The Pyrenees---Southern France

The Pyrenees---Southern France

Friday, July 30, 2010

Out of the Ditches and Between the Lines...

            My ex-brother-in-law said something very eloquent once.  He stated that the key to raising kids (boys especially) was keeping them "out of the ditches and between the lines."  That simple idea embraces so much...the acknowledgment that kids will waver and drift and weave a bit, but if your offspring keep between the lines, and out of the ditches (avoiding major problems), you can consider yourself successful as a parent.

         Yesterday, I cried when my son left.  There have been a few tear-filled good-byes while he's been in college, but it has been a while since the last blubbering session. I mean, of course, I cried when we left him in his dorm room, a freshman.  We cried earlier that summer when he left to play his horn across Europe; there have been a couple more times over the past three years, but my memory is foggy.

        Yesterday was different...

        Yesterday, he was heading to work a six-month internship in Kansas City as a music therapist.  Every other time, when our son has left, we knew roughly when he would be coming back---Thanksgiving break, Christmas, Spring Break, summertime, and so on.  This time he was doing something real.  Something "grownup." This time, he might find a job (hopefully) after the internship is over, and he might never really come back home. 

          As a teacher, I worry about my students after they leave me in the spring and go upstairs to another teacher and another grade level in the fall.  Will Neimayah's teacher see the fear and fierce loyalty behind her (sometimes) flip facade?  Will Christian's teacher set the expectations high enough for him to flourish?  Will Arielle's teacher see her as a budding writer?

         I worry about them because they're no longer mine, but I also worry about them when they enter the real world a few years down the road.  State test scores aside, are they learning to be persistent when it comes to solving problems?  Are they learning to think outside of the box?  Are they learning to be passionate about knowledge?

         I worry that as a parent, and as a teacher, I could be doing more...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Good Grief! We Have to Write in Math ?!?

             I got this activity idea from Diane Scollay, the former director of the Gateway Writing Project.  It's from this book (another one I will probably end up purchasing...):

         As a third grade teacher, we are constantly struggling with teaching students ways they can interpret, understand and create word problems.  Quite often, my students act out math scenarios, but this takes it to another level...

             This is called the "Stop Freeze Method" or the "Word Problem Playlet."

Students, in small groups, write a short play focusing on a word problem.

  • *   They need to determine the setting and the characters as they create an original word problem.
*  Each group will draft, and then perform, their playlet.

*  As the rest of the class is watching, and after they have been presented with enough information, they ask a question of the audience and then say, "Freeze!"  (I am going to have the "performers" freeze during this think/work time, even though the version I have doesn't include this tip.)

*  Members of the class use the given information presented in the playlet to solve the problem.

*  This helps the students visualize the steps they need to perform in order to solve problems, because they have seen it acted out. 

(If it is a two-step problem---for example, if they need to find a total and then subtract it to find the amount of change,----the play can stop at two points.)

Here is an example written by Jacob and Natalie:

Haley:  Let's go to the candy store, Jason!

Jason:  But what if we get a stomachache?

Haley:  I'm not going to get a stomachache.  I'm practically sweet all over.  (My students would not be able to deliver or hear this line and keep a straight face.  Some of them might even barf...)

Jason:  Well then, okay.  Let's go to the Yum Yum Tree at the mall.  

Narrator:  Haley and Jason ride their bikes over to the Yum Yum Tree near their home.  They park their bikes in the rack and run into the store.

Haley:  I really want to buy a peanut butter fudge popsicle.  I think it costs 55 cents.

Jason:  I think I want one of those giant rainbow lollipops for 75 cents.  Mom gave me $5.00.  She said I could treat.

Cashier:  (Smiling as she rings up their candy)  Boy, you guys must really be hungry!  Altogether that will be...FREEZE!  (The audience works to figure out the total.)

Jason:  (Handing the cashier a five dollar bill) I have enough!  Mom says we can buy a book with the change.

Cashier:  And your change is...FREEZE!  (The audience works out the change the kids will receive.)

Haley and Jason:  (Looking at the change excitedly)  Wow!  Let's ride over to the book sale at the library...

Natalie Goldberg is Un-Decorating My Writing Studio

          Okay, so "studio" is such a stretch of the English language, I haven't seen such elasticity since Silly Putty or the old "Stretch Armstrong" dolls, or the skin under my eyes when I was in my 20's, when I could poke around and the skin would spring back into place.  (Now, the wad of displaced skin just adds to the already-huge bags under my eyes.)

         My proposed "studio" is a room in our unfinished basement.  It's just narrow enough to hold a baby crib (it was our son's room when he was born---was a small room that joined onto our bedroom) and is a bit longer than it is wider.  In other words, it's a small room.

         There is carpeting on the floor (albeit not decent carpeting) and on one wall is a set of whimsical balloon-faces (hand-painted by me, so the whimsy comes from how funny they look due to my lack of artistic ability, not the humorous facial expressions they have).  There is a very utilitarian table, and a couple of floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

           Currently, the room is jam-packed with fabric scraps (from my quilting phase), beads (from my jewelery-making phase), and yarn (from my knitting phase, which I'm still entrenched in).

             I know that clearing out the junk would be liberating, and since our house is extremely small, making it a space that I can write makes sense.  However, Natalie Goldberg said it best in her gem of a book, Writing Down the Bones

                  "If you want a room to write in, just get a room.  Don't make a big production out of it.  If it doesn't leak, has a window, heat in the winter, then put in your desk, bookshelves, a soft chair, and start writing.  Too many people decide they have to paint the walls, then buy wall hangings, a special desk, reupholster a chair, hire a carpenter to build walnut bookshelves, shop for  a superb rug. 'After all, this is my special room.'

                   It becomes another trick to avoid writing..."

              My little room does not leak.  It does not have a window, but that might be a plus in my situation----less distractions for me.  It doesn't have heat, but a space heater would work.  There's no room for a comfy chair, but again, less chance for task avoidance.

            Before I reread Goldberg's book and rethought about what works for me (and remembered how clever I am when it comes to getting off track) I had some questions about this room.  How do I cover up the balloon faces, since this will be a "serious" room with a serious purpose?  How do I arrange and decorate it, so that it beckons me to write?

           I guess the conclusion I came to was this:  I have a couple of paintings from a friend--now dead---which are just done on pieces of old, thin wood.  No fancy mat and frame.   One of them will cover up most of the balloons, and what's sticking out will remind me that just next door in our old bedroom, my son was born...  I have some small things I can put on the already-packed bookcases that will make the space scream "Sioux!"  There is a lovely batik portrait of Barack Obama (which I would love to hang up in our bathroom to tick off  some of my relatives) which has not found a proper spot on a wall yet. Obama could hang out with me as I write and rewrite and cross out.

       I don't need a room that beckons me.  I need a room where I can nail myself in a chair, and write...


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Artists Come in All Kinds of Styles

           Yesterday I met with Maureen Schmutzler, a photographic genius.  She went from working for a huge company's graphic arts department, to photographing weddings and babies to what she does now---capturing the true spirit of dogs and cats in unique poses and settings.

           She summed it up best when she said, "They are not here for very long."  Pet owners need to capture their personality and what they contribute to our lives before they leave us, because they leave way too soon.

           Take a gander at the photo of the pooch under the Arch (one of my favorites--the picture on the right side)Maureen's blog and photo site and spend some time on her blog.  She has a posting that lists the reasons why her life is so good (although there is one lie---she has NO winter "fat" left on her body, which causes me to secretly dislike her a little).   Too many times as teachers, we whine about the deficits we see in our students.  Stop the grousing! Your class' glasses are half full, not half empty. 

             Hearing her speak about her craft reminded me that sometimes, just handing a student a digital or a disposable camera drastically shakes things up. There's something about connecting pictures with words that increases the artistic power exponentially...

             One summer at our creative writing camp, my friend had a brilliant idea:  give the kids disposable cameras, they went in the woods and around the outside of the classroom, and took pictures.  They then told a story using the pictures as inspiration.  (Almost all of my great ideas were stolen from this friend.  It's true; I'm a shameless thief.)  It really changed the way they approached their writing process.

           So think about it.  Think about using photography in some unique way in your classroom. And if you're lucky enough to live in the St. Louis area and have a pet you love, think about booking a session with Maureen---she loves animals and she loves her craft.  (And who's a good dog in our house?  Annie, who unlike Foley, would not think of getting up on the couch, is a good dog and since she's 14, is the old girl in the house.)



Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Lesson Learned from Dogs: We Should Prance Every Day

         I let my dogs out this morning, and every morning, Foley prances out the door. He's just eaten breakfast, and to him, life is great. He also prances when we have a ball in our hand, since he lives for his ball-chasing sessions.


           This is Foley (I know he doesn't look like he's the brightest of dogs, but he's smart enough to have manipulated us into spoiling him rotten).

             Dogs eat the same thing every day, and they relish it.  They often have the same routine every day, and they don't whine about it.   If their walk is shorter than usual, they don't complain.

              My friend (also a teacher) mentioned one unpleasant thing that was on our teaching plate. However, she quickly followed up with, "But I'm so grateful we have jobs..."

             Prance because you do have a job.  Prance because you are lucky enough to have a job that is a mission...You make a difference in people's lives.  Prance because, even though there is more paperwork and programs heaped onto our plates every year, it is still the best profession in the world...

The "Fortunately, Unfortunately" Game

         I just saw this game in last week's Parade magazine, and although it was cited as a summer road-trip game, it has some classroom applications...

         As students are lining up (I'm an elementary school teacher, so my kids do line up for restroom breaks, to go to lunch, etc.) we could play a short round of this game; the first few students who can come up with a response can be at the head of the line.  It can also be used as a levity break during a lesson (see the second example at the end of this post).

       Begin by saying something that is frightening, like "Unfortunately, there is a tiger in our classroom."  A female student might respond, "Fortunately, it doesn't eat girls."  A male student might respond, "Unfortunately, it is staring at me, and it's licking its lips."  Another child might say, "Fortunately, each student in our class has a tiger muzzle in their desk, ready to use."

       This requires students to be quick on their feet when it comes to thinking.  It requires them to think about cause and effect in an applicable way.  And, students have to think outside the box for responses that work.

        During a lesson, if you have a student who gets your humor, you can engage in a little humorous fencing with a couple of rounds of this game.  (It shows that teaching is give and take...A classroom community is built on teachers dishing out and taking it.  Teachers can be the focus of laughter if care and respect runs both ways.)


        Unfortunately, __________ didn't do her homework, and the teacher
 is about to shoot fire out their nose directly at __________.

       Fortunately, I have a mirror, and the fire will hit the mirror, and bounce
right back to the teacher.

          What are some quick games you use that help your students think more quickly and more creatively?

           A writing friend of mine just got me on the trail of a book called Fortunately by Remy Charlip.  She got great results when using it with her students.  I am going to have to add that to my "buy" list.

          This friend is the type of writer who disguises herself.  On the surface, she is quiet and humble.  There are some who love the sound of their own voice, who are always trumpeting their own horn, who regularly are showcasing their skills...not this writer.  However, when you get into an in-depth discussion with her, and you find out the writerly life she leads (she belongs to a writers' group, she is constantly submitting her work for publication and contests, she watches people, always hunting for her next inspiration...), it just makes your mouth gape open.

         Check out her blog.     barb's blog

Monday, July 26, 2010

Re-Energized by Passionate Colleagues

             I was in a meeting with Gateway Writing Project members this evening.  (Check out the nearest National Writing Project site for a life-changing experience.)  We are planning our 3rd annual youth writing festival.

             Yes, we're all busy.  Yes, we're still on summer break.  But also yes, we are all committed and passionate about the young writers we teach.  My friend said it best:  We make time for what matters to us...

             Collaborating with colleagues who get jazzed about the same things you do re-energizes you.  There are too many teachers who use the excuse, "I'm too busy...I don't have the time," and certainly as educators, our plates get more full every year.

              But, if it really matters, we will make time for it.

What I Need in Order to Survive

        I was checking out, and reading a humorous posting.  (I am noticing that the closer I get to August 5th, the more I seek out humorous bits.)

       This teacher listed things they needed in order to survive.  What do I need to teach, and without it, I will perish?

  • Blue tack---that sticky stuff that can be reused, year after year,to stick stuff onto the wall, or the door, or file cabinets---only the blue stuff will do---the white stuff doesn't work as well

  • chocolate--a little dab (or a large slab) will do 'ya
  • black Sharpies (I like to hoard a few in a cabinet)
  • rubber cement (alright, I don't absolutely need this, but I certainly enjoy the scent--the smell is as comforting as the taste of paste was when I was a kid)
  • a least a couple of quirky kids (this is almost always a "given")--I do better when I have some squirrely students, because then I have a few kindred spirits around me

  • a theme. I think my room's theme this year is "Dreams" and I am going to have each student decorate a set of blank CD's (strung, 3 in a row, from the ceiling) with beads and other things.  There will be clouds hung from the ceiling as well.  My teaching friend and I have a dream of going to Africa and spending a few weeks teaching; I would definitely like to help nurture my students' dreams... 
  • music.  I like to listen to music--loud-- before the students come in.  It energizes me, and if I close my door, I can even dance around (a sight that is quite funny---better than Elaine from Seinfeld)
  • air conditioning.  I don't mean just in the early fall and in the spring.  I mean all year long.  ("Children, can you spell menopause?")

  • a teaching partner that has a sense of humor (I have that---Holly is hilarious and is a natural-born teacher.)
  • a colleague to debrief with (I have that as well; I have a teaching friend---the one who is going to Africa with me, some day, who is an invaluable sounding board)
  • techno-savvy kids.  Since my Smartboard is dubbed the "Dumb Board" because of my lack of skills, I rely on my students many times every day. 
I am sure there are other things I need, but I can't think of them right now.

Data Driving on the 'Tube

         Last night crazy things were going on with our nextdoor neighbors, so since I could not sleep, I was on my laptop, looking up some stuff on data walls.  (And watching Mad Men begin their new season...)

          This video is a principal talking about data walls in the halls.  There was one idea that is probably obvious to everyone else, but seemed brilliant to me:  instead of taking down the data sheets/charts/graphs and putting up the most recent ones, staple the new ones on top of the old ones so they can be compared at a single glance.

data wall video

         This video snippet has a teacher talking through the process.  I thought it might be helpful in our school because a few of us engaged in inservice last spring, and will be relied on to help bring the rest of the staff up to speed.  It has some helpful "nuts and bolts" hints, especially the use of color-coded post-its. 

data wall discussion

         This video discusses a specific data wall form.  The only thing I would change is there is a "Plan" and "Do" category, and the "Do" category seems very simplistic.  (It has what assessment they will use at the end of the year.)  I think if I use something similar, I will list the specific strategies/activities under the "Do" section.

another data wall discussion

         Finally, a bit of humor.  This is a cheesy "rap" by a few white guys.  It might be a great way to begin a workshop or discussion about being driven crazy as we're driven by data...After all, it's much better to laugh than cry (and pull our hair out).

At the corner of Data and Levity

Sunday, July 25, 2010

First Day of School: Aw, Come On...Writing Already?

         On our first day of school, I always have my students write for 5 minutes.  They get to choose the subject, and I direct them to pick a topic they know a lot about.  For example, some of my boys are football players, and are confident they've got oodles of experience to pull from.  Some of the students have a particular musical group they know a lot about.  I suggest the children choose something they are an "expert" about.

           They write the topic they are writing on at the top of their paper. I then set the timer for five minutes, encouraging them to write for the whole time; if they get stuck in a rut, I tell them they should try to keep the writing flowing...

            After collecting the papers, later in the day (or the next day) I count the number of words in their piece, and write in on their paper.  I then file the papers somewhere where I can find them at the end of the year.  (For me, a clutter queen, this is sometimes a challenge...)

            In the last few weeks of school, I hand each student a blank piece of paper.  On it is their name, and the topic they wrote on earlier.  Again the timer is set for 5 minutes, and the class is given the same directions.

              After counting the number of words they wrote, we compare the two papers, and discuss.  What differences do they notice between the two writings?  What did they learn, which is evident from the second stab at the subject?  How did they grow as a writer?  How did their feelings about writing change over the school year?  Why is increasing stamina important to a writer?

              The two papers can be stapled together, and the students can even write a letter to their parent, outlining how they have grown as writers and what kind of writing strategies they have added to their tool belt.

             What kind of writing activities do you do that will serve as evidence of writing growth?  I am always in the mood for some alternatives...