Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Time and my writing program

Long ago I remember reading an essay in Time magazine that said time would be the luxury of the future.  And since I never seem to have enough time, I have often thought about this.  I was just flipping through a couple of teaching writing books and moaning about my writing program.  I have always loved teaching and facilitating creative writing.  At least from the time I spent one summer in New Hampshire at a writing course for teachers begun by the amazing Donald Graves.  It was definitely a game changing experience.  I started a new job that September as a Learning Assistance Centre teacher and my program centered on writing and I ended up teaching creative writing in a couple of classrooms on a regular basis as well as making guest appearances in others.  My remedial students learned to love writing and their reading improved as well.  Students in the regular classrooms absolutely amazed me with their creativity.  One highlight was a visit with famous Canadian poet, P. K. Page, who had written her first children's book, A Flask of Sea Water, and when she heard the students were writing quests she asked that we short list them and send them to her and she gave the "winners' copies of her book and some great feedback.  What an amazing lady!  I often connected my writing "lessons" to wonderful picture books that gave us all inspiration.  I spent seven years doing Learning Assistance at two different schools and writing always was at the core of my program.  Also during that time I began teaching at Simon Fraser in the Education Department reading and language arts methods courses.  And writing became an important element in these courses as well.  I began each course with the students doing a piece of writing of their choosing.  It was a fabulous way to get to know them and also for them to become aware of the power of writing, especially if you had never seen yourself as a writer.
The next 11 years I spent teaching mainly grade six at the same South Vancouver school. But of course I didn't just teach reading and writing, there were all the other subjects, as well as all the other duties of being a regular class teacher, but writing still was an important part of my program, and I generally did creative writing with a grade seven class as well.
Then I moved into a district position where my job was to help other teachers with their writing programs.  It was a great learning experience for me as well, learning about the six traits of writing, and bringing that piece into the equation.  I also still got to spend time in classrooms, especially bringing the oral piece into writing.  Several classes enjoyed being involved in "poetry slams".
And then once again I went back to my "own" classroom.  I often was glad I had all those files of ideas!  And writing in my room occurs every day in different ways, but today as I glanced at my books, and last week when I was at our Literacy Day and chaired sessions given by Lori Jamison and Adrienne Gear, I certainly was finding many "holes" in my writing program.
What am I noticing?  Most of my girls write passionately!  They love to read and write.  My boys generally like to read, but probably not as much, and their writing to me needs some elaboration.  There aren't many what Adrienne calls "triple scoop" words!  I know it may be time for some poetry!  Poetry always improves word choice!
The classroom teacher juggles many balls.  Currently we are in the midst of Ancient Egypt projects!  And then there are Science review and learning about how to find the area of a circle.  Occasionally I seem to work in some French and I am trying to look at some new Ipad apps.
Time, time and yes, I have marking!  I always have marking!  But tomorrow I am going to find time to let them really enjoy their writing and their results.

(First picture from a report, a sample they wrote about author, Melanie Jackson's visit.
The second, is taken when my students were writing with their grade one buddies about going skating)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Looking back at December

I got busy in December and didn't blog here.  I have been doing a bit of catching up as you can see.  One question that one asks when one has a blog is why?  Is it worth the effort?  Why am I doing this?  When I first created this, I wanted to learn how to blog and it provided a more efficient way to convey information I thought in my work as a later literacy consultant (grades four to twelve) to those with whom I worked, rather than endless e-mails.  It became a place to keep track of my reading and my experimenting as well. 
It changed as I moved back into the world of full time teaching and since I was a grade seven homeroom teacher for the first time at a new school, again it reflected my learning.  And I am just one of those people who if I go to the work of learning, am happy to share, for what it is worth.  I also found it was a great way to keep a record of that learning (and may I note, often constant re-learning). 
Along the way I also started a blog for my class where I tried to keep a picture journal of our learning adventure as well.  And I get behind with that as well.  I sometimes just forget to take pictures.  I also created a moodle site for the class, a moodle site that totally crashed this year (no fault of mine I swear) and had to start all over this year where I post assignments and links and the class can comment, ask questions etc.  And yes, sometimes it all seems a bit much.  So one of the other sites may slip or slide, but that's okay, we are human. 
Because I don't just teaching reading, the scope of what late literacy may mean got a bit wider.  I have had to teach science again, learn about the Ancient World, get my head around grade seven math etc.  And because I could have technically have retired while I was still a consultant (if not on full pension) I have known that this stint teaching wasn't going to be a long one, I think I have truly valued it more.  I used to wonder why people didn't retire when they could but I have understood that now. 
Teaching doesn't pay well as a profession and often seems to be the least respected, but there is magic. 
I look back over the last term and it wasn't always an easy term nor an easy class but there has been magic.  Maybe it was appropriate that our last field trip just before the break was to see The Wizard of Oz.  
I love Carousel Theatre productions and this was no exception.  The kids particularly loved the Munchkins who walked on their knees. 
So many fun memories the last week.  Our primaries did a musical and of course who can resist those real munchkins? And as is typical of my school, all the intermediate teachers were there to help the night of the concert without being asked.  My class sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity so that they sold hot chocolate and chai and snacks to the adult attendees at both the afternoon and evening performances, making almost 100 dollars to donate to the food bank. 
This class has raised about 1100 dollars this fall for a variety of charities plus participating in the Me to We penny drive and a couple of food bank donation rounds. 
We have continued reading aloud the amazing book, Almost Home, by Joan Bauer, about a girl who becomes homeless but always maintains gratitude and generosity of spirit and I think Sugar has truly inspired the class.
They also did amazing cut paper video stories on the ipads with Videolicious, thanks to our great teacher -librarian/art teacher!
And as always time with our buddies was really special, exchanging cards and small presents.  And I don't think any of us will forget Harjot's baking cookies in "his" cafe.  We did have one mishap with Dwayne getting injured walking one small dog.
Looking back at 2012, I thought, "What did I accomplish or how was I different than I was at the beginning of the year other than older? Well I sure know a great deal more Spanish than I did before thanks to a trip to Spain and the completion of Spanish One at Langara.  And I walked 111 kilometres at the end of the El Camino and have a certificate to prove it.
Someone asked me recently if I was changed or had great revelations doing the El Camino.  And I had to say no, not really although it was meditative walking like that, and some of it was hard, some of it was easy, and there were few flat surfaces and an awful lot of ups and downs, a great deal of beauty, and times when I could hardly see at all due to rain, but there was  a feeling of great companionship, and it was deeply satisfying.  And you know, teaching seventh grade has many similarities to walking the El Camino except no certificate at the end of course!!! 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

When Pigasso met Mootisse

If you do read this blog regularly, you know that I was quite thrilled when my wonderful teacher/librarian offered to teach my art.  Somehow I love art but necessarily teaching it!

Before school began I went to the Matisse exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery so that I thought I could use this as inspiration to begin the year.  I happily gave Allison my nice book on children's art and Matisse.  (Sorry the book is at school).  Anyway my class has really enjoyed doing art with Allison and they have done some great work.  When she started a unit on Picasso it reminded me of one of my favorite picture books by one of my favorite picture book artists, When Pigasso met Mootisse, by Nina Laden.  I have always loved her books and having had the opportunity to hear her speak at an International Reading Association conference, and discovering she lived in the Seattle area, I was able to invite her to a couple of the Young Writers' Workshops our reading association used to host at the Vancouver Public Library for families.  Not only is she a wonderful artist and writer, she is also a lovely person.

Needless to say my class loved the book as much as I did.  I also was able to give them some other interesting links about the real relationship between Picasso and Matisse.  This was an excellent link with lots of information.  This is an interesting video interview about the exhibit of the two at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  Now if you feel inspired to do some art teaching I also found this good link as I was trying to find the name of the book that I lent to Allison about Matisse.  And the book is Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors: Masterpieces from the Late Years by Olivier Berggruen and Max Hollein.

My class did response booklets on the book and I am currently wondering what I have done with them!   I think they may be tucked away somewhere at school because they were so neat and thoughtful, I really wanted to send them to Nina.  As you can see their covers reflect the style of their favorite artist.  I have to say the class was quite evenly divided on their preferences about the artists.  The book also reminded them of another picture book we had studied, Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, a book with characters who are animals based on famous people.

I continue to be amazed by the power of picture books.  And I am also convinced that some of my talented students may be picture book authors and illustrators themselves one day!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Revisiting Lit Circles Once Again

This is a post I started some time ago and am finally getting back to it.
One thing that has been hitting me each week has been our lit circles.  I have worked with lit circles for many years and even done workshops about them but to me they have both a magic and elusive quality to them.
Teaching at SFU many years ago, I had my university students do lit circles and share their reading with each other.  For many, it was the favorite part of the class, and when they saw the joy of reading and sharing books with each other, I knew that this would become a part of their classroom teaching as they could see its power.
I have always been a strong believer in lit circles but honestly they aren't always easy to execute. At one point I gave up having groups read the same books because everyone seemed to need a different amount of time to finish their reading.  I also had trouble monitoring all the groups.  Then I decided to just have them share whatever they were reading in lit circles, doing this once a week, after I had "trained" them.  This seemed to work well.  I still often bought several copies of books as I found the kids liked to read what their friends were reading.  I would also have a class novel going as well where I would do more direct teaching.

After four years at the school board, I came back to teaching and didn't initially do lit circles until the seventh graders kind of demanded them, having done them in sixth grade.  I chose to use strategies picked up from Faye Brownlie's book, Grand Conversations.  If someone finished the book earlier than the others they could move to another book and circle.  I think I was doing this when the sixth graders were doing something with our teacher librarian.  I kept all my sixth graders for the second year and they do were eager to do lit circles.  This time we were just heading into unit on Ancient Egypt and I managed to have an assortment of books on Ancient Egypt.  Some kids finished six in six weeks and others two but that was okay.  Then we moved into an assortment of contemporary novels. 

Last year I again had a six/seven split so I believe I did lit circles with the seventh graders.  I honestly can't remember much about it!  But this year I asked our teacher/librarian to do a novel study with my ESL/LAC students and decided to do lit circles again with the rest of the class.  I chose novels that went with our theme of struggling children like our class read aloud, Almost Home.  The kids chose their novels and just got to work on their own like magic.  Strange but true!  One interesting thing they seem to love taking turns and reading aloud.  Also strangely the groups have stayed together.  One group has only read a couple of books and another has read at least six books!  The group that has only read two books has avid readers who are reading other books as well. 

The lit circles meet once a week and set their reading goal for the coming week.  They are to write a response to share with the group when they meet.  I have group evaluation forms to help keep them on track and some guiding questions. 
As usual I have had other surprises,  reluctant at first, my all boys' group started reading Stargirl and found themselves, much to their surprise, loving it.  I had to go order copies of the sequel, Love, for them. 

I have really been pretty hands off in my approach.  I occasionally join the groups but they have been really quite goal oriented.  I think Lit Circles are another great way of encouraging reading. 

My ESL/LAC group has loved doing a novel study in the library.  They have used a favorite book of mine, After Peaches, by Michelle Muldar that touches on the working conditions of migrant workers in BC.  It is about a girl and her family who are refugees from Mexico.