Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pattern Book Celebration

Students have been hard at work on their pattern books. Last week each student chose one of the pattern books that they have written to get ready for our celebration of pattern books this week. Editing points this time included being sure that there is space between words, that word wall words are spelled conventionally, and that sentences have punctuation at the end. Once the books were ready, we made covers. Yesterday we had our celebration. Each student had a choice of reading the whole book or reading a selection from it. After the books were shared, we “toasted” our efforts with cookies.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Routine Work

I learned long ago both as a parent and a teacher that while establishing routines with kids can be a lot of effort, in the long run it pays off. I see that in Writing Workshop, where the time we spent early in the year going over and practicing routines pays dividends in that the children move smoothly and efficiently into their writing work after our mini-lesson each day. Now that we are in our fourth week of Word Study 5 Ways, word study time is beginning to flow more smoothly, with the students spending less time asking questions and figuring out what to do and more time focused on their task.

I have begun using a Monday Checklist with my students. On the checklist are items such as “Check my Reading Folder. Remove books I am through with. Be sure I have some just right books in it.” Another item has them check their Word Study folders for the Word Study 5 Ways sheet for that week, looking over it to be sure they know what the words are and beginning to plan out getting the practice done over the course of the week. These kind of beginning of the week routines help our week go smoothly.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Invested Writers

I told my group today how impressed I am with them as writers. All of them settle down each day after our mini-lesson to write. I don't hear anyone say, "I don't know what to write about." They are full of good ideas. If they ever are unsure which idea to use, they have learned to ask a fellow writer for an opinion. Writing workshop is full of the buzz of writers at work, not only writing but asking for help, talking over strategies, and sharing ideas. Since one of our first units was on where writers get ideas, we are working on freely sharing our ideas. We talk about how it is okay to get an idea from another writer's book. We just need to be sure we make it our own by expanding it with our ideas. Today we shared some of the pattern books we have been working on. Students were great about complimenting their fellow writers.

Word Study 5 Ways

In Language Group we work on studying how words are put together. We cover common spelling patterns. And we practice reading and writing frequently used words. The goal is that these words become part of the children's reading and writing vocabularies, part of the words that the children can read and write without having to break them down.

I have used various approaches to studying frequently used words over the years. Last year I found an idea in About the Author: Writing Workshop with our Youngest Writers by Katie Ray Wood with Lisa B. Cleaveland. Each student is given a sheet each week that has a checklist of ways to practice five frequently used words from our word wall. Students are to choose 5 ways to practice from the checklist. Choosing how to practice the words adds to the students' investment. The list includes everything from rainbow words (writing the words using different colors) to play dough words to back writing to spelling with Unifix letter cubes. The students so far enjoy exploring the different ways, and each is developing favorites. This week we added a new way: Wikki Words, in which students form the words with Wikki Sticks.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pattern Books

We recently celebrated our first efforts this year in Writing Workshop. Now we are focusing on pattern books. In this unit I use ideas from First Grade Writers by Stephanie Parsons. We have been reading a variety of pattern books. After we read each book, we talk about what the writer is doing in the book and how that affects us as readers. We work to come up with a name for the pattern. We have come up with names such as Making a List, Opposites, Rhythm Pattern, When ... Then, See-saw, and Pat-a-Pat Pat (for a repeated refrain-the students wanted to use the repeated refrain from a favorite book, Wet Dog by Elise Broach, to name the pattern.) We are making a chart of these observations.

Students are now trying their hands at writing pattern books. Several have finished a first pattern book and are exploring what pattern they want to do for their next book. As students try different patterns, we will add to a part of our chart that asks "Have any of us tried this?"

Monday, October 26, 2009

How to Help our Readers

The past couple of months we have worked on our writing while learning our writing workshop routines. Some of our mini-lessons have focused on where writers get ideas. We read a variety of books and then discussed where we think the ideas for those books came from. The author information in some of the books was particularly helpful to us in figuring it out.

Other mini-lessons have focused on things we can do to make our writing more readable. The other day I asked the group to help me make a list of ideas we have covered that help our readers. Here is the list they came up with:
Make spaces between words. Stretch words and put down the sounds you hear. Make the letters big enough to see clearly. Use punctuation!

I have made a chart of these ideas and posted it with some of our other charts. Since then a student has said we should add "Use our word wall to help with spelling" and I will add that to the chart soon.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mo Willems Excitement

Our Lower School was one of 200 schools and libraries chosen to participate in the recent Mo Willems Simulcast. It was great fun (he and his books are endlessly entertaining.) And it was inspiring for all of our student writers, as he talked about how he began writing as a child and about his writing and drawing process. We got to see his studio and hear him read his two newest releases, one of which, Big Frog Can't Fit In, is a "pop out" book.

Several students in my writing workshop have begun figuring out ways to add pop-ups and pop outs to books they have written. On Friday afternoon we did a project that involved making a pigeon pop-up. Students quickly embraced the project and put their own creative spin on it. Several students are working on a pigeon card game with different pigeons (including the fearsome Dark Pigeon) on the cards, each worth a different amount of points.

For more information on the Mo Willems simulcast see http://mowillemsdoodles.blogspot.com/2009/10/simulcast-success.html

Monday, September 28, 2009

Writing a Big Book Together

In addition to the individual writing that the children are doing, we have made our first book together. We recently read Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. Then we read a "big book" that my language group put together last year inspired by that book. My current students got excited about what animals they wanted to include in a new version. I drew names to determine the order in which each student could choose an animal and color to use. We made sure there were no repeats on animals or colors. Then we set to work illustrating our book, inspired by Eric Carle's vibrant illustrations in the original book. Our book is called What Do You See? and features an array of our own colorful animals. The photo shows some students looking over the list of colors and animals that they chose.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Busy Group of Writers!

We are beginning our fourth week of school. I have enjoyed getting to know my Language Group and to begin our work together. I have discovered that they are a busy group of writers. All of them have been intently working on filling booklets with their stories and pictures. Some are adding details to a book that they began the week before last. Others have moved on to new boosk. Topics include trips to the beach, monsters, an art museum, and a car crash. Some of our mini-lessons have focused on the procedures of writing workshop, such as getting our writer's tools and what to do when we finish a piece. We have worked on stretching out words and writing down the sounds we hear in them, when we don't know the spelling. And we have shared some of what we have been writing with each other. Some have been comfortable sharing with the whole language group, while others have chosen to share just with one partner so far.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Katie Wood Ray! Yay!

Earlier this week I attended a Katie Wood Ray conference sponsored by Heinemann in Asheville. Five other colleagues from Lower School were there as well: Natasha, Tom, Kathy, Charlie, and Lisa.

It was fantastic! Inspiring, enjoyable, and full of good ideas for us to use to deepen and broaden our students' writing experiences. Having six of us there from our school gave us a chance to discuss the ideas together and consider how they related to what we are already doing at our school. The title of the conference was Developing Curriculum for Writing Workshop. A lot of our work focused on immersing our students in books and pieces of writing from specific genres as a way for them to learn about writing in these genres. There was also work on how to study the craft of a piece of writing and learn from that.

We explored books. Each table had a collection of books from a specific genre. I was delighted that our table featured some wonderful poetry books (I have added several to my wish list.) We saw video clips of teachers working with their students using the ideas presented. We did some work on our own, studying a genre, brainstorming our own topics for that genre, and choosing a topic. And then each one of us was asked to begin writing a piece in the genre we had been studying. After all, if we ask our students to go through this process, doesn't it make sense for us to experience it ourselves? Overall a well-thought-out experience for us with an inspiring guide.

I am left with a lot to consider, study, and mull over before school begins. And a lot to look forward to in the fall.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Writing Realistic Fiction

My students are all busy writing their own realistic fiction stories. Students have thought up a basic story focused on a problem that is realistic. They have stretched out the problems to add more details.Then they began their stories with a focus on what makes a good beginning. That got us looking again at some of the realistic books we have read and analyzing how they began the stories. We then had a mini-lesson on making a "bridge" from the start of your story to your problem, how to develop the problem rather than just jumping right into it.

When I conferenced with students yesterday, I noticed that several had done a good job of stretching their problems out, but then went on to solve the problem in one or two sentences. They were not putting the same care into developing their solutions as they had in the problems. So today's mini-lesson focused on how we can stretch out our solutions. Students then worked on their solutions in their stories, conferring with their writing partners and conferencing with me, where needed. The stories are really starting to come together!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Soul Writing

Last Friday we took a break from our story work and did some "Soul Writing." In this kind of writing we go out and find a spot in nature, taking our writing notebooks with us. After a minute for each student to find a comfortable spot and settle down, we begin working in silence. First we notice what is around us. What do we see? What do we hear? What do we smell? What do we feel (in the sense of a soft breeze on a cheek or the grass tickling our legs)? It is an exercise in focusing on the present moment and the natural world around us. As the students notice these things they record them in their notebooks.

On Friday we sat in the area of the playground that overlooks the neighboring pond. A couple of large wisteria vines climb on the fence and into some of the trees. After we wrote for about 15 minutes, we gathered and those who wished shared what they had written. We enjoyed noticing when someone else had noted the same things we did.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Realistic Fiction

We have been reading and analyzing books in the category of realistic fiction. We include in that category books in which animals are the main characters, but they are like people and their activities are realistic for people. Examples of this are the Russell Hoban Frances stories and many of Kevin Henke's books, such as A Weekend with Wendell. We are making a chart that outlines the main problem in each book and the solution. As I often do, I am drawing ideas from Stephanie Parson's First Grade Writers.

Now we are starting to think up realistic stories of our own and tell them to our writing partners. Our work on considering books from children's literature has helped them develop a better understanding of this genre. Initially there was talk of stories about chimps going to other planets and Star Wars. Now they are talking about kids who lose their dog and children learning to play basketball. Soon each will choose one idea to expand into a story book that will be the book shared at our Authors Tea in May. For this celebration we will invite parents to hear the students' read their books.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

From Notes to Poems

This week I have drawn on mini-lessons from Lucy Calkins and Stephanie Parson's Poetry: Powerful Thought in Tiny Packages, which is part of Units of Study for Primary Writing: A Yearlong Curriculum. I brought in some items from nature (rocks, shells, seed pods, leaves, feathers) for the students to use as they practiced looking with a poet's eye and seeing things in new ways. Each would choose an item and consider it, then write notes about it. Some went on to form poems from their notes, while others focused just on the notes to start with.

Today I brought in a vase of tulips for us all to consider. The students worked with their writing partners to make notes as they looked at the tulips with their poets' eyes. Then we shared the words we came up with and formed them into two poems in a shared writing exercise. After that each student worked to take notes from earlier in the week and form them into a poem. Here are our shared poems:

Vase of Tulips

gentle pink
rich green
reaching up, up
to the sky
like an upbrella!

Vase of Tulips

It looks like a lilypad with dragonflies
green swimming in water
pink petal wings lifting
up, up

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Choosing a Strong Ending

One mini-lesson that I have done is on finding a strong ending for a poem. For this lesson I used two poems I wrote as a shared writing with my language group four years ago. Both are about spiders, and they use many of the same words. As a group we came up with words and phrases that came to our minds when we thought about spiders. Then I recorded as we put together a poem using those words and phrases. One poem ends with the phrase "Long legs weaving, A beautiful web!" We agreed that was a strong ending for the poem which we titled Cool Spider. Then I took some of the words from the end of that poem and put it at the beginning of a second poem. Drawing from the same brainstormed words and phrases, we completed the second poem. It ended with "A little bit scary." I asked if we could find a stronger way to end the poems. One student suggested, "I think I'll go now!" The others liked this ending, so the new poem became Scary Spider. Two poems, similar words, yet they leave the reader with very different feelings. Here they are:

Cool Spider
Big fuzzy spider
Creepy and crawly
A little bit scary.
But what is it doing?
Long legs weaving
A beautiful web!

Scary Spider
Big fuzzy spider
Long legs weaving
A beautiful web
But creepy and crawly
A little bit scary.
I think I’ll go now!


We have been working on writing poetry for a little over a week. Of course we have been reading poetry all year, but now the focus is on writing poems. For the past eight years I have been drawing a lot on Regie Routman's book, Kids' Poems: Teaching First Graders to Love Writing Poetry. I love her emphasis on reading and talking about poetry by children. Other children become the mentors for my group. About half the space in this book is taken up with poetry by first graders. She includes the original drafts which include invented spelling and any reworking the author did on paper. She also has the final typed-up and illustrated version.

Since I began using this book, I have collected poetry from my own students to use with my groups. I also have the anthologies that each year's group puts together. For the anthology each student can choose one poem she/he has written and I get to choose one. Some of the students that I taught last year have discovered the anthologies I have put out and are enjoying finding their poems from last year. Students also get excited when they find a poem that an older sibling wrote in past years.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Mystery is Solved

Today several of the students had solved the mystery of who's in the box. They wrote "Is it a rabbit?" for their questions yesterday, and they got the answer, "Yes!"

So we opened the box and met Mimi the rabbit. She reminds us a little of Knuffle Bunny. Now students will take turns taking Fred and Mimi home for a night. Fred and Mimi have a backpack that they "ride" in along with a journal for students to record their adventures with Fred and Mimi and a digital camera so that they can take pictures of Fred and Mimi at their houses. Later we will make a slide show with the pictures and the students' writings.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Who's in the Box?

My language group has been trying to solve a mystery. Last week a box appeared on the bench where we gather each day. On it was a velvet frog with a word balloon above it. The frog introduced himself as Fred and invited the children to submit yes/no questions about who was in the box. They excitedly wrote questions. The next day "Fred" had answered their questions, giving them clues. More questions, then answers followed. The students are working hard to think of good yes/no questions that will give them helpful information. We know now that it is a stuffed animal, and the animal is a mammal. They also know that the first letter in the kind of animal it is, is the same as the first letter in one of their names, but not a letter that is close to the beginning of the alphabet. The students are close to figuring out who is in the box.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Writing Workshop conferences are times when I sit down one on one with students to talk about their writing. Sometimes it is a check in: "What are you working on today?" Sometimes I have something I want to focus on, a goal or question for the student, a skill to emphasize. Sometimes the student requests the conference. Some of my favorite conferences are when a student is excited to read me has just been finished.

I had one of those today. Levi wanted to read me a story he had just finished. In his story it is the main character's birthday and he has to go visit his cousins. He likes to visit them, but not on his birthday. As Levi read, he would stop to share where he got his ideas or why he made certain choices. He told me that he started the book after we read Cynthia Rylant's book, The Relatives Came. When he described the car as going "Vroom," he told me he was inspired by the book we read, Night in the Country by Cynthia Rylant, which explores night sounds in the country. He is thinking so intentionally about his writing! Levi smiled at me as he read, and I could tell he is proud of his efforts. I asked his permission to share with the group some of what he did, and he nodded with a grin. "Writers, let me share with you some things Levi did in his new book…"

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Descriptive Writing

Sky Class has been reading and discussing books by the author Cynthia Rylant for our author study this year. In my language group we have been studying her books for examples of descriptions that bring her stories to life. The students have been working on using such descriptive techniques in their own writing. In her Night in the Country we noticed how she described the sounds as well as the sights of the country.

Today those who wished to share were given a chance to share descriptive words they have added to their writing. Emma called up the "taste" of a loose tooth, "In my mouth it tastes like metal." Charlie has worked to use descriptive words when he uses dialogue, using "muttered" and "yelled" rather than said. Stiles described a soccer move as "like a rainbow." Livy chose to say she "jumped into the saddle" rather than got in the saddle. Yasmin described how a jumping horse sticks its front and back feet out.

Friday, January 30, 2009

For Whom the Bell Tinkles

As the children have been revising and editing their small moment stories this week, it seems like the volume level in the room has been rising. A lot is excitement over their stories, but there is also some off-topic chatter and unasked-for advice escalating the noise level. So I pulled out a small brass bell that a student gave me years ago and gently rang it in the middle of Workshop. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at me. "Writers," I said calmly, "I am happy that you are so excited about your work, but the noise level is making it hard for some of your fellow writers to concentrate." Several students nodded their heads at this. I explained that I had used the bell because I did not want to raise my voice to add to the noise, so I used the bell to get their attention. Then I went on to request that we remember how quiet the room gets when everyone is busy with their writing and that we work to find that quiet, busy space again. They all went back to work and I noticed that most used whispers when they needed to confer with their writing partners. Quiet was restored, at least for the time being.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


We have been reading over our Small Moment stories with our writing partners and working to finish them up. Today we had a mini-lesson about revision, and students worked to read through and revise their stories. Some added in more words to make their stories clearer. Others added in details. Some added to their pictures to enhance their stories. Soon we will be having another celebration to wrap up our Small Moment unit!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inspiring Authors

In Writing Workshop we often look at children's authors for inspiration and ideas for our own writing. Last week during Sky Class storytime we watched an interview with Mo Willems, a classroom favorite especially for his Piggie and Elephant books. The students enjoyed watching him talk about things such as his first book, how he gets started on books and develops characters (he draws them first, as we often do,) and how the Pigeon character just has to be in all of his books. The students continue to enjoy reading his books and one is even taking on writing a Piggie and Elephant book, as Mo Willems suggested they do in his interview. You can see the interview at http://www.pigeonpresents.com/grownup.aspx by playing "Mo History."