Just Yesterday

Moments ago I watched as that big yellow bus pulled away.

 

 

Wumpth

The kitchen door closes

Footsteps hurry down the drive

Kkkshshshsh

The big yellow bus pulls to a stop

Your silhouette steps inside

Then, in what feels like the blink of an eye,

that big yellow bus is gone.

Just days ago, it seems to me,

It first took you off and away.

And now is the close of freshman year

All childhood in a day.

 

The Torture and Pleasure of HS Homework (On the nature of parent-child relationships…and reading conferences)

The title may be somewhat misleading. The homework is torturous. It foments struggle in our house (as perhaps it does in yours) on a regular (nearly constant) basis. How to minimize, avoid, delay, speed up, get around, or generally do it in a manner different than how I, a teacher-mom and former nerd, think it ought to be done is the perpetual aim of my teenager. You’d think that if you put half that much energy into the homework itself, you’d be a rocket scientist by now. Alas, the struggle continues.

But tonight is the last night of studying before the last final exam of freshman year. So while it was a slog here for the last few hours. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll be in school through Thursday, but tomorrow night will feel like a vacation.

Yet even through the struggle, there have been moments, or clusters of them, that resemble the kinds of conversations we used to have before high school grades took over our lives. In helping him to study for his biology exam, I asked about each of the topics on the study guide. I don’t necessarily know or remember the answers–my own biology days are far behind me. In fact, it seems to matter less that I know the content than that I listen to hear if the answer seems to match the question. Less than if I say, “Tell me more about that.”

I found myself briefly thinking about reading and writing conferences. Often I hear of teachers saying, “But I don’t know the book. How could I do a conference?” Au contrair mon frere. You know more about how stories work than I remember about these biology topics. You can tell if what you’re hearing is coherent. You can sense, as I could the child’s shifting degrees of confidence and security as the conversation moved from one point to another. Sometimes we put a pin in it and agreed that that particular topic or question deserved some rereading, rethinking, and another try.

This evening’s experience of helping to study something that I myself am not currently expert in, reminded me of a TED talk. I’m sorry to say I can’t recall the individual’s name. The gist was this: Researchers installed a computer kiosk in a rural village in India where the local people didn’t speak English, not have such technology in their homes. The children would gather around the computer and within a relatively short period of time they’d taught themselves to use it. Through the kiosk the researchers observed (through pre- and post-tests) the progress these impoverished children made on complex topics like genetics and biology. It was impressive. As a second phase of the research they connected the kids to Grannies in England who would not tutor, but merely ask questions like: “Tell me more about that.” That kind of non-expert interaction that promoted learners to articulate what they understood also significantly improved performance. Amazing.

I hope it’s true. I can still provide meaningful and specific feedback relative to his humanities courses. But from here on out in math and science I’d have to study it again myself in order to feel competent in supporting him–except as a kind of granny asking him to “tell me more.”

Which makes the teacher part of me think, we should not be sending home any homework that requires or expects more of families than providing a granny’s keen interest.

I hope the exam goes well. I hope we’ve done enough and we learn from whatever the results are. In any case…I’m so looking forward to my break from his homework.

(Now I can finally start my own.)

It’s Monday What Are You Reading? First Professional Book of Summer

disrupting thinking

I’ve had Disrupting Thinking at the top of my professional TBR for a few weeks. Summer doesn’t technically start in my district until suppertime Thursday, but I snuck in a little sneak preview. It’s the time of year when we look back, but we can’t resist looking ahead to the possibility of what’s next. When I think about what I wish I’d done better, I want a tangible plan for how I’ll make it better next time.

Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst hit the spot for a first taste of summer learning. Not much surprised me as I read. I found that their philosophy resonated with my own big idea thinking, confirming what I believe and think I know about reading. That’s not to say that there weren’t a couple places where I was brought to a pause, wondering if, perhaps, I hadn’t been quite as right as I thought.

“We suppose that it is possible to convince someone of the relevance of some issue. But it is probably far easier, and more natural, to identify what is already relevant and begin there. That seems especially true when what students see as relevant is of undeniable significance” (122).

♥If this is so, what does that mean for curriculum? Individual teachers know students. Curriculum writers, even those who are highly skilled teachers, can’t know all the students who will journey through the course. Does curriculum cease to be? Do we write units that start from the uncertainty of what students value? If so, how do we support the teachers who will teach them with resources, etc. necessary to be successful–to help students be successful? I ask because this feels tremendously important. ♥

“I can guide and I can remind kids to let go of a book that isn’t working for them, and when they want to read the popular book–or in Tam’s case the one she thought would please her parents–then I want to help figure out how to make that reading experience work as well as it can” (140).

I feel conflicted. Choice. Yes, absolutely. Supported choice. Yes, when students need it. What do you do about readers who (routinely) don’t recognize or admit that it’s hard? I have a few little faces in mind. Maybe the answer is that I need to build stronger relationships with those students than I had so that they trust me enough. Maybe I was starting with monologic questions instead of the questions that open their hearts and reveal more of what they made of the books. This warrants more thought.

Nor should that suggest that there weren’t passages that stirred strong emotion in me about the state of reading, for example, my high school son’s.♥

I appreciated that the BHH (book, head, heart) explanation came early in the book so that I could try it out myself as I read. Kudos to Beers and Probst for guiding the understanding of reading teachers. And hats off to all the teachers who will be reading this summer, not just for beach pleasure, but also to raise their game in the classroom. Cheers.

Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

Pride and Prejudice…Really?!

What do these books have in common?

If you guessed, they are required summer reading for a high school class, you’d be right.

My son has always been an avid reader. Almost before he could sit up by himself he would hold board books and look through the pages. Bathtimes were a mix of bubble sound effects and asking about strings of foam tub letters, “But what does this say?” GJECJVNAP

“Well, this part,” <NAP> “says nap.”

One Christmas morning at Grandma’s…Grandma loves Christmas more than any holiday. It’s BIG at her house…as we all sat around the tree, cozy in pajamas, watching someone else opening a package and patiently waiting our turn for the next gift, Daniel stood up. There were still mounds of gifts brightly wrapped. The big black trash bags of crumpled paper were only half full. Without saying a word, my three year old son walked out of the room, down the hall to the bedroom he’d slept in the night before. After he’d been gone a couple of minutes I tiptoed down the hall to check on him. There he was, crisscross applesauce on the carpet with a book in his lap. Ten minutes later he came back to the hooplah around the tree.

When he was in first grade I still enforced a laying down quiet time, as much for my own sanity as anything. At five he didn’t want to sleep, but his three year old brother wasn’t getting a choice in the matter. So I piled a stack of books on Daniel’s bed and explained that he could either sleep, or read a book. Entirely up to him. But he was going to spend the next hour on his bed whichever he chose. He decided to read. And not long after that he realized that he could finish an entire Magic Treehouse book in a single nap time. That was when he realized he was a Reader.

Ever since then reading has been a pleasure, something he chose to do often. The habit of nap time quickly passed, but he read anywhere and everywhere. He gobbled entire series: all of the Percy Jackson books, including the Demigod Diaries and other accompanying volumes and everything else Rick Riordan has written, the entire Eragon series, and on and on. He read hundreds and hundreds of pages a week.

He has a taste for fantasy. It’s something we share.

Reading has been a joy, an escape, who he is.

Until…

 

These were the required books for last summer. Not only did he have to read and keep two column notes, he had to write two essays.

The one on the left, he called “That Cancer Book.” It took him weeks to finish. And in all that time he didn’t read anything else. It was a battle. By the time he got to the other book, he stopped talking about it altogether.

Never before had he been a reluctant reader, even when the class novel in 8th grade took, literally, half the year. He finished the book twice in the first two days and simply went on to other books. But the summer reading last year all but ruined him.

Finals begin today. He’ll be free from school reading by the middle of next week.

Except…

 

Here’s his Honors English II Summer Reading Assignment.

pride and prejudice

Please. Tell me how this book respects 97% of the boys who will be in that class. Tell me how it respects any of the readers. Yes. I enjoyed Jane Austin, in college, as someone who also enjoyed historical fiction, long ago, and England in particular. So much so, I chose to study there. But why, of all the books available for young adults, is this the one that every fourteen year old MUST read?

 

I’ve been reading (by choice!) Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. This passage jumped out and bit me last night.

To rethink relevance, to seriously reconsider who is in charge of determining relevance–us or them–means shaking the foundation of a lot of teachers. As one high school AP literature teacher told us, “You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Heart of Darkness. That is unthinkable.” Well, yes we would.

“You simply cannot expect that I would ever, ever give up teaching Pride and Prejudice,” declared some teacher my son is destined to be placed with for an entire year. “That is unthinkable.”

Punctuate it how you will.

 

Choice matters to all readers, regardless of age. As teachers who know our students well as people, we can help to guide or influence students’ book choices. But here’s the thing. For a summer reading assignment, we don’t know a single relevant thing about the readers the assignment will be given to. We haven’t even met them yet. How could we possibly know that this is the one, right, imperative, end all and be all book for them?

So why do we insist on imposing our own tastes and judgments on strangers? Why do we turn avid, lifelong readers into used-to-be-readers?

I’m begging you. Give me my son back.

How to Play ‘Can You?’

‘Can You?’ is a group storytelling game. Initial efforts might sound a little listy, but give it a chance. Although it’s not designed specifically for school, maybe because it’s a family game it’s naturally differentiated. It offers chances for modeling, collaboration, and approximation. I used to play this on long car rides with my dad and brother. Now my own boys love to play at bedtime when Pepere tucks them in. Those tuck ins stretch well beyond bedtime.

 

To begin, your storytelling crew decides on a setting and a main character. Many of our stories involved a village boy from the depths of a jungle. It felt exotic and exciting, like the kind of place where you could bump into real problems. My sons’ stories were often populated by a little pteranodon or a little monkey. But there’s no reason why your story couldn’t be set in a familiar neighborhood or school.

You should also decide with your storytelling crew whether you’ll allow flying monkeys or stick to Macgyver moves. Huh? Do you want all of the solutions to be relatively plausible, something you could probably do with realistic materials? Or is it OK for a touch of magic to creep in during tight moments? I suppose you could just as easily say, no fairy godmothers. Either version is fine…you just need to agree so no one is startled in the thick of it.

One person begins telling the story, “One day little monkey was playing in the tree with his family.” The storyteller introduces the character, gives him a purpose, and might even describe more about the setting or what the character is carrying with him. “The sun was shifting higher in the sky and little monkey felt a familiar rumble in his tummy. Boy, he sure was hungry. That got him thinking about the delicious, juicy fruits his family had enjoyed last week. Little monkey sure wished he could have more of those fruits. They would be just the thing to satisfy his hunger.” And then the storyteller gets the character into some trouble! Maybe little monkey got lost, met a jaguar, fell and got hurt, bumped into a snake… Whatever it is, when the character is well and truly in trouble, the storyteller looks at his crew and says, “Can you?!”

Another storyteller undoubtedly cries out, “Yes! I can,” then continues the story. This new story

teller gets the character out of trouble…and into new trouble before passing the torch. “Can you?”

Your story can be as long or as short as you want. The game can wrap up in a single session or carry on across years (well, it can if you’re a family).

It’s not uncommon for the story to be a little lumpy. That is, you likely have storytellers of varying skill in your crew. In a family Dad may be a natural storyteller akin to Mem Fox, but little brother may pull the same banana peel out to fix every problem. Don’t worry! Everyone gets to hear the strongest storytelling of the group and give their own approximation. Like anything else, with practice and reflection, we get better. For some of us, better means sticking to what’s plausible, or exploding a moment instead of rushing the solution into a new problem like a grocery list. “Little monkey caught the vine so he was safe. But now, oh no, there’s an anaconda about to squeeze him to death…the end.” Some of us are working on showing how the character moves, how he feels, what he says, or making the setting come to life with sounds and smells in addition to the visual backdrop. We can each have our own storytelling goal, or we can agree on one to share.

I’ve tried it as a kind of back pocket activity in classrooms, but I’m curious to see what would happen to a writing community that embraced shared storytelling as a regular part of their time together. If we spent more time storytelling would our writing get stronger? Would we start to see the kinds of craft moves that we’d been hearing together in our ‘Can You?’ stories?

I have a hunch we would.

We’re going to try it in second grade next year? Want to play along?

 

Some of the Best Ideas Come Unexpectedly

The end of the year brings with it a laundry list of tidying up chores. Tidying up the classroom or office falls way at the bottom (which is why it sometimes feels like I spend half a summer at school). First we clean up the reading assessments, the data, the placements for next year, the intervention recommendations. We want to know before we put the last book back on the shelf that our students will be all settled for next fall.

In my school that means that our Interventionist (code name for amazing all around instructional leader, child and teacher advocate, and leadership whisperer) and I meet one on one with each teacher to discuss and celebrate the growth of each child who received intervention, to think carefully about whether they’re ready to fly on their own or could benefit from a bit more support in the fall, and to consider any other little friends who hadn’t been getting official support but whom we ought to keep a close eye on. It means three long days in a room, but the celebrations are heartfelt and the concerns bring out the protective mama bears in us. They’re all our children after all.

Near the end of the first day of meetings, we had time scheduled with one of our second grade teachers. Except she had no intervention kiddos this spring. After working hard all day to fit in the many conversations we needed, this was a welcome, if unusual, change.

Instead of cancelling and sending her off, we chatted about how her year had gone. She started talking about what she wished had been better this year for her students. Let me put this in perspective. All of her students except one ended the year reading at least one level above benchmark, but many of them as much as a year beyond. Her writers were all “in the green” except for two. Her math data looks beautiful. But here’s a teacher going beyond the numbers to the story of her actual classroom and kids. (Another kind of heartwarming.)

She shared that the sophistication of their writing relative to the sophistication of their reading feels lacking. And she wondered aloud, what she could have done differently. My coaching ears perked up.

We gently probed to learn more.

–What is their oral language like during morning shares?

It sounds like their writing does. Here, her face froze. We saw the lightbulb. They were writing the way they spoke–in simple constructions with limited elaboration. They reported their morning shares instead of storytelling.

Together, the three of us tossed kernels of ideas into the air.

Maybe we could try…

–Coaching into morning share with writing craft moves for their oral language

What if we started with strategies from 1st grade writing lessons (rich verbs & adjectives, unsticking the character by making them move, adding dialogue, etc.)? Maybe we could build (or borrow from 1st grade) a chart. Maybe it would have sentence starters…or…

–Carving out time for oral storytelling as a whole class

We could teach them to play ‘Can You’ (a storytelling game from my childhood roadtrips and bedtimes with Pepere). And if we do whole class storytelling, maybe that would transfer into storytelling partnerships or clubs!

What if they record their oral storytelling with Flipgrid (or some other tool) so that they could share it with others? Or students who get stuck in their writing could listen back to their story to hear how they developed and elaborated on it when pencils and punctuation weren’t getting in the way.

We could find mentor storytellers. Then our storytelling clubs could try telling a story like Mem Fox or someone else with a distinctive voice.

The conversation bubbled. By the end we’d committed to an action research project for next year. The teacher was eager to try some of these ideas and I was happy to partner with her. And how appropriate, that a day that was really about ensuring the best possible learning outcomes and experiences for children, ended with a rich exploration of what might provide better learning experiences for all second graders?!

After the meeting, driving home toward weekend schedules and responsibilities, I held the bubble of ideas close a little longer.

Let’s not just wing it, I thought. Let’s create a 2nd grade speaking progression, a kind of speaking curriculum to accompany the rest of our literacy work. Alas, it’s an area that has taken a backseat in curriculum planning. It’s still an add-on the way writing used to be.

What would the right sequence of experiences be? What would the transfer be to their writing? Where could we borrow minutes from other classroom commitments?

Anyone want to try it alongside us next year? We’re going to give it a go!

Wish– It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

wish

There are often moments in life that feel unsatisfying. We each have our own troubles that feel big and important. We don’t all have the gift of looking at whatever our day brings and feeling content and even grateful.

Charlie doesn’t.

And you might say her washline full of troubles hangs heavy–father in jail, mother sunk into a debilitating depression, separated from her sister and shipped off to live with relatives she barely knows in a run-down mountain town past the edge of nowhere.

Every single day Charlie makes the same wish. She’s found a hundred different ways to wish. But her wish still hasn’t come true.

Fortunately, Charlie meets people with the gift of appreciating the fullness of life, people whose idea of rich is different–richer. And a stubbornly stray dog.

Thanks to Howard, Jackie, Gus and Bertha she learns. And when Wishbone finds a real home, maybe Charlie can, too.

If you know Hollis Woods or Gilly Hopkins, if you’ve met someone who hasn’t found their home, you’ll recognize Charlie. Even if when you hang your troubles up next to the troubles of others, you’d rather keep your own, you’ll find in Charlie a kindred spirit. Many of us wish we were better than we are, but also learn that we are enough.

 

“If all our troubles were hung on a line, you’d choose yours and I’d choose mine.”

It’s Monday What Are You Reading?

cloud and wallfishThis book sat in my bag for quite a while, while I studiously ignored it.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the cover. The blurb on the inside cover didn’t jump up and grab me. It was East Germany…so I felt vaguely like I should have an interest but…meh.

Until I started reading it.

I really enjoyed this book.

Who are we really? What do we really know about ourselves, or each other? Noah/Jonah isn’t so sure anymore. His family up and moves from Virginia to East Germany without much in the way of explanation. That would be unusual enough. But Noah’s mother burns the only childhood photo he’s ever seen of her, and throws out his practically new backpack, the one with his name in sharpie across the top.

Noah may not be thinking spies…but I am.

When they arrive in East Germany, they are predictably isolated. Noah is unable to attend school with other children and is mostly alone. Until he meets Cloud-Claudia. But the east is a tricky place, where your apartment is bugged and officials can pop out at any moment and demand to see your papers. You can’t just say what you’re thinking. And you can’t always be who you are.

The story beautifully explores friendships that grow even in the least hospitable of circumstances. It pokes at issues of identity and belonging.

I grew up thinking that I had (somehow) outlived history, until the Berlin wall fell (and a few other minor historical footnotes). This story plays with the idea of being just at the edge of history as it happens. There’s something exciting about that.

 

Cloud and Wallfish reminded me of A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen. Nielsen’s story was darker, because the characters became isolated even from close friends under the scrutiny and suspicion of the East German state. Nielsen’s book was death defying and full of physical danger. The two would make the beginnings of a nice text set about how society influences individuals or how individuals can remain true to themselves in spite of societal challenges.

I don’t think this book will sit untouched in your bags.

The Storm

Minutes ago the weather alert had sounded. We’d been scurrying to move plants under cover, check windows, and hurry children out of their showers.

Out of nowhere Qaiden announced, “That was thunder.”

The sky was still bright and blue.

Rap, rap, rap.

“Daniel? Are you out?”

“Yes,” came the low rumble of a teenage voice just changing.

Thump thump thump thump thump. Back down the stairs to the table.

We sat together facing the double window.

In a moment the sky darkened a notch and the front edge of the storm clouds peeped over the front of our roof. A curtain of rain pelted down where seconds before there had been not even a sprinkle. Dart spots dotted the road and driveway, still individual marks on the world.

In the next moment the rain slowed, softly blurring the separate dots into a shiny black surface. Steady but gentle. It grew darker still so that it appeared an hour had passed when only minutes ticked by. A brightness remained behind the blue house although it drew farther off, as if beyond a low roof of cloud. Two windows shone golden in the gloom from across the street saying, good thing you’re tucked tidily inside on a night like this.

Lightning flashed. Two. Three. Four. Crash.

And again but closer.

“How far away is the storm when you can count to three between the flash and the crash?” Daniel asked.

“Three miles,” his brother confidently proclaimed.

Flash. Crash!

The street went black as deep night. No longer could we see the tree silhouetted against the distant brightness. The dark was total. Not miles away. We were in the heart of the storm. Lightning continued to streak all around. And now the rain intensified, not a curtain nor a gentle shower, this was driven by wind. Waves crashed over the curbs blowing saltless spray across the edge of the lawns. Thousands of drops leapt off the pavement as they hit and flew skyward again for the space of a heartbeat before crashing together against the rivers of water on this inland hilltop street. Minutes stretched this time in the embrace of the first summer squall.

Before we registered it the sky had returned a few candles of light. No longer midnight, it was once again evening, though seemingly later than we began. Gradually more light leaked into the scope of the window’s scene. Now the tail end of the stormclouds slipped past the edge of our roof, frayed and torn, yet all the closer for sliding in layers. Not the distant, muted and undiscernable ceiling of cloud. Solemn children, recently scolded, they clung to their mother’s skirts shamefully as she strode silently away.

And with the storm past, the blue house stood warmly inviting all to comfort, the stately tree once again silhouetted against a paler sky. Just over the edge of the hill a sliver of moon glittered against the horizon. One sleek black form dipped and swooped across the space between the houses, safe again to fly.

 

[Flashdraft-no pun intended]

Taking on New Ideas and Projects vs. Nurturing the Ones We Have (and Ourselves)

One of the things that I love about being a teacher are the endings and beginnings.

Where else could I have a complete life cycle of experiences and then get the chance to do it again, but maybe even better?

At this time of year as I wrap up projects and close out sets of responsibilities, as I look backward and forward, I wonder.

anne-of-green-gables-quote1

Thursday night was an award banquet for the Connecticut Reading Association (CRA). I’d never been before. But this year, as a grant recipient, I was invited to attend with a guest. I invited my colleague, Kristyn, who took on the grant project with me. (Huge and heartfelt thanks to Kristyn for sharing this crazy journey!)

As we chatted over dinner, we talked about the project (and others we’ve been working on together) and what we’re each thinking for next year. We thought about what worked well and what could work better.

One important thing I heard in the conversation was that Kristyn can’t take on anything new next year. She’s enjoyed these projects and cares about them, but she has other big things in motion with our school library.

It was an important conversation, and a good reminder.

I’m an ideas person. Sometimes I bubble and spark with ideas that need to find a way out. Ideas that twitch until I give them a try. It can be simple like rearranging furniture…or more of a schoolwide initiative. While the ideas begin with me, I’m eager to share. That’s how Kristyn came aboard for the Reading Ambassadors and the Real Writers Publishing Company. But once the ideas come alive, they aren’t really mine, they’re ours. A little like children. We co-parent and somehow they take on a life of their own.

But sometimes the plate feels very full.

I feel it. Not only for myself, but for the teachers around me who nurture those sparks of ideas. And family members, too.

That conversation was an important reminder to pause and reflect. Just because we could do a thing doesn’t mean we must do a thing. What brings us joy? What has to get done? How much do we have in our tanks? And is this project one that will empty our tank or leave it fuller?

Those of us reading this, may be the kind of teachers who put our whole heart and all of our energy into doing it in the most amazing way we can every day. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s OK for us to do these amazing things and not all the amazing things that could exist in the universe. Maybe someday we’ll do still more great things. But sometimes we need to recognize when to keep some capacity in reserve.

And for me it’s a reminder not just to check on my own fuel gauge, but also the gauges of those around me. I don’t want to see someone stuck on the side of the road because I asked them to drive farther than they had fuel to go.

It strikes me that this is important as a teacher myself, as a coach, a wife, and a mom.

So let’s celebrate what has been wonderful, especially those things that also fueled our passion and will. Let’s capture the sparks we find like lightning bugs and hold them to flicker brightly in a jar until we’re ready to release them on the world (maybe just in a notebook or Twitter feed somewhere). And let’s check to see where our fuel gauges are before we commit to new and fabulous things for next year. Then let’s refuel in whatever way we fill our tanks. For me, it will be reading, writing, and travel.

A fresh start awaits.