Making Thinking Visible

Making Thinking Visible
Making Thinking Visible

Arts Integration

Arts Integration
Arts Integration

The Quiltmaker's Gift: Anticipation, Generosity, Reading Lesson Ideas & A Freebie!

Is it weird to admit that the season of advent was my favorite time of the year when I was growing up? Most of my childhood friends looked forward to Christmas or their birthdays, but I loved the anticipation of Christmas,  more than I loved Christmas.  One of my favorite things about advent was watching the lighting of the advent candles on the wreaths at school and church.  We also had an advent candle at our house. We would light the candle each night and burn it down to the number for the next day of December. It was different from what we did at church and school, but it built up the anticipation of the season in the same way.

Advent always makes me feel nostalgic.  In my classroom recently, we were reading The Quiltmaker's Gift by Jeff Brumbeau. I was telling my students about the time my sister and I unwrapped our big Christmas gift that my parents had hidden underneath their bed. VCRs were new technology, and we were finally getting one! We slyly re-wrapped the box and eagerly awaited Christmas day. When the day arrived, our parents were so excited for us to open the big gift. We were racked with guilt that we had ruined their surprise...their act of generosity. We faked our surprise. I don't think they ever knew what we had done. But we did. And we were sorry.

In The Quiltmaker's Gift, an unhappy king, who has all that he could possible need and want in the world, tries to force the Quiltmaker to give him one of her quilts. She refuses. She only gives her quilts to the poor and downhearted. She never gives them to the rich. She never sells them. When he tries to force her by putting her in threatening situations, her kindness and generosity turn the situations into positive encounters.

Eventually, the king agrees to give away all of his earthly possessions in return for one of her quilts.  He struggles to part with his treasures, even though they don't really make him happy. He perseveres, and in the long run he discovers that his acts of generosity and the impact they have on the world are what bring him joy. 

I read this book to my students every year. This year, we read it in order to tackle three learning goals. Keep reading to see how we unwrapped the gifts this book has to offer. 

Before reading, I introduced several vocabulary words from the book. My students predicted their meanings, and we discussed other words that they reminded us of and recorded our responses on chart paper.  This is a gorgeous book with gorgeous language, so there's "good stuff" for this kind of work. 

Then we read the book, noticing when we saw the words we had talked about. After reading, I showed my students the words in context. I had prepared some quotations from the book, with the words bolded. We used these quotes to learn about how we can use context clues to understand vocabulary words that we don't know. We revisited our predictions and compared and contrasted our before and after thinking about the vocabulary words. 

Our second learning target was to build on my student's knowledge of THEME. I also wanted to build controversy, because we are working on persuasive talk and writing. 

First, I introduced three basic types of conflict that exist in fiction: Character versus character, character versus the environment, and character versus society. I gave them basic definitions, and we used those definitions to discuss the type of conflict they saw in The Quiltmaker's Gift. My kiddos decided that it was character versus character. 
Then, I introduced the terms antagonist and protagonist. They decided the king was a protagonist and the quiltmaker was the antagonist.  When I've done this with other groups of students, they often think of protagonists being "good," and antagonists being "bad." This time I was careful to discuss with them that it isn't about good versus evil. 

So if I'm teaching about theme, why did I teach about conflict and story vocabulary? Because I teach students to pay attention to the conflict of the story and its resolution in order to begin thinking about theme. If a theme is a lesson about life that the story or author teaches us, then thinking about the conflict is the first big step in understanding theme. I introduced that definition of theme, and my students worked in discussion groups to unpack their thinking about theme. 

Together, they identified four major themes: Greed, generosity, kindness, and the common good. I challenged them and asked them to narrow it down to two themes that they thought were the strongest out of the four they found. They narrowed it down to generosity and kindness.  Finally, we were ready for the tug-of-war challenge. 

We made a tug-of-war line on the wall by our bulletin board. We placed one of our themes on each end of the line. Students wrote their names on post-its and placed their post-its on the theme side that they thought was the strongest in The Quiltmaker's Gift. Most of my students thought generosity was the stronger theme. 
They broke into discussion teams, Team Generosity and Team Kindness. Their goal was to discuss the text, find evidence for their stances on the theme, and prove their positions with an oral presentation in an effort to convince students from the other side to cross over to their side on the tug-of-war line.
One interesting thread of discussion was how generosity and kindness are related to each other. However, my students thought that kindness was a more general "big picture" kind of word, while generosity is a specific type of kindness.

After the teams had met and prepared for battle, they presented their arguments to each other. Afterward, students were allowed to move their post-its if their thinking had changed as a result of the tug-of-war. Two students did move from the generosity side to the kindness side!

I modified this approach from visible thinking routines (Harvard's Project Zero) research. It was a HUGE success. Everyone was actively engaged!
Our final lesson was about making a personal connection to the story. Material things don't bring us lasting happiness. How do we apply the generosity theme to our lives? We decided that having a spirit of generosity does not mean that we have to spend money. Giving is often equated with money, but giving from our hearts has a more lasting impact.

We created a Generosity Challenge for ourselves, our grade level, and anyone else in our school who wants to join us. We colored quilt squares for each school day in December. Underneath each quilt square, we place a coordinating generosity challenge for the day. We reveal the challenge square every morning. Then, we have the day to complete that challenge. Our challenges include things like, "Apologize to someone whose feelings you have hurt" and "Write a note to someone you care about and tell them why they are important to you." 

Everyday that we complete a challenge, we color in a quilt square on our Generosity Challenge Data page. This page is our personal record of our acts of generosity. Yesterday, as we discussed the new challenge, one of my boys reported that it feels so good to plan something nice for someone else. His classmates nodded in agreement. I'll admit it, I had to blink hard and swallow the lump in my throat. Mission accomplished.

If you're interested in the ideas here, you might want to check out the product below. It has everything you need for this book study and includes all the lessons I shared here. It's about 4 days of reader's workshop goodness. AND... This book is not specific to Christmas. It can be used year round, as can the resource I've created for you. 

There are a few other resources to get you through December. They are tons of fun, but RIGOROUS! My favorite combination. Psssst! THERE'S A FREEBIE HERE, TOO!

DID YOU KNOW? If you subscribe to this blog, you'll receive a featured freebie every month? They are exclusive for my followers!

This month you can check out the other Teacher Talk Authors for some great ideas to sustain you this month. Happy Holidays!


Stamina in the Math Classroom & The Twelve Days of Christmas

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers piping, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five golden rings, four calling birds, three french hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree!
Have you ever stopped to think about how much that poor lady received by the twelfth day Christmas? Year after year, my fourth and fifth graders have decided that the guy wasn't her "true love" based on the amount of fowl he bequeathed on the poor woman. 
I would've called the cops!
                                                     Fifth grader

Math investigations like this are huge amounts of fun, especially when we're winding down toward winter break. The kids are a little crazy. You're very tired, and everything around you is a bit manic. 

But, we still have to teach, don't we? Yes. We do. 

Marilyn Burns, math guru extraordinaire, has a wish list for math investigations in the classroom. Like Santa doing his list checking, I tried to check off Marilyn's when I designed my 12 Days of Christmas problem solving venture. 

Day One:Setting the Stage

We began by viewing some funny online versions of the song. They can be found on youtube. We watched a modern-day video performed by two men who acted out every animal in the song. 

Then, we viewed a wordless version, set in Victorian times,  that humorously pointed out just how ludicrous the gifts are in the song. We talked about the history of it (it's really old), and then we sang the it. We even wrote our own modern versions.

My students come from different backgrounds. Not all celebrate Christmas. That's okay. We talked about how it's a counting song for the Christmas season. It was a history lesson, not a religious holiday lesson.

Finally, we asked our math question: How much did she receive by the twelfth day? 

Math is Creative

Math is creative. There are many ways to investigate the same problem.
                                             - Ms. Willis
On day two, my students worked independently to devise a strategy for answering our question from the day before.  We used the Claim-Support-Question visible thinking routine to support us at this point. Some drew pictures. Others used tally marks. A couple of kids noticed a numerical pattern. Two or three students tried making a data table. I kept a close eye on my special education students and allowed them to work together on this part if it was necessary.  

I would not confirm their answers yet, because I wanted students to focus more on the process they were developing.  At the end of the session, they met in groups of four to share their strategies and the thinking behind them.  They were not allowed to share any answers. 

Your Brain Isn't Fried

Once tried doesn't mean your brain is fried!
                                                                                                 -Ms. Willis
By day three, most of my students had solutions.  Many, if not most, were incorrect. They wanted me to give them the answer. I refused.  Why? Because problem-solving stamina is important.  Our kids need to develop this.  We don't give up at the first sign of challenge. No. We. Don't.  They went back to their strategies. 

I asked questions to help them with their thinking. That is how I supported them. Students who had a correct solution were given the challenge of finding another way to prove their answers. Just like scientists who repeat experiments over and over again to justify their research, mathematicians search for other proofs, too.  This was an "a-ha!" moment for many students. 

The special education students I worked with also developed strategies.  Depending on the strategy they used, the amount of math it required, and their IEP goals and accommodations, I allowed some to use a calculator.  

Group Sharing & Celebrations

Finally on day four, students met in small groups to share solutions and strategies.  We identified the correct answer. We also created a mentor chart of the all the strategies tried. We named them after their authors. For example, "The Charlotte Strategy." We took a step back from the problem to discuss the type of thinking we engaged in. We use Ron Ritchart's Cultures of Thinking and Making Thinking Visible approaches at our school. Many students thought we were "uncovering complexities." Others thought we were "reasoning with evidence." The coolest part was discovering that we had traveled around the entire Understanding Map with this one math investigation!

Students ended day four with taking the song lyrics and math question home to their parents to challenge them to solve it. Their parents had homework to solve, and my students got to coach them on math strategies. 

I think Marilyn Burns would be proud of us. I know I am. 
The resources I used for this math investigation are below. You can try the Claim-Support-Question routine for free!

Psssst! Hey, yeah you! What does the Fox say? He says, "Be sure to follow Wild Child's Mossy Oak Musings. If you do, you get a monthly freebie in your mailbox EVERY MONTH!"


4 Ways to Balance Reading & Writing Instruction

Nicki pinned me to the sky, like Mrs. Brown pinning our constuction paper snowmen to the classroom bulletin board. I gripped the handles tightly while my legs dangled uselessly from the teeter totter seat. 

"Put me down!" I ordered. 
"Make me!" she sneered. 
I began to bounce on the seat and swung my legs wildly.  But, it was no use, I was at her mercy. I hung there and plotted my revenge. When I got the chance, I left her dangling in the air and let her down with a huge bump on the ground. 

Teaching language arts is a lot like the playground teeter totter torment that filled our recess time in grade school. There should be a balance between our reading and writing instruction. But with recent laws that focus on reading performance and student retention being enacted around the United States, the curriculum focus has shifted to reading instruction. Regardless of what research on language arts learning tells us, retention laws and the curriculum mandates that follow are not in the best interest of our students. 

What we know is that reading and writing skills develop hand-in-hand, and that as soon as we teach them in isolation or ignore one to give more time to the other, we cripple our students thinking skills and language development. In fact, it's imperative that we feel the same urgency with writing instruction as we do with reading. "How?" you ask. Your teaching practices need to be equitable. No subject should be left hanging in the air on the language arts teeter totter. You need to strike a balance. The teaching practices you implement in your reading block should be implemented in your writing block.

Guided Reading/Guided Writing

In reader's workshop, we teach guided reading and strategy groups. If you have equitable language arts instruction, then you also teach writing in small groups.  In order to do this, you have to know your writers. Here's how I do it:
  • I give a writing pre-assessment for the unit we're on. We use Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins, but you can do this with any writing rubric or scoring initiative your district mandates.
  • I create a "nugget sheet." This is a simple spreadsheet on which I list my students in alphabetical order and the writing goals of our current unit at the top. I enter their scores for each writing goal (elaboration, conventions, development, structure, etc.).
  • I highlight areas of concern on the spreadsheet.
  • I group students by those areas of concern. 
  • I either meet with them one on one, or I call them together for a guided writing/writing strategy group lesson. This takes place after the mini-lesson of the day, and it usually lasts about 10 minutes. 
Guided writing helps me differentiate for my students and gives me another chance to watch them while they practice.

Suck It Up, Buttercup

Write With Your Students

For many teachers, one of the scariest parts of teaching writing is that you must write with your students. Every day in reader's workshop, you probably read aloud to your kids. While you read aloud, you stop and think aloud. You make comments. You ask questions. You model what readers do when they read.

Do you model what writers do when they write? Young writers need to see their teachers writing aloud.  They need to hear the thinking their teachers are doing while they make writing decisions, while they make writing mistakes, and while they make writing revisions. In order to do this, you gotta suck it up buttercup and do what you are asking your students to do. NO EXCUSES. This practice is too powerful to ignore.

Copycat Your Favorites 

& Bridge Both Workshops

This requires some thinking and planning on the part of the teacher, but WOW! Does it work! When we teach reading, we teach students about figurative language, idioms, proverbs, puns, and descriptive language. In fact if you ask, many teachers will tell you that these are some of their favorite lessons to teach. They are fun, aren't they? 

But are you teaching students how to write these? One of our huge fifth grade writing goals is for students to develop writer's craft. During reader's workshop while I'm reading aloud, I'll stop and identify sentences where the author has used figurative or descriptive language. We'll talk about why the author chose the words she did. We'll write the lines down on chart paper and talk about how they help us visualize and understand what we are reading. 

Then later, in our writing block, we'll go back to those lines on the chart paper. We'll pick a lackluster line or passage from our own writing, and we'll try to copy what the author did. We don't use her words, but we use her strategy or technique. 

If you do this enough, use your mentor text as a bridge between your reading and writing instruction, you'll begin to see your students thinking as writers. Which, by the way, develops analytical thinking, one of the deepest forms of comprehension. 

Make the connection between reading and writing visible.

Stamina: It's Not Just About Reading

As teachers, we put so much energy into building our students' reading stamina. We want our kids to read at home. We provide independent reading opportunities in our classrooms. We graph our minutes read in data notebooks. We send home reading logs. But what are we doing to build our students' writing stamina?

One of the ways I help my students "train" to increase their writing stamina is by assigning 20-30 minutes of free writing a night. It's funny, but as soon as I say the words "free write," there are gasps of delight. My students know that they will be able to share their writing at the end of the week. This, alone, is a HUGE motivation for them.

At the beginning of the year, I set the routine of using stamina journals. One week, I ask my students to read every night. The next week, I ask my students to write every night. They reflect on their writing stamina every morning, from the night before, using a stamina reflection chart. They graph their writing minutes in their data notebooks. They discuss the quality of their writing sessions. We talk about what writer's do when they lack focus. We brainstorm ways to help ourselves write stronger and longer. This type of problem solving is something we do in reader's workshop. But guess what? It works in writer's workshop, too.

I hope this blog post has given you some take-aways to enrich your language arts instruction. Some of the resources I use in my writer's workshop are below. They're a great place to start if you're wanting to empower your student writers. Some are free!



This week I've linked up with some FABULOUS educators for our monthly Teacher Talk focus. Check them out below!


An Autumn Walk with Poetry, Personification & Zen Doodles

It had been a long week- two nights and an afternoon of student-involved conferences, with a respiratory infection. Add finishing data digs and professional goal setting to that mix and  I had survived the perfect storm.  Needless to say, we were tired.  I needed to do something that would make our hearts sing.  We had been so focused on data and assessment. My students needed this as much as I did.

So, I introduced my fifth graders to Pulitzer Prize winner, Carl Sandburg. Carl Sandburg has been a long-time favorite of mine.  I chose to share his poetry  because of the figurative language he uses, especially personification.  Even though this was a fun, low key project, I used it as an opportunity to teach descriptive language.

Over the last five years, I've noticed a trend. My students have difficulty identifying and understanding descriptive language when they read.  When they write, they have trouble using it.  Perhaps it is the lack of conversations we have now, due to technology, that has caused this.   Our oral communication has changed. I've also seen a decrease in my students' vocabularies.  This shows up on our NWEA assessments.  However, it really shows up in their daily writing and reading. So I've made it my mission to provide my students with more opportunity to engage in descriptive talk, writing and reading.

I shared "Theme in Yellow with them. I used a close read approach this part of the activity.  We read the poem four times, each time delving a little deeper into Sandburg's imagery.  We talked about how sometimes when we visualize, we don't just think about what we see. Sometimes we imagine sounds and smells...the way the skin of the pumpkin feels to our hands, or the smell of bonfires in the distance. We tried to put ourselves inside the poem.

Then we discussed personification.  Even though they had learned about this literary device in fourth grade, none of them could remember what it was.  We reviewed it and spent time discussing how Sandburg uses it in his poem.  Then we practiced writing personification sentences about classroom objects. For example, "The stapler bit my finger." or "The pencil sharpener choked on my pencil!" We had a lot of fun doing this.

After sharing the poem and learning about personification,  I showed my students some photographs of autumn subjects.  We went through each photo and discussed ways we might personify it.

We personified autumn!

Students wrote practice personification sentences about their chosen photograph. And then, I taught them how to write a biographical poem for a something non-human!  We wrote our poems as if the fall object or animal was talking.   I modeled taking my personification ideas and using them to write the lines of my poem, using the provided sentence stems. Students followed suit, trying it on their own.  The final step in our writing, was exploring ways to get rid of the sentence stems to create our final drafts. We practice reading our poems aloud so we could hear how the rhythm changed when we omitted certain sentence stems. My poem drafts are below:

November's Tree- ROUGH DRAFT
I am November’s tree
Bare, gnarled, and rough
I see the harvest bonfires in the valley below.
I feel alone. 
I loved the children who swung from my branches.
I remember the summer’s warmth.
I want the robin’s egg blue sky and buttery sun.
I touch the midnight blue sky strewn with diamond stars.
I dream of spring robins.
I am November’s tree.

November's Tree- FINAL DRAFT
I am November’s tree
Bare, gnarled, and rough
I see the harvest bonfires in the valley below.
Now alone,  
I loved the children who swung from my branches.
I remember the summer’s warmth,
the robin’s egg blue sky and buttery sun.
Now, I touch the midnight sky strewn with diamonds.
I dream of spring robins.
I am November’s tree.
By Tracy Willis

You can see the evolution of our poems when we deleted some of our sentence stems. This type of revision was a new experience for my students. We used whisper phones to read our versions to ourselves. They helped us pay attention to the rhythms we were creating. Then, we published.

Later in the afternoon, I taught them about zen doodling. We used leaf templates on brown paper bags to make large leaves.  We practiced different doodle patterns and then drew them on our leaves. We traced the patterns using black or white crayon and then broke out the watercolor paint pans. They were gorgeous and a perfect compliment to our poems!

I have to say, this creative writing, reading, and art activity was the perfect way to counterbalance our October stressors.  You can find it for your own classroom by clicking the graphic below.  It has everything you need for a literary autumn hike with your kiddos!

Psssst! There are a couple of Halloween freebies below to help you through the holiday!