Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Writer's Notebook Cheat Sheet: How to Turn Writing-Phobic Students into Writing Machines - Part 2

I have a confession to make. I'm a sucker for cheat sheets.

I think of them as personal consultants who keep me up to speed on topics I should know about - but don’t.

I've actually memorized key points from them so I’d be able to contribute something to discussions on district issues or educational trends.

Shameless, I know. But in a pinch, they're lifesavers!

Of course, I don't wave them around or distribute copies of them to my colleagues. I just stash a few away in some easily-accessible spot so I can sneak a peek at them whenever I need some quick reminders or when I need to get the gist of something I didn't have time to study (sorta like the small collection of CliffsNotes which I never admitted to using in college).

I justify my addiction to them by creating my own cheat sheets on topics I’m truly passionate about. The ones I spend months researching until I'm satisfied that I've consumed every morsel of information I can find - because my interest in those topics is insatiable.

This makes me feel as if I’m part of a caring, sharing community of cheat-sheet-creating experts. And that makes me happy. 

So please grab a free copy of my Writer's Notebook cheat sheet and add it to your stash if you have one. If you don't, what are you waiting for? You can start that collection right now. You'll be hooked once you see how addictive  useful they can be. 

Here's a short video (another way to grab info on the fly) which demonstrates how to set up Writers' Notebooks and how to use them to improve writing proficiencies. 

Hmmm...maybe I should have called this post The Cheater's Guide to Writer's Notebook.

If you'd like to see some completed notebook pages, check out the first post in this series How I Turned Writing-Phobic Students into Writing Machines (or How Ralph Fletcher Rocked My World) Part 1.

The next post in the Writer's Notebook series will be dedicated to the Collection Section.

Here's a sneak peek at what you'll find there:
  • How to take multi-genre collections from the pre-writing to the publishing stages of Writer's Workshop,
  • How to use the collection section of the notebook as reference pages and pre-writing tools, and
  • How to access three free collections that you can test drive in your classroom.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Friday, February 24, 2017

How I Turned Writing-Phobic Students into Writing Machines (or How Ralph Fletcher Rocked My World) Part 1

It’s no secret that I have an author-crush on Ralph Fletcher.

I was lucky enough to see him in person (twice! woohoo!), and I could hardly contain my joy. I threw my hand up like an excitable fourth grader when he asked for volunteers.  I asked questions - so I could pretend he was talking just to me.  And at the break, I got him to sign two books for me (I always thought it was ridiculous to stand in line to have an author sign books…until I became a bonafide Ralph groupie.).

I love the way he writes. I love the way he speaks. And I love the way he looks. Okay, I know the last one was a little bit more information than I needed to share – but it’s true.

So what sparked this author crush? His crazy-good, life-changing Writer’s Notebook books

Book Love

A Writer's Notebook
Ralph Fletcher has written a lot of books about teaching kids to write the way real authors write (and each one is filled with ah-ha moments and practical tips), but the one that sparked my insatiable desire to learn more was A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You

I’m not kidding when I say that once I applied the techniques in this book, I started looking forward to the ELA writing block – every single day

Why? Because my students loved it!

Not only did Writers’ Notebooks change the way I taught writing, but they turned even my most reluctant writers into writing machines - who actually wanted to share what they wrote. Be. Still. My. Heart.

Writer's Notebook Defined

So what exactly is a Writer's Notebook?

Ralph Fletcher describes it this way:
“A Writer’s Notebook is a blank book where a writer can engage in the fun, often messy job of being a writer – practicing, listening, playing with language, gathering images and insights and ideas. The purpose of such a notebook is to nourish the writer. It is one of the most essential tools of the trade.”

Yep. It’s just a simple, blank notebook where writers collect ideas (lists), free write (fluency), and practice targeted skills (figurative language/word choice/sentence structure).

Essentially, it’s the place where ideas for future writings (i.e. pre-writing and drafting gems) are stored. 

That’s it. Nothing else. No full-length pieces. No final drafts.

But believe me, if you want to see dramatic improvements in your students’ writing it’ll be more than enough.

Writer's Notebook in Practice

There are many ways to use Writers' Notebooks, but I either use them as stand-alone exercises to build writing confidence or as warm-up exercises during the mini-lesson portion of Writer’s Workshop. 

Sometimes students generate lists (e.g. annoying personality traits, character names, substitutes for overused words). 

Not only do student-generated lists serve as great pre-writing tools and year-long reference pages, but students feel a sense of ownership as they create and share these lists in pairs and small groups.

 Writer's Notebook Collections and Quick Writes

Sometimes they'll draft free writes about something that's on their minds or about something I suggest (e.g. recounting an event that happened over the weekend, taking a stand on a controversial issue, writing a character description). 

Free writes (10-12 minutes drafts) help students experiment with different writing styles. Since free writes are non-threatening by design, students find it easy to develop a style that feels natural and conversational. 

***An extra free write bonus is that many of these short pieces will become part of longer assignments later in the year.

Character Snapshots

And sometimes students fool around with language to help them develop a unique writing style (e.g. playing with punctuation, practicing sentence-building techniques, experimenting with word choice).  I can't think of a more entertaining way to teach grammar and mechanics than to have students create visually-rich pages which will be repurposed as valuable guides for the editing and revising stages of the writing process.

Visual Writer's Notebook

Although Ralph Fletcher emphasizes that a pure Writer’s Notebook should be filled only with pieces dreamed up by each student, I have found that many students need to have a suggested topic to fall back on in case they're not inspired to come up with their own on any given day. 

There are also times when I require students to write about a pre-determined topic (Shhh…don't tell Ralph.) in order to make the scary process of writing a five-paragraph essay or a full-length narrative fun, easy, and achievable for inexperienced writers. I'll talk more about that in a future post.

If you'd like to view more sample pages you'll find them under the Visual Writer's Notebook tab above this blog or by clicking the button below.

In my next Writer's Notebook post, I'll be sharing a short video on how to set up notebooks and I'll  be including a downloadable Writer's Notebook cheat sheet.

Until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How to Host Character MeetUps in Your Classroom: Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing

AHHHH!!! That’s the cry made by every ELA teacher who's ever tried to get students to write riveting character descriptions.

It seems no matter how many mentor texts kids analyze or how many sensory wheels kids create, they inevitably wind up defaulting to some variation of this character description:
John Doe is a 5'5" eighth-grade student with brown hair and brown eyes. 


Didn't we just spend three days talking about what makes a character intriguing, frightening, noble, irresistible, repulsive, and quirky? After all those epic discussions, how could I possibly be reading height, age, and hair/eye color descriptions...again?

This was the problem I faced every year with my budding eighth-grade writers. I simply could not figure out how they could find and discuss interesting characters in books but could not transfer those skills when writing their own character descriptions. 

But after doing a little investigating, I found out that this was happening in middle schools and high schools EVERYWHERE.

(At least I wasn't the only one feeling frustrated, helpless, and defeated.) 

Then one day, I read a Scholastic article called "Building Believable Characters" and these lines jumped out at me:

"Authors often create character sketches before they do any writing of the book." Their hope is that they can craft character descriptions which are so realistic that the authors - and eventually their readers - feel as if they could "step into their characters' shoes and predict what they would do next." 

Shazaam!  That was it. I had to figure out a way to get my students to step into the shoes of their own characters.

That's when I tried Character MeetUps. Thankfully, this would become the activity that put an RIP stone on the 5'5" brown-haired, brown-eyed John Doe descriptions forever. 

 Video Blog:

Video Demo

If you want your students to write descriptions which help readers put themselves in characters' shoes, click here to check out the materials used in this Character MeetUp lesson or here to access an entire bundle of lessons that help students craft killer descriptions every time they write.

And last (but not least) here's a set of quick start directions along with student notebook pages so you can try this in your classroom right away.

Step-by-Step Quickstart Directions: 

Meet Up Materials

 Sample Notebook Pages:

Left: Quick write, listing facts about my characters           Right: Notes about 4 people I met at the MeetUp

If you'd like to try more Get 'Em Moving - Then Get 'Em Writing active student engagement strategies, here are a few posts from that series:
That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

10 Things You Don't Know About Me List-Maker: Icebreaker and Prewriting Strategy

Take a look at any magazine display and you’ll find cover teasers that feature Top 10 Lists.

Why?  Because they’re almost impossible to resist.  

They offer quick and easy ways to:
  •       Process information,
  •       Learn about favorite topics,
  •       Keep up with trends,
  •       Gather ideas for projects,
  •       Build a knowledge base, and
  •       Have fun guessing what items might appear on each list.

What I love about having students generate their own lists (such as 10 Things You Don’t Know About Me) is that they serve as high-interest multitaskers which help students:
  • Build a positive classroom culture, 
  • Involve friends and family members in class assignments, and 
  • Create prewriting resources for essays and personal narratives.

You can learn about this strategy by watching the two-minute screencast

And be sure download the three free list-making lessons located under the video. 

Thanks to ELA Buffet and Desktop Learning Adventures for hosting this blog hop

That's it for now, so until next time…stay committed…teach with passion…and inspire students with who you are.