#SOLC17: Maker Day – a new take on learning

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

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Today was Maker Day in our middle school.  A dedicated and talented group of our faculty acquired a range of materials for our students for our students to explore, learn, and make all kinds of “stuff” with: creating circuits, building race courses, programming animation, and learning how 3D printers work – there was chance to work with all of this and more.

My own learning and teaching world is steeped in reading and writing workshop, and even though I’ve read and heard a lot about MakerSpaces and the remarkable learning that goes on when kids get their hands on all kinds of cool tools, I’d never seen one in action.  More importantly, I’d never seen own  my students working in such a space – and doing so was quite a revelation.

I learned that some of the greatest risk avoiders in my classroom, the ones who want to know exactly how many lines to every paragraph and how many paragraphs there needed to be in whatever it was that we were writing, were the biggest risk takers in this new setting.  They approached each new maker space with enthusiasm and often did not bother to read the directions, preferring to dive right in and figure their way through. I was surprised to see that these students, the ones who want very explicit directions (ones that are repeated many times) in my classes, felt such a degree of freedom in this space.

I learned that students who were the first to say “I’m done!” in reading and writing workshop, were often the ones who just kept going in our maker spaces.  They kept reaching for new pieces to try out, new combinations to manipulate together, and new limits to test.

And I paid close attention to the vocabulary of this new learning space:

“I wonder what would happen if…?”

“How about if I tried it this way instead of what the diagram says to do?”

“What if I flipped the whole circuit around?”

“Well, it didn’t work that way so I’m going to try this way.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m gonna  keep trying new combinations.”

“This started out being one thing, but I thought ‘why stop there?’ and kept adding stuff – and look, I made this, which is way cool!”

This is the vocabulary of curiosity, wonder, perseverance, and risk taking: the vocabulary of growth mindset.  How to bring all of that, or some of that, into my classroom? Well, that is what I have been thinking about all day…and will be thinking about for days to come.

#SOLC17:Sharing a SOL once a week really does build a writing community

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

My sixth graders write a slice of life once a week from September through June. These SOLs are posted by Friday with comments due by Sunday, which gives me my Saturday afternoon ritual: read and comment on all student slices, making suggestions and offering compliments as I go along.  It’s one of my favorite teacher chores, for it allows me to see our morning and afternoon classes grow as a writing community across the span of a whole year.  My kiddos spread their writing wings and try new things, they become more confident about their writing voices, they enjoy reading each others’ work and leaving encouraging comments.

Yesterday was an exceptional SOL day for me.  I loved reading through each slice of life, of course, but half way through I discovered that we’d had a class reunion in the process of sharing our SOLs.  Here’s a taste of what that felt like:

A’s post made me smile because of its connection to our Social Studies work:

It was a long 4 hour drive in the car. Hours passing by, doing nothing and the only thing to see, is trees. All I heard was my sister snoring in the back, while I was trying to read my book. After all those boring long hours in the car, we finally made it to Boston.

I had told my dad that we were learning about the USS Constitution in Social Studies, and since our hotel was like five minutes away from the USS constitution my Dad took my sister and I to go see the USS Constitution. We were really close to where the boat was, and I could already see part of it. Unfortunately, the last tour of the ship was at 3:30, but we still got to see the inside of museum and parts of the boat.

In the museum they had a station where you could engrave your name in copper, because since they are repairing the boat they are going add copper sheeting to the outside of the boat. Now once they place the copper onto the boat my name will be on the boat. The boat’s finished model is really detailed and nice. I really liked going to see the boat in person since we have learned some much about it in class and now I can said that I saw this magnificent ship with my own eyes!

A’s post had me laughing out loud with its wry sense of humor, it was also a glimpse into how kids feel about being over scheduled:

Finally! I raced out of an annoying study skills class I had to attend every Thursday. I pushed open the doors of the school and inhaled deeply. Freedom! We learn nothing in the class, which really annoys me. I only really doodle the whole time, unless it somehow magically gets interesting. I walked down the steps and sighed. Now to go from one prison to another. I now had to go to… *dun dun daaaaaa!* HEBREW SCHOOL! I sit there for two hours learning prayers which I don’t even know what they mean. I would be fine with it if I did, but if you’re going to teach me something, I have to know what it means, right? I said goodbye to my friend who also had to endure the class with me, and then, with my head down, set out for the Hebrew School. Sadly, it was only two blocks away, so I didn’t have to walk that far. The only good thing about the class I had to attend was that I got to miss 30 minutes of Hebrew School. I will take what I can get.

Each step closer brought pain to me. Then I realized I had been walking the wrong way, which I guess my mind did intentionally, because by the time I got back to my normal route, I had successfully wasted another 10 minutes. Thank you mind. I stopped when I first saw the school. I sighed deeply, and started walking as slowly as possible, taking the long route around the parking lot.

Then, all too soon, the doors were right in front of me. I looked at them, and they seemed to look back saying: “Mwah ha ha! You will never get out alive! Surrender or prepare to die!!! Mwah ha ha!” Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a tiny bit.

But, that is my tale of walking to Hebrew School. Now you feel my pain. Then, once I walked into the classroom, I remembered we were making Hamentashens! I sighed in relief. I looked at the clock, and saw we had an hour left. I could deal with that.

O’s ending had me laughing out loud again:

Squeak! Squeak! Basketball shoes on the court. I reach in to get the ball, Crack! I heard my thumb loud and clear. “It’s broken,” I thought, but then I looked at it, a little red and very painful thumb. Phew! I was relieved it wasn’t broken, but then the wave of pain came back like a tsunami hitting the shore. I walked to the bench in agonizing pain. “Is it broken?” Mr. Stewart my coach asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. I showed him my thumb. “We need to cut off your hand and get a prosthetic one,” he joked, and I laughed a little. It was getting really swollen now, and very, very painful. “Here’s some ice,” my dad said, running from the bleachers around the court. He got it from my mom, who ran to the front desk, got a bag and scooped ice out of the freezer with her bare hands. I wrapped it around my thumb. It was freezing, but it felt so good. I watched the game for the whole 4th quarter, which was so boring, but I knew I couldn’t risk hurting it again.

Later that night, my dad said I sprained my thumb. He made me soak my whole hand in freezing ice water for 5 minutes. I couldn’t feel my hand.  “Where did you get this idea?” I questioned. “The internet,” he replied.

The internet: how to get false information to almost give your kids frostbite. My thumb has been getting better and it will be fully healed soon, I hope.

E’s post was thoughtful and serious, reflective of what she is like.  E thinks about the world and her place in it, just as her sister had done when she was in my class many years ago:

Last weekend,  I saw the movie “Hidden Figures”. It’s about three real African-American women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA during the launch of John Glenn. The women face struggles with race and gender, like when Johnson has to travel half a mile to go to the colored women’s restroom. Jackson wants to become an engineer, but in order to become one she has to take extra college courses while everyone else does not. Jackson petitions and wins her case so she can integrate the evening classes at a white-only high school. Vaughan is constantly passed over for promotions, and she nearly loses her job, when NASA gets an early computer that can do complicated math problems faster than a room full of humans. Many of these problems may seem like history, but in reality they are still issues today.

For example, the bathroom problem is extremely important right now, because a lot of transgender students can’t use the bathroom of the gender they identify as. It can be very humiliating for them. And in some countries, girls can’t go to school because there is no bathroom for them at their schools. This sounds like such an odd reason not to go to school. We take it for granted, but the truth is, having a safe place to go to the bathroom everyday can make a huge difference.

This movie also shows that women are smart and can work equally as well as men. Women are often expected to stay home and take care of the kids, and are criticized for “not being good mothers” or “not being there for their kids”. This happened in history, and is still happening today.“Hidden Figures” also made me wonder who else was skipped over throughout history. People who changed the world are sometimes are forgotten, especially if they are women or people of color. Why?

And then, this, an impromptu class reunion among the comments (Heeseong moved back to Korea in January, we have not heard from him, but he apparently still checks into our writing blog…for there he suddenly appeared!):

E:I like how you said “All of that hard work for nothing”. It made it seem really important because you put it at the end.

Lauren:I like the ending

 

Heeseong:What is going on? Did you lose passing time?

J:HEESONG!HEESONG!HEESONG!

R:Heeseong!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

R:HEESONG HEESONG!

M:Heesong!!!!!!!

O:Heesong!!!!! 😮

 

 

S:HEESONG SPOTTING, I REPEAT…….. HEESONG SPOTTING!!!!!!!!!!

R:HEESONG ROBBIE THINKS YOUR STUCK IN YOUR OLD LOCKER

A:Heesong! I miss you soooooooo much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

S:Heesong tell us all about your new home!!!

M:Make a S.O.L Heesong!

How exciting!  I could just hear my kids’ voices shrieking over the ether space in delight as they felt some small connection with their old friend now so far away.  We write in writing workshop, true, but best of all we connect and build a community.

 

#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.

 

#SOLC17: Book clubs then & now

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

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Book Clubs…then:

We begin book clubs in late October, after weeks of independent reading and conferring. My sixth graders are excited to begin, and that excitement spills over into their meetings which are loud and chaotic, no matter how carefully we have prepared with mini lessons about discussion prompts and rules.  Our walls ring with chatter and laughter.  There is confusion,  and arguments break out: Wait, you said that already, it’s my turn now!  Hey, no one is letting me talk, this is SO unfair! We were supposed to read to chapter six, ’cause I only read to chapter 2?!  Wanna walk to town for pizza after school?  I race from group to group, assessing, redirecting, helping my kids to find their way.  By the time book clubs end, I am in serious need of a nap. I am also seriously wondering whether the endeavor is worth all the hassle.

Book Clubs now:

We meet briefly to discuss what we will discuss, and then my kiddos fan out to their favorite meeting spots, spread out their notebooks, and decide the direction they’d like to take.  The “famous” Smith Rice Krispie treats are distributed (home made by me, the night before), and a low rumble fills the classroom.  I make my way from group to group, listening and adding a few comments here and there.  Mostly, I find that although they politely make room for me to sit on the carpet beside them, my kids don’t need me.  So I make my way back to my little corner of the classroom, take a sip of my stone cold tea, and just enjoy the moment.  The book club endeavor is definitely worth that early hassle.

Slice of Life Tuesday:Just another morning…

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

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It’s just another morning…

Jack Frost has left his tracks across our windows, and they sparkle softly in winter’s blue light.  The radiator sighs and tries mightily to take the edge off the early morning cold in time for the arrival of the residents of our room.  When I turn on the lights, the daffodils on my desk glow like a beacon of good cheer.

It’s just another morning…

Boots and sneakers gallumph and squeak up the stairs and down the hallway, accompanied by shouts of laughter and early morning student whining.  Lockers swing and smack open and shut, open and shut.  Two boys attempt to roll down the ramp, and then pretend not to as they catch sight of me. A big group assembles around one student desperately trying to finish his homework before the first bell – they are calling time, just to keep him on his toes.

It’s just another morning…

Our room begins to fill.  Plants are watered. Desktops are made ready.  A group sits on the radiator reading, their long hair lifts and falls to the rhythm of its breathing.  Someone has wedged herself under the easel with a barricade of cushions – the last few pages of a book need to be enjoyed in utter privacy.  Two boys are fashioning paper airplanes as five others look on: paper airplanes are serious work, an art form even.   A group has gathered on the reading rug to study for a Latin test.  In the very far corner of the room, someone has managed to suspend himself upside down from the rocking chair – his eyes are focused on the ceiling, his arms are splayed out on the rug and his fingers are tap tap tapping a rhythm only he can hear.

It’s just another morning… I breathe it all in.

#celebratelu: Activism

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

I have always been political, and I have always been vocal about my politics.  Ever since high school, I’ve marched for causes, signed thousands of petitions, written an equal number of letters, and done my fair share of contributing my efforts to get the candidates I’ve supported elected.  In my view, this what active citizenry looks like: you stay engaged, you participate, and you educate yourself so that you have a leg to stand on when the opposition comes at you…which they will, for that is also part of participatory democracy.

As a teacher, I wrestle with how vocal to be in my classroom, and also in my social media space: what can I write about? what should I share on Twitter?  This election has presented unique challenges because Trump was so often beyond the pale in terms of what he said and did.  There was no way to present this election in the normal way for my students, as I have for so many elections before, because he was simply not a normal candidate – no normal candidate has ever spoken or behaved the way he did, and I certainly did not want Trump to become the “new normal” for my young students.  Even watching the debates became impossible, for many parents let me know that they would not allow their children view the debates “just in case”, which was their way of saying they did want to expose their children to the language used by Mr. Trump.

After the election, there have been even more issues to contend with – the Immigration Ban, the farcical confirmation process, Trump’s Tweeting habits, and the rash of hate crimes which my students are really paying attention to, because they are in the news all the time now:

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There is a fine line between informing and advocating in a classroom setting, but I find myself having to cross it often these days because my kids are full of questions and opinions of their own: why are people racist? why does anti-Semitism still exist? why do people say hateful things? why don’t grown ups seem to ever listen to each other? why does everyone always shout at each other on the news? why are we still talking about all this bad stuff these days-haven’t we learned anything from the past?

These discussions always bring me back to something Mamie Till wrote in her book about her son Emmett’s murder: Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America:

That is, after all, how it works. We don’t come here with hatred in our hearts. We have to be taught to feel that way. We have to want to be that way, to please the people who teach us to want to be like them. Strange, to think that people might learn to hate as a way of getting some approval, some acceptance, some love.

Our classrooms and schools have to be places where hatred can be given no quarter, not even by silence:

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So, even though I feel as though I am skating on thin ice sometimes, I will continue to open our classroom to difficult questions and discussions.  Truth telling is a form of activism, and I celebrate that.

The Mock Caldecott arrives in Room 202

Over winter break, I read Jess Lifshitz’s fabulous post on conducting a mock Caldecott unit and knew right away that it was exactly what we needed to be doing in the week we returned to school.  We had been immersed in nonfiction book clubs in the weeks leading up to break, and although these discussions had been informative and interesting, I felt something was missing from my students’ conversations.  A dive into stacks of glorious picture books, I thought, might just be the perfect way to get our reading community excited about being together again.

As is her way, Jess laid out the unit with exacting, thoughtful detail (complete with forms and resources!), which gave me direction.  Our jam packed curriculum calendar does not allow for the quite as much time as Jess had with her fifth graders (17 days), and my focus was narrower.  I had nine days to work with, which I hoped was enough time in which we could:

  • connect as a reading community
  • practice our listening skills
  • develop our ability to gather evidence about our claim and support it effectively, and politely

We practiced using the Caldecott evaluation criteria with a read aloud and discussion of Last Stop on Market Street. img_6797

My kiddos were wonderful about picking up on the literary elements they noticed, but found an exciting new avenue of accessing meaning in a story through  its art work. This was, really,  the big breakthrough of the unit and the work they found most worthwhile. Actually, they LOVED this work!

Jess had shared a video of her art teacher discussing the art work in Beekle, and my students learned so much about how to analyze the merits of each illustration with an eye for perspective, mood, texture, contrast, and technique.  They turned to evaluating their own stacks of Caldecott worthy books with a much keener understanding about what to look for and appreciate in the interrelation between pictures and text, which became evident in the quality of their note taking (if not, unfortunately, in their spelling ):

Even the way they held their books to read changed – the illustrations required holding the books closer and taking the time to peer at details they would otherwise have just raced past.

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Because they were evaluating the relationship between text and art, there was the need to re-read, re-look, re-think each page in the context of the whole.  This was an entirely new set of skills to practice alone and then together as a group, and I loved the progress they made each day in learning to listen, to frame their claims with evidence (and courtesy), and to re-consider their original thinking based on a partner’s different perspective.

It’s been a noisy few days as groups have met to narrow their selection and choose their nominees, but we have learned something new about art and perspective even as these posters were designed and assembled: how the visual can be a critical aspect of framing an argument.

Today, we presented our cases for our nominees and voted.  I was impressed by how my students were able to talk about the artwork in their selection – how they had noticed subtleties of brushstroke, design, perspective and placement, and how they had come to appreciate the critical relationship between the words on a page and the artwork designed to highlight its meaning and give it depth.

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Our winners were:  What Do You Do With An Idea (A.M. class) and Ada’s Violin (P.M. class)…but the real winner was the unit itself.  Here’s some of what my kids had to say when I asked them to note their take aways (something I always ask them to do at the end of a project and unit):

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