Three Writing Sample Ideas


The first few weeks of school are always interesting.  The students are trying to learn the personality of the teacher, while the teacher is trying to learn the strengths of the students.  This often involves some type of writing activity, where the teacher can gain a writing sample from her new students without the anxiety (or added marking workload) of a formal literacy assessment.  Here are three ideas of writing samples that introduce the students to you and that also make good bulletin board displays:


Autobiography Poem:  I first came across this version of the poem when I was a student teacher attending a writing workshop at my university.  However, I have since found several examples on the Internet.  The poem is 10 lines, with the first line being the student’s first name and the last line being his or her last name.  In between, the student answers basic questions about themselves (ex. what they like, hate, are afraid of, dreams, etc.)  I usually model how to complete the poem by writing one about myself for the class.  I’ve also used this as a biography poem later in the year, where students take a historical figure or a character from a novel and complete the poem to demonstrate their understanding of that person.

Puzzle Pieces: There will be several students with different strengths in the new classroom.  Divide the students into groups of four, and give each group a large paper with four connected puzzle pieces drawn in thick black pen.  Each group works to cut apart the puzzle pieces.  The students then decorate their pieces, and in each corner write a sentence explaining their strengths and how they could help other students throughout the year.  Examples of the sentences include: “I really like Math, and I could help you with your Math homework”, “I’m an organized person, so I can help you clean your binder”, or “I love playing video games, so I could help you beat that final level.”  After students have completed and coloured their puzzle pieces, they meet back into their groups to share their strengths and glue the puzzle pieces back together on construction paper.  You can then display the completed puzzle pieces.

Name Acrostic: Students write their name vertically down the page.  They then think of words that describe them that start with each letter of their name.  The lesson becomes a review of good describing words, or adjectives.  I can involve the entire class in thinking about a good describing word for the unfortunate student who has a “y” or a “z” in their name.  I usually have an example to show the students with my own name, and have the students illustrate and colour their acrostics for a quick bulletin board display.

Please share if you have another writing idea that we can all add to our filing cabinets.

So I Read 62 Books This Summer …


Photo by Carlos Lavara at MacLeod's Books, Vancouver

On August 31st, I completed my book-a-day reading challenge.  I feel a sense of accomplishment in the fact that I was able to meet this goal, and along the way I had some time to reflect (as teachers often do) on the entire experience.  I have decided that there are several advantages to my summer endeavour:

1.) The goal made me make time for reading. The television wasn’t on nearly as much this summer as it was last summer. I would set aside time in the afternoons to lay on the couch and pick up a book.  Sometimes, if I was too busy for a couple of days, I would devote an entire afternoon to reading.  I have not done that since I was in grade school, and I liked the nostalgic feeling that it gave me. I realized that reading had been pushed aside in my daily routine because I thought I had no time, but this challenge showed me that if something is important and relaxing for you, then you should make time for it.

2.) I read books I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up. Once in a while I knew I needed to read a book for that day, and I just picked up whatever book happened to be there. As a result, I read several books that would normally escape my notice, and in most cases I am glad they are now part of my reading repertoire.  I read at least six historical fiction novels that had been on my shelf for at least three years, and enjoyed every one. I read more non-fiction books. I was able to actually get through and return borrowed books to their owners, which is something that is usually a challenge in itself for me. Because I had to meet my goal, I became a more well-rounded reader by reading books that were not part of my typical to-read lists.

3.) Books I had been meaning to read for a while actually got read. The novels Crispin: The Cross of Lead, The Secret Life of Bees, and Kitchen are notables on this list. I felt an accomplishment in finally reading those novels that had been recommended to me by others or that I had continually seen on bookshelves. It taught me that if I really want to read a book, it was simply up to me to pick it up and begin.

4.) I made children’s books a priority. Sometimes I knew that I would be on vacation or just too busy on the weekend to delve into a chapter book.  In those instances, I picked up a children’s book from my bookshelf. Reading these books reminded me how well-written these stories can be, and how even though I teach middle school I can use these stories to demonstrate how good stories are written and how reading strategies can be used.

5.) I can now recommend books to my students with some authority. On Thursday my class went to the library for the first time this school year. I moved around the shelves, and helped a few reluctant readers and avid readers with their book choices. I have been talking to students about books they have read and books that they would like to read. Students and I have been sharing our mutual love or dislike of books, and a few have given me book suggestions. This challenge has given me another way I can connect with my students.

6.) I continue to pick up books even though I have finished the challenge. The advantages above have convinced me that if I want to continue to teach Language Arts and espouse the merits of literacy, then I have to be well-read.

I really believe that I can complete this challenge again next summer.  In the meantime, I will make sure that I will continue to pick up and read books that interest and delight me.  Book reviews will continue to pop up on this site, or follow me on Goodreads to learn more about any past or future books.

A Classroom Library Collection


Starting mid-August I decided to reorganize my classroom library.  I had acquired new books from a teacher and from a favourite used book store, and decided that the time had come to sit in my classroom and assess the collection.  The result?  All of my classroom library books, as well as my literature circle books and my read-aloud books, are in a spreadsheet in alphabetical order.  The books that are not displayed on my blue library cart are stored in boxes according to the different literacy genres and labelled.  When I counted the books I had I was stunned: 336 books in my classroom library, and 127 literature circle books.  Here is what that looks like:

All neatly lined up for a photo op

A quotation that I once stumbled upon while online states “I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”  I am inclined to agree with this statement.  If we want students to think that reading is important, then we have to show that we appreciate books.  I’m hoping that when students come into the classroom they will notice the boxes of books, the shelves lined with my teaching resources, and my library cart filled with novels and non-fiction they have access to, and they will realize that reading is so much a fundamental part of their lives that it needs to have a prominent place in the classroom.

The book a day challenge is complete, and I will write about it soon.  Until then, I hope everyone will be content with the final book title:

August 31st: Crispin: The Cross of Lead, by Avi

Graphic Novels in the Classroom


I have been reading graphic novels for a while.  I believe my first experience with this genre was with Classics Illustrated, which was also my first introduction to Alice in Wonderland and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde.  In university, the Great Expectations graphic novel saved me when I slightly misjudged the time I had to read the actual novel before a group discussion in my English class.  Today, I pick up Scott Pilgrim to read in the same way others might pick up a Nora Roberts novel.  I know that some teachers are reluctant to introduce graphic novels in the classroom, as they are not often considered “true” novels.  However, from my own experiences, there are some advantages to encouraging graphic novels in the classroom:

1.) Graphic novels provide motivation for reading.  They are often published as a series, so when students find a story that interests them they have different plots to explore.  They are also accessible to many students.  Struggling readers, unmotivated readers, and avid readers alike will find them a quicker read filled with plot and action.  Finally, a lot of graphic novels deal with themes and genres that are popular to younger readers, including fantasy, science fiction, and realistic fiction.

2.) Graphic novels teach plot, character, and connections.  As any teacher who has marked student created comic strips can attest, it can be really hard to take a story and turn it into a book where words and pictures take equal space in the story.  Graphic novels teach students that the pictures tell the story just as much as the plot, and that the pictures can be clues for the meanings and themes in the novel.  The reactions of the characters, or the pictures that show actions without dialogue, help students make inferences and predictions based on a limited amount of information.  Students can make connections and use the pictures to gain a better understanding of the text.

3.) Graphic novels place a struggling reader on an equal footing with his or her classmates.  I will never forget the day an ESL student corrected me on a detail when I was teaching Greek myths.  Her source?  She had read a graphic novel, and she was so proud that she could participate in the class discussion.  Graphic novels give struggling readers an opportunity to read a book or a series that is popular with the rest of the class.  It allows them to be part of a group discussion or debate because they have an easier access point to the information.

Articles that talk more about using graphic novels in the classroom can be read at The Book Whisperer’s website and at the American Libraries Magazine website.  As well, if you know of any good graphic novels for adolescent readers, please let me know.

My book a day challenge is almost complete:

August 11th: Inkspell, by Cornelia Funke

August 12th – 19th: A Pooh and Piglet Book Series, #1-8, by A.A. Milne

August 20th: Winnie-the-Pooh on Success, by Roger E. Allen and Stephen D. Allen

August 21st: George’s Marvellous Medicine, by Roald Dahl

August 22nd: The Magic Finger, by Roald Dahl

August 23rd: The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, by Roald Dahl

August 24th: The Dragonslayer (Bone, #4), by Jeff Smith

August 25th: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd

August 26th: Naomi’s Road, by Joy Kogawa

August 27th: The Myth of Ability, by John Meighton

August 28th: Horrible Histories: The Awesome Egyptians, by Terry Deary and Peter Hepplewhite

August 29th: Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, by Judy Blume

August 30th: Days of Toil and Tears: The Child Labour Diary of Flora Rutherford, by Sarah Ellis

Bright Lights, Spelling City


I occasionally assign spelling and vocabulary activities, and try to find ways that students can study the words that do not involve dry memorization of their pre-test pages.  I found a website that seems to help students practice their words in a fun way.  Spelling City starts with a page where anyone can type in words in groups of five, ten, or as a batch entry.  Students can then decide to take a spelling practice test, listen to the words being spelled, or complete a variety of vocabulary and spelling games based on these words.  I have recommended this website for a practice activity while students are studying at home, as well as using a couple of the games in the classroom as a quick practice in between lessons or in the fifteen minutes before the scheduled afternoon assembly.  I like how the spelling test reads out the words and sentences to give a better understanding of the word’s meaning, and my students have enjoyed working together to play “Hangmouse”.  I would say that this website is mostly for Grade 2 to Grade 6, and I tend to use it as a whole classroom activity when I teach Grade 6 and as a supplementary resource for individual students in Grade 7. I use this website for free, but you can also register and pay a fee to use this in the classroom for all of the students.  This will allow students to play more of the games, and they will also have any of the activities they complete directly Emailed to the teacher for assessment.  I am frustrated that it seems some of the games and practices I used to be able to access for free are now only available through the registration, but I will continue to use Spelling City games in the classroom for as long as I am able.

And the reading list grows longer:

July 30th: Birdland, by Tracy Mack

July 31st: The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis

August 1st: Report to the Principal’s Office, by Jerry Spinelli

August 2nd: Blabber Mouth, by Morris Gleitzman

August 3rd: Ella Enchanted, by Gail Carson Levine

August 4th: Web 2.0 How-To For Educators, by Gwen Solomon and Lynne Schrum

August 5th: Haunted Teachers: True Ghost Stories, by Allan Zullo

August 6th: The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson levine

August 7th: A Child in Prison Camp, by Shizuye Takashima

August 8th: Emily Carr: An Introduction to her Life and Art, by Anne Newlands

August 9th: The Wright 3, by Blue Balliett

August 10th: Astronomy: Out of this World, by Basher (Illustrator) and Dan Green

Complex Texts at Odds with Technology?


This week I randomly picked up an Educational Leadership magazine with the headline “Teaching Screenagers” so I could quickly pick up a few technology ideas to think over.  One article that discussed reading complex texts and technology particularly caught my eye.  The title of this article is “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?”, and it explores whether this technological age has resulted in students who do not have the capacity or the willingness to comprehend complex texts that are presented to them in university.

The article initially intrigued me because I had been reading so much about how technology is the wave of the future, and I was starting to feel like if I did not grasp onto this new medium for my classroom fairly quickly it would leave me behind.  I do agree with a few of the points mentioned in the article.  For example, the author states that electronic communications require a quick response, which is the antithesis to the slow, receptive reading that is necessary for complex writing.  Students brought up in the Internet age become active contributors to ideas, because a quick comment on a blog post is often all that is required to become embroiled in an ideological debate.  However, this doesn’t work for slow reading, where the reader must take in the entirety of the writing through laboured and conscious thought, and be able to summarize the ideas as well as give his initial opinion.  Based on what I’ve seen online, I could say that this analysis is true.  I’ve often felt that the Internet fosters a certain quickness, and if you do not comment immediately on an idea you will be left behind.  Also, when I read this article a second time I read it online, and I found myself more likely to use the page down button to scan for main ideas rather than look at each sentence.  That may have been only because I was re-reading something that I had already gathered information on, but it does pose an interesting question about whether the Internet naturally leads us to scan and not think deeply when looking at printed documents.

However, I also don’t think that technology is completely to blame in this issue. If I remember my own university experience properly, there has often been a struggle for first-year students to understand complex texts, and doing well in secondary school only to then do poorly in university is not a new phenomenon.  Instead of believing that technology and complex texts are equals in terms of literacy, perhaps technology should play a supporting role in understanding difficult writing.  Literacy strategies, verbal discussion, Socratic seminars, and other good parts of our teacher training should also be presented to the students.  Don’t let all assignments take the form of blog posts and videos, but also don’t naturally assume that banning Internet research for a project will yield more methodical readers.  As in many parts of education, there needs to be a balance.  Students already have so much technology in their lives, it must be brought into the classroom or teaching methods will become antiquated.  I do believe that if we set aside time to break down complex writing for students to understand, while at the same time utilizing technology to support and clarify their understanding, we will end up with better readers in general.

The book-a-day- challenge continues:

July 23rd: A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park

July 24th: Teaching and Learning Outside the Box: Inspiring Imagination Across the Curriculum, by Kieran Egan et. al.

July 25th: Parvana’s Journey, by Deborah Ellis

July 26th: Mud City, by Deborah Ellis

July 27th: An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, by Kieran Egan

July 28th: Looking for X, by Deborah Ellis

July 29th: Eggs, by Jerry Spinelli

Book Review: The Grim Hill Series


This spring Linda DeMeulemeester, the author of the Grim Hill series, paid an author’s visit to my school.  Because I didn’t want to just bring my students into an assembly without any background information about her books, I ran to the public library to see if they had her novels and do a quick read.  I had just meant to read the first novel myself, then read a couple of chapters to the students, and finally have them practice their reading strategies while at the same time learning more about the book.  I didn’t expect that I would get caught up in DeMeulemeester’s storytelling, or that I would average one of her books per day until I had read the entire series so far.  When I introduced the book to the students as planned, they felt the same way.  I ended up reading more than I had intended because the students kept asking for just one more chapter.  They then started to pick up the books to read for themselves, starting before the assembly but definitely picking up after the assembly.  Students and I started to have discussions about the series in our free time, which was another nice way to make a connection with the kids I teach.

DeMeulemeester has created a world where reality blends very closely with Celtic myth.  In the first book, The Secret of Grim Hill, Cat and her little sister Sookie have moved to Grim Hill with their mother after their parents’ divorce.  Cat has a miserable first day at her school, and would love to be able to afford the expensive tuition at the Grimoire private school.  When Grimoire hosts a Halloween soccer tournament, with the winning team being able to attend the school, Cat jumps at the chance to be a part of the team.  However, as game time draws closer, Sookie begins to display some otherworldly powers of her own, and Cat starts to realize that the myths of fairies and spells are very much alive in her town.  As the series progresses, Sookie’s powers continue to evolve, and start to get her and Cat into trouble.  Other characters are introduced, including Clive, Cat’s alternating nemesis and potential love interest.  One reason I enjoy the series is because of the Celtic myths.  I learned quite a bit about the legends of fairies, witches, and other mythical creatures, and I appreciated how this knowledge led to a better understanding of the plot.  I also liked how DeMeulemeester keeps the suspense going in her series.  As she discussed herself, each chapter ends with a small question or event, so the reader needs to keep going to find out what happened next.  This, along with the engaging characters, makes for a great fantasy series for kids to explore.

A continued list for my summer reading includes:

July 16th: Meet the Group of Seven, by David Wistow

July 17th: Lucy Maud and the Cavendish Cat, by Lynn Manuel

July 18th: Grim Hill: Forest of Secrets, by Linda DeMeulemeester

July 19th: My Story: Battle of Britain: Harry Woods, England 1939-1941, by Chris Priestley

July 20th: Never Work Harder than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching, by Robyn R. Jackson

July 21st: Ida B … and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World, by Katherine Hannigan

July 22nd: Conspiracy 365: Book Two: February, by Gabrielle Lord

Teaching with the Newspaper


I sometimes spend so much time searching or thinking about the perfect book that will help the students practice their reading strategies, that I forget about the newspaper.  However, having the students look through their local paper, or gathering current articles for them to read, can also have some real benefits.  An article can be used or adapted for several different subjects.  Having short articles to discuss rather than long pages of dialogue will appeal to those struggling readers.  Looking at comic strips and political cartoons requires a certain level of critical thinking.  Even examining the pictures that accompany the articles provide the students with a chance to determine what is happening in the picture and create inferences.  Finally, it gives students an opportunity to look at a piece of non-fiction that they are almost guaranteed to continue reading in their adult lives.  The website Education World has an article that provides more justification for using newspapers in the classroom and gives several ideas for lesson planning.

In other news, I have met the criteria for my book a day challenge so far, and I have put the continuing list here.  A quick review of each book can be seen on my summer book challenge page.

July 5th: Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

July 6th: Trailing Clouds of Glory, poems by William Wordsworth

July 7th: The Future of the Earth: An Introduction to Sustainable Development for Young Readers, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

July 8th: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

July 9th: DK Eyewitness Books: Shakespeare, by Peter Chrisp

July 10th: Earth from Above for Young Readers, by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

July 11th: Ever, by Gail Carson Levine

July 12th: Shattered, by Eric Walters

July 13th: White Jade Tiger, by Julie Lawson

July 14th: North by Night, by Katherine Ayres

July 15th: Broken Song, by Kathryn Lasky

The Book-A-Day Challenge


I never seem to be able to find enough time to just sit down and read extensively.  Although it’s part of my job to read novels that I can recommend to students and find concepts that will further my professional development, other demands of my life often take me away from the leisure reading time that I enjoyed so much as I was growing up.  Perhaps that’s why I am so intrigued by The Book Whisperer’s reading challenge.  Her lofty goal, that she also presents to other bibliophiles, is to read one book per day over the summer.  The rules appear to be fairly simple:

• read one book per day for the remainder of summer vacation
• these books can be fiction, non-fiction, professional books, children’s books, young adult books, graphic novels, poetry books, picture books, etc.  Anything that allows you to read words on a page and gets some analytical synapses firing.
• You can set your own start date and end date.  Because I’ve already read 4 books since July 1st, I’ll make that my start date, and I’ll make August 31st my end date.
• You can space out your reading time.  For example, if you have a leisurely day in which you read three books, you’re covered reading-wise for the next two days.
• Post your book titles, and any reviews, on your blog, twitter, etc. so others can be aware for your progress.

I like the idea of holding myself accountable for finishing books that have been accumulating in my house for quite some time, and I think that I will become wiser once I complete this challenge.  So far the four books I have read are:

July 1st: Four Pictures by Emily Carr, by Nicolas Debon
• This is a graphic novel describing four periods of famous Canadian painter Emily Carr’s life.  I appreciate Debon’s efforts to make these time periods emotional for the reader.  However, perhaps because I have read Carr’s autobiography and have loved her paintings and writings since I was a teenager, I can’t help but think of how much he simplified these life events in order to create the cartoons.

July 2nd: The Warlock (The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, #5), by Michael Scott
• This is the fifth in a series of six novels, with the sixth novel coming out in 2012.  Twins Sophie and Josh Newman are given a prophecy, and battle gods from several different mythologies in order to succeed or fail in achieving their destinies.  The plot can be convoluted at times, but the way Scott ends his chapters and books with suspense keeps dragging me back into the series.

July 3rd: My Story: Pyramid of Secrets: Nebka, Giza, Egypt 2517 BC, by Jim Eldridge
• I’m teaching Ancient Civilizations in Grade 7 Social Studies next year, and bought this book because I thought it might be a good cross-curricular novel.  While I found the plot to be fairly predictable, it did an admirable job of explaining how the pyramids were built and how the farmers created life out of the desert.  The story is narrated through the eyes of Nebka, a 12-year old farmer who goes to build Khafre’s pyramid during the Nile flooding.

July 4th: The Throne of Fire (The Kane Chronicles #2), by Rick Riordan
•I do find the mythology in this series difficult to follow at times, but I’ve decided that might be because it’s hard to tie together Egyptian mythology into one comprehensive story when the mythology itself is so fragmented.  However, Riordan continues to do a great job in creating interesting characters that I feel for.  He is quickly becoming my favourite author.

Writing Activities for Boys


I come from a family of all girls, so I’m not always used to the concerns and actions of the boys in my classroom.  Getting married has helped somewhat, because I can always ask my husband things like, “Is it normal for four boys to jump and try to hit the top of the door in quick succession as they leave the classroom?” (answer: yes, yes it is).  Therefore, I sometimes try to take the opportunity to find out more about how boys learn.  Last November I attended a workshop by Diana Cruchley, an experienced teacher, in an attempt to learn how we can encourage boys to become better writers and enjoy writing in the process.  I liked how she started off by explaining what type of environment boys need in the classroom, and how we could think of some of their needs when we are planning our lessons.  These needs included a low-threat competitive environment, a chance for leadership and autonomy, an opportunity to make choices, and a chance for movement and humour.  She then launched right into a variety of activities that we could use in the classroom.  Here is a sampling of some of the great ideas she presented:

• The Overhead Dash: Choose 20 vocabulary words from any classroom unit, and make sure students have had an opportunity to go over the meanings of these words.  Place 10 of the words on an overhead.  Students are in partners, with one facing away from the words.  One student gives clues, and the other student tries to guess the words.  Students get approximately 2 minutes to play, and then they can reverse their roles to play a second round with the other 10 words.  You can set up your own rules regarding the clues.  This gives low threat competition, and the students are practicing their vocabulary.  I tried this in my class with our 20 spelling words, and both the boys and girls were engaged.  When I asked if this is a game we would be interested in playing again, one boy piped up, “I’m up for playing it again today, if you’re interested.”

• Using the tangram story Grandfather Tang as a model, students create their own story about the characters that they create using tangram pieces.  For many grades, this covers both writing and math learning outcomes.  As well, the boys are given some movement, and you could make it into a low threat competition by seeing how long it takes the students to create each tangram in the book.

• Reversing Ideas:  Have students write a paragraph explaining clearly how “not” to do something.  Examples are: 10 Ways to Die on the Fraser River Gold Rush, How Not to Build a Pyramid, or How Not to Present a Speech.  This gives the students an opportunity to add some humour to what might be a boring descriptive paragraph assignment.