Posts filed under 'Quick Tip Tuesday'

Quick Tip Tuesday: A lesson they won’t forget

In this week’s Quick Tip Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz show you how to shake things up in your writing workshop to make a lesson memorable. This and other great tips can be found in their recent book Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice.

Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, and I may not remember. Involve me, and I’ll understand.

—Native American Saying

It was a dreary Friday afternoon in early February 2009. Because of a scheduling change, writing workshop was moved between lunchtime and our weekly craft project. A student was having an issue with her peers, which created a disruption. She was dismissed from the classroom until she could regain her composure. Because of the disruption, I was feeling frazzled as my students arrived at the rug for the mini-lesson, notebooks in-hand, waiting to hear what I had to say.

I looked at my lesson, which was printed out and placed inside sheet protectors beside my classroom’s document camera. I looked at the teaching point that said, “Writers often search their writing for lines such as these looking for ways to highlight them, because highlighting a particularly strong line can also highlight a particularly strong idea. One way to make a powerful line stand out is by repeating it here and there across a piece of writing” (Calkins and Chiarella 2006, 181). My mini-lesson was supposed to be an outgrowth of a mid-workshop teaching point on refrains contained in Calkins and Chiarella’s Memoir: The Art of Writing Well. I was set to use an example of the refrain Sandra Cisneros repeats in her story “Eleven,” as well as refrains several of my former students wove into their published memoirs. However, as I glanced over my prepared lesson, I wasn’t feeling it. I looked outside at the gray, rainy sky and still wasn’t inspired. I looked at my students, whose eyes were fixed on me, waiting for me to begin teaching, and I couldn’t go on with the lesson I had planned.

I excused myself from the meeting area for a moment and walked to the other side of the classroom trying to psych myself up to teach this important lesson. I took a few deep breaths, reassured myself that I could to it, turned, and walked back to my class, who were chatting quietly with one another. Once I arrived back at the meeting area it occurred to me that I could deviate from my plan and teach the mini-lesson in a different way. I turned off the document camera and faced my students. My lesson began something like this:

“Writers, many of you listen to music on the radio and hear songs by famous singers. In fact, we listen to a lot of songs when we do our activities at morning meeting. There’s something that most songs have in common with one another, regardless of the singer. Nearly every song contains a chorus or a refrain, which is a part of the song that repeats over and over. Let’s take Beyoncé’s song “Single Ladies,” which most of you have heard. Now, I don’t know if Beyoncé wrote her song or had a songwriter do it, but either way, she wanted to get her point across in the song and repeated the big idea of the song over and over. “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it. If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it.” (Some students started to sing along with me until I made a conductor’s “cut” sign.) This phrase is repeated many times in “Single Ladies.” I think she did this because it’s like the woman telling the man who she used to date that if he loved her so much, then he should’ve given her an engagement ring and asked her to marry him. But he didn’t. And now, there’s a song about her new life. See, Beyoncé is smart. She repeated the most important line multiple times. This was done to emphasize her point. Writers do this too.”

And then, I went into my literary examples.

At the end of the mini-lesson, it was evident from their plan boxes that three-fourths of my students were going to try weaving an important line of their writing throughout their memoir. In fact, to keep the inspiration for refrains going, I played popular music softly during independent writing time that day. By share time, I discovered many of my students had a better understanding of refrains, because their drafts now contained beautiful refrains, which reflected the main idea of their piece, repeated artfully throughout their writing.

The following Monday I overheard a group of my students talking in the hallway before school started. They were wondering whether I’d sing Beyoncé for them again during writing workshop. Rather than poking my head out into the hallway and saying, “That was a one-time only performance,” I said nothing. Instead, I relished that they’d probably never forget the day when their fourth-grade teacher taught them how to weave a powerful line throughout their writing by using “Single Ladies” as a mentor text. The refrain lesson was dynamic and engaging. Therefore, the teaching stuck. The objective was met. They will always remember.

Challenge: Shake things up in an effort to get your students more engaged in your mini-lesson. While you’re still going to be the one speaking through the connecting and teaching parts of your lesson, think about ways you can creatively involve your students while you teach so that the lesson sticks.

Reflective Practice:

  • What did you do out of the ordinary today?
  • What was your students’ response when they had a greater involvement or sense of engagement in today’s mini-lesson?
  • What makes you think your students will remember today’s lesson more than others you’ve taught in the past?

2 comments March 22nd, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Purpose is everything

In this week’s Quick Tip we share an exercise from Cris Tovani’s book I Read It, but I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. In her book Cris shows teachers how to help high school students develop new reading comprehension skills, including how to determine what is important in a text.

Sign up now to receive information about Cris’ upcoming book, So What Do They Really Know? Assessment that Informs Teaching and Learning due fall 2011.

Purpose is everything

A reader’s purpose affects everything about reading. It determines what’s important in the text, what is remembered, and what comprehension strategy a reader uses to enhance meaning. When students read difficult text without a purpose, they express the following complaints:

  • I don’t care about the topic.
  • I can’t relate to the topic.
  • I daydream and my mind wanders.
  • I can’t stay focused.
  • I just say the words so I can be done.
  • I get bored.

Readers behave like this when they don’t have a reason for reading. They pronounce the words, finish the assignment, and rarely come away with a thorough understanding. It is a waste of time; they haven’t constructed meaning and can’t use the information.

According to researchers Pichert and Anderson (1977), readers determine what is important based on their purpose for reading. When I ask students why they read outside of school, they usually have a reason—but they don’t think it counts, because it isn’t school related. When I ask students why they read in school, they say their teacher makes them: “Read chapter 10. There will be a test on Monday.” Or, “Finish reading acts 1 and 2 so you can write a character analysis.” Rarely do students have the opportunity to determine their own purpose for reading. It is no wonder they come to rely solely on the teacher for the reasons they read.

Unfortunately the teacher’s purpose is often too vague to help. Her psychology teacher told Michelle, an excellent student, that there would be a test on the first three chapters in the textbook. When Michelle asked for more specifics, the teacher reiterated, “Just read and know the information in the first three chapters.” Michelle knew she couldn’t remember that much material and didn’t know how to determine what was important. Michelle isn’t an exception. Most students don’t know how to set their own purpose. They tend to think everything they read in a textbook is equally important. As I prepared for my first biology exam as a college freshman, I diligently highlighted anything and everything that seemed remotely important. After all, this was college, and I was reading a college textbook. I felt I needed to memorize the text, and I thought highlighting the majority of it would do the trick. My purpose was too broad. It didn’t allow me to distinguish main ideas from interesting details.

I could have highlighted places in the text that were confusing, but that still would have been much too broad a purpose. I didn’t have enough background knowledge to understand most of what I was reading. A better purpose would have been to find places in the text that were connected to the class lectures. That would have helped me determine what the professor thought was important and therefore what might be on the test.

Students need to be taught why it is important to have purpose and how to establish one. The following passage, from Pichert and Anderson (1977), is a wonderful example to use to demonstrate why it is important to set a purpose.

The House

room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.

The two boys ran until they came to the driveway. “See, I told you today was good for skipping school,” said Mark. “Mom is never home on Thursday,” he added. Tall hedges hid the house from the road so the pair strolled across the finely landscaped yard. “I never knew your place was so big,” said Pete. “Yeah, but it’s nicer now than it used to be since Dad had the new stone siding put on and added the fireplace.”

There were front and back doors and a side door which led to the garage which was empty except for three parked 10-speed bikes. They went in the side door, Mark explaining that it was always open in case his younger sisters got home earlier than their mother.

Pete wanted to see the house so Mark started with the living room. It, like the rest of the downstairs, was newly painted. Mark turned on the stereo, the noise of which worried Pete. “Don’t worry, the nearest house is a quarter mile away,” Mark shouted. Pete felt more comfortable observing that no houses could be seen in any direction beyond the huge yard.

The dining room, with all the china, silver, and cut glass, was no place to play so the boys moved into the kitchen where they made sandwiches. Mark said they wouldn’t go to the basement because it had been damp and musty ever since the new plumbing had been installed. “This is where my Dad keeps his famous paintings and his coin collection,” Mark said as they peered into the den. Mark bragged that he could get spending money whenever he needed it since he’d discovered that his Dad kept a lot in the desk drawer.

There were three upstairs bedrooms.Mark showed Pete his mother’s closet which was filled with furs and the locked box which held her jewels. His sisters’ room was uninteresting except for the color TV which Mark carried to his room. Mark bragged that the bathroom in the hall was his since one had been added to his sisters’ room for their use. The big highlight in his room, though, was a leak in the ceiling where the old roof had finally rotted.

Hand out a copy of these paragraphs to every student. Then:

1. Ask students to read the piece and circle with their pencil whatever they think is important. (In the five years I have used this piece, I have never once had a student ask me what he or she should circle. They all dive in seeming to know what to highlight.) When I do this activity with teachers, they usually set a purpose for themselves. They highlight the boys skipping school and often ask about the leaky ceiling in the bedroom.

2. Ask students to read the piece again and this time use a pink highlighter to mark places in the text a robber would find important. Students will notice that having a purpose makes it much easier to highlight important points.

3. Have the students read the piece a third time. Ask them to mark with a yellow highlighter any places in the story that a prospective home buyer might think are important. By now, it will be obvious how much easier it is to determine what is important when the reader has a purpose.

4. Ask students what they notice about the three times they highlighted. Point out that the first time was probably the hardest, because they didn’t have a purpose.

5. On a projected transparency, jot down what students think is important for the robber and for the home buyer. Compare the two lists and discuss why each item is important. If an item is on both lists, discuss why both a robber and a home buyer would find it important.

Once students see the importance of establishing a purpose when they read, it’s time to teach them different purposes for reading. Access tools are specific materials and strategies that help students organize and synthesize their thoughts as they read. They make material more accessible. Students of all grade levels can use these tools with almost any type of material. They’ll quickly figure out which tool works best for their particular purpose.

1 comment March 15th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Good beginnings

In their recent book Mentor Texts, Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli show teachers how to use literature to help students become confident, accomplished writers. In this Quick Tip, Lynne and Rose talk about mentor texts for writing beginnings.

For all writers, the lead—the first sentence, the first paragraph, or the first several paragraphs that begin the story—is absolutely crucial. E. B. White wrote more than a dozen leads for Charlotte’s Web before he settled on a question written in dialogue form. His entire first chapter captivates the reader as Fern engages in a mental battle—a heated debate with her father—to save the runt, Wilbur, one of the story’s main characters.

The common ingredients of a good beginning include creating the mood by establishing the setting; information about the main character that reveals his hopes, thoughts, and feelings; and at least a hint of the problem, goal, or direction of the story. It’s like receiving an invitation to a party where you expect to have a wonderful time. Revisiting mentor texts can provide students with examples of well-crafted beginnings that they can try out with their own stories.

Linda Oatman High’s beginning for The Girl on the High-Diving Horse makes us feel like we are there in Atlantic City, in 1936, with the main characters, seeing it for the first time. She does this by including a rich description of setting that uses proper nouns and appeals to the senses. We know immediately how Ivy (the main character) is feeling.

Other books that begin by painting a picture of setting in the reader’s mind are Angels in the Dust by Margot Theis Raven, Wingwalker by Rosemary Wells, and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. Another favorite of ours is Tulip Sees America by Cynthia Rylant because the entire book is basically a series of rich descriptions of setting.

The beginning is also a writer’s chance to create a mood through the description of the setting. Consider these two beginnings that create a feeling of loneliness:
“Alejandro’s small adobe house stood beside a lonely desert road. Beside the house stood a well, and a windmill to pump water from the well. Water for Alejandro and his only companion, a burro. It was a lonely place, and Alejandro welcomed any who stopped by to refresh themselves at the well. But visitors were few, and after they left, Alejandro felt lonelier than before.”
( from Alejandro’s Gift by Richard E. Albert)

“Amber lived on a mountain so high, it poked through the clouds like a needle stuck in down. Trees bristled on it like porcupine quills. And the air made you giddy—it was that clear. Still, for all that soaring beauty, Amber was lonesome. For mountain people lived scattered far from one another.”
( from Amber on the Mountain by Tony Johnston)

Students can imitate these beginnings—first, in their writer’s notebooks—or they can simply try them out. Lynne often begins by asking her students to make a list of settings. Then she asks them to choose a setting and try to describe it through their senses, keeping in mind the mood they wish to create. Often she returns to Amber on the Mountain because it is a mentor text and the children are familiar with it. Sometimes it is easier for students to start with Tony Johnston’s beginning, placing Amber in a different setting, rather than composing one from scratch. Jessica, a fourth grader, chose to put Amber on an island:
“Amber lived on an island so small it stood in the deep-dark sea like a lost whale. Palm trees tangled on it like monkey tails. And the coconuts made you giddy—they were that delightful. Still, for all the spectacular sights, one thing put Amber in her darkest mood. There were few hut-like houses near hers—less friends, more tears.”

Some students will return to a previously written piece and revise their beginnings to add a description of setting that also creates mood. This strategy of using the author’s syntax is described in detail in Your Turn Lesson 1 at the end of Chapter 9.

Often authors begin a book with a description of the main character. Sometimes, they include a physical description as Judith Schachner does in The Grannyman:
“Simon was a very old cat. With the exception of his nose, most of his parts had stopped working long ago. He was blind and deaf, and his bones creaked as he climbed up and down the stairs.”

Sometimes they talk about the characters’ likes, dislikes, or traits. In Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman opens with a description of what her main character loves:
“Grace was a girl who loved stories. She didn’t mind if they were read to her or told to her or made up in her own head. She didn’t care if they were in books or movies or out of Nana’s long memory. Grace just loved stories.”

In The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill, the main character is described through a trait:
“Mean Jean was Recess Queen and nobody said any different. Nobody swung until Mean Jean swung. Nobody kicked until Mean Jean kicked. Nobody bounced until Mean Jean bounced.”

Sometimes an author even begins with what other people say about the characters as Jerry Spinelli does in Maniac Magee:
“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept. They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else. They say.”

Add comment March 8th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Publishing tips and tricks

In last week’s Quick Tip Anne Marie Corgill talked about the importance of publishing as part of the writing process and shared how her students create self-portrait collages. So in this week’s Quick Tip we bring you more ideas for publishing formats: cards, pop-up books, and even animal-shaped books. They all come from Paul Johnson’s book, Get Writing! Creative Book-Making Project for Children.

Download the PDF for step-by-step instructions and, well, get writing!

Add comment March 1st, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Self-portrait collages

“I believe that the young writer’s artwork and the way he or she showcases a piece of writing for an audience is as much a part of the writing process as the writing itself,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her recent book, Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. Ann Marie says that she makes sure that parents and teachers not only see the final, polished product, but also the messy beginning and middle that show how long and hard her students worked on their artwork and writing. In this week’s Quick Tip, she describes the process of creating self-portrait collages with her students.

Self-Portrait Collages
At the beginning of the year, during our Establishing the Writing Community study, the children and I do lots of talking about what it means to be a writer and the kinds of work writers do in preparation for publishing a piece. Oral storytelling is a big part of our work as writers in the first few weeks, and getting the children to talk about their stories and lives is the first step in helping them become writers. The self-portrait collage is a great way to get this talk out into the room while also publishing a piece of artwork that becomes the springboard for more talk and writing.

Typically during the first week of school, before the children create their self-portrait collage, I send a letter home to families asking for help in collecting items for the collage. These self-portrait collages hang at the top of a long wall or bulletin board that’s out of reach for regular use in the room for the entire year.

I like to say to the children after the self-portrait collages are hung that our room is “wrapped in writers.” That’s the way a writing classroom should be—one that’s wrapped in the work, the ideas, the thinking, and the lives of the children that inhabit the space.

This year we added an extra touch to the self-portraits, with each child painting his or her name in bubble letters, outlined in thick black rope or yarn. I got this idea from my friend Kendall Fousak, a fabulous art teacher at Bronxville Elementary School in New York. Using the thick black yarn is an amazing way to highlight the children’s names, rather than just having them outline their work in black marker. It gives each child’s name texture and depth and really says, “Hey, look at me!” from the walls in our classroom.

Materials Needed
✐ Photographs of the child, child’s family, special moments, and so forth
✐ Magazine or newspaper cutouts of pictures or words that describe the child, represent an interest or a hobby, or connect to their lives in some way
✐ Cray-Pas, oil pastels, watercolor, tempera paint, crayons (whichever medium you or the child chooses for the portrait will depend on your access to supplies and the depth of your patience for the day!)
✐ Cups or plates and brushes if paint is used
✐ Newsprint to cover tables
✐ Paper towels and spray cleaner for cleanup
✐ White butcher paper/bulletin-board paper
✐ Black fadeless paper
✐ Scissors
✐ Glue sticks
✐ Fabric glue
✐ Fabric or yarn
✐ Black cording or thick black yarn
✐ Skin-colored paints, markers, or crayons
✐ Photograph of the child’s face and upper body

Tips and Techniques


  • I first demonstrate how I would draw my self-portrait, giving the students a sense of how to begin, how big to make the portrait, and what details to add. I ask the children to first sketch their face and upper body using whisper writing—a term I learned from my friend Joan Backer at Manhattan New School—which involves writing lightly with a pencil and makes erasing easier and less messy. We work lots on drawing big so that filling in the pictures with color is much easier and more attractive. I also show the students examples of what not to do if they want people to see the portrait and for it to show up on the walls in our classroom.
  • After the children sketch their self-portrait, it’s time to decorate using color. The media you choose is up to you. One year, my students used Cray-Pas and oil pastels for their faces and tempera paint for their T-shirts. Th is year, my students first outlined their face, hair, features, and T-shirt with black permanent marker and then colored over it with crayon. (It’s important when using crayons and permanent markers to use the marker first, since they don’t work well over waxy crayon.)
  • Hair—The children then either paint their hair color with washable tempera or acrylic paint or use yarn and glue the hair around the face with fabric glue.
  • Young children have an easier time making the details of their faces with skinny permanent markers. Once the face is painted or colored with the appropriate skin color and is dry, then the students add the details. Once the entire portrait is dry, the children then paste pictures, words, cutouts, and so forth on the T-shirt part of the body.
  • This year, we added an extra step to the project, painting our names in bubble letters and then outlining the names with fabric glue and thick black yarn. I used acrylic paint this year. It’s much brighter and doesn’t fade as much as regular tempera paint or watercolors. But make sure your kids wear painting T-shirts or smocks. Acrylic paint is stubborn and can ruin clothes!
  • After fi nishing the collages, the next two weeks of writing share is devoted to two or three children talking each day about their self-portraits and the meanings and stories behind the pictures and words on the collage. This share time is the perfect support for helping us begin to talk and write about our experiences and for us all
    to learn about the members of our classroom community. It also gives me a talking point when I have those first writing conferences of the year and still need to remind the children of their experiences and how those experiences can become ideas for writing.

1 comment February 22nd, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Planning for writing instruction

“Writing is hard work,” says Mark Overmeyer in his book When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working.  To make teaching writing easier, Mark answers the tough questions about writing workshop: How can I help students who don’t know what to write about? How can I help my students organize their writing? How do I manage writing conferences? And how do I plan for writing instruction. For this week’s Quick Tip, we pulled a section from Mark’s book where he talks about planning writing instruction for a school year.

Planning for a year
If certain units of study are going to be followed through the course of a year based on state, district, or school guidelines, setting deadlines for these units of study can be helpful when planning instruction.

For example, for many years when I taught fifth and sixth graders, my teammates and I ended the year with a unit that required students to create their own magazine. This project required students to use all of the writing strategies they had been working on all year, and the open-ended assignment allowed for maximum choice while still providing a tool for determining how much students had grown in the year. The magazine became a sort of community celebration as it continued over the years, and families looked forward to seeing what their students would create during this project. Since the magazine took approximately five weeks to complete, and it was one form of summative assessment, we placed it at the end of the school year. We worked backward from there, fitting in units that included research, narrative, memoir, and technical writing.

As we planned for the year, we noticed when we could fit writing in across the curriculum. For example, we could do a research unit closely connected to social studies topics. Students had a choice of what they wanted to research, but we connected it to our American history standards. Technical writing in the form of lab reports could happen in science class.Writing did not have to exist just in the domain of language arts, so if there were days when we would have to shorten our language arts block, we could plan accordingly and make sure to have writing happen in science or social studies.Writing in other content areas is not only a good idea in terms of planning and scheduling, but I think it is also good for students. Many of my reluctant writers in the past have loved science, and they were more than willing to write in the context of their favorite subject. They may have reluctantly completed a memoir, but then enthusiastically explained their thinking in science class.

Planning for a year is an excellent way to think backwards: once my teammates and I decided which type of writing would occur in each month, we could begin gathering our resources and planning for instruction.We knew what types of writing we would need to cover in order for students to be successful in each unit.

Though we knew we would have to adapt our ideas according to student need, having the plan created a strong scope and sequence that covered the requirements of our district curriculum. Organizing for the year ensured that we would give students ample opportunity to demonstrate their growth in writing.

An example of a yearlong plan is found in Appendix F.

1 comment February 15th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Essays on nature

In her book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Kimberly Hill Cambell shows how short texts engage a wide range of middle and high school students. In a chapter on essays she laments that essays are often overlooked in English classrooms, when they shouldn’t be. “…The essay is first-class literature deserving of time and attention in middle school and high school classrooms for both content and craft,” Kimberly writes. “Essays provide an opportunity for students to debate what is fact and what is fiction. They offer an alternative to those students who don’t embrace ‘stuff that isn’t real.’ Essays can also be used to teach specific reading skills such as locating information, summarizing ideas, and making connections among concepts.” In this week’s Quick Tip, we lifted a section from her essay chapter that focuses on nature writing.

I want students to understand and appreciate the power of writing about nature. In support of this we read essays on nature and do our own nature observation and writing. We read several examples of nature essays, noting the author’s focus on small-scale or broader-scale observations. We also examine the author’s emphasis on sensory details: how does the author help us, as readers, see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste what he or she is describing? Typically I utilize the learning logs, detailed earlier, in support of this close reading, but this could also be taught as a single lesson or even a literature circle assignment, which would allow for the use of varied nature essays.

Teaching Strategy: Observing Nature
After we have read several nature excerpts, I invite students to use their own skills of observation, to spend some time “poking around.” I borrowed this term from Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (1995), who writes in her essay “Winter Creek,”

“The kind of poking around I am interested in advocating must be done outdoors. It is a matter of going into the land to pay close attention, to pry at things with the toe of a boot, to turn over rocks at the edge of a stream and lift boards to look for snakes or the nests of silky deer mice, to kneel close to search out the tiny bones mixed with fur in an animal’s scat, to poke a cattail down a gopher hole.” (33)

Moore’s quote is our starting place for a discussion about what we can observe, and where. I was fortunate to teach in a rural town, where many students had access to wooded areas that were made for poking around. But some of my students lived in town, so we discussed the value of observing in our own backyards.

The homework task was to poke around outside for at least twenty minutes. Students could choose to focus on a very small area or consider a broad area. The goal was to be specific, like the nature essays we had read. I asked students to focus on what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and, only if safe, tasted. I encouraged them to take a notepad or sketch pad with them to capture their descriptions but let them know that their written reflection on their poking around would take place in class. I assigned this homework on a Thursday, and it was due the following Thursday so that students would have plenty of time to complete it. Each class day I checked in with students, inviting those who had done their observations to share their experiences to encourage those who had not yet poked around.

On the day the observations were due, I provided in-class writing time to respond to the following prompts:
1. Reflect on why you selected the observation site you chose to “poke around.”
2. What did you see, hear, feel, smell, and (if applicable) taste?
3. What did you learn from this observation? In your reflection, refer to the nature essays we read and include quotes or ahas that support your observations.

After twenty to thirty minutes of in-class writing, students shared examples from their observations. I was stunned by their attention to detail, as the following examples illustrate:
“The trees’ black, naked, knotty branches have lost all of their elasticity. They loom into the bright, blue sky as if they wanted to prick or at least tickle it.”
“After a green, lavish summer life, the grass blades have now turned yellow, dry and rough.”
“The panorama of the sky stretches above me like the wardrobe of a rich woman, rich midnight velvets and diamonds. Blue unto no blue under itself the sky… is spattered and dabbled freely with multicolored stars, the ‘gigantous’ black silhouettes of pines tower above my head, like one-dimensional ink blots upon some artist’s work of three-dimensional perfection.”

In addition to powerful descriptions in their observations, students’ in-class reflections are evidence that they connected their own experience with the nature essays we had read, particularly Thoreau’s Walden. Claudia wrote in her nature observation about the ways nature adapts, describing a tree with barbed wire sticking out: “This wire must have scratched him for a long time, so he decided to make it a part of himself.” She writes in her reflection, “All the things [in nature] adapt to the circumstances they live in and work together in a coordinated, brilliant balance Thoreau was aware of nature and tried to live as part of it. He balanced his life by simplifying it, going back to the rhythm of nature.” She goes on to quote from Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

This two-part assignment sets the stage for our continued exploration of essays. Students “own” essay writing in a new way. They understand that essays can be about what we observe as well as what we learn from our observations.

Add comment February 8th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: A welcoming classroom environment for all students

In this week’s Quick Tip, Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, talk about how everying in the classroom environment matters when it comes to building a learning community and making ELL students feel safe to explore and learn.

As teachers, we thoughtfully design a physical environment that contributes to the development of an inclusive community, one that is safe, secure, and supportive for the young learner. We spend a great deal of time sketching out our rooms, shoving furniture around, and finding the perfect placement for every center, every piece of equipment and furniture. We are thinking about the individuals who will inhabit and shape this space into a community. We design the space for interplay between each individual and the group. Let us look at how some specific areas help second language learners as they become active participants in their community.

Fostering Security and Success for All
We design our classrooms to take children who speak a variety of different languages to the place where they can play and learn with a shared common language of English. We think and talk a great deal with colleagues and walk through each other’s rooms to get ideas about how to set up our own rooms and create safe, secure environments for learning. We arrange furniture so children can socialize in small groups. We want them to mimic behaviors of others and listen to the conversation around them. Interaction in small groups provides a safe environment for early risk taking with language.

We arrange all the supplies children might need throughout the day so children will be able to access them even without having the language to name them or ask for them. Our goal is to build a classroom community where every child is successful and is developing independence. For example, children who do not know the word for scissors need to see them and be able to reach them.

We plan for routines and procedures that will build respect and acceptance as well as security and success, for example, many small-group opportunities for guided practice and a circle time that honors each child’s attempts at contributing. We believe in talk all day so we design rooms conducive to talk yet comfortable for silence. In order for children to take a risk and utter their first word of English, they must feel safe and secure. A child’s first English word often comes when lining up to go to recess. Beginning English speakers will call out, “He cut!” These English language learners have learned that in their classroom community the routines of lining up pertain to everyone. The more thoughtful consideration we put into our learning environment, the deeper the feeling of community will be for the students. The safer children feel, the more risks they will take and the quicker they will start to acquire knowledge and language.

A Welcoming Meeting Place for Conversation
The heart of the room is the meeting area. It must be large enough for all children to gather comfortably on the floor for conversation, reading, and singing. In this space, children will share experiences through books, conversations, meetings, and shared instruction that will build community. We are reluctant to sing solo in an adult group! However, both of us will take a risk and sing out with joy when someone beside us or behind us has a lovely voice. Those voices give us confidence and keep us on pitch.

Young nonreaders or new English speakers can experience this same feeling in a well-designed meeting area. Children attempting to speak a new language will tentatively join in choral rereading of poems and Big Books if children surrounding them are reading. Soon they will be confident and joyful participants. A solid community makes everyone feel a “part of the choir.”

A teacher chair or rocking chair, an easel, dry-erase board, markers, and stacks of books are the starters for this area. A teacher must always be ready to sketch a quick picture or grab a book to find a picture to illustrate a point. As the year develops, this meeting area will take on the personality of the class with student-generated charts, favorite books, children’s art, lists of questions, and colorful clutter. This space is the meeting area for wholegroup math, science, social studies, as well as read-aloud, writing workshop mini-lessons, and writing workshop sharing. It is the morning meeting area, class meeting area, and dance floor.

A Library That Meets the Needs and Interests of All Learners
An extension of the meeting area is the library space. We display an everchanging selection of books face out as an invitation to all. In addition, children can browse through baskets labeled with a variety of genres, topics, and authors. Many of our ELLs are from homes with few, if any, books. We surround our students with hundreds of books and want them to learn to pick up a book and read for pleasure and information. Looking at books should be both a social and an independent activity for them. We know that the lively social interaction between children and books will help develop social and academic language. We also know that one of the best ways to develop community is to have a shared experience.

To develop a love of reading for pleasure and information, teachers read books to start the day; to begin reading, writing, math, science, and social studies lessons; and to bring closure to the day. ELLs need the illustrations to make connections with their prior knowledge, the instruction, and the oral language they hear. They need the books to show us what they know. They eagerly point to pictures to show us things they like or that interest

Children learn to choose from a variety of genres and reading levels in their classroom library, such as nonfiction, current unit-of-study books, math books, ABC books, and series books. They are taught from the beginning how to respect the books and where to return them. The library is set up for buddy reading and conversation. Students are delighted to see books that mirror their cultures, experiences, and languages. These shared experiences with many books help bind children together in community.

Teachers encourage book browsing and model enjoying books. We demonstrate how to have conversations while browsing through books. Children learn from the beginning that reading is making meaning. Even if they cannot read yet, they are engaging in early reading behaviors and see themselves as readers. This secure feeling will make it easier for the teacher to take them to the next level as readers. Each child learns he or she is now a part of a literate community.

Shannon Blaney is one of many teachers who engages her students in designing their class library. Building their library together introduces her first-grade students to the classroom collection, the concept of book genre, the organization of their library, and the expectation of maintaining that organizational system.

By the end of the first week of school, Shannon is ready to lead her class into setting up their library. The open meeting space at the front of the room is strewn with picture books from Shannon’s personal collection and more from the school library. Plastic baskets are stacked haphazardly behind the books. (See Figure 2.1.) The children gasp and exclaim in shock at the mess as they come back into the room after lunch. Shannon asks them to sit down gestures that they need to come up with a plan to solve this problem.

From her actions, the children can tell that she wants to put the books in the baskets but does not know how to set about the task. Shannon starts by pulling four books in front of her. She points to the covers and says, “Hmmm! Lions. Alligators. Squirrels. Bears. What do you think?” “They’re all animals!” shouts Donte. “Oh, you’re right!” says Shannon. “What should I do with them?” “Put the animal books in the same basket,” suggests Caleb.

Shannon picks up an index card and writes the word Animals. She spreads out three sheets of mixed stickers and asks José to find some animal pictures and stick them on the card, which he does. José speaks few words of English but is able to understand Shannon’s gestures. Shannon tapes the card to the front of a basket. Next Shannon asks Uriel, Dat, Samia, and Nikki to find some more animal books. Nikki and Samia do this quickly, as Dat and Uriel look on. Shannon points again to the animal stickers on the card and to the books the girls have selected. Uriel catches on next, followed quickly by Dat. (Even though they have the least English of the class, Shannon has orchestrated this moment to allow Dat and Uriel to really understand their task.)

Shannon asks all the students to look for any animal books to add to the basket. She labels another, asking Dat to find animal stickers this time. Shannon continues sorting books in this way over the next few days, until all the books are stored in baskets along the wall. Later she tackles sorting the animal books into fiction and nonfiction baskets. Children are excited to see that there are also baskets for books in their first languages. All students are involved in the design of their precious classroom library. Shannon has orchestrated a wonderful community-building activity!

Add comment February 1st, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Bridging home and school

In her book Family Literacy Experiences, Jennifer Rowsell explores the power of the home-school connection and offers teachers multiple ways to use what already excites and motivates their students to enhance classroom learning. In this week’s tip, Jennifer gives a quick overivew of the home-school connection.

The term “family” is used broadly to define intergenerational learning that encompasses siblings, caregivers, guardians, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and extended family. There is a danger in viewing the home as an isolated domain or container that we enter and exit. Instead, I prefer to see the relationship between home and school—or, more broadly, out-of-school and in-school—as fluid. These contexts move in and out of each other and bear traces of the other all the time. In a discussion of literacy out-of-school, we want to avoid the temptation to oversimplify the differences; rather, we need to emphasize the similarities.

Invitations to Bridge Home and School
Inviting Home into School
In the years before schooling, children are, for the most part, left to their own devices, their own cultures, their family rituals and practices, and their own spaces in which to learn. This is a magical time in a child’s development, when a formative picture of how to make meaning in the world occurs. Early forms of literacy represent a medley of play, modeling, and using the materials and means at hand to make meaning.

Homes are intimate spaces. What separates home from school is the tremendous variability of homes, each complex of such factors as socio-economic background, race, religion, traditions, tastes, interests, family composition, etc. Objects, books, furniture, and spatial arrangements are meaningful to the people who occupy a home space. As teachers, we may pause to think about what our students do when they are at home, but we seldom think about a student’s home and meanings within the home that take on relevance and are rendered meaningful by a child.

Inviting School into Home
Family literacy emphasizes using the pleasure and comfort children experience with texts they use at home and out in the community to motivate them and offer opportunities to develop as readers and writers. Popular culture can be used to motivate children, and is particularly helpful to boys who show less interest in “schooled literacy practices” (Street, 1995) or literacy traditionally associated with school, such as choral reading from a basal reader, that is unlikely to take place at home. Family literacy, however, involves much more than popular culture. Family literacy involves the tacit things that we do within our home space that cast an impression of what it means to be a reader or writer.

These rites and practices strongly inform our children’s understanding of language, meaning-making, and, importantly, feeling at ease in a setting so that learning can take place. As teachers, we should know the kinds of texts and practices our students have and perform at home, honor them, and plan
around them.

Inviting Meaning-Making
Family Literacy Experiences has an agenda: to open up what we mean by literacy. Reading and writing have shifted dramatically over the past decades. The screen has transformed literacy as we know it. Although we cannot assume all children have access to computers at home or at school, they increasingly think in terms of the screen. The shift from language to highly designed visual texts and interface may seem at odds with what we think of as texts, but it is the reality of our children’s worlds. I deliberately use the term “meaning-maker” instead of “reader” to signal a shift from solely written, printed texts to texts of all shapes, sizes, and dimensions.

Inviting New Texts and New Skills
Different text genres fill our students’ worlds. There are texts that play a part in family rituals. There are texts that serve as a historical centrepiece, as mementos to remind us of our past. There are more universal texts, such as dictionaries and religious texts, that occupy a sacred place in a home. There is a sea of picturebooks of all kinds. There are interactive texts, such as video games on a computer. There are comics and graphic stories that can be read on cushions or in a comfy chair. There are movies on television or on DVD; there are cartoons.

In short, there are endless texts at home, on the street, on the Internet, in places of worship, at the mall, and at school—we are surrounded by texts. We may not be comfortable with the amount of time our children spend engaging in new media and technology; nevertheless, we need to understand new skills that emerge from use of them so that we can build on the affordances of their worlds.

With new curricula taking account of literacy skills our students have developed from computer use and exposure to multiple genres of texts, we have some way to go in bridging the gap between the sophisticated set of skills our students have and what actually takes place in school.

Add comment January 25th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Wonder Centers

Is there place for wonder in your classroom? For this week’s Quick Tip, here is a excerpt from Georgia Heard’s recent book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. First Georgia talks about the importance of having a “place for wonder” in your classroom and then shows how she and coauthor Jennifer McDonough introduced Wonder Centers in Jen’s classroom.

We invite you to stand back and observe your classrooms. Where are the places of wonder and discovery? An observation window? A shelf displaying shells, rocks, and other natural objects? Are there living creatures (including plants) that children care for and observe? What places in the classroom would the children mark a wonder X on? And if we extend our wonder maps beyond the classroom, are there any natural resources near your classroom that the children could visit and explore?

Our children’s lives run the risk of becoming two dimensional in the present day’s technology-driven society. The worlds of Internet and video games are becoming just as substantial to children as their reality. One student in San Diego commented that he liked to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are (from Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods).

Classrooms can provide alternative environments to lure young children into continuing their passion for learning. Creating a “wonder” classroom environment is the foundation from which deeper and more sustained explorations can take place.

After I gave a workshop on creating a wonder environment, Ms. Buck, a wonderful primary teacher in Canada, wrote to me about setting up a wonder environment in her kindergarten classroom. She sent this letter to the parents explaining and preparing them for the important work the class was embarking on:
Our class is planning to launch an exploration of a new theme—The Wonder World. I am hoping this theme will help my students respond to the natural world with wonderment and awe. We will further extend concepts . . . by gathering data through our senses; we will do sound surveys during outdoor walks; we will look at objects great and small. There will be opportunities for students to wonder, to ask questions, and to pose problems and then we will explore ways to get answers. We will be using our study of the Wonder World as a springboard for math, language, science, art, and music activities.In this chapter, we map out a menu of ideas to create a “wonder world” that will help encourage children’s curiosity and exploration. These ideas can be set up as centers, if you already have the routine of centers established in your classroom, as Jen did; if you don’t have center time established, you can introduce  these ideas during a nonfiction writing study unit. The questions generated from the centers, as well as the group research on a particular question, model the exploration students will do later on as they write nonfi ction. Other teachers have explored wonder centers once a week, and throughout the year, as a way of encouraging curiosity and wonder all year long. We encourage setting up wonder centers early in the school year so that when any natural wonder occurs—the wind sweeps the leaves off the trees, the snow begins to fall, or a bird lands on the windowsill—the children will be ready to write it down!

Wonder Centers and Projects
1. The Wonder Center
2. Wonder of the Week
3. Pondering Time and Whole-Class Shared Research
4. Pet Observation and Wonder Journals
5. The Discovery Table
6. The Observation Window
7. One Small Square
8. A Listening Walk
9. The Wonder Club

The Wonder Center
When my son was younger, he asked many questions whenever we drove in the car together. It was often diffi cult to drive and concentrate on answering the questions at the same time: “Why is the sky blue?” “Where does rain come from?” “What’s in outer space?” As I stopped at intersections or changed lanes on the highway, I tried to explain some of the ways the world worked. I made a promise to myself that I would always do my best to answer each of his questions as thoughtfully as I could. I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm for exploring the world. Sometimes he would stump me, and I’d have to say, “You know, I don’t know the answer; let’s look it up when we get home.” Some of his questions were deeply spiritual, which surprised me, and made me really think about what I believed.

All young children have an enthusiasm and curiosity about the world that we can nurture at home and in school. We wanted to make a place in the classroom where children could write down their questions during center time or writing workshop time and throughout the day. Questions that are valued by teachers and are then included in the curriculum.

When the kindergartners arrived one morning, Jen had written “The Wonder Center” in big letters on a bulletin board in the back of the room. She placed several yellow sticky note pads and a handful of black pens in a basket on a nearby shelf. She gathered the children together for morning circle and said, “I’ve been noticing that you’ve been asking me so many questions. I’m amazed at all that you wonder about! Your questions keep growing and growing, and so I’ve decided to set up a center in the classroom where you can write down your questions. I think we’ll call it “the wonder center.”

The kids turned to one another and smiled. Two boys gave each other high fives. Jen continued, “The wonder center will be one of our centers during center time. But you can also use the wonder center anytime during the day. When you think of a question, and you want to write it down to remember it for later, you can write it on one of these sticky notes, and then stick it to the wonder center board. Not only that, every Friday we’re going to have some time to talk about your questions.”

The kids looked at each other wide eyed, with excitement on their faces. Jen said, “When we have center time today, you can also choose the wonder center as a place to go and jot down the questions you have.” That afternoon during center time three boys, Collin, Kyle, and Ryan, stood at the wonder center and wrote their questions on sticky notes. Collin wrote, “I wonder how slugs are made?” Then Kyle wrote, “How do snakes get their venom?” Ryan connected to Kyle’s question and wrote, “How come there are such things as cookie cutter snakes?” “Oh, I have one,” Collin said. “How do snakes shed their skin?” Ryan said, “I’m on my third or fourth.” “This is awesome!” Kyle said.

After they finished writing, they stuck their questions on the white board. When their ten minutes of center time was up, they moved to the next center, and a new group of students reached for pens and sticky notes on which to write their questions.

One week later, the wonder center board was filled with yellow sticky notes. As we read through their questions, we were amazed at their variety and scope. We decided to revise the center and replace the sticky notes with large chart paper to provide more room for questions. Jen also labeled a gift bag—“the wonder bag”—and placed all the children’s sticky note questions into the bag for future discussion.

We encouraged the three boys who were writing about snakes to explore and research their questions. They began their fi rst nonfi ction writing piece using questions generated from the wonder center. Be on the lookout for authentic nonfiction topics that will emerge from the wonder center.

Add comment January 18th, 2011

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