Month: October 2015

Supporting Independence in ELL Writers Benefits All Writers

Fostering independence, simple strategies, and thoughtful planning – these are the big ideas from the work of Meredith Alvaro (  Meredith is a national consultant on literacy, especially focusing on ELLs.  Our campus was fortunate to host Meredith on our campus for labsite visits for two days this month.  This blog post will explain some of the amazing learning that took place over these two days.

(Note:  This introduction was written following one of her strategies for writing introductions.  I plan to use this with students to show that this is a strategy for all writers.  It will serve them throughout their lives as writers – not just for one writing piece.)

Meredith taught three sessions on our campus over two days focused on expository writing.  Our school has both bilingual and ESOL programs.  Fourth grade teachers from various schools in our district were invited by the Department of Other Languages to learn from and observe Meredith with our fourth graders. I was impressed when I attended a workshop with Meredith last year, but seeing her teach our students was an extraordinary experience.  My teachers were quick to put these ideas into practice on our campus.

A Walk Through An Expository Writing Unit

The central message of Meredith’s work with us was the students MUST be able to write independently, which includes taking pieces through all the steps of the writing process.  Every strategy, tool, and tip she shared went back to the idea of developing student independence.  Meredith described four bends in a unit.  I will walk you through the unit and embed her strategies and tips within each bend of the unit.

Bend 1:   Immerse your writers in student examples of the genre.  These may be actual student samples or you may choose to ghost write these as a student.  Provide a packet of at least three pieces to each student.  As a class you will analyze these to mark the introductions, thesis statement, “parts” or support for the thesis, and the closings.  You are developing a sense of what writing in this genre should look like and sound like for students.  Students will use these packets as reference tools for the remainder of the unit.

Bend 2:  This is where your writers will spend the majority of their time in the unit.  Provide students with a process chart, “What am I Doing Today”.  On this chart you will list the steps to the process in order.  Students should be able to indicate where they are in the process by moving a binder clip along the edge or moving an icon on Velcro down a strip or whatever creative idea you have for that in your classroom.  Students will be writing at least two pieces through this bend in the unit by referring to the steps rather than asking you what to do when they are “done.” In this bend they will not complete the final draft step.

Handouts (Meredith Alvaro) 10-15-15_Page_09 (2)

     To help students with organizing their pieces teach them to be independent with the “Giant T” organizer.  While complicated graphic organizers create dependence, simple ones that students create themselves fosters independence.  Meredith had our students practice making the organizer in the air, with fingers on desks, and with paper and pencil.  Students then write their topic in the rectangle, their parts on the left side and related words for each part on the right.

giant t

     Each part becomes a paragraph in your essay (chapter in all about books for younger students).  Teach students to use at least one word from the word bank he or she created per sentence in the writing.  Students can successfully elaborate using this method.  They should check off each word as they use it.  If students cannot think of parts to go with their topic, teach them a strategy called ‘Brain Drop.”  Using this strategy students think of 10 words related to the topic and think about how the words are related.  the created categories become the parts to the piece.

brain drop

Once students have a plan they can begin drafting.  Students draft in what Meredith calls a “drafting booklet.”  Simply staple together loose leaf notebook paper:  1 for introduction, 1 for each part they have identified, and 1 for closing.  The benefits to using the drafting booklets are:  more room for revising and trying out different things (therefore students are more likely to revise), you have the ability to easily add paper to say more, and when they are ready to publish – each turn of the page as they write the final copy is a indentation for a paragraph.

Bend 3:   This bend is a short bend.  Writers decide which piece they will publish.  The teacher provides bottom lines for revising and editing based on the skills taught and what students should have mastered.  Meredith emphasized that we need to teach students that revising is explaining more. Students should revise and edit section by section.  She has some “magic words” we can use to help students to revise to say more.

anecdote – “one time…”

example – “for example”

data – “out of the ___(#) students I surveyed ____ say…”

definition – “___ is ____ or _____ are ____

explanation – “This is similar to…” “This means…” “This shows…”

Bend 4:  In this the time to work on responding to a prompt as they may need to for tests.  On Day 1 the teacher gives the prompt and students get their ideas and plan (think: Giant T).  On Day 2 students finish their plans and begin to draft.  The third day is when students finish drafts and begin revising.  On the final day students finish the revision and edit the pieces.

Picture this – students enthusiastically planning for an essay, writers lingering long enough in the oral rehearsal phase of writing, and teachers happily conferring while students independently write.  This is what is possible when you use the ideas of Meredith Alvaro in your writing workshop.  We know these strategies will be transforming in our classrooms.  I urge you to visit Meredith’s website and if you have the opportunity to see her in person, I highly recommend taking advantage of the opportunity.

Living the workshop with you,


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic


Comic Comprehension

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of working with teachers on conferring. While in the room, I conferred with a few students that were reading graphic novels. When I approached the reader, the teacher said, “I can have him read a real book if that would help.” I graciously declined and proceeded with the conference. At the end of the reading conference, the teacher remarked that she didn’t know so much thinking work was possible in a graphic novel.

Since then, that experience has resonated with me and I have taken note of student-teacher interactions with graphic novels. Most of the conversations consist of the teacher wanting the student to push themselves with their thinking, not realizing the gem that was sitting in front of them. Some teachers have even asked for something to help them with this newer and quickly growing genre. This post is a quick introduction to help you get started with working in this genre.  Most of the information comes from a wonderful book I began with work with called Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 by Terry Thompson (Twitter: @TerryTreads).

Windows of Information

The first major thing in graphic books we need to look at are the panels. Panels, outlined below in green and yellow, are similar to paragraphs in regular text books.  Like text, we read panels left to right, top to bottom. Panels, sometimes called frames, come in many shapes and sizes. The shapes and sizes are not random. Sometimes panels are inlaid in other panels. All of this is the craft of the author/illustrator.  The do it on purpose. Our thinking task as a reader is to figure that out.  This is something we can explore with our students as they read. The sample on the right hand side below shows inlaid panels. In this case, the panels change the point of view to look at things from the perspective of the character that is upside down.  I might explore with the reader, why the writer of the book might of done that.  It is would probably be more of an inquiry conference to help the reader discover why the writer chose to make the panels like this as opposed to the normal way.  After the discovery process, I follow up with an explicit teaching strategy, giving a what, why, how, and when to use it, such as:

Readers notice when panels change shape because the writer wants to understand something important. When we notice a change in shape or a panel inlaid within another we stop and ask:

  • What is happening right here?
  • How is this important to the story?

The answers can give us clues about the character or help us figure out what is really happening.”


Read Between the Panels

Gutters are the spaces between the panels. They have major inference work in them that readers do without even realizing it.  For instance, take the example below. The gutter is the indicated by the red arrow. It is the spot for the reader to figure out, or infer, what happens between the two panels. In this case, the mouse in the red took the information from the mouse wearing orange, processed it, stopped digging, grabbed the paper out of the orange mouse’s hand and started running. All of this happened in the gutter. Students usually complete this process unconsciously. It is our job to help make this thinking conscious and grow it.


Voice Overs

Narrative boxes (outlined in green below) move along the plot line or show a shift in setting similar to a narrative voice over of a nature show on TV. Sometimes they are even used to summarize one or more panels. These boxes are a wonderful thinking opportunity for the reader to keep track of the plot and setting.  They are meant to be noticed and used to maintain meaning within the text.


Fluency Work

Another area we can work with students on in graphic novels is fluency, more specifically expression. One of the things I teach readers is to read dialogue in a way that matches what the character is feeling. Graphic novels are great tools for this work. Look. at the panel below from a Rosen Publishing graphic biography. When we first read the speech bubble, as an adult reader, we can infer that the character is worried about something and will insert that feeling of worry into the text. With our growing readers, that process is not automatic. I would have the reader look at the character’s face and infer what he or she is feeling.  When reading the dialogue, say it like the character is feeling.  It makes a big difference with the expression and comprehension.


Mood Panels

In graphic novels, we can also delve into more complex comprehension areas such as mood. In graphic novels, everything is done on purpose, including the color.  Color can give us great insights into the mood of a scene.  Take for instance, this panel:


Looking at just the colors in this picture, I notice that there is a lot of dark and blue colors.  This suggests that something negative has happened or is about to happen. When I look at the narrative box, my thought is confirmed because something did not go smoothly. I also see a shining light in the picture as well that makes me think that the situation may turn out okay.  The light gives the character hope. All of this deep and complex thinking work is just from the one panel.  From this point you could extend the work to plot, foreshadowing, ex cetera.

Just the Beginning

This work is a great way to start students working in this genre of book. To explore further, I highly encourage you to read Terry Thompson’s book, Adventures in Graphica. This a genre full of rich thinking work just waiting for you and your students to explore and grow as readers.

Increasing Writing Volume

writing volume

     As an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Coach, one of the most common questions I get from teachers is how can they get some students to write more.  Earlier this week I discussed ways to increase reading volume, so today we will switch to a focus on increasing writing volume.

Creating an Excitement Around Writing

     Just as in reading, we need to create an excitement for kids about putting their thoughts on paper.  This can be a scary proposition for some kids.  We make ourselves vulnerable when we write our thoughts.  One of the best ways to create this excitement at all grade levels is to share your own writing. Kids love to see their teachers writing and sharing from their own lives.  It also works to create a sense of community and safety in sharing our writing.

     One sure way to create excitement is to make a student a “star”.  Showcasing  their writing (or even a small part of a piece) to peers during the mid-workshop interruption or the share time at the end can go a long way in building momentum for a student.  Of course the surest way to make them a star is to display their work or show it to a classroom visitor along with a genuine compliment about the piece.  Our end of unit celebrations can be a way to make all of our student feel like writing stars.  My favorite celebrations to attend are the ones where I can interact with the students and leave written comments about their pieces.  I have seen 5th grade “cool” boys who proclaim celebrations to be “no big deal”, read their written comments on a piece and try not to smile around their peers (they usually are unsuccessful and the smile shines through).

Motivation by Choices

     Most workshop teachers already implement the basic philosophy of student choice in selecting topics to write about.  As in many districts, we work in units, usually genre driven, but students are able to choose their daily writing topics.  There are many other aspects of workshop where providing a choice can motivate students to write more.  One of my favorites is providing a large variety of writing utensils.  Sometimes a reluctant student has lots to write about if provided a glitter pen in their favorite color.  Or a student with a love of a particular sports team might be willing to write more when the team logo is on their pen.The secret to being successful with this technique is the pens are only available during writing workshop.   Collen Cruz from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP)and author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher writes about other reasons to provide felt tip pens in this article from TCRWP.  Many of the reasons from Colleen’s article center on the physical aspects of handwriting and on other tips from Occupational Therapists.

      I read recently that if all student projects look alike then it was no better than a worksheet.  I think the same can be true for our published writing.  Choice in publishing formats can be motivating to students as well.  Using technology can really change up how students final products look. For years our fourth graders all made salt dough maps of the regions of Texas.  They all looked exactly alike and although it was fun to play with the dough, it was a forgettable assignment. This year the teachers gave the assignment to make a 3D map of Texas regions, with salt dough being just one option.  We have such a variety, students made pull-tabs with animals from each region, some created QR codes to link to websites with more information about the regions, and others  wrote their own descriptions to attach to the maps.  By providing choice, the learning went to much deeper levels than ever before.  Students did much more than was expected of them.  The same is true in writing when we provide choices about publication.

    photo 1photo 2

An Audience is Key

     I have seen first hand how much an audience can motivate our students to write more.  When they know others are coming to their celebrations, it ups the ante for production.  Many of our teachers are using the SeeSaw app (more information can be found here) this year for digital portfolios.  This app is amazing for many reasons, but one of the best features is that there is student ownership over it.  Students (as young as kindergarten) take pictures, videos, or voice recordings of their work using their own icon for their account.  Students can annotate on the picture showcasing what they are most proud of.  Once the teacher approves the post it goes into their digital learning journal where parents who set up an account are notified of the post and can comment back.  What a fabulous way to get feedback from a audience they care deeply about!  Of course, blogs are another great digital tool to get writing to a larger audience.

     There are ways to get our paper versions of our writing to larger audiences too.  Adding student published work to the school and classroom library can be very motivation to students. They are truly authors with others reading their work.  Just this week in our district sponsored chat over The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Colleen Cruz shared the idea of guerrilla publishing.  That is putting student writing in places where readers will most likely find and read it. Maybe adding writing pieces related to sports to the gym or putting pieces in the front office for students and parents to read while waiting.  I plan to add a basket to the front office area with student writing.

Strategies Can Teach How to Write More

     Many of the strategies in Jennifer Serravallo’s book, The Reading Strategies Book, can be flipped to work for writing.  Serravallo  discusses setting page goals with readers.  With writers we can put a sticker on a page with how much we expect them to write in one day.  Celebrate when they reach the goal.  Similarly, she presents a strategy of a “party ladder” for reading.  We can do the same in writing:  write 2 paragraphs, take a break for a drink of water, write two more paragraphs, celebrate by going to read what you have written to your younger sibling in another class.  The stamina charts for reading can also be switched to how many words (or how many minutes of writing) were written.

     For all students the oral rehearsal can be beneficial to writing a great piece, and for some writers it is absolutely essential.  Student who need more oral talk than talking with a partner can use technology to help.  I have used the Dragon Dictation app with good results.  The student dictates their story and the speech is translated into text.  What I especially like is this is just a starting point.  The student takes that and must add in punctuation and other conventions.  It is a great way to get a quick draft down and the student feels like there is momentum they can sustain going forward.

     This summer I attended a training with Jeff Anderson using his book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  His first rule is all about increasing volume, it is writers have motion.  He has several ideas to get writers going in this chapter.  One that I especially liked is Power Writes.  You give students two words (unrelated words) and let them pick one of the two words.  You then time students for a few minutes writing to the chosen word.  At the end of the time have your writers count how many words were written.  Then choose two more unrelated words and have them choose one.  Again time them for the same amount of time and count the words at the end.  Doing this a couple of times a month and keeping track of the words written can really help to increase how much they write. We know that what gets practiced is what we strengthen.  This strengthens their writing muscles to be able to write more in each workshop session, just as training for a race by running for increasing distances strengthens our muscles to run longer distances.

Living the workshop with you!


Follow me on Twitter @melissajonesic