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The Matchbox Diary. 2013. Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 40 pp.

Genre: Narrative fiction, picture book

Ages: Grades 2-6

Welcome back for Part II, the follow-up to my April 25th post, In Mr. L’s Classroom Part I:  Paul Fleischman’s The Matchbox Diary!

I hope you were able to experience this book for yourself, as you were invited to do in Part I, “…either by purchasing it, borrowing, or flipping through it in a bookstore.” Just seeing the illustrations firsthand will make this a must have book. If you weren’t able to put your hands on a copy, you may want to revisit In Mr. L’s 5th Grade Classroom Part I for my summary of the book. Here’s one sentence from that post, an excerpt that captures the focus of my writing lesson with students.

“…This idea, that the things we hold on to are keepers of our life’s stories, is at the heart of this beautiful book, told solely through dialogue—the conversation of a young girl and her great-grandfather meeting for the first time.”

Though this book could be the springboard for all sorts of writing lessons focusing on any combination of the six traits, here’s what I chose to do with Mr. L’s wonderful fifth graders. Mr. L is a former student of my wife’s, in his fourth year of teaching but his first year teaching in an elementary school. All of this took place in Mr. L’s classroom during my visits, usually lasting an hour, over a three-week period. Some of the following steps were accomplished in one visit, while others needed more time. I tried to make my visits on consecutive days, but testing schedules, a teacher workday, and my own personal obligations sometimes got in the way. And just to make my experience as real as possible, Mr. L’s document camera was on the fritz, working one moment but not the next and forcing me to confront my technological dependency (I love document cameras) and adjust accordingly.

In the Classroom

1. Motivation/anticipatory setA Big Box and Lots of Small Boxes. This part of the lesson is not necessary, but as a guest teacher, I felt it was important to create some excitement about what we were about to do. Since I didn’t have 30+ empty matchboxes on hand, I went to a craft store and purchased enough small, lidded boxes so, when the time came, each student could have one, along with a few extras. I also found a larger box (a cigar box wasn’t big enough) that would hold all the small boxes. Inside the extra small boxes (See photo) I placed some personal objects that, like my magnifying glass, held stories from my recent past and younger days—my own matchbox diary. I carried the big box under my arm the day I came to class to share the book. Being as overtly secretive as possible, I enlisted two students to be the guardians of the box. “No shaking and no peeking,” I told them, adding, ”In fact, try not to even look at the box. No staring! Just hold it until I ask for it.”

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2. Background. I decided not to overwhelm the students with historic information about immigration, Ellis Island, America in the early 1920’s, or Italy, the great-grandfather’s country of origin. We talked briefly about what it means to be an immigrant—to not know the language or culture, and, as I’m sure is true in many communities, Mr. L’s class had some students who were recent immigrants to the United States with very personal connections to the topic. We also talked about some of the reasons people have for leaving their homeland, sometimes in the face of danger, to live in a new country. (You might choose to connect this book to your history curriculum, if appropriate, and have students/whole class do some research prior to reading the book.) The concept of keeping a diary was something the students were very familiar with—one group (literature circle) of students was currently reading Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

3. Reading the book. As always, your own careful reading of this book (or any book you plan to use all or part of with students) prior to sharing it should be your first step. Discovering how you personally connect to the text and illustrations will help your students make important connections, as well. Gather your students closely, or use your document camera to allow for close up viewing of the beautifully detailed illustrations.

On the day I shared this book with Mr. L’s students, his document camera froze (wouldn’t you know it!), so I quickly gathered the 5th graders, some in chairs, some on the floor, squeezing them in for the best view possible. Fortunately, I had also brought with me my grandfather’s magnifying glass to show them how I first experienced the book and also because of its connection to my grandfather. Like the objects in the matchboxes, that magnifying glass was the keeper of stories about my granddad and my childhood. One of the students asked me about what my grandfather used the glass for. I shared a short remembrance of him using the glass as he worked on his stamp collection (which I also possess).

I read about half of the book, then paused to do a quick review—What object did the girl choose to have her great-grandfather tell her about? What was inside the cigar box? Why did great-grandfather keep his diary in matchboxes and not written in a book? What was in the first box she opened? What is the story of the olive pit?—before finishing the book.

It was at this point that I turned to my box guardians. They were very excited to help me open my box and find out what was inside. “It’s a box full of little boxes, just like in the book!” I handed out the small boxes containing the items I had brought from home to six of the students. They took turns opening their boxes, one at a time, showing the rest of the class what was inside—a leather bookmark embossed with the letter J, a silver dollar dated 1889, a couple of marbles, an arrowhead, a picture of a coyote, a lapel pin in the shape of dog’s head. And following the pattern of the book, they wanted to know the story of each item, which I told them in greatly abbreviated form, except for the story of the bookmark, which I told in greater detail—handmade for me by my friend Racquel Peacock (real name!), given to me on the day I moved away from Roseburg, Oregon when I was eight years old, passed to me through the car window right before we hit the road, etc. I then handed students, along with Mr. L, their own empty boxes, and had them return to their desks. Before ending my visit for the day, I had them put their names on the inside and gave them their mission to accomplish for my next visit—to bring a story, in the form of a memento (object, photo, drawing of an object, or even the name of an object written on a slip of paper to avoid the risk of losing something important) to put in their boxes, just like I had done. Mr. L had them keep their small boxes at school. As they brought their stories, they could place them in their small boxes, and then place those in the big box. A big box filled with little boxes, filled with stories.

4. Finding and sharing (telling) their stories. By the end of this lesson, each of the six traits will find its way into the spotlight for its starring moment, but that all-important, foundational trait of ideas never leaves the center of the stage. The Matchbox Diary focuses on the story ideas represented by each of the objects in the matchboxes. Each of the mementoes was chosen for what it held inside, and to properly relate each story to an audience, the teller has to focus on details, the just right details needed to give shape and depth to each tale. To help the students find their stories and discover the important details, I wanted them to pre-write by sharing the contents of their boxes and telling their stories aloud in small groups. Just like Broadway plays are often taken out of town to a smaller stage for rehearsals and test audiences, I wanted the students to rehearse their stories to make sure there truly was one and that it was worth telling. I modeled the process in front of the class with my own small audience—two student volunteers and me, making sure they each had a box, pencil, and a few small post-its. I started the sharing by opening my small box, revealing a paperclip, something I had just slipped off a pile of papers moments before.  Here’s the paperclip story I told them:

The object in box is my paperclip. I use paperclips all the time. They are really useful. I use this one to hold papers together.

One student couldn’t help himself, blurting out, “That’s it? That’s not a story!” And of course, he was right. So I asked my sharing group what more they wanted to know—perhaps if they asked me some questions, I might find the paperclip’s story. Where did you get it? What makes it special? How long have you had it? My answer to their questions was, sadly, the same—I don’t know! We decided that clearly, my paperclip didn’t have much of a story to go with it, so I reached for the leather bookmark I had shown them the day before. Holding it in my hands made it easier to share my memory. After retelling its story, it was clear that my bookmark mattered to me and was the gatekeeper to events and people from a significant moment in my life. I asked my group if there was anything else they wanted to know—did my story feel complete? I had them write their questions on post-its so that I wouldn’t forget them when it came time to write—as my audience, their input was important to me. They wanted to know more about Racquel—what she looked like and if she was my girlfriend, about where I lived and why I was moving, and what I was like when I was eight. I prefer student writers to ask questions of their fellow writers—unlike comments, questions call for answers. In turn, my group mates shared the contents of their boxes and their stories. Each of them came away with questions on post-its to help them when it came time to write. Mr. L helped the rest of the class divide into groups, distribute post-its, and the sharing groups got to work.

5. First Drafts: Getting it down on paper/skipping lines. The obvious next step was to begin writing. We spent a little time talking about beginnings, opening sentences, and enticing leads. As a group, we decided that everyone should avoid beginning their pieces with “The object in my box is a _________,” as I had done with my paperclip story. I was going to return to class in two days, and everyone committed to writing a first rough draft by then, and doing their best to remember to skip lines.

6. Sharing and revising—Details, details, details. On the day I returned, everyone (except for two absent students) had a rough draft. (Some, as it turns out, were pretty rough.) Before we dove into their writing, I wanted them to get focused on details, so we returned to The Matchbox Diary for some inspiration. In the book, one of the matchboxes the girl opens reveatling sunflower seed shells. I asked the students what they remembered about the story of these seed shells. And they remembered a lot—The great-grandfather used the shells to mark the number of days it took for their ship to cross the ocean from Italy to America—nineteen days at sea—placing one seed shell in the matchbox each morning, and finally one morning seeing the Statue of Liberty and arriving in New York. And on that day, he tasted his first banana, spitting it out because he didn’t know he had to peel it. We made the connection between what we remembered and the author’s specific choices of details to include. The writer zoomed in on the significant details, so that readers like us could see, feel, connect, and then remember what was important.

To help them see this in another way, I asked for their help with my own writing, a piece about an actual close encounter with a coyote. I had included a picture of a coyote (from an online search) in one of my small boxes but hadn’t told them much of the story. This draft was pretty rough, I told them, and I really needed their help. I handed each student a copy, a plastic sleeve (page protector), a dry erase pen, and a tissue for erasing. After sliding the drafts into their sleeves, and with pens stilled capped, I modeled how I found out my writing needed help—I had shared it with myself by reading it aloud and imagining that they were my audience. I read my piece aloud for them:

The Coyote Story

                  I was walking.  I was walking by myself.  It was morning.  It was foggy. I saw two coyotes.  I saw one in front of me.  I saw one behind me.  I was scared.  I looked for a stick.  I clapped my hands.  I stomped my feet.  I screamed at them.  I saw them run away.  I walked home fast!

 I paused and asked for their honest thoughts—I trusted them to tell me the truth. As my readers, what did they think? “You’ve got some problems!” You have too many I’s!” “Where were you?” “Your sentences are too short.” “You didn’t tell me what the coyotes looked like.” “You used the same words too many times.” “Where are the details?” And my favorite, “Speak your mind! We weren’t there with you!”  It was time to uncap their pens and help me with some specific revision advice. Fortunately, on this day, the ghost in Mr. L’s document camera was taking a break, which allowed students to show their sleeves, and all their suggestion, to the class. I kept track of the specifics on a piece of chart paper and thanked them for each suggestion. Almost every student recognized my lack of details and the repetitive structure and length of my sentences. (One of Mr. L’s literature circles was reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, so we talked about the value of short sentences in that context. The problem in my writing wasn’t short sentences—it was a lack of sentence variety.) They also offered advice on my title, lead sentence, and my ending—“Are you sure you didn’t run home as fast as you could?”

7. Sharing with self/second draft. Their next step was to share their draft with themselves, with the same honest eyes and ears they used with my writing. They were excited to use the pens and sleeves again, which helped. They spread out around the room, facing away from other students. Before beginning, I had them look at the chart where I had recorded their comments about my writing, focusing their attention on what they had noticed: lead sentence, description/detail, sentence variety, repetitive words, strong ending that wrapped up the story, etc. The purpose of this solo share was for student writers to see and hear their writing as a potential reader would. Because they had skipped lines, there was room for them to make additions, subtractions or even notes to themselves about possible changes. I always want students to practice owning their writing and process and being responsible for their first revisions. Following this round of sharing/revising, students committed to making a second rough draft as their next step.

8. Sharing second/revising. For this step, the students returned to their small sharing groups, armed with their drafts and post-its. This time I wanted writers to take turns sharing their work, and then receiving comments/questions verbally and on post-its. Each writer was to walk away with at least one note of praise (which we practiced)—a favorite word, sentence, detail, and one question that might lead to further revisions from each member of their group. Students were given writing time following their group work to act on their post-its, making any revisions while they were fresh in their minds.

9. Sharing and Editing: Conferences and two signatures. We were nearing the “end, ” so it was time to edit and clarify the difference between revising and editing. “Do we get to use the sleeves and pens?” Of course! I gave them a piece of my writing loaded with spelling mistakes, missing punctuation and capitalization, etc. I asked them—with pens tightly capped—what do notice first about my writing? “Lots of mistakes!” “Did you do all this on purpose?” “It’s hard to read!” I was thrilled to hear this last comment—it allowed us to talk about why we need to find and correct our mistakes. If readers can’t fight their way through all the errors, they’ll never find our stories, our big ideas, which was the reason we wrote in the first place. Working on their own first, I had them find as many of my mistakes as they could and correct them if they knew what to do. I then had them check with a partner to compare what they had found and work together on corrections. We then went through the piece as a class, talking about the most common kinds of errors, their own weak spots (paragraphing—many said they didn’t always know when to begin a new one), and about words that they used every day but were still trouble now and then—maybe, sincerely, their/there/they’re, because, too/two/to, and so on. We decided that fifth graders should be masters of capitalization and ending punctuation and to make it a goal to never have to edit for those two things again.

Their mission now was to edit their pieces three times—self/partner/partner. Writers needed to collect the signatures of their partners at the top of their writing in addition to their own signature, to prove they had all three layers of editing. We didn’t call the next draft “final,” but they all agreed to have a “clean copy” of their writing for our next session.

10. Clean Copies and Reflection. Since my time with Mr. L’s class was nearly over, I wanted them to reflect about all that they had done, starting with The Matchbox Diary and ending with their own writing. I wrote the word Reflect at the top of a fresh sheet of chart paper (this was a no document camera day) and asked what it meant to reflect—remember, think about, explain, flashback were their quick responses. (I rather like their ideas.) So we reflected about what we had been doing beginning with reading the book, their own small boxes, their stories, Racquel Peacock, the Coyote Story, plastic sleeves, revising, editing, and clean copies. Now, I had them reflect on a more personal level. I headed a new chart, I learned… and handed them each a 4×4-lined post-it. I asked each student to write one sentence to reflect on what they had learned about writing or themselves as writers, form their reflection into a sentence on their post-it, and stick it on the chart when they were ready. Here are some of their responses:

I learned…

…that when we are writing, we need to put our effort into it. I’ve also learned that I can express myself in my writing.

…in writing that everyone is not perfect, including me.

…that I really need to revise, edit, and read my writing to myself to feel it better.

…that using punctuation will make the writing easier to read.

…that writing is fun when you write about something you like.

…that writing can be fun, and that I write better when someone is helping me.

…that when you’re writing a serious paper and then you put a funny or sarcastic sentence in it, it sounds really stupid when you read it out loud.

…that if you don’t like writing, and you start writing, you will start enjoying it.

…that the first time you check your writing, it’s not all correct and perfect.

…that when you write to have someone read it to you so you can hear your mistakes.

…that when I’m told to write descriptively and I do, people feel like they are there and they feel emotions that I wouldn’t even feel.

…that I write a lot like Gary Paulsen.

…that if you revise your paper you get better at writing.

…that you need just enough details, not too many and not too little.

…that no one is a dictionary (as in no one knows how to spell every word.)

…that editing is different from revising.

…that I like to start a story by setting the scene.

…that when I get a partner who has neutral feelings about me, I can revise and edit better.

…that a diary doesn’t have to be written in a book, and that big stories can be hidden inside small things.

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11. Conferences—Mining for gold nuggets. My last step with Mr. L’s students was to conference with each of them individually—I wanted to have each student share his or her writing (clean copy and drafts), allowing me an opportunity to give feedback one on one. I know that conferencing like this is a luxury/dream/near impossibility for many teachers. Large class sizes, time issues, lack of confidence in their own writing skills, classroom management—what are the other students doing while I’m conferencing? These are real concerns for teachers, so I won’t pretend they aren’t. Mr. L uses a modified Daily Five (Boushey and Moser) approach, which helps address a couple of the concerns. And with two of us in the room, it was significantly easier to meet with individual students. All I can say is that individual conferences work as both a formative and summative assessment tool—discovering and reinforcing a student’s strengths, help in determining instructional needs, and can be a lot of fun. With Mr. L’s students, I wanted to be able to point out and praise specific a moment of two in their writing. I was looking for strong words, interesting sentences, sharp details, intriguing leads/conclusions, fluent sentences, etc. It wasn’t hard to find golden moments in each of their writings. Because I had gotten to know these students, some of these highlights shine even brighter to me–I had seen the before and the after. Here are the gold nuggets I mined from these conferences:

Student K: I was only five when my mom gave me a bracelet that was passed down from generation to generation from my mom’s mom to my mom, then to me.

Student J: Before we got to State, I injured my knee—I had bone growing over bone. The doctor said that I could not play baseball for the rest of the season.

Student L:  First, a boy next door to my friend threw a rock straight at me. Do not ask me why, but it hit me in the head. Then I started running home, but I tripped over a stick and could not get up.

Student J: One day while working in the war torn town of Bremerhaven, Germany, he met a beautiful young German woman named Ursula. It wasn’t long until they were in love and wanted to marry, but that wasn’t so easy when you are a spy in enemy territory.

Student S: Then he opened his hand, and it was something, all right! It was shiny. It looked like diamonds, and all you could see was a rock crystal thing. It was impressive, because I had never seen anything like it before.

Student D: I knew it was an arrowhead, because it was pointy and it had chipped edges. It was really very easy to break, so I held it carefully.

Student K: That tooth reminds me of the first day I got Spike. I got him at Home Depot. We bought him from two guys who were selling puppies.

Student S: Tiny waterfalls poured out from the roof of my tan house. As I sat in my colorful room, finishing the only book I haven’t read, a large raindrop splattered on my window.

Student J:  I first saw these birds at an exotic pet fair. As soon as I laid my eyes on them, I knew I had to have one. I begged to get them for year, and on Christmas Eve I opened one present, and it was a birdcage! I screamed so loud I swear you could have heard me from space!

Student S: This would not be the last time I would ever see my grandpa, but I was going to school for the first time and wouldn’t have all the time on my hands like I used to as a little kid.

Student E: I paused. 3…2…1… Blink! It was done. Then she had to do the other ear. She had me count down again. 3…2…1… Blink! There were two, shiny purple earrings in my ears. It did not even hurt me.

Student O: There was just one thing we needed to find, the perfect sand dollar. It had to be full, no holes or big cracks. We all set off in different directions, and it was broken sand dollar after broken sand dollar!

Student A: “Daughter.” That is what my necklace says. “Mother.” That is what my mom’s necklace says.

Student S: When we got home, I asked my dad how she died. He said she was allergic to bees. My theory is that when we were playing, Lady got stung.

Student W: I knew for sure this place was old because you could see a cracked oak chair and out of date newspapers. And when I say old, I’m not kidding. Some of this stuff should be in the Smithsonian.

Student A: Are you wondering how many cranes we made as a team? Well, we made 2,000 cranes out of paper! The Japanese could make 2 wishes!

Student E: One day I was walking by my house when I noticed that a dog was behind me. The dog was black with a black nose and a pink, wet, slobbery tongue.

Student G: After going on the trip, my great-grandma Martha wanted to give me a beautiful necklace. It used to be hers when she was about sixty years old. Now she is eighty-five.

Student M: One day, in a two year old’s boring life, an artist, also know as me, came walking into the kitchen where I saw my brother buckled into his highchair. The minute I saw the colorful markers, I had the best idea a two year old could ever think of.

Student J: On the shore, there were all sorts of rocks, but there were lots of awesome rocks. For me, awesome rocks are the kind you can see clear through.

Student R: Another thing I noticed was how a trailer could express one’s personality. If you see a trailer with peace signs and flowers on it, you are probably going to think of a hippie. If you see a trailer with skulls on it, you are going to think of someone scary.

Student R: I put my shells away in a box that my grandma gave to me. The box is six inches long and four inches wide. I have between 100 and 200 shells. My friends have said, “Wow! That’s a lot of shells!”

Student A: On the way to school I asked my friend when he was going to Hawaii and if he could get me a souvenir. Surprisingly, he said, “Sure!” Right then, I knew it was a lie because of his smiling face.

Thanks again to Paul Fleischman and Bagram Ibatoulline for their amazing book, The Matchbox Diary. And of course, extra-special thanks goes to Mr. L and each one of his fifth graders writers. I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to be called Mr. Hicks, each day I walked into your room.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will be reviewing Amy Krause Rosenthal’s exciting new book, Exclamation Mark, about how a familiar punctuation mark discovers his purpose. Thanks for visiting. Come often, share your thoughts—and bring friends. Remember, for the BEST workshops blending traits, common core, workshop, and writing process, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

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