Category Archives: Writing

Launching the Digital Writing Notebooks

Today I launched the Digital Writing Notebooks in my virtual Zoom classroom. I am super excited that we will have a place to gather our stories and share them with each other, even though we are not physically together. As with all plans, some things went exactly as I had hoped and other didn’t. Here’s what happened.

We started our Zoom Room (this is number 5 of the year) with greetings, chit chatting about our lives as readers, talking about how we are growing stamina as readers and nurturing our reading lives… After a few minutes of that, I told the kids that we were going to get something really special – Digital Writing Journals. Predictably, some students cheered and others did not. (If you want to read about the crazy way I usually present the Writing Journals, check out this blog post.) Usually I present the students with their journals after a super silly routine, and then I tell them they can write about anything they want. Most write about their crazy fifth grade teacher who throws tissue paper around the classroom!

I didn’t have that opportunity today, but I still wanted to build excitement, ownership, and I wanted them to write! So, we began by watching a video about how to split your screen, an essential tech skill that they would need for the next part of the lesson. They then went to a break out room to work together to split their screen. The direction was to help each other so that everyone came back to the main room with a split screen – half showing Zoom and half showing our Google Classroom. Most students were able to do that successfully in 5 min.

Then we needed a Brain Break, so we played Strike a Pose. Basically, I call out silly poses (Superhero! Queen/King of the World! Monkey in a tree!) and they move into the pose quickly. It’s a good way to get their brains back on and ready for learning.

After our Brain Break, we all went to the Google Classroom and opened the Digital Writing Journals. That’s when the ohs and ahs started. The kids were excited by how cute the pages were and the idea that they got to customize the covers. I walked them through the journals and then asked them to open the one they wanted to make their own. I showed them the link to the video, and tonight for homework they are customizing. Our goal during class was to write!

So, we tried our first Quick Write! I gave them a prompt of a book or series that they love. We found the first “page” of our Digital Writing Journal, I set the timer and they began to write! I was worried that the typing would slow them down, and for some kids I think that was true. But I had one kid who typed 48 words, so clearly the opposite is true for some kids! Phew!

Then I showed the kids how to insert a horizontal line in Google Slides, count their words and insert a text box. The whole thing took longer on Zoom than in the regular classroom because of learning the tech, so we were only able to do one Quick Write. BUT, the kids were excited, their writing is pretty good, and all of the benefits of Quick Writes (see this blog post for more on that) seem possible through this digital resource. I think using Quick Writes regularly will help students increase their writing fluency, their typing proficiency, and when we get ready for some in depth writing instruction, they will have a place to go back to and try out ideas. I think this is going to be a very successful distance learning adventure!

Check out the other posts in this series about building a digital writing community.

  1. Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community
  2. Get ’em to love writing!
  3. A Strong Virtual Writing Community Writes to Learn
  4. 5 Strategies for Building Trust in the (Virtual) Writing Community

A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Have you ever heard a student say, “I didn’t know what I thought until I wrote it down?” (or had that idea yourself)? That statement is a powerful example of why writing to learn is necessary. Until we can communicate our thoughts and understandings, they remain nebulous and wispy. Through writing, students explore and consolidate their own thinking, deepening their understanding and retention.

For a quick, two-page pdf on writing to learn, check out this handout from the Center for Teaching Excellence.

Today, I’d like to talk about one strategy that I have used very successfully in the past that gives students opportunities to write to learn and also increases writing fluency – QuickWrites.

Using QuickWrites in Face-to-Face Instruction

During face-to-face instruction, I use QuickWrites 2-3 days a week. The whole protocol takes about 10 minutes of instruction time. Students get out their writing notebooks and open to a new page. They label the page with the date, and “QuickWrite 1”. I then post one concept, idea or vocabulary word on the board, set the timer for one-minute, and the kids begin to write. It’s important to stress that spelling, punctuation etc. are not important at this stage. After one-minute, I ask them to draw a line to show how far they wrote, and reread what they wrote. They have two-minutes to reread. During this time they circle any errors they might have made and can make small revisions and edits. They also count the words they wrote during the initial one-minute period and write that number in the margin. I then start the timer again, give them a new topic or idea, and the process starts over. We go through the process three times – just 10 minutes! The final step is for students to graph the number of words from their most fluent QuickWrite of the day.

This quick protocol gives you a big payoff!

  1. QuickWrites give students a low-risk opportunity to write to learn. – During that one-minute time, students are free to write anything they know about the term or topic. As they write, they often discover that they know more than they thought they did! QuickWrites are especially helpful in solidifying information when they are used in the middle of a unit because students have some information to write about.
  2. QuickWrites help students get over the fear of the page. – Students may stare at the page, and write very few, or even zero, words. Over time, students get more confident because they are only writing for one-minute. That confidence translates to decreased fear of writing in general.
  3. QuickWrites warm up the students’ writing brain. – The first QuickWrite of the day generally has the fewest words, and the last QuickWrite of the day generally has the most. QuickWrites are a great exercise to do at the beginning of a Writing Workshop where you want students to make good progress on a writing assignment. I find that when students warm up with a QuickWrite, they make more progress on their assignments than on the days we don’t warm up with a QuickWrite.
  4. QuickWrites increase writing fluency. – Over time, students will find they can write more words in one-minute. The graph is a simple way to track writing fluency, and it really boosts student’s confidence. Most students start at 5-7 words a minute and grow to 15-30 words a minute by the end of the year.
  5. QuickWrites provide a solution to that age-old whine, “I have nothing to write about!” – Most of the time students do not write everything they have to say in one-minute. Often they have to stop in the middle of a sentence, or even in the middle of a word! When a student is stuck for a writing idea, send them to their QuickWrites. I guarantee they will find an idea they want to finish.
  6. QuickWrites improve students’ willingness, and ability, to revise and edit. – Because the protocol builds in instant revision and editing, students will build that habit. Authors very seldom write a complete novel before going back to edit and revise. Instead, they add, change and delete as they go. QuickWrites strengthen that same muscle for our students.
  7. They solidify understanding about key concepts, ideas and vocabulary words. – QuickWrites are a great way for students to explore their understanding about a topic. They are not graded – no, not ever! So there is little risk to a student in expressing an idea. I do skim read the QuickWrites unless a student asks me not to, and that helps me know if a student’s idea is underdeveloped and needs more development.

These three QuickWrites are from the same student, early in the school year. The first topic was Harry Potter, the second was the vocabulary word “denominator” and the third was the topic “pets”. The horizontal line shows how far she wrote in one-minute (7 words, 11 words and 20 words). You can see that at some point in time later, she added to all three entries. The third QuickWrite about pets was the genesis for a narrative that she wrote and published later in the year.

Often, when I am teaching a specific skill, I ask the kids to return to a QuickWrite and do a quick revision to add in the new skill. For example, when we were learning about using transition phrases like “for instance” to strengthen informational text, this student returned to her entry about the denominator and added an example. QuickWrites are a valuable place to try out a new skill. Now that you have a picture of QuickWrites in the regular classroom, let’s explore ideas for using QuickWrites in the virtual classroom.

QuickWrites in the Virtual Classroom

This year I will be using digital writing notebooks for the first time. I still want all the benefits of QuickWrites, even though I won’t be starting the year face to face with students. Here’s what I’m going to try. (You can find my Digital Writing Notebooks on TPT, and free videos to implement them on my You Tube Channel.)

One of our first writing lessons will be setting up our digital notebooks. I have created a Google Slides document with the basic layout, including a Table of Contents. The students will have some creativity to decorate the “covers” and Table of Contents using clip art (I will share my collection with them using Wakelet). One of the things I love about going digital is that we will be able to add slides easily and keep everything organized. Usually the QuickWrites are scattered wherever in their journal. This year, we will put all of the QuickWrite slides at the beginning of the Slides document. Students will be able to add more slides as needed.

To begin with, we will use QuickWrites in Zoom Rooms (for the update on how this lesson actually went, click here!). I think it is worthwhile to spend some time teaching the kids about how to do this. After our initial Zoom Room to customize the Writing Journals, I will ask students to split their screen with their Writing Journal taking up a little more than half of the screen and the Zoom Room on the other portion. I will set a timer, give them a topic, and they will begin typing. After 1 minute they will stop and insert a horizontal line. They will count their words and insert a comment, and highlight any errors, then the process will begin again.

Once students have the process down, I will create a Menu with an embedded timer and 9 topics. Students will do 6 QuickWrite Activities individually each week. For accountability, we will start Zoom Rooms by having them share something from a Quick Write (in a Breakout Room) that they may want to add to during the lesson or that they enjoyed writing.

As with all things Distance Learning, this is going to be a big experiment. Will I get all of the benefits from regular QuickWrites if the students are doing them individually? I don’t know! I am expecting that their typing fluency will be different from their writing fluency, and I think that digital QuickWrites will have an additional benefit of improving typing skills. But, as always, if something isn’t working, I will tweak it until it does. Stay tuned for updates on how this all plays out. And if you give it a try, let me know!

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – Get ’em to love writing!

If you’ve been following this series, you know that we are exploring how to build a strong writing community whether you have face to face instruction time or virtual instruction or some blend of both. The first post in the series outlined four principles that I’m focusing on as I work to build a virtual community for my students this year:

  1. A strong writing community helps students love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

We started with building trust because, without that, we will never achieve a strong writing community. Today I’d like to focus on how to help students love writing. In my physical classroom, I have generally worked to achieve this by:

  1. Modeling enthusiasm for writing.
  2. Giving students choices within the writing workshop.
  3. Giving students plenty of time to write.

Let’s explore each of those ideas to see how to make it work in a physical classroom or a virtual one.

  1. Model enthusiasm for writing. – OK. I hear you. You don’t like to write. It’s painful, it’s arduous, it’s just no fun! Got it! It turns out, I do like to write. I have always liked to write. A blank page feels full of possibility to me, and I can’t wait to see what will emerge. I like the struggle to find the right word or turn of phrase….. You get the picture. But here’s the secret. Fake it until you make it! Here’s an example. I have never liked math. In fact, I have spent many hours openly loathing it. But I know I can’t show that to my students because they will borrow that hatred from me and make it their own. So, when I’m introducing a deep, thought-provoking rich task, I rub my hands together, smile with glee, and say, “Oh man. This is a great one! We are going to have so much fun with this!” Perhaps I overdo it a bit because in their end of the year reflections, most of my students told next year’s class that I love math as much as coffee (clearly, not true!) But, a strange thing happened as I pretended. I actually grew to like math. In fact, it’s become one of my favorite things to teach. All through pretending…..
  • In a physical classroom, this is easy to do. When we decorate our writing notebooks, I flip through and exclaim in excitement over the blank pages. And then I stop, dramatically, and say, “Wait, I’ve got an idea. I have to get it down right now. Can you guys go do some writing and give me some quiet time to get this figured out?” The kids always say yes, and then I start writing, apparently so involved in my writing that I don’t notice them sitting there on the rug, then slowly trickling back to their seats and getting to work. They think they are working quietly so I can write, which is hilarious! And it doesn’t matter if I don’t have an idea. I fake it!
  • In a virtual classroom, I think it will be more difficult, but still possible. Certainly I can model enthusiasm, but how to show them that excitement? Well, I actually think I could do the same thing with some modifications. This year my students will create a digital writer’s notebook (check out these posts on how we will do that using Google or PowerPoint). So, as we get that pulled together, I will stop, dramatically, and then say, “Wait, I totally have to write something down. Can you guys do some writing too? Don’t leave the Zoom Room. Let’s just write for a few minutes, and then we’ll finish this up. I just can’t let this idea get away!” The difference is, I will have to have an idea because my digital notebook will be right on the screen for them to see. I think I will keep it short – maybe 5 minutes – and I might play some music. And to hold them accountable, I will send them to a break out room after 5 minutes to share what they wrote. I don’t usually do that in a physical classroom because I can see whether they are writing or not and hold them accountable that way. But, I think this modification will do the same thing.

2. Give students choices. – This is key, and I don’t see many changes whether I have a physical classroom or a virtual one. Teachers always want to know how to accomplish this when you have standards and report cards and other requirements to meet. Very simply, I give kids choices on what they work on each day and on what they turn in for a final grade. For example, I usually begin the year teaching lessons on strong narrative writing. Over and over I remind the students that they must turn in at least one narrative piece for a grade this trimester, and I remind them that the lessons I’m teaching will help them make their narratives stronger. 95% of the class will choose to work on narrative writing while I’m teaching about it. In fact, as we workshop, most students will write a couple of narratives before settling on one to really refine. I set up periodic check points where they turn their work in for feedback, but not a grade and I also give them feedback during conferences. I actually think that will be easier with digital notebooks (although I won’t be doing one-on-one conferences with students virtually). No more hauling notebooks home every night to give feedback – all I need is my computer. Yeah! As I close the unit on narratives, we talk about presentation and publishing. Most students have a narrative that they feel is good enough to turn in and get graded, but it is their choice. If they feel like they wrote an amazing poem, they can turn that in for a grade, as long as they remember that they must turn in one narrative before the end of the trimester. Then I choose another mode and we move on. I also do on-demand “assessments” in the mode that I need for the report card, so I usually have plenty of grades by the time the trimester ends. I think all of this will be streamlined in a virtual classroom. Finally, something that is easier to do virtually!

3. Give students plenty of time to write. – This is usually no problem in a physical classroom. We have time carved into every day for writing. Usually my mini-lesson lasts 15 minutes, and students have 30 minutes to write. How to make that work virtually… Hm. This is my best thought, based on experimenting last spring during distance learning. Flipping the writing workshop. I use a lot of mentor texts in my mini lessons. I have started to video tape myself reading the mentor texts and scanned in the text so students can follow along. I’m making narrated slideshows for the kids to watch BEFORE our Zoom Room. Then, during the Zoom Room, we can talk briefly about the mentor text and I can stress the teaching point again. Then, I’m going to play some nice music and ask the kids to write during the Zoom Room, and I will write too. After 15 minutes of writing, I will send them to a breakout room where, as a group, they will complete a short Google doc reflection about how each student did with accomplishing the goal of the lesson. Again, we have to build in accountability for the work, and I’m hoping this strategy gets everyone started on the writing, and that many of them will continue writing after the Zoom Room. The goal should be 30 – 45 minutes of writing a day, and we will hopefully build up to that.

So, will all of this result in students loving to write? Well, I think so, but I don’t know so. I know that it has worked in a physical classroom. But starting with virtual is going to be a whole, grand experiment! As always, I will put these ideas into practice, and tweak them and throw out the things that don’t work and try new things until I get it right. That’s what we teachers do!

I hope that you will leave comments about things that you try so we can all learn from each other. Be sure to follow me to get the rest of the posts in this series, and I will also update this post as I refine and get better at this. Stay tuned!

For a related post, be sure to check out Launching the Digital Writing Journals! And if you like them, you can purchase the Digital Writing Journals on TPT (they come with free instructional videos for students which you can see on my You Tube Channel!)

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community – 5 Strategies for Building Trust

Writing is a risky endeavor. Through writing we expose our deepest thoughts, feelings and experiences to the scrutiny of others. Along the way errors, omissions and mistakes are easy to make. Failure is almost inevitable. Ask any writer – it’s never as amazing on the page as it is in our mind.

So, many students have a deep seated fear and dislike of writing. Until you build a classroom community where the kids trust you AND the other students, you have no chance of addressing that problem.

Face to Face in a Physical Classroom

The best way to build a trusting classroom environment is to begin with yourself and trust your students. In a physical classroom, I usually demonstrate this on the first day with a crazy little dance. I make an absolute fool of myself, and in the process, I show that I trust my students. I trust that they will laugh WITH me and not AT me. I trust that they can manage a little craziness and get themselves back on track. I trust that they understand that I’m a human too. (You definitely want to read this blog post about it and see the pictures to really know what I mean!)

Students also need to trust each other. One way I build trust in a writing workshop is through Rainbow Revision. When students have a decent, working draft, I ask them to sit in a circle of 4-5 students. They pass their draft to the student sitting next to them. Each student has a different colored pencil. As they read, they underline up to 3 parts or passages that they like. Then they pass the paper to the next student. In the second round, some things are already underlined. The second student can choose to underline the same parts or different parts, but only 3 things. As the paper is passed from student to student, some things get underlined multiple times. When the writer receives their paper back, anything that is underlined multiple times is clearly working and doesn’t need revision. This builds their confidence that they have done something well, and also helps them trust the students who found such value in their paper. Writers now have something great to launch them into the next phase of their writing, and stronger connections in the community to help them do it!

In a Virtual Classroom

So, how can I accomplish this at a distance if the pandemic keeps us apart? Well, the principle still holds true. I need to build a trusting community so that we support each other as we grow as writers (and readers, and mathematicians, and historians, and scientists….)

So, I may not be able to do my crazy dance and then present students with a writing notebook. But I CAN take a risk and show that I trust them. And so can you. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Step out of your comfort zone. Sing. Dance. Lip Sync. And make a video to share with your students. For their first digital homework, I’m going to ask each student to upload a picture of their pet (or favorite stuffed animal) into a class Google doc. I will sing the song “Never Gonna Let You Down” by Colbie Callait which has a great inspirational message (and the video features rescue animals). I’ll use my audio track and their photos to make a slide show in We Video and post it in our Google Classroom at the end of the first week. This will be a risk for me (video editing! singing!) and also bring something they love into our Google Classroom. My goal is to model trust for my students and build connections as they ooh and aah over each other’s cute pets!
  2. Be Consistent – If you are consistent, students will know what to expect and that builds trust. If you are distance learning, that means setting a consistent schedule for Zoom or Google Meets, and then showing up a few minutes early so that the students can all have time to join the class. It means setting a consistent communication schedule for parents and students and being clear with directions and deadlines. And it means starting and ending virtual instruction sessions in a similar manner each time. I like to begin our Zoom Rooms by greeting each child by name, just as I do in the regular classroom. We spend a few minutes chatting while everyone joins. When I’m ready to begin instruction, I signal that by saying, “OK. Today we are going to be learning strategies that writers use to connect their ideas” (or whatever the target of the lesson is). And I wrap up each session by opening it up to questions, and then repeating key ideas and deadlines. It’s a predictable format and it helps students know what to expect – which is key for building trust.
  3. Share your Writing – This is essential, whether you are in a physical classroom or a virtual one. Students need to see that your writing is sometimes messy, sometimes really bad, and occasionally, pretty great! They need to know that it isn’t easy but that it’s worth working on. And your true writer’s notebook will help them see that. This year my students’ notebooks will be digital, so I’ve started building mine in Google docs. One of the really amazing things about this is the Version History. It will be really easy to show my students how many times I revise a piece by looking back at all of the versions.

Students also need to trust each other. This is going to be tricky if we are not together. Luckily, Rainbow Revision works digitally! Here’s how.

4. About two weeks into the school year I will ask each student to identify a piece of writing from their notebook (which will be digital this year!) and copy/paste it into a class Google doc. Before the activity, I will create a Google doc with a page for each student and a simple star graphic at the top of each page. The first student will read the text below theirs and underline 3 things that work for them. If another student wants to “like” the same passage, they will drag a star to that part of the text (or copy/paste it). Some passages may end up with only an underline, some passages may have several stars, and some passages may have nothing at all. In this way, writers will find out what is working for their reader and jump off to the next phase of writing with confidence and trust. Rainbow Revision revised!

5. One more idea for building trust between students is establishing a Virtual Compliment Jar. Create a simple Google Form asking for the student’s name, the name of the student they would like to compliment and the compliment. Every morning I post a virtual Morning Message in my Google Classroom and incorporate the compliment. It looks something like this:

Morning Message with an anonymous compliment for Brock

Although our classrooms may be dramatically different this year, I absolutely believe and know that we can build a strong community of writers. It starts with trust, and even if we are not together, I know we can create vibrant learning communities with our students.

This series will continue with Building a (Virtual) Writing Community – Get kids to love writing!

Be sure to check out the other posts of this series.

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom.

A Strong (Virtual) Writing Community Writes to Learn

Launching the Digital Writing Notebooks

Get ’em to love Writing!

And follow me so you get the whole series over the next few weeks!

Building a Strong (Virtual) Writing Community in your Classroom

Across the country we are all gearing up for what promises to be a crazy year. A continuing global pandemic, distance learning, face to face instruction, elections… It’s a lot. As I think and plan for the year to come, I am going back to bedrock. By planting my feet on a few simple, time tested principles, I think my students and I will make it through the storm swirling around us.

Why writing, you may ask? Why not focus on math or reading? Well, in the words of the National Writing Project, “writing is a gateway for success in academia, the new workplace, and the global economy, as well as for our collective success as a participatory democracy.” Phew! That’s a pretty high bar! Pretty much every teacher I know has complained about kids’ inability to communicate their thinking in writing. So clearly, it’s important for school and for life beyond school.

With the probability of distance learning looming, building a writing community seems more difficult than ever. Usually I have the luxury of seeing my students every day and of building the community face to face (for a two-part series on how I usually start the year, read Winning Week 1 – Day 1 and 2.) This year, I’m not planning on that. I think all, or part, of our classroom time will be spent digitally. So here are the principles that hold true whether we are together or not. In the rest of this series, I will unpack how I plan to put these into practice face to face OR digitally.

  1. A strong writing community helps kids learn to love writing.
  2. A strong writing community reinforces the idea that we write to learn (about ourselves and our world) and to communicate ideas and feelings.
  3. A strong writing community reads – a lot!
  4. A strong writing community trusts each other.

Over the next three weeks, I will devote this blog to unpacking each of these ideas and giving you practical ways to implement them in your own classroom, whether you are face to face or distance learning. If you don’t already follow me, be sure to so you get each new update in your email!

Wander Words

As you know, teaching vocabulary is near and and dear to my heart. And I love to do it in a playful way whenever possible. I’m always trying to figure out a fun way to engage my students in word play, and Wander Words is the newest craze in my classroom.

Wander Words is pretty simple. The word “wanders” around, and students have to decode it. The word can start anywhere, and can travel horizontally or vertically in any direction. Each word comes with a sentence to give context. For example:

Everyone knows that Ms. Cotton’s favorite cookie is a _________.

Students would connect the letters to spell Snickerdoodle.

I’ve been using these cards in my classroom to help students step up their writing by using more scholarly transitions, and they are having a blast!

This is a really fun activity that exposes students to lots of Tier 2 words. I’ve created sets of task cards, with and without QR codes, that give students practice with lots of great scholarly words. My March 2020 freebie is a great set of these cards to practice scholarly transitions for writing. Be sure to download them today!

You can get other Wander Words Task Cards in my TPT store. Click to go straight there!

Ten great quotes to inspire young writers – and make them laugh!

I love to use quotes in my writing class. Often they make us laugh, and a good giggle can break writer’s block any day! Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

  1. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies. Don’t use no double negatives. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
    – William Safire
  2. When I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am a grown up they call me a writer.
    – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  3. If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing.
    – Kingsley Amis
  4. Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
    – Gene Fowler
  5. If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers. 
    – Doug Larson
  6. I get a lot of letters from people. They say: “I want to be a writer. What should I do?” I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it. 
    – Ruth Rendell
  7. A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it. – Mark Twain
  8. Write what you know.
    Mark Twain
  9. Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words. Mark Twain

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