Tag Archives: teaching writing

Writing Projects: Thumbprint Biographies

Most readers of this blog will know that I’m a Brave Writer fanatic. While we do use some other resources, it’s been the heart of our writing approach for a little while now. We especially loved doing the projects in Partnership Writing from Brave Writer. This has been one of our favorite Brave Writer products and I highly recommend it as a way in for families who want to try some of the elements of Brave Writer. It’s a short curriculum that explains the Brave Writer philosophy and the partnership stage of writing then gives a year worth of monthlong writing projects to do. Doing one writing project a month is part of the Brave Writer philosophy so this outlines ten projects.

Writing stages are also a big part of the Brave Writer concept. Instead of expecting kids to be at a certain place at a certain age, the idea is that kids progress through these stages at their own pace, though typically kids Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age – 10 years old – are at the partnership stage. During the partnership stage, kids are able to write some but still need a lot of handholding to get things done. For us, this often looks like kids writing a rough draft by themselves but then I type it up and take oral narration for revisions. Or sometimes we begin with lots of structure from me to get them going and they do their own revisions and changes.

All this is great and I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects previously, such as secret codes or personal timelines. But, alas and alack! We ran out of projects! But no big deal. I just made my own. Sometimes something comes up organically in schooling such as a contest or a way to tie writing in with another subject, but we really enjoyed having preplanned projects for writing that were their own thing so I wanted to continue that with more writing projects, which meant picking out interesting things to do. They have mostly gone really well so I thought I’d share what we did. I have two more of these posts coming up. So if anyone else is wanting more fun writing projects, these worked well for us. First up was an art and writing project that was on the short side.

photo 1 (13)

The Thumbprint Biography

This idea is exactly what it sounds like. You create a biography or a short personal narrative that you then write into the shape of the lines on your thumbprint, creating a piece of art and writing that is as unique as you. The finished products can be embellished with more art or just left bare.

I found this project by poking around online so if you do an image search, you can find more project examples to use for inspiration. I thought this was so fun that I got in on it and did one as well, which helped me understand how it would work. It’s sometimes tricky to force ourselves to write alongside our kids (and I readily admit I need to be better about doing this). However, it’s so rewarding for us and for them to see us writing and working alongside them.

We started by writing a rough draft about ourselves. I asked the kids what makes you you? What makes you unique? What are your favorite things and the things that are most important to you? That was one day’s writing assignment. On a separate day, we spent our writing time revising and editing the writings. Since it was such a personal writing, we did less revision than we often do. I asked the kids to add a few things or whether they wanted to move things around. BalletBoy is getting better at editing so we edited his together. For Mushroom, I picked two things for him to focus on with editing and had him find and correct them then I fixed the rest. Then I typed up a final draft for them.

For the thumbprint, we played around with a few things, but what worked the best was using our iPads to take a photo and then write on top of it. Any tablet with a good art program or pdf editor should work. However, if you’re tabletless and want to try this, you could do the thumbprint in a light ink and use a photocopier to enlarge it and then mark on top of it in marker where the lines are. Or you could try manipulating a photo of the thumbprint on the computer and printing it out then marking on top of it. I think marking heavy lines on top of the print is probably essential so that you can see through the top paper to write your biography.

Writing up the biographies and decorating them took a third and final day’s writing time. We were pretty pleased with the products and the kids were proud of them.

photo 2 (13)

Here are all the steps spelled out:

  1. Write your biography of what makes you unique. It doesn’t need to be long. Maybe just a page. Polish it by revising and editing it. If it will be easier to copy from a typed copy, then type it up and print it off.
  2. Make thumbprints with an ink pad onto paper. If you don’t have an ink pad, a washable marker colored onto a thumb and quickly pressed can work as well.
  3. Choose the thumbprint that looks the best and take a good digital photo of it.
  4. Crop the photo as needed then paste it into a drawing or pdf markup program so that it takes up a full page. We used Notability.
  5. Use a stylus or your finger to trace the contours of your thumbprint on top of the photo. Use a thick black line. Don’t worry about getting every single line – that would be impossible. You just want to get the gist of it.
  6. Remove the photo from the page so you’re only left with the traced lines.
  7. Print the thumbprint out.
  8. Place the printed thumbprint lines underneath a clean sheet of paper. You may want to use tape or a clip to hold the papers together in place.
  9. Copy the biography onto the clean paper, following the lines you can see underneath. You can choose to use different pen colors or write in different styles or just to use your own handwriting. Sometimes it’s hard to follow the lines exactly, but don’t worry. It will still look like a thumbprint in the end.
  10. Voila! You may have to add extra text or abbreviate your text slightly. You can add decoration. Mushroom’s thumbprint, shown with the thumbprint lines he created and followed, has a rainbow of colors behind it.

BalletBoy Writes…

Now that we’re finally back to schooling, I had the kids pick photos from our Africa trip they wanted to write about.  BalletBoy chose to write about this picture of us about to zip line across the Zambezi Gorge.

Here’s what he originally wrote:

one day in Zimbobwe we went on a zipline. it was not scary. It was really fun. you have to get in a jacket because the jacket cunexs to the harnes. it was amazing.

We still need to work on that capitalization, huh?  Otherwise, though, I’m so proud of his writing.  It’s readable, the spelling is decent, and it only takes him a few completely drama-free minutes.  The only thing he asked was how to make “really” say “reeeeaallly” and I suggested underlining.

However, he didn’t want to add a thing.  Not only that, but he was resistant to changing anything any of his photo freewrites.  As I didn’t give him a formula, he invented his own.  Every single photo freewriting he did began with some variation on the same phrase, “One day in Africa…” and ended with, “It was amazing.”  When I gently tried suggesting some alternate beginnings for some of the paragraphs he wrote, he said, “But, Farrar, I’m not writing that. I’m a ‘One day’ writer.  You know, one day I did this or that.”  Oh my.

So, trying to follow the Bravewriter system, I worked on revising it with him and we focused on adding details about the senses.  What did he see, feel, smell, taste and hear?  BalletBoy has never loved doing oral narrations.  Me clicking away on the computer as he talks is always an inhibiting distraction that he’s never quite learned to put up with.  However, he was much more okay with me writing on his paper with notes that he could arrange.  Here’s the revised version once we had corrected the capitalization and spelling together and changed just a couple of details:

One day in Zimbabwe, we went on a zip line across Victoria Falls. It was not scary. It was really fun. You have to get in a jacket because the jacket connects to the harness. I heard the waterfall and the river. It felt kind of like falling, but I knew I wasn’t. The zip line you hold is smooth and hard. I held it for the whole time. I heard a click that scared Farrar. It budged me to the side. I felt a breeze. I saw a little bit of the waterfall, the rocks, the shore of the river, and the other side of the zip line, which is in Zambia. At the end, the worker came down the zip line to get us. I’m glad I did it.

It still starts, “One day…” but it’s obviously better this way.  I think it’s rather good for a seven year-old.  He grinned when we read it at the end, so I know he felt proud too.

Hallelujah, I Found a Language Arts Program I Actually Like!

If you know me, you know I’m incredibly, annoyingly opinionated.  I usually know what I think.  And having written and taught writing at the secondary level for years, I had some opinions about writing – how to teach it, what was really important, what my philosophy was and so forth.

Then something dreadful happened.  I had to teach my own young children to write.

And slowly, over the course of the last three years, I’ve become more and more at sea.  I honestly was at the point where I didn’t know what in the world I thought.  I knew that there were some resources that we had tried or looked at that I didn’t like and a few that I did.  I saw, after fighting it for ages, that copywork, narration and dictation were useful for the kids, but I couldn’t fit them into any larger philosophical framework that satisfied me.  There were a lot of things I had believed that I wasn’t even sure were true anymore.

What I really wanted was a book or a curriculum that would make me feel about teaching writing the way something like Bird by Bird or If You Want to Write makes me feel about writing itself.  Yet every time I tried to read anything, it either didn’t resonate with my experiences as a writer or as a writing teacher or it made me want to throw things.

And then, a little more than a week ago, I heard Julie Bogart speak.  Can I just say, I think I have a little homeschool crush on her now.  Julie Bogart is the author of The Writer’s Jungle, which is the foundation of the Bravewriter program.  I had looked at Bravewriter before and couldn’t figure it out (more on that if you scroll down a little ways) and it’s not cheap enough to just try, so it remained something I had heard was good, not something I knew anything much about.

Practically everything Julie Bogart said in her talk and her book is either stuff I used to believe, say and do or new ideas that really resonated with me.  The Writer’s Jungle is exactly that book I was looking for that would make me feel about teaching writing the way good books about writing make me feel about writing itself.  It made me feel more confident in my kids, myself, and in my end goals, which are much more in keeping with Bravewriter’s goals, than any other method or curriculum with which I’ve flirted.  The end goal of the Bravewriter program is to create kids who like writing, aren’t intimidated by it and have lifelong writing skills, which are not necessarily the same as academic writing skills.

I’m still such a jumble of thoughts, that I’m just going to list some of the notes I’ve jotted down as I read her book and listened to her talk.

  • Create routines, not schedules (Advice I’ve always followed and given in regards to practically every other aspect of homeschooling!  Why was this so hard to envision for writing and language arts?)
  • Be your child’s ally and supporter for writing.  Believe your child will be able to write.  Make writing feel safe.
  • It can all be fixed later in the teen years.  (Having taught some abysmal teen writers who were able to turn around and write solid, if not award-winning, essays, I always used to believe this and somehow lost sight of it in the last three years.)
  • Creating a language-rich environment by reading good books and appreciating words is more important that doing grammar lessons for making good writers.
  • Writing daily isn’t important.
  • Getting kids to write about what they’re passionate about is important, but giving them vague open-ended assignments isn’t the way to do it (as in, “write about your favorite…” kinds of assignments, which make kids feel at sea about what to do).
  • Don’t confuse revision with editing for mechanics.
  • Don’t be afraid to help kids.  It’s scaffolding, not cheating!

Before I go any further, let me tell you that I had heard about Bravewriter, looked at the website, and not been able to figure out what in the world you were even buying if you purchased it.  And I’ll just say from the get go that despite how much I am liking this, I don’t know that I can justify the expense at all.  It’s very expensive for a program that relies on you as the parent to do so much of the planning and implementing.  They support the program and Julie Bogart says she emails with parents constantly.  However, other curriculum authors do the same for much, much less.  It does go on sale at HSBC periodically, helping ease the price a good bit.  So to help you out, here’s what I now understand are the purchasable elements that I figured out:

  • The Writer’s Jungle is just a book (though bound in a big binder if you buy the hard copy) about the philosophy of the program, though it contains lots of examples, assignments and even schedules.
  • The Wand is a thin supplement of mostly copywork and narration exercises for K-2nd grade.  If you subscribe, they send you one for each month.  There are three levels in The Wand.
  • The Arrow is a thin supplement for grades 3-8 that shows how to make loose lessons around a single read aloud book.  There is dictation, a literary element to discuss and a writing assignment.  If you subscribe, they also send you one for each month.  However, if you, like me, have already read half the books for the year, you can pick and choose back issues to buy and use instead.
  • Bravewriter also offers a book about high school writing and an ever-changing slate of online courses for kids grades 3 and up.

This is absolutely not an open and go program like, well, practically any of the other writing programs out there.  If you want a strong grammar program, consider Michael Clay Thomas.  If you want open and go copywork and grammar, consider First Language Lessons and Writing With Ease.  If you want a workbook style program consider Evan-Moor’s Six Trait Daily Writing or Winning With Writing.  I could keep going suggesting other things I’ve looked at and been unsatisfied by that fall into these categories.

But if you want an approach that you tailor for your child, then this could be it.  They literally call it the “Bravewriter lifestyle,” which initially kind of turned me off, but having read about it more now, I see what they’re trying to get at.  It’s about making those routines instead of schedules.  The most famous of these is the “Tuesday Tea and Poetry” that has gained popularity among a lot of homeschoolers, but there are others, such as designating days to do different types of writing and reading assignments.

I’m obviously still in the honeymoon phase with this.  I needed something that helped me integrate these old-fashioned basics of copywork, narration and dictation along with the ideas I had formed in my writing and teaching life over the years.  I’ll let you know how implementing it all goes.  However, I feel more assured than I have about anything else we’ve tried with writing.  I think step one in my detox will have to be stopping reading all internet discussions of the “right” way to teach writing.

BalletBoy’s Writings

I’m inspired by Rivka’s adorable post about her daughter’s notes and another from Melissa awhile back where she posted her kids’ narrations.

BalletBoy has, in the last month or so, suddenly taken off with writing.  He’s not scribbling away like a prodigy or anything, but he has the confidence and the stamina to sit down and write a sentence or a few words, not to mention the spelling to have it make sense most of the time.

Here’s one of his little books featuring Mary and the Frog.  The text inside is sort of like a super easy Elephant and Piggie book.  One page will be Mary just saying, “Hi.”

Translation, in case it’s needed: Summer with Mary and the Frog

Here’s a note to a friend, never delivered, written in his quill pen for fun.

Translation, in case it’s needed: Hi, Q.  I made a golden crayon club bowl to put treasures inside. (This really only makes sense to BalletBoy and his friend, I know.  But if the friend’s mom is reading this, she’ll probably chuckle too.)

Here’s a poem that he wrote spontaneously in his notebook.  In case you can’t tell, it’s an acrostic, though he misspelled the acrostic word (painting, not panting), making it a little harder to get.

Translation, which is probably needed this time (I think all the extra poetry thinking made it harder to spell): 
Pictures are
At the gallery, some with
Nuts, some that are
Tiny, some that are
Important, some that are
Nice, some that are

He’s also been improving his narrations slowly.  Here’s his last one.  The only thing I asked was that he tell me about something he learned about in our recent Native American study:

There are a lot Native Americans. Some tribes had tipis. Some tribes played stick dice. Some tribes played stickball or lacrosse. I’m going to talk about the Hopi.

The Hopi lived in houses made out of sand and mud. The sand was so dry that it could stick together and every ten years they would have to put sand back on. There’s a big room for a family to be inside. They used corn a lot. They made cornbread, they made corn desserts, they made a lot of corn stuff. They couldn’t get their water from lakes or rivers like other tribes, but when it snowed every winter, the water would go into the ground and then they’d get their water from underground. They’d even bathe underground because that was their only water. But that was not the only water system. Inside rocks, they dug holes that would make just one family have water.

They grew a different kind of corn with more roots stretching underground because there was so much sand. That made the corn grow.

For stories of the Hopis to tell the children, they’d tell them legends. One of the legends was called Sunflower’s Promise. It’s about a woman who’s very rich and then there’s a boy who’s really poor and they meet up and want to marry so she can share her land. Then the mice tried to eat her crops.

When we finish narrations, I ask the kids to edit them.  We delete excess words and sometimes we add or fix things together.  This narration didn’t get much editing though.  He’s getting much better at organizing things and I think this isn’t bad for a seven year-old.  It’s not a great paper or anything, but it’ll do.

Writing, the Bane of my Existence

That title might be a slight exaggeration.  Except, what did I do with my week off while Mushroom and BalletBoy were in summer camp?  Well, other than have a lovely lunch date with the Husband and catch up on all those episodes of True Blood I missed while I was traveling?  I wrote a writing workbook for the kids to use this year.

This is me, hitting my head against a wall.  I don’t even know if it’s out of frustration with writing and grammar curricula options or with my own pickiness with writing curricula.  Either way, I feel like a dope.  Surely, what I wanted isn’t that strange and I’ve wasted my time.  Yet, after looking, and looking, and looking, I just didn’t find it.  You’re probably feeling compelled to suggest something for me to consider now.  Let me assure you that I’ve already seen it so you needn’t bother.

There’s two pieces to this.  First, is our personal requirements.  I know what works for me as a teacher and the kids as learners.  They need structure and step by step approaches.  I need something that isn’t scripted and doesn’t require daily prep that I know I won’t do.  There’s nothing I like less than a long, two page description of how to do an activity that takes less than ten minutes.

The second piece is my own beliefs about writing.  Most curricula focus on one of two approaches.  First, there’s the classical approach, which has copywork as the basis for understanding how to imitate good sentences as a foundation for learning to write well.  Second is what I might call the organizational approach, which focuses on generating ideas, outlining, and types of writing.  I believe in the oral part of the classical approach, the narration piece, which we’re planning to get more serious about for second grade.  I was very inspired by Melissa’s two narration posts a little while back to renew our narration push.  However, I don’t believe in copywork.  Nor do I believe all kids this age need to write well is a little organizational help.  It’s a lot to ask kids to compose on paper when they’re still working on spelling, phonics and handwriting fluency.  I think kids need grammar instruction as a part of writing, but I’m not gung ho to spend a huge amount of time on grammar worksheets or lessons.  What I want is something fun and interesting but that uses words and sentences as the foundation for good writing.

There are some fun, interesting resources out there.  I’m especially fond of Peggy Kaye’s Games for Writing.  The kids got this little book from our 826 down the street and it’s fun.  I also am excited to try out Tin Man Press’s Just Write, which is filled with irreverent worksheets for writing.  But none of these include grammar or are especially structured.  The blog based curriculum Wordsmithery focuses on simple ways to teach thinking about using good words across a wide age range.  It’s a great little program, but it’s not open and go enough for me.  I need more of a form for us to really follow something through and not be spotty about it.  There’s a few good grammar and writing curricula that are worktext based like I want.  Scott Foresman even has a free writing and grammar workbook online, but it’s dull.  I almost went ahead and bought Growing with Grammar and Winning with Writing half a dozen times.  The problem is that they’re too long for what I want and not especially fun.

So, here I find myself with a nearly finished writing curriculum that’s appropriate for first and second graders.  We’re going to try it.  If it works at all for us, I promise to .pdf it and make it available to the masses, for anyone else feeling dissatisfied.

Writing Updates

If you’re a loyal reader, then you’ll know I’ve been struggling a little with figuring out what I want for writing as well as what the kids need.  I taught middle and high school level students writing, but figuring out how I want my kids to take those first steps is proving to be more difficult for me.  I already posted about my skepticism about the classical approach to writing and the emphasis on copywork.  Yet the current school model, pushing kids to write tons of drivel without any critical eye toward improving grammar, vocabulary or sentence structure doesn’t work for me either.

Here’s what we’ve been doing in the last month or so.  I bought both the Just Write program as well as an older (and therefore cheaper) version of the Write Source program.  I also bookmarked the Small World’s Wordsmithery, which is a free program from a fellow homeschool blogger.  After trying a few things, we’ve been using Just Write for a few weeks now.  If you saw my curriculum declaration about how my kids like workbooks, that helps explain why.  We’ve also been doing more Mad Libs as well as watching Schoolhouse Rock’s grammar songs and reading Brian Cleary’s cute picture books about the parts of speech.

Just Write is a program from EPS, who also make the popular Explode the Code series.  There are two workbooks for first grade called Write About Me and Write About My World.  Then there are three workbooks intended for grades 2-4 entitled Just Write 1-3.  There are also teacher books, but I skipped those.  We started with the Just Write 1 book.  Although it’s intended for second grade, it has so far been okay for my first graders.

The workbook is on the thick side, with nearly 150 pages.  The topics move pretty quickly from brainstorming into writing “stories” which can be true or fictional.  Later topics topics touch on punctuation, adding details, and editing a story.  Most pages are spent on developing skills, especially organizational skills.  For example, after the topic of sequence is introduced, kids are invited to put out of sequence stories in order.  Then, they must underline common sequence words, such as “first” and “later” in a story.  They add on to a story themselves, using sequence words.  They complete sentences using sequence words and order pictures with sequence words.  In the culminating activity, they must write a set of simple directions using sequence words.

Above you can see one of Mushroom’s writings from section on sequence.  Other than asking how to spell “teacups,” he didn’t get a lot of help with this, though he needed me to sit at the table to help with sheer persistence.  I recall he needed to be reminded to add periods at the end of his sentences.  I think it’s pretty decent for a first grader, especially one with his reading skills, which are not especially high.  He did this assignment with confidence and without complaint or too much anxiety, which can be a problem for him.  You can probably see that the text helped structure it for him by giving him a space to plan his “story” with a web.

Clearly, at least for my kids, that’s the strength of this particular program.  It builds kids up to where they feel like they can face a page of blank lines and write on them.  Some of the writing prompts are cute.  Others seem dreadful to me, but most of them are just open ended, such as this one, asking kids to demonstrate a particular skill or write about something very general, such as a feeling, a person, or a problem.

On the other hand, the writing that Mushroom did there is interminably dull.  I don’t want to be mean.  I’m proud of what he did.  I don’t really expect more from a first grader.  It’s possible that the purpose of him writing with a workbook is to simply remove the anxiety associated with a blank page in his journal.  And once he’s confident enough to write, then we can start thinking about things like beautiful, interesting words.  That’s what I hope anyway.

What I worry is that it’s too fill in the blank.  It’s certainly a very schooly program.  It’s always a balance between pushing kids toward thinking for themselves and providing the structure so they can.  Fill in the blank is the easy way out, but I’m trying to figure out when it’s necessary.  I’m sure I’ll swing back at some point and rebel against this writing in a box attitude, which doesn’t entirely suit me and which I don’t want to suit my kids too well either.

* Did you notice that Just Write uses a font very much like Comic Sans?  As it’s not quite comic sans, I have been managing to live with it.  But only barely.

Putting Words on Paper

I’m trying to work out what I think about writing and how to teach it to two children new to writing.  I’m mostly spewing thoughts onto screen at this point, so I can’t promise that my musings on writing are all that well-done, but here they are anyway.  A few things are bouncing about in my head about this.

First of all,  I’m influenced by a couple of things.  I used to teach writing to middle schoolers and I developed a lot of ideas about how to do it.  I taught essay writing and creative writing and I think I did a decent job of it, though I have to say that many kids I taught seemed to have abysmal writing skills in various ways.  Secondly, as is always the case for a teacher, I’m deeply influenced by my own education in this regard.  In my early elementary school years, I was turned loose with paper and pencil and encouraged to write whatever I wanted.  Teachers praised what I did and gave little mini-lessons about vocabulary, punctuation and grammar, but mostly just encouraged me.  It was very whole language.  I think it worked for me extremely well, a fact that is hard for me to ignore.  I’m sure that reading as much as I did also influenced my sense of good writing.

There’s a lot different ideas about elementary school writing floating around out there.  I know that in public schools, they’ve moved to having kids writing more and more at a younger and younger age.  I’ve heard of 1st and 2nd graders who have to write multiple pages every week.  I’m sure it’s developmentally appropriate for a few of the superstars among them, but when you consider that many of these are kids who are still struggling through early readers, it’s just patently absurd.  The focus is obviously on showing off the very ultimate they can do in the moment, not on building skills for the long run, one of my perpetual frustrations with public education these days.

In the other corner, many homeschoolers, especially of the classical persuasion, believe that children new to writing should spend a large portion of their writing time at copywork or dictation, writing down well-written passages so that they understand how a well-written sentence or paragraph works.  There’s more to the method than that, including narrations, which encourages children to learn how to mentally and orally organize their thoughts before learning how to put them on paper.  I like the idea of narrations, which we have informally incorporated into our learning.  However, I know that I would have loathed having to copy like that at any level of my education.  I can’t take copywork as a means to better essay writing seriously (better handwriting, perhaps?).  Then there’s the fact that this approach discounts the importance of creative writing or child-led writing.  This is where I butt up against the very top down approach of classical educators, who particularly dismiss any need for analysis, questioning or child-led study by young students.  (By the way, the blog Strewing had an excellent post that dealt with unschooling and classical education recently that touched on this issue as well.)  Many classical educators also completely discount the importance of emotional experience in learning, again, especially among younger students.  I don’t think all learning has to be made fun and easy.  However, I think a positive experience, especially with something as individual as writing, which is, after all, an art form as well as an essential skill, is something that can help develop that skill and voice down the road.

So here are a few of the things I know.  I don’t want my kids doing pages of completely pointless writing just for the sake of saying they can.  I want to keep talking with them, using our informal narrations, and leading them to good books in order to encourage their sense of what makes well-organized, interesting writing so they can emulate it down the road.  I want to find new ways to encourage them to put their own words on paper.  In order to help them, I recognize that they need structures to support them in learning how to put words on paper.

While I would love to just let this happen organically, that’s what I did this year and it honestly hasn’t been happening quite enough, though we’ve enjoyed several of the activities from the classic Peggy Kaye book Games for Writing.  That’s fine for this year, but I know I need a program of some sort for the future.  The problem is, I don’t like anything I see out there so far.  And in the last week or so, since I started percolating about this, thinking ahead to the summer and next year, I have looked at a huge number of samples from first and second grade writing curricula.

Perhaps the right thing (pardon me while I resist making a “write thing” pun) will present itself or perhaps I’ll make my own.