Sunday, February 12, 2017

Writing Better Beginnings for Personal Narratives

Not too long ago, I had to write a script for our holiday program at school. 

"Me?" I asked. "You want ME to direct the Christmas play?"
Yes, they said. Because we don't want to anymore.
Hee-hee. That's how we get suckered, right?
Anyway, the point is that, before I wrote my play, I took a look at a few others. I asked the person who wrote last year's play if I could take a look at it and make sure I was on the right track. I thought about how the play had worked before, what went well, and how I could ensure that would happen again.
Basically, I looked to the experts.
That's what we want our kids to do when they write, too.  We want them to look to the experts to figure out what they did and how they did it, so they can use that inspiration in their own writing. It's called "Reading like a writer" and it's an important focus of our campus writing approach.
It starts with getting your mindset ready to read like a writer. We built this little anchor chart with kids - what do you think about when you're reading like a reader, and what do you think about when you're reading like a writer?
This requires a lot of modeling at first. Kids really need to think carefully about this mind shift! It's tricky to move from simply understanding and connecting to analyzing and thinking about, "What did the author do here? Why did they do it? How did they do it?"

We used this approach recently as we helped kids understand how authors begin their narratives. Starting with a few experts (Kevin Henkes, Jane Yolen, and Patricia Polacco), we analyzed the beginnings of their stories. 
Using this chart, we looked for the kind of beginning (Character description, setting description, and dialogue), what kind of details the author included in the beginning (usually who, when, where, and sometimes what is happening), and we critically analyzed to figure out why the author used that type of beginning.
This is the most difficulty part - understanding why an author would choose to write in the way he or she did. What is the impact on the reader? What are they trying to help us feel or see?

In their notebooks, kids had a typed-up copy of the beginning so they could annotate it as well and color-code it for "who", "when", "where", and sometimes "what".

And then we tried it! We decided to try out a setting description and brainstormed the kinds of details we could use our five senses to discover on a soccer field. We spent some time generating the language so we could use it to collaboratively write our beginning.

And then we tried it out! Not my best work, honestly, (I mean, who likes to start with "one summer evening?!") but, as I always tell the kids, I can go back and revise when I've had some time to think of a more interesting idea. We start by getting it on paper, and we can - and should - always improve it. 

Then kids tried their own in their notebooks.

 What are your favorite mentor texts for narrative writing? Read more about our school's mentor text baskets here!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Scaffolding expository writing for struggling writers

Do you have kids who are trying to write well but struggle with keeping their writing focused and
organized? They start out writing about their favorite sport, baseball, and end up writing about how their hamster got stuck under the sink? Or their sentences are out of order, creating a disorganized mess?

I've worked with these students every year of my career - I think all of us have! I'd like to share with you the approach that's working for my kids.

For these students, I tried a differentiated approach to writing expository pieces. It's highly structured (you might say formulaic) approach. To be clear: I don't like to teach students a formula for writing! It's not real; they can do so much better with consistent instruction.

But to support those students who were significantly behind and struggled with simple sentence structure, organization, and coherence of their writing, I wanted to provide them with a very guided structure so their writing would make sense.

Because that's really what it is - when writing doesn't make sense to the reader, it's frustrating to the writer and they really don't know how to revise it. It's better to start with a scaffold before your writers get so frustrated. It's meeting their instructional needs through differentiation! (I wouldn't recommend doing this with all your kids! That's limiting your stronger writers.)

Setting a purpose for writing

First, we read the prompt. I have kids flip the prompt to write a topic statement that their whole piece will be about. We leave a blank so they can generate ideas to write about and fill it in later. I start with the topic statement so we stay focused! Example: My favorite season is _______________.

Generating ideas

Then, kids write a quicklist of all the ideas they can think of to write about. It's important to stretch their thinking - if they only think of one possible idea, they're stuck writing about that. Also, we're not doing much to grow their writing abilities if they write one idea and we accept it. We have to push for fluency of ideas! My quicklist included the four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall/autumn.

After that, we choose the one they'd like to write about (one they have the most to say about) and put it in the blank. That's the completed topic statement. My favorite season is spring! (I say that now, because I'm done with winter and ready for spring. Two months into spring, I'll be thinking, "When will it be summer already?!" And thirty seconds into summer, I'll be ready for fall. In the fall, I'll say, "Winter is my FAVORITE season!" I'm always excited for the start of the next season!

Kids put their topic in the middle of a donut map. Around the edges, they brainstorm any details they can think of related to that topic! Then, they use colored pencils (or in a testing situation, we use symbols) to bundle the ideas into like groups. For example, in my brainstorming donut, I came up with "gardening," "rain," "sun," "shorts," etc. Then, I bundled them into two main reasons: "I can garden in the sun," and "I can wear my favorite outfits." Brilliant, I know. It's not my most riveting piece, ok?

Students choose their strongest two reasons to move on to the planning stage.

Getting organized

After we have 2 main reasons (I keep it focused on a couple. I'd rather kids develop 2 reasons well rather than stringing along 5 ideas they don't have the time or energy to develop), we start our expository organizer. They build the 4-square organizer, including the sentence starters for each piece to help them stay focused and organized. This is what it looks like:

We fill in the 2 main reasons we came up with in the "Reasons" column. Then we go back to the introduction.

The introduction is a question. It can start with question words such as, "Do you-," "Can you think of-," or "Is there-." Then we plug the topic statement into the line under the question line. After they master this simple introduction, you can jazz it up by reading about the ideas here.

After that, students add in the details: why the reason is important to them, and an example for each reason.

At the end, students fill in the blank conclusion line by flipping the topic statement: In conclusion, spring is my favorite season.

Here's another sample where I wrote about my favorite place:

And this is how a student applied it to her own prewriting & planning:

After we plan, we turn our plan into a four-paragraph draft. It's a start to a basic piece for students who are struggling with writing simple expository pieces. Try it out and let me know how it goes!

To guide students to deeper revision of their writing, check out my Expository Revision Guides on TPT!

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blast off to family literacy night! Space themed

You know, 55% of being a teacher is coming up with clever themes and gimmicks. That's one of my favorite things to do, actually. 

Our family nights are meant to be simple, accessible activities that parents can do with their kids. Some things are made at the event and taken home for more practice and fun, and some are activities they only do at the event. Parents are not learning about rigor or testing; rather these events are meant to be low-stakes and easy to participate in. We want parents to enjoy coming to school and doing literacy activities with their kids!

Every year, for Family Literacy Night, I choose a different theme. So far, we've had family nights with these themes: camping, superheroes, movies, and pirates. This year, we chose to go with: outer space! Because we're starting our first year as a STEAM school, we thought it would be important to encourage kids to think about a science topic. 

To read about how I plan Literacy Night events, visit this blog post.

I planned seven stations. 

We gave out books at the front of the school. Each student gets one free book to take home! That's always a big seller to get students and parents to participate.

After they get a book, students can visit seven different stations that involve listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 


Big Bang Brainstorming

Students brainstorm as many words as they can for every letter in the alphabet! We tallied up the number of words students came up with and found the top three places. Those students received a little bag with fun stuff! Some space stickers, colored pencils, Starburst, Milky Ways, and other fun prizes. Our #1 winner had 83 words!



Mission Control

Students found a cozy spot and read space books with their parents. We had many copies of Star Stuff, about Carl Sagan, placed in baskets, as well as other space-related books and other topics of interest.

Students also went home with these adorable bookmarks!


Space Race

Students made a fun board game that would help them work on following directions. They built the game and played it with their parents!

Moon Rocks

At this station, students competed in two different word games. For one game, they hunted for rhyming words, and for the other, they hunted for synonyms. Kids really got involved in this one! We made the station by using plastic wading pools and filling them with balled-up butcher paper. Then we scattered the word cards throughout the paper and had kids start digging!




This might have been my favorite station. First, students and parents made fun partner play hats to show which role they were reading in the play: the alien or the astronaut. Then, students and parents read a fun partner play together about an alien meeting an astronaut. 




 Rocket Writing

This station was fun because kids love to get crafty! Kids used a straw and a little spaceship cutout to make a space shuttle. Then they wrote an acrostic poem using the word "Rocket".









3-2-1 Blastoff!

This station integrated a little technology by projecting the book Mousteronaut being read aloud on YouTube. It's an adorable story. Kids got to color and write on a retelling wheel to retell the story! Here's the link on YouTube.

At the end of the event, kids got a free dress pass for participating and were allowed to wear free dress the next day!

All in all, Family Literacy Night 2017 was a BLAST! Want to do the activities we did? Grab it on TPT!
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Friday, January 20, 2017

Celebrating Kindness #weholdthesetruths

Hey, everybody.

Let's talk.

This country is a big place, full of lots of people. There are many different kinds of people, with lots of different backgrounds, beliefs, and goals. We don't always agree. 

Growing up in a time like this can be a challenge. Little people feed off the energy of big people. 

This is evidenced by conversations my students have on a daily basis. The fears of their parents become their fears. The anxiety of their teachers becomes their anxiety. The concerns of the world rest in their ten-year-old faces. 

It's a hard life. 

So I think it's time (and so do many other amazing Teacher-Authors) to pause and take inventory. All we really have is each other. That includes the little people. And we might be sending some mixed messages. 

But when you come right down to it, what's the most important message? Kindness.

If we can choose one thing for our kids to learn, it's kindness. Kindness towards themselves, kindness towards other Americans, kindness towards the rest of humanity, and kindness towards the Earth.

And that's why I've teamed up with so many amazing TPT Teacher-Authors to create some free resources for you to use in sharing the message of #kindnessnation and #weholdthesetruths with your students!

What does Cesar Chavez have to do with kindness? He stood up for underprivileged Mexican Americans because he believed they deserved to be treated like people, too. Sometimes kindness takes courage, and Cesar had it. 

This Cesar Chavez partner play is a great way to introduce upper elementary students to Chavez's life and accomplishments, while developing comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency, too! And the best part: It's a FOREVER FREEBIE! That's right! All of the products mentioned in this post will be forever free!
But this freebie is only one of dozens! Visit Teachers Pay Teachers and search for #kindnessnation or #weholdthesetruths to view all of the incredible freebies about these important topics:
-Understanding our Branches of US Government and the US Constitution
-History of civil rights movements, including suffrage
-Environmental issues including climate change
-Critical thinking and examining media bias
-Kindness, empathy, compassion
-Equality and inclusion for all people
-Understanding and respecting of cultural differences
I've selected a few of my favorites for upper elementary to share with you here. 
Empathy Interactive Notebook Kit by Adventures at Home
I am really impressed by this product. It's beautifully designed and thoughtful. Students think about empathy and how they can demonstrate it to others - what a powerful message! 
This 32-slide presentation guides students through the ideas of positive peace and negative peace, and includes some excellent discussion starters to get them thinking. 

These eye-catching posters include important themes and great Americans. The quotes are inspiring and serve as great discussion starters, too!

Keep being kind, America!

Want to find even more awesome freebies? Check out the link-up below!

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Gearing yourself up for a challenging semester of instructional coaching

Recently, someone told me, "You make your job look so easy." 
I blinked. 
"Really?" I asked. 
"Yeah! From what I see on Instagram, it looks like you know what you're doing and that you do everything!"
I cocked my head to one side and I blinked again. 
"Lies!" I shouted. "It's all lies!" And then I laughed like a maniac. 
Ok, maybe I didn't laugh like a maniac, but I did say that thing about lies. 
You see, it's not easy. And I don't do everything. And sometimes I feel pretty crummy. 

This is a tough job. After that conversation, I realized, maybe I'm not doing a good enough job of conveying that to my readers. I would hate for anyone to think that I have it all together and that they don't. The truth is: neither of us knows what we're doing. 

HAHA! Kidding. Sort of.

Let's step back a bit.

This last semester has been a challenge for me. We've been going through some personal challenges and we've been struggling in some professional contexts too. In my particular arena, these are questions that invade my thinking at all hours of the day:
  • Am I making a positive difference on my campus?
  • Am I providing the appropriate support for my teachers?
  • How do I differentiate teacher support based on need?
  • How should I change the type of support I'm providing to my teachers based on my campus' changing need?
  • Are teachers gaining the best practices they need in order to support student learning at higher levels?
The list goes on and on. I spend many hours wallowing in self-doubt and worry. I spend hours talking about this with my colleagues, trying to make adjustments in my approach to best suit teachers' needs and the needs of my school as a whole. I debate within myself and aloud to my husband about the pros and cons of different types of campus support.
And I still feel like I don't have all the answers.
You see, much like teaching, coaching is about doing the metal work. Read the books, scour the blogs, ask the questions, and try to arrive at some answers. Try something out, see how it goes, adjust, and try again. There isn't a "right" way. And that's what makes it so hard. 
So, back to the intent of this post: How do you take that uncertainty and use it to gear yourself up for the next semester? (In my opinion, the more challenging semester.)
Well, here are a few things I do that help me move forward, even when I'm swimming in a sea of doubt and dread.

1. Choose a passion project.

We know that passion projects matter. Great things come out of the work we love to do. So give yourself something to live for! What's your passion project? Make a little time for it every week. Last spring, my project was the Reading Lounge. This past fall, I spent all my choice time on Mentor Texts. The year before that was my Book Buddies program (big kids reading to little kids) and before that it was my book study on Whole Brain Teaching. 
In the spring, I find that I'm pulled in 8,000 different directions (testing, administrative support for state/federal mandates, supporting classrooms where teachers are out with babies or medical issues) and sometimes it's easy to get lost in all of that yucky work and forget that there are things to life that I actually enjoy. So these passion projects motivate me to find the joy in my work, even when I'm charting (disappointing) data or having challenging conversations with teachers or administration. Having something to look forward to is great for motivation!

2. Find a coaching community. 

This position can be very isolated. You may be the only coach on your campus, depending on your district. You may be the only one with your job description, in your spot between administration and teachers. In a recent conversation with a new coach, we talked about this challenge. "I feel like I don't really have anyone else on campus who understands my job." 

She's right. Administration, coaching, and teaching look very different from each other on a day-to-day basis. If you've struggled to interact with someone on your campus, it can be hard to figure out who to talk to about it. You don't want to vent to your administrator, because that can violate the trust a teacher has in you. And you can't talk to other teachers about an experience with one of their colleagues. 

So find somebody to talk to! This can be a coach at another school in your area, or find an online coaching community to discuss your experiences with. Or email me at! I love to hear from other coaches! I'd love to hear from you!

3. Remember you're a human being.

I know, I know. You're superhuman. You can pee in under 28 seconds, wash your hands, and make it back to your room before anyone knows you've left the meeting! You can heat up your lunch and eat it standing up at the same time. You can plan a family night event, email your administrator, and refer teachers to your favorite blog, all while make a new spreadsheet to analyze data.

But don't do that all the time, please. It will make you crazy - I promise. I've been to crazy and back (partway back, anyway) and it's not fun. 
This is what happens when you haven't had a hair cut in four months and you've lost your minds a little.
You have to give yourself time to do things like eat, go to the bathroom, and see sunshine. This can come in the form of leaving work thirty minutes earlier than normal and taking a walk. This is what I plan to do each year that I hardly ever do. But when I do, I am far happier. And a happy coach is far more effective than a coach who's forgotten what the sun looks like.

4. I have one more tip, but I don't think it's completely appropriate. So I'll just leave this right here...

How do you get through the tough months? Do you have any tips to share? Please leave them in the comments below!

 Looking for more? Check out my new ebook: The Start-Up Guide to Instructional Coaching on TPT!

And organize yourself with the Instructional Coaching MegaPack of Printable & Fillable Forms!


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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Engaging, interactive read alouds with purpose!

The other day I was planning with one of my grade levels and we were talking about making read aloud a little more interactive. Don't get me wrong: read aloud is inherently awesome. You're sitting on the carpet, reading awesome books, talking about your reading. What's not to love? 

But we have these kids....

The kids who have difficulty focusing and therefore might miss out on some of the best parts.
The kids who are so quiet that, unless you pull it out of them, they won't share their thinking.
The kids who raise their hands every forty-seven seconds to share about, "One time when that happened to me," and you're like, "Really? That happened to you? The time you were at your aunt's house for Thanksgiving and she got her head stuck in a turkey?" (True story, by the way. Or anyway, it's a true story that one time a kid told me that happened.)

So, to continue the conversation, I decided to write about my four tips for making read alouds engaging and interactive!

1. Start with a great text.

Consider your audience. Children easy to engage if you think about their interests! If you have to teach literary nonfiction, and you can choose between a book about Derek Jeter, Yankees star, or a book about Pelé, the King of Soccer, go with the book your kids will relate to more.  Look for books with...
  • Engaging topics
  • Interesting language 
  • A good flow - easy to follow
  • Some vivid illustrations (you don't have to show all of them, but you might want to choose some great ones)
  • Age-appropriate language

2. Set a purpose for reading.

Before you choose your book and plan your lesson, figure out why it is you're reading at all. Are you going to focus on story elements? character analysis? emotions? traits? changes? relationships? theme? The focus of your lesson will influence your book selection and the kinds of conversations you want kids to have. 

Set that purpose for reading with your kids. One great, interactive way to do this is with my brand-new Interactive Read Aloud Signs. Set a purpose for reading and provide kids with the signs. During the read aloud, students hold up their sign when they find evidence that matches their purpose!  

Another easy way to set a purpose is to ask a purpose question at the beginning of the lesson and give each student a sticky note. As you read, students will think about the question and write their thinking and evidence on the sticky note. They can Think-Pair-Share about their thinking, too!

This way serves as a great formative assessment! Read the kids' thoughts and see what they're thinking!


3. Plan some interesting, thoughtful questions and conversation starters.

Read the book first - reading that isn't fluent is BO-RING, and confusing as well! Figure out a few places you might like to pause and have students think about the text. Consider your purpose and find a few spots that kids can't help but react! Don't stop too frequently - it'll kill the story. 

4. Give them time to talk!

Once you know where you're going to stop,  make sure you have a cooperative discussion structure set up for them to talk to each other. Think-Pair-Share is the easiest one to plan, but you might experiment with others, too! Here are a few great ideas, if you're looking to jazz it up!

5. Use it as an opportunity for writing!

Kids get ideas by connecting to books you read aloud. After the read aloud, have students respond to the book! You can do this in two ways:
1. Have students write a reading response by providing sentence frames to respond to the purpose you set at the beginning of the lesson. If you're using my Interactive Read Aloud Signs, the sentence frames are already provided on the back!

2. Have students write a seed or an idea in their writer's notebooks. They can make a simple connection to write about later. The more ideas in their notebooks, the better! If you're looking for some fun, interactive tools to jazz up Read Aloud time, check out my Interactive Read Aloud Signs on TPT! I've got a brand-new set for fiction!