The Importance of the Writing Plan

Last year I discovered how few of my students were actually using a writing plan to guide their writing. I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. After all, we had spent SO MUCH time during the Launching unit to teach and practice how writers plan their ideas before they begin drafting.
But why did I expect them to do this every time if I wasn't modeling it every time? I think that's where I made my mistake. Especially in the beginning, students need LOTS of modeling and repetition.

This year, we've spent tons of time planning our writing with partners and independently with half-page writing planners. I've learned that these half-pagers help students feel less overwhelmed by the planning step of the writing process, and visually just feels more manageable for their little hands. 

Planning is such an important step, and can mean the difference between drafting an all-over-the-place piece of writing, and one that sticks to a focused point. By providing students with options for ways to plan their writing, along with specific, modeled lessons for what it looks like to use each planner, we can ensure students will have much more focused, thoughtful drafts. 

Be sure to download these free writing planners from my TpT store... And for more guidance and detailed lesson plans, check out my entire writing units by clicking on the product pics below.  :)


Read and Respond: My New Morning Routine!


I'm a multi-tasker. As teachers, we have to be, right? With so much to do and with so many interruptions during the school day, we have to figure out how to make the most of our time with students at every opportunity. That said, I'm always looking for ways to address multiple skills in one activity. This year, when I saw that my students needed practice with handwriting, improving their writing stamina, and adding details to their writing (and elaborating on their ideas in general), I thought long and hard about how to address these issues. I decided a quick but consistent routine made sense, and since I decided to implement this routine first thing in the morning, it gave the added benefit of some quiet contemplation to start our day. ;)


While I was creating this resource, I needed to differentiate it for my students, and I wanted to give students the opportunity to "grow into" the read and respond page (without tracing the words). Some students will probably need the practice and repetition of tracing for much of the year, while others will be ready to write more lengthy responses instead of tracing. With both the manuscript version and cursive version, you have both options. 

This October-themed resource has 20 pages of read, trace, respond, and 20 pages of the alternative read and respond... Enough for the entire month! :)

Check out the manuscript or cursive version by clicking on the product pics below!

Strategy for Descriptive Writing

Every year I have a number of ESL students in my classroom. It varies each year, but every year I find new strategies to reach the kids whose first language is not English. It has taught me to be a better teacher, a more patient teacher, and to embrace the small victories. By the time the end of the year rolls around, these students are generally the ones who've show the most growth, and I feel very proud of the work we've done together.

This year will be no exception. The difference is that for the first time in my teaching career, I have only THREE native English speakers in my classroom. After the initial shock of this wore off, I spent the past few weeks barely taking a breath, scrambling to put routines into place that will support these learners through the year, and encourage their independence as soon as possible.

I've spent LOTS of time teaching writing, and many of my favorite lessons revolve around showing--not telling--what's happening in a narrative piece. But this year, even my tried-and-true first lesson didn't work with my ELLs, and so I tried something completely different. And it worked! :)

STEP 1: Re(teach) sensory language. Use examples. Get students involved. Assume they don't know what you're talking about when you ask them to describe what something looks like (because they probably don't). Bring in favorite books and characters, and things that have happened in the classroom that they can all relate to.

Choose a boring sentence that you might see in your students' writing. (In this example, I use the sentence, "I went home.") Without telling the students the boring sentence, stretch it out with descriptive, sensory language, and write it large enough for students to see and study.  Read it together.
Identify the sensory language used in the descriptive sentence. How does the author show, not tell, what's happening? I ask students to turn and talk about their ideas, and then I underline and write the little symbol for the type of sensory language (eyes for what something looks like, etc.)

Students work together to figure out the boring sentence that I've used sensory language to stretch out and describe. They're so excited to figure it out! :)

Give each partnership their own boring sentence to stretch out with sensory language. The goal is for other students to guess the boring sentence from the groups' descriptive language.

Be sure to download the lesson freebie by clicking on the product below! :)

Moving Abroad... Again!

One decision can change your life. Of course, many considerations lead up to that decision, but ultimately one decision has the power to transform your life, your perspective, your way of thinking. For me, the biggest (and best) decisions I've made have been to live and work in different countries. I consider myself very lucky to have a job I love, and one that enables me to make a decision like this. Not everyone is so fortunate, and I never want to lose sight of that.

This summer has passed in the blink of an eye, and the new school year is here already! No matter where you are in the world, this time of year can be overwhelming and full of mixed emotions. To top it off, here I am, a new resident of Riga, Latvia. When I told most people about this move, I received a lot of blank stares and questions about why I chose this destination in particular. Most didn't even know where to find Latvia on a map. But the moment I was offered a teaching position here, I took it. I wanted to be back in Europe, and I wanted to live in a place that would provide new travel opportunities. I'd never stepped foot into the Baltics, and the region fascinated me. To top it off, the school seemed to be exactly what I was looking for: smaller than where I'd been in the past, but big enough to offer a diversity of students, admin, and peers. It just seemed to be the right fit.

I've lived in many places, and in doing so, have attempted to call many places home. (Some are easier than others.) Whenever I move, invariably someone reminds me about the honeymoon period, the time when that new place seems so perfect and that nothing could ruin that bliss. I'm not sure why, but for some reason I completely skipped the honeymoon period of other transitions abroad. But this time... well, I'm actually feeling it. Completely unexpectedly, I have secretly fallen in love with this city. I'm realistic enough to know this could wear off, that I simply could be enjoying the honeymoon period for the first time. But that's okay with me. I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts, and then push myself to find ways to appreciate what I have, to look for ways to learn and grow from new experiences. After all, isn't that what we ask of our students? :)


Great Holiday Books to Read Aloud

One of my favorite opportunities to connect with my kiddos in the classroom is by reading great books to them. I always try to choose books that will reach students on different levels, both academically and emotionally. Read alouds give me a chance to show students how much I love to read... The weaker readers have a chance to enjoy a book they can't read themselves... The stronger readers have a chance to think more deeply about a book as I guide them. They all get to enjoy a text being read with accuracy and expression. But there's something even more magical that happens with these read alouds during the months of November and December. This time of year is already filled with excitement for students, and I love to select wonderfully illustrated books with powerful messages of friendship, triumph, humor, and just a little bit of magic. ;)

Here are a few of my favorites that any elementary-age student will enjoy:





What are your favorite winter books?

Five for Friday {November 6, 2015}

It's already the first Friday in November, and it's been too long since I joined the Five For Friday linky. I have some fun things going on in the classroom, and I'm trying to ride the wave until the pre-holiday crazies hit!


I've created a few music play lists for my students to enjoy, and we've been using then mostly during independent writing. The students love it! I was a little nervous about whether it would distract them at first, but it seems to be doing the opposite! They have been quite focused. One student even thanked me today after class and told me that the music helps her focus while writing. Love.


Enemy Pie and Rosie Revere, Engineer are two of my FAVORITE read alouds. This week we applied what we've learned about partner talk (agreeing, disagreeing, and adding on to an idea) by using Chat Stations. Similar to a Four Corners activity, I create four questions I want students to discuss after any read aloud. I give a few minutes for discussion so that everyone has a chance to participate, then ring a bell for students to rotate to the next station. If you're interested, you can download the discussion cards and expectations/goals here: Chat Stations


Each year as I plan writing units, it's SO helpful to pull favorite books and see at a glance how I've used them in the past. I love using the same text for reading and writing lessons whenever possible, so I really benefit from this system of jotting down possible teaching points on sticky notes and taping them to the back of the read aloud. Not very fancy, I know. But it works!

I have a few students who are working with an occupational therapist, and they find writing extremely challenging... But they have amazing ideas! So I downloaded this free voice recording app and now the students can step into the hallway and record their stories. Not every story has to be written down. It's all about communication of ideas. As soon as I introduced this voice recorder to a student this week, his face lit up and his demeanor changed entirely. What a difference this has made for his self esteem and enjoyment of "writing". Little by little, he will be able to write down more of his ideas. And this is a great first step!

Our parent teacher conferences are next week, and I will provide parents with this handy guide to reading behaviors at each level. It's also great for you to use as the teacher throughout the year as you confer with students during independent (or guided) reading. Be sure to click on the pic above to download out the freebie!

Wishing you luck with your own conferences... or a few moments of well-deserved rest if you've already finished. ;)

Trying to Perfect Word Study

I've definitely taught my fair share of spelling programs. When I first started teaching, most teachers at my school gave students the spelling list on Monday and tested on Friday. Every kid studied the same list of 20 words, no matter their proficiency in writing or spelling. The words on the lists (for the most part) had no commonalities. Someone--somewhere--had simply decided kids should know how to spell these words. (These spelling lists weren't derived from Dolch sight word lists, or any other high frequency lists as far as I could tell.) What bothered me most about this practice was that we weren't teaching students how to use spelling patterns. We didn't show them the magic of these patterns to figure out how to spell new words, bigger words, more difficult words. They were just endless lists of words.

Enter Words Their Way. There are many things I love about this spelling program. Mostly because it's dedicated to word study, and not simply "spelling". But my biggest difficulty with Words Their Way is the HUGE amount of time it takes the teacher: Preparation, assessment, grouping students, copying, organizing, and choosing & teaching sorts for each group. Even though I believe in the effectiveness of this program... it's a lot. 

I've worked very hard over the last few years to minimize the negatives and really make the most out of Words Their Way. Here are the issues I've tried to remedy. I hope these tips are helpful to others using this program.

Issue: Too many words (time consuming to sort)
Most of the WTW sorts contain 24 words. And not all of them follow the pattern. Therefore, students are studying the words that follow the rules, and the "oddballs". This is a lot of words to sort and write in the 15-20 minutes we have to spend on it. I have decided to give students 15 of the words in each sort. This allows them practice with the spelling feature without overwhelming students with words.

Issue: No school-home connection
Again, this program leaves this piece up to the teachers. We work on learning and practicing spelling features in class at various times of the day, including morning meeting, reading, and writing. About once per month, I have students take home their most recent words to show their parents after we finish studying/practicing with them. This gives parents an idea about what kinds of words and spelling features students are learning.

Issue: Lack of specified word sorts
This is a big one, because it means the teacher has to create routines for word sorts, and spend quite a bit of time teaching these (in addition to the actual word meanings, working with groups, etc.) So, I've created a set of posters to use with students throughout the year that identify each word sort and the steps to complete them. {Click on the pic below}

Issue: Grouping students
One of the benefits of Words Their Way is that it's differentiated according to students' needs. Therefore, students will be put into a group to study exactly the types of spelling patterns s/he is not yet independent with. However, this could mean up to six groups (levels) of students in any classroom... especially in a second grade classroom. But here's my advice: Decide which three groups your students most closely align with according to their WTW assessment AND what kind of spelling they're doing in their writing. Keep an eye on them to make sure words aren't too difficult or too easy.

Issue: Assessment
I assess at the beginning of the year to get an idea of what kind of speller each student is. Much can change in second grade (and quickly!), especially once kids begin reading frequently. Students have four days of different sorts with the pattern they're working on, and on the fifth day I give students the next group of words. After about eight weeks, I take a close look at their writing and give an assessment to decide who needs to work at a different level. I usually move 2-4 students to a different level every eight weeks.

I hope this is helpful for someone looking for word study tips or options. And if you've been using Words Their Way for a while, I'd love to hear about how you've made it work for you! :)