Friday, September 28, 2007

Leaving September

Fall is my favorite season. There are still two more months of pumpkins, brisk days, chilly nights, and new pencil smells, but the season still seems to be slipping away too fast.

Speaking about books as a unique artistic medium, Roger Sutton recently pined, "The more involved you are in a work of art, the more deeply it's going to stay inside you."

An observation from the trenches of my 5th/6th grade classroom: In a very Taoist way I've learned to take great advantage of one of my unique gifts. I am an amazing oral reader. I can captivate kids with my read alouds like you wouldn't believe if you've never sat at my feet while enjoying a wonderful story together. (Inheritance from my mama, thank you very much.) So it shouldn't have been so surprising, but I've recently discovered that reading a short selection out loud is one of the most powerful spells I have in my particular arsenal of book talking weapons. And in contrast to librarians, who might come twice a year and want to talk about 15 books in twenty minutes, I also have the great luxury of time. If it takes 10 minutes to talk about two books today, well that's okay. We'll have another ten minutes tomorrow, and on Wednesday, and again on Thursday. In fact we'll have time, if needed, for book talks on each day for the whole rest of the year. Fortunately, book talking can be a bit different for classroom teachers. Each book can be on stage for a longer bit of time and each book talk can include a short reading.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Parent Conferences

Note to self:

Remember the way both Nick's parents were overjoyed and all smiles to see and celebrate how much he's been reading and how well he's been doing.

They (all the parents) are your best teammates in the thrilling adventure we call teaching. Treasure the opportunity to huddle with them.

Don't dread conferences. Don't dread conferences.

You end up loving them every time, so stop worrying. They'll not only be fine, they'll be super.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Writing Conferences

OHMIGOSH. I am having one of those teaching moments where I am totally like hitting myself in the head for not realizing something important much, much sooner. Of course one-on-one writing conferences are super valuable. My students' writing is improving in leaps and bounds and the daily focus lessons are a big part of this, as well as the time we devote to writing each week. But my one-on-one conversations with them are like the leaven of the whole bakery of writing time. I'm blown away by how much they have to say and by how well (with a little shoulder to shoulder guidance) they are able to say it. A student of mine that we'll call DeShawn had this outstanding story about a girl he knew whose mom was in prison and so she moved to California. He ran into her over the summer and was stunned by how much she'd changed. Her high heels, he particularly noted, were not something she ever wore when he knew her before. And she had a baby.

In addition to the value of conferences I'm also developing my very own understanding of this point Lucy makes about writing being a powerful way for children to author their own lives. This little DeShawn is seeing the real tragedy of this girl who lost her childhood so quickly. It's important to see. It's important to think about what we see. It's important to record the way we see things.

At the end of our one-on-one conference today, with no prompting or idea that I expected it (cuz I absolutely didn't), DeShawn said, "Thank you, Ms. Simbe."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

While We Wait for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Part II...

There's this teacher who calls herself the "book whisperer" who has written a great series of articles about the art of hooking kids on books. Highly recommended reading. She works with kids near the same ages as my students and I've already requested several of the books she recommends. I can't wait for the list of 13 books you must read before you turn 13, which will be part of this week's installment.

If I could ask this fabulous teacher a question, here's what it would be: What do you do when a kid loves a book SOOOOO much, that they have trouble with all future books not measuring up? This is starting to happen to several of my boys who loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I'm a little worried about the same phenomena with a few of the girls and the fact that they've already found their "best book I've ever read" favorites. The truth is, I don't know of any other books that are JUST LIKE Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but I am going to see if I can't get them excited about something different, but also funny, with the following booktalks on Monday: Sahara Special, No Talking, Whales on Stilts, Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator, and Diary of a Fairy Godmother. Even if they aren't the same as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, they all have great characters and lots of humor.

I just relized something else interesting about this situation: this is an issue that I have, as a reader, as well. I might spend the whole rest of my life searching for a book that I love as much as The Brothers K. But even if I never find another book that's THAT good, I'm still glad I found it in the first place, and I still find lots and lots of ways to enjoy my life as a reader.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Gilda Joyce: The Ghost Sonata, by Jennifer Allison

This is the third book in the series and it lived up to my very high expectations set by the previous two. I think Gilda Joyce will be the current generation of sixth grade girls' Anne of Green Gables. Like Anne, Gilda is precocious, imaginative, self-absorbed, kind, both mature and immature for her age, depending on whether you're talking about social skills, intellect, or emotional development. And she's also incredibly brave.

Yeah, I love these books. Two of my students are already moving through the series. And to be honest, I read and liked the original Anne of Green Gables, but never got into any of the other books. But the psychic investigations that propel the plots of Gilda's books forward are like fast moving trains. So you've basically got this brash, endearing, and hilariously earnest main girl character, AND fascinating, spooky, mysteries. All at the same time. I only wish there were already more.

I also have a goal to get at least two of my boys into this series.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Standing Ovation

Yesterday afternoon I started to feel a cold coming on around 4:00. By 5:30 I had a fever and a headache and was very congested. I knew I had to get home and rest. As I was leaving Washington I passed by the gym. I looked in and saw about 25 upper grade students sitting on the top step that leads up to the stage. They are sitting so quietly, I thought, yet there isn't an after school teacher in sight. I walked in to say "Hi."

All the sudden about twelve of them saw me and started saying things like, "Hey, Look! It's Ms Simbe." Esteban stood up and said, "Let's hear it for the best teacher in the school." Most of them, even the ones that I don't even know well, stood up and started clapping and cheering. My face suddenly felt hot and red, but not because I was sick. I was so embarrassed by their sudden flattery. A few tiny tears tickled my eyelids (which I hid quite well) Their ovation turned me from feeling very rotten to very wonderful in a very short span of time.

And that, my friends, is my own "seed story" for my personal narrative writing. I've been assigning my class, for the last few nights to be story magnets, to look for stories everywhere. I've been trying to do the same thing and it was quite sweet and perfect to be able to share this particular story with them today.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Year Long Study of Lucy Calkins' Books

Even though I have a very real and severe case of ADD, especially in late afternoons---and I consequently find most professional development quite painful---I agreed to attend the monthly classes with other teachers in the district that will focus, again this year, on Lucy Calkins' Units of Study. Here are the reasons why I'm going to endure this torture: (I love Lucy's books, it's the sitting still for so long that kills me!)

#1 My own classroom practice will be better the more I reflect, and even this very post is pushed by my commitment to attend these classes.
#2 I am passionately committed to a workshop model of writing instruction and if I can do anything to help other teachers to learn and be successful with the model, I will.
#3 I like learning new things and hearing the stories of other classroom teachers.

I've been asked to talk tomorrow about the work Jen and I did over the summer and where my thinking is right now in regards to the Units books and Writing Workshop, in general. I'm trying to rake all my thoughts into one pile, but it's not easy.

Brainstorm: teachers need to be habitual writers because we need to understand the work we're asking kids to do (Find one of those crystal, explosively inspiring sections from MEM FOX on this). My experience *being* a writer: it was very hard at first to generate seed stories as I was working through the first two books. I had that very insecure feeling, that so many kids have, that I don't have any stories worth telling. Then, one day, I watched the ultrasound of Mama Jean's heart. I realized what amazing stories I'm surrounded by and I suddenly found myself in the habit of noticing them.

And this habit, or way of thinking, is very useful as a writing teacher. For example, today, when I was teaching my students how to generate personal narrative writing by thinking of one person, I was able to list very specific mom memories: I didn't write that we went to NYC together with grandma, but that she found me at Grand Central Station. Most students, in their efforts today, didn't zoom in so well. But I know I gave them a good example and I know where to push them in conferences.

Okay, that's a decent pile of idea leaves. Oh, yeah, a couple more important things: doing it with Jen is essential, and we're going to do the books in the order 1 then 3 then 2 (and why). And also maybe I'll tell the story about going all the way through the third book before I was convinced that is was an effective way to teach essay writing. And that actually doing the silly exercises was what convinced me.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Zach's Lie, by Roland Smith

This book is hard to classify. It's a thriller, a mystery, and a drama all rolled into one. Actually, they're not all rolled together very well. The book starts out with a couple great thriller scenes and lots of action and then slows WAY down for this middle-school-finding-your-identity-and-first-love drama stuff. The switch-up is a little disorienting. The tension from the beginning seeps along, throughout the whole book, but unlike most mystery books there isn't a good ebb and flow--it lacks that series of new discoveries that lead to new questions kinda pulsating rhythm.

I'm not only unsure what I felt about the whole weird ride, but I'm also very unsure what my students will think. In some ways it felt like a cheap trick. Like I was being hooked into a fast paced mystery that suddenly turned into a slow paced drama. The drama stuff isn't badly written, it's just not what you expect after the cliff hanging, violent tension in the fist couple chapters. I want it for my classroom library, though, cuz I'm pretty curious what my students will think of it. But I can wait for the paperback edition.

In other news: Robert, my DH, will be home Thursday. He was attending a wedding in Canada and then spent a week with his mom and dad in Fargo, ND. In the last day, or so, I've started missing him a lot.

I really do have a wonderful class. I'm not just saying that because I'm their teacher and of course I think they're wonderful. And the schedule we worked out, where I get to teach math 2 hours a day, to the sixth graders for an hour, and then to the fifth graders for an hour, and then teach reading and writing for the remaining 3 hours, is sooooooo perfect. For me, anyway. I'm working my ideal, dream job. I wouldn't change anything.I even like having a blended class. I think the positives outweigh the challenges.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Today's Gratitude List

Part of my new found meanderings in being an Epicurist is a ritualized (but very unforced) daily practice of naming the small things that fill me with gratitude. Here's today's list:

1. Real fall weather is on the tip of the Salt Lake valley's tongue. In a few days we will leave behind 90+ degree weather for three whole seasons.
2. Tiny threads of connection continue to form between me and my oldest daughter Clara.
3. I have lots and lots of wonderful students, with whom I am so looking forward to working for the next nine months.
4. The SLC downtown library, which is like a sprawling kingdom of books and people, continues to be a weekly destination my girls all enjoy.
5. Robert, my husband, has arrived safely in Tornoto, where he's attending his cousin's wedding.
6. My abdomen is 100 percent pain free.
7. I got over some bizarre hurdle and will now be able finish The Golden Compass in a few days.