Writing Connections With K’NEX

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Everyone has experienced some type of writer’s block. For some students, this occurs more frequently than others.  There ar many causes of writer’s block which may include: structure, classroom environment, brainstorming of ideas, topic, class, focus, time, health, boredom, interest, and so on.  This list can be endless.

There are multiple ways to address writer’s block. In order to combat issues related to stress, anxiety, focus, and lack of ideas, physical movement and tactile manipulation can help calm inhibitors and stimulate the mind allowing writing to occur more freely, or naturally.

Struggling students often need structure to give them stability and guide them through the writing steps they need to produce an effective writing piece. The delivery of the structure can vary from class to class (and year to year), but providing students with options and clear connections between a topic and the writing process is often critical to success.

For this activity, K’NEX (http://www.knexeducation.com/) are used to help inspire creativity and to help illustrate connections in the writing process. K’NEX are building toys consisting of colorful rods and connectors.  The various K’NEX building sets range from simple parts and machines to elaborate systems utilizing pulleys and levers. K’NEX are utilized in some schools to accent STEM activities, but they can also be used in a more simplified manner to help teach students the writing process.

One way to utilize K’NEX is through teaching a basic writing structure. For example, a paragraph may consist of a topic sentence, a detail sentence, an explanation of the detail sentence, followed by a second detail and explanation sentence, and ending with a connecting or concluding sentence. Of course, there are many variations of this and the type of writing and age level will influence this structure. This can be stretched to an essay including an introduction paragraph, body paragraphs, and a conclusion paragraph.  The elaboration of the structure varies from text to text. After an introduction to the writing structure, student groups (or teams) are given a pile of K’NEX. As a group, they create a visual representation of a paragraph, essay, or other writing text. Since K’NEX are color-coded and have the ability to connect in multiple ways, as well as bend, these visual representations can be quite powerful. As an alternative, the instructor can assign elements of a paragraph a color, so students may have to figure out how to connect pieces based on their role.  Since the rods are different sizes and shapes, teachers can use this as a formative assessment to determine the understanding of paragraph/essay structure.

A second way to use K’NEX with writing, is to have students use building sets in relation to an assigned topic. Students can work in teams, or individually, to construct a representation of their topic. The physical manipulation, and the creative outlet, helps students move beyond initial writer’s block allowing them to proceed with the writing process.

Adding more movement to the activity could include a gallery walk or a human representation of the K’NEX creations. The hands-on activity, followed by the physical movement, provides needed mind-body connections that further enhance the academic progress with writing.

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Reflect, Move, & Shuffle

office-155137_960_720I recently presented a professional development session for high school teachers. Part of the presentation required time to reflect on previous work the teachers had completed.  Knowing there the participants ranged in years of service on the work team and comfort level with the topic, I devised a plan to reflect, move, and shuffle.

For this activity:

  1.  Each participant is given a notecard.  Depending on the number of participants, and depending on the desired size of discussion groups, at least four different colors of notecards are distributed around the room.
  2. Participants are given three minutes to write (or brainstorm a list) about previous work (since the last meeting, the beginning of the year, or some other timeline).
  3. Three areas of the rooms are marked with a number (1, 2, or 3). When the writing time has expired, participants are directed to move to a number. Each number can be prescribed, or participants can be given the direction to separate themselves according to their own, individual, criteria. This is completed without talking.
  4. In their newly formed groups, participants share with a partner, or with their entire group, why they placed themselves in the group and highlights from their notecards.
  5. After 3-5 minutes, participants are told to reorganize themselves according to notecard color. The newly formed pairs or groups discuss their reflection, as well as any other insights. When prompted, the groups discuss further work that needs to be completed.
  6. After another 3-5 minutes, participants are directed to return to their seats and a priority list of future work is developed.

This activity allows multiple voices to be heard. Movement activities help energize the reflection process and allow for purposeful processing time to be planned. Processing time is built in during silent writing, multiple times to share, and reflection time prior to devising a priority list.

Although this activity was used during a professional development session, it could easily be adapted for a classroom.  The activity could focus on prior learning, background knowledge, discussion questions, and so forth. Mixing up groups, guiding students to evaluate their learning based on their own criteria, and utilizing movement helps energize the classroom and build the foundation for deep discussions.

Activate the Adolescent Writer

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This week I have the opportunity of presenting at the 2015 AMLE Conference in Columbus, Ohio.  I will be presenting a concurrent session and a workshop.  My current session is titled:  Activate the Adolescent Writer.  In this session, I will present ways to use movement activities to help students with the writing process.  Many of the movement strategies can be used in areas beyond writing instruction; however, I have aligned movement with specific writing strategies to help students activate the mind prior to and during the writing process.

One of the activities I will be modeling is titled: Think-Time-Share.  This activity is aligned to a narrative writing prompt that can be used at the beginning of the class period.  Students are shown one or more photos (although it can be any media).  As students study the pictures, they think of sensory language that can be applied to each picture.  After a minute of observation, all students stand.  The instructor asks students to think about a specific picture and a specific sense.  The instructor then tells students to perform an action (running in place) for 30 seconds.  During these 30 seconds, students think about all of the words they related to the identified sense of the picture.  Once the 30 seconds have commenced, students share with a partner, and then volunteers are solicited.  The teacher then picks a different sense and a different action.  Once the students have had a chance to work through each sense, they write a narrative paragraph about the picture.

Finding the Words

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Taking notes can be a bore.  Students will often groan when mentioning part of the class period will be used to take notes, but taking notes can be exhilarating.  It is hard to imagine using the words notes and exhilarating in the same sentence.  Another word that can create a buzz…in a negative way… is vocabulary.  Taking notes on academic vocabulary can be energizing! In fact, some students in my classroom actually get excited when I mention we are going to take notes on academic vocabulary.

One activity that I like to use is called the Hot and Cold Vocabulary. In this activity,  I begin by hiding the first vocabulary word around the room before students enter. Usually, I attach it to a student desk or chair.  I tell students to begin the activity by trying to locate the first word.  Students search their close proximity to find the word.  This begins to excite them.  After the word is found, we add it the note section of their vocabulary section.

For the second phase, I ask a student to leave the classroom with a watcher (who watches the student).  Working together, the rest of the class hides the next term in the room.  When the student returns, the class performs an action.  For example, we might start clapping.  As the student moves closer to the object, we clap faster/louder.  As the student moves away, we slow the clapping down or stop clapping altogether.  Once the student finds the word, we add it to the vocabulary section.

Depending on time, this process might be repeated multiple times. Following this activity, we explain the words in more depth, or we begin reading a text.  Since the students are engaged mentally due to the physical movement, they following activity is usually quiet and met with deep concentration.

Moving to Write

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I focus several of my activities on what to do in any classroom.  When I specify topics more clearly, I often focus on how to get students moving why they are reading a text or discussing a text.  It is equally important to get students up and moving why they are writing.  There are several reasons for this.  One reason is that movement helps students get through writer’s block.  There have been multiple times when students have been unable to brainstorm topics, start an essay, or finish a piece of writing because they have entered the doom and gloom of writer’s block.  Movement isn’t the end all of writer’s block, but it can help many students get over the hump and continue through the writing process.

One of the activities that I like to do is similar to the vocabulary tableau I mentioned in an earlier post.  I have students image the flow of their essays.  I have them consider the important points they might want to make in the introduction paragraph, each body paragraph, and the concluding paragraph.  This can occur at any time during the writing process.  For students who don’t exactly know how they will organize their ideas, I just have them focus on the topic.  I then have them stand at their desks.  I tell them to think about their introduction paragraph.  I then give them think time, also know as visualization time.  I count down from 5 and tell them to freeze into a picture that represents their introduction paragraph.  I may have a couple of student explain their poses, or I may go directly into having them freeze for their first body paragraph.  This continues until I have covered each paragraph in the essay.  For those who don’t know the flow of their essay exactly. I have them choose different poses for their specific topics.

This activity can also break up the monotony of a long period of seated writing.  For students who do not experience writer’s block, this activity can stimulate their creative outlets allowing them to write with better flow, diction, and analysis.