Sunday, August 30, 2015

Inspiring Student Writing

How many times do you actually give free choice in writing only to hear, "I don't know what to write about!" One thing that challenges our students is getting started in writing; choosing something to write about that they are actually interested in, and writing form their own unique perspective. 

Tell me if this has happened to you: you model writing a piece about a time you went to the beach with your family. You use some creative details, like descriptions of the sun, sand, and breeze. You share an encounter with a jellyfish! And then you describe the calm peacefulness you felt sitting on the sand.

And then you read your kids' writing. And almost all of them went to the beach! They described the sun, sand, and breeze, and that time they ran into a jellyfish! And then they felt so calm and peaceful.

Sound familiar?

That's the way writing often starts. Our kids, when they are still struggling to find their writing voice, use voices that...well...sound a lot like ours. If our writing is the only model of writing students have, we're really limiting their exposure to different types of writing styles. We have to give them lots of opportunities to read and look at things and search their brains for the memories and thoughts that those experiences trigger.

Inspire with Books & Authors
Some of my favorite books for inspiring student writing are by Cynthia Rylant. It's no secret - she's incredible. She makes me feel like a terrible writer. That's what good writers do, right? Something about the intricate and warm details she includes helps kids reach into their brains for their own details and memories.

This is the response I modeled for the kids in my writer's notebook after we read Scarecrow:

I wanted to stretch my students' thinking by freewriting in response to Scarecrow. This helps them think of a variety of ideas for their own future writing, making their writer's notebooks a real resource for writing.

Another book I love love love for inspiring student writing is The Ghost-Eye Tree. It includes suspense and very strong feelings. Great for getting kids to think about times they were frightened or uneasy.

This book by Jerry Seinfeld always cracked me and my kids up, and it got some of my less excited writers to write about their memories in a funny way.

I love Bat Loves the night by Nicola Davies for those kids who enjoy writing about science. Literary nonfiction titles are a great bridge for those kids!

And this book is excellent for teaching kids to zoom in on a moment.

When our kids read enough books by the same author, they get to know that author. They understand that writers make decisions and have a style. They get to say things like, "I'm going to write this like Patricia Polacco did." That's the value of an author study.

I like to put our favorite books into a "Books We Love" basket in our writing area. Kids who need inspiration can go borrow one and get inspired!

Inspire with Pictures

One of the things my kids enjoyed is starting with a picture. One year, my campus had a school-wide picture every month that we all wrote about. It was so interesting to see what direction everyone took the pictures! These are some way I used pictures:
  • Settings: show students pictures about various settings that they may be writing about. Pictures of a certain season or location can help students think about where they'd like their writing to take place.
  • Characters: provide pictures of different kinds of characters. Have students describe them. Do they know someone similar? What would that person say, do, or think? 
  • Tone: show a picture that expresses a certain tone or feeling. Have students write in their notebook what that picture makes them think of.  
This is a writer's notebook entry I modeled in response to a picture of a baker!

Inspire with Words
A terrific strategy to use to encourage students to grow their expressive vocabularies and to "read like a writer" is "Filling the Room with Beautiful Language." I honestly don't know where I learned this, but here's what you do to fill your room with golden lines.

1. Read a beautifully written picture book aloud, slowly.
2. Students listen for their favorite line; the line that was written in such a vivid way that they want to remember it.
3. They write the line down; I sometimes had them record it on a sentence strip and illustrate it. These later went on a bulletin board full of "beautiful lines," or "golden lines."
4. To share your favorite lines, popcorn it out. One student stands up and reads his/her line. Then he sits down and another student stands up and reads his/her line. Continue until everyone has shared their lines. It fills your room with beautiful language. After you start hunting for this kind of language in the books you read, students will be inspired to try to "write like that," and they will grow their own language in the most expressive ways!

Visit this page to read another fun way we inspired our students' creative writing with interesting words.

For some fun inspirational writing tools, check out the Writing Inspiration Station on TPT. It's full of descriptive sentence starters, personal narrative starters and prompts, and fun pictures to write about.

These creative story starter dice have a separate story starter on each side. There are creative story starter dice for holidays and seasons!

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Friday, August 28, 2015



 Are you impressed that it's Friday and I'm actually posting this? I am! I am especially impressed because this was the first week of school.

I am about to tell you a weird (very short) story. Today, I had a bunch of errands to do around the school. Most of the normal people had left (thank goodness) because it was about two hours after school let out. I was walking back to my room after running all my errands, and I realized, "I forgot to copy something!" I was almost all the way back to my room. This is when the weird thing happened. As soon as I realized I forgot to copy my stuff, I jerked to a stop. At this point, normal people say, "Nuts" or "Oops" or "Shoot!" Not me.

And then I said, "Butt!"
What is that? Who says that? Why did I say that?
I really don't know what's going on with me. My sister in law says all my neurons were firing and it was just the first thought that made it to the surface. But why was it in there in the first place? I think I have Turretts.
I giggled all the way to the copy machine. Because that's just weird. 

Anyway, this is five pictures (kind of six) that show you a little about my busy week and why I said, "Butt."

#1: Take a Book, Leave a Book!
I love this! I cleaned up a little old bookshelf and brought some books from home. I made the Take a Book, Leave a Book sign and explained to the faculty that if they want a book, they just take one and leave another for someone else to read. 

#2 My Room!
It took my a while, but I think it's mostly ready! It's a meeting place for teachers, a place for modeling, and working with small groups of students. When my boss told me last year that I had to move (I had to do it in the last week of school ack!), I almost cried. More than once. But now I'm excited to start this new year in a new room.

 #3 Feelings Bulletin Board
Our new Book of the Month is The Way I Feel. It's a great book, full of excellent illustrations and text describing feelings. It's written in rhyme, and it's really a fun read.

To make the bulletin board, I made little speech bubbles with feelings (synonyms for each one) and I asked some of our kids to make faces that showed those emotions. The outcome was hilarious. I said, "Can you make a face that shows you're determined?" and they stared at me. I said, "Maybe try to narrow your eyes, or make a fist?" and they squinted at me. I said, "Make a face that shows you're content, or happy." And they stared at me. It was a challenge.

#4 These darn floating discs
I have no idea what to call them. They're cute and they came from Joann's Fabrics. They were, like, two bucks. And I finally put them up (after I almost ruined them because I couldn't figure out the one-step assembly process).

#5 These Binders
I loooooooove them so much. I've been working on a new product for instructional coaches. It's a MegaPack of fillable and printable forms, and some printables like binder covers and labels. I'm so excited- just put it up on TPT! Grab it here!

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tough Conversations: Supporting Teachers, No Matter What

The Situation
I remember one of the first trainings I gave. I was supporting teachers through training them in a new school initiative: shared reading. I had carefully planned my training, created a video and a powerpoint presentation. I had tools to hand out that I'd made and pictures of this instructional strategy in action.

I was ready.
As I delivered my training, a teacher who had a lot of experience in teaching reading raised his hand and said, "What's wrong with round-robin?"

The other teachers turned to look at me to see how I would respond. Oh, jeez, I thought. This is one of those tough conversations the other coaches told me about. Handle this right or you're dead in the water.

I launched into an explanation of what research said about round-robin reading. How studies show it's ineffective because students aren't processing text in their own minds, and how they are waiting for their turn rather than actively thinking and interacting with the text. It was pretty compelling stuff, I thought.

"But they like it," he said.

I did not know what to say. I knew what the research said, and I knew that this practice wouldn't be permitted by administration anymore. I knew he probably had a reason for saying his kids liked round robin. I knew I had to address it, but I didn't know the best way.

And I knew that I had to stay focused on what I had come there to do: to train teachers in some best practices for shared reading. So I said, "It's not going to suit our purposes for shared reading."

And everyone let it go.

At the time, I felt like, "Well, at least I kept it from erupting."
But I had missed an opportunity. Almost everything a teacher says is an opportunity to support that teacher. Those tough conversations are opportunities to support your teachers.

Listen for opportunities

Sometimes teachers say things like this: (And I will not exclude myself from this list. In my worst moods, I'm sure I have said at least a few things like this.)
  • That's not going to work.
  • I've been teaching for x years. Why do I need to learn that?
  • They're too little for that.
  • That's too hard for them.
  • How am I supposed to fit that in?
  • One more thing.
  • We don't have time for that.
Are you starting to feel crummy? Do you feel small and purposeless? Well, don't! All of those statements are opportunities! Don't make it about you! Listen. And realize that these statements tell you something important about the teacher you're talking to.

It might be telling you that they can't imagine what the strategy you're sharing looks like in the classroom.
It might mean they are very comfortable using a certain set of strategies, and trying something different is scary or out of their comfort zone.
It might mean they're overwhelmed with the 9,000 responsibilities and requirements teachers deal with every day.

React in a positive, calm, and supportive manner  

You have a choice about how to react. Instead of defending yourself and your ideas, or worrying that they don't like you, try saying one of these things:
  • I know it's going to be a challenge, but I think we can figure it out together.
  • You have a lot of experience in _content area_. Can you help me find a way to bridge this new strategy with what you already do?
  • I bet we can figure out how to accommodate this for the kids that you're working with.
  • You're right; we have a lot going on. Why don't we see where this would be suitable, so it doesn't add anything to your plate. We can find a logical place to include this strategy, and maybe we need to take something else out.
And then, ALWAYS, follow it up with a specific time to work with that teacher by saying,

"How about we get together to look at that later this week? How about x day and x time?"

It's hard to turn someone down who's offering to help. That's most likely what they wanted in the first place; someone to help them figure out how this new stuff is going to work, in the real world. 
If I had tried that approach with the teacher during the shared reading training, I can only imagine that it would have created a more supportive learning environment for that teacher.

Instead of telling him (basically), "Just do it. It's better this way," I would have opened the door for communication and exploration, together. And isn't that our job as instructional coaches? To get in there and help out, any way we can.

Getting started in coaching? Check out my new ebook, The Start-Up Guide to Instructional Coaching on TPT! It's over 80 pages of information to help you get started to make a real difference on your campus.

Getting organized as an instructional coach? Check out my new Instructional Coaching MegaPack on TPT! It's full of fillable forms, printable forms and documents, binder covers and labels, planning tools, RtI documents, and more!

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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How to Teach Reading by Genre

A few years ago (maybe five or six) our state standards changed for reading, pretty dramatically. I know all of you who have been through the Common Core Craze can understand that. I, however, am from Texas, where we do what we want *snap snap*, and Texas moved to genre-based standards several years back.

At that time, my reading program was based on the Reader's Workshop model, with adjustments to suit me, and my shared reading three days a week was fiction. The other two days was informational text. This was great for me (I love fiction, and I tied my informational articles to science, so double whammy), but it didn't exactly address my new genre-based standards, which included literary genres: fiction, poetry, drama, literary nonfiction (biography), and informational genres: expository, persuasive, and procedural. I had some work to do to teach reading by genre.

One of the first things I did was take a look at my standards and figure out which standard was expected to be taught (and honestly, tested) in which genres. I used the document below to figure out where I had to teach different standards, like cause-and-effect, predicting, making inferences, and sequencing.

Then I chose some titles for each genre that I wanted to focus on as mentor texts for really understanding how that genre worked and how good readers approach that genre. My kids and I worked through a variety of texts, noticing the features of each genre and recording them, and other important characteristics (like author's purpose, which is actually the essential reason genres are different), and charting them on some giant charts.

To help kids make the distinction, I divided them up onto literary and informational matrices.

 During the study of each genre, we examined several texts and isolated the essential elements and strategies to use to best comprehend that genre.

Poetry was a struggle for many students. They didn't really know how to start! To give them a handle on the main elements of poetry, we used an acronym that my colleague and I created: POETS. The chart below shows what students would look for in a poem. They marked evidence in different colors for each element, trying to put them together to make meaning out of the poem.

This chart shows how we read for the elements, whole-class, and mark our evidence.

I love reader's notebooks. For each genre, we responded using different strategies. The strategy shown from my model notebook below was great for poetry. I honestly can't remember the name, but this is how it works:

1. Read a poem aloud to students - each student has a copy to mark up as you read.
2. Read again, slowly, instructing students to find a spot to respond to. Students underline the line and put a star at the end of the line. They quickwrite in response to the poem.
3. Read the poem again, very slowly. As you get to the place where students responded, they jump in and read the response they wrote.

The first time we did this, my kids were a little uncomfortable and nervous. But you know, learning happens when we don't quite know what's going to happen! I did it again, with a poem called "Shelling Pecans," and they seemed to have a better experience, because they expected to share. It was a very interesting strategy that I would use again!

Other posts on teaching poetry

When I introduced fiction, I made sure to introduce a variety of genres - I really spent some time here, choosing texts from each genre to make sure that students had a good understanding of the varieties of fiction they might enjoy reading. We read historical fiction (Nettie's Trip South), and science fiction (Sector 7). We read myths and folktales! And at the end of the unit, one of the kids' most interesting responses (I always ask for their input) was "I never knew there were different kinds of fiction."

How rewarding is that?

An important part of a strong reader's workshop program is independent reading. While it's important for students to enjoy reading (really the most important thing), you have to find different ways of ensuring that students are applying their strategic thinking in their independent reading. One fun way is the question ring below.

I hole-punch the cards in the corner and put them on a binder ring. I hang them in the classroom library, and students can choose a question to respond to in their independent reading. There's a ring for each genre. We practice using the rings to respond to our reading during our whole-group lessons, and then, as we practice with each genre, I add the rings to the library.

Other posts on teaching fiction

Drama is a very unique genre as well. As we read dramas, we add to our chart of drama features. It's important to do more than simply name the features. We need to help students understand the purpose of that feature, so they know how to use it. For example, students very readily point to words in brackets and pronounce, "stage directions!" But do they use those stage directions to understand how a character is feeling or acting? If not, then we have to teach them how to do that!

Other posts on drama

Expository text is very focused on pulling out important information. We practice my favorite summary strategy: providing each team with a sentence strip. They write the main idea of their paragraph and then we put them all together to build a super summary! You can read more about that here.

I also added my Expository question ring to the classroom library!

Other posts about teaching Expository text

Persuasive text is a very specific type of informational text. It's informational, but it's tinged with someone's bias and persuasive techniques. I used this persuasive cube in partners to help students think through a persuasive text and identify the persuasive techniques and arguments used by the author.

As I introduce new genres, it's important for students to learn how to navigate between genres. I use these three questions to help students think about what genre they are reading. It's so important for students to naturally think about texts differently to determine what's important about each genre. Students who are fuzzy on this read each genre the same, usually like fiction, and studies show they are the least able to navigate those genres. So we spend a lot of time on it!

The chart below helps kids remember to think differently on three major genres:

Genre bookmarks are a great way to help kids be independent in their identification and thought about genre during independent reading. If you provide them with each bookmark as you learn about each new genre, they can pull their set of bookmarks out during independent reading.

I copied them onto colored cardstock and provide them to students, one at a time. Students "grow" their set, and when they choose an independent reading book, they identify the genre, pull out the bookmark, and think about the questions or items under the "Look for" part of the bookmark.

And then there's testing.


I know, I hate it, too. But if we teach our children to be real readers and real writers, we can more easily teach them to navigate the test structures and be successful. When we focus only on testing, we neglect the real thought and rigor of the world of reading and writing. Instead, focus on real reading and writing, and then bridge it to the test. This is how I bridge genre instruction:

We reviewed each genre with a mini-selection. Each student had a copy and they practiced using the three questions to decide on their strategy for approaching the text (ex: Do I look for characters? conflicts? main ideas? arguments? stage directions?). We marked the essential elements, and decided on the author's purpose. Then we brainstormed the kinds of questions we expected to see on the test and recorded them on our chart.

We repeated this for the most frequently tested genres.

And we built our test-genre wall!

 We developed a strategy chant to remember what's important about each genre! It goes to the tune of a cadence, like "Sound off- 1-2". The first four stanzas are the verses, and the last stanza is the sound-off.

I cut up a million questions from the released tests, and students sorted them into different genres, based on the evidence they could find in the question and answer choices. It's incredible how much they could infer, just from the questions and answers!

These activities are part of my 200-page Teaching Reading by Genre materials on TPT. It's full of teacher planning tools and printables, lesson ideas, anchor charts, and strategies for each genre!

And my Genre Study Book is a great way to provide students some reader's notebook pages or a folder book for reference, as you undertake your genre study!

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