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Top of My List: Empower Writers + a Second Grader's Letter to Donald Trump

Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff
Top of my list of writing objectives: empowering writers.  How do we do that?  Make student-learning relevant, honor students' ideas and thinking beyond how things look on the page, and share their writing outside the classroom walls as much as possible.  

Case in point: read the letter below to Donald Trump written by second grader, Claire, who wants him to declare unicorns are real.  In her matter-of-fact way, she expects her writing will be sent and received by the President.  She clearly expects response.  What makes this little writer so confident?

First of all, from kindergarten, Claire has written.  Her pictures and words on the page were received as joyful stories, captivating poems, important information or opinions.  Yes, her teacher also taught the skills she and her classmates needed to grow as writers.  But, first and foremost, her writing was received with the same passion with which it was written.

Claire was in her own mother's classroom for first grade. The writing emphasis continued, and so did the excitement around the writing, the import, the declaration that those first graders had important stories to tell and information and opinions to share.  Yes, the teacher also taught skills and strategies to improve the abilities of her writers as they grew.  In fact, a lot of the teaching she did came from the use of her own students' writing as mentor texts for explicit instruction (read more posts on this topic here:  http://www.janielwagstaff.com/2016/08/blog-series-using-student-writing-as.html 
and here http://www.janielwagstaff.com/2017/09/when-teachers-say-students-dont-want-to.html ). 

Now, Claire is in second grade.  And, she's writing to Donald Trump.  Best of all, her current teacher didn't ask her to do this writing; she did it in her free time after finishing another class writing assignment.  She did her own research using her iPad.  Now, she is ready to hear from the President.  More importantly, this writer continues to develop confidence as the instruction in her classroom and the response from home is positive, enthusiastic, and encouraging.  

I'll let you know if Donald Trump responds.  In the meantime, if you'd like to leave any comments for Claire, feel free.  She'd love to read what you think about her research and appeal.

Here's to all of her teachers, her family, and to all teachers who spend time contemplating response, designing relevant instruction, and, in any and all ways, EMPOWERING WRITERS!
Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff

Blog post about empowering student writers by Janiel Wagstaff

Blog picture fonts by Artsy Fonts

"Receiving" Student Writing: Why Does It Matter?

When a student walks up to you with a piece of writing, what is the first thing you think about?  How we receive students' writing affects everything in our writing classrooms.

Is the notion of receiving students' writing different than responding to students' writing?  I believe it is.  It comes before we respond.  It's the attitude we take when we approach a piece of writing from a student.  It's the aura around our reception.  Do we receive writing with curiosity, with genuine interest, and care?  Do we approach the piece with an eagerness to discover the ideas the student is trying to convey?  Or do we receive writing as a means to an end focused on questions like: does this complete the school assignment?  Is the standard met?  Would this writing pass the end-of-year, on-demand, high-stakes test?  Obviously, our mindset as we receive writing from students makes a big difference in the climate of the classroom, the way we respond, the instruction we offer, and the very writing opportunities we afford our students. 

When teachers receive student writing with genuine interest in their content, their voice, and their ideas... everything changes.  The climate of the classroom is open and inviting.  The conversations center around ideas, concepts, building knowledge together, extending knowledge, taking ideas in unique directions, figuring out the "so whats," and finding and telling our own stories.  Responding flows naturally, like a conversation, back and forth about what the student is saying, or trying to say.  How it is said certainly must be addressed, but the content is received first.  The instruction we offer focuses on meaning making, using writing as a tool to that end across genres, and the opportunities we afford our writers are much broader than if we receive writing only through a standards-based or passing-the-test-based lens.  With those lenses, our focus narrows and our talk and instruction leans toward the elements of writing, the structures, the conventions, the 'right way.'  As a K-6 literacy coach, the requests I receive from teachers are primarily for academic writing, with a heavy dose of effective prompt analysis, citing evidence, elaborating on that evidence, inclusion of all the necessary elements of the genre, and structure and organization (opinion/argumentation and informational only please, after all, narrative isn't on the test).* Yes, all of this certainly does matter.  But, when we limit writers only to these opportunities for growth, the way we receive their writing tends to be limited, as well.  Being college and career ready doesn't have to mean writing to a formula and having one's writing received only in light of that formula.  Yet, I see and hear this time and time again.  There may be thoughts inside the piece that are nuggets of greatness, but we have to be open to receiving them.  Widen the lens.  Listen deeply.  Receive the writer and the content before anything else.  

*Do I believe in standards-based instruction like this?  Yes, I do.  In fact, I recently wrote a K-2 book about integrating standards-based reading and writing instruction that is purposeful and joyful.  It's pretty easy to genuinely receive student writing that is purposeful and joyful and, with a little ingenuity, we can integrate the academic standards right in! (See a post about this here.) Yet another book I wrote this year gets at standards through the use of student writing as mentor texts for teaching (opinion, informational, narrative, and other forms of writing.  See a post on this here or here and a short video here).  But, I believe standard-based instruction must take place within a balanced approach to writing...read on for more.

The notion of balance in the opportunities we give writers is critical.  If we view the way we receive student writing as important, if we are eager to truly discover their unique ideas, understandings, and stories, our writing communities are places where a plethora of writing types are studied and tried on.  Who knows what will fit right now for this or that student?  And, who knows what will be discovered because we had the sensibility to try a wide range of opportunities rather than working from a narrow focus.

Think of our youngest writers.  Obviously, their work will be an approximation of the conventional.  If we approach a youngster thinking, "This child has something to say, and I want to hear it," our response to the piece, in whatever form it appears on the page, will be very different than if we are thinking something like, "I've got to move my writers forward and this student is really behind."  Imagine the difference in the response the same child would receive based on these two ways of receiving the writing.  How do you think the responding that ensues affects that child's writing identity and motivation?  Yes, we definitely do need to move writers forward and we have to study their work carefully to see what it is they are doing well, what they need to work on, and think deeply about what might be the best next possible steps to help the individual or group of individuals move ahead.  But, before all that, the writer, the little human, the person, comes first.  Before all that, the thoughts this writer has must be honored, acknowledged, and given an equal amount of deep attention.  The writing must be received in a thoughtful, genuine way.

Still today, in some classrooms, kindergartners don't have opportunities to write because, "they're not ready."  This is a very old notion of writing and writing development since writing is, at its core, simply a form of communication. If I have a different mindset and I receive students' writing just like I receive their speech, with interest in their ideas, with joy and curiosity, then I respond in kind and we write from day one. 

I'd love to hear your thoughts about "receiving student writing."  I've been kicking these ideas around in my head for quite some time and I still have miles to go to reach clarity.  I hope my thinking inspires your thinking. #happywriting!

A Case for Graphic Novels: Have You Studied What They Offer Our Readers These Days?

     I have a list of topics I want to blog about and they're all important!  But, tonight I want to share some thoughts on graphic novels.  Why?  Because I can't believe how they fly off the shelves of the library at my school, how my fourth grade son devours them (and has for years), and because the depth and breadth of what is now offered in graphic novel form is utterly astounding. 

     Just a few years ago, I didn't hear much about graphic novels.  Now, it seems, they are the rage.  And, of course, the industry is responding with more and more publications in this genre.  Within the last year, I noticed our local library went from one shelf of graphic novels to five (still, I'm sure, not enough to meet demand).  Luckily for our readers, the librarian at my Title I school listens and responds to what students really want to read and she is now constantly updating our graphic novel collection.  We've found there is a growing number of graphic novels offered for a variety of readers--from beginners (check out The Flying Beaver Brothers by Maxwell Eaton III) to advanced (Max has just finished reading the entire Bone series by Jeff Smith, some 1,300+ pages, and I'm now reading the epic adventure (and loving it!).
Blog post by Janiel Wagstaff:  The Case for Graphic Novels

    Not only has students' pure excitement and motivation to read graphic novels caught my attention as an educator, but I'm truly impressed by the topics and quality content now available in this format.  For example, this summer, my son Max (again 4th grade), read Where Do Presidents Come From? by Michael Townsend and learned about the process of electing presidents, their duties and everyday life, and much more (imagine a kid voluntarily picking this title as fun summer reading!).  He laughed all the way through!  He also picked a graphic novel about Houdini (by Jason Lutes) thus learning about the life of this historical figure.  All the while, he was reading the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi which prompted repeated trips to the library to pick up books in the series as they became available (we had to put each one on hold and wait for them to come in since they are so popular).  Additionally, he was attracted to the intrigue of the title The Dumbest Idea Ever (by Jimmy Gownley), but was delighted to learn it was the true story of how Mr. Gownley wrote his first comic book at fifteen (Max loves writing his own comics).  In addition, check out these finds:
Blog post by Janiel Wagstaff:  The Case for Graphic Novels
(Pictured:  The Mad Scientist Academy series and the Survive! Inside the Human Body series) Oh the topics, oh the learning, oh the building of background knowledge; all within an engaging, can't-turn-the-page-fast-enough, kid-thrilling format!  Oh, the miles on the page!  Oh, the joy of reading!

     Two last points:  I'm thrilled to see what is often included in the final pages of these books--interesting facts, history, context, relevant extensions--rich content that builds upon what was read in the graphic novel itself.  Here are two examples from Houdini:  the first some history and interesting information, the second how a comic is created and published.
Blog post by Janiel Wagstaff:  The Case for Graphic Novels
Blog post by Janiel Wagstaff:  The Case for Graphic Novels

     Lastly, we need to address the bias against graphic novels.  I've heard teachers say they don't want their students reading 'useless comics.'  Sure, there are some graphic novels that don't have the quality story or content that others have, but this is true of all genres.  Also, I hope I've shown you above how many graphic novels have content that is anything but useless. Indeed, there are many jam packed with enthralling stories and characters while others offer information presented in ways that hook readers. I hear teachers who won't allow students to read graphic novels because, at times, it's difficult to find their lexile levels.  What?  Do you, as an adult, pick what you read based on the lexile level?  Why would we limit our readers' choices?  Why limit the development of our readers' identities (and our writers' identities, for that matter)?  Why deny access to what this format has to offer our readers? For more current talk on the idea of limiting students' reading to their lexile or other reading level, see:  this October, 2017 interview with Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, this October, 2017 article by Donalyn Miller, this October, 2017 blog post by Pernille Ripp and a post I wrote in November, 2015.  These are just a few references that may help teachers rethink practices that limit readers.  (*I must note here, however, it is critically important and a well recognized efficacious practice to scaffold beginning readers with appropriate texts.  This does not mean we limit these readers to only "just right" books, though.  They need choice as much as other readers and can take away all kinds of literacy learning from a variety of levels and types of books.) 

     I look back at my summer with Max in awe.  I cannot believe the sheer volume of what he read AND the content he was exposed to.  This makes me think about how, last Christmas, he asked for the entire Calvin and Hobbes series.  Looking through these comics, remembering reading them in the newspaper myself as a teen, I'm amazed at the complexity of the vocabulary and concepts included.  What a rich experience those 1,400 + pages were, and will be, when he needs a good giggle and joyfully revisits these books again. 

   Now, go check out the graphic novels available in your local or school library.  I guarantee, if you haven't looked lately, you'll be surprised at what you find! 

   I welcome your comments and look forward to blogging again soon!

P.S.  What a funny anecdote!  As we were preparing for bed tonight, just after I had finished writing this blog, Max picked up an old book of Disney stories, likely on the second grade reading level, that I had set aside to give away.  It was a book we'd read together when he was five or six.  He crawled into bed with it, pulled up the covers, and dove in.  I asked, "Hey, why did you pick that book tonight?"  He answered, "I saw it here, remembered reading it a long time ago, and just wanted to hear these fun stories again."  Well then, reader, good enough, good enough! 

Singing, Playing, Laughing and Reading and Writing, Of Course! Back to School with "The Seals on the Bus!"

A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.

I'm joining The Reading Crew for a Back To School Mentor Text Link-Up.  I've chosen to write about integrating our language arts teaching, K-2, using the fun book The Seals on the Bus by Lenny Hort.  (Note:  I've created a free downloadable packet containing more detailed information about the activities below.  It also contains the corresponding printables.  More details at the end of this post.)

The Seals on the Bus makes a great mentor text for innovating on a language pattern (see another post I wrote about that process here).  The text is based on the traditional "Wheels on the Bus," but instead of the story/song we know, all kinds of animals board the bus alongside the understandably nervous human passengers.  It's great fun to read and sing the words in the book, for example:  "The vipers on the bus go 'HISS, HISS, HISS!'...all around the town." K-2 students are highly engaged singing/reading, making the animal noises, and enjoying the details in the hilarious pictures (Watch out for those skunks!).  Given the familiarity most children have with "The Wheels on the Bus," this is an ideal text for beginning the school year since students experience a high degree of success while reading.

A logical extension of reading this book aloud (multiple times!) is interactive shared reading.  In the packet I mentioned, I made word and sentence cards teachers can enlarge and use in a pocket chart.  Then, as the class enjoys the text again, students can be prompted to use their phonemic awareness and phonics skills to find the correct words and substitute them on the chart as they move along in the text (as seen in the photos below).
A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.

A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.

But, why stop there?  As I read The Seals on the Bus this year, I was inspired to write a poem related to the book.  I explained to students how this is Reader Response:  sometimes you love something you've read so much, you just have to write about it.  Or, something you read puts thoughts in your head that you'd simply like to write down and remember.  Those are forms of reader response.  The poem is pictured here and is included in the packet in both color and black and white versions.  It could be enlarged for shared reading, and/or copies made to put in students' poetry folders for reading and rereading  (We all know this a favorite way to build fluency!).
A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.

Certainly all this reading inspires writing!  Innovating on this text is simple.  I asked students to think of an animal that WAS NOT on the bus in the book.  What sound would that animal make or what would that animal do?  First we used a sentence frame to share our ideas orally (The _____________ on the bus go _______________________.).  Then, students were invited to create their own page for a class book through independent writing.  I modeled writing a few pages at the writing stages appropriate for the class.  Then, students were ready to write their own!   More emergent students drew/labeled while others wrote sentences.  Here are a few kindergarten examples:
A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.

A Back to School Mentor Text Link-Up of literacy blog posts and FREE products from The Reading Crew.
"The beavers on the bus go 'chomp, chomp, chomp.'"

No matter the grade, (kindergarten included!) I always invite students to "write more" if they'd like.  After all, you never know what they might be inspired to do!  Some children may want to write their own individual books about animals on the bus or something else related to the reading.  In any case, when students finish their writing, we always take time to share.  I detailed ideas about sharing in the packet, along with bridging the reading to Shared and Interactive writingHere's a link to a short video showing interactive writing in process, if you're not familiar with the technique.  

I plan to make additions to the downloadable (Get it here!)  If you don't have a TPT account and would like a copy of the pdf, you can email me at janielwag@hotmail.com and I'll send it to you.

Follow the links in the link-up below to other blog posts by the literacy experts in The Reading Crew.  Each contains a free downloadable that goes along with the Back To School Mentor Texts featured.

AND, great news!  Enter the Rafflecopter below for chances to win a copy of every book featured in the posts!  Entries accepted through next Friday.

Finally, our link-up is supporting a "Go Fund Me" page for teachers from Texas who have experienced devastation from Hurricane Harvey.  We hope you'll consider contributing to this "Teachers Helping Teachers" cause.

Thank you and, as always, I welcome your comments and feedback.  Have a happy reading/writing/thinking day!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

When Teachers Say Students Don't Want to Write...

Happy Saturday!
Blog Post by Janiel Wagstaff:  Boosting Students' Motivation to Write + Book Giveaway
We just completed our first full week of school in addition to our three days last week.  It's such a busy and exhausting time for teachers, but Friday afternoon I sat down with two fourth grade teachers at their request.  They were concerned that now, after only 8 days in, they see very low student motivation for reading and writing in their classrooms.  In fact, they gave the students a baseline writing assignment and found some who wrote nothing at all, and several who wrote just a few sentences.  Of course, priority number one now becomes getting these students to love reading and writing, see them as purposeful acts that enrich and inform their lives, and building their sense of a literate community.

It just so happens that on Thursday of this week, Stenhouse published a blog I wrote about using students' writing as mentor texts.  Part of that post speaks to the profound effect this strategy has on students' motivation to write, how it boosts their confidence, and how it helps lift their sense of community.  Even though the post was written about lessons using peer writing for teaching in first grade, the lessons apply to all grades.  (See the post here.) When teachers say, "My students don't want to write," we have to ask, "Where have you started?  What short-term goals are you working toward?"  Students initial experiences with writing in any grade should involve choice and relevance.  Teachers write right alongside students and share their stories, information, and thinking.  What is written MUST be celebrated; students' voices validated through sharing inside and outside the classroom walls.   The way we respond to one another's writing is critical.  We have to really listen; really care about what writers are trying to say and show this in the way we respond. Using the students' own texts for teaching is just one strategy that augments these efforts.  It is a natural extension of the work we do as we build a sense of writing community:  "We are writers.  We are all growing together, side-by-side.  Our work is valuable.  Our work matters.  We learn from one another inside this strong community.  We celebrate each other's efforts."  Over the years, I've written many posts that have helped me reflect on such matters.  I'll include links to a few of those at the end of this post.    

In celebration of my Stenhouse post, I'm hosting a book giveaway:  5 copies of my book, "We Can Do This:  Student Mentor Texts That Teach and Inspire, K-2."  The giveaway is open through 7PM, ET, Sunday, September 3.  If you'd like to enter, click here.

It's the most wonderful feeling when we know students are excited about their reading and writing.  What power the teacher holds in making this a reality!

Best to you as you embark on your reading/writing/thinking journey this year!    
As always, I welcome your comments, questions and feedback!
Here are some pertinent links, as mentioned above:

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