“Before That”-A Writing Activity

Writing is an important part of the instructional day, particularly for striving writers who need additional support.  All students need multiple opportunities across the day to write.  As an interventionist, I am always searching for opportunities for students to write.  I participate in a weekly blogging group hosted by the Two Writing Teachers website and I acquire many wonderful ideas for writing activities that I am able to use with students.  The “Before That” activity is one that can be used with any writer and can be incorporated into writing workshop, shared and interactive writing experiences, and intervention time.

The “Before That” activity is easy to implement.  Students start by writing about what they’re currently doing and then work backwards in time by listing what they did before that event.  For example, one student wrote that she was working with Ms. Floyd (me).  Then, she wrote about what she did in her regular classroom before that.   This activity  emphasizes sequencing in a meaningful way and allows students to reflect on and share the events of their day.  Students can also elaborate on events by providing additional details about what they were doing at a particular time.  They can also repeat this activity on several different days to explore and identify the similarities and differences in their days.

Modeling and guided practice are important and before I do this activity with students, I write my own piece and use it as a mentor text with students.  I also chat with students as they write their own and ask questions to stimulate their thinking as needed.  Sometimes, a simple, “and then, what?” is all the prompting that a student needs.  Other students may need to talk through the day, especially near the end of a regular school day. This is also a great shared writing activity, especially when doing this with younger kids (although we can also engage in shared writing with older students).

The “Before That” activity can be adapted in a number of different ways.  First, students can create a piece of writing that details the day (or even a longer period of time) for of a character in a book.  Students reading the classic Amelia Bedelia can create a “Before That” showing what Amelia Bedelia did throughout the day.   This activity can also help students keep track of what a character is doing from any point in any story.  Chapter books, picture books, biographies…you name it and “Before That” can be used.

“Before That” can also be adapted to explain an event in social studies.  Students can be provided with an event, such as the Boston Tea Party, and identify the events that led up to the main event.  Students can also write about science experiments, starting with the end result and working back to the beginning of the process.

I included some examples below.  Both students started with what they were doing in my classroom and then worked back to the very beginning of their day.  They reported what they did in their regular classrooms and at home.  The next step for these students will focus on including details about each event.  For example, the student who mentioned eating lunch could identify what he ate and who he sat with.  The student who noted that she performed her morning routine could elaborate by providing details about that routine.

The “Before That” activity provides a meaningful, versatile way for students to write during the day!

 

Dalton Before That writing activity

Ivy Before Thant

Summer: A Time For Professional Learning

There is often the misconception that teachers have summers off and just relax and enjoying a paid vacation between June and August.  The reality is that many teachers use their summer breaks as a time for professional development.  Sometimes those professional development activities are more informal, such as reading professional books and articles, while other activities are more structured and formal, including coursework, conferences and workshops.

One of my favorite summer PD experiences is the Children’s Literature Conference at Shenandoah University (you can check out the conference here).  Attendees can either register to attend and complete coursework for either undergraduate or graduate credit or they can simply attend the conference and enjoy the presentations without receiving credit.  The authors and illustrators not only give inspiring keynote addresses, but during the breakout sessions, attendees are able to interact directly with the presenters during breakout sessions. I’ve met authors and illustrators such as Katherine Applegate, Sophie Blackall, Mac Barnett, Laurie Halse Anderson, Jason Reynolds, Grace Lin, and Tom Angleberger. I always leave the Shenandoah conference with new titles to use in my classroom and stories to tell my students.

Kate Messner’s free Teachers Write online camp is another summer opportunity that I’ve enjoyed for several years.  In the past, Kate Messner and several of her author friends offered mini-lessons, Q&A sessions, quickwrites, and Friday Feedback for participants.  This year, Kate is rolling out a format for the online camp that focuses on mentor texts.  To find out more about Teachers Write, please click here.  Teachers Write helped me rediscover myself as a writer and being a part of this community encouraged me as a teacher-writer.

Jennifer Laffin, the founder of Teach Write also offers opportunities for quality professional development through the Teach Write Academy.  Jen believes that it’s essential for teachers of writers to be writers themselves.  She’s created a variety of offerings that empower all teacher-writers, no matter their comfort level or experience.  This summer, I enrolled in a Focus on Fiction Workshop through the Teach Write Academy, but there are other workshops that are also available, including a virtual writing workshop, sessions on building a writing habit, and writing notebooks.  Jen’s courses are affordable and I’ve enjoyed not only getting to know Jen, but other teacher-writers from around the country while participating in weekly writing workshops.

Professional development, though, is not always a formal experience for teachers.  In the past, I’ve followed #bookaday to build my knowledge and awareness of children’s literature. Many groups are also available on the web and through social media and provide a platform for educators to share their thoughts on professional texts.  So, as educators settle in to the summer, it won’t be to discharge completely from their jobs, but instead to spend time refining their practices and preparing for the next school year. Thankfully, there are so many options for educators to explore during the summer!

Recognizing Writing’s Place In A Balanced Literacy Model

Approaches and frameworks that emphasize a balanced literacy model are popular in many classrooms, schools, and districts.  These frameworks typically address reading, writing, and word study and include whole-group, small-group, and individual instruction.  Guided reading is a popular method used within a balanced literacy framework that provides small-group instruction that targets students’ instructional reading levels while addressing the specific needs of their students. However, during conversations with teachers, I discovered writing may be neglected due to time constraints related to the implementation of guided reading. While guided reading is important, it is one component of a balanced literacy approach.  Unfortunately, educators may devote so much time to their guided reading groups that the other components, especially writing, are omitted from the day’s schedule.  In a true balanced literacy framework, students should have opportunities to participate in shared writing, interactive writing, guided writing, and independent writing, along with guided reading, independent reading, shared and modeled reading, and word study.

Some of this neglect results from the amount of time required for guided reading groups, particularly in classrooms with more than three groups that consume a bulk of the dedicated literacy block.  As a result, teachers may be prevented from adequately addressing writing outside of this small-group time.  Problems also arise when the writing component provided in the guided reading framework or program is the only opportunity students have to write. In many of the approaches to guided reading that are now available, writing is used as a response to a text and is linked to either comprehension (e.g., writing a summary of a text using the “Somebody wanted but so” frame) or word study skills (dictated sentences emphasizing targeted phonics features). While these types of writing are also important and should absolutely be a part of guided reading lessons, they cannot and should not be the only times when students write during the school day. 

Several initial questions can be asked to evaluate whether or not writing is an active part of the balanced literacy model in use.

  • Do students have the opportunity to write during guided reading? When do students have these opportunities?
  • Do students have the opportunities to write that are separate from guided reading?
  • How often are students writing? Every day? Every week?
  • What types of writing are students being asked to do over the course of a day?  Over the course of a week? Over the course of the school year?

If writing instruction is affected by other parts of a balanced literacy diet, then how can this issue be addressed?

  • Identify and explore how the other components of the balanced literacy diet are addressed during literacy instruction.  This analysis might need to happen at both the classroom and school levels.
  • Explore reasons why writing may not be prioritized during the literacy block.  This may require difficult conversations between teachers, coaches, and administrators.
    • How are teachers using the time provided during the language arts block?
    • Do teachers need guidance in planning a balanced literacy block?
    • Do teachers need professional development support related to writing instruction?
  • Evaluate the implementation of guided reading at the classroom and school levels to determine how much time is devoted to guided reading and how much time is used for other components of the balanced literacy diet.  Are there areas of the schedule that warrant adjustments?
  • Develop a plan of action that makes a commitment to writing.  This plan will likely require support from administrators and any coaches or specialists who are available.  In addition, this plan may be specific to a classroom or it may be developed to meet school-wide needs.
  • Explore cross-curricular opportunities for writing to provide additional opportunities for students.

The answers to these questions and the resulting plans can help ensure that writing’s place in a balanced literacy framework is given the necessary attention.

Thinking About Poetry In The Classroom

A student told me today that if she sees a poem, she knows that it’s fiction.  Other students also believe that all poetry rhymes.  Many students (and teachers) are not comfortable with reading or writing fiction and as a result, poetry may not always be given priority in classrooms.  I know that I felt intimidated by poetry, which affected my instructional choices.  I didn’t feel comfortable reading poetry, much less using it and teaching it.  I believe that there are misconceptions and misunderstandings about poetry that limit its use and those issues need to be addressed in order for poetry to take its rightful place in classrooms.  For example, one issue with poetry relates to the challenge of interpretation.  How do you determine what the author really meant?  Then, there’s the misconception that all poems have to rhyme.  In addition, some readers, including one of my students, assumed that poetry is limited to fiction.

So, how can we address the issue of the lack of poetry in the classroom? First, we should honestly assess our reasons for relegating poetry to the instructional back burner.  What prevents us from embracing poetry? Did past experiences foster discomfort with poetry? Do we need professional development and training in order to feel more confident? In order to explore this idea further, I created a self-assessment tool for teachers that can be accessed here.  This is an informal assessment that can provide an opportunity to explore beliefs about poetry and instruction and to articulate a plan of action for becoming more comfortable with poetry.

However, while we explore our beliefs about poetry, we should make sure that we also increase our efforts to bring poetry into our classrooms.  Fortunately, there are many resources available to support teachers.  Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s Poems Are Teachers is an excellent resource for any educator.  Amy’s website, The Poem Farm, is a treasure trove for teachers and students.  I also love Laura Purdie Salas’ site and recommend checking out the following links: https://laurasalas.com/reading-and-discussing-poetry-in-the-primary-classroom/  and https://laurasalas.com/resources-for-teachers/.   As you begin to explore these resources you will feel more confident in creating opportunities to read and write poetry in your classroom.

Finding mentors to guide us in this journey is also essential.  Christie Wyman is a teacher who has inspired me not to neglect poetry in my classroom.  Christie blogs at wonderingandwondering.wordpress.com  and is currently participating in #NaPoWriMo.  Her passion for poetry is infectious and I credit Christie with encouraging my interest in poetry.  Christie also created a Poetry Padlet that is a wonderful resource.  Jess Houser (a.k.a. JJ Burry) is another teacher-writer who inspires me.  I recommend checking out this post.  Jess has some great advice and I’ve bookmarked a number of her posts so that I can return to them as needed.

So, poetry doesn’t have to be something that we have to fear.  We shouldn’t banish poetry from our classrooms or only consider it once a year when we feel obligated.  Poetry can be a positive, wonderful experience that enriches our classrooms.

 

 

 

 

 

Modeling The Writing Process For Students

Modeling is an essential part of writing instruction.  But, what exactly is modeling? How should we model writing for our students? Why should we even make time in our schedule to do this?

Modeling writing is important because it allows us to show the writing process to students instead of simply telling them about it.  Writing instruction should not be about assigning and grading projects, but about encouraging and developing our student-writers.

When we model writing for our students, we first need to understand and identify what we want to accomplish.  What do we want students to gain from the experience? What is the focus? What is our goal? How will the students be engaged during the process so that they are not passive bystanders, but participants in an open dialogue with the teacher.

When I model writing with my students, I want them to be a part of my experience and to glean something from that experience that will help them when they put pencil or pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard).  Also, when I model for students, I don’t want the process to be perfect.  I want them to see that writing can be messy and we don’t have to get it right the first time.  Instead, we may need to work a lot in order to improve a piece of writing.  Therefore, modeling should not just be used for a first draft, but for the entire writing process, including revising and editing.  Students need to see this process so they do not just assume that teachers write something one time and it’s automatically perfect and ready to share.  We want them to recognize that we mark up drafts and change words and sentences.  We want them to notice that we have to cross out or delete parts of drafts that need to be further refined.  I don’t want them to write a first draft and think that they’re finished, but instead to appreciate the first draft as just the beginning of the process.

While modeling takes time and needs to be scheduled and planned for,

Professional Development and Writing-Informal Opportunities for Teachers

When teaching writing, on-going professional development is essential and should always be responsive to specific needs.  Sometimes, though, we need to search for opportunities on our own in order to empower ourselves in the classroom.  However, many teachers may not be able to attend conferences and workshops or take courses due to financial constraints.  Therefore, professional development may need to be more informal.  Thankfully, teachers no longer need to be isolated or to learn on their own thanks to technology.  Professional development may take many forms including online book studies, websites, and videos.  Twitter and Facebook can also provide opportunities for learning and connecting with other educators.  I’ve included some suggestions and examples of resources to support informal professional development.

Websites:

I’ve mentioned websites in other posts, but feel strongly that there are a number of sites that I think are worth referencing again.  These sites are ones that I visit on a regular basis and provide quality information.

Videos:

The following videos are just a few that are available online.  These videos can be viewed at anytime and I particularly like being able to pause and rewind to watch parts of the videos as needed.  I included a few examples below.

Social Media

I included a list of people to follow on Twitter, although this is by no means a conclusive list.  I’ve also discovered that many authors of children’s literature talk about their writing process, which can be shared with students.  Many of these folks are also on Facebook and it’s well worth the time to “friend” them or to “like” their pages.  In addition, many of these folks can be found in Twitter chats (e.g., #teachwrite, #TWTblog), which provides another informal opportunity for professional development.

@TeachWriteEDU and @laffinteach  

@JSerravallo

@LindaMRief

@WritingThief

@amylvpoemfarm

@pennykittle

@katemessner

@nikkigrimes

@LitCoachLady

@inkyelbows

@writeguyjeff

@whitney_larocca

@Teachr4

@Jess_Keating

@GeorgiaHeard1

Professional Books:

The following books are just a few of the titles that populate my e-reader and physical bookshelves.  These books not only guide my journey as a teacher who writes, but also the journeys of many other educators.  Although conference attendance may not be possible, educators can still learn from these authors.  Many of these authors can also be found on social media.

 

So, while conferences and workshops are great sources of professional development, educators can also engage in more informal opportunities that can also enrich their daily classroom instruction and experiences as teachers who write.  

After Evaluating Classroom Writing Instruction, What’s Next?

After evaluating the quality of writing instruction in the regular classroom, what’s next? For teachers who discover that they need to reevaluate how they address writing in their classrooms, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, vulnerable, and uncertain of the steps to take to improve their instructional practices.  Teaching writing is intimidating and challenging, but can also be one of the most rewarding experiences for an educator.

One step that teachers can take during the journey to improving their writing instruction is to become a teacher-writer.  After all, how can you teach something that you do not do? Would a math teacher avoid working out math problems? No.  Would a science teacher never conduct an experiment? No.  So why would a writing teacher not write? Again, I think that the answer circles back to the idea that writing is intimidating.  I also believe that it is hard for one to identify as a writer.  It’s easy to think of writers as those authors with published works instead of anyone who puts pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard.  Writers seem almost to be mythical creatures and as a result, identifying one’s self as a writer can be as intimidating as teaching writing.

So, what can a teacher do? First, it’s important to be a teacher who writes.  Teachers who write will be able to connect with their students and to better be able to share the writing journey with them. Therefore, it’s important to start putting words onto paper (or onto the screen).  The words do not need to be perfect. The idea is to feel what students experience and to share the writing journey with them.  Too often, writing instruction becomes about assigning and grading student work. Teachers who write are able to connect with their students in an authentic, meaningful way.

The journey to being a teacher-writer does not need to be a solitary one as there are many other teacher-writers who are also on this odyssey.  In particular, there are online groups who provide considerable resources and support for teacher-writers.  One such group can be found through twowritingteachers.org.  The Slice of Life (SOL) blogging community at twowritingteachers.org is a great place for teacher-writers not only to share their writing, but also to connect with other teachers who write. On Tuesdays, the folks at twowritingteachers.org invite teacher-writers to provide a link to their blog posts and ask that bloggers comment on at least three others posts. Every March, the SOL challenge at twowritingteachers.org encourages teacher-writers to blog for 31 days. Those teacher-writers who complete the challenge not only experience the euphoria of having written for 31 days straight, but also have the opportunity to win some amazing prizes.  In addition to the SOL challenge, the teacher-writers who oversee twowritingteachers.org also provide valuable resources on the website that can support classroom writing instruction. In addition, their monthly Twitter chats enable teacher-writers from all over the globe to connect, share ideas, and learn from each other.

Teachwrite.org is another one of my favorite online spaces that supports teacher-writers.  Created by Jennifer Laffin, Teach Write supports teacher writers in so many ways, including targeted professional development opportunities.  The Teach Write Facebook group is a place to share writing accomplishments and Jennifer’s Writing Round-Up is an incredible resource published on a weekly basis.  In addition, the Teach Write twitter chats, using #teachwrite, provide a platform for making connections and for sharing.

Kate Messner, Jo Knowles, and Gae Polisner host Teachers Write, a free online professional development opportunity during the summer that is another excellent opportunity for teacher-writers.  Mini-lessons and quick-writes are provided as a part of Teachers Write, including opportunities to connect directly with published writers.  Participants can share their works-in-process and receive feedback from their peers, as well as from the authors.

While instructional issues won’t immediately disappear, the process of becoming a teacher who writes can cultivate and support the evolution of classroom writing instruction.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quality Writing Instruction In The Regular Classroom

Before we can or should characterize a student writer as “struggling,” it is essential to consider what steps have been already taken to develop and support the writer. When we think about response to intervention models, considering the instruction provided for the student is key.  Students should not be labeled if their weaknesses resulted from deficits in instruction.  Therefore, the type of writing instruction provided in the regular classroom should be evaluated.

But what does quality writing instruction look like in the regular classroom environment? The following questions are important to consider when evaluating classroom writing instruction.

  • How often are students provided with opportunities to write? Are students writing daily? Weekly? Rarely? Only for assessment purposes? Is there a culture of writing in the classroom or is writing just an item to be checked off in a daily lesson plan?
  • What types of writing are encouraged? Are students limited to short responses to their reading? Do they just write to complete worksheets and to answer questions? Are they encouraged to write in a variety of genres? Do they produce only formulaic pieces? How much choice is offered?
  • Are students engaged in writing across the curriculum? Is writing separated from all areas of the curriculum or is it integrated through the school day?
  • How are students provided with feedback about their writing? Do students have opportunities to confer with the teacher about their writing? What do conferences look like? How does the teacher approach conferences with student-writers? Does the teacher provide written feedback? Verbal feedback? A combination of written and verbal feedback?
  • Does the teacher provide whole-group instruction? Small-group instruction? Mini lessons? Does the teacher provide a combination of these instructional formats?
  • What does the writing process look like in the classroom? How are students guided through this process? What types of support are available to students? Are students provided with modeling and guided practice?
  • Do students have the opportunity to share their work with others? What opportunities are provided for this purpose? Are these opportunities limited to the classroom?
  • How is technology incorporated into writing instruction and activities? What tools are available for teachers and students?
  • Has the teacher been provided with ample opportunities for professional development in the area of writing? Does the teacher take advantage of these opportunities? 
  • Is the teacher a writer? This statement doesn’t mean that the teacher has to be a formally published author or have certain credentials, but teachers who write serve as powerful models for their students by not only writing with their students, but also through sharing their writing. They can “practice what they preach.”

The answers to these questions can stimulate conversations and encourage an honest assessment of classroom writing instruction. We have to provide students with the best environment in order for them to grow as writers. Our students deserve nothing less.

The First Post-Thinking About Writing

Writing is a topic that either instills joy or fear in teachers. For some educators, teaching writing may feel like a daunting task. The awareness of the importance of writing is often tempered by feelings of inadequacy. How do you teach writing? Which methods or approaches are the best to use with students? How do you teach writing if you do not consider yourself to be a writer?

For most of my life, I’ve described myself as a writer. In the second grade, I entered the PTA Reflections contest and won an honorable mention for a piece of writing. My dream was to be a published author. During elementary and middle school, I filled up notebook after notebook with stories. There was a blip from high school to my mid-twenties when I didn’t write, but that’s a story for another time. However, when I first started teaching, I knew little, if anything, about providing writing instruction for students. As a teacher working with students who struggled with literacy, many of my students found writing to be a challenge.  I knew my personal history as a writer, but I didn’t know what to do to not only encourage my students to see themselves as writers, but also to develop their skills and strategies. I also discovered that some of my “struggling readers” had amazing ideas and grasped storytelling, but their limited ability with the mechanical aspects of writing often meant that their thoughts were lost in a maze of grammatical and spelling errors. Handwriting issues also affected their messages. Those children had so much to share, but didn’t have the tools to do so.

When provided with opportunities to push into classrooms, I recognized that the struggling readers in my intervention groups were not the only ones who found writing challenging. Students described as “average” or “above average” were not always comfortable with writing. Their writing sometimes mirrored that of the students in my intervention groups and they needed additional support. While these students do not need to participate in reading interventions, they do need writing. Thankfully, my master’s and doctoral programs did address writing. I discovered research by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and others. I also discovered online communities that supported and enhanced my writing professional development (twowritingteachers.org, teachwrite.org). I look forward to sharing this information in future posts!

Providing quality instruction is a basic tenet of response to intervention. This emphasis, however, may not always include or address the type of writing instruction provided for all students. We need to examine writing instruction in addition to reading instruction to ensure that all students receive quality writing instruction. Therefore, teachers should be provided with opportunities for professional development that reflects best practices in writing. Administrators, reading specialists, and coaches at the building and division levels can provide support for classroom teachers to ensure that all student writers benefit from exemplary instruction.  I look forward to sharing information and ideas about how we can all collaborate to create environments where our student-writers can thrive.