Thursday, December 6, 2012

Writing with Focus

Have you ever noticed that sometimes your brain is so full of ideas, that once you sit down to put them on paper they come flooding out and the focus becomes muddy? For a lot of students (especially mine), the answer to that question is a big, fat, Y-E-S! Through the years, I have noticed that my students have great ideas, but difficulty sticking to those ideas in their writing. Or, they try to write too big, and the interesting fall by the wayside in an effort to get down the events that happened on a particular day. That's why I had to share the awesome writing project we did earlier this year. I would LOVE to take all of the credit for this one, but I actually got this idea from a coworker who had been struggling with the same issue with her students. 

We wanted our kids to be able to pick an interesting topic, but then narrow the focus of their writing so that they could add great details and be more descriptive. Often times, when students pick a topic that they have a lot to say about, the writing becomes too general and jumps around. We wanted the students to "linger" in a specific moment in time with their audience. To do that, they had to focus their writing from broad to specific. To help my students understand this idea, we first viewed the book Zoom by Istvan Banyai. The students and I discussed that the more we "zoomed in" on each picture, the more details we were able to discover. I then related this to a microscope. As you zoom in on a microscope, you obtain more information about your subject than you would have gleaned by simply using your eyes. This visual reminder helped immensely as the students began their writing projects.

 Image courtesy of
We started by picking events that we remembered very clearly. But, instead of writing about the entire experience, we "focused in" on a moment. It was challenging for the kids to not write about an entire trip or an entire day, but with some help they got there. I gave them a graphic organizer (see right) that was an upside-down triangle. I modeled the process of narrowing our writing focus with my own trip to the zoo during summer vacation. Rather than write generally about the whole day, I decided to write about watching the new baby gorilla playing in the pool of her enclosure. The narrowing of my topic went like this: Summer Vacation> Trip to Washington, D.C.> Zoo> Gorilla Enclosure> Watching the baby play in the pool.

Rather than have the students take off and start writing, we spent time developing good leads and then choosing the most interesting one. We discussed how to incorporate sensory language into our writing to help the reader feel as though they, too, we a part of our experience. We ended with how to write a conclusion, or "wrap," that tied back to our lead and brought our writing to a satisfying end. Below are some pictures of our final writing display, as well as examples of student work. 


I hope you find this post helpful and try it out with your students. Have you done any interesting writing projects this year?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Life's Been Great in 228!

If I could sum up the school year so far in one word, it would be...


This year I have committed to teaching reading and writing workshop and not using our county anthology. I am so fortunate to be able to have the freedom to make this decision, as I truly believe it is what is best for students. However, it is new territory for me (and many of my colleagues), so I have been up to my eyeballs in work. I know that many say reading and writing workshop seems like it would be easier to plan, but if you are doing it correctly it's really a lot more challenging (in my humble opinion). Although there are not as many worksheets/dittos/busy work, planning is based on the needs of the students and therefore requires frequent assessment and careful analysis of student work. So, not only am I grading my students' work but I am also frequently taking notes on it and comparing it to previous work. Despite the heavier workload for myself, I do love it. And the best part do they.

So, what exactly have we been up to? Keep on reading to find out!

One thing I did differently this year is change how I use my response journals. The way they are set up is the same (click here to see blog post about setup), but instead of the students writing about their independent reading, they write me letters about our read aloud. This year, I found a great idea on Pinterest to help me model how a well-written letter should look. As a class, we read The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco. (This was a great lead into R.J. Palacio's Wonder, by the way!) I wrote a letter to the students on chart paper, and then together we identified the components of the letter and discussed the expectations. This letter now hangs in the classroom as an example that they can refer to throughout the year.

I also gave the students "Thinking Stems" that I found in a blog post by Nancy at Teaching My Friends.   to help them discuss their thoughts about our reading. These are glued onto the very first two sheets of their notebooks. In addition, the students take notes in the back half of their notebooks that they then refer to as they write their letters. Not only is the note taking helpful to their writing, but they also use their notes to drive discussion about what we have read.

Character Study Anchor Chart
During the first part of the year, the students and I have been focusing on characters in our reading. I have taught many minilessons about the complexities of characters, beyond just character traits, feelings, and relationships. We have kept an anchor chart about all of the thinking we have done about characters so that the students may refer to it during their reading workshop time. It has been so amazing to hear their conversation about characters and see their thinking deepen in their work. I am so proud of how far they have come! The best part is now they are making tons of text-to-text connections because they have been studying their characters so closely across texts. 

Our growing list of character trait words!
A favorite activity of mine that we did was coming up with more precise language to describe characters. For this lesson, I started out by discussing the common words I see students use when discussing character traits (e.g. mean, nice, caring, kind, etc.) Then, I gave them new words and in groups they came up with synonyms, examples of character actions that would fit with each trait, and names of characters from books we have read that fit each trait. Then, as a class we grouped each trait into one of three categories: Positive Connotation, Negative Connotation, or Neutral. Now my students have access to words that are much more meaningful when they write and discuss their thinking about characters. And, as we come across new "precise language" about character, we add to our list!

 What has been going well in your classrooms so far this year? I would love to hear from you!