Learning From Experts

I almost just told them to start writing.

I have to be real with you; we’ve been researching for what feels like forever, it hasn’t been boring; they’ve been so excited about with topics they choose themselves. In order to keep the momentum going (okay and maybe my sanity), I almost just told them “Okay write it.”

But I didn’t.

“When learning to write like an expert there is no greater teacher than published books and articles; they can prop us up when we feel stumped for ideas and stand in as engaging and confident models when we wish to inspire our student researchers.”— Chris Lehman, Energize Research

So in the mist of the gathering information, we put their research folders away. We reviewed what good researchers do, and then we read feature articles (since that’s what we’re writing) with power.

Instead of me simply telling them, “Good nonfiction writing is descriptive, it’s full of expert words, and it teaches the reader.”

I said, “Hey, this piece should be boring, it’s nonfiction right? But why are we all laughing? What’s so cool about that fact?”

And together we made wall charts, LOTS of them. Usually I am the wall chart maker in the room, but on this one, I put the markers down and let the kids teach. They pasted a copy of good nonfiction writing in the middle, highlighted what they liked, then defined the skill. After they defined the skill they tried to write an example of that skill with a different nonfiction topic.

This took the WHOLE class (see 90 minutes); I would gladly give it up again.

In the end, we had a wall chart gallery walk. The kids took notes on strategies they thought they could use in their piece. We voted on strategies we thought everyone should definitely use. In the end, we researched writing, in the middle of researching another topic— their writing will be stronger for it.

And to think, I almost just told them to start writing!

 

The Power of a Chart

About two weeks ago, my students and I sat down with two sheets of giant yellow chart paper. On it, we listed every way to take notes that came to our brains; we drew pictures of what they looked like, and we talked about reasons we might chose one over another. I have done this before with my students; it is nothing new. Although I have certainly discussed things like this with my students before, I have never made a wall-chart of note-taking options (See bottom of page 43— Energize Research Reading & Writing).

However, since that chart has been on the wall, it has become one of our most used resources. I see students skimming an article and then glancing up at the chart. They know the importance of choosing the best technique for the source at hand. And they also know that I am holding them accountable for their notes.

Truth be told, I have never placed too much value on notes. I knew they were important, and I told the kids which kind to take and when, but I never spent more than a day going over them. Two weeks later, these are common phrases heard in our workshop:

  • I like how you used different colors to show differences.
  • Do you think I need a Ven Diagram or is this more like a T-Chart?
  • I love bullets, but I think this bullet list needs subtitles.
  • I’m rereading my notes and highlighting them in different colors so I know what information I need, for different sections.

And then on Friday, in block two, the ultimate teacher joy:

  • I love research.
  • Can we research again next week? With new topics?
  • Now I really love this!

What changed?

1. I had them annotate their articles as they read them.

  • They put hearts around places they loved and question marks when they were confused.
  • They highlighted things they knew they might use in their papers.
  • They wrote new questions that were brought up by the text.
  • They drew pictures and labeled them to help them understand.

2. After they had annotated two articles, they took notes.

  • They found ways to bring their thinking on the two articles together.
  • They chose a note-taking format that would work for them.

3. We had an in class gallery walk

  • Everyone left their notes open and we all walked around with post-its leaving comments on our peer’s notes.

Somehow, in the mist of all this, research has become fun.  Kids are using YouTube videos as sources and taking notes on interviews. Their topics are ranging from Child Labor in shoe factories, to Justin Bieber and his musical roots. They’re not complaining about taking notes, in fact, they’re walking back to the chart on their own and spending time thinking about the best way to organize their notes for their paper and for their reading.

All this from a chart? Who knew?

Stay tuned as we learn how to take the notes and create interesting nonfiction feature articles from them!

Handling Uncertainty

In our switch to the Common Core, I’m finding the only way we can really accomplish everything we’re looking for is to let go a bit, to let students have control. If we are going to say that they are ready for the world, we’ll need to stop scripting the perfectly planned research project and start teaching them to overcome roadblocks and create products that will be useful to them or society. Chris Lehman (@iChrisLehman) even goes so far as to say, “when we are the ones rushing ahead, engagement drops dramatically as we take the intellectual rigor out of the job”(10).

Sounds beautiful, letting go and letting the kids take control, increasing rigor— I’m not sure it’s that easy.

But let’s quote Chris again, “If we are developing students to be creative, flexible, independent learners. Then we cannot scrub away opportunity for mistakes to be made and corrections to be learned”(10). We talked about this at our book study and our school librarian offered up the library for hard days. Days were we might be unsure if kids would come out with anything other than frustration that they couldn’t find any information on “The History of Justin Beiber’s Haircuts” or “Why the Eagles Keep Fumbling?” Days where research topics are changed twice, maybe even three times, can we handle the uncertainty of research?

At the end of the day, and with Bill, our librarian at our side, we decided we could in fact handle the uncertainty. But we were wondering, could our kids? What will our kids do in the face of frustration? Is this something we should talk to them about first? Or should we let them struggle and then bring them together to reflect? What about kids who want to research difficult topics, with little text at their reading level?

Feel free to talk back in the comments. Do you let your kids reach frustration? How do you reflect with your class? What did you notice in chapter 1 & 2 that we missed?

If you have the book, Energizing Research Reading and Writing, I’d like to add on that you should check out page 14 for a great way to help your kids generate ideas for research across the content areas.

#McLarenTV

It all started with test prep. I mean, I dread test prep; I value its importance, but I dread test prep. So with persuasive writing test prep, the easiest and maybe one of the most important things I do with my kids is to have them write to a prompt, because really, I don’t give them writing prompts all year, so this practice is important.

Somewhere between test prep and moments of testing anxiety only a teacher can understand, came McLaren.

I know nothing about cars. But, I can definitely pick out a cool car. So what would be cooler than persuading the McLaren MP4-12C to come see us at school? Well, if it actually worked, nothing would be cooler than that. In fact I think it would make test prep authentic, which is really the reason I hate test prep in the first place, the lack of authenticity in the process.

When we started writing our persuasive letters to McLaren and our Principal, I was all about the details— that is providing valid persuasive techniques, putting the thesis statement in the right place, a genuine rebuttal that actually helped the paper. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I realized their reasoning had persuaded me too, learning about this car was one of the most educational things we could do for them and if I could make it happen, I would try.

Before I knew it, the science teacher was involved doing materials science labs and talking about the strength of a carbon fiber body. Then the kids were building their own rubber band powered racecars, and it was happening, it was actually happening.


Our math teacher brought the whole project to a new level, planning out McLaren math and getting the kids to figure out Drag Speed Coefficients and things I do not understand at all. He was even e-mailing the Chief Engineer over at McLaren England; I mean really. And so what had started as a really painful test prep lesson became a community building, learning experience, across three curricular areas— oh and one really amazing day with The McLaren MP4-12C!

 

 

 

 

During this project, I saw my kids do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. They struggled and didn’t give up: Each subject area really raised the bar with this one, we all expected things out of them we were not sure they had the ability to do. We all watched them fail; we all watched them try again, more than once.
  2. The helped each other: Without me suggesting it, without thinking that if they helped one team they might not win a prize, they selflessly shared tips with their core group of friends and people they rarely talked to. They really wanted everyone to succeed.
  3. They smiled: I see them smile everyday, but this project had some really excited smiles from kids who sometimes struggle to find a reason to smile (See screams of joy when Chad turned on the car stereo and played Taylor Swift for them and gasps of awe as Matt opened and shut the car door).

Then again during this project, I saw adults do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. Jon, Donna, Jen & I worked together as a team: We each changed lesson plans, we each conducted research above and beyond, we were flexible and supported each other in the way coworkers should.
  2. All the people at McLaren Philadelphia and McLaren helping us and making us feel like family, answering our questions along the way, and being excited for us: They didn’t have to, they weren’t making a profit for this, they valued us when we had nothing we could give them in return.
  3. Chad, Alison, and Matt giving up their day to be with us: They stayed way longer than expected; they brought gifts for the kids; they answered countless questions. They got sunburn!
  4. Evan, typically a star in our classroom, came in to help us build cars, take photos, and make sure I stayed sane at the end of the day.
  5. Gerald Catagnus, our principal, who saw the value in our plan and welcomed McLaren into our school.

A Footnote:

This past summer, I attended Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I remember one class I took with Colleen Cruz, author of Reaching Struggling Writers. Maybe what I remember the most, without looking at my notes, is that if you draw on something kids already think is fun, and then apply writing to it, they’ll be more likely to give you their best work.

Generally speaking, I thought I was pretty good at doing just that. However, it was in this class that I realized I may have been missing some pretty valuable teaching tools. Sports. Video Games. Hunting. Cars. Anything, that I might have previously labeled utterly and totally ummm boring boy?

I made my mind up this summer, that I would open my mind. I would try harder with a topic that my kid’s love, even if the very thought of the topic would be utterly vapid for me.

But in the end, this project, this undertaking, was anything but vapid. In fact it sits high on my teacher shelf of things I loved teaching, loved learning about, and I still can barely believe this all happened to us.

 

**There was a press release for this day, hence the kid pic love I’m totally able to post. If you love style of these photos, email me at rachel@notesfromahappyteacher.org , and I can set you up with our amazing photographer Evan.