We have a lovely guest post today from Rose Cappelli on finding brilliance in your students and helping them use that brilliance or expertise to improve on another skill that might be more challenging for them. Rose is a 1996 PAWLP Fellow. She is the co-author with Lynne Dorfman of Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts. You can read more of her reflections about teaching and living in her blog entries or follow her on Twitter at @RoseCappelli.
Finding Their Brilliance
By Rose Cappelli
In Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful novel in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, the author talks about being compared in school to her older sister, Odella, who was “brilliant.” But school is difficult for Jacqueline, so soon the teachers
“…remember that I am the other Woodson
and begin searching for brilliance
at another desk.” (p. 220).
Jacqueline loves stories, and she quickly discovers that by reading the words of a story over and over again, that story eventually becomes lodged in her memory and becomes part of her. So when she is asked to read aloud to the class, she doesn’t need the book, and amazes her teacher and classmates by reciting a whole story from memory.
“How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me, I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.
Brilliant! my teacher says, smiling. Jackie, that was absolutely beautiful.
And I know now…words are my brilliance.” (p. 247-248)
The passages from Brown Girl Dreaming remind us of the importance not only of looking for the strengths in all of our students, but of helping students succeed by leading them to find their own strength or skill or “brilliance.” Recently I heard author/illustrator Peter Catalanotto speak about a teacher who encouraged him to write by letting him draw, a brilliance she recognized in him. Without that recognition, the world may have been robbed of such wonderful books as Matthew A.B.C. and Emily’s Art, among others.
How can we discover the brilliance that resides in our classrooms and use it to guide our students? We probably all know students who are great spellers, or who can easily solve math problems. Our students know them, too. They become the class experts who serve as resources to others. But how can we use the strengths we discover in students to help them become better writers? Perhaps we need to take time to think about the underlying skills of the brilliance we have observed and show our students how that brilliance or skill can be transferred to writing. For example, we might realize that the student who is great at solving math problems does so because she can easily break things down into smaller sequential parts. We could point out that organization in writing often requires breaking a large idea into smaller parts. The student who is great at telling a story but who seems lost on how to begin to transfer that story to paper might benefit from “pretend in-the-air” writing as he talks to better understand that writing is talk written down.
I have known writers who are good at crafting detailed and enticing beginnings, but who fall short when it comes to endings. If we can help those writers identify the skills they used to start the piece (rich detail, use of specific nouns, etc.) we can perhaps help them use the same skills to craft a more satisfying ending. We can help them find and use their brilliance.
Of course, it all boils down to the importance of us as teachers engaging in careful conferring so that we really get to know our students – their strengths, their weaknesses, their needs. Sometimes we might just catch a glimpse of an emerging brilliance – something the writer himself is just beginning to do without perhaps even realizing it. That is when we must step in to explain and guide and encourage that budding brilliance to grow so that it transfers to other places in the text and other pieces of writing. That is what we must do before we start to search for brilliance at another desk as Jacqueline’s teacher did.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, when Jacqueline’s brother stands on the school stage and sings in a voice no one knew he had, Jacqueline remarks,
“Maybe, I am thinking, there is something hidden
like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe
waiting to be discovered.” (p. 233)
What brilliance will you discover in your students this week, and how will you help them use it?
Reference: Woodson, Jacqueline. 2014. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York: Penguin.
Reposted with permission from the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project
The New York Times recently ran an article about Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle, where the outdoors serve as classrooms without walls. Stenhouse author Herb Broda wrote an encouraging response to the article. Read below and then check out his books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as his recent blogposts of practical ideas that help you turn your schoolyard into an outdoor classroom.
Learning from Fiddleheads
The sky is the ceiling and the landscape provides the audio-visual experiences at the Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle. At this innovative preschool, eloquently described in a recent New York Times feature Preschool Without Walls by Lillian Mongeaudec (Dec. 29, 2015) students spend four hours a day – rain or shine—in classrooms among the native trees in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Students are engaged in a wide range of activities that focus on experiencing the surrounding environment. They are immersed in hands-on nature like digging, building forts, taking “listening walks” and building child-size nests in wood chip piles.
The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice”. Primary emphasis is given to observing and describing the nature that is literally at children’s fingertips. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder”, explains a teacher.
Nature preschools with daily outdoor experiences at the heart of their programs have been growing in number—up from twenty in 2008 to ninety-two currently, according to the Times article. Now, I realize that it is highly unlikely that outdoor immersion preschools like Fiddleheads will eventually dominate the scene. Indeed, there are solid arguments both pro and con regarding totally outdoor-based programming. The article does, however, encourage serious consideration of outdoor learning as an effective instructional method.
It really doesn’t matter to me whether a school has a totally outdoor-based program, or a more typical situation where teachers step outside the classroom door to use the schoolyard as a teaching tool. The important thing is that children are receiving frequent contact with nature.
Regular exposure to the natural world provides many benefits that enrich instruction and reconnect children with the outdoors:
Nature provides both a spacious venue for learning, as well as an abundant source of content. Both students and teachers welcome a change of pace and place. Variety is indeed the spice of life—and the energizer of teaching.
The outdoors is the ideal place to teach universal process skills like observing, describing, classifying and analyzing. Not only are these skills critical to science, they are also integral to language arts, mathematics and the creative arts.
Outdoor learning experiences provide generous opportunities for creative play, and a necessary respite from the incessant beeps and glare of electronic devices. We are in desperate need of the calming effects that only nature can provide.
Research over the last several years is confirming that frequent outdoor experiences contribute to good health, positive mental attitude and even improved cognitive function. It isn’t necessary to be outdoors all day everyday to achieve these benefits. All that is required are regular doses of what author Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” (Nature).
The article gives me great hope! At a time when children’s natural curiosity about the outdoors is eclipsed by the demands of busy schedules and the ever-present glow of video screens, schools may be the only place where children are encouraged to interact with nature. It’s empowering to realize that the enthusiastic engagement and joy of learning that happens daily at Fiddleheads is possible on your schoolyard!
When it comes to nonfiction, teachers don’t have to work very hard to motivate students…with this genre we start with an intrinsic buy in from students. On the other hand, I see an awful lot of formulaic nonfiction writing in the schools I visit. Nonfiction is the writing genre most typically “done to” students. We channel students into a particular curricular area whether they like it or not. We organize their writing for them, directing them to follow rubrics and use detailed prewriting outlines and graphic organizers. We teach them our system for taking notes and doing research. We tell students, “Your final report must include _____, and _____, and _____.” No wonder students feel confined! No wonder so much of their nonfiction writing lacks energy and voice. Welcome to nonfiction writing: our most pre-packaged genre.
So, over winter break, I took a good long look at my plans for our nonfiction unit, which I was set to launch on our first day back to school. My sixth graders were so excited to be moving on from personal narrative and memoir into the realm of “the real stuff” (as one put it) “the kind of stuff I WANT to be writing about!”. And I wanted to be sure that they stayed excited from launch all the way through time to publish. I wanted our nonfiction unit to rock!
Among Fletcher’s suggestions for key ingredients of “making nonfiction from scratch” was an Exploratory Notebook – a place to gather information, think through ideas, and sketch out writing. I thought back to our many varied attempts to do all of this in many different places – our writer’s notebooks, research folders, “thinking envelopes” – and how nothing had worked quite the way I’d wanted it to. Ralph Fletcher would probably say this was because I had pre-packaged each of these research/gather/write venues, they were “done to” my students rather than “done by” them.
Debbie Diller’s long-awaited new book, Growing Independent Learners, has just been released. This comprehensive guide builds on her previous books to help teachers plan standards-focused lessons and work stations, organize the classroom for independence, and use anchor charts to support learning goals and help students remember big ideas.
With over 400 full-color photographs, this beautiful book gives
– Detailed explanations of each standard’s importance and real- world application;
– Planning tools that include academic vocabulary, whole-group instruction, and suggestions for literacy work stations;
– Complete whole-group lesson plans that you can use and modify again and again;
– Connections to help you extend the lessons into other areas of daily instruction;
– Mentor texts to use during whole group, small group, or stations; and
– Teaching tips that can help build skills from grade to grade.
How closely do your students read their writing? What are the implications for those who do and those who don’t?
During her work in classrooms, literacy coach Paula Bourque noticed that students who read their own writing closely are engaged in their work, write fluently, are able to produce lengthy drafts, and incorporate teaching points from mini-lessons into the day’s writing.
In this comprehensive book, Paula shows you that no matter what structures or lessons you use in your writing classroom, the strategies in Close Writing will help you make these better by creating student writers who are more aware of what effective writing looks like, who care about what they write, and who take ownership and responsibility for their growth as writers.