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.