Thursday, February 28, 2013

Authentic Reading and Writing Communities

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to not only attend, but also present at the amazing Dublin Literacy Conference (#dublit13).  While I've presented twice at the Central Ohio Technology Summit and organized informal SMARTboard and Moodle sessions with colleagues, this was by far my most "official" event.

COTS is free, very local, and very low-key (yet still very wonderful!), while teachers drive for hours and pay a substantial registration fee for the Lit Conference.  Moreover, there are incredible keynote speakers (Ralph Fletcher & Louise Borden this year, and Donalyn Miller & Sharon Draper last year!), as well as other sessions with other famous teachers and authors!  (Husband made fun of me when I said there were "famous teachers," but it's true!)

Consequently, I woke up on Saturday morning with almost as much energy as I have on a Christmas morning and started sweating buckets as soon as I arrived at the conference.  This might sound like I was nervous, and I was a little, but mostly I was excited. I know some people don't really enjoy presenting, but I love it!  I love to share my ideas and help people find new strategies to improve their teaching, because I love learning so much.  I also think it's really fun to meet other teachers and connect with them.

Since this was a fancy conference, I even got my very own "presenter" ribbon.  I'll admit that I felt pretty proud of myself wearing it around all day!  Best part: when I was getting Ralph Fletcher to sign my classroom copy of Guy Write for my students, he noticed my "presenter" ribbon and said "Oh, I see you're a fellow presenter!"  A fellow presenter! I almost died!  My tiny little session didn't exactly compare to your keynote speech, Ralph!

Anyway, I had a wonderful time sharing ideas about engaging my ELLs with authentic reading and writing communities.  In addition to discussing how I use Goodreads and Kidblog with my students, I showed some examples from our reading and writing workshop discussion forums on Moodle. I also shared some of the resources I provide to engage my students as readers and writers, like  RSS feeds and widgets with news articles and the "writing inspiration" page I created.

To me, the most important evidence that these tools are effective is the fact that students use them voluntarily outside of school.  When I give a book talk and my students are adding the book to the "to-read" lists on Goodreads from their phones and iPads, that's authentic engagement.  When I visit my school Goodreads account or go to our blog and find that someone has voluntarily used them after school, that's the best feeling in the world.

After all, I want my students to learn while they're in my class, but I really want them to keep learning after they leave my class.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Good Old Days (Ralph Fletcher)

at Two Writing Teachers!
Last weekend, I got to attend the Dublin Literacy Conference, an incredible day of professional learning organized by my district.  I'm so proud that I teach (and that I graduated from) a district that puts on such an exceptional event that people come across Ohio (and even from other states!!!) to attend.  (You may have seen the tweets at #dublit13!)

Last year, I was blown away by the amazing learning I came away with (and the fact that I got to meet Ruth Ayres!)  This year, the highlight was an inspiring keynote from Ralph Fletcher.  My favorite part was that he provided an opportunity for us to experience what it's like to write with a mentor text.  He showed us one of his poems, "The Good Old Days," and then gave us a few minutes to write our own poem, using the first and last stanzas of his.

Since I loved to write poetry, it was really easy for me to create a poem with the same structure and a similar feel.  This is what I came up with: (remember, the first and last stanzas are Ralph's!)

Sometimes I remember
the good old days

tromping through the creek,
muddy and laughing.

Baseball in the backyard
with my daddy's sure pitches,

barefoot in the garden,
my small rake in time with his.

Cutting tomatoes for spaghetti sauce,
my mom's smile hovering over my shoulder.

I still can't imagine 
anything better than that.

Helping Daddy in our old backyard!
After we wrote, Ralph called on a few volunteers to share their poems.  It was so much fun to hear how other people had used the same structure and themes to create something new.  Ralph pointed out how different people borrow different elements of a mentor text depending on who they are as readers and writers.  For example, some writers might just borrow the specified lines, while others might borrow the structure, the tone, the way the lines begin, and even the topics of some of the stanzas (i.e. a "mom" memory in the same place).  I don't think I would have realized that if he hadn't pointed it out, and it's an important idea to keep in mind when we use mentor texts with students!

I can't wait to "see" you all for the March Challenge!!!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wild Weather

at Two Writing Teachers!
We've been playing with figurative language in my Intermediate and Advanced classes, which has been a delight!  Perhaps that's why the crazy weather from the past 24 hours appeared to sweep by me like a parade of wild animals, who then romped from my brain down through my fingers into a poem!

I think my brain is also gearing up for the March challenge.  The writer that sometimes gets hidden inside of me can't wait!

Can you "see" the different kinds of weather we've had as you read the poem?

Wild Weather
Yesterday's smiling sunshine
brought whiffs of spring
like a young fawn dancing 
in a flower-filled meadow.

Last night, 
a rambunctious pack of wolves
howled and yelped,
breaking branches and blazing trails,
rumbling through the moonlight.

In the muffled morning, 
brilliant white butterflies dreamily drifted down,
swirling smoothly and landing lightly.
A gentle fluff of whirling wings.

This afternoon, a dreaded wolverine:
snarling, baring its jagged teeth
and swiping with menacing claws.
Cutting and biting.

When will the sweet fawn
blink into the sunlit grass again?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What they need

at Two Writing Teachers!
How is it that life always seems to give you what you need just when you need it?  (Strong evidence, in my opinion, that there is someone up there taking care of things!)  I've learned that I can count on my students (and my mom, and all of you!) to pick me up and push me to keep going when I'm overwhelmed and discouraged. And just when I'm in danger of getting too wrapped up in testing and standards and measuring and "moving" students forward, they remind me that there's more to teaching than all that.  They remind me that in addition to learning, they need so much more.

Sometimes, they reveal a personal crisis, open my eyes to hard truths, or give me a glimpse of life in their shoes.  They want to know me and they share their own journeys.  They explore big ideas and ask tough questions.  Often, they just want to know: "Do you like kids like us?"  Every once in a while, they even reach out directly for what they really need: love.

Twice a week, my beginner ELLs write to me on a dialogue calendar.  (I stole this idea from a reading teacher at one of the middle schools I used to teach at!)  They can tell me (and ask me) anything they want, and I respond and ask them questions.  It's basically an ongoing conversation on paper.
They practice their writing and reading, and we get to know each other better!
Last week, one girl (whose birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks) wrote the following:
"Are you going to hug me on my birthday?  I'm asking because I'm going to be lonely that day. :/ My family is going to be working the whole day and I'll only have the affection of my friends. :-("

I could feel tears springing up in the corners of my eyes.  Her family is loving and supportive, but I know they all work really hard just to survive.  So I wrote to her that I always have a hug ready whenever she needs one, but I also wrote that I know her family is working so hard because they want a better life for her.

How do you measure that?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Just the right words

at Two Writing Teachers!
At the end of the school day today, I trudged down to the office with some student work to put in teacher mailboxes, my feet and eyelids heavy.  In the span of a week, we've had state ELL testing, parent conferences, and preparations for student scheduling. On top of that, we've dealt with some serious emotions and several social conflicts among our students.

Lately, I've also been struggling with where my students are in their learning.  So many of them have come so far since the fall, but many also still have a long way to go to reach where I want them to be.  With the year more than halfway over, I've been feeling disappointed that we haven't reached the blissful classes full of voracious readers and inspired writers that I was envisioning.  (This is why I have to keep reminding myself to celebrate the small successes!)

Anyway, when I looked in my mailbox after school, I found an irregularly-shaped interoffice mail envelope awaiting me.  Grinning, I knew there was a 99% chance that my mom's handwriting would be on the outside.  Oh boy!  Funny-shaped envelopes from my mom are the best, because she delights in sending me little surprises.  Sure enough, there was my name in her familiar lettering.

First, a neat little collection of various sticky notes in a tiny hardcover notebook! (ooh, she knows how I love sticky notes!) Next, I pulled out a copy of the latest Teaching Tolerance magazine, which has an article and a poster about having a school culture that welcomes and supports ELLs.  On the front, my mom wrote me this note:
That's right, my mom still calls me "Sweet Pea"!
Her words were exactly what I needed to hear.  I am doing it.  I'm making a difference.  I may not be doing it perfectly or even wonderfully, and it might not be going exactly like I'd hoped, but I am "doing good".  As Ruth wrote a few weeks ago, I am enough. Teaching ELLs was my dream because I wanted to change lives, and I am living that dream.  Everything I do every day makes a difference, even if it's small.

Just like that quotation from Galatians 6:9 says, someday I will get that "harvest" if I keep working hard. (In fact, a harvest is really just picking a whole bunch of little plants, and I've already seen some of them ripen!)  When I feel weary, I will pick myself back up and keep going.  I will not give up.

My students need me and I will never truly grow tired of doing good for them.