Helping Students Learn to Write

outdoor writing

Teachers are funny creatures.  We go into teaching to help our students.  However, too many times, once we’re in the classroom, we forget they need our help.

For example, in teaching writing, we just assume they will figure it out if we encourage enough.  I was guilty of this for years.  I did my best to give interesting writing prompts, making the time for students to plan, write a rough draft, revise, edit, etc.  I thought that the less I talked about writing, or directed their writing, the more they would develop their own style.

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However, I have since come to realize that isn’t really the best way for most of our students to learn to write.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some natural writers in each class that don’t need much help from me.  Give them a prompt and some time, maybe a hint or two about conventions and they’re all set.  Most students, though, need more direct instruction,

In the last couple of years, I have spent at least half of my school year giving students step by step instructions for their writing.  Think of it as the wine and painting class craze that is sweeping the nation.  When we go to one of those events, we don’t want the artist saying something like, “paint a picture of a moonlit night”, then walking around encouraging us to keep at it.  Most of us need more than that.  We’re very happy to follow the step by step directions given to create a “masterpiece” that looks something like the sample the teacher has in front of the room.

I am a writer

Does this mean we can’t eventually branch out and start painting our own ideas?  Probably not.  But without some direct instruction, we leave thinking we’re “just not cut out to be a painter”.  Do we really want our students to grow up thinking they’re “just not cut out to be a writer”?

To help my students, I now use a writing guide.  This scaffolds the writing process for them by telling them what to write in each sentence.  For instance, when writing a story, you start by introducing the characters, so I put that at the beginning of paragraph one. You can see one here Guide to Writing a Mystery

By telling students explicitly how to begin their story, and why, we help them internalize this information.

This method lets students complete a rough draft in a class period.  The more they write, the better they will get (just like any other skill), so being able to complete a rough draft quickly allows for more rough drafts.

What do you do to help students write well?  Comment below – I’m always looking for new ideas!

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Data Driven Teaching

As teachers, we’ve always tended to go with our hunches, or feelings about how students are doing.  The recent push to use data to drive our teaching has created quite a shift in thinking about learning and teaching.  While constant testing of the students can inhibit their learning, using data to drive our instruction can help them.

I use a daily formative assessment to determine how my teaching is going.  I write up 10 questions in multiple choice format.  Most of the questions refer to content from the day’s lesson, however, I include some past information to ensure it’s still in their minds.  At first, it took a little while to write these up.  As I continued, however, it got easier, and faster.  I also sometimes reuse questions from previous assessments (so far, my students don’t seem to notice, or if they do, they don’t say anything!).

Some days, I use Kahoot.com to do the assessing (they love that, since it feels like a video game) others, I use scan sheets for our online system.  I laminated the scan sheets to save on paper and time spent copying, so all they need is the questions printed out (although I plan to pilot using the google classroom format to go a little more paperless).  Next week, I’m going to try quizziz.com and see how that goes.

Once my students have completed their assessment, they get the feedback.  That’s one of the main reasons I do multiple choice – it allows immediate feedback for the students.  I offer an incentive for 80% or better, just to help them want to try, but not a big enough incentive to cause them to feel stressed about it.

The feedback is the piece I look at after school.  I download the results into a spreadsheet.  Sometimes I just look then for questions lots of students missed.  Any questions they all missed, reveal content they need more time on.  Other times, I use a chart and look at which skills each student has mastered, or not.  This information lets me see which students need review and which students are ready to move on.

By using this daily assessment, I can see what my students are learning well before the end of the unit and adjust my teaching accordingly.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as just reviewing a vocabulary word.  Other times, it demonstrates they don’t understand a math concept that I thought seemed simple.

What do you do to help decide where to go next in your teaching?  Do you use formative assessments?

Team Endeavor – a different kind of classroom

 

This year, I was given the opportunity to try something new for some of our at-risk sixth graders.  We handpicked 20 of them for a class.  This class is completely different from the normal 6th grade classroom.  

First, I don’t assign homework.  In part because many of these students don’t do homework, but more importantly, homework has not been show to increase student achievement.  In addition, some of these students will do their homework, but do it incorrectly, which means they have practiced it incorrectly and I now would have to fix that.

i_didn__t_do_my_homework_by_chidoriuser361

Second, for the most part, I try to avoid assigned seats, although after they were such a problem for my last sub, I did assign seats for the week!

 By letting students  choose their seats, I believe they gain a certain responsibility.  They also become more self-aware.  In making choices about who they sit with and where, in the classroom, they sit, they are given the opportunity to learn that their choices have consequences, both good and bad.

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Third, I try to only use research based strategies.  That means being careful with what I take from Pinterest or Teacher Pay Teacher.  While there are cute ideas on both websites, my students need to make one and a half year’s growth in a year.  I don’t have time to spend on cute stuff.

researchWe’re about halfway through our first year.  So far, there have been a lot of positives.  Check back for posts about the successes!

Working Fun into the Learning

One thing I’m hoping to change next year is my students’ attitudes toward school.  They, as a class, tend to view school as something to “get through” so you can spend lunch with your friends, or go home and do what they want.

my-goal-in-the-classroom-was-always-to-make-sure-they-were-having-so-much-fun-th-403x403-nk5yfzSince they have a number of years left for school, I need to get them excited about school and learning.  Toward that end, I’m planning some “fun” Friday activities.  Each Friday, we’ll do something out of the ordinary.  They’ll still be learning, but in a different manner.

have_fun_learning_english_quote_from_rodrigoWeek one will be an art lesson.  I’ve been working with a friend of mine who is an art teacher for some good solid art lessons that will benefit my students.  Activities like weaving, collages, wire sculpture and positive/negative space drawings will expand their thinking and help them see the world differently.  Also, since art is more freeing, they can feel success in the lessons.

Week two will be a mystery Skype.  If you haven’t heard of Mystery Skypes, they’re basically a chance for classrooms to connect to other classrooms around the world.  Each class asks yes or no questions of the other class to try to figure out where the other class is.  You can check it out here: https://education.microsoft.com/SkypeInTheClassroom.  This fits nicely with our social studies curriculum of sixth grade geography, and allows students to participate in an activity they are excited about.

Week three will be a problem solving session.  I’ll be using the box and ideas from Breakout Edu – seen here: http://www.breakoutedu.com to give them a story to solve.  In order to open the box, they need to work together to solve riddles.  This will expand their thinking and encourage creativity.

Week four will be a Guest Speaker.  Each month, we’ll have a guest speaker come in (or Skype) and talk to my class about careers.  People like plumbers, stage managers, business owners will all be coming in to speak.  This gives my students a chance to start thinking about their future.  As they hear about various careers, we’ll be able to talk about what is needed to attain that career.  This gives a purpose to their education beyond a grade on a report card.

images-2Having a monthly plan like this makes life easier when you’re teaching.  This allows me to get the plans set in advance, so the details can be worked out before I’m too busy to think!

What do you do to get students excited to come to school?

I’m Back!

Oh my goodness, it’s been way too long!  Somehow, life got in the way of my blogging.  First, my in-laws were struggling and we had to take over the finances and medical stuff (read lots and lots of doctors appointments!).  Then, my father-in-law passed away and we had to deal with that, selling two houses (both filled to the rafters with stuff – major hoarders here!).  Then, I switched grades and subjects, so last year, while lots of fun, required huge amounts of time to be prepared to teach 5th graders math, science and social studies.  However, all of that is behind me now, and it’s summer vacation.  Yay!

My blog will be taking a bit of a turn this year, because my principal and I have started a grand experiment.  I will be teaching 20 at-risk sixth graders in a self-contained class.  My job is to help them achieve a year and a half growth in math and reading in a year.  Bit of a challenge, eh? I’m pretty excited, though, since I have been doing a lot of research getting ready for this.  I think it’s going to be my best year ever!

We’re calling our class Team Endeavor, because to endeavor means to try hard.  That seemed to fit us to a T.

How did we select these students?  I’m glad you asked!  We used teacher recommendations, as well as test scores and grades.  Each of these students scored well below average on a universal screener for math and reading.  In addition, they tend to have failing report card grades and low motivation.  Their work ethic varies, as does their behavior.  Some work very hard, some not at all.  Some have a few behavior issues, while others are model students in the classroom.  All are at-risk of not graduating high school (or passing 6th grade, for that matter).

To start the year off right, I began in June.  I held a class meeting with them and mailed a letter to their parents.  In the class meeting, I told them: You were all specially selected for this class. We’re going to reinvent 6th grade. We felt that you would be the best students for this experiment because of who you are, your strengths.

Then, I hit them where it counts.  I told them we are going to reinvent sixth grade.  For instance, there won’t be assigned homework.  That got their attention!  I also told them no seating charts.  The excitement on their faces let me know I’m on the right track.

Why no homework?  Because several of these students faithfully do the homework, incorrectly, night after night.  Is it helping them to practice incorrectly?  Several more don’t do the homework at all.  Is it helping them to assign work they won’t even start?  Several more get overwhelmed when dealing with homework.  Again, it’s not helping them.

Why no seating chart?  First, because we usually use a seating chart to separate the problem students and put bright students with struggling ones.  Since I will have all problem and struggling students, a seating chart won’t help.  Second, because research is finding that giving students choice in where they work is beneficial.

 

Stay tuned – I’ll be updating regularly with my plans and, once school starts, with how things are going.  10304386123_210f58c113

Running as a Metaphor for Teaching

I was out for my run this morning, and I got thinking about how similar running and teaching are.  I have been running for about 10 years.  I wasn’t a runner as a kid.  I thought it sounded good, but the actual work of running wasn’t appealing, so I never got into it.  I’m a recent convert.  I like to tell people I run, since no one ever asks if I run fast.  I don’t.  I’m slower than a turtle going through peanut butter.

Anyway, I find that teaching has a lot in common with running.  For instance, you have good runs and bad runs.  There’s never a reason behind a run being good or bad.  Yesterday, I went out for my run and felt amazing.  It was cold, windy and early in the morning (none of which are good in my book!), but my running felt good.  I finished and felt so proud that I had accomplished a run.

Then, today.  It was awful.  I had to take a number of walking breaks.  I hated every minute of it.  I was in a  terrible mood when I got back (no runner’s high for me!)  It was just plain yucky.   Beautiful, sunny sky, warmer than yesterday, not as windy, later in the morning.  None of that mattered.

I have those kinds of days teaching, too.  Some days, everything just clicks.  No reason for it to be a good day, but there it is.  Friday was just such a day in my classroom.  Full moon, Friday, big unit test.  All things that should have caused the kids to be a problem.  Even a mix up with the unit test and I gave them the pre-test for the next unit instead of the test we had been prepping for.  None of it stopped them.  They worked hard, were happy to be in school and generally had a great day!

Then there are the days where you’ve planned everything out.  You’ve got an exciting lesson plan, full of fun activities that will lead to those light bulb moments.  Until everything falls apart.  You know how that goes – you expect it to be wonderful and it’s NOT.  Everyone frowns as they leave for the day.

Teaching is like training for a race.  You put in the hours, day in and day out, slogging through the tough workouts, until the day when it all pays off.  Friday, it paid off for me.  I have a student who has been failing my class all year (and everyone else’s).  I’ve been working with him every day to get his work for the week caught up.  Friday afternoon, he had everything done and got to hang out with his friends for the last half hour of the day, instead of catch up on work.  He was so excited!

What else is a metaphor for the hard work of teaching?  What do you compare it to?

Creating a Tour of Canada

Sorry it’s been a while – life got in the way.

 

Here’s what my classes have been up to:

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.com

Touring Canada

We read about Canada from the textbook and did the obligatory end of the section questions.  We also labelled maps and watched some Discovery Channel videos.  I think it’s important to use the textbook and teach them how to answer questions from the end of the section because otherwise, when they get into higher grades, they’re clueless about it.  So we practice looking for the information, putting our finger on it, deciding how to answer the question using a complete sentence.

Now that we’ve got some background knowledge, it’s time for a little fun!

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comMy students are planning a tour of Canada.  They can take their tour anywhere in the country they like.  We discussed possible themes for their tours: hunting, hiking, shopping, ghost towns, sports, etc.  Then they started their plans.

www.mrsfenger.wordpress.comPlanning Packet

I took them through this paper step by step.  As students filled in the blanks, we discussed possible answers they might like to put down.  I’ve found going through it together helps them complete the work more quickly.  Otherwise, many of them spend ridiculous amounts of time deciding how many days their trip will take, then never get to the rest of the packet.  🙂

I used manilla folders to organize all of their work.  The folders stay in my room.  This way, they never are stuck not being able to work because they left their papers at home.  They also won’t lose their work (which is an ongoing issue with 6th graders!)

I simply have each table group gather their folders at the end of the hour, then bring me the stack.  Each group of folders goes in a hanging folder in a crate.  The next day, I give the stack back to the table and they’re ready to go.

I also put all of the worksheets they will need in their folders to start with.  That way, they have everything they need and we don’t have to waste time handing more out.

At the beginning of the hour, I have the class look through their folder, decide what they need to work on that day (I generally give them about 4 choices).  Then, I take a chart on a clipboard and go down the list alphabetically and ask each student what their plan for the day is.  This takes about 30 seconds and I just note the date at the top, and an initial for what they’re doing.  This helps keep them accountable and I can see at a glance if they’ve spent too long on any one thing.

800px-The_Burlington_Teen_Tour_Band_Represented_Canada_at_the_St._Patrick_Day_celebrations_in_Dublin_(2013)_(8566221972)

Now the fun part:

Each class will submit their tours at the end of this project.  I’ll choose the top 5.  Those tours will earn a Klondike bar (get it? for the Klondike Gold Rush?).  Then, the principal and counselor will choose the top tour from each class (from the top 5).  Those students earn a $5 McDonald’s gift card.  I posted a picture on the board of a Klondike bar and the McDonald’s logo to keep the prize in view.

klondike bar McDonald's

Here are the papers I used.  They have instructions, as well as point values, etc.

Canada Tour Packet