Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Too Many "Would-be-Writers" (Children Want to Write #1)

[As a member of my school’s Leadership Team, I have volunteered to facilitate a monthly book study using the text Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children’s Writing. This is intended to be the inaugural entry in a series devoted to reflections, musings, and captured wisdom that results from our book study readings and discussions.]

Why this book, and why now?

            It seems each year I work at puzzling through negativity in students around writing. Reluctant writers, they’ve been called. They have been characterized as unwilling, difficult, and/or unable. Yet, I wonder if my classroom make-up has been comprised of “would-be-writers,” as in, students who would want to write and would enjoy writing if they had a chance to be writers.

            I’m fearful that in an effort to deliver good writing instruction, we may have actually exacerbated the challenges of writing by establishing conditions in which students have been expected to write as a performance, an attempt to meet certain specifications as outlined by their teachers. Conversations with students often reveal that writing is perceived as a task or assignment to be completed, something that is done to fulfill teachers’ directions. Do we create this by imposing routines and structures with too many parameters and prompts in an attempt to “cover” writing objectives?

           Donald Graves’ work describes the necessity of a different outlook. Graves’ writings and research cause us to slow down as practitioners, and he refocuses us on the students…the writers. Children Want to Write is a compilation of Graves’ work that invites teachers to slow down, to reflect, and to consider what it means to be a writer—both by engaging in the practice of writing ourselves and by trying on the mindset of our students to understand their development as writers.

            I accepted this invitation from Graves (through the work of Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk) in the summer months, spending days with my copy of Children Want to Write. My own thinking and reflection, scrawled in the margins and in and around the text, prompted a freshness for me in returning to writing workshop in the fall—I was enthused about inviting students to write, and I was a renewed writer myself. When the opportunity arose in my school community to propose titles of professional texts to be considered for a building-wide book study, Children Want to Write was atop my list. I enthusiastically shared my hope that this work would become a basis for wide reaching discussion about writing instruction. I hoped others would have a stirring reaction to the text and that it would inspire us to create conditions school-wide to develop writers, to guide students in self-discovery through writing, to facilitate a shift in student affect towards writing.

            After reading the first chapter herself, Graves’ strong invitation to teachers of writing to be writers themselves sparked my principal with energy to encourage our staff to engage in writing themselves. Hoping to encourage us, she enlisted the PTA’s support to purchase Moleskin notebooks for each participating staff member. Each book study session incorporates at least one invitation to write with an optional prompt for those who want a starting place.

            Our work with Children Want to Write is significant and important, a message emphasized in the choice to hold our book study sessions during reserved staff meeting times. This communicates that the work we are doing as a learning community is worth the investment of time and energy. Our book study group includes classroom teachers, special education teachers, our literacy coach and interventionists, and our principal. The experience of the group ranges from those who were fortunate to hear Graves speak in person at the onset of his revolution to first year teachers who are absorbing his influence eagerly, having been impacted by the work of Graves in their own formative years.

            The shared conversations, the commitment to deeper learning about writing instruction that positively impacts students, the redirection to the writers we are developing…these things make me hopeful. I am hopeful that Children Want to Write, and what we as professionals do with it, can be a catalyst to change writing for our students in big ways. I am hopeful that we can create an environment for learning with fewer “would-be-writers” and more students (and teachers) who proudly identify themselves as writers.

Monday, February 17, 2014

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (2.17.14)

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 this Week:

Sunny Sweet is So Not Sorry, by Jennifer Ann Mann
(Bloomsbury USA, 2013)
     Masha Sweet has a pesky, genius little sister. And by pesky, we're talking about the kind who concocts her own permanent glue and affixes plastic flowers to her sister's head overnight. Masha's little sister Sunny complicates her already dramatic fifth grade world. In this first book of a new series, readers follow Masha and Sunny through a wacky day of trying to remove the flowers.
     The book gets my recommendation to some of my younger fourth and fifth grade readers who will best connect to Masha's plight and probably not be distracted by the unlikeliness of some of the events in Masha's day. There are good opportunities within the book for discussion about sibling relationships and the importance of friendships to girls this age.

The Shadow Throne, by Jennifer Nielsen 
(Scholastic Press, February 25, 2014, based on Advanced Reader Copy)

     Here's my dilemma with this book: It needs to be included it in what I read this week, but I don't want to say much about it for fear that I will ruin it for so many awaiting fans of Nielsen's Ascendance Trilogy!
     I am grateful to have met Jennifer Nielsen at NCTE '13 and to have brought home an ARC of this title. I was delighted to get back to the characters of this series and to the conflicts of the king. Like so many other readers, I was also waiting! I found the last book in the series to be deeply satisfying. It was equally pleasing to the readers as the first two titles (The False Prince and The Runaway King) with the twists and revealings characteristic of Nielsen's created kingdom.
     I am bad at continuing books in a series, often reading only the first and moving on to other titles and authors. However, I believe any fans of The False Prince ought to continue through the subsequent books without fearing disappointment, and those who have not entered into the adventure yet should not prolong the wait any longer!

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
(Roaring Brook Press, 2013)
     I am late to the party on this book (and a few others topping of my TBR pile), but I'm glad to have not delayed longer. In this picture book biography, Heiligman and Pham have a masterful story of mathematican Paul Erdos. The story of Paul's unusual upbringing and his fascination with numbers is made accessible for intermediate elementary students who need increasingly more and more role models in the fields of math and science. Similarly to On a Beam of Light, this author/illustrator pair has made the genius mind and abstract concepts of mathematics more tangible for young readers. Every intermediate classroom should be adding a copy of this text to their classroom library.

What I am Currently Reading:
Doll Bones, by Holly Black
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013)

What I am Reading Next:
Five Six, Seven, Nate, by Tim Federle
Just Jake, by Jake Marcionette
One Came Home, by Amy Timberlake