Sunday, November 30, 2014

In November by Cynthia Rylant

Each November, on the last day before Thanksgiving break, my school holds our annual Thanksgiving Assembly. Students, faculty, and administrators in grades K-12 gather together to share in some of our community's favorite holiday traditions, a highlight of which is the kindergartners singing "The Turkey Song," replete with turkey costumes. A student from each division is chosen to share a reading with the community, and for the past few years I have been responsible for picking both the student and the text for my division. While choosing one middle school student to represent us at the assembly is always a daunting task, I have found it considerably easier to pick the words she will read.

In November is a gorgeous picture book written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Jill Kastner. Rylant's writing is simple, poetic, and deliciously vivid, which has made this book a favored read-aloud during my 5th Grade memoir writing project. When I was first asked to help with our Thanksgiving Assembly, my mind immediately rushed to Rylant's lovely lines, which are imbued with a sense of peace and calm and love. I have yet to come across a more beautiful reading for this time of year.

In November
Cynthia Rylant 

In November, the earth is growing quiet. It is making its bed, a winter bed for flowers and small creatures. The bed is white and silent, and much life can hide beneath its blankets.

In November the trees are standing all sticks and bones. Without their leaves, how lovely they are, spreading their arms like dancers. They know it is time to be still.

In November, some birds move away and some birds stay. The air is full of good-byes and well-wishes. The birds that are leaving look very serious. No silly spring chirping now. They have long journeys and must watch where they are going.

The staying birds are serious too, for cold times lie ahead. Hard times. All berries will be treasures. In November, animals sleep more. The air is chilly and they shiver. Cats pile up in the corners of barns. Mice pile up under logs. Bees pile up in deep, earthy holes. And dogs lie before the fire.

In November, the smell of food is different. It is an orange smell. A squash and pumpkin smell. It tastes like cinnamon and can fill up a house in the morning, can pull everyone from bed in a fog. Food is better in November than any other time of year.

In November, people are good to each other. They carry pies to each other’s homes and talk by crackling woodstoves, sipping mellow cider.  They travel very far on a special November day just to share a meal with one another and to give thanks for their many blessings – for the food on their tables and the babies in their arms. And then they travel home.

In November, at winter’s gate, the stars are brittle. The sun is a sometime friend. And the world has tucked her children in, with a kiss on their heads, till spring.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Fun

A colleague shared these with me and my 6th Grade Art Club loved them! This link takes you to a few pages of easy to draw Halloween art featuring basic geometric shapes. I think this started out as a math lesson, but it's a must have for all teachers. Wish I had a source to cite, but it's been lost over years of xeroxing, I suppose. Enjoy!


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Save As Doc - A Must-Have Add-On in Google Drive

This week we collected writing from students in Grades 5-12, and I created a Google Form to allow for easy access to their work. Of course, as responses started pouring in I realized how difficult it would be to read even moderately long form writing off a spreadsheet, and began toying around with various ways to organize the work. The best idea I could come up with was wrapping the text in all cells, but luckily our wonderful technology team had a better solution for me. They introduced me to Save As Doc, a real lifesaver of an Add-On in Spreadsheets. This is a tool that simply converts each line of a Google spreadsheet (i.e. each unique submission from a form) into its own page in a Google doc, turning lines and lines of text into individual, readable pages. It's an awesomely useful tool!

If we were back at #GTANY, this Add-On would be a winning Demo Slam!

To use Save As Doc:

1) In a Google Spreadsheet, choose Add-Ons from the menu bar and select Get Add-Ons in the drop down menu
2) In the search box, type in Save As Doc
3) Install the add-on, then return to your spreadsheet
4) Select all data in the spreadsheet (or, alternatively, select just those entries you want to turn into docs)
5) Again, go to Add-Ons, but this time choose Save As Doc, which should appear in the drop down menu
6) From here, it should be fairly straightforward. You will be asked to name the new doc you are creating (I chose the same name as my spreadsheet, but with 'readable' tacked onto the file name), choose a setting preferences, and the new file will be generated and saved automatically in your Drive!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Free-Writing for Personal Growth

Much of my summer has been spent thinking about writing practices and how they can benefit our students and faculty. In preparation for the work I'll be doing this school year, I attended a weeklong workshop at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking, met with colleagues to discuss projects and outline writing goals for our school, and reviewed various resources to help us achieve those goals. It was an incredibly pleasant surprise, then, to find that free-writing, a basic tenet of the practices we use in school, played a major role in the leadership retreat from which I've just returned. 

In preparation for the retreat I worked my way through several readings, including Primal Leadership by Daniel Golman et al, Change Leadership by Tony Wagner et al, and On Leadership from the Harvard Business Review. While we explored some of these materials via group discussions, unconference sessions, and partner-work, I was most struck by those moments in which we were asked to participate in focused free-writing using prompts inspired by the readings. 

For example, in Primal Leadership the authors encourage readers to envision their ideal self, 15 years from now. Our retreat leaders, George Swain and Marcy Mann, structured the exercise as a free-write using the following prompts:

In 15 years...
What will my personal theme be?
Not what I'm doing, but how I'm doing it?
How can I get myself ready for this?

Left with these guidelines, I began my focused free write, and found myself pretty surprised by where I ended up. I tried to let myself follow the same instructions I give my students - to simply write, to let my ideas guide me and take unexpected turns. When I began to write I felt unsure of my destination, but as I thought about the how of my ideal self in 15 years, I was able to focus in on areas of my professional life I don't normally examine as thoughtfully and deeply as I did with this writing practice. 

I experienced a similar sense of self-discovery through free-writing while addressing the question of why I chose to teach. The prompt, "I teach because..." was in part inspired by Simon Sinek's TEDtalk, Start With Why. I was struck by how much deeper I was able to dig into my feelings when given 15 minutes to write independently, as opposed to having to formulate my response immediately or out loud. 

In both cases, my writing took me from a superficial, obvious response - one formulated simply to be able to answer a question - towards a more considered, complicated view of myself and the work I do. The writing was difficult, challenging in a way I did not expect, but ultimately it provided the time and medium I needed to work through my ideas and feelings. While working with others provided excellent feedback and allowed me to see different points of view, I was reminded of the unique experience independent free writing provides for self-reflection and personal growth. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Exploring Digital Storytelling

I've just returned from a workshop on Writing Through Technology at Bard's Institute for Writing and Thinking. Throughout the week we examined various methods of digital storytelling (video essays, podcasts, digital poems, blog posts enhanced with hypertext and media), and, of course, we were also tasked with creating our own piece of digital writing. Like many of my classmates, I spent a few hours on false starts as I explored different digital tools. I considered iMovie, but felt it would be too time consuming to use given the constraints of my English curriculum. Blogging and Tweeting were appealing options, but as my students and I already do quite a bit with those mediums, I put them aside in search of something that would be new to them and me.

As I thought back to my first year of associate teaching with Monica Edinger, I remembered a project she led in her 4th Grade classroom using ComicLife. It was easy to download a free trial of the app to my laptop, and even easier to sort through their modular and customizable templates, fonts, captions and word art. ComicLife allows users to incorporate a variety of images (personal photos, drawings, images from the web, snapshots from the laptop's camera) into the pages, and users can create text boxes and speech bubbles as they see fit. I based my comic book on a story I had written earlier in the week, and found myself surprised at how many 'writing skills' I relied on in order to tell a primarily visual story.

My hours spent in ComicLife reminded me that I need not always use pencil and paper (or word processing) in order to encourage my students to improve and refine their writing skills. Indeed, despite this being a digital project, I still spent quite a bit of mental energy on plot development, pacing, tone, organization, and language.

I'm already thinking about digital writing assignments I can use this fall. I think it will be difficult to move away from traditional writing as the first step, and indeed my ideas thus far use digital storytelling as a companion to more traditional writing. However, during the week at IWT we had great fun mapping out our ideas with storyboards (which students can fill out with writing or drawings), and those may be a happy compromise for my hesitancy to jump straight into writing through technology.

For those who are curious, my IWT project, Evocative Eels:

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Middle School Author Visit: Monica Edinger

This year our 5th and 6th Graders welcomed Monica Edinger, children's book author, blogger, and 4th Grade teacher, for a book talk. Ms. Edinger spoke about her recent children's book, Africa is My Home, which was inspired by the her own experience in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. The story takes place in 1839, when a 9-year-old girl named Margru is taken captive in Sierra Leone and put on board the Amistad. After older slaves aboard the Amistad gain control of the ship, Edinger tells the story of Margru’s long journey home, enhancing her fictionalized narrative with primary sources like news clippings and engravings. As my 5th Graders were deep into their own Historical Fiction unit in Writers' Workshop, Ms. Edinger's visit was a perfectly timed treat. My students had been learning about Kenya, gathering historical details and developing composite characters, and listening to Ms. Edinger discuss her writing process, the research that went into her book, and her experiences working in the historical fiction genre were enlightening. As any writing teacher knows, it's always fantastic and inspiring when our students can hear from, and ask questions of, published authors. Since Ms. Edinger is a veteran educator, she was an absolute pro with our students, reminding them of the hard work and sweet rewards that come to dedicated writers! 

Figuratively Speaking

After their study of figurative language and literary devices, my 5th Graders began expertly incorporating simile, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia and alliteration into their writing. They've also become quite skilled at noticing when published authors use these devices, which adds a new layer of complexity to the annotations they make in class novels. A sample of a few strong (and entertaining!) examples written and illustrated by our 5th Graders: