Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Power and Purpose of Bell-Ringers

Years ago, at a workshop, I was introduced to Jeff Anderson's Power Writing. The basic idea (or at least how it was conveyed to me at the workshop) is this:

Round One: Give students two words (I used "school" and "vacation") and have them write the words at the top of their page. Then they need to circle one. Set the timer for one minute and tell students to write as fast as they can about that word or a story that includes that word. When time is up, have them count the number of words they wrote. Record their word counts (you can see how I used the chart and tally marks).

Round Two: Same directions, only with two different words (I used "chocolate" and "pizza.") Record word count again.

Round Three: Repeat with two more words (I used "summer" and "winter") and record again.

Now, ask students to summarize the "data" on the board and see if, from the data, they can form a generalization about writing based on what they observed. (I usually let them work in groups or at least with a partner.)

Most students will be able to conclude that with each round, they got faster. Then some will generalize that maybe writers need to get "warmed-up" when writing just like athletes do when playing a sport. Eureka!!

We discuss that most practices or work-outs will begin with a warm-up to get the body ready for exertion. I explain that writers need to do the same thing! They need to get their hands and head warmed-up for all the writing that is about to come in class that day. I tell them that that is why will begin each and every class with a 10-minute bell-ringer: a quick write that will get us ready for the real work ahead later in class.

Each day, when my students come into class, they need to write for 10 minutes without stopping. They can write about whatever they want, but I always have a prompt on the board just in case they need some motivation. Usually it's one of these prompts, or a fun picture.

It's a quiet and peaceful way to begin class, and, as our research shows, the perfect way to get our hands and head ready for all the writing ahead!

What are some of your favorite bell-ringers? I'd love to hear from you!!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Generating Writing Topics

At the start of each school year, I always talk to my students about their previous writing class experience. I want to know what their favorite and least favorite parts of class were. Without fail, almost every student will tell me that they like writing best when they get to write about what they want. And they dislike most when they are told what their writing topics must be.

My response is always the same: "Well then, you are just going to LOVE this writing class because in here, you get to pick your topics!" (Cue cheers, fist pumps, and smiles.) Then I say, "Okay, turn to your first page in your brand-new writer's notebook and get writing!"

Kids will open to the first page, get their pencils in gear, and then... freeze. About 15 seconds in, some will start to look around. Others will put their name and date and on the top line... unnecessary in their own books, but they at least feel they are starting something. Many will just stare at the page, peeling their eyes away only for a second to look at me and see if I'm readying myself to give more instructions. After a most uncomfortable, crickets-in-the-air minute, a brave soul will raise his/her hand and say quietly, "Well... what do you want us to write about?" With that, every eye in the room will be on me waiting for some guidance.

"Anything," I respond.

More silence. More uncomfortable glances. More crickets.

Same kid's hand goes up. "But... what is the topic?"

"Anything you want it to be," I say.

Lots of eyes. Lots of silence. Lots of crickets. Certainly no more cheers, fist-pumps, and smiles.

I look at them. "Didn't you all just tell me that you like writing best when you get to choose your topics?"

A few nods.

"And didn't you say you hate when teachers assign topics to you?"

A few more nods and now a couple of murmurs.

With this, I end my little game. I know that they love to write about what they want, topics that mean something to them. But, without time and guidance on brainstorming those topics, most kids are at a total loss. They need help to get started, and that is where list writing comes in.

All my favorites, Atwell, Calkins, Fletcher, Gallagher, advocate the creation of lists to help kids generate writing topics. The lists hold a special place in our writer's notebooks and we will turn to them again and again and again throughout the year. Lists give kids a place to store their ideas - people, places, things, events, passions - that mean the most to them.

That is why in September, we spend most of our time creating lists and then practicing writing from them.

We will create a list of things we can't imagine life without:

And a list about things we just cannot stand:

And a list about things we can't wait to do in our lives:

The list of our lists goes on and on :)

Once students have their lists finished, we practice writing from them. I model how I can take an idea, something like the beach in Sea Isle City (my hometown and favorite place on Earth), and write about it in lots of different ways:

modified from Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This (Stenhouse 2011)
Through this entire process, kids are able to see that there are limitless possibilities for their writing. And each and every time they write something, they can tie one of their "passions" into it in some way.

For many kids, this is a transformative experience. When I tell them the story of a former student who centered every single writing piece that he did for me on the WWE - from a personal narrative about his first time attending a live show, to compare/contrast of the legend John Cena to current star the Miz, to a biography of the Hulk, to an argumentative piece as to why WWE wrestlers are some of the best athletes in the word - my students who've spent years dreading writing class, are suddenly excited. The kid who spends all his time trying to become a BMX superstar and the kid who has planned to dedicate her life to becoming the next YouTube sensation suddenly find that maybe writing won't be so bad this year. In fact, not only does the idea of spending 53-minutes each day writing about the thing in life that means to the most to them not sound BAD, it actually sounds pretty great. Awesome even!

And now, I have them.

October comes and kids are writing, writing, writing, filling their pages with narratives, comparisons, and arguments. Hands that never even liked holding a pencil are flying across pages and then wiggling in the air when I ask for volunteers to share.

It's a beautiful thing... and it all starts with a list!

Do you have students write lists in their notebooks? How does it work for you? I'd love to hear about it!

Happy Teaching!!

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Here's a blank copy if you'd like to use this in your classroom!

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Ladies and Gentleman... we officially have the first week down in the books!!

And what an AMAZING week it was!! #BestFirstWeekEver!!

My kiddos are just awesome. We learned a lot and laughed a lot! My own children also had a great week (aside from a quick bout of a stomach bug that kept one home for a day!). My oldest, Drew, started 1st grade. My middle, Quinn, started Kindergarten. And my toddler twins, Addy and Chase, began two-mornings-a-week preschool. Additionally, Mr. Musings from the Middle School (my husband Dennis), started a new school year, too!

Phew!! My head is spinning!

Anyway, I hope everyone is having a great weekend and recovering from this busy time of year.

This post is mainly a pictorial of some of the goings on in my classroom this week. As we settle into our routine, I'll be back with more "meaty" posts (and hopefully some new videos, too!).

Teach your students all about having a growth mindset with "The Paper Challenge!"

One of my favorite activities from the week was this Growth Mindset lesson that I adapted from here. Basically, the kids had to create the image on top using just a piece of paper and scissors. It was NOT easy... but that's exactly the point! As the kids worked, I wrote down some of the comments I heard. Things like, "this is impossible," and "I give up!" After I let them struggle for a while, I brought them back together and discussed the activity with them. It was eye-opening to see their words. They all agreed that their attitude was too negative so of course they would never have been successful. Then we read the Growth Mindset posters hanging in our room and discussed what each one meant. I closed with this video from Khan Academy. It was a fun and powerful lesson.

Fun icebreakers do with big kids on the first day of school.

One of the BEST purchases I made from TpT for this school year is the Icebreakers that Rock bundle from Cult of Pedagogy. This product contains three PowerPoint activities that allow students to talk to each other in an easy, comfortable way. What is great about these is that you can use them as one, big activity, or you can break them up, showing just a few slides here and there, as "brain breaks" through out the day. That is how I used them.

So, on the first day, I did a big "Find Someone Who" activity with them. This allowed all the kids to learn each other's names. Next, I assigned them all their lockers and we practiced opening the combination locks (super-stressful for these first time locker users)! After that, we did a few slides from Icebreakers that Rock. Then, we went over the syllabus. Next, a few more Icebreakers that Rock slides. After that, I handed out and went over all the paperwork that had to go home and be signed (oh, the paperwork!!!). Then, a few more slides right before lunch. And then a few more right after lunch. Next up, a tour of the building. Then a few more slides before trying our lockers again. Finally, another slide right before dismissal. It was the perfect break/filler/attention-getter/distraction to use throughout the day... actually, I used the slides throughout the whole week! Run to TpT and pick this product up today! Totally worth every penny.

(Some of the slides can be done silently. I LOVED these slides!!)

We always begin by numbering the pages in our notebooks. It's the easiest, most difficult task we do all year :)

Of course, we had to number our notebooks to get ready for ELA next week. I always tell kids that this is the easiest, most difficult task that we do all year :)

Anchor poster to use with Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note

I really the love smell of a Mr. Sketch anchor poster in the morning! This year, I'm starting with Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. My thinking is that it will really help with getting started with Article of the Week. Here is one of several of the posters I'll be using to teach these strategies.

Jump on the #ObserveMe bandwagon!

I'm jumping on the #ObserveMe bandwagon! Read more about it here. I'll keep you updated on how this goes throughout the year!

Okay... that is enough for now! The beach is calling my name... nothing beats September here at the Jersey Shore!

Hope the back-to-school season is treating you well! I'd love to hear how your school year is going so far.

Happy Teaching!!