Slice of Life Tuesday: Another year…another multi genre project

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

We’ve been working towards Monday’s multi genre writing celebration for the last month. Day after day, and evening after evening (thanks to the wonders of GoogleDocs), my students worked at writing about a topic of their choice in four of the ten genres we had explored in writing workshop, and I worked at commenting on their writing and offering my suggestions.

Some days were productive, and some days were less so.  Summer beckoned from our classroom windows during the week, and it was even harder to focus on the weekends. But, we kept at it, chipping away at what seemed at first a huge and hard to manage task.

Sometimes we loved our topic of choice and they ways in we had chosen to write about them, and sometimes (especially in the middle of the process), we were much less enthusiastic.  But, we kept at it, trying our best to do our best.

And then, the end came into view: our multi genre writing celebration, the day we open our doors to parents, and share our work.  First, we signed up for celebration day jobs:

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Then we made invitations:

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And then we set up for presentation day:

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I  stood to one side  of the classroom, taking in the scene. Parents milled about, reading and chatting, students answered questions about process and intention: this was what an authentic audience looks like and sounds like.  My kiddos looked happy, proud, and just a bit abashed at the attention their writing was garnering.

All that work was worth this.

 

 

 

NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:

 

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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

Choice in writing workshop

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We are winding down our sixth grade life here in Room 202.  This week, we wrote our last Slice of Life,  much to the sorrow of our class for we (surprisingly, to some) grew to love our once weekly sharing of the stories of our lives.  For this week, I asked my students to reflect upon how they’d grown as sixth graders, and to think about the goals they would be setting for themselves as seventh graders.

Many of my kids wrote about the way they had learned how to be organized and manage their time, and felt that this would be a goal to focus upon next year, as well.  And many wrote about the way they had learned to prioritize assignments and carve up longer projects into smaller, more manageable pieces.  Some wrote about learning how not to “freak out” when presented with something new and challenging, and others wrote about learning how to ask for help.

Since this was not our end of the year writing survey, where I ask for focused responses to our sixth grade writing workshop year, I was a bit taken aback by how many students chose to write about their writing lives as part of their reflection.

Here’s what Sasha had to say:

I think that my biggest achievement of the school year was my writing. It makes me proud knowing that have done my very best and that people apparently like it, from my novels, to my SOL’s. Let’s think back to when I was an average joe-shmo, trying to find his way in a big middle school, before the time of my novels and stunning stop motion movies that gained me so much recognition back before my famous dance move (If you are in my dance class). Back when I had no clue of my talents. Back to the first S.O.L….  

I slowly clicked on the classroom page, sighed as I were a sloth and came face to face with boring text, the bane of my existence.  It might have seemed like normal instructions for some, but for me, it seemed more like this: “He-he-he, welcome to the torture chamber, where nightmares come true! Right about a random time in your life, I don’t care, just write something! Oh, and remember, make sure to suffer! This message is brought to you by the executor of fun.” “well, I might as well just do it, staring at it won’t make it go away,” I thought as I set to work.

Soon, I had chosen a topic and decided on my choice of words. I would focus on the main idea and leave everything else sort of in the background.  After about 20 minutes I completed my masterpiece, it was glorious. In fact, I found myself happy and proud. I even showed it to my parents, who were very pleased, though my sister just scoffed. Ignoring my sister, I proudly hit the post button and beamed with awe as my work got posted for everybody to see and enjoy.

And that, my friends, was the start of a new Sasha, a Sasha that loved writing, he adored it. And with after lots of mini lessons, I couldn’t be any more proud.

And here’s what Sam shared:

Ever since I was in 2nd grade sitting at my table typing up a story that I had just wrote, writing was hard. I had 6 teachers that tried to help me get through the difficulties of being able to sit down and write a narrative, fictional story, or persuasive essay. I think that this was because they never presented topics that were fun to work with, and most of all, we did not get to pick our own writing to do. I always hoped that one day I would be able to write a killer essay…Once the first day of school came I already felt like I was learning, and I guess that I was, because my writing started to get better and better until finally I started to feel at home while writing. Now I am writing this off the top of my head, but I am not worrying, I am not scared to fail, I am confident that my writing skills will get better and better, hopefully this will continue until I am an adult.

The year seemed to move by faster and faster and I learned more and more about writing, one of the things that I learned was that Latin roots can really help with very “perplexing” words that are “laborious” to “enunciate.” (See what I did there?!;))  I guess I made a transition from stressing about even writing a paragraph long draft to now writing killer essays off the top of my head!

I read over these comments and thought about what was really behind the growth that these writers had made; what was at the root of their change of heart about writing itself?  To be sure, we read a lot of inspiring mentor texts, and worked through a number of mini-lesson or conference driven strategy sessions, but I sensed that there was something more at work.

Both Sam and Sasha are rather eccentric writers (and thinkers!).  They are both obsessed with certain topics (robotics, infectious diseases, aeronautics), and really enjoyed playing around with writing craft (they love asides, sly jokes, inventive punctuation).  Although they, and writers like them in our class, were willing to conform to structured writing when needed, they really blossomed when allowed to take the time to figure out how to say what they wanted to say the way they wanted to say it.

My students have always chosen what they wanted to write about.  But this year, more than ever, I stepped back and gave my kids much more leeway in deciding how they wanted to write.  Much of this I owe to the work of Ralph Fletcher, who has been speaking out about this at every conference of his that I’ve attended, and every recent book he’s written.  At the end of each conference and book, I would ask myself some hard questions about what I was doing (unintentionally or not) to limit choice in writing workshop, and to confine my students too much with checklists, rubrics, mentor texts, and forced structure.

Fletcher has this to say about such forced structure:

http://www.heinemann.com/blog/heinemann-podcast-joy-write-ralph-fletcher/

a pertinent section of which is this:

We think sometimes about choice in a limited way. Choice is not just a matter of what to write about. I mean that’s part of it, and I really think it’s important that students can decide what they want to write about and choose topics that are passionate to them, that matter to them, that they’re interested in, but also choice includes how to write about something. How do you start? Do you start with sound effects? Are you going to start with some dialogue? Are you going to start by setting an ominous mood? That’s something that the writer has to decide. What words you’re going to include, is it going to be funny or snarky or serious. There’s a million different choices.
One of the things that I always say is that a writer is somebody who is making decisions, and I say that to kids in kindergarten all the way up to high school. “A writer is somebody who makes decisions, so what decisions are you going to make today? As I come around and confer with you, I’m going to be interested in seeing what you’re deciding.” That question is legitimate and ongoing and vibrant if kids really can make those decisions. But if they’re following a format, or following a heavy anchor text or rubric where they really are sort of checking off the things that have to be in there, that’s not a format, that’s not an environment that really encourages choice.

Thinking  again of writers this year like Sasha and Sam, who walked into our classroom less than confident and sanguine about the writing experience, I think that this is what made the greatest difference: they had a lot of freedom both in what they wanted to say and how they went about saying it.  To be sure, we had our mini lessons and all the other fixtures of what is considered the writing workshop process, but then they got to decide how to go about the rest.  This made our writing conferences so much more interesting, because they were really more like conversations about craft than my telling them exactly what to do.  True, this also made it trickier when it came to rubrics and assessment (how much value to place on inventiveness and a willingness to take writing risks, for instance), but, judging from our last SOLs, it was  worth it.  Or, as my sixth graders would say, “That was TOTALLY, like TOTALLY, worth it!”.

 

 

 

SOL Tuesday: Beckoning the lovely in Room 202

Tuesday’s  Slice of Life writing community is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

It’s the story of my teaching life: I have an idea, I toss it out to my kids, and then they blow me away.  Over the years, I’ve learned to place my trust my kids in a “Field of Dreams” kind of way – if you name the idea, scaffold it a bit, and invest it with purpose, they will rise to the occasion, and often exceed the idea you had in the first place.

Two weeks ago, while thinking about the recent loss of Amy Krouse Rosenthal, I felt the need to share her with my students.  I wanted them to know of her work, her spirit, and the joyous way in which she invited her readers to consider noticing and doing lovely things.  So, I came up with this Slice of Life Assignment (we write a slice of life every Friday on our class blog):Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 1.47.49 PM

At first, my students were puzzled.  There were a hundred anxious and agitated questions: what do you mean by “lovely”? does it have to be something written down? can I sing a song? can I work with a partner?

Then they were a bit annoyed by the open endedness of the assignment (these are kids who seem to need very explicit directions: how many paragraphs? how many lines in each paragraph? – so much of my work with them this year has been to break this neediness and encourage more risk taking).

Then they got to work…and I waited.  Some of our “lovelies” came in during the week, and were cause for celebration, like Lila’s painting:

On Sunday, when the assignment was due, I logged on to Google classroom and watched lovely unfold:

  • movies about lovely moments and memories
  • planting trees in our neighborhood inspired by #ALTNPSPLANTATREE:

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  • creating a community kindness project:

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  • poetry – lots of poetry!

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  • crafting something lovely for those we love (sketching a flower for mom, delivering treats to grandma)
  • looking out of the window and celebrating the lovely that Nature has to offer (a cherry blossom in bloom):

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On Sunday, I was overwhelmed by what my kids had been able to do: they came to that metaphorical field and they brought their A game.  They imagined what kindness looks like, and they paused to notice what was lovely in their everyday.  We beckoned the lovely in room 202, and the joy of our endeavor reverberates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#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.

 

Honor the work

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The week began with treats and writing celebrations – a fitting way in which to mark Halloween.

At the end of our sharing time, my students collected their compliments and stapled them to their published pieces, and the room was silent for a while.  Writers read what other writers thought about their work:what went well? what needed work? could you identify the “so what?”   This led to conversations, and quiet self discoveries about how to be clearer in what we mean to say, and how to value each other’s voice.

Then, they collected their drafts, and the copies of their many revisions to create “work” folders.  “Wow,” I heard more than one student say, “we put so much work into this.”   Because, yes, over the last few weeks, we have been working hard to make our writing what we hope it can be, what we are learning it can be.

Today, as I begin the process of assessing this work, I see before me stacks of published pieces, work folders, and an open computer screen which reveals 42 writing folders in our writing workshop Google Classroom.  Each folder contains narratives that went back and forth between my kiddos and me: comments shared, resolved, argued over.

Writing well takes time, effort, frustration and resolve. Writing is hard work.  My kiddos have just begun their sixth grade journey of writing, and there is much ground to be covered…but today I will put off the business of assessing, and be content to simply honor their hard work.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Where did October go?

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Where did October go? I asked myself this morning, as I tore it off my office calendar and came face to face with November.

What had happened to October? I wondered, as I put a great big red “X” through it on our classroom school calendar.

Then, the first of my students began walking into our classroom…two ballerinas, one robot, Minnie Mouse, and a pirate…yes, Halloween is here and October is definitely over.

The question remains…where did it go?

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We read Some Kind of Courage, and learned about being brave and staying true to the best in ourselves, the “best” we weren’t even sure we had.  And, somewhere in the listening, and turn and talking ,and note jotting, we became a community of readers.  Our read aloud gave us one story to gather around, experience, and learn through. We came to know  Joseph and Ah-kee, and our journey to learning about them was also a journey of learning about each other: what makes us laugh out loud, what moves us to tears, and what lies between.

At one point in the story, Joseph and Ah-kee trade mementos:

We looked at each other a minute, then we both put the other’s memory into our own pocket.  They were new memories, now, but they were tied up and bound to the old.  That’s how memories work, I suppose; you just go through life collecting them, never let go of the precious ones but leaving room in your heart for more.  Pg. 172

And that’s how great stories shared in readalouds work, too…we’re going through our school year together collecting them, loving them, and leaving room in our hearts for more.  So, there was a piece of October…

…which was also spent exploring our stories and writing our own personal narratives.  We dug into our writer’s notebooks and took some ideas for a spin all the way from a seed idea into drafting, revision, editing and publishing.  This anchor chart became our workshop reality, bit by bit, as we learned together that writing is purposeful, sometimes joyful, work:

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And October ended with a Halloween themed writing celebration: kids in costume munching on sweet goodies, sharing stories.

We made room for silliness, too, it being Halloween and all.  When the last bell rang, Batman collected writing folders, Alice in Wonderland helped put things away, and a long-tailed, tutu sporting mouse assisted in sweeping away leftover crumbs.   Writing workshop involves many shared tasks.  So that was another piece of October.

Reading and writing, learning and sharing, doing the work of building community…that was our October.  It was a month, all in all,  well spent.