Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Delayed Revising

Like many students, fourth graders are reluctant revisers. Part of this is because they are still stuck in the knowledge-telling mode. As knowledge tellers, these young writers look at writing as a translation exercise--they are just recording the thoughts that are in their brains, in the order in which they think them. From their point of view, revising is pretty pointless. They wrote what they know and they know what they wrote. Why should they read it again?

Of course, teachers can think of MANY reasons for students to revise their pieces of writing! But our exhortations to revise, revise, revise often fail to sink in. This year, I've worked on several different strategies to help students revise. I've used checklists, modeled, and made revising glamorous. All of these have been successful, to some degree.

Now I'm trying yet another strategy--delayed revising. I read a short study about this, in which third, fourth, and fifth graders wrote a text and then revised later in the same day or the next day. Not surprisingly, the delayed revision condition led to more revising, especially more meaning-based revising.

I'm trying a two-week span. Students have put aside the rough drafts of their personal narratives, and we'll revise them shortly. I'm hoping that this will make it possible for students to see the difference between what they thought they wrote and what they actually wrote.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Writing to Describe: Spatial Order Paragraphs

My students worked on descriptive writing back in November. Writers need a certain self-discipline as they write to describe a picture or scene--they have to freeze a moment in time, writing about what they see instead of what they imagine, writing about what is instead of what happens next.

As I was preparing for a workshop, I assembled all of my classroom documents into one file and uploaded it to TeachersPayTeachers. The unit includes a mentor text lesson, a shared description activity, example paragraphs, a writing checklist, and a peer review form.

If you haven't worked on descriptive writing with your students, it is an ideal kind of writing for spring. It's short, which is wonderful if you are squeezing in lessons around state testing and spring activities. Descriptive writing also has a highly visual and creative component, which keeps kids interested and engaged.

Spatial Order Paragraphs

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Text Structure: Compare and Contrast

Teaching the text structure of comparison and contrast can be tricky. If kids don't understand what either of these words mean, or if they don't know the words compare, contrast, similarity, and difference, they will have trouble with this text structure. "Introduction to Comparing" is an easy introduction to finding similarities and differences.

It's often helpful to give kids texts that have the clue words highlighted. When readers see these words, they often can figure out what the text is trying to say. Many less experienced readers have a habit of sliding right past transition words. When these words are highlighted, readers can't help but look at them and figure out what they mean.

Some compare and contrast texts don't use the clue words at all. This is often seen in texts that use the "clustered" style of compare and contrast--giving all of the information about one topic, and then giving all of the information from the other. The "Times Change" series from Heinemann-Raintree is an example of this. On one side of the page the reader finds details about the past; on the other, the reader finds details about the present. These texts are often more challenging for readers. All of the similarities and differences are left implicit for the reader to open up and consider.

If you are teaching compare and contrast as a text structure, it's helpful to show readers examples of both clustered paragraphs and alternated paragraphs. It's very effective to do this on the overhead. I used one of the Antarctica paragraphs from "Text Structure Resources" to show students what an alternated paragraph looks like. The South Pole is being compared to Pennsylvania. We underlined everything about the South Pole in blue, and everything about Pennsylvania in green. It quickly became clear that the paragraph was alternated!

Once students understand the basic format of compare and contrast, it's helpful to have them work with a graphic organizer. I like to teach students a comparison matrix to use as an alternative to the Venn diagram. (I've never been good at drawing circles!) For most texts, it's three columns: Criteria, Topic 1, and Topic 2.

The most difficult part of the comparison matrix is coming up with the "criteria" . Resist the urge to do this for your students. Model it once, and then give them a nice and easy text to try it for themselves. Experience with looking at the criteria that other authors use will help students when they start to write their own comparison and contrast paragraphs.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Planning Personal Narratives: Events and Elaboration

As I said in my previous post, I've been teaching personal narratives for many years. Many kids, of course, will spontaneously fall into writing personal narratives in their journals. As they write about events in their lives, they practice remembering details, explaining events, and using vivid elaboration.

But I'm working toward students writing an "elaborated sequence of events" for next year's PSSA. On that test, they'll need to read a prompt and write a narrative, going through all of the steps of the writing process in isolation on one school day. Whether I like it or not, this is what my young writers must do.

As we work on personal narratives, then, I need to be very explicit with strategies that they can use for the test next year. One great strategy is the graphic organizer called an "Events and Elaboration" chart. It's easy to make, easy to remember, and yields great results.

1. Students choose an event from their lives to write about. I encourage them to choose an event that takes place in a short time frame--one day is great.

2. Students think about the events (what happened) and elaboration for each event. We do a little pantomime for the elaboration--"what you or others thought, felt, heard, saw, or said." (I came up with the pantomime, but not the words. The Events and Elaboration organizer is an old one from the days of the Maryland Functional Writing Test)

3. Students fold a piece of paper into eight boxes. One column is labeled "Events", and the other "Elaboration". As students think about their story, they write the events, and then try to come up with at least three details (elaboration) for each event.

When left to their own devices, students are likely to write a personal narrative that is just a summary of the events. Having an entire column for elaboration reminds them to think about the details. In future lessons, we'll look at adding dialogue, including vivid setting details, and explaining why things happen.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Planning Personal Narratives

I have to admit--I made it through my entire school career without ever once writing a personal narrative. Not once. I filled out the bubbles on the SRA sheets, I answered questions on the lines of my workbook, and I balanced my preferred reading books on my knees under my desk. But I can't remember ever writing a personal narrative.

And this is a shame. As a genre, the personal narrative is a wonderful way for young writers to make sense of their world. There is so much to consider in the writing of a personal narrative. What does the audience know already? What does the audience need to know? Which events are important to explain in detail? Which events can be skipped?

This week, students have been starting to plan their personal narratives. The true power of the personal narrative is to help students look back on events that have happened to them, put those events in context, and figure out the "so what?" Why is this a memorable experience? Why does it stand out in my memory?

I decided that the issue of theme was too important to wait until the end of the writing process. If we think about themes early in the writing process, then students are more likely to weave their themes into their narratives. (That's the hopeful view!)

First, students read the book Those Shoes and talked about the theme. (This is a nice little first-person narrative that tells about a boy who longs for a pair of expensive shoes, but does not get them.)

Then, they looked at a list of themes that I had prepared. It's easier for students to talk about theme when they have a variety of themes in front of them. Here's a link to a version that I put on Slideshare:

Choosing a Theme

Many students easily chose a theme from the list, and explained to their partners why that theme fit their narratives. Some had themes that they wanted to add to the list, which was wonderful! Some students were torn between two themes. In these cases, students decided to either combine both themes into their narratives, or wait until they get into the writing to see which theme is strongest.

In each class, one student shared their story at length so that the class could help them with the theme. Fourth grade narratives are always entertaining! We talked about how sometimes what we think will be boring (a wedding) turns out to be we can learn from our mistakes (alas, from a poor pet's demise)...and how working together leads to better decisions (choosing a puppy).

I can't wait to see how the narratives turn out. At this point in the process, things look very promising.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Vernal Pools

At this time of year, I love to put on muddy shoes and explore vernal pools. There are so many neat creatures that I never knew existed! Caught in a plastic cup, they are surprisingly common creatures that can easily be viewed with a 5x or 10x microscope. Students loved looking at them--especially when we realized that we were looking at a variety called "Cyclops".

This week, students are reading "Migrating Mole Salamanders". (It's a short text that I wrote. If you're interested in a copy, send me a message--I haven't posted it online yet.) We were all fascinated by the thought of mole salamanders migrating all around us. Although I resolved to go out and try to look for them, the first rainy March night happened after a marathon 12 hour parent conference day. No mole salamanders for me--yet!

In addition to the vernal pool pieces in Text Structure Resources, students might also enjoy "Find Out About Fairy Shrimp." This tells about fairy shrimp, tiny little creatures that live in vernal pools. It's a great text to use to show students how to add to their schema as they read.

How do students like all of this vernal pool stuff? Well, last week, a student brought in skunk cabbage flowers. That's right, skunk cabbage flowers! "I thought they'd be neat to see under the microscopes," he said. And he was absolutely right. Magnified, a skunk cabbage flower is really beautiful. (And it was just a little smelly.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Revising and Editing Checklists

As I work with intermediate writers, I find that checklists are an amazing tool for helping them through the writing process.

Not that I'm much of a checklist person myself, of course. But most of my students like seeing a clear road map for what is to be done, a sequence of steps to follow. When we are working on a writing assignment together, I like to provide students with three different checklists: a master checklist with all of the steps that we will use, a revising checklist, and an editing checklist.

Here's an example of the three checklists from the latest piece of writing that we did together.

Writing about an important person

The Master Checklist: In my mind, each day leads naturally to the next. Students, on the other hand, often view each day that we spend together as a discrete event, totally unconnected to what happened before and what will happen after. The Master Checklist provides a continuity from one day to the next.

The checklist changes from one writing assignment to the next. When we worked on writing about an important person, for example, the checklist included different choices for how students could organize their piece--as a narrative, in spatial order, or in order of importance.

The Revising Checklist: Fourth graders have trouble with the revising stage! I keep the revising checklist short and simple, highlighting the key content or organizational topics that we've talked about. Usually students look for adequate details, an introduction, a conclusion, or so forth. Lately I've started adding a tangible revising strategy to the checklist. (I have modeled each one of the strategies with the students.)

The Editing Checklist: For some assignments, students and I create the editing checklist together. For others, I create the checklist based on patterns that I've observed with students. The editing checklist is a short tool to help students read their pieces with the audience in mind. Of all of the checklists, this is the one that is most likely to be checked off without thinking! It's vitally important to help students realize that they need to understand each part of the checklist and look for it before they check the box.

I often use a camping example to illustrate this. If you're packing for a camping trip, what would happen if you just check off that you have everything? How would that change your weekend? Then, we talk about what would happen for the reader if we didn't edit our pieces of writing. How would that change a reader's experience?

Checklist-o-Rama: Managing multiple checklists can be a little hectic. If you are trying this, make your master checklist a different color than the revising and editing checklist. We start each class by looking at the checklists and seeing where everyone is.

Avoid Checklist Overload: I usually do about one writing piece per quarter using the checklists. In between, we pick up the grammar, freewrite in our journals, share our writing, and just generally have a good time.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Skunk cabbages are blooming

One of the first signs of spring! We were so excited to find the skunk cabbages in the vernal means that spring is truly on the way. As you can tell from the picture, skunk cabbage flowers can actually generate some heat, melting away the snow above them to bloom. As we walked through the woods, my son accidentally stepped on one. A faint smell of skunk wafted through the air, proving that skunk cabbages deserve their name.

Now, all I need to do is find a good place to find mole salamanders migrating on the next rainy night...

Text Structure: Cause and Effect

Back when I went to school, I remember filling out worksheet after worksheet on cause and effect. Yet we never linked those worksheets to actual texts. Finding causes and effects was something that we did during our quiet work time--certainly never something that we tried to do as we were reading. (Or, in my case, as I was surreptitiously reading a book balanced under my desk!)

But the cause and effect text structure is vitally important for our young readers. I've been surprised at how much trouble fourth graders have with this concept--and I suspect that it's a problem that continues up through the grade levels.

At its most basic, the problem is one of vocabulary. My students have trouble with remembering that causes come before effects. The clue words for cause and effect--therefore, as a result, consequently--are not generally used in everyday speech. To help students understand cause and effect, then, I have to first surmount the vocabulary obstacles.

For the past two weeks, a part of my Morning Message has been dedicated to cause and effect. One morning I write causes and have students write effects; another morning I write effects and have students write the causes. To keep it interesting, I added some student names at first (using silly causes and effects--nothing that would hurt feelings!) Turnabout is fair play, so students started adding my name. This week, one of the messages read, "Cause: Mrs. Kissner crashed her bike into the shed. Effect: Her bike was broken." Ah, well--they were certainly amused to think about me riding a bike into a shed!

We have also done some matching of causes and effects. Here is a little activity that I wrote for students to practice this. As students work, watch them carefully. I was surprised to see how many of them had trouble considering additional effects for the causes. Left to their own devices, some groups came up with additional causes.

Of course, I had to apply the cause and effect thinking to actual text. It's tough to find "pure" cause and effect text, as it's frequently used in conjunction with other text structures. I do want to show this to students eventually, but when they're just getting started, I don't want to confuse matters.

I wrote a short text about tsunamis, which can be found in Text Structure Resources. When we read the text, we talked about how to find both the causes and the effects. Then, students worked to create a graphic organizer to show the causes and effects. (I showed them the basics--to put "tsunami" in the box in the middle, and then put causes on the left and effects on the right--but they were able to actually find what to put in the boxes in the text on their own.)

Over the next few days, we'll be working to use the text structure to help us find answers to questions. In cause and effect text, this is hugely important. It's too time-consuming for a reader to scan back through an entire text to find an answer. But with a firm grasp on the idea that "causes come before effects", students will be able to target their search and find answers more efficiently.