Sherry’s Writing Weblog

November 22, 2008

Circle Check Out

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 2:21 pm

Paula Tullio recently introduced me to a fabulous book – Critical Literacy and Writer’s Workshop:  Bringing Purpose and Passion to Student Writing, by Lee Heffernan.  If you are interested in taking your students to a new level in writing, this book is a must-read.  It is a short, concise, easy read that will challenge your thinking about writing and change your program.

One idea that I particularly like in this book is called Circle Check Out.  Heffernan uses this idea as a replacement for the Author’s Chair.  Her take on the Author’s Chair is quite thought provoking.  She believes it can actually be an obstacle, as it places the student in a very vulnerable position.  The examples that she provides to support her argument sway my thinking, and I have always been a big fan of the Author’s Chair.

Circle Check Out is a time to share strong writing and to demonstrate experiments with the writing craft. It always takes place at the end of writer’s workshop.  Students sit in a circle and share excerpts of their writing (a strong lead, descriptive sentences, etc.), rather than the entire piece.  If the students do not want to share snippets of their writing, they are asked to give a progress report about what they worked on that day.

Heffernan begins her writer’s workshop with a mini-lesson.  The students are accountable for incorporating the mini-lesson into their writing, and share evidence of this at the Circle Check Out.  If they don’t have an example of a mini-lesson concept, then they may share something that excites them.

This book offers many other amazing ideas.  What I like most, is that it focuses on incorporating critical thinking into the writer’s workshop.  Students are encouraged to think and write about social issues.  Heffernan’s book can be found using the following link:

If you use this idea, or any other from the blog, I would love to hear from you.


November 16, 2008

‘I Remember’ Poem

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 2:46 pm

I’ve shared this idea at a couple of my workshops.  These poems sound amazing when they’re finished.

Directions for the poem (Read each direction, give students time to write 1 or 2 sentences, read the next direction):

Write one thing that happened this week

Write one thing that happened last month

Write one thing that happened 2 to 3 years ago

Write one thing that you have good memories about–a time, a place, an event

Pick one of these thoughts.  Tell a partner all of the details.  Write about the memory.  Every sentence must begin with ‘I remember’.

For example:  My First Homerun

I remember walking up to the plate with that familiar knot in my stomach;

I remember my surprise when the bat connected with the ball;

I remember watching the ball sail through the air;

I remember the roar of the crowd as I rounded second base;

I remember my heart pounding as the coach waved me past third;

I remember the thrill of my foot touching home base;

I remember being swarmed by my teammates;

I remember slaps on the back;

I remember leaving the park that day with my head held high.

It’s really important to give students time to talk before they write.  Their writing will be much richer and more detailed.  This poem could also be done by choosing an idea from the writer’s notebook rather than going through the steps at the beginning.

I’d love to hear from teachers who are using any of these ideas on this blog.  Feel free to post comments about this or any other post.

November 9, 2008

From Notebook to First Draft

Filed under: Mini-Lessons for Writer's Notebooks — sdoherty @ 3:19 pm

In my professional reading about writing I’ve been particularly interested in finding ways to help students move from the writer’s notebook to a first draft.  I’ve discovered the following possibilities:

1.  After a few weeks of writing entries, have students reread their notebooks to look for patterns in their writing.  What particular topic or topics do they write about most often?  Once they’ve discovered a pattern, have students highlight the entries that contain this topic and begin to put together a collection of thoughts they’ve written about the topic.  From this collection students can develop a published piece.  There may be a common underlying theme that pops right out, or students may need a conference with the teacher to flush out a key idea.  Holding a conference with a group is very helpful because students gain knowledge and ideas from listening to the feedback given to others.  Also, in a group conference ideas may come from more than one source which is usually the teacher.  Talking to peers about their collection is helpful as well.  The published piece can be a poem, song, picture book for kids, newspaper article, recount or memoir, letter, and so on.

2.  In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy McCormick Calkins suggests that students reread their notebooks and highlight something that grabs their attention or captures their hearts.  They should then live with that topic for awhile.  For a couple of days they should dedicate their writing to, or pursue that topic–thinking, questioning, drawing, writing, talking, remembering, imagining, etc.  Then they should decide on a format (poem, story, etc.) and write a first draft.

As with all stages of writing, moving from notebook to first draft takes time.  Time to think and rethink, time to talk, and time to confer with the teacher.  It is vital to give students the time they need during this pre-writing stage.  Mini-lessons with small groups or the entire class may be necessary to support students or scaffold their learning.

I’m interested in hearing about the writer’s notebook from other teachers.  How are you using it?  How is it going?  Do you have any thoughts or ideas that you could share with others? Are you excited? Are you frustrated? (Writing is difficult.  Teaching writing is even more difficult.)  I’d love to hear from you.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.  Please consider answering the questions I’ve posted in the entry ‘Please Help’.  You would be doing me a tremendous favour.

November 6, 2008

Please help

Filed under: Uncategorized — sdoherty @ 10:04 pm

Dear Reader,

I would like to write a paper about this blog for my final Master’s of Education course.  Therefore I am required to gather some information about how this blog was used by its readers.  If you have been reading my posts I would be extremely grateful if you would take the time to answer 4 brief questions.  Your name, or any of information about you personally, will not be included in the paper. The questions are as follows:

  1. Did you apply any of the ideas from the blog to your classroom practice?  If so, which ideas and why.
  2. Do you believe that your writing program has changed as a result of participating in this blog?  If so, how?
  3. Did your students benefit as a result of your participation in this blog?  If so, how?
  4. Do you have any suggestions to make the blog more effective?

Any answer is a good answer.  Even if you answer no to every question it is good information for me to use in the paper.  I know this is a very busy time of the year but I would sincerely appreciate any response. Again, I will protect your privacy. 

If you are willing to answer the questions either reply here or send me a message to my personal email address at  To make the process easy I will send you the questions via email, you can reply with quote, fill them out, and send them back by November 13 .

Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog.  I look forward to your response.

November 5, 2008

Drawing as Thinking

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 2:38 pm

I recently read a chapter in a book called Adolescent Literacy, Turning Promise into Practice, which is a collection of chapters written by the some of the brightest minds in education (Janet Allen, Nancie Atwell, Kylene Beers, Harvey Daniels, Ellin Oliver Keene and Jeffrey Wilhelm to name a few).  This book has become my new favourite read.  Thank you so much to Sharon Seslija for recommending it! 

Linda Rief is one of the editors of Adosescent Literacy, but has also written a chapter called Writing:  Commonsense Matters.  In this chapter she writes of drawing as thinking and offers an idea that I think is so fabulous that I want to share it with anyone who will listen.

I think that we underestimate the power of drawing in writing.  After all, good readers visualize to construct meaning while they are reading, doesn’t it make sense that good writers visualize as well?  According to Rief’s chapter Einstein admitted that he did not think in words, but visual images.  Who can argue with that?

Linda Rief asked herself, “What if students who struggled with writing were invited to use visual tools to tell their stories?  Would that help all kids come more easily to words?  Would that also help them as readers, if they were invited to draw?  Encouraged to draw? (p. 202)”  She invited artisit Roger Essley into her classroom, who taught her students how to use a tellingboard.  (I love this!)

A tellingboard is simply a large piece of paper with many squares drawn on it.  Students are invited to draw their stories on sticky notes, using stick figures and key words.  They place their sticky notes on the tellingboard and tell the story to their classmates who offer suggestions or pose questions.  Then the students rearrange, add, or delete their sticky notes and tell the story again.  When the tellingboard is complete they are ready to write.  What a fabulous idea!

Rief writes that this activity worked with even her most reluctant writers.  What a powerful tool–for all ages.  For more information and an illustration of this tool as well as visual examples of how students used it, see her chapter in Adolescent Literacy (ISBN:  978-0-325-01128-8).

November 2, 2008

Writing to Think Critically

Filed under: Mini-Lessons for Writer's Notebooks — sdoherty @ 8:31 pm

Writer’s notebooks can easily become stagnant and very journal-like. Often, topics can be very superficial. Notebooks must be nurtured and “kneaded”. If all we do is encourage kids to write and write and write, they will continue to write the same things in the same way. I remember starting my own writer’s notebook. It was difficult at first. I wrote a lot about my dog and cat, Jagger and Mick (my babies!). My entries have since grown and become more reflective with practise.
Randy Bomer has written an article about writing to think critically. In his words, “We want students to view their writing as more than exercises for learning to write, as more than obedience to teacher instructions, but rather as a unique form of social action.” He believes in “actively teaching a socially critical lens for thinking” using the writer’s notebook. He writes about how to do this through demonstration, assisted performance, and reflective conversation.
Students can learn to think and write critically through carefully selected mentor texts, reflection and accountable talk. We need to read rich literature to them, reflect upon the big ideas, ask questions to promote thinking, and then invite our students to write.
The LNSTs are in the process of putting together a book list of mentor texts with rich big ideas. I will share the list on the blog (with their permission) once it is complete. Also, I have attached Randy Bomer’s article, Writing to Think Critically: The Seeds of Social Action. It is an excellent read.
I’m interested in hearing from others about the kind of writing they are finding in their notebooks. Perhaps we could use this blog to form a discussion group for improving writing. Let me now if you are interested.


October 29, 2008

Finding a Message

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 8:53 pm

In my classroom days I remember reading many pieces of writing that were all over the place and thinking “What exactly is this student writing about?”  Can you relate?  Students have difficulty narrowing a topic and finding a central message.  They need specific guidance on how to do this, and plenty of feedback. 

 For instance, if I wrote a piece on my dog (Jagger) and I included his breed; how much he weighs (he’s quite fat); what he eats, that he loves to go for walks; that he can’t greet me in the morning without socks in his mouth; that one time he chewed my girlfriend’s favourite pair of $100 sandals; and how much I love him; I would have a piece of writing with a topic (Jagger) but no message.  What exactly am I trying to say?  I need to narrow that topic down to one specific idea–the socks.  Now I have a message.  My writing is all about Jagger and his love for socks.

Kelly Winney taught me the value of helping kids to find their message.  She suggests using a prompt.  To explain, I’ll give the example that we used at our Summer Institute.  All of the participants were given a topic for a Quick Write (for an explanation of a Quick Write, see below).  The topic was “My First Bicycle”.  Everyone wrote for a few minutes and then we shared.  Then we discussed the fact that we all had the same topic (my first bicycle), but we had different messages.  Some participants wrote about what their bicycles looked like; others wrote about their sense of freedom; and so on.  This is a great way to get kids to understand the notion of “message”.

If you have any ideas for how to help kids narrow a topic and find a message, I would love to hear them.

Quick Write:  Students are given a topic or a prompt.  They must write for 2-5 minutes (depending upon the age) and their pencils may not leave the page.  If they run out of ideas then they write one word, such as their name, over and over until another thought comes to mind.  Aimee Buckner would call this a ‘writing for fluency’ strategy.

October 28, 2008

Thoughts for the Day

Filed under: Welcome — sdoherty @ 11:29 pm

It must seem as though my thoughts are all over the place—the writer’s notebook, writing lessons, focused studies…  I started this blog with the idea of writing about a writer’s notebook and learning from others how they use it in the classroom.  But then I realized that I was really limiting my audience.  Not many responses as a result.  So I decided to open up the blog to writing in general with the hopes that teachers might share ideas or start a discussion.  But it seems to have become Sherry’s Thoughts on Writing.  Many people have told me that they’re reading the blog (and loving it—thank you for that) so whatever it becomes is okay with me.  Writing is such a large topic, and I support so many teachers in so many different ways, which is why my mind keeps flitting about.  I’ve tried to organize my thoughts into categories so that if you’re here looking for notebook tips, or lesson ideas, there’s a place you can click and read only those comments.  Otherwise, I’m passionate about writing in general and I will continue to share my random thoughts.  Sooner or later I’ll get around to “putting it all together”—the Writer’s Workshop.  I’ve been too busy to write in my writer’s notebook lately, so this blog has become it’s replacement for awhile.  If you have been visiting, thanks.  Let me know if there is something I can add or if you have any tips for organizing it in a better way.


Ralph Fletcher

Filed under: Mini-Lessons for Writer's Notebooks — sdoherty @ 11:26 pm

I| am a huge fan of Ralph Fletcher.  Much of what I’ve learned about how to teach kids to write comes from reading his books.  He writes for teachers as well as students.  Ralph believes that writers are unique observers of the world.  They learn to write from observing lots and writing lots—writing about what they know.  In his words, “You don’t learn to write through going through a series of preset writing exercises.  You learn to write by grappling with a subject that truly matters to you” (What a Writer Needs, p.4).  This comment makes me question whether I was truly a writing teacher during my time in the classroom.  I assigned writing, edited writing, and assessed writing, but I don’t think I did a very good job of teaching writing.  I told kids to write, and we wrote and published a lot, but I didn’t show them how to write.  I mostly fixed their conventional errors.  Now that I know what I know, I am passionate about teaching kids the art of writing.

The writer’s notebook has changed my view of writing.  During my last year in the classroom I introduced it to my grade 3s and they couldn’t get enough of it, which convinced me that it was a truly powerful tool.  Keeping my own writer’s notebook has changed me as a writer, as well.  It used to take me a long time to think of what to write (just like the kids) but now it seems to flow.  I’ve discovered my voice and grown as a writer.   I would advise any teacher of writing to keep a writer’s notebook and share it with your kids.  They will love you for it.  I actually have 2, one I can share at school and one I can’t.

Ralph Fletcher has written many books for kids, to teach them how to become writers.  They are available at Chapter’s online for around $6.00 each.  The titles are:  A Writer’s Notebook, Live Writing, Poetry Matters, and How to Write Your Life Story.  There’s one more but the title escapes me.  These books are amazing read alouds.  Recently, I found Ralph’s web site.  He has a section with tips for young writers.  Check it out:

Thanks, Ralph for your many books and wise words.  I am a better teacher thanks to you.

October 27, 2008

Focused Studies

Filed under: Focused Studies — sdoherty @ 8:02 pm

The funniest thing happened to me today!  As I was driving to work, I was thinking about this blog and what I should add as a comment tonight.  I was thinking about focused studies and, in particular, how I could go about adding the topic of focused studies to the blog.  (This past summer I presented a workshop on effective writing instruction with Kelly Winney.  We took the participants through a persuasive writing study.  Since then, I’ve been gathering more information on persuasive writing and I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to work with a teacher/group of teachers on such a unit.  So focused studies have been on my mind a lot lately.) 

At school (Prince Edward) I sat down with the principal to go over the school’s Strategic Learning Plan.  Lo and behold, one of the school’s goals is to focus on a school wide genre study, using non-fiction narratives!!  (Early Years are focusing on recounts, Primary on personal narratives, and Junior and Intermediate on memoirs.)  Small world!  I am so excited!  My opportunity to work with teachers on a focused study has arrived!!  

So, the purpose of this section of my Blog will be to share stories and ideas related to focused studies.  I encourage readers to respond, ask questions, or share ideas.  Below are links that I found for the Prince Edward staff:

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