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Showing posts from 2009

How Do We Provide Effective Writing Instruction?

I recently had the good fortune to work with a group of Graduate teachers about to embark on their initial teaching appointments in January 2010. They presented with that expected blend of enthusiasm and trepidation. Along with some fellow consultants we spent a week together at Victoria University examining how best to deliver literacy in the classroom. They watched keenly as classroom visitations to a variety of schools provided demonstrations of the literacy block and the reading, writing connection. They witnessed explicit teaching of literacy strategies, where students practiced authentic reading and writing. They had opportunities to observe how quality conversations enhance understanding for literacy learners. They came back with questions and wonderings…

I trust, as a result of this experience, these eager graduates will carry with them these important messages about the teaching of writing:

Effective Teachers Develop A Sense of Community for Student Writers!
This important eleme…

Lifting the Quality of Writing

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To lift the quality of writing among student writers there are some strategic things we need to do with our teaching.

Firstly, we need to expose them to quality writing! Encourage them to find mentors they admire. Once they have identified their personal mentor, we then challenge them to consciously write in the style of that particular writer.

To support the growth and awareness of quality writing we should use extracts from the work of trusted authors and have students identify just exactly what the author did with language; with ideas. Discussion should focus on identifying the writer’s purpose in relation to craft and how that affects the writing. Try to name what the mentor author has done.
To further support the concept of mentor authors, we need to model for them how we would utilize an aspect of the writing craft gleaned from a selected mentor. We need to do this in our very own writing. This is a critical step in the process. It provides powerful modelling how we, ourselves, rea…

Slice of Life Story- Early Morning Adventures

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In Melbourne, Australia we are experiencing an early summer with temperatures sizzling into the mid thirties (97degrees Fahrenheit) for almost a week. This has been the hottest November weather since 1925, we are told. Each morning I have walked to the beach with our dog Boo in an attempt to cool us both off. The temperature of the water has not caught up with the air temperature. It lags behind significantly. No warm currents to warm the bay. It is still bone chilling cold, particularly in the early part of the day. It is a struggle with the mind to overcome the knowledge that the water will smack you into life. Self talk is needed. I have to challenge myself to dive in. Contact with the water is stunning and refreshing in equal doses. My body buzzes with the shock of the cold water.I feel a sense of achievement having overcome my reticence. I stand up and then feel the urge to dive under again. This is great way to begin the day. I am alive in every sense of the word.

It will be hot …

Think Before Ink!

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“Think Before Ink!” I read that heading in Mark Treddinick’s book, ‘The Little Red Writing Book' and it reminded me that writing is essentially a process, most of which happens when you are not writing

From experience we learn that writing is clearer, shorter and more engaging for the reader when it has been thought through first. We don’t want the reader to stumble along with us as we try to make sense of the true purpose of our writing. The reader wants the story, not the sketchy details, or uncertain ramblings.
Successful writing is about thinking and design. It is the rehearsal before the grand performance. This has real implications for the way writing is presented in the classroom. Developing writers need time and space to rehearse and refine their writing intentions. Talking through ideas, making plans, considering the content, and generally sorting out where they want the piece to go. Katie Wood Ray talks about the need to have vision before revision, well writers need to de…

Slice of Life Story -Delve Into Twelve

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What is it about the number 12 that so many people have difficulty with? Twelve is a most intriguing number. Most calendar systems have twelve months in a year. The Western zodiac has twelve signs, as does the Chinese zodiac. There are twenty-four hours in a day in all, with twelve hours for a half a day. A new day starts with the stroke of midnight. Furthermore, the basic units of time (60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours) can all perfectly divide by twelve. Twelve squared is 144, also known as a gross. Twelve is a great number!

The concept of a dozen however seems to elude many of my fellow citizens it seems. Today I was standing in the supermarket line patiently awaiting my turn at the checkout, and it became obvious that the customers in front of me had so blatantly exceeded the ’12 items or less’ message despite the fact that it is so clearly displayed for all to read.

Not a big deal? Well the first few times it happened I let it roll by. Then I started silently counting just to conf…

Writing Magic - Switching Genres!

The final term of the school year provides an excellent opportunity for students to revisit a genre explored earlier. They could rework a piece of writing published earlier in the year or rework a writing piece in a different genre than was originally attempted. I.e. non- fiction piece could be transformed into a realistic fiction piece, a poem, a play, a fiction piece. The possibilities are many. Such a study provides students with an opportunity to develop the understanding that one writing idea can be represented in different forms. It also allows students to progress further in their understanding of how writing is a fluid form of communication.

To begin, ask students to consider questions such as:
• What genre are you most comfortable writing?
• Which of your previously published writing pieces would you like to revisit?
• What does changing the genre of a piece allow you, the author, to do?

We can provide student writers with an opportunity to demonstrate through writing, a working k…

Memoir Monday -The Great Potato Heist

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When a boy is only nine years old, he can do strange things. This was a time when a field of potatoes caused me loads of trouble…

My friend Robert and I decided to take our billy-cart with us as we set off to explore the local neighbourhood. We were hoping to find a half decent hill to descend. The billy cart had been the product of the previous weekend’s efforts. A construction strung together using a mixture of scrounged odds and ends. A lettuce box atop a wooden frame, a set of disused pram wheels and a piece of rope nailed to the front for steering purposes, made up this rickety downhill racer. The only modification to the lettuce box was to knock the front panel out so that the driver could extend their legs forward to help steer the cart on its wild descent. No brakes, and the lettuce box carriage was so rough it guaranteed to give you splinters almost every time some part of body made contact.

We pushed past went Les Blake's house, but he…

What We Can Learn From Studying Writing

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I have recently purchased Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven –A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop. I have long been a fan of Katie’s writing messages. Several of her books stand proudly on my library shelves. In Study Driven, Ray spells out some strong messages about how writing needs to be approached. To quote the author,

“Framing instruction as study represents an essential stance to teaching and learning, an enquiry stance, characterized by repositioning curriculum as the outcome of instruction rather than the starting point…”

Katie Wood Ray contends:

Texts should be used to mentor students to write real things in the ways real writers write. This makes teaching ‘authentic’
Writing needs to be 'studied' and not 'taught.' This requires teachers to read like writers – along held belief of the author.
Teachers need to be writers and gatherers of mentor texts, but curriculum can not be determined before the students begin to study. It requires a flexi…

Bring The Writing Centre to Life!

Setting up a writing centre in the classroom is a great idea. However, its a great idea that needs regular commitment and maintenance if its potential is to be realized. Writing centres often become museum pieces if young writers aren’t encouraged to use the allotted space. You know the scene – it looks great, it looks glitzy, but rarely do you see students actually occupying the space. What a waste of a great space! It’s a bit like Nana’s special dining set –constantly admired, rarely used. It may as well be covered in plastic to protect it from stains.

A writing centre set up with the requisite supports, such as computer, printer, camera, an assortment of pens, markers, papers, book making materials, writing reminders and ideas, photographs, books on writing, etc provides great stimulus to developing writers. To give this space added appeal young writers need to be shuffled through this special classroom space each day. You could either set up a sign in sheet, or a schedule, so that …

Memoir Monday -An Island Adventure

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In San Juan we waited for some time for our connecting flight to St Kitts. Repeated announcements through muffled speakers informed in-transit travelers that flights were delayed -and, in some instances oversubscribed. Weight restrictions meant that only twenty-four passengers could be carried on planes originally designed to carry forty-two. A standard offer of $300 was presented to any passenger who would willingly ‘jump off’ and take a later flight. The announcer kept reminding everyone that weight restrictions were the cause of the problem. A man sitting opposite me continued tucking into a pizza. A quick glance around the lounge confirmed that there was in fact, an oversupply of fat tourists.

We finally boarded for St Kitts and then spent an hour in a hot, cramped plane with a hairy-armed hostess who dispensed miserable bags of cheese and onion chips to passengers who only wanted to escape the heat of the cabin. I desperately wanted to tell her that she could keep her Fokker Frien…

Boy Writers

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I have been reading Ralph Fletcher's book, Boy Writers -Reclaiming Their Voices in which Ralph puts forward the view that teachers need to broaden the circle and provide boy writers with greater choice if we want to more fully engage them as writers. Ralph articulates the view that boys come to writing with unique issues and perceptions of the world and if we want them to remain in the game, we need to understand the world in this frequently reside.

This approach does not advocate promoting the interests of boys at the expense of girls, rather, there are approaches that can be incorporated into our teaching that will lead to boys more fully embracing writing. Each chapter of the book contains many practical suggestions under the heading, 'What Can I Do In My Classroom?'

The aim of the book is to be practical, not political.The book also contains a number of samples of boys writing. They provide concrete examples of what motivates boy writers. They are included as models of…

Building Community in the Writing Workshop

I have recently been working in a Grade 4 classroom at Heany Park Primary School in Melbourne's eastern region. The focus of the writing has been developing memoir pieces. The teacher, Prue Nimmo has provided her students with a high level of support by immersing them in the genre. She has read memoir pieces to her students. She has written several memoir pieces of her own and shared the development of her writing pieces with her students across several lessons. Prue has worked tirelessly to ensure her young writers take the learning journey along side her. Telling her personal stories, Prue has signalled to her students that their personal stories are valuable as well. Her teaching has focused on the structure and features of the genre. She has taken time to alert her students to the need to write with the audience in mind, and so her students have worked hard to engage their readers with snappy, attention grabbing leads. Time has been given over to discussion and planning so tha…

Writing About Reading - Reading Reflection Journals:

Writing in response to literature can be a great way for students to organize their thoughts, explore what they think, and generate ideas. One of the strengths of writing in journals is that it allows students to capture all of those great ideas that generally float off into the air during the discussion.

Journal writing can also become drudgery if students are asked to write too often, given little choice or inspiration in what to write, or if they simply don't have anything to say.

While some students eagerly share their impressions about selections they have read in class discussions, others are less comfortable and keep their thoughts to themselves. In an effort to encourage all students to think more about what they read and confidently share their observations and opinions, some teachers are turning to the reading reflection journal and are gaining insights they never anticipated.

The Value of Reflection Journals
Journals assist teachers to gain insights regarding student com…

Memoir Piece - Monkey In The Morning

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A regular occurrence for me is recalling New York moments. It is now close to three years since I moved back home to Australia permanently, but those moments from our New York life come flooding back all the time. Given the cultural and intellectual diversity of this urban giant, it was almost certain that each day you would encounter a moment that left you dumfounded, or at the very least shaking your befuddled head in utter disbelief. It is one of the many things that makes New York so intriguing. You have to laugh, or at the very least have a quiet chuckle to yourself…

-And so it was one unsuspecting Saturday morning. I awoke after a pleasant Friday evening spent entertaining friends. I felt ready to dive head long into the weekend. Meaning, I did not feel seedy or disoriented. Vicki was standing at the north facing window of our then apartment looking down at the rooftop opposite.. She had a puzzled look on her face. ‘That’s either a small child or a monkey in a suit down there’ sh…

Being Explicit When Teaching Writing Craft Strategies

Teaching the craft of writing requires teachers to be explicit in their work with students. This occurs when we provide a progressive and sequential program of instruction when we are clear about what it is we want children to learn and when we provide a meaningful, focused program of instruction.

When consideration is given to focused learning we need to provide students with opportunities to make sense of the learning by creating purposeful connections between lesson purposes, lesson tasks and texts, and lesson reviews or conclusions. If these aspects of our lesson align, we increase our chances of success.

When introducing a new craft strategy we need to:

Explain to students the purpose of the instruction and why you have chosen to involve them in such instruction;
Explain the strategy explicitly, specifically saying what it is, and how and when it should be used;
Model the strategy in authentic writing situations, saying when it is most useful or even when it is not applicable;
Think a…

Slice of Life Story - Indulging In Simple Pleasures

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Today was an office day. A day to prepare for tomorrow’s school based work day. Four demonstrations lessons for Years 7-9 teachers in both reading and writing workshop needed organizing. My mind was abuzz with possibility. I began the essential planning. I am ever mindful that my lessons need to set students up to be successful. The quality of my modelling is therefore critical.

It is easy to get stuck at the computer. The office becomes a bit like a cave from which you rarely emerge if you’re not mindful. There is so much here in this room to hold my attention. Surrounded by books and artefacts I am content in this place. The clock claws away at your time each day, so it is important to reserve some part of each day for simple pleasures -a change of activity.
Around mid day I took a break. Boo needed a walk and I needed to get some fresh air. We stepped out into a crisp Autumn day –plenty of blue sky and tepid sunlight. With the little black dog as my close companion we walked into to…

Memoir Piece - The Iceman Cometh

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When I was a boy growing up in inner suburban Melbourne we had a regular visitor to our house. He was called the ice man. At that time our family didn't have a refrigerator, which were relatively expensive -a luxury item back then. We owned a humble ice chest. The ice man would arrive with a large block of ice carried high on his shoulder. It was brought into the kitchen wrapped in hessian and placed into the upper section of the ice chest. Sometimes he had to chip at it to make it fit into the space. Pieces of ice would go flying in all directions and eager children were always close at hand to collect the icy shards. Summertime was the time to keep watch, for it was peak season for when the ice man cometh.

When the ice melted the water collected in a metal tray which then had to be emptied with much care. Eventually we were able to afford a modern Kelvinator refrigerator. It was a modern miracle for a boy of eight years.

This marvellous invention held much more than the old ice ch…

Let's Get Real With Fiction Writing!

Realistic fiction is a genre that doesn’t get the attention in writing programs it deserves. It’s there under our noses, yet we are frequently drawn towards other genres.

Interestingly, much of the fiction that students have read to them or they select for themselves, incorporates this genre. So they are quite familiar with its structure and features.

Realistic fiction involves stories that are true to life. Students quickly realize that you don’t have things such as talking animals and cars that fly in realistic fiction. If students are taught to ask the question, ‘Could this actually happen? It will keep them away from potential pitfalls as they develop a text.

It’s perfectly legitimate to use a real event as a starting point for a realistic fiction writing piece. I have put together some possible ways to use a real event as a launching pad for a fictional piece.

Ask students to:

Make a list of at least five real life events (funny, exciting, weird, scary) that have directly affected yo…

Memoir Piece - Men of Rhubarb

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Rhubarb is an ancient plant that has been grown from a time dating back to 2000BC. The early Chinese believed it had medicinal value. Its use as a food source is relatively recent by comparison. It is a member of the sorrel family making it more closely related to the herbs in the garden than the fruits and vegetables.

The growing of rhubarb has been a given in my family for several generations. My grandfather and father before me each grew this flavoursome plant. My father taught me how to harvest the stalks and warned me never to eat the leaves, which are toxic. Even as a boy, I found it ironic that a plant that so tantalized my taste buds, (despite its tartness) also had the capacity to make me extremely ill.

I clearly recall my Dad enjoying rhubarb as a dessert with freshly made custard. I quickly followed his lead. It made for a great contrast in colour, texture and flavour- and what a taste treat! Because rhubarb has such a strongly tart flavour, it requires some tempering. I like…

Teach Writers To Gather Snippets!

During my time working in New York, the New York City Board of Education had mandated at least ninety minutes of writing and reading must be part of every school day. During that same time I looked in too many writing folders and notebooks to see that this was not necessarily always happening. Unfortunately writing had been relegated to second place behind reading -and sadly it was a long way behind!

However, in classrooms where brave and progressive teachers dwelt, there were signs of genuine progress towards the accepted standards. In these classes student were being encouraged to write for their own purposes across a range of genres. They were being alerted to the craft of writing. Their teachers enlisting the support of numerous writers to teach their students to write with greater confidence and clarity. Students were consistently alerted to the importance of becoming observers; to eavesdrop on the world around them.

This eaves dropping is a life source to any writer. Ah yes, a …

Trusting Young Writers To Think of Ideas

In my role as an Education Consultant one of my obligations is alerting teachers in schools to the importance of writing as a tool of communication.

I need to constantly stress the importance of children having the opportunity to write independently, on a daily basis. I encourage teachers to trust that their students can and will be able to think of things to write about, especially if they know their teachers support their efforts -and encourage them to be risk takers with the words they wish to use.

It is a fact that a significant number of these teachers are non writers themselves and this feeds their reluctance to trust. They experience great difficulty ‘giving over’ the control of writing in their classrooms. They frequently tell the children what to write and it amounts to little more than respond to the book type exercises –literature responses! The writing program in many classrooms has been reduced to students writing to a ‘prompt’ -A prompt owned and provided by the teacher.

I …

Assisting Writers To Enact Their Writing Plan

Assisting young writers to stay 'on track' is a major goal for all of us who teach writing. Alerting developing writers to the way in which planning provides a ‘roadmap’ for the writing to follow, is part of the essential scaffolding they need to be successful.

This need for planning is equally true for the writing students undertake when participating in the test writing genre section of such high stakes tests such as NAPLAN (National Assessment Project for Literacy and Numeracy). Under such test situations crucial time elapses while the writer considers what shape the writing will take. This of course assumes that they actually devote time to planning their response.

As concerned educators, we invest teaching time alerting students to the value of planning a writing piece. We naturally assume (and hope) that they will execute that plan.

A closer examination of what actually happens to the writer under pressure is that often a disconnect takes place between that planning and w…

Memoir Piece - Getting The Cuts In Primary School

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Corporal punishment was permitted in schools during my primary school days and as you got older, the likelihood of being a recipient of this terrible action became more concerning. The thought of ‘getting the cuts’ (up to six lashes across an outstretched palm of the hand with a leather strap or cane) was a major concern throughout any school day. Pulling your hand away only spurred your tormentor onto greater effort. Sometimes they added an extra lash. It was all quite brutal. It was only applied to boys however and at my school only designated teachers were able to use the strap or cane to inflict such pain. Usually the headmaster plus designated senior teachers were the selected pain delivery agents. Interestingly, parents never seemed to object to this action. “You probably deserved it!”, “I hope you learned a lesson from that!” or “Serves you right!” were the usual responses.

Corporal punishment was viewed by adults as character building. It was in reality a barbaric control measu…

Metaphors and Similes

These wonderful literary elements are everywhere! We owe it to our students to alert them to the power of these features to enhance their writing. It needs to be noted though that while they can add real power to writing if used effectively, - they can also read as 'tres ordinaire' if allowed to descend into cliché!

Some writers actually collect metaphors and similes using the examples as a way of refining and expanding their relationship with words.

New Zealand writer, Terence Hodgson in his book, Eyes Like Butterflies presents a treasury of similes and metaphors taken from modern English literature. The images collected in his book are arranged by theme and subject. It provides a source of reference and inspiration for writers to add to their word knowledge. Here are a couple of examples:

“A smile like a torch with a weak battery” - Hugo Charteris, The Indian Summer of Gabriel Murray

His hair was that special mad yellow, like an omelette” – Martin Amis, Money.

The following exerc…

Memoir Piece - The Value of Rehearsal

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This was going to be the shining moment of my Grade six year. I had been given the opportunity to sing at the youth club Christmas break up run by local church. The idea was that I had to choose a suitable song and practice it for the big night. I chose the sheet music and duly practiced the chosen song. My parents approved of my choice so that sealed matters.

To accompany me on piano was a church elder named George. George was a tall, gentle octogenarian with a mop of snow white hair. His voice was soothing in the same way that aloe-vera is soothing to sunburn. Before he spoke a smile would invade his face. Any public appearance meant that you would see him wearing the same, tired, blue suit. It was his church uniform, his strolling down the street uniform, his shopping at the supermarket uniform. It had been pressed and ironed so many times that it shone when the light caught it in certain directions. But the pleats in his pants were straight and beautifully formed. For a man who had…