being a student, being a teacher, Student, student choice, writing, Writing Identity

Using Oral Storytelling Kits with Middle Schoolers

A few years ago I traveled to do a day of learning with passionate educators in Maple Ridge/Pitt Meadows in British Columbia. After flight cancellations and changes in airports, Denise Upton, one of the district’s helping teachers, graciously agreed to pick me up and take care of me during the stay. While together, she told me excitedly about Story Workshop, oral storytelling grounded within playful literacy, that they were doing with children as part of their literacy approach. She shared all of the work that they did with students in order to give them natural materials to manipulate and create stories with before they ever sat down to write. She spoke of Indigenous oral storytelling traditions and how they were working on bringing the rich traditions of the peoples’ whose land their school buildings sat on and whose tribal members were within their school population back into the classrooms as a way to honor, teach, and preserve a broader envisioning of writing I was inspired and intrigued. Particularly, after she told me how they were using these material kits with their upper grade levels as well and that the response they had was incredibly positive. After a whirlwind visit, the idea sat in the back of my mind for a while, hoping to someday become something I wanted to do with my own 7th graders.

Well, after a year of teaching unlike any other, after too much screen and not enough togetherness. After once again teaching kids who repeatedly told me how much they hated writing, how writing was so hard, whose sentences were forced across the pages, I decided that some day was now. With a commitment to reconsider every unit and every idea we build our classroom learning on, taking our writing in a much more tactile and playful direction was exactly what I need right now to get excited about next school year. Hopefully, my incoming students will think so as well.

So with a loose idea of what it was Denise had shared with me, the seeds started to grow; what if I build some oral storytelling kits for kids to use in partnerships, trios, or by themselves before we begin to write? What if I collect natural materials for them to manipulate and play with as they share stories from their own lives and also from their imaginations? Surely someone had done this before?

The answer is yes, many have! None of my ideas shared here are really original but I got so many questions on social media when I shared the kits I was building that I figured a blog post would be nice. If you are learning about Indigenous storytelling, there are so many wonderful resources shared, such as this one. If you google “Loose Parts”, you can see a lot of information. If you follow the work of Angela Stockman, she has been sharing so many ideas for years and is truly inspirational. If you are trained within Montessori, you know this work. If you know Reggio Emilia principles, then you know these ideas. If you have worked with younger grades, you probably do this already. There are so many resources out there, so dig in and learn.

My purpose for these kits are to get kids talking more before they write out stories, whether they be stories from their own lives or stories they invent. I want them to build scenes or entire stories together or individually depending on the exploration we are doing. I want them to play with their imagination and ot be forced into written production as quickly as we have done in the past, I want them to build community through story, I want them use their hands more. I want English to have more joy and I want it to authentically fit into the identity-centered work we already do in our literacy explorations.

Building the Kits

I had a million ideas right away and needed a way to ground them so I started by focusing on ideas for what to put in them and also building the kits to give me a more tangible sense of what it would look like. I hate so much that educators are almost always forced to purchase things out of their own pocket, so I spent school budget money to purchase the toolboxes. I bought two different kinds, five altogether, so that I can share them between tables – I typically teach 28 students at a time, so I wanted to make sure that I had enough kits to share materials between 10 different groups if need be. I also needed the kits to not take up too much space in our classroom, be easy to store and move, as well as have different size compartments. The first kind I bought was this one and the second kind was this one.

All the boxes are removable in both kits so we can spread them out on the different tables as needed.

Once I had the boxes, then I got more serious with my materials. I had a few guidelines I wanted to follow:

  • Natural materials whenever possible
  • Different sizes of things to use
  • Material that doesn’t necessarily look like “one” thing in order for them to be used for many things
  • Low cost and easy to replace

Then I wrote a list, there are so many lists floating on the internet but I posted mine to Instagram and got even more ideas as well as a huge “Duh!” moment. Notice on my original list, I have nuts on it. That is not going to work at all for some of my students due to their allergies. After a helpful educator made me see the light, I updated my original list.

I knew that if I felt like spending a ton of money, I easily could just order all of these things but I don’t want to. So, instead I turned to my local Buy Nothing Facebook group and asked if anyone had any materials they could donate. So what you are looking at in the kits above, almost everything is donated from kind strangers or friends who happened to have materials lying around. Amazing!

So right now in the kits I have:

  • Seashells, all sorts, all sizes.
  • Pine cones – I need to gather more.
  • Small popsicle sticks – they are pointy and I don’t know if I love that.
  • Wine corks that do not have wine labels on them.
  • Small cork buttons.
  • Wood buttons – I bought a giant bag off the internet.
  • Wool yarn in different colors – I have cut lengths of string in a variety of lengths.
  • White rocks.
  • Feathers – I think I may add more of these.

I also purchased felt mats in green, gray, and brown for the kids to use as a background. They can use more than one if we have enough left over, again I went with natural tones as a way to center us in nature even if the story takes place in a different setting.

Things I would still like to add:

  • Glass beads of some sort
  • Beach pebbles for more color
  • More cork
  • Cinnamon sticks
  • Wood slices
  • Acorns
  • Large popsicle sticks

Ideas for use

So while the kits themsleves are a lovely work in progress and bring me happiness right now as I plan, what matters more than the stuff in them is making space for them to be used with our students. So as I planned for the first two weeks of instruction (I do this in order to be able to walk away for awhile, not because I want to work all summer), I planned with the kits in mind.

My two week plan can be viewed here, but please know that it is so much a work in progress, that some of the ideas in it are my own and others are based off of the incredible work others have kindly shared, and that I have given credit to those whose work I am borrowing from or copying. Please feel free to also borrow or use my ideas, just give credit. The kits will be utilized, hopefully, on the third day of school in an activity where students continue to think of the stories they carry and start to build scenes from their own lives that they then, in turn, share with their peers at their tables. After their initial appearance, they will continue to be integrated into our work as we start our first longer writing exploration; personal narrative. Students can use events from their own lives or springboard events from their own lives into a fictional story.

I also want us to think of how the kits may help us work within the emotions we have tied up with our writing, how we can use them to go deeper into story and how stories can weave us together even when we don’t see eye to eye. I am hoping that as we explore our own identities and how that makes us view and react to others, these tangible items will ground us and make us feel safer within our burgeoning community. I am hoping that having these tactile explorations will bring more playfulness into our classroom, as well as more joy. We will also create expectations of how to use the kits with each other. My main focus for that is to be respectful of the material and of what is shared within their stories, but I will ask the students to also think of how to use the materials, how to clean up in order to preserve the kits, and how to work together. It really all ties into the community work we do throughout the year.

My own children helped me eagerly build the kits and have since then also used them. It has been amazing to see them build scenes, stories, and whole worlds using just these materials and then walking me through their stories that they now see so clearly. Even my son who has repeatedly that he hates writing has been using the kits and telling me his stories. I hope I will see the same willingness to try in my 7th graders.

So there you have, my entry in oral storytelling kits. I will share more ideas as I use them with students, but for now, the kits are being built, the ideas are coming together, and the work is just beginning. Have you used kits like this before? Do you have any ideas or questions? I would love to hear your thoughts.

I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.

being a teacher, writing

Teaching Inauguration Poetry

We have been sinking into poetry the last few weeks, discovering found word poetry and trying to decide what poetry really is. We have read and listened to poetry. We have created black out poetry, book spine poetry, traffic sign poetry, song lyric poetry, terrible love poetry and now we sink into inauguration poetry.

We will sit in the beautiful words of Amanda Gorman from the poem she recied today “The Hill We Climb” and we will use it to start analyzing poetry in discussion groups, seeing what impacts us, what brings the words power, what makes them more than just a gathered collection of thoughts.

I know many others are also looking for ideas for how to bring this historical moment into their classrooms so I share my lesson slides for tomorrow in order for others to maybe use and make their own. There are two versions here, one focused on Amanda Gorman (note: at the time of this share her poem’s text has not been released so I am working off a transcript), one focused on Richard Blanco that I made before today.

contest, writing

Contest: Win a Copy of Give This Book a Title!

One of my favorite book releases this year is from the brilliant and generous Jarrett Lerner, “Give this Book a Title” . Since the pandemic shut us down he has been a major giver, inspiring many to kickstart our creativity with drawing and writing prompts, confidence boosting lessons and ideas, and general awesomeness. As I shared on Instagram, I can’t get over the brilliance of this book.

This book begs to be used with kids (and adults) as we search for ways to help kids draw, write, inspire, and feel like they can add value to the world. With more than 100 activities, you are sure to find something that you can use with your students as we continue to engage with writing, drawing, and playing with words.

As the blurb says, “This collection of fun, open-ended writing and drawing prompts will challenge kids to think and create in new ways with every turn of a page. In the Finish This Comic section, young writers are inspired to write and illustrate a six-panel story. Following How to Draw instructions will encourage kids to find their own drawing styles. Every fun activity and silly prompt will keep young readers engaged and entertained!”

So imagine my surprise when a whole stack of these amazing books showed up at my house yesterday! Turns out Jarrett Lerner thought that perhaps the world could use a few more copies and I couldn’t agree more. So, I have five copies to give away of this incredible book four to educators in the US and one to the rest of the world (I am paying for shipping, thus the wonky numbers). All you have to do to enter is leave a comment (make sure you add your email when you enter it so I can contact you) and let me know what you would use this amazing book for. The contest will run from today to lille juleaften which for all you non-Danes is December 23rd at 8 PM CST.

I cannot wait for more amazing creations to happen because of this great new book but if you don’t win, you should order it!

being a teacher, new year, writing, Writing Identity

A Simple Sheet for Writing Conferences

I have been thinking a lot about writing, about all of the emotions tied in with what we write, with the bravado and the behavior that sometimes plays out when we ask kids, and at times even adults, to write. The armor. The resistance. The change. The hope. But only for a moment.

I have been thinking a lot about writing because it is something I discuss often with other adults when we share the things we wish we would have known a long time ago, the things we are just discovering. The things we wish we could figure out.

I have been thinking a lot about how despite having spent nearly seven weeks with these new students, I still feel I don’t know them well. I know snippets, small moments, glimpses of their story, but not enough, not now, not yet. How when we discuss their writing they sometimes don’t have the words to express what they need, or the trust. How we have all of these conversations about their writing but what they really are about is their identity, how they see themselves in the world. How they want the world to view them.

And I want to remember it all but I can’t. And I want to remember it all but I won’t, despite trying. Because while I am 100% focused in the moment, I often forget the details after they walk away because in front of me is a new person who needs my undivided attention, who deserves all of me.

So in order to help me remember, inspired by the discussions I am having with other adults and the kids themselves, I created a writing conference sheet. A simple sheet that perhaps will help me center my work a little more in order to be able to pick up the thread the next time we discuss their writing. A simple sheet that will allow me to gather some of the many thoughts kids share with me as I get to know them and help me consider how I can help them grow. Perhaps you would like to use it as well?

A partial view of the sheet.

A simple explanation of the first few boxes follows…

The top box is for the first time I meet with them after they have filled in their writing survey.

Writing + = What do they like about writing

Writing – = What do they not like

Goal = The goal they are currently working on as a writer

Why = What made them set this goal

Last year = What was their experience last year with writing and how did they feel about writing?

You as a writer = How do they view themselves as a writer

Hard about writing = What do they still find hard about writing

The second box is for each time we confer after that about their writing and so it allows me to record what we discussed – I always ask students to lead the conversation – as well as what their challenge and progress has been. Then I wanted space to reflect on what I see as their strengths and goals areas for the current piece, as well as writing overall.

I am starting to use it this week and I cannot wait to see how it will deepen the conversations we have about their writing and how it will help me be a better teacher of writing for them. Isn’t that what so much of teaching is really about?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

new year, student choice, Student Engagement, talking, writing, Writing Identity

Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School

This summer, I read the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration, 2nd Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels as I knew I wanted to focus more on building true inquiry into our classroom.

One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.

To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.

Image result for pernille ripp writing rights
This year’s writing rights, the yellow post-its are my notes from their group discussion.

Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.

So first, what are the components of our writing circles?

  • Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
  • They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
  • They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
  • They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
  • They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
  • They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
  • They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.

The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.

After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.

Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.

  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
  • Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
  • If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.

Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.

The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.

After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!

Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:

  • Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
  • Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
  • Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
  • Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
  • Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.

On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:

  • They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
  • They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
  • They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
  • The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
  • There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.

I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

building community, new year, writing, Writing Identity

Illustrated 6-Word Memoirs

We continue to work on developing our writing communities, slowly settling into what it means to write together, to be writers, and to feel free to write. We have written directions, we have discussed the rules of writing, we have read great writing, and we have set up our writing circles. All this work is centered in identity. All this work is centered in learning who each other are and developing a feeling of safety and community as we grow into this year together.

Now we inch closer to writing personal essays on topics centered on our own lives and so we used the 6-word memoirs. This ingenious little foray into writing has a long history. A great place to read more about them can be found here. They are exactly what they sound like; 6 word stories about our lives.

I introduced them by showing them examples of other 6-word memoirs, some serious, some not so much. I showed my own example…

Then we discussed the perimeters of the challenge: Exactly 6 words, it cannot be a list of adjectives, should reveal some part of your life that you feel comfortable with.

Then the kids brainstormed for a bit it their writers’ notebooks, playing around with sentences, words, and punctuation.

When they felt satisfied with their chosen words, they had someone spell check their final sentence. A few spelling errors were missed, which happens.

Then they illustrated them using these free blank face printables. I printed one out and drew a line down the middle, then made enough copies with directions on this handout. One side was for them to illustrate either as a collage or as an abstract image of of their words. The other side was for their words. I told the kids that they would be displayed so to put their names on the back for privacy unless they wanted it to be known that they made it.

We listened to music. Kids played with words, drew, and then handed them in. I couldn’t believe the care many took. While certainly there were many that spoke of sports, dogs, and other seemingly small-ish parts of their lives, every single one spoke of something they found important or showed a sliver of their personality.

A small lesson that showed so much about their identity once again. See for yourself, how they turned out.