Taste Testing Your Writing: A Fresh Take on Editing!

Have you ever watched one of those cooking competitions on television?... Chopped? Iron Chef? Cupcake Wars? Top Chef? Watching one of those shows gives you a glimpse of what happens "behind the scenes" of a real restaurant--with a bit more drama mixed in, of course.

One thing that sticks out to me when watching the chefs on those shows is that they always taste their food before sending it out to whoever is going to eat and judge it. They might adjust the seasoning, add a bit more sauce, or even wipe the edges of the plate clean!

Isn't that what we want from our young writers when it comes to the editing step of the writing process?
I've started using this chef analogy with my students when we are working on our editing. First I talk to students about how important it is for a chef to know exactly what she is serving to her customer. To do this she must taste test her food. The last thing a chef would want is to send a plate of food to a customer with no idea if it tastes good or not. She may think it's delicious, but by taste-testing it, she can make sure it is just right.

Then I tell students just how similar this is to editing our writing. We might think our story makes perfect sense and is correct in every way, but how do we know for sure unless we taste test our writing--we need to reread it and edit! Does every single word and sentence make sense? How about our capital letters, endmarks, and spelling?

Particularly during prompt-writing on state-testing, where students normally do not write a final draft, editing is one of the last chances for students to touch their work--to make it just right before sending it on its way to their "customer."

Try having your students taste test their writing. And if you want, click the image above for a free resource to help you get started!

5 Tips to be a 'REAL' Reader with Your Students

Sometimes it's easy for me to get stuck in a pattern of teaching reading in a way that's impersonal. It's not hard to see why. There are so many forces--and not all of them bad--that influence what I teach and how I teach it, but when I remember to bring myself into my reading lessons, I'm a better teacher. My students are more engaged in what we are learning because I am more engaged in what we are learning.

I'm a reader. My students are readers. And some of my best teaching moments come when I am real with my students about my own reading, when I draw inspiration from the texts I read, when I am authentic with how I feel about a text, and when I am transparent about my own thinking and strategies.

So here are a few tips to help you infuse more of your own reading-life into your teaching.

#1: Take Inventory of Your Reading

My 5-year-old's Bookcase
Reading is such an ingrained part of so much of our everyday life that much of it can go unnoticed. Take an inventory of all the different things you read: sure there's books, magazines, and newspapers, but what about blogs, text messages, menus, manuals, lesson plans, emails? It's a really long list. Try taking a stroll through your home, noting the places where you keep books and other forms of reading. It's a bit absurd at my house.

Just thinking about what you read brings it to the forefront of your mind. It may sound simple, but for me, when I'm more aware of the types and amount of reading I really do, it does a couple of things: it heightens the value of reading even more, and it "primes" me to talk about my reading habits to my students, whether in informal conversation or as part of a lesson.

#2: Pay Attention to Purpose

Give a little more attention to what you like to know and find out through your own reading. Why do you read? Of course it depends on the situation. I read funny books in a funny voice to my 5-year-old daughter at bedtime. Why? I love to hear her giggle uncontrollably. I read the instruction manuals to things. Why? I've learned my lesson about what happens when I don't. I read anything that Lee Child writes. Why? I'm addicted to finding out what his main character will do next. I read educational articles and books. Why? I like learning and growing as a teacher (and sometimes because my principal tells me to read it).

When I consciously identify my own purposes for reading, it becomes much more natural to do it with my students, and to do it well. Helping students set a purpose for reading gets them focused not only on reading, but also on the types of thinking in which they are about to engage.

#3: Practice Thinking about Your Thinking

Start identifying the reading strategies that you do so naturally. Making personal connections to the reading strategies that I teach not only gives me real-life examples to tell my students, but it also lets me tinker with the strategy in my own mind, to break it down and look at it from different angles.

For example, I remember sitting on my couch, starting a new book that was recommended by a friend, and dozing off before even finishing the second page. I jerked my head up, backed up a few sentences, and tried again. Hmm... an example of monitor your understanding. I had realized that meaning was breaking down, and instead of continuing, I backed up and reread.

Telling students what a comprehension strategy is and what it means is fine, but modeling how I really do it, and not in a scripted, formulaic way, but showing how I actually use the strategy, what I actually say in my mind to help understand the text, is powerful.

#4: Be Honest in Front of Your Kids

Students, even young ones, are fellow readers. I try to approach my reading lessons with that perspective. I want them to be honest and frank about their thinking, not to just say what I want them to say. Therefore, I need to be honest with them as well.

I don't pretend to love every single piece of text. I do try to select texts that I truly admire, and make sure to let my students know it. But being honest about what I think of a text, even bits and pieces of it, sets a precedent that analyzing and critiquing what we read is something strong readers do, and that we may not always agree with our fellow readers.

#5: Share! Share! Share!

Sometimes I think my students forget that I am a real person. I'm sure you've seen a student at the grocery store give you that blank, confused, "you-don't-belong-here" look.

I really try to be intentional about sharing my life with my students, especially when it relates to reading. Walking the class down the hallway and chatting to the first student in line about a book I just checked out from the library, swapping favorite-series opinions during a reading conference, recommending a book to a student that I just finished reading with my daughter... these seemingly random comments and stories go a long way to build a layer of trust and integrity to this whole "reading thing." It also instills the habit of relating my own reading behaviors so that I do so during lessons, too. I'm not just trying to teach students to become better readers because it's my job. I'm doing it because I love to read.

How else have you been able to be REAL about your reading with your students? I'd love to hear!

Day of the Discount

Just a quick post to fulfill a promise I made to my TPT followers...

I've recently finished my "Reader's Notebook for Informational Text" resource and will soon be bundling it with my "Reader's Notebook for Literature" resource at a discounted price. Since many of you have already bought my Reader's Notebook for Literature, I want to give you the opportunity to get the 'bundle-savings' with the Reader's Notebook for Informational Text.


So here's the deal... On Saturday, January 18th, I'll be posting the bundle of the two products above with a $4 discount, AND for that one day only, I'll have a $4 discount on my Reader's Notebook for Informational Text.

And just for fun, I'm also going to discount another one of my bestsellers...


It will be only $1 for that one day only! Click the picture of it to check it out. Okay, enough promoting. Thanks for reading!

Red Carpet Moments

By jdeeringdavis (Flickr: George Clooney) [CC-BY-2.0

It's red carpet season.

If you watch any of the red carpet shows that lead up to the major awards shows like the Golden Globes or the Oscars, you get to see the big stars... as well as a lot of Ryan Seacrest. Last time I checked though, the nominees for 'best sound editing' don't get pulled aside very often to be asked who they are wearing tonight (no offense to sound editors). The viewers want to see the Scarlett Johanssons and the George Clooneys. Why? Well, they are more intriguing, more entertaining, more beautiful, of course! So as the assistant screenplay writers walk past in the background, the camera bulbs flash and the interviews focus on the A-listers.

It should be the same with writing a story.

Writers get to decide how much time to devote to each moment of their narratives, and it need not mirror the time those moments took to actually happen. Strong writers shine their spotlights on the most intriguing, most entertaining, the most beautiful moments of the stories they want to tell, and they whisk the unimportant and uninteresting moments along toward their respective seats at the back of the theater. Now it's not to say that the 'boring stuff' of a story doesn't serve a purpose. Often, less-important events and details are needed to transition or to anchor the story in its time or place. But picking out the best moments on which to focus can transform a story.

Help your students find their Red Carpet Moments within the stories they're writing. When conferring with a student, I like to simply ask, "What's the best moment in your story?" or "What are your favorite parts of this story idea?" to help students locate these moments.

So what does a writer do with these moments? To answer that, just look at what Ryan Seacrest does with the big movie stars. He asks about every bit of their 'ensemble,' from the dress to the hair to the jewelry to the handbag to the shoes. No sequin is left unturned. But he also gets into their minds. "How are you feeling tonight? Tell me your thoughts on your movie?" And the viewers eat it up.

Writers can give their readers the same things. Add the most detail to your best moments... What does it look like, sound like, feel like? What are the characters thinking and feeling? What exactly happens, piece by piece?

Make those moments live up to their red-carpet worthiness.

Step In, Step Out: A Strategy for Thinking Deeply About Text

You're sitting at your guided reading table, your little group gathered around you, wide-eyed.

Or are you the one who's wide-eyed? Sure, you know what you're doing, but maybe right now you're thinking your lesson plan doesn't fit the book like you thought it would. Or that maybe your lesson plan is just lame. Or maybe you don't have a lesson plan and are winging it (oh, come on, we've all been there).

"Boy, I could really use a mini-lesson right now," you think. "One that gets my students into the heart of this book. One that gets to the heart of the Common Core. Uh, maybe one that touches the heart of my administrator who just so happened to 'pop in' and get comfortable."

Here's something to try: I call it the "Step In - Step Out" strategy. It's one of my go-to ways to get kids deep into a text, analyzing it from different perspectives and discussing it with each other. It's my take on thinking within, beyond, and about the text.

Step In!

Asking students to "step in" to the story means that students enter the world of the story to analyze the choices the CHARACTERS make. Use some of the anchor questions below to get students stepping into the story.
  • Why did this character make this choice?
  • What do you think of the choice this character makes? Would you have done the same?
  • What might have been a different choice? Was there an alternative?
  • What happened because of this choice?
  • What advice would you give this character?

Step Out!

Asking students to "step out" of the story means that students look at the story as a piece of writing, and analyze the choices the AUTHOR makes. Use some of the anchor questions below to get students stepping out of the story.
  • Why did the author decide to write this part? Did it make the story better?
  • Why was this part of the story needed?
  • What do you like about how the author wrote this part? How would you have written it differently?
  • What do you think the author is trying to do here? Keep us interested? Mislead us? Feel sorry for the character?
  • Is the author trying to tell us something important here?

Let's get back to your lesson.

"Today, boys and girls, I want you to 'step in' to the story while you are reading. Get in there with the characters. Watch them closely. Listen to what they say to each other. Notice what they do and WHY they do it, especially that main character. Be thinking about the choices she makes. I'll check in with each of you while you are reading to help you out. Alright, get started."

As the students in your group are quietly reading the text, you check in with them one at a time, listening to them and coaching them, but also asking them a 'step-in' question to think about with you... 

"So you just read that Sue Ellen is going to meet her friend at the park to give her the message, even though her mother said to finish her chores first. Hmm, what do you think about that decision? Why would she do that?"

You keep your conversations brief, even leaving some thoughts "hang" as you move on to visit each member of your group. After students have read for a few minutes, you bring them back together. You pull out your "Step In" mini-anchor-chart (see picture) for you and students to reference during the discussion in which you are about to engage them. They've been primed during your one-to-one check-ins, so you start off with something like... 

"Let's go back to when Sue Ellen went to the park. Who thought that was a wise choice? You don't, Taylor? Why not? Let's go back to that part of the book and reread it out loud... So, did she think about the consequences? Have you ever been in a situation like that? Could she have done something else instead, and still get her message to her friend?"

Getting students to think about the choices characters make, the causes of those choices, as well as their implications, grounds students' comprehension. It helps to guide readers through a text and build their understanding.

Eventually, you pull out the "Step Out" mini-anchor-chart.

You tell students,

"So now I want you to step out of the story for a moment. Think about how the author wrote this part of the story. Why does it make sense to have Sue Ellen go to the park and defy her mother? Or would a different choice make more sense? Would the story be better if the author had Sue Ellen listen to her mom? What else in the story would have to have changed?"

Getting students thinking about what the author was thinking can have far-reaching effects. Not only do students get to engage in higher-level, text-based discussions, it can be empowering to have the freedom to critique an author's decisions, and often can translate into how students make their own writing decisions.

You might want to close by giving your students the chance to respond in writing. And as they go about transferring their thoughts to paper, you sit back, breathe out, and give your boss a little wink.

*     *     *

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/FREEBIE-Step-In-Step-Out-A-Reading-Lesson-for-DEEP-Thinking-1051189I've got all the materials for the lesson you just had, including the response sheets, for you to download for FREE from my TeachersPayTeachers store. Click the image to the right to take you to the free resource.

If you like the "reader's notebook style" response sheets included in the Step In - Step Out resource, check out my huge collection of response pages, to use with virtually any piece of literature. 

https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Readers-Notebook-Response-Pages-for-Literature-HALF-PAGE-SET-766284Included are 64 unique response pages for character analysis, setting, comprehension strategies, word study, author's purpose, extending meaning, note-taking, open responses, and more. Differentiated at three levels to meet all your readers' needs. Click the image to the right for more details.

A 'Twist' on Personal Narrative Writing

A fun way to take personal narrative writing to a different level. Blog post explanation with free download from The Thinker Builder.

I don’t mind shoveling snow from my driveway… once. But come on, three times in a day? We get our share of snow in Indiana, but a whole foot in one day is… a lot of snow. But I had a plan. I figured that if I shoveled every few hours, it wouldn’t be so bad—shaving off a few inches at a time versus digging out of a buried mess. Thank goodness we have a normal-sized neighborhood driveway. And honestly, it wasn’t that bad. Until my third trip outside. 

I was pushing my shovel slowly down the driveway, scrrrrraping the snow from the concrete for the third time, sticking with my plan. Then, here comes my neighbor up the sidewalk with his monster-truck-snow- blower. Surely he sees me, right? Surely he’ll pause and let me go through, won’t he? The powder-storm shooting out of his machine must have made his sight lines a bit, well, non-existent, because he kept right on coming, on a collision course with me and my twelve-dollar plastic shovel. 

Stick to the plan, I mumbled. One of us was going to need to stop soon. And then all at once, his machine rolled over a crack in the sidewalk, causing the snow-blowing spout to jostle toward me, and you guessed it, I got a direct hit—flying snow, shot from a gas-powered cannon, all over me. So I stopped. So did my neighbor, the guilt slowly appearing on his face when he saw the splattering of snow all over mine. With the noise of his snow blower’s motor making it hard to speak, I gave an awkward “no problem” little wave and he moved on down the sidewalk. I wiped the snow from my face with a wet glove, and went back to pushing snow. 

Okay, brace yourself… that didn’t really happen. I kind of… twisted the real memory. 

What actually happened was, I was scrrrrrraping the snow from the concrete for the third time, sticking with my plan. My neighbor and his very normal-sized snow blower were working next door. I gave a cursory wave and went back to pushing snow. No collision course. No splattering of snow in my face. Just scrrrrraping the snow away. Kind of ho-hum, huh? Well, it was just that. But it did give me time to think about a favorite writing lesson I use for story ideas: Memory Twists. 

A memory twist story starts out with a real memory but gets twisted into something bigger and better. And here’s how I teach it: 

I like to start with telling the class a story. I don’t even tell my students what we’re working on. I just dive right into telling them about something that happened to me recently—nothing fancy, just a ho-hum little memory. Kind of like what I did to you. And then I choose a moment to twist the memory into a story with more excitement, humor, or adventure. When I finish my story, and I have them all wide-eyed and intrigued, I come clean about the twist. They’re a bit shocked, but I’ve hooked them. 

Then I have to get something straight with my students. A personal narrative is a genre of nonfiction writing—it’s true stuff; it really happened. A memory twist is NOT a personal narrative. Sure, it’s a twist on a personal narrative, but students need to be clear that they are writing a fictional story, whether realistic or fantasy. Otherwise, it seems like we’re just being liars. 

Okay, time to get the kids brainstorming ideas. I have them set up a simple T-chart in their writer’s notebooks like the one in the picture above. Students list some “memory moments” on the left side. One of the great things about a memory twist story is that you don’t need to start with some special memory—a ho-hum one works just fine! On the right side of the chart, students note an idea to ‘twist’ the memory. Table-group talking is definitely allowed during this time, as it usually gets those twisted ideas swarming. I also like to have them code each twist-idea with an “R” for “realistic” or an “F” for “fantasy.” See the example to the right. 

After brainstorming, I have students make a bullet-point plan, but with two different color pens or markers. They use one color to represent the “real” parts of their story, and a second color to represent the “made up” parts of their story. See the example. Students then use their two-colored bullet-point plan to write their story. 

The Memory Twist strategy is often my students’ go-to source for story ideas. It’s fun, it’s freeing, and it usually makes for an entertaining story. Try it out!

I've updated this lesson into a complete writing center. It is one of my "Keep It Fresh!" writing centers and is totally free! Click HERE or the image below to download it from my TeachersPayTeachers store!


Or check out the huge bundle of ALL my writing centers, designed to be engaging for students and easy for you to keep fresh.


Click HERE or the image above for more details.


Why I Became a Teacher

It was the lecture on columns. That’s why I became a teacher. Yep, the columns.

Well actually, this lecture on the history of Greek columns to which I’m referring was the reason I didn’t become an architect. Maybe more like the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back sort of thing.
I was sitting there in my back-corner chair of the lecture hall, banging my head against the nearest column, while the head professor of the university’s architecture department went on for two hours (not kidding) about fluting and pediments and, well, I don’t really know what else because I had stopped listening to him. Instead, my whole career plan was all of a sudden getting very real in my head. And I was freaking out about it.

It was the first day of class of the spring semester. I was in my second year of being an architecture major, and the doubts were barreling toward me.

The drama of this moment is still real to me. At the time, I had been shoving it all to the back of my mind for a while, and now it was like a perfect storm of career thoughts swarming together at once, brought together by the Greeks and their ever-changing columns. Trying to pull apart these thoughts into a nice organized list makes it all seem a lot less “stormy” than it was in the moment, but for the sake of a little clarity, here’s my attempt at giving a glimpse of what was going through my mind:
  1. I hadn’t always wanted to be an architect. But I was good at art and interested in design, and honestly, the “What-do-you-do-for-a living?-Who-me?-Oh,-I’m-an-architect” conversation drew me toward the major. It’s a cool-sounding job, you have to admit. (George Costanza agrees, at least.) But now that luster was rubbing off, and I was finally accepting the fact that the name of a career is not a very good reason to actually have said career.
  2. My mom was a teacher. For so long, I figured I’d be going in a different direction with my profession. Teaching is not glamorous. It’s a lot of hard work. And growing up, I had a good view of that hard work. My mom worked hard. But she also loved what she did. She was invested in her students. It was often very difficult, but it was also very rewarding.
  3. I wanted to affect people. I wanted to impact real, live humans. Of course, there’s an argument I could make for doing this through architecture—affecting people’s lives through the spaces in which they live and interact, etc.—but I guess I was wanting this interaction to happen in a way that was more direct, more… foundational.
  4. I relate to kids better than I relate to grown-ups. I’ve always been introverted by nature, but when I am around kids, I feel like I open up. At that point in my life, I’d worked with children in a few different ways—coaching soccer, big brothering—and I was realizing (it sounds so obvious now) that being a teacher would allow me to work with children every day. And that sounded right.
  5. Oh, and don’t forget the spoon that was stirring all of this together: slide after agonizing slide of column diagrams.
I changed my major the next day.

In a way, I still look at myself as an architect. I still design. I still get to find solutions to challenges. And I still get to create. But instead of building structures, I’m building thinkers. I get to be part of equipping a child for his future. I get to be a part of how a child gets shaped. I get to be a part of guiding the direction of a child’s whole life. 

No columns involved.

My classroom at the beginning of the day, before the kids arrive.

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