Tuesday, February 20, 2018

No Longer Strangers

Last week, I walked into my coworkers classroom to ask a question. I found her at her computer searching for an essay that she wanted to have her students look at as an example of how to write an excellent compare and contrast piece.

Through a short conversation, I learned that her daughter, an eighth grader, was assigned to write a compare and contrast essay between two novels, The Devil's Arithmetic and The Diary of Anne Frank. The problem was she wasn't sure how to do it. So my coworker searched the internet, high and low, until she found a few examples that were up to her expectations of what a good essay looks like.

After reading through them, they noticed and discussed the format and craft moves the authors used to show similarities and differences. Her daughter then said, "Why didn't anyone ever show me this? It makes it so much easier."

This is an example of immersion. Immersion is giving students the time and resources to read and notice characteristics about the genre they are studying. This can be done through a variety of ways such as a book pass, gallery walk, or small groups.

When I first describe immersion to my students, I use the analogy of jumping into the deep end of the pool and being surrounded by all that water. When we immerse, we surround ourselves with many  examples of the genre being taught.

In my fifth grade classroom, immersion is integrated into how I teach.

Before writing obituaries on the Founding Fathers, we immersed ourselves in an array of obituaries.

Before writing our own author blurbs, we looked at many of them using the books in our classroom library.

Before creating wanted posters for fractions, we scoured through different types.

While the students immersed themselves in the genre we were learning about, they were taking notice. Notice of different craft moves and commonalities with all the pieces. And each noticing gave them a little bit more information on how to write in that genre.

But it wasn't too long ago that immersion and I were strangers.

In June of 2016, I was invited to be part of a group of teachers that wanted to figure out how to take a book meant for high school teachers and adapt it to the elementary level. After the first meeting, I knew this was going to change my teaching for the better. The book, Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone: Helping Students Navigate Unfamiliar Genres written by Cathy Fleischer and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan, had a message: We need to teach students how to write in unfamiliar genres, and it can be done through a simple process. Cathy and Sarah call this process the four i's-immersion, inquiry, instruction, and integration.

I had been teaching three of those four i's all along but had never thought of the immersion piece. And I am not sure why.

In the two years since I have been doing this work, I have seen a drastic difference in my students' best drafts. They seem to have an understanding of the structure of a piece after looking at many different types, no matter the genre. Eventually, after making it through the other i's, they then choose one they particularly like and model their work after that piece.

Immersion takes time. It is well worth the day or two it may take you and your class to go through the examples. But it is so worth it. Think of how much reading and analyzing is happening.

Immersion. Such a simple idea. But such a powerful one.

Because my coworker took the time to immerse her 8th grader in a few compare and contrast essays, her daughter now understands what a well written one looks like.

And her teacher noticed too. It was the best paper she had ever written!

Graphic novel immersion

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