Sunday, August 18, 2013

Using Picture Books in Middle School Writing

The Common Core State Standards ask for more rigorous reading and writing, but does that discount use of picture books in classroom instruction? I say, absolutely not. The simple fact is that mentor texts are often hard to come by. We have a variety of abilities in each class, and writing is often looked at as, well, boring. At our fingertips, we have material that is interesting and colorful, pulling in the disinterested; we have mentor texts that start at a basic level (although you will see that many picture books are not so “basic” after all), providing a place to begin for all students and providing success from the start.

Personal Writing

Any of Patricia Polacco’s books are excellent mentor texts for personal writing, as well as examples of  development of character, conflict, setting, etc.  Before diving into more complex mentor texts, try using one of her picture books as a mentor text. Two that come to mind right away include Mr. Lincoln’s Way and Thank You Mr. Falker. Both books are excellent examples of memoirs as well as a personal story revealing a change in the major character.

First off, both books offer great “Hooks.”

Mr. Lincoln’s Way: “Mr. Lincoln was the coolest principal in the whole world, or so the students thought.” Students can discuss how the first sentence/paragraph “hooks” a reader, then go on a scavenger hunt through other picture books or young adult novels to find other interesting ways authors start their works. As a higher level activity, students might then categorize the hooks they found, sharing out as a whole in the class to create a class chart that lists types of hooks and examples. Students can also use predicting skills to reveal what they think will occur or what the story will be about as a result of the first “hook” or lead line.

Secondly, both books offer some great figurative language/language usage.

Thank You Mr. Falker: “Knowledge is like the bee that made that sweet honey, you have to chase it through the pages of a book!”

As you can see, this simile is pretty deep and not something that an elementary student may readily grasp. But middle school students have the ability to delve into the meaning of this simile and to uncover its meaning. Polacco’s books are loaded with figurative language; students can use them to go on a scavenger hunt and to work with partners to uncover the meaning.

Finally, both books offer thoughts and feelings and use of dialogue.

It can be difficult to teach dialogue, but in picture books that use this element, students find it easier to grasp- how the dialogue is used to move the story along, how the dialogue is formatted and punctuated, etc. All can be investigated through Polacco’s picture books. In addition, when writing a personal piece, thoughts and feelings is a crucial element. Polacco’s Thank You Mr. Falker, is full of thoughts and feelings. The teacher might provide excerpts and have students highlight those thoughts and feelings, revealing how and where they are used, as well as to what extent they are used throughout the story.

Other Picture Books I Love:

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ear by Verna Aardema

I love to read Pourquoi tales- stories about the origin of an animal’s coloring, size, etc. In the seventh grade, students read Pourquoi tales, starting with the mosquito book, and we developed our own. They were imaginative and fun to read!

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss

Introduce this book when studying onomatopoeia! It is full of sound words that students can respond to – highlighting them in excerpts, holding up a hand when they hear one, etc. Students can practice their own onomatopoeia in like fashion.

Nothing Ever Happens on 90th Street by Roni Schotter

I love this book at the start of the year. Students always cry about having “nothing to write about.”  As I read, students list each piece of advice that is given to the main character as she searches for something to write about.  For example, “Try to find poetry in your pudding,” Mr. Morley said softly. “There’s always a new way with old words.”  Students can work in partners to decipher what each character meant and how it applies to our writing.

Students also list what the main character thinks as events occur that prompt her to write:  “What if? What might happen next?” Etc.

Abbie Against the Storm by Marcia Vaughan

One of my absolute favorites is a true story of a young girl and a lighthouse, depicting heroism. I love this because it shows that even kids can be heroes. This book is rich in figurative language, strong verbs, dialogue, thoughts and feelings and use of adjectives.  Beyond that, it is a fast-paced story with strong character development, conflict and setting. Students can choose a character trait for Abbie and find quotes that support; students can identify strong verbs or pull out figurative language and decipher the meaning. This book is also a great book to graph on a plot chart; a simple start before moving on to more complex text.  Students might also partake in an exercise involving setting. Why is the setting important to the story? What if the setting were elsewhere? How would it change the story? Students might take the challenge, and create their own story of Abbie in a different setting.

I love picture books in  the middle school! They simply are the most interesting forms of literature that provide excellent mentor texts for writers, can provide examples of various elements of literature through mini-lessons, and instill motivation and success by starting “simple.” You will find, however, that there really is nothing “simple” about picture books; they reach into our imagination and spark our motivation quicker than any black text on white paper.

Note: Picture book images taken from 
Check out Other Picture Book Ideas in the SDAWP #113 Texts Initiative- 

Building Community: First Days Activities

Depending on your school configuration, some kids travel with the same kids from elementary throughout middle school, and other schools filter students in from many schools throughout a district. Regardless of the situation, there are first day activities that can not only reveal information about your students individually, but can also provide a class-wide snapshot of who your students are. Furthermore, students can get to know themselves and each other, building community within the classroom. 

One of the first activities I do Involve individual hobbies and interests. Students are asked to simply list up to ten things they love, like to do, hobbies, affiliations with extra-curricular activities (sports, church, youth-group, Boy Scouts, karate, etc.). I take that list and create a Wordle with it. The Wordle has their class title in the largest letters- “First Block” for example, and all the interests are in various sizes. I use Jing (  to take a picture of the Wordle, and we look at it at the start of the following week. We discuss our similarities (the largest words) and our differences (the smallest words). I discuss that a community is made up of many similarities and differences, and that is what makes us who we are as a learning community. We need to respect our differences and who knows? We might even learn from each other; gain new interests as we take notice of what others are “into” around us.
I can see the class as a whole through this Wordle (, and I can use those interests we have in common to bring in reading material and to help create writing prompts. I can also use those smaller words to gain the attention of my more difficult to reach students, tying in reading and writing activities that relate to those who might not otherwise be reached, had I now known their interests. I staple these Wordles on the bulletin board for future reference, and throughout the year, I am pleased to see kids studying their own class’ Wordle as well as that of other classes.
Another formative assessment I perform in class is a Multiple Intelligence test. I am able to gain a quick answer to how my students learn best, integrating these learning styles into lessons and activities. I don’t stop there, though. I want students to be aware of our similarities and differences in the class and I need to see the classroom as a whole. We engage in a graphing activity to do this. 

Students are given a post-it for their highest score, and asked to remember which Intelligence that high score was in. (If there is a tie for a high-score, and there often is, I give them two post-its, and so on.) Students are asked to write their name on the post-it. On the board I have listed each Intelligence across the top, and students take their post-it and place it under the category in which they scored the highest, forming a bar graph. Once more, I discuss our similarities and differences, as well as re-enforce how each Intelligence might be used to help them learn, and how I plan to integrate these Intelligences in lessons and activities. I also take a snapshot of the class graph, so I have a quick reference in order to plan my lessons.
Both activities create community, informs my instruction, and informs my students about themselves and each other- ultimately, aiding in the formation of a positive learning environment.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Analogies of the Writing Process

Looking for a fresh way to review the writing process? Try creating analogies! 

One of my favorites!

To refresh middle school students’ memories about the writing process as well as to teach analogy, students were partnered and  asked to create an analogy for each step of the writing process.
First, we read an excerpt of Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write where she uses an analogy for writing. To continue the idea students viewed the Dodge Dart commercial– which is a perfect analogy for the writing process!
(What I really liked about using the commercial is how many times they "drafted and revised" to get the perfect car.) Students completed a formative assessment using this commercial (watching it at least twice after the initial viewing)- listing what they saw in the commercial that related to each step of the writing process. We shared out at the end and then viewed the commercial a final time.
Once students have read a few analogies, viewed the commercial and looked at a couple of examples (see below), they are ready to make their own.  I provided guidance as I moved about the room, reminding them of a step or questioning them about an illustration they were using for one of the steps- all  resulting in just a few of the examples below:

Baking and the Writing Process
A close up of two stages from a student analogy
Student choice is the key!