Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Slice of Life: Getting to instead of having to

Every Tuesday,  the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers host Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 

Yesterday, according to my daughter and her friends, was Senior Skip Day. (I hesitate to capitalize that term, as it seems to formalize and sanction it! I have to admit that I secretly approve of the tradition...) My daughter couldn't skip the whole day if she wanted to play in her tennis match, so, long story short, I ended up driving to Manhattan to pick her up on Sunday night. 

Many people heard that I was driving the two hours to New York and turning around to drive home, and they thought I was either nuts or a really good mom. I'm probably a little of both, but there was something else going on for me when I said yes to picking her up. 

 I wish I could give credit to the person who taught me the difference between saying "I have to" and saying "I get to." That one word substitution is a huge perspective changer.  I didn't have to pick up Julia; I got to pick up Julia. My ride in became an opportunity to have some really treasured conversations with friends, and the ride home was full of Julia's stories of the day with friends in New York, as well as important reflections on how it feels to be an almost-high school graduate. How many times do we get focused time with our 18 year-olds? 

This slight change in semantics is a major change in my approach to life. Try it. It's not that I have to write those curriculum maps--it's that I get to. I still needed to bribe myself with some chocolate at the end of lesson sequences, but I'm reminded that the work I do is important and matters and is a privilege that has been entrusted to me. I get to write those plans, I get to order those books... I might argue about getting to do the dishes or fold the laundry... In any case, it's a substitution that has been really important in my work at school and at home. The words are small, but the difference is huge.

Happy Slicing,

Monday, May 23, 2016

It's Monday! Here's What I'm Reading...

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

There is so much to love about Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin. Thyme and her family move from San Diego to New York City in order to get cutting edge cancer treatment for Thyme's younger brother, Val. Thyme has to deal with moving, fitting into a new school, figuring out a grumpy neighbor, sharing a bedroom with a moody older sister... While the primary focus is on Thyme and her issues, all of the characters are multi-dimensional and provide discussion opportunities about all sorts of social issues. The basic premise is simple in that Thyme has to establish a new identity and set of friends while supporting her brother and coping with the understandable family tension. However, perceptive readers will find a lot of other issues to talk about if they pay attention to the struggles of many magnetic characters. Melanie Conklin weaves in loneliness, insecurity, loss of parents, grief, immigration, even dementia, as there is an unlikably likable neighbor who both fascinates and scares Thyme--and she does this all while maintaining a strong middle school voice and perspective. I'm really looking forward to hearing other people's reactions to this new book!

Happy Reading,

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slice of Life-The Pace of May

Every Tuesday,  the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers host Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 

My percolation about the craziness of May turned into somewhat of a poem. I wasn't expecting that!

Calendars brim,
The pace quickens,
The hallways vibrate.

Ask someone "How are you?"

Maybe there's time to answer.
Maybe not.
Maybe there's time to hear the response.
Possibly not. 

Last minute lessons, 
Down-to-the-wire assignments, 
Endless assessments.

And after the day, when the last bus leaves,
There's more. 
Banquets and concerts 
Recitals and games 
Parties and meetings, 
Celebrations and promotions and graduations and tournaments. 

And we still need dinner and snacks and homework help and sleep.
And sleep. 

Take a breath. 
Ask that question.
Listen to that answer.
Slow down enough.
Yes, slow down.

Happy Slicing,

Monday, May 9, 2016

It's Monday! So Happy to be Reading!

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

I really didn't have a plan for what I'd post today for It's Monday! What are you reading? And then, on my walk, I saw the UPS man, and he said he had just left a package at my house. (Should I worry that the UPS man knows me by name?)

"Amazon?" I asked. 

"No," he replied. 

I spent some of the rest of my walk worrying about one of my daughters might have ordered that I said yes to and didn't remember. I didn't need to worry!

When I got home, my package of books had arrived that I won from my participation in the Slice of Life Challenge. Thank you Two Writing Teachers, and thank you Little, Brown Books for Young Readers!

Mama Seeton's Whistle by Jerry Spinelli would have been an amazing Mother's Day gift, as it really is a tribute and statement about the power of a mother to bring her family together. Far from a small moment story, it spans the life of a family, celebrating the moments of growing up and the power of family dinner and chocolate cake. Love, love, love this book. 

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! by Elise Parsley is hilarious. While it's not one that easily fits into a narrative unit, it's a book that students, young and old, will really enjoy. Despite her better judgement, Magnolia brings her alligator to school for show-and-tell (even though she knows that she would be better off with "a hollow stick, or a bird's nest, or some sparkly rocks.") Throughout the day, she has to live with the consequences which include her name on the board with checks and underlines and a potential visit to the principal. It's a great book for teaching about endings, voice, and details. 

Birdie's First Day of School by Sujean Rim is a great book for early primary teachers to read on the first days of school, but it is also a great mentor text for teaching about narrative craft moves. Birdie is predictably worried about the first day of school, and she does some talking with her monster about that, some inner thinking to herself, and goes through a lot of nervous behavior. There's easy to follow time transitions, as well as repetition, character development, and setting description. 

Outstanding in the Rain by Frank Viva is almost too clever to describe. The book has holes which reveal letters on the following page. It makes sense on the first page, and then rhymes and completes a thought on the next page.  It's not a mentor text because what Viva has done with word play is far too tricky to be duplicated. However, it would be a great class challenge to try to predict what might come on the next page, and it would be extremely fun to try to create a classroom version. 

So happy to be reading today!

Monday, April 18, 2016

It's Monday--Here's What I'm Reading!

Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye and Ricki Ginsburg at Unleashing Readers cohost It's Monday! What are You Reading? weekly on their blogs.  To see what others are reading and recommending each Monday, or to participate, be sure to head over to these blogs.

Since I was on vacation last week, I had more time than usual to allot to reading, although I have to say, I managed to fill up my week! Two awaited books arrived in my mailbox during the week, and they get my Monday reading attention. 

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo arrived and went to the top of my reading list. I had to keep slowing myself down as I read this book. The chapters are short, the plot is tight, and the sentence structure is fairly simple, so readers can fly right through it. However, when I slowed down, or even reread some parts, the craftsmanship and the mentorship that this book offers writers is huge. Yes, there is a strong sense of what characters want and what gets in the way, but there is also amazing voice created through the details each character notices, the predictability of the characters' actions, and the memorability of even minor characters. It's a book that I'm sure will be used extensively in the teaching of reading and writing. 

I'd also been waiting to get my hands on Booked by Kwame Alexander. I could write a strong literary essay on the similarities between these two books, as both deal with divorce, quests, and developing friendships with memorable secondary characters. (Some of our fifth-graders are in the middle of that unit.) Because the narrator is obsessed with soccer, Booked had the potential to either attract or lose readers, but it is about much more than soccer. Told in verse, Kwame Alexander weaves in life struggles, humor, middle-school insecurities, and even vocabulary lessons in a story that appeals to both boys and girls. It's another one that I had to keep fighting my tendency to whip through it and slow down to enjoy the craftsmanship, lyrical quality, and lessons on plot development and character complexity.

Happy reading,

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Slice of Life: Pay attention to the big picture!

Every Tuesday,  the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers host Slice of Life. All are welcome to participate by linking up posts or commenting on other participants. 

Next week is my vacation week, and for a few months, my daughters and I have been planning out how we are going to have one daughter, a senior, revisit colleges, while another daughter, a junior, visits some schools for the first time. I concocted an elaborate scheme where Clare and I would fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and fly north. Meanwhile, my husband and Julia would head to Virginia, then meet Clare and I in Pennsylvania, give us the car, and get on a plane to go to Emory. They'd fly home, and I'd pick them up. (Are you paying attention to the verb tense? You should be.)

Yesterday, I put up all the games and matches on the family whiteboard. "I can't believe how many games and matches you have over vacation," I said. "There usually aren't any."

"Coach said there were no matches at all over break," Clare said. 

Julia wrinkled her brow. "Mom, we're not off next week. We're off the following week."

She started to laugh. Clare started to laugh too. I started to sweat.

In eight years, our two towns have never had a different April vacation, but somehow, I missed a key detail. We do NOT have the same vacation weeks this year. Yep, we have to have the same vacation in order to figure out the flight details and the rendezvous time frames. 

I share this story because it's funny and it illustrates the mistakes we all make, but also, I got really used to making educational connections last month during the Slice of Life Challenge. How many times do we teach all sorts of details, all sorts of strategy lessons, all sorts of revision and editing skills, but students haven't made the connection of the overall purpose of the unit or the writing piece? It's always important to establish the big picture before spending too much time on the details. 

For me, the good news is the flights were cheap, and I now have a week to catch up on life, which I could actually use. Julia will still make it to revisit schools. And Clare? We'll figure out another week to take a college road trip. 

Happy Slicing,

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde

Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde
Expected Release Date: August 2016
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books 
Advanced Review Copy provided by publisher, Nancy Paulsen

Excited is an understatement when I received an advanced copy of Maxi's Secrets by Lynn Plourde in the mail.   Nancy Paulsen published two of my favorite books by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Fish in a Tree and One for the Murphys, so I knew this one was also going to be good! This book lived up to all of my expectations and more.  

Maxi's Secrets is middle grade novel that would be a perfect read aloud or book club book during a social issues or character unit.  Timminy is a 5th grade boy who is moving to a new town where 5th grade is at the middle school. For some kids, that would be exciting, but not for Timminy because he is shorter than most kids his age, is teased about his name, and his dad is going to be the AP at his new school.  To help Timminy feel better about the move, his parents agree to get him a Great Pyrenees puppy who he calls Maxi.  As Timminy is acclimating to his new school and neighborhood, he learns that Maxi is deaf and has her own challenges.  He also becomes close friends with Abby, a neighbor and classmate, who was born blind.  With the help of his friendship with Abby and Maxi, Timminy learns many helpful life lessons and the importance of perseverance, confidence, optimism, and true friendship.  

This book is a page turner and will make you laugh, cry, and everything else in between! Although this book doesn't hit shelves until August, definitely add it to your TBR list!

Happy Reading!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Day 31: #SOL16- Some Final Reflections

Today is the final day of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Throughout March, we have committed to writing every single day. It's a powerful learning experience. 

Given that today is the last day of March, it is also the last day of the 2016 Slice of Life Challenge. As in past years, I find myself reflecting and trying to make connections that make be a better developer of curriculum, instructional coach, writer, and overall learner. As in other years, I'm struck by the power of our writing community and all of our shared commitment to doing something hard. Within busy lives, writing every day is challenging, and it's even more challenging because our writing is shared and public. Our bedside journals afford us the luxury of cross-outs, misspelling, and those not-quite-right words. On the other hand our blogs and daily slices require more attention to details. And so many of us have done it. (By the way, I give credit to the Challenge-takers who have missed a day or two. Your commitment still counts! In some ways you get a louder shout-out because it's so easy to fall of the writing wagon and just stay off.) To the entire community, the hosts and all the bloggers--even ones I didn't make it to--thank you. The combined energy keeps us all going!

This year, I had a couple important take-aways which impact the work I do with young writers. First, it's really important to read, celebrate, and study writing of various levels and genres. Some of my daily reads were so consistently wise and brilliantly constructed that I found myself doubting my own writing, and consequently, I started to freeze. My writing felt inadequate. As I wrote in an earlier post, I could work my way out of the slump and the negative feelings, but I wonder how young writers feel when the work that is held up for them to see is consistently better than what they feel they can produce. I think I try to share writing of all levels, but I now have an even greater belief in the importance of this practice. 

Another important take-away for me is that sometimes we have to give permission to take our foot off the gas. During the course of the 31 days, there were times when writing within the same general genre of educational reflections was hard. I had committed to staying true to the educational purpose of the blog I share. In one of my posts, I compared writing to horseback riding, thinking about how sometimes horses respond to just having the reins let go so they can run and and buck and jump. Sometimes, I think that writers need this, too.  Sometimes we need a day off from the hard work of serious writing so that we can just free-write, blurb, or rant--a writer's version of frolicking in a paddock.  As an instructional coach, I may do more suggesting of genre-day-offs within units. I'll be interested to watch for re-energizing and revitalization that comes from dropping the writing reins for just an occasional day here and there. 

There are too many people for me to thank everyone and feel like I've remembered all of you who have impacted me as a writer and as a person this month. If you think you might be on my shout-out list, then you are. This community is like no other with such passion and purpose for learning. I will see you on Tuesdays, and again for the #SOL17. 

Happy slicing, learning, and remaining a community of writers!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Day 30: #SOL16- Sometimes it's good to change it up

The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!

I took a different challenge this year than I have done in previous years. In past challenges, I have written on a different blog, one I set up for personal posts, posts that weren't inherently related to education. This year, I pushed myself to stay on the blog I share, the one that is reserved for education-related topics. It's been hard. While there've been slice-worthy moments I've come across throughout the days, relating the slices to teaching and learning hasn't been easy, and honestly, hasn't always led to my best writing. Sometimes has even led to some bad or boring writing.

I'm reflecting, and I'm thinking, and I'm pretty sure that if someone said, "Melanie, write a snippet of family life, and don't worry if it's for no other reason than for capturing a moment," I'd feel so liberated that I'd work hard to write a good one. 

And here's my connection to teaching and learning (because I'm staying with my personal challenge): What if every once in a while--maybe once a week or once every two weeks--during a unit, there was a built in free-write day? A day to just blab, be silly, and take a writer's stretch, escaping the restrictions of a genre or a goal or a checklist or a chart. Write what you feel like writing and share it if you choose. Just offer up a couple of mid-unit breaks. 

Has anyone explicitly tried this? I'd love to hear about it if you have. 

Happy Slicing!

Day 29: #SOL16-Creating space in sock drawers and on the walls

The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!

My husband really likes socks. He tends to buy a lot of them. He's not quite so good about throwing them out, though. His sock drawer used to get harder and harder to close until I instituted a new rule a couple of years ago. If you but a new pair of socks, you have to throw out an old pair. That rule helped a lot of issues. It got rid of socks with holes, it lessened impulsive purchases, and it made the sock drawer easier to close. 

We had a professional day in our district today. Usually, I have a full docket of presenting to do, but today, I only had an hour where I had to work with sixth-grade teachers. Therefore, I got to spend some of my time working with a long-term sub who is filling in for a six week maternity leave. Tomorrow will be her first day on her own with the students, and it's the first day of a new writing unit. With the sock drawer in mind, we worked on making space for a new writing unit. Together, we:

  • Cleared out the writing folders. Students need to feel like they have a new beginning in a new unit. Having space will help them grow as writers.
  • Cleared off the bulletin boards. Classrooms that use the writing workshop model should be growing and creating charts throughout the unit. When the unit is over and a new one is beginning, it's time to send that message to students. Make room for the new charts to grow. 
  • Set up the structures that will support writers in the new unit. We are moving into opinion writing. Just as they used checklists for narrative and information writing, they will now use checklists for opinion writing, but they need those presented to them. Celebrating those new checklists will help these young writers shift to a new genre. 
  • Envisioned a couple of anchor and process charts that we will co-create with students over the next few weeks. Laminated charts from last year won't teach the students nearly as well as charts that look less perfect but are designed and developed in front of them.
Just as we need space for new socks, we need space for new learning. I'm looking forward to watching these places fill in with great opinion-related work!

Happy slicing!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Day 28: #SOL16- Some missing lessons in our nonfiction curriculum

The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!

Nicholas Kristof wrote a stunning editorial in today's New York Times about the role the media played in the rise of a politician. I'm still processing some of what he wrote, but one of the striking elements for me is the aspect of money. Kristof quoted one of my all-time favorite reporters, Ann Curry in his analysis of how ratings mattered to reporters.
“Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the motherlode,” Ann Curry, the former “Today” anchor, told me. “He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.”
It occurs to me that we don't do much to teach students to ask about who is making money. Who stands to gain financially from this story?  I'm not even sure I have ever done a good enough job myself of being aware of it. Reporting is a business, and social media has made it harder and harder to make a living as a responsible reporter of the news. We all have to make a living.

Earlier in the month, I blogged about a controversy in my own town that revolved around basketball. My daughter's team made the front page of the local paper twice in one week because of issues of social justice. When I first read the articles, I recognized them as a great example of irresponsible reporting. In our fifth and sixth grade nonfiction curriculum, we have lessons that challenge students to think about whose perspective is included and whose perspective is left out. What could the other side of the story be? I think this lesson is incredibly important. But it occurs to me that our curriculum is missing another lesson, entangled in another quote from Ann Curry: 

We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. “The media has been out of touch with these Americans,” Curry notes. 
Even if we are teaching about perspectives and whose stories are left out, I'm not sure we are teaching about who the reporters relate to, even without realizing it. I have some serious thinking to do about this.

I'm not crazy enough to think that the tale of Trump is one I'd ever use in our elementary curriculum, but Nicolas Kristof does make me continue to think about what educators have to teach students so that we are all responsible consumers of the vast amounts of information so readily available to us.

Happy Slicing,

Day 27: #SOL16-Easter Egg Hunt Differentiation

The Slice of Life Challenge is hosted by the inspirational writers of Two Writing Teachers. Each March, they invite people to join them in a commitment to write every day. Here's to another year of daily slicing!

I'm also linking to Margaret Simon's DigLit Sunday this morning, as my Easter egg hunt will have a digital element this year. We'll see how that goes!

My mother made the suggestion that we not have our annual Easter egg hunt this year. It's the one where My daughters and my nephews race around the yard trying to find the most plastic eggs. I've had my years of Easter Egg Differentiation--one year, each child had a specific color they looked for to try to minimize the tears and the fighting. During other years, specific colors were for older kids while the other colors were deemed younger kid eggs. This year, the youngest is ten, so we really don't need any handicaps. All colors can be fair game for everyone.

"Not have the Easter egg hunt?" I feigned a gasp. "The kids love it. It's part of Easter." I didn't remind her how close I am to some of the kids being 21. When my brothers and I came home from college for Easter, my father hid a case of ponies around the back yard. I can't wait to reinstate that tradition!

The truth is that we don't have many traditions that always happen around holidays. The Easter egg hunt is one of the few, so no, I am not giving it up, even without the ponies in the not-so-distant future. I understand where my mother is coming from. In past years, there have been tears over who hasn't gotten as many eggs. Inevitably, the dogs will find an egg in a few weeks and struggle to eat the jelly beans. And yep, there's the problem of mud and gardens.

This afternoon, there will be mud on shoes. Some of the mud may even get tracked into the house. I will follow the searchers around and I will repeat, "There are no eggs in the gardens," but there still may be a crunched crocus.

I'm thinking about how to differentiate for my mother the gardener and nature lover. What if I incorporate technology? What if each child has a "Noticing Component" of their Easter egg hunt, and has to show us pictures of specified late March beauty--a purple blossom, a daffodil that's not yet bloomed, a Hellebore (yes, they'll probably have to ask), a freshly clipped rose branch, an abandoned bird's nest, and others. Maybe if they have to notice, they'll start to appreciate. Differentiation exists even out of the classroom!

Happy Easter, and Happy Slicing,