Creating Scranimals With Second Graders

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching writing for younger students and how I can make less enthusiastic writers more engaged in the writing process. A big part of me has been so used to working with motivated upper elementary students that I forget how younger writers need time for processing and creating before they can even put pencil to paper.

I came up with this lesson idea for students to create their own creature after reading the fabulous poetry book, “Scranimals” by Jack Pretlutsky. This text is so rich and inspiring for children and adults. It pairs witty rhyming poetry with quirky illustrations of Peter Sis as it describes the behaviors of Scranimals, an imaginary creature made up of an animal and food. Some of the Scranimals my students loved reading about included the Potatoad, a potato and a toad who is lazy and doesn’t want to eat, drink or even think and the Radishark , a shark and radish who wants to consume everything in its sight. It certainly helps that Jack Pretlutsky’s witty lines cause even the most reluctant poetry reader to giggle at that thought of a radishark trying to eat your behind.

I tested this lesson out with Ms. Howland’s 2nd grade classroom. They are such talented writers and are so eager to try new types of writing with me. I really wanted the students to feel like their creatures would come to life and I wanted to allow them to create 3D models of their creatures. Cheap playdough at the dollar store (8 containers for $1!) was the answer to my prayers. For less than $5 I had enough playdough for each child to get their own container and they were instantly hooked on my lesson.


I didn’t want the purpose of the lesson to just be making creatures out of playdough. I wanted to really pull in a teaching point to illustrate a specific writing strategy. I wanted to teach students that writers create characters (human, animal, or imaginary) that have traits we see in ourselves and other people. I wanted students to be able to connect to this lesson for their future writing projects and make text-to-text connections as they read favorite books. As we read each poem about a Scranimal, I asked students to share what they thought this creature liked to do, eat, disliked doing, and even their hidden talents. I really tried to push students to infer and think beyond the text to consider what this creature might be like in real life.

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Working with younger students has taught me that creating structures is really important. I made a “Character Profile” sheet to assist students as they planned out their character. I wanted to give them a tool to help them when they begin writing their own stories and poetry about their creature. I took time to brainstorm possible animal combinations with the students before modeling the character profile sheet. This really helped the students envision what their own character profile sheet would be like therefore easing the process for them to work independently. It also helped having a planning sheet that needed to be completed before they could begin sculpting with their dough.

The students took off writing down ideas and creating their own creatures. They were SO creative and excited about making their own animals. Being able to use words, sketched pictures, and create a 3D model really helped make these creatures come to life. Rarely do I love hearing a noisy and loud writer’s workshop but there is nothing better than hearing excited whispers from students on what they are working on. Students were completely motivated to make a creature that they loved and wanted to make just so. It really made me think back to the Katie Wood Ray presentation I heard in the fall when she said, “Students must have a vision to do their work”. I couldn’t agree more. In this lesson students had total control, choice, and vision for their work. Students who were struggling to have vision were able to use examples from the book and their peers to become inspired. Following this lesson, students will take their creations and profile sheet to write their own poetry and stories about their creatures.

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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?

“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?

This American Life Writing Inspiration

This weekend I decided to head out to the gym (which is rare on a Saturday morning) and get a chance to listen to my favorite radio shows. Lately most of my car driving time means I listen to a lot of NPR news and the Diane Rehm show.

Image(Is anyone else totally shocked to know that she does not look like the crypt keeper despite the way her voice sounds?!). However, my Saturday line up included Car Talk, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the ever amazing talent of Ira Glass in This American Life. I cannot get enough of this show and frequently find myself hoping I could be featured alongside writer David Sedaris and comedian Mike Birbiglia in the latest trio of stories.

This week’s episode focused on a 24-hour diner in Chicago, The Golden Apple. This bustling and busy restaurant was a revolving door of people from all walks of life coming in to get a bite to eat, meeting friends, or to just have a sense of order and schedule in their day. Ira suggested as he introduced the scene, what if every person that came to visit the diner was interviewed and their stories told? And so, he did for 24 hours he and his writers interviewed each and every person in the diner.

In such a wonderful way, the producers on this show are able to make you feel that you are in this diner. You can smell the burnt coffee and see the waitresses who are exhausted from their all night shifts. I had such a clear mental movie playing in my head as the interviewer described a fellow patron as “a guy who looked like he could use 6 more hours of sleep.” Without saying this, I envisioned dark circles under puffy eyes. I imagined scruffy facial hair that had no intention of being shaved soon. “A pale haze of cigarette smoke” quickly inserted the distinct smell of tobacco and stale fabrics.

This notion of going to a place to just find stories is so captivating to me. How rarely do we actually get to know the people we interact with on a daily basis? The person serving you coffee at Starbucks, the man sitting next to you on the bus, even the woman who lives next door to you. Moving to a new city has made the anonymity of the people around me even more apparent. I only know 4 people in Houston, however I have interacted with hundreds and know nothing about them. I want to know what is their story and what makes them tick?

I wonder about creating this challenge for young writers. What if they were to interview people around them and get their stories? This exercise reminded me when I was a fellow with the Central Virginia Writing Project and we went to a homeless shelter. Our purpose was to help these men and women take steps to get a job and to talk with them and get a story. I remember the man I sat with. In my mind I just classified him as “homeless” but he had such a powerful story talking not about his current situation but about his family and more importantly his sister’s birthday party when he was young. This conversation humanized him for me and his story was important.

While there are many safety concerns for having students interview random strangers there are ways to be able to have them experience the feeling of taking away the label we put on people and getting to know their stories. Think about the people students interact with but don’t really know. The custodian who cleans up the milk from the floor, the cafeteria lady who serves their breakfast, and even their bus driver. What if we asked our young writers get to know these people’s stories, what is valuable to them, and have them connect with other human beings.

I wonder about the impact it would have. How are you getting the stories of others?

Heart Maps in 2nd Grade

I had the pleasure to meet 2nd graders in Ms. Howland’s classroom today. What an amazing group of young writers! They were so eager to soak in any information and share how much they knew. Ms. Howland is so lucky to have some remarkable students. Today I chose to introduce Heart Maps to these students as a way to introduce writer’s workshop and gather ideas about writing. I was first introduced to Heart Maps after reading “Awakening The Heart” by Georgia Heard. The notion of having students examine what is truly close to their hearts as a way to generate writing topics is so smart! However not knowing these students I wasn’t exactly sure how to introduce this strategy to them.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking around starting writer’s workshop to students I will be working with through Writers In the Schools. Not knowing what has been introduced before and what writing language has been used, has stressed me out. In addition, I recently discovered that I would be working with 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade. Clearly 2nd graders being the most terrifying to me. I’ve never worked with students that young before and not knowing what would be appropriate frightened me. I needed a dry run and Ms. Howland’s class was my crash course on 2nd grade!

I recently had come across this remarkable text, “Rocket Writes A Story” by Tad Hills and fell in love with its quaint illustrations but more importantly its clear message about the writing process. I thought this might be a perfect book to read to Ms. Howland’s 2nd graders and start the discussion on what do writers do?


A summary of this great text can be found here

I asked this question before we began reading this book and they had so many unique answers. It’s really clear that they knew that writers spell correctly, have neat handwriting, use pictures, etc. However, I was surprised that they didn’t know about what writers wrote about. I keep forgetting that they are only 7 and haven’t had a chance to write like older kids have. My hope is that after today (and getting to work with them in the future) we can work on getting a chance to write and create real stories. As we read this book I asked the students to be on the look out for what makes Rocket a writer? Keeping their brains on task was quite a challenge but it was clear that their year in 2nd grade has been full of new vocabulary and exposure to how readers and writers operate.

My focus for reading this book was to gather clues about what makes a writer and understanding that sometimes writers get stuck, as Rocket does in the story. I particularly like this page where his teacher, the Little Yellow Bird asks Rocket some simple questions such as, “What do you like to do?” “What have you seen?” “What inspires you?”. These questions would be the basis for our heart maps. Image

We talked about how writers like writing what matters to them and what is close to their hearts. We looked at how Rocket wrote what was important to him, his new friend Owl. On chart paper I drew a large heart and wrote down 4 main ideas that we can use for our heart maps: what you love to do, people/animals you love, what has happened to you, and what inspires you. These ideas would help guide the students as they filled in their heart maps. I filled in my heart map as I talked out loud about what was “close to my heart”.


The students had such enthusiasm as they eagerly asked questions about whether they could put specific things on their heart map. One student’s face lit up when I informed that anything could go on their maps as long as it was really important to them and could be something they could write about. I wanted to make sure that I emphasized what could be used for writing because sometimes students can get carried away with putting down their favorite things. This was a tool that we would be using as writers to help inspire us and write stories.



Even without a template or outline, these awesome 2nd graders got started right away. Thank goodness Ms. Howland was there to remind them about making their shapes large enough to fill the page. Clearly I’m used to the older darlings who make everything double the size it should be!


I was so impressed how students used word walls and the prompts from the anchor chart to help them fill in their maps. One student was very clever to write “shooting arrows” and I asked him a little bit about his heart map. He said that he likes to shoot arrows but not to worry because they have plastic caps. I asked him if there something that has happened when he’s shot arrows before and if he thought he could write a story about that. He nodded quickly as he added more to his heart map about rocks.


When modeling this tool, I tried to show students that they could use pictures and words to make their heart maps. Some students didn’t want to waste any space with illustrations, how ever some students took time to create detailed images to represent what they love. Later after students have completed their maps, they can take time to use color and really make their maps come alive.


I can’t wait to see their finished maps and ways we can use it during their writing workshop! A huge thanks to Ms. Howland for letting me crash her classroom for a morning! Wahoo Wa! 🙂

I’m teaching creative writing…now what?

This summer I  moved to the hot humid land of Houston where I knew few street signs and felt like my dog had more friends despite her slobber and dirty paws. I left an amazing school where I taught 53 remarkable 4th and 5th graders and had the ability to teach the way I truly wanted to. I thought I wanted to take a break from being in the classroom after nearly pulling out my hair and thinking I was on the verge of a stress-related heart attack. But now that I had moved to Texas, that idea seemed like a huge mistake.

I found myself walking up and down aisles of stores during the back to school sales wishing I had a reason to purchase multiple packs of glue sticks or crayons. My Pinterest board was overflowing with new ideas for classroom management and adorable anchor charts for reader’s workshop. I knew that the lingering reality was upon me, I needed to find a teaching job.

Now I am a creative writing teacher with Writers in the Schools. I’ve been told that I will be teaching 4th graders at a nearby elementary school. The pressure is on. What to do first? What do I plan? How do I not look like an idiot from Indiana? I started with getting a public library card and jumping head first into picture books to use as mentor texts as my source of inspiration for upcoming lessons. Do you have a favorite picture book you like to use when you teach writing?