Slice of Life: A Day at Teachers College

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Four days of conferences in three different locations in one week sounds like too much, doesn’t it? But I did it, and survived! From a day at Teachers College with six colleagues for a day-long immersion into the Writing Units of Study to the Connecticut Reading Conference with Peter Johnston, Lester Laminack, Christine Hertz, Mary Howard, and Linda Hoyt, my brain felt like it was ready to explode as I drove home Friday afternoon. But in a good way!

Our day at Teachers College was a huge success. I spent the day with my two first grade colleagues learning more about writing workshop in K-2 from the amazing Shanna Schwartz, while four teachers from our school spent the day learning about 3-5 writing workshop with Lucy Calkins. Needless to say, we had plenty to talk about on the drive home.

3-5 teachers loved meeting Lucy Calkins.
3-5 teachers loved meeting Lucy Calkins.

I took nine (!) pages of notes, so I’m not going to attempt to distill them all into one post. Rather, here are a few of my key takeaways.

“Writing Workshop Bill of Writers”
“We apprentice children in the life of a writer”

All children have the right to…

Time to write
Units based in authentic genres
Knowledge of conventions
Skills and strategies for writing
Understanding of the writing process
Collaboration

In other words, our students deserve nothing less than to do “what real writers do in a writing life.”

Shanna stressed the importance of collaboration and feedback, and I love this idea: “Our best writing is the writing we work on on our own and with feedback from others. Feedback is a gift.”

On revision, Shanna had this to say: “Revision is a complement we give our best work.” Isn’t that a wonderful idea?

The importance of read alouds and mentor texts was also emphasized: “A writer can’t write what they haven’t heard or read.” and “Read alouds help readers/writers think about what writing can sound like.”

Shanna also talked about the importance of beginning the year with narrative writing. She explained that narrative is the “first way we exist in the world” and that “when we meet people, we tell them our story.” Shanna reminded us that “story is the first kind of reading we do.” Finally, she pointed out that “story is the building block of every other kind of writing…small stories are often included in informational and opinion writing.”

When conferring with children, Shanna suggested we begin by saying, “Tell me about what your working on in this story.” After listening to the writer’s response, “think about what will make this writer stronger and more independent.” She also urged us to “give compliments that are productive by noticing a behavior and tell them the effect that behavior” has on their writing. This type of praise will “encourage them to do it again,” and thus help them become more independent. Independence is the goal, after all.

If there was any common thread to all I learned last week, the idea of independent learners is it. As Lucy Calkins wrote in A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Primary Grades (Heinemann, 2015), “the goal…is not only to teach kids to read [and write], but to help them grow up to be people who value reading [and writing].

By the way, look who got a shout-out:

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Pretty good company, don’t you think?

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnnaBeth, Kathleen, and Deb for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: Unlocking Possiblities

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I do a lot of my best thinking in the shower. One morning last week as I was washing my hair, I was thinking about “The Good Old Days,” a poem Ralph Fletcher shared at the Connecticut Reading Conference. Later that morning, I would be facilitating a meeting with ELA teachers and I wanted to share the poem with them. Fletcher had us use this poem as a mentor text, taking the first and last stanzas from his poem and filling in the middle with our own “good old days” memories. As I lathered my hair, I thought about what I had written. I realized I hadn’t focused on any one memory. Instead, I had more of a list of special people and objects. While I was rinsing out the shampoo, it occurred to me that students could use this poem as a way to gather seed stories.

Then my thoughts returned to my poem. One line was about climbing a favorite apple tree in my grandmother’s yard. This made me think of a story I’ve been working on, but have been stumped by about where to go next. Suddenly, the tumblers in the lock aligned and I saw a possible path. Now I was rushing to finish my shower so I could write down my idea. Since that morning, I’ve been steadily working on this story, writing a little each day.

For me, these aha! moments of insight are like finding the perfect gift for someone who is notoriously hard to buy for. They give me immense satisfaction. But they don’t happen unless I’m writing regularly. When I’m writing each day, something is different in my brain. I see the world differently. I see possibilities. Donald Murray said, “The daily practice of craft sharpens the writer’s vision and tunes the writer’s voice. Habit makes writing easy.” I don’t think any amount of writing will ever make writing easy for me. Easier, maybe. But never easy.

Which brings me to students. Many students find writing the most difficult part of their day. Teachers often tell me they find it hard to make time for writing. That writing time is the first thing to go when time is short. Maybe this is because writing is difficult for them, too. This makes me sad. It is only by writing that we build our writing muscle. It is only by writing that we begin to see the world with what Maxine Greene called “wide awake eyes.” I’m constantly amazed by the metaphors children use for everyday objects when we ask them to be observant.

In order to cultivate this kind of awareness, we have to ensure that children have what Penny Kittle calls “time to count on,” time they know they’ll have so “if something occurs to [them] during the day, [they’ll] store it away, knowing [they’ll] have time to write soon, and the idea will resurface then.”  Children deserve this time to write about things that matter to them. Every. Single. Day. Nothing in our curriculum matters more than this. After all, who knows what they’ll think of while they’re in the shower!

Thank you, StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for the gift of this space for teachers and others to share their writing each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Whispers

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The third week of school is coming to an end. Routines are falling into place, schedules have been ironed out, and most of the tears have dried up. Throughout these hectic weeks, it’s been challenging for me to get my act together at home and find time for writing. I’ve been jotting notes like mad, and keep telling myself that I’ll have time today, I’ll get up early…. You know how that goes!

This Myra Cohn Livingston poem captures the feeling I’ve had as thoughts and ideas keep whispering to me.

Whispers

Whispers

tickle through you ear

telling things you like to hear.

Whispers

are as soft as skin

letting little worlds curl in.

Whispers

come so they can blow

secrets others never know.

This would be a perfect poem to share with young writers as they also settle into the routine of writing every day and learn to keep their eyes and ears open for ideas waiting to be put into words.

Be sure to visit Renee at No Water River for today’s Poetry Friday Round Up.