Slice of Life: Handwritten Letters a Reason to Write

As I thought about the possible things my students could do to celebrate national #whyIwrite day, I kept coming back to the handwritten letter. The rapid decline in letter writing is understandable. Emails, texts, direct messages are expedient and effective ways to conduct business. But what of human relationships? Are they a thing of the past?

Reading the letters saved by my mother makes me believe in the continued importance of letter writing. I had no idea these letters existed or how much these slips of paper would mean to me. Not just for the content, but for the way they were treasured. Wrapped in ribbons and rubber bands. The correspondence saved in postmarked envelopes. The paper, the script, the pen used all create dimension and context. 

I shared some of the letters with my students and invited them to write their own to people who would value them; save them for the future. They wrote to parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, friends.  Sweet letters with rainbows and hearts. There were letters addressed to authors, YouTubers, and boy bands all signed, sincerely from your number one fan. These tangible objects sealed in an envelope, carry weight giving everyone a reason to write.

Literary essay: obvious but unnoticed

My fourth-graders read with giggles and gasps and oh nos. They stop with urgency and reach for their notebooks to write something they must hold on to and then race back to their book. They ask for books by title and author. And when I hand them a new book, they jump and squeal. This is how they read.

Many students take notebooks and pads of paper to recess to create comics and stories. They ping pong off each other’s characters and ideas. There are often cheers when writing workshop starts and groans when it ends.  This is how they write.

This is why I struggle with the idea of literary essays. To ask nine-year-olds to take their developing love of story and turn it into something to be sliced and diced.  Analyzed. Schoolified. Why just when reading and writing are becoming something they enjoy, must we make it something they don’t?  Every year I wrestle with the why.  Some years I’ve simply refused to do the standard work. Having students write their opinions about issues that matter to them; finding relevant support for their ideas is an authentic way to approach opinion writing. The only justification I can manage for writing literary essays at nine is to teach a structure and discipline of thinking about opinion writing.

This year I decided to start it off writing about stories they have heard since kindergarten: Poppleton by Cynthia Rylant and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.

At first, they were beside themselves, mimicking the yoo-hoo’s of Cherry Sue. But once they settled into the idea, they got into spirited discussions as to whether Cherry Sue was annoying or thoughtful.  Students came to their ideas with ease: Poppleton is lazy; Toad is caring.

The tricky part has become the process of writing their explanation of their beliefs.  At nine, students can reason verbally in sophisticated ways, however, putting those ideas on paper is a big step. And, this holds true across subject matter. And it makes sense. That’s why the most accessible texts and that give rise to simplistic ideas work. The writing becomes all about the reasoning.

In the past, I’ve asked students to write about Those Shoes by Maribeth Bolts or Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson or Taco Head by Viola Canales.  These are stories students understood and connected to. But they were too much. Students focused on the evidence, not their reasoning. The evidence was the explanation. Also, students held the same beliefs about characters. There was no difference in interpretation. With Poppleton and Frog and Toad, the text is limited. The same evidence resulted in differing opinions, and that required explanation.

I started out this unit unhappily. Wondering why. Wonderfully, I have relearned something fundamental. I knew simple texts pushed bigger thinking in reading, but I failed to implement this understanding in writing. Obvious, but unnoticed.

I wonder and hope my students learn half as much as I do.

 

Slice of Life: Writing Found

I’ve been wrestling with writing. Many days I’ve composed thoughts only to allow something to get in the way of it arriving on a page. Day after day, I fill moments where writing could have been. It may have been with a book or a friend. But as time goes by, so do we. Writing represents who we are, how we remember, and how we are remembered. I felt this intensely when I cleaned out my parents’ home.

With the closing of their home, I pulled their notebooks and letters, their lived lives into mine.  Their writing holds who they were; of the times they lived in and through. And as lived, they wrote.

Boxes and notebooks. Writing done with manual typewriters. Letters penned by my grandparents who learned English as their second language. Letters sent home from war fronts, written on fragile airmail paper. Boxes of letters saved just as valuable as the yellowing wedding dresses and baby clothes. Words mattered.

Now their writing sits in boxes alongside the notebooks, poems, letters, and other musings of my children; the detritus of who they were at five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten. And I sit in between. Examing how privileged my people were and are to be literate.

How lucky I am to have the opportunity to write and to be able to teach writing. What a crucial way to be human.

 

Essential Conversation #2

I am reading The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Each chapter is filled with teacher stories and wise thoughts. I wrote my reflections on the first chapter in this post.

Having been on both sides of the parent and teacher desk, I felt a bit defensive about the title of the second chapter.  I thought we were collaborative not “Natural Enemies.” This said chapter two had me questioning my beliefs. Had I been suppressing feelings as a parent, or sugar-coating student accomplishments as a teacher?  I have had difficult conversations, some still haunt me.  Was I avoiding conflict?

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I could categorize painful parent/teacher discussions into three categories.

  •  Reflecting on a child’s progress
  • Questioning a teacher’s approach
  • A combination of the two

Thinking on my experiences, I always felt I made mistakes that could have been avoided. But, perhaps conflict is necessary. Perhaps, it brings what needs to be done to the forefront.

If teachers and parents are speaking their minds and opening up their hearts, then it is likely that there will be contrary points of view that lead to disagreements needing to be named and dealt with.

True and scary.

Chapter two contains a series of teacher stories that present practices that could make potentially combustible parent/teacher conversations productive. I’ll share the ideas that I want to institute or improve in the coming school year.

The Child is the Bridge: School to Home
All parents want to know what is going on but most kiddos will not be able to convey their school experiences. I send home a weekly packet of completed work with the hopes that it will help however, I wonder about the effectiveness of this process. It may work for the engaged parent and successful student, but not necessarily for the student who struggles with organization and/or academics. Sending home a packet of work does not make the bridge. One of the teachers profiled in this section also sends home weekly work but with a few added features.

  • A comment page with one or two observations about the child and space for the parent to respond and sign. What a great way to encourage communication and make myself more accountable noting growth or the lack of it every week. This would keep parents aware so that they can take action.  In my experience, most families are appreciative of knowing about concerns sooner rather than later.
  • An “Ask Me…” section that lists questions parents can ask their children about their week in school. It could be about anything we did during the week. This could start out with my questions with the goal of students creating the questions for their classmates to ask. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea as a way to build the bridge from school to home.

Each Child has “Unique Fingerprints”
Where a child lands relative to a “benchmark” produces pointless anxiety. What matters is how the child is moving on his journey as a learner and human. The uniqueness of every child can get buried by the pressure. How a child presents during one school year needs to be taken in the context of their journey. I have to work to make sure that unique qualities that fall outside the realm of academics are acknowledged and celebrated. Looking at the child through a long lens is helpful. Not just who they are now relative to a benchmark, but how their process of learning is progressing.  Next year, I want to devise a way to view progress relative to process; that takes into account goals made, strategies tried, and growth over time. The more specific the better.

Adjust the Mindset
One of my biggest takeaways from this chapter is the mindset I bring to conversations with parents.

  • View difficult conversations as a problem to solve together.  This mindset changes the tone from adversarial to collaboration. A what-can-we-do stance assumes that whatever the problem is will get better.
  • View parent input as a way to feed your teaching. Getting feedback can be painful but with a wide-open door, misconceptions can be cleared up. The effectiveness of my curriculum, no matter how long I teach or how flexible I am, can only be improved through honest family conversations.

Essential Conversations #1

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1bc2This summer, I dedicated my reading life to my literary self. A tweet by Jess Lifshitz via Val Brown got a professional text into my book stack, and last week I started reading The Essential Conversation, What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other.  It has not disappointed.

Each chapter brings up emotional and substantive issues that surround the parent/teacher and home/school relationships.  It brings to light things I know, but need to reflect on to develop.

The first chapter, “Ghosts in the Classroom,” shares teacher experiences as students. Generational, cultural, and personal histories all play a role, coloring their current work and approach. In some cases, teachers have made intentional moves because of their experiences; in others, only upon reflection did they realize how personal experiences affected their teaching.  We all bring a backstory and expectations to the relationship. Noticing our history helps us understand our reactions and relationships.

To do this work, I had to dig deep. Past recent memories and my own children’s conferences to get to my childhood memories. What stood out were confrontations my mother had with teachers.

I lived in a community of educated parents with professional jobs who had high expectations for their children. If a student did not attain expectation with the instruction given, then a poor grade was the result. This was the case in my middle school French class. 

A note from my teacher instigated the conference. I was not allowed at the conference, but I remember how upset my mom was afterward. She described my teacher as wicked and prejudiced. I didn’t care what the teacher wanted. I cared about what my parents thought. I felt protected yet at the same time, scared of the teacher.  I got through that semester learning very little French.

This is my history, and it has colored my interactions as a parent and a teacher.

I chose an elementary school for my children that encouraged parent involvement. I knew my kids’ teachers and they knew me.  I saw everyday events. If something negative happened, it had context.  Lines of communication were open, and eventually, trust was developed. I didn’t have to be there to know things were being handled fairly.

Reflecting on my experiences as a student and a parent, I have three big ideas.
Parents trust you with their child.
As a parent, being allowed to observe the classroom alleviated the anxiety of dropping my child off. As they grew, I worried if they fit academically and socially.
Thinking back, rather than wait for a dreaded call or a formal teacher conference, I would have appreciated earlier feedback.

In my classroom, I want parents to ask questions early in our relationship. Offering opportunities to contact me by text, email, phone call, or a questionnaire (inspired by Pernille Ripp) has helped me understand students and mitigate potential problems early in the year.

The child should have a voice in teacher/parent interactions.
In most cases having the student as a full participant seems only fair. In our twice-yearly formal conferences, students lead the discussion. When my fourth graders learn this, they go into temporary shock.  It’s a new concept, but I tell them they are experts on themselves. Why shouldn’t they lead the conference? The process is revealing.  A student’s description of their work is an assessment in itself; setting new goals are often outcomes of these meetings.

Look through the lens of the parent.
By continually asking, how would I feel if this were my child, helps in all aspects of teaching. When I think about how I talk with parents, it helps me focus on the whole child and their progress over time.

I’m reading on. Posting my reflections in this space.

 

Stories that feed us

When I was in elementary school, my favorite book was a collection of biographies of women athletes.  I hungered for those stories. There weren’t many in 1968.

Today, the stories I wanted to read as a kid are everywhere. Often on television. The women athlete is an outlier no more. Their stories are told the most recent being the US Women’s Soccer Team. Their unapologetic, in-your-face confidence makes me feel anything is possible. I want to appropriate their fire and fearlessness. I want their skill, power, grace, and resilience.

 

I’m drawn to stories of people who inspire, who reach beyond, who don’t fit in.  As women athletes gain respect and adoration, their stories need to be held up. They believed, in spite of others’ disbelief, that they could achieve. Even if they were different.

While watching Nike’s heart-tugging and often bias-bending ads, I found the story of Ramla Ali, a Somalian refugee, who has a dream of becoming the first male or female boxer to represent her country in the Olympics. Ali overcomes trauma and her family’s beliefs about women. She is beautiful, complex, and inspiring. 

I plan to share stories like Ali’s with my students. Stories that exist in unlikely places about people who are different and unafraid. Dramatic and engaging people who inspire and can teach us to not shun or be shamed by differences. We are not the same. Our differences should inspire us to do and reach for more.

Stories of women athletes inspired and engaged my 8-year old self. They were superhuman.  They overcame. They were women. I wanted to grow up and be like them. I still do. And while I can’t be Megan Rapinoe on the pitch, perhaps I can channel her relentlessness in the classroom and lift the eyes of my students to see their possibilities in stories. Stories that feed their future.

 

 

Unpublished Memories

Looking for a recent draft, I found this unpublished post written at the end of the 2018 school year. I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it at the time. Finding it brought back sweet memories.  That’s reason enough to publish it now.

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Thirty-four souls are members of room 32. They are a well-intended group that meets and often exceed expectations. Discussions have brought out insight and kindness.

As the days of this school year wind down, their growing selves barely fit inside this fourth-grade space.

I go out to meet them in their lines. They enjoy being little kids, but I notice signs of fifth grade in the air.

Today, emotions ran higher than usual.
She said. Her secrets. Tears.
He’s hogging it. It’s not fair. Tears.
Pressure mounts. Anger flairs.
What others think and say. Matters more than before.
Fights. Hurt happens.

But still, they squeal when they find out I’m reading the sequel to the Wild Robot. They are thrilled to start independent writing projects. Choice literacy options of poetry, blogging, new books, and art every week gives everyone reason to smile.

These are the waning days of fourth grade. They are bursting at the seams.  Their learning is clear as is the loss of their younger selves, never to be seen quite as before.

The loss is felt by some of the sensitive souls in the classroom. The ones that see the nuanced thematic messages of books we read. The ones that read into what you say. The ones that push back when asked to do things that are clearly driven by adult expectations and ask, Why do we have to?

And my answers aren’t what I would like them to be. Because I know. Life is waiting for them. Just around the corner. And that is scary sometimes. Oh to stay in fourth grade.

Bookshelves

Bookshelves. How one organizes and relates to the books that live in them is an evolving process. Books move.

The books I am currently reading and the stack of books that are on my to be considered next live on top of my bedside bookshelf.  After reading a book, it lingers. We had a relationship. It takes a while to let it go too far away. When I’m ready, the book will migrate to a more permanent home.

Moving to another shelf is not a simple task. Perhaps that is why I avoid it.

It may cause the moving of other books.  A memoir put amongst novels;  a book of essays muddled up with poetry; the short story collection placed with essays; the book that needs to be placed in the to be considered next shelf; books that have done their job taking up valuable bookshelf property.

Moving a book off of my bedside table is no simple matter.

My book bag is another story.

Below is one gorgeous poem. It lives among others in the book Many-Storied House. If you don’t own it, get a copy to live on your shelves.

On Those Shelves

by George Ella Lyon

From the landing you step
down into a room
out over the garage:
This is the room that made us who we were:
book lovers, scholars, people of the word,
who found a safe place between hard covers.
Deckle- or gilt-edged, the wide world opened:
story, knowledge, emotion we’d been taught
to hold in.

                  On those shelves Papaw built
into the wall below the windows
stood the many mansions of our house.

 

 

Reading joy and mindfulness

Last year, I cultivated my own reading life by reading books for myself. I spent precious hours entertaining myself with books.  I purposely did not pick up professional texts to better my teaching or new middle-grade books to introduce to my students.  I did this with a mixture of joy and sadness.

This summer, I let go of the sadness, because I am noticing the reader I am and growing toward. That thing we ask our children to do today and every day.

I’ve noticed that I drop or miss read beginnings and endings of words. Sometimes missing words completely. I catch myself because it doesn’t make sense. Is this a new thing? Something I do when I’m distracted or tired. Probably I have always done it. Perhaps it’s a reading disability I work around. How has it impacted my understanding?

I’ve noticed conversation with skilled readers adds joy and understanding. Talking with my son about Anna Karenina made me realize Tolstoy’s craft. How he seamlessly shifts the character voice. Reading alone, I didn’t notice the craft.  The conversation not only added to my understanding of the work but my reading skill set.

Reading mindfully takes the push of a skilled teacher. By looking through the lens of 180 Days by Kittle and Gallagher, I have had a teacher by my side. Attempting to do what they ask of their students, I have noticed the scattered nature of my thoughts as I read and the need to write about the text to be able to pull it together more coherently. Tracking my thinking as I read or write about a core idea, how a character’s decision has shown their values or supported a big idea is not second nature. It takes specific expectations and dedicated time.

Reading with others is a pleasure, an art, and an act of trust. Bringing something to a group is like bringing food to share.  You hope it will be appreciated and you hope other contributions will make the experience complete.  By welcoming wonderings and ideas, a group can create an interesting whole. But, this is a complex and vulnerable act. Something I have not acknowledged when I put readers together in class.

Reading should be simultaneously joyful and mindful. Readers need to notice what the book is offering and what the reader is doing. This balance is one we as teachers of readers need to explicitly teach. The joy and mindfulness need to be taught and accountable. Taught because we are always growing reader skills; accountable because everyone needs to be reminded and supported. This work is not second nature.  If we’re honest, many readers, even the most competent, read for plot. To reach beyond that takes a push.

 

 

Hello again

It has been so long.
I forgot how to open this page.
Typing a “j” in the URL bar did not produce what I remembered.

I have been reluctant to come here. Afraid is a better word.
What can I say that I haven’t already said; that matters?
I am realizing, now that the dust of the year has settled, that my focus and purpose has been obscured.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve been out of sorts, and unwilling to open this page.

But I am working on it.
A book, 180 Days by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher, has helped. While their population is secondary, their mission aligns with my core and their approach to teaching into students’ reading and writing lives inspires me.

Conversation with old colleagues has helped. Being reminded of the fact that my best teaching and my best self comes from where my passions exist. The importance of reading and putting words together is always where I’ve found purpose and joy. Being sidetracked by other content areas has made it hard to put words together. Not to say that math isn’t fascinating, but for me, a great read is far more fulfilling. (Apologies to all the beautiful mathematical minds and friends I have made in the pursuit of understanding concepts and conjectures.) Realigning with what makes my heart sing won’t diminish my understanding, or the wonders of how students decompose a number. But it will make me much happier and a better teacher.

And finally, an email from a much-loved mentor and friend has helped me open up this page and write.

Thank you.

I’d begun to think this space was uninhabitable. I was afraid. But it’s like a loved book. After a few lines, it feels like home.