Monday, July 23, 2012

Where is There?

I run quickly into the City Market in Steamboat Springs to grab a small container of whipping cream* (our night to make dinner and dessert) and my eyes wander to the "bargain bin" of books.  I can't help it, I had to stop to look (even though I had a starving soccer player waiting in the car).  Sure enough, within three minutes I have four books in my hand.  
     It's such a habit, this addiction to books.  What's my favorite cloth bag say?  Erasmus's quote, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes!"*  It's true.  It's like dessert, this book-buying habit.
     One of the books I picked up is There by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick.  I was struck by the cover.  And the dedication "For Bernandine, with love?"  Stunning.  Then I read the first line, "When will I get There?"  That was it... into the shopping basket it went.  When I got to the car (I put the other three down by the way, I was in "catch and release" territory after all), my lovely wife says, "Only YOU can find a new book in a City Market!  No wonder it took you so long!"  And she smiles.  She knows she can't stop me... she's tried.   
     I smile back.  "It was ONLY five dollars," I quibble.  "Besides, I put three others back," I try to reason, "And look at it, look at it!"  
     And she did... all the way back to the condo she read it to Lauryn and me.
      As I read through this book later that evening, it really made me think.  Our own children ask, "When will we get there?"  We've all heard it from the backseat, starting at a tender age.  "Soon, soon..." we tend to answer in the gentlest of voices, "Soon."  We always seem to have the pat answer tucked in our back pocket.  
     And it's not much different in our classrooms is it?  
     Students ask:  When will I need this? or Why is this important?
     We say:  I'm getting you ready for _____,  you know it's coming! or Next year, you'll have to know _____, so I need to teach you how to _____! or I am responsible to make sure you can _____!
     As I was reading, I began thinking about notion of slowing down.  
      • How can we build stamina and endurance as learners if we don't take the opportunity to slow down?  
     • How can we create any sort of depth in learning if students are riddled with bits and pieces of gibberish that explode across their day?  
     The little girl in the book ponders and ponders about what the future holds--when really she might just focus on today.  She should be thinking about her childhood.  As should our students. 
      So, I plan to use There as a gentle reminder that children need time to ruminate and explore.  If we're expecting children to read more and more complicated, nay, more sophisticated text, it's important that we nudge them to ponder, to probe, to define purpose.  Depth comes when classroom environments foster the intellect.  Depth comes from taking time.  Depth comes from carefully mixing specific aspects of what's important with in the context of decision-making and choice.  We can't throw out our beliefs about learning just because the targets have changed.
     I  do a study of endurance and stamina with my students at the beginning of the year (see Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop) and I believe this year we're going to spend more time on the notion of "Pondering our Purpose" as well.  I think it's important.
     When will we get there?  I dunno.  I DO know that we'll work on it together and do the best we can.  And, I'll be using There to help us.  As the author reminds us, "We can go there tomorrow!"
*Desiderius Erasmus was a Dutch theologian and his real quote was related to his interest in all things Greek.  He said, "I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes."

*When people call whipping cream, whipped cream it makes me cringe a little.  It's not whipped cream until after you whip the whipping cream.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Two Days with a Friend

The best part about driving 300 miles to help your friend set up her classroom?  Well, besides the laughter, the discussions, the insights gained... it's the discovery of a new book!
     Yesterday I drove to Casper, Wyoming to spend time with Dana (I write about her in Conferring: The Keystone of Reader's Workshop) in her new classroom in her new school
     You should see Dana's room (well, maybe in a few weeks, she is still unpacking after all)... it's a wonderful place to spend time.  It's a magical place full of wonder, wise experience, and depth.  It's a beautiful place where children's learning lives are allowed to unfold slowly, developmentally, peacefully.  It's a book-filled place coupled with children's voices.  It's a place where the thinking of "little people" takes priority.
     In between our chats, I discovered The Robin Makes a Laughing Sound in the wicker basket on the windowsill.  Have you seen it?  This is a charming book by Sallie Wolf.  It's a sketchbook arranged by seasons... all about birding.  It's the kind of notebook I suspect kids want to keep, full of notes, watercolors, thoughts, poetry.   It's full of pen and ink drawings detailing observations, possibilities, wonderings.  And, it gives us a glimpse into the life of an observer, in this case, writer Sallie Wolf.  Great nonfiction.
Here's a little snippet of our conversation in Dana's room--
     Me:  I LOVE this book.
     Dana:  Oh, I know.  I'm creating a basket of books around being a naturalist, an observer.  It's lovely.
     Me:  I've never seen it.  (pause as I read it)  Oh my gosh.  Oh my gosh.  This is amazing.
     Dana:  (laughing)  I KNOW.  But didn't you tell me about it?
     Me:  I've never seen it.  Never!  Well, at least that I remember.  But what a great piece to introduce writers to the power of a notebook...

     And so our two days went.  Book discussions.  Planning.  Moving furniture.  Bantering a bit about things like "stupid cords" that seemed to be growing out of nowhere, placing furniture at angles or straight, throwing away files that "came with the room," moving this and that.  Talking Common Core and Thinking Strategies.  Reading a few books.  Laughing.  Sorting.  Standing back.  Discussing options.  Planning the first weeks of school (we're both starting out in a similar vein, Dana at 2nd and me at 4th... but that's for another blog).  We packed a lot into our short time together in her classroom (we did have to eat, y'know... and see other dear friends).
     I think Dana has a better vision of her new space.  I have an appreciation for her risk-taking.  I have new energy to take into my classroom in a few weeks (I haven't been in the mood AT ALL).  We both have a plan in place for starting out the year (aren't you curious?).  And, we both have a new list of books to consider.
     Is it crazy to drive 300 miles (one-way) to see a colleague/friend?  Nope.  It's exactly what I needed.  My mind was racing the whole way back to Denver.
     I've got this small inspirational book on my "must have" list.  It's going to fit beautifully into my plans.  It's going to keep ME focused on helping my 4th graders develop a sense of wonder and hope, even as we move into the new territory around what others consider "core."  By the way, I've been thinking of an apple... it's the stuff that sits around the core that we enjoy the most... the snap of the crisp red skin, the sweetness of the flesh, the juicy bits running down our chin.  We get to the core.  We know it's there.  We know.  WE know. We have it in our mind.  BUT, what's important is what you find around it.  That's the yummy kickshaw.  I'm not worried.  I'm worried about what's most important.
     And, it's important to have a friend to share with... all 600 miles worth!

Friday, July 6, 2012

These TImes They are A Changin'

This week, I attended a two-day orientation at the University of Colorado at Boulder.  Jens will be attending in the fall (double major in English and Electrical Engineering).  He's our third child to go to CU (Go Buffs!) and this was the third orientation for his parents (we took turns).  I learned a lot and it was great fun spending time on campus!  At a session about his college, one of the directors of advising shared some interesting information with us... a 2010 study by Hart Research Associates.  The study was called, "Raising The Bar:  Employers’ Views On College Learning In The Wake Of The Economic Downturn."  As I was listening to the presentation, I was struck... the findings were certainly apropos.  I realized that the same qualities employers were looking for in college level academia were the same "views" that we, as teachers of younger children, are hoping learners will acquire.
     I read the study.  70% of those surveyed agreed that the areas colleges need to increase their focus include:
  • 1) written and oral communication,
  • 2) critical thinking and analytical reasoning, 
  • 3) the application of knowledge and skills in real-world settings, 
  • 4) complex problem-solving and analysis, 
  • 5) ethical decision-making, 
  • 6) teamwork skills, 
  • 7) innovation and creativity, and 
  • 8) concepts and developments in science and technology.     (c) Hart Research Associates
     The professor shared the university's synthesis of specific aspects of the study.  In the College of Arts and Sciences, they are hoping students will sharpen the following behaviors as learners:
  • Develop critical thinking skills
  • Deliver effective oral and written communication
  • Hone research and organizational skills
  • Learn to look at multiple sides of an issue
  • Apply reasoning and logic
  • Make time to meet goals and complete projects successfully
  • Heighten self-confidence
  • Heighten self-understanding
  • Refine analytical skills
  • Acquire critical reflective reading skills
  • Improve numerical skills
  • Work productively and in teams
  • Cultivate sensitivity to individual and cultural differences  From a presentation by Peter J. Freitag
 I immediately asked to copy this powerpoint slide.  Do you see why I was struck?
     As a teacher of nine and ten-year-old learners, these are the same learning characteristics my students should develop as we work together.  So many things on "the list" I weave into my instruction via thinking strategy studies, units of study, mathematical inquiries, classroom discourse, curriculum requirements, use of technology, etc.  As we move into a "common core" we need to remember that these behaviors are of utmost import!  They sound a lot like the 21st Century Skills that we, as teachers, have been discussing for quite some time.  I think I'm going to keep this list handy as I plan for the coming year.
     Here's my inquiry question... How can I better communicate the role these components have in "coming to understand" for learners, both implicitly and explicitly?
     If employers are encouraging college students to acuminate these learning qualities, wouldn't it behoove us to let others know that we, too, value these qualities... beginning even in preschool (Isn't early childhood education the beginning of 'working productively and in teams' and 'heightening self-confidence' and 'applying reasoning and logic'?).  These qualities start in preschool... not college (although college might bring them to fruition in more complex learning situations, eh?).
     These are intriguing times for education.  Implementing the Common Core.  Rhetoric by Pundits Who Have Never Taught (D. Graves, The Energy to Teach).  Being Indundated with "Stuff" from Publishers of Canned Curriculum.  A Lack of Focus on Authentic Learning.  To quote Bob Dylan...

"Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin'
Then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'."

      If, in fact, these qualities are what employers are looking for, we should make sure they survive in today's educational climate.  How?  I guess that's for us to figure out.  I think I'm going to start swimming!
- - - - - 
On a side note... I'm glad Jens will get the chance to explore in a system that values such interesting principles of learning.  He's had a grand start... Peakview Elementary, Thunder Ridge Middle School, Eaglecrest High School... many of his teachers have already done a fine job of planting these seeds in him as a learner.  They've continued to germinate.  And, won't the advising department at his university of choice be glad to see them blossom even more?  Go Buffs!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Birthday, America


A declaration of freedoms old and new,
From poets, pastors, and people
like me... like you!

An anniversary. A country's birth.
Growth. Change.
Past and present.
A future.

Festivities of democracy.
Flags blowing in breezes...
memories, sacrifice, honor, and glory.

Living. Dead. Fighting.
Freedom for all.



Happy Birthday! 
P. Allen 7/12

- - - - - - - - - - - 

     My poem is my addition to the celebration of our nation's birthday.  
Happy 4th of July!

     Lest we forget our heroes, our freedom, our democracy, or our independence... here are a baker's dozen of my favorite children's books related to the 4th of July.  In my classroom I have a basket of text "About America" that includes these titles and more.  We should help children develop a curiosity about America and her history.  Of course, there are many more great titles, but these need to be a part of every classroom library.  They are a part of mine...
A lovely introduction to the Preamble!
We can't forget Jean Fritz... her books always make us think!
Charles R. Smith, Jr. has created a lovely tribute to children. 
Beyond just Jack and Annie... 
The illustrations are truly amazing... and the words are so Colorado!
The language of Bill Martin, Jr. and company...  
Teach children what the pledge really means...
 Pam Munoz Ryan... her words are like magic!
Reminds me of childhood.
Good luck finding this one at a reasonable price.  Thank you Lee and Tomie!
Full of facts and trivia... and interesting details.
Beautiful illustrations.  Great words to sing!
This one is new.  It's a collection of poems.  It provides
an interesting spin on the details of elections, democracy (pros/cons),
and freedoms.  Ms. Wong encourages us to "look," "read," "talk," and "vote."
She encourages us to take the initiative to live freely.  The poems
could certainly serve as a launching point for great discussions, especially
during an election year.  It's a provocative collection.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Another Ralph Fletcher Hit - Guy-Write

I spent the past two days in Boulder Colorado at my son's orientation for the University of Colorado.  He'll be a freshman in the fall (my third child to become a Buff).  At this point, he's thinking of a double major - Electrical Engineering and... English!  He's very excited for two reasons 1) He gets to choose the classes he's most interested in* and 2) His advisor recommended that he spend some time exploring to whet his appetite for new learning.  He's never been an "in the box" thinker, so I'm excited for him as he begins this next journey is his life. 
     Ironically, we stopped in The Boulder Bookstore and spent a bit of time wandering the store.  If you've never been, you should put it on your bookstore bucket list.  It's a superb independent.  It's cozy.  It's in the middle of the Pearl Street Mall (which means great restaurants are only a few doors away).  It's a great place to spend some time in the afternoon with your college-bound son (or daughter).  I loved as we walked in and Jens said, "Dad, I need a new book.  What should I read?" (that's a subject for another blog entry).
     My choice today was Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know by Ralph Fletcher (which was shelved in the "activity" book section... I guess even The Boulder Bookstore gets it wrong periodically).  I just saw Ralph last week at the All-Write Conference in Warsaw, Indiana.  I spent some time with him and Katie Ray by the pool talking about reading, writing, learning, and life.  It was a great evening.  I wish I had known the specifics of his "activity" book at the time so we could have weaved it into the conversation.  Trust me, it was definitely shelved in the wrong section... it's not an activity book.  This book should be out front for every child (especially those middle grade/middle school boys) to get their hands on... it's that good!
     In Guy-Write, Ralph shares a special gift with his readers.  The gift of wisedom.  The gift of risk-taking.  The gift of passion.  The gift of words.  The gift of saying, "Boys... it's okay... write!"  As I write this blog, I'm sitting in Starbucks after finishing this grand read.  I loved it!  What a gift. 
     As I read, I was reminded of my student Isaiah who once said, "How does he do it?  I feel like Ralph Fletcher is talking to me.  Just to me!"  I felt the "boy writer" in me twinge with a little bit of rebellion, a little bit of challenge, and a little bit of "Gross!"  Ralph's sense of humor shines through each page as he talks to "us boys" about how to improve our writing life.  He's able to bridge the gap between being a "writer at home" and a "writer at school."  He writes about the contexts in which we need to nudge boy writers to work.  He adds ammunition to every boy's arsenal of what it means to be a writer!
     As an added bonus, he includes interviews with five "boy" writers.  I want Sam to read the section about "Sports Writing" and the interview with Robert Lipsyte.  I want Jacob to read "Draw First and Write Later" and the interview with Jarrett Krosoczka.  I want Sebastian to read "Freaky Stories" and the interview with Robert San Souci.  I want Christopher to read "Riding the Vomit Comet" and the interview with Jon Scieszka.  I want Zachary to read "Superheroes and Fantasy" and the interview with Greg Trine.  I want all the boys I've taught for the past 26 years to read Ralph's words.  And, I want all the teachers I teach with to read them as well.  In fact, I challenge you all to read it!  Every boy writer needs Ralph Fletcher as their mentor and advocate!  (By the way, I just emailed all the parents of boys I've had for the past three years and recommended they run to the bookstore for this one).
     I wish I had read it BEFORE I met with Ralph a few weeks ago.  I can't wait for my 18-year-old college-bound English major to read it.  I can't wait to read it more closely.  Thanks Ralph, for another gem.  Our lives are all the richer for it.
- - - - - - - -
*Which, by the way, includes Beginning Italian.  Italian?  Does he remember his sister (the senior) works in that department?  Ciao`

If you want to read another great blog about this book, go to A Year of Reading.