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!