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 Spring Break Poem #SOL19 #PoetryFriday

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Tis the day before break

restless energy abounds,

add a full moon-

chaos all around!

 

The children are restless

with energy to spend,

while visions of vacation

make it hard to attend.

 

And the exhausted adults

keeping order and peace,

count down the minutes

till the chaos will cease.

 

The clock ticks away

slowly but sure,

everyone watches

until the hands blur.

 

Finally, it’s here!

The P.A. sounds!

Dismissal is nigh,

cheers all around!

 

Teachers stand at the ready

with hugs for each one,

Happy Spring Break to all

and to all have great fun!

 

Tracy Vogelgesang  2019

 

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.

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We Did It! #SOL19

“Do you think it’s really ready, Mrs. V.?” a student timidly asked during my extracurricular newspaper club.

“I do,” I responded with that glint in my eye that my students have come to equate with keeping one foot on solid ground while stepping the other into the vast unknown.  A couple of the fifth graders groaned, like Arnold from The Magic School Bus, but most had the same glint in their eyes as my cursor hovered over the “Share” button.  “This is the moment that we have been working toward.  You have worked hard, your newspaper looks great, and now it’s publication time!”

The cursor hovered a moment longer.

“Do it!” they excitedly shouted.  I clicked the button, we selected our target audience, and chose how we wanted them to interact with the paper.  I included a message about sending my news reporters some positive vibes and then we clicked “Done.”  The dialogue box disappeared and the students cheered excitedly.  They were officially published journalists.

We celebrated with high fives and brownies, and then they all returned to their computers to draft their articles for the next issue.   They appeared to have more confidence as they returned to their work, and they wrote with a more concrete goal in mind.  I am proud of my fifth graders who are bravely putting their writing out there for the whole school to read.  They are the best.  They are Eagle Eye News Reporters!

Finding their Voices #SOL19

During a grade level meeting today, the teachers were asked which of the writing standards each would like to unpack.   As my colleagues and I divided the information, narrative, and persuasive writing standards, I really thought about which of the three I like to teach the most.

I enjoy teaching all types of writing, but I think I enjoy teaching persuasive writing the most.  It is more important than ever for my learners to learn to use their voices in an educated and respectful manner.  I enjoy watching their confidence soar as they use their writing skills to voice their opinions and make change.  Here are just a few examples of ways my learners have reached out to make this world a better place:

  • A fifth grader noticed that the chains on the swings were greatly rusted and they needed adjustments made to the heights of the swings.  He wrote a letter to the principal and head of maintenance.  All of the chains were replaced and heights adjusted within the week.
  • Another fifth grader loved to collect a popular doll and noticed that the doll was growing more expensive while its quality was not as good as it once was.  She wrote a letter to the company.  Within three weeks, she received a letter in return.  They thanked her for sharing her concerns and told her about things they were doing to try to return the doll to its previous quality.
  • A learner wanted to start a soccer club in the community.  All of our students currently travel to neighboring communities for soccer.  He wrote to our athletic director.  The director came to the elementary school to have a sit-down meeting with the student and listen to his concerns.  While there still isn’t a local soccer club, the young man felt as if his opinions were valued and respected.

I love the excitement, engagement, and empowerment that my learners feel when they write persuasively.  They are the future, and it’s time they develop their voices. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

In the Last Quarter of School #SOL19

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In the last quarter of school,

time speeds up,

activities increase,

and energy intensifies like a windstorm.

 

In the last quarter of school,

am I coming or going,

which way is up,

and what day is it anyway?

 

In the last quarter of school,

field trips abound,

special programs come in,

and let’s not forget the testing.

 

In the last quarter of school,

I squeeze in my lessons,

repeat the procedures,

and did I mention the testing?

 

In the last quarter of school,

I begin to miss my learners already.

Do they really have to move on?

Where did this school year go?

 

In the last quarter of school,

I’ll prepare for summer,

I’ll close out my room,

and I’ll take a breath.

 

Then I’ll plan to do it all over again next year.

A Teacher’s Life #SOL19

It’s Sunday night.  Report cards are due to the principal by the end of the day tomorrow.  I am sitting on the sofa covered in a blanket with my laptop open and papers scattered on the cushion to my left.  A bottle of water, my phone, and a tissue are to my right.  I look up at the clock and realize that I have sat in the same spot for most of the evening.  The only body parts that have moved are my fingers as they tap away at the keyboard and my head as it looks over at the scattered papers.  Occasionally my left arm reaches out to move papers around.

The bathroom calls my name, so I get up and stiffly hobble my way that direction.  The going is slow.   I try to walk a little faster.  I do not want to be away from my work too long.  It is past my 10:30 bedtime, I have spent hours upon hours assessing final essays, completing rubrics, and writing report card comments, and I am more than ready to be done.

I settle back on the sofa and set my mind to my work.  I double check as soon as I finish each section.  My tired brain can too easily make mistakes.  When I finally finish and fall into bed, it is nearly 12:30 a.m.  I mentally celebrate the achievement and give thanks that report card time only comes four times per year.  In a few hours, a new day will begin and along with it a new grading period.  I am excited to start anew and tell myself that I will reflect on ways to streamline this process for the next go around in two months.

Ah, this go around of report card time has come to an end.  I shut my eyes and fall blissfully into sleep.

 

Report Card Weekend #SOL19

As I spend the end-of-the-grading-period-report-card-work weekend writing student report card comments, I am reflecting upon my procedures and how to streamline them for the next go around.  I do this continually, and it does improve a little each time.

My writing students and I discuss their strengths and goals as we conference, so it would be easy to think that all of this work together during conferencing would make my final commenting easy and quick.  Just write what is in my notes for each child, right?  This is not the case.  I still find myself working on the perfect wording, making sure that I truly agree with the strengths and goals, and adding strengths that I pick up on as I reflect on my notes and consider other classroom performance throughout the quarter.

I may be able to tweak this process a little here and there, but when it comes right down to it, there’s no avoiding the time it takes to write thoughtful, reflective comments.

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