Thursday, October 30, 2014

Inspiration from Cynthia Lord

For the past three years, we've been lucky enough to have author Cynthia Lord visit our school.  Her visits are always inspiring, and it's certainly a treat to see my students' reactions to meeting a REAL AUTHOR for the first time.

Authors are mysterious people.  When beginning a new novel with my kids, I always introduce the author by explaining what little information I can dig up about him/her.  But how often is it that you really feel like you KNOW the author, or that you have a true connection with him/her?  Don't authors typically seem to feel like a figment of your imagination?  Like they can't be real?  Well, as I walked up to welcome Cynthia to our school once again, I stuck out my hand for a formal handshake.  Instead, she wrapped both arms around me and embraced me with the most sincere hug.  Her hug was a gentle reminder that she's just that kind of person, both in her writing and as a person in general.

Weeks ago, when I began reading Cynthia Lord's novel Rules to my students, I found myself withholding information about her, in fear that I would ruin the surprises that I knew were to come in her presentation.  Needless to say, I know that my students weren't disappointed in her presentation.  I can't say that they have been many times that my students attentively listened for an hour straight, but this was definitely an exception!  She spent an hour with my students discussing how she came up with her plot for Rules, the ways she developed her characters and settings, and she even taught my students a formula that seemed to fit in perfectly into my plans for realistic fiction writing:

The WOW Formula

  • Want? 
  • Obstacles: What is in your character's way?
  • What does he/she do, trying to get it? 
  • Win?
Although I feel like I've been trying to teach this structure to my students, I know that my students will take advice from an author over their language arts teacher.  I'm excited to bring this formula into my workshop lessons as my students begin drafting their stories.  After we got back from Mrs. Lord's presentation, my kids were eager to continue developing their ideas for their story, and the energy in the classroom was at an all-time high.

I wish we had the opportunity for more authentic learning experiences like this week's author visit.  It's days like this that encourage me to continue to look outside the box to find ways to inspire my students to be writers.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Realistic Fiction Writing

As much as I tried to make character analysis essay-writing fun for my students, it was SO refreshing to move on to our realistic fiction writing unit this week!  I love to hear my students respond, "YES!" when I ask them to get out their writer's notebooks for workshop.  But I have to say, I was a bit nervous to teach realistic fiction writing because I haven't taught it since my first year of teaching FIVE years ago.  This year, the unit was added to our writing calendar, and with the craziness of the school year, I decided to jump on TpT to see what I could find.  I knew that I wanted a variety of resources that mirrored our realistic fiction reading unit that we just concluded.  I also wanted something that I could easily copy for my students to glue into their writer's notebook.  So far, I've really enjoyed using these resources from TpT along with other mentor texts and activities.

Students started the unit reviewing the components of the realistic fiction genre, then jumped right in to brainstorming for their stories.

The real fun began when students were able to explore their characters by coming up with their external and internal character traits.  Since we studied characters so deeply in our reading unit, I was excited to see that the kids were eager to transfer what they had learned to their own writing this week.  

The kids were able to quickly brainstorm character traits and were excited to sketch out how their characters will act, look, and feel throughout their story.

Next Wednesday, Cynthia Lord, author of Rules, will be visiting our school, and will speaking to all fifth graders about the process of writing a book.  This is the third year that we've been fortunate enough to host Mrs. Lord, and I'm so excited for her to share her passion for writing; it's simply contagious, and I know that my students will be inspired to write even better stories after meeting and hearing her speak!  

Until next time!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Writing About Reading

Throughout the past few years, I've centered my reading and writing time around creating engaging book clubs for my students.  The idea of a book club is the perfect way to differentiate in the classroom, and I'm so excited that my students have been amping up their reading ever since I launched my first book club a few weeks ago.  Each book club unit focuses on a different theme or skill.  For this specific unit, my teaching partner and I chose books that focused on strong character development.  Before I began the unit this year, I took a look at last year's list and decided to revamp it.  I traded some of the "not-so-loved" books from last year for ones that I hoped my students would fall in love with.  I'm excited to say that many of my students (and even some of my lowest readers whom NEVER read!) are flying through these books!  My guidelines for book clubs are pretty simple:
  1. Students must choose a book from the list provided that meets their reading level (Students are given a Fountas & Pinnell reading level; they're asked to say within two reading levels of their letter.)  For this book club, there were 10 different book choices.  Most students have anywhere from 2-5 books that fall within their reading level.  
  2. If a student realizes that he/she has chosen a book that does not interest him/her after the first few chapters, he/she may trade it in for another book club book.
  3. Students are encouraged to read as many of the book club books as they wish, but they are only required to read one per unit.
  4. Once students have read at least two book club books, they may choose any book that they'd like to read.  (Although, with the high-interest book list this year, many of my students are on their fourth of fifth book -- and we're only on the third week of the unit!)
Students are reading their character book club books at home and at school.  For reader's workshop time, we read a mentor text together and I teach a lesson specifically about character development. Then, students are asked to try that lesson on their own book club book using guiding questions, graphic organizers, etc.  For the past several years, I've been using Rules by Cynthia Lord as our mentor text.  We're so lucky to have Cynthia Lord coming to our school at the end of the month!  Even though this will be my third year hearing her talk about her books, I'm beyond excited!!

Although the kids seem to enjoy their independent work with their book club books, this year they have been looking forward to Friday book club meetings the most.  My teaching partner and I decided that we would try our best to allow students who are reading the same books to meet every single Friday.  Each Friday, we have an activity that allows them to discuss and analyze the characters in their book.  The kids love working with students from another class, and it's great to see the kids discussing their books on such a deep level.  

This past Friday, my teaching partner suggested that we try a Fakebook Character Analysis activity that she found on Teachers Pay Teachers.  I loved watching the students really "get into" their book's characters.  This was such an engaging activity, and every single kid was involved throughout their work time.  They were super disappointed that they didn't have enough time to finish their pages, but we promised more work time for next Friday.

Sample Fakebook Page

Students working on their Fakebook page. (Hoot by Carl Hiaasen)

Another book club group: Every Soul a Star by Wendy Mass

A work in progress.

Overall, I'm excited that book clubs are going well.  I think it's going to be a great year for reading and writing!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Pay it Forward

Each year, I read the novel Rules by Cynthia Lord aloud as a mentor text for my character analysis unit.  This book is about a girl named Catherine who has a brother with autism.  It focuses on the struggles she faces because of her brother's differences.  Catherine befriends a boy in a wheelchair, whom she treats just like "any other boy".  This book allows me discuss the importance of being a good friend and the power of giving back to our community.  Each fall, I'm excited to launch the "Pay it Forward" project.

This past Friday, I introduced the project, and my students were so eager to get started!  I give the students a list of random acts of kindness that they could perform on their own, but it's always fun to do a team service project as well.  This year, since my students and I have LOVED Kid President so much, I figured we'd hop on board with his Socktober campaign.

My team's four language arts and social studies classes will be competing to see who can bring in the most socks and/or food items for the Mason Food Pantry by the end of October.   I can't wait to see what a difference my students will make in our community!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Make time to dance

The craziness and fun continued this week in fifth grade!  But, to be honest, I found myself stressed out much of the week, trying to fit in everything that I needed to teach.  Just in my class alone this week, my kids had a social studies and language arts quiz.  It wasn't until Thursday night that I came to the realization that If I'm stressed out trying to TEACH my students, I know that my kids MUST be overwhelmed to learn it.

Kids are required to do so much more in school than ever before.  The days of Halloween parties or "just for fun" movies days are well over.  When I get caught up in the act of trying to fit in yet another assignment or assessment of some sort, I have to stop and remind myself that my students are just 10 years old! 

Over the past year, I've followed a boy (who goes by "Kid President") on YouTube.  Kid President is a 10 year old boy who works with his brother-in-law to create videos that inspire people all over the world to laugh, dance, and most importantly, be AWESOME!  (If you watch any one of his videos, you'll understand what I mean.)  This boy is a true inspiration, not only to my students, but to me as a teacher and person.  To make things even better, he has the world's most contagious laugh.  It's simply impossible not to laugh right along with him.

I was surprised to learn that Kid President has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a brittle bone disease which has caused him to have over 70 breaks since birth.  But what's most inspiring about this little boy is that he doesn't let this disease get him down.  In fact, you would never know that he was (and is) fighting to overcome so many obstacles at just 10 years old.  I didn't even realize that he had this disease until just recently when I watched The True Story of Kid President.  In all, this boy's short videos bring smiles to my students' faces and encourage them to be better people.  Each Friday, I've decided that I will make time to laugh with my students and Kid President by taking just five minutes out of my day to show this boy's videos.

My kids now come into the classroom on Friday mornings (or afternoons, for my PM class) eager to watch yet another episode, and I swear my Fridays are better because of it.  

I encourage you to MAKE time to dance each and every day.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Making sense of summary writing

Although it was a short week, there was lots of learning going on in 5th grade!  Our week was full of reviewing figurative language, summary writing, poetry reading and writing, and learning about the migration of American Indians.  It's official... my kids and I are finally getting into the swing of things!  There really is something to say about 10 and 11 year olds... They're eager to learn and so much fun to be around.  I don't know if my group of kids could be any better!

I wish I could say that the week was all rainbows and butterflies, but struggles with summary writing snuck up on me first thing on Monday.  In our district, students in every grade level are required to complete a weekly language arts reading and skills sheet.  Students complete the sheet at home and then bring it back to school on Mondays for a pre-check and assistance on any of the incorrect questions.  As I was looking through their work, I was alarmed by their summary writing skills.  To be honest, their knowledge of summary writing seemed to be anywhere from minimal to nonexistent.  As I was helping a small group of students rewrite their summaries, I found myself frustrated beyond belief.  They simply weren't understanding the way that I have traditionally taught summaries.  (Sentence 1- main idea, sentences 2-4 - supporting details, and sentence 5 - conclusion)   Students seemed to be pulling random lines from the passage, throwing them down on the lines provided, and calling it a summary.  I had to stop and think... How could I make summary writing make sense in a different way? I leafed through my Ohio Writing Project 4-week materials and found the solution to my problem: note card summaries.  

How to Use the Note Card Summary Strategy
The note card summary breaks summary-writing in smaller portions.  Students select five words (or sets of related words) after reading the passage.  As students read the passage for the first time, they are encourage to only think about what the main idea might be.  He/she must choose a few words that describe the main idea.  This/these word(s) should be written on the center of the card.  Then, students choose three to four from the passage that help the reader better understand the topic that is written in the middle of the card.  I advise my students to circle these words and then write them on the four corners of their note card.  Then, students number the note card to show the order in which their summary will be written.  The middle section, or the topic, is given the number one because it is the first sentence.  The corners are numbered two through five to represent the four other sentences of a summary.  Before beginning to write, students think about how the words that are written on the corners of the note card relate to the topic, and why they are important.  On the back of their note card, they write the summary using the important words as a guide.

This summary-writing strategy works wonders for nonfiction reading!

Important Poem Summaries
Students can also write a summary using the Important Poem that I blogged about last week.  After reading a passage, students choose the most important sentence in the passage.  Then, they mark that sentence with a Post-it Note.  Next, students choose three sentences that support the most important sentence.  They then mark those sentences with a different color.  Once four Post-it Notes have been placed on the passage, the student turns those sentences into an Important Poem summary.  

My students have used this strategy for both fiction and nonfiction passages.  

I'm ready to enjoy a great weekend and hope you are, too!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

I believe in the power of a safe writing community.

Another successful (and tiring) week is in the books!  I think it’s safe to say that the “extra activities” this week impeded a lot of my teaching time, but that’s what the first few weeks are all about, right?  Some of these “extras” included a fire drill on Monday, a wing meeting on Tuesday, and our first library visit on Wednesday, which was followed by an impromptu fire alarm.  The surprise fire alarm resulted in spending twenty minutes of class time outside with kids on the verge of tears, and working the rest of the afternoon to get my kids “back” into learning! (No worries – It was just a broken smoke detector in the end!) Oh, and I certainly can’t forget to mention the hours spent leveling each of my 53 students with a Fountas and Pinnell reading level.  Even with all of these “extras” (and the craziness), it was a great week to finally delve into academics. 

The kids are coming out of their shells and it’s been a lot of fun getting to know each of their personalities as they begin to feel comfortable in my classroom.  Poetry is the first reading and writing unit that I’m teaching this year, and I have to say that I LOVE beginning our year this unit!

I began the unit by reading a book that I learned about in the OWP 4-week.  The Important Book by Margaret Wise Brown (author of Goodnight Moon) is rather simple; it explains why inanimate objects are important.  The featured items are ones that you probably take for granted in your everyday life: a spoon, a daisy, rain, etc.  Below is an example of an “important poem” from the book.

Right off the bat, I asked students what they noticed about the compilation of poems, and what each of them had in common.  The kids quickly agreed that the first line was always stating the important thing about the object, followed by a few lines of description.  The poems always ended with a restatement of the “important thing.” 

After analyzing the book of poems, I asked students to write an “Important Poem” about themselves.  As students were sharing their poems, I enjoyed hearing “important things” about each of my students that I wouldn’t have normally gotten to see through my traditional introduction activities. This “getting to know you activity” definitely felt like an authentic way of getting a glimpse of my students’ personal interests, AND it was an excellent way to pre-assess their writing skills.

Students glued a template into their writer’s notebooks for future reference.  These poems won’t be going away in my room!!  Stay tuned… next week I’ll explain how I’m using “Important Poems” to summarize reading passages.  

This week, we also began reading Love That Dog by Sharon Creech, and I think that my students are quickly coming to the realization that poetry doesn’t have to be scary; it can even be fun!  My highlight of the week was on Friday, when students listened to a NPR “This I Believe” essay written by a six year-old, Tarak Mclain.  (See my blog post for details! "This I Believe")  The kids then wrote their own “This I Believe” statements, and then chose one line to read out loud to the class.  As we stood in a circle around my classroom and read our statements aloud, I got chills, and there was no hiding my excitement in my students’ writing.  From looking at the smiles on their faces and feeling the energy in my room, it think it's safe to say that the kids were just as impressed with themselves as I was with them.  I believe that we need to teach our students that kids CAN be writers; they ARE writers.  Kids need a safe writing community to experiment with their abilities in writing.  I think we’re heading in the right direction.  It was one of those “teacher moments” that we’re all seeking every once in a while. 

I hope you're all enjoying your long weekend!  Don't longs weekends just always come at the perfect time?  Even if we're just two weeks into school!  ;)