Thursday, March 31, 2011

Borrowed Words

As the 2011 SOLSC draws to an end, I'm going to share what one of my students wrote today:

Well it's March 31 which means this is the last Slice of Life Post. This was a really fun thing to do. I wish we could do this again. I really enjoyed it and I am going to miss it because now I won't know how [much] fun everybody had during their day. I always loved coming on here and telling everyone about my day, it can get all the problems I am having now and make them go away. This was the only place where I could let all my problems GO! I hope everyone also liked this activity. This is one thing I will never forget about my 6th grade year. 

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for sponsoring such an inspiring activity.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spoiler Alert

The other day my students were talking about their independent reading books in small groups. It's a weekly assignment, but right now, it seems like there are a lot of kids reading The Hunger Games and its sequels, and all of them are in different places, which makes it a little challenging for them to have these discussions without spoiling the plot for someone else. In one of my classes I looked up to find a student pacing back and forth next to his table with his fingers in his ears. At first, I was alarmed, but when I went over there, the group explained that he just didn't want to hear anything about what was coming next in the book.

Later in the day, someone asked me about the narrative voice of the series. "It's written in first person," I said. "The main character, Katniss Everdeen, is telling the story in all three books."

"Thanks a lot!" a little girl snapped, "Now I know she doesn't die!"

I laughed and to throw her off I said, "Oh no-- she tells the third one from beyond the grave." And then I made spooky ghost noises.

"Thanks a lot," she said again. "Now you've really ruined it!"

Since it was clear I couldn't win, and I kind of wanted to mess with her and keep her guessing, too, I continued. "But that's not all! She's a zombie in the second one!"

"Oh she is not!" the student insisted. "I saw the last line of the book. She takes Peeta's hand."

"Yeah, his cold, dead, severed hand!" I said triumphantly.

"Oh, now I don't even know what to think! I'm just going to finish the book," she scoffed.

"You do that," I told her. "You do that."

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Program Evaluation

My teaching was observed for the second time in as many weeks today. Our district is conducting a program evaluation and the results are submitted and compiled without identifying the teacher, so I will never receive any formal feedback on my lesson, my instruction, or my interaction with my students today.

The observations are carried out by independent contractors who are trained to use a rubric, and when they are through, consultants will use their data to construct a report on the overall quality of teaching in our school system. As it happens, many of the assessors are retired teachers and administrators, and I know the person who observed me today rather well. She used to be a language arts specialist at one of the other middle schools in the county.

My philosophy on any kind of evaluation is to do what I would do otherwise, thus giving an accurate picture of my practice and then to accept any feedback as constructive, and that is what I did today, even though there would be no feedback. My students continued working on final drafts of their fiction as well as composing and commenting on slice of life stories. I edited, conferred, and advised as they worked.

As she was leaving the room my observer paused. "It's great to see the students writing," she told me. "I can't say I've seen too much of that lately."

I was shocked. "Really?"

"Well," she shrugged, "I'm only there for one class, but..." she trailed off. "Thanks for doing what you're doing," she finished.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Toy

I'm composing this on my brand new iPad. The other day I mentioned to my students that I had this gadget on order, and I was surprised by their enthusiasm. "Will you bring it to school?" somebody wondered.

"Can I touch it?" another girl asked.

My answers were yes and yes. The oldest of three, I'm a really good sharer; plus, what fun is a new toy if you keep it all to yourself? The students seemed beside themselves in delight, and one even posted about our conversation on her slice that evening--

Just in case we really needed reminding that technology is supremely engaging to kids.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.) 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Preparing for the Future

Today, I finally found the time to deal with all the greens from my vegetable share. The CSA farmer who provides our locally grown produce plants a wide variety of greens every winter. Just this week alone we had English cress, new star mustard, tender leaf mustard, and Chinese thick-stemmed mustard. Left from last week, I had napini, two kinds of kale, and a bunch of spicy arugula.

Sometimes, I cook to showcase the individuality of a particular green, but today I did what I always do when I'm inundated: I got out the ten quart stock pot, boiled some lightly-salted water, and dumped them all in. Four minutes later the leaves floated to the top like tiny emerald dishrags. The window by the sink clouded with steam as I drained them and then shocked them in ice water. Once they were cool, I lifted them from their icy bath and back into the colander, leaving behind the last of the gritty sand that had given them life.

The most labor intensive step came next. Working in batches small enough to fit my hands, I squeezed the water from them and tossed around 10 compact green balls to my cutting board. After that it was a rough chop chop with the chef's knife and into a zipper bag-- one pound and fifteen ounces of green goodness bound for the freezer and some future meal. 

As I worked, I was reminded of a wonderful poem by Todd Boss: (Be sure to check out his very cool project, Motion Poems.)

Were I to Wring a Rag

--no matter how much
muscle I might have   
mustered—my mother   
was like to come along   
behind, reach around   
me to take it up again   
from where I’d left it,   
lift it back into my line   
of vision and in one   
practiced motion from   
that strangle in her bare   
hands and thin air work   
a second miraculous   
stream of silver dishwash   
into the day’s last gleam . . .

~Todd Boss

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)  

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Running a Slice of Life Story Challenge for a bunch of sixth graders on the verge of full-blown adolescence has had its moments, both rewarding and challenging. Many days, I feel like I've been walking a tightrope between encouraging the kids to write authentically about what's going on in their lives and their minds and keeping their posts appropriate for a school activity.

For example, here's a slice from today (the bolding is mine):

Today we were supposed to be hosting a party for no reason with some of my dad's college friends. Apparently they didn't check their calendar and now they can't come. Now my dad is really grumpy because he was looking forward to drinking a lot of beer and other adult beverages. I like parties but luckily we have invited other friends of ours that also like to "have a ball". They have a kid in 3rd grade that is very aggresive. The last time he was here we were jumping on the trampoline and he gave me like five nut shots. I'm very scared of him. Today I will wear pads. Just in case. WISH ME LUCK!

What to do? Well, my Saturday night solution was to excise the bold passages (it actually works out just fine without them) and reply to him as follows:

This post is really testing the limits of what is appropriate for school, C. You may notice that I deleted a couple of things.

I will also take up the conversation with him in person on Monday. Before my intervention, another student had already read his post. Here's her reply:

Wow Ms. S. you edited A LOT! And I thought the first one was rather hilarious. OH WELL we are on the school grounds of the internet.

I posted once more to the thread. My point exactly.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)  

Friday, March 25, 2011

What's a Motto?

Today I asked my students to come up with working mottos for themselves. Here's the list:

"We Are ONE!!!!"
be wild and have fun
A friend's eye is a good mirror
Speak the Truth or die without!!!
Live your life.
Better Late Than Never & Never Late Is Better!
Loving My Life:)
up down up down up down side to side
Stand Stong or Crawl Weak.
The Present:Live in the present never the past
Stand out, don't blend in!
The pen is mighter than the sword
life is good life is unfair
work hard unless you dont want to
Anti-Madrid continuation
"If you want something done right do it yourself ! "
No pain no gain
When You Use It Believe It
we're the kids of the future
Life is Unfair
Follow the yellow brick road!!!
The Impossible is Possible
work hard feel great
It makes sense if you don't think about it.
aim high shoot low
new shoes cause for new rules
" why so serious?"
Be Who You Are, And You Are Who You Be.
Save the Best For LAST
I'm All In!
Drop it or be dropped!
A clever person solves the problem, a wise person avoids it.
Love to skate on ice, October
Don't listen Don't talk!
Sparkle As Bright As A Star, But Shine As The Person You Are
To Be Yourself, Never Anyone Else
Will it matter 20 years from now.
"Do it once, possibly do it again"
Work hard, live easy
"Anything is possible, the impossible just takes longer" (o_0)
be nice or back off
From the moment we are born, we begin to die.
No Blood, No Foul
Live Free Or Die Hard
Free living
Possibilities are Endless, Just Find Them.
The old is better than the new.
If You Embrace You Ace It, If You Bail It You Fail It
A shining star is what you are!!!!!
Joga bonito, Red Devils

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.) 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cold Snap

Around here, they are predicting temperatures 10-15 degrees lower than the average for the next week, but I really don't mind. As lovely as spring is in this part of the world, I'm not quite ready to pack away my turtlenecks and fleece. There's a practical element to my appreciation of the unseasonable coolness, too. Today I picked up my CSA veggie share and came home with a shopping bag full of greens. I truly love greens (ask me about Colcannon some time!), but they take a lot of room in the fridge before they're cooked, and I still have some from last week that I haven't gotten around to eating, or at least blanching, chopping, and freezing. Thursday night of a busy week is not my first choice for dispatching ten pounds of assorted leafy vegetables, so fortunately I was able to toss the bag onto the porch where they will be fine until Saturday.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Speed Reading

Today the students took their lists of complaints from yesterday and highlighted the top 8-10. Then they ranked them in order of personal importance, chose one, and wrote a couple of paragraphs describing the problem as best they understood it. My original plan was for them to read it to a small group and have the other kids ask questions, but this morning as I was walking the dog I had a different idea.

I arranged the tables in my room into a loose circle with chairs on the inside and on the outside. Once their writing was complete, They paired up, with one student on the outside and the other across the table on the inside of the circle. We set the timer for 1 minute and 20 seconds, and at the beep, the kids on the outside read their writing and when they were through, their partners asked questions. The authors were not to answer the questions, but rather record them on the back of their sheets.

When the timer went off, the inside person moved to the right and another student took the vacated seat. This time, it was the inside group's turn to read and the outside folks asked questions. And so it went for 15 minutes or so. By the end of class, each student had read his or her work four or five times and had a list of ten questions or so.

It was great! The kids were very focused and engaged. It was quick, peer-centered, and there was lots of movement, but clearly directed. Before we began, I read them an example I had written, which was about the incursion of coyotes in our urban area. I deliberately made it a little vague, and we brainstormed questions as the timer ticked down. They figured out that they could ask questions about both the facts of the situation and my stance on it, and I advised them that a good question might always be "What can you do about it?"

What indeed? That will be the next lesson.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Uncovering Objectives

Today, as the first step in the Writing for Change unit, I gave my sixth grade students the opportunity to gripe. Oh my goodness, such a positive reaction to any assignment I have not seen in a long time. "Really?" one student asked, "You want us to write a list of complaints?"

"Oh, yes," I told them, "I do."

"Can we use names?" someone wondered.

"Better not," I said. "Describe the behavior that irks you, not the person."

"Can it be anything?" another asked.

"Yes. Anything that bothers you, large or small."

They worked diligently for 15 minutes or so, and then it was time to share their concerns, but first we talked about how to respond. "Don't offer solutions," I advised. "Don't minimize the problem by saying it doesn't bother you, and don't make the conversation about you by saying it does. If you have to say anything, just say you can see how that would be frustrating, or embarrassing, or whatever."

That was hard for them, and it was hard for me, too. Hard to let it go when someone complained about boys who skip, girls who are ugly but try to dress cool, people who wear the wrong color shoes. Those were probably the most shallow, but most of the concerns they chose to share were minor irritations at best: People who give away the ending to the book you're reading, people who snap gum, too much homework on the weekends, cold pizza at lunch, teachers who say, "I'm waiting," getting in trouble the one time you haven't done anything, having your grandmother tell her life story to the cashier at the grocery store, dancing in PE, and so forth.

I liked how concrete they were, though, and I told them so. "But if you look at your list for more serious problems, what do you have?"

Of course they had plenty of big issues, too: Natural disasters, animal cruelty, hunger, homelessness, poverty, government spending, lack of respect for religion, random violence, smoking, diseases, etc. They were still listing as the bell rang.

I over heard two girls talking as they left the room. "That was great!" said one. "We actually got to complain in school!"

"I know," her friend answered, "but why do you think we did that? Wait! Do you think we are going to use writing to actually do something?"

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the SOLSC challenge.)

Monday, March 21, 2011


Every year I do a Writing for Change unit with my students that requires both research and persuasive composition. I have tried all sorts of ways to get them to identify an issue of concern of theirs, be it personal, family, peer, academic, social, local, national, or even global, do some research on it, and then address it in writing-- usually in a genre of their choice. I know that sounds a little unstructured, mosty because it is, but hear me out.

One of my objectives is for them to think about what is important to them; another goal is that they discover that they can actually use writing to address such a concern, and still another is for them to understand that there are many ways to do so. Ultimately, my hope is that they will be empowered by that knowledge to become citizens who think and communicate on issues that concern them.

We focus on both theme and message as we read a variety of common texts together and they look at those in their independent reading, too. At the same time, they list, free write, compose questions, and do research on their way to a final product, which might be a speech, a public service announcement, a brochure, a letter, an essay, a protest song, or something else. The intention is to make it as authentic as possible, too, so they identify an audience, too, and we try to get that message out.

It's a messy process. There are so many balls in the air that I've never been quite satisfied with the end result, although I think the process is valuable. Tonight, as I was researching a few issues myself in an attempt to find some current and topical common texts, I noticed a trend. Many websites devoted to specific issues have one or both of the following lists: FAQs and Ten Things YOU Can Do.

It occurred to me that creating either of those things would be a persuasive experience requiring research. Furthermore, they are very concrete and very structured, both of which qualities are under-represented in my unit as it is currently conceived. They may just be the exact products that could pull it all together for those of my students who are still developing their abstract thinking skills.

I can't wait to find out.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Showing a Visitor Around Town

A week ago the door bell rang and I opened it to a delivery person with an unexpected package. Hand addressed to me personally and postmarked the Netherlands with a return address I did not recognize, I paused to consider the eight inch cube. I racked my brains for forgotten internet purchases, but nothing presented itself.

I took a deep breath and grabbed a pair of scissors, surprised by my hesitation, but in this day and age, caution is prudent. Inside, swathed in bubble wrap and a zip lock was a beanie baby named Goldie. She was part of a social studies project from a second grade class in Phoenix, Arizona. On more careful examination, I saw that she had been sent on her way by my sister's 7-year-old niece. "Oops! I forgot to tell you," my sister said, "but we thought since you're a teacher..."

Today we took Goldie out on the town with our 15-year-old nephews, Josh and Treat. They were not quite as careful as I would have liked-- Goldie flew through the air and even hit the dusty crushed gravel of the National Mall more than once, and a guard did have to scold her in the sculpture garden for touching the art work-- but determined to show her a few out-of-the-way sights, we found some things we probably would have passed by without a second look.

A good example was the rustic wooden bench hewn from a sugar maple from the campus of Cornell University. It stood in a tiny sustainability garden on the mall side of the USDA. Both vegetable patch and bench were part of The People's Garden project, something I had never heard of, but which turns out to be a very cool initiative.

Thanks Goldie!

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Super Moon

When we heard that the full moon tonight would be closer, bigger, and brighter than it had at any time since 1993, viewing its rise at 7:39 went to the top of our to-do list. Even before we had seen it, my nephew, Treat, proposed a Super Moon Reunion party for the next time it occurred. We were on our way home from a pretty mediocre movie, Limitless, at the time, but the previews had featured remakes of both Arthur and Conan the Barbarian. So as we planned our reunion party, we kept our fingers crossed that Limitless 20?? would be in theaters at the time.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Day 120

With temps pushing 80, it seemed like a lucky break this afternoon that we had arranged to leave work early to go pick up our godson, Josh, for a quick visit. There was a lot of traffic on the way up to and back from Baltimore, but somehow, with the sun shining and the whole weekend stretching ahead of us, it didn't matter too much. Back at home, we checked the movie listings, fired up the grill, and decided which game we might play after dinner, and just like that, summer did not seem so far away after all.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Lowest Common Denominator

Taking advantage of the tournament brackets that are so prevalent at this time of year, I organized a Super Sentence tourny in my classes today. All week we have analyzed our common text (Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye) sentence by sentence, looked to our independent reading for models, pulled plums from our own writing, and composed sentences that we thought would captivate and delight an audience.

After ten minutes of tweaking, the brackets were posted and students read their gems head to head. I gave grammar advice in context, but word choice and content was all theirs, and the judges were their peers. For each pairing, the winner got a lollipop and the right to move on, and the loser got to sit down.

There were some beautiful sentences, and I'd like to say that those writers won every time, and sometimes they did, but a crucial concept here was audience. In two of my five classes, kids who are not generally known for their writing rocked the brackets, and it was awesome to see them experience that unexpected success. Both of those boys were composing as they went along, scribbling furiously between rounds so that they would have something to read when it was their turn. One of them crafted exquisite and complex sentences of suspense; I confess that my jaw literally dropped at the end of one. The other took a more vulgar approach, although it was no less successful. His sentences involved a hair ball, someone urinating his pants, and an ugly sister.

In the end, these guys met the same fate. The clock was their enemy. When it came to the final round, they each had to forfeit because they hadn't prepared well enough in advance, and they didn't have anything to read, which was really a pity.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Too Close to Home

A couple of weeks ago, as we exited from the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts, I was telling my nephew how one of them, Sun Come Up,  reminded me of the second book in Jeanne DuPrau's City of Ember series, The People of Sparks. We had just seen five mini-movies about terrorism, industrial pollution, global warming, the aftermath of war, and educating refugees. In this particular movie, residents of a low-lying atoll which is gradually being flooded must go to a larger, neighboring island and literally beg for a place to relocate. Resources are limited on the larger island, and they are still recovering from a civil war. Most people there are not willing to help the islanders who are losing their home.

Likewise, the people in the fictional post-apocalyptic village of Sparks must decide if they can support the 300 refugees from Ember through the winter. The people of Ember will not survive without their assistance, but the resources are scarce.

"What happened to the world?" my nephew asked.

I told him it wasn't clear from the book. "Who knows? Maybe it was terrorism, global warming, pollution, or war," I shrugged. We laughed, but it was a bit of a sober moment.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Who's Watching?

We're halfway through the SOLSC and my students are still writing up a storm. They are writing and replying at a rate of over 150 posts per day. I'm thrilled, of course, but predictably, there have been some inappropriate comments in the 2384 I've read in the last couple of weeks. Some I've responded to in writing, others I've deleted right away, still others I've addressed personally with the students.

Tonight, I came across a comment that was followed by a parenthetical question addressed to me-- You wouldn't cyber-scold me for this, would you, Miss?

It's sort of humorous, really, the way they always assume I'm online and reading what they are writing, but that's exactly the vibe I'm going for. I want them to consciously consider their audience and deliberately write with us in mind.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Forest for the Trees

I was groggy this morning as I made my mercifully short commute to school. There was a tiny bit of frost on the windshield and a chill in the air, and I knew I was a few minutes later than I wanted to be, so I wasn't prepared at all when the huge white pick-up truck in front of me came to a dead stop. I stomped on my brake pedal with everything I had and prayed the rear view mirror was clear. There couldn't have been more than inch between my bumper and his when I lurched to a stop, but his gesture did not communicate relief as he continued on his way.

Everything that had been on my backseat was now on the floor, and my twenty-ounce hotjo of coffee was buried in the avalanche. The next turn was onto a residential street, and I impatiently pulled to the curb. Cussing, I opened the rear door and picked up my gym bag and book bag, repacked my entire lunch, and looked around for my coffee. After a moment, I saw that the cup had been thrown into the well beneath the driver's seat where it now lay on its side completely drained. My fists clenched.

I was livid for the remaining two minutes it took to get to school, and my disposition didn't improve when I saw that the kids were already entering the building when I got there. Not only would there be no caffeine for me this morning, but the car was probably going to smell like coffee forever, and I was going to have to scramble to get my copies made before class. I roughly grabbed my things and stomped toward the entrance, but as I went around the front of my car, I paused. It was undamaged and so was I.

From across the parking lot, one of my students called to me and waved, and I smiled and waved back.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Jeepers Peepers!

We took advantage of the super-springy weather we had today and went for a walk around a little local lake this afternoon. The trees are still pretty bare here, although their buds make the oaks look red from a distance, and we could see a lot of birds-- geese and crows, ducks and gulls and woodpeckers, cardinals, titmice, and robins.

The most action, however, was in the shallows of the lake. Thousands of frogs were, how shall I phrase this? Ensuring the survival of their species, right there in front of us and everyone. The water teemed, and oh the raucous racket they raised! It was louder than the chorus of a kazillion crickets.

It must be good to be a frog today.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Annual Rant Against DST

This year I've outsourced my complaint to a kindred spirit. One of my students feels just as I do about Daylight Savings Time:

Daylight Savings
By Jay

Tomorrow is Daylight Savings, so we lose an hour! This is terrible because if it was a Monday and there was school, TA would start at 6:40. I know if TA started at 6:40 on Monday I would be late for school! Why do we have to have Daylight Savings. I am perfectly fine with just living my life without Daylight Savings. Can I please sleep in one day out of the week! This weekend I have a soccer tournament game at 8:00am on Sunday, at a time in which I would usually be getting my delightful sleep. ; )

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Making History

The other day in my homeroom, we were talking about left-handed people. Four of the ten students in there are lefties, which is a way higher percentage than in the general population. I had seen an article in The New York Times about southpaw presidents, and I mentioned it to them. "Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Ford are all left-handed," I said.

"Who's President Ford?" somebody asked.

I was only too willing to jog their memories. "Y'know, he became president after Nixon resigned because of Watergate?"

"What's Watergate?"

That question came as a bit of a surprise, and I could see that the five minutes we had left was not going to be enough time to explain, so I told them we could talk about it another time, if they were interested. I supposed 1974 was a long time ago, especially if you're eleven or twelve.

In English class a little while later, the students were working on their fiction pieces, and one girl raised her hand. "What year were the twin towers destroyed?" she asked. Now, that questioned stunned me, because in 2001 I was standing in the same room that we were in right then when the Pentagon was attacked less than three miles away.

Of course, these kids were toddlers then, why would they remember? At the time, it seemed like those wounds would never heal, and maybe they won't, but there's a whole new set of people who weren't old enough to be scarred on that day. To them, it's history.

I know, I know. "Time marches on," but it's still a little surprising when I realize that the parade is passing me.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

All Bets Are Off

When I first started teaching I recognized the power of good seating assignment right away. I confess to spending a good deal of time scrutinizing that chart, arranging, rearranging and tweaking, looking for that perfect student combination, mostly in the interest of management. I could make a mean seating chart, too. Every class would groan with my cheerful announcement of new seats.

I overlooked the resentment, whether because it was I had separated buddies or deliberately made a group that was destined to be unproductive, because it was always for the benefit of the class. I deflected complaints blithely with the observation that, "we all have to work with people we don't care for sometimes."

Somewhere along the line it occurred to me that middle school kids, like most of us, need a sense of control, and I realized that choice is one way to give it to them, so I became less of a stickler about assigning seats. I adopted a flexible grouping approach. Now they have different groups for different regular activities and then some days they can sit where they like. On those days, I always direct them to "sit somewhere you'll be able to work." (And of course I have to make adjustments, but at least it's as a consequence of their actions, not preemptive, and as non-punitive as possible. It is what it is, no hard feelings.)

Today was such a day in my class. As usual, I encouraged my students to choose a place with as few distractions as possible. Sure enough, in the class right after lunch, two boys who are good friends and can be silly sat down at a table together. "Are you sure?" I said to one.

"Oh yeah," he answered, "I'm going to get a lot done here."

My expression was clearly skeptical, because he continued talking.

"Really!" he said. "I promise. No! I BET you that I will work the whole class period."

It was unorthodox, but I wanted to see where he was going with this. "Bet me?" I answered. "What do you bet me?"

So sure was he that he could spend 45 consecutive minutes in productivity, despite the proximity of his silliest friend, that he challenged me. "Twenty dollars!"

"I'm not allowed to win twenty dollars from a kid," I told him. "What else?"

He thought a minute. "How about a week of reading?" he suggested. My students are required to read a book of their choice for five nights a week for a total of at least 100 pages.

"What if I win?" I asked.

"Then I'll read an extra hundred pages," he offered.

"I'll help you! I'll work really hard, too," his friend promised, and I knew then that whatever happened it was worth the wager.

We shook on it, and I gave the class their directions to continue composing, typing, and/or revising their fiction pieces. It was quiet in the room as I made my way from student to student to confer. I was sure to glance over and check on my bet every few minutes, too, but both boys were working diligently, until...

Fifteen minutes into the workshop, I looked over and saw my betting boy staring wide-eyed with a ridiculous expression on his face. He caught my eye and cringed. "You owe me a hundred extra pages," I told him. "That is definitely not working."

He conceded without a word, which I thought was weird until his friend, who was sitting with his back to me, stood up and asked to go to the bathroom. For the second time in two days, I gasped and then giggled. His lips, teeth, and tongue were solid black. My first thought was licorice, nuclear licorice. "I bit my pen," he said, and I nodded as it sunk in. Then I gave him a paper cup.

"You're going to have a lot of rinsing to do," I told him.

As for the wager? We decided it was a draw.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's What You Do

My sixth grade students are working on fiction pieces, and today I had them highlight all the action verbs in their first drafts so that they could take a critical look at their choices as they revise. Plus, it's a good review for them and a quick way for me to assess their recognition of that part of speech. Most kids approached the activity cheerfully; they love highlighting, and they were eager to share some of their favorite verbs. A few students, however, complained bitterly about the drudgery of the task, one more persistently than the rest.

She happened to be sitting right next to me, by choice. "Do you even remember what it was like to be a kid?" she asked me. "If you did, then you would know why this is so boring."

I shrugged and told her I really didn't think it was so bad. "Sometimes it's interesting to take such a narrow focus," I said.

"I wish we could change places like Freaky Friday," she continued, looking around the classroom with an appraising eye. "I could do this," she assured me. "I could be just like you and suck all the fun out of everything."

I gasped and then burst out laughing. What an attitude! I had to admire her audacity; maybe she could take my place, but I could never be like her.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Next Job

I heard today that there are people paid to post negative or positive comments about products, people, and ideas on all sorts of blogs. Apparently these people create hundreds of fake identities to simulate (and stimulate) public opinion. I don't know why I was surprised; I guess I haven't reached that level of cynicism yet, but I don't really doubt it's true.

Recently, I have been posting close to a hundred comments a day, too, but all under my real identity. Between my students' slice of life posts, the adults taking the online Early Adolescent Development course I'm facilitating, and the good folks who are participating in the annual challenge over at Two Writing Teachers, I'm logging a lot of screen time.

One of the challenges of composing so many comments is to remain positive and centered on the writer. Especially with less advanced writers, it's so easy to focus on what needs fixing and to overlook what is good, and I have seen the discouragement on their faces when I lead with even the most constructive of criticisms. Katherine Bomer has a wonderful book called Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching From the Brilliance in Every Student's Writing, which I return to again and again.

Contrary to what you might expect, with adults, it can be even harder to stay positive, especially if they express an idea that I happen to disagree with. For example, yesterday, in an online discussion, one of the participants posted the following:

Some students may never graduate to abstract thinking. Often, the expected tasks and activities have more to do with the skills to succeed: proper behavior, pleasant personality, following directions, time on-task, etc. are the REAL goals and the activities are merely a vehicle to reach the "skills" necessary to succeed.

A pleasant, respectful individual merits better care/attention than one that does not show these skills.

And although I wanted to ask where "pleasant personality" could be found in our state's standards of learning, instead I replied:  But is it our mandate as educators to develop pleasant and respectful individuals?

And the answer was: It is our mandate as teachers to turn out "productive" members of society.

I let it go. I suppose the validity of that response depends on how we define productive, and I lay much of the blame on the way the current conversation on education is being framed-- it's too focused on the language of commerce. Personally, I believe there is more to education than turning out cogs for our nation's economy. Abstract thinking in the form of creativity, critical or even divergent thinking, and healthy skepticism are qualities that I feel a productive citizen should have in any democracy.

And I'll post that a hundred times if I have to.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some Days You're the Windshield; Some Days You're the Bug

Over the years I've had a few classroom pets-- fish for a while, some rescued mice, an orphaned hamster. They were fun to have until tragedy befell them: the pygmy frogs constantly disappeared without a trace; the bleeding heart tetras harassed the angel fish; the mice developed grotesque tumors; the hamster died of loneliness, I think. Each loss broke my heart a tiny bit, and ultimately, the brevity of their lives made it difficult for me to justify keeping them; if I was honest with myself, they were really no more than captives.

I have colleagues in the building who keep animals in their rooms; I don't think they would call them pets. Some keep turtles and frogs, and one teacher keeps a big black snake. All of them have to be fed live food. The turtle and frog eat crickets and feeder goldfish, and the snake eats mice and rats. Many of the students in those classrooms consider it a treat to be present at feeding time-- they are thrilled by the speed and lethalness of the predators, conveniently ignoring the mortal terror of the prey. Or perhaps they don't overlook the victim at all, maybe its death is a big part of their morbid fascination.

The truth is, most kids identify with the predator, and few have any compassion for the prey. Is that attitude simply a naive expression of their youth, or is it human nature to assume that we are the top of the food chain? Because really? Not many of us are.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Men in Hats

We saw the movie The Adjustment Bureau this weekend. Based on a Phillip K. Dick story and starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, it's a romantic meditation on free will and fate. After reading Matt Damon's recent comments on education, ("the idea that we're testing kids and we're tying teachers salaries to how kids are performing on tests, that kind of mechanized thinking has nothing to do with higher order. We're training them, not teaching them") I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief; plus that Emily Blunt is as cute as Abby Cadabby.

My review? Thought-provoking concept, fair execution, and good chemistry between Blunt and Damon, but I left the theater wondering why there are no women in the adjustment bureau.

(Click here for today's sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Angry Birds

It's surprisingly easy to see crows in the dark, especially when hundreds of them are roosting at the tops of all the trees in the neighborhood. The lightlessness of their shadows brightens the night sky. In the morning, on the off-chance that you missed their raucous departure, the evidence of their stay is also unmistakable, the sidewalks and roads are all poop spatter and feathers.

Some might find them menacing or at least a nuisance, but I love those few nights every winter when the crows choose our trees to be their beds. The spectacle is completely worth the mess, big black birds teem against purple sky, their colonies forming and re-forming, each crow looking for the perfect branch on which to rest the night. These birds are not angry in the least, probably because no one is bothering them, much less sling-shotting them at  round green pigs barricaded in forts of timber, glass, and stone.

I had heard of the smart phone game app sensation Angry Birds, but I never considered trying it until one of my students posted about it on her slice of life the other day. I was intrigued and I downloaded it this morning... um, addictive. I have a lot of other things to do than fling those birds, but today not many of them seemed more important. At least there are no poop and feathers.

(Click here for a sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Turning the Tables

Today was spring conference day. At our school, we do student-led conferences, which makes a lot of sense for middle school kids. What good does it do them to have a bunch of adults sitting around behind closed doors conspiring-- even if our goal is their academic success?

Personally, I like the format, although it does take some work to prepare the students to do the heavy lifting on the day of the meeting. They review their current grades, do a self-assessment of their school work and study habits, compare that to one their teachers have completed, choose a piece of exemplary work to reflect on and present to their parents, and based on all of those things, they identify their strengths and areas where improvement is needed, and then set goals for the last three months of school. Then, student, parents, and teacher work together to make a plan for each child to reach those objectives.

Rather than the leader of the conference, the teacher is there as a support and a resource on that team. That's the theory, anyway. On my students' slice of life posting today, the topic of conferences was number one. Here are a few of their perspectives on the experience:

So today I had my conference. at first I was nervous and I thought everything was going to turn out awesome and okay until.... 

Today I went to my conference. And it was pretty fun, but it’s kind of freaky how the teachers just stare at you.

Annoying Conference. Two words. Grr.......

First of, I think it is a pain to go to the conference just because you have to explain to your parents. Especially if your conference time is at 8 a.m. 

I looked at them and thought these have got to be fake grades.

The nervousness washed right out my body and dissipated down a drainage pipe. The whole thing was super easy... I guess conferences are kinda like shots in the end. After you get over all the fretting and thinking about what to say, you just get the job done and part ways.

So now the conferences passed, I went and survived.

The vacation starts for students. My conference is finally over. 

(Click here for a further sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What News?

Years ago I took a meditation class. I remember the instructor telling us to turn off the news and set aside the paper for a few days. "You won't really miss anything," he said, "and you'll eliminate a ton of stress and negativity from your life."

At twenty something, I could not even imagine following his advice.  The world to me was fascinating and full of possibilities; if anything, it was the people and things around me that made me a little anxious. In the end, I dropped out of the class because as soon as the lights were dimmed and that soothing music came on,  I fell asleep.

These days my view has flipped. It's hard to stay positive in a time when Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the only way to avoid a government shut down is to cut education. The National Writing Project, Reading is Fundamental, Arts in Education, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, were all de-funded yesterday at the stroke of the president's pen.

In such uncertain times for educators, I turn to some of the people I spend the most time with-- my students. We have worked hard together to create a community of learning and literacy; it's all that outside stuff that is unsettling. Oh, I still read the news and wake up to an alarm tuned to NPR, but I sure don't sleep quite as well as I used to.

(Click here for a sample of my 6th grade students' response to the 2011 SOLSC challenge.)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Preparing for the Harvest

Last summer we canned 40 quarts of tomatoes; after dinner tonight there were only 4 left. I have a stack of seed catalogs and gardening guides next to my chair in the living room. Lately, I like to throw a log or two on the fire and then take my time paging through them, visualizing our community garden plot in its July glory. We live in a townhouse-style condo with no basement, garage, or even shed, but we do have a mostly unused guest bathroom with some killer fluorescent light, and it's there that I've gathered my organic potting materials, ready to start the seeds for this year's crop.

As a teacher, I appreciate cycles of growth, but as a non-gardener until recently, I'm learning to treasure this connection between life and land, and the extra seasonal rhythm that it offers to my busy year.

(Here's the link for today's post on my 6th grade students' Slice of Life blog:)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sharing the Slice

This morning, as I stood before one of my classes exclaiming about the power of daily writing and telling them all about how I started posting to my blog two years ago as part of a challenge and how I haven't missed a single day in the last 730, I looked up and there was the principal in the door. "That's where you say 'Wow'," she told the class and gave me a little applause. It's nice to know she gets it.

I finally figured out a way to give my students the chance to participate in the March madness that we so fondly call the TWT SOLSC. I'll spare you the technical details, other than to say that it is mostly voluntary (with a little incentive for those who make it all the way or most of the way to the end), and that I was impressed by the overall enthusiasm of the group when I explained what it was and how it would work.

As of 7 PM this evening, I was delighted to find that 50% of my sixth graders have chosen to start the challenge, and it's entirely possible that that number will go higher. Their slices are super cute, and I've set up a blog to showcase one entry a day.