Have your students ever said to you, “But, I don’t know what to write!” If you’ve been teaching for a more than a day, I imagine you’ve heard that. And then you have gone through the arduous, painful process of helping them find an idea. It might sound something like this.
Teacher: Well, what do you like to do?
Student: I don’t know.
Teacher: Did you do anything fun this weekend?
Teacher: Have you ever gone somewhere special?
Student: My grandma’s house.
Teacher: Great! Write about that!
And then you get a minimal piece of writing because the student really doesn’t feel excited about grandma’s house and has nothing they feel like saying about it. Or, you get a blank page.
Well, if you’ve ever been there, you need to start talking to your students about their Writing Territories. A Writing Territory is something the student knows a lot about and is passionate about. I introduce the idea every year by reading “Manfish” by Jennifer Berne. This blog post and FREE download have more details about that first lesson.
Today, I want to talk about where you go next. In the first lesson, our goal was to inspire writers, to help them see that they have many areas of expertise, just like Jacques Cousteau, and that what they have to tell the world is important. That same goal carries over into this lesson. We are going to continue inspiring writers and helping them find their voice by connecting to what they love.
For the second lesson, I begin by reading Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. This is a truly beautiful book about a woman who lives a life doing the things she loves. She travels, she makes friends, she lives by the sea… At the end of her life, she has one, unfulfilled goal – to make the world a more beautiful place. She isn’t sure how to do that until one day, inspiration strikes and she becomes the Lupine Lady.
The theme of the story will resonate with students differently than the the theme of Manfish. As I finish reading the book, I ask the students to consider how they make the world a more beautiful place. I tell them that I make the world beautiful by teaching , and I add that idea to my Writing Territories List. I also add in trips that I have taken and my favorite flower. Then, I ask students to return to their Writing Territory lists, and add to them.
It is important for students to revisit their Writing Territories lists often because they will learn and grow and develop new territories. It should be a messy, living document that you add to and elaborate frequently. One way to do that is to read a great book about someone who lives their passion, and then ask students to add to their lists. I often turn to books for inspiration in my own writing, and I want my students to do that same. (If you’d like a resource to help you do that, check out Make Friends with a Book Writing Prompts.)
Miss Rumphius is a beautiful book that I been reading to students for 20 years. It has inspired many great writing pieces for my students, and it will for yours too!
I separate the students so there are 2-3 students at each prompt. Each student has their Writing Notebook and a pencil. I start the timer for 1 minute if I have a class full of reluctant writers, and 2 minutes if they are more confident writers. The students write about the prompt until the timer goes off, and then they rotate to the next Task Card. The timer starts again and students write about a new prompt. Within a few minutes, students have rotated to 12 different Task Cards and written 12 different responses. After 12 minutes, I ask students to return to their seats and spend another 30 minutes writing. Sometimes these writing prompts turn into something that students work on over time, polish and publish, and sometimes it is just something they work on for a few minutes.
What is so great about this is students are exposed to lots of ideas at once, and almost always, there is one that really grabs them. In fact, they almost always find more than one prompt that they like to write about! Another benefit is that students build stamina and writing endurance, and they become more flexible writers and thinkers. Lots of great benefits! I use SpeedWriting once a month or so, and my kids look forward to it every time!
Please grab this free download to help you try SpeedWriting in your classroom. This one-pager walks through the steps, and it is included in 12 Book-Themed Writing Prompts on TPT. Check it out today!
QuickWrites are a really easy strategy that gets kids writing and only take about 5 minutes a day! Interested? Read on!
Just as we want our students to become more fluent readers, we also want them to become more fluent writers. QuickWrites are an awesome way to make that happen. A QuickWrite is exactly what you think it is – something a student writes about for only a short amount of time. You give the students a prompt and set a timer. Their goal is to keep their pencil moving the entire time! Even if they are writing the same word over and over, that pencil keeps moving. Because they only write about the topic for one minute, it is more like a game than a long-term commitment. I’ve learned over the years that once students start the pencil, even if they write their name over and over and over again, eventually, the ideas will flow. This strategy will improve students’ ability to write on a topic and awaken their imagination and bring new ideas to their writing!
Because I know that choice is an important motivator for kids (well, for all humans, really….), I give my students one prompt, and one minute. Then, I give them another prompt, and another minute. Finally, I give them a third prompt, and one more minute. Within less than 5 minutes, my students have written something about three different prompts.
After my students work on three different QuickWrites, I ask them to go back and count how many words they wrote for each prompt during the one minute timing. They graph their highest number of words, and that is my writing lesson for the day. Students are free to continue writing on one, or more, of their QuickWrites or work on a writing project of their choosing for the rest of our writing time.
Download a FREE copy of my Writing Fluency Graph here! If you like it, be sure to check out my Student Data Binder resource on TPT for more goal setting, data tracking and student reflecting resources. There are over 110 Student sheets included, so something for everyone!
What I’ve learned is that using QuickWrites about once a week improves students’ ability to put pencil to paper and get the ideas flowing. Also, the QuickWrites are a bank of ideas. If a student gets stuck and can’t come up with an idea for an assignment, one thing I encourage them to do is return to their QuickWrites. Often, they find something there that they can adapt to meet the requirements of the assignment. And since they have already done some writing on that topic, it can feel easier for them to get started.
My QuickWrites resources include the prompts in 4 different formats so that you can use them with lined paper, primary paper, as a prompt that students glue into their journal (which is how I use them) and in a center. Another way to use the writing prompts is for SpeedWriting. This blog post gives you all the details and includes a free download to bring SpeedWriting to your classroom!
Check out Make Friends with a Book and my other Writing Prompts on TPT today and let’s launch a great writing year together! Happy teaching!
If you’ve read any of my other blog posts, you probably know that I’ve spent a significant amount of my career teaching ELLs. You may also know that, even when I’m not teaching ELLs, direct vocabulary instruction is always an important feature of my classroom. I try to spend just a few minutes a day on direct instruction of vocabulary. My goal is to teach 500 words a year – and even that is a small fraction of the words that I should be teaching. If you missed it, check out this post which summarizes the research on why direct vocabulary instruction is critical.
Word Walls are a key strategy in helping me meet that goal of 500 words a year. As you are setting up your Word Wall for the year, here are a few things I have learned over the years.
The power of a Word Wall is in its interactivity. A pocket chart is the best way to ensure that. I’ve tried stapling words on the wall in the past, and I find that when I do, they just sit there. When I put them in a pocket chart, kids can grab the cards and use them, and so can I. So, to keep my Word Wall a living, interactive part of the classroom, I use a big pocket chart.
Another benefit of the pocket chart is that I can add words that come up unexpectedly in class. I prepare Word Cards that I use intentionally, but I also seize the teachable moment and add words that we encounter in books, videos, conversation….
Because I use a pocket chart, I can’t fit all of the words for the year at one time. So, students keep a personal Word Wall as part of their Writing Notebooks. Before I remove the Word Cards for a unit, I make sure the students have the words in their notebooks. I also store the previously learned Word Cards in an alphabetical accordion folder so that students can find them if they need them later on.
Make sure you choose a spot that is easily visible and accessible. One year I put my Word Wall in the back of the classroom, and kids didn’t use it. Even though my students’ desks face all directions, there is something about the front of the classroom that communicates importance. Put your Word Wall in the front if you can.
What do you include on a Word Wall?
If you missed it, be sure to check out my blog post on Tier 2 words. I explain the three tiers in that post – something that you really need to understand to help your Word Wall be most effective. My Word Wall is mostly Tier 2 words because they are the ones that my students need direct instruction with. I also include some Tier One words if I want my students to be sure to spell them correctly, and I add Tier 3 words when they come up.
If you don’t already have one, a COBUILD Dictionary is a great tool to explore. Besides all of the other things that a dictionary can do, COBUILD dictionaries tell us how frequently a word is used in written English. Very common words are Tier 1, and need little to no instruction. Very uncommon words are rare, and also need little to no instruction because, in all likelihood, the average reader will never encounter them. For example, abecedarian is a Tier 3 word. You may be an abecedarian when it comes to the COBUILD dictionary. But unless that word turns up as an important idea in a book or other context, I won’t spend direct instruction time on it in class.
As teachers, we want to put our energy into teaching our students the things they will likely need to know. For example, this link will take you to an online COBUILD dictionary where you will see that the entry for isthmus has two out of five dots colored. This tells you that isthmus is one of the 30,000 most frequently used words in English. So, some direct instruction is probably warranted.
Plateau, with three colored dots, is one of the 10,000 most frequently used words. And it is a word that students struggle to spell, so it is a perfect word to spend direct instruction time on, and should receive greater focus and deeper instruction.
Adding Words to the Word Wall
There are many great ways to do this, so let your creative mind flow! But, if it’s late and your brain is tired, here are a few things I generally do as I introduce words.
For example, I use my Word Wall for my Landform vocabulary every year. If you need Landform Word Cards, check out this set on TPT. Each card has a photo of a landform in the US, so I double my impact by teaching important Science and Social Studies content!
This resource includes 32 terms. At the beginning of the unit, I choose the Tier 1 words that my students likely already know, and quickly add them to the Word Wall. It should take about 10 minutes of class time. The goal is to make students aware that the words are there, that they should know them, and that they are responsible for spelling them correctly, now and forever. I play a game I call Categories to introduce these words. It sounds like this.
Teacher: Class, today we are going to play Categories. I have 10 words. Our category is landforms. The first definition is “a piece of land that rises higher than everything around it.”
Teacher: Good guess. This landform is smaller than a mountain.
And then I place the Word Card under the document camera to show the students the word, definition and photo. Then it goes into the pocket chart and we move on to the next word. In this way I review 10 words that most of my students already know and I create a place in their brain to hold more words that fit the category of landforms.
The next day, I introduce a Mystery Word that fits in in our category. Mystery Words are always Tier 2 words, and I will spend the majority of my direct instruction time on these words. I choose a word that the students should encounter in reading or other context that day, and I remind them that it fits the category of landform. In the morning, I write the first letter on the board, and then blank lines for each letter (like the game of hangman). As the day progresses, I add a letter here and there until the students guess the word. Often, they guess the word when they encounter it in the text. Then, we look at the Word Card and add it to our Word Wall.
Finally, if there are Tier Three words that I want the students to learn, I present them in a quick, direct instruction. I simply tell the kids the word and the definition, and then use it in a sentence. Then, I challenge my students to work together to come up with a sentence of their own. Finally, we add the word to the Word Wall.
That’s a quick overview of how I use Word Walls in my classroom. Of course, the power is in the revisiting. More on that in future posts.
In the meantime, if it’s helpful, grab some of my Word Wall sets on TPT, or make your own. Here’s to a year filled with Words, Words, Wonderful Words!
Yesterday’s blog post featured a somewhat unusual idea for launching Writer’s Workshop. After the initial flurry of writing about the crazy dancing teacher, some students struggle to find their next idea. That’s where today’s idea comes in handy.
Manfish, by Jennifer Berne is a marvelous picture book about Jacques Cousteau. He was a true Renaissance Man – inventor, environmentalist, explorer, cinematographer…. The book beautifully traces his life and his development of his many talents. It’s a perfect opening to inspire students to identify their own talents and interests.
This free lesson plan on TPT walks you through how to use the book to introduce the idea of Writing Territories to your students and then help them brainstorm to find their own writing territories. The detailed lesson plan includes a brainstorming sheet for students. I have students paste those in the front of their writing journals so they can easily revisit them throughout the year. The free download also includes a checklist that will help you keep track of student progress.
The real power of this lesson actually comes after the lesson. Once students have brainstormed their writing territories, the revisiting is key. The first revisit happens in a writing conference with me. During that conference I am working to get to know my students, so I do more listening than talking. I also often try to help the students narrow their topics down.
This is a copy of one of my student’s brainstorm after half of a year. She started with the first 5-6 ideas. As the year continued, we revisited this from time and she added to her brainstorm.
When I met with this girl during our first conference of the year, we started by looking at her Writing Territories sheet. I noticed that she had listed her family as one of her territories. That is a very general topic, so I asked her to be more specific. We discussed each member of her family and analyzed which ones she felt she could write about. She said that her little sister and her dog would both be funny to write about, so I had her add them to her list. By narrowing her topic down she had a better chance of writing a well organized story. Later in the year, she narrowed even further by identifying her Writing Territory as “11 year old girls with annoying little sisters”. Not long after she wrote a pretty funny story about her youngest sister. Narrowing the focus during a brainstorm can often set a story or essay on the right path, even before the writer begins.
This student also added ideas during the year. She loved Science, so she added the solar system, and then narrowed even further to Saturn. One of her best pieces of writing for the year was her informational piece about the journey of the Cassini spacecraft and its study of Saturn.
To help get students to add to their list, we try to make it a living document. I show mine and add to it frequently, and I ask the students to open their notebooks and begin a Workshop by reading their list. I also say things like, “Oh, what an interesting idea. Why don’t you go add that to your Writing Territories list?” Even if it’s math class, I try to encourage the students to find their own voices and their own ideas and add them to the list.
I hope this lesson helps you and your students find topics to write about. Grab the free lesson plan on TPT today!
Today we are going to revisit an oldie, but goodie – Interest Surveys. You may be thinking, “Oh, sure. I can do that in a normal year. But this year? When there is so much learning to get done? I don’t really have time for that.” Or, maybe you are thinking, “Well, I have this curriculum that my district requires, so the kids don’t really choose books, so why waste time finding out what they like? They still have to read the required books, whether they like them or not!”
Well, both of those are fair points. This year, especially, with the disrupted learning due to Covid, we have so much catching up to do. And, if your district requires certain books, kids’ choices may not seem relevant.
My question back to you is this. “Is building relationships with your students important to you?” If you answered yes, read on! This is a great strategy for you! This strategy is a Getting to Know Your Readers strategy, and you will be amazed at how it moves the relationship with certain students. Just the fact that you want to get to know your kids as readers and writers will be important for some students. For some, that is not an identity that they own. For some students, this might be the first time anyone has given them that label – and that can be powerful. To say to a student, “I want to get to know you as a reader and writer,” is to give them that identity. What a gift!
If you have a curriculum that doesn’t allow student choice, you still need to know what your students enjoy reading and writing about. You can bring in read alouds that match their preferences, and buy new books for your classroom library according to their taste. You can tweak writing assignments to be more student friendly and to fit students’ writing territories (be sure to download this FREE lesson plan about discovering your students’ writing territories!) And you can bring in picture books and integrate with Science and Social Studies in ways that match your students’ interests.
I use the Readers’ and Writers’ Interest Surveys differently, so let’s start with Writing. For me, the purpose of the Writing Interest Survey is to get kids writing. My resource on TPT includes two versions of the survey. I generally give one about the second week of school. The first week of school kids usually have lots to write about because of the kooky way I give them their writing journals and because of the Writing Territories lesson. But, but Week 2, some kids have run out of ideas. That’s where the Interest Survey comes in.
As you can see in this portion of the Interest Survey, students simply connect with their emotions about different topics. There are two different surveys, and each includes 11 topics, so you find out what your students think about 22 different topics. When students connect with emotions, their writing becomes more powerful!
It takes students no more than 10 minutes to read through the topics and make their choices. But what you do next makes a huge difference! Don’t collect them. Instead, ask the students to put them in their writing binder or journal. When you have your first Writing Conference with your student, start by asking them to show you their Interest Survey and the writing they’ve been doing about the topics on the Survey. It will be the easiest conference you’ve ever had!
The second Writing Interest Survey is great to whip out mid-year, or whenever you notice that several students are running low on ides. Another great way I use these is to have students interview each other about each topic and find out what other students feel about specific topics. It can create some great connections and bonds in your classroom.
The last page of the Writer’s Survey is great for the end of the first week. I like to give these on Friday and spend the weekend reading through them. I get so much great information from these, and it helps me know my students’ strengths and weaknesses right away.
The Reader’s Interest Survey uses the same cute graphics to ask students to record their feelings about specific genre, and also asks students questions about their life as a reader. This is double-sided, and students generally need 15 – 20 minutes because of the fill-in-the-blank. But, the extra few minutes is worth it because of how well you will get to know your readers!
I collect the Readers’ Surveys and take them home to read through them. Then, I meet with each student to talk to them about their responses and learn more about them as readers. It is so much fun to spend that time with them in the beginning of the year. I start this the first week of school, and I usually conference with 4-5 students a day during those first few weeks.
So, there are two easy to use strategies that will help you Get to Know Your Readers. Be sure to check out the other blog posts in our series so far, and watch the video for more insights on using surveys in your classroom.
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.
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.
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!
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!