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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Forgive me, Ralph

I had the opportunity to meet Ralph Fletcher back in April at the Massachusetts Reading Association conference, where he was speaking as the closing keynote speaker.  As a literacy "nerd" and a long-time fan of Ralph's work, a colleague of mine and I sat at the front table hoping to catch a closer glimpse at the writing master.  Wonderfully, I got the chance to strike up a conversation with him about the future of writing workshop and the Common Core State Standards before he began.  My colleague snapped a shot of us (the excitement in taking this photo was similar to what I imagine I would feel if given the chance to take a photo with any of the New Kids on the Block during the late 80s) and I listened to Ralph talk about "boy writers" for 60 minutes.  I soaked up each and every word and proceeded to buy his book of the same name; Boy Writers. 

I am a HUGE fan of Ralph Fletcher and agree with him and what he writes constantly.  I profess his wisdom to colleagues, students, and  parents constantly.   I have heard that Ralph believes that revision is the most important stage of the writing process. And as painful as it is, and as conflicted as I feel in doing this, I must disagree with Ralph (I can't believe I just wrote those words!).

I believe that selecting is the most important stage of the writing process.  Selection is where students choose an incredibly powerful and meaningful memory and create a thoughtful and honest memoir.  It's where students select the naked mole rat to develop a feature article that teaches readers all about this disgusting-looking yet fascinating, little rodent.  It's the time when students pick to argue the case for or against longer school days in a persuasive letter to the board of education.  Selection is where an idea is chosen carefully and thoughtfully that will take flight and evolve into something incredible or...where an idea is chosen quickly and frivolously causing angst for both student and teacher for weeks to come as they both struggle though the rest of the writing process.

Care, thought, and time should be taken when selecting an idea for a piece of writing.  I believe asking students  to think "small", at first, is the way to help them focus their idea and then grow it, as they move through drafting, revision, and editing.  

A fourth grade teacher from a school in which I consult invited me to demonstrate a drafting minilesson in her room a few weeks back.  To gain some insight, I asked her to send me a list of the students'' ideas.  This is the list she sent.

As I sent her an email discussing the importance of selection, I suggested we think smaller and that she ask some of the students (Kayla, Katherine, Rachel, Justin, Finola, Manny, and Tommy) to focus in on some of their larger topics.  I received her response in my inbox and was so pleasantly surprised to receive a new and revised list of the students' selected topics for their personal narrative after some conferring on her part.  They were smaller, more focused, more interesting (let's be honest...), and had a much better shot of being drafted, revised, and edited with less stress, better focus, and more excitement.  

Check them out side by side....

As Kayla, Katherine, Rachel, Justin, Finola, Manny, and Tommy took their larger topics, shrunk them down, and created smaller ones, without even realizing it, their writing experience became a deeper one.  

Selection, and selecting a smaller idea (regardless of the genre) is the key to making students feel successful right from the beginning of the writing process.  I hope Ralph Fetcher can forgive me.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

My Daughter, the Writer

     I know I will sound like another mom bragging about their child and their academic accomplishments when I say this but my daughter is a real writer.  Please forgive my pride and amazement and allow me to tell you the experience I had watching my five-year-old daughter yesterday afternoon after she came home from school. 

     Anna started Kindergarten in September and truly loves every second of it.  As her mother, I have been trying to expose her to reading and writing since before she could talk  and she has been overwhelmingly receptive to my attempts.  She started asking about how to spell family names and write the letters of the alphabet while in the four year old class at her incredible nursery school.  She “read” books by flipping through the text, describing the pictures, and creating voices for the various characters she saw on the pages before her. 

     But yesterday afternoon something completely new and amazing happened. 

     Anna sat down at around 3:45 PM and asked my mother, who was watching my children at the time, for 27 pieces of white paper.  She then proceeded to copy the names of all of her classmates on separate pages, add pictures, and pile them up.  When she was done with this arduous task, she asked me for 27 envelopes into which she would put the newly decorated notes.  Two hours into this project (with no stoppage for snacks, television, Barbie doll breaks…), she proceeded to delve into the “art cart” and grab some stickers, which she would use to decorate the envelopes.  She again, wrote each of her friends’ names onto the outside of the envelope and signed the back with a “love Anna” so the recipients knew who had created this mystery gift.  She pulled off the paper that hid the adhesive (demanding that I not throw them out because she was going to use them as “sentence strips”), sealed them up and placed each one into a Target plastic bag.  When I thought she was done (two and a half hours later), she asked me to sit with her on the couch and allow her to read the front and back of each envelope showing me both what she had accomplished and her reading prowess.  She recognized that some didn’t have her signature “love Anna” on them and that she had spelled Brady’s name without the “d”.  So back to the kitchen table she went to revise and edit her work.

     As I watched Anna throughout this process I kept asking myself how she was able to sustain her interest and focus.  She was so intent and intense during this project.  As I reflected later that evening, I realized that Anna was doing what students in workshop classrooms do each day.  She was “given” things that teachers around the country give to their students in workshop classrooms each day.    Anna had the following:

  •      Choice to write about what interested her and about which she cared
  •      A real audience to whom she was writing
  •      A true purpose for writing- I can’t wait to hear all about how she delivered them and her friends’ reactions when she gets home today!
  •      Materials that suited her task- as much as I was not crazy about handing over 27 envelopes to her (especially the self-stick ones!!), I knew they were integral to this project
  •      An understanding that writing takes time and is a process but the payoff is tremendous!
  •      Writing aids to help her feel confident and comfortable as she wrote (she used a calendar sent home to parents for the “Adventures of Baby Bear” which included ALL of her friends’ names spelled for her).  Anchor charts and writing resources are pivotal if we want our students to become more confident and independent.
     As I tucked Anna in last night I explained to her that she should feel so proud of herself for all that she'd done this afternoon. I told her that she was a “real writer”.  And as she rolled over with her puppy doll, her face lit up with a smile that let me know she knew I was telling her the truth. 

 Anna hard at work!

Anna checking off the names of the friends' to whom she has already written notes

 The "Writing Resource" that allowed Anna to write each friends' name without any help from me.  She marked off when she finished their note with a pink dot.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

Admitting My Dirty Little Secret

     Each and every day I tell the students I work with (as well as my own children) to keep up with their reading, build reading  stamina, make time to read, and have conversations with pieces of interesting text.  And yet, I am sad to admit that I have not been practicing what I preach.   I am constantly distracted; by my work, my family, my health (having two hip replacements in less than 3 years is always a good way to get distracted by life…), the Internet (I do love me some Daily Show clips!), and other things that take me away from real, meaningful reading on a daily basis. 

     I remember when I was in my own 4th grade classroom, I read constantly.  In collegial circles, with my colleagues after school, for my principal when she’d drop a great article into my mailbox…I was really reading a lot.  I am ashamed to admit that I do not read as much as I should but that all changed when I picked up Notebook Know-How:Strategies for a Writer’s Notebook by Aimee Buckner two weeks ago.  At first I requested it at my local library but after one chapter knew I needed my own copy to mark up and keep as a reference on my shelf. 

     This book has reinvigorated my love of reading professional literature and made me remember why it’s SO important for teachers to keep reading!  I took away so many tips from Aimee’s ideas (see my highlighted pages below) and have begun sharing them with teachers across the country in a quest to make the Writer’s Notebook more resourceful, manageable, and exciting.  Aimee pushed me to think about the notebook in ways I never imagined…after 13 years of using one!  I was able to fly through the book (my sessions of P.T. definitely helped me focus) and get excited all over again about the tools we use in our classrooms. 

     Keeping up with professional literature allows us to not only learn new things but also reexamine how we can think about old things.  It’s such a wonderful way to keep us sharp, engaged, and reflective as educators. 

     I am looking forward to choosing my next book (I am contemplating Aimee’s new book on Nonfiction notebooks…) and acquiting new ideas, which I can share with all of the teachers with whom I call colleagues.

Make sure you read each tip carefully.  These are just a sampling.  Buy the me it will wow you!