Awwwwwwwwwww Yeah

Two words: snow.day.

One more: happiness.

Okay, four more: slept.till.ten.o'clock.


Exactly How I Feel

“What was once educationally significant, but difficult to measure, has been replaced by what is insignificant and easy to measure. So now we test how well we have taught what we do not value.”
Arthur L. Costa

Thanks to the ladies at Two Writing Teachers from bringing this to my attention.


I'm Focused, Man or Notes from a Novice

I know it's been like a wasteland around here lately. I've been so consumed with work! These last couple weeks have been unendingly busy. We've been writing our short stories and I've been gearing up for a unit on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas/Holocaust/injustice/inhumanity/etc. . . don't worry, the essential questions are much clearer than the unit title(s?) . Here they are, please provide feedback:

1. How do our family and our social background shape our values, beliefs and perceptions?

2. If one knows of evil, inhumanity or injustice and does nothing to stop it, is one complicit in it?

3. How can power isolate and dehumanize those who possess it?

4. What does it mean to be a true friend?

Because of the nature of my position at this time, or rather the nature of the positions of others, I made these up myself without dialoguing with a single soul besides mom (thanks, mom) so please provide any thoughts you might have about them--constructive criticism is very welcome.

I'm so excited about question number three. Paulo Freire, a.k.a. my hero, wrote that when people who are oppressed resist their oppressor, it is in fact an act of love--they are in fact making the oppressor more human. So that must mean that somewhere along the way, the oppressor became less human. Certainly when people yield power to oppress others, they are dehumanized by their own actions and by the thought processes (or lack thereof?) that drive the actions. Bruno's father in the book is certainly isolated and in some ways can be seen as dehumanized--one instance of his dehumanization is when he tells Bruno that the people on the other side of the fence aren't people at all. One would, in my book, simply have to be dehumanized in order to make a statement like that.

Essential question two relates to the complicity of Bruno's mother and grandfather in the persecution of the Jews. I want to touch on the grandmother's resistance to her son's position and the fact that it didn't really matter because she was not only a female but an old one and so had no power in the Nazi society. This also raises the question of whether Bruno's mother's resistance, had she resisted, could have possibly even mattered or changed a thing. It's a tangled, nuanced web. . . and one that needs to be explored.

I'm so-so on question four. The friendship theme needs to be touched on. . . I don't want to be discouraging, but I really want to get to the heart of the matter and ask the students whether or not two people can really be true friends when one is of the oppressor group and the other of the oppressed. I'm afraid the answers we will come to will either be too simplistic or too depressing. . . and I'm also unsure of whether I'm asking the right question at all. When it comes down to it, Bruno, I believe, can't really be Shmuel's real friend. He betrays Shmuel when he tells a soldier that he had never seen him before. He is arrogant and insensitive and doesn't listen to Shmuel or try to empathize with his sorrows. And whether you are 9 or 90, that's just not being a good friend. But then we have the ending. . . so I'm just not sure. Maybe the question I have is just broad enough, anyhow. Or maybe not.

In other news. . .

We also began our PERSONAL SPELLING LISTS! Our weekly word studies now consist of our own 5 words. Everyone's words are different according to their individual spelling needs. It's based off of Atwell's program, which is adapted from Rebecca Sitton's process though without the class-wide lists. And I'm committing to doing at least 4 words a week, too. The kids are so pumped about it. I talked for a while about how the purpose of the program switch was to align what I am teaching with their needs, that it's my job to meet their needs, that I'm going to teach them how to learn these words, and on and on and on and I think they got it. My once-believed brilliant Word Study of the past, comprised of 5 words that centered on a root, was simply not doing it for us--I had way too many consistent C's and even. . . dare I. . . D's and plenty of A's. But no B's and no one getting better. No improvement. So they completely understand that the shift is for them and that it's up to them to put in the amount of work needed to improve as spellers. Almost every single student got 4/5 or 5/5 words correct on their first quiz. Good stuff, folks. Good stuff.


Uncharacteristic, I Know

But I couldn't resist sharing this, from Garance Doré. This look is perfection. And I sorta wish my hair looked like this every day of my life.


Character Development, or, Atwell is My Homegirl

As we were so consumed with The Outsiders. . . and with finishing it before break, writing workshop time decreased. We're kicking into full swing when we come back.

For our Short Story unit, I'm sticking with the pro--Nancie Atwell (you wouldn't have guessed)--and leaning heavily on her craft lessons from Lessons That Change Writers. As a new teacher, I've found Lessons. . . to be one of the best investments if not the single best investment in a teaching resource. I can't think of another source I would rather lean on. Anyhow, We've already done Character Questionnaires and some rudimentary exercises in getting to know our characters--basic physical description via an imitation of a passage from The Outsiders; dialogue-response from character perspective using prompts; explorations of how we would want our characters to act in certain scenarios. In these next couple weeks, we're going to continue to focus heavily on character considerations, closely examine short story structure, play with our leads, add thoughts and feelings, and draft, draft, draft!

We'll be looking at mentor short story texts in order to think about how to accomplish some of craft lessons on which mini-lessons will focus. For my mini-lesson on ways to develop a character, I was thinking carefully about how I could demonstrate the concepts of the lesson without having my students read another whole short story. Of course, the next logical solution came to mind--a children's book. Before I get into which text I chose, below is a condensed and shortened list of Ways to Develop a Character, straight from Lesson #33 in Atwell's Lessons. . . The following categories connect to and parallel the 5 methods of characterization I introduced my students to in order to examine craft in The Outsiders. Basic, perhaps, but helpful and direct nonetheless, the 5 methods are: What a Character Says, Looks Like, Does (Actions), Thinks and What Others Say and Think about the Character.

Here is the Atwell list of Ways to Develop a Character:

-Reflection: Show what your character is thinking and feeling

-Dialogue: Get your character talking as a way to reveal himself or herself

-Actions: Get your character up and moving around, doing things both little and big that show what he or she is like

-Flashback: Recall events from the past that show why your character is behaving as he or she does today

-Reaction: Show how your character responds to actions, words, ideas, of others

-Other Characters: Compare and contrast your character's actions, reactions, beliefs, values with those of others. . .

-Quirks: Imagine the habits, interests, skills, hobbies, goals, fears, tastes and preferences, daydreams, and nightmares that will flesh out your character. . .

-Intimate Setting: Create your character's bedroom and fill it with the stuff of his or her life that reveals parts of the past and present

-Beloved Object or Pet: Give your character something to love that reveals his or her private self. . .

Maybe I should say I thought long and hard about some of my favorite children's book characters. But that would be deceptive, because when I thought about well-developed and dynamic characters, there was one children's book character that sprung to mind immediately. I think you'll agree that she serves as a fine example of a developed character. Behold:

Olivia. Pretentious, curious, brave--brazen maybe--easily annoyed at times, hilariously lovable and loving. Intelligent. Olivia! She's perfect.

We'll be reading the original Olivia and Olivia. . . And the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer in order to facilitate our discussion of how to develop characters in short texts. Of course Olivia doesn't fit each and every category listed on our notes, but the books come pretty damn close and I think Falconer's books will serve as excellent mentor texts for thinking about how to do exactly what Atwell so eloquently recommends: "Don't imagine that you can come back later and scatter some thoughts and feelings, or give your character a sense of humor, a past, a daydream, an attitude, a yearning, a personality, after the fact. Invest right from the start in details of characters: collect a person."

What fun! And don't even think about rolling your eyes. Eighth graders turn into instant second graders when a read-aloud rolls around.

On the back boiler: E.Q.'s for our next class novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Just finished it. Whew. Lots to think about. Lots.


Never Underestimate the Loving: Poetry Friday

A little Neruda is in order, no?

"Ode to Walt Whitman" is too long to include in its entirety. And there aren't any versions online that I could find. You'll just have to savor what's here. . . translation by Greg Simon.

Ode to Walt Whitman

I can't recall my age, or if
I was in the vast streaming South,
or on some forbidding coastline
where seagulls wheeled & cried . . .
But I touched a hand that day,
& it was Walt Whitman's hand.
And barefoot I walk the earth,
I wade through tenacious dew
in the grasslands of Whitman.

Throughout my entire childhood,
my companion was that hand
with dew on it, the timber
of its patriarchal pine,
the expanse of its prairie,
its mission of articulate peace.

And Walt did not disdain
all the gifts of the earth,
the capital's surfeit of curves,
the purple initial of learning,
but taught me to be americano,
& raised my eyes to books,
toward the treasure that we find
inside a kernel of wheat.

. . .

Your voice, that's still singing
in the suburban stations, on
the unloading docks at night . . .
Your word, that's still splashing
like dark water . . .
And your people, black, white,
poor & simple, like all people
still not forgetting
the tolling of your bell . . .

They congregate & sing
beneath the magnitude
of your spacious life.
They walk among the people
with your love. They caress
the pure development
of fraternity on earth.

Lovely, yes?


Cultivating Awareness

I know I haven't talked much about what's been going on in the classroom lately. I've been so consumed with work that blogging about anything but it was ions more appealing for a little while.

We just finished The Outsiders and it was an instructional success! The students absolutely adored the novel, as they always do and always will.

Essential Question creation is a place where I expend a lot of brainpower--and for good reason. It's so. . . er, essential to have solid questions that help students go inside a text and explore with a sense of the issues they will encounter. Good E.Q.'s provide students with a much-needed framework from which to dive into their own interpretations of text. I consulted peers, internet sources and my own understanding of what is important in The Outsiders in crafting our E.Q.'s, and I was fairly content with how most of them worked out--not to suggest that they will not be improved upon in the future.

It was clear to me that the students saw the relevance of the questions to the characters, situations, and themes of the novel and we were able to refer to the E.Q.'s at various points in our discussions of the book. It was also clear that my students understood these questions to be investigations of import that connected to their lives and to reality, not just to words on the page. I went with 4 E.Q.'s, partly because I couldn't help my long-winded self and partly because I wanted to experiment and see if 4 was too many--to see which were frivolous and which were substantive. Please feel free to comment on whether or not the E.Q.'s below fit your definition of what E.Q.'s actually are, as it seems that there are as many definitions as teachers I talk to about it. . .
Ok, so they were:

1. How does the balance of power in society influence justice, fairness and relationships?

2. What factors create prejudice and what can individuals do to overcome it?

3. Why is it difficult to grow up and reflect on our lost innocence?

4. What factors contribute to a person's identity?

Most certainly, #3 was the question that ended up being the least-explored over the duration of our reading. And perhaps with good reason. Sure, my students got the whole "Nothing Gold Can Stay" message. They knew exactly what Cherry meant when she told Pony and Johnny that they were "Not innocent. . . seen too much to be innocent. . . just not dirty." And they sure saw the ways in which all of the Greasers--in their own ways--were forced to grow up quick in order to survive. But that's sorta where we departed from E.Q. 3 and headed into the territory covered by E.Q.'s 1 and 2.

The first and fourth E.Q.'s were by far the most successful. I was so pleased with my students' willingness to go inside issues of privilege and power, especially because they seemed keenly aware of their own place in the spectrum of wealth (the side that has lots of it). I thought it would be difficult for them to look at issues the text raises such as access to health care, legal services and social institutions. Quite to the contrary, I saw them looking at the world from new perspectives, thinking critically about access, social class, and wealth and doing so while consciously grappling with their own places within society.

The E.Q. about identity worked well, I think, because it just responds to their developmentally appropriately self-centered selves. The connections to their lives with that one are endless. They see that Pony and Cherry and Johnny, even Bob the Soc and most of the other important characters in the novel are struggling to in one way or another figure out or preserve who they are or want to be as individuals and in relation to the social whole. They are reacting to and learning about the limitations of the social and economic structures already in place. My students are doing the same each and every waking moment. Man, adolescence is tough.

Once we finished the book, I asked them to return to their Anticipation Guide answers and to think about how the book changed the way they thought about someone or something, or the world. Their most-cited world-view change was a shift in the original belief that gang members and criminals are always bad people. Many now believed that they most certainly were not. A monumental shift? Well, for an 8th grader. . . yeah, it kinda is. Moving from black-and-white determinations of the world--often based in their parents' economic, political, and social identities--to a recognition of an off-putting but nonetheless present grey area is HUGE for this age group. It's a crucial step into young adulthood--beginning to not define people as inherently good or bad but rather as people who make decisions that can then be classified according to the context in which they are made. And maybe they're just changing their minds on paper. Maybe my fervent little pro-death-penalty adolescents are feeding me the line that they already knew society would rather hear. Maybe. . . but that's not the impression I got. And regardless of my relative inexperience in the field, my intuition is pretty damn good.