Friday, June 4, 2010

Journaling and Online Publishing: The Basics

I wanted to familiarize myself with resources to help me land a middle school Title I position – part of my purpose for constructing this blog. So I asked for a reading list from a middle school at which I might apply for a job.

After reviewing the reading list and paying a visit to the local library, I landed a copy of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Although the word “diary” in the title signaled something along the lines of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, or at least a chapter book, Wimpy Kid turned out to be neither.

The book is set up like a journal that has comic strips interspersed. In the video below, Jeff Kinney talks about how the book started online, allowing tens of millions of young people to read his books.

Frankly, I found the book entertaining, but I questioned its literary value. As a graduate student, I get to do things like question a book’s literary value. As a classroom teacher, I might not always be extended that luxury. So I consulted with a teacher friend whose opinion I respect. She has worked as a graduation coach and pointed out that this book series has prompted students to read who were “not apt to read before.”

I dug further and found resources that made me think this book might also prompt students, who were not apt to write before, to write. Turns out, this might be a mentor text that’s tailor-made for students in a Title I classroom.

  1. Start by asking students what comes to mind when they hear the word “diary.” Then ask what comes to mind with the word “journal.” Are the two the same?
  2. Go online and visit the first page (click here) in the original Wimpy Kid book, which provides the distinction between a “diary” and a “journal.” Explore the page together, and discuss students’ perceptions of a “journal” again.
  3. The Wimpy Kid books provide a good range of ideas for journal topics. They model ways for students to write about their lives. Have students peruse these books – either the print books, or the online books. What do the characters in these books write in their journals? Students should generate at least a short list of journal ideas.
    PROFESSIONAL CAUTION: I feel obligated to mention that some of the content in these books also models ideas that teachers may want to monitor, such as anti-school sentiments and bullying. These are authentic middle school issues. While I would prefer to use the books to mentor students in writing about these issues, the books may mentor students in dabbling with these issues. Just a caution. I feel better, having said that.
  4. Talk about Kinney’s experiences in publishing these books online. Why did he resist publishing them online? What are advantages to publishing online? Discuss the role of technology and publishing. This might be a good time to discuss the appropriateness of posting various kinds of information online.
  5. This mini-lesson aims to help students feel comfortable with journaling, understand some topics for journaling, and to establish some basic parameters for what to share in journals – including anything shared in an online context (journal or otherwise). Additional resources for the Wimpy Kids books and for journaling are available here.
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Processes – Benchmark A (End of 5-7 Program)
Generate writing topics and establish a purpose appropriate for the audience.
Writing Processes – Benchmark B (End of 5-7 Program)
Determine audience and purpose for self-selected and assigned writing tasks.
Writing Processes – Benchmark F (End of 5-7 Program)
Prepare writing for publication that is legible, follows an appropriate format and uses techniques such as electronic resources and graphics.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Punctuation saves lives.

Recently a joke about punctuation circulated online. “Let’s eat Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” have different meanings. The latter invites Grandpa to join the meal. The former, grammatically speaking, causes Grandpa to be the meal.

Punctuation saves lives.
Eats, Shoots and LeavesWhen I searched the WritingFix site, the pickings were slim for mentor texts to teach “conventions,” especially beyond early elementary grades. I recalled Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves and wondered whether I could adapt it to create “conventions” lessons for middle school students. I found something even better: her children’s version of the book.

This book focuses exclusively and humorously on comma usage, juxtaposing several sets of illustrated sentences that differ only in comma usage. The preview picture above, for example, shows “Look at that huge hot dog!” (left side) and “Look at that huge, hot dog!” (right side).

The Scholastic Book Wizard™ site prognosticates that the book will hold the attention of students in third through fifth grades. As with the lesson I highlighted in my previous post, however, this lesson can apply to older students, as well – especially because of the book’s humor.

Let’s face it: The grammar sticklers among us (you know who you are) have cringed even at adults’ comma misusage. Lynne Truss’s children’s book makes correct comma usage more accessible to all of us.


This mini-lesson is designed with middle school students in mind, although it could work with students who are on either side of this age range.
  1. Open the mini-lesson with the “Let’s eat Grandpa!” joke and/or the “Panda eats, shoots and leaves!” joke. Truss’s book makes serious points about grammar through humor – something we, her mentees, should also do. This mini-lesson should stand out as a time when students had fun learning grammar.
  2. Read Eats, Shoots and Leaves with students. While the book is small enough to read in its entirety during one mini-lesson, the key to this mini-lesson is helping students to understand the connection between the sentences and their illustrations.
  3. Make sure to perform some form of assessment to determine whether students understand correct comma usage. Teachers can take a differentiated approach to assessing students here, permitting students a few options for demonstrating mastery of this mini-lesson. Students could select a pair of sentences in the book and write explanations for why the left and right pages are illustrated as they are. My preferred option is for students to write their own pair of sentences and to illustrate each of these. Yet another option for demonstrating comprehension is for students to create short skits that portray how commas can yield dramatic differences in meaning.
  4. Teachers should ask students to review comma usage in their own writing. Is their comma usage correct? Does their writing include correct sentences that, with a change in comma usage, could result in a funny meaning? Give students opportunities to share insights from their writing.
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Processes – Benchmark F (End of 5-7 Program)
Edit to improve fluency, grammar and usage.
Writing Conventions – Benchmark B (End of 5-7 Program)
Use conventions of punctuation and capitalization in written work.
Writing Conventions – Benchmark C (End of 5-7 Program)
Use grammatical structures to effectively communicate ideas in writing.

Postscript: Is anyone else troubled to see a split infinitive in the preceding Ohio ELA benchmark on grammatical structures?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Arrrr, ye organized?

Became a PiratePerhaps my previous post got me thinking about pirates. I visited the WritingFix site, saw a book on pirates and was...well, hooked. And that’s serendipitous, because I was looking to create a mini-lesson on organization, and to do that, we need to look at how authors hook their audiences.

According to the Scholastic Book Wizard™ site, Melinda Long’s How I Became a Pirate is a second grade book, with an interest level geared toward kindergarten through second grade. But, c’mon, we’re talking about pirates here! While a mini-lesson, based upon this book, would certainly work in early elementary grades, I suspect a savvy teacher could sell a similar lesson to slightly older students. And if not, then the students can walk the plank or swab the deck.

In all seriousness, of the six writing traits, “organization” has been called the most difficult trait to master. A little pirate-y levity might help older students feel like they have needed scaffolding – a welcome alternative to unsupported planks.

Based upon the lesson on the WritingFix site, even high school students have benefitted from using How I Became a Pirate as a mentor text.

The story opens with the line, “Pirates have green teeth—when they have any teeth at all.” Great opening. It’s zany. Makes me want to know where the story is going.

Jeremy Jacob, our young protagonist, then gets willingly swashbuckled by a band of pirates. He figures his preoccupied parents won’t mind his absence, provided that he gets “back in time for soccer practice the next day.” The mention of soccer practice sets up the final line of the story, when Jeremy parts company with the pirates and remembers, “I have soccer practice.” The author frames the story with needing to get back for soccer practice, which we sense Jeremy regards as a higher privilege at story’s end.

Inside the soccer practice “frame,” if you will, Jeremy comes to realizations about the pirate’s life. His perspective changes. He initially thinks that being a pirate will absolve him of the responsibilities his parents place upon him, and some of this proves to be true. However, Jeremy also comes to realize that his parents care for him in ways that the pirates never will. The turning point occurs when he and the pirates start to play soccer, kick the ball overboard, and no one is willing to fetch it (except for a shark).

The author uses “soccer” to start the action, create the turning point in the action, and end the action of the story.


This mini-lesson is designed with fifth grade students in mind, although, like a good children’s book, early elementary students to adult learners could benefit from it.
  1. Read How I Became a Pirate as a class, and be sure also to enjoy the pictures.
  2. Talk about the first line of the story. What makes it a great hook? Do students agree that they want to keep reading after the first line?
  3. Talk about the action of the story. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Can students identify these parts of the action? The biggest goal of this mini-lesson is to help students identify, in this story and in their own stories, clearly organized beginnings, middles and ends. Use graphic organizers, visual aids or written notes as models to help students keep track of these parts of stories.
  4. Talk about how Long uses “soccer” in the beginning, middle and end of the action. Again, with fifth grade students, the main concern is to ensure that their stories have beginnings, middles and ends. However, challenge students to try modeling their stories after How I Became a Pirate, using the same plot device (such as “soccer”) at all three points in their stories.
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Processes – Benchmark D (End of 5-7 Program)
Use revision strategies to improve the overall organization, the clarity and consistency of ideas within and among paragraphs and the logic and effectiveness of word choices.
Writing Processes – Benchmark G (End of 5-7 Program)
Apply tools to judge the quality of writing.
Writing Applications – Benchmark A (End of 5-7 Program)
Use narrative strategies (e.g., dialogue and action) to develop characters, plot and setting and to maintain a consistent point of view.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sailing Squirrels Struggle to Survive

If you like sailing squirrels and struggles for survival – and you like poetry and are looking for a mini-lesson on “ideas” and “word choice” – you’ve come to the right place!

William Howitt’s poem, “The Migration of the Grey Squirrels” (click here), is a simple story of squirrels’ migration from one forest to another. The language Howitt uses, however, transforms the squirrels into a fleet of sailing vessels, needing to cross a body of water to reach a safe new, forest.

Early in the poem, Howitt uses language, such as “in the depths” and “buried treasure,” to start readers thinking about the sea, even pirates (via pigs that dig up their acorns). When the squirrels reach the stream to cross, he refers to their tails as “upright sail[s].” Along the way, Howitt uses several other sea-related words:
William Howitt combines a brilliant, fresh idea (comparing migrating squirrels to a fleet of sailing vessels) with vivid language that makes the metaphor work.

As an adult, I love to write. However, I spend minimal time writing poetry. I love to read light, quirky poetry, like “The Migration of the Grey Squirrels,” but the moments of inspiration and genius for generating my own poetic masterpieces...tend to be more like the tree-dwelling acorns after the thieving pigs come by. How does a writer get from a blank page to a wonderful poem that compares squirrels to boats?


Here are a few ideas and resources to get the ideas flowing.
  1. Play a round or three of Apples to Apples. This is a card game, designed to make people compare ideas in non-traditional ways. Many teachers may already own the game. A junior version of the game is available and might be a better option for younger students. An online version of the game is also available, but note that this is not the junior version. Teachers should preview these resources before using them with students.
  2. Playing the game will be a fun, high-interest activity. Immediately follow the activity by asking students to recall one of the unusual comparisons that came up while playing the game.
  3. The teacher will guide students through a discussion of how these two ideas are alike. This is the critical part of this mini-lesson! The teacher should model some form of graphic organization, such as a Venn diagram, a web or a chart, during this part of the lesson. Students should take appropriate notes.
  4. Read “The Migration of the Grey Squirrels” with the students.
  5. Discuss the comparison of the squirrels to sailing vessels. Use the same graphic organization as before to take notes during the discussion. (Sequence Note: In some cases, the mini-lesson might work better by starting with Howitt’s poem and then playing the game. In that case, introduce the graphic organization here.)
  6. These words from Howitt’s poem may be important to discuss: fleet (noun), launch (verb), league, mast, steer (verb). All of these words are linked to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, which might be a useful resource as students write their poems.
  7. Students may also want to use a thesaurus to identify words that match big ideas of their poetry. Here are a few ideas from “The Migration of the Grey Squirrels,” along with links to an online thesaurus: sea, sail, pirate.
  8. Armed with a game to generate ideas, graphic organizers to bring order to non-traditional comparisons, and online dictionary and thesaurus resources, students are ready to start writing poems from their own inventive ideas!
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Processes – Benchmark A (End of 5-7 Program)
Generate writing topics and establish a purpose appropriate for the audience.
Writing Processes – Benchmark C (End of 5-7 Program)
Clarify ideas for writing assignments by using graphics or other organizers.
Writing Processes – Benchmark E (End of 5-7 Program)
Select more effective vocabulary when editing by using a variety of resources and reference materials.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sarny’s Voice

SarnyGary Paulsen is probably best known for writing Hatchet, which won a 1988 Newbery Honor. In his book, Sarny, A Life Remembered, the title character tells her story from when she left a plantation in the 1800s United States South, until the end of the Civil War. Her voice draws the reader into the narrative from page one.

Although the first chapter, “Beginning words, 1930,” is only five pages long, we already feel like we know volumes about Sarny by the end of it. Sounds like a mini-lesson on “voice,” just waiting to happen...

  1. Read the first chapter of the book. The mini-lesson might work best if the students or the teacher read this five-page chapter aloud.
  2. At the end of the chapter, Sarny says, “I was always one to talk a lot and I guess it just comes into the writing the same as speaking.” Do you agree with Sarny? Do you feel like you’re sitting in the same room as her when you read her words?
  3. Sarny talks a lot about age in this short chapter. In Sarny’s mind, is she old or young? What language does she use to communicate how she feels about her age?
  4. Did you notice how Sarny expresses numbers? She refers to her current age as “ninety and just exactly four,” her husband’s age (Martin) at death as “twenty and seven” and her grandson’s age as “fifty and four.” This way of talking about numbers was more common in the 1800s and early 1900s than it is today. This kind of language helps to create Sarny’s strong voice and gives us clues about how people talked during her lifetime. Do you and your friends have special ways of talking about certain things? Can you find examples of these “special ways of talking” in your writing?
  5. Students will create a web of various parts of Sarny’s life she introduces in the first chapter. Topics she introduces in the first five pages include: age, relationships, work, places she’s lived. Perhaps students will find different or additional topics. For each topic on the web, find at least one or two distinctive ways Sarny uses language to talk about them.
  6. After creating a web of how Sarny talks about various topics, ask students to make a similar web for their own piece of writing. Does Sarny include some topics that students could add to their writing? How do students talk about these topics in ways that make these topics their own?
  7. CHALLENGE: Advanced students might notice that Sarny uses several sentence fragments, instead of complete sentences. What role do sentence fragments play in creating Sarny’s voice?
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Processes – Benchmark C (End of 5-7 Program)
Clarify ideas for writing assignments by using graphics or other organizers.
Writing Processes – Benchmark F (End of 5-7 Program)
Edit to improve fluency, grammar and usage.
Writing Applications – Benchmark A (End of 5-7 Program)
Use narrative strategies (e.g., dialogue and action) to develop characters, plot and setting and to maintain a consistent point of view.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Words and Pictures

Brian Selznick uses a unique combination of words and pictures in his book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The book qualifies as fifth grade reading material, and it won the 2008 Caldecott Medal.

Selznick talks about his book in a series of interviews, which can be found here. The video clip below provides useful insights into the approach Selznick used when deciding which parts of his story to tell through pictures and which parts to tell through words.

I found it fascinating that Selznick wrote descriptions of the illustrations before creating the illustrations. I would have guessed that he created the illustrations first and later worked on penning prose to complete the book.

This unique book, combined with the video interviews of its author, provides rich opportunities for students to learn about narrative strategies.

  1. Allow students to preview the book. Let students thumb through their own copies of the book. If only the teacher has a copy of the book, the teacher should flip through several pages, allowing students to understand that Selznick used illustrations in place of prose throughout significant portions of the book.
  2. Ask students to explain why the writer might use illustrations instead of words to tell his story.
  3. Ask students to predict why the author would use words instead of illustrations for other parts of his story.
  4. Ask students to describe the process they think the author used for constructing the book. Did he use a storyboard? Write out the entire story first? Some other process?
  5. If possible, watch the “Words vs. Pictures” video (see above). Alternatively, be prepared to discuss the content of the video.
  6. During the video and after the video, have students make a chart, listing the kinds of scenes Selznick chose to illustrate and those he chose to narrate. After watching the video, have the teacher and students compare what they listed in their charts.
  7. Were students surprised to learn that Selznick wrote out descriptions of the illustrations, prior to drawing them? Discuss whether Selznick’s approach is the same as theirs.
  8. Ask students to write a description of a setting for a story (or work with a description they have already written). Ask a partner to try to create an illustration from the description.
  9. Use partners’ illustrations to help authors determine how to improve their descriptions. Did the partner’s drawing match what the author had in mind? What could the author describe more clearly to paint a better word picture?
Connection to Ohio ELA Standards:
Writing Applications – Benchmark A (End of 5-7 Program)
Use narrative strategies (e.g., dialogue and action) to develop characters, plot and setting and to maintain a consistent point of view.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Practical Purpose for This Blog

Truth be told, the main impetus for creating this blog is to fulfill requirements for a graduate course, which focuses on teaching writing, at Wright State University. The course applies toward a K-12 reading endorsement.

My assignment is to create a blog that shows how teachers can use published texts as resources to help students develop their own writing skills. The video below gives a good overview of the “author as mentor” concept. The related videos provide additional resources.

I hope to become a Title I teacher for the 2010-2011 school year. As I create this blog, I will keep an eye toward texts and mini-lessons that might prove useful, should I land such a job. This project will provide an opportunity for me to familiarize myself with elementary and middle school literature – it has been awhile since I have read literature for this age level.

I will start by exploring literature toward the middle school range of that spectrum, as I already have a license to teach English and language arts in secondary grades. I may also dip into early elementary literature, because schools sometimes (and appropriately) funnel Title I funds toward helping readers get caught up before they fall way behind.

Part of this journey will travel through 6+1 Trait® Writing resources. A good primer on this approach can be found here. Mini-lessons incorporating this approach can be found here. You can perform a search for 6+1 Trait® Writing here.

I will connect my mini-lessons to Ohio English Language Arts Content Standards, which can be found here.

Thanks for reading. Welcome to the journey!