Fish In A Tree

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Classes around the world are currently enjoying Lynda Mullaly Hunt‘s One For the Murphys as they take part in the Global Read Aloud 2014.  Like many other readers, I fell in love with the story of Carley and her foster family, the Murphys.  After enjoying Hunt’s first novel so thoroughly, I eagerly waited for what was next. I wasn’t disappointed.

Fish In A Tree, scheduled for release on February 5, 2015,  rose right to the top of my new favorite books list.  The main character, Ally Nickerson, struggles against dyslexia, the low expectations of teachers, bullies, and her own insecurities in this brilliantly written novel.  The storyline is heartbreaking at times and laugh out loud at others. Readers will undoubtedly read from start to finish, devouring the wonderful storyline, but hopefully return to Hunt’s words again and again, recognizing the artful craft of her writing.

After spending many years being passed from teacher to teacher and school to school, Ally knows that she’s different. She doesn’t learn like everyone else in her class. In fact, she’s sure that she isn’t smart at all. Labeled a behavior problem, she has become very good at getting out of school work and meeting everyone’s low expectations.  The new substitute teacher in her class, Mr. Daniels, suspects that there is something more to Ally Nickerson than failing grades and visits to the principal’s office.  And Ally is surprised by his persistance, kindness, and genuine interest; qualities she’s never seen in her teachers before now.

Thank You, Mr. Falker has always been one of my favorite picture books, and Fish In A Tree is chapters and chapters of Mr. Falker goodness.  I can think of countless students to whom I could recommend this book. But, what I really hope is that many many teachers and parents read this wonderfully written story that highlights the struggles that are true to life for so many boys and girls.

Thank you to Melissa Guerrette who sent me her copy of Fish In A Tree as part of her book vine!  You can check out her post on FIAT here.

And thank you Ms. Hunt for bringing the struggles of dyslexia to life with your story of Ally.  You leave your readers with hope. Always.

“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”

~ Albert Einstein

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Books that Make a Place for All Students in Your Classroom

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There’s a story I like to tell about my little brother.  After school one day, I was following my teacher mom through the halls of our school.  I must have been nine or ten years old. As we were passing my brother’s classroom, his second grade teacher popped her head out of the door, and said with a giggle, “I just have to tell you this.”  She continued to explain that she had asked the boys and girls to share who they wanted to be when they grew up.  I can assume that most students offered idols like Michael Jordon, Debbie Gibson, Mary Lou Retton, or maybe even President Reagan.

“And do you know what your son said?” She could barely contain her glee. “Gene Kelly!”

At the time this didn’t seem like such an odd choice to me. My mom was on a never-ending old movie kick, and we were well-versed in musicals, black and whites, and even the hi-jinks of Buster Keaton. However, looking back, I see what an unexpected answer this must have been. Delightful to the teacher, no doubt, but probably unacceptable to the other seven year olds that my brother had to play with later at recess.

I think about this story often with fondness, but there’s a note of sad in it as well. I wonder how many Gene Kellys are alone in a class of Mike Schmidts.   And I wonder if we, as teachers, are careful to make a place for all students in our classroom.

I read two lovely books this morning that I will be recommending to teachers this fall that may help with just that.

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I finally got to enjoy this wonderful book that has been recommended to me by many. The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock follows young Vasya Kandinsky into adulthood as he struggles against convention.  Powerful messages make this a worthwhile read aloud for every child.  But the real treasure in this book is the story of a boy who did not see himself in the life that everyone else embraced.  As I read this book, countless faces from past years came to mind, and I wished that The Noisy Paint Box had been in my classroom to share with all of them.

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After enjoying the life of Kandinsky, I decided to reread a favorite of mine from last year, A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant.  Similarly, this book follows Pippin from childhood to adulthood.  I am in love with Melissa Sweet’s illustrations, and readers will eagerly return again and again to this book to enjoy her stunning artwork. I love the idea of a passion that chased Horace his entire life, never letting him go. I hope as teachers we can encourage our students to take hold of what moves them, making our classrooms a place for passions to flourish.

With important ideas for all readers, A Splash of Red and The Noisy Paintbox will help secure a special place in your room for students who may feel they are struggling against the status quo of what’s expected by their peers. These books will help you celebrate the unique talents that often aren’t praised or supported in ways that academics and athleticism are.  Every student should be able to find themselves in a book, and I’m sure that you will have at least one or two that may see themselves in the young lives of Pippin and Kandinsky.

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A New Chapter and An Old Favorite

After teaching fourth grade for the past twelve years I have accepted the K-5 Teacher of Media and Library position at my school.  Yes. I did. Deep breaths.

This new chapter that is about to start has me doing spontaneous happy dances around my kitchen each day for several reasons:

1. I love books.  I read them. I write about them. I talk about them. I share them. All the time.

2.  This is most certainly my dream job.

3. The library program at our school is making a comeback, and I get to be a big part of that.

4. I am anticipating all of these moments of matching the perfect book with its perfect reader ( picture student lovingly holding book with harp music playing in the background).

HOWEVER

This new chapter of my life also has me breathing into a paper bag with my head between my knees (not more than once a week), because…

1. I know how to teach fourth grade.  I was a good fourth grade teacher. My reputation as a librarian is, well, non-existent and unproven.

2. This is most definitely my dream job. What if I’m no good at my dream job!? That would stink as far as dream jobs go.

3. The library program needs to make a comeback, and I have to be the one to do it (see what I did there?)!

Well, the excitement definitely outweighs the nervousness, and I have already jumped into more books than I can handle in preparation for my new position.  I currently have 26 check outs and nine holds at my library. I spent $100 in Barnes and Nobles gift cards in record breaking time a few weeks ago, and I have a dangerously full cart on my Amazon account right now.

I’ll be sharing some of my favorite summer reads soon, most of which are 2014 releases.  But I wanted to honor one of my first favorites. A favorite I eagerly checked out again and again from my local library. A favorite that I shared with my four year old for the first time this week.  And when I was done reading, she simply opened back to the first page and said, Read it again.

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Here’s hoping that many many books that leave our school libraries have the same happy ending.

 

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Am I a Writer?

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I’m stuck. I haven’t written in a month. I wake up every morning thinking, Hey, I’m going to write today. And then I don’t. At first it was summer- the beach, art projects, gardening, sleepovers and playdates. Then it was morning after morning of sitting in front of a blank computer screen, not knowing where to start. At times it was everyone else’s productivity and progress that overwhelmed me, and it was easier to just put away the Ipad and go clean something.

I write a lot during the school year.  I post frequently on my blog, and this year I stepped out of my small circle and wrote about book clubs for Talks with Teachers and The Nerdy Book Club.  A colleague and I  started working on a series of articles surrounding some of the work in my classroom, and I even felt brave enough to send an article to an editor at Heinemann.

But I haven’t been feeling like a writer this summer. Don’t writers write every day? All the time? Even if it’s just a line or two in a notebook?  How could I go a month without writing a single word?

As I was sitting, staring once again at my keyboard this morning, I was thinking of all of the times I’ve had a student say, “I just don’t know what to write.” How many times have I watched the look of frustration as someone in my class picks up a pencil only to set it down without a mark on the page? I can’t count the times that students have told me, “I’m not a writer.” And how many times have I thought Come on, it’s not that hard. Just write something. Anything?

This month I’ve been reminded that it IS that hard sometimes.  All writers struggle and get stuck.  Today, as I am finally writing, I’m thinking about the reasons we get stuck, and the ways that I am supporting my students through those frustrating dry spells.

Our minds are sometimes so full, it’s hard to hold a place for writing.

While thoughts of summer plans with my three kids, a new job for the fall, and a to-do list crowd my brain, I remember that my students’ brains get crowded too. A play-off game, a dance recital, a sick pet or family member. Little minds get just as filled as ours, and while as adults we can often compartmentalize our thinking, our students have a trickier time putting aside important thoughts to focus on the writing project in front of them.

What might help?

* Morning meetings or partnerships are a great place to let those big thoughts out. Students who can talk through the thoughts that are on the forefront of their minds might have an easier time setting them aside when it’s time to write.

* Non-negotiable notebook time. I’m definitely guilty of nixing notebook time when my day becomes too full.  But, students need that time to write freely about what is on their minds or hearts.   In some ways this is just like reading, and the order in which we read.  I recently took A Fault in Our Stars and a history book titled American Creation out of the library. Both were important to me, but as many times as I started American Creation, I put it down to read more of the other. It wasn’t until I was finished with A Fault in Our Stars that I could give my full attention to the first. Did I enjoy both? Yes. Writing is much the same way with our students. It may be hard for a student to focus on their informational article, when he just HAS to write the next installment of his fantasy story Turkey Man in his notebook(true story).  Setting aside free-write notebook time each day is important for all students, but crucial for some.

Watching others be productive inspires some, but defeats others. 

Although the sight of students furiously putting words down on paper may inspire some students to get in gear, it causes others to shut down. I’ve felt this over the past month as I scroll through Twitter. Everyone is blogging up a storm, and I haven’t even clicked on my site.  Each post I read I think, Oooh…that was good. Why didn’t I write that? How does she find the time? I can’t write as well as that. The gloomy voices get louder, and I get further away from my goal. Just write something.  I know that some of my students feel exactly the same.

What might help?

* Placement in the room can be key. If a student is inspired by other writers, stick him in the middle of the action. If not, let him find a quiet spot where it’s not so glaringly obvious that he may be writing less than his classmates.

* Thoughtful partnerships are important. If a student visits with her writing partner only to feel like she could never catch up, the meeting will likely have a negative effect.  Always placing strong writers with weak ones doesn’t necessarily add up to  successful peer conferencing.  Sometimes it may help to meet with a partner who is experiencing the same difficulty, and then problem solving together. How can WE get over this hurdle?  What could be OUR next step?

Sometimes we just don’t know where to start. 

Just like me, my students know that the first few words of their piece are critically important. Sometimes this understanding freezes them.  The fear of not writing it perfectly can mean no writing at all.  As teachers we generally use the same vocabulary and encouragement to get these students going, but sometimes it’s not enough.

What might help?

* Don’t start at the very beginning. In my class we’ve started saving our beginning writing until our pieces are well underway. We may draft two scenes or three sections before coming back to the start of a piece.  By the time we are ready to write our openings, students have found a voice for their piece and find writing those first few words much less daunting.

* Remind students of their success. Having your students return to their portfolio or notebook to see the hard work that they’ve already accomplished can be a powerful motivator.  I combat the I can’t attitude with You already did proof.  This even worked for me this week!  Just when I was feeling like maybe I wasn’t a writer…

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 …a little You already did proof came in the mail.

I know that the next school year will bring a variety of writers to my classroom; some that get stuck more than others. I know that even my strongest writers will have days when the pencil barely makes it to the paper. I also know that all of the right words and encouragement won’t necessarily help get that pencil to paper every time. But I DO know that I will be able to sit next to my students and say, This happens. We can work through it. I know. I’m a writer too. 

 

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A Celebration of Summer Reading

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You can check out all of the Saturday Celebration posts on Ruth Ayers’ blog.

It’s summer! Actually, no. That’s the feeling in my classroom, though, despite the calendar reminding us that there are still two more weeks left in our school year. It’s no surprise that I am drowning in end of the year paper work. (Haven’t seen the actual surface of my desk in weeks.)  And teachers everywhere will give a knowing nod when I admit that I am in full-on dog and pony show mode to keep my students engaged and on task.  My June is the same as most  teachers’, so forgive me when I take a second to say WAAAAAAAA!

As you can imagine, writing this post is very important for me right now.  After a week like this one, and preparing for two more of the same, I need a little celebration to keep the pep in my step for the final stretch.

Paying it Forward

Thanks to many generous donations from individuals and families in our small community, our World Read Aloud Day book drive was a huge success. Back in March, we asked every student and faculty member to donate at least one book to promote literacy in our community. After weeks of organizing books, we were able to host a “shopping” day this week for students who might have difficulty affording or accessing summer reading materials. Students were thrilled with their selections and very surprised when they were told that they could actually keep the books they chose. An added bonus was the inclusion of $1000.00 dollars of brand new books purchased from Scholastic through the combined efforts of a student coin drive and our generous Home and School Association.

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Thanks to HH&SA for matching our coin drive funds to purchase $1000 dollars of new books for our students to read over the summer.

 

Setting Goals

Every year in early June our school has a summer reading goal setting day. Students confer with peers and teachers to set individual reading goals for the summer months.  Every teacher puts their own spin on the surrounding activities, but in the end, every students leaves with a reading plan.  This year, I decided to have my students spend the morning creating Animoto videos that showcased these goals. Seriously, so easy, so much fun, and so so worth our time.  After we were done, we sat back to take a look at some of our newly created masterpieces. And when I said we would have to watch the rest of the final videos on Monday due to time constraints, I had one angry mob on my hands.  The links to some of our videos are below.  I hope that you have had some time to think about your summer reading. If not, I’m sure my students would be happy to make some recommendations.

Summer Reading Video #1

Summer Reading Video #2

Summer Reading Video #3

 

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The Altar of Freedom

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I hadn’t considered posting this weekend.  I spent a while in my garden, cleaned out the closets for summer, and even went to the movies.  I haven’t really been on Twitter, or working on my lesson plans, or even preparing for an important meeting I have on Tuesday.  Well, that’s not completely true. I have been thinking about my lesson plans and how I can best honor Memorial Day and the men and women whom we celebrate.

Some years, I go to You Tube and find a video montage of patriotic photographs. Other years, we have read about the beginnings of Memorial Day or how different towns celebrate.  It’s always felt very token, unfortunately. I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think about what has been sacrificed for my life to be what it is. Somehow, though, I have never translated those feelings into an effective time of rememberence in my classroom. This year, I’ve been thinking about how I can get my students to see the big picture, the multiple perspectives. Serving in the military is such a foreign thing to so many of them.  I’ve been wondering, what can I bring to my students that will really make an impact?

One of my favorite pieces of history is President Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby. There is some controversy over whether he in fact wrote this, or Secretary Hay wrote it in his place. Even amidst that uncertainty, I post this letter for my friends and family to read each Memorial Day, and this year, I will be sharing it with my students.  I am moved each time I read it, and I never tire of the unwavering message of devotion to country. I’m quite certain that I won’t be able to read it in its entirety without any emotion, but my students know my propensity to cry over the written word.

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Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
Dear Madam,–
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln
 

I also plan to show portions of the video below, because I think that more than anything else we can read or watch, this will help them “get it.”  I’ll be the one in the back of the room sobbing, and that’s okay.  We can’t be separate from the emotion that moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, and daughters have felt for hundreds of years.

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They are America. We are America.

To all who have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom: Thank You. 

Soldiers Surprise Loved Ones Video

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How do you plan to celebrate with your students?

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Follow That Blog!

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I am excited to share another post in my blog series Follow That Blog!

Two Writing Teachers

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This week I would love to introduce you to some educators who have had a profound effect on my teaching of writing and reading. The team at Two Writing Teachers publishes outstanding content for ELA teachers on a daily basis. Their blog can only be described as a gold mine of resources. The posts are most relevant to elementary and middle school teachers, but writers of all backgrounds and experiences will be inspired when they visit TWT.

Whether you are looking to reinvigorate your writing instruction, find mentor texts, or elevate your conferring, you will be energized by the variety of content you will find.  Recently, teachers across the nation took part in their Slice of Life Challenge.

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Slice of Life is a weekly challenge that encourages writers to share a personal story from their own lives every Tuesday. During the month of March, TWT invited educators and students to be deliberate about their writing habits by writing every single day for an entire month. The results were astounding, as this practice encouraged all involved to see themselves as writers with a powerful voice.

I am pleased to offer you some words from the writers themselves. They graciously answered a few questions about their work.

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Please describe several ways that blogging for TWT and being a part of the edu-blogging community has impacted your professional life?
We are so amazed and honored at the ways that Two Writing Teachers has brought together a whole community of educators looking connect with like-minded colleagues. We are thrilled every time an educator or another blogger shares or likes one of our posts. We have particularly been proud of the response we have received to our two blog series, one on Writing about Reading, and one on Independence, and the accompanying Twitter chats.

 

Although every post is different, what can readers of your blog expect each time they read an article on TWT?
It’s true that each article is different, and now with the new team, there is even more range in voice and topics. You might read an article by Betsy about creating found poetry in the primary grades, or an article by Tara about integrating technology in middle school writing workshops. However, there are several important commonalities in the articles we publish.

First, all articles stem from our collective belief in writing workshop principles. We believe in supporting independence, and choice, and in giving students plenty of time to practice writing in school with coaching from a teacher.

Next, in all of our articles, we strive to highlight practices that teachers can implement right away to lift the level of their students’ work. They might take the form of a list of tips, or a narrative describing one teacher’s process. Our hope is that after reading any article on our site, a teacher could take away an idea or two to try immediately.

A final commonality is our belief in teacher writing. Though not all of our articles are specifically about teachers doing their own writing, they all hold true to the principle that we are a community of writers in addition to being a community of writing teachers.

 

Who are your writing and/ or professional mentors? What blogs inspire you?

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Dana:
My professional mentors for writing are Nancie Atwell and Katie Wood Ray.  They are my go-to sources whenever I have a question or need support in the teaching of writing.

Personally, I adore the writing of Lois Lowry.  Her memoir Looking Back is beautifully written, and I reread it often.  I also love Dani Shapiro’s book Still Writing:  The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.  It is a must-read for anyone who fancies themselves a writer.

I follow several blogs to help support my passion for writing such as: Ralph Fletcher’s blog, The Writer’s Desk or Sunday Cummin’s blog, which is an excellent source for nonfiction mentor texts.  I must say, though, that the majority of my inspiration and ideas for writing come from reading the posts eachTuesday on the Two Writing Teacher’s call for Slice of Life Stories.  These offer a plethora of inspiration, craft moves, and structure ideas for me as a writer!

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Stacey: 
I always look to Lucy Calkins and professional mentor. I studied with her at Teachers College and respect her as one of the leaders in the field.

Since I moved to Pennsylvania, I’ve gotten to know Lynne Dorman and Rose Cappelli, who’ve become professional mentors. They know so much about children’s literature and teaching kids… and they’re incredibly nice people!

I’m constantly inspired by the writing the members of the Slice of Life Story Community. I look to them whenever I want writerly inspiration.

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Beth:
Lucy Calkins has been an mentor to me throughout my entire professional career, as a teacher and as a writer. I first met Lucy as a graduate student. On the first day of class, she passed around a crumpled piece of notebook paper and invited any of us who needed three more credits that semester to apply for an internship with her. I scribbled my name and email address on that paper and the rest is history. I’ve worked for Lucy for over a decade now as a staff developer, coauthor on books and materials, and she’s been my advisor and sponsor as I’ve moved (slowly, slowly) through the doctoral program at Teachers College. As for blog-inspiration…I’m inspired in some way by pretty much everything I read. I try to be a sponge for ideas. Lately, I’ve been sort of obsessed with the online magazine, Rookie, where the editor is Tavi Gevinson, a brilliant teenage girl, and most of her staff are teens or twenty-somethings. I am so impressed by their talent, and what they are doing to represent young women.

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Tara: 
My mentors:
Nancie Atwell
Lucy Calkins
Mary Ehrenworth
Georgia Heard
Penny Kittle
Kylene Beers
Chris Lehman

Inspiring blogs:
Vicki Vinton – To Make A Prairie
Kate & Maggie Roberts – Indent
Mary Lee Hahn – A Year Of Reading
Chris Lehman - Christopher Lehman

 

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Betsy: 
My writing mentor is Geri Williams, a student of both Don Murray and Don Graves. Her guidance and advice over the years has nudged me to search for the best practice in writing instruction. 
Bogs that inspire? Linda Baie’s blog, Teacherdance, has such a variety of both educational and personal posts that are always inspiring. I also continue to be amazed at the consistency of relevant content at the Nerdy Book Club. Donalyn Miller, Colby Sharp and all the contributors who tirelessly find the best reading material for children leaves me in awe.  

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Anna: 
Like Stacey and Beth, I consider Lucy Calkins to be one of my most important writing mentors. I have learned to much writing for her, and with her. I know I would not be where I am in my writing career today were it not for my professional relationship with Lucy Calkins. 

I also admire so much the writing of Katherine and Randy Bomer, both their style and their refusal to budge from their core beliefs. I adore Georgia Heard and hope to be able to capture children’s voices like she does one day. I read Ralph Fletcher, Roy Peter Clark, and Annie Lamott to become a better writer. 

Vicki Vinton’s blog To Make a Prairie is stunning in its beauty and its message. Kate and Maggie Roberts’ blog Indent is powerfully written and spot-on. Each post brings me to laughter or tears. I love Kristi Mraz’s and Marjorie Martinelli’s voices in their blog Chartchums. How they manage to pack in so much useful content alongside hilarious anecdotes, both personal and from the classroom, amazes me. 

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I know that you will be as inspired by these ladies as I have been, and I hope that you will take advantage of their wonderful work by visiting their site often.

Be sure to follow Two Writing Teachers via email so that you can have their posts delivered to your inbox each morning.

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Confessions of a Reformed Poetry Avoider (Part 2)

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Since admitting to you in my last post that I had avoided teaching poetry in my classroom for many years, my students have been working on a new batch of poems just in time for Poetry Friday.  After reading William Carlos Williams’ poem This Is Just to Say, the boys and girls in my class fell in love with the false apology poem.

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We started by making a list of the rotten things that we have done, but secretly felt no remorse for, in our writer’s notebooks.  After choosing a juicy idea, my students began creating webs of words and phrases that included why the offended party was upset, but also why the offending act was quite enjoyable.  As a teacher, it was wonderful to watch students giggling to themselves as they worked in their notebooks. Then, we took our ideas and began writing them into the four line stanzas used by Williams. This part proved to be tricky, as my fourth graders were tempted to write long sentences or phrases. In the end, I made a rule that no line could be more than four words (What, Mrs. Brittin??? We can’t do that!).  I modeled by writing several of my own; one from my point of view and one from the point of view of each of my three children.  Here is the one from my point of view.

This Is Just To Say
~Jennifer Brittin
 
I have
hidden zucchini
inside
the brownies
 
and watched
you eat them
bit
by bit
 
Forgive me
they’re healthy
and you’ll never
know the difference
 

As I circulated to confer, I noticed that one group of students seemed to be off task in the front of the room. Making my way up to their circle, I saw that one of them was actually rolling on the floor.

“What’s going on up here?” I asked, already summoning up my disappointed teacher speech.

“You just have to hear this poem, Mrs. Brittin! It is soooo funny!”

And it was.

They all were.

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Dear Me,

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I’m joining with other educators across the country to participate in Talks With Teachers’ May Challenge. The theme of the month is reflection. Be sure to check out their website and download some of the great podcasts available.

Week One Challenge:

Watch this video.

Read this article.

Write yourself a letter for the first day of this past school year OR for the first day of your teaching career.

 

Dear  2002 Me,                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
You’re feeling a little nervous today and rightfully so. Even though you have some idea that what you are about to do is important, you have NO idea just how important your chosen vocation really is.  And, I hate to tell you that you might not figure that one out for a while.  
 
So, let me give you some advice that will help you see that sooner. 
 
First, I know that you want to do your best. You’re a go-getter, and you have good instincts. Unfortunately, your instincts won’t always be right.  How will you know?  You’ll listen.  You’ll listen to the people who have gone before you; the ones who have been there forever. But you will also need to find new voices.  Voices outside of your hallway, your building, your district and town. Find voices in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.  Sometimes those voices will oppose your well-intended ideas and thinking. Sometimes they’ll scare you, and you’ll want to turn them off. Don’t. Your instincts make you good.  But, surround yourself with people that will make you better. 
 
I’m sorry to say, that even though you thought you were done with statistics when you left college, you’re not.  Very soon you will realize that everything comes down to statistics.  Student data will potentially take over your life, causing you to break out in random cold sweats, start having nightmares each August, and sometimes make you regret your career decision.  In the coming years, even you will become a statistic, AND they’ll put your number in the newspaper for everyone to see. But WAIT! There’s good news. You should hear now that none of that really matters.  You should hear now that there are things worth worrying about at 11:30 pm, and things that are not.  When given a choice between worrying about how you’re going to get Johnny to pass the state test and how you’re going to get Johnny to see himself as a writer, choose the latter.  If you are going to worry about something, worry about how your students in poverty will find books to read this summer, not how you’ll meet your SGP or your SGO.  Numbers have a way of being important one day and insignificant the next. Remember this: your students aren’t numbers, and neither are you. 
 
There are so many little things I’d like to tell you. Things that will help you be a good classroom manager.  Things that your students will love or hate. Things that you should never say to a colleague or a parent or the custodian. But, you’ll learn all of those important lessons along the way.  So, let me finish by telling you the key to your success as a teacher. Yes, the key! It’s one word that will make or break you, and I want to tell you now, so you don’t spend too many years trying to figure it out. Relationships. Yep. It’s true. I know you’re rolling your eyes right now. You’re not a warm and fuzzy person, and you’re thinking that there is too much to be done in the day to worry about the warm and fuzzies.  You’re going to be a respected teacher almost right away, because you’re a hard worker. You’re going to plan good lessons that engage your students, and they will like your class. But something will be missing. You won’t know it right away, because everything will look right. But if you take my advice, and give this relationship thing a try with your students, they will really surprise you.  You will really surprise you.  
 
You see, I told you that listening to voices is really important. The most important voice you can listen to is the one that comes to your desk every morning just to chat.  The most important voice is the one that wants to tell you about a new cat, when you want to talk about geometry. Listen to the voice that tells you that the homework isn’t done again. Listen to the voice that says, “I can’t do it.”  Listen to the voice that says, “I don’t like to read.” And then, ask, “Why?”
Remember, I told you that numbers don’t matter? To many people, your students will be a number, and unfortunately, it will be all too easy for them to live down to everyone’s low expectations.  Don’t let them. Tell them they matter. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Know them, love them, affect them, and let them affect you. You’ll be a better teacher for it, and they’ll be better students. 
 
So, that’s it. I wish I could tell you that it won’t feel like work, you’ll always be appreciated for your efforts, and you’ll skip out to the parking lot every day at 3:40 pm. I’m so sorry, but it will feel like work, hard work, the kind of work that exhausts you. But most days, you will be a good tired, the kind that makes you fall asleep with a smile on your face.  You won’t be celebrated, your students won’t always love your carefully planned lessons, and some days you will run for your car at 3:38 (shhhh). 
But, one day, hopefully soon, you will see past all of that and realize that you have the most important job in the world. 
 
Love, 
The me that is still learning
 
 

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Confessions of a Reformed Poetry Avoider (Part 1)

poetry 2

I love poetry. Love it.  I have Emily Dickinson and Carl Sandburg as bookends on my living room table. The teenager me kept a journal is full of collected poems: Maya and E.E. I memorized Browning’s How Do I Love Thee? and felt very proud of myself.

So no one found it more surprising than me that when I started teaching, I avoided poetry like the plague. I loved poetry, but I had no idea how I would go about teaching it, or, even scarier, get my students to write it.  I was sure of a few things when I thought about introducing poetry to my class. First, they would never get it.  I could just picture the cloudy expressions and kids whispering, “Whatttt?” And, boys. Forget about it. They would hate it; I just knew it. How could my fourth grade boys who were only interested in sports and video games possibly want to know how fog and little cat feet were a good comparison?

Fortunately, the online educational community I am a part of was saying just the opposite. As April neared, more and more Twitter chats were devoted to poetry (I had nothing to tweet). Post after post on my favorite blogs were success stories of poetry reading and writing (I was starting to feel left out).  And I started to realize that there should be a place for poetry in my classroom (Only took me 12 years).

It is now the first of May, and I am happy to report that our notebooks are bursting with poems and poem ideas. After reading and analyzing a few of my favorites, like To a Daughter Leaving Home and ones recommended to me on Twitter, like Foul Shot, we jumped into writing some of our own.

Our first big project was a pair of poems related to our shared reading. While reading Gorillas by Seymour Simon, students collected words and phrases about Silverbacks which they then arranged into free-verse poetry. After that, they did the same type of work while listening to our current read aloud The One and Only Ivan. I loved the idea of the contrasting poems side by side about wild Silverbacks and Ivan, a Silverback in captivity.  I would love to explore this pairing of nonfiction and narrative-inspired poetry more, possibly working it into my science or social studies centers.

Gorilla Poetry

Inspired by:

gorillas    ivan

Silverback
I protect my family
I make decisions
I lead my pack
I live in strength at five and a half feet tall
 
My family trusts me
has faith in me
I will do whatever it takes
to protect
to love
to defend
my family
 
For I am the mighty silverback
Hear me ROAR
~ Julie
 
 
Names
Stella’s gone
Ruby’s here
Projects progressing
More days going past
 
Water with no flow
Flowers with no scent
 
I am Ivan
The Ape at Exit 8
The horror on the billboard
is not me
 
Names I am called
just don’t fit
Ivan is the real me
~ Elizabeth
 

Following that project, we devoted our attention to writing friendship poetry. I shared a poem that I wrote for a friend on my blog, and decided to share it with my students as well. In my poem, I made comparisons between food and friends. I invited my students to think of topics they could use for the theme of their poems. Some students compared friends to elements in nature, while others wrote that friends were like books or even video games. This work proved to be a little trickier for some students, especially when I asked them to follow the format of my poem: three stanzas with five lines each.  In the end, I found that almost everyone wanted to share their friendship poems aloud, and many beamed with a pride I hadn’t seen all year during writing.  We share some of our poems below.

 

Good Friends

image

Good friends
are the sun and the sky
Always together
Having bad days
and good days
 
Good friends
are summer, fall, winter, and spring
All going together
One after the other
Like peas in a pod
 
Good friends 
are the scent of morning flowers
Filling the air with happiness
Warming the sky with love
and making the world better
~ Vienna
 
Good friends
are your favorite sport
that you always watch
on TV
 
Good friends
are your favorite food
that you always order
at a restaurant
 
Good friends
are your favorite candy
that you hope you get
on Halloween
~ Will
 
Good friends
are the books in the library
The ones you look for
The ones you buy
 
Good friends
are youtube videos
The ones you want to see
The ones you watch
over and over
 
Good friends 
are your cell phones
The ones that hold your secrets
and photos
The ones you treasure
~ Lizzy
poetry1

Even though April is over and state assessments are looming, we are continuing our poetry reading and writing next week using William Carlos William’s This is Just to Say. I am excited to see what creative and funny false apology poems my students will compose, and I will be sharing more of our writing in an upcoming post.

A world of thanks to my colleague Renee who has been trying to reform my poetry avoidance for years. And to all of the wonderful teachers, poets, and bloggers who inspired me with your tweets, articles, and poetry: I thank you for leading me back to the words that I loved all along.

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