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.

With a Grateful Heart #SOL19

“Should I really do this?” I questioned as I pasted the link to my first ever slice into the comments of the Day 1 Slice of Life Story Challenge.  Unknown territory, I was nervous about committing to a month of daily slicing.  Thanks to my Teach Write friends in our amazing Wednesday night writing group, though, I was encouraged to try.  So I did.

Now, thirty-one days later, I am so glad that I went through with it.  I have sliced every single day and enjoyed reading and commenting on other slices.  I have learned so much about writing from your slices and comments, and I have discovered new things about myself as a writer.  It is one thing to write daily, but it is quite another thing to commit to sharing my writing publicly every day.  This experience has helped me grow in ways I did not expect.  I am grateful.

So, thank you for reading and offering your comments, encouragement, and support.  Thanks, also, to all of the people at the Two Writing Teachers for hosting such a challenge.  I appreciate all of you and look forward to reading, writing, and learning beside you on Tuesdays.

Silence #SOL19

As my Spring Break comes to a close, I pay tribute to those instances of quiet and solitude I’ve enjoyed this week.  Those magical, fleeting moments ground me, restore peace, encourage joy, and help me remember my humanity.



I seek it daily

so elusive, my soul’s treasure.

When received, a healing balm.


As stolen moments

or gifted bliss,

daily stillness is needed, valued.


Too much crushes me;

too little and I thirst.

When balanced, I thrive.


It’s my Divine connection

where truth and reality dwell.

A centering force, a refuge.



2019 Tracy Vogelgesang

The Birthing #SOL19

My world slumbers in the inky darkness of the predawn sky.

I sit in my pj’s, notebook open, steaming mug of coffee at my side,

waiting…waiting for the words to come during this treasured, magical time.


One poem penned-it’s crap.  I know it.

Yet I don’t give up.


The words-what words exactly, I’m not sure-

but some words are struggling to free themselves and be birthed.

A new thought, a new image, a new creation,

something which didn’t exist before.


The struggle is real, but the effort is worth it.

The words begin to make their way onto the page-

written, created, taking shape.


My world awakens in the blue, purple, pinkish-orange of the sunrise sky.

I sit in my pj’s, notebook closed, empty mug at my side.

The words arrived.  I welcome them and go on about my day.


2019 Tracy Vogelgesang

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!

Celebration #SOL19

Tomorrow is a great day for my journalism club!  We are publishing our first issue of the “Eagle Eye News.”  This has been in the works since January when the club began.  Although my classrooms have dabbled in journalism and managed an “occasional” school newspaper for a couple of years, this is the first time I have opened it up to all fifth graders to create an after school club.

I have 11 journalists who stay after school one day every week.  They write about all of the news in the elementary school and cover sports and other extracurricular activities.  They do some of their interviewing and photography during the school day and at games.  We are also blessed to have a mom who helps each week.  She has been invaluable.

My reporters have been working hard and now the time has finally come.  We are going to digitally publish it tomorrow (and naturally we will print a few copies for souvenirs).   Of course, we plan to celebrate the publication of our first issue.  I am baking a pan of brownies as I type.  I know they are as excited as I am!

It is a wonderful time for my journalists.  It is my hope that we will be able to publish at least two more issues before school ends in May.  My journalists have a voice.  I want to give them every opportunity to use it.


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.

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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