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?