Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Give You Books

Just thinking about eager hands reaching out for free books.  This time of year, I love to wrap them in festive paper and tie them up in shiny ribbons.  Thanks to all those who donate to our school.   

We Give You Books

We give you books because
we care you read
read to become a reader,
read to be fully privileged in this world of written words.
Doesn't matter where you come from, reader,
only matters where you're going.
You decide.
Books help.

You can 
read to be filled with stories so great you long to relive them.
You can
read to wonder,
and your wonders matter.
What do you want to know?  
What do you want to be?
What do you not want to be?

You can
read to see you are like others,
read to know you are not like others.
Read to escape,
read to find yourself.
Read to have conversations,
read to feel quiet in the noise.

A book is not going away.
You can take it to bed
and it will be there in the morning.

When you cart home your nonperishable food
for the weekend
and you're on the couch with your peanut butter,
a book means someone also wants to feed your soul.

You matter that much to us.
You matter so much, 
we give you books. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Introducing Stella: A Writer for Writers

     I got this crazy idea; this crazy, wonderful idea.  Her name is Stella.  Wrapped up inside her are all the little writers I've taught over the years.  The writers who had courage.  The writers who had voice.  The writers who stuck in there and believed me when I told them and showed them their voices mattered.  The writers who didn't want to stop for lunch or recess.  Those who wrote at home:  "Ms. Wag, I wrote this in bed last night.  I fell asleep and rolled over it a bit.  That's why it's so wrinkly."  Those who wrote at Denny's: "Ms. Wag, I got this great idea but we were eating at Denny's so I wrote it on a napkin...see?"  One who wrote book after book about her experience when her baby sister had cancer.  One who got caught under the nightlight by his mom while writing poetry:  "What are you doing?!  You should be asleep!"  "I've got another poem in my head and I've got to get it out!"  One who wrote to defeat his anger:  "That was some field trip!  We didn't even go!  I hate the world!" (Alabama...darn tornadoes.)  One who wrote to get out his fears: "What if I disappeared?  What if I disappeared and no one was left?  What happened to my home?  What happened to my school?  What happened to my friends?" (Hurricane Katrina displaced this boy from New Orleans and he landed in our second grade classroom in Birmingham.)  One who wrote a poem called "Ice Skating in the Olympics" and began with some onomatopoeia, "Shit, shit, shit..." (the sound of the skates scraping against the ice).  

    Let's not forget the strugglers:  those who stare at the page blankly, those who wrestle with spelling, those who are crippled by perfection, those who feel they have nothing of worth to say, or those who begin a new school year, with long, sharpened pencils, fresh notebooks and a profound dislike  for writing.  I thought a lot about them as I formed Stella, because it's students like her who help lift the writing bar.  Stella is a model of writing hope.  And, alongside her teacher and classmates, her classroom is a place of writing joy.  The struggle is worth it, the struggle is worth it.  Everyone has a story to tell.  Everyone has something we need to take the time to hear. 

     I've laughed with writers, cried with writers, but most importantly, I've always tried to connect with writers.  And, that's what makes it all work.  Stella's teacher has much to do with the writing joy in her classroom, as all fabulous teachers of writing do.  She capitalizes on writing opportunities, teaches with intention, gives her students time to write, talk, and share every single day, and makes their writing relevant and meaningful. 

   Donald Graves said the most important thing teachers of writing can do is write themselves.  So, I got this idea; this crazy, wonderful idea.  And, I wrote and wrote and here she is.  A little writer to inspire and connect with other little writers.  Thanks to all the little writers who've inspired me!

P.S. Thanks so much to Tom Schiele, Dana Regan, and the wonderful people at SDE and Crystal Springs Books!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Five Ways to Kill The Love of Writing


Just read Mark Barnes' '6 Ways Teachers Kill A Love of Reading.'

My first reaction is:  I can't believe in this day and age, with all we know, these kinds of things still go on in.  But, they do.  Look on any news feed and you'll find countless classroom stories written by teachers, parents, students, administrators.  The same is true for writing.  I could write my own:  'Six Ways Teachers Kill The Love of Writing.'  I'll give a quick list a try:

1) Assign without giving choice.  This is a real worry with the Common Core.  In our zeal to teach the required text types (narrative, informative/explanatory, opinion/argumentation), we forget all humans are motivated by choice.  Can we include choice in our assignments even within the requirements?  Of course we can.  Let the students come up with their own twist on a topic, and/or have a Running Topics List where the class records issues that may be explored within these genres.  These genres can and should be part of students' lives (and, hence, relevant).  They shouldn't only experience them for school-ish assignments wherein all the parameters are dictated.

2) Have students write in a vacuum.  No sharing. No talking.  No feedback (until they get their graded paper back from the teacher.)  Writing is just speech written down.  Even when a writer works in isolation (as I'm currently doing inside my office), there is a monologue going on in her head as she hashes out thoughts and how they might be recorded.  Writers need talk--before, during and after they compose.  They need to hear their words read aloud and get reaction, feedback, encouragement...  The talk feeds the process.  One revision technique we've found effective is to "Just Ask It."  As we listen to a writer read his piece, if a question pops into our minds, we "Just Ask It."  The writer then decides if he'd like to make a revision.  "Just Ask It" is a simple way to teach students to respond to the writing of their peers in a simple conversational way.  Again, it's just talk.  Talk right smack dab in the middle of writing.  Kelly Gallagher wrote about a similar technique he calls "Question Flooding."  This is just one example of how talk helps writers hone their craft.  Most importantly, writers need to feel their voices are being heard.  Which brings me to number 3:

3) Only attend to grammar, usage and conventions.  When we look at a student's paper and the first thing that comes out of our mouths is, "You forgot to capitalize this proper noun," the student is deflated.  He's thinking, "Who cares?"  He wants to know we actually care about the content of his writing.  One of my favorite sayings is:  "Their hearts and minds are on those pages!"  We must hear the writer and let him know he has been heard by the comments we make before we ever, ever look at the mechanics.  When we do look at mechanics, can we work on small portions of the whole piece or focus on a few target areas rather than red-penning the entire work?  Unless a piece is going to publication (which should happen only occasionally), there's no reason to humiliate writers with an overabundance of corrections that overwhelm and are often ignored.  Turn some of the responsibility over to students, and you'll achieve a much better outcome.  If you need a few tips, here's a link to a post I wrote on the subject:

4) Keep the writing static.  When students write for the sole purpose of completing classroom assignments, they don't experience the power of the pen and writing is not a very motivating endeavor.  I love to design opportunities (or invite students to develop their own) that take the writing OUTSIDE OUR CLASSROOM WALLS!  When our writing has a larger purpose, we feel larger ourselves.  Can our opinions be shared with the powers that be: the company that made the product, the principal, the author of the book?  Can our informational writing be shared with target audiences; people who may have a real interest/stake in what we've learned or discovered?  Might our narratives be enjoyed beyond the scope of our classroom community?

5) Only write narratives, informational/explanatory and opinion/argumentative pieces.  Ignore all other genres.  Who needs 'em?  They're not on the test!  I've often begun my year exploring poetry with students--not just reading poems as part of literary analysis but the actual composition of POETRY!  My second graders found they could write a few lines about a simple observation, play with the words on the page, and turn out something surprising.  We'd post our poems.  We'd read and reread our poems.  We'd celebrate our poems and, along the way, we became better poetry writers.  I can't tell you how many parents I've run into that tell me their child still writes poetry years later.  It brings joy to my heart to hear!  We all know writers write for many purposes.  Who knows what type of writing may really turn a student on?  We have to make time to explore varied genres and write for the purpose of FUN and simple exploration.  This point ties into point number 1:  and I'd like to conclude this post with one last pertinent observation:

Real writers in the real world often come up with their own topics and decide which genre (out of many) best suits their purpose and intended audience.  Thus, in school, if we want to produce real writers--writers who are empowered to write outside of school--we can't just make assignments, limit the genres students are exposed to, and limit choice.  If we do, we are not helping our students develop the habits of mind writers need to be successful.

Well, that was only five ways to kill the love of writing.  But, I must stop now so I can work on other...wait for it...writing!!! :)

Best to you and your writers!  Have a wonderful school year!  -Janiel
P.S. As always, I'd love to hear your comments.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Purposeful Writing and Clapping for Kids

I'm thinking of starting 'three minute' blog posts. I know, crazy, right?  But, I often spend too much time mulling over posts and with my other projects (including my son...see his hair from this morning at the bottom of this post), I thus limit myself to few postings.  So, here goes...three minutes:

At the Gulf Coast Conference on the Teaching of Writing this summer, teachers spontaneously clapped in the middle of my keynote.  Why?  I was presenting about purposeful writing and how it can lead to kids making a difference in the world outside of school.  One of our wonderful teachers, Libby Jacobsen, had her sixth graders so interested in Malala Yousafzai; reading about her, writing about her, talking about what had happened to her and her amazing courage and voice, that they decided to host a 5K run to earn money for the Malala Fund.  They created a Facebook page, fliers, buttons, and Tshirts.  The students even appeared on the local news to let people know what they were up to and how to support the cause.  They raised $2200!  There you go:  speaking, listening, viewing, incorporating media/technology, reading, writing, collaborative conversations, thinking, problem solving all rolled into FUN!  These kids were so empowered.  We hope they take that empowerment with them as they journey onward.

How might you push something your class is reading and writing about outside your classroom walls?  Just something to think about as we begin a new year of empowering learners!

And, now, for something totally unrelated (and I think I've been writing for about seven minutes):
Max's hair.  Talk about a challenge.  I have to smile, but I'm not clapping.

Have a great day! -Janiel

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Video: Pushing Reading, Writing & Thinking Beyond our Classroom Walls

Hello!  Below you’ll find a two minute video interview with a student showcasing a project done in our sixth grade.  I’m particularly interested in classroom writing that has real world purpose and how this influences motivation.  You’ll hear our sixth grade friend talk about reading informative texts that address a compelling issue, composing texts, and using this information to explore iMovie as a means of sharing important learning with a wide audience. As I watched students at work, I sensed an amazing commitment to the project given the plan to spread the word about a topic they came to care deeply about.  Note how many Common Core reading, writing, speaking and listening standards are addressed by engaging students in this manner.  More importantly, note how this student describes his experience with depth and maturity.  

(A side note:  I knew students weren’t given a lot of direction for using the technology involved in the project, so I deliberately asked about this.  Sometimes we adults are a bit hesitant about diving into programs or apps given our own lack of experience, yet if we let the students lead, they’ll often surprise us with the outcomes (and we, too, learn along the way!).

(A side, side note:  In my zeal to keep the video interview short, I interrupted the student.  This is frustrating to hear since I believe he had more to say on some of the questions.  Videoing and reviewing our own work is the ultimate way to self-reflect and grow.  Keep growing!)



P.S. What catches your attention in this video interview?  I’d love to hear your comments.