Monthly Archives: February 2015

Biography UoS

The key elements that we will be building upon involve students’ prior knowledge of narratives (story grammar)  to connect the known to the unknown.  This idea of a biography’s “setting” through the time period/era in which their famous person lived.  Going on to linking “behavioral traits” with evidence drawing from a famous person’s life: cause and effect including problem/solution, goals/achievements, key people/life direction, achievements and lessons learned.  Our plan includes teaching students how to think like writers who use text features to inform the readers, how young writers can teach others through the use of: timelines, powerful quotes, pictures and photographs.

The thinking here was to introduce biography through story. As students research famous authors they are learning the structure of a written biography.  This process is complemented through writing as students select famous people to research and eventually to present to their grade level peers. The purpose of reading a biography is to not only learn facts but to be inspired by remarkable people.  We want to show children how their “famous person” may have lived an ordinary life can spark powerful stories.  Cause and effect is easily transferred by students because it is the choices that people make that influence the kind of life that is lived  or the work that is generated.  These people are real examples as to how students can aspire to something great.

Biography Table


Community Connections

On Friday night we had our annual Snuggle Up & Read event.  This is an open house where teachers come together in costumes and our PTA beautifully decorates our classrooms to set the stage for reading stories to children and their parents.  We decided to read John Rocco’s Blizzard.  This is a snapshot of Rocco’s life during the Blizzard of 1978.

Our thinking was to give parents a glimpse into what is happening in the classroom.  As part of our introduction we had John Rocco tell the inspiration for his story –

As we took turns reading the book, acting out the scenes, and making sound effects complete with sprinkling “snow” on the audience we saw parents’ faces transform to memories of
that time in history.  Many had shared experiences that revealed wonder and reminiscence to those long lost days.  We are constantly reminded and moved deeply by the power of story.  Years may pass but shared experiences don’t really seem to fade.

Sharing stories means having value and we wanted to set the stage for children to share too; so we sent them off with hot cocoa and a mission: make a map of your snow adventures.  We promised to take a picture and tweet them to John Rocco to show him how his story sparked those in the very young as well as the young at heart.

A Celebration for the Informational UoS

We celebrated our research for the Informational UoS as students watched video presentations that they created themselves. The context for this work is based on our work with
Skyscraper (1) Skyscraper – students are learning how to discriminate tasks and questions  with levels of thinking. This is an idea that we have been experimenting with all year as we link it to the celebration for each UoS. So the part that we are highlighting today also ties into the inquiry process is to have students engage in a self-evaluation process.  Students are evaluating each other and themselves but with evidence from a digital texts that they created. We came up with an interactive way to do this by using Twitter books. Twitt20150210_103658er Books are how children respond to each others’ nightly reading responses.  Twitter Books follow the same rules as Twitter 140 characters or less pictures or words to promote conversation and learning.  As students viewed each others’ informational videos they:

  • The children who were “starring” in the video labeled their Twitter book with the job they were teaching.
  • The rest of the class wrote comments or suggestions in the presenter’s Twitter book as they watched the informational video of their classmates and then passed the book along to others to read and then add their tweet.  
  • After this process was done with all five groups, the groups got their books back and met to discuss the tweets.  Part of this meeting involved the children making goal cards
    for their next video presentation which is a TED Talk in our biography  unit.  These cards included the tweet from a classmate that they felt was the most helpful and a specific goal for next time.

How did it go?  IMG_2097It was amazing from start to finish. While watching the video and tweeting, the children were heavily engaged.  Their comments were very insightful and encompassed both the presentation and content.  The children were very specific as to what they liked and what the children did to teach them. When they met in their groups, the conversation was rich and very reflective. They discusses specific ways they could have made their presentations stronger like practicing more, adding more facts or sharing responsibility and time more.  The goal cards were done with great thought and it was interesting to see how they set goals that I would have without me suggesting it.  One boy said next time he wants to make sure he taught everything he knows because he knew more than he showed. This type of reflection was so powerful and truly got them ready for the next unit of study.  They are not just ready but they have a focus on a way to make their work stronger.  Isn’t this our goal as teachers?IMG_2108


Informational UoS: Exploring Inquiry & Learning for Real

We love this UoS there are so many possibilities. The kids love it because it can be suited to their interests and it matches the natural curiosity of childhood.   As teachers we understand how tight time is – there is never enough time in the day to do everything we want.   How about connecting science topics that would normally be taught in a superficial way to a more meaningful encounter during the reading and writing workshop?

Great idea right? It wasn’t ours – we went to Teachers College Saturday Reunion.  If you don’t know about this it is an amazing opportunity! This is  free professional development from the premier experts in our field. (click Saturday Reunion for details).  While we were there we attended a workshop by Amanda Hartman (@amandalah ) called: Five High Leverage Methods that Can Accelerate Kids’ Progress Towards Working with Independence and Autonomy.  This was was so smart.  It all begins with an impeccable mini-lesson – that works towards to bringing abstract content to real life learning.    This was the clip of the minilesson she showed us: Second Grade Informational Writing 

We are striving to bring research to practice in our classrooms, and this idea of using the minilesson to teach content and literacy across our curriculum created

Students are learning how to "talk" like engineers.

an opportunity to lean into an inquiry. Our understanding of inquiry is driven by Heidi Mills’ Learning for Real (yes we borrowed her title for our blog post).  Essentially there are  five elements of inquiry:

  1. Observe the world using tools and strategies of the discipline
  2. Pose questions and investigate
  3. Access primary & secondary sources
  4. Use the language of inquiry and disciplines
  5. Use reflections and self-evaluation to grow and change


This was our thinking:

  1. Give students choice: Weather, Land forms, Moon and Earth, The Changing Earth, Animal and Plant Life Cycles, Food Chains, and Engineering.
  2. Let them do the research using multiple sources including digital texts (questioning and investigating)
  3. Link a real life occupation to the content area where students engage content area vocabulary and take on the role using tools (example zoologist to study animals)
  4. Create a handbook and video demonstration to teach others how to do this job while giving information about the content being studied
  5. After viewing their original video presentations students will reflect and evaluate their performance.  This formative data will drive future goal setting.

This work  is ongoing so we will let you know how it goes.  Stay tuned,  and more pictures to come.  If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, we would love to hear from you.  We are just like you, trying to put this research into practice.  We would love your help. 

Spelling Moving From How to Why

The topic of spelling is one that seems to be talked about at great length.  Two different sides exist: One side believes in and values spelling lists that drive weekly tests. The other side believes that spelling should be taught in context and within real life work.  


  • Spelling is an area that we keep coming back to:
  • How do you make students care about using correct spelling?
  • How can we motivate them to use the tools we provide so they may self-edit their work?
  • How can we make them accountable?
  • Is it too much for them to maneuver being a creative writer trying out new strategies and being a good speller?


We believe that spelling is only truly learned when it is meaningful to the children.  We believe this because time and time again students are given weekly spelling lists and tests scoring a perfect score at the end of the week.  However, this does not transfer to their writing and they are still not spelling these words correctly.  We  understand the reality is that our children are growing up in a world with technology and spell check.   How can we use this understanding to drive our efforts to make our children more aware of spelling words correctly?

Spelling is rough.  What if we had students work within a small part of the writing process and then take that writing and transcribe it into the computer?   Chances are they would undoubtedly see all the red squiggly lines and that would draw their attention to the importance of spelling.  Or, how about using interactive writing linked to your read aloud so students can experience the editing process collectively?  Maybe we can incorporate writing tools so students can be more independent – that’s another scaffold.  Another way to hit this is to do a shared reading that focuses on common prefixes and suffixes.  List:suffixes Roots:

So how did it go?

I tried the shared writing idea, but didn’t link it to the read aloud.  There was an opening in our day to just try out a shared writing experience.  Well, since we have been having a lot of snow, the kids were very motivated to do a shared writing involving snow. I shared the pen with one student and passed it around until everyone had a turn.  We focused on connecting our ideas, and when we finished we did a choral read of the story.  Then we went sentence by sentence to see if anyone noticed that there was anything incorrect (spelling/punctuation).  Kids were very happy to share, and the whole experience was very inclusive.  The kids who made the errors were the ones who actually noticed their own errors.  They discovered how while getting their ideas down on the page they were focused on the creative process but they realized how the editing process was also so important.  When they took the time to really reread it the errors popped right out. Now that this was completed we decided upon a title:“A Taste of Snow”


This piece would make a lot of sense to Ralph Fletcher they were really writing this to please their audience:


Informational UoS Continues…

The following is a conversation that Jill and I had as we went through reflection & planning for her third grade class. We are leaning into the work of Dr. Mary Howard’s Good to Great Teaching.  If you’re interested in learning more please feel free to stop by during a weekly Twitter Chat #G2Great on Thursday nights at 8:30 PM EST that I co-moderate with Amy Brennan, our Twitter handles are: @hayhurst3 and @brennanamy Jill participates weekly as well her Twitter handle is: @JillDerosa.  

 So, the kids did their presentations & were videotaped, how’d it go?  

It went really well – they took on the roles, felt like experts and the others can’t wait to watch each other.  We are going to have students tweet about their thoughts IMG_0239(self reflection & evaluation) about the presentations as they view them and then share their Twitter Books so they are passed from one student to another for responses to occur – using a heading for the demonstration.  Each child gets back their book and selects the most helpful Tweet about their own presentation and tells why it was so helpful. This is an excellent way for children to reflect and then revise for their next presentation.

Zoom In

What’s one thing to focus on?  We had to prompt in  and had to scaffold the actual presentation – it was hard for theIMG_0265m to organize the presentation – this is true for their writing too. It’s hard for them to organize their ideas in a written presentation or an oral presentation. I like giving them the freedom to take this project on as their own and really be in charge of planning. However, we need to find a framework that will help organize this but still allow for their own creative input.


What did you notice? They didn’t know who was going to talk first and they needed a specific framework – it was unique to each group. Some groups plannedIMG_0236  presentations that were unrealistic and impossible to do.  Others had difficulty deciding on the specific items to present, they loved everything.  Still others just wanted to do artistic displays and forgot about the information part.  Looked a lot to me like real life, a good place to teach into collaboration, accountability and responsibility.


It was good work and the reason is because it was self directed and they were able to work independently in the group and they created something that was meaningful to them. They were able to envision what this was like in a job.  It wasn’t great because it was the first time and we need to find an organization that IMG_0254works better for both the teacher and the students.


It’s still at the beginning phases and needs tweaking.


What will we change? Specifically –  a choice of structure Q&A format  I feel like if we made something set it would not work-each group needed something different. Go back to the organization – how can we help them organize? I don’t always want to give them each step each one went a different way – but maybe having three guiding questions…

Jenn – Let’s check MIll’s book – Pg 50 Learning for Real – she is suggesting just this posing guiding questions and gives some nice examples. IMG_0245You’re saying that we should have student do this work so that the inquiry is more authentic – how is this different than Q&A? I am thinking MIlls is saying that these guiding questions are a springboard (kind of)  to focus the inquiry and that eventually these kinds of questioning techniques become internalized.  Jill look at this one I think she’s addressing your concerns here: Video Clip 3 with Transcript: Students Reflect on Nonfiction Text Structures and Features, Grade 4

Jill – I think that it’s not organization it’s that they (students) don’t know the process of inquiry. Kind of like with Literature Circles – we gave them the process that the kids could use – that’s what we need.   Some of  their guiding questions were not going to get them to explore the topic.  They were  more interested in making an engaging presentation that was light on content.  Link the primary and secondary sources to guided questions that link the content to the presentation that’s going to add more content.


We have to create a visual board – an icon a flowchart for them to follow. When we have kids evaluate and respond using Twitter books they will “discover” that they didn’t really teach a lot of content.   Take a look at this let me know if it’s what you wanted, if not no worries we’ll figure it out:

Basically, we want to hit these concerns (strengthen guiding questions, scaffold organization, linking content through primary / secondary sources). Here are  habits of mind that we want to grow, and the instructional techniques we will use to this work:

  • Structure a minilesson with 3-4 choices so that students can select a method to organize  their time/logistics.
  • Sentence stems that help to cite the author and the title linking content
  • Using mentor texts (digital or print) to try out a form of writing / presenting

Hey we’d love to hear from you – if you have any questions or ideas please give us a shout and we will write you back:

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