Getting Off to the “Write” Start

In many writing classrooms the year starts off with children sharing personal memories and writing stories and teachers modeling how to find stories if stuck, how to tell a story sequentially, and how to elaborate a story using step by step actions and descriptive details. There are a few key charts you may want to consider making with your students to support this ambitious work – a writing process chart, a strategy chart, an exemplar chart, and a conventions chart.

Helping children understand that writing is a process is important work, especially at the beginning of the year. Donald Murray, author of A Writer Teaches Writing (1968, 2004), first described this process as a way of breaking down writing into understandable steps, to show how writing is made so he could teach others. Writers collect ideas, draft, revise, and edit. While there are many variations of the writing process this is a good basic one to teach our young writers. It lets them know that writing is not perfect the first time pictures and words are put down on paper, that it takes lots of starts and stops, trials and errors, before it ends up published. We typically show the writing process as a circle to emphasize its endlessness, although we know that that there are many times writers jump around for example from revising to editing, then back to more revising. The most important thing we want our student writers to know is that when a writer finishes one piece the cycle starts all over again. Below is a chart that Kristi made that continues to be a favorite of many teachers.

Kristi's writing process chart.

A possible writing process chart.

Another chart you will definitely need is a strategy chart, or what we now refer to as a repertoire chart. As we described in Smarter Charts, this kind of chart records a list of strategies for a big skill, which allows children to self-select the strategy that matches what they need to do. It also typically grows over multiple lessons. Increasing children’s skill of elaboration is one goal that encourages revision.

strategy chart

Setting clear expectations for what a well-written story looks and sounds like is best accomplished by showing children examples of books written by other children their same age. Then, by looking at the exemplar piece of writing together and naming what the writer has done to make it so good, can really underscore all that you have been teaching and even provide ideas for other things to teach and for students to learn. Once the piece of writing is annotated it becomes an exemplar chart that children can compare their own writing to or refer to when looking for other things they could try.

A writing sample that has been annotated with the students' noticings.

A writing sample that has been annotated with the students’ noticings.

Editing is an important part of the writing process because writing is meant to be read by others. This means that writers work hard to make their writing easier to read by trying to make their pictures clear with enough details to show what is happening and where. They also write in a way that makes the words easier to read, like using spaces, punctuation, and the best spelling they know how to do. Creating a chart that highlights strategies for these types of conventions will be a useful tool for all your students. This is the type of chart that is often turned into an editing checklist to be used regardless of genre.

This is a typed version of a chart that encourages children to make their writing easy to read.

This is a typed version of a chart that encourages children to make their writing easy to read.

When deciding which charts you will need it always helps to start with the big goals of your unit and to use these as your guide for selecting which charts might be needed most. Too many charts can be overwhelming and become more like print pollution than helpful scaffolds. And, as with any chart, make sure you and your students refer to each chart often, celebrating their use by all.

Happy charting!

Marjorie & Kristi

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“I’m done!” Planning for the Predictable

We know from experience that teaching revolves around the seasons like the earth revolves around the sun. At the start of each school year we resolve to make it the best ever, using all we have learned over the summer and the years past. The challenge is knowing what to continue and what to change. What seems to work year after year? What seems to need revising based on each new group of students entering our classrooms? These questions are what make teaching so invigorating and challenging. It is what keeps us going forward with energy and excitement.

As we began this new school year we found ourselves anticipating some typical scenarios that happen during a writing or reading workshop each and every year. Very quickly we came up with the standard lament heard across the world, “I’m done!” How many of you have already heard this lament? How many times so far? As teachers we have two choices. We can tear our hair out at the instantly greying roots or we can take a breath, smile knowingly, and pull out some full proof plans that have worked again and again in years past.

Well, that is what we have done here. We have taken a breath, smiled knowingly, and pulled out a previous post that deals with this very predictable dilemma that occurs each and every year. “I’m done!” Well, to quote Lucy Calkins and Leah Mermelstein, “When you are done, you have just begun!” Specifically, when it comes to writing it is important that children understand that writing is a never-ending process. This week we revisit Tricia Newhart’s workshop classroom where writers think and plan, sketch and write, and revise with joy! She shows that charts are never static, but grow and change over time. Thank you Tricia for continuing to inspire us all!

Charts, like all living documents, need to be created with your classroom community and grow as you teach more, or as classroom needs change. Below is a series of photos from a first grade classroom that records how the writing process chart grew and changed over the first few days of school. These photos come from the incredible Tricia Newhart, who teaches in Orinda, California. A word about Tricia- when we close our eyes and imagine the ideal “workshop classroom”, Tricia’s room comes to mind. Her responsiveness to children, knowledge about reading and writing, and her absolute fearlessness and bravery in trying new things makes her an inspiration to all!

The Writing Process

Here is Tricia’s writing process chart at the very beginning of school. You will notice that she has photos up of children actually doing each part of the chart. Like concrete samples, photos are a great way to capture complex ideas in an accessible way. It also makes the chart tailor-made to each classroom and much more engaging to children. We all tend to look more closely at things when we have been ‘tagged’ in the picture!

Children’s Names Added

At this point, each child has his or her name on a post it, so that they can mark which step of the writing process each child is on. This is a great technique for any chart. Children can put their names on post-its for strategies they want to try, or as Tricia did, to keep track of where they are in a multi-step process.

Students Making Plans

Here we have that very idea in action!

Student Samples are Added

Here you can see the chart in its final stage stage. Now that children are close to revising, Tricia has added some student work with the actual revisions highlighted in yellow and annotated with sentence strips. If you have been looking close, you will see that the bulk of children moved from planning into the sketching and writing. Tricia is well aware of where they are and taught the next thing that MOST children would need.

Slowly building the chart as needed makes each part more accessible and memorable for children. It also keeps students from getting overloaded from day one. Tricia painted the big picture of the process on day one, but introduced parts more specifically (using post-its to make a plan, ways to revise) as the children needed it.

And one last lovely idea from Tricia:

Story Idea Spot

Here Tricia gives some space for children to put story ideas that pop into their heads during the day. Children can go back to access this during writer’s workshop. Again, the interactive nature of Tricia’s room shows the amount of independence she expects of children and the honor she gives to their thinking and writing.

Enjoy the week ahead and let us know the ways you deal with the expected and the unexpected challenges of teaching and learning!

Until next time, happy charting!

Marjorie and Kristi


Chat and Chart

Hi Everyone! We hope you had a few days of relaxation over the long weekend (or week for some of you!) Marjorie went to visit her daughter in Israel, and Kristine went to visit her sister in California. Now we are back from our far flung (ish) adventures and ready to talk charts! Kristine has had chart puns rolling in her head for days: unCHARTered waters, Top o’ the CHARTS, Conversation CHARTS (a play on conversation hearts- for a Valentine’s themed post) CHARTlize Theron (she also understands that many of these are going nowhere), and Ready, Set, CHART! (As an aside, we would welcome your chart puns in the comments!) Sadly, none of them quite match the idea of today’s post, co-creating charts with children.

In our book, Smarter Charts, we talk about the challenges of creating charts with children. We want them to look good and be clear so that children will use them again. We also want children to be off the rug as soon as possible. Now that Kristine is with 4 and 5 year olds all day, the question that haunts her every day is, “How can I make sure this is as powerful as possible in the least amount of time?”  Small children + Extended time on the rug as one searches for the red marker = Nightmares beyond what was ever imagined.

This is where some of the advice we give in our book comes in handy: act like the chef in a cooking show. We have all seen cooking shows, Kristine herself is obsessed with the Barefoot Contessa (that house! that kitchen! her own boat?!), and one of the advantages to being a chef on a cooking show is that most of the prep is done for you, ahead of time. The Barefoot Contessa is not chopping every item in front of you, she only shows what she needs to show, and the rest is prepped off to the side for her to use when she needs it. That is the key to quick and clear charting: know what to create in the moment, and what to prep ahead of time.

The following two writing charts were created by Kristine (The Barefoot Chartessa? You decide) with her kindergarten class using this method.

Chart One: The Writing Process (A Process Chart)

Writing Process Chart

Writing Process Chart

This writing process chart has been hanging in Kristine’s classroom for months, but somewhere along the way it became unused. Kristine was finding books with no words or no pictures. Books with one page done, and books that were just scribbled on. To address this, she decide to revisit the writing process with her class in a more interactive way. Before the lesson, Kristine prepared the matching colored paper and drew the pictures. She left the words off the smaller paper and covered the backs of everything with the restickable glue stick (a favorite tool that turns any ordinary piece of paper into a sticky note).

For the lesson, a blank piece of chart paper was hung on the easel and all the pieces placed on the ground in front of her. The class sat in a circle around the rug. Kristine presented this issue: “Last night, when I was reading your “done” books at home with my hot chocolate, I noticed a problem… Friends, not all the books were done!!! Some of them were missing parts! It was so very sad to miss out on parts of your amazing books. I thought today we could explore all the things we need to do to write a book — and make a new chart for us to follow!” Kristine spread the pictures out so they could all be seen and asked the class, “What do you think we do first?” The students came up to put the pictures on the chart in a sequence that made sense to them. On the first attempt the order was a little scrambled, with turn the page coming very high on the list. Other students suggested revisions to the order until this one was reached and agreed upon by everyone. (Which, by the way, was the order of the original process chart) Kristine then put the smaller pieces of colored paper next to the pictures and asked children to go “knee to knee” and think about what we could call each step. Since children in Kristine’s class are familiar with the language of writing, this went very quickly. Kristine wrote the label next to each one, everyone reread the chart,  and then the children went off to write.

Because of the prep work ahead of time, the entire lesson was 8 minutes — most of that was spent on revising the order of the steps, thinking about what would make sense for writers. And the best part was seeing the children renewed spark and interest in making sure their books used all aspects of the writing process from start to finish.

Chart 2: Easy to Read Writing (An Exemplar Chart)

IMG_0681In NYC select students come in for early morning support. Kristine used this time for interactive writing to support the group with hearing beginning and ending sounds and writing a story across pages. She then took one page from the book that the small group wrote to use in her writing workshop minilesson. Before the lesson, Kristine had the small group work on the interactive writing page, and she also pre-cut colored paper. She wrote on some of the papers: spaces and sight words and drew the pictures. The other pieces of cut paper she left blank.

For the minilesson, Kristine put a piece of unreadable writing up on the document camera and said, “You guys, when I got home yesterday, Geoff (my husband) said he had left me a note on the fridge and this is what it looked like!” Kristine gestured towards the “writing” and the kids responded with the appropriate amount of shock. One student exclaimed that it was “just scribble-scrabble!” Kristine then put up the piece of interactive writing the morning group had created (with no papers attached) and said, “I think I need to show him what we know about easy to read writing!”

The class then read the writing and Kristine asked them to go “knee to knee” to study and say what made the page so very easy to read. As children named spaces and sight words (which Kristine had anticipated since they had focused on that as a class) she handed the pre-made papers to children to stick up on the piece. Then as other children named that the letters were “good” (renamed clear by Kristine) she quickly made another paper to put up, and did the same when another child noticed the “punatation” (a good attempt at remembering and saying the word “punctuation”). Kristine reviewed all the things that made the writing easy to read and asked the children to set a goal for the 1 or 2 things they would really practice to  make their writing easier to read that day (and every day). The chart was hung up and next to it was Geoff’s “note” (poor Geoff):

IMG_0682

The whole lesson, start to finish, was about 8 minutes, thanks to the work that had been done already. Having some items prepped, and then having the children help to co-create the chart kept these charts looking clear and useful, while maintaining their useability for children. Both of these charts are referenced by the children frequently, in part because they are the ones who built them for the class.

In other, unrelated, news, we have a new app to tell you about! Valerie Geschwind, Kristine’s colleague, introduced Kristine to ifontmaker for the iPad. It allows you to make your own font from your handwriting and use it with Microsoft Word. It is easy to use and addictive. Two classroom uses:

1. You can create a class font from student handwriting for use on family letters

2. You can make your own wingdings — which Kristine used to draw some frequently used chart icons so when she types up charts, she can just insert the same icons that she would usually hand draw.

We are sure you have many more ideas for how this exciting app can be used, and we look forward to hearing about them in the comments.

Happy Charting!

Kristine and Marjorie