Sunday, February 9, 2014

where i live - Eileen Spinelli

As I was preparing to transfer books from home to my classroom today, I ran across where i live by Eileen Spinelli.  I'd forgotten how much I adore this book.  It's a great book of poetry.
      In it, we learn about Diana and her life... with all its twists and turns.  It's classic Eileen Spinelli.  Her words tug at your heart and your mind as you explore the life of Diana... who uses her writing to explain her life and the changes she's going through.
     Simple.  Complex.  Sweet.  Sad.  Happy.  Real.  Eileen Spinelli weaves a wonderful tale of Diana, her best friend Rose, her mom, her dad, and Grandpa Joe.  When Diana learns she has to leave the things she loves, it tugs at your heartstrings. 
      Eileen's words, accompanied by Matt Phelan's wonderful drawings, it's a perfect book to share with young readers who might be experiencing a move... or even a family struggle.  Encouraging children to write for authentic purposes might be an added bonus in sharing this book. 
     My two favorite poems are "Music" and "New Resident."  Sweet and simple.  It's a delightful read.
      There's nothing like finding a hidden gem in your stacks that you can't wait to share with your students...

New Resident

A wren has made
her nest
in the willow wreath 
on our front door. 

Now the yellow house
is her home 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Things Seem Like They're Working


What words would you use to describe our classroom?

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Today after hosting a group of visitors, I asked my students to name a few of the words that they'd used to describe our classroom.  This is their list.  Five minutes.  A quick "Tell me what you're thinking" look at our classroom.  "Just so I can share it with our visitors," I say.

I was struck by the word "seaming."  

Make sure you spell it S-E-A-M-I-N-G, Mr. Allen, as in everything "seems" like it is "seamed."  It's all seamed, you know.  Put together.  It works.  

And so it does, this thing we called learning.  When, together, we take a few minutes to share the intimate reflection of who we are and who we've become.  Along the way, through talk, invitations, smiles, and hard work... we have, indeed, created something that "seems seamless."  

But like all seams, there are times it's worn, and so we restitch with stronger thread. There are times it "bursts" and we step back and say, "What can we change?"  There are times we've moved too fast and the stitches are tight and unyielding.  There are times that things aren't working and we rip things apart and start over.  There are times we have to think about which stitch will work best...

Straight Stitch - for those times where we know exactly where we're going.

Back Stitch - for those times when we have to try again.

Chain Stitch - for those things we link together.

Couching - for those pieces we need to hold in place to admire. 

Feather Stitch - for those times we need to embellish.

Seed Stitch - for those times we cluster things together.

Long and Short Stitch - for those times we can't agree.

French knots - for those times we need to get a bit fancy.

And so we work with nimble fingers and open minds to create learning that can be, in fact, seemingly... real!


What words would your students use to describe your classroom?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Line Lifts - A Great Strategy Still

Hey, Mr. Allen, listen to this… 
I love this line, listen…
Close your eyes for a minute.  Ready?  Listen to these words… 
Wow, Mr. Allen, listen…

     My students and I have been paying close attention to some of the fantastic lines we are noticing as readers.  We’re knee-deep in a study of how wise readers ask questions to better understand, remember, extend meaning, and make readers experiences memorable (Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop, p. 28).  As writers, we’re honing in on exquisite lines to nudge our writing work—a parallel notebook study of  “What does a wise writer do to nudge his/her writing?"  (One of the strategies we're playing around with is "lifting a line" to coax our own writing.  A strategy I first learned from Linda Reif and have loved since.)
 Questions abound!

     In Write from the Start, Donald Graves reminds us, "Whenever there's a connection made between old knowledge and new knowledge, that's where the new growth is.  Those are the green shoots out of the old stock, the shoots that will bear fruit.  But it takes a fair amount of pruning to get new growth.  The dead wood comes when children pay attention to what they think the teacher wants instead of what, in fact, they see."

     So as writers were working toward the "shoots that will bear fruit."  Helping see that we have a lot to learn from mentors.  A lot of young writers these days seem "prompt-bound" or "Is this good? bound" or "I don't know what to write-bound."  They've been stifled by outside forces of programs and perfection... of skill and drill types of writing.

     But if I can encourage my students to develop a sense of agency as writers... to open their notebooks and start writing from a great line that they've discovered, they'll have one more authentic tool to help them develop independence during those times when writing ideas aren't coming easy.  Giving them a chance to break chains that are, sadly, already cramping their young writing lives.  To encourage purpose.  To encourage play.  To encourage risk.  To encourage thought.  To encourage putting pencil to paper.

     I've shown them my own notebook with the lines I've borrowed... lines that are waiting for me when I'm stuck or need a jumping off point.  

  Helen Frost - Salt
"Fireflies light up the edge of the dark forest."
"Our fire will keep us warm inside while we tell winter stories."

Kate Banks - Max's Words
"I'm going to collect words."
"When Max put his words together, he had thoughts."

Ruth Ayres - Celebrating Writers:  From Possibilities Through Publication
"Sometimes leaving things unsaid is more difficult than knowing what to say."
"Sometimes rejoicing is quiet.  It's a nod of encouragement."

Barbara O'Connor - How to Steal a Dog
"I closed the notebook and watched the moths flutter around the streetlight outside the window.' 
"I pushed my face against the screen and peered inside.  My stomach did a flip-flop."

Gary Paulsen - Brian's Hunt
"A perfect day among many perfect days and the last thought he had before slipping into sleep was that he was in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time in his life."

Gari Meacham - Watershed Moments
"A true watershed isn't to be hoarded; rather, it is to be shared, to spread it's gift of insight from our life to the lives of those around us."

     So what?  Now I have a notebook nudge.  Parts that can lead to wholes.  If I'm sitting with my notebook, facing a blank page, I have some great lines from some of my favorite writers that might just lead me into a piece of my own.  Not stolen.  Just borrowed.  Lines that spark a memory.  Lines that encourage me to write.  Just a little "tidbit" borrowed from a mentor that invites me to move words across a blank page.  A tool for a specific time for a specific purpose that fits into the "big picture" of being a writer.  Practice.

     It's a simple strategy that can serve as a guide to more complex pieces, more personal pieces.  Teach.  Model.  Empower.  

Hey, Mr. Allen, listen to this… 
I love this line, listen…
Close your eyes for a minute.  Ready?  Listen to these words… 
Wow, Mr. Allen, listen…

Let the pruning begin...

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ice Bear - Nicola Davies

I've been rereading a bit of Nicola Davies lately.  There's something reenergizing to thumb through my stakes.  Among her books, I ran across a favorite of mine... Ice Bear: In the Steps of the Polar Bear.  
     I love her narrative... but what attracts me most to her writing is the way she interweaves bits of nonfiction, lines that float through the text.  I've been sitting down to contemplate a writing project lately and I'm using her as one of my mentors (along with Don Brown and Louise Borden).  
     One of the things we know as teachers of writers is how important it is to surround them with the types of writing we want them to explore... the types of writers who can become their mentors.  Of course, the more I work with young writers, the more I realize that often times they are the ones who have to match themselves to a mentor; they are the ultimate decision maker.  They find their own mentors.  Someone they respect.  Someone whose writing inspires them.  Someone who intrigues them.  Someone whose writing nudges them.
      And I've realized that I have an important job:  to expose them to writers, to help them discover great writers, to encourage them to "have a go" with interesting examples of text, and to demonstrate my own passion for writers and great writing.  Expose.  Discover.  Encourage.  Demonstrate.  That's just good teaching, right?  
     So Nicola Davies is one of my "go to" mentors and by sharing what I learn from her with my students, perhaps they will, in turn, find a "go to" writer that inspires them.  Consider this line...
"Its ears sit close to its head, 
neatly out of cutting winds, 
and its feet are furred for warmth and grip."

     What can a young writer learn?  What can I learn?  In 21 words I notice the power of three, the strength of noun modifiers, the effective use of "and" as a coordinating conjunction, the musicality of rhythmic words.  If I read Nicola Davies to my students (and myself)... once for the heart and once for the head, how can her words not engage them in the wonderful thing we call writing.  
     It's time to pull together a Nicola Davies basket... my students will love her.  IF I don't beat them to the basket first.

Friday, November 8, 2013

God Got a Dog - A Gem

Cynthia Rylant and Marla Frazee.  Another perfect combination.  Using sixteen poems from God Went to Beauty School, they've created a beautiful collection in God Got a Dog.  Who doesn't love these two talented women?
     What I imagine most is Marla chatting with Cynthia about this book, these poems, during their collaboration.  And, me only wishing I could have been a fly on the wall... okay, actually a fellow reader/writer sitting with the both of them at the table as they chatted.  Can you imagine?  Cynthia Rylant, a writer's writer/illustrator.  Marla Frazee, a writer's writer/illustrator.  Two talents that God has put together to create this book... two talents that we all admire.  Imagine.
     Now there might be a few biblical scholars who would disagree with Rylant's interpretation of God.  But, they can't argue with the fact that she's a brilliant writer who writes from her heart, a wordsmith beyond compare.  And her words, coupled with Frazee's illustrations make a reader's heart happy.  And who doesn't need a heart that's happy?  God himself said so in Proverbs 15:13 and Proverbs 4:23.  A happy heart is good medicine! 
     My favorite poem in the entire collection is "God Went to India."  Perhaps it's because it reminded me of my mom and her love for elephants (I have two from her collection).  Perhaps it reminded me of my daughter and her recent life-changing trip to visit the orphanages in India.  But, perhaps it's because of this beautiful section:
 God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
ever made.
You make life.
You make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good. 
But He can't help missing all the originals.
So, Rylant fans.  So, Frazee fans.  We have a new gem for our collections.  Two of our friends have come together to create this special book.  God does do good work.  And, we can only hope that these new-found friends collaborate and come together on the pages of another book... sooner than later. 
     In the meantime, I'll be sitting at my table with the two of them, reading God Got a Dog. Imagining that they, too, were wishing that were HERE!  Imagine.  

... and our hearts are happy!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Snowflakes Fall

When you combine the talents of Patricia MacLachlan and Steven Kellogg, there's not much more to say...
     Snowflakes Fall arrived today.  My heart is full.  With the simplicity of MacLachlan's words, I was once again moved and inspired.  With the honesty of Kellogg's illustrations, I was once again reminded and touched.  
     As a tribute to Sandy Hook, this book is meant to be joyful and spirit-filled.  It is.  If you haven't purchased this book.  You should.  Read it once for your head.  Read it once for your heart.  And then read it to your students... tomorrow.

     "Snowflakes fall
     To Sit on garden
     And evergreen trees
                                On the fur of dogs
                                And the tongues of laughing children--
                                                                                No two the same--
                                                                                All beautiful."

And we remember the children.  I just want to say thank you to both the author and the illustrator for creating such a fine tribute to life.  Thank you.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Simple Dreams

I haven't blogged since June.  June.  So, tonight I decided it was time to get back to All-en-A-Day's Work.  I hope you'll forgive my absence.  I hope that I will be nudged to get this and several other bits of writing done... sooner than later. 

And what do I start with?  Simple Dreams:  A Musical Memoir by Linda Ronstadt.  Two weeks ago as I was flying to and from Saskatoon, I read it (it's been on order since I heard she was writing it).

I've always been a Linda Ronstadt fan (or Ronda Lindstadt as my friend Christine O'Hanlon lovingly calls her).  When Susan and I got married I told her there were three people I wanted to see in concert:  Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt.  And, together, we've seen all three.  In fact, we saw Linda in Denver not long before she quit touring as a singer... forever.  For those of you who don't know, she's been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and her singing career has been silenced.  Now it's through her recordings and her written word that we'll have to enjoy her voice.  

There's a wonderful section at the beginning of the book where she describes the "mud huaraches" they made so that they could run barefoot in the Arizona desert.  She writes, "We often went barefoot, but the ground in summer would become so hot that it could raise a blister.  The remedy for this was to wet our feet, then dip them in the dry, powdery clay dust, then a little wet mud, and then back into the dust again until we built up layers of earth to insulate us from the heat."  I used this section as a "think aloud" with my students as we began a study of how Wise Readers Ask Questions.  

As I've read her words, I've been pleasantly surprised by her writing.  As I've read her words, I've been pleasantly surprised by how much music as been a part of her life since birth.  As I've read her words, I've been pleasantly surprised by her candor and honesty regarding a career that has spanned decades and garnered many awards and nominations.  As I've read her words, I've been pleasantly surprised by her honesty.  She's smart.  She's talented.  She's gifted.

Perhaps my favorite passage in the book is in the epilogue.  She writes, "People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn't simply stick to one type of music.  The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it.  Some of the attempts were successful, others not.  The only rule I imposed on myself; consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn't heard in the family living room before the age of ten.  If I hadn't heard it by then, I couldn't attempt it with even a shred of authenticity."

And she ends with the line, "At the time, struggling with so many different kinds of music seemed like a complicated fantasy, but from the vantage point of my sixty-seven years.  I see it was only a simple dream."

Like her music (I've heard it all), this last line knocked my socks off!  Simplicity... a shred of authenticity. 

I've been thinking about simple dreams of late.  I had one once... to teach.  It started in 1984 (after getting a degree in Communication Disorders).  I decided to teach.  I was probably listening to "Lush Life" while I did my homework.  It was a good dream at the time.  

But my dream has changed a bit.  Now with all the complexities and mandates and grand reformation and uncommonly good standards my dream is that I keep reminding myself of why I got into this career in the first place.  

Thanks, Ms. Ronstadt for reminding me to relish my career.  With all its ups and downs, gives and takes, mistakes and successes.  And, thank you, for reminding me of how important it is to "play in the desert mud" or "ride a horse with a friend" or "sing a song" or "stand up for your beliefs, your history, your voice."  Of how important it is to pursue learning with rigor and endurance.

I think it's time we all start thinking about all the children we know and have known; hoping that they too will have a chance to follow a "simple dream" in an overly complex world.