At NCTE this year I took part in the run/walk/jog organized by Kate Messner. One of the best parts of that experience was having the opportunity to spend some time talking with Ruth Ayers. As we made our way through the Boston Commons we talked about many different things - family, celebrations, new projects, and writing. I knew I wasn't doing enough writing, so Ruth suggested scheduling writing time into my schedule at the start of every week, like making an appointment. It was a great suggestion that I knew would help me, but I just hadn't acted on it yet. Until this morning.
While waiting at the Firestone Care Car Center for my inspection to be completed (being there for three hours gave me lots of time to read, think, and write), I stumbled upon #nerdlution on Twitter. Simple - set some goals and commit to them from Dec. 2 to Jan 20. I knew the encouragement I could get from the Twitter community would be just the thing to help me get started on some writing goals and more. So I'm in.
Here’s my plan:
1. Write every day. On Sunday I'll examine my schedule and make writiappointments for the week.
2. Read every day for at least 30 min. As co-chair of the Keystone to Reading Elementary Book Award Committee,
I have a ton of children's books to sift through and a pile of professional and pleasure reading waiting on my to- be
- read shelf. So this will be a combination of all of that - something for the book awards and something else
from a professional or pleasure read.
3. Practice intentional kindness. While I consider myself a fairly kind and compassionate person, I think I could do
more. At the end of every day I want to be able to verbalize an act of kindness - a kind word or gesture or even
thought that I accomplished with intention. It’s probably easier to practice this sort of kindness during the holiday
season, which is great, because hopefully by the end of January it will be a habit.
As I read through the goals others were posting, I was struck by the variety, but at the same time, the similarity among them. Many are centered around reading, writing, and living a more healthy lifestyle, but they are all about being the best people – teachers, spouses, parents, friends – that we can be. Being a part of the Twitter community never ceases to amaze me. I know I have friends out there who I may never meet in person, but who I continually learn from and celebrate with. Thank you all for your advice, encouragement, and friendship.
Last week I had the privilege of working with teachers at the Literacy for All Conference in Providence, RI. They were a thoughtful group who were willing to share their thinking and take risks. Because our presentations center around the use of mentor texts, Lynne and I generally ask teachers to think about what a mentor is and to perhaps reflect on the mentors they have had in their lives. As we listened in to some of the conversations, one teacher posed the question, “Is there a difference between a mentor and a teacher?” I thought this was an excellent, thought provoking question. To me, a mentor is a teacher, but I don’t necessarily think all teachers are mentors.
The whole idea of mentorship includes the notion that one is learning from a more knowledgeable other, so there is definitely teaching involved in being a mentor. But I think mentorship goes much deeper than just imparting knowledge. A mentor forges a relationship with the one they are teaching – a relationship that includes learning, a sharing of ideas, and the subtle challenges that will help the student continue to grow. I’ve had many mentors in my life, beginning with my parents from whom I learned, mostly by example, how to live my life. But perhaps the most diverse group of mentors have been those from my professional life. These have included teachers, friends, authors, and other professionals whose work I have read and admired and whose understandings have helped me form my own beliefs about reading, writing, and learning. Some of these mentors I have never met, yet I feel a connection with them. I have felt them working with me as I continue to grow professionally.
In order for teachers to also be mentors, they must know their students well and be able to model skills or impart knowledge at just the right time. What this means is that as teachers, we need to work right alongside our students, engaging in many of the same struggles as they do, sharing our thinking, our frustrations, our successes. We need to connect with them in very tangible ways so that the relationship will grow.
Being a mentor carries a huge responsibility. Being a teacher does, too. By bringing the two together we can maximize the learning that takes place in the classroom and take all of our students to a new level of success.
Last Saturday I had the pleasure of spending the day with seven dedicated teachers at Longwood Gardens
as part of a course on using children’s literature related to nature in the classroom. The day focused on developing and sustaining that natural curiosity of children to discover more about their world. We practiced looking closely at objects, shapes, and spaces using books such as Georgia’s Bones
and A River of Words
by Jen Bryant, Swirl by Swirl
by Joyce Sidman, and Rachel
by Amy Erhlich as mentor texts.
As I was preparing for the class, I found a Stenhouse blog post from 2012 written by poet and author Shirley McPhillips. In it she talked about the importance of looking a long time at something and working things out in your notebook. She included this quote by John Berger: “Look long enough so that the thing gazes back.” I remember writing that down in my notebook and returning to it sometime later to practice the art of looking closely at something, in this case the large cherry tree in my backyard, and letting feelings in to help shape the writing from it.
At first I just spent some quiet time looking at the tree. I don’t know if it gazed back at me, but I remember being flooded by memories – the kids naming it the bat-tree, hanging wreaths and feeders for the birds, watching baby robins hatch. After all, the tree was there the day we moved in, and had stood in our yard for the thirty-four years we lived in the house. I started by simply writing descriptive phrases: gnarled bark, like a hand reaching up, bruises where old, dead limbs have been removed, clusters of oval, deep-green leaves, rough, offering shelter and shade, stalwart and sturdy. Then I concentrated on the feelings: an old friend who has remained constant, new life, beauty as each spring it erupts into a bouquet of blossoms, protecting.
After jotting down some ideas and moving things around, I came up with this:
Ode to a Cherry Tree
Rough and gnarled
Scarred from a lifetime
Offering shelter, shade,
A constant companion.
Try looking long and closely at something in nature and let your thoughts be your guide. You may discover something new about yourself.
Last week Lynne Dorfman and I presented at the Carroll County Reading Council in Westminster, MD. As we talked with the leaders, it soon became clear that we shared many of the same passions as well as many of the same concerns. We are passionate about our local and state councils and recognize the role these organizations have played in shaping curriculum and advancing literacy. But membership is dwindling. For whatever reasons, teachers are finding new ways to learn and share ideas about literacy, as have I. By taking the plunge into Twitter, I have been able to connect with teachers across the country in ways I never imagined. I learn something new or get insight into a new way of thinking every day just by reading a few blogs. But, I still feel that membership in a group brings its own kind of reward. The feeling of belonging to something larger and concentrating efforts toward a common goal is powerful.
A few years ago I wrote an article for our state council’s newsletter. In it I outlined the reasons why I belong to the Keystone State Reading Organization. I talked about originally joining because I felt it was something that I should do as reading specialist and have on my resume, but how I quickly came to understand that it was so much more. Mostly,I talked about the influence of people:
Over the years I have met so many wonderful individuals who have guided me to new thinking and
challenged me to learn more. Teachers, authors, nationally known researchers, publishers, and
book sellers have all been a part of my professional and personal growth.
…I have learned that with KSRA, membership in a professional organization is so much more than
something to put on a resume. It is a place where passions, friendships, and ideals are born and
continue to grow.
I’m still passionate about literacy, I’m still growing and learning, and I guess that’s why I still belong.
Last winter our local community almost lost a wonderful friend, the Chester County Book Company (CCBC), a well-loved independent book store. Although it was quite large, it was the sort of space that felt like home. The staff were experts on recommending books and often engaged in conversations about titles with the customers. What drew me in the most was the wonderful children’s section. I spent many hours there finding new titles and revisiting old ones. In its fifteen years, the store had grown to include a music section and a restaurant, and the owner could no longer sustain it. But it was the community that loved the store so much that eventually helped to save it. Through social media, CCBC gathered hundreds of friends who helped convince the owner to downsize to a smaller space in the same shopping center.
On Tuesday of this week, CCBC opened its doors once again. And once again, as I entered, it felt like home. I immediately spotted some friends, and we began having conversations about the books we read and were hoping to read. Staff members (familiar faces) who weren’t busy at the cash register mingled with the customers, listening and offering suggestions, getting to know their clients. People sat on comfortable chairs, perusing possible new purchases. Although perhaps a bit smaller, the wonderful children’s section was there, its shelves filled with a mixture of the best in new publications and beloved classics.
As I walked around and talked with people, I began to think about the lessons that could be applied to the classroom, especially reading and writing workshop. As teachers, we want to find our students’ strengths and build from that. In redesigning the store, the owner and staff of CCBC started with what they knew was most successful for them – the children’s and fiction sections. We all know how effective book talks and teacher and student recommendations are in the classroom. At CCBC, they decided to concentrate on the “Staff Picks” shelves instead of just stocking all the best sellers. Nothing beats a personal recommendation. But perhaps the biggest lesson is finding and growing that sense of community. As the school year begins, take the time (and it may take some time) to build a classroom community. Students will have more ideas, more energy, and more sense of pride in their work. And who knows, as with CCBC, the community created may just help a struggling or reluctant writer survive.
This summer I was finally able to get to some of the professional books that were part of my ever-growing reading stack. Two standouts for me were Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary by Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Smith, and Assessment in Perspective: Focusing on the Reader Behind the Numbers by Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan, both published by Stenhouse Publishers.
Vocabulary is a big part of the new Common Core standards, but in many classrooms it continues to be taught in isolation. Students may learn words for a weekly assessment or for the length of a unit of study, but they are quickly forgotten. In Word Nerds, the authors skillfully show teachers how they can not only use direct vocabulary instruction, but also embed the teaching of vocabulary across the day so that students truly own the words. As they say:
Students need time to explore new words, play with them, and connect them to concepts they
already know. Words without a meaningful context remain random.
The organization and step by step procedures outlined in Word Nerds serve as a helpful guide to teachers without being formulaic. The book is full of classroom snapshots, allowing the reader to listen in on instructional conversations and get a true sense of what that kind of dialogue might sound like. By taking us into their classrooms, Brenda, Leslie, and Margot give a clear picture of what scaffolded instruction looks like, and how operating as a classroom community can boost student achievement.
As soon as I began reading Assessment in Perspective, I knew it would be an important book for teachers. In the opening pages, the authors included a quote from Lucy Calkins that I always had pasted in the notebook I kept on the students I worked with:
Assessment is the thinking teacher’s mind work. The intelligence that
guides our every moment as a teacher.
Often when we think about assessment these days we think about numbers and data. Teachers are often asked to look at data, or to bring their data to a progress monitoring or grade level meeting. But what does that actually mean? By sharing the stories from their classrooms, Clare and Tammy remind us that there is so much more to looking at numbers. They explain how one piece of data is not enough, and to get a true sense of what is happening with a student, we must look at more - formal and informal data, including observational notes of students in different contexts. Also through their stories, they are able to show teachers how to take an assessment stance in the classroom, so that everything they do and observe informs instruction.
Recently, I viewed an exhibit of art work by Jerry Pinkney at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Painted on the floor at the entrance to the exhibit hall were these words from the illustrator: “There is something special about knowing that your stories can alter the way people see the world, and the place within it.” Story is powerful, and by choosing to use story to explain their ideas, the authors of Word Nerds and Assessment in Perspective have given teachers the opportunity to reflect on their classroom practices and perhaps see them a little differently. I highly recommend both of these books to both new and experienced teachers.
Somehow I knew the day would come. My tubs and shelves of books could not take one more. Something would have to give. So last spring I packed up some of my old friends – wonderful books who would serve teachers well in their classrooms or find their way into the hands of an eager young reader or writer; books that could serve a better purpose than sitting on my shelf for long stretches of time. Although it was difficult to bid farewell, I had many new friends waiting for a spot in my collection. The wonderful thing about books is that there are always new discoveries to make! For this year’s 10 for 10 event I have decided to introduce some of my new friends. All of these books were published in 2012 or 2013. I thought just choosing ten might be easier with the field narrowed in such a way, but it was still difficult.
Thanks Kathy and Mandy for hosting this event once again. I can’t wait to make more friends as I view everyone’s picks!
Annie and Helen by Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Raul Colon. This book is more than just a biography of Helen Keller. The author’s use of primary source documents in the form of excerpts from Annie Sullivan’s letters to her friend in Boston make it Annie’s story as well. Readers can easily understand how important these two women were to each other. It is a celebration of courage, perseverance, and triumph, and exemplifies what it means to be a teacher.
Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead, illus. by Erin E. Stead. This heart-warming tale is a wonderful example of how important friends are, especially in helping us tell our stories.
The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, illus. by Oliver Jeffers. Thanks to Stacey Shubitz who introduced me to this great new book! All the crayons in Duncan’s box write him letters of complaint, but by using his imagination he finds a way to make them all happy again. Wonderful examples of persona writing!
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson, illus. by E. B. Lewis. A touching story of friendship and the power of small acts of kindness.
Forest Has a Song by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, illus. by Robbin Gourley. Through a series of poems, the author takes us on a visit to the forest. We can chat with a chickadee, listen in on a tree frog proposing marriage, feel the squish of moss on bare toes, and much more.
Penguin and Pinecone written and illustrated by Salina Yoon. Another friendship story that shows the give and take of love and how distance between loved ones can be overcome.
Rocket Writes a Story written and illustrated by Tad Hills. Now that Rocket can read he wants to write. This delightful follow-up to How Rocket Learned to Read is the perfect way to introduce young writers to the writing process – finding inspiration, drafting, the power of a good conference with a teacher, revising, and sharing.
Sorting Through Spring by Lizann Flat, illus. by Ashley Barron. This interactive book skillfully combines math with nature in a playful and interesting way. Readers are challenged to find patterns, make reasonable predictions based on probability, and interpret data as they learn about animals and plants. I can definitely see kids returning to this book again and again to make new discoveries.
A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant, illus. by Melissa Sweet. I included this book in the 10 for 10 nonfiction event in February, but felt it needed to be on this list, too. Together with the exquisite collages of illustrator Melissa Sweet, Jen helps us learn of the struggles and successes of Pennsylvania artist Horace Pippin. The text offers many lessons for young writers and includes excerpts from some of Pippin’s notebooks.
Unspoken told through the illustrations of Henry Cole. This wordless book offers a heartfelt story about the Underground Railroad. When a young girl encounters a runaway slave, she must make an important decision. This book would be a great tool for teaching inference and character development.
This is my final post for this summer’s #cyberpd. This past week we read the final chapters of Who Owns the Learning? by Alan November. Reading this book definitely challenged my thinking. I’m glad I read it and was able to share in the discussion, but as I said before, sometimes it was hard for me to wrap my head around everything. But, as I finished up the last two chapters this past week I had an “aha” moment that helped me put things somewhat in perspective.
In the Epilogue November says: “…these stories demonstrate that we are experiencing an essential change in the culture of teaching and learning. When students are given the opportunity to have purpose and ownership in their work, we see amazing things happen with the quality of their learning experiences and outcomes.” (p. 89)
“Hmmm…,” I thought as I read (and reread) these words. Somehow that part about ownership sounded familiar, an idea I came to embrace many years ago when I was first introduced to writing workshop from such literary giants as Nancie Atwell, Donald Graves, and Lucy Calkins. I’m sure he said it in different ways in many instances, but in the August, 1993 issue of Primary Voices K-6, Donald Graves said, “…children need to have a sense of ownership about their writing, to feel in control of their subjects, not to write in response to topics I give them.” He goes on to talk about the importance of teachers modeling for students what it is they are asking of them. He challenges teachers to look closely at their own literacy. He says, “Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.”
Aren’t these the same challenges Alan November is putting forth? It seems that we have heard of the importance of ownership, purpose, and collaboration before, but have we as educators really made that shift? Some of us may have, at least in certain areas, but I believe the culture of education as a whole is still one of imparting to students the knowledge we feel they will need. So while we are still seeking to truly experience that needed change in the culture of teaching, the technological tools available to us should help to make that happen. But we as teachers need to work with our students to learn how to ask the important questions and use the new tools available to us in ways that will help ensure the success of that essential change. I think that education will always be evolving, just as we as teachers must continue to grow.
Thanks to everyone who shared their thinking about this book and helped me continue to grow.
This week’s reflection hosted by Cathy Mere, Jill Fisch, and Laura Komos on Who Owns the Learning? by Alan November is on Chapters 3 and 4, discussing the role of students as classroom scribes and researchers. The book has really stretched my thinking and I often feel overwhelmed as I read it. I know I have only begun to get my feet wet with the possibilities of how to use technology in the classroom to truly create a community of learners. But I am thankful that I have a larger audience I can learn from and with. Many of the quotes I marked this week made me think about other aspects of a learning community, not just in terms of technology. So I decided to pick a few and use them as a jumping off point to extend my thinking.
“…perhaps the biggest challenges for some teachers will be redefining the role of the learner as contributor, and building a collaborative learning culture.”
I believe this holds true not just for the classroom but for the professional community as well. It’s easy for teachers to want to pick up a manual and have everything spelled out for them. But if they see themselves as part of a learning community in which they can help shape curriculum, their teaching experiences will be so much more effective and student centered. Teachers must view themselves as part of a larger community where they can learn from others and collaborate to find new avenues for their teaching. I believe that once this happens, it will be easier for them to view their students as contributors and collaborators as well.
In sharing the ideas of another educator, Darren Kuropatwa, there is a discussion about the reluctance of some teachers to share their ideas, especially globally. November quotes Darren as saying, “As long as you’re willing to put yourself out there and share, you get back many fold.”
When I first started to contribute to a blog, I felt (and sometimes still do feel) the same way. I wondered if what I had to say would be of interest to anyone, and if they did read, what would they think? My ideas were already out there in print, but there was just something about the thought of being able to reach so many teachers digitally that was a bit scary. It was definitely a push to put myself out there, but I agree whole-heartedly that I have gotten back much in return. One of the questions at the end of Chapter 3 asks if students will work harder on material they are preparing for a wider audience than just their teacher. I believe they will. We all know how important audience is to writing, and having an audience of peers often pushes us to do our best work more than anything else.
“Darren advises newcomers to the student scribe program to look at the work of others who are early in the process of adopting this model.
This speaks to the importance of having good mentors and models for the work we do ourselves, as well as the work we expect of our students. In writing, we always try to provide just the right amount and kind of modeling for students. When we work together with them in a shared experience they come to understand that what we are showing them is doable, and they grow in confidence as they begin to apply what has been taught to their own work.
And one final quote from Darren that speaks to the importance of being a life-long learner:
“As long as you’re asking what’s next, you’ll get there. But never be content with where you’re at.”
I’m looking forward to continuing the journey.
In his book Who Owns the Learning?, Alan November talks about the importance of student centered learning and how technology is revolutionizing the ways we teach and learn. I am excited when I read about changes in education and have the opportunity to peek into classrooms (mostly virtually) where technology is used to innovate teaching and learning. But I am also a bit overwhelmed. Those are the feelings that echoed in my mind as I read the first few chapters of November’s powerful book.
What popped out at me as a place to begin my reflection was with the idea of questioning. I love that the title of the book is a question. Lately I’ve started a lot of my thinking about topics I am interested in with a question. Questioning is at the heart of any new learning and nurtures the habits of curiosity and exploration that help all of us remain lifelong learners. November quotes from a personal communication he had with a colleague who also happens to be a Harvard researcher: “The essential skill of the 21st century is knowing how to ask the most powerful questions.”
As November points out, the old industrial classroom model that most teachers use “underestimates the natural curiosity of students to direct their own thinking” (p.5). Many authors such as Debbie Miller, Georgia Heard, and Donald Graves have talked about the natural curiosity of young learners and the importance of keeping this essential trait alive. What has changed in the classroom is the fact that teachers no longer have to have all the answers. In fact, teachers share in the new discoveries made all the time. We are all a part of a global community where information is at our fingertips. Helping students to understand how to access and use information and keep that curiosity alive should be at the heart of how we teach. “The energy of discovery will drive educators and students to continue creating new goals and finding new directions” (p.19).
As a digital immigrant , what was important for me as I read (and reread) the first few chapters of November’s book was how he encourages teachers to start small. Even something as simple as a classroom blog that reaches beyond the local community can help students discover the value and importance of global communication to share their knowledge and find answers to their questions. This past year I have learned from so many wonderful educators in all parts of the country (and world), mostly through Twitter and blogs. It was a leap for me, but one that keeps me energized as I continue to question and learn.