Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Seeds for Writing

In a Writer's Workshop classroom, students write frequently, for extended periods of time and on topics of their OWN CHOOSING! Yes! I said it! If you want to know why, read my last post with the research.  I know it all seems very scary, but it's not. I promise.

However, kids are not going to naturally know what to write about! You do have to teach kids how to find topics. That is what this post is all about. We need kids to have infinite seeds for writing.

Seeds- things that could bloom if planted and tended to! Not all seeds grow just like not every story idea kids have will bloom, but we need a place for kids to keep those ideas!

Just like real writers- we want to give our kids a place to collect and potentially plant seeds for writing.

There is a name for this special place- it's called a Writer's Notebook.

Writer's Notebooks are just simply a composition notebook, or a steno notebook, or copy paper stapled between two pieces of construction paper! It is not what they look like that matters, as much as what is inside them. Here is mine.... I'm pretty proud of it.

I challenge you right now, as you read this to commit to making your OWN Writer's Notebook!

After all... the best writing teachers are writers themselves (or are trying to be).  So... get a notebook and commit to putting in SEEDS!

The only thing that CAN'T go in the notebook is the whole story! Save that for your drafting paper.  Anything else though, the answer is yes! Pictures? YES! Lists of favorite places? YES!

A Leaf from a special trip with your best friend? YES!

The notes you kept of your contractions before you headed to the hospital? YES!

Make it yours. Make it special! Fill it with things YOU could write about.

Today with teachers in Wichita Falls we all made our notebooks. And we filled it with two lists. One for SUNSHINE and one for LIGHTNING. Sunshine things are all the things that make you happy and that you like. LIGHTNING then are the things you dislike or things that scare you.  So many of these things lead to ideas for stories. What's on your list? 

Wouldn't your students just love this? Ownership for writing on topics of their own choosing!
What are you waiting for? Go get your crayons! And keep checking this blog for more ideas of what to put in YOUR (and your students) Writer's Notebooks.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Topics of Their Own Choosing...

I teach all across the country about Writer's Workshop and it's one of the topics I am most passionate about. From my first day of teaching in the classroom, I have held three beliefs about the teaching of writing.

Students need to write frequently.
We write in a Writer's Workshop every day! Not every Wednesday... not every time I can fit it in, but EVERY day! Ralph Fletcher says we need to write frequently so that students will be ready to "meet" the workshop. No more, "Surprise! We are writing today!"

Students need extended periods of time for writing.
Elementary students are in an infant stage of writing. Just like a child learning to walk and that is not easy work. It takes thought, it takes time! Have you ever watched a child try to copy a word from the word wall? It can take all morning! Their small motor skills are not at the same speed at their writing minds. We have to give students time to work up to a rhythm. Ralph Fletcher calls this the "flow zone". It takes time to get into a "flow zone".

Students need to write on topics of their own choosing. 
It is this third belief that gets the most resistance from teachers. Students choose their own topics for writing. Yes, I said it and it is as simple as that. You let kids choose. Do they want to write about when they fell off their bike and had a bloody knee? Do they want to write about going to the grocery store with their mom? Do they want to write about their uncle who just left for Afghanistan? Or maybe there is a student who has a story to tell about the snake they found in their flower bed.  Kids will WANT to write when they have choice about what to write.

Many teachers have just never given students a chance to write on topics of their own choosing and then they get all worried that students won't know what to write about! I have two thoughts about those fears.

1. If you don't think students will know what to write about, then TEACH it! We need to TEACH into the work that writers will be doing if they are expected to choose their own topics.  We need to have conversations and lessons that help students realize that stories come from their lives. We need to write our own stories from our life in front of them. We need to have a classroom community of writers where students talk about topics, share their writing with one another and are always on the lookout for the next writing topic. We are always available as the writing teacher to make suggestions for students who are truly stuck and can't think of an idea. However, it is our last resort rather than our first step.

2. Saying that students won't know what to write about if they are not given a prompt... I think that is an example of not giving students enough credit.  How do we know they can't if we don't give them a chance?  What are we scared of? Do we enjoy reading every student's writing about their favorite person? Do we jump for joy as a profession when we see 22+ papers about things they like to do in the fall?  I sure don't. That writing is bland and boring and it's because students don't have any interest in topics their teacher has chosen for them.  Real writers choose their topics- look what I just did on this blog post today!

I can't put enough emphasis or heart into these black and white words on this post- all I can say- is give it a try! What have you got to lose? Give your students a voice by letting them write about what is real, and important, and happening in their life. I promise you that you'll learn things about your students you never knew before and things that you will never learn if you keep getting 22+ papers about a place they'd like to go.

If you are still crossing your arms and scowling over this idea (some of you still are- and that's OK), it may be because you are thinking that your students are tested and given a prompt so as a teacher you have to give them prompts so they will be ready. Katie Wood Ray calls that, "teaching testing, not teaching writing!"  We do have standards that require students to write in specific genres- the Common Core State Standards refer to these as types of writing. Great. We will teach those types of writing. We will have all of our students write persuasive text- we will have min-lessons about what is important to know about persuasive writing- we will give kids extended time, every day to write, however 22+ students will not all be writing a persuasive letter to the principal for longer recess. One student might choose that for a topic and another is writing to persuade his parents to get him a set of golf clubs, or to take him to Disney World, or to get a new dog. Students write on topics of their own choosing under the umbrella of a type of writing that is under study.

I'm just Melissa Leach... these are just my humble thoughts of which I am very convicted.  I haven't written a book (though I want to) so let me leave you with some thoughts from my writing mentors.

By definition, writing is about having something to say, and it is the writer's right to decide what this will be, to decide what she wants to say. At the very heart of writing well is personal topic selection. Topic selection in writing is also rigorous curriculum; it's what writers out in the world really have to do. If our students seem to struggle when it comes to selecting meaningful topics for writing, we might think about offering them more curriculum (we teach them) about how writers go about this.

Katie Wood Ray 
The Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts 
(And They're All Hard Parts) 

Choice leads to voice. Student choice is the crucial fuel that drives a healthy workshop.  Don't be surprised when kids decide to write about topics that don't fascinate you. Because their topics are self-generated, the writing workshop truly has a "kid" feel to it. It is flavored by the passions, voices, idiosyncrasies, media influences, and peculiar humor of kids. That's par for the course. When you come right down to it, it can't be your writing workshop. If you want it to be alive, truly alive, your kids have to feel that, in the most fundamental sense, the writing workshop belongs to them and it begins with choice of topics. 

Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi
Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Day After September 11th

(Troops standing in formation showing support for Patriot's Day)

Today is the day after September 11 and I can't help but blog about it tonight. The images of that day, and the horrific stories of those who lost their loved ones in the towers, at the Pentagon, or in that desolate field, are still just as fresh today as they were 11 years ago! There are still two images that are most horrifying to me. The first is the image of people who decided to JUMP from the towers rather than stay inside. The second is that of the brave firefighters who climbed up, up, and up as everyone else was trying to climb down. They had to have known that it was futile- but they climbed anyway. America's Patriots.

I'm pretty sure that many of YOU reading this were in the same place I was on that day- in school!
I was teaching 1st grade at the time and I escaped to the teacher's lounge to see for myself on T.V. what everyone was talking about.  First, I heard it was just a little plane that had the hit the Twin Towers- and I thought, "What an idiot!" Right? I mean who flies their little plane into a tower?

Then I heard that it was in fact a 747 and the Twin Towers were on fire! I couldn't believe it! I had to see for myself. I was standing in the lounge- glued to the T.V. and the horrific image of the Tower burning- when I watched a 2nd plane hit the second Tower. And that's when it became clear. That's when the newscaster said- "Ladies and Gentleman, America is under attack."

I could have stayed there all day- and just stared- mouth open- not believing what I was seeing- surely this was a joke- it looked like a movie! Special effects care of Hollywood right? But thank the Lord,  I couldn't stay there- I had to go back and teach.  My kids were actually out at morning recess- the only reason I was able to sneak in a few minutes in front of the T.V.

The weight of our world's problems were heavy on my heart as I walked out onto the playground. It was a gorgeous fall day in Michigan. The sun was shining and kids were running around- yelling- smiling- laughing. I couldn't help but be shocked by the striking difference between the heaviness of the images on the TV and the lightness of the world on the playground.  I wished I could be a kid again- and not have the heaviness of a world- "under attack".  Hard to believe that some of us are teaching students who were not even BORN at that time! I got my first taste of what disaster, and tragedy feels like.

Every year there will be a September 11th and therefore a September 12th to follow- and every year,
I will remember.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Focus on Vocabulary Instruction

**Yes I know it is THURSDAY! I decided to go on the boat last night instead of post this! Better late than never... and I happen to think this is a GOOD ONE!**

So at a training in Killeen ISD last month I completely eavesdropped (every good teacher does that) on a conversation two teachers were having about their latest project for their classrooms.  Now, keep in mind, they walked in with a huge bundle under their arms and they even unrolled it for others to see! I could NOT, NOT ask about it!

They had made a VOCABULARY QUILT with plastic sleeves! You know, the kind you put in a 3-Ring binder! Oh yes! Teachers are brilliant! Even if you don't do this vocabulary idea, just make the quilt! I could see many uses for it! It could display student work- it could show multiple anchor charts in their "small" version and the Fire Marshall can't do anything about it because it is plastic rather than paper! See the HOW TO attached to this post as well to make your VERY OWN!
 Click Here to Learn How To Make a Shower Curtain Display

I just thought this was such a great idea. I'll be honest that I had never studied Marzano until I started working as an Education Specialist. I had never thought of the importance of DIRECT and EXPLICIT Vocabulary instruction.  If you want the research of it all you should read Marzano's book and see his other products HERE. 

The Shower Curtain Words are a way to support the use of Marzano's 6-Step Vocabulary Instruction.

In the state of Texas there is a big emphasis being placed on vocabulary- specifically the vocabulary in the standards in all content areas. If the vocabulary is in the student standard it is now "testable". Meaning, if the standard mentions figurative language, kids need to know what that is enough to have it be part of a test question on the STAAR test. So how are teachers making sure they are teach all of that vocabulary?  They are making an effort with activities like this! 

Keeping in mind though, teaching the words is one thing, but the goal of vocabulary instruction is to have the vocab become a part of your STUDENTS' language.  That is why Marzano's strategies work so well!

All steps can be found in Classroom Instruction that Works, (Marzano, Pickering, Pollock)

So Let's have some FUN! Step 6.. GAMES! Game ON! 

• Games help encourage learners to sustain interest

• Learners are requested to take part and in order to, they must understand and express information

• During games, a teacher can listen for misconceptions

In addition to the large classroom display for vocabulary words is an INTERACTIVE word wall.  

This is on a poster board and organized by unit. The large display(shower curtain) holds words that are under study in the current unit. They get changed out as the units progress. But on a poster board and attached with Velcro are baggies of words for each unit. Kids can take these off the board for use in writing, centers, etc. This gets added to as the year continues, and allows kids to have access to all their words as they learn them through the year. 

Another variation of the Interactive Word Wall is shown below.  This is done within file folders and is truly more portable. Words are tucked into the pockets. To be honest, I might use library pockets when I make my own! I could see enough of these in the classroom so that students could play their games all year long with the words right at their fingertips!  

The File Folder games can be used to play Concentration, Go Fish,  etc.  There is a long list of how teachers' can use these words in a game setting! And of course the words for each unit are color coded for easy sorting and identification! Voila! 

So what do you do for EXPLICIT instruction with vocabulary? How do you get your kids using the words in their everyday language.  

Thanks to the Killeen Independent School District teachers who shared this with me. Specifically Kimberly Lind! She provided the pictures and files that have been uploaded. 

Kimberly, YOU are a Rock Star!