Final Thoughts

Looking back over the past couple of years, I am amazed by everything I have learned. So much so, that it is hard to articulate. I don’t know where to begin to express all the new thoughts, knowledge, and feelings swirling around inside my head. I will start with the change in my own attitude toward writing. I will admit that I avoided writing like the plague because it scared the living daylights out of me. I cowered away from writing, burying my head in the sand, so to speak. I thought if I ignored it, it would go away. Now, newly armed with confidence borne from extensive reading, research, peer discussions, resources, strategies, and an excellent mentor I feel up to the adventure of writing with my students. In the past, I didn’t believe in my students’ ability to write. After my experiences with my students this past year, I know they ARE writers.

Looking forward, I want to share my new knowledge with my peers by serving as a mentor, helping with ideas and resources and receiving ideas and resources from them as well. I want to establish a true professional learning community within my school and my district. I want to build upon what I have begun with my students this year. I plan to incorporate writing into as many activities as possible next year. Since we are “making time for writing” district-wide next year, I am not sure what procedures or other mandates will be put into place by the administration, but I hope to have the choice to use researched best practices in my classroom. This will involve reading lots of books and other mentor texts to study author’s craft. While we are learning content, we will also be reading like writers to see just how an author gets his or her message across. I also want to use a writer’s notebook next year. I was blessed with two excellent writing books this semester, and purchased two more on my own. I plan to spend a big chunk of my summer familiarizing myself with strategies and advice from Calkins, Ray, Ehrenworth, and Serravano.

The biggest blessing this old, battle-worn veteran has received from these past two years is a renewed passion for teaching. I have never lost my love for the students, but have often felt overwhelmed by the pressures put upon me by administrators and state mandates. I feel invigorated, on fire with a new resolve to be the teacher my students need and deserve.

I would like to express my most sincere and humble appreciation to all of the professors and administrators who made this program possible.

How Can I Support Writers in Sixth Grade

 

 

 

 

 

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Sixth Grade Proudly Presents…

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For the past two weeks, my kiddos have engaged in a research project about an animal they hope to observe when we go on our annual class field trip to the NC Zoo. It has been an exhilarating and exhausting effort. It was a very successful effort even if I only considered what I learned! I’m not talking about animal facts. I learned so much about the use of technology in the classroom! I was amazed by the knowledge that these sixth graders bring with them in their use of technology to find information. What surprised me was their gullibility. They believed EVERYTHING they read on the Internet!

As I conferenced with each child, I borrowed a technique from Writing Pathways , a book by Lucy Calkins. In this book, she suggests the use of at least one compliment and a Next Step.  After  all, it is our intention that we grow as readers and writers. In this way, I am saying something encouraging as well as giving a goal for the student to be working toward in their next piece. For most of my students in this particular project, the most needed next step is the use of an introduction. Most of the students made a title slide and then jumped right into a series of slides that listed facts and interesting details about their animal. Very few of them had an introduction that let the audience know what to expect to learn about during the presentation.

Last week, we visited the library and checked out reference materials. MOST of my students didn’t realize you could find information about specific topics in an encyclopedia. We read. Then we read. Then we read some more. We researched, took notes, and wrote up what we had discovered about our animals. This week, we shared through Gallery Walks and peer conferences, we revised, we learned about how to cite books and websites, and we published. (All but one of my students decided to use Google Slides as their publishing platform.) Here are a few of the diverse topics and levels of student abilities.

 

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Sandy was so proud of her work.

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We learned that sometimes our slides looked differently on the Smartboard than on our Chromebooks.

 

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We recognized the power of headings to organize information.

 

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We learned that we can’t make claims without facts to back them up.
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We learned that photos can support and enhance the text.

 

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No one wanted to present after Trinity.

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We gave feedback to each other at the end of each presentation. These were given to each student so that they could make a final revision before submitting the project.

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Overall, I was very pleased with each student’s project.  They learned a lot about paraphrasing,  analyzing sources, and citations. I learned that even though writing is an arduous undertaking, it is well worth the effort.  I used to be so overwhelmed by the writing process. I believe that was true because writing is such a personal activity, but it is a social activity at the same time. It was hard for me to wrap my head around my role as a teacher of writing when everyone was in such differing places as writers. Now I see the absolute necessity of conferencing with my students, pulling small groups, providing mentor texts, and encouraging peer collaboration. My students and I enjoyed this project and are looking forward to the next.

 

In Search of Knowledge

Last week, my kiddos and I embarked on the great animal research adventure! Yes, I know! It is the old cliche of either a state or an animal project. In my defense, we are planning a trip to the North Carolina Zoo at Asheboro next month, and I wanted the students to have an idea of what to expect. In planning this project, I was struck by how many of my CCSS objectives were going to utilized.

  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.A
    Introduce a topic; organize ideas, concepts, and information, using strategies such as definition, classification, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., charts, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.B
    Develop the topic with relevant facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.C
    Use appropriate transitions to clarify the relationships among ideas and concepts.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.D
    Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.E
    Establish and maintain a formal style.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.2.F
    Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from the information or explanation presented.
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.7
    Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.8
    Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.9
    Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.10
    Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1
    Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.A
    Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.B
    Use intensive pronouns (e.g., myself, ourselves).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.C
    Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in pronoun number and person.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.D
    Recognize and correct vague pronouns (i.e., ones with unclear or ambiguous antecedents).*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.E
    Recognize variations from standard English in their own and others’ writing and speaking, and identify and use strategies to improve expression in conventional language.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2
    Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2.A
    Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2.B
    Spell correctly.
  • Knowledge of Language:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3
    Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3.A
    Vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3.B
    Maintain consistency in style and tone.*
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4
    Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 6 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.A
    Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.B
    Use common, grade-appropriate Greek or Latin affixes and roots as clues to the meaning of a word (e.g., audience, auditory, audible).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.C
    Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.D
    Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.5
    Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.5.A
    Interpret figures of speech (e.g., personification) in context.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.5.B
    Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., cause/effect, part/whole, item/category) to better understand each of the words.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.5.C
    Distinguish among the connotations (associations) of words with similar denotations (definitions) (e.g., stingy, scrimping, economical, unwasteful, thrifty).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.6
    Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
  • Key Ideas and Details:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.1
    Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • Craft and Structure:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.4
    Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings.
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.7
    Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.6.10
    By the end of the year, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 6-8 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.
  • Comprehension and Collaboration:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1
    Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 6 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1.A
    Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1.B
    Follow rules for collegial discussions, set specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1.C
    Pose and respond to specific questions with elaboration and detail by making comments that contribute to the topic, text, or issue under discussion.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.1.D
    Review the key ideas expressed and demonstrate understanding of multiple perspectives through reflection and paraphrasing.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.2
    Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
  • Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.4
    Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.5
    Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.6.6
    Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate. (See grade 6 Language standards 1 and 3 for specific expectations.)
  • Conventions of Standard English:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1
    Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.A
    Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.C
    Recognize and correct inappropriate shifts in pronoun number and person.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.D
    Recognize and correct vague pronouns (i.e., ones with unclear or ambiguous antecedents).*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.1.E
    Recognize variations from standard English in their own and others’ writing and speaking, and identify and use strategies to improve expression in conventional language.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2
    Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2.A
    Use punctuation (commas, parentheses, dashes) to set off nonrestrictive/parenthetical elements.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.2.B
    Spell correctly.
  • Knowledge of Language:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3
    Use knowledge of language and its conventions when writing, speaking, reading, or listening.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3.A
    Vary sentence patterns for meaning, reader/listener interest, and style.*
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.3.B
    Maintain consistency in style and tone.*
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4
    Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grade 6 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.A
    Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.C
    Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning or its part of speech.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.4.D
    Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.6.6
    Acquire and use accurately grade-appropriate general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; gather vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.

Whew! No wonder we were so tired by the end of the week!

My students were so excited to be doing this research. Wait a minute. Did I just say that students were excited to do research? Yes! You should have heard the room buzzing with the sounds of students talking and sharing and asking their peers for assistance. I heard phrases such as, “I didn’t know that!” and “Hey! Did you know…?” It was wonderful to see them so engaged in the writing process. I had very little to do to start out with until they had really sank their teeth into the research.

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Alexandra and Karlie help each other with citations.
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Memphis and Alex discuss information about porcupines. 
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Francisco listens as Ashton explains his use of a particular photo. 

The hardest thing for my students to do was to cite their sources AS THEY FOUND THEM! So many times, the students would be so excited to share a piece of information that they had discovered, only to hear me ask, “Where did you find that?” They struggled a bit to remember to use the citation maker that I had shown them on the first day of our research.

The next hardest was their struggle to paraphrase the information they were finding. So many of them wanted to copy the information from a website and paste it right into papers. We had to really work to make sure we were paraphrasing.

This truly was a group project, even though they all had a different animal. They discussed options for everything from sources to publishing.

You want us to do what…?

We recently wrote about the things we value as a writing teacher. Most of the things I listed were the usual “teacher-y” ideas such as complete thoughts with correct spelling and punctuation. But down at the very bottom of the list, I also included “real interest and engagement in the writing process.”  Two of my biggest take-aways from the past two semesters are that students must value writing and I must trust in my ability to see value and opportunities in their writing. One way to share value is to give ownership of the process back to my students. With this thought in mind, I gathered a group of volunteers to help me construct a checklist for an animal research project. I thought they would be very willing to contribute, vocalizing their ideas faster than we  could write them all down. But I was confronted with blank stares and silence. They didn’t trust me at all. That’s when it hit me. These students didn’t feel valued as writers. I had spent the last seven months with these writers, and I had failed to instill confidence or cultivate an atmosphere of mutual respect. After all their years of writing, they still saw writing as the domain of teachers. They expected to be told what to write and how to write it. They didn’t have the faintest idea of how to even begin to contribute their own ideas. It was a slow, painstaking process, but I was finally able to convince them that I wasn’t joking, that I sincerely wanted their input. I listened as they tentatively suggested ideas, cringing as I heard the reluctance and uncertainty in their voices. I couldn’t help but think of the enthusiastic voices that I see and hear in the pre-k and first grade classrooms and wonder when  that ends.

Here is the first draft of our checklist:

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We still have a lot of work to do, but this is a good start.

Notice the use of the Yes and No columns. These were their ideas. I briefly talked about how we could use language that didn’t make a harsh judgment that could discourage writers who may be struggling, but they were not ready to change their thoughts on this just yet.  They still think, like I did, from a deficit view. I want to share the checklists from Lucy Calkins’s Writing Pathways.

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I could begin to shift their thinking from a yes or no viewpoint to a “not yet” and “beginning to” mind-set. No just sounds so final. The students seem to see that x in the no column and confirm their belief that they are just not a good writer. It gives them the excuse they need to quit and give up before they can be told they aren’t good enough again. This line of thinking made me remember the article I read by  S. M. Brookhart.  Brookhart, S. M. (2013, December). Develop a student-centered mind-set for formative assessment. Voices from the Middle, 21(2), 21-25.  The teacher used strategies for getting the descriptions in the rubrics inside the kids’ heads. Those strategies included using the rubrics from the outset, centering lessons on one important aspect of writing, harnessing the power of students’ talking together to develop an abstract concept like ‘ideas,’ encouraging peer editing, and coaching students to keep their discussions and editing work trained on that one aspect.” If I can get students to think about the process of writing as they are writing, they can use these checklists and rubrics as a type of road map to get them to their writing destinations.

True Confessions

“Many teacher-leaders define their leadership operationally: they are leaders because they are department heads, or mentor teachers, or chairs of committees, or officers in professional organizations—leaders in the official sense. Yet we know, too, that there is leadership in myriad unofficial actions: in teaching well in a time of pressures toward ‘teaching-to-the-test,’ in standing up for a student who has exhausted many “last chances” already, or in persisting in teaching a frequently challenged text when it might be easier to self-censor. In these instances of teacher leadership, we see teachers not only taking responsibility for the operation of organizations, but also taking responsibility on a moral level—doing things because they are the right things to do, though difficult.” (Whitney & Baldiaili, 2010)

I have heard it said that acknowledgement and confession of a problem is the first step in recovery. No one ever told me how much courage that truly takes. It is terrifying to make myself so vulnerable to the potential scrutiny and judgment of my peers to make this confession, but if I truly want to take moral responsibility for doing the right thing in my classroom for my students, I have to start with a confession: I was so afraid of writing that I avoided it at all costs. There. I said it. The ugly truth. It gets worse. I was afraid of my own inadequacies as a writing teacher because I didn’t believe in the writing abilities of my students.

“Before this year, I admit that my writing instruction was mostly limited to how to answer essay questions found embedded in our reading comprehension exercises. I rarely, if ever, gave the students opportunities to have choices in their topics or types of writing, and definitely didn’t foster a love for writing with my students who do NOT see themselves as writers. I do not blame the lack of writing skills on anyone other than myself, because up to this point I haven’t had a clear plan of action to rectify this situation.” Opinion, Persuasion, and Argument! Oh, My!

I am learning to be an advocate for student “Writes.” I am also realizing that I have to believe in and be an active participant of the writing process.  I am gaining abilities to transfer what I value about writing to my students. The most important realization I have made is that engaging in the writing process isn’t perfect. It is messy and  changes radically according to audience, purpose, and genre. I have also realized that writing doesn’t flow from the end of a pencil into a finished product. By looking at what works, or more importantly what doesn’t, students can learn to approximate the craft of “better” writers. By giving my students choices in both topics and genres, I am really supporting them in all areas of writing.

 

 

one step forward… and two steps back

Murphy’s Law states, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” And it did. Sorta. This past week and  a half has seen my mother in and out of the hospital and ER twice, an early dismissal due to impending Apocalyptic storms, two-hour delays due to potential  snow flurries, and TWO, count them, TWO unannounced administrative observations.  Oh! I almost forgot! But first, a flashback. For the next step in our investigations of argument writing, I had my students take their last piece of argument writing and get with a partner or small group to discuss at least one thing they liked about their own and their partner’s writing, and one way to improve. My class and I had an awesome discussion after they had  had a chance to confer with each other. At first I was only hearing comments such as:

“That’s good. You don’t need to change anything.”

“She always gets it right.”

“I can’t think of anything you could do better.”

I reminded them that it was our goal to improve our writing skills and that all good writers get feedback from their family, friends, editors, and eventually their fans or critics. I told them not to accept “that’s good, or that sounds nice,” but to demand specific feedback from their peers. This time as I walked around, listening to their conversations, I heard comments such as:

“I can’t even read my own writing!”

“Your evidence gave me an idea.”

 

“It’s good to hear other arguments on the same topic. It gives you something to compare your own writing against.”

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My handwritten notes.

At this point, I brought the whole group together and we shared all the ideas so that everyone could hear the ideas from the other groups. I listed them on the board as they shared, covering the whole board with their thoughts. I was amazed by their insights, and realized that I have been underestimating the writing skills of my students. They have a lot of skills, but they have not known what they know until they had the opportunity to talk about their ideas and then write about them.

After our discussion, I asked them if they would help me write a rubric. They acted scared and unsure, so I showed them an example from a reading program we use in sixth grade, but I want them to have ownership in their work so that I have a greater “buy in” from them. We talked about what should go into the rubric based on our Common Core State Standards and our current level of skills. They decided it was too much hard work to write their own rubric, so they voted unanimously to use the ready-made rubric.

Here’s where Murphy’s Law kicked me hard.I sent one of my students to get my ipad and take a picture of the beautiful board with all of their wonderful ideas from their group conference while the rest of her classmates packed up and went to their next class. Thinking that she had already taken the picture, I erased the board, to get ready for my next class! That’s why there’s no pictures in this week’s blog post. wp_20170303_001

From a glimmer to a glow

This week, I looked for another opportunity to incorporate writing argument into my reading lessons. We are currently reading survivor stories such as those of Aron Ralston, Neil Armstrong, Juliane Koepche, and Steve Callahan. Again, I chose the group that I thought would have the best chance of successful writing so that I could use their papers as examples for their peers. Once again, I had to change tactics! One of the comments from one of the students talked about how Aron’s personality had helped him to be a survivor. I thought a short minilesson on character traits would be sufficient to activate my students’ prior knowledge before they began discussing which person was the best example of a survivor. They formed groups and began a Venn diagram to compare and contrast the traits of three of the survivors we had read about.img_0529

I heard students having great discussions on what exactly personality traits were compared to physical traits. A couple of them disagreed, but were able to give examples of their thinking and then come to a consensus. However, a couple of the groups didn’t have a strong enough grasp of this skill, and talked their members into erroneous thinking. I tried guiding them back by asking questions such as what helped Ralston survive his ordeal. As you can see, some of them still didn’t get it. When we shared as a whole group, however, each student that shared had to justify their answer. They began to catch on quickly.

Next I asked them to begin thinking about which of the characters was the best example of a survivor. Again, since I didn’t have an example of a mentor text, We had a short whole-group discussion of our task and how we could begin our thinking processes. I asked them to think of a situation where someone has to make a claim and then defend it. Several of them immediately suggested lawyers and defendants in a court room. We talked about the language lawyers would use: strong, confident. By now, a few of them started to shout out the name of the character that they thought was the best example, but with no reasons to support their claim. Once again, we formed groups, but this time each group agreed on just one character to support.img_0538

Their new job was to discuss the evidence from the text that would support their claim. I heard good discussions from most of the students.

Here are three of the best examples from this week’s efforts:

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After reading over their newest writing, I have made a wonderful discovery: the glimmer has become a glow! This writing is far from perfect, but I am very pleased with their efforts. Every child was participating and seemed happy to do so. Every single one of them made a claim and had at least one piece of evidence from the text that appropriately supported their claim. (I’m doing a happy dance here!) Did I mention that they weren’t perfect? Of course not, but now I have a starting place for truly differentiated conferences with conversation topics other than, “So how’s it going?” or “Oh? Still thinking? Well, OK. I’ll check back in a few minutes.” or”This looks really great! Keep it up!”  We can edit or own pieces of writing rather than correcting random samples of other students writing.

The best part of the whole exercise was when one of the students, realizing that all three characters had been chosen to represent the best example of a survivor, turned to me and said, “So who’s right?” A classmate who rarely volunteers to be called on quickly replied, “We all are!”

Can you see the glow? I can, and it seems like the sunrise on the first morning of a glorious summer holiday.

 

A Glimmer of Hope

A journey of a thousand miles begins with just one step. That sounds so good on paper!  Inspiring. Even motivating. The reality is that  “one step” really means a long, arduous journey. Cliffs and boulders and raging rivers and ravines and steep inclines and wide oceans. It also means long sweeping vistas, smooth green meadows strewn with lovely wildflowers and playful romping animals, soft warm breezes on white-sand beaches, and a supportive companion to help you arrive at a desired destination. I see myself as Samwise Gamgee on a quest with Frodo, my students. We are on our way to Mount Doom, but we must pass through Mordor to get there. (Yeah, I’m a Tolkien geek, as well as a Trekkie.)

A small group of students and I embarked on just such a journey this week while exploring ways to incorporate writing into our novel studies. As I mentioned in a previous post, we are reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S.Lewis. I have struggled to engage my students in rigorous writing activities called for in the Common Core state Standards. I think I have found a way to successfully bridge the gap between simple recall questions to higher order thinking questions. Last week, while reading the Ehrenworth article “Why Argue,” I noticed the author’s inclusion of question stems to incorporate opinion/persuasion questions in Literacy Circles. I immediately thought of how I could include these questions in our writing activities. remembering the lessons of the past, and how important mentor texts are, I started looking for texts that I could use to model this new way of responding to literature. Alas! I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then I remembered Dr. Buchholz’s suggestion that I use student writing as mentor texts. I conferenced with two of my strongest writers and explained what I was thinking in regards to this task. I showed them all of the stems and asked them to choose one to collaborate on. I asked them to discuss all of their ideas, but to write individually. They sat at the table together and had such a great discussion that I wanted to kick myself for not having a recorder next to them to capture their conversation.

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As they talked, I noticed that they were not simply recalling the plot of the story. They were making inferences, drawing conclusions, making judgments, finding evidence in the text to support their claims, looking at topics from each other’s perspectives, and analyzing character motivation all while answering the question “Which character had the greater impact on events: the White Witch or Aslan? I was very happy to hear such rich “language arts” conversations.

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I think I am getting the hang of this incorporating writing with literature. I shared these papers with my principal during this week’s grade level meeting, and she was very impressed with the level of writing these girls were able to produce. After they had finished writing their papers, I asked them to exchange papers in order to offer constructive feedback to each other. One rule: no saying things like, that’s good, or great job, or don’t change a thing! I asked them to tell one thing that the other did that was really effective, and one thing that could be improved. You would have thought I asked them to bring me the moon! They thought this was the hardest part of the whole assignment.

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Gracie
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Trinity

I was curious to see what a group of students who have just a bit less ability in writing would do with these questions. I once again explained what I wanted them to do, but this time I asked them to first talk about what it means to make a claim and defend that claim with facts from the text. These next three girls made an attempt at an argument, but were less successful. Alexandra made a claim, but the evidence was weak, Karlie  wrote a list of examples to support her claim, but she argued  for both sides, and Patience  pretty much just summarized a section of the novel. Although these pieces of writing aren’t “as good” as the first two, I can do so much more instruction with my students using these pieces. There are more topics to discuss, more things to notice that are being well written, as well as areas for improvement. These are the papers that give me a glimmer of hope for the future of writing in my classroom. wp_20170217_002

 

 

With a little help from my friends

 

Today’s citizens need to be fluent in the art of language. They are bombarded with social media, false advertisements, and propaganda. They have to sort through all of this information to make educated, well-informed judgments. In order to do this successfully, they have to be taught the communication skills of argumentation. However; I am just one little teacher. I can’t do it all alone. I am learning not to be alone by incorporating as many authors as I can into my lessons so that students can learn author’s craft from a diverse population of real, authentic writers. I am also learning that I have other professional educators working side by side with me that I can utilize to share the load. Students don’t learn in a vacuum. If I am the only one teaching writing skills, the students will learn the skills, but will also learn to compartmentalize their learning and only apply it to language arts instead of across content areas.

One way that I can help support these “non-language arts” teachers is to help develop cueing systems that help students, and teachers, make the connections they will need in order to transfer these skills to other content classes. These cueing systems will include anchor charts, mentor texts written by authentic authors, exemplar texts written by students, checklists, and rubrics.  For more information check out the article “Why Argue?” by Mary Ehrenworth in this month’s issue of Educational Leadership. Young writers also need repeated opportunities to write. In the past I have been guilty of “getting through” a writing unit and thinking about how glad I am that I don’t have to worry about it again until next year. (Head is hanging in shame here.) One thing that I have learned about my students is that they are not on grade level when it comes to their writing skills. For that reason, I have decided that I must meet them at their level and bring them as close to grade level expectations as possible with the remaining time we have together.

We have been reading the novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe during class. Some of the students are reading independently, some in small groups, and some with me or the inclusion teacher. After reading, they have a “worksheet” to fill in with vocabulary and short answer questions. (My purpose here was for the students to be creating a study guide since my district uses Accelerated Reading and will expect the students to pass the test when they finish reading.) There is also a short answer prompt that asks them to respond on a deeper level.I did a random “spot check” in order to make sure that the students that were not working directly with me this week were understanding the unfolding plot. I was surprised by the poor quality of the students writing. They were writing short bulleted lists instead of the complete sentences with textual evidence that I know they can produce. Without explicit, directed guidance, they revert to poor writing habits. Aarrgghhh!After a brief conference to refer to the anchor chart and discuss “what good writing looks like,” the students were able to produce better written responses. Why aren’t my students applying what we are learning in class to their everyday writing? This question needs more research.

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Perspective

In order to gather my thoughts I tend to think in figurative language. Analogies, metaphors, similes, idioms. Here goes. I began my adventures with students learning to write on a mountain top. I can see in all directions for what seems like infinity. Since I see myself as a good writer, I have no fear of heights. But when I look at my students, hoping to share the joy of the panorama from this spectacular vantage point, I see young writers who don’t see themselves as writers. They are terrified, clinging to each  other and grasping at me and each other for support. They are afraid to express any thought on paper for fear of being wrong, but are willing to  share ideas in groups where the media is speech. Not like a written speech, but the speaking and listening that can occur when they gather in a group to exchange ideas. I have such high hopes for these struggling writers, but they have such a fear of the act of writing that this fear is debilitating. In order to reach these students, I am first going to have to calm their fears. The only way I can see to do this is to”come down from the mountain” to a level plain. I am going to have to take baby steps, and convince these writers that they aren’t going to be judged by their errors, but by their courage in their willingness to put pencil to paper.

During these last few years that I have been immersed in literacy studies, I have learned/rediscovered a few basic truths: PEOPLE, not just students, need choices, opportunities,  examples such as mentor texts, positive support,  constructive feedback, and encouragement. LOTS of encouragement. My students are no different, but it seems like this year’s crop of writers are less confident in their abilities as writers than most students who have passed through my doors. This past week was very eye-opening for me. For example: I KNOW that using mentor texts is a best practice as is choice and collaboration, but I was very pressed for time, and so I “modified” the original lesson plan to eliminate the mentor text and limit the amount of choices the students would actually have. I KNOW that mentor texts are an integral part of any lesson, but I truly believed that I was beginning my instruction from a solid foundation in their prior knowledge. I wanted them to basically have the same topic so that there would be greater collaboration.

I began my lesson by having a whole class discussion comparing and contrasting opinion and persuasive writing. At first, only a few students were willing to contribute to the conversation, so I asked them to take a few minutes to form groups to talk about this, and everyone should be ready to contribute to the discussion when we came back together. I listened in to their discussions and was pleased to hear words and phrases such as “emotions, personal beliefs, talk them (parents) into, just what I think, reasons, and facts versus opinions.” At this point, I brought their attention back to the whole group discussion and we listed our ideas on the board so that we had a community of thought for the students to refer back to when they began their writing. At this point I introduced the topic, “In your opinion, what is the best way to spend your class reward points?” Hands flew up everywhere. I was feeling good about the lesson. Students shared their ideas and I had the students once again form groups, this time with students with the same opinion as themselves. I asked them to talk to each other about the reasoning behind their opinions so that when they began to write, they would have their own thoughts and the thought of their peers to draw upon. The room buzzed with muted conversations. As I once again listened in on conversations, I heard good comments and ideas, but didn’t see any one writing notes.

After a few minutes, I asked them to wrap up their conversations and return to their seats to begin writing. Within just a few minutes, almost every hand was in the air. I pretended not to notice the number of hands in the air and suggested that they share what they had written so far with a friend. “Show a friend how you introduced your opinion.” Crickets. Blank stares. No one sharing. Hands back in the air. There was a common problem: everyone knew what he or she wanted to say, but was unsure of how to get started. The old debilitating fear was back, and I had failed to offer the scaffolding they needed. They needed examples through the use of mentor texts, but in my assumption that they knew enough without their use I had not made sure that my students would find success as writers. Instead, I inadvertently reaffirmed their belief that writing is a scary activity that should be avoided.