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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Test Prep That Makes Sense

Thanks to Lester Laminack's Facebook page for this cartoon

While presenting at the New England Reading Association conference a few weeks back, a colleague of mine and I facilitated a seminar on the power of using mentor texts in your writing workshop (click here for a link to our handouts from the session).  We shared ideas for minilessons, our favorite mentor texts for various genre studies and classroom photos to support an effective and engaging writing workshop.  We had a wonderful turnout (about 130 educators from across the east coast attended the session!), tremendous enthusiasm and tons of thoughtful questions.  Yet, inevitably as I have been asked at other conferences across the nation, THE question regarding text preparation came up towards the end of the session.  It goes something like this...

"I love your ideas and I want to use this style of writing instruction in my classroom because I think it's great and I know my students will love it.  But (wait for it....) how do I explain to my principal how this ties into test preparation and how this will get our scores up?". 

And as I have stated, time and time again, from state to state, grade level to grade level, the answer is as follows- Good writing instruction is test preparation.  Strategic instruction is test preparation.  Teaching the stages of the writing process is test preparation. Explaining audience and purpose is test preparation.  Having students build their writing stamina is test preparation. 

When we teach students various strategies to make their writing more clear, more interesting, more focused and more organized we are teaching them how to become better writers- not just for standardized tests...but for LIFE. 

When I began teaching in the workshop style in my fourth grade classroom during the time when No Child Left Behind was just targeting 4th and 8th grade students (and teachers!), my students' scores went up on the New York State ELA exam.  It wasn't because I was practicing in more coach books or "doing" more test preparation.  It was because my students were becoming more effective, more efficient and more engaged writers.  Of course, the strategies, techniques and tools they had picked up along the way would help them during these 3 days. 

You see, they were being "prepped" the whole year but in a way that made sense.  In a way that actually made them feel empowered and excited.  They believed that they were WRITERS.  And because they had learned what audience and purpose was, they did better.  Because they understood that a great opening or meaningful closing could make a "scorer" feel something after reading 200 papers, they did better.  Because they understood how to plan before they drafted, they did better.  Because they understood the importance of editing their work, they did better.  They knew the tools and reasons that real writers used and THAT is what, "made their scores go up". 

I am hoping for more time in the near future so I can put together a more formal "Writing for Testing Genre" unit of study.  I welcome your experiences and thoughts on the topic. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

How Many Charts are Too Many Charts?

First, let me apologize.  As the school year started up, I have been all over the place with both consulting work and my own children starting school (my son, Sam, just started Kindergarten a few weeks back …needless to say it has been a BIG transition for all of us).  I am going to try my hardest to stay more up to date on my posts from now on. 

I have been traveling to numerous schools this September and helping teachers to set up their classrooms for the most effective, engaging and efficient Writing Workshop they can imagine.     I have been working with administrators to devise checklists of the “musts” when starting off the year with the goal in mind of, “Building a Community of Writers”.  This phrase is really multifaceted as it encompasses many different elements of teaching and learning about writing.    When I think of “Building a Community of Writers” I think of two questions that we might ask of ourselves in helping to start the year off strong:
Number 1: What does it mean to become a writer?  Questions like, “From where do writers get their ideas? “, “What inspires writers?” and “What does writing mean to you?” 
Number 2:  What classroom routines, rules and management ideas do I need in place to help my students and myself make the time in Writing Workshop the most valuable it can be?  Questions like, “What if students need help and I am in a writing conference with another student?”, “What should students do when they think they are done?” and “What happens in a writing conference?”
I have learned that when it comes to hanging charts in my classroom, less is actually more.  It is strange for me to say that when I have about 200 laminated charts in my basement right now from my own classroom’s Reading and Writing Workshop!  I do use many of them when I speak at workshops or conferences, but I don’t want to part with them because they have become a part of my teaching history.  Yet, as I learn more, see more and reflect more I have come to realize that walking into a classroom plastered with posters on the walls (even when they are so neatly written in colorful marker!) can be a distraction to the students, especially our youngest writers.  That when creating posters, we have to think about the two questions above and then ask, “Why?”  How will this chart help my students to become a stronger and more independent writer?  How will this chart help me to be a more effective and efficient teacher?  What is the purpose?  If you can’t answer the question or it’s just to “make the room like nice” it probably doesn’t need to be up there. 
I like charts that communicate to those walking into your classroom that we are “Building a Community of Writers” and writers need tools to be successful.  And these charts, similar to our notebooks, pencils, sticky notes and highlighters, are a tool that helps to move us forward in our writing journey. 
Below are some of the charts I have collected from schools across the country that answer the questions above. Please realize that these charts are from different grades, different schools and different teachers.  Please feel free to comment, share your own “favorite” charts to start the year off right or  share these with colleagues and borrow the ideas.   ENJOY!
Author Posters gives students a sense that writers are real people just like them!  Include a photo, other books published (including the mentor texts you'll use during the unit of study), great quotes about writing and information about their lives.  Or... have older students work in groups to create the posters together as a research exercise and let them present their poster to the class. 

A "Writing Process" or "Status of the Class" chart allows students, visitors, administrators and parents to know where you are in the writing process, where you're headed and that meaningful writing takes great time and care. 


'Rules, Routines and Responsibilities" charts are always good to set the standard of what happens during workshop time and conferences. 

These charts are a HUGE help to manage your students who are not conferring with you.  It keeps them focused on the writing task and helps them to become more independent without drifting into a chat with a friend about soccer, pulling on your shirt for help or forming the dreaded LINE at your desk.

Just some favorites that explain why writing is so important and the impact it makes in the lives of our students, ourselves and our world.

 ** For more charts and ideas please visit me on Facebook by searching D.E.I.  or

Friday, September 2, 2011

Too Pretty to Do Homework?

Last week J.C. Penney began selling a T-shirt that declared the message, "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me".  The sales pitch with the tee read, "Who has time for homework when there's a new Justin Bieber album out.  She'll love this tee that's just as cute and sassy as she is."

Men, women, parents, teachers, and children advocacy groups across the country took to the Internet to tweet, message and email their disgust, disappointment and dismay.  Within 12 hours of the shirt being put online for sale (the retail store states that the shirt was ONLY for sale online and not in its stores), it was taken down with statements of apology from the company.

The idea that anyone would find this statement and this idea cute and even appealing is blood boiling.  As the mother of a 3 year old girl, I have tried desperately to make my daughter- and son, for that matter- understand that "being pretty" is not the most important thing in life.  Contrary to what the Disney Princess line of toys and paraphernalia will lead you to believe (Mulan being the sole exception, in my opinion...) , my husband and I really try to instill in our children the idea that being kind to others regardless of differences, being confident in who you are, and trying your best in all you do are the things in life that really matter.  While sometimes I feel like we do go a bit overboard (while reading an old version of a Curious George story to my 5 year old son one evening before bed he asked, "Why do they need to say that 'the nurse was young and pretty?'.  Is that really important for the story?"), I truly believe that gender stereotypes can be very harmful to children. 

Don't get me wrong, we have the Disney Princess figures in my house along with a backpack and T-shirt to match.  Those figures, however, get trapped in the Batcave (and escape by themselves), sit on block towers as lookouts (along with Spiderman and Handy Manny) and discuss the rescue of Luke Skywalker from the top shelf on their toy chest.  While driving in the car one day, after discussing why some kids on Glee were so cruel to the character Kurt, Sam asked me if I thought there would ever be a gay Disney princess.  The answer I gave him was, "Maybe Sam.  That would be great wouldn't it?".  And he thought it would. 

As educators, I believe we have a responsibility to debate and dispel gender stereotypes.  One way to do this is to share stories with our students that challenge the antiquated and "traditional" roles that boys and girls have so often been given.  We can also share stories that celebrate differences and individuality.  Having open and honest discussions about what girls and boys "do" or "like" is a wonderful way to get kids talking about their ideas on the subject and perhaps, shed some light on why ANYONE would think that a T-shirt like the one that was on sale at JC Penney would ever be acceptable to anyone.

Below are some books to get the discussion started.  Please feel free to add your own suggestions below. 

The Princess Knight by Cornelia Funke

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis

Brontorina by James Howe

The Family Book by Todd Parr

Free to be You and Me by Marlo Thomas and Friends (a great CD too!)

Oliver Button is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola

In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco

The Sissy Duckling by Harvey Fierstein

It's Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr

William's Doll by Charlotte Zolotow

Whoever You Are by Mem Fox

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Quality vs. Quantity...How Do We Best Teach Our Youngest Writers?

I was schooled by the work of Lucy Calkins.  When I first discovered The Art of Teaching Writing (as well as The Art of Teaching Reading) during my graduate work at NYU, my thinking about teaching writing changed immediately and intensely. 

As a reluctant writer (and reader) as a young student, the workshop model made so much sense to me.  And when I first saw this type of writing instruction in my student teaching placements (a first grade class and a fourth/fifth grade looped class) in the New York City public schools, I was blown away.  These students were truly excited about learning about writing, talking about their writing, studying authors of great writing, and sharing their writing.   They LOVED writing and while I moaned and groaned when my teachers used to say, "It's time for writing!” these children moaned and groaned when their teacher said, "Put your notebooks away.".  It was incredible to me and very exciting as an "almost teacher" venturing into the world of literacy instruction.

Lucy's text became my bible as I implemented a reader's and writer's workshop into my own fourth grade classroom and I saw my students LOVE writing just as the students in my student teaching did.  It was magical and also very rewarding as a teacher who, as a student, dreaded writing. 

As I continued my "classroom teaching" and began my "teacher teaching", my ideas about the workshop and Lucy evolved.  I think this is healthy.  I think this is necessary.  I think this is what we, as teachers, need to do to be considered professionals and serious thinkers.  Yet as I travel across the country in my consulting work, I have encountered teachers in the primary grades who have debated me on the following point:

"Young writers should finish the task of the day (the teaching point/minilesson) and then start a new piece.  This is what Lucy says.” 

Their idea is based on their belief that Calkins believes that young writers, when "done" with their daily work, should grab a new piece of paper and start something new.  Anything new.  That this will build their writing stamina and keep them interested in writing.  That for them to stay with one idea for a longer period of time will bore them or turn them off to writing in general. 

So then I picture in my mind a writing folder with papers strewn all over the place.  Papers that have some pictures and some words on them but are never really taken to the next level.  Papers that become something to keep them busy during writer’s workshop.  And so I ask myself, “why?”.  Why would teachers just ask their students to keep writing and writing and writing when most of those pieces will just stay in a folder and/or get stuffed into a backpack and thrown out at home?  There has to be a better way to build their writing stamina. 

I have seen Kindergartners and first graders generate a number of ideas, choose one and then stay with that one important idea for weeks.  They do have more to say about the rollercoaster ride they rode with their father for the first time.  They can organize and draft the beginning to their All About book on Great White Sharks and create a table of contents for the start of their book.  They will add more vivid verbs, onomatopoeia and alliteration to their poems about the sounds and sights of spring.  They know how to edit their piece to make sure that they have capital letters in the right places in the final draft of their List and Label book.  They love to create a thoughtful About the Author page, title and dedication for their story about a dinosaur who feels left out at school because he has spikes on his back when all the other dinosaurs are "spineless". 

I have seen it happen and never have the students gotten bored, disenfranchised or turned off.  It still amazes me, just as it did 11 years ago during my time at NYU, when first graders take one idea and stick with it for weeks to produce a piece of writing that is deep, thoughtful, powerful and beautifully crafted.  I KNOW it can be done and WANT it to be done more.  My wish is that teachers of young writers will give this process a chance.  That they will stop asking our youngest writers to just keep producing pieces to keep them busy but rather ask them to produce pieces of writing that really help them to understand the power of the writing PROCESS. 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Picture Books for September..Beyond Chyrsanthemum

I LOVE Kevin Henkes and I LOVE his book Chrysanthemum.   I used to read Chrysanthemum every year during the first week of school when I had my own 4th grade classroom.  But kids know Chrysanthemum as they hear it every year, in every class, in every grade.  And kids want something other than Chrysanthemum as a way to talk about meeting new friends and building a community in those first few weeks of the school year.  

And just as much as I LOVE Chrysanthemum, I also LOVE finding NEW books that get me excited about September and meeting new friends and building a community that stands for tolerance, respect and working together. 

I saw Ann Marie Corgill last spring at a conference on Long Island and was inspired by her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge of all things literacy. The day of the conference she talked about great books that she used at the start of the school year to get to know her students, make them feel comfortable and build a community of learners who valued reading, writing and each other.  In this recent blogpost from her site, she lists, "10 Picture Books That Help Us Face Life's Challenges". After seeing her I went out and bought Cynthia Rylant's All in a Day.  Below are my NEW favorites for September...

Nasreen's Secret School

Mr. George Baker

All the World

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

The Okay Book


The Little Yellow Leaf

The Paperboy

The Peace Book