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:


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.


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?




What the Research Shows About Teaching English Language Learners

Jennifer Jacobson, assistant editor, of American Educator, a publication of the American Federation of Teachers shares this article on what the research says and doesn’t say about teaching English Language Learners.  It’s a lengthy report with the takeawy for me that it does seem that English Language Development (ELD) is best when taught as a separate subject and not simply integrated throughout the day.  In California, we’re required to teach 30 minutes of ELD but few teachers do.

Energize Your Classroom: How Jim Cramer Made Me a Better Teacher of English Language Learners

I’ve become a better teacher of English Language Learners by watching one of my favorite TV Shows, Jim Cramer’s Mad Money. This is a show about buying stocks. If you’re not interested in stocks you might be turned off already, but Jim Cramer is an entertainer. He takes what could be boring and incomprehensible and makes it engaging and completely understandable for people who know little about stocks AND those who know a lot. Isn’t this what we’re trying to do in the classroom, particularly for English Language Learners and students with limited language exposure?


When talking about stocks he wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, Cramer brings in a ten foot pole. When recommending baby boomer stocks he wears a diaper. When recommending Energizer he wears bunny ears. When talking about the differences been Hasbro and Mattel he brings pictures of a HazMat team (Hasbro/Mattel…HasMat). Think about how you can take something that you’re teaching that’s incomprehensible and bring in something visual to make it comprehensible and engaging for people who may not understand what you’re talking about otherwise.

We need to bring something physical into the classroom. It’s not always the actual thing that you bring because it’s not always possible to bring an elephant into the classroom. But you can bring in a symbol of that thing. A teddy bear can substitute for a man about to undergo open heart surgery. A tossed bean bag quickly replaces a comet flying across the sky. When you’re talking to students who don’t have the academic language to understand everything that you’re saying, give them something they can see that’s not just you talking.

Vocabulary Objectives

Your lessons should have a vocabulary objective.

When Cramer wants you to know about PE Ratios (that is price to earnings ratios) he will put the word on the screen. He makes it clear at the beginning of the lesson that he wants you to understand “PE Ratios.”

English Language Learners’ have a much smaller lexicon of academic English. Teachers include new vocabulary in their lessons all the time but are not often explicit enough about the words they are teaching. A lesson might include the word persuasion without making it explicit that you want students to learn and use the word persuasion. Students can generally figure out the meanings of words long enough to understand your lesson but we’re trying to add new words to students’ long term vocabulary and so we need to make sure they understand that’s an expectation. We also need to make sure they know how to use the word. A linguistic frame works for this purpose.

Example linguistic frame for fossils unit:

Cramer provides these linguistic frames by applying new vocabulary to multiple stocks using consistent language and then provides the audience practice by having them call in the show and use the vocabulary.

In our rooms we need to write the new words on the board. Make it clear before the lesson starts that today students are learning the words X and Y. Give students opportunities to practice using the new words and help them by providing them with a linguistic frame. Get them to talk to each other to practice using the new vocabulary. We can then add another step that Cramer doesn’t have time for in a one-hour show and have students write with the new words. We’ve scaffolded it enough now to expect that they will use those new words in their writing.

Engage Students

I know some teacher have the attitude that they do not need to be entertaining. But couldn’t you be a little interesting to watch? One of my colleagues refers to teaching as doing a six hour one-woman show five days a week with props. Imagine yourself in the audience of that show. How good a show are you? Would you like to be in your class?

I’ve added a fake ear to my repertoire. When students are too quiet, I put it to my ear and say “I can’t hear you!” A rubber chicken helps to lighten the mood when no one is responding and even wait time isn’t working. One cluck and suddenly students feel comfortable enough to come forward and venture an answer.

Cramer makes it fun with all the props, the excitement in his voice, and even sound effects. Cramer shares his sound board and all his sound effects are available online. I use these when students are half-asleep (think math after recess). When a student gets an answer right you play the Hallelujah chorus. Today we’re going to talk about fractions…”Tah Dah sound”…applause…

Not all sounds are appropriate for the classroom but you can use your judgement. I’ve also used a free Mac download called Buzzer for much the same purpose.

Before using this I tell students that I’m going to be using sound effects that are silly but if they get too silly I’ll have to stop. And a couple times I have stopped when students got carried away, but most of the time it helps them pay attention. The sounds bring them back to the lesson when they wander off.

Link to Sound Board

The Take Away

Teachers are entertainers whether we want to be or not. Use your post to be interesting. It’s true that it’s not your job to entertain but when students are entertained they pay attention, they comprehend, and your classroom management is stronger.

Also recommended: Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model by Echevarria, Vogt, Short

Student Audio Book Reviews

This from fellow Apple Distinguished Educator, Matthew Callison, an excellent tool for engaging students in reading.

Mr. Callison works with a third grade population of English Language Learners. He has students record audio reviews of books they are reading and uploads them to this blog,

There are just a handful of reviews so far but this would be a terrific. You might want to have your students listen to some of them but more importantly, why not employ this technique in your classroom? Whether or not you put the recordings online, you can use Garageband on the Mac or Audacity on the PC (both free programs) to easily record your students.

What a great way to develop language, motivate students, and engage them in higher level thinking.

See Students As Individuals Not As Diagnoses

This post is a wish for a perfect world but if you agree with me, you can do something about it fairly easily. I am really trying to make a conscious effort to adjust my own thinking and the way I talk about students.

I think we need to be careful not to refer to children as special education students or GATE (gifted and talented) kids. The students who are gifted are really students who have been identified as gifted. Students who are not gifted are students who are gifted in ways we haven’t identified yet. Special education students are students who are receiving special education services.

Usually I hate things that are simply a matter of semantics but I don’t think this is one of those cases. The way we refer to a student when we speak about them affects our thinking about that student in subtle and not so subtle ways. Our expectations of our students, of course, influence the achievement of those students. As we know there are inequities in the labeling of children as gifted and special ed, it is even more important that we resist those labels as permanent diagnoses.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t differentiate instruction or individually adjust our instruction in the face of one of these diagnoses. However, what I see happening is that once a student is identified as “special ed,” the regular ed teacher often throws up her hands as if there’s no longer any way to reach that student. Students who are identified as gifted are often given additional access to the limited amounts of technology in inner-city classrooms and this is not fair or beneficial to our society. Often those other students could be gifted if given twenty-first century skills with which to communicate. I say this, having seen how those students who sit in class unmotivated and possibly unnoticed are very often the ones who are most adept at using the computer as a communication tool when given the chance.

What do you think?

Teach Units, Not Stories

I’ve been noticing that a lot of teachers get bogged down by individual stories in the Open Court units and miss the big ideas of the units.

While you do need to teach the stories in the anthology and will need to scaffold vocabulary just enough to give access to English Language Learners, the individual stories are almost irrelevant except as they relate to the big ideas of the unit. So while the 2nd grade Kindness unit has two stories about whales and I show a two minute clip about whales so students understand what they are, how they move, and how they sound, this is not a unit about whales. Whales are in the stories as examples of humans being kind to animals and on a broader level how you show kindness to people who are helpless (animals being an example).

By relating stories to the big ideas of the unit, you can also relate those same ideas to other curricular areas thereby increasing student comprehension and knowledge across the curriculum.

So how do you focus on units?

You need to sit down before starting each unit and figure out what are the big concepts of the unit that you want to teach. The manual makes several suggestions for each story and offers sample questions, you won’t be able to teach all of these. Choose the ones that relate to your state standards, the ones that make the most sense to you, the ones that seem most relevant. I like to do this with my grade level as it’s helpful to bounce ideas off of other people. If you have a theme, then suddenly you have a purpose for why you’re reading what you’re doing.

I’ll offer a few examples…

  • In the first grade folktales unit, we decided to focus on elements of folktales. In addition to the anthology, I exposed the students to as many folktales as I could, each time relating them to folktale elements such as things happening in 3’s, heroes and villains, morals, etc… When students wrote their own folktale, naturally it had these elements.
  • While you certainly teach about camouflage in the second grade “Look Again” unit, the meaning you are teaching is much deeper if you use camouflage as an example animal adaptations and adaptations in general. Then you can relate adaptation to social studies and even getting along with one another on the play ground.
  • The Cooperation and Competition unit could offer much more to students than just understanding what “cooperation” and “competition.” Why not focus on rules for playing games, running for office etc. and then relating cooperation and competition to those rules?
  • My links to the theme are not “the right answer.” You need to choose how you’re going to approach each them and then weave that thread throughout the unit. When you do this, other components of the program such as the Concept/Question Board and handing-off discussions are going to be far more meaningful because you’re no longer talking about just the characters in a particular story. You now have a broader theme that you can relate that story to.

    How to Scaffold Open Court Vocabulary for English Language Learners

    an excerpt from Open Court

    Here is an example from second grade “Look Again” unit of how you can scaffold difficult vocabulary/unit concepts for English Language Learners so that all students can participate in conversations and writing about a particular unit.

    Background for Teachers: Four Types of Camouflage:

    1. Protective Coloration: blending in for protection or to surprise prey

    2. Mimicry: pretending to be something else to hide (like the walking stick) or to frighten other animals (like the moth)

    3. Changing Colors: to match surroundings (like the chameleon or octopus)

    4. Costumes: wearing a disguise (like some crabs)

    Scaffolding for English Language Learners:

    Many students, particularly those learning English might try to explain how an animal uses camouflage by saying “The cheetah uses camouflage by camouflaging with the grass.”

    Try to insist upon more exact language when speaking and writing about animals. Provide students with a frame such as this one to assist them in speaking about animal camouflage:

    Some refer to this scaffolding as a linguistic frame.