Quick Tip Tuesday: Sentence Fragments

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson takes us “behind the error” to show us how to help students learn the difference between a simple sentence and a sentence fragment. Jeff is the author of Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop.

In Plain English:  A sentence must contain at least one subject and one verb, and it must form a complete thought. A fragment is missing a subject or verb, and/or it doesn’t contain a complete

“Writers should master the complete-sentence technique before getting fragment-happy.”
–Bill Walsh, The Elephants of Style

A fragment is not a sentence. It may have a capital letter. It may even have a period, but it’s missing an important element, such as a subject or a verb. Fragments may add rhythm, emphasis, and variety to writing — when they’re intentional — and sometimes even when they’re not. However, students need the ability to fix sentence fragments. They must be able to identify them and avoid writing them in high-stakes situations such as testing. Sentence fragments may also make writing appear sloppy and incorrect. Students need to distinguish between the effective use of fragments, which is purposeful and rare, and the ineffective use, which looks careless and choppy.

To identify and correct fragments, writers must understand the simple sentence. They don’t need to mark all the parts of speech or make a diagram. Students do need to know that a group of words starting with a capital letter and ending with a period is not necessarily a complete sentence. When I ask students what makes a sentence a sentence, they respond: “Letters,” “A capital at the beginning,” and “Periods.” But what do they really know about the sentence?

Do they know that a minimal simple sentence must have a subject and a verb? “Sean laughs.” That’s a simple sentence. We could add a few prepositional phrases such as phrases add detail, they are not needed to form a simple sentence. Everything students learn about sentences, from compound to complex, rides on this essential understanding: Simple sentences are made up of a subject and verb. Sean laughs.

Who or what laughs? Sean, the subject. What does he do? Laughs, the verb.

The ability to pare a sentence down to its essential core is the first tool students need in order to uncover the craft of all sentences.

Student Error: “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll. I would scare everybody with Chuckie. Chuckie was about two feet, had orange hair, little red and white shoes, overalls, and plastic knife. I replaced the plastic knife with a real knife. To make Chuckie look more like the real thing. From the kitchen Drawer. Like a mini-butcher knife. I super glued it into Chuckie’s hand. Ready for business.”

Behind the Error: This is a typical student attempt at adding sophistication to sentences. Randy doesn’t want to use only simple sentences. He wants to add some life and complexity to his sentences, but in taking this risk, he creates fragments with his punctuation. Have you ever wondered why kids in fourth grade start writing fragments? Their skills aren’t keeping up with their growing intellect and their ability to express ever-more-complex thoughts. Randy writes: “When I was five. I had a Chuckie doll.” We should celebrate that he’s stumbled on the complex sentence. His thinking needs this more sophisticated sentence form. On the surface, we see a fragment, and if we were bean counting, we might see that he’s writing more fragments now than he did a year ago, but a lot of these fragments are fragments because Randy is punctuating the dependent clause with a period instead of a comma. When students hit this stage, they are ready for more tools to express themselves.

Mentor Text
They race. (p. 5)
—Jerry Spinelli, Loser
Matt winces. (p. 364)
Maria flinched. (p. 366)
Matt froze. (p. 370)
Matt nodded. (p. 372)
—Nancy Farmer, House of the Scorpion
Tad watched. (p. 6)
Blood flew. (p. 111)
He sprung. (p. 128)
—Stephen King, Cujo

1 comment April 27th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Using revision effectively

Revision is a key to strong writing, yet many students are often reluctant to revise their work. “They may honestly like what they have written in the first draft, or they do not want to spend the time to go back and look at their own writing,” explains Mark Overmeyer in his book, When Writing Workshop Isn’t Working: Answers to Ten Tough Questions Grades 2-5. Mark suggests showing students the difference between revising and editing and modeling revision to turn it into a positive part of the writing process.

Separate revision from editing for mechanics

In order to help students separate editing from revision, we must show them the difference. Modeling the practice of revision is a way to make the experience more concrete for students, and also to show them the rewards of revising. If they associate revision with something negative, or something they must go back and do, then it will be less appealing.

I think that one of the problems we bring as teachers of writing is our own baggage. As a teacher who truly loves to read, and who wants to instill a love of reading and literature in my students, I would never share negative experiences about reading. I would never introduce a book and say, “I hated reading this when I was your age, and now it is your turn!” This sounds extreme, but when I think about this type of scenario in the context of writing instruction, I do not know how extreme it is.

How often do we share positive experiences about writing with our students? I remember many occasions when I told students about my strict English teachers in high school, long before computers, when I had to carefully type and retype draft after draft until it was perfect. I have told stories of my teacher from high school who taught me to love literature, but who would automatically drop an entire letter grade from a paper if it contained the words “a lot” as one word.

Many of us, even those of us who love to teach writing, have ambiguous or even negative relationships with the revision process, so we must first convince ourselves, with our own writing, that revision need not be painful. The reverse, in fact, is true. If I assign something for my students to write, I begin by writing it myself. Two years ago, I worked on my own research alongside my fifth graders while they uncovered details about unsolved mysteries such as the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, and Stonehenge.

I studied the Mary Celeste, a ship whose crew mysteriously disappeared without a trace in the eighteenth century. I demonstrated how I chose important facts from my own reading about the ship, and I also modeled my writing. I brought in samples of my research, and as a class we would notice things about my writing and then make appropriate revisions accordingly. This modeling requires risk; writing and revising is messy business, so students saw me cross out old ideas and add new ones, and they watched as I drew arrows from words in the margins to the places they would fit into my writing. In short, they watched me struggle a bit, but they also saw me work through the struggle. Writing is about getting ideas on the page, and then knowing you can change your mind by adding, taking away, or rearranging. When students see us doing our own revisions, they can make choices about how to improve their own writing. Since my positive experiences with this modeling procedure two years ago, I have written every assignment I have asked my students to produce, and as part of my teaching I model how I revise these pieces.

As a first step to convincing my students that revising is important, I often convince them that it does not have to be difficult. One common instructional tool I use is to show a piece of my writing with weak verbs, and then ask students to help me change a few of the verbs so that they are stronger. Using model texts in context with memoir writing works well to serve this purpose. A memoir that has particularly strong verbs is Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. In this first-person narrative, a young boy goes out to catch fireflies in jars with his friends. One page describes the fireflies blinking on and off while children in the neighborhood grasp at the fireflies and thrust them in jars. It is easy to act out this page, and point out to students that the actions are what make the piece memorable.

After reading this section of the book and discussing what we liked about the word choice, David Gonzales’ fifth-grade class helped me with my piece of writing. Here is my original version of my story about getting in trouble one day with my brother and my neighbors:

“My neighbors Tammy and Michael were out working in their yard, so my older brother Scott and I decided to help them. It was a really hot day. Michael, Tammy’s older brother, pulled a rose and threw it at his sister. Then she pulled a rose and threw it at Michael. My brother Scott pulled a rose and threw it at me. Then I pulled a rose and threw it at him. Pretty soon there were no roses left on the rose bush.”

The story goes on, with details about how we got in trouble for pulling all the roses off. Here is the revised paragraph, with suggestions from students to make my word choice stronger:

“My neighbors Tammy and Michael were out working in their yard, so my older brother Scott and I decided to help them. We were sweating from the heat. Michael, Tammy’s older brother, pulled a rose and threw it at his sister, and he cackled as hard as a hyena. Then she pulled a rose and threw it at Michael. My brother Scott hurled a rose at me. Then I pulled a rose and threw it at him. Pretty soon, we were shoving roses down each other’s shirts, having the time of our lives until Michael and Tammy’s mother came out and caught us.”

The students helped me revise this piece in less than five minutes, and when I asked them to revise their pieces, they were ready. The modeling had proved to them that revision does not mean recopying; rather, it means rethinking what has been written and making some new choices. When students understand the concept that showing writing is strong writing, they can more easily find ways to improve their own writing. When we show through our writing, we are taking the reader with us by creating sensory images, or by specifically naming with the use of strong verbs and nouns. If I give one generic piece of advice to students regarding how to improve their writing, it is about adding showing details. I discuss how I introduce students to showing writing through acting exercises in Chapter 3, and I repeat these types of exercises as needed to remind students about how important it is to show rather than tell.

This advice about showing is good for all levels of writers, and in all types of writing. In a research project, for example, showing writing might entail adding specific dates or names of places. Without these important details, the focus of the project is unclear. When writing a memoir, specific details including names of people and places are also important, and if the point is to make the reader feel part of the story, sensory images and the use of strong verbs are the details that make the reader relive the piece. When the technique of using showing writing is broken down into different categories, or a list of “Ways we can show in our writing,” it becomes a powerful tool for revising existing writing. In Neha Pall’s and Shannon Damm’s third-grade classrooms, the students had been writing about what they liked to do in their free time. The teachers had been working hard at helping students to add details to their writing.

When I asked students what they knew about good writing, the list they created was impressive:

Good writing

  • Has details
  • Helps the reader to see
  • Helps the reader to hear
  • Helps the reader to taste or smell
  • Helps the reader to feel
  • Uses similes
  • Describes
  • Shows instead of tells

Clearly, these students had a sense of what good writing was all about. After looking at the writing about free time, the teachers noticed a number of students overdoing it: they added strings of adjectives in cases where one would have served the purpose, or they used similes that did not fit the purpose of the writing. I created a piece of writing that displayed some of the same problems to see what the students would notice:

“In my free time, I love to go swimming! When I jump in the icy, cold, chilly, freezing water, I immediately cool off. Splash fights can be fun if you are careful. Sometimes when I splash my friends, the waves look like humongous tornadoes spinning lightning storms out of the sky, destroying the whole entire universe! The best part of swimming is going off the high dive. Many people are afraid of heights, but I’m not! As I climb the towering stairs, my heart beats with excitement because I know the best part of the day is coming soon. I stand at the edge of the diving board, looking down into the water. Everyone looks like tiny fish swimming around. When I jump, I go super-duper, crazy fast, zooming like a squirrel chasing acorns in a tree! Hot summer days are best when you can jump in a nearby, refreshing pool.”

I asked students if there were enough details. They agreed that I had enough details about what I liked to do in my free time. I asked them if I had too many details, and then gave them a few minutes to look at the writing again to see if I added unnecessary details to the writing. Volunteers came up and helped me improve the writing.

Jonathan crossed out “chilly” and “freezing.” When I asked him why, he said, “Because you don’t need all those words to show the water was cold.” Max crossed out “destroying the whole entire universe” because he said it didn’t make sense. Although many students liked the splashing waves being compared to tornadoes, Julie pointed out that tornadoes do not have anything to do with water. “You should say ‘whirlpool.’ Something with water.” The simile at the end of the piece, describing my speed going into the water as being “like a squirrel chasing acorns in a tree did not fit, Hailey said, because squirrels don’t need to chase acorns.

Acorns can’t run. She suggested “like a dog chasing a squirrel.” John suggested something in the water: “like a shark chasing a dolphin,” because the piece is about the water. I was impressed with how quickly the students could improve the writing, and told them so.

Add comment April 13th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: First draft writing is hard for everyone

In Teaching Adolescent Writers, Kelly Gallagher shares some of his classroom-tested strategies for motivating young writers. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly talks about how he helps his students overcome their fear of the blank page and shows them that writing is hard for everyone – even the most experienced and celebrated writers.

For many of my students, getting started is the hardest part of composing. Why? Because writing is hard, and beginning a writing task creates a formidable cognitive hurdle for inexperienced or reluctant writers. Unfortunately, many students continue year in and year out with the mistaken notion that writing is easy for some and difficult for others (generally speaking, they think writing is easy for the teacher and difficult for the students). My guess is that they have reached this erroneous conclusion primarily due to one of two reasons:
1. They have teachers who do not actively write. As a result, these teachers may have forgotten how hard they themselves struggled as developing writers. When teachers do not write, students lose the opportunity to see adults successfully struggle through the writing process.
2. They have teachers who do actively write but who have become expert at hiding the work it takes from their students. Often when teachers share their own writing, it is only after extensive revising and polishing that has been done out of the sight of the students.

Students’ anxiety is reduced when they come to understand that everyone—students, teachers, professional writers—has to work hard when they sit down to write. Even Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers working today, has to fight self-doubt when he sits down to write, as he recounts in On
Writing: With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in. (2000, p. 209)

Rather than hide the fact that writing is a constant struggle against the “self-doubt” King refers to, teachers serve their students better when they reveal their own writing doubts. What better way to model how to handle these doubts and the various challenges of writing than to compose in front of the students? Though students already know that writing is hard, they do not realize that more experienced writers often struggle as much as they do. Our students stand a greater chance of internalizing and embracing the complexity of writing when they see their teachers struggle to internalize and embrace
the complexity of writing.

Beyond the notion that writing is hard, a second reason surfaces to explain why my students have a difficult time diving into a first draft: they are often afraid their writing will be lousy. Writing is personal and risky, and many of my students are paralyzed by the notion that the writing they produce will be sub-par (especially when it comes to sharing their writing with their teacher and peers). They often feel they have nothing interesting to say, or if they do have an idea, they are unsure how to get it down on paper. My response to students faced with writing apprehension is simple and straightforward: Join the crowd.

Students do not understand that most first-draft writing, for everyone, is lousy. But a good writer recognizes that a lot of lousy first-draft writing must be done before better writing can occur. To help get students over the fear of failure, I begin our writing year by sharing the following poem:

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail
Author unknown

You’ve failed many times,
although you may not
You fell down
the first time
you tried to walk.
You almost drowned
the first time
you tried to
swim, didn’t you?
Did you hit the
ball the first time
you swung a bat?
Heavy hitters,
the ones who hit the most home runs,
also strike
out a lot.
English novelist
John Creasey got
752 rejection slips
before he published
564 books.
Babe Ruth struck out
1,330 times,
but he also hit 714 home runs.
Don’t worry about failure.
Worry about the
chances you miss
when you don’t
even try.

After sharing the poem I remind my students that Peter Elbow (1998) once said a person’s best writing is often mixed up with his worst. I tell them it is a requirement in my class to produce a lot of bad writing. From bad writing, I tell them, the seeds of good writing will eventually grow. Bad writing is necessary before good writing emerges. To better encourage them to take risks in first-draft writing and to understand that first- and second-draft writing are not the same thing, I share with them the chart depicted in Figure 3.1.

This chart, developed by my friend and mentor Mary K. Healy, who was an early leader in the Bay Area Writing Project, reinforces the idea that before writers can get it right they first have to get it down. Ralph Fletcher, in What a Writer Needs (1993), calls getting the first draft down “the sneeze.” He encourages students to blast out their thoughts without fear of how the writing will turn out. Once students recognize that first-draft writing is tentative and exploratory in nature, their trepidations begin to dissipate. This is the first step in breaking down their reticence.

Beyond getting students to embrace the difficulty of writing and helping them accept the notion that it’s okay for first-draft writing to be lousy, here are five additional ideas to consider. When implemented, these ideas help lower student anxiety about first-draft writing.

1 comment February 2nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Writing nonfiction leads

This week’s quick tip is from Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough’s new book, A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades. Georgia and Jen are participating in a three-blog book tour this week. Yesterday they were interviewed at A Year of Reading and tomorrow and Friday you can read interviews with them at Miss Rumphius Effect and Carol’s Corner. They will also participate in a live webcast Monday, Oct. 26, at 8 p.m. EST. If you are interested in joining them live, send your e-mail address to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com

Nonfiction Writing: Leads/Beginnings
Jen and I discussed how, just as in picture books, authors of nonfiction books also want to capture the reader’s attention from the first line.

Jen began the mini-lesson:

“Writers, I want to talk to you about something that writers do when they start books. They try to grab the reader’s attention by making the very first sentence interesting so the reader will want to keep reading. I want to talk to you about three ways that writers do this.

“The first way you can begin your nonfiction writing is by asking a question. Questions grab the reader’s attention, especially if it’s an intersting question. Remember the book  Have You Seen Bugs? by Joanne Oppenheim? That book begins with a question, ‘Have you seen bugs?’

“Another way writers can capture the reader’s attention is by stating a really interesting fact in the first sentence. We could start our hermit crab book with ‘There are 800 different kinds of hermit crabs!’

“Now, wouldn’t that grab a reader’s attention?

“And the third way writers can begin a nonfiction piece is by writing interesting sounding words.” Jen read from a volcano book that began, “Rrrrruuuuuumble! SSSSSSrrra! Ker boom!”

One of the kids yelled out: “Onomatopoeia!”

“Yes,” Jen said. “You are right, it is onomatopoeia.

“Today, I want you to get your nonfiction pieces and reread your beginnings. Is it a beginning that will grab the reader? Will it make them want to read more? If not, get your pencil and try another beginning — a question, an interesting fact, or a sound word.”

As Jen and I walked around and conferred with students, we noticed that a lot of the kids began their pieces with questions. A few revised their beginnings, like Andrew who was writing about crabs. He changed his beginning from “I see crabs” to “Scratch, scratch, scratch, that’s the sound of crab claws on the sand.” And Tommy began one of his chapters, “Chomp, chomp. That’s the sound of the tiger eating its prey!”

Jen’s Reflection

Georgia and I noticed that most of the kids wanted to begin their pieces with a sound or a noise. We had to remind them that the sound had to make sense and feel true to the reader. Ryan was writing about crystals and wanted to begin his piece with a sound, but after a conference, he agreed that sound wouldn’t really make sense unless it were the sound of rocks being crushed. During conferences, we remind the writers that the start of each new chapter could have an interesting beginning as well.

Add comment October 20th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating writing opportunities

This week’s Quick Tip comes from David Booth and Jennifer Rowsell, authors of the Literacy Principal: Leading, Supporting, and Assessing Reading and Writing Initiatives. Their book provides tried and true frameworks for principals to create schools where literacy thrives. In this Quick Tip they address how principals and teachers can work together to create school environments where opportunities for writing abound.

Writing activities in classrooms can essentially be divided into three major categories:
1. Independent writing projects — regular opportunities for students to work independently on topics they usually select for themselves
2. Research inquiry — drawn from the curriculum, although at times teachers may assign a topic from a theme or genre the class is exploring as a community
3. Guided writing instruction — done with a group of writers gathered together temporarily to work on target areas of writing techniques and strategies, such as conventions, genre study, or technological skills.

Whatever the activity, there are a couple of significant strategies that teachers can use to help students improve their writing skills. First, connecting writing activities to the reading process where possible helps strengthen overall literacy development. When writing and reading are combined, children have the opportunity to put into practice their awareness of how print works. Second, allowing students to write about topics and issues that matter to them as much as possible provides motivation for acquiring new writing skills.

An open and accepting writing environment in a classroom is essential and should offer a range of writing experiences and products. These might include such forms as diaries, journals, letters, surveys, how-to-do books, games, resumés, bibliographies, autobiographies, lyrics, poems, articles, editorials, essays, memos, advertisements, commercials, brochures, questionnaires, petitions, dialogues, screenplays, and legends, to name a few.

Consider the Writing Process
Students need to realize that writing by definition is recursive: writers consider ideas, write drafts, revise, find more information, edit what has been written, share drafts, reorganize what has been written, edit again, consider published models that interest them, and sometimes even give up and start on another project.

Much of writing is personal, meant only for a writer’s eyes. This writing is seldom edited. Other writing is meant to be communicated, and students need to understand that these pieces require further consideration before publishing. By rereading their own writing both silently and out loud, as well as conferencing with peers and the teacher, students can develop the ability to see changes they want and need to make in their writing as they refine their first drafts. It is essential to help teachers understand that revising and editing are important and essential processes for students to undertake when preparing pieces of writing for publication. Many students realize the need for editing, but have difficulty revising their ideas and changing the structure of their writing.

When examining early drafts, teachers need to look beyond spelling and grammar errors in their initial conversations with young writers and help them look at the bigger picture. In assisting your teachers to effectively implement the writing process in their classrooms, you may wish to consider some of the following strategies:
• Plan ways with the staff for them to model the writing process for their students. By sharing their own writing and reasons for writing, students can learn about the different aspects of the writing process from teachers. For example, a teacher could demonstrate strategies for revision by writing in draft form on the blackboard or on an overhead transparency.
• Decide as a staff what parts of speech or aspects of syntax teachers could focus on over the course of a year at each grade level, and brainstorm games or explorations that could help children discover how language works.
• Encourage staff to follow up on activities in various curriculum areas with collaborative group writing. For example, a group could write a summary of a science experiment, prepare a chart illustrating a concept learned in social studies, or write a poem in response to a drama lesson.
• Promote the use of journals as a means for students to reflect on significant events from their lives, the books they have read, and ideas for future writing. Although they may choose to keep parts of their journals private, they can be encouraged to select pieces for response from their teacher.
• Write a letter to parents encouraging them to respond to content and ideas in their children’s writing and to help them with the revision process where appropriate. You may wish to hold an evening meeting to share techniques for helping students in different stages of the writing process.

1 comment September 15th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Defining digital storytelling

According to Sara Kajder, author of Bringing the Outside In: Visual Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers, the reading that teachers value in school is becoming further and further distanced from the literacy students experience in their outside lives. In her book she demonstrates ways to bring these two ways of reading and learning closer together. In this week’s tip, she defines what digital storytelling means. Read her book to find out how she implements these digital strategies in her classroom.

In an early class discussion exploring the compelling qualities and nature of storytelling, Rochelle shared that “stories capture our voices telling our own stories.” This is just what a digital story is—the melding of human voice and personal narrative, using technologies only as tools that bring these elements together into one text. Digital storytelling grew out of the work of Dana Atchley, Joe Lambert, and the Center for Digital Storytelling at University of California at Berkeley in 1993. Joe often explains in the workshops held at the center that “the digital story is more like fi lm for the rest of us.” Good stories require honesty and simplicity, not the skills of a great auteur or a techie. My students saw our work as the work of the storyteller, with the computer working only as a tool for eventual publication and sharing. Or, as Elliot explained in his journal, “we aren’t learning a technology; we’re using a technology to learn.”
Lambert identifies seven elements of effective digital stories, which helped to fuel much of our work: Point of View, Dramatic Question, Emotional Content, Voice, Soundtrack, Pacing and Economy (Lambert 2002). I like to group these elements, focusing on their use and importance “during writing” and “during construction” elements.

Point (of View)
Students’ digital stories need to be built from their own experience and understanding, using “I” as opposed to a more distant third person point of view. However, I place “of view” in parentheses in an attempt to signal the importance of the “point” of the story. Good stories take us somewhere. Every part of the story works toward a “point” which evokes some response from the audience. This focus is useful for student writers, especially those in my
classroom who often wrote for pages without knowing where they were going.

Dramatic Question and Emotional Content
Effective stories do more than work toward a point. Narratives that lead the reader to become invested typically pursue a compelling question that evokes interest and commitment, and sets the reader up for the eventual “payoff” at the close of the story. This was extremely challenging for my student writers who would either bury the question too deeply in the story or whose story structure fished around for a question. Only through revision and story circle activities (discussed later in this chapter) did students begin to shape their stories into a text that rewarded and surprised their readers and viewers.

This class of thirty-seven had several “unheard” and “unseen” students. They might enter the classroom, submit work, and leave at the sound of the bell without participating in discussion, group assignments, or any task that asked for their voices. The process of digital storytelling required that students exercise their voices as writers and as readers, sharing their drafts in a story circle that aimed at eliciting helpful, reflective peer responses to the text when read aloud. Further, students must absolutely record themselves narrating their scripts—a process that paralyzed even my most vocal students. They are the storytellers, reading (not reciting) their own words, their own ideas, and their own stories. Although it’s the largest obstacle at the start of the process, it’s often the most empowering element of the experience. As Ron explained in a reflective exit ticket after we viewed his class’s stories, “Reading stories made me hear things in my voice. Seeing stories let me hear people in this class in a whole other way.”

We address soundtrack late in the construction process, emphasizing to students that there is a power to placing instrumental music under their voices and images as the story unfolds. I’m continually surprised by students’ skills when it comes to selecting and cuing music that allows them to take their intended meaning to a different, more powerful level. Where a colleague of mine argues that this makes the story a music video, students find that sound adds complexity and depth to the narrative. This also provides students with a lesson in music copyright that in an era of file sharing and Kazaa.com seems more and more pressing.

I remember many childhood hours sitting up with my father, whose stories would unfold with a rhythm and energy that led me to cling to each word he spoke. That’s the art of the storyteller, made even more essential as students work within a digital space to compile and communicate their stories. In my notes from a digital storytelling workshop led by the team at the Center for Digital Storytelling, I have written in all caps and underlined the phrase “GOOD STORIES BREATHE.” Pacing is all about letting that happen. For student writers, this means pulling back or racing forward when the story calls for it, as opposed to when the time limit approaches.

I think that this is one of the most essential elements when students are working with digital multimedia. Too often, we’re led to add effects and bells and whistles because the tool is capable of it or because it helps us to replicate the visual onslaught that we see on MTV or even CNN. I argue to students that the effective digital story uses only a few images, a few words, and even fewer special effects to clearly and powerfully communicate intended meaning. Here, students need to work to include only what’s necessary as opposed to what’s possible.

Add comment August 25th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: What should notebooks look like?

In Notebook Know-How, Aimee Buckner provides the tools teachers need to make writer’s notebooks an integral part of their writing programs. She shares tips on how to launch notebooks and how to help students who are stuck in a writing rut. In this week’s Quick Tip, Aimee focuses on what the notebooks look like in her classrom and what to consider when choosing notebooks.

Also take a look at Aimee’s new book, Notebooks Connections: Strategies for the Reader’s Notebooks

The physical form of the notebook can reflect the teacher’s preference and is generally inconsequential to the concept. Many people—writers and students alike—have preferences. I prefer that students use composition notebooks because the pages are sewn into the notebook so that none can be ripped out. A close friend of mine, who teaches high school, prefers a binder for her students’ writer’s notebooks. She likes kids to be able to add pages when going back to work on a certain entry or to put handouts and class notes near the entries where they’ll have the greatest impact. Still other excellent writing teachers prefer that their students write on notebook paper and store everything in a folder.

The type of notebook a teacher chooses needs to reflect his or her teaching and organization style. Even though the notebooks will ultimately be in the hands of the writer, the teacher needs to make it work with curriculum, classroom space, and time.

When planning for notebooks, there are several things for teachers to consider. I use a series of questions and responses to help me think through the feasibility of the notebook my class will use.

Is it easily portable to take home and bring back to school?
I find that it’s important for students to take the notebook with them. I like a lightweight and easy-to-carry notebook.
Does it provide a standard-sized page?
I didn’t always think this was important until students argued that some kids don’t really write as much because their pages are smaller or thinner. To keep the peace, I require a standard-sized notebook.
Is it easily replaceable when it becomes filled?
Expect notebooks to be filled. Even if it’s a binder, you will want it replaced. There’s something wonderful about a brand-new notebook. Make sure they’re easily accessible.
Is it a size that will be easy for you to collect and read?
You will need to read these and even assess them. Keep in mind how you will collect and store them if necessary.
Do you have a plan for where students will put their class notes and/or handouts?
Some teachers like to put notes and handouts near certain existing entries. I have kids keep notes in the back of their notebook for easy reference. Handouts are cut down and glued into the notebook.
Will students be able to personalize the notebook?
It may not seem important, but it is. Students should have the ability to make this notebook their own—inside and out. Composition notebooks now have different-style covers and are easily covered with stickers and/or construction paper.
Is it important to take pages in and out of the notebook? Does your notebook support this?
If this is important to you, you may want to use a binder or folder. I don’t want pages coming in or out, so I stick with a bound notebook.
Is the notebook easy for all students to manage?
All students are expected to keep a notebook. If there are special needs to consider, be sure to do so. One year I needed to arrange for a student to keep his notebook on a computer.

I’m careful to keep the organization of the notebooks flexible, without a lot of superficial or arbitrary sections. This was difficult for me at first because it seemed it would be easier to use a sectioned, three-subject notebook with different parts for different assignments. I have gone so far as to use sticky tabs and paper clips to mark off pages. But I have found over the years that the notebook rarely fills up if you do this. Some sections have paper left over, and kids are using one notebook for entries, another for lists, another for favorite words, and so on. It gets very confusing.

In addition, it is important for students to fill a notebook—really fill it. As overwhelming as the panic of what to write about can be when flipping through the blank pages of a new notebook, the sense of achievement is equally strong when students flip through a notebook that is filled with their words on every page from beginning to end. Finishing a writer’s notebook, truly finishing it, is as important to a writer as finishing a book is to a reader.

I am a person who likes routine—many writers are. I like having a routine with the notebooks, so that students can readily transfer learning from the notebooks to their drafts in progress. With this in mind, I ask the students to have two starting points. Students write from the front of the notebook toward the back with their daily, self-selected topics. Here students date each page and title entries when appropriate. Students can also try the different strategies presented in class—interwoven with their own ways of keeping a notebook. Some students glue a table of contents in the inside cover, listing the strategies, their dates and the page numbers where they can be found. Others simply keep a list of the strategies we study on the inside cover. Still others just keep a hodgepodge in the notebook, with no indications of where things are located.

The second starting point is from the back of the notebook, working toward the front. Here we keep notes from lessons, such as revision strategies, editing strategies, and grammar notes. Examples of good writing from other texts can be found in both sections, depending on the purpose—if we’re looking at craft it may go in the mix with our regular entries; if it is a piece that emphasizes a strategy we’re focusing on, such as paragraph structure, it would go in the back. When working from the back of the notebook on editing and revision strategies:
1. Students take notes on the mini-lesson;
2. Students try the revision or editing strategy in their notebooks with a common text;
3. Students go back to their writing to use the strategy; and
4. Students refer to their notebooks as a resource when trying the new strategy.

This gives me not only a structure for teaching strategies and using the notebook, but also a reference when conferring with students. If they say they’re having trouble with a lead, I can ask, Did you review our notes on grabber leads? Did you review the “Try Ten” strategy? Did you use it for this piece? Or, if a student is struggling with endings and I haven’t focused my mini-lessons on that yet, I can still refer to what I know is in the notebook: Let’s review the “Try Ten” strategy we used for leads. Do you think you can use this strategy to help with your ending? No matter where we are in the writing process, our notebooks are not far away. And the front and back starting points make use of every available page by the time the notebook is filled. Other than introducing these two methods, I leave the organization up to the kids. Sometimes, students will use Post-it notes to make tabs for lists, poetry, special stories, and so on. Other times they’ll use paper clips to save pages for certain ideas or strategies. Some students do not use any other form of organization beyond my front/back method. When it comes to notebooks, less is more, so keep it simple and focus on what’s important—students are writing. Students in my fourth-grade classroom will usually fill two notebooks a year.

One question teachers ask is, “How will students know where to find things in their notebooks?” A binder or a three-section notebook would indeed make it easier to find things. However, as students keep notebooks and work with them on a regular basis, they become familiar with them. Much like rereading your favorite novel until you know about where a certain event is in the text, students have a general knowledge of where things are. Students reread, which every good writer should do, and fi nd what they need as they need it. It hasn’t been a big deal. Kids who want things more organized can use paper clips, sticky notes, or a table of contents and index techniques. But overall our notebooks are a reflection of our lives—there is enough organization to keep them functional and enough flexibility to keep them interesting.

Add comment April 28th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Living Books

If you are tired of hearing, “I don’t know what to write!” in your writing workshop, then this week’s Quick Tip is for you. Bruce Morgan, author of Writing Through the Tween Years introduced Living Books to his writing class. Students record their observations about a pretty sunset, the first snow of the season, or whatever else happens in their lives in their Living Books. “The Living Books store our observations of and responses to life,” writes Bruce.

Introducing Living Books

I recommend taking some time to introduce Living Books to the class. I show the kids examples of the type of empty journal they should get. Hindley (1996) emphasizes that the books should be very special so the writing is housed in something that signifies its importance. Beautiful blank books can be found at Wal-Mart, at grocery stores, and at bookstores. I set a deadline a couple of weeks away and write a letter about bringing in their blank books and send it home.

Many kids cannot afford a fancy writers’ notebook so I purchase a lot of large composition notebooks. So the books will be special, the students create covers to reflect their personalities. Clear packing tape secures the covers to the composition notebooks and protects them from being torn.

When I introduce Living Books, the kids are not allowed to write in their books right away. Each day for two weeks, I model what entries should look like. To keep them from thinking these are diaries, I keep making mention of that fact. This writing will be vital, and it is to be cherished. These books will be much more than diaries; they will be life logs.

Before the kids begin their Living Books, I want them to see as many different people modeling writing as possible. For example, my model writing topics include the first days of the new year, the heat that wouldn’t let go of Colorado, wildflowers, and the sunsets smeared with orange and red as a result of forest fires. To show the kids a different model, Dawn and I have traded classes. Dawn verbally processes as she writes, talking about the purpose and the motivation behind her writing. Dawn wrote about baseball, her passion, and about the exploits of her two sons as they pursued college baseball. Our principal came in to write with us. She wrote about her parents’ upcoming fiftieth wedding anniversary, about her son’s going to college, and about her daughter’s being part of the Castle Rock Police Department junior officers division.

The kids are soon itching to write in their Living Books, but I’ll have none of that. I use reverse psychology, knowing that if they don’t get to begin right away, they will be overjoyed about writing when they do get the chance. After a couple of weeks of building suspense, they can begin to write entries, but on notebook paper, not in their Living Books. These entries I collect because I want to gradually release control to the kids by providing examples of what I am looking for from the kids, in addition to the examples they saw written by adults.

Following the gradual release of responsibility model, I begin turning over the sharing to selected kids based on the entries that have been collected the previous day. I choose selections that illustrate observations about life, that show incredible detail, that note something important—not entries that sound like a diary. I am sure to choose a lot of entries from reluctant writers because, honestly, they have some of the best reflections.

Sometimes from these writers come simple, unexpected, profound thoughts. There is a conscious effort to make sure it isn’t only the “good writers” who are asked to share. Finally, the class has permission to write in the Living Books. It is incredible. The tone is reverent. The classroom is silent as we write, then when kids are directed to take a minute to jot down any other ideas they don’t want to forget, the classroom bursts into noise. I encourage them to capture the moment before it is lost. They have a brief chance to get the essence of their experience on paper. Many kids return to an entry made the previous the day because it is an important idea that needs exploration.

Living Books Day by Day

When the hubbub of gathering and trivial tasks is behind us, we meet in the Oval Office, our Living Books in hand, and sit in a circle. I open by framing our learning and purpose for the day, then give a gentle reminder of the purpose of our Living Books: “Good morning. I’m so glad you’re here. We have a very busy day. Today as you begin to write in your Living Books, let me remind you of their importance. This is a place for your life observations, a place to store the parts of you that make you you. This is not a place for random doodling unless there is a purpose to those illustrations. I want you to be able to revisit your life as an adult and see what you thought about as a ten-year-old. This is to be a reminder of who you are, who you were. This is important. It’s our place to plant seeds and grow new topics, and I want you to take this seriously.

I don’t know about you, but today I will have to spend at least some of my time writing about our Valentine’s Day party on Friday. I want to remember the look on Jazmin’s face when she had the icing on her nose, and I don’t want to forget how cool Nick’s box was that looked like Sponge Bob because Sponge Bob is so popular right now, but won’t be later. It’ll be something you will remember from your childhood. I also want to write about the snow this weekend, how absolutely soft and beautiful it was. It was something I don’t want to forget, so I need to get it down before I lose it.”

The comments about what the teacher might write about usually gets the wheels turning in the kids’ heads for their writing. The Living Books are for their eyes only. I never collect these books, never assess them, never evaluate them. This is their free writing time, their time to experiment in a nonthreatening way. This is the place for incomplete thoughts and sentences, for illustrations of the sunset and of the snow on our first field trip, for sketches of their Halloween costumes.

Sometimes it’s necessary to intervene and redirect the kids. A couple of months ago, I noticed many of the kids doodling in their books, those weird line doodles all kids do. I reinforced for a week that the illustrations in their books should support the text, and that illustrations need text to explain the significance of the piece and the event that precipitated the need to illustrate something. I review the purpose of the Living Book and why we’re spending the time on them.

On crazy days like Valentine’s Day or before special events, on those days when the kids are distracted and off task, I circulate and give feedback. The kids sometimes need a reminder that we take this seriously, that it is not an option to write nothing. If they have nothing to write about, they write about having nothing to write about. Sometimes I have to jog their memories, to remind them of the countless stories they tell as they enter the classroom in the morning.

Each day we write from ten to twenty minutes. Then we share. It’s a consistent procedure in the room. Sometimes I ask for volunteers to share their writing. Other days I ask to hear from people who haven’t shared for a while. Sometimes we do a Whip Around: students select one line from anywhere in their own Living Books to share, and we whip around the circle, each student quickly sharing one line.

Other days, we look for trends. Students reread their recent entries or read their entire Living Books to see if there are trends, if there are recurrent themes that could be explored. I realized through my own book that many of my passages were about stress. It was shocking to see how much of my writing was about the stress I’d been feeling while trying to keep up, trying to get paperwork finished and grading done. It was a wake-up call to see that I was wasting so much of my professional life being stressed.

Trends in third and fourth graders’ writing are:
* Cartoons
* Sleepovers
* Birthday presents
* Classroom events
* Family events, vacations
* Brothers and sisters
Trends in sixth graders’ writing are:
* Conflicts with friends
* Issues of fitting in, not knowing their place in life
* Girls and boys
* Dating
* Friends at the Rec Center
* Fears and anxiety about going middle school

The amount of poetry written in Living Books might be surprising. It shouldn’t be shocking, though, because they are a safe place to write.

Bruce later discusses how to use Living Books for coming up with new writing topics. Find out more about his book, Writing Through the Tween Years, and preview the first chapter online.

Add comment March 31st, 2009

Study group discussion: Of Primary Importance – Part II

A group of teachers from Riverside Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio, have been reading and discussing Ann Marie Corgill’s book, Of Primary Importance since December. This month, two second-grade teachers share their reflections on the book. First, read about how the group started its work.

Debbie’s reflections:

I started out with the Personal Narratives. We shared some stories from Ralph Fletcher’s book Marshfield Dreams – When I Was A Kid. My class made a list of things that they were experts about at the beginning of the year for their writer’s notebooks. We continue to add to that list for reference and ideas.

They picked one idea to write about for their personal narrative and then we edited and published. I loved the ‘comment’ page we included at the end of the book. The children shared with each other and read the comments readers gave them. We shared with our first grade reading buddies also. We would like to arrange a time with all of second grade where the kids can browse the other class’s personal narratives and make comments.

I think that being able to read the comments others have made, drives home the idea that you are writing for an audience. As a beginning teacher many years ago, I read books by Donald Graves for my writing workshop. I feel that Of Primary Importance reinforces many of those ideas I continue to hold valuable for my writers in my classroom, i.e. the writing folders, the sharing of the writing, the ease to implement the writing process for young children, having supplies out and available for them to access.

Anita’s reflections:

After reading Of Primary Importance, I wanted to try to slow down and dig deeper with my students. I’m also working on giving them more time and choice with their work.

I have encouraged students to write several stories and choose thier favorite one to publish. We will celebrate their finished piece of writing at the end of the unit.

As a team we have have also discussed how the celebrations can extend beyond invidual classrooms. We are brainstorming ways for the entire second grade can share their writing with each other.

Add comment February 26th, 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

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