#24 – TIp – Use Elaboration Prompts to Grow Your Big Idea…Take 2

Yesterday, I grew my thinking about being a teacher in a self-contained classroom. Today I plan to repeat this exercise by taking the stance of being a teacher who teaches many classes of students and not all subject, the departmentalization model.

I like the idea of being departmentalized as a classroom teacher. In other words, I like teaching reading and writing. I’m realizing that over the past 8 years, the majority of my time has been spent on getting better at teaching literacy. For example I’ve attended summer institutes and I earned my National Board in Literacy. This is giving me the idea that all that knowledge I have, shouldn’t be limited to helping just one classroom of students. For example by departmentalizing, I could reach more kids using what I know. To add on, I have a ways to go to be an OK math and science teacher. I’m not harming the kids but I’m realizing that I need so much more time spent learning how to teach these subject well. I’m realizing there is only so much time and a better use of it might be to use what I already know well and teach literacy. An example of this was last year. I taught 5th grade writing. I was able to focus just on writing. I planned with the 4th grade teacher and together we pushed each other to teach the writing process through many units of study ending each unit with publishing parties. My 5th graders wrote LOTS and I was proud of what I helped them accomplish. Looking back on this gives me the idea that when a teacher really knows a subject and feels comfortable with it, the teacher can help her students soar. On the other hand, this year I have tried to make math exciting and fun and rigorous. But it is very time consuming. What surprises me about this is that after 23 years as a teacher, I still have so much to learn. For example after all this time, as I look back, so much of my time has already been spent teaching literacy – 6 yr as a K teacher which is a big literacy year, 5 years teaching 4th all subjects, 12 years as a Reading Specialist (all literacy!) and one year as a 5th grade writing teacher… What surprises me as I list the years and my focus is that I shouldn’t be surprised that I still struggle to teach non-literacy subjects. This is giving me the idea that maybe I should push to ask my administration if there is a spot for me to use all I know about literacy and teach just those subjects. Many people think that elementary school is the time to teach the whole kid and those kids deserve one teacher devoted to them. But now I am wondering if the expertise of the teacher shouldn’t also be valued and utilized? To add on, I have loved the flexibility of my self-contained schedule and I have loved knowing one group of kids really well. Yet, I wonder if they would be stronger mathematicians with another and if more of the 3rd graders would be stronger readers and writers if I had the chance to guide more of them. Many people think that classrooms should be self-contained in Elementary school. But I think we should be open to many possibilities and not ignore the strengths of the teachers as we staff a school.

Again, I started this piece with a stance and the writing prompts I talked about in my #23post open on my computer. When my hands stopped typing, I glanced over, picked a prompt, typed it and kept typing. Once finished, I went back and highlighted the prompts used.

Now that I finished yesterday and today’s writing, I clearly see this is an issue with 2 sides!
I can’t wait to see what I’ll be teaching next year, in the next 10 years.

#23 – TIp – Use Elaboration Prompts to Grow Your Big Idea

At the Monday conference in my town, Lucy shares tips for teaching essay. After having us learn the STRUCTURE of essay using her bootcamp strategy to write I love ice cream because…because…and most of all, because …. , she reminded me that to revise essay, elaboration prompts help. I have used elaboration prompts with my writing students and it never fails!! I made this bookmark for my students to hold and use. Feel free to use and/or tweek. The prompts are from the Units of Study for teaching Writing. I vividly remember Kate Roberts teaching me this at a workshop where she bravely had someone in the audience name a big idea and then had the list of prompts projecting from the document camera. She started to write and when she got stuck, we called out a prompt to keep her going. Since seeing that, I have bravely repeated this in my classroom, handing cards with a prompt on it to a handful of kids. And I write in front of them as I jot down the prompts heard and fill in more ideas, elaborating! I can still see a 4th grader I taught 2 years ago smiling at me at the end of the workshop where this was the mini-lesson. “Mrs. Donnelly, I used every prompt on the bookmark,” she said as I looked at her notebook, two pages filled!

Here’s my attempt now to grow a big idea in draft form – Self-contained vs Departmentalized?
(Full disclosure – I am not sure what I’ll be typing here – as I’ve recently taught both and like both for different reasons…)

         As it becomes springtime in a school, teachers start to think about NEXT year. Right now I am teaching all the subjects all day to one group of kids. I call this self-contained. I’m realizing that I like the flexibility. If I want a math lesson to go longer, I can. If I want to squeeze in another read-aloud, I can steal time away from science and make it up tomorrow. An example of this was last Wednesday when we had an author visit. We attended his presentation first thing in the morning. I had math and social studies activities planned. But the author got us excited to read and write. So, I pushed those lessons to the next day and we spent more time reading and writing. I could do this because no one was expecting me to change classes like you do when you departmentalize.  I also only have 23 students and families to know well. I see this being helpful when the parents write me emails asking me questions. With just 23 families, I have easily been able to respond. This is giving me the idea that self-contained is where I should stay. What surprises me about this is that I took a job 2 years ago specifically to be the 5th grade writing teacher. I only had to plan writing and teach it to 4 classes a day. I used to think that only having one subject to worry about as a teacher would be the best. And I did like feeling very prepared in my one subject. But now, I realize some of the cons to being departmentalized. One is you have to teach LOTS of students that one subject and I found it hard to know them all well. To add on, I had to set the timer at the beginning of every class and no matter where we were, when the timer went off, we had to stop. Many people think that being departmentalized sounds easier – only one subject to know so well. But having done it and now also done self-contained, I prefer self-contained. It allows me flexibility with my schedule and time to really know my students. (And I am even getting better at teaching math!)

(Full disclosure – I did not expect to write this much. Proof that these elaboration prompts work!! Once done, I went back and bolded all the prompts I used.)

#22 – Tip – Include what the story is really about.

At the Monday conference I attended in my town on the Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Lucy taught us revision tips – after telling the story bit by bit and using storytelling techniques, she said to ask “What is happening internally with the character (often stated by finishing these sentences: I wonder….I notice…I remember…. )” and ask “What is this story really about?”

My story summary is about the time I spent two Saturdays ago chatting on the phone for three hours to help my oldest prepare for a job interview. Here is my attempt at writing it as a small moment that uses Lucy’s the revision tips:

I picked up my blue iPhone and texted Bridgit by typing “I’m free to chat today.” and I got this text right back, “How about in 20 minutes?” After sending a happy face reply, I grabbed my laptop, my phone and headed upstairs to my bedroom. Up there, I could talk and type on the computer easily. 

After a bit, the phone rang. “Hi mom, I sent you a google doc with the questions.” 

“Great, let me open up that file,” I said set the phone on speaker, freeing up my hands. The document was a list of questions she had received from her recruiter and also another document was her resume. 

“So tell me, why this company?” I asked using one of the questions. And she started to rattle off things that attracted her to this job. And I typed things she said into the document as she talked. When she started to ramble, I asked clarifying questions. Then told her to start over and answer it again and I typed the clearer answer. When she hesitated on an anecdote to use, we brainstormed together and then I asked her again and typed her chosen story. 

Finally, I looked at the phone and it showed a low battery and that we were approaching hour three of this conversation. “I think I better go soon. I hope this helped.” 

As I hung up, I wondered about Bridgit. I would hire her in a heart beat. She is very accomplished for her 27 years. She is smart and has a great work ethic. Any company would be lucky to get her. And one will. As her mom, I just want it to be a company that she is passionate to help and one that treats her well as a valued employee. And one that includes hours off to enjoy things, like visits from her mom on holidays!

#21 – "add the weather…"

I feel very spoiled. Today, just 2 days after being inspired by Lucy and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at their 90th Saturday Reunion, I was invited to a conference 10 minutes from my house to spend the day with Lucy learning about the Units of Study for Teaching Writing. During her presentation, she had us writing. To make this point: Writers get better with explicit instruction, she told us to pick a moment that happened over the weekend and jot it down.

I quickly jotted:
I walked with Fran, Tara and Donna down Broadway to Deluxe. Once there, we sat at a booth and ate and shared all we learned during the day. 

Lucy stopped us and said: “Try this tip – add the weather to mirror the inner emotional state of the character.”

So now that I have a little more time, I wrote this, trying to use the tip to add the weather to mirror my emotional state:

              “Hi, Tara. Hi, Fran! It’s great to see you in person,” I said as I pushed through the crowded Riverside church. “This is my friend, Donna. Do you have time to grab a bite? We’re starving!”

            “That place you mentioned sounded good. Let’s head there,” Fran said and the four of us began to walk slowly down the main aisle of the church, slowly because he were following the herd of a thousand teachers also leaving a busy and tiring day of learning at TCRWP. As we exited, I pulled my coat closed and zipped it up as a cool breeze reminded us that snow was in the forecast. I was next to my friend Donna, while Fran and Tara followed a few steps behind us. Down Broadway we walked.

       As a cold wind kept blowing as we walked, I wondered about having lunch with these two teachers who I don’t really know that well. Would I, who tends to be shy around strangers, have stuff to talk to them about? Then I remembered that I had met Fran last summer twice – to chat at a coffee shop and then again while attending a week-long institute together. We even spent a whole afternoon together at a piano bar (The Carlyle where the walls were painted by Ludwig Bemelmans, the author/illustrator of Madeline) followed by dinner. “You have nothing to worry about,” I reminded myself . “Fran is very easy to talk to. I can ask her about her grandson and about books she has read recently and of course, about the writing challenge we are all doing.” 

     As the wind continued to blow, I thought how crazy it was that I get to eat with Tara today. She is one of the TwoWritingTeachers! She is one of the leaders of my favorite blog which sponsors the March Slice of Life Writing Challenge. I guess I am a bit starstruck by Tara. I love reading her blog posts. She always has strong school reflections and stories. And now I’d be sitting in a restaurant talking with her over a whole meal.

     As I wondered if this lunch idea was a good one, I realized it was too late to change our plan. We were  standing outside of Deluxe. I stepped inside and it felt so warm. I unzipped my coat and a friendly waiter led us to a booth. He even agreed to plug in Tara’s phone so it could charge while we ate. I sat down thinking how lucky I am to spend time with these two ladies. And for the next 45 minutes, we all chatted non-stop, as if we have been close friends for a very long time.

PS – Thanks Lucy for the writing tip!
I do think the explicit instruction made my writing better today!!

Revisions to my 1st Time Personal Narrative

Last Tuesday, I typed my draft of a first time story. This week, I spent time revising and reflecting on how I went about revising. If I “get” what I do, then I feel more confident to teach my students how to revise.
REVISIONS: As I revised, I tried to do these things –
1.     I looked at my lead and checked to see if it told WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, WHY.
2.     I looked at the heart of the story – the part where I was reading – and made sure it was stretched out.
3.     I looked at my ending and made sure it had a feeling that connected back to the beginning.
4.     I also noticed that I drafted using very long sentences. I tried out changing the length of some of my sentences.
First Time Reading at Church by Mrs. Donnelly
As the congregation sat down, it was my cue to walk onto the altar. My third grade teacher had picked me to be a lector for the school Mass, a job I had never done before. I heard a loud echo with each step I took, as my church shoes touched the marble floor of the St. James Church. Once at the podium, I climbed to the second step of the step stool. Now I could see the large book and my mouth was close to the microphone.
I saw placed on top of the opened book, a xeroxed copy of my reading, a reading I had been practicing with my teacher for the past two weeks. I saw the many slanted lines my teacher had added to help me chunk the word phrases. I saw the punctuation highlighted at the end of each sentence. I cleared my throat and began. Even though I could probably recite the reading now from memory, I kept my eyes glued to the page, not looking up once. I didn’t want to see how many people were sitting in church and how many were now listening to me.
In a loud voice, I said, “A Reading (pause) from the Book (pause) of Genesis”. As I continued, I remembered to pause longer at each highlighted punctuation mark. I remembered to also pause at each slash mark made by my teacher – a slash about every 4-6 words. “Scoop up a whole phrase and say it in one breath,” she coached me. “It will sound funny to you to go so slow, but it will sound clearer through the microphone.”
The next thing I knew, I wasreading the last phrase, “This is the word of the Lord” and the congregation replied, “Thanks be to God.” I stepped down from the step stool and slowly walked back to my pew.
As I walked, I saw her – my teacher. She was motioning a thumbs-up and had a big smile on her face. I breathed in and out and smiled widely, too. I took my seat in my pew relieved that my reading was over and content that all my preparation, with my teacher’s help, had paid off.

Friday is our publishing party and I plan to display my story, too!