Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Community Inspires Writers




Tuesdays are Slice of Life day hosted by the writing community at Two Writing Teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in!

Today has been one of those days when it's hard to get going on my Slice of Life.  Not because I don't have anything to write about--I could write about my coffee on the sunny deck or our encounter with a crabby diving mask salesman or swimming with sea turtles or being stalked by barracuda or deciding to walk to the restaurant three blocks down for late in the day key lime pie. The trouble with writing today is that it takes time. 

I have to thank Larkin because she gave me the push I needed.  Larkin is at college, so we are having our first vacation without her. (Please notice that I did not write family vacation!) When we came off of the boat, I had a text waiting for me. 

Let's just take a moment and think about how happy it makes me that my daughter who is a college freshman has joined this writing community, and not only has joined, but reminds me of my commitment to it as well. When I responded that I needed ideas as well, she wanted to know about our day. 


She immediately texted me back that I had an amazing post. I just had to write it. 

I have tried to explain to Larkin that I work hard to keep a balance of education and life moments in my slices, so once again, I was trying to figure out how to make my foray into snorkeling with some cute and some scary ocean denizens fit into the mission of my blog which is educational, when I realized that the link is all about the writing community. This morning's call for quests asking if we are yearlong bloggers and Larkin's assumption that even on vacation I would be blogging inspire me and remind me of my commitment to write. Communities inspire writers.

Thank you to Larkin and to the rest of the community.

Happy Writing!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

March Madness Book Edition 2015: Championship and Champion Announcement!

My class loved Fish in a Tree and One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, as read alouds this year so it was no surprise that both titles were voted into our championship round! 
  

We are huge fans of Lynda Mullaly Hunt and for the past 2 years, One for the Murphys has been in our championship round and won! So I couldn't wait to see how students would vote between two of their favorite read alouds from this year because it was going to be a tough decision.  

 And the champion title is…

 drum roll please…



This is the third class that has voted One for the Murphys to be the champion so if you have not had the honor of reading this book, I highly and strongly suggest that you pick it up to read soon!

Thank you Lynda Mullaly Hunt for bring Carley and Ally into our lives! :)

Working With Strong Writers

Throughout the year, I have had several teachers ask me about working with their stronger writers. I am always happy to talk about this topic. Here are a few ideas for working with this population of young writers:

  1. Use mentor texts. Develop a cache of go-to writing for your units and mark them up so that students can study craft moves. Specific annotate pieces, either in the margins or on the pages with Post-its so that students have a visible representation of what the craft move is and what it looks like. Challenge these students to try out the craft moves in their own writing. Some go-to mentor texts, broken down by genre include:
    1. Narrative:
      1. Anything by Cynthia Rylant, Patricia MacLachlan, Eve Bunting,or Kevin Henkes.
      2. For small moments, Roller Coaster by Marla Frazee, Fireflies by Julie Brinkloe, and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.
    2. Information:
      1. I love the nonfiction books that Nicola Davies writes, because she includes such beautiful language and craft moves for hooking and interesting readers.
      2. Any of the National Geographic publications because they all feature catchy introductions and conclusions with an assortment of text features.
    3. Opinion
      1. I am constantly on the hunt for editorials and debate examples that I can share with students. Lego’s recent debate about whether to market pink Legos spurred some great writing of strong opinions about this topic.
      2. Youtube videos of persuasive speeches. Whatever craft moves work in speeches typically works in writing.
      3. Martin Luther King’s speech, I Have a Dream, is full of powerful strategies for opinion writers--repetition, images, personal stories, emotional references all appear in this historic speech.


  1. Develop or obtain grade level checklists for each genre- narrative, information, and opinion/argument-- and make them student friendly. Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins is an incredible resource for student-friendly, genre-specific, spiraling checklists.

If you don’t have access to this book, study the Common Core State Standards and develop some checklists that show progressions for students. For each type of writing, subtle difference ramp up the level and sophistication of writing.
Once students learn to use these checklists or progression ladders, they can study the nuances that exist between grade level, as they move of the ladder of writing sophistication. Students who excel at writing will be inspired to set and meet goals in their written work.

  1. Set up seminars for students. Even students in lower elementary grades will like the concept of signing up for seminars, since even the name sounds collegiate and high level. Better yet, enlist some of your strong writers to become “experts.” Perhaps they can apply for expert status, by demonstrating the skill or presenting evidence of the skill in their work. It’s never too early to teach students skills that are involved with job applications. The picture below is of a bulletin board in a third-grade classrooms. The “experts” are thrilled to continue to develop their skill and feel a strong sense of responsibility to do so, while their peers enjoy learning from other students. Meanwhile, the classroom teacher is freed up to work with more students.

Lisa's wall.jpg


4.   If you teach genre-specific units, encourage strong students to try to write in a different genre. For example, students can write a story to illustrate an opinion or  to prove a point. Here’s a potential example:
One day, I was left at the soccer field. All around me, my friends left, but no one realized that I didn’t have a ride home. If only I had a cell phone...

Narrative is also a powerful genre for teaching readers. High functioning writers who have met the standards of information writing might really enjoy the challenge of embedding information into a narrative piece along the lines of a biography or a Little House on the Prairie episode. If you are comfortable with poetry, encourage writers to use poetry for any of the genres.


Hopefully, somewhere in this post, you will find an idea that inspires you to challenge some of the children in your classroom who are brimming with writing enthusiasm.

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Snapshots and Snippets from an Afternoon With a Staff Developer




Tuesdays are Slice of Life day hosted by the writing community at Two Writing Teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in!

I had the privilege of watching our Staff Developer from Teachers College, Christine Holley, do a read aloud in a first-grade classroom. Because I had have read the book, Leonardo the Terrible Monster  by Mo Willems, several times, I focused not on the plot of the story, but on Christine's art of delivering a read aloud. Here are some of the major noticings I had in the less than ten minutes that she read:

  • She talked about the thinking and the talking that happens in books, introducing the book, predicting what terrible would mean, and cueing the students to try to figure out why Leonardo was so terrible. 
  • She modeled visualization, challenging students to think about how big another monster was in the book.
  • She gave the students an opportunity to act, asking them to show her what Leonardo was doing to be scary. "Show me just your face, not your noises," Christine directed when the students got carried away.
  • She varied her voice, both the volume and the speed, so that students quieted down and engaged in the story. 
  • She maintained a purposeful pace and balance of interacting with the text, tucking in her thinking and modeling her personal connections to the story.
  • She asked the students to turn and talk, scaffolding their conversations by writing "I think ________ because_________" on a piece of chart paper. When she asked students to share some of their thoughts, she asked them to say the whole sentence. This subtle move is so important in helping students practice the oral skills that help them develop their writing skills. 

After the read-aloud, Christine's work with the students continued, as she led them in a whole group conversation about the book. More on whole group conversations will be coming up in other posts...


When Staff Developers work with our teachers, I have gotten into the habit of creating a section in my notes for lines I want to remember. Somehow, these people just string together words and lines about teaching and learning that inspire me. Here are some of the lines from Christine's presentation today:
  • “If you hold them (the students) to saying what you want them to say, then they won’t say anything.”
  • "Always think about how we are going to engage the kids."
  • “Anything you say should be to get students to think bigger.”
  • “It’s really important to think about what the book introduction is going to be when you're doing a read-aloud."
  • “Learning through the illustrations is inferring.”
  • “Some books are worth revisiting and some are not.”
  • “Be clear about your purpose and vary the genres.”
  • “When you read, you talk and react and think.”
 I always feel so fortunate to work in our district and get to be part of this sort of professional development. I hope that the snapshots and snippets of the day can inspire others out there!

Happy reading-aloud!



Monday, April 6, 2015

March Madness Book Edition 2015: Our Final Four Announced!

Students were very excited to vote for our Final Four today! The energy and anticipation in our classroom were high while the results were appearing on their screens as they submitted their votes on Google forms.  I am pleased to announce the four amazing titles that are in our Final Four: 

If you have not had the honor and pleasure of reading these four titles, we highly recommend that you put them at the top of your TBR piles!
The students realized today that 3 out of 4 of the titles were read alouds in our classroom this year! The students love these four books and already know it is going to be extremely tough to choose only one champion!
Stay tuned :)

Sunday, April 5, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper is a complex story set in North Carolina in 1932, as African Americans were registering to vote in hostile and dangerous environment. This book not only tackles historic themes of struggle, oppression, and racism, but also universal themes such as struggles with learning, empathy, and personal responsibility. With an engaging plot, Sharon Draper pulled me right into the fear, frustration, and anger of Stella's family, giving a personal look at the struggles for basic human rights that people endured in our country. 

I attended a conference in Boston put on by the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Because Bryan Collier was one of the presenters, I read some of his books over the weekend. Uptown Bryan Collier's first book, was inspired by The Snowy Day. This book contains repetitive language and strong images of Harlem. Collier's collages are beautiful and launched his career as an illustrator. 


Because The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats served as a mentor text for Uptown, I brought it home from the library and reread it. The simple language and drawings remain powerful, even after years of sitting on library shelves. It's fun to read these two books side by side and find the inspiration that Ezra Jack Keats' work provided to Bryan Collier.


 Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and illustrated by Bryan Collier was available for purchase at the conference and will be available in another couple of weeks in bookstores. It is an autobiography, telling the story of Troy's musical development in New Orleans. The words and language are lyrical, the images are memorable, and the collages are beautiful. This is another great book to add to collections of resilience, growth mindset, and perseverance.

Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill  and illustrated by Bryan Collier is one of my new favorites books. Based on the true story of a slave named Dave who made over 40,000 pots during his lifetime, it is a wonderful example of narrative nonfiction. The amazing teachers at The Classroom Bookshelf have collected and mined an incredible collection of resources to add depth to inquiry lessons you can teach through this amazing story. 




Happy Reading!



Saturday, April 4, 2015

March Madness Book Edition 2015: Our Elite Eight!

Last week, it was time for us to vote for our Elite Eight! The results from our Google forms survey were close, but the titles in the Elite Eight are….


The students are already trying to make tough decisions about who to vote for Monday for our Final Four and are rallying behind their favorites by recommending them to classmates.  We are working on argument writing during writing workshop, so students are getting savvy in setting up strong arguments for their favorite titles! This has also encouraged students to pick up and read books that they might not usually want to read, and they are finding out that they actually like the book! This has been a great lesson in how we can't judge a book quickly based on the cover or genre because we might really like them if we give them a chance! 
Stay tuned for our Final Four Results! 




Monday, March 30, 2015

Slice #31 of 31- What I Won't Forget

During the month of March, I have participated in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the community of writers at Two Writing Teachers. Many of my slices are at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but ones that deal specifically with education appear at Two Reflective Teachers








Dear Slice of Life Community,

This is an open note of thanks. You have all inspired me throughout the month. 

You reminded me that our impact, our lasting impact, on students intertwines with how we make those students feel. While I do not remember every comment, I am arriving at April 1st with confidence as a writer and as a thinker because all month, I have basked in the support and positive energy of this community. That feeling will endure.

You provided me with writing ideas I would not have thought of. On some days, I wasn't sure what to write, and I found seeds of ideas in your words. I also found wisdom that helped me find my stories, value my voice, and reassert my beliefs about the importance of literacy. 

You commented on my posts, even when I didn't think they were very interesting or funny or smart. When you wrote that my post made you laugh or cry or think, or that you were going to share my ideas with colleagues, I felt important and energized to write again tomorrow. 

You confessed your struggles and your fear of putting your writing out their in public. Isn't it scary to put our words out there? Yes, we worry about the typos, spelling, and grammar mistakes, but the ideas and the snippets of our lives are even bigger worries. I felt safe with my writing because of your comments and reactions, because of your honesty and reflections about how you feel the same way.

You wrote about and shared incredible teaching practices. I know that I spent way more time reading than writing this month. The students within my reach have reaped the benefits of the collective knowledge of this community about engagement, literacy, and self-efficacy.

You made me a better educator, writer, and learner.

I am humbled by your intelligence, eloquence, discipline, and commitment to reflection and continuous improvement. 

I thank you all.

I will miss you as part of my daily life, but I will see you on Tuesdays.

As always, happy slicing,

Sunday, March 29, 2015

It's Monday! Here's What I'm Reading...

This month, I have committed to writing every day through the community at Two Writing Teachers. All are welcome to the March Slice of Life Challenge! It's not too late to join in or comment or just read... Many of my posts will be at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but the posts that relate explicitly to learning will be on both blogs. 

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

I visited my daughter in college over the weekend, and one of our favorite things to do is to go read picture books at the local Barnes and Noble. Even though she is nineteen, it is a wonderful way to spend time when we need a break from shopping and eating.


 My Pen by Christopher Myers was one of our favorite books we read this morning. The black and white pictures in this book are incredible and would be wonderful in an elementary class to inspire close looking at details. The narrator's pen gives him power, since it creates so many different things. There's not a story in the classical sense, but rather lots of jumping off places for meaningful discussions about our world and the power of imagination.

I loved How to Babysit a Grandpa, as it was such a great mentor text for our how-to writing units. Any book that can show students how to write information text with beauty and creativity is high on my list. How to Babysit a Grandma by Jean Reagan is just as good! Young students will enjoy the role reversal, and they will identify with the universal experiences of spending time with grandparents, but missing parents. This book could serve not only as a strong mentor text for how-to writing, but also as a way to write about special memories. Doreen Cronin also uses punctuation purposefully throughout the text, which I am also always looking for.

I Don't Want to be a Frog by Dev Petty is a great book to read for the message which is predictably along the lines of appreciating and valuing your own individual strengths. However, since many of our students are in the middle of opinion writing, I have been thinking a lot about reasons and evidence, and this book is a great mentor for talking to students about those tricky words, why and because. 

Larkin had never read Knuffle Bunny, and she picked up Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems on her own. It was really fun to read that book through Larkin's artistic lens, as she loved the way the comics were juxtaposed with the realistic images of the city. She also loved the subtle humor, laughing out loud in the middle of the story as she pictured Trixie's parents trying to explain the significance of 2:30 in the morning. Oh, to be able to write a book of such universal appeal!


I'm still reading and enjoying lots of great slices at Two Writing Teachers. Tomorrow is the last day of the March Slice of Life Challenge.

Happy Reading and Slicing,






March Madness Book Edition 2015: Our Sweet Sixteen!

This month, my class is participating in our very own March Madness Book Edition!  Click here to read posts I have written in the past about the process of selecting books and voting during March Madness.  

Last week, we narrowed down our 32 books to our Sweet Sixteen! I used Google Forms to create a survey for students to vote for their favorite book in each bracket.  To vote, students checked off the box next to the book of their choice in each bracket. Below is a photo of one section of the voting form.  

When they finished voting, they clicked "submit form" and I received the results.  Students were also able to see the results too once they hit the submit button and they loved seeing the bar graphs for each bracket to see if their book was winning!  Below is a photo of one page of results that students received on their screen after submitting their form.  

After reviewing the results and revoting because of two ties, we officially announced the titles in our Sweet Sixteen and added them to our bulletin board. As you can see from the photo below, this is not the most updated because we need to re-vote for two brackets. The Lemonade War series ended up winning by one vote against Theodore Boone series and The Three Ring Rascals series ended up winning by one vote against The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.  


This week we will vote to see which titles will move on to the Elite Eight! Stay tuned! 

Friday, March 27, 2015

Slice #27 of 31- Inquiry in a Social Studies Classroom

For the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the community of writers at Two Writing Teachers. Many of my slices are at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but ones that deal specifically with education appear here. All are welcome to join the slicing party by reading and commenting. People write amazing posts.




In the fall, we had a visit from Emily Smith, as Staff Developer from Teachers College. We were working on content area literacy with fifth-grade teachers, and Emily set up centers for students to do inquiry work around topics related to exploration. She created a timeline center, a map center, a close reading center, a compare and contrast center, and a pictures center. I duplicated this work for colonialism, and one of the teachers used the cards that we developed for the unit. Watching the students, it amazed both of us how engaging and how powerful this sort of learning is for upper elementary students.

Students had specific tasks at each center. We developed inquiry questions that were open-ended to structure their thinking. For example, when they looked at the paintings from the colonial era, what could they learn about the roles of men and women? What biases existed in the artwork, and how could they tell? Since we had five separate centers, groups of three or four students each spent fifteen minutes at the first three centers, traveling clockwise around the room. Our centers were: statistics and data, maps, timelines, architecture, and art. The conversations that happened during this activity were amazing.



They had maps and timelines that they had to analyze. Their conversations about how the maps related to the timelines were also full of realizations, reflections, and wonderings. Some of them wondered about how the maps looked so different based on only a few years. Then, when they looked at the timelines, they made some realizations about the discoveries and exploration that was happening at the time. 



At all of the centers, students took notes based on their conversations and observations. It was fun to watch the different note-taking strategies that they've been learning in the reading units reappear in their social studies work.







They also had a significant dose of math in that they analyzed data, reading graphs, interpreting tables, and thinking about percentages.


Inquiry is such a powerful way to learn. No, the students could not learn everything that there is to learn or even all of the standards around colonialism. However, they asked serious questions and they are inspired to find out more about the answers. Next week, they will finish the first round of centers, and then travel through each center a second time since their understanding deepened as they learned different concepts from each center. I'm looking forward to hearing their reflections and plans for their next round of learning!

Happy Slicing!



Thursday, March 26, 2015

Slice #26 of 31: Thoughts on Working With Fragile Writers


For the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the community of writers at Two Writing Teachers. Many of my slices are at my personal blog, Just Write, Melanie, but ones that deal specifically with education appear here. All are welcome to join the slicing party by reading and commenting. People write amazing posts.




Over the past few months, I have been working a lot with some of the more fragile writers in our elementary schools. I have been thinking a lot about best practices in working with those students who "just won't write." I'm sure that many of you know the ones. Here are some of my developing tenets in working with children who don't yet see themselves as writers:
  • Help them see themselves as writers. Listen to their ideas, even if their only way of communicating those ideas is with their spoken language. If you believe that they have a story to tell, then they will begin to believe it also.
  • Give them only one or two teaching points at once. With these writers, especially, it is critical to remember to teach the writer and not the writing. No, their writing will not be perfect. Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.
  • Ask them what they meant to say or what they would say or want they might want to say. Don't tell them what to say. Let their story be their story. 
  • Recognize that when they create a super complicated story, it is frequently a costume for not knowing how to tell the story. Help them boil down their epic to a beginning, middle, and end. Less is more.
  • Speaking of end, help the fragile writers recognize and get to the end of a piece. Sometimes writing feels like a brambly pathway with lots of twists and turns and not a single trail-marker in sight. Help these writers know their destination. Experienced writers can use their writing in order to discover a story. I have yet to see a fragile writer discover a story by writing and writing and writing. Instead, they get lost and so do we, their teachers, in a complicated story that makes no sense. 
  • Did I already say stick to one teaching point? I'm saying it again. And don't let someone else work with them and give them more. As a writer, I can't integrate a bunch of new ideas and I love writing. Fragile writers don't love writing, and it's easy to overwhelm them. Let them experience and enjoy some mastery. 
  • Do not write on their writing. Don't do it. Have Post-its on hand. Write conference notes. Accept that you might not be able to know exactly what was on that page tomorrow. That's okay. 
  • Make sure that the paper choice matches the writer's capacity. Too many lines are overwhelming. There's nothing like a giant blank paper to freeze every good idea I have. Fragile writers will have more success if they feel like they can fill the lines. Don't give them too many. You will get better writing if you spread it out across pages than if all of the writing is crammed onto one page of more lines than the writer can handle. 
  • Recognize the task avoidance signs. The bathroom need, the erasing obsession, the "I can't find my work in progress" syndrome. If these signs are in place, address them and work together to help.
  • Make the work easier for the time being. Writing requires confidence. We build confidence by creating competence. I promise that if you make it easier for a while, you will be able to make it more complex later. 
This post is longer than I had planned, but took me less time to write than you'd think. Some of these need a lot more elaboration--it may be that this post inspires other posts about specific bullet points. If you didn't get through all of them, here are the ideas, boiled way down:  build confidence, value voice, and balance the need to teach with the capacity to learn. 

Happy Slicing,