Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Most Important Conversation: Teaching the Use of Dialog in Writing

One of the things I miss most this school year has been teaching writing.  My day is spent in either guided reading groups or small supplemental groups for math and reading.  Rarely, do I get to focus with students on their writing skills. I am surprised at how much I miss teaching it.  

However, I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day regarding some trouble she was having getting her students to include dialog in their writing.  After talking about it for a bit, I was able to offer an idea that has worked really well for me in the past.  I thought I would share it with you.

The problems with dialog in student writing can be many:

  • It's fluff.  They simply write dialog that does not contribute to the piece in any real way.
  • It's overused.  There is dialog everywhere!  Sections that could/should be narrative are turned into dialog. Or, everyone is talking all the time!
  • It's underused..  They can reach an important point in the story where dialog would enhance the mood, convey emotion, build background, or provide information to the reader in an interesting way but they don't include it.  Yet, there might be really ineffective use of dialog at another point in the story.
  • It's not used at all.  I have often read stories with the most interesting characters and shocking events and yet never a word is uttered.
One way to help a student to effectively incorporating dialog is to focus them on what I call "The Most Important Conversation."  I sit with a friend and ask him/her, "If two characters could only speak to each other once in this story, what is the most important thing they would talk about?  What is a conversation they would just have to have with each other? What is it they simply must talk about?"

This important conversation will usually happen at a story point that either takes place in the beginning (to set up the story or build background for the story), at the climax (discussion of that amazing thing that just happened), or at the very end (where they wrap it up.)  If your friend is having trouble identifying where to place the conversation, point out a part in the story where something interesting happens and ask what the main characters would say to each other about it.  Sometimes I have even resorted to role playing where we both pretend to be a character and talk to each other about the story event.

I should mention that prior to this, I have found it helpful to first give my friends a mini lesson on why and when we include dialog. Sit down with your class and make an anchor chart that lists the ways dialog can enhance a story, such as set a mood, advance the plot, provide background to the story, show a character's feelings, etc.   Then, read them some examples from books they know.  I promise they will get it!

After some more discussion to flesh out who will have the conversation, when in the story it happens, and what it will be about, I give my friends one of the sheets below. There are two depending on the writer's ability.  Some will stick to basic dialog while others will write more involved dialog and need more space.   I usually copy the same sheet two sided so they aren't too limited on the length of the conversation.  I then send them off to write this conversation.  Having an organizer like the one below has been very helpful to my friends.  It helps them with the flow of the conversation between the characters.

Once they have the conversation written, we incorporate it into the story.  Now, depending on how much your friends know about dialog you may or may not have to go in and work on tags.  Great time for a lesson on not overusing said and using dialog tags to convey character's feelings.

Essentially, by focusing on the most important conversation, you are teaching your friends that dialog has purpose and can be a powerful tool for a writer.  It's not just put in a writing piece because the teacher says you should or we know it will get us a better score on a state test! Focusing on the most important lesson address all those problems I bulleted at the beginning.  It takes the fluff dialog out of the piece, limits the overuse or under-use of dialog to that one important conversation, and for those that never include dialog at all, it's a first step.

I've included a link HERE WHERE YOU CAN DOWNLOAD AND PRINT THE DIALOG SHEETS SHOWN ABOVE.  Of course, you don't need the sheets to do this.  I just find having the two types of speech bubbles helps to keep my friends visually organized on the flow of the conversation.  

By the way, I included a credit page on the download.  But, just in case you were wondering, the speech bubbles are by by Dancing Crayon Designs  ( and the chevron background is from  Designed by Coffee, Kids and Compulsive Lists (  

On another note,
 I have this little list I keep of experiences that remind me
 "You know you're a teacher when. . . "  
Here's one!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Questions About Anecdotal Records in Reading

I am in the process of putting together a tutorial of sorts on how to take and use anecdotal records during reader's workshop.  It is something that is somewhat new to many of my super teacher colleagues and has generated a lot of questions. 

Some of the big questions I have heard are:
What exactly should I be writing down?
When should I be taking notes?
How do I take notes on a whole group?
What do I do with those notes?
How do I translate my notes into grades?
These are all really important and valid questions, and I do have definite answers for them.  My position on these questions is based on what I know has worked well for me and what are best practices.  However, I have to combine that with the constraints of the reading instruction implementation and assessment expectations within my district to provide something that helps my super teacher colleagues. 

The answers to some of those questions can vary slightly depending on the constraints of your district.  For example, mine does not yet use a standards based report card.  So, the question regarding the translation of notes into grades may be answered differently for us than it would be in a district using a standards based report card.  If you even believe the notes should be used for summative grading purposes!  Personally, I fall firmly in the formative category but as I noted, we must all work within the parameters of our district's implementation.

One of my definite positions on the topic is that I believe tying your notes to the CCCS is a must.  I have not seen a whole lot out there that does this.  If we are using the standards to delineate what our students need to achieve, how can we not use them to guide us on instruction and assessment?  Using the CCCS to assist in taking anecdotal records is just one part of the tutorial I am working on.  I've also been doing a lot of professional reading on the topic.  Once I finish putting it all together, my plan is to share it all with you here. No date on that yet, as I am still in the beginning "work in progress" stage, but it will probably be at the end of the summer.

However, before I pull all this together, I would love to hear some thinking outside of my district. There are so many different methods and forms for taking notes and so many varied ways to use them. It can be very easy to become overwhelmed by all the note taking. I would love a better idea of what struggles and success others have had when it comes to anecdotal records in reading. 

If  you have a minute, please take a few and let me know what your struggles and success have been with anecdotal records in the comment section.  Please feel free to let your comments be a long as they need to be!  I know this is a broad topic, and I truly appreciate the time you take in offering your thoughts. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Random Thoughts on a Random Day

Lots of random thoughts today on lots of random topics. . .

I went on an "I-am-bored-so-let's-go-to-Target-and-spend-money-on-random-things-I-don't-really-need" shopping trip.  You know those dollar bins they have in the front of the store?  Well, I found these gems on the right.  Orange, yellow, pink, and red striped magazine files.  Too cute!  They don't exactly match the cute striped ones below that I got at Ikea for my friends to use as book bins, but I love 'em anyway!  The best part is that all black dot items were 50% off, so I scored those babies for just fifty cents each!

I'm  making maracas!   On that unnecessary Target shopping trip, I also picked up two bags of plastic Easter eggs for 50% off.  These two big bags were just a dollar each. Last year, I wrote a post called Some EGGcellent Ideas that gives a bunch of ideas on what to do with all those leftover plastic eggs. In looking back at the post, I was surprised to see that I never included the maraca idea.  If you want more info on how to make them, visit the blog Dana Made It.  She has a perfect tutorial with step by step directions.
My plan is to make them for Cinco de Mayo.  Well, actually we will be making them on Tres de Mayo as the fifth falls on a Sunday. :-)

Above is my lame attempt to give it a trial run.  Lesson learned - Get better masking tape!  Mine wasn't so sticky so it didn't wrap around the egg too well.  I'm thinking of also getting some wider tape so that I can just have my friends wrap it once.

My latest library book sale haul!  If you read my blog, you may know that I love buying books on the cheap from my local library book sale.  Below are the books I was lucky enough to find on my last visit.  It was a good day!  Too many books to fit in one picture!
Buying books from library sales is a perfect way to stock your classroom library for what can literally be pocket change.  Since my teaching position changed this year, I found my library required a serious overhaul.  I needed a lot more books at lower levels.  Luckily, I've been able to find many good books over the course of the year.

SMARTIES for smarties!  Yes, I still give my friends Smarties on occasion.   The name alone makes them a school food!  Okay, I kid about it being a school food.  But, sometimes we all need a little sweetness in our day!

Which leads me to my next random thought. . .

My favorite "new" app is Color Splash.  I put new in quotes because this app has been around a long time.  I'm just late to the party.  But, what a party it is!  Essentially, this app lets you take any picture, convert it to black and white, and then color any part of the picture you want.  Above, you can see that I used the app on the Smarties picture.  I also used it on the pictures of the books and the trial run maraca, but since the backgrounds were originally on the gray side it doesn't show as well as it does in the Smarties picture.
I also used the app in my post about two picture books for writing lessons when I took this picture at Barnes and Noble.  Since I still can't find my camera and am using my iPhone for pictures at the moment, this app has made it all a little more fun.  It is well worth the $0.99!

And, finally my most random thought of all. . . 
I can't get enough of this stuff! :-)

So, what random thoughts are floating around with you today?