elmentary writing

“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.

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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.

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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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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.

 

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.

 

Finish the Story!

For the past three weeks we have been writing narratives in fourth grade.  We mastered plans, identified and created different introductions, and worked on writing dazzling conclusions. The students were becoming more and more detailed in their writings and we were thrilled with their progress.  Just as importantly, the students were loving writing and sharing their stories.

As teachers, we wanted to keep their love of narrative writing alive while we also prepared for our state testing.  A study of released items confirmed what we suspected – students would be asked to write a narrative in response to text they had read.  They might be asked to rewrite a story from another character’s point-of-view or finish a half-complete story. 

We had already worked on rewriting a narrative from a different point of view.  (See an earlier blog “Writing from a different point of view”)  It was now time to finish a story, but we needed a text to complete.

The answer came from a comprehension worksheet we found buried in an old stack of papers.  The story was about a parrot who finds himself stuck in a tree.  It was perfect!  We decided to combine both our previous point-of-view writing skills and the new skill of finishing a half-written narrative.

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We began with a prompt.  Locating the format and topic, students quickly set up their narrative plan. The two opening paragraphs were given to the students.  They were able to easily locate the character, setting and problem. 

Setting off on their own, students independently created two unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem and the final successful solution to the problem.  They were excited to imagine their own solutions and found ways to solve the problem I had never even considered!

Once their plans were finished, my fourth graders eagerly sat down to complete their narratives.  Although they had been given the character, setting and problem they felt they owned the story and were eager to complete it. 

The completed narratives were all I had hoped they would be.  Students practiced reading a prompt, planning a narrative, practicing for standardized testing, and sharpening their writing skills all through the use of one long-forgotten worksheet!