Slice of Life Tuesday: What I would like to hear and do on “Opening Day”

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

 

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A new year – a new lesson plan book!

Opening day, the first official day for teachers in our school, is about a week away but I am dreading it already.  It is my least favorite day of the school year, which is probably not a politically wise thing to admit to…but true.

Here’s what every opening day of my teaching life has looked like: Everyone arrives to sign in sheets and a breakfast of doughnuts, danish pastry, and weak coffee. Thank goodness for that weak coffee, though.  We move from the cafeteria to the auditorium (more sign in sheets) and prepare ourselves for opening remarks in which someone from the School Board essentially tells us that we must do more with less and that (nevertheless) our school is the crown jewel of our town.  A few inspiring quotes will be shared for that humanistic touch. There may be a PowerPoint. That is followed by someone from the school’s  administration telling us what the district’s new goals will be (remember, we must do more with less) and how important it is for us to keep these goals in mind as we march into the new school year.  There will definitely be a PowerPoint – many with pie charts and graphs so we can visualize how to do more with less.  And inspiring quotes, hopefully not the same ones we saw in the previous one. Then we will troop out of the auditorium and into another meeting just for our particular school.  Sign in sheets, and another PowerPoint to remind us of procedures, rules, expectations, changes in how things are done.  There may be an ice breaker activity so that we can be reacquainted with our colleagues in the most awkward way possible.  There may be additional quotes, one year we even had a pop song thrown in – the less I say about that, the better.  Then we will be asked to meet with our teaching teams so that we can go over said rules, and changes in procedure.  Definitely no PowerPoints to look forward to, thankfully.  Finally…we can go back to the places where the real stuff of our teaching lives happens: our classrooms.

Every year, I sit through all of the above thinking of only that last part: my classroom.  To be honest, I’ve been thinking about my classroom all summer, and I would have been there the week before getting it ready for the year (which is a good thing, because getting a classroom ready for a school year is a labor and thought intensive process).  Our classroom is half of the  beating heart my teaching life – every book, stick of furniture, placement of furniture, wall and corner of this room has been thought out to best suit the other half of the heart: the children.

When I think of these children, and the year ahead, I am filled with so much emotion: they are why I show up every day, they are why I read and think teaching things all summer, they are what will keep me up late into school nights. The children.

I wish Opening Day could be less about procedures and  facts and directives and opining about lofty goals for the school district.  I wish all of that could just be sent to us via email sometime before, so that our first official day back in our building could be more joyful, more nourishing of our teaching souls.  Teaching is hard, hard work.  The school year makes many demands  on our time and on our emotions that vary as wildly from year to year as do the children we are responsible for.  Opening Day should acknowledge that.  I would love for it to be about a quick gathering of building staff and then TIME to get back to our rooms.  I would love it be about being in that space upon which so much depends with time to make that shift of mental gears: from summer time research and planning to school time “here we go” reality.  I would love the luxury of quiet time in which to put the last few things in order and immerse myself in thoughts of hope, and dreams of doing with the children – to get into the teaching zone again in the way I, the teacher, see best fit.

That’s what I would like to do on Opening Day.

 

Slice of Life Tuesday: What I learned about my writing life this summer

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

That’s Vita Sackville West’s writing desk at Sissinghurst, and the building in which it sits overlooking the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle.  This, to me, is the ideal writing spot, and I have always believed that I would be a much better writer had I a place like this to write every day.

I don’t, of course, but I found this summer to have been a rather wonderful writing summer anyway – I learned a lot about myself as a writer, and I found myself writing in new and unexpected ways.  Some of what I learned works just for me as a writer, but I have a feeling my lessons could have implications for my classroom, as well.

Setting a specific time frame:  I found it helpful to set aside a particular time stretch in which I knew I was free to write; there would be no interruptions either planned (they would always be set at another point in the day) or unplanned (I would work on having the discipline to ignore the phone, and turn off every single notification on my laptop).  I started small (a half hour) and worked towards big (three hours – which is “big” for me!). Knowing that I had carved aside this time had an interesting effect, in that it allowed me to enjoy my non writing time without feeling guilty about gardening instead of writing, for instance.   My writing time is very early in the morning, it’s when my writing brain seems to want to function in best.  Even though this will have to change once school begins and I am on my way to work before 7 a.m., knowing this makes me want to reserve  some time in my first prep period of the day for my own writing.

I think it would be helpful for my students to practice this at home with their Slice of Life writing.  Perhaps by sharing my summer experience, and giving them a specific aspect of their writing life to think about, I can start them on the journey I’ve only just learned how to give timed structure to.

Looking for inspiration:  As a pretty voracious reader, I tend to think of going to other writers for inspiration.  Sometimes, though, picking up a book you love and re-reading a favorite passage tends to stifle my own urge to write and makes me feel self conscious about what I write  –  how am I ever going to write as well as Arundhati Roy? does the piece I’m working now sound too much like Arundhati Roy?  This summer, I discovered that Instagram can be a fabulous source for writing ideas – many a friend’s glorious pictures of travel, food, and nature inspired me to imagine and then have a story to tell, or something to describe.  Bodega Cats of Instagram, which I find hilarious, became a surprising source for storytelling ideas, for instance.   I also discovered that podcasts were an excellent place in which to find essay topics. The thoughtful, history oriented  Back Story, my podcast discovery of the summer, jump started essay pieces on everything from summer travels to the history of fake news (yes, we have suffered through this, too, before).

I want to get my students thinking more about where they could turn for inspiration, to look at their own forays into multimedia and social media and think (as even old I did) about how these might be reservoirs for writing ideas.

Experimenting: I had fun experimenting this summer.  For a few weeks, I experimented writing a haiga every morning as a “flex your writing muscles” enterprise.  Sometimes I shared these efforts on Instagram, most often I did not.  I liked the fact that it was a task I set for myself for a short period of time, rather than some must do that would soon become tiresome…and therefore not done, which would cause writer’s guilt, which would (you get the picture).  The only point of experimenting was to give myself a stress free way to try something new for a short period of time, and I loved it.

I need to think about how much space I give my own students to experiment this way. Again, I want to share my summer experiments with my kids and encourage them to find their own avenues to explore.

Giving my “lost voice” time to regroup: I had completely lost my teacher writing voice – the ability to write a cogent and organized piece for a site like Choice Literacy  (which I write for).  After many false starts and stops, I gave myself permission to give this voice a rest and allow it some time off.  Last week, when my friend Kimberley Moran asked me to write a couple of pieces about things we had been discussing all summer, I hesitated at first.  It had been a while, would I be able to write something good enough?  I don’t know how good those pieces were, but I found that the writing muscle for this kind of writing had returned.  It had needed some time off.

This is another point to discuss with my students in September.  What kinds of writing do they feel they need to set aside for a bit to regroup, and to find pleasure in again?

Two weeks from today, I will be packing up all my notebooks and getting ready to head back to New Jersey and my teaching life.  It has been a glorious summer, tailor made for me.  I will have many lovely summer memories to hold onto in the whirlwind busyness of the school year, but I think I will hold on to what I learned about my writing life this summer for a long, long time.

#celebratelu: Books, book communities, and book talk

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

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Today serves as a mid-marker of sorts, as of today, I will have been out of school on summer break for exactly one month…with exactly one month to go.  When anyone asks me what I’ve been up to over the past weeks, the first thing that comes to mind is reading.  I have read more over the past four weeks than over the last six months!

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What I’ve read…so far.

This is not to say that all I have been doing is reading, but I am amazed at the pace I’ve been able to keep without losing either the energy or the enthusiasm for reaching for another book the moment I finish what is currently at hand.

Of course, my summer reading has me thinking about the new school year and the readers who will be walking into Room 202 at the beginning of September.  What am I learning about my own reading life that can be put to use for them?

Choice, yet pre-selection: Although I could choose to read whatever I wanted and in whichever order I preferred, every book in my TBR pile (whether YA or middle grade or for professional development) was pre-selected carefully, based on reviews or word of mouth.  This meant that I could count on each reading experience to be a pleasurable one, some more than others to be sure, but not one of them a disappointment – each good reading experience fed the desire for another.   This is what I want for our classroom library as well: it must be consistently good, carefully selected, every read a worthwhile one.

Communities of reading and responding: some of my books were “book group books” and some were ones I read on my own.  But, even in the case of the latter, I had a group to share my thoughts with, enthuse and mull over, problem solve and commiserate with. Our conversations helped spur rich questions and thinking that I would not have had if I had read alone.  This makes me think that in addition to book groups that meet when we do our genre studies, when each group is reading the same text, I should build in some time every week for just “book turn and talks” about whatever it is that my kids are reading.

Latitude in how to respond: There was great freedom in my book groups to find our own ways in which to respond, and to experiment with each response.  We sketch noted, jotted, drew webs, asked questions and wrote long, and in the process we learned new ways of note taking and communicating  ideas.  I want my sixth graders to have this freedom and flexibility as well, which means that I will have to plan for it both in terms of modeling/sharing example as well as assessment.

A sense of responsibility:  We trusted the process, purpose, and value of our reading communities, and felt an obligation to show up prepared each time we participated, so our conversations were always meaningful; best of all, they always pushed our thinking. In my “share whatever you’re reading” group, we could not wait to tell each other (across many miles and a time zone) what had moved us, made us laugh, brought us to tears: it didn’t matter that we did not have a book in common, all that counted was the rich experience we just had to share.  Of course, I would love to see more of this joyful sense of responsibility with my kiddos as well.  I think I will begin laying the groundwork by simply speaking of my summer experiences and how much the fact that others took their reading lives seriously impacted my own desire to show up prepared.

Time: Well, this one needs no explanation.  I have time to read and I am making the most of it.  But, all of the above ensure that I  am using this gift of time to read.  And, for my students, time in our classroom comes down to one person – me. It’s my responsibility to toss aside anything that gets in the way of large blocks of time for my kids to read/confer/share.  That’s on me.

So, this “mid-marker Saturday”, I celebrate all the reading done, the reading to come, for myself…and for those soon to be Smithlings.

#celebratelu: Time off

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

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By the end of every school year, teacher nerd though I am, I find that I need to disconnect from the world of school completely.  The last weeks of school, with their mountains of grading and paperwork for the new school year to complete, leave me with a “system overload” feeling: I don’t care to have another teacher thought for a bit, if I can help it.

For the past week, I have wandered through New York City meeting friends and my children, I have read Eula Biss’ magnificent collection of essays (thank’s to Ruth’s recommendation) and dipped into favorite volumes of poetry, I spent a whole day listening to the New Yorker’s fiction podcast while I put my house back in order, and I cleaned out my many workbags while taking care to toss away my lesson plan book, as I do at the end of every year.

And, over the past week, I emptied my mind of the nagging worries, regrets, and aggravations that tend to plague me as the school year ends.  This is the phase of could-have-should-have that tends to occupy my brain as I assemble portfolios and clean out the classroom.  For some reason, as I get ready to let my sixth graders go, I dwell on all I felt we didn’t do, or couldn’t do.  I notice that H. still fails to punctuate dialogue with consistent care, or that O. continues to turn his work in at the very last possible moment. These noticings make me want to bang my head against the wall, they make me lose sight of that proverbial forest…all I can see are the saplings that still need a lot more help if they are ever going to properly grow.  Arghh!

But, by giving myself the gift of some time and distance from all things school, I feel I can now turn back to summer work refreshed and ready.  I have made space in my head to read books about teaching, to read stories and poems through which to teach, and to begin to give shape to another year of sixth grade learning.

I feel ready for Twitter chats, journaling my ideas for new learning adventures, and immersing myself in the gifts of these books:

#cyberPD

Today, this first July day, I celebrate the return to thinking about (and taking joy in) my teaching life.

 

#Celebratelu & #SOLC17:Getting it done…

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.

We had a different sort of week this week: a blizzard on Tuesday, a half-day on Wednesday, and basketball March Madness which seems to have hijacked the attention span of my sixth grade boys.  It was also a week in which I’d hoped to wrap up projects and units in every subject area.  With all the distractions afoot, I remember driving to school on Wednesday and telling myself to relax and be prepared for getting very little done: it was a half day, after all, we could focus on one thing instead of many, and … que sera, sera (as the old song goes).

I asked my kiddos what that “one thing” should be, and just about everyone voted to finish our book club literary essays.  This surprised me, being that this was intense work – we’d worked through mapping out our thesis and supporting evidence the previous Friday, and moved through the introduction and first evidence paragraph on Monday.  I thought it made more sense to return to finishing up this work (two more evidence paragraphs and the conclusion) on Thursday, but my students had ideas of their own.

“I feel like we’re on a roll,”  Trevor said, “let’s just write it today.”  I looked around at other heads nodding in agreement, and decided to go for it.  We gathered at the reading rug for our minilesson and mentor text study first, and then dispersed to various desks and corners of the classroom to write.  For the next hour and fifteen minutes, our room was silent save for the sounds of rustling pages, writing, and the low hum of individual conferences.

By the time the dismissal bell had rung, a stack of reading journals had been piled high on our conference desk,and all of us (myself included) felt that our half day had been well spent…in spite of snow, a day off, and a half day to work with.  I celebrate that!

And here’s something else to celebrate – the delightful song that came to mind while I was writing this:

#SOLC17 and Poetry Friday: We talked about the fact… by Robert Lax

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

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

Late yesterday evening, a teacher I had mentored some years ago called me to catch up on news: she loved teaching the new grade level was was assigned in September and anxious about at first, she was thinking of starting a blog and writing more, and (this was the part she had really called to talk about) she  couldn’t believe how much she was delighting in teaching.  She was sometimes surprised by this delight, she said, given that she had had such self doubt way back in the days that she first knew me, when she was just launching a teaching life of her own.

In those days, she reminisced, every day was a struggle. Every day was a new invitation to admit to defeat.  Every day felt like an admonition to stop teaching and find a new line of work.  We laughed about those days, and the emails we’d send back and forth: her doubts and fears, my feeble attempts at reassurance and advice.  We traded ideas about reading and writing workshop (she teaches fourth grade now, I still teach sixth grade), and new books to read.  By the time we’d signed off, my heart was filled with the joy that had travelled  across the many thousands of miles between us: I always knew Sarah was born to be a teacher, now Sarah knew this, and believed this, too.

Teaching requires juggling so many disparate skills, it is difficult work.  Even after one has been at it for many years, few of us can say that every day is a perfect day…in fact, it’s those imperfect days that tend to teach us the most.  Never the less, the longer we teach and the more we lean in to the heart and soul of our teaching lives, the better we learn to deal with even the imperfect with grace.   This is what I heard in Sarah’s voice – hard won self confidence in her craft, and the grace with which to navigate the bumps and turns  in the road.

This Poetry Friday, I share the poem below, which speaks (I think) to arriving at grace in the  craft of teaching:

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We talked about the fact…    by Robert Lax

We talked about the fact that
it wasn’t the danger,
it wasn’t the skill,
it wasn’t the applause
that made the act what it was.
It was principally the grace;
the bringing into being,
for a moment,
the beautiful thing,
the somersault,
the leap,
the entrechat on horseback.
The skill,
of course, has something to do
with it. It is pleasant
to know you can do anything
so difficult. It is good when you
have mastered it, and you are
really in competition with yourself.

“When we make a mistake in
the ring we are very angry. The
audience doesn’t know, but we
know.”

But it is a pleasure
to do anything
so difficult
and do it
gracefully.

#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:

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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:

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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:

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her wingbeats –

my heart soars

A beautiful ending to a beautiful book…