The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Friday, August 20, 2010

Third Grade Memoirs and Zzzzzzz!

          Today was the 7th day of school, and already I'm overwhelmed.  I could list all the things we have heaped on our plates, but you would think I was lying or at least stretching things a bit, so I'll just digress to something else. 

         I received a "Circle of Friends" award from Donna.  Donna's blog touches upon a variety of topics.  If you're a writer, if you're an observer of the world, if you're a grandparent----she has something for everyone.  (It made my brain go on an ADD-addled tangent, thinking of one of my favorite movies---Circle of Friends with Minnie Driver. Okay, back on track...)

        I've only met Donna once, at a group called "Saturday Writers."  (It's a group of St. Louis area writers who meet on a monthly basis.)  Have you ever encountered a new group of people and just felt at home immediately?  That's the kind of effect they had on me. 

         Anyway, after receiving this prestigious award (I know there is a huge monetary component to it; I've already got it spent.  When can I expect it?) I found out I am supposed to pass the award onto five other blogging friends.  That part is easy.  However, I figured I would not be able to somehow display the award on my blog, but lo and behold, I was able to right-click my way to success (I think).  Here is the award, and I am passing it on to several writers:

Barbara and her purple pen.  This is a writer who definitely lives life twice. (One of the Donalds---Donald Murray or Donald Graves said that "Writers live life twice."  Barbara might even live life thrice, which is even more nice.  (Okay, I'm falling into a 3rd grade kind of rhyme.)  She makes ordinary things extraordinary...

The school psychologist and her blog.  It's serious. It's light.  It helps you look at things from another angle.  There is a photo of her, but it's rumored (by me) that the picture is a fake.  No one could do what she does and look!

The teacher who is underground.  This reminds me of the original movie The Out of Towners (with Jack Lemmon).  The humor is dark.  (I guess that's because she's underground...)

The teacher with a dream.  As teachers, we need to keep our eyes on the prize.  The prize?  Our students...

And a blog I enjoy reading in a faraway land---India.  This writer makes you look at plants differently.  He makes you look at life differently.  (Check out his archive.)

        This week we brainstormed some feelings that would help get us writing.  We would come up with an emotion, and think of a particular time when we were incredibly frightened, incredibly furious, incredibly sad,  and so on.  The students then chose their favorite story ideas, shared with a peer (because we're always writing for some kind of audience) and the peer chose their favorite out of the three.  The next day, they began their rough drafts.

       Unfortunately, so many kids are paralyzed with fear.  They are afraid to write because their spelling skills are poor.  They don't know diddly about punctuation.  They don't think they have anything of value to write about.  It was rough going, and will take lots of one-on-one time to open up the faucet so their feelings can really flow.

       (They were all crestfallen because I said I would not allow any Six Flags/amusement park stories, and no birthday stories. of the roller coasters went off the track and flew into the air, then I would be interested in the story.  If the curtains caught on fire because of all the candles on the cake, I would love to hear that birthday story.  I let them know I want to hear a story about something that matters to them---not a report on "and then this happened, and then...and then...")

        I also told them I would include some of their writing on my blog, so here are a few beginnings:

         February 2007.  I saw my grandfather in the nursing home.  He was in a wheelchair. he was wired up to machines.  Two years later I heard that he died.  I started to cry.  When I went to the funeral I saw him in the casket.  I started to cry again.  I loved him so much.  I still cry to this day.  That was the saddest day in my life... (Okay, the dot dot dot is mine--my fave when it comes to punctuation, but already, this kid knows how to "fastforward" in his story.)

      One day a baby was going to be born. The mom and dad were so happy. They went to the  hospital.  The nurse said it was a boy.  They were shocked. When the mom born the boy, the mom went to sleep. Then when the mom woke up and saw the boy the mom was so happy the mom cried.  The boy was sound asleep.  When the boy was eight years old the mom gave a DSI to her son and they were happy for the rest of their life.  (Oh no, it's veered off and become another video game story.)

       When I was six years-old my brother went to college.  It was his first day.  It was winter and it was slick on the highway.  I was incredibly worried that he was going to have an accident.  (This is all this writer has, but it has a lot of potential.  I can't wait to see it as it progresses.)

          I am going to end this posting, as it's long, probably an insomniac's dream come true.  (The snores that are part of my title?  For some reason this afternoon, when planning with a colleague, I kept yawning---more than a dozen times in five minutes or so.  Perhaps it's my body's way of telling me that I need to get a bit more sleep?) 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Mad Men: How is Your "Outside" Different than Your "Inside"?

         No, this entry is not about rage.  It's about a the episode of Mad Men that was on last night.  Specifically, it was about a three-second-long section of the show...

         In the episode, there was a serious meeting/encounter going on at the ad agency.  Because the show takes place in the 60's, when so many crazy trends were rearing their heads, the walls do not go up to the ceiling.  (My junior high school subscribed to the "open classroom" philosophy.  Talk about doltish thinking...)

          Unbeknownst to the characters at the meeting, there is one of the women who works there---she is on top of her desk, standing, with just her head peeking over the "wall."  She's eavesdropping.  

         Judging just by her appearance, you'd imagine she is always-flexible, ever-moral and nonstraying.  However, she is not exactly what she appears to be...

         How is your exterior different from your interior?  What do people think of you, compared to what you're really like?

photo by dracorubio

People think I'm a middle-aged blob who listens to Mitch Miller and elevator music, but really, I am in my twenties, and am going deaf from Janis Joplin (too loud) and Evanescence (way too loud).

        Please share the parts of you that we don't see.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Beginning the Year of Crafting Writing

            This is stolen taken from Katie Wood Ray's incredible book Wondrous Words.  I do these activities at the beginning of the year. It usually takes a week or two, if done the right way.  (In other words, you cannot rush through it, because if the kids don't take ownership of it, if the teacher does too much prompting/prodding, it won't have a real impact.)

           In the first few weeks, when we teachers are setting the tone and building community, we can also get students to start reading like a writer.  Why did that author write that super-long sentence?  Why did that writer string together phrases, without a comma, and use a bunch of "and's" instead?  (I spent this summer eating chocolate and swilling green tea and reading trashy books and sitting on the couch watching Top Chef marathons and napping and blogging way too much.)  Why did the author make the chair seem as if it had feelings?

           Writers use sentence fragments for a reason.  They create a long sentence---without pauses---for a reason.  They use personification for a reason.  Students are writers, too.  They just don't know it yet.  Katie's "unit" helps students start looking at the choices writers make.

          First, choose a picture book that is short and jam-packed with writing craft (simile, metaphor, varied sentence length, personification).  Some of the books I've used before are all Cynthia Rylant's:

  • An Angel for Solomon Singer (my favorite for this purpose)
  • Scarecrow
  • In November
                                                               Day 1

 1.  You need to type up the text.  Type it up in chunks, with each "chunk" representing a page (the text on that one page).  I like to number the pages/chunks, which will make it easier down the road, when the kids are referring to a specific part.

2.  Read the book to the kids three times.  You can read it once, and have them close their eyes.  Read it the second time, and have them listen, with their eyes open. The third time, you can have them gather around/you circulate around the room, and give them a copy of the text so they can follow along with you.  You just want them to be very familiar with the text, and the struggling readers will be have a more open playing field.

3.  Have the students reread the text,.  They are to choose 3 of their favorite parts.  Each "part" can be up to 12 words long.  (Just make up a number between 10-15.  There is nothing special about 12.)  That means their favorite part might only involve 2 words.  It might be only part of a sentence. 

4.  Have them highlight those three parts.  Then have them narrow it even further.  Tell them to choose, out of the 3 parts, to choose their #1 part.  They should part a star/asterisk next to this part.

5.  Instruct the students to practice saying aloud their part, because they are going to be part of a performance.

6.  Have the students stand in a circle.  Ask if someone has a part that would be a good starting point.  Choose a volunteer to begin the piece.  They are to begin the group poem, as well as determine which way around the circle the poem will progress---clockwise or counter-clockwise.  They are to say these words before they say their favorite part:

                               An Angel for Solomon Singer, written by Cynthia Rylant
                           Rewritten by Mrs. R's Class (you plug in your name, of course)

7.  Have a "dry run" and then the real performance.  Before anyone begins, say that something really cool might happen.  Some of the students might have chosen the same favorite part.  If that happens, it will be like the chorus or refrain in a song.  It will really sound neat.  (Otherwise, they'll have a fit when they hear someone else saying the same thing they're about to say.) 

(You need to stress it should be a smooth, fluid piece.  They should be ready to read, and should read with expression.)

                                                                  Day 2-3

1.  Today students will get into small groups (4-5).  They will each cut out their 3 favorite parts and bring them along as they move into small groups.

2.  Each group will have 12-15 "parts" to use as they create a small group poems.  It will be up to them whether they use all the parts, if they cut some of the words out of some of the parts, if they choose to repeat a favorite part.  They cannot add words that are not in the text they have to work with, but they can repeat words that are part of their favorite snippets.  (Arranging and rearranging the parts, like a puzzle, is sometimes helpful.)

(They can make a rap, a song, a cheer---whatever appeals to them.)

3.  Give the groups adequate time to create and practice.  They will then perform in front of their peers

                                                              Day 4-6? 7? 8?

1.  You will need a second copy of the text for the students, since they cut up their first copy.

2.  Ask students to share with the class parts that "intrigue" them, parts that interest them, parts that make them wonder about the author.

(As much as you might want to "give" it to them, don't.  They need to find them themselves. You might get uncomfortable with the deafening sound of silence, but don't spoonfeed them.  They'll get it.)

3.  These are examples of some of the things they might make note of:

  • sentence fragments or very short sentences (three words or less is a guideline I like to use)  It rained.  It snowed.  It blossomed.  (taken, from memory, hopefully a good memory, from Scarecrow)
  • sentences that use "and's" instead of commas (They helloed and kissed and hugged and squeezed cheeks and slapped backs before we even got into the door.) 
  • really long sentences (decide on a number of words for this one, too, as your class discusses it)
  • "things" doing things they can't do in real life (personification)
  • simile/metaphor (this may take some gentle prodding)

4.  With each technique that interests the students, the whole class will examine it.  (If you number the chunks, you can ask the student, "What chunk/page is it on?" and the students can quickly find it.

5.  Ask questions like, "Why did the author write it that way?"  You might need to give clues/prompts to get a reasonable rationale.  Of course, we don't for sure know why an author wrote something in that way, but we can come up with something that makes sense.

6.  Then the class can come up with a name for the strategy.  The idea is this is a technique that writers use, it's not something this particular author invented, and the students can use the same technique in their writing.  (You can have several names for the strategy, and have them vote.)

This takes some guidance, because they are prone to making their name relate to the sentence in the picture book, instead of coming up with a name that will help them remember what the technique is.  For example, if their example is, "It rained.  It snowed.  it blossomed," their idea of a good name might be "Raining, Snowing and Blossoming" instead of "Super Short Sentences." 

7.  If the technique has a "real" name (varied sentence length, metaphor, similie, personification) fill the kids in on that, but stress what "we" will call it.

You can also make up a chart, with the following headings, so they can refer to it.  Don't choose more than 3 or 4 strategies to excavate...

Example from the book---What it looks like

Why did the author write it this way?

What do we call it?

What do high school students call it?

8.  It will probably take you a whole session to get just one strategy.  It can be slow and painful.  However, once you've done that frontloading, you can use these ideas all year.  ("How cool!  Devin found a 'Super Short Sentence' in the book he was reading at home.  Listen up, class." "How about using a "Thing Acting Like a Person" right here in your story.  It could make the reader really empathize when the desk got knocked over...")

William's Words on Writing

           Last year I had a conversation with a colleague, who spoke of something she experienced while conversing with another teacher.  The teacher was working with young writers, and was asking questions to ascertain what their status was:  were they drafting?  were they generating ideas?  were they engaged in a prewriting activity?

           One student responded by saying they were working on some "wonderments."  What a great response!  Things that children wonder about lead to great writing pieces.

           Unfortunately, the teacher responded by telling the student they needed to remember to put ending punctuation at the end of every sentence. He felt proud of the interaction; he thought working on "wonderments" was a pointless activity, and was confident he had given the child a great direction to go.

            As writers, and teachers of writers, we need to realize that every writer is different, and often the way we arrive at the "end" of a writing piece involves a twisted journey, with lots of crossroads.  We have to celebrate the wondering that children engage in.

           William Stafford wrote these wise words about writing as he dealt with the importance of process instead of substance:

            " Writers may not be special---sensitive or talented in any usual sense.  They are simply engaged n sustained used of a language skill we all have.  Their 'creations' come about through confident reliance on stray impulses that will, with trust, find occasional patterns that are satisfying.
             But writing itself is one of the great, free human activities.  There is scope for individuality, and elation, and discovery, in writing.  For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, and inexhaustible  environment, with the combined vividness of an actuality and flexibility of a dream."

photo by stewartbremner

            We have to nurture writers' confidence.  We have to celebrate their elation.  We have to keep it free...