Wednesday, September 29, 2010

South Central Reading Council: Summarizing for the 21st Century

Tonight I had the amazing privilege to present to the South Central Reading Council. What a great group of educators! Everyone came after long, hard day of school to talk, learn, and share. And the butternut squash soup was amazing.

An adapted version of the presentation is embedded below. Enjoy working with your students!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stink Bugs

Stink bugs seem to be everywhere right now! In the news, on our window sills, and on my porch. The orchard growers in the area are very worried about the damage that stink bugs may cause.

Because stink bugs are so ubiquitous, kids find them very interesting. I decided to take advantage of their interest and write an article about them. The text is posted over at the Kids' Guide to Exploring Nature blog, as well as in printer-friendly format at TeachersPayTeachers.

As I write this, I am being watched by a stink bug. It is sitting on the window, looking in. Well, stink bug, you are not welcome in MY house!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Persuasive vs. Informational Text

Like many transitional readers, some of my fourth graders have trouble with the difference between persuasive text and informational text. We're making a crucial transition from text with a lot of graphics and features to texts with fewer helpful aids.

And, in a way, I can see their problems. Most informational text does have an element of persuasion--the author is saying, "Listen to me, believe me, I know what I'm talking about." By the same token, most persuasive text also does include some information. It's no wonder that kids are having problems!

And these problems lead to the kids being, well, easily led. Maybe they're not as impressionable as my five year old, who wants to purchase everything on every commercial. (I gave in and bought the Pillow Pet, but I refuse to get the toothpaste dispenser...despite his pleas!) But some students still have trouble recognizing when someone is trying to persuade them.

I decided that students needed to experience much more persuasive text...and learn how to be more skeptical. To direct their thinking, I shared 5 questions for them to ask of persuasive text.

1. What is this text trying to persuade me to do?
2. Who is the speaker? Is it different from the author?
3. Why is the speaker/author trying to persuade me? What's in it for them?
4. Does it feel like the speaker is using unfair tricks? (Putting other people down, making me feel bad about something, making me feel like this will make me popular)
5. Do I believe in what the speaker is trying to say?

We had fun taking apart an advertisement, an essay that I pulled from a writing book, and even Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late. They felt very grown-up and sophisticated as they used these questions...and were able to find a lot of unfair tricks.

Hopefully, this immersion in persuasive text will help students to be able to recognize it more easily--and resist it if necessary!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Narrative and Expository Text

Today, we talked about the differences between narrative and expository text. This is tough for fourth graders! When we look at books, they are pretty good at figuring out the difference between the narrative and the informational, the fiction and the nonfiction. However, with shorter pieces, they are struggling.

My fourth grade colleague (thanks, Colleen!) suggested that we look at variations of nursery rhymes, and try to figure out what kind of text they are.

Text 1
THE HILL-Two children were injured today in an apparent fall down a hillside.
The children, named Jack and Jill, were going up the hill to get a pail of water. At some point in their climb, Jack fell down. Jill soon followed. Witnesses say that she "tumbled" down the hill.
"All I wanted was a glass of water," Jill said. "But I didn't get it."
The children received minor injuries, but are reported to be doing well.

Text 2
I have never realized what a dangerous game tag could be. When my brother suggested that we go and get water, I said, "Sure!" I like going up the hill. Jack and I decided to play tag as we went up the hill.

But this wasn't a good idea. Because Jack was running, he didn't see the big rock on the hill. He tripped, and then I fell too. It was so embarrassing! I couldn't stop myself and just kept crashing and turning. It was also painful.

When I got down to the bottom, I looked at Jack. He had a cut on his head! (He was also crying.) I ran home to get our parents. I've learned an important lesson--never play tag on a hill.

What did students think? Well, as I predicted, they found these two texts to be challenging. Part of the problem is that both texts have quotations. Both also, in a sense, tell a story. Another problem is that the big feature of a newspaper article, the dateline, was of no significance for students.

The big difference between the narrative and the informational piece, as I told students, is in how they relate the events. A narrative, at its heart, reflects on events. A narrative doesn't just tell what has happened. Instead, it examines and considers the events, reshaping them and showing their significance. The fact that Jill ends the narrative by reflecting on a lesson learned shows this (in a very rudimentary form, of course!)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comparing Texts: Narrative and Blog

Over the summer, my two sons and I loved finding out about mole crabs. When I went looking for information about them, I found that some of the main hits from the search engine turned out to be blogs.

Which got me to thinking--kids are going to be reading blogs much more often in the years to come. (Until blogs are replaced by something else, that is!) What do kids need to know to read a blog? What features should they look for?

I decided that it would be fun to write a story that connects to a blog. You can download the story and the instructional materials from Teachers Pay Teachers:

The blog post, of course, is over on the Kids Guide to Exploring Nature blog. I know that this is not a totally authentic blog. I'm going to avoid linking to other websites too much, because I want to have a very safe place with as little outward traffic as possible. But I'm hoping that it will at least get kids started with looking at some of the basic features of blogs--the posts, the reverse-time order, and the archives.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Unusual Text Structures: Geographical Order

If you're working with text structure, you may have noticed that there are some books and texts that just can't be placed in the typical categories of chronological order, compare and contrast, problem/solution, cause and effect, and description.

It can be fun to take a closer look at books that show unusual text structures. Often, these different organizational patterns are very obvious and easy for students to notice. Two of my favorite examples are by Marilyn Singer. I'd call the organization of these books geographical order, as the author moves systematically around the world to explain her ideas.

Nine o' Clock Lullaby: What's happening at 9:00? In this book, the author shows people around the world at the same moment in time.

On the Same Day in March: Written by the same author, this book goes around the world and looks at weather on the same March day.

While geographical order is not one of the official text structures, it's still interesting to think about how different authors choose to organize their ideas.  These kinds of discussions can become a building block to more complex conversations about text structure.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Writing Process and Academic Vocabulary

Every fall, I spend time teaching my writers about the writing process. They've experienced it before, of course, but I like for all students to experience the process and learn how it can help them to create stronger pieces of writing.

But the word process is an important academic vocabulary word for students to learn. It's not only important for them in writing class. The word process is also important in science, as students learn about natural processes. Students also need to use this word in math, to explain how to solve problems. Process is an important word!

This year, I started out with "process charades". Students completed a vocabulary word map with the definition of process, examples, non-examples, and a picture. We used the definition that a process is a set of steps. Then, we took turns acting out processes that we know how to do. I illustrated our processes (pretty poorly!) by putting pictures of the steps on the board. Kids were pretty ingenious with the processes that they chose.

Once students had a good handle on the process charades, I gave them a set of notecards. They could think of any process that they knew how to do, from brushing their teeth to mowing the lawn. They illustrated the cards with one step on each card. (Little note: I've taken a cue from the kindergarten teacher and started giving students thin black markers and colored pencils for these sorts of activities. The quality of their work really improves.)

Finally we were ready to move into the writing process! I had already made a simple checklist of steps in the writing process, along with a short writing prompt guiding students to write a paragraph about a process that they know how to do. Now, students saw the writing process, and they were pretty excited that they got to check off a step right away. (They had already done the planning step of making their notecards.)

Yes, following a process to write about a's tough to say, and gets the kids giggling, but they are learning the word.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Exploring Nature

I've decided to start putting some of my nature pictures and text into another blog, A Kid's Guide to Exploring Nature.

This blog will have short, easy-to-read texts about different natural items that kids are likely to see--milkweed, caterpillars, mole crabs, jewelweed, and so on. Each text will be accompanied by pictures. My hope is that it will be like a short nature walk...and an easy introduction to blogs.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Are you nervous now?

Sharing is tough at the beginning of the year. I was happily surprised by how quickly students got to work with writing this year (thank you, third grade teachers!). But productive writing does not always mean productive sharing. Even though most students already knew each other, we're still not a cohesive group. Students are reading their work, but there aren't many questions or comments. Stories aren't coming to life.

Today, I tried to pull some of the most prolific students to share. One kid had written four pages! Each day, he started a new piece, and managed to write an entire page in our 15 minutes of journal time. I wanted to get him to the front of the room to share his writing process with the rest of the class. Outside of class, he seems talkative and confident, but was oddly reluctant to share. Finally the truth came out-- "I'm a little shy when I have to read my writing," he told me.

Of course! I totally understood. And this shyness gets to the heart of why our sharing time just has felt stilted. "I understand that you feel shy," I told him. "I sometimes feel that way too. Sometimes I go and talk in front of other teachers, and I feel nervous." I paused for a moment. "But our writing class is a safe place. Everyone in here is going to share, and so everyone feels responsible to be polite."

I could tell from his face that this pep talk wasn't convincing, so I decided to go the fame and fortune route. "Besides, we are all so curious about what you have written. How many of you would like to hear what ____ has been writing?"

Hands shot up. In the face of this universal acclaim, how could he resist? He consented to come to the author's chair and read a bit of his writing, just a few sentences. I pulled out some of the interesting bits of his process--how he writes about things that have happened to him, how he thinks about new things to write about each night, how he comes ready to put his ideas on paper.

Just as I was finishing, an entire team of administrators came into my room. This was a scheduled walk-through, on the calendar for weeks, but I still felt a shiver of apprehension. And then there was ___, at my elbow. "Are you nervous, Mrs. Kissner?" he asked--quietly enough so that our guests couldn't hear, but loudly enough for the rest of the class to hear.

The question caught me off guard. Should I put on my game face and act super-confident, or admit to my apprehension?

I decided to come clean. "Yes. I think I am, a little bit," I told him, and smiled, and the class smiled too.

"It'll be fine," he whispered.

What a moment! These are the things that bring a class together--the in-jokes, the moments of sharing, the times that don't go quite as planned but turn out much, much better. Each of these moments helps to build the writing community. Tomorrow, I think, sharing will feel a little more natural.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ice Cream Making...Classroom Style

My school has many wonderful qualities. Situated high on a hill, it offers beautiful views of orchards and wooded hillsides. The simple three-hallway layout makes for easy navigation. Our faculty is small enough that a 13 X 9 pan can feed everyone.

Our lack of air conditioning is only an issue for a few days out of the year.

But on those days, it's really hot! Last week, while I was teaching about reading to perform a task, I thought I'd have kids practice by making plastic bag ice cream. (There are lots of recipes and activities online for this...just search and you'll get a long list.) Why ice cream? I knew that it involved playing around with ice, and I hoped it would make us all cooler! I tweaked a recipe, formatting it for easy reading, and scraped together the supplies.

What an adventure! It was memorable, from leaking bags to ice that melted too quickly. I learned several things:

1. You will always need more ice, especially on a 90 degree day.

2. The value of a "stunt classroom" is unparalleled. (For this year, we have a vacant classroom on our's wonderful to have a place to do messy things, and then leave the clean-up for the end of the day.)

3. More on the philosophical side: Most kids, and most adults too, would rather see a demonstration than just read directions. I struggled with this as we were making ice cream. On the one hand, I wanted them to practice reading the recipe. However, they knew that I knew more about the technique than was written on the paper. I couldn't blame them for pumping me for more information! (They asked questions like, "Why do we need the rock salt?" and "Why do we put the small bag inside the large bag?")

4. Some fourth graders find "What do you do before..." and "Which step follows..." questions to be quite difficult. Even carrying out the steps doesn't completely fix this problem for them. I'm wondering why this might be so. Does this carry over to other kinds of reading and thinking also? Is it a developmental issue that will resolve itself, or do these students need some targeted help?

5. Playing around with the ice really did help us all to feel cooler.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Text Structure for Young Readers

The Powerpoint that I made over the summer is now up at Slideshare. You can download it here. (It is a large file!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Diary of a...

This year, I started off journal writing time by reading Diary of a Worm. This funny book is useful for so many lessons. I used it to show students all of the different things that they can write about in their journals--lists of things they like and dislike, stories about their day, stories of how they have gotten in trouble, and so forth.

About five students in each class took the lesson one step further and started to write their own funny diaries. How fun! Since I'm still observing the students carefully to find out what they are like, I was excited to see them taking off with such a creative kind of writing.

And they had different methods. One student took the picture book and went through it page by page. At first, I was worried that he was copying. Then I saw that he was writing the Diary of a Dragon by looking at what Doreen Cronin wrote in Diary of a Worm, and then trying to think of a similar situation for his dragon. What an interesting writing process!

On the other side of the room, a different student was trying to write the Diary of a Banana. But I could see that he was having some trouble. Instead of using first person point of view, he was writing in third person, and seemed to be struggling to find ideas. This shows me that he's working on using different points of view in writing, but isn't quite sure of how to do it. Perfect for an early teaching point.

Yet another student had started writing Diary of a Bee. She'd filled up half a page, but then seemed stuck. I showed her how to use a field guide to insects to find out more facts about honeybees, facts that she might be able to use to write her funny diary.

I've never had so many fiction pieces so early in the year. Usually, the writing is all personal narratives for the first few weeks as students work through topics related to sports, their summer vacations, and their families. I'm intrigued and excited to see how these students develop!