Archive for December, 2008

Quick Tip Tuesday: Strategies for responding to student work

In Joan Brodsky-Schur’s American history class at the Village Community School in New York, students interact with various primary sources to get a deeper understanding of historical events and figures, and to explore history through differing points of view. In her book, Eyewitness to the Past, Joan says that she asks her students to do a significant amount of writing as they respond to these primary sources or use the sources as models to create their own historical diary entries, newspaper articles, or letters. “I am well aware of the pressure this puts on educators who simply do not have the time to read and respond to everything students write,” Joan says, adding that teachers should assign the work anyway and then find creative ways to read and respond.

Over the years I have adapted many strategies to keep my students writing while keeping myself sane. I always thoroughly respond to work that is being revised for the public to see, whether it will be shared in print, online, or on a bulletin board. Unless they are required to fix their mistakes, most students do not pay attention to all those red marks. So I do not waste my efforts; I want them to pay off. I usually am not the first reader who has looked for mistakes or made suggestions for improvement of the content. I often pair students or put them into writer’s workshop groups to do this for one another before a draft gets to me.
This year I experimented with using the track changes feature in Microsoft Word. It is widely adopted in the business world and therefore a valuable tool for students to learn. Essentially, students email their work to me or post it electronically on our class bulletin board. I download it to my computer where I turn on the track change feature and make my comments and corrections directly on the electronic version of their papers. I email their work back to them and students then have the option to accept my changes or not and can make further revisions.

It always helps students when they are given the rubrics ahead of time so they know in advance how they will be evaluated. In each category students can earn from one to five points. A student who does not follow instructions and whose work reflects little to no mastery of English skills and social studies content receives a one. This student’s work is given no credit and thus the student must redo it. … A student receives five for outstanding work and original thinking. This student is often a gifted writer and avid reader who brings to the task extensive learning acquired not only in the classroom but well beyond it.

In strategizing how to maximize the effect of my feedback to students, I pay special attention to the first assignments in a series. For example, if students are writing a sequence of four letters, I want to make certain that they are on the right track as early as possible. I focus my time responding to their first letter, because if they do not understand what they are expected to do they will run into problems in subsequent letters. However, I may well not have the time to respond to each student’s first letter individually. In that case, I might read out loud to the class some student work that best exemplifies what I am looking for in the assignment. Anonymously, of course, I might also read out an example of student work that is lacking on some score as well.

For their subsequent letters I might ask some students to read aloud their work in class on a rotating basis or I might skim their letters, evaluating them based on just a few criteria each time. For example, I might say to the class, “On the next assignments I will be looking to see that you incorporate at least five facts into your letters, and that you write in complete sentences.” Or I might announce, “This time I will be looking for a well-reasoned explanation of why you do or do not support the tactics used in the Boston Tea Party. I will also pay special attention to your spelling.” Then I read the set of letters with only those things in mind, which makes the process much quicker for me. Or I might not read several of the letters at all. Instead, I might ask students to keep their letters in a portfolio of their work and then ask them to choose the one letter they think reflects their best work for me to grade.

Do you have a tip for responding to student work? Share it in the comments section.

Add comment December 30th, 2008

Happy Holidays from Stenhouse!

holiday1The blog is not done yet for the year, but we will take a short break this week. Until then, here are a couple of things you can do to stay in touch with us:

  • Visit our website and browse all of the great books we released during the fall – they are still available in their entirety on our site for a few more weeks!
  • Become our fan on Facebook: If you don’t have a Facebook account yet, sign up for one and search for Stenhouse Publishers. Or click here and join others who have already became our fans.
  • Revisit some of your favorite Questions & Authors articles on our blog
  • Read some poetry selected by editor Bill Varner

We will be back next week with another Quick Tip Tuesday selection! Happy Holidays!

Add comment December 24th, 2008

Quick Tip Tuesday: Find your storytelling voice

Storytelling is an important starting point for young learners as they begin their journey to becoming writers. In Talking, Drawing, Writing, Martha Horn and Mary Ellen Giacobbe say that it’s important for children to tell their stories before they put them down on paper. To model this storytelling, teachers need to be able to come up with their stories to tell in the classroom. Martha and Mary Ellen offer some strategies for teachers to find their own storytelling voice.

Teachers need to know that they have stories. When we tell teachers that we want them to use their own stories as models, it’s not uncommon for them to say, “But I don’t have stories” or “What would I tell?” or “That’s the most difficult part for me – coming up with a story to tell my students.” That usually reflects a perception of storytelling as a crafted performance – the kind that people sometimes do for a living. Yet once we model for the teachers how we tell one of our stories to children, they see the ordinariness of it and realize that not only do they have stories by they tell them to their students all the time.

As teachers become aware that they everyday stories they tell in passing are actually stories they could tell in this context, they begin to listen for them and collect them. Danita Kelley-Brewster has a strip of chart paper on the wall next to where she sits at the meeting area, at the top of which she has written “Stories to Tell…”

“I’ll be in the middle of a story” she explains, “and I think of something I want to tell them and I’ll say to the kids, ‘I just thought of another story I want to tell you sometime,’ and I jot it down right then.” Not only is she making it easier for herself to find her stories when she needs them, but she’s modeling for her students that writers are always seeing possible stories and that they usually have a place to collect those ideas.

…When choosing a story to tell students, we want one that is accessible to them. By that we mean one they will be able to relate to, one that matters to us, one that as they hear it, causes them to say, Hey I could do that. We sometimes ask ourselves questions such as these when thinking of stories to tell our students:

  • What is a recent happening that I’ve told others about?
  • What’s an ordinary, everyday happening from my childhood?
  • What personal stories do I tell my own children at bedtime?
  • What stories of my childhood do I keep coming back to, the ones that cause people to say, “Tell the one about…”?
  • What’s a moment, a seemingly simple happening, that I hold dear?
  • Who do I know and care about and what stories do I have about him or her?

It is by beginning with ordinary, everyday topics that we make it possible for all of our students to feel they can enter in.

Martha and Mary Ellen go on to talk about how to bring out student’s stories, beyond the ones that begin with “Once upon a time” or involve dragons and princesses.

Add comment December 23rd, 2008

Poetry Friday: You Can’t Have It All

This week’s poetry selection comes from Stenhouse author Jeff Anderson. Jeff’s books include Mechanically Inclined and Everyday Editing. Read why he picked this Barbara Ras poem and then click on the link to read the poem.

In 2000, I was taking a class with Naomi Shihab-Nye at a local university. She read this poem by Barbara Ras and asked us to write: you can’t have it all, but you can have this, following it with all the simple things in our life that we can have. These clear images like the “fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands/ gloved with green” and “the rye bread with peanut butter and bananas your grandmother gave you while the rest of the family slept” connected so deeply with me, that I not only wrote, but came to appreciate the minor joys of my life in a different way that ripples through me till this day. Here’s the whole poem.


1 comment December 19th, 2008

Study group discussion: Of Primary Importance

In the first chapter of her new book, Of Primary Importance, Ann Marie Corgill invites readers to “Step inside and breathe the writing workshop air with me.”

That is what a group of teachers from Riverside Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio, are doing for the next couple of months as they meet every other week to read and discuss the book.

Franki Sibberson, author of Beyond Leveled Books, is part of this study group. She and her fellow group members are going to post regular updates about their progress and discussions. The group met last week to set their schedule and to talk about questions they have as they begin to read.

We got together for our first meeting of our group that will be reading and discussing Ann Marie Corgill’s new book Of Primary Importance. We met last week to give ourselves a reading assignment before vacation and to focus in on the big questions that each of us hopes is answered during the course of the study group. Everyone in the group had a chance to preview the book and came ready with lots to think about.

We are a group of teachers who teach at Riverside Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio. There are 12 of us in the group, K-3 classroom teachers, principal, reading teachers, a math teacher and me. It is a great group and we are going to try to meet every other week for a few months starting in January.

We started the meeting looking at the book so we could decide how much we should read. Someone suggested that we read Chapters 1-5 because those chapters are all about the set-up and routines. It seemed like a lot to read, but then we remembered that we had almost a month to read and that it made sense to read that part of the book to start. So, we are reading from page 1-83 before we meet in mid-January.

Everyone had previewed the book so some of the talk was around how to use the book—some people hope to get an idea or two, others looked through it and want to follow many of her units to add some structure to their workshop. We are all hoping to get different things from our study group.

We brainstormed those questions that we hoped to have answered by the end of the study group. We shared the things that we hoped to learn. They included:

My kids love to write but where do I go next with them?
Is it better to teach forms of writing or to let kids have free choice?
How much editing makes sense? What should I edit? What should I let go?
What level of writing should I accept? What is a realistic expectation for primary kids?
Which authors and mentor texts work?
How important is the finished product?
How do I balance process with product?
Where does prompting fit in? How do you work to help kids get away from needing a prompt?
How do I keep kids’ interests when they are working on a piece over several days?
How do we keep kids engaged through the process?
How do I best manage the tiem?
What can I do with all of the kids who rush though the process and come to me saying, “I’m done.”
How do I help kids generate ideas? What prewriting work is best?
How can kids be more independent in the process?

So, these are the things we are thinking about as we begin our talk. We all left excited to read and think about our questions. We talked about mid-January being a long time to wait and we think we will probably have lots of informal conversations with each other before our next formal meeting.

We’ll post updates every time we meet—sharing our individual thinking and growth because of the book. We are excited to share our new learning.

5 comments December 18th, 2008

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independent reading with ELLs

This week’s Quick Tip about working with English Language Learners comes from Emelie Parker and Tess Pardini, authors of “The Words Came Down!” English Language Learners Read, Write, and Talk Across the Curriculum, K-2 (2006). Throughout the book, Emelie and Tess discuss ways to use daily routines, visual cues, and physical action to build a classroom community where primary ELL students thrive. In Chapter 5 on reading workshop, for example, they provide this example of using a “bubble space” metaphor to introduce independent reading time:

After the whole-group read-aloud and mini-lesson, it is time to break up for independent reading. At this time, the students read from their own reading boxes. The boxes contain familiar books that they reread for practice. Each time they reread a book, their understanding deepens and their control of phrasing, fluency, and expression increases, so this is an essential element of our reading time. Their reading boxes also contain books that are at their instructional level, requiring them to do some reading work that is appropriate for them. We have introduced all these books during guided reading lessons. Even the students who are preemergent readers have their own reading work to do independently. If they do not have appropriate-leveled text to hold their attention, they will become bored, reluctant to engage with the text, and possibly resort to distracting behavior.

A favorite lesson for some primary teachers at Bailey’s [Elementary School in Fairfax County, Virginia] to introduce children to the expectations of independent reading is a reading response to a Big Book called Bubble Gum by Gail Jorgensen. The children in the book learn to blow a bubble bigger and bigger and bigger. The last page has a great illustration of a popped bubble all over the children. The class enjoys acting out an innovation on the text of Bubble Gun. Without speaking, they pretend to unwrap gum, stick it in their mouth, and blow and blow. As they blow, they spread their arm outs wider and wider. They carefully walk with their arms spread out to a place in the room where no one can pop their bubble. If a child steps into or sits too close to someone’s “bubble space” then the balloon pops. Loud words can also pop a bubble.

After the children can do this without fuss, the teacher explains that they will now take books inside their bubble to read alone. Later, after children learn to read independently in a bubble space, we show them how to let a friend come in and sit shoulder to shoulder in their bubble for buddy reading.

Add comment December 16th, 2008

Guest blog: Using poetry in the classroom

Stacey Shubitz from Two Writing Teachers sent us a post this week about how to use poetry in the classroom. She shares some of the strategies she uses with her fourth-grade students to make them comfortable with poetry. Stacey is a NY state certified literacy specialist and a certified 1-6 grade teacher who teaches in Rhode Island.

Many of my elementary school teachers taught me that poems had to rhyme. In fact, the only poet whose poems I ever remember hearing throughout elementary school were that of Shel Silverstein. Funny? Yes. Rhyming? Yes. Intimidating to a kid who had trouble creating rhymes when she wrote? YES!

When I started teaching, I vowed that I would make sure my students realized that all poems didn’t have to rhyme. Though it took some convincing the first couple of years, I think I’ve finally found some ways to make sure students know that not all poems have to rhyme. I do this by purposefully selecting poems that don’t rhyme with my students. I’ve come to believe that showing students the endless possibilities with poetry helps them realize the breadth of poetic forms in the world.

I’ve spent the past few years infusing poetry into as many corners of my classroom as possible. Here are some of the ways I’ve worked to share the joy of non-rhyming poetry with my students:
Poetry Birthday Cards
I create hand-made cards for each of my students’ birthdays. On the front of each card is a birthday poem – a different poem for each student’s birthday. I’ve noticed that many students keep the card with the poem in their desk or in the ephemera section of their writer’s notebook for months to come!
Poetry Friday Sharing
I’ve used the popular blogosphere meme as inspiration for Morning Meeting every Friday. Two students sign-up to read aloud an original poem or a published poem they love. Then, they take three questions or comments a piece. Afterwards, I share a poem, providing the class with copies. I read it a couple of times and then take questions or comments before asking for student volunteers to read it aloud. Once the poem has been read five times, the entire class reads it aloud together focusing on the line breaks and our pacing as we read it aloud together.
Poetry Read Alouds
I read lots of free verse poetry to my students throughout the school year. Some of my favorite free verse novels to share with upper elementary school students include 42 Miles by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, Becoming Joe DiMaggio by Maria Testa, and Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson.
Poetry Station
A poetry station is a center in the classroom that allows students to read a few poems and then write a similar type of poem. The types of poems they read and try to create follow below, with the name of the mentor poem in quotes.

  • An Odd Word List (“Blackberry Eating” by Galway Kinnell)
  • Contrasting Morning and Evening (“City” by Langston Hughes)
  • Diamante (“Square/Circle” and “Dogs/Cats”; authors unknown)
  • Onomatopoeia (“Galoshes” by Rhonda Bacmeister)
  • Start with a Sense (“Morning Memory” by Uber Aymat)
  • Taste and Smell (“Fried Dough” by Taylor Sheldon)
  • Where I’m From Poem (“Where I’m From” Poems by George Ella Lyon)

just four
of the many ways

infuse poetry

For more ideas about poetry in the classroom, check out The Poetry Experience by Sheree Fitch and Larry Swartz, as well as Poetry Goes to School by Bob Barton and David Booth.

9 comments December 15th, 2008

Quick Tip Tuesday: How to write a good ending

Note: This is the first installment of Quick Tip Tuesday. Each week we’ll offer a teaching technique or strategy from our authors. We’re starting the series with some suggestions about endings.

Students have a hard time knowing how to wrap things up once they get going. In their 2002 book, Knowing How: Researching and Writing Nonfiction 3-8, Mary McMackin and Barbara Siegel offer a range of strategies for writing nonfiction conclusions. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 6: Is It Done Yet?:

We’ve probably all been in a situation where we’ve worked hard on a paper. All that remains is the conclusion. We read over what we’ve written and then struggle to think of anything else to add. We’ve already said everything. After staring at the paper, we decided to revert back to our tried-and-true concluding statement: “Now you know everything about. . . [topic].”
It’s common for students to get tired of the topic and the paper by the time they’ve reached the conclusion. It’s not easy to sustain one’s attention and motivation over an extended period of time. Not infrequently, the lack of intensity of the conclusion reflects this. Students run out of steam. How can we reenergize students at this point so they don’t revert back to their old standbys? How can we motivate them to go beyond, “I liked writing this report,” and continue to think about the needs of the reader? To go back to what Karen Tracey wrote, “We do research to answer our own questions, and we write up research to answer the questions of others.” (Tracey, 1997, p. 10)
How do we encourage writers to think about the questions that still remain in the reader’s mind of perhaps to push those questions to a new level?
We believe all students are capable of writing effective conclusions. We also believe that students would be reenergized, even after spending weeks on a project, if they had at their disposal a range of strategies and concrete examples of how others have used them. Then, they could move beyond standard conclusions and experiment with different types of endings. Our experiences suggest that most students revert back to the “usual” endings because they don’t know how to bring closure in any other way.

Conclusions, like leads, take time to create. They don’t just pop into a writer’s head (as a general rule). It’s important to work endings, nevertheless, because they play an important role in the paper. The conclusion helps form the reader’s final impression of the report.

Although there are several ways to end a report, some ending will work better than others, depending on the tone of the report, the writer’s style, the nature of the research question, the topic selected and so forth. Before they can decide on a strategy to use, writers need to think about what they want to accomplish through their conclusions. The final words or sentences in a paper may

  • connect the beginning and end of the paper, forming an organized whole
  • link together multiple, diverse ideas
  • recap key point(s)
  • provide next steps
  • lead readers to future considerations
  • draw a final conclusion
  • let the reader know what impact the topic has had on the writer
  • challenge the reader ton continue to think about the topic in a more sophisticated way.

McMackin and Siegel go on to provide models of several different kinds of conclusions along with teaching tips and sample student work. Find out more about Knowing How.

2 comments December 9th, 2008

Poetry Friday: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

Bill Varner, one of our editors at Stenhouse, selected this week’s poem again.

It grows dark early this time of year in Maine. And while I try and appreciate each season for its own joys and merits, I don’t exactly enjoy the short days and long nights. One of the things that lessens the darkness is taking the dog out at night, and looking up at a clear sky. Some nights, you can even see the Milky Way.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

1 comment December 5th, 2008

Wednesday distractions

We think it is time for all of you who follow our blog to meet Matilda. She is our unofficial Stenhouse office mascot. She comes to our office regularly with her owner, Nate, who is our PD coordinator, podcast creator, and conference organizer extraordinaire. You can also hear his voice on the audiobook version of Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher.

Matilda, with Nate, during our Wednesday morning staff meeting

Matilda, with Nate, during our Wednesday morning staff meeting

1 comment December 3rd, 2008

Previous Posts

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs