Sunday, October 31, 2010

Creating Interest in Writing Informational Text

One day after school this past week, two teacher-friends stopped by my room. they commented on the display along the counter under the windows. Information books about changing leaves, Ziploc bags of multi-colored leaves and handheld microscopes line a long section of the workspace. Nearby, an easel holds a chart reading, "What do we know about leaves changing colors?". The kids' observation notebooks, colored pencils, and blank books sit in baskets near the lamp that gives that corner of the room a soft glow.

We talked a little about how excited the kids are to be observing and researching and learning about things like this. Before the leaves fell into our classroom lives, we spent time learning a little about bees and other insects. And spiders--I can't forget the spiders.

After this visit, it occurred to me that while I have been reading aloud lots more informational text this year and have provided a space and time for the kids to observe and research things they find interesting, I haven't had kids writing informational texts. Mr. A. is on my grade level team, and we often plan together. I told him what I had noticed and that one goal I had for the year was to make sure I was having the kids learn about and write informational text throughout the year, not just during one grading period or unit of study. He agreed and mentioned that he had noticed the same thing with his kids. Early in the year, we had both spent lots of time teaching our kids that writers get ideas in many ways, including things the writer knows a lot about. I think that we were hoping that this would be enough to propel some of our young writers into writing some informational text of their own--after all, the kids seem to be drawn naturally to the informational texts we've made available in our classroom libraries.

"I guess I expected they'd be more excited," I said. "I have all this stuff here, we read information texts--it's what they talk about and are excited about. But they just don't show an interest in writing any of it themselves."

"I've noticed the same thing. I was thinking about doing something,"commented Mr. A., "but what?"

We decided to start small--after all, our kids are pretty small. Besides, we aren't really looking for research reports here. We just want our young writers to become more aware that if they have an interest in something and know some things about it, they can use that as an idea for writing. We also wanted to keep the plan simple enough that we would not get overwhelmed, and we reminded ourselves that this is not the only time this year we'll address informational writing in writing workshop.

Within a few minutes, we had come up with a plan. We thought the key would be to link to things we had already studied with the kids and things that were happening  in our classrooms.
  1. We both had done mini lessons on writing for different purposes and have been adding to it. We decided we needed to add something to that list that would help the kids develop an awareness they can write to tell others what they know. In my class, the kids called it writing "to teach others".
  2. We agreed that a mini-unit was needed to help the kids get started. Our unit will only last about a week, and will focus on 2 main learnings:
  • how to decide on a topic--we thought having the kids talk about things they know a lot about would be the way to go. During mini lessons on this, we would the kids to think of something they knew at least 4 or 5 things (a "handful" of facts) about. We planned to share examples (kids and teachers) over the course of 2 days.
  • how to put one kind of information on each page--The plan is to use information text written at the level of most of the kids. These texts would either have 1-2 sentences on each page, with each page containing a different kind of information or would be patterned text that carries one concept across several contexts. This would allow kids to see how
In my room,  we are on step two of the plan and have talked about how to decide on a topic. The first day nothing new happened. But on the second day, during sharing, T. showed us her work.

"I'm just starting an information book--it's about dragons. I only have the page where they breath fire. But I know some other things about them too and I'm not done."  (Don't worry--I know dragons aren't real. The important thing here is that they kids are starting to try something other than narrative writing, and that they are thinking to themselves, "what do I know about? What am I interested in?")  A couple others have started books about leaves and one is writing about insects. C. told me he's going to talk to his grandpa to learn more about semi trucks because he wants to "make a book of them".

This may not be a huge step, but I think that we are succeeding in developing awareness and opening up some possibilities for our writers. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


"Um...are your kids still studying spiders? Or still interested in them?"  Mrs. H. was half in, half out the door to the teachers' lounge, and she looked a bit nervous. Heads around the table swung my direction, forks paused midair. "It's just that there's a really big one out here in the hallway, and I was going to squash it but I remembered your class likes them. Do you want to try to catch it?"

Normally, my lunch time does not include chasing spiders around the hallway with a small cup and a piece of paper (insert mental image here), and I'm sure the others at the lunch table thought I was out of my mind. But one of my goals this year is to not only incorporate more informational text reading and writing into my classroom, but to also encourage my kids to hang on to that innate sense of wonder they have and use it as a pathway to learning.

Telling myself this was a chance to take action related to that goal, I pulled myself way from the table and into the hallway. A short time later, the spider--and yes, he was a big one--was safely (and securely!)settled in a large plastic jug on the table in the back of our room and I had cemented my reputation as someone to keep an eye on.

The kids loved it. The crowded around the spider, trying to figure out what kind of spider it was and whether or not  it could find what it needed to eat inside the jug or if they could catch enough bugs to keep it fed. I did nothing except suggest that we move the spider to the counter and maybe poke a few holes in the top of the jug. They begged me to keep our spider at least until morning--and told me they understood it might not make it through the night. One of my colleagues stopped by my room after school and suggested it was more likely the spider would squeeze out the air holes by then and take up residence in our room (isn't he helpful?).

This morning, the spider was alive and still in the jug. The kids were not surprised at all. As they entered the room, almost every child made his or her way over to look at the spider again. "Hey Mrs. M--we're observing him!" they cried. Many of them talked spiders or got out spider books to read until time for announcements.

As I watched them from across the room, it was obvious that my willingness to drop my lunch and go catch a spider did encourage kids to use some oral language related to a topic we've studied. And they did use words like observing to talk about what they were doing and they did go back into some texts to find specific information. But that was not what struck me most. What struck me was that we were having fun. One thing I worry about as a teacher in these times of high stakes and accountability is that we've lost the sense of joy that should be present. I work with 6 and 7 year olds. I love what I do. There should be joy in this.

And if that means tracking down spiders in the hallway during lunch time, count me in.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Watching Their Eyes

In the first two days of school, I noticed something interesting about C.'s eyes. They didn't land anywhere for more than a few seconds at a time--not on the faces of people speaking to him, objects in the classroom, or even things outside our huge windows. I started timing him. Ten seconds. That was the longest he seemed to visually focus on anything...and what he focused on seemed pretty random, as if he wasn't in control.

C. wasn't alone--there were several other kids whose eyes moved like dancing bees. It probably won't surprise you to hear that these kids made up the majority of kids in our room who were struggling. The important thing is that it caught my attention and made me think about why it was happening and what to do about it.

I started watching more closely, trying to notice when their eyes did land on something for longer times and where the eyes went when they were engaged in tasks that they perceived as difficult. Patterns emerged pretty quickly.
  • The kids's eyes stuck with things that they found interesting--and when I was doing most of the work of the task. Read alouds. That's when their eyes stuck with the task and they were engaged and thinking.
  • Their eyes rarely stayed focused on tasks where the kids were doing more of the work--instead they were almost continually looking to another student, more likely, to me. Often this occurred before they even gave a first glance to the work they were doing.
  • It was almost like they didn't know they could choose to look at something or to look with purpose. It seemed like it was up to chance whether or not they looked to something that might help them figure something out or recognize something they know.
 In professional reading, learning at conferences and training sessions, and in conversations with colleagues, I had heard over and over that many children who struggle have to learn to look at print. I agree. But in watching my students, I think there is another piece that we have to consider. The children I was observing did look at print when someone else was doing most of the work. But when it was up to them, most of the time their eyes wandered before they even attempted to figure something out. It was almost as if they didn't know they could figure it out or that to do so required looking at what they were doing. This was happening even when the kids appeared to be interested in the topic or task.

So now what? The most direct thing seems to be to tell them. Teach them to look and most importantly, start sending the message that they can figure it out.
"You can figure this out. I'll show you. First, keep your eyes here [point]."
"Let's look here [point]. We can figure this out."
"Put your eyes here [point]--what do you see that can help you figure that out?"
"Where can you look to figure that out?"

It's not going to stop there, but it's a start. What I had noticed was that instead of making attempts or engaging in work themselves, it was almost like these kids had a default setting that caused them to first look to others--their seemingly more capable peers, me, their parents. More than teaching them to look, I need to teach them that they can do something when presented with a task. Peter Johnston calls this having a sense of agency--having a sense that one can do things to affect outcomes or figure things out or complete tasks.

I think that it's important to teach kids things like how to look at print, but I think that we also have to pay attention to whether or not kid see themselves as capable of not only doing that, but using it to figure things out for themselves.

So what about C.? He still has a long way to go, but in reading group the other day, he eagerly reached for the new book and began reading. On the very first page, he came to something he wasn't sure of. I watched closely--his eyes paused and he started to glance up at me...but before he made eye contact, he pulled his eyes back to the page, looking at the picture, then back to where his finger lay under the print. He leaned in closer to the book, looking again at the words, then the picture.
A grin broke across his face as he correctly read the rest of the sentence, turned the page, and kept on reading.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good For You!

I am always caught off guard when I hear my words coming from the mouths of my students. It makes me stop and think. What messages am I sending? How do my words sound in the ears of 6 year olds?

Last week I was working with a guided reading group. After reading together, we were getting ready to do a little word work. As my hands moved over the sections of the storage box, fingers dipping in to scoop out the needed letters, I was thinking aloud.

"Hmm...let's see, we want to build the word here, so we'll need h."  I plopped a letter h in front of each child at the table. "Oh, and r; we'll need that too." Hands reached out to take the letter. My finger tapped my chin as I thought. "Now let me see...what else? Oh yes--e! We are going to need some of those! Here you are--we have all the letters we need."

A. looked up, his bright eyes beaming right into mine as he cried, "good for you!"

His face was alight with enthusiasm and sincere pride in my accomplishment and he laughed along with me. It still makes me laugh. But it also makes me think.

I am pretty sure I have used that phrase (or some variation of it) every day this year. It is almost without exception accompanied by some sort of specific description of what I noticed.
"You figured that out all by yourself--good for you!"
"I see that you are making your illustrations show what happened--good for you!"
"Good for you--you noticed it didn't match so you went back to fix it."
"I heard you say sorry even though it was an accident--good for you!"

Each day I try to encourage the kids to try, to figure things out, to do the right thing. We talk a lot about how being smart isn't mostly about knowing stuff--it's about noticing and thinking and working hard and learning more. And I try to make sure that I catch them in the act. I think there is power in letting kids know that I notice when they do these things. It's important they get that encouragement--a "good for you!" for not only successful actions, but also for effort or improvement. Not random praise, but specific acknowledgment.

During that reading group, my thinking aloud about what letters were needed was intended to get the kids thinking about the letters in a particular word, but what A. heard was someone thinking through something and figuring it out. And in his mind, that deserved a heartfelt "good for you!"

Hearing my words come from A. tells me that it matters to them that I do this. It tells me that they are starting to notice when someone is thinking and that they recognize it as something important not only for others, but for themselves. And that's a message I'm glad to send. Good for us!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

These Rainbows Are Making Me Crazy

At the start of this year, there was an epidemic of rainbows in my room--I'm not sure how else to describe it. I have nothing against rainbows. I get excited when I see them in real life, but I will admit to being somewhat less than thrilled to see rainbows on page after page after page of student writing. Not because I'm against rainbows, but because the rainbows didn't really belong there.

The kids have been writing since day one, and for the most part, they are writing stories and drawing pictures about things they have done or things they know a lot about...and in many of those drawings, there is a rainbow lurking somewhere. Sometimes the rainbow is front and center, arcing gracefully over the illustration showing when M. got her dog. Or maybe it's up in the corner, a spot of color to liven up W.'s writing about how to roller skate. In story after story and book after book, there were rainbows. Sometimes on every page. Sometimes in stories that take place completely inside. And the text? No mention of a rainbow anywhere.

I was going crazy trying to figure out why the rainbows were everywhere. These are kids that seem to know that the illustrations they create should match what they are trying to tell the reader, and in fact, when they are talking about or reading their writing, they never mention the rainbows. I was beginning to think maybe the rainbows weren't there at all and that I had developed some strange vision problem that superimposes rainbows on things.

Apparently there was a simpler explanation. It occurred to me that maybe I should ask the kids. When I did, I realized that maybe the answers shouldn't have surprised me as much as they did. Several kids said they like using all the colors when they make illustrations...and the illustration for the story didn't need them all so they added a rainbow. 
Oh dear. The crayons are new. Many of them do not have things like crayons and paper at home. They want to use all the colors. I should have seen that one coming, and the fix is easy. I simply planned to provide another time and place in our day where they can create rainbows or other drawings that use each and every color crayola has.

But most of the kids looked a little confused when I asked, almost like they were as surprised as I was by the rainbows' appearances in their stories. Kid after kid had no idea why he or she had included a rainbow. S. even said, "I just always put one in." 
After reflecting on it a bit, I realized that maybe I don't spend enough time at the start of the year talking about illustrations and how we can use them in our writing. After a week spent learning how to deliberately think about what to put in the illustration and how it helps show the reader what's happening and where it's happening and who was there, the rainbows started to fade. By the end of the week, they were gone, quietly and without a fight.

I'm pretty sure that the key was to focus on what does belong in illustrations--learning why we use them and how to think about it deliberately didn't really leave much room for random elements like rainbows. Though I don't know for sure, it is possible that if I had tried a no rainbow mandate things would not have gone so smoothly. Instead of the focus for kids being on what didn't belong, I chose to focus on what did belong--giving them something to include other than those mysteriously aggravating rainbows. I think it's that way with most things; if we want something to change, we probably should pour our energy into what we want to have happen so that kids know what is expected. Much more effective than putting the spotlight on what we hope goes away.

And when hearts begin randomly appearing in stories, I'll be ready.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Buzz in My Room

It's all about the bees. Yep, bees--my kids are buzzing about bees.

In an earlier blog, I talked a bit about my goal of including more informational text in classroom this year. One purpose was to take advantage of kids' natural curiosity--to keep that sense of wonder about the world going strong...and maybe entice them to read and write a bit along the way. So when the kids kept returning to the books on insects and spiders and asking if I had more, I fell into the (Venus fly) trap.

I was certain the fact that my friend Miss M. has a tarantula in her classroom would completely grab their attention--and they were impressed. At the research center they recorded some questions for Miss M.'s class and we sent them off. But that was that--they are content to hear from her kids on this one.

Then little M. handed me a book about bees and  asked if I'd read it. I will admit that inside, I heaved a little sigh--insects are not my favorite topic. Outwardly, I smiled and told him of course I would. We spent a little time each morning last week reading that book--just 2-4 pages a day. We talked. We looked at the photos and drawings and diagrams. We reread parts. They begged for more, and every day as they entered the room, I'd have to reassure each and every one of them that yes, I would be reading more of the bee book today. On the day we got a new student, the kids caught her up before we continued. They LOVED that book--and the bees. There was an almost palpable disappointment when we came the end. One little sweetie moaned, "isn't there any more?"

Not only are they still talking about that book, but it has a place of honor on the counter in the research center--right next to the large plain paper and blank booklets they requested I provide so those who wish to can make books or posters about bees. Or just write and draw what they remember or thought was really cool. They are noticing and sharing photos of bees and sections about bees in other books. It's almost as if they've developed a little crush on bees.

The really cool thing is that it's working--my master plan, that is. I trusted that if I deliberately created the environment and intentionally provided the opportunity, the kids' sense of curiosity would guide them to engaged reading and writing. I also noted an increased level of oral language--both in terms of the vocabulary (general and specific) they were using, and in the complexity of their asking and telling. The day one of my ELLs (English Language Learners) brought me a picture of a bee in a magazine saying, "look--you can see his proboscis sucking the nectar from the flower" I almost couldn't respond. She's six. She does not speak English at home.

Now, is every child in my room a total bee expert? No. But all of them have learned some stuff that they will likely remember and all of them spent a little more time purposefully talking about and reading informational text and many of them are writing as a direct result of our little study.

And you know what? I've decided that I'm pretty hooked on the bees too...they really are fascinating little things.