Sunday, March 19, 2017

Author Visit: Elly Swartz

I had the great fortune of hosting author Elly Swartz at my school last week.
Finding Perfect was our class read aloud through the winter months, and my fifth graders responded strongly to Elly's characters and their stories. They were curious and interested in Molly's anxiety and exhibited a genuine desire to understand her internal conflict, even if different from their own struggles. The students were tickled to hear that Elly would be visiting to talk with them about a book they had grown to love.

Over the last year or so, I have also been lucky to have several conversations with Elly related to writing process and identity. Familiar with Elly's transparency and candor while being relentlessly inspiring and encouraging in her conversations about writing, I knew the students' writing lives would be enriched by the opportunity to talk with her personally.
The result was a completely full and especially joyful day for all readers and writers involved.

While visiting Oxford Elementary, Elly addressed my two fifth grade classes separately and presented a large group session with the three sixth grade classes combined. With each group, she invited any and all student questions, addressing everything from what happened to characters beyond the last page to writing quirks that are part of her process. Students' faces radiated with engagement. The dynamic was instantly comfortable, and my students could easily read that Elly was genuine in her interest and respect for what they had to say.
A look over one student's shoulder during
the Unfolding Identity Project.

Elly shared the Unfolding Identity Project with readers as part of her presentations. In keeping with the themes of Finding Perfect, Elly encouraged the students to look at the many layers of their identity and to consider what lies below the surface of those around them, too. As a teacher, I enjoyed listening to the students support one another in generating descriptors for themselves. There were so many opportunities for affirmation embedded in this activity.

Finding space for celebration as a more frequent part of the writing journey has become a specific focus for me and my writing workshop and was a direct outcome of my conversations with Elly. All year long, I have embedded more opportunities to scaffold students in recognizing smaller successes in our writing processes. During her time with my students, Elly followed up on this big idea of celebration, asking students to share one celebration about themselves as a writer so far this year, and every student shared a celebration.

Elly Swartz gave my students an up-close and personal experience in her visit to Oxford Elementary. The students loved everything about Elly's visit: the stories she shared about her personal writing journey, the picture book she brought that she had loved reading with her own children, the "secrets" about revising Finding Perfect and allusions to her forthcoming book, Smart Cookie (Scholastic, 2018). But also, they loved Elly--a writer among writers, a reader among readers. Through her authentic conversation about reading and writing and the care she showed for my students on this one day, Elly became part of our literacy community.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

OES Reads: The Last Chapter

After our 2017 OES Reads season kicked-off with a wild surprise (read this post to catch-up on the kick-off), we certainly didn't expect to wrap up our five weeks with still more surprises.

Our OES Reads season was scheduled to be five weeks long, with reading chunks of Fenway and Hattie, our whole-school-community book split over that time frame. We expected to conclude the OES Reads program with a Closing Assembly on the last day of the fifth week, and we had made plans to Skype with author Victoria Coe the following Monday. It was a pretty well-planned schedule.

Only, when you live in Maine, even the best laid plans are subject to disruptive weather.

Weather postponed our Closing Assembly to the following Friday, the day before vacation week.
Weather postponed our Skype calls with Victoria Coe to Friday, the day before vacation week.
And we went to school on Valentine's Day and didn't return guessed it: Friday, the day before vacation week.

You might imagine how frustrating the last two weeks have been, out of the classroom more than we have been in.

Thankfully, after days of stormy weather and dark skies, Friday morning came without a 5:00 a.m. phone call to cancel school, and plans to celebrate the end of OES Reads would be underway. I emailed Victoria to confirm that we *would* be at school and able to Skype today. As I climbed into the car, my phone buzzed in my pocket.

It was Victoria.
She got my email.
She had "big secret news."
Could I sneak her into the building at 10:30?

Victoria Coe, who had already generously scheduled (and rescheduled) two Skypes with our students, had decided to hop in the car and make the three-hour trip to surprise our students in person on this final day of OES Reads.

I do love a good book-ish surprise.

When the K-2 students and teachers reported to the gym for their "Skype," they were surprised to find Victoria Coe there waiting for them. (It was fun to watch the realization spread among the teachers, too!) Kids who had prepared questions for Victoria took their turns asking, and some teachers asked questions, too. And when Victoria read a bit of Fenway and Hattie and the Evil Bunny Gang aloud, even the youngest readers were still and attentive.

In the afternoon it was the grade 3-6 students who were in for a surprise when Victoria greeted them at the door for their "Skype." Victoria answered more student questions, ranging from wonders about author decisions while writing Fenway and Hattie to curiosities about the writing life of an author. Then, some sixth grade students who had drafted short writing pieces from a dog's point of view bravely stood before their peers and our guest and read their writing, leaving Victoria and the audience to guess where or what they were exploring. There were successful guesses all around.

Immediately following the older students' "Skype," the K-2 classes returned to the gym so that the whole school was gathered together once again. It was time for our Closing Assembly.

Our Closing Assembly has become a much-loved celebration because it has traditionally been a sharing of student work. The Kick-off Assembly is comprised of staff presentations, skits, performances. By contrast, at the Closing Assembly we feature students who have something to share related to our OES Reads book. Personally, I was happy that Victoria's surprise visit would allow her to see how her work, Fenway and Hattie, had inspired some of our kids.

The Closing Assembly featured a first grader who wrote her own book called Fenway and the Wicked Floor. Poised as could be, she introduced her book and read her story aloud to the audience. Another first grader had made a video of himself reading Fenway and Hattie to his family pet, and fourth grade students who had done perspective writing. There may also have been a silly flashmob by many good-sport staff members, too. We thanked Victoria again, publicly, and sent her home with a small gift of appreciation. Victoria shared with our OES Read-ers that her very favorite part of being an author is getting to spend time with the readers who have read Fenway and Hattie.

Having Victoria join us for our last chapter of OES Reads 2017 was an enormous gift to our students and our school community. Her generosity and interest in our students and whole-school reading community will not be forgotten!

Monday, January 9, 2017

OES Reads 2017: The Big Reveal

OES Reads is what we call our whole-school family and community reading initiative. Our program is modeled after the One School, One Book movement. Planning and executing our own program has allowed for dreaming and creativity to be part of the journey towards making bookish memories for our students and their families, and today was no exception.

Today was the day we revealed our book for 2017.

Students started to buzz with interest as soon as they saw the hallway bulletin board change before winter break. When they returned to school in the new year, students listened intently for the daily clues revealed to them about this year's OES Reads author. They started digging in their repertoire of familiar authors and trying to find a match for the clues. Random objects also started to appear on the walls and doors of the school: hydrants, baseballs, squirrels, paws, and dog treats.

Some students made guesses about the author.
                                                Could it be Elly Swartz? She lives in Massachusetts!
                                                                                           It's a dog book. I think it's Maxi's Secrets.

Other students applied heavy pressure to the teachers and other school staff. They really thought they might get someone to slip them a secret.

 It was a good thing we didn't have to wait any longer to let the word out. Today we gathered all 450ish students together in the gym with their teachers and some family members and special guests and participated in our kick-off assembly. We finally got to tell the students that this year, we are reading

Fenway and Hattie, by Victoria Coe!

The assembly included some OES Reads traditions the students have come to expect, like our OES Reads cheer, a skit (that's always good for some giggles) by teacher-actors, and the revealing of the larger-than-life book cover.

This year, we also had some special surprises in store.

One of the teachers four-legged friends strapped on a GoPro camera and toured the school and playground to help us make an introduction video for the book that helped introduce Fenway's point of view, his family, and hinted at a conflict he has in Fenway and Hattie. Nala was a great sport! The students were quick to recognize the Buddy Bench and the fire truck bouncer from the playground. It was entirely worth the work to hear first graders nudge each other and say, "Hey, that's our classroom!" with magic in their voices.

Victoria Coe, the author of Fenway and Hattie, was especially excited and wished she could be there for the assembly. To help introduce herself to OES Read-ers, she sent a video to say hello and book-talk her book. Kids cheered, and Kipper got his own adoring "awwws."

The biggest surprise of all came at the very end of the assembly. Since the paperback copies of Fenway and Hattie just published last week (January 3, 2017), we knew we had to have everything fall into place to have 450 copies ready for today's kick-off. On Friday, we had only received 140 and learned the other books would not arrive on time. To say this snafu was a damper on our energy is an understatement, however we knew that with so many students and families and guests planning for the kick-off this afternoon, the show would have to go on. The script had been written to accommodate for this possibility, even making light of it by having a constructed UPS truck deliver the books to the assembly at the last minute.
The assembly agenda flowed smoothly. We approached the conclusion of the assembly, the assistant principal "drove" the van into the gymnasium heralding "Special Delivery!" in her megaphone, and we all laughed and cheered. But then, I caught a shine in the eye of the secretary who was walking toward me. We stalled on the distribution of books a little, trying to buy a bit of time, because in the hallway, she was helping someone to get a utility cart. And there, through the doorway came another person dressed in brown: the *real* UPS delivery man was carting in the rest of our OES Reads books, right off his truck!

It wasn't our most organized book distribution, but it will easily go down in OES Reads history as the most memorable distribution.

Things settled and quieted in the gym as teachers handed brand-new copies of Fenway and Hattie to the students. Students flipped through pages, pointed out the sketches of Fenway, read the blurb on the back of the book to each other. When we were confident no child had been skipped, our principal began to read Chapter 1 to everyone aloud. Older kids scooted close to younger students, parents pulled kids onto their laps on the floor, and little voices from the first grade class asked, "Did you already turn the page??"

It would have been easy to get swept up in all of it and miss out on noticing the beauty. There were many, many smiling faces, and that perfect sigh of disappointment when the first chapter was over. A good sign that they are happy with their new books.

Over the next five weeks, Fenway and Hattie will have a presence in our school community. With plans for daily trivia, family involvement events, a family literacy night, and Skypes with Victoria Coe, there's a lot more to come. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why I Write: Students Need Writing Mentors

My mother recently found and sent me a photo of myself at 18 months, sitting in a highchair at the kitchen counter in our first apartment. Blank pages before me, one heck of a grip on a pencil, and a beam of pride on my face. My mother's familiar handwriting on the bottom of the polaroid reads, "Writing Letters!"

I've always been a writer.

Who I am as a writer and what I know and understand about writing has changed, though. And so has writing instruction in my classroom.

I'd be fibbing if I attributed the change in my perspective to one single factor over the last few years. Truthfully, I can name three very specific events. But the one of these three that is most easily replicable is this:

I write.

What I write ranges from short bits of fiction to poetry to book reviews to professional pieces. Most of what I write lives inside of notebooks and my hard drive, has never (and probably will never) be seen or consumed by readers. What I write doesn't matter so much. It matters more that I do.

Writing regularly (or, close...ish) changed my perspective. When I looked at writing instruction in my classroom through my teacher-writer eyes, I could hardly look away from the incongruence of my writing workshop and my own writing life. So, while I write for a lengthy list of purely personal reasons, too, these reasons #WhyIWrite are some of my most important:

I write because every day I face forty-five apprenticing writers, and it makes all the difference when I can say to them over their notebooks and my own, "Yeah, me too."

I write because my students need writing mentors. Students should learn by engaging with a writer who has plentiful and practical experience in this thing they are learning to do.

I write because my own tendency to shield and protect my writer-heart from criticism and judgement reminds me of the need to be kind with my students' writer-hearts, too.

I write because experiencing that the process of writing changes for me with everything I try to write nags at me to be flexible and open to students' writing needs and paths to "publication" that don't look like mine.

I write because relationships are born of risk-taking and bearing ourselves, and if my students are going to trust me, I must take chances first.

I write because my students encourage me and inspire me.

I write because they want to know what happens next.

And so do I.

Monday, August 22, 2016

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (8.22.16)

Every Monday bloggers all over the web participate in an effort to share books we have read and what we are excited about digging into. Thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee & Ricki at Unleashing Readers for hosting us all!

What I Read Recently:

Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, by Judith St. George
(Viking Books for Young Readers, 2009)
     In each chapter of this book--each stage of the subjects' lives--Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr bared striking similarities. From their days as children in the face of adversity through their education and into their adult lives, the two men were more alike than they were different.
     Judith St. George presents these parallels in an straightforward and accessible way for middle grade readers. 

The Friendship Experiment, by Erin Teagan
(HMH Books for Young Readers, November 1, 2016)
     Maddie's start to middle school is complicated. Her dear scientist grandfather (whom she adored) died recently, she and her sister suffer from a rare blood disorder, and her best friend is going to a private school, leaving her alone to make a new beginning. All around her, Maddie seems to collect evidence that she is a terrible friend. Can she change the results of her derailment?
      Maddie is a natural, relatable character. Readers will want to talk about her feelings and choices, and will--in the process--help them to think about their own. 

The Fog of Forgetting, by G. A. Morgan
(Islandport Press, 2014)
     Chase, his brothers, and two new friends get more adventure than they bargain for when they hop into a boat to entertain themselves while their parents are away. Their boat is transported through the fog of forgetting to an island world called Ayda. As the kids try to make sense of the new world they've become part of, they learn of the Keepers and their stones and the conflicts that plague this land--one of which is that those who come to Ayda through the fog are unable to make the return trip home.
     Pages turn one after the other while reading for a clearer understanding of the island and it's inhabitants. The Fog of Forgetting is a good blend of adventure, quest, and fantasy. And, it's the first book in a trilogy that wraps up later this fall.

Ada's Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World's First Computer Programmer, by Fiona Robinson
(Harry N. Abrams, August 2, 2016)      
    This picture book biography is the story of Ada Lovelace (who was, incidentally, the daughter of Lord Byron). Ada was discouraged by her mother-a mathematician-from all things arts and literature. But Ada found the place where math and poetry overlapped: computer programming.
     Not only did learning about Ada Lovelace leave me wow'ed, but the art in this book created from cut paper--layered and positioned and photographed--is stunning.
My Friend Maggie, by Hannah E. Harrison
(Dial Books, August 9, 2016)
     Maggie has always been Paula's friend, but when the other kids start to point out the things that make Maggie different, Paula feels pressured to go along with the crowd. But what happens when the crowd starts to point out all the ways Paula is different, too?
     This picture book will invite kids to talk about what's important about a friend and will remind us all that kindness triumphs over judgement.
What to Do with a Box, by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Chris Sheban
(Creative Editions, March 8, 2016)
      There are endless ways to use an empty cardboard box for play. 
      This picture book celebrates the spirit of imagination and creative play. The art is interesting and lovely; Chris Sheban has incorporated actual cardboard box remnants into his artwork.
Seven and a half Tons of Steel, by Janet Nolan, illustrated by Thomas Gonzalez
(Peachtree Publishers, August 1, 2016)     

     One of the beams was pulled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers after the events of September 11th and given to the U.S. Navy. The beam, transported to New Orleans, was weathered by Hurricane Katrina, but eventually repurposed as the bow of the U.S.S. New York.

    This nonfiction picture book tells a lesser known story of something strong and sturdy emerging from a historic day when confidence of all kind was shaken.

This is Our Baby, Born Today, by Varsha Bajaj, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler
(Nancy Paulsen Books, August 2, 2016)     

    New babies are special and celebrated, and this picture book shines light on how many parts of a baby's community are proud and happy to join in celebrating.
     The elephants that grace these pages are adorable, the illustrations gentle and so perfectly fitting for the emotions of celebrating new life. This book is on its way to being a great gift book for expectant or new families.
Hello, My Name is Octicorn by Kevin Diller & Justin Lowe, illustrated by Binny Talib
(Balzer + Bray, May 17, 2016)
     Octicorn is different from other creatures in a pretty obvious way. But as his story reveals his likes and dislikes, his interests and wishes, readers can't help but consider that maybe--even with his very different outer appearance--inside we're much more the same.

What I am Currently Reading: 
Flying Lessons & Other Stories, edited by Ellen Oh
(Crown Books for Young Readers, January 3, 2017)
A Mindset for Learning, by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz
(Heinemann, 2015)

What I am Looking Forward to Reading Soon (in no particular order):
Chantarelle, by G.A. Morgan
Lucky Broken Girl , by Ruth Behar
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

10 for 10: Books that Inspire Conversation About Creating

The August 10 for 10 Picture Book event has happened annually for several years now, and you can find more information at the hosts' sites: Cathy Mere at Reflect & Refine and Mandy Robek at Enjoy and Embrace Learning.

Ten Picture Books to Inspire Conversation About Creating 
(in no particular order)

1. What Do You Do with an Idea?, by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom
Often the initial question of the creator: what do you do? This story encourages readers to consider how to act upon ideas that nudge them, acknowledging their ideas, following them, allowing them to grow. 

2. The Dot, by Peter Reynolds
No list of picture books about creating would be complete without The Dot, though it may arguably be the most well-known and oft used title on the list. Vashti is the student-artist and the creators in our classroom, too: apprehensive, uncertain, without confidence. But with encouragement to begin and celebrations of progress, our students can see that the definition of art encompasses all attempts to create. (Bonus book: Ish is a companion book that is equally wonderful for broadening readers' interpretation of what "counts," too.)

3. Louise Loves Art, by Kelly Light
Louise's passion for art and creating resonate off the pages of this book, both in words and illustration. Louise is a character who gives readers permission to be entirely absorbed in creating, and her brother, Art, helps to open conversations about sharing our art (and collaborating, too!) and what happens when we do.

4. My Pen, by Christopher Myers
The black and white ink illustrations give proof to the power of a pen to be a limitless tool for creating. Anything you can imagine can come to be when you view your pen (or tool of choice) for bringing what is in your mind to life.

5. Daniel Finds a Poem, by Micha Archer
Daniel hopes to find out what poetry is. Each creature he asks gives him a different poetic response that fits their own perspective. In the end, Daniel's poem is a culmination of ordinary--yet magical--things. Daniel reminds us creating with words can be similarly ordinary...and magical.

6. Swatch, by Julia Denos
Julia Denos' character, Swatch, is a role model for playing inside your passion and encourages a wild play with your "art." This book breathes with permission to treat creating like an open adventure.

7. The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires
Revising our plans and our thinking can be a most difficult challenge, especially when in pursuit of a perfect creation. This picture book illustrates how making adjustments and responding to repeated trials can move a creator closer to a masterpiece.

8. Ideas Are All Around, by Philip Stead
The art alone is inspiring in this book, a mix of photography and painted pages. The author invites readers to walk alongside him and we take note of the potential for inspiration that resides within ordinary, every day parts of the world we live in.

9. Maybe Something Beautiful, by F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
With bright and vivid illustrations, this team brings to life the true story of the Urban Art Trail of San Diego and how a neighborhood created art together that changed the face of their community.

10. Ada's Violin, by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wren Comport
This true story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay showcases the beauty and influence of creating music, both for a musician and the audience, but it also represents how recycled items can become art themselves.

I continue to read, and I expect to continue discovering books that will open the doors to conversation that supports and inspires CREATING with my students. 

What titles do you like to use to inspire your students to create?

Monday, August 8, 2016

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (8.8.16)

Every Monday bloggers all over the web participate in an effort to share books we have read and what we are excited about digging into. Thanks to Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee & Ricki at Unleashing Readers for hosting us all!

What I Read Recently:

Anything but Typical, by Nora Raleigh Baskin
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010)

     Like many characters with autism, Jason finds himself apart from others, struggling to communicate and often waiting for his day to derail. But through his interest in letters and writing, Jason befriends another fan fiction writer on the internet, hidden behind the veil of their virtual relationship. However, Jason worries that if their relationship were not based in the shared online platform, his autism would interfere with their friendship.
     Nora Raleigh Baskin writes with an empathy that is astounding. She lets us climb inside her characters' skin and experience life through their eyes. This is a beautiful story in which readers can experience the struggles of a preteen with autism striving for normal when he is anything but.

Mae and June and the Wonder Wheel, by Charise Mericle Harper, illustrated by Ashley Spires
(HMH Books for Young Readers, February 7, 2017)

     June receives the Wonder Wheel--which offers daily challenges and activities--as a gift from her grandmother. She wants badly to share her Wonder Wheel with the new girl who has moved to the neighborhood, Mae. But becoming Mae's friend is a matter of patience, and June has to watch as her classmate April tries to kindle friendship with Mae also. 

Agatha Parrot and the Heart of Mud, by Kjartan Poskitt, illustrated by Wes Hargis
(Clarion Books, December 27, 2016)
     This series stars Agatha Parrot and her cast of neighborhood friends. In the second book in the series, Agatha gets involved in an email exchange between her older brother and a girl. While her brother wants nothing to do with emailing a girl, Agatha finds that writing under her brother's name actually has a way of serving her and her friend Martha. What will happen when the consequences of Agatha's choices play out?
Maybe Something Beautiful, by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez
(HMH Books for Young Readers, April 12, 2016)      
    This picture book is based on the true efforts of the community in San Diego who made it a project to infuse their neighborhoods with bright and brilliant art.
     This IS something beautiful, with messages about art appreciation and transformation a community of caring citizens can make together. The illustrator of this story, Rafael Lopez,was the artist behind the Urban Art Trail in San Diego.
Bring Me a Rock!, by Daniel Miyares
(Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, June 7, 2016)
     The grasshopper-leader orders the other insects to bring him rocks to stack making his throne higher and higher. But when his throne threatens to topple, who can help?
     Surely this book will open the doors to interesting conversations with students about power, influence, and contributions of all sizes.
Good Night Owl, by Greg Pizzoli
(Disney-Hyperion, April 19, 2016)
      When Owl settles in for the night, he's distracted by a sound--a sound made by a mouse. Before he can sleep, Owl must track down the unwanted guest.
      I love Greg Pizzoli's art and the color palette of this book. I gave this book as a gift to my friends' toddler recently. They report that it has been read and reread often already.

Return, by Aaron Becker
(Chronicle Books, August 2, 2016)     
     In the final book of the Journey Trilogy, the girl ventures beyond her door into the kingdom again. Her dad follows her in this installment, and he becomes part of the story.

     Aaron Becker's art and storytelling are as beautiful and inviting as they were in the previous two books, Journey and Quest, and he has woven all three books together in the illustrations and clever conclusion to the set. 

What a Beautiful Morning!, by Arthur Levine, illustrated by Katie Kath
(Running Kids Press, August 9, 2016)     
     It's apparent Noah loves his time spent with his grandparents, and their traditions are important to him. But when Grandpa suddenly isn't keeping the routines Noah knows, readers will recognize Grandpa's dementia is shaking Noah's comfort and security. Noah finds a way to remind Grandpa of the time they love to spend together.
     Everything about this book is a gentle approach to a hard reality many young readers face with aging family members. Katie Kath's illustrations add to the overall feel of What a Beautiful Morning! and the use of (or absence of) color enhances the mood of Noah's conflict. This book is a soft spot for families to land when looking for a situation that mirrors their own or as a way of opening conversations about memory loss with youngsters.

We Were Here, by Matt de la Pena
(Delacorte Press, 2009)
     Miguel, living under the guilt and self-hatred for his past, has been moved to a group home for teens with a criminal record. He joins forces with two other characters, Mong and Rondell, to plot an escape from the group home. The three go on the run with intent to cross the border to Mexico and imagined futures that will allow them to leave the past behind and start again. But even though Miguel spends his days uncertain about what's happening next (food, sleeping space, places to hide), his his journey and his trials force him to consider what he must do to seek peace and redemption--with himself and others.
     Matt de la Pena's writing is alive, and the characters of We Were Here (though not characters I can relate to easily) became characters I cared for. This YA had me turning pages and wanting to return from breaks in my reading quickly.

What I am Currently Reading: 
A Mindset for Learning, by Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz
(Heinemann, 2015)
The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton & Aaron Burr, by Judith St. George
(Speak, 2009)

What I am Looking Forward to Reading Soon (in no particular order):
The Fog of Forgetting, by G.A. Morgan
The Friendship Experiment, by Erin Teagan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by JK Rowling