#IMWAYR: Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher

IMWAYR 2015.png

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

joy writing.jpeg

As luck would have it, my copy of Ralph Fletcher’s  Joy Write: Cultivating High-impact, Low-Stakes Writing arrived the week we were getting ready for the PARCC test – i.e. low-impact, high-stakes writing.  I read it with relish and relief – relish because few people write with as much joy about writing workshop as does Ralph Fletcher, and relief because Ralph’s note of caution about current writing workshop practice is something I have been grappling with and needed to hear his voice of encouragement.

For some time now, Ralph Fletcher has been asking us to examine how we structure and prioritize student choice in our writing workshops.  In Making Things From Scratch, he introduced the exploratory notebook and new strategies to help our students move away from the sort of formulaic nonfiction writing they tend to write and towards writing that has authentic voice and creative energy.

In Joy Write, Fletcher expands the scope of his analysis to include all aspects of writing workshop.  Having been there from the very inception of the writing process movement, he brings the force of  his institutional knowledge to this task, and the questions he poses about the way we’ve come to run our classroom writing workshops are both insightful and timely.  In my own sixth grade classroom, for instance, we follow our school’s genre based writing curriculum: we move from one genre to the next through a predictable series of steps, beginning with mentor text studies and culminating in writing celebrations.   Although I see the value of predictable routines and scaffolds in moving my kids through a year of writing in which they grow as writers, I would be the first to agree with Fletcher that hewing only to a genre based workshop saps the creative energy and “buy in” of my young writers; or, as he puts it:

Today in many classrooms we find children being taught exacting writing formulas. When format dominates the writing, there’s little wiggle room or opportunity for kids to make writing their own…They are directed to write in a particular genre in a way that’s highly structured and externally imposed.  From a student’s point of view, the writing is less about me and more about what the teacher tells me to do. (p 22)

So, what’s a teacher to do? If we’ve gotten away from the essence of writing workshop in this age of high stakes, test-oriented writing, and want to find our way back to the joy of student-driven writing within the parameters of our curriculum and state mandates, what is our path forward?  Well, Ralph Fletcher has some ideas:

In this book I am proposing a new concept: greenbelt writing. Writing that is raw, unmanicured, uncurated…I am talking about informal writing..I am talking about low-stakes writing, the kind of comfortable composing kids do when they know there’s no one looking over their shoulders.

… a wild territory where kids can rediscover the power of writing that is:

  • personal
  • passionate
  • joyful
  • whimsical
  • playful
  • infused with choice, humor, and voice
  • reflective of the quirkiness of childhood  (p39)

Greenbelt writing, as described by Fletcher, encompasses everything from blogging to Slice of Life writing to…whatever our students feel moved to write about in the form they choose.  The most important factor in this kind of writing is the fact that we (i.e. teachers) have little to no presence or influence: it’s all about what our kids feel they have to say, in the way they want to.  I loved reading through all the varieties of inspired creativity such freedom invites, and the sense of empowerment it creates:

But many students – more than we might imagine – will find their stride through greenbelt writing.  That’s where they’ll (re)discover the passion of writing, the thrill of saying exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, savoring how it feels when you create every word, comma, exclamation point and can say with proud confidence: “This is what I wrote, and it’s all mine.”  (p.97)

In my own classroom, thanks in large part to Ralph’s words of caution every time he presents at conferences or takes to Twitter, I have found that making time for greenbelt writing has led to a much greater sense of writing partnership with my students, and (as a consequence) their own sense of personal investment.  Even when it comes to our weekly Slice of Life writing, for instance, “giving over” the platform to my students so that they can propose how they want to write changes the dynamic instantly.   Carving out the time for such endeavors is tricky, after all, do we even have time for the things we are mandated to do, let alone the things we would like to do?

Ralph Fletcher  believes we can:

What will kids remember about writing in school? I want them to remember … writing that is fun, passionate, and joyful, and reflects what matters to each student.  This is the best way I know to create writing classrooms where the student can develop the concept: I am a writer.  (p.40)

Each student as a joyful writer – now that’s something wonderful to consider and work towards.  So, even as we dive into testing season and all it brings, I would urge writing teachers everywhere to go get a copy of Joy Write, read it, and bring greenbelt writing into their classrooms. 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: Words With Wings

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Day dreamers have a special place in my teaching heart.  It is true that they need extra doses of reminding, and that one can never be sure if they are with us or hundreds of miles away even as their bodies are right there in our classroom.  And it is also true that sometimes the questions they ask and the answers they give bear little relevance to the material we happen to be studying at that very moment.  But the thoughts they share, they things they say and write, often take us to unusual places; daydreamers are special people.

In her verse novel Words With Wings, Nikki Grimes gives us Gabby –  a memorable daydreamer, who finds comfort and delight in words.

grimes 1

Gabby’s world comes apart when her parents divorce: her daydreaming, word-spinning father moves across town, and her practical, take-care-of-everything mother has little time for Gabby’s daydreaming ways.  As she adjusts to a new school, and a new home, and now a deep hole in her heart where her father used to be, Gabby finds that her daydreams protect her and give her both solace and hope:

FullSizeRender 12.jpg

But, buckling up for her word rides gets Gabby in trouble in school – it’s hard to pay attention to her teacher when her own thoughts beckon to magical places.  Her teacher is patient, to a point: “Dreams are great things, Gabby,”/he finally says…”Still, sometimes you have to/slide your daydreams/in a drawer/and let them wait until later…”.

So, Gabby tries to still her imagination and be the kind of student (and daughter) that everyone seems to prefer, even though stilling her imagination makes her feel sad and dull. She finds a daydreamer classmate who pins his flights of fancy down in drawings, and one day she puts her own words with wings down in writing.  Those words are snatched away by her teacher, but they become the key to how Gabby can keep her word dreams until later: he makes time every school day to daydream and write. Gabby’s notebook is soon “thick with daydreams”, with words taking flight:

IMG_7243.JPG

Words With Wings covers just a year in Gabby’s life, an important year. But Nikki Grimes’ verse is packed with  a spare power – you feel the full range of Gabby’s experiences and emotions.  And, of course, I loved that her teacher found the perfect way for Gabby to let her imagination take flight during the school day – he made time to dream and write!

 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: The Boy In The Black Suit

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

Yes, even though it’s the March Slice of Life Challenge and I am a writing maniac this month, I managed to read this fabulous book:

boy in the black suit

Jason Reynolds’ The Boy In The Black Suit is a brilliant book about coming to terms with death and grief.  Matt Miller begins eleventh grade weighed down with sorrow: his mother, the rock of  his young life, has just died, and his father seems to be drifting away in a grief cloud of his own.  Unmoored and feeling very alone, Matt is at first conflicted when he is offered a part time job at  the funeral home where his mother’s service had been held. Mr. Ray, its suave but kindly director takes Matt under his wing, stepping into the role of surrogate father when Matt’s own father stumbles into the street in a drunken stupor and is badly hurt.

At first, Matt is embarrassed about his new job and having to wear the black suit necessary for work to school every day.  Matt is secretly drawn to funerals – some deep and unknown part of his soul seems to need to see how others grieve, how others cope with their grief, since he himself is struggling so much with it.  Then he meets Lovey, who speaks at her grandmother’s funeral and seems to know the secret of how to handle grief and how to to be strong.  

Reynolds does a beautiful job of writing this story from Matt’s perspective in such a real way: he misses his mother, he mourns the way his father seems to be falling apart, he appreciates the stability and support of Mr. Ray, and he enjoys strategizing about flirting with Lovey.  He embodies all the deep feelings, confusions and contradictions of young adulthood.  I especially loved the character of Mr. Ray – the embodiment of that one adult who can make a difference at a crucial time in a young person’s life.  At one point early in the book, Mr. Ray senses that Matt is lost and searching for answers to his loss: why his mother? why now? how to keep going on?  Mr. Ray compares life to  the card game ‘I Declare War’: “I can lose and lose and lose and I don’t know why. But there’s nothing I can do but just keep flipping the cards. Eventually, I’ll win again. As long as you got cards to keep turning, you’re fine. Now, that’s life.”

This is definitely a book for 8th. grade and up – Matt is in high school, and some of the language and references in the story reflects that.  It is a hopeful story, one of the resilience of youth, and the healing power of community and love.

Here’s the author speaking about The Boy in the Black Suit:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#IMWAYR & #SOLC17: The Crane Girl

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?  is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

I love picture books for a variety of reasons, but I especially love picture books when I am so crazy busy that finding time to dive into a chapter book is both impossible (time? where to find time?!) and frustrating (how to carve enough time to dive back into a thought provoking novel when you have 15 to 20 minutes of time to spare?).  Besides,these days, picture books are such rich and joyous pleasure.  Here ‘s one I managed to read:

the-crane-girl-by-curtis-manley.jpg

Curtis Manley’s The Crane Girl is a reimagining of a Japanese folktale with a twist. Yasuhiro comes upon a wounded crane who he rescues and treats with great kindness until it is able to fly away. The next day, a young girl arrives at the hut Yasuhiro shares with his father – she has nothing in the world, not even a home, and asks if she could stay with them.  Although father and son are struggling to eke out an existence, they agree to take in Hiroko out of the kindness of their hearts. But, the girl notices the father’s difficulty in finding work, and she offers to spin silk if they promise not to open the door when she is busy at the loom. Hiroko’s silk proves to be of the finest quality, and soon the father grows greedy for more – so greedy that he breaks his promise.  When the door is opened, father and son discover that Hiroko is the crane Yasuhiro had once saved, but she can no longer remain with the boy she has come to love and must return to her own people. Yasuhiro refuses to let her go without him, through the power of their love he is transformed into a beautiful crane as well.

Lyrical haiku are woven throughout the story, which is a lovely way to move the narrative and add to its emotional weight. Lin Wang’s gorgeous paintings are a feast for the eyes, as well:

Spread_2.jpg

The “twist” in this story? Here’s what Curtis Manley has to say:

I have loved these tales for many years but wanted to create a version in which it is a young boy who saves the crane and befriends and loves the crane girl, but who is not greedy or at fault when the girl’s true identity is revealed. Although the crane must leave, she is able to keep her connection with the boy who rescued her.

I loved this twist!  So often in these folktales, there is tragedy and loss at the end, brought about because of the betrayal of a character the reader has come to like.  Manley’s twist was a happy one – Yasuhiro does not fail the test, his kindness is rewarded, and he is able to be with Hiroko, the one he so truly loves:

matching

her wingbeats –

my heart soars

A beautiful ending to a beautiful book…

#IMWAYR: Rainbow Weaver, Mama and Papa Have a Store & Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate

imwayr-2015-1-1

rainbow-weaver

Linda Elovitz Marshall’s glorious picture book Rainbow Weaver is a delightful read on two counts: the story is hopeful and uplifting, and Elisa Chavarri’s illustrations are a feast for the eyes.

rainbow-weaver2

Ixchel lives in the mountains of Guatemala, where Mayan women have woven beautiful fabrics for thousands of years.  This is something she would love to do, as well, but her busy mother has no thread to spare.  Undaunted, Ixchel tries a number of substitutes from blades of grass to  the wool sheep leave behind as they make their way through hilly pastures, but the results are dull and disappointing.  About to give up, Ixchel notices the multitude of plastic bags littering the pathways of her village; their vibrant colors spark a brainwave – she could cut these into the long strips she needs to weave!  Ixchel’s weaving sells at the market and she earns a doubly gratifying reward: she can help to pay for her school books AND she can help to tidy up her village.

I loved that each page had its Spanish translation, too – a great benefit for language learners.

Image result for mama and papa have a store

In the preface to her book Mama and Papa Have a Store, Amelia Lau Carling writes: “As a young couple in 1938 when World War II was beginning, my parents fled the Japanese invasion of their village of Nine Rivers on the lush Pearl River delta in Guangdong, China. Like other paisanos, countrymen from their own land, they settled in Spanish speaking Guatemala”.  Her picture book tells of one day in the life of this store and their family, both of which embrace the traditions of two cultures:

Image result for mama and papa have a store

The young narrator weaves a joyous story of the way many traditions come together to make their village life one of cultural acceptance and celebration.  Carling’s vivid illustrations add so much to this beautiful story of immigrants making a new life for themselves, adapting to their new homes, and seeking to preserve their cherished memories and ways of life.

Image result for shimmy shimmy shimmy like my sister kate

Nikki Giovanni’s Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate is a must-have book for every classroom library.  In it, Giovanni shares a selection  of poems by African Americans from the Harlem Renaissance to today.  What I loved about this book was the way Giovanni wrote about each poem to explain its context as well as its personal relevance and connection.  Here, for instance, is Robert Hayden’s poem :

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

 

which is illuminated and given such rich residence by what Nikki Giovanni has to say about it:

fullsizerender-20

I thank my good friend Julieanne Harmatz from the bottom of my heart for the gift of this book  – it will add so much to our classroom explorations of poetry.

#IMWAYR It’s Monday and here’s what I’m reading: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

imwayr-2015-1-1

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.

Truth to tell, I was afraid to read Dan Gemeinhart’s new book Scar Island.  Both his previous books, The Honest Truth and Some Kind of Courage, were wonderful reads, and I feared that (perhaps) this third book would fail to live up expectations.  Thankfully, I was wrong.

22209-scarisland

Here’s the jacket copy:

Jonathan Grisby is the newest arrival at the Slabhenge Reformatory School for Troubled Boys, an ancient, crumbling fortress of gray stone rising up from the ocean. It is dark, damp, and dismal. And it is just the place Jonathan figures he deserves. Because Jonathan has done something terrible. And he’s willing to accept whatever punishment he has coming. Just as he’s getting used to his new situation, however, a freak accident leaves the troubled boys of Slabhenge without any adult supervision. Suddenly the kids are free, with an entire island to themselves. But freedom brings unexpected danger. And if Jonathan can’t come to terms with the sins of his past and lead his new friends to safety, then every boy on the island is doomed.

Gemeinhart is able to create Slabhenge in such vivid detail that it becomes another compelling character in a cast filled with compelling characters.  I was completely transported to this place, ghastly and troubling though it was, and I know that my sixth graders would be even more drawn to imagining its storm tossed walls and mysterious nooks and crannies.  One of the literary elements my students have focused on this year has been the way in which setting influences story, and Scar Island is the perfect book through which to explore this idea.

Jonathan’s “crime” and the way in which this is revealed makes for the heart of this story, Gemeinhart creates the kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that my sixth graders will love. But, Scar Island  is also a story about how to stand up to bullies, and how fear and peer pressure can get in the way of even the nicest kid’s best intentions.  Scar Island has a touch of Lord of the Flies, which is a good thing for our kids, they need to be reminded of these lessons time and time again.  

I have a long list of students clamoring for this book, and I know that each will say: Dan Gemeinhart has done it again! And  I wholeheartedly agree.

 

 

#IMWAYR It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading:Cloud and Wallfish & Counting Thyme

imwayr-2015-1-1

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? From Picture Books to YA! is hosted by Jen Vincent  @Teach Mentor Texts & Kellee Moye @ Unleashing Readers.I

Last week was a great reading week, for I managed to squeeze in two middle grade books I had heard so much about.

cloud-and-wallfish

Anne Nesbet’s Cloud and Wallfish was one of those hard to put down books. For one thing, it is set in the East Germany of 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is about to come crashing down, which is an unusual and little written about time period in YA novels.  It is a time period rife with spies, double agents, and double speak – the reader is always on the edge of his seat wondering who is really who, and whether there is anyone at all worthy of trust (including one’s parents).  Here’s the jacket copy from the publisher’s website:

Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. And he can’t even ask them why — not because of his Astonishing Stutter, but because asking questions is against the newly instated rules. (Rule Number Two: Don’t talk about serious things indoors, because Rule Number One: They will always be listening). As Noah—now “Jonah Brown”—and his parents head behind the Iron Curtain into East Berlin, the rules and secrets begin to pile up so quickly that he can hardly keep track of the questions bubbling up inside him: Who, exactly, is listening — and why? When did his mother become fluent in so many languages? And what really happened to the parents of his only friend, Cloud-Claudia, the lonely girl who lives downstairs? In an intricately plotted novel full of espionage and intrigue, friendship and family, Anne Nesbet cracks history wide open and gets right to the heart of what it feels like to be an outsider in a world that’s impossible to understand.

Slip behind the Iron Curtain into a world of smoke, secrets, and lies in this stunning novel where someone is always listening and nothing is as it seems.

Cloud and Wallfish is a thoughtful, complicated story, because living behind the Iron Curtain was a complicated affair: you could trust no one, not even your closest family.  Noah’s persistent search for answers, and Claudia’s need to believe in hope make for compelling reading; their parallel journeys take them to unexpected places, and leave the reader with important questions about what is happening in our country today as we sort through our own morass of “alternative facts” and “fake news”.

thyme

I so loved reading Melanie Conklin’s Counting Thyme, that I found myself deliberately slowing down my reading just so that I could prolong the pleasure of this story.  Here’s the jacket copy:

When eleven-year-old Thyme Owen’s little brother, Val, is accepted into a new cancer drug trial, it’s just the second chance that he needs. But it also means the Owens family has to move to New York, thousands of miles away from Thyme’s best friend and everything she knows and loves. The island of Manhattan doesn’t exactly inspire new beginnings, but Thyme tries to embrace the change for what it is: temporary.

After Val’s treatment shows real promise and Mr. Owens accepts a full-time position in the city, Thyme has to face the frightening possibility that the move to New York is permanent. Thyme loves her brother, and knows the trial could save his life—she’d give anything for him to be well—but she still wants to go home, although the guilt of not wanting to stay is agonizing. She finds herself even more mixed up when her heart feels the tug of new friends, a first crush and even a crotchety neighbor and his sweet whistling bird. All Thyme can do is count the minutes, the hours and the days, and hope time can bring both a miracle for Val and a way back home.

Thyme is such an endearing character – she is all heart, which makes her deeply empathetic to her brother’s suffering inspite of the fact that his illness has upended and uprooted her entire young life.  But, Thyme must also work through all the issues a kid her age faces: making friends, fitting in, sorting through the “popular kids” and the “losers”, having crushes, and being embarrassed about having a crush.  Conklin is able to weave together the many threads of Thyme’s life to create a powerful story about the way a family must love each other and sacrifice for each other in difficult times.  As much as I loved Thyme, I also grew to have much affection for the other characters in the book – from the neighbor who had an illustrious career as a stage hand, to Thyme’s overwhelmed but supportive parents.  The only thing that made coming to the end of Counting Thyme bearable was the fact that I could pass it along to a student, and sit back to watch their pleasure in reading this marvelous book.

The other thing that has helped, of course, is that this book arrived the day I finished reading Counting Thyme

Related image