Video Podcast: Jennifer Jacobson

We sat down with Jennifer Jacobson, author of the new book No More “I’m Done!” , to talk about the many aspects of teaching young writers–the wide range of abilities, the importance of writing with students, and how her book’s mini- lessons help teachers empower students as they progress through the year.

“There’s a major misconception about primary children: that they need to be provided with a whole basket of tools before they can begin to write–they need to know their letters, they need to know their letter sounds–when in truth, most 5-year-olds come to school believing, ‘I’m a writer.’ I think it’s our job not to back them up, but to build on that desire to continue communicating.”

Preview the entire text of No More “I’m Done!” online!

1 comment April 2nd, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Word walls

“As most teachers know, crafting writing sometimes has a different meaning at the primary level,” writes Liz Hale in her book, Crafting Writers, K-6. “Students not only are crafting meaning but also are crafting letters, words, and sentences.” In this week’s Quick Tip Liz shares some of her successful strategies for using word walls in the primary writing classroom.

Word Walls
One of the balancing acts in teaching primary writing is supporting students’ use of inventive spelling while also creating a sense of accountability for learning the correct spelling of grade-level words. Many teachers use a word wall to assist students with correct spelling by publicly displaying high-frequency words or words that have been taught in lessons. As most primary teachers know, the more students interact with word walls, the more they will actually use them independently. As a result, teachers sometimes do activities such as bingo or word searches with word wall words in addition to using the word wall as an instructional tool during shared reading or interactive writing.

Although frequent exposure to these words in any way is beneficial, it is helpful to have activities that isolate as much as possible the skill you actually want students to use during independent writing time. We certainly don’t want students to look up at the word wall every single time they write a word. We want students to be immersed in remembering their stories so they can draw and write about their stories to the best of their ability. The ideal word wall scenario would look something like this: Kalil is writing about the birthday party he had last month, with all that blank space ahead of him. After writing “I saw my . . . ,” he is about to write the word friend when something in his mind reminds him that the word friend is on the word wall. He glances up from his seat, where he can easily read the words on the word wall, writes f-r-i-e-n-d, and then continues on with his sentence.

Perhaps some teachers might notice there is one skill in that scenario that is the least likely to occur on its own. Most students write sentences, and most students can look at a board and copy words. The skill that is not as much of a given is when Kalil, without being reminded about using the word wall and without having it in his immediate line of vision, realizes that the word he is about to write is on the word wall. Kalil is so familiar with which words are on the word wall that the words themselves act as a trigger to look up and use this spelling resource. One way to support the use of the word wall during independent writing time is not through direct instruction but through consistent practice of this very small skill in almost a game-like way.

Word-Wall Game
This quick game begins with giving a pointer to a student and asking him or her to find a certain word on the word wall:

Where is the word . . . when?

After that student points to the word when, he or she chooses the next person to get the pointer for the next word-find challenge. After modeling the game a few times, students can take over the role of telling the other student which word to find. The game can then be run independently, with the teacher as
facilitator. Other students can be involved by either whispering to each other if they know where the given word is or by giving a thumbs-up when the correct word is found.

Word-Wall Quiz
Another way to reinforce students’ memory of the word wall is simply to quiz students:
Teacher: Is friend on the word wall?
Students: Yes!
Teacher: Is . . . cousin on the word wall?
Students: No!
At first some students scan the board to come to an answer. Some students may just pick up on what other students are saying. But that’s okay, because it’s the repetition and reinforcement of what is there and what isn’t there that is important.

Both activities may seem quite simple—and they are—but their simplicity is due to the fact that attention is given to such an isolated skill. The best part about these kinds of activities is that they can be done in a matter of minutes whenever there is a small amount of time—after a morning meeting, before lunch, or during those last few minutes before buses are called. They can also be done as a transition, especially before writing workshop, when students ideally are putting this skill to use the most.

1 comment January 5th, 2010

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

Quick Tip Tuesday: Drawing strategies in primary writing classrooms

“Many primary teachers understand the important link between drawing and writing,” writes Liz Hale in her book, Crafting Writers, K-6. Drawing is a preparation for writing and instruction of drawing should be taken just as seriously in the primary grades as instruction around writing skills.

In this week’s Quick Tip, Liz takes a look at the skills that make up “good” drawing and eventually, good writing.

Drawing Strategies

It is sometimes useful to teach general drawing strategies before getting into a lot of specific ways to draw. Many of the craft techniques in Table 6.1 reflect more detailed drawing, and some drawings are not as conducive as others to adding smaller details. I’ve seen many primary drawings that have four main ingredients: a house, one big flower, grass, and a sun. Sometimes the sun is in the corner and sometimes it’s in the middle of the picture. There are variations of this (sometimes there’s a bird too), but the important point is that these drawings indicate that students think they always have to show “the whole scene” in a drawing. But when the whole scene is shown, then there is less room for details. This is somewhat similar to upper elementary students telling the “whole story.” They are so busy explaining everything that happened that there is very little time to mention any details.

One day this past year, I was planning to model a lesson on drawing small objects in a first-grade classroom, something the teacher and I had discussed in a previous inquiry meeting. But when I went around the classroom that morning to see the most current entries, I saw all these house-sun-flower pictures. I visualized the lesson in my head and suddenly it didn’t seem to fit with what these first graders were doing. How could I ask them to add in details when there wasn’t really any room on the page to squeeze in anything? I decided to transfer the zoom-in technique that students were doing with writing in the elementary grades to drawing. During the lesson, I modeled my own “zoomin” drawings. First I showed them a drawing of my sister and me at the beach. There was an ocean, a few small stick figures, a huge sky, and a sun in the corner.

I then showed them my zoom-in picture, which depicted the same beach but without a lot of white space. I had zoomed in on just the red buckets and our hands making a sand castle. I pointed out that because I didn’t try to draw the whole scene, I could draw the sand castle and the shells, even the buckets with their white, plastic braided handle, with much more detail.

Zooming in, whether in drawing or writing, works best after an original version has been created that attempts to tell the whole story or show the whole scene. After students get the whole story or the whole picture on paper, it’s easier to then choose and zoom in on one part. This is true even when adults write. One of the first personal narrative entries I wrote in graduate school was about the day my twin sister burned her knee at the beach when we were eight years old. I first wrote an entry that started with arriving at the beach for dinner and ended with rushing to the car to get ice and bandages after she burned her knee. It wasn’t until I went back and wrote about isolated events—feeding bread to seagulls, the moment my sister actually burned her knee—that I was able to write with much more detail and dig underneath to the significance of this memory. Even now when I write about a memory, it is almost as if I have to get the whole story down before I can figure out which parts might have more significance. Any time I write, of course, I might naturally zoom in on certain parts, which is what we want students eventually to do. Zooming in, whether it’s with writing or drawing, ideally is not left only for official revision times. In the beginning, however, it’s important to validate that there has to be some scaffolding before this happens naturally.

Another craft strategy to consider in the primary grades, particularly second grade, is to have students draw pictures in the margin of their notebook entries, rather than complete scenes. This idea came from conversations with several second-grade teachers at the Tobin School in Boston who felt that many of their students were ready to spend writing workshop just writing rather than writing and drawing. They wanted students to build up the writing stamina they would need in third grade, but they also knew how important drawing was for writing. They also weren’t sure it would be wise to make a cold-turkey switch in the middle of the year from drawing to no drawing.

So, rather than decide between “all or nothing,” we showed students how to draw smaller pictures in the margin. Students could still draw pictures and details to support their writing, but there wouldn’t be a lot of time taken up with drawing the whole scene. Figure 6.5 is an example of this technique.

Rosa Verdu, a teacher of a combined class of first- and second-grade English language learners, found the margin drawing technique particularly helpful because of the large range of abilities in her classroom. Her first graders continued drawing larger pictures while she taught the new drawing strategy in several group conferences to her second graders. The students loved it! So did we. Students were writing more, but we had not asked them to let go of drawing either. Drawing in the margin also allowed students to highlight objects and people at different parts of their memoir stories. They did not have to choose just one moment from their stories to capture in their drawings. Because there was no scale in terms of size, it was easy for them to draw objects with more detail. These small drawings in the margins also gave a colorful, inviting tone to the writing and the notebook in general. I’ve since thought about teaching this to some of the older grades as well. If I were a fourth or fifth grader, I would feel even more attached to my writer’s notebook if there were a few colorful pictures in the margins reflecting the content of my stories and memories.

1 comment November 10th, 2009

Study Group Discussion – Of Primary Importance, Part IV

The group of teachers at Riverside Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio wrapped up their book study for the year, but not before sending along reflections from three  teachers about how they implemented some of the strategies and ideas. The group will meet again in the fall to continue the discussion and to ask author Ann Marie Corgill some questions about her book, Of Primary Importance. Catch up on what the group discussed earlier.

From McKenzie, 3rd Grade Teacher
Corgill spends a lot of time during her writing workshop studying the genre before getting students started with a writing piece.  One of the focus studies for third grade is for students to spend time learning about and writing literary non-fiction.

I tried to spend more time with students observing and examining the genre before we started writing within the genre of literary nonfiction.  I began this study in my reading workshop by introducing and reading books that fit this genre.  I spent a lot more time choosing mentor texts than I have in the past.  After some time reading this genre in my reading workshop, I moved the study into my writing workshop.  We looked at many books that fit the genre and began a chart in our writer’s notebook.  The chart contained four columns:  The title and author, the organization of the book (ie. Question/answer, ABC, etc.), how the author engages the reader, and finally an example of one of the previous two columns.  This helped the students focus on how authors present factual information in an interesting way.  As students started thinking about their own writing, they were able to identify what they wanted to do in their writing that really caught the readers’ attention while providing factual information.

Next year, I would like to look through our learning targets and identify two or three genres for students to study and write during writing workshop.  I am going to try using Corgill’s template for her unit of study curriculum map.  In this curriculum map, Corgill identifies what students should have, understand, and be able to do.  She has also compiled a list of mentor texts for each unit of study.   The last piece of her curriculum map is how she will assess students.  Corgill doesn’t just assess one piece of writing from the unit of study.  She looks at many writing samples, she documents student writing conferences, and looks at the reflections of her students as they have gone through their writing journey.  I found the sample reflections to be very informative when determining each students learning within the unit of study.

From Debbie, Reading Teacher
Although I am not a classroom teacher doing writing workshop, Of  Primary Importance helped with greater understanding of how I can  further develop and build those important connections between reading and writing.  “When students are consistently exposed to different types of literature it increases student’s motivation to write the kinds of books they read” was one quote that meant a lot to me as a reading support teacher.  I can continue to encourage and support them to read a variety of genres.

Another area that I found  of interest was the section on  nonfiction.  To avoid copying from the test when writing nonfiction, struggling readers will need additional practice with putting their reading into their own words.  I will reflect on  more ways that I can help them with this so that they can make the “slow and steady” progress in their writing.

From Laura, 2nd Grade Teacher
After reading the book Of Primary Importance, I have a lot of new ideas for my writing workshop next year, as well as how I am going to connect reading and writing workshop with my required content areas.  One great idea I plan to implement next year is the idea of dividing the year into 3 areas of focus, fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  I had to rethink how I would incorporate all I need to teach into these areas, and I have a good plan in place to try out next year.  After reading the book, I also see the importance of taking time to set up your workshop and not just jump right into it.  I will take the first 6-8 weeks to set up and talk about expectations etc.  I think I will have a better outcome for my writing workshop if my students know exactly what the next step is in their writing, where everything is, ,and what to do when they finish.  It will save me a lot of explaining the same things over and over again!

1 comment June 24th, 2009

Questions & Authors: Showcasing Student Work

Sharing and showcasing student work is an important part of the writing process, according to Ann Marie Corgill, author of Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers. She shares some of her classroom publishing strategies in the latest edition of our Questions & Authors series.

Publishing means many things to writers and writing teachers. To me, publishing simply means “going public” with your writing, and there are so many ways to support young writers as they publish and celebrate their writing and illustrating work. Publishing—and the celebration that goes along with it—is one giant step in the writing process, and possibly the most important part for the children. The pieces of writing go forth into the classroom, the school, and the world and become a representation of the reading, topic selecting, conferring, rough-drafting, editing, revising, talking, sharing, rewriting, and reflecting work that we do across the days and weeks of a study. So much teaching and learning about writing is held in those pieces, and that writing deserves and audience and a celebration.
Here are a few tips for celebrating and showcasing student work:

Make Time For Daily Sharing

Make Time for Daily Sharing

Young children will thrive as writers if they can count on daily responses to and celebrations of their work. So often writing share is the first thing to go when time is short in an already packed school day, but having this routine consistent and built in to the writing workshop block will provide multiple opportunities for student sharing and the class:

  • to learn how to give and receive comments to a piece of writing
  • to synthesize and share writing conference highlights and bring that teaching out into the classroom
  • to gain confidence in writing and illustrating abilities
  • to speak about the work that writers and illustrators do
  • to seek help and suggestions for a particular piece of writing or a part of the process that may be challenging for the writer

Bring The Teaching Out Into The Room

Bring the teaching into the room

One simple way to honor the work of a writer is to showcase writing conference teaching points throughout the room. This is a great way to have your conferring impact all students and is a great way to engage the class in the learning of one writer. Pretty soon the walls of the classroom become covered in teaching and learning about writing (or reading or math or science or social studies)—depending on which conference teaching points you decide to share.

Think Big
Think Big

Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how a tiny piece of writing can grab the attention of a reader or can truly represent the hard work that went into writing and publishing. During our poetry studies, when the writing isn’t long and doesn’t fill several pages, we use our illustrating abilities to support the writing and create “poetry posters”. These posters give student writing a “grand and colorful” feel and can bring the dull and lifeless walls of a school to life. Think big when publishing and celebrating student work and fill your school walls with the work of your students.

Use Previous Artwork In Publishing

Use previous artworkA few weeks ago, my first graders created gorgeous artwork with markers and the raindrops of a February thunderstorm. After we hung these pieces in the room, I heard a couple students talking. “My art looks like a picture book cover!” Hmmmmm….

Thanks to my students, I learned that previous artwork might become the “seed” for a writing project. Some of my students are now using this artwork as the cover of the next picture book they’re writing. This is just a reminder to me as their teacher to keep my eyes and ears open for ways to publish and showcase student writing.

Chart Comments from A Real Audience

Chart Comments from a Real Audience

This week a second grade teacher in my school shared a realistic fiction piece that her class had written with my first graders. My students were delighted with the story, clapped when the story ended, and immediately burst into conversation about Rocket’s Bath. And I couldn’t just let that be the end of this “publishing and celebrating” experience. We decided to chart our comments and send them to the class of second graders so that they could hang our responses in the classroom alongside their published piece. Thanks to Mrs. Collins and her second graders for sharing an amazing piece of writing and for reminding us all that written comments from a real audience can inspire young authors to “keep writing!”

Show Children That They Are Doing The Work Of Real Authors

real authors

It’s especially important when students write to remind them that they are doing the work of real authors. One way to send that message to students is to find perfect places in your classroom library to house student writing. If students see the books they write surrounded by the work of the authors they read each day, they will come to believe that their own writing is always written for a purpose and a real audience.

Add comment April 22nd, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Connecting movement and comprehension

In Chapter 4 of their book, Starting with Comprehension, authors Andie Cunningham and Ruth Shagoury examine how using movement, mind pictures, and metaphors with young learners can help improve their comprehension. “Many young children still struggle with speaking about what is going on in their minds,” the authors argue, so movement is a natural way for children to express themselves, to reenact scenes from books, and to communicate what they know.

Comprehension Through Movement

My students don’t always use drawing and writing to comprehend texts; they also benefit from using their bodies and movement to make meaning. Many young children still struggle with speaking about what is going on in their minds. When students use movement to express ideas, we eliminate the need for fluency with words and allow them to communicate what they know using a different language. It is my job to guide my students to find ways to help them unlock and articulate what they want to say and how they want to say it – to find a voice in our literacy work. Reading comprehension through movement is an integral part of my reading workshop.

Years ago, when I was still teaching physical movement, I realized that body language is a crucial communication tool for young learners. I saw that for some young learners, speaking can be a tremendous challenge. In an attempt to understand those learners better, I also explored what a movement workshop might look like in physical education. Designed with intentions similar to reading and writing workshops, I connected movement with comprehension. In our twice-a-week classes, I read short picture books, then invited students to make sense of the book with their bodies and draw what was most important to them in their movements.

In the midst of my exploration with the comprehension strategies in the movement world, I had an enormous aha: I realized that students speak a language when they move. In my kindergarten classroom now, we use physical movement to make sense of what we read; it’s another tool as valid as conversation, visual representation, or writing. I still see students speaking a language when they move, just as I did when I was a physical education teacher.

Here are some questions I ask myself that help me make informal assessments as students move in response to a text:

  • What parts of the story are children drawn to?
  • Do they understand and respond to each other’s movements during sharing?
  • Do they move to something in the book or something unrelated to the story?
  • How does the moving seem to affect their understanding?
  • Who is not moving and what is keeping them from doing so?

The Castle Builder is one example of using our bodies to make sense of text. Although I do not incorporate movement with each read-aloud, once or twice a month I offer an opportunity to move like the book. Depending on the strategy, the book we are reading, and the mood of the class, prompts might include the following: “Look carefully and see which picture you’ll move like.” “Move like a piece in the book.” “Move to your questions about the book.” “Move to the part of the book where your thinking changed.”

I usually pick one prompt and use it over and over again in the beginning of the year to make sure they understand what I mean. For instance, “move like the book” was the perfect invitation for one class of students. When I said this prompt, they all stood up and moved, excited to join their experience of reading the book with moving their bodies.

I find that some students — and some classes — connect more with the movement piece than others. Some books work better than others. To find a good “movement” book, I ask myself what parts I would move to and how. For instance, when reading The Castle Builder, I noticed a dozen ways that I would naturally move to the text. However, when reading The Hickory Chair, a book I love, I realized that moving to it would be difficult for me. It is not the quality of the story that dictates how “moveable” it is. Rather, the action communicated through the story is the crucial element. When the book lends itself to physical movement and we are genuinely interested in the book and its message, our physical engagement is much more significant.

Add comment January 27th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating a writing routine

“Beginning anything is never easy,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her new book, Of Primary Importance. This is especially true when it comes to creating a community of writers in a primary classroom. Every teacher knows the chaos, uncertainty, and confusion those first few days or even weeks and months of a writing workshop can create. Ann Marie suggests that while the chaos is inevitable, creating a writing routine from day one is essential. Here is how she does it:

In order to create a writing routine in your classroom with your students, the most important thing you can do as a writing teacher is begin on day one—give the kids paper and pencils and crayons and markers and say, “We’re going to have writing time every day in our class, and it’s going to be really great.” Or you might say, “Just Write! Our writing time this year is going to be lots of fun!” No doubt there will be lots of talking and lots of questioning and lots of chatter in the room—“I don’t know what to write” or “I’m finished. What do I do now?”. Lots of “Where are the crayons?” and “Can you sharpen my pencil?” and “How do you make the stapler work?” There will be broken pencil points and crayon marks on the tables and glue sticky hands and paper covering the floor. And, yes, you may seem a little fried and overwhelmed at the end of it. I know. I feel that pain every August or September (and even into October!), and it’s normal. But don’t give up. Establish a writing routine on day one and stick to it.

Our classroom writing routine lasts approximately one hour and always includes a focus lesson, independent writing and conferring time, and writing share. The routine is the same every day except for differences in the time allotment of that hour over the course of the year. At the beginning of the year, we tend to need more time for focus lessons and settling in to our writing at the beginning of the workshop period as well as time for cleanup and share at the end of the workshop period. The children need longer amounts of time to practice the routines of passing out writing folders, finding appropriate materials for work, and settling in to their actual writing. We also need extra time for cleanup at the end of the period, so that children can make sure that their writing work and all materials are in their proper places and ready for the next writing day. At this point in the year, although settling in to write and cleanup take more time, we need less time for actual writing and conferring until the children build writing stamina and can focus their attention on the writing work. As their stamina increases and they develop strategies for writing and producing pieces, the length of the workshop increases.

At the beginning of the year, our independent writing and conferring time lasts around twenty minutes, and by the end of the year, we have built up to at least forty minutes of independent writing and conferring time As you live and work through these days of writing chaos at the beginning of the year, try to take a step back and really listen to the questions being asked and what caused the chaos at the writing materials area or during your conference time with a student. Everything that’s happening is an opportunity to teach (and then go home that afternoon and have a glass of wine!).

It’s in these early months of writing workshop that I can just hear myself saying (in a very strong and serious voice), “I am trying to hear your classmate read his writing, but you’re making it very difficult for me to hear!”

I can’t count the times I’ve said, “I’m shocked that you don’t care enough about your writing work and fellow writers to use a quiet voice.” But we are teaching five- and six- and seven- and eight-year-olds who make sense of their world through talking, and the more we let them in on the problem solving, the more respectful and productive they will become. “What can we do about those times when I’m conferring with a classmate and I can’t hear him over the room noise?” “What can we do to respect the other writers in this class during workshop time?” “What does a productive writing workshop look and sound like? Do you think we can try that today?”

You can read more about Ann Marie’s classroom on the Stenhouse website.

1 comment January 6th, 2009

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

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

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