Monthly Archives: July 2014

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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