Category Archives: writing

Class Books: Let Them Read What They Write

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It’s possible that my love for class books originated from the one I received from the class that I student taught on my very last day of teaching them. It was a simple production: letters on notebook paper, crayon/colored pencil/marker drawings, and their school pictures. The fanciest thing about it was the laminated pages and plastic binding. Of course, the simplicity of it is part of what makes it so precious to me. Their heartfelt letters and drawings alongside their school photos still touch my heart. Since then, it has been in my classroom library in my “Student-authored Books” bin. Funnily, the students I’ve had since then have been drawn to it also. Every year, nearly all of my students read it at some point during the year; sometimes revisiting it more than once. Without even knowing my very first students, my later students couldn’t resist reading the book they made!

A purposeful, authentic audience to motivates writers. Fortunately, our classrooms have built in audiences: students! There is no shortage of content for class books: With the volume of writing students are producing in our classrooms, you could stock a classroom library shelf with student-authored books. In Writers’ Workshop alone, it’s possible that students have penned several pieces already.

It’s just a matter of putting the book together: Print out or copy all of their personal narratives, create a simple cover, and bind their work into a class book? Nothing elaborate–no need to ship them off to Blurb or Shutterfly. Just fold an 11×18 piece of construction paper in half and staple it down the side to bind it. If you’re feeling fancy, you can add some decorative duct or Washi tape to cover the staples.

Class books can be made outside of Writers’ Workshop, too. A Math Workshop station could have students write their own word problem for the concept being studies and a separate explanation of the answer. I’m imagining a class book made out of envelopes: the problem written on the envelope and the answer and explanation on an index card  inside the envelope. In science, students can create an alphabet book for the current topic or a timeline of a historical events for each time period studied in social studies.

Teaching students how to make books on their own would be empowering and motivating also. Look to Katie Wood Ray and her protege, Lisa Cleaveland, for inspiration, especially for our youngest writers in the primary grades.

Class books also motivate students to READ! I have found that students love rereading their work and the work of their classmates in these class books so much, that I often have to “discard” the totally worn out original copy and replace it with a “Second Edition” OR I end up making copies of especially powerful class books to GIVE to my students to keep. My authors have even gone around the room collecting each other’s autographs and asking for inscriptions like we would at a professional book signing.

Regardless of its form, class books are powerful and useful reading and writing tools. They are treasure-filled memories for all of the stakeholders and promote reading and writing in our youngest readers and writers.

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A Sea of Talk

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I have seen firsthand how turning and talking to a reader or writer next to you can energize students. Sometimes I’ll ask a class a question, and wait for a couple timid hands to slowly raise themselves. I’ll quickly follow-up with, “Turn and talk to the reader next to you about…” After a minute or so of discussion with a partner, the number of hands shoots up, often with nearly every student’s hand in the air! The benefits of giving students a chance to talk out their thinking are noticeable and necessary. When students talk before sharing out with the whole class, they get a chance to:

  • reassure themselves that they’re on the right track
  • rehearse verbalizing their thinking
  • deepen their understandings
  • take a risk with an audience of one rather than the whole class
  • have a peer explain in a kid-friendly terms
  • be heard
  • consider other perspectives
  • gain enough confidence to share out

Additionally, reading and writing are sometimes passive activities. How do we know what reading thinking is taking place if students only read silently? Discussing their reading and writing thinking energizes the learning and informs instruction. Engaging readers in a conversation about their predictions, confusions, wonderings, connections, or visualizations gives us a glimpse of what they’re doing well and where they can still grow as readers. A classroom of readers and writers hums with partners quietly sharing their thinking and responding to each other. In a classroom where rigorous conversation is expected and valued, readers and writers will do more than float on a sea of talk; they will soar.

Giant Literacy Word Wall

Man, I love a word wall. I always thought I did a good job with word walls because they easily covered close to half of my classroom wall space. Then I saw this image from an article in an issue of Science and Children called, “Interactive Word Walls” by Julie Jackson and Rose Narvaez:

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The word wall of my dreams! My brain exploded with both envy and inspiration! However, the closest I thought I could get to creating a realia-filled word wall of my own was showing it to as many teachers as possible and convincing one to do it in their rooms.

Thinking about my new office though, I realized I had PLENTY of wall space to create this masterpiece! So over the next several weeks, I’ll be brainstorming and gathering realia associated with literacy for my very own interactive word wall, complete with QR codes and student work.

What literacy words do you associate with each letter of the alphabet? Comment! I’m low on J, K, O, Q, X, Y, and Z, especially.

Musical Punctuation

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In the past ten years of my teaching career, I’ve avoided doing worksheets of punctuation practice because I haven’t seen students’ writing improve. Instead I’ve seen students work on them, seem to be proficient at using punctuation marks because all of the fill in the blanks are correct or the sentences have been edited appropriately, and then submit drafts without a lick of proper punctuation! Although *I* could fill a book the size of Oxford’s Dictionary with all of the conventions and grammar worksheets *I* did as a student, I don’t believe this single method made me proficient at using correct punctuation. Since this approach hasn’t shown me evidence of its effectiveness, and with time already weighing heavily on my daily routine, I tried to find a more beneficial use of classroom instruction for my students.

So for years, I attended to conventions instruction in one-on-one conferences and small group strategy lessons during writers’ workshop or in my thirty- minute blocks of language study. I would meet with students and do mini-lessons on the proper use of quotation marks in their narratives or making words possessive before asking them to edit their own drafts. Although this process was more fruitful than the wasteful worksheets I had used early in my career, I still felt students deserved something better, more meaningful.

When I saw a session at Literacy for All 2015 titled, “Practical Punctuation: Teaching Mechanics In The Writing Workshop (Grades 3–8),” I signed up. I was not expecting to be thrilled by punctuation instruction possibilities. I mean, how exciting can punctuation be?

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Turns out, this session was by far my favorite at Literacy for All 2015! The presenter, Dan Feigelson, shared his inquiry-based approach to punctuation during his session by asking, “How can we make students thoughtful punctuation decision-makers?” His thesis really struck me: punctuation is as much of an author’s choice as word choice. For instance, we’ve all read a piece of student’s writing that spans a page or more with no periods. Yet, no one would argue with Charlotte Bronte’s status as an eminent author for composing a sentence such as this in Jane Eyre:

Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. (page 123)

Mr. Feigelson’s constructivist methods allow students to explore the nuances of our language and make sense of the musical-like markings. This way, students come to see punctuation as purposeful rather than rules that have to be followed.

The general procedure for a punctuation inquiry mini-unit follows this framework:

  • allow students to explore a collection of mentor texts with the focus of noticing the author’s use of a certain punctuation mark, like commas or quotation marks
  • students collect sample sentences from mentor texts and classify them by common traits; this could be part of their daily independent reading (at school and/or home)
  • students create their OWN names and definitions for these traits
  • students experiment with this new punctuation on drafts they’ve already written
  • celebrate the revisions using a document camera; show the before and after drafts and have the author describe his/her punctuating choices

With this approach, the amount of ownership and creation makes punctuation seem less like rules imposed from a higher, unknown being and more like a useful tool for self-expression.

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After the mini-unit, there are many extension possibilities:

  • have students copy one of their own sentences and then justify every punctuation choice
  • after an interactive read aloud, pull interestingly punctuated sentences from the text to examine and discuss the author’s choices
  • choose a model sentence from a mentor text, and have students revise one of their own sentences in the manner of the mentor author
  • create a classroom how-to punctuation manual

Mr. Feigelson’s balance of inquiry and direct instruction strikes the perfect balance between teaching skills and purposeful, meaningful writing composition.

Heinemann has a sample of Dan Feigelson’s book, Practical Punctuation, to whet your punctuating appetite, or you can borrow my copy of the book from my office! If you’re a MPS elementary teacher, let me know if you’re interested in coplanning a mini-unit on punctuation inquiry! I also drafted a punctuation mini-unit that you can roll out and tweak.

Happy composing!

Quote Creators

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I love finding inspiring quotes in the books I’m reading! In fact, my students have a whole section of their reading notebooks devoted to quote collecting. It’s impactful work because it encourages:

  • “reading like a writer.” Being aware of how words are composed influences and excites us as writers. I want my writing to have the same kind of impact!
  • vocabulary acquisition. Often, my favorite quotes have some unusual, inspiring word choice. The conversations we’ve had in class while dissecting the nuanced meaning of words in quotes have been some of my most powerful teaching moments.
  • reading an author’s body of work. I know that Sharon Creech will always have some stimulating nuggets. She has such a gift with words!

Three FREE websites I’ve found and used to turn quotes from students’ readings into something you’d find on Etsy are Recite.comQuotescover.com, and Quozio.com. You can choose different styles, colors, and fonts! Have fun playing around, and happy reading!

Math Vocabulary Stations

I recently developed a math workshop lesson on math vocabulary using the ideas discussed in “Four Practical Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction” and “Oral Language Needs: Making Math Meaningful.” Using this information as inspiration, I created several stations focusing on practicing math vocabulary: Visual Dictionary, Vocabulary Tic-Tac-Toe, Connect Two, Vocabulary Magnets, and Math Revising.

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In my experience, introducing one station per day and culminating with actual rotations, where groups of students visit different stations, on the last day of the week helps management because the teacher can float to different stations to monitor and reinforce routines and expectations. However, I threw all of these stations at students on one day in order to show the classroom teacher all of the options quickly, and for the most part, they were successful–students were engaged and practiced vocabulary! Here are more details, including pictures, materials, and general directions, for each of the stations listed above:

Visual Dictionary

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Materials: index cards, chart paper, for later – ziploc bag or ring

General directions: After focus lesson on key vocabulary word, students draw a picture and write a sentence describing how their pictures represents the key word. Teacher reviews cards for formative assessment, returns cards once they are accurate, and students collect in Ziploc bag or on a ring to use as a resource.

Vocabulary Tic-Tac-Toe

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Materials: word wall, individual whiteboard with tic-tac-toe board made with electrical tape, dry erase marker, dry erase eraser

General directions: Students record vocabulary words on tic-tac-toe board. To place their X or O, students need to define, give an example of, etc. the word.

Vocabulary Magnets

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Materials: word wall, magnet letters, magnetic surface (radiator, side of file cabinet, extra whiteboard, cookie sheet, etc.)

General directions: Students use the word wall to practice spelling the words to gain familiarity and lose anxiety about using the words in discussion or writing. After they’ve practiced the words, they play Jumble (choose a word from the wall, mix up the magnet letters, and partner has to guess the word) or Hangman with a partner.

Connect Two

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Materials: word wall, Connect Two paper

General directions: Students work in a group to discuss everything they know about all of the words on the word wall. After the discussion, they work independently to choose two words and describe how the two words are connected.

Math Revising

Materials: a piece of math writing, Math Revising Rubric, red pen

General directions: Students self-assess a piece of their math writing using the rubric and providing evidence for the score. They revise their writing, and then score the revised draft.

These stations are easily adaptable to other content areas. In addition, they don’t need to be done as a set. Instead, you could add just one of them to your Math Workshop station rotation to reinforce math vocabulary.

How could you use or adapt these stations to meet the needs of your Vocabulary Virtuosos?

Resource-Based Question Resources

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I remember document-based questions (DBQ’s) from the AP US History exam, for which I had to analyze and synthesize several primary and secondary sources to answer the question. I enjoyed the task (NERD!), and before I’d heard of PARCC, I had my students work on DBQ’s throughout the year, usually in social studies. Now that PARCC is here, I’ve started calling these tasks “resource-based questions” (RBQ’s) since there’s a new emphasis on multimedia resources. It is the 21st century after all. I’ve started collecting sites that offer RBQ and DBQ resources.

What resources do you use to help students synthesize multiple sources?