Monday, October 29, 2007

Cirque Du Freak and Letters To A Young Teacher

What would it be like to find horror books, right up the alley of Stephen King, but appropriate for fifth and sixth graders to read in school? It would be like discovering Darren Shan's Cirque Du Freak books. I've only finished the first book, but it was really scary, and bloody, and suspenseful. Yikes. I wouldn't want any kid younger than 10 reading it at night. I'm quite interested in continuing the series myself, and I'm super optimistic about lots of students getting into them as well.

Jonothan Kozol's Letters To A Young Teacher was a great, inspiring read. I was, as I've already mentioned, frustrated at some points when he we wrote about teacher-led activism. But, overall, I found his words comforting, motivating, and helpful. It also helped me realize that there are lots of fabulous things about working for the Salt Lake City School District. Our schools are somewhat segregated, with the whole East and West side divide, but certainly not as segregated as many cities across the nation. And our district services the whole city so overall we have a huge range of demographics. Even little old Washington Elementary has a nice blend of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. I wish there was more economic diversity, but we do have some variety, ranging from extreme, homeless levels of poverty, to making-ends-meet poor, to a few families who are comfortably middle class.

Kozol provided a whole chapter on the voucher debate, which is a very hot issue here in Utah right now. We are going to be voting next week on whether to keep and implement the voucher program that the state legislature created last year or to dissolve the legislation and continue Utah's oddly progressive history of strongly supporting public schools. (When you have family sizes like ours, what choice do you have but to keep the public schools strong??)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sticky Note Essay Idea

I had this flash of inspiration in the middle of the night last night. In Writing Workshop, my students are on the brink of making "boxes and bullets" to outline a thesis with subordinate ideas for their personal essays. And then, following the Units of Writing model for essays, we're going to organize things physically by having three little "subordinate" folders, inside their big drafting folders. I know, this totally seems dorky, to have put so much thought into this, but those three subordinate folders (which are just gonna be 8 1/2 by 11 inch pieces of construction paper, folded in half) will be filled with sticky notes full of ideas, quotes, examples, and mini-stories which fit with the corresponding subordinate idea. Using sticky notes was the midnight flash of inspiration, because I realized how well they ought to stay in their designated folders (cuz they stick). And I also realized that when it's time to write drafts they can be arranged and rearranged, and moved from folder to folder, as my young writers experiment with different ways to order and organize their ideas. And they also come in lots of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

I remember when I used to set my night-time brain waves to work on complicated physics problems. I loved waking up with an answer to a problem I'd drifted to sleep puzzling over. So, this still happens, but these days the problems I puzzle out are far more complex and interesting.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Getting Parents into Books

For the first time ever, I've had several parents request my permission to keep a book that their child just finished, so that they can read it too. This can only be a positive indication that my students are becoming joyful, habitual readers at home. So much so that they're already spreading the luv....

Yes. Yes. Yes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My Superpower

Do you have any amazing abilities that you can't really explain? Any talents that are outliers compared to your other skill sets?

Here's mine: I can get "tough" kids to work hard, to feel positively connected to a class of their peers, and to care a whole lot about my expectations of and for them.

I honestly don't know how this superpower of mine works. It's very real, though. And it is truly one of my most special abilities.

I was perusing the files of one of my "tough" kids this week cuz I wanted to figure out why such a smart guy is so far behind academically. I found a series of suspension slips last year, at his school in California. One per month, starting in January, all the way through June. This year he's been working hard to learn, figuring out his place with the other kids in "appropriate" ways, and letting me in to his world so far as to let me know that his dad's gonna be "in Draper" for another few years. (Our inside language for the state penitentiary.)

One thing I really struggle with, though, is that I really want these kinda kids to develop a source of internal motivation to make good choices, but I often feel like they're over-dependent on me.

What's your superpower?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Animal Adaptations

One of the blogs I like to read in the kidlitosphere is called The Miss Rumphius Effect. The author of this blog is a teacher educator who specializes in both poetry and science. A couple months back I started searching for books to support a unit on adaptations and through her site and some of her August posts, I found the following great books: Claws, Coats, and Camouflage, What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You?, Feathers, Fur, and Flippers, and Exploding Ants.

These four books present fascinating facts about a variety of animals. By organizing the information around types of adaptations, they skillfully keep the principles of evolution near the center of the stage. The result of these voice-filled texts, which are also full of many amazing pictures, is powerful enough to ALMOST make me wanna trade one of my math classes for a science class.

We get some bonus dollars added into our supply budgets this year if we go the extra mile on our school efforts to build school-to-home connections. I think three copies of each of these great books would be a great way to spend some of my extra $.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Read Alouds

Harry Sue went pretty well. I said the word "chest" in place of "boobs" a couple times, and had a long conversation about Grandma's racism and use of the "N" word---but the themes of this book are so powerful and good, that I think it was worth the very careful line I had to walk to pull it off. And, just like previous years at Washington, I have at least two students with parents who are incarcerated. Both of these students responded very well to the book. It helped open up tender connections and rich conversations. About two-thirds of the way through I was thinking that reading it was a bad idea. But now, looking back, I'm glad we read it, and I'm glad it was our first read aloud. The only thing I'll do differently, when I read it again, is give my students a little more front-loading about why we read books about "bad", real-life situations, and I'll carefully read each chapter the night before I read it in class.

Monday we started Bud, Not Buddy. What a fantastic read aloud. I LOVE Bud's narrative voice and I get way into thoroughly embodying his tough, sweet, funny, and observant character. I'm going to pull a sample of excellent essay writing from the first chapter, from the part when Bud discusses why it's rough being a six-year-old.

My student teacher is being the given the gift of teaching my whole class for five full days next week. The wonderfully rewarding, rich community building experience of reading out loud to my students will be the part of the day I most miss.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Skull-Encased Little Universes

In education we are constantly classifying children. "Gifted and Talented", "Learning Disabled", "English Language Learner", and "Emotionally Disabled" are a few of my least favorite labels. I understand the need to have some knowledge of our students in order to know how to best proceed with the dance of teaching them well, but so many of these labels are not treated as starting points, but rather as fixed categories that objectively capture a little person's essential selfness. Which is hogwash. Human beings are such incredibly complicated entities. Each little brain, I've come to believe, is as complex and unique and mysterious as an entire universe. The mixture of nature and nurture create explosively intricate and unquantifiably unique minds. There's not just "8 Kinds of Smart," more like 10,000. Which means there is the potential for trillions upon trillions of different "types" of humans.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Six Week Reflection

Mary Lee, one of two amazing teacher bloggers over at A Year of Reading, recently wrote about the frantic pace and steep climb of the first six weeks of school. She likes swimming metaphors. I like climbing metaphors. I totally agree with her observations. The first six weeks are such hard work. I've sometimes compared our teaching of routines and structures during this critical time as similar to pushing on a huge stationary round stone and slowly getting it rolling. The initial effort is backbreaking, but once you get that stone rolling, it'll have a lot of momentum to carry itself forward. And if you aren't vigilant and thoughtful during this sensitive time, you might have a huge stone rolling in the wrong direction.

We had our first Publication Party yesterday. It was incredible. All twenty-six of my students had amazing stories that they stood up and read in a group that included twelve of their peers, two or three parent guests, and two or three school staff members. Each circle of "readings" was facilitated by a carefully selected sixth grader. We rehearsed for the event on Thursday and also talked, (and talked and talked,) about trust, courage, and respect. On Friday, in addition to sharing these slices of their lives, they were also very kind and gracious listeners.

Yesterday I added a new "lecture" to my ever growing repertoire. Here it is:

When you say to other girls things like, "You're going to have babies when you're young," or "Your mom probably had you when she was 19 or something," you are A) purposely hurting another girl, which isn't ok, and B) giving power to a very terrible idea. That terrible idea is that women should be judged by the choices we make about when to have babies. We (women and girls in this world) need to honor the fact that we all make different choices about when and how to become mothers. When you use those particular words to hurt another girl you are adding to the power of a belief that hurts lots and lots and lots of girls and women. We can make the choice to hold off a while on having babies, if that's what we decide for our own lives, without thinking that all people who decide to have babies when they are "young" are bad.

Maybe that's the book I should write. 50 Important Lectures for 11 and 12 year Old Kids.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Some Observations From the Trenches

I really want to write a short, but powerful blurb about the book Peak, by Roland Smith. My student teacher gave it to me and it was such a great read. Briefly, it has: tons of action, intense survival situations, a detail rich plot that includes a climb up Mt. Everest, and great characters. There's also this surprising, but fitting and believable twist at the end with a moral to die for. Soooo good. I nominated it for a Cybil Award for middle grade fiction. But right now it's 9:00 and I was at Washington for more than 11 hours today. So that's all I'm gonna say about Peak. Just check it out.

Oh yeah, for future reference: the scene where Peak climbs a sky scraper and gets arrested at the top was a great "hook" for booktalking it.

I've realized that there aren't that many teachers who blog in the kidlitosphere and those of us who do have something valuable to offer: real live kid readers. Well, here's some data from my first six weeks of working with a class of fifth an sixth graders in a high poverty, high English Language Learning school:

Twilight and the subsequent books in Stephanie Myers' vampire series are getting passed around my room like wildfire. Boys and girls are liking it. I never even booktalked it.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid has been a huge hit and has already been finished by at least six of my students.

At least four kids have read and enjoyed: Clementine, Down Girl and Sit, Shug, Life As We Knew It, and The Lightning Thief.

At least one kid has deeply loved: Hugo Cabaret, Here B. Monsters, Sahara Special, Gilda Joyce, Walter Dean Myers' Biography of Malcom X, Flashcards of My Life, and Whales on Stilts.

This data is from mid-October, so I'll have to keep you posted as the year goes on. I love kids. I love books. I love watching kids get involved in great books.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

where i live, by Eilleen Spenneli

Oh my. What a lovely, tender, and unique book. Each page is a poem, most of the pages have soft-toned pencil drawings, and the poems and pictures hang together like two best friends in a hammock on a warm summer evening.

You know how great picture books are like poetry because each word is selected so carefully? Well, this book displays that same kinda economy of language---each word is amazingly powerful.

Diana is a budding astronomer and writer. She has to move away from her best friend Rose when her dad loses his job and her grandpa needs Diana's family to come live with him. Diana tells the story of her move in a series of lists and short poems.

This would certainly be a great read for kids who are actually experiencing the trauma of leaving a best friend and familiar place, but I think that Diana is so honest and the plot so captivating and true that it will get passed around my room of readers as fast as Clementine and Twilight. There are also many great writing lessons to mine through---including illuminating metaphors, an ending that precisely mirrors the beginning, and sparkly details from life's everyday flotsam.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Here are some of my guiding light beliefs:

To grow strong readers: cultivate an environment where students read voluminously.

To grow strong writers: teach craft, write often, relish the process.

My dream for each student: that they will become curious, passionate, engaged learners. That they will become kind and thoughtful people. For life.

To be clear, some things I don't believe:

That it's possible to "fix" reading or writing problems with six to eight week "interventions".

That high scores on year-end tests are our most central or important goals.

I need to buy that Courage To Teach poetry book. Or better yet, create my own.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Shared Governance

One thing I really like about the Salt Lake City School District is that we have a contract that includes site-based decision making, with an expectation of shared-governance between the administration and faculty. The process of making decisions and working through problems is predictably messy and rough, but consensus is the ideal we strive for, and I'm very devoted to the process. One dimension of this process, that I've recognized recently is quite vital, is a foundation of shared commitments. And one reason I'm grateful for this particular writing space is that it helps me develop and clarify my own commitments. I'm not sure what to do when those shared commitments are missing. Move to a new building? IDK

We have our first "publishing party" scheduled for October 12th. I'm not sure how to plan a wonderful occasion to honor my young writers---but we still have more than a week to dream and plan.