Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Evolution: A Review of Atwell's In The Middlle

I admit it. I have a Pinterest board for school and have downloaded a few items from Teachers Pay Teachers. They are mostly a mixed bag, however. "Here's a unit I developed. Feel free to use it once you've paid for it." To be fair, many items are free and some call for hard thinking on the part of students. What is problematic about even the very best of these ideas is that we rarely get to see the rationale behind them. Why am I supposed to start this way and finish that way? Sharing ideas like this is hardly new.They are the equivalent of teacher idea books I used to buy at Beckers.

One idea I gleaned long ago from such a book was to offer students choices of projects that appealed to one of Gardner's intelligences - kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, etc. The elephant above was submitted in response to the sundry items Boo Radley leaves in the knothole of a tree in To Kill a Mockingbird. She's a sweet little thing, but looking back on it now, I'm puzzled how I thought this would deepen anyone's connection to the themes of the book.

Not so with the latest edition of Nancie Atwell's In the Middle. If you hadn't heard of Atwell before this year and her dozen or so books that she's written, surely you saw something of her when she recently won the inaugural Global Teacher Prize.When she published the first edition of ITM back in 1988, she used the proceeds to build a demonstration school where teachers from across the country can spend a week learning how to teach in a reading and writing workshop. Reading her books make me feel like I've won one of these coveted spots. She explains what she teaches, why she does what she does, and tells you what she tells her kids. Instead of being handed a script, you feel as if you're eavesdropping in on a conversation.

You may think if you'd read an earlier edition of the book, that you're already privy to Atwell's thinking. You'd be wrong. It's not that she's changed her philosophy. It's that it's evolved in the twenty-seven years since the first edition was printed. The second edition promised seventy percent new material when published in 1998. This one has an additional eighty percent . It still contains gems from the early days. When I see her conditions for a writing workshop, I greet them like old friends.

But there is much that's built on these principles since then too.When I come across advice like asking students to research your writing and interview you, a more proficient writer than they, it strikes me as pure gold. Weekly letters in dialogue journals have grown into letter-essays composed at book's end; an aversion to fiction gives way to microfiction;  persuasive essays, barely warranting a mention in the first edition, have evolved into advocacy journalism in the third.

It's also one of those rare books that will not only improve your teaching but will improve your writing as well. For example, I'd been struggling to revise a tritina I'd written in class one day. (Here's a link to an explanation and a sample poem  by Deborah Neyens if you're not familiar with the form.) Rereading advice Atwell had given to one of her young writers moved me to reconsider mine. I've also taken to heart her suggestion to write off of the page. I'm not surprised that this is so. Pultizer Prize winner Donald Murray was one of her idols. Mine too.

We've all heard the observation that some people teach for twenty years while others teach the same year twenty times. Atwell's living proof that our experiences in the classroom can profoundly affect our future teaching. In fact, it's the surest way to achieve what she inscribed in my copy of In the Middle all those years ago.

Reflective practice and refining our craft are essential to achieving this goal. I promise no more "arts and crafts" elephants that do little to grow learning if you'll do the same. In the meanwhile, this edition of In the Middle is already on its way to being just as dog-eared as the first.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Setting the bar

A girlfriend of mine from high school and I exchange electronic letters a couple of times per month. She's super organized, a great cook, a talented seamstress. In short, she's everything I am not. Her latest letter recounted planting a tree, redoing the skirting around her back deck, and buying fabric to make a laptop case for her mother's birthday.

I felt pretty virtuous on Sunday because I'd made brunch for ten, cleaned, did laundry, and sewed a few buttons back onto a top that had been missing them for almost two years. I laughed as I wrote to her about these "accomplishments". She never finds me lacking. She knows I do what I can - really what I'm willing to do - and doesn't judge me against herself. We both know I have other talents.

If it's okay for me to set the bar at different heights in various aspects of my life, isn't it okay for kids to do this too? We want them to give their all, but shouldn't we recognize that they may not want to? If I'm allowed the choice to focus my energies where my interests lie, wouldn't allowing choice give students the chance to jump over the bars of their choice?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

This Week

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week, and the Center for the Teaching Quality has started a new initiative around it. Here's what I found on my friend Jen Ward's blog about it. And here's something I've written that I think fits the bill. Care to try one of your own this week?
This week students were incensed. “She hit her for knowing how to read?”

We were discussing Scout’s inauspicious first day of school in To Kill a Mockingbird. Miss Caroline, her first grade teacher, is having a hard time of it, and my students were livid at her behavior towards our heroine. While I have never come to love Miss Caroline, I tell them I remember being terrified that first day of teaching and can empathize with not knowing what to do when things don’t go as planned. I, too, had fixed ideas those first few years of teaching, shaking off the counsel of those who knew, for example, that a book promising one hundred exciting research projects would not deliver. Unfortunately, I had to learn that lesson and others the hard way.

This week I listened to literature circles when we weren’t taking state tests. Usually, there are multiple different text- set books being discussed, but this week we studied whole class novels. When I first implemented literature circles over twelve years ago, I used the role sheets Harvey Daniels included in his book – Discussion Director, Literary Luminary, and the like. His thinking and mine have since evolved.  Discussions now feel much more like the way my friends and I talk about books. Students come prepared to talk about what resonated or confused them, what predictions they have - in short, they bring their own agendas. I listen for literary behaviors like making inferences, citing evidence, explaining how a Notice and Note signpost helped them make meaning. They make my heart sing instead of the despair study guides inflicted on us all.

This week I briefly explained who Protestants are as well as what buglers do. Listening to literature circles is perfect formative assessment. When individual kids don’t have the background knowledge they may need, I can provide that quickly. They’ll learn much more about Martin Luther in European History in high school, but I’m not sure when they’d learn about bugling otherwise. (Some of my students thought the word was burglar.) More importantly, when there’s general bewilderment like why Lee spent so much time on the shooting of a rabid dog - as there was this week - I can address it with the whole class before they read any further. Allowing me to be responsive to their needs is another reason I continue to make time for this type of discussion in my classroom.

This week students assessed their performance in the Slice-of-Life Challenge, an annual opportunity to blog as much as possible during the month of March on our class Ning.  They decided whether their posts were well-written, evaluated the effects of their comments on others’ writing, and thought through how their participation changed them as writers.  For example, Brenna decided, “I’m funnier than I thought I was.”  A recovering Luddite, I wasn’t always sold on digital writing. But for authentic audiences, it can’t be beat.

This week they also wrote letters of thanks to a Holocaust survivor who spoke at our school. They were so taken with her that they asked her to be our school’s adopted grandmother. Their notes recount how her words will impact their future behavior. Hailey said it best. “Thank you for a new outlook on life. I’ll be sure to try extra hard to smile and to make others smile because I never know which day will be my last.”

This week my students declared their favorite characters and scenes from Gregor the Overlander, this year’s One Book, One School novel. They argued among themselves whether Ares or Ripred were more admirable characters, explained how they were more amenable to bats and bugs after their heroism in the book, debated whether Suzanne Collins’ skills as a writer had grown by the time she composed The Hunger Games, and brainstormed questions to pose when we meet with students next week for our first ever cross-grade literature circles. Organizing these wasn’t easy, but I’m hoping that not only will students benefit, but that teachers will see that literature circles needn’t be so lock-step as well.

         This week I put aside the book I’m currently reading, Professional Capital by Hargreaves and Fullan, to make time to read the latest edition of In the Middle with a colleague at another school. I’m also reading a book about the Holocaust with a student, who switched classes mid-year and missed our unit on memoir. It’s my first time with this particular book, so Rafael and I are figuring it out together. Because she recently sustained a concussion and cannot read during her recovery, another student and I made a plan to meet for coffee this summer to discuss the book her classmates are currently reading.

        This week I advised a colleague in the midst of a professional crisis; rethought my teaching of a novel, based on Kelly Gallagher’s notion of scaffolding reading; wrote a review of a book of poetry on my blog; finished conferring with students about their pleasure-reading goals for the marking period; questioned how I might build on our sentence-combining work courtesy of Jeff Anderson’s new book as we begin revising poetry in earnest; gleaned some new ideas from Twitter; and planned my next blogpost. I also took pictures of a student I’ve mentored since 8th grade before her Senior Prom.

         This week I’m drinking from a coffee mug I received early in my career that proclaims, “Excellence… Nothing Less,” but my first days of teaching were only slightly better than Miss Caroline’s. Though no one insulted me or contracted lice, I’m quite sure had I been one of my students, I wouldn’t have been any more excited about learning from me than Scout was about her teacher - what with my lists of dos and don’ts, a classroom bereft of books, and a curriculum that took little account of student interest. But luckily, each year we get a chance to start anew. (In fact, we get this chance each and every day.) So this September students began their year with me by discussing some data about literacy; thinking through odd presents they’ve received in the past before reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s “A Valentine for Ernest Mann”; and writing in whatever manner they chose about an origami box I presented to each of them filled with a Hershey’s kiss. They know from the start that our work is urgent, intense, and engaging. If only I had known this twenty-eight years ago.

      This week I’m still a work in progress, learning from my colleagues and my students. That’s what makes teaching so exciting – you can never know it all. So I resolve to continue to use reflective practice to improve my craft, to remain open to revising my teaching, to conduct research in my classroom, to expand my professional learning communities, to strive for deeper connections with my students, and to help grow the teaching of interested colleagues. Our work is too important to settle for anything less.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Living Miracle

"I'm a dying breed," she told us. I blanched when she said it. It's true, of course. Holocaust survivors are dying everyday from old age and the diseases that accompany it rather than from genocide. Nonetheless, the aptness of the expression unsettled me. Everything about the Holocaust does.

The she in question is Rita Ross, a survivor of the Krakow ghetto and the author of Running from Home: A Memoir. She spoke to our eighth grade recently courtesy of the Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center in Philadelphia. Three hundred twenty-five students sat transfixed for almost two hours. Yes, they'd been to the Holocaust museum in DC in the fall and had read several books - survivor's accounts or novels based on the atrocities, but it was Mrs. Ross who had them spellbound.

Though she'd taught first grade for twenty-seven years, you'd have sworn it was middle schoolers not seven-year-olds that she knew best. At one point she asked, "How many of you want to know what we had to do if we needed to use the bathroom?" When only a few kids raised their hands, she said, "Okay, I guess you don't want to know, so I'm not going to tell you." Immediately, they began begging her to tell.

When I asked students later what resonated with them from her speech, they listed the following:

  • a game she played with her brother where he pretended to be the commandant's secretary and he a prisoner who wished to speak with him;  they were very young when they entered the ghetto.
  • that her father could obtain an American birth certificate without any paperwork. Try that nowadays.
  • that her mother urged the children to alternately feign Catholicism or to claim their Jewishness, depending on which religion offered them the best chances of survival at the moment.
  • her declaration to a psychotherapist that she had had a"good childhood." Knowing that she was a survivor, he urged her to write about her experiences in order to gain perspective on them.
  • When asked to use one word to describe herself, she chose "Empty".
  • But she also described herself as "a living miracle". She might just as easily have been one of the 1.5 million children who were murdered during Hitler's reign.
We've decided to adopt her as our school's grandmother, which she eagerly accepted. She plans to visit every year for as long as she's able. Hailey's thank you note explains why her visit was so vital. "Thank you for giving me a new outlook on life. I'll be sure to try extra hard to smile and to make others smile because I never know which day could be my last." 

תודה Thank you, Mrs. Ross. Thanks too to my colleague Kate Madigan for making this happen. If you've been thinking about having a Holocaust survivor speak at your school, heed Mrs. Ross' warning. "We are not promised tomorrow." They are, in fact, a dying breed.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Fine Soup

"There's a fine soup to be made of every minute" Naomi Shihab Nye tells us in her poem Moment. The optimistic word play tempered by acknowledging life's challenges captures my heart every time I read her poetry. This one is from a collection entitled Transfer, an homage to her late father. She built this work on notebooks he kept throughout his life.

Whether examining the complexities of their life in Palestine before returning to the United States in Morning Birds - "Bow down to what you planted/glossy figs filling bowls/sweets rebuke to battle and bomb" - or the simple joys to be found in every life in Comfort - "Your favorite words still exist in the world - darling, coffee, friend", Nye always invites us to remember to "put on the armor of joy."

For a taste of her talent, click here to enjoy Wavelength from the same collection. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Happy Trails

Today marks the final day of my principal's career in the district after thirty-nine years. He's leaving to take a position at a local university, coordinating student teachers. I've been quite lucky to have been in his charge for all but one year of my teaching. Here are some remarks I made at a recent gathering in his honor.

That's John in the red with his favorite fashion accessory.
 The others are wearing bowties in his honor as the rest of us, students included, did on Friday to mark his "re - tie-rment".

Since January of 1989 (or to put it another way when Mr. DeAngelis was 11 and Dr. Hritz was 8), Dr. Carr has been at the helm of KMS. Within his first month of leaving New Garden for the greener pastures of South Union Street, I asked him if I could take my kids on a field trip to His Mission, the homeless shelter on Birch Street, in response to a discussion we had to reading A Wrinkle in Time. Not only did John say yes, but he went along as well. That’s just the kind of support we’ve come to rely on over the past twenty-seven years.

Over that time our building has changed drastically. Not only its location, but its size too. When Dr. Carr took over from Dr. Cammarata that January, we had about 450 kids in three grades. Our numbers haven’t dipped below a thousand in ten years. Students traveled together with their homogenous homerooms all day. For example, long before Tina Manolescu taught sixth grade, she was a 610. Kids’ schedules rotated daily so that eventually every kid would have math 8th period. Our schedule has changed so many times since that it’s hard to count all of its iterations.

After the Bell wasn’t even dreamed of yet when he arrived. Team met once a week. Activity period met on Thursdays and Fridays. The sixth grade returned to elementary schools for a few years. Mrs. Hartman, Mrs. Palmer, and Mr. Hannum all retired along with too many teachers to name. Dr. Carr’s endured tornado threats during the 8th grade dance, blackouts in the HS cafeteria, errant snakes on the loose, and that’s all before we moved here.

What we’ll miss most is his desire to grow his staff. Recently, I came across an entry in my writer’s notebook about a classroom visit from John a year or two ago. That day he had stopped in to find a student but was so intrigued by what we were doing that after locating the young man in question he returned to continue “playing” along with the kids. I’ve heard similar stories from other teachers. He often asked why we were doing what we were doing, pushing us to be more reflective. When we proposed a new idea or program, we’d be met with a “tell me more.” Often these impromptu dialogues resulted in programs we’ve come to know and love: One Book, One School, The Poetry Slam, Faculty-Student Basketball Game, The Math Carnival, Girls Night Out, 6th Grade Fun Night, LEAD - all activities begun during his tenure.

As our families have expanded, so has his. Those of us who taught in the old building, remember John Paul, Amanda and then Patrick, accompanying Amy in and out of his office. Now we’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Trey. John couldn’t be prouder to be a granddad except how proud he was and is to be the dad of the three of you

I know you’re looking forward to spending more time with him as his new role no longer requires that he supervise school dances, oversee wrestling meets, or attend school board meetings. Enjoy this new found freedom. You’ve all earned it.

So thanks, boss. Happy Trails to you.


Today students will leave thank you notes to him during lunch in an inbox in the cafeteria, an idea we blatantly stole from the Internet. Here's hoping they give him just a small taste of our appreciation.

I'm participating in the Slice of Life Challenge. Won't you join me?

Monday, March 30, 2015

On Being Married to An English Teacher

Yesterday my husband realized that Easter is only a week away when he saw the palms sitting on the table in the foyer. We had previously discussed that a few relatives wouldn't be able to join us this year.

Looking at the calendar, he said, "Oh, we're going to have to plan a menu. They'll be less people there, but nonetheless..."

I interrupted, "Fewer people." To be clear -  I never correct the grammar of adults I know and restrain myself considerably even with the children in my charge, but a little gold ring on his left hand compelled this correction.

"What's the difference?"

"Use fewer with things that can be counted and less with things like milk that cannot."

A spirited discussed ensued about liters of milk and interpretation of this rule. (He's a scientist, so, of course, milk would come in liters and not gallons.) I pointed out that as grammar rules go that this one involved very little shades of gray. Don't get me started on commas with adverbial clauses. When he finally conceded that not everyone quantifies amounts as specifically as he, he agreed that I was right.

Would have been so much simpler if he had just started with this premise. And now I have one fewer blogpost to write.

I'm participating in the Slice of Life Challenge. Won't you join me?