Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John

One sticky New Hampshire July summer evening while hosting the annual lobster and clamfest for our UNH Summer Literacy Institute, Donald Murray was in the house.  Now you must know that to have Don in my house was an honor.  He was a man I had admired since I was an undergraduate and then here he was all hot and buttered fingers and faces on the back deck with the rest of us.

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Donald Murray

And then it happened.  He walked right up to me and asked, “Who wrote the poem, ‘Over the John’?”  I froze.  What?  The ultimate test had come my way and as my face heated up and I began to sweat, I flipped through the suddenly empty files in my brain, wracking it for any poet I could think of.  The words, who wrote Over the John? Over the John?, Over the John?, reverberated in my head.  As I agonized I realized he was staring at me…waiting for an answer and so finally, in the ultimate defeat I simply admitted, “I don’t think I know that poem.”  At which point Donald Murray let out a larger than life guffaw of a laugh and re-stated, “No, the poem over the john in the bathroom, who wrote that?”

And in my state of stunned stupidity it still took me a moment to actually realize that he was not testing me at all but simply asking me a question to which I knew the answer.  “Oh!  My daughter wrote that in 3rd grade.”  To which he responded that she was quite a little writer.  And then he left me there in all of my shame to melt in my sense of stupidity.  I hate tests.  I have always hated tests and this was a self-imposed one.  The pressure makes me stupid.

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The “actual” poem over the john!

So what if we are all made stupider by tests?  And if that is not the case then what about the some of us that are?  I will admit it; I am one of the worlds worst test takers.  When I see a question and then the 4 possible answers I try to think about the “right” one and while one might seem “more” or “less” right, I get stuck on imagining the possibilities of what “could” or “could not” be right.  I see grey in a world of black and white.  I stammer in the ideas that the test is probably trying to trick me and so I get obsessed with thinking about outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting the test.  Yes, I want to be the sole Survivor, but I get too caught up in the game and then I simply freeze and ultimately I am blindsided and voted off the island.  I lose.

This past weekend in NYC at Barnard (see previous post as well as here:  Totalwebcasting.com/live/columbiatc/20130504/ for live on streaming) was eye opening on so many levels.  It made me wonder about so many things…many of which have to do with testing and beyond.  I heard stories, saw grown men weep, and felt passion so great it was palpable.  I met people that I have only “known” on-line for the first time in person.

I was welcomed into Renee Dinnerstein’s (See her blog here:  http://investigatingchoicetime.com/)   home in Brooklyn…our first face to face meeting ever and she hosted me for 2 nights.   We talked for all the time I was there.  She introduced me to her husband, Simon and his incredible works of art that line their Brooklyn Brownstone and beyond.   She took me to the public schools of NYC, gave me history of the area, of her life, the schools, the system.  We visited an exhibit at the Brooklyn art museum by Anatsui, amazing!!  Thank you Renee for your kind hospitality and for bringing together great minds for brunch where I also met Vicki Vinton, (See Vicki’s blog here: http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/)  on-line colleague, for the first time.   But most of all I learned that I am not alone in this endeavor.  There are so many of us out there who are so discouraged, outraged and ready to take action.

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Tomasen and Renee at Anatsui exhibit

And while I was hoping to have a great post synthesizing the weekend, I realize I still have a great deal of processing to do.

And so as my 16-year-old Zachary heads out the door for his annual NECAP testing this morning he seems to be fine with it.  Both of my kids are better test takers than I am.   In fact, he enjoys the testing perks…early senior privileges and the fact that teachers are not allowed to give homework during testing because they want students performance to be stellar.  (Is it just me or can you see how ironic this is?)  Our schools are ready and willing to help students get more sleep FOR the tests, but not for everyday schooling.  Sometimes I think I am crazy, or just looking for answers in my brain that are just not there.  Am I asking the right questions?  That is the real question, or am I just searching for something over the john?

You tell me.

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Alternatives and Activism: Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

This weekend I will join educational colleagues, professionals, parents, students and friends at Barnard College in New York City to “take back” the Conversation on Education.  Does it strike me that this is close to the name of my blog?  Why yes, and while it initially inspired me to make this trip, it was more about the idea that “we” can actually DO something about what is happening in the corporate takeover of our public school systems.  This is the blurb that made me sign-up.

“If you want to move beyond the focus on test scores, performance outcomes, standardization, and data aggregation, if you are tired of seeing your students deprived of real educational opportunities, if you worry teaching is being reduced to test prep and educators are losing their autonomy and academic freedom, and if you believe all our children should have access to a curriculum and extra-curriculum that are far more engaging that stripped down cram courses or subsistence level job training, then this is the conference for you.”

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And if that didn’t convince me then this panel of experts certainly did!!

“Hear speakers such as Susan Ohanian, Barbara Bowen, Carol Burris, Zakiyah Ansari, Juan Gonzalez, Barbara Madeloni, Ceresta Smith, Brian Jones, Nikhil Goyal, Ann Cook, and Shino Tanikawa and join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”

But of course the real kicker is that last line, “join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”  What a great line!  At first I recall being in college and while taking one of my initial  courses in education we were assigned the task of doing something we had never done before.  The goal was to get out of our comfort zones and to reflect on that experience.  I chose to go to a local anti-nuclear demonstration.   I did not have to do much to dress the part as anyone who knew me in High School or college knows that I came by the “crunchy” quite naturally.  What I remember the most about this rally was the collective energy and power that I felt there.  It was exhilarating, amazing and empowering.  It was a place where I began to develop and strengthen my voice.

Flash forward, too many years to count, and I find myself at dinner in Ohio with my daughter and 6 of her college friends at a round table where the discussion centered on the increase in tuition for students going abroad, a policy that was delivered to students at an informational meeting.  They were outraged at the way it was handled and so I asked them, “What can you do about this?”   Their collective reply was “nothing”.

They felt they did not have a voice in the policy at Kenyon College even though they entered 2 years prior with a very real sense of what the cost would be for the 4 years.  I talked to them about a Grandfather Clause and what they might be able to do.  This tuition increase was a major hit to most of these kids and yet the overwhelming consensus what that they did not feel empowered, they did not believe they had any voice; they did not believe that anything they might do would matter.

And so, in my not so subtle manner I started asking questions and suggesting ways to let their voices be heard.  By the end of the meal they were fired up and had grand plans to set up a table during parents weekend to bring attention to this issue, as parents were never formally informed and would not even know until the tuition bill arrived in the mail.  And while they had visions of posters and signs and standing up for their rights…none of this actually ever happened.  Why?  Because ultimately they did not believe it would matter.

Isn’t college the perfect place to get  involved in make change?  Have we lost this generation to the cow towing and conformity that they have had a steady diet of?   Or have they just not yet discovered the power of their voices?  Or, are they right?

Looking again at that last line…I get a different feel.  We will gather to “mobilize resistance” and it hits me, these are wartime words.  These are the words of troops and lieutenants.  And I wonder…have we really come that far?  Is this an all out war?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I do know that I have such passionate discourse about what is happening and that while blogging about it has helped me to research further and write down my thoughts I realize it is not enough.

I want to join the collective voice of others at the rally.  I want to begin the process of change with like-minded people who are not going to just sit at the table and watch this happen.  I want to join with the forces that believe we CAN and WILL do something.   I want to show this younger generation that there is power in numbers and activism and alternatives to just accepting whatever comes down the proverbial pipeline.  I want to model that they too can have their voices be heard.

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Photo Credit: teacherscount.wordpress.com

So…here I go…off to the Big Apple.  Perhaps I will dig out one of my old Indian skirts, find a complimentary embroidered shirt and sandals for the occasion….and had I thought of it earlier I could have even gotten a perm, “Wonder Tomasen…activate!”

For more information on this conference check out the blog http://reclaimingconversation.blogspot.com  It will also be live streamed.

The Goody Bag Generation: Conformity, Performance and Privileges in State Testing

These past 7 months have been some of the craziest of my life in a long time.  This past fall my daughter became depressed while away at school in Ohio.   Helping her through her difficult time from 800 miles away via the telephone was challenging…to say the least.  Then my father, now 84 became very ill and almost passed away at Christmas in the midst of their trying to sell their condo and buy a new house.  Then February 1st, I get a frantic phone call from my Dad telling me they are across the river watching their condo burn up in flames.  That night they moved in and stayed for 6 weeks.  The day after my parents moved out my son crashed my new car and it has been in the shop ever since.   And then my dear friend Karen lost her son, Jimmy to cancer.

And yet here I am 7 months later and my daughter has made some very difficult and adult decisions to improve her life and is doing fabulously.  My Dad recovered miraculously and is doing better than ever.  My parents have moved to their little house up north and although my car is in the shop, it is all good.  What is not so good is my friend Karen.  How does one even begin to live after losing a child?  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

 It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.   

~Epictetus

And so here I find myself evaluating what really matters in life when I receive a letter from my son’s High School punctuating, yet again what really matters in our public school systems.

The first paragraph states that several years ago our 11th grade students were not performing well on the State Test, NECAP.  It goes on to say that the “Data Strategies Team” (don’t even get me started here!!)  investigated and interviewed students to understand their lack of motivation.  This study revealed that our students got smart and stopped performing on state tests because they realized these tests had nothing to do with their futures because they did not have anything to do with their class ranks or GPA’s.   (I was on the school board at this point in time and remember celebrating these students and how smart and courageous they were!)

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The second paragraph goes on to say that after these findings they decided to create a big fat carrot in the name of senior privileges for those juniors who achieved a score of “proficient”  or above in all three areas of reading, math and writing on these state tests.

The third paragraph tells me “You are receiving this letter because your son or daughter will be allowed Junior Privileges beginning April 29th”.  This means that my son can leave campus during unassigned periods and it allows him the freedom to “go to various destinations within in the building.”  It is his get out of jail card and all because he was able to perform FOR them.

I am outraged by this…what are we doing hanging out carrots for a one time test?  What about those kids who may not test well?  What if those same kids who bombed the test are stellar students working hard each and every day?  What about students with Special Needs?  WHAT are we rewarding here?   And why?

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Why?  I will tell you why…because these tests have nothing to do with our kids, how they learn or  their futures…it is all about feeding the big number crunching machine to demonstrate that our schools are not failing.

Well…I would argue the opposite.  School is failing my son miserably and yet he gets these privileges because he conformed and performed and did what was expected of him…NOT because he was learning, thinking, creating, wondering, exploring and discovering the joy of learning.  What is the greater message we are sending here?

Is it just me?  I am sure that some parents might be celebrating his or her child’s ability to test well and “earn” these special privileges.  The letter is written on beautiful school stationary to be framed and hung on the wall.  Another badge of honor to be worn by parents to show their child measures up.  But not me.

It is just another reminder that it is not about our kids and their learning.  What matters is that our students consistently conform, perform and then get a goody bag for doing so.

Photo Credits: www.visual-learners.comdouglasemerson.blogs.com,

The Joys of Teaching: Bringing Back the Poetry, the Puppetry and the People

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”

~Einstein

Sometimes life it just too much.  Things come flying at you faster than you can handle and the goal becomes to just get through each and every day and to do the best that you can.  In the midst of great busyness you check things of the list and move on.  But at some point you stop and realize that you are not living as much as creating a record of living.  I may be “doing”all of the mechanical movements to get through a day, but the mundane checks on the list mean very little in my life.

ImageI believe that we get what we give, you know, karma and all of that great stuff.  And as I read through my blog posts I realize how much power and energy I myself have given to the Common Core State Standards.  So I decided to devote one entire class with my graduate students of teachers and devote it to the joys of teaching.  I asked each teacher in my group to think about and come to class with a unit, an idea, collaboration, a lesson that they loved.

And I wish you could have felt the energy, the laughter, and yes even the tears that came out of this discussion.  One teacher talked about how she had her students make toothpaste. Students would bring in ingredients that they then combined with baking soda and water. One teacher chimed in talking about how her daughter was in that class and how they brought in chocolate extract and how disgusting chocolate toothpaste was.  She laughed at the great messiness and engagement and sheer joy in this experiment.Image

Others talked about great units they had planned with colleagues and how those units moved children.  Another spoke of her grand puppet making and how those puppets were then used to create and show meaning within a social studies unit.  I wish I could have bottled that energy…but there is no way to measure that energy so it is deemed useless.  But at the same time it was the excitement behind the thinking that went into the planning and execution of these lessons, units and projects.  And if these teachers were this excited just talking about them they you know the execution of them was the same…and that energy then becomes the energy of the classroom!

I talked about one of my all time favorite units when I was a third grade teacher in Barrington, NH.  Our team created the most incredible unit on the history of Barrington.  It included storytelling as we brought in the Calef’s and their descendents and neighbors who told great tales of the grist mills and the endless springs walking to school in feet of mud. And what incredible storytellers these elders were!   Students would hear these stories and then research and read stories of their own to tell at a celebratory tea where parents and townspeople were invited to hear their stories.  They were also asked to interview someone in the community and we compiled these interviews into books to be shared with the town.  Every day was filled with Barrington history as I read through the town history book and uncovered more great tales to tell.  The month long unit ended with the great town tour.  This was more of a scavenger hunt really where we handed out riddle books with clues and questions.  This book was their guide and they had to think to figure out where they were going.  Small groups would pile into parents cars and off they would go to the Isinglass Riverbanks to the old schoolhouses, where they would be invited in and given a brief history.  I can’t even tell you how much the townspeople welcomed our kids into their homes; some even made snacks and drinks in preparation for their day of visitors.

I have heard that parts of that unit actually still exist in Barrington Elementary, but that the big parts, like the town tour are no longer allowed because of liability.  How sad that litigation gets in the way of good learning?  Once again it is the checks that matter…no more unsafe driving conditions for kids.  (Ironic if you have ever ridden on a school bus with no seatbelts really!)   Never mind how beneficial that town tour was and how it connected the taxpayers to the students and was a starting point in bringing the town together, creating connections and community between the young and the old.   What matters are the details (the devil lives there doesn’t he?) and all of the other minutiae that clog up each and every day.

And so after each teacher had a chance to talk about their joyful teaching we gathered into small groups and I asked these teachers to go through the Common Core State Standards and begin to plug in the standards that were actually covered in those units.  In no time at all they were listing standard after standard.  There is very little that is new in these standards but we are coming at it from the wrong direction.  Why?  Because there is money to be made by large corporations (Pearson) and why consult the experts in the field when you can have people who have nothing to do with education create what you need?

And so I ask, why don’t we spend more time in these joyful spaces talking about what we DO DO instead of always what we don’t do?  Why can’t we bring back poetry, and puppetry and create spaces where people want to be?  Why can’t we create thematic units where students look forward to 3rd grade and the town tour almost as a right of passage?  What is missing in the efforts to implement these standards is the whole.  We are so concerned with each little increment and how to “cover” that small piece that we are not doing anything that is connected to anything else…the whole is gone…and without the whole there are just a bunch of pieces floating about randomly in space never to be connected.

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And so I am going to attempt to remain in a place of joy through National Poetry Month. My goal is to read and write poetry each and every day of April.  I will start today and each day I am with students, children and teachers I will have a poem in my pocket to share.  Not so that I can check something off the list, but just for the sheer enJOYment of it.

I will leave you with one of my all time favorites:

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Miss-Interpretations of The Common Core and Teaching Writing: Dumbing Down with Ridiculous Rules, Mortifying Myths and Loquacious Lies

I am just home after meeting with some very talented and knowledgeable 6th grade teachers.  Our goal, to discuss the Common Core standards and get a feel for where they were in planning for their upcoming insurgence.

Part of the discussion was that in writing a persuasive piece of writing that the use of “I” is forbidden.  I asked by whom it was forbidden and they both looked at me like, “everyone” knows this.  And in walks the infamous “They” that makes these rules.  Who is the “they” in this arena?  And while you can find that in certain places the use of “I” is frowned upon it is not in others.  What about the fact that some of the best persuasive pieces ever written have a very capital and strong sense of I!! 

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For instance, if you read through my blog entries, how would you classify (for lack of a better word) what kind of writing it is?  What box would you put it in? Persuasive?  Argument?  Narrative? Informational?  Fiction?  Non-Fiction? Opinion?  Or is it a brand new genre called blogging? Or are there strands of each and all of these?

Or is it just ranting from a girl who lives in the grey areas of life navigating through a world of black and white…forever bumping into the boundaries set by others; hard and fast rules that become the letter of the law lacking any theory to back it up.

I envision it as writing my own newspaper column each week.  Where would that fit in?

I see it as a place where I gather my thoughts, opinions, and ideas and then attempt to support them with the thoughts and ideas and opinions of others.  Sometimes they are simply ideas of my own that I attempt to connect to begin to make sense of what I am thinking about. I write for the surprise that Donald Murray always wrote about.   Does this change what “kind” of writing I am writing on each and every attempt?  Or does it even matter what “kind” of writing is if my readers are reading it and it is making them think and wonder and respond?

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Donald Murray

And why do we insist on creating “new” kinds of writing that only exist in the world of school?  Have you ever seen or read a book report in the “real” world?  What about the whopper of a 5-paragraph essay?  When is the last time your boss came to you and said you need to write up a 5-paragraph essay, due on my desk by Monday?  NO, you have not because the idea of 5 paragraphs is another myth created in the world of education in an attempt to dumb down the process of writing.

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These teachers showed me a template for a persuasive (yes 5 paragraphs in this one too) where the students could essentially fill in the blanks and create a piece of writing that would fulfill the requirements of the Common Core Standards.  I have to SHOUT out here that I really don’t believe these are the intentions behind the CCSS.  This narrow thinking goes back to what Don Graves speaks about as teaching writing in terms of painting by number.  All of the writing in these mythical genres look the same, feels the same, reads the same.  BORING!!!  BUT, as the teachers respond, if we do this then all of the standards will be met and we will be able to point out specifically in different colored pens which parts fulfill which standard.  This leaves teachers in an impossible stance.  They have to choose whether or not to do what they are told or to teach what they know is good writing.  Wouldn’t you think they would be the same thing?

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Donald Graves

Our car is making a horrible noise.  (Using a story/narrative strand here to make my point)  There is a screeching sound that just makes your ears quiver when you turn the wheel.  We need to take it to the mechanic to get it fixed.  When it arrives he will listen to it, diagnose it and make the necessary changes.  Imagine another world, say the world where school meets auto repair and instead of relying on the mechanic there is a checklist that says he must add some simile, a bit of metaphor as well as a heave dose of dialogue to fix and complete this engine repair.  When done he can return it to us with all the things he can check off the list, but still with a broken car.

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Taking the person OUT of the process only creates nonsensical ridiculous and completely absurd moves.  There is NO sense in it and yet this is exactly the response I am seeing to the CCSS.   It is about coverage and covering one’s ass, if I may be so blunt…but who cares if your ass is covered if you are turning out broken down cars and students?  Taking the writer, the “I” out of the process is not going to create confident writers who know and understand when and where to use a writerly move if they have never had the opportunity as writers to make those decisions.  (Using compare and contrast to drive my point home)

I do not start writing thinking; I will use metaphor, simile and dialogue in this piece.  I start out with an idea and then as I write there are opportunities where these moves may or may not be useful to make my writing what I envision it to be.  I may even remove my car metaphor before this piece is formally posted on my blog.  The point it that these decisions are made my ME, the writer, so that I can create something that makes sense and that will engage my readers (hopefully) and allow them to think about something in a way that maybe they had not thought about it before.

My daughter sent me a link the other day about some middle schoolers involved in inquiry projects and created controlled experiment and then wrote it up and submitted it to various scientific journals to share their findings.  Many of the journals, while they praised the work of the students and it’s originality were not open to accepting the work of these student because their report started with “Once upon a time”, in other words it did not follow the “rules” of the scientific genre.

And yet, you can see here on this link to TED that the work of these students was eventually published and is now one of the most read scientific reports on the Internet. http://www.ted.com/talks/beau_lotto_amy_o_toole_science_is_for_everyone_kids_included.html

And here is a link to the actual paper that was published. http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2010/12/18/rsbl.2010.1056.full

So why are so many people reading this and watching this TED talk?  I would argue (making this an argument piece now!) that they are reading it and listening to it because it is original and interesting and shows us what our kids CAN do if given the opportunity.

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So what are we doing?  In our efforts to do what is “right” we are forgetting to think about how kids learn, why kids learn and why they don’t.  Why are kids so totally removed from their own educations, their own thinking, their processes of discovery and wonder and curiosity?  Why?  Why?  Because that is exactly what we are asking of them.  To fill in the blank, not to think about what they are writing, check it off the list and move onto the next genre.  And the beat goes on…

Photo Credits: BLG Consulting Group, communicationissuccess.blogspot.com, http://unhmagazine.unh.edu, UNH Alumni, http://theclimatescepticsparty.blogspot.com/

Nothing In Common: Boutiques and Big Boxes

I just spent four days working in a school district out in Plainfield, Illinois and after getting sideswiped by the blizzard Nemo on my way there and delayed on the way home by President Obama’s departure from Chicago at  the same time as mine, it was a successful trip.  Of course my travel woes are another blog and story all together!!  And yet, are they?

As I was driving from Chicago to the Joliet, Plainfield area in search of my first school to visit I realized as I looked out the car window that although I was in Illinois I really could have been just about anywhere in America.  On my left, I see a Target, and on my right a Home Depot.  Lines and lines of chains from Dunkin Donuts to Burger King stood proudly next to their big box neighbors.  And it got me thinking about the goal of so many schools and districts; heck the ENTIRE nation right now is fixated and obsessed with having everything in “common”.  Common language, common expectations, common outcomes, a Common Core and the list goes on. And so I ask myself, what is so great about everything being the same?

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When I travel I seek out what is different.   Where can I find some little restaurant, café or shop that I have never been to before?  Where is there something new I can try in terms of experience, food, or even atmosphere that will provide me with some insight as to what makes this town or city or place tick?  How do people make their livings?  What kinds of homes do they live in?  Where are the tracks and what is on each side of those tracks?  I enter these new places in the same way that I enter each classroom that I visit.  What is different here?  What do these students have to offer and what will I learn about them and how they work in the small amount of time I have to work with them?

My contacts and colleagues in Plainfield are two young dynamic women who brought me back to their district after a one -day workshop on writing in October to do some follow-up demonstration lessons in classrooms k-8.  Before I arrived they asked me to send them some lesson plans for each day.  And so I sat with the list of classrooms and the schedule before me and realized that I probably had not actually written a “real” lesson plan since I was an intern over 25 years ago.  There was a bit of me that actually panicked and began making things up, but I knew in my heart that even if I took the time to write these plans that they would change.  They would change based on the “read” of the students, where they were, what they knew and where we could go.  And so I had to figure out how to send them something open and flexible but concrete as well.

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And so I determined a list of my favorite mentor texts that I would be using and then a bullet list of possible teaching points for each text.  I explained that I walked into classrooms with these possibilities in my head, but that I never really knew what I would be teaching before I actually started teaching.  I realize how uncomfortable this makes so many people, but for me there really is no other way.   Don’t get me wrong, there is a plan in my head, but before I begin to implement that plan I am responding to those students I am working with.  My plan is a back up because ultimately I am there to teach the students, not the material.  In fact when I focus solely on content I am removed from those I am teaching: lost in what it is I think I am “supposed” to be teaching…when in reality I am ALWAYS teaching the students.   And so “what” I will be teaching  depends on those I am teaching.  In this way I almost teach in a “choose your own adventure” kind of method.  If this, then that, but again I never know until I am there.

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And so I enter with a bag full of books that I know and love, stapled paper (books), markers and an open mind.  That is it?  Yes.  That is it.  I quickly try to connect with the students, perhaps telling them something personal about me and then hear bits and pieces about them.  As I am listening to them I get a sense of where they are and which book might work with them.  Then I reach into my bag and the decision is made.

When I am in this mode of listening I realize that the possibilities are endless and so my role is to focus in on one or two or maybe even three different noticings that the students are making and ask them to talk about what they noticed and why they think the author has made such a move.  If they do not notice then I begin by noticing something and ask that they then look for this same thing as I read on.  I love these kinds of encounters with students.  I am looking and listening intently for what is different in their thinking and what they notice.

After reading the book, A Stranger in the Woods by Sams and Stoick, one student notices that the animals are talking.  Together we name this craft,  personification as well as a couple of other crafts used by this author. I set the students free with a “book” made out of 4 sheets of paper stapled together and markers and to begin writing this book on anything of their choosing.  I ask that before they leave the carpet that they first tell me what it is they plan on writing about and one kind of craft that they were planning on trying.  As students revealed their plans, new plans formed in the minds of others.  Taking this time allows for each student to leave the group with purpose and to get right to work.

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One student in a second grade classroom decided to write a book about snakes and  he was going to attempt to use strong verbs.  As I approached his table I could see his book filled with colorful illustrations and great details as he worked with purpose.  When I kneeled beside him I asked if he would talk about and read what he had written.  He read with great inflection and voice and then came this incredible verb, “lurking”.  I asked him how he came up with that word and he began to tell me that he loved snakes, that he was in fact, obsessed with snakes and that because he read so much about snakes he knows that lurking is what snakes do!  He then ran off to his book box to find many different books on snakes.  He poured through them showing me his favorite parts.  This was unique and different than what anyone else was doing in the class and celebrating this writer’s moves is what I am all about.  I asked that he read it to the class after telling everyone where he got his ideas and what kind of book he was writing about snakes.  He talked about how he used the word lurking because another author had used it.  I confirmed his smart writerly move talking about how all writers borrow from other authors.   I focused on what he was doing and what he thought was important.  This is teaching in my highest self.  This is where I find energy.  This is where I long to always be.  In the moment with a child as he or she identifies what it is they are working on and just what he or she is doing as a learner and how it is or is not working.  I am always moving towards, “Getting kids to “reveal” what they know in order to discover where they might go.”  Johnston, Choice Words.

And dare I even say that in these moments I feel a sense of synergy that I also find in my yoga practices.  It is that moment of being in the “zone” where I can see things clearly and instinctively know where to go with each child that I work with.  This does not happen all of the time, but when it does it is beautiful.  It feels incredibly whole and complete and it has absolutely nothing in common with any other interactions I have with any other student.  It is DIFFERENT.  It is not the same and so I have to wonder in our quest for sameness, in our desire for consistency are we not losing the individual processes, identities and the creative thinking of each individual?

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In my debriefs with the teachers after the demonstration lessons I am always surprised by what it is they ask and comment about.  And after a recent rereading of Peter Johnston’s, Choice Words, I realize that so much of my teaching is defined in this book.  The language we use and the responsive teaching is what I am always aiming for.  And if you have not read this book then I encourage you to add it to your list of must-reads.  It is essential for teaching our kids how to be independent agents in their own learning.

And so I left the same way I came in passing Best Buy and Lowe’s, asking myself, are we forgetting what makes life interesting?  Are we aware that in our efforts to be the next Wal-mart that we are losing our downtowns and our small businesses?  I am fortunate to live in a town that still has a downtown and I love walking through the shops and knowing and talking with those working in the shops.  There is something wonderful about knowing people and seeing what is new and different that you would not find in a Target.  And yet, it is a fight to keep our downtowns open because the big box stores are more affordable.  But in the end, can we afford to lose what has yet to be discovered in each child in the name of what is simply common, consistent and so very much the same?  Or am I just a boutique kind of teacher trying to survive in a big box world?

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Rules of Engagement

Zachary came home from school the other day feeling pretty pleased with himself.  He had a “quiz” in chemistry (his most challenging subject that he struggles with) and reported that it was awesome.

Image  Yes, you are right on if you are picturing me standing in amazement with my mouth hanging open.

Zachary is an 11th grader in public school.  To know Zach is to see him always fixing, researching or tinkering with something be it the ski ramp in the backyard, the latest gadgets in photography or longboarding or his guitar.  He is and always has been “in motion”.  I used to joke that he came out of the womb on wheels!  I believe he is a very different person when in school.

He went on to tell me that this was a quiz where you “did” things and so he felt like he was better able to perform.  In his own words, “I am not good at memorizing, I am good at applying things.”  ImageHe explained how they had 5 different elements that they had to weigh and then do calculations in relationship to what it was they had discovered.   After each element they were to go up to the teacher and check in.  He was animated as he continued his story explaining that because he does not have a calculator he usually just borrows one from his math teacher, but because this was a pop quiz he did not have the time to go and get one.  So he decided he would do the math on his own.

Upon completing the first few problems he checked in with his teacher to discover he got them all right!!   When his teacher asked him how he did these problems Zach instructed him to turn the paper over where he found a lattice method scratched out on the back of his paper.

ImageThe teacher, according to Zachary, was amazed that he was able to do this math without a calculator.  Delighted he went back to finish the last 2 problems, but alas, he ran out of time.  He reported that he got a 70 on it, but that he was thrilled because as he stated,  “I feel like it is the first time that I actually understood something in chemistry.”

“What would happen, if, rather than focusing on teaching reading strategies, we focused instead on getting students engaged?”  Peter Johnston

This quote by Peter Johnston has had me thinking all week about the idea of engagement.  He refers to engagement in terms of reading and actually asks some hard questions about instruction in this Stenhouse blog post.  Worth the read.

http://blog.stenhouse.com/archives/2012/07/23/blogstitute-week-5-reducing-instruction-increasing-engagement/

ImageSo, the next question is what if we decided to make that same commitment across all subject areas, curriculums and grade levels?  What if the most common core standard of all that we were to work towards was engagement of ALL of our students?  What if we focused primarily on engaging our students and worked towards 100% proficiency of engagement?

This is so simple.  There I said it!  Think about it.  We can go on teaching and standing in front of the room and sharing our knowledge.  We can go on creating meaningless tests to supposedly “show” the growth of our students.  We can continue to spend millions and billions of dollars on the next magical cure that won’t work or…imagine this…we could look at our students and focus on engagement.  WHAT matters in our work if our students are not engaged?  What will they learn without engagement?

 What happened in this chemistry class?  The class where Zach admits to getting his daily naps because he has so much trouble paying attention.  He  argues that nobody really understands what It going on.  So what turned this day into a class period filled with engagement and dare I use the term, rigor?   I believe it all started with the ability to move and use his body.  He was not sitting in a seat in the back of the room watching the minutes slowly tick by.  He was standing, walking and using his hands to “apply” what he did and did not know.  He was then able to get some immediate feedback on his work and then a little gravy in the name of praise for his ability to perform without a calculator.  This real feedback sent him back confident and hungry for more.  It was only the clock that worked against him as he told me that he knows he could have gotten the other two if he had had the time.  And even if he didn’t get them right he was ENGAGED!!

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If I were his teacher I would look at Zachary differently than those who used their calculators and adjust his grade accordingly.  IF the goal is engagement and ultimately understanding could it not be argued that perhaps he understood more deeply because he could perform without the calculator?  Shouldn’t he be graded on what he did know and not that the time ran out?  But I also realize that I am far from the norm and that grading is another topic for another post.

It’s like my cats, you know.  They are very finicky about their food.  It is clear when they do not like a particular kind of food because they don’t eat it!  They are not engaged in their eating.  So I don’t continue to give them the same food because I have deemed it is the best food for them, I try out different kinds of food to see what works for them to engage them in their eating. Image Why do we continue to do things we know don’t work…especially when so many of us have the vast variety of theory and knowledge that DOES work and even more importantly that engagement is something our students are starving for?

 

Opt Out of Testing: Do We Dare to Bubble Dot That?

Well, the time has come for me to unleash the beast inside and ask you to look at, for yourself, your kids and your community the idea of opting out of High Stakes Testing.  Up until last week I have steered clear of writing about The Common Core State Standards and the test that will follow and how I have seen the rise of testing in our schools over the past 11 years (thank you No Child Left Behind)  has actually undermined and even damaged the education students are receiving by attempting to create a “one size fits all” mentality and leaving systems, professionals and teachers feeling they “MUST” teach to the test. Period.

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Recently Frontline asked three educational reform leaders including Diane Ravitch, Margaret Spellings and Geoffrey Canada  to watch and then speak back to The Education of Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the DC public schools and a highly controversial figure in educational reform.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/education/education-of-michelle-rhee/how-do-you-measure-success-in-school-reform/#seg3

Margaret Spellings, former US Secretary of Education under George W. Bush and one of the architects of No Child Left Behind writes in response to Rhee’s work and the upcoming onslaught of the Common Core,

“But I still argue that NCLB’s ambition remains pretty modest – all children performing at grade level in reading and mathematics – the bare minimum any of us would want for our own children or grandchildren. And while having every student meet the new Common Core standards is a laudable goal for DCPS and all the states now pursuing “college and career readiness,” it is an empty promise if they’ve yet to meet NCLB’s more modest goals.”

And I shudder to think that if a proponent of No Child Left Behind believes that even those goals were moderate then perhaps what lies ahead may be more daunting that we even realize.

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The question is do we dare?  Do we dare go against the norm or is the fear of change and going against the norm too much to risk?  Do we fear that by taking our own kids out of the testing world that it will somehow put them in a place of less importance than those who do test?  Will it limit their options in terms of lifelong goals, colleges and careers?  Without “measuring” our kids and putting them into little boxes will they become less significant in this world?  Without their numbers pasted on their backs will they matter as much as those with numbers or even more importantly those with the highest numbers?

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What does it mean to opt out?  Opting out is defined by United Opt Out National, in three phases, the first of which is to change the public narrative that testing is good.   These are the questions I am attempting to raise here.  The second is to break the cycle of complicity, isolation, coercion and the third is to support alternatives through knowledge, collaboration and trust in the power of collaboration.  I do believe that if we come together we can make a difference.  For more details about opting out…

Check out this site that talks about what it means to opt out and how we can band together to do so.  http://unitedoptout.com/flyers/what-does-it-mean-to-opt-out-2/

Or watch this video by Peggy Robertson, one of the founders of opt out, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bJlbkxnDVU where she and her two boys reach out to Diane Ravitch,historian of education at New York University and expert on school reform to join them in the national opt out campaign in DC this coming April 4 – 7 where we will unite to protest against testing.  I am considering making this journey and would love to have others I know come with me or meet me there!!  You interested?  Here are more details.

http://unitedoptout.com/update-for-occupy-doe-2-0-the-battle-for-public-schools/

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So it is time for action.  Enough kavetching about it…it is time for action and trusting in the process of collaboration and the idea that if we band together we can make change happen.  REAL change for all of our kids.

What do you think?

Do we dare?

The Not So Common Core Standards: Potential Implications and Meaning For Us All

We live in a country that was founded on differences.  As I write this, I recall images of Felix Baumgartner free falling out of a hot air balloon from space.  We value this ingenuity, this creativity, this originality, this risk-taking. We live in the land of the free and yet everywhere you look, particularly in public education, it would seem we have collectively handed over our freedom in the name of compliance, consistency and the oh so not “common”, known as The Common Core.

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The powerful noblemen have doled out their marching orders to us, the commoners and we had better comply or beware.  David Coleman and Susan Pimenthal, co-authors of the Common Core Standards, are not educators.  They have not spent time in classrooms on the front lines and yet they have determined the core, the central, innermost, or most essential part of education.  So the question is…what does this mean for the public education of our students, your kids, my kids and those of the future?

The Common Core Standards document initially reads as somewhat benign.  Who would argue the idea that there “should” be a core of standards that all students in this great nation strive for?  (Although I tend to avoid “shoulding”on myself at all costs)  How could one oppose standards, ensuring success for all students?  (I mean if over 40 states adopted this then it must be great.)   Who would dare even oppose such a notion?  (And if you do oppose then what is wrong with you to be such a “curmudgeon” or a “whiner”.)  At the risk of being both I will go on.

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Read this kindergarten standard keeping in mind many 5 year olds show up to school and they do not even know their letters and they are beginning to lose their baby teeth.   For some they have never even attended preschool and this is their first school experience.  They are filled with wonder, curiosity, creativity and a natural desire to learn.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.1 Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is…).

I would argue that this is a more realistic standard for our 1st or 2nd graders.  Do we want our students to succeed or do we want to set standards that are so out of their range of normal development that they fail even before they begin?

And while I realize there ARE 5 year olds all over the nation who are more than capable of performing this standard, there are just as many who are not.  There is nothing magical about being 5 that means you are as developed as the other 5 year olds sitting next to you, not to mention that our boys are typically at least 6 months behind our girls.  And if this standard was something to look at in terms of a goal to work towards, I would have no problem with it, but it will not.  It will be seen as what is expected as “common” for all students.  We are starting out leaving over half of our kids behind.

There is no such thing as kindergarten anymore with these standards.  Sorry kids, no time to learn your letters, learn through play and be 5 years old as the standards expect you to show up to school reading informational texts closely and writing persuasive essays already.  Put away the sand tables and the blocks and the dramatic play areas there is work to be done.  And this begs the question, why are we so concerned with the academic side of the child without including the social and emotional sides?  They all work in connection with each other and without each given it’s due the scales are tipped toward disaster.

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The Common Core standards alone are not  bad.  In fact, in my work with schools there are great conversations that are happening as a result of this document as it asks us to look at where we are and what we are doing and what areas we need to improve on.  This is all good reflective practice and if it started and ended there…we would be able to say to ourselves, “This too shall pass”.  But will it?  Never before in public education has there been such a broad sweeping, nationally accepted document.  And while states all over the nation are adopting this document, two groups are being paid millions of dollars to come up with the best assessments (See PARCC (http://www.parcconline.org/achieving-common-core) and Smarter Balanced at (http://www.smarterbalanced.org/)).

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And therein lies the rub.  The high stakes testing piece to this latest “one size fits all” movement will come out in the year 2014 and I am predicting that at this point everything will change.  Schools all over the nation will be failing these tests and large publishing companies will be at their doors with the next magic bullet that will “solve” all testing deficiencies.  Have we learned nothing from No Child Left Behind?  The idea of “teaching to the test” will take on more power and energy than ever.

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This is not about good education.  This is not about educating our kids.  This is about making money and in order for that to happen we must first create an enormous problem.  Failure is the best reason for anyone to buy anything!  Overweight?  Buy this pill or that diet.  Failing schools?  Don’t leave it up the professionals within the schools to figure out what they need, because publishers know so much more. Students?  Who are they?

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We need to return to conversations about our students and what is or is not developmentally appropriate, what our students need for instruction in the moment based on their thinking, their questions and how they see the world.  Would you ever take an infant and force them to “walk” down the stairs?  NO!  But physical development is something concrete.  Cognitive development, on the other hand, is harder to understand and yet we forge ahead with the idea that if we place unrealistic expectations on our students then they will just rise.

They will not rise unless they are ready to rise!!  Those who are not ready will fall and hurdle  to the bottom of the stairs with nobody with be there to pick them up as there is a test to teach to and quite frankly, “I don’t give a  sh!t what you think or feel.”  This is a quote from David Coleman, one of 2 co-authors of the Common Core.   He has also taken on the position as head of The College Board 2 months ago.  This organization has more power over the future of all of our students and now this man will also align the SAT’s and test preps with ‘HIS” common core.  There is even talk of test scores being attached to kids GPA’s.  Can you say conflict of interest?

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Why and how, I must ask, have we allowed one elitist man from Harvard to have so much power over our entire system?    A man, who only cares about what he thinks.  Watch him as he demonstrates his version of a close reading on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTCiQVCpdQc) with A Letter From Birmingham Jail.  Or don’t, unless you really need a nap!  THIS is the future model for good teaching?  He is completely in his own head and unaware of his audience.  This demonstration both scares and depresses me.

And yet, why is it that those of us in education are the first ones to jump on to any wagon that happens to be going by, regardless of what band is playing?  Where has our responsibility to question gone?  Why are we not asking about what band is playing?   Why are we blindly following the pack? Let’s question what is happening here before it is too late.  Let’s take a risk, jump out of that balloon and take the plunge toward thinking and questioning what this means for our kids, our teachers and the future of our entire public educational system.

PS In my next post I will discuss some ways we can become actively involved as I discuss opting out of testing and events we can attend to show our support.

The Things We Carry

Zachary,  came home from high school one day with three poems chosen by his English teacher to “figure out”.  The assignment was to decide what “kinds” of poems they were and to look further to figure out what “literary devices” were used.

He came to me.  “Mom what kinds of poems are these?”

And the teacher in me responds to his question with a question.

“Well, what kinds of poems are you learning about?”

“None.”

“Well, haven’t you been looking at different kinds of poems in class and identifying them and what makes that what they are?”

“No.  MOM, we were just given these poems and told to find the literary devices.  This is what I have to do.  Can you just tell me?”

And so I look at the poems and instantly realize that even for me, these poems could fall into several categories.  So I tell him I am not sure.  Again I ask to see the poetry and begin to slowly look at them with him one at a time while asking him questions about what he notices in terms of how the poem is written, thus a way to discover “literary devices”.  In my head I am wondering, as well, just what this teacher is asking for and in this process I am removed from the poetry myself in an effort to “please” the teacher.  I too have fallen into school mode right alongside Zachary.

“That is NOT what the teacher wants Mom.  She just wants me to know what kinds of poems these are and what devices are used.  Mom, she doesn’t teach.  She just gives us assignments.”

“Well, what kinds of “literary devices” have you  looked at in other poetry or forms of writing?”

“None Mom, can you just help me get this done?”

“Well, how are you supposed to know if nobody every showed you.  Let me help you with this…”

If you are a parent then you know that teaching your own children is akin to trying to grocery shop with a group of young goats in tow.  Oil and water I say.

He stomps off  to spark notes and google to try to figure out what I cannot tell him and what he does not know because there has been no “model” in terms of what to look for.  These beautiful poems are reduced down to a hunt and peck on the internet in an attempt to figure out and “do” whatever it is the teacher has asked him to do.  There is no meaning.  There is no connection.  There is only the sense that he wants to get this done and done quickly and hopefully, somehow in the process he has figured out whatever it is the teacher is asking for at the same time.

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Pushing my extreme frustration aside, I reflect on this conversation and realize his teacher is not modeling for him.  That the missing piece is and may always be that we are not “showing” our students what it is we are looking for.    In my work with teachers I often hear about how students are just not “getting it” and in this statement is a sense of blame.  They are frustrated with the students because they don’t know what they already know and the blame game begins. And yet, if nobody has ever taught or shown then how is the student supposed to know?  As an educator of students of all ages from kindergarten to adults, if a student is not understanding I have to ask myself what is my responsibility in all of this?

When a student is not understanding I have to stop and ask myself,

  1. What is it that they do not understand and why?
  2. What is it that I have not “shown”?
  3. Is there another way that I could model this for them?

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And although it sounds simple, it can transform your teaching.  This “in the moment” reflection allows us to connect with our students and to consider what they are learning from their point of view.  In doing this we begin to form a connection with our students and view them not as the object of blame, but as a human being to connect with, to teach, to show, to model for.  And once this connection has been made it lays the groundwork for further teaching.  These connections can also reach across the classroom as we identify models in others that are in the classroom as well.  Modeling is about “noticing” and naming what it is that we notice.  In this our students can then see that they too can notice and name.

Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart, under my arm, I enter Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I am greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I receive the confection’s love, knowing it will never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

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I settle into the comfy rocker and take a brief time to reconnect as they tell me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices ring all around me as they share their latest “sound” words, onomatopoeia  the craft we worked on last time I was in.    Three little girls get closer, asking about the pink necklace I am wearing, twirling it in their hands and marveling at its sparkle.

Taking this time to reconnect with these kids is a critical part of the teaching process.  It only takes a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions show them I am interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and ideally trust and can then move into our writing time together.

I read aloud, knowing that I want to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stop and write some examples on the white board:

tip-tapping

song-singing

finger-snapping

We talk about these words and wonder why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identify that it makes it into one word, makes the reader say the word more quickly and creates rhythm.

We then brainstorm a name for these words and the list consists of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It is democratically decided that DASH-ing words describe them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  Next, I ask them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

I first check in with Morgan, who seems to be struggling because she is not writing.  Her hands are poised under her chin and her page remains blank.  I sit to talk with her.  I am wondering what is keeping her from writing.  I ask her questions, but she just sits and looks up.  Finally I ask if she just needs some time to which she responds, “Yea.”  I leave and tell her I will check back with her.  In my mind I am wondering if I am copping out because it was a flat and uninteresting conversation.  I secretly hope that my decision to leave her and trust her is one that will work, but I never really know.  What I do know is that was I was doing was not moving her along and so I make the choice to let her work on her own.

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I move over to Nick, who also seems to be staring off into space.  I ask him how he is doing.  He responds, “I don’t know what to write.”   In my head I am asking, what does he not understand?  After a brief conversation I realize he does not understand what I had just modeled and that he needs further modeling.  I am not upset that he is not working, I am curious about why he is not.  I ask myself what is missing for him and what can I do to help this young writer to move forward?  What else can I model for him?  Is there another way in?   I lead him back over to the white board and we leaf through the book again looking at the DASH-ing words.  We finally realize together that he does not know how to start making his own word because it is not clear that the first word is often an object, a noun.  And so I model another example asking him to name an object.  He says pencil and I ask what a pencil might do.  He responds that it writes.  We work together and make it into pencil-scribbling because he liked that better than pencil-writing.

For others the playful word combinations take on a life of their own.  Some kids come up with what we call Double DASH-ing Words” such as tweet-tweet-tweeting.  Others begin lists and when I check back in with Morgan I realize that what was missing for her in that moment was think time.  (phew!) She shares this poem with the class, telling us that she chose to write a poem because the book was like a poem.

Swish-swash

Slush-sliding

Icicles-banging

Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all reconvened back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a strong model of what is expected of them and in many instances, more modeling to help them move along in their writing.

In my work with these first graders and all of the students and teachers I work with as an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I ooze passion for words and I do this on purpose.  I talk about what I read, write and wonder.  I show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live this life. I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When students see that we, as their teachers are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.  We model every day with our words, out behaviors and even what we carry.

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“There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds, and I am constantly thinking of new ways to open up those worlds, modeling at every step, whether that shows in what I carry with me, the conversations I have, I am the walking, talking lover of words and my students know this.

What do your students know about you and what do you model every day ?