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!!