Sunday, December 14, 2014

The most important lesson ever

It's been a few weeks.  In fact, I was almost of the mindset not to blog again this week until my husband and I sat and chatted this morning about  how things were going this year.  After I rambled on and on for about ten minutes straight, he encouraged me to blog about it.  Either he thinks what I said is worth the read or he was tired of listening and thought maybe if I wrote about it I would shut up.  Or a combination of both.  :)

I have to tell you all, this year has been a ride so far.  Going back into the classroom was a challenge that I knew I could handle, but it wasn't something I wanted to handle.  I liked what I had been doing - supporting our students in their content areas and working with them in their intervention classes, going through school-wide data and making program change recommendations, and being a resource for our teachers who needed support in reaching their resistant readers.  But once I got back in front of a group of my own kiddos, life got amazing.  And it reminded me why I went into this business in the first place.  As a colleague of mine keeps gritting her teeth and saying, "It's all for the kids."  Any educator worth her salt today has to keep reminding herself of this because nobody is making this job easy.  Nobody.

My plan at the beginning of the year was to instill a sense of self-worth in all of our kiddos who either were performing out of fear or who weren't performing at all.  I wanted them to feel free to take risks and reach for success.  I knew it would be a challenge.  I knew I would have to work at it and tweak my approaches along the way.  I prayed it would just happen.  Well, to say it's been a challenge has been an understatement.  To say I've had to tweak my approaches is putting it mildly.  And I've needed a lot of prayer this year.  And a lot of Kleenex.

But what I'm seeing is kind of blowing my mind.

After spending a month at the beginning of the year learning about ourselves as learners - our learning styles, intelligences, learning types, interests, and even love languages, these kiddos now had the tools to advocate for themselves.  They have been given the gift of self-knowledge and have been helped to understand why they struggle with things and excel at others.  Why they can't shut up or sit still for forty minutes.  Why they hate PE or art or language arts.  When their high energy or chatterbox-ness is getting on my last nerve, instead of getting exasperated and directing frustration at them, I point out how one's interpersonal or kinesthetic intelligence is getting in the way of their learning and ask them how they can bring that strength into their learning.  I point it out as much as I can, we joke about how things are hard when we don't get served to our strengths and what we can do to communicate our needs to others.

What happens?  My kiddos work.  Not for a grade or for a ticket to buy things at the school store.  They don't get a "good job" at the end of the period, and I don't give them candy.  Heck, I don't even email home or send home postcards to tell mom and dad how proud I am.  But I do talk to each student as much as possible.  I give them the gift of my attention, and I point out what I see them doing.  And when it comes time for them to measure their growth, they get nervous about it and celebrate when they see the quantitative proof that they've worked and grown.  I'm proud of them.

It's funny that I didn't notice this growth until my husband and I started talking about it today.  But now that I'm reflecting, I wish there was a quantitative way I could "prove" that my approaches are creating more confident, happier kiddos.  I see it, and I hope their teachers and parents are seeing it too.

It says something when I have kiddos who "graduate out" of my class and choose to stay.  When I have students who ask if they can work on the eighth grade vocabulary rather than the seventh grade.  When, even while I'm working with a small group, I look over and see heads bent over interactive notebooks working or hands flying over desks of vocabulary matching activities - all by just saying, "Okay, go ahead to your first activity today.  You've got fourteen minutes until we switch."  There's no participation points or names on the board.  No way to keep track of who is working and who isn't.  I have students who come in to get their notebooks so they can take them to the library to check out a book on their list or to take it home and study their vocabulary.  We don't have homework, nor do I expect students to take their work home - and yet they're choosing to do this on their own.

So - go ahead - ask me. How is my year going?  It's a tough change, and I DO mourn the loss of what I was able to accomplish the last three years.  But I'd never ask for it to be different this year.  What I'm learning this year is going to be invaluable as I continue my research and work with students on intrinsic motivation.  And by the end of the year, I forsee dozens of my babies walking out of my classroom with their heads held higher and a lighter step because they were able to learn.  Not phonics or fluency or reading skills.  The most important thing in the world ever to learn.  About themselves.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Give your students the two minute challenge

If you've been following me for a while, you may have picked up on a few of my philosophies.  First off, I am a firm believer in the idea that motivation must come from within rather than externally.  Second, in order to be motivated to do something, you must feel like there is a chance that you will find success in whatever it is.

This is the big hangup with a lot of our kiddos.  Success seems so distant to them that refusal is a much better option.  These are the failure accepters.  

During her Friday pre-conference presentation for the Secondary Reading League's Day of Reading, Dr. Janet Allen mentioned a simple way to build some confidence in those who are somewhat resistant when it comes to learning.  The two minute challenge works really well as a background knowledge builder, and as long as you can find a few paragraphs pertaining to your topic, you should be good to go!  Here's how she explained it.
  • Give your students a small passage full of facts on whatever topic you are going to study.
  • Allow your students to read it in whatever format you choose.  You can read it aloud to them, have them read silently (if you have a class full of independent readers), or pair them up and partner read.
  • Set the timer for two minutes and have students write down a set number (she suggested ten) of facts derived from the text.
  • Choose a way to wrap up the exercise.  Sharing in a group of 2-3 is great because they can add to their lists during the group time.  Having them all share one thing from their list with the class may give a few a boost just because it's not often that they have anything academic to say.  This will help them to feel competent, and a feeling of competence breeds intrinsic motivation.  
Doing an activity in the classroom like this one will hit several targets at once.  Many of our students come to us with very little background knowledge, and this is a brilliant way to begin building that for the big learning.  But even more importantly, it allows our strugglers an opportunity to feel successful by participating in writing and discussing the topic in a non-threatening way.

Can you turn around Monday and use this strategy?  Many of you can!  Let us know what your plan is or what you have done in the past to make a strategy like this work for you.  

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Not everybody learns by reading and writing

That title seems like a "duh" kind of statement, but it hit me this morning as I was running (exercising my very weak kinesthetic) just how true this statement really is.  Two things happened to me this week that emphasized this to me.

First, I was working with this really great group of sixth graders Monday morning.  It's a group of five, and one of the five struggles - even in the small group setting.  She appears off task at times, and her answers come more slowly than the rest of the group as she is furiously scribbling her half-right answers on her white board.  I've come to reserving slots in my questioning just for her to be sure she is able to apply the skills we are practicing.

This week we were working on reading and writing multi-syllabic words - both real and nonsense (we use nonsense words to practice the skill without using words that they've memorized).  After a while of working vowel teams on our white boards, she started to shut down on me (or so I thought).  She capped her marker and just looked at me.  I decided to see what was going to happen next, so I went on to the next word.  Do you know what happened after that?  Once I asked her how to spell the next word she did it no problem!  Reading and spelling the words was so much easier once we got that marker out of the way!

On Wednesday while getting ready for work, my six-year-old son followed me around the house talking my ear off.  This child is highly interpersonal and rarely shuts up once he gets going.  He started talking about word problems, and of his own accord, told me he wanted to make up word problems.  For the next thirty minutes as I was putting on my makeup and flat ironing my hair, he and I went back and forth.  He totally got me on this one, "Zander makes three strikes in a row.  How many more strikes does Zander need to get a 300?"  The boy loves his bowling, and I (being the non-kinesthetic) know nothing about how many strikes it takes to get a 300.  Talk about lacking background knowledge!  I got the problem wrong with my answer of five.  He was happy to shout, "INCORRECT!" to me and ask me to try again.

What strikes me as funny here is that at our October parent-teacher conference his teacher expressed concern about his not completing his "math cards" (those don't sound like any fun) and that he needed practice on his word problems.  All done on paper.  Well, okay, but yet he just spent thirty minutes going back and forth doing word problems with addition, subtraction, and division AND a few were multi-step.  All in his head and with great stamina.

So is it realistic to try to keep our kiddos accountable aurally (by listening) and orally (by talking)?  Heck no!  I know that there are many of you out there with thirty plus students in every class, seven periods a day.  Not possible.  But consider doing some of the following to help some of your interpersonals and aurals out (I'm actually going to throw our musicals in there for a fun connection because so many of them are also aurals):

  • Ask them to partner up and give each other answers so they can write down each other's answers.
  • Ask them to create questions to ask each other in class.
  • Have them read out loud with a partner or in a small group.
  • Listen to music while they are completing independent work (Take caution in the type of music you choose.  My kiddos love my George Teleman, Paul Cardall, or Peaceful Holidays station on my Pandora.)
  • Listen to text on CD or online.
  • Teach them to study by talking to themselves (repeating things out loud and answering to themselves or others).
  • Record themselves on their phones or a computer and listen to it afterwards.
Using some of these quick tips along with other discussion strategies in your classroom and emphasizing them outside of the classroom will give those interpersonals, aurals, and musicals exactly what they need to feel more like they're accepted as learners.  You'll find that as you bring attention to their preferences and strengths they will be more likely to take risks and exercise them in your classroom to grow.  Have you had any success with any of these strategies in your classroom?  Share those with us in the comments below.  

Friday, November 14, 2014

Admit Slip: 3-2-1

Exit slips are common practice in many classrooms and so are daily "bell ringer" activities.  I never thought to put the two together, however, until I got to hear Dr. Janet Allen talk about this practice this morning at the Secondary Reading League's Day of Reading Pre-Conference.

Last February I blogged on building background knowledge using a really cool activity called Observe, Infer, and Question.  In this activity, students looked at a visual and made observations.  From the observations, they recorded inferences based upon their background knowledge, and then finally the asked questions based upon those observations and inferences. The entire process spanned over an entire class period.

Dr. Allen's strategy is this exact activity, but in the form of an exit slip and at the beginning of a lesson rather than the end.  Here's how it works.

  • As students walk in the door, give them their Admit Slip: 3-2-1 sheets or index cards (one per student).  
  • If you copied a sheet for your students, you can put the picture(s) and/or graphic(s) on it.  For even easier implementation, project the image on the front screen so you don't have to make copies of it and just give your students index cards on which to write.
  • Students first task is the 3.  Write down three details about the image (observe).
  • Their second task is the 2.  Finish this sentence:  I think . . . Then finish this sentence: I also .think . . .  Both sentences should be based from the details they recorded in the first task (infer).
  • Finally, the third task is to write one question based from the details they recorded and/or the inferences in the second (question).  
Once students complete the Admit Slip, you can do a variety of different things with them.  You can collect them to see how much background knowledge each student has on the topic if it's new.  You can begin small group discussions with this information.  You can have an entire class discussion.  Students can share in small groups or with the entire class.  They can also keep their admit slips in an interactive notebook (see my amazing colleague's blog on those right here) or someplace safe so that they can return at a later date to see how much their initial reactions have changed.

Whatever you decide, know that in all content areas, students see visuals and graphics, which means that every content area should be able to use something similar to this strategy.  It would work especially well in geometry, science, and art where content is linked so heavily with visuals.  Think of the possibilities!  How could you use something simple like this?  Share with us in the comments below.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pick Two and Possible Sentences - applying vocabulary knowledge and writing

This week's strategy I learned while attending my colleague Ann Eifler's session at the IRC Conference in Springfield back in October.  Since attending this session, I've used it several times in different contexts and have loved it each time!  Here's how it works:

  • Decide what your goal is for the activity.  You can do this as a pre-reading activity where you use a combination of words the students will know and may not know or use it as a post-learning activity where you're asking students to apply their knowledge of their newly-learned vocabulary.
  • Decide how you want your students to record their sentences - white board, pen/paper, large paper with markers, or electronically.
  • Make a list of words you want to use for your students.
  • Have students work alone or in partners to match words up that would likely be found in the media (text, video, electronic media, etc) together.  
  • Ask students to create sentences with their paired words.  If you're using this as a pre-learning activity, remind students to use this as a way to predict how these words will be used.  If you're using this as a post-learning activity, tell them that they should try to remember how these words were used before pairing them up so that they can create sentences that effectively communicate what your students want.
  • Share out with the class or post them around the room.
  • If you used the activity as a pre-learning activity, revisit the sentences after learning and reflect on misconceptions with your kiddos.  This is a GREAT way to teach them how to use mistakes and misconceptions as a learning tool.

I thought I had taken pictures of their work, but after looking through my camera, I can't find them, and since I'm writing from home I don't have access to student notebooks this weekend.  If I think of it I'll post some examples on my Facebook page so you can see them. I used the writing activity as a post-learning activity where I was expecting my students to apply their knowledge of vocabulary they had learned.  They wrote really fantastic sentences and showed me that they owned those words.

Feel free to share ways you have used or can use this strategy in your content area in the comments below.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

You Ought to Be in Pictures – Using the Visual to Strengthen the Linguistic

I had a wonderful conversation with a colleague a few days ago about student strengths, and since this conversation, I’ve been hypothesizing all sorts of things about the way our kiddos behave in the classroom.  I don’t have to tell many people this, but according to the Birmingham Multiple Intelligence Test, one of my highest intelligences is musical/rhythmic. I don’t get to use this intelligence much in the classroom, however.  This year, I’ve been illustrating the use of our intelligences to my students by bringing up my lack of kinesthetic intelligence.  To clarify, I hate exercise and anything associated with it.  I don’t learn by doing, and I hate moving around.

But I’m forty.  And if I plan to live a long time, I need to get moving.  So in January I started running.  The only way I can get myself moving – be it outside or on a treadmill – is to blast music at just the right BPM into my ears for the entire run.  And so I did.  It’s been ten months since I started, and I ran over two miles this morning.

My point is – I used my musical intelligence to pull me through my weakness in my kinesthetic, which is strengthening every day.  This made me start thinking about the number of kiddos we have who can’t do their homework unless they’re listening to music.  It’s not all of them, but many of our students have a musical/rhythmic strength that may pull them through the trials of not being linguistic or mathematical/logical

Today’s strategy uses visual to strengthen linguistic.  So many of our kiddos are visual learners, that if we don’t use that to our advantage, we miss out on a huge opportunity to strengthen other areas!  This particular strategy is one outlined in the Project CRISS manual as You Ought to Be In Pictures and can be used in any content area.  Here’s how it works.

Choose a picture or cartoon for the students to view either on the projector or photocopied.  Depending on your objective of the lesson, give your students instructions as to how to use the picture.  You could choose to have them:
  •  Answer questions based upon what they see.  If you are using the picture at the end of a unit, perhaps they need to use what they’ve learned to help them answer those questions.
  • Caption the picture using information they’ve learned.
  • Caption the picture using specific words that they’ve been studying during the unit.
  • Describe what might be happening in the picture based upon what they’re learning.
  • Notice specific things in the picture and write about it.
  • Write a narrative about what is happening in the picture.  

Some examples of how this could be used are below.
  •  Language arts – Caption the photograph using specific words or a part of speech correctly.
  • Social studies – Caption the photograph knowing what you know about life in a specific time period.  Use three of the vocabulary words we have studied.
  • Science – Write a narrative about what is happening in the photograph, now that you’ve conducted an experiment that looks similar to it.  Use these three vocabulary words in your narrative: ___, ___, and ___.
  • Health – Look at the graphic and write a narrative about the way that the respiratory system works using your vocabulary correctly.  Be sure to include all parts of the system.
  • PE – Use the photograph to help you write a narrative about a person teaching a seven year old to play this game for the first time.  Be sure to include the rules that the person would have to learn in order to not get hurt.
  • Math – use the photograph to write a word problem based upon what you see.  Solve the problem and explain what you did and why.
  • Music – Use the photograph and the piece of music we just learned to write a short story.  Bring them together using what we learned about the meaning of the piece.
  • Art – Use the photograph of this artist to write a story about what is going through this artists mind as she is creating.  Use three of the words we have learned in this unit to explain the process of her creation.
  • Woodshop/Life Skills - Use this photograph to explain why this person got hurt.  Include safety tips that we learned this week and how you know the person in the photograph didn't follow the rules.
It takes a little creative thinking on your part, but you can tie photographs in anywhere for your visul/spacials and use them to help your students strengthen their other areas of intelligence.  Keep in mind that the writing is going to be really hard for some of them - especially if they're not accustom to writing in your content area.  Stick with it, though.  Make them write once a week, and they'll start expecting it.  They know when it's "pacers" day in PE - whether they like it or dislike it - they come to expect it.  They can come to expect to write weekly, as well, in any content.  It just takes practice and determination on your part.  I know that it's not just your kiddos whose boxes are being shaken up a bit - its yours too, but you'll get used to it, and some of you may actually enjoy the change of pace!  

How can you use this type of activity in your content?  Share your ideas with us in the comments.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Document Based Questions – using multiple medias to inquire

I know I’ve mentioned my favorite book on non-fiction strategy guides before – Guiding Readers through Text: Strategy Guides for New Times by Karen D. Wood, and today I’m going to mention it, yet again.  While attending the IRC Conference in Springfield, one of the presentations (again, a Mundelein HS presentation) mentioned the use of Document Based Questions (DBQ’s – of course there’s an acronym!).  With Common Core expecting our students to pull evidence from multiple medias and with all of the rage in the expanded definitions of what “text” is, I figured it would be a good time to bring this book up again and demonstrate how this type of activity could be used effectively in the classroom.  

Because the teaching of history lends itself well to this strategy, I’m going to use a history example.
  • Decide on a goal or objective for the lesson.  Consider an essential question such as How did conflict contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire?
  • Demonstrate how to create questions from the essential question.  For example, What conflicts occurred during the Roman Empire?  What caused the conflict?  What happened because of the conflict? Did the Roman Empire become weaker because of the conflict? If so, how/why? Etc. 
  • Choose three (or more) different medias (text, video, web, audio, electronic media, etc) that present information answering the essential question.  Using medias of different perspectives or that have different purposes could be an interesting twist to this assignment.  Part of the Standards for the 21st Century Learner require us to teach students how to peel relevant and reliable sources out of the vast pool of information available.  For multiple leveled students, provide more than three, and allow students to choose (or guide some to choices that might meet their needs more effectively).   Text books could be used in this step, but don’t leave them to be the sole information provider!
  • Teach students how to organize their information for reading – you can start with providing an organizer, but remember that our ultimate goal is to create independent information seekers.  Modeling how to create your own organizer may be more effective.  Above is an example of what a handwritten organizer might look like.
  • Demonstrate how to highlight text and jot down notes in the organizer so that they can be reviewed later on. 
  •  Allow students to work independently (or with a group of 2-3) to complete their reading.  Meet with groups while they’re working, clarifying where needed.
One question you may ask is whether you can have one student work on pulling information from each media and then share the answers with each other.  This will obviously be a shortcut they'll consider immediately as well.  My answer is always the same - Consider your objective.  The shortcut would mean a different objective.  It's absolutely one possible way of getting this assignment done in a shorter amount of time.  It's also a way to ensure that your kiddos are all accountable for something.  But if your objective is to truly have your students work together while practicing speaking and listening and to glean important information from multiple sources, then my answer would be a solid NO.  

Once all information has been gathered, ask students to go back to the essential question and discuss the answer before putting together a final answer, complete with documented information from the three (or more) medias.  It's obviously your choice how you expect students to report, but you could have them submit a final answer on notebook paper, have them write it on poster paper and hang it up in the room for discussion.  You could also have them construct something to report out to the class without a "formal" piece of written work.  Or each student could be responsible for documenting the information and submitting it.  Again, consider your goal and your learners.  

Obviously, not every strategy lends itself to work beautifully to every content area, but if you step back, there are places in many areas where it could really be effective and engaging for your learners.  Science, health.  Even music, PE, and art might be good places to use an activity like this to support the standard of using multiple medias to draw conclusions.  How can you use this activity in your classroom?  Share your ideas in the comments below.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Make information stick with magnet summaries

It's amazing how much useful information one can retrieve from one session at a conference!  This week's blog stems from the same session from the IRC 2014 Conference as the last two I have written.  The strategy is magnet summaries, which also happens to be a CRISS strategy. Double score!

Magnet summaries can be used in a variety of contexts, which is what I love about the strategies in the Project CRISS manual.  They're all very adaptable.  Here's how this one works:

  •  Give each student an index card or half sheet of paper.  On the "front" have the students write the topic you want them to summarize.  For example, if you're teaching students about variables in math, write variables on the front of the card.  
  • After the initial lesson, have students go back to their notes (maybe do this in partners to keep your interpersonals happy) and find four words that stick out as being key words connecting to the word in the middle (one or more will probably be another vocabulary word, which should help with information transfer).  When talking about variables in math, you might have words like constant, coefficient, operator, and equation.
  • On the back of the card, students can expand their words into sentences.  Depending on the writers, you may choose to let them freely write their summary based upon the five words on the front of it, OR you may want to give your students a frame.  The frame might look something like this:
Today's lesson explains [topic] by talking about ______, ______, ______, and ______.  [Write one sentence explaining each of the four magnet words or combine them into a few sentences if they easily connect.] It is important to know this because ___________________. 

The picture to the right is one way a student could write a magnet summary if you were allowing them some freedom in their writing or if you have very comfortable writers.  One thing that I liked about the session I attended at the IRC Conference is their attention to reflection, which is not included in the example above.  The last sentence in the frame above in red addresses the reflection.  Students need to justify why the information is important.  This does two things - it validates why the information is being taught and creates a reason to connect the information to either new information, past information, or student's lives.  

So think about the next lesson you plan to share with your students.  How can this strategy be adapted?  Could you add it easily?  Could you use it as a formative assessment?  Share your ideas with us in the comments below.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Applying vocabulary - More than just writing sentences

Teaching vocabulary is tricky and can sometimes become monotonous if you don't change it up.  Often, we want to present vocabulary to students before reading, but then what?  Well, when I was at the IRC Conference a few weeks ago, I was reminded of this really simple, yet super effective activity.  It is called Interact with Vocabulary. Here's how it works.

After you've introduced vocabulary and have established definitions and examples using a technique like the Frayer model, it's time to apply the information.  Pre-write questions to ask.  Try to connect the vocabulary to your students' lives.  For example:

  1. Name one thing that happens unintentionally in the hallways at school. [general Tier 2 vocabulary]
  2. Why is the system of checks and balances important for you as a citizen of the United States? [social studies]
  3. What is one reason you would measure perimeter of something? [geometry]
  4. Why would one need quick reaction time? [health]
  5. Name one popular song that would sound better piano rather than forte. [music]
  6. What is an example of a network that teenagers may use every day? [computer tech]
  7. Give an example from school of convection. [science]
Not every vocabulary term has practical life application, so you could also write your questions in perspective.  For example:

  1. If you were a constructivist artist, which medium would you prefer and why? [art]
  2. As a tyrant of a Greek city-state, what is one job that you would do well and why? [ancient history]
  3. You are planning to build a bookshelf.  What tools should you plan to use, and why? [woodshop]
The next decision you'll have to make is how to have your students interact with their vocabulary.  If you're a teacher who needs proof of accountability, try the following ideas.  I'm an advocate for the interpersonal (social) student, so you'll see that these all include discussion:
  • Type up the questions in a worksheet and have them record the answers from their discussion so that all of the group members has a copy.  Everybody's answers should match.  Share out as a class or conference with each group as discussions progress.
  • Give each group a copy of the questions and have them discuss and record on a large piece of poster paper (more for your visual and kinesthetic students).  Share out with the class or conference with each group as discussions progress.  Post answers around the room after discussions.  
  • Put up poster paper around the room and have the students carousel each of the prompts.  Give students forty-five seconds to a minute at each station.  
  • For my digital-teachers, use Google docs and have all groups contribute to the same document in different colors.  Monitor what students are writing and conference with groups as misconceptions emerge.  Print a copy for each student.  
The title Interact with Vocabulary immediately indicates that more will be happening than just reading definitions.  Using student schema to learn, is a sure-fire way to ensure longer retention, but its also a great way to assess whether a student truly understands that meaning of the words.  But just as important is the idea that we should be choosing applicable vocabulary.  Educating our students is not just about taking words from a text book, it's about applying them.  It's our job to be sure that the words apply.  

What challenges do you see in using a strategy like this one?  Share those with us in a comment below. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Cornell Notes Comeback!

On Thursday I attended a session at the Illinois Reading Conference in Springfield entitled Success in Science Through Literacy Strategies.  The four presenters Katie Giambeluca, Jamie Moderhack, Melissa Sethna, and Alyssa Wiltjer were all from Mundelein High School.  After spending some time with them both in the session and with some Mundelein teachers later on that evening - and after attending a subsequent session the next day with another set of amazing teachers from Mundelein (blog to follow in the future), I am convinced that Mundelein really has it going on out there, and I want to see and hear more!

One thing I found interesting in the few days I've been here in Springfield is the number of times that Cornell Notes have been referenced (or Two-Column Notes for my Project CRISS friends).  I find this amusing because Cornell Notes never seem to really go away!  After doing some research, I discovered that they got their beginning in the 1950s - obviously an oldie but a goodie, and they have withstood the test of time!  Even more interesting is that I have heard about this strategy three times in three different sessions in reference to science instruction.

Regardless of the content, Cornell Notes can be used effectively as a note taking and study strategy.  Your read/writers would use this most effectively because there are no limitations on how lengthy your notes can be.  Those of us who are linguistic tend to like limitless possibilities for writing.  BUT, they're also a really great setup to keep students organized AND a very useful tool for studying.

Here's how they work.

  1. Have students split their paper into four sections as shown above to the right (kind of like a capital I but off center).
  2. Give students a purpose for reading (or watching a video or participating in a discussion or activity - however you plan to deliver information), and have them write the purpose on the top of the paper.  For example, watch the video to gather information on how climate patterns have changed over the last one hundred years.
  3. Instruct students to jot down notes or draw pictures/diagrams (for our visual students) in the big right hand column.  The notes/pictures should connect to the purpose (skip a line between notes).  Notes should not be in full sentences and should/could be abbreviated as much as possible.
  4. After note-taking is completed, students should go back and read their notes, pulling out key ideas, names, dates, and vocabulary. These can be listed on the left in the skinny column.  Also, any questions students may still have about the material can be written in this column for future inquiry. This entire step can easily be done in small groups so that our interpersonal students get their chat release and so that all of our kiddos can process and grapple with what the key points really are.
  5. Finally, as a group or individually, on the bottom of the page, have students write a few sentences, summarizing those key points listed in the right column.  Again, this could easily be done in small groups.
Once the note taking process has happened, students now have beautifully constructed notes that can be a fantastic study tool for something like a twelve minute study.  Students can approach studying their Cornell Notes like this.
  1. Reread your notes in the bigger right hand column, looking for specific examples or details that might be important.
  2. Look at your key ideas on the left, and ask yourself if you really understand them.  If not, how can you help yourself understand them?
  3. Reread the summary.  
  4. Do this for a set amount of time (eight minutes for eighth grade, six minutes for sixth grade, etc.) every day up until the test or quiz.
No matter if you know them as Cornell Notes or Two Column notes - the premise is the same - this type of note taking strategy is useful in any area that a student would need to record information to be used for studying at a later time.  Once your students have gone through the process, have them reflect on themselves as learners and how the practice of organizing their notes in this manner has benefited them.  Be prepared to hear how much students found them to be seriously beneficial.  But also be prepared to hear how difficult they were for some.  Remember that no strategy works for everybody, and our job is to shine a spotlight on what might work for each of our students as individuals so that they can begin to feel control over how they organize and take their own notes.  Our job is to create independent learners, and this is a perfect tool to put into their hands.

What kinds of successes have you had with Cornell Notes?  Share those below.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reciprocal teaching for continued independence across content areas

I’ve kind of avoided this topic over the last few years, and I’m not sure why – maybe because initially it seems like a labor intensive strategy to teach.  It really isn’t, though.  It’s meaty, hearty, sound teaching, and once your students get the process, your job gets a little less exhausting.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – Work smarter, not harder.  We already work hard enough.

One of my all-time favorite books for tackling content-area learning (reading or not) is Guiding Readers Through Text: Strategy Guides for New Times (Wood, et. al, 2008).  The books is organized beautifully by chapters on different learning guides, and one of them is the reciprocal teaching guide, which tends to make the entire process easier.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that we never want to make our students dependent on an organizer or a guide, but to start them off on it, give them the guide and then eventually have them begin creating their own.  Unfortunately, Wood, et. al seems to be the only author group that has created the organizer that I love, and it is copyright protected in their book, so I can't copy it and throw it up on this blog for you.  But I have taken the time to create one similar so that you can get a visual of what one might look like as you read through its use below.

The reciprocal teaching guide begins with a little background information on the media you want students to tackle, and then spots for the following items: predictions about the media based upon whatever you gave them as a background knowledge activator or a preview of the text, confirmations of those predictions, and evidence from the passage that support those confirmations, a place to write down questions about what the student is learning, and the answers as the group discusses the questions.  Finally, on the bottom of the page there is a place to write two or three ideas that the student thinks are the most important and wants to share with the group.  The group will then decide together which piece of information is most important.

Here’s how I would use it in the classroom:
  • Put students into groups of 2-3.
  • Give them the Reciprocal Teaching Guide.
  • Do a background knowledge activating or building activity.  If you are using text, have students do a quick preview of the text and point out features that will help them with the process (subtitles, graphics, vocabulary, etc.).
  • Model the steps as the students go through the guide the first time.
  • Students in the group should discuss and decide upon predictions.  Guide them in making their predictions the first time through.  Use features of the media to help predict.  This will also help you to choose media that will allow them TO predict.  Without the ability to predict learning, students can't begin to build purpose independently.  
  • Instruct students to make their way through the media in small chunks (paragraph by paragraph or another way if not using physical text), stopping after each to discuss whether there was evidence to support any of their predictions and writing down any questions they had about the section.
  • As students write down their questions, encourage them to discuss the answers and write down what they discussed, showing they had managed to clarify the information.  
  • After the reading is over, have students individually write down three of the most important ideas in the passage.
  • Groups should share their ideas and decide on one idea that they thought was the most important.  They should write that one down at the bottom of their notes.

So after all this, can you see why using an organizer at the beginning might come in handy!  This strategy is so versatile, though.  I mean, it can be used with media in any subject, be it a text book or an article – even a piece of music could lend itself to using a reciprocal teaching guide!  You could use it with a video or an entire lesson, but keep in mind that you want your students to do the working so that you can monitor and observe what is happening with their learning. 

The harder you work up front of the classroom, the further from your students you become.  You cannot observe and monitor while you’re doing a song and dance up front, so try to put your kiddos at the front of their learning and see what they can come up with.  You may find that you don’t have to get up there at all and that you can teach them from the back of the room instead.

Can you think of ways you can use this strategy in your own content area?  Share that with us in the comments below.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A plea for your visual learners

This week I accidentally discovered something about digital text books and visual learners.  I love it when this happens because it reminds me that there is still so very much to learn about the way we teach and the way our students learn.  Two things happened on the very same day that created new understanding for me.

I had a teacher contact me asking if we could meet.  She was using a new text book (online), and more students were struggling with the text book than not.  We set up a meeting during lunch the very next day.

The period before we met, my eighth graders were working on a vocabulary matching activity (for my kinesthetics and aurals), and I overheard one of them saying, "That can't be the definition!  It was longer than that."  Now some teachers would call that lazy.  What? Measure the definition, but heaven forbid you read it!  I would call that visual.  But it never dawned on me that some students (especially those who are reluctant to take reading risks) might rely on their visual perception to compensate for their reading challenges.

After the eighth graders left, I warmed up my lunch and headed down to the sixth grade pods to meet with my colleague.  She was using a brand-new online version of a text book, and she reported that many of her students were having difficulty with the text book.  As soon as she opened the online text book, my eyes popped out of my head as I (me, the read/write linguistic person) tried to make sense of the portion of the page I was seeing!  Talk about inconsiderate text!  I was blown away by the difficulty, and we discussed possibly doing a lexile test to see what the level of it actually was.

As our discussion progressed we talked about different ways to help the kids break down the text to help them to make sense of it, but before we had gotten very far, the bell rang.  As I walked out the door, she handed me a hard copy of the text to look through, and we made plans to continue our discussion the next day.

Later on that day, I had a chance to sit down and look at the hard copy of the text book.  I opened the cover to the same chapter we were discussing, and I was shocked to discover how considerate the book actually was!  The page was laid out so nicely with a few pictures, nice headings, nicely organized and clearly marked sections.  And each section was only two pages long!  I couldn't believe the difference in the way I felt looking at the hard copy versus looking at the online version - and I'm not a visual learner!

After I went home that night, I started processing the two separate incidents, and my mind began to put together some very interesting questions that I would LOVE to research more.

As an experienced reader, I (even though I am not really visual) need to see where my reading begins and ends.  I need to see how it is organized so that I know what questions I can answer in my head and make predictions about what I will be reading.  The digital format of the text didn't allow me do this easily.   When we logged in and clicked on the section of text, it was just there.  I wasn't motivated to turn a page to see when the reading ended or eyeball the page to see how many sections were in it and how they were organized because all I saw was probably half the page, if that!

How can we teach our students how to read non-fiction text if they can't eyeball the page?  It seems to me that our publishers are trying to accommodate us with a "digital format" but to just put a paper-copy into a digital format isn't working for our kiddos!  They can't use their strategies to read it, which means we have to take extra steps to show them how.  Here are some ideas when making an attempt to tackle digital text books:

  1. Know what your purpose for reading is.  If the entire selection doesn't have to be read to meet the goal, please don't make your risk-avoiding students do any more risk-taking than they already are.  
  2. Offer hard copies for kiddos who are not reading risk-takers or to those who prefer it.  Chances are, they need to see the entire page visually and need to have a page to turn - and all for different reasons, but many for our visual and kinesthetic learners.  You may have to insist that some kids use the hard copy and explain that you are interested in seeing if it makes a difference in their learning.  
  3. If you absolutely have to use the digital text, start teaching them how to zoom in and zoom out.  REQUIRE students to zoom out to take a look at the entire selection required for reading and consciously analyze it for structure.  Use a strategy/organizer like the THIEVES organizer that forces students to preview the entire selection before reading.
  4. Teach students how to maneuver the online text.  There are features on the computer that cannot obviously be used in a hard copy of the text.  If you're going to make them read the online version - teach them how to pin sticky notes to it, highlight text, and click on video links, and then REQUIRE them to use those features until they become automatic.  
  5. Don't ask them to answer questions that can be found directly in the text.  There may likely be a search function.  Once your students discover this, all bets are off - nobody will be reading that text.  
  6. Create purpose for reading by looking at the beginning of each section for goals, objectives, or purposes.  Then teach kids how to organize notes.
  7. Do these things over and over and over again.
Please don't misunderstand this blog post to be anti-digital-text - there certainly is a time and place for digital text.  But understand your goal, where your students are, and what you really need to do to get them from where they are to where you need them to be.  And don't be afraid to seek out colleagues for additional suggestions!  Chances are, more of us are struggling than you realize!

Feel free to add suggestions below for additional ideas on how to tackle digital text.  Happy reading!

Friday, September 12, 2014

A-B-C. Easy as 1-2-3.

Sometimes you just need something easy to engage your learners in conversation and get them thinking right away.  The A-B-C brainstorm is such an easy and versatile strategy, and yet it gets little credit for being amazing.  Not only does this strategy engage your aural and social learners in conversation, but it also engages those who are linguistic and read/write learners due to the alphabetizing and writing.  It can be used as a background knowledge retrieving activity , an informal formative assessment, or a note taking strategy.  Here's how simple it is:

  • Give students a copy of the organizer
    click the link for the source
    at the beginning of class or as they walk in (good for visual learners, as there are boxes for drawing pictures and  organized visually). 
  • Direct them to work with a partner or group of three on filling in the organizer with words and/or pictures that directly relate to the topic and begin with the letter in the box (or have that letter in the word - your choice).
  • Students can use their resources or not - it's completely up to you.  
  • Walk around, monitor, and ask questions to engage students in deeper conversations, pointing out other words that can be written in the boxes.  
You can time the activity or not.  I could even see it used as a homework assignment so that your students review learned material from that day.  Making students go into a text book to skim and look for relevant words that are directly related to the topic might make a good preview activity for a selection of text.  For our kinesthetics, make them do it on big paper.  Tape it to a wall if you want to get crazy!  

Keep in mind that a quick reflection should always be used after any strategy.  Start out by saying something like this, "Okay, so what did we do to start out learning today?"  [Students answer with A-B-C Brainstorm]  "How did using this help you to review/learn/dig out background knowledge?" At this, your students should be able to tell you that they talked about it, reviewed the text, wrote about it, etc.  Finally, ask them what part worked best for them and how it relates to them as learners.  Making your kiddos talk about their specific learning preferences is beneficial here because they will begin to relate these preferences with their individual learning, ultimately creating more metacognitive and independent learners.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Using a three-minute-pause to break things up

I rarely walk into a classroom anymore where a teacher starts a video at the beginning and lets it just run all period.  Those days are long gone, thanks to United Streaming and YouTube where we can pull a seven minute clip rather than a forty-five minute documentary.  Last year I blogged about studying for tests, and I mentioned that I usually consider a minute per grade level the maximum a student can do the same thing before zoning out.  So for the average eighth grader, we're looking at about eight minutes of note taking, video gazing, worksheet doing, or even group discussion before they get sidetracked and lose focus.

Enter: the three minute pause.

I love this strategy because it is a quick and easy way for a student to regain focus and for the teacher to gauge what is happening inside the student's head.  Here's how it works.

  • Decide ahead of time if you want students to discuss while pausing or work independently.  I tend to lean toward discussion if the lesson has been a sit-and-get with note taking or independent if the students have been actively involved in discussion or activity.  
  • Also decide ahead of time how you want your students to be held accountable for the pause.  Should they write out their answers on a page?  On a large piece of poster paper?  Sticky notes?  Record it?  
  • After eight minutes of a video or note-taking, find a logical stopping point and pause.
  • Ask students to summarize key points so far, make connections and react to what they've learned, and ask questions or predict what they will learn next.
  • Resume the activity.
  • At the end of the activity, take a few minutes to have a group discussion about how the Three-Minute-Pause worked for them as learners, and get a feel for who seemed to benefit more than others.
And that, my friends, is it.  So go ahead.  Use it, and use it often.  Watch that forty-five minute video.  Make those kiddos take notes for the period.  But pause, pause, pause.  Don't forget who you have sitting in front you, and understand that they're all going to need to get refocused - even if you are shoveling the information in by means of the correct learning style.  

Friday, August 29, 2014

Make things bigger for those who like to move

As promised, I administered the VARK learning styles assessment today to my three groups of students.  They delivered exactly as I had expected - highly visual and kinesthetic, and one of them even had the audacity to score a zero in the read/write category!  Thankfully, I've been in this business long enough to know that this is exactly the type of kiddo who would struggle with reading, and that is why I placed her into my intervention reading class.  She and I giggled about it today.  She was so far on the other side of the scale, that she really was highly kinesthetic and nothing else.  That's hard to do!

So I started thinking today about these kiddos.  The ones who need to move.  And I researched it a bit tonight to see if others had the same thoughts about it as I did - make everything BIGGER.

Face it, public school is confining and restrictive.  We expect our students to walk in, make their home in their one little desk in a row or a "table", walk down the right side of a hallway, and act like miniature adults.  But some of them are just not ready for all of that.  They need to move and shake.  Adolescents - especially the boys - are like mini-firecrackers, ready to explode at any minute with all of the energy they've saved up.  How can we work with this in a traditional classroom?

Kinesthetic learners need to move.  Even the act of writing is better than just sitting, and they certainly do not have time to listen!  But what if we made it all bigger?  What if those kiddos who were kinesthetic were allowed to write on larger pieces of paper or small white boards where their entire arms moved and the other one was busy holding the paper or white board?  What if we allowed them to draw things on these pieces of paper where they were making larger, loopier, gestures rather than simply writing.  What if we created word sorts and matching activities where both of their hands were moving - or what if we made those sorts larger so that they had to put them on the floor to manipulate them?

Just yesterday I noticed my eighth graders glazing over at about one o'clock (late lunch on Monday), so I made them get up and walk across the room to answer a question.  Kind of a big deal to answer just one question, but they were awake afterward, and it gave my kinesthetics a duly needed break.  
So when the ants-in-your-pants kid looks like he's ready to vibrate himself right out of his seat, think quick, grab a large piece of paper and some markers and sit him in a spot where he has a little bit of room.  Ask him to do whatever you're doing - just bigger.  Chalk on sidewalks works really well, and so to those white boards that you can keep at their desks.  I know they're distracting, but you're going to get better attention from the kinesthetics (and the visuals, for that matter) if you give them white boards and colored markers.

What other things can you make bigger for these kiddos?  How can you appeal to their kinesthetic side in a more effective way?  Share your ideas with us below.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Digging into the Frayer Model for word understanding

Word knowledge happens in layers.  We are first introduced to a word, learn the meaning, how it might be used - but then over time we begin to place that word on a continuum where we can relate it to others that may have slightly different connotations.  Our ultimate goal should be to add the word to our word bank so that we might communicate more effectively over time.  Studies show that the word-exposure gaps between children in poverty and children of affluent families are staggering - millions of words!  What does that tell you about the communication skills of some of those kiddos who come to us everyday from low-income families?  It tells me that I need to work double hard to ensure that these children have a competitive chance!

One of my go-to strategies is the Frayer Model.  Now I've seen this strategy morphed into dozens of different organizers - all with the same outline but different prompts.  The ultimate goal here is to add the word to a continuum of words so that we can pick from a variety of words that might mean similar things.

The Frayer is a great tool for our visual /  spatial students who like to see relationships and information organized spatially.  You can have them draw pictures or write in the boxes.  Make the boxes big enough and your linguistic kiddos will enjoy this one also because there is potential for lots of room to write (although may of them like lines on which to write).  Put it on the sidewalk in chalk and now your kinesthetic students will have to bend down and crawl around to write on it.  Make them move!

Here's how it works:

  • Place the word to be studied in the middle oval.  
  • I prefer to write "What it is" instead of definition because it leaves for some wiggle room on a definition.  Definition, to many students, means open up a dictionary and copy the first definition for the word.  Before any of my students write down what it is, we discuss, and then they write down what it is.
  • When using characteristics, be sure that the word has some distinct characteristics.  This could take some grappling, but it's not supposed to be easy, either.  Characteristics can be replaced with "What it is not".  I LOVE asking kids to identify what it is not because it makes them think in a way that requires more distinct lines drawn between words.  This will also require some discussion and grappling as well.
  • Examples requires students to take it a step further.  Now they can't just define it, but now they have to apply the information, which is, again, a visual strategy.  Don't forget you can have them draw. They don't have to write.
  • Finally, non-examples, again, requires students to stop, back up, and think backwards.  I've also used the prompt connection here to make my students connect the word somehow to their own background knowledge.  Research clearly shows that linking new knowledge gives the information a better chance of sticking.  
Keep in mind that once all is said and done, having students reflect on what the strategy did for them as a learner is always beneficial.  It'll be painful at first, but drawing attention to them, as learners, keeps them thinking that these strategies are not just gimmicks but true learning tools.  

And that is it.  A quick (yet not-so-quick) vocabulary acquisition strategy that can be used over and over and over again and in every content area.  You can use it on paper, make it miniature and put four on a piece of paper, or create gigantic ones on sidewalk with chalk.  What are some ways you can see adapting this simple strategy to your teaching?  Have you used a Frayer before?  What are some of the ways you have used it, and how have you had your students reflect on their learning afterward?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Five Love Languages and how they can be applied in the classroom

Just yesterday my daughter came to me with an acorn top, handed it to me, and told me to put it on my dresser so "you can remember me every time you look at it."  For years she’s been doing this with random items from nature, and my usual response is a hug and a “thank you”, and then I place it somewhere in hopes of remembering to put it back outside.  But after I ran across GaryChapman's Five Love Languages series, my views on her behavior have changed.  

Chapman started out with the book itself, and it morphed into one specifically for men, for parents, and even for the workplace (which I am currently reading).  The word love in the title was originally put there because he started out this idea by helping married (sometimes almost un-married) couples figure out how to reconnect.  After reading that book, I easily understood how the same principles can be adapted to any situation if you open your mind to the idea of really understanding other people.

Over the last year I've researched intrinsic motivation up, down, backwards, forwards, and inside out.  One of the main philosophies of rebuilding lost motivation is getting to know a person at the foundation.  I've discussed learning styles, intelligences, skills, and types of learners, but one thing I've never really delved into is the idea of making a child feel appreciated and (yep, I'm going to say it) loved.  This may partly be because of the state of today's education system.  Love doesn't really fit into the data collection and analysis equation, does it?  But yet we have large numbers of kiddos who step through those doors feeling worthless and unappreciated.

Before you do anything else, take the test yourself.  You'll be amazed at what knowing the results does.  The basic gist of the philosophy is that any person gives and recognizes love and/or appreciation in one or more of five ways: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch.  To know your love language is to understand that you both express appreciation through that language and recognize it the same way - whether or not another person expresses it to you in that manner.  The problem comes in when one person expresses appreciation in a language that goes unrecognized by another - not because the other person is a bad person or is unwilling to recognize it, but because the other person simply doesn't speak that language.  This is how relationships break down, and this can happen at lightning speed in a classroom.

Teacher/student relationships are always rocky at the beginning. Thirty eyes staring at you the first day, no matter how veteran you are, can be unnerving.  You have all sorts of kiddos in that group and from all sorts of backgrounds.   There is almost no point in trying to teach a kid who is angry or upset because the brain chemistry won't allow that information to store.  We need to put our students into a mindset that says they are appreciated.  All of them.

So what can we do to express this appreciation?  Below are some ways to shower your students with appreciation and hit all of the languages so that your students' brains are ready for learning.

Words of Affirmation
In his February Kane County teacher inservice, Rick Wormeli spoke a great deal about providing feedback to our students.  The trouble is, we fall into this trap of destructive feedback rather than constructive feedback.  The words good job and great work are so overused that they become meaningless.  Our kiddos are seeking meaningful affirmations.  

One example of this might be, "That's an interesting thought, Jessica.  I heard you say that Edgar Allan Poe's relationship with his father may have impacted his writing.  That shows me that you're putting things together and are really thinking about his purpose for some of his writing.  I'm wondering if we can hold on to that thought as we continue this discussion."  This not only gives the student an affirmation that she is on the right track in her thinking, but it also shows her you were really paying attention to her (see Quality Time below).  You've now made a connection.

Acts of Service
"For these people, actions speak louder than words."  Keep in mind that what one student recognizes as an act of service might not be what another recognizes.  It might be something as simple as stopping by a student’s desk to help him start a paragraph or picking up a book from the library for another one.  An act of service might be helping a student get organized during the last five minutes of class or helping him figure out a logic puzzle for fun.

Chapman warns his readers, however, that if you plan to serve somebody, keep a few things in mind.  Always ask before you help; sometimes kids just want to do it by themselves.  Be genuine and positive, but not over the top.  And for heaven’s sake, do it their way.  If you’re going to help out with something, don’t start dictating.  That defeats the purpose of an act of service.  And always finish what you start.

Quality Time
When Chapman suggests quality time, he means make the time that you do have with your kiddos count.  Have undistracted conversations.  Keep eye contact.  LISTEN and don’t interrupt, and watch for body language.  This is a perfect place to throw in the idea of mindfulness in the classroom

When one practices the language of quality time, instead of focusing on what you are saying, like in words of affirmation, you focus on what you are hearing and observing. 

Gift Giving
From now on I plan to really focus on what my students give to me and each other.  At Valentine’s Day some of our girls walk around giving each other cheap little stuffed toys and hearts on sticks.  Pencils, erasers, and other school supplies that can be purchased cheaply at the dollar store or in August when everything is on sale are great gifts for kids who will appreciate them.  Tickets for special privileges are cheap and easy as well. 

Physical Touch
The final language of appreciation is one that comes with the most controversy.  There was a time in education when hugging a child or putting your arm around her was okay, but today many school boards frown on this type of touching, and some teachers have actually seen disciplinary consequences for these acts of appreciation.  So what is one to do to fill the need for physical touch from the large number of kiddos whose primary language IS physical touch? 

Chapman gives a few suggestions.  First off, don’t underestimate the power of quality time.  Closeness doesn’t have to always be physical.  It can be emotional or social, and that can take on the form of uninterrupted conversation and eye contact.  But things like firm handshakes, fist bumps, a high five, or a pat on the shoulder should not be underestimated either.  I have even made jokes about our “no hugging” rule, and now we do “air hugs” in my classroom where we open our arms in front of each other and then wrap our arms around ourselves.  It’s the feeling involved with the physical touch that makes it wrong or right, and who can go wrong with an “air hug”? 

The toughest part of using the love languages in your classroom is figuring out which ones to use and when.  Use them all and use them often, and you will begin to see who responds to what.  Maybe even give your students choices.  Something as simple as, “Would you like me to help you now during class or would you like to come in at lunch?” might allow you to understand if a student is looking for and act of service or quality time. 

Can you think back to a time when you’ve noticed differences in the way kids respond to different ways you’ve shown appreciation?  What new acts can you try this year to support more languages than you have in the past?

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Finding your students' inspiration to write through interest inventories

I’ve been wandering around my house for days thinking it should probably be blog time, but as I went into my brain, looking for a good topic, I kept coming up blank.  That’s a bad feeling for a writer.  Summer is tough.  I don’t have teachers around me asking questions or wanting to upgrade their instruction with some more engaging strategies.  It’s all me.  A perfect example of why I could never just blog and why I surround myself with inspiring people. 

Last summer I had colleagues, friends, and family feeding me articles to ponder, and I was taking classes that gave me more reading to process.  I had blog ideas all summer long last year, and they took me right up through Christmas break. This summer my friends have been quiet (I’m not sure this is a good thing), and I’m not taking classes – so I’m back to relying on myself to come up with stuff my readers will appreciate!  As I started thinking about this, though, I realized that one of my favorite places to get blog topics is from learning I do myself - things that hook me and give me inspiration to do what I love to do.

It was then that an idea struck me.  If my favorite writing topics are things that hit me emotionally and inspire me, shouldn't it be the same for our kiddos?  I know what you’re thinking.  “Duh,” right?  Well, it’s kind of willy-nilly to get up in front of thirty eighth graders and say, “Ok, all!  Write about what inspires you.”  Most of them haven’t got a clue what inspires them.  That’s when I started formulating a fantastic idea for getting resistant writers to write!

  • Start with interest inventories.  Many of you might use them for reading, but why not use them for writing also?  If you look at an inventory and find that a student loves to watch scary movies, then you have a place to start.  What kind?  Ghost stories?  Slasher movies?  A quiet kid in the back of the room bleeds football, plays for the school team, and spends the entire weekend watching college and NFL games with his uncle.  What can you do with this information?
  • Go to Google.  Type in “effects of watching horror films on teenagers” and watch what happens.  Dozens of websites and articles pop up.   Now google “teenager playing football”.  Again, dozens of websites and articles that somehow relate to teenagers playing football – all with different angles.  These websites don’t even have to be “evidence based”.  All we are looking for is something to inspire writing and get our kiddos writing passionately.  This type of activity is a great start to finding a good writing topic.  Grab the laptop cart or go to the lab and have your students do some searches with one goal in mind - to find something that really grabs their attention and sucks them in.  You could even have them work in pairs to help each other come up with good search topics.  And we all know they LOVE using Google.  This, in itself, could be a great collaborative lesson with the school library media specialist!
  • Once your students have their articles (hard copies might be a better choice), you can have them read and react.  A mini lesson on close reading or annotating might be good here.  The idea is to get some meat and potatoes from the article and get the kids thinking, feeling, and eventually writing. 
  • Free-writing is the next step.  If the topic is truly inspiring, these kiddos will now have lots to say. Give them as long as they need to write about what they read and their reactions.  Model this process.  Start a free-write by talking and writing in front of them.  Then let them go and keep writing in front of them.  The more you write, the more they will write.  I’m a firm believer in creating on the spot so they can see me struggle with it like they might.

From here, it really depends on your goal.  If you want some material for grammar lessons, try using some of Jeff Anderson’s approaches.  They’d fit perfectly here.  If you’re looking to move into a specific type of writing, ask students to go back into their writing and start pulling out information that applies.  In my opinion, once you have the inspiration – the possibilities are endless.  For a kiddo who reads an article on negative effects of horror films on teenagers, he could write a piece that argues the other side or a narrative about a kid who started hurting people after going on a horror film watching spree.  He could compare types of horror films and their effects or do his own study on how middle schoolers view them. He could compare horror books to horror films to see what the differences are in their effects on kids. 

The keys here are to begin with a goal in mind and to get your students writing about relevant topics.  If you know that your idea is to get some good free-writing down for grammar instruction, you may want to give free reign on what they load up from the internet.  If you have a specific writing goal in mind, then when you conference with your students while they’re searching for material, let them start by reading anything from the internet, but you’ll need to teach them how to find credible sources once they’ve picked a topic.  It all depends on where you want to go with the instruction, and don’t forget to tap into your resources yourself.  Use your media specialist to help you out from the get-go!

As I have found over and over and over again, once I find a topic that inspires me, the 833 words I crank out in 30 minutes seems like nothing.  This is what we want for our kiddos.  Writing should not be work.  Revising and editing?  That will and should be work.  But writing itself should flow from their fingertips like words do from their mouths.  If it does, they will create inspired works for you.  Guaranteed.