Gearing up for the new year – a writing project

I’ve been thinking about a writing project I can work on during the coming new school year. I haven’t worked out any details yet, my I’m leading toward chronicling the year with reflections on how implementing the Common Core Standards works in my ELL classroom. (Yeah, broad topic. It will narrow and come into focus as I move along)

To that end, I started looking at the writing samples my rising second graders wrote for me on our Move Up day. I asked them to tell me something about what they like best about school. Here are a few samples:

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I’m so excited by what this group of 7 year olds wrote. Every time I re-read their work I become energized. I think Writers’ Workshop is going to be my favorite part of the school day! 

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Growing Stories

I missed the first narrative writing unit with my 2nd graders, I wasn’t yet their teacher. So, I was really excited to get back into the narrative unit that goes along with our author study. Our goal is to learn to look at the techniques that published writers use and to use them as mentors for improving our own writing. I was eager to leap in and thought it best to have the kids start writing at will so they would have some material to work with once we really started to look at authors as mentors. I asked each student to write an idea for a story and we “planted their seeds” on a bulletin board. I looked forward to reading their stories as they sprouted in their notebooks.

My plans changed when I started to read their initial stories. Many of them were not really stories at all but descriptions of things or of people. There was no setting, no when or where to the writing. There was little action. There weren’t any active, thoughtful, or emotional characters, just a narrator’s description.

So, we backtracked.

ImageWhen they arrived the next day, they saw that the seeds on the bulletin board had started to grow. I put the questions words Who, What, When, Where, Why and How on the leaves and we spent one or two lessons talking about how an author answers these questions for the reader.

After a week, I asked students to share their stories with the class and then we looked at each question word and asked the audience if it had been answered for them. Do you know WHO the characters are? Do you know WHERE the action happens? Do you know WHEN? Do you know WHAT the characters are doing? Do you know WHY they are doing it? HOW?

During independent work, the young writers would bring their notebooks over to the board and check if they had answered all the questions for their readers. Then, they asked a friend to read their story, or they held a mini-reading with a small group, and asked who still had questions.

And, every day, they asked me when the flower would grow.

I told them, when most of us have fully grown stories, then the flower would grow. They kept working, and waiting.

I kept reading their notebooks, writing questions in the margins. We kept talking about how important it is for authors to think about their readers and anticipate questions and confusions. My daughter cut out 5 large orange petals and added them to the board for me. My little writers arrived the next morning knowing they had grown publishable stories.Image

 I loved how this bulletin board worked. It was a useful resource to the kids, but more importantly, a source of encouragement. They worked diligently to see that flower grow. The board worked in ways I did not anticipate. It was a wonderful addition to the writer’s workshop.

And, it kept working right up until the end. On the last day of school a few students were helping me take down the bulletin boards. When they removed the seeds, they noticed that the brown paper had faded wherever it had not been covered by seeds. They were excited to note that the lights in the classroom had the same power to change the paper as the sun, as we had discovered through a science experiment earlier in the year. They couldn’t wait to show the rest of the class! 

Professional Development: Violence in Writers’ Workshop

For many teachers, vacation weeks are a time to catch up on professional reading and to plan upcoming units of study. Having just jumped into this new job, I have double the work (or so it seems). During this vacation, I have been focusing on the Literacy block, since reading and writing and language is what I love most. Later today (or maybe tomorrow), I’ll begin to look at Math.

For literacy, we use the Daily 5, Interactive Read Aloud, and Writers’ Workshop. Before the break, my Literacy Coach arranged to have someone cover my classroom so we could sit for an hour and a half reviewing the district requirements and looking at the structure of my day. It was a great meeting. I now understand how to plan for groups, individual conferences, and independent reading. I am still uncertain about how best to incorporate Word Work for my diverse learners, but Readers’ and Writers’ Workshop both make sense to me.

In addition to the articles my coach gave me on teaching Character, I also read an article by Stephanie Jones, recently reposted on The Classroom Project’s blog, about recognizing poverty in literacy teaching. She looks at the pull between worlds that many of our young students struggle with as the sometimes messy reality of their lives is pointed out as wrong or deficient in many books. One example was a literacy-based lesson on bullying that had several students conflicted since many of the people they love would, by the lesson’s definition, be considered bullies. In another poignant example, she talked about students who were reluctant to write about family members during Writers’ Workshop because they were in jail.  

These are my students. They have family members in jail, older siblings or cousins in gangs. They see fights, hear arguments, and watch animation of violent acts I would not allow my 12 year old to see. Their parents have different priorities than I do, they see the world through a different lens. Yet, they all want the best for their children. 

I have to find a way, as their teacher, to validate their reality without compromising school rules and objectives. We do not want children to fight, but denying them the freedom to write about fights they have seen makes their reality invisible rather than one they can reflect on and make decisions about.

My big struggle is guns, so I was glad to see a title in Jones’ Works Cited list from J J Schneider, No blood, guns, or gays allowed: The silencing of the elementary writer. This will move high up on my reading list. After only a week and a half with them, I have seen my students bring up guns in may different ways: through hand gestures, made with blocks during recess, sketched in Writers’ Workshop notebooks. I know they see television and movies with guns and that they shoot with virtual guns in video games. It’s likely that many have seen real guns in their homes or while with extended family or friends. And many had watched news coverage of the Sandy Hook massacre. It is a part of their reality. It seems like it’s my job to give them the tools to think critically about the role of guns in our society. If I just narrow mindedly teach that guns are bad, I put students in the difficult position of choosing between school values and family reality. Instead, I need to find a way for them to use description, connect to characters, infer feelings, and make predictions based on the evidence. When they read and write, guns can be a prop in the story, like an alligator or a dump truck.

When the students were making holiday cards for the veterans in a local VA Hospital, I had a short conversation with a few about whether or not to draw guns. I said that these people were wounded or sick and had probably been in situations where they had to use their guns. Guns may have even been the thing that put them in the hospital. So, I suggested that they might like to see a picture that had no guns, because they might be sad about getting hurt. The boys I was talking with showed great empathy. Some invented some stories of how they thought a soldier may have been hurt, others talked about how they feel when they get hurt, but all agreed that what I said made sense and went on to draw different pictures.

I think my conversation worked because I didn’t say guns were bad. In fact, we talked about the big guns many soldiers carry and how they learn to use them in army training. More than half of the boys thought they would like to join the army and use those guns to protect America.

 Still, later that same day, they were building guns with linking cubes at recess and acting out violent scenes from video games. They weren’t protecting any one, just aggressively attacking. They are second graders, after all, and the empathy shown in one instance may not appear in another.

 I need to keep learning and reflecting about issues of poverty and violence in the classroom. I want to hold my students to the highest standards; to show them that I expect they can achieve great things. But, I need to find a way to do that while accepting their realities. They have to be able to see themselves in books and to have the freedom to write about their lives.

This will be an interesting balancing act.

 

From Professor to Mrs. LA

A year and a half ago, I left my full time job teaching elementary ELL and since then I’ve been working part time at the university. But now I am ready to go back to full time, so I sent a quick note to a couple of people I used to work with to let them know. My thought was to plant the seed so that, as they made plans for the next school year, they would have me in mind. I never expected to be offered a position so soon. Within twenty-four hours of sending that email, I spoke with my former principal about a position she was trying to fill.

Since talking with her about the possibility – the possibility – of taking on this classroom, I have been teaching imaginary lessons in my free time. I spent an entire car ride presenting a mini-lesson on adjectives and planning center activities that would allow for creative exploration of the topic in a few different ways. By the end of that ride, I had a photography exhibit, a poetry collection, and a student-produced dictionary all planned, complete with connections to science and social studies objectives.

I didn’t realize how much I missed elementary school.

It’s more than just the energy and enthusiasm of young students, though the snarky 18 year olds have been getting to me this week. No, it’s that integration of concepts throughout the academic day; the demand for overlapping curriculum. When I conceive of writing workshop lessons for elementary school students I do so with the entire school day in mind. We learn process writing so we can describe how to complete a Math problem. We practice careful, objective description in science labs and later turn those images into poetry with figurative language. Since I am involved in all the subjects, I can tailor our writing to support our learning in all areas. That’s just not possible in the current college level curriculum.

So, a week or so after that first conversation, it looks like we can make it work. As soon as my college semester is over, I’m jumping right into that second grade ELL classroom. Before I’ve even posted grades for my freshmen, I expect to be checking on reading levels and language proficiency. By the end of January I may not even remember a single snarky comment about the uselessness of college writing; I’ll be too busy creating opportunities for writing all through the day.