Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Using Quick Writes to Foster Writing Fluency

Writing of just about any type helps students to express their emotions and assists with retaining content. Learning is reinforced and solidified when students write about their thinking and learning.  Using Quick Writes in the classroom is one such strategy to get kids writing and thinking.

What Are Quick Writes?

Quick Writes is a literacy strategy that can be used in any content area with just about any grade level.  It can be used to develop writing fluency, to reflect on learning, and to assess student thinking.

Quick Writes are...
  • short bursts of writing (anywhere from 2-10 minutes)
  • non-threatening- directed toward a specific task
  • can be a journal entry, an "Exit Ticket", a list of questions, drawing and writing, a list or sentences of what the student learned, or completion of part of a graphic organizer, such as a K-W-L chart.
  • can be used before, during, and after learning
  • can be used to assess schema and activate background knowledge
  • can be used in all content areas
  • can be incorporated throughout the lesson.
  • can be used as an informal, formative assessment
  • writing that is not taken through the entire writing process
  • writing that is focused on content and ideas, not mechanics

I have used Quick Writes with students as young as kindergarten through eighth grade.  With primary students, I often have them do a Quick Write and a "Quick Draw".  For example, in science, I could use this structured Quick Write after a study or a reading on ocean animals:

From my June Writing Prompts packet

Students could start with the drawing and then progress to the list. My purpose for using this would be to assess what my students have learned about our study of ocean animals or to assess the students' understanding of key details from a nonfiction text.  As with any strategy, I would model how to complete a Quick Write and offer many opportunities for shared writing.

Usually the Quick Write is very structured and is "framed writing" with a specific target.  I could have students simply write a list of questions they have at the end of a lesson, to define a vocabulary word ( key concept), complete  any column of a K-W-L chart, or I could ask them a specific question such as "What causes erosion?".

My students kept their Quick Writes (Q.W.) in their content folders or notebooks.  For the above question on erosion, they would complete the Q.W. in their science folder or notebook.  Or, they could complete the writing on a sticky note, index card, or a handout I give them that has the question written and has lines for responding.  We label these with a Q.W. and glue loose papers into the folder or notebook.

Why Use Quick Writes?

  • To help students to make personal connections
  • To develop writing fluency
  • To provide a reading purpose
  • To have students reflect on key concepts
  • To assess student knowledge
  • To stimulate student thinking
  • To help build confidence in the writer
  • To provide opportunities for students to capture "seeds" of ideas for more extended writing pieces

Quick Writes are flexible, versatile, and varied.  When I first use them, I start with a question or an open-ended writing prompt/stimulus and model for students the expected behaviors. That is, I show them what a writer looks like and what they are thinking (by using a Think Aloud) when completing a Q.W.  I usually start with journal prompts that are kept in our writer's notebook.

The goal is simple:  to develop writing fluency.  How much can I write in five minutes?  How quickly can I get my ideas from my brain to the paper?  Do I have to draw first and then write?  Am I stuck on ideas?  Do I have a hard time getting my ideas down on paper?  Little writers need to be reminded that their ideas are what is important and not mechanics.  They do not have time to agonize over spelling and sentence structure.  I tell my littles, that I am much more interested in what is in their "smart brains".

The next goal is to use the Quick Writes for student reflection and assessment.  Reflection could be having students reflect on themselves as a learner by making a list of the parts of the lesson that were difficult.  I could give students an Exit Ticket and jot down questions they still have.  Or, I could stop midway through the math lesson and have students write and draw the definition of a quadrilateral during math class.

For me, using journals is the easiest and most fun way to introduce Quick Writes.  I use journals as morning work.  It's what students do first at the very beginning of the day or class.  When I taught Language Arts to students that came to me for their L.A. block, it was the first thing they did.  Each morning was a good exercise in writing independently, writing quickly, thinking quickly and creatively, and in getting one's brain warmed up.  In a self-contained classroom, you may use a warm-up before each content class.  That most likely is a Quick Write!

Speaking of journals, I just completed my June Writing Prompts and have the set posted in my store.

These monthly writing packets are what I use for Quick Writes and for journal writing.  For me, the difference between the two is that journal writing is more about the writing process (even if it's only a draft/sloppy copy) and is more detailed, and therefore, a little more involved time-wise. 

I have a wide variety of prompts for the month of June that you can use as a Quick Write.  Here's another example of one you could use in science class after learning about ocean animals.  Or, you could use it for Language Arts after reading a text about such animals.  Or, you could have students complete it as a fun way to get them thinking and giving them practice on writing their ideas quickly- developing their writing stamina.

If you are interested, you can see the complete packet by clicking here.

Using Quick Writes throughout my day just comes naturally to me and is actually a tool that I use as a learner.  Writing what I am learning and writing about my learning helps me understand and retain information more efficiently and at a deeper level.  

 How do you use Quick Writes in your teaching?  Do you use them across the content areas?  Please share your ideas in the comments section!

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

This Mom Doesn't Want the School Year to End.... It's NOT What you think!

Well, at least it is almost out for the year here in PA.  Just a few more short weeks left of packing lunches, early bedtimes, weekly spelling tests and then this school year is wrapped up.  I have never liked beginnings and endings, hellos, or goodbyes.  The school year is no different for me. I get weepy-eyed at the start and end of school year.  Now that my oldest is an adult at the age of 22 years, I am all too aware of how fleeting childhood is.  My two youngest boys, ages 8 and 9, are a precious, miraculous gift, and I want to cherish every.single.minute.

That it is already the end of the year seems unfathomable to me.  I want to stop the clock and prolong their childhood.  We are not the same people we were at the beginning of the school year.  That's good, as there have been growth, maturation, and blessings.  On the other hand, there have been set-backs, disappointments, and let's face it, growth can be painful and scary.

We started the school year strong, even though this mom wasn't ready for her middle child to be a 3rd grader!  He really was this excited to start the school year.  And now, I am thinking how he only has two years left of his elementary school years... this is just how my brain works.  I know I can't be the only mom that thinks like this, can I?

At the beginning of the year, I was homeschooling my youngest son who is finishing 2nd grade.  Except, that he was sick with a fever the first day of school.  And then, we had some bumps in the road and I was hospitalized for 21 days between October and November.  

With a heavy heart, my husband enrolled him in public school.  It was what needed to be done at the time, and even though he has had an incredible school year with a one-of-a-kind-amazing teacher, I still mourn the fact that I wasn't able to homeschool him. 

As we learned many times this year, things don't always go as we plan, hope, and pray for.

This year, my oldest took a year off from college and joined the Army National Guard.  Instead of hitting the history books, he spent the year in basic and advanced trainings.  He is not the same "kid" he was a year ago. My heart has ached and missed him so much this year, as I went months without speaking to him let alone seeing him.  We are beyond joyous that he will be closer to home in a just two weeks!

At this point, I am hearing my father's voice fire off a "And your point is..." in my head.  My point is this:  even on days when my boys are driving me nuts, there is no other place I'd rather be.  For I know that this whole mom gig is over  While some parents are celebrating the beginning of the school year like it's Christmas Day and grieving over the end of the school year, I embrace this long stretch of summer vacation that is just peeking on the horizon.  Days that we spend 24/7 together doing, well, doing "our thing":  days spent at the lake, at the pool, at the beach, at the library, at home, riding bikes, playing in the mud, and walking the dogs-- just being a family.

Because the end comes all too suddenly and then POOF! they are grown.  And I know that is how it is supposed to work.  And year after year, I had warnings and reminders that it would end some day.

Like now, the end of another school year beckons that one day I won't be surrounded and engulfed in the messy life of a mom to three boys.

So, yeah, it is sad that another school year has come to and end, but not because I will now be with my boys from "son"rise to sundown. It's sad that my boys are a year older. The end of school reminds me that time is marching on at break-neck speed. 

Weary moms:  know that the cliche' that kids grow up in the blink of an eye really is true.  Know that what you are struggling with right now will only last for a season and then later you will cherish the memories of that season.  Know that the days are long, but the months fly by and the years have no mercy as they race on.

Embrace and celebrate the end of yet another school year. 

The summer season lies wide open in front of us... make the most of every moment and enjoy the memories you will make!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Writing and Journals: It's Good for the Dendrites!

This spring I am reading Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites by Marcia L. Tate.  I had seen other bloggers discussing the book a few months ago, and being intrigued by brain-based research, I knew I had to check out this book.

The book offers 20 teaching strategies for brain compatible instruction.  The very last strategy in the book is writing and journals, and that is the focus of this blog post.  I also want to share with you my brand new May Writing Prompts for journals and writing centers.  I am slowly finishing my writing prompt series for all 12 months.  You can see all the prompt packets I have created here.

Included in all of my writing prompts packets, is a variety of forms ( stories, lists,  etc.), writing purposes (persuade, inform, and narrative) and various levels of difficulty.  Not all prompts require the same writing skills and you can pick and choose which prompts to use depending on the writing abilities of your students.  As well, you may find that the prompts are too difficult for your students, or that you will have to guide and scaffold the writing.

My intent was to make this packet as flexible as possible for you to use!

Now, for a little of the research from the author, Marcia Tate.  First, I love how Tate explains that teachers are gardeners; they are dendrite growers!

"...because every time students learn something new in their classrooms, they grow a new brain cell, called a dendrite." (p.6)

Both writing in general and journal writing are brain compatible strategies that give the brain a real workout!  Writing makes use of intrapersonal skills (from Multiple Intelligences) and is a visual and tactile experience.  Because writing makes use of different modalities, it is a very active and sophisticated skill, which is why it is good for the brain!

Other Facts About Journal Writing 
{from Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites}
  • Writing should be cross-curricular.  That is, writing should be integrated into all content areas, and it is easy to do!  Writing about the content one is learning helps to "cement" it into long term memory.  It is very easy to complete a quick journal entry as a way to check for understanding or to have students reflect on their learning.  You can also do this with Quick Writes, which I will discuss next week!
  • Journals allow teachers to focus students' attention toward the content, monitor students' understanding of the content, and allows students to freely express their ideas in a risk-free environment.
  • Journal writing assists the brain in making meaning out of the new information it acquires.
  • Journal writing can be done at any grade and content level.  It increases retention and a positive transfer of information.
  • When assigning writing, teachers should give many opportunities for authentic, real-world and cross-curricular purposes.
  • Allow for choice (freewrites) as often as possible.

A Peek at my May Writing Prompts

My monthly writing prompts were created for students in first to third grades.  When I was homeschooling my first grade son, I wanted him to keep a journal where he could explore and experiment with various topics and purposes.  I wanted him to have a place where he could respond to fun prompts without worrying about being graded.  I wanted him to become a more independent writer who had more self confidence (he detested writing!)

And so, my monthly prompts idea was born.  The prompts are flexible to use.  You can print them and place in a pocket folder (the one with the prongs down the middle).  We hole-punched the pages and placed in the folder.  He colored the black and white cover page and glued to the front.

Cover Page- Student colored and glued to front of pocket folder

Use the writing prompts as morning work or in a writing center.

But, and here is where the flexibility comes in, you can pick and choose which prompts you will use and distribute them one at a time, place in a writing center, use as a Quick Write, or use for morning work.  You can staple the pages together with the cover page the student colored on top, or use the colored version of the cover page that is included in the packet.

Cover page done in color is included

My little writer sometimes has difficulty in composing his thoughts and getting them down on paper.  That is what makes writing so hard!  Writing enables the brain to reverse the reading process.  The brain starts with internal thoughts and ends with the written word (encoding).  So, sometimes, I allow him to color the black and white prompt page while he is thinking about what to write.  You may not have time for that and may have to wait for down time for the students to color.  

All prompt pages are done in black and white!

The prompts I wrote are based on special and fun days in the Month of May.  Examples include Cinco de Mayo, Brothers and Sisters Day, National Barbeque Month, Pet Week, Memorial Day, and lots more!  I wanted the prompts to be enjoyable and allow for creativity.   Many prompts allow room for drawing for those that need to draw first to brainstorm and for those that enjoy illustrating/visualizing their writing.

Also included are prompts that represent the different writing purposes!  There are prompts that are persuasive/opinion, informative, and narrative.  Students can make lists, write a story, write a letter, complete a speech bubble, and write an opinion piece.

"Friday Freewrites" were very popular in my class!  I included a prompt page for that as well so students can have choice in what they write.

Lastly, if you use Writer's Workshop in your class, you can have students select one of their pages to take through the entire writing process.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the May Writing Prompts!  You can check out the listing in my store by clicking the picture below.  Oh, and look for the June packet to be finished in a week or two!


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Sunday, April 19, 2015

10 Life Lessons My Child with Selective Mutism Taught Me- Part 2

Last month, I shared a post about life lessons my son with Selective Mutism has taught me over the last eight years.  You can read that post here.  Today, I share the second part of this post.  These life lessons are things that I learned about my son as he struggles daily with Selective Mutism and also what I learned about myself.  My hope is that you be inspired and encouraged by reading "my story"!

Life Lessons Learned From My Son #6- #10

6. I'm stronger than you think-  Moms are protective of their children, but when you have a child with special needs, the urge to protect and shield your child is much stronger.  Having a child with an anxiety disorder who cannot talk at school makes him vulnerable.  He cannot stand up for himself, cannot tell the teacher he has to use the restroom, cannot express his feelings aloud whether he wants to laugh or cry.  As my child becomes older, I realize that he has an inner strength and perseverance AND that by being over protective I am doing him a disservice.  He has to learn how to find his voice, which will only come after he learns to apply his coping mechanisms.  

That's where I and the counselor come in. I cannot enable my child, but at the same time, I have to be his safe place, help him to apply coping mechanisms at home, and let him know that I believe in him.  Sometimes this means he will have to deal with uncomfortable situations and learn from them as we process afterwards.  It's a delicate balance.

7. Help me to cope, not avoid my anxiety-  This lesson ties in with the previous one.  When my son was first diagnosed with S.M., I had a strong, overpowering urge to shield my son from any situation that would make him anxious.  Had I really done that, we literally would have never left the house.  Ever.  He was three years old at the time and in preschool.  And, he was a typical preschooler in that he was just learning to control and understand his emotions.  At the time, he could not verbalize how he felt at school (other than he did not want to go) and could not explain why he did not talk at school.  Was I protective of him?  Yes!  And maybe a little too much.  

As the years progressed, I shifted my focus from how can I help him to avoid situations that will terrify him to how how can I help him cope before, during, and after the event.  Some of the coping strategies that we used were journaling (drawing pictures and later writing), praying, using pictures to communicate at school, lots of active play, breathing exercises, and stuffed animals and stress balls.

8.  I need multiple outlets in which to express myself-  I have three sons.  Two of them have used the arts in which to escape, express themselves, and to recharge.  Early on, I noticed that my youngest son had an affinity to music and art.  At home, he was constantly singing, dancing, and creating art projects. And he liked to do these activities by himself.  He was and is an introvert, and I scrambled to find ways to nurture and foster his interests.  

However, at school, art and music classes are not fun. Not at all. These classes are a little less structured and in music class, he is expected to sing aloud.  He used to lip sync but now, at least at concerts, he will not move his lips at all.  As with many kids with S.M., he doesn't want to draw attention to himself.  So, I learned quickly that I must find other outlets for him that he finds "safer". This includes allowing for messy arts and crafts projects at home and for taking music classes where I can be present. Sometimes just having me in the room is all that it takes for him to be secure.  And now, this summer he wants to take an art class where he knows he will be alone without me.  Yes!

9.  I want to go to parties, but they are so stressful!    Before my son was diagnosed, I could not understand why he did not want to attend birthday or Christmas parties- with or without me or his brother who is only fourteen months older than he.  What kid doesn't like to go to parties?

As a toddler and preschooler, he would scream, cry, throw a tantrum, and try to hide.  He would sob and beg for me to hold him. I had no idea he was terrified to be among strangers, especially children his own age that would most likely expect him to talk. 

Later, when he was in kindergarten, he was able to verbalize that he did not want to go to parties if his classmates would be there. He was terrified to speak or eat in front of them.  He could not engage in play.  So once I learned this, even if I didn't understand it, I needed to respect his feelings.  And help him grow to be more secure, to be in charge of his feelings, and to help him when he wanted to go to parties.  We started with both of us attending parties his older brother was invited to, and later he progressed to the point where he wanted to go to classmates' parties.  Now, he goes to parties without me, but still attends with his brother, as long as the parents are accepting of that.

10.  As with all children, maturity brings new insights-  When you read the research on S.M., the emphasis is on early treatment. If untreated, the anxiety will only get worse and will not just go away. Children with S.M. will grow into adults with S.M.  When you read this as a parent, you go into panic mode, or at least I did. 

And, you want a fix- a quick fix -STAT!  My son was in counseling and therapy when he was three.  However, after a year we stopped because having to travel a 3 hour round trip once or twice a week was too much for his school and my work schedules.  Then, the guilt started and then the worry that my child would remain this way forever.  I talked with other counselors and doctors.  I read books.  And I implemented all that I had learned and slowly, very slowly I started to see results.  Like, when his kindergarten teacher let me know that he was smiling in class AND raising his hand. That he whispered an answer in FRONT of the ENTIRE class! 

And from there, the progress started to snowball.  He is not finished growing yet.  In fact, at the age of eight, he has regressed somewhat, yet matured in other ways.  He can now verbalize his feelings, tell me exactly what it feels like at school (pounding heart, chest pain, a tight throat). He can rationalize more now that he is older and can use deep breathing on his own and troubleshoot how to communicate with his teacher (he writes her notes and whispers to her!).

So, just like my older son who has Aspergers, I know that throughout his childhood, there will be many ups and downs.  He will not just outgrow his diagnosis.  And his diagnosis does not and will not define or limit him.  It is my job to keep my eyes wide open because I really think my sons teach me a heck of a lot more than I teach them.

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

10 Life Lessons My Child With Selective Mutism Taught Me

If you have followed my blog for awhile, you know that a considerable part of my content deals with parenting issues, including my journey as a mother to a young child with Selective Mutism.  It has been five years since my youngest son was first diagnosed at the age of three.  Since that time, my son has made progress, had regressions, and has attended private school, has been home schooled, and is now a second grader in our local public school.

As I reflect on my son's growth and progress, I desire to bring hope to those who love a child with Selective Mutism.  It's a long, lonely, and painful journey, but there is much light at the end of the tunnel!

10 Life Lessons My Son Taught Me

1.  What you think you see may not be accurate-  You may see this and your heart breaks...

But, my child has taught me that the "S.M. stare" is his countenance whether he is feeling happy or extremely anxious on the inside. It's just part of his coping mechanism and does let me and his teacher know that he isn't quite in his comfort zone.  In addition, an observer may conclude that the child is sad and feels left out, but the child may prefer to be alone during non-structured times such as free play and recess.  For my son, it offers a respite from the classroom where he is expected to take part in small and whole group activities.  Like many children with S.M., he definitely has an introverted side to him.   Still, recess is hard for him and he does his own thing, BUT, he does not want to be approached or asked to join in play.  How do I know all this? Because he told me!

2. I will tell you how I feel when I am able to-  At the onset of S.M., my son was barely a preschooler.  Along with S.M., he had delayed speech and articulation difficulties.  He was also the youngest and had two older brothers to cater and speak for him.  So, verbal communication was not his strong point.  And besides, toddlers and preschoolers have little means to express how frustrated they are feeling besides the infamous tantrums.  Along came kindergarten and my son did not even want me to mention one.little.thing about his talking or lack there of.  Nada. Nothing.  He appeared to become angry and embarrassed.  At this time, he was in treatment with a psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and in speech therapy, plus in all day kindergarten. 

Looking back now, he was most likely on stimulus overload and under immense pressure.  It took awhile, but this mom finally learned that #1, I needed to back off, trust that my son would talk about his feelings when he wanted to and was developmentally mature enough to do so.  Kids with S.M. stress out when expected to talk whether it is by a parent or a teacher.  And #2, I need to be patient.  There is no quick fix to S.M. and sometimes a person is under so much anxiety that they don't really know how they feel other than yucky and uncomfortable.  What I did instead was be available to him when he did want to share and to love on him no matter what.

Now, at the age of 8, he freely talks a lot about his feelings, his frustrations from the day, his joys, and his discomfort with speaking (whispering) at school.  . Much of what I am writing about today is what he shared with me.

3. And speaking of patience, you will need LOTS of it-  I really thought that having three boys, one with Aspergers, being a teacher (I spent 14 years in middle school!), and life in general had prepared me to be patient.  Not so!  My youngest has taught me that I had more patience inside of me than I ever thought I had!  Most of the effective treatment for S.M. centers around desensitization which requires very small, baby, minute steps.  At times, I was overwhelmed and yes, I admit, impatient, that it took my son years to be able to whisper to his teacher.  And then, BOOM!, he regressed and wouldn't even whisper.  But. my sweet boy taught me that what he needs most is a reliably patient mom that rolls with it.  

4. Baby Steps is What It is All About-  Research shows that desensitization is the most effective way to treat S.M.  This is a fancy word for taking baby steps, breaking down the steps to attain a goal.  For example, when my son was three, the psychologist and I set a goal that my son would talk in the hallway at school (to reach a bigger goal of talking in the classroom).  Part of our "homework" was after school (I was fortunate enough to also teach at the school) I would get my son from his classroom and we would walk down the hallway to my classroom.  At first, we just walked and I would casually say that I hoped he had a good day. I did not ASK if he had a good day because I didn't want to pressure him to talk- at first.  The goal was to reduce the anxiety, not to set an expectation that he was to talk. 

 But then, we had to go w-a-y back even further because my son was not talking in the parking lot at school.  He would stop talking in the car as soon as we pulled into the parking lot.  We baby stepped it back to having his goal being to talk in the van while in the parking lot and then later to talk aloud in the parking lot as we walked toward the school doors.  Baby steps take time- months and even years and that is o.k.

5.  The Anxiety Doesn't Stop at the End of the School Day-  Just because the school day has ended ( school is a major cause of anxiety for children with S.M.) and we are at home doesn't mean my child is now free from tension and anxious feelings.  What my son taught me is that when he comes home, he needs time to decompress and release all the emotions he has stifled all day. Sometimes this may present as a temper tantrum, meltdown, chattering nonstop to me in a pleasant manner, fighting with his brother, or going outside to run and play.  He hasn't talked all day and when he was very young would barely smile.  Still to this day, he will not laugh aloud or cry out loud when hurt while at school.  Therefore, a hug from mom at the end of the day, goes a long way!

I'll be back next week to share my #6- #10 lessons learned.  In the meantime, do you have something you can share about your experiences or questions you have about Selective Mutism?  Please do so in comments!

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Friday, February 20, 2015

Reading Strategies and Genres: Fairy Tale Posters

As a classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy coach, I have worked with students and teachers from preschool to grade 12.  Back in the early 1990’s, I began my research and application of what we called active reading strategies:  summarizing, predicting, evaluating, reviewing, connecting, inferring, questioning, visualizing, determining main idea, and synthesizing.  At present, these are often called reading comprehension strategies or cognitive strategies.

My resource, Fairy Tale Reading Comprehension Posters was created when I needed a visual reminder for students in  my reading intervention groups and when I was modeling lessons in teachers’ classes. Created specifically for grades K-2, you can use them with older students as well.  I used them on my Focus Wall, bulletin board, and magnetic white board.  I laminated the entire set, added magnetic strips to the back, and kept them on the side of my filing cabinet (which faced toward the students) when not in use.  This way, they were always visible to students and easily accessible to me!

Genre Poster

Comprehension Poster

I suggest printing on card stock, laminating, and placing magnetic strips on the back.  Use during instruction to help students anchor their learning of a simple, kid-friendly definition for each strategy /reading comprehension skill.  Hopefully most students are familiar with fairy tales and the pictures can help as a concrete example and reminder. 

As a classroom teacher and specialist, I used these posters!  The possibilities are endless!  To purchase your set, click here.

AND, I have a FREEBIE for you!  For those working on summarizing the story, download this organizer that coordinates with the poster set.  I created this for my 2nd grade son when he was struggling to write a summary paragraph and needed a bit more scaffolding.


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