Thursday, December 31, 2009

Decisions, Decisions

It's always a dilemma how to spend New Year's Eve: which of our actions on this night are symbolic and which are not? Should we do something special, or should we welcome the new year in stride, doing the things we always do that make us happy? Is it important to stay up until the clock turns, or is it better to get a good night's sleep and greet the first day of the year well-rested?

Here are some wishes for the coming year that Neil Gaiman posted on his blog:

...I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.

I hope so, too.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cold Case

I saw the new Sherlock Holmes movie a couple of days ago, and coincidentally, I recently happened to catch a few episodes of the TV show The Mentalist, as well. There is something about the deduction that these characters demonstrate that resonates with me. I have the sense that the all clues we need to decipher most situations are always there, if only we have the patience and intuition to find them, and I like it when those guys amaze us with how it can be done.

A few days before Christmas, my mother and my nephew, Richard, made a gingerbread house. With the extra dough, they cut out two gingerbread people to go with the house. One was liberally decorated with green sprinkles and the other just as festooned with red. Later that day, Richard approached my mother with concern. "Grandma," he said, "the green cookie is missing! We have to start an investigation."

Naturally my mother considered the most likely suspects. "Let's ask your mom and dad and sister," she suggested.

"I already talked to them, and they didn't do it," he assured her. "I have a clue, though. I found a little yellow feather by the gingerbread house, and I think it was a duck!"

By the time I arrived that night, there were two clues: a yellow feather and a quack that Richard heard around the time of the disappearance. Believe me when I tell you that we pursued the case of the missing cookie all weekend long. How did the duck get in? Where did it go? What had become of the cookie? And even when we were at the park, Richard questioned the geese, but they hadn't seen any yellow ducks.

In the end, we gave the cookie up for lost, ignoring the trail of green sprinkles that led to a certain four-year-old detective.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ehhhg-cellent

I'm a big fan of David Sedaris, mostly because he's such a master of the personal narrative. Yesterday on the plane, I finally had the chance to read his latest piece, Loggerheads, that was published in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. In particular, I admire the way he weaves seemingly disparate anecdotes together thematically to construct an integral whole. (Way to go, Dave!) On the same flight, I also read an essay about creative nonfiction by Marion Winik in the Winter 2010 edition of Teachers and Writers. I've long been a fan of hers as well; I know her from her personal commentaries on NPR. In the article, her analysis of the genre is fascinating, wide-ranging, and even forgiving of James Frey. All of this is exceptionally timely, since I plan to start on memoir with my students when we get back in January.

In the spirit of Sedaris and Winik, I like this genre because it is so accessible and yet so powerful. It validates kids by giving them a chance to tell a story that is important to them, and encourages them and their readers to find a greater meaning in the tale. Not to mention that it offers so many opportunities for writing instruction, both in craft and convention, as well. Pardon me while I rub my hands together in gleeful anticipation.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Myth of Objectivity

I had the occasion to fly today in the wake of the failed underwear bomber. It was a domestic flight, and honestly? There was no discernible difference between this trip and the one we took on December 23rd. Strange experience, then, to get home and watch the news where the lead story on at least 2 national broadcasts was how much our traveling lives will change because of this incident.

The older I get, the more critical I become of the media. There is a saying that goes something like, if when you're young you're not a liberal, then you have no heart, and if when you're old you're not a conservative, then you have no brain. I'll never agree to that, but I do believe that as we gain experience, it often becomes harder to trust people, while at the same time it's much easier to see that institutions are made up of those same people.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

This Is America, Dinosaurs

My four-year-old nephew loves The Land Before Time series of movies, and in general my sister supports his fondness for them (he owns several of them on DVD), but the dino-speak drives her crazy. For example, to dinosaurs, the moon is the night circle and snow is frozen sky water (never mind the sky puffies, pointy seeds, and sinking sands). Why can't talking dinosaurs speak regular English?

Think of the harm on impressionable children... for a while, my nephew referred to volcanoes as "smoking mountains"and earthquakes as "earth shakes." But maybe they're trying to translate real dinosaur mouth talk into something we can understand-- in that case, I guess it's just the price we have to pay for extreme prehistoric realism.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

As God Is My Witness

An amazing sunset tonight here in Atlanta: the sky flaming red and dark pink, textured by clouds like so many rags wrung and laid twisted to dry. All that was missing was Scarlett O'Hara, fist raised and vowing to never go hungry again.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Treasure

My older nephews and I have been geocaching together for years, and now that my youngest nephew, Richard, is four, he wants in on the treasure hunting. It seemed like a perfect holiday afternoon activity to take a walk to the park and look for a cache that is hidden there. Over the years, we've found almost a hundred caches, and it's safe to say that we find what we're looking for more often than not, so it was a confident party of seven who set out between opening our stockings and the big holiday dinner. The cache we were after was only rated one out of five stars for challenge, and I was expecting a quick and successful initiation for Richard into this fun pastime.

Long story short, we couldn't find the treasure, and he was a little disappointed, as we all were. We promised to look again tomorrow when the light was better, but as we were walking home in the gathering darkness, Treat and Richard were ahead together on the path. "Hey guys," I heard Treat say. "I found the treasure!"

Richard stopped dead in tracks, his eyes open wide. "He's just teasing you," I told him.

"No really," Treat continued, and before I could scold him, he said, "The treasure was inside me all the time-- it was friendship!" He was kidding, but his voice was so sweet and sincere that I had to play along.

"Friendship and the love of family, right?" I asked him.

"Right," he confirmed, and we all walked on together toward the lights of home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comfort and Joy

Thirty seconds until Christmas, and I find myself furiously typing to meet a self-imposed deadline. No excuse to miss even a single day, and what a day it's been. From the first cup of coffee in my sister's kitchen this morning to the finishing touches on the easel we put together for Santa to bring to my niece in the morning, it has been a busy day spent with family preparing for the feast tomorrow, and the nicest thing about it all is that my whole family will wake under the same roof in the morning and rise to celebrate the day. We'll catch our breaths and remember that this is what all the fuss has been about.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writers Watch

The other night we were watching a re-run episode of Bones. It was a case involving a vintage arcade game and an autistic boy, and at one point, the main character, Dr. Brennan, noticed that the victim had been killed in the exact same manner as the monkey is dispatched on the final level of the game. When the plot reached its climax, and the murderer was revealed, that fact was insignificant. A red herring? Maybe, but I don't think so. Ever since I've been dabbling in writing that novel, I've found that I'm more aware, and usually more appreciative, of how writers develop their plots. It happens when I read, and when I watch TV and movies, too. It's like some kind of literary spidey sense. Anyway, regarding the Bones episode? I have a tingling that they changed the ending. The only way the detail about the killing makes sense is if the culprit was going to be the kid, but who thinks an autistic child murderer is good TV? Much better if his dad did it instead, right?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

May this Message Find You Well

A holiday card today from a former colleague-- it was one of those annual update letters. Turns out that in the last year she's started homeschooling her children. Why does this seem like the ultimate betrayal from a former public school teacher?

I know. It's complicated.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Praise of Snow Days

What a cliche to say that the holidays are hectic, and yet, although I vow every year to simplify and scale back, the logistics of coordinating with family and friends in eight states makes it tough.

The other night Ellen brought a piece about holiday shopping and materialism to our writing group, and in discussing it we agreed that even in this economic downturn all of us are lucky enough to have everything we need and most of what we want. The next day, Ellen and I were talking, and she made the point that there are very few true luxuries left. For example, shrimp used to be a big splurge when we were kids, but now aquacultural farms in Asia make it very affordable. It's a similar situation with shoes and jeans and shirts and even furniture. Like many in the American middle class, we replace things when they are out of style, or when we're tired of them, not when they wear out, and we run out and buy whatever we "need" whenever we "need" it.

What can you give the person who is fortunate enough to live with such plenty? Holiday shopping becomes a challenge, and so we exchange lists and then gifts, or cut out the first step and give gift cards. It feels like something is lost in this practical arrangement, but the alternative is to give more stuff, perhaps as unwanted as it is unneeded.

I don't know what the solution is to our stuff addiction. When I started this entry I only wanted to say what a blessing the last couple of days have been-- the weather has kept us home, slowing that seemingly inevitable hectic holiday pace, and allowing us to relax and enjoy the season.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Questions that Must Be Answered

Why won't dogs poop in the snow?

Corollary: What happens to dogs when they don't poop in the snow?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Relevant Context

Writing and posting this blog every day has taught me a lot about myself as a writer and a teacher. Apart from giving me the opportunity to examine my practice and philosophy, there has been a practical application, too.

As middle school English teachers go, I'd say I'm pretty well-educated and well-credentialed, too, but even so, sometimes questions about grammar and usage arise that I'm not sure of. Why don't I know those things? It's not that I never learned them-- I'm a product of a traditional skill and drill language arts curriculum. I learned tons of grammar, out of context, and I was darn good at those worksheets, thank you very much. No, I'm not sure of the answers to those questions for the same reason that it took me a couple minutes to remember how to help an eighth grade student the other day find the equation for the slope of a line: I haven't applied that learning in years, if ever.

As a blogger, I am both author and editor of my writing, and it's the editing that often sends me searching the grammar texts and style sheets. All of a sudden, the rules are relevant to me, because who wants to be the English teacher with all the silly mistakes in her blog?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Let's Talk about the Weather

Each day my alarm wakes me to public radio (is anyone surprised?), and this morning, when still half asleep, I heard that 12 inches of snow or more was a good possibility this weekend. My eyes popped open wide, and there was definitely no more snoozing. A foot of snow around here usually means multiple days off from school. Sure, we have our false alarms, but this storm sounded pretty big even at its weakest, and I knew it was supposed to be cold next week-- so no premature melting.

I completely tuned out the latest on the senate health care drama as I brainstormed contingencies: I have the computer lab on Monday, the sixth grade ice skating trip on Tuesday, and class-meetings on Wednesday, and then it is winter break. How best to prepare for the likely disruption? I hit the ground running when I got to school: consulting, revising, and reserving, and at the end of the day, I felt ready for whatever might happen.

I love my job. Really. But the siren call of stolen days spent romping through a winter wonderland and relaxing by the fire is irresistible. Add that to the time of year, and I'll tell you what-- the first flakes have only started to fall, but ready or not, I have no plans to return to school until 2010.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gifted Is As Gifted Does

So, we're doing these gifts of writing, and since I teach five sections of English, I have to write five separate pieces, but I also get five in return. I really like writing alongside my students, though; besides being a good model, I get a lot of insight into the assignment, and I can talk honestly about the ways I worked through the challenges. Likewise, it's easy to be free with praise, especially for kids who have shown creativity, and the students accept my feedback, not just as their know-it-all teacher, but as someone who is plugging away at the same task that they are.

I think it's good for me to participate so actively in this assignment, but how hard would it be to be the kid who pulls the teacher's name? This year, the reactions of those five students has covered the range of what you might expect: one is extremely vocal about the hardship of his plight, openly begging for extra credit; two are willing, but tentative and a bit uneasy; one is trying way too hard, and the fifth has delighted me with his creativity.

This last guy is the over-achiever in my class. He always has his hand up first, always finishes every assignment ahead of the other kids, and not surprisingly, he is kind of tough on his peers, especially those who aren't as quick as he is. Not always my favorite type of kid, but what makes him different from the stereotype is that he is acting from genuine engagement. I'm convinced that he doesn't want to be the best for best's sake, but rather because he really likes what we're reading and writing and talking about.

For his gift to me he wrote a brief choose-your-own-adventure story. Written in second person, it grabs the reader immediately, and the plot has all the elements I mentioned on my questionnaire. It is clever, funny, and very well done, and I consider it one of the best gifts I've ever received. Way to go, Jake! Thank you.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Nature of the Beast

I've talked to a few colleagues about my last post, and it seems like how we feel about whether or not our peers are held accountable for their breaches of rules and expectations is a litmus test of sorts. Why do we care if what they are doing doesn't impact us? If we knew they were stealing or cheating on their taxes, would it make us do that, too? For some people, the answer to that last question is, "Yes." They follow rules in order to avoid the consequences associated with breaking them.

I want to believe that I follow the rules because I think it's usually the right thing to do. Even so, when I consider my colleagues who bend the rules, for example, by taking time off without leave, I wonder if I were in a situation where I didn't have much leave, but I needed the time and my full paycheck, too, if I would be tempted to get unofficial coverage and skip out to take care of my unavoidable personal business.

I also admit that I don't adhere to every policy to the letter. I'm often late in the morning (but always there before the students), and I feel like I make up for it after school. I'm also lax with the text book expectations from central office, because I want my students to have more choice in their reading and writing. I can usually justify my infractions. I'll bet most people can.

Over the years, I've given my students a lot of writing prompts, and some of them are even relevant to this issue. There's the classic, If you could make a law what would it be and why? Another good one is, Why do we have rules? But the most revealing might be, What would you do if you knew you could get away with it?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Us and Them

Sometimes the rank and file get frustrated with the leadership at our school. We grumble because it seems like they're forever reacting to crises or last minute situations rather than planning ahead. We complain because it seems like there is never a definitive decision, or when there is, there are never any consequences for the staff members who don't do what they are supposed to.

To be honest, some of that happens as a result of our administration giving us too much credit. It's nice to be trusted to behave professionally, but it damages morale when colleagues don't act appropriately and are allowed to continue without consequence.

The issue interests me on a couple of levels. As a person who supervises lots of people every day, I am aware of the responsibilities of authority. One of my biggest complaints is teachers who misuse their authority to elevate themselves over the students, creating a top-down environment in their classrooms. These teachers seem eager to punish students for every infraction; indeed they would tell you that it is part of our job to instill a sense of responsibility in the students.

I don't think such an authoritarian approach is productive. I think students need to feel part of the classroom power structure in order to be fully engaged. So why do I object to such an approach from the administration? Why do I long to see my colleagues held accountable when they fail to meet the expectations established for them? Why did it so annoy me today when I heard an administrator say that a teacher who was clearly not doing what we all agreed must be done should be approached and asked what support she needed.

Why can't I extend the same empathy and compassion to my colleagues that I try to have for my students? Are we not all works in progress?

Monday, December 14, 2009

No Killer Instinct

I guess it's time to file the follow up report on our basketball season. Back in October, I chronicled the saga of tryouts and cutting the team in a six-part series. I wrote about our decision to leave the girl who is arguably the best player in the school off the team because she had a bad attitude and seemed unable to follow directions. I said the team was nice, and that was fine with me.

Well... we are 0 and 7. We had our last practice today, and the final game of the season is tomorrow. We are not expected to win. We lost our closest game by three, but just the other day, we were humiliated at home, 53-8. At one point in that game the score was 33-0.

Has it been a demoralizing season for the players? It's hard to say. They seem upbeat in practice, and they work hard and execute what we are teaching them. They have personally improved, but they are not a competitive team. The other teams are bigger and stronger and more talented, and in the games, our girls are timid and flat.

It's never easy to have a losing season, but this will be the first time in my years of coaching that we have been winless. Nicest team ever, worst record ever. Could there be a connection?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Maybe It's the Moon

Despite the fact that my PLC folks didn't seem to have a lot of appreciation for edublogs, I do. I'm not ashamed to admit that I find them helpful and even inspirational at times. For example, two of the bloggers I read regularly seem to be struggling with some of the same things that I am right now, and they have both defined the issues and expressed their concerns much better than I have. I invite you to take a look.

Pressing On
by Ruth at Two Writing Teachers

Stop Questioning? by Dina on Reading Free

(The second one is a really cool blog. Allow me to cite their "About Us" entry: He’s in his twenty-seventh year of teaching language arts; she’s in her third. He teaches 6th grade in a self-contained classroom in the Alaska interior; she teaches 7th grade in a rotating class middle school in an urban hub of upstate New York. What brings them together: the simultaneous launching of the workshop approach to reading and writing in their classrooms, pioneered by Nancie Atwell.

Doug Noon and Dina Strasser both blog about their teaching experiences and met through the wild and crazy interlinking of the edublogosphere. Now, they join forces to explore one of the most promising and status-quo-busting approaches to literacy available today. )

Now THAT's what I'm talking about.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Oy, My Brain

So, after I posted last night, I was brushing my teeth, thinking about what I wrote, and it occurred to me that part of the problem comes when I assign a grade to an exercise. Exercise is practice, and shouldn't we grade student work that is supposed to show mastery? Granted, the Letters About Literature assignment might have led up to mastery of certain things (thankfully, for many students, it did), but if a writer is not engaged in the topic, is it fair to expect mastery? What message does that send to a struggling writer, other than, here's another assignment you didn't like and didn't do well on, either. Research shows that it is best to teach students writing skills in a meaningful context, like when they're working on something they want to write. Given that no assignment is ever going to appeal to everyone, what's an English teacher to do? When it comes down to it, I don't care if my students can write a good Letter About Literature, I want them to be able to write a good anything.

I'll keep thinking about it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Letters About Literature

My students have participated in this contest every year for the last three. The premise is interesting: kids are supposed to write a letter to an author explaining how a particular book changed them or their view of the world. Although this task might seem deceptively simple, the sponsors of the contest, the Library of Congress and Target, take pains in their instructional materials to emphasize that students must "correspond don't compliment" and "synthesize don't summarize." These higher order thinking skills can be tough for my sixth graders, but they are by no means impossible, so the assignment turns out to be a just-right challenge-- one that can be done well with enough preparation, work, and support.

The problem lies in the fact that these letters are supposed to be authentic and heartfelt, written by the students in acknowledgment of a significant impact the author's work has had on them. Quite honestly, not every eleven year old has experienced such a profound connection with a book. What then, English teacher? Do you disparage these children as shallow and chalk it up to weak parenting, too much TV, and video games? Do you release them from even trying because they're just not feelin' it?

It's been a tough call for me, but this year I asked all my students to approach the assignment as a writing exercise-- they had to go through the steps to produce a letter, but no one was required to send it unless they wanted to. As I've written before, this year my students are awfully compliant, and so most of them humored their wacky teacher and unquestioningly went through the process: reading models, completing mini-lessons, and then composing, revising, and editing draft after draft of their letters, until today, the day before the deadline, nearly half of them decided to enter the contest. And most of the letters were pretty good, too.

So, I have a stack of letters to grade this weekend, and when I do, I'm going to take a good look at the ones that are not successful to try and figure out how and why the "writing exercise" failed for those writers, because this kind of whole class assignment is exactly the kind of thing that I think undermines my workshop, often at the expense of struggling writers.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Giving Gifts

Obviously my students don't draw names for a holiday gift exchange, but last year we did gifts of writing using the Secret Santa concept. It was voluntary for students to participate, and everybody who wanted to do it filled out questionnaires with information about themselves. Then we folded those up and drew out of a bag to see who would be the recipient of our gift of writing. The parameters were broad-- it could be a piece of any genre and it could be written about the person or for the person. I thought it would be fun for the kids if I drew a name in each class, too.

It ended up being a nice activity, one that allowed the students to apply many of the writing lessons we'd learned. Most kids wrote a free verse poem about the person whose name they'd drawn, and I did, too, but some wrote letters to them and others composed pieces for them-- poems or short stories or cartoons that they hoped the person receiving the gift would enjoy. At the end, when the writing was done, we created companion wordles to give along with our gift.

I still have my five gifts of writing, and it was successful enough that I'm getting ready to do it again next week. I've struggled a little bit with the timing, though. We could do this activity any time, and it might be a good end of the year ritual, but this is a season of giving in the culture in which we all live, and I think it's okay to participate in that, too.

I think so, but I'm not sure.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Seasons Greetings

When I was a little girl, every year in school we drew names for Pollyanna gifts. There was always a price limit like one or two dollars, and kids would bring the wrapped presents in and put them under the classroom tree. We opened them during the Christmas party, and I always remember being disappointed because I never, ever got a Lifesaver book. It wasn't even that I liked Lifesavers that much (with the exception of butter rum... now those were really good), but the book was so cool, and it was something my parents would never buy for me.

Remarkably, all of this took place in a public school, way before the phrase "politically correct" was ever dreamt of. Nowadays, in the diverse school I work in, some of us don't even think the secretaries in the office should construct their annual "holiday" display, even if it only consists of empty boxes wrapped in winter-themed paper surrounded by colored lights. We know what they're trying to say. And this afternoon, as I listened to the winter concert, I wondered how Santa and Silent Night could possibly be appropriate, even at this Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

For 'Cause

It's super-duper hard to hold on to a student-centered focus. That's why I moved away from the workshop back then. It takes a tough combination of confidence and humility-- it's hard to have the humility to step out of the way and let the students learn, and so any teacher who does that is constantly second-guessing herself, trying to find a balance between direct instruction and student practice. From the outside, such an approach doesn't always seem "rigorous" enough, and since many people equate rigor with value, it takes confidence to stand behind this philosophy.

For all those reasons, it can be kind of lonely, too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Slippery Slope

Sixteen years and a couple of months ago, I got my first teaching job. My assignment was to teach four one-hour English classes of 25 sixth graders each. I had finished my M.Ed. the December before and had spent the spring substitute teaching. I was ready for my own class. My training, as far as teaching literacy skills, had been primarily whole language. When I took my language arts methods class in graduate school, the notion of whole language was entirely new to me. I hadn’t thought about how kids learn to read and write since I had been in elementary school 20 years before.

In my mind, the essence of whole language was that you didn’t tell the students what to do, you gave them opportunities to acquire the skills of reading and writing on their own. This was a radical concept for a product of basal readers and grammar work sheets (which I loved, by the way). But the notion of students engaged in readers and writers workshops, practicing the skills of reading and writing on books and topics of their choice was enthralling to me. The vision of a classroom that was a community of readers and writers resonated deeply, and I knew that I wanted to create such a place and spend my time there.

So I did. The first year I taught was the first year of a new basal reading program adoption. The reading specialist proudly presented me with 125 brand new textbooks that I knew I didn’t intend to use. She was visibly shaken when I told her so.

“Here are your vocabulary books,” she offered.

“I don’t need them,” I replied.

“You should probably take them anyway,” she pushed in a soft drawl that almost covered her dismay.

The next day I had a visit from the county language arts supervisor. “What is your plan for the year?” she asked. I spoke passionately and at length, describing the program I envisioned; I showed her my collection of trade books, the area I set up for journals and writing supplies, the reading log I would use, my “State of the Class” binder, my bulletin board with publication opportunities. I also mentioned the resistance I felt from the reading specialist and other experienced teachers in the building. “I think you should do it,” she said. “You can’t hurt the kids if you do what you believe is right, and you clearly believe this is right.”

I took her advice and ran my class in pure workshop form. Students read and wrote on topics and in genres entirely of their choice. I experimented with ways to keep track of their work and ways to hold them accountable for their reading and writing. Together, we published a newspaper, had a voluntary essay-writing seminar, and wrote fan letters. Individually, my students kept writers journals, and wrote poetry, fiction, letters, essays, graphic novels, and more. They were published in the newspaper; they entered and won contests, and submitted their writing to journals. I read their writing and taught mini-lessons to address their needs.

At that time we had the "Literacy Passport" exam at sixth grade which tested reading, writing, and math. 100 students took it. A third were on free and reduced lunch. A quarter spoke English as a second language. Thirty percent were white, thirty percent Black, thirty percent Latino, and ten percent Asian. Of the hundred who took it, 99 passed the writing, and 97 passed the reading. I didn't know anything about analyzing test data back then, but now, 15 years later, I understand how extraordinary those results were.

So, you would think I would continue with my program exactly as I constructed it, year after year, tweaking the paper work and the mini lessons to more accurately keep track of and assist my students’ progress, right? Wrong. Each year my writing workshop became more adulterated, literally. I moved, gradually, from a student-centered approach to an adult-directed class. My students still did a lot of writing, but I assigned much more of it. Why?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Moderation

We were at dinner at some friends' last night, and the subject of my blog came up. Our host expressed some interest in reading these "reports from the trenches" of public education. He is a parent in our district, and his wife is a teacher at my school, and as the evening went on, we touched on a wide range of education and school-related topics, for example engagement vs. rigor-- why is there a perception that they are exclusive? Another was should all administrators have a teaching license, and should they be required to teach at least one class? We also talked about heterosexual privilege, and later "liberal" white parents who won't send their children to diverse schools. Several times throughout the night, he looked at me and said, "I feel a blog post coming!" We laughed, but he was right, those are all good topics. The only problem was that we stayed up talking until 2:30 A.M. and I've spent my day foggy-headed, resting and recovering, not writing. I feel lucky that there was a blog post at all today.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Back in the Day

I have several students this year who are voracious readers. These kids read a couple of hundred pages a day and power through 4 or 5 novels a week. Do they stop to think about what they've read? Probably not very often, and so I try to engage them in conversation about their reading, even beyond our class assignments. The other day, a student was telling me about a series of books she had recently discovered and that she was enjoying very much. "You know what?" she said. "I've decided that I really like old-fashioned books."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Like books published in 1988," she explained, "there's just something quaint about them."

Friday, December 4, 2009

Life in Century 2.1

Today I reserved the laptop cart for my students to work on an assignment. Second period, three kids to a table, laptops open, room is silent, because everyone's engrossed in typing their writing piece, and one student looks up. "Wow. It's just like Panera or Starbucks in here," she notes. There are a few nods of agreement, and then everyone goes back to their own screens.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Keep it Short

Sometimes I wonder if I ask too much of my students. I understand the value of high expectations, and I'm not proposing a lower bar for quality, but rather for quantity. I believe that if we shorten what we ask for, but demand that the product be well-considered, well-written, and well-edited, then we are helping the students and ourselves.

I'm still working out the details, but it all started with Nancie Atwell's proposition that examining and composing free verse poetry can teach almost any writing lesson, and as a result, over the past few years, I've developed a fondness for the "micro assignment." I've decided that I want my students to write briefly, but exquisitely. Kind of like the writing equivalent of an amuse-bouche-- in the cooking world, it's widely believed that if you can execute that one perfect bite, you're golden.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Facilitator's Blues

That writing project PLC that I'm facilitating met today. Early in the year we agreed to reflect on our teaching and write about it regularly. Way back in September, people felt like 2-3 times a week was an achievable goal. Flash forward to a rainy Wednesday in December. Three of the original participants were not able to make the meeting today, so our group was eight. Seven had writing. Most had composed what they brought specifically to have something to share with their writing group. Not quite what we had in mind, and because I'm in a group myself, it was hard to tell if people think that these meetings are time well spent.

The other part of our session was spent talking about teacher blogs. Last time, everyone agreed to read a few and write up a brief "blog talk" to guide our conversation about this relatively new publishing opportunity. How are teaching blogs valuable? would have been the guiding question had I put it on the board. There was some interesting discussion about what's out here in the blogosphere, but my impression was that not many of the teachers in the group view edublogs as either a valuable resource or a viable outlet for expression.

We don't meet again until February. When this PLC was originally proposed, I expressed my reservations about how little time was available to meet, and I still wonder what writing project objectives can be achieved in seven hours spread over eight months. Ultimately, though, I realize that my role is to provide an opportunity. What everyone does with it is up to them.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo No Mo

First day free of the chains, and I've found liberation to be a little disappointing, although I am looking forward to spending a bit more time reflecting on my classroom, my students, and my teaching. (How possessive does that sound?) I've missed it.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 30: 33.7%

I'm satisfied with my effort for my first NaNoWriMo, and I wouldn't rule out trying again next year, maybe even with a partner or team, so that we could get together and write and cheer each other on, too. That would be great.

I do plan to continue to write a little bit every day until I finish the first draft of this story. I'll continue to post my word count, too.

“Give me a minute,” she said, returning to the cabin and dressing as silently as possible. As she slipped out the door to meet her brother, the sun was just rising, and the day promised to be hot...

...Claire narrowed her eyes. “Summer camp and pranks go together like baked beans and franks,” she said. “The trick is to never let it get personal.” She sighed. “Don’t worry, there’s a work order in for your door—it will probably be fixed before you get back from the survival campout.”

Word count: 16847

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 29: Sunny Sunday

The weather was way too nice to stay inside today.

“How about worms in their beds?” Dana suggested. “That would be gross.”

Hannah laughed. “Yeah it would.”...

...“5:30,” he answered. “I need to go back to the meadow to see if there’s a trail or something, so I can make sure that the thing I hit last night is okay. Come with me?”

Word count: 16466

Saturday, November 28, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 28: Pie Saturday

The apple is long gone, but the pumpkin, sweet potato, and pecan are still around for anyone who cares to begin or end a meal (or three) with pie.

Hannah and Dana went to the campfire for a little while, but their hearts were not in it. They sat alone on the quieter side of the ring and talked, their voices low.

“I hate to see Greg so upset,” said Dana. “It was an accident, though.”

“He’s really protective of animals,” Hannah explained. “At home he won’t even kill a spider; he scoops it up in a cup and puts it outside. He’s always been that way.”

“That’s sweet,” said Dana. “The world would be a better place if more people were as nice as he is. Hey! That reminds me, what are we going to do about Regina and her henchmen?”

“I haven’t really had much time to think about it today,” said Hannah. She looked around and found all three of them watching her and Dana intently from across the flames. Was it her imagination or did they look a little less arrogant than before? She wondered if her threats that morning had actually intimidated them, or if there was some other reason for this unexpected change.


Word count: 16002

Friday, November 27, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 27: Black Friday

Not really. It's been a perfectly pleasant day with lots of family and food... except for the "ozones" Scrabble incident. That was a little dark and ugly. On the flip side, we learned that "bottlery" is a word (despite what my spell check is telling me right now). It means not a place where bottles are filled, but rather one where they are stored. Who knew?

“Isn’t everything better with ice cream?” Dana asked as she caught up with the group. “What’s happening?”...

...I just want to go back to my cabin,” he told her. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”


Word count: 15824

Thursday, November 26, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 26: Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for the 30% progress I have made. Now about those other 35,000 words...

Greg had fared much better, but he commiserated with Hannah on the way to wash up before dinner. “Who’s fault is this, Mom or Dad?” asked Hannah...


...“A la mode!” they said together. It was a silly routine that they did with their dad, but Hannah felt better knowing that when she was out in the woods, Greg would be there, too.

Word count: 15031

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 25: Soup Night

My family has a tradition of gathering for a meal of soup and salad the night before Thanksgiving. It's always a sweet and simple way to usher in a bountiful holiday season together, and tonight was no exception.

Hannah discovered that shooting a bow and arrow was a lot harder than it looked; there was nothing natural to her about trying to hold the arrow in place while drawing back the string, aiming, and then firing. She missed the target almost every time. Joe came over to her and suggested a different bow. She had chosen a long bow because it looked like the ones she had seen in movies like Robin Hood. Joe had given her a bow that was shaped like a bracket in a math problem; he called it a recurve and explained that it might be better for a beginner, but not even the new bow could help Hannah, and she spent a frustrating afternoon.

Word count: 14387

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 24: Yeah I Should

I saw my former student Red today at school. I gave him the big thumbs up on his plan to try NaNoWriMo next year. That kind of thing really warms an English teacher's heart on a raw morning in November.

He smiled and said, "You know, you should really write a lot this weekend."

"You must be Hannah and Greg," Joe waved them over. He smiled but did not make eye contact. “Archery is a lot of fun,” he told the group, “but obviously there are some pretty strict safety rules. Even with these beginner bows and arrows, someone can get seriously injured unless everyone is careful.” ...

...“The most important thing is to never, never, never shoot at a person or any other living thing. Don’t even aim within 50 yards of them. In the event that someone or something breaches the safety zone, you will hear three short blasts of the whistle. At that time, shooting must stop immediately. We WILL practice this—it is as much or more important than hitting the target.”

Word count 14270

Monday, November 23, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 23: Research

When I sat down to write tonight, I realized I don't know anything about archery. Now I know a little bit. I'm sure I'll wow you, Dear Reader, with that knowledge tomorrow.

The lunch service went very successfully, and Hannah was almost sorry to untie her apron and head for the archery range. She liked the rhythm and concrete results of the kitchen—seeing, smelling, and tasting the product of your hard work right away, and feeling pride when others appreciated it, too. She thought she might never again take a simple burger and fries for granted.

She ran into Greg on her way to archery. They both smiled to find out that he was in the same session, and that made her wonder, too. Just a couple of days ago, she would have paid money to get rid of him for a week or ten days, but now it seemed like he was all she had, and the surprising thing of it was that he was enough. She threw her arm around him affectionately as they hiked.

Counselor Joe was just getting ready to begin when they entered the clearing. Eight targets were set up against bales of hay.

Word Count: 14051

Sunday, November 22, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 22: That's Just Eerie

One of the cool things about participating in NaNoWriMo is the pep talks that you receive via e-mail every now and then. The one I got yesterday was from Kristin Cashore, author of the kids' novels Graceling and Fire.

She writes:

Here's what it starts to be like for me somewhere in the midsection of a novel:

(1) I've written the beginning, but I'm pretty sure it's a pile of crap.

(2) The end, when I even dare to contemplate it, feels as far away as Uranus.

(3) The prose I'm writing right now, here in the middle, sounds like a stiff little busybody who's sat down too hard on a nettle.

(4) I've discovered that my plot, even if it's an engaging plot, has sections that are not engaging to write, and I'm bogged down in those doldrums sections, when all I want is to move on to the exciting parts that are just ahead but I can't, not until I've written the parts that will get me there. Boring!

(5) The house is strewn with post-it notes on which are written about a gazillion important reminders of things I must somehow remember to find a way to weave into the novel at some point, although, where, I can't imagine. Some of the post-it notes are written hastily in a code I have since forgotten. ("He is temperamentally sweet, but dangerous, like Jake." That would be very helpful, if I had the slightest idea to whom "he" refers, or if I knew anyone named Jake.)

(6) Worst of all, whenever I take a step back and try to examine objectively this unstructured mess that is half created and half still living in my head and heart and hope (and on a gazillion post-it notes)... I get this horrible, sinking feeling that my novel isn't actually about anything.

Wow. How validating to read my very feelings written by someone else. (Oh, and she also said that writing 50,000 words requires skills that can be learned, how else? By writing. And that she's never written 50,000 words in less than 8 months.)

Grab a clean apron from the hooks behind you and come on in.”

Hannah enjoyed the morning. She liked to cook, and learning some shortcuts for chopping had been fun. She had never seen a giant number 10 can, much less one filled with more ketchup than her family would eat in a year, and the industrial opener they used to crank the lid off was pretty amazing, too. Jean had calmly overseen all the work, working at her cutting board on the stainless steel table, and directing the six kids in the kitchen...

...Hannah wasn’t sure how to respond. She sensed that something of value was being lost, but she couldn’t say what it was. Miss Jean looked up at the clock on the wall. “Time to get back in the kitchen,” she announced.

Word count: 13884

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 21: A Good Saturday or Better Than Nothing

As promised, I got a great night's sleep last night. I spent my morning reading a very compelling book called, School Wounds by Kirsten Olson (more about this another time), then I walked down to get my hair cut this afternoon, and went to see the movie Precious this evening, all worthwhile activities. Here's what I wrote in between:

The first rule of kitchen duty is don’t get hurt,” she told them in a pronounced drawl. “The kitchen can be a dangerous place, full of things that are hot and sharp. It is also a place where you prepare and serve the food that others will eat, so the second rule is to be careful and clean.”

It all made sense to Hannah. These were very close to her parents’ rules when she helped in the kitchen at home.

“Our lunch today will be hamburgers, grilled cheese, and French fries. Of course we’ll need some griddlers, and fryers, and servers, but some of you will need to chop vegetables for the salad bar and prep the chicken and biscuits for dinner.”

Word Count: 13480

Friday, November 20, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 20: 102 is Plenty

I had some free time tonight, and a friend asked if I was going to spend it writing. "Nope," I told her, "I'm going to go to bed early so I can write a lot tomorrow."

Hannah enjoyed a leisurely breakfast that had only been improved by the sight of Leslie and Cheryl screeching and jumping at every pop of the bacon grease on the huge griddle where they working when she made her way through the food line. That duo was dejectedly eating a late breakfast in the back corner of the dining hall, when, at nine am sharp, Hannah and the rest of the kitchen crew presented themselves to Miss Jean, the camp cook.

Jean was a solid woman of about her mother’s age, and Hannah liked her immediately, despite her gruff, matter of fact manner.

Word count: 13358

Thursday, November 19, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 19: Fingers Crossed

Today was a busy day-- teaching, parent meetings, a basketball game, and my writing group. It was my night to cook, too. Our meeting was as fun and congenial as ever, there was some good writing all around, and it was close to eleven by the time we got to my piece, which was the latest installment of the novel. I had about 800 words that I'd slammed out between basketball and hurrying home to start dinner. I could have written more if I'd had more time, too. That hasn't happened too often, but I'm hoping that there's a little momentum building on day 19.

She held her breath and lay as still as she could. Her mind raced and she fought the urge to jump screaming from the bed. The shadowy figure pushed out from between the bags under her bed and waddled across the cabin. In the moonlight it looked like a giant rat, bristly with a hairless tail, and it was moving toward the bunk where Dana slept. Hannah could see her over there lying on her stomach, one arm hanging over the side of her bed, oblivious to the menacing creature that was scraping toward her...

...“What are we going to do then?” Kelly asked.

Word count: 13256

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 18: Oops

For a brief shining moment last night, I was done with my novel. I accidentally typed an extra '1' on my NaNoWriMo page, and didn't notice it until my counters declared me a 100% finished NaNoWriMo Winner! It felt pretty good until I fixed it. I didn't realize until then how much I really would like to be a "winner".

Claire left, and the four girls prepared for bed. “You could have told her we were in the bathroom, or something” Leslie said with exasperation.

“But you weren’t,” said Lori. “That would have been against the rules to lie.”...

...She lifted her head ever so slightly from the pillow and looked toward her feet. She froze when she saw a dark shape trundle heavily across her blanket toward the wall. Before she could do anything, it slithered into the narrow crack and disappeared under her bed.

Word Count: 12620

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 17: The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

They always say that once you get started writing fiction, your characters will take over. It seems almost mystical when it happens, but it is welcome. Today, my characters actually told me that I need to spend more time with them-- 300 words is just lame. Sorry guys. I'm doing my best.

The fire was just a pile of smoldering embers when Hannah and Dana left to turn in for the night. It had been a fun evening. They listened to Hunter and Graham make fools of themselves singing Born to Run with Hank, and they had participated in a marshmallow roasting contest— Hannah won in the perfectly-golden-brown category, and Rhett won in the too-charred-to-eat-but-I’ll-go-for-it-anyway category...

...“Seven!” sputtered Cheryl. “I thought duty started at 9!”

“Not for you,” Claire told them. “You’ll be the breakfast crew.”

Word Count: 12085

Monday, November 16, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 16: Get Off Your Butt

One of the blogs I like to read is Mad Woman in the Forest by the author Laurie Halse Anderson. Today she posted her tips for young writers who are attempting the NaNoWriMo challenge this year. According to her, writers block is caused by three main things:

1. You are trying to be perfect.
2. You are under pressure to produce the finished product too fast.
3. You have been sitting down too much.

She provides three solid suggestions for coping with such blockage. It's worth a read.

The rest of the afternoon passed without incident, and Hannah was able to take a long, hot shower before dinner. It gave her some time to think, and the water washed away some of her anxiety and anger. She realized that she kind of liked camp so far. She and Greg had met some pretty cool kids, and the activities had been fun so far. She was also beginning to appreciate that she was too busy to dwell on her parents and everything that was riding on whether they would be able to work things out. There’s nothing I can do about it, she thought...

...A screen door slammed, Mary's dress waved. Greg came out to join them. “I have hiking and canoeing tomorrow, but kitchen duty wasn’t too bad,” he reported.

Word Count: 11787

Sunday, November 15, 2009

NaNo WriMo Day 15: Where the Run Meets the River

It was a treat having Josh here this weekend; he was a captive audience for my novel. We spent some time talking about it at dinner on Friday, and he came up with an ingenious plot development. It fits neatly into what I already had in mind, and I plan to use it. The seeds of it have been planted in this weekend's installments.

This morning we took advantage of the first sunny day since Tuesday and went for a hike along the Potomac. We walked the ridge until the trail dropped down to the confluence of Difficult Run and the river; after that we went upstream back to the parking lot. It was unseasonably warm, 72 in November, and the water was high because of all the rain.

Dana, Greg, and Rhett were already eating when Hannah got to lunch. “Where’s Graham?” Greg asked as Hannah put her tray down on the table...

...“Later Brace Face,” said Leslie.


Word Count: 11035

Saturday, November 14, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 14: An Absolute Disaster

I took a little time off from writing to go to the movies today with Heidi and all the boys. We saw the first big holiday blockbuster of the year, 2012. I'm afraid I can't recommend it. I might have been able to write it, though, and I do not mean that as a compliment.

Hannah had never been in a canoe in her life, but she found that she had a natural talent for it. After the basic safety presentation and paddling instruction, Doc had them try to navigate through a series of anchored floats that were set up just beyond the large platform in the lake. Her partner was Graham, and the two of them paddled through the course easily. Doc was impressed. “You two are a ringer team,” he called from his own canoe, as they floated and watched the other pairs struggle through...

...Hunter handed her a paddle. “Shall we?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Hannah grinned.

Word Count: 10412

Friday, November 13, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 13: All the Little Lessons

I was at a big bookstore today, and they had a whole end cap dedicated to novel writing. Coincidence? I think not. I was tempted to buy a couple of books and read them, but I understood that it would be procrastination not inspiration. I consider that a break through.

Janet, the clipboard, did the head count for their cabin that night. “Do you have your flashlights handy?” she asked them. “Because, while I wouldn’t recommend leaving the cabin at night for any reason other than an extreme emergency, I really wouldn’t recommend leaving it without a flashlight. That being said, if we find you outside, you better have a pretty good explanation, otherwise it’s a disciplinary issue. ‘night ladies.”...

...The bell on the lake view porch rang, interrupting their conversation. “Ten minutes to session one!” Hank called happily. “Be on time!”

Word count: 9611

Thursday, November 12, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 12: Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Between field trips that were scheduled last year, a teacher work day, standardized testing, and holidays, there are no more than 9 or 10 teaching days for us in the month of November. It is a ridiculous situation, but powerless to change it, I worked on mapping out some of the plot and figuring out the answers to a few but how questions of my novel while my students were bubbling in answers with their number two pencils today.

The western sky burned orange and red and a crescent moon was pressed high into the purple above it by the time Hannah and Dana got up to the fire ring. Dozens of people were silhouetted black shadows against the flames. As they approached, they could hear someone strumming an acoustic guitar and a small chorus of voices singing along to an Eagles tune. On the far side, closest to the main building Anne and Brian were handing out hot cocoa, marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate. Doc and Janet were busy balancing a couple of old-fashioned-looking metal contraptions with long wooden handles over some red hot embers. As they passed, Hannah heard sharp hissing and cracks, and then caught the unmistakable aroma of popcorn. Small groups of kids sat on and around the benches laughing and chatting. In spite of herself, Hannah relaxed. This is pretty cool, she thought...

...Doc stood on a bench and clapped his hands. “Okay folks, time to head toward your cabins. Wash up, do what you need to do, check in is in 15 minutes.”

Word count: 8840

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 11: Something to Aspire To

It sure was nice to have a day off. The weather was cold and rainy, and I spent a good part of the day in a chair next to the fire. There was some writing involved. There was also some itunes shopping, email reading, facebook browsing, and telephone talking involved. In the early evening, I heard an interview with the author Zadie Smith on NPR's All Things Considered. She characterized the beginning of any novel as tough going, but she also said that there comes a point near the middle where you are totally absorbed and then it practically writes itself. She reported that she spends 80 percent of her efforts on the first 50 or 60 pages of a book.

Noted with interest.

Hannah was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was. They had a choice of fried chicken or lasagna with green beans and jello. The first night, the counselors served and cleaned up, but the twins took great delight in reminding Greg that he would be the one wearing the apron tomorrow. Their kidding was good-natured, and Hannah was glad that Greg had found friends so quickly. There was still an hour or so until it would be dark enough for the campfire, and Rhett and Graham offered to show the Wilders and Dana around the camp a little bit...

...“No way,” Dana answered. “Those girls are the worst kind of bullies. I’m not going to just stand there and watch them push you around. They don’t scare me, anyway.”

“Thanks,” said Hannah.

Word count: 8475

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 10

Tomorrow's a holiday, no school. I'm hoping to make some progress then.

The line moved ahead and soon they were standing next to the bulletin board. "I can't look," said Dana. "What if it's survival first?"

"What if it's kitchen duty first?" asked Graham.

Greg stepped resolutely forward to examine the list. He ran his finger over the groups scanning them until he found what he was looking for. "Monday morning: Hannah, Graham- canoeing; Dana- archery; Rhett and me- hiking," he announced. "Monday afternoon: Dana and Hannah- swimming, Rhett and Graham- archery, me- kitchen. That's okay, though. I'd rather get it over with."

"What! No survival?" moaned Rhett. "I've been waiting a whole year to do that again."

"Well, another few days won't kill you," said Dana. "You'll survive." They all laughed at the joke as the line moved forward and into the mess hall.

Word count: 7732

Monday, November 9, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 9

Day nine and feeling fine:

...Dana turned to Hannah. “Are you going to dinner now?”

“Yeah,” Hannah answered. “I want to wait for my brother, though”

“Can I eat with you guys?” Dana asked. “I, personally, do not want to eat with my brother, but I’m sure yours is nice enough...”

* * * * *

...You have to, like, really survive, all by yourself overnight in the woods," explained Rhett.

"Whaaat?" said Hannah. "How about the buddy rule?"

"Well, okay, you're not all alone, but it's only kids, no counselors," Rhett answered."First they train us, then they take us out and leave us for one whole night. It... is... AWESOME!"

"Scary awesome," his brother added, "but still awesome."

Greg, Dana, and Hannah exchanged alarmed looks. This was not what they had in mind.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 8

Day 8 of this crazy novel writing challenge and I am still lagging way behind the target. Should I be happy for what I have produced or sad that I have not produced more?

Claire cleared her throat. “Well, I’m sooo glad we got that worked out.”...

...He looked at the other counselors. “Did I forget anything?” Hank smiled; Janet scowled; Claire sneezed; Brian yawned; Anne looked at her feet, and Joe shrugged. “All right,” Doc said. “Let’s eat!”

Word Count: 7164

Saturday, November 7, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 7

Day 7 of the 2009 NaNoWriMo challenge finds me at a little more than half-way to my target of 5000 words every three days. I was talking to a friend about it on Friday, and I said that this would be the make or break weekend for me. Either I'd catch up or quit. Hmm...

“… girls on the left, guys on the right,” Doc was saying. “Grab your gear from the pile and find your cabin group.”

Greg looked a little panicky. “Are you okay?” Hannah whispered...

...“You’ll block our view of the boys.”

Dana shrugged. “Whatever. I wasn’t going to take it anyway.”


Word count: 6180

Friday, November 6, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 6

A tall man with a scraggly beard and a red baseball cap stepped onto the bus before anyone could get off. "Welcome to Camp High Ridge," he shouted. "I know you've had a long trip, but I need you to settle down and listen for your directions before you leave the bus."

Next to Hannah, Greg was getting a little antsy. He was the kind of kid who was a real stickler for the rules. Their dad used to tease him about how well he could stay in the lines when he colored. "You know, Greg, the lines are not always your friends," Dad would say. Thinking back on it now, Hannah sucked on her teeth, making a tsk sound. Maybe Dad should have made better friends with the lines, she thought. Around them, there were impatient sighs and muttering, but the group quieted. "My name is Doc," he told them. "Those of you who have been here before know that I'm the head counselor."

Where did that nickname come from? Hannah wondered. He didn't look old enough to be a doctor, plus, what kind of doctor would work at a summer camp? Remind me not to get sick in the next two weeks, she thought.

Word count: 4764

Thursday, November 5, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 5

The bus jolted and rocked up the narrow drive. All around them kids shrieked and screamed as if they were on a roller coaster ride. Every few feet, a tree scraped against the side of the bus, poking its branches through any open windows, and boys would grab them and hold on until they had a handful of stripped leaves which they tossed in the air as they reached for the next intruding bough. Hannah couldn’t believe the chaos. Their formerly strict bus driver had turned into Mr. Softee, only without the bell and ice cream.

Soon enough, though, the road curved to the right and down, and several cabins and a small lake emerged brown and blue from the green. The bus pulled to a stop on a circular driveway with a flagpole at the center. All the children stood up, gathering their things quickly and pressing toward the aisle. The bus driver did not move. “I don’t know where ya’ll think you’re going,” he said. The folding door remained closed. The cloud of dust that they had kicked up on their way into the drive billowed in the air outside, and Hannah could see nothing out the window.

As they stood there, eight figures appeared out of the gloom. Had they been standing there al along, Hannah wondered, or did they just get here? The door to the bus opened then, and the line of kids moved forward.


Word Count: 4558

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 4

“I’m from Great Falls,” she told him. “Me and my friends.” She flipped her carefully curling-ironed brown hair toward the back of the bus...

...As they spoke, Hannah felt the bus slowing. To their right was a carved wooden sign with an arrow pointing up a rutted gravel lane, Camp High Ridge. The bus down shifted and the engine seemed to grind as they turned onto the narrow road heading up. Here we go, she thought.


Word count: 4318
(I'm hoping to make up some words over the weekend!)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 3

The door to the shed was open when Hannah got there, and she rolled the wheel barrow to its customary place behind the lawn mower. As she turned to leave, she heard low voices coming from the open studio window right outside the door...

... “What are you looking at?” the girl asked when she caught Hannah’s eye.

“Not much,” Hannah shrugged and turned her shoulder.

Hunter snorted, but the girl ignored it. “I’m Amy,” she introduced herself.

Total word count: 3839

Monday, November 2, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 2

The next couple of days passed in a blur of packing and shopping. The camp had sent a list of required and recommended items, and because the whole thing was so spur-of the-moment, they needed most of them. Sleeping bags, packs, canteens, compasses, hats, rain gear, hiking boots, bug spray and first aid kits were piled high in the corner of the dining room. They both needed physicals and tetanus shots, too. Under different circumstances, it might have been fun, but Hannah found herself moving through the days lethargically, as if she was already carrying the red backpack that topped her collection of gear...

...The next morning, her parents acted like nothing unusual had happened the night before, and the furnace was working fine, water gurgled quietly through the radiators.

Total word count: 3011

Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo Day 1

It's crazy, but I just wanted to give the novel writing challenge a try. My plan for the month is to post my first and last paragraph for the day along with my word count. May you all be my witnesses.

Hannah Wilder stared out the window of the bus. Barbed wire and blackberry brambles lined field after field of corn or tobacco as they rolled up and down the hilly two-lane road. She recognized the crops from car trips with her parents. Her mother always drove, and her father always quizzed them from the passenger seat. “What’s the name of this river?” he’d ask every time they headed north to visit her grandparents...

...Hannah and Greg looked at each other, and stood quickly, scraping their chairs back. They followed their mother to the kitchen but continued out the back door. Hannah was a few feet ahead, but they both knew where they were going. Three summers ago, their parents had built a tree house in the big mulberry in the corner of the backyard. Her tears were falling furiously when Hannah hit the ladder, and she could hear Greg choking on sobs behind her. Once safely inside, she sat down hard, wrapped her arms around her legs and cried. Greg leaned against her, and it was the sound of his misery that finally broke through her own. She put an arm around him and wiped her face. He continued to weep for a few more minutes, but she squeezed his shoulder and whispered that it would be all right.

Word count: 1591

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Twenty-Five Hours a Day

An extra hour in a day is like the cool side of your pillow in the middle of the night.

Take that DST...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last to Know

Today, when the kids in my last period class met me in the computer lab, they were very excited. "Is it true that someone stole a car from the parking lot?" one student asked, breathlessly. I hadn't heard a word about it, and I said as much, adding that I hoped it wasn't my car.

I gave the directions for the assignment, and they had just settled in when one of the administrators made a rare mid-day announcement that all teachers should check their e-mail immediately. The kids watched with raised eyebrows as I sauntered over to my workstation like it was no big deal. They're sixth graders; they don't know that such interruptions are very uncommon. I played it off, too, and not a single student asked what the message said, which was that we were in a lockdown due to police activity on and around our campus. Hmm.

The class ended and my meeting and planning time began with no further word about either the lockdown or the situation that brought it on. When a substitute teacher stopped by our team meeting to say that he was on his way out, we had to inform him that it might not be possible to leave the building. A little while later, it was he who told us that the lockdown was over; there was no additional information or explanation via e-mail or P.A.

Later at basketball practice, the girls were eager to fill me in on what had happened. Some guy had stolen a car in the next county over and abandoned it in our parking lot. During 7th grade lunch recess, five police units squealed up to the building and officers swarmed over the grounds, their weapons drawn. Only then were the kids hustled into the building, and the lockdown put in place.

According to the students the suspect was still at large. I took their word for it-- they seemed to know what they were talking about, and they certainly had more knowledge of the incident than I did.

Why is that?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'm a Cool Teacher

Because I can yo-yo and find my way out of a corn maze, not to mention make pumpkin pie out of a pumpkin. Sometimes it takes so little to impress sixth graders, but it's always nice to be appreciated.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Where They're From

My students are wrapping up an activity in which they use George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From as a model for a free verse poem of their own. This is an activity that Nancie Atwell outlines in her book Naming the World. Her students developed a questionnaire which they used to interview their parents and grandparents to gather material for their poems, and we use a version of that, too.

Ours is a chart that has space for the answers to 12 questions in four columns. One for mother, one for father, one for grandparent, and one for other. One of our students has two dads, so before I gave the sheet out this year, I changed the first two columns to "parent." The questions are about nicknames and birthplaces, toys, games and hobbies, favorite books, candy, TV shows, and singers, hip expressions, heroes and hoped for careers.

We have several adopted and foster kids on the team this year, and many of our students and/or their parents were born in countries other than the United States. It was difficult for some kids to gather much information about the lives of the people in their family. It was also challenging for them to fit some of the non-traditional details of their lives into the template based on Lyon's poem. We talked our way through it, though, and everyone wrote a poem of which they were very proud.

We have one student, who was born in India and adopted into a family with a brother from Vietnam and a sister from Guatemala. Her mom e-mailed this morning to say how touched their family was by the poem. Her daughter wrote, in part:

I am from black shoes,
from Razzles and Legos.
I am from the crowded streets of India,
hot and noisy...

I am from watching American Idol
and arguing about the results.
I am from jocks and book worms,
from "Stop talking!" and "Do your homework!"

... from the love of my parents
when they tuck me in at night,
the funniness of my brother,
and the grumpiness of my sister.
I am from the wooden box in my parents' room
filled with pictures,
and all the things in my family
that make us who we are.

What can I say? It's a great assignment. They were all that sweet.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Post-Game Analysis

No, she didn't make the team. We went with a younger, less experienced, but definitely more positive squad. We were afraid that the strength of her antagonism might poison the attitude of the team. I'm still not sure that we made the right decision, though, especially because we were responsible for some of that negativity.

Who knows? Had we been able to intervene more effectively when she was bullied in sixth grade, the outcome might have been different, but now it was a case of trying to balance the good of the group with the good of the individual. We were afraid that she would take the opportunity to treat younger players as she had been treated, and in order to break the cycle, we kept her off the team.

I wish that sometime in the last two years, one of us had been able to forge a constructive relationship with her, so that the positivity of this team, along with our support, might have turned the experience around for her, but her behavior and choices during tryouts showed that we hadn't done that. It was definitely a loss.

Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Buzzer

In the words of Yogi Berra, "It was deja vu all over again," with a few key differences. Sixth grade girl was now eighth grade girl: she was taller, stronger, and fitter. She had mostly kept out of trouble for the first six weeks of school, and this time, we needed a point guard.

The taint on our team of the mean girl who had bullied her two years before had faded considerably and was almost gone. There was only one other girl left who had ever played with her. The eighth graders the year before had had a few spiteful moments, but their unkindness had been nothing compared to hers. Even so, the younger girls who were back now for a second season had come to me after tryouts to say that they really hoped that this year would be more positive. "No offense," one said, "but some of the eighth graders last year were scary." How impressed was I when they decided on their own to be supportive of the new players? What a change.

Our prospective point guard couldn't make the seventh and eighth grade trials, so we let her try out when she showed up with the sixth graders the next day. Once again, her skills were solid, and her game was good. When it came time to scrimmage with the other girls, though, it was as if no time had passed. She didn't listen to directions; she was shoving other girls on the sidelines; in the game she didn't pass; and she called her teammates out for their lack of talent.

At the end of the tryout, when everyone gathered at center court to wrap it up, she brought a ball and stood with her back to the group, dribbling it. "Hold the ball," the other coach said, and she lifted it to her shoulder as if to shoot. "Do not shoot that ball," he said, and turned to the other girls. As he did, she shrugged and stepped hard into that half-court shot. I watched as the basketball hit the rim, bounced straight up and fell back through the net. It was an amazing shot, and she could not contain her glee, but it was game over.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Play through the Pain

We wondered if our erstwhile potential point guard would come out for the team the next year, and we debated what we would do if she did. After leaving the team, she had continued to find trouble, even getting arrested for stealing a wallet off the counter at a near-by convenience store. My colleague wanted to tell her not to bother, but I didn't agree. I felt like kids should be able to make mistakes, and I hoped that a year later she might be more mature. I also believed that on some level we had mishandled the episode the year before, placing most of the blame on the player who was least valuable to the team.

She showed up for tryouts, and she was good enough to make the team. Her attitude was subdued and cooperative. On the afternoon we cut the roster, the other coach and I sat in his office a long time discussing the pros and the cons. "We're the adults," I told him. "Let's not set an example of holding a grudge. Everyone deserves a second chance." We compromised by putting her on the team provisionally. We agreed that we would talk to her first and let her know what we expected.

It didn't matter though. The asterisk next to her name was enough to make her mad, and she never showed up for practice. That was seventh grade... what about eighth?

Looks like we're headed into overtime.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

After the Pep Talk

Exactly what happened between the girls will never be clear; it was a classic case of she said she said. What I do know is this: A couple of days later, the sixth grader pulled me aside during a water break at practice. Her usually lackluster performance had dipped to an even lower point that day, and I asked her if everything was all right. To my surprise, the tough little girl teared up and told me that she "couldn't take it anymore." She reported that the eighth grade girl was constantly harassing her, criticizing everything she did and said.

I asked her when this was going on, and she told me that it happened in the locker room and whenever the coaches weren't looking. I promised her that we would talk to the other girl, but she didn't believe it would help.

"I don't care what anyone says," she told me. "I know I'm a good player," and she walked off the court, quitting the team.

We talked to the other girl, but she denied everything, and no one else would verify the story, either. The guy I coach with thought that sixth grade girl had turned out to be more trouble than she was worth, with all her trash talking and lack of effort, and he was glad to see her go. And that seemed to be that, until seventh grade try-outs the next year.

Get some water. The fourth quarter is coming up.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Second Six Minutes

So, our sixth grade protege and our eighth grade mean girl were headed for a show down. There was a twist, though. The sixth grader was the kind of kid who gets in a lot of trouble. Angry, confrontational, and downright defiant, she was hard to like. The eighth grader on the other hand was good at staying out of trouble. Intelligent and shrewd enough to be generally compliant and polite, she was widely considered to be a good kid. Not everyone was fooled by her nice girl act, but enough adults were that she was able to get away with certain things.

On our team, we value effort, and physically, we push the girls hard. This didn't go over too well with the sixth grader, who was more inclined to jog than to sprint through the drills. She had no patience for practice, she just wanted to play her game, and she got a fair amount of redirection from both of us coaches because of it. She had a bit of an inflated opinion about her skills, too; despite her lack of experience and conditioning, she honestly believed that she should be our starting point guard, and she said so to whoever would listen.

At the first home game of the season, sixth grade girl sat on the bench and watched the team lose. Afterward, her well-meaning friends all assured her that the outcome would have been different had she been on the court, a point she eagerly raised at the next practice. Did eighth grade girl feel threatened? I doubt it, but the audacity of the challenge was something she couldn't let go, and after all, she was a mean girl.

Half-time.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

First Quarter

Two years ago there was a sixth grade student on our basketball team who showed promise. Even though she was short and a little overweight, her ball-handling skills and game instincts were strong. We put her on the team in the hope that with time and experience, she would become a starting point guard.

It's hard for sixth graders to get much playing time on a middle school team. They are competing against seventh and eighth grade students who are generally older, bigger, and stronger. We usually practice with a squad of 15, but only about half will get significant game time, most of them eighth graders. For the younger girls, we view their first, and sometimes even their second, year as developmental.

A couple of things happen as a result of this dynamic. One is that the older girls feel entitled to the playing time: they've paid their dues, practicing hard and then sitting on the bench for two years, and now they feel that they have a right to the spotlight. They are also the leaders of the team, and so their attitude sets the tone. As closely as we supervise middle school kids and as much guidance as we provide them in the classroom, in the cafeteria, or on the court, they always find an opportunity to reinforce their hierarchy. That's how it is on the team.

That year, our strongest eighth grade player happened to be a point guard, and so it was never very likely that this sixth grade girl would play many minutes in a game. This particular eighth grade girl had played her first couple of seasons with her older sister, who was incredibly cruel to her. It didn't help that the younger sister was a better player; in fact that made it worse, and when it came time for her to lead the team, she was almost as mean to the younger girls as her sister had been to her.

There's the whistle-- let's pick it up in the second quarter.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Game On

I co-coach the girls basketball team at my school, and I have for several years. It's a short season, 8 games, but it requires a substantial after-school commitment-- 2:30-4, five days a week for about eight weeks; game days run longer.

At the beginning of each season, like now, when I'm trying to figure out where those 90 minutes are going to come from in my daily schedule, I always wonder exactly why I am doing it. I get a stipend for my time, and it's nice to get some extra cash in my check when the season is over, but it's not really enough to compensate me for the time I spend. What is it then?

Well...

I like seeing the students in another setting-- first hand knowledge of their strengths is always helpful, and we all know students who shine on the court, but not in the classroom.

I like having the chance to get to know students I don't teach. In my opinion, teaching sixth grade at a middle school is ideal, because once you've been there for three years, you know about half the kids. This way, I know even more than that.

I like the opportunity to work with a colleague with whom I probably never would, otherwise. The guy I coach with is a PE teacher at my school, and we don't have very much in common, other than the 14 seasons we've worked together, but I consider him a friend.

I like the positive image that coaching gives me with the kids. When they hear that I'm the basketball coach, they're impressed, and it's an easy way to connect with kids whose main interests are outside of English class.

So far, that's been worth it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What next?

The school system sent home a letter over the weekend for parents to give permission to have their children get a free H1N1 immunization. I don't know what I was expecting, but the response has been underwhelming. Of the eleven students in my homeroom, only 2 have returned their permission slips. Families have until the end of the week to respond, but I'm not getting the sense that everyone's on board with this effort to vaccinate 100% of our citizens under the age of 24. There seems to be some uncertainty.

I could be mistaken. This morning, some kids were reporting that they hadn't received the notice, yet; some said it was still on the table for their parents to read again more carefully and sign. Some seemed awfully anxious about the prospect of getting a shot, and I wouldn't be surprised if their opt-in form turned up in some future locker clean out, unless it's already on its way to the landfill.

Regardless, it seems like disorganization has been the only constant throughout this flu epidemic. Take the last four days at our school as an example: no one knew the letters were going home, so the whole staff was called to a "stand-up meeting" five minutes before the kids got there yesterday, a Monday morning. At that time, our principal told us what to do with the forms when they came in. She also said that the vaccinations were going to start next week, except that we found out today that the vaccine hasn't actually arrived, yet. Currently, the plan is to immunize all the children in the county, starting with the youngest, who need two doses, and moving up, so middle schools won't have it for at least 12 weeks. On the other hand, "some people" think we should provide the vaccinations school by school, and if they prevail, then everything will change.

At that five-minute meeting we had yesterday morning, one of my colleagues asked when immunizations would be available for teachers. His point is well-taken, if an identified vulnerability is children, then educators are on the front line; even so, we're not eligible to be vaccinated.

I understand that complexities exist and unexpected situations arise (I'm a teacher, after all), but still, I'm disappointed by this failure of the infrastructure.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

This year, I'm trying to express a focus of the week (or weeks) in a question. So the weekly schedule sort of goes like this: on Monday, the students explore the question by interacting with their independent reading, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, they work to answer this guiding question through our common texts and apply the principles we've uncovered to their writing.

I think it's a sound idea, and I'm trying to make the questions broad enough that we can circle back to them throughout the year in different contexts with different genres in order to build understanding of concepts.

So far the focus questions have been:

What draws you into a book?
How do writers use sensory details to create an experience for the reader?
Where does poetry hide?
How do writers use figurative language to create meaning?
How do writers use models to improve their craft?

The last one is our focus this week, so today I asked them to choose sentences from their books, break them down, and then write similar sentences. What an interesting day we had. We started with a conversation about how artists or craftsmen use models. Students offered ideas about painters, musicians, carpenters, and chefs. Then we used a model that I had chosen because it had figurative language, sensory details, and a dash, to review what we'd already focused on and to introduce the notion of deliberate punctuation. Finally, they did their own thing, and by their work, I was able to assess how much they got of the lesson.

Using sentence-level models from real literature offers an effective way to talk about and teach grammar and punctuation in a meaningful context, especially if students have chosen both the passage and the book. Tomorrow we're going to read George Ella Lyon's poem, Where I'm From, and the students will have a chance to use it as a model for their own poems.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Art and Discipline

My sister-in-law is an artist who chose to become a public school art teacher. We were talking at dinner tonight about her homework expectations for her students. "I just want them to do some art outside of school," she said. "I think it's really important." I completely understand; I want my students to read and write outside of our classroom, too.

Recently, there was a piece on The Washington Post website by David C. Levy, former director of the Corcoran Gallery, called The Problem with School Art Programs: Teachers Who Can Barely Draw. His premise is that "the majority of K-12 art teachers graduate without rigorous training in the fundamental skills that underpin competence in their discipline." He compares art teachers to music teachers, positing that no school system would ever hire a music teacher who could not read and play music. He also compares art teachers to English teachers, writing, "For example, while English teachers may not be able to write The Great American Novel, the chances are pretty good that they can compose a competent essay."

Art, music, literature-- I agree that to be an effective teacher in these disciplines one must be a proficient practitioner as well, but I also believe that proficiency is too low a standard. What we hope for our students is that our instruction and their discipline will yield genuine artistry, and voluntary practice beyond the classroom is evidence that they are moving in that direction.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Circle the Wagons

Sometimes, before I compose my post, I click through the new entries on my blog roll. It helps me get down to business... or does it help me avoid business? Either way, it's a habit, and I did it tonight. It was a pleasant surprise to see that my 14-year-old nephew had posted to his blog in the last 45 minutes, especially since I'd just seen him a couple of hours ago, when we had taken him to see his older brother perform in a School of Rock show.

When he was finished with his part in the show, my older nephew, who is 17 and has his own car, decided to stay until the end, but we were ready to split, so we got on the road an hour or so ahead of him. It's been raining all day here, and the roads are terrible. In the dark, the glare off the wet pavement makes it impossible to see the lane lines, and the tires of any car ahead of you spray a fine mist onto your windshield that even the best wipers can't keep clear. After my own safe arrival home, though, I wasn't thinking of any of that when I clicked on the link to Nemo's latest post. I gasped when I read what he had written:

Um, I just found out my brother was in a car crash. I think he's okay, but it's really scary to think about. We just lost someone in our family. What if he wasn't okay? It seems wrong that bad things can happen to people I care about. HEY UNIVERSE DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG? Well, I guess we're lucky that he's okay.

Amen to that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Guilty as Charged

Our counselor routinely meets with small groups of kids at lunch, just to check in with them. Today she and the minority achievement coordinator had four or five boys eating together, so they asked them how things were going. "Fine," one guy answered, "except my English teacher is trying to turn me into a poet."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Virtue

I'm feeling impatient.

It seems like I'm still not doing a good job giving my students time to write, mostly because the poem and mini-lesson are taking too much time at the front end of class. It's not as though they could sustain more than 15-20 minutes of solid writing anyway, but the transitions continue to be a little rough, and it seems that the bell rings too soon after they've finally settled.

Today was no exception, we were very rushed at the end of each class, although at last I'm beginning to see the groundwork of the last several weeks come together. We finally have the foundation of a common language for talking about free verse poetry that the students can apply both to what we are reading and to their own drafts. They are conversant in line breaks, sensory details, figurative language (simile, metaphor, and personification), the quality of the verbs and nouns, and basic punctuation choices. In addition, they are getting pretty good at discussing what meaning a poem has for them.

OK... I guess we are making some progress.