Thursday, November 30, 2006

Live Writing

Normally on Fridays I share a piece of literature that I have used as a mentor text to work in developing student writing. What I want to share today is a book that can be used as a mentor text, but is also something that every writer should own. Ralph Fletcher's Live Writing: Breathing Life into Your Words.

I was introduced to the work of Mr. Fletcher via a listserv of "RealWriting Teachers" and it is because of him that I now keep my own writer's notebook. But this book is particularly special because it follows the philosophy that I have that words are powerful tools. In Live Writing the focus is on the craft of writing and how to choose words that lift off the page (as opposed to YAWN! most textbooks). What follows are some tips that I love:

  • "Here's the good news: most of us are not born writers. We were not born with a pencil in our tiny fingers. And very rarely do the words flow clear and sparkling the first time we try to write them down. Most of us have to work at our writing."
Imagine how powerful that would be to share with our students - that writing is work!! That it is OK to revise and revise and revise. And that WE (teachers) struggle with it too!! And imagine if we showed them that by sharing our own writing!!

  • READ like a writer!!If you want to improve your writing, you have to apprentice yourself to the best writers you can find - writers that you can learn from......and reread the writing to find out how the writer pulled off the effect!
How many times have you heard me say this about mentor texts!! It has ruined some of my reading - as I am always looking to see how someone said something or the details they used to paint the picture I drew in my head. But I think it has helped me understand the craft of writing better - and more importantly what I want my writing to be like.
  • "Write low on the food chain...Most people, adults as well as kids, tend to write too high on the food chain. They write about big ideas - jealousy, love, nuclear war - instead of seeking out small details to suggest the larger issue." (p. 100)
Details, details, details. I've even noticed this when people talk - they speak about lofty ideas but when you press them for examples or to provide more details they can't give you anything!! Do they really know what they are talking about? Have they thought about it? Could you communicate your big ideas in writing?

I don't think that this book is intended to be read alone - meaning that someone should be writing along with reading it. The tips and strategies for the craft of writing, if just read, are meaningless. If you are going to read about being a writer, you better be writing as well. If you need a "textbook" to make better writers - I suggest this one!

Email Tips

Email has become one of the most common means for me to communicate these days. (I might have said cell phone in the past but I have this new Bluetooth that is causing me problems!!Is there a dentist for a Bluetooth problem?) However, email is one of the worst ways to communicate as well as it seems to always get misinterpreted. Even when you use a smiley face :-) or a frowny face :-( or a confused face :-s the emotion can be lost or mistranslated.

Email, and it's cousin instant messaging, have also led to a brand new dictionary of "words" - things like LOL, POP, and CYA that somehow work themselves into student writing. I recently led a scoring training where I asked teachers to list their "pet peeve" in student writing before we scored any test papers so that they would not get distracted when those pet peeves appeared. You would be amazed at the elementary teachers who had IM codes on their list!!!

Via Lifehacker, I came across "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War." Tom Wheeler, the author, has a great post there on the lessons of Mr. Lincoln and how we could use them in our own electronic communication. Here are the highlights:

  • Hierarchy of Communications : Electronic messages were Lincoln's least preferred means of communicating. First on his hierarchy were direct, in person exchanges...I have become more aware that emails are not a substitute for walking down the hall or picking up the phone
  • Words are Important - When he used an electronic message Lincoln maximized its impact by using carefully chosen words. His August 1864 telegram to General Grant, "Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke" could not have been more explicitly expressed. Emails, on the other hand, have tended to become the communications equivalent of casual Fridays, substituting comfort and ease for discipline and rigor.
  • Less is More - Whereas many saw the blank telegraph form as an invitation to an essay, Lincoln's telegrams were short and to the point. "Your long despatch of yesterday just received," Lincoln chided General George McClellan about a 10-page telegram sent in May 1863. Then the president required only three additional sentences to reply to the general's endless essay.
  • Message Candor - Honest Abe was frank and direct in his communications. "If you and he would use the same frankness to one another, and to me, that I use to both of you, there would be no difficulty," Lincoln wrote General Joseph Hooker in June 1863 regarding the ongoing feud between Hooker and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck.
  • Take a Breath - If frankness and candor are a virtue, they also require judicious application in electronic messages. Just because it is possible to instantaneously send a message doesn't mean it is appropriate to do so...Responding to a September 1863 telegram from General Ambrose Burnside, Lincoln wrote in a reply telegram, "it makes me doubt whether I am awake or dreaming. I have been struggling for ten get you to go assist Gen. Rosecrans...and yet you steadily move the other way." After fully venting his frustrations Lincoln turned the page over and wrote, "Not sent." Hitting the "Send" button on an email is an easy, but irreparable, action.
  • Reading Other People's Mail - Abraham Lincoln's habit was to walk into the War Department telegraph office, open the drawer containing copies of all the telegrams received, and read them all, regardless of to whom they were addressed. Through this procedure Lincoln had a keyhole into the thinking of his generals and activities in the field. The "cc" and "Reply All" function of email provides a similar opportunity for us to stay informed.
  • The Value of a Hand-Written Note - Lincoln's appreciation of the telegraph was because of its ability to instantaneously communicate over great distances. Where a face-to-face meeting was not possible he preferred a well thought out letter. In such letters he would cogently lay out his thoughts as well as respond to issues he imaged the recipient would raise. Something handwritten is also more physically and emotionally powerful than an impersonal message over the wires. When for instance, Lincoln congratulated General Grant for his Vicksburg victory in July 1863 his statement, "I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right, and I was wrong" was made all the more significant by coming direct from the president's hand.
Because email is so commonly used, I think that we have an obligation to teach our students (and colleagues) how to use it appropriately. This site has some other great examples that are worth checking out.

IMHO, good old Abe still has a great deal to teach us! :-)


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Waking Up from Thanksgiving

I finally have some downtime this holiday weekend - the Bills game is blacked out, Pittsburgh is losing miserably (WAHOO!!)and my beloved Sabres don't play until tonight! I use my Friday posts for sharing a book to help in teaching about writing - but I must admit that despite the stack of books on my coffee table to be read, I read mostly sales fliers this weekend!! Not that this is a bad thing - I have all my shopping done, the rest is just icing on the cake!!

Although I shopped and ate my way through most of the weekend, I still had some time to reflect on writing. (Sad, I know, but it is my passion!) I've been thinking a great deal about the "new literacies" of the Web 2.0 and the possibilities that it holds for education. I have specifically not posted on this topic on this blog because I maintain another (Grand Rounds) with a colleague for that type of thing. But the lines have started to cross...

I began blogging as a way to create a community of learners around teaching writing. I have the honor of facilitating many workshops on writing in our region and I say honor most sincerely. I am passionate about teaching writing and the power of writing and am grateful to the teachers who spend time with me reflecting on and investigating their own writing practice. My hope is to continue that learning via this blog, long after the designated day of my visit has passed. I believe that we must be learners if we are to teach - otherwise, we are not good models for our students.

But a recent post by Will Richardson has me thinking. Will writes about a discussion with a high school English teacher who has begun to use Web 2.0 tools in the classroom:

We talked at some length as to whether reading for our students is much different than reading was to us. Whether they are reading in different ways, specifically through video or other media, and whether those reading literacies are equally as important as text literacy. Whether we are just chained to our old definitions of what reading should be because that’s how we’ve experienced it. Whether now that we can connect to so many different texts we shouldn’t be surprised that most students find Of Mice and Men irrelevant and uninteresting. Whether we should be rethinking what reading literacy means.

WOW!! It brings me back to an inservice day in my district where I led a group of teachers to investigate what literacy means in their content area. You see - I believe that each content area has it's own literacy components, that to simply teach a student to read or to write means nothing if we don't expose them to multiple types of text. Classic literature, graphic novels, technical writing, primary sources - all contain words but to decipher their meaning takes a bit of a different skill. And to emulate that writing - to write like a scientist, a historian, an engineer - those take another set of skills. It is out obligation (or moral imperative as Kim Moritz writes about) to teach this literacy to our students in order for them to be successful. But on that inservice day - I was informed by some of the teachers (well, two to be exact!) that students haven't changed in 37 years (i.e. they are lazy.)

I heartily disagree - students have changed tremendously! The students I taught were not the same type of student that I was and I was not the same as my parents. The folks who haven't changed in those 37 years are the teachers - those who believe that some can learn, and some cannot. Those teachers who are there to impart their knowledge, rather than to grow and nurture the knowledge of others. I don't think Of Mice and Men is irrelevant or uninteresting in this day and age - but those who are teaching it might be!!

Don't get me wrong - I am not bashing teachers! I am one!! Instead, I think it is time that we open up our doors, see the world that awaits our students, and start preparing them for the future. We don't know exactly what that looks like - but we can at least start using tools from this century!! Lots of folks I talk to lately aren't sure what that looks like, but I recently found this from a 16 year old student who might help frame it for us(Thank you think:lab!):

So here is what I am proposing. The way classes are taught should be split into three sections: Teaching of Information and Methods, Thinking, Discussing, and Re-working, and then Producing Content and Spreading your Knowledge to others. In more detail below.

Teaching of Information and Methods
This is what you think of when you think of school. Textbooks, sitting behind desks, taking notes, and being sent home to memorize the information, only to come back and take a test. This is necessary for the next two parts.
Thinking, Discussing, and Re-working
Talking about what you learned. Focusing on current events and news. And looking to the future. This part could have a little unconference feel to it.
Producing Content and Spreading your Knowledge to others.
This is the part that the internet enables. Creating videos, podcasts, blog posts is at the heart of this part of the class. Being able to publish books through LuLu. This allows students to spread knowledge that was learned in the first part and the new ideas that were generated in the second part.

I think Will's right - it's time to rethink literacy....but let's start doing it with kids!

Friday, November 17, 2006

What are YOU so grumpy about?

When my pre-K niece is upset with the smallest of slights – from holding a different niece to not allowing her to have chips before dinner – she puts her nose in the air, crosses her arms high on her chest, and turns away. Of course, she then keeps peeking at you to see if you are watching……

Kids are funny that way. They give you obvious signs when they are upset and you can immediately apply any of the cures – hugs and tickles work best.

What Are YOU so Grumpy About?
by Tom Lichtenheld is full of great illustrations and runs through about 13 different “causes” of grumpiness from receiving a gift you don’t like to having to eat “adult” cereal. The illustrations add to the text by having little cartoon comments and great details. This is a book that is a great read-aloud!! Additionally, inside the front cover are many things to do to “cure” grumpiness – this is a book that literally can be devoured cover to cover!!

A group of teachers I have been working with lately have been using this book at the elementary level to work on Two-Column Notes from Step Up to Writing. Here are three different ways we used them as we tried to perfect our lessons.

The first teacher practiced reading the book aloud and having the students take notes on the left hand side of the paper for causes of grumpiness – adding details in the right hand column from both the illustrations and the their own experience. She found that 13 different causes was too many for kids to handle, so the second time she did it – she provided the students with papers that had 5 stars already placed on the left hand side. This was intended to guide the students to listen for at least five things and focus on those. A third grade teacher followed a similar model by reading the book aloud, then creating the notes together as a class using the two-column note method.

I shared the work of these teachers with another group while we were discussing the listening passage on our state ELA assessments. The common concern was that in these instances, students are asked to take notes without knowing the questions that they are going to be asked. As a result, analysis of student note taking pages indicates that they are taking pure script notes, despite the strategies that we are teaching them. Having this book conveniently in my bag – we tried an experiment.

I read the book aloud to the teachers, highlighting and drawing their attention to the pictures. They listened and watched, taking no notes. I then asked them to listen a second time and take note in any format that would work for them. After they took notes, we then worked to categorize them using two column notes. For example – Were the causes of grumpiness home or school? A person or an event? The teachers then completed the two column notes using their original versions.

We haven’t tried the second version with students yet…but have come to realize that providing an organizational structure for notes or enabling students to create their own is critical!!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lest we forget...

In Flanders Fields poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields
By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

There is power in the written and spoken word. If there wasn’t – people wouldn’t die to preserve our fundamental right to speak/write our opinions. We have a responsibility to remind our students that we owe our tremendous freedoms to many people who have died for it. It’s Veteran’s Day – so I thought it appropriate to remind everyone of the now famous poem that was written to capture the horrors of World War I.

We are engaged in another war at this moment, but unless we have been personally touched by a loss, it still seems far removed from our lives. Perhaps we have been numbed by constant media exposure of the conflict or perhaps violence in our lives have become commonplace. Perhaps there are too many causes for us to wear ribbons for that they yellow gets lost amongst the rainbow of colors.

I love what the folks over at Just One More Book! have done with their freedom of expression. (Thanks Technospud for the link!) Gathering in a coffee shop – they discuss the children’s books they love and why they love them. The most recent? A Poppy is to Remember – based upon the poem that opened this blog. Listen to the podcast to hear them describe the book and how their children loved it – as well as the connections to learning about war (and peace!) Podcasting is a great way for students to express their freedom of speech!

I also think my students would be amazed to learn that one of their favorites, Captain Underpants, made the Top Ten List of Most Challenged Books in 2005 for “anti-family content, being unsuited to age group and violence.” Of the list that same year are the classics “Of Mice and Men” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Banned Book Week , designated by the American Library Association as the last week in September, took on new irony as a display of banned books was banned! What better way to demonstrate the freedom of speech (and develop critical thinking skills) than to have students read a “Banned Book” and blog as they read their thoughts on why it might have been banned. Is it language? Content? Something else? Authentic and engaging: what kid won’t be drawn to something banned?

Times like these I miss having my own classroom! Every day should be Veteran’s Day!

Friday, November 10, 2006

I picked up Stanley from the breeder four years ago this New Year’s Eve. He was a tiny bundle of white fluff, full of energy and wanting to play. I’d never trained a dog by myself before so we went to “Puppy School.” Stanley was a stellar student. We gained a “Canine Good Citizens Award” and we contemplated having him trained as a therapy dog. Of course, my friends and family never believed me because he didn’t exhibit those traits at home. Four years later – he still doesn’t.

I know when Stanley is upset with me for working too much – he’ll pee on my computer bag. He knows when I will be traveling again – so he steals pantyhose and undergarments from my suitcase as I pack. And he has lately decided that he is enough a member of the family to join us for dinner – on the table of course. He’s a smart dog – probably smarter than me!! And at the end of the day when he is curled up next to me snoring softly in my ear, it’s hard to be angry with his antics.

So you can see that I have a real connection with Dear Mrs. LaRue: Letters from Obedience School, written and illustrate by Mark Teague. In fact, I do believe that I hear Stanley’s voice in Ike, who is sent to Brotweiler Obedience School by his owner Mrs. LaRue after several disturbing incidences at home including eating chicken pie, howling while she is away, and ripping her camel hair coat.

In addition to using Ike’s letters to teach about voice, this picture book is ideal to teach about persuasion and the art of exaggeration. For example, as Ike paints a picture of the “warden” and his “severe” punishment for not sitting and staying (shown in black and white), reality is a comfortable environment of happy dogs and a caring teacher shown in color. Students will get a clear picture of how to provide facts to support their particular opinion, as well as how to pull apart the editorials of others to ask additional questions.

The Writing Fix provides interactive activities for students and Scholastic you provides some additional ideas for using Dear Mrs. LaRue with students but a piece you will certainly want to share with students is how the author gets ideas for his stories:

“For Mark Teague, a story starts from his "notebooks full of sketches and scribbles, strange little drawings and phrases…" His inspiration for the character of Ike in Dear Mrs. LaRue came from two dogs in his life. His own dog, Earl, was a master food thief, and his brother's dog, Ali, actually limped when he wanted attention!”

The more we can have students use writers notebooks and write about things that are important to them, the more engaged they will be as writers. And they’ll keep on writing!!

So - what's your pet been up to lately?

Monday, November 06, 2006

This I Believe...

Monday mornings are rough for me. I never accomplish what I want to over the weekend: my house is a minor disaster, I didn't rake leaves, and work seems to pile up rather than dwindle. Plus, anyone who know me knows I am not a morning person.

But I listen to NPR to get my news fix in and have become hooked on Monday mornings in order to get my "This I Believe" fix. According to it's website, This I Believe "is a national media project engaging millions of people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide their daily lives." Based on a radio program from the 1950's hosted by Edward R. Murrow, the NPR program allows anyone to write the essay and submit it to the site. Original essays from the 1950's program are also available.

In researching the NPR site, I found an incredible blog with podcasts of "This I Believe" statements from ninth grade students. The student's voices are rich and many are very emotional - it is powerful to here these statements and I wonder how those statements will change in the years to come. This is an incredible writing challenge - and these students rose to the occaision.

In a recent workshop on writing, I asked the participants to write their own "This I Believe" statements about writing. My intent was to have them frame their thinking about writing BEFORE we started looking into the 6 Traits and Step Up to Writing. My intent was to have them capture their passions about teaching writing- so that voice did not get lost as we became immersed in strategies.

I am not sure how I did. I did not have them share their statements - I felt they were a little too personal, too intimate to share with the peers. I might have been wrong...

In any event, "This I Believe" statements are powerful writing. I am still crafting mine about writing. When it is done, and meets the requirements of NPR, I will post it here. And I just might submit it to NPR as well!

What do you believe?

Friday, November 03, 2006

Mentor-Mentee Relationship

Fridays are about mentor text. Up to this point, I have shared picture books and chapter books that can be read aloud as examples of good writing for students. Read alouds work with every age group(even adults!). Listening to the ebb and flow of words, the voice of the author paints pictures for us and inspires us to write.

But I’ve come to realize that many teachers of writing aren’t sure what I mean when I talk about mentor text. I’ve written about it before and from my conversations with teachers I started this whole Friday gig, but folks don’t seem to know what do to with the information. I’ve been following NYC Teachersince she kindly visited me and left me feverishly searching Amazon for a book on disconnecting(still watching the mailman for that delivery!!)

Here is a sample of how mentor texts work in her classroom:

A.So. couldn't believe that "My Side of the Story" was from a book called FIRST FRENCH KISS. She almost fell over in disgust.

Anyway, when we got past that, I started typing as she read her piece "The Throw-Away Cereal" to me aloud. There was so much that sounded like Bagdasarian in her piece. She included the smacks, just like Bagdasarian did in his story. The style was extremely conversational. I loved her piece.

I showed her my most recent personal narrative. She decided to emulate me and write in italics for her internal thinking.

She used * * * * * to show time passing like Patricia MacLachlan, instead of using a long ------------------ like Bagdasarian.

One thing I have to help A.So. with is writing her personal narratives in a consistent tense, like past tense. I need to find some mentor texts to help me do that.

Now this is powerful use of writing! Yes – you too can write mentor text for students!! Yes – you should be writing!! Yes - you will need to keep reading and find mentor text to meet the needs of your of your classroom!! Writing teachers, we have some hard work in front of us!! But the result is worth the effort.

Thanks NYC Teacher for being our mentor this week!

Friday, October 27, 2006

What's the moral of the story?

“Admit it. You know you’d just love to tell stories about al of the annoying, weird, pain-in-the-neck people you know. But you wouldn’t want to be a gossip. Well here’s how it’s done.”

Interested? Squids Will Be Squids, Fresh Morals and Beastly Fables from Jon Scieczka and Lane Smith of Stinky Cheese Man fame, model Aesop-like fables with humorous morals. The philosophy of the authors: “"If you can't say something nice about someone, change the guy's name to Donkey or Squid."

Grasshopper Logic is one of my favorites, see if it sounds like anyone you know:

“One bright and sunny day, Grasshopper came home from school, dropped his backpack, and was just about to run outside to meet his friends. “Where are you going?” asked his mom. “Out to meet some friends, “ said Grasshopper. “Do you have any homework due tomorrow?” asked his mom. “Just one small thing for History. I did the rest in class.”

And so Grasshopper’s mother lets him go to play, warning him to be back for dinner.

After dinner, Grasshopper’s mom reads the “small thing” he needs to finish:

“Rewrite twelve Greek myths as Broadway musicals. Write music for songs. Design and build all sets. Sew original costumes for each production.”

Of course, Grasshopper’s mom asks how long Grasshopper has known about the assignment, to which he answers (Let’s moan and all say it together now!) “I don’t know.”

Moral? “There are plenty of things to say to calm a hopping mad Grasshopper mom. “I don’t know” is not one of them.”

This is a great mentor text for ideas and voice, allowing students to change those things that happen to them into fables with morals that all can live by. Of course, you have to be careful of the bathroom humor (Skunk, Musk Ox, and Cabbage are hanging out on a porch...Moral: He who smelt it, dealt it) but some modern day morals are also included (Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Don’t play with matches.)The fables in the book also celebrate clarity and brevity in writing – none are more than a two page spread, complete with wonderful illustrations.

Don’t think you have time for this type of writing when you have to prepare for the T-E-S-T? Fables from The Panchatantra,from India, appeared on our state tests last year. Interestingly, students seemed to do well with the literal questions….and not so well on the abstract pieces related to the moral. Can’t think of a better, and more engaging, test prep activity than this one!

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Looking at Student Work

I just finished presenting at the New York State Middle School Association’s Annual Conference. My session today focused on looking at student work as a means of building a professional learning community, something I have been investigating through my work at CSETL. Eight teachers stayed on a rainy Saturday morning to engage in the protocol and discuss how they could bring this back to their districts. What a rush!!

I worried a bit about how this might work – 4 science teachers, 1 ELA teacher, 1 Spanish teacher, one central office administrator, and one building level administrator sitting around the table examining writing in social studies!! But we had some powerful conversations about grammar and spelling, organization in writing, clarity of ideas, and technical writing. Resources and strategies were shared, people started to view student writing in a different way, and most importantly, we learned from one another!!

It reaffirmed for me that teachers of all content areas are concerned about student writing – but many of them don’t seem to have the resources available to them to know how to address it. One of the most powerful moments came when one teacher shared the Four Square writing organizer. She had used it as an example and when others indicated that they weren’t familiar with it, the teacher did a mini lesson with science content so that the teachers could understand it. Nothing formal – just sharing what worked for her. During that discussion, the ELA teacher asked that if they use this method, the teacher not force conclusions by having the students write “In conclusion….” He expressed that it made writing sound artificial and the students could simply do without the phrase and sound much more authoritative. A poignant plea from the ELA house – and the teachers heard what he had to say, promising to not demand that kind of transition as a conclusion.

My hope is that the teachers take the model we engaged in and bring it back to their school districts. Everyone seemed to value looking at student work – regardless of the content area. They recognized the need to share their expertise with others, and tap that of their colleagues. There were lots of questions and some pretty valid concerns, but it was a two for one day. The teachers experienced a protocol to build a professional community and learned a whole lot about writing in the process. We didn’t start a professional learning community today – but we planted the seeds for several.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

It was a dark and stormy night...

We had a surprise snowstorm here last week. The devastation was something that I had previously thought was no longer possible in this day and age. People in the area are still without power – sleeping to the hum of generators feverishly working to pump water out of basements (the rain hasn’t stopped) and keep freezers cold.

We were lucky. I lost power on Friday and got it back on Monday night. In the meantime, the entire family (sister/brother and spouses, nieces and nephew) camped together at my parents house with a wood stove burning and a two-inch battery driven television providing news updates. Late Saturday – the party moved to my sister’s house when her power returned.

It was inconvenient. It was a tiring. It was cold. But it was also amazing! Petty things no longer mattered – everyone pitched in to carry wood, cook giant meals of rapidly defrosting food, share what they had in flashlights and batteries. And the best part of all? Waking up in the morning to find that my nieces had snuck into bed with me to “snuggle.”

So when I thought about what book to feature this week – there was no doubt it was “The Relatives Came” by Cynthia Rylant. It’s the story of a summer visit by relatives from Virginia. All the joys and pitfalls of having relatives stay for an extended period of time are depicted!! The book is RIPE for text-to-self connections and is a great read aloud for the younger grades. It could certainly help kick the old “What I did last summer” essay up a notch!! For you Traits users, it is also a great example of sentence fluency and I have a lesson posted on the WritingFrameworks wiki based on it.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s just one of those picture books that just might have been written more for the adults than for children.
“When they finally had to leave, they were sad, but not for long. They all knew they would be together” ... forever!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A (Re)Cursive Debate

Via the TLN Teacher Voices Blog and MiddleWeb's newsletter comes this:

A recent Washington Post story, "The Handwriting on the Wall," (10/11/06) reported on the decline of handwriting instruction in elementary schools and the likelihood that future generations will not acquire the cursive handwriting skill.

Among the story's highlights:

• Researchers think writing by hand may be important to cognitive development.

• Teachers say they don't grade down for bad handwriting but one researcher begs to differ.

• Handwritten documents are more valuable to researchers and legal experts.

• Messages written in hand create a greater sense of personal authenticity.

• Many educators shrug—they are busy with other priorities in an increasingly digital world.

I'm not going to comment on this one (I think you all know where I stand anyway!) but encourage you to read the TLN Blog to see how others responded and post your thoughts - here or there!!

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Inspiring Young Writers (of all ages!)

I wish that I could have the vanity of my 1st grade niece and the confidence of my pre-school niece, the swagger of my 3 year old niece and the giggles of my 2 year old nephew – but those days are long gone. Now I have the bluff of a cough-cough year old teacher!!

I “force” my writing workshop participants to write – and sometimes draw -because I believe that you can’t really teach writing unless you participate in it as well. But I realize, particularly when it is after a very long school day when a bazillion other things are on their minds and they are in front of their colleagues and out of their comfort zone, that coming up with something to write about is not as easy as it seems. And so it is for our students!

The book that (at least temporarily) gives me writing confidence is The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds, and even more the companion book Ish. First, The Dot!

Vashti struggles with in art class proclaiming “I just CAN’T draw!” Her inspirational teacher has her begin with “just a mark – and see where it takes you.” Before long – Vashti is the inspiration to a little boy who just “can’t” draw either. Along the way, Vashti experiments and finds her own “voice” in her work. The colorful artwork inspires the reader, while showing the real value of persistence and effort. I love this book and it inspires me to “make my own mark.” Imagine what sharing this thought to the struggling writer might do – to just make a sentence and see where it takes you. Or draw a picture and see what it inspires. To just put something down, feel free to experiment with words, play with them and make them your own – the liberation that writing can bring!! I love this book!! (Have I mentioned this already?)

And then came “Ish.” Quite the opposite of Vashti, Ramon looooves to draw. “Anytime. Anything. Anywhere.” (You’ll be amazed at the anywhere!) Then, as fate would have it, his confidence is crushed by his older brother who laughs at his drawing of a vase of flowers. After many months of trying and reams of crumpled paper, Ramon gives up. He’ll never draw the perfect vase of flowers. But his little sister has been collecting all the discards and created her own “crumpled” gallery. When Ramon protests that it doesn’t look like a vase of flowers, she replies “Well, it looks vase-ISH!” Ramon found his –ish; more drawings happened, even poems happened. This made me think about all the hullabaloo about cursive writing and penmanship. Does it matter whether a letter is formed perfectly? Is it acceptable to be just “legible” and not perfect? I value the creativity – the risk taking – of writing. As long as I can read it, the letters don’t need to be formed perfectly, it’s the word behind it that counts.

Think about these books as you work with aspiring (or inspiring) writers – how can we encourage writing and show them what really matters?

(Friday's post a little early - I have a superstitious streak!)

Friday, October 06, 2006

Teacher Man

On what seemed to be a never ending flight to Phoenix with my grandmother, mother and aunt – I was able to start and finish Frank McCourt’s latest novel, Teacher Man.(An excerpt can be read here.)

I like to know what drives writers to write as they do – and am thrilled when they share. It serves as such a wonderful model for frustrated writers of every age to hear how those who have been published and received a public stamp of approval (can we say “Oprah”) share their ups and downs as well. Writers on Writing from Australia and California via podcast are two great examples of clips to show students. Reminiscent of Stephen King’s On Writing, McCourt shares the story of his teaching life – specifically the teaching of writing. While I was distressed at times by his attitude towards teaching, I found myself reading on to find what pearls of wisdom this accomplished author imparted to his students.

While this might not be a book that I would share with students, I think that teachers of writing might be inspired by reading it. Here are some “gems” that I captured:

1.We need to be learners alongside our students – and tell them that. At the beginning of each term, McCourt would tell his Creative Writing classes,
“We’re in this together. I don’t know about you, but I’m serious about this class and sure of one thing: at the end of the term, one person in this room will have learned something, and that person, my little friends, will be me.”(p. 199).
McCourt characterized this as presenting himself as the most eager and “elevating himself above the masses” but I think it is a smart strategy – particularly in writing. I would often show my students my “writing” where they would give me feedback, suggest revisions, and sometimes tell me I needed to start again. It was easier to have them work with one another once I took the risk and shared what I wrote. And I learned from them – particularly those who struggled with writing themselves. They gave me insights into my own writing – and into the “voice” I used that I could not find myself. Being my audience, they strengthened my writing as I hoped to strengthen theirs.

2.Sometimes, the most powerful teaching moments come when you go with the flow. In Chapter 13, McCourt share the story of how the adolescent need for food turned into a powerful reading/writing/performance of recipes complete with music. It brought his class together as a group and they practiced some power peer review – yet throughout it all, McCourt could think only of the “other” teachers at the school who were dutifully following “The Curriculum.” Yet somehow – out of chaos, an amazing curriculum responsible lesson emerges!! Students find “voice” in writing restaurant reviews based on “Mimi” and learn some powerful lessons in persuasive writing. We could all learn a lesson from this – how many times have we wanted to capture the enthusiasm of our class, only to be stopped short in our journey to the “end of the curriculum?”

3. Grammar matters – but it is not the life and death of writing! There are several instances throughout the book where McCourt admits his grammar faults. He cannot diagram sentences well – in fact, at one point, a student takes over the class. But he attempts some amazing lessons on parts of speech (including an analogy to a ballpoint pen) and shares those discussions with the reader. What is powerful about this are the conversations – he lets kids say they don’t see the point and models well how to encourage student questions of authenticity to turn them into learning experiences. I am not a grammar guru myself – but this is how grammar should be done!!

A nice airplane read – I wonder what our stories would tell us about our teaching?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Some musings...

Thinking a bit about the reading/writing connection…..I was asked in a workshop yesterday how I would start using Step Up with students. My answer was active reading strategies. I think we need to start with what someone else has written in order to model what we are expecting from our students. It’s also a nice way to “fit it all in” – writing and reading, that is.

It seems our state is also thinking about the reading/writing connection. In announcing the Grades 3-8 ELA Assessment scores, the Commissioner’s powerpoint indicated that we need to have students read 25 books a year and write 1000 words a month to start to see some gains. Every time I share that slide, folks gasp!!

OK – so maybe 25 books a year seems untenable – do magazine articles count? Newspapers? Textbooks? Do blogs and MySpace count? If we broke it into chunks of text – would that make a difference? Bottom line is still the same – our kids need to read, more! Does this surprise anyone?

As for the 1000 words a month – that seems doable. In fact – it seems that bar is set a little low. When you think about all the content areas kids are covering, if they wrote in each of those we’d easily have 1000 words in a week. My niece Amelia who is in first grade, only has math and ELA homework. (That’s right – homework in first grade! Every night!) But she’s not writing – not as much as in kindergarten. She is filling in words on a blank and practicing her letter formation. She’s not getting her 1000 words that way!!

Now – I am not saying that I want her writing the Great American Novel in first grade, or even an essay. But exercising writing muscles should be encouraged – whenever possible. If we ask students to practice writing the perfect three sentence paragraph from Step Up or share an “I wonder…” after reading text and put it on an index card – we are already 25 words towards our quota!! Relatively painless, easy to assess, and more importantly writing!

These are my musings – here’s my challenge. Let’s collect some soft data on how much we are having our students read and write for just one week.

1. What are they reading? How many “paragraphs” of text?
2. Are we having them write about their reading?
3. What are we having students write? Approximately how many words for each writing assignment?
4. What’s your daily total? What’s your weekly total?

I bet you’ll be surprised!!

By the way – you just read (and I just wrote) 433 words.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Word Choice made easy!!

From a post by fellow blogger, Passionately Curious, comes a nice "gadet" to help teach students word choice. Using Word of the Day from Primary Concepts, this innovative second grade teacher uses it in this way:
A new word is introduced several times a week during our Morning Meeting or as a time-filler in between activities. Some children have really taken to the challenge of using the word five or more times during the school day or at home. The word is written on a 3x5 index card and placed into our Word Jar (a large pickle jar). Throughout the year, we will pull a word out of the jar to see if the kids can remember its definition and use it in a sentence.

How are you using word choice?

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sweet, Sweet Memories

I will be leaving next week to visit an aunt in Phoenix. My mother, another aunt, and I will be accompanying my grandmother on this trek west. Probably not anything unusual but we are very nervous about it as my grandmother was diagnosed two years ago with Alzheimer’s disease. We aren’t sure how the trip will go – she no longer adapts well to change. She knows we are going on vacation and is very excited – we’re just not sure she understands how we are getting there. So – family has been on my mind lately.

Family is very important to me and they always come first – although they might complain that work does. So, when I find text that makes personal connections I am thrilled. I can share it with others to model where authors get their ideas and to show that we can write about even the smallest things. I recently found a new mentor text for me courtesy of my nieces Scholastic Book Club.

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster with pictures by Chris Raschka gives a child’s version a visit to her Nanna and Poppy. To get to their house, everyone must pass by the kitchen window (the Hello, Goodbye Window) – which looks like a regular window but it’s not. The child tells details about her grandparents and what they do during their visit – all with great connections.

Here are some of mine:

“The kitchen is where Nanna and Poppy spend most of the time. So you can climb up on the flower barrel and tap the window, and duck down and they won’t know who did it, or you can press your face against the glass and frighten them.”
My grandparents kitchen was in the back of the house with a big window. My Babcia often sat at the kitchen table playing solitaire, my DziaDzia sitting at the end of the table reading the paper. At night – you could see the glow of the light and know Babcia might be washing dishes at the sink, while my DziaDzia was eating that day’s sweet treat. My father would hold us up to knock on the window and eventually, we could reach it ourselves. Of course, when he heard us coming in, my DziaDzia would hide and jump out to scare us when we actually entered the house.

Of course, the kitchen was rarely empty and often had various other relatives in it as well. My grandparents house seemed to be the center of the universe – where everyone gathered for the cake and pretzels that were in endless supply, to play a quick hand of cards, to have a cup of tea on the way to run errands, to just get love.

“Nanna says she even used to give me a bathe in the sink when I was little – really!”

There are many, many of those photos tucked away in my family, all with the requisite soapy hairdo of course. My mother has carried on the tradition with her own grandchildren. And since she has a very large stainless steel sink – they took baths in there just a few weeks ago, even though they are five and three!! What is it about the kitchen sink bathtub that brings back such great memories?

“When we leave we always stop at the window to blow kisses goodbye.”

Leaving was never something simple and could often be a 20 minute ordeal. My Babcia would stand in the window while my DziaDzia would walk everyone to the car. We’d blow kisses to everyone and keep waving until we pulled out of the driveway and down the street. In nice weather, they’d even walk to the end of the driveway to wave good-bye. It made you feel as if you would be missed – and that you needed to go back soon.

My grandparents’ house was something special.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Writing 'Round the Web

I thought I would take the time to share what some other folks are doing with writing in the incredible blog world we live in. I have most of these folks in my Bloglines account - you might want to consider creating one yourself after you start reading!!

First, A Year of Reading tipped me off to a site that writes haiku for every New Yorker article. I'll admit it, at first I thought "This person has waaay too much time on their hands!" Then I thought,

For current events
We want kids to summarize
Why not a haiku?

Sorry - couldn't resist!

Bud the Teacher made some connections to what I am trying to do here when he shared a post from Kevin's Meandering Mind asking teachers to contribute to a book he is writing in collaboration with researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst:

Practically everyone agrees that writing is changing, as writers compose more on screen than in previous generations. But how has this change in what we consider “writing” affected teachers’ classroom practice? In the context of emerging multiliteracies, what are teachers’ goals for their students’ learning? How have teachers revised their definitions of writing in the age of digital literacy? How are these expressed as changes in their classroom practice? And what new writing do the students produce?

Consider reflecting on your own practice and contributing to this!

Finally, Coot Cat Teacher shares some powerful lessons about peer review. It seems that another great teacher is having their students conduct a peer review of the work Cool Cat's kids are doing on a wiki. The kids give some great feedback about writing/storytelling in this digital world. What a great exercise and way to get authentic feedback!!

Of course, reading and writing are closely connected so you may find these links interesting as well. David Warlick over at 2 Cents Worth hooked me up with a powerful article that I will be using a lot entitled "What is the worth of words?" The article talks about a the results of an adult literacy assessment which found that the reading proficiency of college graduates has declined in the past decade. The most powerful part of the article is an editorial predicting the rate of decline by 2025. (Hmmm....before you read the article, knowing that no child will be left behind by 2014, what do you think the state of reading might be?)

And of course, Will Richardson continues to push our thinking with his recent article at The Pulse on what reading means in this new Web 2.0 world. From that article, here are some final questions for you as you consider reading and writing in YOUR classroom:
Most importantly, as a school leader, are you thinking about how this newenvironment plays out for your students? Are these new literacies a part of your school's curriculum? Students are reading and writing (in manydifferent media) in these spaces already, but are we teaching them how to do it well? Are they learning to become editors as well as readers?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Diffendoofer Philosophy

Okay – so I don’t really use this book for writing. But given that we have finally received the ELA scores for our state and everyone is clamoring to see how neighboring districts fared in comparison and trying to figure out where to lay blame, I thought I would share Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!!

Created from the last sketches of Dr. Seuss – this book honors those teachers who truly are “outside the box” and put their students, not tests, first. Ironically, those teachers are embodied by a teacher named Miss Bonkers! Students at Diffendoofer learn” how to tell chrysanthemums from miniature poodles” and other important skills. But then comes the TEST!! Students must pass a standardized test or face going to Flobbertown where everyone does things the same. But the students are inspired by Miss Bonkers who proclaims “"We've taught you that the earth is round,/ That red and white make pink,/ And something else that matters more-/ We've taught you how to think." Low and behold, and without test prep, the students of Diffendoofer school pass with a mathematically impossible, but nonetheless amusing percentage.

I have come to firmly believe in what I call the Diffendoofer Philosophy: that if we teach to student interests, give them choice, and engage them in thinking, the will be able to pass any test that is thrown at them. It is the same with writing – we don’t need to give them four document based questions a week or have them write essays to inauthentic prompts in order to teach them to write. We should encourage their creativity, nurture their enthusiasm, and promote risk-taking in their word choice. In other words, make it enjoyable and not a chore.

I believe we can do it– Business First be damned!!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Reading-Writing Connection

The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, in partnership with Target Stores and in cooperation with affiliate state centers for the book, invites readers in grades 4 through 12 to enter Letters About Literature, a national reading-writing contest. To enter, readers write a personal letter to an author, living or dead, from any genre-- fiction or nonfiction, contemporary or classic, explaining how that author's work changed the student's way of thinking about the world or themselves. There are three competition levels: Level I for children in grades 4 through 6; Level II for grades 7 and 8, and Level III, grades 9 - 12. Winners receive cash awards at the national and state levels. For information contact the LAL Project Director at

You have got to read the amazing work from last year's winners!!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

A Little Cheese with that Whine?

Participants in my writing workshops have heard me get on my soapbox about the value and power of a good rubric. (In fact – I rarely limit this to my writing workshops, this is how strongly I feel on the topic!) I firmly believe that we need to provide students with explicit criteria for their success in order to give them a fair shot in education. To that point – I have often shared a rubric on whining that I have internalized when working with teachers and students!!

Via A Year of Reading I found this great companion piece to the rubric which would also make a great listening/note-taking exercise for students. NPR recently held an interview on “The Joys and Perils of Whining at Work’ with Renee Montagne. This 3 ½ minute snippet is great for students to use with 2 column notes (Step Up to Writing strategy). I also envision students writing their own “whines” (voice!), writing their own rules for “Whining in the Classroom” (voice, organization, ideas), or making their own “Joys and Perils of (BLANK) in school podcast (ideas, voice, integration of technology!!)

I am still playing with how I might use this myself but the ideas are certainly flowing – look for it in a workshop soon!

Image from The New Zealand Herald, "Work, the horror of it all."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Constitution Day!

With Constitution Day on Monday, I thought I would share with you two GREAT books that not only look at writing but also focus on this historical document!

The first is "We The Kids" illustrated by David Catrow. The text for this is the preamble to the Constitution, but the illustrations help students to understand the difficult words and concepts contained within. I have posted a 6 Traits lesson plan for this book on my wiki.

The second is Shh! We're Writing the Constitution by Jean Fritz with illustrations by Tomie dePaola. This is a great book for grades 4-6 and Jean Fritz does a first rate job showing the personalities of our Founding Fathers and telling the story of the creation of this document with trivia mixed in. In addition to tradition writing activities like creating a class constitution or Bill of Rights, this book is an excellent piece of literature to begin discussing voice.

One final note for older students, there is an excellent lesson plan in the September issue of Social Education from the National Council for the Social Studies on The Founder's Library. The lesson is based on a permanent exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and has students examine the ideas and writings that influenced the Founding Fathers. A great lesson for examining historical documents but also for referencing the power of prior knowledge.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Better Late Than Never!!

Wow! Friday comes fast in a shortened week! My apologies for having the Friday book posted on Saturday morning!!

Since it is the first week of school for kids, I thought I would share one of my favorite adult reads that has a poignant story right in the middle. Woman Hollering Creek: And Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros is a collection of stories about Mexican-American women. Throughout the book, the author uses powerful descriptions of people and places that excerpted would be wonderful examples to show students about the power of details. (My own copy has many, many Post-It notes for this very reason!)

However, the most compelling lesson and one that extends far beyond writing, is in the short story “Eleven.” This quick four pages tells the story of a girl on her eleventh birthday and a powerful moment in school that will mark that day forever in her mind. It has great descriptions, powerful voice, and is sure to evoke many memories from the reader.

My favorite writing activity to do after reading the story is to have the readers retell the story through the eyes of another character in the story (the worksheet and directions for this can be found on my companion wiki). It is great to hear the stories that come from participants with this activity and more importantly, to ask them where the inspiration for the story came from. In fact, many are reluctant to put the writing away and often finish it so that they can share it with their students. A great lesson exercise to practice the trait of voice.

Happy reading!

Friday, September 01, 2006

If it's Friday, it must be.....

In order to keep myself focused on writing and the tools that we need to teach writing well – I’ve decided to make every Friday a “Reading to Help Teach Writing Day” in which I’ll share the books that I use (and find) to help teach writing.

Since the opening of a new school year is here – I thought I would start with Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger by Louis Sachar (author of Holes). I love this entire series but this book in particular is rich with writing connections!!

Chapter 11 is titled “Voices” and is great for those teaching using the 6 Traits. The students are all introducing themselves to Mr. Gorf (a substitute teacher) and the voices are all unique!! Sharing this chapter with students helps them with the trait of Voice, as well as Ideas and Word Choice. Particularly relevant for those who might be teaching dialogue in writing.

I also like Chapter 14, “A Light Bulb, A Pencil Sharpener, a Coffee Pot, and a Sack of Potatoes” when working with Step Up to Writing and two-column notes. This chapter covers a science experiment on gravity, in which the students try to determine which object dropped from the window will arrive at the ground the fastest. I start with reading the title and asking “Which of these would hit the ground first if we dropped them from 13 stories up?” Students would write their guesses in the upper right hand corner of the paper. I then have students fold their paper in half (hot-dog style!) and write each of the objects in the right hand side. I explain that I am going to read the story aloud and as they hear about what happens in the story – they should “jot” notes in the right hand column. I remind everyone that “jot” means just one or two words – not copying everything that I say!! After reading the story, I ask students to look at their original guess about which object would hit the ground first and see if they were correct. Depending on the classroom – the discussion could go on from here: more note-taking, writing a paragraph, or even launching a gravity lesson!!

Chapter 5, “A Story With a Disappointing Ending” is another gem to help students with crafting their own endings and nice “hook” to dealing with conclusions.

All in all – Wayside School Gets Stranger is a quick and entertaining read rich with writing connections!! Enjoy! And Happy First Day of School!!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Dwarfs vs. The Supreme Court

A recently released poll on pop culture indicated that three quarters of Americans can correctly identify two of Snow White’s dwarfs while only a quarter can name two Supreme Court Justices. What does that mean for how we teach?

When working with new teachers and mentor teachers– one of the key questions I ask is “How are the students today different from students when you were in school?” I am sure you can run through the list of answers in your head. Perhaps I should start following that question with “What are we going to do about it?”

At the High School’s New Face conference in Ellicottville this July, I was fortunate to be surrounded by fabulous teachers from our region. Everyone was learning and reflecting on their classroom. Richard Strong and Harvey Silver spoke to one group about engaging students – one of the most powerful things I think everyone took away from that workshop was “Call them by their name.” How many of us take the time to make that personal connection with our students? It doesn’t take long – a couple of seconds – to recognize the children that are entrusted to us. But do we do it?

It’s made me think a great deal about my classroom and what I did well and what I could have done much, much better. I took great pride in learning student names and in learning what interested them, so that I could “hook” them into American History. I’ve started to think about how that information can transfer over into the realm of education I find myself in now: professional development and facilitating curriculum conversations. Having blogged once – I have found the power of communicating with others as I ponder these heady issues and so I have started a second blog for those who were in that session with me – as well as those who are interested in engaging their students and the work of Silver and Strong. We learn from what we are interested in and we learn best from our peers – think about joining in and commenting on my blog or better yet, creating your own!!

Another group at the conference met with Will Richardson and worked on the role that technology plays in “connecting” the 21st century teen. That group came out incredibly excited about what they have learned and I have been following two of them closely. Kim Moritz is a local principal and has been very open and honest in her blog about education and leadership. A great and thought provoking read!!

Pat Aroune is a local social studies educator with great passion for the subject and I have recently peeked in on what he plans to do with his students next year using this new technology. Pat already experimented with blogging this summer and here is what one of his students wrote, “It was great to be able to write about what I want; one would be amazed at how much one writes when discussing a topic of great interest. It was much more fun to learn the chapter keywords in a context that we ourselves understand, rather than simply trying to understand the textbook-given example. Also, I feel that synthesizing information and context is learning on a much higher level than simple "copy-it-out-of-the-textbook" busy-work.”

Or how about this one: “This was challenging for me because I am used to traditional and boring route of education. I have become a robot in school, just doing what is asked and creativity is rarely involved. With this new way of comprehending economics, I was forced to look beyond tradition school work and thinking process, and actually think a little.” Great job, Pat!!

So much excitement, so much to learn – and yet when I look back at a recent Will Richardson post and the comments I realize we need to slow down and ponder what is “best practice” in this new, flat world we live in. While Will’s post, and those of many others that I have been following, speak explicitly about the best practices in using blogs, wikis, and podcasts in education – aren’t we still talking about the best practice in educating our youth? How do we prepare our students for the ever changing world in which we live in? One that has “fragile” cease fires? Where you can no longer bring toothpaste or water on an airplane? Where information (and mis-information) flows faster than ever before? If we don’t use technology, the same technology our students use, we will lose them!!

But we still run across educators who downplay the role that technology plays in education, those that feel that by using technology – we are somehow caving into the outside world and not providing a “real education.” Get on board!! Or as Ewan McIntosh said much more eloquently:

“The arguments that new technologies are just a fad, a cherry on the cake, an added extra, a bolt-on, a treat, something we can pass by, nothing that a good PowerPoint can't supercede, nothing that a textbook hasn't achieved until now, nothing that our best exam factory schools can't do without... all of this is is just keich. The teachers touting this must wake up to the fact that they are not engaging their kids unless they do use these technologies, the ones the kids use. Moreover, they're not really preparing them how to cope with the information being passed over to them unless they teach how to manipulate and analyse that information with these tools.”

Monday, August 14, 2006

Things that make you go hmmmm....

Teaching our students to be discerning consumers of media has been a hot topic among educators this summer. Here are some interesting links to ponder as you prepare your students for research in the upcoming school year…..

One of my favorite blogs on my Bloglines account is from a math educator in Canada. (Yes, I said MATH!) In addition to the GREAT stuff he has done with his students, a recent post about South African wikis really caught my eye. Apparently, many experienced educators have been pointing to South Africa as a leader in using technology as their national curriculum was posted in a wiki. Alas – upon further investigation, and discussion with South African educators who were surprised by this information, it was discovered that this information might not be true!! Even more helpful are the comments to the posting which refer to how this site might be used for educational purposes.

Donna R., one of my favorite 5th grade teachers, shared this website with me that she plans to use with her students before embarking on a library research project using the Internet. While the site looks very professional – complete with maps and news articles referenced in the sidebars – the very bottom promotes an organization called “People for the Ethical Treatment of Pumpkins.” What a great site to visit and apply those critical thinking skills!!

If are thinking about using blogs in your classroom, the Cool Cat Teacher has a great posting on making comments. Point #6 about teaching commenting really hits home when you read the words of a third grade blogger. And of course, #7 on the power of words hits close to home for me!!

A recent find for me (from reading waaaay too many blogs!!) highlights a super piece of student writing. It has made me ponder ways in which I might be able to incorporate authentic student voices into my blog as well. (HINT! Send me your excerpts to share! We are all about improving student writing after all!)

Finally, Will Richardson has an excellent and thought provoking blog on the use of technology in education. If you don’t have your copy of Blogs, Wikis, and Podcasts – run, don’t walk, to the nearest bookstore (real or virtual) to get your copy. Even if you don’t think this is the way of the future – you have to have read about it to engage in conversation about it. Will’s most recent blog links to some “light” reading on “Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age.” I’ve only skimmed the table of contents and the case studies seem to be something that every educator should read – especially social studies teachers!!

And of course, my posting would not be complete without some reference to mentor texts!! These two teachers are doing a pretty powerful job in sharing their own learning through literature in their quest to have read the Newbury Award winner – not to select it, but to have read it before selection. They have also started a pretty interesting list of the 100 Cool Teachers in Children’s Literature. They are only up to 58 so it’s not too late to weigh in!! Besides being a great resource blog – can we say awesome professional development?

Phew!! This ought to be enough to get any newbie started and lost in the world of weblogs and wikis!! I have just begun the journey myself and what an interesting ride!! Please share some of your “highlights” here as well!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones...

Words are very powerful weapons. They hurt. They soothe. They ignite fire. They calm raging waters. They can raise you up and back-fire on you. Words are loaded with meaning, embedded in riddles, and can have different meanings depending on the accent given.

Fire! Fire? FIRE!!

Two separate studies reviewed the vocabulary of Webster’s Third International Dictionary (1963) and found that when compound words, archaic words, abbreviations, proper names, alternative spellings, and dialect forms were excluded and the remaining words could be classified into 54,000 word families!! Our students are bombarded with new words on a daily basis, but we also expect them to choose their words wisely. How can students master this many words? What about English language learners?

We need words and we teach words. But do we teach students to love them? To treat words with respect? To recognize the power that words have when they learn them?

I spent three years in law school, and almost the same amount of time in practice, learning how to use words to my best advantage. I think they did a pretty good job; when backed into a corner, I can use them to back my verbal opponent into the opposite one. I can see the weakness in their arguments, craft mine in my head to counter it, and spititoutsofastthattheydon’thavetimetothinkyetalonerespond. I win!! But interestingly, when a friend is grieving over the loss of a family member or the dissolution of a seemingly rock-solid marriage, I falter. Words escape me and the only thing I can stammer out is “I’m sorry, I am so sorry.”

Words have come to the forefront lately as we seem to trip over them in education. We need to be careful with what we say so as not to offend or hurt so we couch their meaning in other words which don’t really mean the same thing and not everyone has access to the code so they think we mean something entirely different we talk about what is important to us. Huh? In other words, why have we stopped saying what we mean?

I am obsessing over words because I have spent the past two days working with very dedicated educators to review ELA testing items for our state assessments. In the course of our discussions we have been dissecting words: what grade level they are appropriate for, whether our students would know them, how to teach them. But we don’t talk about how to teach students to love them. Truth be told – the process is starting to kill my deep affection for them! But it has made me wonder about how to empower students with the nuances of our complicated, illogical, often misused language.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

It is one of the hottest days of the summer today. Our record temperature and heat index might not mean much to those in Phoenix used to triple digit temperatures – but here in Western New York it is down-right H-O-T. The air is heavy, people are cranky, and my hair is out of control!!!

So it was nice to relax after work floating in the pool with my nieces. They have just discovered the power of words in the worst form of torture known to man: knock-knock jokes!! I suppose it is all worth it to see them doubled over with genuine belly laughs when they actually get one – but the jokes lose their appeal after about 3 minutes. Knock-Knock! Who’s there? Amsterdam Amsterdam who? Amsterdam tired of all these knock-knock jokes!

But they are only this young and innocent once and I cherish every moment that I get to spend watching them grow and develop into the beautiful, intelligent young ladies I know they will become.

So it strikes me that we don’t often take the same opportunities to step back and enjoy the moment with our students. We are worried about covering the breadth of our curriculum, racing towards the finish line of a state or district assessment. In this mad dash for completion, we forget to step back and model reflection and revision – good teaching practices that we throw out as unneeded ballast.

I am not the only one noticing this interesting trend.

Dana wrote in response to a previous posting
about the time she has spent with students in summer school on the thinking process: “Sometimes we forget, good teaching and commitment always will be the answer to test scores.”

And Melodee shared: “The last two days I have spent with a speaker at our school who talked about the reading strategies and the importance of modeling them, as well as giving children time to discuss, reflect and write. Of course as you and I both know many a teacher asked the age old question, "How do we fine time to do all this?"

Not sure that I have the answer, but what if we all tried a noble experiment. Instead of lamenting that “I have to teach X”, let’s instead proclaim “I get to teach X.” Imagine what would happen if we changed our mindset to think of our teaching as an opportunity!!!

Now – this experiment won’t be easy. Our peers will scoff, administrators may look astray and step to the other side of the hallway as we approach, and family members may begin looking into resort spas as therapy. Some of these may not be bad by-products of our experiment. But my hypothesis is that the true result of our experiment is that our students might actually enjoy what we are teaching – even if it is writing!!

"Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work,
so most people don't recognize them."
- Ann Landers

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's all about ME!

The hawk lazily circles over the running river. Butterflies flit across the path and bees are busy pollinating colorful, majestic wildflowers. Morning walks, ping pong tournaments and deep conversations over wine with like minded colleagues. Typical summer vacation for a teacher, right?

NOPE! I am deeply immersed in my summer CSETL retreat and while all those things are certainly true of my environment, this is a week of hard work and deep introspection. I celebrated some great success in writing last week: a powerful three-day writing workshop, the launching of my blog, the creation of a model to integrate writing into the content areas. This week – dissonance!

I have spent the past year researching and exploring literacy in an attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be literate in social studies?” As a social studies teacher, I grow increasingly concerned with what I see in our classrooms. As I have mentioned here before – the TEST seems to drive everything we do. We eat, sleep, and breathe those assessments. We give up solid instructional strategies and our very passions, the reasons we entered this profession, for the narrow focus of preparing our students for this small moment in time. And while I tend to push teachers into thinking about a different way to practice their craft – it was pointed out to me today that I have fallen victim to the same trap.

I have spent this past year writing and rewriting and rewriting again the rationale and outcomes for a professional learning experience investigating literacy with the TEST sitting smack dab in the center of it all. That’s not what I intended, nor is it what I want to have happen at the end of my time with teachers. But somehow, I lost my focus and felt compelled to lure teachers in by dangling the carrot of the test in front of them. False advertising? You betcha! And the guilt associated with my religious upbringing is now weighing heavily on my mind.

So – I need to find me. What are my passions? What have my teaching experiences taught me? Why do I think what I do is worthwhile? That will make my work compelling to others and help me find other passengers for this journey.

Confucius, one of the world’s most powerful teachers, said “words are the voice of the heart.” Our voice is the key component to making our writing persuasive, provocative, and powerful. It took a conversation with a colleague I respect and a man I have grown to admire to make me seek my true voice. What will it take to help our students find theirs?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fruit Salad - Yummy, yummy!

What do you do with apples and oranges? Make fruit salad!!!

I’ve been in the “kitchen” for the past three days as eight reflective, hard-working, and motivated teachers worked to meld Step Up to Writing strategies with the 6 Traits assessment framework. (See the links on the right for more info on these resources individually). I think we were somewhat successful (based upon the daily evaluations) and I am excited at what these enthusiastic teachers might be doing this fall. (Stay tuned to this blog as they share!)

I feel strongly that to teach writing you must be a writer – our pens were moving this week! We created character sketches based upon a bag of artifacts, wrote complaint letters to businesses, and reflected on the mentor text in our life. We wrote. We shared. We revised.

And we left with a “floor plan” design to work with other teachers in identifying the writing activities that will be used in content areas. (Thanks again Richard and Harvey!) I hope that it was worth the energy for these teachers to construct their own meaning and appreciate the risks they took in sharing their thoughts and words. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Clothes, clothes everywhere - and not a thing to wear!

I dread shopping. I went shopping today for additional clothes for an upcoming trip and as always, came away with more purchases for my nieces than for myself. Not that I truly need more clothes – I have two closets full of beautiful, generally nearly new clothes. The problem is that they range in size from “Yea me!” to “Oh my God! How did I get to be this size?” And it isn’t that I didn’t see lots of things I thought would be great. It’s just that when I put them on – the mirror didn’t reflect the image that I had in my head when the clothes were on the hanger. Oh well! I have the best dressed nieces in town!

This brought me back to the writing workshop today and the end of day reflections. Throughout the session, we used “mentor texts” to work with the Traits that were our focus. A mentor textis a piece of literature chosen and used by an individual to hone some aspect of the writing craft.

What really strikes me about mentor text is that it is truly personalized – you have to feel comfortable with the text to be able to use it to develop your style. It has to fit you. Much like the ¾ of my closet that are currently too small – I like them, but they don’t fit. If I put them on I would not only look ridiculous but feel very uncomfortable. So it is with writing.

Writers, particularly developing writers, need to be exposed to the work of many authors before they fall head-over-heels-in-love a style that touches them in the place that sparks creatively and starts the writing juices flowing. The author(s) that I choose to apprentice myself to might be ones that you find strange and awkward. Think back to the first time you read a particular author - and then ran out to read every single word written by them. Sometimes, you became even more smitten and those works have a permanent part in your library (and your heart). But sometimes as you become more familiar with that style, you become very disillusioned and wonder what you saw there in the first place.

As in life, I have fallen in and out of love with authors many times – but we always remember our first love! Mine was “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott. I have always been intrigued by the time period in which the novel is set and drawn to strong female characters. I even read “Pilgrims Progress” and tried to get my siblings to create our own family newspaper to imitate the March clan. I ran back to the school library and eagerly checked out “Little Men.” Not so compelling! I didn’t dare touch “Good Wives.” (Where is the “Good Husbands” novel?) I still use Louisa May Alcott as a mentor when I write; I just needed to move on and meet new people.

I can’t give you a definitive list of mentor texts to use for writing – I can only share what I enjoy and what has shaped me in writing. And if we do that for our students, they are bound to have opinions!! Some might love the ending to “Grapes of Wrath” and others feel sorely disappointed. But they will read – and read critically – to help develop their individual styles. That fits!