Monday, June 27, 2011

Guest Blogging - Two Writing Teachers

Hello Readers, 

I am "guest blogging" on Ruth and Stacey's blog on or around the first of July.  I spent a little time reflecting on my journey with my friend, Randi Allison, and the learning we've done together for the past 25 years. 

Randi just retired after 27 years of teaching, learning, and growing.  I can't wait to see where her journey leads her for the years ahead. 

Take a gander!  I think you'll enjoy it...


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Ahh... Van Allsburg!

I've been a fan of Chris Van Allsburg for most of my career.  I remember listening to him as I sat on the floor of The Bookies (our local bookstore) more years ago than I like to count (he looked so "bookish" in his tweed jacket with leather patched sleeves)!  He was one of the first children's authors I saw up close and personal.  I remember my first encounter with his work when my wife, then girlfriend, shared Jumanji with me when we were both in college.  She read it for her children's literature class and we were both in awe.  Since then he's become one of my (our) favorite illustrators and writers (My favorite book is Bad Day at Riverbend).
     What I love most about his work is that he stretches curiosity.  He piques interest.  He expands vocabulary.  He takes risks.  He weaves surrealism into the every day lives of the reader.  He moves beyond ordinary to extraordinary.  He always takes me on a journey of thought and challenges me as a reader.  And his illustrations are always amazing and unique!
     I was excited to see Queen of the Falls!  And, it doesn't disappoint... Once again, Chris Van Allsburg moved be through an exciting journey (leaning on nonfiction this time) as a reader.  In the book, Van Allsburg tells the story of 62-year-old Annie Edson Taylor, who in 1901 becomes the "first" person to go over Niagara Falls!  What else was a "charming" woman to do when her charm school closed?  Make a name for herself.  She becomes the "Queen" after attempting something only the bravest daredevil might consider... what a lady!  It's written and drawn beautifully.
     This is the perfect book to add to your Van Allsburg collection.  I can see using it when we talk about "endurance and stamina" as learners.  I think it shows the kind of persistence, courage, and introspection that learners need to be successful.  I'm so glad Chris Van Allsburg decided to take on this exciting topic with his genius.  I hope it's not the last time he tackles a story like this one.  I remain a fan!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It Takes Commitment

     I’ve been thinking a lot about commitment.  The commitments we make are sometimes overwhelming—teaching, parenting, relationships.  While I was exploring the meaning of the term commitment, I found an interesting article online (on a leadership site, which, by the way, I know nothing about, but I liked the premise).  It stated: 
     A great business leader once said: "...the basic philosophy, spirit, and drive of an organization have far more to do with its relative achievements than do technological or economic resources, organizational structure, innovation, and timing. All these things weigh heavily in success. But they are, I think, transcended by how strongly the people in the organization believe in its basic precepts and how faithfully they carry them out." (from Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and its Beliefs - The ideas that helped build IBM).
      As true as this is for the success of a corporation, it is even more so for the individual. The most important single factor in individual success is COMMITMENT. Commitment ignites action. To commit is to pledge yourself to a certain purpose or line of conduct. It also means practicing your beliefs consistently. There are, therefore, two fundamental conditions for commitment. The first is having a sound set of beliefs. There is an old saying that goes, "Stand for something or you'll fall for anything." The second is faithful adherence to those beliefs with your behavior. Possibly the best description of commitment is "persistence with a purpose".
     I love the term “persistence with a purpose.”  In the classroom, I’ve done a lot of work with my students around the idea of “Learning with a Spirit of Endurance” (see Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop for more information).  And, while I’ve explored stamina and endurance with students, in terms of their learning, I think I’m going to go after the idea of persistence with a purpose with them next year.  To strengthen endurance, I think it takes both commitment and persistence. 
     Case in point – Exercise.  The dreaded “E” word!
     For the past five weeks, I’ve committed to exercising every day.  I’ve started doing P90X© for the SECOND time (I didn’t have right attitude the first time).  And, now I’m committing to not giving up.  In fact, to strengthen my commitment to getting in shape, I signed up to be coach with the Beachbody organization.  I’ve also started incorporating another exercise program, RevAbs©, an at-home exercise program designed to burn fat and strengthen core abdominal muscles.  Why become a coach – it’s made me accountable both to myself and to others.  Isn’t accountability an important aspect of commitment?
     For the past year, I’ve been sedentary, a couch potato.  I admit it, it’s been longer than that (but one year makes it sound a bit more forgiving)… but, because of the encouragement of my friends, Troy and Jarod, I’ve gotten up off the couch.  Through our conversations, text messages, and consistent nudges, we’ve all made a renewed commitment to exercise.  Mind you, I don’t look like the guy on the DVD; in fact sometimes I curse him when I’m working out.  But the point is, I’m trying.  Taking a 51-year-old body and putting it through daily rituals and routines, can’t help but improve my health!
     I’ve also committed to better eating.  I am an eater.  My mother was a restaurant owner – one fine and dandy cook.  And, fortunately/unfortunately, she passed the love of cooking and eating on to me!  So I’ve decided to make better choices.  I’ve committed to drinking a Shakeology©  shake every day as a meal replacement (it's an amazing product by the way, click on the link and read about it).  This choice alone has strengthened my endurance as I exercise.  I feel so much better energy wise (it’s doing a lot internally that I don’t even realize).  I’ve tried to be flexible and try something new.
     My older brother immediately responded, “Not interested!” when I told him about my new health regime.  But after watching our father have his leg amputated from complications of diabetes (according to the National Diabetes Association, more than 60% of nontraumatic lower-limb amputations occur with people with diabetes) and seeing our mother suffer through complications of diabetic gangrene, I realized that I had to become a decision-maker.  I had to commit to making sure that I’m doing what I can to prevent the same fate.  Eliminating body fat is one step in the right direction.  Perhaps my demonstration and modeling will help my brother change his mind next time we see each other.
     Commitment is gradual.  I’ve seen my friend Troy journey through a complete transformation of mind and body (we originally started at the same time, he kept going, I gave up… Then I made excuses, “You’re ten years younger!” or “I don’t have time!”).  Recently, I've watched him and wondered, “Why couldn't I do that?”  Through sharing and cooperation, he has helped me see that the benefits of making a commitment will pay off in the long term.  Troy checks in with me, he supports me, and he listens.  He’s a good coach, and more importantly, a good friend—he’s given me a tremendous amount of support as I begin making exercise an important part of my daily life!  In turn, he has encouraged my independence and I’ve passed my learning on to Jarod.  
     So what does this have to do with learning?  Everything.  The article I found also said, “Commitment is most difficult and most readily proven during tough times. How someone weathers the storms most clearly demonstrates their basic beliefs. In antiquity, Epicurus stated: "...a captain earns his reputation during the storms."  So as I end this school year and begin a new one, I’m going to take this idea of commitment and incorporate it into our workshops.  As I continue my new regime, I'm going to explore what other aspects of my new learning I can bring to the conversation.
     As learners, persistence with a purpose will be a moniker of our time together!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Finding a Voice - The Clever Stick

The Clever Stick by John Lechner is another sweet little find that my students loved when I shared it with them recently.  We've done so much talk about creating metaphor to explain our thinking that my students immediately started wrapping this text around the work we've done as learners this year.  Case in point, one of my students said:  "The stick is like me, Mr. Allen, sometimes I have something really important to say and you always make sure that I get to talk about my thinking, write about my thinking and share my thinking with others."  
     This book is almost fable-like.  It's really about finding your voice.  In the text, a stick that is "sharp" has so many things to say, but can't think of a way to get his thinking out... until he comes up with a creative way to let all his thinking flow for others to see.  It starts... "Once upon a time there was a clever stick.  Ever since he had fallen off the tree he had been sharp..."
     From the beginning, this simple text is filled with humor and wonderful lines.  I can see using it as a mentor text in writing.  But, more importantly, I'm thinking it will be a wonderful launching point to our discussion of "trust, tone, and respect" next year as I begin with a new group of learners.  Bringing clarity and honesty to our workshops is something I work on with my students on a regular basis.  Helping them find their voices as learners is such a critical aspect of a well-running, "trust-filled" learning environment.  The Clever Stick is a perfect addition to a constantly growing list of books that I've collected that illustrate the importance of building independence... slowly, gradually, and metaphorically.  
     This is a perfect book to add to your classroom picture book collection, whether you're a first grade teacher or an eighth grade teacher.  It's quaint simplicity adds to its richness!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

LIterature That Supports the Workshop Structure

I'm always searching for books to use to reintroduce my students to the workshop structure... books we can compare to our work as learners.  Next year as I revisit the rituals, routines, and roles of the workshop structure (reader's, writer's, mathematician's, etc.), I've found two new choices.  It's important for us to talk about the specifics of the structure of the workshop (crafting, composing, reflecting) and to define our roles within that structure as learners (I wrote about this in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop).  Although the structure of the workshop is a familiar one, I think students need opportunities to explore the structure in new learning environments, contexts, and with varied expectations from teacher to teacher.  I've run across two nice choices:
     The first book is Workshop by Andrew Clements (recommended by my friend, Lori).  It's a simple book that describes the "tools" necessary to have at the ready in a workshop... the book is written in free-verse, wonderfully written.  The late David Wisniewski's artwork is beautiful cut-paper.  Throughout the text, a young apprentice assists in the creative of a carousel.  It introduces the reader to the "tools" necessary to create something worth building with pride and care.  I'm thinking it will be a nice companion text to use during our beginning of the year discussions of the "tools" we use as learners... comparing and contrasting a wonderful metaphor for learning.
     The second book is Wendel's Workshop by Chris Riddell.  In this book, Wendal is a mouse inventor... who experiments, starts over, experiments, starts over.  He invents a robot name Clunk to help tidy up his experiments, but eventually sends Clunk to the junk pile after he makes a few frustrating mistakes (Clunk is, well, Clunky and awkward).  Wendle then builds a bigger, more aggressive robot named Wendelbot, who goes a bit "wacko" and sends Wendel to the junk heap only to be reunited with Clunk.  Using the remains of his previous experiments--broken pieces and parts--he creates an army of robots to take over the workshop.  In the classroom, I will use this text to discuss the decision-making involved in experimentation and developing endurance as learners.  It's a quaint little book.  Simple story line, but with a message that can be easily compared to the workshop structure!
    It's important that we talk to learners about the workshop structure.  It's important that help learners their roles and responsibilities within the workshop structure.  It's important to challenge students to view their learning through the lens of literature and how their responsibilities fit within the workshop structure.  
     Is there a better way than through the use of literature? 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Junonia - A Gem

I just picked up Kevin Kenkes's Junonia.  It's a wonderful little story about a girl named Alice who vacations in Florida each year.  As she turns ten, she's worried about her birthday... worried it won't be the perfect birthday. 
     As she goes to celebrate with her family, she has to deal with a lot of changes occurring in Sanibel Island (her family's yearly vacation spot)... this year's vacation is different from vacations of the past.  She comes to love the cottage neighbors, but this year one of her favorites is not there.  Alice has to deal with her mother's friend and her boyfriend's daughter... a six-year-old!  There's an awkwardness to turning ten that Henkes captures beautifully in this book... about the changes children go through and how they handle it. 
     He helps Alice move through the changes she's experiencing beautifully.  Henkes writes about Alice's life in such a poignant and stunning way.  During her trip, Alice longs to find a rare junonia shell for her collection, but takes with her so much more... memories and remembrances to last a lifetime.  From the pitter patter of rain to the feelings that Alice experiences, Henkes captures the life of a ten-year-old in such a gentle and thoughtful way.  I loved this book! 
     You can listen to Kevin Henkes talk about the book and why it's so important to him.  Such a purposeful and thoughtfully written book.  I just gave it to my daughter to read and I can't wait for her review!