Friendly Thank You Letter – Using Thinking Maps

September 25, 2007 at 6:10 pm | Posted in elementary, graphic organizers, Open Court, second grade, strategies, thinking maps, writing | 4 Comments

This is a piece of writing my second grade students work on for two weeks. It helps prepare my students for the Open Court Unit 2 writing assessment. This is the first major writing assignment in Unit 2 for us. I used the writing process that I learned from Write From the Beginning because it explicitly teaches many skills and makes clear the writing process.

You can also read more about writing using Thinking Maps at my previous posts.

The prompt

Please write a thank you letter to Ms. R using the friendly letter format.

Second grade Open Court teachers in LAUSD would recognize the prompt as the unit assessment prompt, modified.

The Rubric

The class rubric is charted and hangs in front of the class through out the entire writing process. I refer to it again and again daily as well as whenever I teach a particular skill that is mentioned in the rubric. Every student knows exactly what needs to be done to get a good grade.


The Context

While working in the computer lab one day, the fire drill alarm went off and drove us out of the computer lab. Ms. R invited the students to return after recess to complete the presentations that they were working on. The students felt grateful and excited at the opportunity, and I immediately grabbed at the chance to do a major piece of writing using a shared experience. Also, I couldn’t resist the urge to do some relevant writing with a real-world purpose. Ms. R was very happy to receive these letters.

Pre-write: The Circle Map

We started by brainstorming some things we want to write about using a Circle Map. We did this as a whole group using Think-Pair-Share and small group discussion strategies. Then, the students created their individual Circle Maps. Students were encouraged to “pull out” from the class circle map and to add their own ideas.


Continue Reading Friendly Thank You Letter – Using Thinking Maps…

Aargh! Scanner!

September 19, 2007 at 10:45 pm | Posted in whining | Leave a comment

I’m trying to scan in our latest writing sample and my scanner cuts off parts of the paper.  Urgh!  It’s late, I’m just going to try again tomorrow.  I really want to show the second graders’ writing samples. Argh!

Friendly Letter Rubric – More like criteria

September 17, 2007 at 7:22 pm | Posted in Open Court, second grade, writing | 3 Comments

I never did learn the difference between a list of criteria and a rubric.  In any case, this is how I grade my student’s writing. 

My students are very familiar with this format and they know exactly what they need to get a good grade, because it’s charted and reviewed almost daily.  Whenever we have a related lesson, I refer back to this rubric.  For example,we’ve been working on writing in complete sentences.  I refer back to this rubric and remind my students that complete sentences are worth 5 points.  We are very goal oriented in my class.  I will post more on our second grade friendly letter writing assignment in my next post.  For now, I just wanted to share the rubric.

Why a rubric like this?  It is directly connected to writing standards.  For students, it makes explicit what they need to do in their writing.  For teachers, it makes clear what a particular student needs to work on, and through several assignments, you can measure a student’s growth in a particular area.


For those of us who work with second grade Open Court in LAUSD, we know that Unit 2’s writing assessment is to write a thank you letter to a friend.  Thus the rubric.  We are very goal oriented, did I mention that?

This rubric is modified from the Write From The Beginning program.

I translate the 20 point system into a 4 point grade like this:

  • 20 points – 4
  • 19-16 points – 3
  • 15-10 points – 2
  • <9 points – 1

Click here to download the PDF.

ABCteach – excellent website with great tools

September 16, 2007 at 3:48 pm | Posted in free resources | Leave a comment

I regularly use ABCteach for lots of stuff, especially vocabulary and spelling activities.  Do check it out.  🙂  Much of the site is free, but the paid subscription is well worth it I think.

Better at teaching writing than reading

September 15, 2007 at 3:25 pm | Posted in reading, teachers | 4 Comments

If you have browsed my blog enough, you will come to notice that I primarily blog about math and writing. Yup. I’m a better math and writing teacher than I am a reading teacher. So, here’s my challenge to myself for this next few weeks. I will reflect upon my practice as a teacher of reading, celebrate the successes, and work to improve myself. I am not looking forward to this exercise, reason being, I’m not good at teaching reading because I don’t have a enough understanding about how students learn to read.

I’ve read all the literature. I’ve taken the training workshops. I’ve done the prescribed curriculum. But I don’t “understand” it to the level that I can take ownership of it, differentiate instruction for my students, adapt curriculum to my teaching style, and so on.

Where is my gap?

Coaches eventually come around to saying, consider your own education because that is the paradigm through which you view your students’ education. Well, we have a problem there because I don’t know how I learned to read. By the age of four, I can read and write in two languages. Then, I immigrated to America at the age of five and within one year, I was top of my class academically, orally fluent in English, reading voraciously, and writing copious fantasy stories for my class assignments. This is not typical for my inner city students. Literacy comes very easy for me. Reading easiest of all. No wonder for the first year of my career as a teacher, I implicitly expect my students to come to me already knowing how to read and write. And I still consider myself a failure as a teacher of reading.

What about you?

What is your educational background? How does it affect your teaching? Do you have any resources that can help ME gain a deeper understanding of reading instruction.

Professional Networking Site for Literacy Coaches

September 15, 2007 at 3:11 pm | Posted in best practices, reading, writing | 1 Comment

Matthew of created a professional networking site for literacy coaches at If you are a coach, interested in becoming one, or just looking to improve your skill as a literacy educator, consider visiting and joining in. Thank you Matthew for creating a valuable resource!

Using Triangles to Teach Fact Family

September 9, 2007 at 4:01 pm | Posted in best practices, elementary, graphic organizers, math, strategies | 2 Comments

For the past 7 weeks, I have used this modified triangle as a graphics organizer, originally developed by Andrew, to teach my second grade students math fact families. Fact family is part of our daily math activities. For about five minutes every day, we look at one new fact family and explore relationships between the members of the fact family. Here’s a picture of the latest fact family that we are working on.


As you can see, it’s just a laminated piece of paper that I reuse every day.


Our math assessment, which we took just last week, showed me how incredibly successful using the triangle is in teaching fact family and many relationships that are embedded in fact family. I’ll give you the hard numbers when the scores come back from the district, but a teacher look-see showed me that almost all of the students got all of the related fact family questions correct.

Daily Math

My students and I do what we call “Daily Math”. We break up our one hour of math time into two parts. We spend 20 minutes a day on daily math and 40 minutes on a new lesson. Currently, daily math contains counting time, which I will blog about later, “Today’s Fact Family”, patterns, and one word problem. We do daily math as a whole group on the carpet. Daily math is where I build number sense and practice key concepts.

Continue Reading Using Triangles to Teach Fact Family…

Teaching Complete Sentences Using a Tree Map

September 4, 2007 at 5:01 pm | Posted in differentiated instruction, graphic organizers, second grade, thinking maps, writing | 3 Comments

This is a new idea for me. I’m still working out the kinks. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

My second graders have difficulty writing in complete sentences, even my most advanced students. I recently started using a tree map, a targeted graphic organizer, to teach students how to write in a complete sentence.

complete sentences tree map

Introductory Lesson

I first introduced the Complete Sentences tree map to my students as a whole group because they all need to learn this. Later on, I took it to small groups to work with students who have particular difficulties with this. We talked about what a sentence needs in order to be complete. The students immediately say “A capital letter!” and “A punctuation mark!” Kudos to them! They’ve been listening! Next, I explicitly tell them that a complete sentence needs a subject and a predicate, and a predicate needs a verb. I show them the tree map already mostly charted, except for some words in the predicate. I point out the subject. We talk about it being the Who and What of a sentence. We talk about the predicate, it being the What Happens. We talk about how crucial it is to have verb in the predicate or we don’t get any What Happens whatsoever. Yes, we use the academic language.

Then, I model orally pulling out simple sentences from the tree map. “The bear is brown.” Students catch on pretty quickly from the pattern and give me sentences like “The bear eats honey.” More advanced students are already pulling out “The bear eats honey and fish.” We also pull out non-examples or examples that are wrong. What happens when you leave off the subject? “Likes to play.” What happens when you leave off the verb? “The bear honey.” These are all common mistakes when students write, so a discussion on what is wrong is invaluable to them.

Next, I model pulling out simple sentences and writing them correctly with appropriate capitalization and punctuation. (I also model writing in a paragraph format. I know that’s not the focus of the lesson, but I expect my students to always write in a paragraph format, so I must model its use at all time.) Finally, students go off to practice writing complete sentences in their writing journal using the class created tree map. No, students aren’t creating the tree maps themselves. That’s an entirely different lesson. (I must insist on the paragraph format though, sorry.) We are focusing exclusively on writing complete sentences.

Second Lesson

I start by asking students what does a sentence need to be complete? I already have the new tree map charted, without the words subject, verb, and predicate in place. We fill those in during the discussion. Your typical students will say “A capital letter!” Good for them! That’s one student who has got that standard down! More advanced students will begin to say “verb, subject” and a strange variant of “predicate”. Then, we pull out a few simple sentences. Again, some students will start to use conjunction or a pronoun for the subject. If the student brings it up at this point, I add it to the tree map or I praise the student for the complex sentence and encourage other students to use pronouns or complex sentences when they are ready. I also start to encourage descriptive language (dark, green). After doing this orally, we return to our seat to practice.

Differentiated Instruction

You can already see how I begin to differentiate instruction using what the students bring to the lesson and then encouraging one step more. I use the words “when you are ready” a lot initially, then I start to suggest to certain students to try the next step. The writings are very varied, depending on the students’ ability. I have three students who are straight on using simple sentences, no pronouns. I have a few more students who are playing with the pronoun, some who are using the conjunction “and” and a small group of students are using more complex sentences with descriptive words and phrases.

Independent Practice


I haven’t had a third lesson as a whole group yet, this being a new thing in our class. BUT, I have had small group instruction going over simple sentences for my struggling writers. I have also added this activity as part of my morning routines so that students come in and immediately start writing complete sentences while I take roll. After two whole group lessons, most students can write complete sentences using a teacher created tree map. Now, during our regular writing lessons, we can talk about what a sentence needs to be complete. During revisions, we can talk about what this student’s sentence needs in order to be complete. It is now part of the language and the norm of our classroom.


Effect on Independent Writing

What is the effect on students own independent writing? This is really just a four days old lesson, so I can’t really say yet. I can say that we can point to an incomplete sentence and revise it easily now, rather than have students stare blankly at me when I demand a complete sentence. I predict that with time and consistent practice, more and more of my students will be able to write independently in complete sentences without prompting.

Effective Teacher Praises

September 4, 2007 at 3:39 pm | Posted in behavior, best practices, education, strategies | Leave a comment

Mr. Pullen brought up an extremely important topic in teacher talk: effective praises.  Simply telling a child that he/she is smart may end up being detrimental to that child.  Read the in-depth article for more information on the research.

For teachers, we know that teacher talk is important and teacher praise is critical in determining a child’s behavior and motivation.  Here is my quick list of Ineffective Praises and Effective Praises.

Ineffective Praises

  • Good job!
  • Excellent!
  • I like it.
  • You are so smart.
  • I like what you are doing.
  • You got a perfect score!

These praises are quick, easy, and meaningless.  They are generic and gives a quick burst of good feelings, but don’t really help the child learn or acquire effective work habits or learning skills.  Contrast those with:

Effective Praises

  • I like the way your writing is neat and your letters are in between the guidelines.
  • Your writing has improved so much!  I see detail sentences here and here.
  • You are so polite when you apologized to so and so.
  •  I like the way you circled your spelling mistake and tried your best to sound it out.
  • You started to work immediately.  You are an independent learner!

These praises are specific to the student and the situation.  Students immediately learn what “good job” means and can repeat it.  Guaranteed, your other students will also be joining in in exhibiting these specific behavior so that they too can earn praises.  More importantly, you are guiding the students toward appropriate behavior, work ethics, and learning with praises.  Combine effective praises with clear expectations and students know exactly what they need to do to be successful in the classroom.

The Adult World

Do people use praises in the adult world?  Of course!  Do we need these praises to be targeted and specific in order to improve our performance?  Absolutely.  I’ve had administrators come in and leave a lovely note on my desk that read “Good job!  I really enjoyed visiting your classroom.”  My first thought of course was: did you even bother to watch?  What was good?  I want feedback, not pats on the head!  I’ve also had occassions when my admin left a note saying “Good use of ___ to ____.”  Hey, now that’s different!

The Praising Game 

Since these were just short lists, let’s play a blog game.  Bloggers, create your own list of effective praises and ineffective praises.  Then, pop me an e-mail or a comment so I can add you to our list of effective/ineffective praises.

Remember Schoolhouse Rock?

September 3, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Posted in life | 2 Comments

It’s just so fun, and how many of us learned grammar, civics, and a whole lot more from Schoolhouse Rock?  Just a quick trip down memory lane for us oldies 🙂

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