You Catch More Bees with Honey . . .

This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.

So this post is about breaking old habits.

1. Wrangling with Writing

Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.

The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.

I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.

How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.

In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.

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2. The Grammar Gauntlet

Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.

The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.

3. The Long Lecture

One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.

Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.

4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results

The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.

  • I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
  • I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
  • I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
  • I am pushing past my own frustrations.
  • Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.

 

 

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3 Somewhat Simple Hacks That Will Change the Classroom Environment: Making Learning Safe, Engaging, and Authentic

The new school year has given me little time to write: I’ve been busy unpacking Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study  for 8th grade and preparing my students for the writers’ workshop model. They are not quite ready yet, but we are getting a little closer every day. In this post, I will share with you some easy-to-implement strategies that have helped me and my students prepare. These easy hacks also create a safe and engaging environment for learning.

Anchor Charts, Anchor Charts, and More Anchor Charts

I was first exposed to anchor charts when I attended my first TCRWP Saturday Reunion at Columbia University last March. I have to admit that some of the fancy artistry intimidated me a bit. I was not used to making thinking visible. I am an English teacher, so explaining comes more naturally to me. I’ve realized, though, in the past few weeks, that these visuals are extremely helpful to my students. I know . . . Some of you may be reading this and thinking ,”Well, no kidding!” but the connection was not obvious to me until I implemented the practice. The charts that are relevant to our current studies are hanging around the classroom, and the students often leave their work stations to review the material on them.

I borrowed my first design from Kate Roberts. It shows students how to zoom in on a moment in narrative writing. 

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The example at the bottom of the image is an exact replica from Kate’s blog post on A Teaching Life in regards to format; I changed the story to describe my summer vacation. The example on top is the design adapted by one of my students. She found this model more workable for her. It’s not much different, but my version gave her the idea to create an ameliorated visual representation of her thinking process.

I’m not sure that I’d call this next example and anchor chart per se, but I refer to it every day when the students ask me how their work is going to be graded. I’ve adopted a four point scale for classwork and quizzes. It look like this:

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I snagged this idea from eberopolis on blogspot. It makes grading a bit simpler and gives the students a clearer picture of their progress in meeting the standards.

Conferencing

I have not mastered this art yet–I’m still a novice, hopeful that I am on my way to understanding and managing this routine better. For the first few weeks of school, my students and I have been working on close reading and annotating texts with a focus. I’ve been monitoring their progress and evaluating their skills levels at different intervals. The short two to three minute conversations I’ve been conducting with students may be the most valuable time I have with them. When I take the time to meet with them individually, they take responsibility for their work, which in the long run, actually makes less work for me because they are holding themselves accountable for their success.

Mentor Texts

Once again, I am getting better at utilizing mentor texts, but I would probably consider myself a practitioner at this point. I have a discerning eye for good writing after all these years, but I am no Jeff Anderson! I began this practice like so many teachers do: by reading Everyday Editing. When I was reading the book last year, I used the examples that Anderson includes in his book and slowly progressed to using examples that I’d found in my own reading of young adult novels. Right now I am using Gary Paulsen‘s Man with the Iron Heads, which is one of the novellas in his book Paintings from the Cave. The book is rich with figurative language and description; plus, the students LOVE the story. A teacher knows when she’s made a good choice when she hears students exclaim in the middle of reading, “I love this book!” and “I wish we could keep reading!” Hahahaaa! Those moments are what make teaching so savory and delightful.

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Acknowledgments

I must say, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Angela Stockman, the founder and executive director of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, has been an vital resource in helping me develop my skills through the change process. If you are not following her (which you can do on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+), you are missing out. She has been one of the most valuable contacts in my professional learning network this past year. She also writes a blog where she posts many valuable resources. I personally grab many of her resources and ideas from Facebook, but she is willing to connect with educators from all experience levels.

Another source that I am indebted to is the Two Writing Teachers blog. Maggie B. Roberts and Kate Roberts are doing incredible work with young writers and writing.