Writing is Good for Your Health

imgres   Who knew that by asking our students to write DAILY, we were actually supporting their health?!  I stumbled across an article on the web in which scientists explored the health benefits of daily writing.  Expressive writing allows us the opportunity pause and reflect on our lives.  Isn’t that precisely what we ask our students to do on a daily basis in Writing Workshop?  You can read the article for yourself HERE.


A Happy Literacy Moment

I have a decidedly unhealthy Starbucks addiction.  I also have a barista who MAKES my mornings.  She is happy and perky in a good for the morning kind of way.  She remembers everyone’s order and always makes them the way each person wants them made.  She remembers your name and little things about you.  Her name is Jacki.

Jacki remembers that I am a teacher and that the kids last year got into the habit of checking my Starbucks cup each day to see if I had gotten a “happy face”.  (yes, Jacki draws happy faces on the cups)  The children had decided that this was a bit like when they earn happy face stickers for good behavior in their classrooms.  So they wanted to know if I had “been a good girl”.

Well, this morning Jacki out-did herself.  And the children who check my cups were delighted.  It was a wonderful, happy kind of a literacy moment.



Kindergarten Kickoff: Independent Reading WorkMats

The workshop time can be long for our young kindergarten students.  They are still learning and building the foundational habits of readers.  WorkMats allow them to self-monitor and plan their work.  They create an independence for the young reader by answering the question: “What do I do next?”

Each WorkMat contains icons to remind students of the variety of tasks that are OK during the workshop and count as legitimate “work” during this time.  The icons have been carefully thought out and discussed among the teachers to replicate the work that “real” readers actually do.

  • Sort your books into the order that you want to read them today. Even adult readers do this in real life.  We have “To Read” lists and we make decisions about what we want to read next.
  • Read the books and tell yourself the story.  Essentially, this is reading for comprehension.
  • Retell the story to yourself.  This is a demonstration of comprehension and a part of being in a literate community.  As a bonus, it begins to prepare students for the task of re-telling as a comprehension assessment.
  • Read the story and insert “thinking bubbles”.  In this practice, we ask students to read the story, and to stop and articulate what the character is thinking at various points.   We provide the students with thought bubbles as visual supports for this task.  This is inferring at its best.
  • Read the story and insert “talking”.  This time around, we ask the students to read the story and to stop and act out the conversation that might be happening on this page.  Again, the students have “speech bubbles” to physically hold while doing this work.
  • Read the story and make the characters move.  Students stop after every page set and talk about the actions that are on the page.  This sounds simple, but the images on the page are static.  In order for children to begin the process of visualizing, they need to begin to “see” the action in the story.
  • Read and Look For:  this can be a hunt for a sight word or words, a hunt for a particular bit of punctuation or a letter from the word study time.
  • Talk Back to the Book:  In this little strategy, our kindergarten readers stop after each double spread of pages and talk back to the characters in the story.  They tell them what to do, warn them of upcoming trouble, or praise their bravery, cunning or daring.



Kindergarten Kickoff: Some First Books

imagesThis week our kindergartens begin a district directed 9 week “crash course” on the alphabet.     In 2010, Pearson and Hiebert unleashed their research that two-thirds of incoming kindergarteners already knew the names of the letters of the alphabet and over one-third of them knew the corresponding sounds for the majority of the consonants.  The children who didn’t know the letter names and sounds at this early stage were also the children destined for reading struggles.  In many of the schools in our district, the children are coming from strong pre-school programs and even more children already know letters and sounds.  But, there are some who don’t.  And most often, it is because no one has taught them the letters and sounds, not because they have difficulty learning them.  So, our kindergartens start off with a crash course on letters and sounds.  For the huge percentage of children incoming with this information securely under their belts, this is a review and familiar ground on which to start kindergarten.  For those who are shaky with letter names and sounds, it is an opportunity to level the playing field.  And at the end of the crash course, the few children who truly have difficulty learning letter names and sounds are clearly evident to the teachers and to the support staff.  It is a beautiful way to start off the RTI process in many ways.

But what about those children who DO know the letters and the sounds?  How can we make this a “plus-1″ for them?  And how can we connect this to the workshop and the powerful reading lives that we want our students to be building?

As my kindergarten colleagues and I have been talking and thinking about this, we’ve been making lists of the other core skills that we have on our radar screens: left to right, return sweep, one-to-one match, beginning sight words, early cross-checking and the ever-popular — looking at print not just pictures.  Then we began creating books to go with the letters from our crash course in the alphabet.  Books that could support us in the workshop as our students practiced those important letter sounds along with those other core skills.  We chose the simple sight word “a” to begin.  We’ll move to “the” shortly.  And we made books using clip-art to support the letters.  A quick trip to the photocopier, some snazzy stapling and we had books.

I’ve attached our first three (all using just the sight word “a”) here for you.  If you go back to this post, you’ll find some earlier iterations of this this idea that you can print as well.


Kindergarten Kickoff: Wordless Books

Beginning Reader’s Workshop in Kindergarten can be daunting — especially when our young students are really not yet readers.  In many cases, they have already been told by parents, older siblings and neighbor children that they are clearly NOT readers.  So, when we plop them down with a bin of books and ask them to engage in reader-like behaviors, they balk.  They do NOT see themselves as readers yet. They are awaiting the magical day when we will have taught them the secret and they become READERS.  On the flip side, we, the teachers, already see them as readers.  We already see that they recognize environmental print and possibly a sight word or two.  We have already noticed that they control the major concepts of print.  They may even have some letters and sound to begin anchoring some reading.  In our eyes, they are EMERGING readers.

One way to alleviate the conflict between our vision and theirs is to use Wordless Books to help launch the workshop.  By having a collection of wordless books available for the first few weeks of school, we provide a way for our young readers to practice the reading skills they have, while not triggering the “I can’t read” reflex.

With Wordless Books, our readers can

  • habituate the book handling skills from Concepts About Print
  • “read” a story and create meaning using the pictures
  • accumulate a story line and track a plot
  • practice retelling a story
  • practice reading with a partner and sharing the story-telling load
  • sustaining attention as a reader over time (building stamina)

I wandered around more than a dozen of the kindergartens that I work with and collected this set of wordless books. (photos all from Amazon)


Wordless Books

Touchstone Texts

This is the time of the year that all of us are selecting the read-alouds for the first month of school.  We’re literally charting the course for the school year with the texts we select.  The books we read now with our students will become the Touchstone Texts for our year with them.  We’ll refer back to them again and again as the year moves along. We’ve all had the experience of choosing a book at this magical time of the year and then, sadly, discovering that it didn’t work well for us at all.  It didn’t serve our students or our teaching as the year progressed.  What a loss!  We invested all of that time, all of that student learning energy into a book that fell flat before the year was over.  It didn’t make it for the long haul.

Recently our minister, Brent Damrow, preached on Touchstone Texts in our church one Sunday.  (Okay, he didn’t intend to be preaching on Touchstone Texts the way you and I think of them.  He had a different type of text in mind.) He did an amazing job of explaining how Touchstone Texts operate and why they’re so important.  Frankly, he did a better job of explaining it than I have EVER done.  So, I asked him if he’d share with all of you.

Graciously, he said, “yes”.  Here’s his explanation:

What is your touchstone?  The idea of touchstone has always been associated with something precious as far back as ancient Greece, touchstones were used to measure precious metals. The touchstone was a piece of slate or flint, and when you rubbed a piece of gold or silver over that flint it left a mark that told you just how precious the metal was; Just how pure it was – whether or not you wanted to hold onto it.

In the 1880’s inspired by the character Touchstone from Shakespeare’s As You like It,that idea was extended by Matthew Arnold to apply to poetry.   Arnold was frustrated that the greatness of poetry was measured by its historicity or simply by who wrote it; rather than by its meaning or beauty.   And so Arnold suggested a few gems, like Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio, as touchstones against which the beauty and significance of poetry should be measured: A way of determining which pieces of poetry were worth committing to your heart.  

By the way,  I want to look at that term today is in the sense of something that you hold onto.  Something that in the midst of difficulty or stress points you straight to what its beautiful, true and worth holding onto.  Something whose touch calms you, grounds you, shows you peace or hope or love.  A touchstone is the rock you hold onto when the winds blow and the rains fall.  What is your touchstone?   Sometimes that touchstone is a memory or a song.  And sometimes it is something tangible that we carry with us.

So…. what will you choose as the touchstones for your classroom for this year?  What will you hold up to your students as beautiful, true, and worth holding on to?  This is our opportunity to choose for our students for this year… to create the anchors that will ground our work for the entire year.  Choose well. If you’d like to hear Brent (he’s really easy to listen to — engaging and animated — and as great as these words are printed here, they are incredibly powerful when Brent is speaking them) go here.

Real Life Revision: Tackle the Beginning Last

So here’s my final real-life revision strategy.  It wasn’t the last strategy that I tried, but it is the last strategy that I’m sharing.  Tackle the beginning last — seemed fitting as the last revision strategy of this series.

I can’t tell you how I struggled with the opening of this speech.  I simply could not get it to feel and sound right.  I finally gave up on it and wrote the other sections, revised them again and again, and generally ignored the fact that I needed a beginning.

Beginnings are hard.  I don’t care what kind of writing I’m doing — they’re just plain hard.  Maybe that’s why I love working in small moments so much.  Small moments don’t have a beginning, they just jump right in there.  Writing that needs a beginning is hard.  As an author, you have think about what do your readers need to know right up front.  You have to figure out how to give them that information without destroying the work that is yet to come — the body of the piece that you’ve crafted and revised.  And, despite the attempts by some young writer friends of mine, you can’t just say, “so before I tell you my story…”.  Beginnings are tricky things.  They require huge amounts of thinking, of skill as a writer, and of empathy for your reader/listener.

In my case, there was also the predicament of not knowing what would be said by other speakers in the hour or more before I spoke.  Ordination services have several speakers, each with a slightly different purpose, but still — whatever was said before me would shape how my listeners heard my words.  And going into this, I had absolutely no way of even guessing at what those other speakers might be saying.

So, I wrote my beginning last.  Literally LAST.  I wrote the beginning after I was relatively happy with the entire rest of the piece.  Then I went back through it and used some of my read-aloud revision strategies to make sure that the beginning sounded like it fit with the rest of the piece.  That version of the beginning was in the draft that I shared with my read-aloud buddy and with my feedback friends.

Finally, I printed out my speech the morning of the service.  I printed it in a huge, enormous font and double spaced it so that I wouldn’t worry about losing my place while I was reading it.  And I left some extra room at the top of the page, right before the beginning that I’d crafted.  I tucked a pencil in my purse and headed out to the service.  During the service, as each of the other speakers gave their thoughts,  I was able to make a few quick notes in the empty space to tighten up my introduction.  Writing my beginning was truly, truly the last thing I did before I stood to deliver the speech.  Write your beginning last — really.

Real Life Revision: Get Input

This one sounds like a no-brainer.  After all, we as teachers do this all the time — we GIVE input.  But I think that’s different than our students asking for input.  After I had done a massive amount of revision work and was nearly to the end of the process (meaning I had only a few short days before I needed to deliver this speech), I asked two friends to read it and give me feedback and input.

Here are the important bits about this:

1.  I was nearly done with the work.  I had already engaged in the revision strategies that I’ve shared previously.  I had already done some super hard work.  I was mostly happy with my result.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t “done”.  But it was in a really good place.  I think that when we give something to someone too soon, the feedback that we get isn’t as valuable.  There’s simply too much work there.  I’m pretty sure this is what happens in our classrooms when readers share rough draft material and get feedback.  There is so much that needs work that the feedback isn’t helpful.  It ends up either being too global to really help, or it involves prompting for Extreme Home Makeover type revision — and that frustrates the young writer.  By waiting until I was past those stages, there was less glaring awfulness for my friends to comment on.  I could find that kind of major work myself — that wasn’t what made my friends helpful.

2.  I chose my feedback partners wisely.  I chose people who know me well, but not too well.  They didn’t read it and immediately “get” what I wanted to say.  They were far enough away from me to be objective, yet close enough to me to feel safe.  Additionally, they were both friends who had some serious knowledge of what I was trying to do.  One was our minister and the other a retired seminary professor friend.  Both of them had insider knowledge of how ordination services go.  Both of them have done what I was attempting to do.  They could read my piece with expert eyes.  They caught things that I never would have caught.  Better yet, they could read my piece with the same mindset as most of the people who would be listening to it when I delivered the speech.  They provided a “trial” audience that resembled the audience that would be when I went live.

3.  My feedback partners knew how to give feedback.  I’m sure there was a lot more wrong with my piece than they alluded to.  I’m an amateur in this field — they are seasoned professionals.  There were probably hundreds of little things (and not-so-little things) that they saw and refrained from pointing out.  Instead, they gave me some positive feedback first.  They told me something BIG that was good about my work.  It was genuine and real.  It felt good.  It let me know that this thing wasn’t the disaster that I feared.  And, if I’m ever crazy enough to do something like this again, it was something I could do again in a new piece.  Then they gave me some specific things to think about.  They didn’t correct my grammar or my punctuation.  They didn’t tell me what to write or try to write it for me.  They make simple points and asked me to think about them.  They suggested places where I might clarify for the benefit of my listener.  And, best of all, nobody said “and then you’ll be done”.

Real Life Revision: Read it to Someone

After I had read my piece aloud a few times, I tried a different tack.  I read my piece aloud — to someone else.  Yep, I made someone sit and listen to me.  It wasn’t pretty.  Suddenly the whole awkwardness level was ramped up and things jumped out that hadn’t before.

Some of what happened was that I as a reader stumbled more with the pressure of a listener.  That helped me to identify more spots where my grammar and syntax were tricky and needed to be more clear.

But my listener provided instant feedback, even without commenting directly.  His face scrunched up, his eyebrows twitched, he grinned (at the appropriate place, thankfully!) I knew instantly whether or not I was being effective in what I wanted to communicate.  I penciled all over the text while I did this read aloud.  I starred the spots that had the desired effect.  I make exclamation marks in the margin for places that didn’t go over as strongly as I wanted them to.  I even noted a quick OMG in one spot that was disastrous during this particular read aloud.

After reading it to another person, I had a huge amount of revision that I was ready to do.  And that was before getting verbal feedback. All I had asked him to do was listen to  me.  And that’s all he did.  Wow, did I get feedback though.

Real Life Revision: Read it Aloud

Maybe this worked so well for me because it was a speech that I needed to deliver — in other words, it was going to be read aloud in the end.  I’m not so sure.  But reading my piece aloud helped me to see where I needed to smooth things out.  It highlighted places where my grammar and syntax were just a tiny bit funky and confusing.  I suddenly noticed that I stumbled in a few places.  Those were the places that needed some revision.

This revision work was very different than the other revision work that I’ve talked about thus far.  The previous revision work was huge, structural work — sort of Extreme Home Makeover for my piece of writing.  This work was more like a bathroom renovation within a pretty solid house.  It still required some major effort and work, but it didn’t rip apart the very foundation of my piece of writing like the other work did.

Early in the work I did some reading aloud of my piece as well.  It helped me to know that I wasn’t happy with the piece at all and that I needed to engage in some serious Extreme Home Makeover type of revision.  But later in the work, reading aloud let me play with the specifics of smaller pieces of the writing.  I could hear what sounded funny or was awkward to read aloud.

Hint:  This strategy required that I walk away from the piece for a few days.  Otherwise, my mouth read what I “thought” it said, not what I’d actually written.