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.

Grading Secrets

Monday, October 3, 2011

Throwing Ideas Around

I can't really respond to Ladson-Billings 2006 article, "A Letter to Our Next President." It's too depressing.

I couldn't pick just one article. (How do you pick one without at least reading some of it? Then I have to keep going.) Lots of stuff in there. I have to marinate some of those ideas a little. Spoken language and writing. Voice. Rules. All strike me as a way of breaking down - or not building in the first place - barriers between students and writing.

Also, its making me think of all my students that frequently converse during academic group work in Spanish. I'm learning about their parallel literate lives. It's fascinating. I'm trying to figure out how to open that door, so to speak.

On a side note about dialect and voice and "proper" English, we should probably also include technological communication. It's a form of speaking/voice that's very different, with so many acronyms and slangs and vocabulary words - and it often trickles into "academic writing."

They remind me of something I was thinking about a while back.

Ok, have to think on it a little and wait for it. Maybe this is me planning.

Confession of a Harried Non-Planner

I do not plan. Ok, maybe that's not true, entirely. But I do not plan on paper. I do not use graphic organizers. I do not outline or take notes before writing essays. Even written lesson planning is not my strong suit. Although I have been known to make a list or two.

I guess I would say I plan in my head, although I'm not sure that's any different than just thinking about stuff. I mentioned before that blogging suits me because I just start writing. But I pretty much do that with any writing. 2, 5, 25, 50 page papers - I just started writing. Research papers - I do loads and loads of reading. But no real planning. Then I wait for it to come. It. The impetus to write.

So, the chapter I picked this week from Best Practices is "Best Practices in Teaching Planning." I figured I might learn a thing or two.

First, I laughed out loud when the author wrote about the kid who says he can't write because he "doesn't know where the pencil sharpener is." I have a text-to-classroom connection for that one. ;)

I was particularly interested in the section on teaching strategies for planning a report. I was struck by how broken down and explicit it was. I was also struck by the discussion of the inquiry and prewriting phases of planning, and how lengthy they were! The idea of spending a writing class in a wheelchair in order to better write about someone with a disability? I can hardly imagine doing something like that in class, but it makes so much sense! If we want our kids to write with all their senses, about life's experiences and mistakes and wonderment, we have to give them time and space to explore the world. I've done the occasional "Let's go outside and write sensory details" thing, but what this chapter makes me think is that what I really need to do in my writing time is slow down.

I'm feeling rushed, and so I'm rushing them. I need to have this and that in the portfolios, and student work on the walls, and it's the beginning of the year so I have none of that, so HURRY UP AND WRITE SOMETHING KIDS!

Seriously, that's what I've been doing to them. Funny to have read this chapter tonight because today was probably the best writing session we've had yet. (Granted it was a short writing period.) A couple things were different. One, I decided that we needed to start writing with a meeting on the carpet. Then, we had a general conversation about writing and what we were thinking about it. We're supposed to write these "Life Plans," so that's my writing theme for the next couple weeks, but I'm trying to put a spin on it a little. We talked about how they've written them in the past. (They do this every year.)

Then I read them this quote, and asked them to talk about it:
"If you don't know where you're from, you'll have a hard time saying where you're going." ~Wendell Barry

And finally, I read them George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From. (Brian is probably cringing reading this, but I had never even heard of this poem until he mentioned how overused it was in some schools.) We talked about it, and about how parts of it made no sense to us and how we thought that was probably because it was something that was so personal to the author that we wouldn't necessarily get every detail but could get the overall vibe.

Then we all spent about 10 minutes on the carpet writing/sketching in our notebooks under the heading, "Where I'm From." I wrote too - the first time I've done it in front of them. It seemed pretty powerful, I have to say. I just haven't been able to get my #$%% together enough to do it. And then we shared, and laughed over our common memories of sibling torture and parental threats and tasty food and mischievous plots. And what I'm totally loving about that is that A, everyone was actually writing; B, everyone seemed pretty into it; C, it felt like a community of writers for the first time, with sharing and getting inspiration of each other; and D, this list is not only going to help us write this Copy/Change poem, but become a repository of ideas to go back to for writing.

Of course, at the time I was thinking, "Good God, that's all we got through today? We're so behind." But now, I'm thinking this was time very well spent.

A Bridge to Best Practices

I've been so frustrated these past few weeks reading Best Practices in Writing Instruction. I feel like there such a gaping hole between what our curriculum requires of us and what we know to be best practices. Don't get me wrong, there are some things I like about our curriculum. It encourages the process of writing. Which is awesome. It encourages the analysis of various pieces of writing before trying it out on our own, and uses lots of modeling and the gradual release of responsibility. But it can be incredibly prescriptive and confining for my young writers. Our focus is on the five paragraph essay - for three grading periods out of the year. Then we move to the five paragraph persuasive essay for the final marking period. I have found it near impossible to find mentor texts outside of our curriculum book that we can use that follow the structure of what I'm trying to teach. Who writes 5 paragraph essays? Seriously, if you can find an awesome, poignant 5 paragraph intro-body-conclusion style essay in a magazine, newspaper, blog, etc - send it my way. 4, 6, or 7 paragraphs would work too.
Anyway, I think the big missing piece for me is the motivation piece. Almost my entire class detests writing. So first on my agenda, or maybe I should say next to about 43583 other things on my agenda, is getting my kids to enjoy writing. I think that comes with choice and voice in writing, which is hard to do within the 5-paragraph essay structure.
So I finally ordered Joann Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher's Nonfiction Craft Lessons. I think I should have ordered this book a long time ago. (Thank you Amazon!) I love love love love this book. It has copies of mentor texts in the back that I think I could weave into our curriculum, and sample mini-lessons that actually show the language used during the mini-lessons - something I really need right now. So many of the lessons completely align with our curriculum but have a little more zazz in them. (Did you know that Urban Dictionary actually includes the word zazz?)
I'm excited!