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.

Fluency Timer Now Available for iPad/iPod/iPhone

My desktop app, Fluency Timer, is now available for the iOS (iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches). The app provides an adjustable timer with integrated voice recording to allow teachers, parents, and students to easily record student fluency readings. It’s designed simply so that even primary age students can use the app to record themselves reading.

Research has shown that having students listen to themselves reading increases reading fluency, particularly for English Language Learners.  While there are many capable voice recorders, I wanted an app that would stop after a predetermined amount of time and not go on forever.  Having it stop on its own means that I can focus on listening to students reading and not have to keep an eye on the clock.  Teachers can use the app with students or set it up as an instant center activity.

By recording fluency readings, teachers can review them for patterns of errors and play them back for students, parents, and colleagues.

Download the pro version to eliminate advertisements and add the ability to transfer multiple recordings to your desktop:

The app allows you to individually e-mail recordings.  The length of the timer can be adjusted.

More information about the app and the different versions is available at fluency

Caine’s Arcade and Google’s 80/20 Innovation Model in the Classroom

The 80/20 Theory

As I understand it, Google allows employees to work on their own pet projects for 20% of time while having them work on company chosen projects for the other 80%.  Allowing employees the chance to choose what they want to work on for some amount of their time increases motivation in the other 80% and leads to innovation that Google might not think of on its own.  Even though most of the pet projects never come to fruition, some of the ones that have have been great.  How can we bring this innovation to the classroom?

A Dreamer Becomes a Hero

Like many, I was inspired by the video making the rounds about a nine year old boy, Caine, who built an arcade out of cardboard boxes in the front of his father’s auto parts store. What is striking is Caine’s passion, his perseverance, his creativity, and the point at which idle work in his father’s shop turns into genius. The video which has been widely seen has generated a large college fund for the boy.

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I love the part in the video when Caine describes how he made alterations to a game to make it harder.  Many of the students I see in reading intervention classes seem to give up on most things after only one try.

Sometimes it seems like our students are apathetic.  But maybe they’re just apathetic about school.  Do we know what they’re passionate about? Do we encourage them to find their passion? And do we let them follow passions far enough that they can go past the necessary point of frivolity and blossom into something substantial?

Let me ask a deeper question.  Are you as a teacher, passionate about teaching?  Do you as a teacher have something that you are passionate about?  I write this as I am finishing writing a script for my first film project in ten years not to be made in a classroom.  I love teaching.  But my passion is making movies.  If you’re not feeling some passion in your own life, how can you encourage it in children?

It’s a safe bet that for most of our students, school is not their passion.  We forget that decoding words is not the fun part, discovering and applying knowledge is.  Long division, multiplication facts, and timed tests are not enjoyable but problem-solving, brainstorming, and code-breaking might be.

The Past

I’ve done a couple of things in the past to offer moments of independence in my classroom:

  • Independent Work Time (students choose their own activities after completing assigned ones)
  • Writer’s Workshop (you write whatever you want but you have to publish on an agreed upon deadline)

The Future

I want students to take an interest.  I don’t’ care so much what they take an interest in.  I don’t want to give up class time for them to play games.  However, I do think I can give up class time for them to research, create, and explore while I guide, encourage, and motivate.   They can’t create Caine’s Arcade, it’s already been built.  I want them to create their own projects.  I’d like to give up as much of 20% to this notion.

I hypothesize that the lost time will be made up for in increased productivity and job skills when it comes to the assigned curriculum.  I could be totally wrong.  What do you think?

How to Encourage Parental Involvement

While some education reformers might argue that poverty is not a reason for students’ lack of success, I haven’t heard anyone claim that parental involvement doesn’t impact student learning.  As a matter of fact, I would argue that a students’ best chance of overcoming poverty is parental involvement in their education.  While we have little control over what goes on in the home, the first step in fostering parental involvement is creating a school environment in which parents (as well as students) want to participate.  To get parents involved you have to get them in the door.

When I worked at a neighborhood school (I now work at magnet schools) we found it difficult to get parents to come to school even though parents lived nearby.  Teachers frequently complained that although the auditorium was packed for our holiday performances, parents rarely showed up for parent conferences or any of our academic functions.  At my last science night at the school, however, I had a full house while the teacher next door had only two parents show up.  It wasn’t my charming personality that brought them in (the teacher next door was far more charming), I had learned to make academic events engaging and create an environment that was welcoming to parents as well as students.

Here are my tips for a well attended event:

Make it Convenient. Events and conferences need to be at a time when working people can attend.  When parents don’t show up it’s often because they can’t, not because they don’t want to.

Get the kids to bring their parents. If Science Night is Thursday, I remind students about the event every day for a week about the upcoming event so that excitement builds and there’s no way anyone can forget. The same is true for parent conferences, Back to School Night, etc.  If the students want to come, they’ll bring their parents whenever possible.

Learn the language. If your parents do not speak English, you need to learn a little bit of their native language.  Many teachers resent this and there’s no law that says you have to.  However, if you want parents to feel comfortable, you need to at least be able to say hello.  I speak Spanish horribly.  Students usually laugh when I speak it.  However, parents have always appreciated when I am able to conduct parent conferences in Spanish and attendance has increased once parents know that I can communicate with them.  Substitute another language with Spanish if Spanish is not the language of your community.

Give control of your room over to students. I let students put their own work up on bulletin boards.  This means they know where their own work is and feel more ownership of the room.  I do straighten the boards up a little if they end up looking too messy but I’m not one of those teachers who won’t put up a bulletin without the use of a level so if things are slightly off kilter but student created I prefer it.

Teach students to be hosts in your room. Once I asked a parent if she’d like to see the report her child had been working on and the parent told me, no.  However, when I tell Suzy, a student in my class, to show her mom around, no one ever refuses.  Parents prefer to hear from their own child what they’ve been working on in class.

Make it an Event. We used science night as our movie premiere night.  Many fellow teachers thought that was cheating.  Our movie was about animal camouflage so I think it counts.  The evening began, however, with hands-on activities centered on the butterfly life cycle, then continued with student presentations, and as if that wasn’t enough, we scheduled a volcano explosion (the old vinegar and baking soda trick) as the finale to our evening.  The evening was undoubtedly fun.

Make it Visual. Particularly if you have parents who speak another language, school is a much more comfortable place if they are able to understand what’s going on.  Movies, hands-on activities, and explosions lend themselves to comprehension more easily than lectures.

I could add, serve refreshments though I confess I rarely do.  It’s a great idea.

What are your tips?


How to Reduce the Amount of Teacher Talk

Pair Share

Pair Sharing: A Best Practice

Pair Sharing is generally acknowledged as a best practice in education. In classrooms I visit, however, I rarely see it used, let alone integrated into lessons as a regular practice. Reducing the amount of teacher talk and getting students to talk to each other is one of the cheapest and easiest education reforms anyone can implement. The structure of schooling must change to become more child-centered or it risks becoming irrelevant. Teachers need to get off the stage a little bit and here’s a way to do it without giving up complete control.


I was lucky enough to be trained in the GLAD strategies early in my teaching career and their philosophy of 10-2 greatly influenced my thinking about pair sharing.  Their idea is that for every ten minutes of teacher talk, there should be two minutes of student talk.  This means that you do not have to necessarily have students answer a question when they are talking with each other, they can and should sometimes simply summarize what you’ve been talking about.  While students share with each other—and this is the most important part— teachers circulate around the room and listen in.

Having student summarize what you’ve been teaching helps students to:

  • Transition information into long-term memory through talking and not just listening.
  • Release energy that’s been bottled up for the previous ten minutes.
  • Refocus if they’ve been tuned out while you were talking.

Having students summarize what you’ve been teaching helps teachers to:

  • Assess whether students understand what you’re talking about.  You’d never know whether they understand if you don’t take the two minutes to get that feedback.
  • Increase accountability for what’s discussed by requiring students to talk about it in pairs and then whole group.
  • Listen to students.  They feel like they’re not listened to and, generally speaking, they’re right.
  • Encourage students who are normally shy but have great ideas to share their ideas with the whole class.

Classroom Management

Before starting pair sharing you need to teach students how to do it.  Choose a volunteer from the classroom and Model:

  • How to find a partner (they should be close by)
  • What to do if there are no partners (a group of thee is fine if that’s all you can find)
  • Body language for listening (look at your partner, sit still)
  • Appropriate volume (everyone practice saying “I like pizza in a quiet voice)
  • Signals for getting the class back together as a whole.

The first time you try this, it might go badly.  Please expect that and don’t give up.

Other Uses for Pair Sharing

In addition to summarizing, students can solve problems, answer questions, or share a personal experience when talking with partners.

Pair sharing can and should be a part of every single lesson every single day or else I’d say the teacher is likely hogging the stage and students may or may not be retaining what’s being said.

How do you get students talking in your classroom?

Increase Reading Fluency with Fluency Timer

fluency timer logoI’m excited to announce that I’ve developed and released my very first software application, Fluency Timer, available now in the new Mac App Store or via my own site at:

Fluency Timer is both a timer and a recorder that records students’ one minute fluency readings.  Research has shown that having students listen to themselves reading will increase reading fluency over time.  There are other voice recorders that exist but none have an integrated timer and all are too complicated for me to quickly teach students to use.

In my own classroom I have been having students read their daily reading passages into the computer and then playing it back and having them listen to themselves reading.  After the initial novelty of hearing their own voices played through the computer wears off, students study the reading passage while listening and start to become cognizant of their mistakes.  They ask me if they can reread the same passages over again to try and read them better.  It has made reading fluency into a game so that it’s no longer tedious to practice.

In addition to providing an instant independent work time activity, teachers can use it when assessing students to review student reading to complete running records, DIBELS assessments, etc. and to keep a record of how students have read throughout the year with automatic time and date stamping.  You can easily share recordings with parents coaches, administrators, and students themselves via the computer, an iPod, a CD, or a web site.

How Does it Work?

1. Press record. Timer counts down and automatically stops after 60 seconds.

2. Name your file and Save to iTunes.

3. Your file is added to iTunes.

4. From iTunes, play back for students, parents, and coaches or add to iPod and/or burn to CD.

Fluency Timer is available only for Macintosh computers (not for iOS devices at this time).  It’s exciting to dream up something and then see it come to fruition.  I hope you find it useful in your classroom.

For more fluency resources see the Fluency page of Open Court and the Reader’s Theater page for free printable Reader’s Theater.

Find Fluency Timer here.

The Right Way to Show Movies in Class

I like to think of myself as a proponent of using multimedia in the classroom to better engage students in the curriculum.  I’ve amassed a large collection of movies from youtube, teachertube, itunes podcasts, and commercial DVDs that I show in frequent short bursts in the classroom with adults and children to help make my points and show visual examples of what I’m talking about.

I think it’s time to clarify how to show movies effectively.

1.  Showing movies in class should not be a Friday fun day activity.  Okay, I don’t mind if you show them on Friday or even if students enjoy watching them.  However, students should not view watching a film in class as any less rigorous than reading a book.  If they do then you’re doing nothing to teach media literacy or enhance your curriculum.  Brains should turn on when watching multimedia, not turn off.

2.  Show curricular movies at the beginning of units and not at the end.  This gives students background information that they need to understand a unit before teaching that unit.  That background knowledge then pays dividends throughout the unit.  If you wait until the end to show the movie as a “treat” it implies that the rest of your unit is not a treat and the benefit of having background knowledge to carry students through the unit is lost.

3.  Do not clean your desk, file papers, or correct homework while students watch the movie.  You will need to be front and (off)center.

4.  Set up expectations about the content and the delivery of the movie as well as student behavior.

Content.  This is a movie about X it relates to what we’re learning about Y because Z.

Delivery.  Working with English Language Learners in primary grades, often any selection I choose will have language students will not understand.  I tell them straight up, there will be a lot of academic English in what we’re about to watch and some of it you won’t understand.  Still, you’ll be able to understand a lot of it and figure out the rest based on what you do understand.  If you still don’t understand, right down what you hear and raise your hand, we’ll stop for a moment to clarify it.

Behavior.  When watching a movie about animals, for example, I tell students, you’re going to see a lot of amazing animals that you know in this movie.  You’re going to feel like shouting out every time you see an animal you know.  Instead of shouting out, I want you to raise one finger like this (I model) every time you see an animal you’re familiar with.  And every time you hear an interesting fact, I want you to write it down.  Also, write down any questions you have about anything you hear.

5.  I sit up front at a 90 degree angle to the screen so that I can see both the TV and my students.  This keeps students on task and allows me to see the screen.  (If you have problems with students talking during movies, see #3).

6. Don’t put down the remote control.  You will need to stop the movie frequently.  I stop whenever I want to clarify something or students raise their hands to ask questions.  Students absolutely comprehend more and retain additional information if you stop along the way rather than waiting until the end.

7.  At the end of the movie, ask some students to ask the question they’ve written down but don’t attempt to answer all those questions.  Students can record their questions on a concept/question board or KWL chart.  These questions become the basis for research in the coming unit.  Also assist students in clarifying information that was confusing.  Try to model how to figure out confusing language rather than handing them the definitions of unfamiliar words.

8.  Have students recap what they’ve learned and explain how the movie is related to the unit.  This helps transfer the new knowledge into long term memory.  If students can explain what they’ve learned, you can assist but if they still can’t explain, you need to re-evaluate showing that movie or better frame the movie discussion next time.

9.  Ask students to evaluate the movie.  Not just did you like it but did this movie add to your knowledge about X?  If they say yes, be sure to ask why…you’re starting to make them aware of themselves as learners.  If they say no, then that’s learning for you.

Spanish Reading Comprehension Resources

Thanks to web site visitors, Luz Arriaga and Dora Antillon, my Reading Comprehension Posters and Bookmarks arenow also available in Spanish.

Reading Comprehension Posters (English)
Reading Comprehension Poster (Spanish)

Reading Comprehension Bookmark (English)
Reading Comprehension Bookmark (Spanish)

Larger versions of the Reading Comprehension Bookmarks (not yet translated) are also available here.

RTI (Response to Intervention) A Complete Apple Workflow

Thank you to those of you who attended my workshop, “RTI:  A Complete Apple Workflow” at the CUE conference this weekend.   I spoke about using Apple Software to address your Response to Intervention program.  This post contains the links, resources, and ideas that I shared.  Rather than simply posting the keynote file (which is much easier) I prefer to recap and flush out some of the ideas so that it’s beneficial even to those who weren’t there.

What is RTI?

As I define it, rather than simply teaching everyone the same thing and assuming that if someone doesn’t “get it” that there’s something wrong with them, RTI assumes that there will be students who do not master a concept after whole group instruction and will need additional time and intensity (interventions) to master concepts.  This, of course, is very similar to the idea of Independent Work Time.

Alice Mercer, in her CUE presentation, also addressed RTI and went into additional detail in defining it.

Part One:  Dealing with Data

It’s very important to collect and analyze data in order to target interventions to specific student need.  “Fluency” is to vague to be an intervention.  Focusing on short vowels, long vowels, or digraphs is a better intervention because it targets a specific student need.  Using Apple’s iWork (Pages and Numbers) or even Microsoft Word’s (Office and Excel) can help you to organize data by creating a spreadsheet, graphing data, and using the word processor’s mail merge functions to create parent reports about student data.  I much prefer iWork to Office because of its ease of use and the ability to create better looking documents.

Here’s additional information on graphing in Numbers and how to use the mail merge function.  I taught both these things in the workshop.

Part Two:  Prescriptions for Success ways of using Apple technology to address student needs




While behavior tracking software is popular among schools with large behavior problems.  I saw office referrals eliminated in my classroom simply through working on these movie projects.  I gave the example of Joseph, a student who I knew would not be quiet if I was to call “Quiet on the Set.”  Instead of playing through that scenario and getting annoyed at Joseph ruining other students’ projects, I decided to make Joseph the engineer.  He called out “Quiet on the Set!” and he pushed the red Garageband button.  The rest of the class was dead quiet and Joseph experienced being a successful and productive member of our class rather than being the one who wrecked everything.  This is a behavioral intervention…intervening to improve student behavior rather than punishing students for bad behavior.


Here are two slides that show some evidence that these techniques are producing gains although I am the first to admit that we need to continue collecting data on the subject.

In my classroom, I saw an 18% increase in the number of students reading at benchmark 12 weeks after working on the Reader’s Theater script, The City Mouse and the Country Mouse:

In Escondido Unified, they saw average gains of about 40 words per minute after six weeks of reading with iPods whereas normal gains are about 10 words per minute:


Here are some incidental things I mentioned in my presentation.

HandBrake for ripping movies from commercial DVDs  you own for storing on iPod.

PWN Youtube and other ways of downloading Youtube movies.


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.