Slice of Life: When Writing is Play

The end of the year is approaching, and the to-do checklist seems endless.

Today, amid the to-dos, students slogged through one more reading assessment. The last one of this year.

Thirty minutes into it, I asked them to pause and come to the meeting area. About half had finished.  They sat there full of that energy that says let me play.  When I told them the rest of the period was for their independent writing projects, you’d thought I’d told them to go to recess early.  And it’s no surprise when you consider these titles:
Pickle Man and Green Screen Man #2
Zenomorph Special: Surfing the Net
Accepted for Who I Am
Real Friends: For my real friends
Why I think dogs are great pets to have
The Date
The Journey of My Life
Behind the Scenes at the Krabby Patty

Or these leads:
One cool day in Lima Peru I stepped outside of my home…
So, I honestly don’t know what is happening, I think I am stuck in a game called …
Here these were the doors that would lead me to high school.

Crazy good fun. In every genre imaginable.
Pages and pages of writing.
As far as they are concerned, the only constraint is time.
As far as they are concerned, this is play.

They have learned, without any assistance from me, how to share their Google docs with their writing partners. They comment and revise as a part of the process.

They have learned, with some input from their fourth-grade year of writer’s workshop,
a little bit more about being writers.

Tomorrow they will write more with their sights on a Friday celebration. That will be the end. Or (as my students love to say) will it?

I’m hoping their writing lives will continue in this way. Using their Google docs and their cyber writing partners.  Outside the requirements and expectations. Just to play.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday.  Read more slices here.


A million is more than a lot

Last Friday, my colleagues and I planned a culminating math activity. It’s been in the works all school year. The purpose was to have students understand and be able to manipulate a million. To make it real. Not hyperbole. Not just a one followed by six zeros. Could we envision a million of anything? In one space? Have we seen a million of anything?

We choose beans and we counted beans. Bagging them in ziplock sandwich-sized baggies. Each baggie held 1,000. We tacked them to a bulletin board. Each row represented 10,000. The board could showcase 100,000; ten by ten; 100 bags. There was power in that.

Beans amassed, I ran out of space. So I set the bean counting aside. My colleague, however, was committed to seeing it through.  Last Friday, she invited all upper grades to see a million beans spread out on the playground. I was excited to see it but had some concerns as to how my kiddos would react to something that was not of their making. Something that they started and didn’t finish.

We walked out. And saw this.Screen Shot 2018-05-27 at 10.26.31 AM.png

Pretty cool. I thought.

My kiddos measured it.
Counted it.
Had questions.
And some did none of the above.

I brought them inside. Ready to talk about what we found.  They were clearly under-engaged, underwhelmed.

Ok. Let’s talk. What’s the problem? Be honest. You won’t hurt my feelings.

The following three reasons were the most voiced.

It wasn’t ours.
We could have done that.
I hate not completing something. That reminded me of it.

I know some of them got something out of i. There were ahas on the playground. But even with that, the lack of ownership was clear. This isn’t ours.

Ok. That could be remedied. Next year, each class would count a fraction of the total. So much more could be done and earlier in the year. With ownership.

But even with that, there were comments that made me wonder about the transfer.

But the more I asked, I realized, there is more to consider.

When I asked, have you ever seen a million of anything? Their response was sure! At a concert. At a football game. The largest stadium in the world, North Korea’s Rungrado 1st of May Stadium has a capacity of 150,000. The same as 150 baggies of beans. One and a half arrays on the playground.  One and a half bulletin boards. They thought they had all seen a million. Lots of times. But in reality, the concept of a million was still simply a lot. Something that fills the screen. Something that surrounds me.

So what to do? What do students understand about a million? They know it is more than a one followed by six zeros. But is it something other than a lot?

We know we can fit a million beans on the playground.
Could we fit a million baseballs?
A million basketballs?
A million people?
Could a million grains of sand fit in one baggie?
How do you know?
A million is something other than a lot.
It fills spaces in different ways.

61lLfYQKFjL._AC_US200_.jpgOn our journey of understanding, we continue to observe, question, process, adjust, and start the cycle again.

Ah, the joy of learning.

Celebrate: A reason to write

Writing is a discipline. One that is easy to question; to talk one’s self out of. I don’t have anything to say, and I don’t have time are easy refrains that justify closing the notebook, and skipping the blog post. What does it produce? Create? How does it better the world? Why write when there is so much to get done? To question the need, to measure the value, and move away from the act of writing seems a reasonable stance.

Yesterday, I listened to Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s first Heinemann podcast on their new book 180 days. Today, I relistened to it. These two master teachers hold up what I know to be true. They bring me back to the process of teaching and the reason I teach. And with that, why writing is necessary.

Teaching is day by day, minute by minute process. What I do with a student on Monday, feeds into what was done Friday and all that has been done before that moment. The result of a day builds to the next. One piece upon another. Growing within a unit of study. A piece of a year’s plan. The daily execution cycles in and out. From the macro to the work of the day. And it morphs. Understanding the world of that learner at that moment amongst all those other learners and moments within the standards requires writing to untangle pieces of the learning. Those micro-moments are reflected on, processed and translated to a next step for that classroom, that learner, as I write.

This week my students worked their way through state testing. The discomfort of this was not only about what they were asked to do but how they were asked to do it.

They could not
on the floor with the laptop hovering above their head, not
under a desk. not
perched on a bookcase. They could not
refer to their notebooks, or charts. They could not
or ask a fellow student for advice. They could not
look anything up online. They could not
ask me. They could not
move around the room.

And they could not
understand why.

My nine-year-old students did not
understand, and they asked,
Why not?
 We don’t understand.

As far as they were concerned, this is not
only unfair this is not
what school is or should be.

And I told them, you are correct.
Testing is not how our school life goes.

And  I tried to explain:
It’s like going to the doctor for a check-up.
They take blood, get your weight and height.
It’s a quick way of determining if you are on track.
It’s one measurement of you.

But why?
Why do we have to?
You know where we are.

This was a hard one to respond to. We talked on.
And, eventually, my students did as the district and state asked.
They took the test.

This is not how our school life goes. It’s only for a few days.
But, how can I ignore the questions of my students? How can I not question the process we force students to go through. The mock trial of their ability.  Performance tasks of “real life” situations. Done in an unreal and inhumane way. To children.

This is not to question the intent of standards that ask children to think, read, write and synthesize grade-level appropriate materials. We as learners ask is the manner in which we meet or approach grade-level appropriate expectations appropriate?

The majority of my students are at or above grade level in reading, but for those who are not there yet, how on earth is this test anywhere near what school and learning should ever be?  What is this process doing to children? And why do well-meaning educators and parents keep allowing it?

Midway through the multiple days of testing, one of one of my students, a perfectionist, came to me and said, I’m going to sue the government for pain and suffering. They have caused me extreme stress and depression. She smiled as she said it, to let me know she was okay. I smiled back and said, write a letter.
She asked, “To the president or the governor?”

As long as I seek to engage learners, we will have a reason to write.

Today, I celebrate writing and my students. May they always be intertwined.


Slice of Life: That Was Unexpected

Last week, our classroom received a gift that was unexpected.

“That was unexpected,” is what one might say to a student who acted in an inappropriate manner. No shame and communication of expectations. But the thing is. Unexpected can be beautiful.

I have a student in my classroom who is autistic. He talks about his disability and about his desire for and trouble with friendship. All the adults in his life are aware, but the nine-year-olds have not been paying attention. Misunderstandings have accumulated. Feelings have been hurt. Then out of nowhere, the unexpected happened. And with it, minds were opened and hearts were engaged.

It changed with a poem.
A poem he wrote.
That spoke to his journey.
That he read to the class.

Students sat transfixed.
They raised their hands with questions.
about the symbolism,
the title,
the images.

About his inspiration,
his process,
his favorite poets.

About him
and his journey.

And they said,
“I didn’t know you had autism.”
And they asked,
“What is autism?”

He explained how he sees the world.
And how he is wired.
And how many creative people are like him.
But how hard it is.
Because he doesn’t see the world as most people do.
And they raised their hands and asked:
“Can I be your friend?
“Can I?”
“Can I?”
“Can all of room 32 be your friend?”

And, we wrote poetry. We had to.
He glowed,
and said. “I don’t understand, I’ve been telling them this for so long.”

“But with poetry, they heard you.”

We continue to write poetry. And while all problems are not solved,
we have found poetry as a place to create unexpected moments
of joy and laughter and friendship.

You are more

We’ve spent the year doing reading, writing, math, and science to the best of our abilities.
Students come to class on fire about the new books in the library.
Students come to class begging to blog,
to write poetry,
to do research.
Students go to lunch
arguing about how to solve a math problem.
Students come back from lunch
wondering what experiment is in store; how does that work?

Now, after a year of learning,  I pull out the test prep passages with multiple choice questions and standardized prompts. With words like “supports” and “generalize” and  “conclude” that ask students to “choose all that apply.”

And no surprise.
Students push back.
Students ask and wonder why.
Students read the test prep text. Sitting at their desks, not on the ground or under chairs, and say “I disagree with this. This isn’t true.” I secretly agree, loving the ever present in your face moxie questioning, critical thinking attitude of students. But I say, this isn’t the time for that type of question. It’s the time to prove you know what that test maker wants. Read the question carefully. And respond.

As I write this,  I cringe at the dystopian bitter pill we make our students swallow every year. I deplore the fact that the test makers drive educational endpoints. Where we put our resources. Dictate the value of our practice and our students. How is it that we give test makers the right to determine how students view learning? How is it that standards that purport to require critical thinking require the opposite?

It breaks the heart. And tears at the soul. But still…
tomorrow I will translate the language of test makers to the language of readers and writers. So students won’t be surprised or afraid. And…
tomorrow I will administer antidotes, by continuing to tell students:
You are more than any test can measure.  

I know, I say nothing new to you who go into classrooms every day in spite of it.
Looking to engage and enlighten. To learn alongside students.

I write this for me. To remember and focus on what has everything to do with the book, the experiment, the story, the research, the art, the poem, the question, the wonder, the connection, the student. The future that I’m honored to work with.