Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Lifting the Writer, Not the Writing

I am not sure who to credit for my title. It is a phrase that my writing group talks about a lot. I am sure it came from someplace; I just don't know where. If you are reading this and know, please comment so I can give proper credit where credit is due.

Lifting the writer and not the writing is something I have been working very hard on this year as a writing teacher to 5th graders. I am fortunate that I get to teach writing to all four sections for t is my favorite subject to teach! In past years I have tried to help the student improve on the entire piece at one time and year after year, I have failed. So this year, I decided I was going to work on lifting the writer, not the writing.

One way I have found success in this is focusing on one aspect of the writing I want the students to improve on. This way it doesn't seem so daunting. For a recent compare and contrast essay on two characters from a book we read, I noticed my students were really struggling with the transition from the hook to the background information. And it really depended on what hook they were using. Some transitioned better than others. To help these students I strategically placed them in groups of three, depending on what type of hook they wrote. Their job as a group was to read their first three sentences to the group. Next, they had to read the comments I wrote in google docs to the group as well. Then, as a whole group, they had to figure out a way to make the writing flow.

One of the reasons I did it this way is because I really had no idea how to help them. I called a writing teacher friend of mine for help. Her suggestion was what I was thinking all along; I was just going to let the students try to figure this out.

And you know what? They did. I loved listening to all the discussions happening and ideas being thrown about. Some students completely changed their hook to help with the flow while others sought out the advice of their peers. It was one of those powerful moments in the classroom.

I did something very similar a few weeks back for the hairror (horror story about hair) narratives we wrote in class. For the group revision time known as PQS (Praise, Question, Suggestion), the students were to find one area of focus in their writing they wanted to improve on and fill it out on the PQS sheet. Then, one student at a time read their story to the group while the others listened intently. After that, the listeners filled out the form praising one thing the speaker did well, one question they had about the writing, and a suggestion in regards to the area of focus.  In groups, they discussed this and received feedback from other students. After all students took turns, they went back to their stories and revised them based on the feedback that was received.

Of course I modeled this first. The only difference is I had 90 students offering me suggestions about my hairror story called The Ringlet not three. It took a while for me to go through them and revise my story, but my writing is better because of it.

After all we lift the writer, not the writing.

One of 90 PQS forms from my students in regards to my writing

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Writing Like a Reader

My writing club students asked me what I was going to blog about today because I wasn't typing like I normally am when they came in at recess.

I have a group of about nine fifth graders that consistently come in each Tuesday with their lunch and spend their lunch and recess time writing. What they write varies from week to week unless you are Jordan and Desiree. I am pretty sure they are both writing a book, Jordyn inspired by a friend's love of unicorns and Desiree inspired by the unicorn story. Every Tuesday both their stories get longer and more detailed. And each time they reread their stories to the group, they find different things they want to revise based off of what I taught them in writing. Definitely the sign of good writers!

But today I told them what I wanted to blog about and why I couldn't quite yet. I explained that I was looking at my writing as a reader and a reader would not want to hear my rant and the anger in my voice. This opened up an interesting discussion about the tone a writer sets when they write.

You see, I still need to calm down. Compose myself. Think about how to write about what I want to write about without offending my audience. 

It will come. 


But it may have to wait because another one of my writing club students requested that my next blog post be The Ringlet, a piece that I modeled for my writing students during our narrative unit. 

And you know what? I think I may just do that. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Revision-What's That?

I love to write. I always have. Even when I struggled through school as a student, writing was my safe place. It was the place I felt smart.

One of the things I have always had a hard time teaching students is how to revise in an effective way. We would get to that part in the writing process, and  I would give them a checklist. They would go back to their seats, check yes in each column while never actually revising, and call it good. 

Year after year this would happen, and I didn't know how to fix it. Until now. 

The idea came from a Kelly Gallagher tweet I had read on twitter near the end of September:

"No paper is ever finished. It is just due. Papers always remain eligible for revision, even after a grade is placed. Latest papers are called "best drafts," never "final drafts."

This really got me thinking and changed the way I talk about written work. I started referring to the finished piece as their "best draft" and realized that I could utilize my mini lessons and writer's workshop for revision.

One of the reasons students don't like to revise is because teachers give one day for revising the whole piece. That's a lot of work. My students had revised their recent narratives at least seven times by the time they found themselves on the editing portion. And each time they revised, I made sure to tell them what revision number we were on. I wanted to make sure they understood that revising takes time. It's not a one time thing.

Here is the revision journey I took with my students:

On day one, they wrote their first draft in their writer's notebooks. After that, they typed up what they had in google docs and it was revision from there on. Each day I taught a mini lesson, then they went back into their work and revised their piece to meet the needs of the mini lesson. For this narrative they worked on stretching their story, adding figurative language and dialog, hooks, strong endings, and author's craft. They worked collaboratively in groups of three on revisions using the PQS (Praise Question Suggestion) strategy. The students focused on one aspect of their writing they wanted to improve on. Not all of it. It worked out amazingly well. They didn't feel overwhelmed and each time their drafts were better than the one before.

I will continue to teach revision this way because when all is said and done, the students did an AMAZING job.

And you know what?

It wasn't as hard as they thought it was going to be. To them, it was fun. Isn't that what writing is supposed to be?

One student's narrative checklist

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Teachers Learning From One Another

The one thing that I really struggle with as a writing teacher is conferencing with ALL of my students about their writing. I have four sections of fifth graders and about 23 kids in each class. I would often find myself reading their writing at home in google classroom and leaving comments for them about questions that I had. This was one of the only ways I could figure out how to "meet" with all of them. But I still wasn't satisfied with it and felt that I was letting myself down as a writing teacher but more importantly letting my own students down.

At NWP/NCTE this past November I was at a session where Carl Anderson was one of the speakers. If you don't know who Carl Anderson is, I refer to him as the conferencing guru. One of the things he mentioned that really stood out to me is the fact that in his K-12 educational experience, his mother, an English teacher, was the only teacher to ever conference with him about his writing. And it was because he failed an essay assignment. From that point on, she conferenced with him on a regular basis.

This made me sad, and it made me think of my own children. They are 11, 9, and 8.

After the conference I went home and asked them about their own teachers over their short schooling career. They have had wonderful teachers but according to my kids, none of them had ever sat down  and talked to them about their writing.

My school district went on winter break a week before most districts in the area. I took this as an opportunity to observe my friend, Jill's writing workshop. Jill is an MCTE teacher of the year, Red Cedar Writing Project teacher consultant and co-director, and director of  Spartan Writing Camp. She is a phenomenal teacher and one that I look up to.

Jill teaches in a 3/4 classroom at Okemos Public Montessori. Her writing workshop was what I had envisioned, but what I learned from her about conferencing was incredibly valuable. It was simple, and I am embarrassed to say that I should have been conferencing like this all along. I watched as Jill moved around the classroom with a clipboard and pen talking to students. Talking about what they were writing and where in the process they were with their writing. When it was appropriate, she gave suggestions and asked questions.

I was in her room for one hour. On my winter break. But it was more worthwhile than anything else I could have been doing at that time.

Today I put this conferencing into action with my own students during writing workshop. And it was unreal. I was able to talk to six to eight students in each class. I loved listening to what they had to tell me, ask questions, and offer suggestions. I loved being able to connect what they were working on to mini lessons we have done in the past. And I think they loved that I was giving them individual attention and felt safe asking for help without an audience.

But more importantly, I heard them. I heard their story and listened to what they had to say.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Author's Craft

Back in October I was at an MCTE session listening to Jeff Anderson discuss his new book that was about to come out the following week called Patterns of Power: Inviting Young Writers into the Conventions of Writing. I was motivated by his talk but there was one thing above everything else that stood out to me. It was an image from this new book that he had displayed on the screen. On a pink sticky note he had the words: Author's Purpose-Why? and on a blue sticky note he had the words: Author's Craft-How?

Right after his session I presented with some teachers in a group that I belong to called Discovering Genres. When we asked the participants in our session to name some writing genres, many of them gave us purposes. It was the combination of that and Jeff Anderson's sticky notes that I knew I was going to make sure my students new the Why? and the How? in writing.

Ever since the conference my students and I have been talking a lot about author's purpose in my writing classroom. They know the mnemonic to remember them all by, the definitions of each and can give examples of genres that fall under each purpose. But more importantly they are beginning make connections.

While immersing themselves in obituaries to prepare for writing their own on one of the seven key Founding Fathers, they commented that obituaries are written very similarly to author's blurbs, one of their first pieces of writing in fifth grade.  They both are meant to inform a reader but for different reasons. One celebrates the life of someone who has passed away and the other, the accomplishments of someone living. Through this conversation I know they definitely understand the Why?

And today.

Today, they totally got the How?

It was one of those lessons that turned out better than expected. Not just with one class but all four sections.

But let me back up for a second.

Yesterday I had read them Bedhead by Margie Palatini. We then brainstormed different hairror stories as a class. After that, the students had an opportunity to write their own. The idea for this narrative was inspired by Jeff Anderson in Mechanically Inclined and created by Janet Swenson, founder of the Red Cedar Writing Project at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.

So today, we looked at the How? After a brief discussion about author's craft, I gave each student two sticky notes and the first page of Bedhead. We then read the page together and looked at different craft moves. Did you know the first sentence of this book is only two words long and has five craft moves? My students figured that out. We eventually made our way to the end of  the page and had brainstormed a full sticky note worth.

Many questioned the use of fragments in Palatini's work but realized it was more effective than writing proper sentences. And I honestly believe through the conversation we had about it, that it was an aha moment for many of my students.

After that, I partnered up my students and gave each pair a different page from the book. The students immersed themselves in her work, first by reading the page then noticing the How? 

When they finished, they presented their findings to the class.

It was amazing!

Now, I just need to make sure they transfer this new found skill to their own writing.

An excerpt from Bedhead (2000) by Margie Palatini and some of my students' noticings

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Finding Neverland

For the past few years my students have participated in the Eye for Broadway at the Wharton Center in East Lansing, Mi.  One week out of the school year, I spend class time creating pieces for this event. It is a collaborative effort between all the fifth grade students. This year I teach 90 students writing, and so it seemed fitting for them to create artwork for Finding Neverland. All art pieces are for sale and the money goes into a scholarship fund at the Wharton Center so schools in the area who can't afford it can come and enjoy their ACT School Series. Finding Neverland will be at the Wharton Center from December 12-17th.

I showed my students the movie version a few weeks ago and had them focus on various aspects of it. What stood out to them? What caused J.M. Barrie to create Peter Pan? How do the characters change over time? Why is creativity and imagination important? We talked about his life as a writer and how even really great writers experience writer's block.

One thing I have been  trying to instill in my writing students this school year is that ideas are everywhere. Look. Notice. And just write. Not all writing has to be their best copy. There is a conversation in the movie that sums this up perfectly. It is between Peter and Barrie.

"I don't know what to write about."

"Write about anything. Write about your family or the whale."

"What whale?"

"The one that is trapped in your imagination."

It has taken me a few years to figure out the best way to have all the students in the 5th grade collaborate on a project like this. One class starts the project and when their class period is over, the next class comes in and takes over where the other class left off. We continue this throughout the week until all the pieces are done. We have created as few as 12 pieces to 42, which is what we are creating for Finding Neverland.

All pieces are done on canvases. The Bath Township Meijer graciously donated a $150 gift card, so I could purchase the supplies. Last week, my homeroom students painted all the canvases. They chose bright colors because they felt it represented imagination.

Today was officially day two of creating a representation for Finding Neverland. Things are going very well. Sixteen canvases, one for each letter of the title, are almost done.  I anticipate that tomorrow more will be completed.

We are doing these in a specific order because that is how I see it in my head.

I can't wait to see the finished pieces up in the lobby at the Wharton. And hopefully my favorite piece doesn't sell. I selfishly want it for my classroom.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Turning 44


A time when you wake up and know that something is a little different. You feel a pep in your step, a warmness in your heart. There is an indescribable feeling that goes with this day. Maybe not many people feel the same way I do. I blame it on my mother.

When I was younger, my mother spoiled my sisters and I on our birthdays. It was the only time of year that she went all out. Cake. Party. Friends. Presents. It was our day, and we felt special.  Many of my memories from my youth are about my birthdays. When I had my own children, I knew that I wanted them to experience birthdays like I had.

But special for me when I was younger has been different for them. I can count on one hand how many birthday parties with friends my three children have had. It's not something they ask for too often. Instead, they would rather the day be their day to do as they please. They plan the meals and activities. They make lists. But most importantly they have the attention of everyone else in the household. This has worked for us.

Equally exciting is the decoration of the dining room. The siblings decorate in whatever theme the birthday child wants. The chalkboard wall is covered with anything and everything birthday.

It's a nice tradition we have started and one that will continue for a long time.

Today I turned 44.

I woke up feeling special.

My kids decorated the room for me. They doused the table with presents, and they were excited.








My mom died at 54. Ten years from where I am right now.

So at 44 I can see it two ways:

Worry that each year is one year closer to when she got sick and passed away.


Take in the moments. Each day. Watch my kids grow, enjoy my profession, lead through kindness.

In the back of my mind I believe I will always worry. But that is in the back, trying to stay hidden.

For now, though, I will take in the moments.

Because today I turned 44, and I have a lot more moments to live.