Slice of Life: First Language Learning

Fall hides in Los Angeles, showing up in small moments. If you are paying attention you’ll feel it in the early morning chill and the dark 4:30s. A smattering of rain cleans the air; a cool breeze pulls in puffy white clouds and a crystal blue sky. The light changes slightly and the sun filters through the window at a lower, less aggressive angle. Mid day is still warm. I revel in cooler moments and bits of color that hint at autumn and the winter to come.

I walk by this tree daily and think, I must take a picture. I walk by, yes I will do that, but then all of a sudden, it’s dark. Last Sunday I walked by, focused on to do lists rattling around in my head, arms loaded. But this time I set the pile down and looked up. Light streamed down. The air was perfect and I catch it. The picture on my phone disappointed me. It never comes out the way I see it real time. I shot few more and walked on. Looking at it now, I see the beauty that would not have been remembered. The comparison to the original moment is long gone.

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I took pictures constantly when my kids were little. I remember getting them developed in an hour (dark ages of image making), anxiously waiting to see them. At the time I thought I was a bit nuts. They were right there. Why the pictures. Why the urgency.  I look at them now and my heart sings, so grateful I was crazy, or maybe not so crazy. I have memories I wouldn’t have held on to without the image.

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Images dominate our world for good reason. They work. Ideas are absorbed readily with images. I think of this as I transcribe words of a presentation to images. It’s the same exercise my brain goes through when I make a chart for students with icons that convey concepts rather than words. To be honest, it is a struggle at times finding images for words. I feel strangely disadvantaged, disassociated from images. Almost debilitated by my world of words. The language we are born with is set aside for the world of words.

I’m reminded of the Opal School and their work that uses the visual arts to activate deep thinking in students; the power of wordless picture books; of studying art to learn history and to activate writing; and the many technologies that marry words and images into powerful messages.

Images, so easy to digest, stir the heart, activate the mind and preserve memory. I have never been so aware of the need to reacquaint myself with my first language. It’s an adventure and a lot of fun!

Thank you Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara for Two Writing Teachers’ Slice of Life.  Read more and post your own here.


Slice of Life: The Opal School


Time for Slice of Life at Two Writing Teachers. Join us every Tuesday. You will find more links here.

The end of the summer is fast approaching.

I’ve read wonderful books, attended fantastic conferences, and I can’t wait to try it all on for size with students in a few short weeks. My planning brain is starting to kick in, and those always too few minutes of instructional time are already cramping my style.

But before I lose myself in that, I’m going to take a deep breath and dig back into a miraculous Saturday.

There was no traffic. Miracle number 1. Once in city of Pasadena, I found an unattended parking lot right next to my destination. I saw signs about towing, yet couldn’t find the pay meter.  Just when I thought I’d better find another spot to park, a young woman got out of her car and shouted, “It’s free parking on the weekends!” Miracle number 2.   Minutes later, I have a cup of hot coffee and bagel in hand; I sit outside in a beautiful courtyard waiting for the Opal School’s workshop. Nine o’clock, and I walk in to find a lovely display on each table. I want to touch, but I restrain myself.

The 75 minutes that followed was a miraculous montage of story, pictures and children’s work accomplished through the pursuit of play and discovery.

We started out our session with a quiet reflection on our own memories of play. What are the feelings we think of when we remember play. Responses of joy, freedom, creativity, messiness came up around my table. One person said, she was an only child and for her play involved a creation of other worlds.   The creation of roles, rules, and games are all play “moves” and take us to a place of joy.

We then listened as the team from Opal eloquently and precisely named their mission and beliefs. The words below are from my notes and paraphrase their beautiful thinking:

To be in a state of wonder is to be vulnerable. Children are born willing. We can choose to remain by their side because they know we know. But, children are competent meaning makers.  Every individual brain is driven to attach importance to new information. It is about habits of mind and seeking connections. We are wired to connect ideas as much as we are wired to explore. This needs to be nurtured  and we need to learn to listen for engagement; listen in solidarity with children’s struggles. We can arrive at much of this through play. Play is relaxed alertness, the opposite of boredom, the antithesis of specialization and standardization.

By allowing children the opportunity to explore through play with “intelligent” materials, Opal teachers guide children to make connections and find learning. This play is expertly crafted to get children to discover things. Clay, blocks, cardboard, tempera paint, black line pens, wire, and natural materials are used as a part of the writing process, to question and discover ideas and meaning. It is fascinating. While I listened, I’m thinking, where and how could this fit into my student’s lives.

They told the story of using watercolors to explore balance. Three girls embarked on this journey and produced an amazing array of paintings one morning that demonstrated balance in shapes, lines and color. When they presented their work, the class found much more than the girls intended.

After listening to another story about a four-year old conquering his initial beliefs that he could not draw his flower, we were “invited” to “explore” one of the natural materials placed around the table.

I studied my dried seed pod closely, carefully and noticed. Looking to “establish a relationship”  with this object, I found myself diving into the process ignoring those ever-present feelings of artistic incompetence and the artists beside me. Pure and simple, it was a focused, joyful experience.. The process of study made me lose myself in the work. Music played and talk eventually ceased.

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After this, Opal school teachers asked us to comment on any connections we made through the work or concerns we had about the materials.

One woman tentatively asked, how do you connect this to the curriculum.  It did seem rather magical, but it is clearly a result of extensive study, research and crafting of  lessons that are mindful of the possibilities the materials and the process present. Students are offered up the choice, given the time to process, and then guided towards idea and questions that link back to the curricula.

My take away for now is about habits of mind. Noticing, slowing down and processing through materials connected to my thinking about reading and writing. The study of materials allowed me to reach an awareness, a mindset this work cultivates. And while I wouldn’t be able to handle the realities of clay in my classroom, fine point pens, wire, and natural objects are clearly doable for the practice of noticing and processing.

As I get back to the realties of day-to-day planning work, this magical Saturday experience filters into my thinking about supporting readers and writers.

For more information on the Opal School, check out this link. It is worth a little exploration and discovery. See if you can make some connections.

Celebration: The Gift of Learning

Happy late celebration! Thank your Ruth Ayers for your link up where we (you too) can link up and share our week’s celebratory moments.

celebrate link up

I’m late in this posting  because of the gift I gave myself:  a spot at The Whole Language/ NCTE sponsored a conference, located a mere 60 minutes from my house. I need some time to digest all I got from this conference (posts for later this week?) but for now I’ll share a few words and links that highlight some of what I experienced Friday and Saturday.

All sessions I attended were lead by teams of teachers who were passionate about their teaching and their mission with children. All had students at the center of their work. What I share here is no particular order. I hope as you read this you will think of how these little pieces might spark something in your classroom. That’s how I entered this conference and I’m still ruminating on how these ideas will find there way into my teaching world.

First… Social Studies Simulations

The 5th grade team from the Edison School in Elmshurst, Illinois presented their work titled, Building a Bridge: Connecting Language Arts and Social Studies. In their classrooms, students take on the responsibilities and challenges of a colonist. Students read, discuss, debate, write and work through the various issues that colonists had to deal with. This team of teachers have created and curated great resources you can find on their blog, writing2learn.  

Second.. Prezi for Student Work

Technology was present in the form of  Prezi.  My aha was the power of Prezi as an alternative thinking and writing tool for students.  If you aren’t familiar with this, hit the link and give yourself about an hour, no pressure time to play with it. Go though a few tutorials and consider what thinking skills you used when creating. Now imagine your students creating a character web or an research report with this tool. Prezi has low barriers to entry (free, web based),  high engagement possibilities (multimedia), and opportunity for higher level thinking.

Third… Whole School Project Based Learning

The Borton Elementary Magnet School in Tucson, Arizona is committed  to Project Based Learning in grades k-5.  Some essentials for this work included:

  • Significant Content (big and relevant issues)
  • Collaboration
  • In depth inquiry  ( lasting 8-10 weeks)
  • Driving questions
  • Student Need to Know
  • Student Voice and (managed) Choice
  • Revision and Reflection
  • Public Audiences (authentic)

Getting a school to do this as a whole community takes training (they utilize the Buck Institute for Education)  and staff dedication. This team shared student work from all grade levels and talked of their own work to revise and work toward continued growth as a staff.  This panel shows some of the work of their fourth grade’s anti-bullying project.

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 Four.. The Opal School

The Opal School of Portland provided the opening keynote. I had read about this school’s work on Vidki Vinton’s blog and was intrigued by what their approach could bring to my Reading and Writing Workshop. Their presentation was breathtaking and their hands on workshop inspirational. Today, I’m only gong to share a few thoughts…

Listening is not easy. It requires a deep awareness and a suspension of our judgement and prejudice. To do this teachers need to allow for listening by slowing down.

We need to consider questions for our students to ponder, but also for teachers, looking to foster growth in students and in teaching practices. Some questions for teachers:

  • What do I notice
  • What am I wondering about
  • How can I make children’s learning visible
  • How do I know core values and beliefs are being reflected in day-to-day practice

Saturday sessions featured hands on work with Opal School teachers. Here’s a peak at some of the materials and artifacts we got to play with.  More on this later. Too much to process now!

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Each session I attended was filled with enthusiastic teachers as presenters and attendees. The sharing and celebration of knowledge and learning about and for students was inspiring.

Five — Words about Play 

I love quotes but never remember them when I want them. Fortunately there are people like the Opal School and my very literate son who do and share them with me. Here are a few I’d like to share.

Play is not the opposite of work. – Opal

A person’s maturity consists in having found again the seriousness one had as a child, at play. – Nietzche

Play is more than fun, it’s vital. — Stuart Brown

Have a playful weekend