoyable!

The point of this learning engagement was not only for students to learn about Colorado’s ancient people, but to also deepen their critical thinking skills. In addition to the content, the goal was for students to learn how to learn, to learn how to document their learning, and most importantly, how to draw a conclusion and share their thinking with others.  Slowing down and going step by step had worked well for all of us.

 

 

    

 

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.

 

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!