Empowering our own writers

I’ve spent the last few weeks diving into our new writing program Empowering Writers.  I’m excited about the systematic ways it will align our district instruction of writing and provide the necessary framework to expand our student’s skills in narrative, expository, and argumentative writing.  Implementing a new educational resource or program can feel overwhelming at first, but there are so many ways to incorporate these skills across many subjects, moments, and everyday life.  As educators, we are always looking to make connections for our students and to embed skills.  
I don’t typically write about my family, but this is a brief window into a pretty typical dinner in my household, where the opportunities for learning naturally appeared.
Isn’t every experience a potential opportunity to teach writing skills, without writing?
“Wow!  That is a giant cheeseball!”
At dinner the other night my five year old son Liam was begging me to get the giant cheeseball out of the grated Parmesan cheese container.  “Please can I have it?  Can I have it?”  His obsession with cheese began early and is staying strong.  I would have to say cheese is his main food group.
“LIAM!  You are SUCH a Cheese Monster.  All you want is to eat cheese.” says Connor, rolling his eyes.  Now that Connor is 8 and 1/2 way through second-grade, he is starting to become too cool for most everything we do in our house.  Yesterday, he told me “Mommy, you just do NOT understand what it is like to be a kid nowadays.”

Liam retorts “I’m a Cheese Monster and you are Connor the Carnivore…..(a well established family name since Connor was 4 and only eats meat off the bone)…. What would daddy be called?”
Connor jumps in eagerly….”The hot sauce monster! Yes!  Daddy LOVES hot sauce!”
Suddenly, Liam bolts out of his seat at the table and goes to the fridge.  “That reminds me, I’ll get you your favorite hot sauce daddy,”  Liam says with a giant grin and giggle.  This is a family tradition that takes place at least once a week, usually on taco night, but is appearing the night of our spaghetti dinner.  Brian responds  “No, I’m all set, I don’t need hot sauce tonight.”  Liam takes out a jar of jelly (which Brian despises), pretends to pour it over Brian’s spaghetti, and bellows “DO YOU WANT SOME HOT SAUCE!”  Brian pretends to jump back and say “oh no!” and all of us giggle.  
Liam returns to his seat and ponders…”Imagine if the whole world was a giant cheeseball?”
I respond, noticing a great opportunity to teach a skill, “What a great start to a story?  What do you think it would be like if the whole world was actually made of cheese?  We should write a story about that.”
Liam—“What if the whole UNIVERSE was made of cheese?”
Me—“That would be a whole lot of cheese!”
Liam–“Yeah, everyone would be made of cheese, even people, and dogs, like JoJo”
Me—“What would happen if the sun was there, wouldn’t we melt?”  (Trying to bring in some science now.)
Connor–“Mommy, if the whole universe would be of cheese, we couldn’t see the sun.”
Me—“Do you know what happens if you leave cheese out too long?”(Another attempt at problem-based learning)
Liam—“It smells”
Me–“How would it look?” (Got to use all our senses for describing.)
Connor—“I don’t know.”
Brian–“Think about it Connor, what happened in the story Diary of a Wimpy Kid when they left the cheese out?” (Nice job Daddy with the connection to a book).
Connor–“Oh!  It got moldy….. It would be a moldy universe.”
Liam pauses…
Liam—“What if the giant cheeseball universe just blew up?”
Connor–“A big explosion.  Yeah, then the cheese would go everywhere!”
Me—“Kind of like a supernova we saw in the show last week” (again….science, integration)
Connor–“Hmm…. Then, if the sun was actually a supernova and it blew up there would be a black hole”
Me—“What would happen to the cheese?”  (Cause and effect)
Connor—“It would be sucked into the black hole and show up in another universe.”
Me–“Then people would think we were cheese aliens showing up in their universe.”
Liam–“Cheese Aliens!”  Giggle, giggle…..
Laughter ensues.  Dinner ends.
Liam “Hey Connor, let’s do a hug battle!”
Connor “Okay!”
Mom and Dad in unison “No more hug battles!”
Think about what learning opportunities abound when one of your students asks a question….”What if the world was made of cheese?”
For more information on Empowering Writers, please check out the following link.

Teaching Students to write academically

“Our students just don’t know how to write well anymore,” states the frustrated teacher.  The resource of “They Say, I Say” by Graff, Birkenstein, and Durst offer some specific strategies and templates to help guide our students in how to write academically.  By using any of these templates below consistently in class, students will begin to internalize the format to help support their academic writings.
On the one hand, __________. On the other hand, __________. 
Author X contradicts herself. At the same time that she argues __________, she also implies __________.   I agree that __________.
She argues __________, and I agree because __________.
Her argument that __________ is supported by new research showing that __________.
In recent discussions of __________, a controversial issue has been whether __________. On the one hand, some argue that __________. On the other hand, however, others
argue that __________.
Introducing Standard Views: 
Americans today tend to believe that __________.
Conventional wisdom has it that __________.
My whole life I have heard it said that __________.
Making those Views Something You Say:
I have always believed that __________.
When I was a child, I used to think that __________.
Writing a Summary: 
She demonstrates that __________.
In fact, they celebrate the fact that __________.
Introducing a Quote:
X insists, “__________.”
As the prominent philosopher X puts it, “__________.”
According to X, “__________.”
In her book, Book Title, X maintains that __________.
X complicates matters further when she writes that __________.
I think that X is mistaken because she overlooks __________.
I disagree with X’s view that __________ because, as recent research has shown, __________.
Introducing Your Point of View: 
X overlooks what I consider an important point about __________.
I wholeheartedly endorse what X calls __________.
My discussion of X is in fact addressing the larger matter of __________.
These conclusions will have significant applications in __________ as well as in __________.
Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. New York: Norton, 2006.

Annotation Skills

 In this month’s February 2013 Principal Leadership magazine, I came across an article Annotation:  Noting Evidence for Later Use by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey.  

Why are annotation skills important to teach?
According to the Writing Center at Colorado State University…
“Annotating is an important skill to employ if you want to read critically.  Successful critical readers read with a pencil in their hand, making notes in the text as they read.  Instead of reading passively, they create an active relationship with what they are reading by “talking bck” to the text in its margins.”  (P. 49-50)

They offered the following suggestions and thoughts on the importance of teaching our students how to critically read and annotate.  First, it is important to model annotation for your students to explicitly teach them the skills. Second, show them on the ipad how they can use the ipad for annotation of information as they read and search for the information and notes later.

Most common annotation marks include:

  • Underlining for major points
  • Vertical lines in the margin to mark longer statements too long to underline
  • Star or asterisks to use to emphasize important statements
  • Mark the upper corner of a page where important sections were noted
  • Numbers in the margins to show sequence of points by the author
  • Circle of key words
  • Writing notes to record questions

Teachers can ask questions in the following areas to help students to better analyze their texts:

  • General Understanding
  • Key Details
  • Vocabulary
  • Author’s Purpose
  • Inferences
  • Opinions/Arguments

Video of a teacher modeling strategies for annotating text: