You got the MOVES! Writing Non-Fiction with Voice, Choice and Clarity in Creativity

“Your assignment for today class is to write your state report in the voice of a snowman.”

“ A snowman?” you ask.

“ Yes, a snowman.”

ImageThis was simulated out of a conversation I had recently with a 3rd grade teacher where somewhere along the line someone thought it would be a creative idea to assign all 3rd grade students to write their state research reports in the voice of a snowman.  A snowman?  Yes.  A snowman.

“A snowman?” I asked.  Yes, a snowman.  What does the voice of a snowman sound like?  I wonder, as distant memories of Frosty’s voice pop into my head, “Haaaaaappy Birrrrrthdaaaaaay!!!”   What do snowmen have to do with state reports?   What if you have the state of Hawaii or Arizona where snowmen do not reside?  Would it be a melting voice?  A snowman?  Yes, a snowman.

And then to top it all off the report was to then be written in the shape of, yes, you guessed it, a snowman.  ImageNow call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have a state report in the shape of the state the report is on?  Or perhaps just simply shapeless unless the writer chooses to make the report in any shape at all?

Wherever this idea came from, one must recognize that its’ intent, I believe,  was to allow for creativity in writing these reports.  My hunch is that what got in the way of this good intention was inexperience in writing,  the writing process  and how creativity can be discovered and is easily accessible to all writers through the study of authors and illustrators in ways that make sense for the writer and the purpose of the writing project. So many of us grew up without any writing instruction at all and many feel uncertain about how to teach writing.  Most teachers see themselves as readers but very few will identify themselves as writers.

So this 3rd grade teacher, Ashley and I decided to begin the journey encouraging students to create their own books on the states they were studying.  We began this unit of study with an introduction to a non fiction book called,  A President from Hawaii where we asked the students to read like writers and envision how they might use some of these techniques, or MOVES in their own writing. Image I read, did some thinking out loud, but not much before the students began to identify the many moves made by both the writer and the illustrator while Ashley charted their thinking on the white board next to us all.

As usual I found myself marveling at the kids “reading” of this text.  Amy recognized that the illustrator used a variety of techniques which included a background image that was either watercolored or collaged and then actual photographs and images were layered on top of that.

Joe saw that the photographs were delicately framed in bamboo, but not on all pages.  When we wondered why the illustrator might have made that move Michael wondered, “is the bamboo only shown on those pages where there were natural scenes in the background where bamboo really grows?”  And in looking back we identified that it was shown on the images of mountains and beaches,  but not on the pages that showed cities.

Shane talked about the bold words.  Michael noticed  how the information was embedded within the text.  I wondered going into the class if this book had enough moves in it, but of course they went deeper than anticipated.

Next, I shared a variety of non-fiction texts and asked them to take some sticky notes and do some noticing with a partner and then come back to the larger group and share one on the moves made by either the author or the illustrator that they might try.

I like this word, move, because it is more accessible to students, teachers and even non-writers.  In most professional texts these “moves” are referred to as craft, and the goal is to identify the different”craft” used by an author.  I myself I have used the word craft in my teaching but often found it did not resonate with those who were not engaged heavily in the process of writing already.  And by all means if “craft” resonates with you and your students then stay with it.  Katie Wood Ray’s description of Craft in her book, Wondrous Words is beautiful.  I am always seeking alternative ways in for writers.

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Photo Credit: craftidea.info

The word, Craft, carries with it a sense of “crafty” in that it is something that is part of an artistic process and that some are better at it than others, or that some have a “gift” for it.  Those with that gift are “writers” and those who were not lucky enough to be born with an affinity for “craft” are not writers.  Craft can be a loaded word in that it also has an underlying assumption that there is a “right” way to make the craft. (See paper plate snowman) One teacher explained that because she didn’t know what craft was that it automatically distanced her from writing and made her feel even more inferior.  She did not see herself as a writer and the idea of craft did not help her to move away from that identity.

The process of identification  is a critical one when working with writers.  Once someone actually manifests the idea of “I am a writer” then all things begin to change, as they “see” themselves as writers they find the confidence to play a little more, to worry a little less about doing it “right”, and discover the freedom to explore and try on some of the moves of others writers.

“Moves” seem to be more available to some.  Identifying these moves actually moves writers closer to that place of identification.  Anyone can try out a move.  In asking students (be they 3rd graders, 33 year-olds or 63 year olds) to try a”craft” is something that some cannot identify with.  Trying a move in your writing  is like trying a dance move.   It takes out that ethereal sense of “writer” and brings it down to earth, making writing available to writers of all shapes and sizes.

When the students regrouped to share their findings, their books were loaded with sticky notes and “moves” they would like to possibly try.  Each set of partners shared one move that impressed them the most.  The possibilities seemed endless.

So when I returned to that classroom I was eager to find out what had transpired over the week and what I found when I walked in was a very busy writing workshop with paper and scissors and computers and crayons and markers and pencils and busy writers abound.  There was a buzz in the room and so I began conferring to find out more.

What I discovered was that the “move” most decided to try was to write their reports in the “voice” of something significant from their chosen state be it the state bird, produce or in the Hawaii report in the voice of the waves.  I had to laugh  because this project started with the idea of voice and seemed to be ending here as well.  The idea of personifying something from their state took on a life of it’s own so much so that the narrator from Alabama, “Fuzzy the Peach” actually “visited” the narrator, the Cactus Wren, state bird of Arizona, on the pages of the Arizona book.  So now these kids were learning not only about their states, but about the states their classmates were studying as well.  They were collaborating and sharing ideas and admiring each other’s work and ideas during the process, finding an immediate audience with authentic feedback.   One gets an idea from another and it snowballs.  It was infectious.

I also noted how all of  the writers were in such different places and stages and that for some, the gift of time to really work on an illustration with incredible depth and detail was appreciated. “I love making this book!” Josh told me.  When I asked him why he said that it was fun, relaxing and enjoyable to show his information in a book.  I could see from his writing alone that it was not something he excelled at as his letters looked young and his words were far and few in his research, but by focussing on what he loved about his state of California, the sports teams he was creating the most detailed images in the room.

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Image Credit: inkygirl.com

I also realize having the eyes of the occasional observer are different eyes than those of the teacher who has a list a mile long of things to get done with her students and that handing that time over, even when we know it is valuable, can feel too long or too free or too unproductive.  Fortunately, this young, intuitive teacher, Ashley, understands and sees the value in what each child is doing and how individual the process of each student is.  It takes patience. Then it takes more patience. It is not easy for every student and there are always those who struggle, those who seem to be wasting time and those who are not engaged.  It takes time and it takes a great leap of faith and trust in ones’ self and the kids themselves.

Finally, I noticed was how sacred the oaktag  was to these kids.  Some cut theirs into smaller pieces to make more pages, others just talked about how lucky they were to be using such expensive paper and how it was different than any other “paper” because it was so sturdy and perfect for book-making.  One girl stroked the smoothness of the tagboard telling me how she just LOVED the feeling of this paper.

ImageAll of these things, all of these tools, all of these conversations, all of these moments are part of being a writer, of the writing process of a working Writer’s Workshop.  It is messy, it is chaotic, it is time consuming, but it is organized chaos where the voices, choices, creativity and sounds of the writers are front and center and the snowmen, well, they are out where they belong, on the playground.

Bad Raps: In Poetry, Social Media and Of Course, The Common Core

Poetry and Social Media have both had their share of bad raps.

The poetry of our (collective) past was often presented as something that was only available to those chosen few who may or may not find the many levels of hidden meanings tucked in between the lines.  Every time I bring poetry to my teachers, there is a group squirm in the room as everyone shifts in their seats and falls back into their past experiences with poetry.

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You will find poetry nowhere unless you bring some of it with you.
– Joseph Joubert

Poetry was not available and many hold fast to the belief that it still isn’t.  But thanks to modern day poets such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and even those of old such as e.e. cummings, poetry can be accessible to all.  With a little patience and practice some even come to enjoy poetry.

We just need to shift out of our old habit of thinking we “won’t get it” and realize that what we take from the poem is enough.  It may just be the sound of the words or how they are arranged; it may be a line that strikes the soul, or an adverse reaction to an image.  Whatever it is, it is for us.  Poetry can move people to their own “edges” if you will, asking them to work and think a little bit more and little bit harder, what does that mean?

“Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.”  Khalil Gibran

Social Media has also gotten a bad rap, especially when we are having conversations about our youth.  And while we might be concerned about the growing evolutionary thumbs of this next generation and their inability to communicate face to face without a device are worthy concerns, there is the upside to this wonderful world of technology.

One is the meeting of poetry and social media I encountered these past couple of weeks as poetry swept it’s way onto Facebook and flooded my feed with fabulous poets and poetry.  The way it worked was simple.  Read a poem posted by a friend and if you liked that poem they would send you a poet and you in turn posted a poem by that assigned poet.

I can only wonder how many hits poetry.org and other such sites got this poetry month.  It was a treat to go onto Facebook wondering what poem or poet you would see next.  It was also interesting to see what new poets might come up.  And even if the poem was one I knew, it was nice to be revisited by old favorites.  Some even went so far as to research their assigned poet, posting photos and biographical information as well as a poem.    There were side conversations about how many poets some knew and how thrilled others were to be introduced to new poets.  Others felt “out of their league” but quickly immersed themselves in  finding the perfect poem.  Some began the process of identification as one who likes and dare I even say might consider writing poetry.

I can’t tell you how many poems I added to my poetry folder for future teaching!  There was  a crazy wonderful poetry community created through social media with people across the country that never would have been possible without social media.  It was, if I may say so myself, pretty damn cool!

And then we come to the Common Core where poetry is not mentioned, named or listed in any categories in the entire document.  And while the intent was not to eliminate poetry, that is the interpretation of many.  Schools are reading this document as a curriculum even when it clearly states that it is NOT!  But the subtle, or not so subtle message underlying the omission of poetry is that what is not listed will not be tested; therefore precious time will not be wasted teaching it.  Schools without Shel Silvserstien, Prelutsky, Roald Dahl, A.A. Milne, and Sharon Creech will be very sad places.

While I realize you have all heard me rant and rave on about the CCSS nation wide hold on education, I do not believe I have given it’s history justice and so I direct you here to a link where Diane Ravitch lays out the history of the Common Core and it’s daunting predecessors.

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Diane Ravitch

I believe this history gives context to why we are where we are and how incredibly insipid it is.  I believe anyone who has any stock in the public educational system needs to read this.  I would like to see this article go viral.  The more we know the more we can begin to understand what is at stake.

And so I leave you with my assigned poet (by the fabulous Children’s poet, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, who you must check out at this link) and the words of ee cummings:  enjoy, savor and just take it in for what it is, let it linger on your tongue for the sweetness that it is and nothing more or less.

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e.e. cummings

 

 

E. E. Cummings (1894 – 1962)

I Will Wade Out

i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Alive
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
I will rise
After a thousand years
lipping
flowers
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon

And as the world goes, I read this post to my daughter, Emma and she reminded me that her choir in High School sang this poem as composed by Eric Whitacre.  Love the connections!  And while we don’t have a recording of her choir, here is a youtube link to another choir singing it.  Glorious!

I Will Wade Out

Letting Go: On Permission, Patience, Persistence and Possibilities…

Zachary is a senior this year and while I have tried to keep from writing about him, I find myself in the beginning phases of grieving his impending move from home to college.  When I asked him if he was ready he simply said, “No, not really, but it will be great.”  Zachary is my possibility person.  He sees the world as something that is here for him to embrace and engage in every moment he is alive.  He truly does live in the moment.   My Dad always referred to him as the one who is always “tinkering” with something.  In many ways I think he is a lot like my Dad in that his while his grades in school are not stellar, his ideas and his passion for possibility lies deep.  It is rare he says he “can’t” do something.

His latest passion is this song, Let Her Go by Passenger (that I now know by heart as I have heard it a million times a day for about 4 weeks now) and so he has decided to learn this song on the piano.  He does not, or should I say he has not ever really played the piano.  That is Emma’s instrument.  But he you tubed it (yes, I do think that is a verb!) and from watching has begun the process of two handing the keys to this tune.  I marvel at his persistence, or in this day in educational jargon, his stamina to keep on keeping up with this endeavor.  He has the first part down pretty well, and he won’t quit until he reaches the end.  I know this because this is how Zachary learns. There is always some kind of creative process that invites him in and then he is all in.

What happens when we slow down and give each learner the permission to learn about and research whatever it is they are interested in?  What happens when there is a structure, but the content is filled in by each individual in the group?

So this year I decided to try out some of what I was preaching on my group of teachers in Dover Middle School.  I have been working with this group for years and they have one of the best collective senses of humor I have ever known.   The group has come together, I believe, even more so because of the writing we have been doing together every time we meet.  I am always surprised at what I learn about one of these dedicated teachers through their writing and I love hearing their voices develop and change with each piece they try.  They are always willing to read their writing and give feedback to each other.  In our conversations about the Common Core State Standards we also question and wonder about where the idea of freedom comes into play in public education.

And so I walked into the first class and said, “I have no class text, I have no syllabus, all I have is a workshop model and ways to guide and facilitate us through the processes of learning of your choosing.  What is it that you want to learn about?  What are some of the questions you are wondering about that you feel you don’t have the time to discover?    There were wide eyes of excitement looking back at me as the possibilities ran across the faces of some and panic across the others.  I quickly realized that one of the first beliefs we needed to look at was that  of the “right answer” as some asked me,  “What is it that you want?”  “What exactly are you looking for and what does it look like?”  Immediately I saw that although we talked the good talk of freedom, that we as adults are as entrenched in this kind of thinking as our students, seeking that “right” answer. In the words of Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  And so we have spent a great deal of time examining our attitudes, beliefs and biases.  Some of the work we have done together I took on the road as I have told this group that they are my research project as I work beside them and experience the same processes they are experiencing.

I recently presented some of this research at NCTE in Boston with colleagues and friends, Louise Wrobleski and Terry Moher.  We engaged in a playful study of “Reading the Visuals and Visualizing the Reading” and along the way we rediscovered the power of the visual everywhere we went.  Every day we sent each other new ideas, articles, links and images to spark our thinking. It was exhilarating because we were all engaged in thinking about, reading and researching the same thing at the same time and yet we each came at it from completely different angles.  It was these differences that gave form and texture to our presentation as we each defended and wrote up just what it was we intended to do with our 20 minutes of fame while at the same time weaving a common thread among us.  It was challenging and exciting.

Ultimately my part in the presentation came from the deep seeded belief that if we want our teachers/students to engage their students then they must first experience the process themselves.  Classic Don Graves.  When our participants sat down there were pictures of faces staring at them from the middle of the table.  They were asked to take one that spoke to them and then to add something to the face.  Instantly I could feel a shift of energy in the room and so I asked, “How many of you think  you can’t draw?” and almost all of the hands went up.  And while I told them not to worry, it was evident that it was a challenge for many as everyone tried to add some kind of body to their chosen face.  Here are some images I shared with them from my work with my Dover teachers and many mimicked this same behavior by adding what they “thought” was expected of them, a body.

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By Melissa

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by Tina

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Then I showed them some images from this wonderful blog, busymockingbird.com where a mother collaborates with her four year old daughter and allows her to put “bodies” onto her faces.  Here are some of those images.

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And after showing these images suddenly the world of possibilities opens up as each person is granted permission to be playful, to think beyond what they “thought” the expectation was in terms of a “right” answer, even though I said there was no right or wrong way to add to their faces.  After sharing these as well as images from Terry Moher’s students work I then asked them to turn over their faces and give it another go.  And again the energy shifted and people began to envision, talk and even giggle at what might be, based on what they felt confident about drawing and the images took on completely different shapes and forms. After sketching I asked participants to write either about their process or to bring words and life to the images they had created. Or as one Dover teacher Lisa stated on her second go, I looked at this face and as I was trying to think outside of the box, I thought, boxes, yes, I can draw boxes!  And this is what she came up with.

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by Mark

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by Melissa

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by Denise

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by Ben

The following images are of particular interest to me. The first  was drawn by an elementary teacher, Pam.   The second by Ben a middle school teacher.  What I found fascinating was that these were their first drawings.  What was it about Pam and Ben’s thinking that they got to where others often only got to on the second go?  They both talked about how they couldn’t draw bodies, so they looked at the faces and tried to come up with something that fit the face that they could draw,  but that was not a body. Essentially Pam and Ben gave themselves permission to add to the faces in any way they felt would work.   They allowed themselves to just let go and were not confined by the idea of what was “right”.

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by Ben

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by Pam

Well you only need the light when it’s burning low

Only miss the sun when it starts to snow

Only know you love her when you let her go

 

Only know you’ve been high when you’re feeling low

Only hate the road when you’re missing home

Only know you love her when you let her go

And you let her go.

                             ~ Let Her Go by Passenger

And while these lyrics ring in my head I think about how we all need to let go, if even just a little bit.  All of us.  I need to let go as a mother and allow my son to make his way in the world, and as teachers we need to let go.  Let go of the “one answer society rules” demands of the testing world and open up our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities that lie within.

Stupid is as Stupid Does: More on The Common Core

The other night we stumbled upon the movie Forrest Gump.  Man, I forget what a great movie it is on SO many levels.  The scene that really made me pause was when Forrest’s mother, played brilliantly by Sally Fields, is at the local public school and the principal holds up a life –sized graph with 3 sections.  He points out the top section and says this is Above Average, then to the middle section indicating Average (duh!) and then to a point in the Below Average section stating, this is where Forrest lies.  Her response is what I wish all of our responses are to the numbers we use to sum up our youth, our schools, our teachers and beyond.  She looks at the Principal like he has lost his mind when he says Forrest will need to attend a special school where she retorts in her perfect southern accent, “Oh for God’s Sake, It is only 5 silly little points, the boy will be going to school here.”  And that is the end of the scene.  Soon after you see Forrest getting on the big yellow school bus.

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Of course as you watch the embedded history lessons and how Forrest had a hand in so much that we never knew the one line that really sticks out is “Stupid is as stupid does.”

And that is where we are in education right now.  Stupid is as stupid does.  We are so caught up in those graphs and charts and data that we cant even see what is right in front of us.  The more I hear the more stupid it all becomes and I think we need to be more like Mrs. Gump and stop giving these tests and everything that surrounds them so much energy and weight.  Part of the problem is that there are so many stories, myths and misconceptions around the Common Core that nobody even knows what is going on.

See here to read “Ten Colossal Errors of the Common Core Standards:   http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2013/11/common_core_standards_ten_colo.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB

Did you know there are some schools here in New Hampshire who are saying “NO” to the Common Core?  And while they ARE being penalized in terms of funding, losing about $100,000.00 they are looking forward realizing that to implement the tests surrounding the Common Core is going to cost their district over $200,000.00.  Why are we so incredibly short sighted when it comes to these top down mandates.  What are we so afraid of?

I have said it before and I will say it again, if my kids were starting in public school right now I would get them out!  Or in the words of Jenny, “Run Forrest Run!”  Run from the shackles of numbers and testing!  Our kids are being used as lab rats and caught up in a sea of bureaucratic and political snares that have nothing to do with a better education for each.  Our educational system is being bullied into the dregs of privatization where companies can and will dictate what happens in our schools.

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Pearson already is!  Pearson is an enormous conglomeration that has tentacles that reach into more areas of education than you cannot even imagine.  This octopus of a machine has created the tests that children will take that are too hard on many levels. The other day I was sent a link to the Smarter Balance site where I could go in and “take” the test at many different levels.  I chose 3rd grade and went to the LA section.  Immediately, I thought of all of the hundreds of 3rd graders I have worked with and my anxiety level started to rise.  The first question is about a Chinese child, Little Lang, who is learning his or her characters.  I think of those who don’t have the background knowledge that Chinese characters are letters.  This character goes off with his brush…how many 3rd graders “write” with a brush?  And it just goes from there.  At the end there were multiple questions to answer and of course lots of places for written responses.

As a highly analytical person I can often see at least 2 very distinct answers that “could” be true or right.   And after that question I went on to the second one and then realized this was only 2 out of 50!  And that is JUST the Language Arts section.

Here is a link to the test.  See for yourself!!

https://sbacpt.tds.airast.org/student/

And once the numbers come out we will see exactly what these tests are designed to do, to create a new narrative of the epic failure of our public school system.  But as with every magical story there will be the night in shining armor who will show up in shiny new textbooks wrapped in bubble wrap, a colorful collage of books and workbooks to fix all of your districts woes in one fell swoop.  And the publisher will be….yes, you guessed it, Pearson.  The one who set up the tests in the first place.

And even more disturbing is that if you are really worried about test performance Pearson has test prep materials ready for sale to get all of your little lemmings in line.  In fact one teacher in New York City found one of the exact prep test questions on the “actual” test!   The message again?  If you want to do well on these tests then you must have Pearson test prep.  Do you see the irony here?   Do you taste the incredible conflict of interest?

There are many things that have started to rumble around the country that give me hope!  One group of parents in New York State sent all of their kids test scores back to the school and the company.  Great!  But the kids still had to suffer through the tests!  Other groups are opting out of these tests and the more we get on board with this the more likely is that we can take back our educational system and begin from the ground up to rebuild it.  Top down…stupid is as stupid does.

A link to Fair Test listing the many ways to Opt Out locally and Nationally:  http://www.fairtest.org/get-involved/opting-out

And although this video is showing up all over my Facebook feed I am going to link to it here as well because this kid has guts and makes some great points!!  Again, he gives me hope.  Imagine if more of our students stood up for what they think is right and just and fair.

http://youngcons.com/legit-tennessee-high-school-senior-decimates-common-core/

He is something huh?  And as Forrest says “Momma always says life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”  In this case, if you dig to the bottom of the box you can see quite clearly what we are gonna get, and it tastes nothing like chocolates!!

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Teacher Feature with Mark Holt-Shannon on The Common Core: Getting There Quickly

In an effort to expand the conversation here on this blog,  I would like to introduce “Teacher Feature”, a place where I will post the reflections, thoughts, meanderings, writings and ideas of teachers.  In my work I have the privilege of working with so many amazing talented professionals.  I get the best of the best.  Think about it.  They take their own precious time during and at the end of the day to meet with me.  They attend classes after school to read, write and discuss their own professional development.  They are who you want teaching your child.

This week I feature Mark Holt-Shannon, an 8th grade teacher from Dover Middle School in Dover New Hampshire. When I first walked into Mark’s classroom several years ago there was a palpable energy that was inviting and invigorating.    He instructed the kids to get their “nets” (writer’s notebooks where you “catch” ideas) and do some writing about what they had just discussed.  There were all the elements of a Writer’s Workshop up and running like a fine tuned machine.  And  I wanted to stay, be a student and experience what those kids were experiencing.

When I first sat down with Mark I was amazed at just how hard he was on himself as a teacher, constantly questioning and wondering what he could or should be doing better. (A hallmark of brilliance in my book!)   There was a sense of something that was missing for him in his teaching as he wondered, was he doing all that he could?  He talked about feeling disorganized because he never had his entire week planned out or even months for that matter as others around him did.  Sure, he had a sense of the direction he was headed in, but he talked about how that plan changed every day based on the needs, demands and understandings of his students.  In short, he is a reflective, responsive and motivating teacher of reading and writing.  The kids LOVE him!

Today he talks about how his walks to and from school allow him the time to plan in his head how to pick up where he left off the day before, but again there is a sense that he is doing something “not quite right”.  In this piece Mark comments on the current culture in education and what it feels like to be teaching every day with so much other noise going on around him at more than lightning speed with the word “rigor” staring teachers in the face of every turn.  You will also see that he himself is a talented writer who writes and enjoys what words can do on the page.

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Mark conferring with student at UNH Writer’s Academy 2013

Common Core: getting there quickly  

By Mark Holt-Shannon

How often on this trip down the road of guiding students toward becoming better thinkers and perceivers and feelers and citizens, do we get to, or think to, stop and look closely at the map?  How often do we pull over in the dark, especially before we get to that point (a crossroads, an exit sign offering choices) where we have to make a decision about the best direction to take?  Where we have to push on the overhead light and consider the options, the routes?  Scenic or quick?  Doesn’t it feel, too often and instead, like we’re just trusting the GPS?  She’s telling us to go a particular way, maybe we agree, maybe we don’t.  Maybe her directions seem logical, maybe they don’t.  But we look at our watches and do the timetable math and just do what she says, hoping for the best.  Gotta be there by morning.  Gotta be there by morning.  Why?  Because come morning, we’re dropping them at the bus station so they can start their journey to the train station.

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My problem is that I like to look at the map, put my finger on where I am, put my finger on where I am supposed to go, and look in between to see what is there that would be cool to see.  What historical markers, what natural or physical beauty, what friends do I know, what cultural experiences, food, music, language, ethnicities exist along the way that we can come in contact with?  No, if I am heading north, I don’t want to spend too much time traveling south; though I may need to occasionally.  I can agree that we need to keep moving in an agreed upon direction.  There is merit and necessity in all of us meeting at a similar place.  Why?  Shit, good question.  I don’t want to sound like too much of a hippie here.  Why?  So that we can embrace each other.  Talk about what we’ve seen and how it affected us.  Learn from one another.  Discover places we’d like to travel back to some day.  Decide maybe if we’re ready to move on, to get on the bus—if that’s what we’re doing.

Rigor is not about having to hold your pee and stay in your seat with your seatbelt fastened and not complain and have no say in the direction.  Is it?  Rigor is getting out of the car.  Not just looking at the world through the window and checking it off the list of markers we’ve passed.  Rigor is exposure and reflection.  “Look at this, what do you think?  How does it compare or contrast to something else we saw?”  Rigor is “No, you can’t stay in the car, you have to get out and step in it, speak the language, consider the beauty, consider the poverty, consider your place in it.  Try the food, listen to the music, shake the hands of the people.  Will you ever come back here?  Why?  Speak, write, listen, feel, love, read.  No, you cannot sleep the entire trip.  You have to find a way to be affected by what you are seeing and you have to make that affectation known.”  Rigor.

Why are listening to the GPS?  She wants me to go the fastest most efficient way.  But if I do that, what will I have brought with me?  What experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will I show up with?

Seriously, what “experiences and lessons and memories and discoveries will” our kids show up with if we continue on this path of the GPS and don’t consider the journey of each child?

Thank you Mark!

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.

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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