Archive for December, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Two-word sentence smack down

In this week’s Quick Tip, Jeff Anderson demonstrates how his two-word sentence smack down activity helps students identify what is a sentence and what isn’t. This tip comes from Jeff’s book 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 thought.

AKA:  Incomplete sentence, non-sentence, intentional fragment.

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 at The Real World blaring from his plasma screen TV. While those prepositional 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

Two-Word Sentence Smack Down

I ask students to write a sentence in their writer’s notebooks—just one sentence. After a minute, I ask, “What’d you do?” After they share, I ask, “How did you know that was a sentence? What makes a sentence a sentence?” We discuss the fact that most of us know how to write a sentence, even if we can’t explain why. I emphasize that the point of grammar is to help us write. Though we need not know every single definition, we should know a few. Competent, confident writers know that an underlying structure holds some thoughts together and separates others. So, students need to be able to break down a sentence. This knowledge is the foundation for taking writing from choppy to flowing, from run-on to controlled. Understanding this pattern is essential, for every craft move is built on it.

“You know sentences. Everyone wrote a sentence. Even those who said, I don’t know what to write were saying a sentence. It’s basic to our human nature to speak in sentences.”

“So, why is it so difficult to figure them out on tests?” I ask. We discuss an oversimplified formula for the sentence: subject + verb = a simple sentence. It’s easy to lose students’ attention when we talk in abstractions, so I get their eyes on a sentence from a book as soon as possible. Using a sentence from Spinelli’s Loser, I explain the sentence test, which will allow us to strip any sentence down to its core, subject and verb. I write They race on the board. “Is that a sentence? How do you know?” I explain that it’s a sentence if it provides answers to the following two questions:

• Who or what did something? (The subject is They.)

• What did they do? (The verb is race.)

“The core of any sentence is a subject and a verb,” I say. I preselect a few longer sentences from Loser that students can shave down to two words: a subject and a verb.

We pare down a few together first, such as this one: The lights cluster brilliantly up the street at Claudia’s house (p. 174). Using the test, we determine that the subject is lights and the verb is cluster.

“Now we’re ready to do a sentence smack down!” I say. Before class, I have made a wall mat like the one in the visual scaffold, with the categories “subject” and “verb.” To make this activity more exciting, I play some snippets of music from a sports mix. The music adds a feeling of joy to the room, taking the dread out of grammar instruction. I play the music and yell, “Are you ready to grammar?” The music continues to play while students work with their sentences and during each transition.

I put a kid in charge of the music, so I am free to emcee. First, I divide students into groups of three and give each group a sentence (see the Appendix for the “Sentence Smack Down!” handout). Each group then follows the handout directions. After paring down their sentence, they use construction paper to record the subject on one sheet and the verb on the other. After the kids finish with the construction paper, I explain that one member of each group must assume the role of the reader, and the other two will play the parts of “subject” and “verb.” Then I describe how each performance will go:

• The reader will read the whole sentence.

• The “subject” will “smack,” or slap, the wall mat under the word “subject” and yell the subject of the group’s sentence.

• The “verb” will follow, “smacking” the wall mat under the word “verb” and yelling the verb of the sentence.

• The reader will read the whole sentence again.

To illustrate, a group takes a sentence: He reaches back to touch the door. The group pares the sentence down to the subject (He) and verb (reaches). After choosing roles, the “subject” writes He large enough for the class to see on one piece of construction paper.

The “verb” writes reaches and surrounds it with exploding marks to connote action. When called to the front, the reader reads, “He reaches back to touch the door.” Next, the “subject” runs and smacks the subject side of the wall mat, yelling out “he” as well as holding up the piece of construction paper. After that, the “verb” smacks the verb side of the wall mat, yelling out “reaches.” These two hold their positions at the wall mat, while the reader reads the entire sentence again.

Two-Word Sentence Search—Powerful Words, Powerful Verbs

As a follow-up, I challenge students to collect two-word sentences from their reading; this will become a yearlong collection. We post the collection on a wall chart—it’s the skinniest wall chart ever. It is fun to watch students find out how rare two-word sentences are and to witness everything else they discover along the way. When students bring what they think is a two-word sentence to me, such as Or not, I ask the sentence-test questions: Who or what did something? What did they do? Students have no answer. “Is it a sentence then?” A light goes on in their eyes, and they know it’s a fragment. Of course, we exclude dialogue from this collection, but we do have valuable conversations about dialogue tags as parts of sentences.

My favorite craft spillover is that most two-word sentences have powerful verbs, so we have mentor sentences that we can either expand or allow to remain elegant and simple. Students will finally own the core sentence. A great mentor text for two-word sentences is the pop-up picture book Worms Wiggle by David Pelham and Michael Foreman (1989), which is ripe for imitation if one has the inclination.

4 comments December 29th, 2009

Happy holidays from Stenhouse!

The Stenhouse Blog will take a break for a few days during the holidays – see you back here with another Quick Tip Tuesday post next week! Until then, have a happy holiday and thank you for following us all year long!

Add comment December 23rd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Learning landscapes

“I don’t have a degree in architecture or interior design, and I’m certainly no Ty Pennington,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her recent book Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers,  “but I am a teacher who has the opportunity and pleasure every year of creating the learning landscape for a group of children where the living and learning and writing inside those four walls will be wonderful.” In this week’s Quick Tip, Ann Marie shares how she creates seating arrangements and a classroom library that support her students’ writing work.

As a writer myself, I get my best work done in an environment that’s open, organized, and comfortable. Sometimes I spread my work, papers, and supplies out over the table or on the floor beside me, so that I can see my process and what’s already been accomplished. I need easy access to the printer for making multiple drafts to pore over. I need pencils for marking up the text, sticky notes for flagging parts that sound awful, and fresh stacks of bright white printer paper. I need a lamp when the sun outside my window won’t suffice, and I need my tiny desk clock to remind me that I need work and play time in my life.

I have learned over the years that I can indirectly educate my students by means of classroom environment. The minute a student, a parent, a colleague, an administrator, or a visitor walks into our classroom, my beliefs about what children deserve should speak loudly. As I plan for the children that will inhabit the space, I think about the following classroom components:

Seating arrangements
Storage space
Bulletin boards and wall space
Teacher area and pathways for room navigation
Room colors, lighting, and decorative touches
Writing materials and supplies

Seating Arrangements

Students deserve

  • Seating arrangements that facilitate conversations about writing and support the work of writers
  • Opportunities to sit alongside the teacher and listen in as the teacher confers with a student about his or her writing
  • Comfortable areas to gather when it’s time to read a draft, share a published piece, or study the craft of a beloved author
  • An environment that values community and the exchange of ideas rather than isolation and self-promotion
  • A room that isn’t dominated by filing cabinets, large teacher desks, and improperly sized chairs and furniture

 I’ve chosen to fill my classroom with tables and rugs instead of desks. Some tables are round, while others are rectangular. Some are lower to the ground with rugs for seating surrounding them and others include chairs with straight backs. Some are in a quiet nook in the room while others are set up in the middle of the classroom. These tables, chairs, and rugs facilitate the kind of talk, the kind of writing discourse I will teach and encourage.

They give the child who likes to work on or near the floor the opportunity to do so. The arrangement also supports the child who needs a straight chair and fl at workspace, a quiet area by the books, or the middle-of-the-room energy. It gently sends a message that thinking and learning and working differently together are valued over the mentality that one size fits all or “it’s all about me.” Our classroom should be all about us, and the simple choice of tables and rugs over individual desks is the fi rst step in that direction. But don’t panic if you don’t have tables and want them. It’s very cool how lots of desks pushed together can quickly create that table space that you’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to make your furniture work for you and your students (or to ask your principal to buy you tables next year and ditch the desks).


Students Deserve

  • A rich and varied library with multiple authors, multiple copies, and multiple genres
  • A library that’s organized with the child’s interests, the curriculum, and the teaching in mind
  • A library that has the feel of a bookstore, showcasing featured books and authors periodically throughout the year
  • A library that meets the reading and writing abilities and needs of all students

Lots of my friends who aren’t in education don’t quite understand the need to spend hours on the floor of the children’s section in Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Bank Street Bookstore. I know. I’ll admit it’s a sickness, and I do often wonder if I’ll ever need the twelve-step program for children’s book lovers. Fortunately, it’s a very rewarding and productive sickness to have. Because I care deeply about the literature children are exposed to in their years of schooling and because I believe that great books have an incomprehensible impact on students’ lives as writers, readers, and people, I stock my classroom year after year with these treasures. But just having the books isn’t enough. Doing important work with them is what counts. Reading aloud, rereading favorites, finding new authors to study, investigating the writing lives of the authors—and then writing our own texts like the ones we’ve read.

That’s what these books are for. They’re for the children and me to read, enjoy, and study how these texts are written and created. Since I’m a children’s book addict, in the upcoming chapters, I will share some of my most recent (and not so recent) favorites and how we use these in our writing workshop. If you happen to spend your money wisely and aren’t magnetically led to the children’s section every time you pass a bookstore, there are plenty of other ways to stock your classroom library. Book-club orders, your neighborhood or school library, parent donations, attic visits to find your own children’s lost treasures, school funds or grants, class book parties instead of birthday parties, holiday gift wish lists, school book fairs, yard sales—the list goes on and on.

Add comment December 22nd, 2009

What other bloggers are saying…

Here is a quick roundup of some reviews of Stenhouse books we came across recently in the blogosphere:

Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject by Rick Wormeli:
“Metaphors and Analogies provides an excellent starting point for understanding the promise and pitfalls of these important devices, and I would encourage you to explore Wormeli’s book for yourself.  In the spirit of its title, it truly is a buffet for the hungry mind,” writes blogger Patrick Woessner on Technology in the Middle.

Keith Schoch at How to Teach a Novel, is also enthusiastic about Rick’s latest: “His work, however, is so far the most practical title I’ve seen on the topic, offering teachers simple steps for improving their instruction through the use of metaphors and analogies. Every page provides subject-specific examples, allowing readers to easily understand the real-life applications to the classroom.”

Small Group Intervention (DVD) by Linda Dorn and Carla Soffos:
“As I am building more interest in staff development and literacy leadership, I especially enjoyed this resource. I look forward to eventually sharing the DVD with others to support literacy instruction development,” says Mrs. V at Snapshots of Mrs. V.

A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough:
Sarah Amick over at Amick’s Articles gives a thumbs-up for Georgia Heard’s latest book: “She seems to understand the plight that we are all in this topsy turvy world of assessment driven instruction. And yet, she doesn’t stray from the fact that our youngest learners need to be held in their world of wonder, that that world need not be taken away from their early in their learning. She understands that school can be a place where children are dumped information into their little minds instead of discovering it for themselves.”

Curious about what’s coming up this spring from Stenhouse? Sign-up to receive updates about our latest titles!

Add comment December 21st, 2009

Poetry Friday: Snow-Flakes

The past couple of days have been quite frosty here in Maine, so this week’s poem comes from a Mainer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived through a couple of Maine winters.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air,
      Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
      Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
            Silent, and soft, and slow
            Descends the snow.
Read the rest of the poem here.

2 comments December 18th, 2009

Feeling guilty about conferring?

Do you feel quilty because you think you don’t spend enough time with your students in conferences? Are you struggling with what questions to ask during a conference? Are you looking to learn how to confer well?

Then join our conversation with Patrick Allen, author of Conferring, and Mark Overmeyer, author of What Student Writing Teaches Us. This is your opportunity to ask questions from two experts who can give you all the answers you need for successful reading and writing conferences!

So ask a question, leave a comment, and start conferring!

Add comment December 16th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating a classroom that reflects your beliefs

Katy Slocum was just in her first year of teaching fifth grade, but she already understood the difficulty of working in an environment that doesn’t support her beliefs about teaching and learning. So when Debbie Miller visited her classroom, the two set out to transform her messy classroom into an inspiring space, proving during the process that decluttering the classroom also helps to declutter the mind.

This week’s Quick Tip shows the beginning of this process with Katy and Debbie from Debbie’s recent book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action, K-5.

Before we can begin to rearrange furniture, organize books and materials, create literate environments, or even think about lamps, rugs, and pretty tablecloths, we’ve got to get rid of the things we don’t need so we can make room for the things that we do. For Katy and I, that means making three piles:
1. things to keep
2. things someone else might want—maybe other teachers, kids, or Goodwill
3. things to throw away

We begin early one morning, tossing or organizing all those piles of paper, figuring out what to do with that tall tilting stack of National Geographic magazines and those cardboard boxes labeled so carefully by teachers who have come before. When the kids arrive, we scrunch ourselves into the meeting area, share our thinking, invite input, and ask for volunteers to help organize and put together all the books and materials for writing, science, social studies, and math. The rest agree to tackle their cubbies, desks, backpacks, and the floor.

Once the major surfaces are cleared—or at least ordered in some way—we move on, working after school to sort through closets, drawers, and all that was behind those closed cupboard doors. We send three bright yellow Judy Clocks, two boxes of teddy-bear counters, and an extra box of 500 Unifix cubes to kindergarten and first grade. The bulk of the magnifying glasses, microscopes, magnets, test tubes, and potting soil go to the science lab. Twenty-five boxes of paper clips (what’s that about?) go back to the office, along with bags of rubber bands, brads, thumbtacks, and six one-gallon jars of paste.

An amazing assortment of clothing items left behind by teachers goes into the Goodwill pile—cardigan sweaters, see-through plastic raincoats, scarves, umbrellas, shoes, and one never-worn pair of sequined St. Paddy’s Day socks.

Outdated maps and globes go into the never-see-the-light-of-day pile. Ditto the ancient jigsaw puzzles of cats and puppies, the six dried-out Twirl-a-Paint kits, and the once-white Lite-Brites, minus their pegs. We toss out what seem like hundreds of old workbooks in every subject imaginable, reams and reams of yellowed and brittle handwriting paper, shoe boxes overflowing with broken crayons, used-up pencils and congealed bottles of glue, fuzzy-tipped markers, and twenty almost-empty tubes of glitter. Not to mention the packs and packs of faded construction paper and box after box of empty (and thankfully clean) baby-food jars.

And the two huge gray filing cabinets, filled to the top with teaching units, worksheets, lesson plans, and month-by-month themes and activities? I leave their fate and what’s inside to Katy, but encourage her to be ruthless, and to consider getting rid of at least one of those metal giants entirely. With all that stuff out of the way, no one could believe how much larger the classroom had become! And now, Katy could do some real thinking about her beliefs, the physical space and room arrangement, organizing all those books and materials, and creating a working, literate environment. And, as you just might know, clearing the decks isn’t always about getting rid of someone else’s stuff. I was excellent at squirreling away all kinds of things, in all kinds of places, entirely on my own! Think bags (and bags) of pinecones for Thanksgiving turkey-making (it looked like fun in Family Circle a few years ago), stacks of find-a-word puzzles and coloring sheets (dropped off by a well-meaning parent), and that red folder filled with
important papers I’ve stashed away (somewhere) for safekeeping.

I’d pledge to clean and organize a drawer or shelf a day on many a Monday morning, but I could never seem to keep that going much beyond Wednesday. My best strategy was to come to school on an occasional Saturday morning armed with a box of trash bags, a full-to-the-top bottle of Formula 409, a brand-new roll of paper towels, a sugar-free vanilla latte, and a Van Morrison CD. Cleaning, sipping, and singing “On the Bright Side of the Road” with Van—does it get any better than this?

We’d better hope so! But when I walk outside two or three hours later with a smile on my lips and a skip in my step, I’m not so sure. And now I’m thinking the smile and the skip were about more than having a clean and uncluttered classroom. Could it be that clearing the physical clutter of my room also cleared the mental clutter in my mind?

Something to Try
Step outside your classroom door and look back in, as if for the first time. What do you see? Do you want to go back inside? Or do you want to run and hide? If you’re inclined to run, force yourself back. Grab your notebook and divide a page into thirds. In the first column, draw or write about what you like about your classroom environment. What seems to be working?

In the next column, do the same with what bothers you most. What’s getting in the way of teaching and learning? What doesn’t make sense? And in the last column, write or draw what you’d like to see when you step inside. Do the same from a child’s point of view. Get at their eye level and see things as they see them. Now what do you see?

First impressions count. Classroom environments vary, but they always need to be welcoming places; interesting, joyful places that beckon kids and teachers to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge. Places that invite curiosity, exploration, collaboration, and conversation. Places that make us want to come in and stay, day after day after day.

Next, consider asking a colleague—someone you trust in the field, but probably not a close friend—to step inside your room. Ask this person to take a few minutes to look around and then ask them the following kinds of questions:
■ What do you know I value?
■ What do you know about what I believe about teaching and learning?
What’s the evidence?
■ What do you know about the kids in this room?

Any thoughtful person who spends even a small amount of time in our classrooms should be able to respond to these questions. If they can’t, or if they say something that seems to us totally off the mark, it should give us pause. We have to wonder what it is about the environment that’s sending mixed signals or no signals at all. Just as it’s important to define our beliefs and align our practices, it’s important to create classroom environments that reflect our beliefs.

2 comments December 15th, 2009

School Library Journal interviews Steven Layne

I want teachers and librarians to raise their voices together loud and long and demand that the ‘will’ of reading be given a measure of time and attention in the curriculum. It’s always been the neglected stepchild, but now it’s being shoved under the rug completely in some schools.

Diane Chen just posted an interview with Steven Layne, author of the new book Igniting a Passion for Reading, on her blog Practically Paradise at Steven answers questions on a wide variety of topics including separating reading lounges from school libraries, genres that are most neglected in choosing read-alouds, and author studies.

Igniting a Passion for Reading starts shipping from our warehouse on Monday, and you can preview the entire text online now!

Add comment December 14th, 2009

Poetry Friday: Light the Festive Candles

Hanukkah starts tonight, so here is a children’s poem for the occasion by Aileen Fisher.

Light the Festive Candles
by Aileen Fisher


Light the first of eight tonight—
the farthest candle to the right.

Light the first and second, too,
when tomorrow’s day is through.

Read the rest of the poem here…

3 comments December 11th, 2009

Conferring in Reading and Writing Workshop

Patrick Allen

Patrick Allen

“Learning to confer and to confer well is an ongoing process. It takes time. I started by being nudged by someone I trusted, and then started to watch others confer, and then I started recording my own conferences to listen to the types of conversations that develop…think about the best conversations you’ve had with a fellow reader and try to replicate them.”

–Patrick Allen

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard teachers say if they don’t meet with every student every day, or even once a week, they feel guilty…if you have individual conferences at any time during the year, you are giving them the gift of your time and undivided attention.”

–Mark Overmeyer

Mark Overmeyer

Mark Overmeyer

Head over to, where Mark Overmeyer, author of What Student Writing Teaches Us, and Patrick Allen, author of Conferring, compare and contrast reading and writing conferences, and offer suggestions for teachers who are looking to expand the role of conferences in reading and writing workshop. Join their conversation by submitting your own audio or text comments and questions; the authors will respond to new comments posted by Friday, December 18.

Add comment December 10th, 2009

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