Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Getting The Most From Mentor Texts

The Effective Use of Mentor Texts

It all starts with selecting and sharing powerful texts and simply letting kids enjoy them. Spread the joy of reading great words and what possibilities they spark in the mind of the reader. Reading a text for enjoyment before you move to examining craft increases the likelihood of the text impacting on a student’s writing. 

When the student knows the text, it allows them to release their cognitive energy more specifically to that aspect of the text under examination.

Think of mentor texts as a term that essentially means –models, exemplars or examples. ‘Mentor texts’ is not something we do within a writing program for its own sake. It is not an entity in itself. It is an integral part of learning how to become a better writer. It requires the ability to read like a writer in order to be able to see the potential in a text to provide a model worth following or adopting.

We are looking for writing we want our students to emulate. Our lens must be purpose and craft. So we need to select texts where we can imagine students imitating the style of a particular author. If you imagine your students saying, ‘I can do that!’ then you have discovered a text worthy of adoption.

Choose a text to match a specific purpose. It may be an investigation about punctuation, vocabulary, or dialogue. Make it something your writer’s need to elevate their writing. Your assessment of student writing will guide you in the right direction when looking for suitable texts.

Before any workshop read the selected text for familiarity using a writer’s eye. Reading a text in this way takes practice. It is a skill acquired over time, not overnight. Zoom in on something that will assist students to write more effectively.

When presenting an exemplar you are rereading a portion of the text for a specific purpose, rather than the entire text. Your teaching is mindfully focused on that particular aspect of the text. This is the teaching lens you adopt. It is helpful if you can name the craft move you are noting.

If you are a writer yourself, reading like a writer is easier to master. You can’t escape it. It is something you feel compelled to do in order to improve your own writing craft.

When presenting the lesson, read the extract for the beauty of the language used. Show your admiration for the craft of the writer. Follow this by considering specific writing moves you might try. Consciously use think aloud to share what you have noticed the author do. Student writers need regular exposure to this kind of thinking.

Ask students to consider why the author made this particular move. Using texts in this way involves a particular process. Students do not learn these important crafting moves by osmosis, or some kind of magic. They learn them through regular exposure and close examination provided by a writing teacher. This is the responsibility of the most proficient writer in the room. In time, student writers will hopefully begin to see the potential in texts they are reading to influence the quality of their writing. Such an objective should guide our teaching.

Teaching writing can feel isolating. It is comforting to know you have so many other writers to support your efforts. Use the literature created by others to inspire your students to lift their writing performance. Gather around you texts written by authors you know and trust. When you acquire your own collection of trusted texts you frequently discover a single text may offer multiple instances for teaching aspects of writing. -Such a gift to your teaching.

In addition to this, take the opportunity to use student written texts as exemplars. It shows them that sometimes they are writing in similar ways to published authors. It expands the learning circle and provides powerful motivation. Students are more likely to view themselves as writers if we draw attention to such aspects of their writing.

Consider creating charts that document craft moves authors (student and published authors) have used. This type of documentation provides additional motivation to persist as a writer. And writing development relies heavily on persistence. I learnt that from a mentor…

Friday, February 17, 2017

Spotlighting Punctuation- Helping Young Writers To Better Understand Its Purpose

Investigating end punctuation and recording examples using
sentence strips
Teachers often lament that many children do not remember to “put in” the punctuation when they write. Sometimes we see punctuation accuracy as the difference between “good” writing and, well, “bad” writing. And, as teachers, we wrestle with ways to improve precision in punctuation use. We know the importance of using written conventions accurately, but our students often don’t understand our concern. 

Perhaps we need to change the way we teach punctuation by leaning toward inquiry and conveying meaning. For example, we might show children how punctuation works, rather than giving them punctuation rules. We might teach children to value punctuation marks as much as letters and words for conveying meaning. We might invite children to see that punctuation is not something writers add on to writing, but is something writers use to help them compose and to help their readers understand what they want to say.

Partner reading and discussing punctuation use.

Here are some ways teachers might help their students become aware of punctuation that is precise and powerful:

From the beginning of the year, be sure to read aloud to students with attention to punctuation. Occasionally take time to point out interesting punctuation in a read aloud text. Let it become part of the conversation in your room about books, reading, and writing.

Plan an investigation on written conventions.  
This is a chunk of time when you will be focusing on conventions in reading and writing. Your purpose is to teach children that readers read the punctuation to make meaning, so writers write with punctuation to convey meaning.

Give students opportunities to notice punctuation as they read and to rehearse and discuss what the punctuation does to a reader’s voice.

Ask students to undertake an inquiry into specific forms of punctuation.  
What do they discover about how writers use commas? What do dashes mean and what do readers do with their voices when they see them?  
How is meaning shaped by the punctuation a writer chooses to use?

Allow students to “try out” punctuation in their notebooks, the way musicians practice on their instruments. This is a place for rehearsal, and for working toward achieving a voice. How can they use punctuation to make their writing clearer?

Open up the full range of punctuation for students, including dashes, ellipsis, and semi-colons. Let them experiment.  Let them enjoy writing interesting and complex sentences.

Ask students to play with interesting punctuation as much as you would want them to play with interesting words.

Teach students to study  mentor authors as one way to learn about punctuation.

Teacher asks students what they have noticed about the use of particular punctuation
by mentor authors.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Tuesday Slice Of Life Story - Fake News,It's Just Not True

I found myself in a reflective mood this morning, as I sipped a morning coffee and thought about fake news and its intrusion into our lives in recent times. Hateful and spurious claims appear across all forms of media these days and it becomes increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction. The speed with which the news cycle moves makes fact checking all the more critical, all the more under pressure.

Facebook regularly throws up deliberately distorted reports and memes. We are bombarded by fakery.  The need for critical literacy becomes more important by the day. The ability to question is ever more needed in the face of such blatant chicanery. Fake news, as we know, can spread around the world in a matter of seconds...

Then I began to think about when I was a child and fake news was a fairly benign phenomenon. It did not possess the tremendous reach it now demonstrates. It existed within families, and in neighbourhoods, and owed its allegiance to urban myths, family secrets, here-say and local legend. It was often based on superstition. It was to some extent contained, and often localized. 

Sometimes, it used to protect us from the harsh reality of truth, enabling us to avoid disappointment and regret.  It lived in playgrounds, on street corners and in schools. Nevertheless, we swallowed those messages just as people do today. It is sad to think where the digital age has taken fake news. It has the capacity to spread with the rapidity of an epidemic. It often possesses a more sinister projection in the hands of its purveyors.

The following poem talks to that earlier, more innocent time, when fake news looked decidedly different, and certainly less dark in its intention.

Would You Believe?
My Uncle Bob told me there were crocodiles in creek.
My Dad said he knew a man with barbed wire whiskers.
A kid at school told me they made green jelly from cow’s hooves.
My Mum said, if I pulled funny faces, the wind might change
And I’d stay that way forever.
My sister told me if I swallowed my chewing gum, it would stick to my heart
And I’d die,
-Just like that.

Sometimes, I used to climb up on the fence just to see where rainbows ended.
And I thought snakes slept at the foot of my bed ready to strike at midnight.
All because Ronald Hope said it was true.

I’m all grown up now
I know that some things
I was told all those years ago
Aren’t altogether true
…I think.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tuesday Slice of Life Story- The Moon and Me

The moon has been a recurring theme in my writing. As a boy I pondered much thought regarding its magnificence. I would lie in my bed staring out the window imagining i could see a face on that distant orb. I witnessed Neil Armstrong's first tentative steps upon its surface while viewing a somewhat grainy black and white television set during my first year of teaching. I have stood under its full beaming reflection in the middle of Australia's heartland and marveled at the light it provided in that vast open space. I can still hear my father crooning the words, 'Blue moon, I saw you standing alone...' The moon even features in the title of my latest book of poetry. The moon has featured in many phases of my life.

Last night, the moon once again made itself known to me and today these words emerged in my notebook before landing here.

The Moon And Me

The moon seems bright
In the sky tonight.
It glows like a child's smile.
I witnessed its great majesty close to midnight
when I took my dog out for her end of evening snuffle and wander.

In all honesty,
I should have lingered longer.
-And paid the moon its due attention.
But for me and the moon,
It is an enduring relationship of fleeting admiration.

Its always been like that
for the moon and me.

Supporting Student Writers To Grow Notebook Ideas

Student writers, frequently need extra guidance and support in the early stages of the new school year. 

To develop that essential momentum and confidence necessary for successful writing, your input is of critical importance. 

They present as inexperienced writers. They are learning to trust a new teacher, new surroundings, and maybe new classmates.

It takes a time to adapt to new routines and expectations. One of the things they want to know is-What does this teacher expect of me as a reader and writer? 

How do we as teachers assist students to gain trust and develop momentum as writers?

Used appropriately, Writer’s notebooks allow developing writers to make stronger connections to the world surrounding them.

The harvesting and documenting of their writing lives provides an easy, informal way to start thinking about new topics and ideas. 

The young writer become increasingly more observant and this leads to increased engagement. With time and practice, the notebook becomes a purposeful collection zone for a myriad of ‘stuff’ to stimulate their writing lives. 

Embryonic writing ideas, experiments with words, favourite quotes, amazing facts and trivia, lists, dreams, wonderings and ideas for the future begin to emerge and spread across the notebook pages. The confidence to bravely venture into new writing realms grows with daily encouragement and support. 

The statement, ‘I don’t know what to write about,’ fades away submerged under an avalanche of potential ideas. 

It is important to gently lead inexperienced writers forward by revealing the hidden potential of this writer’s resource, showing them how it can play a vital role in their daily lives as writers.

Encourage every one of your writers to maintain a close connection to their writer’s notebook. Consider it a travelling companion. Keep it handy and write, draw, paste, anything that presents as a possible writing inspiration. Encourage writing beyond the four walls of your classroom. Writing isn't something we just do at school.

Encourage students to regularly reread their blossoming notebook entries. Have them excavate those hidden gems, to see if there are any entries that spark ideas for further writing.  Frequently, new ideas for writing emerges from older ones.

After a few weeks of notebook entries have been gathered conduct a silent share session, sometimes referred to as a gallery walk. Students select a page they believe best demonstrates their thinking and documenting as a writer. Leave that page open on a table/desktop and allow others to read, observe and note ideas they believe might assist them as fellow writers. Invite students to walk around the room silently, observing and making notes about the great things they are witnessing in notebooks.  

Following the silent sharing, bring the class together to allow time to discuss some of the great ideas gleaned from the gallery walk. Such actions nourish thinking and create fertile ground for ideas.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Writing And The Art of Observation

    The Writer As Observer

Learning to be observant is a valuable life skill.

So keeping a writer’s notebook requires all writers to develop keen observational abilities. In this way the writer begins to more notice things in the world around them more acutely. The writer begins to collect sensory observations to inform their writing efforts.

To help student writers to develop greater awareness of how writers capture sensory observations you could:
   Share some text examples where the writer includes sensory details. Details that enable the reader to visualize the scene.
   Share an example from your own notebook where you have focused on what’s around you. Consider your 5 senses. Your writing is a snapshot of the world around you.
'I notice as a father walks in the damp sand close to the shoreline. His young son follows closely behind. He stretches to place his feet within his father’s substantial footprints. This scene is a strong metaphor for father and son relationships. It also prompts me to think of the role of the teacher in the classroom –leading so that others may follow in their steps…'   
From my notebook 

When we write about characters we need to explore the physical terrain of that character. It is often helpful to think about this character in terms of the senses. I often share examples from my own writing to emphasize how as a writer I try to incorporate such devices. Here are a few I found:

Touch: 'When I shook my father’s hand, it felt as firm as the wood he had worked with all those years.'

Sound: 'I listened to my mother’s singing as she ironed and I played with my cars at her feet. The hissing of the iron provided an accompaniment to her questionable melodies. She sang joyfully, like the birds of the morning.'

Smell: 'On laundry day my mother whenever my mother gave me a hug, I was enveloped in the unmistakable smell of Velvet soap. It was so pervasive, I had to rub my nose.'

Sight: 'When she smoked, she drew the terrible smoke into her lungs, slowly titled her head back and exhaled towards the sky. She could have been a dragon caught in a daydream.'

Taste: 'When I kissed my father good night, I could taste the saltiness of sweat on his cheek from a hard day's work.'

Using the Senses

When developing writers write about familiar scenes they often have trouble describing that scene with sufficient clarity. They may not realize that the words on the page do not provide enough information for the reader to form a clear image of the setting. 

They forget that the reader may not be as familiar with the setting as they are. In such instances it is useful to request that the writer ‘develop’ the scene using the five senses to build the image the reader needs.

The aim is to assist young writers to notice sensory details and develop the habit of writing them down when using their writer’s notebooks.

Ask questions about the use of sensory details when conferring:

Which senses did you use when you wrote this piece?

What other details could you add that involve the senses?

Example of text strong in sensory observation

‘The red girl and I stood under the guava tree looking each other up and down. What a beautiful thing I saw standing before me. Her face was big and round and red, like a moon –a red moon. She had big, broad, flat feet and they were naked to the bare ground: her dress was dirty, the skirt and blouse tearing away from each other at one side; the red hair that I had seen standing up on her head was matted and tangled; her hands big and fat, and her fingernails held at least ten anthills of dirt under them. And on top of that, she had such an unbelievable, wonderful smell, as if she had never taken a bath in her whole life.'

Source:  'Annie John' by Jamaica Kincaid

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Gathering Entries In A New Writer's Notebook

The first entry in a new writer's notebook is most important…
It sets a tone and can be viewed at a statement of intent. It might aim to say this notebook is my special place to gather special thoughts and ideas. 

This opening entry might be in the form of a letter to one’s self about what you intend to do as a writer in the days and weeks ahead. John, a fifth grade writer wrote the following poem as his initial entry.

It’s a Place

Why am I keeping this notebook?                                                                                                                          

Because it’s a place where I can keep track of my life                                                                                                                                                    
It’s a place where I can observe closely and where I can store little pieces of strength                                                                                                                
It’s a place where I can keep the elements of my life                                                                                

(Lightning, fire, ice, time and space)                                                                                                                      

And Writing (poetry, words, stories)                                                                

It’s a place where tales weave                                                                                                                                                      
All in all                                                                                                                                                                                                   
It’s a place for ME.

The first notebook entry might be prompted by an
artifact or a significant piece of ephemera. Remember, you set the tone and the expectation with the very first notebook entry.

I recall starting one of my notebooks with by pasting in a collection of business cards I had gathered. Each one had a story attached to it. It was essentially a topic list for further writing ideas. 

You could ask each student to collect a piece of ephemera, or a photograph to be on page one of their notebook and write from this place.  

Other possible starting points :

  • The story behind their first name or family name (significance, history).
  • Lists. They can provide the launching pad for a series of writing ideas.
  • Questions and wonderings.
  • A story you are itching to tell
  • A summer observation/event that is worth remembering forever.
  • Treasure Trove. Collect magazine pictures, words, headlines and have students select, connect, talk and write about one of the items they consider to be treasure.
  • Lifting a line from a text and use that line to launch a notebook entry. The line can be used anywhere within the writing piece, -beginning, middle, end.
  • Another way to begin your writer’s notebook might be with a statement of intent:

‘My writer’s notebook will be filled with my thinking. Really filled. I want my notebook to be brimming with collected thoughts and ideas. I will share my thinking in words and sometimes in sketches. I will share what is important to me, what I notice, what I hope for, what I hear, what I read and what I learn. All these things I will gather in my notebook. This is the place all my writing will begin, -stories, poems, reports and opinions. I will collect poems, stories, quotes, extracts and favourite words and phrases. I will post in photographs and pieces of ephemera to act as memory markers. I will fill my notebook with all those things that inspire me to write. Maps, drawing, words and images all together in this very special notebook. A notebook containing the treasure I never want to forget.’

There are many ways to begin. Writers make decisions. Choose a way that suits you and your students. Exposure to a range of possibilities will ensure every writer successfully leaves the launch pad in their own exciting way. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Setting Expectations For The Writer's Notebook

As a new school year begins, it is timely to remember your students are largely inexperienced writers so they will be looking for direction from the most proficient writer in the room- their teacher.

Firstly, I believe it is important to establish some protocols with your students regarding the way the writer's notebook is managed and maintained. 

I suggest you invite a discussion about how, as a community of writers you are going to best use this writer's resource. From the discussion try to establish some non-negotiables regarding the management and care of the notebooks.

I present the following ideas as a  possible starting point. As you grow to understand the needs of your young writers, you will no doubt modify some of these expectations. They need to reflect the immediate needs of your growing community of writers. 

  • We write in our notebooks at school.
  • We write in our notebooks in places beyond our school.
  • We can find suitable topics and ideas from our lives, our reading, and from our thinking.
  • As writers we will make decisions about our writing on a daily basis.
  • As writers we can try new writing strategies taught in our writing workshops in our notebooks.
  • We respect every writer’s notebook.
  • We should always write to the best of our ability and attempt to make our writing ‘reader friendly’ at all times.
  • We should respect our notebooks by taking care of it and having it in class every day.
  • We should continually practice what we know about spelling, punctuation and grammar in our notebooks.

Think of your list of expectations as a set of guidelines to clarify writing behaviours. It will create working parameters outlining each writer’s responsibilities. 

You might also consider drawing up a list of teacher expectations to identify what students can expect in relation to how you will support their writing efforts. This would be a most worthwhile reflection to share.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rereading- Finding Treasure In Old Words

New Ideas From Older Words

I frequently myself discussing the importance of rereading to writers, -all writers, experienced or less experienced. Young writers need to be encouraged to develop the habit of rereading older notebook entries in order to discover new ideas. It is an opportunity to rediscover old treasure as well as new possibilities hidden among those older words.

Nancie Atwell in ‘Lessons That Change Writers’  offers messages about writing laden with timeless value. 
She writes, ‘Writing is as much an act of reading over what we have written as it is drafting new writing.’

These words set me to thinking. A lot of student writers are not consciously skilled in the act of rereading. For this reason it needs to be drawn to their attention. We need to show them how and why rereading is an important skill to add to their writing armoury. They need to see it explicitly modeled and valued by a proficient writer. This way they are more likely to adopt this valuable practice.

A lack of consistent and conscious rereading is frequently the thing preventing the work of young writers rising above the ordinary. Learning the habit of rereading and applying it in a conscious way could make the world of difference to the quality of the writing they  produced for their reading audience.

Rereading Notebook Entries
We need to model the way we reread our own notebook entries and alert students to the possibilities that this rereading quite literally throws up. –All those long lost entries that bubble back to the conscious level of our thinking. This is rereading to ‘excavate’ lost gems and potential new writing ideas.

Rereading As We Write
The other type of rereading is the reading undertaken as we write. This rereading is equally important as it keeps the writing on track and headed in the right direction.

Rereading has many benefits. It allows the writer to pick up many things including:
  • Unintended repetitions
  • Contradictions
  • Weak, junky verbs
  • Word omitted, or words in the wrong place
  • Anything overlooked
  • The voice of the writer
  • The point of view of the writer
  • The tone of the writing
  • Grammatical omissions
  • Spelling errors
Let’s Hear It For Rereading
Rereading aloud is equally important as reading ‘in your head.’ It allows the writer to hear the text as a reader would hear it and serves to highlight ‘the lumps and bumps’ in the text. These inhibitors may be impeding the flow of words. I often tell students to imagine they are hearing the text for the very first time. ‘Can you hear your voice?’  ‘Do your words flow easily from your tongue as you read?’

Rereading is a boon to any writer. It is part of learning to read like a writer. Developing writers need to be aware of its benefits and learn from the example set by their teachers and mentors. We must show them we value this strategy as another source of ideas as well as being accountable as a writer. If you’re still not convinced, might I respectfully suggest rereading this article.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Giving Student Writers A Great Start in 2017

Making A Great Start To Writing in 2017

The new school year is on the horizon in Australia.
I have prepared some thoughts to assist teachers to launch writing in their classrooms in the early days of the new school year. Hope you find the attached thought helpful in presenting your writing program in 2017.

My sincere hope for this year, is for student writers to encounter teachers who are focused on how to write, rather than what to write. In order for this to occur, teachers of writing must be prepared to commit to being writers too. Writing alongside your students will send them a vital message regarding the importance of being someone who chooses to write. it will immeidately elevate writing in the minds of impressionable, curious learners. I urge you to be bold and brave. Become the risk taker you want your students to be.

 I can say this with full confidence; every teacher possesses the potential to be the most influential writing mentor students will encounter in any school year. 

You don’t have to be a published writer to successfully mentor young writers, but you most certainly need to be a teacher who writes. You must be someone who makes time to write. Someone who keeps a writer’s notebook. You must be someone who understands the challenges and the joys of writing.

Attitude is everything. If you present as a brave and fearless writer, chances are your students will replicate your courageous stance. You will be joining them on a learning journey. You will be doing what they are doing. Your credibility will skyrocket. So will student engagement. Levels of teaching satisfaction will be greatly enhanced.

When you make a decision to share your writing life, you are helping to build a sense of community and risk taking, and risk taking is essential for creating a classroom where writing is seen to flourish.

On day one of the new school year you can set the ball rolling by sharing your notebook. Talk about what it feels like to be able to collect ideas in this special book. Let them know where you found your ideas. Share insights regarding your particular writing territories and influences. Leave them in no doubt about your writing intentions.

Read some entries and invite questions and responses.

Assure students they will be given the opportunity to create their own writer’s notebook. 

Choice actually begins here. Each writer should be afforded the opportunity to choose a notebook that best suits their individual needs as a writer.  

Every notebook will be different because every notebook should reflect the individual writer’s focus and style. 

Students should be encouraged to develop a vision regarding the kinds of things fellow writers might see them working on in the notebook.

Have them talk in small groups about the possibilities for their writing.

Once every student has a notebook of their choosing you can invite them to further personalize the books. Encourage them to decorate the covers in ways that reflect their interests and passions. 

Suggest they begin by gathering the materials- words, pictures, drawings, photographs, tickets, cards they need to create a unique cover design. 

They might gather these materials at home and bring them to school in order to complete the task of placing shaping, cutting, gluing and covering their notebook covers- front and back. This task is a further statement of individuality and intent.The first entry is most important.It sets a tone and establishes expectations for the notebook writing.