Thursday, November 20, 2014

Revision Decisions

During my career as a student, there was one topic that was sure to elicit a groan in my mind - anytime grammar was the focus of the day. Diagraming sentences? Parts of speech? Punctuation? I tuned out. I tried, I really did, but I just couldn’t remember all of the rules. And unfortunately, to me, grammar was tied to writing. Since I didn’t see myself as a strong student in grammar, I wasn’t a writer as well. This held true for many years, from childhood into adulthood. It wasn’t until my thirties, when I began to finally discover my love of writing, that I also began to understand some – just some – of the grammar rules that had eluded me for so long.

Jeff Anderson plays a large part in this transformation, thought he is unaware of his role. I saw Jeff speak for the first time about three years ago and was immediately on board. Whatever he was writing, I wanted to buy it. His energy and enthusiasm for the subject of grammar was catching. Grammar, fun? Yes, in Jeff’s world, an enthusiastic yes.

Imagine my excitement when I saw that Jeff had written a new book, this time with Deborah Dean. Revision Decisions: Talking Through Sentences and Beyond just came out this fall. I had read snippets in the past few weeks, but my plane ride to NCTE was devoted to devouring the remainder of the book. Here Jeff and Deborah teach us new ideas on revision, especially when looking at sentences. I love their approach. I love how I can lift some lessons right out of the book and use them in class tomorrow – or Monday, in my case. I know that I will be using their DRAFT lessons as we begin revising our NaNoWriMo drafts in December. Draft stands for:

·      Delete
·      Rearrange sentence parts/ chunks
·      Add connectors
·      Form new verb endings
·      Talk it out

This will help my young writers as they try to make sense of the stories they have been writing for the past month.

Jeff and Deborah have so many great lessons and insights, I think this is a book you just cannot miss. It is recommended for grades 4-10, but truly, there are nuggets of information to steal for grades below and above that range. Thanks, Jeff, for making me love grammar once again!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

It Just Takes One

Each year I have students who enter our classroom and profess loudly that they don’t love reading. Some whisper it. Some don’t say it out loud, but the feelings are still there. They struggle to connect to books. They have no real issues with the act of reading, but have yet to find the joy in it. They see reading as a chore, one more thing they have to do during this game we call school until they can take a break when summer begins.

That is where my work begins. I work to get to know the kids, to know the books. I become a matchmaker, trying to find the perfect book that will hook them, draw them in, and teach them the magic that is a good book. It is a process that is quick at times, laborious as others. There are still kids who leave my room and I know, they haven’t found the book – the book – yet. I have to hope they will in the future.

I’m a firm believer that there is a right book out there for every person and, conversely, that not every book is right for every kid. I have to remind my students of that each year. When I have recommended a favorite title to them and they quietly return in without comment. I ask, what did they think? Sheepishly, they admit they didn’t love it. We talk about that, how it is perfectly ok not to love all of the books that I do.

But, sometimes they do. Sometimes you get to witness magic. It is made up of two simple elements – a child and a book – yet you know when you see them that something has changed.

This was the case with a student in my class this week. She wants so badly to love reading, yet hadn’t found that book. I handed off Kate Messner’s upcoming book, All the Answers, and suggested it. I mentioned that there weren’t many kids that had read it yet; this was the only advanced copy I had. She went off and read.

She read, and she read, and she read. It was longer than any book she’d tried so far this year. Each time I checked in, she whispered that it was good, and then would duck her head and go back to reading. And then, the magic. Early this week I received a message from her mom. She was finishing the book that night, long after when her “20 minutes” were up. She was still reading. And crying. And reading. And crying. She told her mom she loved this book. Her mom messaged me. My heart soared.

We’ve hooked another one.

The next day she came into class. Quietly she came up to me and whispered that she finished. I looked her in the eyes and asked what she thought. It was beautiful was her reply. What should I read next? I sent her off with another stack of books. She emerged with Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind and told me she was going to read it, then See You at Harry’s up next and Bigger Than a Breadbox after that. Making reading plans? Recommending a book to her classmates? I was beyond thrilled.

This is why we need to know our kids. We need to read books, have them in our classrooms, and be able to match kids to book. It is a lot of work at times. We have to try again and again with some kids. But when it finally takes? It is an amazing sight to behold.

And, just a side note, Kate’s book All the Answers? Yes, it is that good. Look for it January 27th.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Slice of Life - A Unique Read Aloud

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am in the middle of a Mock Caldecott unit. Margie Myers-Culver and I selected 25 books. For the next 25 days, I share a book a day with my students. We discuss the story elements, illustrations, and critique it. The students record their thoughts in their own notes and on a Padlet. It has been a fabulous first week and I know it will be an enjoyable unit.

When Margie and I pick books, there are some she suggests and some I suggest. Two of our last entries were Draw and The Baby Tree. Both were on the New York Times Best 10 Best Illustrated list. When the list came out, I realized we had zero of the books on our list. After reading Travis Jonker’s post (HERE), I asked Margie what she thought about Draw and The Baby Tree, both of which Travis mentioned as the most likely to nab a Caldecott from the list. Margie said both were beautiful, so they were added to our list.

Draw I shared with my students last week. Amazing book and they loved it. The Baby Tree arrived in the mail this weekend. I read it and paused. The premise of the book is a little boy who wants to know where babies come from. He asks many people, with each answer confusing him more and more. Finally, his parents give him a brief, but correct, answer:

"They begin with a seed from their dad which gets planted in an egg inside their mom."

Oh boy.

My mind reeled with what the reaction could possibly be from fifth graders. If I were teaching kindergarten, this would be a no brainer. It would be enough to possibly make some students want to start a conversation with their family, but wouldn’t be a big deal.

Fifth graders? 

Hmm. I debated. I thought of skipping the book. I thought of skipping that page. But then, I paused. I have students reading The Hunger Games. If they can read about kids killing kids, but this would be upsetting, then we have bigger problems.

So, I shared it today. I began with the book trailer. I told the kids to think back to when they were in kindergarten. We talked about what five year olds are like. I shared my experiences teaching them. And then, I shared the book.

You know what? They rocked. The book rocked. They giggled; they cried out for the glorious thing we call rest time (the boy has rest time on a page in the book), they reminisced. It was magical.

They recorded their thoughts on the Padlet below.

It could have been embarrassing. It could have been awkward. It could have led down a path that I didn’t want to go.

But it wasn’t.

It showed me once again what an awesome group these kids are. How insightful, curious, and passionate they are about learning. How they “get” the job of looking at a book critically.

It was a cool lesson, an amazing day. And, best of all, it made me smile.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Letting My Students In

Yesterday, it happened. That point in the year where you realize that you’ve clicked as a teacher and a class. Not that great things haven’t been happening all along this year, just that yesterday we reached the point where I knew something special would happen this year. That our relationship as a classroom family is now strong enough that we can achieve great things.

My former principal used to tell me that I could ask my students to reach for the moon and they would try their hardest to do just that. I always told him that the reason for that was simple; I worked hard to build relationships with my students. The more that I share of myself, the more they trust me. It is a dance we perform all year long. But always, every year, I hit the turning point. The point where I know we are there and then it’s all uphill from there.

Yesterday was nothing special. I felt horrible. A head cold and stomach bug were enough to make me want to stay home, but to school I went. (Today, however, I am typing this at home on a sick day.) Our language arts lesson was a read aloud of one of our Mock Caldecott nominees, Peter Brown’s My Teacher is A Monster. As I read it to the first class, one student immediately asked if I knew Peter and if he was nice. I stopped immediately to tell them what I knew: that Peter Brown is one of my absolute favorite authors and one of the kindest folks I’ve met. I moved to the back of the room to our picture book display and grabbed every book I owned by Peter. Then, they asked if I had a photo of him. I quickly went to my blog and shared this video from NCTE last year:

By sharing the video, we began to talk about NCTE. Why I go, what is important about it, why I would bother to fly and present when both are things that trigger my anxiety. We had amazing conversations about what is important to me, why I respect the teachers and authors I see there, and more.

Impromptu Author Study
This is not a part of a lesson that could be tied to any Common Core State Standards, but I would argue it is likely more important than most of the lessons I will teach this year. It showed me how much my students already knew about me and how connected we are. In watching the video, each class shouted out when they saw their favorite authors and began to create piles of their books on the table in our room doing their own impromptu author studies. Each class asked if I could find a list of the authors that would be there and take photos with their favorites because, and I quote, “It will be like we are there too.” I promised to tweet them from the conference, they promised to teach my mom (who is my substitute while I’m gone) Twitter.

Yesterday was an amazing chance to reflect, it was a moment where I got to see what we have accomplished already in twelve weeks. And today? I get to sit at home, watch them add their thoughts to Padlet, approve their comments and blogs, read their Tweets, and reflect in what an amazing job I get to have. Hopefully I will also rest and recuperate so that I am 100% healthy for that amazing conference next week. I am truly blessed.

The snow falling outside made our day even more magical.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Slice of Life - Mondays

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers.

Last Monday was a true Monday. I felt like I was dragging my students – and myself – through the day. I questioned whether they had internalized any of our practices from the first twelve weeks of school.  I braced myself for another Monday today. A Monday after a full moon last week, after being out of the classroom for a day and a half for a sick kiddo, and before a cold weather front moves in? It was bound to be bad… and yet, it was awesome.

There were moments, of course. Moments where kids rushed in to tell me what rule they had broken when our guest teacher (substitute) was in last week. Moments where they told me they hadn’t read or written over the weekend. Moments where they shared with me a disagreement they had on the playground before school. I sat there, as these moments washed over me in the first five minutes of our school day, and began to despair. And then, I realized something big.They rushed in to admit they had done something wrong, to own up to their mistake. They were honest about their homework not getting done, had not made any excuses, but told me so I could deduct a point. They told me about the problem on the playground so they could discuss how they handled it and get advice on what to do next time. Those moments show a lot of growth since that first day, just twelve weeks ago. With that, my Monday began.

It moved on with the introduction of our Mock Caldecott unit. We are doing this unit in corroboration with Margie Myers-Culver’s students in Michigan. This will be our third year in a row, and it is a unit I look forward to all year long. Margie is awesome to work with. You’ve got to love a friend when you both look at your list of twenty, know there are some books you wanted to include, and say, “Let’s just make it 25.” Awesome!

Here’s the twenty-five books we selected:

Today we read our first book from the unit, Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. We’ve already shared this title this year, so today we were able to read it critically. This is a crowd favorite in all three of my classes. After sharing the book, the kids added their reactions to a class Padlet so they could see what their classmate’s opinions were. This was the first time I have used Padlet for the whole group at once. Oh my! Twenty-seven kids typing away at the iPads at once? It was a bit crazy.

You might notice when reading some of their reactions that they’ve been influenced by Travis Jonker’s theories as to what happened at the end of the book. The kids loved reading Travis’s post (HERE) and now want to meet him just as much as they want to meet Klassen and Barnett!

Mondays. Some days they make me want to curl up and sleep for another week. Other days they give me a chance to reflect on growth and make me want to teach until I am seventy. Grateful today for one of the latter.
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