Thursday, March 26, 2020

Read. Analyze. Emulate

During our break from school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, my two boys and I have been using our morning to complete reading and writing prompts.  Yesterday, we pulled our inspiration from George Ella Lyon's poem "Kitchen Table."

In an activity similar to one I do with my high school students, I asked my boys to read the excerpt, analyze the moves that the writer makes, and emulate the style in an original work of their own. Last year while attending the Michigan Reading Association conference, Penny Kittle engaged us in a very similar activity using an excerpt from Alice Hoffman's book Faithful. In using a small excerpt from a piece of writing, students of any age are able to engage in analysis and bring those writing craft moves into their own work.  Using shorter excerpts from a variety of texts gives emerging writers the opportunity to play with their writing. 

In yesterday's activity, my 9 and 11 year old boys talked about repetition, imagery, and shifts in tone. These are the same concepts that my high school writers were unpacking in their rhetorical analysis of a variety of speeches just prior to our break. My high school students were tasked not only with analyzing a selected speech, but using their analysis to craft their own speech. This is what it means to use a text as a mentor. What can we learn from writers about the craft of writing? 

The result of our writing endeavors yesterday with my boys were poems about our living room furniture.

By H. Ward

This chair stands where
no chair has stood,
where I have read for
hours on end,
where my father
plays guitar,
where my dog frequently
jumps up to play.
A place of comfort,
and fun,
where I sit
from the green

By L. Ward

This end table is where 
coffee sits in a cup,
where Mary sleeps under,
where my dad read
the New York Times,
where my mom
grades her students'
and where I wrote
this poem about the
end table.

By Jennifer Ward

This coffee table stands where
a folding chair first sat when
we moved into this space.
Months later I jigsawed
this table into the Prius,
seats folded down, the two
boys buckled into the front
passenger seat, giggling as
this table bounced between us.
This is the table where we gather to play
Munchkins, Exploding Kittens, Pandemic,
where dad used the wax
from his bees to polish
out coffee cup rings that
left O’s in the grain.
This is the table where
we lean into computer screens
to chat with friends while
sheltering inside during the pandemic,
where we would rather be gathered
together in person
laughing, chatting, playing music
as we had in the past.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Thinking about Revision

With this gift of time as we are sequestered away in our separate homes, I've been dipping back into my writing, rereading cringe-worthy drafts of poems and half-finished stories. Whew! I need to spend some time revising!

Writing is never finished. Walt Whitman rewrote Leaves of Grass five times. Former poet laureate Galway Kinnell never seemed to deliver his published poems the same way twice, omitting and adding lines even after the poems were bound in a book.  I’ve heard both author James McBride and poet Naomi Shihab Nye talk about writing as rewriting. Naomi Shihab Nye said: “If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn’t realize the teacher was saying, ‘Make it shine. It’s worth it.’ Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope. It’s a new vision of something. It means you don’t have to be perfect the first time. What a relief!”

In thinking about how I go about revising my own writing and how I teach revision to my high school students, I notice a divide. And actually, in rereading some of my posts on this space, this divide is something that I have been struggling to bridge for a large portion of my teaching career. How do I help students invest more time in their revision process? This is going to sound weird, but our current break from traditional school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has actually provided me some insight into revision. Let me explain.

My youngest son, Lukas, is nine years old.  This past week was our first week home together as schools shut down in Michigan as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Monday and Wednesday, his teachers posted links to math worksheets and online resources for his class to access.  He was assigned reading homework, encouraged to complete a creative book report, and asked by his teacher to complete and send back work that he had missed due to a recent orthodontist appointment.  But what did Lukas want to do?  He wanted to grab the Chromebook every chance he could so that he could add to the collaborative story that he and his buddy were writing titled "Where the Dragons Dwell."

You need to understand that when I ask Lukas about writing, he tells me that he hates it. "I hate my writer's notebook!" he complains each Wednesday night.  His weekly writing pages are typically due on Thursday morning, and of course, as an English teacher, hearing him say this each week breaks my heart. But here's the thing, I know why he's saying this. I love that his teacher has students writing in notebooks each week.  I also know that my son doesn't actually hate writing.  He, in fact, continues to write more than he is assigned when he is given free choice on what to write.  What he hates is that the feedback he has received is that he needs to fill the page and not slant his writing so that his last few lines on the page only cover 1/3 of the available space on the page. He dislikes the feedback that is focused on what his writing looks like and not on what he elects to write about. This is not feedback on the content of his writing. He enjoys writing, writing so quickly that it is a bit difficult to decipher at times, but he doesn't like when feedback interrupts his work or when it is not connected to the work. In cases when he's received feedback that he needs to write more because he doesn't "fully fill the page," he protests.  He claims he hates writing and doesn't understand why he has to do it. This is also what he said when I asked him to grab a notebook so that we could write at home together this past Monday.  However, later that same afternoon when his buddy shared a Google doc with the start of a story, Lukas didn't want to put down his writing.

Over the course of this past week, Lukas has added to the story, read the story aloud to his older brother a few times to get some advice, talked through most of our meal times about the progression of the story, always focused on how to make the story better.  This is what revision should look like. What it doesn't look like is a worksheet or a series of required comments left on a partner's draft. What it doesn't look like is everyone working on the same "step" of writing at the same time. So when we do return to school, I have some ideas about how engage students in the revision process differently.  It starts even before we begin drafting.

If writing is rewriting as McBride and Nye suggest, then conversations with students about revision strategies need to begin at the introduction of each new writing assignment.  Very few published writers complete a full draft before making a tweak here or there. We revise as we go, so we cannot leave a peer-revision workshop as the last step before our students turn in a writing assignment. We must teach students to engage in revision as we go, at each step of the writing process.  Moving forward in my own classroom, this will look more like the writing workshop model with students working in small groups to draft, craft, and revise. No more revision checklists or peer revision worksheets.  Instead, revision needs to look and feel more organic, like my son's process of crafting the collaborative story with his friend.  They use the online document to add to the writing, comments to make suggestions or ask questions of one another, and the chat to talk about where they are headed in the story.  Late this past week, my son hopped on a virtual chat with his friend, and I listened in as the two talked about the upcoming chapters they wanted to write together.  This conferencing got both boys engaged in the writing and revision process. 

I use writing conferences in my high school English classes now, but typically they are conversations between the student writer and the teacher and are left toward the end of the writing process. Using my son's writing process as a model, I see that I need to help students establish similar collaborative writing relationships much earlier in the drafting process.  Connecting my students writers and giving them space to organically talk about their writing and their struggles will do more to help them grow in their confidence as writers. Moving forward, I need to help my students establish trusted writing partners, peers that they can rely on throughout their writing practice, much like my Lukas relies on his writing buddy. 

I'll rely on the work of educators like Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher to guide me as I think about how to reframe writing assignments in my classes.  Having the opportunity to hear them talk about their work and book 180 Days last spring at the Michigan Reading Association conference was powerful.  And I would love to hear from other educators about your successes when in comes to engaging students in the revision process. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Slowing Down to Learn

At this point, we are a couple of days into social distancing and staying at home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Michigan schools, like so many other schools around the country, are closed for the next few weeks. In response, educators are sharing an abundance of digital learning tools and home-schooling suggestions. I must confess, even though I am an educator and consider myself digitally saavy, this is all just a bit too overwhelming.  Too many suggestions, too many lesson ideas.  It's just too much! I love the passion and collaboration that is growing as a result of needing to quickly address our new learning landscape, but slow down!  My own boys, now 4th and 5th graders, have received messages and optional assignments from their classroom teachers, art teachers, music teachers, physical education teachers. And although they are communicating with the best of intentions, it is overwhelming my dudes...and me.

I want to encourage my own kids to pause and reflect on this particular moment in time. Yes, it is scary. We've never lived through something like this before, and so we don't know what to expect.  The adults don't have all the answers right now.  But, we have the gift of time. We don't need to rush. We don't need to try to replicate a traditional school day at home. We have time to reflect and explore and learn together. So rather than trying to cram in a science lesson and a math handout and history project and a writing activity each day, we're taking it slow.

Each morning, my boys and I get up, chat, make breakfast, and take the dog for a walk.  Then, I use the prompts above to guide our morning reflections.  We talk about the prompt, write a little, read a little, and make something.  Yesterday, after we talked about what we would like to learn in our next four weeks together, my boys and I went outside to build an epic fort.  We then came inside to figure out the best tools for learning how to code.  Today, we talked about the power of our hands after listening to Sarah Kay's spoken word poem "Hands." My boys and I completed a writing activity that had us writing our own poems about a something special that we've held in our hands.  After viewing the photojournalism piece posted by the BBC on Tim Booth's photography of hands, my boys wanted to take a black and white photo of their own to add to their writing piece. So we discuss, we write, we read, we create.  And that's enough for now.  We don't need to fill every moment.  We have time.

Feel free to join us and use the prompts above.  I will add new prompts each day.  We'd love to hear about what you are learning, reading, and making during this time.

Remember, we're in uncharted territory. It is okay to not have the answers. It is okay to slow down.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Self Care Challenge

Wow!  What a week this has been.  Things have been moving very quickly, and in my Michigan school district, we suddenly find ourselves out of school through April 12th, a full month away from school.  The impact of COVID-19 is unprecedented, and as a result, we are all in uncharted territory.

During our time away from school, we have an opportunity to reconnect with our families and take care of ourselves and one another.  For those that are interested, I created the self-care challenge for my high school students.  Feel free to make a copy of this document for yourself and your students.  Highlight each of the challenges as you complete them.  Use the comment box below to tell us how your self-care challenges are going!

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Reading Routines

Fridays are our reading days. It's my favorite day of the week.

This past Friday, as the temperatures dipped and snow swirled, we declared it our first "Snuggle Up and Read Day." We had hot water so we could mix up some hot cocoa, cookies to dunk, and we found a comfy place in the room to record our reading goals for the coming week and spend the class hour reading.

We begin the class hour each Friday by adding up the number of pages that had read in the past week and added it to our weekly reading log. Students can select any style of text to read - realistic fiction, poetry, self-help, memoir, graphic novels, dystopian. At the close of each month, I reward students who have met or exceeded their weekly reading goals each week during the month (thank you, Herb and Fire Pizzeria). After eight weeks time, we break our weekly routine to share our books and learn about more potential books that we add to our "To Read" lists. Finally, we end each Friday class hour with "First Page Fridays."

What is "First Page Friday"? As students wrap up their reading time, I use the last five minutes of our Friday class time to share with them a little about a book that I have enjoyed. I briefly introduce the author and a summary of the story, and then I read students the first page of the book. In a few short weeks, my students will take over and begin to share their favorite books.

This week I shared Laurie Halse Anderson's nonfiction poetry book titled Shout. Many of my high school students have read one of her early books, Speak. Shout, intentionally titled to follow in the footsteps of Speak, focuses on Anderson's early struggles with silence and her journey to find and use the power of her voice. It is a devastatingly beautiful text, one I was excited to share with students. And, to add to the excitement, I also got to share with students that our school will host a visit with the author come spring! At the close of the day, I was able to give away a copy of the book to a student in each of my classes (thank you for making this possible, FirstBook). And to top it all off, we heard from Ms. Anderson on Friday! I posted a picture on our class Instagram site of our cozy reading day activities alongside page from Shout about "hygge", the Danish idea of comfort and connection. The author took a moment to write us a "comforting" reply.

I love our Friday reading routines! ​

Cross-posted at

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Learning Communities are Built on Relationships

I don't yell.

Okay, if you ask my own children, they might tell you something different, but when it comes to my classroom, you'll find me most days guffawing and giggling more than anything else. I've been known to cackle so loudly that they can hear my laughter echo down the hallway.

But today, I yelled.

Over my years of teaching, I have come to realize that my philosophy of classroom management starts with building relationships. We start that very first week of school by constructing a social contract for our learning community. I ask for student input on what our learning and behavior expectations should be. We have candid conversations about what respect looks like, both from the teacher and from students. When I talk about the classroom, it is our classroom and our learning community. We work together.  It is not mine or yours. And it doesn't take long before students are using those same plural pronouns to talk about our class.  We reserve the opening moments of every class period to share out what things are happening in our lives. We share our highs and our lows. I know my students. I listen to their struggles. I try to provide a space that is flexible, comfortable, and safe.

And so when conflict happens, I rely on the strength of those relationships to lift us up.  If a student is off-task, I just need to quietly come stand beside her and ask how things are going. That's usually enough to help redirect her back on task.  On the rare occasion when anger fills our classroom, when someone uses profane language, or calls someone a name, I can usually get the situation under control quickly by pulling the student aside and trying to understand what is at the root of the issue and help the student see another's point of view. I point out the tenets of our social contract. This is what respect looks like in our classroom. This is what empathy looks like in our classroom.

But today I yelled.

Not at first.  At first I tried to calm down an irate student by pulling her aside. I tried redirecting. I tried separating. I tried getting the class back on task.

And then I yelled.

It is not how I like getting control of my classroom. It feels like a broken trust.

But I know that it will work out.  And I know that because as students walked out of class, I heard apologies. Students apologizing to one another. Students apologizing to me. I saw students offering to help others.  After school a student stopped by to see if I was okay. He was checking on me. It will work out because our relationships still build the foundation of our learning community.  Our walls may have shook this afternoon, but our relationships remain strong.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Time to Unplug

OMG! How did I end up on the Daily Beast?!

Okay, not really. My hair is longer. But those glasses are spot on.

Seriously though, when the sun goes down this evening, it will mark the start of the National Day of Unplugging. And for much as I love technology's ability to connect my students and me with authors, writers, and experts of all varying kinds, an over-reliance on our smartphones, tablets, and all manner of digital devices can have a detrimental effect on our ability to connect in real time.

Dr. Kowal meets with my Public Speaking students in February 2017.
My friend and communications expert Dr. Chris Kowal has done quite a bit of research on this matter. A nonverbal communications scholar, Chris studied people's body positions as they engaged in using their smartphones. The study, conducted at Purdue University, concluded that our curled-up body position when using smartphones leads to stress. In a 2016 article in The Exponent, Chris stated, "...we need to be aware of how we use our smartphones."

And he's not alone in this call for moderation. About this time last year, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report about American's use of digital technologies and their increasing rates of stress.  According to the report, nearly one-fifth of those surveyed reported that digital technologies were the source of "very or somewhat significant" stress in their daily lives.  Similar surveys have been conducted by Gallup, the Milken Institute, and the Pew Research Center. And there's a growing body of research on cell phone addiction.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love my technology. To be quite honest, I would not be the educator that I am today without the connections that I have fostered in digital spaces like Twitter and Facebook.  Or what about all those fantastic donors who have provided my classroom with books and Chromebooks and cameras through online networks like DonorsChoose and PledgeCents.  And Skype and Google Hangouts/Meet have connected my students with editors, authors, biologists, poets, and fellow students from all around the globe. Technology has transformed my classroom in amazing ways.  However, that said, we all could use a break from that constant connection.

I'm old enough to remember a world prior to cell phones, prior to people being to get in touch with you whenever or wherever you happened to be. In college, I would hop in my car, windows rolled all the way down, radio blaring, and make the hour drive to the Lake Michigan shore. Alone.  If someone needed me, it had to wait until I was back in my dorm room. In a similar sort of way, this is why I have always loved camping, being in the great wide open.  No need for televisions or phones or tablets or laptops when there are so many open spaces to explore. In a world where digital connections are ubiquitous, it is refreshing to be reminded of the real-life connections that we might be missing out when we walk through the world with earbuds in and our faces looking down at little glowing blue screens.

So, take the 24-hour challenge with me. Unplug from your devices for one day. Who knows, maybe you'll find more powerful connections in real-life.  At the very least, unplugging might help us to find a bit of balance in how we are using technology in our daily lives.

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