Author Visits Inspire Young Writers

Author visits inspire young writers Photo Credit: Mosman Library via Flickr, CCL 2013

I am going to say something bold:

Every school should host a significant author visit at least once every year.

In the same way that engaging children in the publishing process (and celebrating their accomplishments) is like a shot of B-12 for writing achievement, having a “real” author visit your school is just as powerful.

Professional authors are fascinating people who have learned to mine their own lives for stories worth telling. They are experts in the craft of writing and have much wisdom to impart. They bring firsthand knowledge of the writing (and publishing) process and offer an authentic, “real world” message to our students.

When I was teaching at Ashley River, we used to select a “big time” nationally known children’s book author or illustrator to visit our school each year. It was HUGE. Those days spent with folks like Jerry Pallotta,  Chris Soentpiet, and Shelley Gill were some of the best days of my career. The atmosphere was electric. The children were riveted. The teachers were inspired. My students would leave the author’s assembly and beg to be allowed to write for the rest of the day. It was always magical.

Our celebrations were so awesome that one of our visiting authors even dedicated her next picture book to our students! (Shelley Gill: Big Blue)

While I am a big supporter of inviting local authors to visit our schools, it’s very important to sometimes bring in a “big name.” Why? Local authors usually only have a few published books to their credit and often they aren’t yet well known. Of course, all authors started this way and there is no shame in it! It’s just that when we bring in a nationally known figure with a catalog of books that can be found on the shelves of libraries around the country, it’s akin to bringing in a celebrity! If you wanted to pump up your school’s basketball team, who would you want to get? The local boy who played in college or a player from the NBA? Both will bring a valuable message but the NBA player has star power. So bring both at different points in the year.

The same is true for authors. Invite local authors whenever you can! They are “real” writers too and have a lot of knowledge about the writing/ publishing process. It’s also a great way to engage with the community. However, don’t neglect to bring in an author with some “star power.” Yes, they cost more, but it’s money well spent!

What to know the secret for an epically successful author visit? The key is preparation.

Here are my tips:

1- Read all of the author’s books with your children. (Assuming they are developmentally appropriate.)  Learn everything you can about his/her life. (Most authors have excellent websites and some will send pre-visit materials.) Embed the books into your reading lessons. Why not use the visiting author’s books for your Shared Reading lessons or as a mentor text for Writing Workshop? Doing so makes the books seem even more “important” to the children.

2- Decorate the school for the visit. In the same way that reading the author’s books will whip up excitement about the visit, decorating the school in the theme of the author’s books elevates the visit from a mundane event to something special with a celebratory vibe! Options include wall displays, banners, student work done in the style of the author, etc. Door displays are nice too- just make sure that they can be seen.

3- Engage the children in writing projects that mimic the author’s style. Are you hosting Jerry Pallotta? Write alphabet books. Hosting Shelley Gill? Write adventure stories. Hosting Dan Gutman? Write “wacky school” stories. And if an author has a wide range of work, let the children vote on which book they want to use as a mentor text. Choice is a powerful motivator.

On the day of the author’s visit, display the student work on the walls or in the media center. That way the author can see it and affirm the children’s work when he speaks with them.

4- Make sure the parents know what is happening. Send messages home about the upcoming author visit and provide a list of his/her book titles. Usually, schools invite families to pre-order books to be autographed during the author’s visit. These become cherished books in home libraries because the child has a personal connection to the text and the author as a result of the visit.

5- Get the kids PUMPED UP about meeting the author. How do you do that? It’s very easy. Treat the author’s visit like a visit from a major celebrity. Post a school-wide countdown until his/her arrival. Excitement is contagious, so make sure you act excited yourself, “I can’t believe we get to meet Jerry Palotta! He is a famous writer! Look at all these awesome books. I can’t wait!” Talk about it on the school news show. Have students present a “fact of the day” about the author or give short book reviews. The more build up the better.

In my next post I’ll share some fun ideas for making the visit day extra special and exciting. Oh- and Jerry Pallotta is visiting my own children’s school next week. I’ll be posting some of the teachers’ wonderful preparations here- you’ll love them!

PS- Author Dan Gutman has a great page on his website titled “The Perfect Author Visit.” Check it out for more tips.

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7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder

7 Ideas for Replacing Worksheets with Wonder Photo credit: Genocide Intervention Network via Flickr, CCL 2013.

Is “worksheet” a bad word in today’s educational climate? Or have worksheets gotten a bad rap?

Keep in mind that not all worksheets are created equal.

The important question is this: what is the student really being asked to do?

  • Organize ideas and words to use later in Writing Workshop? Good!
  • Record data from a hands-on science experiment? Good!
  • Fill in a long list of rote problems that require lower-level recall? Not so good.
  • Color in the cute clip art if they finish early? Yikes! Really not good.

Perhaps the question is not whether we should use worksheets in our teaching. Perhaps the vital question is this: am I engaging my students in the most authentic, real-world, interesting learning experience possible at this time?

Sometimes a worksheet provides an important scaffold for students as they construct their understanding. Just recently I created my own “worksheet” where I asked students to organize their thinking and plans prior to beginning a painting project. It was an important step and forced them to settle on a specific idea. Other times we need the “paper” record of a child’s work to document their understanding (or lack thereof.)

However, too often worksheets become the curriculum instead of a carefully selected tool used to support the curriculum.

In her recent interview, Chrissy Greenman raised the issue of worksheets when I asked her which weak teaching practices she would like to see eliminated from our schools. Her answer?  Reliance on worksheets.

Chrissy said, “It’s about student engagement. When I hear my kids talking about their memories from the year; all the stuff they talk about is the interesting, fun stuff we’ve done- and the arts based stuff. It’s never a worksheet! They remember Jitter Juice from the beginning of the year, our Gingerbread unit, doing Reader’s Theater with Eric Carle stories, creating Dr. Seuss art, etc. That’s what sticks!  I know sometimes a worksheet is necessary, but when kids sit and do worksheets all day; what kind of learning environment is that? It’s not authentic. The children have no ownership- it’s just something they have to do for the teacher. It’s not memorable or interesting. I’ve moved away from worksheets and embraced more arts-based lessons this year. The difference in student engagement is amazing! When I get out the art materials they are so focused and excited! In fact, when my students are absent and parents ask me to send the work home, I have to tell them, “Sorry! There is nothing to send home! I’ll have to catch them up in class. They missed learning experiences, not worksheets.

In the spirit of proposing a solution to the worksheet conundrum, here are seven ideas for replacing worksheets with Wonder Teaching!

1- Is the worksheet the heart of the lesson, or is it simply a tool for capturing thinking?  If your lesson plan is designed around a period of direct instruction followed by a block of time during which the students complete worksheets, it is likely that your kids are not fully engaged or thinking in deep and meaningful ways. How could you change the dynamic? Could you engage the children in real-world problem solving? Could they work in cooperative groups? Could they create a product instead of filling in blanks? See how you can shake it up.

Roots image via Wonder Teacher2- Does the worksheet ask children to draw/ label something? (Such as the parts of a plant?) Why not let them draw instead? They are far more likely to remember the parts of a plant if they draw them rather than labeling a piece of clip art.

3- Is the worksheet full of rote math problems and facts? I know these kinds of pages are necessary sometimes. However, could you balance that with math games and stations? They are so much more more engaging and give the children opportunities to practice the same skills. This product on Teachers Pay Teachers is very helpful for learning how to set up and run math stations.

4- Does the worksheet ask children to answer comprehension questions from a story? Try using more meaningful ways to determine comprehension. Some choices include reading conferences with the teachers (see the The Daily Five and The CAFE Book for more info. on how to make this work), creating products such as story maps that display setting, characters, problem, solution, “acting” out story  events and elements, etc.

5- Does the worksheet ask children to recall and list factual information about social studies or science? Brainstorm other ways children can show what they know. Can they make a poster? Create a painting or drawing with labels? How about a drama structure such as pantomime or tableau? Could they work in groups to write short skits that share the facts in a creative way? There are so many possibilities!

6- Could the worksheet be replaced by technology? These days, all students should have access to materials like computers and iPads. Technology engages this generation like never before, and they need the skills for 21st Century work! Check out this post by Katie King (who writes a terrific blog over at Queen of the First Grade Jungle) to get an idea of what I mean.

7- Is there a real-world experience that could replace the worksheet? Instead of completing a worksheet about the life cycle of a frog, could kids actually go outside and catch tadpoles in a pond? Could they keep a few in the classroom and observe them each day in a science journal, noting the way they change and grow? How amazing! Instead of doing worksheets on money, could the children play games using real money? Could you set up a class store (like Cassie’s shoe store) that gives them an authentic opportunity for application?

Students engaged in real world learning

I suppose this is the heart of Wonder Teacher: equipping teachers to engage students in deep and meaningful learning experiences through creative methods. Stay tuned- I have so many ideas for you that I wonder how I’ll ever share them all!

In the meantime, examine your practice with a gentle spirit. Look over your “worksheets” for this week. Which ones are valuable and worth keeping? Which ones could be replaced with something a little more WONDERful? If you can trade out even one lackluster worksheet, you are on the right track!

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6 Tips for Managing Watercolor Painting in the Classroom

6 Tips for Managing Watercolor Paints in the Regular Classroom via Wonder Teacher Today I interrupt my current series (integrating visual art with writing personal narrative stories) to bring you 6 quick tips for painting in the classroom. Before I get into the kinds of paintings I asked the children to create for their personal narratives, I think it’s important to share some of the tips for success with the “art” part of the lesson!

Painting in the classroom is much easier to do than most teachers realize. In fact, I have come to believe that watercolor paints should be just as basic in the “regular” classroom as crayons and markers. They really are that simple and mess-free. (If you know the tricks!)

Here are my top 6 tips for managing watercolor painting lessons:

1- Take time to teach your students how to use watercolor paints properly. There are two videos previously posted on this site: the first is a general “watercolor basics” video and the second is focused on mixing watercolor paints to get unique colors, such as skin tones. Teach yourself these techniques and then teach them to your students. Modeling is critical! I always remind the children to get their paints wet and juicy before they start, rinse the brush well between colors, be gentle with the brush, and leave the wet painting flat to dry.

2- Make the effort to gather the right quantity and size of water cups or bowls. I really can’t overstate the importance of proper water containers. Too tall and they tip over easily. Too small and the children are constantly needing to change out the water. You want something with a wide base (so it won’t tip over) that’s not too deep but not too shallow.

I have found that a smaller size rectangular plastic container (the kind that comes with a lid) usually works well. It’s also nice if the plastic is clear because then you can draw a permanent marker line on the outside indicating where the water fill line should be. (Also known as the “Don’t fill the water over this line or you’ll get in trouble” line.)

Quantity is a big issue too. If you have 5 students reaching across desks to share one water bowl, expect a mess. Most accidents happen because students are reaching. Also, reaching across a table every time you need water really slows down the painting process. Water is a critical ingredient in watercolor painting!  It’s ideal for each child to have his or her own water cup. The other good alternative is to have two students sitting side by side with a shared water between them.

art management tip- fill water to line

(For teachers who think their students “can’t handle” watercolor paints and cups of water I have to say this: My colleagues and I taught 3 year olds in preschool how to use watercolor paints independently. There was a little bin on the art shelf that held 2 trays of paints, 2 small cups with a line drawn halfway up, 2 brushes, and some sheets of paper. My little 3 year olds knew exactly what to do. They took out the bin, laid out their paper and paint, carried the cup to the sink, filled it halfway with water, and returned to start painting. They also cleaned up the entire area independently. These were “regular” (energetic and active!) 3 year old children. If they can do it, elementary school students can do it!)

3- Use quality materials. Cheap art materials (like dollar store paints and brushes) produce cheap-looking art. Cheap-looking art produces “cheap” writing, lacking inspiration and rich language. Sounds harsh but it’s true. It’s worth the extra dollar or two to get paints that have quality pigment and brushes that are going to hold the paint well. I address this issue in the watercolor basics video.

4- Assign each child his or her own pan of watercolors. For several years I kept a class set of watercolor pans. I passed them out when we needed them and collected them when we were through. No matter how much I emphasized to the children the importance of rinsing their brush to prevent the paints from getting “muddy,” it seemed like after a few weeks my pans were always a mess! Then I started working with schools as a consultant/resident teacher. Several of the classroom teachers I worked with assigned the watercolor paints we ordered to students individually, writing their name or number on the front of the box. I was amazed by how much more invested the children became in keeping their paints neat and clean! Once they knew that those paints were theirs to live with all year (and take home when summer came,) they magically remembered to rinse their brushes! Imagine that! 😉

I would never start a school year again without procuring a basic tray of Crayola or Prang watercolors for each student (with their name on it.) It’s a “necessity” to me now- right up there with glue and scissors!

Quality paints create quality art

5- Get the right kind of paper! It really matters. I address this issue in the watercolor basics video. My favorite kind of paper to use for most of my painting projects is 80 pound White Sulphite Drawing Paper. I used to order the big sheets and cut them down, figuring I might want the big size for a large project. In reality, I spent too much time at the paper cutter trimming it down because 90% of the time I just need 9×12 paper. That’s the perfect size for students to fit on top of a desk alongside paint and water. These days I just order the big ream of 9×12 80# white sulphite. It will last all year! Avoid card stock, construction paper, and copy paper. They either shred and wrinkle or prevent the colors from mixing properly.

6- Make a clear plan for passing out water, paints, and paper. Most of the time, art-based lessons get “crazy” due to a lack of procedures. Teachers will tell me, “My lesson was a disaster! The kids were up all over the room, spilling water, dripping paint on the floor… I’ll never do that again!” The real problem in those scenarios is that there were no clear procedures and routines for passing out and cleaning up the materials. Important tip: require students to remain seated unless they have a legitimate reason to be out of their seats.

Here are my procedures for passing out materials:

  • One student passes out paper.
  • One student gives each child a 1/2 sheet of paper towel (good for cleaning up mess, blotting “mistakes” from their art, etc.)
  • Call one group of students at a time (usually by “team” or “table”) to get paints from their art box (or pick them up from a storage area in the classroom.)
  • Call one group of students at a time to get their water (having already taught them the procedure for getting water.)
  • If you are passing out any special brushes, assign one student to pass them out.

That’s it! After a few minutes of purposeful and focused movement, the children have their materials and all you’ve had to do is direct and supervise!

Procedures for cleaning up:

  • Give students a 1 minute warning that time is almost up, then require them to wash out their brushes and lay them on their desk. This is an important step. Often, I’ve found that if I don’t “force” them to put down their brushes, they will keep painting and tune out my clean-up directions.
  • Call one group of students at a time to dump their dirty water and rinse their container. They should then stack the containers on a counter or table. (If 2 students share water, I let one go get the water when we start and the other clean it up at the end. They see that as fair.) Control the number of children dumping water- only 2 or 3 at a time! A long line of children with dirty water is a recipe for disaster.
  • IDEAL: Leave the wet paintings on the desk next to the wet watercolor paints with the lids OPEN and leave the room for lunch, special area, or dismissal. I always try to time my painting lessons before a period of the day when we leave the room. Wet paintings can be difficult to move (they drip) and watercolor paints stay in better shape if they are allowed to dry quickly (with the lid open) instead of with the lid closed. Also, moving wet pans of watercolor paint is often what causes them to get mixed and muddy. When students return to the room, it will be easy to collect the dry paintings and call groups of students to put paints away. If things are still damp, call one group of students at a time to carefully carry their artwork and then their paints to a designated area in the classroom.
  • If you MUST clean up while everything is wet, do it slowly and carefully. Lay out some bulletin board paper on the floor in a low-traffic area. Call students 2 at a time to carefully bring their painting to the drying area, keeping it as flat as possible. (If a painting is really wet, you might want to do it yourself!) Call groups of students to carry their open paints (as flat as possible!) to a table or counter where they can be left to dry.
  • Offer students a baby wipe or damp paper towel if they need to clean their desk or hands.

Once students go through these procedures a few times, they become routine and the children will do it easily without step by step directions.

Potential Pitfall #1, Changing out dirty water: Decide in advance your “rules” for dealing with dirty water. First, make sure children understand the difference between “tinted” water that is still fine to use and “dirty” water that is muddying their paints. Once the water is truly “dirty” I usually allow my children to get up and change out the water. Or, as I move around the room and monitor their work, often I will carry a clean cup of water with me and quickly switch it out when I see a dirty one that needs replacing. The important thing is to make sure children aren’t taking unnecessary trips, playing in the sink or overfilling their cups. If you make your expectations clear and monitor behavior, this usually ins’t a big problem.

Potential Pitfall #2, No sink: It can be a real hassle to do art projects without a sink in your classroom. I know from experience! However, don’t let this stop you. Over the weekend I’ll share my “bucket method” for bringing water into your classroom when you lack a sink.

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