Monday, December 21, 2009

Reading Procedural Text

This year, I decided to spend some extra time with procedural text. How-to texts, directions, instructions, whatever you want to call them--these are going to be the backbone of students' future reading lives. Not all of my students will pick up novels to read for pleasure when they are adults. But they will all need to read and understand directions in one form or another.

So, for the past week, my students have been immersed in how-to text. I've gone to tic-tac-toe choice menus for reading homework, and one of the favorite activities was to make a recipe with a parent and bring in the recipe to share. (Not the food, I emphasized to the students. The recipe!) We've looked at their similarities and differences, and students shared their experiences. I'm trying to be more conscious about bridging home reading and school reading, and I wanted students to recognize the wealth of reading opportunities they had at home. We heard some beautiful stories of parents taking the time to put treasured recipes on paper--and other stories of students who reminded their parents of the need to follow the recipe!

We also tried to follow directions together--with mixed results. Let me just say that origami is not my strong suit. I found these directions and printed them out for students to try. I wanted to draw students' attention to the features of how-to text: a list of materials, pictures, steps. Then, I thought, we could all have beautiful snowflakes to share.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. As it happens, Step 5 in the directions is tricky--so tricky, in fact, that we just couldn't do it. And what started as a reading lesson turned into a writing lesson. How did the writer let us down? What information did we need that we did not have? It also underscored an important lesson of procedural text. While directions may look dull and boring, they have an unseen drama that only unfolds when the reader jumps in and tries to carry them out. Will this turn out the way it is supposed to turn out? (If you're looking for a good set of directions, try these. They are similar to the first set, but have slightly different steps.)

Because I wanted students to try their hand at narrative directions, we also read a text about how to make a lay-up, and then went to the gym to try it out. I knew that the students would have more trouble with the narrative directions, directions that were organized as a paragraph instead of a numbered list.

I was right! They didn't read these directions as closely as they should. But what makes a better life lesson? Not reading the directions well and answering some questions wrong, or not reading the directions well and failing to complete the task? Well, judging from the expressions of my students, they learned more from realizing that they needed to read the lay-up directions with more care. Tomorrow, they'll have the chance to translate the narrative directions into steps and try again. They are excited to be working with how-to text...and I am excited to see their learning!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Learn About Light

Last year, our state science tests fell before our science teacher was able to teach her Light unit. She was worried that students would not know the words transparent, translucent, and opaque. I saw the opportunity to use this concept in reading class as a way to reinforce summarizing and teach students how to learn from nonfiction text.

Because I couldn't find any texts that suited my purposes, I wrote a short article to explain the concept. After we read it, students sorted ideas from the text as important or less important, and then used that sort to write a summary. It worked well! I decided to post it to help out those who are constantly scrounging for easy science text.

Friday, December 18, 2009

No homework here!

Essays are mostly finished! Several committed (and detail-oriented) students are putting together the fish pictures and essays so that we can publish our book to share.

The entire project took quite a while, even longer because we did all of the work in class. That's right, no writing homework. I've found that many of my students really need my constant support and intervention in order to create a quality product.

I learned this the hard way. I'd tell students, "Your final draft is due tomorrow!" And many of them would dutifully bring back their final draft. Unfortunately, the drafts would be riddled with errors. And I am so soft-hearted that I had a really hard time telling students that they had to start over. Even worse, some students would lose their rough drafts, or never turn in a final draft at all. I loathed having to track down students.

Now, I have a different approach. I know that some students will want to do their final drafts at home, and this is fine. Some parents enjoy this opportunity to sit down at the computer with their child and work on a product.

But all students have the option of working on their final drafts in class. This does present some management issues, as students finish at different times. However, thanks to the time that I spent developing journal writing at the start of the year, students are happy to settle back into their self-directed writing. Students have re-discovered stories, drafted holiday cards for friends and family, and even started writing plays. Students also had the opportunity to compare and contrast their fish and another student's. Even though everyone is working on different projects, writing is progressing nicely.

As students worked to finish final drafts, the classroom settled into a quiet, productive hum. Now that we have moved on to sentences, all but three of my 60 students have finished their essays. No homework, no lost papers, no tears, no parent phone calls. Pretty good!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sentence Variety

December is a great time for focusing on sentences...they're short! I like to squeeze in some lessons about sentence variety in between the Santa's Workshop, choral concerts, sing alongs, and other holiday cheer.

When I teach about sentence variety, I start out by helping students to understand what the word variety means. A very tangible way to do this is to bring in a variety of something...whether it is a variety of candy, a variety of fruit, or a variety of toys, being able to experience variety helps students to understand why it is something they might want to use in their writing.

Once students understand what variety means, we look at how to add sentence variety to their writing. The best way that I have found to do this is to have students go back through their journals and find a piece that they have written. Then, they count the number of words in sentences and make a list of the first word in each sentence. I model how to use this information as a starting point for revising for sentence variety. What can we do if we find out that all of the sentences have the same number of words? How can we revise to use different sentence beginnings?

Students pick up on these ideas pretty quickly. Even struggling writers can notice that all of their sentences begin with the same words, and can find some ways to make improvements. For the weeks approaching the holiday break, this is about all that I can ask for!

Here's a link to a Sentence Variety Powerpoint that I just uploaded at Teachers Pay Teachers. (It's free, but you do have to register.)

The Tedium of Final Drafts

I used to think that teaching writing was all about the big, important questions--how does a writer share an experience? Which details are most important? What brings a piece of writing to life?

But now I know that there are tedious, mundane questions that must be answered as well. Which is what led me to teach a lesson about notebook paper.

Why notebook paper? Well, there is not enough time before the holidays for every student to type their essays, so students are writing out their final drafts by hand. As they create final drafts, they need to understand how to use notebook paper.

When I first started teaching, I didn't really care much about how students created their final drafts. I didn't want to be as tyrannical as the teachers I had had growing up, who would get out the ruler to make sure that my title was precisely centered. But when I didn't take the time to build expectations for final drafts, I received--well, very interesting papers. Final drafts on the backs of notebook paper, pages with titles scrawled across the top, pages with food spots on them. This made the task of grading (which I hate anyway) even more depressing.

Now I realize that it is important for students to care about how their final drafts look. And I need to teach it! So we spent class time this week examining a piece of notebook paper. Where do the holes go? (My students don't use binders, so putting the holes on the left does not seem like a big deal to them.) What do those pink lines mean? Where should a title go? What do we do if we make a mistake?

"This is boring," one student sighed.

I have to agree. At the time of the final draft, all of the possibilities of the writing task have been narrowed into one and only one product. Whether you are typing or writing by hand, creating a final draft is tedious. It doesn't have the fresh sparkle or amazing possibilities of the composing process. Making a final draft to share requires intense focus and discipline.

But it is a step that cannot be forgotten or pushed to the side. Just as we have to answer the big, important questions of writing, we also need to answer the small and mundane ones. Like this:

"Mrs. Kissner?" a student whispered at my elbow. "Can you help me? I don't think I really know what indenting means."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Writing Coaches

Well, this week we're in the final days of finishing our essays. These are always the messiest times, with students scattered all through the stages of the writing process. I'm helping students edit, work through their revisions, getting a few set up on our classroom computers, and helping students get started with final drafts.

This is when I need writing coaches. Every class has a few students with an intuitive feel for the writing process, a few students who can pull great writing out of their peers. I call on these students when I feel stretched, and they never disappoint. In one class, one student helped a girl who had been absent for several days, coaching her through the revising checklist. In another class, a boy helped a student to add details to a body paragraph that was a little thin.

The entire process works more smoothly if there is a specific outcome. "Help Alicia with her piece" is not nearly as effective as, "Alicia is having trouble with an introduction--could you show yours to her, and help her to create one?" After a few minutes, both students are proud of what they have accomplished.

And, today, there were two students that were just as frustrated with me as I was with them. For some reason, the lessons hadn't clicked, and their rough drafts were muddled. I had worked with each individually, but they seemed sullen and resistant. Enter the writing coach! Sometimes another student can explain things in a way that makes sense to struggling students.

Writing coaches are not necessarily the best writers in a class. But they are always the students who ask questions. Writing coaches are honestly interested in writing, and really care about what their peers have to say. Having students who are able to help one another makes the writing classroom a better place.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


How do we get kids to revise? This is often a matter of great frustration for teachers. Instead of really jumping back into a text, many students just halfheartedly circle a misspelled word here and there.

As I started revising this week, I decided to add some glamor. I handed out "Magic Microphones" to the students. Really just rolled up pieces of paper, these microphones were supposed to make reading their pieces aloud more engaging for students. (Yeah, the special educator who co-teaches with me for the first class thought it was a ludicrous idea as well!) Why? As I've watched my students, I have noticed that they make more changes when they read their text aloud than when they just look at it silently.

After the Magic Microphones, I introduced the Revising Checklist. My revising checklist was very specific, directing students to look for an introduction, a topic sentence for each paragraph, and a conclusion. Then, students had to find one place to ADD a detail and one place to CHANGE something. These very explicit words make the nebulous idea of "revising" more concrete.

Was it perfect revising, all over the room? No, of course not! But I saw progress. I saw lots of Post-Its being passed around. I realized that a small group of students in each class were still not entirely sure of what a topic sentence is. And I noticed many students going back to our example essays--and even Surprising Sharks--to find out what an introduction and conclusion should be like.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Crafting an Essay

Students are still working on their fish essays. As they move from graphic organizer to rough draft, I've found that it's very helpful to give them a rough draft template. I first created this back when I taught sixth grade. I was horrified to see that students were writing each paragraph on a separate sheet of paper! Somewhere along the line, they had started to see each part of the essay as a separate piece of writing.

The rough draft template helps students to see what their writing will look like in the end. I used text boxes to remind them of the job of each paragraph. This template also frees students to use some of my favorite writing tricks, like skipping the introduction at first. (I do so hate writing introductions!) They can easily see where the introduction should go, leave it blank, and jump right into Body Paragraph #1.

Like any scaffolding tool, I use this one just at the very beginning. By the end of the year, many students have enough of an understanding of structure that they can create essays without this support. I have gone back and forth on the merits of five paragraph essay. My current thinking is that if I teach it to students in fourth grade, then by middle school they'll be past its constraints and be ready to soar with new, more complex forms.

That's my hope, at least!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Creating an Essay

In my last post, I wrote about using Nicola Davies' book Surprising Sharks as a mentor text for introductions and conclusions. This week, we've jumped into writing the rest of our essays. What a task! To make it easier, I give students a page with the paragraphs mapped out. I'm all for free and expressive writing, but students also need to learn a structure that they can adapt for their purposes. (If you'd like a copy of the paragraph map, write me an email and I'll send it to you)

When students are in the thick of writing, I try to direct them to resources that they can use to help themselves. Quite a few students got to the point of writing an introduction. A student would stare at the page, sigh, and raise a hand. "I'm stuck. How do I write an introduction?"

And--here's the big lesson that I've learned--telling students how to write an introduction doesn't work all that well. Showing students how I write an introduction doesn't work all that well.

But showing students lots of samples of introductions actually worked. "Why don't you go back to Surprising Sharks?" I suggested. Or, "Look at the example that I gave you. Where is the introduction there?" (I wrote a sample to share with the students.) As several good introductions bloomed, I directed students to one another--"Why don't you go over and check out Michael's introduction?"

The multitude of examples was what got some students through. For the students who found Nicola Davies' introduction unattainable, my simpler introduction gave them a nudge in the right direction. And, later in the afternoon, a student showed me a book he was reading. "Look!" he said. "It has an introduction."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Mentor Text: Surprising Sharks

One of my favorite writing techniques is the linked introduction and conclusion. The book Surprising Sharks by Nicola Davies has a kid-friendly, engaging example of this. Since my fourth graders are writing essays about fish they have created, Surprising Sharks seemed to be the perfect mentor text.

So I showed them the book, the students said, "Oh!" and wrote great introductions and conclusions.

Well...not really! It wasn't quite that easy. But because I teach writing to three different classes, I was able to try out and refine the lesson until it worked pretty well. Here's an outline.

1. We started by thinking of times when we watched someone else to learn how to do something. Students thought for a moment, and then shared with their partners. Soccer, cooking, and sewing were some of the things that students shared.

2. "Just like you can watch someone to learn how to do something, we can read a book to learn about being a better writer. When we read a book this way, we are looking at how the author writes so that we can try out new ways of writing." I showed students the book. "Today we'll be reading this book to see how Nicola Davies can make an informational book interesting. We're going to look especially carefully at her introductions and conclusions."

3. In two classes, students looked through the text in small groups; in the other, we did it as a class. I think that the small groups worked best. This page helped to give students a framework for looking at the text.

4. As the students worked, I circulated among the groups. Some students didn't recognize the book as informational, because it had paintings instead of real photographs. (This came up in multiple classes!) I directed students to take a look at the diagrams...this helped them to see the informative aspect of the book. At first, many of them just said, "She made it exciting" as an answer for how Nicola Davies starts the book. It took some probing to get them to go did she make it exciting? How was this introduction different from "I'm going to tell you about..."? Students did pick up on her use of "you" and how it puts the reader in the action. One student also said, "Oh! It's like a guessing game!"

5. When they got to the conclusion, I could hear laughs and exclamations from the different groups. Nicola Davies turns her introduction around in the conclusion, with a memorable result. And they got it! I could see groups flipping back between the introduction and the conclusion, comparing them. Wow!

6. The last part was the trickiest...could students generalize what they noticed in the text? Could they come up with general ideas that went beyond just writing about sharks? After we finished reading and talking about the link between the conclusion and the introduction, I asked the question: "As an author, what would you like to try?" (This question is really an asks students to pull the author's techniques out of context and generalize them.)

7. There were a lot of answers related to the sizes of the text. (Nicola Davies plays around with the sizes of the words, and the kids really liked it.) But students also said they wanted to connect the introduction and conclusion, write an introduction that puts the reader in the text, and use interesting details. Not bad! I collected these ideas on a poster to keep hanging in the room.

When students started to work on their introductions, they used what they had learned. Now, I didn't have a class full of perfect introductions. But I did see that everyone was making an attempt to write some kind of introduction, and most students were including an interesting detail or image to hook the reader. I've always found teaching introductions to young fourth graders to be a pretty tough challenge. This lesson went more easily than others I've taught, mostly because the students were so engaged and interested in the book.

The conclusions, though, were what were most impressive. I'd been planning on giving students a frame for the conclusion, since this is their first formal essay and conclusions are so new. But they jumped right in! I couldn't believe it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Neat Vocabulary Strategy

Here's a link to the abstract for a great article from The Reading Teacher. Basically, it looks at using "morpheme triangles"--or rectangles--to show students the different parts of a word.

I tried it out this week as I was working on the word "retell". As you can see from the picture, we made a rectangle, and I put "re-" on one side and "tell" on the other. Students were seated in pairs on the carpet. One partner made a list of words that they knew with the word part "re-", while the other partner made a list of words with "tell". Then, we all shared our words. Students made their own copies of the chart in their vocabulary notebooks. (Just the back portion of their reading journal, marked off with a sticker.)

The activity generated some great discussions. Several students came up with "tele-" words, so we talked about the meaning of this root. We also looked at how the word "tell" changes form to become "told". Of course, we put the parts together and then talked about the whole word.

All of this took place in just 15 minutes, and was the perfect lead-in to our retelling activity that I wrote about previously. I love this strategy!

Winters, R. (2009, May). Interactive Frames for Vocabulary Growth and Word Consciousness. The Reading Teacher, 62(8), 685–690. doi: 10.1598/RT.62.8.6

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What should a good retelling include?

By fourth grade, students have been retelling for years. But retelling is something that students in all grades need to revisit and talk about. Today, I drew on their background knowledge of retelling to help them create a list of what to include as they retell. The lesson worked pretty well, and it wasn't difficult to do.

1. Students read "Mole and the Baby Bird" by Marjorie Newman. (Unfortunately, this is out of print. Any really short book with a clear, simple storyline would work)

2. I called students to the front to act out various parts as I retold the story. I said, "As I retell, I'm going to make some mistakes. Listen to what I do and then try to come up with a sentence to tell what I should do."

3. For the first time, I made up a story that included the characters, but went way beyond what happened in the story. (The student actors enjoyed themselves!) We wrote our first idea: Use only what is actually in the story.

4. Each actor went and chose a replacement. On the second time, I stuck with the general: "There was a guy who went to a place. He found a thing and decided to do something..." We had just spent a long time working on general/specific, and the students quickly raised their hands with suggestions. We wrote our second idea: Include specific details like character and setting names.

5. Again, replacement actors. I retold again, this time completely out of order. We came up with the third idea: Put the events in order.

6. For the final time, I just went back to the text and read it aloud in a monotone. This is one of the hardest parts of retelling, but the kids came up with our fourth and final directive: Put ideas into your own words.

And, when students went off on their own to retell, they did it completely perfectly!

Well, not really. After we made our chart, I put students in groups of three to retell the story. And the first five minutes were dreadful. Kids were off task, they were just reading, they were stuck. So I pulled everyone back together. On the board, we wrote what had gone well and what needed to be improved. Then, I regrouped students for another try.

This time, things went more smoothly. As I walked around and listened in, I could quickly hear which students were getting in and which needed more help. We ended our session by going back to the chart that we had created and talking about which ideas were the easiest (include specific character names) and which were the hardest (students said that putting ideas in their own words)

Why take the time to retell? I think that it's a necessary precursor to understanding and summarizing text. Retelling causes students to put the ideas from the story together and figure out how A leads to B. Retelling with partners lets students listen to one another, hearing other ways of expressing the same ideas.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Getting started with short answer responses

My goal is for all of my fourth graders to be able to write a thoughtful, detailed response to higher order questions about what they read.

It's a long road. Each student brings different kinds of thinking to the task. Some just dash off any old answer, while others retell the story in response to every prompt. Still others can start a good answer, but don't make the connections between their text details and their answers.

Many students don't have much experience with academic discourse. Cohesive phrases like "for example", "as a result", and "in addition" are just not in their expressive vocabularies. I can see them struggling with their words, trying to express ideas without access to these phrases. Their task is made much harder!

Using framed responses in guided reading is a way to build student knowledge of these phrases. As you can see from the picture, I created the frame. (And I wasn't in a 6 am to make the frames for all of my groups--I made each frame during the two minutes of transition time between groups!) After we revisited the story, we looked at the frame and the parts that I had written. Then, students offered their sentences to add to the frame. I was working with them the entire time, guiding them to look through the text to find the details to add. Our final response read like this:

Paul Bunyan had a rough childhood. For example, he was left in a cave. He was put in a giant cradle. Also, he cried for thirty days and nights. I wouldn't want a childhood like that!

After we wrote the response, we read it aloud together. Sometimes I have students copy it as well. (I'm careful with this, though, as I don't want the task to become tedious drudgery) Through repeated exposures, students start to internalize the connectors and make their writing more connected.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

KSRA Presentation

I'll be presenting on Wednesday at KSRA. The title of the presentation is "Teaching Text Structure: A Deeper Look". Basically, I'll explain how to go beyond just helping kids to identify text structures, and into using the text structures to inform comprehension.

Hmm, presenting on the last day of the conference, after all of the exhibits are closed. I'm not sure of how many to expect. To save paper and ensure that I am not stuck with zillions of unused copies, I'm posting the Powerpoint and handouts here.

KSRA Powerpoint

Text Structure Card Match Activity: This will get kids up and around to match text structures and questions to ask of them.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Week of Pictures

This week we've been working on details that are general and specific. All too often, kids are told to add "specific" details...when they don't really know what this means!

We started our discussion by creating a graphic organizer. Kids wrote "general" at the top of the page, and then drew a long arrow down to "specific" at the bottom. We worked on the ideas of general and specific using a quick Powerpoint that I had created (available soon on Slideshare). I referred back to the graphic organizer over and over again--by having kids point to general or specific after I said an object, by having kids slide from general to specific, and so forth. (Kids loved it when I referred to them in general terms--"you, that person.")

The next day, I used the linear array idea to help students organize ideas from general to specific. Students received index cards with one of the following: a place, a place in Pennsylvania, a park in Pennsylvania, Kings Gap State Park. After I handed out the index cards, students came to the front to arrange themselves in order from general to specific. Of course, a place was the most general! We talked about how this doesn't put a clear picture in the reader's mind. On the other end, Kings Gap State Park was the most specific, because it refers to a specific place.

Other cards I used: a thing, a living thing, an animal, a cold-blooded animal, a frog, a leopard frog. This one generated some discussion, as students often put "cold-blooded animal" as more specific than "leopard frog". Interesting. The big idea here is to show students that there are shades of gray between general and specific, and that ideas can get more and more specific.

Next week, we're going to write to describe photos with nouns, adjectives, and verbs, trying to be as specific as we can.

I guess the test of this lesson came when I was trying to tell a student where the tape was. I don't know why, but the tape in my classroom is always wandering about. "Um--I think it's on the thing at the front of the room," I told a student. She looked at me, sighed, and said, "Mrs. Kissner, I think that was a little too general."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Schoolhouses Book

One of my favorite books is The Teacher's Funeral by Richard Peck. However, after introducing it to several students, who promptly put it right back on the shelf, I realized that many students lack the background knowledge they need to make it through this book.

To develop their background knowledge about schoolhouses, I wrote this book, Schoolhouses of Long Ago. (I did the illustrations too--it was a fun Sunday project. My boys were doing watercolors, I was sketching pictures, and we were all working together.) It's formatted to copy double-sided. I wanted the headings and captions to be functional, so that I could use this to teach conventions of nonfiction.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Retold in 60 Seconds

It was a Friday afternoon. A quarter of my class was missing, with some sick and some at a pullout program. I didn't want to move on with too much new content, and didn't have quite enough time to get in a guided reading group before our computer lab time.

So I decided to go ahead with something that I'd been considering for awhile. Over the summer, I went with my youngest son to see a children's theatre performance. The entire show was improvisational, and they ended with "60 Second Theatre"--trying to retell a fairy tale in decreasing lengths of time.

I thought that this might work to help students recognize the important and less important ideas in a story. We had just read a 2-page version of "The Princess and the Pea", and had organized and sorted cards that I had made with the events on them. Students knew this story inside and out.

"I need a princess, a queen, and a prince," I said, and the kids eagerly raised their hands to participate. Then, I explained what we would be doing--trying to retell the whole story in the least amount of time. "As we do this, it's important to consider only the important events in the story."

For the first two times, I acted as the narrator. I easily did it in 60 seconds, but didn't quite make it to the end with 40 seconds. The students acted out the events--luckily, there's lots of action in the story! Then, I called on students to narrate. This was hard for them! One girl forgot the part where the Queen puts the pea under the mattress. "The pea! The pea!" students urgently whispered from the audience. This gave us a great starting point for discussion--why was this event so important? Could we take it out? A few more narrators gave it a try, and one actually managed to tell the story in 30 seconds (beating me!)

This whole activity was so successful that I'm going to move it into heavy rotation--not just something that I do when part of my class is missing, but something that I use for real instruction. There was so much richness here, with the acting, the narrating, and the discussion of which events were most important. Give it a try!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Magic Binoculars

In my first year of teaching, I went to hear Barry Lane speak about teaching writing. In every year since then, the language of After the End and the Reviser's Toolbox have been a part of my classroom. Snapshots, thoughtshots, scenes, magic binoculars...across grade levels, schools, and state lines, I've used them every year.

Today, as we worked on the Ideas Trait, I introduced my students to the magic binoculars. Using the focus adjustment on the LCD projector, I showed them that bland writing is fuzzy writing, just as blurry as the image they saw. If I just wrote, "This is a praying mantis," I wouldn't have very good writing. Then I focused the image (it's always gratifying to hear students gasp in appreciation as the scene becomes clear!) "Writers, I'd like you to try to use your magic binoculars to write some great details about the praying mantis. What can you say that will help readers to picture it?"

Hands went up. Before they started writing, they wanted me to answer some questions. (Wow! This was great!) Was I the one who took the picture? Where was it? What was the praying mantis looking at? Did I know what kind it was? I put the answers to the questions on the dry erase board, adding a few words that they might want to use as spelling references, like "praying mantis" and "insect".

Silence fell as they got writing. I wandered about, checking in on students, answering more questions, and watching their writing. After a few moments, we did a seat switch sharing, one of my favorite styles. (Another great idea from my mom, also a writing teacher!) I quickly moved the students to sit at another writer's seat. Their task was to read what their classmate had produced, and write a kind comment in response. (We're not quite to totally constructive comments yet, but they're developing.)

After another few minutes, they returned to their seats. "Who read some really great magic binoculars details?" I asked. They raised their hands, not to share their own details, but to suggest the details of other students. As we listened to their details and put them on the chart, I pulled out the highlights of what I heard--really specific words, new ways of looking at the picture, interesting verbs. (One student read, "The praying mantis was probably scared of the big ugly lens coming toward it with the big ugly monster holding it." Then she looked at me, realizing the implication of her words. "No offense," she added.)

In one class, I had enough time for students to look at another picture and write details; in another class, we wrapped things up here.

What's so great about this lesson? Everyone wrote. Everyone shared. Everyone received feedback about their work. There were no papers to grade. And it only took 20 minutes.

Some of the students had problems with the handwriting or spelling of the other writers. Today, I read those pieces aloud to the students. The main focus of the lesson was ideas, and I didn't want to pull the students away from that focus. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to weave that piece in. "Writers, some students felt disappointed yesterday when they had trouble reading what was on the page. What can you do to make it easier for your reader to see your ideas?"

A writing lesson doesn't always have to lead to a polished final project. Sometimes, good writing is born in the small moments, the little experiences of crafting details and responding as a writer.

Picture prompt slide show

More from Barry Lane

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Content Area Literacy Resources

Here are some resources to go along with the October 12 workshop at Waynesboro:

Anthony Wayne article: This article, suitable for readers in grades 6-8, gives a brief biography of Anthony Wayne.

Chinese Etiquette article: Written as an example of compare/contrast text structure, this article includes multiple choice questions and a short answer response.

Fairy shrimp article: A science article about fairy shrimp

Teaching Text Structure Powerpoint: An overview of teaching text structure

Text structure lesson for science: A lesson plan from Utah about using text structures in science class.

The Clarifying Routine: From LD Online, an article with more strategies for teaching vocabulary.

Lots of lessons and links for text structure: From Literacy Matters

Reading Quest: Although this is written for social studies, teachers in all areas will be able to find resources such as graphic organizers, strategies, and helpful content area reading information.

Just Read Now Vocabulary: This resources, from Florida, includes explanations of 12 key vocabulary strategies, including the Frayer model, semantic webbing, Possible Sentences, and word sorting.

Enjoy! If you have any links of your own to add, please share them in the "Comments" section. Thanks!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Tic Tac Toe and Strategies

This year, I'm really working on helping students to understand some of the key words behind our reading content. I've already talked about giving students a firm knowledge of the words feature and structure. As I started working with guided reading groups, I decided it was time to help students understand the word strategy.

How could I do this? Typically, my brain raced through lots of impractical and crazy ideas (a large scale game of Capture the Flag, for example) before I thought of a simple solution: Tic Tac Toe.

To get us ready for the discussion, students had to find a partner and sit at desks somewhere in the room. Then, we looked at the definition for strategy--"a plan for achieving a goal". We started out by talking with partners about our strategies in soccer. In soccer, the goal is--well, the goal, which made it very literal and concrete. After we made a list of soccer strategies, we talked about the goal in tic tac toe. What were we trying to accomplish? Of course, getting three in a row. Then, I chose a few students to go against me in a game of tic tac toe on the overhead, talking about our how we could both use a strategy.

After I played a few games, students worked with their partners to try out some strategies for tic tac toe. They needed the instant gratification that comes from applying a strategy and seeing it succeed. And it worked! They had quite a few strategies to share--use the middle, distract your opponent, set it up so that you had two opportunities to win--and were able to see pretty quickly the benefit of choosing a strategy.

I was amazed at how quickly the lesson on reading strategies went after this experience. What is our goal for reading? It's not to get three in a row (the kids all giggled at this), but to understand the text. What are some strategies that we can use? Suddenly, there were quite a few suggestions.

The next day, I had to leave school early to take my two sons to get their flu shots. I left behind a sorting activity that had students match reading strategies to their definitions. When I returned, I found (happily) that pairs of students working together could generate the different reading strategies and explain what they meant. Not bad for a 20 minute activity with a substitute! The richness of their understanding of the word strategy gave them an instant framework for the reading strategies.

Of course, there is much work to be done. We need to look at how to use strategies, when to change strategies, and how to see if our strategy use is working. For now, though, I'm pleased that the students have a better understanding of the word strategy than ever before.

And I have some killer new tic tac toe moves!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Quiet Evening...

It was time for bed last night, and I was reading Aidan a story. Aidan is four, and he is acquiring a taste for longer, more detailed books. But he brought me I Love You, Little One, and said, "I thought this one was babyish, but,"--he shrugged--"I guess I like it."

So I read it aloud. If you haven't read this one, it's perfect for late night snuggling. He picked up the pattern after a few pages, and read the "Mama, do you love me?" bit on each page.

After the book was finished, I set it aside and turned off the light. He pulled the covers up to his chin and said, "Mama, I will ask the question, and you say the words."

What a magical moment. The crickets were chirping outside, we were cozy in bed, and we had just shared a great book. He said, "Mama, do you love me?" and I answered, "I love you, little one. I love you as the moon loves you, shining bright and round in the sky. I love you as the moon loves you, forever and ever and always."

He sighed in what I thought was contentment. Now we'd drift to sleep, lulled by the spell of the book.

Then he spoke again. "Mama, what if no one in the world had any noses?"

Friday, September 25, 2009

On fairy shrimp and schemas

Last spring, as I started reading about vernal pools, I became intrigued by accounts of a creature I had never heard of before: fairy shrimp. What were they? Where could I find them? The students and I embarked on some fun research that included a presentation by a college student, a visit to a vernal pool, and lots of reading.

After I worked with students to develop their schema about fairy shrimp, I wrote an article that has been published in the September issue of Science Scope, published by the NSTA. It's always neat to see how something that lives and breathes in the classroom can be translated for a broader audience. The article, called "How Do We Know What We Know?" looks at how teachers can help students to understand their schema as they learn new science content. (Here's a link to the text that I wrote to share with students.)

My own schema about vernal pools was forever altered by my experiences last spring. is an amazing place to find information about fairy shrimp, vernal pools, and spotted salamanders. What kids wouldn't be intrigued by the story of a rainy March night that brings hundreds of salamanders to ponds and streams? The vernal pool field guide for sale on their website is an easy-to-read guide to creatures that students can actually find. When March comes, set up a Brock magiscope, the field guide, and a bucket of water from a vernal pool, and you'll have an instant high-interest reading center!

Since we've had our immersion in vernal pools, I've been on the lookout for more information. John Himmelman has written many lovely books about the life cycles of animals. A Salamander's Life is no exception. When I saw copies at Kings Gap State Park, I had to have them. I love the illustrations, the great use of chronological order, and the precision of language. Best of all, the book mentions one of my favorite residents of a vernal pool--the lowly isopod, tiny, easy to catch, and great fun for the classroom.

What's in my classroom right now? Two toads, a cricket, and a surprisingly cute slug. I'm short on collection containers, so the slug was being kept in a plastic bucket without a lid. During a fire drill, the slug made his escape! He crawled across the desks, leaving his mucous trail behind him. Luckily, we caught him again, and I made a lid for the container. Writing class is never dull!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Text Structure, Text Structure, Text Structure

Here is a compendium of resources related to text structure. If you are having trouble downloading Slideshare presentations, it may be because your school district server is blocking Slideshare. Try downloading at home. Alternatively, most items are also posted at "emily kissner". (All of my items are free. I can't upload directly to Blogger, so I've been experimenting with other sites.)

Also, I'm working on the formatting for several other little books--if you are interested in receiving these, send me a message and I'll get them out to you.

-A blog post with a list of text structure picture books

-A Powerpoint presentation to introduce text structure to students

-A Powerpoint presentation to introduce younger students to comparing

-A Powerpoint presentation to introduce younger students to cause and effect

-A blog post with a link to a projectable book about cause and effect

-An assortment of paragraphs for teaching text structures

-An activity to help students understand causes and effects

-A Powerpoint presentation to help students understand the word structure (this is very important to understanding text structure!)

-A very simple projectable book using compare and contrast (written for kindergarten)

Enjoy! Leave a comment if you found something useful!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Here are some interesting resources that have crossed my computer in the last few weeks. Hope that they're useful!

Adolescent Literacy
While there have been impressive gains in early literacy, NAEP scores for students in grades 4-12 have languished. A report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York suggests that schools undertake systemic reforms to improve literacy in grades 4-12. If you're trying to convince teachers that all teachers should be accountable for literacy instruction, this document is a must-read.

Looking for a readability measure? Okapi is one of the easiest ones I've found. Simply type in your text, choose your formula, and statistics will appear. It will even allow you to print out a Running Record sheet of your text.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And we're going to buy glow sticks for the frog!

Last week, I wrote about sharing time. Each day, three writers get to share their writing with the rest of the class. I do move students to the back carpet for this, so they are sitting on the floor. The writer gets to sit in a special Authors' Chair to signify the importance of the occasion.

Moments from sharing time are always memorable. Take last week, for example. Ben* was called on to share. He walked forward grudgingly and read, quickly and quietly, what he had written that day. "We have a frog at home. It's wild but it's our pet. It likes to live in our garden. Later we're going to buy glow sticks for it."

He looked up at the class. I looked on curiously, wondering what would happen next. Would they just sit there? Or would they take advantage of this?

Hands went up. "Um, did you say that you were going to buy a glow stick for the frog?" Taylor asked politely.

Ben nodded. There were murmurs of more questions. "Ben, I think everyone else has the same question that I do," I said. "Why on earth would you buy a glow stick for a frog?"

"Oh," he said. "We want it for bugs. You know, they'll come to the glow stick, and then the frog will eat them."

Then it all made sense! The murmurs became more pronounced as students fell into talking with one another. Would that work? What was a glow stick? And is that stuff inside of them poisonous? Just from what Ben had to share, a multitude of writerly ideas were flowing.

Ben looked as if he would do anything to escape from the authors' chair. But I had to help him recognize this moment for what it was. "Ben, do you realize what has happened here?" I asked. "You have fans! How many of you want to hear about what happens with the glow sticks?" Every student raised a hand. "You have a reason for writing now. People want to know what you have to say!"

His face brightened. As sharing ended and we all went back to seats, students clustered around Ben, asking him more questions about his frog.

When we share, we bring others into our world. For younger writers, like my fourth graders, it is an introduction to peer review. They learn about what their readers want to know. They find out what works for their audience, what people want them to add, what kinds of writing are interesting and dull. Many students learn early on what kinds of details can get them big laughs at sharing time--and it's not the dull, formulaic writing, but the writing that is rich and detailed. And they make such excellent writing coaches for each other, coaxing out the details and gently letting writers know when they are not satisfied.

What else happened in sharing today? Across three fourth grade classes, I learned about squirrel pot pie (the slippery kind--what else?), a 15-point buck, a dragonrider who happens to be my son (my name gets used A LOT in their writing), and the complexities of the apple harvest. What an amazing diversity of ideas!

*I've changed student names.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sharing time

So here it is. In the past three years, I've become even more committed to spending time having students share their writing. Not just every month, not every week, but every day. If we are to be a community of writers, then we need to listen to one another, offer our questions and comments, and give each other support.

But time is limited. In order for a sharing routine to be successful, it has to be quick and easy for me to implement. Here's what has worked well.

After about 7-10 minutes of writing time, students gather with me on the back carpet. Then, I pull a Popsicle stick. The student on that stick comes to the Writers' Chair and shares. I always ask the same questions at the beginning--"What are you sharing with us today? Is this a new piece of writing, or one that you've been working with?". Then, the student reads aloud, either a sentence, a paragraph, or a page.

At the end of the piece, students raise their hands with questions and comments. This is the most important part of the sharing time. Writers need to think about their audiences. My students are lucky enough to have their audience right in front of them. And they play wonderfully into my hands. If a student leaves out something important, the hands go up. "What is the name of your horse?" or "Where were you when you were camping?" Sometimes they comment on what they liked about the piece, or how they feel about the topic.

The student who shared has the power to choose three people for their questions and comments. Here, the writer has the power to call on other students! They use this power wisely, looking deliberately at the raised hands and choosing the next person with care.

The whole process is over in about 10 minutes. But these 10 minutes are worth every second, because they are minutes in which the students do what writers do: share, comment, respond, and, usually, laugh.

Here are answers to some questions about sharing:
-Does everyone share every day? No. At the beginning of the year, I'm still trying to model and reinforce writerly conversations. So we need to be together as a whole class, and I limit the sharing to three people each day.

-What about the student who doesn't want to share? I used to let them off the hook. But I guess I've grown tougher. Everyone who gets called has to share, even if it's just a sentence or the beginning of an idea. And then we send good thoughts toward the author, thoughts of encouragement, and share some things that the author is good at. Even the most resistant writer will crack a smile at the sight of 24 people sending encouraging thoughts!

-What about repeats? This question plays out differently in each class. For some classes, the thought of a student sharing twice before others have shared once is horrible. When a student expresses unhappiness with the arrangement, I pounce. "Would you like to come up with a way to make sure that everyone gets to share an equal number of times?" In one class, a girl used a class roster to allocate sharing. It worked beautifully. But it has to come from them.

-What about struggling writers? I've found that fourth graders are a most encouraging audience. They listen to the choppy, difficult to understand writing of their peers with care and compassion, and ask good questions. In fact, usually the motivation of sharing for an audience is what keeps these writers facing the page each day.

-Does it ever change? Of course! In about November, as the students start to mature a bit, I can let go of the whole-class sharing and try out some other techniques.

-Where is the learning? This is the hardest part of sharing. I must be ready to offer comments and teaching on the spot. Today, I was trying to highlight what our writers had produced, so I told them to show their journals to the class. "Wow! Writers, look at what this student has produced today. That was a lot of thinking and writing." I also showed how one writer used a paragraph to show a change of topic and how another writer had drawn a picture to help him get ideas. I never really know what I'm getting into.

Last week, I focused on doing what writers do. For example, if a student got to a tricky part and had to reread, I said, "That's something that writers do. When we read something aloud, sometimes we notice places that we need to add or change ideas."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Starting out with writing

Well, seven days of school have gone by. The kids are reading books--some have even finished two chapter books already! But another important task has been to get the kids writing.

I've tried quite a few methods for doing this. Just handing out journals and saying, "Now write about whatever you like!" does not work for every student. There are some who eagerly begin stories from the summer, but many just sit there.

So I tend to choose a concrete visual to help get kids started. This year, I had great success with a dragon puppet. "Remember the journals that I gave you?" I told students, as they gathered on the carpet with me. "Today we're going to begin writing in those journals." There were some scattered cheers among the students. Yes, cheers--fourth graders really do like to write!

I held up the dragon egg puppet. "One of the amazing things about writing is that we get to ask questions and explore new ideas," I said. "Suppose that I found this egg in my classroom this morning. What would be some questions that I might have? Turn and share with your partner."

The room buzzes with talk--Where did it come from? What is it? Will it hatch?

"Then I watched the egg for awhile, and look what happened!" Dramatically, I make the baby dragon start to poke its head out of the egg. They watch, murmuring comments to themselves--It's a dragon! Does it have wings? A tail? Where did it come from? Does it talk? I pull this part out, making the dragon wave to the students, show his wings, and pretend to be a little shy.

"You have lots of questions about this dragon," I said. "As writers, you get to create the answers. Where did the dragon come from? What can you imagine?"

A few volunteers shared their ideas. I kept the dragon puppet on my hand and made him react to their comments. (I admit it--one of the best parts of being the teacher is that I got to be the one who had the puppet first.)

Then it was time to get them writing. "When the dragon rings the chime, you will return to your seats. You can write some answers to your questions about the dragon. If you like, you could write some questions for the dragon. You could even write to describe what just happened right now. You are the writers, so you can make the choices." The kids watched as the dragon fumbled for the chime, and they returned quickly to their seats.

And we all wrote happily ever after! Well, not really. This beginning was enough to get some kids writing. Others needed more support. I quickly put some of their ideas on the whiteboard for their reference. Then I walked around with the dragon puppet for a few moments, so they could see it more closely, and then took it off for students to pass around. The students were responding in many different ways. Some did take off with a story. Others wrote questions in neatly numbered lists. Some just did describe what had happened--"Mrs. Kissner had a dragin puppet." One student wanted to write a pet care book for the dragon. I showed him "The Care and Feeding of Sprites" so that he could see the conventions of pet care books.

By the end of ten minutes of writing, everyone had something on the page. And this is what is so important about the first few days of writing. Writers know that something is better than nothing. For my fourth graders, the dragon puppet gave them something interesting and novel to write about.

Our next step: Starting a routine for sharing what we write

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Visualizing and Understanding

Three years ago, a student shared a great story during our Morning Meeting. This student and her sisters were responsible for going home on their own after school, because their mother worked. Well, one afternoon, they realized that they had forgotten their key. "Try this!" her little sister said. She held up a paper key, one that her teacher had given her after they read a story about a magic key. Well, my student knew that the paper key wouldn't work, but she held it up to the door and turned the knob anyway. And guess what? The door opened!

Of course, it hadn't even been locked. My student had known that, but her sister was firmly convinced that the key truly was magic.

What a great story! It hung around in the back of my imagination until I finally took the time to write it down. When I wrote it, changing around some details a bit, I knew that I had something to share with students. "The Magic Key" was written.

I used this story to help students understand how visualizing is important. As I wrote in "The Forest and the Trees," a great way to help students visualize is to use stories that depend on a visualization. The Magic Key is such a story. To understand the heart of the story, a reader needs to visualize the moment in which Tania holds the key to the door, and understand that the door had never been locked.

Here is the link to the story "The Magic Key", posted at TeachersPayTeachers. For another, easier story that depends on a visual image, plus more information on teaching visualizing, check out "The Forest and the Trees"--soon to be available as an e-book!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Choosing Read Alouds

Well, now that the weather has turned cooler, I can use more rational methods for choosing read aloud books. (Teaching reading is so much easier when the kids aren't sweating!) Today, I used two very different processes to select books for my two reading classes.

My book selection process is very much on-the-spot. Well, not really; I am buying and finding books all summer long, so I have quite a store in my classroom. But the choice about which book to read on which day cannot be planned too far in advance. I need to know what the readers in my room are doing and thinking so that I can choose a book that will be best for them.

My first reading class, right after lunch, is having a tough go of independent reading time. In the three days that I've had to watch them, I've noticed a good amount of "flitting", readers moving restlessly from book to book. Of those who have sat down and finished a book, many have chosen picture books with highly supportive pictures. For this group, then, my main goal is to get them into chapter books. I want them to be able to sustain their attention through a longer text with fewer pictures.

But I can't jump into just any chapter book. Books like "Found" by Margaret Peterson Haddix or "Fair Weather" by Richard Peck are still beyond most of the readers in this class. So I chose "Wayside School is Falling Down." Louis Sachar's chapters are short and self-contained. Each chapter is entertaining, but they will add up to a larger story as well. With the support of our shared read aloud, students will be able to try out the other books in the series for independent reading.

What about my other class? This class has many readers, many students who bring their own books to class and eagerly scan my bookshelves. For this class, I've taken a different approach. I want to expose these students to a wider variety of genres and techniques. To do this, I've been choosing shorter picture books. Yesterday we read "The Scrimshaw Ring", a really interesting historical fiction book, and today we started "The King's Equal", an engrossing fantasy. (Side note about "The King's Equal": This is an amazing book. I have never had it flop for any class.)

So, there it is. Two different groups of readers, two different ways to choose a read aloud book. Oh, the joys of cooler weather!

Friday, August 28, 2009

A New Read-Aloud Category

After the third day of school, I have a new category for choosing read alouds: Books That Work When Everyone is Hot and Sweaty.

As you can probably guess, my school (which is charming in so many ways!) does not have air conditioning. I forget the implications of this until I'm actually in my classroom, faced with 23 little flushed faces. The first few weeks of school are the worst. When the fans are going, voices are lost in the hum of white noise. When they are turned off, everything is just still, moist, and humid.

This complicates read aloud time. The wrong book choice can make everyone hotter and more miserable. Miss Rumphius, one of my favorites for cooler months, is torture to read during the hot weeks, as are other longer books. We need books that yield their secrets quickly.

Which leads to the new category. Books that Work When Everyone Is Hot and Sweaty are books that transcend our momentary discomfort and help us to feel better. Usually they are short, interesting, and funny. Today's pick was Dr. Xargle's Book of Earthlets. While I read this aloud to two different classes, we were briefly transported beyond the 99% humidity and into a world of talking and sharing. In this book, the alien Dr. Xargle explains Earthlets (babies) to a class. The kids loved figuring out what Dr. Xargle was really talking about--for example, we worked our way through the way that Earthlets are born without fangs, and have to drink milk through a whole in their faces. No one complained through the entire twenty minutes, and the good feelings carried us through the rest of the class.

Dr. Xargle was just the thing to perk us up and get us through another humid Friday afternoon. But Monday is approaching fast. Any new additions to the category of Books That Work When Everyone Is Hot and Sweaty? Please comment below. Twenty-three fourth graders are counting on you!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Getting books to kids

Well! Two days down, and the students who were once just names on a page are now starting to become real people with real personalities. Things in the classroom are taking shape.

Much of my time in the last two days has been spent in matching books to readers. It's a messy process, with some real issues to consider. One obstacle is just classroom management. I can't have 20 kids browsing simultaneously in my 20 square feet of classroom library space. Another obstacle is my lack of knowledge. Book selection is a personal affair, but I don't know my students very well at all.

Here's how I deal with it. I divide and conquer. When the kids are out of the classroom, I use a crate and gather about 30 of my best chapter books at various levels. For beginning of the year fourth grader, I need a huge range: some Horrible Harry books, some Magic Treehouse books, a few by Andrew Clements, Clementine, Dragonslayers Academy, and Judy Moody. (Lots of series books here--they work wonders at the start of the school year!) At the upper end of the range, I toss in a few by Eva Ibbotson, some Hank Zipzer books, and some books by Dan Gutman.

Then, I put out some of my best high-interest picture books on a shelf at the front of the room. Many of these books are familiar to my students, but I expect that some will want the comfort of a book that they know. Diary of a Worm is a favorite every year, as are the nonfiction books by Nicola Davies and anything by Jon Scieszka.

To hand out books, I gather students at our read aloud area. We brainstorm some rules to remember for independent reading time. For our first two days, I didn't go heavily into reading strategies or comprehension. There is time enough for that later. Right now is the time for just sitting and reading.

After a quick discussion of rules, I hold up books, one by one, and give a brief but supportive introduction. As I hold them up, I distribute them to students who indicate interest. As they get a book, they leave the area to go find a quiet reading spot. Slowly the group around me dwindles until I end up with The Five.

Every class has The Five. These are the students who resist book recommendations because they are looking for The Very Best Book Ever Written. I don't know why there are always five of them. I can't pick them out at the beginning of the class. The Five include both boys and girls, talkative students and quiet ones, kids who want to please and kids who want to cause mischief. They are a diverse group.

But now I can give them my full attention, because everyone else is reading. Two or three just need some more one on one attention. I ask, "What was the last book that you read that you liked?" and base my further recommendations on what they say. Sometimes I read aloud from a first page--"Listen to this!"--and then they'll take a book. Sometimes they'll ask for a particular author or series, some book that they enjoyed from the previous year. Once these students have taken their books to a quiet spot, I'm left with just two. The two who remain are the most challenging. They shake their heads at my suggestions, listen with patient resignation to my book descriptions. It would be easy to take their refusals personally.

But I don't live and die by the first day. Sometimes I need to concede: "Maybe we won't find your favorite book right now. Let's find something that you can read for a little while." This is when the picture books are useful. They are short and non-threatening. We adjourn to the front of the room to look at the shelf of picture books. "This will be a quick read, but I think you'll enjoy it. Then we can talk more about what you like as a reader." I'll hand them out, the last students will take them, and suddenly, I've done it. The room is silent as everyone reads.

This was my day. Getting books in the hands of kids--one of the only fun parts of the beginning of the year.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Book Wizard

Scholastic has a new tool called the Teacher Book Wizard! From the preview, it look very promising. You can search by reading level, genre, and topic. In addition, there is a Book Alike feature to find similar books. What makes this so cool is that you can find similar books on the same grade level, above, or below, using a neat slider tool. (And the Book Wizard suggest books from multiple publishers, not just Scholastic!)

Once you've found books, you can add them to your own book list, and then email or print the list. It looks like it has great promise for helping parents choose books for students--simply put in books that students have enjoyed, and then print out a list of suggestions.

I gave it a whirl to see what it would give me. I like using "Fair Weather" by Richard Peck as a read aloud. It is a little harder than what my students can read on their own, and has delicious details about the late 1800s. One grade level easier than Fair Weather gave me 181 results. Some, like the American Girl book "Changes for Addy", are pretty obvious. But there were results that I would not have come up with on my own, like "Fire in the Hills" by Donna Jo Napoli. There are links that allow you to purchase the books that are offered by Scholastic, and it even tells which books are offered by the book clubs.

I've been frustrated with the weird results that I get with Amazon's search, so this looks like a good new tool to use. Now, if only I had money to actually spend on books...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Back to School Poems...

Just three more days until my room is filled with students! I have a new way of thinking about being "ready". There is no magical ready moment. For the last several years, I have worked through August, trying to make things neat and tidy and perfect. And the first few days still hit me like a ton of bricks. Even worse, I had worked so hard ahead of time that I was exhausted and drained before my students even walked in the door.

So, since I cannot be absolutely ready, I'm saving my strength. I'm saving my enthusiasm, my excitement, and my energy for my time with the students. This means that I won't have a tabbed binder of student names ready for the first day of school, won't have every student name written neatly on every folder, won't have an organized library. But I will have more emotional resources to learn names, play games, and eat lunch with my students. These are the things that will be more important in the long run. My students don't ever come to me and say, "I'm so glad that you have an organized tabbed binder with all of our names in it!" But they do say, "Could you eat lunch with us? I'm a little nervous about the first day."

How will this approach work? I'll find out this week and report!

Of course, I haven't stopped thinking about school. I've just decided to focus on doing what I like. And what I like is planning. We're doing found poems and sharing some poems together on the first day. On the second day, I'm going to introduce a set of point/counterpoint poems that I wrote last year and posted over on TeachersPayTeachers. These two poems showcase two opposing feelings about coming back to school. One speaker is excited and enthusiastic, while the other wishes for more weeks of summer. Kind of the way I'm feeling right now! I hope that this will generate some good discussion with the students, and maybe lead into us writing point/counterpoint poems together.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Summersweet--one of three bushes in my yard with "sweet" in the name. (Sweetspire and sweetshrub are the other two.) Although it took me six years, I finally coaxed this native to bloom!

First week games

This time last week, I was at Disney World with my family. This time next week, I'll be in the middle of my third day with students. What a change!

I've been trying to shake off my vacation drift and focus on what those first three days will look like. Doing this helps me to avoid the blind panic of what is ahead of me (I went on VACATION a week before school starts? Am I insane?)

The poems and cut out words are ready for Found Poetry. But now I have to figure out how the rest of the day will look. To do this, I'm thinking back to the best preparation for teaching I ever had--my days as a camp counselor.

Because, for the first days of school, I need to think like a camp counselor. The emotional and social lives of my students will be foremost as we come together. This means getting myself prepared to do some things that teachers don't usually do--eating lunch with the students, planning extra recesses to practice routines, playing lots of games. But the time spent in all of these extras will have big payouts later in the year.

Here are some of my favorite games for the first few days of school. They all have some common characteristics--they are quick to explain and easy to play. The more complex, longer games I save for a few more weeks.

Train Wreck: Seat students in chairs in a circle. Have enough chairs for all of the participants except one. That person is in the center, and is the caller. The caller will make a statement, and everyone who fits that statement will have to find a new seat at least two seats away. (Examples: Everyone with long hair, everyone wearing shorts, everyone who has a sister.) The caller, of course, tries to take a seat, and the person who is left standing is the new caller. For the first day of school, I try to set it up so that students use descriptors that will teach us about the other students. And, of course, I explain that all descriptors must be positive! At "Train Wreck", everyone must find a new seat. It's fun, it's some movement, but it's not too crazy.

The Blanket Game: This is a game made for rainy Sunday afternoons. I first learned it as a camper myself. It sounds simple, and it is! You will need two volunteers to hold a blanket, or tablecloth, or whatever you have, making a screen between two equal teams. At your signal, each team sends someone up to right beside the blanket. The holders lower the blanket, and the two contestants try to say the other's name as quickly as possible. The first one to correctly name the other is the winner, and the other student has to go join the other team. It's fun as the size of the teams goes back and forth, and students have a real reason for learning names.

Zoom: This is from The First Six Weeks. You will need a timer. Students stand in a circle. Choose a student to be the start. At your signal, this student will turn to the right and say, "Zoom". The next student will pass the word to the right, and so on, going around and around the circle. The goal is to get the word back to the start as quickly as possible. This is great for team-building, because all members of the class are working on a common goal. Keep a poster with times to show progress! Once the class has gotten super fast (below 5 seconds is definitely possible), switch it up. What if they go to the left? Would the score be faster or slower? Why? This game is fun to play all through the first few months.

Distraction: I made up this game as I was writing The Forest and the Trees, and it's described in the third chapter. It's based on a segment on the HBO show Crashbox, and is a great way to explain to kids that they are in charge of their attention. Choose a student to read a paragraph from an informational book. (For the first week of school, the school handbook is a great choice!) While the student does this, zoom around the classroom doing crazy things--making faces, jumping on a chair, whatever you can think of that will get the students' attention. Then, when the reader is finished, stop being silly and ask five questions based on the reading. The point is for the students to try to ignore your silly behaviors and focus on what is being read. After the first round, brainstorm strategies for paying attention, and try it again. Kids can improve quickly at this. Keep the list of strategies for paying attention and refer back to it when you start teaching meaningful lessons.

My least favorite game: The one where you have to go around the circle, say your name, and an adjective that describes you, and then recite everyone who came before you. Played with twenty kids or more, this is an exercise in torture. Only one person is actually participating at a time, which leaves lots of down time for mischief. Too many Sunday afternoons of this game have led to my dislike for it!

Any other favorite first week games? Share them!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Which Tooth Are You? and Other Quizzes...

In the past few days, the Myers-Briggs personality quiz has been making its rounds through my friends and family on Facebook. After hearing us talk about the personality traits of all of the grown-ups in his life, my ten year old asked if he could take the test too. "Please, please, please?" he begged. "It looks like so much fun!"

These kinds of quizzes are fun for adults and kids alike. How come? I think it's because everyone wants to reveal a hidden part of themselves. The quizzes cast a light onto those parts of our personality that we can't quite glimpse, living as we do inside ourselves. Whether the quiz is something as solid as the Myers-Briggs or as frivolous as "Which Star Wars Character Are You?", participants want to find out if their hunches about who they are and what they're like withstand deeper probing. (Funniest quiz: One friend of mine took the "Which Tooth Are You?" quiz.)

These quizzes are contagious, and with good reason. So then the question becomes--how can I use this in my classroom? In "The Forest and the Trees", I wrote a quiz to help young readers figure out what kind of reader they are. Simply put, efferent readers like to read to gather facts and information, while aesthetic readers read for the experience of being deep in a book. The quiz helps students to think about their preferences and understand what they like and why. Efferent readers prefer nonfiction books, books they can sink their teeth into; they can get frustrated with books that are all about feelings. And aesthetic readers (like me!) will focus so much on the inner lives of the characters and their feelings that sometimes they will lose track of plot details.

After taking the quiz, one sixth grader exclaimed, "It's like they know everything about me!" I think this quiz will be a good choice for early October, once students are comfortable with independent reading routines. As a teacher, I look forward to seeing what the quizzes show, because it will help me to guide the students toward books they will enjoy. I can also help students understand how they can overcome their particular inclinations--for example, aesthetic readers like me will have to work a little harder to get the facts from a passage.

What other quizzes have you found to use with students? Have you noticed how much they love to take these little tests?

P.S. For those who know me: My Myers-Briggs is Introverted-Intuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. In the "Which Anne of Green Gables Character Are You?" quiz, I cheated so that I could come out as Anne. And, in "Which Kind of Dancer Are You?", I was a ballerina. Big surprise.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Starting off with Story Elements

One of my favorite ways to start with reading instruction is to work with young readers on the topic of story elements. Why? When students can talk about characters, about events, about problems, and about themes, they are on the way to having engaging conversations about what they read. Starting out with story elements makes independent reading go so much more smoothly in the early months.

I've found some great resources for teaching story elements. Since I've made the move to fourth grade, I've started looking more at fairy tales and folktales for these early months. Students can't resist these stories of magic and mystery. One new site is called Interactives. Students can see the story of Cinderella, and then see how the story elements fit together. What a great resource for students to use with parents, with tutors, and on their own!

When we tell and retell stories, fourth graders need concrete manipulatives. I like to have students use figures or pictures for their retelling. Playmobil makes absolutely irresistible sets of little figures to use for retelling. Last year, I bought their Sleeping Princess set (really the story of Snow White.) When combined with a picture book of the story, it's an instant retelling center. I especially enjoy seeing boys find their way through the story...many of them did not know that the stepmother had tried to poison Snow White twice before she succeeded with the enchanted apple. They were so amazed to find that the poisoned kerchief was included in the set!

Here are some of my other favorite books for early discussions of story elements:

Rumpelstiltskin by Paul Zelinsky. The illustrations are fascinating for the kids. Of course, this story gets kids questioning--what is the deal with the little man? Why does he want the queen's firstborn son? Great way to get kids thinking early in the year!
Mole and the Baby Bird by Marjorie Newman. Get a copy of this one while you can. It is a gentle, thoughtful introduction to theme. (And it is also a helpful book to remember when kids bring in toads and want to keep them in the classroom as pets...maybe this doesn't happen to everyone)
The Twelve Dancing Princesses There are lots of versions of this floating about. With the new, deeper retelling by Jessica Day George, I'm hopeful that this book will get lots of kids reading.
Weslandia by Paul Fleischman. Kids really enjoy this one, as it has such a neat problem and solution. It is also good for the start of the school year, as it helps us to have important conversations of what we want our classrooms to be.

Today, as I was working in my classroom, putting away my books, I found some of my favorites...and I started to feel excited for the coming year!

I was also playing around on my computer and I updated my Story Elements Powerpoint. I like to put some of my major teaching points for the whole group lesson on Powerpoint, so that, no matter what the distraction, I can be sure to teach my key content deeply, richly, and well.


Five lucky readers were selected to receive a free set of Steve Jenkins books and a stuffed animals from Kohl's. The teachers are Nicole, Colleen, Sarah, Jesus, and Jean. Congratulations! The materials will be sent to your schools.

For everyone else, don't forget that the Steve Jenkins books are still available at Kohl's. These books are great for the primary and intermediate classrooms, as they feature interesting text structures, high-interest text, and wonderful pictures. Check out the Comments from the original post to get more ideas for teaching them.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Teaching Text Features

Teaching text features is one of my first orders of business for a new school year. When students understand how to use headings, the table of contents, the glossary, and other features, it is easier for them to navigate nonfiction and find out what they want to know.

One roadblock in my way is that kids don't know the word "features". Without this knowledge, they can't connect how features in text relate to other kinds of features. They have only one pathway to the text feature knowledge--which, as we know, leads to a poor representation of this idea in the brain.

But my own personal children know all about features. How did they come by this knowledge? Well, I certainly didn't sit down and do a Frayer model with them! Rather, they learned about features by playing with toys. They have at least five different kinds of boats. What are the different features? Which ones are similar? Which ones are different?

Using toys is a great motivator for kids of all ages. Bionicles, Playmobil, and other intricate toys can help kids to learn what features are. Kids can also learn about the features of the playground. What features make this playground interesting and unusual? What features do most playgrounds share?

Once students can use the word "features" to describe concrete, real-life items, they are ready for learning about features in text. Just as we can look at a toy and describe its features, they can also look at text and identify the features that authors use to make that text easier to understand.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Close Encounters

Last week, we were lucky enough to spend several days at the beach. One of our favorite activities is to drive down to Assateague National Seashore and have a campfire in the evening. Assateague, of course, is known for its wild horses.

Well, we started the campfire, looked for ghost crabs, and watched the sandpipers, but there was not a pony in sight. The sun set, a fiery ball to the west, and things started getting dark. Of course, my littlest wanted to leave, but we were enjoying the sounds of the ocean and the warmth of the campfire. Then, in the moonlight, we could see three ponies down the beach. "Look!" I told Aidan and Zachary.

We peered down the beach. One veered up the beach toward the dunes. The other two continued toward us, coming closer and closer. And closer. As we sat on our beach chairs, they cantered down toward us. "Don't worry. They won't come too close," I told Aidan, who was huddled on my lap.

Well, I was wrong. The two came right through our circle of chairs. The white one leaned down and sniffed my husband's head. He sat calmly, still holding the stick for roasting a marshmallow. "Get the camera!" I told my husband, but we realized that the camera was in the other bag, on the far side of the horses. So all we could do was watch.

The other pony, brown and white, leaned down and smelled our bag of graham crackers and chocolate. Then she lifted her head and looked directly and Aidan and me. She took a step closer. What a moment! We sat quietly--okay, I was kind of frozen--and then she turned her head, snorted, and started walking back down the beach.

A cloud of mosquitoes followed in their wake, breaking the spell of the moonlight and the horses. We tried to swat them away, put on more insect repellent, but it was futile. Hurriedly, we repacked our items and raced back toward the dunes.

One of those evenings that I'll remember, long after my Monday evenings are overtaken by planning and Open Houses and schoolwork.