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!

Back to Blokify

Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve. – Roger Lewin

So, Blokify has turned out to be quite the hit in our room.  I wrote about using the app last time. It has been amazing what has transpired in just one week! We Skyped with Jennifer at Blokify last Friday.  The kids wrote out their questions ahead of time for her.  They had very thoughtful questions and she spoke to them in a way they understood.  She was printing out one of the structures in her office on the 3D printer and she sent us a couple of samples.

Blokify structuresThese arrived in the mail today at school and you would have thought it was Christmas with all of the excitement.  The kids made observations on the objects.  One is heavier, one is with color blocks, and one has more details on it.  They speculated about what the material looked like before the objects were printed and some even drew sketches of the objects on their Drawing Pad app so they could use them in writing.  In the math center, some took wooden unit blocks and tried to re-create the structures.

One of the best things that has happened as a result of using this app is the collaboration between the kids working together to problem solve to build the structures in the app.  One student grabbed some drawing paper, drew squares to represent the blocks and gave it to a friend.  “Here’s your blueprint” he said. That friend then worked in Blokify to try and build what the friend drew for him while the other child made it with unit blocks.

unit blocksIn a recent Kinderchat about Math on Twitter, several of us lamented how math was hard for us in school and that we struggled with it.  We realized that through those experiences, we work harder to make sure our students don’t have those some experiences.  Whether it’s hands-on or virtual activities or a combination of both,  we are working to build critical thinking and problem-solving skills with our students.

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Tucker is trying to recreate the pirate ship in Blokify from the 3D model.

Listening to their conversations, I find even I am impressed…”I need to do more research on how the 3D printer works.” “I can help you make that.  You have to see it in your mind first.”  “I will take a screen shot of my structure and then you can try to make it look like mine.”  “I can’t draw in 3D on paper but I can create in 3D on my iPad.” “Ask (Child’s Name)…he is an expert!

When another colleague found Blokify and suggested we download it, I had no idea the depth of thinking, problem solving and conversation that would take place.  This is definitely not a flash-in-the-pan app for us.  I see my kids sticking with it, building, problem solving and thinking critically for some time.

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

Using Blokify

We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.  -Albert Einstein

Minecraft1The room is currently a beehive of activity.  There is some serious problem solving going on here.  Teamwork, collaboration, super-focused engagement, and high-level conversation are also taking place.  Here is a comment I overheard, “We need to strategize where to put the portal!”  What could cause such excitement that it filled our entire indoor recess time?

Blokify is our newest discovery.  It is similar to Minecraft, but it is free. Blokify lets builders create block based models free-form or through a guided building experience. Once the model is complete it can be 3D printed to take the fun from virtual to physical play.  So, no…we don’t have a 3D printer but the kids are beyond engaged in this activity.  Blokify is easy enough for my young students but sophisticated enough to create more complicated designs.  There is a free build mode and a challenge mode.

There is a greater conversation out there about gamification in education and you can find a number of opinions on either side of the issue.  I think I fall in the middle somewhere…I believe in balance.  However, what can’t be ignored is the engagement, conversations and collaboration going on today.  There is also a lot to be said about the spatial relation skills  needed for this activity.  It is also interesting to note that all of my students, both boys and girls were equally as engaged and had sustained attention to problem solving.

minecraft4When the app downloaded today, I told them it was similar to Minecraft and they immediately went to work.  A couple of them asked me some questions when they got stuck and when I explained I didn’t know how to play and I had never even played Minecraft, they were stupefied.  I am clearly a loser.  Another student took the puzzled ones under his wing and shared his expert knowledge after only engaging with the app for less than 5 minutes.

I count this app a success.  We definitely need to strengthen problem solving skills.  These young children will be in charge one day!  I overheard one of my students say he was going to write about it during Writer’s Workshop today.  It just doesn’t get much better than that!

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

Augmented Reality with Aurasma

When you think of any aspect of life or work, augmented reality is completely going to change how we do it. -Ori Inbar

I’ve been reading a lot about augmented reality.  It is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view. Wait, what? My inability to wrap my brain around that has kept me from exploring it until just recently… Think about the yellow first down line you see on TV when watching a football game. That’s augmented reality.  Why do I need that in my classroom and how does it work?  Enter Aurasma.

imagesAurasma is a free app that allows you to create auras.  The auras allow you to embed content, video, weblinks, or even 3D animation.  All you need are pictures to serve as the trigger and a device to read the aura such as an iPad.

So, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only teacher who gets repeatedly interrupted during small group instruction by students asking for directions (that you’ve already given) for an activity.  I’ve been looking for a way to use QR Codes to post directions for different activities, but haven’t been able to use them because You Tube is blocked.  So now, I just create an aura using an image as a trigger.  I record myself giving directions for the activity.  This is the overlay.  I save the aura to a channel and print out the trigger image.  My students open their Aurasma app, hold the iPad over the trigger image, and my video plays automatically.  This allows them to get the directions as often as they need.

Other uses could include student-created auras demonstrating learning, sharing stories, solving math problems, or scavenger hunts. Individual students could have instruction tailored to their needs by simply scanning an aura.  I talked with my PE teacher today about having students in PE create auras for a circuit training activity.  The uses are truly endless.

So, as you are reading this and thinking you aren’t sure you get it, just as I did, don’t despair.  I created a PDF giving you step by step directions on how to create an aura as well as how to set up student iPads so they can read the auras in the classroom. Click here for those directions:  Aurasma Directions

I’m excited about exploring different uses for this great app.  My kindergarten students were excited to use it and have already asked if they can make their own! That will be our next step.  This takes personalizing learning to a whole new level.

Give it a try! I’d love to hear how you use it in your classroom!

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

Building Vocabulary with iPads

Vocabulary is a matter of word-building as well as word-using. -David Crystal

We are in transition…in the process of moving from our choice board centers to more content creation centers.  This will take us a couple of weeks to migrate over to that system.  I will write more about this as we go, but for now, we are  adding various components daily that will be a part of our day.

How do you know when it’s time to change?  Every class is different and some can handle this change sooner than others.  I have a few signs I look for.  I look to see if the students are able to work more independently on iPad activities involving creation apps (such as Pic Collage and Explain Everything).  I also look to see if they are mostly able to upload their work to our digital portfolio app, Showbie independently.  But the real indication that really spurs me to move to the next phase in centers is they are driving me freaking crazy in the ones we currently have.  Even with frequent changing of manipulatives, activities and games, they suddenly stop using them purposefully.  Unifix cubes are no longer being used to pattern.  They are becoming light sabres and swords, or guns that attack others. And I am on the verge of yelling, “C’Mon Man!”  When you begin to feel the crazy creeping up and you want to retreat into the bathroom for an hour of sanity, it’s definitely time…and  I’m apparently the grown up and something has to give.   :)

So to get ready to transition, we start working on vocabulary.  This will be one center the students will have once we move away from the choice board.   This week we are reading The Snowy Day (appropriate and all polar vortex-y).  This is our mentor text while we talk about onomatopoeia.  We talked a lot about the words “crunch” and “plop”.  These words in the story relate to snow, but we don’t get snow here.  We thought of other things that can crunch and plop.  The next few days we will work on just 2 words but we will eventually move to 4 vocabulary words each week. These words are usually unit related.

The students took these 2 words, crunch and plop, and drew a picture for each.  It was saved to the camera roll, then uploaded into Pic Collage.  The students then wrote a sentence to go with their pictures using the vocabulary word in the sentence.  The finished Pic Collage was saved to the camera roll and uploaded to Showbie.

Here are a few examples:

Vocab Pic Collage 1

Vocab Pic Collage 4Vocab Pic Collage 2

Working with onomatopoeia is fun and a good way to start introducing vocabulary to young students.  As students become more proficient in their learning and in their ability to handle more responsibility, moving into more robust content creation is a logical next step.  And don’t we all have those really bright students for whom we just can’t dig deep enough for their requirements?  This type of activity allows them the freedom to move and groove on their own.

The best part of student-centered classrooms is giving them the ability to soar when they are ready.  We are always moving toward more student voice and choice.  I mean, no one wants to listen to my big talky head all day.

Stay tuned.  We are on the move!

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

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!

Word Work and iPads

Teaching reading IS rocket science! -Louisa Moats

I’ve probably used this quote before…but it certainly bears repeating.  We are immersed in literacy activities all day long in our classroom and it is starting to bear some fruit.  Nearly all students are reading and we are 75 days into our school year.

Since we follow the Reading and Writing Workshop Models daily, we spend a lot of time doing word work activities.  We have been working diligently on word families and rhyming words.  We have used our iPads quite a bit to do this word work. The Magnetic ABC app has worked well in making words together in small groups.  We have also done a little app smashing with Drawing Pad and Pic Collage.  Here are a few samples from that:

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At the risk of being Captain Obvious, we were working on the -an word family.  They were able to choose 2 words in that family to illustrate in Drawing Pad.  They saved those drawings to the camera roll then uploaded them into Pic Collage where they typed a sentence with each word.  After saving the Pic Collage, they uploaded it to Showbie for their portfolio.

This relatively quick activity ( 30 minutes start to finish) will be a building block for when the children move into planning their own day and they have vocabulary words for their word work.  These 2 frames will eventually become 4 in Pic Collage.

What are the challenging parts right now?  We are still working on using the space bar between words when typing.  Back spacing and starting again provides an almost miraculous cure to that!  A few still need guidance in saving their Pic Collages to their camera roll.  Other than that, they are rock stars!

Word work is an important part of early skill building in literacy.  We play many quick games daily both on the iPad and in small skill groups.  Word Work helps them become better readers and writers.  If you are unfamiliar with the components of the workshop approach, I encourage you to read Lucy Calkins’ books.  These are easily found online and are great resources for the Reading and Writing Workshop models.

The difficulty of teaching reading has been greatly underestimated.  It is a complex process and requires a repertoire of strategies.  The iPads are providing me with another tool in my toolbox to reach all of my young readers!

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

Starting a Student-Centered Classroom

You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water. -Rabindranath Tagore

medium_8536426262I recently wrote about incorporating a more personalized approach to learning in my classroom here and how that meant building the plane while I fly it.  I’ve always believed in student-centered classrooms and in many ways, my classroom already had many aspects of voice and choice.  So perhaps I wasn’t starting the plane from scratch after all.

It can be intimidating and sometimes, downright paralyzing, to consider changing an entire classroom management system.  At the core of it all, you have to decide what you truly believe about teaching and learning before making any kind of shift.  Once you have made the decision to make meaningful change, start small.  Look at what you are already doing and see if anything resonates with student choice.  One of the biggest concerns of many educators is what to do with the other students while you are working with small groups.  These choice boards for centers were already in place in my room:

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These center boards for morning and afternoon help me begin choice in kindergarten.  Students are in center teams and they are assigned these centers during 3 rotations in the morning while my assistant and I teach small reading groups and during 3 rotations in the afternoon while we work with small groups of writers. The rotations last 20 minutes each. Even though they are assigned their centers on these boards, once they get to those centers, they have multiple choices of activities to work with.  At the ABC center, they have 8 hands-on activities and one cubby has 2 iPad passes that allow the students who choose them to work on their iPads on ABC/phonics activities.  The math and games center works similarly.  They have 8 math manipulatives and fine motor activities to choose from as well as 2 math iPad passes that allow those students to work on math apps.  Here are photos of those 2 centers:

ABC center

ABC center

Math and Games

Math and Games

So in a given day, each team would rotate through these centers: ABC, writing, math, reading, and 2 rotations of choice.  Choice centers are housekeeping, blocks, legos, science, art, and painting. (I’m not a huge fan of the paint so they often have markers or chalk here.)  This controlled-choice helps students learn through a gradual release of responsibility.  It’s not chaotic and the kids start learning how to handle multiple choices in a structured way.

As we get a few weeks of school under our belts, and expectations, routines and procedures are more established, I start adding some choice into other areas of the day.  Students may choose books in the book center, or iPads for reading.  They may also choose writing on paper in the writing center or on the iPad.  (Note: with my kindergarten students, we still use paper and pencil for Writer’s Workshop all year.  I want them to develop those writing skills.)

By early January, we are able to move away from those choice boards and move into students planning their day and making their own schedules.  I will write more about this a little later.

Standing on the edge and trying to wrap your head around change is a little scary but I also find it a bit exhilarating.  When I saw my students embracing choice in the classroom, I found I was eager to incorporate their voice and choice in other ways.  It made it a lot easier for me to push forward and try new things.

Don’t stand back and look at the water…stick your big toe in and wade around a bit.  Come on in…the water’s fine!

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

Initial photo credit: Creative Commons

 

1:1 iPads and Student Centered Classrooms

And no, we don’t know where it will lead.  We just know there’s something much bigger than any of us here. -Steve Jobs

It never gets old.  Even after 3 years of 1:1 iPads, the magic and wonder of my students’ engagement and learning excites and motivates me daily.  Having a student-centered classroom makes my job so much more interesting and meaningful.

Trent's photosynthesisWe have been learning about fall and fall leaves this week. Living by the ocean in the south, we have about 2 weeks of fall.  The leaves are green, then they are a little yellow, then brown and on the ground.  We don’t get to enjoy the rich colors of our northern neighbors.

Today,  I was reading a non-fiction book about leaves and it briefly touched on photosynthesis.  Knowing this concept was a bit advanced, I kept reading, and didn’t stop to discuss photosynthesis.  However, just like our recess snail episode, the children were fascinated with this large word and had many questions.  We started a wonder chart on this concept.  How does the tree live through the winter if there aren’t leaves on it to make food?  Is the sugar that the leaf makes during photosynthesis the same as the sugar we eat?  We looked at other books and found pictures on the internet.  We talked and wondered, wondered, and talked.  During their free choice time today in centers, several drew pictures about this concept.  Some chose drawing paper, some our Drawing Pad app. (See drawing at the top of this post.) Some even put their drawing into Explain Everything and talked about it there.  Here is one of those examples:

The only planned part of this day was the reading of that initial book.  The rest was courtesy of my curious children.  By being in tune with my students, I was able to go with their flow (which, by the way, was far better and more meaningful than anything I would have had them do.) As I look back on our fall unit in previous years, before iPads, the learning wasn’t nearly as rich or in-depth.  Of course, the iPads alone didn’t do anything.  They have served as a conduit of change for ME.  Over the last 3 years, I’ve changed and in turn, my teaching has been transformed.  It’s not about the iPad, but it is about a shift in the way my classroom works.  The learning environment is completely different and it continues to evolve.

Just like Steve Jobs, I have no idea where this will all lead.  I just know there is something bigger than all of us here…and THAT is exciting!

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