Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Passage-Based Essays Aren't Scary

...well, okay. They are a little scary.

This year in Pennsylvania, we get to have an entirely new test in the spring! Instead of the standard open-ended responses of the past, students will have to write passage-based essays. In other documents, this writing has been called a Text-Dependent Analysis.

I have been pretty nervous about this. The first samples that came from the state were awful--the kind of formulaic writing that no thoughtful teacher would want students to produce. "Is this what I'm supposed to do?" I thought. My next thought--"I'm going to have to do much better at TeachersPayTeachers, so that I can still have an income once the inevitable happens."

Well, I couldn't stay pessimistic for long. After all, if I left the classroom, who would identify all of the bugs and the birds around the place? So the easiest path was to figure out how to help kids write good passage-based essays.

Step 1: Teach students how to quote from the text

Teachers who haven't worked with 9 and 10 year olds might be surprised at how challenging students find the process of quoting from text. They don't know how to choose the sentences to support their thinking; they don't know where to put the quotation marks; they get confused about whether to switch from first-person to third-person pronouns. Teaching students how to quote from the text in short, low-stress activities early in the year makes the passage-based essay process much easier.

Step 2: Create a high-quality prompt to go along with a really great text.

My students were working in three different texts in late November, so I made a prompt for each. The prompts were all similar--each one had two areas for analysis.

     In the story Molly’s Pilgrim, Molly’s feelings about school change. In the beginning of the story, Molly feels as if she doesn’t belong at school. By the end, her feelings have changed.

graphic organizerWrite an essay analyzing Molly’s feelings about school and how they change over the course of the book. Be sure to include specific details, including quotations, from the book.

To help me keep everything straight I made prompts, checklists, graphic organizers, and rough draft pages on different colors of paper for each text.

Step 3: Model, model, model!

I decided to work through the process along with the students. I wrote a fourth prompt, this one for Santa Calls by William Joyce, and I modeled each step of the writing process, from dissecting the prompt to finding text evidence to putting it all together. It worked quite well to model-do--kids didn't have to sit and watch me for very long as I was just showing them the next chunk of what they would do.

I feel very strongly that my modeling needs to show a sophisticated version of the product--the piece of writing that I can produce as an adult. Kids need to see the real thing. And I did show my real, true, crazy revising process, beginning each session by rereading what I had so far and smoothing out the wording.

Step 4: Make it collaborative

In my first reading class, students had read the books as literature circle groups. It was only natural, then, for them to continue to work in their groups as they moved into essay writing. Some groups worked cohesively together, while others chose to do parallel writing and only consult with each other as needed. (In my other class, which I co-teach, students did not work in groups--which I came to regret when I saw how nicely the collaboration unfolded in the first class.) There is so much in this picture that I love--the students sitting together on the yoga mat by the library, books open as they refer to the words and pictures to grapple with the ideas.

Step 5: Don't worry about the time

I had estimated that it would take us a week to write the essays. Well, with discussion of reading homework and vocabulary, independent reading, and holiday schedule changes, it has stretched out longer. I feel a little bit panicked as I think about all that is before me, but I don't regret spending the time on these essays. Students have to do so much thinking as they consider the prompt, select text evidence, explain how the text evidence supports their statements, and write an introduction and conclusion!

I felt a little Grinch-y as we worked on passage based essays two days before holiday vacation. After I modeled writing a conclusion, students settled around the room to work on their essays. One student said, in that contented way that fourth graders have, "This is fun."

Trust me, nothing could have surprised me more. Fun? But this student wasn't trying to butter me up or make a joke. The work of creating, the work of weaving an author's words with her own thoughts to make something completely new--that can be fun. And it took a fourth grader to help me realize that passage-based essays aren't scary.


Books I used: Molly's Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, and The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff

Copies of the passage-based essay prompt, graphic organizer, and rough draft page can be found in this unit.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

You can do better than a generic summary frame

   This week, Pinterest has repeatedly coughed up a pin with a generic summary frame. "Use with any informational text!" the caption reads. This generic summary frame has lots of color and a bright, cheerful font. Basically it looks like this: "I read the text ____________. First ______________. Then I learned that ________________. Finally I found out ____________________."
   I wince every time I see it. If there is one thing that I know about teaching summarizing, it is that one frame cannot be used with every informational text.


   I first learned this more than 10 years ago, as I researched my first book, Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling. Intrigued by what I was observing in my classroom, I read scores of articles about summarizing, reading about how readers develop summarizing skills and how teachers can support this process.
    And there is so much to learn about summarizing! A teacher can learn so much about a student's reading processes by looking at a student summary. Some summaries are too long. Others do not reflect the main ideas of the text. Other students use the "copy and delete" strategy, copying some ideas from the text and leaving out others.

Topic Summaries

   One kind of summary that is particularly thorny for intermediate readers is what I call the "topic summary". This summary just gives a run-down of the main topics in a text: "I read about mummies. First the author explained how mummies are made. Then the author described why mummies are important. Finally the author told about mummies today."
    This is not a good summary! Notice how it just discusses the topics, but not the main ideas. When I have students who write these summaries (and usually they are strong readers), I know that we need to discuss the difference between topics and main ideas. These topic summaries can often be written by just running down through the headings of the text. But do they show a deep and rich understanding of the content? Not at all.
    Another problem with the topic summary is that it uses chronological order transitions instead of reflecting the structure of the text. In fact, a topic summary reads more like an account of the reader's experience of the text instead of showing the author's ideas.

Generic Summary Frames

    ...but what does a generic summary frame lead kids into writing? Yup. A topic summary.
    Teaching readers how to summarize is hard. But we need to acknowledge and embrace this difficulty instead of looking for a simple fix. Generic summary frames attempt to circumvent the real cognitive work of crafting a summary and boil it down into something simple. Getting really good at this kind of writing will not naturally lead into being able to write sophisticated summaries.

What to do instead?

    Lots of things! The first step is to figure out what students can do independently. Give them an appropriately leveled text and have them write a summary.

Blank stares
   If they don't have any clue of how to begin, this tells you to start with some model summaries. Use short, familiar texts to show students what a good summary looks like.

Scattered summaries
    When students have a shaky understanding of a text, they produce oddly scattered summaries. This represents students' attempts to play the game of summarizing--they pick out ideas from here and there, without understanding how the whole text hangs together.
     Techniques that focus on basic comprehension really help students who are writing these summaries. Try retelling nonfiction texts. When kids put ideas into their own words, they have to wrestle with the language and pin down the meaning. Next, show students how authors signal main ideas in a text with headings and topic sentences.

Long summaries
    If students write really long summaries with the main ideas of the text, they are probably comprehending well. Start by telling students, "Okay, cross out one sentence from your summary." Expect some resistance--"It's all important," or "I can't decide!" After some time, though, students will probably find at least one sentence to take out. Repeat, repeat, repeat! Eventually students will bring you their work and say, "Don't tell me to take out a sentence, because I already thought about everything that was most important and I only wrote that."

Making a scaffolded summary
    All students can benefit from a scaffolded summary. Simply write a good summary of a text, and then decide which parts to give to students, and which parts to leave out.
    In a scaffolded summary, you can decide how much support to give to students. The scaffolded summary at the right is a very supportive frame, which gives students a great deal of language. It can become easy for kids to think of this kind of task as simply "fill in the blanks", so be sure to connect this to meaningful summarizing. (This particular summary is from Daily Warm-Up Activities, Grade 3).
    A scaffolded summary with less support can be seen here. Notice that this frame does not give any language specific to the text, but gives suggestions based on the text structure. It's different from a generic summary frame because it does not claim to be suitable for all passages--in fact, it only works for cause and effect text.
    Lately I've found that teaching summarizing as I teach each text structure yields great benefits. This page is from Cause and Effect Activity and Texts.


    Teaching students how to summarize is hard. Anyone who says differently is selling something...probably a generic summarizing frame.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Centers, Play, and Fourth Grade

    This year I've been following some amazing kindergarten teachers on Twitter. I started out teaching in a preschool, so I have a deep appreciation for all things early childhood. But I have also felt that some element of play is missing in the middle grades.
    As I looked at what the kindergarten teachers were posting and saying, I wondered, "How can I adapt this for my older students?" They are so full of fun, enthusiasm, and questions. They deserve open-ended learning experiences and beautiful experiences just as much as younger students. As some forces are pushing me to make my classroom even more rigorous and demanding, I want to balance things by providing creativity and room for intellectual growth.

Getting Started: Limited Choice
    I decided to dedicate about 20 minutes each day to open-ended work. In the first few weeks of school, I spent great care in developing the culture of our centers and what would happen there. It was not without bumps. Many students associated open-ended free time with recess. I had to constantly remind them--"This is a learning time," and ask, "Are you taking advantage of the learning opportunities in this room?"
    As you can see from the centers list, I chose a wide range of activities that could happen in many different places in the room. Issues of access and squabbling caused us to make some tweaks to our routines, such as making daily schedules for Marbleworks and the computers.
    Early on, kids started asking to do things that weren't on our list. My natural inclination was to say, "Sure!" However, sometimes I have to go across my natural inclinations. (I am always tending toward chaos.) I said, "For now, please choose something that is on our list." Then, as months passed, I would update the list with their new suggestions.

Spreading Wings
    The centers became a great place to put materials after a unit. For example, after we studied volume, I put a wide range of tools by the sink. Sink play is virtually unheard of at my grade level. (If you are a grade 3-5 teacher and you let kids play in the sink, please send me pictures!) Kids took responsibility for any mess. And kids discovered so much about the different measuring tools--the
The Erector set was hugely popular in the
early weeks of school.
relationships between teaspoons and milliliters, the accuracy of their water bottles, the volume of a marble apple. Weeks after the measurement center waned in popularity I heard one student telling another, "Don't use the liter cube to measure--it's not accurate."
    By mid-October I felt comfortable enough with routines to loosen up in what students could do. The open-ended time became a time for freeform investigations and jobs. One student, seeing that our closet was a wreck each morning, wrote a contract to take care of the closet in return for a coupon (from our class economy) each day. He enlisted the help of another student and gave occasional reports to the class about how it
A student drawing from a Frolyc iPad
was going and what they could do to make the closets better.
    Another student, seeing the neglected animal cards, created an identification game. From the corner I could hear kids calling--"Dragonfly! Otter!" as they raced each other to identify the animals. Students also work on open-ended, optional activities, such as their Bat Week posters, Frolyc, bird observations, reading, and computer games. Checking in on animal observation cams has also been a favorite activity of late.
    The time has also become an opportunity for students to work on their own science investigations. With the onset of cold weather, we've had several ice experiments. It's been fun to hear kids talk to each other about using the measurement tools from early in the year to create more sophisticated experiments.
The animals that students bring in
are great opportunities for open-
ended exploration.
    Our morning work has also tended to run into other parts of the day. When there are odd moments in the schedule or kids have finished one activity in a lesson it has become natural to just move into the open-ended activities of center time. One day, we moved from our centers time into indoor recess. There was no perceptible change in the quiet, busy hum of the room. I said, "It's recess," but nobody really changed what they were doing.
     In the weeks to come, I plan to add more opportunities for science experiments. Students have written and conducted their first simple experiments, and now are eager to try more with vinegar, baking soda, food coloring, and the like. Just like every new activity, I expect this to be hugely popular.

Kids weighed everything on the balance. Erasers,
pencils, paper clips, water bottles, and a mix
of all of the items together.
Questions and Wonderings
    I could easily write this blog post to make it sound as if this
routine in my classroom always works beautifully and is perfectly wonderful in every way. But I can't ignore the bumpy spots and the thorny questions.
    One day last week I counted 17 different activities going on over the course of the morning. They were all rich, meaningful activities, and I was fascinated at the range of curriculum areas and topics that they reflected.
    But are students switching too often? I have noticed several students engaging in at least four different activities in 20 minutes. I've intervened a few times, but I've also stood and watched, and wondered. Should I tell students to choose one activity and stick to it? Or should I just allow them to enjoy this time of complete choice?
    There are also some kids who sit back and opt out of the social aspect of this time. These students love to read and sit, completely absorbed in a book. My short-term attempts to pull them into the social whirl of activity are politely tolerated for a day, and then they go back to reading.
    A few students seem to just watch what the other kids do--I'll find them looking over the shoulder of someone playing a game or looking at our class blog. Again, these students politely take my suggestions, but do not engage themselves on their own.
     Should I be more insistent about pulling these students in? Or should I wait, hoping that the new activities I'm introducing on Tuesday will do the trick?
    For all of my out of class reflections, often my best decisions about open-ended time come about when I am in the moment--when five kids are calling me over to see something, a colleague has stopped by to ask a question, or someone brings in something unexpected and exciting to look at. These are the moments when I know that time for centers and play is worth pursuing for my fourth grade students.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Keeping Up with a Vocabulary Routine

    I've wrestled with this question for many years. Many of my students come to fourth grade with huge word deficits and large gaps in speaking and writing vocabulary. Others come with an eagerness to learn new words and build upon what they have picked up from their reading. I need a vocabulary routine that helps students to be excited about new words...a routine that is manageable and practical...a routine that has lots of room for new additions and learning.
     Faced with the need to do something to build vocabulary, I decided to focus upon five words each week. Before I could choose these words, however, I needed to learn a great deal about which words would be most useful to teach. I made a spreadsheet of Averil Coxhead's Academic Word List, and then added words from the Common Core, the Nifty Thrifty Fifty, and a few other sources. I gathered information about the words, including roots and idioms, and eventually came up with this master list:

  As I created reading homework passages, I chose a mixture of words that were important to each text and words from the Master Word List. Each week, we learn five new words. The vocabulary instruction is not lifeless and dictionary-based; instead, I give kids the definitions and we use the words in sentences. Sometimes the prompts are silly ("Could a cat devise a system of writing?") and sometimes serious ("How can we honor veterans?") 

Word Rings
    Last year I wrote about putting words on word rings for students to study. Each word is put on the ring, with the definition on the back. Students read their words with instructional assistants, parent volunteers, and me. When a student can correctly read the word and explain its meaning, I use a fancy hole punch to punch the card. After three punches, students can remove the word. 
    Lots of good things are going on here! Kids are practicing decoding with multi-syllabic words. Kids are talking about words and their meanings, and get to have time with caring adults. For me, the routine is super-simple to explain to anyone who comes into my classroom to help--the aide who has 10 minutes free due to a schedule change, the parent who can come in one morning, the substitute teacher who has a free period.
    This year we've made some innovations. The wonderful ESL teacher who is co-teaching with me put our word lists on Quizlet and showed me how to print flashcards directly from there--how simple! The instructional assistant who manages all of the cards has even figured out how to engineer the paper so that the cards can be made with the fewest cuts possible. When kids get five cards removed, they earn a coupon for our classroom economy. 

     Because many of my students are strongly visual thinkers, I've started adding drawings to our routine. We have lots of tracing paper in the storage closet (why? Not sure), and kids have found it calmly peaceful and engaging to trace the pictures as we talk about the words. In the weeks to come, students will take over the drawing part of the routine.

Finding Words in New Texts
    During our independent reading time, kids are always showing me how they have found vocabulary words in their books. This gives us a great opportunity to talk about the word in context as we look at the sentence containing the word and talk about what it means. Kids copy the sentences onto notecards for us to display in the classroom. (The Amulet books by Kazu Kibuishi are especially rich in academic vocabulary.)

   Is this the best vocabulary routine ever? I don't think such a thing exists. Each new teaching book tries to tell readers that this new thing is the ultimate in teaching. However, I think that good teaching resides in the place where practicality, big dreams, and pedagogy meet. Hopefully you can carve out your own functional and delightful routine for teaching vocabulary!


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Close Reading for Understanding Dialogue

    Young readers have a great deal of trouble with dialogue. It seems as if the task of every autumn for me is to help readers learn how to recognize dialogue, figure out who is speaking in dialogue, and visualize conversations as they read.  And what an important task this is! Dialogue carries plot details and characterization. When students don't know who is speaking, or don't realize the importance of dialogue, they miss essential details of a story.
    For fourth graders, tracking a conversation in text without pictures requires careful attention to detail. After some initial instruction, I was curious to see what my students could do. I designed this assessment to peek in at their processes:

Dialogue Assessment from Emily Kissner

   As I looked at student responses, I noticed several patterns.

1. Every question correct. About a quarter of my students answered every question correctly. This doesn't mean that their instruction is done--in fact, it means that students are ready to really explore dialogue and learn how to wring more meaning from it.
2. Trouble with Line 4. Notice how the dialogue in Line 4 does not have a speaker tag. Readers have two ways to identify the speaker. They could look at the textual conventions of quotation marks and a new paragraph to know that someone new is talking. Alternatively, they could look at the context of the conversation to know that the miller wouldn't thank himself. Students who did not answer this question correctly often said "the miller" or even "sir".
3. Trouble with "You look tired". Teachers who know kids--really know kids--will not be surprised to hear that a decent number of students said "the miller" in response to this question. Skilled adult readers are shocked by this, as they clearly see that the miller has dropped out of the story by this point. However, readers who are having trouble managing characters in their heads will assign dialogue to anyone that seems convenient!

Next Steps
   I hate "going over" tests. This is probably a major character flaw. Instead of "going over" the answers, I made clean copies for all students who scored less than 4/5. Then I gathered the students in small groups to reteach. Together, we read the text and aloud and answered the questions again.
    I used sticky notes to symbolize each character, so that we could talk about who was in the story when. This helped students to see that Hans leaves the mill on Line 10, which makes the miller drop out of the story.
    The small group setting helped students to talk out their issues and their misconceptions. "Well, of course the miller wouldn't say thank you," one student said. "It would be kind of silly for him to thank himself for gold."
   "Oh, the rider is a different person!" another student exclaimed. "Well, that makes a lot more sense."
   I waited until after we had discussed the passage to hand out the scored assessments that students had already taken. Then we were able to talk about new understandings. What did students know now that they didn't know then? How were they thinking through the story events differently? How might this help them with their independent reading books?

    I eventually wrote three dialogue assessments, which I have added to Analyzing Story Elements. It took us a few tries to get it right! Even now there are still some students that are working on identifying narrators in first person stories. More lessons on identifying speaker in dialogue can be found in my book, The Forest AND the Trees.

New Texts

    Last year I wanted to combine social studies and fluency. I realized that my struggling readers needed much, much more exposure to the names of states! I wrote sets of leveled geography texts about different regions of the United States. I think that I can safely say it is one of the more difficult writing tasks that I have undertaken. You can find them here:
-US Geography Leveled Readings Northeast
-US Geography Leveled Reading South
-US Geography Leveled Readings Midwest
-US Geography Leveled Readings West
    Hawai'i and Alaska are both so big and interesting that they deserve their own texts, which aren't quite finished yet.

What's New on Frolyc
    I have lots of texts and activities for student iPads over at Frolyc. If you want to see new activities, subscribe to the What's New on Activity Spot Pinterest board. This month I have worked on Genres: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Autumn Poem, Anthony Wayne (a chronological order text) and more.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Teaching Point of View: Beyond Identification

Over the past two weeks, I have been working with point of view in my classroom. What an interesting endeavor it has been! I have found myself looking at stories, my instruction, and my classroom in new ways as I have thought about the standards and how to help my students understand point of view.

The standards
In the Common Core standards for fourth grade, students need to "compare and contrast the point of view from which different stories are narrated, including the difference between first and third person narrators." This standard is pretty comprehensive! Not only do my students need to be able to identify first and third person narrators, but they also need to explain how narration techniques impact a story.
This is a pretty tall order for students who are still having trouble separating content from structure.

Of course, the first part (and the easy part!) is to teach students how to identify different points of view. I first wrote about this two years ago, in "Teaching Point of View".  This year, I made a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the topic for students:

Side note: I know that everyone in the technology world hates PowerPoint. But I love using this medium to highlight different aspects of text. Putting large text on the screen for everyone to see and talk about gets students engaged. Adding interesting pictures makes the conversations even better!

Simple introductions
I have some go-to books for introducing point of view. Bigmama's and Shortcut, both by Donald Crews, are two of my favorites. These include the first-person pronoun "we", which is important for students to see, and are quick reads. I also read Instructions by Neil Gaiman, which is told in second person. For each story, we talked about the point of view and how we could figure it out from the pronouns used in the book.

Looking back at familiar stories
After students could identify first and third person with reasonable accuracy, I had to move students to the next level--being able to really consider how the use of different narration styles impacts a story.

To do this, we looked back at the stories that we had already read through the year. This year I have been having students keep each text we use in their reading binder. I love this technique because familiar texts are always at our fingertips, ready for discussion. Students formed self-selected discussion groups, each focusing on one story that we had already read. They had two questions to discuss:

-What is the point of view of the story?
-How does this point of view affect what we know about the characters and the events?

As students talked, I circulated to hear their conversations. These formative activities are vital for me as a teacher, because it helps me to see what knowledge is in the classroom. From this conversation, I was able to see that students could identify point of view, but didn't have much to say about how the point of view affects the reader's knowledge. My next steps were clear!

Shifting points of view
One way to help students have this conversation was through read-alouds. Write This Book by Pseudonymous Bosch sparked some interesting discussions regarding first and second person points of view.

I also shared a story written from multiple points of view. A retelling of Stone Soup, this story uses first person throughout, but switches between characters. (I hope to make this story available in the near future. In the meantime, please write to me if you would like a copy.) This style was a challenge for readers! They read it on their own for the first read, and then we assembled together to discuss it. I modeled how to use information in the text to draw the different narrators and characters, which would help us to track the story.

Drawing the narrators had the secondary benefit of helping students to discover that the characters are referred to by multiple names. "Oh, I thought that Louise was a totally different person!" one student exclaimed. I love it when students are able to verbalize their changing comprehension. (For more on multiple referents, you can check out The Forest AND the Trees: Helping Readers to Identify Details in Texts and Tests.)

Next Steps
As we looked at how the characters' thinking changed from the beginning of the story to the end of the story, I came to an interesting realization. In general, my students are having trouble with the role of character thoughts in first person text. They don't see that, in first person narration, a character's thoughts infuse the entire text. When tasked with looking for an example of a character's thinking, they were trying to find an explicit marker like "I thought". This realization is shaping my planning for next week. What can I expect from 9 and 10 year olds? How can I scaffold them to expand their understanding?

Books and More
Thinking about point of view has made me look at every book in a new way. I started a Point of View board on Pinterest to share different books and how they can be used to consider point of view.

-US Leveled Geography readings are coming! Last year, I wanted to add a social studies component to my fluency instruction. As a result, I wrote texts for each region, carefully leveled at fourth, third, and second grades. So far, I have the Northeast, Midwest, and South prepared. Check them out!
-I've updated formatting on Thanksgiving Reading Activities and Centers.
-January 2015: You can find "Stone Soup" in my new activity set, "Exploring Point of View".

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Looking Closely at Setting

    This week, we have been looking closely at setting. In fourth grade, the big task of understanding setting means moving beyond stories with simple, one-note settings and into stories that have richer and deeper settings. Students must also be able to find details from a story that support a setting.

   I use this graphic organizer to help students think about the time in which a story takes place:

   Yesterday, this led to some interesting discussions. I asked a student to come to the front and be the teacher, explaining the purpose of the graphic organizer and what we had learned from it several weeks ago. She did an amazing job! Then, the other students were tasked with asking her follow-up questions to enrich the discussion:
-"Why is there an arrow at the end?"
-"What does fairy tale time mean?"
-"Couldn't a fairy tale story happen in the present?" (Ooh, great question!)

    Then, we used the graphic organizer to help us find the time period of the story we had just read, "Last Day for School". (This story can be found in Character Traits and Emotions.) The date, 1951, is provided in the text. Past or present? Students talked in pairs about how this is kind of the present, because it isn't that long ago, but still the past.

   The next step was to find sentences to support the setting. Quoting accurately from a text is an important standard for fourth graders, and it's hard for them to do early in the year. Sometimes a square of brightly colored paper and a fine-point marker helps the process along. After we identified the setting, we worked to find sentences from the text to support the time period setting. Of course there was the one sentence that stated the year, but were there others?

Students had to comb carefully through the text--just the kind of careful, thoughtful reading that I am trying to cultivate.

   Finally, just a quick word about the inspiration for the story! Around here, the last one-room schoolhouses were still open into the beginning of the 1950s. I've talked to quite a few people who went to one-room schoolhouses, and their feelings about the end of the era ranged from Claire's to her brothers'.

   Schoolhouses dot the landscape, from nicely decorated houses to abandoned hulks. Each year I stop by this crumbling place, conveniently situated along the route to Penn State from my house. I always think about the teachers and the students who went here and the lessons that were taught. Of course the modern schools of today are much, much better...but in my heart I think I feel a bit like Claire, sad to leave her old school behind.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

What is high-quality writing?

    In the first few weeks of fourth grade, I am all about words on the page. It's like coaxing squirrels out of hiding--the classroom needs to be a gentle place, a place of calmness and smiles and happy things.
   But it can't stay like this. As a writer myself, I know that smiles and rainbows can only go so far. Writers sometimes need more than a nudge to move them out of comfortable habits and ineffective strategies.
    It takes some time to move from the coaxing stage into the working stage. To test the waters, I ask students a simple question: What is high quality writing?
    This year, as they called out their responses, I wrote them (as quickly as I could!) in the magenta marker. The responses at the top are the earliest ones. The ones on the right were taken from the bulletin board about our reading class.
    What do you notice? It's easy to see that they are focusing on the external characteristics of writing--what a piece of writing looks like.
    I've noticed over the years that this is fairly common in fourth graders (and probably most students). When asked the question, "What makes high quality writing?", they respond with the most outwardly obvious characteristics of a piece of writing.

    It was hard, but I didn't comment on what they said. Instead, I showed students a piece of writing that looks polished, but is obviously flawed. I wrote this piece "live"--I told students I should charge for admission!--to demonstrate that not every piece with periods and sentences is high quality writing. Of course I added some humor to keep their attention.
    Hands went back up in the air as students considered why the monkey piece is not high quality. Their new comments are written in blue.
    You can see that these comments focus much more on content and organization. My students have all had high-quality writing instruction, but they needed to see a poor example in order to access what they've already learned.
     The "support claims" idea was based on a student discussion about the use of opinions in my piece. "You shouldn't use opinions," one student declared. Others disagreed. Eventually I did help them with the language of "support claims", mostly because the longer, more convoluted way they were saying it would have taken me a long time to write.
    What did I learn from this? My students are still developing ideas for what makes high quality writing. I have to be very, very careful in my comments and feedback to promote an emphasis on content and organization. My students really really want to please me...but I have to make sure that we are working toward high-quality writing, and not just a piece that will make the teacher happy.
    Our next step was to work on paragraphs from Daily Sentence Writing. When students finished, I sent them to the chart to see if they noticed characteristics of high-quality writing in their own pieces. At the end of the class, I asked, "What did you do today to create high-quality writing?"
   Over the next few weeks, my goal will be to help students develop their own rubrics, rubrics that will guide them as they assess their own writing and the writing of their peers.
    (And I really do like pie.)

In your classroom...
1. Ask students, "What makes high quality writing?" Record their ideas.
2. If students seem to focus on surface elements, show a piece that uses correct punctuation and spelling, but lacks organization and a coherent ideas. If you don't feel comfortable with live writing, it's perfectly fine to create this piece ahead of time. After students read this new piece of writing, ask them to generate some new thoughts about high quality writing. Record new ideas in a different color.
3. (It might happen...) Students may not be able to generate any criteria related to content, organization, or word choice. In this case, 6 Traits lessons with great mentor texts are called for! I like the lessons at Writing Fix for this.
4. Give students time to write. Anything! Remind students to refer to the chart for qualities of high quality writing.
5. Ask students, "What did you do today to create high quality writing?" Encourage students to look back to the chart to describe what they did. In fact, you may even be able to add some ideas based on student responses.
6. Keep the chart visible in the classroom and add to it.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Teaching About Character Traits

Right now I am deep into character traits in my classroom. And it is so delightful! I just love talking to students about characters and how we know what they are like. Discussions of character actions and dialogue and the traits they reveal are so enriching for our class.

Each year I enter into these discussions in slightly different ways. However, some principles guide my lesson planning each year. Here is an overview of my thinking as I embark on a character traits unit.

Expand students' word knowledge with lists of character traits
Many of the words that we use to describe character traits are not common in everyday conversation. Rich, descriptive words like ruthless, impulsive, considerate, and stingy are new for many students. I like to use word lists that group words by common characteristics so that students can learn words efficiently. (A list of character traits is available in Character Traits and Emotions or here.)

Use embedded questions to help students identify character traits throughout a story
I love embedded questions! I remember days of standing by the copier, patiently cutting apart a story so that I could add questions throughout the text. Digital tools make the process much, much easier.

Embedded questions aren't about assessing students, but about guiding students toward making inferences. Transitional readers especially often think of reading a page of text as a monumental effort to be completed as quickly as possible. Embedding questions helps to break up the text and show readers what kinds of inferences they should make at which parts of the story. "Thomas and the Teapot", in Character Traits and Emotions, is an example of a text with embedded questions. However, you can use any text for this strategy.

Help students to link traits to story evidence with graphic organizers and scaffolded response frames
Support, support, support! This is my refrain as we talk about character traits. "What in the story makes you think that?" or "How did you come to think of this trait?"

Graphic organizers help students to collect character traits and text evidence as they go. Scaffolded response frames help students who are still learning the structure of formal academic responses. You can read more about response frames in this blog post.

Show students the difference between traits and emotions
Oh, I hate to see when well-intentioned people muddy the waters between traits and emotions! Traits usually don't change over the course of a story. When they do, the change is usually the main point of a story. Emotions, on the other hand, change frequently based on the events in the story.

Can students understand the difference? They most certainly can, and even readers who struggle can learn to distinguish between traits and emotions. (You can find lots more on character emotions in my book, The Forest AND the Trees, and in lots of other blog posts.)

Help students find examples of direct characterization, characterization through dialogue, and characterization through actions
This is where things get really interesting--as we move beyond just asking, "What are the character's traits?" and into "How does the author let us know about these traits?" For example, this week we started reading There's A Boy in the Girl's Bathroom as a read aloud. I love this book for characterization. In the first three chapters we find out a great deal about Bradley, from each one of these methods. (This book also does show us some examples of trait change, but it certainly doesn't happen in the first three chapters--Bradley's changes over time are part of the main storyline.)

Teaching character traits, just like teaching theme, helps students to see those parts of literature that make us more human. And the language of the traits becomes the language of our classroom. "That was foolhardy of the cricket, to try to escape," one student mused thoughtfully. I was watching the chaos of the escaped cricket (I finally had to stoop down and catch it myself, and I did teach for the next five minutes with a squirming cricket enclosed tightly in my hand) and I thought, "Wow! She used a character trait word!"

Other notes from the week
 -A slug escaped, and was nowhere to be found. How could a slug hide in the classroom? We are completely mystified. Just as a side note, the weight of the slug was 31 grams...we found this out shortly before he escaped.

-I am working on third grade homework sets. Their formatting is simpler than the 4/5 homework sets, and I'd love to have someone else look over them. There are currently 3 available with the fourth coming shortly.

-Character traits materials are available on Frolyc.com! If you have student iPads, these are a great way to build character trait knowledge.

-I'm adding some new materials to stories, but I probably won't have time to upload new sets this week. If you are teaching "Hans, the Princess, and the Golden Goose" from Teaching About Theme or "Painting Day" from Summarizing Stories, drop me a line at elkissn@yahoo.com and I'll send you some of the new materials.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sticking with Independent Reading

Day 20 has come and gone! Independent reading has settled into a routine--kind of. Sadly, this is the time of year when many teachers abandon independent reading. The initial thrill of start-up has ended, and teachers are feeling pressure to move on to more academic pursuits. It can be easy to skip independent reading "just for today"--and then tomorrow, and the next day, and before you know it, kids just aren't bringing books to class anymore.

But this is the time of year to stick with independent reading!  These are some of the personalities that I have observed in my readers, and how I deal with them. There is very much a sense of Zen in working with readers. There are no hard and fast rules, until there are.

The Flitter
Oh, these are the kids that are giving me gray hair! One day I will get a kid set up with a supportive book talk. They will seem engaged with the text. The next day? No book. "I left it in my desk" or "I left it at home." Even worse, sometimes these readers will grab a new book off the shelf.

It's hard to keep from getting frustrated in these situations. However, these readers need an unfailingly positive atmosphere.  Something about "we read the same book each day, because it makes a complete story" just isn't sinking in. If I don't fix this in fourth grade, it may never get fixed!

A simple "Still-Reading" box is a great help. I have a box in the room for students to keep classroom books in. If kids have trouble bringing books back and forth to class, have them keep their books in the room. It's also important for me to keep track of the books that kids are reading so that they don't slip into flitting day after day. Finally, it is for these readers that I try to stick with read-aloud. Even if they never finish a whole book on their own, they will hear an entire book and get a sense of what a connected work is like.

The Narrow Reader
These are the readers who decide early in the year that they are going to stick with one kind of book. It might be a series, or it might be an author. In my experience, narrow readers are often boys, and they are often on the edge of struggle with grade level text. I've learned that this quirk of independent reading is often quite helpful, and should be allowed as much as possible. I've even gone out and purchased more books in the series for these kids!

The Acquisitional Reader
These readers don't begin to worry me until this time of the year. In the first few weeks of school, acquisitional readers look like they are doing all the right things--they bring books to class and they look like they are reading. Often the books these readers have are big and on or above grade level. But it's around this time that I start to realize that these readers aren't finishing the big beautiful books they are lugging around. They might switch between three books at a time, gaining only hazy representations of the plots.

I deal with each acquisitional reader a little differently. I certainly don't want to squash their enthusiasm! However, I do want these student to realize that they are missing--something. Sometimes I might read a chapter or two with these students, talking about what they are visualizing. Sometimes I will ask them to try out an easier, shorter book for a week or two. Listening to books on CD is often transformational for these acquisitional readers. (I speak from personal experience, as my younger son tends to acquisitional reading sometimes! We're listening to the Heroes of Olympus series in the car, a book that he would never attempt on his own but is enjoying listening to with the rest of us.)

So I go to my cabinet of totally awesome books and offer three supportive book talks. I choose books that are tailored to what I know about the student's interests. They look at each book, make a face, and say, "Nahhh."

This is tough. It's hard to not feel a bit insulted after such rejection. In fact, lately I've been sending it back to these students. "Maybe the books that I have are not interesting for you, and that's fine. But you will now need to be responsible for your book selection, or you will need to read the next book that I choose for you."

And do you know what? Often these students do read the next book that I choose for them.

The Listener
I've had a few students in the last week who have delighted me in unexpected ways. Some of these readers have been very quiet students. I've gone to get them some book choices and they have piped up, "Can I have Amulet?" or "Can I have that book that you were telling someone about last week, where the parents disappeared and there was a castle?" I realized that some kids were listening in on all of the supportive book talks--and, even better, they were silently gathering recommendations.

The Trusting
By Day 20 I have earned some students' trust so completely that I think they would read anything I recommend. I take this trust very seriously and talk about next book selections honestly. "This is a stretch from what you've read before, but I think you might like it," or "This book just came in and I think you'd love it!" Sometimes all I have to do is stand by the cabinet with a book in my hand, no words needed, and 2-3 kids will come over to see what I have for them. These are the best moments.

Happy to read all day
And, of course, every class has the delightful group of students who would be happy to read all day. They choose their own books, carry them from place to place, and bury themselves in the story whenever they get a chance. My main task with these students is to stick with independent reading--and to structure a happy, productive time for everyone.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Supporting character traits

If it's September, I must be teaching about story elements. This week, we have been taking a careful look at character traits. I had to do some quick edits to the classroom version of my Character Traits Powerpoint to delete the pictures of my son--after all, I can't embarrass him by having him on the screen during a lesson!

Traits vs. Emotions
One of the big lessons of fourth grade is getting students to see the differences between traits and emotions. As I was planning for the week of teaching, I was disheartened to see how much misinformation is floating around regarding character traits. A YouTube video started with the example of happy as a character trait. A case could be made that a character who is always cheerful is happy. However, most students apply this word as a fleeting emotion. It muddies the waters to start with such an example! As I teach traits, I try to make sure that students see that character traits are generally stable and unchanging. While emotions come and go, traits usually stay the same. (In stories for children, exceptions to this are highly explicit in how the character's traits change, and make the change in trait a huge factor in the story.)

Finding Traits
I started talking about traits about a week before we really worked with them in details. During our read-aloud, we talked about the character traits that we could apply to the main characters in the books. (With one class, I'm reading Tollins: Explosive Tales for Children; with the other, I'm reading The Talented Clementine.)

During each reading session, a student sits in the "place of honor" beside the large picture of the character and records the character traits that we develop during the reading. As you can see, Sparkler is clever, brave, curious, and protective. These were traits that students already knew and suggested on their own.

Collecting Textual Evidence to Support Traits
After our preliminary readings to test the waters, I was ready to introduce character traits more formally. I used my (edited) version of the PowerPoint to introduce traits and supporting traits with examples. I gave students a list of character traits. Then, we read more about Sparkler in the Tollins book. I modeled how to use this simple chart to record examples of traits and actions.

Writing Justification
Notice how this has the start of textual support, but is missing a key element: the rule, or the justification. The rule goes beyond the textual support to show how the text detail supports the inference. In the case of Sparkler, we had this information:

-Sparkler copied down every word and picture from the human medical books
-This shows that he is persistent

In our justification, we have to show how the two pieces of information go together.
Rule or justification: Someone who is persistent works hard and doesn't give up. Copying the books was hard work for Sparkler, but he didn't give up.

I showed students the response frame that includes a place for the character trait, character actions or word, and justification. After I introduced the task, I differentiated by student choice. Students who were ready to work on their own could go work quietly wherever they wanted in the room, while students who still needed some help could stay at the front with me. This was a very productive time for students.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead
This process requires a level of thinking that is tough for fourth graders! However, breaking the process down into the three different tasks was very helpful. It was also helpful to begin this tough level of thinking with shared, engaging text. Students could move through working with evidence, trait, and justification. While I would love to say that everyone got it perfectly after just one attempt, anyone who has actually been in a classroom knows that it is a long process. But it is a fruitful one--teaching students how to justify their text evidence in this particular case is easily transferable to other situations.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Conflict and Climax: Thinking about Story Elements

Right now I'm working with teaching about stories and story elements in my classroom. This instruction has shifted a great deal in the last few years. As we've moved to the Common Core, I've taken on many topics that are new to fourth grade (like point of view) and delved more deeply into existing topics, like plot and conflict.

Event Cards

Some activities and strategies remain helpful for fourth graders. For example, I have always liked having students arrange story events. I type the events in a table, cut them out, and ask students to work with partners to put the events in order.

This simple activity shows me so much about what students can do. Sometimes they struggle to put the events in order. I encourage them to look back to the text.

When students don't have trouble putting the events in order, I ask, "Which ones could we leave out?" This prepares students for summarizing, when they will need to select the most important events and leave out events that are not important.

New Applications

This year, I used the sorting activity to frame a discussion about the parts of the story. Students worked with partners to put the events from the story in order. Then, we quickly talked about the climax of the story. This was a new word for many students.

Many typical definitions for climax say that it is the most intense part of the story, or the part that has the most action. Definitions that show climax in terms of "excitement" often set kids up for frustration--after all, many stories do not have an exciting battle! Instead of defining climax in terms of excitement, I told students that the climax is the turning point--when the conflict begins to be resolved.

Believe it or not, this commercial from Chipotle is actually an excellent illustration of this. Notice how the climax is not a grand or exciting battle, but a change of heart:

 After we watched the commercial, we tried to examine where we saw the climax. Partners quickly realized that in order to describe the climax, they needed to have an understanding of the conflict. They tried to hash out whether the conflict was the farmer's use of the land ("Maybe he doesn't have enough food, now that it's winter?" one student guessed) or the farmer's feelings about what has happened.

On the second viewing, they were able to find the climax. One student put it succinctly: "The farmer is like, 'Oh, no, what have I done?'" Another student pointed out that the music reveals the climax: "They give it away! It's in the words of the song!"

Applying learning to text

Students then took their new understanding of climax back to their sorted story events. I asked, "Which event from the story is the climax? Why do you think this?" Students then discussed their ideas...and there was a wide variation of choices.

We were working with a retelling of a fairy tale, "The Miller's Boy". Some students chose events from the beginning of the story, which seemed quite off at first until I realized that they were drawn to what I'd call the initiating event--the event that introduces the conflict of the story. Once I suggested that they look closer to the end of the story, most groups were able to find and support an event that they called the climax. One group noticed that the author (me, but they didn't really know it) had added a secondary conflict related to the character of Tobias. Looking through this lens, the climax came at a slightly different point. I love it when an activity presents several equally plausible answers!

Listening to the conversations was fascinating. I realized that an understanding of plot structure depends on a clear understanding of the conflict of a story. Without knowing the protagonist's goal, readers can't pin events to an over-arching structure. I ended by asking, "What will you do differently when we read our next story? What will you look for? What will you consider?" Some students said they would look for the climax of the story. Others said they would look more carefully for the conflict.

I'm looking forward to our conversations about both.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Science and Writing: A Natural Pair

Teaching science goes so well with teaching writing! Kids naturally enjoy learning about science. When they learn, they want to write...and they have to grapple with the best ways to express their ideas. Writing instruction blossoms from science activities.

But it's not always so simple, of course. It does take some planning, some preparation, and a big dash of serendipity to get the most out of the connections between science and writing.

We love visiting nearby parks and poking about
in streams together!

The planning may not always be what teachers typically think of as planning. It's not always writing essential questions in little boxes! Squeezing the most learning out of teachable moments requires a broad knowledge of both science and writing standards. In addition, I try to learn as much as I can about the background details of what I am teaching.

So I take every chance to learn about geology, animal adaptations, day/night, and seasonal changes...I know that I may have to draw on this knowledge to guide student investigations. Following scientists and museums on Twitter is an easy way to build my background knowledge. Luckily my kids like "adventuring" so we all learn together.

Informal activities
Science writing starts with the informal activities that I have in the classroom. Toads, crickets, and praying mantises are all highly motivating for students, and a great way to get kids writing. We draw pictures, add labels, and take notes.

In third and fourth grades, students have trouble generating data tables independently, so this is a task that I take on at first. I like to have a Bird Observation binder for students to record what we see at the window. When students take notes, other students sometimes ask questions: "What were they doing? How many did you see?" These are the kinds of questions that scientists as writers need to answer!

Trays set up for our litmus paper experiment.
Even a task as mundane as lunch count can be the beginning of science writing. I have a student keeping track of our menu items and # buying and packing each day. Today he came to show me an interesting anomaly in the data. Little does he know that this data will be used next week when we talk about drawing conclusions!

Formal activities
Scientists also need opportunities for formal writing. One thing that I have learned is that students thrive on real experiences and clear prompts. Last week, while learning about classification, students classified liquids as acids or not acids, using litmus paper as an indicator.

Because it is so early in the year, I offered students a writing prompt with a writing frame. In the prompt, students take on the role of science teacher and write to their principal regarding the importance of litmus paper. (Requesting supplies is a fairly common writing task for
scientists, of course!) The writing frame helps students to see the kind of formal writing and sentence structure used in this kind of science writing. Students also enjoyed signing their names as "Mr." or "Miss" at the end.

In future writing prompts, students will take on varying roles. We do these prompts about once a month, and they always relate directly to activities we have done in class. Engaging real life experiences enrich student writing. Students elaborate more and use richer vocabulary when they are writing about class experiences.

Advance planning, informal experiences, and formal writing opportunities help students to see the natural connections between science and writing.

News and Notes
-A new version of November Reading Homework is now available. Revised file numbers, minor formatting updates, and an end of month assessment are available.
-In my classroom this week, I'm using character traits materials from Character Traits and Emotions along with stories from Teaching About Theme.
-Check out the great tutorials on Frolyc! Frolyc is a way to publish activities to student iPads. Many of my texts are available. You can hear me explain how to build these activities on the YouTube playlist.