Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Slice of Life: College Essay Bootcamp

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

Last night, I hosted a college essay writing bootcamp for my 17 year-old daughter and her friends. The idea came about earlier in the week when a few of them were sitting around our kitchen table lamenting the pressure and admitting their struggle with summer writing motivation. When I said they should all come over with a pact to not leave until one essay was done, I had no idea how much energy that idea would generate. Last night, we had seven rising seniors in the loft for two hours at all different stages in the essay writing process. They were so productive, receptive, and grateful! (Jelly beans, gummy bears, sour patch kids, and M&M's helped with the gratitude, as well.)

So many strategies of workshop instruction were in play for me last night!
  • I shared some mentor essays to help generate understanding of what constitutes an effective essay, asking the kids what they noticed and liked about them.
  • I gave them some ideas for generating topics with charts and quick-write exercises.
  • I complimented out loud so that everyone could hear examples of strong writing that were happening right there in the room.
  • I taught them the power of three, which really is one of my favorite go-to strategies. (Teach into writing with patterns of three...I was hot, I was tired, and I was sick of playing the game...Once you start looking for this pattern in writing, you'll be amazed at how much you'll find it.)
While I loved watching these kids work through the writing process, I have to say the struggles and pitfalls reminded me of the same ones their younger writing counterparts struggle through in writing workshop:
  • the struggle to find a topic--the tendency is to write about something big, not something mundane. It was interesting to watch one of the boys realize that dealing with a sore sport as a camp counselor would lead him to a potential essay. (If only these students were part of the slicing community!)
  • the struggle to know what the essay is about--really, really about. How many times do I ask young writers that same question? My writing group members will laugh at this one, because I ask them the same question all the time, as well!
  • the struggle to balance the dialogue, description, and stories with the point of the essay. "Everything has to be angled toward the point of your essay," I kept saying to them.
  • the struggle to get to or stay under a specific word count. The college essays are strict about this one. The boxes will actually cut off in the middle of a sentence. We had some great conversations about strategies for cutting words--active voice, word choice, adjective elimination, adverb elimination, sentence combination, even apostrophes... 
If you have any rising seniors in your world, I recommend an essay bootcamp for them, since we slicers all know how helpful writing energy is to our productivity! They all walked away much farther along in the process than they were before, and they all want to come back tomorrow night.

Happy writing,

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Closing one door and opening another….from teacher to literacy coach

Seven years ago, I made the decision to return back to the classroom to teach 5th grade and leave my role as the literacy coach (our district refers to it as a language arts consultant).  I was the literacy coach between two schools in our district for three years before pleading to return back to the classroom to put all of my new learning into practice.  I wanted to implement first-hand everything I learned through professional development, reflecting on best practices of literacy instruction, and coaching teachers in their classrooms.  Prior to becoming a literacy coach, I was a 4th grade teacher so I was extremely lucky to stay in the same school and teach 5th grade when I returned to the classroom.

This spring, I was asked to return back to the literacy coach position, but this time being able to stay in my home school and not have to balance my time between two schools as I did in the past.  After making my pros/cons list and reflecting on the opportunity, I decided to accept the offer!

This fall, I will be a literacy coach at my school and will have the pleasure of working with the wonderful staff that have been my "second family" for the past 15 years in my teaching career.  Although this change is bittersweet because I absolutely love being a classroom teacher, I am excited to embark on this new opportunity to learn with my colleagues by working alongside them in their classrooms to help students grow as readers and writers! As many of you know, my passion is literacy so I will be able to delve into this passion and put all my focus and energy into spreading my enthusiasm amongst my colleagues and students throughout grades K-6.  As I write this post, I am in the process of setting up my new literacy room to share with my colleagues and students! I am working hard to create an inviting space for both teachers and students so they will feel welcome to peruse, borrow, and enjoy all the resources available to them….of course lots of books too!         

Stay tuned to hear more over the coming weeks about my transition to becoming a literacy coach (again)! :)

Monday, July 13, 2015

It's Monday! What are You 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 love all of Cynthia Lord's books so I was so excited to read her new book, A Handful of Stars! I also heard and read so many great reviews about it so I found time this weekend to sit down and read it.and I read it in one sitting because I couldn't put the book down! This is an amazing story about friendship, importance of family, perseverance, creativity, and how to deal with the tough situations in life.  This would be a perfect book to read aloud during a character unit and/or social issues unit, as well as a great book club book too.  I can't wait to put this in the hands of students and teachers in the fall so they can meet and get to know Lily and Salma! 

In this story, Lily lives with her grandparents in Maine and she has a black Lab named Lucky who is blind.  She meets Salma, a daughter of migrant workers who are working during the blueberry picking season, and their friendship becomes stronger and stronger throughout the book.  They positively impact one another in so many ways and through their friendship, we learn so much more about each character.  If you have this book in your stack like I've had for awhile, definitely move it to the top and begin reading it - enjoy! 

Happy reading! :)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Classroom Book Awards 2015

A few years ago, I began the tradition of hosting Classroom Book Awards and students loved it! Click here to read my post about the process.  Click here to see the list of winners from last year.  

Even though school ended a few weeks ago, I just remembered I never posted our winners for this year! Just as in the past, my students first decided on award categories and created a list of books they nominated for each category.  

Once we had our list of nominations, the voting began via Google forms.  Below are the winners for our awards: 

Best Chapter Book Read Aloud: A Million Ways Home by Dianna Dorisi Winget
Best Picture Book Read Aloud: Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat
Best Historial Fiction Book: Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine 
Best Social Issues Book: Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Best Graphic Novel: Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Most Inspirational Book: Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper 

Happy Reading! 

Monday, July 6, 2015

It's Monday! What are You 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.

At the Book Expo in May, I was introduced to Brad Meltzer's new biography series: Ordinary People Change the World.  As soon as I read I am Jackie Robinson, I was hooked on the series and new I would need to purchase every book in the series and share them with our 3rd grade teachers who immerse students in a biography unit.  It is a very engaging series for 3rd and 4th grade biography units.  I love the structure of it and how it has actual photos and a timeline in the back of the book too.  The illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos help bring the story to life and will instantly pull students into the life story of each person.  

Some of the other books in this series are: 


I personally can't wait to read I am Lucille Ball which will be available on July 14th - I have already pre-ordered it!

Enjoy this series!

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: A Must-Have!

On Monday, I wrote about The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by M. Colleen Cruz, but I did not even remotely do it justice. There is so much to say about this book as a reference for teachers, instructional coaches, administrators, or anyone else who works with developing writers.

First off, let me just say that Colleen Cruz had me hooked from the first line of her introduction which was "I am a pessimist." She follows that line with a series of pictures that I will leave for you to discover. Her challenge to readers is to figure out the meaning of these pictures while reading the book. Love. That. Then, the rest of the introduction validates how hard teaching can be, but encourages us to see challenges as opportunities. Love that, too.

Except for the first and final two chapters, each chapter revolves around a common statement that teachers are likely to say about teaching writing, and, with the exception of only one, I have heard all of them. Here's a sampler of some of the chapter titles. Don't these sound familiar?
  • "I don't know what to teach the student. He's a much better writer that I am."
  • "I can't seem to get my students to stay writing unless I'm sitting beside them."
  • "I don't feel prepared to work with a student with such big challenges."
  • "I teach grammar, but my kids don't learn it."
Every--and I mean every-- chapter is full of practical advice and tools to use in the classroom. For example, there is a curated list of possible mentor texts to use with sophisticated writers for several genres, where the columns are "If your whole class mentor is usually:" and "You might try this." Just like that, I have another whole set of mentor texts at my disposal to share with the teachers I work with. 

The third chapter is one of my favorites, and focuses on how to work with struggling writers. In this chapter, Colleen talks about scaffold, and I have never read a better explanation on what a scaffold should and should not be. Some of my favorite lines in this chapter are:
  • "Just as an infant balks at having to lift his own spoon to his mouth, many of our students would prefer to have a teacher sit beside them and support them every time they write." (26)
  • "When we are constantly hovering over a student, or in a worst-case scenario actually do the writing work for him, we are not able to see what a student can actually achieve independently." (27)
  • "Now I know that is I am going to use scaffolding, I need to make sure it matches the individual student's needs and still allows her to work at her maximum capacity." (28)
  • "Additionally, when putting a scaffold in place, we need to concurrently have a plan for how and when to remove it." (28)
So many of these lines spoke to me, as a trained special education teacher, as well as a writing coach and coordinator. When I work with teacher in upcoming years, I will definitely have some of these pages copied and highlighted for teachers to process and reflect on. 

Another chapter that I will have ready to share at all times is Chapter 5, "I'm finding some student writing repetitive and boring." I love how Colleen reminds us that we need to find moments of importance within our lives; these moments don't have to resonate around the world, but they have to resonate with ourselves. When we model and teach students  to be on the hunt for the moments that matter to in our lives, we teach more than writing; we teach them the value of their lives. Colleen ends Chapter 5 with a bulleted list of how to maintain the conditions for risk-taking within writing workshop. If (when) you get this book, put a stickie note on pp 54-55, copy them, and return to them often. Each bullet is worth a lot of reflection and thought. 

Throughout The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, there are charts, tools, and resources to copy and use. Right. Now. For examples:
  • A list of sentence stems sorted by writing genre (41)
  • A list of ways to time-transport yourself to the age of your students (51)
  • A student writing survey to help get to know your writers (62)
  • A chart for Student Observation Note-taking (64)
  • A letter to send to families explaining the practices and theories of writing workshop. (Brilliant!) (111)
  • A chart of common questions and possible responses from doubting care-takers (112)
  • A student interest questionnaire (121)
Every one of these tools is going into my toolkit as resources to share with teachers. Any one of these could make the book worth its cover price of $21.

But wait, there are still final thoughts in an inspiring, validating, and emotional conclusion. You not only figure out the meanings of the pictures from the first page, but you also feel great about the work that you do. 

Thank you, Colleen. You have created a gift to all teachers of writing. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Slice of Life: The Connections Between Yoga and Learning

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

While I look forward to many aspects of summer, one of the best is spending time in Rhode Island near the beach and re-establishing myself as a member of an amazing yoga community. Practicing yoga has a great correlation to my writing quality and productivity, and yesterday while in class (even though I do know that I’m not supposed to drift into other thoughts) I thought about what the instructor said about the practice of yoga and how it relates to the lives of writers. Here are some of the connections.

1. The pleasure is in the process and not the product.
This statement reminded me of the mantra to teach the writer and not the writing. As teachers of writing, and of writers ourselves, we have to trust in the truth that we improve by doing, even when sometimes the doing isn’t all that good. If we are constantly looking to create or have others create that perfect piece, it isn’t going to happen. Instead, everyone will be frustrated.

2. Find clarity in the spaces.
Sometimes, when I write, the blank page is scary. Just getting started takes so much courage. Then, once there are lines on the pages, they invite me back in, beckoning me to continue the work, to talk back to the work. I’ve gotten much better at purposefully leaving space on pages, so that I can return to a piece I’ve written, reacting, expanding, responding, reflecting, or even using it as a place to jump off into another whole somewhat related topic.

3. The practice, the same position, looks different on different days.
Lisa pointed out to one of the men in the class that he experiments with slightly different variations of the same pose, depending on the day. I loved this statement as a writer, thinking about it in terms of writing and not just yoga. Writing is a practice, and the craft moves, genres, exercises, prompts, struggles, and celebrations are all part of the correlating poses.

4. Be brave and push yourself right to the edge of your comfort zone.
Isn’t that the equivalent of the Zone of Proximal Development? When I practice yoga, I can do it safely; I can adjust my poses so that they are comfortable, and even take child’s pose when high plank lasts too long. But, it’s when I push myself to push up into wheel--even for a few seconds--or arch into camel despite the dizziness, that’s when I feel stronger, braver, and prouder. This statement leads right into the next one...

5. Be aware of when a pose makes you panic and when it bores you. The optimal place to be is right in the middle.
Isn’t that also the equivalent of our Zones of Proximal Development? What if we substitute the concept of new learning? Be aware of when the learning/teaching panics and when it bores, and be sure to be in the balancing spot between those two places. IT sounds a little crazy, but the one of the most exciting parts of yoga is doing a pose that has been hard, even though the wobbling and shakiness is a little scary. When I mentioned this to my sister-in-law who I go with, she made the connection between academic risks and yoga risks right away. “It just has to be exactly the right amount of scary, and then it’s incredibly exciting,” she commented.

So, there are some of my post-yoga reflections. I’m sure that there are more of them! Feel free to add on.

Happy Slicing,

It's Monday! What are You 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.

Each year, I attend the Book Expo when it is in NYC and am always so excited to read upcoming new titles! I was especially excited to get my hands on a copy of Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate and knew that would be my first read from the stack of books because she is an amazing author.

Crenshaw was an amazing read and full of imagination, social issues, relationships, and important life lessons. The main character, Jackson, is going into 5th grade and he has been faced with tough family situations including his dad being diagnosed with MS, his parents losing their full time jobs, living in a mini-van, being evicted from homes, and being faced with the unknown at such a young age.  He has the help of his imaginary friend, Crenshaw the cat, to help him through some of these challenging life situations.  Crenshaw appears when he senses he is needed and even though Jackson might not think he needs him, he does.

 This story would be an amazing read aloud, book club book, or just a great book to put in the hands of your students in grades 4 and up.  It will be available on September 22nd, but if I were you, I would pre-order it so you don't have to wait one day longer to read it! :)

Enjoy and Happy Reading! :)

It's Monday! What Are You 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 read A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord in one sitting, and another round of thanks to Tara Smith who wrote about this book at her blog,  A Teaching Life. (I had my last week's book from Tara, as well.) I am now reading it a second time out loud to my daughter  and picking up on details and craft moves that I hadn't noticed when I was whipping through to see what would happen. Cynthia Lord's text structure and plot development is simple, but her messages and the snippets of information she tucks into her words are complex and great opportunities for close reading. Cecily and I had a great discussion about the importance of using the word "that" instead of "the". Not every book is a springboard for that type of discussion. In many ways, Cynthia Lord reminds me of Patricia MacLachlan in the ways that she delves into tough situations for children, and creates meaningful changes that we can all learn from. 

Inspired by Fran McVeigh who wrote about her experiences at Teachers College last week on her blog, Resource-Full, I have been re-reading and re-reading Henry and Mudge and the Happy Cat by Cynthia Rylant. (If you didn't read Fran's posts throughout the week, I highly recommend heading over to her blog with a cup of coffee, as she has shared some amaxing learning.) Really, there are so many craft moves tucked into this small book that can benefit writers across the elementary grades and beyond. As a writer, this book is a seminar for me on the power of threes. Read it and pay attention to how many times Cynthia Rylant uses three in her text. There is also clear and focused plot development, character development, conflict, and closure which again, will help all writers develop their own story arc. I have marked up this book, covering pages with color-coded sticky notes, as described by Fran.

In the near future, I will write a detailed blog post about The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by M. Colleen Cruz. I have been reading, re-reading, and marking up this inspiring book. There are parts where I feel like Colleen Cruz is having a conversation with me, and is speaking directly to some of my hopes and dreams, and anguish and concerns about writing instruction. She includes helpful resources throughout the book including letters to families, charts for observations, surveys for students, and lists of mentor texts. (Those are only the tip of the iceberg of resources in this book.) It's easy to read, even though it's packed with information, and the resounding message for me throughout this text? Write. Be a teacher of writing who struggles, understands, and celebrates the process. If you are debating this book in your cart, hit the order button. You'll love it. 

Happy reading,

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Thinking About Balanced Assessment

On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!

I have been participating in a district think tank about assessment over the last couple of months. Today, we had a six hour meeting to try to develop a brochure that communicates, articulates, and condenses our beliefs about balanced assessment. Integrating the work of other institutions and districts, I love the concept of balancing growth and achievement, and the other elementary educators and I developed bullets to support this concept, crafting statements about balanced assessment.

Our bullets align to my beliefs about assessment--that we assess for three basic reasons: to make instructional decisions, to determine whether students have learned the objectives, and to hold ourselves (and be held) accountable for student achievement.

And yet, the experience that I had with my own daughters who are high school students are gnawing at me as I reflect on the work and the thinking that we did today. Conceptually, I believe that assessment is a cornerstone to education, right there along with curriculum and instruction in a rock solid triangle. And, I believe that great assessment leads to great learning, driving instructional decisions and curriculum development/revision.

But what about college? Assessment also creates GPAs. At any college admission information presentation, the presenter talks about the rigor and the overall performance as important factors in potential acceptance. How do we get around the fact that assessments create GPAs, and in competitive high schools, GPAs are important components of college applications? Do we count formative assessments into GPAs? Within our conference room of teacher leaders, we did not have consensus. Some teachers do count formative assessment, while others use it only to provide information to students about how they are doing. If they don't average formative assessment into reported grades, should students who reach targets more quickly receive higher grades? Do high quality assessment practices lend themselves to 100 point grading scales, or should we be thinking about reporting meeting and not meeting standards? But then, how would that serve students as they apply to highly selective colleges and universities?

I was so proud of the work we accomplished this morning--of the clarity of our bullets that explain balanced assessment. However, the complexities and questions that surround assessment overwhelm me as I think about communicating these ideas and visions to the rest of the community. The more I think about it, the more questions I have. Oh dear.

Happy Slicing,

Monday, June 22, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You 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 am grateful to Tara Smith for sharing the amazing story of Caitlin Aliferenka and Martin Ganda as written in I Will Always Write Back by the two of them with the assistance of Liz Welch. When Caitlin was in middle school, she had a teacher encourage students to form pen pal relationships with other students around the world. Caitlin and Martin began writing to each other, Caitlin from Pennsylvania and Martin from Zimbabwe. The book documents the letters and adventures over the next several years, chronicling historical events and unfolding the events that led to incredible life changes for both of them. Caitlin and the readers of this book learn what a difference the money we spend on a cup of coffee can make in the lives of other people in the world, and the realizations are especially powerful because the perspectives shift from Caitlin to Martin in alternating chapters. 

Sometimes books touch your heart in ways that you don't expect, and I found myself tearing up in many sections of I Will Always Write Back. The messages of empathy, empowerment, humanity, and kindness overwhelmed me throughout the pages, as Caitlin was so profoundly generous and wise beyond her years, while Martin was so determined, grateful, and disciplined beyond his years. Middle school students will be inspired to reach out to other cultures in meaningful ways after reading this--I can't wait to share it with my sixth-grade teachers and hear about ways they can envision sharing this story with their students. But additionally, they will have a powerful springboard to discuss the meaning of grit, growth mindset, and goal-setting, as well as privilege and responsibility.

Thank you, Tara, and for the rest of you--don't miss I Will Always Write Back.

Happy Reading!

Monday, June 1, 2015

It's Monday! What Are You 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.

Over the summer, I will be working on our first-grade nonfiction writing unit. One of the requests from teachers was to have some titles of mentor texts with interesting introductions and conclusions. I spent time in the library and with our media specialist collecting some titles with a variety of beginnings and endings. 

Tooth and Claw by Jim Arnosky is a book that could me a mentor text in upper grades. It is full of linguistic craft moves--images, figurative language, varied sentence structure, comparisons--but the introduction is an example of an anecdote. Jim Arnosky tells the story of how a tiger let a little boy pass by, giving him luck.

An easier way for students to begin information books, especially when they are writing about animals is with a chronological beginning. Tale of a Tadpole by Karen Wallace is an excellent example of this strategy. Written at a low enough lexile level for many first-graders, this book begins with "The tale of a tadpole begins in the pond." Predictably, it ends when the tadpole becomes a frog.

Frogs: Nature's Friends by Ann Heinrich would be a great pairing with the Tale of a Tadpole, and it begins with a frog noise and a splash into the pond. This is a great mentor text for beginning with a sound hook.

I have to say that even the cover of Snakes by Melissa Stewart could lead to some interesting observations. At first glance, I thought the cover was scary and that the mouth of the snake was wide open, but then I realized that it was a picture of the snake's skin shedding. As a mentor text for interesting beginnings, this book hooks readers with a series of questions written in rhyme.

Owls by Aaron Carr begins with the simple sentence "Meet the owl." It then goes on to talk to readers hypothetically throughout the text, as if they might meet an owl.  I could see young information writers being able to emulate this style, developing their voice and sentence structure.

I love prowling low lexile nonfiction texts for examples of unusual beginnings and endings. An earlier post that I wrote when I was working with third-grade teachers is linked here, featuring a collection of books and creative ways to end information books. If you have any favorite mentors for nonfiction beginnings and endings, please share!

Happy reading,