Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Remembering Donald Graves

In 1984, I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Speech and Language Pathology and I was struggling with some major decisions.  I was asking a lot of questions:  Was this the path I really wanted to follow?  Were my grades good enough to get into graduate school?  If not, what was I going to do with a degree in Communication Disorders?  In my heart, I knew I wanted to teach, but wasn’t sure how to go about getting another degree.
     Then one day, my girlfriend [now wife] brought me a copy of a little brown book Writing:  Teachers & Children at Work and said, “You’ve got to read this… it’s an amazing book!”  I watched her finding joy in the work she did with children day after day, so I read it!  I was hooked from the first paragraph, “Children want to write.  They want to write the first day they attend school.  This is no accident.  Before they went to school they marked up walls, pavements, newspapers with crayons, chalk, pens or pencils…anything that makes a mark.  The child’s marks say, ‘I am.’” 
     And, as I closed the book, I knew… I had to teach.  She was right, that little brown book was full of insights about learners, writers, and process.  After graduation, I got my graduate level certification in elementary education.  So, you might say my career was launched by two important mentors:  my wife Susan and Donald H. Graves.  And Writing: Teachers & Children at Work still holds a special place on our professional shelf.
     I first met Donald Graves in person in November of 1987 at a workshop in Castle Rock, Colorado.  Our district invited him to spend the day with a group of teachers from each elementary school.  Luckily my principal, Laura Harmon, chose me to attend [Laura had the uncanny knack of putting people in the right place at the right time].  That workshop changed the way I looked at writers and writing.  I took our little brown book and had it signed, “To Susan, A used book—the best kind.  Hope to meet you someday.  All the best, Don Graves.”  And, trust me, all these years later, that book has been used.
     Since that initial meeting, I’ve spent time learning from Don on several occasions.  In the “good old days” the PEC [now PEBC] used to sponsor week-long summer institutes in writing and Don facilitated several of them.  Seeing Don became one of the rituals in my teaching career.  Every time I knew he was in Denver, I was right there.  I never grew tired of hearing him share his work.  I schlepped donuts and coffee to attend PEC summer institutes for “free” [before I was a staff developer].  I drove with friends through a blizzard on I-25 just to hear him speak for two hours at North High School.  I sat in Stephanie Harvey's family room listening to Don talk to a small group of colleagues about his latest thinking.  I last saw him at CCIRA a few years ago [thanks Carol for getting him here one last time].  I have devoured his books, taken voracious notes when he spoke, and sat in awe as he told stories of his work with writers.  Don’s work strengthened the underpinnings of what I believe about writing and writers.  I wasn’t a writer until I met Don Graves.
     Now, here I am, sitting at my kitchen table with all his books within reach, saddened by the news of his death.  I’m thinking about his stories of his wife Betty, of a sea of children, of jogging, of… of everything.  But I’m also happy.  Happy to have met him.  Don made everyone feel like his best friend.  And like thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of children, I have been changed because of his legacy.  That’s the good news.  Don lives on.
     In my copy of Build a Literate Classroom, Don wrote, “To Patrick.  How well I remember our first meeting down the valley.  Seems as though you are everywhere.  What a delight for me to be together again.  Enjoy!  Don Graves.” [June 1981]  And, really doesn’t it seem like it is, in fact, Don who is everywhere… is there a teacher of writers whose life he hasn’t touched?  His voice ruminates through Katie’s work, through Ralph’s work, through Shelley’s work, through Penny’s work… there’s not one teacher of writers, who understands how important our work with young writers is, that doesn’t ground their work in Don’s body of work.
     There’s always an echo of Don’s voice in our minds when we sit down to confer with a child.  We imitate Don when ask a writer, “What’s that for?” or “How did you know how to do that?”  We learned from Don that there’s a time for silence after hearing a child read his writing, when a simple touch on the shoulder is enough.  We also learned from Don to “nudge” a child to rethink her work, to add depth to the writing.  We learned from Don to tell our stories… in ten-minute spurts he told us.  We learned from Don to take action, to tackle genre, to know our students well.  We learned from Don that it takes energy to teach and to find that energy in our work.  We learned from Don to find joy.   And, we learned from Don that teaching is not testing and that we must help children develop as long thinkers.  We learned from Don that if we want to teach writers we have to be writers ourselves.  We learned these things and so much more.  Aren’t we the lucky ones?
     And now what?  I think I’m going to do some rereading over the next few weeks, remembering what Don taught me that perhaps I’ve forgotten… in my notebooks, in articles, and in his books.  I’ve already started.  Tucked inside my copy of Experiment with Fiction, I found a letter Don wrote to me in June of 1991.  In it he says, “So, we have had a career together.  Do you wonder where it will all end up?  Who cares.  We’re going to enjoy the trip together. 
     It is getting so every time I come to Denver I look for you in the crowd.  The first time you emerged was at the session we had at Castle Rock a number of years ago.”  
   And Don goes on to say, “Thanks for the enclosed quote.  Yes, a loud yes, the legacy we leave is no idle thing.” 
     Don, you were right.  The legacy we leave is no idle thing.  Thanks for the grand legacy you’ve left us all!  I’ve enjoyed the trip.  Where will it all end up?

Donald H. Graves 1930-2010
"We learn more from hanging around someone who does it than from being told how it’s done." A. Kohn

Jackass! Who, me?

Yesterday as we were sorting paperwork at home, I found $150 worth of gift certificates to The Tattered Cover, our large local independent.  So, naturally I stopped in on my way home from the dentist's office.  I picked up a few gems (hurrah, more blog material)!
     The first was It's a Book by Lane SmithI love this book, written with Lane Smith's typical humor and tongue-in-cheek style.  Lane, a frequent collaborator with Jon Scieszka, has written a "book" taking a jab at the digital age.  Why?  "It's a book, Jackass!" (you'll understand this line when you read it).
     dix b%k md me *L*!  itz Lane's wA of sAyn datbux r impt.  We cnot 4gt hw gud it feels 2 hld a b%k n r hands.  evn W II d teknoloG w'v 2day!  itz hs statemnt of how impt holdN a b%k n yr h& S!  (See if you can transl8 this).
      The illustrations in this book are simple, subtle, and superb!  With just a twist of an eyebrow, a change in the corner of a smile, or by a nod and a tip of a hat, Lane captures such an important story taking a jab at today's technology.  The monkey, the mouse, and the "donkey" are developed as rich characters via simple dialogue and rich illustrations.  I can't wait to read it at my next gathering of teacher friends or at my next inservice... 
      It's among one of several gems I picked up yesterday... and the good news is, I still have $90 to spend.  Yesterday, I had two great finds... the gift certificates and this book!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Happy Birthday

By the way... September 10th was the first birthday of my blog!  Can't believe I missed it.  Happy Birthday, All-en-A-Day's Work!


Who are your heroes?  
     I've blogged a lot about one of mine... my brother-in-law, Curtis.  If you go back in the archives of All-en-A-Day's Work, you'll see his name mentioned more than once.  Remember the What is it about small towns? post or My Cowboy Heroes post?  Lately, my sister's text messages haven't been very positive and I long to sit with her over a cup of tea.  And she ends each message with a one word tagline, BELIEVE.  And, as his cancer spreads, I think it's the perfect tag.  I think it's her faith that gives her the courage to know that her love of almost 50 years will fight this disease like the true cowboy he is... cowboys are tough!
      Isn't it our beliefs that define who we are?  In everything?  As wise educators, I think we are always on a path of redefining and refining our beliefs.  We read professionally to strengthen our beliefs.  We talk with the peers we trust to strengthen and widen our underpinnings so that they can continue to be a stronghold in our learning and the learning of our children.  We scour our bookshelves for old favorite books to re-energize our literacy workshops and we spend money we don't have on new books to add to our collections.  We read blogs.  We write blogs.  We hone our craft to make our instruction meet the needs of our students.  We think about the learners of today and their role in the 21st century.  We muck about and try new things out... blending it with what we know to make our instruction rich and wise and meaningful.  We reread the work of our favorite educators to nudge us forward (Don, Shelley, Ralph, Don, Katie, Frank, Debbie, Franki, Karen, Ellin, Cris, Chryse, Susan, Regie, Stephanie, Anne, and so many others). 
     And, one simple word guides us... BELIEVE!
     Today our classrooms are being infiltrated with jargon, programs, and test-driven data.  Talk show hosts who have more money than they know what to do with rant about the state of our profession.  The newspaper and internet run rampant with news that weighs on our shoulders like a ton of bricks.  So many educators today have a "just tell me what to do" attitude.  Parents question our philosophies and teaching practices without understanding how hard we work to bring our best thinking into our classrooms.
     And yet... we BELIEVE.  We believe that there isn't a grander profession, a more worthy profession than being a teacher... and we fight the things that plague our profession by stepping into our classrooms each day to meet a group of children who need us to believe in them and their gifts.  "Howdy, Kids... what are we going to do today... together?"
     So today my blog is again dedicated to Curtis.  If you are a reader who prays, please do so for him.  We all need someone near us to help us... BELIEVE!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gift #4 - The Greatest Story Never Told

The Greatest Story Never Told by Ray Negron is the fourth book I added to our classroom collection as a gift to my students.  I love finding picture books about sports and this is one of several of Negron's books about baseball.
     In this story, two boys named Skippy and Connor are visted by Batboy Ray, a retired batboy for the Yankees.  Skippy and Connor are both facing serious illness (one diabetes and one cancer) and do not like being roommates in the hospital. 
     Ray takes the boys "back in time" to meet Babe Ruth.  Then the Bambino introduces thems to Jackie Robinson playing on Ebbets Field.  Throughout the story they meet other baseball heroes Roberto Clemente, George Steinbrenner, and Chien-Ming Want.  
     This story of friendship and tolerance unfolds as the boys learn about overcoming racism and adversity.  It's the illustrations that hold this story together.  The interesting mix of characters in the story give students a nudge to investigate whether any of the relationships were authentic in real-life.  I could see this book as a way to begin "sorting fact from fiction."  Several of my students have already read it and are asking great questions about the story itself. 

Oh... and the best part about these gift books... I bought them at the corner drugstore in a bin marked "Four for $20"... can't beat that, eh?  Better than cupcakes any day!.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gift #3 - Lazy Little Loafers

The third book I picked up was Lazy Little Loafers by Susan Orlean.  Why?  Originally it was because I noticed it was illustrated by G. Brian Karas and I love his illustrations.  BUT... that was before I even read it.  This one cracked me up!
      I love the narrator's point of view.  A new twist on the "Why do I have to go to school and she gets to stay home?" attitude that I think all parents have faced at one time or another.  Through the narrator's eyes, we get a "kid's eye view" of one of her big questions, "Why don't babies work?"  She thinks it's a crime... babies are lazy, snobby, and think they are sooo cute.  And she's stuck struggling to make her bed, study for tests, and solve math problems. 
     As a reader, I loved the tongue-in-cheek humor.  My fourth graders loved the writing style and those with younger siblings had huge smiles on their faces when I read it.  Does it go on my all time favorite list?  Nope.  But there's something endearing about this story... kind of makes you long to be a baby strolling Manhattan with a nanny.  Charmed life?  Who knows.  
     This is a charming little read. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Gift #2 - Cherish Today

Another of the books I brought to my students was Cherish Today:  A Celebration of Life's Moments by Kristina Evans.  This quiet poetic book takes us on a journey through a child's growth as a learner, as a person.  I'm not usually a fan of rhyme, but Ms. Evans does a lovely job of wordsmithing this text.
     "You've accomplished your goals 
     And you're well on your way.
     The future's tomorrow--
     Cherish today!"
I love that this book is not about the end of the road, but about embracing the journey and trials along the way.  There's a warm sense of gratitude, caring, and sincerity that floats through the book's pages. My favorite line:  ls "Let's be honest; there may be some days when your life will resemble an underground maze."
     I think I may put this book in our "Endurance" basket.  I'll have to ask my students if it fits.  It may go on my graduation gift list as well.  It's a quaint piece of poetry. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

One of those great finds

This week, my classroom was busier than usual, we had a few visitors:  two amazing cameramen, a sound technician (and his boom microphone), and my friend and editor, Bill Varner.  Stenhouse Publishers spent two days filming our reader's workshop, focusing on reading conferences.  They're putting together a dvd series to accompany Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop
     This year, my classroom happens to be in a "portable"... our school has three of them.  We have six classrooms planted outside the confines of our school in the "cabins."  And, while I love being next to my friend and colleague, Troy, I have to admit working with such a small space has been a challenge.  The "mobiles" are nearly 200 square feet or so smaller than the classrooms in the school building.  This year, my goal was to create an environment that was as homey and purposeful, book-filled and scholarly, warm and inviting as it was when I was in the building.  I've been in a "portable" at least 12 of my 25 years, so I guess I should be used to it by now.
     The point?  My students did a wonderful job for the two days that the camera crew was in the classroom, so I wanted to end the week with a little thank you.  What's a better thank you than adding books to the classroom library?
Here is the first of the four I added:
In the Piney Woods by Roni Schotter.  When I read this one to my students today you could have heard a pin drop.  It's a story of Ella and her grandfather who was "strong and straight and singing" and who built their family home near the woods... which now houses the extended family.  It's beautifully written.  
      A story of family, relationships, aging, and death.  The relationship between Ella and her grandfather holds the story together... the secrets and stories they share are sweet and powerful.  "Everything has its time" is the theme. 
     I don't want to give too much away because like me and my students, I want you to sit for a few minutes in the silence of the story... letting it linger for a time.  Schotter is the author of Nothing Happens on 90th Street, The Boy Who Loved Words, and Dreamland.  What a great addition her latest is to our library.  My 4th graders loved it and as writers, I think they're going to discover a lot within its pages.  I'll share the others in the next few days.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

William McKinley - Long Lost Cousin?

So today I was conferring with Zach.  He was reading a book about the presidents.  He turns to William McKinley's page... Our conversation went something like this:

Zach looks up at me and asks, "Are you related to William McKinley?"
"No, I don't think so.  Not that I know of..." I reply
"Why do you ask?"  He's piqued my curiosity.
"I was thinking that you would say yes.  I thought you had to be related, there's such a strong resemblance!"

Needless to say, I've decided on three options:  
1)  Hiring a personal shopper at Nordstrom, 
2) Scheduling a consultation with a plastic surgeon, or 
3) Continuing to laugh and make note of the brilliant things my students say... despite the fact that I must really look different in their eyes!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Remembering Her Words

My teaching career began in 1985 with a wonderful team of teachers and colleagues.  And, through the years, I've been blessed to teach with many brilliant educators.  But there was something special about that first group... they are a part of who I have become.  Their voices still meander through my thoughts when I sit down to confer with a child or make an instructional decision.
    Judy, my cooperating teacher when I student taught, is still one of my best friends and mentors.  Long retired, enjoying her time between Oregon and Colorado, she and I still talk about children and learning whenever we get the chance.  Judy's mentorship and teaching spirit still ring clearly in my mind in almost every teaching decision I make.  She was that good!  She was a teacher's teacher... an advocate for children and their many gifts.  She taught be to believe in children.
     Laura, my first principal and now my friend.  She trusted me enough to hire me for my first teaching job after student teaching in her building.  Later, she trusted me to teach her daughter for two years (who has become a lovely young woman).  I remember right before my first interview she said, "I'd like you to read Frank Smith's book Understanding Reading:  A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read before your interview..."  So, I found a used copy at CU in Boulder and read it from cover to cover, pulling out bits of pieces of what would eventually become a stronghold in my understanding of readers and reading (it's not a light read and I've read it several times since).  I worked with Laura for many years after that... she was always innovative and believed in teachers like no administrator I've worked for since.  She trusted her teachers.  She taught me to believe in possibility.
     Norma, dear sweet Norma.  She was Laura's secretary and she, too, was a dear friend.  There were times that Norma would slip a twenty in a card and put it in my mailbox with a little note, "I know you can use this right now... Love, Norma."  Norma gave my wife and me a cross stitch that reads, "Friends are the family you choose."  And, it was true.  Normal died of cancer not long after she retired and the day she died, my wife and I went to her house (as did several others) and sat by her bedside, just Norma and the two of us, as she gave us one last smile and hug.  I miss her.  She taught me to believe in faith.
     Randi, my dear friend and colleague.  We have been together through thick and thin... she's my daughter's godmother and she taught me more about writing than almost anyone I've ever met.  I still work with her.  Of course, she is retiring this year and my heart is sad.  She's been a part of my teaching life for 25 years and will be part of my family forever.  She's damn funny too!  We've laughed and cried together... a lot.  Last year, she split her vast collection of children's books between her friends... Troy, Janice, and me.  I will cherish them forever.  Randi taught me that "my writing for today is someone's reading for tomorrow."  She taught me to believe in writers.
     And, there's Lois.  Lois died in 2008 after a long battle with breast cancer (I wrote about her in Conferring:  The Keystone of Reader's Workshop).  While she was alive, she was alive with gusto.  She was a gentle and quiet teacher; passionate in her beliefs and confident in the strongholds of her philosophy.  She loved to stretch the brilliance of her students with laughter, thoughtfulness, and her love of learning.  But... when there was something she didn't agree with... well, that's when she got out her pen and wrote, brilliantly.  She taught me to believe in the power of words.
     Which brings me to the point of this long-winded blog entry.  I was sorting through my files recently and I came across the following poem that Lois wrote in 1997 after yet another mandate was being thrust upon us (in this case, the beginning of state testing).  As I reread the poem, I was awestruck.  It's so poignant and so apropos to the types of "programs" and "quick fixes" we're being asked to use in our classrooms today.  It seems like we turn a corner and there's a new "child fixative" at the ready.
     Lois knew that programs could not supersede people.  Lois knew that learning didn't come in a pretty package, complete with rubrics and data collection devices created by someone who doesn't even know our students.  Lois knew that programs didn't teach children, but that teachers taught children.  Lois knew that every child has a special gift that might not be able to be measured on a test.
     Her poem "Accountability" was written in response to yet another mandate.  I hope you'll get the jest of her words (she, of course, changed the names and some of the poem is written with our situation at the time in mind).  Enjoy the power of her words...


In the Province of Doug was the Village of Cher
Where people were happy, they all liked it there.
In the midst of this village on a street they called Will, 
Lived a young boy named Andrew who's story I'll tell.

Now, some would call Andrew a typical boy, 
He liked to go fishing and play with his toys.
With frogs in his pocket, and mud on his face, 
The neighbors would see him all over the place.

But, those who knew Andrew, knew he had a need, 
A passion for knowledge and loving to read. 
From animals and dragons, to books for the cooks, 
This young boy named Andrew devoured the books.

He read in the morning, he read in the night, 
He read in the darkness, and when light was bright.
While sitting, or walking or on a steep climb, 
In chaos and quiet, ten books at one time. 

He told of his stories, to people in Cher, 
The listened and loved them and wanted to share, 
This passion for reading, this love for the books, 
Soon Cherites were reading, that's all that it took. 

Now up in his office without much to do, 
Sat the prince of the kingdom with a feeling quite blue. 
"They all say that Andrew knows much about reading, 
But I am not sure, it's proof I am needing."

He gave him a notebook called "Accountability Plus,"
"Tell Andrew to read it--answer questions for us."
And so our friend Andrew put down all his books, 
Instead of his novels, assessments he took.

He read about earthquakes and soccer and trash, 
He read about beavers, explorers, and hash.
He read till he'd finished the hardest of tests, 
He proved he could read so the prince then could rest.

But high in the castle on top of the hill
On a throne sat King Richard, surveying things still.
"I know the assessments say Andrew can read, 
But I am not sure yet, more proof do I need."

He hired some fine experts at greatest expense,
To work and develop, "Assessments Immense."
They gave them to Andrew, who read them quite well, 
"Andrew is a good reader, we really can tell." 

Up above Richard's castle on a hill that was higher, 
Sat king of king, Roy, who sent out a flyer.
"Assessment Immense" might be a good measure, 
But we must test our standards to really be sure.

So he hired more experts to work on the work, 
They wrote a new notebook called "Tests Quite Berserk."
They gave him a file box to collect all his proof,
Of meeting their standards--his scores hit the roof.

But poor little Andrew, hadn't put out the fire, 
King Roy was not last, King Bill lived up higher. 
His experts hired experts, who wrote way more tests, 
Comparing young Andrew to all of the rest. 

Andrew sat at his desk in a room that was quiet, 
He monitored his sleep and his rest and his diet.
Notebooks full of tests took the place on the shelf,
Of once much loved books that had given him wealth. 

The once bright-eyed Andrew now is a new boy,
He has studied his notebooks, but lost all his joy.
For reading and learning and telling them all
Of stories of dragons and Star Wars and fall.

In the Province of Doug, was the Village of Cher, 
Once the people were happy and liked to be there.

(C) Lois Gustafson, November 1997

I can't get permission to publish Lois' poem, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind my sharing it (I did look up and ask right before I blogged about it).

We've all been there, in that Village of Cher... and there always seems to be someone who sits up there, higher.
I needed to read this poem at this point in my career, because for some reason, the pendulum is swinging again...
And, perhaps using Lois's words, I can, in some small way, push the pendulum back in the right direction!