teaching inquiry through writing workshop

Inquiry has been on my mind, ever since I started my journey as an educator. One way I try to integrate inquiry into writing workshop is having the students look at mentor texts in order to determine what good writers do.

During our personal narratives unit, in order to learn what a good writer does, we look closely at mentor texts. In the beginning of the unit, I provided students with a packet of mentor texts that my students examine closely. Our mentor texts were:

  • “Last Kiss” by Ralph Fletcher
  • “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros
  • “My Name in Gold” by Chicken Soup for the Soul
  • Goosebumps from Lucy Calkin’s Raising Narrative Writing Units of Study for grade 5
  • “Mr. Entwhistle” by Jean Little

When I taught students about how to write endings, I decided to use an inquiry approach. Usually, I would just tell students a few strategies on how to write an ending. Instead, I decided to have students read the different endings in the mentor texts and come up with what they noticed these writers did to make their ending strong. After spending time looking at the various endings of the different mentor texts, we shared what they noticed. This was what we came up with. As a teacher, beforehand I had a list of strategies that I wanted the students to learn about endings, and as students were sharing, if there were any that they missed, I made sure to include it. These were the strategies that my students came up with after reading the mentor texts:

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Then, as students worked on writing or revising their endings, I encouraged them to try different types of endings, before choosing the best one. It was fun to see the students use the different strategies that they came up with. This was one easy way that teachers of writing can integrate an inquiry approach to teaching writing. The format of the lesson was a bit different than a normal workshop lesson.

What are some ways you integrate inquiry into reading and writing workshop?

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to confer or not to confer…

“Will you meet with every student?” I had an eager student come up to me and ask me after I shared with my class about my workshop routines. I shared how during independent reading or writing time I will meet with students individually or in small groups. My student seemed genuinely excited about getting feedback and conferring with me, which is the kind of response you want.

One of my #teachergoals (see my previous post) is to improve my feedback and I feel that conferring is the perfect place to start. In order to improve in this area, I needed to first improve how I keep my conferring notes. I’ve tried quite a few different ways to keep track of my conferences from a big 3 ring binder with tracking sheets, clipboards with student names on each box, to using different apps on my iPad (confer and evernote).

This year, I decided to go back to paper, but I created my own conferring notebook. I didn’t like the models I’ve used in the past and I had trouble finding a template that fit what I wanted, so I created my own. I wanted it to be simple enough and without too many categories, but I wanted to focus on a few areas like small group instruction, individual student goals, and teaching points.

So my DIY conferring notebook looked like this:IMG_1477

In the beginning I put a class roster page, so I can keep track of which students I meet with for individual and small group conferences. Then, I have a few pages of conference tips/reminders, and then a section for small group conferences that I can plan out in advance for the week.

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The main section of my conferring notes are pages for my individual students which I color coded each name with a label. Then, I put a goals sheet in front of each student’s section of notes so I can make sure I know what their goals are and I can check off when I the student meets a goal. So in theory it should all work out perfectly, but we’ll see how things go.

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For my writing workshop conferences, I’ve started conferring individually and in small groups for our narrative unit. When I go around to confer, I bring my conferring notebook along with my writer’s tool kit. The writer’s tool kit is something I learned from a summer writing institute I went a few years ago. Christy Curran, from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, shared this idea in a workshop about carrying a writer’s tool kit for the different genres (narrative, opinion, and informational) you teach. Inside my writer’s tool kit, I’ve have sections for: charts, mentor texts, writer’s notebook, and post-its & stickers. It’s an easy way to carry these tools around with you for easy access during a conference. I use the post-its to write the teaching point and compliment I give to my student. They keep the post-it note in their notebook to remind them about what we talked about.

It’s easy when the students are reading or writing independently to try to get other “stuff” done, but think about that student that is eagerly waiting to get your feedback, so keep conferring friends!

How do you keep track of your conferences? Please share any great ideas with us!

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Developing Story Arcs with Sarah Weeks

One of the key and most practical take aways I had this summer from the Teachers College Writing Institute was during my session with author, Sarah Weeks. I attended her class on writing children’s books. She shared with us the importance of a balanced story arc in children’s stories. We examined how the best children’s books out there had really strong story arcs. She had story arcs written out for various well known children’s books. We looked at the story arc of the action in the story, which showed what was happening in the beginning, middle and end. Then, she had us also examine the emotional story that the character went through.

The next step was to start creating our own story arcs for the picture books we would write that week. She shared with us how some teachers, actually had a piece of string that they used to represent the arc. Another method was to use post-its. One color post-it would represent the action of the story, and another color post-it would represent the emotional story arc of my main character. I really loved using the post-its verses just writing it down in my notebook, because I could move around the post-its, add more details, and I could clearly distinguish between the two different arcs. After many hours, I finally had a story arc for my children’s book (still a work in progress).

Last week, I found myself whipping out the story arc I created this past summer, during one of my mini-lessons for our fantasy unit. My students were collecting ideas for their fantasy stories and we had just gone over the story arc of The Paper Bag Princess. I modeled for them creating a story arc of the action and then the emotions of the princess. Then, I showed them the story arc that I created for my children’s book as another model.

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Then, I had them create their own story arcs. I gave them post-it notes, bigger sized white paper, and let them go. I encouraged them to be creative and manipulate the size of the post-its as they needed. I had a few students add another arc, of the setting, with another post-it color. Another student included small drawings on her post-its along with the description. I even had some students layering the post-its on top of each other as they added more details. As the students worked on their story arcs, I kept emphasizing the importance of how having a strong story arc would help them write a better story. Plus, it would make the drafting process a lot easier.  And this was a lesson I definitely learned after spending many hours writing and revising my own story arc this past summer.

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Giving Students Choice in their Writing

In writing workshop, I’ve been teaching an independent writing unit, where my students wrote a piece in the genre of their choice. My students enjoyed having this choice, since there were quite a few genres that we didn’t get to cover throughout the year such as historical fiction, mystery, and action/adventure. At the same time, many students chose to write stories or articles in genres that we did study this year. Even though the students had independence in choosing their genre, they went through a structured writing process together.

One interesting aspect about this unit was seeing how they naturally formed writing groups and partnerships. There were groups that wanted to write in a specific genre or write about the same topic. I had a few students wanting to write in partnerships. I did tell them that they could work together, but they had to be responsible to each write their own chapter or section. I saw students bouncing ideas, possible plots and characters with each other. I saw some groups form, and then disband once they realized their group would not work.

I gave my students choice in how they wanted to publish their writing piece as well. I had many students using ibooks author program to create booklets. My students really enjoyed making ibooks for our fantasy stories in the last unit. Then, they were able to put their ibook into flipsnack in order to post it on their blog! Here is a picture of a student’s ibook put online via flipsnack book. On the blog, you can actually flip through the pages of the book.

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One great book I recommend that you read is Independent Writing by Colleen Cruz. This is a great resource on how to teach students to be independent with their writing and she gives good outlines on how to teach an independent writing unit.

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Even though we had a limited amount of time for this unit (about 3 weeks), my students were able to produce solid pieces from varying genres. More importantly, they were really engaged and excited to work on their writing.

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Why do we write?

A simple question I asked my kindergarten students yesterday.

These were their responses (in order, and almost word for word):

  • We write to practice writing books, because God might tell us to be an author
  • We write to learn
  • We write so we don’t look at what other people write
  • So we can write what we are thinking
  • We write to learn our letters
  • If a person is sad, we can cheer them up by writing a funny story
  • So they can learn more and so that when we write we don’t try peaking (at what others write)
  • If we grow up  and we don’t know how to write we won’t know what to do (at this my youngest boy said, “Yes, that makes sense, I think!” It was so cute)
  • If we don’t know how to write the word we think with our head and write
  • Sometimes, if we want to write a letter to God and we don’t know how to write we can’t do that

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The kinders have spoken. What do you think? Why do we write?

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Dream BIG!


I was really moved and inspired by this TED talk video I watched a few days ago on this blog called Inquiry Within. I showed my students this video and they clapped at the end! After watching it, I asked my students what their dreams are. I heard various things from, making a change in the world, helping shy kids become more outgoing, starting my own duct tape wallet business, saving the oceans, coming up with a new type of clean energy and more. It was so exciting to hear their dreams. I don’t know why I haven’t asked them earlier. I challenged them to think of ways to take action on their dreams now and not wait until they are “older”.

Often I wonder if what I say to them sticks inside. My students have been blogging for the slice of life challenge this month. I suggested that they write about their dreams for their blog post today. When I came home, I was checking their blogs, and quite a few of them wrote about this TED talk. It was so encouraging to read their positive responses to the talk and hear them talk more about their dreams. Here is some of their writing!

“What I learned is that nobody can tell you that your dream is stupid. Just believe you can make a difference!!!”

“This is a poem I wrote about my Dream.

Dream even when you don’t have to,
Remember all the things you dream about,
Everyone has to dream of something,
Anyone can can believe in their dreams,
My dream is DUCT TAPE, BUSINESS.”

“I really liked this film because I thought  it expressed very good details about how to always try your best. I think it really motivated us to dream big, work hard, and to stay humble, I know what you are thinking, why stay humble? But as it said in the video “no one likes a big jerk”. I mean think about it, do you think you are a big jerk. But it also said that only you could dream big and only you can make your own history. Think about it!?

“Just now My teacher wanted me to think of a bigger dream. At first I couldn’t think of anything but then as other people started sharing their big dream I got an idea. My big dream was to open a dog rescuing business because in China there are lots of dogs that doesn’t have a home, and I want to give them a home.”

“DREAM BIG. WORK HARD. STAY HUMBLE. These words have been stuck in my head as if they had been super-glued. Today after school, I immediately turned on the computer to watch a TED video. It was called:  Write Your Story, Change History. By just one short video, I never knew I could learn that much. The wisdom of words spread into my ears. I learned that by just one helping hand, you can make a big difference. A girl born with cancer has made a big difference all around the states raising millions of money to help people with cancer. One girl. One dream. One lemonade stand. Seems normal right? But look at how much she’s done. Even us ordinary people can make a big difference in our world right now.  Now it’s your turn to start taking action to changing history.”

Another idea I have swirling in my head is to have the kids write and perform their own “TED talk” that will inspire others!

How do you inspire your students to dream big? 

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Classroom Makeover

I admit there are times where I’ve teared at the end of the Extreme Home Makeover when the family sees their amazing and dream like home after all the struggles they’ve gone through.  There’s something about the predictable formula of makeover shows that draws me in. Well, my classroom has slowly been having a makeover throughout the year, not quite as drastic as the makeovers on the TV show, but enough to make an impact on learning.

The past few weeks we’ve been doing a coaching cycle with our literacy coach, where we’ve done various walk throughs in classrooms. We’ve been going in small groups, looking at classroom charts, libraries and classroom setup. I absolutely love being able to see other classrooms. There are so many amazing teachers in my school, and I hardly ever get a chance to go into the classrooms of the other grades. I enjoyed having the chance to walk through classrooms from 3rd-8th grade.

It’s so interesting to see how other teachers set up the same amount of space that we’re given in our classroom. I was so impressed by all the creativity and uses of the spaces I saw. I felt very inspired to really reflect on my own classroom space and be more intentional with how I set things up. Here are a few reflections after my visits:

1. Create bold, visual and interactive charts. I decided to try to get more pictures and visuals with the text on my charts. Also, I used various colored post-its to make things pop out.  I have some interactive charts like the one that keeps progress on our book club groups. I love to go to chartchums when I need some inspiration on spicing up my charts!

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2. Utilize the entire classroom space.  In my original classroom, I had wanted my meeting area in the back and it took up 2/3 of the space in the back with pockets of space not used for anything.  I changed my meeting area in the front, that way I can utilize my projector and document camera during my mini-lessons.

I also divided the back into two equal areas. I got a new table so I could do small group lessons there while keeping the library in the other half. My students and I are really enjoying the new set up!

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3. Create more interactive bulletin boards. Again, I’m trying to be more intentional in how I use my classroom space including bulletin boards. On one section of the bulletin boards in the back of my classroom, I’m using to keep track of post-it notes that students do in reading workshop. I’m sorting them into categories we use: progressing, secure, & exceeds expectations. That way, students can see where they are in the spectrum and can help them push their thinking and writing to becoming in the secure and exceeds expectations categories.

We’ll continue to add post-it notes as we continue through our fantasy unit. You can see the post-its hanging in the picture above. I got this great idea from another fabulous 5th grade teacher on my team, Kate!

How do you utilize your classroom space effectively? What tips can you share? When was the last time you visited another colleagues classroom for ideas? 

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