Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Telling Stories: Historical Fiction in 5th Grade English

After reading Inside Out and Back Again, a novel by Thanhha Lai set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, my 5th Graders were eager to know more about how this and other conflicts had affected their own families. In searching for a closing activity for the novel, I found some great teaching resources on Harper Collins's website. With a few small tweaks to the publisher's resource, my students were ready to follow the advice Lai gives in her Author’s Note: “After you finish this book…you sit close to someone you love and implore that person to tell and tell and tell their story.” We spent one class period brainstorming questions to ask family members, and then my students were off, conducting interviews with parents, grandparents, and other extended family members. While most students were able to interview a family member about a conflict (Vietnam War, WWII, Gulf War and Afghanistan), a few chose to conduct interviews about immigration stories. In this way, we ensured that everyone in class could participate fully. 

As students shared their interviews with the class, they reflected on how surprised they were to discover the important roles their own relatives played in our country’s history. A few interesting observations from their notes: 

"My dad said that even if you weren't fighting in the war, it was difficult to watch it from home. His friends were off fighting, the news would show terrible stories."

"I interviewed my grandpa about WWII. He was young and he said there wasn't much to buy, because all the supplies were going to fighting the war."

"My babysitter lived in Israel most of her life. I interviewed her about the wars she lived through. She said it was stressful when fighting first started, because they had to go into bomb shelters. But she said after a while people in the bomb shelters would talk to each other, play games, and feel comfortable together, even though scary things were happening outside."

"My dad didn't have to fight. He was never drafted. He started out hoping that the U.S. would win the Vietnam War, but as he learned more about what was going on in Vietnam he was less sure we were doing the right thing by being there."

"My uncle went to Afghanistan. He says he fought using empathy. He wasn't actually in battle, but he tried to help people understand their differences to get along better."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Poetry Stubs

Since my last poetry post, my 5th Graders have continued to experiment with and discover new forms of poetry.  One of the ideas they have embraced with the most excitement is something we've been calling 'Poetry Stubs.' I came up with this lesson plan on the fly - it was just a small idea that I thought might lead to some fun writing. I was delighted to discover that my students totally, wholeheartedly, passionately loved writing from stubs and have asked for this assignment again and again. I'm not sure if a poetry stub is a real thing, and I'd be curious to know if other teachers are using some version of this assignment?

For our lesson,  I collected a bunch of great first lines from published poems, and put them into a GoogleDoc. In class, I shared the document and told the students to choose one line as the inspiration for their poem. I asked them to keep in mind all of the poetry tools they've developed thus far (line breaks, rhythm, repetition, figurative language, narrative, humor), but otherwise allowed them total freedom in regards to style, length and content.

Some 'stubs' we've used:

Come, Let us roam the night together, Singing
I am standing, feet apart, hands on hips
I love music

Sunday mornings at our house
Lucy was 7 and wore a head of blue barrettes 
Thank you for  
Picture this, with your eyes closed
The sea is always the same 
Approach if you dare
We are ankle deep in the cool water 
Maps are more than tiny lines 
I dream I am 
I’ve got books on the bunk bed

Each of these stubs lend themselves to interesting writing from students, and they've been a nice way to differentiate within my classroom, as struggling writers can rely on a stub as a prompt, giving them some guidance and clues about what their poem might ultimately be about. My classes expressed more enthusiasm about this assignment than any of the other poetry prompts I've used this semester (onomatopoeia, alliteration, silly poems, haiku, found poems), asking again and again to see the list of first lines. Yesterday, one student suggested a nice extension of this lesson - to use a list of stubs composed not by famous poets but by the students themselves. 

It's been most fun to see a group of students take the same opening line and send it on very different journeys through writing. Yesterday, I gave every 5th Grader the same stub. Here are a few of the second lines they came up with:

I dream I am...
a grownup, not scared of anything
a superhero, brave and strong
a fairy with wings to carry me across the world
a whale swimming through the deep blue sea
magical. When I close my eyes a new world opens up. 
a sorcerer. I perform tricks, like turning an innocent prince into a frog. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cross Country G+ Hangout

On Thursday afternoon, one lucky section of 5th Grade English joined the students of Brent Catlett and Sharae Geldes in Bellevue, Nebraska and Linda Yollis in Los Angeles, California for a Google+ Hangout. The 'Share & Compare' Hangout was the brainchild of Brent and Linda, and we were thrilled to participate from our New York City classroom.  My students prepared for the 3-way video chat by researching general facts about our state, city and school. They collected facts about everything from favorite cafeteria foods and recess games to weather and population statistics. They learned a lot about their home state and city through their fact-finding mission, and clearly felt a sense of importance as they took each took a turn in front of the laptop to present their information.

A major highlight of the experience was seeing where we veered off our planned path in order to go deeper into those topics the students found compelling. For example, the suburban children of Nebraska and California were shocked by the huge population of New York City, which led to a nice chat about apartments and, for lack of a better phrase, 'vertical living.' Similarly, my city kids were very intrigued by the unfamiliar tornado and earthquake drills the other schools participated in, and eagerly listened as the other students described their emergency precautions.

As our students took turns sharing facts, designated 'record-keepers' worked on updating a Google Doc that the three classes shared. The final result was a side-by-side comparison chart of New York City, Bellevue, and Southern California. The information contained within the chart is evidence of the differences and similarities between our three communities.

This Hangout was an awesome learning experience in all the right ways: fun, thought-provoking and student led!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Poetry Explorations in 5th Grade English

Last week my students and I launched our exploration of poetry, and the unit came as a welcome change of pace after a month of diligently writing historical fiction. Some of the poetry activities we've enjoyed:

Poetry Share
Our poetry unit began with a homework assignment: Bring in a poem you love. The assignment was simple and my students seemed to appreciate the freedom it afforded. After several confirmations that the task was as straightforward as it seemed ("Can it be a poem I wrote?" "Can it be a poem someone else wrote?""Can it be kind of short?" "Kind of long?") my classes brought in an impressively wide array of poems. Over several class periods students read their poems aloud, and while we had the usual suspects like Prelustky, Silverstein, and Carrol, I was also pleasantly surprised to see a handful of students had chosen relatively obscure works by Dickinson and Shelley. One brought in lyrics to a Simon and Garfunkel song, completely unaware that they were lyrics at all. We immediately crowded around my desk to watch a clip of the duo performing I Am a Rock. A few students chose poems they had written in 4th Grade, personal favorites they were excited to reminisce over. It was great fun to see each student explain why they chose a particular poem, and to watch them introduce those works to their classmates.

Slam Poetry
Inspired by a tweet from Bryant Palmer, I decided to share a collection of spoken word poems. My students are fairly well-versed in written poetry, but I knew slam poetry would be vibrant, surprising, a good way to catch their attention. Bryant's 5th Graders had voted Somewhere There is a Poem by Gina Loring their favorite, and mine watched the below clip with wonder and amazement: You mean poetry can look and sound like this?

After a quick bit of crowd-sourcing from my excellent Twitter PLN, librarians-extraordinaire Linda Lindsay and Charity Harbeck led me to several online poetry resources. Among Linda's top picks was Adam Gottlieb's Poet Breathe Now. In the clip, Gottlieb introduces himself as a 17 year old poet, and my students enjoyed the juxtaposition of Gottlieb's performance alongside Loring's. 

My class reflected on the two clips, and immediately understood that slam poetry was about music, rhythm, words as songs. Their observations about slam poetry -- somewhat aggressive, like a marathon ("I felt like I held my breath while he was talking. He spoke so quickly!"), or a sermon -- deeply impressed me. My students recognized these poets as performers, noting their confidence, their skill in utilizing not only words but facial expressions and body language. They laughed and smiled and left the classroom buzzing. 

Building on the excitement of this first foray into poetry via YouTube, I showed several additional clips curated by the lovely Linda Lindsay (I guess my alliteration poster is paying off for all of us in Room 404). For those teachers looking for a few unconventional poetry lessons, I highly recommend:

Found Poetry
One Boy Told Me by Naomi Shihab Nye: A completely charming poem composed of phrases uttered by the poet's young son. This poem was a lovely lesson on the concept of finding poetry in everyday life, of how beautiful a few simple lines can sound when combined just so. After watching the video, I gave my students excerpts from Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. We read the each story once, and then on the second reading I asked them to highlight some of the most descriptive words in the passage. They reorganized these highlighted phrases to compose unique poems. I am also interested in using this great resource from, which includes the text of classic speeches and an online 'word mover' that allows students to virtually rearrange the texts into their own poems.

My current group of students had worked on haiku writing last year, so after a quick refresher on the "rules," they were ready to write. We brainstormed words, feelings, places and experiences that reminded them of summer vacation, and they wrote between three and five haiku on these topics. It was interesting to see how many students chose to write 'serial' haiku about a single theme, and to watch them help one another as they counted syllables. I love writing haiku with students because of the math involved, the way the words get broken down into numbers, and because the restrictions the form imposes are so different from how the kids usually think of poetry. 

Everyone has fond childhood memories of Shel Silverstein, but few have had the experience of hearing him perform his own work. This is a great clip of Silverstein reading Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too. Hearing a poem they've read on paper countless times brought to life is always a special experience for kids. (Full disclosure: I myself got a few goosebumps when I heard Shel Silverstein's voice).

We also listened to The Raven by Poe, as read by James Earl Jones. As one student said upon hearing the poets' name, "Oh hey! I've heard of this guy!"

Finally, a few other poems on YouTube that I found to be excellent classroom resources:

My Parents Sent Me to the Store - Kenn Nesbitt
Calico Pie - Edward Lear (this is a rendition sung by Natalie Merchant)
Brother - Mary Anne Hoberman
The Tropics in New York - Claude McKay
Daffodils - William Wordsworth