Thursday, March 23, 2017

Then and Now

I've done a memory map assignment with my reading students every quarter for the last 5 years. As part of the activity, we look at Newbury-award-winner Jack Gantos's answer to the question, "What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?"
The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story. Your discipline should start with ten minutes per day—start small and meet your goal. Then extend your goal as you wish
~Library of Congress,"Meet the Authors"(
Then I show the class a map that was included in the Gantos book Heads or Tails, from which we've read excerpts so they recognize some of the images, and I also share a map of my own that I made of the neighborhood I lived in from ages 4-10. Each icon has a little story attached to it, and usually the students' curiosity about those anecdotes is an effective springboard into creating their own map.

This morning when most of the class had started sketching their own memories, one student waved me over. As I approached to answer her question, she flipped her iPad over to reveal a familiar house. Using just the two street names on my map, she had used Google Earth to conjure up my childhood home, still recognizable 45 years after my family had moved...


For a moment I was speechless. Then other kids came over to look. Where was your school? Where was the creek? they asked about features on my hand-drawn map. Is the peach tree gone? Was that where your mom built the igloo? Is your best friend's house still there?

I answered their questions and set them back to work. Can we use our iPads to search up our neighborhoods? someone asked, of course, because they were born into a world where memory and imagination collide with technology and convenience all the time.

"Start without it," I suggested, "and see where it goes."

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A New Attitude

For my intervention group this rotation, I have 22 sixth graders who have been identified as having an aptitude for English, which is a 180 degree switch from the groups of reluctant readers I've worked with so far this year.

My plan? Some advanced word study based on Greek and Latin, along with an examination of Greek drama and mythology and a little playwriting.

I knew I was on the right track with these kids yesterday when I told them we were going to start the session with a spelling inventory. Their spirits were high as they sharpened their pencils and cheerfully numbered the papers in front of them.

"Is it hard?" asked one.

"Sort of," I answered.

"Bring it!" said another.

And then today?

All they wanted was to see how they did on the test and then to correct the words they misspelled.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Just a Drill

I was giving my first period class a heads up about our imminent tornado drill this morning along with the boilerplate reminder of the importance of being quiet during an emergency drill when a student raised his hand. "Have you ever been in a real emergency here?" he wanted to know.

I paused and considered. "In all the years I've been here," I answered, "there have been four." The students were rapt, and I know a teachable moment when I see one, so I told them the following stories.

The first time that a real emergency happened was before school even started. We arrived one morning to find a fleet of firetrucks, lights flashing, lining the bus lane and all of our colleagues standing outside. Our school has a rec center attached, and we quickly found out that there had been an electrical fire in one of the saunas.

"Wait! We have saunas?!" a student interrupted.

I laughed and shrugged. "I think they're still working, but who knows? Anyhow, the damage was enough that they closed school for the day. We spent the morning waving as the buses arrived and then immediately turned around, and then all the teachers went out to breakfast!"

"Lucky!" a kid said. "I hope that happens again!"

"Another time, we got here and the power was out. That morning they made the whole school stand outside for two hours," I remembered.

"Were the kids allowed to play, or did they just have to stand in line?" one student wondered.

"There wasn't a lot to do," I told them. "Everyone just ended up sitting on the sidewalk and wishing we could either go in or go home, already."

"What happened?"

"Eventually the power came back on and we had a modified schedule," I said, to my audience's disappointment.

"What about the other two?" someone asked.

"One of them was the earthquake we had a few years ago," I said.

"Oh yeah!" one girl remembered. "I was about 6 then!"

"Well, this was in August before school started, and I was in a teacher meeting in the library," I started. "When the whole building started shaking we all looked at each other and realized that we didn't know what to do. Earthquakes are so rare around here that we never practiced for them."

"Now we do!" noted a student.

"That's why!" I said, "We realized then we needed to be prepared. And that's why we practice for things that will probably never happen. So if they do, we all know what to do. And that's why it's really important to be quiet during a drill, because when the real thing happens, it doesn't always go exactly the way you planned."

"So what about the last emergency?" another student asked.

"Well, " I started, "That was September 11, 2001." I paused, remembering that day. Our school is about a mile from the Pentagon, and we went into lockdown that day after hearing the explosion and aftershocks of the attack. Despite the fear and uncertainty of the situation, our staff pulled together to keep the kids safe and calm until their parents arrived to get them.

This morning as I looked over the class, I realized that most of them did not understand what I was talking about. It happened years before they were born. "Anyway," I said, "that was a very unexpected situation, and it was important for everyone to listen and follow directions."

They nodded. Just then the announcement for the tornado drill blared from the loudspeaker. They stood and lined up in silence.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Spring Training

The first afternoon of spring was more lion than lamb here, and there was a raw breeze blowing through iron skies as I set off for a walk through the neighborhood a little while ago. The sight of a baseball being tossed back and forth across a field reminded me of the new season though, and I smiled as I made my way toward it. At first all I could see was the ball arcing from side to side through an opening in the buildings ahead, but when I entered the clearing my smile widened to see that it was a mom and her little girl practicing throwing and catching.

"Turn your glove over," the mom instructed, "and don't try to use your bare hand; you'll get hurt that way." She tossed the ball and her daughter just missed.

"My pants are falling down!" the little girl explained as she dropped her glove and began tugging on the waistband of her warm-ups.

"... but..." her mother's response was lost to me on the wind, but I saw the girl's face light up in surprise.

"What?!" she asked her mom, giggling.

And this time I was close enough to hear. "I guess if you don't want your pants to fall down, you're going to have to grow a butt!"

The two of them collapsed in laughter, and just like that, the chill vanished from the afternoon.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Food for Thought

From the corner table of that hip pizza place where we ate lunch today I had a pretty good view of most of the other patrons, but my attention was totally drawn to a couple just across the way. While they enjoyed their pizza and salad, their baby sat in one of the restaurant's high chairs contentedly watching a program on the smartphone that was propped up on the salt and pepper shakers in front of him.

Oh, it was clear to me that the video was especially designed for a child of about his age-- there were mamas and babies and elephants and bells and doors and drawers with bright balls that bounced in and out and hands that clapped and snapped. That child did not fuss at all during the meal. 

And then right before we left I made a pitstop at the restroom. On the way I passed another father with his slightly older son sitting at the counter that looks over the kitchen and pizza oven. His father talked quietly to him as that child stretched a small disc of dough that was destined to become his lunch. He didn't have any complaints either. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stressed and Unstressed

So, we were talking about accented and unaccented syllables this morning in my word study class (I know! The things English teachers do for fun on Saturday, right?), when the instructor gave an example about how regional accents can influence speech inflection.

"I'm from Florida," she told us, "and I love tacos. Down there we pronounce the name of the fast food chain as Taco Bell, emphasis on the last syllable."

The class nodded, and I could see several students frowning and mouthing the words. I listened carefully as she continued.

"Up here," she said, "most people say Ta-co Bell, emphasis on the first syllable."

We didn't get it, or at least, we didn't hear it.

I tried pronouncing it that way quietly. "Taco Bell, Taco Bell, Taco Bell," I whispered to myself, and then I stopped.

"Oh! It rhymes with Pachelbel!" I said out loud. "Like the Canon!"

Friday, March 17, 2017

That Witch!

The boys in my latest intervention reading group are unanimous: Harry Potter is awesome!

Five weeks ago they had their doubts, but after a few read-alouds and read-alongs, they were begging to take the books home and read ahead. "I can't believe how good it is!" one guy told me. "I always thought it would be boring or bad, but it's not!" 

And so in celebration of finishing the first book in the series as well as the fact that Chamber of Secrets now has a waiting list at our school library, we agreed to watch the movie together. Even though many of them had seen some or all of it before, twelve twelve-year-old boys sat mesmerized (but not silent, oh... never silent) in front of the big screen today munching on cheese crackers and discussing every detail that had been changed for the film version. 

Oh, they loved the movie-- almost every part was someone's favorite part. "Those kids are just about your age," I told them, unnecessarily, because it was so obvious. Entering middle school isn't quite like starting at Hogwarts, but I could completely relate to the amount of shepherding the young wizards required in their new school, as well as the mixture of doubt and delight with which they approached their fresh independence.

And yet, this all-boy audience disappointed me just a little. They were very vocal about how much they disliked Hermione. 

"She's so bossy!"

"She thinks she knows everything!"

"She's so stuck-up!"

And while it's true that in addition to that overly-eager hand-raise, Hermione does her share of sighing and eye-rolling at Ron and Harry's mishaps, I just couldn't see it their way. 

"Hermione is smart and hard-working," I told them. "She's also a really good friend to Harry and Ron. I think she's awesome!"

"Well, yeah," one guy told me, "once she calms down."