Month: October 2015

How COW supports the Writer’s Workshop

An effective approach taken by many teachers in teaching the complex skills of writing is that of the Writer’s Workshop.  This approach can take many forms, as each teacher will adapt the Writer’s Workshop to the particular needs of their students and their own teaching style.  Generally speaking, the Writer’s Workshop includes some or all of the following elements:


During writer’s workshop time, students work independently on their own writing projects.  The organization of the class is generally flexible, with students working on various stages of the writing process.  A student’s writing project generally carries over from one writing period to the next.


Teachers will give students short lessons which focus upon one particular writing skill.  The skills taught in such lessons may be a response by the teacher to a perceived need in the class.


Students are presented with texts which model the types of writing they are undertaking themselves.


Students have the ability to choose the genres or topics they write about.


Students will share their writing and confer with a wide variety of readers, including other students, their teacher, or guest editors.

Whole Group Sharing

Students share their writing with the entire class.  In this way, they are writing for an authentic audience of peers.

How COW Supports the Writer’s Workshop

COW has been designed to be a flexible, adaptable, relevant tool for classes engaged in learning the complexities of writing.


Students can access COW at any time and from any location.  Their writing does not need to be limited to the classroom during Writer’s Workshop time, but can continue at home or at other times during the school day.  Keep in mind that each session of writing in COW has a minimum word goal (the default set at 100 words).  Be sure to allow enough writing time for students to achieve this minimum word goal.  COW allows students to return to their writing later to add chapters or to edit.


Teachers can use the text analysis statistics generated for each piece of writing in COW to focus the students’ attention on particular aspects of writing.  (For example, variety of sentence length, use of adjectives and adverbs, or consistency of tense.)


Teachers can create their own models of exemplary writing using COW, themselves.  A live writing demonstration on a SMART board or projector is a very effective means of modelling how a writer thinks as they write.


Teachers can create a variety of writing challenges, giving students choices. In addition, COW has a weekly writing challenge, as well as offering a free write option with a huge bank of prompts and thousands of bonus words.


Using COW’s edit mode, students can pair up for peer-to-peer editing.  Also, teachers can leave comments on each piece of writing, guiding students as they launch into editing their writing.

Whole-Group Sharing

By sharing their writing to the class bookshelf, an entire class can read an individual student’s work, thus providing an on-going forum for whole group sharing with an authentic audience.

COW provides teachers with the flexibility they need to facilitate the Writer’s Workshop, and provide their students with an engaging platform for writing and sharing.

This Week’s Writing Challenge: Hallowe’en Howl! Plus, Eight Ways to Bring Your Reader to the Edge of Their Seat

In this week’s COW Writing Challenge, “Hallowe’en Howl,” students have an opportunity to write their very own suspenseful story on the theme of Hallowe’en.  As a writer building tension within a story and having your reader sit on the edge of their seat with each word  is very challenging.  So, how do writers create suspense in a story?

1.  Create a character your reacher cares about, and put them in a dangerous situation.  Early in the story, introduce a character that your audience can connect with.  Then, put them in a very dangerous, scary situation.

2.  Another way to create suspense is to write in the second person.  For example, “You walk up the narrow stairway, stumbling through the darkness.  You reach forward into the darkness, and your hand grasps something slimey and cold.”

3.  Lead your reader into thinking something terrible is going to happen, but approach that moment slowly.  If there’s a door that needs to be opened, have your character approach it slowly, then provide second by second details on the opening of the door.  “He reached toward the doorknob with a trembling hand and grabbed the ice-cold metal.  Slowly, he turned the doorknob to the right and heard a clunk.  The door inched open, as he felt a cool breeze on his face.”

4.  Show, don’t tell.  Instead of saying that your character is terrified, show your reader by telling them about their trembling hands, their wide-eyed look, the beads of sweat on their forehead, and other physical signs of terror.

5.  Have your readers know more than your characters do.  For example, if your readers know there is something very dangerous behind a door, have your character approach the door unknowingly.  As they open the door, your audience will cringe with anticipation of what will happen when the door opens, while your character remains blissfully ignorant of the dangers.

6.  Remember that violence is not suspense.  The anticipation of possible violence or danger is far more suspenseful than having a scene involving violence. 

7.  Think about what your reader might find suspenseful as you write each part of your story. For example, draw upon certain common human fears, like having a rat run across your back.  What other common human fears can you build into your story?

8.  Build suspense by having a countdown or a deadline which the main character faces.  Is there a ticking clock showing the countdown to something terrible?  Try to build tension during the countdown as the character gets closer to a deadline.

Building suspense in a story is very challenging for a writer.  Yet, there are few more engaging styles of writing than a suspenseful story which holds the reader to the edge of their seat down to the very last word.

NaNoCOWMoo: Going Boldly Where Few Classes Have Gone Before Four Tips to Help Your Class Write 50,000 Words in Thirty Days

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So, your class has decided to join the 400,000 other writers on six continents around the globe. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)– where writers strive to write 50,000+ words over thirty days. That’s a lot of writing for any one of your students, however, if you combine the writing power of your entire class, reaching 50,000 words is definitely attainable and COW is here to help!

Here are a few tips to help you and your class conquer what we’re calling the NaNoCOWMoo Challenge.

1.  A Giant Thermometer

We’ve all seen those giant thermometers used by organizations during fundraising campaigns. They’re big, they’re bold, and they’re a constant reminder of a goal. Create a large NaNoCOWMoo thermometer and place it in a prominent place– how about right outside the classroom door? That way, everyone in the school who walks past your classroom can see your class’s progress and maybe even offer words of encouragement!

2.  Plan Out Your Sessions

Yes, 50,000 words sounds like a lot of writing, even for an entire class. That’s why it’s helpful to break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks and plan the writing sessions out. You’ll need 12,500 words a week. If you have two writing sessions per week, that’s 6,250 words a session. For a class of thirty students, that’s 208.333 words per session. (Okay, let’s round it to 210.) Now, that’s manageable! You might want to build in a couple of extra sessions just in case. You never know when an alien invasion or an infestation of flying elephants may get in the way of your class writing time.

3.  Celebrate Milestones

Have short term goals of 10,000 words, and each time the class reaches this benchmark, have some sort of celebration. It doesn’t have to be anything big (although a marching band showing up at your classroom door would be pretty exciting). Short, attainable goals can build into the achievement of reaching the ultimate goal of 50,000 words.

4.  Write Fearlessly with Imaginations Unleashed

To get your students writing up a storm, remind them that they are working on what is essentially a series of first drafts. Their goal in each writing session during the NaNoCOWMoo Challenge is to generate ideas, turn those ideas into words, and get those words onto their screen. This is not the time for revision. That can wait for December. During November, they are to  engage in the drafting stage of the writing process. This means writing fearlessly, with their imaginations unleashed!

Yes, 50,000 words over thirty days is a great challenge. Yet, like most daunting challenges, the rewards are great. At the end of November, you and your students will have a vast reservoir of writing to draw upon to revise and refine. In addition, their proverbial writing fluency muscles will be finely tuned, giving them the confidence to forge ahead and tackle other class writing tasks.

Best of luck on your NaNoCOWMoo Challenge!

Two Heads are Better Than One Writing an Original Fable

This week’s COW Writing Challenge will have students creating their own original fable. Their fable will end with the moral, “Two heads are better than one.”

Before presenting this writing challenge, it would be helpful to read a number of Aesop’s Fables to the class. The students can then become familiar with the style of this genre of story. Have them discuss the similar characteristics of the fables, including:

  1. They are generally short stories.
  2. They usually have animals as their main characters.
  3. They each have a moral or teach a lesson.

As you read the fables to your students, discuss the choice of animal for each character. How does the choice of animal suit the role of the character in the story?

Following the writing, be sure to have a sharing session in which the class can see the various way each fable arrived at the moral of “Two heads are better than one.”

Using COW in the Classroom

COW is a unique tool for teachers and students to use in their writing programs.  A question arising with teachers is, “What does a classroom using COW look like?”  Here are some of the ways a typical classroom can use COW–

Ms. Brown teaches a 7th grade class of thirty students. Every Monday, the class looks at this week’s COW Writing Challenge. They discuss the topic, the genre, and have a class brainstorming session of possible ideas for approaching this writing challenge. 

Before some writing sessions, Ms. Brown will introduce a new writing challenge she has created for her class. She does this by doing the writing challenge together with her class using the SMART board or projector. After modelling this writing challenge, she takes the class to the computer lab or brings in the school’s trolley of Chromebooks and turns the students loose on the writing challenge. She allows them enough time to write, enabling her students to reach the minimum word goal of 100 words with each writing session.

Occasionally, Ms. Brown tells the students that it is “COW Time!” Once again, students are given access to computers and are engaged in free writing time. Students can choose to write the weekly COW Writing Challenge, one of Ms. Brown’s custom designed writing challenges, or simply select Free Writing (which draws upon the bank of COW prompts and bonus words.)

During some busy weeks at school, Ms. Brown assigns COW Time to her students as a homework assignment. She ensures those students with limited internet access at home are provided with other means of completing their homework, such as giving them access to the computer lab after school.

Once a week, Ms. Brown logs into her teacher’s account and checks her class’s stats page to see how much writing her class has done over the week. She takes note of her most active writers, as well as the students who have done no writing that week. 

Once or twice a week, Ms. Brown checks her class list to read unread student writing. After reading the stories, she approves stories to be shared on the Class Bookshelf and leaves comments for her students on their writing.

An important part of Ms. Brown’s writing program is the weekly sharing session which she holds every Friday. Students know that they can share their writing to the Class Bookshelf throughout the week for classmates to read. During this Friday sharing session, students have the opportunity to read their writing to their classmates or have a discussion about the content and form of the writing. Sometimes, Ms. Brown has the students share their writing on one particular writing challenge. This enables her students to see the various approaches each writer took to the same prompt and bonus word list. During these sharing sessions, Ms. Brown always stresses the importance of positive and constructive criticism of student writing.

Once every three weeks, Ms. Brown has her students select one of their pieces of writing to take through the editing process. Her students carefully examine the text analysis stats to target areas of improvement. In addition, she teaches mini-lessons on certain aspects of composition she wishes her students to apply to their revisions. Her students then use COW’s Edit Mode to revise their drafts. After the first revision, she pairs students up for peer-to-peer revision. With certain students, she meets individually to review changes to be made to their piece of writing.

On a weekly basis, Ms. Brown and the students review the class’s writing goals and set a target for how many more words the class will write during the upcoming week.

Every teacher takes the resources at their disposal and adapts them to their own needs and the needs of their students.  As a teacher, you may wish to use COW in a very different way from Ms. Brown.  We’d love to know how you use COW in your classroom! Please leave a comment below or send us an email at

Meet My Avatar This week's COW Writing Challenge

In this week’s COW Writing Challenge, we are asking our writers to write from the point of view of their avatar.  Writing in the first person, they are to tell us all about their avatar’s imaginary life, including where they live, who is in their family, what their school is like, or any other details they wish to include.  Their writing prompt will be:  “Hello.  Let me introduce myself.  My name is . . .”

Teaching Extensions

This COW Writing Challenge lends itself to exploring Point of View, in writing.  It provides a good opportunity to introduce the differences between first, third, and even second person narrative. 

a.  First Person Narrative:  I walked up to the door and knocked.  The door swung open and I gasped at what I saw.

b.  Second Person Narrative:  You walk up to the door and knock.  The door swings open and you gasp at what you see.

c.  Third Person Narrative:  She walked up to the door and knocked.  The door swung open and she gasped at what she saw.

Ways of exploring these different forms of narrative with your students include:

Read examples from novels using either first, second or third person narratives, and ask the following questions:

     1.  Why did the author choose to use this form of narrative in this novel?

     2.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each form of narrative?

     3.  Of your favourite novels, which is the most common narrative form? 

     4.  Which narrative form do you prefer, and why?

Challenge your students to use COW’s Edit Mode and write three versions of the same story– one in the first person, one in the second person, and one in the third person.  Have them read through their three versions, and decide which one is most effective, giving reasons why.

One of the most significant decisions an author makes when writing a book is deciding upon which narrative voice to use.  Making students aware of the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of the first, second and third person narrative voice is vital to their development as emerging writers.

COW’s Writing Session Word Goal Goal-setting in the Quest for Writing Fluency

When starting a writing session, how many times have teachers been asked, “How much do I have to write?” If you’d asked Ernest Hemingway, his answer would have been to write a minimum of five hundred words a day.  For Jack London, his goal was a thousand words.  Stephen King?  Ten pages.

Concrete writing goals are useful for all writers, be they accomplished or just starting to learn the craft.  The reason?  The most difficult part of writing for many writers is just getting started.  Like a runner who finds the first mile difficult before they catch their “second wind,” writers also have to overcome their initial creative sluggishness before they get rolling and write with fluency.  Having a concrete word goal to work towards helps the writer push through this initial stage of writing lethargy.

COW’s Writing Session Word Goal

In each writing session with COW, students are given an incentive to write a minimum number of one words.  The default setting is one hundred words.  By writing at least one hundred words, students will be awarded Alieo Credits for that piece of writing.

The Writing Session Word Goal also discourages students from starting a piece of writing and abandoning it prematurely before the narrative can be fully developed.  COW encourages students to develop a “stick-to-itiveness” with their writing.

Meeting Individual Student Needs

To meet the individual needs of your students, teachers have the ability within COW to change the Writing Session Word goal for individuals.  If you deem the one hundred word minimum to be too high for some of your students, you have the ability to reduce that number.  Conversely, teachers can raise that number if they feel students need to be challenged further.

How to Change the Minimum Word Goal in COW

1.  Select My Classes in the navigation bar.

2.  Select the class from the teacher dashboard.

3.  Select Settings

4.  Under the column Word Goal, makes changes to students.

The Five Word Writing Challenge

This week’s COW Writing Challenge is called the “Five Word Writing Challenge.” The bonus word list the students will use is only five words long. These words are:  terrified, five, boomerang, turtle, and fuzzy. (If they use up all of the bonus words on this list, don’t worry. They’ll be fed more bonus words from the Alieo Bonus Word List.)

The key to this writing challenge is the sharing of stories after the writing session. When the students share their stories either orally or on the class bookshelf, the other students in the class will be able to see the various ways the other writers have used these same five words.

By sharing these stories, it really shows the individuality of each writer’s creative direction. The class will experience many “Ah, ha!” moments when they see how each writer has used the five words in their own unique way.

Can a Writing Assignment Change Lives?

Never underestimate the importance of a teacher in the lives of children.  Although it may feel like you’re swimming upstream against a strong headwind, your efforts have a profound and lasting impact upon the lives of your students.

This applies even to what may seem like a small part of what a teacher does:  the writing assignment.

Here is a an amazing article about the profound impact felt in the lives of those students fortunate enough to receive one particular writing assignment.  It shows how writing can have a powerful effect upon the way we move forward in our lives and radically alter the way we see ourselves.

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