Category Archives: Books

Help For Writing Workshop

It seems for some time every school year brings (for me) a new subject (s) and ways to teach it. I am working with an 8th grade ELA block this year that has expanded by twenty minutes. My first thought was – more time to have a writing workshop. And that has been the case but how to go about it?

I decided to consult the experts: Jeff Anderson and Kelly Gallagher. Not in person of course but through these books: Everyday Editing (Stenhouse Publishers, $20.00) and Mechanically Inclined (Stenhouse Publishers, $22.50) by Jeff, his latest – 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know (Stenhouse Publishers, $24.00) and Kelly’s Write Like This, Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts. (Stenhouse Publishers, $23.00) No, I do not own stock in Stenhouse; it is just coincidental that I use these publications.

I became aware of Jeff Anderson several years ago through a colleague, beginning with “Everyday Editing.” I was thrilled with the plethora of mentor sentences and Jeff’s concept of “inviting” students to notice and work with the embedded grammar skills.

When conducting mini-lessons on writing, I begin with these mentor sentences but model as well so the students see experts and their teacher trying to make sense of grammar and sentence structure. Although “Mechanically Inclined” was written first, I found it after I began using “Everyday Editing.” It includes concepts not covered in the other. In addition to the mentor sentences, Anderson discusses the rules of these devices and students’ misconceptions, offering ideas for visualization of abstract concepts, as well as scaffolding. Occasionally there are suggestions for extensions, writing a new piece, but when there isn’t I find he has left me feeling secure enough to come up with an idea on my own.

“10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know” is just that! Ideas like motivation, narrowing a topic, organization – all part of writer’s craft, are covered in one word topics: Motion, Models, and Focus are listed as the first three. One of Anderson’s strength’s in all of his books is dispelling the notion that students learn grammar and writing through rigid instruction and the use of workbooks, thus students are taught to view the writing process as a scientist would field explorations.

That concept is part of Gallagher’s “Write Like This, Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Texts.” Beginning with an enlightening discussion of the writing expected of potential California police officers, Gallagher stresses the importance of students realizing that writing is a real-world skill and should be presented in that light. Real world writing can be categorized into six ways: Express and Reflect, Inform and Explain, Evaluate and Judge, Inquire and Explore, Analyze and Interpret, and Take a Stand/Propose a Position. He demonstrates how to take a topic of interest and create potential writing prompts for these types of writing. It was quite easy for me to personalize it and create a model for the students. They in turn created their own organizer filled with a year’s worth of writing ideas on things that are motivating to them. Furthering the scientist analogy, Gallagher includes a table comparing the scientific method and how it looks in writing.

I have asked students to treat their writer’s notebooks in this way. They are places for the recording of observations, making inferences on grammar rules and application, or playing with words or sentence structure. Hopefully you can tell that my students are generating quite a bit of writing – this in addition to any writing done during standard’s based explicit instruction. It becomes easy for me to ask them to take a section of the writing to work with on any day.

While I have been doing some sort of writing workshop for over twenty years, I still feel like a newbie. I change “the how” and “the what” often but these two gentlemen have offered me resources to keep my students motivated and writing. I thank both of you!



A Failed Experiment

First book completed in 2011

Final book completed in 2011

I LOVE to read. Anyone who knows me, recognizes that and in the past I have kept records of the book I have completed so at the beginning of 2011, I decided to challenge myself to read a 111 books. To make it, a realistic goal I did not count picture books; even though I read hundreds of them, because I don’t believe it to be a suitable objective for an adult reader.

I made my goal BUT in the process found what has brought me pleasure since of I was a toddler now had become a task, a chore, a note on my checklist.

Words give me pleasure and as I read, I will stop and notice how an author turns a phrase or brings the reader into the narrative. I will daydream about the characters and what they must be feeling and how would I feel if I were part of their world. These enjoyments were forsaken in the quest to add numbers to my Goodreads tally.

As an ELA teacher I encourage my students to read daily, offering them time in our schedule for just this action. I have read books by admired professionals who propose that students should read a certain number of books. I pondered this issue and have finally made the decision, that based on my experience, I would rather, my learners read one book well than hastily move through a preset number to prove they enjoy reading.

Goals are good; they help motivate a person to get from point A to point B but for me, I will NEVER set another goal where reading for pleasure is concerned. It is the reading that is important not the completion.

Choice Makes All the Difference

Silent Sustained Reading

Silent Sustained Reading

Recently I observed one of my 8th grade students heavily involved in the book, “Notes From A Totally Lame Vampire” (Aladdin, $12.99) by Tim Collins. After a year of working with this young man, I had never seen him that involved in any book. Two weeks later I had to remind him that the bell to go home had rung as he and another classmate were deep in a discussion of “Milkweed” by Jerry Spinelli. This is every teacher’s dream, to have students feel passionately about your curriculum.

Number one in my class is you have to read to become a reader. In order to read, you need books and time. I provide both BUT it would be pointless unless the readers had choice in their reading opportunities. Now here comes the tricky part – how do you provide that?

To me the answer is natural, make your classroom a haven for reading material but I used the word “tricky” because until I read “The Book Whisperer” (Josey-Bass, $22.99) by Donalyn Miller I had only known one other ELA teacher who did this seriously. Why?

  • Money
  • Time
  • Being a book expert

Let me address each one as I see it. Providing many copies of various different titles can be challenging but here are some ways to bring those tomes into your classroom.

  • Spend any class monies on books rather than supplies, games, consumables, etc.
  • Go to garage sales.
  • Ask parents to donate.
  • Take advantage of Scholastic warehouse sales.
  • Borrow from the library (school or public)
  • Buy from Amazon used books – many are a penny plus shipping of $3.99
  • Share with peers

Silent sustained reading MUST be an integral part of each day’s activities. How can one become better at something unless you do it. I assign reading for pleasure as homework each night but how do I really know that is being done? By integrating this so very important idea into the daily routine I see with my own eyes what and how my students read. Rethink your own day’s routines – do students really need to do morning work or daily oral anything?

Now here is the really scandalous part, being the book expert. I read everyday all kinds of titles, and am still not an expert on YA books BUT I don’t believe that I have to be. I need to set an example but do not need to read every book in my classroom. But you ask, how do I know that students have read the book? Provide assessments that demonstrate their knowledge of the book. I NEVER give a test on a book. I am presently reading for pleasure “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” by Steig Larsson and wouldn’t want to complete it if I knew a test was coming. I assess in multiple ways one of which is a book review. This allows students to share and persuade other readers to have a look at their book. Here are a few samples.

“Elephant Run is a great book, so far. Roland Smith did a great job on Sasquatch, Thunder Cave, and the I.Q. series, it’s no surprise Elephant Run would be great.”

“Have you ever wanted to hit that perfect home run? Have you ever wanted to have a summer job with a major league baseball team? Well for Brian these can possibly both come true only in the fascinating book The Batboy by Mike Lupica. …..I like this book because it shows you to never give up hope.”

Can you tell who read their book? As the teacher it is your job to introduce the classics like “The Outsiders” or “Night” but when it comes to independent reading, allow your students to read what suits them and I think you will be amazed with the results.

Doing Some Reading

Well Amazon has gotten a little bit of my money this winter. It feels that all of a sudden the idea of mixing technology with literacy is a big topic of discussion but this time the authors are aiming to explain how to do this by sharing experiences with application.

Theory is good but I need to understand how to apply it. Technology is good but I need to know how to use it so that real learning is taking place. These authors seem to be attempting to provide answers.

The Digital Writing Workshop” (Heinemann) by Troy Hicks is just that, a book that considers the components of a writing workshop and how to apply digital resources to make the experience more relevant for our 21st century learners. Kist explains, “RSS and social bookmarking are complementary digital writing tools. They both help students filter through a mass of content.” I had never thought about encouraging my 7th grade students to set up an aggregator to receive RSS feeds but now I realize that with the new emphasis on informational text that this is a wonderful way to add texts to the classroom and at the same time allow for student choice. I use Google Reader because my students already have a Google account so I wanted to streamline things. Social bookmarking was really helpful. At the time I started reading this book, my students were required to write a research paper. Google Bookmarks allowed them to organize the websites they found and refer back to the information for citation purposes. What a great way to keep up with things when you have multiple students using one computer. Hicks addresses the use of blog and wikis. “What we’re really after is helping them compose more substantive texts, both individually and collaboratively.” I have a wiki at Wiki Spaces but still haven’t found an effective way to involve students in it. I am stuck on the “only one person at a time can add information to the same page” idea. So this is a concept that needs much more exploration. I use ePals for blogging. An advantage to this site is that it is private but that can also be a disadvantage when you want students to write for a wider audience.

I am taking my time with this book because it is easy for me to go into overload when I start thinking about all of the possibilities.

The Socially Networked Classroom” (Corwin Press) by William Kist has a unique organizational structure comparing the application of social networking resources to Starbucks coffee sizes. Recognizing that schools still exhibit a wide spectrum of technology resources as well as the district’s policies as to what is permissible, Kist offers “Short” to “Venti” ways of integrating social networking. Interspersed throughout the dialogue are activities that can be implemented quickly. My students loved the “Snowball” activity on p. 37. The students wrote stories, one sentence at time, demonstrating the ability to write a sentence with a verbal in it. I am looking forward to “Venti” time when I will be asking students to participate in an online book club using Ning. I have used this tool before but believe I am in a better position to provide authenticity in the learning.

Kist believes, “Schools are going to have to move past whatever barriers exist and closer to the literacy practices increasingly used in the ‘outside world.’ No matter where you may be on the continuum of believing in or disbelieving the construct of ‘childhood,’ there can be no doubt that communicating in this new century is going to be different than communicating in the old century – not necessarily better or worse but different..” Facebook and Twitter are filtered out in my school system but it seems that with a little time spent reading there are tools that can be substituted. I use Thinkquest and Ning instead of Facebook and Edmodo instead of Twitter. This allows me to read the aforementioned books and apply some of the ideas in the way that best meets the needs of my students. I think this is what the authors really want anyway.