Posts Tagged ‘language arts’

So, I have been thinking about how to help students write effective analytical essays for what seems like forever. Shouldn’t I be better at this by now? The goals are certainly different at different ages; what I expected in 5th grade was different from what I expected in 9th and what I look for in 12th. However, I still see the same old divide between those papers that are about the book (effective summaries) and papers that are about an idea that is discussed by way of the book. Really what it comes down to is how do I move the book report writers into the analytical writers’ camp. Is there a magic wand, pen, saying? Would bribing them with s’mores do the trick? Seriously, I would do whatever it takes.

I’ve been talking with colleagues about this, going to summer workshops, thinking of new and not new ideas. The more I think about it, the more I think that I need to go back to what I know worked in 5th grade. I don’t say this in a mean way or to be insulting. But, for the students who have not found their way to the analytical camp on their own, how can I check in earlier, before they head off down that long, boring summary road.

So what do I know?

In 5th grade I never let students start writing without an approved plan of some sort. As the year progressed, I knew who was ok without a detailed plan and who was not. So there might be students whom I let start writing with what was a very brief plan; however, they were students who had proven themselves to be on the analytical path, which in 5th grade is more like the “having an opinion” path.

In 5th grade I had students do physical things to identify different sentences in a paper. So, I might read aloud a paragraph. One side of the room would stand when the sentence was a retelling or summary sentence. One side would stand if it was the writer’s opinion (which is what analysis starts as in lower school). This turned out to be one of the most effective tactics in helping students even understand what I meant by summary or opinion sentence.

In 5th grade we sometimes wrote papers a paragraph at a time and “discovered” that this might actually be an essay with a bit of introduction and conclusion added to the paragraphs. Sneaking up on the essay was not a bad strategy. Everybody could write a paragraph on Karana’s friendship with Rontu (Island of the Blue Dolphins is still a winner), a paragraph on her friendship with the birds. Oh, look it seems like we are writing about her friendships. Hmmm. What could we say about the community she has or has created? Seems like that would be an interesting conclusion. While we’re adding things, let’s just introduce the book at the beginning. Tada, essay!

In 5th grade I learned that writing gets better writing. It’s like babies and sleep–good naps lead to good betimes, overly tired kids fight sleep. I learned, and was reminded of this fact at my summer workshop this past summer, that I did not need to edit everything, give extensive comments, and have students write many drafts of every assignment. We need to do some of that. We also just need to write. A lot. That is how my class’ blog was born, oh so many years ago

Now, how to take these lessons to some 12th graders.

Plans are totally doable. Shame on me for not making students be more intentional here. Some do a quick list of big point and sub-points and I can tell they are all set. No need to force the issue. However, for those who have proved that they are summarizers, I need to be more forceful. They may be 12th graders, but if I see they need the scaffolding, I should be providing more of it, even students don’t like it.

Standing up and sitting down in class to identify parts of the essay, probably not going to work with high schoolers. However, for those who are not getting to the analysis, insisting that their rough draft have analytical sentences highlighted, totally doable. Again, it is about me insisting.

Sneaky papers. This one I think I might be able to do next semester. I had forgotten about it, but I think it has potential. Again, there are going to be those who do not need this support, and I will need to think about whether everyone does it anyway or some folks do something else. I have time on this one since my current class ends mid-January and I won’t have time to do everything between now and then, but I’m definitely going to move this to a front burner item.

Just writing. I’ve been really trying to do this. My summer workshop reminded me of and reaffirmed my belief in this strategy in addition to convincing me that it would work in high school. My class has been doing a lot of short writing in online forums, in class, wherever. On the recent reflections that the students wrote, many commented on the amount of writing, not always in a complementary way, but many of those same students also said they felt more confident in their writing.

Now if I could just go back to not having to give letter grades, that would be great.

So, I’ve been thinking about how some of my lessons changed over time. In a recent post I wrote about coming up with new ideas. One thing that didn’t make the final draft of that post was the idea that sometimes a plan is good the first year, but then a lot better in later years. Here’s an example.

One year, I came up with the idea of having a “descriptive language Olympics” lesson. We were reading Tuck Everlasing and it was spring time and there was going to be some visitor. I remember this because we got an email from the assistant division head asking if any of us were doing anything particularly “outside the box”. When I thought about what I was planning for that next day, I realized it was firmly in the box and decidedly not that interesting. So, out it went.

Why is it that sometimes a simple question like that is all it takes to get me thinking about something better? Could I not ask that question myself? Does this happen to other people too?

Anyway, I believe it was in the shower that I hit upon this idea. There would be 5 events. In groups students would contribute passages from the text that best exemplified the particular kind of figurative writing for the event. I would judge and award 1st place, etc. I made a super-quick PowerPoint with the olympic rings on it and the following categories:

  • mood madness
  • sensory overload
  • figurative language freestyle
  • wonderful words
  • show not tell showcase

How did it go? Well the first year, it was pretty good, if I do say so myself. And, it was too long, too many “events”, and since I wanted to spread the winning around, the judging left a little to be desired.

The next years I tried a few little changes: fewer events for classes that were not that interested, having students come in with passages ready.

Then, last year, I made a bigger change. To be honest, I was partly trying to cut down on the time it took. In the end, the time was not that different, but the outcome was a lot better.

  • Instead of having the students collaborate on what to “enter” into each event, I asked them to enter 3 of 5 events digitally on our class blog for homework. Each entry was to have a passage and an explanation of why it was a good example of the given kind of descriptive writing.
  • Then in class, we discussed how to evaluate each entry (we decided on 10 points available for each entry-5 for the passage choice, 5 for the explanation).
  • The students collaborated on giving the medals to individual entries. No one judged an event in which they entered a passage. The judges posted their decision on the blog.
  • There was a brief and moving medal ceremony at which each judging group called up the winners for gold, silver, and bronze medals. There was cheering etc.
Judging team evaluating entries with scoring notes.

Judging team evaluating entries with scoring notes.

So, why was it better?

  • All students entered passages.
  • Even though everyone had to enter, they had choice about which events to enter.
  • Explaining the passage was added and important.
  • Students were involved in how to evaluate the entries.
  • Students actually did the evaluating. (And, this is the biggest bonus I think. There was a lot of discussion about this. In the end it was often the explanation that won someone the event.)
  • I did less and the students did more.
  • A lot more of the class time involved thinking, collaborating, and communicating. There was a lot less waiting around time.
  • There was more suspense, and everyone had a horse in the race.
  • There was cheering.
  • The winners were spread out across all sorts of people, without me engineering anything.
The medal ceremony. Note different height pedestals.

The medal ceremony. Note different height pedestals.

Medals all around!

This I Believe Classroom Poster

So, I’ve been thinking about our recent “This I Believe” unit. I tried to develop it into a collaborative projectand a few other classes signed up, but it didn’t get as much traction as I had hoped. There’s always next year.

Anyway, I forged ahead myself. I teach in a classroom that is usually self-contained. However, for 3 weeks at the end of January and beginning of February we do a little mini unit that involves all 3 sections rotating for science, social studies, and this year a writing unit. In the past I have done various math units, but I was ready for a change and felt that the “This I Believe” unit I tried out last year was worth expanding.

Once again, we listened to several podcasts from the “This I Believe” website, Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and several songs. We discussed not only what ideas were being shared but the various strategies that were used to make the ideas powerful. After a plan, a draft, a peer review, and another draft students recorded themselves reading their statement and embedded the recording on a glog. Here are a few. There should be a play button somewhere on each glog.

Jacob believes in reading.

Cayman believes in soccer.

Chloe believes in skiing.

Ruby believes in acting.

Marshall believes in baseball.

Aly believes in pitching.

There are a couple of things I really like about this unit. First, I like that the students write something personal and creative that has some guidelines. So while it was creative, it was not formless. I also like that the students record themselves reading their statements. It is so great to listen to their voices. I mean I listen to them all day, but in any class there isn’t time to listen to a student talk, uninterrupted for minutes at a time. In addition because glogster plays so well with Edmodo, the glogs could go right into the Edmodo groups for others to see and hear. The students got to comment on each other’s work.

And, parents LOVE it. I played most of the recordings at spring parent conferences. There were a lot of big smiles. In addition I think some parents heard their children’s voices in a new way. They heard their children speaking about their beliefs in a way they probably don’t hear very often.

At the end of the day, I like to think that my classroom represents an academic community, even if it is only 5th grade. What I hope to be able to provide at a conference, and as a parent what I hope to get, is an idea of what a child is like as a member of that community. I think these pieces did that for me and for parents.

20101006 - PRIVATE - IMG_7904So, I’m still thinking about EduCon. The first conversation that I attended was presented by three impressive ladies:  Pam Moran, Becky Fisher, and Paula White. I knew from past experience that I would not be disappointed spending 90 minutes with them. I follow all of them on Twitter, try to keep up with that they write, and have either attended sessions with them before (f2f or virtual) and/or met them. Rather than sum up their presentation, I am sharing what ideas it brought to my mind.

The topic was writing, but we quickly moved to communicating more broadly. One of the things that I have written about before is having my students record themselves reading their essays. I was remembering this as the conversation bounced around ideas about grammar and punctuation. One of the things I like about teaching in the lower grades and at an independent school is that I do not have to give a single grade for writing or reading. Instead I have a skills list that allows me to comment on a student’s ability to do many of the individual parts of writing. So as I wrote last year, listening to my students read their work allows me to focus on the communication of ideas and not get bogged down by the grammar and spelling errors. I need to comment on them too, but I don’t like to have that be the only thing. It reminded me that I need to do this more. I have tended to keep this for more personal essays rather than expanding it to analytical writing. Although everyone could probably use some speaking practice, there is a limit to what I can cram into the school day/week/year. It might be that I should focus on having those students who struggle with the mechanics record more of their essays. It may not be as critical for everyone as some are quite proficient in being able to write what they think.

The other idea that came up for me was the public nature of students writing for a real audience. I am totally for student writing getting beyond the classrooms and hallways. When blogging and using wikis for  writing came up, there was, of course, some push back as to security. There was the usual conversation about students not sharing personal information online. It’s a pretty techie crowd, so we moved on quickly. But, then as we talked about giving students choice and writing about ideas and following their passion, we were talking about students being personal. I have a few things to say on the topic:

  1. It is more of an issue for elementary students; I get that.
  2. Schools routinely publish pictures of students who play on teams or win awards in newspapers or online. These pictures include first and last names as well as year of graduation and sometimes town of residence.
  3. Personal is not the same as private.

I think that we really need to expand the conversation to a distinction between personal information (I like soccer. I love to swim with my family in the summer.) and private information (I live at 123 Main Street. My social security number is). There is a lot of education conversation going on right now about personalizing learning and students writing about authentic interests and sharing those thoughts. Great, no problem, in my opinion. My students are only a few years away from being able to join social networking sites using their real birthdays where they will undoubtedly share both personal and probably some inappropriately private information.

What they are doing now is blogging. Blogging about their ideas and interests. They are neither picking on other students nor navel gazing. I like to think that they are learning to share publicly what is personally of interest. I hope they catch the blogging bug, and get a real serious case of it. Maybe that way they will not be so tempted to fill their networks with pettiness because they will have already built networks around shared interests and ideas. (Cue the dramatic music, sunrise with silhouetted person etc.) Ok, that might be a bit of wishful thinking. But it is still true that we are blogging. It is also true that we have had, and will continue to have, conversations about what is ok to share, what is not ok, and what is a gray area that depends on family comfort levels.

Spending 90 minutes with Pam, Becky, Paula and the other educators in attendance not only gave me a chance to see some of the great work that other students are doing, but it also inspired my to think more about ideas that have been swirling around in my head. Time well spent, for sure.


(creative commons licensed photo by Nicola since 1972)

So, I’ve been thinking about what is in my closet. My school closet-not my clothes closet. There are clearly too many shoes in the one, and a lot of work from previous students in the other.

I rearranged my classroom, again, just a minor change this time. That means that I have  a spare small book-case that I planned to put in my supply closet to try to help manage the mayhem in there. I know there is at least one teacher at my school whose closet looks like a little office; a student can actually work in there. This is in my closet. So, to get the bookcase in, I had to take a lot of stuff out first. Post clean-out it is looking mighty fine. Anyway, the point is I got to look at a bunch of old work and it got me thinking about what I do now and what I did then. This is my seventh year at this school and in this grade, which honestly I cannot believe. At my old school in Chicago I never taught in the same grade more than 2 years in a row. My principal moved people all the time.

When I started pulling things out of the closet, I found some old assignments that I want to remember. I also found some old assignments that I would like to forget. It’s not that they were bad; they weren’t. They just didn’t need some of the coloring and artsy bits to them. Before anyone gets upset here, let me say that I LOVE art. I used to teach art in an after school program; in my fantasy life (the one where I have green eyes and go to yoga classes regularly) I am a sculptor. At my old school I used to give art time as a reward for my class because they had, if everything went perfectly, 1 brief art class a week. Now, however, I teach at a school with a great art program. The projects they do and skills they learn add to the curriculum. I don’t have to make up for anything.

works in progressSo when I look back at some of the webs that students did that they colored and decorated, I wonder what I was thinking about when I asked them to do that. It was certainly not necessary. For some, it did add to the final ideas, but mostly it was decoration, pure and simple. I had a few students, girls, that first year who loved to color and draw on their webs and they looked so nice that I think I just added decoration as part of the assignment. It should have been optional if it had to be done by hand. It must have been SO tedious for some students. And, for what end?

Well, they did look great in the hallway!

In the years since, I have been moving more and more away from craft projects that I can’t justify educationally. I still love art when it is art. I just don’t think that having fifth graders make a paper puppets of book characters, for example, is good use of language arts time. Now, if we are making a scale drawing of the classroom or some historical structure that’s different. There’s a lot going on: fractions, measuring, researching, etc. I know that a lot of those crafty projects are stereotypically “girl” projects. I teach in a co-ed school with lots of artistic students. And, in non-art classes I think it is up to me to encourage, insist on, facilitate, and model creativity in the broadest of terms. So, while traditional art and craft are part of that, so are inspiration webs, glogs, skits, blog writing, and on and on. As a teacher of all the students in my room, it’s up to me to make sure everyone has a way to access creativity, not just the colorers. So, there are crafty options, but there are also creative, non-crafty options, which means that not all of them make for exciting bulletin boards.

Mostly, I think that’s progress.


(Creative commons licensed photo by Quack the Wooley Duck)

So, I’ve been thinking about peer editing. Honestly, there is no way that I can read and edit everything that my students write. And, just as honestly, there is no reason for me to do so. I get that I am the paid professional in the room, but that does not mean that I am the only person from whom students learn or even the only teacher in the room.

I have noticed that the group of students I have this year seems very interested in reading and sharing work as they write. Great. Let’s do more of that.

Being a good editor, peer or otherwise, doesn’t happen without practice or guidance. We’ve been working both angles. The other day we had worked on a web to pull apart a few particular sections of the story in The Island of the Blue Dolphins. We’ve been working on turning making inferences into a bit of a math problem (information in the story + background knowledge=inference). We had worked through several short passages in a guided format and students had another example to do independently at home. Then, they were to use that information to write a paragraph that answered the bigger question we were investigating.

This was the second question/go-round with this strategy. I had students work over their paragraphs in a couple of ways. After having written at home, I worked with one small group at a time to review, again, what would make both a good paragraph and a good answer to our question. We also talked about constructive criticism: what it is and what it is not. Students reread their writing and made some changes. Then, they switched papers and gave each other comments on post-it notes. Finally they made any changes they wanted before I got to read and assess their “best work”.

In class I was impressed with the seriousness with which the students commented and worked at editing their short paragraph. The effort was certainly there. But, what it would look like as a product? You just never know.

Last night I was reading over the work. Most of them made some real changes. This is no small feat for 5th graders, in October no less. I gave everyone comments as well, although I am not asking for another rewrite on this one. More than anything I was glad to see the openness and seriousness with which they approached the task.

So my final call on this one is that it was a good peer edit–the process was definitely positive. And, the products were not all that different from what I would have expected from a second draft after I edited, with the added bonus that students got to practice editing in addition to being edited. It’s a good thing.

So, I’ve been thinking about how I spent my summer. More specifically, I have been thinking about what I did not do in terms of school.

Here’s what I did do officially:

  • I participated in 2 FULL days of training for our new Mac laptops.
  • 1 full and 1 partial day of PD/training about a new model for language arts and other strategies.
  • Attended the ISTE conference — 3 -4 days of stuffing info and ideas into my head, meeting other educators, tweeting, walking, and then doing it again. (I did get my picture taken with Moby the robot from BrainPop!)
All of this was before July even rolled around. At that point, I have to say my brain was full. I set down my bag and went about being a mom to my personal kids. I did talk to colleagues about plans we had for the new school year and participate in a few Twitter chats. But, until it got to be later in August, that bag that came back from school and ISTE just sat in the corner.
And, I think that’s ok. It’s not like I shut off my brain. There are very few situations in which that is a good idea. That goes double for if you are at home with your elementary school aged kids. I read a lot of young adult literature that I wanted to catch up on. I had gotten really behind on what my students might be reading. I didn’t write on this blog. I really thought I wanted to and thought I was looking forward to writing about some things that got passed over at the end of the year. But, it turned out I didn’t.
I keep having to remind myself that it’s ok. I didn’t come back to school unprepared. In fact I came back refreshed and excited about the new year. I learned all sorts of things, spent a lot of time swimming with my kids, and my bag was waiting for me when I was ready to pick it up again.