The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Posts tagged “Writing

Collaborative Storytelling

The other day I had the opportunity to accompany five Wiley students to the 39th annual Urbana School District Young Authors Celebration. I have written quite a bit about the Young Authors program in the past and continue to feel a great deal of gratitude that I get to work in a district that so thoroughly supports this program for our students in grade K-8.

During the celebration, we got to listen to a professional storyteller, Mama Edie, who told students that we are all storytellers: any time we come home from doing something and start off with, “Guess what?!” we are preparing to tell a story. I love telling stories. It is often the way that I introduce new topics in my classroom, whether it is fractions (talking about the time I messed up a recipe because I didn’t double the ingredients correctly), or early American history (the story of the Revolutionary War), I am always telling stories.

I also love listening to stories. My students have wonderful experiences and they rarely shy from telling them, no matter how silly or how serious they may be. I listen to podcasts as I bike to work so I can listen to the stories of other school leaders, I watch documentaries, television shows, and movies to listen to the stories others have to tell, and I surround myself with music to embrace those stories, too.

So it should be no surprise that, when given the opportunity, I find ways to let my students tell stories through their writing. Inspired by an activity I used at the Young Authors celebration yesterday, I had my students today engage in collaborative storytelling using Rory’s Story Cubes to start the stories.

Students broke up into groups of four and spread out in the room. Each group was given a sheet of paper, a pencil, and four random story cubes. Then they were given five minutes to start telling their stories. Every five minutes, they would rotate papers, read what the previous group wrote, and continue the story, using the story cubes if needed or just picking up where they left off. This provided a great way for them to tell stories together, have fun, and work on writing, all at once.

As students read each others’ stories, they began revising and editing, making corrections and clarifying confusing points. They supported one another and engaged in the writing process in a way that they don’t often do. While I won’t be able to do a writing activity like this every day, it was a great way to kick off the return of Mr. Valencic teaching writing. (My student teacher is finished on Friday and so we decided to transition back some instructional control to me today, starting with writing so that he wouldn’t start a new unit and have me finish.)

How have you engaged in collaborative storytelling? Do you find it valuable?


Staring at a Blank Page

I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.

No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.

I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.

And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.

Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.

Just a blank page.

So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.

So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.

And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.

Just write.

I feel like I have heard that advice before.

Oh, that’s right, I have.

From me.

When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”

The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.

What do you do when you run into writer’s block?


Tweaking the Approach to Guided Reading

Right before Winter Break, my fourth grade partner and I spent a day looking at student literacy data and talking about ways we could better meet the needs of our four dozen or so students. One thing we realised was that we could more effectively and efficiently serve them by changing the way we grouped students for guided reading. Instead of each forming groups from our own classes, we put all of the data for all of our students together and made groups based on that new information. What happened was that about half of my students would be in groups with her and about half of her students would be in groups with me.

We looked at our schedules, bumped some things around, and found a way to both have our main literacy block at the same time. We started this shortly after the second semester resumed and have been meeting at least twice a week to discuss progress, strengths, weaknesses, and any changes we need to make.

Initially, I was meeting with all five of my new groups every day. Then I tried meeting with four groups each day by alternating days with two of the groups. Last week, as we looked at data further, I decided to tweak the schedule a little bit more so that I only meet with three groups on any given day. This has had the benefit of letting me a) give more time to students when I meet with them in their small groups and b) give them more time to work on independent tasks. With this newly tweaked schedule, my students now go to three of four possible twenty-minute stations: Teacher Time (only three of my five groups each day), Read to Self (every group), Writing (every group), and Front Row (two of the three groups, namely, the two not meeting with me for Teacher Time).

Yes, all of my groups are named after somewhat random and/or obscure trees.

At the same time, we decided to use an article series on the newly released Front Row Social Studies page as the foundation of our guided reading texts. Each article is published at multiple grade levels so we can differentiate as needed for our diverse groups of learners. For each article, students read it online, complete a brief comprehension quiz, and have a written response. I would like to say that the students are blowing me away with both their excellent understanding of the texts and with their detailed analyses of what they have read, but that would not be true.

What I am learning, instead, is that many of them are struggling with connecting what they have read and what they know with the questions being given to them. I am also learning that they are not writing very detailed responses. In fact, several students are only writing one or two sentences, while others have copied the entire article and pasted it into their response.

Fortunately, I am able to take this information and use it in my instruction! My student teacher is starting to take over more and more of the teaching responsibilities in the classroom, which means that I can work with more students on specific, targeted skills. I am hopeful that this will result in improved output from students, not because of a test or any arbitrary, artificial metric, but because being able to communicate clearly and effectively with others is an important life skill that I want all of my students to develop!


2017 Reading Challenge

Last year I came across a reading challenge from the folks at WeAreTeachers.com. I had hoped to attempt the challenge, but graduate school, life, and my own To Be Read pile got in the way. I had shared the challenge on Facebook so it popped up again in my feed (thank you, Facebook memories feature!) and I decided to try it again. Here’s the challenge:

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So even though it is now 2017, I am going to undertake the WeAreTeachers 2016 Reading Challenge. I am also going to challenge my students to take on this challenge, albeit with a few slight changes. (Instead of spouse or partner, it will be parent or other family member.) To help my students keep track of their reading challenge, they will use an online resource, Whooo’s Reading, to record the books they’ve read and write responses about what they read.

Of course, there are only 12 books on this list, and I plan on reading considerably more than one book a month. So the supplementary part of my personal reading goal for 2017 is to at least five books from each of the following genres:

  • Autobiography/Biography
  • Classic Literature
  • Fantasy
  • Graphic Novel
  • Historical Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Nonfiction (not related to education)
  • Picture Book
  • Realistic Fiction
  • Science Fiction

None of the books I read for the WeAreTeachers challenge can be counted toward the genre challenge, so I am setting a goal to read a total of 62 books in 2017! (According to my Goodreads account, I read 50 books in 2016, so this is going to be a bit of a stretch goal for me.) Parents, family, and friends are all welcome to join us in our reading challenge!

What will you read this year?


I Voted

There have been so many things on my mind over the past several weeks, but I have been ridiculously busy and so this once-daily blog has become an occasional blog. I keep hoping I will get back into the swing of writing each day, but then something comes up and gets in the way (usually my need to eat and/or sleep).

Many of you know that I am a Champaign County Election Judge. This is a very fancy title for the people who spend all day at the polling places on election days, checking in voters, distributing ballots, answering questions about assigned precincts, directing voters to the tabulator after they marked their ballots, and processing grace-period voters who are able to register and vote in their precinct on election day.

This past Tuesday was the quadrennial General Election for the United States and, among many other things, voters headed out to the polls to select their choice for President of the United States of America. I was assigned to my own precinct this year, which means I got to be the first voter in line and the first person at the Savoy Recreation Center to cast a ballot. We processed 971 other voters during the course of the 13 hours the polls were open and it was a very busy day, from the time polls opened at 6:00 am until they closed at 7:00 pm.

Every time I return to school after an election, students ask me who I voted for. A colleague of mine shared on social media that his response to students is always, “I voted for you.” I was thinking about this on Tuesday and wrote something that I suppose could be deemed a poem. (My father-in-law is dancing a happy jig right now.) It is not polished at all, but I wanted to share it anyway.

I Voted

I voted today.
I voted for you
I voted for me
I voted for him
I voted for her
I voted for them
I voted for us.

I voted for today
I voted for tomorrow
I voted for the present
I voted for the future.

I voted for truth
I voted for justice
I voted for freedom
I voted for mercy
I voted for compassion
I voted for kindness.

I voted for all who can
I voted for all who cannot
I voted for those who will
I voted for those who will not.

I voted for the old
Who have walked a long way
I voted for the young
Whose journeys have just begun.

I voted for the lame, the halt, the withered
I voted for the tired, the weary, the poor
I voted for the yearning masses
Struggling to be free.

I voted for the hearty, the hale, the bold
I voted for the healthy, the strong, the wealthy
I voted for the eager millions
Enjoying freedom’s light.

I voted to make a difference
I voted to change the world
I voted to shape our lives.
I voted for the belief
That things can be better.
I voted for the belief
That what always has been
Doesn’t always have to be.

I voted.


Author Visit

One of the many reasons I look forward to the Illinois Young Authors Contest, with its accompanying Young Authors Conference in Bloomington each year. is the opportunity to meet published authors from across the state of Illinois. I have written about several of these authors in the past and the Skype chats they have done with my class.

Last Friday, we had the chance to meet another one of these authors who was visiting as part of the Illinois Youth Literature Festival. Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of several books, include an awesome biographical picture book called Josephine. She visited with all of the fourth and fifth grade classes and then visited second and third grade.

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During her presentation, she talked about the writing process, shared two of her stories, and answered questions. I was impressed by the quality questions my students asked. I was particularly grateful to hear Ms. Powell talk about the amount of time she spends on editing and revising her work.

It was a great visit and a wonderful way to finish the week! I hope at least some of my students were able to go to the literature festival over the weekend so they could meet other authors and learn more about some of the great literature resources available in our own community.


Weekend Writing

It has been a long-time goal of mine to help my students write more authentically. Authentic writing, for me, is writing that is real–not realistic, nor based on reality, but real as in from the heart and mind of the author. Authentic writing is something you mean and something you intend. This can be challenging when you are being told what to write and when to write, but I believe it is possible. To borrow a phrase from a book that I read this summer, I want my students to write pieces that they want to write and that the audience wants to read.

I was expressing this goal to my district’s elementary literacy coach and she had some ideas. Students often tell us they have nothing to write about or they don’t know what to write about. Her strategy for helping them overcome this writer’s block is to do something she calls “weekend writing.” I have no idea if this was an original idea she developed, if it was something she adapted, or if it is a strategy she lifted directly from another teacher, but I had never heard of it before and was excited to try it out with my class, as it seems to get at the heart of authentic writing.

After discussing and planning, we arranged for her to visit my class today to introduce the topic. She showed the students the graphic organizer for weekend writing and modeled how she would fill it out. I assisted in the process. After the organizer was completed, she and I had a conversation about what was written. This is a key component of the writing process that often gets overlooked. If students can talk to each other about what they did or what they think, they can write about it!

Once we had modeled it for the students, we gave them the graphic organizers and set them on the task of jotting down some ideas about what they did over the weekend, writing things like who they were with, what they did inside, what they did outside, what they ate, and where they went. As she told one student who said he had nothing to write, “Everyone was with someone and ate something over the weekend!” He realised this was true and immediately wrote far more than he had in previous weeks!

Students then turned to their elbow partners to discuss one single thing they recorded. As they talked, their partner asked probing questions such as “why did you do that?” or “what did you think about it?” Then students were given just five minutes to start writing. Instead of claiming they had nothing to write, each student was able to write something about their weekend that was important to them.

Tomorrow we will revisit weekend writing and explore how we can use these brief ideas, or “small moments,” as Writing Workshop guru Lucy Calkins calls them, to develop longer passages of authentic writing. I am hopeful that this writing will then transfer to students’ other writing as they think about ways to capture brief ideas and expand on them.

Oh, and the highlight of my weekend? Making a perfect batch of pumpkin French toast on Saturday morning! (Friends and family who are connected with me on social media have seen this picture already. It is too fantastic to not share. Click on the image for a link to the recipe!)

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