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.

Monday, July 22, 2013

To Look at Any Thing...


The summer
still hangs
heavy and sweet
with sunlight
as it did last year.

The autumn
still comes 
showering gold and crimson 
as it did last year.

The winter 
still stings
clean and cold and white
as it did last year.

The spring
still comes 
like a whisper in the dark night.

It is only I 
who have changed.

Charlotte Zolotow
 (c) 1978 To Look at Anything 
Lee Bennett Hopkins

This is my favorite poem from Lee Bennett Hopkins's book To Look at Any Thing.  Have you seen the book?  It's a collection of poetry centered around nature photographs by John Earl taken in Georgia.  Circa 1978.

There's something endearing when you find yourself thumbing through the pages of a book that was published 35 years ago.  The black and white photographs, coupled with poetry from some of our most extraordinary poets was a treat to reread.  To read Charlotte Zolotow's words in "Change," or Patricia Hubbell's words in "Beginning of Thoughts," or Lilian Moore's words in "Encounter," or Langston Hughes's words in "Hope."  This is a special book. 

I think it behooves us to look through our classroom and personal libraries and find "gems" we can share with our students.  

More importantly, it's important for us to reread great writing for ourselves.  To nudge our own writing.  To conjure up memories of the poets we love.  To think of ways to inspire others.  To remember that "new" is not always better.  To take a look at "any thing" and know that perhaps there's a poem hidden in even the simplest objects. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Eudora Welty - A Mentor's Mentor

In the late 1980s, my friend and colleague, Laura Benson, recommended One Writer's Beginnings to us at a workshop.  I remember her sharing sections of it and I immediately went to The Bookies for a copy (at that time The Bookies was still in an old bungalow off 6th Avenue... crammed to the brim with books).  

I think it was one of the first hard cover "professional" books I ever purchased and it still has a special place on my bookshelf.  It's the narrative of Eudora's falling in love with language, writing, and story. It's broken into three sections "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice." Based on her lectures, it captures her story of becoming a writer... finding her voice after years of listening and observing those around her.

Imagine for a minute if we used those three section titles as a "curriculum guide"... if we, indeed, took all the complexities we face as teachers and filtered them through what a young girl from Mississippi deemed important as a learner.  As teachers of reading and writing, could we not couch our work in those three areas?  

What if our guiding questions became:
What are the ways my students are learning to listen?
What are the ways my students are learning to see?
What are the ways my students are developing a sense of their own voice?
How?  Why?  So what?

If we simply (or not so simply) helped our students (and ourselves) to "listen," wouldn't we already be one step ahead.  Listen to the rhythm of these words.  Listen to your fellow learners, what did you hear?  Listen as I share this part out loud with you, what do you notice?  Listen to your own understanding, what's floating in your mind right now?  There's something in this piece that I want to try in my own writing, did you hear it?  Listen again. Listen to the pattern of the words, the sentences, the text... what's beating in your heart?  Your mind?    Listening.

Now "See."  See what's around you (write it down).  See what he just did, do you suppose you might have a go with that?  See how that vowel pattern works, are you learning to recognize it?  See how this illustration matches the words the author uses.  Close your eyes for just a moment, what do you see?  When she shared her poem with you, what did you see?  When you share your writing with him, what did he tell you he saw?  Watch me, tell me what you see... now let me watch you and I'll tell you what I see.  Learning to See.

Find a Voice.  Did you hear the way you said that... it sounded just like _____ (insert your favorite author's name)?  You should write about that, it's an important story.  Your thinking is really important, you might recommend this book to someone you think might enjoy it.  You did create a sensory image, how did it help you?  If someone, right now, asked you what you were thinking, what might you tell them?  You know, not many people can capture a moment in time as beautifully as you just did... how will you share it with others?  Finding a voice. 
Learning to See.
Finding a Voice.

Listen to Eudora's words as she describes an important discovery she made about books:

It has been startling and disappointing to me to find out 
that story books had been written by people, that books were not
natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless
of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in 
love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper
they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession
in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for 
them, committed to all the reading I could give them.  (Welty, pp. 5-6)

That's exactly what I want my students to do, to commit themselves to understanding all that books can give them.  Not based on a number of books they plow through.  Not based on a "level" or a specific genre.  Not based on the number of minutes they read.  Not based on the questions they can answer after a read.  Not based on some mystical "core" description of what a reader is or is not.  Not based on a test.  I want the readers in my care to fall in love with the books themselves.  And perhaps if they listen and learn and see my passion for reading and writing, they will perhaps, in turn, find their own voices as readers and writers.

If you haven't read One Writer's Beginnings, you should.  If you haven't read one of Eudora Welty's works, you should.  If you haven't explored her descriptions of life in Mississippi, you should.  There's something grand about her language, her words, the tempo of her writing.  Her simple southern life gave her writing a complex and varied cadence.  And as you read Welty, you have to keep "Listening, Learning to See, and Finding a Voice" in mind.  Eudora Welty is a mentor's mentor.  

Also read A Darling Life:  A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown.  Ms. Brown has captured the life... in words and photographs (many of Welty's own)... of Eudora Welty for a new generation of learners.  This time for young readers and writers.  From her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi to political unrest to her declining years, Ms. Brown captures the journey of Miss Welty stunningly.  She lead a simple, albeit extraordinary, life.  Listen to these words from Miss Welty:

Lately, in my old age, it has seemed to me, when friends meet to hold
a public service to pay tribute to one of their number who has died, that 
without words to that effect ever being said, they are drawing a circle 
around that friend.  Speaking in turn one after the other, joining them 
together anew, they keep what they know of him intact.
Eurdora Welty, Introduction, The Norton Bok of Friendship  (Brown, p. 75) 

I'm thinking we all need to draw a circle around these two books for a bit of time... just to listen... to see... and perhaps find a bit of our voice, both as teachers and as readers and writers ourselves.  To keep Eudora Welty's contributions as a writer intact... read!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

I just discovered Michael Rosen's Sad Book.  "This is me being sad," the opening lines read, "Maybe you think I'm happy in this picture.  Really I'm sad pretending I'm happy..."  Quentin Blake's illustration sits above the lines.

In Sad Book, Mr. Rosen describes how he hide his grief and began to deal with death.  He wrote the book after his son, Eddie, died of meningitis.  Anyone who has suffered a loss - a child - a parent - a pet... well, any loss, really, will understand the author's need to express his sadness in words.

I love the honesty of this book.  The way the illustrations by Quentin Blake parallel the story so poignantly.  The beauty of the language, "Sometimes I'm sad and I don't know why.  It's just a cloud that comes along and covers me up.  It's not because Eddie's gone.  It's not because my mum's gone.  It's just because."  The journey through heartbreak and heartache, though long and lonely, that leads to hope.  The remembering.  In all its sadness, Mr. Rosen's book is somehow comforting.

Michael Rosen's writing is a gift.  Sometimes silly.  Sometimes serious.  And, in the case of Michael Rosen's Sad Book, simply special. 

Note: This is another book published by our friends at Candlewick Press.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Forest Has a Song

If you've followed The Poem Farm, you'll love Amy Ludwig Vanderwater's new book - Forest Has a Song.  It's always a treasure to find a book of poetry like this one (especially when combined with Robbin Grouley's illustrations).  

"Forest News" starts out like this:
I stop to read
the Forest News
in mind or fallen snow. 
Articles are printed
 by critters on the go.

And I must say that "stopping to read Forest Has a Song" is well worth the stop!  Ms. Vanderwater captures the treasures of the forest in poems, short and long, breathtakingly.

When we talk to young writers about "naming" and "noticing" and "marking their day" it's having wonderful poets like Amy that make our jobs so much richer.  Our own writing so much richer.  The patience in "Waiting for Deer," the tapping in "Woodpecker," the honking of geese in "Song"... each poem leaves you a little closer to the sights, the sounds, and the songs of the forest.  It's the exact kind of close observation that we want to encourage in our young poets and young writers. 

My favorite poem in the collection is "Snowflake Voices."

Snowflake Voices

I like to walk 
in winter woods
behind my home.

I close my eyes
to softly hear
snowy voices
crystal clear

Each silver 
sings my name
Guess what?
No two sound the same.


One of my favorite books on the teaching of poetry is A Note Slipped Under the Door by Shirley McPhillips and Nick Flynn published by Stenhouse (2000).  On page 37, it says, "Poets live wide awake in the world.  They 'eavesdrop," watching and listening in the moment, letting things catch their attention.  They wonder and ask questions, letting what they see and hear inform their lives.  Sometimes a poet will notice the exact words that people use.  These 'found' bits of speech can be a springboard for new ideas or a backboard against which to bat ideas and test them farther.  Just by listening closely to what people say, to the very words they use in their everyday speech, the world around us can be revealed.  We can be moved by the words themselves at the moment we hear them, yet we don't know why.  But, as poets, we keep them, believing these words can hold new meaning."

In our work with young writers, I can imagine that books like Forest Has a Song can be that springboard for writers.  It can help create meaning.  It can expand writer's lives into the forest... even if they've never physically experienced the sights and sounds and songs that Ms. Vanderwater invites us to visit.  All it takes is a close read... close your eyes, ponder. Poetry like hers can't help but increase the background knowledge of young writers and invite them to notice their "world" and the poetry that hides within it (be it city, country, subway, or dirt road).  

Ms. Vanderwater is a writer's mentor.  Forest Has a Song a newly found treasure.  And in all the hustle an bustle of our teaching, we can't neglect poetry.  "Helping writers find their song..." now that's a goal, eh?  Thanks, Amy, for the reminder.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

Jen Bryant - A Conundrum

I have three books in my "new" pile to write about... and they're all by Jen Bryant which is causing me a huge conundrum!  Do I write about them in one entry?  

Nope.  But let me write about two today...

The first book is Georgia's Bones.  It's a wonderful book about Georgia O'Keefe.  Listen to the first lines:
As a child, shapes often drifted
in and out of Georgia's mind.
Curved and straight, round or square, 
she studied them, and let them disappear.

The way Jen Bryant takes us on a "collection of words" about Georgia O'Keefe's life is gentle and spirited.  Even though the book is "fiction," you gather a sense of Georgia O'Keefe's innate curiosity and sensitivity to the natural world.  And Bethanne Andersen blends her illustrations with Ms. Bryant's words almost magically.  As I read it, I felt like I was learning about a part of Georgia O'Keefe's life that I never knew.

How will I use it?  I might use it in a study of "Stamina and Endurance."  Or I might use it to introduce the concept of "Noticings" as we work in our writer's notebooks.  Or I might use in a study of lyrical nonfiction.  Or I might use it during a study of "Line Lifts" to nudge our writing.

• • • • • • • • • 

The second book is Abe's Fish.  This will go into my classroom collection of "Books about Abe Lincoln."  Listen to this writing:
The late-day sun warmed Abe's back and 
deepened the red of a ripe apple that hung
by the roadside, just out of reach.  Abe tried
three times to poke it down with a stick, 
but the apple refused to drop.

I wish I was tall! he thought

Ms. Bryant takes us on a childhood journey of Abraham Lincoln's life that is eloquent and poignant.  Freedom.  The ending pages are breathtaking.  I loved that it focused not on his presidency, but on his childhood.  The author's notes at the end of the book are an example of superb nonfiction writing.  Amy June Bates has illustrated the books beautifully.

How will I use it?  I might use as a "cousin" text to my other Lincoln books.  Or I might use it in a study of "Stamina and Endurance."  Or I might use it in a study of "Evoking Sensory Images."  Or I might use it as an example of "mixing narrative in a nonfiction study." 

• • • • • • • • • 

Jen Bryant is an talented writer.  We loved her River of Words about William Carlos Williams.  She's bringing nonfiction to young readers in the most interesting and breathtaking ways.  Her ability to blend "fiction" with "nonfiction" is the exact kind of book I like to read... it causes me pause.  It makes me reread.  It makes me notice.  It makes me want to read more.  It makes me want to learn more.  Dare I say her writing deserves a closer read?

So what's the rest of my conundrum?  I'll mention that in my next "Jen Bryant" post...