I Like Quiet

I am not a morning person. I kind of always hated morning people. You know the type: bounce out of bed and have all too much to say too early in the day. I like quiet.

Actually, I like quiet at any time of the day, but mostly, I like quiet mornings in my front room. The sun whispers in the windows and warms the wooden floor. The sofa hugs my stiffness as dust dances fairy-like in the morning light. I read: books, magazines, Twitter. Scripture. I relax and renew. I learn and linger. All too often, the clock awakens me from my musings.

Upstairs I hear my sons rise and clomp toward the computer and the bathroom. Footsteps that used to tread tenderly with their cuteness, now thunder in their size 13’s. Back when they were 1 and 2 and 7. I yearned for quiet and found it when they were tucked away for the night.

Now I find it in the mornings. Time for me to think, ponder and pray. Pray for myself, my heart and my health. Pray for my family, my husband and my kids. Quiet mornings when I hear the Spirit whisper, “Come, sit awhile. How about this gorgeous day?”

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Apples and Twisted Ribbon

My mother loved apples. She decorated with shiny red ones in crystal bowls. She made sure the dish towels sported ruby red appliqué, and she papered uniformed round ones to dance high above the kitchen. Funny how I never saw my mother eat an apple, although she would eat apple pie on the rare occasion that she made one, usually for my brother Craig’s birthday.

I still remember watching my mother make pie dough. She’d carefully measure the Crisco, the flour, the salt. She’d lay out the waxed paper, mash the dough inside, and begin to press and roll with the old wooden rolling pin. She’d carefully place the dough in the tin and often let me cut the edges around the rim. Since the recipe made two crusts, mother would gently flute the edges of one while she directed me in decorating the other. Mother’s flutes were always perfect two-fingered imprints with spacing that would rival a ruler. Mine were less elegant, obviously the work of a child. “Make it pretty,” my mom would say. And I would try.

Mother constantly reminded me of the beauty in little things and taught me how to nurture that beauty in myself. She taught me how to stand up straight and make the perfect bow. She taught me how to set a table and twist floral tape into the perfect corsage. My mother’s soft warm hands taught me to see the beauty in every child as she held my face and whispered, “It’s those who are the hardest to love who need it the most.”

I miss my mother.

Now days I enter her kitchen. The apples are gone, as are the warm scents of baked goods or browning meat. My mother’s not gone though, but her mind is going. Alzheimer’s is poisoning what I hold most dear. Like the fruit in the hand of the wicked queen, this disease with its jealousy and rage will take what is not hers–memories that are my mother’s. And mine.

I hate this rotten apple.

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Top 10 Things I Learned from My Darling Mother:

1. Stand up tall. You are a daughter of God.

2. Remember, you are part of a family that loves and honors you. Do nothing to dishonor it.

3. Say your prayers on bended knee.

4. Love one another, even when it’s difficult.

5. Serve. Always.

6. Lay the pattern carefully so you cut the fabric correctly.

7. Set a pretty table for every meal.

8. Support your mate–loving, caring, giving– every day of your life

9. Decorate for Christmas. Lots of lights and ornaments!

10. Twist the ribbon just right, and you’ll make the perfect bow every time.

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Words of Affirmation

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Teachers Write! And It Begins…

I like to write. I really do. But the thing is– I always think I have to be in the mood first. You know, I have to feel the urge, feel the words swirling and flitting through my brain, feel like actually sitting and letting the thoughts flow through my finger tips. Sadly, this feeling rarely comes. Well, rarely comes unless I make the time to create it. So I ask myself as I begin this journey with other teachers who want to write: how am I going to do things differently? How am I going to commit myself to this writing project and follow it through?

How do I spend my time, and what can go?

This is a tough one. I spend a lot of time on Twitter, reading the news and ideas shared by my PLN. I think this has become my number one hobby: I’ve become a PLN junkie. I have at least 500 tweets saved as a favorite, just waiting for me to read and possibly categorize. I can cut my Twitter time and probably not miss out on a thing.

How much time will I dedicate to writing each day?

I will be writing ELA curriculum during the day pretty much through the month of June. That means my personal writing time has to fit in the evenings. I am setting the personal goal of 20 minutes per day. I am pretty confident I can do at least that much without neglecting my family too badly.

Where will I write?

I do like to create a mood. So I think I will turn a corner of my bedroom into my writing space. A vanilla scented candle, some music with a gentle groove, and, of course, my new Mac Pro.

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Scaffolding or Struggling, Sinking vs Thinking

So, when the school year started, I was all about scaffolding. I would do this, and my students would do that. I’d provide, build, prop, support until my students were writing their souls onto the paper. Good idea, right? Yeah, it worked about two weeks.

Then, I realized my students were bored. No matter how much I tried to get them interested in doing the learning my way, they were all about doing the learning their way:  they wanted me to “get them started” and then let them GO.

Since I am a control freak, this presented a problem. What if they did the work wrong? What if they didn’t learn the skill I needed them to learn? What if I couldn’t stay on the carefully crafted schedule I’d created?

Yep. That last question—see? There’s the problem. I wanted the learning to be about me. My schedule. My way or the highway. I had to learn to let go and let them.

My approach to writing instruction changed. Instead of pounding my students sweet heads with pre-writing strategies, although colorful additions to their writing notebooks, I started more carefully following the advice I’d learned from great coaches like Jeff Anderson, Penny Kittle and Cris Tovani.

One thing I changed:  I started using better mentor texts. I found pieces of writing that included the skill I wanted students to learn, pieces that were inflammatory or insulting—you know, writing that made students crazy with the need to respond? Pieces that made students think. We’d read these pieces together, and then I’d ask the students questions that helped them discover the writing skill in the piece. Inevitably, students will find what I hope they’ll find—if the mentor text is a good one.

For example, I just read this piece by Stephen King entitled “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake” that I plan on using in class one day soon. The title alone will make my students want to read it. (Careful–obviously, there is some salty language.) Take a peek:

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, “OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.” That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

And hey, why don’t we get real about this? Most rich folks paying 28 percent taxes do not give out another 28 percent of their income to charity. Most rich folks like to keep their dough. They don’t strip their bank accounts and investment portfolios. They keep them and then pass them on to their children, their children’s children. And what they do give away is—like the monies my wife and I donate—totally at their own discretion. That’s the rich-guy philosophy in a nutshell: don’t tell us how to use our money; we’ll tell you.

The writing devices in this excerpt scream to be discussed:  Hello? Tone, Dash–baby, Word Choice Wonders, Asyndeton’s a-list, Repetition-Repetition, and more!

If I trust my students to search, find, think, and discuss what makes this writing effective—they will. Then, not only can I encourage my kids to use devices like this in their own writing, I can craft questions that get them thinking about topics to write about. Voile! My mentor text is now an ideas generator.  

Questions like:  What kind of story might be titled “One Single Red Penny”? What topics emerge from these paragraphs? Why should you care about United American citizenry? What are some things you’d like people to “get real” about? What are some things you consider “annoying responsibility stuff”? What are some treasures your family passes down from children to “their children’s children”?

My students will get into these questions, and look at all the different types of writing they can produce just by thinking about these topics? Literary, expository, persuasive.

Thinking. Maybe that’s the deal here. When I provide too much scaffolding, my students do not have to think near as much as when I let them struggle through.

In the rear of my classroom, I have a wall painted with chalkboard  paint that says in colorful fancy letters: It’s TIME to think. Maybe it’s just me, but thinking equates to struggle, and I am pretty sure that’s where the learning is.

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Turning Discovery and Learning Over to the Students: That’s Workshop

On occassion, teachers ask me to explain what I mean when I start talking about my reading/ writing workshop classroom. The following is a response to an initial request on Twitter, which later expanded to questions and answers. Tweet: “I am thinking of switching to a workshop approach. Does anyine have any pointers?” Well, yes, actually, I do.

First of all, there are many definitions of “workshop.” Some gurus like Donalyn Miller go with an all student choice approach, while others like Kelly Gallagher and Nancie Atwell incorporate some whole class reading and instruction into their workshop classrooms. While my district is working to implement workshop into the curriculum this summer, we are trying to define what workshop means to us. This is what we’ve deciced so far:

Reading/Writing Workshop means students have a say in the titles and topics in which they read and write. Students read, discuss, write, and share in small and large groups. Teachers continually hold “book talks” and introduce new books, so that students have numerous titles in which they may choose self-selected reading. Teachers may also have short lists (perhaps 5-6 titles) in which students may choose titles and form small book clubs or literature circles. Students gain the pleasure of reading about topics and events that interest them; teachers focus on skills that help students become more critical readers. Students develop as writers as they choose topics that relate personally to their lives. They learn to take pride in their work as they take their writing thoroughly through the writing process and practice the habits of published authors. Teachers introduce mentor texts in which students analyze and model an author’s craft and style. Ultimately, students publish their writing and find pleasure and satisfaction in potentially getting feedback from their audiences.

As you can tell, we’ve combined several different “workshop” models into what we think might work best for our kids. When I first learned about workshop I read Atwell’s book In the Middle, which was great, but I quickly realized that her idea of a student-centered (and self-motivated) classroom would not work with the majority of my sophomores. I knew that I needed to offer more direction. My kids either jump off task and topic quicker than I can take a breath, or they are lumps of lard waiting for something exciting like the monthly fire drill. There’s no way Atwell’s “divide-the-class-into-groups-and-have-them-work-through-center-type-activities” would ever work with my on-level students (my AP kids another story). I had not attended Penny Kittle’s training yet, nor had I read her book Write Beside Them. Once I learned from Kittle, I knew I could create a workshop model that would work for my students.

I’ll try to answer your questions, and then really, you’re right– jump in with both feet! You’ll learn through trial and error, and if nothing else, your students will be reading and writing and engaged.

Q: Normally, we think of each grade level by the books students read. Juniors read American Lit (Huck Finn, Scarlett Letter), Seniors read Brit Lit (Beowulf, 1984). If we move to a workshop, what defines each grade level? What makes sophomore year different from junior year? Is it just a constant reinforcement of the skills?

A: Yes, it’s a skills-based focus. Pull out the standards and decide which are the most important. Texas now does this for us with our Readiness and Supporting standards. We did not join with the National Core, and I am not sure what those look like at different grade levels. I’m pretty sure that no matter there are some standards that must be much more recursive than others. Those are the ones we return to over and over again with reading and writing workshops. For example, our new state mandated test (STAAR), which starts this coming year, will include narrative & expository writing (9th grade), expository & persuasive writing (10th grade), persuasive & analytical writing (11th grade). Obviously, the skills needed to write in these forms will be taught throughout the year, ideally through the use of mentor texts, teacher modeling, and delving deeply into the writing process, which must be the focus–process–more than the product.

I believe it is still possible to move through thematic units with American Lit at 11th and Brittish Lit at 12th. My district still mandates a few “required” texts at each grade level, and the new workshop curriculum will reflect the same American Lit then Brittish Lit as you mention; we just now have the freedom to either do all of the text or just excerpts, and the approach is different– student-centered learning instead of the ‘ole Sage on the Stage: teacher at the front of the room doing all the talking, and kids glaring at their eyelids trying to remember what they read in Spark Notes so they can pass the end-of-class quiz.

Q: We have partial block. Monday-Wednesday are 50 minutes.. and then we block 90 minutes Thurs/Friday. So I only see my students four days a week. How would you recommend we organize the workshops with those time limitations?

A: I work within the constraints of 47 minute classes five days a week. I’d love to have your 90 minutes on Thurs/Fridays, but I’m not exactly sure how to tell you what I’d do with them. I think your organization will come naturally as you play with what approach to workshop feels right to you and works best for your kids.

Q: How do students keep everything organized? Do they have a reader’s notebook, writer’s notebook.. and then some way to publish their finished products?

A: Yes, all students have writer’s notebooks. We use the hardbacked composition books because they hold up so much better and are less of a hassle than spirals. Make sure to work in time for students to decorate and take ownership of their notebooks. This is vital. Also, teachers must create a notebook and model writing for their students as often as possible.

We made our notebooks “interactive” because our science department had great success with students cutting and pasting all handouts in their science notebooks. Students liked the Kindergarten-ness of scissors and glue…oh, and foldables, kids love foldables!

Q: I was thinking the publishing would be perfect on a blog. What do you do for that?

A: I have a class blog http://rasmussena.edublogs.org/, and my students all have their own blogs. My AP kiddos do great at publishing pretty much once a week. Three kids are even getting published as student samples in Tony Romano and Gary Anderson’s book Expository Writing. I’m proud! (a Twitter connection–another testament to PLN). I was not as successfull getting my 10th graders to take ownership and publish on their blogs. My fault. I expected more than they could give without more time in the lab and instruction from me. I will handle blogging differently with my on-level students next year, but so far, blogging is the best thing I’ve found for students to publish to a world-wide audience, and I’m determined to make it work with all my students.

Other publishing resources- Teen Ink, Teen Ink Raw and lots of online writing contests. Google it. I also want to compile a class anthology that students publish at the end of the year.

Q: Are there some things you can do as a full-class? For example: Macbeth with my seniors. I have the Folger book with the Macbeth activities that I love doing where the students act out portions of the play. Normally, I devote a month to Macbeth. Obviously, that would need to be drastically cut down in a workshop. How do you incorporate some of those whole-class studies that would be too challenging for the students to do on their own?

A: As stated previously, the definition of workshop is different to many people. Whole class instruction can still happen and be called workshop. Are students reading? talking about texts? problem solving? analyzing? Are students writing? responding to challenging texts? learning from one another? Yes?? You’ve got a workshop!

I attended a training last summer where Sheridan Blau of National Writing Project fame now a professor at Berkley (I think) held several “workshops” in the course of the afternoon. Blau called the following a workshop:
1. Read the poem.
2. Respond in your notebook.
3. Share response in small group.
4. Discuss and analyze poem in small group.
5. Share out in whole class.
6. Respond in notebook to whole class discussion.

I love the simplicity of this. I learned a similar approach from Penny Kittle. Basically, it’s turning the discovery and learning over to the students. It’s allowing and teaching them to think and share their thoughts. In my experience, students always find the literary elements and devices that I want them to learn. They might not know the term, but they can “find what’s interesting.” The interesting thing leads to me teaching them the skill.

Okay, that’s a lot of information, and I hope it’s clear. Questions? Ask away. I’m happy to help

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I Want to Be That Teacher

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Lately on Facebook I’ve noticed a rash of “You know you grew up in _____ if…” status updates. The comments vary from favorite restaurants and haunts to town and school traditions. It’s been interesting to note how often the conversation turns to high school teachers, and surprisingly, most of the comments are positive. I am fascinated by what people remember.

I have a few memories of my own:

Mr. Strittmatter who wrote out algebraic equations as if they were poetry, and I finally got math.
Mr. Tisdel who loved Melville and planted in me a love of literature.
Mrs. Shirey who devoted hours of her life, so I could say I created a great yearbook.

But here’s the thing: when I try to analyze what they did, I come up short. Was it kindness, patience, passion for their content, the sheer joy of teaching? A myriad of other things? I don’t know.

I do know I remember them: names, faces, the way they made me feel.

In a week, I start my 6th year teaching, and as I think about how I will partner with my students one question resonates:

What do teachers do that create the impact on a student that lasts for decades?

I want to be that teacher.

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