Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is that supposed to be in "quotes" or not?

 I don't know if you've ever checked out The Blog of Unnecessary Quotation Marks, but if you "love" to read "quirky" views of punctuation and the way "people" use it, it's a fun little blog to visit periodically.  It's the kind of blog that Jeff Anderson, Robin Pulver, and Lynne Truss might "frequent" for fodder.  The pictures always make me "laugh" and "wonder" about the way "ordinary" people use punctuation in "interesting" and "strange" ways... particularly the "use" of quotation marks.  Which, if you are a 4th grade teacher, you "know" young writers "try out" in the "strangest" of ways!
     The blog's author, Bethany Keeley, has put together a "collection" in her book Fresh Brown "Eggs" based on her blog and the "unnecessary" quotation marks she has discovered in text, in pictures, on signs... everywhere!  This book is a sarcastic look at the misuse of quotation marks at their best (or worst).  We've all seen them... and I have to admit, I use "them" a lot.  When I read my own writing, I tend to overuse both the "ellipse" and quotation marks... but, "what can I say" I had Mrs. A------- and Mr. S---- as my high school language arts teachers and, well, let's just say I didn't "learn much" during my "formidable" punctuation years.  Thank goodness I have folks like Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, and Jeff Anderson as my "mentors" today... although, I'm still not sure I'd be considered "proficient" at punctuation in a "general" sense.
     This is one of those books that would make a "perfect" gift for the grammarian in your life!  It's humorous and made me laugh!  Check it out... and then start taking a closer look at marquees, menus, and the "multitude" of places that you can find punctuation, particularly quotations marks, used (air quote) inappropriately!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Essential Don Murray

"Writing is primarily not a matter of talent, of dedication, of vision, of vocabulary, of style, but simply a matter of sitting. The writer is a person who writes."
     From the first time I read, Expecting the Unexpected:  Teaching Myself - and Others - to Read and Write, Donald Murray impacted my teaching and learning.  If you peruse my professional shelves, you'll find several of his books:  Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers, Craft of Revision, A Writer Teaches Writing, Write to Learn, Learning by Teaching, Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader.  You'll find a copy of My Twice-Lived Life: A Memoir and The Lively Shadow:  Living with the Death of a Child in our at-home library.  Whose life, as both writer and teacher, hasn't been impacted by Don Murray?  I learned to write from "THE Donalds"... Donald M. Murray and Donald H. Graves. 
     Thanks to Tom Newkirk and Lisa Miller, we have more Donald Murray wisdom to add to our collection:  The Essential Don Murray:  Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher.  I finally got my copy.  It's a brilliant collection of Murray's essays, daybook entries, and writings.  It's is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection that gives us another small glimpse into the genius career of one of our favorite writers. 
     Around many educational corners you turn these days, there seems to be a new foolproof "program" intended to magically turn every student into a writer, intended to transform something as organic as the writing process into a canned cellophane package, intended to turn a student's writing into a "rubric" cube, color-coded, number driven hodgepodge of sameness, intended to turn an essay into a stomach Steinway, groanbox, five-paragraph accordion piece... but Donald M. Murray knew better.  Murray reminds us, "Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action. We share with our students the continual excitement of choosing one word instead of another, of searching for the one true word. This is not a question of correct or incorrect, of etiquette or custom. This is a matter of far higher importance."
     His mission, throughout his long career was to take the mystery out of writing by talking about a writer's habits, processes, and practices by using his own writing as the backdrop for his teaching.  In The Essential Don Murray we get a behind the scenes look at the "father of the writing process" himself.  Even though he died in 2006, we still have so many lessons to learn and relearn from him (check out the tributes by New Hampshire Writer's Project).
     And, thank goodness we have people like Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, Tom Romano, Penny Kittle, and YOU... to remind our colleagues to step back and look at writing authentically and wisely.  Much of their work is grounded in Murray's commitment to teach writing as a process.  Much of what Donald Murray brought to our profession continues to be absolutely essential!

Friday, August 20, 2010

First Days

Mary Lee's latest blog (Poetry Friday) reminded the of the following:

I love first days.  25 years and I still get butterflies (even when I know most of the children quite well).  There's something about walking into the classroom that first morning that excites me... it did in 1986 and is does in 2010.

For me, teaching is more than an occupation... it's an avocation.  I remember when I was a young boy, my friends and I would fill many summer afternoons playing school.  Usually I was the teacher.  I had a chalkboard and bulletin board built into my bedroom wall.  When my friends couldn't "play school" my mom would... she'd sit at the TV tray desk and practice handwriting, reading, writing a story, doing the math problems off the board.  We'd laugh and sing and find joy just in being together.

Often I'd load up my Radio Flyer with paper, pencils, Big Chiefs, crayons, books... and the wagon was transformed into a traveling school.  Moving from cool shade trees to front porches, I'd "teach" my neighborhood pals... Myrna would be the naughty student, Rhonda would be the serious student, Ron would be the class clown, but together we'd play for hours.  Of course, the crayons would get soft and mushy, the pencils dull (my dad could whittle a sharp point like nobody's business with his pocket knife), and the papers damp from an unexpected sprinkler.

The joy hasn't changed... I still like playing school.  I love collecting children's book and sharing a good read with my students.  I love when a student's eyes light up when he discovers the new meaning of a word or shows such empathy for a character that she has a tear running down her cheek.  I love when a student realizes that multiplication is simply repeated addition or that place value does make sense.

Of course, it's not about Big Chiefs and TV tray desks anymore.  There are content standards and grade level expectations.  There is critical thinking.  Reading is about surface level systems (graphophonic, lexical, syntactic) and deep structure systems (semantics, pragmatics, schematic)... it's a complex process that goes far beyond decoding or filling in blanks.  Writing is about process and inquiry... not just about a final product to "grade."  There is talk, learning is inherently social (which, of course, can't be captured on worksheets or skill/drill pages)... learning has to "float on a sea of talk" (Britton).  Learning has changed.  As we move into the 21st century, it will continue to change!

But... there's nothing like that first day.

"A little glimpse into my classroom 
(a small, but homey mobile this year)... waiting to be filled with children's voices and thinking."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Never, Never Land...

J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, was born 150 years ago this year.  One of his famous quotes is, "Those who bring sunshine to the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves."  And, oh what a pity he never got the chance to meet Jane Yolen.  Because, I think had he read her tribute to him in Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan, he would have sprinkled her with a handful of pixie dust and thanked her for bringing sunshine into our lives through her own gifts and talents as a writer!  
     Jane has the incredible knack to bring us closer to worlds, both real and imagined, with her words.  And, this latest book is no exception.  Coupled with illustrations by Steve Adams, Ms. Yolen once again transports us into her writing with beauty and depth.  We get to know J. M. Barrie on a level that makes his life so real.  We've all heard the story of J. M. Barrie, but not like this before!
     Barrie once said, "Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always try to be a little kinder than is necessary?"  And, I think we should make a new rule for today... purchase your copy of this book as soon as possible.  I loved reading about Ms. Yolen's writing of this book on her website.  It's another grand addition to a collection of books that is driving me out of house and classroom!  
     "So come with me, where dreams are born, and time is never planned. Just think of happy things, and your heart will fly on wings, forever, in Never Never Land!"  Thank you, Jane, for making the childhoods of our children rich, thoughtful, and full of beauty!  Thank you for sharing a little of J. M. Barrie with us.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Favorite Jargon?

It's that time of year, isn't it?  Educational "jargon" is slipping and sneaking into conversations... sometimes wisely and sometimes as a knee-jerk reaction to some outside force trying to infiltrate classrooms.  It's everywhere.  There are even on-line dictionaries dedicated to the terms, phrases, and explanations themselves.  Our own private educational glossaries.
     The dictionary provides a variety of definitions for "jargon"... the language peculiar to a particular trade or profession, unintelligible or meaningless talk, gibberish, talk that one does not understand, language laden with uncommon or pretentious vocabulary, pidgin, or convoluted syntax that is vague in meaning.
      So, I started thinking about the "Top Ten" terms that seem to be floating in my educational airspace lately.  Terms circling like attack helicopters waiting for the perfect time to land.  I decided to change their meanings a bit.  Here are my definitions of just a few choice terms.  
     In the "remember when" format... do you remember when...
  • “Benchmarks” were what parents were left with after spending time watching their child’s T-ball game or swim meet.
  • “Eliminating the Guess Work” meant we spent time in the kitchen with our children helping them learn to cook.
  • “This allows the child to learn at his own pace” meant spending time watching, learning, and cheering on a child literally at his own pace.
  • “Intervention” meant seeking help for individuals with alcohol, drug, and other dependencies.
  • “Scientifically based research” meant studying and experimenting to find cure for polio or developing penicillin.
  • “Tracking” meant running a 100-yard dash around the football field.
  • “High-stakes Testing” meant testing the stability of your tent in the backyard for a sleepover.
  • “Phonemic Awareness” meant listening and getting involved in family dinner conversations.
  • “Program” meant watching television as a family on Saturday night.
  • “Adequate Yearly Progress” meant blowing out candles on another birthday cake; making it another year without any broken bones or major surgeries. 
     I worry our "words of the week" are stripping learning of its joy, its organic-nature, its creativity, its fun, its passion, its intent, its purpose.  And, even though my top ten list is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, shouldn't we sometimes be asking ourselves, "What does _____ really mean for learners and learning?"  When students leave our classrooms and step out into the real world (tomorrow or ten years from now), what are the things that will matter most? 
     What is some of the jargon that you've heard lately... over and over and over and over?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Top Ten, Well, Top Twelve

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan

Twilight Comes Twice by Ralph Fletcher

The Whales by Cynthia Rylant

Cinnamon, Mint, & Mothballs by Ruth Tiller
Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon
Salt Hands by Jane Chelsea Aragon
All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen
All About Rattlesnakes by Jim Arnosky
Miss Maggie by Cynthia Rylant
The Seashore Book by Charlotte Zolotow
Sky Tree by Thomas Locker
Home by Thomas Locker

Here is my contribution to the Top Ten, which in reality is twelve!  Couldn't do it... could not list only my top ten.  I've tried before!  So, here's what I did, I listed two Cynthia Rylant's and two Thomas Locker's... which I'm going to have to count as one! 

I fell in love with Patricia MacLachlan when I first started teaching... and I've loved her ever since that time.  My kids gave me a copy of this book years ago.  It's perfect for teaching writers to explore their past. 

Jane Yolen.  This is my second favorite book that she's written, but it means the world to me because my friend, Randi Allison, taught me so much about writing by first sharing Yolen's words with me from this book!

Ralph Fletcher's work has always inspired me and this book is so beautifully written.  It's perfect for helping students create sensory images by choosing just the perfect words in their writing.

I think the Rylant choices are two of her most brilliant pieces of work!  Crafted so eloquently... both can be used to help writer's read and write with purpose and sensitivity.

Ruth Tiller's book is poetic and reminds me of home and childhood.  I close my eyes and it takes me places... rich in vocabulary and must be read with prosody and beauty.

I have a copy of Simon's book that is in black and white (from a book club when I was a child) and the newer color copy.  Perfect for teaching revision (similar, yet different).

Zolotow... is there any more to say.  I use this book as a touchstone text with every thinking strategy I teach... I use it over and over and over.  

Locker.  I love his work (I have a limited edition print of his in my living room).  This book can be used to add richness to writing, throw in a bit of science, and to teach readers to think of things from different points of view. 

Who doesn't love Jim Arnosky?  This book is perfect to teach writers when to use paragraphing when writing nonfiction... no silly formulaic writing here!

And Aragon's book (hard to find) is simple... the perfect mentor text!

Of course, if you ask me tomorrow, my list would likely change!  I would just have to look on one more shelf and ten more could possible emerge victorious!  But for today....

To read more "Top Ten Lists," be sure to check out A Year of Reading.  Or Reflect and Refine.  Or Enjoy and Embrace Learning.  Or Carol's Corner.  

Another Great Interview

Check out Playing with Words: An Interview with Ralph Fletcher at A Year of Reading.  It's another wonderful interview full of insights about writers and writing.

I interviewed Ralph in May.  You can read our interview here:  Interview with Ralph

If you're like me, you'll want to print out both interviews and tuck them inside the front cover of your copy of Pyrotechnics on the Page.  I love putting little tidbits inside professional text (and other text for that matter) to remind of of the breadth and depth of learning.  These two interviews have made it into my copy!

In today's "let's buy a writing program world" what would we do without the wisdom of folks like Ralph, who understand young writers and their journey.  Thanks, Franki, for the wonderful interview.  And, thanks again Ralph, for your insights and thoughtfulness.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

And Here We Go...

“Read with a pen in your hand and enter in a little book short hints of what you find that is curious or that might be useful; for this will be the best method of imprinting such particulars in your memory, where they will be ready on some future occasion to adorn and improve your conversation.”
~Benjamin Franklin
This is the quote I shared with my students on the first day of school (it's been on my blog page for quite some time).  It's the first thing we wrote in our reader's notebooks.  Because I looped with the majority of my students I wanted to start the year out a bit differently, more metacognitively.  I wanted students to recognize the power of slowing down, of pondering, of reflecting in authentic, meaningful ways.
     We spent some time during our first few crafting sessions of reader's workshop really dissecting this quote... delving into it's meaning (my purpose was two-fold... to share the importance of annotating text and to build a bit of vocabulary right off the bat).  Then we moved into the idea of annotation (discussing its definition, relevance, etc.)... deciding that we can "annotate" three ways... by writing directly on a piece of text (leaving tracks), by jotting thinking on sticky notes or in our notebook, or by using our own hearts and minds as a storehouse.  The important part... holding it for "some future occasion."  
     Yesterday was day five of the school year and I've already seen students becoming more aware of word level quandries, sentence level wonderings, and whole text ponderings.  Our conversations are grander and our thinking more precise.  And, I think it's going to lead into our first thinking strategy study with more complexity as we strive to remember, understand, extend meaning, and make our reading experiences memorable.  We've been working together on short pieces of text for the past few days.
     This year, we're going to be reading How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O'Connor as our first read (I got a copy for each student).  Together... as a whole group, in pairs, as individuals, we're going to annotate our own copies.  I've never done this before, but my friend Lori Conrad found starting the year with a common text beneficial with her fifth graders.  Building the foundation with rituals and routines merging with our daily reading lives (strategy book clubs, response notebooks, independent reading, vocabulary development, etc.) on some common ground may just lead us down the path of slowing our thinking down and really delving into text.  By the way, students will, of course, be reading their own text during reader's workshop... we'll be using this text as a touchstone for our crafting (mini-lessons) for the next few weeks.  I can't wait to see what happens.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Nest for Celeste

We all long for a home.  Where we're safe.  Where we can be ourselves.  Where we're surrounded with beauty and a sense of comfort.  In A Nest for Celeste:  The Story About Art, Inspiration, and the Meaning of Home we find a beautiful story of friendship and "home."  And we get to know all about a mouse named Celeste.
     I love Celeste's character.  There's something quaint and vulnerable about her.  She spends her days weaving baskets and searching for food.  She's bullied by the rats who live under the floorboards.  And all she really wants is a safe home and to be surrounded by friends.
     Escaping danger (c-a-t), Celeste finds herself trapped in the world above the floorboards when she is befriended by Audubon's young apprentice, Joseph.  And her search for "home" continues in places she didn't know existed... Joseph's pocket, a dollhouse, a worn boot!  And, throughout the story she meets quite a few surprising friends.
     A Nest for Celeste is a delightful little novel that is beautifully illustrated.  I think it lends itself to being read outloud... a cousin text to Edward Tulane or Charlotte's Web.  I loved it and I can't wait to share it with my students.  What is it about mice?  We hate them when they invade our pantries, our walls, or our garages, but we love them when they turn up in stories like this... endearing themselves to us long after we close the book. 
     I love the illustrations... and I love the feel of the paper on which this book is printed.  I learned so much about Audubon's own illustrations that I didn't know before I bought this one.  And, I love how Henry Cole treats us to all the wonders of art, the joy of friendship, and then leaves us with a little lump in our throats at the end.  Don't we all really want a home to call our own?