Friday, September 27, 2013

Improving Student Writing With Staples and Tape--Who knew?

Pathways to the Common Core
I have been implementing a new writing program called Pathways To The Common Core by Lucy Calkins. This program utilizes writer's workshop and short mini-lessons to teach writing that is aligned to the Common Core State Standards.  When I first started looking through the materials in August I was quite overwhelmed. The teacher's manual is formatted much differently than other programs. Calkins uses a descriptive narrative prose format to describe the teaching that should occur during each lesson. It reads like a script from a lesson taught by Calkins. One day's lesson consists of several pages of text printed in two columns and very small print! I have found that despite this new format, I am enjoying the program and my students are reaping the benefits of better writing instruction.

Before Lucy....
I have powered through the dense reading and am finding my instruction to be drastically different and much better than it was before.  Writing with Kindergarten and First Graders was a source of frustration for me before this program. Try as I might, I could not get my students to write more than a couple sentences in one writing session. They always wrote a few lines and declared, "I'm done! Now what can I do?" I would meet with each student and edit their work with them. Students would line up in front of me waiting for feedback. When we were done meeting they put their work away and wanted to know "What do I do now?" I always knew they were capable of writing more but I had a hard time convincing them of that. When it came to teaching them to revise their own work and add to their writing I was an utter failure. I could never convince them of the importance of this task.  It turns out all I needed was a workshop approach to writing, some scotch tape and a couple of staplers.

"When you are done you have just begun...."
One of the first lessons required of the Pathways program is to teach children that when they finish a piece of writing they are never really "done." Students are taught from day one that when they finish a piece they are to read it to themselves, to a friend to the teacher and use their feedback to add to their work. If they do reach a place where their writing feels finished then they put it away and "start something new." So simple!  Now if a student hands me their work and says "I"m done!" I keep my hands at my sides, smile and say, "Wow! What should you do now?" (I get to ask that question now!) They stop and say, "I should read it to myself!" or "I should write another story!" Amazing! This philosophy fit well in my classroom as I have also been implementing The Daily Five literacy block method in which students build stamina for learning tasks.  The idea that when they finish a task they should stay busy and find something else to do was familiar to my students.

Revision strips, Scotch Tape and Staples
Another early lesson in the program teaches students to add more to their writing by taping smaller pieces of lined paper, "revision strips," to their work so they can write more details on each page. Kindergarten students are encouraged to staple pieces of paper together to make either scrolls or books as they can draw and label more about their topic. The first day I introduced this mini lesson I wasn't sure anyone would really do what I was demonstrating. I was shocked to see every student sit down, read their writing and then make a beeline for the paper and tape dispensers. Students who refused to add more to their writing were suddenly so excited to use scotch tape and a stapler that they deliberately thought of more to write. I shook my head in amazement all day long. So simple! Why had I been guarding the staplers and the tape dispensers on my desk like a dragon guarding a castle for all these years?

From Simple Sentences to Books!
Last year I focused my instruction on writing sentences. I did not expect my students to write more than one or two simple sentences about something they drew. I gave them the spelling of any "hard" words they wanted to include and I emphasized punctuation almost immediately. Lucy Calkins takes a different approach. First grade students are given booklets of paper stapled together and are told to "write stories." The focus is not on perfect sentences with capital letters at the beginning and periods at the end. Students are encouraged to plan "small moment stories" by telling the details of a story, sketching a picture and writing words to go with those sketches. Calkins says not to worry about spelling or word spacing yet. We are more interested in getting their ideas on paper. We are encouraging them to take risks and spell "hard words" without worrying about getting them right. Kindergartners are encouraged to draw and label their drawings. They can use letters or squiggles, anything, as long as they attempt to write. There is even a lesson in which we teach them to adopt an "I Think I Can" attitude by reading and retelling the story of The Little Engine That Could.  Taking the focus away from proper spelling has built confidence in my students. It was not uncommon for students in the past to be paralyzed by the thought of spelling words incorrectly. Many of them refused to write a word unless it was dictated to them. Now, I look out across the room and I see their heads bent and hear them whispering the sounds of the words they are trying to write. No one is saying, "How do you spell, 'I ate pizza for dinner and it was really good?'"

Markers, Pens, Pencils...anything goes!
I was very strict about using pencils for writing in years past. I thought the pencil's ability to erase mistakes trumped all other writing tools. Pathways To The Common Core encourages students to use a variety of writing implements from markers to pens. The idea is that all writers have a preferred "tool" for writing and we should never force a student to use any specific tool. Calkins thinks revision is more apparent and easier assessed by teachers if we can see where they have scratched things out and made corrections on their own. It also encourages an environment where students are comfortable making mistakes. Again, this is such a simple strategy! Reluctant writers in my room are now motivated to write with sharpies, ball point pens and markers. I realize now that as long as their writing I really don't care what they use! They are also happy to cut small pieces of paper out and tape them over their mistakes. Mistakes are an opportunity to use scissors and tape!

What's Next?
As I write my lesson plans each week I find I am more and more excited to implement the Pathways program. I have had to create more planning time in my prep time schedule for reading the lessons. This has been hard to do on busier days. Now that I am familiar with the text structure and format of the teacher's guide I am finding the reading goes faster. Next week my students will "unfreeze their characters" by making them speak and move! I am finally feeling "unfrozen" as an instructor of writing, thanks to Lucy Calkins!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Super Classroom Ready for the First Day

This year my kids are going to find their "super powers" as we work in a super hero themed classroom! Building confidence and developing independence are the super powers we will focus on during the first month of school! 

On the first day of school every student will draw and write something they  are "super" at doing. We will post it here on the board to launch our discussions about being SUPER!

Leveled Classroom Library

This project took almost a week! I still have a box of picture books to tape. I ran out of orange tape! I will start on my chapter books a box at a time after school this week!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Lexile Leveling My Classroom Library

I have spent nearly a week assigning Lexile levels to every book in my classroom library. I am using an iPhone app called Level It  (  to scan the ISBN bar code on each book. This quick scan produces a grade level equivalency, a lexile number an image of the book and a brief book description. Most books I scanned appeared within the app but if I could not find a Lexile score I used to look up the book and its information. The Level It app also works on the iPad but I found it to be faster with the iPhone.

There were some books I could not level using either of these methods. This helped me begin to weed books from my library to donate to Good Will. I took six bins of books to Good Will on Saturday. I was so happy they took them! 

Once I assigned a level to a book with a sharpie I used colored duct tape to code it as either fiction or non fiction and a specific color to show a general Lexile Level. I learned many things about the Lexile level system as I did this project. The first thing I learned was that I have a lot of books in my classroom library! I also learned that the majority of my books are fiction books in the 400-500 range which is equivalent to second grade. Now my goal will be to add more books to my library to even out my non fiction collection as well as more books at the 100-200 level since that is where my K-1 students are reading.

 I was surprised by the low level of some books as well as the high level of others. I was reminded of the training I attended last summer about Lexile numbers. I learned then that a book earns a Lexile score based purely on the number or words and sentences that appear on each page. The actual content of the book is not figured into the Lexile number. I was struck by this in particular as I assigned a lexile score of 660 to the book If You Give a Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numberoff. The grade level equivalency of this score is around 3.7! This is a book students in my class have enjoyed hearing me read to them. My three year old daughter loves it as well. I doubt there are many third graders who would choose it to read on their own though. That is where the Lexile score tells me that the text is easily read by a third grader but may not be an appropriate subject based on interest.

As of this evening, I have Lexile levled all of my picture books and color coded them. They are arranged on the shelves in my classroom in bins marked with the corresponding colored duct tape. Next, I plan to level my chapter book collection and add it to my shelves. While most of my students will not be able to read those books right away, I do have one first grade boy who is reading at the early third grade level and will enjoy having chapter books as an option.

I use The Daily Five and CAFE systems developed by "The Two Sisters" Gail Boushey and Joan Moser for my literacy block.( Last year, the biggest challenge I faced was getting the students to choose the "Read to Self" station. Many of them piled books into their book bins that were not the appropriate level. I had a hard time finding books to recommend to them since I was not sure of the levels myself. I feel much more comfortable helping students find good fit books now that I have organized my library by Lexile numbers.

I will post photos of my classroom library soon. I still have a trunk full of leveled and color coded picture books to sort and organize at school before school starts!

Check back soon for photos of my classroom as it is ALMOST ready for the first day of School on Tuesday September 3!