writing curriculum

Opinion Writing - More than just "Favorites"

“You have been given the opportunity to choose two after-school activities per week.  Think about what you would enjoy doing during this time. Write an essay explaining what two activities you would choose.  Include reasons which support your choices.”

We begin to teach students the writing process through the genre of opinion writing, using prompts such as the one above. Through the use of opinion writing, students learn the writing process – gathering ideas, planning, and writing a rough draft.  Prompts which focus on opinion writing provide students the advantage of knowing the topic. They do not need to gather information about the content of their writing, as opinion writing can focus on personal preferences or favorites. 

However, we do not want to stay with these limited topics.  Opinion writing is so much more than simply writing about a favorite restaurant or TV show.  How can we expand this writing genre to include both curricular areas and responding to texts?

One suggestion is to consider curricular areas. What is happening in the classroom that can be expanded to writing?  Here are some examples:

After a unit on Space:

You have been invited to participate in a two-year space mission. During that time, you will travel throughout space without returning to earth.  Write an essay explaining whether or not you would choose to take part in the mission.  Include three reasons why you would accept the position or three reasons why you would decline the invitation.

Or. . .

After completing our unit on space, think about what you have learned about each planet. Choose the planet you find most interesting and write a letter to a friend describing what they would see if they were to visit this planet. Make sure you use evidence from the texts to support your response.

After a field trip:

The Third Grade just completed our first field trip to the City Council as part of our unit on local government. Would you recommend that next year’s teachers take their students on the same field trip?  Write an essay which explains your thoughts on the field trip. Include two reasons why you think the trip is valuable or two reasons why you would not recommend repeating the trip.

After a read-aloud:

Our first read-aloud this year was because of mr. terupt.  I am deciding whether or not to begin next year reading the same novel aloud.  Do you think this is a good choice to begin the year?  Write an essay explaining whether or not you believe this is a good selection for next year.  Include two reasons to support your opinion.

As a classroom community:

As 6th graders, the freedoms and choices you have at school are increasing.  Write an essay explaining to your teacher two choices you would like to be able to make in your classroom.  Be sure to give reasons to support your choices.

Primary Classrooms

Although many primary students are not yet planning, teachers can still introduce the concept of prompts and planning to young students.  As you experience concepts with students, be thinking of ways to introduce students to planning. Create a chart with students, listing the topic and big ideas on the left side. Fill the t-chart in together, adding details to the right side of the chart.

Student Community

We have been working and learning all semester.  We will celebrate our accomplishments with a party.  Think about activities you enjoy participating in at a party.  What three activities do you believe we should definitely include at our celebration?

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Social Studies

We have been learning about people who help our community.  We can invite one community helper to visit our classroom.  Using the information we have learned, think about whether you would like to learn more about firefighters or police officers.  Together, we will make two t-charts.  The first chart will list three reasons you would like to invite a firefighter to visit our classroom and the second chart will list three reasons you would like to invite a police officer.

Science

 We have been learning about three different habitats: the ocean, the jungle, and the desert.  As a table group, choose one habitat you would like to visit.  Using what you have learned, think of reasons why this habitat is unique and interesting. Together we will make a chart organizing reasons why people might travel to each habitat.

Or . . .

We have been learning about habitats.  We have just completed a book on jaguars.  Using what you have learned, which habitat do you believe would be the best place for a jaguar to live?  Give reasons to support your answer.

Applying Opinion Writing To Responding to Text

Students are now ready to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  The skills needed to write the paragraph are the same, but students will need instruction on using those skills in forming an opinion in response to text.

1.)     Choose a topic which relates to either content area curriculum or a shared classroom experience. Write a prompt which clearly addresses the topic and format you want students to use.

A class of third graders was ready to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  They had been studying local government in Social Studies and taking care of the earth in Science. The teacher combined these two curricular areas with the following prompt:

Read the article on recycling. Write an opinion paragraph stating whether or not you think recycling should be mandatory in our city.  Be sure to include three reasons that support your opinion using information from the text.

2.)    Choose a text which is easily accessible to the majority of your class.

Provide students with text which is easy to comprehend. The focus for this lesson should be learning how to respond to text, not how to read a difficult text.

3.)     Teach note-taking skills 

Instruct students in specific note-taking skills. If students are being asked to respond to a text, they need strategies for locating the required information. 

4.)     Model planning with students

Students need to know that the skills they learned and used for writing an opinion paragraph are the same skills they use to write an opinion paragraph in response to text.  Their opinion will be based on the information they have read in the text.  The teacher will model taking the information found in the text and placing it in a t-chart plan. 


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5.)    Go slow to go fast

As you write the first paragraph together as a class, encourage students to share their writing as they complete each step of the writing process. This helps ensure the students are on the correct path.


Opinion writing can be so much more than writing about “favorites.”  Continually look for opportunities to encourage students to express their opinions in writing.

We love to talk writing with teachers.  Please let us know if we can be of service to you in any way.

 

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

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.  

 

 

 

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.

 

“It always seems impossible until it is done.” Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”  Nelson Mandela

 

Don’t you love finishing a project?  There is great satisfaction in the words, “We are done!”  We all have the experience of a project we have put off for a variety of reasons.  It’s often lack of time, concern about how to organize the task, or an insecurity in how we are going to accomplish the task that may keep us from even getting started. What a wonderful feeling when the task is completed and we get to say, “This is finished.  Hooray!”

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 Yesterday at Write Now – Right Now, we had the opportunity to say those delightful words.  When Write Now – Right Now was first created, our goal was to provide a teacher-friendly, student engaging program for grades K – 5.  As we met with teachers, we were continually asked if we had a program for 6th graders.  Many elementary schools contain 6th grade and writing instruction is an integral part of their curriculum. For over a year, we have been telling each other it was time to write a curriculum for this critical age.  We had found a variety of reasons (excuses) for not completing this task.  Finally, last winter, we decided it was time.  After studying standards, talking with teachers, writing, revising, rewriting and finally publishing – 6th grade is here! 

The experience has been a great reminder of how our own students approach a difficult task.  What are some of their reasons for not beginning the task?  How can we help them get past their insecurities and feelings of being overwhelmed?  Just as importantly, how can we find ways to celebrate with them when they say “Hey, I finished this!”

We would love to know what you think.   Visit our website to view samples of all grade levels and let us know what you think.  http://writenow-rightnow.com

Happy Writing!

Darlene and Terry

 

Three Things About Me

While sorting books and paper at the end of the school year, I overheard one of my 4th grade boys mutter under his breath, “I hate the last day of school.  On the last day of school, we all know each other.  On the first day of school, we just have to start all over, getting to know the teacher and each other.”

The last days of school are bittersweet for teachers and students alike.  The prospect of a change in schedule and extra time to just breathe is alluring to young and old alike.  However, in the midst of all the anticipation, this student’s comment caught me off guard.  We had spent the last few weeks involved in end-of-year testing.  The students first took PAARC and the standardized Colorado 4th Grade Social Studies Test. A week later students demonstrated their progress on STAR – another standardized reading and math test.  Finally we measured students’ reading and math fluency using another standardized measurement.  I was passing along reams of academic data to the next year’s teacher.  Yet these numbers, while important, did not tell the full story of the individual they represented. 

After gathering the class together, we sat on the floor and talked about ways we had learned about each other this year.  Morning Meeting had been an integral part of our day.  https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/product/morning-meeting-book/  Each morning we gathered together and took turns sharing significant events in our lives.  As a class we celebrated the arrival of new siblings, the adoption of a puppy and soccer games won or lost.  This time together was one way we learned more about each other. 

Since we couldn’t share all we learned about one another with a new teacher, I posed the question, “What do you want next year’s teacher to know about you?  How can we share that information with them?”  The students quickly responded, “Let’s write our fifth grade teacher a letter!”  One student grinned and said to me, “The topic is all about me and the format is a letter.”  I have to admit, I was proud!  Grabbing paper and pencil, the students went to work.

Reading their letters, I was so impressed with the students’ sincerity. They wanted their teacher to know about their strengths and dreams – not how many words they read per minute.  Some student samples: 

“I need my space organized.  I get distracted by clutter.”

“I hate to read!  I’ll do it when you ask me to, but I’d rather draw.”

“I’m very emotional.  When I’m happy, I’m really happy.  But when I’m angry I need calming down.”

“Moving is important to me.  I can’t pay attention if I have to sit too long.”

As I read their letters, I was impressed by how well these 9 and 10 year olds expressed their feelings.  I’m reflecting on how to better get to know my students from day one next year.  We’d love to hear from you.  How do you build your classroom community? 

If I Were In Charge Of The World . . . .

During the past few weeks, we have been studying different forms of government.   Our novel studies included the books Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin and The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.  Both books are focused on a child’s experience living under specific forms of government.  In addition, we researched and studied the United States government, both on the national and state level. 

As a writing engagement, we read Judith Viorst’s classic poem, If I Were in Charge of the World. After reading the poem, students were given the prompt“Your task is to write an informative, multi-paragraph essay about three changes you would make if you were suddenly in charge of the world.  Include reasons why this change would be positive and impactful to others.

The students were off!  The room became a buzz of conversation as students bounced their ideas off one another.  Their responses ranged from global and serious to fanciful.  To help focus the students’ thinking, we posted the following questions to consider.

  • How would the change benefit others?

  • Who might care about this change?

  • How would this change impact others?

With these questions in mind, students were able to better sort their ideas and decide on three changes they would make.  Their best thinking was then put in an informative writing plan.

It was time to review the prompt.  Students quickly identified the format required – a multi-paragraph essay.  The students realized that their big ideas could each be stretched into individual paragraphs, but we would still need both an introduction and a conclusion. 

Students now had a real reason to learn how to write introductory paragraphs.  As this was our first experience writing introductory paragraphs, we were going to write two sentences.  We began with writing an “Although” topic sentence we would use for any informative paragraph – Although there are many changes the world needs, I would make these three if I were in charge of the world.  In our second sentence, we were going to inform our readers what we would be writing in our paragraphs.  Looking at our plan, we merely needed to list the three big ideas we would be addressing – I would allow children to vote, place pets in elementary schools and discover an inexpensive way to desalinate water.  Putting the two sentences together, we had an introductory paragraph.  In order to practice the skill and have a second paragraph from which to choose, we wrote a second introductory paragraph, this time starting with an If, Then topic sentence. If I were given the opportunity to be in charge of the world, then I would make a few very important changes to better the lives of others. Then we can add our second sentence with the big ideas listed in a sentence.

Writing the big idea paragraphs was a simple task for our fourth grade writers.  It was easy for them to understand that each paragraph needed to start with a transition word and did not require a separate topic sentence.  Students added the necessary details, referring back to the questions posed earlier.

Only one thing was left to do.  Our essays needed a conclusion.  Luckily, we had written two introductory paragraphs.  Often, if we write two introductory paragraphs we can use one as our concluding paragraph!  Students were able to complete their essays using the second topic sentence they had written!  Our first experience writing a multi-paragraph essay had been a success!

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!

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. 


Teaching 2nd Graders to Read a Prompt!

I spent this afternoon in a 2nd grade classroom and was overjoyed to watch what those students can do!  I had been working on reading and dissecting challenging prompts with the older students and I was curious to learn what the younger "little people" might do with the same task. 

We gave each student the following prompt:  Today you will be reading an article titled "All About Seuss."  In the article you will learn many things about Dr. Seuss.  Write an essay that explains how he got his name, one of the books he wrote, and how we honor him.  Remember to use evidence from the text to support your writing.

Students were asked to read the prompt and locate the format that was required.  They quickly understood that format was how we present our information and circled the words "write an essay" in the prompt.  Next, we asked the 2nd graders to locate the topic of the prompt.  They are well aware that the topic is what their writing will be about.  A square was placed around the words "learn many things about Dr. Seuss."  Now it was time to find the big ideas.  There are three!  Students underlined the following three phrases - how he got his name, one of the books he wrote, and how we honor him.  Wow!  We were ready to create a plan!

It was amazingly easy for these young students to transfer the important information from the prompt to a plan.  The practice they have been provided in making plans was very evident.  They are now ready to read the article with a clear purpose in mind.  Tomorrow's lesson will focus on reading the text and finding details to complete the plan.  I can't wait to see what they'll accomplish!