Poetry Friday:November Fifth, Riverside Drive by Katha Pollitt

Poetry Friday is hosted by Linda @ TeacherDance

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My Facebook memories page popped up this morning with a photograph I had taken with my daughter Elizabeth five years ago on a Fall evening at Riverside Drive.  It had been  a Teacher’s College  day of learning for me, and we met at Riverside Park after Elizabeth was done with her own graduate classes at Columbia.  That photograph brought back many memories, most of which really centered around what it is like to be at Riverside Park late on a Fall afternoon, when what is left of the sun perfectly illuminates what is left of the leaves.

Fall in New York City is magical.

November Fifth, Riverside Drive by Katha Pollitt

The sky a shock, the ginkgoes yellow fever,
I wear the day out walking. November, and still
light stuns the big bay windows on West End
Avenue, the park brims over with light like a bowl
and on the river
a sailboat quivers like a white leaf in the wind.

How like an eighteenth-century painting, this
year ‘s decorous decline: the sun
still warms the aging marble porticos
and scrolled pavilions past which an old man,
black-coated apparition of Voltaire,
flaps on his constitutional. “Clear air,
clear mind” -as if he could outpace
darkness scything home like a flock of crows.

 

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#Celebratelu: Celebrating the work of launching memoir

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

I saw this Tweet this morning, which made me sit up and take notice, because it came from my wise friend Katie Muhtaris and it mentioned the also wise Colleen Cruz:

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Teaching eleven and twelve year olds who often come to me feeling that they are writing about nothing, I have sat through more writing conferences than I can remember helping my kids find their something.  So, yes, our kids need us to believe that they have something to say, and we need to believe (i.e. deep down in our hearts, not just pretending to pay lip service to the very idea) that they have it in them to say it.

Believing, of course, is only one part of all that goes into teaching children how to reach into their hearts and souls to find that something.  Katie’s Tweet made me think about all the groundwork my kids and I laid for writing memoir this past week.  Before I describe any of that work, however, I want to be absolutely up front that everything below has been cobbled together from wise books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended over the past twenty years (Katherine Bomer! Ralph Fletcher! Nancie Atwell! Linda Reif!) and collected in my writing workshop handbook.  I owe everything about the work I do in my classroom to folks much smarter than me…and to my students from whom I learn every day how to transform theory into practice.

First, we talked about how personal narrative differs from memoir:

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We spent a long time talking about the difficulties some have had writing memoir in elementary school, and acknowledged how hard it sometimes is to look at the small moments in their lives for whatever it is that their teachers have deemed “memoir worthy”.  Most of my kiddos felt that “memoir worthy” moments to write about were just something dreamed up by teachers with which to torment them (which brought to mind Billy Collins’ lines about what is done to poetry – “But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”).

Next, we moved onto a minilesson about the source of memoir ideas for writers:

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And then we examined a list of possible places to venture for memoir “seeds”:

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Every day, after our mini lessons and mentor text studies, we reached into this idea bank to story tell and then quick write.  Some of these forays just might become the writing pieces that my kiddos will choose to stretch out and develop next week, but the purpose of this was simply to think about small moments through the lens of the above “big ideas” and try one’s hand at writing in a “memoirish” (their word!) way.

That led us to the real heart of our memoir study – reading powerful examples of memoir writing and deconstructing each piece for those elements most common to memoir: how the author uses language to convey meaning/how we learn about the memoirist and those important to her or him in this moment/the role of setting/the use of time to lend power and meaning/the “so what?” – the author’s purpose for remembering and writing this experience.  I have always opened with James Howe’s “Everything Will Be Okay”  because it is, quite frankly, the most compelling text with which to begin – it’s a story that somehow always leads my students to an “ah ha moment” of their very own, one that never fails to answer their nagging questions about “what the heck is the difference between personal narrative and memoir anyway???”. With “Everything Will Be Okay” there is immediate clarity.

We read and take it apart collectively, with prompting and noticing by me all along the way.  This messy, in the moment work with my morning and afternoon writing workshops:

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coalesce into neater, more easily readable (and therefore more referred to) charts like these (our  other text for this type of work is  “All Ball” by Mary Pope Osborne):

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Then we turned to Ralph Fletcher’s “The Last Kiss” (from his Marshfield Field Dreams ), and my kiddos did all this so-smart deconstructing by themselves:

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Every day, we reached into our “memoir idea bank” for storytelling and quick writing after we’d worked with these mentor texts; reading them, talking about them, and taking them apart to analyze the craft with which they were put together helped understand memoir better and helped our quick writing become a bit more focused…a bit more “memoirish”.

By Friday, our working bulletin board was ready for next week, when my kiddos will begin drafting their memoirs and deciding what they want to say.

And that is cause for this sixth grade teacher to celebrate!

 

Poetry Friday: Nightingale by Tony Morris

Poetry Friday is hosted by Violet at Violet Nesdoly | Poems

When my children were little, we took many late-at-night drives to soothe their restlessness and lead them into sleep.  Now that they are adults with lives of their own and bedtimes beyond our reach, I often look back on those rambles through pitch black neighborhoods with one or two babies in their car seats with a weird nostalgia. We have two of of kids home temporarily as they deal with medical issues, and there are no more late-at-night drives I can offer.   Sometimes, I realize that I am not even fully aware of all their symptoms and how they have (being responsible adults already) learned to cope and soothe themselves.  From time to time, over the past few days, I have come downstairs  in search of my morning coffee to find car keys flung on the  kitchen island. Perhaps one of them has rediscovered late night rambles.

Nightingale

When our daughter was a baby,
she’d sometimes cry and cry,

raw-throated nightingale heavy
on evening’s shoulders,

no solace in the rocking lullaby,
warm milk, blue velvet blanket,

nor in the whispered words,
the quiet shush we’d loose

while pacing back and forth
across the wooden floors.

Until one night, by chance,
we needed diapers,

and my wife, as tired
as I and needing, if not rest,

at least another’s voice to soothe
the small disquiet in her chest,

lifted Morgan from the crib,
bundled her against the cold,

and together we walked out beneath
the stars that pulsed

against the winter’s crisp
and piled into the car.

And halfway to the store,
heater blowing warm against our feet,

we noticed the muffled
wind that faintly buffeted the glass,

the slapping, even rhythm
of the concrete seams we crossed,

and the silence—but for heavy breathing
coming from the car seat in the back.

Slice of Life Tuesday: A visit with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater.

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

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What could be better than seeing Amy Ludwig VanDerwater in person again? Why, watching Amy teach third and fourth graders, of course!

I felt like such a lucky duck to be able to step out of my middle school during my lunch period and make the short drive over to one of our elementary schools to be able to visit with their visiting teacher: Amy.  Many, many moons ago, I had begun my teaching career in a second grade classroom, and although my teaching heart found its place in middle school, there is something sweet and delightful about elementary school-ness that I will always miss: the sound of little voices, the splash of color every where, and the way elementary schools just seem to reverberate with the irrepressible spirit and energy of the younger student set.

Amy was teaching a group of fourth graders when I tiptoed in.  They were clustered around the rocking chair, writer’s notebooks in their laps, listening intently to her story telling.  Amy’s magical button box sat beside her, and I could see piles of buttons sitting on every desk in the classroom, hinting of stories just waiting to be told.

In the way the children were gathered around, the way they listened, the way they were bursting to share their stories, and (especially) the way they watched Amy, I could tell that Amy had made this writing community hers in a very special way.  After all, it takes a special person to be able to walk into a classroom full of never-met-before children, and connect with them in such a way as to make it their own.

One by one, the children shared their stories, poems, lists of favorite and unusual words. I loved watching Amy lean in to listen, kindly gesture to redirect, and celebrate these eager young writers.

When it was time to move on to a third grade classroom, I noticed the care with which these fourth graders brought back Amy’s buttons, the way they lingered to say goodbye, and the way they tucked away their writer’s notebooks – as though they could hardly wait to get back to Amy-inspired writing when it was workshop time again.

Those third graders remembered Amy from her visit the year before, and they scampered to the rug full of delight.  Balancing a pile of notebooks on her lap, Amy shared some of their contents – entries, sketches, lists, bits of paper.  I loved the way she drew the children into the way writers notice, remember, mull over, and invent.

Soon, it was time for them to write, and for me to make it back to the land of middle school.  When I turned to leave, Amy was on the reading rug and deep in conversation with a young writer whose pony tail was swishing excitedly as she let Amy in on her plans to write.  Some children had begun working, but most were watching this writing conference in action, wanting in on some Amy time.

Lucky kids…and lucky me for having had the chance to watch teaching magic.  Thank you, Amy!

 

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.