Sherry’s Writing Weblog

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:

October 25, 2008

Write to Learn/Write Around

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 2:59 pm

I read a book last summer that deepened my knowledge of teaching kids to write.  The book is called Content-Area Writing, by Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke.  The authors speak of “writing to learn” vs. “public writing”.  Writing to learn occurs when we are using writing as a tool for thinking–to find out what’s in our heads, record our thoughts/ideas, make connections, figure out what’s important, move our thinking around, or highlight our thoughts.  We write to learn every day.  Examples of writing to learn are journals, lists, emails, plans, diagrams, responses, brainstorming, notes, etc.  Writing to learn is short, exploratory, informal, unedited, and not assessed as writing.  The writer’s notebook, in my point of view, is a tool for writing to learn. Public writing (essays, articles, stories, etc) is the opposite of writing to learn.

I think it’s important to give our students many writing-to-learn opportunities.  They need to practise communicating their thoughts clearly and in an organized manner.  The book I referred to above has lots of practical ideas for writing to learn.  One idea that I’ve tried in a workshop for teachers, and liked, is called ‘Write Around’.  It works as follows:

Students work in groups of 3-5.  They read text or have text read to them, or are assigned a topic by the teacher.  Then they are given 1-2 minutes to respond in writing to the text/topic.  (The amount of time given to respond will vary with each class or grade.)  In their groups, students pass their responses to the right.  They silently read what the other student wrote, then they have 1-2 minutes to respond to that student’s idea.  Pass again.  The students read what the previous 2 students have written and respond to their ideas.  Repeat until each group member ends up with his/her original paper.  What results is a string of silent conversation about the text or topic.  In a group of 4, there will be 4 strings of different conversation.  This activity is not only great for writing to learn, but imagine the comprehension the students will have of the text that has been read, or of the topic that was discussed.  This would be a great activity after a read aloud or shared reading lesson, or even after small group instruction.  It would also work well across the curriculum, for reviewing a science concept for example.

October 20, 2008

Writing Lessons

Filed under: Writing Lessons — sdoherty @ 7:44 pm

I always learn so much from other teachers.  Recently I was introduced to a fantastic web site (thanks, Kelly Moore!) for writing.  I particulary love the lessons using picture books and chapter books to teach students the six traits of writing.  Check them out.

Please feel free to add any other ideas, lessons, or resources.  The more we share and learn from one another the easier our jobs will be.

October 18, 2008

Mini-lessons for Writer’s Notebooks

Filed under: Mini-Lessons for Writer's Notebooks — sdoherty @ 1:39 pm

One thing I’ve noticed about WNs is that they can easily become journals filled with shallow writing.  I think it’s important to give kids direction, with mini-lessons, on a regular basis.  Yesterday I worked with kids in a junior classroom who have just started to use notebooks, and I’d like to share my mini-lesson. 

I began by sharing my own WN, reading a couple of different entries to demonstrate the variety it contains–a poem, a top 10 list, and a personal andecdote.  Then I talked to the kids about how the WN is different than a journal; that every entry shouldn’t sound the same…Today I went to my cousin’s and we played video games.  I beat level 7.  Blah, blah, blah.  They laughed and nodded.  I read them my memory list–Things I will never forget.  A few ideas were peeing my pants in grade 1 (they loved this); getting stuck at the top of the Demon Drop at Cedar Point (I’m afraid of heights); and jumping into a pool and knocking out my two front teeth, the summer before grade 8.  I had them make their own memory lists, which were very interesting.  A few kids wrote about almost drowning (wouldn’t that make an interesting entry), some wrote about broken limbs, lost pets, friends, coming to Canada for the first time, etc.  Then we shared, which they loved.  (I believe in sharing, sharing, sharing.  The more sharing, the better).  At the end of the lesson I had them place stars beside ideas that they think they could say more about and told them that these could become future notebook entries.  I wrapped it up by talking about how writing can be so much more interesting when it comes from real experiences with lots of emotion.  They were so excited at the end of this lesson.  I can’t wait to visit their classroom again and listen to some of their entries.

I’d like to hear from others about mini-lessons, or even conversations with kids that they think have made a difference.

October 8, 2008


Filed under: Welcome — sdoherty @ 3:58 pm

If you are visiting this weblog then you are obviously interested in using, or learning about using, a writer’s notebook in your classroom.  I want this blog to be a place where teachers can share ideas, stories, questions, and general comments about implementing a writer’s notebook in the classroom.  It is my hope that this blog becomes a useful tool for professional learning and that both teachers and students benefit in the process.  I can’t wait to begin learning with you!

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