Category Archives: choice

Student Engagement in Writing and Reading Workshop

This is the second in a series of blog posts about different strategies I use to help my students take ownership of their learning. The first post was about class meetingsToday’s post is about giving kids opportunities to determine their own writing and reading plans every Friday afternoon. (Coming soon is the third post in this series about allowing kids to extend an afternoon of planning into an entire day!)

This year our school implemented the Lucy Calkins’ units of writing. Next year we will be doing the reading units. Although I have been doing reading and writing workshop for a long time, this is the first year where I felt my students had less choice, rather than more choice, in their writing. And, choice is one of the untouchables of a workshop approach to teaching anything, as well as an important element towards getting kids to take ownership of their learning. 

Of course, it’s not that my students had no choice at all, but their choices were certainly much more limited than in previous years. In fact, I noticed that my students would groan when it was time for writing workshop. Although, I have encountered students who didn’t like to write, I have never experienced such a resounding rejection of writing workshop as this school year. 

So, I decided to do something about it. 

I told my students that on Fridays they would be able to choose their writing and reading projects. This change had little impact on reading since kids have choice and control over their independent reading and most of them are usually focused on what they’re reading. Not true for writing. So, no matter what the current writing unit was at the time, the kids could choose to write outside of that unit on Fridays. 

What happened from that moment on confirmed the importance of continuing to give kids a say in their learning. 

When Friday rolled around the kids invariably chose to write first! And, that is still the case several months later. After witnessing this phenomenon a few times, I asked the kids why they were selecting to write first when in the past, every time I announced it was writing workshop time there would be a collective groan? Of course, their response was that now they had a choice in what they could work on and they loved that. During this choice time, I was still able to confer with students one-on-one about what they were interested in writing or reading

Some readers of this blog may be thinking: “Yes, they were happy because now they could choose what to write about. All kids are happy when they can choose.” OK. And, what is wrong with that? Aren’t adults happy when we can choose our projects or the focus of our work? Aren’t we more likely to learn when we can determine the topic(s) of our professional learning? Why is that wrong? 

One pair of students worked on a story together that is almost finished. They even solicited submissions from the class for an illustrator for their book. They are now working on inserting the pictures in the right places in their story. Their ultimate goal is to make several print copies of their book. And, in fact, all of the children wrote stories and shared them with their classmates.

From that moment on, Friday afternoon choice time was sacred in our class. Students learned how to manage their time, when to work alone and when to work with a classmate, and what project they wanted to spend their time on. 

This experiment was so successful that I decided to extend into a full day of planning. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.

If you have given up more ownership of writing and reading to students, I would love to hear what you have done. Share it here! 






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Filed under choice, reading workshop, writing workshop

ESL Ruminations, Take #2

On May 7th, I wrote a post detailing concerns I was having about the activities that my ESL students were engaged in during our class time. I surveyed the class and got some interesting responses about what was going well and what changes we could make to improve these assignments.

What follows are some of their comments and suggestions:

  • My students asked for the opportunity to have conversations with each other, or with me, about a variety of topics. So, we initiated what I call, “conversation partners”. We’ve done this a few times and  they have been working really well. The first time we did this, we brainstormed some possible topics so that the students would have an idea of what they could talk about with each other; we only had to do this one time. They have approximately 10 minutes for a conversation. We do pairs or trios but no more than that. At the end of the conversation time I ask each of them what they learned about their partner.
  • Almost unanimously, my students did not like doing T-charts about the books they are reading. They say it slows them down and distracts then from their reading; we don’t do these anymore.
  • One student suggested that instead of telling a story about themselves, they could do something else. Act it out? Draw it? Write a comic? We haven’t determined this yet.
  • For listen to reading, someone suggested that in lieu of filling in a story map once a week they could share about the story they had listened to with the class. Another child recommended that we add a section on feelings (or substitute for one of the 6 areas of the story map?); we haven’t implemented either of these two ideas, yet.
The most powerful change we have made thus far has been to introduce conversation partners. First of all, everyone likes to talk and middle school kids are no exception. Having my students partner up with a classmate to talk about a topic of their choice for 10 minutes has proven very successful. Furthermore, students acquiring another language need lots of time for conversation. When they are with their conversation partners, they can get help if they don’t know a word or phrase in English. We have made this a part of the Daily 5 choices; the kids call it the Daily 6!
This experience reminds me the importance of asking kids a simple question: what’s going well and what can we improve? If you’ve never done this or if you have, please leave a comment about your thoughts.

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Filed under changes. ESL, choice, surveys

Big Nate

I would have never predicted I’d be writing this post today.

But, I’m concerned.  
No.  I’m worried.

But, before I go any further, a little background information and a disclaimer.

My 7-year-old son, soon to turn 8, is very adept at the computer.  He uses it primarily for entertainment and can spend hours checking out YouTube videos of his favorite singers and actors, as well as creating his own videos using iMovie.  he is up on the latest movies and watches trailers of potential favorites.  He reads anywhere from 1 – 2 hours a day, on his own or with me.  He has read all of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, many times over, and is now on his second and third reads of the Big Nate books.

“So,” you are probably wondering, “what is the problem?”

Good question!

The problem is that my son has begun taking on the personna of the character Nate, in the big Nate books.  Nate, for those of you not familiar with this series, is a happy-go-lucky grade 6 kid who doesn’t do well in school mostly because he’s busy doing non-school things and blaming everybody else for his bad luck.

Now, I know Nate is a funny guy.  And, I know that Lincoln Peirce, the author of the Big Nate books, has written a tongue-in-cheek series.  Yet, it bothers me that my 8-year-old-son is talking about not liking math, for example, because Nate claims that ‘math is insanity’, ie. incomprehensible.  My son sees Nate as a funny guy who gets to go through his day in school as if he’s on a hit comedy show.  And, the series IS a hit with many kids as young as my son.

So, is this a problem with the books?  This particular author’s disregard for who his audience might be?  Or the ramblings of an overprotective parent?

Now, I’m not one to censor what my children read, unless, of course, the content is not age appropriate.  Until recently this wasn’t a problem.  And, when my son started reading the Big Nate books, I didn’t think it was a problem, either.  We devoured all of Mo Willem’s Elephant and Piggy books.  But now, my son’s reading tastes extend far beyond the typical grade 3 fare.

What do I do now that it’s too late to retire these books to the shelf until he’s older?

How do I counter some of the negative images he is internalizing from his favorite books?

Please know that I have tried reasoning with my son but that hasn’t always worked.  He’s curious and I’m not one to squelch his curiosity.  I worry that he’s being exposed to content beyond his ability to understand an author’s intention, including satire and sarcasm.  In an odd way, the book’s reality has become my son’s reality.

What do I do?  Am I worrying too much?  I would love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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Filed under Big Nate books, choice, parenting

Writers’ Notebooks and More

As I walked around the room during writing workshop, I noticed most of the children had no sense of what they were writing about and why they were writing about that topic.  In fact, many of them seemed aimless in their writing with little energy and interest to write.  Instead, they were drawing or cutting or coloring.  Had this been going on for a while and I hadn’t noticed?  Was this due to the fact that we’d had to adjust our schedule over the last couple of weeks and we’d missed our regular writing time?  Was it because I had not spent enough time, including occasional revisits, on how to find and choose good writing topics?  Were had I been that I hadn’t noticed what was happening in the classroom?

So, right then and there I decided to pull out the extra set of notebooks on the shelf and institute writers notebooks in my grade 2 classroom.

I called the children to the carpet and told them what I had observed.  I did a quick introduction – maybe not the best way to bring writers’ notebooks into the classroom but I felt desperate – about writers’ notebooks telling them that all writers keep a notebook where they try out writing ideas, or keep lists of topics, or jot down thoughts that come up that they might want to use in a piece of writing later.  I told them that we would be doing this at the beginning of every writing workshop for a while.  Then, I told them to make a list of up to ten things that they are good at.  This was challenging for some.  I told the children that it was OK if they only came up with one or two things on their list for right now; they could always add to it later.  Some misunderstood my directions and wrote what they were good at as a writer, which was fine and will be useful information for me later, but many wrote the typical list of what they’re good at – swimming, riding a bike, writing stories (surprisingly this one appeared often), etc.  They had three minutes to make their list.  Then, I told them to circle one thing on their list that stood out for them that day and write about that on a clean page for about seven minutes.  We did this the next day as well with the children adding to their list for a few minutes first and then continuing their writing from the day before or starting a new piece about something else on their list.

I had a chance to read their entries yesterday and I was impressed by what they wrote though some children wrote very little and some wrote more than is customary for them.  I can now go back and do small groups or confer individually with each child on things I noticed that would help them improve as a writer.  For example, when I said to write on one of the topics on their list, some children had no idea how to start.  Even though I had suggested they could start by saying, “Swimming is…” or “I like to swim because….”some children had trouble expanding on that, and so I will be conferring with these children in the coming days.

In the past, I have done writers’ notebooks using suggestions from Aimee Buckner’s, Notebook Know-How.  I have sometimes wondered if grade 2 is too young to start writers’ notebooks but now that I haven’t done it this year until recently I can see a difference in the kind of writing my students are doing.  I am also noticing that in the past I gave the children the choice of writing during reading workshop a la Daily 5 and this year I decided not to do that because I wanted reading workshop to be solely focused on reading with a once a week time for writing a response in readers’ notebooks.  So, that means that the children are actually having less writing time this year than in the past.  Also, previous classes had the choice to write and read during the Spanish portion of our day.  This year, I am more directed during this time because I’ve felt I needed to in order to stay closer to what the other teachers are doing.  Not working either.  There is a transference about the process of reading and writing from one language to another that happens naturally if this is given space and time.  I am going to reconsider writing as an option during writing workshop and reinstitute wider choices during our Spanish language arts time.

Lesson learned:  trust my expertise and knowledge as a teacher and use that to impact my students’ learning rather than doing things because I feel pressured to conform.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ruminations today.  Please leave your comments below.

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Filed under choice, writers' notebooks, writing workshop