My Slice: Is There Something (That Matters) to Write About?

sols_6Tonight I’m sitting in my students’ shoes, I have nothing meaningful to say. Tonight I am a reluctant writer.

I’d much rather read a book and have a cup of tea.

The tea sits beside me. I take a sip and feel a little better.

I pull out my computer. Not charged. Perhaps this is a sign. No one would notice if I didn’t write.

But then thoughts of my students creep in.  Those students who write even when they don’t want to, because I give them the time and space. How can I not write? I plug in the computer.

Perhaps some of my resistance comes from reading my Sunshine Award post to my students today. I had passed the nomination on to them asking them to write random things about themselves and to answer a few questions.  I read my post aloud to model what I wanted them to try.  I think,  yikes, this needs a strong rewrite! Meanwhile students are fascinated by what I had to say, and can’t wait to try it for themselves.

So here I sit with a few finished pieces, tea in hand. I read them looking for seeds — ideas that might evolve into a memoir of a ten-year old. In the past it has been difficult to get students to write something meaningful. The I-have-nothing-to-say or nothing-happens-to-me syndrome stops them short.  Perhaps they aren’t developmentally ready to reflect on moments that matter and have molded them.

Their random responses are heartfelt. They show glimpses of who they are.  Some show their love for all things electronic or their passion for a particular sport; their dreams of what they want to become and things that just say, this is me. All show family ties.

Here are few:

I’m sad because my dad is away.

My mom is there for me no matter what.

I would like to take back being mad at my mom.

I have bright orange shoes for playing indoor soccer.

I love sparring. I am a red belt. 

I’m tired all the time.

I bite my nails when I’m nervous.

 I have a great imagination.

What they choose to share about themselves is telling, and I am honored to read their thoughts. Some make my heart ache; others make me smile. Clearly there are seeds of meaning here. Lots to dig into. Can a ten-year old’s memoir be significant? Can they reflect on moments that matter? We’ll need to dig carefully around these memories that are just peaking through the surface. Unearth them in a way that preserves and protects their hearts as they unravel who they are. Is something meaningful here? Maybe. We’ll have to write to find out.

A Little Sunshine for My Students

I had so much fun doing my Sunshine post. I thought about things I hadn’t considered in years. As I was working on it, I couldn’t help but think, this would be great for my students.

With this in mind, my colleague and I worked on some kid-friendly questions. We decided only 10, being the average age of our fifth graders.

Ten Questions

  1. If you had superpowers, what power would you pick?
  2. What lessons have you learned from a parent (mom or dad)?
  3. Tell something about an adult (other than your parents) who meant a lot to you.
  4. If you could have dinner with anyone living or dead, who would you choose?
  5. If you could take anything to a desert island, what would it be?
  6. What song has lyrics (words) that speak to your heart?
  7. What do you do when you’re bored?
  8. What frustrates you the most?
  9. What are you afraid of?
  10. If you could go back and change one thing in the past, what would it be?

Random Facts: I think the “random facts” section is the most intriguing part of the Sunshine post process. What you pick says something in itself. So of course, students get to choose 10 random facts about themselves.

Passing on the Sunshine: Why not have students pass on the process? Students can create their own questions and  “nominate” other people in their lives. No numbers here, as many as they want.

I’m hoping to get a few things out of this process:

  1. Student self reflection — Everyone struggles with this. The more we do the better we get at it.
  2. Teacher information — I learned so much about bloggers reading their posts; I can’t wait to see what students will share.
  3. Seeds for memoir — Students, just like us, think they have nothing to say. But they do, it’s just buried in the day-to-day doings, just like us. Perhaps this process will help them find a few things that trigger an important moment that has shaped them.
  4. Seeds for future posts — I want students to use their blogs in a more reflective manner. Perhaps these lists will be a go-to tool for that purpose.
  5. Enhancing relationships — I’m wondering who they will pass the sunshine to? Friends, family, teachers, the principal.

So here’s to sharing the Sunshine with my students.

Celebrating New Goals, New Structures, Renewed Landscapes and Trust

celebrate link upHere’s to celebrating literacy and trust. Thank you Ruth for creating a space  and ritual. Join us at ruthayerswrites.com to celebrate your week!

#1. My #mustreadin2014 book list.  Ideas are always floating around in my head. My intentions are good. I mean to do it, but I get distracted. I forget, and all of a sudden, time has passed and I missed it. The act of writing it down a list is powerful. I celebrate the Nerdy Book Club posts, the incredible blogging and community that keep me up to date on those must reads, and as a result now I can’t stop finding books to add to my list. Supportive reading buddies Catherine Flynn, Allison Jackson and Erin Varley have already checked in with their progress. I celebrate my books, my new focus on book recommendations, and my book buddies.

#2. A second first day of school. I love coming back from winter break. We miss each other. After three weeks apart, we’re rested and ready to start fresh. While I have big plans for the rest of the year, I take a breath and make a space for them to come in, share, absorb, and celebrate their revitalized selves and classmates.

#3. My Reading Door.

 2014-01-11 07.48.30  2014-01-11 07.49.34  Inspired by my must read list and Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild, I created my reading door.  I can’t wait to see how the kids (and teachers) react to it.  At this point, most of my students don’t think beyond the book they are currently holding in their hands. They don’t plan their future reading, yet.  And who could blame them. I haven’t  shown them the possibility. I’m imagining students developing to be read lists that will reflect a few books at first. With time, hopefully the books will start to accumulate and build till it reaches into the summer months. I celebrate book plans and my lovely book door.

#4. New schedule. Like lists, I need structure. I have great ideas but they just float off if I don’t have a structure to put them in. It keeps me in line, and accountable to my beliefs.  The first half of the year our routine included daily read aloud, vocabulary, reading, writing, Thursday Genius Hour, and Non Fiction Fridays. The new schedule will include two extras — Debate Mondays and poetry Tuesday through Friday.

Debate is a much loved and needed activity. Unfortunately, I haven’t allowed a space for it, so it happens occasionally at best. Now it owns a spot: Mondays after Read Aloud. Can’t wait.

Over the break, I realized that we need poetry. Students love learning vocabulary, so the focus on words and how they go together will be a huge treat — vocab on steroids.  It should also breathe life into writing. and a heightened awareness of language in their independent readingPoetry now lives before writing workshop. I celebrate this space made for the sound and the joy of words coming together. I wonder whether it will inspire poetry entries on the blog.

#5. My re-landscaped library. The beginning of a new year requires a library face lift.   Whenever I reorganize my library I pull out my boxes and find old friends. I set up with a eye for product placement. I want clean new covers to show. Dog eared, much loved books go on a list to be recycled and replaced. Brand new titles are set aside for book talks.

New sections of the library include poetry, biography, magazines, various non fiction baskets, club books covering not only realistic fiction, but a bit of mystery, a taste of fantasy, and a shelf of historical fiction. Hidden away in a box are… drum roll..… graphic novels. I hide these much sought after books the first day back otherwise students wouldn’t be able to focus on much else. They love these books. Everyone wants them. No monitoring on my part is necessary. Every student knows who has each book. They self police, because they all want those books. What a natural for their to be read list! I look out at my new library and smile. I celebrate our renewed space for books.

And last but not least…

#6. My daughter’s first physical therapy appointment post knee surgery. She’s nine days post op and feeling better. Our wonderful physical therapist, Mike, the same guy who rehabilitated my ACL tear nearly 20 years ago, tells her what she need to do. She listens attentively, and with renewed focus and goals she works hard. She trusts him. Trust allows us to give everything we have, knowing someone is there for you. With support, you push to unknown territories.

I enter next week and our new year, with the idea of trust alongside my one little word, wonder. When students trust, they can wonder, asking why and how, and then grow.

The Best Kind of Gift

celebrate link up

 

Thank you Ruth Ayres for providing a place to celebrate. Today I celebrate the last few days of school and the gift I got.

Thursday, families brought in home-cooked traditional meals for a school pot luck. It was wonderful. Food was plentiful, and most of us ate too much! The holidays should be getting together, sharing, eating and celebrating our future.

Friday, students came carrying red and green bags with colorful ribbons and handed them to their teachers. It happened all over campus. It is our school culture. This is what you do.

When a student gives a gift, I am touched, but to be quite honest also uncomfortable. Did they spent too much? Do feel they have to do this? Do they feel bad if they can’t?

This year one gift stands out. It was a letter. One of those family letters you get in the mail about how your year was. This is an excerpt of his portion of the letter:

I am 10 years old now. I am in 5th grade and I like school. We get to blog on iPads and computers. Teachers from different states let their students blog to each other. It is fun because I have never talked to someone on the computer in a different state. I wrote one story about a kid named Christian and he was annoying. I think I got 5 comments. We do Genius Hour every Thursday afternoon. You create something that nobody else created before. I made a game called “box basketball” where you shoot a paper ball. I write stores about kids and their challenges. Another story is about a raccoon who is a spy. Another story is about a superhero named Wind Runner and he can control the wind. 

We have this thing called Breakfast in the Classroom. We eat at our desk. I like the coffee cake and waffles. I don’t like how they changed the school lunch. They’re trying to make kids skinner by giving them protein and nutrients. They don’t have burgers and pizza and chocolate milk anymore. I don’t like that because I don’t eat a lot of junky stuff. Now they have brown rice and beans or veggie burgers. I started making my own lunch.

Today, I am celebrating this gift of reflection..

This letter showed what mattered — to him.

He likes school. He had me there, but he went on to mention so many things that I hoped would matter to students: blogging, connecting, comments, his game and his stories. The food reflection I think is quite interesting. While he doesn’t like the meals, he has made changes on his own to make his life better.

I will treasure this letter not only for what it said, but for the inspiration it has given me for future gift giving. If a student chooses to give a gift, let it be only one that they can create. A card, a letter, a drawing, an origami yoda.  Give a gift from the heart, not your parent’s pocket book, and that will make a great celebration for all.

Happy Holidays!

Mixed Emotions — The Last Teaching Day of 2013

It’s the last night before a three week break, and I have mixed emotions.

I’m excited to have a change of pace and a refocus on home. I’m looking forward to lounging around reading a bit more.

I’m excited to have time to recharge and rethink. Sometimes I get so caught up in the moment I forget exactly where I was going when I started. The time to piece together ideas that are coming at me all at once in a slower, more methodical way is a luxury of time off.

I’m excited to be with my family, all together. Both sons should be home tomorrow night. That will make us five again. I value these times above all else. The time with just us five is limited.  As time goes by, their worlds get bigger and our role as parents gets smaller. So when they do direct their attention towards home, I sit up and pay attention.

But, at the same time…

I’m sad about the loss of routine; the disconnection to the day to day. While I love the less hectic pace, I can get lost without a looming deadline. Pressure makes me perform. The lack of it can lead to lots of disappearing time, and the feeling of, “what did I do today?”

I’m sad about loosing contact with my students. They are a part of my life and when they aren’t there, things are just a little off. I have purposely not started a new read aloud because I don’t want to leave something as important as a book up in the air for three weeks. It would feel like we deserted the characters.

I know that every year students come back from break a little more mature than when they left and are able to take on more difficult work. Time off from training the body or the mind allows for recovery and growth.

But (there is always a but), I worry that their reading and writing lives suffer. Thanks to the amazing teaching that precedes me and our school culture, my students know that reading is a must.

The writing part of their lives is a little less developed. For some, the opportunity to blog is there. They will do it because it’s fun and they love it. But many do not have access at home. I can send home books, notebooks, and pens, but I can’t send the internet or a device that allows them to connect to it. I can’t send them daily reminders to write.

What I can do is ask students to come up with their own personalized “game plan” for reading and writing. Perhaps a sort of nerdlution challenge will develop. Something that they define around reading and writing.

Here’s looking at the last teaching day of 2013, with hope for 2014.

Go #nerdlution.

Learning by Writing

This week I am celebrating our learning through the process of writing.

Writing to Learn Vocabulary

Vocabulary is directly taught in my classroom, and is rooted in the thinking set forth in Beck/McKeowan/Kucan’s Creating a Robust Vocabulary.  Tier two words are chosen based on our read aloud. The intent is to teach grade level vocabulary — enhancing comprehension and as well as oral and written language. In the past, my students and I have labored over multiple choice and fill in the blank assessments. The results: the students who were good readers and had good vocabulary did well — others struggled with meaning and usage.

Today, I still directly teach 3-4 words a week based on the same criteria.  The difference is writing.  Rather than fill in the blank assessment, at the end of the week students write for 15 minutes about our read aloud using as many vocabulary words as they can to summarize and explain their ideas about the story. Their objective is not only to use the words, but to use them in a way that enhances their writing.

What I loved about this week’s work was how students used words, generated from our previous read aloud, to describe their ideas about our current read aloud. Words such as adamant, mortify, confrontational, subtle, analyze, spiteful, delude, euphoric, passive, anxiety, ordeal, empathy  were coming up in a different context than where they were originally introduced. This accurate transference of words was not only for meaning but for usage.  WOW!  And this is a class of English language learners. Reading their papers last night made me smile and celebrate.

One disclaimer (or is it really my point?): Students were allowed to use their vocabulary cards. Is this cheating? Are they learning? I think this is the learning, learning by using the language.  Students are learning the proper usage and meaning of the words through the process of writing.

Writing to Inform Instruction 

Weekly writing using vocabulary words shows how students’ minds wrap around meaning and how they incorporate it into their language. Patterns emerge and my next teaching steps are defined. Students who need small group instruction  pop up as do misunderstanding in the meaning of  words.

A group of students that need help with correct usage wrote things like:

The doctor was being analyze when he was talking to Melody.

Mom was feeling anxiety when the doctor told her about Melody.

Melody’s mom felt mortify when she was yelling and screaming in the store.

Bonus Points

This weekly vocabulary writing has been seeping into other parts of the day. When blogging about their reading, a student asked:

Can I use my vocabulary cards to help me write? It really helps me.  

Of course, what a great idea, I respond and inside I celebrate.

Treadmills are Like Reading Logs

I realized some things as I ran today. Running is solitary. I’m all alone, in my head.  As I run I’m composing, revising, rethinking. Sometimes by the end of a run, I’ve got a great idea. Sometimes I follow through on that idea. But mostly I don’t.

Writing pushes me think an idea through and to next steps. During my run I was thinking of the recent post on Teaching to the Core : “One of the biggest bang-for-your-buck Common Core standards is W.CCR.10, which basically says, ‘Write frequently for many reasons.’ “ So true for me personally. Writing has provided the biggest bang for my learning as a teacher.  I’ve revised, edited and most importantly published them, for someone to read. This process makes it so much bigger than just those musings I had in my head. Through the process of writing, my ideas are better and the process of making them public pushes me to live up to those words.   

Running today I thought about goal setting. I injured my ankle in May and couldn’t run for a month. I slowly and carefully started running again. It was a struggle because of the injury. I carefully managed and measured my running by time and distance on a treadmill. That way I  gradually got stronger as I set goals for myself. I started running again in June at 5 minutes/10 minute pace. Today I ran 4.6 miles in 39 minutes. I was a fragile, injured runner, but by setting goals and gradually increasing, I’m much stronger.

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This leads me to my struggle with reading logs. I know on many levels logs do not speak the truth about a reader, they drive parents crazy, and many students have a very difficult time keeping track of them. I want to abandon the paper lunacy of logging in logging out, tracking, and incentivizing. So I’ve been leaning strongly toward no logs. Requiring one book a week, 40 books during the school year, and public responses to reading as measures of student accountability. But, there is one thing missing from this scenario:  goal setting.

I asked my students about the possibility of giving up logs for a different way of measuring our reading. They  were uncomfortable with letting logs go. Many saw it as a way of showing the teacher they are reading. Most said they have been unsuccessful keeping up with them in the past, but promised that this year would be better!  I had them write about it and one-third felt that reading logs helped them by keeping them on track “so I could see if I read or not.” Another said it was “like a teacher that pushed me.” These responses came from fragile readers. The strong were willing to give it up. Makes me think of myself as a fragile runner. I needed that treadmill because it helped me set goals and tracked my progress. When I was strong, I hated the treadmill because it constrained me.

My students spoke.  I need to create a system that accommodates these readers: those who need to measure their reading, visually. Something that builds them up to become stronger readers. Perhaps another thing for those who are constrained by logs. I’m thinking of a lined post it, that moves through the book as a book mark and allows students to measure or track their reading. When finished with the book the post it becomes a part of their reading portfolio.   I’ll run this idea by them tomorrow. We’ll test it out.

Any ideas about measuring reading? Please post a thought.