Friday, September 27, 2013

Intentional Words and Vampires

My day is packed full of choices.

I choose which shoes to wear each day.  I choose which books to read aloud to my third grade students.  I choose to pick out the red and purple Skittles from the bag. (True story.)

But what about my word choices?

In the past few years, I became powerfully aware of the words I used every day.  Especially with children.  I found that I was self-monitoring my language to decide if my words were helping or hurting?  Developing agency in children?  Or simply solving problems for them?

Peter Johnston's book Choice Words also had a powerful impact on my intentional language.  If you have not read this book, I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

A running list began in my head.  These are some of the words that I intentionally tell myself to choose every day.

1. "This is our classroom, not mine."  

How might I expect my students to feel a strong sense of community if the class only belongs to the teacher?  This one little pronoun makes a big difference.

2. "Everything you do is a choice.  Unless I physically pick you up or try to hurt you (which I will never do), you have to choose to make the most helpful choice.  I will not make you do anything."  

I love this statement.  I say it so much that my students finish the sentence for me.  It makes a lot more sense to me than yelling over students to stop ________ (insert unwanted behavior here).

If most everything we do is a choice, how empowered children must feel to know they can affect change in their environments!  That they have the power to choose their actions!  No longer can they say, "But I couldn't help it!  He was making me laugh!"  Nope, we choose to laugh.  We have the power to control our words, our bodies, and how we respond to each other.  We should be maximizing children's feelings of agency by helping them see the variety of daily choices they have.

3. "I understand that you are having challenges getting along.  I will stand here next to you while you talk to each other about how to solve this."

How often am I solving problems for my students?  With 25 bodies in the room, it is so much easier to just say, "Stop bothering her."  But what a fabulous opportunity for me to support a problem solving conversation.

4. "You are always good.  Your choices may not be, but you are always good."  See here for more on this favorite line:

5. "Just because ________ says it, doesn't mean it's true for you.  Or for the world."

Not long ago, I had a student who was trying to convince his entire lunch table that he was a vampire.  Despite the fact that I found this to be absolutely hilarious, his peers were not amused.  They spent day after day arguing with him about his identity.  

"How are you in the light then?"
"Why did you pack a sandwich then?"
"Why aren't your eyes red?"

As I laughed, I listened from a distance and eventually intervened one day as the conversations were becoming heated.  One of the things I talked to them about was how just because someone says the words, it doesn't make them true.  

Children have a sweet but inaccurate understanding of the power and validity of words, I think.  Someone says they have the best shoes, it must be true.  Someone calls you stupid, it's true.  Someone calls you ugly, it must be true.  (Wait, may even adults sometimes buy into this power of words too?)

Just because words are said and given life, doesn't make them accurate.  Am I helping students to think through these bold statements and to decide what to believe for themselves?  Are they becoming critical thinkers who are careful about which words they believe because no authority is truly above error?

And how might I continue to support my students better through the power of my intentional language?

P.S. And yes, the vampire finally (begrudgingly) admitted to being human. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Writing Fiction: Part 2 (What I Will Do and Won't Do Again)

We are four weeks into writing fiction.  And, we are about finished.  Or, as finished as any writer can be.

What have I learned this time around?  Well, a lot.

You can read about some beginning thoughts here:

I did my best to at least try to implement some of the learning I did with Mr. Lester Laminack this past summer.  (You can learn more about Mr. Laminack here at

We studied the elements of plot.  We "told the stories across our fingers" until the kids could do it practically in their sleep.  They understood plot in their reading, which soon carried over into their writing.  They had the vision for their fictional writing before they ever put a pencil to paper.  Or fingers to the keys.

We used the "6 Scenes" strategy to plan our writing.  We started with the Big Event/Climax (Scene 3), and then wrote outward from there.

Brooklyn is famous for her stories about Scary Squirrel and Stinky Skunk.  She has authored multiple sequels describing their adventures.

Did it work for all kids?  Probably not.  

When it came to actually writing (either digitally or with a pencil), some kids did run out of steam.  It's challenging for some to expand on a scene.

Even students who wrote a lot found themselves being careful that they referred back to their original "scene thinking."  

This may have inihibited some students.  Writers deviate from their original thinking often, right?  
Maybe some of my students should have just started their texts from the very beginning without a planning support in place?  I think it depends on the child.  In the future, I will probably offer the option and see what happens.

The most important thought I take away from this unit was the importance of teacher modeling.  I modeled the writing process in at least three different fictional stories from beginning thinking to ending.  I revised and edited and drafted and revised and edited, all in front of my students.  If the mentor text is the expert, then isn't it my job to be the bridge for my students?  If I expect them to write, I must write too.

I used student writing as models, even more than mentor texts this time around.  It was remarkable.  I had previously reluctant student writers who were begging me DAILY to share their writing.  

And finally, remember how students were having a difficult time expanding on their original, simple planning?  We made a t-chart and used student examples, side-by-side, to have a visual of what this thinking actually looks like and sounds like.

This is Cooper's example from his story about two dinosaurs who had some major conflict.

I cannot write enough about how much this scaffolding helped my students.  We displayed multiple examples, including some from my own writing.

As we celebrate our fictional stories next week, I will be remembering that things didn't go perfectly.  The act of writing is a messy process...

but so is the teaching of it!  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Genius Hour: What Are Your Passions?

If you do the math, you will find that I have been with most of my current third grade students for around 215 days.

(I had the excellent fortune of looping up to third grade with my students this year.)

You would think that I would know them extremely well, and I do.  I know their families, I know about their siblings. I know their strengths and weaknesses, where they go on vacations, which genres they love to read, what they bring for lunch every day.

But do I really know what they are PASSIONATE about in their lives?  I mean, outside of school?

For some of them I do, surely.  It's easy to tell what my vocal and extroverted students cannot stop talking about.  Topics like UFO's, Pokemon, Minecraft, horses, football, and  WWII come up constantly.

I asked myself though, what about the students who are the quiet thinkers?  Or the students who politely comply but whose minds are in another place?

In the last few months, I learned about a concept called Genius Hour.  You can read and watch more about the history behind it here:  We will take one hour, every week, to explore our passions.

We started this past week.

We watched Caine's Arcade to get us started.  My students were enthralled.  A boy, their age, with a passion for arcades, could go viral?

Then we discussed passsions.  We discussed how the constraints of school and home can sometimes keep us from exploring what we truly love.  What are those things we would love to do/test/change/make/learn about if we had no fear?

Every student received sticky notes to begin bravely brainstorming these passions of the heart.

I almost cried.  

I learned things that I never knew about some of my students.  I had no idea that one child always wanted to learn to play the guitar.  I didn't know that another student wants to know how houses are built.

We brainstormed for twenty minutes and the sticky notes full of ideas flooded our wondering charts in a way I never expected.

There will be rules for Genius Hour.  One is that the passions we explore have to be things that are not easily "Google-able." 


Imagine exploring a topic that cannot be easily answered with a quick Google search?  This is definitely going to take some time and thought.

I cannot wait to see where this journey is going to take us.

Thank you so much to Joy Kirr for unknowingly taking me under her Genius Hour wing.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Legos Are Like Grammar

Not long ago in my teaching career, I came to a realization.

Every single book in my classroom library could be used to teach some kind of grammar skill.

Shocking, yes? (No.  I shake my head at myself.)

 I was coming off of five years as a Literacy Coach, and there were often many conversations about lists of books.  

"Which books are good to teach complete sentences?"
"Which books would be good to teach pronouns?"
"Are there lists of books that would be good to teach declarative sentences?"

I would always giggle a little bit.  

See, the problem is, every single book in the world is full of declarative sentences.

Almost every book would be great for supporting a discussion about subjects and predicates, and how they work together in our language.  

After reading Janet Angelillo's book Grammar Study, I realized that I needed to teach sentence patterns as fun, building opportunities.  In fact, Angelillo even likens grammar study to playing with Legos:

"Do we teach students that sentence are as much fun to build - and play around with - as Lego castles?  You build them, stand back to check them out and break them up and try them another way and so on." (p. 53)

When I returned to the classroom to teach again, I decided that I was going to teach grammar a different way.  I decided that I was going to start from authentic, much-loved texts, and move outward toward the inauthentic test-like question.

For example, we recently finished learning about types of sentences in our third grade class.  We studied them first in texts that we loved and knew well.  This way, the children were not focusing on the plot and content of the text, but on the language.

Later, they looked for these types of sentences in their own writing.  How amazed they were to find that these sentences were everywhere, and they had used them frequently!

By the end of the study, they were able to find and label these types of sentences in an inauthentic, test-like situation, with sentences pulled out of context.

Why did this work for us?

Because our grammar study wasn't tedious.  We didn't drown ourselves in declarative sentences worksheets.  We pulled sentences out of books from authors we absolutely adore, and played around with them.  What would happen if this sentence became interrogative?  What would it sound like?  How would it change the way it was read?  Why does this sentence work so well?

Angelillo writes, "Better to display sentences from books and ask them to discuss why each sentence works.  Thus we challenge students and make grammar part of our intellectual conversations, not a matter of 'I'm right and you're wrong' or some meaningless guessing game" (p. 55).

Grammar can be like playing with Legos.  And almost every well-loved book I own can support a study in some way.  

I suppose the moral of my story is, lists of books for teaching skills are fine.  But looking in my own classroom library for loved books was much more effective than using a text with which my students were not familiar.

So in the meantime, we will just keep building our word castles, checking them out, breaking them apart, and putting them back together.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

You're Always Good

Every school year, I hear the same question from students.  

"Was I good today?"

And every year, I give the same answer.  Over.  And over.  And over again.

"You are always good.  Your choices may not always be good.  But you are always a good person."

What is it about our world that constantly connects kids' behaviors to their identities as people?  You "get in trouble at school", so you are bad.  You make a mistake = bad person.

So every year, it takes months for students to understand that "Was I good today?" is not an acceptable question in our classroom.

Here's a typical scenario that happens with my students now that I have looped with them to 3rd grade.

Student: "Was I good today?"
Me: (I give them a *look*.)
Student: (practically rolling eyes) "Ok, I mean, were my choices good today?"
Me: "What do you think?"

I smile at these conversations.  Not only because they amuse me, but because my heart feels happy to know these kids are starting to understand that their behaviors don't change their identities as good kids.

Do they understand the differences between guilt and shame yet?  Not yet.
Do they understand how this distinction can impact our feelings of self-worth?  Probably not.

It's such a small, but important distinction.  You're always good!  Just work on those choices.