Sunday, February 25, 2007

Story Squared

Starting a story is probably the most difficult thing for me to sit down and do. I have many pages in several notebooks of story pieces but having to actually sit down and weave them together is something that I try to avoid. When it comes to writing I have great ideas (at least I think so!) but it seems that I can't string together 800 words that would matter to anyone.

I am now hooked on Story Squared but I need friends who will play along. I picked on my friend Jenn because I have faith that she will humor my new found technology and will allow me to play a bit with this new site. But I see a real application for writing in our classrooms.

You see - while I was in middle school, I co-wrote a serial drama with my friend Mary. It was called Dr. Mare's Hospital and it featured players loosely based upon our own social life. Of course, Dr. Mary and Dr. Theresa had throngs of men available to them and we found ourselves in many prediciments that bested those of many soap operas. It was all in good fun - although I do recall a time or two that it got us into some hot water. We wrote the notes when we should have been paying attention in class and passed them in the hallway. I found a small stash the other day - and laughed out loud at how simple our life seemed then. I didn't throw them away - but I don't think they'll be published soon!!

So I guess I have always been a better social writer than a solitary one. This is where Story Squared comes in!! This wonderful site allows you to start a story and invite friends to join in to continue it. You can limit entries to a sentence, paragraph, or page and even set a time limit for friends to respond. There are even pubic stories that anyone can add to.

Try it out! And don't forget to invite me!!

Whew! The vacation that wasn't!!

As you can probably tell by the date of my last post, the snow and my life finally caught up to me. I owe you all two great books to feed the writer within you and many, many thoughts on writing!! But I took some downtime - which really wasn't!!

You see - I spent the past week caring for my 84 year old grandmother while my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in Florida. In her prime, my grandmother was a tough Polish woman who proudly survived the Great Depression and saved every scrap of tin foil that entered her house. She told you how it was and there were no arguments. At least we always knew where we stood!!

Three years ago, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. For those of you who have experienced it, this disease is the most devestating thing that I have ever come up against. Her body remains healthy - her mind does not. And the worst part is that she can sense that her mind is failing her.

What is interesting is that my grandmother has always done those things that the doctors will tell you will help ward off this disease: she plays cards, used to do word puzzles, read everything she could get her hands on and walked almost two miles a day. Her mind was always stimulated!! Instead, I think the disease snuck in when she was her most vulnerable - right after my grandfather passed. Ironically - eleven years ago this week.

So, I have been off of work and away from my blogs, but hardly on a vacation. And what does this have to do with writing? EVERYTHING!!

In teaching social studies, I always encouraged my students to interview their relatives as a means of getting their family history. What personal stories did they have about the events we were studying? Few took me up on this extra credit offer!! But I was reinvigorated by reading a recent Will Richardson post on how his daughter made some YouTube videos by interviewing some older relatives. Imagine the history we could preserve by engaging students in the new technologies available to us: podcasting, streaming video!!

It seems that the Internet and social networking spaces are preserving the present - how can we help to preserve the past? In the spirit of capturing the wisdom of our fathers and mothers, some links for oral history projects:

What did you do in the war, Grandma? is an oral history of Rhode Island women in World War II conducted by a high school honors English class.

The Oral History Project: A Culture and Heritage Exchange Initiative is a streaming media project in partnership with the Library of Congress that captures the histories of Vietnam Veterans, Native Americans, and African Americans.

Tell Me Your Stories contains an oral history curriculum which is fairly comprehensive in providing resources for developing an oral history project for your classroom.

And of course, American Memory has a remarkable set of materials for teachers and students interested in preserving our social history. These are sets of DBQ like resources using oral history as references and can help spark the historian in most students. (A personal bias here as I used this site often in the classroom.)

These stories are important - how can you help to capture them?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Two Heads are Better than One!!

As I look out my window, it seems that the snow will never stop. Shovel every night, wake up to a new blanket of snow the next morning. But despite Mother Nature and her lake effect, two flat tires, and white out conditions - we finally completed the scoring of the Grades 3-8 ELA assessments this week.

Not that it was without controversy!! It never fails that despite the precautions we put into place, we get complaints from teachers that "their district" was treated unfairly. And of course, the inevitable complaints about the assessment itself. But in the end - everyone is collegial and the evaluations always indicate that they have walked away learning something.

But I worry each year that this is the last time the teachers will come together collaboratively to look at student work. We have to score these assessments - but there is so much more to see than the number that has been assigned and even the final score. Are our writing programs working? What are my instructional next steps? Do I need to get out those grammar books? What happened to those graphic organizers I have been teaching for the past 4 months? Those questions aren't answered with a number!!

So the book for this week veers from the traditional picture or chapter book to a professional book that has helped open my eyes to the power of what students write. I had the privilege of attending a pre-conference session at NSDC several years ago which was facilitated by Georgea Langer and Amy Colton, who with Loretta Goff authored Collaborative Analysis of Student Work: Improving Teaching and Learning. It was during this session, and in reading the book, that I began to develop my own protocols for working with teachers to mine the rich data that comes from analysis of student work.

While I have not been able to have as sustained a project as is described in the book, the times that I have worked with teachers to analyze student work have followed essentially the same model and provided powerful information. Tapping into the wealth of experience and expertise sitting around the table discussing what we see in student work, sharing what has worked in our classrooms, bringing fresh perspectives to how we teach writing - all valuable by-product. Why by-products? Because without fail, teachers report that the most powerful result of these meetings has been the increase in student writing skills that they see!!!

So, within the next few weeks, we'll relax a bit about the assessments. That's the time to bring those student papers out again and review them with new eyes!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Duck for President

At last count there are ten candidates for President in 2008 from the Democratic Party alone. Why not let Duck throw his hat into the ring?

In the amusing Duck for President by Doreen Cronin, Duck gets tired of having to do chores around the farm and decides to hold an election to replace Farmer Brown. He rallies the support of his fellow farm animals and wins!!

Soon, he tires of the hard work of running a farm and runs for higher office again. And again. And again. Eventually - after running a campaign kissing babies and playing his sax on late night television - Duck wins the highest office in the land. PRESIDENT!!

We don't get to experience much of his presidency as Duck soon decides that this job is also a bit much and he retires to the farm to do his chores and write his autobiography. A presidential library can't be too far behind!!

I use this amusing story (with wonderful illustrations that adults will love) to teach about the structure of stories: beginning, middle, end. Students will be exposed to having to take notes for the ELA assessment from stories and this structure seems to help students to take better notes during the listening passage. Whether they take notes by drawing and adding text later or use text immediately - teaching students what to listen for seems to be the first step. I like to share various plot diagrams and story maps, as well as a modification of a basic Step Up to Writing organizer to help students make connections and predict what might happen next with teachers to assist with this process.

Oh! And the book fits nicely into Social Studies as well!! It takes students through the various levels of government and can serve as a nice springboard to elections and campaign activities. I ran into this very clever and funny blog that highlights Duck's campaign. After all, what is a campaign without a blog these days?!?!

If you'd like to see the story - check out this link to YouTube.