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Best laid plans.

We broke rain records this year, no small feat considering the Seattle area maintains a well-deserved reputation of one of the soggiest places around. Drizzles, downpours, drenching or dollops–no matter the size of the drop, it’s wet. Personally, my older son and I share the love of the gray, goopy clouds. Whenever I think of our rain, inevitably Tom Robbins’ thoughts on rain come to mind. (Some works of fiction stain a lifetime.)

“And then the rains came. They came down from the hills and up from the sound. And it rained a sickness. And it rained a fear. And it rained an odor. And it rained a murder. And it rained dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Rain poured for days, unceasing. Flooding occurred. The wells filled with reptiles. The basements filled with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics roamed the dripping peninsulas. Moisture gleamed on the beak of the raven. Ancient Shaman’s rained from their homes in dead tree trunks, clacked their clamshell teeth in the drowned doorways of forests. Rain hissed on the freeway. It hissed at the prows of fishing boats. It ate the old warpaths, spilled the huckleberries, ran into the ditches. Soaking. Spreading. Penetrating. And it rained an omen. And it rained a poison. And it rained a pigment. And it rained a seizure.”
Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

Imagine the first clear, bright May day. A day after two days’ of testing. More days of testing to come. A moment in time–brief and elusive, but there. When we went outside for zombie tag, students felt so free they asked me to go outside again. Knowing I had hit on a currency I could use to all of our advantages, sure. In years past, we’ve gone outside for a Writing ‘rally,’ or as dubbed this year, a Walk’N’Write.

Here’s how it is supposed to work:

Students grab their composition notebooks, something to write with, a writing prompt slip (printed out and cut into strips). The ground rules are laid out clearly on the board, and repeated:

  1. Do not in any way cause any disruption. I don’t want to see my name in an email, hear from other staff members, see a passive-aggressive post on Facebook, be mentioned in ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. Some student asked in disbelief if other teachers put other teachers “on blast” — yes, sadly. They do.
  2. Stay within earshot: I must be able to see you in the courtyard or the small field at all times.
  3. Try the prompts. Move after around ten minutes.
  4. They were allowed to take their cell phones if they wanted to take photo notes.
  5. Be prepared for an exit ticket (writing a reflection or expanding on an idea).

And, by golly, the majority of students did exactly all of these. They knew that the reason they were going outside was because they were so awesome during the zombie unit, and they earned trust to go outside again. 

Here’s how it worked:

During the first class, one student found some chalk, and one drew a penis on the ground. I don’t know who it was, and I didn’t have anything to clean it up or didn’t think quick enough to grab a cup of water and wash it away. I saw it at the end of the time outside. Middle school students draw graffiti, and genitalia is one of their common art forms. Like cave paintings of beasts and hunts, their choice of symbolism and pictographs trend toward the representation of middle school angst and Maslow’s lowest levels of the hierarchy. Watch ‘Superbad’ if you don’t believe me.

The second misstep was in not confiscating the chalk. From what I saw, there was a small piece of it, I didn’t know where it came from, and moved on. I wish I had thrown it away because other students found it and drew more…things. Pentagrams. Hearts. Butterflies. Initials. And yes, from what admin told me, more genitals. I received an email rightly advising me to make sure students did not do this in the future. But I am still not clear whose students drew all of the drawings.

So now I’m left with the unenviable task of telling my students what happened and consequences. That they have to keep themselves in check, or we can’t go outside again. Some of my fourth-period students waved in other teachers’ classrooms, and when I reminded them that that was a disruption, one argumentative young man justified it by saying the other student waved first.

Sigh.

However, there was far more positive than not. Students wrote. The noticed details, the trash, the good, ugly, and emotions tied with their surroundings. They struggled and grappled with worldly metaphors. Many saw the courtyard with new eyes. They looked up from their phones or used them to take pictures for later writing. They enjoyed the sun on their faces and breathed fresh air. It gave them one of the most important strategies for creativity: look up.

 

Just…

 

…look up.

 

PS If you look closely at the picture, there is a big white square of chalk. Someone drew over the drawing. They had better things to draw.

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Series: Elements of Structure Part 2: Shock and Awe

Part 2 of the Elements of Structure Series

When I clicked on this link this morning, I did not know who the producers were. I had no idea about bias, message, or author’s purpose. I just sat and watched it, thinking it a sweet narrative.

Normally I’m not so blinded by the surprise, the hidden but the overarching message. I didn’t think I was susceptible to misdirection: why? Because I know what it means–how can we be tricked when we invented the magic?

But I was, and the effect was devastating.

No spoilers here. I’ll allow you the same effect–would love to hear your comments, though.

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Series: Elements of Structure Part I: Effect

the-story-coaster-grant-snider

As we weave in the CCSS into our instruction, create engaging work, etc. it’s my nature to dive deeply into the subject area–to me, that’s what great teachers do, even if they know a subject intimately. It’s the artist in me: there’s always more to observe and try. With that in mind, I am writing a series on structure, craft, and style.

The first idea I want to share comes courtesy of my intelligent and wonderful colleague, Tami Gores. She and I are both working with coaches, and also have a common ground understanding of my friend and mentor, Holly Stein. (I mention this because it’s refreshing to work with someone who understands me, and I hope she feels the same. In this world, having any shared history with a colleague is a gift.)

She is the Queen of Co-Constructed Anchor Charts. The first ah-ha moment she provided me was the idea of how structure influences effect:

Courtesy of Tami Gores
Courtesy of Tami Gores

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We ELA teachers understand the rudimentary plot diagram:

From Chalkboxtales.blogspot
From Chalkboxtales.blogspot

But structure is so, so much more than this. This is the little engine that could, and while important to teach, it’s a place to start. This series will explore these ideas. With Tami’s help, and working with other ELA folks in my building, I’m sure we’ll come up with wonderful shared instruction for our students that’s relevant and empowering.

To me — there are few things more empowering that understanding another’s story. Stay tuned.

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National Writing Day: October 20

Post from the NCTE about National Writing Day on October 20, the question being, just what am I doing on National Writing Day?! 

Um, gee, I don’t know! Not sure where writing fits in with the reading skills focus our district has taken. Intended to be transferable, skills hold the place of being the ‘how to learn’ idea. They are the workhorses of education: many educators feel once a skill is taught, it can be liberally applied to cure any ill. Alas, they are not a panacea, but the good intentions are there. If skills are too much the focus, they become the leech or bleeding, and knowledge building misdiagnoses may occur. Point being: many good ELA teachers are confused by a skills-only focus. But that’s a conversation for another time.

One thing I can focus on with students is the ability to write comments. Found this video in my edublogs feed:

If third-grade students can figure out how to be nice to one another, then it is my hope that we can learn how to again, as well. Maybe on October 20 we can have a classroom discussion on what comments do to us emotionally and psychologically. Stay tuned.

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The Case of Kelly’s Curious Curation

Note: Here is the challenge: take one hour on a Saturday or Sunday and curate your own list of three things you could make into a mini-unit, writing prompt, etc. 

IMG_1215 (1)
Simon Warmers

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!” – Lewis Carroll

How many times in a school year do students hear the word ‘authentic’ but have no idea of what that means? My sense is that I’ve said it myself in a somewhat precious tone, and I catch myself because it sounds a tad pretentious. In fact, I could probably erase that word from my pedagogical discourse and we’d all be better for it, at least until we get our sea-legs with writing. Maybe it’s the Glenda the Witch approach: you had the power all along, my dears, and you’re writers! But I tell them they are writers from the get-go, and attempt to give context to authenticity.

So just what is authenticity?

It’s important to remember writing and reading are not in competition in a zero-sum game. Authenticity grows from every source: lies, truth, and the devil in the details in between. Our continuum of existence demands a story. How our parents met, and what legacies we leave after we’re gone. Our ancestry, and our ‘wishful thinking’ as we explore our singular and collective identities.

Authenticity lives at the highest source of Blooms: Creativity. We hear something, see something, use our senses and ideas, and then it is our job as teachers and parents to guide our children towards creating something new out of the world’s gifts. We provide the guiding thoughts so students can find their own. It can be a phrase or an idea that we hear, and then we ask the powerful question, “What if?”

trapped

This morning a McSweeney’s article had me laughing, the concept of “What if” Lovecraft was a substitute teacher at a junior high school? I know of Lovecraft’s writing, but have never read his work. (I should, maybe I will, but….the cultural references and allusions feel like ‘enough.’ Just like not actually reading Shelley’s Frankenstein feels shallow but ‘enough.’) So if I were to use a writer unknown to students, a little background knowledge would be in order. But that’s doable, and certainly not impossible.

H.P. LOVECRAFT’S FIRST DAY AS A SUBSTITUTE TEACHER AT ARKHAM JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL

I take this idea, and then think about how I could apply it to writing prompts for students. What am I actually asking? I’m asking them to think about things a different way, with my core value belief that everyone can be creative, if you just show them how.

Another example is I was listening to this podcast this morning, and a dozen ideas popped in my mind –ways I could use this grand information for discussions about argumentative writing, reading, memes, digital citizenship, and human history/sociology. And ultimately, is everything or nothing a lie? 

My next is this:

In San Lorenzo, California, on May 5, 1942. The last laundry drying in the sun before the mass removal of Japanese Americans during World War II. Famed Dust Bowl photographer Dorothea Lange documented the process of internment for the federal government.

Credit: Dorothea Lange/War Relocation Authority

What stories can be told from an object?

From PRI - Dorothea Lange
From PRI – Dorothea Lange

Quick videos provide deconstruction of RAFTS:

Pinterest Board of Writing Image Prompts

Quick RAFTS overview:

Parallel Story Telling:

 

 

Now clearly this is very much from a narrative perspective. If you’re looking for non-fiction resources, NewsELA, Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week,  Smithsonian, and Actively Learn (all genres) are reliable and inspiring resources.

I would rather use ‘real’ things to inspire than prescriptive formats, (which are not all bad–they give a place to start.)

Tanbar, Australia Google Earth View
Tanbar, Australia Google Earth View

Here is a series on making learning visible — the students look a little uncomfortable, but I’m going to take the big ideas and make them my own, and more importantly, my students’ own.

Does this video inspire or is it a buzzkill for creativity or authenticity?

Contrasts and Contradictions in Nonfiction – Video Exemplar Lesson – Thinking Made Visible Series from HISD Professional Support & Deve on Vimeo.