Tag Archives: firstHand Fridays

Writing For Life by Laura Robb

Welcome to firsthand Friday! You made it. Here we are. Last week, Laura Robb wrote about how the Common Core State Standards steer reading away from fiction, and she argued that fiction can have a powerful and transformative effect on the reader. This week, Laura writes about the effect of non-directed writing.

by Laura Robb

When a writing curriculum is too directive and prompt-driven, it can turn students away from writing and send their writing lives underground. When I wrote Teaching Middle School Writers (2010), I discovered that the high stakes tests with their recurrent prep and writing prompts caused students to dislike writing at school. However, despite their dislike of in-school writing, students told me they had a rich writing life outside of the classroom. They wrote stories, blogs, fan fiction, text messages, poetry, and unsent letters. Some designed cars, trucks, and boats and wrote about each design. When students have an authentic purpose and audience, they write.

The Common Core State Standards place a great deal of emphasis on informational/explanatory and argument writing but students have a desire to write in a wide variety of genres. Smart Writing, my middle school writing curriculum, contains a balanced approach to writing and reading through studying mentor texts and writing about reading fiction and nonfiction. Smart Writing includes narrative writing (short memoir and short, short story), informational/explanatory writing (informative and compare/contrast essays), and argument writing (persuasive and analytical essays).

Students told me they had a rich writing life outside of the classroom

Equally important is the booklet called Free Choice Writing, which should be an integral part of any middle school writing curriculum. Free Choice Writing invites students to choose their genres, and the choice of genre depends, of course, on the purpose and the audience. This type of non-directed writing, when supported by lessons on genre, style, craft, technique, and writing conventions, can strengthen students’ writing and give them agency over their entire writing process. Smart Writing builds on what students need to fuel their writing lives, provides them with the choices that lead to engagement, and shows teachers how to plan and present units of study with lessons that integrate genre knowledge with craft, style, technique, and writing conventions.

It’s true, that in today’s high stakes testing climate, for students to experience success in college and career, they must be able to communicate, share and use information to solve complex problems, and generate and gather ideas from reading and research for writing about academic topics (Applebee & Langer, 2013; Burke, 2013; Gallagher, 2004, 2006, 2011; Kittle, 2008, 2012).

However, for students to grow a personal reading and/or writing life, a life where they choose books to read and purposes for writing, a school curriculum needs to move beyond college and career to reading and writing for life.

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Laura Robb is the author of several classic books on literacy, including The Smart Writing Handbook and Teaching Middle School Writers. A survey conducted by Instructor magazine named Laura as one of the nation's top 20 educators. Visit her web site for teaching tips and to find out more about her in-service offerings. Follow Laura on Twitter @LRobbTeacher for more updates.

Reading For Life by Laura Robb

Welcome back to firsthand Friday! In today's post, author Laura Robb considers the power of story as it relates to the shortcomings of the CCSS.

by Laura Robb

When students read with depth, they infer, use text structure to explore main ideas and themes, and are sensitive to the writers’ word choice as a guide to point of view and tone. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) invite learners to read and analyze complex texts by applying anchor text standards similar to those listed above. I have no issue with these standards, and most of them have been discussed pre-Common Core by me, Ellin Keene, Linda Hoyt, Nancie Atwell, and Jim Burke well before states adopted them.

However, I do take issue with the CCSS’s emphasis on informational texts for reading and writing to argue and explain. The Common Core has tipped the scales of balanced literacy by de-emphasizing fiction, which the Standards renamed “literature.” This separation carries negative connotations for fiction—that somehow fiction is less worthy than nonfiction and, therefore, does not have as strong a role in preparing students for college and career. And yet, great writers like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Flaubert, Hemingway, Baldwin, Morrison, Wright, and Steinbeck all wrote fiction because stories are the stuff of life and define our culture.

The Power of Story

“Reading can be a road to freedom or a key to a secret garden, which, if tended, will transform all of life.” Katherine Paterson shared these words at a National Council of Teachers of English meeting more than 15 years ago. The Common Core tells us that reading and writing are for college and career. But, that is just one aspect of reading and writing. These reciprocal processes can facilitate changes in readers because the stories read or written transcend college and career. Stories are powerful. They transform how one thinks and feels.

In the Sunday, December 21, 2014, New York Times “News in Review,” the article by Keith Oatley and Maja Djikic, both cognitive psychologists at the University of Toronto, describes research that corroborates Paterson’s quote. Two studies show that powerful stories and compelling nonfiction can transform readers’ feelings and personality traits. Using personality tests on subjects before and after they read a piece of fine literature, the researchers showed that the reading changed the subjects. Literature pushed readers to reflect deeply about themselves and their personalities in new ways.

In Cahoots with Characters  

When reading or writing fiction, we live a character’s life, we inhabit their identities, we dream about them at night and think about them during the day, and the process holds the power to transform us. In The Call of Stories, Robert Coles uses the phrase “in cahoots with the character” to illustrate the deep connections that readers can forge with characters and persons.        

Readers are in cahoots when they imaginatively enter into a character’s or a person’s life through reading and writing. This being in “cahoots” enables us to empathize with others and learn things about ourselves that we hadn’t been able to recognize before the reading and  writing.

This being in "cahoots" enables us to empathize with others

Thinking about and discussing books starts at school with teachers reading aloud, with students choosing books that motivate and engage them, and with students participating in literature circles to share and grow their book-inspired ideas. But it doesn’t stop at the edge of the schoolyard. It continues outside of school in the social milieu of blogs and Twitter and face-to-face discussions in outside-of-school book clubs.

Reading with depth, inferring, using text structure to explore main ideas and themes, and being sensitive to the writers’ word choice as a guide to point of view and tone are all skills that students need to navigate the world of information. But let’s not forget what it takes to make a reader for life.

Next week, read Laura’s blog about writing, “Writing for Life.”

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Laura Robb is the author of several classic books on literacy, including The Smart Writing Handbook and Teaching Middle School Writers. A survey conducted by Instructor magazine named Laura as one of the nation's top 20 educators. Visit her web site for teaching tips and to find out more about her in-service offerings. Follow Laura on Twitter @LRobbTeacher for more updates.

Guided Writing, Part 2

In Part 1 of her blog, Linda likened guided writing to guided reading in that they both focus on a learner's needs and take place in small, flexible groups. She also offered suggestions for how to fit guided writing into the daily classroom schedule. In Part 2, Linda offers sample lessons that show specifically how she works with students to lift the level of their writing.

By Linda Hoyt

Sample Guided Writing Lessons

Vignette 1: Guided Writing as an Extension of Guided Reading

Marcella, Stephanie, Malo, Joey, and Megan have been reading about westward migration during guided reading. Their discussions have been rich with connections to the social studies unit we are studying as a class. I decided to shift them from guided reading to guided writing to take advantage of the rich descriptors in the guided reading text. The language of this text is laden with colorful descriptions and interesting sentence patterns, both of which were much needed in these students’ writing.

I explained that we are revisiting the book they have read, not to look at content, but rather to look at the writer. I requested that they reread page 4 and prepare to make observations about the writer’s craft, especially the descriptions and the way sentences are structured.

From page 4, Joey read, “They created maps, charted rivers, identified plants and animals, and brought back tales of harsh weather and beautiful land.” Malo volunteered to share first and observed that one of the reasons he had really liked reading this book was that he could imagine the activities. The book was written so that he could make a movie in his head and understand what was happening.

The other students agreed and set about finding additional examples of places in the book where the author had used lists of actions and interesting descriptions to stimulate visualization for the reader. They concluded that the sentences that listed actions, separated by commas, were very powerful.

Our next step was to turn to the writing they had been doing on westward migration. Each student had a different topic under development. Our challenge in guided writing was to apply what we learned from this author to our own work. They started in pairs helping each other to look for spots in their writing where the strategy for listing actions could be used.

As I closed the guided writing session, I asked them to summarize what they had learned and explain how they would use that understanding in their writing.

As in the previous vignette, I made a note to myself to check with them the next day and invite them to present a group minilesson for the rest of the class as this writing strategy was one not yet covered for the class at large.

Vignette 2: Guided Writing during Writers Workshop

John, Alecia, Alvarito, Shandrea, and Alad lean in closely as I show them the leads in four of my favorite informational picture books. As the students observe, I point out the way the authors have tried to pull me into their texts with first person language such as “Please notice that…” or “Did you know that…” or opening with a question.

I had presented several whole class minilessons on strategies for pulling the reader into informational writing, but these five students continued to develop pieces that read like lists of facts. They would benefit from the increased intensity of a guided writing group on this topic.

As I continued to point out strategies used in these books, I noticed that Alad kept leaning in closer and that Shandrea was totally focused on the language. These are students who are easily distracted and often sit at the back of the sharing circle, yet in the small guided writing group, they were totally connected.

My next step is to show the students a piece of my own informational writing, which I had placed on a sheet of chart paper. I read it and did a think-aloud about how to improve the lead and make it more appealing to a reader. While thinking aloud, I explored the use of questions to open paragraphs and showed the writers how I could change my piece by beginning with a question, such as, “Do bats have belly buttons?” Ultimately, the students assisted me in drafting my new, more inviting draft and were eager to dive into their writing folders to add some life to their own work.

The group lasted about ten minutes, but we accomplished a great deal. As they left the table, I made a note to meet with them again the next day to check on their progress and invite them to share their changes with each other. I also made a note to give these students an opportunity to share what they had learned and their ensuing changes during our sharing circle for writing.

Vignette 3: Guided Writing with Emergent Writers in Writers Workshop

Six eager kindergarten faces shone with excitement as they joined me around the table for guided writing. I had selected these students as a temporary guided writing group because they were still focusing on drawing and were producing very little writing even though I continued to do modeled writing every day.

I modeled how to stretch out a word and say it slowly while writing the beginning and ending sounds. I also reminded them to use picture-alphabet cards, which were on the table, so they could find the picture clues to match the sounds they could hear. We practiced stretching several words. I had modeled these behaviors in whole class sessions, but the intimacy of the small group really helped these writers engage.

Once I had given the group a strategy for writing words, I wanted to give them something concrete to spark ideas. So, next I passed out photos that I had taken the day before of these students doing cross-section drawings of pears and oranges. I asked the students to place their photograph on a piece of writing paper and create labels for the things they could see in the photograph. It worked! They were each able to label several items from the photograph, using at least beginning and ending sounds. And, they started drafting sentences! Thanks to guided writing and the boost in confidence it provided, these students now see themselves as writers.

Reflections

Guided writing, like guided reading, must reside within a rich culture of language and informational explorations. The teaching done in guided writing is based upon the broad range of experiences children have in modeled writing, shared writing, interactive writing, and personal writing. The groups are small and flexible. Teaching is targeted to explicit learner needs, and the emphasis is on the craft or process.

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Linda Hoyt is a nationally recognized consultant who creates environments where engaged children are active participants in their own learning. She is the author, co-author, or editor of Solutions for Reading ComprehensionRevisit, Reflect, Retell, Updated EditionSpotlight on ComprehensionExploring Informational TextsMake It Real, and Snapshots. In addition, she is the author of the Interactive Read-Alouds series and the Explorations in Nonfiction Writing series.

Guided Writing, Part 1

In the first of two parts, educator and author Linda Hoyt describes how to blend guided writing with guided reading. Cheers to the weekend!

by Linda Hoyt

What Is Guided Writing?

I used to think that guided writing occurred when I gave students a writing assignment and directed them to use a particular format, genre, or topic. I believed I was guiding writing when I asked them to write in a learning log about a science experiment, write a response to a treasured story, or write an argument for the best way to solve a math challenge. I was providing guidance, but I was mostly just giving assignments.

I realize that these “assignments” had value for deepening knowledge of content and text structure, but there was little “guiding” about the craft of writing.

Now, I see guided writing as a highly focused, small group writing experience. As in guided reading, this is a time for the teacher to focus tightly on a small group of learners. During this small group time, the teacher can provide connections to minilessons shared with the whole class and give an opportunity for the writers to engage with the minilesson concepts while the she is close by to guide and support. This small group time might be an opportunity to stretch and expand the writing skills of gifted students, to reteach key writing skills for struggling students, or to demonstrate an informational text feature a group of students would find helpful in their content writing. As in guided reading, instruction is built upon learner needs, and groups are small, flexible, and short-term.

Where Does Guided Writing Fit in the Daily Classroom?

Guided Writing as an Extension of Guided Reading

I often slip into guided writing as an extension of a guided reading lesson, taking students into the world of the writer in response to their reading. In this case, I would ask the students to revisit their guided reading selection and think with the eyes of an informational author. For example, I might decide to focus on the author’s craft by asking, “What do we notice about this author’s word choice?” Or, I might decide to focus on informational text features, asking questions about the author’s use of bullets in a list, captions, or conventions like bold-faced headings. In the guided writing group, we would make connections between reading and writing by asking ourselves, “How did techniques or features help us as readers? How might we use those tools in our own informational writing?”

The next step is to get out writing folders and have the students examine a piece of their own informational writing to consider adding text features that would strengthen their message and offer better support to their readers.

In this scenario, guided writing is slipped into the time allocated for guided reading, with students shifting between the two. This requires no adjustments in daily schedules because the guided reading occurs during an already scheduled time block.

Guided Writing Within Writers Workshop

Guided writing can offer instructional power during writers workshop. If you look at your writers workshop schedule, you might be able to allocate ten minutes of each workshop for a guided writing group meeting. This could be regularly scheduled so students know they have guided writing with you on a certain day. It could also be much more flexible in that you could use that allocated guided writing time to gather students in flexible needs groups to do some explicit modeling, reteach a concept from a whole class minilesson, or teach an advanced lesson on a craft element in informational text.

Guided Writing in Content Area Studies

Math, science, social studies, and health all offer rich opportunities to gather small guided writing groups for explicit instruction and support for writing in the content areas. Even a brief session can heighten learners’ awareness and bring increased skill to their written communications.

In Part 2 of her Guided Writing blog, Linda will offer sample lessons to show how guided writing can be a partner to guided reading and support students in their writing journeys. Stay tuned!

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Linda Hoyt is a nationally recognized consultant who creates environments where engaged children are active participants in their own learning. She is the author, co-author, or editor of Solutions for Reading ComprehensionRevisit, Reflect, Retell, Updated EditionSpotlight on ComprehensionExploring Informational TextsMake It Real, and Snapshots. In addition, she is the author of the Interactive Read-Alouds series and the Explorations in Nonfiction Writing series.

History Matters, Part 2

To support cross-curricular strategy instruction and close reading for information, authors Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey have expanded their Toolkit Texts series to include a library of short nonfiction for American history. The two resources—Colonial Times and The American Revolution and Constitution—are out now.

In several blog posts over the next few weeks, Anne and Stephanie share their perspectives and insights into historical literacy. Today's post focuses on annotation to encourage engagement.

History Matters

by Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey

This week we continue sharing essential practices that encourage kids’ engagement and learning in history by using comprehension strategies to read closely and annotate the text.

Annotating: Thinking-Intensive Reading for Understanding

Close Reading is Strategic Reading

To comprehend texts in history, filled with complex ideas and unfamiliar information, readers need a quiver full of strategies to glean meaning. To us, close reading is thinking-intensive reading. Readers consider their background knowledge to make sense of new information and ask questions about what eludes them. They read closely to think inferentially about and analyze new content. They read for the gist, synthesizing the information in the text margins, either on paper or digitally. Readers annotate the text using these strategies as well as jotting down their reactions and responses. Comprehension and thinking strategies such as these are well-grounded in research conducted by P. David Pearson and many others. But one thing is clear: the more challenging the text and ideas, the more readers need to be strategic. That’s how they build their knowledge and understanding.

Annotating and analyzing across texts: Exploring different perspectives

History matters to all of us, but too often textbooks leave out many voices and perspectives. We encourage kids to consider the “untold stories”: the experiences, voices, and perspectives of people who are unrecognized as playing an important role in historical events. Learning about lesser-known individuals provides new insights into historical events and issues.

How can we help kids grasp what happened long ago and far away? Kids relish the opportunity to build historical understanding by reading a variety of texts from multiple sources and analyzing information from different perspectives.

In a fifth grade class studying colonial times, kids gathered around posters of historical fiction accounts and “journals” of children who lived in and around Jamestown. They read about young English colonists and servants, children who were enslaved, and Native American kids, including Pocahontas. Using the articles from Colonial Times: Short Nonfiction for American History, kids read closely, annotating and discussing their questions, inferences, responses, connections, and reactions.

Kids annotate with a specific focus, comparing different children’s perspectives by grappling with the varied experiences and the many challenges colonial and native children faced. Here are one child’s annotations about Thomas Savage, a young boy sent to live with the Powhatan. (Click image to magnify.)

Bring historical characters to life

To wrap up their conversations about different perspectives, kids can collaborate in small groups to create tableaux from a distinct and historically accurate point of view, speaking out as an English orphan sent to colonies or an enslaved child separated from his family or the Native American child Pocahontas. Kids love to be “in character” as they work together to dramatize these short snippets of historical experience.

[Read last week's post: History Matters]

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Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey have enjoyed a fifteen-year collaboration in education as authors and staff developers. They are coauthors of the Heinemann title Comprehension Going Forward and of Strategies That Work. They have also created a family of bestselling classroom materials under Heinemann’s firsthand imprint: The Comprehension ToolkitThe Primary Comprehension ToolkitToolkit TextsComprehension InterventionScaffolding for ELLs, and Connecting Comprehension and Technology. Their newest resource, Short Nonfiction for American History, is discussed in this blog post.

History Matters

The second resource in the Toolkit Texts series, Short Nonfiction for American History, is out now. In several blogs over the next few weeks, coauthors Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey share their perspectives and insights into historical literacy.

by Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey

The active literacy history classroom is awash with rich, engaging resources of all kinds: images, short texts, maps, artifacts, time lines, poems, historical fiction, on-line resources, and biographies. When kids encounter unexpected events, quirky individuals, and surprising information, they become immersed in the dramas and experiences of the times. There is not a worksheet or end-of-chapter question in sight as kids read, write, draw, talk, view, question, and discuss. And research supports this approach: Allington and Johnston (2002) found that students demonstrated higher achievement when classroom instruction focused on a multi-source, multi-genre, multi-perspective curriculum rather than a one-size-fits-all coverage approach.

Our upcoming blogs will introduce several comprehension practices that we believe are essential to building kids’ historical literacy. For the next two weeks, we’ll focus on reading and annotating all kinds of texts using a variety of strategies to build content knowledge. To turn information into knowledge, kids actively annotate their new learning, their questions, and their responses on a variety of sources.

Annotating texts of all kinds is a powerful thinking tool. Kids engage in thinking-intensive learning: they paraphrase, summarize, analyze, and react to new information. This gives them the best shot at understanding and remembering important information and big ideas in history.

Practice #1—Annotate images: Expand learning and understanding from visuals

We often begin with annotating images to get kids engaged in an iconic historical event, such as this famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Battle of Trenton (by Emanuel Leutze, 1851). Students view and observe closely, leave tracks of their thinking, and discuss their questions, inferences and interpretations. Often we pose a question or two to focus their thinking and guide their observations: Who created this? Why and when was it created? What do you think is the author/artist’s purpose or perspective?

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

A group of fifth graders who had read an account of the Battle of Trenton and a primary source diary entry about Washington’s army crossing the Delaware River (see the American Revolution and Constitution: Short Nonfiction of American History collection of primary sources) were asked to carefully observe this painting as part of studying these events. Here are some of their comments:

Wait a minute, it says this was painted in 1851—that’s way after the American Revolution! How did the painter know what happened? He must have used his imagination to paint this.

But we read it was cold and rainy that night—there’s ice in the river, so that is accurate. When we read about it, it happened at night. But it is not night in the picture.

I think that boat would sink if it had all those people in it! It shows lots of action and that it was dangerous…

The men are all pretty brave, especially Washington standing up when it was so rough. I wonder if they really had a flag like that.

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Gallery Walks

When we begin a study of a historical time period or topic, such as the American Revolution, we often start with a gallery walk, posting or projecting images of women, men, and children who are connected to these events. We include colonists, indentured servants, enslaved people and Native Americans, in addition to the founding fathers (with over 60 historical images in the image bank for American Revolution and Constitution: Short Nonfiction of American History, we have plenty to choose from).

We pose the question “Whose revolution was it?” This prompts kids to think about the people described in the pages of their history books: who we remember and why we remember them. The images and short captions spark questions about lesser-known and unrecognized individuals who played important roles in historic events.

Responding to and discussing images piques kids’ interest—and we are ready with additional articles and resources that kids can read to find out more information. We always keep in mind ways to tie practices such as this back to our goal of teaching kids to think like historians. So we wrap up by asking them to consider how images and visuals help us better understand a historical event or topic.

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Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey have enjoyed a fifteen-year collaboration in education as authors and staff developers. They are coauthors of the Heinemann title Comprehension Going Forward and of Strategies That Work. They have also created a family of bestselling classroom materials under Heinemann’s firsthand imprint: The Comprehension ToolkitThe Primary Comprehension ToolkitToolkit TextsComprehension InterventionScaffolding for ELLs, and Connecting Comprehension and Technology. Their newest resource, Short Nonfiction for American History, is discussed in this blog post