Tag Archives: writing

I’m Glad We Stuck With Dictation

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We haven’t had many triumphant writing moments here lately. You know the sort of moments I’m talking about, where your kids write something so beautiful and lovely that your heart goes pitter patter. Sometimes it’s not even that well-written, it’s just that they wrote it, they wrote that poem, that paper, that one sentence, that letter to grandma, that thing you thought they couldn’t write.

Well, it’s all been a little perfunctory here lately with writing. The kids write. They don’t complain. BalletBoy is writing a fanfic mashup of Korra and Star Wars. Mushroom is working through Wordsmith because he needed to do some workbook based writing for a little while. They do an okay job of it, though sometimes I feel like we’re running in place. That’s okay.

However, I’ve been so appreciating lately that we stuck it out with dictation over the years. We’re in such a perfectly good place with dictation right now. I see how it has actually helped my kids get better at paying attention to mechanics. I see them getting faster and more fluent with getting the dictation down. I see them using dictation as a model. I feel like they’re learning from it.

I started out as a dictation non-believer. I wasn’t convinced that copywork and dictation would very good tools for teaching writing, but when nothing else was working, we started using them. Then I found Brave Writer and started to get convinced. There’s something beautiful about working on holding the passage in your head, about using good models of writing for learning, about streamlining together literature and writing by using dictation as a bridge, by taking the time to really focus on a shorter passage out of a book.

I choose our dictation passages and we do what’s sometimes called studied dictation. The kids read the passage ahead of time. I go over the vocabulary in the passage, the mechanics, the grammar. We talk about what’s going on in the passage as well as metaphors or other literary devices. Once the kids are done with the dictation, they now check their own work and make corrections, which is also a good exercise in editing. Finally, I check over it one final time. Sometimes we use a sentence or two as a model and the kids write their own sentences using the same structure. This is an exercise that is found in the Killgallon Sentence Composing series. It’s a useful one to be able to transfer to our dictation habits.

In the last year, we’ve moved to using Notability on the iPad for dictations. I record the dictation by reading it aloud. I put any questions or tricky words for spelling cues on the screen as well as any special mechanics reminders and whether or not they need to use it as a sentence model. I introduce the passage with them then let them use the recording and notes for actually doing the dictation when they’re ready. They can use headphones and put the recording on a slowed play or pause exactly when they’re ready. It has made it a lot easier for all of us. And while I like the idea of reading the passage in chunks only once, I have seen their memories improve more when they have control over the recording.

Like anything else, dictation probably isn’t perfect for all kids, but I’m glad I became a believer.

Road Trip Comics

We’ve had a rough couple of weeks here at the Rowhouse. Everything is in transition. You know how transitions are. Plus we’ve been sick. Is there anything worse than a spring cold? Plus, we’ve been getting ready for the Folger Children’s Shakespeare Festival, which is today. I hope the kids are able to show off their hard work. And directly after the festival, the most epic thing of all… we’re headed to Global Finals for Destination Imagination. As you can imagine, we’ve been antsy and excited.

We have gotten a little school done amidst all that, but writing assignments for Mushroom got suspended as he very single-mindedly decided he absolutely had to make a comic to share with his teammates at Global Finals. There will be one issue every day with a total of four issues. They’re all short, but clearly drawn and very adorable, about an imaginary Destination Imagination team that is also going to Globals. They have some small adventures and in the last issue, they happen to meet our entire team and trade pins with them.

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Mushroom often dreams up big projects like this, but he rarely brings them to completion. His anxiety really gets in his way on that very often. He will begin something and then question his ability to really accomplish it the way he wants and give it up rather than keep working. This time he was convinced he had to finish. He let me help him with his spelling. He even insisted on photocopying, collating, and stapling them himself. I’m so glad that he stuck with this project completely on his own with very little help or prompting on my part. He advocated for wanting to work on his own project during all our writing time and I was happy to agree.

One of the things we’ve been aiming for this year has been more kid-driven learning. Up to this point, the kids haven’t really wanted to drive their own learning as much. Even when they’ve had their own projects, they’ve wanted school to stay school. Slowly though, they’re advocating for picking more of their own work, which is exciting to me. I do want to get back to some of the things we had originally intended to do in the last week, but this is much more exciting – a writing and art project he dreamed up himself, carried out without help, accepted some help editing in the last stage, and now has published himself to give out to friends.

So we’re off to Globals! Wish us luck and here’s hoping that Mushroom’s comic series is well received.

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.

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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.

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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.

Revisions

BalletBoy has been writing up a storm lately. First there was a long story about a boy who traveled in time and literature to a mash up of Robin Hood and King Arthur. Then he got excited about sequel where the boy ended up with the Greek gods (though that one didn’t get finished). Next, seeing a 250 word spooky story contest, he knew he had to enter and immediately sat down to write something scary.

Well, it was scary. It was genuinely creepy. The main character finds himself in a creepy house while trick or treating. At first he thinks the doctor and nurse are just costumes and the lab is just decoration, but after seeing the patient seem to die on the table, he starts to think it’s real and makes a run for it. Two years later, in the hospital with a broken leg, the same nurse shows up. It leaves on a creepy, the nurse might be murder him right in the hospital cliffhanger.

I could never have dreamed that up in my wildest nightmares. But kudos to BalletBoy for such a spine-tingling horror story. Everyone in the house read it and agreed. It was actually a little terrifying. We heaped him with accolades.

“So let’s send it in!” he pestered me.

“Can we revise it?” I pestered back. “Great writers all have editors. They all revise.”

“But it’s good. You said it was good!”

“It’s excellent. But it will be even better once you revise it.”

He pouted a little but agreed and we set to work. This has been the biggest block for him. That’s pretty normal and I’m not upset. But I also want him to see revision as a normal part of the writing process and something that you just do. I showed him pages I’ve gotten back from my writing group, covered in notes. This is what professional writers get back too, I explained. He perked up a little.

I typed up the story and fixed the few spelling errors and mechanics issues. There weren’t many and he’s fine with me correcting that stuff. Then we printed out.

He chose a green pen for me and with the exception of two rewording suggestions, I just covered the whole story with questions. What was the main character thinking here? How was he feeling there? Why did this character do that? What did this look like? What did that sound like?

He chose a red pen for himself and went through it answering the questions that he wanted to answer. This is what it looked like:

story revisions

We took turns typing up his changes. And voila. He had a really solid story with more detail and therefore creepiness than when it started (he did have to cut it for the contest, but that’s another story). And even better, he felt really good about it. No tears. No anger. We’ve tried doing revisions together, we’ve tried cutting things apart, we’ve tried sticky notes, we’ve tried a few things, but overall this method of questions all over worked really well. Hopefully we’ll be able to use it again.

School Projects

Back more than two months ago, I promised the blog that there would be another post about projects and school.  Then, for some reason, I stalled.  It’s not that I didn’t think about it.  I started this post a half dozen times, but I have really struggled to figure out what I wanted to say about this exactly.

Here is what I know.  I know that we’re going to leave formal curricula behind for content subjects to be more project based.  That means math stays and if we decide we need to pick up grammar or logic or anything again, which we have done off and on, then we will, but goodbye to having history, geography, art, and science plans.  We’ve always been loose and living book based with those, but we’re headed out into the sea without a rough map for at least a couple of years.  Some of that will be more kid driven than learning we’ve done in the past, not so much because I didn’t believe in child-led learning before, but because I had two kids who were previously much less interested in engaging in it.  I think having a bit of that rough map in their heads now has made them feel they can at least pick a general direction in which to head.

I also know that pushing forward with some level of standards for learning is also important to me.  It’s important to me that the kids keep practicing writing, keep practicing revising, and keep improving their organization.  I know that while I want learning to be process oriented, I want it to have rules and boundaries.  Life has rules and boundaries.  I believe that “do whatever” is a dead end of a guideline for most people.  People on the whole do better with challenges and the greatest creativity can come from having more rules, not less.  So where this all leads me is that I want there to be a sense that some projects have to be revised and changed and remade sometimes to fit the rules.  Not that every project must fit in a neat box or even be completed, but that some must.  Stories must make sense, imaginary worlds must seem believable, science experiments must follow the scientific method, technology projects must have an end goal.

One of my biggest inspirations in heading more into projects for school has been Partnership Writing from Brave Writer.  It’s not so much more than suggestions for writing projects, most of which we’ve now completed.  However, in implementing these, we’ve always taken several detours and side trips.  The kids have had their own interpretations and we’ve had to negotiate the end products.  It’s been mostly a positive experience for all of us and I’d like us to be focused around that sort of learning, with the kids slowly taking the reins more and more, over the next couple of years.

photo (1)I’ve blogged about some of our Partnership Writing projects in the past, such as the secret codes, the timeline, the homophones, and the mythology lapbooks.  I’ll add here some images of the catalog sales project.  This was a perfect example of how the kids took the project and really took charge of it.  It was originally designed to be about an historical period, but Mushroom decided his catalog was going to be for many thousands of years in the future, when the sun was about to become a red giant and humans were fleeing to one of the moons of Saturn with the help of special portal technology.  BalletBoy decided to do his catalog for an undersea world where fish apparently shop in catalogs.  I was happy to accommodate these creative ideas.

photo 2 (10)On the other hand, the imaginary
islands project was actually much more difficult for us.  We used the book
Where on Earth?
as inspiration for drawing maps of the imaginary island chains the kids invented.  However, we repeatedly ran into trouble as the kids drew their maps.  You can’t have average lifespan be 25, or, at least, not without an explanation.  And you can’t have extremely rich areas woven in with extremely poor ones all over your island, at least, again, not without an explanation or a story to tell about why.  It’s your imaginary world, but it has to make sense and tell a story.  Getting to that story without feeling like I was just outright overruling them was incredibly tricky.  This was by far the most difficult of the Partnership Writing projects.  Not only was it a supersized one (the schedule allows for it to take an extra month) but it presented more thinking problems than any of the other projects.

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We encountered a lot of the same problems when we took on another project that wasn’t a Brave Writer one, this time focusing on math.  We drew from the book Designing Playgrounds from the Math Projects Series in order to study playground design, then propose and design our own playgrounds.  In the end, this was a really fun project.  I liked the build up steps suggested in the book, in particular going to an actual playground and keeping track of what types of activities kids engaged in most often as well as using pattern blocks to think about space on a grid before actually doing any freehand drawings or designs.  There was a lot of really great complex measuring involved in this project, as well as a lot of creativity.  It was really perfect.

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Except that we struggled again when things needed to make sense.  The final step of the project involved making models, but it was very difficult to understand that a tiny block was a pretty large piece of play equipment and BalletBoy in particular seemed to feel that building any element to scale was going to completely squelch his creativity.  But if the models didn’t represent semi-accurate scale, then one of the goals of the project, since it was so focused on math, seemed to have gone out the window.  I didn’t feel like letting that go was acceptable in this case.  I got a very good suggestion for guiding the kids through this in the future, which was to think of it like writing and do more first drafts before making the final project.  We did do a good bit of playing around, but more in two dimensions than with modeling, so I think we should have given more time for that.  In the end, we all came to agreement and the final products looked really impressive.  The kids wrote up project proposals as if they were the contractors submitting their bids and they made little drawings and wrote headlines for imaginary newspaper articles about the opening of their new playgrounds.  As you can see above, BalletBoy’s featured a play village, a shallow water play area, and a large climbing feature inside a pretend mine.  Mushroom’s, which is below, was focused on ziplines, a climbing feature, a sandpit in the center, and a huge maze which would have puzzles on the walls and multiple entrances.

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First Grade Flashback

The other day, Mushroom pulled out his first grade portfolio in search of something or other and we both got to flipping through it.

Things said by Mushroom included, “I was so young!” and, “My handwriting was terrible!” and, “Did I really write that?” and then, “I was so young!” over again.  Then, later when BalletBoy was home, they pulled them all out, pre-K to present and pored over them.  The table was a mess of old co-op yearbooks and Math Mammoth pages and art projects.  I’m telling you, nostalgia starts young.

I was especially struck by these two writing samples sitting side by side.  This was before we had discovered Brave Writer (though you’ll see we were basically doing it without realizing!), but sitting in the portfolio was this copywork from Charlotte’s Web, which was the book we were reading at the time, I’m sure.  My kids still occasionally do copywork (we do a lot more dictation now) but they almost never get anything wrong.  Seeing this one riddled with errors is like looking at another kid.  I can hardly remember teaching this stuff.

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And next to it was this “freewrite” type activity that comes from Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye.  I would write a boasting line and the kid would follow with a boasting line of his own.  He could copy my spelling and syntax and make it his own by changing the end, which he did.  I like the final line, which is, “I’m so strong I could crush the universe.”  Other Games for Writing exercises were in other sections of the portfolio, including the one where each person rolls the dice to see how many words to add to the story.

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I know at the time, I was worried.  I was worried that this wasn’t “enough” for writing (later that year I know we tried a couple of different workbook type writing programs, neither of which really worked for us).  I was worried about keeping this stuff up.  Yet somehow we managed and here we are.  I wish I could go back and pat myself on the back and say, “Hey, you did it.  They’re on their way.  It was enough!”

We just compiled the last bits of fourth grade’s portfolios this week.  Into those went a set of writings imagining they were characters in Mississippi during Freedom Summer in 1964, filled with rich words like “hollered” and “gaping” and all typed up with polished syntax and revised to add detail.  Just like the copywork that I can’t remember being so difficult, it’s miles and miles away from the joint boasting writing exercise from first grade.

 

Language Arts Lately

Fourth grade has turned out to be such a funny time for language arts.  Such an in between time.  Some days, I’ll toss out an assignment and get something lovely back, such as a piece from BalletBoy last week written from the perspective of a girl in a photo from the Dust Bowl that he closed, “I cried as we walk away from our land.  My mother said we would find a new place, but I didn’t want that.”  Or this opening from a little story he did for an All About Spelling Writing Station assignment, “I dashed into the woods to get away from the wretched thing chasing me.”

Other times, we try things like the Brave Writer Keen Observations exercise and all we get is that the pineapple is yellow, sour and in a bowl.  And anything else is pulling teeth.  Or this set of sentences from Mushroom’s Writing Station, “There are edges.  There are bridges.  I am walking.”

We continue to work through grammar and spelling.  While it’s slow going for Mushroom, I’ve seen a huge improvement in his terrible spelling with All About Spelling.  Getting him to change words he has been misspelling for years, like “thay” and “reddy” has been a continuing problem, but most of the things he writes for himself are now readable and

mistakes now mostly make sense.  We also have tried out MCT Island this year, having gotten it used for a song.  We enjoyed Grammar Island, which was mostly review for us of parts of speech, which we’ve covered many other times.  But Sentence Island has turned into a slog midway through.  The writing assignments, which we’re not even doing all of, are not fun for the kids at all and produce mostly stilted, awkward writing.  We may give up on it.

Mushroom corrects my dictation.
Mushroom corrects my dictation.

Brave Writer continues to be the heart of what we do for language arts.  While we don’t get to it as often as I might like, poetry teas and movie nights continue at the Rowhouse.  We freewrite in various ways most weeks.  We use narrations for history and science.  We also do dictation from whatever read aloud we’re working through.  Every few weeks, though, I’ve been giving them a “break” from our read aloud dictation and letting them instead pick a passage from their chosen required reading book.  They copy the passage then teach it to me as if I’m the student and they’re the teacher, making sure to ask good questions about the meaning of the passage and pointing out all the spelling, grammar and punctuation I, the student, will need to remember.  They then dictate it to me and correct my dictation (I always get a few things wrong for them to find).

The kids' lapbooks about The Odyssey and Hercules.
The kids’ lapbooks about The Odyssey and Hercules.

Brave Writer’s Partnership Writing has continued to be fun.  To go along with our preparation fro the National Mythology Exam, we did the Greek myth lapbook project.  I’m still not swayed that lapbooks are particularly great (loyal blog readers will probably remember that lapbooks were on my list of homeschool things I really don’t get) but the kids did a decent job with them.  Mushroom made a maze for Odysseus to go home through in his and BalletBoy made a fake “Twelve Labors” board game on his for Hercules.  We’re going to tackle the imaginary continent or island chain in February and March.

As always, it’s difficult not to be constantly second guessing about something like writing, but I see how they are getting more and more fluent.  As I glanced back through the last several dictations we did, I saw full comp pages of writing with “Great Dictation!” and “Nearly perfect!” scrawled by me across the top.  It feels very much like we’re moving forward and I can see how a couple of years from now, we will be ready to start tackling essays and and more purposefully organized writing.