Improving My Craft, Part One

Along with many teachers, I spend my summers soaking up learning like I soak up the sun.  There are many things from my reading and writing experiences this summer that I will implement in my classroom this year.  Modeling how I approach fiction writing is one of them.  Instead of considering the plot first, my learners and I will explore developing main characters, their backstories, and their problems first.  From this viewpoint, my learners will have a focus for developing the plots of their stories.

This idea comes from Story Genius by Lisa Cron.  I am reading this book for the Focus on Fiction workshop I am taking through Teach Write.  In her book, she applies research from brain science to writing fiction.  I have not yet finished the book, as I am taking my time to work through the exercises and truly grasp what the author is saying.  So far, the story I am writing is more purposeful and my characters are more realistic than in other fiction pieces I have written.  Also, there seems to be more ease in moving the story forward.  I am a long way from having a complete first draft, but the bits and pieces I have created so far thrill me and motivate me to continue.

I am excited to see what my learners come up with as they approach their stories from this perspective.  This fall will be an exciting time in my classroom!

Revision: A Little Like Pulling off the Band-Aid

A recent teacher conference with a 4th grade author in my classroom:

Me: (after reading through her literary essay) C____, how do you feel about your essay?

C: It is confusing.  My thoughts seem to be all over the place.

Me: Okay.  What is your main message?

C: The little firefly had friends all along. He didn’t give up, and he finally found them.

Me: Okay.  Where would be the best place to introduce your opinion?

C: In the beginning?

Me: That sounds good.  Do you think we could move some things around?

C: (hesitantly) Okay…

The best part of her essay begins in the middle, so I highlight the top half and press “cut.”

C: (concerned gasp) What did you do?  Where did it go?

Me: Don’t panic.  Let’s paste this part at the bottom and move the rest up.   Remember, revision isn’t about checking capitals and punctuation.

C: That’s editing.

Me: Yes.  Revising means moving things, adding things, or deleting things until your message is focused and clear.

C: Yes, but it feels like pulling off a band-aid.

Me: (chuckling) Yes, I suppose it does.  Good simile, C.

She works through what to keep, where to put it, and what to completely remove.  C finishes and is visibly pleased with her work. 

C: This is so much better because everything was all over the place and wasn’t all relating to the first thing I said.  Thanks, Mrs. V., for pulling off the band-aid.  It is much better.  I like it!

Me: You are welcome, C.  I like it, too.

The Power of a Mentor Sentence

A fourth grader crafted this amazing lead sentence after studying the mentor text Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks.

There is tremendous power in mentor sentences to influence writing and help students see authentic purposes for learning grammar and mechanics.  Jeff Anderson’s work on teaching writing and grammar through mentor texts shapes the way I use mentor sentences.  

Each week I introduce a sentence selected from a picture book or a student.  When choosing a mentor sentence, I look for sentences that demonstrate a focus skill (e.g. comma usage), author’s craft (figurative language, etc.), and/or model a particular writing structure.  In the sentence above, we were learning about introductory clauses.

My learners do all of their weekly work in their grammar notebooks.

My learners study the sentence for different purposes throughout the week.

Day 1: We identify the strong points of the sentence.  See what they noticed in Aven’s sentence:

  •  Introductory phrases can change the fluency of the text.  The expression is different than if the sentence read, “Dog awoke in the glistening light of the morning sun.”
  • Glistening is an adjective that not only describes but also helps with fluency.
  • Morning tells us the time and that the glistening is likely dew.
  • The introductory phrase contains two prepositional phrases that help set the scene.
  • The independent clause is only two words.  
  • “Awoke” sounds better for this sentence than “woke up.”

Day 2: The students work together to label the parts of speech, type of sentence, and subject and predicate.  We discuss how knowledge of the parts of speech, etc. helps an author write with clarity.  This activity takes the most time. We typically spend 10-15 minutes per day on mentor sentence work, but on this day, we spend closer to 20-25 minutes.

Day 3: My learners look for ways to revise the original sentence by deleting/adding/changing adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and/or swapping out verbs.  This is a great place to discuss simplicity, changes in meaning, etc. 

Day 4: This is their favorite day! They imitate the structure of the sentence to create and share their own sentences.  This also provides me with an informal way to assess their understanding of the week’s concepts.  

 

 

I notice several benefits from teaching grammar, mechanics, and writing in this interconnected way.

  1. The students can explain how grammar and mechanics apply to writing.  They no longer see them as isolated subjects.
  2. They have much better retention of the material.
  3. Their writing and confidence as writers improve as they apply what they are learning to their own writing.

Finally, there is the joy on their faces when I select a student’s sentence for the weekly mentor sentence. By choosing their sentences, I send the message that their writing is worthy and a model for others. A model sentence can come from any writer in your class. Imagine the confidence boost you can give to your reluctant writers when you select one of their sentences as a model text.

Mentor sentences take a brief amount of time to implement each day, yet their impact as a powerful and authentic learning tool is deep and lasting.  I can’t imagine teaching writing and grammar any other way.

When they imitate, they have a lot of fun. This is okay. I want them to experience the joy of writing and making meaning.

A Bright and Hopeful Future #SOL19

The excited hum of voices carried down the hallway from the cafeteria.  Fifth graders excitedly set up their posters, tri-fold boards, slideshows, and brochures and waited.  Nervous energy coursed through the room as they stood by their displays and looked for the first classes to enter the cafeteria.  They did not have to wait long.

Their first grade friends filed in, eyes wide as they looked around at all of the colorful items situated around the room.  As they approached the various exhibits, the fifth graders flew into action, answering questions and explaining their choices about careers and colleges.

Over the next hour, kindergartners through fourth graders visited.  They couldn’t wait to hear everything the older students had to say.  They left as wide-eyed as they entered, chattering about the time when they will be old enough to do this, too.

The fifth graders finished strong and returned to their classrooms.  They were exhausted but happy.  This process began with a visit to a local college two weeks ago and culminated in a presentation for the entire school.  The learning that occurred for them goes much deeper, though.  They have started seriously considering their options for the future and the skills they’ll need to be successful in whatever they choose to do.  They inspire me and give me hope for the future.

sun

Perspective Matters

 

Today was one of those days when I am reminded that many children frequently experience more negativity and hurt in their young lives than I will ever be able to fathom.  The resiliency of the young is an amazing thing.  It is a gift that helps them survive.

It is difficult to expect students to get along with one another or act in socially appropriate ways when they have little idea what those things look and feel like.  Although school adults model appropriate behavior and coping skills, it is often so far removed from the norm they have experienced for most of their lives that they truly do not understand it.  So what is an educator to do?

I have come to the conclusion that the best way to help is to simply approach the behaviors with an attitude of love.  Their behavior is not a personal attack on me or anyone else.  It is usually a shout out for someone to care.  I try to remember these things when dealing with student behaviors.  Admittedly, though, it can feel like an impossible goal at times.  I also want to point out that this does not mean a free pass for the student’s behavior.  There still must be a resolution agreed upon by all for the issue at hand.  However, when I do try to see the issues with an open heart, I find that I can view the problem and possible solutions with greater perspective and a more positive mindset.

I think this would be a good practice for life in general.  What would happen if all problems were viewed through a lens of love?

A Heart for All

Cookie Heart StampCreative Commons License Marco Verch via Compfight

February has commonly come to be known as the heart month. Everyone wears red and draws attention to the many things you can do to improve your physical heart health. While those efforts are incredibly important, I would also encourage you to consider the things you can do to improve the emotional and social heart health of those within your circles of influence.

As educators, we see students and parents who are hurting. They feel anxious, excluded, unwanted, and unloved. The increase in school/public shootings, incarcerated family members, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. point to an emotional void within the heart that is begging to be heard in any way possible. I realize that some of these issues have their basis in mental illness and need professional care, but a lot of it points to a society where it has become okay to ignore, exclude, and reject others for any given reason.

Just do a quick search on the topic and a multitude of articles from reputable sources show up in your feed. What can we do about it? As educators, we can work on building positive relationships with our students. That can be as simple as a greeting every day at the door, showing an interest in a student’s ideas, inquiring after their health or the health of a parent, etc. We can send quick notes or phone calls to parents just to check in and show that we care about their students and their families. There are many articles that give ideas for building the rapport that will let students and parents know that they are important to you. Here are just a couple of sites that have helpful tips:

https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/blog-posts/genia-connell/10-ways-build-relationships-students-year-1/

https://teach.com/blog/five-ways-teachers-can-establish-positive-relationships-with-parents/

So this February while we are eating our heart-healthy foods and trying to fit in more heart-healthy exercise, let’s also seek ways to reach out to the emotional hearts of the students and parents we serve. While you’re at it, see what you can do to reach out to your colleagues and administrators, too. Teaching and leading are stressful, and often our colleagues and administrators feel alone in their struggles. By reaching out to build positive relationships with those around us, perhaps we can make a small dent in the easing the hurt that is so prevalent in our society today.