Archive for October, 2010

Poetry Friday: Fire

I have to admit that whenever we receive one of our new books from the printer, the first thing I look at are the acknowledgments. It’s interesting to see who gets mentioned, who doesn’t, what and who inspired our authors as they worked on their book.

So it was with Ranu Bhattacharyya’s book, The Castle in the Classroom. In her acknowledgments I found a passage from this great poem Fire, by Judy Brown. So I thought I’d share with you all on this Poetry Friday. Enjoy!

Judy Brown
What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

2 comments October 29th, 2010

Questions & Authors: Teaching organization to young writers

All writing teachers are familiar with the “hamburger paragraph” and other well-intentioned but ultimately faulty  systems to help students organize their writing. And while not all organizational structures are irrelevant, in this installment of Questions & Authors Jennifer Jacobson argues that helping students think of their audience and guiding them to discover writing structures and styles as they read their favorite books, are the foundations of better organized writing. Jennifer is the author of No More “I’m Done!” Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades.

We’ve long accepted that learning to read is a developmental process. We know that, year by year, students will grow in their understanding of how print is constructed. They will increase their knowledge and application of reading strategies and comprehension. But when it comes to writing, we often fail to think developmentally. This is particularly true in the teaching of organization, where we provide lists of instructions or formulas to students so they can produce seemingly well-organized products. In many instances, the formulas are bogus, no more than fabrications designed by well-meaning educators to prompt students for a patterned (but often hollow) response.

The hamburger paragraph is one example of well-intentioned but faulty scaffolding. In this popular lesson, we teach students to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, follow with three supporting sentences, and end with a concluding sentence. Imagine for a moment trying to write a letter, an essay, or a report this way. All paragraphs would be approximately five sentences long. Transitions from one paragraph to another would be a nightmare: all those conclusions, all those new openings. If you examine professional writing, you’ll discover that sometimes a topic sentence comes in the middle of the paragraph, sometimes at the end. (Years ago, when doing some writing for a textbook company, I had difficulty finding a mentor text that had even a single paragraph modeled after the hamburger.)

But, you say, once we started teaching the hamburger, our students scored higher on the state assessment! I’m not surprised. In some states, teachers who are enlisted to score state assessments have been taught to look for the hamburger structure in student responses. Another name for the hamburger paragraph, then, could be the Big Test Paragraph. 

This is not to say that all of the structures we teach students—the compare-and-contrast essay, the persuasive essay, the rising action to climax in fiction, the haiku, or the sonnet, for example—are not relevant. They certainly are. However, we need to give students knowledge of and experience with different organizational patterns. And before we do that, we need to help them grow in their intrinsic understanding of organization. That is, we need to help them realize that organization serves a particular function, and that they—as writers—have important decisions to make.
How do we accomplish this?

We begin by building a sense of audience. When a writer shifts his purpose from writing for himself to writing with a reader in mind, he becomes increasingly aware of the need for structure. He first recognizes that organization is essential for clarity, and then grows to understand that by manipulating the organization he can better inform, persuade, entertain, or move the reader.

There are a myriad of positive ways that we can help young writers keep audience in mind. As your students leave the rug where you have gathered for your mini-lesson, ask, “What are you going to write about today?” And then, “What do you think the reader would like to know about (your cat, your trip to the Laundromat, your birthday party)?”
During writing conferences we can ask questions that help the writer keep the reader in mind:
• What is the purpose of your piece?
• What is the most important thing you wish to tell the reader?
• Do you have a lead that will hook the reader?
• Are there any places in your work that might confuse the reader? How could you make this part clearer?
• What does the reader learn in the middle of your piece?
• What do you think the reader will want to know at the end?
• How do you think the reader will react to this ending?

I conduct mini-lessons in which I model prewriting with audience in mind. I tell students my topic choice—for example, my dogs—and then ask, “What do you think the reader would like to know about them?” They provide me with a list of questions, which I record on the board. After the questions have been generated, we discuss which ones I should answer in the beginning of the piece (What are your dogs’ names? What do they look like?), those that should be answered in the middle of the piece (What do they like to do? Do they get into trouble?), and the questions that will serve the ending (How do you feel about your dogs?). Then I write a piece that includes the answers to all of the questions. I think out loud, indicating when it’s time to shift to another paragraph (for example, when I’m introducing a new idea about my subject).

Of course, the very best way to help students develop a sense of audience is to give them one (the teacher alone does not serve as an effective audience). Daily sharing of writing in the author’s chair; peer conferencing; and publishing student work in newsletters, podcasts, and collective anthologies all go a long way toward helping students keep listeners and readers in mind.

After they have developed a sense of audience, students need to understand that writers make choices about how to organize their work. When reading a mentor text to primary students, I often ask, “How did the author choose to organize this piece?” Many of the stories I read are chronological, so students say, “She told the story in the order it happened.” But I’m careful to read fiction and nonfiction that are organized around other structures as well. We read Carmine: A Little More Red by Melissa Sweet (2005), an adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood that is organized as an alphabet book; The Great Blue House by Kate Banks (2005), which is organized according to the seasons; Previously by Allan Ahlberg (2008), a story told backward; Now and Ben: The Modern Inventions of Benjamin Franklin by Gene Barretta (2006), which alternates between present and past; and many other books that allow us to examine different structural bones.

Once young students become familiar with the many organizational possibilities that exist, they often adapt them for their own purposes. As I mentioned in my book No More “I’m Done”: Fostering Independent Writers in the Primary Grades, it is a great feeling when a young student says, “Look! I’m using the Now and Ben pattern, only my book is Me as a Baby, Me Now.” Choosing their own organizational structure is a far more sophisticated approach than following a list of instructions.

Students can also examine the ways in which authors begin and end their pieces. In the not-so-distant past, I recommended providing students with a list of strategies that authors use. I now realize that an even more productive exercise is to invite students to conduct their own investigations of the techniques, and to provide their own names for these strategies. One group of students discovered that many writers begin a piece with a sentence that tells when:

• “When Owen’s granny heard he was a baby . . .” (Banjo Granny by Sarah Martin Busse and Jacqueline Briggs Martin [2006])
• “Not so long ago, before she could even speak words . . .” (Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems [2004])
• “When I was younger it was plain to me . . .” (A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jen Bryant [2008])

We know that with discovery comes ownership—not something that students are likely to forget.

Only when students truly understand the need and function for organization should we have them experiment with structures that are particularly useful to writers. I often begin by showing students the “pattern of three” that appears in some works of fiction: 1) a character wants something and tries to get it but fails, 2) he tries again and fails again, and 3) he tries a third time and either gets what he wants or changes his mind. Although fiction can be difficult, it is usually the genre children know best; therefore, they are able to apply a good deal of background knowledge. In addition, the pattern of three is a common organizational structure: the five-paragraph essay and the traditional persuasive essay are two familiar examples. Both essays begin with an introductory paragraph (equivalent to the opening of a story in which we are introduced to a character and what he wants), followed by three supporting paragraphs (the three tries), and a conclusion (the story’s resolution). Once students have developed a solid understanding of one of these formats, it’s easy to introduce the others.

When it comes to teaching writing, there is a constant tension between allowing students to practice the craft and rushing them to create a product that looks accomplished. With subjects such as mathematics or music, we accept that mastery will take hours and hours of exposure. Writing, on the other hand, we too often treat as a fill-in-the-blank exercise.  Providing formulas too early not only stunts writing growth, it also interferes with the development of ideas, voice, and sentence fluency. Instead, we must encourage students to identify themselves as writers and to know that writers first ask themselves “What do I want to write about?” and then “How will I organize this piece?” Teaching students this foundational concept of the writing process will serve them well.

2 comments October 27th, 2010

Now Online: Day by Day

Teaching writing in a workshop setting is hard work. To plan mini-lessons, understand the diverse needs of a classroom of writers, and lift the level of each writer, while at the same time building confidence, is a tall order.

Ruth Ayers and Stacey Shubitz, creators of the popular blog Two Writing Teachers, have translated years of wisdom on writing instruction into a cornucopia of practical advice in their new book,

The 180 discussions are organized into 18 “cycles,” which in turn are grouped into chapters for each of the pillars of writing workshop: routines, mini-lessons, choice, mentors, conferring, and assessment. The book can be used as a quick reference for inspiration, as intensive professional development on a particular topic, or as a day-by-day guide to teaching writing workshop throughout the year. Questions throughout encourage reflective practice.

As Carl Anderson writes in the foreword, “This is a book that asks readers to take an active stance toward their learning, a stance that will reward them with new knowledge, new teaching points, and new techniques that become a part of their teaching repertoire.”

Print copies of Day by Day will start shipping early next month, and you can now preview the entire book online now!

1 comment October 25th, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Empire State Building

“One genre that is sometimes overlooked for nonfiction, but should definitely not be forgotten, is poetry,” write Lynne Dorfman and Rose Cappelli in their recent book Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8. Poetry is a “wonderful vehicle to deliver information with a powerful voice,” they argue. One example they cite is J. Patrick Lewis’ collection of Monumental Verses – a book of poems about timeless monuments. This poetry Friday we offer you one of his poems, “Empire State Building.” Enjoy!

Empire State Building
J. Patrick Lewis

I am an American boy, standing up to the world.
I sleep the city sleeps. We dream
     the riveter’s dream, held island-fast.
I wake to taxi alarms.
I am a 102-stop elevator ride to heaven.
I am ten million bricks of unshakable faith.
I capture imagination at its peak.
I hugged King Kong, he hugged me back.
I look down on Broadway for a work of art,
     the Fulton Fish Market for a slice of life,
     United Nations Headquarters for a little peace.
It’s lonely up here without my twin brothers,
     the World Trade Center Towers.
Wait here on my doorstep, Central Park,
     while I look over Harlem.
I am an American boy, face to face with the world.

1 comment October 22nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Characteristics of transitional readers

In Beyond Leveled Books, authors Karen Szymusiak, Franki Sibberson, and Lisa Koch, offer their perspective on moving transitional readers from the basic supports of leveling to independent book selection. In this week’s Quick Tip, they describe the basic characteristics of transitional readers and how these characteristics impact instruction.

In our work with transitional readers, we have found certain characteristics that are common to many. We have identified six areas of skill development that most often require explicit instruction and support from teachers.
Learning to Select Appropriate Books
Transitional readers often struggle with recognizing books that are appropriate to read independently. They often choose books that are either too easy or too hard. They tend to choose books on the basis of an inviting cover or a topic of interest to them. These can be good reasons for selecting books, but without a more sophisticated awareness of a variety of strategies for choosing books, transitional readers sometimes spend a long time picking a book and often waste time reading books that turn out to be inappropriate, given their skills or interests. Teachers often see these transitional readers wandering aimlessly in front of the bookcases. Or they may notice that these students make frequent trips to the bookcases and baskets because they have failed to make a good choice and quickly return for
another book. Part of our instruction with these readers needs to be spent in teaching them ways to select a book that is a good fit at a certain time. Students need their own strategies for selecting books that will help them throughout their lives as readers.
Sustaining Comprehension
Difficulty in sustaining comprehension for a longer text is another common characteristic. These students struggle with monitoring their comprehension, so when faced with reading a longer text, they often lose comprehension as they continue to read. Because their monitoring strategies are not as sophisticated as the books they are reading, they often push forward, continuing to read the text (decoding the words), but never stopping to think about what they are reading. They frequently get to the end of a chapter and cannot recollect what they have just read. Sustaining comprehension over an extended period of time can also challenge transitional readers. They may struggle to remember what they read the day before, so they need a set of strategies for remembering. This is often an issue for students who are just starting to move from single- story texts to short chapter books.
Maintaining Interest over an Entire Book
Early or emergent readers take up books that are simple and brief. As children move into longer texts, they need to develop persistence in their reading. Only then can they maintain interest in a text long enough to complete it and understand what they have read.
Understanding Many Genres
Transitional readers may enjoy feeling comfortable in their reading and may therefore be reluctant to explore new genres. They revisit books they have read before, they read books that the teacher has shared with the class in a read-aloud, and they may limit their choice of books to those that are similar to the ones they have already read. If these transitional readers are going to move to a higher level of independence, they need experience with a variety of genres, texts, and authors. Because each genre has unique features, transitional readers need strategies for making sense of any text. They cannot make the leap to independence until they have thoroughly explored a variety of genres and learned a wide range of reading strategies for each.
Decoding and Fluency Skills
Many transitional readers are skilled at decoding but still need to develop more sophistication as they read texts with more complex vocabulary. They are ready to look more closely at the structure of words and patterns in language. Although many of them have developed decoding skills, they may need to become more fluent in their reading. Very few of the transitional readers we encountered had decoding problems that got in the way of their reading. But as texts become more complex, children need instruction to support their fluency.
Using Text Features
As transitional readers move from simple books to a wider range of reading material, they encounter texts with new structures and features and often lack the strategies they need to make sense of them. As plots become more complicated, the number of characters increases, and issues of changing time and place become more prevalent in the books they are reading, transitional readers struggle with comprehension. As they encounter nonfiction texts, they struggle with the variety of ways content is presented (text, graphs, pictures, tables, charts) and how to find relevant information.

Some transitional readers lack skills in only one of the categories just described, but that one problem may be serious enough to stop their growth as readers. Many transitional readers have needs in multiple categories and will need a wide range of instructional and support activities to continue to develop as readers. All transitional readers need to build their own identity as readers.

Add comment October 19th, 2010

Office visit

We always love it when our authors stop by for a quick visit. And last Friday we had not one, but four authors in our offices in Portland, Maine. Thanks for stopping by!

Matilda gets some love from Joan Moser of "The Sisters"

And there's the other "sister," Gail Boushey

It was a great day for a cup of hot coffee in editorial director Philippa Stratton's (center) office with Jennifer Allen, left, and Franki Sibberson

Add comment October 18th, 2010

Poetry Friday: My Dog

We have another student poem this week from second-grader Seth Reed. His poem My Dog appeared in Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi’s book, Craft Lessons: Teaching Writing K-8.

My Dog

He pushed his wet nose
against my cheek.
I remember my dog.

He liked to catch leaves
when they fell off the trees.
I remember my dog.

At night I felt safe
when he slept near me.
I remember my dog.

1 comment October 15th, 2010

Now Online: Writing to Explore

What can you and your students learn from an adventure writer? Join classroom teacher David Somoza and adventure book author Peter Lourie as they share a writing process that goes beyond research to engage students through self-expression and imagination. Writing to Explore describes all aspects of an adventure writing project, and helps teachers breathe new life into research writing while incorporating history and geography.

In this concise and practical book, David and Peter offer structures and tools for managing student research, and solutions to common challenges that teachers face with student writing:

  • Plain descriptions of settings
  • Hollow characters that don’t interest the reader
  • Lack of passion and emotional connection to the subject
  • Lack of authenticity and subject knowledge

A six-step process helps teachers and students break the adventure writing project into manageable pieces and provides a structure that actually enhances creativity. Student examples throughout the book—including two full-length finished student essays—bring ideas to life, and a section on technology addresses both the creation of multimedia writing prompts by teachers and effective use of online research tools by students. Numerous handouts reduce prep time and help you jump-start your projects.

Writing to Explore will start shipping at the end of this month, and you can preview the entire book online now!

Add comment October 14th, 2010

Student self-portraits

Ohio kindergarten teacher Jonelle Bell was so taken with the student portraits on the cover of Ann Marie Corgill’s book Of Primary Importance, that she had her students draw their own self-portraits. She posted the results on her blog, A Place Called Kindergarten.

Take a look at the adorable results on her blog!

1 comment October 13th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Independence Through Conferences

In More Than Guided Reading, author Cathy Mere shares her journey as she moved from focusing on guided reading as the center of her reading program to placing children at the heart of literacy learning. In this week’s Quick Tip, Cathy talks about how individual conferences play a big role in creating independent readers.

One afternoon during reader’s workshop, I knelt down beside Katie to talk about the book she had chosen to read, The Big Kick by Beverley Randell. Even though I had read this story aloud a million times, I was having a hard time understanding her retelling. She didn’t quite seem to get the gist of what she was reading. The story is about Tom and his dad who, while out in the yard playing soccer, kick the ball over the fence and have to try to find it. Since Katie seemed to be having a hard time understanding the story, I wanted to try to determine what was making the reading challenging for her. Was she actually having trouble reading the story or just difficulty understanding it? I asked if she would read a page or two to me and took a running record as she read.

As I listened, I noticed that when she got to an unknown word she would stop and look at me. My prompts to “try it” produced only puzzled looks. She was uncertain about how to help herself. I thought that if I gave her some strategies to try, she might be able to read with more success. Unfortunately, because Katie was not attempting to read tricky words at all, I had little information to go on.Was she able to use meaning to help figure out unknown words? Was she using available picture cues? Was she looking at the word and thinking about what it might be?

There was no way for me to know the cues she was attending to. As I talked with Katie I said, “I notice that when you are reading and you come to a word you don’t know, you stop and look at me. I want you to try to figure out the word on your own. Let me show you something I think might help. When you are stuck, go back a little and reread; then, when you reach that hard word, try something that makes sense. You can use the picture and think about the story to help as well.” We practiced rereading and attempting to figure out the word when she was stuck. Then, since she was still having difficulty, I reread with her and let her try the word, lowering my voice as hers took over.We did this several times, with occasional prompts from me. I praised these attempts, even though she did not always produce the word in the text, because they did allow me to see what information Katie was using to read new text. I put her back on my schedule for the following day. I wanted to follow up quickly, to make attempting an unknown word something she does independently.

Conferences That Shape Independence
While focus lessons allow me to develop common conversations in our classroom community, conferences allow me to shape my instruction to individual students. Changing my schedule to allow time for conferences has not only helped me to carry focus-lesson conversations into the workshop and learn about my students as readers, it has also allowed me to address specific student needs.

The readers in our primary-level classrooms read at their own pace and often have different needs. Instead of working with Katie in a small group, where my attention is divided, in a conference I can focus on her, jumping in quickly when she needs support, prompting her responses as necessary, and praising her attempts at reading.My goal is to support Katie with what is next in her learning, helping her to use new strategies to read increasingly challenging text with understanding.

Having time within the day to meet individually with students has made it easier for me to address the specific needs of my students. In classes of twenty-five or more, students are often not in the same place at the same time. Not everyone is going to be reading a book that is good for asking questions when my focus lesson is about that strategy, not everyone is going to need to learn strategies for figuring out challenging vocabulary, not everyone is going to need to learn to check through a word (search visually), and not everyone is going to need help in monitoring their reading. Conferences allow me to tailor my instruction.

Guided Conferences: I teach students something they need to know about
reading and we try it together. I am there to provide immediate support.
Conferences That Support the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I follow up on my
teaching of a new strategy or understanding from the focus lesson.
 Conferences That Extend the Teaching of the Focus Lesson: I am able to teach
something that builds on the focus lesson and extends student learning.
Conferences That Develop the Reader: In these conferences, often more conversational,
I help students to develop a reading life.
Assessment Conferences: I am able to find out what the child knows and
understands about reading.

Add comment October 12th, 2010

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