Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I carry the lessons

I like to look for images that speak to something behind my blog posts--I tack them on at the end of each post.  They look nice when my posts appear on Flipboard, but more importantly, flipping through images works as sort of a rehearsal for my words.  Sometimes I sketch images in my Writer's Notebook before I write something--this summer I had the opportunity to play with Play-Doh before writing a passage.

Hands-on rehearsal is so important for me.  It impacts my own teaching, my coaching, and my writing.  It allows me to take a moment to see the silver lining in what I need to say, write, do, or become.

This morning, an image by N.C. Wyeth struck me.  In it a young woman, framed by geese ascending from the silvery marsh, stands at peace. 

Last night, a direct message appeared on my Facebook page from a student I directed in the middle school plays just over twelve years ago.  Sometimes, when I do not have the artistic stamina to continue writing, or the professional stamina to continue to follow an impluse, or to put in the preparation to provide young people with the experience of inquiry, or to do my homework and make time to read and read and read, read everything I can so as to offer books and lessons that challenge the habits of young people and our culturally narrow modes of thinking--sometimes I need things like that simple message last night to rekindle why I love teaching, why I respect the vocation, and why I know it is something I will always have to work at and never master.
Hi Mr. Kelley!
I watched the Oscars recently and thought of you. I just had to send you a quick message. Adam Sandler said "I am eventually trying one day to tell the truth..." and I instantly thought of you and your definition of acting - struggling to tell the truth!
One I finished reading the message, I thought "I wish I could take credit for struggling to tell the truth" (some say acting is pretending, others say acting is struggling to tell the truth) because I did not coin it.  Yet, after sleeping on it, I've come to understand that I said it first to Marley.  For her, at twelve or thirteen, I challenged her not by repeating something someone else said, but by providing the experience of it...and being there, by her side, as she grappled with it.  I became more of a mentor and not the cliche of the commander barking what to do.  Instead, I went to great effort to ask the best questions that I could, and left it to the young people to work through the silver lining together.  And that is what teaching is, isn't it?
After all these years, I carry the lessons you taught us still and am better for it. I just wanted to drop you a message to tell you how important my time in 8th grade was and I still think fondly of Much Ado About Nothing.
I hope you are doing well in teaching and coaching football!!!
I never had Marley in class--we worked side by side together on the stage as director and actor--mentor and mentee--the similarities between coaching actors and athletes are tighter than some may imagine.  I see my role as a coach in exactly the same capacity.

Can you look yourself in the mirror each day and be happy with who you are, and who you can be?  Are you strong enough to say what has to be said--can you be honest with yourself, first...and then be honest with those around you.  I've always thought there are subtle differences between being honest and being critical--being honest, is about being in it together.  Too often, being critical dredges up feelings of separation and value judgments.

On the stage or on the field, the divide between people, culture, talent, age, experience (anything that divides people) can be coaxed to disappear and can be filled instead with bright sincerity--sincere effort, sincere preparation, sincere communication and expressions of joy, frustration, disappointment, etc.

This is the role of the educator.

Once the divide vanishes, we can be generous with our honesty without fear--without fear of failure--we can offer ourselves and grow as people, players, and as a group.  We eliminate fear of failure because we talk mostly of success, doing the right things, good moments, positive action because that is who we choose to become--we become a positive force.

I saw and experienced a kind of comfort during those sessions with the Marleys of my teaching and coaching life.  I have seen young people grow comfortable with themselves--maybe not completely, as life unfurls so many challenges before each of us.  But they begin to--if even for a moment.  The silvery image of the young woman in the N.C. Wyeth painting speaks to the many moments where I have seen young people take that similar moment for themselves.  On the path to finding our own greatness, our own possibilities, it remains critical that we remember to take such moments.

Breathe it in.  Embrace the possibilities.

The more I read, and the more I talk to teachers and coaches around the world, the lessons I discovered with Marly and the hundreds of kids I've directed and coached since 1993 are relevant now more than ever.  Marly must be 25 or so now, but I still think of her as that young person who embraced an experience, and a challenging call to honesty--can you embrace generosity and honesty together?  Together they may bring consequences you didn't anticipate, but they most certainly will bear the fruit that will sweeten your friendships, family relationships, and life's calling.

The world is full of wedges: education, politics, culture, religion, the environment and we find them in any place where someone takes a breath--our world is split by the wedges we drive into it and the fractures are only held together by those people who give a damn--about the profession, the friendship, the practice, the every day honesty that enables people to look in the mirror with pride.

The people I learn from are those who give a damn--about the profession, the people around them, and themselves.  I may find those people in my own building, but I most certainly have found them through social media applications such as Twitter.  Few have ever been in a position to select one's own colleagues--now, to a certain degree, we can augment our work environments with the people who do give a damn through the connections we make.

Connections are out there to be made.

Twelve years ago Marly thought I was just providing experiences in honesty and generosity and a play-- as it turns out we were all making connections without the need of Twitter or an iPhone.  We made connections through practicing honesty, breaking it down, talking about it, talking about where language fails us, where we fail ourselves--and then walked away each day trying to be better people in every aspect of our lives.  Even through my own faults--I struggle with my weight, my temper, my finances, my gruff shell, and my artistic stamina--I like to think that I was teaching Marley to give a damn and to do the right things even though I fail myself on a daily basis.  I'm aware of it--I do work on it--I imagine we all do to a certain degree.

I stand in the silver sky with the silver geese on the silver marsh and take a moment to raise my coffee mug to Marly and I thank her for her kind words--and the connections she made so long ago--I too, Marly, just like you--I am proud to acknowledge that I carry the lessons.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rewriting Currciulum--Opportunity and Responsibility

Rewriting curriculum presents opportunity wrapped in responsibility.  The opportunity presented to our group carries the added uncertainty of writing for the Common Core.

The Common Core places a premium on nonfiction.

That statement looms over me, but I found a way to (temporarily) resolve my apprehension in Carol Jago's With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature.  In it she posits some great direction and assumptions for the Common Core moving forward and provides suggested core texts to build into your curriculum either as core texts or reading circles.

Now, I'm reading a list of these books along with suggestions from our new textbook series to determine what will work best for us--opportunity wrapped in responsibility.  I'd feel like I cheated myself and my future students if I did not do my homework--reading (rereading) the texts under consideration along with reading the current research or guidance out there on the Common Core (of which little exists so we take what we can get).

Jago promotes the teaching of challenging texts (as core texts) and buttressing those with high-interest books that students can read alone for reading circles.  The responsibility on teachers is to ensure that we are not writing in core texts that are too easy to digest on their own--something that she feels has happened a little over recent years.  Teachers have fallen prey to the cranky faces student and parent that something is too difficult to read.  So, I find myself walking the line--we have the opportunity to rewrite and insert new texts, but they have to be the right choices.

Using Jago's suggestions I like the idea of our keeping Tom Sawyer in as a core text, and adding Little Women as a core text.  I started to dig for a science fiction/fantasy core text and a nonfiction to core text.  Having just finished The Golden Compass for this purpose, I like what it can do for my 8th grade students, but I go back to Jago's caveat that the book should not be something that all students can rip through easily on their own.  I think TGC falls into the category of something students can work through independently, so the TGC series may become a summer reading suggestion and/or a reading circle--though I'm not sure...several pieces of it appeal to me as a classroom text in an 8th grade creative writing classroom.  I took an informal pole of my current students and l0% had read TGC...and many were excited at the prospect of being asked to read it.  They knew it, some just hadn't picked it up yet.

In TGC, I admire the fact that friendship, loyalty, and human qualities leads to the overcoming of obstacles much in the same way as they do in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Problems are not solved with the waving of a wand--characters struggle and they make decisions not based on magic, but on human morality--what is right, and what is wrong.  This is the component that makes me still believe that TGC can be a challenging core text when presented in this light--additionally, since it is being presented as an honors course, perhaps taking the trilogy of TGC as a whole would be something to consider...

This weekend and through the upcoming week I am reading Black Boy by Richard Wright, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, and Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.  My gut feeling is that Black Boy could become the core text for nonfiction; recently, our 11th grade students could read it for summer reading, but after a brief exchange with the teacher of that course he agreed this could be a great choice for 8th graders.  I confirmed this with Jago via Twitter and she thought "Black Boy would be a rich, challenging text for 8th graders.  I taught it at Grade 10 but think younger students would like it."  Solid affirmation from the former head of the NCTE.

Additionally, I'm proposing building a series of books written in verse, with Crossing Stones by Helen Frost as the core text.  All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg, and Inside Out and Back Again by Thannha Lai as two of the three possibilities for reading circles.

If I'm suggesting it for review, then I've read it and stand behind it.  All have either won awards, received recognition, or appear have been suggestions from leaders in education.

In the end, I decided to embrace the opportunity of rewriting the curriculum and in the time between meetings I read as much as I can--opportunity and responsibility.  Plus, I get to read some pretty great stories along the way.

art by Natalie Nourigat

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Reflection of #s, @s, and numbers.

Since November 3rd, 2010 this will be my 185th blog post related to teaching or writing in one way or another.  One hundred and eighty-five blogs in four hundred and seventy-seven days or one blog entry every two and a half days.

I'm a better teacher (and my classroom is a better learning environment) because of this simple effort.  Blogging was my gateway into professional development opportunities I could not  have predicted.  First of all, blogging about my practice or curiosity is professional development.  It forced me to reflective, but on my own terms in my own time in my own space.

One reflection every two and a half days is hardly an inconvenience--it has changed my job into a vocation.

Since being engaged online as an educator in late 2010 I have:

a) read 61 books (one book per week on average)
b) had 25 Skype conversations with 25 different authors  (plus 2 who visited in person) including one living in India.
c) Tweeted 380x about education, writing, or teaching and read or engaged in message exchanges with educators around the world (and shared in their ideas) including published pioneers Kelly Gallagher, Carol Jago, and Troy Hicks
d) engaged with educators around the world on English Companion Ning
e) reflected on my own teaching more and more deeply than in my previous 15 years
f) allowed me to share in the expertise of writers, publishers, literary agents, editors--all who share their reflections about writing
g) I submitted an article for publication with the Journal of Media and Literacy Education (still pending)
h) Three of my students have been (or will soon be) published by our local paper.

These things were not happening for me before I became more engaged online.

What brought on this current reflection of the big picture was a Tweet from yesterday.

My first tweet about teaching or writing was February 8th, 2011.  I was actually on April 12, 2009 but it took me almost a year to see understand how Tweeting might be useful for me as a teacher or a writer.  My early tweets were comments about entertainers or local professional sports.  After the "get comfortable period" I saw how Twitter and my blogging could complement each other--it seems Twitter has taken over my time previously spent on the English Companion Ning (EC Ning) where I would read and participate in conversations about topics built on the teaching of Language Arts.

The EC Ning brought me to other professionals around the world--as Twitter has done more conveniently.

Back to yesterday...I sent a tweet to Carol Jago (past president of the National Council of Teachers of English; and currently with the Reading and Writing Project at UCLA) who is one of the contributing editors of the newly purchased textbook my district is buying for the middle school.  So, in the middle of writing curriculum and aligning it with the Common Core, I read her book With Rigor For All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading and Writing.  She wrote about some novels and their ability to fit into the tenets of the Common Core--Richard Wright's Black Boy was one of those novels.

My tweet: @CarolJago read Rigor4All (very helpful)-do you think Black Boy could fit as core text in 8th grade?  Thank you.

Carol's reply came back in less than 2 minutes: @_briank_ Black Boy would be a rich, challenging text for 8th graders.  I taught it at Gr10 but think younger students would like it.

I never had that kind of access before, and I am only just beginning to understand and use online tools as a benefit to my teaching.

One of the number one laments I hear from colleagues is lack of time to engage online.  Honestly, after having done it for some time now, I do not think it has much to do with finding more time but being more efficient with the time we currently have.  Being online, being connected, is becoming a way of life--our brains our changing, the cultural landscape is changing and altering at the same rate that Mother Nature tweaks her canopy.

Your computer is in front of you.  Your smart phone is in your hand.  If it isn't then it is close by.  It is ready and there is a world of access in our pockets in our hands to better teachers, writers, plumbers, poets, bakers, market analysts, editors, artists...

Yes, you can put it down and walk away anytime you want.  I dare you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

YA Book Review: Crossing the Stones

A colleague laughed at me yesterday when I referenced Crossing the Stones by Helen Frost as beautiful...so beautiful I wanted to read it a second time just as I finished it the first time.  And I did.

Part journey, part love story Crossing the Stones (in its own way) balances Aristotle's pathos--ethos--logos.  While this novel is not a persuasive essay per se, it does stir up several topics that would serve as wonderful starters for persuasive essays in the middle school classroom.  The appeals of logic, emotion, and character stand firm and clear--no one apologizes for their thoughts or who they are--these are fictional characters built on the real emotion and reality of a volatile moment of American history.

Our nation changed not only on the surface, but also down to the core of families--families were torn apart by death and growth.  While the looming threat of death exists, this novel presents so much more than death.  True, one could argue that the death of the traditional American family plays out here as well--yet this story emerges as so much more than that.  Beauty is born out of these circumstances, and Frost takes the reader on that journey.

Written in a combination of free-verse verse and cupped-hand sonnets, Crossing the Stones is a coming-of-age novel set in 1917.  Every significant character in this novel goes on a journey of some type--some return, some do not.  All are changed by their individual journeys as well as by the journeys of loved ones around them.

Each page or so is a different poem (a vignette) told from the point-of-view of any one of five characters: Muriel, Frank, Emma, Ollie, Grace.  While this is eighteen year-old Muriel's story, all of the characters play significant roles in the plot and each connects with the reader in some way--they each have striking moments in which you can not help but like them and root for them.

The conflicts in this story are built around family and the obstacles or challenges each must overcome as they face World War I and the emerging Suffragist Movement.  As Frank and Ollie hurtle on the path to manhood (walking into the teeth of war) many at home are criticized for not blindly supporting the war.  Muriel questions it much to the dismay of her teacher--why does everyone just listen and go to war?

Muriel is the perfect vehicle to connect with her Aunt Vera marching with the other Suffragists in front of the White House in support of women's rights--which in the end is really about a woman's voice.  I really liked that Muriel wrestles with her own voice at home.  She questions her voice, yet late in the novel it is her voice which serves as a healing balm and soothes her sister back to health--almost falling to the deadly influenza outbreaks soldiers unintentionally brought home from the front.

As the reader concludes the book a note from the author brings the form together--this note moved me to reread the book immediately.  Frost explains the poetic form and offers a few insights that definitely enhanced the reading of the novel.  However, I think the book is best enjoyed naturally--just read it for enjoyment.  And then consider Frost's notes.

Crossing the Stones is beautiful--I stand by my statement no matter who laughs at me.  Any story taking the reader on a journey where families are torn apart by death and by the growth and expansion of the world echoes a line from Wallace Stevens: Death is the mother of beauty.

Monday, February 20, 2012

YA Book Review: All the Broken Pieces

Written in free verse poetry vignettes, Ann E. Burg's All the Broken Pieces has all of the earmarks of a writer with something to say.  It will be interesting to see where she goes from here--I have memories of a graduate school contemporary literature course observation that Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping falls into a short line of authors who write a mighty first book and then--pffft.  Nothing.  Of course Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger lead that list.

I'm not comparing ABP to any of those novels or authors; however, I am pointing out the messages of prejudice, healing, and acceptance in ABP (Burg's first novel) are strong and relevant for a middle school reader.  Burg hefted a great message from her soul and put it into a form that the YA audience can appreciate and middle school teachers can use in their classes.  She does not shy away from the ugliness of the situation, but Berg has an artful hand with the ugly moments and scars and presents them in a way that a middle school brain can digest, process, and discuss them without being curled up in a ball in the corner of a closet.

Of special note for teachers is that this is a book about males overcoming their prejudice, pain, insecurities amid the broiling social climate of early 1970s America.  Without spoiling the story, protagonist Matt Pin was a child airlifted out of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  His mother passed him on to American soldiers for adoption, saving, redemption.  Operation Babylift was a very real moment in American history.  During the finals days of the Vietnam War and leading all the way to the fall of Saigon, Americans airlifted over 3,300 Vietnamese children out of the country...particularly Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers.  Fear of what Communists would do to these children of mixed race as well as the great political publicity such a move would generate, President Gerald Ford signed on.  Many critics called it a move to generate sympathy for the war.

This matches so well with Thannha Lai's Inside Out & Back Again (Vietnamese girl flees Saigon for America) and Christina Gonzalez's The Red Umbrella (Operation Pedro Pan & Cuba) and that I think I am going to pitch all as a package during an upcoming curriculum discussion.

Back to book...the male protagonist, Matt Lin, is airlifted out of Vietnam and sent to America for adoption.  His mother willingly gave him up--the only ray of hope she could embrace for her son.
Yet, not everyone is thrilled to see a Vietnamese boy in town in the early 70s, but some use the opportunity for healing.

An angle of particular strength in ABP is the use of the Veterans Voices meetings.  Vietnam War veterans meet each week in the community center to support one another and to continue the process of healing.  Matt is brought to these meetings for both the veterans and himself.  In the process, the veterans begin to see a validation for their efforts and Matt begins to learn to heal as well.

Written in first-person free verse poetry vignettes the voice is not especially youthful.  It balances more between the maturity of an adult author and the experiences of a child.  I imagine the challenge is really difficult to write free verse in the voice of child, let alone a Vietnamese child if that is not your native tongue.  The voice doesn't stumble over words or associations--the thoughts flow seamlessly--yetI did not have a problem with any of it.  The voice hovered over the scene--as if Matt's reflections took him back in time as a ghost and he watched the events play over again, without emotion or prejudice.

My mother talks
slowly and gently.
Her fluttery hands
are folded in front of her,
like we are in church.

Matt you've been through so much,
she says, but we want you
to stop running,
or, at least, to find out
what it is you're running from.

What is she talking about?
I'm not running.
I'm trying to stay.

In my classes, some 8th grade students struggle with learning where to break a line free verse poetry or how to isolate an image or idea.  Some are interested in reading self-selected books built on history or poetry.  Some dig for YA stories about males.  The point is--I see a lot going for this book in a middle school classroom--it digs into several themes:  prejudice, the horrors of war, blame, and adoption.  I find more and more of my 8th grade students digging for and self-selecting books with challenging and serious themes--they are so curious about so many things at their age.  Of course, the books about cloying love and "friends forever" still get pulled from the shelves for good effect and reason, but I have to say that I will be happy to place All the Broken Pieces on my classroom library shelf because it is a great book for the curious and developing mind of the middle school reader...and it just might make an even better teaching tool.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wordsalve: poet Sunita Jain & my class

My most recent classroom Skype with an author emerged from a parent email.  A mother asked me if her daughter had ever mentioned her grandmother, a writer who lives in India.  The implication in the email was that this may be someone I would like to invite into my classroom through Skype, as I have with many authors over the past two years.

You never know when some of the best experiences in life will come, or how they will emerge.
Be Mine
I am afraid to touch
the hurts you have known, child
the sobs under the skin
the terror forged in your lines.
Will poems make up for these?
I'll make poems while the mind keeps.
And send you wordsalve for manbite.

Be well.  Be mine.
I asked if the family had anything I could read by the grandmother or photocopy to share with my classes.  The granddaughter brought me in a stack of books--when I say a stack I mean a stack.  The grandmother's writing and life experience is humbling and moving.

I Want You to Say

I want you to say
you love me
as leaves grow
on clinging vines--
say it again and again till
feeling is a net of veins
flowing with life.

Till music, hard and clean
like river water on stones,
courses through my soul-chime.

Having Indian poet Sunita Jain speak to my class was, without a doubt, one of my best experiences as a teacher:

a) The Indian students (particularly the females) had a chance to connect with a female Indian author--just last year the significance of these types of experiences were illuminated before me as an Indian female student in my class expressed heartfelt joy that I had Mitali Perkins speak to my class.  I can distinctly recall her saying that she could not believe she got to speak to real Indian author.  I'm learning first hand that mentor connections in general carry great formative influence of young people, yet to be able to zero in on specific cultures or the social features of your students is equally as relevant.

In Losing
In Losing I lost not you.
The self
migrated from self.
The music ceased.
The anguish
charred the rest.

b) A grandmother not only got to see her granddaughter in school, but also engaged with her in my classroom--imagine all of the parties, dinners, soccer games that this grandmother misses by living in New Delhi while her family lives her on the east coast of America.  She misses seeing her grandchildren grow because of the great distance between them.  Yet, a technology like Skype allows families and friends connect around the world.  I have to say that watching my student and her grandmother interact, and especially the repeated smile on the grandmother, has been one of my great honors as a teacher.  It was fulfilling to see my student so involved with the overall experience in addition to the privilege of seeing her interacting with her grandmother--not to mention the fact that all of my other students got to participate in this experience.  There were so many levels to it that I am still processing it.

Deserts are Space

Deserts are space
and ache is time,
when to part lovers
an ocean walks in.

c) Good writing is international, ageless, boundless, and timeless.  The personal nature of Sunita Jain's writing really comes through in her responses.  If you view the 20 minute video below, you'll hear her talk about the observations that came alive for her when her mother old and dying.  Her deeply personal and reflective response of how her own sensibilities and sensitives were altered in those moments served as such a touching and poignant lesson for my young writers.


The dawn's silver grey
with sparrows, crows, bird in transit--
sunshot suddenly
with crimson blended.

d) In reading her poetry together before the Skype session, and then hearing her responses to our class, felt like I was hearing greatness.  It was great.  These were not only great moments for all of the beauty and sincerity mentioned above, but these were great words coming out of her.  I was really moved by the entire experience and I hope you gain something out of my sharing as much as I can here online.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Research: a Hydra Reconsidered

Particularly at the middle school level, why is research often treated as an isolated event in our lives?

Because it is isolated we tend to think in terms of 5-10-more? page essays chock-full of research, footnotes, bibliographies, and cautions of plagiarism.  We promote gorging ourselves on so much information that rubber bands, index cards, and stacks of books become more important than what we say.

In my experience research papers or speeches from a middle school student often falls into the abyss of reporting back what others have said--sans voice, sans synthesis, sans everything.

Believe it or not, just as we all make mistakes in today's in classrooms, our predecessors also made mistakes.  Many of us (teachers) have been trained to promote research assignments as unwieldy products--much of our training is best suited for English majors and so we (unwittingly?) train our thirteen year-old students at times as if they are English majors--and disguise it in the voice of "best practice" or "preparing them for high school."

Research is a real-world skill and tool used every day by writers and non-writers.  There are plenty of opportunities out there for us to find mentor-texts built upon research.  Some day soon, our middle school students will be consumers.  They will need to learn to compare one product against another--doing our due diligence, we read Consumer Reports, reviews by experts and the average Joe, and promises in advertising.  We learn to discern which expertise can be trusted...and we make our decisions.

Everyday, people research hobbies, DIY projects around the house, and vacation destinations.

Which is more important--the skill of research, or the product?

Addressing writing, and the teaching of writing, Lucy Calkins, Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University's Teachers College, suggests, "Teach the writer, not the writing."  The most important thing a teacher can do is focus on the person and the skill he/she develops.  When we create large research projects we feed the Hydra--and once we awaken that beast, where do we turn for mentor texts?  Where is there an example?

Can you ask your students "what have you read that is like what you are trying to write" when it comes to your research assignment?

I know no of mentor text from the real world that I can show a thirteen year-old that looks like what we try to teach as a traditional monster research project or paper.  Yet, I can find many relevant examples of research in the real-world.

The research project is as much a cliche as the five-paragraph essay--well intentioned, neither addresses much of what occurs in the real world.  Are we training young people who can leave our schools with the belief that they can be anything they want, or are we training them with a tool just in case they want to be an English major?

I think that is an important distinction to make and ask ourselves.

I propose teaching research (citations especially) as a skill as fluid as focus or organization.  Keep it manageable and encourage our students to cite what they've gathered and learned--yet, this also allows us to teach them to develop a fire in their belly, to have something to say about what they found, and to say it in their own way.  Average middle level students can do this is one or two pages--I really believe we lose them if we ask them work too much further when pulling in research; the balance shifts from the work about skill development to the second labor of Heracles.

Research can be, and should be, encouraged throughout the year--it is a habit of good writing.  Citing other people does not demonstrate laziness or a vapid mind; it shows us that you have done your work, that you read, and that you think.

Research is an important life skill...use it in small chunks so that you can also better evaluate it and their development as a writer.   It is far better to send them off to the high school with research developed as a writing skill, instead of as an uncomfortable and distended memory of something as unwieldy as the slaying of the Hydra.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Literally Putting a Frame Around Them

A framed theater poster from a 1999 production of The Diary of Anne Frank fell from the wall in my classroom.  Its glass shattered across the space in the empty room over the weekend.

I thought I was saving the signed poster as I cleaned the fragments from the floor.  Instead, I found a new resource for my classroom: the frame.

Still intact, it brought me back to something I read in Kathryn Bomer's Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brillance in Every Child's Writing:
If we have to literally put a frame around a piece of writing to get kids to see their work as art then that is what we must do.
My teaching of writing has shifted in recent years--I no longer write on student writing.  Using post-its and face-to-face conferring, I am trying to elevate their perception of themselves in their own eyes.  This includes their writing...this especially includes their writing.

While I use a large bulletin in a main hallway to display student writing, and while I hang a variety of pieces throughout the classroom, I have not yet used a frame to isolate a piece of writing.

What an experiment thus far.

Placing the frame directly over a portion of the class white board, I place a new piece of student writing inside each day.  It has created a buzz...whose piece will show up next?  Students gather around the bulletin boards and they scan the many one-pagers/book reviews posted around the room, but the energy and smile the simple frame has generated has been quite a happy accident.

The frame opened up another avenue for me--highlighting student quizzes and tests.  As this is a writing class, I teach vocabulary by asking students to write.  Our vocabulary assessments are not the multiple choice/fill-in-the-blank garden variety that I used for many years.  Students now write fluid passages using any five words from our list of twenty.  They do not know what the topic will be--I've found that forces the students to be ready for anything and therefore willing to study all twenty words.

I stress context when I grading these quizzes--remember this is a vocabulary assessment so take the time as a writer to demonstrate that you understand the word.  We practice this together as a large class and in small groups.  Over the course of the year, they are getting better at writing with context and I believe they are truly learning some words well--some words are truly becoming embedded in their written vocabulary.  I am seeing more of our vocabulary of study showing up in more of their work.

I hadn't displayed exemplary pieces of these quizzes in class--I have placed them on an overhead/Elmo/Promethean board and talked through what makes it strong writing, but I hadn't displayed it.  I hadn't set a frame around a test or a quiz.

By using the simple frame I see the evidence that more students are seeing what they do as a piece of art...which is just another way of saying important...valued...special.

Or elevating them in their own eyes.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mentor, Research, & Cubism as Writer

In an effort to continue to provide mentors in the classroom to inspire, support, and shape student writing, I wrote an email to local author Carrie Hagen (we is got him) and asked if she would either chat with  my students through Skype or visit or school.  I had never met Hagen, but learned that she was an NWP Fellow and heard she spoke recently to a group of Fellows at West Chester University--it was worth the shot.

I have learned with technology and social networking that we have access today to people beyond status updates and pictures of the weekend.  We are all able to access authors, musicians, scientists, historians (around the world) and if we would like someone to speak with our students all we have to do is ask.  They may say no just as easily as yes--for teachers it is worth the shot.  I've found more have said yes than no.  My experience with Hagen not only served the purpose of providing a mentor in the classroom (a best writer in the room) but it also inspired me to build a new research unit...an unexpected bonus.

Hagen spoke to three of my classes--and we tried something a little different with the author chat.  We included a guided writing activity and a sharing session with a revision of a piece due that day for homework.

For most author chats, I ask the author to speak about a specific topic for 10-15 minutes or so and then open up the floor to student questions.  As long as I prep the students in advance, and give them a chance to write down some questions, they fill the last 30 minutes with terrific questions about writing--situations they face, are confused be, or are curious about.  Otherwise, they struggle and seem to feel on the spot.

A few days in advance, Hagen sent me a couple of pages of drafts from her novel, and then a revision of each.  The drafts included her editor's notes (about content and not grammar).  I copied and distributed them to my students and then read through it with them day before--I wanted them have a familiarity of the content before Hagen arrived the next day.

Since she wrote a nonfiction account of the first kidnapping in America for ransom, Hagen asked the students about their experiences with true crime (novels, television shows, film).  Once they got the feel that her story was true crime, and exciting to research and write, Hagen outlined three must-haves for her writing:

1. read what you want to write
2. write character-driven scenes
3. write most sentences with the S-V close together and close to the front of the sentences

Read what you want to write:  It answers question--how do you do it?  where do you start?  how do you organize it?  Hagen shared a passage about serial killer H.H. Holmes from Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and how that style of writing inspires her.  It is nonfiction...but it is creative!  Nonfiction can be really exciting true content and still leave so much room for you to exercise your creative muscles.  We make so many decisions when we write, we can't but be creative.  The difference is in what you know--it has to be based in fact.  You have to read, research, ask questions, and stand in the places you write of.  Writing nonfiction is an experience and the more you read it the better chance you have to write your own powerful and moving story.

Write character-driven scenes: this was interesting because Hagen's scene in our hands was driven by a character she did not want to take over the story.  The difference in her draft and her revision was that she explained more about his job as a detective in 1874 and how many policemen moonlighted as detectives, and were often corrupt.  This still provided a scene built around a character, but we didn't get too personal as a reader--we learned something about him, but not so in depth that we connected to him rather than someone more important to the core of the story.

Write with S-V: While the students had their own copies of the scene and highlights and pens out, I projected a copy of the page onto the Smartboard.  Identifying the subject and verb in each sentence with the class, Hagen led us through a paragraph --we highlighted each.  She pointed out how most sentences had the S-V close together, and only one or two allowed for a variation in this structure.  This promoted clarity, the active voice, and kept the action moving.

We then revised a sentence of Hagen's from the novel:

Somewhere along these muddy streets lurked a man who he believed could identify the kidnappers.

While encouraging them to remove anything they wanted from the sentence, Hagen invited the students to change the subject or verb, but retain the message of the sentence.

Some revisions:

A kidnapper lurked in the street.
A kidnapper haunted these muddy streets.
A shadow lurked in the man, a kidnapper.

Afterwards, we had the students pull out their own writing to share with the class.  A revision of a draft of an extended metaphor was due in class. Asking for volunteers, students were willing to share in the presence of an author at about the same rate on a typical day--some were eager, others not so much.  Hagen praised each for a turn of a phrase, an image, or an idea--it was good to see the students receive the positive feedback from someone other than me.  I love anything we can do as educators to raise their image of themselves in their own eyes.

Overall, the discussion served as a great bridge for me into research, journalism, and creative nonfiction.  When Hagen shared that nonfiction answers our desire as human beings for the WHAT and the WHY, I found inspiration for an upcoming research unit and lesson.

She said to learn what happened takes time...takes research...we have to collect fragments (some more clear than others) but once you find enough pieces, a picture begins to form...the WHAT, more or less, is clearly plotted on a timeline.  (Good, focused, use of library time.  Pick something in our community, a topic of interest, something historical, and find a change--find out what happened.)

The why, Hagen countered, is more difficult--it takes a while to think about.  And the more you draft and write about the why (or what you think the why could be) the clearer it becomes.  You don't really know what your writing is about until it is all written down.  (Good use of writing workshop time buttressed by our research.)

In this respect the writing process is like Cubism--take a topic, find its pieces, and reassemble them.  As writers we can never truly reassemble pieces of research into the entire truth, the entire picture.  The picture we write is always influenced by what we bring to the exercise: our wants, fears, and prejudices.   

I think the extended metaphor that writing a research essay, or creative nonfiction, or journalism is Cubism brought me to a 1923 self portrait by Dali.  This image will serve as opening discussion piece to bring in what my students learned from Hagen and then carry it forward to what we are about to do as writers: find pieces and reassemble them.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Halfway Point Reflection: Conferring

At the halfway point of my school year I am asking my students to reflect today in their Writer's Notebooks--list the moments, decisions, experiences that have had made a significant difference for you (as learner, person, friend, family member, musician, athlete, artist...) --write about some.

Today will be a long stretch of writing--force them to develop that writing and reflection muscle.  I'll use the time to take advantage and continue conferences.  I began them on Monday but only got to a 1/3 of each class as I sat down at a table and spent 3-5 minutes with each student.  Today I will do it by walking to the students at their desks with their most recent drafts in hand.  This will keep me moving, but will give me an opportunity to touch base with many more students today.

At the bottom is my list of reflections (in no particular order) about my teaching year thus far--I extracted conferring as the one topic that I just wanted to spill my guts about:

Ten Things That Have Made a Significant Difference in my Teaching just this year


Finding the willingness to seek help over the past three years has enabled me to incorporate conferring in the classroom.  In the form of reading and trusting the research and reflections, and through workshops and collaboration with the NWP and our local affiliate PAWLP, I have resuscitated teacher-student conferencing as a regular event.

By finding my own willingness, that same attitude had rubbed off onto the tenor of my class and the attitudes of my students.  I used to wonder why kids never came to see me for help with their writing--after all, I spent hours writing pithy comments and suggestions along the borders of their pages.  Didn't anyone want to ask for help?  Didn't anyone need help?

Sometimes I think we'd rather drown than ask for help--teachers and students.

This summer, I heard colleagues from other districts wonder how people had time for conferring.  Over the years I've questioned how it is possible for one teacher to possibly confer a lot.  Before I landed a full-time teaching job I worked as a theme-reader for a local high school--I was paid to read and confer.

While training in the PAWLP (NWP) Writer's Workshop, we read again and again that the research, pedagogy,  and reflections recognize conferring as a valuable tool, but I fear that it may be one of the weakest instructed and supported skills for teachers coming out of universities and perhaps even supported through professional development in the nation.  That is my assumption.

Conferring with students (and parents) takes confidence and it takes having something to say something meaningful beyond the surface errors.  Specifically, conferring about writing can backfire if all we are doing is pointing out every mechanical and grammatical error--doing that is a also a time chewer and would dissuade teachers from going back to it.  I could simply mark all the errors on a paper and it is up to the student to look at them and make the corrections, right?  Honestly, teachers could conference for 15 minutes or more over one paper and one student--and that is just with the teacher talking and lecturing over each sentence.

The difference for me came when I learned to ask the student writer to reflect on aspects of the piece, or to talk me through their struggles and breakthroughs as if I were a reader.  Asking them to read a section of it, to lead a discussion about an error or area of improvement (something that confuses me as a reader/listener...something I want to know more about as a reader/listener) made more students make more improvements faster.  I see the changes:

a) conferring contributed to a shift my relationship from grammar cop to mentor
b) conferring built confidence as students understood I was willing to listen to them talk about their writing
c) conferring places a value on the piece of writing as more than just an assignment or means to a grade
d) frustration has dwindled--no longer are students gnawing through their thirteen year-old understanding to try and figure out what I want, how to please this teacher in this environment this time...rather, they are seeing themselves as capable and that everyone can improve
e) I know my kid's work and I know my lowest are rising...I can name three low scoring students (on state testing) and three very different deficiencies in their writing and how they have specifically grown (by leaps and bounds)
f) those in the middle and those on top demonstrate a desire to write and see the revisions through to a satisfying result, not an end; in other words, the perspective of my students has shifted from writing assignments are isolated to writing is a recursive process that I can get better at...and I know how.

The hurdle for me was understanding how to make conferring happen--where is the time?  I can't create more time--how do I find it?

Conferring stikes me as similar to exercise and weight loss--we identify and universally agree that each is healthy and go hand in hand--but in order to achieve the end result many of us need to make lifestyle changes, alter our schedule, think differently...we need to change.

Conferring is the same thing as those commitments in that it probably will not fit as neat little package into what we currently do as teachers (assuming many follow the traditional teaching model of instruction and use of time).  In order for a change we must first make that decision to change....and commit to it.

In order to use conferencing as an ongoing supplement to classroom instruction we have to be willing to break and redefine the traditional mold of how we were taught and the habits we've acquired since we left student teaching.

How many student teachers have come in ready, willing, and planning to confer with students one-on-one as a matter frequent classroom practice?  I've had six student teachers over 17 years and none have--furthermore, I did not do it as a student teacher.  (In that respect I'm lucky that I got to cut my teeth on conferencing as a theme reader).  It would be great to see more student teachers ready and willing to take that leap--you can't get good at it unless you do it, but it would be even better for all of us interested in conferring to read contemporary educational pioneers such as Penny Kittle, Nancy Atwell, Kelly Gallagher...the list goes on...discuss it with colleagues, seek training and professional development in it, and come to the understanding of how to make it work.

I heard a colleague lament this week that he/she would love to confer with his/her students, but doesn't have the time in the schedule--there is just so much to teach.  That is the universal critique of conferring from Maine to Florida, New Jersey to Oregon.

Finding the confidence and understanding how to manipulate time in the classroom, so that I can confer better and more often, has been one piece of a positive transition for me as a teacher this year.  As I recently told a colleague in the National Writing Project, now that I understand how to make conferring work in my classroom, I want my first 15 years of teaching back.

Other topics on my list that I may write about in the near future:
Writing alongside of my students

Rethinking myself as a mentor of skills as opposed to a judge of skills

Vocabulary quizzes built on context

Mentor texts

Being Positive

Independent Reading of Self-Selected Texts

Alternative Seating Arrangements

Reading and Writing Online

Reading and Trusting Education Research & Reflections

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Visual Story: Love Conquers All

I set out with the goal of creating a narrative guided by one (or a combination of) of the four main story types discussed in class: love story, someone goes on a journey, worlds collide, or a stranger comes to town. Just images. No words. This is a great activity to get students working and talking with a writing partner.