A Bit About My: "(Not Your Ordinary) Story Starters"

(Author's Note: The content of this post previously appeared in the "Sharing Our Blessings" Blog Hop and Giveaway. The hop and giveaway is complete, but I wanted to make sure readers were still able to reference the organization tips and ideas for my Story Starters.)

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Last spring when I began using my "(Not Your Ordinary) Story Starters" with my own third graders, the age-old complaint, "I don't know what to write about," was eliminated.

I wrote some engaging story starters and paired them with compelling photos, and the result was pretty fascinating. My students who loved to write were literally begging me for more writing time. But it was my reluctant writers who made me realize I was onto something. Seeing their eyes brighten and their pencils get moving without any nagging from me? Score!

Each photograph has four different writing prompts from which to choose, including lots of writing genres. I placed the story starters (in a "task card" format) in a little pocket on the outside of a file folder, with the writing paper inside the folder. Then I'd choose a few folders to lay out for the week.

We used the story starters as a choice during our Daily 5 framework.

I'm now making a set of story starters for each month!

Along the way, I've come up with an alternative organizational method, using a three-ring binder, a few binder rings and small Command hooks. Let me use my November set to show you how it works.

After laminating the prompts, I put each group of four prompts on a binder ring. Here's what the binder looks like when it's standing open:

Pretty slick, huh? I stuck a few Command hooks to the inside cover of the binder from which to hang each ring.

The teacher just pulls out the binder, hangs a few story starter rings, and stands up the binder on a counter. Students can come up and take off a ring that inspires them, and find the coordinating writing paper from the expandable file sitting nearby (or they can write in their notebook, of course).

The student takes their materials back to their desk to get started!

If you are interested in details about the November set, click HERE.

My Story Starters for DECEMBER {Not Your Ordinary Writing Prompts!} is now ready in my store. The December set is packed with 10 compelling photos, each one paired with three engaging story starters and one set of prompting questions. You can click HERE or click the product image you see below to see more details.


Themes in the December set include Christmas and the holiday season in general, North Pole happenings, reindeer, elves, holiday cookies, presents, snow, and hibernation, among others.

Here's a little taste from the set...

These monthly story starters are part of a "growing bundle" that will eventually include ten sets. I will be adding the remaining sets as I finish them. The complete bundle will be finished by this coming April, but you can get the "growing bundle" now at a significant discount. Click HERE for more details.


Turkeys! Fact-Based Opinion Writing

I wrote a post over on the Who's Who blog about a lesson on opinion writing that I did with my class last year during the week of Thanksgiving. It focuses on the question: Should turkey be Thanksgiving's main dish? We analyze turkey facts and discuss how they might support our opinion before we dig into writing. There's a little freebie included, so head on over if you are interested in reading more. Just click HERE.

Inquiry Research: Moving Students Toward Independence

A few years ago, the staff at my school began learning about inquiry research. We used the book, Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action, by Harvey and Daniels, as a guide to think differently about how students could learn. 

Over the course of two years or so, we learned, tried things out, shared ideas with each other, tried more, and eventually Inquiry became a driving force in our school.

It didn't look exactly the same in every classroom, and it certainly looked different in each grade level, but we came to share certain beliefs about inquiry:
  • Students lead, teachers support.
  • Questions drive the research, not topics.
  • Collaboration within a group is vital, and must be taught.
  • Findings should be shared.

Themed Inquiry Projects 

In the early years of our "inquiry revolution," my third grade team and I did large inquiry-based research projects centered around a theme. We did an "Immigration" inquiry project near Thanksgiving, and an "Environmental Issues" inquiry project in the spring.

The basic layout to one of our inquiry projects went something like this: 

First, we did a whole group read-aloud of an engaging text that fit our broad theme. (This became our "anchor text.") As we read, students brainstormed questions they were wondering and recorded them on sticky-notes. Then we looked closely at all of our questions, looking for ones that could become the basis for an inquiry research project. We looked for questions that:
  • were BIG (not questions with easy or short answers)
  • were RESEARCHABLE (questions that we could actually find facts and information about)
  • were INTERESTING (questions that students actually wanted to find the answers to)
  • were IMPORTANT (questions that others might also care about, questions that might even be important to the greater good of the world!)
Once we identified strong inquiry questions, students chose which question they wanted to research, and we formed small groups of inquiry teams. During the research phase, we would infuse strategy lessons on collaborating successfully, on finding relevant information, and on recording notes.

After researching and gathering information, students then decided how best to share their information. We usually required some sort of visual aid and some sort of spoken element. Students worked to create their final "products" and then presented them to the entire class.

Moving Toward Independence

As students school-wide experienced more inquiry-based projects, I was noticing that each year, students were coming into third grade as more sophisticated "inquirers."

I had to take advantage of this.

I decided to start making "inquiry research" one of students' choices in our Daily 5 framework, where students could choose to initiate their own inquiry research projects.

Making it happen wasn't easy.

I needed students to be able to do the bulk of the project independently. Not alone--they'd still be working with each other. But independent in the sense that groups would not rely on me, since I would be meeting with guided reading groups during Daily 5.

It took training and practice. Here are some key points I learned to hone in on:
  • Agreeing on how to get started: Students find a partner or a group of three with a shared interest, and then together find an "anchor text" that will help them generate possible inquiry questions.
  • Keeping commitments: It's important that a student doesn't get involved in an inquiry group only to abandon the group halfway through.
  • Asking strong inquiry questions: Getting students to "think big" takes practice and modeling.
  • Finding resources: Students need a procedure for when they can go to the library to find additional resources.
  • Researching BEFORE creating: Students often want to reverse the inquiry process. A group might share a PowerPoint presentation to the class, and  then a student thinks, "I want to make a PowerPoint too. Let's see, what could I do one about?"  When really, the answers and information learned through their research should determine the best "vehicle" to share it.
  • Checking in with the teacher: We establish checkpoints in which students briefly meet with me before moving on to the next phase. For me, I (1) approve the group's inquiry question before they begin research, (2) approve the group's plan for what to create, and (3) schedule a presentation date and time.
  • Creating an anchor chart of the agreed upon procedures.

Just like with our other Daily 5 choices like Read-to-Self, Read-with-Partner, Word Work, and Writing, gaining independence with Inquiry Research is built over time, and procedures are revisited and refined as needed.

To keep moving toward independence, students used this organizer to help them stay on track:

(Click to download.)

Click the image above to download it for FREE. (Note: I used to have a version of this organizer in my TpT store, and taking it out caused many broken links to the pins that are still floating around on Pinterest. So what you see above is just an updated version of the original.)

Giving students ownership of what they are learning brings with it high motivation, and in turn, high engagement. As a side benefit, I can rely on students to be productive at this Daily 5 choice.

But more importantly, these projects matter to students. They want to find out answers to their questions. They are proud of what they create. And that makes their teacher proud too.

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