Can You Believe It? Going Full Circle.

Years ago I taught sentence diagramming in 5th grade, but have only used mentor sentences to teach grammar in the last 8 or 9 years. Now I’ve gone full circle and am back to teaching sentence diagramming and mentor sentences to the two high school girls that I homeschool. We’re on our second year and I really see an impact on their writing and analysis skills. They understand sentence structure and how various structures are used in literature.

I’ve bought tons of books about sentence diagramming and my favorite teacher by far is Elizabeth O’Brien with Grammar Revolution: Teach and Learn Grammar the Easy Way. She has a website, books, programs perfect for classrooms and homeschooling, and a YouTube channel with upbeat videos. She also introduced me to the Let’s Diagram website which allows us to painlessly diagram our sentences.

I decided to make this change because their grammar textbooks spent only a day or two on each topic and then moves on, but sentence diagramming is cumulative. My students are completely comfortable talking about independent and dependent clauses, phrases, the parts of speech, and varied sentence structures. This gives us a vocabulary to use when we speak about their writing. We even find ourselves mentally diagramming sentences as we read to figure out how the author structured his sentence and why it works so well!

Filling the Gaps

I recently taught a teacher workshop in Pennsylvania, which was aimed at areas for growth in many Christian school (and public school, for that matter) curricula. Certainly, not all Christian schools share these same areas for growth, but many do–especially the curricula which are touted as “teacher-proof” so that anyone can do the teaching. I’m a strong proponent of Christian schools, so please do not think that I am criticising; I just encourage continual growth in any school. Here is the slide set from that workshop and a few of the activity sheets.

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Here is the Bartling Puzzballs worksheet, which is an exercise from Kelly Gallagher:


Research Suggests Every Teacher Should:

  1. Build disciplinary and world knowledge.  (AKA Background knowledge)
  2. Provide exposure to a volume and range of texts.
  3. Provide motivating texts and contexts for reading.
  4. Teach strategies for comprehending.
  5. Teach text structures.
  6. Engage students in discussion.
  7. Build vocabulary and language knowledge.
  8. Integrate reading and writing.
  9. Observe and assess.
  10. Differentiate instruction (Samuels & Farstrup, 2012, p. 52).

This list comes from my  new favorite book, What Research Says About Reading Instruction.  I just discovered there’s also a What Research Says About Vocabulary Instruction which I’ve put on my Amazon wish list.

I don’t think any of this is new news to anyone teaching reading, but it is wonderfully affirming news.  I realize that my weakness has been teaching text structure in non-fiction reading.  I’ve busily been collecting information on structure so I can work with it more than usual next year.  Last year my focus was student discussion.  I’ve been preparing a website at Collaborative Classroom to have my students have online discussions as “boardwork” when they enter the room, exit tickets before they leave the room, or in-depth discussions in the middle or for homework.  I love online discussions as it makes it possible for the teacher to monitor all the discussions not just those in earshot.

Samuels, S. J., & Farstrup, A. E. (2012). What research has to say about reading instruction. (fourth ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

AASSA Conference

I just got back from the Association of American Schools in South America (AASSA) conference in Quito.  It was fantastic, with speakers like Heidi Jacobs who challenged us greatly about preparing our students for the 21st century.  The workshop that was the most practical for me was given by Sergio Martinez, who teaches at an American School in Venezuela.  He taught about various websites for digital storytelling, and I can’t wait to introduce them to my students, as we all know about the reading/writing connection and how important it is.  These sites make writing (and reading) super fun.  They’re all free.

  • Blabberize can make any photograph or drawing into an animated photograph that speaks.  Upload a photo of yourself, use the tools to indicate where the mouth is, and then tape yourself speaking.  Voila!  A talking photo.
  • Google Story Creator tells stories through Google search–in other words you make a story of your searches and what you found.  Simply input the URLs, select music to play while you are showing the search–and you’ve created a story.  Here’s a sample about dogs.
  • Photo Peach is a way to easily create rich slideshows with embedded quizzes.  It has a VERY intuitive interface.  You can have subtitles and music too.
  • Little Bird Tales is a super-secure website where students can build their stories using their own drawings (using an interior program similar to Paint), uploaded drawings and photographs, or using artwork provided on the site.  Teachers may set up an account and give students a key to get in.  This has the most versatility of any site I’ve used, including Story Bird which is a great site where you can create stories using illustrations created by artists.
  • I don’t quite know how to explain ZooBurst.  It’s a site where you can create pop-up books using photographs you upload and/or thematic art on the site.  After you’ve created your book, you can use something called augmentive reality, which is kind of difficult to explain (the book pops out of the computer onto a piece of paper).  Here’s a You Tube video where you can see it in action.
  • Finally, Story Jumper is a site where you can create books from scratch, or using story starters.  The story starters, for example a treasure map along with treasure-hunting pirates, come with artwork that can be used to build a picture and gives less and less support as the story goes on.  This is great for reluctant writers.

What author do YOU write like?

Photo from "I Write Like" website
Photo from "I Write Like" website

I just came across this fun website where you paste in a few paragraphs of your writing and some sort of little internal elves decide what famous author you write like.

I did it twice.  One sample returned Charles Dickens (this probably means I didn’t achieve the breezy effect I was shooting for) and the other said I wrote like Cory Doctorow.  Now, I realize that this is not science, but the immediate effect it had on me was to grab some Cory Doctorow and look for similarities.

Do you think it would work the same magic on our students?  Do you think they might grab a copy of Cory Doctorow and try to figure out what the similarities are?

It might be a fun class activity to pair a paragraph of student-author writing with famous-author writing and have students try to find similarities as they pass their papers around.  What a fun way to do close readings!  Just a thought.

Reading-writing connection and essays

My 5th grade class and I have set out on a new adventure:  we’re writing essays without a net.  No 5-paragraph essays for us!  We’re trying to write essays just like a writer would,colour-your-essays and how many 5-paragraph essays have YOU seen in magazines?

So we paused in the middle of the process of finding possible ideas and pushing our thinking to drill deeper and deeper into possible topics.

Today I handed an essay to each writing pair.  (Most of them were old Rick Reilly essays from Sports Illustrated.  I just love his writing.)  Students were instructed to read like writers and see what techniques the essayist used.  This is the list they came up with:

  • The author used repetition to keep the big idea in our minds.
  • The author wrote about two topics–back-and-forth–and then connected them.
  • The author gave us background knowledge.
  • The author used mini-stories.
  • The author has a clear, focused message.
  • The author used rhyming and alliteration.
  • The author made his message like a puzzle–you had to fit the pieces together to understand it.
  • The author included herself in the essay.
  • The author used a listing technique to organize the essay.
  • The author wrote the essay and directly asked the person questions in the writing.
  • The author varies the size of his paragraphs.
  • The author used a surprising lead.
  • The author used strong word choice.
  • The author used figures of speech.
  • The author’s voice showed generosity.

Each of these observations were accompanied by text evidence!  Now we did have one student who was commenting on the content of the article.  “The author wrote about traveling.”  I was thrilled that she did, because it gave me a marvelous chance to explain that she was reading like a reader (which is great), but that when we read like writers we need to watch for things that writers do, not what they write about.

Visualizing: the reading/writing connection

esperanzaHere’s an idea for talking about the reading/writing connection–in the area of visualizing.

Note: We adapted this lesson from one we found in 7 Keys to Comprehension (p. 26) it’s a great idea and works well in reading and writing workshop.

Materials: Transparencies of both snippets are helpful, although not necessary.

Connection: Have you ever read a book and had a difficult time making a picture?  The problem may not lie with you; it may be the writer’s fault.

Teaching point: Good writers write so that we can visualize the scene when we read.

When we write, we use strong verbs and precise nouns and we try to use descriptive details.

We also remember to “show not tell.”  In other words, we don’t write “I was so happy!”  We write “I jumped up and down and giggled when I saw my daddy walking up the sidewalk!” Why do we do these things?  Because they make the writing more interesting to the reader.

Active Engagement: Read the “dumbed-down” version from a passage of a book.  Have students do a quick sketch of the picture they have in their mind after hearing the “dumbed-down” version.  Then read the original snippet and have the students do a quick sketch after hearing that piece.  Discuss the difference. I used a snippet from Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan:

Dumbed-down version

“Do you know that our land is alive?” Papa said to Esperanza as they walked through the vineyard looking at the mountains around them.  “Do you know that you can hear its heart beat?”

“Papi, I want to feel it,” she said.

Her Papa laid down where there was some space and invited Esperanza to lie down next to him.

Esperanza lie down next to her Papa, laughing.

Snippet from Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan p. 1

“Our land is alive, Esperanza,” said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slopes of the vineyard…. “This whole valley breathes and lives,” he said, sweeping his arm toward the distant mountains that guarded them… “Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe?  That you can feel its heart beating?”

“Papi, I want to feel it,” she said.

“Come.”  They walked to the end of the row, where the incline of the land formed a grassy swell.

Papa lay down on his stomach and looked up at her, patting the ground next to him.

Esperanza smoothed her dress and knelt down.  Then, like a caterpillar, she slowly inched flat next to him, their faces looking at each other.  The warm sun pressed on one of Esperanza’s cheeks and the warm earth on the other.

She giggled.

Link: Remember for the rest of your lives that good writers write so that readers can “see” the setting, characters, and actions in their mind’s eye.  Today in independent reading, I’d like you to choose a passage that springs to life in your eyes and draw a quick sketch of the scene.

Share: Have a few students share their passage and drawing. Discuss if all students can make a picture in their heads with that passage or if you have to use background knowledge to be able to see the movie.

A word about artistic ability: It is necessary to model sketching for visualization in a totally non-threatening way.  My degree is in art education – and the education part was only done due to the insistence of my parents.  (Funny how things work, isn’t it?)  I can draw well.  I make this point with the students, but when I demonstrate I use stick figures if character description is not an important point.  We are looking for thinking made visible from our students.