Category Archives: Writing

Moving Beyond the Personal Narrative

Narrative writing.  What is it?  From the perspective of an elementary school teacher, it’s the first genre of writing you teach of the school year.  And it’s always the personal narrative.  Students brainstorm and write about their trips to Disneyland, the beach, or playing video games for hours on end.  While students should write about what the know and experience, a narrative is an account of events, either real or fictitious.  The Anchor Standard for Writing expects students to “write narratives to convey real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.”  The word “imagined” does not appear in a grade level specific standard until third grade, but that does not mean that you ignore children’s imaginations in grades K-2.

I would push you to teach children the art of storytelling beyond the personal narrative.  Why?  Let’s think about advertising.  The most memorable commercials are the ones that tell a story, whether it that makes you laugh, cry, or cringe.  But it’s the advertisers job to sell a product, right?  Some commercials use gimmicks, but storytelling is an effective communication tool.

Here are some tips for thinking beyond the personal narrative:

1.  Start with a concrete object.  In her book Making Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading, Tanny McGregor has a lesson on inferencing in which students look at a shoe and answer the question, “Who wears this shoe?”  Based on physical evidence, the students can infer who wears it (e.g., a gardener wears the scuffed, faded brown boot).   I would take the lesson a step further and tell a story from the perspective of the person wearing the shoe.  Perhaps the gardener found a secret portal in the garden that took him to another world.  Let the students’ imaginations drive the storytelling.  As the teacher, you still teach the techniques of effective storytelling such as adding sequencing events, descriptive details, using quotations, etc.

2.  Use a painting or an illustration in a picture book, with the words covered up.  Have a discussion about the painting.  For example:  

This is the painting “The Circus” by Georges Seurat.  Ask the students, “What is going in the painting?  How do you know?”  Chart the “characters” that they see in the picture.  Once the class has had a discussion on what is going on at this current moment, students can then select a character and talk about what happened before and after.  Students can create a Flow Map to show the sequence of events, and let the writing begin.

3.  Primary sources are a great tool for storytelling.  A primary source can be an object, photograph, diary entry, newspaper article, or anything from the time period that you are studying.  Archaeologists analyze artifacts they find and try to piece together a story with the remains.  Students can think like archaeologists and create a story about the primary source  For example, something as simple as the remains of a plate from the colonial era.  Ask students questions such as, “Who would eat from this plate?  Why was it broken or abandoned?  What could have happened to the owner of this plate?  What was going on at that time?”

Students can write a story from the perspective of the owner of the plate.  A plate is just a plate until students begin to ask questions, then it becomes a key to the unlocking the past, and the pen for their story.

What have you done to move your students beyond the personal narrative?  Please post your ideas below.

Mathew Needleman’s note:  This post was written by Susan Obuchi.  She is a Elementary Common Core Facilitator in English Language Arts and a National Board Certified Teacher.  I hesitate to call her a guest blogger.  If this goes well you may see some additional posts related to English Language Arts posted here.

iOS App Recommendations for Literacy

Many fun party conversations have started by whipping out a smartphone and sharing the latest and coolest apps.  However, in educational settings we continually need to refocus the discussion around choosing apps to meet our instructional objectives rather than the other way around.

About a year ago, I published a list of all the apps I installed on our school’s iPads.  I still like that list, however, there are a number of drill-and-kill type apps that see occasional use in  my classroom as well as those that require higher-level thinking and student creation which I use more often.  I wanted to give our teachers options so I gave them tons of apps.  However, my personal toolkit is much smaller.  Here are my recommendations based around instructional needs in the area of literacy.  The specific apps I recommend don’t matter so much as how we they are used in the classroom:

Fluency

Any voice recorder from the free and simple, Audio Memos to the pricier and more advanced, Garageband, can be used to have students record themselves reading.  Data from Escondido Unified which used iPods and Voice Recorders with English Language Learners (back before iPhones and iPads existed) consistently shows that students showed growth.  The key is having students record and then listen to themselves reading so that they hear the mistakes they don’t hear when they’re focused on decoding.

I’ve used Reader’s Theater in my own classroom (find free printable reader’s theater here or see our class reader’s theater movie, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse).  However, you can also use any passages that might target certain spelling patterns or sounds students are working on.

Writing

I like simple.  StoryKit is a free iPhone app that works on the iPad and allows students to write, record their voice, add a photo, or draw on a page resembling kindergarten writing paper.  If you want to publish a whole book from the iPad, the $5 Book Creator is a great option.  Apple’s free desktop app, iBooks Author is even better but it requires both an iPad and an updated Mac desktop or laptop.  With iBooks Author you create the book on your computer and preview it on the iPad.  You can easily import Keynote and Pages files into your final product.   When you’re ready for multimedia, iMovie is a great way to engage even the most unmotivated writers in writing something that will include audio, visuals and an audience.

Apps like Toontastic and PuppetPals are also fun.  However, be careful, Toontastic teaches story crafting via a beginning, middle, and end structure.  If you’re a fan of Lucy Caulkins writer’s workshop and the notion of expanding a single moment with details to make it something bigger rather than structuring a bare bones story sequentially, you will might not be happy with an app that would set you back to an outdated way of teaching writing even if it’s more fun.

Learning Letter Sounds

Apps like the above mentioned Storykit can be used to have students make a book of letter sounds by taking pictures of things that begin with the sound /p/ for example.  Student Tommy would end up with a page with photos of pencils, pictures, paint, and paintbrushes and then record his voice making the sound /p/ on the page.   I know that you can find apps that give students the letter sounds while students passively listen but I’m much more in favor of having students create their own books with the sound in it.  I suspect the learning is more internalized.

What other areas of student early literacy need do you notice?

 

 

 

Down and Dirty Data Analysis

Green is good.  Red is bad.

Here’s what they taught me in “coaching college” about how to read data.

Reading vertically indicates the teacher’s problem.  Reading horizontally indicates a student’s problem.

So, Harpo needs some additional help in all language arts areas.  However, in the vocabulary category, it appears that the teacher needs to examine his/her own instruction as its not succeeding for most of the students.  There’s all kinds of reasons why the teacher could say the students aren’t succeeding and there is validity to all of them…no help at home, trouble learning the language, poorly designed tests, a bad day in class.  This class in particular I hear is a bunch of class clowns.  However, the fact remains that the teacher’s vocabulary instruction with this group of students is not working and if he/she wants better results he/she must try something different.

The Case for Blogging in the Classroom

My blogging output has certainly suffered as I’ve been finishing up my last semester of graduate school. I’ll be all done December 5th when I take the comprehensive exam to receive a masters degree in Education Policy and a California Administrative Credential.

I thought I might combine my blogging and my graduate work by sharing one of my final research papers, an article on blogging’s role in the school community. I make the case for blogging on three fronts:

  • Home-school communication

Schools are increasingly aware that they need to have a web site to have a public presence on the web. However, the majority of school web sites in a district like Los Angeles Unified are static pages set up by volunteers, experts, and other school outsiders. Often these sites sit without updates for years when teachers and administrators find themselves too busy or too intimidated to update the pages that they did not create themselves. Posting to a blog, however, is as simple as sending an e-mail.

Even in low income schools where many students do not have computers at home, many parents do have access to e-mail via cell phones. If parents subscribe to a blog by e-mail they can easily receive reliable updates and teachers can easily send valuable information as they find it.

  • Student achievement

Blogs in the classroom can replace paper and pencil journal writing, showcase student work, collect student research on a particular topic, or be the format for creative writing. Aside from the novelty of working on a computer, the main advantage of blogging as a writing activity is that online writing has an audience whereas most classroom assignments normally begin and end with the classroom walls and the teacher as the only reader.

  • Professional Development

Professional development often consists of one hour scattershot presentations with little follow-through and even less teacher input. By providing time for teachers to participate in blog reading or writing as professional development, administrators can support self-reflective practice and differentiated instruction tailored to teacher’s needs.

I also address practical concerns like pedagogy, lack of equipment and financing, and student safety.
You can download the entire paper here which includes my references.

An Ideal Language Arts Curriculum

Kevin Hodgson lays out what he considers to be an ideal language arts curriculum.  Please read the entire post.  However, the tenets he puts forth are:

Writing to Learn

Including listening and speaking (as well as reading and writing)

A “Stakes Approach” (Moving from low-stakes like journal writing to high stakes like publishing and performance)

Writing Across the Curriculum

And including technology and multi-media