Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Connecting with Family, Modeling with Students

Prewriting and modeling. Prewriting and modeling. No matter how great of a start a class had on the first day of a digital composition project, the foundation will be built around two things: prewriting and modeling.

In a recent National Writing Project workshop it was noted that 90% of writing instruction should be spent on helping students find their topics.

Prewriting activities allow students time to explore. It provides teachers with the time to be a mentor and moves us away from the allure of being a judge of student writing. Furthermore, at no point in this project will I approve or reject topics. My goal is to put students into the best position to find the topics that they care about and to learn from their choices as writers.

As we are five months into the school year, and students have had guided instruction in various prewriting activities, several prewriting strategies can now function at once in the classroom:
  • turning and talking
  • webbing
  • listing
  • drawing
  • writing itself...or diving in
On any given day, students choose which strategy best fits.

When using prewriting activities for a family history or family culture digital project, it is important to encourage students to use their prewriting to reach out to others. This helps students pull the pieces together for a project that is about more than just their point of view. Reaching out to family will develop basic research skills and it will encourage important social and interpersonal skills.

Today's prewriting arose from the prompt what object(s) do you associate with family members? First, we took a look at Julia Alvarez's poem Dusting and discussed what objects or things Alvarez connects with her mother.

As a transition to the next stage, I asked students to share out loud any connections that they had with objects and their family. Some of the more memorable ones from today include:
  • an aunt's obsession with, and hovering around, an antique, family punchbowl at parties
  • a grandfather's war helmet
  • dad's '68 Mustang
  • a grandmom chasing a grandchild with money
  • a dad burning peat in the fireplace because the aroma reminds him of his childhood in Ireland
Because modeling the behaviors we want garners the most positive results, I build in significant time for modeling on a daily basis. As students took out their writer's notebooks, I shared a blog entry by my mom on a new family blog that I created just for this project: Homemade Ravioli.

We get what we emphasize.

My mom's blog entry, Early Days,  is about her connection to her mother's sewing machine. After reading the blog, I showed students the comments my aunts and cousins have been leaving on some of the others posts. I come from an Italian family. My great-grandfather came over from Naples on the steamship Bolivia on May 21st, 1901. Our family culture is coming out as my family shares on the family blog.

My aunt Joanne writes about her connection to an object, a role, and a time, in a comment:

But making Raviolis was always special for me, because I was given the job of closing them with the fork. When the job was done, I was allowed to roll out the left over dough and cut it into strips and when the ravioli were cooking, my grandmother would cook my strings of dough. You always had the feeling that you belonged to people who loved you.

While my family members are not bloggers, leaving comments for me is a great way for them to engage with the family conversation online. And, these ongoing conversations provide information and details that I will use in the near future when I compose a sample video (or mentor text) for my students.

Students will continue to have access to my family history blog. A personal passion project for me becomes a fluid model and mentor texts for them.

It creates an opportunity for students to see me excited about writing.

Students can use our classroom blog to imitate this strategy and to gather comments from their families. For example, after posting a draft about an object, students can email their blog entry's URL code to a family member and invite them to leave a comment. In my classroom, I keep our blog public but I filter all comments through me first. Only I see comments left on students blog until I approve and release them to the general public.

Sometimes hearing or reading a story can help others make connections that a basic prompt or question fails to draw out of us. We all see examples of this everyday in our classes, don’t we?

Tomorrow, we will take a day for reading. This allows time for relatives to respond to emails and for students to make connections with family under their own roof.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Writing Family History & Culture with Students

The early stages of any digital storytelling project is writing. Lots of it. Before students decide what story they would like to tell digitally, they need to do a lot of writing first. My class has just begun their journey.

Yesterday, my eighth-grade students started sketching family trees. On the white board, I demonstrated one and I repeated over and over again that not knowing something is o.k. 

Not knowing something about our family tree is just as valuable as what we do know. These gaps can provide starting points for questions with our families.

As I sketched a basic family tree, I encouraged the students to try one as well. Some of the questions they asked along the way:

  • how do I handle someone who was divorced?
  • what happens if someone was adopted?
  • what if I don't know a relative's name?
It is important to anticipate these types of questions which may be emotionally challenging to some students. What will you say to the student who tells you they are adopted? How will you guide the student who has step-parents and multiple sets of grandparents? I don't think there is any one right answer because all of our kids are unique; however, being mentally prepared to be encouraging, empathetic, and supportive comes with the territory of this type of writing.

an early example of a student tree
So much of this project is about talking as it is about writing. My class was noisy with students talking to each other about what they know, don't know, remember, don't remember--talk is good! Some students need to talk as a part of their pre-writing. Use it to encourage your students to talk at home--to continue the conversations with mom and day--to reach out to grandparents or any family who might help them.

After sketching a basic tree, I asked the students to write down the following questions which I adapted from NPR's StoryCorp Great Questions list:
  1. What is your ethnic background?
  2. Where are your various family members from? Has anyone ever visited there?
  3. What traditions have been passed down and still exist? What traditions have been lost through the years?
  4. Who are/were your favorite relatives when you were a child or adolescent?
  5. Do you remember any favorite family stories that a specific family member loved telling?
These are questions I want the students to start asking at home. Gather information and gather photographs! Ask at dinner. Email aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins for photographs and keep them in a digital folder online.

We will need these digital photographs for the blogs, podcasts, and videos we compose later.

After this, I turned their attention to a poem, Eating Together, in our textbook by Chinese poet Li-Young Lee. We discussed what information struck us as cultural clues and what information struck as pieces of his family history. In the end, what came out of this was food.

Food is a beautiful conduit for writing about our families and cultures and will be the focus of our brainstorming tomorrow.

Last night, I received this email from a student:

Mr Kelley,
Over dinner with my mother and I told her that we had been discussing the family tree in writing and she told me that her father went crazy years ago and researched his whole Taylor family tree. She got it out and showed it to me where as it dates as far back as to the late 1700's. All the information is extremely precise, with it there is birth, death, cause of death, and burial place for each person. Some people even more background added to that. Of course this is amazing and I've been sitting in my room with the documents reading through and looking up some of the background from it, but there was so much to see as unfortunate for some of these family members. As I read through the generations it showed that in one family a child only lived for two hours. Years later his brother was born and he only lived for one. I don't know how my grandfather did this and managed to find everything spot on, but I think it'd be a great thing to bring in and show you for the family tree unit so that is what I intend to do for tomorrow. I look forward to showing you this for it is pretty amazing.
Young people love writing about themselves and discovering their place in the world. This project funnels the larger world into the manageable and meaningful world of family. With your guidance and modeling, you will find your students compiling many topics to explore. 

Writing about family history and culture provides an opportunity for me to model the importance of primary sources, primary documents, and talking and staying connected with family.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Family History and the Importance of Talking

Ezra Wylie's invention buckled cotton more tightly together.
Today I spoke with Heather Wylie on my I Remember podcast. Heather is an amateur genealogist who is tracing the family history of Wylies and Whites. She keeps a rather detailed and inspiring website An Unexpected Discovery as well as a terrific blog that would serve as a great model or mentor text for anyone thinking about writing and sharing their own family history.

During the interview, Heather detailed the life of her paternal great grandfather, Ezra Frantz, who was born and raised on a family farm in Illinois and who travelled the country as life-long inventor.

Browsing Heather's website and blog, and listening to her on this interview, one can't help but feel armed with the best advice of all when it comes to discovering your family's past: start with yourself.

One of the things that sticks most with me from my conversation with Heather is her stressing the importance of talking. It seems silly to have to remind ourselves to talk to one another, but Heather makes a strong point. So often, we have to get over ourselves and pick up the phone or go for a visit, and make the effort to talk to our older relatives. They are a wealth of knowledge, experience, and stories that will never be tapped unless we ask them to share. And so many of our older relatives are not on social media and need the benefit of our speaking with them face to face.

People are also shy--especially people in our own families. But if take Heather's advice, and start with ourselves, then we can be the ones who get up, leave the house, and keep our family narratives alive.

The "I Remember" podcast featuring Heather's interview can be played directly below or downloaded for free from iTunes.