Thursday, July 26, 2012

Word Choice: Old vs. Ancient

This week our school is hosting a "Summer Enrichment Camp" that gives students the option of attending 5 shortened school days where they can get a head start into their new grade level. It's been nice to meet some of our brand new fourth graders, see my coworkers again, and start working on my room. I'm loving the new door sign I ordered from Fanciful Felt by Bourdiers on Etsy! I hardly ever shop online, but this was a must-have!

Since I knew I'd only have one week with my little group before school officially starts, I wanted to work on something that would get them excited about fourth grade writing. So, I decided to dedicate the whole week to word choice! We all know that kids' vocabularies grow as they get older, but how can we teach them to remember to use these wonderful words when they put pencil to paper? Giving students a list of vivid synonyms (we call them "razzle dazzle" words!) to replace worn out/overused words is easy for them and us, but I've found that a lot of my students tend to get "word drunk" once they rely too much on whipping out that word list every time they write. I'll emphasize how important it is for them to throw away worn out words and replace them with "razzle dazzle" words from their word list, and then I'll read sentences like this:

"I once helped an ancient lady put her groceries in the car."

Poor woman... I'd need help with my groceries, too, if I was several centuries old. "Elderly" would have been much more appropriate, but how was my student to learn this from a word list? We have to teach our budding writers that learning new words comes with time and if you write with "razzle dazzle" words that are completely unfamiliar to you, even if it "sounds cool," your writing will be formulaic, wordy, and maybe just downright offensive! I put together a word list that students can build on their own and update throughout the year as they learn new "razzle dazzle" words through reading, conversations, teachers, etc. They will be able to see different shades of meaning in synonyms and refer only to the "razzle dazzle" words that they're familiar with. Hopefully I won't be reading about anymore ancient ladies!

You might be wondering why I left out the word "said." I'm saving the "Said is Dead" theme for later on in the year when we work on adding more dialogue to our stories. "My Razzle Dazzle Words" pairs very nicely with Crickwing by Janell Cannon. She's also the author of one of my childhood favorites, Stellaluna.

This is now my #1 favorite mentor text for teaching word choice. If you can get past the fact that it's about a cockroach that plays with his food (gross), you'll find that it's jampacked with vivid verbs and adjectives like "scrambled," "chortled," "eensy," "brilliant," "stammered," "gasped," "howled," "insisted"... and the list goes on.

Thank you to Mrs. T from Teaching Mrs. T for nominating me for the "One Lovely Blog" Award! Most blogs I follow have this award and I just did a round of 20 nominations for other awards, so I want to wait a bit on nominating 15 more for this one. I hope you can forgive me! ; )

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hook ' Yer Reader, Matey! Yargh!

While I am still stressing over deciding how I'm going to have my students plan their compositions this year, I know that the next step in the writing process will be teaching them how to HOOK the reader with a fabulous lead. This has always been one of my favorite lessons of the year because you can totally play up the "hook" theme, and the fourth graders really impress me with how talented they are at crafting their own leads. Two years ago, I dressed up as a fisherman (tackle-clad hat, fishing pole, weird vest, etc.) Then came the disastrous follow-up activity where I taught FIVE ways to hook the reader at once, and each student wrote all five of their leads on different a fish die-cut. I then felt compelled to tie ALL the fish die-cuts together with fishing line and hang them from the ceiling, where you probably couldn't even read them. Did I mention I had about 70 students? I ended up laughing at myself so hard. (You have to laugh, or you'll cry.)

Last year was better. I dressed as Captain Hook and taught THREE ways to hook the reader. This was a lot less daunting to start with, and I didn't kid myself with the mess of 350 ceiling fish. Once the kids got past my distracting eye patch and on-again-off-again pirate accent, they listened to me read many catchy leads from different mentor texts. It was a mini-lesson if there ever was one. We'd only read the first couple sentences of each book, discuss why and how it "hooked" us, and then move onto the next. If you're looking to find fiction books that have great leads, Roald Dahl, Cynthia Rylant, and Judy Blume books are always a hit. I also just found a new favorite while browsing through Half Price Books:

(Eileen Spinelli is also the author of The Best Story, my favorite mentor text to teach the trait of voice!) This year, with the addition of my borderline creepy Captain Hook getup and collection of mentor texts, I'll have a new follow-up activity I've created (below) where students can read more author examples and write their own hooks in three different ways. After that, I'll have them choose their favorite hook to begin their next composition with. We'll definitely keep these in our writing folders for reference throughout the year. I got the idea of representing each hook method with a different punctuation mark from a district training, and I found the awesome pirate-y font at, my favorite website for free fonts. I also wanted to teach three ways to hook the reader that would work for both narrative and expository writing to make things less confusing for my fourth graders, so I went with the three you'll see on the PDF...

I'm interested to know how other teachers introduce leads or if there are any must-have mentor texts out there that I'm unaware of, so please feel free to comment! I will end this post with my favorite pirate joke:

Q: "What's a pirate's favorite fast food restaurant?"
A: "AAARRRRRby's!" 

You know you're laughing!

- Sarah

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Teaching Blogs Galore!

I had no idea how huge the world of teaching blogs really is until I started one, but it's a great thing. I was so flattered to find out that three fellow teachers/bloggers noticed and recognized my new blog! I want to give a shout out and thank you to Katie for nominating me for the Versatile Blogger Award! I also want to thank Shanell and Janna for nominating me for the Liebster Award. It took a while to figure out who I'd like to nominate for these awards, but it's easy to see that the blogs below are more than deserving! Be sure to check them out.

 Here are the seven rules to follow when receiving this award:
1. Thank the blogger who nominated you. (Thanks again, Katie!)
2. Include a link to their blog. (Click her name at the top of the post!)
3. Include the award image in your post. (Above)
4. Give 7 random facts about yourself.  (Below)
5. Nominate 15 other bloggers for the award. (Below)
6. When nominating, include a link to their blog. (Below)
7. Let other bloggers know they've been nominated.

I nominate these fabulous blogs for The Versatile Blogger Award:

(I follow all of these blogs, and I can't wait to try out so many ideas from them!)

Now for 7 random facts about my random self:

1. I have 5 baby teeth that haven't fallen out (and hopefully never will!)
2. My toenails are currently painted yellow, my favorite color.
3. My husband builds robots.
4. I am more prone to mosquito bites than anyone I know.
5. My favorite movie of all time is Amadeus.
6. I share a birthday with President Abraham Lincoln.
7. I cook delicious spaghetti.

Here are the rules for the Liebster Award:
1. Link back to the person who gave it to you (Top of post!)
2. Post the award to your blog.
3. Give the award to bloggers with less than 200 followers.
4. Let the bloggers know they have won.

I nominate these up and coming blogs for The Liebster Award:

Peacocks and Penguins
Keep Calm & Imagine
Temple's Teaching Tales
Mrs. A's Room
Creating Brain Wrinkles

Congrats to all!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Less Fix-a-Thons, More Heart Maps!

I've been thinking about the upcoming school year and my new (and hopefully better) approach to teaching writing. This past year, I had what I thought was a flawless system. We'd spend a week on a new grammar concept, then a week on a new writing prompt where we'd go through the whole writing process and put our new skills into practice. Then the next week, it'd be back to grammar lessons and activities. It was a structured way of planning, and the kids were definitely learning the "objectives" they needed to learn, but how much of their time in WRITING class was spent WRITING compositions? *cringe* Not nearly enough! Luckily, the amazing teachers on my team were often finding ways to incorporate writing into their classes (reader's response, science notebooking, etc.) BUT STILL! There's nothing as effective as writer's workshop, and I need to do a lot more of it.

So, my goal this year is to give my writing classes a new writing prompt/new writing trait focus every Monday, spend every day going through the writing process, and still find time to weave in the spelling and grammar. How? A friend of mine, who is a very successful fourth grade writing teacher in our district, told me she only spends 10 minutes a day on grammar through old-school D.O.L. exercises, but she tailors her D.O.L. warm-ups to current objectives only and gives them a short quiz on Fridays to assess their learning. I thought this was brilliant! A little grammar homework never hurt anyone, either. With all these thoughts in mind, here's my plan so far...

A Week in Mrs. McMurrough's Class (better have those pencils sharpened!):
Monday : D.O.L., new spelling words, new prompt, plan compositions
Tuesday:  D.O.L., write first drafts
Wednesday: D.O.L., peer-revise, writing conferences
Thursday: D.O.L., peer-edit, writing conferences
Friday: D.O.L. "quiz," spelling test, write/publish final drafts

Am I insane, or does that schedule sound feasible for 70 minute class periods? Of course, I'll also be modeling and sharing bits and pieces from mentor texts along the way. It will interesting without a doubt, but I really do think it will help the kids become better writers in the long run. In a nutshell, my revamped writing class will be less of a "grammar fix-a-thon" and more of a comprehensive "writer's workshop." Yay? I hope so.

The first writing trait I plan to focus on with my brand new group of kiddos will be IDEAS. You can have gorgeous handwriting, a "robust" vocabulary, and a consistent command of spelling and grammar, but what good is any story without original ideas? The best ideas also come from the heart, right? I first learned about "Heart Maps" when I came across this Pinterest pin, originally pinned by Jennifer Ferraro Matteodo:

In January, I made my own version of a Heart Map template (below), and my students loved creating and referring to it! I enjoyed it, too. There was one class period where I almost got teary-eyed sharing my own Heart Map with them... putting so many meaningful people, memories, and personal values inside one paper heart turned out to be more sentimental than I was expecting. Oh yeah, I'm also a huge sap. Then, I allowed plenty of class time for them to illustrate their own Heart Map and paste it inside the front cover of their draftbook (writing notebook). The "key" gave them some nudges on what to include and helped them incorporate a variety of meaningful parts of life. It was something special and helpful that they referred to throughout the year anytime they experienced "writer's block." I think having your own Heart Map is especially handy when thinking of ideas for personal narratives.

Here's my spin on the all-important Heart Map:

It can be downloaded for free here: My TpT Store!

Although plenty of changes are in store for next year, scrapping the Heart Map isn't one of them. It's definitely a keeper!

- Sarah

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Here Goes!

I have never felt more "technologically challenged" than I do right now, but I did it! I made a teaching blog, and I'm liking it so far! There are some little things I'd like to change, but I decided to stop messing with it for now because I'm worried I'll mess everything up and have to start over. (This may or may not have already happened.)

Anyway, my name is Sarah McMurrough. I'm going into my fifth year teaching fourth grade writing in Texas. Writing was always my strongest subject in school and one of my biggest passions, so I'm really lucky to have landed a job as a writing teacher. Whether it's from a training, a teacher down the hall, a new "pin" on Pinterest, or a memory of one of my beloved former teachers, I'm always looking for new ideas for my own classroom. Lately, I've been enjoying my summer! Although I really, really appreciate and need the long break, I admit I get a little bored/antsy when I'm not working. (My coworkers that know me well would tell you that was an understatement.) In fact, that's one of the reasons why I am starting this blog. Another reason is that one of my fabulous coworkers inspired me with her adorable blog: I'd also like to open up a TpT store and share ideas that are specific to language arts teachers in grades 3-5. We have a tough and important job. Someone who really knew what they were talking about once told me...

"Teaching writing the right way is hard... really hard." 

I thought, "What does she mean by the right way?" The funny thing is that I start to understand this more and more with each new school year. Teaching writing the right way goes far beyond a spelling pattern trick and a reminder to put periods at the end of your sentences. It goes beyond the longest descriptive word list and the latest mentor text. Teaching writing the right way means a never-ending combination of teaching those nitty-gritty grammar rules, the writing traits, the different types of writing, the writing process, and why caring about what you write is so important. It means that every time there's a new writing prompt, every student gets constructive, meaningful feedback by the teacher and/or a peer. (Otherwise, how can we expect them to improve?) It means going beyond modeling how "easy" writing can be to modeling the real problems you can run into as a writer. As overwhelming as it all sounds, I think that the most important lesson for kids to learn as writers is that their writing must sound like them, and it must come straight from the heart. Teaching writing the right way is hard, but we can do it! I'll do my best to keep this little writing philosophy of mine in mind with every new blog post I write!

- Sarah