It’s The Writer

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Guiding a class of ten year olds to write a well constructed, logical narrative is like training beans to grow up a corn stalk. For the most part they follow the path but not always, not necessarily in ways you want, and not every last one of them. Some meander up other vertical objects, some stick out horizontally grabbing for something else, and some, well they never leave the ground.

I thought about this analogy and found it helpful as I reflected on this past week’s writing workshop. Like many fifth grade classes across the country who use Lucy Calkins, we are writing narratives. Most kids are writing about an experience they have had. Some add minor elements of fiction to spice their story up. One of my students shared this moment with her classmates, “When my mom said that a part of my story didn’t really happen and I should take it out, I  told her, ‘Why not? I can write whatever I want. It’s my story after all.'”  I quietly cheered this determined  young writer on when she told that to the class. Another child had chosen to write about a super hero pickle. (I guess the countertop pickles we made and ate made an impression on this kid:) Yet, as I reflected, I felt disheartened. They are not making the progress I want. They aren’t making it fast enough. They are missing crucial points we go over with models and rubrics and mini  lessons. Then one warm afternoon while I was cutting corn stalks from my garden I looked at all those determined and independent bean vines and realized something we all know and often lose sight of. It’s about the writers not the writing. Just like the bean vines reaching and searching to find their way, our young writers also search for their way. I realized that I was the one who lost focus and trust in the process and the fact that each child will grow as a writer in their own individual ways. It was I who wasn’t slowing down enough to notice that, enjoy that, celebrate that. Like the independent beans who go every which way, our writers sometimes go every which way searching for their way. It is in that search that they will grow as a writer. Now, I can and do step in and rewrap those bean plants and reroute my kids in an effort to show them the way. But in reality I want them to explore, to reach, to find out what works for them and what doesn’t. Why do I get nervous, critical of myself and my kids when it isn’t happening fast enough or smoothly enough? I know writing is messy, time consuming, full of unexpected twists and turns. I have to remind myself to stop long enough to notice and enjoy their search because like the beans, my kids will stretch, try new routes, reach and grow and bloom.

So here I am, stopping long enough to notice. Let me share some of the things that come to mind since I finally took that much needed deep breath and thought about what I was seeing right there in front of me…

“Mrs. Dunn, I finally have figured out the problem in my story and it does make my story better!” “Mrs. Dunn, look I fixed all the capitals and even remembered them on the proper nouns.” “Mrs. Dunn, I’m stuck. I know I need a beginning, a middle, and an end but I can’t figure what the middle part is.” Then I noticed something else. I noticed that when they were working with partners (great idea from the fabulous little book, Celebrating Writers, by Ruth Ayres)  they were discussing elements of a good story. They were questioning and discussing how to better describe their character and setting. They were editing use of dialogue. They were discussing making the endings stronger and even tying it back to the beginning. So they are hearing. They are mulling. They are attempting, no matter how clunky those attempts may be, to write like writers. I’ll be honest and say I don’t see evidence for all that mulling… yet. But if I look and listen carefully and closely, it’s there in their talk. That, I realize, is the beginning of writing and the power of shifting focus from written products to writers.

May we all enjoy the power and fun that comes from slowing down to notice and note the successes and struggles of our young independent writers.

Mary

Are Kids Like Lettuce Seedlings?

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Shallots are a delicious allium to grow. But this year I learned they can be a little trickier to grow than I thought. I ordered the bulbs, planted them, and nurtured them like I’ve done in the past. But they didn’t grow. It makes me think of the book, The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. But with my shallots, they didn’t come up.

As I pulled up the sorry shallots I noticed something. They were in the shade of the raspberries. No wonder they didn’t grow.My lettuce didn’t do well this year either. They were in full sun. Then I had a thought. “Oh, this shade is the perfect spot for lettuce!” So I planted lettuce there. They grew, and grew, and are almost ready for harvest. They are happy, healthy, and look beautiful.

As I watered the lettuce this morning on this last day of summer vacation I realized these little lettuce seedlings are just like my students. Some prefer “shade”. In other words, they prefer “another way” to learn and grow.

As we organize our classrooms and we make spots for whole class work, partner work, individual work, spaces for sitting, spaces for standing, etc. I am reminded of these shade loving lettuce seedlings. Our kids, like lettuce, have unique needs to learn, and grow, and shine. May I, may we, all remember this throughout the year, to provide those alternate ways for our lettuce seedlings, aka kids, to learn and shine.

Have a great year and may we all provide the “shade” we need for our kids to have a fabulously successful year.

Mary

A Tribute to Mr. Williams

IMG_4062                                                                        My Kitchen Table a Few Days Before School Starts

“Good morning Blue Eyes!” Just thinking about the man who used this greeting to welcome me into his classroom every morning calms me. You see Mr. Williams was my fifth grade teacher. To me he was a giant in life. In actuality he was barely 5′ tall. I didn’t realize how short he was until I was in my last year of college. I was walking into a Friendly’s Restaurant and a man was holding the door. This kind man said those exact words to me. I recognized him immediately as he did me.

Calm.

As I go into school each day this week getting my room ready I find myself thinking about him. We teachers of course find ourselves reflecting as we prepare for a new year. And every year he is who I think about. He is who I strive to be. Like the many kids who will enter my classroom with their own struggles, I too had mine as a child. Most do. It’s called life. Life brings us challenges and sometimes trauma even at a young age. But a teacher can counter that. A teacher can be a calm in a storm. A teacher can offer a kind heart and kind eyes when they are so desperately needed. Our words can sooth a damaged soul.

Calm.

“Mr. Williams, may you continue to guide me in my work this year. May your calm and loving words continue to play in my head when I have a child in front of me who acts out and needs your calmness. May I find the good in every child who enters my room and may they see the love in my eyes the way I saw them in yours. Thank you Mr. Williams.”

Calm.

Have a great year everyone and may we all be Mr. Williams.

Mary

 

How a Book Moves the Soul

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When our kids are reading we hope the book they chose guides them through new experiences and new knowledge. We also hope that they might experience things familiar to them but through new eyes, experiencing a new perspective. We often guide our kids to share their ideas, thoughts, feelings, and questions they have as they navigate their reading. But how do we encourage that in an authentic way? We of course begin by reading ourselves. We read books that take us away, move our soul, leave us begging for more. That is what this book just did to me. As an avid gardener I was surprised that the stories shared were able to move me as successfully as they did. Sign of a good writer telling a great tale. The Earth Knows My Name took me to different times and places through short vignettes of gardeners and the connections they had with their gardens, the ancestors before them, and the traditional foods that come from their gardens. It really doesn’t get more spiritual than that.

Yesterday while I was bending over picking strawberries I found myself reflecting on the simple act of what I was doing. Picking food I grow for my family. It can be a deep and moving experience. I also found myself thinking about this book I had just finished and began to wonder about the historical connection I have with what I grow. How do I choose what to plant? Is it purely tastes that my family like or is there history here that I may never have taken the time to think about?

As I reflected on this and began some research I found myself feeling totally immersed in “my story” with the gardens I grow and the food I feed my family. I also found myself wondering, “Why wouldn’t the kids I teach be interested in the same wonderings. Have they ever had an opportunity to make that kind of connection with the gardening and foods of their heritage?” The rich diversity of our school is begging for this type of exploration and subsequent celebrations. Our garden is too. We have a small garden of 6 raised beds on the edge of an asphalt playground. Yes we grow food that the kids enjoy especially when there is enough to share with our cafeteria. But I’ll be honest and say that our gardens at school lack soul. They are just there. What if….what if we connected what we grow and eat to the heritages of the children of our school, our community? Imagine the possibilities this type of study and focus could bring to enriching our school community, their studies, their identities, their health.

And to think that these ideas came from the reading of a book, a fabulous book, one given to me by our Maine FoodCorps director as a thank you for the work I do to bring gardening to kids. But the thank you goes to Vina for sharing this book with me.

With literacy comes exploring who you are and where you came from. May we help make our kids’ lives richer by connecting some of what they read, write, garden, and cook into their daily lives.

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earth write upearth write up 2

 

 

 

 

 

Quiet 5

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Almost every morning this year we have started our day with what we call Quiet 5 and what many folks call mindfulness. It is 5 minutes of quiet bodies and quiet minds. I call it heavenly silence.It’s not heavenly because it is silent, although in an active classroom that is sometimes enjoyed. It is heavenly silence because it is so enjoyed by all, especially the kids. The silence is in the mind as much as it is in the body. But really it isn’t always silent. Very often my kids request that I “take them away”. They love to go for… “walks in the woods after a rain”, or for a “walk along a beach on a warm spring day”, or even just “sit near a window and watch and listen to a red cardinal sitting in a pine tree during a gentle snow fall”. They of course don’t do these things at the beginning of school days; I guide them through visualizations once their bodies are quiet. But the most requested is to share the love or what I call have a lovefest. That is to just tell them how much I love them and how special and unique each and every one of them is and why. I usually have to fight back tears as I do this because I see their need for these words is so great. We don’t do this everyday of course because it would get real old real fast. On most days, after we do a little breathing and neck and shoulder rolls, they just sit still and listen to the soothing flute music of a Navajo flue artist.

The use of the word “almost” to begin this post was very intentional. I say “almost” because since April break we have not done Quiet 5. Not once. We’ve had assessments. We have finished unfinished units that should have been done already. We have finished units that needed to be done before assessments and finished units that are assessments. Do you detect a pattern? We, like almost every school in America, test too much. That is my opinion of course. It is also the opinion of my kids. I know there are teachers who disagree with me. That is OK. We are allowed to disagree. Since April break I have also noticed that our classroom community has fallen apart. They bicker. They are saying nasty things to each other. They aren’t picking up after themselves. They aren’t reading! I attributed this to assessments as well as the end of the year and spring and nervousness about Jr. High next year. But could it be…could it just be… that we haven’t done Quiet 5 this entire time? That thought hit me as I was walking home from school. Maybe these other factors play a part but maybe the lack of quiet mindfulness is playing a part too. There is one thing that I am sure of and that is that we will not skip Quiet 5 anymore. Just like reading aloud and silent reading are non-negotiable parts of our day, so will Quiet 5 become non-negotiable. I’ll let you know if I see a difference.

1 week later….. We have now done Quiet 5 every morning and the difference is noticeable. My kids are back! Friday as we were beginning to settle in for Quiet 5 one of my kids said, “Mrs. Dunn, I notice a difference since we’ve started Quiet 5 again. We’re nicer to each other. Do you  notice it too?” Oh yes, I notice it too. The power of Quiet 5. Why doesn’t every classroom do this? I wonder.

The Power of Free Voice and Blogging

 

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We blog. And we blog a lot. I must admit that throughout the year I have questioned this decision and ritual of classroom blogging by ten year old bloggers. Yet, every time I question it, I am reminded why I do it. It’s the power of kids writing and loving it. We don’t always connect those two concepts of kids and loving writing. Sure some do; they write every chance they get. But many struggle with it. They struggle to get those wonderful thoughts they have up in their heads down on paper. Or maybe they don’t have any thoughts at all that they want to share. We all get writers’ block now and again so why shouldn’t they? But most of them find blogging freeing.

In our classroom we blog every Tuesday and Thursday morning for about a half an hour. Although I must admit, that if the kids had their way we would blog longer. So why do I worry so about this? It’s the same ‘ole same ‘ole worries of covering content. Getting to all the units and giving them the time and depth they need and deserve. But there’s something different about blogging that makes it so worth our time. For one thing the kids love it. It is very rare that a kid will complain that it’s Tuesday or Thursday morning. And who doesn’t want to start a kids’ day off on such a perfect note? For another thing it’s good stuff. Have you ever watched a child play a musical instrument while reading the musical notes? The tongue sticking out or to the side, the body so in tune, the eyes focused. You can almost smell the concentration. Well that’s what it’s like when we’re blogging…almost. The kids are focused. They are writing their posts, reading each other’s posts, concentrating, looking for just the right words to respond to each other via comments. There is a beauty to watching a class of twenty kids hum along with those tongues sticking out of their mouths as they maneuver the keys on the keyboard, their thoughts about their reading, their thoughts about their friend’s writing, and the help they give and receive to get just the right picture on the top of their post. But it’s writing comments that is their favorite part. It’s also the part I don’t get on them for their imperfect grammar. It’s their’s and they know it. The way I look at it is that the kids are writing and they are enjoying it and that makes me as happy as it makes them.

Something worth noting is why they are writing. They are writing about their home reading. Now they have an incentive to read at home!! Forget the home reading log. This is their home reading log! For years I have played with home reading logs. How to get a design that begs for deep reflective thinking and wonderful copious writing. It never happened. The kids hated those things and I hated reading them. They were void, empty, blah. Then blogging hit our room and I got an idea. I changed our home reading log into a 4 square graphic organizer that focused the kids on the structure of their text. One square for the main characters, one for setting, one for problem, and one for a major event. We purposely left out one for solution because the kids didn’t want to tell how their book ended! The purpose of this organizer is to record/organize their thoughts while they are reading at home so they can blog easily and quickly. It worked and like a charm. The kids are using it! One boy who refused to do home logs (because I don’t think he read at home) now does them every week. I asked him why and he said, “Because it’s great! It lets me write a blog  that makes sense and real fast so I can write comments!”  Some kids choose to blog at home so they can spend their mornings just reading each other’s posts and commenting.

So if you haven’t tried blogging with your kids, think about it. I use KidBlog and I have it set up so kids submit their post which goes to my page. If I feel the post is ready, I publish it. My expectations increase as the year develops. But I must caution against expecting final product, research paper perfection. When I tried that the kids stopped writing. So I backed off and they began to write again. It’s a delicate dance. The blog is set so their posts are visible to just their classmates and invited guests, and of course me. Once in a while I will post something “public” but usually it’s not a post by a kid. This level of security is what made the parents and principal feel safe and secure. If you want a way for your kids to experience authentic and rich reading, writing, sharing, and discussing, then consider blogging. It not only gets them writing but also reading more books and each others’ posts to boot! Now that is a win win. Reading, writing, and loving it.

 

Ode to Pencil Belts

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Boys and writing. We read about this unlikely duo all the time. How to get boys to write. How to get boys to read. How to get boys to sit still to write and read. Well something hit me this past week. Boys want to be heard just as much as girls do. No, I don’t mean by yelling out in class and all the other, often inappropriate, ways that boys garner our classroom attention. But they want their thoughts, feelings, and needs to be heard.

Often we wonder why boys struggle so in school. Sure there are many external reasons that we can’t really do  a lot about. Family issues being one. But there are a few we can do something about. Many, many boys are hard wired to move, and move a lot. Yet school is so often all about sitting, being polite, taking your turns. Yes, important things but do they always have to be front and center? Can we move, speak out, and wiggle sometimes and have it be OK?

A week ago a boy in my class decided that he wanted to sell unusual handmade items called pencil belts. We had just watched a video on Heifer International in our knitting club and decided we wanted to make yarn objects like knitted pouches to sell so we could purchase a farm animal to donate to a family in need. This boy asked if we could sell pencil belts. Pencil belts? Sure, sounds harmless enough. So off he set to make posters to put around school, set up a desk outside the classroom, design raffle tickets, order forms, a system to track orders, and “hiring” others when the business became overwhelming for him.. Holy cow! Reading, writing, math, economics, graphic arts… all for pencil belts.

“Pencil belts?” you may ask. Well, to be honest, I asked too. We’ll get to that. The real heart of this story is about the power of when boys’ voices are heard. Boys whose voices are heard do better in school. I say this using evidence from years of watching this phenomena  over and over again, with pencil belts being the most recent. While I am fortunate to have many engaged boys in my class this year I have a few who at times are not. When this pencil belt phenomena took hold these boys jumped in head first helping with posters, manning the desk, counting the money, and of course using their hands to wind yarn around weaving needles to make, of all things, brightly colored pencil belts. Pencil belts you see are tiny yarn belts for pencils. They are designed to be tied to the top of the pencil near the eraser. Then they work their magic by making your writing come alive.

IMG_3053                                                     The Pencil Belt “Store” AKA Desk
IMG_3052                                              The Well Constructed & Organized Desk Top

You may wonder if my boys all of a sudden enjoy writing more? Well, yes I think they do. Will it last? Who knows. But the important part was that we listened. We listened to the boys. We heard them. We heard their plea to create, take control, move their bodies, use all their learning for something meaningful. When we listen, they learn.  

      Ode to Pencil Belt 

I sat at my desk and wanted to cry,

My teacher told me to just try.

I wanted to write.

I really did.

But no matter how hard I tried,

nothing seemed to work.

Then John gave me something

that I had never seen.

It was tiny. It was yarn.

It was a bright color green.

He tied it to my pencil.

“You’ll see,” he said.

I began to write and

the words…

well they just flowed.

I soon realized that this

little yarn was

stonger than steel,

better than gum.

“What is this?” I asked.

“A Pencil Belt!” he grinned.

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**All 100% of the proceeds of this trademarked  Pencil Belt goes to http://www.heifer.org/