The Power of Positive Grammar

GUMS–Grammar, Usage, Mechanics, Spelling.  If there were really a way to get around teaching this business in fifth grade, I’d have found it.  Since it is un-getaroundable, I’m trying to figure out a more positive approach.  I’ve been hanging on to a DOL (daily oral language) program, because it doesn’t seem harmful and is quickly done each jam-packed day.  I am required to use a word study program, which I feel okay about, so spelling (and to a limited extent usage) is in a decent place. And my writer’s workshop includes focus lessons and conferring in the GUMS sphere, but it doesn’t feel substantial enough, and I don’t want editing to take over our writing work.

But for grammar, mechanics, and usage, I’ve been searching for something different than the deficit model that DOL provides.  My students certainly learn with DOL–they learn to spot what is wrong in a sentence, and often can fix that sentence.  That seems to be where things stop, as students do not transfer this knowledge into the sentences they construct–at least not to my satisfaction.

I might have drifted through another year (or two or three) with no change, but I ran across an article on the National Writing Project website.  Written by Bev Matulis, it was about her work with “featured sentence structure” to provide positive examples for students to study and imitate the structures/strategies of sentences from great kid lit books.  Matulis referenced the work of Don and Jenny Killgallon, so I sent for a couple of their books–Sentence Composing for Elementary School and Story Grammar for Elementary School.  I like the way the books build on concepts of parts of speech, sentence structure, etc., and leave room for some inquiry.  The best is that each concept gives multiple rich examples, allows students to explore and recognize patterns, then holds students accountable for trying these patterns out in their own writing. 

So I’m planning to use the Killgallon texts to jump-start this more positive approach to learning about English.  My “glass half empty” voice is crabbily griping about the increased time requirement for this work, and that is a valid concern.  Every decision in teaching can feel like robbing Peter to pay Paul.  But there is also a hope here for me, that this sort of work will contribute in significant ways to the growth of my students as writers, and therefore as thinkers.  And since I’ve been looking at restructuring my reader’s workshop, I’m going to find a way to make this fit and function in my practice.


Craft Cracking

\"Cracked Geode\" by PAgent on flickr

I have a rather terrible habit of assuming conscious negative intent when “higher-ups” (or their potential henchpeople) mention professional titles.  I anticipate more bolted-on, poorly supported shifts in curriculum and practices that don’t end up benefiting students as promised and promoted.  So during the last week of school, an enthusiastic literacy coach dropped the title Cracking Open the Author’s Craft by Lester Laminack in my ear.  Visions of yet more “stuff” plopped on the heads of myself and my teaching pals danced in my head, so I ordered this book and decided to play detective.

It’s okay.  Laminack has used a picture book memoir he wrote, Saturdays and Teacakes, to examine a handful of “craft moves”.  I wish I’d run into this three years ago when I was floundering to figure this out.  But plenty of others are still floundering, and this is the perfect way to ease in to teaching writer’s craft.  The book comes with a super-handy DVD with Laminack reading his book and talking through several potential focus lessons-worth of craft points to ponder with students.  By using just one text, he makes it seem very manageable, and gives suggestions for other texts that display similar craft work.

He relies pretty heavily on the work of Katie Wood Ray, which I appreciated since I do the same when it comes to craft work!  But I have found that my colleagues who show interest in learning more about writer’s craft cringe at the size of her book Wondrous Words.  Laminack’s slim volume invites even reluctant teachers to consider teaching writer’s craft and facilitating text inquiry.

So now instead of impending dread, I look forward to using this resource as a teaching staff–viewing portions of the DVD, discussing what it means to “read with writer’s eyes”, and imagining together how we can use the study of craft to grow our young writers.

Rereading and Highlighting

I finished Notebook Know-How: Strategies for the Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner yesterday.  Some useful ideas from a teacher/writer who is clearly very thoughtful.  Sadly, I did not get the magic shortcut for the one universally perfect way to help students organize their writer’s notebooks.  But I did get some promising ideas for ways to use their notebooks in their writing lives. 

I have been using the strategy of asking students to find the “golden” line from an otherwise bland piece for a while now.  Buckner has me excited to try a larger commitment of rereading and highlighting throughout the notebook.  I tried it out for about ten minutes with my notebook from a couple years ago, and here are a some bits I highlighted:

  • (long-distance snow-peeing was my favorite contest and I am still the reigning champion)
  • I always wanted to learn to fish.  If I hated it, at least I’d know.  Time was the only measurable commodity left to me.
  • She was far too young to suffer and die in this way.
  • Your grinning grin split your pride-struck face
  • She wore her outcast status for the world to see, a pair of baggy gym shorts.
  • I don’t wonder how she could do such a thing, but how we miss seeing the train ourselves, coming after the lost people all around us.
  • So if you lose, that’s not always the end of the game.
  • Sometimes it is the little shames, like the shame of one word, that best express the great crimes in human history.
  • His cry-babyness meant he spent years of his life laying on the ground in tears, then finally grew up enough to get up off the ground and stand around crying.

Who knows when I would have looked back at the writing in this notebook if not for this strategy.  I was prompted to remember and reflect on my writing in a way I simply would have avoided.  I also like seeing some of the parts I highlighted here on this page–pulling out words that catch me or delight me–my words–makes me feel extra-talented.  Left in the context of my notebook…well, not so much, since plenty of the notebook writing is useful, but not particularly meaningful or full of the pithy wit and whatnot. 

My goal is to let this list sit for a while, then come back and write from it, away from the original contexts.  And I think my plan would work for some of my students as well.  Fun.  Writing.  Strategy.

Rethinking Writer’s Notebook Work

No, I have not finished Notebook Know-How by Aimee Buckner yet.  But I need to write about what I want to stick with me now, or it’ll just fade away.  I’ve read the first two chapters, and what I’m enjoying most is just reading the thoughts of someone as geeked about growing young writers as I am (much the same reason I love reading the Two Writing Teachers blog).  This work is so challenging, it is nice to read about someone else facing the same struggles and failing in some of the same ways I have in trying to make Writers Workshop “work” for everyone.

Chapter 2, “Launching the Notebook”, was a bit more practically useful.  Buckner reminded me how important the talking is–telling stories out loud as a primer for writing.  How funny that we complain as teachers about the constant desire of students to tell stories in class while at the same time bemoaning that they have no motivation to write.  I know this is not true, and Buckner reminds me it is my job to teach them to bring their stories to the page.  I’ve always put the lesson notes and strategy business at the front of the writers notebook with my students, but Buckner puts hers at the back.  This hadn’t occurred to me previously, but just reading it, I see the sense in this.  The kids’ writing should be the first and most prominent feature of their notebooks.  I was hoping for some magical knowledge for how to organize notebooks–I’ve left that largely up to my students, which works for some but not others.  So far, Buckner isn’t giving me much here.

Buckner provides a solid set of strategies for beginning notebook writing, from making lists to lifting a line from previous work to write on.  She also ends the chapter with a useful set of expectations for her students and herself relative to their keeping and using writer’s notebooks.  Re-reading these expectations, it reminds me of how I need to show my commitment to living a writerly life and be willing to be held accountable by my students for my part in our collective work as writers.

Flipping through the rest of the text, it looks like I’ll get a lot of possibilities for focus lessons.  My initial thought was “NO!”–I’m past the stage where I need more focus lessons.  But I’m definitely at the stage where I need to think and be smarter about the choices I make for writing instruction, and I think that could be the best favor Notebook Know-How does for me.  Time will tell.

The Podcast’s the Thing

Here I am, trying to get back on the reflective blogging again!  In my class’ most recent publishing cycle, a handful of my students chose to blog their pieces–something we’ve done with great success in the past.  Another handful chose to podcast.  Though I’ve fallen down on the job of promoting their work, I plan to add this to the publishing choices on a permanent basis. 

My initial concern was time, and so I was relieved that a minority of the class chose podcasting.  The funny thing was, it was very quick.  This group has a lot of techno-confidence at this point, and I spent about a minute explaining the program I use to capture and edit audio (an open source miracle called Audacity), and walked away.  Each podcaster handled the rest quite well, although I did do some editing of the audio after school.  Most of the students heard their first recording and then chose to do a second, wanting to improve on their phrasing, expression, etc.  Nice when they attend to fluency, isn’t it?  I could easily have podcast the entire class in just a few days worth of readers’ workshops using just my desktop and a single microphone.  So this excuse not to podcast has been blown out of the water.

Now I have to do my part.  Like the blog, it is clear that I need to be a major promoter of the podcasts, which have a home at Podcast People.  It has a free basic service that is more than adequate for our podcasting needs and is reasonably efficient.  My plan is to send the link out in the class newsletter, and then email the link with a request for commentary to all of my building colleagues and all of the literacy coaches in my district.  I may even hang our shingle out on the Red Cedar Writing Project listserv (all the prior-mentioned folks are now properly warned).  This is mostly a shameless promotion of my students’ work, because I’ve seen some really useful reflection on their parts when they read comments.  I’ve also seen a boost in their confidence as writers, which is solid gold in the teaching/learning biz.

So this past publishing cycle, students could podcast, blog, present in Author’s Chair time, or simply post their pieces in the classroom for others to read.  Our last published pieces were required to be blogged and presented in Author’s Chair.  Given the choice, a full half of the class still chose Author’s Chair, which I’ve been mulling over for a couple of weeks now.  This is the classic and familiar choice, and probably the only one they had prior to joining my class.  So why do the same old thing, I keep wondering.  I know why a few folks choose to simply post in the classroom–this is the single choice they can make that does not open them up to the review of others–podcasts and blogs allow commentary, and Author’s Chair in my room is followed by two “stars” and two “wishes” from the audience.

Author’s Chair–is it the personal performance element?  Or just the more personal touch?  Is it the familiarity, maybe that gives this option more legitimacy…I’d be curious for anyone who is spending their valuable time reading this crazy business to chime in.  Yes, I know I could just ask the students, but where’s the fun in that?  So, gentle reader, why are my students not flocking to the tech publishing, in all its sparkly innovationyness?

Nonfiction Writing–WOWstyle

Hey WOWsers, welcome to my blog.

I’m happy to say that, thanks to my fellow RCWP colleague Jennifer O’Brien, I helped deliver a workshop yesterday that was okay.  The focus was on nonfiction writing, and I made a commitment to share my materials online–so here they are!

    First, I slapped together an assignment on TrackStar to help my students learn about endangered species.  We didn’t get to this during WOW, but I thought you might want to check out the site.  You can do a simplified version of a webquest here in pretty quick order. 

     Next, I created a Googlepage with links to websites with information on the endangered species I want my students to research in small groups.  All I needed for this was my Google email account, and it took about 10 minutes to build (no joke).

    One of my issues is having kids out in cyberspace using gigantic search engines that spit out sooooo many links.  So, I used Pageflakes and pulled together some of my favorite kid-friendly search engines–Askforkids,, Google SafeSearch, and Yahooligans–into a pagecast so that kids can search all the sites from one page or click into any of those search engines when it is time for them to move away from the links I’ve already selected.  That’s a page I can use for any project in which students are doing web searches, so it’ll pay off for many projects to come.

    Once the tech was out of the way, I put together a couple of fact-gathering sheets to help guide the small-group research.  I made a K-2 version and a 3-5 version using Google Docs (just to be extra nerdy). 

    Okay, really there’s more tech–I went to and pulled video segments on each of the animals in the research project and burned a CD for each animal.  I so love

     Here’s how I generally visualize this unit flowing.  We start out a TWL (Think, Wonder, Learn) chart with the T and the W on endangered species.  Then we work in small groups on the TrackStar activity so students can get acquainted with key vocabulary (endangered, threatened, extinct, species, etc.).  Maybe throw in some video on endangered species.  Groups get assigned their animal and take a look-see at the fact gathering sheet, adding any questions they have about their animal and want to answer.  Then follows the initial research arc using the stations I developed to make the links, search engines, videos, and print text I’ve gathered available to the student groups so they can access and record the information they need and want.  I’ve typed out the station directions on Google Docs as well. 

Oy.  I haven’t even got to the writing part yet.  So I’ll save my general game plan on focus lessons for this unit for an upcoming post.  WOW women, if I missed a piece you wanted to see from the presentation, leave a comment requesting what you’re interested in and I’ll do my best to help with it.

Assessment That Doesn’t Suck

Feel like writing...I’m happily plopped on a friend’s couch in Seattle, trying to enjoy the last few days of winter break, but needing to look ahead to the next six months at the same time.  I hate multitasking.  I pulled out my work bag early in the a.m. and started scoring this groovy little assessment I had my students complete before the holidays.  The whole thing is based on work of some other great NWP TCs whose presentation I watched last month in NYC. 

First I had my students draw a picture of themselves as writers, then had them write a supplement to the picture giving any explanation they wanted and asking them to articulate how they feel about themselves as writers.  The purpose was to get a look at their perceptions of what writing is, their attitudes toward writing in general and their writing identities in particular, their metacognition of what happens in their writing processes, etc.  I used a simplified version of the protocol developed by smarter NWP minds than mine.

As time goes on, I see some of what I’ve learned helping me to understand and differentiate instruction more in writers’ workshop, but my first-blush reflection is definitely what I learned about the areas I’m teaching well in and where I clearly need to make greater efforts.  My students overall have a strong sense of the tools writers use and the need for planning, envisioning, and revising their writing.  The best news for me was that nearly all of my students expressed very positive attitudes toward writing (and nobody thinks it stinks, hooray!).  The expressions of how successful they feel as writers were less clear–I’ve had a sense of needing to do more reflection on writing pieces and processes, and I think a little of that will tell me more about this.

Glaring me right in the face is a universal lack of mention of either purpose or audience from my writers.  I know this doesn’t mean that they are totally inconsiderate of these, but given how important knowing purpose and audience is for writers, I see a clear need to do more modelling and instruction and conferring that helps my students increase their awareness of purpose and audience as well as their abilities to articulate purpose and audience in their own writing pieces.

There’s a lot more I have gleaned from my students’ drawings and written reflections, but what I’ve mentioned is enough to keep me very busy for the next while!  I hope to tweak this tool and use it in a few months to see how my students’ attitudes have grown or shifted.  So much of the written assessment I do (voluntarily or not) with my students tends to be a drag for them, but this was enjoyable for most and has provided me with lots of food for thought about their learning and my teaching.  It even helps get at some of those rather ridiculous Michigan GLCEs that insist that students will love writing.   I hate to end ’07 on a cynical note, but it is sadly the case that most imposed assessments are not only a bit painful for the students, but lack much that I find useful in teaching.  Maybe ’08 will find me with more useful, rich assessments that have student learning at the core.

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