Personal Essay

When I start a unit of study with students I immerse them in the genre.  I read a piece of writing to them, then I tell them what I noticed.  ”Did you see that there are paragraphs?  Did you notice that the writer used some interesting punctuation?  Hm…it seems like the writer is trying to express an opinion?”  Then I let the kids explore, giving each one a copy of the text, looking for more features that belong to this genre.

I did this lesson yesterday in a third grade, but guess what?  Some kids weren’t noticing!  That’s okay.  I was prepared.  I knew that in this group, some kids might struggle.  Maybe they hadn’t done this kind of exploration before.  Or maybe they didn’t have the language to articulate their noticings.  I did some of the noticing for them, ahead of time and gave them cut up sticky notes to then name the parts/features of a personal essay.  Then it became a treasure hunt–they had to look for features that were already named.

This kind of activity helps build background knowledge for ELLs, helps students who are new to the work, and makes for an interesting way to read as writers.  (For more information on writing personal essays check out my website.  Click the ‘Tools’ button and look for Personal Essays.)

Hear It, See It, Say It

The other day a great Kindergarten teacher, Catherine Rutkoski, of Lebanon Township, NJ, told me a story about teaching how-to books.  She was really frustrated at first because her kids were NOT getting it.  She was doing the lessons, modeling, making things with them, then charting the steps for a how-to.  But when the kids went off to write, they wrote personal stories.  Or drew something unrelated.

So she stopped, thought about what was going wrong, and started all over again.  She realized that, in Kindergarten, more than any other grade, kids need to hear it, see it, and say it many times before they can write a book about it.  So she spent her minilessons creating how-to pieces with the students, then having them reread the how-tos with her. Then she would have the kids read to each other, repeating the how-to again.  She did the same thing when it was time for them to write their own books.  Say it out loud to yourself.  Say it to a friend.  Say it once more when you get back to your desk.  THEN you can get something to write with.  Finally, the kids got it.  And they wrote some great how-to books.

Wouldn’t you know, when it was my turn to teach these little guys a few days later, and I jumped into teaching pattern books, the same thing happened.  I showed them a pattern book, modeled writing my own, then had them turn and talk about a pattern book they could make.  But it was obvious from their talk that they didn’t really understand the concept of a pattern book.  Some of them were still talking about how-to books.  Some were telling personal stories.  Some didn’t have anything to say.  So we went back to “hear it, see it, say it,” within the minilesson.  Read some more, had them talk some more and then…they got it.  And our pattern book study was under way.  (See List/Pattern Books on my website under Tools for more info.)

Your Story Matters…

So…the funny thing about this plaque?  I was working as a staff developer in a district where I felt really, really appreciated.  Every time I visited, teachers oohed and aahed over my conferences.  They loved my ideas for teaching strugglers.  Administrators invited me to present to very big groups.

So there I was, loving my time with them, feeling almost like a celebrity, when one of the coaches gave me this wall hanging.  I had been talking about how I wanted to publish a book about teaching and she had been encouraging me.  I was so flattered when she presented me with this little gem.

I didn’t know it was a good-bye gift until a few weeks later.

The district had decided to ditch me and go with a more developed consulting organization, a well known NYC group connected to a large university.  I could understand that, but I was heartbroken.

When I finally figured out that I wasn’t going to be asked back, I hid the plaque.  I didn’t want to tell MY story, or any other story, again. I didn’t want to be reminded that maybe my story didn’t matter?

After a long time and a lot of tears, I pulled the wall hanging out.  I asked my husband if I should trash it.  He looked at it and said, “Your story matters…to everybody but them.”

We had a good laugh, then he helped me figure out where to hang that inspiring quote, so I’d see it all the time.  To remind myself that my story does matter.  And to tell it every day.

Memory Poems

I borrowed this idea from Georgia Heard‘s wonderful book, Awakening the Heart.  Kids create memory poems based on something they’ve seen in nature.  We close our eyes and recall a memory, then fill out the box below.  Play around with the order of the words, try starting with varied images…rearrange the lines…add on…there’s your poem.  Or, take kids outside and write a poem in the moment.  

Observation Poetry

Here is one of my favorite ways to have students create poetry.  Kids love it and even the most reluctant or struggling writer can write a poem following this lesson.

First, divide a piece of chart paper into four, and label it like the above model.  Tell students that poets like to observe the world and write about what they see in unusual or unexpected ways.  Show them an interesting object and model how you can describe it like a poet might.  I usually use a seashell, but you can use any interesting object from nature, like a beautiful rock, or a pine cone, etc.  Use something that everybody in class can see easily and that won’t be damaged.

Start describing how the object looks, then chart your noticings.  Then pass the shell.  Invite students to provide words that tell how the object looks and feels.  Chart those.  Then ask for comparisons.  You can use the word ‘simile’ (or not.)  I like to say to students “What else could this shell be?  Pretend it’s bigger…pretend it’s smaller.”  Then write in their similes.  Usually my students are more creative with their comparisons than I am!  A shell becomes a sled for a doll, an elephant’s ear, a surfboard.  Finally, go to the last box and ask the students to wonder about the shell.  Then to imagine asking the shell a question.  Go for deep wonderings!

Now, your four box poem is started.  Transfer the collected words/phrases to a kind of narrow paper so it looks like a poem.  Read it dramatically, so it sounds like a poem.  Instant success!  Kids usually oooh and ahh over their class created poem.

Next, give kids a turn to create their own poems.  Distribute objects (one per student) and ask students to do exactly as you did as a group.  Tell them to look at the object carefully–what do you see?  Describe how it feels…compare it to something…wonder about the object.  Tell students to fill up each quadrant as much as possible, then have them create a poem from their words.

As you confer, coach students to look at their objects in the light.  Touch all sides of the object.  Leave the reader wondering with your last question.

You’ll get great results, but don’t stop there!  Teach students to revise by using repeating words, or sound words.  Students can also rearrange the order of words, play with line breaks and take out unnecessary words.

This process may take two sessions with very young writers, only a day with those more experienced.  With very inexperienced writers, you don’t need the quadrants–they may be cumbersome.  But do teach into the ideas for the quadrants–describing how the object looks, etc.  (The poet who wrote Cotton Ball was in first grade.  The poet who wrote Winter, and put her own spin on observing something, was in second.)  For more information on writing poetry check out my website (Poetry Unit, under the Tools button.)

Belief and Trust

I just spent an amazing week teaching writing workshop in Roselle, NJ.  The teachers I worked with are fairly new to workshop teaching.  At the beginning of our days together I noticed that their minilessons were maxilessons.  Lots of teacher talk, not much student writing.  I see this all the time.  I think it’s hard for teachers to cut their lessons to ten or twelve minutes and still feel like their teaching is effective.

Throughout the week, I modeled short minilessons, held lots of student conferences and worked with plenty of small groups.  Teachers were surprised that I could do such short lessons and still get a message across.  Then they started trying the lessons out on their own.  And guess what?  They were just as effective.

We decided that workshop teaching comes down to Belief and Trust.  First, you have to believe that the work the students do is as important or MORE important than the work that you, as a teacher do.  Then, you have to trust that when you set the kids free, they’ll actually do the work.  Not always easy to manage, but with the right structures in place, very doable.  Once you see how much kids produce and how engaged they are in learning, letting go gets easier and easier every day.

School Brochure

Nicole and Cindy, two third grade teachers in Bogota, NJ are at it again!  They’ve come up with a great way to connect social studies and writing.  This year, third grade is studying economics.  So Nicole and Cindy thought, why not teach students about how our taxes work?  They made a connection between schools and people paying taxes in the community and, voila!  The idea for a school brochure was born.  In the brochure, students describe many aspects of the school–the garden, the computer room, and the gym, among others.  The students also describe their wonderful teachers.  The brochures are displayed in the office, encouraging visitors to enroll in the school.  Students understand that higher enrollment leads to more families paying taxes, more money going into schools and the economic cycle continues.  (Notice what the kids do in the garden?)