a time to pause

One thing I learned from years of being around Benchmark teachers is that in order for learning to be most effective you have to save time for reflection. It’s a simple concept, but one that can easily be forgotten with all the pressure to learn more content.

That’s why even though I have had my student’s feature articles printed for a week I didn’t tell them they were ready. I promised myself that if I didn’t have time to reflect with them, I wouldn’t hand them back.

On Monday we had the reveal of the papers; printed in color ink with graphics and cool fonts, just simply handing them out to the kids was a celebration in itself.  Ooos and Ahhs were heard around the classroom as writing partners and friends looked around at everyone’s finished product. Before we did anything else, I had the kids read their own article, you could have heard a pin drop in the room as every kid read through the words they had so carefully chosen.

Here’s where I switched it up. I’ve been reflecting with these kids since September now, which means I’ve been asking them questions about their writing and they’ve been thinking hard and answering. This time all I said was, “It’s time to reflect. What’s going through your head?” Then I got my marker out and wrote out their questions as fast as I could.

  1. Does it make sense?
  2. Are all the sections in the right order?
  3. Do I see editing mistakes I could have fixed?
  4. Did I pick the right colors?
  5. Is there too much open space?
  6. Is the font too big/ too small?
  7. Would someone other than my mom want to read this?
  8. Did I have the right audience in mind when I was writing?
  9. Is my information accurate?
  10. Is anything missing?
  11. Does everything belong in this article?

And my personal favorite . . .

12. Am I proud?

I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I was proud. Proud of them for jumping into a new genre of reading/writing. Proud of them for going through countless revisions and edits. Proud of them for internalizing the process and knowing what questions to ask in reflecting. I am proud.

reading-and-writing classroom

I’ve got a group of students who are suddenly waking up and becoming more aware of the way sentences are formed. I’m so excited for them; I want to tell them the answers, but I am holding back, knowing meaning is more valuable if you find it on your own.

And so we found ourselves in a quandary on chapter two of Jerry Spinelli’s Loser, when he describes the town they live in as a “brick-and-hoagie town”. First we discussed the meaning, why would Spinelli call a town that? Were there Hoagie shops on every corner or were bricks crumbling and the town starting to fall apart? Is it close to a city? Does everyone know what a hoagie is or is the story taking place somewhere near us in Pennsylvania? We discussed, we argued, we stepped back and described our town.

Then somewhere in the middle of all of it Kyle says, “hey guys do you see those things there after brick and before hoagie?”

“It’s called a dash,” one of the girls says quickly and inquisitively, recognizing that Kyle might be on to something.

“Yeah, well I mean why are they there? Maybe the author is trying to tell us something? He doesn’t need them, does he?”

The conversation went on, and I let it; it didn’t matter that we had only covered the first sentence in chapter two. The kids decided that this was a town where bricks and hoagies went together. They compared the town to Detroit saying if the author wanted the setting to have been in Detroit he would have said, “highway-and-Coney city.”

After our discussion, the kids wrote the words “brick-and-hoagie town” in their language log and promised to be on the lookout for more cool ways Jerry Spinelli was playing with words.

After our discussion, I went to my journal and copied down “brick-and-hoagie town” & “highway-and-Coney city,” after it I wrote, the dash draws me in and connects me, reminds me that one without the other just isn’t right.

kid love

“Because when I’m able to read past all those surface problems, what I find in young people’s writing is passionate, surprising, and endearing enough to convince me that I have the best job on earth.”  -Katherine Bomer

I have to admit for the past couple of weeks I’ve been stressing about all kinds of issues in my kid’s writing. What I should also tell you is that for the past couple of weeks I haven’t had time to sit down and read my kid’s journals either. Between the flu, snow days, and my attempts to organize Student Lead Conferences, I was crossing my fingers hoping my kids were still writing at all.

Then last night I finally had a chance to curl up in my big green chair with a stack of journals. My roommate and my neighbor were talking on the couch, but I was captivated. More than once, I found myself squealing with delight and forcing my friends to listen as I read to them fragrant snippets from my kid’s journals. Let me share some kid love with you…

“The air screams, I am almost done. Pizza.”

“As the doughy bread filled my mouth, it left an Italian impression.”

“Someday, I want to give someone flowers, just to cheer them up.”

NYC & Good Things

Anyone who knows me, knows in order to get my full attention quickly all you have to do is say the words, “New York City.” Needless to say when I was in Barnes and Noble this Friday after school I went home with three new books, all of which tie into New York City in one way or another.

Book 1:  The Misfits by James Howe. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to pick up since this past summer. James Howe was one of the keynote speakers at Columbia University’s Writing Project that I attended in August. Not only was he AmAzInG at Columbia, James Howe’s Bunnicula was one of my personal favorites as a fifth grader, so I’ve been itching to get my hands on this book for awhile to see if I could use it with my kids. I’m only fifty pages into the book, but I’m already in love with the quirky misfits Howe created in this book.

Book 2: Hip Hop Speaks to Children edited by Nikki Giovanni. On the New York Times best seller list and featuring poetry written by both Langston Hughes and Kanye West, I’ve had my eye on this one for a long time. It is a picture book that comes with a CD of the poets reading their work. This book of poetry can be used for a variety of ages and purposes. Certainly some of the pages cater to a younger crowd with poems titled, Ham ‘N’ Eggs and The Girls in the Circle but there are plenty of places to stop and reflect with older kids as well. I can’t wait to use it in the classroom and see what my kids have to say about calling some of their favorite musicians poets (Jay-Z minus the curse words = poetic genius).

Book 3 (and maybe the one I’m most excited about): Pick-Up Game: A Full Day of Full Court edited by Marc Aronson & Charles R. Smith. Always on the lookout for a book that will capture the boys in my room, this anthology looks amazing. It’s a collection of short stories that form a novel when put together. The short stories are written by: Walter Dean Myers, Bruce Brooks, Willie Perdomo, Sharon G. Flake, Robert Burleigh, Rita Williams-Garcia, Joseph Bruchac, Adam Rapp, and Robert Lipsyte. It’s a lineup of all-stars if ever there was one. I haven’t had time yet this weekend to start reading this one for fear I wouldn’t be able to put it down. I’ll let you know what the boys think when I show them on Tuesday.

As a side note I wouldn’t have even picked up book three except for the fact that a kid next to me was flipping through it and I saw a photograph of the West 4th Street-Washington Square subway stop— otherwise known as my run from the A train to the F.  New York City, you always bring such good things.

stopping to pause

I took a sick day today; it takes a lot to get to me to the point where I recognize that staying home is a better option than staying with my kids. Needless to say, other than dragging my lifeless body to the doctor to pick up my yearly prescription for a Z-Pack, I did little else today.

While I was waiting in the doctor’s office I picked up Ralph Fletcher’s new book, Pyrotechnics on the Page, and attempted to break through the fever that was plaguing me, long enough to focus on the book. I didn’t get very far but I did come across this quote,

Like a sly crow who stashed tidbits in his nest, I pay homage to these writers by copying their words into my notebook. In this regard, my notebook becomes a pit stop where I can refuel and replenish my energy.

I love that Ralph Feltcher, children’s book author and word-man extraordinaire, admits to writing other’s words in his notebook. While I encourage my students to do this in the classroom, I don’t do it enough on my own. That is I don’t stop when I’m reading a good novel and copy down words I love into my journal. Thanks to Ralph Fletcher I’ve moved my journal and placed it right next to my Kindle in hopes that I’ll be more inclined to capture writing I love.

To loving words and how they move and speak in our lives; to stopping to pause to stash them away.

a workshop interruption

In the middle of workshop time last week I noticed that a group was beginning to form in the back of the room.  I was conferring with a student in the front of the room so I hoped the group would quickly dismantle on their own. Soon I realized that I would need to intervene if I had any hope of progress for the 23 students not sitting directly in front of me. Just as I was about to break up the party, the party came running to me.

“Miss Smith, you’ve got to read what Emily wrote!” comes a boy running with Emily’s writer’s notebook. Emily, whose color now matched the pink shirt she wore, was slowly making her way to the front of the room claiming her piece wasn’t good enough for all the fuss.

Quickly, I made a choice to seize the moment and asked Emily if she would share.  Emily took the notebook, without much hesitation, and read aloud a poem she had written the day before. Her peers and I were gathered around her listening intently. She read with voice, and with pride. She knew she was on to something, even if she didn’t want to admit it. When she finished reading her peers and I erupted into cheers and clapping.  Kids were talking about their favorite lines and how the ending had surprised them.

“This is what it means to be a part of a community of writers,” I told the kids. It happens every year, these moments when a class is more a family than a group of kids. I’m just thankful that they let their teacher in on the beauty of the moment.

Glow & Grow

“Miss Smith I’m so excited, I can feel it in my toes.” It’s not everyday an eighth grader admits to that level of engagement in their language arts classroom, but today was not an average day. Today my students had the privilege of writing with my neighbor, Evan. Evan is a talented writer and is featured biweekly in the local paper.  He started working with my students in the fall via video and has been our class hero ever since.

Today was their first face to face meeting; excited doesn’t even begin to describe the kids or Evan and the buildup to this moment. For the minilesson the kids and I helped to edit some writing that Evan had done “live” for them in the moment. They saw first hand that Evan breaks grammar rules purposely and that he doesn’t always listen to his editor. Evan stressed to the kids that as long as he understands the rule and knows why he’s breaking it, it’s ok to break rules every now and then. My kids giggled at this because they know I’m his editor and that I struggle with some of these broken rules.

Then came the best part of our day: writing conferences. I was nervous to handover the reigns of my conferences to Evan for the day. After all he may be a writer, but he is not a teacher. I even wrote him a careful script to follow, but within seconds of his first conference I realized he wouldn’t need it. His eyes lit up as kids read their writing to him, he told them what he loved specifically and then followed through with gentle tips of how to grow as a writer that had worked for him. My student’s were glowing at the end of their conferences; many even ran over insistent that I hear what Evan had said about their writing. Oh, the joy that filled my teacher heart as I realized the importance of this authentic writing experience.

Evan is not a teacher but maybe that’s the best part of the story?

Snow Day Delight

Today our district had a snow day. Having heard the weather report and anticipated this, I collected a larger than normal group of student journals. Around noon I gathered the journals in two large bags and made a trek up the street to the local Starbucks. There I grabbed my grande-extra-hot-soy-chai-latte and began to read though about ten days of journaling per student. Since I normally only have one much smaller group, this broad picture of all my writers together was a snow day delight.

I read through journals where students we using appositive phrases correctly and incorrectly. Having recently taught this lesson, I was proud that almost all of my kids were trying the new skill. I praised them in my notes back to them, for taking a chance and for finding new examples in their independent reading books. Then I made lists of kids who: have it down, need some help, and lack the concept altogether. Now I can pull them in groups and reteach where I need to. Journals are my favorite formative assessment and Starbucks is my favorite place to fall in love with my writers.

risky writing

“Writing is a risk,” I often tell my students. In the beginning of the year, they would just laugh at me when I said things like this. Now I hear the whisperings around my room, “this feels risky.” Room 302 is a place where we applaud risk taking, especially in writing.

a new blog= a new risk