Archive for February, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Connecting Reading and Writing for Students

In this week’s Quick Tip Tuesday, Cathy Mere, the author of More Than Guided Reading shares how she helped one student develop a sense of story in writing workshop. By tapping into what Cathy already learned about the student in reading workshop, she quickly realized how she could best help her student become a better writer. “Approaching writing conferences with a reading teacher’s eye allows me to see what students understand about both reading and writing,” Cathy says.

Connecting Reading and Writing for Students
During reading conferences I learn about readers, but I also pay attention to what I can learn about readers in writing conferences. Kneeling down beside Nazarena for a writing conference, I take a look at her story. Her book contains three pages. Each contains a few people floating in a sea of letters. The letters are a mix of capital and lower case letters written in long strings without spacing. Nazarena has taken note of our discussions about how words can help us tell our stories and has tried to add sentences to her writing like many of her friends at the table. But hers are really random letters and strings. “You’ve been working hard,” I say, as I look through her story, knowing that this is the first time she has attempted to add any writing to her story independently. Nazarena smiles and acknowledges that this has been a lot of work. “Can you tell me about your story?” I ask.

Nazarena turns to the first page and says, “My mom got a new car.” She turns to the next page and says, “I went to my grandma’s.” Finally, she turns to the last page and says, “My sister is crying.” When I talk with Nazarena for a bit about the content of her story, it becomes obvious that these are three unconnected stories, yet Nazarena has put them together in the same book. I have already noticed in reading conferences that Nazarena often talks about each page of a book as if it is unrelated to the page before. “Are you finished with this story?” I inquire. Nazarena proudly nods in affirmation. I am going to need to help Nazarena develop her sense of story, but I decide that this is not the time to do it. Knowing that she is ready to move on to a new story, I decide to celebrate this work, but I put her on my list for a first conference tomorrow.

The next day during writer’s workshop Nazarena begins a new story. “I’ll need three pages,” she tells me. Grabbing three pages, I ask her to tell me about her story. “My dad is holding my kitty.” I move the second page in front of her. “Tamarah is my friend,” she responds. “My mom is having a birthday.”
“You have a lot to write about.” I smile as I grab Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a familiar story that I have heard Nazarena retell during reader’s workshop. “Stories are usually about one thing.” Reaching into her browsing bag of familiar books, I continue, “This story, The Way We Go to School, is about the way children to go school each day. This story, Huggles’ Breakfast, is about all the things that Huggles eats for breakfast.” Picking up Goldilocks and the Three Bears I tell Nazarena, “This story is about what happens when Goldilocks visits the bears’ house.”

“You have three great ideas for a story, but they are three different ideas. Which one do you think you most want to write about?” I ask, repeating her earlier ideas. “My mom’s birthday,” Nazarena replies quickly. “Tell me about her birthday.”
“I helped my mom decorate her cake.”
“That will be a great way to start your story,” I tell her, placing a piece of paper on her mat. “Then what did you do?”
Nazarena thinks for a moment. “I helped my dad decorate the house.”

“I’ll bet it looked great. What did you decorate it with? Balloons? Signs?” I mentally kick myself as soon as the words come out of my mouth. It is obvious that Nazarena is really working hard to think about her responses and the last thing I want to do is get her off track.
“We used lots of colors,” she replies.
I’m a bit uncertain about what she means, but I want her to stay focused on the topic so I continue. “You helped your dad decorate the house. That will be the second page.”
“Then the people came,” Nazarena adds, as I place another piece of paper on the pile.
I pause for a minute to see if she is finished. “Then we had a party.” She grins.
“That will be a great ending,” I say, smiling. “Let’s see if I understand. This book is all about your mom’s birthday. First, you helped your mom make a cake. Then you helped your dad decorate the house. Finally, the people came and you had party.”
“Yes,” she says, grabbing her pencil as I staple her three pages together. I talk her through the story one more time to be sure she is ready to write, and I jot down her story in my notebook, knowing that it will take her a few days to complete it. For the next few days I will check in with her quickly at the start of the workshop to see how the writing is going.

This is just the beginning of helping Nazarena to develop a sense of story. I know we will need to have other conversations during reading workshop to help her recognize that stories often have a beginning, middle, and end. Retelling familiar stories will be a good way start; later, showing her how to look through the pictures before she reads new stories will help her begin to connect events as she prepares to read.

Approaching writing conferences with a reading teacher’s eye allows me to see what students understand about both reading and writing. Writing provides a window into reading: I see what a child understands and what a child nearly understands, and what is next in that child’s learning. Looking at writing can tell me what students know about print, about words, and about putting a message down on paper. I can tell whether they have the ability to develop a story, to sequence events, or to notice detail. I can discover what students understand about story language and their accumulated vocabulary.

Add comment February 10th, 2009

Poetry Friday: English Lessons with a Tibetan Refugee Ex-Monk

This week’s poem is an original from Lucy Tobin.

The idea for this poem originated in Dharmsala, India where I was teaching English to two Tibetan men, both of the whom, until recently, had been monks. Since they were at a fairly advanced English level, I gave them vocabulary words to use in sentences. I quickly found that their sentences were emotionally powerful and it reminded me what deep life experiences English language learners possess behind the struggle to learn a new language.

English Lessons with a Tibetan Refugee Ex-Monk

Praise: to show approval or admiration.
My family praise me much when I was monk.

Irrevocable: not able to be changed or reversed.
What mean reversed?
Like when a car drives backwards.
Ah. I change my life not be monk. I think it irrevocable.

Remorse: deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed.
It is best be monk. Now I remorse.
But won’t it be wonderful to get married and have children?
Of course will be wonderful, but monk is always better.

Permanent: lasting forever, not changing.
I miss my mother permanent.

Nostalgic: longing for the happy times of the past.
My father he nostalgic always wish for century life.
Century life?
We say this for days when Tibet was peace.

Profound: very great or intense; severe.
I wish love someone profoundly in my life.

Delusion: a belief or impression that is not real.
I delusion India was like Tibet.
I delusion will see my mother again.

Homesick: missing one’s home during a period of absence.
All Tibetans, all refugee, homesick.

Humble: having or showing a low estimate of one’s own importance.
I think all Buddhists humble.
Sorry. That not a Buddhist way to say.

When did you become a monk?
When I eleven years I become monk. I cry every night first year, say
I want to go home.
When I eighteen come to India for learn the English and be near Dalai Lama.

Do you feel regret?
What mean?
Do you think coming to India was a good idea?
But I think life so strange, the way how quick it change.

5 comments February 6th, 2009

Now Online: Engaging the Eye Generation

You want to teach today’s students well. You know who they are: the kids who complete their homework on one window of their computer, send instant messages through a second window, listen to a personalized playlist on their iPod, and watch television out of the corner of their eye — simultaneously.

What does 21st-century literacy instruction look like in today’s elementary classroom? National Board Certified Teacher and Adobe Educator Johanna Riddle shows you how to weave technology and visual literacy throughout your existing curriculum in her new book, Engaging the Eye Generation.

After making a convincing case for meeting students in their world — enthusiastically discovering, creating, and learning through multimedia and technology — Johanna shows teachers how to explicitly teach visual comprehension strategies, critical thinking, sequencing, and research skills. Activities throughout the book use a wide range of technologies including digital photography, scanning, and digital storybooks to synthesize visual and traditional literacy while meeting common curriculum standards.

Accessible to both the tech-savvy and tech-challenged, Engaging the Eye Generation will inspire you to infuse your curriculum with visual and technology-based learning opportunities, and provides specific examples of how to do it. It’s available now, and you can preview the entire text online.

Add comment February 5th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Finding the small moments that inspire great writing

Student and writers are often told to write what they know about. “This sounds deceptively simple until it is tried,” writes Mark Overmeyer in his book, When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working. “What do we know?” He suggests that the most obvious place to point students is their own lives. Students might feel that they are too young to write a memoir or look back at their childhood while they are still in it, but with the help of mentor texts teachers can guide students to find the small moments in their lives that are worth writing about.

Many children’s authors write memoir very effectively. The most effective titles I have used to model the idea that stories come from very small moments include Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. Both of these books are deceptively simple. Before I introduce Fireflies, I tell students that Brinckloe could have written the entire book in one sentence: I saw a bunch of fireflies and caught them and then let them go. I then ask them to listen carefully to see how the author stretches the story to make it interesting for the reader. Owl Moon and Fireflies help students to see that they have stories in their own lives and that they can begin looking for small moments to write about.

One way to convince students they can write effective memoirs, and even enjoy it, is to maximize the chances for success during short mini-lessons. Think of an experience you can share that may resonate with the students in your class. I often tell the story about taking care of my friend’s cat, Milo. Milo stayed at my apartment, and one day when I went home I couldn’t find him. I had done laundry early in the morning in the laundry room down the hall, and I worried that he had gotten out and I didn’t notice. I describe looking for him everywhere, and then finally discovering him playing with the soap in the bathtub. This moment works well as a story because I can add many details about looking for the cat, and I can describe my feelings of worry and relief. The texts mentioned above, Owl Moon and Fireflies, are gently emotional pieces that I have found students can identify with. I intentionally avoid big moments: weddings attended, birth of a brother or sister, or death. These are very appropriate for a memoir, but for helping students to feel they have something to say in a short amount of time, these topics tend to be too large.
After sharing my story, I ask students for some title ideas. “Missing Milo” or “Where’s the Cat?” work better as titles than “The Cat” because they help limit the time frame to just a few minutes. I ask students to think about a story they might write about, and then to share titles. Putting a few of these titles on the board is normally enough to get everyone started, and then I let students write.

Below is a sample of some titles for small moment stories from different grade level groups:

“Where’d She Go?” – a fifth grader’s story about losing her sister when she was supposed to be babysitting.
“Scavenger Hunt” – a fifth grader’s story about cleaning up after the dogs in the backyard.
“Frosting Trouble” – a second grader’s story about licking all the frosting off the cake at her birthday party.

Sometimes, students want to tell your story instead of focusing on their own. I have worked in many classrooms, and unless I am very specific, I can receive four or five stories about trying to find a pet cat, and invariably, the cat ends up being in the bathtub, playing with the soap. I tell students that they can tell a story about a pet, but they must focus on a different set of details.

“Your story cannot be about finding your car in the bathtub,” I tell them, “even if this really happened. Think of something else you can tell me about your cat.”

Below is a story by Dorion, a third-grade student at Sunrise Elementary:

Once I had a cat and I took the cat food out of the cabinet and took the cookies out of the pot and I put the cat food in the pot and the cat had the cookies. Then my brother Michael asked my mom if he could have a cookie. And my mom said yes. And my brother reached into the pot and he said mom the cookies are all mushy something went wrong. And he took some out and ate it and he said it was bad and it tasted like kitty food.

Dorion’s story is about something that happened in just a few minutes. He writes with detail from the very beginning, and the ending we anticipated makes us laugh when we get there. Dorion was successful because he chose a moment in his life that he can remember, and he is able to create a story from it.
Not all successful writing experiences have to come from student’s lives. I have used many different writing activities over the years to spark student interest and confidence in writing.

Add comment February 3rd, 2009

Travels with Herb Broda

Herb Broda, the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning, is taking a sabbatical from teaching at Ashland University in Ohio this spring to visit schools that are using the outdoors as part of their curriculum. He will be stopping by the Stenhouse Blog to tell us about his visits and share some of his experiences at various schools. He will also share student work, along with strategies used by teachers to weave the school grounds into the curriculum. If you know of a school that is doing a great job of integrating the outdoors into learning, contact Herb at

Recently I was a guest at Brookside Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio. Principal Fritz Monroe was a great host and shared many examples of how his school is using the outdoors as a springboard for teaching. I’ll be sharing more about Brookside in later posts.

Often the outdoors can be included in instruction without doing a complex or lengthy outdoor activity. Decorating one of the hallways at Brookside was some unique student artwork that utilized nature in a social studies lesson about ancient civilizations. Mr. Monroe described how the sixth grade students went outside and found small sticks that were sturdy enough to work as brush handles. They then took small bunches of pine needles and fastened them to the sticks with string. To create a neat ambience, teachers had the students take their natural brushes into the gym and turn out the lights. By the glow of flashlights (much safer than candles!) students used paint and the pine brushes to create “cave art” on large sheets of brown paper.


Please share your unique activities that incorporate nature into the curriculum. Winter can be a wonderful time for outdoor learning!

Add comment February 2nd, 2009

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