Using Mentor Texts for Powerful Writing

I think if you really want to write in a powerful way, you’ve got to read powerful stuff…Ralph Fletcher

I have served as a mentor for new teachers over the years and while I want each of them to grow into the best they can be, I want them to find their own methods and their own voice as they grow as an educator.  I provide a framework,  a model for good teaching, and hopefully, inspiration.  Good mentors can shape who we are and who we will one day become.

In the same manner, mentor texts are an important part of my literacy instruction.  I want my students to read and write powerfully and mentor texts serve as a conduit for both.  Mentor texts are necessary to teach our students to think deeply about their own writing.  Students often need to see someone doing something in order for them to do it themselves.  Watching another’s craft gives inspiration, direction and courage to try. Mentor texts inspires us to read and learn more.

Teaching very young children to write requires a lot of modeling, mentoring and a wee bit of rocket science.  Getting students to add detail to their emergent writing is a daily mini lesson in itself.  Recently, we read Lois Ehlert’s Pie in the Sky.  It has a lot of simple sentences describing what the narrator sees in the illustration, but more importantly, it is simply descriptive.  Using this as a mentor text has been tremendously helpful to my students. My students even refer to the book by saying they wrote, “Pie in the Sky” sentences.  Here are a couple of examples of student work on the iPad.  They used their camera to take a picture of something in the room and then they wrote what they saw.

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Some of my students were sharing their work with their friends and I overheard a few offering suggestions about making their sentences more like “Pie in the Sky” sentences.  Peer editing…in kindergarten.

Mentor texts give our young writers not just a framework or reference, they give them a dose of courage to try writing like the author…not using the author’s words, but courage to find their own words.  They can be road maps for powerful writing.  They show students what good writing looks like.

Here is a Writing Workshop sample from one of my students recently:

Mackenzie

Creating good readers and writers is a critical part of teaching.  Mentor texts provide powerful examples for our students.  Regardless of what grade you teach, your students need your guidance while they learn to write, take risks and stretch their literary wings.

Today we will do exciting new things…let’s get to it!

The “Art” of the Matter

A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. -Oscar Wilde
As a classroom teacher, I see many personalities and temperaments daily.  As we work together, it is impossible not to know a child’s likes or dislikes, their interests and what turns them off.  All of my students want to shine.  Some shine more brilliantly than others, in a way that no one can miss.  Others shine more softly and feathery, like the moonlight.   The key is to weave these differences together into a tapestry that works and thrives together in a classroom.
photo-15One thing they all have in common is the love of art.  They love going to art class for special area and they love cutting, gluing, pasting, coloring and painting in class.  Most of them create excitedly and without hesitation, but a few of them have been bitten by the “not good enough” bug and are afraid to draw a bold line and get started for fear of doing it wrong.  When my students are creating, their engagement is nearly unbreakable.  So, why do we put art off until “after you finish your work?”  In our class, when we are creating content,  art is a necessary part of the process.
As adults, sometimes we see art as frivolous and something one does in one’s free time.  (And really, how much of THAT do we have?)  When we remove creativity and creation from our classrooms, we are teaching our children that it doesn’t have value…their creative selves are to be kept separate from their thinking selves.  Art is so much more than drawing and coloring.  Art is photography, music, poetry, writing, film making, and more.  How can these not play an important role in learning?  When students are able to use their talents, or develop and explore talents they didn’t know they had, they are learning how to be diverse individuals who have something unique to contribute.
I’ve always been interested in photography, but never really pursued it for many reasons, all mostly just excuses.  I finally made room in my life for it and can’t believe what I have missed out on for so long in not pursuing it.  I can’t imagine my life now, without it!
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As I watch my students work individually and collaboratively on projects, it is gratifying to see them encouraging each other as they work on creating content.  The creation apps on our iPads such as Explain Everything, Book Creator, Pic Collage, Strip Designer, Popplet and iMovie all contribute to the wealth of workflow in our curriculum.  Each piece of work is as different and unique as the child that created it.  And THAT is exactly why I teach…to celebrate and develop the uniqueness of each child.
I encourage and challenge you to look for the art in your classroom.  Is it put on the shelf for when work is finished or is it integrated into the workflow of the day as a regular part of learning?
Today we will do exciting new things…let’s get to it!

Educating Each Child

Grown-ups love figures… When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies? ” Instead they demand “How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make? ” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

IMG_0102(1)Grown ups do love their figures…it’s all about data.  We have to quantify something, measure it, analyze it and dissect it down to its very bones before we decide if something has meaning or value.  A recent article in our local newspaper ran in giant bold type the front page headline that the use of iPads in our district is not resulting in significant gains in scores.  If you are looking to sensationalize a hot-button topic, then the more negative the headline, the better.

The funny thing about data is that it doesn’t take into account many important factors.  Factors that can’t always be measured.  We have had our iPads for 3 years.  Some would say that’s enough time to show some major growth.  This would be true if iPads manufactured intelligence and poured it into the mouths of our students.  iPads are not a magic bullet or get smart quick scheme.  They are not integrated equally into every classroom, nor are they used in a cookie-cutter way in every lesson for every student.  Some teachers use them extensively for in-depth learning, and others…well, not so much.  Meaningful staff development is critical and my district has done a good job of working with teachers in best practices.

But what about each individual child?  Since the iPad is merely a tool, it must be used in a way that enhances individual student learning. Information is an essential key to learning.  Accessing information is a logical need.  How does a class of 30 plus students access information equitably in a classroom with 2 desktop computers (if that)? We don’t use card catalogs, hard bound encyclopedias, or phone books any more.  We rarely use paper maps (which is just as well, I can’t ever fold them correctly).  With the fading away of these sources of information, where are we to get information?

Wholesale dismissal of the use of iPads after 3 short years of implementation is short-sighted.  They provide necessary accommodations for disabled students, that have never before been available.  Vision impaired, speech impaired and autistic children have an open avenue of accessibility that is not just necessary, it’s their right.  Students who have learning disabilities or have learning delays can have learning experiences that are “just in time” for them.  Similarly, students who excel and are more advanced than their peers have the ability to work at that higher level with the iPad.  It is because of these abilities to personalize learning for my students that 100% of my students have gone to first grade reading above grade level for the past 3 years, that my school has earned the Apple Distinguished School award 2 years in a row, and earned an overall rating of excellent, scoring 99.3% on the Federal Report Card.  Our school rating went up to 5th in the school district from 8th in the 2011-12 school year.

Where is that headline?  That never made the newspaper.

My students learning experiences are richer, more in-depth and more rigorous because each of them have access to a powerful learning tool.  I can’t imagine teaching without them now.  Think of the many ways you access information today.  My guess is, you do it automatically without thinking of the technology necessary.  How inconvenient would it be if you lost access to that technology? How backward would it be to say, “I’m sorry, you aren’t making statistically significant progress in your work life so we are going to remove your access to information.” ?  Heck, if my SmartBoard goes down for a day or I don’t have internet access at school for a few hours I feel handicapped.

This is the world we live in and it will only become more wrapped up in the need for technological access.  Dissect that data all you want…but behind every number is a child.  Are you going to look at that child and say, “Sorry, but you aren’t worth the expense to adequately educate you for the future.”?  I know I can’t say it.  I’m grateful I work in a place that can’t say it either .

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it.

Teaching and Leading

A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. -Lao Tzu

medium_6550520What do you need today?  A moment of peace and quiet? A push to get moving on a project you’ve been neglecting? Better yet, when was the last time you were even asked what you need?  As educators, we often are so focused on others, we don’t take the time to nurture ourselves either personally or professionally.  Today, I got something I needed. I had the ability to reunite with a cohort of teachers; ones with whom I had the privilege of spending one day a month in intensive Literacy Leadership training two years ago.   Our trainers brought us all back to share our stories and how we’ve changed since our training.  We also had great discussions on being educational leaders, why leadership is important and how teacher leaders extend their reach to touch others.

In preparing for this reunion workshop, we had to reflect on how our teaching has changed, how we’ve changed, over the last 2 years and be ready to share with the group.  Wow…my last 2 years have been just a little busy.  You can say it was the perfect storm of events.  The original literacy cohort began the year I received iPads.  The merging of the professional development highlighting student literacy with the versatility of the iPads completely transformed my teaching. I was encouraged to start this blog by a visionary friend who saw the magnitude of this story long before I did.  Then, I was chosen to be an Apple Distinguished Educator which gives me the amazing opportunity to speak to educators and leaders globally about my work.  (I used italics there because this still blows me away!)

Today, after writing out our transformation into teacher leaders, we were then asked to set a goal about where we go in the future.  I. Had. No. Idea…Really.  If you had told me 2 years ago I would be doing what I’m doing today, I would have never believed it.  So, there’s no way I can predict the future.  What I can say, is that by being open to the process all this time, doors open.  That’s it.  Show up everyday, be true to what you believe about how children learn, and doors open.  I do have to give MAJOR praise to my principal who supports me at every turn.  He truly exemplifies an educational leader.  He understands that the collective wisdom in the room far exceeds his own as an individual and he nurtures teacher leaders.

As for the iPads, what I need to say is this:  No one ever picked up a pencil and said, “THIS is truly a transformational tool needed for learning.  Let’s build an entire lesson around this!” The iPad can be a transformation tool as long as it is not the focus of the lesson. It can transform your teaching as well, if you are open to the process.

So, to all of you out there I say be open to the process.  Refresh yourself with a class or workshop. Collaborate!  In the words of my cohort leader, “Teachers can’t afford to be in private practice.  We have to collaborate to be effective.”  True story.

Thanks to all of you who show up here on a regular basis…I’m grateful to have you as readers.  You too, bring something to my table.

Today we will do exciting new things…let’s get to it!

Photo credit:  Creative Commons

New Year Resolutions

Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s been said that what you do on the first day of the new year will influence what you do the rest of the year.  Hmm…I will make sure I am not cooking or cleaning on January 1 if that’s the case!

IMG_0703Since most of us are still enjoying a few more days of vacation, it is a good time to look ahead to 2014.  It has always been difficult for me to think of a “year” as anything  other than a school year-which for me, runs August to June, then summer vacation, and then a new year begins.  I’ve never done anything other than be a student or a teacher.  January to January is tricky for me.  That being said, we have been in school nearly 4 months and the winter break gives us time to refresh, restore, and refocus.

Someone asked me a while back what I like to do.  It seemed like a simple question but I found I had a little trouble answering it.  Of course, spending time with my family and friends made the list, but when pressed further, “What lights you up?” I fell silent.  This troubled me.  Why couldn’t I name anything? It occurred to me that I liked the idea of writing but never pursued it because I didn’t see myself as a writer.  A friend gently encouraged me and this blog was born.  I found I could quickly tap passion when it involved my students and their learning with the iPads.

I recently bought a “big girl” camera and have started pursuing a long hidden interest in photography.  I’m a true beginner in this endeavor, but am loving going on photo walks and discovering life behind the lens of a camera.  (I started a new photo blog here.)  What I am learning is you don’t have to be a professional to make art.

What does all of this mean for you?  I encourage you to explore some unexplored interests.  Step out and try something new.  Incorporating iPads in to my classroom has completely transformed the way I teach.  I don’t just think outside the box, I live there! Sometimes the people around you won’t understand your journey.  They don’t need to, it’s not for them.

Let 2014 be the year you step out, take some risks.  Resolve to hone your craft.  Create a classroom where you would want to be a student. Ditch old teaching methods, PowerPoints, and worksheets.  Examine who you are and what you like. Pursue some of your interests and you will be a more passionate teacher because of it.

What lights you up?

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

Braving Technology in the Classroom

Do one thing every day that scares you -Eleanor Roosevelt

spiral stair caseWhat scares you? I’ve recently decided I’m afraid of open heights…you know, high places with very little barrier, or steep steps with open spaces in between where I can look waaay down…I usually make my husband go in front of me and I hold on to his shoulder, or else I get stuck right there!

This wasn’t always the case.  It has developed only recently but it’s still a strong fear.   I feel ridiculous talking about it because it seems so silly but my heart races and I feel all panicky when faced with a situation involving high open spaces.

In the classroom, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about being brave and what that means.  It could mean trying something new, speaking up when we aren’t sure of the answer, facing a bully, or doing something by yourself.  All of these can be daunting when you are 5 years old.  I’d venture to say some of these are daunting to adults as well.  My students are beginning to ride their bikes without training wheels these days and many come in reporting about their bravery in this feat.  Their pride is quite evident when it seems they’ve conquered something new.

Of all the scary things in their big, wide worlds, technology isn’t one of them.  A recent visitor went to one of my students and asked him about how he learned to do all of the things he was doing on the iPad.  He looked at her quizzically and said, “I didn’t learn it, I just do it.”  So Nike’s theme aside, “just doing it” seems to be how they all think about using this device.  It’s no big thing.  So why are the adults all standing on their heads about teaching kids how to use the device?  Possibly because we see the device in a different way than they do.  Obviously, we need to teach responsible use and digital citizenship, but I do not teach my class as a whole group how to use apps.  I work with a few students in a small group and they usually end up working with each other and helping each other.

illusionMany of you have seen this illusion  where you have to determine if it is an old woman or a young woman.  Some people have difficulty seeing the image as 2 different images.  I found that I saw the old woman first and then saw the young woman later.  I also found that once I saw the young woman, I had difficulty seeing it the other way without really concentrating on that.  As educators in connected classrooms, we have to be able to adjust our vision and see as our students do.  If we only see the “old woman” in the photo, we are missing out on the possibilities of the “young woman”.  We can’t be credible to our students if we are singularly minded.

Change is scary.  By keeping our eyes forward, not looking down or back, and letting go of the handrail, we can navigate that big open staircase.  It also doesn’t hurt if there is someone in front of you to hold on to…

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

Let There Be Light

Technology is anything invented after you were born. -Alan Kay

At this moment, I’m in the airport in Portland, Maine waiting to fly home.  I have been at the Leveraging Learning in Primary Grades Institute as a presenter and keynote speaker for their annual conference in Auburn. This institute is all about customizing learning in the early grades with the use of iPads. As a presenter, it is often difficult to find time to get into another session to hear someone else speak but I was very fortunate to be able to sit in on the final keynote today given by one of Apple’s employees, who serves as Director of Learning.

As the speaker was talking, he showed this graphic on screen by Dr. Eric Mazur:

Brain Activity

This graphic represents a 24 hour period of EEG’s taken on the brains of students.  It is to be noted that their brains are more active during sleep than during class.  This is because learning is passive during lecture.  You will notice a similar wave pattern (or non-wave, as the case may be) during the time the student was watching television.  Learning simply must be more than the transfer of information.  We must focus on creation, curation and collaboration in our classrooms.  The richer the experience a student has, the more likely he/she is to learn.  The speaker emphatically pointed out that the last thing we need is a monoculture in schools that produces the exact same product.  Content without context and community is not an efficient way of learning.

As the opening quote by Alan Kay states, technology is anything invented after you were born.  Think about what technologies have been invented since you were born.  Many of our students have grown up with some kind of computer technology in their homes.  For them, turning on those devices and using them are as natural as using the switch to turn on the lights.  Think about it…few of us would think of “lights” as technology at this point.  Back in the day, you would see signs such as this posted: Edison-Electric-Light-Sign

 So what do we do now? We know that “the way we’ve always done education” is as outdated as that sign.  It was encouraging to see the faces of the educators at the conference in Maine…to see their determination to move beyond using the iPad as a substitution for paper and pencil or as a gaming device.  As advocates for our students, we must speak up about creating real change.  It starts with each one of us.  Plant a seed, watch it grow, change the world. Let there be light!

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

The Choice is Yours!

Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand. -Chinese Proverb

Would you want to work in a place that gave you no voice? Would you want to teach in a school that allowed you no autonomy in how you teach? What if your every day was prescribed as to what you would do, what you would say and how you would say it…

medium_2699584043As professionals, we become offended when the “higher ups” in education make decisions that affect us without including us in the decision making.  Even professional development is terribly ineffective when we just “sit and get” without any input.  Would an artist paint very often or very well if the subject of the painting was always assigned? Of course not. So why are we so reluctant to give our students choice in how they learn?

Choice.  It’s meaning is clear: an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities. Choice.  It’s not just for adults.  Alfie Kohn writes a good article here about choices for children in learning.

To be clear, there is a difference between choice and free reign.  Without some control and teacher facilitation, it can be pure anarchy. Setting up the learning environment to allow for student choice is critical.  You would never open a closet to a 3 year old and ask them what they want to wear.  You would ask, “Do you want to wear this or this?”  In my room, we begin with simple choices and through a gradual release of responsibility, students eventually have multiple choices all throughout the day.

Last week we were working on the pumpkin life cycle.  By Friday, everyone was ready to show me what they had learned.  They were given 2 choices.  They could show me in Pic Collage or in Explain Everything.  Later, they will have other choices, but for now, 2 is all they need.

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Instructions were on the Smartboard and everyone was hard at work!

photoThis is one of the examples from Pic Collage.

This is one of the examples from Explain Everything.

When given choices, students engage and take ownership.  By learning how to make choices and make decisions at a young age, they are better equipped at these skills as they get older.  When children learn to think for themselves, they are also less likely to be easily led by others whose choices may not be as desirable.

We want our students to love the content…to love learning.  By giving choices we lessen the chance of burnout (for both students and teachers), and we increase the chances of engaged, independent thinkers.  None of us like to be told, “You have no choice in the matter.” Instead, let’s work toward, “The choice is yours!”

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it!

One Way Sign Photo Credit:  Creative Commons

 

Parents and iPads

Let’s give them something to talk about. -Bonnie Raitt

medium_3610488258Have you ever been consumed with something?  You know, a project or idea that dominates your thoughts, dreams, conversations, lesson plans…When we are so immersed in something, we know every facet, every detail, every scintilla of it.  We assume that because we know all about it, that others should as well and we are a little nonplussed when they don’t.

I’m referring to our school wide use of iPads.  We have had iPads in a 1:1 setting since January 2011 in 3 classrooms and school wide since the 2011-12 school year.  We incorporate them into our daily activities.  We use them all throughout the day.  Our kids are engaged and excited.  We’ve had a technology night to showcase for parents what some of our classes are doing.  Surely, there is no question of HOW we use these amazing devices.  Except, there are.

An independent consulting firm issued parent surveys to gauge the level of support.  This survey asked what parents liked best about the use of iPads in the classroom and if there is anything that could be improved on.  Several surveys, more than should have, came back with parents saying they aren’t really sure how the iPads are being used.  They didn’t know enough about it to comment.

Well, ouch.  That hurt.  Our first reaction was, “Of course they know! How can they not??” Then with a little time and objectivity, we decided that we needed to do a better job of letting our little light shine.  We needed to be more intentional about including parents in the conversation.  We needed to give them something to talk about!  It was decided that we will have a monthly newsletter highlighting what’s happening with iPads at each grade level.  Here is our first:

ipads at dhes September 2013_1

This will go home in each class newsletter, be featured on our school website, and printed out and made into posters for each of our main hallways.  Teachers will also be more focused on communicating not just the “what”  by the “why” so parents can see value and be more closely involved in the process.  Yes, this is all common sense but it is easy to assume we are all engaged in the same conversation when we really aren’t.

Involving all stakeholders in a large project like this is critical.  I realize that I could stand on my head and eat a bug but that doesn’t mean everyone will get the information.  We will always have people say, “I never knew…” but by being more intentional in the curating and sharing of the good news, we are partnering in the best possible way with our students’ very first teacher…their parents.

Today we will do exciting new things.  Let’s get to it.  

PS:  Big shout out to Lisa Bevans for creating this awesome first parent newsletter!

Flickr photo credit

Creating a Code of Cooperation

“Can’t we all just get along?” -Rodney King

So we’ve just finished 8 days of the new school year and to my utter shock and disbelief, it took 7 of those days before it happened. I waited each day, bracing myself for it to occur. The. First. Tattle.

IMG_05797 whole school days. Shocking really, when you think about a class of 5 year olds. It came just in time. We finally finished our class Code of Cooperation. This code is created along with my students as an agreement of what we believe a good classroom looks like. The children brainstormed a chart full of ideas and each day we talked about those things, narrowed them down, combined like ideas and finally settled on four things. 1. Put things where they go. 2. Be nice to others an share. 3. Listen and do what you are asked to do. 5. Try your best. We discussed what each of these things look like and the students suggested pictures that would match the concept. We came up with 2 pictures of each. The students will add a few sticky notes next week as they come up with more refinements. They already decided we need to identify what it means to be nice. Someone said to use kind words. That will go on a sticky note as an addition.

I guess I actually misspoke above when I said we “finished” it. It is never really finished. We will make additions and changes throughout the year as we go. It is a “living, breathing” agreement. The children all showed their commitment by signing around the periphery of the poster. When students have voice in how they will interact in their learning environment, there is true ownership. They are able to monitor their own behavior and rate how they did. This also creates accountability. I am not the sole monitor of their behavior. We will talk about the code daily and review our commitment to it.

This week, we will use our iPads to draw pictures of what each of the expectations looks like. They will share their ideas with their groups and we will work on how we will address those who choose not to follow our code. We will also work on how using the iPads fit into our Code of Cooperation.

When students have voice and choice in their learning and their learning environment, they become stakeholders. Even 5 year olds understand what it means to choose and to have their choices heard. Aren’t we all a little more cooperative when we have had a say in a process? The pictures we have and the ones we will add also create a visual reminder of what we agreed upon.

As a class, our shared vision is that we will work and learn together. By breaking that down into its components, we now have a working agreement that will serve as a guide for this school year.

Hopefully, it will reduce some of the tattling too. :) One can always hope…

Today we will do exciting new things. Let’s get to it!