And the Tasty Writing Award Goes To . . .

part 1: i was always a reader

During tenth and eleventh grade, I probably read The Catcher in the Rye 20 times. I read it during geometry, which is why I am terrible at projects that involve measuring and fitting pieces together; I also read it during study halls when I should have been doing my homework; I read it on the bus, ignoring the spitballs and competing boom boxes; and I read it walking the halls between classes. Salinger’s book never left my side those two years–I lived that book. Holden was my friend, and he became part of my consciousness.

part 2: some things change and others don’t

More recently, I’ve graduated from Salinger, whom, incidentally, I still love. You might catch me reading his short stories or parts of Catcher on a snowy day or lazy summer afternoon. But now my scope of interest is wider. I don’t just read fiction. I read almost anything I can get my hands on–anything from astrophysics to history to self-help to literary fiction to graphic novels. One genre that I never read much of unless I was forced to were books about educational practices. But now that I have over twenty years in the field, I find that I can’t read enough of them. There are so many good ones! One that has had a substantial impact on my practice is Sarah Tantillo‘s The Literacy Cookbook . It’s currently available on Amazon for $15.97, which in my eyes, is a bargain for a book that contains effective strategies instantly applicable to any classroom.

part 3: reading about teaching reading and writing

I began reading Tantillo’s book shortly after I left high school and became a middle school ELA teacher in 2014. Tantillo immediately influenced my instruction because her suggestions are practical. If I were an administrator responsible for designing or guiding curriculum in a building or district, I would buy a copy for every teacher in my purview because every teacher is a literacy teacher. I can’t listen to educators of non-English/language arts classes when they try to refute this fact. It will never make sense to me. We are all reading and writing teachers, and Sarah Tantillo’s book is a sensible and efficient way to provide teachers of all subjects with the tools they need to incorporate more literacy instruction into their subject matter.

part 4: all writing is persuasive

Chapter 5 of The Literacy Cookbook is titled Tasty Persuasive Writing, and in this chapter she reminds teachers that all writing is persuasive, but in order “for something to be persuasive, it has to be tasty” (p. 145). This year I began writing instruction with this quotation to remind students that no one wants to read writing that is colorless and dull. People want to read compelling, thought-provoking ideas–they want to be moved, excited, and astonished. To reinforce this idea, I created a “Tasty Writing Award.” Every day I choose a delicious piece of student writing (a passage that is somewhere between one and three sentences long), and I feature it on the blackboard for the entire day. I always ask the students for permission to share their work, and I give them credit. You can’t win the award if you are anonymous!

part 5: the power of recognition

When I started this routine, I did not understand the power of recognition. I had no idea how much the students would enjoy reading and honoring the work of their peers. I also did not expect that students who did not like writing would now strive to write something so that they could see their name on my “Tasty Writing Award” board. At the beginning of last week a student who rarely writes more than two or three sentences, despite my efforts to push his thinking forward, asked me how he could get his name on the board. My answer was something along the lines of you have to wow me, and I moved on to another student who had a question. For the next few days, this student listened to the mini-lessons more carefully and asked for more feedback from me and his peers. He was determined to get his name on the board, and by the end of the week he did. He still does not write much, but what he is producing contains some juicy words. He is producing quality work, even though he is not producing volume. I do not have a sample of this particular student’s work because I forgot to snap a photo of it before I left school on Friday; however, I do have another example. One portion of my blackboard looks like this every day. In this pic, the student was writing about All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury.

Tasty Writing (1).jpg

part 6: feedback from my colleagues → the future

Other teachers have come to me and suggested that I turn this award into a contest where parents, teachers, and students vote on the best piece of writing every month, and then that student wins a certificate and a journal or some other prize that relates to writing, like maybe a special pen or highlighter. I have considered these ideas, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet for many reasons, one of them being that I have enough on my plate with the new curriculum changes in my district. I hope that maybe next year I can expand upon this idea a bit more and implement some of the suggestions other teachers have made. If you have any suggestions, I would like to hear them! Please feel free to post them in the comments. And if you use the “Tasty Writing Award” in your classroom, please let me know how it goes! I would like to know if you receive similar responses from your students.

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Scaffolding Abstract Thinking: Building Thematic Statements from the Ground Up

My school district began implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study last year in grades 1-8. Even though teachers were required to teach only one of the three units with fidelity, I struggled. Unpacking the sessions and bends took me hours on the weekends, and I found that because my students were experiencing writers workshop for the first year, they struggled as well. They weren’t conditioned to writing for five solid minutes much less twenty or thirty at a time. They literally had no idea how to sit still and think and write for that long.

This year has been much better. The students have an understanding of writers workshop, and thanks to doyens like Kate Roberts, Maggie Roberts, and Angela Stockman, to name only two of the most influential mentors I follow faithfully online, I have more tools in my shed.

So right now my colleagues and I are teaching the 8th-grade argument unit, which is writing and publishing a literary essay.  I have not been looking forward to this unit because I knew how much work is involved in teaching one of these units for the first time, but with the help of my colleagues, mainly JoAnn Welsko (the most perfect teammate, champion, and ally anyone could have), I am beginning to find the magic.

My students have been genuinely struggling with finding the theme in the dystopian stories they chose, as I knew they would. Even though I followed all of Calkins’ instructions: using an anchor text as an example, guiding students through writing long about conflict, characters, and literary devices, and discussing ideas with partners, they still weren’t getting it. They weren’t doing the deep thinking needed to connect their stories to a bigger idea or create a postulation about the author’s message. So yesterday after school, I sat down at my desk and thought about the steps that anyone would have to follow to determine to create a thematic statement.

  1. Ask yourself: What is the topic/main idea of the story?
  2. Ask yourself: What does the author believe about this topic?
  3. Then find three pieces of textual evidence to support your #2. If you can find three good examples of textual evidence, your idea is probably solid. If you can’t find three pieces of good textual evidence, return to #1 and see if another topic works better.

The anchor text we read, per the Units of Study, is All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. In the 8th grade literary essay unit, Calkins suggests this mentor text and provides sample thematic statements and a mentor literary essay that teachers can use. I went with Calkins’ suggestions so I did not have to create my own while teaching the unit for the first time.

Here is what I put on the white eraser board for students as they worked through this process:

Creating a Thematic Statement.jpg

If you look at the photo, the topic of the story is jealousy, so I had the students use the following formula for step 1: I think the topic of the story is _____. Some students spent the period brainstorming and discussing ideas to complete this sentence starter. About 1/3 of the students were able to start the step

2. For this step, they had to interpret what the author believes about the topic they chose for step one. The third step requires them to prove their theory with three pieces of textual evidence. I had a handful of students (about five out of 130) begin step three today so we will begin there on Monday.

Scaffolding this process led to many aha moments today. My perseverance, encouragement, and coaching are paying off. Students were choosing abstract concepts for topics and then drawing conclusions about their development throughout their stories.

Once we complete this process, the next step is to determine how the authors illuminate their beliefs in each of the three scenes students choose. Does the author use figurative language in the scene? Imagery? Irony? Dialogue? Short and long sentences? By identifying the moves the author makes in each scene, students will then have three specific literary devices to analyze in their literary essays.

If you are interested in using any of the dystopian stories I included in my text set for students, here is a list of those that are most popular:

  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
  • “2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  • “We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel

I included a few other stories in the text set, but they were not popular with my students. I list them here in case you think your students might like them.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (My students did not choose this story, but I included because it is the only dystopian story I have ever read that had a happy ending.)
  • “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Examination Day” by Harry Slesar

Pushing Past Frustration in the Writer’s Workshop

My previous post, You Catch More Bees with Honey, was about breaking old habits and establishing new routines that limited frustration and increased productivity in the classroom.

Well, this week I became a little frustrated with the way writing workshop was going because my students were not focusing on writing, in spite of the changes I had made–they were not on task. They were talking, walking around the room, and creating a lot less than they should be with the time I was giving them. I imagined that other teachers must experience the same problem, but when I googled phrases like “writing workshop model” and “writing workshop frustrations” I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. I needed to know how to enforce the importance of focus during the writing process. And Roy Peter Clark’s prompt chart, which I had displayed prominently in the room was not working either.

Here is the prompt chart I created from Roy Peter Clark’s tweet on August 24, 2016 (in case you’d like to create one of your own).

2016-10-30-12-21-21-2

So how was I going to help my students understand the importance of focusing while they were writing? Too Noisy, a new prompt chart, and Jolly Ranchers.

Shhh! It’s Too Noisy in Here!

Too Noisy Online is a free online app for the classroom that helps teachers and students maintain a healthy noise level.

By Thursday of last week I was so tired of nagging my students about the noise level and lack of concentration on their work that I knew something had to change. In spite of my creating a news room atmosphere and reminding students of their impending deadline, they just were not using their time wisely. This app became part of the solution.

Too Noisy provides students with a visual of the noise level in the classroom. I think part of the reason I was frustrated with my students is that I did not understand that they did not realize how loud they were. This app shows them what their noise level and provided them with the proof they needed.

When the noise level is acceptable, the graphics look like this:

happy-noise-2

When the class is too noisy, the graphic looks like this:

too-noisy

This application has an invaluable feature: It allows the teacher to adjust the sensitivity according to the activity. So if you want the class to be exceptionally quiet, you can heighten the sensitivity. If you want to allow a little bit of talking and sharing, you can lower the sensitivity. To do this, click on the settings icon (a gear in the lower right hand corner of the screen).

settings

At the beginning of class, I showed the app to the students by projecting it onto the Smart Board. I asked them to whisper to each other and watch what happened on the screen. Then I asked them to shout and yell. The meter moved into the read, and the happy face changed to a frown. The students laughed but clearly understood the expectation.

Quiet Time = Focus Time

After demonstrating Too Noisy, I reiterated the protocol for writer’s workshop using a new prompt chart instead of Roy Peter Clark’s. It’s an amalgamation of different images I found when searching “writer’s workshop anchor chart” in Google Images. I modeled the format after a pin on Pinterest by Hello Literacy and borrowed ideas from several different charts I found as well as adding my own expectations. I think in the future, I will create charts like this with the students, but for the sake of expediency this time, I delineated the expectations. What mattered to me most, my primary goal, was to make sure the students were engaging with their writing for a concentrated period of time. After all, their deadline is  approaching closer every day! My student teacher Rebecca Spangenberg, helped me create chart below. She is a nascent blogger, reflecting on her student teaching experiences, and if you are interested, you can also follow her on WordPress at rebeccaspangenberg.wordpress.com.

writers-workshop

Never Underestimate the Power of Rewards!

Every single class period met my expectations on Friday, and as a result, I feel much more confident about moving forward with writing workshop. Next Wednesday, students will begin publishing their news stories using Google Sites, and many of them are excited (and some are are a bit nervous) about the fact that their work will be read by a wider audience. At the end of Friday’s class period, I gave students four Jolly Ranchers for their effort and hard work.

If you can share any strategies that you are using to create a smoother and more productive writer’s workshop, please share them with me! I am a newbie and welcome any suggestions you have!

You Catch More Bees with Honey . . .

This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.

So this post is about breaking old habits.

1. Wrangling with Writing

Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.

The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.

I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.

How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.

In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.

i-dont-know-what-to-write-about

2. The Grammar Gauntlet

Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.

The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.

3. The Long Lecture

One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.

Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.

4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results

The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.

  • I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
  • I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
  • I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
  • I am pushing past my own frustrations.
  • Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.