#celebratelu: The school year ends

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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My school year ended at about 1 o’clock on Thursday afternoon.  The last bell of the school year had rung at 12:30, followed by the raucous cheer that only the last bell of the school year can bring.  There was the last wave of students swooping into our classroom to say goodbye and catch one last hug of the school year, then the loud rat-a-tat of sneakers and sandals beating their retreat down hallways and stairwells, and finally the receding shouts and whoops of gaggles of kids heading downtown for pizza and ice cream or towards the town pool for the first summer vacation swim.

The school grew quiet in the way that schools do on the last day – a reflective quiet, as though the building itself was thinking about the year just past, and the children who had given it life and meaning from September through June.

The school year seems long in September, with plenty of time to accomplish all we need and hope to do.  But, at the end of June, exhausted and deplete though we may be, we know once again (as we do each June) that a school year is in reality a very short time when it comes to the lives of the children entrusted to our care.  The eleven and twelve year olds who come to me each September are at the very beginning of figuring out who they are and what they can be.

I am reminded of this every time I run into a Smithling alumni: the sensitive poet who returned to my classroom years later as a new Marine shipping out for duty in the Middle East, the “allergic to books” kiddo in pigtails who barged into my classroom years later to announce that she was off to the college of her choice to study literary criticism, the quick-to-tears self-doubter who stops by to announce he’s off to study “neuroscience with an emphasis on researching brain disease” at a university on the opposite coast of the country.

They change, they grow, they become who they are meant to be.  You begin to realize that you were merely at the starting gate – their jumping off point into a future you can’t even begin to guess at.

We raised our own three children with this poem in mind, but it applies just as well to the children I teach:

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Being that stable bow, year after year, is my life’s work as a teacher.  I send them forth into the future, their future.  Sometimes, I get to see where the arrow journeys…most often, I do not.

Which leads me to a moment from last year: sitting on the New York City subway, I look up from my book to notice a very well dressed young man looking at me rather intently.  His beautifully cut suit and tasteful tie catch my attention, but so does something about his smile.  I know this smile.  It belonged to a sixth grader once upon a time who walked into my sixth period writer’s workshop every day with evidence of the lunch he’d just eaten on his sweaty T-shirt.  Our joyful reunion is a reminder that he lives in that house of tomorrow.  I cannot visit it…but I was a small part of all that it took to get him there.

So, at the end of my 18th. school year, I celebrate the work of teaching.  I am glad for it, for it is the work of the “house of tomorrow”.

 

#celebratelu: Restarting writing

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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It’s been a while since I’ve joined the Celebrate This Week community, not because I did not have moments to celebrate (thankfully, there were many), but because I’ve been a long writing drought.  I started many blog posts and Googledocs with this or that intention or idea in mind, only to find it go nowhere.  Soon, I stopped starting any writing at all, which made me sad.

Once, somewhere in our daily Voxer conversations, my friend Julieanne reminded me that even though I wasn’t putting words on the page, I was busy planting seeds for future writing – they were right there, she said, in the threads of what we were sharing about books, teaching, kids, and life.

Then, in the midst of the multi genre writing marathon that is the last month of our sixth grade life, a student said this when I took note of what appeared to be his constant need to  walk about the classroom: “I’m writing in my head, Mrs. Smith. Sometimes I need to write in my head before I can write on a page.”  Bingo! Yes, that is also what I had been doing these past few months – writing in my head as I drove around, gardened, walked the dog, or cleaned up my classroom.  I had snippets of lines about some topics, an whole paragraphs about some others stored away, ready to be reached for when the right time presented itself.  That made me feel SO much better!

This week, for no particular reason that I could put my finger on, I began to write again: a blog post, the beginnings of an article , the outlines of a story…not so much a beginning of new writing, but the restarting of already thought out writing.

This weekend, I celebrate that!

#Celebratelu: Celebrating projects!

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

We are closing in on Memorial Day weekend, a big one for us as we “get back” two unused snow days in addition to the usual three day weekend. When we return, it will be June, and my kiddos will be living and breathing summer dreams of swimming, lazing about, and freedom from school…even though we will STIL have three more weeks of school.

Last week, I turned our classroom over to my sixth graders.   They are working on their multi genre writing projects – choosing a topic and writing about it in four of the twelve different genres we have learned to write, starting book partnerships to dig deep and read through two books in the time we have left, and diving into various history projects that will put what they are learning in social studies to the test.

From Monday through Thursday, I stepped back and watched as my kiddos took my simple instructions: create a game of courage and chance that plots out the dangers and sacrifices made along the Underground Railroad this week, honor the brave men and women who were part of this civil rights movement.

Using their class notes and a few additional research tools, my students got to work (some right away, some eventually, and some reluctantly).  It took all of the following to get to our goal – game day:

patience and perseverance: even the best initial ideas need tweaking and refining, nothing ever is as easy as you first think it’s going to be.

communication: no one is allowed to be a show boat or a slacker, but everyone needs to participate and be heard.  Sometimes, may want to scream at your team mates, but that’s the best way to ensure that no one listens to you.  

trade offs: “you can’t always get what you want” is a fact of life not just words to sing, you’ve got to learn to give a little to get a little (that might be a song, too!)…and that’s hard to do.

staying focused on the purpose: it’s all too easy for a group project to run off the tracks if you lose sight of the purpose of the project in the first place.  You may need to take turns reining each other in, but that’s just part of group work.

sometimes the people you really wanted to work with are just the people you’d best NOT work with: this was a tricky lesson to learn, and one that brought no small degree of frustration and tears.  

Game day was great fun.  We took turns rotating around the classroom to play each game, and then having a “say back” at the end.  And, even in this, there was something to learn:

Your ideas may be clear to you but not to others – directions are hard to write. It was interesting to hear how directions could be revised and refined, there is a reason why I stress working towards clarity in our writing workshop!

So, this weekend I celebrate projects: they are messy, noisy, and often frustrating – but we learn so much about ourselves and others when we work together to create something new. Project based learning is so worth the effort (and the occasional headache!).

#Celebratelu: Cultivating community

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

Illness got in the way of my plans to be a part of this #G2Great Twitter chat last Thursday night, which I had been so looking forward to:

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We had just endured through six days of PARCC testing.  For six days, my sixth graders trooped down to our cavernous all purpose room (along with every other sixth grader in our middle school), found their testing ticket among the rows of neatly set up laptops, followed instructions to log on and open their testing units, and proceeded to test for 110 minutes each day.

Each day of testing left them more irritable and moody than the day before; each day became a struggle to get them back into our classroom mode of reading, writing, thinking and talking together.

By the sixth day, Wednesday, they were done with sitting still, testing…and school. Thankfully, our last testing day coincided with beautiful Spring weather, and so we marched out of testing and made a bee line for the soccer fields: there was nothing to do but run screaming around the sun dappled field, and raise some sixth grade mayhem on a brilliant Spring afternoon.

The next day, Thursday, was tough going.  There was a general sense of “testing is over, and we are all just DONE with school”.   My kids were still restless, grumpy, hard to get focused, and hard to please.  I set aside my plan book.  We read aloud, we wrote, we talked a lot.  Day dreaming and doodling was permitted.  By the end of the day, I felt the strain of the past six days begin to ease.  We were not quite back in the groove again, but we were getting there.

On Friday, I stayed home to take my husband to the doctor’s office.  I wondered about those  sixth graders back in Room 202, how were they managing?  The plans I’d left for the substitute were made with my kids the day before: we had decided what we needed to work on – which projects to complete, how to write our Friday reading responses, the movie we’d be watching about the Underground Rail Road and why.   Every time I glanced at the clock, I tried to imagine what was transpiring in our classroom, how were my kids getting on?

With this in mind, I turned to the Good to Great Storyify that Mary Howard had culled from the chat the night before.  It was a rich and deep chat, as all Good to Great chats tend to be, but this Tweet stuck with me:

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This idea of cultivating community is such essential yet difficult work; essential because kids can’t learn unless they feel heard and valued, but difficult because this work is accomplished only through so many incremental, every day steps, that it often seems invisible.  Every day of working together is woven from so many interactions: some explicit, and some quiet and implicit – a smile here, a wink there, a thumbs up when needed, and a frown when it matters.  There is no book to teach how to cultivate community, but you know when it’s there…you can feel it in your bones.

Cornelius’ words made me think about how vital this work is, and I loved his use of the verb “cultivate”, which Merriam Webster defines as: “to foster the growth of, to improve by labor, care, or study”.  Cultivation takes time, it is intentional often quiet work.  We cannot will a classroom community, we have to do the painstaking work of cultivating it. Sometimes the community feels as though it’s fraying around the edges (after six days of testing, for example), and sometimes it hums along without the outward appearance of any work.  Sometimes we are present to enjoy the community we’ve come together to cultivate, and at other times we have to hope that it continues even though we ourselves, as the teacher facilitator) are not present (as I was not, on Friday).  Sometimes we have to labor at it, even belabor the very notion of it, but it’s always worthwhile work, this work of cultivating community.

I celebrate that this weekend…and also the end of testing!

 

 

#Celebratelu & #SOLC17 & #DigiLitSunday: Experimenting with fiction

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

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

DigiLit Sunday is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche

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I have a confession to make.  Although my sixth graders have clamored to write fiction year after year, our enthusiastic forays into  this genre have always ended with a general feeling of dissatisfaction on both sides: I feel as though I have not taught it well, and they feel as though they haven’t written well.

This March, the familiar question of “when do we get to write fiction?” sounded again.  We had just concluded a unit on essay  writing, and were about to get ready for a unit on test prep – a good time, I thought, to answer this burning question once again: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?

I thought carefully about all the things that had led to derailment in the past:

*diving into writing fantasy, which often became convoluted storylines that went on, and on, and on…

*not creating clear parameters for my students, so that some were “all done” quickly and others were unable to conclude because their stories had become so complicated

*not setting up a defined timeframe, so that our “creativity” kept stretching on and on (i.e. story lines were going nowhere, and new characters kept popping up for no rhyme or reason).

And I used those lessons to tighten up the plans for this year:

*we would stick to realistic fiction

*we would think about our storylines in a more limited way:

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*we would spend more time planning before writing:

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*we would have three weeks: two to plan, draft, confer, and peer review, and one to revise and publish.

Last Wednesday was publishing day and our writing celebration.  My kiddos created covers for their short stories, and then sat back and enjoyed each others’ creations:

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And I sat back to reflect upon the initial burning question that had set this particular writing into motion: can we write fiction in a meaningful, satisfying, but time conscious way?  The answer, I thought, was a qualified “yes!”.    Here’s what we learned in the process:

*writing fiction is a lot harder than it looks (some were able to develop their storylines well, and some didn’t quite reach the mark – hence the above “qualified”).

*having a plan of action is really important in writing fiction, because it’s so easy to go off on tangents (new characters! sudden happenings!) and so hard to get back on track.

*working within a time frame helps us stick to our plans (more or less).

*we could use our reading strategies (Notice and Note signposts) as writing strategies.

*we will take what we’ve learned and keep experimenting – who knows, but that some of these short stories will one day morph into the long novels that some of my kiddos long to write. I celebrate that!

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#SOLSC17 and #Celebratelu: Joy

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

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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The thing about sixth graders is…they leave the best Friday messages.

The thing about sixth graders is that there is no one thing that you can point to and say: that’s it! This is what sixth graders are all about.

The thing about sixth graders is that they are ever morphing, ever zooming from one extreme to another, ever veering off into some new zone of being just when you begin to think that they are settling down.

The thing about sixth graders is that life with them, school day in and school day out, is like looking through a kaleidoscope: you are enthralled by the ever changing view, exhausted by it, but energized by it, too.

The thing about sixth graders is that you just can’t help but love them; even on their worst day (which is consequently also your worst day) they find a way to leave you believing that tomorrow will be a better day, perhaps even the best day.

The thing about sixth graders is they reach into your heart and worm their way into available space, so that you may have to drag your weary body out the classroom door day after day, but you feel strangely good about that weariness, it is a it’s-totally-worth-it kind of weariness.

The thing about sixth graders is that they take you on their journeys of thought every day: a roller coaster, sometimes slightly sick to the stomach kind of journey – you never quite know where that next steep swoop or crazy swerve might be, but you find yourself looking forward to and actually enjoying them any way.

The thing about sixth graders is that they don’t stay sixth graders very long – just from September to Spring Break, really.  Because after Spring Break, they are seventh graders…and entirely different species of middle schoolers, not different in a bad way, but but sixth graders, either.

The thing about sixth graders is that they need to be celebrated.  Yes, they make me want to tear all my hair out upon occasion; yes, they leave me speechless with consternation upon others.  BUT, they mostly make me want to laugh, to think, to enjoy the moment, to cast away cynicism, to be absolutely honest.

The thing about sixth graders is…I was somehow just meant to teach them.

 

#Celebratelu: Heart mapping our way to revising essay

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Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

It was a short and rather odd school week.  We had Monday and Tuesday off for February Break, and my kiddos returned to the classroom wearing Spring attire and feeling Spring fever due to weirdly warm temperatures.  I opened all our classroom windows to let in as much fresh air as I could, and we celebrated being able to do that.  Warm breezes and sandals feel odd in February…but we all know that winter is not done quite yet, so we need to enjoy this reprieve while it lasts.

We have been essaying in Room 202, first reading mentor texts, then choosing topics and drafting our own essays, and now beginning to revise and refine our work.  On Friday, we gathered together with our most recent drafts, the ones we were about to finalize for our writing celebration on Monday, to talk each other through how we would peer edit and offer each other constructive criticism.

The nature of essay writing demands that  each writer brings their own individual voice to their journey of thought: there is no prescribed formula, for the very idea of this kind of essay is to allow each writer to forge their own creative path through their thinking in order to arrive at their destination.  Some may meander, and some may be more direct, but each will have the freedom to allow their idiosyncrasies, their peculiar writing tics, to be evident on the page as a stamp of who they are as writers and thinkers.  Indeed, this is what we were most looking forward to as we dove into essay writing.   Over the course of the drafting process, I kept these words from The Journey is Everything – my “Bible of essay writing” – of Katherine Bomer’s:

As teachers of writing, if we do agree to abandon the “thug and bully thesis” (Ballenger 2013), and to forestall the use of clever formulas and predictable structures, then we must internalize and extremely difficult first lesson, one that pertains to all of writing: we must learn to trust.  Trust the process. Trust the words and sentences to lead students to the full flowering of their voices. And, finally, trust that students will be able to look back at their drafts fifty times, alone,  in conference with you, and in collaboration with peers, to revise and shape the material so that it makes sense for readers.  For now, rather than trying  to fit material and ideas into prefabricated pyramids, students can let their material speak to them.  What does it want to do? Where does it want to go? What does it want to say? (p.118)

Learning to trust, and leading students to where their topics can speak to them, were central to my purpose in jumping into essaying with my sixth graders.  First, they had to trust that they could care enough about a topic to venture into a journey of sustained and meaningful thought about it; second, they could find their own structure to best lay out their thinking and take their reader on this journey.

Many of my students discovered what they most wanted to say after much meandering; my greatest challenge during conferences was validate that meandering (they were always worried about getting “off topic”) and teach them how to build on that meandering – that that was the essence of the journey of thought!

On Friday, essays in hand, they were still concerned about how effective they had been in communicating important ideas they had thought about as they wrote.  I had created a very loose peer editing form for my students to use, but I recognized right away that my form was irrelevant to their biggest concern.  What to do?

Well, thank goodness for Georgia Heard and her book, which I am currently reading: Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Writing.  In it, she argues for an expanded notion of crafting heart maps, and encourages us to use them in more ways than just to collect writing ideas.  What if each of my kids could create maps to answer the question: what is at the heart of my essay?  before they handed over their drafts for peer editing?  Then, a peer editor could read over the essay and respond to this question: what ideas are at the heart of this essay?  Comparing the two, I thought, would be much more beneficial to my writers than the peer editing form I had generated the night before.

My students thought this was a great idea, and jumped into their heart maps with excitement and purpose:

Then, they exchanged essays with their fellow writers and tried to read and identify the heart of these essays.  I asked for one sentence summations, mostly because I wanted these to be as focused as possible to be as helpful as possible.  The results of our peer editing experiment were surprising.  In most cases, there was clear overlap between heart maps and these one sentence summations.  In some cases, there was wide divergence.  So we talked some more.

Because I had conferred through each step of the process and knew what each writer was trying to essay about, I had ceased somewhat to be an effective editor in terms of what was at the heart of each student’s essay – it was clear to me because we had conferred so much! A new set of eyes, however, sometimes revealed a different, less clearly visible, view.  For these students, it was a moment of writing revelation: I need to go back into my piece and figure out how to make my point more clearly!  Writers sat side by side to assist in this figuring out process, and heart maps became a tool for these new conversations.

Moving from group to group, mostly listening in, I celebrated heart mapping our way through revising our essays.  Something new in Room 202!