Slice of Life: I Walk the Line

How often does one get to stand up for what matters?

It started in the dark. In the rain. Armed with laminated signs, rain gear, and caffeinated energy, teachers walked. All day for our students. A choreographed act of belief.

Today offered the chance to do the right thing.

Tomorrow, and until students get what they need, we use our voices and walk the line for the future of public education.

I embrace this opportunity.

Embracing 2019

Yesterday, my students returned to their classroom after Winter Break full of their usual energy and enthusiasm. All felt as it should be. But in buildings where adults manage issues that ultimately impact the future of my students, other things were happening.

As we read the next chapter in Some Kind of Courage, adults discussed their future. In a conference room somewhere in Los Angeles, my union and my employer confronted each other, again. Perhaps they were talking over whether or not my students will have a nurse on hand when they suffer an asthma attack. Maybe they were discussing the merits of psychological social workers in schools where the majority come from households who qualify for subsidized meals.  Possibly they were debating the merits of librarians and counselors in the high school my students will go to.

As my students and I analyzed a letter of an immigrant at Ellis Island in the 1800s, other people were making decisions that will impact their long and short term future.

When I worked with Leah on her blog post, I suspect our newly elected Governor Gavin Newsom was making his inaugural address. I wonder, does he plan on sending his adorable two-year-old son to a middle school with a class size that exceeds 44? How will this man I voted for the address the wealth gap in our state that mirrors the “…achievement gap in our schools and a readiness gap that holds back millions of our kids”? Will he step up for my students?

I have two more days with my students. To read the next chapter, write another article, develop a conjecture, do another experiment. It breaks my heart to acknowledge I probably will not be with them on Thursday. Perhaps this is what it takes to move the second largest public school district in the nation in a direction it needs to go.

Last night, with all of this running through my heart, I finally settled on a word for 2019.  One to hold on to. One that will allow me to step forward in a direction that is true to my beliefs.  A word that is positive and active. My one little (but powerful) word for 2019 is

Here’s to embracing all the challenges and opportunities, adults and children that 2019 presents.

Picture this

He whines.
I look up.
Bothered by the disruption
my annoyance is met with a look.
“What?”
He continues to stare. Probably thinking unkind thoughts.

Rousted from my comfort, I check
the bowls. Full.
The answer must be outside.

I open the door
out he prances,
paws in pursuit.

Done. I presume
returning to where I left off
when
I sense I’m being watched.
My unslakable explorer awaits.

seeking cat.JPG

Keeping Track of Myself

The light streams in the east facing window next to my writing space. And if I look to my left, I see copper wind chimes. Still. Perched just outside on an arbor that is at the forefront of the hillside. The photo in the header, what I saw as I walked up to my cluttered desk this morning, inspired me to open up my neglected blogging site. A new look for a new year. And with that, a reflection the year that has passed.

Last year my teaching life changed to include a new type of student and new content. Both fascinated and overloaded me. So much information swirled around me. I felt like my student, Steve”,  who had so much going on in his head he couldn’t decide what to write about. When he did start to write, he’d get distracted by another idea. Exactly. Too much stimulus did not allow my mind to settle enough to write.

I learned a lot last year. A lot of content and pedagogy around each domain. One of the costs of all that learning required me to step away from blogging. Last year my writing life changed from blogging to list making and notetaking.  A surprising benefit of this overwhelming stream of informational was that reading for pleasure became a necessity.

Last year, I learned about myself. I was overtaken by new learning. And in the process, l lost my bearings. Today I feel like I’ve pulled out of the swirling current of content to take a look. Take a breath. And realize the flow of learning and children will continue. Get over it. It’s on me to seek out still waters, to pull out, look back, and find myself.

The year ahead looks no calmer than the year that has passed. Personally and professionally it will be turbulent. As always. But this year I’ve made simple, measurable goals around areas that matter to me.

Reading: log books read on Goodreads.
Writing: a post a week, journal most days. poem a week
Making: a weekly photo that could become something
Family/Friends: daily contact with three individuals, a gratitude journal to keep track
Professional: three professional reads; one conference.

I shy away from metrics, but this year I want to capture what was done and what was undone. That is something I resist for many reasons. Mostly because I’d rather look ahead assuming the past could be better. But this year I’m giving it a go.

Here’s to a new year and new goals designed to capture memories and keep track of what matters.

 

Slice of Life: Time to Play

Even though I believe in the power of play, when I see it in action, I wonder how much healthier students would be if we built it into the classroom. Not woven into an academic pursuit, but purposely placed to support the social-emotional development of children.

My classroom ended 2018 with board game time, honored in the way we honor any part of our academic day.  Many games were brought from home. Children had a choice as to who to play with and what to play.  If they didn’t want to play, they could choose to write or draw or read or take a break.

Watching them work together was remarkable. The child who has trouble getting along did and was happy. The quiet child participated taking on all roles required by the game. Children played outside of their friend groups.

The occasional squabble was worked out without adult intervention. Turns were taken. Children moved seamlessly from game to game, person to person.

And when it was done with all pieces picked up and put away, one student said, “We learned absolutely nothing today.”

To which I responded, “Did you learn about each other?”

“Oh, yeah!’ he said with a big smile. “We learned who was flexible and who was not.”

Knowing the limits of the people we interact with is essential. Yet these students, who have been together in a classroom for four months, did not know this about each other.  That is shocking.

My students showed me they understood how to play. They did not have to be taught how to negotiate, how to take turns, how to listen. They got that. But in the process of all of that play, they did learn subtle moves to get out of tense moments.  That social-emotional how-to is built in to play.

Classtime has socialization build into it with collaborative projects and partnership work, but little cooperative time is spent working outside academic confines, AKA play.

How much of our success in life, be it academic or work-related, requires an understanding of the person beyond the task?

Would more play increase student flexibility and understanding of each other?

If we play with the people we work with, how much better might our work be?

What might we learn about ourselves?

What if, we just took the time to play?

 

Slice of Life: Figuring out our purpose

Purpose matters.  It motivates and directs.  I try to remember that. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not adhering to our purpose but figuring it out.

Our classroom blogging is writing for writing sake. It is 100% student driven. This writing, the kind that Ralph Fletcher calls “greenbelt” writing, may not be perfect. The audience is other kids. Not adults. This is by design.  The purpose is joy based writing. that tell story, give information, and share ideas that matter to other kids.

Enter student blogging that is shared with the world and   This year we have started a new student blog. Open to multiage writers afterschool. The topics are still chosen by students, but the content is now linked to the school’s website read by adults.  And with that, my purpose as a teacher changes. I now must seriously address grammar and capitalization slip-ups. An area I typically have no problem overlooking in favor of content and the desire to inspire young writers write.

Today, I conferred with a 5th grader about her fiction piece. A potential series of posts called, To be continued… The title says a lot. It’s funny and full of suspense.  I want to publish it, but first a little work around capitalization.  She started capitalizing the word “I” but then stops. I assume this is an oversight, so I mention it as a simple editorial reminder. And with that, I get a lesson.

“You always capitalize I? I thought it was just the first one.”

Whoa!  This student, one I’d lay money on getting an advanced score on any test. didn’t know to authentically use this straightforward writing rule.  One I know she’s been taught every year.

What does this mean for me a writing teacher?

We must write a lot to learn the rules.
To write a lot, we must want to write.
To want to write, we must enjoy it.
To enjoy it, we need to feel good about what we write.
To feel good about what we write, choice in the subject and minimal critique are necessary.
But at some point, the rules of writing need to be upheld.
When is that time?
When the audience changes? Sooner?

I go back to what I hold in my core. Each child is at a different place along the writing road. It is my purpose to note where they are and anticipate the upcoming bend in the road.

Always a journey for the writer and the teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

NCTE18 Reflection: The necessity of writing

Writing shapes and reflects our identity.
Our written voice is how we find ourselves. — Katherine Bomer

These words offered at an NCTE18 session linger with me. What this means about the necessity of writing.

In the pursuit of teaching students to write, we have overemphasized and overwhelmed students with the how. We give them the form to put it in. We show them how we want it to look. We tell them how we will score them. In this process of how we have forgotten the essential reason to write. To share ourselves.

Later in the session, Donna Santman asked, what do we actually believe? And then she said, we are conflicted.  She said the input is the output. And at the time, I thought I knew what she meant.  I thought no, I’m not conflicted. I know what I believe.

I’ve never been conflicted about the absolute necessity of reading and the role it plays in creating happiness and a healthy humanity.  I’ve never doubted the essential nature of it. To quote Kylene Beers, “Reading for information is about saving our democracy. Reading for pleasure is about saving ourselves.”  But I don’t believe I felt that way about writing. It’s good to write. But is it essential? There lies the conflict that I didn’t know I had.

Looking back on Katherine’s words, I realized something I haven’t been able to own. Writing is necessary to live a good life. Not only in schools as a precursor to a high stakes assessment. And not to be justified by a practical need or even artistic pursuit, Writing is a necessary step in the discovery of our world and ourselves.

Now connect the idea of identity to the writer’s voice,  Katherine wisely asked us to name that voice we hear in our student’s writing. Describe it specifically. Acknowledging its identity. How could this not be an essential way we spend our time with children?  To coach them towards their truths because writers look for truths. In themselves and in the world around them.

And even with all of that, I must be careful to value all voices. The strange. The angry. The silly. Couldn’t that be precisely what might surface? My idea of good is not necessarily valuable. The idea of searching and trying things on is essential to growth.  Remember to cherish the process as well as the product; don’t devalue worlds I don’t inhabit.

I think about the writer’s notebooks that live in my students’ desks and backpacks. And wonder, what percent of it is directed by me. What is purely them? What time have I committed to allowing them to venture and discover their voice?

 

 

Slice of Life: Unconventional nonfiction reading

According to my students and retailers, the holiday season is here. Days off, the promise of gifts, parties with family and friends. Today, as we walked toward our room, one student shared what many were thinking. He’d rather be at home.

Fortunately, there were a few things that made being at school almost as good as a long weekend. After the last few chapters of  Zane and the Hurricane, we went into a culminating part of one of TCRWP’s reading unit, Reading the Weather. This unit is a favorite not only because of the engaging subject matter but because of how students take nonfiction reading and share it in unconventional ways.

For the past three weeks, students have researched a particular area of interest: hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis or earthquakes. Today, they were to craft their presentations.

The what to, how to, and who will present their work to another student group was all up to the team. Poster boards, notecards, tape, glue, scissors, markers were everywhere.

Some had been planning for the last week.
Others just got the sense of urgency. “Tomorrow? Like ALL of it ready?”

They worked, and ideas kept surfacing. More materials were requested.

“You know this paper could make a great cape,” said team member in charge of the effects of tsunamis.

“And how is that connected to tsunamis?” asked co-member in charge of historical tsunamis.

They worked through their recess. And their lunch.

As I walked students to the buses, student team member in charge of safety during tsunamis was sharing her giant blue wave with a student from another fourth-grade class. She put her head through the hole at the top, and said, “Tomorrow we get to teach!”

Unconventional fun nonfiction reading. Almost as good as a long weekend.

 

The Miraculous Work of Essay

The writing about ideas can be confusing for young people. So when we started our essay unit, students had little understanding of what was ahead. And, I wasn’t sure we would figure it out. This was a unit based on faith and total acceptance of possible failure.

Most started telling a story or an all about. Ideas were few and far between. It wasn’t until a few approximated this type of writing and served as mentors, did the majority of the class understand what they were going for.  To see how writing about ideas could go, they needed each other’s work.

And once they got that, it didn’t matter where they started, most found ideas through writing.  Some stayed close to their beginning ideas, and some wandered off towards unsuspected territories.  They had incorporated a bit of story, a bit of information, a bit of opinion and a bit of did you know.  Ideas were discovered, played with and in the end even questioned as each piece was written.

Most wrote about what mattered to them. Friends and not friends, video games and youtube, being a sibling and being bullied. They wrote about what they believed in and who are and why.

We celebrated their work yesterday. In small groups. Quietly reading and then, some students chose to share with the whole class. So interesting who wanted to share. A popular student’s piece on bullies; a quiet student’s exploration of why she is shy, a student’s reflection on why nine-year-olds are addicted to technology.

On a Friday, my active, typically noisy group sat quietly and appreciated the work of their classmates.

And when all was said and done asked, can we write another one?

The adventure was uncertain. It could have been a disaster. But I believe it proved the power and importance of writing. For everyone. This is why we need to write. To discover and tell who we are and what we think. A miraculous journey.

 

 

 

 

Slice of Life: When things fall short

“Would anyone like to share their summary?”

That’s what I asked my students yesterday. Each had tried to summarize a challenging section of a nonfiction article. This is a necessary evil of reading to learn. No matter what the text, summarizing is a slippery skill. It may appear straightforward, but when one sits down to do the work, it is anything but. It was a struggle.  Knowing this, but wanting an example of an attempt, I hoped a brave soul might want to share.

A, one of my quietest students,  hands me her notebook. Her thinking is careful and thought out. An approximation of what we are aiming for. I set it down for the doc cam to project.  Students read silently as I read aloud.

I look up, and the author has her head down.

Apparently, B, who had asked me earlier how to spell article, had discreetly informed her she had misspelled this word.

I looked at him. What?

“I didn’t know it would upset her?” he said.

Ironic in so many ways. Both students are fragile. Both students want so much to do well and are hard on themselves. The one who corrected had the exact same problem as the other. If the situation were reversed, he probably would have responded the same way.

While spelling is an issue for both of them and it matters when you share publically, I didn’t see it. And what mattered at that moment wasn’t about summary it was about being vulnerable and brave. I commended A’s bravery, and I thought about B and his comment.

Later in Writing Workshop, we were setting goals for our à la Katherine Bomer true essays. Another challenging task. About half of the students had approximated the work. A quarter of the students wrote informational articles and a quarter wrote opinion pieces. This is a natural place to land, and my lesson’s intent was for students to self-assess and adjust for another attempt. Everyone had done their best work in an area they had never tried before.

C who is used to reaching well beyond expectations had written a more infomational type of text wasn’t happy. “My next essay will be on how I hate true essay.”

My thought, how it is hard to fail. Fall short of expectation. That was how I felt in the moment. How I felt when B criticized A and when A cried.

Today we start our next true essay cycle. I know what my topic will be.