Creating Writers

In creating, the only hard thing is to begin; a grass-blade’s no easier to make than an oak. -James Russell Lowell

writersAs a writer, sitting in front of a blank screen with a blinking cursor mocking the emptiness of the page, Lowell’s quote hits home.  I often have no idea where my writing is going until I begin.  Often, it goes in directions surprising even to me.  That “aha” moment…the one when you have clarity, direction, and purpose is utterly inspiring.

My students are working on making a book using the Scribble Press App.  This is our first attempt at book making with this app.  They love all of the choices of tools this app provides.  Even though it is January, my students need me to model the process.  I model the think-aloud process of deciding what to write about and I even model being stuck.  I sit in front of the blank iPad screen and think….and think some more.  I model starting out with writing about one topic and then deciding to discard that idea and go in a different direction.  I model not finishing in one sitting.  They need to see this process and learn how to work through the “not knowing”.  We are all about instant gratification…we have to learn to process, think, and wait.

Their books are a work in progress.  I am hoping they will finish by the end of this week.  The end product, however, is not the important part.  It is what is learned in the getting there.  They are fussing over fonts, color and illustrations.  They are grappling with word choice, sounding out those words, and very emergent keyboarding skills on their iPads.  The Common Core standards emphasize three anchor standards for writing:  argument, informational, and narrative.  Human beings grow up on narratives, on stories.  We live our lives hearing stories and telling them.  We plan and daydream and work and worry in narrative.  How important then, is it to spend valuable time in this genre?

As tempting as it is at times, to rush through to get something done, allowing our students to sit and stew, think, plan, erase and start again is critical to growth in writing.  We have to set the stage, model and allow time-protected time-for genius to develop.

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A single leaf working alone provides no shade. -Chuck Page

Even with a full time teaching assistant in my classroom, there are times when I could use a few extra hands.  25 kindergarten students often makes me feel like an octopus with arms going in all different directions at once.  We are 14 days into the school year, nearly 3 weeks.  I have some students who immediately fell into our class routines and procedures.  By now, most know what to do…however, there are a small handful who still need guidance. They are easily confused and have that deer-in-the-headlights look when I give directions. This is not uncommon and in time, all falls into place.  Fortunately, I have a few “Mother Hens” in my classroom who know just what to do and they assist those who need a little extra help.

Using the iPads is no different.  I have many students who are already pretty iPad savvy and a few who are still working on it.  Without me asking, the students are quick to help each other and show them how to find something or do something.  As one student helps another, the peer coaching aspect strengthens both students. Students are already learning to ask a friend before asking me.

One app we have used in partner activities is ABC Magnetic Board.  It is $4.99, but with the Apple Volume Purchase Program you can get it for almost half.  The app has upper and lower case letters in 4 languages, numbers, shapes, diacritics, signs and symbols, 5 sets of toys: summer, party, night, snowy winter and Christmas, and more than 15 backgrounds.  The pictures created can be saved to the camera roll also.  We have students partner up and spell names, sight words, match upper and lower case letters, and beginning sounds using the pictures in the app.  There is a free version, but it is pretty limited.  At this point in the year with a wide range of abilities in my room, this app allows differentiation for students on different skill levels.  It also allows cooperative learning.  This app is better than the classic version of refrigerator magnets because each letter can be used multiple times (and pieces don’t get lost!)

As my students work to become “experts” on a variety of tasks and skills, knowing there is a helping hand nearby encourages children to try new things and step out of their comfort zone.  It is part of our classroom culture to work together as a family.  Family members help each other.  Watching my students work together this early in the school year, I know there will be many great things to come.

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Write This Way

I am a writer. – Jayde, age 6

I’m not a writer. I didn’t go to journalism school and I have no proper credentials that certify me as a writer.  I haven’t immersed myself in the study or practice of writing.  So how can I expect my students to view themselves as a writer if I don’t even view myself as one?

Maybe the problem lies in how one defines “writer”.  I think my perception in the past has been that writers are trained and paid for their work.  Since I’ve been using the Writer’s Workshop approach to writing, I’ve learned that we are all writers.  Writers write every day. Writers share their ideas.  Writers write on a variety of topics and writers are good readers.   As educators, we have to remember that our attitudes are conveyed to our students.  I want my students to be excited about writing.  When I start Writer’s Workshop each day, I call my “writers” to the carpet and I ask them in conferences to share with me what they are learning about themselves as a writer.  In turn, I model writing for them.  I think aloud about writing ideas.  I model what I do when I get “stuck”.  I model writing on a chart tablet and on my iPad.  If I think of a writing idea in the middle of math, I jot it down on a sticky note or in my Notes app.  I tell them to do the same.  I blog here and I blog with them on KidBlog.  We talk about what good writers do and we use mentor texts as examples.

My modeling has been fruitful.  My students write every day.  They write about a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes. They write fiction and non-fiction.  They write stories on paper and on their iPads.  They make lists.  They make books in eBook Magic and on Pages.  They write personal narratives and one even wrote a song. They blog with each other.  They fill one page and ask for another.  And another.

They have no doubt they are writers.  It never occurs to them to think they aren’t. They write and they share. They encourage one another.  They have all the necessary tools.  They have training.  All they need now is to get paid!

Hey wait!  Can I get in on that too?

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In the Dark: What Happens When You Lose Electricity?

Things work out best for those who make the best of how things work out. -John Wooden

And then there was darkness…a recent school-wide power outage left us without the use of my laptop, the Smart Board, overhead lights, air-conditioning…all of the things we take for granted every day and that are absolute necessities in my book.   An announcement was made that it was uncertain how long we would actually be without power.  Hmmm…what do we do, now that we can’t see to move around our classroom, and can’t use our Smart Board? Our technology-dependent classroom came to a screeching halt.  As I am using my iPhone flashlight app to move around without stepping on someone, it occurs to me that all is not lost.  We may not be able to see to read or write in the traditional ways,  but we do have iPads.  Our wonderful back-lit devices allows us to carry on even in darkness.  We can read, write, spell, add, subtract, complete patterns, count, draw, sing, do yoga, learn a foreign language,  ok…you get the idea.  We all sat on the rug and played a favorite spelling game.  Using our White Board app, I called out words and they wrote the words on their iPads.  They held them up to reveal their answers. The glow of the back-lit screens even contributed to the ambiance in the room.  Everyone lowered their voices and it was almost like we were in a really nice restaurant.  Almost.

We played our spelling game and before we knew it, the power was back on.  That 20 minute outage could’ve seemed like an eternity but we “powered” through with iPads.  The kids were disappointed when the lights came back on.

The Multi-touch White Board app by Shifting Mind is a very versatile one.  We use it for multiple purposes and in all subject areas. You have the ability to have up to 9 white boards in use at once.  It is also possible to type in text rather than write or draw.  It uploads nicely into the Pages app and eBook Magic.

We made the best of things on that day. The kids thought it was an adventure and even ask if we can turn off the lights in the classroom whenever we do whole group iPad activities on the carpet.  It seems to keep them quiet so I’m all for it!

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Knowledge is Power: Students Taking Charge of Their Own Learning

Research is creating new knowledge.-Neil Armstrong

We have been studying the rainforest.  Kids love animals and the plethora of exotic animals in the rainforest creates instant interest and curiosity.  One day the wonderment and inquiry had reached fever pitch.  “Does the poison arrow frog have any predators?” ” How big is a giant anteater anyway?” “Are howler monkeys nocturnal or diurnal?” And my personal favorite question that was asked, “How does chocolate come from the rainforest?” I started writing down all of our questions so that we could figure out how we would solve them.  Before I finished, someone said, “I think we should look on Safari on our iPads.” Someone else immediately asked if they could “research” rainforest to find some answers.  Do you see the rich vocabulary here?  These questions and statements are not being paraphrased.  This is what happens when children feel empowered to take charge of their own learning. I barely had nodded yes to the research question when my room looked like the start line at the Boston Marathon.  Someone found a website on Safari that had several rainforest animals.  Peer sharing began immediately.  The students started finding images and information about animals that interested them.  They helped each other and they were engaged, focused and excited.  Without me giving any directions…on their own they started saving images and importing them into Pages.  They debated font size, picture size and word choice.  I facilitated, checked-in with groups, answered a few questions and mostly just let them have at it.  Their conversation was rich with the language of inquiry. They worked on this for over an hour before we had to stop. After lunch they came back to it and worked until they finished.  Here is one student’s work that is finished. Keep in mind these children are 5 years old and have no keyboarding skills other than “hunt and peck”.

This lesson was completely student-driven.  It all started with me reading a non-fiction book on the rainforest.  My plan was to go in a different direction but once the questions started, I knew my plan was out the window and we were headed down a different path.  But…isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?  Inquiry-based learning teaches problem solving and critical thinking skills. It develops student ownership of their learning and builds student interest in the subject matter.  Inquiry allows students to create their own knowledge. The iPads give the accessibility needed for each student to do the research.  With only 4 computers in our class just 2 years ago, this would have never been possible.

I’ve been asked what happens when the children become bored with the iPads.  They say, “Oh, it’s a source of fascination now, but what happens when it no longer is?”  My answer to that is two fold.  First, if it is being used as a toy and not a learning tool, then it will gather dust on a shelf somewhere.  However, if it is integrated into the curriculum properly, it will be as valuable to students as our own laptops, smartphones, and computers are to us as adults.   When was the last time you used a phone book to look up a phone number or address?

My friends, knowledge is power.  Our students are overflowing with wonder and an urgency to learn.  We need to equip them with all the tools necessary to be successful.

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Y-E-L-L Everybody Spell!

“It’s a poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.-Andrew Jackson

Um, did I mention these children are 5 years old?  Clearly our little ones are heavily influenced by our text-rich world.

In kindergarten, we place emphasis on invented spelling. Invented spelling is the practice of young children using their best judgement when writing words.  This opens the children to using more of a variety of words than if they only write the words they know how to spell correctly.  Students write what they hear.  When students use invented spelling, they seem to develop word recognition and phonics skills sooner.  The more they write, the more confidence they have in their writing.  The process of getting it out of their head and onto the paper is the key rather than have them get bogged down in spelling words correctly.  My students are easily able to write several sentences on a given topic on their own.  We have environmental print in the room on the anchor charts, plus they use invented spelling.

Using the iPads, I am able to give the students opportunities to practice spelling high frequency words and word family words.  We use the app Spelling 1-2.  This allows students to work on their own list of words.  In the beginning of the year, I put their words in the app, but later they can put their own words in themselves.  They practice all week on their given list of words on the app and they are assessed weekly.  This ability to differentiate instruction allows my higher students to move on to more difficult words and my struggling students to practice what they need.  At one point this year, I had 4 different lists going on the iPads.  Now I’m down to 2.  With a class of 26 students, I am able to meet the needs of each of my students where they are. We  use a few other spelling apps for fun.  Two of the apps we like are Montessori Crosswords and Word Wizard.

As we allow students to express themselves in a safe, encouragement environment, we see the possibilities and their creativity flourish.

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The Force is With Us…

In Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace Darth Maul said, “At last we shall reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we shall have revenge.” Well, that didn’t quite work out, did it? At least not then, and certainly not because of the tattooed Sith Lord. Sure, Maul killed the preachy Qui-Gon Jinn, but he in turn got cut in half by Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Huh?  I’m clearly out of my element.  I introduced a new book in our reading center today. It is an encyclopedia of Lego Star Wars characters.  Saying it was a huge hit is an understatement.  The above discussion, or something like it, was taking place today between Hagan and Caleb.  They are my Star Wars experts.  The excitement over this new book was not unexpected.  Interest inventories taken on my students clearly showed the need for this new addition.  However, what happened next was unexpected. In the midst of all of the Star Wars techno-babble, the boys decided it would be great to go to the iPad and write about it.  They planned out what they wanted to each write and how they would illustrate it. The discussion  was amazing.  Their engagement was priceless.

I am passionate about my students’ writing.  We have several author studies throughout the year and I use mentor texts to inspire their writing. It is essential in teaching creative writing to provide opportunities  to link writing topics to who the children are familiar with and to what excites them.  Conferring with the students, having them look at their own writing and sharing their writing helps them make connections with good reading and writing skills.  The use of iPads, in conjunction with systematic teaching in Reading and Writing Workshop,  is producing the most advanced reading and writing that I’ve seen in the 23 years I’ve taught. The data is compelling.

Hagan and Caleb-Star Wars aficionados

Whether the students are writing on iPads, blogging, creating eBooks, or writing with pencil on paper, they are immersed in rich language all day long.

So, whether you side with Darth Maul or Obi-Wan Kenobi, I believe “The Force” is strong in kindergarten!

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Jayde Talks Blogging

Jayde takes a break from her writing to pose for our picture.

Last week, I posted about my students using their iPads to blog using Kid Blog and I shared a  writing sample from Jayde.  She shared that she wanted to write a new blog for girls.  She included a few topics that she would like to blog about.  What strikes me about this young writer (besides the fact that she is 6 years old) is that she already has a basic understanding of her niche.  Pro blogger states that many writers ask what to blog about rather than how.It further states that niche blogging appeals to readers.

I interviewed Jayde about her blogging ideas.  Here is an excerpt of that interview:

Me: “Jayde, tell me what you like about blogging.”

Jayde: ” I like writing about things I like and I like to read what other people write. ”

Me: “What made you want to write a blog for girls?”

Jayde: “I like dolls and rainbows and I like cheerleading.  I have friends who like those things too. I think other girls like them too.”

Me: “How do you decide what to write about?”

Jayde: “I just think of things I like and what my friends like.  It’s easy.”

Jayde at work.

There it is folks…Jayde knows what it’s all about. French-Cuban author Anais Nin says, “My ideas usually come not at my desk writing but in the midst of living.” It inspires me to know that Jayde and the other students in my class are busy 5 and 6 year olds living and writing what they know.

What inspires you?




It’s Just How We (Blog)Roll…

“Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”-Willa Cather

This week, I stepped into the world of blogging on the iPads with my kindergartners.  Through KidBlog students can blog in a safe and secure way. The website states “Kidblog’s simple, yet powerful tools allow students to publish posts and participate in discussions within a secure classroom blogging community. Teachers maintain complete control over student blogs. ”

What could kindergarten students possibly have to say in a blog?  Seriously?  Have you been in a kindergarten classroom?  They ALWAYS have something to share.  This forum allows them to share as much and as often as they like.  Blogging supports writing and reading skills as well as digital literacy.

I showed my students this blog and then talked with them about what they might want to share on their own.  We brainstormed different ideas and then off they went making lists on their iPads of possible blogging topics.  I posted to the class and then had them read and respond to my post first.  Then I had them write their own posts. Next, I had them choose some of their classmates posts to read and respond.  This all happened in one day!  Since then, each day, they are asking me if they can please write in their blogs.  My next step is to connect with a first grade class in our building and become Blogging Buddies.

Obviously, I am monitoring all posts and comments.  I am also posting on the blog site and responding to their blogs.  This modeling is important.  The students get excited when they see I have responded to their blog.

One student's thoughts about blogging

Blogging is allowing my students to bring their own voice alive in the classroom and construct their own learning.  It gives them an important sense of being a writer.  After all, we are what we think we are.