Teacher as Writer

I have been doing a lot of reading lately, for work and for fun (although I think reading “school stuff” is fun …).  All of this reading has me bursting to talk about the books, to tell someone about the great idea I just read about, the beautiful sentence that brought tears to my eyes, or the educational writer who makes everything sound so easy…so many things to say and very little time to actually sit down and say them.  So I decided I would write them, of course, use my writer’s notebook that I talk about so much.  The same writer’s notebook I tell kids and teachers alike to write in.  Of course, writing in the notebook would solve my problem of so much to say, I would get it all on paper, process my thinking and feel great.

Well, things are never that simple.  I sat down to read the other night with my notebook at my side, ready to write every thought that came to mind and nothing.  It must just be the night I thought, so I tried again another night, no luck.  The next day I decided to try during lunch, no luck.  Why couldn’t I think of a thing to write when I felt like I had so many things to say?

This led me to think of those kids who look at writer’s notebooks and claim nothing to say.  A lightbulb went off…talk…it is talk that I am missing.  I had so many things I wanted to talk about but when it came to writing them they disappeared.  I wanted to tell someone my thoughts and get immediate feedback, to see their face when I shared my ideas.  The notebook would not give me the interaction I needed to sort out all of my thoughts.  Many of our kids need that talk too.  There are so many things bouncing around in their heads when it comes time to write they have the same problem I did…too many ideas to even realize they had one worthy of writing.  These students need to talk first, get feedback from another person and sort out their thinking aloud before they begin to write.  Try it out, instead of writing time, try some “talk time”.

Convicted

The first time I read chapter 3 of Hidden Gems I felt convicted. I don’t read enough. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading, but I have no time for it. Between grading papers and creating lesson plans, sometimes I feel like I’m missing out on life itself. Yet, somehow I’ve shifted gears and started to make reading for me a priority. Thanks to the Kindle I got from my amazing Sister-In-law this Christmas, reading has reentered my life with high-tech style. And thanks to the Kindle’s fantastic “clipping feature” highlighting sections of great language in these books has become second nature to me.

So, I’ve been learning about myself and what I love about literature. I love lines that make me say, “Me too!” and words that force me to pause and think, “I’ve never thought of it that way,” or spots where the beauty of written words just seem to take my breath away. I’ve been bringing these snippets to my classroom since Christmas. I often share ones I’ve recently highlighted in writing conferences or mini-lessons; sometimes kids will copy the words down into their journals and together we discuss how to craft writing that moves people.

What I have noticed is that the more I do this with real authors the more inclined I am to do it with my kids writing too. Unfortunately, I can’t highlight in their journals with the click of a button but, I do savor their words. Sometimes I text them to my neighbor or I call my roommate in from the next room. Every now and then my mom gets an e-mail that contains sentences stolen from my kid’s journals. It’s my goal to bring these lines into the classroom more often to let the kids hear the authors rising among us.

Here are some great ones lines my kids are wanted to share with you…

My dinner last night was a furious killing of precooked teriyaki.

It was only me.

Laura came charging like a bull just when I had just gotten used to her being silent and hidden like a cat.

Not only was he yelling at me, he used my word, used it as trash, calling me a redonkulous fool.

I don’t know how I’m going tackle this massive beast of a dishmonster.

This is going to be harder than a monkey fighting a bulldog and that’s the truth.

This weekend was like a box of chocolates fallen from heaven.

What words are you reading?

Words to Cling To

Probably one of the biggest catalysts to my personal identity as a writer was an e-mail I received on May 10, 2010. The quote below is a response to an e-mail that I sent to a close friend revealing my desires to write and teach others about writing. These are the words that I “cling to” when I’m not sure I have what it takes.

“Rach…this is beautiful, raw and gutsy…thank you for sharing it with me…Let’s get together and talk when you have a moment…let’s discover together what the plan is…”

Oh, how I needed to hear this response as a writer. Especially that first part, “beautiful, raw and gutsy.” I needed the time of trusted friend, someone to sit with me and process what I was too nervous to share with anyone else. There is the promise of time too, that she did live up to, time to sit reflect on the writing and what it meant.

As I read chapter two of Hidden Gems, I am realizing that perhaps one of my favorite pieces I have ever written has nothing to do with school or the academic world at all. Rather the piece I am most proud of is one I wrote because my heart told me I had to.

I can identify with the feeling that Katherine Bomer talks about in this chapter. . . how comments can help or hinder writers. I have experienced it myself. A small note from a friend, changed me as a writer forever.

Only now, at 26, have I started to feel okay with having others read my writing- from the safety of a blog that is.

What has shaped you as a writer?

Teacher Love

The past week there has not been a lot of love passing around the halls, classrooms, and offices of the school.  The countdown to PSSA is on and as lists are being made, tests are being labeled, and pencils are being counted I haven’t felt like I had a lot of love to pass around. 

Then, as I was feeling completely loveless three things happened that brought the teacher love pouring back into my heart…

First, my fifth grader came home and when asked what they did in language arts today she replied, “well, we worked on some generating strategies for persuasive writing in our writer’s notebooks.”    The look of delight on my previously drab face must have given her a cue to continue…” Yeah, we made lists of things that make us mad, things that make us happy, and things we talk to our friends about a lot.  I have a lot of great ideas that I want to try now, it was awesome!”  I have always loved her language arts teacher but this brought the love flowing out!

The next also involves my fifth grader and her great teachers.  Her parent letter for student-led conferences, usually a rather drab piece of writing, brought tears to my eyes.  Obviously her class worked on not just writing letters but crafting letters.  Her voice came shining through and we learned things about her experiences in school that we didn’t know.  To top it off, she pointed out in the letter where she “played with” using short sentences like the ones in the mentor text her teacher shared with them.  The love was overflowing!!

Finally, as I was walking the halls with a brighter smile on my face due to the love of the past 24 hours, a teacher said to me “we are working on snap shots today if you want to come in and watch.”  I rearranged plans in my head and ran to the room.  What I saw made me forget all about PSSA pencils, calculators, and highlighters.  The teachers used a short paragraph from Little House on the Prairie as a mentor text and then actually used a picture to demonstrate taking a close up snap shot.  The kids were captivated and the images in the picture, being brought closer and closer helped them make the connection.  When I heard a boy say, “It’s like making an inference in reading”  I knew the love was back to stay.

Teacher love…it feels good!

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.

Curriculum Writing

I am writing this at 7am, just before I rush my kids to the babysitter race into school, with a rejuvenated spirit and a positive outlook on kids writing.  Why?  Because of the day I spent with an amazing team of teachers writing curriculum…Spending 8 hours in a windowless conference room could be miserable, but surrounding yourself with teachers who have a passion to help all kids grow into writers with their own voice made the sun shine into that dull room. 

Writing curriculum is hard…The time spent on revising sentences so that they express exactly what we intended, the consideration of our audience, brainstorming for the right word.  We were entrenched in the same experience we want for our students, and we want their results to feel as good as ours do to us.

Writing curriculum is hard…That is why it is so crucial that we do it, and why I am so thankful to have such talented people to work with.  If you have a passion for teaching writing, share it, it will grow…maybe into some great curriculum…

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.

Boys with a lot to say…

I know that I have a great job, especially around those times that are super high stress for classroom teachers.  With conferences coming up next week this is one of those high stress times!  Although I do not miss the stress of parent conferences, I do miss the opportunity to conference with kids about their writing on a daily basis.  This week I had the opportunity to spend time in classrooms conferencing with writers and I loved it.

When I think back on all of the conferences I was part of this week three really stand out to me.  Three different boys read their work to me and three boys almost brought me to tears.  Each of these boys have probably brought many teachers to tears before, and not for good reasons, so I was a little nervous about what they would bring to me…What I saw demonstrated the power of writing, and what can happen when children are encouraged to find their voice and use it.

The boys were reflecting on their school year so far, describing strengths , goals, and positive experiences.  Wow! These boys were able to put on paper what they have not been able to say to the adults around them…I am so fortunate to have heard these pieces read by the authors, I was given a chance to celebrate what they can do as writers…

Even when time is tight, make time to have writing conferences, you are sure to be blown away by what your writers can do.

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.”

Audience Matters

In our school the traditional parent-teacher conferences have been replaced by student-led conferences. All students share with their parents a portfolio of their work from all of their classes.  The first piece in their binder is the SLC letter, a letter from the student to their parent thanking them for coming and setting up what the parent should expect from the conference.  In theory the letter may sound like a nice idea, a message regarding the conference from the student to their parent and a writing sample all in one.  In reality the letter is one of the most dreaded pieces of writing students and teachers face during the year.  Language arts teachers who encourage student writers throughout the year with excellent mentor text and powerful feedback become task masters…”Get the letter done! Now!”rings through the halls.  The results are what you may expect drab, lifeless, form letters that no one feels good about.

As the season for beginning the “letter” rolled around I was preparing to avoid any classroom during letter writing time, I just couldn’t be part of it.  One day, by accident, I found myself in a fifth grade classroom and the teacher said they were going to begin working on the “letter”…AHHH! I wanted to run, but she was still smiling so I decided to stick it out and see what she had up her sleeve. 

Audience…that was it.  As the class began the discussion about the letter the teacher took the conversation to audience.  Who is the audience?  What do they expect from this letter?  A simple concept, one we talk about often when writing, changed the whole perspective of this letter.  Instead of following a form and writing what the teacher and the SLC guidelines expected, the kids began thinking about their parents and what they want to know.  The results were some of the most touching and honest letters I have ever read.  One word, one concept. the effect that one word can have on writers is amazing. 

So as you push forward in writing this week think about one word that may challenge and change your writers…it may be audience.