Thursday, December 15, 2011

Topics of Personal Importance

My son Jackson, who is in kindergarten, is sitting at the table right now practicing writing on a dry erase board. The sentence he just came up with using invented spelling:

I fa and pee.
(I fart and pee.)


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Student Writing Samples

Just stumbled across this and wanted to share. (It also doesn't hurt that by posting it here, I am sure to find it again when I need it.)

It's a large PDF of student writing samples across the grades. Not all genres are included, but it's still pretty awesome.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Spelling and Handwriting: Lessons from Best Practices

The book mentions Words Their Way as an effective spelling/phonics/word study program that is rooted in the current research about spelling. I love this program and have used it for the few years that I have been in schools, and I do notice success for most of my students using it. One of the biggest challenges in implementing the program, however, is finding a structure that works while differentiating to each child. Whole class spelling lessons where everyone is learning the same words - WAY EASIER. For me - not necessarily the kids. It's been a challenge to find ways to organize both the time and the materials to implement the Words Their Way program, or even a modified version of it, to such a diverse group of learners - I have students who are Emergent Spellers all the way up through the Derivational Relations stage of spelling.

I was shocked to learn that there is apparently a controversy about whether to teach cursive first when we start teaching handwriting. I'm not sure I can back this opinion up with reasons, and it might stem entirely from longstanding tradition deep in my veins and early school memories; but I think that's an AWFUL idea!

But here's my attempt at reasons. I'm thinking about how Jackson reverses his lowercase B and D. I'm also thinking about the close relationship between writing and reading - and in those early grades, forming letters in handwriting is a kinesthetic way of learning about the letters they are later going to be reading. Books, websites, all the things we want them to be reading in the primary grades (and even in most of life) are in print, not cursive.

I do, however, think cursive should still be taught. I also happen to think keyboarding should be taught. I realize that fitting both, or even either, of these things into our extremely crowded curriculum and days seems damn near impossible. Then again, we did it.

On the other hand, writing back then was less about content, meaning, writing-as-in-putting-cohesive-thoughts-on-paper. My parents still think I'm talking about penmanship when I talk about teaching writing.

As you can see, I go back and forth on the realities of teaching handwriting in school. My sixth graders are begging me to teach them cursive. I promised them some practice pages, but do I actually have time in the school day to teach cursive the way good old Mrs. Hrehocik taught it to me back in second grade? Is showing them how to make one letter a day enough?

Ah, it's all so overwhelming sometimes.

Quick Thoughts on What Makes an Effective Sentence

I'm thinking about two things while I'm reading the chapter on building sentences as a writer.

The first is the six-word memoir idea that I keep seeing around. I know that some of these six word memoirs "technically" count as more than one sentence, but it's interesting to think about how much of a challenge it can be to pack content into only a few words, which is the goal of writing an effective sentence.

The second is the writing I had to endure during today's professional development from the Common Core math standards. Listen to this one:
"They bring two complementary abilities to bear on problems involving quantitative relationships: the ability to decontextualize - to abstract a given situation and represent it symbolically and manipulate the representing symbols as if they have a life of their own, without necessarily attending to their referents - and the ability to contextualize, to pause as needed during the manipulation process in order to probe into the referents for the symbols involved."
That sentence is a gem, isn't it? Anyone who wants to diagram it? ;)

Anyway, I liked this chapter as it made me think about how important it is to balance looking at the "big picture" - things like the writing process, or publishing pieces of writing; and also the parts that make up the whole - things like sentence fluency and variety. One thing I will say is I am going to try to focus on doing this in the context of their own writing. In the past, it seems like the kids haven't quite connected my grammar lessons to their own writing, and I think that's because I wasn't connecting it to it. (Although I will say, the entire Editing and Revising portion of the CMT is about editing and revising completely out of context - wouldn't it be better to show revision and editing on the piece they have to do for the prompt?)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Pretending I'm Not Scared

This disgusting creature is what I realized was crawling on the wall behind me in the middle of a math demonstration.

I was alerted to this fact by the sudden outburst of 29 children screeching and jumping out of their chairs.

Did I mention my illogical fear of creepy crawlies? Look, I've already killed spiders and various other disgusting things in the classroom that were well over my 3 millimeter threshold of fear. All while pretending to be calm, of course.

This thing? I'm estimating he was about 3 inches long. No way was I attempting a whack at this thing, climbing over the Smartboard. What if I missed, but knocked it off, only to have it land on my head? I'd be quickly joining the ranks of the screaming and jumping kids.

Thank heavens I teach sixth grade. One of my boys got up, looked at the screaming crew (mostly girls) and struck it down in one blow. The girls were impressed, which he enjoyed.

5 minutes later, I was finally able to resume the math lesson. After of course, a mini-lecture on how not to react when you see a bug. "Good grief guys, have you never seen a bug before? What is there to be scared of?"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Finding Mentor Texts at Unlikely Moments

Sunday, I wandered around the house with my phone, trying to get a bar of service so I could check the news. Finally, I managed to get some news stories to load.

And as I'm reading them trying to find out how long we're going to be stranded in darkness (Again!), I think, "Hey, this would be a great mentor text! Look at this interesting language! Descriptive words! Imagery! Similes!"

Thought I'd share.

This New York Times article.
"Not a light, mischievous form of frozen precipitation."
"...children whose costumes were obscured by winter coats as they lined up at the North Portico for a treat of cookies, M&Ms and dried fruit."

"snow-covered tree branches popped like firecrackers" (That is what it sounded like. Or gunfire. It was terrifying!)

Always nice to find good expository mentors!

Spaces, Places, & Tools for Learning

Where do we learn? How do we make space, in physicality and time, for the types of learning we'd like to include in our classroom?

Sitting here in Panera, basking in the glow of their WiFi, I'm thinking about these questions. Jackson is sitting across from me, typing messages to my sister. They're generally very long and filled with many consonants and few spaces, sprinkled with the occasional words he knows how to spell and a few that T9 creatively correct for him. What's he learning about writing? What's he learning about life in this unexpected week of no school? And no electricity? Certainly this week is fodder for writing ideas. The warmest AND snowiest October on record. Halloween cancelled. The third week this year with no power. How to cook pancakes on a griddle on a coffee table in the living room, where the generator powers an outlet.

So many outside influences on what goes on in the classroom. Snow days, hurricanes, illness, family emergencies and issues, and of course, the ever looming MANDATES. Some days, all requirements and mandates of and for teaching leave me stranded on the couch at midnight, actually feeling the crush of stress as I desperately try to find something utterly stupid on TV to take my mind off the 8,498,949,358 things I'm supposed to have done, half of which are yet unfinished.

So, I really enjoyed this week's readings. They were very reflective of things I'm experiencing in the classroom currently. How to balance the high stakes of testing with the rest of the world of writing? I read Rankie-Shelton and Fu's article about Nancy, a teacher who seemed to find something that worked for her. Bringing in both the writing workshop model and an intensive period of test preparation, her writers managed to navigate the world of high stakes writing tests while still building a love of writing. It seemed to me that her class was able to make it through those 6 weeks of test prep and the test itself as a result of the writing community they had built up over time during the writing workshop - the trust they had in each other to share their writing and critique it, their resolve in working together to build their crafts. I found the article inspiring and saved it on my hard drive. ;)

From there to more specific and immediate concerns. The chapter on revision and evaluation in Best Practices was one of the best yet. I love the POWER mnemonic for the writing process and am totally stealing that. I've been struggling lately to get my kids to revise their writing at all, and have been modeling revising and focusing on revising for certain qualities of writing. Even so, I still have kids who will reread their papers, look back and forth through the pages, serious expressions on their faces, deep in thought, and then look up and say, "Nope, nothing needs changing. I'm done."

This was of course, before I realized that I would need to devote much, much, much more time in writing class to the teaching of revising that I had originally planned. I liked how MacArthur pointed out that in teaching revising, we continue to teach the craft of writing and it will apply in future writing. Usually by the time we get to the revision stage, especially of assigned writing, we all just want to be done with it.

(Side note: I just got Georgia Heard's The Revision Toolbox and I really love it. (Check out some sample lessons from it here. It's a PDF.) We cracked geodes in class last week as part of an anchor lesson on "cracking open our writing" and the kids loved it. And I've used some of the activities in there and the kids really enjoyed them. They seem to be starting to help - and funnily enough, I see it more when they are drafting something than when they are revising it.

Anyway, I digress. So, those kids whose writing is perfect. I have a temptation to laugh when they say it because I'm so with them (as a non-planning, non-revising writer). I've been working on really breaking down the task of revision - starting with something so simple as "Reread it." So I liked the mention of think sheets for revising, with directions for the editor (whether its peer or self), and clear, explicit steps for how to revise. I think my kids are pretty good at making changes - but they have a really hard time finding what they should change and are constantly asking me. Of course, my goal is for them to be able to evaluate their own writing and decide what needs to be changed. I've been bringing in some criteria checklists for them after we read the book on Formative Assessment, and it seems to be helping somewhat. I think the evaluation questions they mention in the chapter will be helpful in directing them to a place that needs revision. I also love how peer response groups are used and while I constantly think about teaching my kids to revise each other's work, we haven't really gotten that deep into it yet. We're mostly at the peer-editing/proofreading stage of things.

Ok. So I just changed the order of two paragraphs in this blog, added a couple sentences and changed a word. Does that count as revising? Trying to practice what I preach. ;)

Thursday, October 27, 2011


It's amazing what a sense of accomplishment laminating gives me.

Thank you, Scotch Thermal Laminator, for getting me through this time of never feeling like I am ever, ever, ever, going to have everything done that needs to be done.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Assessing Student Writing

One of my big take-aways from Overmeyer's book, What Student Writing Teaches Us, is the use of student self-assessment. I sometimes wonder if we reduce student independence by over-using rubrics and criteria charts and "constructive feedback." I often find that once we finish a draft, students expect me to do all the revising and editing of their work. Moving students toward being able to look back over their work and assess their strengths and weaknesses is a big goal of mine and this book gave me some tools and ideas for doing so. I particularly like his criteria list for assessing writing - a tool he created after finding that the point-based rubric he had been using wasn't quite working as a tool for improving writing. Since we want our kids to focus on certain characteristics of writing rather than what points go where, this strikes me as a fantastic choice. I'm going to try it out with the drafts we're working on in class now and see how it goes.

Now onto what it is sticking in my craw after reading this. Grades. I hate grading writing, especially so early in the year when we've only barely scratched the surface of exploring the world of it. But in a short 9 weeks - especially the first one that includes at least one week of getting to know each other activities, I'm supposed to have enough grades to put together for a marking period grade. Overmeyer's suggestion that we can grade the trajectory toward a standard was enlightening - although it is at odds with a lot of the other information we tend to get as teachers about what grades should entail. Quite frankly, I don't even want to grade the first few pieces of writing - I'd prefer giving qualitative feedback in the form of identifying strengths to build on and areas to focus on. I have so many kids who have such low confidence in themselves as writers that it's tempting to just hand out As like they are candy so they can feel at least one success in writing. But then, if we move toward grading that trajectory, and including effort, grading becomes so much more subjective (which is already is, especially in writing). I mean, I know what Student A's best effort looks like, which might look nothing like Student B's best effort. But how do I justify that grade? And as Overmeyer points out, kids biggest complaint about grading is fairness. Is it fair?

Your thoughts?

The Writing Process & Drafting

I was thinking about this after our last few classes and some of the discussion about what the writing process and what exactly that means for each of us. Obviously, there's no cut and dry process that works for everyone. I've said before I'm not much of a planner. I'm also not much of a reviser, which makes my writing process particularly short. ;)

But I liked this blog from Two Writing Teachers about using drafts in the classroom and what they mean, plus how they tie in with the writing notebook. Getting my head wrapped around the idea that the writer's notebook is kind of like a pre-writing/idea-gathering place was a big paradigm shift for me. We do all our drafts on loose paper now. It's been working for us pretty well actually. I also like that it shows the kids that not every single thing we write must go through the prewriting/drafting/revising/editing machine. Sometimes we just write to get words on paper. Sometimes we just write to think. Sometimes we pour out some garbage cause it feels good.

Drafting on separate paper is also good for us since it allows us to cut things up/move them around as we begin to think about what we would like our final published products to look like - adding in illustrations with captions, changing the format, etc.

I also prefer "First Best Draft" to "Sloppy Copy."

Just some random thoughts. ;)

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Writing Conference as an Essential Part of Assessment

I have to admit I'm having such a hard time getting my kids to understand what conferences look like in the writing workshop. I still have the hapless hand-raisers who will sit there and stare into space while I'm conferring with another student. We've talked about it, and some days it works, but other days I just arrive at my first planned conference and before I know it, I have 5 or 6 hands in the air accompanied by the "zone-out" look - that look that tells me they are apparently going to do nothing else but raise their hand at me until I get there.

I'm wondering if having conferences at a specific location in our room - like the guided reading table - will change that. But I like the idea of moving around the room for conferences since they become learning experiences for those neighbors who listen in.

Anyway, as a result of this, I'm having a hard time building in the conference as assessment - with goal setting and record keeping because I feel like I'm bouncing all over the place.

Any suggestions for me?

While We're On that Topic

Motivating Boy Writers - a great blog. I found this great piece (it's lengthy) on teaching boy writers via their blog - it's filled with interesting ideas, including the importance of using visual prompts as a path into writing for boys.

BOOK REVIEW: Boy Writers

One of Ralph Fletcher's more academic works, this is definitely worth a read. He goes through all the statistics on boy writers - and time after time, girls are scoring significantly higher than boys on writing assessments. Calling this a "failure to thrive," he details potential reasons for this achievement gap and lays out practical ways of meeting the needs of our boy writers.

"I wanted to write a scary story but my teacher made me stop writing it. She said it might freak out the class." -4th grade boy, as quoted in Boy Writers (p. 41)
A way of raising the value of writing for all our writers, choice is essential in getting our male students to write. Fletcher goes on to point out that the testing frenzy has undermined the value of choice in writing for all students, but goes a step further and notes that boy's choices tend to be deterred even in classrooms that value student voice and choice in writing.

Monsters, aliens, hero stories, war stories, violence, drugs, military situations, injuries, hurting someone else, sports, dislike for school and/or teachers, four-wheelers, Captain Underpants, comics, physical challenges, destroying evil characters, video games. Just a few of the topics teachers mention their boys want to write about. All have a potential element of danger. In this post-Columbine world, I have to admit, I wondered how and when to draw the line in my own classroom.

I had two brothers and a son, so this chapter in the book comes as no surprise. Captain Underpants, Super Diaper Baby, Wimpy Kid, Walter the Farting Dog. The popularity of these books points to boys ever-lasting love affair with anything that has to do with butts and farts. Heaven knows my son thinks the funniest answer to any question is, "Buttcheek." Fletcher persuades his audience to allow boys humor in their writing, building it up as "voice," and taking things on a case-by-case basis as to when they go too far.

This is undeniably a huge part of boys too-often dislike of writing class. Handwriting can be such a laborious task for many of our boys that the physical act of getting letters on paper overrides their ability to actually focus on the content of their writing. I remember once reading that while we began teaching handwriting in kindergarten (or before!), boys are actually not physically ready for the fine motor act of handwriting until the age of 7 - much later than girls. This difference is apparent long after kindergarten - and I think as teachers we have a tendency to focus on the handwriting (after reading countless essays, it can get a little tricky.) rather than the content. Fletcher encourages teaching keyboarding and using technology to ease this, while continuing to focus on the strength's of our boys writing.

"You suck." "That bike is nasty." Put-downs. Slang. All language commonly found in boys' writing. Fletcher encourages us to encourage their use of descriptive language and be flexible when allowing students to use slang in writing. I would say this goes to knowing who your audience is when writing someone.

One important part of this chapter. Fletcher notes that many of the boys he interviewed during the writing of the book strongly remembered criticism they received on their writing - even comments we may, as teachers, view as passing ones, or "constructive criticism." He points out the power of a positive comment, as a route for students continuing to build on their strengths. I would say this goes for all our students. It can be hard, at times, to find lots of positive in student writing samples when errors glare out at us - something in us hardwired to find the stuff that needs "fixed", perhaps. But a comment about a great lead, or incredible imagery, can take our boy writers a long way. Many students he interviewed remembered seemingly small positive comments given to them from past teachers - even years later.

Boy Writers is a thought-provoking book for anyone who has ever attempted to teach writing to a diverse class that includes boys with all different interests and abilities. He definitely gives us stuff to think about - something I think is maybe particularly interesting for elementary teachers - since so many of us are female.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I needed this today.

Today was a messy day. It's comforting to know I'm not the only one.

Launching writing workshop this year has been my most challenging experience in all of the subjects. I find this somewhat ironic since I spent all of last year teaching writing (and not math, science, or social studies) and am having the biggest challenge with it this year. I can't quite seem to hit my stride. Of course, it's different every year with different groups of kids. I have a lot of reluctant (putting it nicely) writers and it's been really hit or miss on whether we seem to get any sparks ignited for writing on any given day.


I think I like this idea. A lot. Maybe enough to make this my course final project plan.