Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Writing with Grace

Serve up your own slice of life story. Link up at Two Writing Teachers.

Shim Hyeonsoo (Grace) is visiting from South Korea. She will will be with us for eight weeks as a part of a program that partner's with my son's school.This weekend, I set up my laptop keyboard so that it toggles between English and Korean. We are learning how to convert from English to Hanja with a click of the mouse. Grace is going to blog on her Korean blog so that she can share experiences with her family.

She is learning English and she is learning English relentlessly. We play word games. We talk about our days. She reads in English. We does homework in English-- she is here during her school's vacation. She attends fifth grade and does the almost the same homework, as best she can, that the other children do. She says she does not have to write the essays. And I think she's gotten a pass at memorizing songs in Spanish. Still. She .Is. Amazing.

She's better at English than we are with Spanish (and two of us at home have studied Spanish a number of years).  I knew she knew more English the first time we went to church. I was holding the hymnal open and pointing to the words and Grace was singing at my side. She can read menus and fearlessly orders at restaurants.She uses an electronic dictionary and is quite the Ruzzle opponent.

We love having Grace visit. Two years ago, her brother John spent two months with us, so it feels like another member of our family has come home.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about one little word for 2014.  Grace arrived two weeks ago and I love how she has re-focused us on what matters. I'm leaning toward grace.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lift Off from the Teacher Desk

Be with the people, not the device. Be with the person sitting next to you. Be with the child who's telling you about his day from the backseat of the car. Be with the friend who has come over for a play date. Be with the relatives who are over for dinner. Be with the students sitting in your classroom.

There is a difference between being in the same place with a person and being with that person. Being
with someone means you are attentive to the other person. You are mindful of the person and the person in turn is attentive to and mindful of you. Being with someone means you are focused on him or her, not your never ending to-do list, email, Facebook, car repairs or what you're going to cook for dinner. Being with means sharing and doing together. Being with gives the gift of attention and presence to another.

It is sometimes challenging for teachers to be with their students. Sure, we are in the same vicinity as students everyday in our classrooms. Are really with them or are we engaging in parallel work: students are doing an assignment and we are too? Teachers need to take attendance, calculate grades, give feedback, respond to emails, plan lessons, create assessments--the list is never ending for classroom teachers. So how can we do what we need to get done when we have students most if not the entire day?

I've had three conversations about teachers sitting behind their desks this week, so I thought I'd take a

minute to brainstorm a few alternatives to sitting behind the desk.

1. Work the room. Instead of grading papers behind your desk, seat students in small groups and grade as you visit each group. As students work on a task, individually or collaboratively, stop by the group and listen in. Affirm, reteach or redirect the group then mark the papers for the group.

2. Make laps. If you have to grade or create lesson plans, set up a work space you can use while standing. Confer with students for ten minutes, then lap back to your standing work space for five. Make another monitoring lap for ten minutes or so, then back to your  work station for another pass. Standing and moving to work is key here.

3. Deploy a device. Instead of staying tethered to your teacher computer, consider using a mobile device to complete daily tasks of taking attendance, recording grades or checking email. You can even turn your cell phone into a remote to control your desktop computer (Source Forge has your back on this one though you will have to dig in to the technical how-to in order to match make your machines). Access is an issue with this work around. Some schools are wall-to-wall wireless; others are not. Some schools issue iPads and laptops to teachers; others do not. Some teachers use their own personal devices; others may not be allowed to do so.

4. Structure your time.  Schedules require discipline. Take note of how you could use your time in the morning before school begins, during the day when you are student-free and in the afternoon at school's end. Can you find thirty minutes for email? Can you ear mark one day to stay late after school? Instead of taking work home, stick to it after hours at school one day. Keeping tasks in time boundaries can help prevent them from hogging our attention during class or at home.

5. Relax. Enjoy the kids. Teachers are feeling pressure to perform--at my school, in my district, across my state. Performance measures are changing rapidly. Sometimes the stress of seemingly constant change makes us want to go to ground and hole up--we become entrenched because we are overwhelmed as demands are lobbed at us. We are racing to the top with new guidelines for evaluating teachers, new standards and new assessments. Stop running. Stop spinning. Stop for a few minutes, a class period, a week. Be with the people. Be with your students. Enjoy the kids. Have them read something they have written. Write with them. Discuss a good book or article related to your content. Read together. Breathe. Reconnect to the joy that told you wanted to teach in the first place.

Our work space formerly known as the "Teacher's Desk."
The table connected to the desk is perfect for
conferring and teaching small groups.
I still have a teacher desk in my classroom--though I work hard to not call it that. It is a shared work space. On the "teacher" desk is a school-issued desktop computer, a phone, a desk calendar, a box of tissues, a box of band aids and miscellany of artifacts that tell the story of where we are as learners this week (handouts, books, file folders, notes, etc.). It's not just my work area though. Students use it too--they can use their log in for the computer and sometimes we need one more working machine, so they do. It is our space really, not just mine. We all use the sink, the phone, the tissues, the pens, the pencils, the cleaning supplies (stored underneath)--you name it.  It's in the back of the room--well, back being a relative term as we can face many directions in our classroom. Language is sticky.

I wouldn't mind getting rid of the desk (two tables and desk--an L shaped work space), but I need the storage and room to spread out. I also need one drawer that is mine. One spot where I can store grade rosters, confidential information and professional files--those end up in the desk's file-drawer. Plus the added table means I can configure nine work groups in the room--this one at the "back" is perfect for conferring or teaching small groups.

Liftoff! by Jason Major
The work space can be a black hole though. If I wander too close, I feel the gravitational pull of my email box. If my trajectory puts me in the path of the desk calendar, I could lose an hour planning or rearranging plans. As long as I lift off from the work space early and maintain acceleration as I orbit the room, my chances of getting sucked  into the silo of working alone decreases. The mission, after all, is to be with the people, to teach them, encourage them, prod and support them for as long as the schedule allows.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Golden Days: Assessing Readers Individually

Link up and share your slice today.

"This is gold, Miss. GOLD! I poured my soul into this," Chris tells me as he staples his independent reading essay question/rubric to the essay he has just finished writing during our exam time.

Students in my high school classroom read. Because I need to build or re-establish a reading habit with the teens I teach, we read everyday for 12-15 minutes. Students log their reading on our digital Reading Record: a shared Google spreadsheet. Twice a year I ask them to do something formal with their independent reading: write an essay and deliver a book talk or trailer. I know who is reading and who is not based on the conversations I have and over-hear--accountable talk bubbles up once students become readers.

The second task sometimes shifts, but the essay as part of students' semester exam remains.  I wrote about the essay questions and linked to samples in this prior post. I love crafting the questions for students. Because teens' tastes in stories overlap, sometimes questions do too--so after more than a decade of writing these individual assessments, I have a large question bank to help me write new questions.  Every year, students tell me the individual attention makes a difference. Little do they realize how I've differentiated the questions too, but I'll get to that later.

I give students their questions a week prior to our exams. I build up to it. I talk about the kinds of questions I've written in the past and soon my enthusiasm rubs off on them. We spend question day reading student samples from prior years. We talk about other students' questions and how they approached them. We discussed what writers did well and what we can do better. After that review I ask, "are you ready for me to give you your questions?" This year one class yelled "Yes!" in unison. I got goosebumps.

I pass out the questions as quickly as I can and do a lot of kid watching to gage reactions. This year I heard a lot of students say, "I LOVE my question!" A few said they were excited to write their essays because as Karla mentioned, "I can actually write about my topic and it's interesting!"

After the questions have been read, reviewed and shared, I teach.  I show students how to prepare for their essays by taking notes on the books they have read. I model a chart. I model how I would plan for such a synthesis essay. Students are allowed to use their notes as they write their response. Why wouldn't I let them? Not taking notes and feeling unprepared and being unsuccessful on the exam is a natural consequence. Natural consequences are powerful motivators.

So I have my first set of essays to grade now. It will be a tight turn around to have everything graded by Thursday and the semester's grades finalized Friday,  but it is worth it. Imagine ending an exam period with this comment from a student,  "Miss, I wish we had more time! I was having so much fun writing my essay. I could have said so much more."

Chris was right, this is "gold."

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Note to self: I don't have time today, but I'd like to also write about: 
how differentiating levels of analysis or synthesis supports student writers;
how such questions enable students to show what they know in a myriad of ways;
how I can assess essays for specific students' learning (start to finish comparing cases);
how there are an infinite number of right answers.

Already I can see how Shelley is developing as a writer--this is her first analysis piece and she was able to synthesize ideas from several novels into a coherent whole AND she's freed herself from the confines of formulaic writing. Hooray! Written in an hour, her growth is obvious to me.

Everyone's Questions in a Grid

4th Period's Essay Questions with Scoring Rubrics (two to page)

Monday, January 13, 2014

Happy New Reading Year!

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Shelia at Book Journeys. Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers give the meme a kidlit spin.  Open your Amazon wish list or your "to be read" list in GoodReads as you visit participating blogs from the links above. You're sure to find great titles to keep you reading well into the New Year.

Second Impact hits hard. Think quarterback blogger meets journalist. The team pairs up to write through the season. When the journalist investigates concussions on the team, the principal suspends her. Trouble ensues.  My boys who like Deuker's  Gym Candy will love this book, but the story will appeal to girls too. Fairness issues will have many of my students siding with this books' heroes. I love these lines about writing: 
"...when I sit down at my laptop, I don't think there's any limit whatsoever. When I start writing--when I think of all of you out there reading my writing--I feel I could do anything. I could go and go, I could write and write (19)."
No limits. I love that about writing free. I have long been a David Klass fan. His book, You Don't Know Me, is one of my favorites.  I had the pleasure of introducing author, Selene Castrovilla, during an ALAN 2013 workshop and I was delighted to hear that she too is a Klass fan. We got to the book by talking about inspiration. She pulled her copy of You Don't Know Me out of her back pack and shared it with me. Her copy has story written in the margins and on the covers and front pages, the story spills around Klass' own. How amazing to see those notes swirl around Klass' own story. She let me take a picture as we talked about the book and what it meant to us. 

Her notes reminded me of my own scribblings in books. I knew immediately that we belong in the same tribe. She is one of my people. So, I can't think of Klass without now thinking about Selene Castrovilla (next week, I have to share her books that Collin and I read with you!). 

Anderson's The Vanishing Season was just the winter-y ghost story I wanted. It feels set in New England--in a rural place with a lake about to freeze over. I enjoyed how the narrative moved between characters, some of whom you discover at the end (so, no spoilers here!). Maggie's family has fallen on hard times and have moved into an ancestral home in Gil Creek. Maggie makes friends with the girl next door, the wealthy, Pauline Boden, and with Liam, the local son of a woodsman. The threesome learn the meaning of life, love and ever after as winter approaches and they navigate friendship, love and the wilds of the world.

 Kristen Simmons' Article 5 is set in a bleak, post-war future. Moral/marsall law is in effect and citizens are being arrested, some executed for not conforming. It is illegal to be a single parent. It is illegal to read popular fiction or romance novels. It is wrong to dance, but Emmie's mother does all of these things. While I like the premise, moral persecution set in post-war future, the story did not live up to my expectations.  Hilary Jordan's When She Woke has spoiled me for moralistic, dystopian tales. In Article 5, after Ember's mother is arrested for being a single parent, Ember is sent to a "rehabilitation center." What ensues is a break-out and road trip cross country with a neighbor and former boyfriend, turned soldier. For students, this book will be very satisfying. They will enjoy the predictable pattern of girl loves boy, girl loses boy, boy returns. There is definitely a place for this book in my classroom library. It's already checked out, so I know students are drawn to the story. Once it comes back I will use it as bridge recommendation for students who need the support of the pattern but are intimidated by the length of  more challenging dystopian novels (Divergent, The Hunger Games, House of the Scorpion) but aren't quite ready for the depth of Jordan or Atwood. 

 Season of the Witch by Mariah Fredericks reminded me of how children cope with powerlessness. Wouldn't it feel good to think that you had the power to make or break other teenagers?  Wouldn't it be great if we could rid ourselves of guilt and despair? The main characters in Season of the Witch turn to spell casting in order to gain control out of lives that are quickly spiraling away. I brought the book to school Monday and already two students have finished it and Valeria just checked it out --it has not been in  the room even an hour this week; that's a good sign. A student whispered today that she didn't think that the girls really saw themselves as witches. We had a good conversation--spontaneous, uninvited, honest-- about character motivation and girl-power and facing troubles. Lots of appeal in Fredericks Season of the Witch

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I used to play barroom pool, eight ball. I was never an excellent player, but I enjoyed the long shot, the stretch across the green-felt, the feel of the cue, the satisfying crash-clack, the sound of the sink and the relief of the set-up. o I played best when I planned ahead and set myself up for the next shot or sequence. So here's my set-up for next time.


Friday, January 3, 2014


We are planning a trip out west this summer. Our son has never seen mountains, not real ones like the Rockies, anyway. So, this is the year. We're going: Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce. We've got quite the loop planned (ending at VidCon!). Though this won't be the year I get back to the ranch, we'll have quite an explore. I've always wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and ride a donkey down the trail at sunrise (or sunset or even at noon or 1:30 p.m., I'm not picky when it comes to riding). It's on the books. We are riding donkeys.

I have not picked a New Year's resolution, a one little word or even thought about revolutions for 2014, but I'm starting to do things I've always wanted to do. 

This week I made an appointment with a gallery owner near home. I make things. I draw. I paint. I craft. I play. I can't imagine not making things, but I've only rarely let myself think about selling them. I'm not much for business. I prefer free and gift to bought and sold. Truth be told there is less paperwork when you give things away. But, I know I'd enjoy doing craft shows and small festivals, so I need to learn how to sell work and market.  I mentioned my necklaces to a local gallery owner when I visited to buy Christmas presents. He was interested, so I made an appointment for the New Year.  I brought ten domino necklaces with me. He took them all and we had a great conversation about the library-card collages I've been working on. I've been trying to figure out a way to finish the backs and he gave me some good ideas.I did it, something I've always wanted to do. I have a few things at The Artistic Hand Gallery and Studio in Oviedo.  Imagine that.

That sharing of good ideas, the explore, the research and development around what works when you are creating and what does not, that to me is what Genius time is all about. I've been following how Deb Day is using Genius time in her classroom here and I've explored Joy Kir's Live Binder on the topic.  Think radical autonomy. Think passion. Think drive. We're going to talk it about it next week in class and I'm going to ask students to help me structure it or make it work.I wonder how much time we need though. Do we need it 20% of the time (like Google employees) or would 10% be a good start? At my school that would be the difference between once a week or biweekly. Ten percent does not sound radical. Anything less and  I think we'd lose momentum. We'll see what students say.

My genius time tends toward art days in my studio/office at home. I write. I paint. I create. I glue and craft and collage. It took me a year to experiment with dominos to get to the necklaces that I've been making. It was a fun year. A trial and error adventure. I saved markers along the way. I had a few artist friends who would talk epoxies with me and my husband was fantastic when it came to drills and drill bits. I love making things. I know my students do too. I'm excited about the work ahead.