Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Mystery Plays

The mystery genre is one of the most popular forms of storytelling in the world, and mystery stories have a respected literary history. Romantic authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the earliest mysteries, and the genre evolved through the works of Victorian authors like Nathaniel Hawthorn. The mystery story was established as a popular standard by the 1920s and 1930s, and mass media has lead to its growth.

In order to broaden students' exposure to the roots of the genre, our students were given an opportunity to perform classic mystery plays. The plays were a sampling of the most common forms of mystery stories, including tales of blackmail and con artists, hardboiled murderers and complicated whodunits. Students split into three groups to perform the following classic mystery stories by famous writers:

"Silver Blaze" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
"The Tenth Clew" by Dashielle Hammett
"As Simple as ABC" by Ellery Queen

After first reading for mystery story elements, students then began practicing their lines to improve fluency and expression and develop believable characters. Once our focus turned more to performance and delivery, students explored ways of dramatizing the scene in terms of their acting, interactions with each other and the audience, transitions, costumes, staging, props, etc. We invited fourth and fifth graders to watch the final presentations. Halfway through each play, we engaged the audience in a discussion to see if members were able to solve the mystery!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mystery History

Did you know that the true mystery story began in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe's "The Murders in the Rule Morgue"? We learned this and much more about the mystery genre while unpacking a challenging, nonfiction text. Some of the strategies we used while reading were coding and previewing tough vocabulary. Students learned how the mystery story has changed over time. After reading, students worked in groups to create timelines that captured this new learning. Timelines included main events with supporting evidence, including important dates, invented characters, influential authors (like Sir Arther Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Stephen King), and variations of the classic detective story. Students had the opportunity to follow up with some research and to find images that enhanced the messages in their timelines.

19 Drafts

Even the very best and published writers think, write, rethink, correct, and write some more before arriving at a final draft. To deepen our discussion about the writing process, we read a final, published version of Donald Hall's poem, Ox Cart Man. Students then partnered up to examine the many drafts of Donald Hall's poem. Students made notes about Hall's writing process. In particular, they examined the specific changes he made to each of the nineteen drafts. Our discussion reinforced the idea that writing is not a single activity. It's a process that involves lots of actions, steps, behaviors, thoughts, and changes.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Harris Burdick… a real life mystery?

We continue to dig deeper into our study of the mystery genre by practicing another skill of critical thinkers and readers: inferencing. Do you know about The Mysteries of Harris Burdick? One day a mysterious author and illustrator showed up in the publishing office of Peter Wenders. He had fourteen pictures depicting scenes from various stories he had written and illustrated. He promised to return the next day with the full stories but was never heard from again. Over the years, the pictures and their captions have inspired the writing of many stories. On October 31st, our students had the chance to examine Harris Burdick’s pictures much like detectives solving a mystery. Students partnered up and inspected his images using flashlights in a darkened room. They recorded their observations, questions, and inferences on their detectives' logs. Harris Burdick's images will not only inspire mystery writing for some, we will deepen our discussion of story elements while reading stories (which were also inspired by the images) by published authors. Was Harris Burdick a real man? We may never know.

Critical Thinking Puzzles

We’ve activated our critical thinking skills while reading short mystery (puzzle) stories! Below is what students believe are the characteristics of critical thinkers. Finding solutions to the puzzles has also lead us to the study of key vocabulary for our mystery unit. Some of the words include relevant, irrelevant, and contradiction, which are perfect words for studying word parts (the prefixes ir- and contra-).

• try different solutions
• think below the surface • identify relevant and irrelevant information
• look passed the obvious
• identify everything you know
• think while you read/do
• read/reread
• think hard - really, really think
• come back - refresh
• perseverance - persistent
• take advantage of best thinking time
• be intentional/passionate/curious
• goal-oriented
• examine closely
• look for inconsistencies
• think creatively
• talk about information
• collaborate
• support/provide evidence

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Power of Setting

Setting is the time, place, and environment in which a story takes place. Here’s what our students say about why setting is important:

• Setting gives us a sense of place.
• We need it in order for the story to exist.
• Creating a setting with vivid descriptions keeps the reader interested.
• Setting influences (affects) the character.

Settings are crucial to what literary characters think and do as real-life environments are to our own thoughts and actions. We spent some time thinking about how our own settings (e.g. classroom, small town, rural Maine, adolescence, 21st century) affect our lives.

In good literature, settings are made real to us through the writer’s use of precise words and phrases that appeal to our senses. To practice with this important story element, our students highlighted words or phrases that help them envision the setting in the short story, Shadows, by Richard Peck. Not only did they search for clues and write constructed responses about the impact of setting on characters and readers, they also learned to make found poems that borrow an author’s words.

Learn more about the poetic form, found poem.

Tales of Terror

What fun we had leading up to Halloween! Students enjoyed creating two-sentence tales of terror. These tales came out of our conversation about mysteries and the power of language in even the briefest of passages. Each student created his or her own tale using specific details to create a feeling of fear or terror. We all enjoyed looking for setting pictures that enhance the message or hint at the story rather than "say" too much.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mystery Genre

We've started an in-depth study of the mystery genre by discussing what we already know about mysteries. We also examined the elements of a short story or novel through our reading of the mysterious story, Shadows, by Richard Peck.  Is it a mystery, we asked ourselves?

In this genre study, we will:
• Learn what makes a mystery by defining and identifying characteristics
• Investigate to answer “Whodunit?” through use of reading strategies and close reading skills
• Solve mysteries through logical thinking and drawing conclusions
• Learn the literary techniques that authors use to craft mysteries and engage readers

The unit will involve reading poems, short stories, and nonfiction texts, acting out plays by classic mystery writers, taking part in an interactive whodunit mystery, and much, much more!  We are planning on a guest speaker to talk with students about the scientific side of being an investigator, and some of our students may even decide to write mystery stories themselves!

Word Detectives

The kick-off of our mystery genre study began with a fun and engaging word activity.  Played much like the popular HedBanz board game, students had a word from our reading taped to their foreheads and traveled around the classroom to ask their classmates a series of questions.  The clues (about syllables, part of speech, antonyms, examples, etc.) led students to draw conclusions about which mystery word they had.  Students kept coming back for more words!  They had a fantastic time while learning not just more words, but more about words.

Project Word

Several weeks ago we started a word study unit that will take us through the whole year.  The goal of "Project Word" is to:

1) learn more words
2) learn more about words
3) become a life-long and passionate learner of words

Students began the year-long unit by making a list of their favorite words-- words they love, words that describe them, and words that describe the things they love.  This helped to build our excitement around the study and use of words.  Just recently, we read aloud the tall tale, The Boy Who Loved Words, by Roni Schotter.  In this award-winning book, Selig collects words that sound good to his ears, stir his heart, make him laugh, and inspire others.  Like Selig, we have displayed our favorite and newly-learned words on tree branches to share with other readers and writers.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Selfie Project

To kick-start our ELA class this year we asked our students to write about five things they thought we should know about them. We then asked them to take five different selfies that illustrate these five things.  Some of the images captured were of students in their favorite locations, with a beloved pet or family member, or holding an object to represent their favorite hobby.  We started the lesson by reading an informational text about the history of the selfie as part of a discussion about the things that skilled readers before, during, and after reading.  Did you know that one of the first selfie's taken by a teenager was in 1914? Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, at the age of 13, used the Kodak Brownie Box and a mirror to catch this image. The very first known selfie, however, was taken in 1839 by Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer in photography. Those large clunky, cameras have now been replaced by the cell phone, so a selfie is a simple button push away! Grab your phone, a friend, or a favorite object and start snapping photos! Don't forget - you need to be in the photo too!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Aargh Me Mateys... It's Talk Like A Pirate Day!

Ms. Parkes led our middle level teachers in organizing a treasure hunt for our fourth through eighth grader learners for International Talk Like a Pirate Day! We sent our buccaneers off with a map leading them to different math, social studies, grammar, and reading comprehension challenges and a chance to win some pirate booty!

Rule of Thumb

Skilled readers use a variety of strategies when choosing the right book. The Rule of Thumb is a quick and easy way to determine if a book might be a holiday, a just right, or a challenge. When using this strategy students open to any page in a new book and begin reading. They keep a count of the number of words they struggle to read with the fingers on one hand. If they reach five words the book might be a challenge for them. We understand, however, that this is just one way to choose a book! We must also consider genre, plot structure, theme, and more!

Recipes for Success

At the start of our school year our students engaged in a great conversation centered around classroom expectations and student behavior. To demonstrate their understanding and feelings about what it takes to be a successful learner, groups of students created recipes for success. Students were placed in small groups where they brainstormed the qualities of a successful learner, decided how much of each trait a student needed, and what these traits, when combined, would create. They then put this all together in a recipe for success. Based on what they came up with, they are well on their way to a successful year!


Which team was the first to finish? At the beginning of the school year we challenged our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to complete a 100 piece puzzle as fast as they could. This required each team to come up with a plan and work together to build their puzzle. Each team did an amazing job! We had some fast finishers! One team was done in under ten minutes!