A Day With Katie Wood Ray

I may have just geeked myself out but as a teacher there are no greater joys than to meet authors and teachers you truly admire. I had an opportunity  to attend a writing workshop with Katie Wood Ray and I must say I was in utter awe.

I’ve read several of her books and am currently inhaling her text, “What You Know By Heart” on developing writing curriculum through your own exploration of writing. She was presenting at the Central Virginia Writing Project’s Fall Conference at the University of Virginia. I got my seat up front and was ready for a great workshop.

Katie was asked to speak on the things that matter to her about writing instruction. A pretty broad topic for an author who has excelled at writing about writer’s workshop and recently written texts on writing instruction for primary students. I was curious to hear what Katie Wood Ray would say mattered most to her. Secretly I was hoping that she would just point at me and say, “That adorable teacher over there does all of the things that are important in writing instruction. Just watch her, she’ll teach you everything she knows.” Somehow that didn’t happen. But here is what she said:

Showing students what we want them to produce

Students need to see many examples of the types of writing teachers want them to produce. Short texts were her emphasis  and showed examples such as newspapers, magazines, picture books, collections of stories, and even websites. Her reasoning is that we are not going to be teaching students how to write a 200 page novel they “can work on at home on their own time” and I totally saw her point. Teachers have limited time to work with our writers and we want to teach our students how to create shorter texts. It made a lot of sense. In many ways teaching students to write shorter texts can be more challenging because we want them to be careful and thoughtful about the words they use. With short texts writers must think ahead and envision what their piece will look like and get to the good stuff quickly. If real authors do this, we must teach our young writers to do the same.

When reading a text have students think like writers

Simply asking students to really analyze a text and to be thinking like writers when reading is valuable. Katie talked about asking even the youngest of students “What do you notice?” and see what they say. I totally agree and feel like my role as a teacher is to help my students be observers and “noticers” of language.

Conferring with Student Writers

Katie spent some time showing us great examples of writing conferences and she expressed how conferring with students is one of the most important and valuable teaching tools we have as teachers of writing. I really appreciated not only seeing her conferences in action but hearing the language she used with the students. What was especially impressive was the supportive words which supported student ownership of the writing. In the videos Katie asked student authors about their writing choices and shared what she noticed in the writing. She then had a teaching point of what she was going to teach the child to do in their writing. Sometimes it was as simple as rearranging pages in their story so the sequence made sense. At the end of the conference Katie summarized with the student what they worked on so the writer could remember to do it the next time they sat down to work. Katie has a new e-book out called “Sit down and Teach Up” which features video samples of conferences with student writers and textual support for teaching during writing conferences.

Workshops Need To Be Literal

Katie showed us pictures of what a workshop looks like from google images. It’s a place where you MAKE STUFF! If teachers are going to call a part of their day a workshop then students need to be making things; books, illustrations, stories. I loved how Katie really emphasized that even the youngest writers should be MAKING things in writer’s workshop. Katie said, “Teachers of writing must help students have a vision for what they are making in writer’s workshop.” Which basically means that our role should be to help guide students so they see the potential for what they want to create. If they are making toy reviews, we need to be able to show them examples of what it can look like. Successful writers have mental goals for what they envision their end product will be. Workshops should be a place to play, experiment, and envision.

Don’t Ask Students To Do What You Haven’t Done Yourself

I really loved this section of her presentation because it is something I have been personally working on as a writer and a teacher. If you are asking students to write a genre of text or use a strategy for writing, you need to do it first. This was so genius! You need to be able to understand the struggles your students might go through to know how to help them. Enough said. Write what you want your kids to write.

Illustrations Matter

You can tell that Katie really loves her authors but loves illustrators even more. We took time to look at primary student work to understand the importance of illustrations to tell stories. She suggested we need to encourage writers of all ages to illustrate and give them an opportunity to let pictures tell the story. She shared that when we talk about elements of craft writing we can apply them to illustrations AND words. We had a chance to read “City Dog Country Frog” and read not just the text but the beautiful pictures too. If you haven’t read this yet you need to stop what you are doing now and immediately read it. It will impact you.

Katie’s words really connected with me as I thought of all of the things that really do matter in writing instruction. With only a day you can just say so much. But I feel that I left the conference with ideas to try with my students. There’s nothing like getting to meet someone you admire and having them teach you (and sign your book)! What do you take out of Katie’s wise words and suggestions about teaching writing?

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“Stuck” Book Review

Most of the time I go to the library like I go to the grocery store. I have a very detailed and specific list of things to get. Often this limits my level of frustration and guarantees I will have the right books to read when I get home. However, a change of habit took place as I was searching the shelves of my local library. I was frustrated that the dewey decimal system had failed me and I came across this intriguing book, “Stuck” by Oliver Jeffers.

I’m not sure if it was the title or the cover illustration that pulled me in but I was definitely putting this book in my bag whether or not it was on my library list. Opening the book I immediately knew it was a perfect read. The inside page opens to hand-sketched drawings of various items including  birds, chairs, kites, ladders, and even whales.

After reading this book, these sketches made much more sense but there is a sense of whimsy that is introduced on these simple pages. It makes you want to know more about “Stuck”.

The story begins with a boy named Floyd (don’t you just love and hate that name?) who got his precious kite stuck in a tree. He tried many many things to get his kite unstuck but nothing worked. Floyd then decides the only option is to begin tossing various items into the tree, hoping this would release his kite. Shoes went into the tree, a cat, and somehow a ladder was even thrown into the mix. Still, no kite. The story continues as Floyd throws anything he can find to try and get his toy. The list of ridiculous items grows as the tree soon fills up with kitchen sinks, front doors, the milk man and even a large whale. Everything he throws in the tree just gets STUCK!

I couldn’t believe how much I personally enjoyed this book and even found myself giggling out loud at the illustrations. Olive Jeffers not only tells a predictable story using a simple problem but elevates it with his careful illustrations and color selections. The text of this story also really caught my attention as it looks like it is a handwritten book made just for the reader. As a teacher, I can see how young readers can get ideas about making their own books using their handwriting and personal illustrations. Jeffers carefully uses all-caps and large font to emphasize certain words and feelings throughout the book.

I also noticed that Jeffers used color in a particular way to express emotions for Floyd. The background of each page typically was a blank white canvas but select pages featured bold colored pages of blues and reds. The image below is when Floyd is feeling absolutely frustrated and resorts to getting a ladder, only to throw that into the tree as well.

There are many ways I could see this book being used in a writing classroom. For younger writers, there is such a strong connection between the illustrations and the text telling the story. Students could be able to play around with color to help emphasize emotions or times of day in their own stories. The plot of this story is quite simple and involves a relatively ordinary problem; a toy is stuck in a tree. However, Oliver Jeffers takes this simple problem and explodes it by having Floyd throw ridiculous things in the tree in hopes to retrieve his kite. Young writers could easily do the same as a way to practice developing plot and making a problem worse and worse.

This is a great read aloud book for students of a range of ages. I could definitely see using this book with my 5th graders to help them see examples of how books can be published, the importance of illustrations to convey meaning, and practicing plot development. Has anyone else read this book and used it with their students? What were your reactions?