We are really excited to start a new occasional series on the Stenhouse blog with teacher, author, and blogger extraordinaire Franki Sibberson. In her first post Franki ponders what it means to be a writer and comes to the realization that it’s not just about notebooks and pens anymore.
I launched our fourth grade Writing Workshop as I had many times before—by sharing my life as a writer. I brought in notebooks from past and present, read a bit of notebook advice from Ralph Fletcher, gave kids time to write a few entries, and shared some of their process as writers. But at the end of the day, something just didn’t feel right. I felt like something was missing.
Yes, the students were writing happily in their new writers’ notebooks. Yes, there were good things to share and discuss. Yes, I felt that the introduction to writing workshop was authentic. But something seemed off. I came home that night and moved through my evening routine of checking email, reading blogs, updating Twitter, etc. It was then that I realized how much of my writing life I had not shared with my students. I realized that I had only shared a piece of my writing life and that my digital writing life had not been part of our conversations.
I had planned to talk to students about digital writing. We’ll have a class wiki and blog set up so I knew we’d get there. But I’d planned to start with notebook writing and go from there. In the four years since I left the classroom to become a teacher librarian, my life as a writer has changed incredibly. Not only has my life as a writer changed, but also the ways in which we define writing has expanded to mean more than just text creations. I was fooling myself to think that I could separate out the tools of writing and launch writing workshop as I always had.
So, on Wednesday, I started Writing Workshop with a mini-lesson about my life as a digital writer. I started out by sharing with students that I had shared my notebook writing with them, but that writers use lots of tools and I wanted to talk to them about the other tools I use as a writer.
I used the Interactive Whiteboard in my room to begin sharing my digital life as a writer. First, I took them to my blog: A Year of Reading (http://readingyear.blogspot.com). I talked to them about how Mary Lee Hahn and I write this blog together and I add to it a few times each week. I showed them some of my posts and talked about how the focus was on books and reading. I talked to them about the visitors we get and our audience in general.
Then I took them to my Slideshare account. I told them that I thought writing was about more than just words and that I sometimes “wrote” or created PowerPoint presentations to share with teachers at workshops. I showed them a few of these slideshows and talked about how much of my writing for these was about finding pictures that shared the message I wanted to share.
I showed them my Goodreads account where I log the books I read and those I want to read. I showed them the part of the page that lets me write quick reviews so I can let other people know what I thought of the book. I told them that I rely on review of people from all over the world to decide what to read next.
Finally, I took them to Choice Literacy where I showed them some articles for teachers that I wrote. I also took them to the podcasts and let them listen to the beginning of my podcast interview with Kevin Hodgson on digital writing. We talked about the idea of podcasts and they thought they seemed similar to audiobooks.
We spent the next several days exploring tools on computers and iPads that writers use. I wanted students to see computers and iPads as tools for creation right off in the school year. I wanted them to begin to think of writing in new ways and to begin to think about the possibilities ahead. We explored Keynote, Pages and Garageband on the computers. And we explored Explain Everything and Popplet on the iPads. Playing with each tool allowed students to further explore the idea of digital writing.
This was only the beginning of our conversation about what it is to be a writer. Since those first few days of school, we have continued to define as a class what it means to be a writer. I continue to overhear conversations in which students process the ways in which they might use various tools or the kinds of things they might create. This week we’ll continue to learn about keeping a writer’s notebook. We’ll also explore blogs from around the world. Students will most likely notice the ways in which movies, podcasts and images are embedded into these posts. They will start to see the various ways to publish and the various options they have as writers. As we move toward publishing on our class blog and wiki, these beginning conversations will come to life. Students will be able to use a variety of tools to write and publish.
Authenticity is key to any writing workshop and I learned this week that to keep the writing workshop authentic, I needed to share with students all that it meant to be a writer today.
September 24th, 2012
We are so lucky to have another visit from Maureen Barbieri who’s been a frequent contributor to the Stenhouse Blog. This time she talks about why words matter. “When we pay the kind of deliberate attention that Annie Sullivan, my close-reading friend Lorraine, the inimitable Anna Quindlen, and my first-grade readers pay to words, surely our lives are enriched. Surely we think more carefully about the names we give to our feelings, our ambitions, and our impressions.”
Enjoy this lovely piece. It will enrich your day.
Anna Quindlen was in town recently to be interviewed for New Hampshire Public Radio as part of her book tour promoting Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Asked whether her daughter calls herself a feminist, she responded, “She’d better, if she wants to keep using the family credit card!” Then she launched into a bit of a rant. “Words matter. Words are important,” she insisted. “I am a proud feminist. And don’t call me a progressive. I’m a liberal.” The live audience cheered wildly. “Liberals gave us the civil rights movement. Liberals gave us affirmative action. Liberals gave us Social Security.” Words matter.
The first-grade readers at the school where I volunteer care about words too. One teacher asked me to help them expand their vocabularies, so each week we jot down new words we notice onto a whiteboard and then, after some discussion, into special spiral notebooks. I was hesitant at first, not wanting to stop the flow of the stories, but the children’s enthusiasm persuaded me that this is a worthwhile use of our time. They seem delighted to be learning to use new words. Here are some of our discoveries from the books we’ve read together: wary, girder, barge, vixen, quixotic, content, heckled, harassed, strut, span, vicious, undermine, cache, and omnivorous. Sometimes I read aloud, sometimes they read aloud, and sometimes we read silently. Whenever anyone has a question about an unfamiliar word, we stop and talk about it. I make a conscious effort to reuse our newest gems again and again whenever I’m with the children.
Recently, one group of girls began composing rap songs and presenting them to us. They had the beat down, along with the dance moves. I brought in Eloise Greenfield’s Honey I Love, Night on Neighborhood Street, and Nathaniel’s Rap, three books of poetry about life in urban neighborhoods (unlike theirs). I placed the books on the table and invited the children to peruse them and choose which poems they’d like to read aloud. “Honey I Love” was an easy favorite, and then “Things” with its sweet echo of “still got it, still got it.” The title poem from Nathaniel’s Rap was another hit, and several of them read it one at a time and then in unison. They loved the rhythm of these poems, and I was grateful to Greenfield for her positive spirit. Here’s one of her poems:
one day I was dumb enough
to let somebody bet me
into a fight
and then I was mad with two
the one who was hitting me
and the one who was hitting
Later, their teacher reported that the students wanted to present “Jumprope Rap” to the whole class. “But,” she said, “they’ve told me that some of the words in another poem are ‘inappropriate.’” Which words, I wondered? She cited stupid and dumb, which had been deemed unacceptable in the face of the class’s commitment to kindness and respect. Words matter.
The following week, another teacher asked me to read a book called Church Mouse with her students, and so we began the sweet tale of a family of mice who live in a church. The mother mouse gives birth to “eight naked baby mice” and then proceeds to “suckle them.” “What’s suckle?” the boy on my left wondered.
“Well, let’s see if we can figure it out from the story so far,” I suggested. “The mother has just given birth. What is the first thing babies need when they’re born?”
“I think it has to do with sucking,” replied one student.
“Good thinking!” Then I asked if any of them had baby brothers or sisters. Or had any of their dogs or cats given birth?
“Oh!” one girl exclaimed. “It’s about feeding the baby. The baby gets milk from its mother.”
“That’s true,” I said. “The mothers are able to feed their children with their own milk.”
The girl on my right was flabbergasted. “Are you telling me that my body can make milk?” she asked, incredulous.
“Well, not right now,” I explained. “But if you have a baby when you grow up, your body will make milk for that baby.”
Next there ensued a long conversation about whose mother breastfed and whose mother bottle-fed her babies. I acknowledged that both methods are fine before gently nudging them back to the story about the mice. Before long, our time was up, and we walked together back to their classroom.
One quiet girl had her head down, her chin practically on her chest. “What’s wrong, Gracie?” I asked.
“I didn’t like that book at all,” she told me.
“Inappropriate language,” she replied.
Fully expecting her to say suckled after our extended discussion, I asked with trepidation, “What words bother you?”
Without hesitation, she announced the offender: “Naked.”
That same week, Lorraine—a member of my writing group—reflected on the power of words in Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War by Sebastian Faulks. One standout was the word naked, which appears in this novel in several contexts. First, there’s this: “For a moment she was naked again. She recalled how she had shown herself to him in her hot afternoon abandonment.”
But it was another use of the word that shook her to the core. She wrote: “The word naked in the context of the war was gruesome. As a British soldier retreats from the front lines after being gassed, the author describes him this way: ‘Finally the boy stood naked, except for the two brown eye patches. The top layer of skin had gone from his body, though there was a big strip around the middle where the webbing of his belt had protected him.’ No clothes, no gas mask, no skin—he stood naked!”
Naked baby mice, a naked woman in love, and a naked victim of war. Layer upon layer of association, connotation, meaning. There is so much to consider when we look at words, each in our own way. Certainly first graders understand naked as being connected to privacy, the intimacy of family time, something personal. My friend sees all of this, of course, but ponders now other ways of experiencing the word: defenseless, alone, vulnerable.
Sometimes my university students tell me language is just one way to understand the world. Surely music, art, movement, and communing with nature contribute to our making meaning in our lives. Mathematicians speak of the power and beauty they find in numbers, equations, and formulae. Still, for most of us, it’s words that matter most.
Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, knew this. In William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, she laments: “I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it—the light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why you can see five thousand years back in the light of words, everything we feel, think, know, and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”
When we pay the kind of deliberate attention that Annie Sullivan, my close-reading friend Lorraine, the inimitable Anna Quindlen, and my first-grade readers pay to words, surely our lives are enriched. Surely we think more carefully about the names we give to our feelings, our ambitions, and our impressions. I love working with enthusiastic young children; I love seeing their eyes light up as they claim words for their own. It’s the same joy I feel when I hear my grandchildren, who are five and two, trying out new words in their mouths, coming to know that everything has a name, that the name stands for the thing, and that each one of us can choose how to use words to discover and communicate ideas.
I love that children know instinctively about the “barbaric yawp” that Walt Whitman speaks of, that they do not shy away from questioning or adapting the words they hear. My grandson Bjorn calls the directions that come with his more complicated toys “the destructions.” But as Gordon Wells shows us in his book The Meaning Makers, this is more than simply amusing. Bjorn is making sense, combining directions and instructions and unwittingly hinting at a common problem: sometimes this kind of writing can indeed be destructive.
The children I work with are voracious readers. They clamor for more books and seem insatiable, in the way we wish all children would be. This year we have loved stories and poems and words. When we ended our last meeting three girls began to cry, which led to a general breakdown of decorum, complete with groaning, lamenting, and gnashing of teeth. “We love to read!” they insisted.
“But you can still read all summer,” I promised them. “You can go to the library and take out all the books you want. Think of all the new words you’ll find.”
“It won’t be the same,” they sighed.
Perhaps not. But I’m confident that whatever shape their reading takes will be a boon to them. They are children who are head over heels, not only about books but also about the particularity of words. They love to ferret out new ones, to construct meaning through the context of the text, and then to weave their discoveries into conversations. I have no doubt that, before long, these new words will find their way into the children’s writing as well. This is a love affair that is just beginning.
September 18th, 2012
In these days when the visual arts have been squeezed out of the curriculum in so many schools, the website Literacyhead.com provides a wonderful resource for teachers. The subscription site (with plenty of free resources as well) builds reading, writing, and vocabulary lessons around both fine art and illustrations from picture books. We spoke recently with one of the founders of the site, author-blogger-literacy coach Jan Burkins, about ways to use art to stimulate thinking about the Common Core Standards:
1. What do you see as the main purpose of Literacyhead? What void were you seeking to fill when you started the site?
As a literacy coach, I worked with teachers to explore ways to use visual art to differentiate their reading and writing instruction. We wanted to tap into the natural tendencies of this visually driven generation by using visual literacy as a vehicle for making textual literacy more accessible. The results were amazing. Students connected with art in unexpected ways and learned challenging concepts more quickly. Creating lessons with art, however, introduced another time consuming layer in terms of planning. I founded Literacyhead to make teaching with art easier. I just felt that, if the barrier of time was eliminated, everyone would want to differentiate with art and more children would learn to read and write.
2. The site talks about helping teachers “nurture their creative lives while they meet the demands of high accountability.” Why did you include that as one of your main goals and how does the site nurture creativity?
In the same way that your reading influences your writing, working with creative lessons can give you new ways of thinking about your instruction. Lesson development is a profoundly creative and complex act, and I don’t think anyone can look at all the artwork and lessons on our site and not come away with fresh ideas to experiment with. I was recently talking with a veteran teacher who was trying to help her students understand synonyms and antonyms. She wanted her students to see nuances and abstraction, such as why rock is a better than paper as an “opposite” for flower. We realized that a series of paintings illustrating synonyms and antonyms could help students understand the concepts more quickly. This aha moment was a creative extension of what she had seen on Literacyhead.
3. Throughout the site you use art as “texts”– as writing prompts, to illustrate word meanings in the Visual Vocabulary, and, of course, as parts of books. Why is it important to teach students to “read” pictures?
We think it’s important to teach students to look closely at images because it encourages them to think and notice. Plus, reading images closely is a bridge to other learning, particularly learning from text. Because images meet students where they are, whether they are “gifted,” learning English, or struggling with comprehension (or any combination thereof). Today’s students are part of the visual generation. If we can teach them reading strategies by tapping into their ease with images, then they are leaning into new learning. Who doesn’t want to teach students who are into what you are teaching?
4. There is something about the way you present picture books on the site that drives home the point that illustrations are fine art and should be looked at that way. Is that intentional?
Chanyou Three by Jon J Muth
No, but I’m glad we inadvertently communicate the merit of picture book illustrations. I think it is a result of our careful selection of books and artwork. We only feature books on Literacyhead if the illustrations are truly remarkable in some way. Not surprisingly, most exceptional picture book illustrators also create fine art. Take Jon J Muth, for example. His fine art is stunning. That is the level of quality we look for when we select books to feature on the site.
5. How do you see the site being used in a classroom–projected on a white board, at a computer station, with iPads? How have you seen it used?
We’ve spent two years building the site, now our efforts are shifting a bit as we work to make sure people know about it and see the ways they can use it. Just this morning, I was in a fourth-grade classroom using Literacyhead lessons with a Smartboard. The children were completely engaged with a reading lesson and a writing lesson for almost two hours. So, Literacyhead is great with SmartBoards and Promethean Boards, but it also works with just a projector, or even a single computer monitor with a small group. It is also iPad friendly.
6. You’ve done a lot of careful study of the Common Core Standards for your blog. Can you give some examples of how Literacyhead helps address the Common Core?
The big difference in the Common Core State Standards and the state standards that we have all worked with over the last decade is that the CCSS are more than the sum of their parts. They aren’t just a list of individual standards to check off as mastered. They are imbedded in the idea that we read to understand what the text is about. So instead of picking up a book and saying “I can teach adjectives with this” we can say “Wow! This book is powerful!” So, while Literacyhead presents illustrated definitions of tier two words, reading and writing lessons that include text-based questions, and now has Common Core alignments linked to each lesson, the biggest connection between the Common Core and Literacyhead is around engaging students in discussions about books.
September 7th, 2012