Friday, December 8, 2017

Pop-Up Debates and Writing

I love my PLN on Twitter.  I pick up so many useful strategies and ideas. The first time I heard about Pop-Up Debates was in a tweet by David Stuart Jr. about his blog post.  This discussion strategy immediately appealed to me because it incorporated the use of interesting texts in an activity that utilized thinking, listening, and speaking.  Being a writing teacher, I adapted his standard procedure to incorporate writing.  I believe this to be one of the best new strategies I've tried this year.

Pop-Up Debate Norms
Before you begin anything new, you must set norms. I have three norms:
  1. Every student must speak at least one time, at most two times. We will use popsicle sticks to keep up with this.
  2. To speak, simply stand up and speak. The first person to do so has the floor; when more than one person stands up, cordially and smoothly yield the floor. The teacher doesn’t serve as “Who gets to speak” referee.  On a side note, one of my classes needed a little help "yielding" the floor.  They are stubborn.  If no one sits down within 30 seconds, they all must sit down and loose the opportunity to speak next.  Turn-taking is not easy for all students.
  3. For the sake of keeping the debate as lively as possible, the teacher may, at any point in the debate, call upon students who haven’t spoken yet or open the floor up to all students, even those who have already maxed out their speaking turns.

Pop-Up Debate Steps 
The debates are easy to prepare.  The hardest part is finding an interesting article that will spur discussion.  Find a 1-3 page article of a debatable issue.  The length depends on how much time you have to devote to the debate.  It's best if the article includes evidence for both sides.  I've started a google drive that includes some articles that are perfect for grades 5-12.  Many have different lexile levels for one article.  Also, New York Times has a post linking 100 different debatable topics.

Follow these steps for easy Pop-Up Debate implementation:

  1. Introduce the Pop-Up Debate to your students.  The powerpoint I use is in the google drive
  2. Students vote for what they believe about the topic.  This week our topic was: Should countries be able to ban the wearing of a veil in public places.
  3. Give students the article to read.  I encourage my students to "read with their pencil" or "mark up" their text, locating evidence to support their opinion.   
  4. After they've read the text, they write a short response in their journals to organize their thinking.  I use a short response format called A.C.E. Our students use this framework for all short response writing.
  5. Once they've organized their thinking, they are ready to debate.  All students receive 1+ popsicle sticks.  To speak, they must "pop-up" to talk.  Every time they make a claim, they must give me a stick.  This ensures all students participate and no one dominates the conversation.  The number of sticks a student receives depends on the amount of time you wish to spend on the debate.  I typically use two, however if I want a quick discussion, I will use one. 
  6. The teacher acts as mediator, only getting involved when necessary.  The majority of the discussion takes place between the students.  
  7. When we are finished, students get out their journals.  They write a short response, in A.C.E. format, about one of two topics:
    1. They explain what they have learned during the debate.  
    2. They expand on the opinion they already wrote.  This is their chance to say points they didn't get a chance to verbalize during the debate. 
  8. Finally, students may vote again on the issue.  In my class, if they change their mind they go and move their name from one side to the other.
  9. After the debate is over, I select a few students to create a poster of our debate.  They include the text, steps, best quotes from the debate, and some pictures.  I plan to display all our Pop-Ups in the hall to encourage other teachers to try this strategy.

Pop-Up debates allow students to read an article, process the information, and debate the topic using evidence.  This strategy encourages students to use evidence when discussing important topics and allows all students to verbalize their thinking. It is the perfect strategy to reinforce multiple ELA standards.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Picture Books for Narrative Writing

I can remember when I taught littles. I would get so excited when I got a new picture book to share with my students.  We would go to the carpet and I would animatedly read  Officer Buckle and Gloria or Knuffle Bunny.  The voices were my favorite.  My own four children had me read Elmer a thousand times because I would pretend to be Elmer and the other elephants as I told the story about this colorful creature who finally decided to be himself.  Now, I teach fifth grade and I still use picture books as often as possible.

Picture Books Aren't Just For K-3
I am not sure why, but many 5-8 teachers don't feel picture books have a place in their classrooms.  They couldn't be more wrong.  Picture books engage students.  They provide perfect opportunities to apply many of the literacy skills we aim for our students to master.  What better way to teach text structure in non-fiction books than to examine some students favorites, such as the Who Would Win? or the Who Wasseries?  Or identify the theme of Bad Case of the Stripes  or Fables

There are so many beautiful picture books available for teachers to use.  I use them for everything from identifying story elements to teaching text structures, themes, and mood.  Currently, my class is in the middle of a picture book study to identify what makes a great story as we prepare for our narratives.  They've rediscovered their love for their childhood favorites like Llama Llama Red Pajama, We're going on a Bear Hunt, and Jumanji.  They've been introduced to new picture books like They All Saw Cat, Ada Twist Scientist, and Whoosh!  While reading the picture books, they are learning moves that successful authors take.  Picture books have a place in every classroom.

Fractured Narrative Nursery Rhymes

My favorite stories are fractured fairy tales.  There's something special about taking a classic story that everyone is familiar with and turning it into something different.  When I read After the Fall: How Humpty Got Back Up AgainI knew it would be perfect for introducing narrative writing with my fifth-grade students.  Whether they admit it or not, they love opportunities to reminisce about things from when they were younger.  Nursery Rhymes are a perfect vehicle to use for narrative writing opportunities.

The Fractured Nursery Rhyme Lesson
My students loved this lesson.  It's so easy to prepare and provides a valuable opportunity for students to write a short narrative inspired by one of their favorite nursery rhymes.

  1. Display memorable nursery rhymes around your room before students arrive.  I tape them all over my room.
  2. Introduce the lesson by reading After the Fall: How Humpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat.  Discuss how the author uses the nursery rhyme to create his own story.  As a side note, every picture book provides an opportunity to talk about text structure and theme.
  3. Introduce an anchor chart with a narrative planning template you want your students to use when writing.  It's important to teach students to plan.  We use a basic four square to plan a narrative: Character/Setting, Introduction, Conflict/Climax, and Resolution.
  4. Complete the planning template for After the Fall with the students so they can have an example to refer to when planning their own narratives.  
  5. Discuss what makes a good story (we created an anchor chart
    from the mentor texts we read) before students begin writing.
  6. Pair students and allow them to choose a nursery rhyme from those displayed around the room.
  7. Have students plan their fractured nursery rhyme.
  8. Have students write their fractured fractured nursery rhyme.
  9. It is important to give students time to share their stories.  Use the author's chair to give students the opportunity to share what they've written.

Remember, picture books are perfect for any classroom.  Denying their value takes away a perfect resource that has the power to engage even the most disinterested student in an upper level lesson.  All it takes is a little creativity and access to beautiful picture books.  Happy reading!  Happy writing! 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Choice Motivates Students to Become Writers

Control. Yes, I struggle with the desire to control my classroom, my students, my environment...  I'm the educational expert, right?  Why shouldn't everyone do exactly what I think is best? Now, with many years of teaching under my belt, I understand that if I seek to control every aspect of my classroom, I will lose my students. 

I'm a huge Harry Potter fan.  When Dumbledore said "It is our choices, Harry, that show who we are," I cheered not just because
it is a memorable quote, but because it is the driving force behind everything I do in my classroom.  Choice is the cornerstone on which my Writer's Workshop is built.  What you choose to write about says something about you.  I know it's true for me. That's why I choose to blog.  I want the same to be true for my students.

The Engaged Writer
I've heard countless discussions on engagement: how can we engage our students? There are endless stacks of books written on the topic by experts in the field.  Countless journal articles explain how teachers can capture their students' attention.  Let me save you some time.  In teaching students writing, the answer is simple: choice.  If we want our students to be engaged in writing, then we must allow them to choose what they write about.  Have students write an opinion piece on whether or not Confederate monuments should be removed or an explanatory essay on the Take a Knee movement.  Give students' voice a platform to be heard through their writing and watch their engagement soar.   

Choice in Writer's Workshop
As a teacher, I consider my students when designing independent writing projects for my Writer's Workshop.  When I design projects, I think about their interests and hobbies, controversial topics in the news, and current events that are important to them.  As a result, students write with passion because they care about what they are writing.  They are writing about topics that matter to them.  I offer four to six independent projects for each unit of study.  

For instance, when we studied non-fiction opinion writing, I offered four choices.  These were my most recent choices: 

  1. Should Pokemon Go Be Banned?
  2. Should Girls Be Allowed in Boy Scouts?
  3. Are Self-Driving Cars a Good Idea?
  4. Who is the Better Quarterback: Newton or Manning?

Steps to Provide Choice in Writer's Workshop
Providing our students with choice does require more time on the teachers part, but the pay-off is worth it.  Students will be writing for themselves.  They will be invested in their writing. 

Follow these steps to incorporate choice into your Writer's Workshop:

  1. Consider topics in which students are interested.  Their interest, hobbies, current events, and controversial topics will all inspire them to write.
  2. Find paired texts that relate to each topic that provide ample evidence for student writing.  The internet if full of exemplarily texts.
  3. Create prompts that provide the students with a clear task.  I base my prompts on the state examples for explanatory, opinion, and narrative essays.
  4. Set up an independent writing project table when students choose their next task.  
  5. Allow students to choose a project.  I have them sign up for their project so I can offer conferencing opportunities.
  6. After the projects have been chosen, I archive the choices for future choices.  In Writer's Workshop, students are never finished writing.  When they finish one essay, they choose another from the archives.
  7. After students have read their texts and begin to plan, I allow them to conference with peers who are writing on the same topic.  They discuss the texts, possible thesis statements, oraganization of their essay, and review evidence they are going to use to use in their essay. 
  8. As students write, conference with them using a rubric to discuss their writing. 
  9. Once completed, give students the opportunity to share what they've written.  
Choice has the power to engage even the most reluctant writers.  It draws them in.  Students know what they like.  Ask them about something that interests them, and they will talk to you forever about it.  Why not take advantage of that passion and apply it to their writing?  The student who is afforded choice will demonstrate internal motivation to become a writer.  Isn't this what we want for all our students? 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Painted Essay

       What student wouldn't like to paint in English class?   First-graders, fifth-graders, and high-schoolers alike will automatically be curious when you pull out the paints during your writing instruction. The PainteEssay provides students with a visual example of what good writing should look like and give you, the teacher, another opportunity to help students focus on what makes a successful essay.  

       Essay writing is difficult for many students, right?  Let's be honest, essay writing instruction is difficult for many teachers!  Modeling is a common practice in most classrooms.  However, when teaching writing this practice is often skipped. Writing is one of the most difficult skills for students to master.  For this reason, modeling should be a practice we don't skip.  Teachers need to model how to write an essay through an interactive class essay.  This class mentor essay provides support for students as they work on their own independent essay projects during Writer's Workshop.   After a class mentor essay is finished, students become writing artist and complete a PainteEssay.

What is a Painted Essay?

Fifth-grade students complete a Painted Essay during Writer's Workshop

       The Painted Essay is a strategy that was invented by Diana Leddy and is a featured component of effective writing instruction by the Vermont Writing Collaborative.  It is based on the idea that students are visual learners and need to "see" what an essay should look like.  I applied the ideas present in this strategy, and adapted it to fit the way my fifth-grade students are taught to write an explanatory and opinion essay.

The Classroom PainteEssay

       A PainteEssay will be a welcome addition to your writing instruction.  Follow these steps to complete one with your students:

  1. Complete an interactive class mentor essay with your students. My students and I create ours together as I type it.
  2. Make copies of your class mentor to use for the Painted Essay.
  3. Identify what colors you will use and what each color will represent.  My students use red, yellow, and blue.
  4. Prepare your paints.  Water colors are ideal.  I mix tempra paint with about a half a cup of water.  
  5. Have stations set up for students to paint their essays.
  6. Once we begin, I model the process using the document camera.  We complete one color at a time. I randomly call on students to tell us what to parts of our essay to paint.
    I model how to paint the essay as students complete their Painted Essay.
  7.  Once completed, I let the painted essays dry and return them to the students to use as a resource.  We take some time to identify the colors that we used at the beginning and end of each paragraphs, as well as the colors that make up the inside of each paragraphs.

       The Painted Essay is a valuable tool for both students and teachers.  It provides students with a concrete example of how to use a thesis statement, topic statements, evidence, and elaboration in their writing.  When paired with a class mentor, it provides teachers with a structure to "show" students what a successful essay looks like.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Writing Across the Curriculum

Writing isn't just for ELA teachers.  Not anymore!  All teachers are expected to be literacy teachers.  I don't care what you teach, if you look at your standards, they are chocked full of reading and writing skills.  As a result, today's student needs numerous opportunities to write for a variety of purposes.  Teachers, we need to become experts in providing those opportunities for our students.

There are many routine reading and writing activities that can be used across the curriculum.  The strategies I am going to share are classroom-proven to be successful and benefit your classroom. Remember, writing is thinking and it is our responsibility to get our students thinking.

Articles of the Week

For years, I failed to provide effective bell ringers.  Let me say, I am embarrassed to admit, in my early years of teaching I was guilty of quickly copying some mailbox printable and throwing it on the students desk.  I have seen the error of my ways and I repent from that terrible practice!    A good bell ringer should incorporate authentic reading and writing. One day, I stumbled across Articles of the Week and realized it was the answer to my bell ringer woes!  It a strategy developed by Kelly Gallagher that can be used for a variety of purposes, including building students prior knowledge and providing practice on different skills.  In my classroom, I use AOWs as a bell ringer to practice skills necessary for strong writing, such as using evidence to support a statement, summarizing, short response writing, and grammar practice. Students read the informational article on Monday, then answer questions for the week based on that article.  I have found AOWs to be an invaluable part of my classroom.  I strongly encourage you to give them a try in your classroom.  


With the changes in how students are assessed, all students are expected to be articulate in their writing and incorporate evidence to support their answer. Let's be honest.  Some students are not very good at being articulate in their writing and using appropriate evidence...they struggle. So, what do we do: A.C.E.  It is a strategy designed to explicitly teach students how to write a short response. It provides sentence stems to give students a format to write their responses.  In 5th grade at my school, we use A.C.E. across the curriculum.  All teachers expect students to write in this format.  As a result, students have drastically improved in their ability to answer a short response question.  When we introduced A.C.E., students were allowed to use the A.C.E. helper for a quarter.  Now, it is no longer necessary.  A.C.E. has become how students at our school write when asked to give a short response. They start with restating the prompt to include their answer, provide up to three pieces of evidence to support their answer, and explain their answer.  If your students struggle with fully answering short response questions, then A.C.E. is your answer.


My husband is a high school economics teacher.  I believe his journaling strategy is a prime example of what happens when you live with a high-strung wife who talks about the importance of authentic reading and writing in all subjects.  He developed this idea all alone and I absolutely love it!  The routine in his classroom is the same every day. When his students walk into the room they find an authentic text on their desk that will contribute to the conversations that day.  For his class, it may be Microsoft vs Apple or an excerpt from Time magazine's How Scarcity Contributes to Spending. Along with that are directions posted on the smartboard instructing them to either summarize or answer a short response question that goes with their article. Keep in mind, he had previously explicitly taught them to summarize and write short responses.  He takes his bell ringer as a daily grade.  Students quickly understand the expectation is to fully answer the prompt posted and they meet that expectation.  The benefits of journaling is two-fold.  First, it provides authentic reading and writing.  Second, it gives students knowledge about the topic they are going to discuss that day.  Jouraling is a win-win for any classroom.

Imagine what would happen if students had daily practice in all contents with reading and writing.  As teachers, I hope we take our responsibility seriously to provide these opportunities to them. There are so many more strategies out there to incorporate literacy in your classroom.  I encourage you to research the strategies that would best fit your teaching.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Keep It, Change It, Junk It

How do students become better writers? They write!  It's not rocket science.  If you want your students to improve their writing, provide them with uninterrupted, daily writing experiences.  My students spend at least 30 minutes a day writing. I am proud of that fact.  

One of the skills we are practicing now is producing writing grounded in evidence.  Sound simple?  Absolutely not.  A large majority of todays' students struggle to support their writing with appropriate evidence.  Therefore, students must be explicitly taught how to gather and use evidence in their writing.  Then, they must be taught how to evaluate if they have achieved that.

One day, while my students and I were analyzing our evidence, one of my students suggested we use a strategy one of his past teachers used: "Keep It, Junk It".  This teacher had shared her strategy for writing a summary at a school PD we had earlier this school year, so I was familiar with it.  However it didn't fit our need perfected, so I adapted it. "Keep It, Change It, Junk It" has become a strategy we use to revise our explanatory and opinion writing.

Keep It, Change It, Junk It

An effective explanatory or opinion essay isn't worth a hill of beans without well-chosen relevant evidence.  We must teach our student to produce writing grounded in evidence from literary and informational texts because evidence plays a key role.  I've taught my students to use "Keep It, Change It, Junk It" while revising.

Teach the Strategy

Student need to be explicitly taught new strategies.  "Keep It, Change It, Junk It" needs to be modeled by the teacher numerous times until the student is comfortable implementing it into their own writing toolbox.  I've created a powerpoint that is ready to go to help you teach this effective revision strategy to your students.  It has multiple practices, as well as an exit ticket.  You can access it here at Scribd.  You can access bookmarks here.

The Steps

The steps are easy to follow.  Model this strategy regularly with your students.  Encourage them to use it independently. You might conference with a group of students who would benefit from using this strategy in their writing.  
  1. Identify the topic sentence.
  2. Read the rest of the paragraph.
  3. As you read each sentence decide to keep it, change it, or junk it.
  4. If you decide to "Change It", make appropriate revisions to the sentence.  
  5. If you decide to "Junk It", remove the sentence from the writing.
This strategy has the power to transform a student's writing. Giving students strategies to use during the revision process helps improve their writing.  This strategy can create independent students who can determine if their writing is grounded in evidence. Get the word out: "Keep It, Change It, Junk It" is a revision strategy we must teach our students!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

RAINBOW Categories in Explanatory Writing

Do your students have trouble using evidence to support their writing?  This is a skill many students struggle with and it makes it difficult for them to produce strong, focused writing.  Last summer I went to a professional development session where Cathy Whitehead, Tennessee's 2015-2016 teacher of the year, led teachers on how to use rainbow synthesis in writing.  I brought it back to my own classroom and adapted the name to RAINBOW categories. This strategy has become my favorite pre-writing strategy and I know once you try it, you and your students will love it too!
Teaching students to categorize evidence into topics is invaluable.   It gives them the confidence and independence to write, without constant supervision and reassurance from the teacher. In my classroom, I use mentor essays (see previous post) to model how to write.  During this time, we create a class essay and use RAINBOcategories as one of our pre-writing strategies The steps for rainbow strategy are easy to follow:
  1. Pull apart the prompt and create a question to focus on as you read.
  2. As you read, write down words or phrases that will answer the prompt.  This is the evidence you will use when you write.  This also helps students with paraphrasing when writing, another great strategy for students to master.
  3. Once you've finished gathering evidence, categorize evidence by color.  During the model, we try to look for similarities in topics to identify categories. We create a key to identify topics by color. These topics will be our separate body paragraphs. Conversations about words that could go in multiple categories will undoubtedly occur, as well as whether or not some words belong in any of our chosen categories.  Show students the thinking that should take place when categorizing. Thinking out loud is imperative, as it is a teacher's opportunity to show students how to think.
  4. After we use RAINBOcategories, we TIDE our categories.  TIDE is the graphic organizer we use to organize our writing.  We identify 3 categories we believe we have enough evidence to write our body paragraphs about.  These topics will become part of our thesis statement.  For example, in the graphic above the thesis statement we developed was: The Titanic was remarkable because it was an enormous cruise ship, was luxereous, and had safety features that set it apart from other cruise ships of its time.  When we write our essay, we will use evidence from each category to support our thesis statement.
  5. After the pre-writing strategies, you are ready to begin writing.
Providing students with strategies to organize their information before they write will make them better writers.  Teachers need to become experts at providing students with a variety of strategies to do this.  RAINBOcategories is one way your students can become superstars when they organize their writing!