Tuesday, September 29, 2015

An Inquiry Lesson About Increasing Expectations in Narrative Writing

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

If you don't already use the Teacher's College Writing Checklists with pictures that can be found in the most recent version of Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins, I highly recommend them.

These checklists break the skills and expectations of the Common Core into discrete skills across all three genres of writing. The checklists use student-friendly language and pictures that make the expectations clear and attainable to students. 

I have used these checklists in many different ways in my work with teachers and with students. I have made them into checklists, I have seen teachers enlarge them into anchor charts, I have given them to students as tools for independence and repertoire, I have used them to differentiate the curriculum for students who struggle, as well as for students who exceed expectations... Yesterday, I used them in a fourth-grade classroom for an inquiry lesson. Except for two students who are new to the district, all of the students in the classroom were familiar with the checklists from using them in third grade--how great is that?!?! So, I handed out the fourth grade checklists for narrative writing, put the third-grade checklists on the overhead projector, and challenged the students to work in groups to figure out the different expectations we'd have of their writing and the different goals they should set. The students used highlighters and sticky notes.

Then, together we created a chart of the increasing expectations.

I was sure to write down the contributing groups on the chart. That way students have more ownership of the informations that's on the chart. Also, (and they may not realize it yet) they have more accountability for what's on that paper!

All in all, the students did a fantastic job in about twelve minutes of recognizing that in fourth grade, a lot more is expected of them in terms of development and elaboration when it comes to narrative writing. They are excited to try out some drafts, incorporating the higher expectations of fourth grade. This is an activity that would work with any grade and any genre, as long as you have similar checklists and a continuum of writing skills.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Slice of Life: How Many Pieces?

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

One of the most predictable and toughest questions teachers ask me when we work together unpacking units is:

"How many pieces should they write 

during the unit?"

I am fascinated to hear how others in this community respond to this question, because for me, the answer varies. Especially as students progress through the grades and are able to write more and more sophisticated pieces, they may only produce two or three completed pieces within the unit. Some students may take teaching points seriously, searching for ways to add details that truly strengthen the story, deepen the experience for the reader, add tension to the plot. When they hear about an emotional arc, they may buckle down and study mentor texts and craft moves to improve their emotional arc. In other genres, they might try out different text features or craft moves that relay information. 

But, I see a lot of students look through their writing, add one detail to their draft that has something to do with the teaching point, set their pencil down, and cash out for the rest of workshop. 

Maybe those students would benefit more from working through more pieces. If they are not ready to dig into their work with serious revision, they are much more likely to try out previously taught skills or today's teaching point in a new draft.

Today, when a group of teachers asked me that question, we worked through an answer that surprised them. There isn't a clear cut answer. Some of the students will learn a LOT with a couple of pieces, while others will benefit more by writing several pieces. My strong belief is that the most important thing that happens in writing workshop is writing. 

Happy slicing,

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Slice of Life-Taking My Own Advice

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

With the encouragement of my writing group and my family, I paid for a professional critique on the middle grade manuscript I have been working on over the last year. The expertise and critique exceeded my expectations,--if anyone is looking to pay for editorial services, I have an amazing recommendation to give--but it left me with a LOT of rethinking and reworking and rewriting. 

Over the last few weeks, I have been working with students as they have been generating, planning, and writing narrative pieces. One of the strategies I have taught several students involves using sticky notes to plan. This morning I decided to take my own advice and I began to plot out the chapters with purple sticky notes. 

 As I got going, I had to go find some different colors because I wanted to capture what I was figuring out about each main character. The yellow sticky notes are my realizations about my characters. I have to be honest--a couple realizations surprised me, and they will definitely help to create tension in the story.

I think my favorite set of sticky notes are the green ones, and they are my "somebody wanted but so" notes. One of the comments from the editor was that I needed to be very clear in my own head about the main plot and the sub-plots. Therefore, I wrote out each of the secondary plots on a note.

Have I mentioned in this post how much I depend on sticky notes? Maybe my take-away from this process should be starting with a board full of different colored notes before heading to the keyboard!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Introducing Young Students to iPads

Over the last couple of years of working as our district's Writing Coordinator and instructional coach, I have admired the work of our kindergarten teachers; I have come to believe that no one works harder than kindergarten teachers in the first few weeks of the year. Their job reminds me of herding cats. While I could find instructional practices to share in any of the classrooms, two of the teachers have done an especially amazing job of integrating technology into their teaching. We are fortunate in that each kindergarten classroom has five iPads, but we are also fortunate to have teachers who have invested so much energy into using them purposely.

Last year, by the time I visited Katie Bristol's kindergarten class, iPads were already a seamless part of writing workshop. This year, at a workshop I presented for several of our primary teachers, we were all interested to hear how Katie lays the groundwork for the rest of the year's use of iPads. She has invited me into her classroom every day this week, she has provided me with her lesson plan, and she has been eager to share the introductory work with all who are interested. So, here is a peek into Katie's introduction of iPads to her kindergarten class.

Each session began with a whole group lesson. On Day 1, the whole group lesson was described as such:

Followed by small group work and individualized practice opportunities:

Small Group Work:

  • With each small group, remind the students first of how to properly handle the iPad by using 2 hands and keeping it on their laps or on a table.
  • Next have the students sequence the pictures to show how to wake the iPad up.
  • Once students have completed the picture sequence correctly, distribute the iPads.  Go through the procedure of waking the iPad up, one step at a time while the students follow along.
  • If the students complete the guided practice successfully, put the iPads to sleep and have them try once more on their own.
  • Repeat the process above (sequencing pictures, guided practice, independent practice) using the procedure of putting the iPad to sleep.
Sitting at a kidney-shaped table gave her plenty of opportunities to individualize her instruction and make sure that all students were learning how to perform basic operations with the iPads, breaking the task of taking pictures down into kindergarten-sized steps.
During these sessions, Katie worked with four or five students for two to four minutes, giving them just the amount of time that they needed to practice the skill of the day.

The four day mini-unit consisted of:
  • Day 1: Teaching students hold the iPad, turn it on, and put it to sleep.
  • Day 2: Teaching students to build on their skills and open and close an app
  • Day 3: Teaching students to continue to build their skills by practicing the previously taught ones and adding on picture taking using the camera app. Katie emphasized the following criteria for picture taking:
 1) nothing important is cut out
 2) it is straight and
 3) there is an appropriate amount of background or extra space around the focal object (i.e. not too zoomed out)

It was so much fun to watch how seriously these students took their picture-taking!
  • Finally, on Day 4, the students had a chance to practice their picture taking skills in order to make an alphabet book. An alphabet book was chosen as the format for this book because it ties in nicely in kindergarten-- both within their reading work learning about different types of books and their future writing work of labeling pictures.  Other book genres/formats may be chosen based on classroom needs.  The important part is that students are taking pictures for a purpose, not just playing with the camera. Katie used a pre-made template in Book Creator in order to make the book with her students. Here is a sample of some of the pages, with the pictures contributed by students on iPads:

As Katie shared in her description of the book, "This book can then be printed and added to the classroom library.  It can also be emailed out to parents as an ePub or pdf."

I'm hoping to be able to continue to share some of the work that Katie does with her students. Now that they all understand the basic and important function of taking pictures with the iPad, she'll move on to teach them how to make their own books as she introduces them through various  writing genres throughout the year.

Happy Writing,

Monday, September 7, 2015

Slice of Life: The Power of our Words as Teachers of Writing

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

Another slicer and I have been pushing each other to take risks with our writing--to put it out there into the realm of contests, queries, agents, and critique groups. I have come to believe that sharing a manuscript is sort of like sending a child off to kindergarten. We have worked SO hard on these stories, and we want them to be loved. We want our readers to begin to fall in love with the characters that we have created so carefully. Okay, it's not quite the same as those little people whose hands we hold and cheeks we kiss, but let me tell you, writers feel pretty vulnerable when we share our stories.

We encouraged each other, and both submitted our queries and initial pages into a contest this summer. The word on the twitter feed about the contest was that the competition was fierce. When neither of us were selected, we consoled each other. We both received emails about our entries with feedback about our queries and our submitted pages. I know that I poured over those emails, trying to internalize the meaning and think about the work ahead in terms of revision. Then, my writing partner shared an email that she had received, and it sounded familiar. Very familiar.  In fact, a lot of the feedback--no ALMOST ALL of it--was the same. Word for word, the same.

My writing partner and I had a great conversation this afternoon, and we both agreed to take all of the feedback we received with several grains of salt. We both agree that feedback that is not individualized and specific to the pieces is not too valuable. However, I came away from the experience with some realizations about students and the vulnerability of ALL developing writers.

  • Sharing our writing with people we don't know well (or at all) is scary. We don't know whether people will understand the innuendos, work through the inevitable mistakes, relate to our characters. Appreciating the bravery that putting a piece of writing out into the world is an important early step in working with writers of all ages and levels. (We slicers all understand the bravery required to hit the submit button.)
  • Canned feedback not only doesn't develop writers, but also can discourage writers. When we try to take shortcuts in our responses--and shortcuts are SO available because of how easy it is to cut and paste text or use programs-- our feedback can at best lose authenticity, but at worst can discourage developing writers with criticism that doesn't make sense. 
  • Our words have tremendous power. Tremendous. Our writers see us as authorities, as experts, and they want to understand and get it right. Here's the deal: EVERY word we say or write to a developing writer has the potential to inspire or devastate. That's a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility.
My writing partner and I have each other and a powerful writing community to help us rebuild our courage and belief in ourselves, but the experience did leaving us scratching our heads. "Remind me why we're doing this," my partner emailed to me. I can answer her with the passion and conviction that we share about our lives as writers, and I can answer her with a fortress of supportive mentors and readers standing behind me. But I also will never, EVER respond to a student's writing again without truly meaning what I say and thinking about the impact of my words.

Happy writing,

It's Monday! What are You Reading?

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

 The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach is such a fun book to read aloud and will also be a great mentor text in writing workshop for all ages.  As a mentor text, I can see it being used to help teach craft moves, description, and definitely perspective/point of view! This story is engaging, beautifully illustrated, and has a surprise ending where the narrator is revealed to the reader! I look forward to sharing this book with students and colleagues! 

Wolfie The Bunny written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Zachariah OHora is a hilarious book and will be such a fun read aloud! In this book, a bunny family adopts a wolf as a son and the daughter, Dot, is the only bunny who notices and understands that the wolf can eat them up! Dot is relentless to get her bunny family to comprehend the danger of having this wolf in their family, but no one wants to listen to her warnings.  This book may also have a surprise ending! Kids will love listening to this story being read aloud and looking at the great illustrations. Enjoy!

Happy Reading! :)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Slice of Life: Relationships Matter, Even in High School

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

I didn't mean to take the WHOLE month of August off from blogging (blush), but sometimes time goes by faster than I expect, and sometimes life gets in the way of writing (sigh). In any case, if you're reading this, thanks. Thanks for coming back. Thanks for welcoming me back into the slicing fold. 

School started last week for me and yesterday for my daughters. In my home base school, I watched students enter the building with their hair slicked back, their sneakers (some new) carefully tied, their backpacks full of the sharpened pencils and crisp new folders to start the year. In classes, teachers greeted them by name with special handshakes and smiles. Most teachers held morning meetings with welcoming activities that they selected carefully to be the perfect getting to know each other activities for this special morning. By the end of the day, almost every student in almost every classroom felt welcomed, like a blossoming member of a community, and ready to return on the following day. Ahhh. Elementary school. 

I have to say, though, that my high school girls and my middle school girl were just as prepped and ready for school as those elementary schools kiddos--maybe even more so. They woke up early, which was a big effort for them. They completed all of their summer work, and some of those packets were REALLY big, and they hit Staples hard for school supplies. They worked hard on their outfits and their hair, and in many ways, they were just as anxious about the first day as the elementary students I watched enter my school building. 

Three of my four daughters. (The oldest has left for college.)

But here's where their experience gets different, and I wish it didn't. Their teachers didn't ask them how their summer was. There were no team-building activities, no community work, no pauses in the action to just check in on each other. Maybe those activities will happen as the year goes on, but there's only one first day of school. My girls loved seeing their friends, and they posted many pictures of the first day in the parking lot and even in the hallways, but the excitement was not at all centered on teachers or learning. 

Relationships matter so much. I know that in this community I am preaching to the choir, and I know that most of the SOL friends I have are elementary oriented. I just wish that we could have more high school teachers understand the importance of relationships during the fragile teenage year. Those high school teachers have so much power to impact lives in positive ways. Those high school students crave relationships with adults, just as they did in elementary school. Those relationships just seem so much tougher to come by.

I wish all of you happy first weeks of school that build the foundations for relationships, risk-taking, and powerful learning throughout the year.

Happy Writing,