Monday, January 25, 2016

Mentor Texts as Tools for Authors

Connections, Extensions, Challenges...

     The term 'mentor texts' is often thrown around, and in the past I might have claimed I have used them. Although truth be told, I don't feel like I've used them as effectively as I could. Often times I have a text I use to kick off a unit (which I now know is an anchor text), but I don't always reference it for authors throughout the writing process. So, this year I'm working on using powerful mentor texts to highlight the link between reading and writing, serve as an authentic model, and allow students to learn through inquiry.

     In all honesty, I've tried to improve this area of my teaching before, but I always feel 'stuck'. I sometimes get lost in my own thinking. Am I looking for a mentor text to model craft or format? I also have lost sight of my purpose at times when I get caught up in the content of the texts. Of course, it'd be wonderful if everything could integrate. But, I need to keep my end goal in sight and move forward. I've been fortunate that I have wonderful colleagues and friends who always have a book for everything. So for years I've skated by, but I'm ready to go to the next step for myself.

     Prior to break students were writing nonfiction narratives about how their family came to Colorado. This was the first time I've attempted this, and it crashed and burned! I couldn't find texts that matched what I wanted students to write. I just wasn't pleased with anything I found. (Once again, I think I was getting a little caught up in content, but it's hard!) Then, for any of you who truly know me, you know I begin to over analyze everything. Am I asking them to write something authentic? Is narrative the best genre to share this information? So, needless to say I was pretty miserable throughout the whole unit, struggled through, and now I'm working to forget it ever happened.

     In attempts to try again,  I'm preparing to launch into an inquiry study around feature articles. In Social Studies, our students are learning about the early people of Colorado's past, and through feature articles they will share what they add to their schema. I'm preparing to follow Katie Wood Ray's inquiry model. Currently I'm gathering texts with the help of her recommendations. Hopefully, after reading feature articles I'll feel comfortable choosing one or two to serve as our mentor texts. I realize through immersion students are going to use numerous texts as models, but I want a few really strong models that we know really well to refer back to while writing. Needless to say, I have my work cut out ahead of me, but I feel more focused than before. Approaching this through inquiry takes a bit of the pressure off of me. I don't have to find the perfect mentor texts. Together we can analyze many pieces and make some decisions for ourselves. I realize finding the mentor texts is only the first step, but I'm taking it one step at a time. Wish me luck!

Image result for study driven

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Writing in Math


Over the past few years I have found that many of my students were using the thinking strategies, but were unable to name them.  This year at the beginning of the year I found that my students could name ‘schema’ and ‘determining importance’, but struggled with the actual application of them.  They could activate their background knowledge, but when it came to determining importance, they thought everything was important! My focus this year has been ‘What second grade math writing look like?’ and ‘How can math writing support deeper understanding?’  


We jumped right into the thinking strategies through word problems.  We began with determining importance and they really started to narrow down they keywords.  I put in place limits for highlighting (4-6 word max) and then they really had to start thinking about which parts were more important than others.  We then moved onto mental images.  This led into us really focusing on the difference between a math strategy and a thinking strategy.  This is still a work in progress, but they are starting to see the differences the more they work with them.  Our math writing so far this year has really focused on mental images.  It took some adjustment in my mindset to see that writing is not just sentences-especially in younger learners.  We celebrate when they show us their thinking through pictures, numbers, words-any type of writing.  In the past week we shifted our learning to growth mindset, how we as second graders tackle tough problems.

My challenge for the next month is to move into monitoring for meaning.  I talked with Michelle about ways in which to present it to students and what has worked in the past.  Although I am familiar with this, I find that each year, each class is so different that you just have to see what works!  I really want to narrow down an anchor chart for this thinking strategy so I think I’ll show the kids (after our lessons) what I have done in the past and see what they help me come up with.  I want to present it in a way that makes sense for them and that will be useful and memorable.  We also just got our Chromebooks so my challenge is integrating technology back into my classroom.  This year we have had to check out the PC lab when possible and work around that, now I feel like we have a lot more options so our workshop time is going to be changing quite a bit over the next few weeks.

Math Conferring

This year, I am working on connecting math and writing.  I have struggled with how to best help students explain their mathematical thinking.  This is the big challenge I have asked Michelle Jones to help me with during our coaching sessions.  First, I identified areas where my students are currently writing during the math workshop.  Students begin nearly every day with a small, manageable story problem.  They have a routine where they identify what they know and what they need to find out and list those items before trying to find a solution.  The other time students are writing is at the end of the workshop.  We generally have a question where students reflect on their learning.  Often the question will include a reference to their thinking such as, "In what ways did you determine importance in order to decide how to divide?" or "How did you monitor for meaning as you tackled story problems today?"  We will usually reflect at the end verbally about content specifically, then I will have them write about their thinking.  My problem is that I don't feel that I am doing a good enough job of knowing what the mini lesson is to help students improve their math writing. We keep trucking along, with no real improvement.

What is extending my thinking is the idea that math writing is so different than other writing we ask students to do, but what about the systems that I need to put in place to confer with students?  Could I use the same systems and routines that a literacy teacher does to help individual students?  I am currently doing lots of writing in my class, but I am not in touch with where students are in the writing process.  What about my "high fliers?"  Math writing is a place where I can really push my quick learners, but I don't have a good pulse of where they are in math writing.  How do I record my conferences?  I have tried many different methods and am trying to settle on one that will work for me an all my students so I can have a track record of all of our ongoing writing goals.

My challenge moving forward is to put together this conferring routine with kids.  I have a conferring notebook that I am going to start utilizing.  It is a very simple sheet, where I will put students who I want to confer with daily, every other day and weekly.  The space if very open so I can put any kinds of notes I think are appropriate.  My thinking is that I will schedule specific kids on certain days and write those conferences in my plan book to hold myself accountable.  For my initial conferences, I will ask kids to share with me their writing from the beginning of workshop and ask them to share with me what they think they could do to make it better.  This will help me not only assess their writing, but also assess their knowledge of what makes good math writing.  I am hoping this will help me guide future mini lessons.  I also am currently running invitational groups, where I ask kids to join me if they are needing a second look at the mini lesson before they move on to independent practice.  I want to keep that in place, so I am going to split my time, 20 minutes or so to confer with my list of students, 20 minutes or so to continue my invitational groups.  I am thinking of doing invitational groups second to encourage kids to try independent work first before they rely on me or others to get the answers.  At that point, they can join me if they need it.  I think there are students who avoid any struggle whatsoever. 

My question moving forward is: How do I create a system for conferring that will be sustainable?  I am frustrated that this is something I am still trying to figure out and when I look back at previous years, I have tried so many different methods, none of which have worked. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Writing in math :)

This year, the 4th grade math team has focused on writing in math due to data showing that the students need additional help and work in this area of focus. Being that I’m a new teacher in general, I did not have the background to see the strengths and weaknesses of students in regards to writing in math.

For my class, I have tried to connect the dots for students between writing in literacy and writing in math. Obviously, the two are very different, but there can be some similarities, as well. This year in literacy, we have talked a lot about paragraphs, and including a topic sentence. We have transferred this knowledge to math, in that when we write in math, they can include a topic sentence, but it will be rather restating the question in their answer, with a clear, grammatically correct, proper punctuation and capitalization sentence. Additionally, we have come up with the following guidelines for our math writing:

1.       Explain our thinking
2.      Use math vocabulary
3.      Show your work by using symbols, numbers, graphs, and words
4.      Shows sequence
5.      Use because
6.      Clearly states your answer

In the beginning of the year, my class didn’t do much of the above, so it has been a work in progress. We started out small, and have worked up to harder questions. Additionally, we spent some time talking and creating a class anchor chart about math vocabulary and how that helps our math writing. Therefore, we started slow for our math writing. At the beginning of the year, the 4th grade team gave a benchmark writing test on information they knew, and it was pretty much a disaster. This told us that we had to slow way down, go back and pretty much teach the basics of math writing.

After talking to Caitlin, she had the idea to start off basic with a problem such as, “If you had to be addition, multiplication, division, or subtraction, which would you be and why?” This enabled them to write about math, without feeling they are writing about math. After this, we created our math vocabulary anchor charts and the “how-to” for math writing. After this, I have tried to find problems in which they have to use critical thinking, with a variety of math involved (so usually a word problem), and then they have to come up with an answer and explain themselves, or whatever the problem asks them to do. I try to do one every week or so, so that they are constantly writing and so it doesn’t feel like a big ordeal when we math write.

One thing that worked really well is something we have done the last two weeks. Using their 2nd ANET math test, we took the extended response answers, and have redone the actual problems on paper. I reprinted the question, gave it to them to answer again (they forgot that they’ve already done the problem) and told them to use their very best on this. They completed it, then I gave them their answer that they completed on ANET. I had them look at the two answers they gave, and then had them write which one was better and why, and how they could have made each answer better. They then got with partners and shared their writing and received feedback. They said this was helpful in that they can see what a good answer is supposed to look like, and also, see how others answered the question so that they could get ideas for the future.

This brings me to what we are going to work on the next month or so. I found that they kids did better on the problem from ANET when it was on paper, so I asked them what we could do in the future to help them on math problems when having to do it on the computer. They said it would be helpful to do more problems on the computer, rather than in their notebooks because it will be more similar to the test. Because of this, for the next extended response question, I’m going to have them do it on the computer, then compare it to their first response. This is a challenge because as expected, and as they said, figuring math problems on paper then transferring it to a computer is difficult. Additionally, it is difficult knowing how to teach them what to transfer regarding their work, and what is not necessary to transfer. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Determine Importance and Synthesizing Information

Determining Importance and Synthesizing Information

Our shared writing goal in 5th Grade is to develop students' abilities to support their writing with evidence in all content areas.  Along with this goal, students are also held accountable for age appropriate: grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure.

Teaching only writing and skills this year has enabled me to delve deeply with students while they hone their skills at citing evidence from the text to support their claims/inferences. We've practiced using materials from the EL curriculum and from Scope magazine along with evidence from text read aloud.

The three main assignments where we practiced citing evidence were:
  • the mid-unit assessment in the EL curriculum. Students had already done a close reading of the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). They were then asked to read a complex text about a family who fled Kosovo during the Serbian civil war. The final task was to synthesize the two texts and analyze human rights violations in the Kosovo article and relate them directly to articles in the UDHR.  Since students were accutely familiar with the UDHR, they readily discovered violations in the Kosovo article and quoted the UDHR and article when supporting their claims.
  • an essay synthesizing paired texts from a Scope magazine. The first article detailed the history of candy and how America's love of candy developed over 200 years. The second article contained facts about the dangers of sugar that Americans now know about in 2015. Students responded to the prompt: How have Americans' ideas about sugar changed over the past 200 years? Students were able to make claims about early ideas of candy being healthy to current information about sugar in our diet. They were able to respond quoting the text; however, the engagement and interest in the topic was somewhat lacking.
  • a written response detailing any human rights violations in our read aloud novel, Under the Blood Red Sun. Students were able to identify those violations and associate them directly to articles in the UDHR. Here students had a high level of engagement and interest.
The next step of our writing journey entails learning how to write persuasively. Originally I had a debate issue from our last Scope magazine in mind, but I feared a lack of engagement and interest. So I thought the students could decide which issue was most pressing for them. Hands down, the issue near and dear to fifth graders is the six people to a table rule in the Bill Roberts lunchroom. The challenge is not necessarily citing the text; it's finding information. Not much has been written on the subject. Therefore, we need to create our own "text."  Ah-ha! Inquiry!

After much brainstorming and lively discourse, we zeroed in on five areas of research whose results will be used as text evidence in a persuasive essay:
  • Big question is "Should more than six students be allowed at a lunch table at Bill Roberts?" Survey team is developing a survey for grades 4, 5, and 6. They will then present their findings using graphs and charts.
  • Interview team is developing questions to ask the principals and Miss Jane. Look for lots of quotes from these interviews as supporting evidence!
  • Other schools team is investigating what other DPS schools do in their lunchrooms.
  • Another team is planning an experiment at grades 4, 5, and 6 lunchtimes to allow up to 8 students at a table and charting observations regarding number of students at a table, noise level, and behavior issues. These could be some interesting results.
  • Internet team is researching articles that address school lunchroom management such as traffic flow, behavior, and noise.
Since we are just starting our inquiry into this very important debate, my next post will provide an update on how the inquiry and persuasive writing is going. In the meantime, I'm anticipating some rousing mini-lessons on the unique style of persuasive writing using mentor texts.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Everything Non-Fiction

As we "attack" the new year, we are living in the world of non fiction.  We began the new year writing New Year's Resolutions via the Writing to Explain and Writing to Inform platforms.  I thought this would be a "no brainer" for the kids but proved to be so much more.  The kids had general ideas as to what their resolutions would be, but conveying them to others in writing proved to be quite a learning opportunity.  Via the world of modeling expectations and peer revision, these resolutions morphed into quite the writing project.  An assignment I thought would take a few days ended up taking two  weeks of time well spent.

As we move forward, I am looking forward to living in the world of non-fiction for the remainder of the year.  This does not come without risk... I am turning the area of focus to those of my students...quite scary as I have no idea which way they will head and how I will decide to reign it in.

Next week we move into learning and examining the different structures of non fiction. We will use the inquiry method to launch our learning....Stay tuned for further information on how it goes....

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Jackie W.

I have been struggling with creating a culture of excitement and a true love of writing within the standards that need to be met during writing.  In Kindergarten we really focus on writing about ourselves so I have turned our journals into true "journals." There are no rules right now.  Use what markers you want.  Don't write on the lines if you don't want to.  Write about whatever you are thinking, feeling, wondering, what you did, etc....  I am using Amelia's Notebook as a mentor text. I am using my personal journal as a model.  We have just started this.  My vision is that eventually they will use these journal the rest of the year to write in.  They will also use them to look back for ideas for writing fiction stories, poetry ideas, etc.  This is a real test for me because I love rules and routine.  BUT..........I really want the kids to consider themselves authors and give them ownership of their writing while making them excited to write.  Hopefully this will evolve the way I envision........I will keep you posted!!!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Connect, Extend, Challenge

Our shared writing goal in 5th Grade is:  developing student ability to support their writing with evidence in all content areas.  Along with this goal, students are also held accountable for age appropriate: grammar, capitalization, punctuation, and sentence structure.

What I have tried so far is to be very purposeful in modeling and guiding  both large and small discussions in which students use text evidence to support their answers, as well as speaking in complete sentences.  I have given students sentence stems and group discussion norms to guide their discussions (this is a chart).

The norms are:

  • each person must contribute to the discussion, but take turns
  • Each person should show the others specific details from the text
  • students should ask questions. 
 Along with these norms, students are given the sentence stems of:

  • What would you like to add to my idea?  
  • Tell us what you're thinking"
  • My evidence is here on the ________ page in the __________ paragraph (students read the evidence out loud)
I have noticed a few things:
  • Students need to be consistently nudged/reminded to go back into the text (this is not a natural behavior for them or any of us:)
  • Students need lots and lots of practice, guidance, and modeling of how to have an oral discussion as well as how to transfer that oral discussion into writing
  • Citing evidence to support their thinking is not yet transferring to their writing.  Why not I ask?
My next steps:
  • Give the sentence stems to them so that during discussions, they have them right there as a guide.
  • Purposefully model how to write using evidence from the text