Friday, January 26, 2007

Zen Shorts

Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth is a nice reminder this time of year of what matters. Resolutions for the New Year have long fallen by the wayside, teachers (and students)are caught up in the assessment craze, and everyone seems a little on edge.

This story - of three children meeting a giant panda - contains within three Zen meditations told by the giant Panda to the children and that relate to their individual stories. Uncle Ry and the Moon helps to remind us of what really matters in life and The Farmer's Luck reminds us that sometimes, it's all a matter of perspective. But my favorite is A Heavy Load - which serves as a reminder that in order to move forward, sometimes we need to let some things go.

Also by the same author is one of my favorite books - The Three Questions. I have given this book to people who mean a great deal to me, most recently to a friend who is going through a particularly rough time with work and family medical issues, yet somehow remembers to do things for others!! The Three Questions is based upon a short story by Leo Tolstoy and has Nickolai searching for the answers to three questions, which he believes will help him to always be a good person: What's the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? The answers to these questions don't come to Nickolai from his friends, but from wihin himself.

Both stories are a great way to show writers that stories can have an important meaning and message to send. And both stories are strangely calming to read and reflect upon.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Musings on Writings

NPR never fails me - particulary on a Monday morning!! Here are two gems I thought I'd pass along!

Well - at least she is writing!!
A 25 year old hotel employee actually wrote herself out of a job by keeping a journal. Seems when her supervisor told her to stop writing on company time, she switched over to the computer. When her supervisor found the new journal on the work computer - she was fired for misuse of company time. Last week, a judge denied her request for unemployment benefits.

The topic of her journal? How to avoid work!! Listen to the podcast!

Writing for the future.
It seems there is a website out there called Future Me that allows you to create an email for anyone (yourself included) and send it to them at any point between tomorrow and the year 2037. Future Me will deliver the contents on the specified date.

This intrigues me!! As of this moment, there have been 365,722 letters written to the future and counting... I know I sent myself a birthday message for next year!!

Friday, January 19, 2007

So Few of Me!

In my current line of work, this is the busiest time that we have. We have distributed assessments, answered questions, and begun to prepare for regional scoring of ELA assessments. Now we have the pleasure of watching scoring DVDs to prepare for three straight weeks of training and scoring the ELAs. We'll catch our breathe for a few weeks and start all over again with Math.

On top of that - life still must go on and districts still want trainings in writing and data and curriculum mapping. And I am still trying to keep my New Year's resolutions of no work email after 5 pm and hitting the gym at least 5 times a week. (Keeping the first and falling behind on the latter.) No small wonder that I wish sometimes I could clone myself (only thinner!)

And that is exactly what Peter H. Reynolds does with Leo in So Few of Me. This creator of The Dot and Ish is among my favorites - I'd line up for his grocery list if he published it!!! I never fail to find inspiration in the simple stories and wonderful illustrations. (See my previous posts on his work for more about this wonderful author.)

In this tale, Leo is a busy lad. Like most of us, no matter how hard he worked there was always more to do. So he makes a list. That list grows and grows and grows. So he thinks "If only there were two of me." (Sound familiar?)

Lo and behold - there is a knock at the door and another Leo appears. But as the two Leos work, there is still more to do. And eventually two Leos becomes three, becomes four, becomes TEN!! And still there is work to be done.

The original Leo is exhausted and takes a nap. He awakens to find the other nine Leos staring at him asking "What are you doing?" He smiles and answers "Dreaming" and slowly the other nine disappear. And Leo wonders, "What if I did less, but did my BEST?" One Leo would work - and he would have time to dream.

I think in our rush to make sure that we "cover" our course materials and ensure that students are prepped for tests, we forget that they are still just kids (even in high school!) There is life outside of school. And that is exactly why this book is so important - we need to decide what is really important, and teach that. We need to encourage our students to dream - to be creative - to explore and take risks. That is all part of learning too.

The message is simple but the writing is powerful - a great mentor text for us all in our multi-tasking world!!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Write for Your Life

The death of my grandfather almost 11 years ago is one of the moments in my life that has left an indelible mark. I knew instantly when my mother was finally able to reach me at work that something horrible had happened, although she never really said what. A giant black hole opened in my heart, that honestly has never healed.

My grandfather was a rock in my life - someone who encouraged me to be anything I wanted, who knew to just hold me when I had "that look" on my face, who loved me so much that he separated out the orange, yellow and green jellybeans into a separate container because I liked them least. Some people called me spoiled, I knew I was loved; absolutely and unconditionally.

But he left my life suddenly - fell over from a massive heart attack while sitting and reading in his chair. My grandmother had gone into the basement to do laundry and came up to find him on the ground - already gone. We didn't get to say good-bye, we didn't get to say "I love you," we didn't get to say anything.

That's when I started writing again. I was convinced that no one knew the pain that I felt, the sense of loss, the anger. So I wrote to get it out of me, to try to move through the stages of grief that everyone said was "natural." And after I wrote for me - I tried to write for others. To tell them what they meant to me or if they hurt me, to say I was sorry or to say "I love you."

The hole began to heal with the birth of my first niece six years ago. This amazing creature came into my life, with a middle name to honor my grandfather, and suddenly not much else mattered. Being able to see her grow and to experience life anew with her (and Sydney and Zoe and Brody who followed) has given me new reason to write.

So Anna Quindlen's column in Newsweek this week has ripped at my heartstrings. It covers the movie "Freedom Writers" (that I have yet to see but have it on my list!) but more importantly it talks about why we write: "writing can make pain tolerable, confusion clearer and the self stronger."

But we lose something in translation with writing - email gets misconstrued, people write in code and never say what they mean. People are afraid to put something in writing because it could be used against them. We write (or don't write) for all the wrong reasons.

Quindlen leaves us with a powerful message:

Think of all those people inside the World Trade Center saying goodbye by phone. If only, in the blizzard of paper that followed the collapse of the buildings, a letter had fallen from the sky for every family member and friend, something to hold on to, something to read and reread. Something real. Words on paper confer a kind of immortality. Wouldn't all of us love to have a journal, a memoir, a letter, from those we have loved and lost? Shouldn't all of us leave a bit of that behind?

Amelia writes every day. This thrills me beyond belief and I hope that she never loses that joy for putting her thoughts to paper. In the meantime, I write for her and Sydney and Zoe and Brody each and every day as well. They are not spoiled - they are loved.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

What kind of English do you speak?

I never knew that I had an accent until I went to college in central NY. Growing up in western NY, everyone around me sounded just like me. Imagine my surprise when classmates made fun of the fact that I liked to drink "pop!"

Words can be funny.......take this test over at Blogthings so see what kind of American English you speak!!

Here are my results:

Writing Framework's Linguistic Profile:
40% General American English
30% Yankee
20% Upper Midwestern
5% Midwestern
0% Dixie

Sunday Funny: What's the caption for this one?

Image and story from Engadget.

Friday, January 12, 2007

History of Writing

The book for this week combines my two great loves - history and writing.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See is set in nineteenth century China and is told from the perspective of Lily, a peasant girl from the remote Hunan county. Lily becomes a laotong ("old same") with Snow Flower, a very metropolitan girl by comparison, and by tradition the two are bound together in a life-long friendship. The story follows the girls as they grow into women - which includes footbinding and arranged marriage, motherhood and loss.

While the story itself is compelling and at time heart wrenching (it amazes me the pain that women endured to have their feet bound), it is the little know nu shu that I found fascinating. Nu shu was a secret Chinese writing form, believed to have been invented by an emporer's concubine to speak truthfully about the lonliness that surrounded her to her family at home. It grew into a method for women to find consolation from each other and was hidden in embroidery, weaving, and in paintings on fans. The author shares how she discovered and researched this remarkable language, long with great photos, on her website and also provides a sample chapter.

I know it sounds strange - but in many ways, thinking about nu shu made me think about the IM language that we all complain about showing up in our student writing. Chinese women were forbidden from using the written language of men and in a desperate need to communicate with family and friends, invented a code that they ingeniously hid within "women's work." Kids aren't forbidden from writing - but they have invented a language to find their sense of self and to keep things away from parents and teachers. We've all heard the stories about the trouble with social networking and parents everywhere seem to be afraid of IM'ing - but if we took a step back, perhaps we'd find that it's not so bad to have them writing in their own "language" (once in a while.)

Monday, January 08, 2007

An Even Better Contest

Via a Year of Reading, found the Lisa Yee's Bodacious Book Title Contest!!

Rules are simple:

1. Think of a title from a children's/middle grade/young adult book.

2. Change the FIRST LETTER of ONE of the words to make it into a whole new title.

3. Then add a sentence describing the new book.

I'm no celebrity judge but there are some great ideas in the comments section (I accidentally copied one of the first - so much for my close reading!!) Here's one of my favorites:

Fear Mr. Henshaw: After years of writing about his personal problems in letters to his favorite author, Leigh’s name winds up in Mr. Henshaw’s latest novel: The Stalker. (From Jay over at Disco Mermaids - another great blog!)


Sunday, January 07, 2007

Sunday Funnies

ELA season officially opens next week and kids all over NYS will be reminded to eat a good breakfast, go to sleep early and have the required No. 2 pencils sharpened and ready to go. In our region - erasers have become optional as students need only cross out the incorrect answer on the answer sheets. But I digress.....

In looking at the assessment data from last year, many districts in our region have started to notice that kids at all grade levels missed questions that required them to select the "best" answer. This is a question that requires some critical thinking and the bad news is that our students aren't doing too well.

When I think back to asking my students to brainstorm answers in class, I realized that all answers were accepted and written down on our graphic organizer. And I mean ALL answers - the ones that made me cringe, the ones that were duplicates, the ones that were literal, and the really good ones. I never made a point of distinguishing between the good and great answers - so that I could preserve their self-esteem of course!

So I have been discussing with the teachers in our region how we could start to have students determine the best answer. One strategy that we have come up with is to share pictures with the class and ask the students to brainstorm discriptor words or a caption. ALL answers would be listed - but then we would go the next step in asking students which suggestion was the best. Of course - any answer would have to be supported with details, details, details.

It seems simple but it might have some interesting results. Anyway - I thought I might share some of the funny photos I have collected over time each Sunday in order to help those who might want to try this strategy. And - as a means of getting teachers to write!!

I'll post the picture each Sunday - if anyone is reading, feel free to provide the caption in the comments section!!! Here's the first one:

Photo reference:

Friday, January 05, 2007

Teaching with Fire!

As we all slowly ease back into our routines after the holidays, I thought I would share a book that not only inspires other writers but involves teachers writing about their inspiration from poetry.

I was first introduced to Teaching with Fire (edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner) at a Step Up to Writing trainers conference in Fort Collins, Colorado about three years ago. Two wonderful teachers from California befriended me in that brief time and shared things with me that I have never been able to repay. One, Linda Toren, is featured in this book (page 204). She and a colleague email each other haiku and tanka once a week "to keep each other inspired and hopeful - to celebrate and commiserate."

They continue to inspire me (we have long since gone our separate ways) through this book they shared with me as it sits on my coffee table full of post-it notes and dog-eared. It is a poetry book - but each poem is accompanied by a brief story from a teacher explaining the significance of that poem in their life's work. You will hear throughout the book talk of writer's notebooks and poetry reads, of students and families, of joy and heartache. I promise you it will be a fresh read every time!!

I could go on and on about how this book could be used in the classroom, instead, I'll just share this:

You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever your go right now? Are you waiting

for time you show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day. This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life--

What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

- William Stafford

Reference: Teaching with Fire: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Teach. Intrator, Sam and Scribner, Megan (editors). Jossey-Bass, Inc, 2003.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New Year's Resolution

It has been a rough December. First a serious bout with a stomach virus - which ironically struck in the middle of a writing workshop. (How many different words can we use for the color green?) Then the mad dash thru the holidays - balancing family and sanity and high caloric foods. Through it all - I decided that I work too much. I can't say work too hard because I truly love what I do (most days!) but it has become all consuming.

However - having unburied myself from 563 work emails and over 265 personal emails (mostly listservs on this one - I'm just not that popular!) I realized that completely shutting down is not the answer. And I missed my blog!!

I don't make New Year Resolutions - I think they just set me up for ultimate failure. I mean ultimately - I fail to keep them. But I do make Previous Year Reflections. Here are some of mine:

1. Teachers who really care about kids are the ones I want my kids to have. No real news flash there but I have been honored to work with some great teachers this past year (and so far this year!) Ones who really push themselves to reach their kids for the right reasons. I miss my classroom - but I love when I am surrounded by these people! So thanks to Karen and Dana and Melodee and Sue and Nina and Lisa and Donna and Maria and yes, you Gene!! And to the countless others that I have forgotten to mention here!

2. Writing is risky business. And hard. And very, very scary. I know because my comfort zone is in teaching writing to others - and in coming up with ways to engage others in writing. But when pushed to write something meaningful of my own - I suddenly find cleaning my bathroom a most desirous chore!! And so....

3. I better start to practice what I preach. I teach writing - therefore I should be writing!! So I will be writing and submitting articles to educational publications and entering the writing competition in our local newspaper (historical fiction - that's me!!)

4. There is nothing that should come before friends and family. No matter the petty things we do to each other or say in moments of anger/stress/confusion/hurt - those people that we can count on in times of need are the golden threads that hold us together. You all know who you are and I can't thank you enough for all that you do and are to me!!

So have a wonderful 2007 everyone - let bygones be bygones - and don't work too much!