Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Lost Without Dots?

Our poor librarian.  She has ‘removing-Accelerated-Reader-dots-from-our-entire-library’ handitis.  I don’t know the exact number of books we have in our elementary school library, but let’s just say, there are plenty.  And, she’s tackling this enormous job all by herself.  No wonder her hand and fingers hurt.  Those dots were practically branded on those books.  Why were the dots there in the first place? Ah, yes, to help students find books on their ‘levels’ and take quizzes on them and earn points.   Yes, it’s important growing readers read a plethora of books at their independent and instructional levels so they can grow their fluency, skills and strategies, and I believe the practice of working with readers in small guided reading groups is extremely important and efficacious.  But, readers also need a balanced experience.  They need to be able to freely explore the infinite possibilities within the world of books and discover who they are as readers.

Here’s a kicker.  As our librarian has been removing dots in between running her classes this week, she’s been hearing anxious student-comments like, “What are you doing?  How will I ever be able to choose my books now?” This bowls me right over.  ‘How will I choose now?  How can I possibly navigate this world of books without the dots to help me?’  How, indeed.   Have we so limited their vision as readers that without the colored dots they have become blind?  

I literally can’t stand the thought of students having these thoughts!  Recently, my seven year old son and I were at Barnes and Noble.  When we walked in, he headed straight to the children’s section.  He got a few steps into the first aisle and stopped with a gasp, “Oh, mom!  Look at this one!  I haven’t seen this Magic Tree House title before!”  Pulling ‘Shadow of the Shark’ off the shelf, he sat down for a moment to peruse the book.  He wasted no time, tucking the book under his arm, heading further down the aisle.  Another gasp, “Oh, look, mom!  I’m just learning about this series!” He pulled a book from the Spirit Animals series from the shelf.  “Holden shared this book in class.  Characters drink a nectar and their spirit animals spawn and help them.”  About ten minutes later, after more literal gasps, ‘ewwws’ and ‘ahhhs’ (which, by the way, were delightful to observe), he had a handful of books he’d taken off shelves for different reasons, perused to different degrees, and that he wanted to read for different purposes.  Though I’m a literacy specialist, I’ve never personally tested his reading ability to quantify it in anyway, nor have I ever felt the need.  He is a reader in every sense of the word.  He does not need colored dots to lead him to books.  He knows how to navigate sections of books in a library or bookstore, he knows about different genres, authors, series, and he’s aware of his current preferences.  He’s open to the suggestions of others.  He has piles of books next to his bed and he openly discusses what he reads.

Every reader follows a different path to find themselves in love with books.  Certainly one of the steps along the way, though, must be the ability to pick books of interest without massive external guidance.  Yes, it’s definitely important to get to know our readers and give them book suggestions to help them stretch or even more importantly to help those readers who seem lost find their way.  But, let’s also teach students varied strategies for independently choosing books that will nourish them as readers and that they’ll enjoy.  Let’s help them discover their power as readers, decision makers and influencers.  In my view, we can’t get those dots pried off the books fast enough!  Let’s get the blinders off…there’s a whole library to explore!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Three Writing Vignettes Sure to Make You Smile

Opening students’ eyes to the joys of poetry can be so rewarding!  With the release of my new book ‘Stella: Poet Extraordinaire’ last week, I’ve seen and heard a few interesting stories right here in my own little neighborhood.  First, the day after it arrived, I sent a copy of the book to school with my son, who happens to be a second grader, just like the main character.  His teacher read the book to the class that very day and took them out for a poetry walk.  Armed with clipboards and pencils they went out to observe and take notes, turning their musings into poems when they returned to the classroom.  Apparently, they were so taken with their work and the fun they had producing it, that they decided to start a ‘Poetry Club’ during recess!

A teacher in my school read the book and brainstormed descriptive and action words for fall leaves with her class.  Modeling how to turn words into interesting phrases, and phrases into poems, reading aloud students’ poems as they worked to produce them, several of her students wrote more than one poem that first day.  She asked me about their formatting, after all, formatting a poem so it looks and reads like a poem can be a challenge for students, especially when they are just starting their journeys as poets.  One technique is to type the poems for students, adding line breaks where needed, until they get more of a feel for the possibilities (obviously, reading tons of poetry and noting how authors use line breaks for effect is also a useful practice).  She happily typed their poems.  Now, every single day following their first experience, they have asked to have time to write poetry.  So far, they’ve completed three class collections of poetry in three days!

This last vignette tickles me, too, though it’s not about poetry.  A mom I know who has three boys bought the Stella books (the three book set before the fourth (poetry) was released) hoping to inspire her sons to write more.  She read two of them aloud over a couple of days, reporting she saw the boys light up and start to write with more ease.  Before she got to the third, her oldest son sneaked the book into his bedroom and was reading it under the covers with a flashlight!  He’s in fourth grade!  It’s a thrill to hear even older boys are gravitating toward Stella.

Writing these books has been gratifying beyond measure.  They’ve called up so many memories from my work with student-writers over the years and they excite me about the possibilities for future student-writers.  At the moment, I’m smiling ear-to-ear: the poetry light has been TURNED ON for a few more little humans!
Sometimes looking at something from a different angle can inspire innovative thoughts for poetry.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Writing Is A Gift: Two Gifts in Two Days

Writing is a gift. 
It's a gift from the author, of course...
A gift of time,
life reflections,
of heart and soul.
It's a gift to the author, too...
A gift of enlightenment,
Writing is a gift.
It's a gift to the reader...
A gift of connection
to familiar ideas,
of inspiration 
from new ideas,
of joy in the beauty 
of words on a page.
Writing is a gift.
It's a gift of creation 
for everyone who writes
and everyone who reads.

Yesterday I received a gift in a padded manila envelope.  Inside...a poet and her classmates finally come to life, ready to inspire other writers to look at the world in new ways while writing oodles and oodles of poetry.  Poetry is a gift we can easily give to our students regularly.  Their words on the page become gifts they can keep forever.

Today I received another gift in a big cardboard box.  Inside...over a year of deep reflection about a career of teaching comes to life in 300 pages of purposeful, joyous instruction.  The gift we give our K-2 students when they see how reading and writing fit together and are used to achieve real purposes is life-changing.   

Two HUGE gifts in two successive days.  Out they go, these gifts, to make their mark on the world. Thanks to all those who've contributed.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Donald Crews' 'Shortcut:' An Ideal Mentor Text for Personal Narrative Writing

Fall is the perfect time to get your students writing personal narratives!  Writing and sharing personal narratives is such a great way to get to know your students in more detail and for them to get to know their classmates.  Donald Crews' book Shortcut is an ideal mentor text to get your students going.  The story is engaging and realistic.  It's about a group of friends who decide to take a shortcut home along some railroad tracks.  As they make their way down the tracks, what is that they hear in the distance?  Whoo-Woo!  The sound is faint at first, but it grows louder and louder and louder.  When one boy realizes a train is upon them, he shouts for them to get off the tracks.  But, what about the horrible briers that cover the slopes and the water with snakes that follows along the tracks?  Are the kids okay?  We have to wait a long time to see, since Donald Crews keeps us in suspense as we watch the train move along the tracks (Klickity-klak, klickity-klak) for page after page!

Students can often relate to the characters and events, thinking of a time they did something foolish.  We use the book to inspire topic generation, to review the elements of narratives, to guide the creation of a personal narrative anchor chart, and to encourage the addition of onomatopoeia in students' stories. (Crews masterfully uses this element in Shortcut.  It's easy to encourage students to try onomatopoeia in their writing based on his model.) 
Our Personal Narrative Anchor Chart based on 'Shortcut'
I wrote a series of detailed lesson plans outlining the specific steps I've used to help students in grades 1-3 create the best personal narratives EVER using Shortcut as a mentor text.  The plans are written as if they were students' first exposure to writing personal narratives.  I just finished the series of lessons with a group of ecstatic second graders today.  They were in love with their stories, as was I!  I've never seen so much wonderful use of onomatopoeia--it really enlivens their texts (I also attempted to get them to use some dialogue, and several did).  I plan to ask a few parents if I can post some samples to share here (stay tuned!).  If you'd like a copy of the plans, I just posted them as a FREEBIE to TPT:

These plans were adapted from my new book of integrated literacy lesson sequences which will be out THIS MONTH!
You can read more about the book on a post I created for this blog a few months back:  
Note:  There is also a 3-5 volume of Booster Lessons, written by master teacher Leslie Blauman.  
Check it out here:

(It is now 2:30 AM and I teach a full day tomorrow.  The things we do for our fellow teachers!) 
(Also note:  The mystery word for this blog post and the Fall Mentor Text Hop is:  Klickity-klak  (from Donald Crews' Shortcut, of course!)

I hope you enjoy the posts and resources you've found on this Fall Mentor Text Hop!  Thanks for stopping by and Happy Personal Narrative Writing!   -Janiel    Here's the link to your next stop:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review of Dr. Jean's Reading Recipes Book

     What fun!  If you haven’t seen Dr. Jean’s Reading Recipes by Dr. Jean and Carolyn Kisloski (SDE, 2015), you’re in for a real treat.  This full-color volume is full of exciting, hands-on ideas for making PreK-1st literacy work come to life.  Dr. Jean and Kisloski focus one photograph-filled chapter on each of the following:  Speaking and Listening, the Sounds of Speech, Print Connections, Fun Phonics, Lifetime Words (sight words), Vocabulary Builders, I’m Reading, and Writing.  There are so many delightful new twists on old ideas like giving students Bugles corn snacks to wear on their index fingers while tracking print (rather than the ‘witchy fingers’) (EAT when you’re done reading!) or having students place Cheerios as spacers between words as  they write (rather than just using a finger).  Not all of the ideas involve food, but hey, I’m all for sneaking in as many snacks as possible!   There are also many new teaching ideas like ‘High Five:’ Teachers cut out two hand prints and write one word on each that they’d like their students to master reading by the end of the week.  The words are introduced on Monday, then taped next to the classroom door.  When students go out, they ‘high five’ the hands and read the words aloud.  Or… ‘Sign In With Sight Words:’  When students arrive in the morning, they sign in next to their name by writing the sight word shown at the top of the page. 
     When I first picked up this book at ILA in St. Louis this summer, I was immediately taken by its appealing format and its plethora of engaging ideas.  What a great volume to have on the shelf—pull it out and immediately get an easy-to-implement suggestion for teaching or reinforcing preK-1st grade skills that is sure to be loved by students!