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.