Monday, September 21, 2015

Remaking a Teacher Through Picture Books

Children's picture books fascinate me in their role as doorways or portals. Often regarded as a bridge to lead children to a love of reading, children's picture books have launched me into being a better reader, writer, and teacher.

I have learned that some teachers use picture books to introduce the moves a writer makes--this has been an effectve shift in my planning and teaching. For instance, I could teach almost any lesson or mini-lesson on writing with a collection of picture books: 

  • Examine the similarities and differences in the leads and conclusions
  • What transitions are used; in what way are they used?
  • Follow the punctuation--which punctuation contributes to story?
  • How do the images complement or deepen the impact of the words?
  • Any grammar concept can be isolated, explored, and imitated.

Additionally, I am some finding children's picture books as launching points for my own reading life. I had never read anything by Jane Goodall--or anything substantive about her. I'd only known of her through fragments of life. Yet, after reading The Watcher: Jane Goodall's Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter, I am motivated to pick up one of Goodall's books.

I found the The Watcher while curating a pile of twenty-five picture books for a classroom unit on memoir. This is how I make good use of my library card. By the way, my local library has been very accommodating by allowing my to check out vast piles of picture books for extended periods of time.

Working my way through my library book pile, two struck me because of their potential for not only my reading life but also my writing life: How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz (Poland), and The Wall, by Peter Sis (Czechoslovakia).

How I Learned Geography frames a life around one significant experience. When author Uri Shulevitz was a child, his family struggled after the Warsaw blitz in 1939 and fled to Turkestan (Kazakhstan). One day, Shulevitz's father spends what little money he has on a map of the world instead of a few crusts of bread for his hungry wife and son. Having read this book, I now want to read more from this culture and certainly about this time period.

The Wall just blew me away in its combined simplicity and complexity. SO much is going on.

The basic story reads simply across the bottom of the page. Yet, it is so interesting to look at the physical page. Ninety percent of each page is filled with imagery filled with history, tension, conflict, and hope.

It challenges my brain. When I first began the book, my eyes were confused. I found myself hunting for the text. My eyes flitted all around the page trying to make sense of it all.

When I figured out the structure, I found myself spending more time on each page--and reading and re-reading the imagery more than the single lines of text at the bottom of the page.

Actually, the line of text functions as a story within a story.

It makes me wonder what might come out of my own writing should I try something similar about the neighborhood I was raised in...or about my experience as a student in school...or my experience as a teacher. 

Irrespective of where this carries me specifically, the point is children's picture books are leading me across a bridge to being a better reader, writer, and model for my students. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

This Much is True

This much is true: write for you.
Necessary yet temporary,
Writing for school may help us achieve.
Yet, writing for you will help you breathe.
And believe.
And conceive
All that is true.
Oh, the life you will live when you write for you.

by Brian J. Kelley

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Choice in Classroom Management

Years ago, a student about to graduate high school told me about first meeting me in middle school. She said, I was quaking in my boots.

We had a laugh because she came to realize that she did not need to be so nervous. It wasn't anything I said or did--just entering the new classroom with new classmates and a new teacher was enough. So much uncertainty! 

Before Erica, the student, shared her experience, I hadn't really thought about how our years of experience, confidence, or energy plays one part of--and influences--our classrooms or our early conversations with our new students.

Teachers across America are in the early stages of a new year. Many of us have been putting in a lot of time establishing classroom routines and developing classroom communities.

Now in my 22nd year, I can not undersell the importance of establishing community. It took me almost half of my career to really digest that reality. It is more important than curriculum. It is. Without community and relationships, the curriculum might be delivered but it certainly won't be received.

Developing community is worth any time that it takes. And we must care for it and tend to it throughout the year. Don't be afraid to take the time to work on it. Teachers muscle through and adjust to so many interruptions--assemblies, weather, state testing--that flushing the time to develop community because we feel compelled to genuflect to the curriculum we must cover...needs to be rethought.

Developing community isn't sacrificing anything--it is investing in everything that matters.

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to participate in a professional development session for colleagues in our district's induction program. The topic was classroom management. 

Asked to spend about 45 minutes leading a discussion on this topic I went to Peter Johnston's research and his book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Student Learning. As I prepared at home, I also received the most recent edition of Voices in the Middle. I found a relevant article in it: Relationships Matter: Fostering Motivation through Interactions by Erika Daniels and Ron Pirayoff.

Daniels and Pirayoff's message resonated with me and matched what I was hoping to share during the professional development session:
"You are just a moment in their time, but you could make it a positive moment or you could hurt them. Think about what you say and be careful about what you are doing (20)."
While I embrace the message wholeheartedly, I can see how it might be jarring to some teachers. After all, the words hurt and be careful carry a hefty warning. 

What do you mean I might hurt them? Powerful stuff to consider.

As we met during the classroom management session, I was brought back to my former student--the one who entered my room quaking in her boots--and wondered if my sharing the research, the evidence,  and the theory of how we speak to kids was helpful...or jarring...or intimidating.

Learning that we have as much--or greater--an impact on classroom behavior as anything a child brings into our building can be sobering. We experience many approaches to classroom management--desk arrangement, seating charts, clear classroom rules, allowing students to generate ownership in the rules, rewards, punishments, contact with counselors and colleagues, et al. However, the one strategy which trumps all of that is the establishment of community.

Community takes time. We don't just move into a classroom and experience instant community.

It takes a very concerted effort. I spend a lot of energy focusing on the words I choose in my classroom. I am not perfect at it. I find myself stumbling or pausing sometimes. But I am more aware of my word choice. Seriously, this is not just something I am writing because I know it is good advice, I am writing it because this is where my classroom management energy goes: using word choice to elevate how kids see themselves in their eyes--especially in my content area.

Since learning about Peter Johnston's work, I find almost zero management issues in my classroom. Ninety-nine percent of the detentions I wrote in my career occurred during my first eleven years of teaching. As a matter of fact, I can't even recall the last detention I wrote concerning a student in my classroom. I feel confident in estimating that it has been at least ten years.

We can spend more time and energy cleaning up discipline issues (which are always temporary) and never truly mentor positive behaviors. Quite honestly, once we are in the discipline stage it is too late to do much about that incident other than clean up the mess. Each mess, however, creates a new opportunity to start over--to work on building a community so that foundation is strong and student behavior does not crumble before our eyes and through our fingers.

Developing a community is not easy. Changing our language--the words we choose to use--is not easy either. However, the concerted effort put into getting to know our students and allowing our students to know the positive ways in which we see them matters. It matters. It matters above anything we can do regarding classroom management. 

At the very least, it has mattered to me...

...and it will continue to matter a great deal to those next kids who will come into my classroom already quaking in their boots.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Reading the World: 8(b). Argentina

George Bellow's Dempsey and Firpo (1924)
After reading An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, I chose to remain in Argentina with Martin Kohan's Seconds Out.

Without spoiling the book, Seconds Out is fiction which traces the seventeen seconds of a real fight between boxers Jack Dempsey (American) and Luis Angel Firpo (Argentinian). Yet, this isn't a novel about boxing as much as it is about human weakness and frailty. 

All I knew about the Dempsey-Firpo bout of 1923 was the painting by George Bellow. Quite honestly, I always just knew the painting--and never the names of the boxers in it. I had no idea it was of an actual fight or of the significance of the moment.

It is interesting to note that the referee in the painting appears to be counting. Part of the narrative of Seconds Out surrounds controversy that referee Jack Gallagher did not begin counting soon enough. In the novel, a character suggests that Dempsey was knocked down for seventeen seconds--well past the requisite ten for an official knock out, end of fight, upset, and crowning of a new heavyweight champion. 

When I look at the YouTube video of the bout, it appears that Gallagher does indeed count once Dempsey lands.  Go to the 5:00 mark of the video I included here.

According the novel, the rules of boxing stipulate that once any part of a boxer's body touches the canvas (other than the soles of his feet) it is considered a knock down and a count must begin. Unofficially, I can only get to five or six when I begin counting--at worst, Gallagher is only a second behind my count.

But this is fiction, and like I mentioned, this is not a boxing story. So much more is woven into those seventeen seconds--the relationships between composers Johann Strauss and Gustave Mahler; cellists Otto Stiglitz and Abraham Horischnik; journalists Ledesma and Verani; referee Gallagher and boxer Dempsey; referee Gallagher and boxer Firpo; and several other relationships...including alternate referee Kid McPartland (featured in the painting as one of the two men Dempsey falls on...rendering him incapacitated to count and support Gallagher who for unknown reasons did not count when he should have).

This is the second book I have read by an Argentinian author and I find myself enjoying their style and perspective. As I continue to read at least one book per country on Earth during the Reading the World challenge, I will tempted to finding my way back to more Argentinian novels.