February 27, 2007

PreK - 1st Grade Traits: Using "Wee Can Write" Workshop

Folks, I'm not affiliated in any way with NWREL. I just admire the great materials and training they offer. Wee Can Write is available online from NWREL.

If you're going to be in the North West, don't miss this training:

Carolyn McMahon, co-author of the bestselling book, Wee Can Write: Using
6+1 Trait® Writing Strategies With Renowned Children's Literature, will be
in Portland, Oregon, on April 5–6, 2007, to facilitate this "learn it
today…use it tomorrow" hands-on workshop. Participants will explore a
variety of activities for teaching and assessing the traits of effective
writing using familiar classic literature titles that young students love.

Teachers, instructional assistants, special education staff, and
administrators of "wee" (beginning) writers—preschool, pre-kindergarten,
kindergarten, Head Start, and first grade students—are encouraged to

Attendance is limited to maximize the focused, interactive nature of this
workshop so register soon. As an added incentive, register by March 15 and
save $20 on the already low registration rate.

Visit http://www.nwrel.org/events/see/85 for complete information or call
(800) 547-6339, ext. 187.

Learn about other NWREL workshops at http://www.nwrel.org/events/ .

See the new http://www.thetraits.org ...your one-stop resource for all
your 6+1 Trait® Writing needs, including information on trainings,
instruction assistance, and products.

February 25, 2007

Writing classroom tips...

A conversation between Peter and Paul about writing workshop:

Hi Paul, I appreciate the insightful process that you're following with your students. What level do you teach? It sounds like you've developed a strong workshop approach with your students. Do you introduce and teach one trait at a time?

From your feedback, it sounds like your curriculum has a good sense of continuity? How do you get there?!??! Also, I'm interested in using the white board in my classroom. My sense is that it would facilitate sharing and contribute an invaluable visual component to instruction. How have you used it in your classrooms? Obstacles? Successes? What is the ultimate learning curve? Thanks for any help you can offer. Cheers, Peter


Peter, I teach Language Arts and Geography to 7th graders. Last year I was tasked with starting an 8-week "Creative Writing" elective for them. I had no idea what to do other than try to follow Nancie Atwell's In the Middle*, so that's what I did. Most activities I've discussed here come out of that class.

Setting up the class takes time each quarter, which is frustrating since it ends pretty quickly. On the other hand, I get to learn from my mistakes and start over 3 times in one school year. Halfway through my 7th quarter now, I'm getting the hang of it.

The luxury is that I don't have to fit this stuff in with all the other Language Arts content, since that's a separate class. So the kids have 100% freedom of choice on topic selection. And I don't always have to force a schedule on them (and me) like I do teaching Lang.Arts. Organization is NOT one of my strong points, so I like that the structure can be fairly loose. It doesn't get chaotic since the class size is only 15-16 kids.

I intended to start teaching the traits this year, but I haven't felt like I knew the concept well enough to teach it well. So to answer your question, I haven't introduced the traits at all. BUT, since this online class has started, I can't resist working with things that I'm learning. I'll try to do a complete 6-trait delivery for the 4th quarter.

The interactive whiteboard is fantastic for all content areas, particularly with the Internet. Tomorrow, if my writing class needs help with leads, I can have Dennis's lecture and examples up on the board in seconds. One day while reading, a student asked what a rumble seat was. 30 seconds on Google Images, and they see photos from multiple angles, assorted car models, even a Norman Rockwell print.

I'm fairly neutral about technology, neither Supergeek nor Luddite, and I'm totally comfortable using it. And we have a great ET at the school who makes life bearable for the real technophobes. I don't use it as much as many teachers, but I'd hate to go without it. For me the challenge is to keep adding to my skills and creativity with it, and I confess I've been lazy about that lately.

Have I answered what you were asking? As my students know, I can spew out a lot of words without delivering much. I often finish a response to them by saying, "Is that the longest way you've ever heard someone say, 'I don't know' ?" ~ Paul

(This conversation from the Spring 2007 session of Teaching and Assessing Writing with the 6-Traits was used with the author's permission. )

*For more great books about writing see my Writer's Bookshelf!

February 24, 2007

Strong Leads: 6 Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How)

On the topic of organization and strong leads, Adam offers us some wisdom based on work in journalism:

I've taught several writers how to write leads for newspapers and have used the lesson below to show beginning writers how to shape leads to write in inverted pyramid style.

The 6 Ws are used with a different lead emphasis depending on what the writer feels is the most important aspect of a story.

By focusing on the 6 Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why and How) students will have something quick to grasp if they're stuck. After they've defined what the 6 Ws are they can determine which is the most important or dramatic.

How is the most difficult W of them all – that's why it's W comes at the end instead of the front -- to write because it's hard to get someone to explain the real reasoning behind things.

WHO #1 – Baskin Robins owners will increase the cost of a single scoop ice crime by nearly double Wednesday across the city because of rising milk costs.

WHO #1 – Consumers have until Tuesday before they begin paying nearly double the amount for a single scoop ice cream before a plan kicks in by Baskin Robins to avert a crisis forced by the rising cost of milk.

NOTE: By showing two examples you can also show that there's not necesarily a single answer or approach to a lead emphasis within newswriting.

WHAT – Ice cream will cost almost twice as much across the city beginning Wednesday as Baskin Robins owners will nearly double their prices because of rising milk costs.

WHERE #1– Across the city, ice cream will cost nearly twice as much Wednesday at Baskin Robins 31 Flavor stores as owners cite the rising cost of milk as their reason.

WHERE #2– At Baskin Robins 31 Flavor stores , ice cream will cost nearly twice as much Wednesday as owners cite the rising cost of milk as their reason to hike prices across the city.

WHEN – Tuesday will be the last day single scoop ice cream at Baskin Robins 31 Flavors stores will be sold at its current price as owners plan to implement a price hike across town they say is due to the rising costs of milk.

NOTE: Look for subtle differences -- here it's Tuesday instead of Wednesday -- that will set your writing slightly apart from others and make it unique.

WHY– The rising cost of milk will cause the cost of a single scoop of ice cream to nearly double Wednesday across the city Baskin Robins officials announced today.

HOW – By doubling the cost of single scoop ice cream beginning Wednesday Baskin Robins officials say they'll be able to remain open across the city and avert an ice cream crisis in the wake of rising milk costs.

After explaining the differences in lead emphasis, rip a newspaper apart and ask students to work in small groups with a couple of pages of the newspaper (Sunday edition works best) and decide what the lead emphasis of new stories on pages handed to them are.

This exercise helps "reveal how the sausage is made" and shows them how writing in everyday life can apply to them. They quickly discover that most news stories begin with what or who.

After this, I have the group rewrite a lead using a different lead emphasis. If they pick a Who emphasis lead, then they have to write a lead with an emphasis besides who.

Because all of the facts and materials are provided, nobody can honestly say they couldn't come up with something. This also builds their ability and confidence in editing others work.

For example, "You're lead emphasized who -- Baskin Robins officials -- when the most important news is really the what -- Ice cream costs will double. What has the most effect on people? Maybe that's what you should lead with.

Teaching the six Ws is applicable in a variety of things, police work, emergency services, lawyers, journalist, report to share holders because like the 6 traits for writers the 6 Ws are the basic elements needed in writing.

February 20, 2007

Primary Ideas: Teach 'em to pick their own topics!

Jennifer shares these great ideas from her 1st Grade Classroom:

I believe that "Good writing" begins with meaningful topic selection. Writers take more ownership when they are in control of their writing topic. It is my responsibility to encourage, model and teach my first graders how to do this. In my classroom, we learn very early what good writers do.

What Good Writers Do:

  • Good Writers write about Small Moments from our everyday lives (losing a tooth, dropping our lunch tray, losing a gym shoe, etc.)

  • Good writers write about Memories (weddings, injuries, getting a new pet, etc.).

  • Good Writers write about things that we are an Expert on (fishing, jumping rope, walking a dog, etc.).

  • Good Writers write about things that they have a big feeling about.

  • Good Writers write about things that they know a lot of specific information about.

  • Good Writers write about things that are real in their lives.

  • Good Writers write about things that are important to them.

  • Good Writers write about things that they think others will be interested in.

    We also learn that: Good Writers are inspired by other writers: An old piece of writing might inspire a new piece of writing. Someone else's writing might inspire a new piece of writing. A good book might inspire a new piece of writing.

    My students and I create charts with this type of writing language. These becomes my focus lessons during our Writer's Workshop.
Status of the Class

Another great tip to help kids select their writing topic before they actually have the paper & pencil and begin to write about the first random thing that comes to mind, is "Status of the Class."

This means, I pass out the writing journals at the carpet. The students "warm up their brains" by rereading old pieces. They decide if they will be revisiting a piece of writing to write & write or make changes or they decide if they will be moving into a new piece of writing. They have about 3 minutes to do this.

Then, I begin calling out names. As a student hears their name, they share their writing topic. ---Yes, they truly use this language. It's fantastic!

  • "I'm revisiting my story about learning to trot on my horse."

  • "I'm making changes to my story about my b-day party."

  • "I'm writing about a Memory when I twisted my ankle ice skating."
Once a student gives me their topic, they head right to their writing space and begin writing. The entire Status of the Class experience should be quick (5 minutes max!). It feels a bit chaotic at first, but if you stick to it & train your students, it's extremely beneficial.

My first graders have truly made a connection to the importance of meaningful topic selection which directly connects to Ideas, Ideas, Ideas.

February 18, 2007

The Power of Modeling the Writing Process

Sheryl shared this insightful piece on modeling the writing process...

When I was first told to "model" for students, I was terrified! I didn't want them to see that their teacher wasn't perfect at everything she does! :-) BUT, I soon realized how great it really is for students, and now I actually enjoy doing it.

This year, I got the most effort/product out of my students' writing AFTER they saw me struggle and "mess up" in front of them. When they realized that this is something that can only improve with practice and that even your TEACHER has a hard time thinking of things, they respond so well.

I find that they often try to help me come up with things to write--they want to help write my paper. When it comes to writing their own, they think about the help they gave me, and try to apply it to their own work.

I also think students have to see that writing does not start out perfect--they need to see the cross outs, the rewrites, the spelling mistakes, all of that. When they realize that it's OK to make mistakes intially, they have an easier time getting their thoughts down.

It doesn't always work, obviously, but it does more good than bad.

Motivating Grade Obsessed Students to Write with Passion

I want to share a long excerpt of a discussion that took place during my Spring 2007 6-Traits writing class. We were discussing the difficulty some were having in motivating young writers to find their own ideas about writing. ~ Dennis

Question posted in class:

"My students have great difficulties generating ideas. My students have passion to get A+ but no passion to express their feelings. I really have to argue with some of my students trying to convince them that they must have some issues to write about, but they insist there are none! Perhaps the technology discussed in the lecture [Mind Mapping Tools] can help me to motivate them to become a bit more passionate about some topic for their writing."

Response from Mark:

"They are telling you what they are passionate about - their grades. So use it.

I teach to the same mentality in my district. And had a similar problem in reading last year. I struggled for a solution for the longest time until I was looking in a math binder for a mini lesson; of all places to find a reading solution.

My math professor got all of the math phobic students in the teaching program. He began the year by informing us that we were beginning with an "F" but that can change as long as we were willing to show, effort, willingness, and passion for this subject. Otherwise, he promised that we would wash out of the teaching program. I never had so much fun in math before, and you never saw a more passionate group about math in any class.

I used the same approach with my reading group... It took some setting up. I had to have a clear plan to insure most if not all of my students would do well, I had to convince my principal to let me do it and even with her approval, she was looking over my shoulder constantly; and I had a lot of heat from parents at first. But in the end the kids had a great time while Exceeding expectations, and the parents and district were happy with the results. I was too.

I tend to go with my instincts, my instincts say, if they do not meet your expectations then their grade should reflect their unwillingness to try.

I know that sounds harsh but, if you conference with them and tell them this is your grade unless you can use what I am teaching you, and passionately convince me you deserve a higher self selected grade this is what you will receive.

Then let the bidding begin through self-collected portfolios with letters that explain why these samples should be considered for a higher grade. Then give them your take on the samples along with suggestions for improvement. The more they have to haggle the more passionate their writing will become and the more they will pay attention to what you are teaching.

I can't say where but somewhere along the line the grade, or the need for a better grade tends to slip out of the mix, as the challenge that subject offers takes over. It happened to me as a student in the math class and I saw it happen to my students in my reading class. Their just comes a point where you know what your grade will be and who's responsible for that. At any rate writing is now connected to something important to them and becomes relevant; just a thought.

Melissa Replied:

Mark, I LOVE this idea. I teach "rough" kids with little to no motivation to go to school, let alone put in any effort to be there. However, I have noticed in recent months that a good amount of them have suddenly woken up and realize that they DO want an education and they DO want to make good grades.

Like many of the other people have said, they THINK that by merely turning in the assignment, it deserves an A. I like the fact that this is a "contract" with them--they still are empowered as they have the choice to do what is required to make the grade, or accept the low one; there are no surprises at the end of the grading period.

I wonder if I could implement something like this in my current job. We are starting a new novel in a couple of weeks, your project ideas sound great and could work. Hmmm....you've got me very excited about trying this. The only ones I would have to convince are my Principal and students (most of my kids don't have parents). I'll let you know if it works out. Thanks for the great info!

Mark replies:

Melissa, It would have to be brain stormed and changed for the subject and environment. When I went through it in math at each semester the professor would have us submit our three ah..ha moments in the class along with a reflection on each moment.

Since we were allowed to redo any paper as often as we wanted and he would re-grade as often as we redid the assignment all papers had to be without any mathematical errors. In addition he had us read autobiographies of mathematicians, books about numbers, and had guest speakers come in and talk with us about how numbers are used in the work place. We had to do a reflection on at least two of these events.

So each semester we turned in three assignments with rationale, two reflections on guest speakers, and our daily math journal, along with the grade we felt we deserved and how these papers supported our belief. That's how we were graded.

In my reading class, we read trade books - one of them from a past semester was a book called the Landry News. Each week they had vocabulary work they needed to do and a choice of activates that they would work on over the week and submit with what grade they felt it deserved. If it did deserve the grade I would enter the grade in my book and that was it. If it did not, I entered the low grade, returned the assignment with feedback and they were expected to re-do it over the weekend for re-submission on Monday.

If the paper was not resubmitted I sent a letter home explaining to the parent the grade their child chose to accept and remind them a new project was due on Friday. (That's where the heat came from). But they never missed more than one assignment.

Sample Assignments

  • Some examples were things like making a board game that represents the book.
  • Or retell the story from another characters point of view, anything that reached into comprehension.
  • At the end of the book we had a debate with the principal and the school councilor as the mediators. Each person in my class sat around a table with a sheet of paper that would be used for a self-evaluation.
  • At the top of that paper was a note reminding them that they had to make a compelling and (book) relevant contribution to the discussion.

At the end of the debate they were asked to complete this reflection on their performance in the debate and tell me what grade they felt they deserved. As long as they turned in all assignments, stayed on topic, in character, and contributed they got the grade they asked for. And believe me they were far harder on themselves than I would have been.

This is just one book and one example. For Letters from Rifika by Karen Hesse, they needed to make a CIA information slide show of the Tebrot family and their trip to America so that Rifika could be cleared to enter America. The list goes on...

Now, with my writing class I have never had to mention grades this year... They know my expectation. For my part, keeping what I want focused helps me target the specific missed assignments from each student very early on. This is how I do it. In writing I give them a week at the end of each trimester to put together a trimester portfolio with three things in it.

  • All assignments called "Perfeckt" usually about ten of them.
  • One of the three teacher directed essays for that grading period. Their choice.
  • Three samples out of their portfolio along with a sheet that explains the grade they feel they deserve and how these samples support their grading.

They know they need to be consistently working on these pieces. As soon as they select a portfolio piece they know they can redo (in their own time) as often as is necessary and I will re-grade it as often as they submit it. They are accustomed to thinking of the other assignments as targeted lessons that teach them things they can use to improve their portfolio. Because, I will re-grade portfolio pieces as often as they like they know all samples have to be strong in conventions. I give one-on-one help with the other traits in their sample, and they know they have to show improvement in some way. By the time they submit their trimester portfolio they already have a good idea what their grade will be.

And that's it. Is it a lot of work? yes… Is it worth it? YOU BET!!!"

February 17, 2007

Ideas for teaching Ideas in primary grades

Kathy shared the following in my current 6-traits online class. Her ideas about ideas should spark some ideas for all of us! ~ Dennis


"This is one area that I have done a lot of exploring with my classes over the last two years. I agree with Spandel* that writer's need the skill of finding and defining their own topics. If you provide the topic routinely, you will encourage students to depend on you for this.

We are working on learning to "spot the moments or ideas within their experience that are worthy of writing time." I agree that we must tap into their personal experience, expertise, and interests. I think students can learn to become good observers. As I have mentioned before, we make lots of lists and we record them in our writer's notebooks.

One book that I have used the last two years to introduce the concept of personal experiences and using a writer's notebook is I'm In Charge of Celebrations (by Byrd Baylor). This is a book about a woman that celebrates unique and wonderful occurrences in her life as she lives in the desert: seeing a triple rainbow, seeing dust tunnels(?) swirl all around her, a coyote, etc.

After reading the book, I send home a note asking parents to help students make a list of things that they celebrate in their life, other than holidays. Parents list 6 or 7 experiences( holding an alligator, saving two kittens, riding my first roller coaster, loosing my first tooth). This was our first entry into our writer's notebooks under the heading of celebrations.

Then students chose 1 celebration to use as our first piece of writing. We started by making a class list through interactive writing. Then they each wrote individually about the experience. Spandel states that students need modeling and practice in order to learn how to list everyday events and random thoughts in their notebooks. This is why we started with a class writer's notebook. We recorded ideas together on chart paper.

Another point that Spandel makes is that students need to talk to one another before they write - to suggest ideas for writing. I also previously mentioned that we have Lightbulb Lab almost everyday in my class. This is time to write ideas in the writer's notebooks. During this time students can chose to have idea talk time. They can sit with one or two classmates and talk.

I have talk time cards they can use to guide their conversation. For ex. Did anything different or unusual happen last night? or Did you notice anything on your way to school today?

I also have a bin of pictures I pulled from magazines that they can look at to try to come up with ideas.I found two ideas that I would like to try in my classroom. I liked the idea chart "Picturing Writing" on pg. 24. I thought it was a great way to get kids to plan out descriptions and details for their story. I also like the Snapshots idea, "Show, don't tell", in which students turn vague sentences into snapshots by piling on adjectives and creating pictures in the reader's mind. "


*The text we use in the k-4 course is Vick Spandel's Creating Young Writers. If you've read it you know it is extraordinary. If you haven't read it... do!

~ Dennis

February 15, 2007

6-Traits Books

Crystal Springs Books features dozens of 6-traits books. Most of the work has been authored by 6-Trait authority Ruth Culham. The books are practical and have the feel of teacher made materials.

A nice feature is the look inside the book view which provides 5 or 6 pages from each book. Just cruising through the 'free preview' pages will give you plenty of ideas.

Check it out!

~ Dennis

February 12, 2007

6-Traits Voice: Quotations found by the group...

AUTHOR: Alexander Pope (1688–1744) QUOTATION: Truths would you teach, or save a sinking land? All fear, none aid you, and few understand. Submitted by Sharon

Put your whole self into it, and you will find your true voice. Hold back and you won't. It's that simple. ~Hugh Macleod (Submitted by Eryn)

And the day came
when the risk it took
to remain tight inside the bud
was more painful
than the risk it took to blossom.

Anais Nin

I love this quote, and it seems to suit many students, having soooo much to say and perhaps struggling with the risks they perceive in the classroom.

And another thought....I had a thought earlier about having my ninth grade students head to the elementary school library to check out books by Dr. Suess for the day, read them aloud to play around with voice. (Submitted by Deborah)

"Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? Who knows why certain notes in music are capable of stirring the listener deeply, though the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent? These are high mysteries." - E.B. White (Submitted by Kathy)

"Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader--not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon." E.L. Doctorow (Submitted by Sheryl)

"If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man." Pudd'nhead Wilson Mark Twain (Submitted by Adam)

The important thing is being capable of emotions, but to experience only one's own would be a sorry limitation. Andre Gide (Submitted by Nancy)

Change your thoughts and you change your world. ~Norman Vincent Peale US clergyman (1898 - 1993)

I changed my thoughts on "Voice" this week and thought this appropriate. I'm feeling like I can change the world of my classroom! (Submitted by Terese)

"Let one who wants to move and convince others, first be convinced and moved themselves. If a person speaks with genuine earnestness the thoughts, the emotion and the actual condition of their own heart, others will listen…" -Thomas Carlyle

I've been considering the sincerity factor of the Voice rubric while reading the online papers. It's pretty hard to fake. But when we do sense it in writing, can we be sure it's genuine? I guess if we're fooled, it's a sign of successful (if dishonest) writing. Sincerely, submitted by Paul

"Some men come into your life....and screw it up forever" from Janet Evanovich - opening line in her book/series "One For the Money"

To me this says VOICE. And it is also why I bought the book. (Submitted by Eliz

I have never thought of writing for reputation and honor. What I have in my heart must come out; that is the reason why I compose. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) (Submitted by Mary)

Don't tell us the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) ~Submitted by Mark

An Englishman is a person who does things because they have been done before. An American is a person who does things because they haven't been done before. Mark Twain

I think we are all willing to try new methods in our classrooms! ~Shirley

February 10, 2007

So many methods, ideas, and stories are flowing in the discussion threads!

The minds of the e-learners in my current online class about the 6-traits are the source of so much practical classroom wisdom.

I've got a diverse and very articulate group of educators from around the world discussing voice this week. From Primary Teachers to University Instructors... everyone has insight, methods and Eureka moments to share.

I've asked my class for permission to blog some of their posts.

I must walk a careful line here. We're building a very generous community in class. People are sharing and talking and helping each other think. I don't want to make them self conscious or have they worry that the blogosphere is looking over their shoulders.
On the other hand, there are so many nuggets of wisdom I'd like to share with the teachers of writing that read this blog.

We'll see!

February 3, 2007

6-Trait Powerwrite

Folks I have no ties (other than admiration) to this product and company. I came across them several year ago and was impressed by the grassroots origins of this very clever Internet based approach to blending the writing process and the 6-Traits. You can tell this was invented and battle tested by a Middle School Writing Teacher. Anything that promotes writing instruction and the traits gets my vote. I'd stuff the ballot box for 6-Trait Powerwrite!

6 Trait Power Write™ is an online interactive writing process system developed by Leah Ames, a middle school English teacher from Leoti, Kansas, who created the system to help her students grasp the fundamentals of writing.

6 Trait Power Write™ is a web-based, interactive system for teaching the writing process to students in grades 4-12. The name "Power Write" is an acronym for the 10 steps in the writing process that the system teaches.

This exemplary product is made by Step Up 4 Learning Systems, Incorporated.