Sunday, December 11, 2016

Remembering Kathleen Tolan

I had the honor of listening to and learning from Kathleen Tolan at numerous workshops at TCRWP for about the past 15 years.  When I heard the tragic news on Sunday, December 4th that she passed away in her sleep the night before, I was heartbroken and shocked.  I did not know she was sick so her passing took me by surprise.  I immediately thought of all the strategies she taught me over the years and how she not only impacted my instruction, but also impacted my students' learning over all these years by making me a better teacher.

I have notebooks full of my notes from TCRWP workshops dating back to 2002 so I began to look through them this weekend to remember some of the strategies I learned sitting in Kathleen's workshops. To honor and remember Kathleen Tolan, I am dedicating this post to her and sharing some highlights from her workshops dating back to 2003.

Historical Fiction:
Kathleen loved Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles and used it as a mentor text and read aloud whenever she was presenting a workshop for a historical fiction unit.  She was the one who introduced me to Freedom Summer on April 5, 2003 and it has been my favorite historical fiction picture book since that day.

At this workshop, I learned:
  • it is important for students to think about how the setting is affecting the plot and character's actions/behaviors since it is based on a period in history. 
  • students need to pay attention to clothing, objects, daily life, how characters speak and live because these clues can help students piece together information to find out more about the time period. 
  • to teach students how to use nonfiction texts to help them learn more about the time period of their historical fiction book.  
  • to teach students there is more than one story and event in each time period (i.e. slavery was not the only issue during the Civil War time period). 
  • to launch the unit by choosing one time period and sharing 5-6 short texts with students for that time period.  
Comprehension Strategy Instruction: 
Kathleen was so passionate about teaching reading and loved sharing her tools and strategies with others.  At a Saturday Reunion workshop on 10/18/03, I learned multiple strategies to teach reading skills. 
Strategies to teach retelling: 
  • Ask students to actually put their hand on the page as they retell to check for sequential order. 
  • Tell students that retelling is not a memory test and teach them the "Flip to remember" strategy by flipping through the pages to refresh memory and retell what happened.  
  • After each chapter, ask yourself," What just happened in this chapter?" (This taught me how to have my students use "end of chapter post-its!" 
  • At the end of every 2 pages, ask, "Where's my character? Who is my character with? What is my character doing? How is my character feeling?" 
Strategies to teach synthesizing/accumulating the text:  
  • When you read chapter 6, you are bringing chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 to it.  
  • Have students show you parts in the book where they learned information about their character. 
  • Character relationships - does your character act differently with different people? 
  • Ask, "How does this chapter fit with the chapter before?" 
Strategies to teach inferential comprehension: 
  • Kathleen shared a short typed passage with us to use with students for inferring work.  It was the passage where a boy named John plans to get up early to learn his spelling before school, but wakes up late, gets a flat tire on the way to school, and is late for class.  It was a perfect passage to teach inferring.  I used this passage with my students many times and shared it with many teachers too.  
Conferring in Reading Workshop: 
Those of us who knew Kathleen, know she was a master at conferring.  She is the one who taught me to create a conferring toolkit to carry around with me while conferring with students.  I learned this strategy on 3/27/04 and have had a toolkit ever since that day! Each time I add to my ever-evolving toolkit, I will think of her. 
During this workshop, she shared the following conferring tips: 
  • When you confer, carry and bring your knowledge about genre, authors, series, and strategies with you.  
  • Use a shower caddy or something similar to put "cheat sheets", conferring notes, texts with post-its, typed texts with tracks of your thinking, etc.  
  • Do NOT demonstrate in their book - that is the student's work! 
  • Always keep conferring notes on some kind of recording form where you can also jot down if it was an individual conference, partner conference, or strategy group.  
Read Aloud as a Teaching Tool: 
During this Saturday Reunion workshop on 10/29/05, Kathleen shared the video clip of her reading aloud The Giving Tree to a group of students.  
During this workshop, I learned: 
  • we don't want students to have a copy of the read aloud book because read aloud is a time to work on listening comprehension - listening comprehension is a window into reading comprehension.  
  • to make sure we are modeling how to accumulate the text while reading aloud chapter books. 
  • it is important to plan read alouds by marking places you will think aloud and ask students to turn and talk, jotting down prompts to ask students, and jotting down specific skills you will be teaching in the unit. 
  • it is mportant to have a whole class conversation for read aloud 1-2 times per week.  
Book Club Conversations: 
During this Saturday Reunion workshop on 3/24/07, I learned multiple strategies to help my students plan for their book club conversations and used them immediately in my classroom that year during our book club units. 
Kathleen showed us various ways students can plan for book club conversations in their reader's notebook prior to their conversation.  For example, students can...
  • place a post-it with their thinking on top of a page and extend their thinking about that idea by using thinking stems.  
  • create a web with an idea in the center and then stem out with how it affects other characters in the book and/or with the other character's point of view.  
  • have a page in their notebook dedicated to strong post-its so they can look across the post-its to synthesize the text and extend their thinking.  
Above are some highlights from the many workshops I had the honor of attending with Kathleen Tolan.  These notes are just the tip of the iceberg of what I learned from Kathleen and the positive impact she had on my reading instruction.  Kathleen, although you were taken from all of us too soon, you will live on in all of our classrooms daily.  Thank you for sharing your knowledge, expertise, and passion for teaching reading with all of us! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Slice of Life: Sharing our 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. 

Because I love to write, I have always invented ways and reasons for my family to write together. Now that my four daughters are between 14 and 20, I can't tell them what to do as much as I can model what I do and why I do it. Over the last 24 hours, both of my college-aged daughters have shared their work. Julia, a freshman, has been working on an essay about the intersections of songs and poetry (love this!) while Larkin, a junior, has been working on a wordless picture book. 

Many of you know my daughter Larkin either through her participation in the Slice of Life Challenge or because she has drawn several of the pictures that go with my blog posts. About a year ago, she told me that she was not only going to major in art, but she was also going to minor in writing. I can't tell you how fun it has been to share writing projects together!

For several years, I have worked on a middle grade fiction book, and some of the characters in it are fairies and squirrels. Larkin has contributed events, conversations, and descriptions--sometimes I get emails or pictures of her notebook pages where she has envisioned or created a scene from my story. Her divergent thinking always pushes my imagination, and I know she has both made me a better writer and my book a better  story. 

This fall, Larkin asked if she could use my basic plot line to create a wordless picture book for a class she is taking. Ummmm. Yes! Absolutely!!! She has shared some of the pages as she's painted them, but she finally sent the entire work to me yesterday. I'm sharing just a few screenshots of her paintings--there are actually 24 of them!

I'm also sharing this story because it's such a testament to the power of writing to bring people together. I sometimes wonder about the impact of my writing on my daughters, and Larkin's beautiful picture book is incredibly affirming to the importance of sharing our work with people we love.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Slice of Life- A reminder that sensitivity 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. 

Last week I wrote about some of the quotes I loved from my weekend in Atlanta at the NCTE conference. This week, I am writing about some of the words Margarita Engle shared during her powerful presentation about voice in nonfiction writing. Margarita is a Cuban-American novelist and poet, and her work has won many awards. 

When Margarita spoke at NCTE, she talked of her concern for many children in the United States who are living in fear of deportation. Granted, we don't know what the policies will be regarding refugees, immigrants, and deportation. We are all in a wait and see mode as to what the new administration will do in 2017.  However, trouble is easy to borrow, especially when the stakes are high. For families who believe they may have to leave this country, the stakes are extremely high. Margarita's words made me realize what great fear and anxiety many families in our country are experiencing about their future. 

Margarita had been excited to try out a writing prompt where she would ask children to think of an important memory, and then write that memory in present tense. As she described the concept, I was excited to think about trying it out. But then, she stated that she would not include this exercise in her presentations because of the potential danger it could pose for children and their families. Truly, my heart pounded when she said this, partially because I don't want to believe that any child in our country should live with this kind of fear, and partially because in my naivete, I hadn't thought about it myself, and I am the coordinator of our writing program. 

I work in a relatively homogeneous school system, and I am embarrassed to admit that I hadn't thought about how some of our students' fears could impact their academic lives, especially in writing. In our narrative units, we encourage students to generate stories by thinking of emotional times in their lives. We ask them to write about important memories, people, and places. We ask them to provide windows into their lives. What if these windows are dangerous for our students? And even if they are not dangerous, what if our children or their families perceive that they could be? 

More than any other time I can remember, this is a time for extreme empathy, cultural awareness, and sensitivity. I am grateful for Margarita's powerful words, as they reminded me to pay more attention, to be more vigilant, and to spread more kindness wherever I can. 

Happy writing,

Monday, November 21, 2016

Slice of Life: Top Ten Quotes from my NCTE notes

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. 

Attending NCTE definitely poses a challenge. This year, my flight left Hartford at 6am. I had to leave my husband with not only daughter responsibilities, leaf raking, grocery shopping, and house cleaning, but also with the challenges of a 9 week-old puppy. (He's really cute, but needs a 3 am potty break!)

But the hardest part of NCTE is the loneliness I feel on Monday. Anyone else feeling bereft? In order to gather my thoughts and re-experience some of my highlights, I have collected the top ten quotes in my notes. (are you appreciating the poetry?) While they do not even remotely capture the experience, it feels good to share some.

  • When you don’t know the language, you don’t realize how important it is to have language. -Shana Frazin
  • Successful readers revise their thinking, and there is a huge chasm between those kids and the kids who grab a thought and then just hold on to it. -Elin Keene
  • You probably don’t know adults’ DRA, you don’t know what level book they are reading. You might not even know what their community values. We acknowledge their habits and behaviors. -Matt Glover
  • I am a writer. I can write. The proof is on the page. -Jen Vincent

  • If you don’t struggle in front of students, they think you have a writing gene they don’t.-Kelly Bowell
  • When I’m not writing I notice a huge difference in my teaching. I need to be writing. -Beth Moore
  • Yes, we need to listen to the stories of others, BUT too often we’re doing one or the other: listening or telling -Jason Griffith
  • We all need writing as a survival tool in a complex world. -Sarah Gross
  • The critical piece is to stop looking at what’s wrong about the piece and first search for the beauty- Lisa Eckholdt
  • Write from the heart never worrying about what anyone else might think. -Margarita Engle
  • Give writers concrete tasks that are tiny. Take the scary out of writing. -Linda Sue Park
  • The skills we have to have to change the world are the same ones we need to pass the test. -Kate Messner
If you were counting, you might have found more than ten in this list. I tried to wean out two, and I just couldn't. In fact, there are many more I'd like to add. Maybe someone else will share some favorite lines--feel free to add some in the comments if you were there. You could also join the conversation if you had some favorites tweets coming out of #ncte16. 

As always, happy writing!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Slice of Life: Some things are meant to be.

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. 

Most of my writing on this blog directly pertains to my work in classrooms. Today, I am sharing a story that I will be using as a mentor text in some of our fourth and fifth-grade classrooms. 

Some Things Are Meant to Be. 

Some things are meant to be.

Eight weeks ago and one day, my daughters and I sat in the kitchen. It was Clare's birthday, and my mother who lives with us had gone out while my husband had a late meeting. Perhaps things would have turned out differently if one of them had decided to be home for dinner that night.

In any case, our 15 year-old springer walked through the kitchen pooping. (She does that.)

"I am so sick of cleaning up geriatric dog poop," I said. "I'd really prefer puppy poop."

"I really wanted a puppy for my birthday," Clare said.

"Call Eunice," I said.

Eunice is the breeder who we planned to call when we were were ready for a puppy. With three old dogs in the house, it did not seem like we were ready.

Sometimes you're not.

Clare called Eunice. Eunice couldn't believe the timing. She had puppies that were two days old.

"A black boy?" I asked.

Clare held up three fingers.

"We'll take one!"

Some things are meant to be.

The phone call was a little tricky to explain to my mother and my husband, but eight weeks is a long time to get used to something. We had moments of worry. We tried to picture the old dogs welcoming a sharp-toothed puppy. We worked hard to convince ourselves and each other that everyone would be okay. We could handle this.

After many family debates, we decided to name our puppy Okie. When we were growing up, my father used to dress up in crazy outfits and knock on our front door when we had friends over. He called himself Okie from Pichokie and he showed up most when the moon was full. What I wouldn't give to have Old Okie show up at my door. We all miss both that character and his creator.

Last night we picked up Okie, and we drove our new puppy home under a harvest moon, the biggest, brightest moon there will be for years. 

Some things are definitely meant to be.

Happy writing,

Add caption

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Slice of Life: Student-Made Bookmarks

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. 

At the beginning of the year, one of our district's Language Arts Consultants and I set a goal to work together and commit to having a book group with fidelity. It's hard. Other meetings get in the way. Busy lives get in the way. We haven't rushed it, and we've managed to keep the group going, reading and trying out some of the strategies and tools in the fabulous DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beatty Roberts. At our most recent meeting, we didn't assign specific chapters to discuss; instead, we invited participants to bring shares. It was really exciting to see some of the tools these teachers have been inspired to make and use with their students. 

Ginger Bowes is a third-grade teacher, and she had students make bookmarks to use as goal-setting tools. She introduced the concept to her students by showing them the charts from the Reading and Writing Project about retelling and envisioning. 

Chart that was used to demonstrate how to make a bookmark

From there, she showed her students the bookmark that she had made, having chosen the specific elements of the charts that she wanted to remember to practice as a learner.

Ginger's model bookmark that she created
Once Ginger shared her work, she asked students to design bookmarks that would specifically help them, telling her students that they were free to add pictures and use their own words so that their bookmarks would be useful to them. 

I loved seeing some of the tools her students created!

As with any other instructional strategy, the true value of these bookmarks will be determined if we see them lead to student growth. I'm betting that these bookmarks will be effective tools for growing readers! Thank you to Ginger for sharing her ideas and her students' work.

Happy Slicing!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Slice of Life: Finding Joy in the Launch of a Mystery Unit

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. 

Last week, our district led a twitter chat around joy and its importance in classrooms, so I am admittedly paying extra close attention to what brings joy into elementary classrooms. There were amazing ideas passed around throughout the chat, and one of them involved the simple reminder of just talking to kids. This morning, as I was walking back to my office, I recognized a third-grader whose class I spent a lot of time in last year. 

"So Lola," I said. "How's life in third grade?"

She was walking with another girl I didn't recognize, and both of their eyes were wide. Her answer surprised me. 

"Not very good today."

The other girl nodded emphatically. 

"Why?" I asked. "What's going on?"

I was ready for anything--I was sort of expecting a lot of assessments, maybe (it's that time of the year), maybe classroom getting along issues. For a second or two, I was poised to hear an eight year-old's rationale for school not being so great as we walked down the hall. 

"Our classroom is a crime scene," she said, her voice lowered. 

"What?" I didn't have to pretend to be surprised. 

They went on to tell me about the police tape in their room, the knocked over desks, what they thought could have even been blood. (I'm pretty doubtful about the blood.) A footprint. Their search for fingerprints. 

As they described the scene, they listed some of their suspects, but also shared how some of these suspects didn't make sense upon their close examination of the evidence and clues. They completed each other's sentences as we walked, and I had enough thinking time to remember that their teachers had been excited to launch the mystery unit, so I put together a few clues. I'm sure they will put some clues together, also, in the very near future, and I can't wait to hear about how their mystery unit proceeds. 

In the meantime, they inspired me to think again about how joy exists in classrooms. Part of joy involves engagement and the learning that comes with it. Their joy will be that much greater because of the stage that was set up for them to figure something out. Kudos to their teacher for launching their mystery unit with a mystery. I have no doubt that these third-graders will recount and laugh about their classroom crime scene for years to come and they will have that much more inspiration to read like detectives, understand red herrings and suspects, and engage in the close reading necessary for crime solving. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Slice of Life: Fan Fiction for Caregivers- Other Ideas are Welcome!!!

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. 

Over the next few weeks, I am taking on the challenge of creating parent-friendly bulletin boards at schools in an effort to involve care-givers with students' writing lives. While I am envisioning articles about workshop practices, I also want to have cards people can take that describe games and activities they can do with children to incorporate play into their writing lives. 

I've written a few ideas out on 4*6 pieces of card stock, and these will be in folders, free for the taking. One of the ideas is a version of fan fiction, and I've written up a quick blurb about it:

I'd be happy to take any other ideas people have for quick, simple-to-explain activities care-givers can do with children to foster a love of story-telling. 
Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Slice of Life- Writing begets 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. 

Eighteen years ago, my friend Heather theorized to me that "sleep begets sleep." In my sleep-deprived state, I'm surprised I remember the phrase so vividly except that it struck a loud and shrill chord with me. She had her first baby five weeks before I had my second daughter. Her daughter took two long naps and slept through the night. My Julia did. not. sleep. Fast forward eighteen years, and Julia is home from college for a few days, and she is sleeping.

I am writing.

This morning, I read through other people's posts from a weekend writing retreat we shared (shout out to Tara and Clare and Tammy), and I'm thinking about how writing begets writing. It's funny how the more I write, the more I have to write. I am in the middle of a program for my MFA in creative writing, I blog a lot, I am working on a nonfiction piece for the state social studies department, and I am constantly writing for classroom demonstration. When I sit with my fingers on the keys and a cup of coffee by my side, I rarely struggle with not having anything to write; my struggle is more about what piece to work on. 

What I'm really wondering is how we duplicate this sort of sensation in writing classrooms. I've always been a big believer in volume. When children write a lot, they don't get so attached to a piece that they refuse to return to it and work on it. They also develop courage to start new pieces since they aren't so worried about ever finishing it. With the phrase "writing begets writing" at the forefront of my brain, I think there's also a mindfulness and a belief in myself as a writer when I'm in the habit of writing. Writers spend life capturing words, and it becomes a practice that lives healthily beyond desks and classrooms and the comfortable chairs where we write. 

I'll be percolating these thoughts over the next week--hopefully there will be more to come about it, and I look forward to reading comments and insights about how writing energy generates and perpetuates itself within individual writers and writing communities.

All good things,

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Slice of Life: When you think they've got it, don't be so sure!

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 was pretty proud of the lesson I planned for a small group of fourth-graders I've been working with. Like many emerging writers, these students have the inclination to start stories when their feet hit the floor. It really doesn't matter if the important moment happens when they trip on the way to turn off the alarm or when they're served dessert after dinner--the first sentence begins with "When I woke up." I'm guessing most of you are familiar with the trope. 

I had an example of a story I'm working on where I learn to dive through the waves. I showed them a beginning where I woke up excited because we were going to the beach. I showed them another beginning where we arrived at the beach and I got out of the car. And then I showed them the beginning where I was standing with my feet in the water. All four students agreed that it would be much easier for me to get to the important points of the story, and much more exciting for readers, if I started with my feet in the water. 

"So how does this relate to the stories you're working on?" I asked. I listened to them talk in pairs, and I was still feeling pretty proud of the breakthroughs I thought were happening. Yep. One boy was going to be getting on his bike, as opposed to waking up in the morning and having pancakes, for the story that was about conquering the big hill on two wheels. The other three students seemed to be on the same track. "Off you go," I said. I couldn't wait to see the revisions!

A few minutes later, I read over one of their shoulders. The story she had described was about  the fight between her cat and a bear. She was going to start with the cat right there looking up at the bear. Nope. That cat was still back at the house knocking Christmas ornaments off the tree before eating some of the sugar cookies, before begging to go outside, before playing in the snow, before spotting a bear. 

Sometimes writing is humbling. Sometimes teaching writing is really humbling. And the next lesson will be? I think for now we'll let that cat go through her motions, and maybe this child's next story will begin closer to the action. Stay tuned!

Happy writing,

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Slice of Life- The Challenge of Learning

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. 

There aren't many times when someone else's share becomes my slice of life for the day, but this morning when I visited Heather's room and she told me what she was doing in order to become a better teacher, I knew I had to share it with anyone who would listen. Her commitment to teaching and learning is that inspiring!
The first thing Heather showed me was her pillowcase she made. At first I didn't understand the significance of the pillowcase. Yes, it's bright, and the green satin edging is lovely trim. From the perspective of a seamstress, I think the edges were pretty straight, and I didn't see any puckering or loose threads. I'd expect that from Heather though, since her room is one of the craftiest rooms in our district. However, my perspective changed when she told me this was her first sewing project ever. In order to simulate the learning her students have to do, she wanted to try to learn something herself that would be hard. 

 Heather showed me the book she was using and she told me about the lessons she was taking. It's challenging to learn something new--it's frustrating, and confusing, and humbling, especially when others around you are doing it so easily. And then there's the outcome where the seams aren't perfect, or the case doesn't fit the pillow, or the straight line puckers, or the sewing machine jams. There's also the issue that everything takes so long, even though it seems like it shouldn't. 

For many of us, literacy skills don't require large amounts of metacognitive thinking, and they don't drive us to frustration and a desire to give up and just buy a nice pillowcase. I love that Heather is putting herself in a learning situation that simulates the feelings that students may be having--yes, I have no doubt that she will be a better teacher!

Maybe I'll take up piano...

Happy Writing,

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Slice of Life: Thinking About 11 Things to Know

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. 

Over the weekend, someone shared an article published originally in 2015 with eleven things people with older children want people with younger children to know. Even though I still have two daughters home, I have two daughters in college, and the ideas in this post struck a major sentimental chord in me, especially as I've been going through what was left in bedrooms. 

One of my favorite suggestions on the list--and I loved them all--was the first one. 
1. In addition to marking down your child’s first words, record the first conversations you had with them about whether or not there’s a Santa Claus — or a God. 
Don't we all work hard to record the milestones? First words, first steps, first lost teeth... My daughters are interested in those things, but they are more interested in when they had these sorts of conversations. They love to laugh at the lengths we went to in order to have them believe in fairies and elves. They also love to tell me about when they discovered the presents which were later delivered to them from Santa. 

I also love #8
8. If your kid tells you a secret, and asks you not to tell anyone, don’t.
“If you tell your girlfriends, it will get back to them. It really will.” — K.L.

and Number #11
11. Be affectionate — always.“When your child hugs you, never be the first one to let go.” — M.M.
I will never again be the one to let go of any of my daughters first!

I recommend heading over to the link and reading all eleven suggestions, no matter how old your children!

Happy Writing,