Nonfiction Writing in the Primary Grades

Fellow edublogger and San Antonio ISD Director of Instructional Technology Miguel Guhlin wrote today about Tony Stead‘s presentation in his district concerning the literacy needs of primary age students.  Having been a primary teacher in my early years, I know the struggles educators encounter in this arena. 

Tony’s book, Is That a Fact?: Teaching Nonfiction Writing K-3, seems to be a wonderful step in the right direction to overcoming those struggles.  Tomie dePaoloa says in the foreword that Snead’s books is the “first, middle, and maybe even the last word on nonfiction writing for young, young children.”  Wow!  Strong words from a respected author.

Miguel points to several interesting statistics from Stead’s presentation.  The one that jumped out at me was that in K-2 classrooms, 95% of writing experiences were with personal narrative and story.  Now I love the fact that these two writing styles are covered.  There is nothing easier for a child to write about then what they know best: him/herself.  And at this point we are all well aware of how important story is for the development of right-brain-engaged students.  But I see Stead’s point here.  What type of writing do you do most now?  Me?  Persuasive passages/narratives (grants), blog posts to inform others, blog posts as a brain dump for reference personally, and last but not least, emails.  Nonfiction writing is at the forefront for me because I need to present facts in everything I write in my professional setting.  Even grants, filled with dreams and hopes, are based on facts as we know them and predicted outcomes based on research.  While I can include a personal narrative about my learning experience, it would mean little to nothing to a grant reader.

His research showed that 96% of all read alouds were with shared fiction.  Yet how many kids incessantly about their vast knowledge of dinosaurs, bugs, alligators, etc?  Should we not share more of these types of nonfiction books with them at the earliest stages?  The library generally is loaded with them, so why not take advantage of them?  Then load up Google Earth and show the kids where the animals originated or currently are found (remember Google Earth is on those flash drives we gave out during inservice).  Stead even has a modified KWL-ish chart in his book for these types of read alouds. He gives students manila folders to keep track of their own learning. Linda McKinney and Peggy Rains taught me something similar when I began teaching.  They used a spiral and the kids self-selected topics to read about and learn from. Personal Research on Basically Everything (PROBE) Journals is what they called them.  The great thing about Stead’s approach with his chart being used in this manner is that the students share their thoughts and new knowledge and can cross check facts in a group discussion. 

You can read Miguel’s notes of the presentation here.  Or you can listen to the podcast of Stead’s talk here.  He was gracious enough to record himself for Miguel. 

Thanks for posting this, Miguel.  And thanks to Tony for allowing it to be shared.  You know sharing knowledge like this is what makes our virtual community better and our classrooms stronger.

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Science teachers. Get invited to Australia by your students for free!

Well, there is a little work involved.  I would think it would be worth a try, though.  Besides, students are going to learn tons just thinking through the process.  It is being sponsored by National Geographic and combines literacy skills, photography, and a lot of thinking about their environment. Take a look:

Write an original personal essay in English, that is no more than 300 words telling us how you actively explore your world and the most interesting things you have found in it (“Essay”). Then take a photograph of what, where, or how you explore the subject of your essay (the “Photograph”). You must be the photographer. The Essay and the Photograph must each be a single work of original material created by the contest entrant. By entering the Contest, entrant represents, acknowledges and warrants that the submitted Essay and Photograph are original works created solely by the entrant and that no other party has any right, title, claim or interest in the Essay or the Photograph.

For the rest of the guidelines and information, check out their site here.  If you are in my district and need help with the technology side of this, you know how to get hold of me.  I am more than happy to help out. 

Thanks to Vicki Davis for the link via her account.

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Podcasts anyone?

I recently came across several really neat podcasts that you might be interested in:

60-Second Science – from Scientific American comes the latest science news each weekday

Learn Spanish Survival Guide – self-explanatory

Travel with Rick Steves – 30 years of globetrotting for PBS has helped create this content

Language Arts
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – one of the top podcasts regularly, great for everyone not just ELA teachers

To take advantage of these podcasts, do the following:
1. Open iTunes
2. Go to the iTunes Store (menu on the left side of screen)
3. Click on Podcasts in menu of iTunes Store
4. Click on Power Search in the right hand side of screen
5. Copy and paste the titles that are in bold print above into the Description box on the power search screen
6. Click the name of the podcast, and then click subscribe
7. If all else fails, call me to come help you out 😉

If you find any great podcasts you want to share here, email them to me or leave the information about them in the comment field and I will make a post about it.

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Anyone covering the wildfires in California in class? So is Google Maps.

If you are discussing the events of the California wildfires with your students, you need to integrate Google Maps into your lessons/conversations. Check out what folks are doing with this online tool and others to aid citizens and emergency staff here.

Take a look at the citizen pictures on Flickr.  Amazing!

Now that is harnessing the power of the Read/Write web!

Image by Google.

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“I worked really hard on this!”

That is but one of the weak lame cheesy excuses I know each of you has heard when a student chooses to argue his or her case for a better grade. Not good enough, says Clay Spinuzzi, an associate professor of rhetoric at UT-Austin.

If a student is going to argue for a better grade, he or she should at least use some logic. Hence, his blog post including a link to the Google Presentation he has created to teach students how to argue for a better grade. Personally, I like his last line in Step 3 (emphasis mine):

Think in terms of negotiation, not confrontation. The grade is secondary to the real issue: have you learned the material?

Use it at your own risk. Either you will be changing grades due to solid arguments, or you will have less grades challenged. Either way, it is a win-win for both parties.

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Rock the Web – 07-08 National Youth Presidential Forum

rock_the_webHey history and social studies teachers!  Here is a great chance to get your kids involved with the upcoming election in a 21st Century way.  Here is what their site has to say about the event:

On November 14, 2007, The EWN Foundation together with the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at The University of Central Florida, The Presidential Classroom and The United States Association of Former Members of Congress will conduct a three hour National Youth Presidential Forum (NYPF). The NYPF will be webcast to an estimated 25 million students, who will be first time voters.

Presidential Candidates will participate in the Forum from remote locations of their choice. The candidates will field questions from a moderator and students representing the Presidential Classroom. After the webcast, students will participate in an on-line vote for the candidate they would choose in the 2008 Presidential Election. Student’s feedback about the candidates’ responses will be collected and provided to the candidates after the event.

Each student will receive a login code from their teacher, 7-10 days before the event. They will pre-register to vote at There will be pre-event class work assigned by the teachers. Then each student will attend the event at their respective venues. After the event, each student will receive a unique ballot code that will enable them to return to the web site and cast a vote and complete a survey about the Forum.

The goal of the NYPF is to increase the knowledge of our youth and to promote participation in the upcoming 2008 Presidential Election.

Check out the Rock the Web site for information and registration. 

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Students as (Virtual) Digital Storytellers

iMacI am very proud to say that we are headed in a positive direction with our high school technology courses. We have finally gotten in all of the equipment and software to start a Final Cut Studio training program. Our students will be able to walk out the doors of our school certified in the same software that television and movie studios use to create the content we see on the small and big screen.

For me, the greatest impact this program is going to have is that our kids are going to become awesome storytellers. And why not? It is a key component to being 21st Century literate. They are going to have such a huge jump on so many other students. This program hits every area Daniel Pink talks about. It actually spurred us to take this thing to then ext level even though we are not firmly grounded in the ground level. We are going virtual with this baby. Here’s my thinking behind this.


In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future by Daniel Pink, we are introduced to the six senses. These six senses compliment the left-brain skills students already contain. These six senses are the “high-concept, high-touch senses” that will “help develop the whole new mind this era demands” (Pink, 65). Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. These six senses will change the way our society develops in the modern era. These six senses separate the innovators from the automators. What students gain from these six senses cannot be replicated through machinery alone. A human must be in the driver’s seat at all times or else the idea goes nowhere. What is being created through these six senses is new life, new ideas…innovations. What students need to do to set themselves apart in today’s society is to not just think, but think differently.
final_cutThis digital video editing virtual project is the opportunity our students need to engage all of these senses. Digital storytelling in its most advanced form will take place. Students will be creating, communicating, collaborating, and connecting through stories. They will become masters of design through the creation of not just the storyline but the presentation as well. Story is one of the most influential, productive senses these students will build. Marketing themselves and their products in a compelling, engaging manner depends on story. Ken Burns and his movies on military conflicts are perfect examples. Are they timelined presentations of war events? Or are they narratives retelling life stories and drawing in new learners into what has otherwise been stale, dry bits of facts students have refused to engage with?

The ability to participate in this project requires students pull together content, skills, collaborative abilities, and the creative portion of their brains to produce products of a high level that shares the story of the video. Symphony, as Pink puts it. “Combining disparate pieces into an arresting new whole” (66). What other classroom experiences and projects can offer this type of learning opportunity?

Empathy. Knowing your fellow man (or woman) inside out. How can you tell a story without knowing your audience? How can you market yourself to potential employers? How can you market your product? Empathy. You cannot build it with worksheets. You build it with practice. You build it with experiences.

Our students will use their training to play and build meaning. The freedom they will have in creating their video products will allow them to “run with scissors.” They will have opportunities to succeed at a level with no ceiling. With this freedom will come failures. With failures will come new learning. Our collaborative learning environment affords all of the learners to build off each other.

Our project will change the way instruction is done in the K-12 vocational environment. Students will be able to learn from specialists without having to travel and/or pay outrageous training fees. They will earn specialized certificates that allow them to enter the workforce ahead of their fellow peers. By the time they complete the program, they will have amassed electronic portfolios of digital media to rival the paid professionals. Their learning will be available to them around the clock to fit individual schedules instead of bell schedules. Student progress is not held up by the rest of the class. If a student’s abilities allow him or her to move at a quicker pace, then so be it. There is no ceiling to the quantity, quality, or capacity of their learning.

California State University professor and published author Betty Edwards says it best:

“Seeing is the problem. And the secret to seeing – really seeing – was quieting the bossy know-it-all left brain so the mellower right brain could do its magic.”

This becomes extremely pertinent in this project by nature. The basics of the video editing software will be stretched out among small chunks for easy digesting. This will allow the knowledge side of the brain to strengthen and relax while requiring the creative side of the brain to ramp up to create final, edited video products showcasing the learned skills. Not just once, but repeatedly students will dip into the unchartered area of abstract creation. They will learn to collaborate, negotiate, design, and implement in a virtual environment using cutting edge tools not found in high school settings. They will function at the highest levels of Bloom’s to create polished products for publication in multiple formats and environments (contests, public viewing, persuasive opportunities, digital storytelling, self-expression, etc.). In essence, students successfully completing the training will be 21st Century college, film school, and workforce ready. Working across invisible borders will not phase them. Instead, the virtual environment places a premium on clear, concise communication. Again, these skills will add to their value throughout their education and workforce careers.

Our immediate goals include designing and developing a creative, interactive curriculum to be presented through our virtual high school software, Moodle. Utilizing the few experienced educators implementing Final Cut Studio software as project consultants will allow our project leaders to build-in support ahead of time for both students and staff in possible problem areas. The project consultants’ will offer insight and wisdom for timing of curriculum implementation as well as collaborative needs for student teams working together in a physical space. This advice will then be considered as it pertains to the weaknesses of a virtual presentation. Our goal is to have tools in place to overcome identified weaknesses with a project leadership team ready to tackle new issues as they arise.

The curriculum and its presentation has to overcome obstacles such as equipment, software, and content support. Students must have access to after-hours instructional support and timely equipment repairs as needed. Our close work with vendors and planning with back-up equipment will be crucial in filling these needs as will educators outfitted with communicative tools such as email, cell phone, video conferencing via Moodle, and instant messaging software (Twitter, AIM, iChat, etc.).

Our grant-term goals are focussed around the belief that all students deserve access to cutting-edge curriculum and vocational offerings in a 24/7 environment. With proper curriculum design and exemplary equipment needs met, participating students will earn certification through the difficult Apple Pro Series program allowing them to move right into the media industry either as employees or as entrepreneurs. With the placement of each machine, school districts can easily and effectively offer this training to three students per class period.

Our long term goal is to identify ways that we can successfully use technology tools such as content management systems, digital content capturing equipment, advanced software, and networked machines to bring high end curriculum content to students in rural areas (including ours) offering them valid, pertinent certifications that can easily be extended upon but offer immediate lucrative employment opportunities in the conceptual age we now live in. Engaging the creative skills while strengthening the knowledge skills will help us accomplish this while at the same time providing evidence of the value of this program to participating schools to allow continuation. Considering that the vast majority of the cost of this project comes in the start-up of it, long term funding for teacher stipends curriculum updates, and equipment upgrades should be accessible with evidence that the program is moving in a positive direction for students.

Honestly, I think we are building an idea here that is capable of giving students in other districts opportunities that they can create careers off of. But even if they choose to not enter the media industry, the experience they gain from building all of the necessary skills to be successful in the course will aid them in whatever avenue they choose to pursue after high school. More power to them.

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It’s Someday, but Tomorrow’s a Comin’

easystreetI have recently been a party to a common conundrum schools face daily. This time it is with an organization, but it still truly pertains to schools as well.

How exactly do we utilize the new technology tools we push so hard to get teachers to integrate when we are so worried about the negative outcomes we have yet to see?

I find it odd to be in this position as a leading organization, personally, but it is a valid, current argument. So is this the type of thing that begins honest, open, valuable debate? Is this where the real learning starts? I sure hope so.

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Ammo…Currency for the new Millennium

bumper_sticker I was in Florida on vacation with my family when I came across this bumper sticker. While, its intended meaning was not, how I would say educational, it definitely drove my mind into the educational arena for whatever reason.

I have spent the last year and a half reading, listening, and learning about 21st century students, classrooms, and learning. David Warlick, Wes Fryer, Miguel Guhlin, Vicki Davis, and more have all been great examples for me to follow in this new area. While I have always felt that I was on the cutting edge of instruction with technology, I realized that I was… only it was the edge just ahead of the rest of my district. It was not the edge that my students were teetering on.

Their edge is dangerous. It has few boundaries and requires them to take risks to learn new skills. Their edge is the manipulation of multiple environments virtually to engage with others of like interests. Their edge is scaring the living daylights out of teachers everywhere so much so that new rules are being written almost daily to halt the tide. But why?

What the kids know, and few of us do, is that the future is now. Technology is just a tool to comprehend, adjust, manipulate, collaborate, integrate, mash-up, publish, and communicate. Technology is just a tool to share, envision, enlist, create, and orchestrate. Technology is just a tool. And every tool has a use. Our students are using this tool. Sometimes the right way, sometimes not. Ever hear your dad say, “If you are not going to use a (insert tool name here) the right way, don’t use it at all.” That is where we are at. Sometimes the tool is not used the right way, but it is mainly because we have not shown students how to do that. That is mainly because so many of us do not know how to do it ourselves.


So what does this all have to do with a bumper sticker seen on the back of a rusted, black primered 1977 Pontiac Trans-Am on Dale Mabry Boulevard in Tampa, Florida, on a balmy summer evening in June of 2007? Ammo. Plain and simple. The ammo our students use, to be exact. It is most definitely the currency of the new millennium. It is the currency that will deliver them into the new millennium with strength and knowledge beyond our comprehension. It is the ammo that we build our profession on. It is the ammo that we use to build our skills as professionals. The ammo? Information.

David Warlick and others have said many times, it is not the technology that is the focus. It is the information. He lists three things about information and how it has changed: 1. information has become increasingly networked, 2. It is increasingly digital, 3. We are overwhelmed by information.

Information is networked.  I read and hear about people continually frustrated about their children memorizing odd facts to regurgitate back on to tests (capitals of states, major crops for regions, etc).  I am fine with asking kids to know these things.  No, let me restate that.  I am fine with asking kids to know how to find these things.  Right now it is as simple as Google.  I am also fine with asking kids to remember these things AFTER engaging activities to learn them.  Webquests, wikipedia searches, Google searches, informational videos/podcasts creation, wiki creation, fictional newscasts, and more can all give them these experiences.  The point is, these kids can access and share information in ways they never could before.  Networked.  Yes, they are, and yes it is.

Information is digital.  This is pretty simple to demonstrate.  In 2002 alone, people around the world created so much new information (mostly digital), it could fill 500,000 Libraries of Congress.  If it were not in digital format, where would we house it all?  How would we and our students ever access it in an efficient manner?  Blogs, wikis, and other digital tools are the avenue to which this information is being created.  And that was nearly six years ago.  Can you imagine now?

That easily leads to David’s last point: we are overwhelmed by information.  Easily, this is the most fundamental reason to be using new read/write web tools in the classroom.  Yes, we are overwhelmed by what is out there.  our students are not.  Yet if we sit back and do not offer them the chance to use tools that will allow them to wade through the mass, they will just grab the first ring they pass by and claim it to be accurate and factual.  Consider these two sites:  Dog Island & Tree Octopus.  Both are very believable.  Both are very false.  Could you tell the difference if you were a kid?

We have not even hit on the ability to use and process this information in appropriate ways.  That is a lengthy topic for another post, but start with this and this.

I am not preaching the “tech only” way of instruction.  Putting a computer in front of a student (or teacher for that matter) does not a lesson make.  Nor does it build new knowledge and higher level thinking without proper use.  Technology is a tool. Or should I say that technology is the key.  It can open doors for our kids in ways we cannot yet imagine.

Probably the most telling quote comes from Net Generation Comes of Age, written by Dr. Larry Rosen, Cal State professor who has been studying this generation of kids. He says,

“A baby boomer and even a Gen X would say, “Well, I use the Internet” or “I use my cell phone a lot” or “I text message” and so on. Gen X learned how to use technology, whereas the Net Gen kids were raised steeped in technology and they don’t use it, it just simply is.”

Technology allows our students to do new things with old and new stuff that will drive our future and theirs. It is the information that guides our futures. It is the information that causes us to think and operate at higher levels. It is the technology that allows us to collaborate, communicate, and create new things with information.

So as you begin this new experience of integrating technology, keep these things in mind. Regardless of the content area you teach in, your students need the ammo that only you can provide. Let them use technology to process it, and you will be impressed with the outcome.


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R is for Robot

This is a short video my 6 year old son made in the spring. He took his own pictures and recorded his own audio. I gave him my digital camera and a digital voice recorder and told him to tell me a story about something that begins with the letter R. I loaded it into my MacBook and let him tell me what he wanted as far as audio clips and transitions. Now you can see his final product. Yes, primary school kids can tell some awesome, personal stories.
[kml_flashembed movie="" width="400" height="326" wmode="transparent" /]

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