Monday, August 31, 2015

Blueprints of a Lifetime

Life starts with story. The story of the time Jenny snuck into her parents' whirlpool bath tub while they were out working in the yard. She did it even though she was not supposed to.  She filled the large tub to the rim with steamy water and submerged herself. She was alone in the house, alone in the tub.

In her retelling of the event, she wrote about going under the water. She felt her long, blonde hair float around her. She felt it get sucked into what she thought was one of the jets of the whirlpool. She felt the tug. Then she felt the air in her lungs. She could see the bathroom window from below the water. She could hear the lawn mower and the sound of the weed wacker outside.

I've used her piece as a model before and whenever I read it aloud, students gasp. The listeners get caught up in her story. It's a scary story. She nearly drowned. The tension works in her writing too. So much so that one year, a boy broke the tension in the room by yelling out,

 "You guys, she lives! She wrote the story in Mrs. Spillane's class!" Kids glanced at each other sideways, exhaled and chuckled.

Jenny wrote her piece over the course of a month. We draw. We draw. We revise. We add dialogue. We sequence and re-sequence. It's a fun writing month. When I use her piece as a model, many students choose to write about hard times they have survived or obstacles they've overcome.

When I use Lynn's piece, "The Christmas Rat" as the first model, many students choose to write funny family stories much like Lynn's. In her piece,  a rat gets into the house and her parents battle it with paper bags, tennis racquets and bug spray before opening a window and shooing it out.  Lynn wrote her piece the fall after I created the lesson during my time at the National Writing Project's summer institute. She wrote it before my current students were born, but it's still a great story to share.

I use a variety of student and professional mentor texts. Our first book club of the year meets around memoir. I wrote a grant one year and got six copies of each book:

Knots in My Yo-Yo String by Jerry Spinelli
An Illlustrated Life edited by Danny Gregory
Bad Boy by Walter Dean Myers
King of the Mild Frontier by Cris Crutcher
Knucklehead by John Scieszka
Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Such good stories. I read pieces from each of these during the first month of school. The read alouds set students up for quick writes that we can later revise and develop into longer pieces.

I love how mapping out childhood gives students plenty of ideas for writing, some terrifying like Jenny's near drowning and some funny like Lynn's.

We start the memoir writing process by drawing childhood places. In the Blueprints of a Lifetime lesson I created during the National Writing Project's summer institute, we draw blueprints of our homes. Then we generate titles, and share the title stories out loud before we write them. I use this narrative writing piece to introduce thinking vocabulary to students, so at some point during our share or read around, I pause and ask students if they are thinking about similar events from their own lives. Inevitably they are associating, so I point out the cognitive process and name it. We will use that thinking vocabulary all year (Tishman, Perkins and Jay). After doing the sequence noted below for a home, we then wrote about other places. We map a school and later we add other memorable places or spaces.

I start with story in my classroom. We read and write memoir the first month of school. It is from story that we first hear our own voices--from family stories, from stories we tell our friends and from the stories we write about our lives.

“...the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in...That is their mystery and their magic.” ― Arundhati RoyThe God of Small Things


Perkins, David. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. NY: The Free Press, 1992.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Spot On

Today was our second day of school.

On the first day of school, students completed some sentences to tell me a little bit about themselves. I shared the sentence survey  I use below. You are welcome to use it in your own classroom if you like.

On the first evening, after the first day of school, I respond to each child's sentences.

My goal is to begin building positive relationships and to make my first book recommendations. I ask the kids if they've read ___ (fill in the blank with a title or two connected to an interest they have expressed in their sentences).

I try to recommend books I know I have in my room and books that will soon arrive like the Florida Teen Reads titles or titles of books I've ordered from recent honor and award lists.Though I have many of them, I can't wait to get my hands on new copies of the Amelia Warden and Michael Printz titles. I used a place mat I made for English teachers in my department as I responded to the writers in my room--just to keep the titles handy as I responded.

These are not the only books I recommend, but I start there. Then I branch out to books about dragons or mysteries or miracles or baseball or beauty queens. 

The high point of my teaching day happened on the porch--on the steps outside of my portable classroom before the start of class. I stand outside to help supervise students during passing times. 

I'd left my responses on the kids' tables with direction to read them and answer any questions I'd asked for bell work. Two kids during two different passing times ran outside to tell me I'd NAILED the recommendations. One rushed out and said, "Miss Spillane, I am reading that book RIGHT NOW!!! I just got it." 

She was so excited at the serendipity of my recommendation of  Scott Westerfeld's Uglies coinciding with her choice just the day before. 

I grinned and said I was tickled to have gotten it spot on, day one. 

The second student is interested in myth and books that retell myths. Imagine what I recommended.

Recommending books to the children in my room does not mean that I take away the power of their own choices. It means that I am interested in what they are interested in and willing to support their growth. It means that I too am a reader. Real readers recommend. 

You can already imagine the series I recommended to that student, Riordan's of course. He rushed out to the porch during our passing time to tell me that he'd read "all of the Lightning Thief series, all of the Hero series and ALL of the Red Pyramid series." But I'd also recommended Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli. Napoli was my introduction to myths recasted. We had a good conversation about her books. He has yet to meet her mythic characters on the page.

I can't wait until he does. 

I hope you are having or will have a fantastic first week of school. I know I am. 

Cheers to all! 

Thank you to Stacey, Betsy, Dana, Tara, Beth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ask and Offer

Thank you to Stacey, Betsy, Dana, Tara, Beth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb for creating community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers. Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

Ask any teacher, the beginning of the school is as stressful as it is wonderful. We get to start new each year. We get the opportunity to approach our work with fresh eyes. We begin all over again with new students and sometimes new administrators and new courses. Beginnings have a special kind of magic.

At my school, we are in our last six months of a thirty-month renovation. We have a ninety-five acre campus.  We serve more than three thousand students. The re-build is a huge project. It has added new classroom space and new buildings to our campus sky line. Even the old buildings seem new: beautiful and clean. Each of the academic buildings has closed one at a time, to be stripped to blocks and studs, and refreshed; all but one is finished. The last--the building I may eventually move to--will be complete in time for Christmas. Teachers have moved out of old classrooms into portable classrooms and then back into the refurbished spaces.

You can imagine.

Though the district hired movers to move teachers boxed up belongings, there've been a few rough patches. Boxes get lost. Items get broken. Sometimes teachers things get moved to the wrong place or not moved at all. That was the case yesterday, our first "teacher" day back to school.

One of the English teachers' things was delivered to the wrong room. She was told that the movers
may come by week's end to move her to the correct room. When I heard her talking about it with our administrator I offered to help her move.   I was open to the work. And, I'd brough the heavy-duty dolly from home to move some of my own things.
Just a portion of the load we moved. Lots of boxes of books here--good things!

I offered.  We weren't finished with the first load when two of her friends, a football coach and a guidance counselor,  arrived. She didn't even need to ask her squad for help; they had heard and come.

They offered. We had one dolly and several pieces of squeaky-wheeled furniture. We rolled boxes on top of utility carts and rolling chairs across campus to her new room.

We crossed dirt and gravel. When someone got stuck, we stopped, left our own loads and helped carry theirs into the clear. We held doors for one another and took turns on the elevator. We laughed about the squeaky wheels and made train jokes as we clack, clack, clacked over shiny, brick-tile floors.

After the second load, the football coach realized his things had never been moved, so we offered to move him next.

We offered. At one point, the guidance counselor said, "Now THIS is team work!" Indeed it was. It was ninety-eight degrees out and we laughed together. Working happily through the hard things--physically difficult things or cognitively difficult things--builds relationships.

Two words have been on mind since: ask and offer. When you need help or support, ask. When you see someone in need, offer. Sweet. Simple.


I'll be doing both all year.