Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick

You know that friend you have who is just a tad different?  You know the one who, when you’re introducing him/her to other friends naturally elicits the raised eyebrow, a slight tilt of the head.  And you remember, at that moment of introductions, how you too thought your friend was rather quirky when you first met.

Well, Bartholomew Neil is that friend, maybe even a bit quirkier, and I’ll admit that that after reading the first few pages of this novel, I wasn’t sure if a friendship between me and Bartholomew was ever going to blossom.  I wasn’t sure if another book with a sort-of autism spectre disordered protagonist (or whatever it is that makes Bartholomew, Bartholomew) was going to be my soup de jour.

But, just like that friend of yours, Bartholomew, if you give him a chance, grows on you till the point where eventually, you forget that he’s even quirky and you just see Bartholomew.  And he’s your friend.

I’m so glad I chose to stick with this one.  All of Quick’s characters in The Good Luck of Right Now are quirky, and yet they’re real too.  Bartholomew has spent the first 39 years of his life with his mom, who had a unique perspective on life, who took care of Bartholomew, who loved Richard Gere, and who has just died of cancer.  Bartholomew is not sure what comes next.  He has a friend in Father McNamee, another quirky but loveable character.  He’s in therapy - sort of - with Wendy, and as a result Bartholomew has a few life goals, like having a drink in a bar with an age-appropriate friend. And having a drink in a bar with a girl, hopefully Girlbrarian, whom he’s been studying from across the library for some time now.

With mom gone, Bartholomew’s life takes a few twists and turns.  He meets new people, and has some adventures, and all of this is chronicled through his letters to Richard Gere, mom’s favourite actor, and Bartholomew’s sort-of namesake (don’t ask!).

This book was The Good Luck of Right Now for me.  You’ll know what I mean when you read it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Book Review: All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Elf wants to die.  A lifelong sufferer of depression, she just wants to end her life.  Yoli, her sister, wants Elf to live.  Yoli loves Elf and she can’t understand how someone who has it all - beauty, charm, a wicked sense of humour, a brilliant career as a famous pianist, a loving husband - could want out of this life.   Yoli has none of these things, and she is determined to keep her sister alive.

How does one write about such excruciatingly sad subjects and make the reader laugh?  Miriam Toews knows how.  She writes with such wit and humour that you cannot help but laugh out loud despite the subject matter.  Her voice is so genuine that you feel you have known her all your life.  And, she’s wise.  Toews' wisdom permeates the writing in such a way that it surfaces even in the most unexpected moments, in the mundane of our daily lives, and of course, in the profound questions about  family, duty, religion, life, and love.

Miriam Toews’ is quickly becoming one of my favourite Canadian authors, or rather, one of my favourite authors - period.  Her writing, her voice is so unassuming as to make me think I could write; I can see my reflection in her words.  But I’m not really fooled.  Such poignant writing only appears easy because it’s so relatable.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Family First February

‘Family first’ is a phrase we often use as professionals to remind ourselves that there are times in our lives when we must lift the professional hat, loosen and shake out the tresses that have been scrunched underneath, and focus on family.  The hat doesn’t get tossed to the winds or anything that even remotely hints at finality or abandon, but rather the hat is placed carefully on the chair in the home office for those moments we can scrounge up in a day to fulfill our most basic obligations.  For those of us who love our work, it’s not so easy to do a minimum, just enough to keep things going.  And yet this February, like the last three before it, for reasons that are beyond my control, I’ve had to do just that for at least a portion of the month.  

In February 2011, my sister passed away on the 21st.  

In February 2012, my dad passed away on the 11th.

When we were told this January that my husband was to have surgery in February, I was terrified.  I have come to dread all 28 days of February.  This year, though, the tides turned and my husband is thankfully recovering well from open-heart surgery, and I am ready to officially declare February - Family First month.  

In all honesty, I hadn’t been so good at keeping the blog updated on a regular basis even before our surgery date was set.  I’ve been averaging about a post a month, but still, I had hopes of returning to my posts on revision, and then I wanted to blog about our adventures in #Wholenovels for the Whole Class, a unit based on the strategies outlined in the book by @arielsacks.  

Such is life, right?  The best laid plans . . . and all that jazz.  

I know that I’ll return to those topics at some point in time.  Revision will continue to be a focus in my classroom, giving me multiple opportunities for planning and reflection, and our #Wholenovel study of The Giver will just be the first of its kind in my classroom.  I hope to use Ariel Sacks’ strategies again later this year when we move into our literature circles, and - barring the unexpected - I’ll be able to blog about what we do in the classroom later in the year. 

“So, what is this the goal of this blogpost?” I ask myself.  Hmmmmm . . . I suppose that I just wanted to say that there are times when educators, dedicated as they may be to their work, need to take a step back, to allow themselves a guilt-free interval to focus on their lives outside of the classroom. 

There is an urgency to our work in the classroom.  Teachers generally have one year, or, if you teach high school, one semester to prepare students for the next phase of their educational lives.  We work with children who grow up fast and who deserve the best from us every single day.  And yet, there are these times when our own family lives take precedence, and that's more than OK.  

Family First February - that’s where I’ve been this month.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Revising Narrative Fiction: Part 1 1/2

As part of my ongoing quest to help students learn how to revise their writing more effectively (or, in some cases, to revise - period), I sat down with a stack of students’ drafts yesterday with the thought of reading, jotting some helpful notes to them on brightly coloured sticky notes, and planning some additional revision mini-lessons that might address the kinds of obstacles they’re facing in writing a cohesive and interesting story.  

My focus in reading their drafts was on:

Clarity - Does the narrative make sense?  Is it organized in a logical or comprehensible sequence of events?

I made a valiant and successful effort to refrain from commenting on sentence structures and vocabulary.  Instead of offering my advice on these aspects of writing now, I’ll save my comments (which I’ve kept for future feedback on sticky notes and conferences) until after I’ve introduced some strategies for revising sentence structures and vocabulary.  Originally I also thought I’d comment on character development at this time, since we’ve started to revise to enhance this aspect of narrative fiction, but I decided to keep things simple and focused.  Frequent feedback is perhaps better than TONS of feedback that can become overwhelming and disillusioning to the novice writer.

Here are some of the kinds of obstacles I found in student writing.  You will see that I’ve been trying to decide how best to address them.  Mini-lessons?  One-to-one conferences?  Each has benefits and drawbacks.  Sometimes both are needed.

Revision mini-lessons and conference points based on student narratives:

 - wandering plot - some narratives are all over the place and need to focus on one or two main conflicts/ideas 
Mini-lesson or one-to-one conference?
This one often requires a one-to-one conference to help the student figure out which direction to take with the narrative.  After reading the particular draft in question yesterday, I remembered this student proudly telling me that he’d added a ‘twist’ at the end.  Unfortunately, this was not the only ‘twist’ in the story, but he’s excited about his narrative and that excitement is not something I am willing to squander.  Giving him praise for the attempt while helping him to see how he needs to add information to make the ‘twist’ or ‘twists’ make sense will be critical to his attitude towards writing and his growth as an author.  We will start off by reviewing the ‘plan’ to see where the plot derailed.  

- transitions (especially in terms of setting) - some students have difficulty explaining why/how characters have moved from one venue to the next.  In addition, dealing with gaps in time is awkward for them and they tend to rely on the ellipse: 25 years later . . . 
Mini-lesson or one-to-one conference?
Both the mini-lesson and the one-to-one conference work for this obstacle which I’ve encountered in several of the drafts I read yesterday (and over the years as an English teacher). The mini-lesson can use examples of transitions from literature that move the reader through time and/or space.  Modelling how to write a transitional sentences or a transitional paragraph will also help students to apply the skill.  Nevertheless, students do often need the one-to-one conference to talk through the transition they need to write.  By explaining, telling, and reasoning through the transition in talk, the student prepares him/herself for bridging the gaps in the transition.

- confusing dialogue - no speaker tags with multiple speakers;   a reliance on dialogue to reveal the action 
Mini-lesson or one-to-one conference?
The use of speaker tags is easily addressed in a mini-lesson in which students are exposed to a draft that has dialogue that confuses the reader (several characters involved in dialogue in the absence of speaker tags and proper punctuation/quotation marks).  This mini-lesson will include a review of punctuation around dialogue. 
Over the years, I’ve read many a first draft that completely relies on dialogue to reveal the action, and thus the dialogue is unnatural and often insufficient in providing the details necessary for the reader to visualize the scene.  This obstacle can be the focus of a mini-lesson - with samples of drafts that show this reliance - but students also benefit from sitting with the teacher to learn how to rewrite some of the dialogue as narration.

- point of view - starts off in omniscient point of view and as the action increases, the author becomes one of the characters and reverts to first person OR starts in first person point of view, but the author forgets the limitations of this point of view and begins to describe the experiences of other characters who are not in the same setting as the protagonist
Mini-lesson or one-to-one conference?
Shifting the point of view is such a common error for novice writers that a mini-lesson is certainly worthwhile in order to introduce the topic to all students.  Using a short sample of writing - the precise moment when the point of view shifts in a sample piece - can help students to see the error.  Still the one-to-one conference is often necessary as the student may need to discuss the best point of view for his/her narrative. You can also work together in conference to identify the first few instances in which the point of view shifts and work together on revising.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Revising Narrative Fiction: Part 1

Just before we left school for the holidays, students were finished, or almost finished, writing drafts of our first narrative fiction piece for this year.  The writing followed a fairly lengthy study of the characteristics of literary fiction in reading class, and I'm hopeful that students have had an opportunity to apply what they've learned when building their own fictional narratives.  

We started our narrative fiction writing with a visual plan (graphic organizer, including a plot arc) in which students could note their ideas for plot, conflict, point of view, characters, setting and theme.  One thing I did differently this year: I didn’t check students’ plans, and I know that some didn’t complete them, although all started with, at least, a partial plan. Since writing is sometimes driven by a seed idea, a character, or an event, I felt it wise to give students the choice of planning in full or in part.  During the revision process, I will ask students to come back to their plans to ensure that their story has a trajectory, a main conflict, a climax, a purpose.

This past week, our first week back from the holidays, I launched the revision stage of the writing process.  Although some students are still finishing up their first drafts, I started laying the groundwork for some real revision.  Luckily for my students (and for me, no doubt), our Skype visit with author, Jennifer Nielsen, made it clear that revision is an essential part of the writing process.  According to Ms. Nielsen, the first 5 drafts of a novel are apt to be . . . .  garbage.  It's always better for students to hear it from the  horse's mouth.  Teachers! What do they know?

While my students won't be writing 20 drafts like many a fully realized author might,  I do hope to help students dig deeper into the process of revising than they have likely ever done before.  In all honesty, even though they're in 7th grade, I know that some of my students have never before attempted to seriously revise a first draft.  In fact I asked them upon our return from the break what they'd do first if asked to just dig in to the process independently, and their responses (some admitted to having no clue) indicate that many still confuse revising and editing. 

In order to plan a short unit on revising that addresses the needs of the most novice revisers, without boring those writers in my class who may know a fair bit about the process, and I do have a handful of students who seem to be well versed in what revising entails, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks putting ideas I've gleaned from the experts: Kate Messner, Kelly Gallagher, and Penny Kittle through their professional literature, as well as Mary Pearson via twitter (thanks @marypearson) and gathering more ideas from my twitter PLN  (thanks @teacherman82 @shannonclark7 @keithschoch).  

The plan is to create a schedule with accompanying lessons that will help students find entry points into the revision process and methods that get them started with the work of revising.  Teaching is so often an exercise in plagiarism - taking the ideas of others (nothing in my revision schedule has been created by me), shuffling here, re-organizing there, until you have a plan that will work for your classroom.  

Using highly focussed tasks to keep students ‘engaged’ (for lack of a better work, as I am beginning to despise that one) in the process, our revision schedule will continue throughout next week, at which time students will type their narratives and we'll welcome in the process of editing.

I'm determined to keep in mind that Rome was not built in a day.  The writers in my room will undoubtedly learn something, but maybe not everything that I teach during the process - no, definitely not everything, and that’s ok.  My focus in assessing student writing will be on growth.  What did my students learn about writing, revising, and editing that they were able to apply to this piece of writing?  At this point in time, my students love to write, and I want to keep it that way.  I'll let that English teacher in me help them improve without killing their enjoyment of the process by demanding perfection.

Revision Schedule: The First Two Days

Day 1: Focus on Plot Sequence and Cohesion


Today we’re asking ourselves - Does this story make sense?  Does it have a plot line? A Conflict? A Climax? A Theme?

  • Read your narrative aloud to a partner.  The 'listener' should ask questions (or jot notes) when they hear things that are unclear.  When a 'listener' has a question, stop only long enough to mark the sections that need clarification with R for Replace, A for Add, D for Delete and RO for Reorder (Kelly Gallagher’s RADaR system for revising).  (In order to have time for both partners to read aloud, I set the timer on the Smartboard for 10 minutes and then we switched to the other writer.)
  • Be sure to listen to your partner's questions, confusions and advice about clarity.  Sometimes we are too close to our own stories to find the unclear bits. You are not obliged to take the advice of your partner, but do listen attentively to it.
  • After reading your narrative aloud and making your revision marks (RADaR), go back to start working on the sections you found needed more clarity.  (We spent the last 10 minutes of the 30 minute block revising.)

Note: Peers are not always equipped to identify the areas that lack clarity and require revision. They listen, nod, laugh at the funny bits, but they don't always know when they're confused.  Perhaps they're focussed on other aspects of the writing, or they are reluctant to point out when they are confused. Having observed partners working together on this exercise, and having read a couple of very confusing drafts, I realize that I need to provide examples of the types of things that readers might find confusing and model how to formulate questions that will help the writer know what needs to be added/deleted or rewritten with greater clarity and specificity.  I take heart, though, in knowing that in many cases, it was at least a good start to just have a partner who will listen to the reading, as some of the REAL benefits to the writer come in actually reading his/her own work aloud and 'hearing' it for the first time.  

To be revisited next week using student writing samples (with permission, of course) and modelled responses to the writing. Students need more time than the 10 minutes they had in any case, so it will be good to jump back in.

Day Two: Character development 

Today we’re looking at our characters, mainly our protagonist.  

  • Choose one or two of the character development exercises provided to ‘flesh out’ your protagonist.  (I used several from Kate Messner’s Real Revision.)
  • Read your story looking for evidence of 3 important character traits you identified  during the above exercise and mark those spots by highlighting the sections in blue (blue will be our character colour). 
  • Read your story again looking for areas where you could add information that would help your reader to know your character better.  For example, if your character is stubborn, find a place where you could show this trait in the character’s words or actions, or in the way other characters respond to him/her.

Note: Students loved the exercises.  Building fictional characters is fun, after all.  The harder work was to find evidence in their narratives of these traits and/or ways to revise in order to build character rather than just 'tell about' character.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Counting by Elevens

A meme (/ˈmiːm/; meem)[1] is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.[3]

This morning, Ken C. over at the RAMS English blog, invited me to participate in a meme.  I’ve seen it here and there in the blogosphere, and although I’m not sure what to call it, the purpose of it - as the definition above suggests - is to connect with others within a culture, ours, of course, being a culture of bloggers on things related to teaching. 

The process is simple, albeit time-consuming if you’re as long winded as I seem to be today.

  • Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  • Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  • List 11 bloggers that you’d like to nominate.
  • Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let the bloggers you’ve nominated know that they’ve been nominated.

Eleven random facts about me:

  1. I was once held at gunpoint (literally, the sawed-off shotgun was held to my back) during a bank robbery.  The whole event lasted maybe 5 minutes and I was scared sh- - less, but telling the story of those 5 minutes thankfully takes much, much longer and gives me wee bit of cachet with students.
  2. Taking a cruise on one of those big cruise ships is something I would NEVER want to do no matter how exotic and lovely the destinations. The thought of being stuck in the middle of the ocean on a floating hotel has absolutely no appeal to me.
  3. I drink too much coffee, and I like my coffee strong, burly, almost hairy.
  4. Although I haven’t driven one in years, I have my motorcycle license and once upon a time, I drove my wee Honda into many a sunset.
  5. I’ve been a lacto-vegetarian since I was 16 years old.  I’d give up milk in a heartbeat, but I don’t think I could live without cheese.  And yogurt.
  6. I was born in Canada, lived here all my life, but I’m not a winter person.  Snow is pretty, but cold is not so pretty.
  7. I love to dance, so I was pretty thrilled when I discovered Zumba.  I like running, but it’s just not . . . dance.
  8. Two places in the world I’d love to visit are France and Hawaii. France appeals to me for the Louvre, the wine and cheese, the cafe and croissants, the architecture, the history.  Hawaii appeals to me for the beautiful scenery, the beaches, the sun.
  9. I’ve been to India.  
  10. I’m the daughter of a holocaust survivor.
  11. I love living on the river. Every day the scenery changes, there’s water fowl (geese, ducks, blue heron), and the sound of water lapping against the shore resonates with me, calms me.  Storms on the water are simply beautiful to watch - from the safety of my back porch, of course - and there’s nothing like the way the moonlight sparkles on the river at night.

My answers to Ken C’s eleven questions: 

1. What is the best PD book and YA book you read in 2013? Why are they so good?
The best PD book I read this year was, by far, Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This.  Like everything Gallagher writes, this book is rooted in solid research,  but focussed more on the sharing of the practical: techniques, strategies and lesson ideas that are Kelly-to-Go ready, tried and tested in his high school classroom.  I like that in my PD reading.
It’s always hard for me to choose ONE best YA novel for the year, but if I have to choose I’d say that The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey was really really really good.  Why? I found the plot unique, as opposed to so many other current YA novels that are riding on the coattails of earlier successful works like The Hunger Games.  I also found it a good mix of plot and character driven writing.

2. It’s Friday night. Which would you prefer — comfort food at home, or fancy dinner out with your friends?
Friday night is not my night for fancy dinners out, although I do like those too, occasionally. I’m usually pretty zonked by Friday night and I look forward to a little spot on the couch where my little introverted self can be quiet.  Yes, so it’s the comfort food at home.

3. If you could spend an airplane flight conversing with any famous writer, living or dead (for the sake of this question and lest you get bored, we will bring the dead to life), who would you choose and why?
Easy one. Margaret Atwood.  I adore her writing.  She’s brilliant, Canadian, fun, and has a wicked sense of humour.  She makes me want to read and write and think.  

4. Have you ever heard of a “meme”? Would you know one if you fell over one?
I’ve participated in a few memes before but not for a very long time.  

5. Yellow mustard or Grey Poupon? Hellman’s or Miracle Whip? Margarine or butter? Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts?
Grey Poupon.  Neither Hellman’s nor Miracle Whip, as I’ve recently discovered Vegenaise (vegetarian here).  Margarine and butter, each for its own purposes.  Starbucks (emphatically so)!  

6. What literary character are you most similar to? Explain.
I’m one of the gals in The Robber Bride by, you guessed it, Atwood. Not telling which gal, though.

7. Are you addicted to your cellphone? Proud or embarrassed?
I own a cellphone and even text sometimes, but definitely and proudly NOT addicted to it.  In all fairness, my cellphone is older than my students and more finicky than Morris the Cat (dating myself much?). For example, I can only receive and send texts/calls from one spot in our kitchen. My cellphone is simply not addiction-worthy.  

8. Congratulations! You’ve won the lottery! Do you continue to teach?
No, I’d probably resign my spot in the classroom and give one of the many many younger teachers who have not been able to find full time work a break. (Admirable of me, no?) I’d likely do something related to education, reading (YEAH!  I’d read a lot more, especially on those long plane rides to the Bahamas), and writing, though.   

9. If you were named principal of your school, what would be your first three executive orders?
Firstly, I’d allow 7th and 8th grade teachers (intermediate teachers is the title in Ontario) teach to their strengths rather than have them teach every subject under the sun. I personally miss my focus on teaching English Language Arts and I know other teachers who miss their focus on math, science, etc.. Secondly, I’d take a good look at the money we spend on sports and sporting events and I’d use half of it on things (field trips, speakers, events, books, etc.) related to academics. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the need for sports (I coach girls’ softball), but I think we could use more field trips/events that are fun and inspire students in academic pursuits.
Finally, I’d order myself to select CONSULT as my One Little Word for the year, and I’d make myself consult with teachers on a variety of administrative and academic decisions including professional development opportunities, the day-to-day running of the school, everything.

10. What is your favourite memory from childhood?
My favourite memories from childhood centre around our vacations to Vermont (Lake Champlain, or more precisely Mallets Bay) where we’d rent a cottage for a week or two and just swim, play, go to the drive-in (dating myself again!!) and such. Usually one of my mom’s brothers or sisters and his/her family would join us. It was like a two week long party with cousins.

11. If you could make up any question to answer and call it “Number 11,” what would it be and how would you answer it?
My question 11 would be: How long did it take you to complete this meme?  And I’d answer: A very long time. :)

Eleven questions for the bloggers on my list who choose to participate.

  1. What 1-3 pieces of advice would you give to a newbie teacher?
  2. You’ll be spending the afternoon outdoors.  Where will you be and what will you be doing there?
  3. Which 2-5 professional books were the most influential in molding you as a teacher? Explain.
  4. You are writing. Describe the scene.  Where do you write? Paper and pen, journal, notebook, or computer? Music or quiet? Office, den, living room? Desk or couch?
  5. What are the top 3 things on your bucket list?
  6. Tell about a time when you had a particularly positive influence on a student (or class of students) OR tell about a time when a student had a particularly positive influence on you.
  7. What is one new thing you want to try in the classroom in 2014?
  8. You have just received a blank cheque (unlimited funds from an anonymous donor) to be used for a class field trip.  Where are you taking your students?  What will they learn from this field trip?
  9. You are off to dinner and a movie?  What kind of restaurant will it be?  What genre of movie will you see?
  10. What literary character are you most similar to? Explain. (Borrowing this one from Ken.  That's allowed, right?)
  11. Tell about a particularly proud moment in your teaching career. 

Eleven invitations to participate in this meme: 

1.Glenda Funk @ Evolving English Teacher 
2. Cherylanne Schmidt @ Young Adult Reader 
3. Lea Kelley @ Miss Kelley Writes 
4. Gary Anderson @ What’s Not Wrong 
5. Gail Stevens @ gstevensblog
6. Linda Baie @ TeacherDance 
7. Tracy Rosen @ Leading from the Heart 
8. Patricia Hewitt @ Blogging from the Edge 
9. Stephanie McCabe @ Box of Chocolates 
10. Deb Day @ Coffee with Chloe 
11. Cathy Mere @ Merely Day by Day 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Where We're From - Imitation is More Than the Best Form of Flattery

For the past week or so we've been writing Where I'm From poems, fashioned after the famous poem by George Ella Lyon. Here is the original:

Where I'm From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments--
snapped before I budded --
leaf-fall from the family tree.

by George Ella Lyon

At first, we read the poem and most students went . . . huh???  It's not an easy poem for 7th graders to understand after just one reading.  So, we took it slowly, read a few lines at a time and tried to figure out what G.E. Lyon was telling us about her childhood.  That helped us to focus on a few words at a time, and we discovered that Lyon provided us with some good clues.  

Then, we made a list of the kinds of things that Lyon spoke about in her poem to give us some ideas for our own.  We brainstormed ideas about our own lives and tried to use descriptive language to make our poems personal and intriguing.  We wanted to give our readers enough information to get them thinking.

We looked at the structure of the poem, at the stanzas (the poetic paragraphs) and the line starters.  We decided that we didn't want each line to start the same way (BORING!!!!), but that repeating the 'I am from' and 'I'm from' and 'from' starters here and there would give our poems structure.  

Then, we wrote.

You can read all of our poems on our class blog by using the blog list on the right hand side of the screen. (Feel free to leave a comment on students' blogs if you are inspired to do so.)

And here is mine:

Where I’m From

I am from the red kitchen table with matching chairs,
from quiet talks and rowdy board games.
From the legend of the Barclay gang,
and playing on the truck in the driveway.

I’m from lunch with the Flintstones,
From Sunday BBQs with the whole gang,
sleeping in the sun
and running in the streets.
I’m from the smell of dad’s pipe
and mom’s apple cake.

I am from Laura’s voice, soft comfort and good advice,
from three of us on New Year’s Eve waiting for number four.
I’m from the furniture that Dad made,
hands worn from the day
spirit never dampened.

I’m from singing the Chattanooga Choo-choo with Sarah
and long walks downtown with Karen.
From Saturday trips to the library,
Twelve books for 14 days
And from waiting in Eva’s living room
to tap the ivory
Fletcher-Kincaid and the scales that made me stronger.

I’m from the bullet in my father’s chin
the war stories he told,
sometimes with vim, sometimes with a tear in his eye.

I am from the Honda,
bugs on my visor
knees buckling in the wind.
From exotic voyages to far off places, alone
and with friends.
I’m from paint swirls and slide-rules
from chalk dust and apples.

I’m from cheering from the bleachers
at that save he made
and the tournament they won,
and cheering in the arena
at the graceful dance of two tiny champions.

I am from him,
lame jokes,
crazy made-up lyrics
and the life we made together
From shoe-shopping and Mario Cart,
from band aids and bruises
from Kiss it Better and I’m Not Tired

I’m from the zesty grandmother who stayed wonderfully late
and the sister who left tragically early
heart torn from my bosom
may she rest peacefully now and forever.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Can We Talk?

One of many things I love about my job is that each year starts fresh.  After a long summer break, I get to press the reset button.  I can design new units of study, create new projects.  I can refresh those ‘oldies but goodies’ and set brand new learning goals for myself.  Yet, the single most influential factor that brings about change each year is . . .  the students!  Ask any teacher and she’ll tell you that each group of students has a unique group dynamic that is completely different from any group that came before them.

This is my 13th year in teaching (lucky 13, I think) and my groups this year are chatty.  Very chatty.  I don’t mean chatty as in ‘turning to a neighbour during lessons and talking about their favourite video games or boys or driving ATVs’ (although they certainly do that too), but chatty as in wanting to share their thoughts, their stories and speculations and opinions and questions and ideas and pondering with the whole class.

Say anything to students in my classes and the hands go up.  

“Is anyone reading a good book?”  
Hands  go up.  
“Does anyone have a pencil to lend Justin?” 
Hands go up.  And, stories - interesting stories - about pencils.  “Once I had this weird pencil . . ..”  
“Good morning.”  
“Have a good weekend.”  
“Poetry doesn’t always have to rhyme.”  
Hands go up and up and up.  

My students are people people.  They’re social.  If I let them, my students would talk all day.  And, quite frankly, this has been the cause of some concern for me.  I love talking to my students. They’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and they have darn interesting things to say, but in the first weeks of school, I was becoming increasingly concerned about not getting anything DONE.   

How would we get any math done if we took the time to share stories during math class?  How would we ever write if we spent most of our time sharing our favourite lines from the wee bit we’d accomplished in the quickwrite?  How would we find time to read if we got lost in sharing our text to movie connections or our text to self connections?

They say that talk is cheap, but I was thinking that our classroom talk was costing us.  We were losing valuable time that should have been spent doing math and science and writing and geography . . .   This talk of ours was becoming academically quite expensive.

Despite the concern for using time effectively, I am struggling with ending conversations this year.  I look out at that sea of hands and I’m having a hard time saying, “No more.  We have to get back to work.”  How can I let the first 8 students share and then cut off the talk when some students are sitting there, hand up and hopeful?  

It isn’t easy because I hear in their stories, their comments and questions, a need to be heard, a need for talk.  Talk is, after all, a community builder, right?  I don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm for sharing, for building our community.  We are getting to know one another, and through that knowledge we'll be better at caring for one another.  So this year, with my very chatty students, I’m being challenged to brush up on my moderating skills, to explicitly teach students how to contribute to the conversation, and to let go a bit at times.

What my students need to learn:
  • How to stay on topic: students are welcome to share, but they should be able to explain how their comments relate to the subject at hand 
  • How to build on (rather than repeat) one another’s comments (see next bullet point)
  • How to listen with their whole hearts (and ears and mind): listening can be as fulfilling as talking if you do it right

What I need to do:

  • Give students a heads up about keeping our talk time during lessons brief: have a talk about talk. and let them know that we won’t be able to hear everyone’s comment every time we stop to talk
  • Explicitly teach discussion skills: students need guidance in learning how to contribute in meaningful ways (revisit my copy of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford) 
  • Be a smooth moderator/guide: instead of just letting students take the conversation in any direction, be smooth about bringing the talk back to the topic at hand and/or be smooth about ending conversations so that students appreciate the need to get back to work
  • Provide regularly set-aside time for community building talk that can go in any direction: students just need to shoot the breeze sometimes

Friday, November 1, 2013

Skype Visit with Jennifer Nielsen

This blogpost is cross-posted on my class blog!

On the second day of school this September, my students and I embarked on an adventure.  That’s when we started reading The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen.  For those of you who are not familiar with this book, it’s an amazing story about a young orphan named, Sage, who is purchased from the orphanage by Conner Bevin, one of the regents of the King’s court.  It turns out that the royal family has allegedly been murdered and Conner Bevin is looking for a boy to impersonate the young Prince Jaron, so that their kingdom of Carthya can avoid civil war and the probable invasion from neighbouring countries.

The False Prince is, indeed, a swashbuckler of a story, complete with sword fights, diabolical schemes, betrayal, covert alliances, and deceit.  But, it’s also a funny story, thanks to the smart-lipped protagonist, Sage, and it’s a heartwarming story that explores the themes of family and friendship, loyalty and honour, destiny and responsibility.

I guess you can tell by now that I love this book, and I am not alone in that sentiment.  My students seemed to love it as well.  It’s no wonder then, that when October 23rd finally came, we were all pumped to finally meet the author of our adventure, the author of The Ascendence Trilogy, Ms. Jennifer Nielsen.

The skype visit had been in the works for many weeks before last Wednesday finally came. In fact the students and I had been communicating with Ms. Nielsen via twitter prior to our visit.  Most of our communications involved sharing the pictures students drew during the read aloud sessions.  Ms. Nielsen was so gracious, commenting on each picture that I posted through my twitter account.  Here are some of the drawings we shared:

by Zane

by Erin

by Jamie

by Chloe

But Wednesday October 23rd was the real treat, the icing on the cake.  Our visit with Jennifer Nielsen left us bursting with excitement.  The students and I found Ms. Nielsen so warm and exuberant, thoughtful and thought provoking.  I think Ashley spoke for us all when she described how she felt about our conversation with Jennifer Nielsen:

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

“I loved the way she spoke to us.  She was relaxed and honest.  She really listened to our questions.  I felt like she was talking to us as if we were her friends.  Her answers really touched me.”

Our questions were prepared in advance, but the answers were enlightening and sometimes quite surprising.

Maddi, for example said that the answer to her question surprised her most.  Maddi asked, “What advice would you give to aspiring authors?”

Ms. Nielsen said that she’d advise an aspiring writer to identify his/her favourite book and go back to it and read it again, but this time read it as a writer.  She suggested writing notes in the margins about how the author made the reader love the main character, how the author created suspense and made the reader worry and laugh and anticipate.

Another surprise for the students came when Roz and Erin asked, “How many times do you have revise a novel like The False Prince before it’s ready for publishing?”

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

Jennifer Nielsen blew students away when she told us that she’d revised her novel at least 5 times before she sent it to her editor.  She said that the first draft is . . . garbage.  And the second and third and fourth?  Garbage, garbage and more . . . garbage.  Nielsen admitted that it’s only by the 5th revision that an author starts seeing something that resembles a really good novel in  the writing.  The final count?  The False Prince was revised about 20 times before it was  finally completed. Now, if you're one of my students and you're worried about having to do 20 revisions to each piece of writing we do, you can relax. We'll be revising, but maybe not as much as Ms. Nielsen revises.  It's important to know, though, that Jennifer Nielsen said that if you want you want to create 'art' when you write, you'll need to revise.

Grace and Brendon asked Jennifer Nielsen a question that we were all anxious to have answered: “Are the characters in The False Prince based on people you know in real life?”

Ms. Nielsen explained that she doesn’t base the characters in her books on real people because she’s TOO MEAN to her characters.  I must admit that I wanted to ask her what she meant by this, but I lost my chance as the next question was asked and we were off in a new direction.  If Ms. Nielsen reads this blogpost, I’d love it if she left a comment explaining this one for us.

While I’m making confessions, I might as well admit that I asked two of my students to ask MY question to Jennifer Nielsen, and so Erica and Laura asked, “Are all of the main events in your novels planned before you start or are there surprises along the way?  Were there any surprises for YOU as you wrote The False Prince?”

Ms. Nielsen explained that most of the main events of the novel are planned before she begins a novel.  She has a good sense of where it's going, but there are always some surprises too.  One juicy example she gave from The False Prince was that she had several 'discussions' with Sage about one scene in the novel.  Before I tell you which scene, I should explain that Ms. Nielsen did admit that authors are a little bit crazy, that her characters do 'talk' to her all the time - sometimes in the wee hours of the morning!  Sage and Jennifer Nielsen had a disagreement about the scene in which Sage takes the stone back.  Jennifer Nielsen told him to put it back, but Sage was adamant about retrieving it.  He obviously won that argument!

Another surprise for Ms. Nielsen was the way in which the characters of Mott and Cregan, who were both very similar in her early plans, seemed to develop into very different characters.  I loved the idea that sometimes a character can just grow in a different direction than originally planned. I couldn't imagine the novel without a character like Mott, so loyal and refined.  Nor could I imagine The False Prince without a character like Cregan, who turned out to be quite the opposite of Mott.  I guess an author has to plan, but also trust the ways in which a story grows during the writing process!

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

I'm sure we'll all remember Ms. Nielsen's writing advice, the delicious information we got on the news of the movie of The False Prince that is presently being written as a screenplay, the stories about her characters, and the publishing process.  But, there was one particular part of our visit with her that touched us all deeply.

We asked Jennifer Nielsen, "Which of your own books do YOU love the most?

She smiled.  She thought about it for just a second, and then she said, "This is a trick question, you know."  She did answer it, though, and her answer rang true for all of us.  It will be remembered as more than just advice from a brilliant author about reading or writing.  Her answer, we decided, was an important life lesson.

Jennifer Nielsen explained that her favourite novel will ALWAYS be the one she's working on now.  The next one to be published.  She asked the students to raise their hands if they played soccer, and many students raised their hands.  She told them that if they were asked, "Which of your soccer games is the best game?" they should respond by saying, "The one I'm going to play next Saturday." Why?  Because your best work should always be ahead of you. The book you're writing now.  The game you're preparing for next.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that this advice will be remembered for many years to come.  I'm so glad we had the chance to share a half hour with such a wise and creative person as Jennifer Nielsen.  We all learned so much.

I'm proud of my students for digging deeply to come up with such meaningful questions and for sharing the joy of reading The False Prince with me and with Ms. Nielsen.  I thank Jennifer Nielsen for making our experience so full and satisfying by offering her time and her wisdom to us.

Our next read aloud?

The Runaway King

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Writer's Club

It’s 2:45 p.m. and I’m sitting in one of the computer labs in our high school.  My purple notebook is on the table beside me and I’m logged on to the computer, just in case I feel the urge to type instead of write with pen today.  The room is large, and the soft buzz of people chatting quietly is audible, but not intrusive.  The writing has begun.

It’s the second meeting of Writer’s Club.  I missed the first one due to an appointment, but it’s clear that our year is well underway already.  This is my second year with Writer’s Club. Last year I joined a colleague who, in her last year of teaching, recruited me and another teacher from our 7-12 building to keep the club running past her retirement date.  It’s perfect that we have two teachers at the helm, as inevitably there are times when one of us will have an appointment and won’t be able to attend, as was the case for me last week, and in this way, Writer’s Club will not be cancelled.

This year more than 20 students from our small high school signed up to come together once a week for writing, talking about writing, and sharing our writing.  We meet every Thursday after school for an hour and a half, and even though today is just our second meeting, both students and teachers seem to have the rhythm down, to be well on our way to developing a strong writing community.

Today we began our meeting at 2:30 p.m., a few minutes after school ends for us, by introducing ourselves.  We sit around several long, rectangular tables, and we start every meeting with talk.  Because today is just our second meeting, we introduced ourselves once again and talked a bit about what we’re working on, what we’d like to work on this year in writing.  It won’t be long before re-introducing ourselves will become unnecessary.  We’ll know one another by more than just a name, as bits and pieces of each person’s writing will float through our minds in the same way that names do after meeting with people several times.

Once we know one another, our meetings will begin with round-the-table responses to the simple question, “How’s the writing going?”  We are all busy people, students and teachers alike, and while sometimes we will share triumphs of having written a great deal, there will also be laments at having had little time for writing during the week.  Honesty is welcomed around the table, and we will console those who have lamented thusly with thanks to the Writer’s Club, today we will write. 

After we’ve had the chance to hear how each writer is doing with her writing, my colleague and I will generally share something about writing with students.  Although today we’ve shared some information about writing contests that may be of interest to students, we will soon be asking students what they need from us as writers, what they’d like us to help them with in writing.  Last year, amongst other things, students asked for ideas for help with:

  • developing their characters more thoroughly
  • planning longer works, including novel plans
  • developing a setting
  • doing research for their writing

Each week, my colleague and I will present strategies and materials - based on what students have identified as their needs/wants, or something that my colleague and I have identified as potentially useful for the group at the time.  We try to keep these mini-lessons short, 5-10 minutes at best, to maximize the time we have for writing. Students are free to use exercises and materials if they wish, and while students often do choose to use these exercises at some point, it is certainly not mandatory.  This is Writer’s Club, not writing class.  Student writing will not be assessed nor will students be obligated to use our suggested exercises.  What we want to create in this club is a community of autonomous writers.  

Today I saw surprise on the faces of our newest members, the 7th and 8th graders (who  have just joined us for the first time and are more accustomed to the confinements of a classroom), when we’d finished our ‘coming together talk’ and set everyone free to find a place to write.  Our little rural school is situated on beautiful grounds that offer lots of little outdoor spots where writing might be inspired.  Students can choose to stay in the computer lab, and many do, or they might choose to find a spot indoors, a window sill or  a cozy corner on the floor in a hallway, or outdoors, when the weather permits.  Most students go off in pairs or in small groups, and everyone is aware that they have the better part of an hour to just write.

I’m in the computer lab during the writing period, and I hear two students chat about a project they’re working on together.  One is doing some writing, while the other is researching.  Their talk is quiet.  Another student has her headphones on; she’s listening to music while she writes. There are three sisters working in a row, each on her own project, but it is obvious that this is a family of writers, of artists.  

At 3:40 p.m., we’re all back, sitting around the tables, with notebooks, printed copies of our work, or devices (phones, ipads, etc.) in front of us.  We start with one willing participant and one by one students and teachers are invited to share how the writing went today and/or read a snippet of their work.  We only have 20 minutes left, before students have to get ready to hop on the late bus, so, although we’d love to hear entire works, it’s often not possible.  

One student shares a piece of a story she’s just started about a middle school girl who falls in love with the boy she sits beside on the bus.  Another girl shares some fan-fiction she’s writing about Percy Jackson.  Our resident haiku expert, a student in 12th grade who has been with the Writing Club long before I came to work here, shares a recent haiku.  Sometimes after a student has shared his/her writing, someone will respond by asking a question, talking about what they found worked well, what impressed them.  

Before G, an 8th grader who joined the club last year, shares a dark piece of poetry she’s written, she’s promising us that she’s going to write something happy this year.  We laugh because we know that G’s writing is dark.  But it’s powerful, and the way that she reads her work, as if it were a dramatic performance, inspires one of our newest members to clap vigorously when G’s done.  

As M shares the premise of her piece, I see my 7th graders look to me for some kind of confirmation that M will not be in trouble for the content of her work.  Her piece has some ‘mature’ themes - drug addiction, prostitution, etc. - and my attentiveness to M as she tells us how she started the piece as a narrative, then revised it to read as a play, and now is back to writing it in narrative form, has confirmed for them that Writer’s Club is a place where they can write about whatever intrigues them.  

Everyone is missing E, a tiny wisp of a girl who writes like a young Steven King.  She’s home sick this week, and we look forward to listening to her read her work next week. We love her writing, even though it scares the living daylights out of us. 

A shares a poem she wrote this summer.  Today she worked on plans for a new story, but the poem is something she’s proud of, and, as she reads, it’s easy to understand why.  A usually writes historical fiction.  Her writing, like her physical voice, is soft and inviting, a modern day Jane Austen or Emily Bronte.  

At 4:00 p.m. we have to wrap it up.  We didn’t get to hear from everyone this time, as we’ve never had so many students in attendance before.  My colleague and I will know for next time to gather everyone together a little earlier, as the sharing part of the afternoon is as important as the writing part.  

As I drive home, I’m feeling a mixture of excitement and contentment, a feeling that comes when you know you’re a part of a larger community.  There’s a sense of belonging at Writer’s Club that for many of us - students and teachers alike - will not happen on the baseball diamond or the soccer field.  It won’t happen in the music room or the science lab.  It’s writing that brings us together.  It’s story and poetry, it’s humour and horror and putting a little piece of ourselves out there on paper that keeps us together.