Posted in math, mind, more seeds, special education

Writing IEP Goals and Objectives, Part 3: Standards-based Goals

Connections: Standards ~ Goals ~ Teaching

In the previous posts, we considered a math standard for Grade 6, and unwrapped it to identify key vocabulary, skills and concepts required for mastery of the standard.

6.NS.a.1. Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

We determined that, in order to demonstrate mastery of this standard, a student would need to

  • know and understand (as evidenced by correctly using) the terms fraction, dividend, divisor and quotient;
  • demonstrate understanding of the concepts of fraction, quotients of fractions, word problems as a representation of division problems involving fractions, and the concept of division;
  • interpret and compute quotients of fractions;
  • solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions.

Next, we considered what obstacles to learning students might have, which would interfere with successful mastery of the standard. To do this, we thought about the kinds of questions students asked when working on work based on this standard.

Now that we’ve analyzed the standard, and anticipating where students might struggle with foundational skills, concepts, and vocabulary, it’s time to consider a student with disabilities, and determine the specific areas of support that this student might have.

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IEP Goals and objectives
Match the elements of the standard to the needs of the child to determine an appropriate standards-based goal. {Image Credit: (c) 2015: Kim M. Bennett}

Case Study: Student K, Grade 7:

Student K is a 7th grade boy in a self-contained, alternative placement. His most recent standardized math testing shows him to be near grade-level, in all areas of math. He made great academic gains over the past school year, as he worked to gain control over his own behavior.

In order to use this standard as a way to identify specific IEP goals for Student K, let’s take a look at some of our observations of him over the past year:

Study Skills:

It typically takes a great deal of time for Student K to transition between areas and begin work, especially first thing in the morning: most days, it is 30 minutes before he begins his morning work, during which time he swears at staff, walks out of the room, and sometimes shrieks in the stairwell. When he’s ready, he sits down to work, and can work independently on the task through to completion.

  • Issue #1: difficulty transitioning between activities, especially when they are in different areas
  • Issue #2: difficulty with task initiation, even when the task is within his capability

Neither of these issues are specific to this standard; in fact, they persist across all content areas and across time, making them important areas for IEP Goals.

Once Student K starts working, he works VERY slowly – on everything. His work output is very low, although he works steadily, requires little help, and produces high-quality material. His Woodcock-Johnson IV scores show a low-average IQ but extremely low processing speed. Scores on classroom assessments show him at risk due to lack of fluency (computational, math fact, reading), but the only area of fluency he actually shows deficits in is rate: his accuracy, prosody and understanding are grade-appropriate.

  • Issue #3: minimal work output due to slow processing speed

Again, while this issue isn’t specific to this standard, it will impact his learning across content areas, and bears greater emphasis in his IEP.

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IEP Goals and objectives
Poor performance in math is not always due to difficulties with math content, itself.

Mathematics:

When working, Student K appears to lack a repertoire of known mathematical procedures (e.g., long division algorithms, solving for an unknown, computing using order of operations). Once he has instruction, he learns the new procedure quickly, and can use it correctly. He tends to choose numerical models (i.e., equations) to solve math problems, and avoids visual models, even when they would be more efficient.

  • Issue #4: lack of procedural knowledge and fluency
  • Issue #5: difficulty using different modes of representing and solving the same problem

If we work under the hypothesis that Student K’s behavioral issues interfered in the past with his ability to be available for grade-level learning, it isn’t surprising that he lacks a repertoire of basic math strategies to draw upon. We can assume that this is a persistent issue with him, and worthy of an IEP Goal.

In general, Student K is fluent in his basic math facts, and can compute whole numbers and decimals accurately. His decoding and comprehension of grade-level text, including word problems, is adequate. He works independently, and learns new material quickly. We can feel that, with the proper supports, he will be well able to master grade-level content.

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IEP Goals and objectives
It helps to consider the Rule of Four when identifying areas for developing IEP Goals and Objectives in math.

The Standard and the Student

Now, let’s return to our standard, and figure out what parts of the standard he might have trouble with:

  1. Procedures for computing fractions: dividing by multiplying the reciprocal, representing the problem with a visual model
  2. Identifying and representing the problem to be solved in a real-world situation or word problem involving mathematics: restating the problem in his own words; representing the problem using numerical (equations) and visual (area) models.
  3. Starting a task on time
  4. Completing a task within the allotted time

Of these three areas, only one is specific to the standard (#1), but, since fractions represent an area where so many students have difficulty, and since grasp of fractions by 6th grade is important for later math courses, it is worth focusing more on in his IEP goals.

Our Standards-based IEP Goals

To address the specific learning barriers we mentioned above, we write the following goals (the specially-designed instruction is in italics):

  • Goal #1: Given 2 fractions with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 10 as the denominator, Student K will accurately compute the fractions, using numerical and visual models, with 75% accuracy.
  • Objective #1.1: Given 2 fractions with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 10 as the denominator, Student K will accurately divide the fractions, by multiplying the first fraction by the reciprocal of the second, with 75% accuracy.
  • Objective #1.2: Given 2 fractions with 2, 3, 4, 5 or 10 as the denominator, Student K will accurately divide the fractions, using an area model, with 75% accuracy.

We have limited the types of fractions Student K needs to use to demonstrate understanding of the standard, and have specifically named one new visual model we want him to use when computing.

  • Goal #2: After reading a word problem at the 5th grade reading level, Student K will explain the problem to be solved, and represent the problem using numerical and visual models, with 75% accuracy.
  • Objective #2.1: After reading a word problem at the 5th grade reading level, Student K will verbally restate the problem to be solved, in his own words , with 75% accuracy.
  • Objective #2.2: After reading a word problem at the 5th grade reading level, Student K will represent the problem to be solved, using an appropriate equation , with 75% accuracy.
  • Objective #2.3: After reading a word problem at the 5th grade reading level, Student K will represent the problem to be solved, using an area model , with 75% accuracy.

Again, we have controlled the level of the text to focus K’s energy on the content, have let the student explain verbally (rather than in writing), and have specified a new procedure (the area model) to add to his repertoire.

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IEP Goals and objectives
Make sure to consider multiple ways of showing what you know when determining if a student has mastered a grade-level standard.

Other Goals

We noted areas not based on this standard, but which would definitely affect Student K’s performance of this (and many other) tasks. We will also include IEP goals on transitioning appropriately from one area to another, and on starting a task within 5 minutes, and will add accommodations that Student K has a reduced number of items to finish per task, and/or extended time to complete tasks.

Summing up our Standards Work

As previously stated, you would not unwrap every standard for a grade level. However, simply choosing one standard in a problem area (use the reports from your standardized testing to help you choose), and doing this exercise will help you focus in on what your student’s most important obstacles to learning are.

Have you ever unwrapped standards?

Posted in math, mind, more seeds, special education

Writing IEP Goals and Objectives, Part 2: Identifying Obstacles to Learning

Identifying Obstacles to Learning

In the past post, we analyzed a grade-level standard to determine the skills, concepts and knowledge that all students need to gain to master the goal, as written.

For students with disabilities, this grade-level goal will be challenging to reach in a year, without specially designed instruction. Analyzing the essential components of the standard helps us determine with which parts of the standard our students will need more assistance. From this, we will come up with annual goals to help get the students where they need to, ultimately, be.

To achieve this, we need to identify, for our student, the main obstacles to the child accessing the grade-level curriculum as represented in that standard.

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Writing IEP Goals
To determine a student’s main obstacles to learning, consider the kinds of questions the student asks when doing grade-level work. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

What Part of the Standard Will We Address?

Let’s reconsider the math standard we analyzed from the last post:

6.NS.a.1. Interpret and compute quotients of fractions, and solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions, e.g., by using visual fraction models and equations to represent the problem.

When we closely examined the standard, we determined that, in order to fully master this standard, students needed to be able to do the following:

  • know and understand (as evidenced by correctly using) the terms fraction, dividend, divisor and quotient;
  • demonstrate understanding of the concepts of fraction, quotients of fractions, word problems as a representation of division problems involving fractions, and the concept of division;
  • interpret and compute quotients of fractions;
  • solve word problems involving division of fractions by fractions.

In order to write the standards-based goal, we must first determine the portion(s) of the standard (or implied foundational parts of the standard) with which our student is struggling. I think about the questions that the student asks me, when we’re working on problems based on this standard. Below are some questions students ask, and what they might indicate. I’ve categorized them into two groups: general instruction issues and specially-designed instruction issues.

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Writing IEP Goals
Sometimes, there’s a major foundational skill that interferes with a student otherwise accessing the grade-level. {Image Credit: (c) 2018, Kim M. Bennett}

General Instruction Issues

General instruction issues are problems the student has that are parts of the grade-level standard that any student might reasonably need help with, because they represent new grade-level content. In other words, for this example, given a class of students in Grade 6, and new instruction, many of your students might not have fully mastered the skill or concept, until the end of the year, because they haven’t been taught fully yet. These would not be ideas to focus on in your IEP goals, as they should reasonably be met through general education instruction or early intervention supports:

  • “I get how to divide whole numbers, but what does it mean to divide a fraction?” (the student has difficulty understanding division as it applies to numbers that are not whole numbers)
  • “I know what it’s asking me – but how do I divide fractions by fractions?” (the student doesn’t know a procedure to use to solve the problem)
  • “How do I set that up?” (the student does not know how to represent the word problem using visual models or an equation)
  • “I read it, but I don’t get it. What am I supposed to do?” (the student has difficulty understanding the word problem as a problem that can be solved using mathematics)
Difficulty with using multiple means of representing mathematical ideas is a common area for student difficulties in mathematics. {Image Credit: (c) 2018, Kim M. Bennett}

Specially-designed Instruction Issues

Close examination of the grade-level standard, and the student’s performance in class, will often indicate underlying difficulties the student has which make accessing the grade-level curriculum standard difficult. Since our goal as special educators is to develop customized instruction to help the student access the grade-level curriculum, these are the areas where we should focus our IEP goals and objectives, as they represent current obstacles to the student mastering the standard, as written:

Vocabulary Issues

  • “What does this word say?” (the student has difficulty reading key content vocabulary)
  • “What does this word mean?” (the student has difficulty with the meaning of key content vocabulary)

Reading Comprehension Issues

  • “What does this word problem say? What does it mean?” (the student has difficulty reading and comprehending mathematical word problems as a genre of literature)

Fact Fluency Issues

  • What’s 8 divided by 4?” (the student lacks fluency in basic math facts)

Computational Fluency Issues

  • “I did what you said, but the answer is wrong… why?” (the student lacks accuracy in computation)
  • “How do I divide this?” (the student has difficulty with the idea of division as making equal shares of a whole)

Other Issues

  • “What is a fraction? What does a fraction really mean?” (the student has difficulty with the concept of fractions as relative parts of a whole)
  • “What does THIS fraction mean?” (the student has difficulty interpreting fractional notation – he may understand “1/4” when represented using concrete objects, but has difficulty when presented with the symbolic representation)
  • “How do I say this [fraction]?” (the student has difficulty reading numbers expressed in fractional notation – this is similar to the previous)
Fractions represent a common conceptual challenge to many students, with and without disabilities. {Image Credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

Identifying a Focus for SDI

Of course, you don’t complete this process for every grade-level standard. And you don’t write an IEP goal for every area that a student has difficulty. However, even if you did this activity with one grade-level standard, chances are that you will see patterns of challenges for a particular student. For example, I have one student who would struggle with this standard, simply because he cannot decode the text. If you read the problem to him, and allow him to represent the problem with a drawing or concrete objects, he can accurately complete the grade-level task. You wouldn’t want to give him an elementary task, simply because the reading level is easier for him – that’s not respectful of his math ability.

He also struggles with basic multiplication facts. So, for him, focusing on “work-arounds” for the text-based portion of the standard, and providing accommodations for the math fact fluency issues, would be helpful no matter what math standard he was working on. Make sense?

Always consider embedded literacy skills as areas of difficulty with many math students. {Image Credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

Writing that Standards-based Goal

In the last post, we unwrapped the grade-level standard, to identify key vocabulary, skills and concepts embedded in the standard. In this post, we reviewed where our student would struggle with the standard, using his questions as a guideline for diagnosing his obstacles to accessing the grade-level curriculum. Then we identified obstacles that would likely pop up in multiple areas of his curriculum, to prioritize what we set for goals for him.

In the next post, we will use what we know about the grade-level curriculum and our student’s needs, and write IEP goals that will enable him to better access his grade-level curriculum.

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, math, mind, more seeds, science, social studies, special education

Tech Tools and Education Apps You Have to Try This Year!

Living in a Technological World

Kids these days are technology natives.

From the time they were born, they’ve held some kind of electronic device in their baby hands: a cell phone, a remote, a game console controller… Their classrooms, likewise, are full of technology that the rest of us never even dreamed of, including interactive white boards, document cameras, digital recorders and web cams, and 1:1 Chrome books and iPads.

Many of us charged with teaching said students with said devices are, unfortunately, technology immigrants. We may have assimilated well (or not) into the world of technology, but it doesn’t come second nature to us. Consequently, there are many of us who use our Promethean board as simply a tool to project videos while the kids eat snack.

And, of course, there is a growing anti-technology movement, based on the very clear evidence of some very real, and detrimental, effects of excessive screen time to the minds, bodies and spirits of kids and adults.

It is safe to say that the digital world is here to stay. There is no doubt that electronics, today, bring many benefits to our lives: the digital mammogram I just had is instantly readable by all of my doctors; my cell phone and a Roku app replace the TV remote that died because it sat in water on the coffee table; the music from my Pandora account streams live to two Onyx speakers in my house, so I can clean and listen to Bonnie Raitt at the same time; I can look on my laptop to see who came to my door at home, while sitting at my desk at work.

In what ways will I use technology to enhance my students’ lives and learning this year, while making sure that they live balanced lives, in the process?

Technology Tools in Today’s Classrooms

There is an amazing graphic that’s been around for a number of years, which shows about a zillion (okay, that’s an exaggeration) apps that correspond to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

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educational technology
apps for learning
iPad apps can be effective and modern ways to address all of the levels of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy.

My students prefer to have real textbooks, but they are much more engaged when I incorporate interactive technological tools into my daily lessons. The “menu” above is a good start, but there are now so many more!

What’s on My Technology Menu for 2019-20?

Here are the apps and websites I’m using with my students this year:

Language Arts

Old Standby: ReadWorks: I have used this free website to download leveled articles for all subjects for a number of years. Last year, I began using some of the other features as part of my explicit instruction in language arts.

  • articles have an option be projected onto my Promethean board for whole-group lessons
  • the Article-a-Day feature can be used to build background knowledge on a new topic with my students
  • I can rotate through a number of articles on the same topic, on different Lexile levels, through the course of the week, so students can apply learned skills to increasingly difficult texts
  • the comprehension questions can be sorted by question type, for monitoring IEP goals and objectives
  • there are question sets for specific skill areas (e.g., Author’s Purpose questions, vocabulary questions)

This summer, I used ReadWorks articles to assess Oral Reading Fluency as well as Silent Reading Fluency, once a week for all students on my caseload. One downside to ReadWorks is that there are fewer articles at the higher Lexile levels. Enter my new favorite literacy site…

ReadWorks offers many options for teaching reading instruction to students of all levels. {Image credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

My New Favorite: Newsela: Like ReadWorks, Newsela offers leveled passages for students to read, and comprehension questions to answer. This summer, I set up a free version of the account, and invited my summer school students to participate. While we considered and declined to purchase a PRO account (it was pricey), the free version was well-liked by my students, and will become part of our regular instruction this coming year.

  • students can control the readability of the text in real-time, and see the changes when they adjust the Lexile level
  • they can monitor their own progress, and have learned how to choose a “just-right” level, or a challenge level, by viewing their “binder”
  • there are more selections at the higher reading levels than in ReadWorks
  • there are fewer questions at the end than with ReadWorks
  • by logging into the students’ accounts, I can see their overall progress, as well as sort their data by question type (NOTE: with the PRO version, there is a teacher dashboard, but not with the free version – so I make it part of my conference with the student to log into their account with them)
  • Newsela is a useful learning task for independent work during the literacy block
In Newsela, students can monitor their progress in their “binder.” Green dots represent articles read where the students scored at least 75% on the response quiz. {Image credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Have to Try: Last year, I struggled to teach literary themes to my students, until, out of desperation, I began playing popular music for them from YouTube videos. Students were quickly able to identify the theme when it was embedded in music.

A colleague introduced me to Teach Rock, which has over 150 lesson plans and 16 units of study for teaching literary ideas through the study of popular music through the ages. We dabbled with it this summer, and I’m working it into my Language Arts work for the school year. Stay tuned!

Tools to Use: I have a handful of students who struggle with writing, either because they have difficulty spelling the words they want to use, or their physical writing process is slow and laborious. I introduced them to Windows Speech Recognition, which comes free with your Windows OS. You simply go into your settings, under Accessibility features, and activate it, so it runs in the background. With a command, it turns on, enabling students to speak their written responses. Early results show that the students are interested. NOTE: as with the voice commands on your phone, it does take time to learn how to talk so that the computer understands you, and to train the computer to understand your voice. I advise assigning particular computers to particular students, to help with that.

Windows Speech Recognition runs in the background, and can be activated by voice, to enable speech-to-text accommodation for students. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Mathematics

Old Standby: I have been using Khan Academy with students (including my own homeschoolers) for years now. Many of you probably have, too. Khan Academy is free, and is especially strong in the area of mathematics, although this summer I started using the computer courses for students who needed a technology class for graduation.

Khan Academy offers high-quality, customized learning paths for students of all grade levels.
  • students can be assigned individualized work to meet IEP goals and objectives
  • students can be assigned re-teaching work, based on their grade-level assignments
  • Khan Academy can be used as an anchor activity, while you work with a small group on other skills
  • I have had students use Khan Academy outside of school, toward credit recovery
  • users can log in anywhere – helpful when kids are homebound, hospitalized or absent for any reason
  • there are initial quizzes that help determine a starting place, then a course is charted for the student
  • I have also used Khan Academy as part of an enrichment group in an elementary setting

Some students find that there is too much reading involved – this can be a barrier for students with reading difficulties.

Tools to Use: One of my teens has difficulty subtracting with regrouping, and I didn’t have base 10 blocks in my summer school tools. I discovered virtual base 10 blocks that I can use on the Promethean board at CoolMath4Kids. The kids love using the virtual manipulatives on the board – check out their site for more manipulatives.

https://www.coolmath4kids.com/manipulatives/base-ten-blocks
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There are a number of places where you can access virtual manipulatives. This is CoolMath4Kids. {Image Credit (c) 2019. Kim M. Bennett}

Science & Social Studies

Old Standby: I have a free account to Kids Discover, which has thousands of online articles, units of study and infographics, on high-interest topics of current interest, with built-in interactive parts. You can use the articles on your interactive white board. Every week, you’ll get access to a selection of free topics – more than enough to use for your entire curriculum, if you’re a homeschooler. My teens in my CDT class like it for a change up. There is a paid version, but I have not used that one.

  • useful for current topics (to supplement your regular curriculum with timely articles)
  • could be used for independent reading assignments
  • texts are high-readability for most high school students
  • colorful, interesting layout
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Kids Discover
Kids Discover is a handy supplement to your science or social studies curriculum, offering high-interest articles on current topics. {Image Credit (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Have to Try: My assistant shared the website Recyclebank with me. All of the articles are geared toward green living, health, ecology and the environment. The articles include links to high-quality, non-fiction articles from good sources, such as the Department of Environmental Protection or the USDA. There are fun elements, such as the Question of the Day. Reading articles and taking quizzes earns points, which can be redeemed for magazines and other items.

I like to have online current events sites that we can explore without a set assignment. I plan to use this site to teach kids how to efficiently explore and evaluate online sources, and to teach them how to build a reading log using online sources.

Earn points to use for rewards while you read articles on healthy lifestyles, green living and ecology, on Recyclebank. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

One “old standby” which I’ve used as a homeschooler, but which I will start using this year, is Journey North, a nature-based, citizen-science website. In a survey of possible topics of study, my students selected “nature walks” and “nature study” as preferred topics. One of my students recalled using a bald eagle “nest cam” in his middle school class. Again, stay tuned!

Tools to Use: Over the summer, I’ve been experimenting with a number of digital tools and looking for ways to incorporate them into my instruction, in an authentic way.

I am fiddling around with creating infographics in Canva, using the free service. It is a powerful app, but with that power comes a lot of information. I created a circle map about the influence of the Norwich Millionaires, and I’m thinking that we might practice this one type of graphic, using Canva in our US History class to continue to emphasize similar relationships in history.

https://allkidscanlearn.school.blog/2019/07/30/using-circle-maps-in-history-class/
Canva
infographics
Canva is a powerful tool for creating infographics and many other graphics, like this one on the influence of the Norwich Millionaires. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

One app that I’m planning to use to organize my classroom presentations is Sutori, another powerful digital tool, even when using the free version. I used the free version to create a timeline presentation of the early history of the city of Norwich, Connecticut. I feel it could be a great way to organize lesson materials, and will experiment with this in the coming year (see the linked blog post for a discussion on the use of Sutori to organize unit materials).

Teacher Tools

Old Standby: For the past several years, I have used a paid subscription to PlanBook Plus . It takes a little bit of time to enter plans if you use all the fields (I personally like to include the grade-level standards, and related standards from the students’ IEPs, in the plans), but I don’t mind that. One thing that is handy about this digital planbook is that I can pull it up from any device (including my phone), and that I can move lessons forward if something happens and I don’t get to something on a given day.

In the past, I included the instructional sequence for lessons in PlanBook Plus, but, this year, I think I’ll just put the “big” items (lesson title, textbook reference, standards), and leave the details for my written, daily planbook, since these might change.

Have to Try: As a special ed teacher in a self-contained classroom, in an alternative setting, I collect a lot of data, for a lot of classes, in addition to progress monitoring data. I have asked my principal to purchase a subscription to the Daily Cafe with CC Pensieve, which is a web-based data collection tool that can be used for conference notes, reading assessment data, science quizzes, and just about any information that I might collect. Because all the data is in one place, it is easy to print out a report in real-time for a PPT or a conference. It also helps me plan a workshop, or “cafe,” model for literacy and numeracy instruction, something which I experimented with at the end of last year and which the students liked, as they felt they were busier and got more individualized attention.

https://www.thedailycafe.com/
Daily Cafe
Daily 5
Daily 3
The Daily Cafe (for literacy and numeracy) was originally designed for use with elementary students, but is increasingly adaptable to struggling readers in the middle and secondary grades. {Image Credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Technology Tools in Your Classroom

What are your go-to tech tools, apps and websites? Share the “best of the best” below, in the comments section!

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

8 Steps to Better Written Responses

Writing Across the Curriculum

In schools across the country, come September, all students will be sitting down for a 45-minute writing prompt. It will be about something predictable: a fictional narrative for third graders; an informational piece for fifth graders; a persuasive essay for eighth graders..pe. Preparing students for these quarterly or monthly prompts is a major focus for most language arts teachers.

What is often missing in writing instruction is explicit instruction on how to compose high-quality written responses to questions across the curriculum. The work we do to help students write narratives with elaboration, or explanatory texts with excellent use of citations, or a well-developed argument, doesn’t seem to translate into well-written responses to questions in their biology textbooks, or even their responses to literature in English class.

This summer, I spent six weeks teaching my students how to analyze question types (recall, explanation, application, synthesis, analysis, evaluation) based on the book, Because of Winn-Dixie, and how to craft well-structured responses that show their understanding of what they read.

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written response
These 8 steps to better written responses can be used with any age group, in any subject. {Image credit: (c) 2014, Kim M. Bennett}

The State of Written Response Work: Our Baseline

On the first day of school, I assigned an easy reading passage (so the students could focus on their comprehension questions, rather than decoding). Here is a typical response, which earned zero points using my 10-point writing rubric:


Atka and the other socialized wolves at the center are not afraid of people. Why are the other 19 wolves at the center afraid of people?

“So they can go back into the wild.”

{Student J, Grade 8}


I set out to develop an instructional sequence which would help students to analyze the question being asked, determine what was essential information to include in their response so that the reader could understand the answer and to show understanding of what they read, and teach them how to check their response to make sure it had everything it needed to be excellent.

Steps for Writing a Good Response

We used the four areas of the 10-point rubric as a guide for analyzing the question and constructing an answer.

Step 1: Listen to the question.

Students follow along as you read. Most writing prompts allow the teacher to read the prompt aloud, to ensure that students are clear about the task. Remember – you have already read the book. This task is to assess understanding of the text – not the words of the question.

Step 2: Determine how many parts your response should have.

Next, students analyze the task, to determine how many parts there should be to the response. Underline the parts that require a response.

  • Hint #1 for finding “parts:” Look for the question mark – read that sentence. What do you have to do to answer it?
  • Hint #2: Look for other “direction words” in questions without a question mark: describe, explain, list, explain…

Step 3: Identify 3-4 words to include in your response.

Students should then circle 3-4 words in the prompt that they want to use in their response. They might try to circle words like the or because, since they are common words. Ask them what are the MOST important words in the question.

  • Hint #1: Who or what is the question about? Circle those important words or names. Without this, it won’t be clear who you’re writing about. In my example, above, it isn’t clear if “they” refers to “Atka and other socialized wolves” or “the other 19 wolves.” So, students might circle the words “other 19 wolves.”
  • Hint #2: What is this question about? In the case above, the question is about why the non-socialized wolves are afraid. So students might circle the word afraid.

Don’t hurry this step. While we often tell kids, “Circle words you might use in the answer,” we don’t usually spend a lot of time helping students analyze what the prompt is really about, and what the essential words are to a good response.

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Help students analyze the question and plan their responses by selecting critical vocabulary and brainstorming ideas. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 4: Plan at least 2 ideas to include in your response.

I don’t know about your kids, but mine don’t have the habit of thinking deeply about a question before they answer it. This step helps everyone review (and better understand) the text before writing a response, and helps them orally rehearse the words and phrases they might use.

  • Hint #1: I project or write the question on the board, and show students how to write marginal notes around the question. I draw lines to the parts of the question a word or phrase goes to. I stop when I have a handful of ideas.
  • Hint #2: Before I move on, I ask the kids each time, “Do you have to include ALL of these things in your answer?” And, of course, they say, “no.” Then I ask them, “How many ideas would be in a good response?” And they have learned to say “two,” unless the question states something different.

Some of my kids worry about finding THE correct answer, and struggle when the question just isn’t that kind of question. So this step helps them learn that there are multiple ways to correctly answer the question.

As my kids got better at this step, I added the part where I told them to make sure that their ideas went together well, and modeled that with them.

Step 5: Find at least one detail from the text to support your ideas.

While the ideas are still on the board, I change the color of my pen, and write down specific details from the text to support a few of them, as the kids generate them.

  • Hint: This is a good time to review the proper use of quotation marks for direct quotes from the text.

Step 6: Compose your response.

By this time, some kids will already have an idea how to respond, and will be starting to compose their answer. Give them five minutes or so to put their answer together.

  • Hint: Let kids orally rehearse their answers with you before they write them, if needed. One of my students leaves words out of his responses, so if he rehearses with me first, I can tell him, “I’ll say what you said – check your answer and see if that’s what you wrote.” Then I show him how to use a carat to insert words – don’t worry about re-writing.

Step 7: Review your rubric.

Before we share out, I direct students to review their rubric and check their answer:

  • Did you answer all parts of the question?
  • Is your information correct?
  • Did you include important words from the question in your answer?
  • Did you capitalize the first letter and use an end mark at the end of each sentence?

Usually, they realize they have to edit when they get to the last bullet point.

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writing strategies
written response
Share adult models as well as student models of successful responses and discuss as a group. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

Step 8: Share your response.

To show students how there are multiple ways to answer the same question, I like to have two students come up and share their responses on the board.

  • Hint #1: Review the rubric quickly, as a group, so students can analyze the response.
  • Hint #2: Identify places where the student added something to their response to take it from “good” to “great.”
  • Hint #3: If the response needs work, invite students to suggest ways to take it from “good” to “great” – talk about sentence combining, word choice, style – whatever comes up.

Written Responses: Our Finished Work

By the end of the six-week period, the students’ response work was much more well-developed. Here is an example at the end of summer school, by the same student as the previous example {underlined words were words the student selected for his response}:



Opal describes her friend Gloria as the best adult she knows. In what ways does Gloria act like the mother that Opal doesn’t have? How do Gloria’s qualities bring Opal closer to her real mother?

“Gloria has mother-like qualities, and she gives them to Opal. Some of them are that she gives Opal hugs, and she gives her good advice. Opal and Gloria cook together, too. She also talks about her mistakes. For example, Gloria showed Opal a tree and that tree had beer bottles and whiskey bottles, and she told Opal she used to drink. Gloria has Opal thinking about her own mom.”


Who Benefits From This Explicit Instruction?

My group, as yours, is a group of students with diverse learning needs. Here are some of the specific learning needs that this step-wise instructional sequence addressed with my kids:

  • students who don’t know how to begin the response process
  • students with slow processing speed
  • students who don’t understand questions above recall and explanation level
  • students who answer questions impulsively and superficially
  • students who need more scaffolding with reading comprehension strategies
  • students who need to orally rehearse their writing ideas
  • students who struggle with questions that aren’t “right there” questions
  • students who are working on increasing their sentence complexity
  • students who are working on increasing their vocabulary

Posted in general education, homeschool, mind, more seeds, social studies, special education

Technology in the Classroom, 2: Using Sutori to Create Digital Timelines

Timelines in History Class

Timelines are a powerful way to teach historical information, in any content area. Experts on teaching history have identified five ways that the use of timelines helps students master important historical ideas:

  1. Information is presented in a historical context, instead of isolated facts;
  2. Ideas are connected to one another, enabling greater understanding of bigger historical themes and movements;
  3. Students develop the background knowledge necessary for engagement in deeper analysis and discussion;
  4. Students see the sequence and timing of events, understanding how one event contributed to the ones that follow;
  5. Timelines provide a structure for organizing information, making it easier to learn and remember.

Digital Timelines

Many teachers create timelines from strips of paper or sentence strips, adding events to the timelines as they come up during instruction. In this post, we will review how digital timelines can be created and used by teachers and students to teach, learn and respond to historical ideas, by students of all abilities.

There are many free digital timeline apps available. This timeline was created using the free version of Sutori, which creates a number of types of presentations, called “stories.”

Digital timelines have advantages over the paper wall version most of us are familiar with. Most importantly, they invite direct use by students. A wall timeline can be referred to by the teacher, or used as a resource by the students. A digital timeline, however, can be directly manipulated by the learner, via any electronic device. Secondly, because they are digital, a variety of media can be embedded or linked to the timeline, including teacher notes, PowerPoints, images, videos and web pages. This makes the timeline adaptable to the 21st Century tools our students already have access to. Additionally, more literacy-based activities can be connected to their use, as the space used by text is flexible (not fixed, as with a paper timeline). Another advantage of the digital timeline format is the ability to share electronically with other collaborators, with the teacher, and anyone else with a link. This allows multiple contributors, a cycle of review and revision, and other high-quality publishing activities to take place.

Most timeline apps have a wide variety of ready-made templates to choose from. I found the template I used in Sutori to be very helpful in designing a high-quality, rich timeline with a variety of interactive elements — ones I might not have considered, had it not been for the template’s suggestion.

A Walk-through of a Sutori Timeline: The Early History of Norwich, Connecticut

Working with digital timelines gives students excellent opportunities to practice important literacy skills:

  1. Selection of a feature image: Students practice how to choose a cover image that adds to the story of their timeline.
  2. Creation of a title: Students practice creating a title that captures the main idea of their story.
  3. Development of an introductory paragraph: Students practice important summary skills.
  4. Use of embedded tools: Students use embedded presentation and collaboration tools.
5
  • 5. Image selection: Students must research to find time-appropriate images that add value to the text, for timeline events.
  • 6. Labeling of timeline entries: Students practice writing timeline labels that capture important historical events.
  • 7. Evaluation and selection of appropriate sources, with proper links to all resources: link to high-quality source is provided, for further information.
  • 8. Giving and receiving appropriate feedback, through comments link.
  • 9. Writing informational text: Students create concise explanatory text to accompany images and explain relevance of timeline events.
  • 10. Creation of Subheadings: Brief subtitles (with dates) that help the viewer navigate the presentation, and that are appropriate for the timeline section.
  • 11. Use of sidebars: Use of embedded “Did You Know?” module allows student to include fun facts, explanations of terms and other interesting information.
  • 12. Connection to known landmarks: Use of images and information about commonly known, local landmarks helps viewer connect with the presentation, and helps establish connection between big historical events and local history.
  • 13. Identification of necessary background knowledge: The embedded Video module allows the student to include videos of any length, to help the viewer understand the content better.
  • 14, 15. Use of interactive elements: The students can engage the viewers by including interactive elements, such as the Quiz module, which can provides feedback to the responder.
  • 16. Connection to famous locals: Including famous people from the area helps viewers see connection between “big” history and their own region.
  • 17. Use of embedded digital media: Students can embed Google Docs, Canva infographics (such as the one shown), Flickr albums and a wide variety of other media, using the embedded tools. This allows showcasing of other student work in the timeline, allows students to customize their timeline and adds viewer interest.
  • 18. Development of discussion questions: By using the Forum module, students can identify and include compelling questions that lead to classroom discussions.
  • 19. Selection of graphic aids: Students can include a variety of graphic aids, including paintings, portraits, photographs, drawings, maps, and charts, as the content dictates. Here, the map of the trolley line includes local street names, so students can see where trolleys once ran in their hometown.
  • 20. Making connections across time periods: By including connections to today in their concluding paragraphs, they show the relationship between past events and the way history unfolded up to the present day.
  • 21. Proper citation of digital sources: The bibliography modules in the template allow for students to include properly cited digital resources used in their stories.
  • 22. Use of hyperlinks: Students practice correctly hyperlinking their sources to the correct webpage.
  • 23. Sharing of tools and techniques: As a consultant, I was always taught to debrief not only the content I presented, but the strategies and tools I used, as well. Giving students the opportunity to share the tools they used with others fosters a spirit of collaboration.

If you’d like to see the whole presentation, feel free to click over to The Early History of Norwich, Connecticut , on Sutori.

Options for Using Digital Timelines

By Students…

Student products. We have gone over in detail how digital timelines are an excellent way for students to “show what they know.” Consider using them as a replacement for essays, reports and other research projects.

By Teachers…

Stand-alone presentations: Teachers can develop stand-alone lessons using the timeline (don’t forget – Sutori has other “story” options, as well!). In presentation mode, each element is displayed, one at a time, making the timeline more like a PowerPoint presentation.

Organization of units of study: The timeline can be used as an outline for a unit of study, with each element representing a lesson within the study. Lesson material (Google Docs, videos, PowerPoints, etc.) can be linked via the embedded linking tools. The subheadings are available on the sidebar to the left, for easy navigation between components.

Try Making a Timeline!

I have always used PowerPoint to organize my lessons in science and social studies. After playing around with Sutori, I can’t wait to start using it for my lessons, instead! I’d love to hear how you have used digital timelines with students. Share!

Posted in mind, social studies

Using Circle Maps in History Class

Teaching Big Ideas to a Class with Diverse Learning Needs

General educators and special educators, alike, daily face a dilemma: how do I teach high-quality, grade-level content ideas when my students have such varied learning needs and abilities?

So often, students who struggle are given a watered down version of the content, rather than the same content, taught in a different way. Similarly, students who excel are often given the same content, but given less support in learning it, as the only “enrichment.”

Using thinking maps enables a classroom teacher to deliver grade-level content, involving higher-order thinking, in a format that is understandable and accessible to the greatest number of students in the classroom.

Thinking maps are visual representations of higher-order thinking skills: defining in context, classifying, describing, comparing, sequencing, showing cause and effect, illustrating analogies and demonstrating part-to-whole and whole-to-part relationships. By using a distinct visual representation for each skill, and limiting the types of graphic representations used, students can master not only the use of the organizer, but the represented skill, as well.

Thinking Maps (Hyerle and Yeager, 2007) are distinct graphic representations of eight major higher-order thinking skills.

What is a Circle Map?

In 2007, Hyerle and Yeager described eight visual tools that could be used to show important relationships in any subject area. A circle map is one of these major thinking maps. It is used to define big ideas, such as the Industrial Revolution, institutionalized racism, or the Fourth Amendment, in context.

The basic structure of a circle map.

In the example, below, a Circle Map is used to define the concept of “storm.” The first circle contains the concept word, which is surrounded by another circle with vocabulary words used to define what a storm is. On the outside, are examples of the concept, from literature and the students’ experiences.

A primary grade example of the use of the Circle Map, to define the concept of “storm.”

I first saw a Circle Map used with adult learners in a session about cultural awareness. The concept being defined in context was the Declaration of Independence. The question being asked was, “Who did the Founding Fathers refer to when they stated, ‘All men are created equal?'”

In the center was the term, Declaration of Independence. The first circle contained a brainstorm description of the types of individuals who were the writers of the document: white men, men of European descent, English citizens, landowners, many of them lawyers, rich by that day’s standards, learned, Christian, The outside area listed other groups of people present at the time of the writing: indigenous peoples, poor, indentured servants, African slaves, people who didn’t own land, citizens from other countries (France, Germany), women, non-Christians, uneducated.

After the creation of this map, the participants discussed the question, “Who did the Founding Fathers refer to when they stated, ‘All men are created equal?'” They used the Circle Map and the difficulties faced by the groups on the outside, then and today, as discussion points.

Using a Circle Map in Connecticut History: The Millionaires of Norwich

I recently developed a series of lesson tools on the Millionaires’ Triangle, an area of Norwich, Connecticut that once served as the seat of Connecticut government (during the Civil War), and which was settled by some of the richest, most influential people in New England, during the early days of the colonies and the country.

As I read about the prosperity and philanthropy of these individuals, whose wealth rivaled that of the Rockefellers in history, I wondered to myself how far the influence of these individuals actually stretched. I used a circle map to show their reach.

I created a Circle Map in Canva, which ended up as an infographic. Although at first glance it looks more like a Bubble Map, the information is actually in concentric circles, and only surrounded by “bubbles” as a visual aid for the graphic.

An embellished Circle Map, showing graphically the influence of the millionaire founders of the city of Norwich, Connecticut. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

The concept to be defined, in context, is the influence of the millionaires in the Millionaires’ Triangle of Norwich (center, black circle). Using historical documents and online research, I gathered information about the businesses and government involvement of these founding fathers and mothers of Norwich, and the charitable foundations they established during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Surrounding the concept circle, I broke the information into two concentric circles, instead of a single one. The inner circle represents the major industries where the Millionaires had direct influence, through ownership or through major financing of the venture (white circles). The next layer represented the detail of the various groups of people directly affected by the ventures of the Millionaires, through their companies, their foundations and other philanthropic dealings (green circles).

In the area outside the circles, I wanted to list those groups who were explicitly absent from the influence of the Millionaires, or whose livelihood was in direct conflict with the activities of these individuals. The fact that the entire area now covered by the city of Norwich was once Mohegan Burial Ground, makes the Mohegans an important addition to the outside region of the map.

Circle Maps are not meant to be static. I could easily add “non-servant immigrants” to the outside area. If the only immigrants helped by the ventures were ones employed by the Millionaires, that would be an important fact to add. The Narragansetts were also in the region, and had a very different relationship with English settlers – they could be added to the outside area, as well. The point of a Circle Map is to give the student a better understanding of the key concept, by providing background information that helps define it for that situation, and to be used as a starting point for conversation.

A Circle Map can then be used to generate questions:

  • What about immigrants who weren’t employees? Where were they?
  • What happened to the Mohegan residents of the area that is now Norwich?
  • Is the area still influenced by the early founders? In what ways?
  • Did Uncas make the right choice for the Mohegans to work with the settlers?
  • Did the Narragansetts fair better, by opposing the settlers?
  • What happened to the foundations and businesses of the Millionaires? What still exists, today?

Using Circle Maps in Your Classroom

I would love to hear from you to see how you’ve used Circle Maps with your students. In the comments, write a link to your photo or post, let us know the grade, subject and important concept being defined. Thanks!

Posted in general education, homeschool, mind, social studies, special education

Technology in the History Class: Creating a Facebook Travelogue

The Language Demands of Social Studies Learning

Social studies classes can be challenging for many students. Often, the content is text-based, which is daunting for students who struggle with grade-level reading. Response work is usually written, and, quite frequently, takes the form of research projects or essays – an added hurdle for many students. In addition, the topics are often from the distant past, and students have difficulty connecting them to their present life.

Students who are challenged by literacy-based learning tasks can still be actively engaged in high-quality, grade-level learning tasks, if we do two things:

  1. Make the task more accessible (by controlling the language demands); and
  2. Increase the interest level (by making the content and format more relevant to the students).
social media in history class
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Facebook photo albums can be a way for students to share their history learning with others.

Facebook Photo Albums as Response Work

In a world where kids have more technology in their pockets than most teachers do in their classroom, it seems silly to ignore how adept today’s kids are in the electronic world. While many of their teachers are “digital immigrants,” they are, indeed, “digital natives,” many learning to “swipe left” before they even reach school age.

While we want to encourage kids to be well-balanced in their use of their electronic devices, it pays to think about the world they live in when we design response projects. True example: I have three boys, ages 32, 29, and 15. That’s right – there are 14 years between the last two boys, who both had the same 3rd grade teacher. I was disappointed to see that, 14 years after my middle child was in 3rd grade, the teachers were still using the same projects, the same books and the same strategies as they had with #2 son.

Enter social media. Now, I know that 1) my kids use social media platforms that I know little about and 2) they insist that Facebook is for “old people” now. But they all are familiar with Facebook, and it’s been around long enough to have a well-developed suite of tools that can be used in many ways in the classroom.

I do a lot of family history and geneology work. Whenever I can, I find authentic photos of people, places and events to add to my Ancestry.com work, and share them with my family by creating photo albums on Facebook. It occurred to me that Facebook photo albums would make a great vehicle for students to share their learning:

  • capturing part of the message in an illustration provides scaffolding for students who struggle with print media;
  • creating a caption allows for students to practice summarizing;
  • use of Internet content gives students an opportunity to learn how to give credit to other people’s work;
  • albums can be shared among different people as a group project.
social media in the history class
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Instruct students to find photos of historical individuals, places and events, to tell important social studies information.

The Millionaires’ Triangle, Norwich, Connecticut

Recently, I created a walking tour of Norwich, Connecticut, that circles the Chelsea Parade Park and passes by Norwich Free Academy. Using online photos and content, I created a Facebook photo album that can serve as a virtual travelogue for the Millionaires’ Triangle Trail.

Each photo album entry contains the following:

  1. The stop number, with an image of a stop along the trail (I used Internet photos, but you could take your own photos, if you wish);
  2. A description of the photo, which includes the stop number, the name of the famous person who lived there, the year the house was built and the architectural style, and the address of the site or home (since it’s a walking tour);
  3. A brief summary of the life of the family who lived there, including the source of their fortune;
  4. A tag identifying the location;
  5. When needed, an image credit (many of the photos are part of the historical record of the town).

The stops are in order, so that the album can actually be used to conduct a walking tour.

social media in the history class
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Historical maps and other figures, properly cited, can be helpful additions to a Facebook photo album in the history class.

Tips for Integrating Social Media in the Classroom

Using Facebook in school isn’t like using it at home:

  • consult with your administrator first, before setting up a page;
  • create a class or school Facebook page – don’t use your own account or a student account;
  • use photos of historical people, places and things, only – don’t include photos of the children;
  • consider setting your account so that comments are not allowed;
  • make your page by invite only, and set the privacy so that only current families (not the students) have access — remove access once families are no longer part of your classroom.

When you set students out to find images for the photo album, provide guidelines to help them choose well:

  1. What important information does this image tell the reader about ______?
  2. Is this the BEST image to give that message?
  3. What information do I have to include in the caption, so my image stands alone?
  4. What order do we have to put the images in, to tell the story properly?
social media in the history class
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Give students guidelines and practice Internet safety when using social media in the classsroom.

Social Media in YOUR Classroom…

How have you used social media in the classroom? Share the best of the best with us, in the comments below – add a link so we can visit and comment!


{ This blog is featured in Top 100 Special Education Blogs}

Posted in general education, homeschool, mind, more seeds, social studies, special education

#RealAmericans: A Photo Journal

“Real Americans” in the News

There has been a lot of talk in the news, on social media, and on the radio, about some of the comments made by prominent citizens in our country, on the subject of what it looks like to be a “real American.”

As most of us did, regardless of our own political and religious views, I reacted strongly to some of the messaging that I heard and saw.

A very wise friend of mine once told me, “If something upsets you, don’t do anything. Sleep on it. If you are still upset the next day, THEN do something about it.”

The next day, I was still aching, deep in my heart. But, being a teacher, I have learned that there is ALWAYS something to be learned, no matter how tragic, painful or even benign, the situation. So I set about trying to figure out what it was that I (ME!) needed to learn about what it was to be a REAL American.

The #RealAmericans Project

I created my own challenge, entitled #RealAmericans, and created a Facebook album to share as I learned (a Pinterest page will follow… stay tuned). I didn’t want it to be politically or religiously biased in any way, so I had to think hard about what messages I wanted it so give. Here are the messages I hope people hear/see from this project.

  1. Diversity is a strength. I want the project to include Americans of all kinds, of all races, of all walks of life.
  2. Love wins. No matter what the image, I wanted it to project a message of love. People might not agree with a political viewpoint, but they can’t disagree with love.
  3. Real Americans spend their lives doing wonderful, ordinary, ground-breaking things. Diapering a toddler is as important as owning a company; tending an orphaned duck is as important as leading a protest. Running a classroom is as important as running a bank or running a marathon.
  4. Everyone is my neighbor. Yes, even the ones I disagree with. Maybe even don’t like that well.
  5. There is always a story behind the image. Images we see in the news are real people. With real, American stories.
  6. Americans share common values. I want to include at least three photos from each of the 50 states and the protectorates of our country. At least one photo should show racial diversity. One photo shares a love theme.
#RealAmericans
#DiversityisStrength
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The #RealAmericans Project ~ where #DiversityisStrength.

Your Own #RealAmericans Project

If controversy arises in your classroom over what kids see in the news, instead of persuading them, challenge them to do their own #RealAmericans Project. Make sure that they include the story of the individual in the caption.

  • the person’s name
  • a brief description of the person’s role(s)
  • a statement about the person’s life.
  • the location of the photo
  • proper image credit

If you choose to do your own #RealAmericans Project, please link up the post or album in the comments section, below. Feel free to use the hashtags #RealAmericans and #DiversityisStrength. I would ask that you keep to the messages that I listed above, and keep the message positive and loving.

Namaste.

Posted in general education, homeschool, literacy, mind, more seeds, special education

Writing for Life: 10 Things Kids Should Be Able to Write

The State of Writing in School

A few years back, fellow homeschool blogger, Mary Prather, wrote about the benefits of giving (or allowing) our children to have an anchor, an activity that they go to to center themselves, to fill time, to find peace, to find challenge. This is a practice I have tried to continue into my own homeschool, and my special ed classroom, as well.

My youngest child is an avid writer. And when I mean writer, I don’t mean he cranks out stories (although he does write stories). I mean, he writes everything: steps to designing a chicken coop in Minecraft; graphic novels about Batman and Star Wars characters; “chapter books” about famous battles; bios of superheroes he invents. In recent years, he has taken on computer coding as a more symbolic way of making meaning. Unlike what happens in most public school classrooms, where kids only write fictional narratives until grade 3 (because it’s on the state test), then they switch to biography (because that’s on the grade 4 test), then on to persuasive essays (you get the picture), my son learned, from an early age, that writing was putting pen (or crayon, or marker, or paintbrush, or keystroke, or all of the above) to paper or screen to communicate. And he simply loves to write in every way that you can.

I don’t have any trouble getting him to write. In fact, early on in our homeschooling of him, we learned to just leave him alone, and be resource providers. We got more mileage out of introducing him to a new genre of writing, and analyzing its features, than by forced writing lessons. But I know that many homeschoolers (and public school teachers!) struggle to get kids to write, and I really believe it’s because we 1) limit what “writing” is… 2) don’t give kids interesting things to write about (or read about, or talk about, for that matter) in most schools… and 3) don’t have a clear purpose for communicating beyond, “It’s our quarterly prompt.”

Real-World Writing Tasks

Here is my list of ten things that I believe all kids (from preschool to high school) should know how to write, in order to be complete writers, and my rationale for each:

  • An organized list
  • An email
  • A business letter
  • A hand-written thank you note
  • A poem or lyrics to a song
  • A personal or fictional narrative
  • A written argument
  • An informational article
  • A photo caption
  • The directions for a task or activity
10 Different Writing Ideas
Incorporating a variety of writing pieces into your writing curriculum engages young writers and teaches them important skills for their adult lives. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

1. An Organized List…

A list is probably the last thing people think of when they think of writing, and it’s the kind of writing I do most, and do absolutely every day. Creating and using lists teaches kids so many things:

  • Goal-setting & progress monitoring
  • Accountability
  • Prioritization
  • Time allocation

From an early age, my son learned to use a checklist to keep track of his homeschool work and chores. He feels accomplished crossing things off, tends to get less sidetracked by less important distractions, and gets more done, as a result.

In my classroom, I use “100 Lists” as a regular writing task (“List 100 things you love” ~ “List 100 things to do when you’re feeling blue”). This very accessible writing can be used in any subject area, with any student, even ones who have a hard time starting.

2. An Email…

Nowadays, most companies prefer that you contact them by email, and even public school teachers use email to communicate with their students. Judging from the amount of time companies spend on teaching their employees email “etiquette,” it seems that, as a writing form, it deserves its own instruction:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Writing subject lines that enable you to search your mail better
  • Keeping things focused on one topic
  • Responsible use of copy, blind copy, reply all, forward, recall and other functions
  • Attaching or embedding additional information

3. A Business Letter…

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1839) wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword.” In these days of email, cell phones and Twitter, customers often neglect the most powerful tool they have to communicate with businesses: the letter.

When kids learn how to write a business letter, they learn some important nuances of language:

  • How to use a formal tone in writing
  • Putting the most important points first (in case the whole letter isn’t read)
  • How to use the “compliment sandwich:” open nicely, get to your issue, then wrap up warmly

Look for opportunities for your kids to practice writing to a company or organization, in homeschool or classroom.

4A Thank You Note…

When I was little, of course we didn’t have computers or cell phones. My mom made us write thank you notes when we received gifts. They didn’t have to be works of art, but they WERE written. The end. Here were her reasons (and they are mine, too!):

  • Manners, manners, manners!
  • Everyone loves to get real mail (don’t you?), written by someone, and addressed to someone by hand. On paper. With a stamp.
  • Gratitude is something we all need to practice.

In short, thank you notes are mostly about the feelings of the other person, and have very little to do with us.

In my third grade classroom, I had a letter writing center, where students practiced letter format and wrote letters to students and staff in the building. Once a day, the “mail carrier” (one of the class jobs for the students) would deliver the mail, putting letters into classroom “mailboxes” (folders tacked to the bulletin board), and hand delivering mail that went outside the classroom. We were the talk of the building!

5. Poetry or Song Lyrics

One of my favorite writing pieces from my youngest son’s preschool days was a “song” he wrote. It had preschool words, and music notes, and was written on yellow construction paper, and, when asked to sing it, he sang it the same way each time. He still likes to write songs and raps, and perform them.

Music as a writing form
Writing music, poetry and song lyrics provides a different way for students to practice powerful word choice. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

Writing forms like poetry and songs, teach important writing ideas:

  • Powerful word choice: since the author can only use a few words to convey a big idea;
  • Visualization and elaborative detail;
  • How to create a mood using the words or formation of the text;
  • The connection between art, music and words when conveying a message.

For many kids, analyzing song lyrics works when poetry study does not, because the text is relevant and familiar to them. In my high school behavioral health class, we regularly have “music group” for our life skills part of the day. Students choose a song based on an assignment (“a song that makes you think of happy times” ~ “a song for sad days”), and then explain why they chose it to the rest of the class.

6. A Narrative…

I will be the first to admit to any child, that writing fictional stories is NOT my strong suit. I am great at personal narratives, and love to spin a yarn (usually at the expense of my family), however.

Whether fictional or based on real-life events, it is important for kids to learn how to tell a story. Story-telling is an ancient art form, and serves many social and literary needs, and teaches many things:

  • How to build a plot where the action rises and falls;
  • The importance of setting, character development and elaborative detail (even in true accounts);
  • How to set a tone (humor, drama, reflection)
Fictional narratives
Whether fictional or personal, narratives teach students how to weave a good story. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

When my eldest son moved into a new apartment a couple of years ago, he found a box with things from his little boy days, including a family favorite, My Vacation Journal, written when he was five. It had “chapters” such as “Uncle Andy with Vacation Hair,” “The Vicious Frog Day,” and “One Day When I Was Fly-Fishing.” It was written in all caps, and had more exclamation points than anyone needs in one writing piece. We sat in my backyard, and loved it all over again.

7. An Argument…

So here’s a type of writing that has important life implications, whether you’re trying to convince your dad to buy you a new bike, applying for a summer job, asking a date to the prom, or completing a college application.

Here are things this type of writing teaches:

  • How to clearly state your position
  • How to back up your position with real evidence (not your opinions)
  • How to evaluate and then choose the best evidence to support your position
  • How to anticipate alternative views and prepare for them in your argument

Not that we wish to abdicate all parental decision-making, but it’s really hard to resist a well-crafted argument when your kids and students bring it to you!

8. An Informational Article…

I mean, more than that old chestnut, the animal report. If you look over your mail table or coffee table, you probably see more informational text than fictional pieces. A lot of the “heavy lifting” of the informational text genre comes before the actual writing:

  • Engaging Topic – What would I like to write about? What would people like to read about? What are people already writing about?
  • Inquiry – What would I like to/need to know about this topic? What is already written?
  • Research – What is good source material? How do I evaluate sources?
  • Format and Structure – How does the format of my piece also teach?
Writing about our African-American heritage
Writing informational pieces teaches students important research skills. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

My first full year of homeschooling my youngest son, he wanted to learn about military helicopters. We spent countless hours on You Tube, watching videos of different classes of helicopters, reading about the history of the helicopter industry right here at Sikorsky, in our home state of Connecticut, and learning about the different branches of the US military. He learned things through his research that he still treasures, today.

Recently, when we were packing for a move, he found prints of Navy helicopters that were given to him by a colleague of mine whose family is full of Navy flyers. His helicopter research sticks with him, even almost 10 years later.

9. A Photo Caption…

Last night, my youngest and I were working on a blog article I was writing on interactive bulletin boards as a center (he was providing over-the-shoulder commentary and feedback on my work), and we began talking about what to put in a caption of a photograph. A writer needs to cover a lot of territory in two sentences and an image:

  • Summarization
  • Creating “stand-alone” visuals
  • Proper use of the “snipping tool” and other photo-capture tools
  • Proper citation for images and photos
  • Non-fiction text features
  • Choice and placement of graphics, including their captions
  • Attributions and copyright laws

My son uses screen captures and the “snipping tool” all the time, but never realized that you can’t simply place someone else’s photo in your PowerPoint without properly acknowledging its creator.

Apple Experiments
Young children often like to add signs to their work — another form of caption. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2012.

10. The Directions for Doing Something

My middle son is a lifelong LEGO-Maniac. Even as an adult, he used the excuse of having a little brother who is 14 years his junior as an opportunity to drag out his collection of LEGOs and build. All those years of following directions had a direct effect on his comprehension of procedures, however, and he has the ability to carefully explain directions to his crew at work, as a result.

Last year, one of the teens in my class was struggling to care for his hair. After a couple of the other boys razzed him for a particularly tousled day, I suggested to one of them that, instead of teasing him, why don’t they TEACH him? This teen, who, himself, has great difficulty spelling, spent time at the end of the day writing up detailed hair-care directions for the first boy. I was proud of him.

Steps to a building a lego creation
Following and writing written procedures can be practiced using construction materials, such as Legos. (c) Kim M. Bennett, 2011.

Writing step-by-step directions is a text form not seen much in most social studies and English courses, but an integral part of mathematics and the scientific method. Writing a procedure helps students:

  • Break a complex task down into important sub-tasks;
  • Think logically and hierarchically;
  • Anticipate reader confusion and address it ahead of time;
  • Learn how to efficiently incorporate diagrams or illustrations to clarify

Unlike the narrative, which tickles the right side of the brain, lists and procedures are a natural for left-brained thinkers.

Conclusion

Whether journalers, notebookers, traditional note-takers or “each class in its own pocket” teachers, the 10 Writing Pieces outlined above can be incorporated into any writing curriculum. Looking over my list of 10, I’m wondering what would happen to our writers if we focused on each one of these for an entire month. By the end of the 10 month school year, what kind of writers would we have?

I think we’d have good ones.