Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nonfiction Research Mentors

It's been almost one full week since our last summer invitational class.  I've had the best intentions of blogging every day, but the summer haze and 105 degree days have set in and I admit:  I've been very  lazy!  I have been mulling some ideas around in my mind, though.  This year I would like to teach 4th through 6th in a different way in the library.  I'd like to incorporate more research and include all of my reference lessons into the research projects.  In the summer invitational class, we talked a lot about using authors as mentors for writing with our children.  Finally, an idea popped in my mind this week:  Why not use nonfiction authors as mentors for research?  So, immediately I started to think of some of my favorite nonfiction authors:  Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, Loreen Leedy, Jerry Pallotta, Ben Hillman, Kadir Nelson, and more.  The first thing that I thought of was to check out their websites.  Several of the authors, like Steve Jenkins, have videos or show the step-by-step process of the basics of writing or illustrating, but few had information about their research process.  So, I started e-mailing them!  I told them that I'd like to use their works (that our students LOVE) as mentor texts, but that I want them to be  mentors of research.  I had questions about how they found the amazing information in their books!  Some of my questions were:
1.  Where do you get started with your research?
2.  Do you use online sources for your research or print?
3.  If you use online sources, are there specific sites that you prefer that are more reliable than others?
4.  Do you find information that you use in your books anywhere else? interviews, museums, etc. 
5.  How much time do you spend researching one book?
6.  Do you research before you begin or do you work through the process as you write your books?
7.  Is there anything else about your research that we need to know? 
I heard back from Steve Jenkins, Ben Hillman, and Loreen Leedy almost immediately!  Ben Hillman answered my answers in great detail, Steve Jenkins told me he was thinking about posting some information to answer my questions on his site, and Loreen Leedy sent me a link to an amazing blog!  The blog, called INK:  Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, has several nonfiction authors who blog about their craft, research process, fact gathering, and detective work!  BINGO!  On the right hand of the blog page, the information is divided into topics and there are 58 entries under "research."  I have a lot to read!
I'd also like to look into having a few authors that will videoconference with our kids and tell more about their research process.  I'm still trying to formulate some options for the kids to think about with their writing after they learn about the mentors and their research process.  I want to give the kids a lot of choice with the topic they'd like to research, but I also want to formulate a rubric at the same time with some defined expectations.  I'm open to any suggestions!  Post a comment if you have any ideas...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Math and Literature: Greg Tang

This week we've been talking about using writing across the curriculum.  Greg Tang is a great author you could use as a mentor for teaching math in his writing.  One of the great things about Tang are the many resources you can pair with his books!  Greg Tang uses poems, rhymes, and puns to teach math strategies.  He makes solving math problems tons of fun!  You have to tell your math teachers about Kakooma math.  For only $19.95 a year, you have unlimited access to games, eight online books, printable classroom materials, and full access to the site for up to thirty-five students.  Kakooma is also available as an app.  Personally, I am really excited about using the animated online books! Tang's books cover a variety of math concepts and are written for various ages.  If you'd like to learn more about Tang and his books, click here to view a video from Adolescent Literacy.   My good friend and our interventionist, Angela Bunyi, has also met Greg Tang and has posted about Kakooma on her Top Teaching blog.  Click here to read Angela's blog.   If you've used Tang's books in your classroom or played the Kakooma games, please post your thoughts!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Boy, the Kite, and the Wind

Today, local author Al Andrews visited our class.  He shared his book:  The Boy, the Kite, and the Wind with us.  His story is amazing!  Click here to visit his site.  100% of the proceeds of sales from the books are given away.  Neither the author or illustrator make any money off of the books.  It was really cool to hear Andrews' story of publishing his first book and becoming an improbable philanthropist. You've got to see this video!  You can buy the book on the author's site or from Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

Writing to Assess: Diaries and Letters

I had a lot of fun learning a few new ways to assess student writing across the curriculum.  These ideas are geared to my fourth grade friends, but can be modified to use in any grade level.

Michelle walked us through lessons that she teaches with her kids in social studies to assess student writing.

Writing Diaries:
Michelle prefaced this lesson by telling us she would teach her fourth graders about different religions in early colonial times and about the travels to America before she taught this lesson.

We each created a bio about ourselves.  We chose the following for ourselves pretending that we were living during the 1600's:

  • Our age
  • Occupation-she discussed several options of colonial jobs
  • Family-married or not/number of children
  • Religion-choose from a type of colonial religion
We were told that our colonial family has traveled across the ocean and settled in America.  We were going to be shown a movie about a family living in New England.  After watching the video, we were going to write a diary entry about meeting the family in the video when we arrive in America. Click here to view the webpage for the video.  (

When your students are writing their diary entries, remind them to think from the perspective of the character, not their own.  Have your students date each entry.  They will continue to add entries to their diaries as you teach the next historical period.  The student will follow the character's life through the times.  If the time shifts or you have a break in the time periods you are required to teach, you can pretend that the diary was lost, someone else found it, and they start writing about the next time period from a different characters point of view!

Writing Letters:
To teach this concept with students, choose several photographs (primary documents) from a specific time period and display them for your students.  Have each student choose a photo and write a letter to that person.  The student should ask the person questions that they would like to know about the time period, their occupation, their family, traditions, customs, etc.  If there is specific information you want the students to learn, lead them towards those types of questions when you give the assignment.  The kicker is that after the student writes the letter with the questions, they have to research and find the answers to them!  Amazing, right?  Spoiler alert:  Do not tell them this before they write their letters with the questions.  After your students have found the answers to the questions they wrote in their original letter, they write back to themselves as the character.

To try out this strategy with a different twist, Michelle read an excerpt from Tennessee Studies Weekly titled "Saved From the Cherokee."  After she read the article out loud to us, we wrote a letter from one character in the article to another.  Ex:  Write a letter from John Sevier to Catherine or from Catherine to John.

I LOVED both of these ideas!  Add a comment and let me know what you think.

Four Arms of Writing

This morning we learned about the four arms of writing.  Basically, they are the four reasons we write in the classroom and the four ways we guide our children to write.

The four arms are:

  • Learning how to write:  this is what you teach daily in your writing workshop
  • Writing to learn and think
  • Writing to respond
  • Writing to assess 
The first arm we worked with was writing to learn and think.  I will blog about the others in future posts.

In his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers, Kelly Gallagher expands on how to use writing to learn and think in your classroom.

Gallagher states that writing to learn is based on the following concepts:
  • Understanding that writing occurs anytime our mind is engaged in putting words to paper.
  • Learning is an active process rather than a passive one.
  • Understanding that vocabulary is enriched in all subjects when the learner is actively producing language in responsive reading and listening and most importantly in writing and talking.
There are three reasons for using writing in the content areas:

#1:   Writing helps students to draw on relevant prior knowledge and experience as preparation for new activities.  Some ways you can draw on relevant prior knowledge are:
  • writing from a word-this is strategy that prompts thinking concerning what a learner knows about a given topic.  The word may be a word from an upcoming unit.
  • writing from a question-this question might spark thought concerning concepts within a unit of study.
  • writing from predicting
  • writing from a picture -can be a picture or you could use a primary source.
  • writing from music-can be taken from a specific time period or be related to a science topic.
  • prediction chart with justification-this is what we did with the photosynthesis example below.
  • writing from a list-this is what we did with the story Sit In below.
Here are a few ways we wrote to draw on relevant prior knowledge in class:
  • Bobbie wrote three items on the board before reading Sit In:  How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down with us.  The three items were:  1960, MLK, and inequality.  She then asked us to take one minute to write how we thought the three items were connected.  Bobbie walked around as we were writing to quickly notice the information we already knew about this subject.
  • Another way we drew on prior knowledge was by creating a t-chart on the board.  The t-chart stated, "Plants need water for photosynthesis."  We were instructed to take a Post-It note and put it on one side of the chart to express our opinion.  The choices were "Yes" or "No."  After we chose whether we thought that plants needed water for photosynthesis or not, we were asked to go back to our notebooks and explain why we had that opinion.

#2:  Writing helps students to consolidate and review ideas and experiences.  Some ways you can consolidate and review ideas and experiences are:
  • exit slips-students are asked to respond to a question or prompt at the conclusion of a class or the conclusion of a unit of study.  These work well for special area teachers who only have their students for a short period of time.
  • dash facts-this technique helps students to consolidate and summarize the new knowledge they have gained from a particular unit of study:  This strategy can be found in  Of Primary Importance by Anne Marie Corgill.
  • writing breaks-this is what we did with the story below.  This can also be used during a discussion, while listening or reading a lecture, etc.  Stop and ask students to write what they are thinking and/or what they are understanding.
  • writing into the day-a daily writing assignment at the beginning of the day meant to review information previously taught.  This can be done individually or with groups of students.
Here are a few ways we consolidated and reviewed:
  • As we read Sit In:  How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down, we stopped periodically in the reading to take a writing break.  We were asked to write our thoughts at two different points in the text.  I found that this strategy made me listen to the text for more detail as the teacher read the story.
  • During the lesson about photosynthesis, we consolidated and reviewed after watching a brief lesson that was projected where we labeled the formula for photosynthesis to take place in a plant.  We were asked to simply write the word photosynthesis and write our thoughts about it.
#3:  Writing helps students to reformulate and extend knowledge.  Some ways you can reformulate and extend knowledge are:
  • free response
  • looping-this is what we did with Sit In below.
  • pass-the-response-this activity encourages students to extend their thinking through written responses they produce and through the written responses they read.
  • conversation logs-these help students extend their thinking through writing.  Conversation logs can be used with multiple classes if you switch classes or would be fun if you shared with a teacher at your same grade level.  You could also try this with an older grade level with a younger so that the older students could share what they've learned and the younger can respond.  It allows students to explore their thinking anonymously with one another through daily written entries in their conversation logs.  You could also do this between students by using a blog and having a partner from one class blog with a partner in another.
Here are a few ways we reformulated and extended our knowledge:
  • When we finished reading Sit In, we were assigned to write what we would have done if we were living during the time that the story took place.  After we wrote, we were asked to take one important line from our writing and write off of that line. We were then asked one more time to take one line from our second piece, underline it, and write off of it.  So we looped and wrote off of one idea three times.  It was funny to me that I found that my thinking changed drastically each time that I wrote off of my own writing.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Focus Instruction Model #4

"CBC!"  as a fellow classmate shared a story about one of her students...I learned "CBC" stood for, "Chill baby chill!"  You can do this.  Once you get the hang of teaching focus instruction, it is a lot of fun!  Here's a lesson you're going to love:

Focus Instruction:  Mentor Text

Julie opened her lesson by reading an article written by Mitch Albom printed in the Detroit Free Press titled:  "Save the Questions for Humans-Not the Phone."  To view the article, click here.  After Julie read the article, she projected it and gave us what she and Jeff Anderson call an invitation to notice.  "What do you notice about the way the article is organized?" she asked.  We noticed:

  • the article was written in stanzas
  • there were columns in the article
  • there was space between the conversation
  • the Siri conversation was separated like it was not really conversation
  • the author used headings and subheadings 
  • these headings and subheadings helped the reader know when a new point was being made
  • they give the main idea of the section you are about to read
  • readers might skim the headings and subheadings to get an idea about what the article will be about

After modeling what we noticed about the article together, we talked briefly about headings and subheadings.  Julie asked us to find a piece we had written and to try to choose headings and subheadings to interject into the piece to help the reader navigate the writing more efficiently.

I chose a piece that I had just started on.  It was going to be about the advice that my grandma gave me on my wedding day.  Here are the headings and subheadings that I chose for my writing:

Heading:  Keeping Your Husband:  Advice You Never Really Wanted to Know From Your Grandma
Subheading #1:  Your Grandma Did What?
Subheading #2:  The Real Secret:  How the Stories Really Apply to Sustaining a Healthy and Happy Marriage

Focus Instruction Model #3

Woo Hoo!  We were having so much fun learning how easy it is to teach focus instruction for ten minutes or less.  Remember, your students needs should drive the focus instruction that you choose.

Focus Instruction:  Revision

For this lesson, Michelle chose to use a piece that she had written about an experience she had in a graveyard with her sister.  She projected her story and talked through this lesson out loud with us.  In her instruction she let us know that she was looking for words and phrases in her writing that spoke to the meaning of her piece.  As she read through her story, she highlighted important words and phrases. This is very easy to do and for your students to see if you are working in Microsoft Word.  She made sure to tell us as a class that we might have the urge to interject as she read her story to us, but that it was important that we noticed how she modeled her thinking, so we couldn't blurt out.  After Michelle chose the words she wanted to use, she moved them to a different document.  She played around with the organization of the words.  She could add words or leave out words if she chose.

After walking us through this strategy, Michelle instructed us to find a piece of writing in our notebooks that we would like to work with.  We walked through the same process that she modeled for us with our stories.  After we highlighted words, we were instructed to move them to a new sheet of paper.  We were allowed to move them around, add words, and delete words.

My original piece was written about the day that Leia had a febrile seizure.  My story was about nine paragraphs and written in a narrative format.  After trying this strategy, I felt my piece cut right to the heart of what the story was about.  My long narrative turned out to be a poem written in two voices after I was finished.  The blue text is the voice of my husband and the white text is the voice of my babysitter.  The red line at the end is both voices.

Busy season
Sun beating on my back
Refreshing drink

Aspirin isn’t working
Haunting eyes roll back
Turning blue

Recap my day
nagging customers
Ragged workers
Busy season

A warm connection
“What do I do?”
Shaky fingers dial
I hug all my love into her
Our breath is one

Finally, relaxation hasn't rang
Quieted mind
Head home

Kiss my baby girl
On the head
This has never happened
In 25 years of experience

“What a day from hell it’s been.”

Note:  The highlighted words are from a revision strategy that I learned in a different focus instruction lesson.  We were asked to highlight words that related to our five senses:
After highlighting words, you can notice whether or not you focus on one or more senses more than others and rearrange your writing accordingly.  More about this strategy in a different post!

Focus Instruction Model #2

I hope you read the previous post before reading this one!  This post is meant to show you yet another example that focus instruction can be taught in ten minutes or less with your children during your writing workshop!  In our second lesson, Julie used a lesson she read about in Jeff Anderson's book:  Mechanically Inclined.

Focus Skill:  Revision
Julie started out by telling us a story.  She said she was with her daughter and heading to the store.  She said that when she was shops for a few quick items she likes to take a grocery list so that she can get in, grab her items, and checkout in the express lane.  She told us how her list helped her to stay focused in the grocery store and get just what she needed and get out.  Five minute trip...Yes!  You can relate, right moms?  Julie then taught us how we could use this same strategy when revising a piece of our work.  She called it an express lane edit.  Julie walked us through how to complete an express lane edit by using a piece of work written by one of her students.  She projected the student's work and helped us get started by creating a shopping list.  Shopping lists only need to have a few quick items listed on them.  Julie said she would discuss with her students some of the conventions they had been learning about.  This is the shopping list that her class created.  Students could also create their own individual shopping lists and write them on Post-It notes:

After the students created their shopping lists, they posted them to their work and wrote out a receipt of what they noticed in their own writing.  They made note of places where they noticed they needed capitalization, ending punctuation, and apostrophes.  The receipt was listed on a separate Post It.  This is what we noticed and listed when we read through the piece that Julie's student had written:

You can see that as we read the story written by Julie's student we noticed that she was using capital letters often in places that lower case letters were needed instead.  After constructing her receipt, her student could then go back to her work and correct what she noticed in her revision.

After modeling for us, we were assigned to think of a convention that we needed to work on in our own work.  I listed "verb tense" on my shopping list because I often change verb tense in my stories not meaning to.  I read through my piece with my receipt ready to note places in my story where I needed to make changes.  I did not find any mistakes in my piece.

What If...What do you do with children who say, "I have created my grocery list, read my work, and I don't have any mistakes?"

  • Ask the student to read the piece a second time.
  • If they still cannot find any mistakes, ask them to read it backwards.
  • If they are sure of no mistakes after trying both of these strategies, have them write down that they have read their piece three times, there are no mistakes, and sign their name to their work.
A few, "AHA!" moments I had with this lesson:

  • this activity is a great replacement for Daily Oral Language
  • students should not just revise their work before they publish
  • students should be periodically revising their work
  • as a teacher, you could keep an anchor chart of conventions you've taught during the year and have students refer to it when creating their shopping lists

Did you say 10 minutes? Teaching Focus Instruction

Focus instruction is what you will work on first every day in your writing workshop.  A lot of us freaked out when we were told that focus instruction should only be about ten minutes!  How can you teach a focus lesson in only ten minutes?  What should it look like?  Glad we asked.  Our amazing mentor teachers walked us through several focus lessons that were ten minutes or less.  Here is the first one:

Focus Skill:  Story Leads
Maybe you're noticing that all of your students are beginning their stories with, "Once upon a time," or "One time..."  This lesson is meant to model for your children that authors use Grabber Leads to pull their readers into their stories and make them want to read more.  Michelle focused on three grabber leads with us during her focus instruction:

  • Leading with an interrogative statement:  Snow Day by Lester Laminack:  "Did you hear that?"
  • Leading with onomatopoeia:  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:  "Ba-room, ba-room, baripity..."
  • Leading with dialogue:  Goosebumps by R.L. Stine:  "This town stinks!"
Michelle shared the first line of each book and we talked about what interrogative, onomatopoeia, and dialogue were and how the author used them.  She then asked us to go to our writing notebooks and find a piece of writing.  Our assignment was to try using all three types of leads with our story.

I chose a piece about having my bunions removed.  My original lead was:  If only I had known during all of those years in dance that I would be thirty-five and wearing the same comfy sandals all the time, I would have been a swimmer instead!  Here's what I tried:

Interrogative:  "How are you feeling, Sarah?"  I promised myself I'd remember everything he said...
Onomatopoeia:  Swish!  The curtain closes around my bed and I lay alone in the bed.
Dialogue:  Heredity stinks! (This one was my favorite and I was quite proud of it :).)

Writing Workshop

Towards the end of this week, we started talking about what a writing workshop is and what it should look like in your classroom.  There will be more posts to come about writing workshop, but here are the basics that you need to know to get started:

Writing workshop is:

  • a place in your classroom (or designated time during your day) where/when writers do the work of writing
  • a writing workshop could be compared to a sewing room for a seamstress, a painting studio for an artist, a woodworking shop for a woodworker.  It is a special place to work on your craft.
Writing workshop is not:

  • a thing
  • is not a program
  • is not scripted
Three parts to a writing workshop daily:

  • Focus instruction (bite-sized fun!)
  • Writing time
  • Group share time
Some tools needed for writing workshop:

  • writing notebooks
  • pencils
  • paper
  • Post-It notes
  • highlighters
  • resources:  dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedias, possibly grammar book
  • binding materials
Getting started/Procedures:

  • Plan ample time at the beginning of the year to roll out your writing workshop expectations.  The more time you take walking the students step-by-step through what you expect during writing workshop, the better your workshop will run.
  • Teach students how to use each tool at the beginning of the year.
  • Be very specific.  Share lots of examples and model, model, model!  ex:  I could share my writing notebook (pic at the top of this entry).  I would talk to the students about how I made my notebook my own by decorating it with a comic a friend shared with me that I really liked.  I would also be sure to explain to the students how my notebook works, when I write in it, and what should belong and not belong.
These are some of the procedures that we brainstormed.  You need to think about covering each of these in some way with your kids before they begin their writing.

  • materials to bring to the writing workshop
  • how to use the materials (resources:  dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, grammar book-ask your friendly librarian for help with these lessons :) )
  • how to respond to peer writing
  • using a writer's notebook and making it your own
  • what goes in the writing notebook and what doesn't
  • right to view the notebook:  how to let the teacher know you have a piece you do not want to be read.  ex:  writing from the front-for the teacher, writing from the back-for the student only or fold pages down you do not want to have read
  • how to spend your writing time
  • conference expectations
  • what to do if you're not conferencing with the teacher
  • what students can expect from you during writing time (develop an anchor chart of what students can expect from you and what you can expect of them)
  • vocabulary that will be used in the workshop:  craft, conventions, notebook, genre, revision, publishing, conference, peer, writer's workshop, draft, editing, quick write
  • let students know how their work will be graded
  • where students should meet at each section of the workshop
Sharing writing workshop with your parents:
Make sure that your parents know and understand how writing will look in your classroom.  Explain why they may not see writing come home every week.  Share the writing notebook and your expectations of your students at your meet the teacher night or open house.  Talk to your parents about how you will assess student writing and keep track of their progress.  Some teachers in our group also have students assigned on open house night to share different parts of the writing workshop with the parents.  That way your students are taking ownership of the writing workshop and more parents come to your open house!  I loved this idea!

Breaking down the workshop daily:

Focus Instruction is a time to:

  • give direct instruction for about 10 minutes
  • introduce genres
  • teach craft and conventions
  • explore writing
  • address what the majority of the class is needing
  • Note:  you don't always have to read a book from cover to cover during this time.  You could read an excerpt from a book, share a student's work, share your own writing, read an article, a blog, poetry, a commercial script, an informational piece, etc.  Let your students see as many different types of writing during this time as possible.
Writing time is a time to: (some teachers called this time a "Nudge."  It is a time to tell your students, "We've learned about..., not it's your turn to try it in your writing."

  • you should be very busy during this time
  • keep records about how your students are doing with their writing
  • take over the shoulder notes about your students
  • working with small groups
  • conferencing one on one
  • differentiating student learning
  • touching back on points of skills that may need to be re-taught
  • working with learners in small groups for review
Group share time is a time to:

  • Notice out loud with the group students who have tried new things in their writing.  Ex:  "Heather, I noticed today you tried..."  "Would you share a little bit with the class?"
  • Students underline a sentence that they wrote for the day that they felt was really beautiful and share
  • If you tried_____________ today, will you share an example?
  • All students should know that they will be accountable during group share time so that they will complete their work
  • You could let students know at the end of focus instruction what you will be looking for during share time so they can be prepared when they meet together

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Oh, The Things You Can Write!

In his book, Assessing Writers, Carl Anderson says, "If we let our kids leave our classrooms without believing they can use writing in all areas of their lives, we have failed them."  It is very important that you expose your children to the many types of writing they will be facing every day in the real world.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how many different types of writing we are exposed to on a daily basis.  We brainstormed a list to refer back to when teaching the many possibilities...

These anchor charts are great to keep posted in your classroom so that your students can refer back to them when thinking about what they would like to write.  Some of my favorites on the list are comics, product labels, and text messages!  Have your kids make a product label advertising their favorite book or describing themselves!  Document your history lessons in comic strips.  Write out and then send text messages to pen pals (their teacher).  Our technology teacher taught our students how to use proper etiquette in e-mails this year.  The students wrote an e-mail to another teacher in the building and couldn't wait to hear back from the teachers!  How fun!  If you have any more great ideas for exploring different genres or modes with your students, add a comment!

Killing Two Standards With One Review

Every morning when we get to class, we have what we call a "parking lot" where we post ideas or thoughts from our previous day.  When we got to class this morning, we were asked to choose a large index card on the board and work in teams of four to review what we thought it meant to read like a writer.  The index cards had directions for writing a specific type of poem.  Basically, we were reviewing the content from the day before and writing poetry at the same time!  Genius!  
Our team was given directions to write a concrete poem.  Some other types of poems used for review were haiku, cinquain, and diamante.  The structure of the poem was written on a large index card and could be used by the team to construct the poem.

Quick Write Success!

I told myself in my head, "I'm going to go home today and spend time with my family."  I've been so excited about what I've learned this week in our writing institute that I've gone home every afternoon and blogged about it all evening.  I made a rule tonight:  I would not neglect my family.  I planned on sitting on the couch and reading books with my girls and spending quality time talking to my husband about his day when he got home from work.
The girls were excited this afternoon because they had a new bag brimming full of books from Linebaugh Library.  We sat and read the first book:  Big Bug Surprise written and illustrated by Julia Gran.
The story was all about a little girl named Prunella who was quite the bug expert.  Oh no!  As I was reading, I was already making connections with something we learned in class today!  I figured I might as well practice on my children and make this a teachable moment (for myself as well as my daughters).  I discussed with my nine year old that we have been learning how to think up new ideas for our writing in class.  I also told her that I'm one of those writers who gets brain freeze a lot and I can't think of what to write about.  I told her about quick writes and how they help you think up lots of great ideas for your writing in a very short time.  I asked her to grab a pen and tablet of paper.  I was planning on constructing a quick write list with her.  I asked Emma Kate, "What did we learn about Prunella in the story Big Bug Surprise?"  She told me that Prunella knew everything about bugs.  Right on!  So I told her we were going to quickly think up some great ideas that she could write about herself.  Prunella was the "expert" in the story.  I asked her what she thought she could be an expert about.  I modeled the idea for her.  I made a t-chart on her tablet and started listing and thinking out loud what I thought I could be an expert about.  Here is my list:
  • book fairs
  • big sister
  • mom
  • scrapbooking
  • picture books
  • tennis
  • half marathons (getting there)
  • dance
  • swimming
I told her after I made my list, I was going to go back and choose my favorite expert areas to write about.  I could write a story about an experience with one of these areas, a song about it, a poem, directions, etc.  I asked her to tell me what she thought she was the expert about.  She started out slow, but once she got started, she couldn't stop throwing out ideas!
  • gymnastics
  • big sister
  • swimming
  • pet owner
  • art
  • reading
  • friends
  • technology
Emma Kate also went back and starred her favorites:  friends and gymnastics.  I told Emma Kate that this is the kind of list that I keep in my writing notebook so that when I am feeling like I need a fresh idea for my writing, it's right there waiting for me!  Success!

What is a quick write?
  • provides a plethora of writing ideas
  • jump starts the brain
  • generates ideas
  • takes five to ten minutes
  • no set format
  • breaks down barriers
  • gives the writer more freedom than a prompt or story starter
  • helps students understand and see they have lots to say
Quick writes can be divided into five categories:

  • graphic-We drew a picture of our foot and wrote the places our foot has been around the foot or inside.  You draw the graphic and then write in or around it.
  • list-We listed the scariest times we've experienced or scariest places we've been.
  • literature-Ellen read aloud the poem called, "Fishbones Dreaming."  The book she used was The Flying Spring Onion by Matthew Sweeney. She asked us to write about any connections we had with the poem or what came to mind as we listened. 
  • media or music-we watched a slideshow that included photographs as well as different genres of music.  We listed anything that came to mind as we looked at the pictures and listened to the music.  Several of us agreed that this type of quick write really got our creative juices flowing!
(The video above is great to use for media and music.  It was created by the Upper Cumberland Writing Institute and is available on You Tube.)
  • environment-We headed outside and were asked to sit by ourselves and list everything in our environment that appealed to our five senses for about three minutes.  After that time, we were asked to take one piece of sensory information that we listed and jump off with it for our writing.
We discussed that you don't have to use quick writes all the time as a teacher.  They would prove very useful at the beginning of the year as you are getting to know your students better.  They can also be used at times where your class could use a "kick start" in their writing.  Here are some more ideas for quick writes in each of the five categories:

  • graphic-heart, animal, pet, hand, foot, eye, clock, calendar, daily schedule, ball (student chooses type), vehicle, brain, place you live, backyard, bedroom, item of season, food
  • list-emotions, colors, hobbies, expert, family, classmates, friends, songs, in your desk, in your locker, happiest, funniest, first day of school, traditions, books, wish you could delete, survival, travel
  • literature-poetry, song lyrics, nonfiction, famous quote, excerpt from text
  • media or music-student artwork, familiar/popular songs, all about me bag, YouTube clip, photograph, news article, famous paintings, historical pictures, reproductions of statues, primary documents
  • environment-cafeteria, playground, field trips, library, outside, gym, principal's office, garden, music room, kindergarten room
A lot of these quick writes we made up on our own.  If you have any more ideas for great quick writes, please post a comment and share!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading Like a Writer

What does reading like a writer mean?  A few things we brainstormed were:
  • You read, read, read and find authors that you love.
  • When you find the authors and books that you love, ask yourself, "Why am I gravitating towards these books?"
  • Also ask yourself, "What are the authors specific writing styles?
  • You will also want to delve into the life of the author to see why they write the way they do.  How does their life influence their writing?
  • Finally, you can "borrow" ideas from the mentors that you love in your own writing.
We read the book: Encounter by Jane Yolen together as a class.  After reading the text, we walked through five steps together:

1.  Notice something about the craft of the text.
2.  Talk about it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.
3.  Give the craft a name. This may be a name that does not already exist.  Make it your own.
4.  Think of other texts you know.  Have you seen this craft before?
5.  Try and envision using this crafting in your own writing.

As we read, we noticed the following about Yolen's craft:
  • point of view the author chose (written from a child's perspective)
  • strong use of simile/metaphor
  • comparisons to nature reflecting the characters experience
  • use of repetition
  • dream in the story ties the story beautifully together in the beginning, middle, and end

We discussed the book and chose to focus on the author's use of figurative language to show the young boy's perspective of what was happening in the story.  We gave the craft the name:  Nature-Perspective Comparison.  We started an anchor chart that we can refer back to when we are writing our own pieces.  We also added another story to the chart later in the day.  One Green Apple by Eve Bunting also used figurative language and strong sensory images to help the reader understand how a young girl from another country was experiencing her second day in an American school and the language barriers that she faced.  As an application in your own classroom:  As readers read their own stories during independent reading time in class, they could jot examples of specific author's craft on Post-It notes and post them around the perimeter of the anchor charts to refer back to specific examples for their writing.

A couple of resources that were suggested on this topic were:
Also, a full pdf of:  Read Like a Reader, Read Like a Writer by Steve Peha is available here:

Writing Partners does your writing partner measure up?
Brutus is not the best. She fell asleep on her partner!

Yesterday we worked with writing partners for the first time.  I found this time so helpful.  We chose a piece of our own writing to share with our writing partners and their job was to give us some helpful revision tips.

Ellen and Bobbie modeled the ground rules for working with writing partners before we began.  It was helpful to see them work through their pieces together out loud.  Here are the steps in the partner share that they modeled:

1.  Writer's Questions (for you)
Have a question ready for your partner about your own piece before you begin.
Ex:  I asked my partner to help me work on the end of my poem.  I didn't love it.
This step is so important because it also lets your partner focus in on one specific part of your work.

2.  Discuss the purpose and audience that you had in mind when writing your piece (for you)
Ex:  I am writing my poem for my dad.
The purpose of my poem is to document memories I want to remember and share with my girls.

3.  Two stars and a wish (for your partner)
Your partner will tell you what they liked about your piece.  Preferably at least two things.
Your partner will also give you a suggestion.  This suggestion will help to answer the question that you asked in step #1.

If you'd like to learn more about successful writing conferences check out: How's It Going?:  a practical guide to conferring with student writers  by Carl Anderson

Monday, June 11, 2012

Draw Straws

So, it's the beginning of the year and time to get to know everyone!  When we were told to take some straws and pass them on, I figured I better only take a few because I would probably have to tell something about myself for every straw I chose.  You know, like the toilet paper game.  Surprise!  That wasn't the case.  After we chose our straws, we were given a small slip of paper that read:  Draw Straws.  There was a color coded key on the slip:

Pink:  What is your favorite book, or what book do you want to read?  Why?

Yellow:  Where is your favorite place to write?  Briefly describe this place.

Blue:  Do you write with a pen, pencil, or keyboard?  Briefly tell why you prefer this writing instrument.

Orange:  Tell us about an "ah-ha" moment in your professional life (you could edit this for your kids)

Green:  What's your favorite activity in your "spare" time?  Briefly tell what makes this activity so wonderful.

I was excited that this was a new way to share about ourselves!  We each took turns sharing one straw around the room at a time.

What Makes Writing Authentic?

Today we read and discussed what makes writing "Authentic" for our children.  We were given excerpts from two professional books:  Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher and Living Between the Lines by Lucy McCornick Calkins and Shelley Harwayne.  I learned two things from the articles that will change the way I teach writing in my classroom this year:  #1:  I will try to give my children more choice in what they want to write.  #2:  I would like my children to send more of their writing out into the world. Number one really hit home for me because I am a strong believer in students reading what interests them.  Then why wouldn't we let them choose to write about what they care about?  Gallagher points out that allowing students write about their interests gives them a feeling of ownership in their work thus creating a stronger work ethic and revision of the piece.  Which brings us to #2.  When students are ready to publish their work, so many times we laminate it and keep it in a classroom library, post it on a bulletin board, or put it in a portfolio that only the parents will see.  Why not create more authenticity by allowing the students to share their published work with the real world?  We brainstormed ways that students can write outside of the classroom.  Here's a fun list of where you can send your student's work:

  • someone who knows an answer to a burning question you have (a scholar, teacher, older student)
  • place student published work in waiting rooms in local businesses
  • write to school staff:  principal, office staff, school counselor, custodian, cafeteria workers
  • authors/illustrators
  • local business owners
  • school board
  • local, state, national government officials
  • past/future teachers
  • yourself
  • writing competitions (ex:  Scholastic Kids Are Authors)
  • other students in school/book buddies
  • students in other schools/other countries
  • school library (publish student books and let the librarian barcode them for student checkout)
  • artists
  • musicians/music industry
  • people in the future
  • student blog
  • classroom newsletter for parents published by students (Thanks Cook for this idea)
  • local newspapers/news channels
  • local college department heads or students
  • radio station
  • toy manufacturers
  • soldiers
  • celebrities/Disney characters
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Elves/Christmas letters (use older students to write to younger)
  • guest speakers
  • write to you as a teacher
  • record read-aloud stories for students in another grade level
  • write summaries of books and use inside book jackets in classroom library

And my personal favorite, which I'd like to try to implement:

  • hold public readings of student published writing the first Friday of each month
If you have any other ideas to add, please comment on this post :).

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Where Do Poems Hide?

Here's another quick write idea that you could use with your kids.  The idea for this quick write comes from Georgia Heard's book:  Awakening the Heart:  Exploring Poetry In Elementary and Middle School.  Heard suggests using the poem, A Valentine For Ernest Mann, written by Naomi Shihab Nye:

A Valentine For Ernest Mann

You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
So I'll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide.  In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping.  They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up.  What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn't understand why she was crying.
"I thought they had such beautiful eyes."
And he was serious.  He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way.  Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so.  He really
liked those skunks.  So, he reinvented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him.  An the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of the skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us
we find poems.  Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

-Naomi Shihab Nye

Read the poem and then ask your kids to brainstorm unlikely places that poetry might hide in their everyday lives.  Your students will list these ideas and put stars beside their favorites.  They can then use their favorite starred ideas for stories or they can come back to these ideas for later.  I have been learning that modeling and sharing your own writing is so important to your teaching of writing.  Try this quick write in your own writing journal and share your ideas with your students.  Here is what I brainstormed when we worked through this quick write in class:

  • Between the lines of grandma's noodle recipe.
  • Inside the hair dooey box waiting to be chosen.
  • Between two hands held too lightly.
  • On the brush of a freshly-shaven face.
  • Inside a fragile hug.
  • In soft-spoken words across a telephone line.
  • In the pungent smell of hog poop.
  • In an old worn-out pair of jeans.
  • In a Bob Parks birthday flier.
Where do your poems hide?  Post a comment and share.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Neighborhood Map

So, one of the new strategies I've learned about is using quick writes with your kids.  A quick write is not a writing prompt.  It is a way to generate ideas for your writing.  One that we tried out that was really fun was the neighborhood map.  One of our teachers modeled on the whiteboard how she created her own neighborhood map.  She had drawn out a map of her neighborhood from her childhood.  This can be any neighborhood that you've lived in (even your current).  She drew stars and told us stories as she shared her map.  The star signified special stories that she could tell from her neighborhood growing up.  We were then asked to draw our own neighborhood map.  We put stars in places on our maps that brought to mind special stories (past or present).  We turned and talked about it with a neighbor.  The cool thing that our neighbor was instructed to do was to tell us one place on the map that they wanted to know more about.  My neighbor asked me to explain why I thought my neighbors growing up were rednecks!  Wow!  I then had to think of how to share more of that story with her.  It turned out that the story I wrote was not what I expected to write.  I may have chosen my mudpie story to tell instead or the story of my girlfriends who lived down the street.  I loved this idea and it generated many ideas for writing!

Here is the story that I wrote:
OK.  So I thought that my neighbors were weird.  In Tennessee, we'd call them rednecks.  I remember the backyard that was just dirt, the dogs running the path around the perimeter of the fence, the loud yelling mother, and the millions of children that were always dirty and didn't ever have their hair brushed.  AKA-The Herdmans.  So.  problem is-they weren't the ones with issues...obviously, I was.  They had tons of My Little Ponies.  So many, that they wouldn't even know if they were missing one (in my first grade brain).  Note to self at age 7, "You've been paddled by the principal-not a good idea to try to steal your neighbors My Little Pony."  So, you know, I took the pony.  After that, I was so guilt-ridden that I scoured my house for all of the toys I didn't want that I thought they needed. :)  The pony was not returned.  But I did leave a bag of toys on their front porch step.  Guilt not gone.  Gave the pony to my sister for her birthday.

If you'd like more ideas for quick writes you can use in your classroom, check out this book by Donald Graves.  It offers more than sixty new ideas to implement in your classroom for quick writes!
If you'd like a picture book to read along with your neighborhood map, The Map Book, by Sara Fanelli is a great example!

And so it begins...

Hello, Everyone!  It is so funny...this is my first attempt at blogging and I'm sitting here with butterflies in my belly.  The purpose of this blog is to share the information that I learn in my Invitational Summer Institute at MTSU.  The philosophy of the program is that teachers are going to be the best teachers of teachers when it comes to writing.  The Middle Tennessee Writing Project believes that teachers

  • need to be writing to be good teachers of writing
  • should be in collaboration with MTSU
  • should share their professional knowledge
So that's what I'm here for!  To share all of the great ideas I learn this summer.  I hope you enjoy reading and can take a few tidbits back to your classroom to try out.  If you want more information or have any questions for me, e-mail me at