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: