Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Slice of Life: The Power of a Writing Community

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

This morning, I got a text from Lisa Keeler telling me that her SOL post was about me. She and I met through the world of blogging and specifically, could trace the genesis of our real-life-meeting path to  the community within the SOL. Her post this morning welled me right up.  We don't often get to know the impression we make on other people--I frequently wonder how crazy my life appears to visitors and observers--and we almost never get to read about it. Lisa's post this morning was a gift I will treasure.

I could go on about how much I also have enjoyed getting to know Lisa. I could write about the dinner we made together in her Virginia kitchen that we ate in Adirondack chairs overlooking meadows, pastures, and beautiful horses. I could also write about the amazing adventures she had as a child traveling around the world, or I could write about the angel food cake she made today for her mother's birthday because it's her mother's favorite. I could write more, too.

But here's the thing. It's really hard for people to understand that relationships really do come out of blogging and twitter and the SOL community until they experience it. When I told my daughters about my new friend Lisa who I only knew through shared posts, on-line stalking, and a phone conversation, they thought I was crazy. Okay, so she has daughters who remind me of my own, a mother with the same birthday, a lab who was older than mine (and took as many pills as mine does until hers died a few months ago), plays tennis, has a similar job, and...I could go on. When we met in person and my daughters met her in person, they understood. "You really are a lot alike," one of my girls said. "That's weird."

But is it?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that all of us in the SOL community commit to noticing moments and appreciating them enough to write about them. Generally, the moments we share are not shared with the intention to complain or criticize, but rather to celebrate and relive a wonder (my OLW for 2016).

Writing is a powerful connector. If you are new to the SOL community and struggling with the commitment to write and share every week, it's worth it. If you are reading this post and debating about joining in, please do. We will welcome you. Such good things come of it--an appreciation for the power of writing, learning, friendships, posts like the one Lisa wrote this morning...

Thank you to all of my slicing community, thank you Stacey for bringing so many people together, and thank you Lisa.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Slice of LIfe- That Thing We Do Called Writing

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

I am working on my MFA through the Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College If anyone is interested in low-residency programs, I'd be happy to talk about this experience, as it is truly life-changing in my world not only as a writer, but also as a person. 

While I have many shares and posts to write, one of the most important is not an earth-shattering one, but a critically important one, and that is how much courage writing takes because it is SO frustrating and humbling. Over the first half of the ten-day residency, I percolated the story arc of a novel I've been working on for a few years. Yes, a few years. I have a couple of drafts written, but I know they're not quite right. During that first half of residency, I re-wrote the story arc, first in my notebook and then on stickie notes. I shared it with some of my workshop colleagues, and they liked it. The arc was clear. I could answer their questions. I knew my characters. I could describe my setting. 

And then in workshop, our mentor asked a question that derailed the work I've done. Who has the most compelling story? $*!%&*. The answer is not the character whose point of view is what I've written and planned on revising. Therefore, I have an entire rewrite to do, as who wants to read a book from the perspective of anyone but the one with the most compelling story. 

Sigh. Writing is so humbling. So frustrating. So maddening. And still, we keep going, pressing onward with revisions and rewrites and even re-creations--

At least it's July and it will be August and those are my writing months. Onward. 

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Slice of Life-Of bricks, chalk, and poetry

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

Our Summer Writing Academy featured poetry, and it was one of my favorite weeks of teaching writing I've ever had. Students read poems, found poems, created poems, and wrote their own poems, and the learning and inspiration that happened from studying words and language so closely was incredible to watch. 

We had a short celebration at the end of the week to share some of the work the students did. Summer is for fun, so we tried hard to incorporate play into the world of our writing. One of those play elements involved sidewalk chalk as a forum for sharing and celebration. Students loved writing their poems on the blacktop, and some of them even got creative with the bricks. Poems and words filled the red bricks of the school wall. Some of the students even created an elaborate and well-engineered pencil that directed and welcomed parents and guests to our poetry celebration. The caption was welcome to the wonder of our writers. 

Unfortunately, the custodians didn't think the brick poetry was as good an idea as we did. I have some advice for all you would-be writers of poetry on bricks--think hard before you allow odes to appear on bricks.. Chalk is a little sticky when it's on red clay.  After listening to the custodians review their summer work lists which did not include scrubbing the outside walls of the school, I volunteered myself and my daughter to come back and remove the poetry (although I do think there could be worse things on the walls of an elementary school!).

Larkin and I had great exercise scrubbing the pencil, the words of welcome, and all the other poems that so happily decorated the bricks.

Happy Writing,

Friday, July 1, 2016

Collaborative Poetry- A Post from a Guest-Blogger

Matt Pascucci is a fifth-grade teacher in our district. Over the summer, he taught at our Summer Writing Academy and is sharing some of the work his students did. 

I spent the last week teaching as a part  of a week-long writing camp.  This year’s theme was “The Power of Poetry.”  The best part of this year is that we were afforded flexibility in exploring poetry in whatever facet worked best.  The worst part was having only a period of five days to convey everything there is to know about poetry… ever. 
Obviously this was impossible, so my planning ended up being driven by two things… the first, I wanted the kids to have fun and enjoy poetry, the second was that I wanted the kids to push themselves into deeper thinking while being unbound by the typical formats of poetry taught in schools.  We did not write haikus, we did not write about me poems, we did not write limericks, and acrostics were not invited.
In order to get my 5th going into 6th graders using their brains thinking in the lyrical quality of free verse, we spent the first day making poetry, rather than writing it.  I wanted the kids to focus on crafting poetry using other people’s words, manipulating them into their own meaning.  We created blackout poetry in order to discover a different meaning hidden among other words, found poetry in order to play with white space by inserting line breaks and stanza breaks, and we played a few other games using the words of other authors. 
The next step was helping the students to get used to looking at the world through their “poet’s eyes.”  We took a walk around the outside of the school, spending time observing objects and trying to create our own poems from varying perspectives.  This second day led to an activity inspired by a type of “found poetry” we had previously done independently.  In a fairly lackluster activity, the kids read the works of various poets, jotting down individual lines that really spoke to them.  They then rearranged those lines in order to create a new poem.  These poems were fine, but they lacked inspiration and emotion.  However, I was inspired.
I decided to have the kids apply this idea to a collaborative production. In small groups, each student started by writing a four line poem on the topic of writing poetry.  The poems were pretty good, they each had small bits of flair, emotion, and musicality.  The real magic came afterwards.

The students then cut their poems into little strips, so that each line of the poem was on its own strip.  Next, the group laid out all of their lines on a table.  From these lines, the kids crafted a new poem, rearranging, adding, and removing lines. 

Not only was I amazing by the quality of the product, but also by the true act of revision taking place. 
As a fifth grade teacher, I often find that the hardest element of revision for my students is the rearrangement, and especially the deletion of writing and ideas within a piece.  For some reason (I don’t know if it was the fact that this was a poem, or if it came down to the freedom of playing with their group members ideas) but the kids very democratically and thoughtfully deleted, rearranged, and added ideas to make their poem the best it could be.
Below is an example of one of the collaborative poems that resulted from their work:

To Express a Poem

Staring at the Blank Page
What to write? I 
A fountain of words
Are racing in my head.
What to write?

Swarming until you find your hand moving
A stream of words
flows from the mind of the writer
and onto the blank white page
and you are writing poetry.

I'm looking forward to finding ways to weave in more poetry instruction throughout the year. Students not only enjoy it, but they also learn so much about both reading and writing by studying the craft of poetry.

Thanks for the opportunity to share--


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Slice of Life: Providing Learning Opportunities for High School Volunteers

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

The week of our annual Summer Writing Academy is upon me, and although I don't love giving up a week of summer to work, I am excited to watch how a week of poetry unfolds. I am also looking forward to working with the four high school students who are volunteering. The first year I ran the program, one of the high school students gave me feedback that she wished she learned more about teaching. Since then, I have carved out time each day to meet with the volunteers and give them an easily explainable teaching move to try out as they work in the program. This morning, I am thinking about what those sessions will be this year. 

As of right now, I am thinking that today I will go over the structure of a conference, giving each of them some of my pink cards that have places to write compliments, teaching points, and challenges. Tomorrow, I will use Responsive Classroom to teach them about morning meetings and then encourage their teachers to allow them to run an activity. Thursday will be a quick review of growth mindset principles and key language using some key pages from Opening Minds by Peter Johnston (one of my favorite all-time professional books), and Friday will be about reading both published and student work with love and respect. I love the work of Valerie Worth for teaching them to read words with emotion and admiration. 

 I'm never sure of the highest leverage teaching points for my high school volunteers or of the correct sequence for them. As with teaching in a writing classroom, I find myself wanting to teach everything all at once, and I know that this is not good practice. 

If anyone out in my wonderful slicing world has other suggestions that high school volunteers who are interested in education could absorb, practice, and appreciate, please share! This part of our program tends to get underemphasized, but I love encouraging their interest in children and teaching. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Slice of LIfe: Writing about what we know, what matters, and what inspires

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

On Sunday, I accepted an invitation to go into New York City for a Challenged Athlete Foundation event. For the last two years, I have been working on a middle grade fiction book about a girl with osteosarcoma who has to overcome a leg amputation. My story is based on a child in our town who has lived this experience. She and her family have been incredibly generous about sharing their story with me, and her mother knew that attending this clinic would both help me as a writer and be something I would truly enjoy. She was so right!

 If I had any doubt about the importance of this story, it's gone after watching these amazing people overcome pain, adversity, and challenges. In a park on the upper east side, about fifty amputees of all ages worked together with therapists, prosthetists, and volunteers. Until Sunday, I didn't think as much about  the complexities that amputees live with, even long after their surgery when it appears that they are functioning well. Because they all understood each other and could relate to the issues they face, they talked about the skin irritations,  fitting challenges,  maneuvering challenges, the pros and cons of various prosthetic limbs, and self-conscious moments. One of the teenagers spends days at a time traveling across the country to have the premier prosthetist in the country fit her with a silicone liner that wouldn't irritate her residual limb. 

One of the most important aspects of the clinic was the support and guidance everyone offers each other. There were all different levels of functioning since there was such a variation in people's time since their surgeries. The people who were more experienced worked hard to teach and show others techniques and strategies for maneuvering. In front of our eyes, in a two hour clinic, we watched people go from an awkward walk to a smooth jog. If something hurt or irritated anyone, there were adjustments made right there by experts with tools and equipment. One little boy was the recipient of a donated running leg. With everyone cheering, he put it on, and got to run on a specially built leg. Another girl has struggled with prosthetic challenges. On Sunday, she participated in the relay, running through narrow stretches, hula hoops, and backwards through a designated stretch. Up until then, she had only walked. There was so much emotion when she finished the course that I am welling up as I write. 

These people come long distances to be together and support each other. In a world that emphasizes and values resilience, courage, empathy, perseverance, cooperation, and generosity, they are models of inspiration for all of us. 

We write best when we write about what we know, and on Sunday I learned so much about the struggles and celebrations, courage and bravery of amputees. 

We also write best when we write what matters and what inspires us. I can't wait to get back to my book!

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Slice of Life-Celebrating What Really Matters

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

I normally have a good sense of what I will write about on Tuesdays, and this morning, I had a strong sense of how my post would go. I had a wonderful time teaching poetry to fifth-grade students during their outdoor education program. However, a phone call just as I was leaving for work changed the focus of my week's slice. I was running a little late-- Cecily wanted braids in her hair, Clare had forgotten to get everything off the floor for the cleaning lady, the dog kept spitting out his pills despite some tasty pill pockets, and I needed something for lunch. Then the phone rang. 

“Someone hit me,” Clare said. 

My stomach dropped, then lurched, and my legs went bloodless. 

“Are you okay?" I said, trying to react calmly to the words no parent wants to hear. "Where are you?”

She told me where she was, and I could hear her voice thicken. “It wasn’t my fault,” she said.

“I’ll be right there.” I left. And I left the dog's pills on the counter, my bag on the floor, and my apple and water on the table.

As I drove toward the high school, I realized that I really didn’t know the extent of what happened. I only knew about where she was.I drove along envisioning all sorts of scenarios. When I saw the police car on the side of the road, I breathed. Clare was also there. She was fine--trying hard to clean her car because red smoothie had gone everywhere when she was rear-ended. She started to cry when I hugged her, and I worked hard to keep my composure. The car needs a new bumper and hatchback, but that's okay. My daughter was able to get out of the car and call me. 

The officer let her leave the scene, and she finished her drive to school. Once she left, the man, an older man who didn't speak English well, kept repeating how sorry he was. 

"It's okay," I kept saying. "She's okay, and it's just a car."

He started to cry, and then I almost did too. "I'm so sorry," he said over and over. 

My original idea for a post was about celebrating what really matters in students' writing. Instead it's about celebrating what really matters in life.

Happy Slicing,

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,