Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Rose, Is a Rose, Is a Public School Teacher

"What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I've been thinking a lot about names lately.  Perhaps it's because we've been chatting with our daughter and son-in-law a lot about baby names, listening to them make decisions as they contemplate their baby boy's name, our first grandchild's name (can't wait until April).  A baby's name is important, it labels his identity from that first cry when he leaves the womb and is placed in his mother's arms or when the adoption agency hands a new dad his daughter for the first time... "Hush, little Baby, don't say a word!"  But a name doesn't develop the child's identity.  What develops the child's identity is the way he or she is treated, nurtured, loved, honored, nourished, cared for, respected!
In "Romeo and Juliet" Juliet argues that a name is just a name, but rather it's what lies beneath that name that's most important.  And we all know when Juliet says, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" she's just stating that she should be able to love who she chooses to love, despite his name.  Gertrude Stein's most famous quote is, "A rose, is a rose, is a rose."  In her staccato style, she used the phrase many times in her poetry (first in "Sacred Emily" in 1913) and she once said, "I'm no fool.  I know we can't go around saying 'A ... is a... is a...' and yet she used the phrase often (maybe she just liked the way it rolled off the tongue or her pen).  But Stein and Shakespeare probably pondered those words carefully before they appeared in their writing.  They probably read the words over and over.  And, so we name a rose a rose.
I was looking at the name of my blog this week "All-en-a-Day's Work."  A simple play on words that my son used on his projects when he was little and that I "borrowed" when I created this spot for me to share my ponderings.  When I looked up the meaning of "all in a day's work," I discovered it meant, "If something is difficult, unpleasant, or strange... it is considered to be 'all in a day's work," a usual part of the job."  But my blog isn't just a mundane, routine, or unpleasant part of my teaching life.  Certainly my entries can be sporadic, but it's an important place for me to contemplate my beliefs, my discoveries, my wonderings, my ideas.  It's a place for me to share a little of myself with whomever reads it, for whatever it's worth.  It's one place for me to give the thoughts in my head an identity.  It gives them a chance to develop.

I've been a public school teacher for 31 years.  I love my job.  I've said it before, I fell into my career when my wife gave me a copy of Writers: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves.  That book changed my career path and changed my life.  I became a teacher because of little things that nudged me into my vocation.  The signs were all there and I believe it was God's plan for me to teach; the one who lead me to the public schools.  I take the name "public school teacher" seriously, just as I would if I taught in another setting (and we're so lucky to already have that choice).  It's more than just being called "teacher" for me, I am proud to add "public" to my name!  


My identity is not developed by working within "an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge."  My Identity is not developed by spending my days in "an entry level position."  My identity is not developed by what Graves calls in The Energy to Teach, "pundits who have never taught."  My identity is developed by passion - for learners and learning.  I love my career - with it's ups and downs, changes, mandates, and other "stuff".  But I try to focus on the joys, the celebrations, the exciting challenges.  There's nothing better than spending the day with children, except perhaps continuing to learn myself. 


I've developed my passion as a public school teacher by looking into the eyes of 25-30 kids each day.  I've developed my passion through hours of professional development, hours of reading, hours of watching others teach.  I've developed my passion by writing and sharing my thinking with others.  I've developed my passion by being the father of four wonderful children who have all attended public school.  I've developed by passion by being married to another teacher.  I've developed my passion by surrounding myself with colleagues and friends who care just as much about education as I do.  I've developed my passion by spending thousands of dollars on children's literature and professional literature that helps hone my craft.  I've developed my passion by talking to and learning from Stenhouse and Heinemann authors.  I've developed my passion by attending and presenting at conferences, working in schools across the country and in Canada, and spending countless hours talking about education on the telephone with grand friends.   


I've developed my passion as a public school teacher, because I have witnessed exciting, wise pedagogical changes in 31 short years (which is far less that the 150 years that we've recently been told there have been no changes).  And, I continue to teach because passion can't be easily extinguished.  After all, I am a teacher for goodness sake.



Names are important.  I'm sure my children would agree.  
Once you choose it, it goes public.  
And then you can help develop the identity of what you've named.


What's in a name?  
That which we call Public School Teacher.  
Boy, does it smell sweet!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Picking Up Three - From My Stacks

I've decided to write one post each month to think through and share texts that I have in my stacks.  I have lots of "gems" and sometimes it's helpful to hunker down on the library floor to revisit and "re-vision" how I might use the great pieces of text I've collected.  Many texts are old favorites just waiting to be shared in a think aloud or shared together to nudge our conversations as readers.  Many texts are forgotten books that I discovered along the way, but never got around to using.  Many texts were added to my collection for a specific purpose, but never quite made it into a crafting lesson.  

One of the questions I'm often asked is "What text should I use to teach ____?"

Here's my answer... choose text that you love!  That's the easy part.  But sometimes that's just not enough.  As we plan a strategy study, no matter the thinking behavior we're delving into with our students, text choice is critical.  If we truly believe that "thinking strategies" can and should be applied across genre, across experiences, and across a study, we have to be wise in our decision making as teachers.  What texts lend themselves to the thinking that I'm hoping my young readers will store in their strategy wheelhouse?

If we want our young readers to infer, to synthesize, to activate their schema, etc. we have to be selective as we plan instruction... and then we build a classroom library rich in the kinds of text we're hoping our students will read!
- - - 
Here's my plan.  I've pulled three books out of my collection.  I'll give a brief synopsis of the text and then share one way we might use the text as readers during the crafting portion of reader's workshop; focusing on a specific thinking strategy (although each text lends itself to more than one strategy).  My hope is that you'll begin to search your own collections for that "just right" book to use as you craft* a strategy with your readers during reader's workshop.


My friend and colleague, Susan Logan, gave me When Everybody Wore a Hat by William Steig when she brought a group of visitors to my classroom a few years ago.  It is an autobiographical sketch of William Steig's childhood in which he invites us into his eight-year-old world... in 1916 when "everybody wore a hat."

Strategy Focus:  Drawing Inferences

When you read this text, you can't help but infer.  Readers infer when they create personal meaning from the text by gleaning insight and interpretations.  William Steig's simplicity in thought nudges us to "step into his life" as a young boy growing up in the 1900s.  His is a very unique point of view.  I might use this book as a shared text with my students.  Together, we might work together to draw conclusions and build our schema as we "think through" text together.  This might happen fairly early in a study when I'm nudging learners to speculate, think about questions that lead to an inference, or gather clues from the text.  Together, we might explore a portion of this book to gain insight into our own process of "coming to know" how wise readers infer.  Remember, inferring helps readers deepen their understanding beyond the text and lends itself to broad, personalized experiences.



I bought this book for two reasons:  Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor.  I love when the two of them were able to collaborate.  The Buffalo Are Back is one of their collaborations; one example of their stunning work.  Together, they tell the story of the demise and return of the buffalo (including Theodore Roosevelt's role in the process) to the great plains.  The text is broken into short sections, each dealing with a specific aspect of the American Buffalo in the west.  I love Wendall's dedication, "To Jean, in celebration of her fifty years of writing wonderful books that teach children the wonders of nature." 

Strategy Focus:  Asking Questions

This text can be used encourage authentic questioning.  As readers, we spend time asking questions before, during, and after reading.  Because this text is full of such rich language, readers can generate questions at the word, sentence, and whole text level.  I might use short sections of this text throughout a study of "asking questions" and "lift" certain passages for students to grapple with independently (later in a study).  I might also use portions of it as a think aloud early on in a study of questioning.  This book ties well into a study of ecosystems or western history and is "question rich" text.  Remember, asking questions helps readers pose possibilities to stretch their own thinking as they develop and explore their wonderings as readers.


I admit it.  I bought this book on the bargain shelf at The Boulder Bookstore.  It just makes me laugh (Jennifer Larue Huget has also written herself into a great mentorship with students as writers).  This book explores the "what if" aspect of running away from home... and what child hasn't threatened that at least once in his or her childhood.  It's funny.  It's a book that nudges readers to contemplate, wonder about, and explore the benefits and consequences of "running away."  

Strategy Focus:  Activating, Utilizing, & Building Background Knowledge 

Wise readers have to learn to activate their schema - blending their background knowledge and background experiences.  I would use this book near the beginning of a study as either a think aloud or a shared experience.  As readers, knowing that differences in text structure affect our understanding, we often use our schema to make sense of text.  This text lends itself to the idea of activating schema before, during, and after reading.  Using schema nudges readers to pay attention to purpose and to acknowledge when their background is either helping or hindering their understanding.  I think using this book to nudge collaborative thinking during a crafting session would be perfect; I picture lots of "turn and talk" as we explore the text.  Remember, activating, utilizing, and building background knowledge and experience is more than "connecting" to the text; it's about using what you know to better understand what you don't know. 

• • •

So... until next month, here's your homework.  Choose three books from your stacks.  Think about these things as you read:
  • Does this text fit into my current strategy study?  If not, what strategy might I use it with later?
  • As I read this text, what thinking strategy to I find MYSELF using?  How am I being metacognitive?  How might I use it with students?
  • Is this a book that I want to use for crafting or do I just want to "talk it up" and get it into the hands of children?
  • As a reader, do I find this text compelling?  Is sharing it worthy of my time or my students's intellect? 
  • How might this mentor author fit into another content... writing, mathematics, social studies, etc.?  
*Craft, to me, is the mini-lesson during reader's workshop.  That's the perspective I'm writing from as I share these texts. 



Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Literacy - A Right

"Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, 
and opportunity is inseparable from freedom.  
The freedom promised by literacy is 
both freedom from - from ignorance, oppression, poverty - and freedom to - to do new things, to make choices, to learn." 

This quote by Koichira Matsuura is my new favorite quote.  It's been rumbling through my heart and head since I ran across it a few weeks ago.  It's one of those finds that causes a person (a reader and writer) to ponder... his own literacy experiences, the experiences of those with whom he works, and, even, those whom he'll never meet.  

Somewhere, Twitter perhaps, I heard (read?) this statement "I'm not sure literacy is a human right."  That statement, coupled with Matsuura's words, has nudged me to think.  Is literacy a human right?  I'd say yes.  It's not only a human right, it's an obligation.

Marsha Ellis says, "I believe that literacy is a right of the people and an obligation of society to create ways to educate its citizens. The government has an obligation to the people that it serves to implement ways to provide an education for all.  The Declaration of Independence states that, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness'."  And literacy is part of that life, that freedom, that joy.

So what's our role as educators in this obligation?  I think it's about nudging young learners to become the kinds of "literate" people that understand their right... to become.  And, we've got to do it authentically, purposefully, and sincerely.  We've got to help young learners - no matter who they are or where they landed physically - to be the kinds of readers, writers, and thinkers that realize that their words matter, their thoughts matter, their lives matter.  We owe it to our young public learning each day in public school.

Katherine Paterson so eloquently reminds us, "It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations-something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own."  So, in our work to nudge the human right of literacy with children, we better take her words seriously.

A visitor to my classroom recently asked me, "How do you get them to talk to each other that way?"  My answer... by being a reader myself.  I don't believe that we teach children to read with a stopwatch in our hand.  I don't believe that we teach children to read with a packaged program.  I don't believe that we teach children to read by giving them worksheets.  I don't believe that we teach children to read by "paying others" to gather materials.  I don't believe that we teach children to read in a lock-step "this first, then that" manner.

If we want learners to become life-long, literate human beings we put the best books in front of them.  We release responsibility with grace and support.  We build trust.  We strengthen relationships.  We create huge blocks of time.  We offer up ownership.  We give them a notebook to record their ideas and thoughts.  We demonstrate our own grapplings and successes as literate human beings.  We talk to them with precise, strategy-rich vocabulary.  We confer.  We listen to them as they make sense of text and of their world.  We remember that the language arts include... reading, writing, speaking, and LISTENING.  

Each day when my students come into the classroom, we have music playing (their chance to gather up and gather in).  As I listened to the words of our gathering song this morning, I was struck by the gift I've been given.  I get to spend my days "in the company of children." (J. Hindley)

I understand that I have a huge obligation to the children in my care.  I can't take it lightly.  It's their right. 




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Monday, March 28, 2016

WISH: An interview with Barbara O'Connor




I was lucky enough to read a copy of Barbara O’Connor’s latest book Wish (out November 2016) last week.  What a wonderful surprise to open the mailbox and find an advanced reader copy.  Wish is the kind of read I was hoping it would be!  Wish is the kind of book I was hoping my friend would write.  Wish is the kind of book I can't wait to get into the hands of readers. 

If, like me, you are a Barbara O'Connor fan, you know Barbara's writing well.  You know that she invites a reader to live out a character's life through his or her story.  You know that she introduces supporting characters filled with angst and humor.  You know that she creates a setting full of allure and intrigue.  You know that she sprinkles her words with southern charm.  You know that she writes with a rhythm and simplicity that makes you stop in your tracks to ponder.  You know that her books leave a reader changed.

I think is was Socrates who said, “Be as you wish to seem.”  And, that's what I love about Barbara, she is what she seems.  She is a writer's writer.  

Wish is about Charlie, a girl with a special "wish" that she's been making every day since fourth grade (in the most unique ways).  Due to situations at home, Charlie is sent to live with her Aunt Bertha and Uncle Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where day after day she continues making her "wish," hoping it will come true.  She befriends a boy named Howard Odom (and his family*) and as their relationship unfolds, they develop a special bond.  Charlie's heart melts when she discovers a stray dog she names Wishbone.  As Wish continues, Charlie learns the true meaning of family, friendship, and love.

In anticipation of Wish's release, Barbara and I had a conversation about her new book and her writing in general.  Here's a snippet of our conversation...  

Me:  What was your inspiration for writing Wish (without giving too much away)?  It seems like you dug deeply into some familial issues that seem all to familiar to many young (and old) people.

Barbara:  I was conducting a biography writing workshop with fifth graders in a school in Massachusetts.  The students interviewed a family member and used those answers to write creative nonfiction (a short biography).  One of the questions on the interview sheet was: What were your favorite interests or hobbies as a child?

A boy in the class had interviewed his grandmother and she answered that question: soccer, ballet and fighting.  Obviously, that struck me as quite interesting and stayed with me for a long time.

So when I got ready to write Charlie’s story, I knew I wanted to start with her filling out a “Getting to Know You” paper for her teacher and listing those three things as her favorite activities.  The rest of the story unfolded from there.

As for familial issues, I’ll spare you the details of my youth and save them for my therapist, but I'll quote the author Joan Bauer, who said: "The great thing about having a dysfunctional childhood is that it never stops giving.”

Me:  You have the uncanny ability to cause your readers to fall in love with the characters in your books.  When you "go after" a character, what do you keep in mind as you develop him or her?

Barbara:  It’s kind of hard to describe my process with characters other than to say I spend a lot of time with them in my head before I start writing, so that I know them through and through.  Dialogue is a biggie for me - the way I really get to know characters and then present them to the reader.  I try to stay so focused on the character that when the dialogue doesn’t ring true, I know it immediately.

I have a harder time with their physical appearance.  I don’t always SEE the character initially.  But I definitely HEAR the character.  So I have to make more of a conscious effort to figure that out and then describe the appearance of a character.

Me:  There's southern charm in your words.  The smells, the sounds, the thoughts... the sensory images you create for your readers are so strong.  What tools or strategies do you use as a writer to create strong images?  

Barbara:  This will probably sound a little hippie-dippie, but I try to get into a sort of zen-like state when I write and then immerse myself in the setting.  Having grown up in the South, I have many memories to draw on.  I try to dredge up those memories when I write and those memories are often sensory. 

Ironically, I have no sense of smell!  A little trivia for you.  Ha haI  But I know that smells are important so I always try to include them.  I rely on trusted readers/critique partners to ensure that I’ve gotten the smells correct.

Me:  What are you hoping your readers will discover about themselves as they read Wish?  What did you discover about yourself as you were writing?

Barbara:  I don’t know if I’d call it a discovery…but rather a reminder: that sometimes what we wish for is right there in front of us all the time….but we are often too busy wishing to notice.  Does that make sense?  The old adage, “Be careful what you wish for” also comes into play.  The main character of WISH, Charlie, was so busy wishing for something she didn’t have, that she didn’t notice all the good things she DID have.  And…if she had actually gotten what she THOUGHT she wanted, things wouldn’t have turned out so well for her.

And another old adage comes to mind: Take time to smell the roses.

Me:  Describe your writing process.  What would you say to a young writer (say, 4th grade) who has a story to tell? Someone once said, "There's a writer in all of us."   What would you say to a writer who has a story to tell, but is afraid to tell it?

First and foremost, I would say, “DON’T be afraid.” I always tell kids to never be afraid to write something that they think isn’t very good. Because they can always fix it.  But you can’t fix what you haven’t written. To me, a page full of not-so-great writing is way less daunting than a blank page.

Secondly, I like to remind young writers that each of them is an individual with a unique style and voice. I could give a whole room full of writers the same storyline, but the end result would be different for each one. So I always encourage young writers to embrace their own personalities which come through as style and voice in their writing. 

Me:  One of my favorite lines from Wish is, "Maybe the Odoms' hearts were so good that they didn't care that they lived in such a sad-looking house."  As you reread Wish, what are two or three of your favorite lines?

Barbara:  Some of my favorite lines are: 

“There she was over there on the other side of the table thinking I was an angel, and here I was on my side feeling about as far from an angel as anybody could be."

“Then Jackie came outside looking like Miss America, and I thought Burl was going to faint right there in the red dirt.”

“That night in bed, I laid on top of the cool sheets with Wishbone’s soft, warm body next to me. I thought about my broken family back in Raleigh and wondered if they were thinking about me, a ray of sunshine at the end of a long, sorry day.”

And I can't resist just this one more:  “But Bertha said, ‘You know, sometimes when you’ve had a bad day, eating grits makes you feel better.’”

Me: You know my fourth graders are going to love hearing Wish and are going to devour it on their own.  What would you tell a group of fourth graders about this book?

Barbara:  I’d tell them, “For Pete’s sake, read the dang thang.” LOL

Me: What are your wishes?

Barbara:  
  • I wish for my family and friends to stay healthy and happy.
  • I wish for readers to enjoy my books and be inspired to write their own.
  • I wish cheesecake didn’t have so many calories.
• • • • • • • • • 

Note:  Bertha is one of my favorite character's in Wish.  
As I got to know her, I couldn't get my mom, Freda, out of my mind.  
Freda would have loved Bertha!