Archive for August, 2012

Back to school: Julie Ramsay and Katie Keier

Do you use the summer — especially August — to reflect on what worked during the previous year and what changes you need to make in your teaching? This week Julie Ramsay (“Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?”) and Katie Keier (Catching Readers Before They Fall) talk about how they rev up their preparations for school and why they appreciate the clean slate they are given each September. Leave a comment to be entered to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our series.

Julie Ramsay

When summer break begins, it takes me a while to “come down” off of the pace that the conclusion of a school year brings. I enjoy days of no alarm clocks, flip flops, and yoga clothes. Once my mind clears, I find myself finding time to really dig into some fun, personal and professional reading. One book that I always return to each  year is Harry Wong’s First Days of School. I have a few sections of that book that are dog-eared, highlighted and notated. I like being reminded of some basic practices and procedures that become invisible by the end of the year and could be easily overlooked when the school year begins with a new crop of learners.

As the beginning of school approaches, I find myself spending more and more time reflecting on my teaching practice from the previous year. I think about what worked, what didn’t work, and what I could improve upon for the upcoming year. Although I reflect all year, I find the summer is the time where I can calm the chaos that usually fills our minds as teachers and really evaluate changes that I want to make. One thing I miss during the school year is being able to spend time outside enjoying the day. Some of my best ideas come to me as I’m hiking, meeting friends for lunch at a local cafe, or enjoying a cup of coffee outside on my front porch. These times give me the opportunity to recharge my batteries and prepare for the epic adventure that my students and I will set out on together each year.

Katie Keier

The start of a new school year is full of possibilities, excitement and reflection for me. I start thinking about the new school year soon after the prior year ends. I reflect on what worked well and what didn’t work well. Writing down my thoughts while they are fresh in my mind helps me as I start to map out the new year in early August. We start school after Labor Day, but much of August is spent reading and rereading professional books, looking at bookmarked blogs and Pinterest sites, going back over my reflections in my notebooks and looking over my school notebook from the prior year. It also includes a trip (or two) to Ikea, Target, the local bookstore and many clicks on Amazon, as well as long conversations and emails with friends and colleagues. As I go on my long runs, I visualize the new room, the new year and my new students. I start a new notebook and jot down thoughts and ideas for the upcoming year. I make an “All About Me” book to share with my students on the first day. I carefully choose the first read aloud book I will share with my class. The excitement builds daily!

If I’m lucky, I can get into my classroom a week or so before the year starts. I really like to take my time and mentally visualize my classroom space as I create the basic structure. I spend a lot of time sitting and thinking about what will be happening inside these four walls. My walls are always blank – ready to be filled with the work and learning of our new class – but I do like the furniture and space to be thoughtfully and purposefully designed to reflect the vision I have for our year together. I imagine our room filled with children who are curious, passionate and excited about learning. Then I set forth to create a space that will nurture, support, and allow all children to thrive.

How lucky we are as teachers to have a fresh start every year. To be able to reflect, refine, imagine, dream and create a space where children will learn, laugh, play and enjoy school. I have the best job in the world!

2 comments August 31st, 2012

Back to school: Mary Shorey and Brad Buhrow

What are your students passionate about? What have they learned? What do they wonder about? These are the questions that Brad Buhrow (Ladybugs, Tornadoes, and Swirling Galaxies) and Mary Shorey (Many Texts, Many Voices) ask at the beginning of the school year. What do you wonder about as you begin the year? Leave your comments to be entered to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our back to school series.

Brad Buhrow

The Curiosity rover made it to Mars after an eight month space voyage.  I was fired up to watch the landing events online, and even more so because I was able to see the launch while I was in Florida last November.  For some reason I was curious and wanted to see the launch in person, with my binoculars in hand.  Maybe I’m lucky, that as an adult, I’m still curious and wonder about our world.

What about you. Do you still have a sense of wonder?

“The more we learn the more questions we have”, John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) project scientist, said during an interview after that landing.

Learning, questions and curiosity, the kids and mine, is how I begin the year with our new second graders. If there is one thing that I need to begin the school year, it is for me to bring a sense of wonder. It is energizing. The kids pick up on it and run with it. They want to observe, talk, draw, write and read to understand.

Guess what? All you need are a bunch of compelling nonfiction books filled with photographs, or some real stuff, some markers and post-its and a clipboard.

The kids take off drawing, and writing what they learn and wonder!

Use a language frame, I learned_.   I wonder_?, to help them get started writing.

The kids become passionate readers and writers in the process. They can’t help it.

So what are you waiting for? Grab some post-its, markers and a clipboard. Let them have at it. Stop and notice with them as they bend down to the crack in the sidewalk to get a closer look at the ants crawling from their colony, and look up to the sky to watch the clouds move and the sky change. Let them make their curiosity and wonder about their world visible to all by writing and drawing. And best of all, it’s fun!

Mary Shorey

As I begin another school year, I smile as I think about all the children I have taught…all the lessons I have learned. I am reminded of the challenges and the many rewards that are inherent in my chosen profession…and the responsibilities I have. I pray that I will be able to encourage and inspire these young minds. The curriculum is my road map, but the paths we take are unchartered. My students and their needs will determine them.

So I’m inspired, and it’s time to begin to build community.  I look for things the students can do to help organize the classroom for the year. Together we create the birthday chart, the job board, and classroom rules. We make a list of things we’d like to explore and learn about. We record our favorite books, authors, and genres, and create our “expert chart.” I always ask my students about the routines, activities, lessons they liked in second grade that we can continue in third. We interview each other. I provide “choice” time so I can see what peaks their interests (i.e computers, books, art supplies, writing materials, math manipulatives)…and soon we’re off and running!

4 comments August 30th, 2012

Back to school: Rose Cappelli and Jennifer Allen

How do you “grow your spirit” — and your students’ — as you begin the school year? Rose Cappelli (Poetry Mentor Texts) and Jennifer Allen (A Sense of Belonging) share their inspirational thoughts. Don’t forge to leave a comment for a chance to win a free Stenhouse book at the end of our back-to-school series.

Rose Cappelli:

I love starting the year with picture books!  As I begin to meet with my small groups of struggling readers and writers, I like to think through books with them that illustrate the kind of work we will be doing together in the kind of environment I hope to create. Many are books I return to every year, and those students who may have heard them before greet them as friends and recall the lessons learned. Sometimes they make new discoveries, as if suddenly understanding what it all means. Some of my go-to favorites and the ideas within them are:

How Rocket Learned to Read  by Tad Hills– We will learn how the letters and words go together so that we can share lots of stories again and again and


Reading Makes You Feel Good by Todd Parr – There are lots of reasons to learn to read, but especially because you can do it anywhere.

Wolf! by Becky Bloom – Learning how to read requires practice and feedback. We will help each other do our best and do lots of reading.

Regina’s Big Mistake by Marissa Moss – It’s fine to share ideas because we all learn from each other. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – we learn from those, too.

What If? by Laura Vaccaro Seeger – What are the possibilities? Problems generally have more than one solution.

Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes by Eric Litwin and James Dean – “…because it’s all good.”

And for me? Just as my pink petunias begin to fade, I pull out Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden by Edith Pattou to remind myself that we all have different needs, and that everything and everyone requires patience and nurturing in order to grow.

Jennifer Allen:

I know it sounds cliché but I always look at the beginning of a school year as a fresh start, as another chance to refine the art of teaching. I think what excites me the most about the upcoming school year is the renewed opportunity to inspire and spark the inner passions of the teachers that I have the privilege of working with. I recently came across this quote in the book, It’s Not about the Coffee: Lessons of Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks, “Leaders have an obligation to grow people’s spirits for the good of the organization and for the good of the individual.”  What inspires me is working with passionate educators and helping grow spirits.

4 comments August 28th, 2012

Back to school: Tim Gillespie and Cris Tovani

Welcome back to our back-to-school series! Today Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism) and Cris Tovani (Talk to Me) share about how they prepare and spend the first day of school with their students. Don’t forget to share your back-to-school rituals or ideas. Five commenters will be picked to receive a free Stenhouse book at the end of the series.

Tim Gillespie:

Opening day in September: Heart thumping, period after period, I’d stand at the door to my high school classroom and shake every student’s hand before he or she entered, accompanied by a stream of welcoming banter: “Hey, how are you doing? I’m Mr. Gillespie. What’s your name? I’m looking forward to working with you. We’re going to have some heavy-duty learning happening in here this year, right? I’m happy to have you in our class.”

And then I had a checklist for that first hour of our 180-day relationship. During our opening encounter, I wanted to make sure the students: wrote something of consequence (often a quick account of their joys and frustrations with English classes in the past), talked about their expectations and worries and hopes for class, read something short and powerful (usually a poem), and had an opportunity to laugh. The messages I was hoping to convey with these start-of-school rituals: I’m excited to be here, I want you to be excited, I want you to succeed, you will be listened to, we will be doing a heap of writing and reading and thinking together, and laughter is not incompatible with intellectual rigor.

Cris Tovani:

I love do-overs and for me that’s what the beginning of the school year brings—a chance to re-do another year of teaching a little better and a little smarter.  As school draws near, my rituals and routines rarely waver. The dining room table is transformed into a collection center for new books, articles, and ideas that I have gathered over the summer.  I have found my beautiful, blank conferring notebook that will hold notes and important observations I learn about my new students.  I will have been to Target stores all over the city purchasing dirt-cheap composition notebooks so my students can begin setting them up as reading response logs the first day of class.

At home, I will have cajoled my daughter and husband into articulating their learning goals for the year because the first day of school just isn’t about me starting over.  They get to start over too!  My tiny, messy closet will have gotten an overhaul.  I will have picked out outfits for the first week school, knowing full well that I will change my mind multiple times. I will scour Office Depots and Staples to find markers, sticky notes, highlighters, and other various and supplies that I have to have.   I will have my first read-alouds ready to go and new books organized in baskets so that kids know right off the bat they are in a classroom where lots of reading gets done.  I’ll be sure to clean out some old files to make room for new ideas.  I’ll have my bulletin boards designed and a new floor plan for my classroom ready to be arranged when workweek begins.  Glancing at the calendar, I realize that I have a lot to do.  I better get busy.

3 comments August 27th, 2012

Back to school!

We are starting a week-long series today centered around the issue that must be occupying all of your thoughts these days: back to school time!

We asked several Stenhouse authors about  their back-to-school rituals — whether it’s selecting reading for the first day of school, laying the groundwork for building a community of learners, or stocking up on supplies.

Share your back-to-school rituals in the comments section during the coming week and five commenters will be selected to win a free Stenhouse book.

Let’s get started today with Erik Palmer, author of Well-Spoken and the upcoming Read & Watch book, Digitally Speaking. Here is how he gets to know his students:

When my sixth-grade students walked in on the first day, all the desks, tables, chairs were pushed into a jumble in the middle of the room.  From kindergarten on, the first day meant coming into a beautifully organized room, looking for the neatly lettered name card that identified their desks, and fitting into the system the teacher had created.  I wanted to break that mold.

When students came in, they were asked to stand around the sides of the room.  I introduced the three class rules and the only three rules: Be ready, be respectful, be responsible.  I explained.  Be ready includes having all your needed supplies as well as being ready to learn.  Be respectful of each other, each others’ belongings/beliefs/styles and so on.  Be responsible for your actions and behaviors.  Everything fits in to these three.  Do we need to raise our hands to talk?  Yes, that is part of respect for each other so we don’t just blurt out and cut off others.  Do I have to turn in homework on time?  Yes, you need to be responsible for doing what you are supposed to do.  Do we need to raise hands to go to the bathroom?  I respect you enough to let you make the decision about when you have to go.  I will only step in if the rules are not followed.

“Now that you know the rules, set up the room in such a way that they are not broken.  Should you sit with your best friend?  Can you be responsible for controlling the urge to talk?  Would you do things that might distract others and not be respectful of their chances to learn?  Should you sit at the back of the room?  Is that a place where you can be ready to learn?  Should our room be in rows?  Table groups of 4 desks together?  A circle to create more interaction?  All of the decisions are yours.”  And then I’d sit back.  You learn a lot about your new students watching the discussion.  Who are the leaders?  Who are the good friends?  Who are the risk takers?  Who are the students who always want to know the “right” answer?


2 comments August 24th, 2012

New to middle school? Help is here!

MiddleWeb recently recorded a webinar for new teachers (and teachers new to the middle grades). The 90-minute session, featuring Rick Wormeli (Metaphors & Analogies, Day One and Beyond), Heather Wolpert-Gawron (‘Tween Crayons and Curfews), and EdWeek contributor Elizabeth Stein, is now available for viewing/listening online, along with slides, chat transcript, handouts, articles, and other downloadable resources.

Add comment August 20th, 2012

Ralph Fletcher book winner

Just a quick note that we have now closed commenting for the chance to win Ralph Fletcher’s new book. The winner is commenter Cathy B — we’ll be in touch soon for your mailing information! Thanks to everyone who commented!

Add comment August 16th, 2012

Celebrating with Mary

We at Stenhouse love a good party, especially when it involves one of our authors and cake. Mary Shorey, coauthor (with Penny Silvers) of the new book Many Texts, Many Voices, was recently surprised by her friends and family with a book release party. “I thought my daughter (also a colleague) was taking me out to dinner – and I was surprised!,” said Mary, adding that she felt lucky to teach with wonderful people who encourage and celebrate each other.

Many Texts, Many Voices: Teaching Literacy and Social Justice to Young Learners in the Digital Age is available for preview on the Stenhouse website.

Mary with her daughter and a very good looking cake

Mary with a copy of her book and messages from friends and family

6 comments August 14th, 2012

School Play: A memorable staff development event

What can teachers and schools do to draw out the talents and character of all kinds of students? What does it really mean to educate the “whole child”?

School Play is a thought-provoking and inspiring documentary film about the lasting impact of knowing and nurturing students, both at school and at home. Follow five fifth-graders from auditions to opening night of their school production of The Wizard of Oz. Along the way you’ll hear from teachers, parents, and the principal as they engage with kids, set high expectations, and give them the chance to succeed.

This professional development package includes a 44-page guide with options for both full- and half-day workshops, role-specific prompts for action-oriented follow-up, discussion questions, and handouts. The workshops are keyed to four segments from the film.

One of the biggest challenges for those who plan professional development is to design experiences that are engaging and relevant to all K-12 educators. School Play touches everyone. It’s available now, and you can preview sample clips online.

Listen to an interview with literacy specialist Jen Allen, just recorded this week, on how her district is using School Play to kick off the new year with the entire staff:

Add comment August 10th, 2012

Ralph Fletcher on boy writers and his new book

As the father of four sons and the author of countless nonfiction and fiction books, Ralph Fletcher has a natural interest in boys and writing. He has spent the last several years working with boy writers and their teachers, as well as interviewing other male authors about writing for boys. Ralph shared his insights on the subject in Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices and in his video, Dude, Listen to This. Now he has written a book for students (fourth grade and up) called Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know, published by Henry Holt and Co.

Ralph talked about the new book and about engaging boy writers in a recent conversation with Stenhouse General Manager Dan Tobin. Leave a comment or ask a question — we will pick a random winner to receive a signed copy of Boy Writers and Guy-Write.

Let’s start with the new book. How do you see Guy-Write being used in a classroom? And how does it relate to Boy Writers?

Teachers are the audience for Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices. I wanted to give teachers a deeper understanding of boy writers, and to suggest concrete ways we might widen the circle for them.  I ended each chapter with a practical section titled “What Can I Do In My Classroom?” Here I list concrete steps teachers can take to engage boy writers.  I think teachers will appreciate Guy-Write, but in fact I wrote this book for boy writers. I wanted to make a book you could hand to a boy writer, a book that would speak to him in a voice that is anecdotal, friendly, but also serious. The message of the book is: Let’s look at a range of subjects and genres that guys want to write about, as well as some practical tips and strategies you can use to strengthen your own writing.

In both books, you talk about edgy topics that boys might like to write about, including violence and bathroom humor. In your interview with Jon Scieszka in Guy-Write, he discusses writing about things like pee, vomit, and war.  What’s your advice for teachers on where to draw the line when it comes to letting boys choose topics?

While there’s no universal line for these issues, I would ask teachers to consider how they might give boys more leeway in terms of topic, language, and humor. If you do them more freedom, you’ll get more engagement. Consider this story a teacher told me:

“Early in the school year one of my first grade students made a story with a picture of a man and a thought bubble above his head. It said: ‘This man dreamt of sumbody who fartd.’ I was going to deem Michael’s story to be inappropriate, but I had just read your book BOY WRITERS, so I decided to try a different approach. Next day I handed back the stories one by one. I could see that Michael was getting nervous. Finally I got to his piece. When I read it out loud the other kids laughed, as I knew they would. Then I held up the book Walter The Farting Dog and I said: ‘Michael’s story made us laugh, just like this book did when we read it. Good writing can make us laugh.’ I figured that this was the first piece Michael would share during the school year. If he had a bad experience, well, I feared it might affect his entire year, so I wanted to make it positive, and it was. Michael was beaming.”

In this story, I appreciate the teacher’s willingness to rethink her practice. It’s not always easy to change! Of course, the teacher is responsible for the tenor and decorum in the classroom. Ultimately, the teacher can put forth his/her own “line in the sand” (as to what is and is not permissible) but you could also indicate a willingness to rethink and revisit this issue as the year progresses. Students will respect that.

In your chapter on sports writing, you zero in on two common problems: overuse of clichés and too many boring play-by-play details. How do you teach students to recognize when they might be boring their readers?

I write for myself. I am my first reader, and I believe that people are far more alike than we would like to admit. Thus, I assume that what’s interesting to me will be interesting to the reader. The problem, of course, is that the boy writer who played in the “big game” will in fact find every pitch highly interesting! Because he participated he may be oblivious to the reader’s boredom.

There are some developmental issues at play here. Up to and including third grade students will tend to write bed-to-bed (or play-by-play) stories. But by fourth grade students can be taught the power of summarizing. That allows a writer to skip the boring parts, to deal with six or seven innings in one brief paragraph, and then slow down at the most crucial moments.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the emphasis the Common Core Standards place on nonfiction and on analytical writing and argument [though Appendix A of the Standards defines narrative as “creative fictional stories, memoirs, anecdotes, and autobiographies.”] Do you worry that creative writing may get squeezed out?

We know only too well how things go in education—we swing abruptly from one end of the continuum to the other. There’s nothing wrong with teaching nonfiction, argument, and analytical writing. I’m heartened that more attention will be paid to these real-world genres. But yes, I am afraid that a hyper focus on Common Core Standards may lead teachers to neglect narrative writing. That would be a serious mistake.  Story, after all, is the mother of all genre. When kids write real stories about their lives they can include the honest, specific, accurate information that will make the writing come alive. I believe in the power of story writing. I have watched thousands of young writers find their stride by writing stories.

One more thing, and this may sound like a cranky quibble, but I don’t like the connotation of the phrase “creative writing.” It sounds too laid-back and nonrigorous. I much prefer the term “expressive writing.”

I like the way you wrote about boys and emotion. You challenge the stereotype of boys being unemotional. They just might express it differently from girls. I remember there were some very emotional conversations in the boys writing group featured in your video, Dude, Listen to This! Do you find that writing provides boys a way to express emotions they have trouble talking about in conversation?

When it comes to emotions we must be careful not to oversimplify or over-generalize. I have met many tender boys. I have also met girls who are tough as nails, who keep their emotions tightly bottled. Still, it does seem like girls have an easier time sharing their feelings. Boys seem to benefit from a separate vehicle for doing so. For instance, I have watched my sons act in a theater production where they are suddenly expected to express a range of emotions. In every case they rose to the challenge.

Sports is another arena where boys are allowed to express emotion. Boys learn at an early age that “Big boys don’t cry,” but when my son’s high school lacrosse team got beat in the state tournament, all the players had tears in their eyes as they walked off the field for the final time. Many were openly crying. Nobody made fun of that—not peers or parents.

In a similar way, writing seems to be one of these arenas where boys allow themselves (and allow their friends) to share a richer range of emotions: sadness, loneliness, loss, jealousy, etc. Many boys find poetry a perfect vehicle for this kind of emotional writing. Of course, this is also true for girls.

One last question: So what have you got against vampires?

Ha! Okay, well, let’s have a bit of historical perspective. A few years ago vampires became the rage. Then the hot thing was (is) zombies. What’s next? My 1st grade niece Liza insists that fairies will be the next big thing. Maybe she’s right.

I’ve got nothing against vampires. (One of my neighbors is a vampire, but he’s quite friendly–on several occasions he has dropped everything to help me sharpen my chainsaw.) But on a serious note…I am against anything that gets done and overdone to the point that it loses its freshness. I don’t like formulaic writing! In my book Pyrotechnics on the Page, I argue that each writer has the responsibility to reinvent our language, to conjure up its power and its magic, each time he or she sits down to write. We can’t fall back on hackneyed scripts or formulas. We have to make it new.

39 comments August 7th, 2012

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