Thursday, December 3, 2015

Books Change Us

Reading matters. People who read have more opportunities than people who do not.

Kelly Gallagher brilliantly captures the many ways reading benefits citizens and societies in Reading Reasons, a collection of mini-lessons you can use with kids. Gallagher's lessons are great for answering kids'  questions about the value of reading.  His lessons take aim at the "why are we doing this?" questions that kids sometimes use to delay a lesson or disengage.

Kids aren't the only people who may question the value of using class time to read. Colleagues, parents, even, administrators may question the value of spending class time reading. Use those challenges as an opportunity to reach out and teach. View those challenges as an opportunity to illuminate. Shine the light of stories, books and their power to change people into the darkness of fixed mindsets.

Yesterday I did just that by asking former students and friends to share stories of books that changed them.

Books change readers. So many former students, friends and educational colleagues reaffirm that. Book resonate across areas of our lives. Christine, former middle-school teacher and current amazing gardener, is moved by Walden. John Green's The Fault in Our Stars changed her student, Amanda. Rhonda, friend and  youth leader at St. Luke's Lutheran Church was changed by Anne Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts

Educators from the Northeast (Sarah Gross, Kim McCollum-Clark, Nelson Alvarez and Penny Kittle) were changed by books they read as kids and continue to grow and change from the stories they read and share as adults. Midwestern and southern teachers too--Gary Anderson, Lee Corey, and Beth Scanlon, and Kathleen Richardville--have been shaped by books.

Books cross borders (into British Columbia, Meredyth Kezar). Books change readers in Iowa and in Washington State. 

Books break down barriers  (Navid Akbar) and connect us to one another. If you have fallen in love with a book, like Penny Kittle, author of Book Love, has then you will fight for the right to read. 

Books change kids. Books change adults. Books change teachers, friends, even friends of friends. Book change church workers, students,engineers, writers and even poets (Sara Holbrook). If  you can find yourself and others in story there is hope for our world. 
The next time someone challenges the value of reading in your classroom, ask them about a book that changed them.  Listen. Tell them about the book that changed you.  Then, fight for your students' right to read.

Reading matters.

If you want to dig into the research that supports independent reading, read or revisit this post from last year, "Life Demands Reading"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Sneak Peeks: NCTE

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing TeachersSlide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Catherine  and NCTE and Carol  and NCTE and Bonnie and Margaret, and Dana and oh so many teachers are packing for NCTE's annual conference. I am too!

I am excited to talk about art, writing and creativity with Paul Hankins, Glenda Funk and Melissa Sweet during our session Word by Word: The Art of Crafting Responsibility and Creativity on Saturday (F.47). My segment of the session will focus on an arts infusion project: the art of analysis. For this project, students use art to think critically and creatively about poetry in order to write analysis.

A student's surrealist illustration of a poem. I'll be talking about how teaching
art movements and techniques scaffolds literary analysis in the session.

Sunday, I'm looking forward to a round table session, From Oops to Aha (L.02). We will all be talking about what we have learned from reflective on failure in our classrooms, in our professional lives, in our writing lives or in our lives as learners.  I am going to talk about a student I, as a teacher, failed and what I learned from that experience. You can read my reflective writing here.

Collaborating with educators from fifteen different schools or states inspires and energizes me. These people are part of my tribe and I can't wait to see them and share what we've learned this year.

  • Co-Chair: Gary Anderson EMC Publishing 
  • Co-Chair: Teresa Bunner Wake County Public Schools
  • Co-Chair: Karen LaBonte Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, New York
  • Roundtable Leader: Russ Anderson William Fremd High School 
  • Roundtable Leader: Jennifer Ansbach Manchester Township High School, New Jersey 
  • Roundtable Leader: Leslie Healey St. Mark's High School, Wilmington, Delaware 
  • Roundtable Leader: Jeana Hrepich Antioch University Seattle 
  • Roundtable Leader: Kim McCollum-Clark Millersville University 
  • Roundtable Leader: Cindy Minnich Upper Dauphin Area High School, Elizabethville, Pennsylvania 
  • Roundtable Leader: Cheryl Mizerny Cranbrook Schools 
  • Roundtable Leader: Meenoo Rami Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 
  • Roundtable Leader: Amy Rasmussen Lewisville High School, Lewisville, TX 
  • Roundtable Leader: Jennifer Roberts San Diego Unified 
  • Roundtable Leader: Lee Ann Spillane Orange County Public Schools, Orlando, Florida
  • Roundtable Leader: Andrea Zellner Michigan State University, East Lansing 
I get to sleep at home one more night before I leave for NCTE. My husband will drive me to the airport early in the morning on Thursday. I can't wait! I can't wait to connect with authors at ALAN, to share great books with my son, Collin and enjoy a room full of passionate readers.

I can't wait to see my teacher friends. I can't wait to learn from the educators I admire. I can't wait to discover new voices and meet new people. I can't wait to man the ALAN booth and talk about YA literature. I can't wait to reconnect and recharge.

I told my students I'd be geeking out with thousands of English teachers who are just like me. It's true--we are going to geek out and fan girl and follow rock stars (teacher rock stars that is).

I can't wait. I'm packed.

In fact, I know I over packed.  I live in Florida and  thinking about packing for thirty degree lows sends
Love the Paper Towns echo...
me a sweater message. We just don't have those temperatures here (yet or often). I packed layers: shirts, sweaters, a cape, two suit jackets, a few sweaters, a coat. I even got my boots re-soled.

I can't wait to wear them. And I can't wait to see you at NCTE and ALAN. If you are not going to the conference this year, you can tune in using the NCTE hashtag on Twitter #ncte15 or #ncte2015. You can hear our voices on Voxer. Margaret Simon is setting up a Voxer stream to capture and share voices from NCTE. It's going to be a fantastic conference. I can't wait to see you.

Safe travels, everyone!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Meeting Virtually

Good morning CCHS English Teachers,

We are using video as a means to flip our time today. Instead of meeting as a department for our Wednesday hour of PD, Mrs. Knight gave me permission to share the need-to-know topics via video and record "attendance" via comments. That will free your hour up after school, so that you can do the work that needs doing in your PLC groups.

Watch the video, leave a comment here, be counted as present for our department meeting. If you have trouble commenting, try to refresh the page. Then choose anonymous as your commenting profile; include your first name in your comment please. If that fails, call me and I'll come help you.

The district disables commenting  on YouTube, so to show that you attended this meeting, please comment here instead of on YouTube.

Nerdfighter rules do not apply for this video. I am over the time limit of 4 minutes; please no punishments!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Matters?

A team of talented teachers hosted Family Literacy Night, an evening of games, workshops, book talks and fun. Beth Scanlon our school's reading coach and fellow slice organizes the team for this event. The literacy committee she works with began offering the night several years ago as a way to reach out to families, celebrate reading and build community.

Break out sessions, games, story time and crafts for siblings, pizza AND book give aways AND spoken word poetry on the patio, worth it for the late night at school.
Three moments sparkled for me this evening.

One, pre-game, a student I sponsor and mentor gave me a pep talk before my presentation. I was a little nervous to talk about students on social media. I hosted about social media session: the good, the bad and the ugly. I covered up students' account information and profile pictures, but I shared actual posts that students from our school published.

My student asked about my presentation. Listened as I summed it up and showed the slides. Then he said, "I have confidence in you."

And you know what? His words worked. They did so much to lift me up this evening.

How often do I tell students I have confidence in them? How often do I tell colleagues I have confidence in them? Encouragement matters. Choosing KIND matters.

 The second moment was a moment of strategy and craft. I wanted to start my session by listening to parents and teens. Talk less, listen more (I keep telling myself that, some days I succeed at listening more). This evening, I listened. I snicked a conversation strategy for tonight's session from a colleague and love how it worked. I do not know what my favorite social studies' teacher calls the strategy but I called it toss and talk.

Parents and teens wrote all sorts of concerns (anonymously) on the papers they tossed into a box. Here a few of them:
"He spends too much time on social media and does his homework late, making him tired."
"Addictive for kids"
"Steal each others' identity"
"Explicit content available for teenagers"
"Broke connections with the family" 
We started a good conversation in my room. A conversation that matters to me as a parent and as a teacher. Linda Baie asked "what matters to you?" in her slice post today. I've been thinking about Linda and the question all day.

Listening thoughtfully to one another matters to me. Being with the people--being fully present with and for one another-- matters to me.

Poetry matters to me too. Youth poets from the poetry club I sponsor performed at the end of the evening. We might have needed a microphone. We might have needed a clearer performance space. I could focus on things that were just a bit not quite right, but man, the poetry, the poetry was awesome. One of the poets, Widlin, did a piece he titled "Reptiles." I have heard Widlin perform this piece many times. I even once recorded it and posted it to YouTube (the sound quality needs fixing).


The poem, the poem, the poem is about a family and about age and about how the idea of home changes when the person who defines home in your heart dies. Widlin moved three moms who were standing or sitting near me to tears this evening. One looked at me and said, "I'm a nurse and wow... just wow. That was really great! I'm, I'm... I am crying."

I was too.

Eyes all watery, chest full of feeling. What matters to you? Linda asked. Kids, parents, people and their stories matter to me. Amazing, all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Paragraphing Success

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Overheard today as I was walking the room while students were working in their reading journals:

"I keep forgetting to paragraph! I am annoying myself!"

Today was the first day of our second quarter. Today was the first day for new writing prompts for reading journals. We do weekly practice writing in the genres that are tested in our reading journals during our first semester. Practice the genres students need for the state assessment with authentic, chosen readings. It is my compromise.

Instead of assigning the reading journal writing for homework, we now write the entries in class on Mondays. I confer with students about them on Tuesdays. I wrote three model pieces today. I was writing while students wrote in three classes. In the other three classes, I was troubleshooting, answering questions and supporting students who needed me.

There is a lot happening in any one high school classroom.

After we wrote for 15-20 minutes, I asked students to turn and share, to talk about their pieces. We all took a break from the page (even if we weren't finished) and talked.

I walked the room.

Overhearing, Allison today after she'd read a table-mate's journal made me smile. I've been reminding and reteaching paragraphs and organization for eight weeks. Her comment was a moment of sweet success-- spontaneous and automatic, a recognition of skills. Yes!

Glad I caught it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Limit Testing

"Learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble." - President Obama

Millions of us liked and shared news yesterday that the Obama administration has called for a limit to standardized testing in American classrooms. So much of the rhetoric in his short speech, I love.

The argument is familiar to most parents, students and teachers. As such, it be a great short speech to study in class. He opens with a call to his audience: parents and teachers. Students could easily connect to the context of this address. He uses a variety of accessible appeals. We are beginning argument next quarter, so I typed a transcript of the speech. I want to talk about it with students in my classes.

I wonder though about some of the language and what it will really mean for teachers and schools.

What "tests are worth taking"? How does President Obama define tests? Is he using the word to talk about high-stakes, standardized tests? Tests that teachers and parents know have run over authentic learning in a race to the top. Surely those of us who streamed the news on Facebook and Twitter believe that.

News outlets reported that the President called on districts to use "no more than 2% of class time to take tests" (Zernike, Atkinson, Ure and Liptak). What does such a limit actually mean?

If I take it to mean districts may not use more than 2% of our class time to test students, then as a high school teacher facing 180 days of instruction, then I am looking at no more than 3.5 days worth district-mandated testing. Right? 
From the 2015-2016  Orange County Public Schools Parent Guide

Our district declared PSAT day for high school students this fall. Students in grades nine through eleven took the PSAT district-wide on October 14. Does that count? Do end of course exams count? Or Advanced Placement tests? On whose authority do students take those tests? 

Our district eliminated several testing practice sessions. We are no longer required to do two benchmark reading exams. We are no longer required to give three practice writing assessments. We got five days--an instructional week--back. I wrote about that here, and here, and here

In turn, teachers have been asked to give common assessments every few weeks. If we stick to a three-week, common assessment schedule, that means we must design, create and implement a common assessment twelve times a year—more than two instructional weeks, gone again. Some of the assessments teacher teams design span more than one class period. Are these assessments "worth it"? Who says? 

Common assessments, like some standardized tests, can be valuable learning tools, but like standardized tests, they can run over the joy in teaching and learning. The President is not talking about common assessment though. He's talking about a different kind of standardization. 

In high schools, the number of tests students take depends of the kind of student they are. As a teacher and a parent, I know that the number of test my child will take depends on what course he takes at school. If my child chooses to take a class to improve his reading or math skills (remedial courses are no longer required by law in Florida), then he will take a battery of assessments as teachers monitor progress through standardized curricula. Even if he does not choose to take such course, he could test more.
From the 2015-2016  Orange County Public Schools Parent Guide

With a push to accelerate learning, districts enroll students in advanced placement (AP) courses by the thousands. By passing an AP test, students have opportunities to earn college credits while still in high school. This can be a win-win for students and schools. It's also big business. 

Do AP tests count? Do they fit the President's three basic principles?

These courses and tests are a choice for students and parents. Does it matter if districts are using resources to administer them?

Time seems relative. Money talks. Listening to President Obama’s speech about testing, I start thinking about the money, the resources schools and districts pour into testing of all types.

What if districts had to limit not just time, but also spending on tests to 2%? 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

I Believe

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

What does it mean to value learning? Does it mean we honor practice and give participation grades? What does it really mean when we say we value what kids know and are able to do? Does it mean that as students' understandings or skill levels improve their grades reflect that improvement?

What does that mean in terms of what a parent or a child sees in our grade books? As the parent of a high school student, I wonder.

I've been thinking a lot about grades and how my teacher self grades students' learning or monitors kids' progress toward learning.

What does these snap shots from my grade book tell you I value as English teacher?

I cut the marks column and I cut the category averages. I think my values show even in how I name assignments and the comments I give kids. What do you see here?

Here's another student:

I believe my grade book points to standards (skills and processes and content) I am teaching--though I have to say it's not as transparent as I would like it to be. In our reading journals, for example, we've been writing analysis and practicing writing about theme. You can't see that work on theme in the assignments listed. Nor can you see the theme work or the textual evidence work embedded in our Socratic discussions. I have yet to accurately name what we do.

I believe that if I grow strong readers, writers and communicators, our society improves. Kids choices improve. I believe literacy empowers. I believe in the power of practice and in second chances.

How does my grade book show you what I believe?

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Stop Punishing Kids with Grades

The view from here.

Like Pernille Rip, three ideas around grades, homework and rewards are the foundation of my teaching practice. 

  1. Grades measure what a students knows and is able to do. Behaviors, while learned, are not grade-worthy.
  2. Limit homework: time spent noodling around or playing with family and friends is important.
  3. Don't ruin kids with rewards or use grades or writing as punishment. 

I've been thinking a lot about grades as I shift my practice to value learning more than compliance. When it comes to learning, real learning, what matters is effort and skill development.  What does not matter is neatness or format (unless you're teaching citation methods). 

When it comes to actually learning, writing in pen or pencil does not matter. When it comes to learning content, what order I staple my papers in should not count for half of the grade. When you do you the work does not matter. Turning in assignments on time or at the same time as everyone else in class does not matter.

Well, I take that back. 

Timeliness matters a little bit to me. I know it shouldn't matter much.  Adults don't even do the same thing at the same time, even when they are required to by law. 

 A late assignment should never be an average killer. A late assignment should create an untrue picture of what students know and can do. 

Penalizing kids with zeroes is malpractice. 

Take this scenario: the same student two different perspectives.

Late work--even late make up work--does not merit a zero.  Rick Wormeli taught me that lesson long ago. I wrote about it here

I forget things. This weekend I forgot to go to the grocery store. I forgot to schedule time to finish grading students' narratives. I forgot that I had made plans to see a play and plans to meet friends for dinner on the same day. I forgot I had a doctor's appoint on Monday afternoon that clashed with my son's Symphonic Band practice. I forgot to mail a package to a friend that I have been carry around town in the car since school started. I forgot to water the orchid that sits next to the bathtub. 

Sometimes the things we forget are important and sometimes they are not. Sometimes the busy-busy of day to day derails even the best intentions.

from Guskey, Thomas R. "Grading Policies that Work
against Standards...and How to Fix Them
High schoolers are busy people too. Their schedules are loaded with commitments: homework, sports, band, club meetings, family celebrations, chores, youth groups, dance competitions, test preparation, hobbies, YouTube, and books. 

High school kids have families too. Sometimes students have families in two homes and they split time between them. Sometimes the families have one parent or no parents, one child or many children. Sometimes another family member's schedule takes priority. 

As a parent, I do not want my son punished for merely forgetting a task. I don't want him punished for trying to make something up late or past someone's arbitrary deadline. If he forgot to make up a quiz, let him apologize and take the quiz. Tell him you are disappointed. Talk to me (the parent) about his forgetfulness. I will teach him to keep track of what needs doing and to prioritize. I will teach him to be more responsible. I will apply consequences for the behavior. I want you to grade your content and his skill.

Punishing him with a zero for his behavior will not teach him your content.

I keep that in mind when I'm teaching the kids in my classroom. I will leave the teaching of responsibility and behavior  to parents. I'm here to teach kids how to be better readers and writers. 

Learning has no expiration date in my classroom. 

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Rebekah O'Dell's post  on Moving Writers titled "I Quit Grading" inspired me to write about one aspect of grading today.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Choice, Doors and Reading Journals

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Yesterday a student stopped by to use my printer. She's an upperclassman now. I asked her how her year is going. She said her class has completed two books, Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby in and that they write analysis every day. She pulled up the file she needed to print from her USB drive, leaned in and said,  "You know what really helped me, Mrs. Spillane? All the writing we did in our reading journals. Are you still doing those with your classes?"

Indeed I am.  

My practice around independent reading and shifts subtly year by year, but this year students still choose the books they read and I still ask them to write about their independent reading once a week. 
I've written about our reading journals here, and here and elsewhere; lasts year's quarter one journals are described here

Homework in my English class is to read thirty minutes a day, five days a week. I follow Penny Kittle's lead and ask students to set page goals; this year, we are going to adjust our goals for each book students read. We'll see if we can keep up with that.

Kids then practice writing analysis in their reading journal each week. The left side of the page is for a passage from the book (or my feedback). And kids write about one of the prompts each week on the right-hand side of the page. 

This student glued it a large passage from Philbrick's The Last Book in the Universe.
After reading and marking the text, she practices analyzing the setting on the right.
My feedback is aimed at showing her the difference between summary of plot and analysis of the setting.
 I keep the reading journal right along with them--that way I can better troubleshoot and problem solve. Today, for instance, I know we need to talk about how to embed evidence and how to stay focused on analysis (and not plot summary) based on my own practice.  We will use one paragraph from my own analysis of Walls' The Silver Star and to examine evidence (summary, paraphrase or direct quotations).

Modeling moves my practice formward and when I'm conferring having a model to show  and to speak from makes a difference. 

At the beginning of the year, I need to confer with each reader-writer. I have to spend that time to make sure each child understands the process and the weekly writing. I use that time to give students feedback. During the first two weeks we wrote entries together in class. This week and last,  kids started their entries with me in class on Monday and then finished them for homework if they didn't finish them in class. On Tuesday, while students are reading and engaged in another task, I work the room, meeting for two to five minutes with each child.

If I spend five minutes with each child, I am spending 125 minutes conferring (or three days, three class periods). That is not feasible in my high school classroom. Nor is it realistic in terms of students' needs. Every conference is not five minutes. We won't confer about every written entry nor about every book they read. Just as nature varies, so too the typical high school classroom. Kids have different needs.

Some kids need me to affirm that they are on the right track. They have set up their journals correctly , they are focused on analysis (and not summary or response) and they are doing well citing evidence in a variety of ways from the text. Other kids need more feedback or more support from me.

If kids are unsure or have questions, I need to take the time to listen to and answer clearly. They may be writing response or long summaries instead of finding ways to focus their analysis. They need individual coaching. Some, need  a quick re-teach to show them how to refocus their writing on analysis or to show them how to paragraph even.

Like Linda Rief, I give journal entries a quality grade and a quantity or process grade . For most of this quarter, I will focus more on quantity. As students become better at analysis, I will shift to giving them a grade for the quality of their analysis. As I start to give more students more independence and time, I will confer with just half the class each week.  I am grading writing standards five (the writing process standards) and  eventually will grade writing standard two ( informative or analytical writing). As students learn to analyze, their writing about their reading improves, so I drop lower grades from their earlier attempts.

This is what Tuesday's conferring class period looked liked.
Students and I worked side by side at different tasks. 
I love the individual time I get to take with each child, but it can't happen if the rest of the room is not engaged. I know that I have to have systems in place that keep the class engaged while I am working and talking with individuals. Kids have to trust that I will indeed get to them and give them the same kind of attention they hear me giving to him, and her and her and him.

The tasks I give the class while I confer vary. Sometimes that task will be a discussion, or a strategy practice or work time on a project or independent reading.  It all depends on how much time I need-- and how well my community has come together.

Other times that task will be reading and marking a text that to prepare for discussion.   That is what students did this week--they marked up a short story, "The Wife's Story" by Usula Le Guin that we are going to discuss during Thursday's Socratic circle. I had students working in ten to twelve minute segments. They would read and mark (while I conferred) and then they would come together in their small, table groups and talk. Sometimes, to my delight, it happened spontaneously as they read the story.

Managing reading journals--the writing practice,  the reading practice, and the feedback loop or response time that goes into such an assignment--is time consuming.

It is, I admit it. But you know what?

It varies. It's heavier now than it will be in a month. In a month it will feel routine. In a month, students will be celebrating their successes (I will too!). No matter, the time. It's worth it.

Reading and writing opens doors. Kids who are skilled readers and writers have more doors they can choose to walk through: doors to college choices, doors to writing contests or scholarships, doors that lead to rich service or work experiences. Choice, in books to read and in future opportunities, is a good thing.

I want my kids to have every advantage. I want their futures to be filled with choices. Imagine all the doors as wide open.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

It Takes Time

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

It is day 11 of the school year. I am still in teaching the routines mode. Routines take time to get established.

Today was our day to begin writing about our independent reading in our reading journals. We do such writing once a week. I believe, as does Linda Rief, that it is good practice for readers and writers. Week one we previewed many books in the class. Daily, I talk titles and share books. Last week I reminded students to have their chosen independent reading book with them. I encouraged them to read if they finished activities quickly and had down time in classes.

Today was the day we took out our independent reading books and began in our reading journals. Guess how many students, on average, in each class period had not yet chosen a book to read? 

You might be right. 

The number is always bigger than I want it to be. It is always bigger than I remember it being the year before. 

But it is not January (yet). 

Getting reading workshop going and going smoothly takes time. I haven't  added students as editors to our shared Reading Record on Google Drive. I haven't blocked off a chunk of guaranteed time each class period to read.  The beginning of the year eats time: schedules, the code of conduct, getting the roster right, assessing summer assignments--there is a lot to do at the beginning of the year.

Setting up routines take time. It takes time to gather email addresses and input students into the Classroom Organizer app. It takes time to assess students' interests and target them during daily book talks. 

Today was day eleven. 

We are still establishing routines. You can see it in my lesson plans online.

Somewhere around fourth or sixth period, I pulled out my reflection journal while students were gluing directions in their reading journals (handouts below). I quickly wrote about taking my time and remembering how long it takes to get a workshop established and running smoothly. I dumped it on the page, took a deep breath and set that thinking aside.

Every class is different. Every student is an individual thinker and reader. The good news is that more
I change this "form" each year and add pictures of current
Florida Teen Reads and award winners like the
Amelia Walden Award  to the margins.
than half of the students in every class had a book with them to read. The other good news is that the rest of the kids quickly consulted their Book Pass preview pages and checked a book out from our classroom library. 

I wonder if anyone has thought gamefully about these first weeks of school?

Would Classroom DoJo help my students remember the minutiae or is it just a way to punish kids with rewards?

On my way home today one of my heroes, Jane McGonigal,  was on National Public Radio's Marketplace talking about Super Better and gameful thinking. Gameful thinking is goal oriented and flexible; it views challenges as overcome-able.  I do too.

That's why I stayed at school doing what needs to be done to input initial assessments and set up systems until long past the duty day. Marketplace comes on our National Public Radio station at six after all.

I over came a few challenges and made progress toward many goals. It helps that my son is now a freshman and has band practice on Tuesdays. I can use the afternoon and not rush.

It takes time. 

I know the book lovers (and yet to be book lovers) in my classroom will find titles that will ignite their passions and capture their hearts. I know that come January, kids will have ten or more books to talk and write about. Now is the time to put the routines in place that will enable that to happen. 

Patience young grasshopper. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Making Magic

I spent a cool summer week near the Poconos at the Highlights Foundation camp in Pennsylvania (I won the workshop during a commenting challenge last March). Spending time at Highlights changes a writer.

I have loved Highlights since I was a child. My mom was a dental hygienist for more than thirty years and she would clean the family's teeth on Saturdays. We would be the only folks in the waiting room, taking turns in Mom's chair. Highlights kept me entertained and with every article, I felt smarter. I dreamed about writing for them.

During the Writing from the Heart writing camp I went to, the talented Suzanne Bloom led us through an experience in magic making. We experienced the magic of making something up out of nothing. I wrote about it here.

As soon as I got home, I went on several thrift store dates with my husband. We gathered magic boxes. I found a vintage Samsonite train case in a thrift store in Clermont. Than I filled the boxes with magical items and packed them into the make up case.  Today I unpacked that magic in class.

We began with an exercise in creative thinking. I asked students to draw five squares (or frames) on a page in their Academic Journals. They draw--quick sketches--images from their imagination in and or around the frames. What students draw shows me how they think. Who thinks outside of the box? Who is bounded by perfection using a straight edge and stalling the sketch? Who completes the creative practice and is open to divergent thinking? It's a quick bell work exercise, just six minutes.

Then we move on to the magic. I showed students the train case and took out the first warm up item (a yard of sequined fabric I once wore as a cape for a Super Teacher costume). I asked them, like Suzanne asked us this summer, who owned this magical item and how did the object transform them?

We run through two, whole-class practices. One with the cape and one with a miniature maraca. I show kids the item and give them a couple of minutes to talk in their small groups about what it might figuratively, magically  be. Breaking free of the literal is difficult for some teens. It's difficult for some adults.

After we share the warm up stories,  I put boxes on each small group's table. I aimed for dramatic. I told students not to touch the boxes until I said so. I took my time. I smiled. I used big arm motions.

It was so fun. Oh, how they wanted to snatch the boxes up and dig in. I just loved seeing the anticipation on students' faces. They waited. So patient and polite.

I explained that they would talk through a story--a summary of a story. I showed them how to use five Ws and an H to generate ideas and summarize the story their group created. They wrote the ideas in their Academic Journals. Then the magic happened. I told them to open the boxes and examine the magical objects.

Kids handled the objects like props. As they touched the items; they talked and told stories. The buttons pictured above enabled characters to time travel, come alive or even change shape! Kids made up characters, plots--whole worlds amazed me. 


I'd stocked one box with a lace handkerchief. I wore the handkerchief home from the hospital after I was born and then carried it on my wedding day. My mom used to make handkerchief bonnets for family and friends' babies. I didn't tell the kids that story (yet), but I sure loved watching them handle the handkerchief and make up stories with it. Some students went so far as to write what Peter Elbow would call a zero draft of the story. Here's one: 

 Another group held a glass bead I bought many years ago but don't wear any more. They were amazed at all of the details in the bead. "There are gardens in here!" One group said.

My favorite story created with the bead today reminded me of A.S. King's Glory O'Brien's History of the Future. Kids decided that with the bead, a king could look through the center hole and see the past  and then flip the bead and look through the other side to see the future (that story is not the one pictured though) .

I had such a great time today listening to the stories students created. Today was about talking and thinking and imagining. Building our community with story.

Tomorrow students will get to choose, the same box or a different one, and they will write their own stories.

I can't wait to see what they create.
Happy New School Year! 

Here's the sequence, in case you want to try it:

  1. Drawing frames (five squares on a page, six minutes to sketch).
  2. Magic warm up. Use two items and ask kids who owned it? How did it magically transform its owner?
  3. Make Up Case: 
  4. Group students in triads.
  5. Give each triad a "magic" box filled with magical items (feathers, shells, buttons, beads, tickets, etc.)
  6. Encourage students to exercise their imaginations and break free from the literal.
  7. Have students talk through a story using a summary tool like 5 Ws and an H for 10-12 minutes.
  8. Ask each group to share out and tell the story they discussed.
  9. Day Two: individuals write the stories--the ones they rehearsed with their groups or stories they thought of themselves. 

Thank you to StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing TeachersSlide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.