How to Use Super Sentences in Google Classroom

It’s easy to make the transition to remote instruction with Super Sentences. Here’s how:

Assign a specific time for your students to be online. While much of your home instruction may be independent work, the benefits of Super Sentences is the interactivity. The kids need to be online sharing their sample sentences and providing feedback to one another.

On Monday, introduce a new stream or thread in Google Classroom by typing the week’s given structure. For example, were I teaching structure #14, Command, I’d post this: “Commands give orders or directions, but they only require an exclamation point if they’re delivered in a commanding tone. For example, at the end of this lesson, your teacher may give you a command requiring only a period: Turn in your papers.”

In the same thread, type the sample sentence: “Take off your shower cap this instant or I’ll feed your liver and onions to the neighbor’s goat!”
Next, give the students three topics and invite them to post their own sentence. You’ll need to remind them to remain IN THE SAME THREAD. I’ve capitalized it because I’ve found students jumping threads is the death knell to online interactivity. This cannot be emphasized enough!
As students post their sentences, invite them also to comment on one another’s. I provide feedback by asking the class questions like “Can anyone help Chuck see what’s missing in his sentence?” Or, “Chuck is missing a key piece of punctuation. Can anyone spot it?” I also fire off compliments when I see a really great sentence such as, “Chuck’s sentence is awesome. Can anyone tell us why?” (Just added: here’s a screenshot of an actual thread with mu students; it ended up being about 80 comments long. Hopefully it’ll be legible enough to give you the gist of it.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday I repeat the same process, but I use one of the kids sentence as the example.

On Thursday, I have students post and submit their sentence on a Google Form. This is their weekly test. Have they learned the given structure? Were they able to write an error-free sentence? I grade these sentences and send each student feedback/corrections via Classroom.

Finally, on Friday I have my students post their corrected sentence on our class webpage. I create a post entitled “This Week’s Super Sentences.” Students post their sentences in the “comments” field.

Super Sentences was originally published by Scholastic. I’ve updated and made it available on my TpT storefront in various ala-carte volumes. Sentence structures range from simple sentences to things like “sentences containing a metaphor” and “sentences using commas in a series.” No, it’s not full blown essay writing (you’ll need Perfect Paragraphs for that), but it provides kids in grades 3 through 8 daily writing practice, leading them to develop that innate sense of sentence structure so important to reading and writing competence. It’s engaging because it uses their own writing as the lesson (as opposed to a traditional grammar text that offer stilted “Dick & Jane-type” sentences to correct). Give it a try. It’s inexpensive and come with reproduction rights (make sure you’re respecting copyright when posting online). Best of all, when this pandemic is over, you’ll have your complete PDF of Super Sentences to use no matter what the circumstances: in the regular classroom, in your computer lab, on Chromebooks, or remotely.

Take care, my friends!

A Little Help for Your Online Instruction

At my school we’re expecting to be “teaching remotely” until the end of April. What that means remains to be seen, but it’ll obviously require a lot of content to be delivered online. Unless you can rig up a conference call with ten or twelve students at a time, reader’s theater is probably a scratch, so I’m focusing instead on other material. There is a ton of new fangled “plug and play” programs out there, but if you’d like a bit of the tried and true mixed in to your online content, here’s some of what I’ll be using next month.

Super Sentences will keep your kids writing and discussing even during a shut down. It has students write one sentence fitting a specific construct each day. One week you might work on “Dialogue Sentences” and the next you might teach “Sentences Containing a Compound Predicate.” Almost all your grammar instruction is embedded in the program, and it’s perfectly built for Google Classroom. You’ll get the nitty gritty in the detailed product instructions, but the basics look like this: Post the example and the tips as an “Assignment” and have each student respond with his or her sentence. Because the whole group can see the responses, both you and your students can provide feedback, just as in the regular class. On the next day, choose two or three sentences to repost with your teacher comments, and then have kids write new sentences, repeating this process daily until crafting error-free sentence on the test at the end of the week. Super Sentences comes in two ala-carte volumes. Volume One is included in tandem with Perfect Paragraphs, which is another item suited to online learning.

Perfect Paragraphs asks students to unscramble a sample paragraph fitting a specific genre. Once they’ve re-arranged the sentences in the proper paragraph format, they’re then directed to write a paragraph of their own on the same topic and following the same structure. (The concept here is that kids become proficient by initially imitating. Think human speech, or how you own child learned to read, or how Picasso learned to paint.) As with any writing task, editing, revising, and sharing follow. I plan on having my students complete one paragraph-writing activity every other week. Once again, the details are in the product instructions, but Google Docs is a perfect match given how teacher and student can watch one another write and comment in real time. Ideally, students will need to be able to view a PDF of the unscrambling worksheet and the paragraph writing template before doing all their typing in Docs. Perfect Paragraphs comes as a complete package or in three ala-carte levels, including a set of multi-paragraph writing tasks. You can try out a free sample here.

EZSub Plans are typically marketed to subs and teachers in need of emergency, self-directed lessons. Well, this is an emergency and it turns out these plans are pretty ideal for remote learning! You merely need to provide PDFs of each lesson. Each package always includes reading, writing, math, and art activities, as well as a few mini-lessons. Kids may have to be a bit more resourceful than they are in the classroom, making due with materials on hand and tracking down certain tools (such as a ruler), but most of it is within reason. EZSubPlans are fun for kids and designed to be easy to teach. They come in four grade levels—3rd through 6th–but they’re interchangeable to a large degree (the 3rd grade sets could be considered 3rd-5th; the 4th and 5th grade sets are suitable for 4th and up, etc.) If grading is important, students can send their answers to you via Google Classroom. Or if you prefer, you can simply share each included answer key and have students self-correct. Cake!

One super important asterisk about sharing all this material online: please be careful about posting copyrighted material. If someone outside your class can download it, you’ll be violating copyright. While programs such as Google Classroom allow you to share items within a private environment (students must sign-in), class webpages are often public or “open.” I see this frequently with Weebly pages. Teachers with good intentions share material from, say, Scope magazine. They’re simply trying to provide remote access to their students. The problem is that everyone else on the web can access it too. So, whether you’re using my products or someone else’s, please respect copyright by making sure your online access is restricted.

Now, how about we figure out a way to arrange that conference call? I’ve got some great Read Aloud Plays that are ideal for Spring, whether school is shuttered or not…

Let’s hope and pray for a quick end to this virus.

How to Host an “Old School” Writers’ Festival

Anthology of Public School WritingWhen seven-year-old Kelsey Drake stepped to the microphone, she hesitated. Perhaps she felt nervous about presenting her writing before such a large audience. Then again, maybe it was just the mouthful of prize-winning devil’s food cake she was chewing. After a moment’s pause and a hard swallow, without regard for the goo smeared all over her face, or the chocolate finger prints across her otherwise fresh copy of Yeah Huh!, she calmly clutched the mic and in a sometimes stuttered, sing-songy voice, read her masterpiece:

One day I went hunting with my dad and my big brother and their friends in the woods. I got the biggest deer and it had very big antlers. The big boys cried. We took the deer home and Mom said, “The boys are big babies.” I said, “Maybe next time, babies.”

Though clearly a beginner, in that moment Kelsey received everything real writers want. True, her byline came in a book you can’t buy through Amazon. And her audience was merely a gym full of kids. It’s also unlikely Roald Dahl ever accepted payment in the form of a pecan kiss, a piece of German lebkuchen, or a slice from a cake shaped like a big yellow school bus. But the exhilaration for Kelsey is the same. At that moment, she’s a real writer.

Professionals write to express themselves to a wide audience, to make money, and for that oft-elusive byline. Kids, however, seldom have this opportunity. In fact, rarely do we give them any more motivation to write than to assign a topic and wave their report card at them. These days my students routinely publish their writing on the Web, but while doing so seemed really cutting-edge a decade ago, it now seems to be losing its appeal. The Web appears so vast that a fifth grader’s eloquently-crafted poem about donut holes can quickly disappear in the mud we call bandwidth.

All this has me thinking about simpler days when we used to print real books full of student-writing, books you could hold in your hand and re-read over and over again. I have a number of such books in my classroom. While it would be rare for a current student to go back through the archives of my school webpage to read student-writing from even a few years ago, they still pick up my copies of Fresh Corn, Yeah Huh!, and Mmm!, three lovely little anthologies from more than a decade ago.

I miss those days.

So, I dug out an article I published in Instructor on organizing a school-wide writers’ festival. It’s excerpted below. My hope is that it’ll germinate into getting such an event started at my current school. And, I challenge you to do the same at yours.

At my old school, every student who submitted material–generally about 70% of the k-5 population–became a published author. They also attended a dessert banquet where they scarfed down a smorgasbord of sweets concocted by staff members and parents. They received their contributor’s copy of the anthology, gathered the autographs of their fellow authors, and had the chance to read their work into an open mic. It was all designed to motivate students to hone their skills and reward them for their effort.

“It’s a good feeling,” said then-student Casey C. when recalling the festival. “It’s kind of cool to see your writing in a book.” She credited the event for her enthusiasm for writing. “Before the festival, I didn’t think I was much of a writer. Now I feel like I’m pretty good, so I really enjoy it.”

The anthology validates the kids’ work,” explained fourth grade teacher Matt D. “It makes it more meaningful. Consequently, they put more effort into it.”

Back in those days, the festival went beyond just encouraging young writers. It contributed to a favorable school climate, one that enriched learning in general. Perhaps that’s why those kids were so comfortable with a mic.

“I like reading into the microphone best,” noted one student. Her younger sister Olivia agreed. Unfortunately, she found herself at the end of the line and didn’t get the chance. “It would have been embarrassing,” said Olivia, “but I still wanted to do it.”

Still, are the benefits enough to justify all the work that goes into developing your own festival? Certainly. It promotes a school-wide focus on a subject that, due to its inherent difficulty, is sometimes neglected. The open mike also gives students practice with public speaking, and the anthology itself encourages reading. “I keep the old copies in my classroom,” said one teacher. “The kids like to go back and look for their friends.” Third grader Tim B. admitted to being too scared to read his work aloud. “But I read all the other kids’ when they were up there,” he said. “I was following along.”

If all that’s not enough to convince you to start your own festival, just have a chat with then-third grader Doug V. “When you’re focused on being graded,” said Doug, “you get all worried. But when you’re writing for fun, you do better. The Writers’ Festival makes it fun.”

Ready to give it a shot? Here are the steps we followed:

Promote it. Begin by visiting classrooms. Your personal sales pitch will generate immediate interest. Point out the joys of being published and the gastronomical pleasures of the dessert banquet. You could even share some food samples during your pitch! Also, be sure to send a flyer home with every student. It’s often the parents of a student who most encourage participation.

Give it an identity. Generate extra excitement by holding a school-wide contest to name the anthology. We looked for quirky, easy-to-remember titles that captured the personality and youthfulness of our students. Our first edition, based on a sign along the road near the school, was entitled Fresh Corn. Later additions bore names such as Pinky Toe. Each edition is also subtitled “An Anthology of Public School Writing.” Also hold a cover art contest. In addition to selecting a winner (to whom we awarded a $5 to $10 gift certificate) we also used the best of the rest to dress up the inside of the anthology. Be careful, though, about distracting students from their stories. Wait until after the deadline for written submissions has passed before opening your cover contest.

Enlist the cooperation of your staff. Encourage teachers to devote class time to generating entries. The writing their students do for the festival can double as an in-class assignment, or students can simply select their entry from a portfolio of material they’ve written during the school year. The latter approach promoted reflection and self-evaluation. It also resulted in a broader range of modes appearing in the anthology, though we found we got better material when we encouraged first-person narratives.

Print it. With modern computer technology, publishing a respectable anthology is relatively simple. Still, if you have to type one hundred or more manuscripts yourself, your book may never reach the printing press. Therefore, don’t accept hard copies. Consider using Google Docs or some other mechanism to have kids “drop” their manuscript to a pre-determined electronic location. This will allow you to focus your energies on formatting and editing rather than typing. Because our anthology was produced by a single individual, these requirements were essential. Also allow yourself some time to play with formatting. It’s accomplished with relative ease by adjusting margins and font headings, but in order to get the pages in just the right order and printing front to back, plan on doing some experimenting.

We always wanted our publication to look as much like a book as possible. After reviewing “real” literary anthologies, we decided to avoid spiral binding and instead used a half-sheet format. Standard 8 ½ x 11 inch sheets are turned horizontally and folded, then bound using a binding stapler. The result is a 5 ½ x 8 ½ inch book with black printing. For the cover we used good quality color stock with a grey tone art. If you have an excessive number of entries–more than seventy pages worth–produce two volumes. Be sure to allow plenty of time. Our first year, I had to turn my third grade class into an assembly line to collate, then stayed up nights folding and stapling by hand.

Print enough for every participant—and then print a few more. We put a $1 “suggested donation” price tag on ours. It lent an element of prestige to the book, and the twenty or thirty additional copies we sold in our office paid for some of the printing costs. The kids get excited when their moms come in to buy one for Grandma or to mail to an aunt.

Make the authors’ reception a big event. It’s the payoff for the kids: their name in print, an audience for their work, and a tangible–in our case, edible–reward. If all those sweets worry you, or if your school has a prohibition against homemade baked goods, we discovered that most kids favor watermelon over just about anything. A more formal, evening event with fruit punch or lemonade and lace is another worthy idea. Regardless, this is the time to “release” the anthology and give students a chance to be acknowledged as writers. “It felt good,” said third grader Megan S. when discussing her work in Mmm! “It was the first book I was ever in. But I was also nervous because everybody was reading my story.”

It will feel good for you as well. When the festival is all over, you’ll be as proud of your accomplishment as you are exhausted from your effort, but it’s the joy in the voices of the kids that will drive you to take on the challenges of this project year after year. One of my favorite festival memories took place as I wiped down tables after our first dessert banquet. Everyone had gone back to their classrooms except for one little primary student. It didn’t matter to her that I was the only one who’d hear her story. Perhaps she didn’t even realize it. She stepped up to the mic and belted it out as if reciting to a capacity crowd. It’s as I listened that I began making plans for the next year’s festival.

A Few More Tips:

Don’t hold your festival too early. Give teachers time to develop a writing program with their current students. Give students time to develop a portfolio from which to choose their entry. February is late enough in the year to have honed some writing skills, yet early enough to complete all the printing.

Include everyone. The purpose of your anthology should be to encourage writing and build confidence. Even the one sentence story from the first grader has value.

Establish a maximum length.
We used to tell our students that their hand-written rough draft must be three pages or less. Less tends to be better, as elementary students tend to ramble.

Edit. Published writers have editors, so too should your student authors. Even your most advanced students will submit work needing further polishing, particularly because they’ll be more likely to attempt techniques beyond their developmental level. However, limit your editing to the basics.

Include an index or table of contents. Students get frustrated if they can’t quickly locate their friends’ stories, but creating this page can be a challenge. Wait until all the stories have been processed and the pages numbered, then go through and develop your contents page.

Recruit parents to help with purchasing and/or preparing the items you plan to serve at the reception. Check on your district’s food policy. Some schools prohibit homemade food from being served. Also arrange some help with clean-up.

Limit your mic time. While most of the stories your students will be reading will be short, suggest to your more advanced writers that they read only the first few paragraphs to “hook” the audience into continuing on their own.

Alert the media. Invite your local news people to attend your dessert banquet. Make sure they get copies of your anthology. Favorable publicity is always beneficial to your school and public education in general.

Allow your festival to develop its own personality. All that really matters is that your students have fun becoming “real writers.”

Finally, (here’s my sales pitch), use my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs to teach your kids foundation writing skills. It’s a complete daily and weekly writing program in a straight-forward, systematic format. Published by Scholastic, it’s available through Amazon, Scholastic, and Teacher Express. You can also pick up a free sample activity from TeachersPayTeachers.

Happy directing, er, emceeing.

Tongue In, Mouth Closed

Click here to preview or download this free sampler pack!McKenna, one of my most “with-it” fourth graders, came up with a new concept I think is worth sharing here. The class was working from my book Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs (2009, Scholastic), writing “Dialogue Sentences with Alternate Tags.” My book teaches kids to use the phrases “open mouth” and “closed mouth” to describe open and closing quotation marks. Such a concrete image seems to help them understand where to place the marks. But another necessary punctuation mark in a dialogue sentence is that little comma separating what was said from who said it.

“I’d sure like a package of Necco Assorted Wafers,” drooled Freddie as he stared through the front window of Candy’s Candy Shop.

That little comma between “wafers” and “drooled” is often neglected by young writers, and even when remembered, it’s sometimes incorrectly placed outside the closing quotes. Young McKenna came up with a solution by referring to is as “the tongue.” “You need to pull your tongue in before you close your mouth,” she said, and the rest of the class has quickly capitalized on it.

I’m not surprised. Because “Super Sentences” facilitates thoughtful discussion of and feedback about writing, my students are constantly coming up with unique perspectives—and great sentences. True, they’re still just 4th graders and therefore subject to all the forgetfulness and sloppiness familiar to intermediate and middle school teachers everywhere. But Super Sentences has certainly improved their writing skills. You can purchase and immediately download a PDF version of Super Sentences from Scholastic Teacher Express for just a few bucks. You can also download a free sampler of Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraph here.

In an era when we seem to be over-complicating teaching to the point that we’re nearly dysfunctional, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs is simple, easy-to-use, and fun to teach. It’s as straight forward as “pulling your tongue in before you close your mouth.”

Could This Guy Pass the Smarter Test?

Would Will hunting pass the Smarter Balanced test?Am I wrong, or is the title of the nation’s new standardized test grammatically incorrect? Did the benevolent creators of this new system mean to say the test represents a “smarter balance” when compared to previous tests? If so, shouldn’t they have said balance—a noun—rather than balanced, a verb? Or maybe they meant smartly balanced, which makes me wonder why they used an adjective rather than an adverb.

Or perhaps they mean this fancy new test is both smarter and balanced? No doubt someone in the marketing department didn’t like the way the punctuation looked in the logo. Apparently, neither hyphens nor commas compel us to buy. Personally, I suspect they probably want the test to represent a Smart Balance, but when they discovered that such a moniker connotes a “smooth buttery consistency,” well, that’s when the trouble surely began.Smart-Balance or Smarter-Balanced?

Whether smartly balanced, a smarter balance, or smarter-balanced, one thing’s for sure: the new test is giving teachers and admins the heebie jeebies pretty much everywhere. I recently attended a Smarter Balanced workshop put on by the Oregon Department of Education covering details of the assessment. Here are a few take-aways:

*It’s finally time to give up teaching cursive. The tests, regardless of subject, will evaluate keyboarding skills as much or more than anything else. (I suspect even Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting would have a hard time passing the Smarter math test. Those complex math proofs he delineates on the chalkboard? He’d have to type them on a computer screen using numbers and words, not those alien symbols only true math geeks understand.) What you can do now: have your students word process everything–and in all subjects. Be sure, too, to practice highlighting individual sentences. Pity the school that has fallen behind technologically.

* Say “so long” to Romeo & Juliet. There will be greater emphasis placed on non-fiction texts. According the the Dept. of Ed: the higher the grade level, the more students should be reading non-fiction. What to do now: have your students read (and write) more non-fiction.

* Dust off the MLA Handbook. The uptick in plagiarism during the digital age has the experts all worked up about citing sources. On the test, students will be expected to recall direct quotations from a given text and use phrases such as “According to” when referring back to them. What to do now: lots of persuasive reading and writing. Storyworks magazine has a nice “debate” activity in every issue in which students must read a non-fiction text and then debate (in writing) each side of a given argument. That’s good practice for the test.

* Teach them to be sleuths. Having the right answer won’t be enough anymore. Students have to be able to identify the evidence. Where in the text did they find the information necessary to answer the question? What to do now: teach students to highlight evidence when completing comprehension activities or discussing what they’ve read.

* Do you validate? What you’re teaching now is still worthwhile. The writing process: still valid. Higher level taxonomy: still valid (though they’ve abandoned Bloom’s for what appears to be a decent system called “Depth of Knowledge” or DOK). And here comes my shameless plug: if you use my daily writing program, Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs, you’re already teaching to certain elements of the test. Not only does SSPP teach standard writing skills, it also asks kids to highlight and color code specific kinds of sentences. At my school, students word-process their paragraphs and then highlight and color code each sentence. Super Sentences also teaches sentence structures using the “According to” and “In my opinion” phrasing, as well as how to use direct and indirect quotations.

Whether smartly balanced or just a smooth, buttery consistency, I’m confident the Smarter Balanced test won’t be around forever. It’s the fourth standardized testing system implemented during my twenty-plus year career. If history has anything to say about it, we’ll be talking about something different in six or seven years. Consider this, when the sons and daughters of politicians go home and say, “I flunked the smarter test,” something’s gonna give. In the meantime, the skills the test evaluates are indeed important, so we all may as well just jump right in.

Expert: Common Core May Be Too Complex for Your Students

SSPP CoverI recently attended a presentation by a University of Oregon professor discussing the challenges of revamping the curriculum to satisfy the Common Core. One thing I came away with was that consistently using Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs will most certainly help, so rather than blog about reader’s theater, this week I’d like to chat about your writing instruction.

The good professor displayed a question from a fifth grade standardized test and asked, “What makes the following difficult?”

The Earth is a bit like a perfectly boiled egg—with a semi-liquid yolk or “core,” surrounded by a thick, soft layer called the mantle, and covered by a thin hard shell called the crust. The core in the very center is metal but the crust and mantle are made entirely from rock.

Fifth graders, she suggested, are not typically exposed to sentences with multiple clauses or with such a breadth of punctuation. When they do encounter such complexity—such as when reading independently—they’re typically left to decipher it themselves. Users of Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs, however, know that my writing program teaches these deciphering skills explicitly. By asking kids to construct and discuss sentences containing commas in a series, dialogue, dashes, or even ellipses, they’re more prepared to understand them when they encounter them in their reading.

Everyone publishing anything having to do with curriculum is claiming it meets Common Core. No doubt you’re discovering that many don’t actually do so. However, the Super Sentences program very clearly aligns to Conventions of Standard English in grades 3 through 6 (L.3.2, L.4.2, L.5.2, L.6.2). For example, L.4.2.c requires that students “Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence,” which is taught in Super Sentences activity #5 and reinforced throughout all later sentence-writing tasks. Super Sentences, in fact, teaches all the Language standards (L), while Perfect Paragraphs covers all the Writing standards (W). Additionally, Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs indirectly supports meeting the standards for Craft and Structure in both Literature (RL.#.4, RL.#.6) and Informational Text (RI.#.4, RI.#.6).

Now you can watch a “how-to video” on using Super Sentences in the classroom. The fourteen minute tutorial consolidates four days of instruction. In each 20 minute session, each student wrote one sentence fitting a specific construction (in this case, using semi-colons), and the class analyzed and discussed four  or five of these student-generated sentences each day. On the fourth day, students crafted the sentence on which they received a grade (using a simple rubric). The teacher’s role is to facilitate student discussion. Of course, complete details on how to implement the program appear in the book.

You can purchase Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs at Scholastic.com, at Amazon.com, or for immediate download in PDF, at Scholastic Teacher Express. It’s a complete year-long daily writing program in a small package, and it’s a surefire way to help prepare your students in grades 3 through 8 for the complex new world of the Common Core.