Friday, March 30, 2007

Vacation Reading

Spring Break is upon many of us - if not this week, then next. For me - in addition to seeking sun and a beach, break has been about a suitcase full of books to read. It seems to be the only time I have to tune out work and lose myself in a good book anymore!!

So I thought I would share a book that I just finished and won't be accompanying me on my trip to Aruba - but it might be one you want with you. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield has been the first book in a long time that I could lose myself in. A ghost story, a mystery, a riddle wrapped in an enigma.....this book was fantastic!!

It starts with a young bookseller's daughter who has been lost in books her entire life - and has been living in the shadow of a twin who died when she was young, but who has never been spoken about by the family. She makes her living as a biographer of persons from literary history. She is invited by Vida Winter, a world-famous author, to complete her biography. A daunting task as Ms. Winter has told at least 19 versions of her life story.

In telling the tale of these two women and the mystery of a publication missing the last story - the author's remarkable style draws you in and makes the book hard to put down. Here are two of my favorite excerpts:

"I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been
like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading
The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I
unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the
water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and
knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now.
Reading can be dangerous."

"I used to think that I loved rain, but in fact I hardly knew it. The
rain I loved was genteel town rain, made soft by all the obstacles the skyline
put in its path, and warmed by the rising heat of the town itself. On the
moors, enraged by the wind and embittered by the chill, the rain was
vicious. Needles of ice stung my face and, behind me, vessels of freezing
water burst against my shoulders.

Happy birthday."

Not a beach read - but certainly one you can get lost in!! What are you reading this break?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Crawl Before You Walk

An interesting thing came up as we scored math assessments these past two weeks. Time and again, we saw that the good teaching practices we all use to help students learn the vocabulary in our content areas was working. Students are able to provide the witty sayings or the clever acronyms we teach them to remember the vocab - but they don't know it.

For example, in working with a graph where students were asked to give the coordinates of a point - most of them got it. When they were then asked to explain how they got that answer - things went downhill quickly. The students could repeat "crawl before you walk" or "throw up" but they couldn't give additional details to describe HOW they arrived at their answer in a way that showed they understood the concept. Without showing that understanding, students could not receive full credit.

It made me think about Mr. Bloom and his taxonomy of thinking. If we teach students to find the way to get the right answers - and it always works - do they need to understand WHY it works? I think the math teachers in the room would say "YES!!" And I think I agree.

This is where writing is so important in all content areas. Writing - and having the correct words to convey your thoughts and feelings - is powerful. Without knowing the vocabulary or being able to explain yourself well - no one will really know what it is you know. So it follows that those who write well are powerful and those who cannot write well are not.

Teaching writing is the responsibility of every teacher - not just English Language Arts teachers. In fact - writing is the responsibility of every teacher. If we are not practicing and modeling our writing with our students - how will they learn that no one creates a perfect draft the first time. That we need to play with our words and the order of our words before we publish our work. That there are glimmers of ideas for our writing everywhere - it is up to us to give them the unique slant and perspective that create our voice.

In a random sampling of asking teachers during scoring how many were teaching their students to write out the explanations to many of the problems we saw on the assessments - few were pushing their kids to do so. Those who were taught other subjects beyond math and were primarily elementary school teachers. We know these are the types of things on our assessments - why are we surprised that our students do poorly on them if we are not asking them to provide the same work in class?

Perhaps we need to all practice the writing crawl - introduce writing in small bits that the teacher and the student are comfortable with - so that we can model for students that writing has power and should be used in every subject. Teachers won't need a degree in writing but can learn these writing strategies from colleagues - which will open the door to the collegiality that our profession desperately needs. And slowly - they'll begin to toddle, then walk, then run with writing in their classrooms. And so will our students.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Curses and Verses

We have spent this week scoring the NYS Math assessments and I look forward to another weekend of scoring DVDs so that we can complete the scoring next week. Now - I have to admit that this is one of my least favorite times of the year. First of all, I am terrible at math. I don't balance my checkbook and know that I am horribly ill-prepared for the retirement that awaits me in the year 2031. (At least I know that number!) Second, while I love a challenge, understanding why some things are mathematically correct is one that I wouldn't mind skipping. Fortunately, I have a colleague who is just passionate about it, so I only have to keep the peace at scoring. Finally, there is no creatively in math (see my second reason!). Don't get me wrong - the students are very creative in how they approach some problems, but generally the answer is very black and white. So unlike writing!!

Following closely on the heels of math is science. I appreciate folks whose minds can work in ways that do these subjects justice. Mine is just not one of them - and the big, fat F that haunts my colleage transcipt in Organic Chemisty is the proof!! (Hey - at least I tried! And bless that tutor who tried as well!)

However, I took GREAT delight in the two books I recently purchsed that focus on these subjects. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they are by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith (Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and of course my favorite, Squids Will be Squids). The first, Math Curse, actually reminds me a bit of what happens to my brain during regional scoring: "You know, you can think of almost everything as a math problem." Those words from her teacher creates a curse with the narrator in which she cannot escape math - from simple problems like how many quarts are in a gallon to the funniest multiple choice question on fractions I have yet to see ("What is another way to say 1/2 of an apple pie? a. 2/6. b. 3/6. c. la moitie d'une tarte aux pommes") this book helps make math relevant, and dare I say it, FUN!!

And of course, since Mr. Newton observes at the end of the book that "You know, you can think of almost everything as a science experiment" it only goes to follow that the Science Verse is equally amusing. In this case, there is poetry to be found in science. From evolution to the water cycle to the scientific method - these are great rhymes to help students remember some tricky parts of science. However, my absolute all-time favorite is "Dino-Sore." this little ditty tells the tale of Dinosaurs - often retold year after year after year. In short a curriculum nightmare:
"It's still a mystery, scientists say,
Why the dinosaur went away.
But I know why they couldn't stay
(And it wasn't meteors).
It was creatures - yes, those teachers -
Who did the work of fifty wars
And bored to death - DINOSAURS."
Mr. Scieszka does a fine job ending the book with his "Observations and Conclusions" in which he honors the great poets and poetry that his work is based upon. All in all - not a bad curse to have!!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Van Gogh Cafe

We had a brief (too brief!) glimpse of spring this week. Two near 60 degree days in a row - then snow again. I'm used to it living in Western New York - but it was just enough to remind me that this world is full of miracles. The snow melts away and exposes the earth and flower buds to sunshine, which stretch and awaken brightening the dull colors of mud. Before long, the branches that have been weighted down with snow will be uplifted with glorious blooms. The air smells cleaner, fresher, newer. And people emerge from their homes to walk dogs, jog, bike. We see our neighbors again and stop to talk. In general, everyone just seems happier.

The Van Gogh Cafe reminds me of these miracles. A somewhat lesser known book by Cynthia Rylant, it tells the story of a small cafe in Flowers, Kansas run by Marc and his 10-year-old daughter Clara. The cafe is the site of a former theatre - which is what makes the cafe magical. The story of a possum, the power of a lightening strike, magic muffins that feed children in a snowstorm, and wayward seagulls are among the stories that give life to the Van Gogh cafe. Each tale weaves into the next, with the mystery revealing itself in the last chapter.
This is a wonderful book to teach about ideas - but more importantly to remember the magic that surrounds us.

Some musings on voice!

Not thinking, I called a friend a bit late the other day. Normally - she is quite the night owl, so it never crossed my mind that she would be sleeping!! Her voice was groggy (as was her mind I am sure) but she gave it a minute and then boom!! There was the upbeat tone and laugh in her "Hi!!" that I have come to rely on.

I have another friend who has some interesting voice inflections - ones that we tend to unconsciously mimic at work whenever we want to respond to a situation as she would. We can even make our facial expressions match hers - much to our delight. But today, she received upsetting news and her tone was very different as were her facial expressions. She spoke much faster and in the same tone, speaking so fast that she often chose words that she wasn't sure she wanted to use.

Voice is an amazing thing - and it is even more amazing when we can hear it in writing. But voice is difficult to teach without many, many examples. Reading a variety of authors and styles is the best way to help writers find their voice. One of my favorite authors for this is Sandra Cisneros - you can practically imagine yourself in the scenes she writes!! I think that is why I have come to over-rely on "Eleven" each time that I teach voice in a workshop.

I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing fifth grade teacher and blogs lately. She has hooked her students on mysteries with her very first blog. Her most recent post asks students to share their "peaceful corner of the world" and boy can you hear their voices!! Even more importantly - you can hear her voice (as well as her powerful teaching) in the comments. Unlike any other blog I have read (and I read a lot!), Mrs. Sager responds to each and every comment, often subtly pointing out the edits that would make their written work even better. I continue to be amazed by this class - be sure to check it out and comment on their work!!

This teacher embraces and encourages voice in her student's writing. However, I have often had teachers tell me that voice belongs in stories and not in the content areas, and certainly not on state assessments. Of course- I disagree!! I have participated in regional scoring of ELA and Social Studies assessments and in all instances, those papers that were engaging and had a sense of voice scored higher than those that did not. The content could have been exactly the same - but voice puts it over the top each and every time. The trick is to teach that the voice needs to be appropriate to the audience. For this - I loved using RAFTS in my classroom. The students became engaged in their writing, really learned the content and more importantly learned the importance of knowing their audience. It was fun for them - and honestly, much more fun for me to grade as well!!

It is amazing the voice in those around us. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "A man's style is his mind's voice. Wooden minds, wooden voices. " We just need to take the time to listen to them.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Engaging History

I love history. I'm not sure why but reading about how people lived and what motivated them has always been my passion. I always hoped that when I taught Social Studies, I could inspire my students to see the same. So it is always refreshing when someone writes a book to inspire children. John, Paul, George, and Ben by Lane Smith is just such a book.

Beatles fans will love the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) references to the Fab Four embedded in the book - with good old Tom (Jefferson) as the fifth lad who was "always off doing his OWN thing." History fans will love the history woven into the very entertaining character sketches of these founding fathers - although some liberties have been taken with the past. These liberties are nicely cleared up with the humorous "ye olde True or False section" in the back. And writing fans will love the voice and word choice provided in the book.

Each of the five lads are described with gripping adjectives and stories to support those descriptions: John is bold, Paul is noisy, George is honest (of course!), Ben is clever and Tom is independent. After describing each in their "youth," the book wraps up with how these character traits led to the men to historic actions.

The book is also organized in such a way that using it to help students with two-column notes would also work. You would have to take some time to separate the fact from fiction - but again, that goes towards the organization of the book and it serves as a nice mentor text for organization.

If you are looking to inject voice into the social studies classroom - this book is a hit. In addition to the stories, the illustrations and fonts used support this engaging tale. The book is written on parchment-like paper which lends a nice historical touch.

Overall - the book will entertain adults and students alike. It won't be your founding father's social studies class!!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Nobody Knows.....

Been having trouble with Blogger lately - or maybe it is just my computer and the Internet connection at home. No matter - I'm just posting Friday's book post a bit late and hoping for the best this time!!

I've been spending a great deal of time in local districts with writing. Some are Step Up trainings, some are Six Traits, and some are a magical combination of both. I don't think there really is one right answer with respect to writing - there are so many variables to deal with!! First and foremost seems to be the comfort level of teachers with teaching writing. In fact, so much has to do with whether or not teachers view themselves as writers!!

But the bottom line is that we need to start pulling together and working with our students on writing. There is power in the ability to express your thoughts clearly - and we have an obligation to teach our students how to be successful in writing. Some are naturally gifted and will buck at the thought of constraints - others need to have very specific guidance to write well and may never progress beyond basic organization and word choice. But we need to teach them.

Curriculum Design for Writing Instruction by Kathy Tuchman Glass provides a nice key for districts looking to develop a writing curriculum. While it is grounded in the Six Traits, it is the process that is key in this book.

In a nutshell, here are her curriculum design elements:

1. Identify grade level content standards for writing: What do I want my students to know and be able to do?
2. Create a teacher rubric witha clear set of criteria for
writing assessment:
What are the key criteria for achieving these
standards and assessing students?

3. Craft a student checklist to guide students through the unit and
help them state objectives and self-assess:
What do students needs
to know and learn as they progress through the unit and how will they be

4. Design lesons to achieve standards: How do I guide
and assist students to achieve the criteria?

(p. 4)

Now - these may seem simple and obvious to some, but I have yet to work in the district that has done this and used it across all grade levels. Note that many have tried to accomplish this but actually using the rubrics and sharing them openly with students and using them as guide for lessons in writing is not something that I have seen. (If you are doing it - please comment and tell us what is working!!)

I am excited because I have been working with a district that I think is on the cusp of developing just this. They have a solid plan and they have extremely dedicated teachers - I guess only time will tell but I am keeping my fingers crossed!