Teaching Writing in Middle School: Notes from the Saturday Reunion #TCRWP

Tara Smith:

Posting on Two Writing Teachers today:

Originally posted on TWO WRITING TEACHERS:


Photo by Adrienne Chasteen Snow @snowadrienne

By the time I arrived at Cornelius Minor’s TCRWP workshop, State-of-the-Art Workshop Teaching of Writing in Middle School, harnessing Methods Specifically Described in the New Units of Study, I had been up since the crack of dawn, and had already spent several hours racing from one great workshop to the next trying to learn as much as I could.  But, Cornelius can power a small neighborhood of schools with his energy alone, and I was soon focused and engaged once again.  Here is what I learned:

As teachers, we are experts at the content but not necessarily in the method of delivery – some questions for us to consider:

  • are we “working smart” with our mini lessons and strategy sessions to make the most of  the 7 minute attention span segments of our middle school students?
  • do we give our students opportunities to…

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Slice of Life Tuesday: Do you know it’s Saturday?



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It is 6:30 a.m.  Saturday.  I am standing on the platform at Secaucus Junction, clutching the largest version of Pumpkin Spice Latte available, and waiting for my train into Manhattan.

It is windy. And cold. And very early in the morning.

Did I mention it was Saturday?

There are three people on the platform, including me.  One of us is in a very bad mood.  That would be the gentleman standing next to me, who is growling into his cell phone about how very mad he is that he is standing on a platform and waiting for a train into Manhattan.  He would rather be, he lets everyone (including the person on the other end of the phone) know, a hundred other places than this particular one.

Not me.  

I am headed to the Saturday  Reunion at Teacher’s College, where I will be cheerily welcomed with balloons: 

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followed by two inspirational keynotes in this magnificent space (Riverside Cathedral!):

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and non-stop, back-to-back, hard to choose from workshops here:



Conversation over, the gentleman next to me begins pacing the platform. Back and forth he goes. Pacing, muttering pacing.  I sip my coffee and wait, adjusting my book bag, wondering whether it was necessary to bring both the ipad & the laptop, three books, two notebooks, and two bottles of water.  I have packed, I am beginning to suspect, too much.

The gentleman stops near me, and takes a long look at my heavy bag.  He seems to be reading the above logo very intently.  Then he says, “You a teacher?”

“Yes,” I reply carefully, I am, after all in New Jersey.  Jersey isn’t always very nice to its public school teachers.

“Lady, did you know it’s Saturday?” he asks.

Before I can muster a response, the train arrives.  I am off. Happily so…even if it is a Saturday.


It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?: Arcady’s Goal: Eugene Yelchin

Mon Reading Button PB to YA


It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers and Sheila at BookJourney


Breaking Stalin’s Nose, Eugene Yelchin’s first middle grade book, was one of those unforgettable reading experiences.  Set in Stalin’s Soviet Union, this was a story that uncovered life in a particular time and place that was largely hidden from those of us outside the Soviet Union.  What gave the story added power, was that it read and felt like a most personal story – one that took years to finally tell.  This is what the author himself had to say, after Breaking Stalin’s Nose won the 2012 Newbury Honor:

This book has been in constant circulation in our classroom, and it’s always a top selection when it comes time for our historical fiction book clubs.   So, I was thrilled to hear that the author was publishing another middle grade novel this Fall.  Last Tuesday, Arcady’s Goal arrived at my doorstep, and I am happy to report that it is every bit as compelling a read as its much-celebrated predecessor.  Here’s the summary from the jacket copy:

For twelve-year-old Arcady, soccer is more than just a game.  It is a means of survival. Scoring goals wins Arcady food rations and respect at the orphanage for the children of the enemies of the Soviet state.  But Arcady wants out, and he’s determined to achieve his goal.  In Soviet Russia, achieving one’s goal always comes with strings attached, but Arcady never expected those strings to tug at his heart.

To enter Arcady’s world, is to be in a place where all the usual expectations have been scattered into the wind. Yelchin writes about this in the afterword:

With the very formation of the Soviet Union, millions of innocent people were arrested, exiled, or executed as enemies of the people.  Anxious about potential  opposition, the Communist Party that ruled the Soviet Union destroyed anyone who might disagree with its regime.  The terror associated with such preemptive strikes traumatized Russian people for years to come. The Communist Party ensured that that this trauma would live on even after the demise of Communism.  It did so by shattering the families of the enemies of the people.

So, Arcady is in an orphanage like no other, surrounded by guards, on the edge of starvation, subject to the cruel whims of the grown ups in charge.  Everything has been taken away from Arcady, everything but his skill at soccer, and his unshakable faith in his ability to make the soccer ball bend to his will.  When he is suddenly, and somewhat mysteriously, adopted by Ivan Ivanych, Arcady assumes that is solely because of this skill.  He believes that Ivan Ivanych is a soccer coach who will help Arcady  achieve his goal: a place on the Red Army Soccer Club team like his idol Fedor Brutko.

But, Ivan Ivanych  is no super star soccer coach, just a school teacher.  His wife, like Arcady’s parents, was deemed an “enemy of the people”, arrested and taken away to prison. Ivan Ivanych wants a son, someone to care for and raise with the hope of carving some island of normalcy in this crazy Stalinist world.  Somehow, these two must work their way towards a relationship that is based on trust, perhaps even love.   Arcady has been made hardened and cynical by his years in one orphanage after another, and Ivan Ivanych’s patience and good will are tested time and time again.  

I love the many layers of Yelchin’s writing, and so enjoy the way his distinctive black and white illustrations work to uncover the stories underlying the main narrative.   Arcady’s Goal, like Breaking Stalin’s Nose is a fascinating look at a historical time frame that we simply don’t hear about anymore.  Books like this are so important because they tell us about the human cost of political repression.  That being said, it is a book that will need to be placed in historical context for my sixth graders, who will need to be familiarized with some of the events taking place in Stalinist Soviet Union. I see Arcady’s Goal becoming another mainstay of our classroom library, another classroom favorite.

Here is a clip of the audiobook which shows some of Yelchin’s striking artwork :

DigiLit Sunday: Historical Fiction and Digital Writing – Notes from #TCRWP

diglit sunday
Digilit Sunday was created and is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche – join us and share your digital teaching ideas

Our historical fiction unit of study has always been one of the most looked forward to events in my sixth grade classroom.  However, I always felt that there was something missing at the end, some element that needed to be present in order to make it feel like an unqualified success.   So it was with great anticipation that I attended Maggie Beattie Roberts’ session “Blending Research and Literature:Teaching Across Historical Fiction Book Clubs, Reading Like a Writer in Clubs, and Writing Digital Historical Documents” at yesterday’s TCRWP Saturday Reunion.  I always learn something smart and inventive whenever I visit Maggie’s blog (co-authored by Kate Roberts) Indent, so I was sure I’d have the same experience at her session. I was right…and here are three “big ideas” that I walked away with:

Using digital texts to preview historical fiction work:

As Maggie put it: “Reading historical fiction is entering a land you will never exist in” , so  examining digital texts is an effective way to prepare for that kind of reading.  We watched the first few minutes of Downton Abbey, and were tasked to work with a partner to take note of the point of view of the story and the artifacts we noticed.

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I was amazed at how much historical evidence we were able to pick up through this exercise, especially as Maggie cued us with focused questions as we watched: what kinds of technology was present? what was the point of view of the camera? how do we “meet” people in the movie? how are characters introduced? This would be such an interesting and engaging way to begin our unit, especially because it would allow my kids to see that, as they read, they need to be aware of all the signposts that point to the historical time frame and context of their story.

Next, we talked about the other elements of historical fiction that readers need to be aware of and alert to at the  beginning of the story.  This kind of breakdown is essential for our kids, and having the following charted and in their reading journals for reference would be helpful:

  • what kind of place is this?
  • who is telling the story? what is the point of view and perspective?
  • who is represented?
  • are there signs of trouble and change?
  • what is the main characters’ response to trouble?
  • who has power?
  • are there signs of resistance?

Forming “text circles” and shared texts to model thinking/discussing:

A shared text reading of Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say allowed us to practice “text circles” – small discussion groups of four with each member tasked with a specific noticing:

  1. study the character traits – what are they like?
  2. how characters have/fight more than one problem or pressure
  3. how does the problem of the historical world match the characters’ problems
  4. reading ahead – what problems will the character face?

Maggie suggested some alternate ways to play with text circles:

  • each group could get envelopes with each task written on strips of paper – their “mission” for the next meeting.  I love this idea of changing things up for each of the four times we meet  for historical fiction book clubs.
  • doing a digital version of this on class book blogs, so kids could share their thoughts as they were reading, before their class meetings.  I think this would lead to richer conversations all around, since my kids will have had a chance to pre-think, and allow ideas to percolate.

Creating historical documentaries as an culminating project:

This was so exciting to learn about! So often, my kids want to know more about a topic that cropped up in their historical fiction books (yellow fever, after reading Fever 1793, for example).  Researching, writing the script for, and then “channeling their inner Ken Burns” to produce a short video about the topic would be the perfect culminating project.  Viewing the student example through a writing workshop lens, we could easily see all the elements of  informational writing beautifully executed:

  • engaging introduction
  • problem/solution
  • cause and effect
  • interesting characters/people to anchor the narration
  • varying types of evidence presented
  • usage of domain specific words
  • quotes from experts
  • a layered story to catch and hold the reader’s attention

Our historical fiction unit is weeks away…too bad, I feel ready to get going with it now, thanks to Maggie’s workshop!







A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days – a sobering lesson learned

Tara Smith:

I’ve read and re-read this article so many times , and learned something new with each reading. The message here, that we need to formulate ” ‘backwards design’ from the student experience so that we have more engaged, alert, and balanced students sitting (or standing) in our classes” is such an important one. This post should be read and discussed (often!) at faculty meetings. Our students would appreciate and benefit from that.
Here it is:

Originally posted on Granted, and...:

The following account comes from a veteran HS teacher who just became a Coach in her building. Because her experience is so vivid and sobering I have kept her identity anonymous. But nothing she describes is any different than my own experience in sitting in HS classes for long periods of time. And this report of course accords fully with the results of our student surveys. 

I have made a terrible mistake.

I waited fourteen years to do something that I should have done my first year of teaching: shadow a student for a day. It was so eye-opening that I wish I could go back to every class of students I ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things – the layout, the lesson plan, the checks for understanding. Most of it!

This is the first year I am working in a school but not teaching…

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Poetry Friday: Night Bicycle by Jonathan Johnson

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Poetry Friday is hosted by Michelle @ Today’s Little Ditty

Rubbish Day is a once a month affair in our town.   I love walking our dog Sophie the night before and inventing stories for all the items (some boring, some not) dumped along the sidewalks.  This week, we came upon an old bicycle…a VERY old bicycle: rusted, bent, weatherbeaten, worldly.  This was definitely not a suburban New Jersey leafy neighborhood type of bike.  I’m glad it’s Poetry Friday, so I can find an excuse to read poetry into an old bike…

Photograph by Sheldon Brown:http://sheldonbrown.com/

Photograph by Sheldon Brown:http://sheldonbrown.com/

Night Bicycle

by Jonathan Johnson

Black mamba of the front tire
over wet streets, the wet streets,
after-rain falling from the neighborhood leaves,
luminescence of lampposts’ lamps up
through the trees.

Sink into someone’s porch chair
and look at all these leaves
then ride on into the smell of sawdust.
That sweet smell of wood.
Someone is renovating.

May he do it right!
May he be careful.
May he do it right.
May the work of hands satisfy.
Sleep on, Amigos!

The girl who left years ago
loved you behind that window.
She is now some person
Living a state away.
Which only makes her more.

You and me, little poem.
Mi amigo. Compadre.
Inside each dark house
the streetlights keep
doing their thing on the far wall.

Tonight though. Tonight’s
streetlight makes me need you.
It’s writing indifference,
little poem, indifference
to us on that far wall.

Black mamba of the front tire
over wet streets, the wet streets,
after-rain falling from the neighborhood leaves,
luminescence of lampposts’ lamp up
through the trees.

Writing through the visual arts: an “in between” unit of study

Tara Smith:

Posting on Two Writing Teachers today:

Originally posted on TWO WRITING TEACHERS:

We are in that in-between stage right now in writing workshop, having  just completed our Personal Narrative unit, and pausing briefly before we begin our unit on memoir.  These in-between stages are often perfect for experimenting with something new.

My kids have been working hard for the past month, and I wanted a “cool factor” to whatever this new thing would be. This led me to remember that  at the end of the last school year, one of the students in my very first sixth grade class dropped by to wish me a happy summer.  She wandered through the room, looking at the familiar and the new, and reminiscing about her life in this room six years ago.  She had not been  a fan of Writing Workshop, so when I  asked her what her favorite memory of “block” was, she astonished me by saying: “Writing Workshop! When we wrote with…

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