Working to Change the Narrative: An Inquiry Into Story

When I first made the decision to tell my students that I am gay, part of what motivated me was a desire to change the narrative that my students had of people who were gay. For some of my students, the only things they had heard about gay people were the stereotypes they had been fed by television and movies.  For other students, the only things they knew were the awful things they were told by others who were fearful or intolerant or ignorant.

So when I made the decision to come out to my students, my hope was that when my students thought of someone who was gay, they would not think about some caricature or television character or some stereotype or about something awful that someone once described to them. Instead, they would think about their fifth grade teacher. They would think about the teacher who loved them and was (mostly) patient with them and who maybe even helped them to learn something about themselves and this world we live in. I wanted to change the narrative.  I wanted to add to the story that they knew about people who are gay.

As teachers, we make choices all the time about which stories we bring into our classrooms and which stories we leave out of our classrooms.  We choose which stories to read all together and which stories to quietly leave in a corner of our classroom libraries. We make choices about which stories are given voice and space in our classrooms and which ones are silenced. That is a lot of power and I think we need to start to do more with it.

With all that is going on in this world, with all of the hate, with all of the violence, I have been thinking so much recently about stories. The stories we know. The stories we don’t know. The ones that are told. The ones that are hidden. The sensational ones that are fed to us by all sorts of media because they are the ones that will make someone money. And the quieter stories that are often kept hidden for fear that they will not bring viewers or clicks or dollars.

I have been thinking about the stories that play in our heads when we walk down the streets. When we encounter a person. When we encounter a person and immediately try to place them in a preexisting box that we know and are comfortable with because we know a certain story about the kind of person who fits in that box and that makes us feel like we know the actual person.  And somehow we are comforted by that kind of knowing.

But that kind of knowing is killing us.

Deciding that we know a person because of the stories we have been told. The stories that are far too often, far too incomplete.  We make judgements based on what we think we know. We make decisions based on who we think a person is. We take actions based on the stories that we believe we understand.

And for too many people, the stories that we think we know are inadequate and they are dangerous.

So when I return to my classroom in the fall, we will begin our year with an inquiry into story. I do not have it all planned yet and I know that I won’t be able to have it all planned until I am sitting there with my students.  But I know that it is where I need to begin.

I want to help my students to change the incomplete narratives that so many of them have for so many people in this world. My students are not an extremely diverse group when it comes to races and religions and ethnicities. So much of the knowledge that they have about people in this world comes not from their own experiences, but from the stories that they have been told by others. And I believe that we can work to change the limited narratives that they hold about others. The ones that can be damaging. We can work to dig deeper into the stories of others and to learn to ask questions of the stories that we think we know in order to gain a more full, a more complex, a more complete understanding of someone’s story.

I want to have my students look at stories that are told in which they can see themselves reflected. To think about how the stories of others can be our mirrors and how seeing ourselves within these stories can help us feel less alone in this world.

And then I want them to look at the stories of others in which they cannot see themselves, but through which they can see into the lives of others. I want to help them to use these  stories as windows to look into the lives of others and learn about the lives of others. But I do not want to stop there. I want to help them to learn to ask questions that will lead them to further inquiry in order to uncover the more complete stories that are waiting to be told.

I hope the examine stories that are told in many different ways. Stories that are captured in photographs, in photo essays, in projects like Humans of New York, or StoryCorps, stories that are told through Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, and stories told through memoirs and short stories and picture books and blog posts. I want them to read these stories and learn to ask questions that will help them to understand more than simply what they are given or what they find when they do a single Google search. I want them to learn to want to know more than what is nestled in the first story that they read.

We will watch The Danger of a Single Story and work to understand the powerful words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so that we go do better than just stopping at a single story. We will choose stories that we want to learn more about and we will push ourselves to change our existing narratives.

And at the same time, I want to help my students to take control of the narrative that is being told about them. I want them to think about the following questions:

What do others believe about you?

What do you believe about yourself?

And then I want them to take time to think about the stories that they can tell from their own lives in order to disprove or to prove that those things are or are not true. I want us to learn from the mentor texts that we will study as we read the stories of others and I want them to learn that they, too, have stories to share with the world. And I want them to find ways to tell these stories that make sense to them. Perhaps it will be through written word, perhaps through digital story telling, perhaps through a speech or through a picture books. But they must find a way to take control of the narrative being told about who they are.

There is a lot that I am not sure of right now. But I know that this is where I need to go with my students.  I know that there is work to be done. I know that we have the power to change some of the destructive narratives that have been kept alive for far too long in this country. I am not sure how to do it, but as I just read today in this article with the brilliant Chris Lehmann who runs the Science Leadership Academy, “Inquiry means living in the soup. Inquiry means living in that uncomfortable space where we don’t know the answer.”

So I am uncomfortable with all that I do not know and I am also incredibly excited at the work that lies ahead.  Should you have any ideas that can help my students and I along our way, please feel free to leave them below.

 

 

 

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The Students Become the Teachers

One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year is watching as the students become the teachers. All year, I have modeled for my students how to read like writers and how to learn from the writers we love. And now, this is something that my students know how to do on their own. So it is time to let them show me.

Our final writing work of the year involves informational writing. Our first project was to create our own, student-written website that resembles the brilliance of the website Wonderopolis.  As we did this work, my students had a chance to select their own mentor texts, analyze those mentor texts and then teach the writing strategies they discovered to their classmates. You can read about that work HERE.

For our next unit, we started to work on creating longer pieces of informational texts.  As we began this work, each student selected his/her/their own mentor text. Here is an explanation of that process.

As the students got farther along in their research on the topics they chose to write about, I knew it was time to start thinking about how they were going to write. One of the biggest challenges that I have found with my 5th grade writers is helping them to do more than write a giant list of organized facts and instead write something that is interesting, clear and even evokes an emotional response from the reader.

The best way that I know how to help my students learn to write this way is for them to look to the incredible informational picture books that we have in our classroom and in our library.  So as students started moving from researching into writing, I asked them to pull back out the mentor texts that they had selected. I asked them to especially pay attention to the mentor texts that they had selected for writing style.

I began by sharing my own mentor text, RAD American Women A-Z. I put a copy of a page from this text under the document camera and also gave a copy to each child. We read through the page together first without stopping. Then I told them I was going to go back and look for any parts of the writing that seemed like MORE than just a listing of facts. I was looking for places where the writer did something that helped make the information clearer to the reader or that helped make the writing more interesting or that helped the reader to feel some kind of emotion. I marked the writing strategies that I found and I asked the students to do the same thing.

Then, I told the kids that they were going to look more closely at their own mentor texts in order to find the writing strategies that their writers used. I shared with them that if they were no longer feeling inspired by the mentor texts they had chosen, then they should go choose new ones. Find something that moves you and then figure out how that writer did what he/she/they did. We discussed that while we cannot steal the words of other writers, we can indeed steal their strategies. That is how we become better writers.

So the kids headed off to analyze their mentor texts and to discover new writing strategies.  They kept track of what they found HERE.

The next day, I pulled out another one of my mentor texts. I reminded them that on the first day of my work, with the mentor text RAD American Women A-Z, I saw my writer use stories to show something important about the topic.  In my second mentor text, Incredible Inventions, I saw a totally different writer, using the same writing strategy to write about a totally different topic. I told my students that this was important because it helped me to see more than one way to use a writing strategy. I told them that as they looked at their own mentor texts today, I wanted them to see if they noticed two different writers using the same writing strategy. I asked them to mark this on their charts.  And off they went again.  This seemed to help them move from simply finding interesting content, to actually finding the strategies that writers were using to make the content more interesting.

On the third day, I told them that it was now time to select a writing strategy that they had seen used in their mentor texts to teach to their classmates. We had done this in our last unit, but I realized that when we did it the last time, I did not provide nearly enough support in helping them find effective ways to teach others about their writing strategies.  So this time, I wanted each student to come up with a lesson plan.

I began by explaining to my students one possibility for a structure for an effective writing lesson. I used this chart to help explain the gradual release of responsibility model to them:

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I also shared this chart with them in order to give them some ideas on how they could show how they might use a new writing strategy and to give them some ideas on how to have the students they would be teaching practice using this new writing strategy as well:

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I then told the kids how teachers create lesson plans so that they know how they are going to teach their students.  I told the kids that to help them to be better teachers, I was going to have each of them fill out a lesson plan as well. THIS IS THE LESSON PLAN EACH CHILD FILLED OUT.  After creating a lesson plan, I asked each child to create something for their students to look at.  Once this was made, I collected the visual aid and the lesson plan.

I did allow students to work together because I know that for some kids, leading a group of other students by themselves feels like too much.  So the kids who worked together turned in one lesson plan and one visual aid.  If the visual aid was a handout, I made copies for the students and if it was something on the computer, I just checked to make sure the teacher knew where to find it.

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It was amazing to see what a difference the lesson planning sheet had made.  The last time I had the students teach each other new writing strategies, it was a bit more of a free for all.  Some of the kids did a great job and other kids just weren’t quite sure what to do.  And that was my fault.  Of course they don’t know how to plan a lesson. I also didn’t give them enough time to plan a lesson in the past. I just sort of threw them into the work.  Having the structure of the lesson planning sheet gave the kids the direction they needed.

It took the kids about two days to plan their lessons. Some students needed more time to go back and find examples of writers using their strategies and other students needed more time to find ways to use these strategies themselves. While they were lesson planning, they were also using some of our writing workshop time to continue their research and drafting.

Today, they were ready to begin teaching. I created a sign up sheet so that we could keep track of who was teaching, what strategy was being taught and which students would be attending which lesson.  Just like the last time we did this, I only allowed five students to sign up for each session because I didn’t want there to be one session that had 12 kids while another one only had 2.  Here is what our sign-up chart looked like:

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When I asked for volunteers to teach on the first day, almost every single hand went up.  I ended up having to randomly select popsicle sticks with names because everyone was so eager to go first.  The three teachers were chosen and went off to set up. I told the rest of the kids to think about the three writing strategies being taught that day and to think about their own topics.  I told them that they should sign up for a strategy that would work for their own topic.  This way, they could learn something that would actually help them in their writing.

Here was our chart after everyone signed up:

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After signing up, the students went off to their groups with the things that they were told they would need.  When they arrived in their groups, the first thing that they had to do was add the writing strategy to their build-your-own revision checklist.  In our classroom, we often use revision checklists to help the students to be more independent in the revision process.  For most writing units, I create the revision checklists by listing all of the writing strategies that we have learned in a unit and then asking the students to select a certain number of strategies that will work for their own writing in order to revise.  But for this unit, the students would all be learning different writing strategies, so I created a build-your-own revision checklist. THE REVISION CHECKLIST TEMPLATE CAN BE SEEN HERE. 

After the new strategies were listed on everyone’s revision checklists, the teachers in each group began teaching.  It was incredible to listen to and incredible to watch. The language that we had used all year to talk about writing and to talk about the texts we were reading was now coming out of the mouths of these students who were assuming the role of teacher.  I watched as kids redirected the students in their groups. I listened as kids asked the students in their groups probing questions. I heard students encourage each other and make writing suggestions to each other. It was clear that these kids felt ownership over the writing process and over this writing work.

Next week, the rest of the students will have a chance to teach their lessons.  As students finish up their first drafts of their informational writing, they will move into the revision process with at least three new writing strategies to apply to their own writing, on top of the writing strategies that they have discovered on their own from their own mentor texts.

I think about how much quicker it would have been to choose four or five writing strategies  myself and to teach them to all of the students at once on my own. Some kids might have even learned the strategies better if I had taught them.

But then I think about how much the kids would NOT have learned. They would not have learned that they can learn new writing strategies on their own. They would not have learned that some of the best writing teachers they will ever find are the books that they read. They would not have learned that they have the power to learn from and teach each other. They would not have learned what it feels like to know something well enough to teach it to someone else. They would not have learned that learning from each other is one of the best ways to solidify a community. They would not have learned that they do not need me to be writers.

And all of that is so much more important to me, and for them, than the efficiency that might have come from controlling all of the learning myself.

 

Sources of Information versus Sources of Inspiration

We are well on our way into our informational writing project. I explained with our first work with informational writing, I wanted to make sure to find ways to give more power over to my students as we began one of our final writing projects of the school year.  When we were working on our wonder writing, I saw the power of asking students to choose and analyze and learn from their own mentor texts. For so long, I have seen the power of mentor texts to turn children into better writers. But, only recently, have I begun to realize that if I really want to teach my students to become lifelong writers, then I need to teach them how to learn from the writers they are surrounded by in their lives.

This means that instead of choosing all of the mentor texts for my students, I needed to do more work in teaching my students how to select their own mentor texts, how to analyze these mentor texts and how to apply what they are learning from these mentor texts to their own writing. So this has become a major focus of mine for this unit.

We began our unit by attempting to expand my students’ ideas of what informational writing is.  Unfortunately, by the time kids make it to fifth grade, they have been exposed to a lot of bad informational writing. They have seen textbooks and inauthentic informational writing whose purpose is purely to cover content and not to connect with readers. When we began our unit, I asked the kids to tell me what they thought of informational writing. Almost half the kids used the word, “boring.” Many of the kids said it was writing that was done in school or that it was writing that a teacher made you do.

I asked my students if they ever noticed that half of any book store that you walk into is reserved for nonfiction writing. They responded that those kinds of books were not informational writing.

Ah! So that was our problem.

So I brought it four different books that were written in four extremely different ways and we did some work to look at the topics of these books, the formats of these books and the reasons why these formats made sense for these topics. And then every day in writing workshop, for the first week of our unit, I gave the kids half an hour to simply explore the nonfiction books that we had in our classroom and to notice the things that interested them.

It was AMAZING to watch the kids dive into these books. To excitedly share the information that they were learning. To whisper in small groups about the cool ways these books were set-up. To be energized by informational writing.To laugh at the informational writing they were reading. Every day, I checked in with my writers to see how their understanding of informational writing was starting to change. And every day I was pleased to see the growth that we were making. On our final day, I asked the students to choose three books that they were extremely interested in and write about the topic, format and the reasons why this format made sense for this topic.

 

Once we had spent time exploring, it was time to think about our own topics. To help us determine what makes a good topic for informational writing, we looked back at the author’s notes, source notes and introductions from the four books that we examined all together for topic and format.  We pulled out the different reasons that these authors gave for why they chose to write about the topics that they wrote about.  Then we read the beautiful book, Ideas Are All Around. 

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I then put the students into writing groups to discuss their topic ideas and to receive feedback. Like in our fiction writing unit, I wanted my students to have a constant group of peers that will serve as a source of feedback and support throughout our entire writing unit.  By the end of this writing unit, these writers will know each other’s writing well and will be a wonderful source of support for each other.  In their writing groups this week, the students discussed their potential topics and made a decision on what they wanted to write about after listening to feedback from their writing groups.

Once this decision was made, I wanted to make sure that I gave my students time to just grow their understanding of their topic. Too often, I rush into having my students plan out their writing and decide on subtopics, before I have given them enough time to just learn about their topics. In this way, their plans often limit their writing because they did not have time to learn the big picture first before worrying about the smaller parts.  So each day this week (the second week of our unit), I knew that I wanted to devote time to just letting them explore their topics. No note taking. No planning. Just time to learn about their topics.

In addition, I wanted each child to begin selecting their own mentor texts.  As I said earlier, I did not want to be the only person in charge of choosing the mentor texts that would help us learn to be better informational writers.

In the past, I have selected two or three authors for us to study. I have found the writing strategies that we would learn to use. I would select the passages that showed those strategies. When I did that, I was the only one learning how to be inspired by the writing of others. And then I was simply pushing my own inspiration onto my students.

This year, I wanted my students to find their own sources of inspiration. I wanted my students to learn how to learn from the writers around them and not just from me.

But to do this, I really had to step back and teach my kids how to locate and learn from their own mentor texts.

So I began by sharing my thought process with the kids on how I went about selecting mentor texts for my own informational writing project. I plan to write a book alongside my students all about chocolate. My students had already heard my thought process in selecting this topic, so now I shared with them how I selected my mentor texts. After that, we built the following chart to help us think about the many different reasons why a text might become a mentor text for a writer:

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And then I gave the kids time to just go and explore again, but this time with the specific purpose of finding mentor texts.  Again, it was great to watch the kids look at the books that we have had in our room all year long that often go ignored. It was also great to listen to the conversations that they were having about these books as they looked at them through the lens of writers searching for inspiration.

 

As children found texts that inspired them in some way, I asked them to simply grab a post-it note, write their name on it and list the reason(s) they wanted to use this book as a mentor text. Then we began to pile these resources together. Some favorite books became mentor texts to multiple children and some books were dug out of the bins that I never would have expected.

And I guess that is just it. When I do all of the selecting of mentor texts, I am the one who is controlling the image that develops of what informational writing can look like. But when I allow each child to select mentor texts that work for their own writing, then they are able to select the best resources for themselves as writers and for the kind of writing that they want to do.

Not only that, but this also gives me hope that my students’ learning will continue without me. When we can teach our students how to learn about writing from every text that they read, then the learning can go on whether we are there or not. And ultimately, that is what I want for my students.

By the end of the second day of searching, we had three bins filled with mentor texts. And we also had a chart where we summarized the differences between our sources of information and our sources of inspiration.  We will now begin to return to these sources as we put together knowledge of our topics with knowledge of how to be a better writer. I am excited to see where these mentor texts take us!

Fighting the Formula: Empowering Students To Make Their Own Writing Decisions

We have recently begun our study of persuasive writing. We are taking time to learn what we need to know about how writers can use persuasive writing to demand change in the world, before we use these skills to take action at the end of our inquiry circle studies.

To begin our work together, we worked on selecting audiences, the forms of writing that would best reach these audiences and the claims that we would make to these audiences that would explain the changes that we hope to make in the world.  Like last year, we began our work by looking at many different types of persuasive writing that exist outside of the school walls.   Too often, our students’ definition and image of what persuasive writing is begins and ends with a persuasive essay. In fact, outside of a school setting, the world is filled with much more interesting, purposeful, and passionate types of persuasive writing.  So to help us begin to expand our definitions, we look at advertisements, protest flyers, speeches, op-eds, letters to the editors and blog posts.  As my students begin to see the power of persuasive writing, they are better able to select the kinds of topics that are really worth writing about.

Yes, I still have students who write to their parents to ask for a puppy, but I also have students who plan to submit letters to the editor of our local newspaper in order to ask our local schools to stop separating P.E. classes by gender.  I also have students who want to write letters to congressman asking for reform in gun laws.  I also have students who plan to write to the heads of television networks asking for more diversity in their television line-ups.

I attribute this range in topics to our mentor texts.  As teachers, we have so much control over how our students view a particular type of writing. If we only share with them persuasive writing that is written for school, then they will only think that persuasive writing is done for school and for teachers.  If we only share with them persuasive writing about getting a new pet or about getting your own room, then they will only think that persuasive writing is used to ask for things for yourself.  If we only share with them essays, then their definition will only include essays.  If we only put before them the mentor texts that match the very narrow definition of persuasive writing that is expected on a standardized test, then they will only write as if they are writing for a standardized test.

And I cannot imagine that is really what we want for our students.

So I make sure, right from the start, to bring in mentor texts that expand my students’ definition of persuasive writing, not limit it.  And from there, I trust my students to make the writing choices that will help to make their writing feel meaningful and purposeful. I tell my students that I will NEVER tell them what to write about in writing workshop, no matter how much they might beg me to do so. Because the second that I take the choice away from them, I have set the tone, from the very beginning of a piece of writing, that this piece of writing is for me and not for them.

So once my students know what they want to ask for, they think of who has the power to make the change or changes in the world they are looking for. Then they think about how best to reach that person or group of people. Perhaps it is an op-ed, perhaps it is a blog post, perhaps it is a recorded speech that we upload to YouTube and then Tweet out the link to. Perhaps it is a letter to the editor that we submit to the local newspaper or perhaps it is a letter that we send to a company or a television network or a congress person.  This choice cannot be made by me because this choice must reflect the purpose of their writing. The students must, again, be in control of this choice or else they will not be making an authentic choice based on the purpose of their writing. Instead they will be making a choice based on what specific type of writing has been assigned for us to practice in fifth grade.

This does not mean that I just throw out our assigned curriculum. I will still teach my students what they need to know about op-eds (which happen to be the type of persuasive writing assigned to 5th grade in my district). However, I will teach about op-eds so that my students know about one possible choice that they can make when writing to ask for change in this world.  Everything else that is really important: making claims, supporting claims with evidence, finding multiple ways to support multiple claims, these things can be taught and applied to any type of persuasive writing. It must be up to my students to choose which type will work best for them.

And once they have all of this figured out, then we talk about how every writer has to have reasons for asking for what they are asking for. We go back to our mentor texts and pull out some claims that were made and some reasons that were given by our writers to show why those claims should be believed. I share with my students my own claim and the reasons that I have thought of so far as to why my claim is valid. I share with them how I think about what change I am asking for and how I am going to prove that this change is worth making. And I share with them how I create a quick list of reasons and how then revise my list until I am left with only the strongest ones and the ones that will not repeat the same ideas over and over again. And then I ask them to do the same kind of list making and revising in their writers’ notebooks.

While my students are busy working on their lists, I tell them that I am going to hand out their graphic organizer. And this year, in both of my classes, there was an audible groan.  It was actually quite loud. There was a collective hatred for the graphic organizer. I could feel it start to fill up the room. Until, one student saw what I was handing them and then word began to spread. “Hey! This is just a blank piece of paper.” And it was. I handed every child a blank, white piece of paper. There were no pre-drawn boxes, no circles, no lines to fill in. There was nothing on the piece of paper that I was handing out and yet I continued to tell them, “This is your graphic organizer.” And I felt them all relax.

Because I do not believe that my students really loathe the idea of planning out their writing. I do not believe that my students even really mind taking time to think about what they are going to include before they begin the actual writing. I think that many of them feel some relief once they know that they have their plan already made. I think that what they have come to hate are the boxes that we make them shove their writing into. Because, once again, this takes so much power away from our writers. When we tell them that their writing has to look one certain way. When we tell them that if their ideas don’t fit into the pictures that we have drawn, then they are not going to get to write about them. When we tell them our way of writing is the only way of writing. Then of course they are going to resent that.

And it just simply isn’t how writers outside of schools write. As we rely more heavily on mentor texts from the world outside of school, then we see that there are many ways to write. There is no one formula that writers in this world follow. Are there essential elements? Yes. Are there common structures? Yes. Is there always some system of organization? Yes. But writers make those choices based on what they have to say and we have to let our students make those same choices.  We have to fight the formula, by instead focusing on how writers in the world choose to structure their writing and then allowing our students to make the choices that best fit their own writing.

This is how we empower our students as writers. We allow them to make the choices that make the most sense for them and for their writing.

I shared with my students the way that works best for me to organize my writing. I told them that I start with my claim in a circle in the center of my paper. And then I make a simple web with lines and circles going out from the center. And I draw enough circles to contain the reasons that I have listed in my notebook to support my claim. And then I ask my students to create an initial plan for their own writing. I tell them that as we learn new ways to support our reasons, we will come back and add to our plans in a way that makes sense for us.

And then they get right to work creating their own plans. Making their own choices.

So they have their main claim, they have their audience, they have their type of writing and they have some reasons why they believe in their claim. And they even have the beginnings of a plan. And then it becomes SO tempting to hold them back from actually writing. I want them to know everything they need to know about good persuasive writing before they begin. I want them to know what they need to know about how best to begin their writing, how to support their claims in interesting ways, how to use statistics and stories and quotes and examples to prove that what they are saying is true.  I want to stop them before they write in a way that I don’t want them to write.

But if I do that. If I give in to that. Then I have lost some of the greatest enthusiasm that we will have throughout the course of our entire writing unit. Because once these worlds of possibilities begin to open up for them, they just want to jump in and start writing. So while I want to hold them back, I instead let them go.

We look at a few ways that writers begin their persuasive writing. We notice that even though they have been taught that they must state their claim in the first paragraph, the writing that we look at shows us that the claim CAN be the first sentence, it CAN be in the first paragraph, or it CAN come a bit further in to the piece of writing. I help them to identify strategies that our mentor text writers use instead of the words that they use to begin. When my students know strategies to begin instead of specific words to use to begin, then they are better able to chose a strategy that works for their topic and then truly make it their own. We create an anchor chart of the wide variety of ways that writers begin their writing.

Then I ask my students who feels ready to begin writing their own pieces of persuasive writing. Most students at this point raise their hands. And I trust them. I let them go. Those who are not yet ready, I pull together with me in a small group to find out what extra support they need. And soon, they, too, are ready to begin writing.

And I know. I know that some of this initial writing will be bad. Really bad. I know that some students will go off and write for ten minutes and say that they are done. I know that some students will quickly fall back into the formulaic writing that they have learned in the past.

And that has to be okay.

I can look at that and I can tell myself, “Look at how much better their writing is going to get!” And when students run up to me and tell me they are done, I work hard not to crush the excitement I see on their faces. I work hard not to jump in and point out all of the places that I see right away where they can expand their ideas.

Instead, I look at what they have written and I share in their excitement. I say to them, “That is so great! What are you going to work on next?” And, again, I have to trust them. Because there WILL be time to go back and revise these initial pieces of writing and make them so much better. There WILL be more time to learn new strategies. There WILL be time when I can confer with them and find places where we can support what they have said in a different and more powerful way. But we haven’t learned those things yet.

And that is okay.

There will be time for all of that. I trust that they will use what we learn together when they need to. They, the writers, must make the choices of when to use the strategies that we have learned. I will, of course, be there throughout the entire process to help guide them in ways to use what we are learning, but they will have to be the ones who make the decisions if any of these lessons are really going to stick, really going to matter.

And by the end of our study of persuasive writing, I know that each of them will have grown as writers. I know that by the end of our study, each writer will look back on his or her first piece of writing from this unit and they will compare it to their last piece of writing from this unit and they will see for themselves just how far they have come.

And they will know that the choices that we made, the ones that got them to where they end up, those choices were all theirs. They will own those choices. They will believe that they can make those choices again, even if I am not right there next to them. And THAT is empowering writers.

 

Inquiry Circles: My One New Thing for the New Year

This past summer, I was involved in a book study led by my incredible literacy coach. We read the book Collaboration and Comprehension by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels.  Since reading the book, I have been in love with the idea of using inquiry circles in my 5th grade classroom. However so far this school year, I have not been able to find a way to work them in.

Until now.

I always struggle with how to balance the things that I want to teach and the things that I need to teach. Need to teach because of the curriculum that I am given, need to teach because of the Common Core, and need to teach because of what I know my students will need as they move on past my classroom. I am incredibly lucky to work in a district and in a building that gives me quite a bit of flexibility. My principal is this amazing human being who trusts his teachers and believes that we will do what is best for kids.

And yet it is really easy for me to not try new things because I am afraid that it will not allow me to teach what I have to teach. Sometimes innovation suffers when we start to believe that there is no time to work new things into our curriculum.  But what I have found is that I usually just have to look at things differently. I have to look at what I am already doing, think about what is working and what is not working and then think about what I can do to help my students do better and to become more engaged with their own learning. I have to begin by really looking at what I am being asked to do and then think about how I can work in what I want to do.

In our district, our reading and writing curriculums are centered around comprehension strategies and genres.  In fifth grade, in reading, we are supposed to work with all of the major comprehension strategies but focus specifically on questioning, synthesizing, and determining importance. We are asked to incorporate several genres within those strategies. Specifically, we are supposed to focus on how readers use these strategies to read memoirs, news articles, historical fiction and science fiction. In writing, we are asked to spend time working in narrative, persuasive and informational writing. We are asked to specifically focus on writing memoirs, fiction stories, op-eds and informational picture books.

While we have been working the past few years to write units to go along with each of these areas of focus, I feel pretty lucky to be able to use the strategies that work best for my students and for me in order to cover the stated objectives and to meet the Common Core standards as well.

For that reason, I chose to start my reading instruction this year with a heavy focus on using texts as windows and mirrors. I also spent time simply laying the foundations for our reading community and getting to know my students as readers. I also took time to help students learn how to set reading goals for themselves that did not have anything to do with number of books read or number of genres read during independent reading and keep track of their progress towards these goals in their reading journals. This took quite a bit of time and led us all the way up to our Mock Caldecott unit (which is deserving of its own, separate, blog post).

That means that I have made it all the way up to January and still not started ANY of the three reading strategy units that I am supposed to teach this year. I have done a bit better in writing where we have already completed our narrative writing work in memoirs and fiction stories.  But, still, I have got my work cut out for me.

And then there is my love of this past summer. Inquiry circles.

You know how it is, you fall in love with an idea over the summer and then somehow when you return to school in the fall, the reality of all that you need to do sets in and you find yourself wandering further and further away from those summer loves.

But my love of the inquiry circle? That was no fling. That was an idea that I was not willing to let go of.

So what I now have to do is find a way to have my cake and eat it too. I need to use the things that I want to teach as a vehicle for the things that I have to teach. So over the past few days, I have been working on how I can use inquiry circles to teach two of my three required reading strategy units as well as one of my required writing genre units.

What I have settled on is this: throughout our inquiry circle work, I can easily integrate the standards that I need to teach for questioning, synthesizing and persuasive writing.

Here is my very, very rough plan:

My students will identify social issues that they want to learn more about.

They will form groups based on their shared interests in the issues.

They will learn to ask questions that will guide them towards studying specific aspects of their chosen issues.

They will work, as a group, to locate sources of information to help begin to answer their questions including news articles, videos, interviews and informational texts.

They will learn to ask questions as they read these sources in order to lead to further learning.

They will learn to synthesize new information within one text and across multiple texts on a given topic in order to grow and deepen their understanding of their chosen issue.

They will also learn to synthesize their knowledge with the knowledge of their other group members.

They will take their knowledge and use it to take some kind of action that will help create positive change in regards to whatever issue they have been studying. This action will somehow incorporate some form of persuasive writing.

In the end, they will share what they have learned and the action that they have taken with a wider audience of some kind.

Now here is the thing, the kind of big thing, I have absolutely NO IDEA what I am doing or how I am going to accomplish all of this. I have never done inquiry circles before. I have never tried to merge all of these reading and writing units together before.

But what I do know is that I am excited by the idea. I am excited by the possibilities. And I am excited because I know that this will be good for kids. Good for my students.

And it would be easy to just keep putting off my “something new.” It would be easy to let my fear of not knowing what I am doing or how this is all going to work out stop me from just getting started. So often I feel the need to have a complete vision of exactly how something is going to work and how something is going to look before I am willing to get started. I want to be able to see in my mind how all of the logistics will work out before I am willing to jump in and get started.

But one of the things that I love so much about inquiry circles, is that the kind of knowing that I am often looking for, is just not possible. Because in order to be able to plan out everything that is going to take place, I would have to remove the students from the planning. I would have to take out their needs and their wants and their interests. And what I love so much about inquiry circles is that the interests of the students are at the very center of the work we will be doing.

So while I feel like I am prepared to get started with our work, I am not at all sure where it will lead or how it will all come together. But I am putting my trust in my students. I am putting my trust in the incredible work of Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. I am putting my trust in myself to listen to my students and use what I know to help my students create a powerful learning experience.

As we start this new year, I will also be starting this brand new thing. I am excited to find out what lies ahead and I am excited to discovery it together with my students.

 

What My Students Taught Me About Fiction Writing

Each year, I save my fiction writing unit for the very end of the year. I dangle it in front of my students like some sort of reward for slugging through all of the other types of writing I make them do. I say things like, “We have to work on persuasive writing because otherwise we won’t have time for fiction writing.” I inadvertently make all other forms of writing seem like punishment or like the painful truths that we must get through in order to get to the good stuff.

But this year has not been every other year. This year my students came to me with an extremely bad taste in their mouths when it came to writing. This year, my students let me know on day one that they were not that interested in seeing themselves as writers.

Though I spent much of this past summer rethinking how to teach narrative writing. Though I found what I thought was an incredibly powerful way to look at learning how to tell your own story and seeing the power of sharing your own stories with the world, my students let me know that they just weren’t that interested.

What I did hear from them, over and over again, was the same one question, “When do we get to write fiction?” And in past years, I would have let them know that they needed to do all the other kinds of writing and then they would get to do the writing that they really wanted to do. In other years I would complain about the lack of enthusiasm for writing while consistently ignoring the very enthusiasm that I said did not exist. In other years I would have forced my priorities to be their priorities.  In other years I would have plowed through my curriculum and my sequence without listening to what my students wanted and thinking about what they needed.  In other years I would have known that I would run out of time and have to squeeze our fiction writing unit into the last few days of the school year. In other years I would have been just fine with all of that.

But this year, I needed to change. This year I refused to continue complaining about how my students didn’t see themselves as writers without actually changing anything about the way that I was instructing them to see themselves as writers.  This year I refused to let myself believe that I was not a part of the problem.

You see, I do believe that kids need to learn lots of different ways of writing. I believe that they need to see the many purposes that exist for writing and the many genres that go about meeting the needs of the writers in our world. I believe that children need practice in many forms of writing and I believe that if they aren’t actively engaged in writing pieces that span several different purposes and several different genres then they might miss out on the skills that they will need in their lives as writers beyond the classroom.

However. I do not believe that I need to continue teaching these purposes of writing and genres of writing in the same order every year. I believe that I need to be willing to adjust what I teach so that it meets the needs of the kids sitting right in front of me. It is part of the problem that I have with prewritten curriculums and also with only focusing on specific standards at set times during the school year. What should really guide the instructional choices that we make are the kids we are teaching at any moment in time and the things that they are telling us that they need.

And this year. My students were loudly and clearly telling me that they needed some fiction. They needed me to breathe some life into our writing workshop and that breath, this year, needed to come in the form of fiction writing. So while I had never actually taught a full fiction unit before (because, remember, it was always squeezed into the final days of the school year) I decided to move up my fiction unit and make it our second writing unit of the year.

So as our memoir unit came to a close, I began to think about what I wanted to accomplish through our fiction writing unit. I looked at our writing standards, I looked at the objectives for the fiction writing unit we are supposed to teach in fifth grade, I thought about what I knew about fiction in the world outside of school and I looked at what I knew about the fifth grade fiction-writing that I normally see and what I wanted to help my students to do. And I set out, with my students, to learn how to help them become better fiction writers.

And here is the biggest thing that I learned, while it may make us cringe to sometimes read the fiction that our students write (you all know that is true!), it doesn’t mean that we can’t help them to be better fiction writers. What my students helped me to learn this year is that their enthusiasm for writing fiction and their desire to write fiction are incredibly important in helping them to develop their writing identities. Their love of writing fiction and the work that they are engaged in as they write fiction are unbelievably important in helping them to see themselves as writers. Their final products may or may not still be cringe-worthy, but the excitement that they develop for writing is something that can not be captured with many other forms of writing.

So from the beginning, I knew that their final fiction stories would still not be perfect works of art, I knew that we could look at many mentor texts together, analyze what good fiction writers do, learn to use those strategies ourselves and then make our fiction writing better in some small way.

And that is what we did.

Mostly for my own benefit, and also for anyone else that might be at all interested, here is a list of our mini-lessons and mentor texts for our six-week fiction writing unit. Please note that some of these mini-lessons were spread over two or more days of writing workshop:

Mini-lesson #1: Knowing your characters on the inside and the outside

Mentor text: Pages 7 – 11 of the novel The League of Beastly Dreadfuls Book 1 by Holly Grant

 

Mini-lesson #2: Creating characters that are real and flawed, but that your readers will root for

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

 

Mini-lesson #3: Creating conflict for your characters (also incorporating the four major types of conflict found in fiction writing)

Mentor text: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

 

Mini-lesson #4: Resolution versus solution: The importance of pushing beyond a “happily-ever-after” kind of ending while still finding some peace for your characters by the end of the story

Mentor text: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis

 

Mini-lesson #5: Creating story mountains: Looking at typical story arcs and elements found in fiction

Mentor texts: The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat  and  Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and E. B. Lewis

 

Mini-lesson #6: The importance of setting: Creating images for your readers of where your story is taking place

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

 

Mini-lesson #7: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your characters to your readers

Mentor text: The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant. The excerpts that we used can be found HERE.

 

Mini-lesson #8: Choosing to use details that reveal something important about your settings to your readers

Mentor texts: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena and several other excerpts from picture books that we have read this year. These excerpts can be found HERE.

 

Mini-lesson #9: Showing both the internal and external journey that your character has gone on: Making sure that there is growth and change in your character

Mentor text: The Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena

 

Mini-lesson #10: Graphing the changes in your characters (This is a lesson straight out of the incredible book After the End by Barry Lane. Many of my mini-lessons throughout the year come right from this book!)

Mentor texts: Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt

 

Mini-lesson #11: Creating mood to enhance our stories

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead

 

Mini-lesson #12: Tinting setting details to reveal mood and emotion (Another lesson from After the End by Barry Lane)

Mentor texts: The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow and Lenny and Lucy by Philip C. Stead

 

Mini-lesson #13: Writing better dialogue by inserting character actions, character descriptions, thoughtshots (thoughts or feelings of characters), or setting descriptions (This is another After the End lesson).

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco

 

Mini-lesson #14: Writing better dialogue by using correct punctuation

Mentor text: Bully by Patricia Polacco

 

Mini-lesson #15: Revising our writing

Resource: Our fiction revision checklist can be found HERE. Students were asked to use at least THREE types of revision. Everything on this checklist is something that we learned how to do in this unit or in our previous unit on memoir writing. The number three was decided on together. I modeled this with my own writing.

 

Mini-lesson #16: Editing our writing

Resource: Our fiction writing checklist can be found HERE. The students must check for everything on this checklist. This list has been growing as we have learned new grammatical skills throughout the year.

 

Mini-lesson #17: Preparing our writing to submit to publications

Resources: This year, I showed my students three places where they could submit their writing if they wanted to. We looked at the requirements for each place and talked about how to prepare our writing to submit. I then took their submissions to the post office for them.  The websites that I used can be found on my class website HERE under where it says, “Places to Publish Student Writing.”

 

Mini-lesson #18: Sharing and celebrating our writing with each other

 

In addition to these mini-lessons, students met in their writing groups each week in order to celebrate successes, share struggles, ask for feedback or ask for advice. Each time before meeting with their writing groups, my students filled out THIS FORM to prepare. Their writing groups were the same throughout the entire unit so that the writing groups became familiar with each other’s stories.

In the end, I walked away with a stack of fiction writing to read over winter break. I also ended up with a classroom full of more enthusiastic writers. As our unit came to a close, some students had written three separate stories. Some students had not even finished one story. All that I asked was that by the end of our unit, each student turned in one piece of revised and edited writing. This writing didn’t have to be finished, they just needed to stop where they were and revise and edit before the unit ended. For some kids, I believe that these pieces of writing will be works in progress for some time.  I didn’t want anyone to rush the end of their story just because our unit was ending.

What mattered most to me was that each of my students learned the strategies they needed in order to write better fiction stories. They started writing after our second mini-lesson, even before they had created a full plan for their writing. This meant that much of their writing needed to be changed as they learned new skills. For some students that meant that their first story was pretty awful, but that their second and third stories got much better. For other students, I saw their writing improve throughout the course of their one long piece of writing.

And all of that was okay. Because what mattered most is that they were learning as they wrote. They were able to apply new skills and strategies every day as writers. I never forced them to use a specific strategy on a specific day, rather I trusted that they would use the strategies that they needed as writers, when they needed them.

And so, as I sit here with my stack of writing, I am fully aware that some of it may still be painful to read. And still. I know that I made the exact right choice for the writers who were right in front of me.

 

Why Do We Share Our Stories With the World?

The first few days tell me so much about my students. One of the things that I quickly picked up on is that the only purpose that my current students see for writing is that it completes an assignment. Simply put, they write because they have to. They write because we tell them to.

This is an exciting place to be because I have the chance to show them that there are so many more reasons to write.  I get to show them the power that writing can hold. It’s like I get to let them in on this really big secret that they haven’t had the chance to discover yet.

The first place we did this was with our student blogs. This year I am using Kidblog (yes, I am paying the now required 30 dollars per class). After a discussion on why we write, I told my students that I was going to add a new purpose for writing that no one mentioned in the course of our discussion. I added to our anchor chart that sometimes we write in order to share our thinking and our ideas with the world. I told them that often in school, students are led to believe that the only person who is going to read what they write is their teacher and perhaps their other classmates.  I shared with them that in actuality, there is a whole world outside of our classroom walls that is waiting to hear what they have to say. But, we need to go out and bring that audience in. And then I shared how we could do that with our blogs and by connecting with others on Twitter in order to find an audience for our blogs.

And the kids were hooked.

After writing our first blog posts together in class (you can find them here: https://kidblog.org/class/lifshitz/posts), I watched as blog posts continued to be submitted from home that evening and I watched the excitement grow as students trickled into class the next day to find comments from others waiting for them on their blog posts.

Giving them this purpose. Giving them a chance to share their voices with the world. It created an excitement for writing that I don’t always see from my fifth graders.

So the next day, when it was time to launch our first official writing unit, memoirs, I knew that I had to make sure that my students knew that there was as much purpose in this type of writing as there was in their blog post writing.  I began by sharing one of my new favorite picture books, Rufus the Writer, with my students. And then I began to talk about the POWER of sharing our stories.

And then I stopped and gave my students time to talk in small groups about why we tell stories from our own lives. I told them that as I walk through the halls in the morning and as I listen in on their conversations in class, I often hear them telling each other stories. I know that when they go home, they are eager to share stories from their days with their families. And I know that when they return to school, they are eager to share stories with me from their time at home. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to writing down our stories, so many children believe that they have no stories to tell. So I asked them to think about the stories that they are most excited to share and then I asked them to think about why we want to tell these stories from our own lives.

After giving them some time to talk, I asked groups to share out some of their responses as I gathered them on our anchor chart. Here are the two charts that we developed in my two different classes:

image3 image2

Their answers were incredible. As always, once given an opportunity to really think about WHY people in this world would do the thing that we are about to learn how to do, the kids came up with incredible meaning and purpose for their work.

Once we identified some of the reasons why we would tell our own stories to others, then it was time to begin thinking about the stories that we all have to tell.  This is typically where I see the most shutdown occur in the first few days of writing. The students who believe that they have no stories worth sharing, who would rather just write fiction (which we will certainly get to) and who do not see value in telling stories from their own lives.

I always struggle with why. Why am I forcing them to write stories from their lives? Why don’t I just let them write what they want to write? Why, other than because it is in our curriculum for 5th grade, do I always begin with memoirs? And then I remember. What I am telling them is what I truly believe. I believe that there is SUCH power in learning how to tell your own story, to control the message that is being shared about who you are, to be the one who is empowered to tell your stories to the world. And I want them to know how to do this. I believe in the purpose of this writing. I believe that each of these children deserves to know how to tell stories from his or her own lives because I believe these stories have the power to teach others. And so we march on.

I shared with my students some brainstorming that I did in my writer’s notebook to help me think of some stories from my own life and to begin to think about the reason that I might tell these stories.  Here is the work that I shared:

image1 (1)

I then asked the kids to create the same chart in their writer’s notebooks. I asked them to look at the list of purposes that we had created and use that to see if they had any stories from their own lives that matched some of the purposes that we listed.  And then, for some students, I watched them sit and struggle for ten minutes.

For so many of our students, they feel as if they have no stories to tell. That feel as if their stories don’t matter. They feel as if their life is not worth writing about. And I used to swoop in to save those students. I used to sit with those struggling students and ask a huge, long list of questions in order to spark ideas for them. But now, now I allow them to sit in silence. Now I am not worried if their pages remain blank for minutes at a time. Now I know that my job is not to simply feed them ideas, but rather it is my job to help them believe that their lives and their stories are worth writing about. And that there is purpose. So much purpose. In writing stories from our own lives.

At the end of our first day, I asked students to sit and talk with each other about some ideas that they had. I noticed kids who had struggled beginning to be inspired by the stories of others. I noticed that kids were talking about WHY these stories were worth telling. I heard kids beginning to talk about a bigger purpose for their writing than simply to fulfill an assignment. For other kids, this work is going to take much much longer. But I am okay with that. I am okay with the slow way in which this important writing work begins. I am okay with knowing that it is going to take some time before my students begin to believe that there is a space in this world for their words and ideas and writing. It is going to take some time before they trust that our stories are worth sharing.

So we will keep working and talking about the many purposes for writing and sharing and telling our stories and I am putting my faith in my students that soon they will understand. Soon they will begin to see the stories that they are surrounded by. Soon the pages of their notebooks will start to fill up. Soon there will be so much writing to do.

Merging Our Reading and Writing Instruction

As I have mentioned before, we, in my district, have the incredible privilege of working with Ellin Keene. She has been a literacy consultant for our district for almost the entire time that I have been working there. She has pushed our thinking in incredible ways and I am pretty sure that I have learned more from her about teaching than from any other single person. She has helped me to become a more student-centered, responsive, thoughtful, reflective teacher and every time I speak with her, I end up a better teacher than I was before the conversation.

This summer she has been talking to our district about changing our reading and writing workshops into being more of a literacy studio.  The literacy studio is something that Ellin discusses in her book To Understand.  While we are still in the process of learning exactly what this switch would entail, one of the biggest changes that Ellin talks about is a need to merge together our reading and writing instruction. She speaks about the time we are wasting and the damage we are doing by separating and compartmentalizing our reading and writing instruction as we have done for so long in our schools.

I am really struck by this idea.

I find real power in the idea that by fusing our reading and writing instruction, our children will stop seeing these two things as separate acts. Instead, they will be able to use what they learn as readers, in order to help them as writers.  And they will use what they learn as writers, in order to help them as readers. Plus, I think about the time we would save on our teacher-driven instruction and how much more time we would have for student-driven work time.

I don’t really know how this will happen in my own classroom. I don’t quite know how we will merge our instruction while still having to worry about the somewhat separate reading and writing curricula that we currently have. I don’t know how to do this kind of work while still honoring both reading and writing equally.

But I do know that I am excited to give it a try. I am excited to learn. I am excited to be more creative with the structures that I use in my classroom in order to create an environment where students see reading and writing as tools that can be used together in order to do important work in making this world a better place.

For me, the place that I want to start with this concept happens to fall at the very start of the school year.  In writing,  we begin with memoir and personal narrative. I have already written about how I want to use this writing unit to focus on the power of telling our own stories.

In reading last year, I began the year by taking the idea of making connections to our reading and pushing it further to look at how books can be both mirrors and windows for students. They can see themselves reflected in the books they read and they can also look into the lives of people who are vastly different than they are in order to gain understanding and develop empathy.  I wrote about that work here and here.

These units feel like the perfect place to start merging my instruction. While we are talking about writing our own stories, it makes so much sense to tie that into how we read the stories of others. While we are reading stories in order to learn how to see ourselves and see others, we can also use those stories as mentor texts for writing our own stories. While we look at how authors teach us about their lives through stories, we can talk about how we can use our stories to teach others about what our own lives are like. While we talk about how reading other people’s stories can challenge what we think we know about what life is like for other people, we can also talk about how when we write our own stories we can challenge what other people think our own lives are like.

There are so many possibilities. So many ways that we can connect these units. So many ways that we can merge our instruction so that our students see that the power of story is in both the READING and WRITING of stories.

I don’t know exactly how this is all going to look yet, but I know that there is something really powerful here. I am eager to get into the classroom, to get right next to my kids and figure it out together.

The Power of Telling Your Own Story

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” These words are spoken by the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her extremely powerful and popular TED talk titled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” 

I have watched this TED talk multiple times. The first time I watched it, I was simply in awe of the revelations that it led me to and the thinking that it caused me to do about my own perceptions of the world and why they existed in the way that they did. The next few times that I watched it, I was struck by its implications for the work that my students and I did with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and the need for diverse characters and books in general. But the most recent time that I watched it, I was taken by the way this brilliant writer viewed stories and how she viewed writing as a powerful act. It made me think about the power of our own stories. The power of writing our own stories. How empowering writing can be.

And that made me think, “How come my students don’t see writing their own stories that way?” How come my students see the writing of their own stories as little more than a school assignment? How come my students don’t see writing their own stories as a brave and bold act? How come my students don’t see their own stories as powerful?

And then I realized. It is because I have never taught them to view stories in that way. I have not taught them the power of a story. I have not shared with them that writing their stories can be powerful. You see, I get so caught up in teaching my students how to be good writers, that sometimes I forget to take the time to help them to see why we are writing in the first place.

Yes, when I teach persuasive writing or how to write op-eds, I explicitly teach my students how writing can be an act of defiance. How writing can give you a voice to make positive social change. How writing can draw people’s attention to what is wrong in the world and provide ideas on how to change it.

But I have never taught them that stories have that same kind of power. I have never showed them how people’s stories have helped change my own thinking about the world and have moved me to want to make changes. I have never shared with them the stories that I have heard and read that have made me want to do better and be better. I have never modeled for them how I have been able to tell my own story in order to help people better understand me and people who are like me.  I have never shared with them the power of telling your own story.

So I need to change that.

And this year, I plan on doing that through our first writing unit on memoirs.  By the time my students reach me in fifth grade, they have written dozens of small moment stories. And so, when I introduce our first writing unit on personal narratives and memoirs, my students automatically assume that they will be writing another small moment story. That is when our work as fifth grade teachers begin. We show them that this year, they are going to use all that they have learned while writing small moment stories and now they are going to write about the big moments in their lives. The moments that have taught them something or helped them to realize something or showed them something important about the world. We show them that a memoir includes not only the telling of the story, but then the author’s reflection on why that story mattered in his or her own life.

But this year, I want to change that just a little bit.  This year, I want to help my students to see that a story can do more than just share what the author learned or realized. A story, more importantly, has the power to teach others something important. A story, told well, has the power to teach readers about the lives of other people that are vastly different than their own. A story, told well, has the power to connect readers to a shared experience and make people feel less alone in the world. A story, told well, has the power to build empathy and understanding and thereby make others want to do better and be better. This is the power of telling your own story.

In order to start building this understanding with my students, I want to share with them the stories that I have read and listened to this summer that have helped me to better understand the complex issues of race that are so important to be understood. I want to share the stories of Clint Smith and Mellody Hobson and even of kids who are nearly the same age as my students and I want to talk with my students about what these stories help us to understand and why it is important that these brave individuals are sharing their stories.

And if I am brave enough (which I am not yet sure that I will be) I will show my students how this blog has given me a space to share my own stories with others. I will show how others have been able to learn about what it is like to be an LGBT teacher. I will show how sharing my story of coming out has allowed me to connect with other LGBT educators. I will show how sharing my story of what it is like to be gay has allowed others to think differently about privilege. It is hard for me to admit that my stories have power, but I know that if I am going to ask my students to believe this, then I must begin to believe it myself.

And then we will have the hard task in front of us of finding stories from our own lives that have the power to teach others something or to help others feel less alone. And I know this will be hard. The truth is that my students have only been alive for ten short years. Many of my students have had lives that are pretty easy. Many of my students don’t know what it is really like to struggle. But I don’t think that is the point. The point is that we all have something to teach other people and we all have stories in our lives that reflect those lessons. Our job, as writers, will be to find those stories and then work to share them with others in effective ways.  I will ask them to think about the following questions: What do I know that other people might not know? What have I realized about this world that might be able to help others? What do I want people to know about what it is like to be me? What have I gone through that I wish other people understood? What stories from my life can show those things to my readers?

I have no idea how all of this work will really unfold because I know that my students are going to have a lot to teach me. I know that I will have to model for them the way that stories can teach and inspire and connect. I know that I will have to model for them how I can find stories in my own life that can teach and inspire and connect others. I know that I will have to provide many opportunities for students to talk to each other about the stories from their own lives. I know many students will struggle and will instantly go to the, “But I don’t have any stories that are important in my own life.” And that struggle is kind of exciting to me. Because then this work becomes about way more than writing. Then this work becomes the work of helping students see that their lives are all important. That they all have stories to tell. That they all have the ability to teach and inspire and connect others through their writing. Then this work becomes about empowering our students and helping them to see how important their voices are to this world. Then this work becomes about helping each and every single child believe that his or her life and his or her stories have value and worth and the power to affect others.

And then, maybe, my students just might begin to see the power of telling their own stories.

Rubrics: What My Students Had to Say About Them

We are nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit. My students have been working for many weeks to learn about what good persuasive writing looks like and sounds like and even feels like. They have read examples of persuasive writing that are better than good. They have tried out new strategies, they have applied new skills when they have needed them and they have reached a pretty good understanding of what a persuasive piece of writing should include in order to make it better than good.

We have a few more weeks to finish up the pieces that we are currently working on and then it will be time for them to chose the piece of persuasive writing that they believe represents the best of what they have done and the best of themselves as  persuasive writers. Now, this is hardly the only time that my students have been assessed. I assess them everyday, they assess each other every day and, most importantly, they assess themselves every day.  I offer feedback in one-on-one conferences, in small group meetings, in whole class work time.  Students offer each other feedback as they have side-by-side conversations and small group conversations.  Students assess their own work every time they use one of our persuasive revision checklists and choose at least two ways to make their writing better.

So there is a lot of assessment and a lot of feedback going on.

But, towards the end of any of our writing units, I want to give the kids a chance to choose the piece of writing that they believe shows the very best of what they have to offer and I want them to use what they know in order to complete a formal assessment of that piece of writing.

The problem is always how to do this in a way that values who they are as individual writers and values what we have learned to do as writers in our classroom.  I have found that most of the assessment tools out there for teachers to use don’t often reflect the unique learning that goes on our classroom (or any other classroom other than the one that the assessment was created for).  And in the past, when I have created my own writing assessment tools, I have felt as if my students felt completely detached from them.  I would spend so much time crafting a checklist or a rubric and then I would hand them out all excited and I noticed that my students’ eyes would glaze over as I read through each bullet point on the paper in front of them.  And then when it came time for the students to use them to self-assess, they simply went down the list and checked every single item or circled the highest number on the rubric. They were meaningless.

So for the past few years, I have tried to get my students more involved in the assessment tool creation process.  At the start of the year, our assessments look pretty simple. For our narrative writing unit at the start of this year, our assessment was a simple yes or no checklist, but the students created the checklist so that it reflected what THEY thought was important to have in a piece of narrative writing. Here is what we came up with.

Before beginning our work on creating an assessment tool for our persuasive writing, I decided to begin with a discussion on the way that persuasive writing is often assessed in our district.  For years we have used the rubric that was created for the writing portion of our old state standardized assessment, the ISAT. There has not been a writing portion of the ISAT for several years now and, of course, this year there is no longer even an ISAT because we will be taking PARCC instead (this is obviously a discussion for another post, I do not want to waste the energy on that now). Anyway, I decided to begin by having the kids look at the rubric that is often used in our district and ask them what they thought about it.

As always, my students’ feedback was incredible.  My morning class began with a collective groan. They then got a bit more specific about what they were groaning about and said that they often felt sad when they had put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then discovered that it was only worth a 2 in the eyes of their teacher.  Some said that it was overwhelming to them and that it made them feel like they had to do so many things in order to get a good score.  Some kids did acknowledge that it was helpful for them to know exactly what they had to do in order to do well on a piece of writing.  Other students said that while it was helpful for them to know what they had to do, it also felt limiting. In my afternoon class, several students spoke about how it made them afraid to try something creative because they didn’t think that was what the rubric was looking for. Others said that they felt like there were many things missing, like a category for creativity, connection with the audience, emotions, relevance of chosen topic, etc.  And to me, the most eye opening comments were the ones that expressed that while the rubric that we use helped them to know how to get a good score on a piece of writing, it didn’t really help them to know how to create a good PIECE OF WRITING that would be read outside of the walls of our school. It was amazing how much they had to say.

At the end of both discussions, we decided that while this assessment tool was helpful in some ways, it really was more detrimental to our writing because it was missing some important characteristics and it made us feel limited in what we could try with our own writing.

So we decided to create our own assessment tool.

The first step in our creation process was for the kids to work together in small groups to create a list of all of the qualities of better than good persuasive writing that they could think of.  Here is one of the final lists that they came up with. In order to come up with this list, I asked them to think about all of the mentor texts that we have read, all of our writing strategies that we have learned, all of the work they had done and all of the work they had seen their classmates do. I asked them to think about what common elements existed in all of those better than good pieces of persuasive writing.  They added them to a collaborative GoogleDoc and I did some cleaning up at the end to merge some similar ideas and remove any repeated ideas.

The next step that we took was to get back in our small groups and to begin organizing these listed qualities into categories. The kids were free to have as many categories as they wanted and to create the kinds of labels for each category that made sense to them.  Here is one group’s work that is still in the middle of the process.  And here is one group that has finished with the sorting process.  It was so exciting to hear the kids having discussions about the kinds of categories that they wanted to see assessed in their own writing.

It was powerful for them to talk about the things that they believe needed to be in a piece of better than good persuasive writing. And what I found especially helpful was hearing that even though some of my students were not yet able to do all of the things that I would expect a fifth grade writer to be able to do, they still knew what things SHOULD be in a piece of persuasive writing in order for it to be better than good. It helped me to understand that while they might not be at the target yet, they know where they need to be heading.

This is a far as we have gotten in the process so far, but I have been so excited about it that I just had to put some thoughts down.  This week, I am planning to print out all of the organized qualities and ask the students to create a draft of a possible assessment tool. We will talk about how some groups might opt for a yes/no checklist, other groups might opt for a checklist with point values, other groups might opt for a rubric or other groups might simply opt for some form of written assessment.  I want the groups to think for themselves how they think we can best assess a piece of persuasive writing.  After the groups share their drafts, as a class, we will choose one assessment tool, or create a combination of several of the shared ideas, to use on our chosen pieces of persuasive writing.  The final assessment tool will be completed by the students on a piece of their writing that they believe best shows what they know as a persuasive writer.  As they complete these assessments, they will need to highlight and annotate where they find evidence for each descriptor in their own writing.

One of the things that is most exciting to me is that all of this work (in creating the assessment tool) will be taking place as my students are working on their final pieces of persuasive writing.  So they are going to be able to use these tools in order to make their current pieces of writing better, even if those aren’t the pieces of writing that they choose to assess formally.

It’s been great to hear the energy in the room as this work is being done and I am so excited to see what our final product will look like. I will make sure to share a copy here as well so that you all can see what we end up with.  No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much I wish that it was a little bit different, what I will know is that it is a true reflection of the learning that my students have done and a true reflection of what they believe is most important in a piece of persuasive writing. And that matters so very much.