Monday, October 29, 2012

Introducing Writers' Workshop

After many years as a 4th Grade teacher, I returned to school this fall as a member of the English Department, teaching three sections of 5th Grade English. The change was exciting for me, as it was both a new challenge and an opportunity to focus on a single discipline. As a 4th Grade teacher, my typical day consisted of 45-60minute periods of several different subjects (Math, Reading, LA/SS), and the virtues of this program were not lost on me. It was an opportunity to gain a really holistic perspective on my students; weaker readers soared as mathematicians; quiet, introspective students transformed in feisty historians; a student who struggled while writing her personal narrative might easily produce an account written from the perspective of a fictional character.

As a 5th Grade English teacher, I have the luxury of teaching every student in the grade, though in a much more constrained context. I've lost a strong sense of who excels at division or asks the most challenging questions in Social Studies, but what I've gained is the knowledge that every single one of these kids is a writer. A good writer. A writer with an interesting story to tell. My school has launched a pilot Writers' Workshop program in Grades 2 and 5, and so I have been the beneficiary of many meetings with an expert consultant, Mary Anne Sacco, who comes to every meeting with a 5lb bag of literary resources, and Maureen Burgess, world's most supportive Department Chair. We are developing a Writers' Workshop that is inspired by and heavily rooted in the Lucy Calkins model, and I have been consistently blown away by the experience. 

After several meetings to prepare for the school year, Maureen and Mary Anne suggested I create my own Writer's Notebook, complete with cover decorations and sample entries, both as a model for the kids and to fully immerse myself in the experience I would soon be introducing in my classroom. Initially wary ("It's the first week of September, you have a million critical things to do, and decorating a composition notebook is not one of them!" I thought to myself), I soon found myself digging through old boxes to find ticket stubs, photos and other memorabilia to personalize my notebook. I painstakingly laid out my design, overlapping this image just so, tilting that postcard ever so slightly, until I had a Writer's Notebook I felt strangely, maybe inordinately, proud of. I wanted to fill this book with my writing, and although I've since transferred that desire to write to this blog, the motivation stems from the composition notebook sitting on my desk at school. I think this was the moment when I realized how powerful the program could be. This is the moment everything clicked for me, the teacher. 

My students had a similar process of discovery as I introduced them to Writers' Workshop during the first few weeks of school. Although they required far less convincing when it came to decorating their notebooks, producing beautiful and personal pieces of work, the writing aspect of the program was still ambiguous and uncertain, the phrase 'mentor text,' unfamiliar and intimidating. However, as we read aloud from and dissected our first mentor text, an excerpt from Hey World! Here I Am, I had this eerie feeling that everything was going splendidly, perfectly, absolutely according to plan. My students pulled out interesting or clever lines, made inferences about the narrator based on her tone and word choice, and eagerly offered up their own similar experiences. 

When the time came for them to actually sit down and write, I figured there would be at least a few students who expressed doubt or, at the very least needed some cajoling to get started. Instead, I had a room full of silent 5th Graders, heads buried in their notebooks, staring pensively out the window, or furiously scribbling away on the page. My curiosity over how these kids would fill 10 minutes with nothing but independent writing quickly shifted to the realization that convincing them to stop after such a short period of time would be the greater challenge. The groans one might expect to hear at the start of such an assignment came only when I forced my students to stop writing.  Pacified only by the news that they would now get to share their entries with their peers, they reluctantly released their pencils and left their cozy writing nooks for our class circle. 

The brilliance of Writers' Workshop, the magic, I think, is rooted in the notion that the students are being asked to write about themselves. There is no wrong way to do it, as long as they are putting thoughts down on the page. In class we spend a lot of time reading mentor texts, discussing ways in which published authors play with language and literary devices to make their work more interesting, but the task I give my students at the end of these roundtables is simple, without spelling rules or topic restrictions: write

Friday, October 19, 2012

Into the Woods..with 50 Fifth Graders

This week my 5th Graders took an overnight trip to a nature preserve. The students rotated through a variety of learning sessions with titles like Forest Ecology and GPS Orienteering. I led a session on writing from observation, which tied in quite nicely with our ongoing Writers' Workshop PBL on memoir writing. Without the pressure of papers to grade and emails to answer, I realized that I was totally free to write alongside my students, coming up with my own narrative of our trip...

With our bags stowed in the cavernous belly of the bus, 47 students and 4 teachers take their seats and set out for the woods. A busted DVD player and scratchy radio reception forces us to be creative, and the girls sing snippets of pop songs, emulating the radio stations we would have liked to flip through. The passing scenery hints at our destination as skyscrapers and parked cars give way to the view of the Palisades. From the GW Bridge we gasp at the wall of orange, yellow and red rising out of the river below us. In the city we forget about fall foliage, but this excursion is our reminder that life is different off the island.

Voices go quiet as we turn off the main highway and into the dense forest. Our oversized bus feels particularly cumbersome as it navigates the narrow, winding roads that lead to the lodge. The view from my window is dramatic; breathtaking are both the gold-hued treetops and the sharp drop to the forest floor below. There is something unique about taking city kids to the country like this. On their home turf these kids jaywalk with ease, hold themselves tall in the face of an anxious taxi cab driver, wait impatiently with one foot off the curb as the light changes. These kids have adapted to the ways of their native city, and for them life moves fast. But in the country, there are wide open spaces, no traffic to speak of, and we all relish the change of scenery. We spend our first hour in the large field adjacent to our lodge. The kids are completely engaged as they explore, climbing over logs and small mounds of rocks, balancing on fallen branches, running, shrieking, doing all those things we have to forbid in the confines of our classrooms.

On an overnight trip, 4p.m. rolls around and with it the realization that quitting time is still 24 hours away. But a second wind always comes. During those evening hours, roles blur as classmates and teachers sit together at the dinner table, later sharing cleanup chores, still later, in pajamas, brushing teeth and getting ready for bed. Any teacher will attest that overnight trips are exhausting, but as my colleague said when our bus pulled back up to school this afternoon, "None of us were in it for the sleep."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Introducing a Class Twitter Account

Today I introduced my 5th Grade English students to their class Twitter account. I was a slow adopter of Twitter (as I am with most things, this blog being ample evidence of the pattern), registering my handle a good six months before I ever tweeted. Once I got it, however, I was in deep. I have Twitter to thank for the Google Teacher Academy, my ever-expanding PLN, my motivation to finally start blogging. So, having discovered its amazing potential to connect users across the world, I was eager to introduce the technology to my students.

My current group of 5th Graders participated in a blogging unit as part of their 4th Grade Writers' Workshop curriculum, and I was pleased to see how many lessons on digital citizenship and online safety had stuck with them. After explaining that all the 5th Graders would be tweeting from a shared account (@5thGradeEnglish), I asked them what they already knew about Twitter. A representative sample of student comments:

"It's a way to send messages, but they go to the whole internet, so they're more like announcements."
"On Twitter you can write tweets about what you're doing or something you're really excited about."
"Anyone could see what you write so you can't use personal information."

I was delighted to see that the students remembered the basic rules of internet safety, and that they had a fairly clear understanding of how people use Twitter. Together we brainstormed ideas for class tweets, including favorite quotes, examples of descriptive and figurative language, and class news. My students were already excited, but when I showed them we were following @wimpykid, the roof exploded off of our little Twitter experiment. With a single tweet, the entire concept clicked and these 5th Graders were hooked. Thank you, Jeff Kinney, for your perfect timing!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The GTANY 2012 Cohort

I miss everyone! Crazy how much learning and growth can take place in such a short period of time.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Discovering Columbus: On the Virtues of Public Art

Over the past few years I have become keenly aware of the many public art installations around New York City. This past summer, as I was walking towards Central Park, I came upon a small airplane, rotating almost imperceptibly between the two posts that flanked it. The work, How I Roll by Paola Pivi, was commissioned by Public Art Fund and attracted many pedestrians who, like me, were not quite sure of what they were looking at. There's a real sense of wonder in a piece like this, something I think I'm especially aware of given my waking hours are spent encouraging children to recognize the beauty of literature and learning. There is much to appreciate about great public art installations, which  coexist within the natural landscape of the city, leaving viewers to feel a bit like something magical is taking place.

The Fund for Park Avenue has made a strip of Park Avenue on the Upper East Side a go-to location for public art installations, and recent pieces have evoked both a sense of whimsy and a chin scratching, "How'd they do that?" Starting in January 2011, Will Ryman's enormous metal roses blossomed on Park Avenue. During the snowy winter Ryman's installation offered a promise of warmer months ahead, and by the time the oversized flowers were taken down in May, we here in the city had real live flowers to keep us feeling springy. More recently, Rafael Barrios created incredible optical illusion sculptures, appearing as a 3-dimensional stack of boxes from some angles and a thin strip of metal from others. I first noticed Barrios's installation as I walked with a group of 50 4th Graders from our school to the China Institue as part of a Social Studies field trip. Of course, we were all in awe of the way these sculptures played tricks on our minds, and soon we were paused on the sidewalk, discussing the concept of optical illusions and hypothesizing about how the artist had executed such a cool idea.

Today I headed to the Upper West Side to experience Public Art Fund's newest installation, Discovering Columbus by Tatzu Nishi. The piece has only been open for a few weeks, but it's been on my radar for months, as excitement for a fully outfitted living room built around the 13ft tall statue at Columbus Circle has been mounting all summer. To view the exhibit, patrons ascend six flights of stairs encased in elaborate scaffolding. As I climbed upwards I could see the column of the statue, adorned with both Italian and English inscriptions and the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria recreated in bronze.  


At the top of the stairs we entered a living room that, at least initially, felt like any other well-appointed Manhattan apartment. Visitors lounged on comfortable couches or sat across a coffee table on low-slung chairs. A flat screen was tuned to CNN and through the window panes one could see unobstructed views of the city. Of course, the centerpiece of this living room was the statue of Christopher Columbus. The experience was surreal to say the least. I kept momentarily forgetting that this was the same statue one would normally have to gaze up at from 75ft below the room where I now stood. 


I can't wait to head back to my classroom on Monday morning to share this experience with my 5th Graders. They are young enough to easily appreciate the sense of wonder that comes with a public art installation like Discovering Columbus, and I'm curious to hear their thoughts on how an artist decides what makes for a good piece of public art.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Google Teacher Academy

I have owned my own domain name for upwards of a year. When I received an email notifying me of its impending expiration, I renewed for three years without hesitation. Having my domain registered seemed like a good first step towards blogging, even if took me longer than expected to build up the resolve and motivation to write something. What pushed me to finally put pen to paper, so to speak? The Google Teacher Academy, and the amazing Personal Learning Network that came along with it. I've been reading blog posts written by other members of my GTA cohort, and they've inspired to just go for it. This notion that there's a perfect time to launch the blog was an avoidance tactic more than anything else, and after reading GTA posts by Brent Catlett,  Jason Markey, and Jennie Magiera, I felt eager to recount my own experiences.

I applied to the Google Teacher Academy after seeing a Tweet about the upcoming event in NYC. It was in my hometown, it was a PD opportunity for educators who used technology, and it seemed like applying was the obvious choice. The short answer portion of the application was a breeze, but I came to a dead stop when I arrived at the 1minute video requirement. I almost considered bailing on the whole thing -- figuring out how to pull together a quality video at the end of May is a teacher-nightmare -- but the lure of Google was too strong to ignore. I spent a fast and furious few days coming up with my video concept, jotting notes on my iPhone at the gym, pulling screenshots from my 4th Graders' class blog posts, and after tooling around with iMovie for a few hours, I had a video on Motivation and Learning that I felt pretty psyched about.

As my colleagues have already pointed out in their respective blog posts, the GTA was an incredible experience, not only for the resources and tips Google provided, but for the massive PLN that started growing the day we all tweeted our #GTANY acceptances. A month before I had ever met any member of my cohort, a month before I set foot in the Google offices, I had connected with educators from across the country and around the world. In my classroom I often tout the spectacular reach of the internet, but to have that reach extend in my direction still felt sort of magical. It was exciting to 'meet' people (and later, to really meet them!) who were as devoted to education as I am, who were pumped about discussing curriculum, troubleshooting classroom challenges, and strategizing about how to work technology into an English classroom.

The GTA itself was a complete revelation, and I left the experience wishing I had a few weeks off to revamp my entire curriculum. I walked into the building thinking I understood how to use Google Apps for Education, but every workshop was punctuated by the realization that what I knew was only the tip of the iceberg. I have been carving out time whenever I can to create custom YouTube playlists and fool around with potential ways to use Google Maps in my classroom. I'm looking forward to teaching my students how to use these tools to help annotate our novels with video, images and street views.