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.

 

What's Your Character?

We are beginning a unit that focuses on biographies and I wanted my students to concentrate on the subject of character traits.  As we were reading our current read aloud, Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. https://www.amazon.com/Fish-Tree-Lynda-Mullaly-Hunt we were continually discussing the traits displayed by the characters.  Words like funny, nice, kind, mean, and sad were being put forward by the 4th graders.  It was apparent that we needed to expand our understanding of character traits. My homework for the night was to look for resources that would help enhance my students’ understanding of character traits.  What a treat to find the following blog on Scholastic by Genia Connell.  http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/top-teaching/2012/11/teaching-character-traits-readers-workshop

                Following Ms. Connell’s lead, we first had a discussion around the difference between an emotion and a character trait.  Together we decided that an emotion is fleeting, while a trait is something inside you that you continually exhibit.  Using this definition, we brainstormed a list of character traits, discussing whether each word offered was an emotion or a trait.  Students added to the list as they independently read their own free choice books. 

It was time to practice what we were learning.  In small groups, we read the simple picture book, A Whistle for Willie by Ezra Keatshttps://www.amazon.com/Whistle-Willie-Ezra-Jack-Keats/dp/0670880469/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1476848367&sr=8-1&keywords=whistle+for+willielink  After reading the book again together, I asked the students what traits Peter exhibited in the book, reminding them their choice must be supported using evidence from the text.  We gathered together to discuss our thinking about Peter. Students explained that Peter was imaginative because he dressed up and pretended to be his father and Peter was perseverant as he kept trying to learn new ways to whistle when he failed the first time.  While responding to this discussion, a student commented that some traits are thought of as more positive while others have a negative connotation.  We went back to our chart and highlighted positive traits in pink and more negative traits in yellow.  This led to an interesting conversation on whether a trait might be both positive and negative depending on how it was used. 

Following Genia Conell’s suggestion, we focused the concept of traits on ourselves.  Students created silhouettes of themselves and chose 4-6 character traits which they felt best reflected their own character.  

 

Our reading genre over the next few weeks is biographies.  To begin the unit, we are reading the biography of Mala Yousafzai titled Who is Mala Yousafzai  by Dinah BrownWe will be looking at the character traits she possesses which motivate her in her quest for education for all.  To begin the study, we read out loud the powerful picture book Malala, A Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, A Brave Boy from Pakistan:  Two Stories of Bravery by Jeanette Winter. https://www.amazon.com/Malala-Brave-Girl-Pakistan-Iqbal/dp/1481422944/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1476848770&sr=1-1&keywords=iqbal+a+brave+boy+from+pakistan  

After reading the story of Iqbal, a boy forced into servitude in a carpet factory, I asked the students what character traits he displayed.  Pencils quickly went to paper as they described both the traits they found in him and the evidence they used from the text. 

Iqbal was rebellious, as he secretly wove kites into his tapestry.

Iqbal was courageous when he returned to the factory to inform others they were no longer slaves.

Iqbal was faithful, as he continued to work at the factory to support his family.

Gone were the responses students had given prior to these lessons.  The words sad and unhappy were no longer to be found.   

I’m anxious to watch my students transfer their new understanding of character traits to both their reading and their writing.  This will be the perfect time to begin lessons on showing, not telling, in writing.  Given a simple sentence, The boy is joyful, students will be asked to write what the boy was doing that helped the reader know he was joyful.  How does the boy in the sentence display that trait?  I’m sure that all the time we have spent practicing showing different traits will show in their writing.

For other writing ideas and to read past blogs,  visit writenow-rightnow.com

 

 

Community Helpers and Apples – Planning with Primary

This week I was privileged to spend time in first grade and kindergarten classes.  The enthusiasm and eagerness to learn displayed by these young students was a treat!

First grade was embarking on their unit on communities, beginning with community helpers.  They asked if I could co-teach a lesson introducing these community members which included a writing piece. Whenever someone mentions people who work in a community, the Sesame Street song “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” immediately begins to play in my head.  Is it possible today’s students would be as enraptured by these singing Muppets as my children had been years ago?

We began by labeling a two-column chart Community Helpers and What They Do.  We then played the first video clip of the Muppets singing about the Fireman and the Postman. (See chart below.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5cRukvx850

The characters had the same appeal to present day primary students! 

After the video, we looked at our chart.  What community helper was mentioned in the video?  What did we learn that he or she did as a job?  What else do we know about this community helper?  (We were careful to mention that these occupations can be done by both men and women!)  Together, we filled out our chart.  

It was now time to write!  Our notes were that – notes.  We discussed what we needed to add to our notes to make a complete sentence. The students eagerly chose a community helper and a job they performed.  The room was abuzz as students wrote their sentences and then shared them with both adults and other students. 

We repeated the process with another “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” video. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2bbnlZwlGQ

Students were able to glean the information from the video, complete the chart and set off on their writing.  Before we ended the lesson, we gathered to discuss what we had accomplished in our time together. We had asked a question, looked for the answer, taken notes on what we had learned and transferred the notes to writing!  Wow!

The same process - ask a question, look for the answer, take notes on what we learned and transfer the notes to writing – happened in kindergarten.  The five year olds had been observing apples and had created a map together on the attributes of an apple.  Their teacher and I wanted them to write about their findings in an organized manner.  As their science unit was on senses, we chose to blend the two. 

Looking at their attribute map, we posed the question, “How does an apple taste?”  Students discussed the words written on their map and chose the words they felt best described how an apple tastes.  As they chose words, we circled the words in pink and wrote them on the bottom of our chart.  After we finished choosing the taste words, students set off to write.  A sentence starter “An apple tastes ..” was provided for students who needed that structure.  The kindergarteners were happy to share their sentences with us.  We repeated the process asking the question “How does an apple look?”  Students debated if a word could belong to more than one category and if they could add words to their attribute map.  As they began to write a second time, many began to combine more than one attribute in a sentence – “An apple is red and shiny.”  Using a page for each sense, students were writing books on their own, which they could now read and share with one another.

As I left school on Friday, I noticed a stack of red construction paper books in my box.  The kindergarteners had completed their apple books and wanted me to read them.  They had an audience for their writing and were eager to share their knowledge!  What more could we ask of our young writers?

 

 

 

Enthusiasm, Interest and Good Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Revision and Editing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“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

 

A Growth Mindset

We have been working on a remodeling project this summer on a house for our son.  With great anticipation, I trekked to Home Depot to purchase tile in order to redo the bathroom.  The project started out well, as laying out tile is just like making a quilt.  You design a pattern, cut the pieces, and line up the edges.  Feeling confident in my abilities, I moved on to grout.  Oh my goodness, I really dislike everything to do with grout!

The process seems easy enough.  Using a tool called a “float,” you simply smoosh the grout into the spaces left between the tiles, let it dry for a few minutes, then wipe the remains off the tile surface.  No problem!  Yet, at one point, with tears streaming down my face I announced, “I hate this.  I can’t do it .  Someone else has to finish this project.”

There was no one else to do it but me.  After wiping away the frustration, I started again.  Carefully I reviewed the steps, smoothed out the previous grout with a new layer, and finished the project.  It’s not perfect, but it is complete and I did improve.

As I reflected on this experience, I couldn’t help but remember the Growth Mindset attitudes we had focused on at school last year.  Our classroom’s favorite was “I can do things, even if they are hard.”  How often had I reminded students of this phrase when they were near tears when stuck on a long division problem or could not think of a better word when they were writing?  As I looked back on my adventure with tile, what type of assistance did I need to help me do hard things?

1)       I needed someone to acknowledge that grouting actually was hard!  I felt like everyone on the you-tube videos could do this, so what was the matter with me?  It is necessary to let our students know that learning is hard – and that different topics are hard for each of us.

2)      I needed someone to break the process down step by step.  Just telling me to grout the tiles wasn’t enough, but I needed to know how to accomplish this task step by step.  As a teacher, how can I break down difficult tasks into manageable steps?

3)      I didn’t want someone to tell me my grout job was perfect – I knew better than that!  What I did need was someone to tell me that not being perfect was okay and that I was improving.  When we hold ourselves up to perfection as a standard, we can’t help but fall short.   How can I help my students know that hard is fine and we are all learning together?

This was a hard lesson for me to learn.  As educators, we believe that every teacher should occasionally try something new and frustrating to learn.  The empathy we gain for our students is irreplaceable. As writing coaches, the grouting experience also reminded us to help teachers step-by-step, and to continually remind them that perfection is not the goal.  We all just need to help one another be the best we can be.

Happy Writing,

Darlene and Terry

https://www.pinterest.com/writenow2014/

Check out our pinterest board for other ideas on working with students to attain a growth mindset.

 

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!

A Great Teacher . . .

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

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

“A great teacher prepares me for standardized testing.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Writing!

A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words

 

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

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

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

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

“Would you want to ride in that?”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Fitness

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Second Graders Write About Dr. Seuss - Part Two!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 A Narrative's Introduction!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let's Write A Story!

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

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

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

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

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


Writing from a Different Point-of-View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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! 

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend. - Theophrastus

As elementary educators, we need each other. Although we go to PLC's, collaborate with teammates, and chat at lunch, the majority of our time is spent in our classrooms with just our students.  Time for reflection and exploring ways to improve our practice is often swallowed up by the urgent day-to-day running of our classroom - how to rearrange the "chatty" table, where to keep the upcoming field trip permission slips, and when to run off that math assessment.  When do we get time to really talk with one another?

Last week we were honored to attend the CCIRA Conference in Denver (Colorado Council International Reading Association). It was a delightful two days spent with colleagues from across the continent.  In addition to attending the conference, we felt very privileged to present a primary and intermediate writing in-service. 

Now, presenting writing lessons to children is our strength.  I am completely comfortable in presenting new ideas to 30 wiggly kindergarteners.  Presenting ideas to 30 well-behaved colleagues is a totally different experience.  As we planned our presentations, we began with the same questions we pose to our students prior to their writing - What do you want your listener / reader to know?  How are you going to present your information?  It was a valuable learning experience for us both. After hours of thinking, writing, revising, rethinking, and re-revising, we were ready.  The audiences were extremely responsive and appreciative.  It was wonderful! Thank-you to all who attended.

Another exciting portion of the conference for us was the time we spent talking with other teachers.  No matter the grade level or the school location, we are all faced with the same challenges.  How do I squeeze all these standards into our learning day?  What are the essential lessons or concepts I want my students to grasp?  How do I engage the apathetic student while challenging the child who already knows the content?  What can I add to my teaching that will help my students improve as writers?

We encourage all of us to occasionally take a break from our routine and attend a reputable conference.  The time with friends and colleagues and the learning that takes place are essential for our professional and emotional growth as teachers.