I could do that!

I had a great trip to the MOMA with my granddaughter last spring. Mostly we had fun looking at the art that we thought “anybody” could do. A blank canvas with a blue line down the middle? A stack of Campbell’s soup cans? A cacophony of paint splashes? Sure! WE Could do that!

I wondered then, and I wonder now, why I never feel that way about writing. I admit that I have no expertise regarding the standards used to critique visual arts, particularly modern art.  Yet, my lovely and intelligent granddaughter and I missed no opportunity to say, “What is so great about THAT?  I just don’t get it.” How come I don’t ever wonder, “What is so great about…” when it applies to a piece of writing? I’m always in awe of writers and their craft. I never think, “Well, I could have written THAT!”

Most of us who write admire other writers. Some of us may even think that writing is a gift one either has or doesn’t have.  Many of our students often feel that they “just can’t write,” and, so, they give up or give in and write what’s required and no more.  Picasso is said to have declared, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once you grow up.” I believe that every child is a writer, because every human being is a story teller. The problem is how to remain a writer/story-teller when you grow up.

I begin this February challenge with apprehension. Though I journal daily, most of what I’ve been writing lately has been deeply personal and not ready for publication. So, I wonder if I have it in me to put my writing “out there.” I guess I’m apprehensive that readers will say, “What is that?” or “My goodness, anyone could have written that!” Fear of judgment keeps many writers silent. Creating a classroom environment where writers feel safe to take risks and to share their risks is a challenge worth overcoming. Writing each day for publication is a challenge for me this year. Here I go again.



Your Turn Lesson: Using Adjectives

Your Turn: Using Adjectives to Create a Rich Description

Hook:  Read a book about ice cream such as Ice Cream: The Full Scoop by Gail Gibbons. How many of you like ice-cream, sherbet, or frozen yogurt?  Turn and talk with your partner about your favorite flavors. Let’s share with the whole group (Teacher records student responses on the board)

Brainstorm: (Prewrite) Make your own list of ice cream flavors in your writer’s notebook. Take your favorite flavor and create word storm in your notebook. Use as many adjectives as you can to describe your favorite flavor and its taste, texture. What does it look like? Describe your feelings when you eat it. You may use it later to write another notebook entry. Turn and share lists with a partner.

Purpose: Today we are going to use ice-cream flavors to help us recall a vivid memory for our writer’s notebook.  The entry will probably be short, maybe four to eight sentences.  You will probably use many writing strategies quite naturally such as appeal to the senses and vivid adjectives (including color words). You may find yourself describing the setting, too. That’s okay!

Model:   Teacher writes ice-cream memory on the board in front of the students, thinking aloud and sharing his/her writing process.

As I sit on a wooden bench on the busy boardwalk, I stare at the vanilla ice-cream scoop that sits on top of a waffle cone.  The soft loveliness curls to a little peak and is almost too perfect to eat. As I round the sides to smoothness, I watch the rolling waves of the ocean.  With each lick, I know that the vanishing ice-cream will soon be gone. When I reach the crunchy cone, the taste is still sweet but noisy like the ocean. I turn my attention to the pastel hotels that are beginning to reflect the late afternoon sun. Suddenly, my hand is empty. The long shadows over the land tell me it is time to go home.

Guided Writing: Turn and talk about the memory.  What did you like about it?  Open your notebook and try to write an ice-cream memory. It may be helpful to have students brainstorm settings and write one sentence about each before deciding on the entry.  For example, from Lynne’s notebook:

 Boardwalk – I sat on the hard, wooden bench and watched the waves rolling in and out, licking my creamy vanilla cone in rhythm with the waves.

The teacher walks around the room and peeks at what students are doing (roving conferences with clipboard).  After some time, have students share in small groups and in whole groups.  Copy some of their sentences on chart paper to include as “expert” samples.

Independent Practice:  Now try to write a notebook entry about a real ice-cream memory.  Think a moment, do a web or list to get started, refer to your word storm, settings, or just start writing. Remember, you are not writing an entire story! Give students time to write and share (even if only with a partner).

Reflection: Take a look at what you wrote and at the teacher sample.

  • How did the adjectives work for you?
  • Are there too many?  Just the right amount? How do you know?
  • When do you think adjectives are most appropriate?
  • If you could revise this entry, what is one thing you would absolutely do? Try it out.

Projection (Optional): Create a goal for yourself that will help your reader to visualize your words.

  • Try to appeal to a sense you don’t usually use – like smell, taste, or touch.
  • Look at your adjectives. Are they vivid and exact?
  • Do you use color?
  • Examine past portfolio entries to see how you have used the senses to create description. Choose a piece for possible revision(s).
  • Find examples in your reading where authors appeal to the senses and copy them into your notebooks. What strategy has an author used that you could try on for size?



Your Turn Lesson: Personal Pronouns

Your Turn Lesson: Personal Pronouns Used as the Subject of a Sentence (Nominative Case)

Nouns don’t change their spelling based on how they are used in a sentence. Pronouns, however, do change depending on whether they are used as the subject of the sentence or the direct object or to show possession. “I” becomes “me” becomes “my” or “mine.” Young writers often have problems with personal pronouns used as the subject of the sentence, especially when the pronoun is part of a compound subject. Because pronoun use is complicated for young writers, we have developed several lessons to address the issue. This lesson focuses on personal pronouns used as the subject (nominative case).

Hook: Read Ruth Heller’s Mine All Mine: A Book About Pronouns. Stop at the page describing possessive pronouns. Heller provides multiple examples of personal pronouns with exceptional illustrations, both written and visual. The book also suggests ways to think about which form of the pronoun to select for correctness.

Purpose:  Writers, today we are going to look at personal pronouns and how we use them in our writing. Pronouns sometimes give us trouble because they change depending on how they are used in a sentence.

Brainstorm:  Ask the class to use the reference section of their writer’s notebooks to jot down as many personal pronouns as they can. Having just heard Heller’s recounting in Mine All Mine, the students should be able to think of many. After a few minutes, ask students to volunteer one pronoun from their list. Start an anchor chart of personal pronouns. Accept all personal pronouns even those that are possessive or objective case. However, if a student offers a “pronoun” such as “other,” or “where,” do not add it to the chart. Instead, explain that the word is a different part of speech that we will discuss later.

Here is a list of personal pronouns: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them, my, mine, you, your, his, her/hers, its, our, ours, their, theirs.

                This lesson will discuss pronouns in the nominative case (used as subjects or predicate nominatives): I, you, he, she, it, we, they.

Model: Write a short paragraph (talk across five fingers) in front of the class.

My sister and I rode our bikes to the park. We saw a dog without his owner. I said to my sister: “I think he is lost.” She said, “You are right.” Then, the dog wagged its tail, and we took him with us.

Ask students to turn and talk about the pronouns used in the paragraph. Underline the pronouns: My, I, our, we, his, I, he, she, you, its, we, him, us. With the class decide on which pronouns are used as the subject: I, We, I, I, he, she, you, we. Circle the pronouns used as the subject and highlight them on the anchor chart as well.

Guided Practice: Use a page of text from Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig or Happy Like Soccer by Maribeth Boelts or Every Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. Display some pages on the document imager and ask students to find pronouns that act as the subject of the sentence. Pair students and send them on a personal pronoun hunt looking in their independent reading books and the classroom library. Ask them to look for personal pronouns used as subjects with attention to those in compound subjects.

As a second practice, as students to look in their writer’s notebooks or current draft(s) to find pronouns they have used as subjects. Ask them: “Do you have any pronouns that need to be changed?” You might also ask them if there are any spots where they could substitute a pronoun for a repeated noun.

Caution: Sometimes when authors write dialogue, they try to imitate the way people sometimes speak and that isn’t always correct. They may see sentences like: “Me and my dad are going fishing Saturday.” Remember that we use the pronoun “I” as the subject of the sentence, and it’s polite to name ourselves last.

If there is a compound subject, a simple test to determine which pronoun to use is to take out the noun in the compound subject, and read the sentence with only the pronoun. Does it sound right to your ear? Here is an example from Happy Like Soccer: (My auntie and I travel to the game together riding on one bus past the empty lot, then another through the city, then walking the rest of the way to the field.) If you remove “my auntie” you have, “I traveled to the game.”  “I” is the correct pronoun choice in the sentence example.

Independent Practice: Return to the current draft or notebook entry and continue to draft thinking about where you can use a pronoun to substitute for a name or names in the subject of a sentence. Check your subject pronouns and see if they are circled on the anchor chart.


What do you now know about personal pronouns?

                When do you think you should use subject pronouns?

                Why should you name yourself last when you are writing about yourself and someone else?

                Why do you think we use a specific name or names first before we use the pronoun?



What do you take for granted?

What things should we never take for granted?

I wrote a blog post a while back pulled from the Sunday New York Times obituaries. I’m not really morbid, but I do read the Sunday Times with enthusiasm, including the obits. This past Sunday the story of Dr. Leon Madowitz, a holocaust survivor, drew my attention. During the occupation of Poland, he was separated from his family, who he never saw again. Dr. Madowitz eluded capture for several years before being forced into labor toward the end of the war. A brilliant student who could not pursue education because he was Jewish, Dr. Madowitz, nevertheless, read, studied, and eventually prevailed. He emigrated to the U.S. and, though he did not speak English, taught himself enough of the vocabulary of science to pass the entrance exam to medical school on his first try. His obituary reads: “There were things he never took for granted: family, religious freedom, food security, and public education.”

It’s the “public education” that stood out for me. In these uncertain times, and with the March for Public Education fresh in my mind, I wonder how many of us take public education for granted. Even worse, I wonder how many Americans no longer have use for public education. In my extended family, I have one niece and one nephew who home schooled their children. The nephew has written extensively about the horrors of public education, specifically how teachers stifle creativity and care only about job security. These words of his cut me to the quick, since I spent my entire career working in public schools caring deeply about my students, challenging them to be their best selves. Though I still believe my nephew is in the minority, I do think that he has a sizable coterie of fellow travelers.

Horace Mann once said, “Education is our only political safety.  Outside of this ark, all is deluge.” An educated citizenry is a bulwark against tyranny. But I suspect that we are losing that battle. My nephew didn’t want to send his daughter to public school because he lived in the inner city and worried about her safety, he said. Fortunately for him and his wife, both are highly educated professionals, and she could afford to stay home and be her daughter’s teacher. Other home school parents likely have similar qualifications.  However, what of those parents who have neither the experience nor the inclination to be academic educators for their children? Our current Republican Secretary of Education thinks the answer is in charter schools and private schools to which she would like to siphon off money now set aside for public schools? What happens when public schools no longer serve the general population but only the minority? What happens to educated citizenry then? Let’s not take public education for granted.




Your Turn Lesson: That’s Perfect


            CCSS for fifth grade stipulate that students demonstrate how to form and use the perfect verb tenses. In discussing verbs “perfect” means “complete.” The past, present, and future perfect tenses describe actions that are already complete at that point in time. Young writers frequently fail to use perfect tense to show the relationships between two different times. Perfect tenses are formed by combining some form of have with the past participle of the verb. For example, the verb talk has the following forms:

  Verb       Present Participle        Past                Past Participle

talk          (is) talking                        talked                (have) talked

Present Perfect Tense: This tense form expresses actions occurring in the past which have effects in the present.  It is formed by adding have or has to the past participle of the verb.


I have always liked strawberry shortcake. (I still do)

For years my family has vacationed in North Carolina. (we still vacation there)

     Past Perfect Tense: This tense expresses actions completed in the past before some other action. It helps keep straight the time order of events in the past. Past perfect tense is formed by combining had with the past participle of the verb.

Colin admitted that he had given chocolate to the dog. (He gave chocolate to the dog before he admitted doing it.)

I received a higher grade than I had expected.

Future Perfect Tense: This tense expresses action that will be completed in the future before some other future action. It is formed by using will have or shall have along with the past participle of the verb.


As of next month, I will have taken piano lessons for one year.

By the end of this summer, my family will have been visiting North Carolina for ten years.

We recommend teaching one form of Perfect tense at a time beginning with present perfect tense.

Hook: Revisit Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Point out the use of present perfect tense. The two sentences: “Have you seen my hat?” and “No, I haven’t seen your hat,” are repeated throughout.

Purpose: Writers, today we’re going to talk about the perfect tense of verbs. Verbs are the muscles of a piece of writing, and verbs are the parts of speech that change when time changes. We call this change “verb tense.” We know about present, past, and future tenses. Today we’re going to talk about present perfect tense.

Brainstorm: Ask students to think about as many verbs as they can and jot them down in their writer’s notebooks. Ask each student to choose one verb from their list and create an anchor chart of verbs.

Model: Make three columns for each verb listed on the chart: Present, Past, Past Participle (most will likely be volunteered in the present tense, but in the event that a student gives a past or past participle form, place it in the appropriate column as listed).

Present                 Past                          Past Participle

Hop                 hopped                       (have/has hopped)

Run                 ran                              (have/has run)

Look                looked                        (have/has looked)

See                  saw                             (have/has seen)

Do                   did                              (have/has done)

Ask students what they notice about the difference between regular and irregular verbs in the Past Participle form. (Regular verbs form their past tense by adding -d or -ed to the present tense. Irregular verbs change their spelling entirely in the past and past participle form. This concept may take some more direct teaching, particularly for ESL students. Monitor understanding as you work with students on the guided and independent practice stages of the lesson so that you can form small groups for further instruction).

Guided Practice: Ask students to work with a partner to create a short conversation that uses present perfect tense using I Want My Hat Back as a model. You might model one first to demonstrate: “Have you ever run in the halls at school?” asked the teacher. “No, I have never run in the halls at school. That’s against the rules,” replied the student.

Let student pairs share their written conversations with another pair. You might share a few whole group as well.

Independent Practice: Ask students to return to their writer’s notebook drafts looking for a piece of writing that already uses perfect tense or one where perfect tense can be added to show specificity. During sharing time ask them to share how they knew that they used present perfect tense.

Reflection: Ask students to jot in the reference section of the writer’s notebook how they know when they are using present perfect tense. Then ask them to respond to one of the following questions.

What do I know about present perfect tense?

When can I use present perfect tense in a narrative piece

                        of writing?

How do I know that a verb is present perfect tense?






Using Idioms to Add Interest to a Piece of Writing

Idioms are fun to study and a good way to introduce student writers to the use of figurative language. In addition, studying idioms is a help to English language learners as well as developing readers who may find idioms confusing and difficult.  We suggest keeping the list of idioms small to begin with; introducing them in the context of reading works best.

HOOK: Choose one of the many picture books that highlight idioms (a short list follows this lesson), a poem (such as Shel Silverstein’s “Losing Pieces”), or an excerpt from one of the Amelia Bedelia books. Fred Gwynne’s A Chocolate Moose for Dinner is a classic.

PURPOSE: Today, writers, we are going to talk about idioms. Idioms are a kind of figurative language, like similes, that can add interest to our writing. Sometimes, idioms can be confusing because they don’t seem to make sense. For example, if I say, “It was raining cats and dogs,” I don’t really mean cats and dogs were falling from the sky. If you are quiet and I ask, “Does the cat have your tongue?” do I really think a cat is holding onto your tongue? Most people use idioms from time to time when they speak. Today we are going to see if we can use idioms in our writing as well.

BRAINSTORM: Begin an anchor chart or idiom wall by writing the examples above on the chart:

It was raining cats and dogs.

Does the cat have your tongue?

Ask students to brainstorm in their notebooks as many idioms that they can think of. After a few minutes, ask them to share their list with a partner. If you have read one of the collection of idioms books, like Gwynne’s referred to in the hook, they will probably remember some of those. Other students may think of others besides those they heard in the reading. You might challenge them to think of idioms that involve animals such as:

Let the cat out of the bag

In the doghouse

Barking up the wrong tree

Sick as a dog

Dog tired

When pigs fly

Ask the class to decide on a definition of “idiom.”  You may also want to ask the student writers to guess at how the idioms may have originated.

MODEL: Since the purpose of the lesson is to add interest to writing by adding figurative language (in this case idioms), demonstrate the difference between “literal” meaning and “figurative” meaning. Drawing the literal meaning of the idiom (as Gwynne does in his books) is a concrete experience. If you are not an artist, try using photographs or illustrations as examples. Under the drawing, write the figurative meaning of the idiom.

“Raining cats and dogs”  — drawing shows dogs and cats falling from the sky.

Figurative meaning: It was raining really hard.

“In the doghouse” – drawing shows a kid with his head sticking out of a doghouse.

Figurative meaning: In the doghouse means you are in trouble.


GUIDED WRITING:  Ask students to work in pairs to select two idioms (from the anchor chart and/or from the book used as the hook) and to illustrate the literal meaning with a picture. Then, ask them to label the picture with the figurative meaning. Provide resources like Scholastic Dictionary of Idioms, or an online dictionary such as idioms.thefreedictionary.com. Some students might want to research the origin of the idiom as well. Encourage them to do so. Share their drawings and figurative meaning, clearing up any misconceptions.

INDEPENDENT WRITING: Direct student writers to consult with their writer’s notebook entries and find a spot where they can add an idiom. If they don’t have an entry that works, ask them to try it out by starting a new piece. You might write in front of them to get them started:

As soon as I woke up, I knew it was going to be a bad day. It was pouring down rain, and I had left my umbrella in my school locker along with my homework assignments. I thought about asking my mom if I could stay home, but I knew she would tell me I had to go to school and face the music.

REFLECTION: After students have tried out using idioms in their writing, ask them to reflect on one of the following questions:

What do you now know about idioms?

When do you think you might use idioms in your writing again?

Did using an idiom change your writing for the better or not? Explain why you think so.

Sometimes an idiom will make the piece sound trite. Student writers should recognize that idiom use can be overdone.

Books about idioms:

More Parts and Even More Parts by Todd Arnold

A Chocolate Moose for Dinner and The King Who Rained by Fred Gwynne

Raining Cats and Dogs by Will Moses

My Teacher Likes to Say and My Grandma Likes to Say by Denise Brennan Nelson

Bad Boys by Margie Palatini

Amelia Bedelia (series) by Peggy Parish




You get what you pay for!

Last week Lynne and I presented a staff development in Daytona Beach, FL. Since we were there for only one night, we used proximity to the site of our presentation to choose our hotel. Price entered into the equation as well. The rate was $89 + tax.  Woohoo!

When we arrived at the hotel, a very pleasant young man at the desk informed us that our room was not ready. “But, if you don’t mind, we can put you in another room instead.” Of course, that was fine with us. We rolled our suitcases to the room, unpacked, and settled in.

“Isn’t it cold in here?”

“I’ll turn up the temperature. Huh! It’s already set at 75!”

“It feels way colder than 75.”

“I’ll turn it up a notch anyway.”

We opened up the computer and began to look over our PowerPoint.

I felt chilled and my sinuses began to fill up. Looking for tissues, I noticed the container on the bathroom shelf was empty. “I’ll call the desk for tissues.” The phone, however, did not work. We discovered that the cord was missing! The receiver fit into the cradle without benefit of any connection whatsoever. “I guess I’ll go down to the desk.”

“Our room needs tissues, and our phone doesn’t work.”
“Oh, were you trying to call another room? We don’t have that feature any more.”
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not trying to call another room. The phone lacks a cord. It’s not connected to anything.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ll send someone to fix it.”
I left, completely forgetting about the tissues.

Lynne and I continued to review the PowerPoint, and I continued to feel stuffed up until it was time for dinner. We hopped into the car and drove to a nearby restaurant. When we returned to the room, we noticed it was still quite chilly. I turned the thermostat up another notch, and went in to take a shower. In the meantime, Lynne tried to turn on the TV. When I emerged from the bathroom, Lynne asked me if to  figure out how to turn on the TV. “Seriously? How hard can it be?”

We tried every button on the remote and several more on the side of the TV itself. Nothing except “No signal” was in view. To make matters worse, my nose became so clogged I could hardly breathe.

Back down to the desk we went. This time, a pleasant, young woman was in charge.

“Our TV doesn’t work and we still need tissues.”

“I’ll come down and check on the TV for you and I’ll bring you tissues.”

Several minutes later, the nice, young woman arrived at our door. “Hmm. Looks like there’s a loose cable or something. I can call the maintenance man, or we can change your room.”

We decided to change rooms.

Our new room had a phone and tissues and was not a refrigerator. My sinuses felt better almost immediately.

“Quality Inn” huh? That old adage is certainly true: “You get what you pay