You convinced me!

We all need a good laugh – or even just a smile – every so often. Just to remind us of the joy that can be teaching.

In the midst of this silly season – this season when there is some hefty assessment going on – I had one of those moments as I corrected a sizable (read daunting) stack of persuasive reviews. Third grade writers are very earnest in their recommendations – even my less nuanced writers try their darnedest to convince me with their very best 9-year-old logic.

Here is the writing that made me smile:

Slerp! Crunch! Ahh! China Buffet the place I love, I’ll show you, actually show you all the amazing features with a con about… China Buffet of course. I previously mentioned that earlier. The food: China Buffet has some good food like the refreshing cold and hot, (I meant for it to be hot and cold) beverages which will eternally rock your socks off. You will be doing your stomach a favor!

And then there’s seafood, not much of it, but worth it. There’s about a dozen creamy rich flavored ice creamy smooth textured ice cream flavors. There is a fish tank with angelfish, clownfish, and tiger fish. It’s near Sleepy’s and Chuck E. Cheese (and Target).

China Buffet has great service. You use tongs to “get” food instead of ordering on a menu and waiting for cooked food. It’s already done!

And now for a con, one measly con. Your reaction may be “What! You can’t find the bathroom!” It’s silly yes, it’s there though. I’ve been there numerous times. (P.S. there’s fruit cocktails, pork fried rice, sushi, Jell-o, fortune cookies, chicken, shrimp, clams, etc.).

So that’s why you should go check out China Buffet. I rate it 5 stars.

Come to think of it, I would like to do my stomach a favor! Hope there’s a table available!

Music To The Rescue

In a past life I was a musician and a music teacher.  While I lacked the talent and drive to become a professional musician, music has always been something I’ve enjoyed.

In our classroom, when students need to complete a transition from one activity to the other – for example, universal breakfast clean up to Morning Meeting – we play music. We began the year with Pachelbel and are working on Bach at the moment.

My students love to talk – usually to me and all at once –  they talk a LOT. And while I understand and encourage this as part of their processing and language acquisition, it can get pretty loud. When we’re in Writing Workshop, there are definitely times I want them talking out loud, but there are times when I’d like them “talking” with their pencils and pens.

One day this week, as I was preparing to release my students to their writing tasks, I started explaining to them that I would like to begin experimenting with background music during Writing Workshop.  As I write – even now – we have classical music playing in the background so why not?  This was, as many things about teaching are, unplanned.

It was not an instant success — it took a couple of starts before I could convince my students that they didn’t need to try to talk over the music. But over the course of the last three days, the background conversations – the ones that were not about writing – have been replaced so that Writing Workshop is most definitely a more focused work period.

Yesterday, one of my friends approached me in amazement saying “we wrote quietly the whole time!” And so they did.  Music to the rescue.

A (Non)-Writer Discovers Notebooks

A while ago, our Literacy Coach began talking to us about revisiting notebooks as a means to developing writers and authors.  I’m possibly the last person in education to discover Aimee Buckner and Notebook Know-How, but I am so glad I have made that connection.

Not being a writer myself or at least not a disciplined one, I found notebooks and their use just one more thing to do with kids. Our school-wide writing calendars, focused on responses and one new genre of writing every two months was quite time-consuming. I couldn’t imagine when we would fit in using notebooks.

And then I read this

— we shouldn’t write for significance, but rather that we should write as a habit. Sometimes we’ll write something significant and sometimes we won’t. It’s the act of writing — the practice of generating text and building fluency–that leads writers to significance.

Wow! Did those words speak to me! What I had been doing “wrong” all this time, both as a non-writer and a teacher of writing, was expecting each morsel to be significant. The notebook is a place to practice, to try out, to experiment. Not only in writing, but in any endeavor, a learner needs a safe place to practice without worry as to the significance of the outcome.

This is a discovery that I can relate to. As an amateur photographer, I’ve been reticent to take my camera with me because I would not have anything worthwhile to show for it.

My students are starting to use notebooks now. And while they are not yet a habit, we are learning together to find a safe place to experiment with some of the strategies that professional writers and authors use.

We are learning to be learners through our experimentation.

Teacher as Learner

I have long gotten past being the “sage on the stage”. If educational gurus hadn’t already convinced me that students learn best from peers and self-exploration – constructing the meaning of something themselves from experience – anecdotal evidence from the classroom would have.

This week I arranged with our school’s Literacy specialist/coach, Pat Sweeney, to have her model peer writing conferences.  Knowing how much language we need to build into any speech-based activity with English Language Learners, help in supporting my students is always welcome.

Pat started by engaging my students in thinking about why an author may want to ask a peer  for advice. First Pat laid down the ground rules for the author (read your work and listen to peer input), the peer group (listen and then offer 1 compliment and 1 suggestion).  The rule of compliments (always start the sentence with “you or your”) and suggestions (“I think…..”) was next.

Then kids then looked over and clarified a list of compliments and suggestions that Pat had placed on anchor charts. Having previewed some independently written narratives my students were working on, Pat selected two students to be the first to try out peer conferences in a whole group.

I was pleasantly surprised at the level of constructive criticism my students had. They offered compliments and useful suggestions about the plot of a story, the beginnings, the endings, descriptive languages. Pat wrote down up to 3 suggestions for each author – fitting them on a 3×3 stick-on note – and then instructed the author to keep the note with their original work so when they later conference with me, we can both see which suggestions were incorporated into their pieces. Self accountability – brilliant!

Several days later, when Pat led our peer conferences a second time, she gradually released the conversation to the students. And the students were much more willing to sit in the author’s chair or offer suggestions and compliments. As we continue this process, my hope is that students will move eventually to arranging with a smaller peer group of 2-3 students or even with a critical friend.

As for me, I’ve learned that I have a habit of offering a compliment but linking to the suggestion with the conjunction “but” – which negates the power of the compliment. I’m also going to need to do some work to remember beginning compliments with “you” and not “I think”. I also was delighted to see the authors who had been through the peer conference check in with me (“Do you think I should rewrite this or just write this part on my draft?”) — how many times have teachers given students a writing suggestion and then notice it never makes its way in to the final copy?

Having a valuable critical friend for my own teaching is not a luxury, it is a necessity. We learn from each other – just as the students do.


The Places We Write

When we returned to school this week, I knew I would need to revisit some of our routines. The first week in January always seems like a good time to do such things. One thing I knew I wanted to clarify was where to put writing.

In my third grade classroom, there seem to be 4 categories of writing activities – Reading Responses, Writers’ Notebook captures, Genre/project based writing, and Free Writing.  So this week I set out to redefine these 4 with my students through the creation of anchor charts and practice. As we work to refine the kinds of writing we do in  the four places, we created an anchor chart for each.

Our Writers’ Notebooks in particular had become a mash of full-blown stories – not simply observations, ideas, snippets of conversation that might later turn in to something more substantial. We’ve started with a new notebook this week, a notebook that students are expected to keep on their desks during the day just in case a new writing idea comes to mind. While that spontaneity has not yet been achieved, I hope my message is clear: writers need to be ready to jot down ideas at any time.

Organization, as any teacher can tell you, is where we succeed or stumble. If the structure for keeping track of materials and tasks doesn’t make sense to me personally, it probably won’t be helpful for the students. For me, and hopefully for my students, this past week’s activities has helped us to clarify and to organize tasks more logically.

Teaching Report Writing

Too often, I find the curriculum focus in writing is disconnected and segmented from the rest of the curriculum. Perhaps that is a hazard of attempting to cram in so many genres of writing – all urgently needed – into one school year. Is it any wonder that, from time to time, a genre of writing such as functional letter writing is quickly forgotten after it seemed to be “mastered”. Yes, I do get the ridiculousness of that last statement.

This year, my grade level team has taken a second or could that be a third, look at our Writing Calendars – what we call a curriculum map. With the Common Core looming in our very near future, it seemed wise to do so. We’ve filled some gaps in our writing curriculum and revised when we teach particular writing genres. We’ve also moved away from more strictly adhered to requirements: our previous report writing focused on writing biographies of famous citizens of the Commonwealth.

This year, when the report project came up, I decided that I would tie it to the previously taught letter writing format and also use the reports as a jigsaw study of Massachusetts and Lowell, both of which are part of our Social Studies curriculum in Grade 3. Each student has been assigned a topic, will be expected to research and provide information about the topic, and will share that information in a classroom/student published book.  As an example, students will discover and explain what each of the three branches of Massachusetts government do, or will find out about some of the cultural and natural resources available to us in Lowell. To my thinking, this is a greater bang-for-the-buck than the biography reports. It has taken some effort for me to convince students that they live in the CITY of Lowell in the STATE of Massachusetts (no, not the state of Lawrence or Boston).

The first step toward researching each topic was for students to write a business format letter to the agency that may be able to provide information about their topic. I have possibly spent about 4 hours gathering mailing addresses for each of the 25 topics that were generated.

Writing those letters, I have to admit was painful. Despite writing friendly letters weekly in Readers’ Response notebooks, when I conferenced with the students after they drafted their business letters, the basic letter format was hardly recognizable.  Added to the friendly letter format was the inside address, the generalized greeting used in a business letter, and the more formal language of requesting information. Some of the students’ letters were very sincere and at times amusing, particularly the promises to do a good job of reporting if only the student could please be sent some information.

I hope the recipients of these requests find them amusing enough to send a brochure back. Next week, we’ll begin using text and Internet resources for research.

The Office – Mini style

Maybe it’s been around for a while and I’m just catching up on my reading, but I just learned about a new “tool” for students. Lucky for my budget it won’t cost anything more than some manila file folders, tape, and time.

The new tool is called the Mini-office. I was intrigued by the term when I went Googling for literacy stations after reading Debbie Miller’s Practice with Purpose. I like the thinking behind a mini office: the most often used or referenced tips – in my case for Writing – are posted strategically on the manila file folders. The folders are arranged to form a three-sided display keeping those tips right within eyesight of a student. What I like about this tool is that, depending upon the writing project, the references posted on the mini-office can be customized to fit the writing or generalized for any writing.

Mini offices are on my shortlist of ideas to try out this Fall. Now to think about what essential information will help my students.

Links for Mini Offices:

Busy Teacher Cafe

ABC Teach

Teaching Heart