The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 3)

One last post on how I have used mentor texts in my persuasive study in writing workshop this year.

In this post and this post I wrote about how I was able to use mentor texts to guide my students through a study of persuasive writing.  And somewhere along our journey, I realized that I had missed an incredible opportunity.  I had never asked the students to find their OWN writing mentors.  I realized that, for me, it is more important that my students learn to recognize the brilliance in the writing that surrounds them and then find a way to apply those writing strategies to their own writing than it is for them to learn the specific writing strategies that I find for them.  I want them to be lifelong learners and writers (we all say that is what we want) but I wasn’t teaching them strategies to learn how to become better writers even when an adult isn’t around guiding that learning.

So I decided I needed to transfer some of the power back over to my students.

And it was simple really. I prepared file folders with five different pieces of persuasive writing for each student.  These five pieces of persuasive writing were potential mentor texts for my students to discover.  While I LOVE the idea of releasing students into the world to find their OWN mentor texts that I have not selected for them, I didn’t think we were quite there yet and I know that persuasive writing mentor texts that are accesible for kids can be tricky to locate. So we started with some guided choice.  I gave them the five different pieces of persuasive writing and told them that they were going to have some time to find ONE piece of writing that spoke to them in some way.

Here are the pieces of writing that I included in each student’s folder:

1) An op-ed on making school start times later for middle and high school students

2) An op-ed on having healthy school lunch options

3) A speech given by a second grade student to her school board speaking up against too much testing

4) A letter written by a 14 year old girl to the LEGO company speaking up against a pink line of LEGOS for girls

5) A humorous and sarcastic op-ed about a ridiculous sounding, more convenient way to make a PB&J sandwich 

The first thing that I did is to give the kids time to just read the articles.  I offered to read the articles out loud to those who wanted to hear them read, knowing that some of the articles were too difficult for some of my readers. Some kids took me up on the offer, other kids chose quiet spots around the room to settle in and just read. There was a lovely feel in the classroom as the kids set out to read through the lens of writing craft.  Before sending them off, I told them that when I am trying to find mentor texts, I have to listen for parts of a piece of writing that make me feel something, that move me. I told them that today, they were going to try to listen to the parts of a text that moved them as readers and as writers. I wanted them to listen for ways of writing that made them think, “Hey! I could try that.”

After giving the kids time to read, we came back together and I told the kids that they were going to be in charge today of finding the strategies that authors used to support their claims and to make their writing more convincing.

I then had the kids form groups and I asked them each to choose a piece of writing to look at more closely.  I had them create the same chart in their writers’ notebooks that we had been using to look at the strategies that I had found in mentor texts in the previous weeks. They made the, now familiar, three column chart that included: text title, strategy the author used to support his/her claim, and example from the text where the author used this strategy. I told the kids that they would begin by rereading the article one more time, looking for the specific places where they saw the author using a strategy that we had not yet discovered in order to make his/her writing more persausive. I explained that they should then find a way to describe that strategy so that other writers could use it no matter what they were writing about. Finally, I wanted them to find the specific words that the author used that showed him/her using this strategy.  They were to record all of this on their charts in their notebooks.

And then I sent the kids off to work.  I wasn’t sure how it was going to go because the kids had never done this kind of work before. It is always a little scary releasing more power to the kids because you are never sure of what is going to happen.  But what I have learned is that the worst that can happen is that the kids don’t really know what they are supposed to do and then we would simply pull back together, do more modeling and try again. Most often, no one ends up crying, no one ends up hurt and we all learn a good lesson in the end.

But today. Today it was magical. The kids got it. They knew what they were looking for and they discovered incredible writing strategies.  They saw authors using humor and sarcasm, sharing memories, recognizing and refuting the other side of an argument, using one small object to stand for a larger problem, listing experts to build authority and credibility, and many other strategies that I would have never thought of.

That was where our work ended on day one. But I was so excited by what I had seen, that I knew we could go further. So the next day, we came back together and I asked my students if they would be interested in teaching the rest of the class about the new writing strategies that they discovered. In full disclosure, some students were NOT interested at all.  I want to be honest. While I was incredibly excited by the kids’ work, some of the kids themselves still didn’t see that these were REAL writing strategies. And that’s a battle that I still need to fight. After years of being convinced that teachers are the only ones who know how to teach writers new strategies, some students STILL don’t believe that they would be able to find the kinds of writing strategies that other kids might be able to use in their own writing. And I decided that this was not a fight I was going to win on this particular day. I knew that by watching other students take control and teach the class about what they discvoered, these still reluctant students would eventually come around. So the kids who were not interested, went off to work on their own writing.

But those who DID want to share what they had discovered (which was all but TWO of my students) went off to create charts that they could present to the class that would explain one of the writing strategies that they discovered. And over the next few days, it was my students who taught our mini-lessons. My students shared the pieces of writing that spoke to them, they shared the writing strategies that they discovered and some of them even went so far as to share how they planned to use these same strategies in their own pieces of persausive writing.

It was an incredible thing to watch.  The kids were such good teachers. They had so much to share with each other. There was so much learning going on. And the best part of the whole thing is that I was another learner in the room. I listened as my students shared with me writing strategies that I had never thought of before.

It was just one more reminder that amazing things can happen when we let go of the control and give our students a chance to lead. Asking my students to find their own mentor texts and teach each other from those texts is something that I want to continue to explore. If anyone has done work with this and is willing to share your knowledge with me, I would love to hear what you have tried and how it’s worked.  I have used mentor texts for several years now but have never really thought about giving the power of mentor texts over to my students. But now that I have seen what can come from that transfer of power, I can’t wait to try it again!

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about how I began this year’s persuasive writing unit by using mentor texts to get kids to think about WHY people in this world write persausive pieces of writing.  Once we had finished doing this work, the students began to choose a purpose for their own writing.  Once they knew what they wanted to convince someone to do or believe, then they thought about who their target audience would be, and finally, they thought about the type of writing that could best reach that target audience.  So while some students decided to write e-mails, others decided to write blog posts, others decided to write letters to mail, and others decided to write op-ed articles or letters to the editor to submit to local or national newspapers.

Because we were all writing different types of writing, in slightly different genres, I knew that my mini-lessons had to be more than just, “How to write a persuasive letter” or “How to write an op-ed.” So, instead, a large chunk of my mini-lessons focused on, “How do author’s support their claims?” Instead of looking at a genre specific study, we spent most of our time studying the many specific strategies that authors used in order to support the claims they were making.  Each time we read a new mentor text, we looked at one specific way that an author was able to back-up the points that he or she was making. After looking at how our authors did this, I was then able to model how I might use the same strategy in my own piece of persuasive writing (I happen to be working on crafting an email to our superintendent asking for 1:1 computing). And then, finally, I asked the kids to look at the plans that THEY had made so far and see if there was anywhere they might be able to try this new strategy out.

The plans that the kids worked on before writing were webs that they created in their writer’s notebooks. I have mostly given up on using graphic organizer templates since I find that they often stifle my students’ writing instead of enhancing it.  When I hand out ONE graphic organizer to every child, it seems to send the message that all of their writing should look the same and follow the same structure.  This just doesn’t seem to work for us. When we look at our mentor texts, we analyze their structure and we always notice that writers write in many different ways and use many different structures.  So instead of handing out a pre-made graphic organizer, I help my students to create their own graphic organizers that fit their needs and their writing topics.

Along the way, we talked a lot about how I would NEVER expect a writer (including any of my students) to use every single strategy that we uncover in one piece of writing.  Instead, they have the task at looking at their topics, thinking about their audiences and then looking for the strategies of support that would best work for them.  This is what would stop a writer who was writing about gun violence from using a strategy like humor or sarcasm. The strategy MUST match the topic.  So when I ask my students to look at their writing plans and think about if they could use a strategy or not, I really do mean that.  I do not want them using a strategy because they feel that they have to.  My expectation is that each writer is able to use a variety of strategies to support their claims based on which strategies work best for them.  This provides each writer in my room with a lot of freedom and independence. Each time I point out a new strategy in a mentor text, this becomes another tool in my students’ writing toolboxes.  They are in charge of selecting the right tool for the job each time they write.

As we analyzed a variety of mentor texts, the students had already begun work on planning and drafting their first pieces of persuasive writing. This meant that we were learning new strategies as the kids were already writing.  I used to wait until I had taught ALL of the strategies I wanted them to know before I allowed the kids to start writing their drafts. What this led to was a whole lot of time without the kids actually writing.  This year, I really shifted my thinking on this and realized that I needed to let the kids start writing and then trust that they would add in the use of the new strategies as we learned them.  And if a child finished his first piece of persuasive writing and didn’t use any of our new strategies to support his claims, then I had to trust that he would use the new strategies on his second piece of persuasive writing. And it was my job to help make sure that he would do that through conferences and small group work.  Putting this trust in my students has given them more time to write and has given more meaning to our mini-lessons since they are learning new things AS they are needing to use them.

Each time we read a new mentor text, we added it to our anchor chart along with the strategy that we saw the writer using to support his/her claim and evidence from the text that shows the writer using that specific strategy.  Here are the finished charts:

Chart 1Chart 2

These charts then hang on our writing board so that they become visual reminders of all the ways that the kids can support the claims they are making as they are writing.

So here are the mentor texts that I have used this year and the strategies that I focused on with each text.  Some of the texts are pretty old, but they are also too good to give up!

There is Only One Way to Stop a Bully — I used this op-ed to show how writers use examples to show how bad a problem is and also to show how much better the situation can become. We came back to this article when we were talkin about how writers use statistics to support their claims.

Save Our Streams (This comes from a Time For Kids writing kit and I don’t have a link for it) — I used this letter to the editor to show how writers use details to paint a vivid picture in the mind of the reader to show how bad a problem is and then to show how much better it could be.

Fifth Graders Defend Their South Shore Neighborhood — I used this op-ed to show how writers use specific examples to support the statements they are making.

Technology: How much is too much? — I used this op-ed to show how writers use their own personal life examples to support the claims they are making.

Too Much Homework, Too Little Play — I used this op-ed to show how writers use “if/then” statements in which they claim that IF you do what I want you to do, THEN these positive outcomes will occur or IF we continue to do things this way, THEN these negative outcomes will occur.  I also come back and use this op-ed to show how writers use quotes to support their claims.

The Value of Teachers — This is a pretty tough article to understand, but I use pieces of it with my students to show how writers use statistics to support what they are saying.

Using these mentor texts allows me to show my students specific strategies that they can use in order to make their writing better and in order to better support their claims.  In the past, I used to just tell my students that they had to back-up their claims, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. I used to tell them that they needed more support or better support, but I didn’t always give them specific ways to do that. Now, they have a variety of ways that they can make their writing better and their arguments stronger.  And the best part is, all of these strategies then become a part of our revision checklist.  As I have explained before, I use checklists in order to support my students in the revision phase of the writing process.  Here is what our current revision checklist looks like for this unit.  When students are finished drafting, they are expected to complete TWO items from this revision checklist in order to make their writing better. I have also become more flexible with when my students use this checklist. In trying to honor each individual writer’s writing process, I now understand that many writers revise AS they write and so I no longer require that my students use their revision checklists only AFTER they are done drafting. They are now able to use them along their writing process to help those who like to revise as they go and not wait until the end.

After spending so much time with our mentor texts, my students truly start to internalize the process of finding strategies that authors use and then using those strategies in their own writing. And because they start to understand this process so well, they are then ready to find their own mentor texts and discover their own strategies to teach to the class.  But that process will have to wait for another blog post because this one has gone on long enough and I am certain no one wants to read any more right now!

The Many Uses of Mentor Texts (Part 1)

There is no one single thing that has enhanced my writing workshop as much as using mentor texts.  Mentor texts have allowed me to show my students that the writing that we are doing in class, matches the writing that is done in the world outside of our classroom.  Mentor texts have allowed me to show students the many different ways that writers craft their texts.  Mentor texts have allowed me to fight the message that many of my students have received by fifth grade that writing should all look one way, use one structure, and use one set of rules.  And mentor texts have also allowed me to expose my students to specific strategies that they can use in their own writing in order to better affect their readers.

Essentially, mentor texts helped me to finally figure out how to teach kids to be better writers instead of just asking kids to write more.

But not until this year, have I realized that there are even more uses for mentor texts.  This year I have learned that I can use mentor texts to help show students the many purposes for writing. I also learned that I can use mentor texts to help empower students to seek out their own writing mentors in the world around them.

We are in the middle of a study on persuasive writing.  In the past, I have always asked students to write personal persuasive letters first (asking for something for their own benefit) and then to write op-ed articles (asking for something for the benefit of the world around them). This year, I took a different approach.  This year I began our study by bringing in a wide variety of persuasive writing from the world around me.  I brought in flyers that were distributed by Ferguson protesters to explain what it was they were asking for and why. I brought in a letter written by a young girl to Dick’s Sporting Goods asking them to put more women and girls in their catalogues. I brought in a letter written by a 3rd grader to President Obama asking for him to make stricter laws on guns.  I brought in an op-ed written by 6th graders that was published in a local paper asking for the school to increase the time of their lunch period. I brought in another op-ed written by 5th graders who live on the south side of Chicago writing to show people that they are more than just the violence that is often reported on the news.  I even brought in a letter written to Google by a child in crayon asking them to give her dad a day off.

I had the kids break into groups in order to investigate each of these texts.  I asked the kids to think about why each writer, or group of writers, wrote each piece they were looking at. I asked the kids to think about what target audience the writer was trying to reach, what the writer was hoping to accomplish with each piece and how the writer was reaching their audience. They wrote up their responses on a Google Slides presentation.

Before even looking at the CRAFT of these pieces of writing, I wanted the kids to just sit with the idea of the PURPOSE of each of these pieces of writing.  I wanted them to take time to think about the world outside of school and all the reasons there are to write a piece of persuasive writing even if no one tells them to do so.  I wanted them to see what motivates people to write outside of school. I wanted them to see that people are able to have their voices heard through the use of writing. Only then, did we start to think about our own topics for writing.

When students began to think about the writing that they wanted to do, I asked them to think about their target audience, what they wanted to convince their target audience of AND what is the best way to reach their target audience. This eliminated everyone feeling like they had to write a persuasive letter or everyone feeling like they had to write a blog post or everyone feeling like they had to write an op-ed article.  However, I was only able to ask them to think about this question because they had already seen examples of different types of writing that are found in the world.  They already had seen examples of how different types of writing will work best to reach different kinds of audience.  So if a child wanted to convince his mom to get him a new dog, it made more sense for him to choose to write a letter. But, if a child wanted to convince our country that we need to plant more trees, then it made more sense for her to choose to write a blog post or an op-ed article. Now, the type of writing was selected to match the purpose of the writing and not just because it was the type of writing that they were told to do.

What I noticed was that the topic choices seemed more genuine than they have been in the past. There was more urgency to write and there was more passion behind what they had selected to write about. Bringing in examples of so many different types of persuasive writing found in the world seemed to open up a world of possibilities for my students.

After topics were selected, then I needed to bring in even more pieces of persuasive writing to use as mentor texts to help my students to see HOW to write in a way that will allow their voices to be listened to and really heard.  As students moved through the writing process at their own pace, I wanted to help them to build a toolbox full of specific strategies that they could use to support the claims they were making, based on the specific strategies that we saw other writers using in their persuasive writing.  I will share that work in another blog post!

Technology: Another Tool in the Toolbox

I love a good blog post that makes me think.  This one did just that.  It was written in response to this blog post from Nancie Atwell. Both blog posts approached the topic of technology in the classroom, but in very different ways.  It made me stop and reflect on these past few months as I have worked to bring more technology into my classroom.  I should restate that, because it makes a huge difference.  In these past few months, I have worked to find ways to connect my students to the world they live in and empower them to have a voice in that world through the use of technology.  And I have seen incredible things happen.

Now, I firmly believe that there is no one right way to do anything (except maybe the one right way there is to eat an Oreo). If I were to say that there is only one right way to teach, then I would be as bad as the people who believe that one standard test is effective in measuring a multitude of different children. All I can speak to is what I have seen happen in my own classroom. But I believe these experiences are worth sharing because they are what allow us to arrive at the truths and beliefs that we hold.  The stories of our own classrooms are how we learn from each other and how we start to see things in new and different ways.  So here is what I know from what I have seen and what my students have taught me.

Several years ago, I switched from having my students draft on paper to having them draft on the computer. I was hesitant at first because I knew that, as a writer, I could only really draft on paper. I wanted my students to experience what I had experienced. What I loved about writing. I wanted them to know what it is like to hold a pen and open a brand new notebook and write for pages and pages and pages. I wanted them to know the satisfaction of writing over pages that have the imprints of the previous page’s writing on them.  This, to me, was writing.  And so the idea of drafting on the computer was not one that I was ready to embrace. Until I finally stopped and listened to the kids. They were telling me, very clearly, that for them, writing was different.  For them, writing meant drafting on a computer so that things felt less permanent and they were more willing to do the things that I was asking, and begging, them to do. To go back and reread what they have written and make changes and play around and try something without it feeling so permanent.

So I did it.

I made the switch.

And. It. Was. Remarkable.

All of a sudden, the kids were writing more than they ever had before. It was as if allowing them access to the computer for drafting, opened up doors that their writing had been hiding behind all this time.  And they were more willing to make changes. And they were more willing to try new things, even if they weren’t certain they would like them. And they were more willing to share their writing because they weren’t worried about handwriting anymore. It was amazing.

But revision.

That, in my mind, HAD to be done on paper.  Because, for me, I couldn’t accurately read what I had written from the computer screen. I couldn’t possibly mark places where I wanted to make changes without having a colored pen in my hand.  I couldn’t possibly digest what I had written and revise it while looking at a computer screen.

But then, last year, I remembered what I had learned from my first switch to the computer.  I remembered that I learned that my students and I, we are not the same people. Just because I was not able to revise on the computer, it didn’t mean that THEY weren’t able to revise on the computer. Just because I needed to hold the physical paper in my hand, it didn’t mean that is what THEY needed.  They knew what the needed.

I just needed to listen to them.

So last year, I gave the kids the option to draft on the computer. Using GoogleDocs, I was able to see the revisions they made. They were able to see the revisions they made. They were able to put things back to the way they were if what they tried wasn’t working.  They were able to share their documents with me and with the rest of their writing community and we were all able to offer feedback.  And I found that my kids were more willing to accept the feedback that I left as comments on a GoogleDoc than the red pen writing that I left up and down the sides of their paper.

And all of a sudden there was this incredible collaboration happening that I never anticipated. My students were using technology to create a stronger community of writers. Children were happily sharing documents with each other and this led them to talk about their writing and reflect on their writing. None of that ever happened when we were doing all of our revising on paper and then going back to make the changes on our computers.

And that was the next lesson that my students taught me.  Technology is about more than just word processing and sharing documents. Technology is this incredible tool that put so much power into the hands of the kids.  Technology opens up incredible possibilities than I never even dream of, but the kids figure out how to do. Technology allows them the freedom to try things out and to be unafraid and to follow their interests and instincts. Technology is this thing that I will NEVER be an expert in, but that I am lucky enough to have my students to show me how to use. Technology lets them work together and create new paths for themselves towards learning.

So what I first saw, was technology that allowed us to collaborate more effectively inside of my classroom.  And that was good enough for me, for a while.  And then came this year.

This year, I started to crave more for my kids. I wanted our learning to matter to the world outside of my classroom.  It’s one of the big reasons I started this blog. I found connections for myself online through blogging and through Twitter and I wanted to bring those connections to my students as well.

This year, we have learned to share our voices with the world through our blogs. We have written blogs about who we are and we have written blogs to ask others to help us with what we needed in order to learn in better ways.  We have written blogs about our reading and we have written blogs to share our writing. We have learned how to comment on people’s blog posts so that we can spark conversations in respectful ways. We have learned to read and learn from what others have to say. We have learned to read the blogs of people in far away places to help us put faces and lives to the stories that we hear on the news. We have learned to read the blogs of other people to build empathy for others and to understand that the way we live is NOT the way that everyone lives. We have learned that blogs are a way for people to share their stories and we have learned that blogs are a way for us to share our own stories as well.

These blogs have created a purpose for our writing.  It is not our only purpose, but it is one additional purpose. And just like some of my students get excited at the thought of writing an informational picture book for our first grade buddies, other students get excited at the thought of writing a blog post to publish for the world outside our classroom.  I am thankful that I have this new purpose to offer to my students because you just never know what purpose is going to suddenly make a writer out of a non-writer. And I would hate knowing that I missed an opportunity to spark a love of writing for one of my students because I was afraid to use a mode of writing that I didn’t fully understand for myself.

We have also used technology to enter into communities of learners outside of our classroom through Twitter. We have had Twitter chats about books and about inferences we have made in our books and about what our learning looks like with other 5th graders from across the country.  We have learned that we need to be able to support what we say with evidence or no one is going to believe us.  We have learned to ask thought-provoking questions in a clear way so that children in far away states are able to understand what we are asking and respond in a thoughtful way.

And we have reached out to authors and experts on Twitter. We have had authors respond to us on Twitter and it suddenly made us feel like authors were real people. It made us feel like we were a part of a global reading community. And that matters so much to us. Because now we are not just reading alone in our classroom, now we are reading in a great big world of readers. And it feels so much bigger, and better, than just us. It motivates us to read more and it motivates us to share our thinking about our books with others.  It provides us a real purpose for writing about our reading and writing about the thinking that we do about our reading. We write to share our reading with the global reading community that we feel a part of.

And all of this learning. This incredible learning. We would have missed out on it if we had not been able to have the access to technology in our classroom that has allowed us to do these things.  And my students would have missed out on all of this if I had not been able to realize that they were capable of things that I, myself, might not be capable of yet.  If I hadn’t looked at them and seen them for who they are instead of just as reflections of who I want them to be, I hate to think of what we would have missed out on.

I am certainly not saying that teachers who don’t do these things with their students are doing something wrong. I am not saying that teachers who are not connected to technology are bad teachers. I am just saying that I am grateful that I have been able to see what I have seen in my students these past few months. I am just saying that there is no ONE way to something.  Technology is another tool in our toolboxes as teachers. And it is an incredibly powerful tool when it is used the right way.  I don’t know exactly what that right way is yet, but I am grateful that I am on my way to figuring that out.

What is a Memoir and Why do Authors Write Them? Looking at Genre While Not Forgetting Purpose

After spending several weeks working on writing stories from our lives to give as gifts to people that are important to us, it was time to shift gears slightly and start to talk about memoir.  As I moved into a more genre focused unit of writing, I didn’t want to lose the work that we had already done in thinking more deeply about a purpose for writing over a genre.  I know that my district requires us to teach students how to write memoirs. I love writing memoirs. But I wanted to make sure that I was able to hold on to the thoughts we had started to develop about why authors write.  So I decided that we might look at memoir more through the lens of purpose than through the lens of the genre.

What I needed to ask the kids to think about then, was why authors wrote memoirs.  If we could understand the author’s purpose in writing a memoir, then we would be able to see how memoirs could serve a function in our own lives as well. Again, this seems like a really simple shift in thinking and yet I have not ever made it until this year.  So often, we focus on just the characteristics of a genre in writing.  We determine what characteristics exist in a memoir and then we ask the kids to write their own.  Again, we often forget purpose.  If I could help my students to see WHY authors write memoirs, then I think our task of writing memoirs would feel more authentic.

I figured that the best way to begin thinking about memoirs would be to start reading memoirs. So I launched our unit of discovery about memoirs by sharing with the students two pieces of my own writing.  The first piece was a personal narrative. The second piece told the same story as the first, however it was told as a memoir. I described a moment from my life and then I shared how the moment changed me and what I learned from that moment. I asked the students to do two things.  First I asked them to begin listing what they thought a memoir way.  Then, I asked the students to list why an author might choose to write a memoir. I gave them a chance to work in pairs, threes and small groups to build their lists and then we added their ideas to a class chart.

Over the next few days we looked at three other memoirs.  We read “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros and we read two stories from the incredible book of short stories, Guys Write for Guys Read.  After each story, I gave the students a chance to work with others to revise the lists that they wrote on the first day of our work.  As they revised their own lists, we revised our class lists as well. We tracked the changes in our thinking and understanding by using a different color marker each day that we revised our class list.

What was amazing to me was that at no point did I stop and tell the kids what the characteristics of a memoir were. And at no point did I stop and tell the kids why an author might choose to write a memoir. The kids were able to discover all of that on their own AND they were able to discover more than I ever could have possibly taught them.  By giving kids a chance to discover information, they instantly gained more ownership of that information and they were able to hold on to that information over time.

By the end of this week the students fully understood that a memoir is a story that is written about a moment in a person’s life.  The story includes not just what happened, but the writer’s reflections on the moment as well.  The writer is able to share with the reader what he or she learned or realized in the moment being described or how this moment changed the writer in some way.

And my students also understood WHY an author would write a memoir. After reading several mentor texts, my students were able to reach the conclusion that authors write memoirs so that they can use their own life experiences to teach their readers an important lesson that they have learned. They want to use what they have been through to help others. They hope that by sharing the ways moments have changed them or by sharing the lessons they have learned through these moments, they might be able to help people in similar situations.  As my students began to understand this new purpose for writing, their excitement for trying out the genre for themselves began to grow.

While we were working on these mini-lessons throughout the past weeks, the students were continuing to work on the stories that they had been writing for the people in their lives.  As their understanding of the genre of memoir began to deepen, I saw students begin to shift their own writing to reflect what we were learning about memoirs.  I never told the kids that they had to start trying to write memoirs, but many of them made this decision on their own.  This hasn’t happened in past years. I think that by allowing the students to reach their own understandings of the genre of memoir and by giving them a chance to reflect on the PURPOSE of writing memoirs, their motivation has grown and they are eager to dive into this new genre.

Yes. This work took longer than if I had just told my students what a memoir was and why we write them, but I just don’t think it would have been as powerful. The students would not feel as if they owned this new knowledge and they would still believe that they were dependent on me to give them the information that I know they are capable of gathering on their own. While I constantly feel short on time and while I constantly feel pressure to move more quickly, I know that my students deserve the time that it takes for them to take more ownership of their learning.  And seeing the understandings that they are able to reach and seeing how deep those understandings are, proves that resisting the pressure to move along too quickly is one of the best things that I can do for my students.

Revision Checklists

In a previous post, I talked about helping my students to become more independent writers by providing them with revision checklists to use to revise their writing. I talked about how I think that we, as teachers, are often quick to tell our students to go back and make their writing better, but we sometimes forget to give them specific strategies to help them to do this.  I have found that every mini-lesson that I teach to my students that teaches them a new strategy to use to improve their writing, is a way that they can go back and revise their writing. The problem is that when it comes time for revision, our students often forget all of the tools and strategies that they have at their disposal. So I began using revision checklists as a way to help students remember all the ways that we have learned to make our writing better.

For each unit of study that we do, our revision checklists change. And our checklists grow throughout the unit. At first, there are only two or three items on the checklist, because I do not add an item to our checklist until we have spent several lessons learning a new strategy or technique.  I introduce the new strategy, we often look at how our mentor authors have used the strategy, I model using the strategy in my own writing, there is guided practice using the strategy and then the students try the strategy in their notebooks independently. Only then do I add the strategy to our revision checklist. So the checklists start out small and grow as our knowledge grows.

The students have a lot of freedom over when they use the checklist. For most students, they like to use the checklist at the end of their writing process, after they have finished writing what they have to say.  However, there are students who prefer to revise as they go and that is just fine with me.  The only thing that I ask is that they give their writing a chance to be re-seen by their own eyes at some point during their writing process.  This means that I expect each child to reread and revise at some point throughout their writing process, but do not limit the students in when this needs to happen.

The number of revision checklist items that each child uses is also up to the individual child. By the time our checklists are fully grown, I recommend that each child uses at least three strategies on a piece of writing, but this is just a suggestion and I trust the children to use the number of strategies that is right for them. Often, as I confer with students, I ask them to show me where and how they have revised a piece of writing. If I notice that they are not using the strategies we have learned to make their writing better, then that becomes the focus of our conference and we find ways together to use the revision checklists more effectively.

The revision checklists have helped me to help my students to become more independent writers. It certainly does NOT mean that my students all jump up and down at the thought of revision. Nor does it mean that all of my students complete pieces of writing that are flawless. Nor does it even mean that none of my children write in ways that continue to baffle me and make me wonder if I am teaching anyone anything. But it does mean that the students know ways that they can make their writing better. It does mean that they know that revision is more than just changing lowercase letters to uppercase letters.  And it does mean that they know that they can revise their writing even if I am not sitting right there with them telling them what they should do. And for me, that means a lot.

After my last post, a few people had asked to see the revision checklists that I have used. I am happy to share them and will include links to the GoogleDocs that contain last year’s revision checklists on them. However, I am not sure how helpful they will be to people since many of our strategies have strange names that might not make sense to anyone other than me and my students. The checklists I use change every year depending on the mini-lessons that I teach which depend on the needs of the students sitting in front me. However, I do think that sometimes it is just helpful to see what other teachers are using. So I am happy to share. But please feel free to ask any questions about the many things that you will see on there that probably don’t make any sense!

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our memoir study. 

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our persuasive letter writing study. 

Here is the revision checklist that I used last year for our informational picture book study. 

I hope these checklists are just a little bit helpful for anyone looking for ways to help their students to revise!

Breaking Their Dependence on Us

One of the things that I have worked hard to do this school year is to give more power and control to the students in my classroom.  One of the things that has surprised me the most is how much my students have struggled with this.  I did not anticipate that my students would push back on being given more control, more responsibility for their own learning, and more power over what they learn and how they learn it.  But, like so often happens, my students showed me that there were things that I just didn’t understand.

In the past, I have had students turn in a draft of their writing after they had done a round of revisions on their own. We have used a revision checklist in the past that lists all of the strategies that we have learned through our mini-lessons and they were responsible for choosing the strategies that they thought could help them the most to make their writing better. They made these changes to their writing and then turned in their work.  Then, I would sit with each of them and have a revision conference. I would look at the changes that they made, notice the work that I had seen them do and then suggest additional changes that might make their writing even better.  Then they would make one more round of revisions and call their writing finished.

It worked well. The revision checklist gave them concrete ways to make their writing better and our time spent conferring was a wonderful opportunity for me to notice what they were doing and push them even further.

But this year, as I started to allow my students to lead more often, the system that I had put into place in the past just didn’t quite feel right.  At first, I wasn’t sure what it was about the system that wasn’t working for me, but as I thought more about it I realized how much power that gave to me in deciding when a piece of writing was finished and when a child was ready to move on to another piece of writing. It gave the students very little control over these decisions.

So I made a change.

This year, my students are still encouraged to use the revision checklist. I think it helps them, in a very concrete way, to know how to make their writing better. I think that we often tell them to revise, to look for ways to make their writing better, but we don’t often tell them how they might do that. So, for us, the checklist helps. So we will continue to use it. But, what will be different is that after making revisions, the students themselves will decide when their writing is finished. And because their writing has more purpose this year, they will decide when they are ready to move ahead with the purpose of their writing. So for this unit, they will decide when they are ready to print off their stories to give to the people in their lives who they are writing them for.  And when they are ready, they will move on to their next piece of writing.  And if they are working on a story and they feel like they need a break from it, they will leave it and go work on a new story. Or, if they are stuck on a story, they will stop working on it and start another one, knowing that they can always come back to their story when they are ready.

At first this new plan made me feel like I would not be able to get to the students in time to help them. However, when I just jumped in and tried this new system, I realized that it was the exact opposite.  I am now able to confer with students when they need me most, while they are drafting their stories or while they are working on their revisions.  In the past, I mostly met with students after they had already decided that they were done with their writing. Therefore, it often made it meaningless to discuss their writing and potential changes. They made the changes I suggested simply because they felt it was what I wanted.  In their minds, they were already finished. This year, I am meeting with the students at a variety of points throughout the writing process and I am able to better help them with the writing while they are in the thick of it.

It’s been wonderful.

Except when it hasn’t worked.  And here is the biggest thing that has stood in my way: the kids.  I know that sounds harsh, but it is true and it is not their fault. At all.  We did this to them.  Our students have been trained to believe that a piece of writing can’t be finished until a teacher has given his or her stamp of approval. They believe that a piece of writing doesn’t have much worth in this world until a teacher tells them that it is good enough.  We have created these beings who are so dependent on us and then we lament the fact that kids often don’t work to solve their own problems without us.  We made them this way.

Every time I told a child that he needed to turn in a piece of writing and meet with me about it before it could really be done, I was telling that child that I did not trust him to know when a piece of his own writing was finished. Every time I insisted on offering one final suggestion, I was telling that child that I didn’t believe her writing should go out into the world until I helped her to make it just a little bit better.  I created children who believed that they needed their teacher to check their writing because they could not be trusted on their own.

So I should not have been surprised when my students this year struggled with what I was asking them to do. When they told me they were finished and I told them to start their next piece, they were confused why I wasn’t going to check their work. They were confused how they were supposed to know if they were really done. They were confused with how to move on without the approval of their teacher.

And I had to remind them that I am indeed here to check their work. I notice their successes and I help them find strategies to deal with their challenges. But now, I can do that throughout the writing process and I can put more of the power into their hands to know when they have done all they can do at that moment with a piece of writing.

As I learn how to better give power to my students, they are learning how to take that power and to be okay with it. As I learn to trust them with more, they are learning to trust themselves. These lessons that we are all learning, they are important and they matter. They might not be the lessons that I thought I would be teaching in writing workshop, but sometimes those are the ones that turn out to be the most life changing for all of us.

That One Student

I assume we have all had, “That one student.” That ONE student who you just couldn’t reach. That ONE student who just couldn’t see how smart he really was. That ONE student who hated school no matter what you did to make her happy. That ONE student who was not going to enjoy reading or writing or whatever it is you teach no matter what you did.

Well, my one student turned up pretty early on in the school year.  He spent most of the first few days of school drawing elaborate robot characters on post-it notes.  He didn’t say much as we took our turns opening up and sharing ourselves with our classmates.  And he didn’t seem excited about the things that the rest of the class seemed excited about.

And then our big moment of truth came on the day when the rest of the class began writing their very first stories of the year. As I have explained before, I spent a lot of time rethinking our first writing unit this year. We are working on writing memoirs, but this year, I worked really hard to make sure that the work that I was asking the kids to do was meaningful and purposeful. So I asked the students to write these stories as gifts to give to people in their lives. To show these people what they meant to them.  The kids were really excited. I could feel the energy in the room as we began to brainstorm possible ideas to write about and possible audiences to give this writing too. Everyone was eager to begin.

Everyone, except my one student.

As the rest of the class was happily brainstorming ideas and chatting excitedly with the people around them about their possible story ideas, my one student sat quietly, with his head down, staring at an empty page.  When I first noticed this, one of our special ed teachers was talking quietly with him, so I kept my distance for a while.  After a few moments, I headed over to see what was going on.  As I sat down next to my student, I noticed that his eyes had now started to fill with tears.  I asked him what was going on and he looked at me and said, “I just hate writing. I hate writing in school because nobody ever lets me write fiction. I love writing fiction. I hate writing true stories.” He was so earnest. He was not at all disrespectful. He was telling me his very honest truth and he was waiting to see what I was going to do with it.

And my honest truth was that I had no idea what to say to him.

The stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious teacher in me wanted to say to him, “Well, I am sorry that you feel that way, but we are working on memoirs right now and so that is what you need to do.” And, if I am being honest, I was REALLY close to saying just those words. I would have said them nicely. I would have smiled at him when I said them. I would have used a tone that would have showed that I was understanding and kind and still loved him.  But I would have said them.

Had I not spent all summer thinking about, reading about, and hearing about how important it is to value what our students have to say and to allow them to follow their passions, I would have told him that he has to write memoirs because that is what we are all working on and it is my job to help him to be a better writer in a variety of genres. That is what I would have told him if I hadn’t already, very boldly said on this very blog that I was going to be a different kind of teacher this year.

So I knew I shouldn’t say what I thought about saying, but I honestly didn’t know what I should say.  So I was honest and I told him that I was going to have to think about what he just said. And he spent the rest of our writing time, staring sadly at his paper. That night, I wrote his mom an email, just letting her know what had gone on and telling her that I was going to find a way to honor his voice and his passions, but I just wasn’t sure how yet.

His mom wrote back such a beautiful email about how her son was coming off a fairly bad school year. He had spent a year feeling as if his gifts weren’t valued in the school setting. She explained how creative he is and how imaginative he is and how worried she is that her son has started to hate school. She spoke of the many gifts that she sees in her child and how she just hopes that he can find a way to use these gifts at school. She also told me that she spoke to her son and they brainstormed a list of story ideas together for our memoir unit because he told her that he was just upset that he had disappointed me.

I cried.

And then I thought about what I could do to help this boy love to learn again. And I thought about what everyone has said about Google and about 20% Time and Genius Hour and Passion Projects.  The truth is, these are not things that I have been able to work into my classroom yet. I am just not there yet. I brought on a whole lot of new this year and I needed to get my feet wet a bit before I moved over to Genius Hour. But as I thought about the concept, I thought about how perfect it was for this student.

I do believe that it is important for students to learn how to write the stories of their lives.  I believe that if we are to tell our students that their lives have value, we also need to help them learn how to share the stories of their lives with others in a meaningful and powerful way.  So I want him to learn these lessons. I want him to learn how to write true stories from his life because it is a simple way for this middle child of SEVEN siblings to feel heard and valued and that is important to me. So I want him to write these stories with the rest of us.

But there is also space in our writing workshop for him to follow his passions and write what he loves.  Of course there is room for both.  There has to be room for both.  And so, Fiction Fridays was born.  This is something that I will allow all of my students to take advantage of eventually. But for now, this is just for him.  Every Friday, he will get to write a part of his fiction story and publish it to his blog.  He will be in charge. I will stay out of his way and just let him write. I will not correct his spelling or his grammar or tell him what he should change or add (unless he asks for my help). I will just let him write.

Last week, I presented this plan to him and his face instantly lit up. He smiled in a way that made me certain that I had gone in the right direction. And after he knew about Fiction Fridays, he was infinitely more willing to work on his memoir every other day of the week. He was even able to weave his creativity right into the writing of his true life story. It was beautiful. And when we got to Friday, he had time to begin his newest fiction story. He wrote about a Golem.  It was only a few lines, but he was happier during those moments of writing than I had seen him in all the first days of school combined. And when he published it to his blog post, he was just so happy. And so proud. And he was, in every single sense of the word, a writer.

And when I reached out to the lovely, lovely people on Twitter to possibly read and comment on his writing, they did. So beautifully. I would say that they have no idea what their comments are going to mean to my one student, but that would be unfair.  Of course they know what their comments will mean. That’s why they wrote them.  Because they are good and kind and they know what their feedback will do for this child. And I thank them from a very, very deep place.

So already, this boy, this one student of mine, has taught me so much about being a teacher. He has taught me what can happen when you allow a child’s voice to be heard in the classroom and what can happen when you step aside and let a child lead. I am so grateful to him and what he has taught me and I cannot wait to see what else he will show me this year.

This one student of mine. He is a special, special kid.

If you might be interested in checking out his writing and perhaps even leaving a comment, you can find the first installment of his story here: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzPMClass/8af761eb-7605-4f28-8b60-c36868c495fb/not-hump-day/

A Slight Change in Focus Makes a World of Difference

It is astounding to me how quickly and dramatically my free time goes away as soon as the school year begins. All of a sudden those extra hours in the day are no longer available. These first days of school require a different kind of lesson planning as I try to figure out who my students are and what they need from me.  And so, I am living pretty much day by day in the classroom and in the evenings there seems to be an endless list of tasks to be accomplished for the next day.

All of this is to say, it’s been a while. It’s been a while since I carved out enough space for myself to sit and think and reflect on this blog.  I have missed it and I have needed it.

So here I am.

This school year has brought so many new things to me and to my students. Some of them have been huge, like blogging and using our class Twitter account. Those are the obvious changes. The things that visitors notice right away.

But then there are other things, less obvious things. The subtle changes that are actually the ones that make the most difference. These are the changes that are not observed right away by others. These are not the changes that I am getting emails about or hearing students get excited about. These are the changes in my focus. These are the changes in my ways of thinking. These are the slight changes that are making a world of difference.

The biggest small change for me has been my change in focus when thinking about how I am teaching my students. I have changed from thinking of content as a checklist of items that I need to deliver to my students, to instead thinking about what purpose that same content can have in my students’ lives and looking for ways to use our required content to teach them the things that they will need to be better human beings in the world outside of my classroom.

One of the places where this change in focus is making a huge impact is in our writing workshop.  Usually I begin the year with the kids by working on writing personal narratives and memoirs. These are genres that are assigned to fifth grade in my district, so I teach them. Because I am supposed to. And I have done a fairly decent job of that in the past. We have looked at loads of mentor texts, talked about slowing down moments, including snapshots and thought shots (thank you Barry Lane), writing so that our readers feel the emotions present in these moments of our lives, etc. And the kids do a wonderful job and I start to see them becoming increasingly proud of their writing.  And all of that has been wonderful.

But then this year, I stopped to ask myself, “What purpose does this kind of writing have in their lives?” It is a question that has become the starting point to all planning that I have done this year. This question has taken center stage as the most important question in helping me to decide how to teach my students. “What purpose will this have in their lives?” And no longer will I be satisfied with the answer, “It will help them to do things later in their school lives.” That is not enough for me anymore and it is certainly not enough for them. Our students deserve more. They deserve to learn things that will have true meaning and true purpose in their lives.

So I was struggling over the summer with this notion of what purpose memoirs really serve to my students. And then one day the answer came to me in a most unexpected way (as it usually does). My mother had been cleaning out the basement of her house, which also was my childhood home.  One day I brought my daughter over to visit my mom and my mom told me that she had found a true gem that she wanted me to look at.  And then she pulled out a yellowed bunch of papers that had been clumsily stapled together. The papers were filled with photographs and writing. As I sat down to investigate the papers further, I saw that the handwriting was my own. I had written this book. I quickly realized that I had written this book for my mother as a Mother’s Day gift and she had kept it all these years because it held so much meaning for her.

Bingo.

Our writing can be a gift that we give to other people to show those people what they mean to us. And those stories, those personal narratives, those memoirs, can be some of the most meaningful and powerful writing that we can do and some of the most meaningful and powerful gifts that we can give.

So this year, my first writing unit is not on personal narratives and memoirs, but instead it is on how we can use our writing to give stories as gifts to the people who matter to us in our lives. And all of a sudden our work feels more meaningful and more purposeful. And even within these first few days, the work that we are doing feels more exciting and more urgent and I haven’t even had to remind my students that we should think about our audience when we write because they have been thinking about their audience from the very beginning. Because with this simple shift in focus, they are no longer writing for me, they are writing for the people in their lives who mean something to them. And it is amazing. Because, so far, I have not heard one child say, “I don’t know what to write about.”

I feel as if I am constantly struggling between wanting my students’ learning to be self-directed while also feeling like I have a responsibility to meet standards set for me and for my students by the district and beyond. So sometimes it becomes simply a matter of finding the right way to use the standards set for me in a way that will serve real purpose and meaning in the lives of my students.

And it isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than what it was.

Reimagining The First Reading and Writing Units of the Year

This summer has already been more reflective than any other summer I have lived through. This turns out to be not the best timing since I am spending my days with a VERY active 18 month old child who mostly wants nothing to do with reflection. In other words, there has not been a whole lot of sitting still this summer.  And though this leads to a sort of exhaustion that my body has previously not known,  most nights it is hard for me to fall asleep because my mind just won’t turn off.  I am constantly reimagining the kind of teacher that I want to be in the Fall.  I am reimagining what my first few days of school will look like, what my classroom will look like, how I will greet the kids and for the past few nights I have been kept awake by thoughts of our first reading and writing units.

As I have shared before, I have reached a dangerous place in my teaching career.  I have figured out how to teach a lot of what I have to teach and I have been able to do it in a pretty successful way.  And last year, that lead me to a dangerous place.  I didn’t change a whole lot.  I settled for what had worked in the past, even when I knew things could be better.  I don’t think that I harmed any children in the process, it’s just that I know I could have done better.  So this year, I want to do things in a more meaningful way.  I don’t want to change things for the sake of changing things.  I want to make them better, more purposeful and more authentic.

Every year, our writing workshop starts with personal narratives and memoirs.  Our reading workshop begins with understanding how to make connections to texts beyond just making connections to make a teacher happy.  We spend a lot of time discussing and learning how to recognize connections to our texts that truly lead to deeper understanding, especially when we have little shared experiences or prior knowledge to go along with the text we are reading.  We then spend time learning how to effectively write about these connections and discuss these connections with others.  And every year, these are great units.  There is a lot of deep discussion. These units allow me to get to know my students better and they build reading and writing communities that sustain us throughout the year.

But I have started to do a lot of thinking about all of the opportunities that I have been missing with these units.  I believe that the lessons are important, but I believe that we can make our work more authentic and meaningful.  Here are some of the things that I have been thinking.

I want to turn our “connections” study into a study of how literature and non-fiction texts can serve to be both “windows” and “mirrors.” This is a concept that I, as a teacher, have read a lot about and thought a lot about and I think it could provide interesting learning for us as a class.  I want to take a look at how texts can be “windows” into people’s lives who are vastly different than our own. I also want to take a look at how texts can be “mirrors” which reflect our own lives and allow us to feel connected to a larger world and larger communities.  I want to ask my students how texts have been both windows and mirrors for them.

To help get the conversation going, I want to share the book “In Our Mothers’ House” by Patricia Polacco with my students.  The book is about a two-mom family with three adopted children.  The book tells the story of the family and the community that they live in.  The vast majority of the community welcomes the family as they would any other family. And there is only one woman who does not want her children to play with the children of the two-mom family.  I read the story with my students each year, but I think that I could do more with it. That is, if I am willing to make myself vulnerable (which I happen to know, always leads to the best learning experiences).

I would like to talk to my students about the reason that I love this book. I love that this book acts as a “mirror” for my family.  I see myself in the characters of the two moms and I see my daughter, Millie, in the characters of the kids.  And even more importantly, I love knowing that when Millie gets older, she, too, will be able to see herself and her own family reflected in this book, which will not be the case for the majority of books that she will read (though this is starting to get so much better).

I also want to share that this book acts as a “window” for me.  It allows me to see into the lives of people who might not accept my family or who might pass messages of intolerance onto their children.  While I wish people like this didn’t exist in the world, this book allows me to see into their lives and understand the power of their hate.  It also allows me to see into the lives of the many supportive families that exist in the world and understand that though hate is powerful, a community that accepts those who are different will always be able to overcome that hate.

I want my students to know that books are “windows” and “mirrors” for me.  I believe that this will allow them to start to talk about how books are “windows” and “mirrors” for them as well. I would like to wrap our discussion of connecting to texts into this discussion.  I want to show them that connecting to texts can make us feel less alone in the world.  It can make us feel valued and worthy. It can unite people and teach people. It can help us to understand the characters whose lives we are reading about.  And it can also help us to build empathy for those we might not understand.

From there, I would like to guide my students into an investigation of the books that we are reading.  I want to look at the types of people who are reflected most often in these books. I then want to look at the type of people are NOT being reflected in the books that we read.  Whose stories are NOT being told? I imagine that my students will start to see holes and gaps in the types of characters that we are reading about and those who we are not reading about.  I imagine that they will start to feel the injustice of this situation and I hope that they will be moved to some sort of action. But that will be up for them to decide and discover.

As we do this work in reading workshop, I would like to connect our work in writing workshop. I would like to talk about how, as writers, we are given the power to share our stories with others so that we can make people feel less alone in this world.  When we write our own stories, we are reflecting who we are through our writing.

This year, as I have mentioned, I hope to begin blogging with my students.  I believe that this will provide the perfect audience for the first pieces of writing that I want to do with my students.  I hope to share with them that as bloggers, our writing reveals who we are to the world.  And the first stories that we will be writing, will be posted on their blogs, to begin to show the world who they all are.  With that purpose in mind, I will guide my students in selecting moments from their lives that reveal something about who they are.  These are the stories we need to share.  These are the stories that demand to be written.

I am also thinking that once we start to discover whose stories are NOT being told, we might be able to do some fiction writing (which we never do enough of in the upper elementary grades). Perhaps we can begin to look at whose stories are missing from our libraries and begin to create fictional stories that introduce more characters that will allow more kinds of people to see themselves reflected in books.

I guess I wrote this post more for myself than for anyone else. I can’t imagine it would be interesting for anyone else to read.  I just needed to get some of these plans down, so that perhaps I can actually start to fall asleep again at night! I know that these plans will change.  I know that I will be guided by my students and I also know that I have to start somewhere.

If anyone should happen to read these ramblings, please feel free to leave suggestions as a comment.  I am so eager to hear other people’s ideas and to learn from the things that others have already done.