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.

i-dont-know-what-to-write-about

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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5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I posted Part 1, which included two examples of poetry lessons that students love. This week, I am sharing two additional ideas that I hope you try in your classroom before the end of the year. Go for it! State testing is over, so now it’s time to play!

3. Love Letter Poems

I was honestly astonished at how much my students enjoyed this lesson. When a colleague of mine, JoAnn Welsko, first presented it to me. I thought, “OK. I’ll try this, but I think it’s kind of corny.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that I trusted JoAnn’s instincts. This type of poem is my all-time favorite out of all the different lessons and methods I’ve experimented with over the past 20 years. Believe me when I tell you that you, too, will be astounded–even the students who are reluctant writers had fun.

The first step is watching Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.” I’m going to explain to you what she does, but trust me, you have to watch the video to understand the ingenuity of this idea.

Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay: “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire”

So Sarah chooses two completely unrelated inanimate objects. One, the toothbrush, becomes the narrator, and the tire, is the one to whom the narrator speaks. Her poem is clever, witty, and fun. What the students liked most about it is that the poem sounds like it could be from one human lover to another–it carries authenticity.

When I modeled Sarah’s poem, I chose two related objects because they were easier for me to conceptualize. I brainstormed a list of 14 pairs and ended up choosing the fourth idea on the list. The narrator: a raw egg. The object of the egg’s affection: the refrigerator.

 

 

Love Letter

My colleague, JoAnn Welsko, also wrote a love letter poem. I think hers is a better model because she chose to unrelated objects like Sarah did.

%22Love Letter%22

Even though my students loved this idea, some of them still had a difficult time getting started. Here is what we did together:

  1. For three minutes we brainstormed in our writer’s notebooks. We listed all the inanimate objects we could think of.
  2. We looked at our lists and chose the two objects we thought might work well together. Some students had difficulty choosing, so they asked their peers or me to help them with their choices. In this case, don’t be afraid to tell students what you think. They want assurance from you that they are on the right track. Some of them need your approval to feel comfortable about moving forward.
  3. We created T-charts in our writer’s notebooks, using the two inanimate objects as headings for each column.
  4. We made a list of adjectives to describe each item.
  5. We circled or highlighted the words that lovers would use and crossed out the ones that were not applicable. Here is an example:

Love Letter Poem T-Chart

With this little bit of prep, they were ready to go. I gave them 15-20 minutes to write a first draft, and then they each chose a classmate with whom they wanted to share. My students are currently in the middle of crafting their pieces, so I will share a student example next week. In a few days, I will also post Part 3 (the final installment) of “4 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry.”

Happy writing!

Quote of the day:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

–Francis Bacon

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 1 of 3)

I love, love, LOVE teaching poetry more than I enjoy teaching anything else, so I thought I’d share four of my favorite lessons about writing poetry with middle school students. I’ve shared two in this post, and I’ll share the other two in my next post, which will be published in about a week. All the lessons can be easily adapted for any grade level.

1. The Found Poem

  1. The whole class creates a poem based on a text everyone has read. If you are not familiar with found poems, this video from the Teaching Channel is a good tutorial. (Click on the link in the caption below the image to watch the video.)

 

Found Poem
Teaching Channel

Here is the found poem one of my classes created using My Brother Sam Is Dead.20160422_104201

2. Then students create their own found poems using their favorite books as inspiration.

3. We share our creations with partners, and then volunteers share theirs with the entire class.

2. The Photo Poem

  1. Students to bring to class a photograph or picture that they like–one that means something to them. Here is the picture that I used as inspiration.

Talking with Ghosts

First, I project my photo on the interactive whiteboard and let them react. Inevitably, a few of them say something like, “Hey! That’s you!” Then I ask them how they know it’s me. They respond, of course, by saying, “It looks like you” or “You both have short hair.”

After they share their immediate observations, I ask them to look at the picture more closely, looking for evidence that I am the one in the photo. Once they begin looking more closely (some classes need more prompting than others), they realize that the picture looks old. They also notice the clothing the women are wearing–it’s not from an era in which I was alive. Then they may notice the “28” on my grandmother’s sweater.  When they realize the 28 stands for 1928, the year my grandmother graduated high school, they can then draw some logical conclusions. Ahhhh….So who might be in the picture? My grandmother. Here is the poem I wrote as a model for my students:

Talking with Ghots

2. Some of my students need no interventions or prompting and start writing immediately after they read my poem. Other students have difficulty knowing how to begin, so we use a T-chart to gather ideas. (You can access the T-chart here.) I provide some students with copies of a T-chart that I created using Worksheets.com, but other students prefer to create one in their writer’s notebooks like this student did.

3. In the right-hand column students list the details in the picture–their observations. For example, they may list the colors they see, the objects, any shadows, the setting, the people and their expressions, the action that is obvious or assumed. In the right-hand column students list the emotions they feel looking at the picture and the emotions that may be expressed by people or animals in the picture. Once they’ve completed both columns, I tell them to begin combining the words from both columns to create a description of the picture. I remind them to pretend that the person reading the poem has never seen the picture, so it is their job to pain a vivid image with words.

Here is an example of a T-chart that one of my students created in his writer’s notebook:

20160502_140552-1

 

Yes, it’s messy–but writing is a messy process. Here is what this student created in about 30 minutes of class time. It’s one of the best spontaneous poems I’ve ever read from an 8th grade student. I included a typed, readable version below the image.

20160502_140432-1

Photo Poem

Below is the image he used as inspiration for his piece. I hope he reads it during 8th grade poetry tea at the end of May!

bicycle
Picture shared by Katy Wischow

Tomorrow my students and I will begin writing some imitation poetry, using Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” as a model, and later in the week students will write love poems with a fun and playful twist. I will post Part 2 of this topic in the next week!

Writing, Pacing, and Reflection

 

About me: This year has been for me, in two distinct ways, a new beginning. How cliche, right? Well, maybe so, but it’s true. First of all, I am a cancer survivor. This school year (2015-2016) is my first healthy one since 2013. Second of all, after teaching high school for over 15 years, I am teaching 8th grade again. Honestly, even though I have experience with 8th graders, I feel like I never taught them because so much has changed since I first taught 8th grade in 1997.

My Goals: I set three goals for myself at the beginning of this school year:

  1. Write on! Students are using writer’s notebooks (see Ralph Fletcher) as a repository for ideas.
  2. Pacing: Depth of coverage matters more than amount of coverage. Slow down and be present!
  3. Reflection: I vowed that I would reflect more on my practice, BUT students would also be reflecting more on their learning, particularly in the area of writing.

Writing: Overall, I feel as though I am meeting my goals. There is only one area, which I discuss below, where I am still falling short. My students are writing more, and it’s intentional and purposeful writing. One of my biggest challenges is finding the time to read their writer’s notebooks as often as I would like. I have managed to review them once a marking period so far, but with 120 students, it’s a daunting task combined with the other more formal writing assignments. If anyone has suggestions in this area, please share them! I constantly struggle with the proverbial “paper load.”

Slowing Down: In regards to goal #2, I feel as though I have mastered this art. I have learned how to focus my lessons to make learning more meaningful for students. As a high school teacher, I had the pressure of covering the content hanging over me on a daily basis. At the middle school level, I feel the pressure of the PSSA tests, but I have a bit more freedom when it comes to time. Yes, the students need to be prepared for the standardized test in April, but the ways in which I get them to that point are not as prescribed as they are at the high school level. I can be more creative, and I can also take the time to differentiate.

Teacher Reflection: Goal number three is the one that I am constantly working to improve. I have always reflected on my lessons, either during lunch, in the car ride home, in bed at night when I can’t sleep . . . You get the idea. I have never been very good at actually composing written reflections. At this point, I am failing a bit in this area. First I vowed to write brief reflections in my plan book. Then I tried writing daily reflections in a Google document. After a few days, I forgot about it. It was months before I even remembered that I had created it! Today a colleague suggested that I start a blog, so here I am.

Student Reflection: I have asked my students to reflect more. On Monday, I asked them what they learned from writing their research-based argumentative essays. Some answers truly surprised me. Here are just a few:

  • “I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
  • “I learned that sometimes it’s better to stay off your phone and not use technology.”
  • “I can write six paragraphs, no problem!”
  • “I learned to manage my time and ask questions.”
  • “Argumentative essays are not so bad to write. They are fun because you get to write about both sides of the topic.”

The first response is the one that meant the most to me. If you knew this student, you would realize what a break-through this realization was for him. I am very proud of him and his effort. He has come a long way since he entered my class in September.

Asking students to reflect on their work has helped me get to know them better, and it has helped them get to know themselves better. As a result of reflection, I believe they are more aware of their learning styles and capabilities. As teachers, we can learn so much from our students by asking them to reflect more.