Friday, August 30, 2013

Writing Fiction: Part 1

"Good books don't give up all their secrets at once." - Stephen King

Recently, we embarked on a fiction unit of study in Writer's Workshop.  It's been a long time since I've actually taught the elements of plot, so I wanted to be sure that students were clear about the the parts through reading first.

Lester Laminack taught me a great trick this past summer: "Tell The Story Across your Fingers."  Every time we would read a fictional text, we would practice verbalizing each part of plot across each 5 of our fingers:

1. Beginning
2. Rising Action
3. Climax/Big Event
4. Falling Action
5. Resolution

We did this so much in our immersion in reading, that when it was time to discuss our ideas for writing, students had a solid understanding of these parts of plot.  

It was important to me that each student could verbalize the five parts of their story plots, and had a "vision" for their fictional texts, before they started writing.

I think sometimes we get carried away with graphic organizers, and we can forget to have students verbalize and talk through their ideas for writing.  They start with graphic organizers and then have little vision for their entire texts.

After their vision was created, we plotted out our texts using a "6 Scenes" idea.  Each scene was numbered, and the third scene had a star in it.  This scene would be the Big Event/Climax.  

Students planned their scenes starting with the third scene, the Big Event.  Then, they moved backward and planned scenes two and one.  The hope here is that if students sketch out their Big Event in the middle of the plot, then they will not be starting their writing with the Big Event.  (As children often do.)

The 6 Scenes idea will hopefully encourage children to develop plot successfully without giving too much away at the beginning.  Just as Stephen King suggests that good books do!

(I also wouldn't let them finish any of these parts in one day.  Children need to know that writers do not finish their writing in one day.  Neither do we!)

Next week we will begin expanding on our scenes into drafts.  Happy Writing!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Please, Just Read the Book

"Please.  Just read the book."

Many years ago, I was sitting in a cafeteria of an elementary school in July.  I was attending a 3 day summer training with Frank Serafini.  (You can find Mr. Serafini's work at  As he was discussing his nonfiction books for children, he said something I will remember always.

"Please.  Just read the book." 

 Please, he implored, don't force the comprehension strategies on the students.  He asked that we please not make the kids stop and predict and ask questions and visualize and make inferences in the beginning.  "Just read it to them.  Just enjoy it," he said.

Yes.  Thank you.  After years and years and years of hearing that we should be finding books for the sole purpose of only teaching strategies and skills, this was like a breath of fresh air.  

I was a literacy coach at the time, and wasn't able to apply this philosophy in my own classroom.  Yet.  The strategies had just become popular years before.  You know, those comprehension strategies that are so popular:

Good readers:
Ask Questions
Make Inferences
And so on

And so, a few years later, I returned to the classroom.  Elated to be there.

We approached the books we loved without stopping to make a prediction teaching chart on the first read.  We didn't use every book for visualizing and inferring.  

When we read books for the first time, we simply enjoyed them.  We listened to the dialogue.  We dicussed the beauty of the phrases that stood out to us.  We marveled at the art.  (We did not even take a picture walk!  Gasp!)  

When we read them for a second time, we had conversations about things like, the interior monologue of the characters.  We discussed how we can know what characters are thinking by the clues the author gives us. We marveled again at the lines of text that were impactful to us.

When we read Lemony Snicket's The Dark last year in second grade, we did not stop and predict and infer and visualize.  We did our second reading in the actual dark. (At their request, of course.)  We realized after the 3rd read that the Dark is actually just personified in this text.  We realized that Jon Klassen brilliantly placed certain objects in the art to help us predict that the drawers in the basement would be important.  

Would the students have come to those conclusions on their own had I stopped and made a predicting teaching chart on the first read?  Would the kids have realized on their own that the Dark was personified if I had stopped and made a teaching chart about it on read #2?


I still "teach" reading.  I still help students understand how keeping their brains active and monitoring their own comprehension is important.  They learn how to infer and synthesize and predict and monitor and clarify.


I love picking up books and knowing that they are so much more than for teaching a strategy or a skill.

I want my students to hear and to love the language of the texts.
I want my students to adore the art and understand its importance in meaning-making.
I want my students to connect their reading with their writing so they can truly write "under the influence" of other writers.

It is wonderful to hear my students talk about books and characters and writers.  They can use what they know about comprehension inside their love of books, instead of the other way around.

Because first, we really do just "read the book."

Saturday, August 17, 2013

5 Ways to Help Foster a Writing Identity

I would be lying if I said that Reading is my favorite subject.

I was recently told that I am a bibliophile, and yes, it is indeed true.  However...

I also love teaching Writing.  Reading and Writing are opposite sides of the same coin, so how could I not?

Looping from 2nd to 3rd grade this year has shown me the immense benefits of helping students create their writing identities.  We've accomplished this in some small ways:

1. When we talk about books we read in Reading, we also talk about how they are written in Writing.  We use the same books for different purposes in both Reader's and Writer's Workshops.  We read like writers and we read like readers.

We study stacks of books first before we write like those authors, or like that genre.  Good Writers Read First.

2. We learn about authors and we call them by their names.  We watch interviews with them.  We learn about their lives.  

Children often think that books are magically published in the heavens, and that writers get their ideas from the unicorns that frolic in their backyards.

Not entirely true.

Writers get their ideas from everywhere.  Every single day is a story in our class.

My students are asked to "put on their writers eyes" when they leave our room.  Ideas for books happen all around us!

3. I keep a writing notebook myself.  I know that teachers often see themselves as "readers."  But so few see themselves as "writers" too.  Showing students how I can make lists of ideas from my life is powerful for students to see.  Drafting writing and showing students how writing is actually a messy process is even more helpful.  Kids need to see that writing is not a "one and done" activity.  

4. The Writing Process is not sequential.

I admit that I am slightly sad when students enter my class and think that Revision is the step that happens after Drafting.  Augh!

Completely untrue.  Writers work through the different stages of the writing process in a recursive manner.  We go back and forth between the different steps of the process in a nonconsecutive way.

For example:
Many educators have a process like this posted in their rooms:
1. Brainstorming
2. Drafting
3. Revising
4. Editing
5. Publishing

But in reality, I think the process may look something like this:
1. Brainstorming
2. Drafting
3. Revising
4. Brainstorming
5. Editing
6. Drafting
7. Revising
8. Drafting
9. Revising
10. Brainstorming
11. Drafting

And so on.

We talk about this in third grade.  Students know that ideas for writing and the writing itself is not a pretty process wrapped up neatly with a bow.  

Recursive. Recursive.  Recursive.

5. Finally, one of the most important things my students have conveyed to me is their need to write in a book format.  

I've learned that students most easily write what they read.  And since many students easily identify with picture books, I made books available for students to create.

Even though we use writer's notebooks with lines, my students absolutely love to make books.  I staple 8 1/2 x 11 pages together in half and leave them in our Writing Center.  Kids may take a blank book any time.  

They write and write and write and illustrate and write.  We have series of books.  We have sequels.  We have fiction and nonfiction texts coming from our 3rd grade writers.

And the best part is that this is not at all directed by me.  This is above and beyond our Writer's Workshop minilessons.

This book was a collaboration of two authors and one illustrator.  They know that in the writing world, the author doesn't always talk to the illustrator before a book is published.
Students can sign up to share their authored work once/week in the Author's Chair.  We discuss their books and talk about where each author got their ideas.  We also ask the author, "Which ideas are you using from authors we have been studying?"  

We tweeted this cover to Marla Frazee and she responded!  

The first book to be shared during 2013-14 school year.  This writer's idea came from one of the Lunch Lady books by Krosoczka.

Then, these books go in our classroom library.

Do I sometimes have to talk to kids about being thoughtful with their books and not flying through 23 books in one day? Yes.  But this issue ends soon after we start sharing the "published" writing with our class.  Students begin to see what thoughtful, intentional book-making looks like.

Making books is inexpensive and has had a very powerful impact on the writing identities of my students.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book Waterfalls

I am so thankful to have come upon Erica Beaton's blog, B10 Loves Books.  You can find it here

She suggests using Book Waterfalls to increase book love, and to also hold students accountable for what they are reading. Students will also informally notice each other's books, and can hold each other accountable if someone has been reading a book for weeks and weeks!

Here's what we did:

After independent reading, students brought their books into a circle.

We each took turns showing the cover of the book we read.  Today we said one sentence about what we thought the genre of the book might be, since we are studying different genres this week.

In the end, each student was held accountable for a text.  I could quickly tell if the student had a solid understanding of genre.  And also, each student was introduced to many different titles in a short amount of time!

Informal assessment at its best!

And finally:
Our favorite class picture so far.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Dreaded Reading Level

I'll admit it.

I don't make kids read only from reading level baskets.  Or lexile level sections.  Or whatever level they have been given. A F L H E K Y W 980 250 600?

(A quick side note: did you know that The Pelican Brief has a lower Lexile level than Charlotte's Web?)

Yikes.  The dreaded reading level.  Each child knows they have one, mostly because of the days their teacher (me) spends assessing them (weeks) and then recording them in our district's Core Data Spreadsheet.

I do not talk much about reading levels in our classroom.  I understand that many educators think differently about this issue, but I have discovered that students will read more widely, more often, and with more stamina, if they are not confined to a specific level or range.

How do we set this up?
  1. We start the year talking about what kinds of things readers read.  We make lists.  We notice the reading all around us.  I post the personal books I'm reading on our door.  We begin to establish our identities as readers.

2. We study authors and illustrators.  We learn about the lives of the writers and we call them by their names.  "Hey, I love that book by Marla (Frazee).  She uses the same kinds of illustrations to show movement as Oliver (Jeffers)!" 

We post pictures of our favorite authors in our room.  We watch interviews with them.  We tweet them and email them.

3. We discuss the differences between Real Reading and Fake Reading.  I model the behaviors of both kinds of reading.  And then, the kids practice both!  

Watching fake reading is hilarious.  Kids hold their books upside down, flip through pages, look around the room.  (However, this year, I had a number of kids who almost refused to do this because of their extreme interest in the text they were reading.  Not a bad problem to have.)

4. We keep track of all the class books we read on the wall and organize them by genre or author.  We refer to them often.  We also keep track of the books we read independently and set reading goals for ourselves.  (See The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller for more information.)

5. We practice building our stamina for reading.  We start small, and we build as the year progresses.

  6. We share the books we recommend with the class.  We share our books in small groups and with partners.  We book talk.  We will be using Weebly this year to blog about books.

7. Students are provided with a wide and varied classroom library.  They are given time to explore it and to make to-read lists based on interest.  They have many choices.

How do I know if kids are really reading and understanding?

8. Reading is understanding.  Reading is understanding.  Reading is understanding.  This is posted all around our room.  If a student is not understanding what they are reading, then they are consistently taught to do something about it.  What is making their understanding break down?  Disinterest in the book?  Figuring out unknown words?  

Together, we discuss what makes books challenging.  Why is one book more complex than another?  Can one book be more complex but have less text on a page and more pictures?  We talk a lot about this.

9. Students learn that they are responsible for recognizing when books are too challenging or not meeting their needs.  Mini-conferences with students help me guide kids into this kind of thinking.  I may gently push them toward other texts.

10. During the last two summers, I attempted to read all of the books in our classroom library.  That was a huge undertaking!  Now, when I conference with a student, I am better able to truly discern if their comprehension was adequate because I have actually read the book! 

So usually instead of reading levels, in our class, we use two things:
1. Student accountability for understanding the text and
2. Teacher reading conferences with students to help guide their text selections and to support their understanding.

My students are so much more than a letter M.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Frenzy: Meet Our Class Library!

A few weeks ago, I came across this wonderful blog post on "Book Speed Dating":

After Twitter conversations with Erica, the blogger, I decided to try a version of this with my 3rd graders on the second day of school.  I decided to call it a Book Frenzy instead of Speed Dating.  (Maybe more appropriate for the age group, I think.)

We tried it today.  

We LOVED it.  It was mass chaos with book previews!

Here's what we did:

We started with a discusion about how to preview and approach a book.  Students were told that they would have 2 minutes per book.  They were to look at:

  • the title and author/illustrator
  • cover art
  • summary or art on the back
Each student was given a recording Scoring Sheet to record the title, author, and a ranking for each book.

After this, each student went into the classroom library to grab a basket of books that interested them.  

We sat in a circle with clipboards, pencils, and a ton of books.  Each student started with one book and had two minutes to preview it.  The Frenzy began!

At first, it was silent in the room as students previewed their books.  But as time went on, students started looking at each other's choices and noticing what else was available.  I spent my time having quick conversations with kids and talking up the books they were previewing.

Students started discussing the books they ranked the highest, and the books would go on their To-Read lists.

Very soon, books were everywhere.  Students were up and looking at other students' lists and stacks of books.  And just as I suspected, students started hoarding books.
"May I please go put this book in my desk? I don't want anyone else to get it until I can read it."  

At the end, each student had a successful starting list of books they planned to read.  Then,we shared these top-ranking books in small groups.  (This was easy because most students had taken multiple books back to their desks.)

Not only do my students feel more familiar with our library now, but they have a plan for their reading lives.  It was remarkable how such a short Book Frenzy (around 30 minutes), could create such extreme Book Excitement!

Baby Mouse Frenzy

Thanks again to Colby Sharp and Erica Beaton for blogging their Book Speed Dating procedures!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Why Looping Matters

I thought that I would be less nervous this year.  You know, starting school already knowing most of the students in my third grade class.


I was nervous.  I wanted things to be perfect for my kids.  I wanted them to return to school and feel like they were back home.  Like they were coming to an extended family reunion.

And I wanted my 5 new students to feel welcomed and loved and accepted.

Looping up to a new grade with students makes a difference.

I had already seen many of my students over the summer.  Many came in to help set up our new room or borrow books or just say hello.  Many used their parents' email accounts to email and say hi or even tell me that their pet snails had died. 

Today on our first day of school, I was hugged by more parents than I can count.  Hugged.  Like at a family reunion.  

During our Oliver Jeffers read alouds today, they wanted to talk for days about the texts and the illustrations, and how they compared to many authors we studied last year.  

On the first day of school.  

I tried diligently to keep the students out of our newly organized classroom library.  I thought we could discuss it today, and investigate it on the second day of school.  

But I was a fool.

They invaded the library.  They devoured the baskets.  I found myself having mini reading conferences with multiple students.

Wait, I thought.  This wasn't in my plans for today.  We have rules and procedures to discuss!  


What's better than talking to a kid about Babymouse on the first day of school?  Nothing.

The book stacks on desks are now continuing where they ended last year.  One student finished an entire graphic novel today, Gabby and Gator, while we sorted through our school supplies.

(She also turned her goodie bag into a puppet named Albert who ended the day with us.)

I had forgotten how looping changes that first day of school.  It's about relationships.  It's about how the relationships help students connect back to the learning that's already occurred.  

We have a common vocabulary.  
Common jokes.  
Common understandings.  

They already know that it's our classroom, not mine.