LA Teachers Book Talk

Tomorrow begins our language arts teachers book club on Hidden Gems.  I think this is a great book to begin with because it is very teacher/reader friendly.  What I mean is that you can pick it up, start to read, and you’re hooked.  Katherine Bomer turns writing instruction into an interesting story that you don’t want to put down…no need to drink lots of coffee and keep yourself awake through this one.  I hope all of the teachers feel the same!

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.

Writing in Math class

Last week I finally broke out of the Language Arts, Social Studies world and ventured into a math class. I have been trying to talk top math teachers about the important role they play in teaching students to write in math. I received a lot of skeptical looks in return, over time the skeptical looks turned to more of a patronizing nod. That is until we began to administer benchmark math assessments to our fifth grade that included two multi-step problems requiring written explanations. As a team we sat down to score the explanations and it became very obvious that although our students had made a lot of progress in their writing in general, they did not know how to write a clear, consice math explanation. These explanations were filled with opinions, vague language, and even some attempts at humor (math teachers do not really appreciate math humor on an assessment!). After the last scoring session one brave math teacher took me up on my weekly offer to come into math class and talk about how to write in math.

I knew I had one chance to show the teachers how important this was and it really worked. I did a mini-lesson showing the students a recipe written as a recipe and the same recipe written as a narrative, with very literary, discriptive language. They could see right away why math writing needs to look more like the recipe. Give the reader what they need to know, the process used to solve the problem, nothing more, nothing less.

After a great discussion the students got to work practicing and giving each other feedback. Suddenly I felt right at home in a math class, we were talking the talk that I am so familiar with.

By the time I made it back to my office that afternoon I had three more e-mails from other math teachers wanting to set up writing lessons. Kids need to know that writing is part of understanding in every content area…we are now on our way at our middle school.

Phys. ed. may be next……

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 #2

Today is snow day #2 for our school district. Aside from doing crafts, playing countless boardgames, and refereeing fights with my three kids I found time to begin rereading Hidden Gems by Katherine Bomer. The fifth and sixth grade language arts teachers in my school will be reading this book in a book study group and I am facilitating the group so this time I picked it up to read through the lense of a classroom teacher reading it for the first time. This book is amazing and a must read for all teachers who spend time around student writers of any age. As I was reading, the on-demand writing samples that are sitting in my bag waiting to be scored kept popping into my head. I have to admit I have been carrying these last few papers around with me for more than a few days. They are the papers that did not get scored by the teacher teams during an afternoon of scoring, and I am supposed to read them, determine their score in five domains, and give them back to the teachers. Catherine Bomer reminded me why I feel so reluctant to do this. What can I really communicate to the teacher and most importantly the student writer about thier writing through a set of scores from a rubric? Who am I to determine if the style of this piece of writing is proficeint or basic?
Scoring a writing piece is inevitable, eventually everyone needs a score to track growth and report to “higher ups” (administrators, states, and most impotantly parents) but the work that comes before the score is what really matters. I have so many questions I want to ask about each paper: how does this student see themselves as a writer, what have they been working on, what do they think of the piece? I feel some consolation becasue I know in my school many of those questions are beginning to be asked by teachers.
As I begin to tackle the pile of student writing I am going to keep Katherine Bomer in my head and ‘notice’ what the students are able to do, celebrate the passion they bring to their writing, and plan some teaching demonstrations to model the type of feedback our student writers need to grow.
Before you read another piece of student writing read or re-read Writing Gems, it will convince you that you ‘have the best job on the earth.’

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