Archive for March, 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

Now Online: Making History Mine

Making History MineDo you feel as though you’re constantly skimming the surface as you try to meet the demands of your history curriculum and state standards? Do your students forge connections to history—can they see how past events and decisions are relevant to the world we live in today?

A veteran teacher of middle and high school history and English, Sarah Cooper has struggled with these questions and has developed broad goals and a repertoire of projects and lessons that you can use in any secondary grade level or unit. Her new book, Making History Mine, will help you tap into your students’ curiosity about the world without dulling their senses with content overload.

Focusing on key goals such as analyzing point of view, understanding the role of language in history, and synthesizing ideas through writing, Sarah presents instructional ideas with rich detail so you can see how they play out in the classroom. You’ll come away with a wealth of new strategies for every aspect of teaching middle school history, and a model for challenging your students to think critically and make history relevant to their lives.

You can browse the entire text of Making History Mine online now!

Add comment March 30th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Buick

With so much dark, depressing talk about the American car industry and the economy these days, here is a poem for this Friday that celebrates a sleek, shiny machine.

by Karl Shapiro

As a sloop with a sweep of immaculate wing on her delicate spine
And a keel as steel as a root that holds in the sea as she leans,
Leaning and laughing, my warm-hearted beauty, you ride, you ride,
You tack on the curves with parabola speed and a kiss of goodbye,
Like a thoroughbred sloop, my new high-spirited spirit, my kiss.

Read the rest of the poem here.

Add comment March 27th, 2009

“The Sisters” explain the CAFE system

In The CAFE Book, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser present a practical, simple way to integrate assessment into daily reading and classroom discussion. “We used to spend all of our time creating things for kids to do,” they explain in today’s podcast. But with the implementation of The Daily Five, they were able to focus their attention on assessment.

They realized that leveled lessons weren’t enough to distinguish their students’ needs. “We started finding specific strategies students needed,” Joan says. With the help of a visual aid, a CAFE menu, they helped students organize their comprehension strategies and were able to track each child’s strengths and goals. “We now group kids by like needs, not by level,” The Sisters say.

Listen to the podcast and browse the entire text of their new book online, before it becomes available in early April.

Please upgrade to the latest version of Flash or enable your browser’s Javascript.

Add comment March 26th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Content Area Word Learning

In his fifth-grade classroom, Max Brand has integrated word learning into his literacy workshop. In this week’s tip, excerpted from Max’s book, Word Savvy, he talks about how he helps students tackle content area vocabulary.

Content Area Word Learning

Content area learning is ripe with opportunities to develop vocabulary skills. Each content area has a unique vocabulary. The sophistication of the material and its content is embedded in this language. Helping students develop strategies for learning these vocabularies is more than a yearlong effort. I prioritize strategies and skills that intuition and experience have taught me students struggle with while learning content. I also limit myself to a few key goals connecting word and content learning. In my early weeks of planning for content area word learning, I focus on the following goals.

• Do students know when they do not know the meaning of a word or phrase?
• Do students know how to determine if a word or phrase is important for understanding the big ideas of a text?
• Do students have a strategy to figure out the meaning of an unknown word or phrase?
• Do students infer the meaning of unknown words?

I assist students in developing new strategies to tackle these issues as they read short texts during shared reading and eventually independent reading with coaching and guidance. Students need help as they use highlighters and pencils to identify unknown or important words and phrases.

I introduce vocabulary webs and other graphic aids as students develop tools that help them become strategic. These graphic aids help students synthesize what has been learned about syllables, root words, and affixes as they infer the meaning of new words.

Some short nonfiction texts I use are
Write Time for Kids
Time for Kids—Exploring Nonfiction
Time for Kids Magazine
National Geographic for Kids
Bug Faces by Darlyne Murawski
Birds Build Nests by Yvonne Winer
A Drop of Water by Walter Wick
Plant Families by Carol Lerner
Going on a Whale Watch by Bruce McMillan
The Usborne Library of Science—Animal World

Find your own books, and share them with your students. Think carefully about what you want your students to learn about vocabulary through each text. Short texts work wonders for teaching or revisiting developing strategies and skills.

When I sit down to plan, I know that these short texts that take fifteen to twenty minutes to read in June take what feels like forever at the beginning of the year. This “forever” talk is necessary to help students see highlighting, underlining, and using graphic organizers as tools, not tasks. Students learn to respond to their reading by writing. I use shared writing to demonstrate how the students can use the text, their highlighted sections, or graphic organizers to add new vocabulary to their writing, demonstrating a growing awareness of topic and vocabulary.

For example, my first science investigation involved trying to answer questions about food chains—exploring the idea of food webs and the concept that most animals’ food comes from plants. I read Swinburne’s The Woods Scientist to the class. This book describes understanding ecosystems by observation.

The vocabulary strategy I wanted students to develop was using context clues to determine the meaning of synonyms. This lesson fit in well with what we had been discussing because the students would have to determine what the synonyms are, use background information, and relate word meanings, similar to what we were doing during the word connections lessons in word study block. To help the students organize their thinking I used a semantic word web.

While reading, we came across some interesting information related to animal waste. The students enjoyed making a word web about it. The conversation that supports making this type of word web has to be focused on why. Why are we making this web of words? How will this grouping help a reader understand the unknown words feces, scat, and defecate, and the phrase “a bear memento”? What background knowledge is used? Over the course of the week, I read aloud from other books that explore similar ideas. We added words to this list and created other word webs.

Planning for word learning takes practice as I observe, analyze, and reflect about students’ writing and reading processes. There is no shortcut to developing this craft.

Add comment March 24th, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Enkindled Spring

Spring in Maine comes slowly and late. But once it does come, all the plants and trees burst into bloom at once, as if they have been waiting for weeks to finally get their turn. We are not quite at that time of the year yet unfortunately, but any day now…

The Enkindled Spring
by D. H. (David Herbert) Lawrence

This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up, and the flickering, watery rushes.

Read the full poem here

1 comment March 20th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Helping students discover their reading lives

In this week’s Quick Tip, Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak, authors of Still Learning to Read, share how they help their students redefine what reading means at the beginning of the school year. They guide their students as they research and discover their own reading lives and as they move from defining reading as just “sounding out words” to figuring out what readers really do.

Several weeks at the beginning of the school year are spent helping our students learn as much as they can about themselves as readers. Early in the year, when we ask students questions about their reading, their answers are usually somewhat shallow. Often we get blank stares, a quick comment like “I don’t like to read” or a puzzled response like “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before.” We always worry when we get these responses that maybe this group of students won’t be as thoughtful or as reflective as the previous classes we have had. Somehow, each September, we forget that it takes time and conversations to help students become reflective about their learning.

Because we know it is important for children to know themselves as readers, many of our lessons during the first few weeks of school invite the students to think about different aspects of their lives as readers. We start the year reading books about reading, such as The Library by Sarah Stewart. We also read them Ellen B. Senisi’s Reading Grows. This picture book follows children through reading development, from their being read to as infants to their becoming proficient readers on their own. It is a simple book, but it gets students thinking about their growth as readers. They begin to use the “Me as a Reader” sections of their reading notebooks to respond to questions and quotes about reading. Their entries help us continue the conversations and thinking that we began with our informal reading interviews.

Here are some questions that we have found useful to get children thinking about their reading: Which series books do you like? Why? Is there a book from your childhood that you asked your parents to read over and over and over? Which books do you remember from the years that you were just learning to read? What was your favorite book when you were little?

We also send students home to do some research. They ask family members what they remember about the student as a reader. What were they like when they were toddlers? Which books did their parents remember reading over and over and over?

After several conversations about their lives as readers, we ask each student to look through the entries in his or her reading notebook and write a piece that puts it all together. A form along the lines of the “Reflecting on Reading” page in the appendix may be used. The students celebrate growth and change as they reflect on who they are as readers. This experience not only helps students get to know themselves, it also lets them get to know their classmates. It is an important piece in building the reading community.

During these early weeks, one of the quotes that students respond to is from Mem Fox’s book Reading Magic (2001): “Most of us think we know what reading is, and that’s not surprising. After all, we can read. But reading is tricky. Reading is complex.” When we give this quote to students and ask them to read it and to write their definition of reading, the students are sometimes confused. They groan that this kind of thinking is “too hard.” It is clear that they haven’t thought much about what reading actually means to them, or that they have a very limited definition of reading. Most of the students write just one or two sentences, almost always mentioning “figuring out words” or “getting the words right” or “sounding it out.” Only a few students mention understanding or meaning.

Redefining reading is the next step for these students. One good resource to help students redefine reading is the book Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. This is a hilarious picture book meant for very young children. With upper elementary readers the challenge is getting students to become interested in a book that clearly looks like a book written for preschool students. But the humor and the conversation about the book hooks them. In Bark, George, the text and the illustrations work together to tell the story. For a mini-lesson in September, Franki read the text aloud, one page at a time. After each page, she asked the students what they were thinking. Students shared their responses, predictions, changes in thinking, and inferences. (The surprise ending elicited the best responses.) Franki ended the lesson by asking the kids to remember all of the thinking that they did. Then she said, “Wow, if you did that much thinking in this book, imagine how much thinking you must be doing in the books you are reading during reading workshop.” Instead of defining reading for the students, Franki hoped that this lesson would begin to make them curious about what readers do. Franki could have taught her students all about the habits of effective readers. Instead, she decided to help them gradually discover for themselves what readers do and to uncover their own lives as readers.

On the following day, Franki read Click, Clack, Moo by Doreen Cronin, another amusing picture book that engages readers. This time, she asked students to use the Strategies section of their reading notebooks to track their thinking. She read the book aloud and asked students to write down their thinking as she finished each page. Once in a while, they would stop and discuss the kinds of thinking they were doing. The students were amazed at how much thinking they were doing along the way. The last page of Click, Clack, Moo is critical to the story, but it contains only an illustration, no words. After finishing the reading, Franki turned again to the last page and asked, “Was this reading?” The children started talking all at once. Some were saying, “Yes!” Some were saying, “No!” Some were saying, “Yes and no.” Some children were frustrated by the question. They argued that it couldn’t be reading because there were no words. They argued that it had to be reading because without that final page, the story would be different.

The conversation over that one page lasted twenty to thirty minutes, with Franki saying very little. The students’ definitions of reading were beginning to change. They were developing a deeper understanding of what readers do. Finally Franki stopped the conversation and asked the students to go back to the entries in their reading notebooks where they had defined reading a few days earlier. She asked them to look at their earlier definition of reading and to write what they were thinking about it now. The students were beginning to realize that reading was so much more than just “getting the words right.” Early in the year, it is the hard thinking we do around easy texts that sets the stage for future learning. Lessons like this invite kids to redefine reading for themselves and to continue to think about what reading means to them.

Add comment March 17th, 2009

Travels with Herb Broda: Glenwood Elementary, Chapel Hill, NC

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

This week I had a great visit to the outdoor classroom of Sally Massengale, an educator at Glenwood Elementary in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Although Sally shared many wonderful ideas with me, I was especially impressed with how she worked hard to build an interest in school ground exploration by creatively displaying outdoor discoveries indoors.

Sally has an amazingly simple and highly interactive way to remind children of outdoor discoveries and encourage further careful observation. Right outside of the cafeteria door, probably one of the busiest stretches of hallway in the building, Sally has put up a simple diagram of the school grounds. As students find interesting natural specimens of plants or animals, they take an index card and sketch what they saw and then, often with her help, identify what it was. The card is then placed beside the diagram with a piece of yarn that links the natural item with its location on the school grounds. The result is a frequently changing update of what has been discovered on the site. The location in a busy area of the building ensures that that many students will pause and take a look.

The map of the school grounds at Glenwood Elementary School

The map of the school grounds at Glenwood Hill Elementary School

In this same area outside of the cafeteria she has set up a simple weather monitoring display. Kids keep track of simple data like humidity, rainfall, temperature, cloud cover, etc. Although many teachers track this type of data within a classroom, Sally has made this a very public display of environmental information that everyone in the building can see. It sends a powerful message that emphasizes what is happening right around the building.

The weather watching station

The weather monitoring station

I’m very eager to hear what you are doing at your school! Please share your unique ideas for incorporating the outdoors into your teaching.

3 comments March 16th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Dylan Thomas

Here is Bill Varner’s poetry selection for this week.

I have been doing a little dilettante reading recently about quantum physics and biology. No, I don’t get a whole lot of it, but it’s fascinating to think about the world beneath our world, and what kind of energy, matter or wave, comprises us all, and what that might mean. Aspects of that appear in this poem from Dylan Thomas which has always been a favorite. I see it a little differently now though after all these years – isn’t that one of the great things about reading?!

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower
By Dylan Thomas

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose

Read the rest of the poem here.

Add comment March 13th, 2009

Share a Story – Shape a Future: Tips for Parents

In today’s post, Aimee Buckner, author of Notebook Know-How and the upcoming Notebook Connections, shares how she reads with and for her son every evening. Aimee offers advice for parents on how to make evening story time a launching pad for talking about books with kids.

See the other topics in today’s lineup at The Book Chook.

EXCLUSIVE: Get a sneak peek of Aimee’s new book!

Reading Aloud at Home

One of my favorite times during the day is when I read aloud to my son. He’s 9 years old, and he’s more than capable to read on his own. Yet, I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. It gives me valuable insight to the person my son is becoming as well as opportunities to nurture his growth as a reader.

It’s important to make this time enjoyable for you and your child. My son and I have a designated time and place where we read together. I am careful not to turn this into school, but a quiet time for him and I to enjoy a good book. Everything else will come about naturally.

When I read aloud to my son, I choose books like I choose the vegetable I’ll make for dinner. I often choose to cook vegetables that I think he’ll like but may not choose on his own to try. And sometimes, I have to sneak the vegetable into his diet by tricking him or covering it up with something yummy. Reading books with him is similar. I try to choose books that he may not pick up to read on his own but that I think he’ll enjoy. I also may choose books based on what he’s studying – historical fiction to help him visualize the Revolutionary War for example. That way I’m able to enrich his experience with different genres.

This is not to say that my son never chooses the book we read. He does. And there are times I’ll select two or three books for him to choose from. I just figure that he gets to choose the books he reads to himself, and I get to choose the ones I read aloud. It’s like who gets to choose the radio station while in the car. There is no right answer, except for what works for you.

Reading with my child creates opportunity for me to model fluent reading with appropriate intonation. Many children read monotone, even as they get older, because as the text gets harder, it’s more difficult to figure out the intonation. I’m still a more fluent reader than my son, so by simply reading aloud, I can model habits of good readers. When I come to a word I may not know, or think he may not know, I stop to think about what it might mean. If as I’m reading, I get confused or my mind trailed off, I stop and tell him I have to reread that part and why we’re doing it. I’m not putting on a show, and I can do this quite casually. After all, in the books I read to myself, I do have to stop and think about words or reread parts I don’t understand. Now I’m just doing it aloud with him so he can see me doing it.

Discussing the books we’re reading is very natural. I don’t quiz him or tell him to write about it. But I do have some ways to get him to talk about the book. Here are three tips:

1. Before we read each night, my son is responsible for a ‘nutshell summary.’ This is a quick summary of the chapter we read the night before. It’s not a retelling of the whole book, just a way to remind us what’s happening in the story before we begin to read. I never interrupt him during this time. If he forgot an important part, I may say something like, “Oh, and do you remember when…”

2. My son will stop me from reading when he wants to talk about his thinking. It wasn’t always this way. So, to get him willing to stop and talk, I would stop in the story when I felt the urge to share my thinking. Sometimes we both wait until the end of the chapter or picture book. It just depends on what feels the most natural at the time.

3. When my son talks about the book, I insist he uses the character names. This is important. So if he says the “boy” or uses a pronoun before mentioning the character’s name, I ask him, “Do you remember the character’s name?” If he doesn’t, we either look back in the story or I tell him. (It depends how close to bedtime it is!) If a child doesn’t know a character’s name or can’t accurately tell you where the story is happening, it’s likely they don’t understand what’s going on. You’ll want to help your child with these details.

Overall, when reading aloud to your child, just be natural. Allow conversation to flow from the book based on your thinking and your child’s. If nothing else, you establish a wonderful ritual that helps you and your child connect … over books.

4 comments March 12th, 2009

Previous Posts

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs