Friday, December 13, 2013

Thinking about Place

This year my students will be learning about The Coolest Place You've Never Heard Of. At least, that's what I call the project in my mind.

When I started memorizing all the countries two years ago, I realized that there are many (many many) places on this planet that I had never even heard of. Many are islands, some still governed by a European nation. Others are independent. I wanted my students to learn about these places, but I didn't find a way to approach the subject last year.

Fast forward a year. I've been reading Chris Lehman's Energize Research Reading and Writing. We have an open house for families at the end of January. I'm a bit between revolutions in history. Why not spend some time researching a cool place and turn it into something to share with families in January? (By the way, it was 2 degrees when I started writing this. Just writing about January makes me colder.)

On Wednesday we started thinking about places. It was, coincidentally, another open house, this time for prospective families, so we had our doors open for visitors. I took my idea for this straight from Chris's book. On some chart paper on our easel, I put a simple 3-column chart. I wrote "I know", and then "a lot", "some", and "a little" at the top of each column. I asked students to open to a double-page spread in their social studies notebooks, and to copy the chart on the left page.

Meanwhile, I made my own chart on the SmartBoard. After a minute, I asked them to put down their pencils, and I started filling in my chart. I used it two different ways, both to lists several different places and also to think about what I knew and didn't know about specific places. I gave students five minutes and told them to fill in their thinking sheets as it worked for them.

After five minutes, I asked them to pick one of their places, and write about it quickly on the right page. What do you know? What do you want to know? When you exhaust one topic, either draw a line and pick another one, or go back to your chart if writing has sparked your thinking. I gave them ten minutes to go back and forth between the two pages, and suggested they have 2-3 quick pieces at the end of that time.

When time was up (I let the activity go until everyone had at least two quick writes), I asked them to jot down a list of places that they were curious about after thinking about places. It could be a region or a specific place. At this point I let students spend time looking at the maps on our walls, so they gathered and started pointed out interesting places to each other.

I realized partway through the second class that it would be helpful to refine the statement at the top of the page to "Places I know (a lot, some, a little) about." It's something to remember next time.

I'm not sure where this project will take us. I've told students that I want them to become experts about a place. Some will hunt out the most obscure place possible, and others are curious about places of current significance. The student in the photo above wants to learn about "places of war", names that we have heard on the news but know nothing about. I love that idea.

At this point, I'd like students to have a general idea for their place (or a few contenders) before they leave on break. I won't assign anything specific for this project over the vacation, but I pointed out that most of us have at least one day over break when we're bored enough to do homework. Why not spend it looking up obscure parts of the world on Google Earth?

And if you haven't yet read Chris Lehman's Energize Research Reading and Writing, I highly recommend it. The thinking sheet and writing we did came straight from the book. I'm still in the early chapters, and it's already changing my classroom.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How the Lesson Really Went

Last week I wrote about my plans for selecting and revising a scene from our NaNoWriMo novels to include in a class anthology.

As with any lesson, there were changes and improvements along the way. One class finished choosing and started revising last week, and the other just picked their scene yesterday. One class followed the lesson plan pretty closely and the other moved in fits and starts.

That's how classrooms work.

We started seated at our imaginary rug. I reminded them what an anthology is, and said that this year I'm determined to put one together for our novel excerpts. I asked them to make a list of scenes, or moments, from their stories. I said they could even include scenes that they hadn't yet written but were part of their story. I sent them back to their seats to make their lists with their novels open in front of them, and I started my own list.

It was hard. Really, really hard. I'd decided to change my set-up completely, so I didn't want to use any of those scenes. I ended up with a list of scenes that I still needed to write.

This was equally hard for some of my students. Most of us look back on our NaNo drafts with a sense of accomplishment and also a sense that "this is not good." We might love our stories, but we know how much work there is to do before they reach the ideal in our minds.

Many students were also stuck on length. Ask them to pick a conversation between characters, they ask how long it should be. Ask them for a scene about setting, they ask how long it should be. I told them repeatedly that it was irrelevant at this point, but I don't think they believed me. I still refused to answer.

Once we each had at least five scenes, we came back to the rug. I showed them a clip of Donald Graves from Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle. In the clip, Donald Graves shares his list of writing ideas and then asks students to do the same. I shared my list and then asked students to share theirs with the person next to them. After a few minutes of talk we shared our top two with the group, and returned to our computers to locate those scenes in our drafts. We made electronic copies (so they wouldn't be working with their full novel every day) and printed out the pages for our writing folders.

Next step: Remind them again that revising is more than moving the commas around.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

After NaNoWriMo

Every year I have a new plan for how to handle life after NaNoWriMo. We revise excerpts. We pull out dialogue and practice the rules for punctuating it. It's always a battle because we are caught between Thanksgiving and Christmas, fighting against daily distractions in a school that celebrates all month long.

This year we're changing it up again. Students have already turned in their November drafts electronically. This allows me to verify their word count and that they actually write a novel, no matter how bad it is, and not just gibberish. (And yes, once in five years a student has written gibberish. For a month. Sigh.) I won't read these in detail, but I'll make sure they exist.

Next we're going to pick a scene to revise and share. I'm asking students to look through their drafts and pick at least 5 moments, or plot points, that they might like to revise and include in a class anthology. I don't want pages or even words from their drafts yet, just scenes (fight with mom, missing the foul shot, the snowstorm, etc). I'm going to ask them to share their list with classmates, and only then will they actually pull words and pages from their draft.

At this point, our focus will be on story. Some students will have lots of text they want to use and others might largely start over from scratch. I already know I'm gutting my draft, so my scene might be 99% new words. The same will be true for some of them.

I can't wait to get started.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Writing about Reading

In 8th grade recently, we've been doing a lot of writing about reading.

Our reading and writing notebooks.

During NaNoWriMo, almost all of our writing time was devoted to working on our novels.

As part of reading, however, we do three types of reading responses each week.

For each installment of A Tale of Two Cities, students answer questions about the assigned reading before we discuss it in class. I post these questions on Edmodo, and they respond using Edmodo's turn in assignment function. Some students write sentences and others write mini-essays. I'm mostly interested in gauging their basic understanding, and it gives me a better idea of who is doing this reading independently and who still needs lots of help.

Independent Reading labels

I also ask students to respond to their independent reading each week. Earlier this year I gave each student a sheet of labels with a variety of reading response prompts. (Actually, I made them last year but we only used a few. I reused the sheets with my new class.) Each label has a different prompt, and each student puts their name on the back of a sheet. I like this because students must vary their responses each week. They can't write each week about their favorite character. It also allows them the freedom to match a prompt to their current book, instead of forcing them to adapt a class prompt to their book. Sometimes students respond generically to a specific prompt, and this gives me a chance to address with them the need to keep a specific prompt or writing task in mind when they are answering a question. Finally, my tidy heart appreciates that I can actually read the prompt since it's typed at the top of the page.

She used an actual prompt, but forgot her label.
Yes, we're working on breaking into paragraphs.
These are good places to rave about books we love.

We have also been answering specific questions to accompany our class read-aloud of Catherine Gilbert Murdock's The Off Season. I hadn't planned on reading this book, but the entire class begged for it. I decided that if we did read it, we would be more deliberate in our approach. I reread it and wrote down prompts every few chapters. Some were emotional responses, and others asked students to notice something specific in the text. For example, the first chapter is about the annual Labor Day picnic, but it ends with DJ the narrator sitting in a hospital, remembering that she used to be happy. On their own, most students read right past this, but I pulled the quote out and asked them to think about it. How is this novel structured? When is the narrative happening? What do you think this means?

Some examples of whole-class prompts.

How do you write about reading in your classroom?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

So there was this

Setting: 8th grade classroom. November. Students are writing novels. Two girls are laughing manically. One boy suffers quietly at their table.

Boy: "Miss Kelley, did you know what you were doing when you put them next to each other?"
Girl 1: "She put us together on purpose. She thinks it's funny.
Boy: *sighs*
Me: "It's true."
Girls continue to laugh.
Me: "What is so funny?"
Girl 2: "She killed me off in her novel."
Me: "You killed her?"
Girl 1: "It was the sparkle ponies, but don't worry, she's recalled to life."
Silence in classroom.
Boy at other end of room: "Did you just make a Tale of Two Cities reference in your sparkle pony novel?!?"
Girl 2: "Yes I did."
Me: "I love my job."


Monday, December 2, 2013

What I Brought Back from NCTE/ALAN

Usually on Mondays I like to write about what's in store this week, but after eleven days away (for me) and the end of NaNoWriMo, we might just spend today figuring out where the heck we are. We only have fifteen school days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and at least a few of those are lost to various traditions. If my classroom is truly student-centered, then I need to start by reminding myself where they are as readers and writers and what they need from me to keep learning.

I know I will talk about NCTE and ALAN. They will want to know about Boston and about the authors that I met, but, mostly, they will want to talk about the books. Yesterday I pulled a ton of books from my shelves at home, so I'll mix those in as I discuss and recommend titles from last week.

I'll also probably talk about:

  • The highlights of ALAN: Chris Crutcher, Laurie Halse Anderson, A.S. King, and many more. I'll share the idea of resilience lit, and start pulling out and recommending some of these titles. This class hasn't really been pushing into older titles like past classes, but this is the time of year that it usually happens.
  • The Don Graves breakfast. I'm so glad that an invitation to this event was forwarded to me, because it was absolutely the best two hours of the entire convention. I've seen the videos before, but each time I am reminded that teaching children to write can be as simple as sitting and listening to their voices. The many teachers and writers in that room reminded me of who I want to be in my classroom each day.
  • What didn't work. I walked out on two sessions, one after only about ten minutes. I left when one of the presenters handed out graphic organizers (webs) and told us we had to use them to brainstorm a topic. Um, no. No no no. I'm a completely incapable of using a web like that for anything, and any presentation that begins with trying to force me to use one is not for me. I demonstrate different organizers for my students, but I always let them pick the one they prefer for use, and many times allow them not to use one at all. And I love that just a few minutes after I bolted from that session, I ran into Chris Lehman, because his books and presentations have been changing my teaching this year, and our three-minute conversation (Me: "She tried to make me use a web organizer thing." Chris: "No." Me: "I know, right.") was far more informative than the session that I left. As terrific as some other sessions were, it's the conversations in between that are the best PD.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Finish that Draft (My #nerdlution)

This year, my students and I had secret word count goals for NaNoWriMo. We also had official, public goals. Our official goals counted toward grades and "winning" on the website, while our secret goals were, well, secret. My official goal, of course, was 50,000 words, and I "won" for the fifth year in a row. (By the way, if you want motivation to finish something, tell seventy 7th and 8th graders what you're doing. That'll motivate you.)

My not-so-secret goal was to write a full draft. My best guess is that this would be in the 60,000 to 90,000 word range. I knew this wouldn't happen during November, especially with NCTE and ALAN at the end of the month, but I also knew that after five years, I wanted to push myself further. I know that I can write 50,000 words in thirty days, but can I write a full draft? Can I remain dedicated after November?

So I already had tentative plans to keep writing when I noticed the conversation that led to the #nerdlution hashtag. And, happily for me, the timing is perfect. I won't have to write as many words each day, so I can also spend some time mapping out my story. And while I'm going to adjust my project target in Scrivener to 80,000 words by January 20, I won't have to spend every day writing (and writing and writing). Committing to 30 minutes a day might involve writing, but it will also be planning and plotting and adjusting and doing all the other important writer tasks that I don't allow myself to do during November. Perhaps this year I'll end with a draft that I'm willing to let someone else read.

So #nerdlution 1: Finish NaNo draft.

I also want to get back to writing here. The best time for me to do this during the school year is before school, and I confess that I've gotten a little lazy about this. I get up at the same time, but I read or play games instead of writing. When I started this blog, I told myself that pieces could and should be short and unfinished. Sometimes I would set a timer for fifteen minutes and tell myself I was done when the duck quacked. I need to get back to this. My most recent Nerdy post, for example, reminded me that a post can be as simple as sharing a conversation that I had with students.

So while I'm not quite ready to commit to 50 posts in 50 days, I would like to get back to four or five posts in a week. That's #nerdlution 2.

And while not officially a #nerdlution, December 1 is also a good time to revisit some of my reading goals for 2013. I reached 200 books a few weeks ago, but my other goals could use some work. I won't read as many professional books or #nerdprintz books in 2013 as I would have liked, but I can commit to one teaching book and two #nerdprintz this December. I also wanted to read fifty books that I already owned, and as of today I've read thirty (though my recordkeeping here might be flawed). Again, I won't reach fifty, but I will expand my goal to include books from last spring and summer that I haven't read yet. I also need to pick up Middlemarch again before I forget everything I already read. I like it, a lot, but it's hard to find time when I'm also prepping A Tale of Two Cities each week.

Time to reset my project counter:



Monday, November 4, 2013

A "normal" week?

The last few weeks have been one thing after another. I traveled. The school hosted our rummage sale, so we had classes in the church and in the hallway. We had 8th grade conferences. It was Halloween. I looked at my lesson plans and at the calendar yesterday (yes, I was at school on a Sunday), and I realized that I lost a week somewhere and won't fit in another continent test before I go to Boston for NCTE. Oops.

This week should be calmer. We're learning South America in geography, and finally getting to spend some time discussing the Haitian revolution in history. We're reading The Off Season for our read-aloud, most students have finished Allegiant, and we're actually a month ahead of last year in A Tale of a Two Cities.

And it's NaNoWriMo.

Friday should have been a disaster. It was the day after Halloween. 8th grade was at the high school on Wednesday so we didn't have classes. There was an extra-long mass on Friday. It should have been exhausted chaos.

Instead, there was typing. And when the chicken (timer) would go off, the students would shoot it dirty looks and keep typing.

Who am I to argue with that?

Our new currently reading display. I took this idea from my friend Tony Keefer.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

The best seat in the room

Last year I was looking for something to sit on while working with students, and I didn't want to drag around one of our surprisingly heavy student chairs. I decided to try a $12 camping/fishing stool that I ordered online. I didn't always remember to pull it out last year, so this year I permanently placed it next to my tech setup near the SmartBoard, and we use it all the time.

Need to sit down to type something on the SmartBoard? Use the camping stool.

The great thing about using the camping stool instead of a podium or a student desk is that I didn't want a permanent feature in front of the SmartBoard. The SmartBoard isn't the center of our classroom, and I didn't want to be pulled to constantly teach from that location.

I love the tables in my classroom, and the camping stool makes it easy to join a group of students, or just meet with one, even if every chair is filled. In the past, I had twice as many chairs as I did students so that every student could have a seat in home room; now I have only four chairs per table, and the stool moves around to create an extra seat when I want to join a table.

Need to have a quick reading conference with a student while he's reading in the Adirondack chair? Pull up a camping stool. (Reading conference=speculating in nerdy detail about a book cover for the book everyone is reading.)
Used the stool for that purpose just yesterday.
Need to meet with a small group? Camping stools.

(I'm embarrassed by the state of this table. In my defense, it gets cleared off each day. This is mid-class.) Obviously, our stools have multiplied. Once per week the entire 8th grade (26 students) has class together in this room, and sometimes they have lunch in here, so we needed to be able to seat 26 without cluttering up the room with extra chairs. I usually keep four stools in the room (one in front and three at this table), but we've had them all out since we've been eating lunch in the classrooms a lot. Yesterday during reading time, a girl lined four of them up like an army cot and stretched out to read. Eighth graders are funny.

We're all big fans of our $15 Adirondack chair (it's very comfortable), and we have one yoga ball/stability chair that causes a minor stampede at class changes, but this year's most valuable classroom chair definitely goes to the camping stool. That was $12 well-spent.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


When I first decided to do NaNoWriMo with students four years ago, I used a stealth approach. "We're going to write novels," I whispered, hoping the kids wouldn't notice and freak out.

Now, as we approach our fifth year, it's a regular topic of discussion in the hallways between 7th and 8th graders. "What are you going to write about?" students ask each other. "Miss Kelley, are you going to write a novel?" they ask me as we stand in line for lunch.

In 8th grade we started prepping our novels last Friday. We've been using some of the lessons and ideas found on the YWP website, and I've printed out some of the planning materials. (They did the entire workbook last year.) We've been meeting on our imaginary rug to discuss characters, conflicts, and plot, and then breaking into groups to plan imaginary group novels and to work on individual planning.

That was the plan for yesterday. I wanted to replace some middle school level handouts with high school materials, and then send them off to work on plot. Instead, a student asked about my novel, and I shared my idea, and we spent the remainder of the period sharing our ideas for NaNoWriMo. And it was terrific.

I knew when I decided to answer the question that it would totally throw off our timing. We were already running late because new books arrived during lunch, and nothing was more important than distributing Allegiant immediately. But that twenty minutes of sitting in a circle, sharing ideas, was just as valuable as twenty minutes working independently (or, more likely, trying to read Allegiant without getting caught).

I began by sharing my novel idea, and even told students that I'm going to rewrite from scratch my novel from two years ago. I told them that I got so far behind that year that I wrote over 35,000 words between the end of NCTE Chicago and the end of Thanksgiving break (basically, four days). I asked students what they were going to write, and they shared their plans. There were suggestions for similar books and ideas, questions that helped with plots holes, and plenty of laughs.

In my experience, NaNoWriMo does as much for my students' reading as it does for their writing. When they try to DO as writers something they've done so many times as readers, they really start to understand how story works.

It also leads to conversations like this one:

Female student: "My novel has three main characters, and it's from all their points of view, and they're all antagonists to each other. Does that work?"
Me: "Yeah, sure. I mean Voldemorte is the protagonist of his own story, right.? He doesn't wake up each day and say I'm the antagonist."
Various replies, including a boy who I know wants to argue that Voldemorte does wake up and want to be the antagonist.
Me: "And sometimes, the antagonist and the protagonist can switch places. Like in Stars Wars, Darth Vader is the antagonist in the original trilogy but the protagonist in the prequels. Spoiler alert."
Male student: "Oh, man, I haven't read them yet."
Another male student: "They're movies."
Me: "That came out in the 1970's."
Male student: "Oh. I just figure everything comes from a book."

You can't plan for conversations like that.


Monday, October 21, 2013

End of Quarter

I haven't posted in over a week due to travel, lack of sleep, a cold, chaos, and extreme grouchiness. When I wake up in the morning and can only think about how cranky I am, writing about teaching isn't a good idea. And yes, a flight that got in at midnight on a school night had a lot to do with how cranky I was. The trip was worth it, but exhausting.

Yes, I did fly out for a football game.
An afternoon on the boat was just a bonus.

This is the last week of first quarter. Next week we have 8th grade conferences for two nights, a day off, Halloween, and the first day of NaNoWriMo. Last week we finished our first read-aloud, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and students took their first continent test, Europe. We have finished our study of the French Revolution, and we're now learning about the Haitian Revolution. For geography we're going to study the Caribbean and Central and South America. On Friday we started prepping for NaNoWriMo by creating characters; today we're going to talk about conflict. It was perfect timing to finish Dairy Queen last week because it gives us a novel that we all know really well to use as our example when we discuss elements of novels. They are begging to read the second book next, and I'm going to give in, but not until next week at the earliest. I actually think The Off Season is even better than Dairy Queen, so I'm glad they've embraced the series. And it actually works to leave the other read-alouds I've planned until after the holidays.

One new thing that I've done this year that is making my life easier is that we marked the reading and writing notebooks with colored electrical tape. I worried that this would be a waste of materials, but it's actually really helpful when I'm looking for reading responses to just grab the green and yellow notebooks. So simple, but it saves a few minutes every week.

Of course I straightened this up before I took this picture. 8th graders aren't this neat.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Excitement

This past weekend I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of a highly-anticipated new book a few days early. I took it to school with me yesterday, and when it was time to set our reading rates for the week, I wrote the title on the board and waited for someone to notice what I was reading.

At the end of each school day I hold open one of the exits doors and say goodbye to students as they leave. Yesterday I was the only one available right at 3 to do this, so I stood next to the door reading my new book in the minutes before school ended, and I held the book in my hand, cover facing out, as the students exited the building. And I waited.

Sure enough, in both instances students noticed what I was reading, and I was mobbed by eager readers. How'd you get that? Is it good? Can I see it? Seventh grade boys who had been annoyed with me at recess because I wouldn't let them lasso each other with a jump rope and a hula hoop suddenly wanted to be best friends.

These weren't accidents on my part. I wasn't trying to be cool, although I'm always glad for students to know that I'm reading what they're reading. What I wanted in this case was to keep building the buzz about books and reading in my school. I wanted to remind students that a new book was coming in their favorite series. I wanted them to go home and beg for a copy. I wanted the dozens of parents who stood nearby to see a teacher with a book, to see students, boys even, eagerly asking a teacher about a book.

Try it. Carry a new book down the hall. Let students see you reading their favorite. They'll notice.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reading Their Writing

I love reading what my students write.

I hate assigning a grade to what my students write.

Unfortunately, refusing to assign grades is not an option. I did stop using rubrics last year, and I don't regret it.

Here's how I handle 'grading' writing now: I read and respond, sometimes marking corrections and always writing a note with what works and what needs improvement. I make a note for myself about one or two writing issues for each student. Writing then falls into one of three categories. Great/You're Done means any changes are minor or just suggestions. I enter 90% in the gradebook. You should redo this/Recommended Redo means the writing should be stronger or there are some mistakes with things we're still practicing in class. The score is an 80%. Required Redo means there are the kinds of obvious mistakes that 8th graders shouldn't be making, or a lack of effort is obvious in the writing. This means the writing doesn't meet the minimum standard for the assignment. The score is 70%. Students can redo any assignment, especially writing, as many times as they need to.

Some of this, of course, is specific to my school and my students. Our grading scale doesn't include pluses or minuses, so a 90% is an A. Although this means an 80% is a B, most students hate having a score that low and will redo it. No one finds a 70% acceptable, so they'll redo that too. And I only have 26 students total this year, so reading student work multiple times is not an impossible task.

This year I'll assign a deadline for resubmitting work, probably a week after the paper is returned to students, and the new grade erases the old one. At times I'll still have too many papers to read, but I can never complain given our class sizes. I remember clearly what it was like to have 150 students and 100+ papers.

How do you handle grading writing?

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Yesterday in class we talked about Prussia (or Parooozha as one of my students called it).
You won't find Prussia on either of these maps.

They were looking up international crises faced by the French government between 1789 and 1799. This led to yet another reminder that Europe looked very different two hundred years ago, and that where they have to label individual countries, I wrote USSR and Yugoslavia. This led to a discussion about Europe before World War I, so we looked at a map of Europe in 1914, which led us to question the difference between Holland and the Netherlands. I said that the history of the Netherlands probably would not be a unit of study in our class, which led to many jokes about different small countries that we could study ("I'm very excited for our study of Andorra, Miss Kelley!").

We have also spent a fair amount of time discussing sentences like "I do not like green peppers, nor do I like cucumbers." Our question is: Why do you invert the verb and the subject after nor? I have asked all the cranky grammarians in my life, and other teachers, including the Latin teacher. No one knows for sure. We have guesses, but no solid answers. My students know how to write the sentence, but we don't really know why. (Also, I get that it's a weird construction. They were practicing coordinating conjunctions.)

I like that we have these discussions in my classroom. I like that my students understand that sometimes I don't know. I like that we are learning and discovering together. I like that we ask questions. We looked up Prussia in 1790 on my computer, then moved to the more current world map on the wall to figure out where it would be today.

They won't remember which French government invaded Egypt and which was threatened by the King of Prussia, but they'll remember to ask good questions.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our Room Right Now

Classroom shut down for weekend visitors.

This is what our classroom looks like right now.

First time in many years with wall space. It's awesome.

And here is some of what we've learned so far. Each chart begins with a conversation at the easel while the students sit on the imaginary rug. I write a messy list on paper, we talk about what it means, and students go and put it into practice. Later, I copy the list out neatly, and they write it in their notebooks.

The imaginary rug is new this year. It will hopefully become a real rug at some point. We've used it for both reading (I sit in the plastic Adirondack chair) and for mini-lessons. I think it helps to physically move to a new location (we have an 84-minute block and a separate 40-minute class most days) with no distractions. Usually they don't even bring a notebook. It helps for me to set the timer (we call it "setting the chicken" because it's a cheap chicken timer from a discount store and because we think it's funny when I say "I'm going to set the chicken for ten minutes"). Setting the timer reminds me not to let the lesson get too long, and it signals students that I value their time. We'll talk for ten minutes, it says, and then I'll give you time to practice what we've talked about.

Our space will continue to evolve, as it should, but we're happy in our new classroom. We're ready to learn.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: "The Wine-Shop"

Yesterday, we discussed chapter 5, "The Wine-Shop". Here's my 4-panel graphic adaptation:

Again, apologies to all my former art teachers.

(I especially like my Madame Defarge.)

"The Wine-Shop" is a pivotal chapter in book one. We travel to France for the first time. We meet the Defarges, and the Jacques. We finally see Doctor Manette and his shoes. Because we have spent the last month studying the French Revolution, my students weren't surprised by the poverty described in the chapter's opening pages. A man writes the word BLOOD on the wall, and my students understood when I had them mark the line that follows: "The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there."

Most of yesterday was me telling them what to mark and translating the chapter into something they'd understand. I rushed them. We had limited time, and last week I went long, and they didn't have time to process what I said afterward. Yesterday I was determined to finish discussing (talking) so they could have 10-15 minutes to work. They drew spilled casks of wine, and three Jacques talking to Monsieur Defarge, and a man making shoes. (My favorite was a man making shoes with a big smile on his face. One thing I especially like about drawing afterwards is that it's easy to laugh with a student about the fact that the shoemaker probably isn't smiling.)

Our Monday discussions can't always be me telling them what's important. Eventually, they will need to interpret the book independently. Learning to read a book like this on their own, and to discuss it in class, will be essential in high school.

But we're not there yet.

Monday, September 30, 2013

How much is too much?

Here are my plans for this week:

I have been wondering if I am trying to do too much with my 8th graders. One challenge of teaching humanities instead of a single subject is that it is largely up to me to balance the subjects within the thirteen periods each week that I teach each section. The plan above represents my attempt to balance the sheer number of minutes that I spend on each area, even if I inevitably end up adjusting the times. (The above schedule doesn't fully convey the number of interruptions that this particular week will have, for example.)

This week we are primarily wrapping up some work and continuing some longer projects. We'll finish our study of the French Revolution this week, and I would like the students to write a short reflection about what they learned. I also need to know about their experience with the text and its accompanying materials so that I can plan our next unit. We'll need to keep our French Revolution knowledge close enough that we can access it when we get to that point in A Tale of Two Cities. We're on chapter 5 in that book, and students will draw another 4-panel graphic adaptation for their notebooks, along with their standing assignment of one independent reading reader response and next week's chapter of TOTC.

We need to pick up the pace in writing. Writing workshop is getting bumped around by the schedule, and I need to reconsider when I schedule it. On the other hand, our work in reading and history gives us even more to write about, so perhaps it is right for writing to begin to pick up now. I have students who are ready for fancy grammar, and students who need more time with less fancy concepts. I need time to meet with both groups.

Yet as I worked on the above plans yesterday, and scheduled the accompanying assignments in edmodo, I wondered if I was overdoing it. Fourteen assignments in one week, even if almost all of it happens in class? How much is too much?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Obvious Stuff

For several years, the first rule of editing in my classroom was "Obvious stuff." I think I took this term from Nancie Atwell. At some point, I realized that what was obvious to me was not obvious to 14-year-olds, and the Obvious Stuff chart was born.

Our messy list created in class.

I think my first list years ago was longer, but this is the list we made in class together this week. The other section came up with a remarkably similar list. Later today I will rewrite this more neatly and clarify each item.

Like our "Old Rules for Commas" list, these are items that need to become automatic. Students need to be able to follow these conventions on timed writings. As an adult, they'll be expected to follow these rules in work emails. Mistakes with obvious stuff can kill a job application.

(Quick aside: One of my 8th graders asked if I follow all the conventions in text messages. I said I do, to the point of using semicolons while texting. She expressed her frustration with this. She said she hates it when people waste time with periods in text messages. Not that she's too lazy, or can't remember, but that she thinks the convention of texting should be no end punctuation, just keep writing. It's something to think about.)

For me, though, the beauty of Obvious Stuff is that it forces me to make explicit some of the things that we as teachers tend to assume that everyone should know how to do. When we were making the chart, one student suggested punctuation, and I talked her around to end punctuation. End punctuation, we all agreed, should be obvious. Commas are not.

Are there conventions in your classroom that are obvious only to you? It's something to consider.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities (with pictures!)

Here are the results of our first two weeks studying A Tale of Two Cities:

The first week was a four-panel summary, and this week was a character profile.
Students could either draw Lucie Manette or Jarvis Lorry.
I encouraged them to use details from the text.
Students love that Mr. Lorry is vain about his legs.
Note the red cheeks: Mr. Lorry drank a bottle of wine with dinner.
When we're done, we walk around and look at everyone's work.
If I'm going to ask them to draw and share their work, then I'm going to do the same.

Next week, we meet Madame Defarge. . . I can't wait to see what her profile looks like. Also, I just realized we'll have to draw Sydney Carton and Charles Darney side-by-side as twins-but-not. I like that idea.