Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Recommendation: S Is for Story

Esther Hershenhorn has written a wonderful alphabet book about writing. In S Is for Story, she writes in poetry and prose, she shares writing tips, she includes quotes from authors, she describes the writing process. In all, she covers a lot of ground, presenting a lovely overview of writing for students. I highly recommend this book.

Note: This post contains affiliate links.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Collection of Sentences

Week by week, I've been adding to a Google presentation for the boys I tutor. It has slides of various types of sentences with accompanying mentor texts. Perhaps you'll find it helpful as a resource. Keep in mind that it's still in process. Revisions, additions, and tweaks are sure to come.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Prescriptive and Descriptive Writing Teachers

Prescriptive and descriptive. Lately I've run into these two adjectives describing grammarians and writing teachers. A lot. Here we'll talk about teachers, home and school.

Prescriptive teachers approach language as a list of rules students must learn. Rules such as...

  • Always write in complete sentences.
  • Never start a sentence with "and."
  • Never split an infinitive.
  • Start every paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Essays need five paragraphs.

These are the English teachers who haunt you in your nightmares. You shriek when you remember their weapon, the red pen, cutting and slashing through your text to find every last writing misdemeanor. 

Their students likely play it safe, choosing a word they know how to spell rather than one they don't, using a simple sentence structure because they aren't sure where to place the commas in a complex one. 

Meanwhile, descriptive teachers see beauty in language, how it can be shaped to create something powerful, even if that means breaking rules. They free students to experiment, to see what works (and what doesn't) in published writing and their own.

When they look at pieces students create, they notice the mistakes (and address them in future lessons), but the mistakes are not their focus. They instead appreciate the "hidden gems" (Katherine Bomer) in the piece. They 1) accept where students are, 2) remember that every student is trying to make meaning, and 3) look for what's brilliant, bold, brave, and beautiful.*

They understand that writing is a process grounded in strong ideas on a page (fluency) that can be later revised (clarity), and eventually tweaked to look conventional to readers (correctness).

Which kind of teacher are you?

I know I want to be a descriptive teacher who parks my pen as I read a student's piece the first time, even as it beckons me to fix and correct. I want to intentionally mine for treasures, to encourage my students, sharing with them what I discover, then sit back and watch what happens.

*Thank you to Katherine Bomer who presented these points at an LVWP seminar I attended over the weekend.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tutorial: A Writing Portfolder (Assignments, Slideshows, and Step-by-Step Instructions Included!)

It's finished! The portfolder tutorial with eleven mini-books is ready for you to try with your students. You can find it here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


For a quick and easy writing assignment, ask young writers to think of and write a list of clues for a mystery object or person. The details of each clue should be specific, without actually naming the object/person.

Writers can choose their own topics, or you can gather objects (not people!) and place them in bags.

Here is one example by a young writer:

What Am I?
I puncture arms and legs. 
I help to keep people healthy. 
I make children scream. 
I am used to sew. 
After doctors and nurses use me in their offices, I make people feel sick for a few days after I am used. 
Sometimes, people use me to remove splinters. 
Like a vampire, I suck vials of blood. 
What am I? 
A needle
To challenge older writers, suggest they write their riddle as a paragraph, varying the way they begin each sentence. The goal is to keep the riddle from sounding "listy."

Friday, March 21, 2014


In the last several weeks, I've seen the cover in pins and posts, its unique design burrowing into my memory. Finally, I looked for it. The only copy available, digital. I'd rather turn the pages of a book, but the touch pad accomplished the same thing, getting me from the first page to the last in a day. Now more than the cover has burrowed: the story also is lodged in my mind.

The book is Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

How can this book be useful in our language arts classes, home or school?

1. Read it as a reader. Enjoy. Apply.

2. Teach point of view. Each of the eight parts is written from a different point of view, sometimes Auggie's--the main character--other times his sister's or a friend's. For a picture book written with a similar structure, see Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne. Maybe reading these books will prompt students to write their own stories from various points of view.

3. Read it as a writer. Notice the author's creativity in including poems, book excerpts, letters, e-mails, a Facebook notification, texts, precepts, a graduation program, a commencement address...and even a high school boy's point of view with nary a capital letter. (I tutor a student who is allergic to capital letters. He may be fixing a paragraph or two.  Shhh, don't tell!)

Then investigate closer still. Below I show you the beginnings of my closer investigation into the text. It's amazing what you see when you slow down and study the author's craft. When students do the same, their minds are attentive to new possibilities they can try in their writing. Find a blank chart here.

(I'm sorry I don't have page numbers. The digital version doesn't include them.)

What I Notice
Specific Examples from the Text
1. The author varies the lengths of her sentences to give them a natural rhythm.
“I was really bummed when Christopher moved away three years ago. (11) We were both around seven then. (6) We used to spend hours playing with our Star Wars action figures and dueling with our lightsabers. (17) I miss that.” (3)
2. Lots of fragments
·         “Twenty-seven since I was born.”
·         “Or maybe I should say angelic.”
·         “A little peephole.”
3. Lots of compound sentences
·         “The bigger ones happened before I was even four years old, so I don’t remember those.”
·         “The last surgery I had was eight months ago, and I probably won’t have to have any more for another couple of years.”
·         “She once tried to draw me a Darth Vader, but it ended up looking like some weird mushroom-shaped robot.”
4. AAAWWUBBIS sentences
·         “Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified.”
·         “When I came out of Mom’s stomach, she said the whole room got very quiet.”
5. Repetition
·         “So I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff. I’ve gotten used to figuring things out on my own: how to put toys together, how to organize my life so I don’t miss friends’ birthday parties, how to stay on top of my schoolwork so I never fall behind in class.”
·         “My worst day, worst fall, worst headache, worst bruise, worst cramp, worst mean thing anyone could say has always been nothing compared to what August has gone through.”
·         “I wish I could ask him this stuff. I wish he would tell me how he feels.”
·         “We need to let him, help him, make him grow up.”
6. An extended metaphor
“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun. The rest of our family and friends are asteroids and comets floating around the planets and orbiting the Sun. The only celestial body that doesn’t orbit August the Sun is Daisy the dog, and that’s only because to her little doggy eyes August’s face doesn’t look very different from any other human’s face.”
7. Similes
·         “To Daisy, all our faces look alike, as flat and pale as the moon.”
·         “His head is pinched in on the sides where the ears should be, like someone used giant pliers and crushed the middle part of his face.”
·         “Out of all my features, my ears are the ones I hate the most. They are like tiny closed fists on the sides of my face.”
8. The use of the colon
·         “Mom remembers exactly what the nurse whispered in her ear when the doctor told her I probably wouldn’t live through the night: “Everyone born of God overcometh the world.
·         There’s one shot of me at my third birthday: Dad’s right behind me while Mom’s holding the cake with three lit candles, and in back of us are Tata and Poppa….”
·         “And on the other side of the peephole, there were two Augusts: the one I saw blindly, and the one other people saw.”
·         “And then Grans told me she had a secret to tell me: she loved me more than anyone else in the world.”
9. The writing has a conversational, kid-sounding tone.

·         “Me and Christopher were looking for snacks in the kitchen…”
·         “Like, she’d bring Mom some ice chips, and then fart.”
·         “And he was like, ‘No problem!’”
10. The pattern of three
·         “This school was very different. It was smaller. It smelled like a hospital.”
·         “I’d just get mad. Mad when they stared. Mad when they looked away.”
·         “But it’s hard. It’s hard not to sneak a second look. It’s hard to act normal when you see him.”
·         “Horrified. Sickened. Scared.”
11. Participles
·         “What I remember the most from the day Grans died is Mom literally crumpling to the floor in slow, heaving sobs, holding her stomach like someone had just punched her.”
·         “Not just the front rows, but the whole audience suddenly got up on their feet, whooping, hollering, clapping like crazy.”

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Monday, March 10, 2014

Monotony and Music in Writing

This sentence has five words. This is five words too. Five word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the symbols, and sounds that say listen to this, it is important.     ~Make Your Words Work, Gary Provost, 55                                                         

I love that paragraph, and I love to use it to show students what changing the lengths of sentences (or not) accomplishes.
Provost goes on. He writes one paragraph with long sentences, then another with short sentences. Both sound monotonous. The third one he writes with varying sentence lengths—short, medium, and long—to satisfy the reader.

Try this with your children.

1.    Read aloud Provost’s paragraph a couple of times. Really listen to the monotony at the beginning and the music at the end. Discuss with your students what they hear and observe.

2.    Invite your children to write a paragraph three times. The first time they will stuff it with short sentences, the second time they will fill it with long sentences, and the third time they will carefully craft a variety of sentences, trying to achieve a rhythm that satisfies.

3.    Ask your children to read their paragraphs aloud, so they can hear the rhythm they have (or haven’t) created.

4.    Discuss their observations.

5.    Please share the results in the comments.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Making a Writing Portfolder: A Tutorial

Once children are ready to write independently, it can be challenging to know how to guide them. In this tutorial, children's imaginations will be stirred as they complete a variety of assignments, many of them inspired by published writing. Each piece will begin as a draft on notebook paper (or a computer screen) and end as a typed mini-book which will be displayed on a portfolder shell to be read and enjoyed for years to come.

See the happy faces of kids who have made them before?


Before we begin, I'd like you to remember a few things.

First, it's important for kids to begin with a blank screen or sheet of paper so they are free to engage in the writing process. If you give them the flaps, folds, or mini-books for the portfolder too soon, you will either 1) not see the child's best writing or 2) end up with eraser smudges or tears. Save the mini-books for the final copies!

Similarly, stress the process of writing in these assignments. The first draft is likely not the best you can get from your students.

To make the final product extra special, I recommend that students' work be typed, cut (preferably with a paper cutter), and glued (with a glue stick) onto the mini-books.

Think of my ideas as suggestions. If you deviate from them because you or your children have a better idea, I'll never know. Similarly, if you want to change the order of the mini-books, do it. The goal is to propel your children to write, to end up with a project that satisfies them. If that is accomplished, celebrate!

Writing doesn't have to be laborious or tedious. Have fun!

Oh, and if anything is unclear, PLEASE let me know.

Now I think we're ready to begin.

Gather Supplies
The basic supplies are listed here for you.

Make a Portfolder Shell
Follow Steps 1-3 here to make a single portfolder.

Mini-Book #1: Acrostic Name Poem
Find the instructions for writing the acrostic poem here.

When the acrostic is finished, follow these instructions to make a flapbook for the portfolder. (Press the i to see the instructions.)

As the mini-books are completed, store them in a large zip-top bag to protect them. The flapbook is the bag's first resident! We will wait until the projects are all collected in the bag before we begin laying them out and pasting them to the portfolder.

Mini-Book #2: I Know What I Like
Look here for this writing assignment based on a picture book by Norma Simon. Then follow the slideshow below to make a circle book. (Press the i to see the instructions.)

Plop the finished book in the plastic bag to join the acrostic flapbook. Now the bag has two cozy residents!

Mini-Books # 3 and #4: Metaphors
Students will make two shutterfold books of metaphors, following the post here. For each word they choose, ask them to write a list of comparisons, developing five of them with sensory details. When they are finalized, one metaphor can be put on the outside cover, adjacent to the title. The other four can be pasted in each of the sections on the inside of the mini-book. Do this for two mini-books.

When the metaphors are ready, follow these instructions to make two shutterfold books for the portfolder. (Press the to see the instructions.)

Put the mini-books in the storage bag. They're adding up!

Mini-Book #5: Important Things
Students will make a book of three to six important things, following the instructions here.

The important things will go in a bound book. Watch the slideshow to see how to make it.

Arrange the paragraphs on the pages. Illustrate them or include photos. Put a title on the front cover. Voilà. You have another book to add to the bag.

Mini-Book #6: Writing in Threes
The next mini-book is a filmstrip book. Follow the instructions for writing in threes here.

Students will have three pages in their filmstrip book, one for each of their important things. On the frames of the filmstrip piece, they will make illustrations which correspond to the pages of their mini-book. When the reader is reading page one, the filmstrip piece will be pulled to the right to allow the first picture to be viewed in the frame. This piece will be pulled to the left to allow the second picture to be viewed when the reader is ready for page 2. It will be pulled completely to the left when the reader is ready for page 3.

When the filmstrip book is complete, add it to the zip-top bag.

Mini-Book #7: Circular Story
Next up is a circular story, modeled after Laura Numeroff's If You Give... books. You can find the lesson here.

Follow the instructions below to make a layered book for the portfolder. (Press the to see the instructions.)

Look at that growing bag! Pull out the collection of books and admire each one.

Mini-Book #8: Diary of a Critter
It is now time for students to write diaries...with a twist. They will not be writing about their lives but instead about the life of a critter, maybe a grasshopper or a ladybug or whatever suits their fancy. You can find the lesson here. The number of entries is up to you, but I recommend at least ten.

You won't need a slideshow to make this super easy mini-book. Just cut squares from white or colored copy paper (approximately 5" x 5"), enough for the diary entries, the front cover, and the back cover. So, if your student has ten entries, the book will have twelve pages. Staple on the left and, as promised, you have a super easy book.

Once the diary is completed, it can also be placed in the bag.

Mini-Book #9: Two Stories, One Pattern
For this assignment, we're going to toss in some basic literary analysis. Go here to find the books and the story mapping sheet to begin the process.

You can make this book in three easy steps. (Press the to see the instructions.)

Into the bag it goes, joining the rest of the mini-books.

Mini-Book #10: Excuses, Excuses
Do you hear a lot of excuses when it's time to write? Well, don't let all that griping and grumbling go to waste. Invite your kids to use their best excuses in a poem explained here.

Place both poems--the original and your student's--in an accordion-fold book, explained below. To print the poem, right-click the poem (here), paste it into a Word document, and edit it as you wish.

When it's ready, add it to the bag. We're almost finished making and collecting mini-books.

Mini-Book #11: How-to Writing
Follow the lesson here--the simple or extended version--for a how-to writing assignment.

When the text is revised and edited, display it in a top tab book. If there are four steps, place one step on each tab/page. If there are eight steps, place two steps on each tab/page.

Another mini-book to add to the bag!

Putting It All Together
Finally, we have enough projects to fill a single portfolder. (Of course, if you want to add more writing projects, you can always add extensions to your portfolder. It's not complicated!)

To plan the layout of the portfolder, have students spread out (and admire) the mini-books. Since the filmstrip book and the top tab book are the largest of the mini-books, they will need to go in the main section--the window--of the portfolder. Anchor them with paperclips.

The rest of the mini-books will fit on the fronts and backs of the flaps--or shutters.Students can tinker with the arrangement until it is pleasing to the eye, using paperclips to hold the books in place. No pasting yet!

If any of the mini-books are lacking titles, take care of that before pasting.

Once students are sure the mini-books are ready and they are happy with the arrangement, they can get a glue stick and carefully paste the mini-books to the portfolder, aligning them carefully.

(Optional): Give students stickers and markers to decorate the white spaces of the portfolder.

And there you have it: a finished portfolder proudly displaying eleven pieces of student writing.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How to Teach How-to Writing

Who: Elementary-aged students

What: Students practice procedural writing, an exercise that will make them think carefully and choose words purposefully. 

You can keep it easy and give students a pre-writing sheet to follow. (I wrote the handout for kids who will make a top tab book for their portfolder. If your students aren't making one, it doesn't matter how many steps they write.)

Or you can extend the lesson and choose from the following activities.

1. Watch the Sesame Street video to see what can happen when our instructions are vague. Nothing educational here...just fun.

2. Read mentor texts, such as How to Blow a Bubblegum Bubble or How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World or Apple Cake: A Recipe for Love or How to Teach a Slug to Read. Browse the juvenile section at the library to find more options.

3. If you have more than one student, invite them to choose a scenario from the list below (or one of their own).  Ask Student #1 to verbally give Student #2 step-by-step instructions to accomplish the task, stopping after each step to allow Student #2 to dramatize it.  To avoid misunderstandings, Student #1 will likely need to tweak the instructions. Change roles, allowing Student #2 to give instructions. (If you have one student, you can be Student #2.)

  • I want to enjoy a bowl of ice cream right now, but I’m not sure what to do.  Help me! 
  • I feel like I have a fever.  I think I should take my temperature, but I’m not sure how to do it.  Will you help me?
  • I just got out of my pajamas and need to put on my pants.  How do I do that? 
  • My recipe calls for an egg.  It doesn't seem right to drop the whole thing into the bowl.  What should I do?

4. Do a science experiment to practice procedural writing. When I taught at a homeschooling co-op, I performed the following experiment. It caught the students' attention and produced lively writing.
Put water into a clear 35-mm plastic film canister, filling about one-third of it. Set the canister on a tray in a place where you don't mind a bit of a mess. Drop half of an Alka-Seltzer tablet into the water, close the lid tightly, and get out of the way. Warning: expect an explosion.        ~from Flash! Bang! Pop! Fizz! by Janet Parks Chahrour, 13.
5. Gather ideas on a pre-writing sheet.

Questions to consider for drafting:
Will I write a paragraph or a longer piece?

What will be the style of my piece? Will I stick to the facts? Will I use a creative setting or character?

Will I write in first, second, or third person?

How will I introduce my piece? Will I write a question, make a statement, tell a little story, or do something else?  Will I write a sentence, a paragraph, or something in between?

Will my instructions be simple, or will they be specific, descriptive, and detailed?

Will I number my steps, or will I use transitional words and phrases to move the steps fluidly from one to the next (to begin, first, next, after, then, at the same time, meanwhile, finally, at last...). 

How will I close my piece?

A Paragraph by a Young Student
Pulling your teeth hurts, but at least you get money for them. First you fetch a piece of string and tie one end of the string around the doorknob. Next you tie the other end of the string around your tooth. Then you slam the door. Now your tooth is hanging from the door by a piece of string. Pulling your teeth hurts, but if you get a dollar for each one ($20 in all) who cares about the pain!
 I'd love to see the topics your students choose. Please share them in the comments.

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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Frog and Toad: Showing Vs. Telling

English teachers are famous for advising, "Show; don't tell!" But what does that mean?

I'll show you with examples from Harry Noden's Image Grammar (29).

Telling: Maxine is nervous.

Showing: Maxine glances at the midnight moon shadows from one side of the dark alleyway to the other, biting her nails as rivulets of perspiration soak her eyebrows.

Telling: She loved her daughter.

Showing: She kissed three-year-old Carrie softly on the cheek and tucked in the covers as Carrie slept.

Notice the word choices--glances, alleyway, biting, rivulets of perspiration, soak, kissed, tucked. Notice the pictures of nervousness and love painted without a single mention of either word.

Look at your students' writing. What do they tend to do--tell or show?  If they lean to the telling side, chances are their writing is general, bland, ho-hum. They're content to write, "It was ________!" (Fill in the blank with fun, cool, awesome, boring, or just about any other adjective.) Encourage them to include details and strong verbs, giving the reader a concrete picture. Done well, the reader will be able to infer whatever it is the writer is trying to show.

Recently, Frog and Toad helped us punctuate dialogue and experiment with synonyms. Now, for one last lesson, they're lending us some telling sentences to transform.

From Frog and Toad Are Friends:
One day in summer Frog was not feeling well.
Toad thought and thought.
Toad was getting colder and colder.
Frog and Toad sat out on the porch, feeling sad together.
They sat there, feeling happy together.
Ask students to write new sentences that do not directly mention the underlined words. For instance, how can they describe a day in summer without saying the word day or summer? How can they portray not feeling well without writing those words? To test their success, they can read their sentence(s) to someone. Can the person guess the gist of the original sentence(s)?

That accomplished, have students add pizzazz to an old writing piece with good old-fashioned showing.  It'll make English teachers around the world smile, leap, and dance. In other words, they'll be happy!

As always, share your students' best examples in the comments.

  • For more practice, feel free to use the sheet here.
  • For another showing vs. telling lesson, see this one based on Roald Dahl's Mr. Twit.

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