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 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).

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 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.

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