Slice of Life: Writing to Think

We’re dipping into an essay writing unit, “true” essay, based on Katherine Bomer’s beautiful book The Journey is Everything.  We’re trying it. And each day, I try to figure out where my students are in this process. This work is not prescriptive. It is intended to be fluid, thought provoking. My continual question is, is it?

We’re working on gathering ideas. Ideas from what we read, what we notice, what bothers, or frustrates us. Making lists. We’re doing what Bomer calls “try its.”  Short bursts of writing around an idea, a quote, a fact or statistic.

Today I presented my students with a fact I thought would speak to them.

90% of all 4th through 8th graders are victims of bullying.

I heard: “Duh.”

Acceptance.  What disturbed me at first was the reaction to the content. What I realized later was this was a typical reaction towards a fact. Digestion and recapitulation.

I realized that my students need to learn to react.  To think and wonder. Wonder why something exists in the world. Wonder about the implications. That can be scary. So I wonder, are they ready to question the world they’re just beginning to understand? Or, is questioning required to understand?

Presenting a fact and asking students to write meets a limited response. They need to see what I mean by writing about a fact. I shared my notebook.

Then I asked, what did you notice about what and how I wrote?

“You asked lots of questions.”

Exactly. The process of gathering ideas,  a journey of thought, is driven by questions. It requires us to ask, what does this mean and how does it fit into my understanding of the world? Perhaps even, what can we do about it. It’s about being curious. It’s about discovery.

After I had shared my writing about a fact,  I shared this quote:

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”  –Anne Frank

My students know  Anne Frank’s story. They know what happened. Here was a victim of extreme bullying who saw good in humanity.

I asked my students to talk about this. What did they think, wonder, question?

I heard:

I wonder, how can she feel that way?

Maybe there is good in even the worse kind of people.

Maybe it’s how you see people.

Maybe it’s the kind of person you are.

How can you see good in those who hurt?

Then students wrote. I told them, just try it for five minutes.

They were uncomfortable at first and had what-do-you-want-me-to-write-about moments. Sentence starters like, I wonder…. and maybe… gave students ways to begin

Students considered more quotes and facts and talked.

I don’t want students to become dependent or limited by what I present, so we closed out writer’s workshop and stepped into reader’s workshop with this teaching point: Readers think deeply about news articles by questioning ideas, facts, and quotes. We notice and wonder.

This is a brave new world for my fifth graders. Tomorrow we will try it again. We’ll practice the work of wondering and questioning the facts and our beliefs.

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

 

Celebrating the Old and New at the Beginning

This post serves a dual purpose:  celebrating a week of creating a new classroom space and DigiLit Sunday topic, preparing for the new school year. Find other celebrations at Ruth Ayers’ blog Discover, Play, Build and DigiLit Sunday posts at Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections on the Teche.

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I have an old pair of sandals. They’ve given me miles of comfort. In spite of new purchases, my old pair finds its way back into my life and onto my feet. They are worn just right and fit my summer feet.

My classroom has well-worn objects as well. They are irreplaceable. This week I celebrate the old that serve every school year.

The easel I found in an abandoned hallway my third year of teaching has held hundreds of pieces of paper. Smartboard technology tried to replace it, but a physical chart, made with students, that hangs on the wall as evidence of thinking, that doesn’t disappear with the next lesson, has value an electronic screen can’t match. This old tool takes any piece of paper and makes it the centerpiece of instruction.

The wooden stools I bought at IKEA my second year of teaching have survived and served hundreds of fifth graders as chairs, tables, impromptu meeting areas, foot stools, outside classroom space, and props in dramatic plays. These old tools allow students to create the space they need.

The bookshelves and book bins have been with me since the beginning. Bookshelves can entice readers into a cozy nook. Bins are transported to the carpet, to a table, to a corner. They can morph to hold any genre. These old tools are the superheroes of the reading and writing workshop.

The books on the shelves will be sought after and loved. Sadly, these books aren’t as resilient as the bookshelves and bins, but their messages endure and speak to kids year after year. Because of Winn Dixie, Tiger Rising, Flying Solo, How to Steal a Dog, Wonder, Firegirl, The One and Only Ivan; series like I Survived, Shredderman, The Treasure Hunters, Vet Volunteers are just a few. These old tools transport students.

I cherish the old. But sometimes we need new. This week I’m celebrating things that revitalize our lives.

I have a new pair of running shoes that have given my running new life. The old pair is broken down and can’t provide the support I need.  Sometimes new is necessary. This year, I’m bringing in new that support the old and signal new beginnings.

I’ve found new strategies from professional books I’ve read over the summer.
Who’s Doing the Work by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
A “next generation” balanced literacy approach allows kids the space to show what they can do before we teachers jump in with the instruction. Talking less so kids can do more has been my mission ever since I read What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse. Jan and Kim’s book has opened my eyes to the power of shared reading. Shared reading isn’t just for little kids. This year, I’m building in more shared reading time around their read aloud time to support transfer.

DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts.
I wrote about this book here and here and here. I believe the tools we will build with DIY thinking will empower students to do the work with self-made goals. This year, I’m finding places and making time for students to create bookmarks that are supported by the micro progressions, charts and demonstration notebook.

The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer.
The essay work Bomer speaks to is one that grows over time. It is the journey we want our kids to take as readers and writers. This year, I’m building in time to notice and notebook so ideas can grow over the year, not just in a unit of study.

To contain and support all of this new thinking we need new school supplies.
Notebooks, pens, markers, post-its. They are ready and waiting.

The old tools have strength. They are flexible and tough. Like my sandals. They serve no matter the group of students. I cherish them. But every year, I find new ideas that support and enhance. Like my running shoes, sometimes the old needs to be updated.  Sometimes new is necessary.

I look forward to both the old and the new sitting side by side.


 

Celebrate: Values vs. Practice

This week I got interim scores from a district assessment. The unstated but very real message in this was: where do you rank and what can you do to pull up those scores. That evening I looked at questions on the test. I thought about them. I spent time and energy in that direction. And then I stopped. And asked, what is best for my students right now? And, how do I want them to leave my classroom in June?

That same evening, I picked up Katherine Bomer’s essay in The Teacher You Want to Be titled, “With and Air of Expectancy.” In it, she compares the word expectant, as in an expectant mother, to expectations, as in what students are to meet in the form of standards.

img_3100-1The word expectant connotes all of the wonderful possible that can be; it celebrates the impending joy. Expectant has an I-can’t-wait-till-you-get-there feeling, and it embraces the I-know-you-will-get-there belief.

Bomer reminded me of what I value, of why I spend so many of my waking moments caught up in my profession, of what I need to do tomorrow and every day after that.

I believe that learning is rooted in engagement and that engagement can only flourish in an environment that is joyful and responsive to the learner’s interest.

Now for the hard part. Where does that value exist in my daily practice?

Today, I’m looking back on the week to celebrate the places where my values showed up. The moments where I practice what I preach.

First: Daily commitment to 15 minutes of choice reading, writing, blogging, commenting, or wondering on Wonderopolis

Second: Daily blogging requirement none; daily average of 20 posts and 50 comments

Third: Twice daily book club talks before and after reading

Fourth: Daily commitment to Read Aloud with the focus on growing our community’s thinking and building the joy of reading

Fifth: Student choice of research topics, books, and partnerships

I believe these moments, these structures put learner interests alongside literacy practice. Each brings a bit of joy, a bit of engagement, and a bit of silly into the classroom. Each puts me on the sidelines, coaching in towards literacy expectations, on their terms. Each has me meeting them where they are. Each provides an opportunity to learn through reading and writing.

At the end of the day, the end of the year, students exceed, meet and approximate the expectations. Bit by bit, each student edges forward. 

The worry I have is not the percentage that will meet the expectation this year. The worry I have is the learner who looks at coming up short as a reason to think they can’t or they won’t. The worry I have is that it’s not about this year. It’s about all that is to come.

Next week, I’ll sit down with families to look at student progress. If a student is less than, it could quite naturally slip into feelings of panic, judgment, failure.

These conferences will be an exercise in expectancy: of what is possible and how we can build towards that goal.  It will be a reminder that learning is a constant state; that the future is full of possibility, that we are expectant. We know you will get there and beyond.

Thank you, Ruth, for your Celebration link up. Read more celebrations and post your own here.

 

 

 

 

Celebrating the Cotsen Foundation and the Gift of Teaching Teachers

Yesterday, 500 educators had the opportunity to learn. I was fortunate enough to be one of them as a guest of the Costen Foundation for the Art of Teaching.

Since 2001, the Costen Foundation has provided professional development for teachers. My students and I are indebted to organizations such as Cotsen, who develop teacher-learners.

This post is a reflection on yesterday. I hope some of it inspires you as it did me.

Lovely is an idea that is Katherine Bomer. She embodies a passion for learning and pushes our understanding of teaching. Years ago, she taught me to value my students’ writing by looking for the gems, not the errors. That changed me as a teacher.

Yesterday she did it again with the idea of an essay. Not the five paragraph kind so many teachers ask their students to do.

A “true” essay, as Bomer calls it, is a journey. One that makes connections, and in the end comes to a place that isn’t just a thesis stateimgresment with three supports, but a view of our thinking around and about an idea. It’s filtering thinking through the writing process.

Rather than the hamburger formula of essay think of it as a collage, a road, a mosaimages-11ic of thinking.

It’s writing to think.

It’s an exploration. More like jazz. A mashup, unified around a central idea. It’s narration of thinking.

It entertains and engages. Stand images-10up comics are some of our best essayists.

It can take you down a road to discovery.

It poses the question, “What do I know?”

Consider fueling student thinking with open-ended prompts that push our thinking such as maybe… perhaps…I wonder…it seems…

Can you imagine your students going there? I certainly want mine to.

Christopher Lehman was next on my schedule.

Think of the notes your students take. If your students use notes as a means to copy the text word for word, these strategies can move them towards thinking and learning.

As I write this post, I looIMG_2679 (1)k back at my notes. I re-read and consider my thinking.  I start to own it. I notice patterns and collect ideas. I notice how it connects. By doing this, I add my voice to the notes. That’s what we want our students to do. We want them not just to take notes but to use them.

The strategy of read, think, cover, and note can capture student thinking about the text rather than copying of the text. Going back and re-reading allows readers to search for vocabulary that an expert might use or to look for concepts or information missed in the first read.

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If your students have some knowledge of note taking, review those tools.

  • Ask, how and why you might use one
  • Ask, which one of these tools might fit a text
  • Let the text guide you notetaking

Encourage the use of notes by having students do something with them. Add color. Sort their notes. Re-read and add in what the notes make them think. Note taking should become a student tool for thinking. Not a recording of what was read.

The last session of the day was building vocabulary with Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  I have a love/hate relationship with vocab. Love the power of it but hate the fact that I can’t do enough for my students.

Kylene and Bob took the stage and engaged us. Exactly what we need to do to raise the “rigor” of our instruction.

First we took the time to play with words. With a bit of nonsensical text in front of us, we were asked, which three words could help us make meaning. It wasn’t the level of the text we viewed; it was our engagement around it. Here’s an excerpt:

The blonke was mailly, like all the others. Unlike the other blonkes, however, it has spiss crinet completely covering its fairney cloots and concealing, just below on of them, a small wam…. It was probably his bellytimber that had made the bloke so drumly.

The three types of words we chose mattered. We didn’t need to know every word but, we needed a few key ones to make meaning.

  • Context:  — blonke (horse)
  • Cause-effect — bellytimber (ill)
  • Tension creating — drumly (food)

Consider building vocabulary around words that give context, are related to cause/effect, or create tension in the text.

Consider building vocabulary around multiple meaning words rather than the bolded words many textbooks highlight. “The tsunami was triggered…” Students know about the trigger on a gun. But how does that relate to a tsunami?

Consider building vocabulary around words that students might have some understanding of, but don’t make sense in context. “He was appointed to lead the committee.” Students know they make an appointment with their dentist. But how does this connect to this text?

We can’t teach students every vocabulary word they need to know, but we can teach the kind of words they need to know to understand a text. Think notice and note for vocabulary. That’s vocabulary work that sticks and grows with the reader.

This session ended after 3 pm. Several of us sat after most had left, sharing our thinking. We were engaged and energized. We were lucky to be there.

Thank you, Cotsen for believing in teachers. For developing teachers as professionals. That’s the best thing you can do for our students.