Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Love: Now's the Time

Book Love Book Club screen shot from Facebook

Where I began my reading
about growing readers and
reading workshop.
If you are not following the discussion of Penny Kittle's Book Love, stop reading this blog right now. Go to Facebook and join the Book Love Book Club. There more than 170 teachers, teachers from nearly every state in the nation, sharing their thinking about growing readers and  Kittle's book. It is as if  the changed we worked for during the It's Never Too Late  and Reading for Life literacy institutes has come to life: amazing.

Today's discussion of chapter three will focus on setting goals and encouraging growth. The chapter reminded me of a piece from a book I bought off the Barnes and Noble bargain table to use as a rip-up book for collage. The book is Now Is the Time: 170 Ways to Seize the Moment and the piece follows:

Now is the time...
to be curious 
Knowledge won't find us, we must find it.
Every day is a chance to learn something new.
Cast your net wide,
open your mind to the excitement of learning.
curiosity keeps us young at heart and mind.
When we stop learning, we stop living (124). 
Now is the time to be curious and to learn, to read and to discuss, to share and to enjoy; now is the time in our teaching lives to feed and sustain our teaching souls. When we stop learning as  teachers, we stop living passionate lives in our classrooms. Learning can be simple, like the tweaking we do to our instructional routines or curriculum. Last year, Linda Rief talked with me about how every year is eye-opening as she tweaks something in her practice to bring students closer and closer to where she wants them to be as readers and writers. Simple changes can yield instructional elegance.

That's what I found this morning in chapter three of Kittle's Book Love. She describes how she sets reading goals with students. Weekly goals are about pages read first, hours or time second. Students calculate their reading rate based on a ten-minute comfortable in-class read. Then they extrapolate out to hourly, daily and weekly page rates--their goals come from these calculations and of course, everyone is different. A simple switch flipped in my teacher brain. Ah ha. Brilliant.

Books that continue
to light the way to creating
life-long readers
Students in my English classroom set goals, but perhaps we have built castles on air as we set them. I used to tell students their goal (or my goal for them). I laid clear my expectations: 25 books a year. I wrote a bit about it here. I used to say that if students in New York and California could be expected to read that much each year (by their standards years ago) then we certainly could do that too. What I didn't tell students was that the 25 book standard, of which I learned about from some keynote or another, was actually a standard for fifth grade readers.

Fifth graders read much differently than ninth, eleventh or twelfth graders. Still, each year that I stuck to that spiel, I had students meet and exceed my expectations. The range was wide though with the lowest book count hovering near double digits. I don't use the 25 book expectation anymore. I tweaked that idea after reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and again after spending much of my spring break in Linda Rief's classroom.  Miller helped me better individualize reading goals by book count and by genre. Rief helped me refocus on students.  Kittle will push me to make the entire student-centered process more concrete. Every book I read pushes my practice and shapes what I think and do with readers in my room.

Kittle's  approach to setting reading goals using data quickly gathered makes sense and will be meaningful for my own students. Teaching (and learning) is change-laden. We tweak. We shift. We change. Our instruction, our beliefs, our ideas. All sorts of things evolve and change in our classrooms--I love that.

Passion rekindled.

I can't wait to start the new year with the readers in my room!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nerd Powers Activate

Slice of Life is a weekly post from the Two Writing Teachers.
Slide your slice into Tuesday's comments at Two Writing Teachers!
My son sits across a six-foot desk from me in my studio slash office. In front of a wall of books  art-ifacts, paint, partial projects, old books for collage, canvases  dominoes--the ephemera of spare moments stolen to craft and make art. I love having Collin across the desk. He writes on his computer or does homework or plays on Nerdcrafteria and I write or work or watch Ze Frank chase happy. I especially love sitting across from Collin during Project for Awesome because we work together with Nerdfighteria to like, favorite and comment on Project for Awesome videos.

Comments & funds raised as of 10:33 p.m. 12/18/12
As we're watching the live show, we laugh, we tell Vlogbrothers stories. We joke. We comment. We talk.
Yesterday he told me about something that happen in class. The story went like this (pretend Collin is talking now):

Yesterday I finished my exam early so I got a book to read. I was reading for about 20 minutes and So and So and this other girl in class looked at me. Then they looked at each other. Then so and so said "Hey, Collin, what page are you on?"
I replied, "27."
"Man!" So and So said, "I wouldn't get that far in two days! I could never read like that." Then So and So turned back to the girl and they shared a laughing moment.  I  heard nerd or geek tossed between them.
"But you know what, Mom? When people call me a nerd or a geek at school. They think they are insulting me, but because of Nerdfighteria, I take it as a compliment."

Then he grinned. My heart... We talked about So and So's talents on the basketball court and how everyone has different talents. I praised my reader and we got back to commenting on Project for Awesome videos and laughing with Hank Green, whose shout out to me during the live stream last night lit my son up. That was a pink stone Project for Awesome moment. My heart lifted with the power of Nerdfighteria. Nerdfighteria has made Collin comfortable in his own skin in ways even many of high school juniors are not. Amazing. Incredible. True.

So, fast forward to today. I spent 8 hours commenting on Project for Awesome videos. From early morning to through every class period. I left school to go to my son's basketball game. Then the plan was to hustle home and get back to commenting together.

At the game,  So and So's Mom came up to the top row to sit next to me. (There are only 4 rows of bleachers, so it's not like a high school gym or a stadium or anything). She said, "You should have heard what my son (So and So) said about Collin last night."

Unprompted, she told me the same story Collin had shared. So and So's story to his Mom ended with him saying "Collin is amazing. I could never read that way... not with months and months of practice." Like me she had the talent conversation with her son.

I told her the ending I heard from Collin. She said, "Oh no. So and So truly was amazed by Collin. He has a geek brother and he's written about geek power in class. He doesn't dis the geek." We had a long conversation (it stretched through all four quarters of the game). I told her about Project for Awesome and how Collin identifies with the community and how yes, he is an incredible reader. I told her how we love to watch her son So and So play ball. He is elegant and diligent on the court and I can think of no other sixth grader that is. I walked away with a new understanding of something that really troubled me yesterday.

After the game, Collin and I talked about it. He was wide-eyed to hear what So and So's mom said. We talked about how it's easy to think we know what other people are thinking or why other people are laughing--it's not always about us.

they lost the basketball game today, but I'm chalking a win for Project for Awesome and Nerdfighteria.

Thanks, Hank.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Awesome Failure

Serve up your slice on Tuesdays
with Two Writing Teachers
December brings Project for Awesome. 

Always December 17th, the Project for Awesome is an annual YouTube event.  Thousands of video creators participate by making videos in support of their favorite charities. Anyone can make a video and anyone can participate in the commenting, tweeting and donating fun.

I wrote a bit about how you can participate in the project on the Nerdy Book Club this past week and will talk about it on Engchat on Twitter next Monday. This week in my classroom is all about getting our videos planned, created and published. 

It's Tuesday and already I have to swap out my own ideas. See I had this idea. Sort of like Kristina Horner's 2007 Nerdfightastic mission to spread the word about Nerdfighteria, libraries and First Book. Instead of decorating index cards and inserting them into library books, I thought I could spread the word about organizations that serve the hungry in our community by sticking labels on canned goods at the store. 

I made labels. I did think alouds for my students. I got excited about the mission. I talked through ideas for filming. I was ready to roll when I thought about asking permission. Teaching is a subversive act, but I decided to ask the manager of the store if it was okay, just to make sure. 

Did you know that sticking stickers on items that are for sale in a commercial establishment is considered solicitation? Indeed it is, by more than one grocery store manager. So,  back to the drawing board. Failure means I've learned something. Failure means I revise and (cue the movie music) "keep moving forward."

 If an idea  fails there must be a better one on the horizon.

I want to highlight organizations that feed people and provide food. That's the idea I've been modeling as we gather facts, storyboard and write drafts of scripts.  I want to create a sample Project for Awesome video with things close at hand to show my students that we don't have to be in another country or working at an organization to make a difference. If we do what we can, that counts too. 

Don't get me wrong. I hope I'm raising students to work with the poor. I hope I am raising students to care about developing countries and fight for access to clean water and an end to Malaria and education for all, especially girls. Those pursuits are amazing and wonderful and terrifically needed, but your everyday ninth-grader is stunned by them and fears he will never live up to such amazing deeds. I want to give my students a  starting place. 

I want to teach them to take one step in the right direction. 

Eye level shot of the pantry.

So, my revised idea? Photograph food. Photograph what is in my pantry and or my refrigerator. Photograph what is on the shelves at the grocery store (the manager said that was okay). Beg my friends and followers for photographs of the food at their houses. Piece the images together into a montage and use them to talk about the food we have and the food others need. Highlight the food organization  I will support (I'm choosing between a local pantry and a meta-pantry such as Second Harvest) and close my video with ways anyone can donate or pitch in. What do you think? 

You'd think we don't eat vegetables, but we do.
Will you send me a picture of the food in your pantry ? Or the food in your fridge? Don't clean it first. No one will know whose is whose. Really, it's  not about you or your matching containers or alphabetically shelved cans or even the moths in the bread flour. Just try not to get the beer or the wine in the picture. 

Project for Awesome and the videos created for it are about helping people and raising awareness. If you want to help me inspire my students and  help me serve the hungry, send your pictures to spillarke (at) gmail or tweet them to @spillarke. 

Thank you, thank you! 
Lee Ann 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Word of the Day: Philanthropy

I'm changing my bell work routine today. Instead of doing a daily think write (what my students call quick writes), we are doing word study. I'm just shifting it up in my instructional order during the class period. I'm using a new-to-me tool (the Educreations app) to  record, share and distribute the word of the day notes in order to make my teaching more transparent. Recording and sharing the lessons online helps students recover from an absence or a lack of focus in class--it gives them extra time to take notes or review work at home. Many of them need more time than we have in class.

Educreation's work space is essentially a whiteboard where I can import a picture, draw, or type and record audio as I make notes on the screen. It is easy to use, intuitive. A fellow teacher showed me the app. He works as a DJ at a popular Cuban restaurant on the weekends and he showed me a video he made explaining the DJ's soundboard. Very cool.

I like it so far. It is not complicated to use and it allowed me to create, save and share (via Twitter) in under five minutes (even with the web filtering road-block I ran into during the process). Amazing!  

I ran into two snags, none the fault of the program. For some reason, my district server would not allow me to tweet directly from the app or iPad.  I kept getting an error message and being asked to re-log in. When I was denied tweetability, I found a work around quickly by logging on to my Educreations ' profile online on my laptop. I easily tweeted the link from my teacher computer to my classroom tweet stream. This had everything to do with the restructuring and outsourcing of our web filtering process and nothing to do with Educreations.

The only other issue I had was with my ability to multi-task. Sometimes it is difficult for me to think aloud, write, observe students and spell at the same time. As I was talking students through the word I mispelled meanness. I felt it (the misspelling) as I did it. It's tricky to juggle all of those processes at the same time, especially while navigating and using a new-to-you tool in front of a live teenage audience. Still, it became a good talking point to debrief the process.

Happy Wednesday!
Lee Ann

PS: Philanthropy was our word today because it is time for AWESOME! The Project for Awesome begins December 17th. Will you be ready? Get the scoop from the Vlogbrothers.

PSS: Need more awesome? Time Magazine put's John Green's The Fault in Our Stars at the top of the top ten fiction books of 2012!  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Slice of Life, a Tuesday post, is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers
Driving home from the junior varsity basketball game this evening my son, Collin, confessed. He got another "undone." An undone is what students get when they do not turn in an assignment on time. When a student doesn't have his work, the teacher fills out the undone form in triplicate. The white copy goes home for the parents to sign; the teacher keeps the yellow copy and the pink copy, well my son thinks it goes to the principal. The Violent Femmes came to mind as I was driving home: “I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record." It won't. I know that now, but I remember what it felt like to be forgetful.

I wish that Collin remembered every assignment every week and every day, but I'm a realist. People forget things. I forget things.  People forget things that are more important than a signature on a science fair form and more life-altering than a rough draft. Sometimes they even testify to such in a court of law. That does not mean that Collin should not learn to meet deadlines and develop work habits that will help him succeed in high school. He should. 

I get the undone thing. I might not agree with how it's graded and counted, but I appreciate the intent. 

As a parent another thing I appreciate about the undone is the way it gives Collin and opportunity to talk to me. He has to tell me. He either tells and I sign his form so that he can turn in the assignment that he left finished at home on the breakfast table(or in the printer) for a reduced grade or he goes to detention, something I might only learn about when the monthly bill came. Yes, I pay for him to attend a detention. He goes to a private school and parents  pay for detention time but that is another story. Collin always tells, so far anyway. 

It is difficult for him and I admire his bravery every time he faces it. I hated telling my father when I'd done something wrong at school. I hated telling my Mom too, but it was easier to tell her. Collin is on his ninth undone. That seems excessive to me. Does it seem excessive to you? He's in sixth grade. He has seven teachers. He has not gotten nine undones in every class, just nine total. He says he's perhaps in the middle of the undone pack in terms of the other kids in his grade. I'm just curious about undone norms I guess, though I shouldn't compare. We brainstormed solutions and settled on making a checklist for his mirror or the backdoor--something to remind him to think through his needs for the day.

 I appreciated the conversation today's undone engendered.  Collin asked about how teachers at my school handle late work. We often talk about what he's doing in middle school in terms of getting ready for high school. I appreciate that his middle school teachers work as a team. Frankly, sometimes I'm jealous of that unity. At my school teachers have their own undone or late work policies. Those policies range far and wide. Collin asked about what happens in high school when you don't have your work on time. I gave him a list of how some teachers I know handle late work. What happens if you turn in an assignment late at my high school?  

  • You get a zero. Some teachers do not accept late work at all [period]. 
  • You get a letter grade off.
  • You get 1/3 of a letter grade off for each day it is late.
  • You get 1/2 credit on the assignment.
  • You turn in the work without any points penalty.  
  • You can make up the assignment after school for full or partial credit. 
  • You have to make up the work but you do not get credit for it.
Those are just the policies I know. We have nearly two hundred teachers at my school. Departments do not have standard late work policies. Sometimes specialty programs like International Baccalaureate or AVID do, but they are not consistently followed by the entire team. Exceptions abound. 

I favor  Rick Wormeli's thinking when it comes to grades and late work. I don't want to demand adult-level competencies from children.  Learning is recursive; our current system is not. When I consider how to handle late work in my classroom, I think about knowledge and behavior. I ask myself if I'm grading what a student knows and is able to do or if  I'm grading a behavior. Then I think about how I can set the student up to learn the behaviors he needs to meet deadlines in the future. Behaviors are learned. I want to develop students' character.  What lesson will set students up to learn not to procrastinate or not to rush out without checking you have what you need? What lesson will help students recover their grade and learn how to meet the deadline the next time? Collin and I talked about those sorts of things during our drive home. 

If a student has more than a couple of undones, I would expect the teacher to talk to the student and the parents. Look into causes. If someone is not doing his work, there must be a problem. It might be a matter of forgetfulness. It might be that the student does not know how to manage his time or his resources as he gets ready for school. The student might be doing their work but not turning it in.  Is the student rushed in the morning or over extended after school with extracurricular activities?   Would a checklist or a planner help? Conversations matter. This kind of procedural learning takes time--we don't have twenty-two years, but we do have today and quite a few tomorrows still. . As Wormeli says, "We're in the world to look out for each other, not to play gotcha." 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Not So Dandy: Slice of Life

A friend who lives north of me called to talk about her son. My friend's son has been diagnosed with Dandy-Walker variance. His specific brain variance results in poor motor control, slower processing and some quirky behaviors. He does not have the actual syndrome--he does not haveobservable or drainable fluid in his brain. Though developmentally delayed, he saw physical, occupational and speech therapists as a toddler and young child. He entered elementary school as a regular student, mainstreamed K-4. He is  smaller than children his own age. He is differernt. Richard Allington once said during a keynote presentation that 100 years of educational research taught us just that: kids are different.

Image search results cropped.

When I started researching and looking at images of Dandy-Walker brains, I noticed difference. They don't look alike. The malformations have similarities but  the brains (as in real life) look differnt, differently formed or differently affected.

His elementary school recently told the Mom that he could not be in a regular class. The teachers couldn't give him enough support. The Mom was told that her son was distracting or pulling too many instructional resources from the rest of the students in the class. The school's solution was to put the child in a sheltered exceptional education classroom. The only problem there is that this particular child is high functioning (congnitively) in comparison to the other children in the sheltered room. He scored less than five points below a level three on the reading and math sections of our state assessment test as a forth grader. Level three is considered passing for fourth graders.

So what do you do about that?

What do you do as a parent? What recourse, aside from hiring an advocate, do parents have?
As a teacher-parent my defaults are: talk to the teacher, talk to the principal, and or  talk to a district representative. I've never had to go to a school board member or government representative. My friend has talked to the teachers and to the principal and even to the school board. She has been told that the diagnosis she recieved from Shands Neurosurgeons is not valid in the county and that the school board only recognizes assessments performed by school-based or district psychologists. She has been told that funding has been cut and that there are no resources to provide para-professionals for students like hers to be mainstreamed. She has been told that the teachers don't know what to do or how to support this child.

I am amazed by this. I know that one year I taught a boy who had a para-professional accompany him to each of his classes; one year I taught a girl who also was accompanied by a para-professional every day. Both were differently abled and I modified my instruction and the curriculum in order to meet their needs and help them grow as a person. One of the student's parent journaled with all of the high school teachers several times a week, sometimes daily. We wrote notes about the student's activities, progress and homework and had a place to share or address concerns in the journal. My friend said that teachers did not follow through with journaling for her son. I am astounded on several levels.

One, I'm a teacher. Like many of you, I am a passionate teacher who believes in doing right by the students in my class.  Penny Kittle says it better than I can. She echoes my heart when she says, " “I believe you’ve got to do what’s right, every single day of your life, even if the rest of the crowd isn’t. Teaching is about honor and goodness and mercy. You either live up to the calling of this profession or you don’t, and most likely no one will ever know but you.”  Before I had my own child and saw teaching through the eyes of a parent, I thought all teachers operated by those principles. Unfortunately they don't.

So what can a parent of an exceptional child do? What should they do? Do you have to become an activist or threaten legal action in order to secure an education for your child? Is it common for parents of such children to do that? This is beyond my realm of experience.

One solution we talked about is tutoring at home. Certainly, I've read plenty of teacher-parents' blogs who talk about providing rich educational enrichment for their children. I feed my own child books and encourage him to write and develop passions. But my son is not a Dandy-Walker child. My friend needs resources that fit or work for children with Dandy-Walker. Do you know of any?

This parent wants what any parent wants for her child. She wants him to be able to grow up and have a life, to be self-suficient, to be happy, to be thoughtful and  productive. She feels as if he has the ability, but she doesn't know how to get him there. She's at a stuck point with his school.  As she pulled in to pick her son up from school, we said our goodbyes. I haven't seen her in some time, but we've known each other more than half our lives now. She took a deep breath and tried to say goodbye. Her voice broke. I teared up. We were both trying not to cry.  Our voices were whispers. Parenting is hard. Sometimes scary.

When my son gets upset about some unfairness at school or on the basketball court I tell him it's okay to feel upset, but that feeling upset will not change things. Change follows action. Writing is one way I act to make changes in my classroom, in my thinking and in my world.

If you have ideas, we're listening and we would appreciate any helpful advice you can offer. Thank you for acting by sharing your thinking with us in comments.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book High
My son, Collin, and I  returned from NCTE and ALAN yesterday. We spent Wednesday in a nest of books and blankets, reading and resting. I can think of no better way to usher in the holidays.We brought home some great titles! I'm in the process of using Booksource's Classroom Organizer to scan (with my webcam) titles in order to add them to my classroom library. Donalyn Miller (a.k.a. The Book Whisperer) recommended Classroom Organizer on the back channel at ALAN, so I thought I'd give it a go. The teachers behind me were using Delicious Library on a Mac Laptop, but I wanted something that would cross platforms and devices. So far, it's intuitive and easy to use. We'll see how I fit it into our classroom reading routines and community.

1 of 4 suitcases
We hauled home some books. Our luggage (4 bags total) weighed in at 154 pounds. Collin and I each carried on 2 bags filled with books. I have to think we hauled at least 50 pounds each bringing our book haul  total to over 200 pounds of print. The loot is spread out on the dining room table, waiting to be scanned and carted off to school. In the meantime we're reading fiends.

Collin read The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney (the seventh book in the Diary of the Wimpy Kid series) while we were still in Las Vegas. He's since finished Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel, and Scott Westerfeld's  Levithan. Next up on his to-read list is Kill Order by James Dashner. On our way home I read My Friend Dahmer by Backderf, The Shadow Collector's Apprentic by Amy Gordon and Almost Home by Joan Bauer (on homelessness and hope). I loved the Backderf and Bauer's books, the other was over-done, the language seemed stilted or forced somehow.

Backderf's commentary on adult indifference strikes home. I see teenagers in my classrooms everyday that long for connection:  with parents, with teachers, with adults who care about them. How tragic that Dahmer--as horrible as his life of crime turned out-- never found that. How could the adults around him have ignored his drinking? Why didn't anyone stand up and say, "something is wrong" and find him some help?  Questions that haunted the author, I'm sure, after listening to his ALAN panel presentation. Well done, the book tells a tragic story--the art and the blackness that seeps into and around Dahmer adds layers to the telling.

Instead of gathering books for the Project for Awesome auction, this year Colllin attend at the behest of a middle-school teacher. Joan Kaywell introduced us to Mr. Pauling at FCTE. He and Collin worked out an ALAN deal, so the books Collin received as part of his registration were signed for his students and classroom library. We mailed them off with a letter yesterday. You can read Collin's letter to the class at his blog here.

Of the books we brough back (in what seems the biggest book heist of NCTE history), Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught is my favorite so far. I finished it yesterday before Collin woke up, so he didn't catch me clutching tissues and crying on the couch. It's about students in a special education program--they are the "alphabets" (ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, SCHIZO). When Sunshine, one of a trio of best friends goes missing, Jason must wade through the voices in his head to aid the FBI in their search. He suffers from Schizophrenia and divorce, his "colonel" Mom brings a lawyer to the search headquarters knowing Jason will be an easy target as law enforcement creates early "persons of interst" lists and demands DNA samples. Most of the novel captures the first (critical) 24 hours of Sunshines disappearance. Well crafted, Vaught hones language until it rings true to each character and "alphabet" she portrays. Move it to the top of your to-read pile, or set aside what you've already started and jump into this one. It made me grateful for my family, my son, recovery, and so much that I take for granted. It's a good reminder and a great read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


I am thinking about placemats this morning: not quilted placements from my kitchen table, not vinyl placements from the high chair, not paper placements from fast food tray liners, but Marzano's placement. A teacher placement that maps out our implementation route of Marzano's teacher evaluation model. This year my school is also piloting the growth plan, deliberate practice. Though our implementation has been clunky and sometimes frustrating, there is much good to both pieces: teacher reflection, professional conversation, administrative accountability are but a few. 
Our deliberate practice plans were due last Friday. To complete them, teachers had to self-assess across design question one. We had to use scales to rate our teaching and professional practice for each element across several design questions. As I self assessed using the scales (pictured below) I was torn between ratings. I could imagine several scenarios where I would rate myself at one end of the scale, the other or in the middle. Eventually, I started writing down evidence for several scale points meaning if I rated myself developing or applying the administrator could expect to see this happening in class and if I rated myself innovating then this would have (has) or might happen on any given day. I was torn between marker words on the scale. I ended up rating myself as applying. I learned a little late that I hadn't played the game well. 
 A teacher friend made the point that a master teacher such as herself should not rate below applying. She has the same years of experience as I do, advanced degrees, an adjunct position at a local college and she's a fierce reader and learner. She has a point. Her opinions aligned with the evidence I'd scrawled in comments on my self-assessment. I brought it up with my principal who pointed out a key issue I'd taken for granted: learning. 

Like my friend, I learn. I read professional books, journals, blogs. I connect to teachers online and in person. I go to conferences. I set learning goals each year and then adventure to make what I'm trying to learn part of my professional repertoire. My principal reminded me that not everyone is like that. Not all teachers read. Nor do all teachers attend conferences. I knew that. I've worked as an instructional coach, but I guess the reality of that type of teacher has not been part of my daily work life for some time. I learn. I read. I go. I do. Even if I have to pay for it myself (which is the case more years than not). It's one way I invest in my teaching life and in my students.

Many of my teacher friends are flying to Nevada today for the National Council of Teachers of English convention. I'm going! The theme for this year's conference is "dream, connect and ignite." Attending a national conference is a learning dream--part inspiration, part validation. I am going. I am going  to connect with colleagues and ignite my own passions for teaching and learning. How is it that some teachers do not take the time to read and learn? I'm going to grab my share of the joy of learning with and in such a rich community.

I'm preparing for NCTE's annual convention. I travel tomorrow. In anticipation, I'm using the convention app on my iPad to plan sessions to see. I'm reading teacher friends' blogs to see what sessions they might be presenting or bookmarking. Glenda Funk's discussion session is one I'd added to my schedule, so I enjoyed reading about it on her blog this morning. Like Katherine Sokolowski writes in yesterday's Slice of Life post, getting ready to leave the classroom is sometimes difficult. It's not my favorite thing, but I, too, delight in my students and love sharing books with them. This week former students stopped by my classroom and asked about "that conference where you get all the books." 

This is it and I'm going. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Watching the Vote

Hank Green: Don't Forget to Vote America Live Stream
Can you imagine being fined if you didn't vote? I learned that in Australia there is mandatory voting and if citizens don't vote they risk being fined. There is also universal healthcare. This picked up from young adult author, Justine Larbalestier's Twitter stream during the VlogBrothers "Don't Forget to Vote America" live stream. I am grateful for how much John and Hank Green teach and talk about issues of import.

I love learning online. I love learning from former students and from teachers in places far, far away . I can dip into the learning stream any time, at any place or from any device with an Internet connection. During the last election I stayed up and watched the elections returns until early in the morning. I geeked out: monitoring the returns on the New York Times Electoral Map and following the #election hashtag up (down? through?) the Twitter stream.

The last election connected me to Twitter. There was an amazing feeling of participating in something larger than my city or my state it was as if America was united or if not united exactly at least connected and talking to each other. Which is  more than I can say about some branches of our government.

Fellow East Coasters, I hope you voted. I hope you stayed in line if you were in line before the polls closed at seven. Citizens of the future (or past depending on your direction) those living in time zones to the west of me, happy voting. Take care. Be safe.Choose wisely.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Take Wing

A few weeks ago I wrote about the invasion of the Book Fairies at my high school. A group of English and reading teachers made wings together. Friend and colleague, Beth Scanlon, had her artist-husband figure out a wing prototype and we took off from there. Some teachers felt left out, so I offered to host another wing making party before Halloween.

Unfortunately no one came to the wing making session after school. Fortunately I still had fun. I made a second set of wings for a teacher friend and took pictures so that I could write out the how-to. Unfortunately, I have not mailed the wings to said teacher friend yet. Fortunately I am still within the express mail for Halloween delivery window.

Do you love that book Fortunately by Remy Charlip? It was a favorite at my house when my son was younger. Sometimes we fall back on the pattern to ease recess or school stress and lighten the mood. We can usually get to laughter in less than five minutes. But enough sideways story telling, let me share how I made these wings. I must preface my directions with a nod to Daryl Fefee, the artist-husband of Beth from Seeking Six who pro-typed a design that jump started my own thinking.

Wing Making Materials
a book cover (rip the guts out of the book, you can use the pages for "feathers"or other art projects)
double-sided tape
book pages (I used large sized pages to make longer "feathers.")
hot glue gun
cardboard or foam core
duct tape
ribbon (to use as straps)
decorative letters or stickers (for the cover if you so desire)


Gut a book. Doesn't that sound awful. Don't feel badly about it. Think of it as upcycling and making art. Rip all of the pages out of the book, so that all you have left is the cover.

Gather your materials and plug in the glue gun.

Cut wing forms out of the cardboard. For this set I cut out two triangles.
Roll book pages to make wings. I marked the top left corner with double sided tape and then rolled from the bottom right corner to form a cone. I used one piece of double sided tape to hold each. It was faster for me to roll a bundle of feathers and then attach them to the cardboard but you can also roll, then glue one at a time if you like.

 Lay the feather rolls out onto the cardboard form to see  how many you will need to cover both sides. These wings will have one feather layer on each side.
Begin gluing the wings to the cardboard. You can also use a long-reach stapler to staple them on (or the two-sided tape). Hot glue holds well, so I used that.
Glue feathers down and together.Leave an open space at the bottom of the wing. You will attach this part of the wing to the book cover. 
Glue feathers together. I added a small amount between feathers to add stability and strength.

Repeat. Attach feathers to the other side of the cardboard form.

 When finished set aside.

 Cover the book cover with duct tape. I used blue duct tape and then a clear and black packing tape for decoration.

Attach wings to the book cover. I put down some hot glue and then taped the wings to the inside of the book cover. 

 Poke four holes in the spine of the cover. Two at the top and two at the bottom (about an inch or two in).
Thread a ribbon through the holes to make straps.

 Try on! Adjust the straps and tighten by tying the ribbon. Your ribbon can be any length--and nearly any type. Wired ribbon makes a nice tail. Gross grain is sturdy (and featured here).

Decorate the book cover if desired. I left this one blank so that my friend could add her own decorations. On my wings I used sparkly stick-on letters to write book fairy on the spine and positive reader messages on the cover flaps.
Fold wings for storage or shipping. You can make wings of any size. My original pair were much larger.Every book fairy's wings are unique.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Slice and Dice

I missed my slice of life post last week. I don't know what got in the way: soccer practice, poetry club, paper grading, exercise, grocery shopping, dog training, house cleaning, laundry. It could have been any one of those. I want to write more than once a week, but I need to build it into my daily routines.

Still. I love thinking about what I'd like to write about on Tuesdays. Today I couldn't quite decide, so I thought I'd imitate my favorite YouTubers (Vlogbrothers, of course) . I don't have 27 parts like Hank Green had  last November, but I thought I'd share a few. Call it slice and dice, if you will.

#1 What did I love about today? Students trying my kale chips. Since I've been eating differently I snack between classes. Students are often curious about what I'm eating on the porch as they come into class. Yes, my classroom, a double wide trailer, or portable, if you will, has a porch--really it's just three concrete steps up to a small platform, but I call it a porch. Today I was snacking on kale chips and my ninth graders (many of them) said "Is that marajuana?!" As if. Really? Of course I set them straight and then offered them a taste. If only I could have captured all of their faces on camera. Ninth graders tasting kale chips  brought me back to my son eating green peas as an infant. Their scrunched up expressions at the bitter and the salty, awesome to behold. I'd say the kale had about a 50% appeal rate in the final poll. Some students even asked detailed questions about the recipe. Impressed me.

#2 What's one thing that went well in the last week? Substitute plans. Last week I was out for two days to facilitate a new lesson study group at my school. My school runs several lesson study groups (math, science, English, AP, reading, etc). We're in our fourth year of lesson student. We use materials from the Developmental Studies Center.  I love the process. I believe in it. Like National Boards, it focuses teachers on students as learners. Preparing for a substitute, however, I do not love. It's tricky. It's time consuming. This year I made sure to prep the students and talk about having a substitute prior to my absence. Once I returned we wrote about substitute. I asked students to list their top ten reasons for loving or hating having substitutes. Once students wrote, they shared in their table groups; then shared out two with the class. I compiled the comments from the class and it was a good discussion started. Here are the comments from my third period:

We like young substitutes. We hate when subs give us work we are not supposed to do (like crossword puzzles). We love when subs tell us stories about places they’ve been. We hate it when they take their jobs so seriously. We dislike subs that give us work that doesn’t even count. We like subs because they are push overs. We hate when we give substitutes our work and then the next day the teacher asks for it and the sub lost it. We like it when subs are creative and they draw. We love it when subs are cool and understand us. We hate it when substitutes think they are the boss of everything—when they teach the class as if it is theirs. One thing we love is how substitutes are calm and don’t test us. Something we hate is when substitutes do not know how to control a classroom. We like it when substitutes are funny (humorous). We like it when they know how to have fun with the class.

Still had the eyebrows for this trip.
Crossing the divide with a group of women who'd been girl scouts together. 
#3 What have a I mastered, lately?  Many people know I once wrangled llamas at a ranch in Colorado. The ranch is for sale now. I wish  I could buy it and turn it into a teaching and learning retreat camp. While at the ranch, I was charged with cooking a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for guests on a walking tour from Great Britain--they'd walked the Continental Divide and wanted a traditional meal when they returned from the trail. At that age, twenty-six, I'd never cooked a turkey in a gas oven. I'd never cooked a turkey without girl friend support or Mom on the phone for that matter.

Picture this: turn on the gas, hear the hiss, click the lighter. Click. Click. Click. Nothing happened. I sent the ranch owner's niece to get a long match from the lodge's fire place. I scraped the match on the wall, held the flame under the burner in the oven and. Well, you can imagine the fireball. Whoosh. Hot flames flew out of that gas oven into my face. I must have jumped back. I can only remember brushing the pencil shavings off of my shirt. Pencil shavings? I thought. The ranch owner's niece laughed and laughed once she saw I was fine. She pointed and laughed. I'd burned off all of my facial hair: eyebrows, eye lashes, cheek fuzz, everything. When I tell this story to my students they are mortified for me. Couldn't you draw them [eyebrows] on  they ask? There was no make-up at the ranch. There were no eyebrow pencils or permanent markers or any of that sort of stuff. I had to be hairless--it took a good month to grow back.
I have since mastered the gas grill--I only occasionally crisp the chicken too much, but I've never had the fireball in the face that I had at the ranch. That may be a good thing, but at this age, burning off a little facial hair ? I'm thinking that's no problem.

There you have it a few slices from my day today.

NCTE is a mere 37 days away! Hope I get to see you there!

Enjoy October!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Slice of Life: Inclusive or Exclusive?

Book Fairies on Campus, Magic
I dress up everyday for spirit week. I love costumes. Any excuse I can find to wear a wig and glitter to work, I take. I should add that to my owner's manual. My principal sent out her owner's manual the first week of school. She'd gotten the idea from a friend, thought it a good one and shared. She gave me permission to share it with you. Here are a few excerpts:

Owner’s Manual

Rationale:  A friend told me about a great article in the Wall Street Journal about a hospital administrator in Massachusetts who wrote an “Owner’s Manual” so his new staff would know how to deal with him as he moved to a new position.  So, I put this together to give you an idea of what I am like.
  1. I am a sucker for enthusiastic, passionate, focused teachers who come to me with a need and a plan to help kids.  I try to find the money for worthy projects.
  2. You can change my mind.  If your way is better, I’m all for it. If you can’t change my mind, I’ll tell you why. 
  3. I’m tied to results- happy, successful students and teachers.  It’s my bottom line.
  4. Being positive and kind is the highest priority – results won’t happen any other way: People first.
  5. Some things are not negotiable.  For example:  district and state mandates must be adhered.  I may agree with your opinion that an action or decision is not necessary or right but sometimes we just have to be good soldiers and do as we are told.
  6. I prefer a work environment that is organized, clean, comfortable, and professional and gives all who enter positive “vibes”. 
When I reflect on  spirit week and the concerns raised by teachers, I can't help but reflect on my principal's owner's manual. Item seventeen on her list reads, "I am exactly as I appear. I don’t have time for hidden agendas. I will assume you don’t either." I am as I appear. I do not have an agenda at work beyond enjoy the students and support their growth as readers and writers, .

Several teachers eat lunch in my classroom. It's an open door lunch. If you want to come eat, you're welcome. Friends supply silverware; I often do the dishes and I always make space in the fridge for you. There is one rule: during lunch we do not talk about anyone who is not in the room. I brook no gossip. Some teachers embrace that, others reject it. It is what it is. Being honest or plain spoken makes my life better.

Spirit week planning often happens in the rush of lunch. At a friend's invitation, we had a crowd of Book Fairies and Super Teachers this year. The crowd bothered others in our English department. Some claimed  it was okay when it was just a few of us, but the crowd had grown. Why wasn't everyone informed? I offered a solution and am holding a Book Fairy making session after school one day--just in time for Halloween (don't worry I'll post pictures and directions if you'd like to make your own). It's a solution we came to together. We'll see what happens or who takes me up on the invitation.

How do you include others? Can we be unintentionally exclusive? Do some people participate all of the time and others just when it is convenient? What does relationship mean in the work place? With whom do you have relationships at school? How do those relationships inform your work?

I've been thinking about these issues quite a bit this week as a couple members of our English department approached me and said they felt left out of the spirit week costuming plans.Inclusive or exclusive, cliquish or welcoming, these are important issues in an English department, in a work place. I don't believe the teachers I eat lunch with ever intentionally exclude folks. We  talk to the people with whom we've built relationships. Building relationships is a two-way street.

Has someone sought you out by email or in person? Did you welcome them? Respond to their inquiry? Connect? Do you reach out to people? Do you spend time with other teachers at school to get to know them or build community? Is your time "me-focused" or "student-focused" only?

I don't have my whole owner's manual worked out yet, but I do have a few things that are non-negotiables in my world. Here are a few items from my rough draft:
  1. I don't talk about people behind their backs. If I need to have a hard conversation with you, I will. If I need to process something that happened between us before I come to you, I'll leave names aside as I work through it with my mentor, coach or husband. I don't triangulate
  2. I look for the good and try not to complain. Negativity is a virus; it's contagious (look at the research on mirror neurons). A friend once said I exude "rainbows and sunshine." I do. I enjoy being happy and celebrating the good in the world. Students, young people learning,  are a huge part of that good, but so are passionate, caring teachers. 
  3. If I say I'm going to do something I will. I will write it down. I will be there or deliver what I've promised. There is no need to ask me "if it's okay?" or "are you sure?" Once I've committed, I'm in. Constant rechecking or checking-in makes me wonder if you are unsure or not capable of completing your end of the matter. 
  4. I will always look for a solution. If you have a problem with a deadline, with a policy, with something I have said, talk to me. Solutions are always possible. 
  5. "Hurt people hurt people." I do not like or believe in sarcasm. I always try to speak directly, to say what I mean and mean what I say. If my message or intent is unclear, tell me.

I don't want the English department to be  cliquish or exclusive, but I also don't want individual teachers to deflect responsibility. Blaming others is easy--building relationships? Much tougher.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Slice of Life Tuesday: Taking Wing

My friend Beth from Seeking Six (and real life and school) found an amazing costume idea on Pinterest: book fairies. Beth's husband is an artist he devised a way for us to make our wings more feather like. I'm finishing up my Book Fairy wings this evening. I'll work on a wand tomorrow.

It's homecoming week at my high school. That means costumes each day of the week: pajama day, alter ego day (I was a Nerdfighter/artist), twin day, out of this world day and spirit day. Eight of us English and reading teachers are becoming book fairies. We will be out of this world on Thursday.

We are Book Fairies. We lure students to story. We hand off books to friends, our dental hygienists, teachers, administrators and even our in-laws. Like Penny Kittle, we have a serious case of Book Love.

Here's a sneak peak at the wings in progress. Imagine card board covered in dictionary pages and attached to  empty book cover; straps run through the spine.

I will have to turn sideways to walk through the classroom door. I seem to have a nearly six-foot wing span. When ideas take flight, watch out.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Annotation A to Z

Christopher's N for notes.
A.P. Language and Composition is like landing on Mars. Argument, rhetoric, fallacy, device, craft, analysis, so many of the concepts I will teach seem foreign and red rock-ish to students when they begin the year. I like to start the year on familiar ground: students' experiences as readers and writers. All of the texts we start with point us in that direction.

Students read On Writing by Stephen King for summer reading as well as a memoir. In class we're connecting King's ideas to other writers who write their reading or writing lives. Eventually we'll write our own memoir pieces about ourselves as readers or writers. We're still in the thick of it: only a few texts into the set, a pages into the book or a few bars into what will become the score of our year.

We begin with Mortimer Adler's essay "How to Mark a Book."  I ask students to read and annotate the text. I don't give them annotation directions; I want to see what they bring to the course. We talk about how we annotate. I give them a tour of a text I've annotated and show them how marks and codes spill over into notes in my journal. Then we create a class response to the article.

Esteban's clever approach to Z (for zeal). 
This time,  I had students create an Annotation: A to Z "book."   Each student took a letter. While I can see a need for fine tuning criteria, I was pleased at the conversations I heard around the room and the results students produced (in just 12-15 minutes of class time). A is for annotating, agreeing, arguments, acquainting yourself... you get the idea.

I plastered the pages to a pillar in my classroom. I am sure we will visit the "pillar of annotation" often this year; it's going to be a physical reminder of the hard work we do as readers. I photographed the pages students created and put together a quick slide show to use in class as review and play while students reflected on their annotation styles. I don't care for how the video came out (the movement, the cropped images, etc.). I did it quickly because I couldn't download Photo Story to my refurbished computer at school and the show would be longer than the 30 seconds Animoto allows (I haven't renewed my educator pact with them yet). That aside, the video is not a polished product, but it served it's purpose as a reminder and review.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Slice of Life Tuesday: Time Flies

If only time were infinite.

This afternoon a friend And I were talking anout a meeting she attended for our district. At some point at her meeting "the powers that be" were talking about teacher planning time--in terms of hours. As if teachers, high school teachers like me, had hours to plan together. What are the misconceptions out
there about teachers' time?

While I did get the gift of time this morning (due to mandated testing), I didn't get as much done as I would have. Time
flies. Here's a snapshot of my day. 6:40 a.m. Arrive at school. Brew a pot of coffee. Open email. Print testing tickets for freshmen. Respond to parent emails. Put lunch in fridge. 7:05 a.m. Talk with neighbor teacher about shared prep. Make door sign. Pack bag with anecdotal notebook to organize while students do progress monitoring test in computer lab. 7:20 a.m. Stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance 7:21 a.m. take students to computer lab for benchmark reading test 7:25-11:48 a.m. periods 1-5 testing in the lab. Troubleshoot log in problems and testing software glitches. Organize survey data and initial assessments (alphabetize, assess, sort, note needs). 12:05 -12:25 p.m. Lunch back in classroom with teacher neighbors. 12:30 p.m. Greet sixth period and aprise of schedule changes. Send 10 students to new section of A.P. Language. Work on annotation A to Z and Adler's "How to Mark a Book" with remaining students. 1:18 p.m. Walk to front office (1/4 mile) to sign in, make copies and check mail box. Take advantage of the water cooler. 1:30 p.m. Photograph student work (Annotation A to Z) for Wednesday review (and future blog post). 1:45 p.m. Answer email. Answer telephone. Troubleshoot with colleague . Open lesson planning documents. 2:15 p.m. Talk with neighbor teacher who stops in to discuss particular class. 2:55 p.m. Begin typing lesson plans for the week. 3:00 p.m. Take phone call drom Reading Coach to debrief benchmark testing in computer lab. 3:20 p.m. Hang student work for Wedmesday review. Begin creating handouts for upcoming projects (Burke's Weekly Reader, Independent Study Projects). 3:45 p.m. Continue adding to lesson plans. 4:05 p.m. Realizes will arrive late to son's first soccer game. 4:07 p.m. - 4: 40 p.m. Speeds 35 miles across town to son's soccer game. Visits with parents. Cheers. Claps. 5:50 p.m. Congratulates soccer players. Installs son in car. Drives 25 miles home. 6:40 p.m. Arrives home. Prepares thick-cut pork chops and sweet potato home fries. Tosses salad. Spreads A.P. Language summer reading assignments across counter. Sits to slice next to son doing homeowrk. Sets dinner timer.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Talking Teachers

Today I'm talking about teachers with my students. I need to know their expectations of me and their attitudes about teachers in general. We don't name names. I ask students which teacher behaviors they love and hate. Then we watch a "Teacher Pet Peeves" video a about teachers. The video was created by Bryan Baquiran, extraordinary student poet and soon to be Florida Gator.

The video brings us to Lisa Delpit's "Wanted One Teacher" (from Cushman's Fires in the Bathroom). We talk about what students want from teachers and from me in our English class. Then I review semicolons and we look at Delpit's sentence and write our own want ads imitating Delpit's style.

The lesson allows me to get to know my students and allows students to be heard. I'm having a great day.
Here's what my ninth graders have said they love and hate about teachers' behaviors so far:

We love it when teachers….
We hate it when teachers…
joke around (sometimes).
are joyful and animated.
teach interactively.
use visuals, not just lecture.
are nice.
have a positive attitude.
treat you like  “mad cool goon”.
tell stories.
are friendly.
are not too quiet.
don’t yell at you for everything.
have systems in place.
show us what to do, not assume we already know.
teach in a fun way.
know when to be serious.
are spontaneous.
are understanding.
speak monotone.3
give too much homework (more than 30 min per subject).
switch topics even if many in the class do not understand.
yell at us.
are rude.
do not teach (but just assign work).
talk too much.
ignore us. 4
are boring.
are sarcastic.
call us out.
are biased or play favorites.
lecture too much.
read from books we can read on our own.
abuse their authority.