Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Slice of Life: Thinking About Social Justice at Teachers College

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. 

Sometimes my work takes me in to New York to hear the reflective, provocative, and brilliant thinking of the people who work for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. While I had other ideas about today's slice of life, I feel far too compelled to share some of the wisdom, ideas, and insight from today's session with Cornelius Minor and Natalie Louis. I've tried to capture my notes in the form of categorized provocative questions and/or statements.

Ideas and questions to begin the thinking:
  • We can/must teach children to look at what’s different and find beauty.
  • When we don't understand each other, sometimes we assume we do. Before we give advice we should either ask to be asked or wait to be asked. 
  • Think about the word diversity as it appears within your district documents? Do we want diversity or do we want inclusion? How do we see the differences? 
  • What’s really important for young people to do? look at things that are different and find beauty in things that are different.
  • Justice has never been achieved by waiting for a leader to act first. If we want kids to be change agents, then we have to be change agents first. 
  • What do you want people to say about you when your career is ending?
  • Schedules are a moral document; we are where we invest our time. 
  • Engagement isn't a kid problem; it's a system problem. 

Thinking about social justice:

  • Who has power? 
  • Who is choosing to stay silent?
  • How do we take responsibility to hear everyone?
  • How can we make an impact?
  • How do you differentiate social justice? What is the level of injustice that that kid is ready to embrace? 
  • What would you outlaw if you could outlaw something to decrease the chaos in life?

Teaching empathy-Questions to ask students, especially within the context of read-alouds:

Questions for teachers:
  • How do we actively teach kids to build relationships?
  • Where in our day to we teach empathy?
  • How do you think about your curriculum for read aloud? 
  • What do the books we read say about class, gender, race, socio-economic status...?
Questions for Students:
  • Who will you be in a moment of conflict?
  • Who would you be in this read aloud?
  • Why does the book end on an earlier page? 

Thinking about what we ask students to do:
  • Be comfortable with discomfort. 
  • Persistence is a skill that can be taught. The ability to persist through a no is a skill we can teach kids.
  • Complexity of the task and complexity of the text changes, but not the skill, not the goal.
  • How do we find issues that matter to kids? Justice projects can take a lot of different forms. Engage them in things that matter to them. 

So much to think about in these statements and questions, and this is my distillation of about eight pages of notes. If you are reading this, you are probably someone who has already given thought to many of these issues. Thank you. How do we get others on board with the responsibility and power that we have as educators in a chaotic, unpredictable, and unjust world?


Monday, January 8, 2018

Some of My Favorite Books from 2017

One benefit of using Goodreads to keep track of my reading is I can easily reflect on the books I read each year by looking at my shelves, ratings, and reviews.
After looking at my 2017 shelf on Goodreads, here are some of my favorite books I read last year:

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall
This is a perfect read aloud for so many reasons! It is great for teaching about small moments in narrative writing since it truly stretches out the moment when Jabari is trying to regain the courage to dive.  It is also perfect for teaching/modeling how to use the strategy "Somebody, Wants, But, So" to summarize the story, identifying lessons learned, character impact, character change, and so much more! This is now one of my many favorite picture books.

The Thing Lou Couldn't Do by Ashley Spires
Ashley Spires also wrote The Most Magnificent Thing, which is one of my favorite picture books for teaching about growth mindset so as soon as I saw she wrote this, I had to buy it! This book is another perfect read aloud for teaching and discussing growth mindset with your students.  I love that this book uses the phrase "not yet" in this book since that is such an important phrase for having a growth mindset.  This book is a great read aloud for all grades, including primary.  Enjoy!

A Bike Like Sergio's by Maribeth Boelts
Maribeth Boelts is the author of Those Shoes, which is one of my favorite picture books so as soon as I saw she wrote a new book, I had to buy it and read it! This book reminds me of Those Shoes so it would be great to read aloud both of them to compare/contrast the books.  This book would be a great read aloud during a character unit or Social Issues book club unit.  It is also a great book to use when teaching "Somebody, Wants, But, So" to summarize, identifying character motivation, character change, character impact, turning points, and lessons learned.

A Boy Called Bat by Alana K. Arnold
This is the first book in a new series and I look forward to reading book 2 when it comes out in March.  This book would make a great read aloud in grades 3 and up and would also be a great book club book in grades 4 and up during a character or social issues unit.  In this book,  Bat is a nickname for Bixby Alexander Tam. Bat's mom is a veterinarian, who brings home a baby skunk one day. Bat immediately has a connection with him and wants to keep him as a pet.

Falling Over Sideways by Jordan Sonnenblick
I love Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick and always read it aloud to my 5th grade students each year and they loved it!! So I was so excited when I saw he wrote a new book and immediately added it to my list to read.  This is another great read aloud, book club book, or independent reading book for the upper grades.  He reminded me a lot of Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie so it'd be great to compare and contrast the two after reading them!

Restart by Gordon Korman
Gordon Korman has written so many great books that kids love so I had to buy and read his latest book, Restart!
This is a great read aloud, book club book, or independent book for grades 6 and up.  In this book, the main character, Chase falls off a roof and doesn't remember anything! Is this a chance for him to make some better decisions in school, with friends, and family? Is this his opportunity for a fresh new start? You will have to read it to find out! This book will keep students engaged!

Happy Reading! :)

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Slice of Life: The challenge of getting started

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. 

Full disclosure: this is the third start of a blog post I've made. I've started one about contrasting yesterday, the last day of vacation, with today, my first day back at work in 2018. I've started on about my daughter's yoga class. I've deleted both. Do you ever do that? Start posts and get stuck on them? Start posts and think who is ever going to read this? Start posts and then think why on earth will anyone care about this? 

At our yoga class, our instructor says that one of the hardest things to do is to get there. Maybe that's sort of like writing. Maybe we just have to start--commit to it--get ourselves going-- and once we get enough on the page, we are more compelled to keep it. 

At school today, I watched a classroom of third-grade students writing and writing their information pieces. One child, a little girl who struggles and strives with her writing, had a hard time getting going, even though she knew what she was going to write. Tomorrow, I can tell her that I know exactly how she feels. That sometimes the toughest thing we do is just getting those first few words down on the page because once we do, we can use those words to lead us along.

Happy Writing, and Happy 2018,

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Slice of Life: The Power of One Little Word

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 house is quiet this morning, for a little while longer, anyway. Left to their own patterns, the girls sleep late. As long as Okie has had a morning run around the yard, he is content to lie down next to my chair when I read and write.

The morning bloggers have reflected on their One Little Words for 2017, and I love that two of them share by 2017 OLW of brave. I haven't done a lot of public reflecting about my word, although I have loved reading about Fran's progress. That being said, it has been a great focus for my year, and I have pushed through some challenges with the nudge of my OLW. Some of those challenges have felt like short-term dares--diving through the waves when the Rhode Island ocean water is still cold or lifting my legs into a wobbly headstand--or longer term goals like presenting at conferences and submitting my writing to contests and agents (for rejection after rejection).

I am the first of the TWT authors who will share my OLW for 2018, which I have to say feels brave; I'm not sure how I ended up in that first place position! Right now, for those who are still reading and contemplating taking on a word for a year, I'm going to make a strong pitch for it. Resolutions were always tough for me to remember. Some times (often by the second week of January) I forgot what they were and most times (probably always by February), those resolutions were tucked into the back of a drawer within my mind; any potential to change any aspect of my behavior or life was gone. But just one word---

Just one word has been easier to remember, and I'm not sure it had so much to do with the word as much as it has to do with the grounding, centering, and intention the word provides. Each year has brought about challenges--personal and professional, positive and negative, short and long-term, family and friend-based-- and when I think about those challenges, any of my past words would have inspired me to push through; it hasn't been the power of the word as much as it's been the focus of the intention. The practice of choosing a word and living with it throughout a year has slowed me down, inspired me to reflect, bonded me with others who share my word or the practice, and given me an anchor when I felt floundery. (I know floundery isn't a word, but I like it!)

If you're waivering, if you're debating, if you're wondering about taking on a word for a year, give it a try. If you think it would help, write your word down in places where you see it. Remind yourself of your word on your drive to work now and then, telling yourself why you chose it, what it meant. Return to your word when you're feeling floundery--we all have that feeling sometimes. Share your word or keep it to yourself, but let it serve as a beacon or an anchor. You might be surprised at the power of one little word.

If you're off this week, enjoy the time to slow down and rest. Happy 2018 to all of you.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Slices of Life- Moments to Remember

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 are moments that you want to hold on to, remember always. 

Maybe we have the Patriots to thank (or maybe the officials to thank) for the celebratory feel in our household on Sunday night. My husband did a spontaneous happy dance at the end of the game which one of the girls captured on her cell phone so were able to relive his joy over and over.

Moments to hold on to, particularly if you're not a Steelers fan. 

As we cleaned up, Clare and Julia headed to the piano. For years, I insisted that the girls take piano lessons until it was too hard a battle and I gave in to athletic practices and too many AP classes with too much homework, but with time on her hands, Julia returned to the keyboard and played holiday music. Clare took over since she has piano skills to accompany singers, and it led to all of us in the study singing and listening to song after song. Sweet Caroline, Let It Be, Little Wonders, Amazing Grace, You're Beautiful... My mom came in and joined us, and even the dog snuggled against me and listened to the music. 

Moments to hold, moments to hold close, moments to remember always.

Happy writing and slicing,

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Slice of Life: Craft and grammar in a snippet of text

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’m going to admit something. I love grammar. I love author’s craft. I love lingering on text and noticing how a favorite author has put together their words, sentences, and paragraphs. Today, I had a chance to share some of the work I’ve done around grammar with several of my colleagues. I shared some of the games we’ve been playing in a third-grade classroom, but I also shared how we can look at a text and appreciate the grammar and craft moves within in it. I shared the first passage from Cynthia Rylant’s Every Living Thing. (Sidenote: If you don’t have this book, you might want to think about getting it, as it is full of short texts that lend themselves incredibly to close reading, mentor text usage, and craft analysis.)

Here’s how the first couple of sentences go:
Leo was the first one to spot the turtle, so he was the one who got to keep it. They had all been in the carm driving up Tyler Mountain to church when Leo shouted, “There’s a turtle!” and everyone’s head jerked with the stop.

In just a few minutes we talked about the different verb tenses that appear in this passage. It can spark a great conversation about how dialogue appears in text as present tense. Why is that? We also talked about the use of proper as opposed to common nouns. What was the purpose of specifically naming Tyler Mountain? What if had been just a mountain, unnamed? And what about the pronouns? We don’t know who they/everyone are at this point. Should we? Why don’t we? Some additional conversations that could come out of these three lines include the use of punctuation, the choices of verbs, the lack of adjectives and adverbs--

Recall and recognition are important, but how we notice and appreciate intentional and effective use of language reinforces, engages, and develops deeper understandings of these concepts.

Always happy to be slicing in this community!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Slice of Life: You don't know the words?

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 had a moment last week when I worried about the (okay, my--) parenting of my youngest daughter. She loves babysitting, and she went off with a skip in her step to watch over our friends' boys. The three year old was still up, so she had the task of putting him to bed. When I picked her up, she told me all about it. 

"We played blocks," she said. (That's good, I thought. Nice divergent, creative play.)
"We watched a show." (I'd rather you'd have read more books, but okay.)
"I read him a few books." (Now we're talking! What books did you read?)
"The only problem I had was that he wanted me to sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." (What?!?!? Why?!?! You have a beautiful voice--)

And then, she told me she had to google the words to Twinkle, Twinkle.

I'll let you go back and read that again. Yes. Go back and read that last line again.

Nope, not the second verse. The main verse. 

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Had I really not taught my little girl the words to Twinkle, Twinkle? 

I laughed. So did she. 

"I couldn't remember if there was another line after the diamond in the sky part," she explained. "I know the tune from playing violin, but not the words."

Fortunately, she's a child who sees the humor in these sort of occurrences, and she can acknowledge that learning words is sometimes hard for her. And I can acknowledge that since she is the youngest of four, she might not have heard traditional lullabies with the same enthusiasm as her older sisters might have.

But I'm left to wonder what else I have forgotten to teach her. What else is she missing? And will those other missing parts be able to be filled in by a quick google search?

Here's hoping--

Happy writing,

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Slice of Life: When work comes home it can sometimes be fun

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. 

Sometimes, we all bring work home. Tonight, I planned a first-grade opinion lesson that I'll teach tomorrow. After dinner, I sat at the kitchen table making a chart and writing a demonstration piece about which of my four unopened toothbrushes I like best. 

"What are you doing?" my husband asked as I studied a toothbrush.
"Figuring out which one I like best and why," I answered. 

On cue, he joined in. I had ranked the blue one last, and he ranked it first.
"Why?" he wanted to know. "The blue one is awesome. Check out the bristles and the handle on it."

"I can't ever have a blue toothbrush because that's all you have, and I don't want to mix them up," I said. 

Julia was home for dinner tonight, and she joined the conversation. Always her father's daughter, she agreed that the blue one is best, and she pointed out some details and features I hadn't noticed.

"Check out the angle," she said. "Some toothbrushes slip and bang your gums, and this one will let you keep a really good grip."

Maybe those first-graders will be as into toothbrushes and their analysis tomorrow morning. 

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Slice of Life: What does it really say?

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 Friday night, we went to watch our second daughter's college soccer game. Since it was a Friday night, she opted out of the bus ride back to campus and came home with us for a night. As we drove home, the results from her psychology test posted on-line, and she went through the answers, checking her score. Julia tends to do well, and she came across a multiple choice question she'd missed. 

"Listen to this ridiculous question," she said from the back seat. "How do you conduct a study that looks at the casual relationship between social media use and anxiety?"

She read off the choices. 

"Read them again," I said. I was a little miffed that I didn't know any study that would provide insight on a casual relationship. In face, I had no idea what was meant by a casual relationship. 

Then I thought of something. 

"Are you sure it says casual?" I asked. "Could it be causal?"

In the back seat, Julia started to laugh. "We really do see what we are programmed to see," she said.

She passed me her phone with the question on it. From a letter by letter standpoint, causal is pretty close to casual, but miles apart in meaning.

While this interaction has kept me chuckling that weekend, it has also made me remember how we really do see what we expect or what makes sense to our own brain, as opposed to what's really there. And, I'm sure that more times than we know, students miss questions not because they don't understand the content we're assessing, but because of some other factor that gets in the way. 

Happy Slicing,

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Slice of Life: What happened in Vegas changed my slice

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 had a post all written and ready to go for this morning's SOL call. I wrote it on Sunday night after spending time with one of my college girls. It's light-hearted and funny and when I went to bed last night, I wasn't sure whether to put it up this morning. And this morning, when I woke up, my heart still ached from reading about the events, from reading about the people, who died in Las Vegas. 

My inbox has emails from Nicole Hockley whose son, Dylan, died in his first grade classroom in Sandy Hook Elementary School. And it has an email from Chris Murphy, our Connecticut senator who argues passionately for tighter gun control laws. And I have a text from another one of my daughters wondering what she can do, allowing how upset she is and how she'd like to try to find some sort of job that positions her to do something. And I don't know how to answer her. 

Today, like a moth to the flame, I am sure I will continue to read about the people who died when Stephen Paddock opened fire on them with one of the 23 guns he brought with him to his room on the 23rd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort. I'm not sure why he chose to bring those 23 as opposed to the 19 more guns that remained in his house. I will grieve with their loved ones and I will appreciate the stories of heroism that will emerge and the generous show of humanity that continues to come out of Las Vegas as people donate money, time, food, and blood. 

And in the days to come,  I will continue to wonder out loud and in writing what needs to happen before this country can agree on gun control laws. I believe in the Constitution and in the privileges of the Second Amendment. However, I don't understand, and I don't think anyone will ever convince me, that it should be legal for a single person to own 42 guns. I just don't.

I will save my post about Julia for next week, and I will continue to think about how to answer Clare who wants to do something. Your comments and ideas are welcome. 

Peace to all of you,

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Slice of Life: Conversations about important issues

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 night, I had a twenty minute car ride with my nephew, Jack, who is an attentive, bright 13 year-old.

"So Mel," he said. "What do you think about this whole NFL thing? Have you been paying attention to it? Do you know what's going on?"

We talked for a while about how he views the actions of some of his favorite football players. He had strong opinions that Colin Kaepernick shouldn't lose his job because he exercised his right to free speech. I pointed out that maybe he didn't lose his job, and I decided to play the devil's advocate a little bit (although I probably feel even more strongly about it than Jack), questioning Jack about where we should draw the lines on how people use their power, fame, or privilege.

Earlier in the day, I had tweeted about my concern that we were now paying more attention to the issues around free speech than the ones around racism and police brutality--which were the issues that started this whole conversation. I asked Jack what he thought about this--whether he thought we were creating different conversations in order to avoid possibly more difficult conversations around how people of color are treated differently.

Without missing a beat, Jack pulled up a screenshot of a letter Michael Bennett wrote following an incident he had with the Las Vegas police department.
We ended up in a lengthy conversation about the racism that exists in our country and how hard it is to talk about it.

I shared with him how I am evaluating and trying to be more aware of my own racial biases that showed up when I took the on-line Project Implicit tests. (If you haven't tried these, I recommend taking the time to see how you do!) Maybe what worries me most is that we do have racism in our country, even within groups of people who we wouldn't expect it from. Maybe it's so hard for us to talk about it, to really look at it and dig in to inherent and unwanted biases that it's more comfortable to talk about the First Amendment and what it means to show respect for our country. Personally, I'd like to hit pause on the conversations about who took a knee, what other teams did, and whether our president has the right to tell their bosses to fire them, and instead talk about why anyone felt compelled to protest in the first place.

I'm guessing I'll be thinking about all of this for a while--

Write on,

Monday, September 18, 2017

Slice of Life: The frustration of 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. 

A few of my colleagues from my MFA program started an on-line writing group, and we met last night. Some of these people are published authors, and all of them except me have completed their MFA program in creative writing. They've all written many critical essays, including one at least 35 pages long. They've also written over a hundred pages of a creative draft with the input of an experienced mentor.

We've all written a lot. 

And yet, many of the questions and the input and the struggles boiled down to the same questions I ask my elementary aged writers: 
  • What's your story really about? 
  • What does your character really, really want?
  • How do you weave action, description, dialogue, and inner thinking together in order to communicate the wishes and struggles of the characters?
  • How do you stay in the head of your character?
During our critique sessions, the writer whose work we are workshopping is supposed to stay quiet; that person gets to speak and ask questions at the end. Last night, when our author had her chance to speak, she talked about how frustrated she was with this story that she's been working on for five years, and how she still can't seem to focus in on the heart of it. She's thinking about switching the entire draft from third person to first person--which is no small task-- and she's also thinking of abandoning it. 

"I feel completely overwhelmed," she said, her voice raw with honesty. 

Sometimes, I lose sight of how hard it is to write a clear and compelling story, and our curriculum (which is based on the CCSS) asks our students to do it at very young ages. When was the last time you wrote a story? Not a post, not an essay, not a blurb, not a lead, not a conversation, not a poem-- a full story, start to finish. I'm guessing many of us, by virtue of the fact that we are part of the slicing community, have written a story in the not-too-distant past, although maybe we haven't gone back and reworked and revised one. I'm guessing some--maybe many--of our colleagues who don't spend as much time on blogs and in notebooks haven't written a true story in a long time. 

I give our children so much credit. Writing stories is hard. I need to remember that when I am working with my writers, young and old. 

Happy Writing,