Sunday, February 24, 2008

Do The Math, Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, by Wendy Lichtman

Tess loves math. She likes the way it is predictable and leads to single, correct answers. She maps her friendships with Venn diagrams and she thinks through problems with her peers by considering what makes someone's power over another person less than, greater than, or equal to.

When her mom discloses some suspicions about the death of her coworker's wife, Tess is sure that the single, correct answer to this situation is to inform the police. Her mother and father disagree with this solution and Tess has promised not to talk to anyone about it. She is trapped in a problem with an answer that is "D.N.E."--"does not exist".

The characters in this novel were thoughtfully developed and even though Tess has a particular, mathematical way of viewing the world, she still has many universal middle-schoolish struggles. She's trying to define her own morals and she relies on her best friends to help her figure things out.

The resolution was a surprise and the situations that push Tess to make difficult choices keep the plot moving right along. Even though some of the math references are beyond sixth grade, I think many of my students will enjoy this book.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How Teachers Grow

My current student teacher had a formal, half-day observation by her supervisor yesterday. At the conclusion her supervisor said she's doing great and this will probably be her last observation. I remember feeling quite frustrated when I was a student teacher and I felt as if I'd been "checked-off" by my university supervisors because I was already "good enough". I wanted them to do more to help me improve. Even if I was already good, I wanted to be great.

With the wisdom of a few years, I now believe that most of the substantial growth that we do as teachers comes about as a matter of self-reflection and that "greatness" comes over time. I really value colleagues who have shared commitments and similar philosophies, because they can foster conversations that encourage self-reflection. But at the end of the day, teaching is a very solitary profession. Most of our day-to-day work is done in isolation from other teachers and our growth depends on how often we look at our kids and our lessons and ask ourselves how things are going and what we might change.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Original Poetry

A Classroom is…

A noisy zoo,
with smellls galore.

A great chef’s kitchen,
with a swinging door.

A galaxy,
with orbits precise

An engine,
revving and full of life.

An outdoor market,
with negotiations,

And the sparkle of hope
For many a nation.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lunar New Year

The temperature stretched all the way up to 50 degrees today. It's not supposed to be so warm again for a while, but with such promising signs of spring I'm in a much more "renewal" and "forward-looking" mood than I was back in January. For teachers, coming back off winter break means mid-year-testing, parent conferences, and digging back in with a firm resolve to keep working hard for five more months. Today, though, feels like a really great time for new year celebrations and visions. I can actually imagine what spring might feel like and so new starts and fresh seeds feel very well timed. Here's to the lunar calendar, which sets New Year in a good place for both teachers and for North Americans who look forward to spring.

At a district literacy workshop this evening I presented the assessment rubric/tool that Lucy Calkins and some other Teachers College folks presented at NCTE. I really do not like presenting to teachers. It was okay, though. As we were leaving I realized that the more I learn about growing young writers, the more I realize that I have so much more to learn. It's humbling to realize how much you need to know and how much experience you need under your belt, before you even begin to approach the level of "expert writing teacher." And, of course, the learning and conversations are always evolving and it's the process and thinking that keeps my teaching nimble and rich.

Also, one thing I've learned about myself recently is that when it comes to trying new things with my students, particularly new things that I really believe in, I am quite fearless. Looking back, with some of the knowledge and experience I've acquired this year, I can see how clumsy many of my initial attempts were at implementing Writer's Workshop. I would be horribly embarrassed if anyone could see my stumbling attempts to teach writing a few years ago. BUT---you can't ride a bike the first time you get on. Every journey starts with one step. The only way to become good at something, is to let yourself be bad at first. I'm sure you can think of your own cliches. Fortunately, kids are very generous and forgiving people and I am able to have lots of courage when I am working along side them. This is one of the reasons I love my job.

Here are five things I want to do before next Lunar New Year: take a community ed. class, start the National Board certification process, write three narrative pieces to add to my Writing Teacher Toolkit, write a few essays on my mormon/spirituality/philosophy interests, and push, prod, coach, pull, and MOVE my daughter Easter to a "grade-level" reading landmark.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

We Are the Ship, by Kadir Nelson

I love Kadir Nelson as an artist, and in this book the man proves he's got some writing talent as well.

This is a non-fiction account of the Negro Baseball Leagues, and black baseball players from the 1800s on.

You know how some topics can be mildly boring when you first consider them, but when someone who is super passionate pulls up a chair and talks to you, it's impossible not to develop your own interest and appreciation. Okay. That's how this book was for me. It's not as if I have zero interest in black baseball history, but Nelson is so enthralled by his subject and so loving in his writing and art that it's impossible not to get swept up in the story and carried along by the husky, fierce energy. They loved the game. They were ballplayers. And theirs is a rich and complex story. They were privileged, relative to many black folks of their time, but they were victims of a racist country that wouldn't let them play and get paid with their white peers.

The text is told with a collective voice, with lots of "we" and "our" pronouns, as if one of the ballplayers is telling the story. It was a little awkward, this point of view, but I liked it a lot better than a third person, dry, "objective" voice. I imagined sitting on a porch, next to the rocking chair of one of these players now in his nineties, as he slowly told me this amazing swath of American history. My dad is a sports fan and history buff and it was because of him that Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were not completely unfamiliar names to me. Today, at Sunday dinner, I'm going to loan him my just-finished library copy of this fine book.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

How Far Kids Fly

A student teacher that I worked with for a few months at the first of the year, moved into a 2nd grade class in December. After watching our grade level team attempt to implement a strong Writers' Workshop, she went on, with the support of her new mentor, to implement a wonderful Writing Workshop with her class of eager second graders. Her students recently celebrated the publication of their very first pieces. I went into their room today and admired their work. Their little books were lovingly illustrated and proudly displayed.

I'm going to be very honest here. I was stunned. I have very little experience with such young writers and learners. It is unbelievable to me how far kids move in three short years. These little seven-year-olds will be big ten-year-olds soon, VERY SOON, and I've been teaching in the same building long enough now that I can be sure---they will make HUGE leaps between now and then. They had very cute little stories, but they are still learning lots and lots of basic skills. (Of course this is true, I just never realized how MANY things they learn between second and fifth grade.)

The next time I see an eleven or twelve year old who is struggling, I'm going to remember these proud second graders and I'm going to have lots and lots of faith in the power of strong instruction over time. I've loosened up quite a bit recently about all my precious ideals. Reading and Writing Workshop models work really well for me, as a teacher. Many of the students that come to me haven't ever been taught how to *be* writers in a workshop setting. But, they've been taught lots of other important skills and it's not that hard to build from where they're at. Although, right now, I am cautiously excited about the enthusiasm that this student teacher and her second grade writers are stirring up among many of the teachers throughout our lower grades.

How have cross-grade and whole school conversations broadened or deepened your understanding of reading or writing development? How much growth will I experience, as a writer and as a teacher, between now and the time I get these precious second graders as older grade students?