Archive for category Writing Instruction

How to Host an “Old School” Writers’ Festival

Anthology of Public School WritingWhen seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of prize-winning devil’s food cake she was chewing. After a moment’s pause and a hard swallow, without regard for the goo smeared all over her face, or the chocolate finger prints across her otherwise fresh copy of Yeah Huh!, she calmly clutched the mic and in a sometimes stuttered, sing-songy voice, read her masterpiece:

One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, “The boys are big babies.” I said, “Maybe next time, babies.”

Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey received everything real writers want. True, her byline came in a book you can’t buy through Amazon. And her audience was merely a gym full of kids. It’s also unlikely Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a piece of German lebkuchen, or a slice from a cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exhilaration for Kelsey is the same. At that moment, she’s a real writer.

Professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, to make money, and for that oft-elusive byline. Kids, however, seldom have this opportunity. In fact, rarely do we give them any more motivation to write than to assign a topic and wave their report card at them. These days my students routinely publish their writing on the Web, but while doing so seemed really cutting-edge a decade ago, it now seems to be losing its appeal. The Web appears so vast that a fifth grader’s eloquently-crafted poem about donut holes can quickly disappear in the mud we call bandwidth.

All this has me thinking about simpler days when we used to print real books full of student-writing, books you could hold in your hand and re-read over and over again. I have a number of such books in my classroom. While it would be rare for a current student to go back through the archives of my school webpage to read student-writing from even a few years ago, they still pick up my copies of Fresh Corn, Yeah Huh!, and Mmm!, three lovely little anthologies from more than a decade ago.

I miss those days.

So, I dug out an article I published in Instructor on organizing a school-wide writers’ festival. It’s excerpted below. My hope is that it’ll germinate into getting such an event started at my current school. And, I challenge you to do the same at yours.

At my old school, every student who submitted material–generally about 70% of the k-5 population–became a published author. They also attended a dessert banquet where they scarfed down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. They received their contributor’s copy of the anthology, gathered the autographs of their fellow authors, and had the chance to read their work into an open mic. It was all designed to motivate students to hone their skills and reward them for their effort.

“It’s a good feeling,” said then-student Casey C. when recalling the festival. “It’s kind of cool to see your writing in a book.” She credited the event for her enthusiasm for writing. “Before the festival, I didn’t think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I’m pretty good, so I really enjoy it.”

The anthology validates the kids’ work,” explained fourth grade teacher Matt D. “It makes it more meaningful. Consequently, they put more effort into it.”

Back in those days, the festival went beyond just encouraging young writers. It contributed to a favorable school climate, one that enriched learning in general. Perhaps that’s why those kids were so comfortable with a mic.

“I like reading into the microphone best,” noted one student. Her younger sister Olivia agreed. Unfortunately, she found herself at the end of the line and didn’t get the chance. “It would have been embarrassing,” said Olivia, “but I still wanted to do it.”

Still, are the benefits enough to justify all the work that goes into developing your own festival? Certainly. It promotes a school-wide focus on a subject that, due to its inherent difficulty, is sometimes neglected. The open mike also gives students practice with public speaking, and the anthology itself encourages reading. “I keep the old copies in my classroom,” said one teacher. “The kids like to go back and look for their friends.” Third grader Tim B. admitted to being too scared to read his work aloud. “But I read all the other kids’ when they were up there,” he said. “I was following along.”

If all that’s not enough to convince you to start your own festival, just have a chat with then-third grader Doug V. “When you’re focused on being graded,” said Doug, “you get all worried. But when you’re writing for fun, you do better. The Writers’ Festival makes it fun.”

Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps we followed:

Promote it. Begin by visiting classrooms. Your personal sales pitch will generate immediate interest. Point out the joys of being published and the gastronomical pleasures of the dessert banquet. You could even share some food samples during your pitch! Also, be sure to send a flyer home with every student. It’s often the parents of a student who most encourage participation.

Give it an identity. Generate extra excitement by holding a school-wide contest to name the anthology. We looked for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that captured the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first edition, based on a sign along the road near the school, was entitled Fresh Corn. Later additions bore names such as Pinky Toe. Each edition is also subtitled “An Anthology of Public School Writing.” Also hold a cover art contest. In addition to selecting a winner (to whom we awarded a $5 to $10 gift certificate) we also used the best of the rest to dress up the inside of the anthology. Be careful, though, about distracting students from their stories. Wait until after the deadline for written submissions has passed before opening your cover contest.

Enlist the cooperation of your staff. Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing their students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or students can simply select their entry from a portfolio of material they’ve written during the school year. The latter approach promoted reflection and self-evaluation. It also resulted in a broader range of modes appearing in the anthology, though we found we got better material when we encouraged first-person narratives.

Print it. With modern computer technology, publishing a respectable anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type one hundred or more manuscripts yourself, your book may never reach the printing press. Therefore, don’t accept hard copies. Consider using Google Docs or some other mechanism to have kids “drop” their manuscript to a pre-determined electronic location. This will allow you to focus your energies on formatting and editing rather than typing. Because our anthology was produced by a single individual, these requirements were essential. Also allow yourself some time to play with formatting. It’s accomplished with relative ease by adjusting margins and font headings, but in order to get the pages in just the right order and printing front to back, plan on doing some experimenting.

We always wanted our publication to look as much like a book as possible. After reviewing “real” literary anthologies, we decided to avoid spiral binding and instead used a half-sheet format. Standard 8 ½ x 11 inch sheets are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. The result is a 5 ½ x 8 ½ inch book with black printing. For the cover we used good quality color stock with a grey tone art. If you have an excessive number of entries–more than seventy pages worth–produce two volumes. Be sure to allow plenty of time. Our first year, I had to turn my third grade class into an assembly line to collate, then stayed up nights folding and stapling by hand.

Print enough for every participant—and then print a few more. We put a $1 “suggested donation” price tag on ours. It lent an element of prestige to the book, and the twenty or thirty additional copies we sold in our office paid for some of the printing costs. The kids get excited when their moms come in to buy one for Grandma or to mail to an aunt.

Make the authors’ reception a big event. It’s the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible–in our case, edible–reward. If all those sweets worry you, or if your school has a prohibition against homemade baked goods, we discovered that most kids favor watermelon over just about anything. A more formal, evening event with fruit punch or lemonade and lace is another worthy idea. Regardless, this is the time to “release” the anthology and give students a chance to be acknowledged as writers. “It felt good,” said third grader Megan S. when discussing her work in Mmm! “It was the first book I was ever in. But I was also nervous because everybody was reading my story.”

It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you’ll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it’s the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. Everyone had gone back to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn’t matter to her that I was the only one who’d hear her story. Perhaps she didn’t even realize it. She stepped up to the mic and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. It’s as I listened that I began making plans for the next year’s festival.

A Few More Tips:

Don’t hold your festival too early. Give teachers time to develop a writing program with their current students. Give students time to develop a portfolio from which to choose their entry. February is late enough in the year to have honed some writing skills, yet early enough to complete all the printing.

Include everyone. The purpose of your anthology should be to encourage writing and build confidence. Even the one sentence story from the first grader has value.

Establish a maximum length.
We used to tell our students that their hand-written rough draft must be three pages or less. Less tends to be better, as elementary students tend to ramble.

Edit. Published writers have editors, so too should your student authors. Even your most advanced students will submit work needing further polishing, particularly because they’ll be more likely to attempt techniques beyond their developmental level. However, limit your editing to the basics.

Include an index or table of contents. Students get frustrated if they can’t quickly locate their friends’ stories, but creating this page can be a challenge. Wait until all the stories have been processed and the pages numbered, then go through and develop your contents page.

Recruit parents to help with purchasing and/or preparing the items you plan to serve at the reception. Check on your district’s food policy. Some schools prohibit homemade food from being served. Also arrange some help with clean-up.

Limit your mic time. While most of the stories your students will be reading will be short, suggest to your more advanced writers that they read only the first few paragraphs to “hook” the audience into continuing on their own.

Alert the media. Invite your local news people to attend your dessert banquet. Make sure they get copies of your anthology. Favorable publicity is always beneficial to your school and public education in general.

Allow your festival to develop its own personality. All that really matters is that your students have fun becoming “real writers.”

Finally, (here’s my sales pitch), use my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs to teach your kids foundation writing skills. It’s a complete daily and weekly writing program in a straight-forward, systematic format. Published by Scholastic, it’s available through Amazon, Scholastic, and Teacher Express. You can also pick up a free sample activity from TeachersPayTeachers.

Happy directing, er, emceeing.

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Tongue In, Mouth Closed

Click here to preview or download this free sampler pack!McKenna, one of my most “with-it” fourth graders, came up with a new concept I think is worth sharing here. The class was working from my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs (2009, Scholastic), writing “Dialogue Sentences with Alternate Tags.” My book teaches kids to use the phrases “open mouth” and “closed mouth” to describe open and closing quotation marks. Such a concrete image seems to help them understand where to place the marks. But another necessary punctuation mark in a dialogue sentence is that little comma separating what was said from who said it.

“I’d sure like a package of Necco Assorted Wafers,” drooled Freddie as he stared through the front window of Candy’s Candy Shop.

That little comma between “wafers” and “drooled” is often neglected by young writers, and even when remembered, it’s sometimes incorrectly placed outside the closing quotes. Young McKenna came up with a solution by referring to is as “the tongue.” “You need to pull your tongue in before you close your mouth,” she said, and the rest of the class has quickly capitalized on it.

I’m not surprised. Because “Super Sentences” facilitates thoughtful discussion of and feedback about writing, my students are constantly coming up with unique perspectives—and great sentences. True, they’re still just 4th graders and therefore subject to all the forgetfulness and sloppiness familiar to intermediate and middle school teachers everywhere. But Super Sentences has certainly improved their writing skills. You can purchase and immediately download a PDF version of Super Sentences from Scholastic Teacher Express for just a few bucks. You can also download a free sampler of Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraph here.

In an era when we seem to be over-complicating teaching to the point that we’re nearly dysfunctional, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs is simple, easy-to-use, and fun to teach. It’s as straight forward as “pulling your tongue in before you close your mouth.”

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Is There an App for That?

Indestructible NokiaI’m told school districts around the country are investing millions of dollars into iPads and other online devices. The idea is that students can use these devices to access their textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias via the Internet. After all, hand-held devices–not printed volumes of the World Britannica–are the future.

Me, I’m salivating over a class set of laptops with which my fifth graders can do their writing, post to their webpages, watch student-created instructional videos, and bombard me with in-lesson feedback via Twitter.

But it’ll never happen. My district just can’t afford to invest $15K for a single classroom set of machines that will be outdated in just a few years. When put to the daily abuse levied by fifth graders, I doubt the machines would survive that long anyway.

But a funny thing keeps happening in my classroom. Whenever we need something that my generation had to find in a book, some student will invariably say, “Can I use my phone?” Need to know the definition for lugubrious? Need a picture of the state flag of Georgia? Need to know the formula for calculating the area of a circle? It’s all there at their fingertips on each student’s individual phone.

Kids can use their phones to record themselves reading, to film your next class play, to create short movies, to document field trips, and more. So why invest tax dollars in electronics the students already possess? Sure, you’ll have to bust a kid from time to time for texting when he’s supposed to be studying. But how’s that any different than busting him for passing notes? Do we ban pencils and paper? True, you may have that kid who uses his phone to cheat on a test. But that’s probably the same kid who’ll have notes scribbled on his arm or have his binder suspiciously open beneath his desk.

What about those kids who don’t have phones? Well, it wasn’t but a few years ago that only a handful of my students had online access at home. Today, that figure is around 95%. It won’t be too long before we see the same circumstances with phones. In fact, I estimate that nearly half of my 5th graders–eleven year olds!–already carry phones, and every one of ’em is vastly superior to my own woefully-outdated but indestructible Nokia (pictured at left). And before you go thinking my school is in some wealthy suburb of Portland, know that it has a 70% Free-and-Reduced population.

Consider this: we require $100 calculators for high school calculus (and I’ll bet you there’s an app for that), and those that can’t afford it have access to loaners. What’s wrong with applying the same logic to hand-held devices?

Cell phone technology creates life-long learners who are always just a click or two away from finding the information they need to accomplish nearly any given task. It’s how adults operate these days. It’s how we should be teaching our kids.

The future is already here, and most of our kids are holding it in their hands. We just have to let them turn the dang things on.

Happy Directing!

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Expert: Common Core May Be Too Complex for Your Students

SSPP CoverI recently attended a presentation by a University of Oregon professor discussing the challenges of revamping the curriculum to satisfy the Common Core. One thing I came away with was that consistently using Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs will most certainly help. For example, the good professor displayed a question from a fifth grade standardized test and asked, “What makes the following difficult?”

The Earth is a bit like a perfectly boiled egg—with a semi-liquid yolk or “core,” surrounded by a thick, soft layer called the mantle, and covered by a thin hard shell called the crust. The core in the very center is metal but the crust and mantle are made entirely from rock.

Fifth graders, she suggested, are not typically exposed to sentences with multiple clauses or with such a breadth of punctuation. When they do encounter such complexity—such as when reading independently—they’re typically left to decipher it themselves. Users of Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs, however, know that my writing program teaches these deciphering skills explicitly. By asking kids to construct and discuss sentences containing commas in a series, dialogue, dashes, or even ellipses, they’re more prepared to understand them when they encounter them in their reading.

Everyone publishing anything having to do with curriculum is claiming it meets Common Core. No doubt you’re discovering that many don’t actually do so. However, the Super Sentences program very clearly aligns to Conventions of Standard English in grades 3 through 6 (L.3.2, L.4.2, L.5.2, L.6.2). For example, L.4.2.c requires that students “Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence,” which is taught in Super Sentences activity #5 and reinforced throughout all later sentence-writing tasks. Super Sentences, in fact, teaches all the Language standards (L), while Perfect Paragraphs covers all the Writing standards (W). Additionally, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs indirectly supports meeting the standards for Craft and Structure in both Literature (RL.#.4, RL.#.6) and Informational Text (RI.#.4, RI.#.6).

Now you can watch a “how-to video” on using Super Sentences in the classroom. The fourteen minute tutorial consolidates four days of instruction. In each 20 minute session, each student wrote one sentence fitting a specific construction (in this case, using semi-colons), and the class analyzed and discussed five or six of these student-generated sentences each day. On the fourth day, students crafted the sentence on which they received a grade (using a simple rubric). The teacher’s role is to facilitate student discussion. Of course, complete details on how to implement the program appear in the book.

You can purchase Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs at Scholastic.com, at Amazon.com, or for immediate download in PDF, at Scholastic Teacher Express. It’s a complete year-long daily writing program in a small package, and it’s a surefire way to help prepare your students in grades 3 through 8 for the complex new world of the Common Core.

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50% Off One Week Only!

Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short StoriesRead Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, and Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs, are all 50% off through August 7th at Scholastic Teacher Express. Simply use the promo code Birthday50 at Checkout to get a great deal on these titles.

Symbols features ten American history plays about important symbols, events, and holidays from American History. It includes the plays Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction and I Have a Dream: The Childhood of Martin Luther King, both originally published in Storyworks magazine. Unless you have back issues of Storyworks stashed in your classroom cabinets, Symbols is the only source for these plays.

Classic Short Stories includes eight classic short stories re-imagined for the intermediate and middle school classrooms. Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, will delight your students while helping them build fluency, extend comprehension, and meet the CCSs.

Finally, Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs is a complete writing program in a small package. Ever get overwhelmed by these monstrous writing programs text book companies sell your school district? They come with multiple binders, a ton of packaging, and half-a-dozen supplementary boxes of largely useless junk? Ever notice how you’re never able to wade through the muck to develop a systematic, effective, easy-to-use, daily writing program? Well, chuck the text book junk and give Super Sentences a try. It includes daily, weekly, and quarterly writing activities all in one 96 page reproducible book. And it’s half-off this week at Scholastic Teacher Express! Just click on a title to go directly to Teacher Express to preview or purchase. Don’t forget that promo code: Birthday50.

Happy Directing!

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