At our annual conference last weekend with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, we asked teachers to reflect on what impact the WMWP has had on their professional and personal lives. Here are some of the responses, which demonstrate the power of being connected to a strong network of teachers and colleagues who value not only writing, but also all aspects of teaching, and who reach out to support and encourage others in the WMWP network.
My National Writing Project friends Gail Desler and Natalie Bernasconi have given the first of a handful of keynote presentations for this year’s K12 Online Conference, and it is such a wonderful and insightful, and important, look at the need and imperative of teaching all students the merits of digital citizenship and digital footprints.
If you are not moving into this content area with your students, you probably should. And Gail and Natalie give a great overview, with examples, and a path forward. Check out their Digital ID Project presentation.
Since the National Day on Writing, a number of students from other grades have come into our classroom to add their own sticky notes about “what we write” to our classroom mural. So, I updated the video and stretched it out a bit (and fixed a nagging missing letter that Animoto dropped off on me). The photo above shows what the huge WRITE looks like now, and just in time for parent-teacher conferences, too.
Talk about the right book at the right time. Christopher Lehman’sEnergizing Research Reading & Writing dropped on my doorstep just days before I began launching into the start-of-the-year research project with my sixth grade students, and I feel as if I have had Lehman by my side just about every step of the way. Written in an engaging tone, and very teacher-friendly format, this overview of how to think anew about the benefits of research projects (and how to consider research through the Common Core focus) has so much good advice, it is difficult to know where to begin.
From the opening chapter that puts our ideas about research projects in perspective (particularly the way that technology and Internet access has reshaped the ways in which students find information) to helping students narrow down topic choices, considering and using sources without the “plagiarism” effect, the benefits of graphic organizers (or not), and the need to balance short-term research with long-term projects to develop skills.
I highly recommend Energizing Research Reading & Writing as a resource for any classroom that has research in its future (which, if you are a Common Core state is just about every upper elementary classroom through high school). I’ve already been sharing out some of the many charts that Lehman pulls together around the main ideas, in which he helpfully shares teaching strategies and ideas to differential the research instruction for a variety of students, and makes direct connections to content-area classroom research, too.
I was lucky to be invited to chat with some friends about the nature of writing, in celebration of the National Day on Writing last week. Steve Moore and Scot Squires host a new website called Write on Through, and they invited myself and Betty Raye (of Edutopia) to talk about writing, the teaching of writing and our own writing. Through some strange tech quirk, Scot and Steve (a friend via the National Writing Project) never got their voices recorded, so you have to use a little inference to their questions. But they mixed it as best as they could and I think Betty and I come across as fervent believers in the power of writing.
I got so completely and utterly sucked into this debut novel by Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists fame) that I didn’t want to stop reading. Gosh darn it, life got in the way. But I snuck my moments here and there, and when I was done with the story, I wished I had read Wildwood out loud to my son, and I still yet may do that (when we get through Rick Riordan’s Mark of Athena.) In Wildwood, Meloy has created a convincing and imaginative world of the Impassible Wilderness where adventure lies in store for our young heroes, Prue and Curtis. Prue’s baby brother has been kidnapped by a murder of crows, and she must go off to save him. Thus begins an adventure of a lifetime in a world not too far removed from our own, and yet magically distant from our own experiences.
I won’t give much away except to say that the book works as a pace perfect for read-aloud – with lots of action and adventure, and female protagonist in Prue that will connect to girls and boys. There’s much to love in this book. As soon as I ended Wildwood, with one of the characters remaining behind as the others returned to the regular world, I was on my Barnes and Noble account, calling up the second book: Under Wildwood, and placing an order. And I can’t wait to see what happens in that story.
My blog title is a little misleading. We haven’t yet tweeted these out via our classroom Twitter account, but we will be doing that next week. (Here is our Twitter account: https://twitter.com/norristigers)
On Friday, as we started nearing the ending phase of a student research project around an inquiry theme of their choosing that has been underway for the past two weeks, I had them do some reflection on how things have been going. One of their tasks was to write a summary of their project — in less than 15 words. This gave me an opportunity to talk again about summary writing, about focusing on the center of a piece of writing without the extraneous material and thinking that comes along with it, about synthesizing an idea to its core. It’s also the perfect Tweet-sized blast of an idea, right?
Some students really struggled with this (I set it up with 15 boxes and the instructions were to use only those boxes — one per word — and no more. It could be less than 15 words, however). Others found the confines of word liberating, in a way. It’s funny how different activities bring out various strengths and weaknesses in them as writers.
Here are some of the research sentences summaries that students wrote:
“Fast food should be healthy food in the United States.” — Shea
“Solar-powered cars will help the world if we invest in them.” — Ryan
“Marine animals have been driven out of their homes due to high mercury levels.” — Isaac
“More recess means more activities and less obese people because they get more exercise.” — David
“Ethanol is efficient but it would decimate our food supply and farmers could go bankrupt.” — Andrew
“Overfishing is a driving pressure that has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems.” — Nick
“Health care costs too much for people to afford.” — Colin
“Gas prices in America and China are too high and we need to lower them.” — Greg
I think they did a pretty good job and their papers and research inquiries are coming along nicely (if slowly).
Bill Zimmerman, whose Make Beliefs Comix site is a great place for students to begin to learn how to make web comics, has just put out a book called Laptop Letters. Zimmerman, whose aim is always to strengthen literacy, has assembled many of his comic-based writing prompts into one collection for parents as a way to encourage them to write to their own children. This is a great idea worth considering, as a parent and as a teacher connecting with parents.
And the book is offered up as a free ebook, too, from Zimmerman (although I think it might be even more valuable as a real, paper book where you could use the prompts and visuals a little easier.) Throughout the book, Zimmerman (with illustrator Tom Bloom) offers advice for how to write letters from parents to children, on themes of memories and experiences and shared hopes and dreams. There is a certain spiritual element to some of the prompts, but mostly, they are centered around sending forth a message of caring and compassion and thoughtfulness.
What’s fascinating is how Zimmerman is trying to frame the letters from a technology standpoint, noting that parents should find ways to reach their children through communication means that the children will read. In the introduction, he notes that while some bemoan the lack of traditional letter writing, many of us (adults and children) now use email and text messaging throughout the day, and why not use that medium to send words of love and support and wisdom to our kids?
I was wondering what my older boys would say if I started writing them stories via their cell phones. Would I be invading their space? Would they write back? We certainly have our struggles with our oldest son around communication. I guess I am not sure what the impact would be if I used some of the prompts here. And while Zimmerman notes that the power of these laptop letters is in the sharing of words and wisdom that last as family memories, there is such a temporary effect with text messages. Nothing gets saved beyond a moment of time. It had me wondering if texting is the medium for these literacy moments.
Still, one can’t argue that any suggestions for strengthening the bonds between parents and kids, particularly during this age where technology seems to cut off some of those interactions, is a good idea and one worth advocating. Zimmerman has provided a path for those kind of connections in Laptop Letters with some wonderful prompts to consider and starting points from which to begin.
Campfire Books has been putting out an increasingly interesting array of graphic novels lately that deal with mythology in various cultures, and this one by writer Ryan Foley and illustrator Jayakrishnan K. P. is the dense, but fascinating, tale of the origin myths behind the Gods of Olympus. Zeus and the Rise of the Olympianstracks the myth of the creation of the world, and resonates with the theme of the “son overtaking the father” that comes into play in so many Greek stories. The graphic novel — which is gorgeously drawn and inked and really captures the sense of being in a world of gods — explains the story of the rise of Cronus over Ouranous, and then the rise of Zeus over Cronus, and the birth of the Golden Age.
Like many, I know the story, but I think I have known the simplified story. Here, Foley brings other details into focus and, using the technique of a Greek teacher recounting the story to her students, lets us know that much of the story is still shrouded in the mystery of the gods. We have to accept, for example, that Cronus swallows his children but they don’t die (and grow in his being to become the Olympians). Even the hero of the story, Zeus (looking like some powerful super hero of DC comics), and the villain, Cronus, are complicated creatures, with strengths and insecurities brought to the surface by this book’s story.
Some years, I teach The Lightning Thief as a novel, and I have a stack of Greek Mythology books ready as additional resources. This graphic novel will surely join the pack, and while it may be a bit tricky for the casual reader (the text is sort of dense for a graphic novel), I can see some of my stronger readers with high interest in mythology eating it up (and hopefully, not spitting it out, as Cronus did).