Monday, December 30, 2013

Reading like Hobbits: It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Shelia at Book Journeys. Jen Vincent at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee Moye at Unleashing Readers give the meme a kidlit spin. 
Open your Amazon wish list or your "to be read" list in GoodReads as you visit participating blogs from the links above. You're sure to find  great titles to keep you reading well into the New Year.

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I love to read.When my son and I saw The Hobbit, the perfect reading retreat, Bilbo Baggins' round and cozy house came to life--somehow it seemed to me, Hobbit's must love to hole up and read. I sure do.  I love to sink into stories and take long walks with words. Winter vacation gives me swaths of time to do just that. What a blessing these few quiet days have been. Fortunately, we had plenty of leftovers to see us through our post-Christmas reading binge. No cooking and minimal dish washing was required. I read eleven books. This post will have to come to you in parts. I find I can't do justice to eleven stories in one fell swoop, nor would you likely want to hang on and read that long either. So in no particular order, comes part one: 

Tissues, you'll need a fresh box handy when you sit down to read Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. Will Traynor, financial-genius, former risk-taker, now lives at home with his parents and care-givers. Paralyzed after an accident and depressed he wishes for a dignified death of his choosing. His family hires spunky, former waitress, Lou, and of course, love slowly grows. I loved Lou's sense of humor in the face of Will's anger and depression. I love how she picked herself up to get the job done and worked her way through even the darkest of days. Though I predicted the ending, and found class and gender distinctions a bit stereotypical, I cried my way through it. I loved the story. Thanks for recommending it, Beth.

"You only get one life. It's actually your duty to live it as fully as possible (194)."

Reena's life is definitely full; full of dreams and family and responsibility. Imagine being sixteen, pregnant, and abandoned. Though Reena Montero's family sticks by her, the boy she loves, Sawyer LaGrande, does not. He returns after a two year absence and finds Reena raising their daughter. What would you do if he came back to you?

I marked several spots in Cotugno's How to Love that I want to read aloud in or use for journaling in class--there is a lot to which students will connect. Reena dreams of being a travel writer and as a new mother she's weaned herself away from magazines and travel websites, but she admits, 

"I've still got a weakness for the blogs. I can waste whole nights clicking through: staring at the bright, hypersaturated images captured by women passing through San Diego or spending a year in Jakarta, reading stories about the food they've been eating and the people they've met along the way. It's torturing myself. I don't know why I go out of my way to do it.

So far, I haven't been able to make myself quit (222) ."  There are times in life when we torture ourselves or waste time with wanting, instead of filling time with being and accepting or doing--just this bit could be a perfect fresh start read aloud when we go back to school. I liked how that moment of Reena's captured feelings we all share. I also loved how these characters often said, "Tell me something good (231)." I wonder what my students would say if I asked them to do that.

Love is on the menu at the mental health center in Cook and Halpin's A Really Awesome Mess too, but it's the love that develops in families and between friends and helpers and in times of trouble. Thrown together in group therapy, these teens find ways to cope. On a field trip to a local fair the teens each pledge to face a fear or peel back a layer. Diana comes to this epiphany: 
      "'Yeah that's totally badass. Not killing yourslef even when you think you want to. Takes a lot more balls to stay alive, don't you think?'
     We all smiled because it was the truth: Living did take a lot more guts than giving up (152)."

Josh finds himself in a mess his senior year too. Jo Knowles' Living with Jackie Chan will remind you Jumping Off Swings; finally we get to find out what happened to Josh after the girl he got pregnant gave their child up for adoption. I know I won't be the only one to fall in love with Josh's Uncle, Larry. He's made of rainbows and as persistent as light. 
This scene between Josh and Stella, a neighbor and new friend, captures just a little bit of Larry's influence: 
"'You should get this for Larry!" She holds up an Einstein bobblehead. Its head shakes all over the place. 'I'm so smart. Yes I am, yes I am, yes I am,' she says as fast as his head nods.
I laugh.
'Oh, my God!' she yells.
A bunch of people look over at us.
'You just laughed!'
I stop smiling. 'And?'
'I don't think I've ever heard you laugh. I must have magical powers.'
I know this can't be true. I mean the laughing part. 'Funny,' I say.
She elbows me. 'Sorry I'm just not used to  seeing you look, you know, happy.'
'Way to harsh my mellow,' I say. Because honestly? She really did. Who wants to hear how depressing they are?
'Harsh your mellow? Wow. Larry is really rubbing off on you...You should laugh more's good for you.'
'Now who sounds like Larry?'

Living with Jackie Chan reminds me  what is right in families and between people. In times of crisis, we come together. We support each other. We see the ones we love through.

 In McGovern's Say What You Will, Amy is a senior who wants to finally make friends. Trapped in a body she cannot control, she convinces her parents to hire "peer helpers" instead of the para-professionals and therapists she's had all her prior years in school. Her favorite peer assistant is Matthew, a boy struggling with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. McGovern's voice reminded me of Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor and Park, but softer. The discoveries Amy and Matthew make, the truths they unearth about themselves and others deepen their hope for love and the future.  


Two titles with magic and a bit of mystery that I enjoyed are Unthinkable by Nancy Werlin and Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick. Many of my girls like a good Cinderella story and Werlin and Rudnick's tales will appeal to those readers. 

Werlin's is the sequel to Impossible. It's been a long time since I read Impossible, so at first, I wished I'd brought it home from school to reread. Fortunately, Unthinkable didn't require it. The story spins the faerie curse from a new angle and the connections Werlin makes between Fenella's current plan to end the her life-curse and the past escape from the curse of the Mud Creature were just right. 

Gorgeous is for fans of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady or Royal families. Doesn't every teenage girl question her beauty and identity? I can see my girls delighting in the ride Becky Randle takes from trailer park to top of the world. Becky shows us that life may be tenuous, but love lasts. There are several laugh out loud moments in the lives of these quirky characters, but I found myself adoring Becky's commentary about English hats after a date at the races (with the Prince no less): 

"Rocher had told me that Ladies' Day was all about the hats and here they were; there was a whole other party going on atop every woman's head. There was a hat the size and shape of a spare truck tire slathered in peppermint strips, there was a stack of eight graduated gift boxes, each in lime green, the shades growing more intense until the tiny uppermost gift box sprouted a silk-and-wire palm tree. There was as safety-cone-orange derby with a cobalt-and-mocha checkerboard brim, anchoring a spray of peacock feathers. There were bows as wide and stiff as skateboards, and Himalayas of smushed taffeta, and an oval, sloping gingham platter supporting a wicker cornucopia spilling a full-sized velvet pineapple, some hand-carved wooden apples, clusters of hand-blown glass grapes and a few green sequined zucchinis. 
I'd been pounded and bruised by the English press but these hats were an England  I could love. (155-56)."
Becky Randle developed the kind the kind of pluck and confidence that I want my girls to have. She overcame feeling invisible, learned that looks are much less important than love and found a way through heartbreak and loss. Werlin's Unthinkable seemed darker, the character of Fenella more desperate. I enjoyed both books, but I laughed more with Becky in Gorgeous.

I'll lead with the last four next week. How's that?
I have four more titles to go from our Hobbit read-a-thon, but the cozy chair is calling and I'd rather read right now than keep writing, so you'll have to tune back in next week for part two.

 I like reading books much more than I like writing about them. It takes a special kind of self-discipline to keep count of or write up what I read--sort of like counting calories.  I don't do it all the time. If I had to write about or track every book I read, I'd likely quit reading. No, I wouldn't, but it sure would slow down the fun. Who wants that? I'll save the rest for next week and see how many I can devour between now and then. I still have stacks from NCTE and ALAN: book treasure piles await!

Happy Reading and a Happy New Year to You!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Be Strong Students Need You

Visit Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life!
                       Find a second helping by searching #slice2013 on Twitter! 

Thanks to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Elisabeth for all the work you're doing! It was a delight meeting so many slicers for breakfast Saturday --definitely an NCTE highlight!

It is the last day of the ALAN Workshop, an amazing two days after NCTE that is filled with authors and books and book lovers. Here is where I sat to listen. See my jourmal and colored pencils?

This entire conference has been a blessing and a merry Christmas, but ALAN. Ending the conference week with ALAN  with my son, Collin, priceless memory making. Today's slice of life is a short list of quotes from authors presenting at at ALAN that are speaking to my heart right now.

"The me that's me right now,  loves you."-@rainbowrowell, Eleanor and Park, Fangirl

"Never let a child walk away thinking he is the wrong age for a book." -Walter Mayes @waltergiant

"We have to be aware and we have to acknowledge the suffering that's gone on in the past,"
says Ken Setterington speaking about Branded by the Pink Triangle. "The information is true and the stories matter."

"Make my day. Give it your best shot because I glow in the dark. HOPE is a game changer!"
-Joan Bauer, Hope Was Here

"Nature is the stuff that we are." -Cal Armistead, Being Henry David

"Good books build strong resilient souls, open heart hearts, save lives and change generations." 
-Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

"This is my life--whatever it is--I will embrace it! When you are young you don't know that as short as life is, it is yet long. You can have another life that you choose where you can have love." -Nancy Werlin, Unthinkable 

"I'm a writer because I NEED to be a writer. It's like air. I breathe writing." -Benjamin Saenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

BRAVE  the WORLD.     TAKE EVERY CHANCE.     DROP EVERY FEAR.     -Laurie Halse Anderson

Friday, November 22, 2013

Teach with and to the Times

I am sitting in an awesome session by Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone) and The Learning Network editor, Katherine Schulten titled "Ripped from the Headlines." The room is packed. We're nearing the end of our time together. It's been a drive across times and topics touring the paper and how to put it to use in our classrooms. The herd has started to get restless.  At the culminating turn and talk task we are looking at the paper and making connections to what we teach. Four ladies to my left rustle about, get up and walk out. I hear the herd behind me shifting and packing. I want to still them--the wrangler in me sees their movement too early as (mis)behavior that could  endanger the herd.  I want to turn and talk about the paper and what we teach! Two ladies to my right indulge my desire to complete the task and talk, briefly. With a nod they angle themselves away from me and talk to each other about something else. It's nearing the end of the conference day. Brains full. Backs stiff.

I turn back to the paper and lose myself in the headlines, words and images. How could they--these particular two pages-- connect to what I'm teaching right now? I get excited about the 14-year-old gypsy bride and start thinking about child brides and Juliet and what the image says about youth, love and power.

Then I flip to the back of my page to find the "Inside the Times" piece and realize I could use this in a variety of ways. As a teacher, I could use this feature to preview, plan and connect to curriculum. Scanning this list I see "A Diet Fit for a President" (page A16) which I'm going to pull to add to our Are You What You Eat? unit in January; "Putting Robots to Work" would dance well with the Kapek's Rossum's Universal Robots

So many ways I could use and systematize how I use the New York Times in my classroom. I'm thinking about habits. How to cultivate and maintain my own curricular habits and how to build nonfiction reading habits in the teens I serve. 

Now to dig deeper into the paper's features--features  I did not even know about! I've got my eye on the Tupac Topic Page  Katherine demonstrated on the spot in response to a participant's inquiry. Oh the graceful timing delights me. Our school-wide, lunch time book club (Chat and Chew) will read and discuss Tupac's The Rose that Grew from Concrete in April. The Times Topic page will be a good starting place and resource share for teachers.   I'm singing inside--so glad I didn't rush back to the barn! What a perfect session this has been for me.  Energize, refreshed, excited--don't you love NCTE? Now to get lost in the idea world for a bit. Time to head down the rabbit hole!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Making a List and Checking It Twice

Visit Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life!
                       Find a second helping by searching #slice2013 on Twitter! 
Thanks to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Elisabeth for all the work you're doing!

I leave for NCTE in less than 48 hours. I got to school early this morning to get plans written out for the substitute and files uploaded for students. A few students join me early and we visit over breakfast.

"Are you nervous about your trip?" Nidhi asks me this morning.
"No, not nervous, but it feels like I have  2, 317 things to do before I get on that airplane Thursday morning," I replied as I set up teaching station early this morning.
"Make a list. That always helps," she advised.
"I do. I have several lists going right now," I admit.
"Make one list. One long list will tell you all that you to do without worrying."

Wise teenager that Nidhi is.

My one list is in the works.   With so much to do it's easy for my Rider to let the Elephant take the lead. In class, we're hip deep in This I Believe projects this week. Students should finish their recording and share finished drafts by the end of the day tomorrow. Then I need to publish the pieces to the wiki site, so that students and their families can listen to their youth's voice during our Thanksgiving  break. I love this project, but this week I'm questioning my timing. The room is a hive of activity.

After school, I promised youth poets virtual open mic time. We connected with Cindy Minnich and Sara Holbrook today. Cindy is working on a piece in response to Secretary Arne Duncan. Duncan, as her poem notes, sees deficits. She sees potential. So do I. Students have a vacation week next week, so attendance at Poetry Club was lighter than usual. Still, there is promise in poetry, theirs and ours.

Brianna shares her poem and gets encouragement from
Sara and Cindy. 

That promise was a good reminder to me as I looked back on today. Our wireless went up and down and our desktops crashed and rebooted. Sometimes learning is messy and we have work around the glitches. There is so much potential in students. So much that recording, publishing, sharing and connecting around student work offers me as a teacher and learner. Remembering that helps me problem solve when the technology seas get rough.

At home, we're getting ready to pack. We're searching for warm clothes. My son told me this morning that he has a hoodie to wear as a jacket. I nearly shot coffee out of my nose. What?  I thought I had him covered with new pants that covered his ankles. No winter coat that fits? My heart sped up at the thought. It may be eighty-five here but it's in the thirties in Boston! He doesn't take off until Sunday, so he and his Dad can organize a winter coat. By the time he arrives for his visit to winter, and writers, and ALAN, and family, he'll be set.

There is time enough for everything.

I am over the moon at the thought of seeing friends and learning from colleagues. I can't wait for the conversations, the ideas--the buzz and hum of books shared.  It is going to be a fantastic conference.

Hope to see you in Boston!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Take a Turn at the Mic

Visit Two Writing Teachers for the Tuesday Slice of Life!
                       Find a second helping by searching #slice2013 on Twitter! 
Thanks to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Elisabeth for all the work you're doing!

Today students in Poetry Club talked about last month's virtual open mic. They are busy preparing for another one next week, so were practiced pieces during today's weekly meeting and talked about how to slow down and speak up. As Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger say, we worked our P.I.P.E.S. (projection, inflection, pacing, and eye-contact).

We also worked the schedule. We talked about contacting poets to join us.  Last month Kwame Alexander said yes, but a scheduling conflict derailed him, so he didn't get to hangout. Students also want to connect with local poets, some who go to schools who compete in our spring slam. Creating those connections takes time and relationship,  but I am encouraged that students want to, ask to and are looking to connect outside of school. We have a lot on our poetry wish list and a lot to practice before slam season.  But you know what ? It's worth it. I could power a small city with the electricity students generate when they stand up and perform their own work. It is energizing, emotional, and powerful writing work they do.

Last month we used Skype and Google Hangout simultaneously to connect because one of the participating groups could only use Skype. There was a little fumbling on my end trying to set up laptops--one of which crashed before it booted, but we had back up devices waiting just in case. We ended up Skyping with youth poets from a military academy in St. Petersburg, Florida on an iPad and "hanging out" with Cindy Minnich and her youth poets from Pennsylvania from a laptop station. We made it work, no excuses or apologies. My student poets cared less about the technology. They wanted to hear other students perform and they wanted to perform too. Poetry craves audience. 

As with most learning, things start out messy. We were figuring out how to "pass the microphone" how to shift screens (Skype to Hangout, to Skype), how to maintain the wifi and really tune it to listen as poets from elsewhere took the mic. Then there I was accidently broadcasting live minute after minute of precious on-air time of me on camera fiddling with settings to connect or reconnect. Nerdfighters would certainly punish me for that one.
Next week there will be much less of me and more poetry!
A friend who watch the video as aired encouraged me. She said  it's amazing to see a teacher learning, doing--right there, live--she could see the  edge of the curve as I skated it --she was being nice, but I am learning and I ams all in, committed to giving the youth poets air time and an audience. They loved it, they didn't mind that we had a bit of set up. They didn't mind that I broadcast the raw footage. Even they know that the process will get smoother with practice; I do too, but I'm glad they see me learning in front of them. I glad they see that reaching out takes all kinds of work. 

Junior, Cherry is experimenting with spoken word and song--she has an amazing voice.

Poetry Club decided to make the virtual open mic a monthly event. We need inspiration and we need practice. Audiences give us both, virtual or in person. We're aiming for third Tuesdays from 2:30 -3:30 p.m. (EST). I would love for you to join us.

Next week will be open mic session number two.  I am hoping that you know someone who might know someone who might know a teenager who writes poetry and would be inspired by or needs  an audience. It is as easy as answering a "call" on your computer or device. If you are unsure about the technology, I'd be happy to do a trial call and we could talk through it.

We need poetry and the community that forms around it when we have the courage to stand up and speak.  We learn so much when we share our work with others. Last month, we talked about being off of the page--memorizing our pieces-- so that we could make virtual eye contact. We talked about presence on camera and how it is different from having or feeling a poet's presence on stage. We talked about pacing and pitch and projecting--all lessons these youth poets need to get ready for our the spring Poetry Slam stage. Won't you join us? We want to listen to your poetry. We want to hear what you have to share. 
Senior, Juan was the first to take the mic from our team last month.
If you are a poet or poetry coach or a poetry club sponsor or a teacher with a group of poetry-minded students that would like to share the microphone next Tuesday, reach out in the comments or email me at spillarke[at]gmail[dot]com. You could also add your information to this spreadsheet; dates are tabbed across the bottom if you'd like to plan ahead. I'll use your email to send you details and to invite you to the hangout on Tuesday. 

Hope to "see" you next week!
Lee Ann


Holbrook, Sara and Michael Salinger. Outspoken: How to Improve Writing and Speaking Skills Through Poetry Performance. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2006.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Acknowledge Others

Hard to believe it's been almost a year since Reading Amplified went live online as one of Stenhouse's first Read and Watch books. It's been more than a year since I began writing it and creating the videos that are included in it. Though I'm not sold on the web-only format, I learned so much writing this book.

As I sat down to write recently, I thought about how we never quite know who will join us on our writing  journey. I am sure my next writing adventure will connect me to people I haven't even met yet.

I could not have written Reading Amplified without colleagues, friends and family. Writing humbles me. Sometimes it scares me. I thought I'd post the acknowledgments from the book just as a public thank you on this first anniversary and as a way to spur myself back to the business of writing.

Thanks all!

"Acknowledgments" from Reading Amplified

Writing informs my teaching. It makes the work I do in class matter even more because it is a public act, shared. Writing exposes. It clarifies. Writing refines. Writing connects. Writing a book is a collaborative effort. God brought just the right people into my life to inspire, support, push and encourage me.

Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger shared the idea of a tutorial-rich, multi-media book and spurred me to write it. Thank you for that and for swinging by portable twenty-nine to inspire my student poets when you’re in the neighborhood. Your friendship and encouragement have meant the world to me.

I am grateful that I got to write the book for Team Stenhouse. My editor and yoga guruHolly Holland, helped me shape the story so that learning could lead the way. Early conversations with Holly, Chuck Lerch and Dan Tobin energized me for the work. Their vision made the multi-media book I’d imagined even better. Many thanks to Jay Kilburn’s superb design work and Jill Cooley’s permissions acumen. I’m grateful to Chris Downey and the tireless copy-editor — their lesson about which numbers to write out may just stick! Many years ago, Philippa Stratton sat in on workshops I offered as part of Janet Allen’s summer literacy institutes. A model workshop participant, she stayed “after class” and talked to me about writing. She listened thoughtfully to book outlines I journaled and encouraged me to start writing. Those experiences would not have been possible without my mentor, Janet Allen—who, above all else, gave teachers like me opportunities to grow professionally. What started as a part-time job presenting workshops during summer institutes turned into sharing learning with a joyful team of generous teachers who wrote at your side. Thank you, Janet.

I am thankful for education’s rock stars. Sara Kajder once told me her goal was to teach me something new—that comment made more than just the day for me. Thank you for believing in me and giving me confidence. Thank you for marking the trail. For the working teacher-writers who have opened their classrooms (Linda Rief) or journals (Penny Kittle) or manuscripts (Cris Tovani) or online worlds (Jim Burke) to me, I am eternally grateful. Through your work and the work of others—Barry Lane, Rick Wormeli, Stephen Krashen, Kelly Gallagher, Jeff Anderson, and Donalyn Miller—I see models of professional lives I want to live. Thank you for leading the way and welcoming me when I followed.

My students bring joy to me each day. I am honored to learn from and with some amazing teenagers online and in person. Thank you for allowing me to include your work, words and pictures in the book—especially Chris and Lea, your family remains an inspiration to me. A special thanks to Hank Green. I am humbled by all he does to encourage young people to learn and do good in the world. DFTBA!

I am lucky to work in a school community with some very smart people. Alpha Geek and personal tech-guru, George Perreault, understands how I love to learn and continues to feed my desire with training and special opportunities offered by the district. Beth Scanlon’s service as a sounding board during our morning commute helped me work through ideas and refine my thinking. My principal, Susan Storch, gave me opportunities to push the tech-envelope at school and in my classroom –thank you.

I am blessed to have two men in my life who understand how to care for a writer. My son, Collin, and I share a six-foot desk in our studio office. Thank you for your optimism even in the face of crashing hard drives. I love having you write across from me. Thank you for giving up some Saturdays and for not minding if I wrote on the sidelines during soccer. My husband, Richard, knows how to turn frustration into production with a good cup of home-roasted coffee and just the right words. Thank you for making me laugh and for helping me believe—even from far flung places like Disney’s Aulani resort.

My mother always believed I’d write. She made writing possible by taking care of meals, errands or my child. She and my father helped me overcome writing fears with unflagging encouragement and the idea that just as I can’t eat an entire pizza in one bite, nor would I write the whole book at one sitting. Piece by piece got the job done just as you predicted, Dad. Thanks.

And thank you to the teacher-readers who, like me, have yet to stop learning. It is in your classrooms and by your example that we will change education and forge the future for youth. Thank you for all that you do for the young people sitting in front of you. Stay true and be strong. I look forward to joining you in the work ahead.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Poetry Club Goes Virtual

Amazing things happen when poetry takes the stage. Next Tuesday youth poets  I
Cypress Creek High Poetry Club Alum:
See these poets on YouTube but not live on Tuesday
coach will take the virtual stage via Google Hangout for our first ever Virtual Open Mic.

I'm a little nervous truth be told.

What if no one else signs up? What if it's just my poets, a group from St. Petersburg and Kwame Alexander? That would likely be fantastic. What am I worried about?

If you don't know Kwame Alexandar, you need to. An amazing speaker, and a down-to-earth member of the literati,  Nikki Giovanni calls him her "literary son." I made Kwame's acquaintance at a Summer Symposium sponsored by The English Teacher's Friend. I was there helping out with Slam Camp, an event for youth poets. Kwame was a keynote speaker. He talked about "saying yes." Say "yes" when the door of opportunity opens. Say yes and see. So many yeses he described to me.

When my students asked for open mic time and we couldn't find a local venue, I said yes. I said I would ask around (email and tweet) and see if anyone would like to join us virtually. I tweeted an inquiry. Kwame said yes in an instant. In less than a minute I had his yes. I did a little happy dance next to my desk (it was after school, so students did see me, but I'd do it again).

I tweeted the message and got his reply in the same minute it seemed. Impressed. Gary Anderson and Deb Day were on it, retweeting.  Thank you! More yes. Such support gave me quite the lift at the end of  last week.

We're taking to Google Hangout on Tuesday (October 22) after school from 2:30-3:30. I figure I'll run the open mic in my room just like my poets and I have seen it run in local venues. As poets arrive they will sign up on "the list" (a blank notepad) to reserve their spot on the microphone. We'll begin at 2:30 EST and take turns on the mic going around the virtual room for an hour. It's going to be awesome.

Give your poets an audience, join us on Tuesday, we'd love to hear what your students have to say.

Details and sign up here. 

Grab a second slice from Two Writing Teachers or
get the skinny on the Slice of Life Story Challenge here. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I'll Show You Mine

Adopted as part of our new teacher evaluation system, the "common board" or common board configuration (CBC)  tells students what their learning goal is and the activities the teacher has planned to help them meet it. Each CBC includes the following headings: standards, learning goal, we are learning this by, bell work, and formative assessment or summary. There is a large gap in the design between bell work, that initial into class and get working activity and the formative assessment or summary of the day's learning. I fill that gap with a "do" section that lists our learning activities in order--perhaps we were originally trained to do just that, I've since forgotten if we were. We used to have to note vocabulary in the "we are learning this by..." section, but that was dropped from the CBC as was the essential question that originally made an appearance near the learning goal and standards.

I believe in posting the goals of a class, a unit, a workshop, a training session, a meeting. You name it. If you are leading people, they need to know where you're going and how they can expect to get there.  Participants, be they children, teenagers or adults, benefit from the seeing what is planned. It helps learners anticipate and reflect. As a learner, I value knowing the end goal and get frustrated when instruction does not point me in the advertised direction.

I am still working out the best way to communicate the end goal to students. I like the "I can" statements of Stiggins, Bill Ferriter described several years ago; we are limited though in our language choices.  Our teachers must write "students will be able to" or "students will understand" goal statements--which proved challenging on the day of a school-wide or grade-level assessment.

Here's my CBC on the day of our one-grade, one- book assessment:

I finagled the "accepted" wording so that it fit my instructional purpose.

Like many English teachers, I recognize that we integrate the language arts: reading, writing, speaking, listening and language. In my classroom we are rarely just reading or writing or speaking or listening or using language. We may be speaking by sharing snippets from books we are reading for pleasure. We may be listening to a peer read from his or her own writing. We may read a written draft for specific language concepts in order to revise or edit our work. These processes work together in an English class. I find writing a "students will be able to" statement is not as clean as I imagine it could be. Here is Tuesday's CBC which shows a bit more of that integration. 

Such togetherness, such routine and authentic integration makes writing a clear daily learning goal tricky. I wonder what James Moffett would make of lean learning goals?

 I tend to stack goals which may or may not benefit students. Am I trying to communicate too much at once? Do students understand how we may be practicing speaking goals while sharing our writing which is about theme, one of our literature goals? Can they make connections between learning to read closely for main idea, learning to ask and respond to questions to propel conversations and learning to write informative or expository analysis? Can students see the big picture? Can they articulate it? Because knowing what you are learning to do is different from just doing it. Articulating the processes and concepts of the goal requires meta-cognitive thinking. Just as students need the work to get them to the standards' goals, they also need the reflective practice in talking and writing about their own learning.

Lately, I've been typing up my learning goals and scales, shrinking them on the copier and giving them to students to paste into their academic journals. This caused a bit of an issue during a recent informal evaluation. The scale, or a scale, wasn't immediately visible. I appreciate that the administrator came back to my classroom in between classes to ask me about it. A short conversation over the current scale we're using cleared up the issues.

Here is an example* we're using to guide our thinking and writing about themes in literary works:

The shrunken goals and scales which are pasted into students' journals may become an anchor for a process, an activity over time (such as weekly Socratic Circle discussions) or a unit of instruction. I'm not seeing students refer to them without prompting yet. Though they have adopted the bird metaphor to describe their progress. Though I have heard students marvel over the notebooks they are creating. The goals and scales are not their guide, I am.

Students are on the trail with me and we're hiking up the mountain but I'm leading the group and it's up to me to point out sights, pack provisions and make sure none are lost along the way.

If your district or school is knee-deep in learning goals and scales I'd love to hear lessons you're learning or questions you're wrangling as you implement them in comments.

*The scoring notes have to do with the tenth grade teachers' common assessment of theme and central ideas. We gave students the same fiction and nonfiction passages. We met to discuss how to score them and what each rubric point likely meant in terms of a students' written performance. I'll save that for another post as I'm still thinking about what I learned from the experience.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Keep Calm and Do

 Katherine Sokolowski's recent "Rose Colored Glasses" slice has resonated with me this week. From her love your way through September lead to her commitment to a positive focus.
I was talking to a friend the other day and she asked me how my year was going so far. I replied that – like always in September – I was exhausted, but I loved my class. 

I love my classes too. For me, students are rarely the stressors at school. My students are the princes and princesses of Florida, future kings and queens of the Southeast. Students bring me joy.

The not so fun  part of school is homework. I've had a lot of homework lately, teacher homework.  I worked four of five days this week until late in the evening--nine o'clock most nights. If I'm being honest, there is good in that work too. I've learned a lot: voice commenting, standards-based grading, scope and sequence planning, and formative assessment have brought moments of epiphany. I love to learn. It energizes me. Good thing because in September the road of work is long and sometimes not well paved.

It is the time of year when we are getting classrooms up and running while gathering initial assessments and building rapport. I've been analyzing students' testing data, assessing initial written pieces, noticing students' needs, planning for instruction, creating a scope and sequence with colleagues, working on common assessment, and reading about Common Core implementations all the while trying to grade student work, give feedback to writers, input grades into the school's management system, connect with parents and manage the book tide that is my classroom library. And these are just my own concerns, not the concerns of the English department I'm charged with leading.

I plan for the work. We have lives outside of school (or we try to): families, dinners, chores, friends, parents, dogs and hobbies. When the work demands doing, hobbies get shelved. I stick closer to home, "go to ground" and lay low for a while. On a weekly basis I have to make sure I manage the home front on the weekends in a way that makes the school week work. I have to let go of pristine and perfect. The house might not be as clean as I'd like. I have to tackle laundry and errands, and spend Sunday afternoon cooking ahead, so that dinners are as easy as chop, combine and serve or "heat and eat."  Pleasure reading slows down.  Exercise sometimes gets sidelined, but it won't always.

Remembering the temporary, acknowledging the always or the lack of always-ness in any given work moment helps me focus on moving forward. I could choose to gripe and complain and seethe. I could collapse into Common Core crazy, but I won't. I won't make that choice. I won't allow myself to wallow in the what could be, the what was, or too much of the who or the why. I don't want to spend my time that way. As I struggle and have concerns, I voice them. I seek solutions in conversation not gossip or complaint. Sometimes I write my way through.

In data meetings with team members yesterday I voiced my concerns about time. It's an old story. Teachers need more time. We need time to teach and time to assess (as if the two are separate). We need time to plan and time to process. We need time to grade and time to confer. Time to call parents and time to organize the classroom. We need time if we are going to collaborate effectively. We need time to read and time to think and time to learn.

Maybe what we really need is help prioritizing. We don't have answers yet. We are going to have figure out the work-arounds, find the balance, as we do the work. Our work is weighty and in September we feel that weight.

Teachers have a new leader at school, several actually. We also have new standards and new expectations. Iron sharpens iron. I have time to do the work that is before me. I've run through September. I am stronger for it. I have time to run the race of the first marking period.  I can. I will. There is no try, only do.

Image from The People Project

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Open House: Today's Slice of Life

The Slice of Life Story Challenge is hosted by Two Writing Teachers.
Find details here or visit today's link list for a second helping. 

Open House is a whirlwind of class changes, video messages and handshakes. It is smiles at the door and first names and meeting parents, sometimes for the second time. Our high school Open House ran from six to eight  this evening. 

We began with an announcement from our new principal via the public address system. Then we all watched two videos, one on Common Core Standards and the second a short welcome message from our school board representative, Rick Roach. I appreciated that Roach displayed his email address and phone number for parents. I admire the work he has done in our community and the effort he makes to communicate with and support those he represents. Marion Brady's story about him taking a version of our state's standardized test went viral after being published by the Washington Post in 2011. You can read Brady's piece here or Valerie Strauss's follow up which reveals Roach's identity here.

After the virtual welcome messages teachers had time to talk to parents. Parents get ten minutes in each of their child's seven class periods. They have five minutes or so to travel between classes. 

I spent my ten minutes praising children and showing parents where they can find information about our classes online. We toured our class webpage and peeked into the school portal so that parents could 
see where I am posting homework weekly. We visited a student's narrative essay recently shared via  Google Drive and listened in to a snippet of feedback I'd recorded using see Kaizena

Sarah's narrative essay, pictured here from my Kaizena work space is
an object story mentored by Simon Rich's New Yorker piece, "
I wanted to sit the parents in our Socratic circle, have a discussion, talk balance and learning. I wanted to ask parents to write their children a note I could tuck into their journals tomorrow. I wanted to have parents turn and talk to each other about their children and the joys and challenges of sophomore year. I want to poll, to survey,  to elicit. 

I likely talked too much.
 Ten minutes flies when you have so much to share. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Book Fairies Spotted

I had a parent conference 
and missed the group picture! 
It's Spirit Week. I stopped at the gas station this morning wearing a black mini-skirt with a crinoline underneath it, a sparkly bathing-suit cover-up top over a hot pink tank and glitter. Luckily I couldn't drive with my wings on and I remembered to leave my crown in the car.

Tuesday is character/author day. My costume: a Book Fairy. Several English and reading teachers created the costume last year and we did again! This year, teachers were invited to make wings with Beth Scanlon after school and rumor has it student assistants even made wings for teachers out of upcycled dictionaries. We had many, many Book Fairies on campus today. We are made of awesome, after all.

I wrote last year about our Book Fairy adventures here and here and even posted a wing making tutorial here (if you're looking for an easy Halloween costume with a literary theme). It's a fun costume to make and wear. I made new wings this year--smaller spanned, were easier to manage. Last year's wing spanned six feet and got ruined when they sat all summer in the portable classroom with no air conditioning (mold).

I gave away some books last year, but not as many as I thought a Book Fairy should. So, this year I made an effort to gather titles I could give away. I spent my lunch period gifting books to students. I had several ARCs and duplicate titles I gave as gifts today--next year I need to plan ahead more and see if I can generate donations so that I have more to give away than I can carry.

I book talked books in my basket to former and current students as well as to a few kids I've never met. I saw a few kids play fighting in a group and happened to have McDonald's Swallowing Stones in my basekt so I talked up the story line to the boys involved and then both went for the book. Kids grin when you walk into the lunch area or cafeteria in costume.

They smile. They hoot. They love it.

I had several specific books I wanted to give to particular students. A student recently wrote about depression. I talked to him, referred him to our school counselor and also tucked Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story into my basket to deliver to him during lunch. I didn't say too much, but I watched him read the back of the book. He knows I'm listening.

I found the other students I was looking for and completed that part of my mission, but I also brought ARCs I could talk up and gift to students I don't know. Approaching a student, I said, "The Book Fairy noticed ...[fill in with an interest or observation]. And she wants to gift you with [insert book talk here]. You may keep the book, enjoy it and or pass it along as you wish. Happy reading!

Some students reacted with grins and smiles that reminded me of the embarrassment of being on the receiving end of a singing telegram. Others were spontaneously appreciative. One even said, "I love you, Book Fairy!" as he flashed his gift title to friends who then crowded around to question Mrs. Spillane (me) about Poetry Club.

It was an amazing lunch. Students clutched their books and tucked them into back packs and said, " Thank you." Such power the simple act of participation has.

Today's joy, complete.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

How Old Is Your Ironman?

Ironman's first story here
Ironman stopped by for a visit after school. He's a sophomore this year. Yes, my Ironman is not yet sixteen.

My Ironman amazes me with his inventiveness. He is part engineer, part artist, part pioneer, part explorer. He is a problem solver and a visionary. His imagination is bigger than Africa.

Last year he sculpted an Ironman suit out of foam and cardboard and glue. He is a maker.

My Ironman stopped by after school to say hello and tell me about his current project. Did he know I worked until ten o'clock last night, grading left over summer reading projects and painstakingly putting grades into the computer? Did he know that I've proctored two mandatory assessments in the last five instructional days? Did he know that today was my day to holistically score 125 "on demand" essays--a monthly writing assessment mandated by the county?

I think Ironman knew I need a lift. Someone sure did.

My Ironmnan has grown. He's a sophomore now and boys fill out between ninth and tenth grade. He smiles the same though. He's working on a Patriot Suit. His creation process fascinates me.

He described what he's learned about cutting, coating and painting the foam and cardboard. He experiments with silicone molds. He made a mold for his boots this time, so that his feet are more comfortable. My Ironman doesn't need Dr. Scholl's he's figured out his own orthotics.

Did he know that today I learned we are are farming out six sections of English to teachers willing to take on an additional class because we can't afford to hire anyone? Did he know that I need to figure out how to coach a foreign language teacher through teaching English to English language learners? Did he know that the supply cabinet ran out of hall passes? Maybe he heard teachers clamoring.

He came by my classroom to visit. I asked a couple of questions. And I learned. I learned about pouring silicon and rotational casting and articulated abdomens. I learned about the improvements he discovered after making that first suit. My Ironman is engineering a costume that will move as he moves.

Best faculty meeting ever, written by the drama department and
performed in full costume by administration and support.
Did he know that negotiations for teachers' contracts are not moving. They stalled and are being dragged through the media mud. Superman is supposed to be on our side negotiating raises with the union. Raises for teachers that seem slim in comparison to dollars spent on [you choose]. Can you remember teachers last got a raise?
Things aren't looking good for the Justice League.

Elastigirl may  be smiling, but she worries sometimes. Moms do that. Teachers too.
2005 Mission: Incredible Year 

Ironman must know.

My Ironman took pictures of the Mini-Maker Faire show dates I called up on the computer. I assured him; his people are there. His people might also design sets for film and television. I plan to ask Batman to send up a signal. We need to make contact with professionals.

I shared how the Makers inspired my foam carving and epoxy explorations. He described silicone mold making two ways down to the thickness of the pour and the resulting plastics problems.

My Ironman is a problem solver. He seeks solutions. He's going to build is own vacuum forming machine. He can wire portable circuits and by Homecoming week will have a working palm repulser. I think I need one of those.

When he appears in public, he is now fearless. He said realizes it is not about him. It's about the suit and the doing and the learning. I think it's courage and passion and joy. Score one for the good guys, Ironman.

Do you have an Ironman? I bet you do. I bet you can call your Ironman (or woman)  to mind as I write. Think about him or her. Think about those "Supers:" the kids lift you up and carry you through.

They, and the ones they fight for, befriend and protect are why we teachers do what do every day.

Focus on the kids and find your joy.

Then ask for the jet pack because sometimes a little swoop in to save the day is a good thing.

Speak up for good this week. I'll listen.

Visit Two Writing Teachers for another helping
or share your slice of life and link up. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Read the Day Away

I loved the letters from the future that Leonard Peacock wrote in Quick's Forgive Me Leonard Peacock. They made a dark, dystopian world view bearable. I could imagine that future and the watery outpost and the single bright light of the lighthouse. It was a good read.


Reading Antigone this week made the death of a friend's father all the more poignant. I found myself thinking about what we believe when life ends. And I compared Antigone's primal need to bury Polyneices so that he could share in eternal life and not be condemned to the Place of Ashes to Christian beliefs about baptism and Catholics' ideation of Limbo or Purgatory. Events of the week made the reading rich for me.

I spent Saturday reading the day away. I devoured Herman Koch's The Dinner. Set in the Netherlands, two teenager cousins are caught on survellience video beating and harassing a homeless women. When they throw a gas can at her and a lit Zippo she is engulfed in flames. The boys parents recognize them in the video that is shown on the news, but keep their discovery secret. The parents meet for dinner to discuss their "children" but each couple goes to the meeting unaware of what the others know or believe. Suspenseful and supremely structured through the dinner's courses, Koch's book calls to mind issues of responsibility, duty and loyalty. I read the book in one sitting and then wished I had it in hand to pass off to students today--several wanted it after my book talk.

Up Next

My son recently read, Obrien's Z for Zachariah and recommended it, so I'll be reading that this week among other titles yet discovered. If you know of additional titles that frame the story around a meal, could you leave me the title in comments? Thanks!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Assessment Race

In order to be a better a runner I need to run. I need an experienced runner or coach to give me
feedback about things like my stride or pace. I dislike running so having people around me that enjoy it and will cheer me on, helps me stick with it. It helps to have a plan like the Couch to 5K podcast or" Running 101" from Runner's World.

There are a host of lessons I imagine I need in order to grow as a runner, but I know one thing for sure: I won't learn to run by competing in races.

An initial assessment would help me track my progress and celebrate my developing skill, but I also know that I will be able to feel my own growth over time in how I breathe and perform during a run. I know when I've run well; I don't need anyone to tell me that and sometimes, frankly, it gets in the way of wanting to do better.

Running local 5K races serves as an assessment of my training and practice. In such runs there is an official clock and the course tests my ability to translate what I've learned to a novel situation. The Reindeer Run held each December at Sea World will be a summative assessment for me. It's a one-shot , "big event" that will capture what I am able to do as a runner. Likewise, the Neon Run and the Gingerbread Run will also serve as assessments of my running skill (or lack there of). I could use each of these runs to form or inform my training routines. If I did that they would also serve as a formative assessments for my trainers and me.
With my assessments in mind, how do I learn to become a better runner. What are the standards of running I need to master in order to improve? Could running standards be grouped into strands: pace, form, dress, nutrition and the like? What instructional activities would enable me to reach beyond the nestling or fledgling level on my running performance scale? What if I want to really fly? What do I need to do?


I am able to run like the wind without stopping for as long as I need or want to run.
I am able to run.
I am able to run but may have to stop in order to catch my breath or rest my muscles.

With help, I am able to run a short course. I may need encouragement to keep going.
Even with help, I need more support and time to run more than a few yards.

These are the questions I wondered as I thought about my running needs and performance--actually I was thinking about lesson planning and instructional calendars but I will get to that in a minute. As a runner or a student-runner I would not be learning "the 40 yard dash" that is not the how to lesson I  need. Doing the activity may develop my skill, but what skill or skills is it developing?

The dash is an instructional activity, just as running a mile could be, or practicing different strides or running through traveling exercises. The standards, or what my trainers are trying to teach me may change with each activity.  At Camp Gladiator, campers learn how to activate fast-twitch muscle groups by practicing a specific set of exercises. We learn how to strengthen our core muscles and develop balance with another set. Each routine, each activity, each practice or workout session helps us increase our fitness levels and in my case, my stamina for running.

Camp Gladiator tells me that it's okay to go at my pace. My trainer labeled a recent photo with, "It's about being better than you were yesterday." Isn't that what it's about in our classrooms too?

Practice for those learning and attention to practice by those teaching grows skill. 

Teachers at my school have been charged with creating year-long instructional focus calendars in curriculum-alike groups. Our calendars are works in progress. English teachers often think about what they teach in terms of the work: Death of a Salesman or Romeo and Juliet or____ (name your favorite, not-to-be-missed piece of literature here). But we don't teach works. We teach students how to analyze complex characters or how to decipher what the text says explicitly or how to infer. We teach processes and content. In language arts those processes are familiar strands found in Common Core Standards: reading, writing,speaking, listening and language. The works are the vehicles we use to teach them.

Our calendars will be living documents, not pacing charts. Our calendars are instruction focused with assessments in mind (think Heidi Hayes Jacobs and "plan with the end in mind"). Our calendars will change with each "race" our students run. If we notice one day that students need more time or that we need to reteach or build in additional practice, we will. We may have to adapt our training plans in order to flex to the needs we notice during a training session. 

If you'd like to see my calendar for Pre-IB, tenth grade English click here. You'll notice that even though I understand that the standards are the "what" I'm teaching, I still think in terms of works.