Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Quiet Evening...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 25, 2009

On fairy shrimp and schemas

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2009

Text Structure, Text Structure, Text Structure

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

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

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

-A Powerpoint presentation to introduce text structure to students

-A Powerpoint presentation to introduce younger students to comparing

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

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

-An assortment of paragraphs for teaching text structures

-An activity to help students understand causes and effects

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

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

Enjoy! Leave a comment if you found something useful!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*I've changed student names.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sharing time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Starting out with writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Visualizing and Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Choosing Read Alouds

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

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

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

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

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

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