Writing and Hope

I recently read an article in which Hope Solo talked about how reading saved her life. She discussed her broken family as a child, and how she used reading as a way to escape from the chaos of her life and ultimately heal. She is now arguably one of the best soccer players in the world, and she is a prominent face on the U.S Women’s National  Soccer Team.

I am reminded of the beginning of my own love affair with reading which started with The Patchwork Girl of Oz by Frank L. Baum and blossomed with The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S Lewis. I was fascinated by the idea of another world existing on the other side of my closet wall.  A world filled with beautiful forest, strange creatures and lots of excitement. I was even more fascinated at the thought of being gone for hours, days, and even years, while seeming only gone for minutes! I can still remember the feeling of being pulled into Narnia along with Lucy and her siblings and wanting to touch Aslan’s fur and have him be my friend.

I am reminded that reading gave me hope. It gave me hope that there was something bigger and better out there in the world. Something bigger and better than the world I lived in, but that I knew was out there. Reading gave me a  safe, fun place to go without having to go anywhere.

Many of the lessons I have learned about love, friendship, family and happiness, I have learned, or had reinforced, through a journey in a novel I was reading. Many of my happiest moments have been sitting curled up on a couch with a warm blanket covering my toes, a steaming cup of coffee, and a great book filling my mind, body and spirit.

Hope Solo describes being inspired when she read. I know the feeling and  I hope that I can inspire a love of reading in every student whose life I have an opportunity to touch.

Forget about piecing it together, let’s take it apart!

 

 

Here’s my thinking

If students are to become great writers they have to understand how great writers write. We spend a lot of time asking students to put writing together, but we rarely ask them to take writing apart so they can see what how it became the great writing that it is.  During our writing PLC  I challenged a group of teachers to take the plunge with me and  discuss our findings.

We decided to take it apart

We chose a news article from newsela, an amazing site that provides you with the most up to date news articles, and allows you to choose the lexile level at which you would like to read the article. We chose an article on Syrian refugees and literally cut it into parts. We separated the headings, subheadings, paragraphs and pictures, in an attempt to look at what this author did that made his article powerful.

Our Findings

We began by looked at  the first thing that jumped out to most of us. Teachers commented  on what we could learn from the title and subtitles. We also discussed the impact of  pictures on our understanding of the text.  But then it got really good! Some teachers started discussing how the article, while appearing to be an informational article, used many subtle (and some not so subtle) techniques to assist the reader in forming a very specific opinion.  That sparked a discussion about word choice which had us cutting out all of words used that were subliminally creating a specific image in the reader’s mind. This sparked more discussion! Teachers cut out different sentence types and examined how many of each type were used. We ended up with piles and piles of words, paragraphs, sentence types and pictures! This was an article taken apart, and apart, and apart.

More practice

It went so well that I decided to do the same exercise with a small group of students I was working with. The conversations were amazing! Students were able to see different writing strategies more clearly and discuss the impact of the author choosing these writing techniques.  They were excited and wanted to  apply some of the things they learned from this author into their own writing.

My takeaway

Sometimes you have to take writing apart to really understand how carefully it is put together.  Let students get messy with the writing they way we allow children to get messy with finger paint.  Let them tear the writing apart, analyze it, learn from it and finally apply what they learned to their own writing.

 

Authors on Writing

 

It was eight thirty in the morning and I was sitting in a classroom next to Felicia, conferencing with her about her writing. Felicia is a promising young  middle school student and budding writer, who fully intends to write a book before she finishes high school. She was working on a story that she just couldn’t get right and was almost in tears over it. “It’s not right!” she said. “What do you mean?I replied, shocked at how passionate she was.  What is it that you want to see in your writing that you are not seeing?” With tears in her eyes she tried to find the right  words to express how she felt, and what she wanted her paper to sound like. I watched her struggle for words and then blurt out ” I’m suppose to be a writer you know. Writers don’t write like this.”

I’ve had  many student conferences over the  years, and I must say  this was the first time I encountered a student who I was having a hard time encouraging. She was so hard on herself and didn’t want to be encouraged or comforted by me.  Our time together ended that day with me feeling like a complete failure because it seemed as if though she was  on the verge of giving up. It bothered me so much that I went home and continued to replay our conversation over and over in my head.

I  thought about myself as a writer and what worked for me. Felicia loved science and like many middle school students she also loved You Tube. The light bulb went off in my head and I immediately began scouring You Tube for the right fit. The right author to convince Felicia in a way that I could not, that writing was a process. A creative process.

I chose a video in which Rebecca Skloot discusses writing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Image result for rebecca skloot

I was so excited that I had found what I believed to be the golden ticket for Felicia!

When I met with Felicia again we watched the video and discussed the real life of a writer. The way in which writers create, edit and rewrite.

W e looked up other videos and interviews in which writers talked about their  writing craft. Their process for creating, revising, and in some cases scraping entire projects in favor of a new approach. In the end Felicia felt better about her work. I smiled as I watched her take notes from the videos, discussed with me what she thought and decide what advice from the authors she could apply to her own writing.

My conferences with Felicia were so rewarding for me because I realized the importance of letting the students hear from the writers themselves. Let them hear  their favorite authors talk about their process, struggles, fears and triumphs. Let students hear from writers who  write and publish some of the very novels and manuscripts they love. The buy in from students is incredible!

 

The impact of teaching students to truly engage with literature

An 8th grade student was reading “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and decided to use sticky notes to assist her in her questioning of what she would later come to identify as one of several central themes in the novel.  What was fascinating to me  was that this was not an assigned book. This was a book she chose to read. These were her sticky notes, not notes that her teacher made her take, or a class assignment. This was her questioning, synthesizing and interpreting what she was reading.
wpid-20150929_121341.jpgI saw her with this book and asked about her notes. We discussed what she was thinking, how she got answers to the questions she had, and what she thought about Pecola Breedlove and her obsession with blue eyes. The discussion was rich and I was inspired. I was inspired because I wasn’t a teacher talking to an 8th grade student in that moment. We were two people discussing a literary work that I have read many times, yet never interpreted in some of the ways that she did. I was inspired because in that moment I knew that she was thinking deeply about the text.

Close reading is a way of interacting with texts in order to gain a deeper understanding, examine the author’s word choice, draw conclusions and question what you believe based on what the author has presented in her literary work.

We never know how our instruction will impact our students in their every day lives. When I sat down and talked with this student I though about our bigger purpose as educators. As educators we are responsible for giving students tools that will expand their world and help them reach way beyond our own understanding. Our purpose is to teach our students to be better  more critical thinkers than we were at their age.

Green?

Have you ever wondered why Dr. Seuss chose green as the color for his eggs and ham in this very popular children’s book? 

When I think about food from the perspective of a child,  green is probably the last color I want my food to be. What a great discussion for students to have as they pay attention to Dr. Seuss’ word choice and his thoughtful use of adjectives. Click on the link Dr. Seuss’ use of adjectives in Green Eggs and Ham, to watch a video of this really easy way to teach grammar authentically through the use of one of Dr. Seuss’ most popular books!

Because teachers do make a difference- Ms. Fenty

I sat up straight whenever I was at my desk in Ms. Fenty’s music class at  Elementary School P.S 139 in Brooklyn. I sat up straight because that is what she did when she sat at the piano. She sat up straight. Her chin slightly raised. Her long fingers always adorned with rings. Big shiny rings. Ms. Fenty was poised, regal, and serious about chorus. A very tall woman with the most magnificent gold framed glasses I had ever seen, she scared and fascinated me all at the same time.  She played the piano with authority as she commanded us to open our mouths and “Sing children! Sing!” I can still hear her voice booming over the sounds of the keys as she passionately pounded out our melody. Frosty the snowman, Jingle Bells, and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. I learned and loved these songs. They were magical because Ms. Fenty made them so. She explained who Parson Brown was. She made us feel the triumph of Rudolph when he was asked to guide the sleigh. Rudolph was powerful. We were powerful. Especially when we sang. We were powerful when we sang because Ms. Fenty helped us to see the power of music. Our concerts at Kings Plaza Shopping Center in Brooklyn were the highlight of my school year for many reasons. I loved to sing. I loved the stories behind what I sang. Most of all though, I loved the look of pride on Ms. Fenty’s face. The feeling of importance that she gave me when I walked behind her and on to the platform of the stage. There were other students there too of course, but it may as well have just been her and I. I wanted to make her proud. I opened my mouth, knew all of the words to every song, and sang!

I made her proud.

Ms. Fenty did not tell me she loved me every day, nor did she coddle me. She didn’t  invite me to sit at her piano and tell me how great I was. Ms. Fenty did however make me feel like I could do anything. I watched how she carried herself. The way she walked and talked. She believed she could do anything.  She was firm and fair.  I watched the no nonsense way she had of handling students and even adults at times. She loved music, and I loved that she loved it. Her passion for music gave me a passion for words

Ms. Fenty stayed with me. In my heart that is. I never forgot all that I learned from her.  Oh , and I remembered the songs too.

In an educator’s shoes

children-playing-on-the-beach-at-sunset-james-forte“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.”

~ Donald D. Quinn

I read this quote and though about how perfectly it expresses the life of  not only a classroom teacher, but an educator in general who deals with students, parents, teachers and community stakeholders, all with different views of how a situation should be handled, who is right, and what constitutes providing students with a quality education. I smiled  when I came across this quote because I instantly felt proud to be an educator. I felt proud to be a part of a profession that so many others are built upon.

In most school districts across the country, the school year will be coming to a close within the next two months. For most students, they are eagerly awaiting  the end of the school year so that they can enjoy their  summer, forget about school and sleep late.  For most educators though, the end  of the school year means that now it is time to reflect on the school year, attend summer professional development and make plans for the following school year.  This is a testament to the commitment and love that educators have for the students they teach every day.

Donald D. Quinn was right to indicate that the job of a teacher is extremely challenging in ways that people in other professions could not comprehend.

Thank you to every dedicated educator who believes enough in our children to treat them with professional excellence and contribute to their success!

A case for but

 

Who says you can't use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence?

Who says you can’t use a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence?

 

A case for But

 

Language and grammar lessons are everywhere.

I was sitting at breakfast in a restaurant very early one Saturday morning. Tired and in desperate need of coffee, I sat at the table waiting for my brain to catch up with my body. This might seem a little strange, but my mind starts going way before my body ever joins the party, and this morning was no exception. I sat at the table waiting for my coffee. Tapping my thumbs, I began to play with the menu on the table.  I read it,  then flipped it over and read it again trying to decide what I wanted to eat.  There it was. One sentence that just stood out and I actually said out loud, “This is a really good sentence.(See example in above caption.)  It was really smart to use a subordinating conjunction at the beginning of this sentence!”  In that instant I remembered my years of schooling and learning that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.   “Absolutely not!” Teacher after teacher, year after year would tell me  this. I would have countless red marks on my paper whenever I did this, but never fully understood why. I just knew it was wrong.

The truth is, sometimes its great to start a sentence with a conjunction. Knowing when and why is key.  Starting this sentence with the subordinating conjunction but was a great idea! When I read the sentence, I immediately heard  a voice with light – hearted sarcasm. I saw a grin on the writer’s face, and even saw the writer winking her eye. This sentence was in my eyes perfect and concise. It was a  thought to leave you with. I got it! I thought to myself.  I got her message (I think).

There were so many other ways that this sentence could have been written, but the writer choose to write it this way. I wonder if she intended for me, the reader, to interpret it the way I did.

As I sat there intrigued, I started thinking about the rich conversation that students could have with each other about this sentence. Questions could arise such as:

  • What other ways could the sentence have been written
  • What do you think the intended meaning was?
  • How did you interpret the use of the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence?
  • What message did the writer really want to convey?
  •  Do you think the writer had a limited number of words to work with?

I also started thinking about the possible G.R.I.P lesson that could naturally follow.

 

Grammar Concept – Using subordinating conjunctions in a variety of positions.

Reading – The sentence from the menu (with the back story of course)

Impact – The use of a subordinating conjunction at the beginning of this sentence works well because it helps me as the reader understand the tone of the writing.

Practice – Go back to your writing from last week and see if you can find a place to revise a sentence, using a subordinating conjunction at the beginning of the sentence. Be prepared to share why you made the change.

 

Lessons don’t always come out of a textbook, sometimes they come from seeing grammar for what it is, a part of everyday life. The next time you sit down at a coffee shop or in a restaurant, don’t ignore writing that speaks to you. Use it to show students how to get a  G.R.I.P.

 

Using blocks to play with punctuation

image

Love people. Cook them. Tasty food!

People love tasty food. Cook them!

Love people. Cook them tasty food!

Why do we teach grammar? Are we teaching our students that there is power in punctuation? I often wonder what would happen if we allowed our students to play with punctuation. I mean really play with it. Play with physical blocks and use them to build towering sentences with colorful words and phrases. I wonder what would happen if we could unlock for students this little gem; You can make people get excited or be amused. You can make them understand or remain confused, by carefully choosing words, phrases, clauses and punctuation.

As a classroom  teacher I would often hear students say ” Why do we need to do this?” Sometimes I had an answer, and if I was frustrated enough that answer would be, ” because if you don’t you will fail!”  Yes, I have had a few bad teaching moments. The truth is, even my non – frustrated answers were probably not the best either. I would tell students that they would learn to become a better writer, or that it was important to know how to speak. I have told students that they will need to know correct grammar and punctuation as they go through school and write papers.

While  all of these things are true,  these reasons matter to the student who is already extremely motivated. It matters to the student who wants to do well in school and in life. It matters to the student who doesn’t want to fail. It matters to the student that does care about their education, and might  even secretly be fascinated with words. That’s great! It’s great that the motivation is there no matter what the reason.  But language is more than just textbooks and worksheets. Its more than just college essays and great scores on standardized test.  Language is power. It is a tool that has been used to control, manipulate and evoke emotion in people for centuries.

Lego Blocks are inexpensive and help students of all ages  to see how you can play with words. When you consider  that you can use an expo marker to write on them, and then erase and reuse, its not a bad investment! Use Lego blocks to have your students write  sentences and then see how many ways they can switch up the blocks with words on them to make new sentences.  Focus on the change in meaning, when simple things like punctuation are changed (see above  examples).

When we approach grammar and language as  powerful tools to be revered and cherished, instruments that we use to play heartstrings, provoke thought, and even create laughter, we can teach students something new. We can teach them to love the power that they have when they are masters of language.

Getting a G.R.I.P on Grammar

“Research over  a period of nearly 90 years has consistently shown that the teaching of school grammar has little or no effect on students.” This statement was made in 1991 by George Hillcocks and Michael  Smith, supporting the view that  grammar instruction must change.

In her article, “the Wrong Way to Teach Grammar”,  Michelle Navarre Clearly states that reviews of over 250 studies between 1984 -2012 confirm that the old-fashioned way of teaching grammar is not effective.  My question then is, why are we still teaching it this way?

Grammar should be taught through reading and writing.  Students hear pervasively that good readers write, and good writers read.  If we believe this to be true, then grammar instruction should be embedded in reading and writing.

In my opinion there is a time and place for explicit instruction, but too often the instruction stops there. I suggest using a strategy that I call G.R.I.P. This strategy helps students go beyond simply learning grammar, and allows them to see the importance of grammar in reading and writing. The details of the strategy are outlined below.

Grammar Concept – Students are given explicit instruction about a specific grammar concept.

Reading –  The explanation of the grammar concept should then be followed up with the application of the grammar concept being shown in a great mentor text or selected reading.

Impact –  Teachers and students should engage in a discussion about the impact of the grammar in the context of the reading. Students need to see how authors manipulate words, punctuation and images to allow someone to visualize, believe, interpret or understand what they intend.

Practice – Students should be asked to immediately use the grammar concept in their own writing. If students understand the impact of grammar on what they read and how they interpret what they read, they might be more willing to not only embrace learning grammar, but also apply it to their own writing.