Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Literature of True Life: On the Banks of Plum Creek Discussion

In my literature group, we’re currently reading Laura Ingalls Wilders’ On the Banks of Plum Creek. In addition to some basic pioneer and Midwestern history, On the Banks is the core of our unit on main idea and memoir.

A quick primer: in On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura and her family (Pa, Ma, older sister Mary, and baby Carrie) move into a dugout house on a creek in Minnesota. Laura, the energetic, tom-boy continues to develop her sassy persona and alternately helps Pa around the farm and gets into mischief—an ongoing discussion among my students has been Wilder’s portrayal of Mary as a stick-in-the-mud contrasted by Laura as the fun-loving one. They’re convinced that Wilder overemphasized the “timid, boring” Mary and “fun, rowdy” Laura in the story, just as they, if given the chance, would recreate themselves as more fun than their siblings in their own memoirs.

Anyway, I’ve been impressed at how well my students have understood the fundamentals of this book and have enjoyed working with them on two key activities: portraying main idea through Twitter and dissecting memoir. 

Main Idea Tweets
At the start of the book, each of my students chose a character to portray through a Twitter account. I set up Twitter accounts for them and a few times each week they Tweet the main idea of the chapters as we read them. I connected them with some friends and followers, from my sister and mother to children’s libraries to a bona fide Laura Ingalls Wilder expert, Sarah Uthoff (author of Trundle Bed Tales who gave us a shout out).

Twitter helps my students understand the importance of writing a concise, clear main idea, even as they focus on point of view. One student chose Jack, the family dog, and each chapter he has to write the main idea from the dog’s point of view, even when his character isn’t included or mentioned. One recent Tweet from Jack’s perspective: “I can’t believe Mary lied to Pa like that about playing in the haystack. Pa must be really mad. That is so out of character for Mary.”

As a teaching tool, Twitter has required a lot of supervision, including technology permission slips, setting up accounts under my name and email address, and monitoring their use of the site. They love using Twitter, though, and so far haven’t missed a Tweet.

Memoir and the Reliable Narrator
In the discussions of On Plum Creek, we’ve discussed difference between biography, autobiography, and memoir, which was a new concept for them. We’ve also discussed just how reliable memoirists are, or aren’t.

In a recent discussion, we talked about just how much information Wilder may have changed or omitted when she wrote her story. Along the way, one student brought up the idea that Laura may not be as reliable a narrator as we initially assumed and we’ve discussed how that affects our reaction to her work—how do we understand this account of life on the prairie if we can’t completely trust the memory of the person who wrote it? And, where does autobiography end and fiction begin?

So far we’ve focused on the important events that Wilder includes (a sunrise that was as exciting to her as Saturday morning cartoons are to today’s nine-year-olds) and how clear those memories would be to her as she wrote decades later, as well as the idea that authors can write their stories for a variety of purposes, including entertainment. It’s Wilder’s story to tell, after all.

Here are memoir and Laura Ingalls Wilder Resources that I’ve found helpful:

The Little House Books web site and an eThemes Resource Page for On the Banks of Plum Creek. Also, check out Trundle Bed Tales' Blog Talk Radio.

This Scholastic article about encouraging kids to write their own memoir includes a good blend of reading and writing instruction. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Newsroom Blog: A Starting Point

As a former full-time writer, the project of writing a classroom blog holds special interest for me. The challenge: can I instill a passion for writing in my students? And, can I get them to be genuinely motivated to work to make their writing better for themselves and for whoever reads their work?

To start our classroom blog, when we returned to school in January, I told my students that we would be writing a classroom news blog, asked them to choose a “beat,” reviewed how to compose a sentence as well as basic punctuation and capitalization rules, and discussed the basics of Internet safety.

The second week, each student worked on an article about how schools addressed the problem of Silly Bandz in classrooms. We read through a Scholastic News Article about Silly Bandz (gaining fluency practice in the process). Then, each student wrote two paragraphs, one describing the issue, and another about their opinion on schools banning Silly Bandz. After they were off and running with their pre-writing organizers and the rest of the week progressed in the style of a Writer’s Workshop, with conferences, assignments, and publishing on the Web.

As this project has progressed, I’ve noticed a few things:

First, my students were very good at following my directions about what and how to include information describing the Silly Bandz issue. One unforeseen result, their first drafts were dull and lacked real voice. So, on Thursday, as they worked on their second draft, I taught a mini-lesson on how to add themselves into their writing (add their experience with Silly Bandz in the introduction, or come up with a creative solution to the Silly Bandz problem, for example). Then, I required them each to go back and add their voice. Thank goodness they followed my directions on this one too! Their final drafts were much less monotonous.

So far, it’s been pretty easy to differentiate for my students. This week, as they’ve started working on their own “beats” and are reporting on everything from dolphins to the future of cars, I’ve been able to find material that each of my students can work with (videos, podcasts, articles at varying reading levels), which allows them to develop independent work skills and helps them feel real ownership over their work.

As they research, they’re building reading fluency and comprehension skills. They’re constantly going back and rereading their articles to find answers to questions or to refine their information. During our conferences, I ask them to read parts aloud to me, which has been a great way to increase their fluency practice. After they work independently, reading their articles and answering questions on a pre-writing organizer, I review their work to gauge how well they’re understanding what they read.

Finally, the blog, even though its just on our school Intranet, is enough of an external audience of peers and teachers to get them excited about publishing. I’m hoping this enthusiasm will grow as they become more familiar with the technology (this week they spent a lot of time logging on and figuring out how to navigate the site, post comments, etc).

If you want to start your kids on studying news, check out Teaching News Writing from Scholastic