Monday, August 31, 2015

Blueprints of a Lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Spot On

Today was our second day of school.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can't wait until he does. 

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

Cheers to all! 

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ask and Offer

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

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

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

You can imagine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I'll be doing both all year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I Walk With You

I am doing a lot of thinking about who influences my teaching practice. Patrick Allen wrote about who he was walking with into his classroom and his post on Facebook and Michelle Haseltine's version of it inspired me to think about my own synod--the people I walk with into this work. We had two days of curriculum mapping and conversation this week and I was going to write about that, but I decided not to. Today's slice is all about who is on the path, walking with me.

I walk with Janet Allen and Lee Corey and Beth Scanlon and Becky Bone and Christine Landaker and a host of Geese who taught me real lessons about acceptance and belonging and encouragement and learning along the way. They remind me to flock and fly in a V and care for those around me. I bring those first lessons with me into my classroom every year.

I walk with Beth who teaches me lessons about unconditional love. She reminds me to meet learners (kids and teachers) where they are and focus my intentions on moving them forward. She shows me how you may not know what you're capable of until your chest deep in the mud of a Cypress Swamp. I will bring Beth's thinking about bravery and strength and courage into my classroom next week.

I will walk into this year with Jackie and Krystin and Amorette and Tracie and the teachers that teach tenth graders right beside me. We will talk weekly about what we are seeing kids read, write and do in class. With this small group, I will talk my way through assessment and evaluation and data collection and standards. These are the people that sit with me at the table when leadership asks for our numbers. They remind me to tap into the joy of baby goats and put lessons from the herd into practice. 

I walk with Sara Kajder who teaches me lessons about Cyberspace and digital literacy and mentorship. She reminds me to be purposeful in how I select digital tools for classroom use. She is my living example of responsibility and attention and balance and wellness. She has shown me how tapping a person on the shoulder and giving them a responsibility grows what they know and are able to do. She pays attention and she is a professional learner who balances the demands of the work with the demands of her family and  health.   Every time I troubleshoot technology or a new to me tool, she is by my side in class. 

I walk with Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger. Sara teaches me about my heart and spirit. She knows how to connect affect, emotion, to writing that matters. She shows me how to use my P.I.P.E.S. so that what I have say is heard by the people that need to hear it. She teaches me how to keep on living even when things go dark. Michael teaches me to toughen up. To get on the bike and keep riding--he shows me how to persist, how to go after what I want. She and Michael remind me that art and poetry and rhythm and rhyme and listing and a good day fishing can help us through even the toughest of times. I will feel their love and encouragement in my classroom next week. 

I walk with Penny Kittle and Linda Reif . Penny reminds me to Write Beside Them and to honor choice in reading. I live the Book Love life in my room and both Penny  and Linda validate my practice. Linda whispers Read, Write, Think in my ear as we share stories about buffalo and ballet. She tells me that if I can just get kids to do those things every thing will be all right. Reading and writing will get us there, she's right.

Cypress Creek High School Teachers with the Triumvirate, NCTE 2010:
From left: Rebecca Valente, Helen Philpot, Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle,
Beth Scanlon, Jennifer Kosloski, and Kelly Gallagher

I walk with Elvis too. Everybody needs a little Elvis (the healthy, role-model Elvis who sang Gospel, not the Elvis at the end). Just sayin'.

I walk with Barry Lane and David Lubar into my classroom. They remind me to lighten up and laugh a little. Barry has taught me that dreams--even nerdy ones like spending an evening with Stephen Krashen-- really do come true. He reminds me to take time to explore and to explain what I want kids to learn and do in language they will understand. 

I walk with Alan Sitomer who showed me that how you treat peoples' children matters. Without hesitation at NCTE, he took my son, Collin and introduced him to people, talked to him (man to man, of course), greeted him by name over and over. He made him laugh and eased his anxiety when he was in a room full of authors and teachers. And he gave me a way to talk to Collin about puberty with The Downside of Being Up.  Alan reminds me to listen and connect to kids. If I can  bring a quarter of his energy, enthusiam and his passion into my classroom next week, the room will sizzle.

I walk with Kelly Gallagher too. He cautions me to put kids--not standards, not common assessments not mandates--first. Students' best interests will drive every decision I make. He reminds me to trust what I know about kids, to be accessible and open to conversation. His practice informs so much of what we do in high school English: balanced literacy, Article of the Week, reading for a reason, writing with mentors. I already put copies in for the articles I've been tagging #firstweeks on Twitter. I may not be as connected to current events in my article choices, but I see the importance and influence of his work on my own.
 I walk with my teacher friends from the English Companion Ning. With Jim Burke and Glenda Funk and Kim McCollumn and Jen Ansbach and Karen LaBonte and Paul Hankins and many more. ECN reminds me of the importance of community and trying things out. We need people around us that push us, that encourage us, that lead us and follow us. We need people that help us be our best selves--online and in our classroom. Jim Burke did that for me and for so many English teachers. His work has been a guiding light in my teaching life.

I will walk into my classroom this year with the power of the Nerdy Book Club at my back. The NBC reminds me that books teach life lessons that many of us never forget. Being a member of the Nerdy Book Club is brag worthy. It is something to celebrate-- Donalyn Miller, Cindy Minnich. The Nerdy Book Club does not miss a day thanks to Cindy Beth Minnich and neither will I. Well, I won't blog every day, but I will write. The NBC schedule, a post every day, amazes and delights the reader me. Readers, as Daniel Pennac told us, have rights and the Nerdy Book Club connects me to readers. I will bring their #titletalk and suggestions into my classroom all year. 

Plus Chris Kervina and Sarah and Chris Gross are part of the Nerdy Community and I will walk
with Sarah and the New York Times into my room this year.
I walk with the Slice of Life Community: Michelle, Stacey, Ruth Ayres, Linda Baie, Dana Huff and Glenda Funk (who is the Slice of Life Police sending reminders to write) and Erin and so many more. 

 The slicing community reminds me to focus (though I ran long today) and to pay attention. Observe. Take in the magic of the details. Write. We can transform any ordinary moment into an epiphany. That is what the Slice of Life community teaches me. I will bring blogging into my classroom next week because of them. 

I walk with Laurie Halse Anderson who gets the job done even from under the table. She reminds me of what it means to devote and commit yourself to a person, people or an idea. She tells me to bring the light, to remind kids that there is a way out of darkness and that we must also speak. 

I walk with Nerdfighters. Nerdfighters remind me that mission number one is to make the world a better place.

I walk with Hank Green who reminds me to think outside of the box and do my happy dance in the hall.  From Hank I learned not to judge a student by how much he talks in class or by what he scored on his SAT. Both change. He and his brother John teach me how to identify critical content with Crash Course.  They remind me not to talk too fast in class, but to let it fly if I'm flipping my instruction because kids can hit pause and play it again. Hank and John remind me to be real and remember my audience.

I walk with my brother John. He may tower over me, but he taught me to stand my ground and stand up to bullies. John reminds me of the wonder of learning to read. He reminds me that people are different (Engineers especially.). He reminds me not to start the year with "what I did this summer" and not to end it with test scores and letter grades. 

I will walk into school this year with my son, Collin. He reminds me of the lightness of childhood and the gossamer of dreams. 

Collin starts high school this year. 

He will remind me to be quiet when he needs to think (or wake up). He will show me how working together brings people closer and how offering a helping hand makes a difference in another person's life. Collin will come to school with me this year. He will remind me that my assignments must have purpose and that the feedback I give to students matters. He will reassure me and show me that I don't have to be too serious about everything. 

He will start high school with me this year. 

I will walk into school with all of you. I can't wait. We're going to have a great year!

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