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Narrative Techniques

2015 October 13
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by SSedro

For me, one measure of an effective writing lesson is when my students are all clamoring to share what they just wrote, and spontaneous conferences are happening all over the room.  That is finally happening in my writing workshop thanks to great resources found online and shared by colleagues.

We’ve been working on narrative writing with lots of flash drafting to increase volume and stamina. Lots of different topics were generated to give us a rich bank of ideas and options.  It was all fine, but not great.  As we worked on selecting  flash draft to flesh out into a full narrative, we revisited some earlier lessons.

I’ve been discussing with them that if you just want to tell about an event in chronological order, write a recount. A narrative is a story. It has a story arc. It has a life lesson or the character grows or changes in some way.  Students seemed willing to believe me, but they were having trouble using the techniques of narrative writing to turn their recounts into narratives.

On Monday we revisited writing strong leads.  I was fortunate to find this great presentation online: Three Types of Narrative Leads.  The mentor text examples at the start were useful, but the real power came at the end where is showed three different leads for the same narrative.  Students burst out with comments about how powerful the leads were and which one they thought was best.  During their work time, some students actually crafted multiple leads and then selected which one worked best.  Many of their leads were strongly influenced by the powerful examples from the presentation. Some students started with one type of lead but then abandoned it and tried a different type.  All were focused during the writing session.

During our closing circle, they shared which type of lead they were trying.  Many had watered the styles down by combining them, but most students now had a stronger lead than what they’d had before.  Success!

(Note: I also had this handout on narrative leads available, but none of my students ended up using it.)

Today we revisited another narrative technique: slowing down the heart of the story. I ran out of time to make a lovely presentation but even displaying this document and reading it aloud was highly effective.  Then, based on a lesson from my school’s excellent mini-literacy institute last spring, I showed this video clip.

I did not teach this part as masterfully as Scott Reilly did in the institute. Fortunately, it is such a great teaching tool that it worked anyhow.

The first time through I kept stopping it, pointing out all the details of how the perspective kept switching, of the sounds, the sights, the expressions, the postures, the word choice, the camera angle and especially the speed.  Then we watched it again straight through.  Finally, I sent them off to find the heart of their narrative and to slow it down so we could experience it with them.

Students dug into their writing and it worked. Soon students were waving me over or dashing across the room, eager to share what they had written.  Spontaneous writing conferences started breaking out around the room as students, with heads together, shared the part they had just slowed down.

By this time I had despaired of helping my low volume writer truly expand his writing. Both my instructional assistant and I were both at a loss for what else to try with him since we’d tried all the “tricks” in our bag over the past month. He was miserably discouraged and kept saying, “I don’t understand how to do that.”

For some reason, this mini-lesson clicked with him. He got right to work.  He slowed down one part of his so much (and so effectively) that the slowed section was now longer than the original piece had been. His face was alight with his success and as he walked away he said, “I just figured out how I can slow down this last sentences. I can make it better.”

In the end, all but four students had identified the heart and worked at slowing it down. In our closing circle students did not read aloud, they just verbally told us about the part they had worked on slowing down. As students shared, frequent interjections and exclamations were heard from their classmates  because they could “see” how effective the slow down would be. Examples included the slowed down portion of a water balloon or snowball fight. The slowed down moment when their friend decided to touch his tongue to the metal bar at the top of the ski lift. The slowed down moment at the funeral when they viewed their uncle’s body for the last time.

It is so rewarding to see students excited about crafting their writing and eager to share their work. I feel great gratitude to the people who took time to share the excellent resources online which inspired my students to these new heights.  Thank you.






The Magic of Voice Typing in Google Docs

2015 October 13
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by SSedro

On most days, my students have the choice of writing by hand in their notebook or typing on their digital writing notebook during our writing workshop.  Now they have a third option, voice-to-text dictation.

Last week, instead of a writing mini-lesson, we had a tool mini-lesson. They all grabbed their earbuds and laptops so I could introduce the new Google Docs Voice Typing tool.

Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 3.23.26 PM

To use the tool, open a Google Doc. Position your cursor where you want to type. Then go to the Tools menu and select Voice Typing.



Screen Shot 2015-10-13 at 3.23.41 PM

A microphone icon appears on the screen. Click it to start dictating. You may be prompted to enable dictation or to allow it to access your microphone the first time you try this.

After I modeled how to set up the Voice Typing Tool, my students opened a link to this guide to dictating with Siri. The commands work on a Mac or on an iPad/iPhone. We went over the common commands they needed such a period, comma, new paragraph, etc.  Some commands worked reliably. Others, such as quotes on or caps on were more challenging to use.

After a bit of practicing with the voice commands, students were ready to work. They spread out into quiet nooks and crannies around the room and started flash drafting another narrative.  After a bit of trial and error, most children were successful. They were able to resist correcting mistakes immediately. I encourage them to correct at the end of a paragraph since often, typos are auto-corrected when you keep speaking. They learned how quickly and clearly they needed to speak. A few students have trouble speaking clearly and coherently in general and their dictation reflected that.

As the work session progressed, excitement started to rise. For some students, their writing was finally able to keep up with their thoughts. Up until now, their volume was limited by the physical act of writing or typing.  Suddenly, instead of a paragraph, they were writing a page or more. Some wrote two pages in that time.  Soon students were eagerly waving me over, proud to show me how much they had accomplished.

All of that would have been enough, but there was more.  Moving into our school in fifth grade can be challenging if the child is not coming from a school which follows the Common Core and uses the CTC model of writing workshop.  In fifth grade, a good rule of thumb is that students should be writing around a page per session.  One of my new students was barely writing a paragraph each day.  In contrast, during this lesson, he drafted three pieces. None of them were long but all were longer than anything else he had written so far and together they filled a page and a half. He was elated, and so was I.  The next morning, the first words he said to me were, “When are we writing today? Can I dictate it?”   Even better, by this week, he is already transitioning to typing. His writer’s block is easing.

Do you have a digital component to your writing workshop?  Are any of your students using voice-to-text dictation? I’d love to hear what is and isn’t working for you.

First Weeks of School and Accountable Talk

2015 August 29
by SSedro

My first school year back in the classroom is well launched.  Week 1 was about getting to know each other and starting to feel safe together – they all knew they’d have a test during week two to prove they knew the first name of everyone in the class. It was also about supporting new students as they find their way around our large school and our many systems. It was starting to establish key elements of our classroom, such as morning meeting, circle up behavior, laptop and iPad launch. It was working on stamina when reading or writing or listening to a lesson.

Week 2 was deeper community building and scads of pre-assessments.  It was beginning of year math test, reading pre-assessment, on-demand writing, spelling inventory and spelling n0-excuse words. It was pre-testing in XtraMath and FrontRow.  Along with that came more work on routines and expectations. It was me seeing everything and celebrating as much as I could.  “I see we are only filling half of the hallway so that other classes can easily get by us.”  “I see everyone was almost seated correctly in the group area when the song ended.”  “I see you remembered to have a book for silent reading today.”

Week 3 wasn’t as fun.  It was time to pull up their behavior, communicating that they will look at the person who is talking during a group discussion. They will lower the laptop lids or flip their iPads when requested or live with the consequences of their decision.  They will start understanding what quality effort looks like. They were surprised and didn’t like the change, which tells me I need to do a bit of that earlier next year, and weave it in more joyfully.

Fortunately, one big success was the introduction of accountable talk.  One of my colleagues, Caitlyn Reighley, recently expanded her understanding of the accountable talk math practice by reading Classroom Discussions In Math: A Teacher’s Guide for Using Talk Moves to Support the Common Core and More, Grades K-6: A Multimedia Professional Learning Resource.  She boiled down her learning into a presentation she made to our team.  I adapted her presentation into one I could use with my own class. 

I also made an anchor chart but I’ve pictured hers here since it is much neater than mine.  monosnap-window title-3

First a reflection: next time I teach this lesson, I will model the talk moves better to eliminate the initial confusion students showed when I set them to work.

Once we were past that, I was encouraged by the progress they made. Only my top two math students were unsuccessful, believing their answers were so self-evident that there could be no discussion.  (When after the second round they still had not succeeded, they were shocked to have me calmly explained that they had failed the assignment and were not yet showing they were on the way to discussing math like  mathematicians. It felt harsh; hopefully it helps them grow.)

While I was pleased with how the lesson went, I didn’t realize its larger impact until later in the day and week.  That afternoon, during our closing circle they were sharing suggestions of what we could do to make a better transition from recess back to being ready to learn in the classroom.  To my surprise and delight, without being prompted they used their talk moves.  I was hearing, “Can you explain that more clearly?” and “I respectfully disagree with Bill because….” This instantly elevated our closing circle from sharing to genuine discussion as they challenged and extended each other’s ideas.

Earlier in the week I had launched our class Edmodo account. I wanted a place for asynchronous discussions so that we could have deeper thought and hear more from our quieter members. As you would expect, the first discussion we attempted was less than perfect.  Students were so eager to take part that they wrote without anything to say. There was barely contained chaos where they tested whether I really meant no chat language and that the conversation needed to be as respectful as our fac-to-face ones.  They also did not yet understand exactly where their replies should be so the effect was a bit like buckshot.

After our accountable talk math lesson we again used Edmodo. This time it was to create a fun, rain day plan in case our field trip was rained out.  The difference was dramatic. They had actual discourse, asking for clarification, building on each other’s ideas, and respectfully challenging others.  Most were using conventional grammar as well.

Throughout the week, the accountable talk seemed to weave itself effortlessly into our community.  With how this group loves to talk -and don’t all fifth grade classes love to talk-  accountable talk was a bit of low hanging fruit easily added to our learning toolbox.  I will definitely use this lesson again next year. I’ll will teach it earlier.

How do you teach accountable talk?  Please share what resources and methods do you use.


Zeroing in on a Collaborative To Do List

2015 August 28
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by SSedro

I am joyfully back in the classroom this year. Although re-entry is brutal, I’m loving it.

One lovely aspect of being a classroom teacher at this school is that I have a half time instructional assistant.  Since her schedule has her in and out of my room all day, I needed an efficient way to communicate my tasks for her.  Thus started my search for a collaborative to do list.

Ideally, this tool would be free, integrate with Google Drive, and not be too cumbersome for our needs. It should also have a free mobile app since my assistant finds it easier to keep on top of tasks on her phone.

monosnap-window title-10 My first try was Smart Sheet.  I was pretty happy with it. The Google Drive integration is smooth. Many different types of attachments are easily included with tasks. The interface worked fairly well for us.

Unfortunately, my school will no longer have a subscription to it. I was also not loving how wide and cluttered the interface was.  I couldn’t find a way to hide completed tasks.  If I needed to do so, I was willing to pay for it, but I decide to look at other options first.

monosnap-window title-9Next I tried Wunderlist. I’ve used it before, but always wandered away from it.  The same thing happened this time.  I couldn’t find a way to keep the details panel open. Assigning tasks to my assistant took more clicks than I wanted.  No Google Drive integration.  I did like the clean interface and that completed tasks where hidden but accessible.


monosnap-window title-11I looked at a bunch of others before landing on Manage It. We’ve only been using it for a day, but so far I am loving it.  It has single sign on with Google. I can easily add links to Google Drive files.  It’s not too many clicks to add notes, due dates or assign the task to someone.  Completed tasks are hidden but accessible.  Best of all, it is free for a single project, which is all we need.  There are a bunch of notification options, and the mobile app is free. Like Smart Sheet, it could easily be used for managing large, multi-person projects, but it is also working well for the two of us.

Do you use a collaborative to do list?  What do you use?

Pages: Making a Brochure on an iPad

2015 May 15
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by SSedro

One of my teachers wondered how his students could create a brochure on an iPad.  Turns out, Pages has two nice brochure templates.  These directions assume the children have already saved all needed photos to their photo roll, and have finished revising their text in Google Docs. You can view the original document here.

This was my first attempt at making a tutorial which displayed well on an iPad. If you end up using it that way, please let me know if you think this layout works well for that device.

Movenote on the iPad

2015 April 21
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by SSedro

Last year I had attempted to use Movenote with students. Actually I probably tried it the year before even. In any case the old windows laptops we had were not up to the task. I was surprised to see that there is an iPad app. I tested it out. If you click the link you can view it. Know that I did not record on all the slides because there were 11 in the presentation. I just did enough to test out the app.
The only tricky part of the entire process was figuring out how to get the presentation into Movenote from Google Drive. Here are the steps.
  1. Open Google Drive.
  2. Locate the presentation. Open it.
  3. In the top right corner of the screen, tap the More menu. It looks like 3 dots.
  4. Tap the Share & export menu.
  5. Select Send a copy.
  6. Choose PDF as the format and select OK.
  7. Swipe until you see Open in Movenote.
  8. Wait while the file opens in Movenote. When it is fully loaded, you can start recording.
  9. Swipe from right to left to advance to the next slide.

I am not certain how to use this app with students. The entire recording must be done straight through. That is a challenging task for anyone, especially a child. One use could be as a poetry performance.  They could record themselves performing the poem.

Another application could be for reflecting on their art.  In this case, students would take a photo of their art. Then they would start a new Movenote, import the photo, and then record their annotation.

A final idea I had was that we want students to use some degree of Presentation Zen instead of having all their speech on their presentation.  However, then there is less of a useful artifact to add to their digital portfolio. With Movenote we could see the slides and see/hear them give the presentation.