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!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Making Writer's Workshop Possible: Class Mentor Essay

If you had told me ten years ago I would love teaching writing, I would have told you you were crazier than a teacher getting an evaluation on party day.  But I do!  Why, you might ask? Because I've finally figured it out.  I've discovered how to create writers. This year, I've created students who believe they are writers and I owe it all to Writer's Workshop.

Mentor Essays in Writer's Workshop

It's an exciting time to be a writing teacher.  The shift in the new standards emphasize students' ability to write.  As teachers, we need to think carefully about how we teach writing because we play a central role our students' success. We must effectively teach writing and we should embrace that challenge with excitement. 

To make writing manageable, it needs to be broken down into bite-sized chunks, so students can master one element at a time. One of those chunks involves using a mentor essay.  

A mentor text is a term we are familiar with.  It is a text that is an example of good writing for writers. A mentor essay is a text students write with the teacher to provide guided practice of how to write a good essay. 

Steps For Success With Mentor Essays

I start each year with opinion writing.  Let's be honest, our students usually love their own opinions, so I say let's use that to our benefit!  I start by telling them opinion writing is their chance to prove they are right and that appeals to them. Then, I explicitly teach how to write an opinion essay through a series of mini-lessons, while simultaneously writing a class mentor essay. The steps for writing a mentor essay are easy to follow and implement in your classroom.

  1. Define It: I start the writing unit by explaining to students we will create a class essay together.  I tell them it will be our "mentor essay".  This essay will be a good example of how to write.  It will have an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion paragraphs that they will want to replicate.  It will be their go-to if they ever get stuck in their own writing.  It will be displayed for them to use throughout the year. 
  2. Read Texts: If we are going to write a mentor essay together, we have to read the texts we are going to write about.  Prior to reading the texts, we look at the prompt, as I would expect them to do with their own essays. Then, we read the texts. I have varying level of students. Some students can read the text independently and some read it in small groups with a teacher.  It is important to give your students the support they need to access the texts so they can write about it, without taking away their opportunity to be independent.
  3. Write: As I teach each component of opinion writing, we write the mentor essay as a class on anchor chart paper.  When I say we, I mean we. This means let go of your control and use their ideas.  If their ideas need improvement, then help guide them to making their ideas work. Students will value the mentor essay more if they contributed to its writing. During this time, I often pretend I am them, and think out loud. Teach them strategies during this time that a good writer uses.  The teacher must model what a good writer does so students know what good writers do. For instance, when writing an introduction, we write it, evaluate it for effect, check it for the elements of an introduction, and then reread it for clarity.  Many times, I leave mistakes so we can correct them during the edit and revise stage.  Modeling is critical during this step and will lead to better student writing.   
    The class uses our rough draft to revise our final draft.

  4. Edit and Revise: It takes us about a week to write our class model, maybe more, because we write each part as I teach it. Once we've written it, we edit for mistakes. We revise parts that are weak or need more evidence.  This is a step many students skip in their own writing, so it's important to teach them how critical this step is.  We mark up our original essay.  I draw arrows, cross out, and change words as they see fit.  I model what I want them to do.  I tell them revising can be messy and that's okay!
  5. Rewrite: Once we've edited and revised our rough draft, we rewrite our essay.  I have the students write their own copy of the mentor essay so they have a copy to keep in their Writing Notebooks.  
  6. Replicate: Replicating isn't the final step. It actually happens during the other steps.  It is something the students do during their WW. They replicate what we do in writing our mentor essay in their own writing.  

If you have any questions about using a mentor essay in your class, let me know.  Mentor texts are an invaluable part of any Writer's Workshop.  It is important that students see what good writing looks like, so they can apply that knowledge to their own writing.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Making Writer's Workshop Possible: Conferencing

Your students' writing will improve through regular opportunities to write.  The Writer's Workshop (WW) model allows students to work on an Independent Project (IP) of their choice, while focusing on goals set specifically for them. Effective writing instruction is a scaffolded collaboration between the teacher and student. Feedback is a crucial part of that instruction.  Students can benefit from a variety of feedback.  Once your WW routines have been established, add conferencing to maximize your results (see previous post on setting up a WW).  In this post, I will focus on the four types of conferencing I use in my Writer's Workshop:

  1. Teacher-Small Group
  2. Teacher-Student
  3. Student-Student Partnership
  4. Student Small Group (no teacher)
When I conference with students, I use these forms to keep anecdotal records, set goals, and monitor progress.  I use these records during the conference or right after a conference to document what occurred.

Teacher-Student Conferencing
Teacher-Student Conferences are specific to an individual need.  I begin each WW by walking around the room and "leaning in" on students writing.  My normal practice is to have 4-5 T-S conferences before I do any small groups.  During these conferences I provide feedback on what they've written, as well as provide "feed forward".  Feedback evaluates what a student has already written.  "Feed forward" focuses on what strategies to use next.  For example, if a student has developed their thesis statement, I would ask them what their plan would be for using the thesis statement to set up their body paragraphs.  It is important to know what all your students are doing during WW and the only way to do this is to "lean in" on their writing regularly.

Teacher-Small Group Conferencing

I meet with a small group to discuss reasons for their opinions.
There are two types of Teacher-Small Group (T-SG) Conferences that take place in my room.  The first focuses on helping students help each other. At any given time during my WW, there are 6-8 different IPs being completed by students.  I meet with at least 2 groups each day to check progress.  If several students start a project together, I may meet with them to discuss their organization using the TIDE graphic organizer, or to discuss some possible reasons to support their claim for an opinion essay. During this type of meeting, I am the facilitator.  I direct students, based on the needs of the group, to work together to help the collective group.  The second type of T-SG focuses on teaching a mini-lesson to teach or remediate skills needed to be successful on independent project.  For example, if I see five students who are struggling to develop a strong thesis statement, I would call them back to reteach the concept.  It makes no difference which IP they are working on because it is the skill they are struggling with.  

Student-Student Partnerships

Hannah offers her partner advice on his introduction paragraph.
This is my first year using Partnerships in my room. When students have a partnership with another student, they "have each others back".  They are not only concerned with making sure their writing is the best possible job they can do, but they are responsible for making sure their partners is too.  They work together to organize, ensure evidence supports the writing, revise, and edit.  They are one another's lifeline.  Partners do not have to be working on the same IP, and in fact, it is better if they are not. Partners may meet at any time during Independent Writing Time in WW.  Using this type of conferencing relieves the teacher of being the primary source of information during WW.  The students begin to rely on each other.  When this happens, the students become the facilitators.  

Student Small Group

Student Small Group occurs when students are in a variety of phases.  They could be looking for reasons to support their claim to an opinion essay.  They could be organizing an essay.  One of the most successful uses I've had so far was a revision train.  I had them edit each others essay and offer feedback on possible edits to improve sentence fluency and word choice.  I usually instigate the SSG by forming them and giving them a goal, but I've also had students form them as well.  Once your routine for conferencing are in place, students will start to take the reigns and work together to improve one anothers' writing.

Students work to edit their essays

Conferencing is an integral part of any WW.  When implemented strategically and regularly, it will improve the writing of all who take part.

My next post will focus on the third part of WW: share time.  


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Making Writer's Workshop Possible: The Set-Up

It is understood that to improve in any area, you must practice. This adage is especially true of writing.  If we expect our students to become independent writers, then we must provide them with time to practice.  Up until this year, I taught reading.  I used the Reader's Workshop as a way for my students to improve the skills necessary to be a successful reader.  When I was moved to exclusively teaching writing this year, I knew I wanted to maintain the workshop method in my classroom, so I began researching the Writer's Workshop.  

This past summer, I worked my way through most of the writing all-stars: Ruth Culham, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher,  and M. Colleen Cruz. I quickly realized WW was going to provide my students with a choice about what they wrote, while simultaneously allowing me to teach the standards that would help them develop good writing technique.  I developed an action plan. I am going to spend the next few weeks blogging about my experience as a newbie implementing my first WW.

The strongest writing classrooms have independent writing projects at their heart.  That is, students are following the whole-class curriculum, but they are also working on their own piece of writing on a topic of their choice (Cruz, 2015).  This is the beauty of the workshop method: students spend time every day independently working on improving their skills.  I am sure I was like many of you.  I was just not sure how to make it work for me in my classroom. I believe I've come up with a manageable way to successfully start a writer's workshop into the classroom.  

Before you begin any workshop routine, you must spend some time explicitly teaching writing.  I spent the first five weeks of school teaching Ruth Culham's 6+1 Traits of Writing.  Once we worked our way through the traits, I began explicitly teaching opinion writing using the POW TIDE strategy. I am about a week into teaching opinion writing and we are ready to begin WW so students can independently practice what they are learning in whole group.

One hallmark of the WW is choice.  Three weeks ago, I put up an anchor chart titled "What I Want to Write About".  It quickly filled up with a variety of topics.  Over the last several weeks, I've gathered as many paired texts on those topics as I could.  Some came from Teachers Pay Teachers, some from, and others I had to adapt and modify from newspaper and magazines articles I found.  As I found articles, I filed them by topics.

Last week, I chose texts for our first independent project.  Since we are focusing on opinion writing in whole group, I found paired texts that would fit opinion writing. Since this is my first time giving the students an independent project, I decided to start with six choices.  I didn't want there to be too many texts because I need to be familiar with all of the texts they are writing about.  Yes, this means I had to read all of the paired texts so I can help students when I'm conferencing with them.  The topics my students will choose from for their first project are: Football Heroes (Manning or Newton), Basketball Starts (James or Curry), Presidential Candidates (Clinton or Trump), Self-Driving Cars (banned or not), Pokemon Go! (banned or not), and Abolitionists (Douglass or Garrison).

Next, I copied 15 copies of each of the paired texts and prompts. I have 75 students in my three classes.  I set them up on a table. I put a sign-up sheet by each project so I can keep up with who is writing on which topic. This will help when I conference or have peer groups meet together.  

Monday morning, I will establish clear guidelines when I introduce WW.   Mine are simple.  Since this will be the beginning our WW, students are only allowed to work on skills I've already explicitly taught in whole group through our class model write.  I have already taught the POW in POW TIDE and writing a thesis statement.  This means, when we start next week, students can only work on skills such as tearing the prompts apart, reading their texts, and writing a thesis statement.   I will continue next week teaching mini-lessons on organizing an essay and an introduction paragraph.  Once I've taught the skills and we've practiced it on our class model, students can start on that part of their writing.

Finally, as part of the set-up for WW, I've created a board to help me keep track of where students are in the writing process. When students move to another part of the process, they move their name.  Not only does this let me know where they are, it encourages students to think about the writing process and ensures they don't skip steps, such as organizing their essays, which students are notorious for trying to skip.

I have high hopes for my WW. I believe this strategy will grow all writers in my classroom.  I can offer remediation in small groups or individually to students who need help organizing an essay or citing evidence. I can push my high fliers, who often get overlooked, to add sophistication to their writing by including metaphors or symbolism. WW has the potential to meet the needs of all students in our classrooms.  It is a time that should be valued and protected.

Next week, I will blog about conferencing with students, both individually and in small groups, during WW. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Using Articles of the Week to Improve Writing

Are you maximizing your bell ringer time?  Today, teaching has become a race against the clock.  There's never enough time! This is why we must be deliberate about the bell ringers we choose to use in our classrooms.  Carefully planned bell ringers provide students with opportunities to work authentically with both reading and writing.  Articles of the Week (AoW) is an important strategy teachers can use to support readers and writers during this time.

A large problem with students today is they don't understand texts well enough to write about them, especially informational texts.  As teachers of writing, we often have students dive right in and start writing, without taking this into account.  This explains why students' writing often lacks focus and clarity. Writing is thinking.  If students don't understand the text, they are unable to write about it.  

In practicing writing, we must give students multiple opportunities to work with a text before they write about it. One way to do this is to create Articles of the Week, or find existing Articles of the Week, in your classrooms.  Kelly Gallagher, a leading expert on building deeper readers and writers, suggests using Articles of the Week to help students gain access to the text.

Where Can I Find Articles of the Week?

The good news is, if you teach grades 5-12, there are already a lot of pre-made materials out there! Vale Middle SchoolHolmes Middle School, and Riverside Middle School offer a full archive of ready-to-use AoWs.  Other sites, such as Brooks Middle School and Scholastic, provide texts to use for middle-schoolers.  There are numerous resources available for High School students too.  Gallagher, Stuart, and Schotz offer paired texts to create your own AoWs activities. Springville High School and Avon High School offer articles with text-based questions.  I have created my own materials for 5th grade students using a variety of Scholastic articles.  I've uploaded week 1 in Scribd for your benefit.

Making Your Own Articles of the Week

If you are like me and you wanted to tailor your AoWs to your classes specific needs, you need to create your own.  It's easy.
  1. Choose an article on an appropriate lexile for your students.  If you know you are going to use an article for an upcoming writing assignment, using it as an AoW provides students with an opportunity to work with the text before they write about it.  I use the snipit tool to capture images and insert them in my document.
  2. Identify reading and writing skills you want students to practice.
  3. Chunk skills by days of the week, keeping in mind you want them to accomplish the daily bell ringer in 5-7 minutes. 
  4. Create text-dependent questions and skills questions for each day of the week.  
AoWs are an ideal way to provide students with multiple opportunities to work with informational texts.  The more students work with texts, the more successful experiences they will have with writing.