November 13, 2010

Helping the Conventionally Impaired become Mechanically Inclined!

Why don't we set up a  Convention about Conventions!  We'll guarantee improvement on standardized tests!  We'll unlock the purse strings of those school boards obsessed with spelling, grammar and punctuation. I can imagine the shell shocked teachers arriving by the bus load weighed down by the burden of AYP.

Then we hit 'em with the concepts of Conventions - Editing, Not Correcting  and give everyone a copy of Jeff Anderson's Mechanically Inclined.  8-)

I was always a poor speller.  So much so that by the ninth grade I was convinced I was a hopeless dolt.

A great English teacher named Mr. Dennis Huckaby turned me around.

I remember Mr. Huckaby's first rule:  Misspell my last name and you fail!.  His second rule was three misspelled words in your paper and you fail!

I still recall typing papers for Mr. H's class due Monday...on Sundays.  I remained a terrible speller but I became much better with the white-out and the dictionary. Even though he was tough on conventions Mr. Huckaby inspired me to write and helped me overcome a terror of public speaking. I left high school wanting to be a writer thanks to Mr. Huckaby.

As an adult my atrocious spelling drove me to overcome a terrible fear of computers and get into word processing. I remember a magazine editor of an Alaska wildlife magazine telling me with a sneer in his voice that I'd misspelled something on page 14 of my manuscript and of course they weren't interested in publishing my work.

Word processing saved me. No more corrector-selectric for me.   I bought an Apple // and WordStar!  Soon I was teaching word processing to my 5th graders and selling magazine articles on the side.

Over the years my spelling improved because spell check targeted just the words I have trouble with. Now, unless I'm tired or my hands hurt too much, I'm half-way decent when it comes to getting the letters in the right order. Of course I still can't reliably spell the word receive and when fatigued I'll use their when I know it should be there.  (Note:  I needed my spell check to correct the words reliably, receive, and fatigued.)

I'd use stories like this in my middle school classes.  I'd confess to my poor spelling, slow reading speed, and general struggles with language and tell my kids that being a weak speller didn't mean they were dumb. Many were slow to believe. Until they found there were 5 other traits where the conventionally impaired might flourish. I only wish I'd been taught about the writing process and the six traits when I was in school.  

These days I find myself wishing I'd been a kid in the classes of the teachers I work with online.  Ah the years of pain I would have dodged!

Dennis (who relies heavily on his spell check and is still embarrassed when an error slips through).

November 11, 2010

Fluent Like Water by Sharmane Miller

This post by Sharmane Miller of Nassau Bahamas was offered as part of my online class Teaching and Assessing Writing with the Six Traits ~ Dennis

Standing at the shoreline watching the gentle waves push the cool water between the cracks of my toes and hearing the synchronized breathing of each ripple, provides a powerful image of fluency for me.  Living on a very small island, I tend to focus a lot on the water and this week I draw from it to conceptually teach sentence fluency.  Just as it experiences low and high tide, students experience sentences with varying lengths and meter.  At times the water is a bit cold and harsh and we need to move into it slowly or throw caution to the wind and dive in quickly.  Either way, some movement must take place.  I can really milk this metaphor for more links to fluency but I’ll quit while I’m ahead :-)

As I read through the similes and metaphors suggested in the introduction of this module, a past writing assignment of my former sixth graders came to mind.  After listening to Georgia Heard talk about finding poetry in unusual places, they wrote a single sentence response, which exemplify the power of sentence fluency. 

Dwayne wrote, “I find poetry in a scary book that sends chills down my spine with the turning of each page.” 

Justin said, “I find poetry while I’m in the yard playing in the dirt,” while Gillian explained, “I find poetry through my father’s car window as I gaze lazily at the passing landscape.” 

When each of them in turn read their sentences, what resulted was a wonderful rendition of rhythm, cadence, power and movement.  Getting students to “pitch in” by adding a sentence or two for a class writing project worked well for teaching fluency, but I’m sure some adjustments would have to be made for the younger writers.

Christopher Meeks suggested that poetry lets you live in a world with new spectacles and since sentence fluency is influenced greatly by poetry, I feel that students must get accustomed to this new lens before introducing other features with it.  By this I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to introduce students to the trait of sentence fluency separately (choosing the frame), then in subsequent lessons put on the high definition lenses (voice) and throw in some tint (word choice) to reinforce the connection between the traits for a totally cool spectacle (writing with style). 

When I do take this approach, one of my favorite activities is the sentence pyramid, but I must agree with the readings that nothing beats the impact of plain old reading aloud.

 Sharmane (Nassau)

October 18, 2010

Effective Feedback: One trait at a time

In terms of effective feedback, offering advice ONE trait at a time is the way to go.
Feedback that is highly focused on a single trait is most effective.
Think of the 'praise sandwich' approach: specific traits based praise for a writing strength is the bread. A focus on ONE area for improvement with a writer's trick is the meat and garnish.
Also don't feel you have to assess for all the traits every time. Scoring many papers is the best way to learn the traits. Scoring one trait at a time is a way to lock in the concept.
Quick feedback on the accuracy is essential as well. That's why the NWREL database of sample papers is such a treasure:

In the real world where you have hundreds of papers to consider, assessing all of the traits isn't effective.
When I was teaching I had between 160 -180 7/8th graders. At first I tried to do three full 6-traits assessments a year. Then it was two, at the end, just one.

Why? Because I'd burn out on the assessment and the kids got very little from my efforts. Once something is 'assessed' at that level, it's done and young writers usually won't pay much attention to advice on a finished project.

I decided to put my time into direct coaching and started doing much smaller paragraph level assessments when I absolutely had to have a 'record' for the grade book. I used a modified portfolio system, but it wasn't a commonly accepted method in the very small rural district where I worked for most of my classroom career.

The larger global assessment was usually reserved for the 'publication' pieces. I think back on the huge work of preparing publications and look up on the book shelf at a dozen books created by my classes and just shake my head. It's fine to have something tangible.

Now I wish all of the work was online. The KMSoul project was done about 10 years ago, the last year I was in the classroom. That was back before it was so easy to publish online ( a far more effective way to motivate kids than a bound and printed book because on the net they have a much larger peer audience).
I hope this little personal narrative helps!

October 15, 2010

Sentence Fluency, Repetition, & Poetry

One powerful element of sentence fluency is the repetition of key phrases. This is especially powerful in poetry. The repetitive form, when used for effect is a sign of strong sentence fluency. The repetitive form used without an awareness of sentence fluency presents a teachable moment.

Reading this week's posts helped me recall a couple of terrific books for teachers written by the Poet Kenneth Koch. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? & Wishes, Lies, and Dreams are books I can recommend without reservation. I used them when I first started teaching an was pleased to find both books still in print. I'm sure my copies are somewhere in the boxes of books I lug from place to place.

I used Koch's methods many times and they were always a hit with kids in the 5-8 range. I suspect Koch would play well in any age range and work well in the primary grades.  Here's an example of lessons and writing inspired by Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? from

From Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (p. 4-5) Kenneth Koch, Rod Padgett

"I asked the class to write a poem together, everybody contributing one line. The way I conceived of the poem, it was easy to write, had rules like a game, and included the pleasures without the anxieties of competitiveness. No one had to worry about failing to write a good poem because everyone was only writing one line; and I specifically asked the children not to put their names on their line. Everyone was to write the line on a sheet of paper and turn it in; then I would read them all as a poem. I suggest we make some rules about what should be in every line: this would help give the final poem unity, and it would help the children find something to say. I gave an example, putting a color in every line, then asked them for others. We ended up with the regulations that every line should contain a color, a comic-strip character, and a city or country; also the line should begin with the words "I wish."

I collected the lines, shuffled them, and read them aloud as one poem. Some lines obeyed the rules and some didn't; but enough were funny and imaginative to make the whole experience a good one--

I wish I was Dick Tracy in a black suit in England
I wish that I were a Supergirl with a red cape; the city of Mexico will be where I live.
I wish that I were Veronica in South America, I wish that I could see the blue sky...

The children were enormously excited by writing the lines and even more by hearing them read as a poem. They were talking, waving, blushing, laughing, and bouncing up and down. "Feelings at P.S> 61," the title they chose, was not a great poem, but it make them fell like poets and it make them want to write more."

Poetry out loud and a form of reader's theater

Later in my teaching practice I started writing grants to bring writers and illustrators to my school district. This helped me build a relationship with painter, musician and poet, Toby Lurie: Toby is still an amazing, creative, and unpredictable guy. (The link to his site will introduce you to his work. He shares many QuickTime audio clips of his work that trigger creativity.) It was fun to find him on the Internet after all these years.

I recall meeting him for the first time. I was about to introduce him him to a huge high school class of alternative ed kids. Even back then, he was wild white bearded poet is a gleam in his eye. I thought the tough crowd of edgy and angry high schoolers would tear him apart.

Just as I introduced Toby, he whispered in my ear, "Tell them I don't speak any English."

He proceed to emote with sounds and facial gestures and within seconds he captured everyone's attention. By the end of the assembly everyone was up moving and chanting found poetry immersed in Toby's unique patterns.

Several years later Toby taught me a great method that ties perfectly into Koch's I wish lesson. After a writing session, Toby had each student pick a single line from their work. Then he'd ask for 6-8 volunteers to come to the front of the room. They'd line up shoulder to shoulder and read their lines. Toby would point at them to read while he gestured to draw more emotion. Students began with confusion, but soon understood that Toby was conducting a word orchestra. They began reading their lines louder or lower, deadpan or angry, happy or weeping. Once the whole line had read once, layered together a sound poem based on the melodies of repeated lines and varied voice. Sometimes Toby had the same student read two or three times in a row or come back to one particularly powerful line repeatedly. No one in the chorus knew when they'd be called on and everyone was amazed at the nuances and lunacies that spilled out of it all. Toby created a wild reader's theater display of word choice, sentence fluency, voice, organization, and ideas all wrapped in a spontaneously generated poem. It was hilarious, energizing and fun. Everyone loved it.

All of this points to the powerful mix of music, performance, and poetry that supports sentence fluency (and all the other traits as well).

I'd use this method myself two or three times a year. I got so I could conduct a pretty good sound/word poem, but I could never top the Maestro!


Here are links to Amazon pages with the See Inside the Book Feature. You can get a glimpse of some great writing and if you wish buy these books as inexpensive paper-backs.

Rose, Where Did You Get That Red

Wishes, Lies, and Dreams:

October 8, 2010

Autobiography -- Highlights of My Life

Brainstorming / Idea Generation:
Before giving a class a one page narrative assignment, walk them through some intensive brainstorming activities. This type of idea generation is essential before any writing takes place. You have to help the young writer get in touch with their knowledge base. You will know Idea Generation is working well when students have several strong topics to choose from before they ever think about writing a story, essay, or report. There are certain autobiographical themes to which most beginning writers can relate:
  • Accidents
  • Discovering something new (learning outside of school).
  • Embarrassing moments
  • Loss
  • Overcoming fear (Sports / Performances)
  • Insane adventures with friends
  • Are you an Expert? Tell us! (push for expertise outside of school...)
Review this cluster map, Autobiographical Highlights of My Life
This technique will work on a chalkboard, white board, or overhead projector. However, if you have a visual learning tool like Inspiration running on a computer attached to a projection device or large TV-monitor you can quickly call up a graphic organizer (and provide a copy for each learner).

Next, I model idea generation, while leading a class discussion. I bubble out a wild diagram as I explain each organizing point. I ask for single words that capture an idea. Then I pepper the main idea with single words that capture detail. All the while I am running down short anecdotes from my own life that illustrate the autobiographical themes. I describe highly detailed single event experiences since I will be asking for just a one-page story. I focus on events that will draw a sharp emotional reaction, hoping for a story that makes the reader cringe, laugh, or cry.

Accidents -- While trying to catch a kickball in the third grade it bounced off the tip of my finger. I looked down and my ring finger was taking a right angle over my pinkie.

Embarrassing moments - - When I was in the seventh grade my parents had the house up for sale and kept bringing strangers through my room on tours. Once I hid in my closet rather than face them. I can still remember hearing my Dad say, "Let me show you how big the closets are in this room."

Loss -- (I generally steer this one towards pets) --

I like this process because I can tell self-revealing stories and create a relaxed atmosphere. All the while I am encouraging students to make notes on their graphic organizer or to make a list if they hate clustering. I usually call this "Clistering" a combination of cluster and list. Any method that helps them to get the ideas down on paper is fine.
By the end of this exercise most of the class will have several viable topics. Time to move around the room checking on the ones you're worried about. Urge them to provide detailed notes about each potential topic. If they can't generate detail, tell them to abandon that topic and find one that really jumps off the page. Have them share their ideas with their classmates.

While this is going on, conduct mini-interviews with the students who are stuck. Often just repeating the categories and probing a bit will get them started. I listen for topics with inherently strong structure. Most students have crashed and have an accident story. You would be surprised how often a reluctant writer will light up when I ask, "Have you ever had stitches? Ever had a bike wreck?'

First Draft:

Next are 10 - 15 minutes for a fast-blast first-draft. After the brainstorming and the chatter, you need to shift to silent writing, so out comes the stopwatch. This provides the focus and makes the time limit an outside enemy that settles everyone down. Focus on a single topic and 1-2-3 Write! Just get the ideas down!

Why so much time on topic generation? Because a topic you care about, a topic you know in your bones, will help you find your voice and express your ideas more naturally. I will often repeat this brainstorm and first draft experience two or three times at the beginning of the year. When the time comes to revise, I will ask the young writer to choose the most powerful topic of the first draft exercises.
"I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or it isn't."
~ Philip Roth, U.S. novelist, short-story writer
Fictionalized Narrative:

This is an additional technique that seems to free the pen of reluctant autobiographical writers. "It's okay to lie your socks off-- as long as I can't tell you're lying!" I like to start this idea off with a bold and shocking statement. Once I have their attention, I explain that writers are free to bend and blend their own experience with everything else they can think of. Children's author Sue Alexander once told me that she wrote, "So the world would turn out the way it was supposed to be, rather than the way it is." I go on to explain that by using vivid details, dialog, and strong setting descriptions you can write a story that sounds absolutely true, while fictionalizing elements to make your story more interesting. Once this concept sinks in, the students love it. (It appeals to their skeptical nature.) This also gives the young writer a little   'plausible deniability ', and might help them risk some true self-revelation. This is never an easy thing for adolescents. This technique is only suggested, never required. I've found it a potent motivator, as I said earlier -- Just get the ideas down!

April 15, 2010

Big List of Annotated Writing Resources!

Yikes!  I just check my Diigo account and realized I have a huge list of writing / 6-traits resources that I haven't shared.  I use Diigo to organize my online bookmarks.  I love the ability to create annotations and to highlight text on a web page.

Here's my Diigo List:

You might prefer to see this list as a slide show.
You'll see the home page of each site I've noted.
Just click on the page and you'll land directly on the site that's caught your interest.

Interested in Diigo?  Join today?

It's free, fine, and filled with good folks and great resources.

Diigo also offers a service exclusively for teachers: The new Diigo Educator Accounts are special upgrades provided specifically to K-12 & higher-ed educators so they can easily make use of Diigo in class and with their students.

March 19, 2010

Too Many Ideas...too few? by Elaine Soos

This post was provided by Elaine Soos as we were discussing Idea development in my online class Teaching and Assessing Writing with the 6-Traits. ~ Dennis

One strategy from our readings that I would like to try with students who present too much information in their writing is asking them to "cut the copy in half without losing content" (Spandel, p. 213). This strategy intrigued me when I read it, yet I don't know why, because it's something I myself have done many times in my own writing -- including any time I write my primary post for this class! I once worked in the features department of a specialty newspaper whose editor would accommodate my passion for covering talks (or doing interviews) about complicated issues. I'd have a very flexible word count for my magazine-style articles, and I was in heaven. Then, I went to a daily where I couldn't do this -- not enough time and not enough space. I still enjoyed covering the same types of articles, but this time I had to intentionally think, "Use stronger images that will say more in less space." It was a whole new skill to learn and took awhile to get used to. (A quote I posted in our Friday Fun activity for Week 1 sums up this still challenging experience for me -- "I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." (Blaise Pascal 1623-1662) J Maybe our students can relate to this as well. :)

I also liked Spandel's suggestion (p. 213) to ask "wordy" students to summarize their message, to help them focus. When I have asked students who write too long or too much to state their main idea in one sentence verbally and then to do it in writing using a "condensed, no-words-wasted" approach (Spandel p. 213), I've usually found they "find" their main idea and are better able to write to it.  I can't wait to get my hands on Geoffrey Kloske's "Once Upon a Time, the End (Asleep in 60 Seconds)" suggested by Spandel, who says that once students  hear/read a few examples of these crazy summaries of popular fairy tales, they will better understand the idea of narrowing and focusing their own writing.

Then there are the students who write too long, but not because they have too much to say. Students who just "pad" their writing, repeat words, etc., to make their compositions longer suffer from not having enough to write about, often because they have not done enough research (or don't have enough knowledge of the topic from personal experience). I enjoyed learning about two creative and fun ways to help students learn to include rich details in their writing:
  • writing a "how to poem ... to explore any concept, term or person" (Spandel, p. 172) - e.g., "how to be Hestor Prynne, ... Nurse Ratchet... a democracy," etc.
  • putting their writing "to the test"(p. 175) -- having students write a multiple-choice quiz based on their writing, to see if it has enough "detail-rich information -- enough for several questions."
I would like to try these strategies with the students I will tutor. Has anyone "out there" tried them already -- or something similar -- and if so, did they help? (As I mentioned earlier, I thought I was ready to begin tutoring before I took this class, but I'm so glad I am getting all these great ideas beforehand, from our readings, lectures, Web sites/software -- and all of you!)

Elaine from Ohio