Archive for August, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: The paper shuffle

Homework assignments, handouts, field trip requests — even in this age of technology, teachers still deal with a lot of paperwork. In this week’s Quick Tip, Rick Wormeli shares how he deals with the “paper shuffle” in his classroom from his book Day One and Beyond. Leave your ideas in the comment section – how do you deal with all of paperwork that comes with teaching?

Have a clearly marked place in the room for students to turn in their work. There are a number of options for creating places where students can turn in papers:
• a set of tubs or trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• a set of magnetized or wall-mounted file folder trays, one for each period, desk cluster, row, or subject
• one main basket, tub, or tray into which everything goes
• folders, one for every assignment or one for every period, desk cluster, row, or subject

The way you prefer to grade will affect how you ask students to submit their work. You may want to grade all 150 projects so your mind is focused on the same things as you grade; or you may want to grade all the papers for each period you teach or all the work for one student, grading many different assignments. Grading by period seems to be the most efficient method. Breaking the larger task into five or six smaller groupings such as class periods gives a sense of accomplishment, and your mind is not dulled by huge quantities of repeated information. Don’t forget to consider asking students to alphabetize a set of assignments for you. It will make record keeping easier.

Students will occasionally (and chronically, depending on the person) submit papers on which they’ve forgotten to record their names. Please don’t throw these in the trash can as a way to teach students a lesson in responsibility. It won’t work, and you’ll be creating larger problems—resentment and an irretrievable assignment. Young adolescents are not capable of remembering to write their names on their assignments 100 percent of the time. Even my most conscientious students over the years have made this mistake. It’s not reasonable to provide a harsh response to students when they forget. We can be developmentally appropriate and hold them accountable in other ways. First, if we recognize the writing, write the student’s name on it and return it to him. Let him record his name and resubmit the assignment. It was a simple mistake; we can afford to be forgiving.

If we don’t recognize the writing, place the unnamed assignment in a tub or tray labeled “No Name, No Credit.” Invite students to inspect the contents of the tub or tray once a week or when others have their papers returned but they don’t. If students find their work, have them put their names on the assignment and resubmit it for credit. If you wish, take some points off, but not so much that it would significantly change the indicator of mastery you put on it.

A great way to maintain sanity with the paper shuffle in middle schools is to ask students to maintain a student assignment notebook or something similar. It’ll help them complete, find, and submit papers on time, preventing frantic paper chases down the road. Though there are plenty of inexpensive versions for mass purchase, students can make their own assignment notebooks. Just make sure there is a page for each day of the school year, and on each page there is space for writing down assignments for each subject, as well as places to record additional reminders, a place for parents to sign, and a place for teachers to initial that the information is correct. It is particularly helpful, too, if there is a section somewhere in the notebook for recording phone numbers and e-mail addresses of classmates
who can be contacted for homework assignments when students are sick, as well as a grade sheet on which students can record grades as papers are returned and thereby keep a running tab on how they’re doing.

Make sure to have a final tub, basket, tray, or folder to store extra copies of handouts. Inevitably, students will lose original copies of what we’ve given them, or they’ll be absent and not receive the handout. An “extras” tray provides a place where they can go to get back up to speed without bothering you or their classmates.

A caution about technology: Many teachers are exploring electronically submitted assignments and portfolios. I’m one of them. It’s the way to go in the years ahead, but we aren’t there yet in terms of security, technology, and equal access to technology. Experiment with your students, if possible, but be wise and back up every electronic submission with a hard copy, just in case. Until we can guarantee that diskettes and CDs won’t be broken or lost, servers won’t be down, and everyone has equal access and expertise with the technology, we can’t require across-the-board use. Another benefit of hard copies: successful editing. It’s been proven repeatedly in editors’ offices and English classrooms across the nation that our minds catch mistakes on hard copy more often than on a computer screen where we’re dealing with the oscillating pixels of the electronic image. Have students proofread by reading the hard-copy version of their work aloud.

Have a designated student of the week return papers or, if privacy is a concern, return papers yourself while students are working on something else. Be efficient with time. Just a reminder: There is a direct correlation between how long papers take to be graded and returned to students and the extent of complexity and depth students apply to the assignment. If students know they’re going to get feedback quickly, they’ll put more of themselves into it. If they don’t get feedback for a couple of weeks, their motivation fades.

When it comes to your own administrative paperwork, deal with everything within twenty-four hours. If you get a request to complete a teacher narrative form for an upcoming IEP meeting, sit down and do it right away. Need to complete a form requesting buses for your field trip in four months? Get the forms and complete them right now while you’re caught up in the trip’s planning. You can put off your own paperwork only if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. This means completing administrative paperwork even when you don’t want to do it, tired or not. Believe this repentant paperwork procrastinator: it’s worth doing it now. Don’t wait until the pile of uncompleted paperwork has hit critical mass; do it as it comes across your desk or into your teacher box. You’ll have a life if you do.

Add comment August 31st, 2010

Poetry Friday: Perfect

School has already started in many parts of the country or will start next week. This week’s Poetry Friday poem goes out to all students and teachers who are facing one of school’s inevitable features: the spelling quiz.

Enjoy!

Perfect
Kenn Nesbitt

Today I managed something
that I’ve never done before.
I turned in this week’s spelling quiz
and got a perfect score.

Read the rest of the poem here…

1 comment August 27th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Nudging kids to make a choice

Nonfiction reading, research, and reporting is hard work. For students to maximize their inquiry experience, they should choose a topic they care about, know something about, and wonder about,” writes Stephanie Harvey in her book Nonfiction Matters: Reading, Writing, and Reseach in Grades 3-8. But some students find it difficult to pick a topic or they think that their hobbies and interests are not suitable for school. In this Quick Tip, we get a quick glimpse into a conversation between a student, Thomas, and his teacher, Mary, as they talk about Thomas’ interest in football and how that will make a great topic for his research paper.

Some students struggle with topic selection. On the eve of the topic deadline, Thomas had not come up with a single idea for research. His mother rang Mary first thing in the morning and described a family in turmoil. Thomas had been up all night fraught with anxiety over his eleventh-hour missing topic. His mom’s voice cracked as she wondered how he would ever organize sources, take notes, or write a report if he couldn’t even think of a topic. School was not easy for Thomas. Thomas’s mother believed that independent inquiry demanded too much of him. She suggested that Mary simply assign Thomas a topic so he could get started. Mary felt bad for Thomas and promised to talk with him that morning. The last thing Thomas needed was to be losing sleep.

Before kids entered the room, Mary pulled out Thomas’s wonder book. The twisted spiral wire extended at least six inches beyond the half-torn cover. Writing was conspicuously absent. But precise drawings of NFL team logos covered the lined pages. Mary approached Thomas during writing time and asked how things were going.

“Lousy,” Thomas answered.

“Why?”

“I can’t think of a topic for this research project.”

“What interests you, Thomas?” Mary asked.

“Nothin’,” Thomas answered.

“Tell me about these drawings,” Mary nudged.

“Oh those, those are nothin’,” Thomas said, as he slid his notebook back into his desk.

“It looks like football stuff to me,” Mary commented.

“Yeah, I guess,” Thomas acknowledged.

“Can I see them?”

Thomas reached into his desk and handed the tattered wonder book to Mary.

“Wow, these are great. How many team helmets did you draw in here?” Mary asked.

“All of ’em,” Thomas answered.

“No kidding. Did you copy them from somewhere?”

“No, I know the logo of every team in the NFL,” Thomas said.

“Really! Which is your favorite?”

“The Broncos, of course.”

“Thomas, these are really terrific drawings,” Mary told him. She continued to draw Thomas out on the subject of football. Thomas not only knew the logos, but also the standings, schedules, and player statistics of most teams in the league. Thomas was an expert on the NFL and football in general, even though he had begun this conference by saying he had no interests.

When Mary suggested that Thomas write about football in his wonder book and list a few questions he had, he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t associate football with school. Mary pulled out several beautifully illustrated picture books and wondered whether Thomas might want to write and illustrate a picture book on some aspect of football as his research project. Thomas pulled a Sports Illustrated from his desk. John Elway graced the cover. Mary left Thomas reading about his idol. She hadn’t actually assigned a topic. But she had explored Thomas’s background knowledge and nudged him in a direction that matched his interests.

Thomas’s struggle was far from over, of course. Reading, note taking, and writing challenged him throughout his inquiry. But finding an engaging topic represents a major step forward for kids like Thomas. Independent inquiry allows for the widest range of exploration. Choosing freely from an unlimited spectrum of topics gives kids the best shot at finding a subject that appeals to them.

Young writers need to know that selecting a topic is challenging. When I meet professional writers, I often ask them what they find most difficult about writing. The answer is almost always the same: thinking of something to write about. My students are relieved when I share this with them, because they too struggle to come up with ideas to write about.

Add comment August 24th, 2010

Poetry Friday: To the Woman (We Think You’re a Teacher) with the Books on the 2 Train

This week we have a great poem by “some anonymous students” that Teri Lesesne used at the end of her book, Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers. “It speaks volumes to me and to all whose hope it is to connect kids to books,” writes Teri about the poem she received from a librarian in South Carolina. Enjoy!

To the Woman (We Think You’re a Teacher) with the Books on the 2 Train
By some anonymous students

On the platform for the 2 train
you stand with a book in your hand
the pages open
Which is how you enter the train
Reading

Sometimes you smile, or frown
Once you even cried
on the train
when you were reading Night
and a man sitting across the aisle
said he cried too, when he read that book
and we thought,
we want to read that book
so we did

And then you were reading all those
basketball books
by Walter Dean Myers
so we read those too
speeding along on the 2 train
one time you saw us reading Slam
and you said
I love that book
and do you think Slam is going to make it in high
school?
We do, we think he’s going to make it

Then you were reading some really hard stuff
Epistemology of the Closet, Postmodern Narrative
Theory
and we tried those, but we think you have to have read
the books those authors have read, if you want to read
their books

Our favorite is when you are reading poetry
Picnic, Lightning
and you lean back against the seat
and smile
and keep reading the same page
again and again
we do that now and it’s really nice

Last week you were reading Life of Pi
and we rushed out to buy it
So we could in the lifeboat
adrift in the blue, blue sea
with the boy, the Bengal Tiger, and you

If we don’t see you next year
on the train
Maybe sometime we’ll bump into each other on the
platform
You’ll know us because
we’ll have books in our hands.

1 comment August 20th, 2010

Questions & Authors: The Power of Memoir

Everyone has a story to tell. Kimberly Hill Campbell realized that adolescents in middle and high school especially appreciate reading — and writing — memoir. In this installment of our Questions & Authors series, Kimberly shares some great memoirs for reading, followed by prompts that support writing a memoir. Kimberly’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, explores a variety of short texts to engage a wide range of middle and high school students.

The Power of Memoir

This fall I was asked by one of the graduate students in my language arts methods class to explain the difference between personal narrative and memoir.  And I immediately thought of the personal narratives so many of my high school students had written.  Stories of experiences that were often rich in detail but missing what I so appreciate about memoir: the why of the personal story.  Personal narrative is the starting point for memoir, but it is in the selection of what to include and what it all means, that we move from narrative to memoir.  As William Zinsser, author of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir notes, “A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, and the other of craft.  Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us….Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events” (1998, p. 6)

I have loved memoir as a personal reading choice since I was in high school. And I am not alone in my appreciation of memoir.  I am on the waiting list at my local library for Mary Karr’s newest memoir, Lit, and I note Karr’s previous memoirs, The Liar’s Club, and Cherry, also have waiting lists.  But it took me longer than it should have to recognize the teaching value of memoir in middle school and high school classrooms.  What I know now is that students appreciate the wisdom and humor that can be found in a memoir.  As one high school student noted after reading a selection of memoir excerpts,  “I have been interested in how people can express their life in a book.  Everyone has had problems and gifts, and everyone has their own story to tell.” Having a story to tell is particularly true for adolescents who are in the very process of discovering themselves. As Nancie Atwell writes in her chapter, “Call Home the Child: Memoir” in In the Middle,  “Memoir celebrates people and places no one has ever heard of.  And memoir allows us to discover and tell our own truths as writers” (1998).

I appreciate how reading memoir supports writing memoir.  So the discussion that follows will first focus on recommendations for memoir reading followed by prompts that support writing memoir.  It’s my hope these ideas will support those of you who are already working with memoir in your middle school and high school classrooms. And I am counting on you to respond to this blog with your recommendations for reading and writing memoir.  For those of you who have not yet worked with memoir, I hope you’ll be willing to explore this genre with your students and share your discoveries.

In choosing memoirs for whole class or literature circle reading, I look for a mix that address a variety of topics.  I also look at the writing craft of the memoirs we read: What lessons can students learn from this author’s writing.  Typically I select excerpts from longer works, although please see the reference to a collection of short memoirs, edited by Amy Erlich in the section on “Lessons from Childhood.”   Listed below are memoir excerpts that have worked well with middle school and high school students.  Each one illustrates the power of focusing on “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid….because they contain a universal truth that …readers will recognize from their own life” (Zinsser, 2006)

Memoirs to Read

As noted above, I try to provide a mix of memoir and particularly appreciate memoirs that focus on lessons learned from childhood, memoirs that highlight the importance of reading and/or writing, and memoirs that make me laugh.

Lessons Learned from Childhood

Excerpt from Part I of Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood (1987).  Dillard describes throwing snowballs at cars and the chase that ensues when one driver pulls over and chases Dillard and her snow-ball-throwing friends.  I admire Dillard’s appreciation of the chase and her craft, particularly her use of  descriptive details.

When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories about Growing Up, ed. by Amy Erlich.(1999) is a rich collection of short memoirs of adolescence by authors who write YA fiction. I admire the accessibility of these memoirs and the fine writing craft, in particular, compelling leads (“ In the Blink of an Eye” by Norma Fox Mazer and “ Pegasus for a Summer” by Michael Rosen) and setting details to illustrate the power of place (“The Long Closet” by Jane Yolen).

The Importance of Reading and Writing

Excerpt from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodgriguez: An Autobiography (1982. pp. 62-72).  Rodriguez details his love of reading and its impact on his life in a distinct style of varied sentence lengths, questions, parenthetical remarks, and repetition.

Excerpt “20” from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000, pp. 55-58 (Please be aware there is profanity in the opening paragraph). In this excerpt, King shares the revisions and advice he received from the local newspaper editor in response to his sports story, “[w]rite with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.  Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.  Once you know what the story is and it get right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it” (2000, p. 57).

Memoirs that Make Me Laugh

Opening section of the chapter “Bawlbaby” in Chris Crutcher’s, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography (2003, p. 19-26)  In this excerpt, Crutcher shares his struggle with showing anger through crying and life with an older brother.  I also appreciate his candid passion for cookies.  It’s funny, poignant and Illustrates the power of dialogue in support of memoir.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel (2002)  is a delightful memoir focusing on a series of vignettes that celebrate the wisdom and humor of childhood.  In particular, I recommend “Daniel” (p. 40-45) and “Diner” (p. 167-172).

“Thinking Small” in Support of Writing Memoir

William Zinsser talk about the challenge of finding an entry point to memoir, deciding “What to put in? What to take leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story?”  He suggest that as writers of memoir, we are well served to “think small.”  Two memoir writing strategies that have worked well with adolescent writers and heed Zinseer’s “reduced” writing approach are described below:

Candy and Me

Hilary Liftin’s wonderful memoir, Candy and Me: A Love Story (2003) details the author’s passion for candy and other sweet treat, including canned frosting.  Excerpts from this text have inspired many middle school and high school students to craft their own candy memoirs.  The key elements of this writing workshop include reading selections from Liftin’s memoir:  I recommend the chapter on “Snickers.”  (pp. 62-64). As Liftin notes, Snickers is the perfect blend of chocolate, peanuts, nougat, and caramel.  And she goes on to describe that in a pinch, it’s the candy bar that “eats like a meal” so it sustained her on a two-week-long high school graduation camping trip that surprisingly didn’t include meals.   I follow this reading by providing students with a sampling of candy.  I know this idea of giving students candy has its challenges and may even be prohibited in some schools.   But I have watched in amazement as students (grades 6-12)  respect and embrace the idea that the candy is in support of their writing.  Some teachers have found it helpful to ask students to wait to eat the candy until the end of the quiet writing period.

Just last week, in a senior English class, students sampled candy as they wrote their candy memoirs. One student, who described herself as a reluctant writer and who had not been been willing to share any of her writing with the class, willingly volunteered to read her candy memoir about Smarties.  When she was finished reading, her peers applauded.

Six-Word Memoirs

I have read that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine (http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords) celebrated Hemingway’s efforts by encouraging readers to write their own six-word memoirs.  The result is a magazine, website, and series of books celebrating six-word memoirs, including the original published collection: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Feirshleiser and Larry Smith (2006).   In this collection journalist Chuck Klosterman writes, “Nobody cared, then they did. Why?”  and Amy Sedaris offers a very different approach, “Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.”

After sharing Hemingway’s model and excerpts from the original collection described above and the SMITH website (http://www.smithmag.net/six words), juniors and seniors in a Creative Writing class wrote their own six-word memoirs:

            “Treading through the waters of the past” by Bradie

            “Silver lining sliding over murky puddle” by Chelsea

            “I’m fat but I am tender” by Shanji

            “Life is creating your own Stories” by Taylor

            “Internal Assessment due Tomorrow: bad words” by Vivian

            “I’m worried, thinking, twisted, and …shrinking.” by Chelsea

And as evidence that students will build on their six-word memoirs in crafting longer memoirs, Sam wrote “I need more than six words.”

A group of middle school students turned their six-word memoirs into a compelling video.  Check out Mollie Dickson’s blog to see their outstanding work.

Why Memoir?

Memoir is an opportunity for us, as readers, to experience the well-told moments of the author’s life.  It’s an opportunity for us as writers, to craft our own stories, carefully selecting each detail in an effort to discover our own truth.  As memoir author  Mary Karr notes in describing good memoirs, “they elevate experience into art and use individual lives to locate universal truths.”

4 comments August 18th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Concepts and Vocabulary – Categories and Labels

This week’s Quick Tip comes from Janet Allen’s recent book, Inside Words: Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary Grades 4-12. In Inside Words Janet provides teachers with important instructional tools that support building background knowledge; teach words that are critical to comprehension; provide guidance during reading and writing; develop a conceptual framework; and assess students’ understanding of words and concepts.

You can download one of these tools today titled Concepts and Vocabulary: Categories and Labels. This activity helps student think about a cluster of technical vocabulary words and students categorize and label the words based on common attributes.

Add comment August 17th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Ars Poetica by Georgia Heard

Hello! Welcome to our blog on this lovely Poetry Friday! Thanks for stopping by!

As a special treat today, we have an original poem by poet, teacher, and professional book author Georgia Heard titled Ars Poetica. Enjoy and leave your links below!

Ars Poetica
by Georgia Heard

In September, small poems lay
still and silent inside your hearts.
If you listened carefully,
you might have heard
the quivering of wings.

In January, from the corner
of your eye, you could have spied
a flutter or two –
poems slowly unfolding,
delicate silken wings.

In April, poems began to appear everywhere!
Rainbow wings beating, flapping,
hovering over desks, hanging
from the ceiling, tips of noses, tops of heads.
It was difficult to get any work done!

Now, your butterfly poems
fly free. You fold the memory
into your hearts. Poems —
small butterflies raised, watched,
let loose into the world.

18 comments August 13th, 2010

Check out our fall titles

In June we announced the publication of Lisa Miller’s new book, Make Me a Story: Teaching Writing Through Digital Storytelling. Four more books round out our fall list of new titles, and we’ve just posted details online.

Doing Literary Criticism: Helping Students Engage with Challenging Texts
Tim Gillespie * Foreword by Leila Christenbury
324 pp + CD-ROM * Grades 9-12 * $35.00 * Available early October
An award-winning high school English teacher offers a omprehensive survey of critical approaches to reading literature, and a host of practical classroom activities to support them. The extensive CD has reproducible overviews for students, essay exam questions, a bonus chapter on postmodern criticism, and much more.

The Castle in the Classroom: Story as a Springboard for Early Literacy
Ranu Bhattacharyya * Foreword by Georgia Heard
176 pp * Grades K-1 * $19.00 * Available early October
Provides a vision for a yearlong progression where reading and writing become as much a part of kindergarten as playing and pretending. Detailed focus lessons use personal narratives, folktales, and fairy tales to deepen the literary experience.

Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice
Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres
300 pp * Grades K-6 * $28.00 * Available late October
The authors of the Two Writing Teachers blog give teachers daily doses of encouragement, tips, and challenges on routines, mini-lessons, choice, mentors, conferring, and assessment in writing workshop.

Writing to Explore: Discovering Adventure in the Research Paper, 3-8
David Somoza and Peter Lourie
176 pp * Grades 3-8 * $20.00 * Available early November
Shows how teachers can empower their students to engage with the world by weaving research into adventure writing. Includes numerous handouts, sample activities, student writing examples, research sources, and a chapter on multimedia writing prompts and making the most of online research tools.

Add comment August 12th, 2010

Quick Tip Tuesday: Publishing ideas

Wondering what your students should do with their best writing? Jennifer Jacobson, author of No More “I’m Done!” has a couple of great ideas for classroom publishing that don’t take up a lot of time, but make students proud and motivated to write!

Believe it or not, there was a time when primary schools established central “publishing houses.” Students who had done an exceptionally fine job on a piece would be greeted by parent volunteers who typed up the stories and then carefully bound them into books. The books often had sturdy cardboard covers decorated with wallpaper samples, and pages carefully sewn with durable dental floss. The proud students would return to the classroom where they illustrated their books, which were later celebrated. Many books would find their way into the school library for the remainder of the year.

Very few schools still offer this model of publishing. Somewhere along the line, “publishing” came to mean “copying over your work without any mistakes.” All students publish at the same time, removing the motivation to publish one’s finest writing. Instead, students publish nearly identical teacher-directed products.

Here, I am going to suggest a publishing program that falls somewhere in the middle of these two models. Consider setting up an area in your room where you (or better yet, a parent or high school volunteer) can work with individual students. The volunteer sits at the computer, and the child sits next to the volunteer and reads his or her work. Volunteers (who you have trained) type the work using all of the proper conventions: punctuation, spelling, capitalization, proper grammar—keeping the child’s original language whenever possible. If while reading, the student says, “Oh, I should have said . . .” The volunteer types what the child wished he or she had written, thus reinforcing revision right up to the end.

What do you do with the typed work? Here is a list of ideas:
1. Place in a class anthology (The “Big Book”; see page 23)
2. Mount on a bulletin board
3. Read over the intercom
4. Include in school or class newsletters
5. Post on a Web site
6. Have child read in a podcast
7. Record (audio or video) a class radio show
8. Perform as a skit
9. Read at an authors’ tea
10. Compile a class book around a single theme (poems, funny
stories, holiday stories, etc.)
11. Include in a class yearbook
12. Include in the school literary magazine
13. Submit to a student market or contest
14. Give as a gift

I do not recommend that primary students copy over their work. If we regularly ask student to rewrite, we are teaching them two things: write short and don’t take risks. We also take away one of our best motivating tools. Being able to say something reinforcing such as, “Kara! You added so many quality details to this writing. Would you like to publish it?” goes a long way in motivating our students to be thoughtful, independent writers.

Add comment August 10th, 2010

Pyrotechnics on the Page: discussion wrap-up

Ralph and a spectacular hanging basket of Petunias outside the Tasty Thai restaurant in Kittery, where he and his editor, Philippa Stratton, met for lunch Friday to celebrate the completion of a very successful Ning discussion

We just wrapped up four weeks of lively discussion of Ralph Fletcher’s latest book, Pyrotechnics on the Page: Playful Craft That Sparks Writing.

Moderated by middle-school language arts teacher Amanda Villagomez, the discussion touched on using observation to benefit writing; noticing word play in oral language; mentor texts for word play; and creating classrooms where word play can flourish.

Teachers shared many ways they encourage their students to play with words as well as how they collect interesting pieces of conversation for use in their classrooms. “I love to people watch-whether it’s at the bookstore, mall, or watching people walking in town. While people watching or actually, eavesdropping on their conversations, I get a chance to jot down bits and pieces of their conversations,” wrote Linda Bondi. “Listening to language is as important to a writer as seeing is to an artist,” said Margaret Simon, who added that she takes her writing camp students on a “writing marathon” where they get to listen and observe the conversations around them.

Others noted that they collected great sentences and word combinations from their favorite books, including Tammy Miles, who started such a “craft collection” with her students. “Often times, we’d add to the collection during writer’s workshop. I encouraged the students to mimic other authors and try something new in their writing,” Tammy shared.

Freida Hammett observed that playing with oral language is a bit different than playing with written language. “For young children and for reluctant writers, I would think oral lanaguage play would be the first, and very important, step. Oral language sends a message, too, that you like to have fun,” Freida said.

During the discussion thread about playful classrooms, Jean Marki noted that Ralph’s book was an eye-opener to her about the way she introduces word play to her students. “Yes, I was introducing word play…but as a task not play. I never gave the kids time to play — to try out the word play on their terms.”

Later, the discussion turned to how to deal with students who are excited about a new skill and so they “crowd” their writing with that particular craft. ” I guess I believe that realistically kids WILL overdo whatever craft element we teach,” responded Ralph. “That’s the nature of learning anything new. Given time the strategy will no longer “stick out” or be over-used but will become integrated into the student’s repertoire of writing strategies. It might be wise to use one mini-lesson to introduce a kind of wordplay. Then, after the kids have tried it out, do another mini-lesson showing an example of a writer who really over-does it. The kids will be able to see it, I bet.”

To revisit the entire discussion and read all of Ralph’s responses, you can still visit our Ning page for the archived version. You can also read an excellent interview with Ralph on A Year of Reading blog.

Add comment August 9th, 2010

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