9
Mar

Launching Our First Literacy Fair

Over the summer break, our district toyed with the idea of holding a Literacy Fair during the school year. Much like a Science Fair, the event would consist of each classroom (Grades Kindergarten through 8th) showing off their writing process and samples of their work.  Seemed pretty straightforward. Now we just had to break the news to the teachers that yet one more thing had been added to their plates. (Just what teachers want to hear when they come back to school on Day 1!)

The first thing we did was pull together a small core team of organizers. I was one, along with our Technology teacher, and our Spanish teacher. After some quick Google and Pinterest searches, we seemed confident that we'd be able to share some ideas with the teachers at all grade levels to help them understand what was being asked of them. (I have to say, I'm not sure how teachers survived in the years before Pinterest!) We began a Pinterest page of our own, asking teachers to share any ideas they came across to help each other out.

We did stress to the teachers that the display could easily focus on the great work that we knew would be happening in everyone's classroom, and didn't require the classrooms to do anything additional just for this event.  But, knowing how teachers are perfectionists who LOVE to show off their student's work, we expected that everyone would throw their heart and soul into it. And they did not disappoint.

We acquired funding to purchase enough tri-fold boards for each classroom to have at least one display. The boards were given to the classrooms about a month prior to the event.  We also began reaching out to educational corporations such as GoNoodle, National Geographic and Makey Makey to request donations to be used in some free raffles for those who attended the evening event.  Newsela, that great online resource of non-fiction and current event articles that one can gear towards different leveled readers, graciously donated a one-year subscription to their service which we raffled to our teaching staff.  That was a very welcomed gift.

I'd have to say that the teachers and classes really stepped up to the challenge of the displays. Because literacy plays a role in all subjects, it was wonderful to see that the Middle School Math, Social Studies and Science classrooms also had displays highlighting key domain-specific terminology.  There was a Spanish class display, and the Technology classes showed off their blogs and other technology driven literacy projects. Having chromebooks displaying the tech projects made that table display very interactive for parents and guests.

One other display that turned out to be very popular was the projection of GoNoodle onto a wall at the back of the gym. We set aside an area free of tables in hopes of showing the parents how the kids get a chance to clear their minds and transition using quick GoNoodle activities.  Amanda was able to keep many of the kids entertained, much to their parent's amusement, by playing the short stretching videos and silly songs that the kids enjoy during their school day. The best part of this display was watching the kindergarten kids up through 8th graders all doing the dances together.

The "Project Academically Talented" kids volunteered to do a "wax museum" display. You may have heard of this: kids dress up like their favorite characters and stand like wax figures. A small bell is placed on the floor in front of each display. When someone rings the bell, the characters go through a quick 10-15 second skit or speech about themselves, then freeze again. It's interactive, and the little kids get a kick out of seeing the older ones "acting".

We invited our local county library to host a table to promote their wonderful events and sign families up for library cards. They also brought along their mascot, Sparks, to pose for photos with the children in attendance.  A former student-author, who self-published two books on the history of the town, was also given a table to display and sign his books. Connecting back to the community is important, and we will be sure to always make sure we bring in community diplays in the future.

Our local teacher's union donated cookies which were a big hit (refreshments are welcome at any event!) with both the kids and the parents. We handed out bookmarks that featured a picture of our school mascot as well.

To help spread the word about our event, I printed small labels with the time, date, and "Come see our work on display" colorfully written on them.  The younger teachers put them in the student's homework planners the day before the event to remind parents to attend.

Well, I have to say that we never expected to see a line of families waiting at the door for us to open that night. For the weeks prior, we struggled with predictions of how many families we might see at the event. We were thrilled that night to see our expectations exceeded threefold!

I know that this will be an event that we'll repeat next year, and we'll find ways to grow it.  Enjoy some pictures of our displays from our school's first Literacy Fair!

5
Mar

Working with Young Writers

One of the things I look forward to each year is my after-school Writing Club.  For 10 weeks, middle school students (aged 12-14) sign up to spend an hour after school with me just...writing.  Luckily, my district recognized that not all students are involved in sports so they agreed to allow me to host a club that focused on creativity and writing skills. It's not STEM, it's not homework, it's not chess.  It is just a keyboard, an idea, and a bag of pretzels.  We talk while we write. We talk about ideas, about characters, about showing and not telling, about really cool names for antagonists and protagonists, about plots and conflict and appropriate topics and inappropriate ones.  And we write. We laugh, too, and build relationships and trust.  We need to trust each other since we rely on one another to offer true constructive feedback on our writing pieces.

This is the fourth year we've had our Writing Club.  I'm hoping to expand it next year to include a second session for younger students who have reached out asking to participate. In that group, I'd focus more on writing skills as we write, as opposed to content.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on working with young writers. Feel free to comment!

22
Oct

November Writing Challenge - K-8 (modified NaNoWriMo challenge)

If you haven't heard of it, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It's a time for buckling down, setting some word count writing goals, and spitting out an entire novel in one month's time. While I admire anyone who can actually do this (and it would require almost 2000 words a day!) while holding down a full-time job, I think the idea behind it is too good to waste on just, you know, authors.  So, I've adapted the idea to implement a NaNoWriMo type of event in my school.

Since I'm wearing the hat of "writing coach" now, I feel it's my duty (much to the groans of my already over-worked and overwhelmed colleagues) to introduce great writing opportunities for them to use in their classrooms. The school is a Kindergarten through 8th grade school, but with some adjustments, we've now got ourselves a November Writing Challenge.

The Kinders are working on their letters, so their goal per day is to work on certain letters. They'll track their progress on a chart that they'll display in the hallway. If they can practice 2 letters a day, for example,  we can probably have them writing their names legibly on papers by the time the holidays roll around!

First and second graders are working on sentence structure. They have goals to write (x) number of sentences per day. They'll keep track of what they write as a class (See? Throwing some math in there as well!) and will keep track of their number of sentences each day to see how many they write by the end of the month.

Middle grades, 3-5, are working on stories. They'll be tracking word count, and will try to reach personal goals. Since the students in these grade levels have writing binders, they'll have individual trackers to keep a word count per day. They also use chromebooks which allow for easy access to word count totals. The chart is just a November calendar that they'll keep in their binder, and they will write their own daily numbers on it. Some of the more confident writers will commit to a word count per day, and others will just simply track what they do. Either way, they are writing, and that is what counts.

Our Middle School students, grades 6-8, will be writing stories and tracking word count. One of our Common Core Writing Standards is to "write routinely over extended time frames". Well, here is a perfect opportunity for that.  I'm most excited about the 7th and 8th graders - they will be attempting to end the month with a long story that may reach novella length!

Oh, and the teachers? They aren't passive observers in all of this. In the middle of our main hallway will be a chart to track their progress as they write each day as well. Hey, we walk the talk in our school.  Good sports, all of us, allowing everyone to watch as we color in the squares indicating that we have or haven't been reaching our individual goals each day. (As if we don't have enough pressure grading papers on time, right? *wink*)

Each of the classrooms will celebrate on November 30. And they should. If we can get our students excited about writing, and they improve through this challenge, then the effort put into this event will have been well worth it.

Pictures will be posted of how we tracked, and how we did. Stay tuned!

15
Oct

Writing with Senses - Descriptive Writing

One of the first things we try to drill into the heads of young writers is to "write using senses" - describe for the reader using sight, sound, smell, touch.  This is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to students how they can do that, and all it takes is a trip to the home improvement store's paint aisle.

I usually do this with middle school classes, but this past week I tried it in a 5th grade classroom and the kids loved it.

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Bright colors are great for younger writers.

 

 

First, head out to your local paint store and browse the paint chips.  Look for some visually stimulating colors. With the 5th graders I went bright, but with the older kids I was able to mix it up.  You'll want to grab the single color chips that have names that the kids will be able to visualize.  For example, I was able to grab a  bright green chip called Amazon Parrot, and a gorgeous yellow called Warm Sunrise, among others.  You'll find many great names - Pacific Surf, Tropical Paradise, Cowboy Hat, Desert Oasis, Wet Riverbed, etc.

As I mentioned, for the older kids, I stuck with more muted colors which were named a bit differently, with names like Midnight Fog, Sea Spray, Thunderstorm, Harbor View, Gentle Moss.

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Middle School kids can be challenged with more difficult names.

 

 

 

For the activity, you'll need a graphic organizer such as the one I've shown below. You'll review with them the importance of "creating a scene" when writing, of being so graphic that the reader feels as if he is right there with you in that moment. Also, read a great passage or two from a book that they can relate to, pointing out how the author uses different senses to help the reader get pulled into a scene.

I drew an organizer on the board and then used the name from a paint chip (not revealing to them yet what they would soon be doing!) and asked them to help "visualize the scene using the name". After brainstorming a bit, I told them to now continue with a few words knowing that the name corresponded to a color - and I showed them my paint chip.  Harbor View - was the name and evoked great scenery of standing on a dock looking at sailboats. But the color was grey, so now we looked at it as a rainy, or foggy day, and that changed our descriptive words.

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A sample brainstorming for "Harbor View"

 

 

I told them that writers can be inspired by anything - even paint chips - and that doing practice writing exercises will help authors  become better at their craft.  Then I distributed their own copy of the graphic organizer and followed that with one paint chip. They couldn't choose the chip.  It was dealt to them to give them a bit more of a challenge. They were told to write words and phrases inspired by both the color and name on the chip.

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Just a simple graphic organizer will guide them.

 

 

 

Following a fifteen minute brain dump into our graphic organizers, during which everyone participated enthusiastically, the next task was to write a one-to-two paragraph "scene" based on what the color and chip brought to mind.

For example, for the grey Harbor View chip, it came out something like this:

"The early morning fog settled heavy onto the water as I walked to the end of the dock. The stillness of the air seemed peaceful, and allowed the mist to envelope me, swallow me up. The faint sounds of gulls and voices of fisherman, their yellow raincoats barely seen, were about the only sounds I heard. Fog horns interrupted my thoughts, and I watched as small boats and fishing vessels moved carefully about. The grey skies reflected my somber mood. A chill went through me, but the smell of the salt air still made me feel wonderful, and I continued to watch as the harbor's day went on despite the weather."

The students glued their paint chip right onto their graphic organizer and stored it in their Writer's Workshop binder as a reminder to write using senses.  The paragraphs they wrote became part of their writing portfolio.

 

This was definitely an activity that they enjoyed, and hopefully will try to do with other writing props.

 

 

4
Feb

The "Key" to Creative Writing in Middle School

The key to creative writing in Middle School is...  keys, apparently.

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Using ornate keys is an easy way to get Middle School kids excited about writing.

Inspired by a pin I saw on a pinning site, I searched for some inexpensive, ornate keys to use with my 7th graders in a writing activity.  We've been spending so much time working on structured writing - essays, formal letters,  responses to questions - I wanted to give them a chance to stretch their imaginations a bit as we began a new marking period.

Each key was attached to a tag with a single sentence on it. For example,  "This key would hold the answer to the mystery." "He put the key in her hand, and then gasped a final breath." "Under the pile of old books and papers...was a single key."  The tags were face-down on a desk with the key sitting on top.  As they entered the room, they were told to file past the desk, take a key that interested them, and then take their seat. They were not allowed to look at the tag until they sat at their desk. At this point, they had no idea what the activity was, but they were very intrigued.

Once all of the keys were chosen, the assignment was revealed.  Using the key as a muse, they had to write a story that incorporated their tag sentence into it. The stories were done on Google Docs, allowing us to share and edit easily, and most importantly, track our word count. The story had to be at least 1000 words.  This part got some moans and groans at first. They were a bit intimidated by the word count. But I assured them, they'd reach it quite easily as long as they developed their story using our plot chart. Setting and character development, dialogue, rising action, conflict, resolution... all the pieces would easily get them to their goal.

The rules we had in place:

  • Proper heading on paper.
  • Times New Roman 12 or 14
  • Title of story, centered and underlined
  • Dialogue must be properly written - quotation marks, punctuated correctly, and matching the character. New paragraphs as each character speaks in a conversation. All the things we've gone over, looked at, written notes on.
  • Due date written in their planner so they wouldn't forget
  • Properly edited - highlighted to ensure correct capitalization, peer readers, listened to using Google translate, etc. (We have a list of ways to edit our writing in our writing journals)
  • 1000+ words
  • The sentence on the tag MUST appear in the story, and must be in bold and red font so it can easily be seen.

After going over the ground rules, I did get some questions such as, "Can I do this?" and "Can I write about that?" and I said, YES! It's your story, so let your imagination go!  It wasn't long before I heard them calling out to each other their word counts, their tag sentences, their ideas.... they were in full writing mode.

Writing formally for academic essays and test response is certainly important. But the feeling that comes from being able to lift the restraints and boundaries, and watching what happens once Middle Schoolers let loose, is pure joy.  For them, and for me.

 

 

 

 

30
Jan

All I Need to Know.... Writing Activity for Middle School

I did a quick writing activity with my 7th graders, and it was based on the book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. You remember the lessons - sharing, saying thank you and please, taking naps, enjoying a simple snack of milk and cookies.... Everyone can relate to its simplicity. As we get older, we can really appreciate those things in life. For teens, not so clear to them yet.

I read the first 3 pages of the book to them. It's a perfect introduction to those simple things we appreciate, and perfectly illustrates the task you are going to charge them with: show how a common object can teach us many life lessons.

Here are some the class has come up with. I showed them a sample of the finished product using my dog. I always model the expected outcome in all of my lessons - even the essays. I believe it is important at this age to set expectations for them. The others are the posters they came up with. I picked out a few to give you ideas.

I suggest you try it with your own classes. Mine enjoyed the challenge!

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