Tag Archives: writing

Main Idea: The Details are In the Bag

In my school, one of the big pushes this year is helping students analyze what they read to understand main idea and details. In reflecting upon my past as a student, I can’t say I remember ever receiving explicit instruction in determining main idea and details, and that being able to analyze them came about as a result of experience as I grew.

Be that as it may, for students so young (like mine) and with so many challenges (English language learners, disabilities, texts above grade level and certainly way above theirs’), explicit teaching is necessary. But the skill is challenging to master independently, and so, non-traditional approaches to teaching it are necessary.

This all came about from a brief in-house PD I attended this week. We were presented with a variety of tools to help students conceptualize main idea and details. Included, of course, were the usual graphic organizers. They help, but they’re too abstract to start with. So I was happy to see a couple of new and concrete ideas that I could use to help my students begin to tackle this crucial literacy skill.

By far, my favorite idea was one that necessitated a hands-on approach. It was visual and helpful and served as an engaging entry – and subsequent anchor – for our work on main idea and details.

The premise is simple and it makes sense. A large zip-seal bag represents the main idea. Inside the bag are items with something in common. For my students, I showed them a bag with a marker, a highlighter, a dry erase marker, a pencil, a colored pencil, a Smencil, and a pen. They realized these are all writing utensils. So, why were all of those items – a.k.a. details – included in that one bag – a.k.a. main idea? Because the details all tell us about the main idea.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

A plastic bag represents the main idea, and all the items inside are details that go together with it.

From this very concrete representation, with my charges on board, I began to segue into something still somewhat concrete, but requiring a bit more thought and effort. We read a chapter out of our book and I emphasized that all the details in the chapter would relate back to specific main ideas. After reading, I started them off by telling them the main idea of the whole section: “Roots grow underground and do many things.” From here, we were able to pick apart the details of each paragraph and arrive together at a consensus as to what the main idea they supported was. A small bag represented each paragraph’s main idea, and we placed each bag inside the big one to show that all the information we read related back to one overarching main idea.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs' main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

Nesting cards with details inside small bags helped students visualize paragraphs’ main ideas. Placing the small bags in the large bag helped them see how the paragraphs all relate to the main idea of the chapter.

We’ll continue doing things like this, exploring other ways to understand how details work together to support main ideas. The hope is that with enough varied exposure to the concept, students will internalize the skill. That’s the…idea.



King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk: A Poem about the Metric System

If you teach the metric system, there’s a mnemonic device to help your students remember the prefixes from milli up to kilo.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk is used to remember the order from largest to smallest: Kilo, Hecto, Deka, Deci, Centi, Milli.

And so did King Henry.

And so did King Henry.

Long ago in my student teaching days (I had a lot more time on my hands), I wrote this poem to introduce the mnemonic. Feel free to use it with your students.

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray

One upon a time, in the country of Metricland,

There lived a king named Henry, and one thing he couldn’t stand

Was regular white milk – whole, low fat, or skim.

Only chocolate milk ever appealed to him.


He’d call on his servants, “Bring me my milk!”

“And don’t get it on my robe made of silk!”

“And make sure it’s chocolate, not white, and not red!”

“If it’s not chocolate, then OFF WITH YOUR HEAD!”


So every day he’d wake up with a glass of the chocolate treat

Sitting on his nightstand with a plate of cookies to eat.

He’d gobble them down, then swallow the drink,

Then get up and walk down to the bathroom sink.


When he turned on the faucet, instead of water there would be

Chocolate milk a-flowing from a chocolate milky sea.

After brushing his teeth, he’d start on his path,

To his chocolate bath tub for his chocolate milk bath.


While bathing in chocolate, Henry would sit with a straw

Drinking up the bath milk and the filth that he saw.

He drank up the whole bath: soap, milk, and all.

And one day was his last bath, it was King Henry’s fall.


The queen came in that day and no, she couldn’t stand.

Lying dead in the bath tub was the king of Metricland.

Never again would he wear his robe made of silk:

King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk.

Creative Commons License
King Henry Died Drinking Chocolate Milk by Matthew S. Ray is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

A Note on Appreciation

I find myself writing a lot of cards lately. Father’s Day is Sunday, of course. So let’s see, there’s my dad, my grandfather, my uncle, and of course the two newest fathers, my cousins. They’re all getting a card (and I won’t tell you what they cost, even at the half-price store!) Of course, I hope the words I wrote provide them with much joy and effectively signal my appreciation and/or hopes for them.

In that spirit, we’re into the single digits now as far as days left in the school year, so that means it’s time to, in a small way, return the many favors certain people at school have blessed me with since September.

I make it a point to write thank you cards to a lot of folks at work each year. There are secretaries, aides, paras, colleagues, administrators, and support personnel who never say, “No,” to any of my requests. Often there’s little I can do to repay them – except be friendly and pleasant – so I feel a handwritten card with carefully chosen words of appreciation goes a very long way.

In a school like mine, which is GINORMOUS, it is easy for people to get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes people are left feeling unappreciated, and no one should have to feel that way.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge the efficient, dedicated work of people who don’t stand out until they’re not there, like the custodians. We have many people like that in my school who are just good at what they do. They perform essential services that we would sorely miss if they weren’t there, and they ought to be recognized.

I enjoy giving these cards. Though I’ve never seen someone’s reaction, as I usually leave them in a mailbox, it is my hope that the little note I leave them reinforces their worth and makes them realize how very much appreciated they really are.

Disability Be Damned

I have a student for whom one of the running academic stories since I’ve known her has been her glaring difficulty with writing, spelling, and reading. She frequently reverses letters and numbers (b/d, 6/2, 9/p). There are loads of struggles with vowels both short and long. These issues have negatively impacted her writing (to the point where she often has trouble reading what she wrote, and in spite of her perfect handwriting). They’ve also made a major influence on her reading (because of her decoding, her reading level has budged only twice all year).

Today, I sat with her to guide her through the process of publishing her New York City question and answer book. I could see, for sure, that she has made major improvements in the letter reversal department. She checks her writing often and knows her own weaknesses.

Those darn vowels, though…

She had to sound out the word “holidays.” She uses a short vowel chart to compare sounds she wants to sounds she sees on the chart. So she’s sounding out the first vowel sound in the word and looks at me, confidently asking, “E?” I ask, “Does it sound like the e in ‘bell’?” “No,” she replies, asking now, “U?” “Does it sound like the u in ‘cup’?” “No,” she replies. We do this for each round of the guessing game, and unfortunately, her answer to my question is always, “No.”

Here’s the thing, though. Despite my obvious frustration and concern as we do this dance through phonics that are expected to be mastered in kindergarten (I don’t have much of a poker face), she never allows herself to become frustrated. She doesn’t let herself get down. When I point out that she wrote, “Hom” instead of, “How,” she smiles, puts her hand to her head with an, “Ohhhh,” fixes it, and we’re on our merry way. I’ve never heard this girl stress out or allow her self-esteem to dip. She never says, “I can’t”.

While I know, conventionally, this student is focusing at an academic level two years behind where she “should” be, I also know that I have given her some strategies to address her needs independently. Most importantly, I know that her positive attitude will sustain her and she will go on to be successful in the ensuing years.

Blogging for Blogging’s Sake

At this point I have posted a blog for nearly 200 straight days. Some have been really good, thought-provoking and debate-inspiring. Others have been viewed by only a smattering of lost users of the Internet.

Now my problem is that I find myself writing about the same types of things in a variety of ways, and I’m running out of words to write.

I try to balance this with what for some people has become the expectation of a daily blog.

If I’m maintaining a daily blog for the sake of just keeping my streak intact, then the quality of the blog surely suffers.

So I make no promises for a daily blog past today. If I have something to share or inspire, I’ll post it tomorrow. If I don’t, then I’ll be back when I do! Either way, thank you for the continued support through your comments, shares, and e-mails. I hope you continue to enjoy reading.

When Technology Fails, You Need a Pen

This week, I found myself in a debate with some more experienced colleagues. We all waxed nostalgic for the days of neat handwriting, which they once taught in school and we all once learned in school. There were arguments for handwriting practice’s therapeutic effects on students and arguments that there’s a right way and a wrong way to form a letter.
I was alone in my insistence that the need for neat handwriting is becoming an obsolete notion given the ubiquity of computer and mobile technology. More and more, written communication occurs via the keyboard than the pencil.
I can envision a world in the future where handwriting is as necessary to humans as a pay phone is now. In my lifetime, so many tasks that could only be accomplished with a pen can now be accomplished faster and for less using modern technology. My paycheck is deposited electronically and I get an e-mail saying so. I can transfer money with a click of the mouse and can pay bills in the same way. I don’t need to buy a stamp and mail a letter because I can accomplish the same effect with e-mails. The list goes on.
Here’s the thing, though. The argument for handwriting that I found most legitimate is this: What happens when technology fails?
My immediate response was we are getting to a place where that’s becoming less and less likely.
And just because I made such a flippant and naive comment, the handwriting gods decided to conspire against me this morning when I turned on my laptop to type this blog: the damn thing is essentially dead. I got two fatal errors and now it seems it is time to invest in a new computer.
Now, I had technological backup, and I typed this blog on my iPad, but I think the point was obvious, anyway. What happens if technology fails in the future and someone has to write a paper check, mail a paper letter, or fill out a bank deposit slip?
It seems highly unlikely that we would ever find ourselves without technology for an extended period of time, and if we did, I don’t think poor handwriting would spell our civilization’s doom. But when a cell phone fails, you need a pay phone. Perhaps when a keyboard fails, you need a pen.

Let Your Voice Be Heard

This week, I had the opportunity to travel with a colleague – as a representative of my school district – to Albany for the chance to meet with state legislators and share concerns about public schools, students, and public workers.

The negative dialogue about teachers and public worker rights is frequently overwhelming. This blog, and others I read, are outlets for our frustration, but I have often felt we are just preaching to the choir. Most people choose to read what speaks to them – things that validate what they believe. There is value in our community of empathy and common thinking, sure, but usually it’s not each other’s minds we need to work to change.

For this reason, I was grateful to spend time in the offices of three legislators who represent my school district. At times, our value as teachers was affirmed by our hosts’ teary stories about the teacher that impacted their lives the most. At times, we found ourselves stridently articulating our stances on what we feel is best for students, schools, and teachers.

I’m so glad I had a copy of my colleague’s post about the true value a teacher adds. The release of data and the evaluation deal currently being negotiated are of particular interest to me and I assumed responsibility for passionately speaking against the public defamation of teachers on the basis of irrelevant data. I left Donna’s post in the hands of two aides and one senator, urging them to read and share it.

It was empowering to speak with these people. The hope is that they take our concerns to heart act morally to support students and public workers.

Writing and reading blogs is great and valuable, but that practice can only take us so far. We need to be active participants in government outside of voting. We have a voice that should be heard. Moving forward, I plan to make a more concerted effort of articulating my points to elected officials. I hope you’ll o the same.

My Students Remind Me: I Do a Good Job

Since I started teaching, my mom has come in at the end of every year to make scrapbooks with my students. We take all the pictures from the year and she buys stickers, paper and embellishments and works with the kids to make me a scrapbook. They are truly beautiful and show the abilities of students that otherwise don’t show, but what is best is reading what the kids write to me in the end.

Here are some of the most touching notes I’ve received. I have no doubt your students would say many of the same things about you! (All this despite what politicians would have them believe!)

I would like to thank you for preparing us for 6th grade and thank  you for encouraging us to do anything we can do.

You are so nice.  You helped me with many things I needed help. And you are also funny. You make me laugh a lot.

I will miss you. You helped me improve in my reading. You’re the best. I hope you remember me after many years.

You have been the best teacher and friend. You help us with our problems and you teach us and make sure we understand it. You make us reach our dreams and encourage us.

I really love you a lot because you help me with a lot of things. You’re an awesome teacher and I’ll miss you. Every single little problem I have, you fix it. No teacher has done something like that for me.

Thank you for teaching us right from wrong.

In fifth grade I had Mr. Ray. My only wish is that I could stay. Moving up is really good. All he has taught me is understood.

Mr. Ray you are like a ray that always look in front, never back. Like you look to the good days. Never look to the bad. I want to be like you.

Mr. Ray, you are nice. You won’t even harm a mice. You are very fair. And you always care.

M is for how manly you are. R is how you teach us to respect. R is for how responsible. a is for how absolutely awesome you are. Y is for how you yodel (sing) good.

Mr. Ray is fun, he shines like the sun. Mr. Ray is special to me, can’t you see? He is very sweet, like nobody could be. I will miss you, Mr. Ray and I am here to say, “WE LOVE YOU, MR. RAY!”

It saddens me that I must leave, I thank him for all he helped me achieve.

So there’s that. No numbers, just the opinions of those who really matter: the students.


A Guiding Question for Differentiation

“Do all lessons have to be differentiated?”

That’s the question that was posed to me recently. My answer was quick and unequivocal: “Of course!”

No doubt, differentiating each lesson requires an investment of effort and time that one-size-fits-all lesson planning does not. If we keep in mind what the goal of differentiation is – to meet the needs of all students – it should be considerably easier to keep in perspective the time required relative to the payoff.

I plan my lessons with a guiding question in mind: “How can I make this lesson appropriately accessible to all of my students?”

Today, I will read a story to the class. We are going to work on several concepts in one sitting (characters, setting, problem, solution, sequence, main idea, and details), so there are going to be multiple graphic organizers for support. The content will differ because for some students the focus will be on more complicated concepts. The process will differ in the use of graphic organizers and the level of independence expected. The product will differ because everyone’s personal writing abilities will be reflected and the most reluctant, struggling writers will demonstrate understanding verbally.

Again, the goal should be that every student is able to access the material in the lesson comfortably.

Truffulas, Thneeds, and Barbaloots: Realer Than We Realize

A hectic day calls for some Dr. Seuss therapy. Yesterday was hectic and it was also the Doctor’s birthday, so it was just the perfect opportunity to get in some Seusstastic reading.

To celebrate the Doctor’s birthday this year, I went with The Lorax. I only read it for the first time the night before, but I loved it’s message and thought my kids would respond to it.

(In case you don’t know the story: it is narrated by the Once-ler, a former business owner who, enamored of the truffula trees and their silky tufts he discovers, chops them all down, the better to make more thneeds, which everyone needs. The Lorax pleads with him to exercise some discretion, to no avail, and in time, his business grows and the air and water suffer for it.)

Dr. Seuss books are so much fun to read aloud, they just have a great cadence to them. The kids were hooked from the beginning (you know the look when mouths hang open, unable to stand waiting to find out what happens next? That happened.) They were eagerly anticipating, analyzing, and surely enough…lamenting. They were really touched by the loss of the truffula trees, the bar-ba-loots, and everything else. Seeing their reactions and sharing in the communal sadness of the book definitely made me a bit misty.

After reading, I had time to sit with one student (there was another teacher in the room by then). He was clearly upset by something. He had drifted away after we read the book, rummaging mindlessly through a box of markers. I asked him what was up.

“That’s not real,” he said, referring to the book.

“It isn’t?”

“No, that’s not real.” He was pretty defiant.

I told him to take a seat and asked him if he liked to look at stars. He said he did. I told him it was one of my favorite things to do, how fascinated I was by the constellations, and that over the vacation I saw a lot of stars in the sky. Then I told him what my dad has told me many times since I was a kid: “When I was growing up, we could see all the constellations in the sky.”

We agreed, on most nights, we can only see one or two constellations. I told him it’s because of all the pollution in the sky. The sky is so dirty, I told him, that we can’t even see the stars anymore.

I explained that, while The Lorax is fiction, it could really happen on Earth, and maybe it already is. By now, he wasn’t nearly as defiant in his stance against The Lorax.

The Lorax ends with a call to action:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

So, I asked him if he felt like writing a letter to the President.

“He won’t believe me,” my defiant dude decided.

“You have to convince him,” I said.

And, so, together, we began a letter. Things will continue to be hectic next week, but this is a letter that he has to finish so we can mail it to the White House.

(Click the image for a larger version.)