Monday, September 29, 2014

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (9.29.14)

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:

Young Houdini: The Magician's Fire, by Simon Nicholson
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, October 7, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)
     When his Hungarian family was split up, Harry was sent to live in America, where he makes his way as a shoeshine boy and performs magic for small crowds with the help of two loyal friends, Billie and Arthur. One evening, Harry's friend and inspiration, Herbie Lemster, is kidnapped after his regular magic show and Harry and his friends will stop at nothing to unravel the mystery of his disappearance. 
     The beginning of this book captured my attention immediately, lulled a little, and once I was wrapped up in Harry's chase, I turned pages until the end. This will be a new and interesting series to offer middle grade students since it has elements of mystery, historical fiction, and adventure tangled into one 240-page novel. I'm looking forward to eliciting student feedback, and I'm curious about how the series will continue.

Gooney Bird Greene, by Lois Lowry

(Dell Yearling, 2002)
     Mrs. Pigeon's 2nd grade class is very intrigued by their new student, Gooney Bird Greene. Gooney Bird tells many stories, chapter after chapter, maintaining her stories are true by cleverly playing with words and their meanings. In the end, when Gooney Bird has told her last story, she highlights stories her peers could also share, imparting the ability to storytell upon then.
     I read Gooney Bird Greene in keeping with my recent theme of finally reading some books I've had around forever but never spent time between their covers. I appreciated the eccentric-ism of Gooney Bird Greene, and I especially appreciated the ultimate message that everyone has stories to tell. Some of my young, developing readers might find happy company with Gooney Bird.

Ish, by Peter H. Reynolds
(Candlewick, 2004)
     Ramon's love of drawing is squelched when his older brother laughs at one of his pictures. After quitting and growing angry, Ramon discovers his sister is a great admirer, and she helps him recognize there is room for things to be 
"-ish." With a changed mindset and accepting of -ish-like things, Ramon is able to resume his drawing, finding joy.
     My students loved this book, especially following the reading of The Dot. They completely understood that expecting to be perfect is unrealistic, but -ish-like things can continue to develop. Many related this book to The Most Magnificent Thing.

The Important Book, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard

(HarperCollins, 1999)
     An illustrated poem with repetitive/predictable pattern, Margaret Wise Brown presents to readers ordinary objects and the qualities that make them important. A colleague used this book in years passed as a community building book to grow appreciation of one another. I just may attempt something similarly inspired, and I may use this book as a mentor for students, with each writing and contributing their own page. I may use it for synthesizing content, or maybe I'll use is as a remembrance gift for the students. Hmm...

What I am Currently Reading:
Bugged: How Insects Changed History, by Sarah Albee
(Walker Childrens, April 15, 2014)
The Writing Thief, by Ruth Culham
(International Reading Association, April 28, 2014)

What I am Reading Next:
Hissy Fitz, by Patrick Jennings
Gracefully Grayson, by Amy Polonsky
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by Julie T. Lamana

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Unleashing the Writer Within

One of my major classroom goals this year is to empower my students in writing, to free their inner writer. 

In order to achieve this goal, I am adjusting course and pushing my own writing instruction further. My effort is to strike a balance between teaching structures and craft in writing and teaching expression and purpose in writing. My first instructional shift was to devote a length of time at the start of the year to the purpose of writers' notebooks. Considering that I may have historically rushed students through the stage of "owning" their notebooks and written content, I wanted to slow down this year, modeling and guiding students to curate ideas in their notebooks.

Our year of writers' workshop kicked off with a directive the students were unaccustomed to when I told them to make a mess. Then, in the days of "mess-making" that followed, I observed the students' daily work. I sampled the crowd some days, recording the frequency in which I saw long, voluminous writing, alternative experiments to log writing ideas, and/or strategies to generate writing.

Based on the samples and frequency in which they appeared (or did not appear) in the students' notebooks, I designed a sequence of mini-lessons to highlight lesser seen methods of generating ideas. This allowed me to influence students more directly and facilitate guided practice, exposing students to more available options for bringing about writing. 

Plenty of "what ifs" to explore
Over the last two weeks, pages of brand-new composition notebooks have become collections of

  • sketches, drawings, and diagrams
  • lists (related to firsts, lasts, people, places, objects, emotions)
  • maps of familiar places
  • questions and wonders
  • three-column lists (borrowed from a Jo Knowles' writing talk).

Not all students tried all of the strategies modeled during the independent portion of the workshop. I decided that was ok for this particular unit, especially since my primary goal was to help students get in touch with their inner writer-voice. An attempt at each was all I required, and the workshop practice qualified as making an attempt.

Left: Map of a familiar place;
Right: List making with firsts, lasts, etc.
In the tail-end of this unit, I've been conferencing with students to listen to their preferred strategies and what writing they have unearthed from within. Many have been joyful and proud in sharing the different "possibilities" in their notebooks. Even my most reluctant writers have been able to name something they tried that felt like it was working. 

In the first month of school, this group of students has produced more writing than the previous years' classes. Sure, there is never a pure study, and I know there are all kinds of variables at play, but easing up on the pressure of expectations and validating students' effort and imperfection seems to have resulted in volume writing and improved engagement. My deliberate decision to coax out the writer within has reinforced the idea that all students can write, and every written attempt has value.

What are some alternative strategies for generating writing that you model/facilitate for students?

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (9.22.14)

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:

Greenglass House, by Kate Milford
(Clarion Books, August 26, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)
     Milo lives with his adoptive parents in the Greenglass House, an inn with history of sheltering runners. The Christmas vacation has just begun, but Milo soon finds his intended plans of relaxation and time with his parents will be put off as several unexpected traveling guests arrive one after the other. The cast of visiting characters are peculiar and interesting to Milo, especially when the there are thefts in the house. Milo and his newfound friend Meddy take up the charge to solve the mystery through assumed roles of a role-playing game.
     I was interested and intrigued through the book, mentally working alongside Milo and Meddy to string together hints or clues planted by Kate Milford to help the reader solve the mystery, too. Still, a significant twist snuck up upon me giving me that sort of a jolt that made me appreciate the story even more. Typically not a mystery-reader, the Greenglass House won me over, and I suspect many students will be happy to jump into the book to keep company with Milo and Meddy, if they are sophisticated enough readers to keep track of the many characters and details.

A Million Ways Home, by Dianna Dorisi Winget
(Scholastic Press, August 26, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)
     Although Poppy has only escaped from the children's home to find her grandmother--her guardian--at the nursing home and ensure she is being cared for, Poppy lands herself in a heap of trouble as the only eye-witness to a robbery and murder at a gas station. Poppy enters the protective care of the detective and his mother and experiences what it is like to have someone genuinely care for you, about you. Poppy breaks through the tough exterior of Lizzie, another pre-teen with a reputation for questionable decisions, and she succeeds in training a dog with a track record for impulsive, dangerous behaviors. Poppy's help is necessary to closing the case on the robbery/murder, but can she do that with the looming fear of returning to the children's home and life without the warmth of others?
     Though I have some concern about the fear factor that some readers will have by reading this book and journeying with Poppy, the happy ending that comes will hopefully overshadow the tragic losses that have befallen Poppy. The cover is slightly misleading, suggesting the dog (Gunnar) plays a larger role in the book than he does; it really isn't a dog story even though it looks like it.

Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech
(HarperCollins, 2001)
     Jack's class is studying poetry, and he is expected to write in response to the poems. First he sees himself as incapable, yet by writing to learn and some validation from his teacher, Jack produces poetry that earns him positive attention. As he writes about his dog, he finds his poetic voice and develops his self-perception as a writer.
     I cannot figure out why I had not read this book before. I have no idea what kept me from it previously, because now I cannot stop thinking about ways it could be incorporated into my writing instruction, and it has sent me into a reflective mindset about what worked for Jack as a student and what ideas I can "borrow" from his classroom. As a novel in verse, I'm looking forward to recommending this title to my 4th graders right away.

Aviary Wonders, Inc. Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual, by Kate Samworth
(Clarion Books, March 4, 2014)
     This picture book has only a small indication that it is just that, a picture book, and not a legitimate catalog from the future advertising bird parts that can be ordered and constructed to make birds...since birds are extinct. Teetering between informational and a science fiction, the book does include scientific vocabulary and explanation of the specialized parts, such as claws and beaks. Thought-provoking, to say the least, this book deserves many rereads and will offer something new--whether details on the page or considerations in thinking--with each encounter.

What I am Currently Reading:
The Magician's Fire, by Simon Nicholson
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, October 7, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)

The Writing Thief, by Ruth Culham
(International Reading Association, April 28, 2014)

What I am Reading Next:
(going back to) Bugged!, by Sarah Albee
Gracefully Grayson, Amy Polonsky
Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by Julie T. Lamana

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Creating Bravely

Last year I learned about International Dot Day, the creative global event established by Terry Shay and Peter H. Reynolds, fashioned after Mr. Reynold's book, The Dot. The positive and important message of Vashti's creative experience was one I could promote with students whole-heartedly, and so we shared the book and designed dots and posted about making a mark on our bulletin board.

This year, I anticipated the arrival of Dot Day from before the start of school. I knew it was a connected event I wanted to participate in with my classroom. And, I wondered if others in my school would, too, if they knew it was coming. 

So, I composed a brief description and a link and an offer to borrow my book on our staff email. My teeth clenched and my heart wrenched and I hit the button...send. And then I waited.

See, I've earned something of a reputation in my school for having crazy, big ideas, and while some embrace the spirit and join in, I get the impression that many would prefer I just do what I do quietly. And the truth is, sometimes that impression is strong enough to make me retreat inside the four walls of my classroom and hold to doing what I know is creating the best experience for my students. 

But other times, I try to stand up to the worries that restrain me. Sometimes, I grit my teeth and go for it. Sometimes, I summon the courage to take a chance and share what I think is good enough for my kids to be good enough for all of our students.

Nothing happened right away.

But then, slowly, enthusiasm struck and gained momentum. I went looking for my book (which I had left on the table in the teachers' room for easy, no-pressure access) and couldn't find it. It was being shared in other classrooms.

And an enormous, bright yellow dot filled one of the bulletin boards in the main hallway and signatures began to accumulate.

I began to overhear conversations about who had articles of dotted clothing in their closets and who didn't and needed to borrow something.

And a schedule for the book started taking place, it would travel upstairs and downstairs in the morning and afternoon. Because my one copy was in such high demand, the district librarian ordered a copy for each school in the district to add to our libraries.

And PTA volunteers and parents were glowing and telling stories about the kinds of designs and creations they made in the wee hours of the night and then plastered along all of the walls in our building.

The secretaries used window markers to draw dots all over the glass surfaces of the office.

The students arrived on Monday morning, Dot Day, to The Dot Song by Emily Dale and Peter H. Reynolds playing on the speakers overhead, and their eyes lit up.

I arrived on Monday to find 5th grade students sprawled across the courtyard using sidewalk chalk to make a visible mark that any visitors to our school wouldn't miss.

I stood back for a moment and took in the scene before I went inside, because truly, it was a beautiful thing that was being created: a school community unified by the spirit of creativity and the idea that anyone, everyone, could contribute.

Upstairs in my classroom, my students helped me collect the loads of art materials we would need, and we organized by table for our own dot creating time. The students set to work intently, designing their unique dots that only they could
make. They had already composed a few reflective sentences about how they make their mark in their notebooks. While they munched on dot-like snacks, each took turns speaking their writing into my computer. We stretched Dot Day a little in the coming days (because of technical challenges), but we paired each student's writing with a photo of their dot and created a digital poem, set to the performance version of The Dot Song. The students wore a distinct look of pride as we saw the video come together and were at last able to share the finished version.

The worry and the risk taking (and maybe even the wear on my teeth!) were worth it, to allow our students to create. Students revealed themselves to us through their art, their written work, and their conversations. My students shared a creative bonding experience that--I think--has us turning a corner to being a tighter learning community. I can hope the same is true for other classes, too.

And I have been served with a reminder:

Though it may seem easier or safer to retreat and operate with small brush strokes and subtle colors, that's not who I am or who I am meant to be. I have as much responsibility as my students to "make a mark." I must continue to create bravely in my school community.

Monday, September 8, 2014

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (9.8.14)

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:

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich
(Wendy Lamb Books, September 9, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGally)
     Readers enter Chirp's family's scene after her dancer-mother's body has succumbed to illness. With her identity forever changed, Chirp's mom goes away for clinical support of her depression. In the meantime, Chirp, her sister, and her father try to grapple with the changes that trickle down for them as well. Chirp's neighboring classmate, Joey, offers her friendship in a time of need, providing truth to the power of aiding another when swamped in your own troubles. When crisis befalls the family, Joey and Chirp strike out in one last effort to hold fast to the beauty and memory of Chirp's mother and progress towards a place of healing in an unexpected way.
     This book is beautiful in concept and language, yet deep with complex conflict and emotions. Student readers should be well supported with plenty of opportunity to talk through the issues of depression, suicide, and abuse. The imagery and emotion of this book have stayed with me all week.

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up: Tales from Deckawoo Drive, Volume One, by Kate DiCamillo and Chris VanDusen
(Candlewick, August 26, 2014)
     Leroy Ninker has always wanted to be a cowboy, and when he finds the opportunity to have a horse of his own, he is willing to learn how to love her the way she needs him to. The two seem destined for each other, until Leroy is temporarily careless about Maybelline's needs, and they are separated. When reunited, they find themselves in the company of old friends on Deckawoo Drive.
     Kate DiCamillo has a characteristic style of writing that establishes care for her characters in unusual ways, including her use of language (in this case classified as poetical in the book). Short in length and well supported with Chris VanDusen's illustrations, this book will be loved by early chapter book readers and their more experienced partners alike. There is room for the book to be interpreted simply and with more depth.

The Most Magnificent Thing, by Ashley Spires

(Kids Can Press, April 1, 2014)
     A girl and her best friend are determined to create the most magnificent thing for which she has a vision in her mind. She sets to work, initially with great confidence, and her attitude and optimism wanes as each attempt is not quite right. Alas, she notices parts of her attempts that she likes and is able to combine the right parts to create...the most magnificent thing.
     This book was the perfect fit for sharing with students after their failed attempts at marshmallow towers. And yet, the message of perseverance and reflection in pursuit of your vision is and will be transferable to so many learning scenarios in the classroom. I echo what has been said by many: this is a great title to encourage a growth mindset among students!

What I am Currently Reading:
Greenglass House, by Kate Milford
(Clarion Books, August 26, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)

What I am Reading Next:
The Writing Thief, by Ruth Culham
Sway, by Amber McRee Turner
Gracefully Grayson, by Amy Polonsky

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

I Told My Students to Make a Mess

It's the first week of school, and my new students are impressionable. And I told them to make a mess. 
I really did.

The students have started their 4th grade writers' notebooks.

Friday I plopped three of my own notebooks in front of my students and flipped through the pages under the document camera. I paused to show lists (after lists after lists after lists), some started, others titled and left lonely for a long time, and a few illustrating returns and additions with different colored inks and check marks noting pieces I've explored. I pointed out webs, doodles, maps...anything that I thought would challenge their thinking. But mostly I emphasized imperfection--MESS.

One of this year's students names
good writing "the perfect ones."
My thinking has been guided by years of students with the same ingrained perceptions of writing. Students envision good writing as completed, published work. This year's writing surveys produced words and phrases like neat, good handwriting, capitals and periods, long, makes her [teacher] smile, books, perfect. I realize I'll need to work to continuously combat old perceptions and help students re-vision writing. One of my overarching goals for writing this year is to help students to embrace messiness as part of the process, part of what it means to write.

I want the permission to make a mess--the invitation to have mess inside their notebooks--to be empowering. I hope students will find my acceptance and encouragement to be freeing. I hope it will alleviate some of the pressure that comes with a long-standing image of "writing" as shiny and polished and pretty.

I will continue to keep my notebook and writing process open to my students. This week I will also share images and stories Linda Urban has shared on her blog. I will project a photo that Jeff Anderson shared on Twitter. While showing my writing is powerful, the examples of these published writers will model for students that this isn't just a teacher thing I'm telling them.

Of course, by encouraging students to allow messiness as part of their writing process, I've also invited some big implications for me as a teacher.

I need to embrace students' mess. What they want to try in their notebooks and call writing has to be ok. Work samples varying from lists to graphic novel drafts need to be validated. I've always considered myself tolerant of honoring students' paths, I? When a student came to me during our writing time, disbelieving, and asked, "Can I draw in my notebook?" I had to catch myself before telling him no, torn between encouraging his writing and worrying about avoidance. If that is his entry point, I need to follow. And think about how I'm going to nudge him further. Managing this students' trajectory will likely be handled best through writing conferences.

My perception of monitoring writing progress needs some revision also. It won't be as simple as glancing through the pages to look for approximately one page of writing each day. The work of a writer is not so predictable and calculated. Some days a student may have invested more in small, deliberate revisions than his counterpart who drafted a third repetitive page of a story without direction. There aren't quick or easy rules towards evaluating student progress. I won't be able to judge a student's effort or progress without investing time in learning about the writer. I need to find out who my writers are now--today--in the second week of school. And then I need to watch for evidence of shifts...progress...growth.

So, I'm pulling on my rain boots and rolling up my sleeves, spending time "making mess" with students in our notebooks this week. I need to notice the writing students collect in their writers' notebooks this week. I need to make note of students who might have some reservation about mess, and I need to affirm and celebrate instances of risk taking, wild and messy writing that helps commit thinking to paper. Maybe compiling these observations about the examples they try and what they attempt can inform my next steps and minilessons. After all, it's my students response to my invitation that will give me guidance about where to go.

Monday, September 1, 2014

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? (9.1.14)

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:

The Summer of Letting Go, by Gae Polisner
(Algonguin Young Readers, March 25, 2014)
     Francesca (Frankie) Snell has a big heart that is troubled by grief left when her little brother, Simon, accidentally drowned at the beach. Grief has thwarted her home life, as she and her mom and her dad are all handling the loss of Simon in their own ways. Additionally, Frankie's best friend Lisette has jumped ahead in the teenage race for romance, and something about Lisette's boyfriend Bradley makes Frankie curious about love. When Frankie Sky (short for Schyler) clambers into Frankie's life, she is faced with more reminders of her brother than she is ready for, but something about this four-year old boy coaxes her around to a summer of growth and letting go.
     Frankie (and Frankie) will climb into your heart and you will find yourself wishing for their well-being more and more with each turn of the page. In Frankie, Gae Polisner creates a character on the page that realistically muddles in a tangle of 15-year old emotions. Polisner's book will leave you wondering about the possible and the impossible around death and loss and have you hoping for healing for the Frankies and their families.

Where I Belong, by Mary Downing Hahn
(Clarion Books, September 2, 2014, ARC courtesy of NetGalley)
     Brendan is troubled by the threat of failing sixth grade, a rigid foster mother who doesn't embrace him, and a pack of bullies who taunt and beat him for wearing a long hair style and his lazy attitude towards school. Brendan's love for the natural world draws him to the woods in pursuit of the Green Man. He builds a tree house there and prepares the dwelling so he could retreat to life alone in the woods (like the Green Man) if he wanted. One day the Green Man turns up, in the likeness of a homeless man, and Brendan's tree house and relationship with the Green Man cause him to befriend Shea, a girl with troubles of her own. On the other side of a lot of struggle and violence, Brendan begins to find acceptance.
      I wanted to like this book. At the start, Brendan's character had my attention, and I anticipated more hope within it's pages. However, the weight of Brendan's troubles and the grave bullying scenes of gang-jumping style (including alcohol, knives, and leading to a man's death) left me questioning what reading audience I would promote this book with.

Projecting Possibilities for Writers, by Matt Glover & Mary Alice Berry
(Heinemann, 2012)
     Projecting Possibilities is a support tool for educators who are organizing writing instruction. Glover and Berry advocate a preparation style of "projecting" rather than "planning," which allows for increased preparedness and responsiveness to students' needs. This text guides readers through steps of projecting, including analysis of mentor texts for immersion and instruction, goal setting, generating minilesson ideas, and accounting for celebration of writing. Moreover, the duo also recommends projecting genre-specific and non-genre-specific units of instruction, lending writing units to student choice for practice.
     This recommended text was the right book at the right time for me, affirming a lot of my practice, and challenging me to broaden my scope. It aligns so well with the work I remember from NBPTS! This could be a great title to anchor planning (er, projecting) work for teachers at a common grade-level or even across grade-levels. It would open conversations about scope and sequence, which are frequently concerns in my school district. I'm looking forward to tinkering with my writing instruction with some nudges from Glover and Berry.

What I am Currently Reading:
Nest, by Esther Ehrlich
(Wendy Lamb Books, September 9, 2014)

What I am Reading Next:
Leroy Nicker Saddles Up, by Kate DiCamillo
Greenglass House, by Kate Milford
Sway, by Amber McRee Turner