Category Archives: Writing class novels/books

Class books

Reading, Preschool, Kindergarten, School

I am loving teaching Spanish classes. We are not moving very fast through the curriculum. In fact, we are kind of stuck on the first lesson in every class. But we are speaking Spanish, and we are having fun.

That said, one of the things I love doing is making books for classes. When I find out something new about kids, it’s hard not to rush out and use the story right away.


Luckily for my kids, who might be inundated, I make mistakes even in simple Spanish, and have to get the books corrected. (As you might guess, though, sometimes three different Spanish speakers have three different opinions. That’s the case in Russian, too.)

So – here is a kindergarten book about our animals.

Here is a book that will grow as we learn about families.

Here’s a book about what the children think a missing student might be doing.

We made up a story about my whale. I wanted them to learn my name: Señora Ballena. It didn’t work, but we had a story.

As you can see, they’re not high-quality, but the families can read them (they’re posted on a public blog site), and I print them out and bind them for the various classrooms.

We’re going to have a series of books about families as we do an interview for La Persona Especial every day in most classes.



Picture credit:

Attend our Second Friday CI!

On Friday, Karen Cafmeyer presented our Anchorage CI group with two big ideas: a cartoon story for the first week of Spanish and a class novel unit that she does twice a year at every level.

Karen is a well-prepared presenter. Her advice to teachers is so specific anyone can follow it, and she’s so enthusiastic that some of us are going to take the leap and do it this time. As Diana said, it takes listening to the presentation twice before you think you’ve got it. Luckily for anyone reading this, you can see it twice too! In fact, you can come to our meeting by clicking here, since I recorded it and then messed with the sound files so that you can hear everything, including occasional pithy comments from Martina’s sweet Ellis, except for the couple of minutes that I somehow turned off the sound. It’s long, but Karen doesn’t waste any time during the presentation.

We had a small but mighty group in attendance, including three past and one future president of AFLA, our AFLA secretary, with French, German, Russian and Japanese languages represented. (We also had many food groups represented: caffeine, chocolate, fruit and pasta.)

As Betsy pointed out, the novel unit can be used to answer requirements for inter-disciplinary teaching, given the different ways Karen offered to frame it.

After the presentation, Karen asked for feedback on her way of circling, which turned out to be a creative way of using pictures on powerpoint. We discussed the downsides of circling and shared ideas to keep it from getting deadly. We also talked about how to implement and use fast writes. Then we got onto the topic of sentence frames, which Diana demonstrated. Our group drops big names all the time! Classroom jobs: Bryce Hedstrom and Ben Slavic. Circling: Susie Gross and Carol Gaab. Numbered blanks for fast writes: Scott Benedict. Comparison sentence frames: Señor Wooly.

Hope you’ll join us!

Speaking/writing rubric

I think I finally have a rubric for speaking and writing that is perfect for me (at least, until the next time I change it). Here it is in Word format (I think).

This rubric has my expectations in four columns. “Meets Expectations” is the first column so that students don’t need to search for it, and it’s in grey. There is space underneath the expectations so that I can record notes about vocabulary and grammar while they’re talking or as I read. And it fits all levels, because I left off the specific structures for the upper levels that were intimidating the lower-level kids. It worked really well for me. I’m going to test-run it just a couple more times, and then hope to put two on a page, back-to-back, to collect four different scores on one page so that kids and I can see their progress.

Creating my own readers

I’ve been going back and forth on what I should request for my budget for next year.  What I really need is more reading materials, but I don’t necesarily think that means more readers.  I already have some pretty good TPRS-centered readers for my German I and II classes in addition to novels for my III/IV classes, but I that wasn’t the core of what I did.  I mean I have the readers, but my students so much prefered reading THEIR stories to what was already published, that we didn’t use them a huge amount. But how do you store a bunch of printouts and papers?  I’ve got bookshelves for traditional books, but not for self-published ones; they just flop out and fall on the floor after a week or two.

So after kicking this around for a month or so, I finally figured out what I need: magazine racks.  We do enough writing in my classes–stories, choose your own adventure stories, vocab picture books, etc.–that what I really need is a better way to organize the stuff that we’re already turning out so that it gets recycled and read better.

Of the various racks on the market, my favorite is right here: It has 20 slots that will fit 8.5 X 11 printouts quite easily, and I just got approved to order two of them.

Now the trick comes in looking how to fill these racks.  The core of my collection will be the class stories that we generate over the course of the year.  We generate a few of these every week, but every so often I want to take a break to let my students illustrate the stories as well.  Every month or so I will go ahead and “publish” the collection from the past month (between 5-10 copies depending on interest), bind them together, and put them out there.  Because I teach levels I-IV, this will also create reading material for my advanced lower level students so that they can see what we’re doing in the upper levels, keeping them with a challenge. 

With a vibrantly renewing reading collection, I can budget more time for FVR because they’ll always have something new to read.  The beauty of this is that I can recycle basic story scripts year in and year out and still get entirely different readings because PQA and student participation makes each story their own. 

By having this reading collection officially “published”, then, I’m not only validating my students on a personal level for sharing their creativity, but I will also do a better job of reviewing and recycling structures as they come up throughout the year.

CYOA: Putting it all together

For the last couple of days I have had my students now combine their pictures and scripts in electronic format so they would all fit together.  To facilitate this, I use Moodle as an electronic file organizer.  I gave everybody their pictures that had been reduced in size through moodle and also gave them all a template into which they should insert their pictures and copy and paste their texts.

This template was basically a table with room at the top for a title for each page they were working on.  To simplify matters, I asked everybody to make each title correspond to their names: MattA, MattB, MattC, etc.  I showed them how to insert a picture and make the text wrap around it (right click on the picture; choose text wrapping; choose square). An example of a finished page follows:

The trick here is keeping all the links to the next part straight.  As you will note at the bottom of the page, the name of the link follows the action, in this case “MattB” or “JessieA.”  In this way I can easily keep track of where to make the hyperlinks and track what goes to where.

Now I have to admit that Matt, who created the above sample is one of my more on-track students and had no trouble following these directions.  Others…not so much.  For their benefit (and mine) then I asked each group to mark up their wall planners.  First of all, I asked them to write on the planner who was working on what section.  In the picture below, you can see what part Ruben did, what part Aaron did and what part Eric did.  In addition to these labels, I then had them put in the respective “A, B, C, D, etc.” of each section so I would be able to reconstruct what section linked to what section.  This will be helpful to me if somebody isn’t very exact, but it is also helpful to them because they can see what links to write down in their write-ups.

Finally, I had them put big X marks through the sections that were finished combining text, pictures and links.  This way when if one person finished way ahead of their group and somebody else in the group was dragging their feet, I could reassign sections and easily point out where the work needed to be done.

This last combination/write up stage has now gone for a couple days, but we’re just wrapping up now.  If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn’t bother with the tables because they can be fiddly at times; next time I would just have everybody put their page title at the top of the page, and drop in their text and pictures below them.  Much simpler, and then I would copy and paste these finished segments into tables myself as part of my final edit.

Next step: inserting the hyperlinks and wrapping up


Vocabulary Picture book

It all started a couple months ago when I told people they could doodle on the backs of their vocab tests for extra credit.  Some people always finish up before the other people, so I told them for one extra credit point they could use a word from the vocab test in a sentence and illustrate it.  They LOVED it!  After everybody was done with the test, I showed their creations on the document camera and we had a great time playing with the language.

Then I decided that this made actually a pretty fun idea to review for my tests, so about a week before the test, we did the same thing in the class using mini whiteboards.  Again, this was a big hit and several people said that it helped them.  This not only got up a bunch of reps on words, but it introduced a visual element that helped people process it.

So finally, it finally occurred to me that this would be a good way to not only study for the test, but could make an excellent FVR resource as well.  I started out by writing down each vocab word (this last list had 30) on my board and underlined it.  As each class came in, I asked them to sign their name under two of the words so as to make sure that everything was covered.  When I had smaller classes or started getting saturation on a few words, I would put a big X under that word so the others got more coverage.

I took the papers, scanned them and then created a book out of the following collection of pictures.  The picture on the right is for “nobody.”  The captions read “Nobody likes the test”; “There is nobody in this picture” and “Nobody likes me.”

The beauty of this is that the creativity and ownership of these is off the charts.  The “test” picture is nowhere near as technically good as the “likes me” picture, but they both do the trick just fine.

If a grammar point comes up like the difference between “neimand” and “niemanden” I will answer anybody who asks, but mostly they just need to see and process language in context.  If I have a verb as the target vocab structure, I often will try to create sentences that conjugate the verb according to different subject positions “I try, he tries, we try, etc.”  It’s so easy to leave everything in the third person that they need to see the different forms, especially for irregular verbs.

Another area where these vocab lists are useful is in modelling the past tense forms as well.  In this set of pictures for the verb “belongs to” the captions are “The cow belongs to me” “Hey, that belongs to me” and “Flowers belong to girls!”  Notice underneath the flowers caption I rewrote the sentence in the past tense, and put it into italics in order to make it stand out. In this way my students get to see the past tense forms.

In short, I like this approach because it allows me to create compelling texts that target the structures on our vocab list while making something worth reading.

Overall it took me about 45 minutes to scan and crop everything and another hour and a half to plug everything into the template I created.  That’s a pretty good time outlay, but because I would only be doing once per quarter (which is how often I rotate my verb lists) it’s worth the investment to me.

CYOA Days 3 and 4: Creating an overview

Yesterday I attended an RtI conference so I had my students in my absence type up their free writes so I had nice written versions of them.  Today when I got back I handed each group a big sheet of paper (I have a big honking roll) their typed up freewrites and instructions to cut and paste their typed up outlines onto the big paper.  If parts of their outlines still needed to be typed up, they should copy their outline in pen (or sharpie) onto the big paper in English. The finished product ended up looking like this:

You’ll see here a messy mix of lines, printouts and notes.  Just how I like it.  Because the scope of this project makes it easy for people to loose track of where they are, I can look at the above and see exactly what needs to still be done.  For things that are typed up, I’m happy with it.  If they have things written in pen, then that’s where they need to work next.  Now when it comes time to do another freewrite I’ll just tell people to go look at their poster hung on the wall and see what still needs work.

This is also useful as a means of getting an idea of what needs a little bit of expansion.  In the following outline, most everything was all typed up, but some areas needed a little work yet.

If some descriptions look a little thin, I just put a black asterix next to that part so they can tell what still needs doing.

After having done this, I think that for the next round of freewrites and re-writes, I won’t have them type up the descriptions yet, but we’ll just cut out the freewrites they do in hand directly to the wall.  This way we can fill our holes better and move along more quickly to the next stage, which involves getting pictures to illustrate these mini-episodes.  On Monday we’ll walk in, pull the posters off the wall and have each group start with a five minute free-write to quickly patch the narrative holes.  Then I’ll have them sit down and figure out what pictures they’ll need to take on Tuesday, what props they’ll need to bring, and who can bring a camera. If we have any time left, we’ll grab a couple cameras I’ll have onhand and start taking pictures right away.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is, but the work is done much more on their part than mine; my job is to be a project manager that keeps everything moving along.  The real concern I have is not so much the effort this requires, but rather the time taken away from CI discussions while doing them.  For myself, anyways, I have answered that question in two ways.  On the one hand, the product of these stories when finished is a very useful tool for me to use with my students of all levels next year, where I can get several days of compelling reading in because it is student generated.  On the other hand, the process is very very satisfying for the students because they see what they can actually do with the language and pay it forward for other classes down the road.  My graduating seniors like being able to “leave their mark” on this project, and I like to give a copy of these stories to my graduating seniors as a parting gift. At this time of year I’m less concerned about using every last minute as I am about creating an indelible final impression of the school year that sticks with people.

CYOA Day 2: I love Freewrites

There are a lot of parts about creating a choose your own adventure (CYOA) project that the students really like: planning out the plot lines, taking pictures, reading what other people have come up with.  It’s a different type experience and they like looking back at the results.  Whenever I’ve done this in the past, however, the only part that I had to drag them through was in writing up what they had planned.  You know, the part where they actually use the language.  In the past when I had done CYOAs as a year-end project, the project dragged on for days and days while they wrote drafts and further drafts and searched for the right words, etc.   In the end I usually had to end up rewriting everything on the sly to add more details and make it usable for my other classes.

With that burden of pain in mind, I realized going into day two that I didn’t have to live that life anymore because of a little thing my students already excel in: freewrites.  To begin the day, I put everybody back into their groups with the outlines they had written the day before and told them to prepare for a five minute freewrite.  This freewrite really wasn’t that free–they each had to identify one section of the outline they had written to describe what was happening on that page, so a group of four would bang out four different sections of their outline in the course of five minutes.  During the day we would do two free writes total, which meant that eight sections of people’s outlines from the day (or most of the outline in many cases) before would essentially be finished by the end of the day.

This may sound simple, but I hedged my bets in two ways.  First, I had my students previously submit me a list of phrases that would likely come up in stories like this for me to translate and give them as a phrase sheet.  Sample phrases included such fare as:

She heard something behind her.
He picked up the ___ and noticed ____
The investigator discovered ____
She decided to _____ 
He suddenly turned into a ____

The second hedge to my bets is that contrary to normal free-writes I let them ask me for occassional vocabulary during the freewrite.  This sounded like a good idea at the time, so I went with it.

With these rules in place, I let them roll and they started writing.  During the writing I found myself jumping around answering all kinds of questions, but things were moving along.  Surprisingly, even after the five minutes were up, people kept peppering me with vocab requests and kept working away at improving their stories so they got them right.  A sample of what I got out of this first five minute free write is as follows:

A couple notes from my observations of this are that a) the volume was much less than half of what I get during a normal freewrite and b) this writer leaned pretty heavily on the phrase sheet I had given her.   To me it sort of make sense that trying to write something to hit a specific mark rather than just as part of a freewheeling blizzard of activity will reduce the word count, but part of this is also the fact that I think most of the really good writing in a freewrite occurs during the last half of the time.  For me, anyways, it takes a little while to find my groove when writing, even in English.  Still all told, this represents a solid effort and more than enough to get the job done in describing what happened during this segment.  After this first freewrite, I gave them five minutes off to walk around and take a brain break and then another couple of minutes to select another section to write about.

The second freewrite they did that day was, as I suspected, much more satisfying.  Here follows the second entry from the same student:

What I like about this second entry is that the student was able to move away from just executing a pre-determined plan and actually get creative during the writing.  While she was writing, she started coming up with some new ideas that she incorporated on the fly (such as creating a fight scene with a quote from the Mortal Kombat video game) and the tone here was much closer to her normal type of free write.  In this case, the student was so pleased with her ad-lib that she tracked me down and asked me to read her writing, which I did in a very dramatic voice, to the great pleasure of her whole group.  This experience was hardly unique; many people couldn’t wait to share what they had created with other people and people were excited and upbeat.

So, yes, I absolutely love free writes.  Because my students had been doing these all year long, they not only had the skills to be able to write freely, but they had learned how to discipline themselves to just sit down, shut up and write.  The writing up stage wasn’t a technicality anymore that had to be gotten out of the way before we got to the fun stuff, it became a part of the creative process.  At the end of class I sat there reflecting what a huge difference this was for me from the last time I did this project in my pre-TPRS life.  And I told them so.  I let them know how proud I was that this group of German II students outperformed, outwrote, and outcreated any group of German IIIs or IVs I had from previous years.  This was a great day.

Choose your own adventure Day 1

Every year one year-end tradition I like to do is to create a “Choose your own adventure” story with my upper level classes.  These are the classic books that run something like:

“You walk into a darkened room and hear a faint hissing somewhere.  As you look around you notice that there are only two exits: a sturdily built door with rusted hinges and a small cave entrance that seems to be source of the hissing. 

If you try to open the door, turn to page 31
If you try to investigate the cave turn to page 18″

Being high school students, there is often a deadly end to various participants and various hijinks involving fellow class members along the way.  More often than not, I end up being a murder, a victim, or a zombie.  One year my students had various members of our staff being killed off by other members of the staff (Math teacher murdered through chemical poisoning; Assistant principal killed with a piece of the Berlin wall; English teacher murdered with a golf club, etc.). We take pictures of the students around the school, on the school grounds, and at home to illustrate the stories, and they end up looking fabulous.

I love having these books because they make for very compelling reading (I keep an electronic version with hyperlinks that jump us to the next episode.  I give my classes classroom responders and have them vote on which ways we should go; I let them go until they die or the storyline they choose ends).

That said, actually planning out these stories is often a daunting process that eats up more time than I want to give it.  This year, however, I’m finally doing it with some students who are very well versed in TPRS and I have been surprised at how smoothly and quickly things are progressing. Below I’ll briefly detail what I’ve done so far.

Day 1
I tell everybody what we’re about to do (they’ve all seen past stories) and ask them if they’re up to the challenge.  I let them know if they’re going to screw around, I’ll stop the project on a dime and just finish it myself.  But if they will apply themselves, this will be one of the funnest projects they will do all year.  Then we vote. And I hold them to it.

Then I hand everybody blank piece of paper and tell them to quickly write for three minutes (in English) any story thoughts that come to mind.  They have to write for the full three minutes; if they can’t think of what to say they have to write “um. um. um.” until they do.

After this quick write is done, I let them get into groups of 3-4.  At this point they share stories with each other.  After about 5 minutes of reading, we decide as a class what they “story frame” will be where all the stories will start from.  IN one class we are heading to the computer lab when we find a student dead on the stairway.  In another we are taking a walk in the woods and sit down on a bench for a break.  All of the various groups need to start their stories from this point.

Once we have that established (which usually takes 3-5 minutes), each group then needs to sit together and write up an outline of how their stories will branch off and come up with a story outline that branches out and incorporates their ideas.  For example, one of my group’s outline looks like this:

CYOA Outline

(This outline continues further, but I cropped it so as to not take up too much space here.)

As you might note, I reserve the right to edit any storylines I deem as inappropriate.  I also told them that no more than a third of their storylines can end in death; otherwise it’s just a bloodbath.  I still don’t get high school humor completely.

Tomorrow: Day 2 and starting a write-up of the outline.