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Inspiring Excellence Part 6: Writing and Speaking with Power

The Inspiring Excellence Series is a set of six videos that document a learning expedition—an extended interdisciplinary study—involving second-grade students in Jenna Gampel’s class at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston, MA, investigating the topic of snakes. The videos celebrate a powerful confluence of exciting original research that includes fieldwork and experts, artistic skill and critique, and sharp Common Core literacy practices in reading for and writing with evidence. The quality of the resulting work is remarkable.

This video series accompanies the book Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters.


- It is now time for the eggs to hatch. The colorful red, white, and yellow striped coral snake hatches out of its soft egg with its 17 brothers and sisters. It’s hungry for its first tasty meal.

- Once we knew we were creating narrative nonfiction e-books, it was time for students to start crafting their stories. A lot of our high-quality writing targets were things that were already familiar to students. We’ve been working on them all year, like using transitions words or what we call “power words”. If we’re creating a list of synonyms, what do I mean by that?

- Synonyms are something that means the same thing.

- Okay, so something that means the same thing. Sargene?

- Mouthwatering.

- Mouthwatering, that mouthwatering pizza. Aleah?

- Shaking.

- That’s kind of a movement word, too, right? But it’s the shaking, you can infer he’s scared. Wow! Look at all this word power we’re building. We worked from model text, cataloging descriptive words that would help them create rich stories.

- It’s a hawk.

- The wide wings extended.

- Extended!

- Extended?

- [Jenna] Other targets were unique to writing narrative nonfiction, like including facts from all the scientific categories they researched or discovering narrative techniques that the authors of our model text used to make their stories exciting. And that’s our learning target: “I can include a satisfying ending to my narrative nonfiction story.” What I want us to do is look at our mentor text “Bull Frog at Magnolia Circle” and we’re going to look at the beginning and ending. What is the similarity?

- The white wooden house is mentioned two times, at the beginning and the ending.

- This type of ending is called a circular ending. Okay, so we know that in our ending, we want to end with the same setting. I created a series of organizers to help students outline and draft their stories.

- When I started working on my story, I used this planning page. On our planning page, we had to do our ideas, and Where, The Start, Events, Problem/Danger, What happens?, and The Ending. For the events I wrote “she crawls in the grass searching for a shrew.”

- [Jenna] Each section of their story organizers had a different color and reminders of our learning targets.

- This one’s events, this one was habitat, this one was solution, this one was the ending, and this one was a problem and danger.

- [Jenna] Students turned facts that they studied into elements of their stories.

- This is the events paper. One of the facts I included was overlapping scales. In my story I wrote, “her long, overlapping scales get ready to ambush prey that comes close.”

- [Jenna] When the stories reached their final drafts, we turned our attention to how we would read our stories in the recording studio.

- And action.

- C’mon you slowpoke, let’s go!

- [Student] If you were going to read out loud, you would have to have a loud presentation voice, and you would also have to keep a strong body to let it come out of you, and you can say it with expression.

- The bright, shining morning in May

- The sun is hot and dry.

- [Ron] In real life, the way we present ourselves and our work really matters, and unfortunately in schools, we often don’t feel we have the time to allow kids to polish that, both their work and the way they present their thinking, to a point of real power and elegance. This classroom is a great example of a place where students were given the time and care to refine their writing, their scientific illustration, their oral presentation, their music, to create something of real quality and beauty.

- Four big targets are Pacing, Voice, Articulation, Expression.

- [Student] Speak with expression and change your tone of your voice throughout the story. When you had the exclamation points, you start to go out loud.

- [Student] My feedback was for him on pacing, I gave him “just right” because it was appropriate pacing, ‘cause it was nice and smooth.

- [Jenna] Students have the chance to self-evaluate by making recordings on our iPad.

- The mongoose looks around after every step he makes.

- [Jenna] I wanted every student to feel prepared and successful for our one day in the recording studio.

- Suddenly, she feels the vibrations of a coyote.

- Next, King Snake looks behind a log. It’s a Virginia opossum!

- Cottonmouth slowly eats the bullfrog headfirst, then goes to a tree to digest. She finally gives birth to 12 live babies. Their keeled scales are light brown. Cottonmouth will leave her babies to defend themselves, but now Cottonmouth is exhausted and finally goes to sleep in the spooky Florida Everglades. I’m done?

- Yeah, you’re good, Xavier, awesome.

- [Technician] Great job.

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