Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dry Erase Markers

You know what to do with dry erase markers, but I wanted to share a few ways I've found them to be helpful.  

If you have a window in your classroom door, it's a great place to leave a note if your class is being held in another location.   Are you in the library?   The computer lab?   Let your students and colleagues know.   As the library is in a classroom a couple of doors down and the computer lab is on a cart in my room, I haven't needed to use this idea this year.   That's perfect since I don't have a window in my door!

In my new classroom, I've been able to configure the furniture in a way that allows for groups on occasion.   I can write the students' names on the slick desktop, so they know where to sit.   By the end of class, most students have erased their names, and I can write the next set.   I have a cluster of six desks at the back of my room.   It's the perfect spot to differentiate for students in my inclusion class.   When six people have met their reading goals, I can provide time and space for them to play a quiet game of Bananagrams or Scrabble.  

If your desk allows for it, jotting a quick note on top saves paper and time.   Many of us write the note down, lose the note, find the note, lose it again and so on.   Okay, maybe I was just talking about myself.   (These reminders are best written with a fine tip marker.)

You could always write "Please send chocolate" backwards on a window that faces outside of your classroom and see what happens.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Need a gimmick?   Step this way, folks.   Find a one-armed-bandit for your classroom use.   Why would you need such a thing?  

My colleagues shared this idea with me yesterday.   Enter your students' names to create a random way to call on class members to answer questions.  

It's not for everyday use, but it could add that special I-don't-know-what to a simple review exercise.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Hello Malaysia!

The majority of my audience is in the United States.   Malaysian readers currently have the number two slot!   Let's celebrate by talking about Mohammad Nor Khalid.   You can call him Lat.

First published at the ripe old age of 13, Lat is a cartoonist who has chronicled parts of his own life.   The two books that I have been able to get my eyes on are Kampung Boy and Town Boy.   Pen and ink.   Experience and humor.  

Lat's artwork buzzes and flows.   His compositions serve to match the movement or stillness in each scene.   Hang on while you are riding on Mat's handlebars.   Sit in awkward silence as you see Mat's buddies with their faces pressed against the cafe's window as he and Normah have a date.

Town Boy

They are both lovely works of art, but I'm partial to Town Boy.   If you turn to the jukebox scene that starts on page 53, you'll understand why.   

Many of Lat's characters are drawn in a similar style, but he romanticizes Normah and depicts her in a way that speaks to the nature of memory and first love and to the poetic license that empowers a storyteller.

Lat's magic.   You can't help feeling good when you read Town Boy.   Thanks, Malaysia!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Good Stuff Cheap

I'm talkin' 'bout Ollie.   If you have an Ollie's in your neck of the woods, count yourself lucky.   Their website sometimes shouts at you, but be brave see if you are within driving distance of a store.

I just accidentally spent two hours there.   What was first an Apple & Eve juice run, turned into a book buying extravaganza, and the soundtrack didn't help me exit.   Every last song that came over the speakers was a good time.   I finally had to head to the check-out during "Tutti-Frutti," but it's no reflection on the great Little Richard.

Most of Ollie's book collection is hit or miss, but the children's zone is always chock full of awesomeness.   Most days, I don't let myself browse, but I did today.   One of my favorite finds was an illustrated book containing Bob Dylan's lyrics to the song he wrote for his son Jacob, "Forever Young."   There was only one copy left.   Sorry about that!
.Forever Young

Momma Loves Her Little Son
John Carter Cash penned a tribute to his mom called Anchored In Love.  
He now has a children's book called Momma Loves Her Little Son.  
The illustrations are sweet and warm.

Jazz ABZ: An A to Z Collection of Jazz Portraits with Art Print
Jazz was there too.  
Paul Rogers sure knows how to turn music into visual art.

Dracula: A Classic Pop-Up Tale (Graphic Pops)
Pop right on up in here, Count D!

Dracula (Graphic Classics (Barron's Paperback))
Dracula appears in a graphic novel format.  
If you hold this book in front of a mirror,
 illustrated vampires will appear...backwards!

Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Remarkable Revealed
Believe it!

The Crow (A Not-So-Scary Story)
There was also a sweet Poe riff,

Tupelo Rides the Rails   [TUPELO RIDES THE RAILS] [Hardcover]
and a dog who loves to travel,

A Million Dots
and a way to visualize what a million looks like,

Lincoln Tells a Joke: How Laughter Saved the President (and the Country)
and a man in a funny hat.

I like to keep a mess of illustrated "children's" books in my classroom.   A voracious reader myself, I like a break from the black and white of most books written for people my age.   Art tickles a part of my brain that nothing else can reach.   And you will quickly find that some books that look like they are for kindergartners are not meant for them at all.  

Shortish, illustrated books are a relaxing way to build prior knowledge or cultural literacy.   They can also take a complex topic, break off a tiny bite-size piece and present it in an engaging, meaningful way.  

No one's afraid of books that look like they were plucked from a child's toy box...no one.  

Thursday, October 20, 2011

On the top is where you are!

I have to confess that while I love Schoolhouse Rock, the song "Busy Prepositions" irks my nerves.   Don't believe me?   Try it for yourself.

Here's a mini-lesson from Hofstra University's Professor Calitri.   (I found it in the fall 2011 issue of neatoday.)   Draw a figure on the white/chalkboard.   Allow students to throw wadded up balls of masking tape at the figure.   Next, students should describe where the projectiles landed.   On the figure? Beneath the figure? Beside the figure?  

Sounds fun, doesn't it?

This mini-lesson can lead to sentence revisions too.   Sentences loaded with prepositions create a brain tangle for readers.   This can be made obvious by diagramming said sentences on the board.   In addition to "empty words" and unnecessary adverbs, hunting down masses of prepositions can be part of the revision process.   This should be helpful for writers who continually use awkward phrasing and run on sentences.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Are students in your class restless?   I have a few tips for you.  

If children like to tap on the desk, place an upside down mouse pad on their workspace.   This will absorb the sound and allow them to continue.   Another alternative is suggesting that they tap on the top of their thigh.  

If you are able, keep an empty space at the back of your classroom for children who need to simply stretch their legs.   Additionally, having a bookcase or cart in this location allows students to stand up and work for a bit.   I know this sounds like a recipe for disaster, but I've never had a child misuse this option.

If you like to stretch, leading kids in a simple yoga move that I refer to as the "Harold and the Purple Crayon" is beneficial.   You clasp your hands together with your pointer fingers pointing and aim them at the ceiling.   Imagine that you are holding a purple crayon.   Draw circles on the ceiling while keeping your arms next to the sides of your head and swivel at the hips.   Namaste.

If you have a stress ball collection secreted in your desk, share these valuable tools with the fidgeters.

If you have a doodler, allow the art to continue as long as it's not a task-avoidance behavior.

According to neatoday's fall 2011 issue, a teacher and an ergonomic furniture company have collaborated on an adjustable-height desk.   Another teacher used old car tires to make do-it-yourself footrests.   And get this: one North Carolina elementary school has gathered used exercise bikes.   Now students get to "Read and Ride" for 15-minute intervals.  

You're creative!   What will you come up with next?

P.S. Today I learned a new trick from our chorus students.   We tried this in between some standardized testing.   It's a countdown coordination exercise.  

Shake your right hand while counting down 5-4-3-2-1.  
Repeat with your left hand, right foot and left foot.  
Then you count down from 4 and repeat the process.  
Then 3.  
Then 2.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Face the Front

It's library day...the best day of all.   Before school, drop by the shelves for some primping.   From each shelf , choose one book to "face the front."   Pull it from its snug little spot and place it on the empty right side of the same shelf with its cover facing out towards your readers.  

You'd be surprised how difficult the fine art of browsing can be for struggling readers.   Advanced readers love teacher recommendations too.   Everybody wins.

Just any old book?   NO!   Think about your first class of the day and what tantalizes them.   Choose those books first.   As your time in the library is drawing to a close, replace any vacated spots with books that you know have some appeal to the next set of kids you are bringing.   Also, if you have recently done read-alouds in class, include those in the featured books.

This may bother your librarian.   Talk it over first.   If done correctly, this process will make ushering 25+ readers through the stacks easier for both of you.   Keeping the books on their same shelves also gives you, any support staff, and the librarian reference points for sending students to the right bookcase.   For example, flipping Stargirl's bright blue cover around will indicate where the SPI section is as you help students quickly track down books.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It

Kelly Gallagher is a full-time English teacher who writes about the crafts of teaching teens how to read and write.   He's a dynamic speaker.   If you see his name listed among the choices of presenters when you attend your next conference, he's worth your time.

I found a copy of Gallagher's Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It in my principal's office last week.  It's a topic that I've heard him address in a hotel ballroom full of educators.   I've also read parts of his book online and seen him featured in a YouTube video.   Finally, I was able to read his book in its entirety.   You should too.

Gallagher elaborates on finding the sweet spot of reading instruction which lies somewhere between underteaching and overteaching books.   Our primary goal as reading teachers is to develop lifelong readers and critical thinkers.

The 50/50 approach is what works for Gallagher.   His students' reading is split evenly between recreational and academic.   He gives credit for the recreational reading, but he does not "chop it up" with worksheets and quizzes.   This type of reading is independent.   To develop academic readers, Gallagher puts in more supports for the reading.   He makes sure students use fix-up strategies when they become confused.   He creates a purpose for reading.   He activates prior knowledge.   These books may be too difficult for students to read them "recreationally."   Gallagher approaches classic literature by connecting the thinking that the book requires of them to the thinking that the real world needs from them.

You will benefit from his outline of the 50/50 approach, list of books that appeal to reluctant readers, explanation of what good readers and struggling readers do (don't do) while approaching a text...the list goes on and on.   Gallagher is a master teacher.   There are a couple of points that we do not quite agree on.

Gallagher does not have kind words for the Accelerated Reader program, a program I find helpful in aiding my students.   Yes, it can become a nightmare when teachers don't use it the right way.   Also, I think it was designed with a reward system in mind.   For example, when you reach a specific number of points, your teacher or school may reward you with a treat.   With the exception of end-of-year certificates, our school does not operate that way.   The students and I agree on a reading goal based on their independent reading level for their homework credit.   I provide silent reading time in class for them to reach their goals.   They take oven-book multiple choice tests on the book, so I can track what works and does not work for them.   The records are incredibly helpful to me as I can see their likes and dislikes and come up with book recommendations for them based on level, length, and/or topic.   I can also initiate conversations with them about books we've both read.   It's powerful for students to have lists of all of the books that they have read during our school year together.  

Additionally, in 8th grade I have not quite mastered the 50/50 model.   Most of my students, even the advanced ones, do not like reading more than one book at a time.   Many adults I know feel the same way.   In Gallagher's classroom, his students are reading one recreational and one academic book at all times.   This split focus frustrates my 8th graders, especially the ones who read slowly or have memory challenges.   I do occasionally have them use Probst's questions for interacting with texts, writing prompts or graphic organizers as they read.   Even so, I don't think that the amount/type of work I attach to their independent reading would qualify as the "chop up" approach that Gallagher rails against.   In eighth grade, students seem to enjoy telling me all about the book that they chose to read for themselves.   It's identity.

In spite of minor differences in the way that we approach reading instruction, I still believe that Gallagher is telling us the hard truth.   I do not oppose standardized testing in moderation, but some teachers, schools, school systems are losing sight of what it takes to create real readers.   Achieving a level of success on standardized tests and developing critical thinkers with a passion for reading are not mutually exclusive.

What can you do today?   Increase your students' and children's access to books, magazines, comic books, graphic novels...the printed word in general.   Providing a variety of reading material to students is the cornerstone of any effective, authentic reading program.   What changes can you make in your classroom to connect students with high interest reading materials in the weeks ahead?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Somebody Wants But So

One easy way to break down a fictional text is to use the "Somebody Wants But So" approach.   It's less complicated and time consuming than a plot diagram.  

Readers can reduce a story to a character's goals, the plot's complications and the problem's solution.   Even with a simple task, it's a good idea to model the approach using a children's book.  

Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach

Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach works well.  

Spoiler Alert:

Scaredy Squirrel wants to create a private beach, but he'll need to visit a real beach and face his fears to get a seashell.   So he hatches a plan to address all of his worries (sea monsters, pirates, falling coconuts) and get a shell.   He even accidentally enjoys himself when his careful preparations go awry.  

Scaredy Squirrel likes to be in control of his environment and pre-plan for any potential worst case scenario.   Sound like anyone you know? Ahem.   That would be me.

[Which brings me to my next point.   When I was allowed back into the library after the tornado hit, I started hoarding a few books on behalf of my colleagues and our students.   Some of my all-time favorites went into bright orange tubs while the rest of the library was packed into cardboard boxes.   I wanted to know where Captain Underpants, Harold & George and Babymouse were at all times.   They went with me to "night school" last year, to my shed for the summer and to our new campus for the fall.]

Babymouse #1: Queen of the World!

Since we've finished novel studies in class, I thought we'd relax with our heroes today.   Each child read one of the books and summarized the text using Somebody Wants But So.   For most 8th graders, the books can be finished in a blocked class.   If students read at a slower pace, the Babymouse series is shorter than the Underpants.  

To an 8th grader, children's books are non-threatening and provide a platform for teaching new concepts.   Graphic novels often contain humor and plots that speak to the teenage experience.   Babymouse's locker troubles, bad whisker days and mean girl encounters are familiar to 8th graders.   As for Harold and George-- well-- they ARE a little immature sometimes for 8th graders, but I can't help but love their shenanigans, and my students are kind enough to indulge me.

While the majority of our library is still in cardboard boxes, it was nice to look out across the classroom and see everyone relaxed and engaged in a book.   And that makes the Scaredy Squirrel inside me relax too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Magazine Mountain

If you put the word out, most folks are happy to route their used magazines to you for classroom use.   There's really no end to what you can do with them.  

Lean in close for a secret.   No matter what you are using the magazines for, children will find themselves reading the text now and then.   You're encouraging them to browse and scan text, and those are great skills for them to have in their tool bags.   Shhhhh.  

Freshen up your propaganda lessons.

Make cut and paste poetry kits.   As in cut and paste...literally.

Have students create collages.   (conflict, theme, character)

Let thought-provoking images become visual story starters.

Line your desk drawers with beautiful pictures.

Teach students how to make fun envelopes from scratch to jazz up a friendly letter lesson.

Add a visual component to a traditional book report.

Piece together pictures from several pages in a quilted fashion to make wrapping paper.   How about wrapping up a new book with a personalized bookplate to pay tribute to your amazing library staff?

Cut out perfect squares for origami paper.

Think about a lesson you already teach.   How could a magazine add to your lesson plan?  

For example, when I cover "Barbie-Q," by Sandra Cisneros, I have the class assemble dolls that they think should be marketed to children.   They also include accessories.   Students are encouraged to piece together their doll.   They may choose a soccer ball from one page, a head from another, a body from another, and so on.   Students are encouraged to be as creative as possible.   They also write a commercial script for their target audience.

I always preface magazine lessons with an explanation of what we should and should not expect of our custodial staff.   Since it can get a little messy, it's good to remind artists that custodians should not have to clean up every little scrap that we create.   Allowing the last 10 minutes of class for clean-up will usually be sufficient.   And, yes, even though you quickly flip through magazines to rip out age-inappropriate material in the mildest of women's magazines, you will miss something.   Address the issue and move forward.   You know your students best.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Summer Vacation

It's that time of year again!   Are you ready to go back to school?   We're not quite there yet.   I'll tell you about that later.

I thought I should let you in on what I did over the summer break.   The Virginia Department of Education hired me to serve on the Content Review Committee for the 8th grade reading SOL test.   They also paid me to work on the Range Finding Committee for the Virginia Substitute Evaluation Program.   Both groups were filled with dedicated educators with a single desire-- to ensure that we are assessing our children in fair and rigorous ways.  

Do you think that you would like to work for the DOE?   Check the state website every Friday afternoon for Superintendent's Memos.   This is a great information hub for the latest news in Virginia as it pertains to education.   It's not top secret; it's open to the public.
I also enjoyed being a teacher assistant for two weeks at William & Mary's Summer Enrichment Program for the Gifted.   Learning about engineering and chemistry was fun for this English major.   Did I mention that I was not responsible for lesson plans?   I may propose a unit to teach for the summer of 2012, but as for last summer, assisting was just right for me.   I had the good fortune of being paired with Mrs. Carolyn Kendall.   Her hands-on approach to some seriously sticky science was brave and inspiring.   It's always a bonus to see a master teacher at work.   Sure, the chances that I will ever teach chemistry are slim, especially if my high school chemistry teacher gets wind of the plot.   Great teaching is great teaching.   We can always learn lesson-design tips from our colleagues.

Not only is a passion for teaching contagious, so are summer colds.   And, boy, did I catch one.   It felt like the flu and clung to me like nothing I've ever experienced.   If you have stock in Kleenex, you're welcome.   That's all I need to say about that.

I also enjoyed taking on the role of guest teacher at William & Mary's 2011 Eastern Virginia Writing Project.   You didn't miss anything since my main focus was on resources and ideas I've already posted here.

Finally, my last week of freedom included some time with dear friends in the Outer Banks.   Ahhhhh.  

So, yes, I need to get back to work to take a vacation from my vacation.   I have a nice little corner trailer in our temporary modular units.   I have two windows and my own air conditioning unit with a thermostat.   I even have my own phone and extension.  

Although our office staff has worked tirelessly over the summer, they were unable to build over 400 student desks and such.   We are anticipating some NEW furniture by the end of this week.   To tide us over, we were able to scavenge through some items that were salvaged from our school.   I found a chair that students painted for me years ago.   I also eyed an old, old, old oak desk that I hope to get soon.   My pal Willie Thornton let me have one of his wooden bookshelves.   I picked up a few ancient wooden chairs, a wheeled metal cart and one of those cool book-holders librarians' use to exhibit dusty dictionaries in all of their glory.

So far this week has been a whole lot of time spent with cardboard boxes.   And then there was a whole lotta shakin'.   When that earthquake took hold of us yesterday, we were having our first faculty/staff meeting of the year in a teacher's classroom.   Yep, we were in a trailer up on cinder blocks.   It was one wonky ride!   Everyone's fine, but we're looking forward to Irene's departure a.s.a.p.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

All Children Can Learn

Here's a truth that we should carry with us wherever we go.   All children can learn.   It's true.   When we make the mistake of believing that a child cannot learn, for whatever reason, after spending September to June in our classroom, doesn't that say more about us than the child?   It's that simple.  

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chalk Talk

Here's another fun idea that I picked up at the 2009 Eastern Virginia Writing Project.   You will need chalk and a blackboard or dry-erase markers and a white board.   Get ready for peace and quiet.   Yep.

Think of a question or topic.   Write this in the middle of the board.   For example, you may write, "What did you read this summer?"   Students may respond to this question by writing on the board...silently.   The idea is to replicate short conversations on the board in a piggyback web format.   Someone may write the title of a book that someone else also read.   That person may write a comment underneath like, "Me too!   Loved it."   Perhaps the book made it to film.   "Saw the movie on t.v."   "Wish I could have been in that film."

Someone may write down that they read the comics, cereal boxes, closed-captions, cd liner notes, movie reviews, magazines, the sports page, the back of library books...   Hopefully they will also include several on-line sources for news and information.   When it comes to reading, hopefully they will recognize the value of a balanced diet.   There's more to reading than books alone.   Also, it's okay to write negative comments.   You just don't want the conversations to deteriorate into angry rants or personal attacks.   For example, someone may write The Hobbit.   Someone else may write, "Tried it.   Kept falling asleep on page 1."  

For this activity, some students will be self-conscious regarding their spelling abilities.   If you have a classroom computer, you can open up a new word processing document for students to check the spelling of words they are unsure of.   Do your best to encourage mass participation.   Having multiple writing utensils will help because then several students will be writing at the same time.   No one is alone in the spotlight.  

Also, if this is your students' first chalk talk, the first week of school or first period, you may want them to respond to the prompt by first making a list in their journals.   This will help get the ideas flowing before they share them with their peers.

I think it's best to stay out of the way for this activity once it gets rolling.   Just stand at the back of the room and enjoy.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Eastern Virginia Writing Project '11 Presentation

Thanks, EVWP, for inviting me back to teach.   Below is a list of resources that I used today.   Several items have corresponding Blog entries for added information.   Most of these products can be found on Amazon.com.   Laura Robb's publisher is Scholastic if you need to seek out another source.

Thanks also for your patience.   I know I didn't schedule enough time for us to complete all of the writing activities, but hopefully you got a feel for where we were going with the assignments and found something that you can use in your classroom.   Best wishes!

Mad Libs 

Hormone Jungle (Brod Bagert)

by Nancie Atwell

For another activity from this book, see May 31.

What It Is (Lynda Barry)
See June 15.
The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Chris Von Allsburg)
See June 18.
Blue Lipstick: Concrete Poems &
Technically, It's Not My Fault: Concrete Poems (John Grandits)
Eats, Shoots & Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make A Difference (Lynn Truss)
50 Fabulous Discussion-Prompt Cards for Reading Groups (Laura Robb)
See May 9.
Brighten Up Boring Beginnings and Other Quick Writing Lessons (Laura Robb)
See May 9.

Scattergories Die for Headlines. See June 14.
For directions on the Exquisite Corpse activity, see June 26.
For Paint Chip Poetry, see June 19.

An activity that I saw presented at EVWP and used in my classroom can be found in the June 11 entry.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Teens Love Lucy Too

I introduced I Love Lucy to my students for two main reasons.   The words "cultural literacy" buzzed in our county after one particular staff development.   We also needed to contrast our study of dramatic irony in "The Diary of Anne Frank."  

Cultural literacy is the idea that people communicating within a particular society will have a richer experience if they are "in the know" when it comes to allusions that are frequently made during conversations or in print.   For example, within a week of students starting Lord of the Flies, a book that was just days ago out of their consciousness, they usually catch a reference to the classic on television.   Studying Anne Frank has a similar effect.   Now when I introduce Anne to students, many have never heard of her before and are a little steamed when I "ruin the story" for them by revealing that she does not survive the Holocaust.   In no time, they will see a news story that mentions her or a televised show that does the same.   In short, cultural literacy is what we think that everybody knows within a society...like Anne Frank or I Love Lucy.

Dramatic irony occurs when one or more characters do not know something that the audience and other characters do know.   Sometimes only the audience knows the piece of information.   Whether we are reading from the play or the Diary, when Anne makes plans for her future, we get a sinking feeling in our hearts.   She looks forward to letting her children read books by her favorite author; we know that there will be no children for Anne.   Dramatic irony is also what makes us edgy when we watch horror films.   We know what's behind that door.   Don't open it!   We know when our hero is running towards danger, making the tension unbearable.  

Let's talk comic relief though.   Shakespeare knew that we needed it, and he was right.   I'm a fan of classic sitcoms as a regular viewer and as a teacher.   In 22 minutes, you can usually get a light plot line from start to finish.   Depending on the episode, you can focus on just about any literary element you choose.   Most literature books are not known for their rip-roaring humor, so you might simply need a break from a dark mood.   (Give me a second while I come up with a companion piece for "The Tell-Tale Heart.")

The entire series of I Love Lucy is built on dramatic irony.   Think of how many shows are constructed around the premise of Lucy keeping a secret from Ricky.   When "Lucy is Enceinte" begins, we see that Lucy is late in a pregnancy, but we are supposed to go along with her mysterious complaints of feeling "blah" until she gets word from her doctor that she is pregnant.   She wants to tell Ricky the good news privately, just the way she dreamed she would.   Comedy ensues.   Of course, Ricky does not find out that they are expecting until the last three minutes of the show.    All of the laughs stem from Ethel, Fred and the audience knowing something that Ricky does not know.

This is one of the best-loved sitcom episodes of all time.   Sure the Ricardos were characters, but Lucy and Desi were real as was this pregnancy.   You can see the lines of truth and fiction blur when Ricky sings to Lucy in the last scene, and teens respond to that.   After all, it's true love....even without the vampires.   On a side note, the word "pregnant" does not appear in the script.   This episode is a great opportunity to talk about word choice for writers and how purpose, audience and societal expectations can influence craft.

And, yes, my I Love Lucy DVD collection from season two was in my classroom when the storm hit.   Thanks to a generous friend of a friend, Jacqueline Rose, I now have replacements!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Favorite Staff Development

For a while, our school system let teachers pick from a tantalizing menu of staff development opportunities before Labor Day arrived.   Some of the classes were taught by people "on the outside," but my favorite training session was taught by my dear friend and the former art teacher for my school, Mrs. Rachel Oney.

What did we do?   We painted furniture.   Why did I love it?   The process of painting furniture is a stress reliever for me.   It may not be the same for you.   I also have eyes that get hungry for color, so it's good to add something fresh to the classroom now and then.   Learning a new process puts us back in the position of student, and it's always good for teachers to take on that role.   We need to be in touch with what it feels like to take a risk and expand our knowledge.  

The class attracted most of the county's art teachers and me.   We were encouraged to bring a piece of furniture to paint for our classroom.   I chose one of those chunky, old wooden desks-- the kind that's mainly tabletop.   I brought a copy of the book John Lennon's Real Love: The Drawings for Sean.
http://amzn.com/1608870421.   I wanted to mimic Lennon's style and incorporate his self-portrait doodle and a favorite line from his song "Mind Games."   Not being an artist, it was a challenge to reproduce watercolors with acrylics, but I ended up with something I liked.

If you have been following my Blog, you may remember that I mentioned that something from my classroom was retrieved for me by my thoughtful principal.   It was this desk, the one I keep at the front of the room.  

When I heard the news that my school was hit by the tornado, I was at peace immediately with losing everything in my classroom.   I just felt so fortunate that no one was in the building.   Really, what more could you hope for?   Even so, it was this desk that I thought of first.   I was going to miss it.   As an artist friend of mine says, "There's more where that came from."   My mind was already swirling with new ideas.

Figure out a thrift store circuit and hop in a pickup truck.   It's a great way to score affordable wooden bookcases for your home and classroom.  

Also, look for sweet little wooden chairs, tables and rockers  that you can revive for your youngest friends.   Choose a dry day for your project.   Remember, it's always worth prepping and priming before you paint.   Have fun!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day!

If you are a lifelong learner, you'll love this.   On September 24th you and a guest may visit a museum for free!   That's right-- it's Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day.  

First, ask yourself where you will be that Saturday.   Then, follow the link to see which facilities are participating in your area.   There are 40+ museums listed in Virginia alone!  I'll bet there's something good in your neighborhood too.


If you need another excuse to visit D.C. aside from its amazing collections, September 24th falls during the National Book Festival weekend.  
Here's a link to remind yourself how amazing the lineup is this year


Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Daily Spark

"The Daily Spark series gives teachers an easy way to transform downtime into productive time.   The 180 exercises-- one for each day of the school year-- will take students five to ten minutes to complete and can be used at the beginning of class, in the few moments before turning to a new subject, or at the end of class." (from the introduction)

Writing, poetry, journal writing, spelling & grammar, vocabulary, Shakespeare and SAT: English Test Prep!

The Daily Spark is full of possibilities.   For most 8th graders, five to ten minutes will not be enough to complete the writing activities.   That's okay.   Be flexible.   Use the prompts that best fit your students and the time frame that you have.   Some are intriguing enough to transform into longer writing assignments.

Simplify the topics, or add rigor.   I have done a quick browse through the books that I own penciling light circles around the page numbers that would most likely interest my students.

Here's a sample topic from the Writing edition:

Sweltering, Not Hot

Even the best writers rely on obvious words.   Practice mental flexibility by writing a paragraph describing a typical August afternoon without using the words hot, humid, heat or sun.

Please note that the above material is copyrighted by Spark Publishing, but I thought they wouldn't mind if I just gave you a little preview.   You may purchase the book on Amazon http://amzn.com/1411402286

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Enter Writing Contests

Isn't it great when we can broaden our writers' audience?   If we want to nurture passionate writers, it's a good idea to send their writing outside of your classroom from time to time, with their permission.   Owl magazine sponsors a variety of creative contests.   If you are a Virginia high school teacher, check the Superintendent's Memos every Friday for occasional scholarship opportunities.   The local newspaper may run seasonal contests with categories based on age.   The public library may also do the same.

I am fortunate that the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula sponsors an annual Holocaust essay contest for school-age children.   In addition to recognizing winners with a certificate and check, the winners are honored at the annual Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance) ceremony.   The UJC even sends congratulatory letters to students who were picked as finalists.   AND they send the teacher who submits at least a class set of entries free books.   Yes, free books.   Teachers choose from a list of titles.   Those books then become part of your school's library.   If you talk other teachers into participating, with a little patience you can build up a set of Holocaust-themed levelled books.   If you don't see the title that you want, e-mail the sponsors.   They will seriously consider your request. http://www.ujcvp.org/holocaust_ed.php

One year, after we watched the Paper Clips documentary about Whitwell, Tennessee's 8th graders' ongoing Holocaust project, my students wanted to do something special for their school.   Using the Internet, we found out that they were moving into a new building with a new library.   We e-mailed the UJC to see if they would send us a "sampler" of all of the middle school titles instead of a class set for us, so we could donate them to Whitwell Middle School.   They enthusiastically agreed.    We packed them up, decorated the box with watercolor butterflies and paid it forward.   Find out about the paper clip project here http://www.oneclipatatime.org/

And let me tell you this.   After the tornado relocated my classroom to a new school, two members of the UJC stopped by the front office with the books my students earned this year, Han Nolan's If I Should Die Before I Wake.   On the box was a handwritten note wishing us well.   Writing creates communities.

If publication is something that you feel strongly about, get a copy of the latest Writer's Market.   The amount of information in that resource will be more than you could ever need.

Finally, if you ask your students to enter a contest that has an adult writers category, enter!   They will love to see you workshop your piece.   Take it from start to finish in front of them.   Let them give you feedback.  What a great opportunity!
How about dusting off some of your writing skills and entering a current contest?

Here's a helpful site --->   http://www.pw.org/grants

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Real Anne Frank

If you are teaching 8th grade language arts, there's a good chance that Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's two-act play "The Diary of Anne Frank" is in your textbook.   Hello, 1959

Don't get me wrong.   I'm grateful that Goodrich and Hackett dramatized this important primary source, but it could use an overhaul.   Writer Wendy Kesselman thought so too when she published an adaptation of the play in 2000.   She also organized the play into two acts, but she did not further divide the text into scenes.   Having scene breaks makes a play easier to negotiate in a classroom setting.   Additionally, Kesselman opted to get rid of the flashback structure of the previous dramatization.   The adaptation remains truer to Anne's diary and historical facts, but the play still lacks the dynamic nature of Anne's diary.  

In teaching the 1959 version, I find myself interjecting constantly to point out changes that the playwrights made to fit the diary to the stage.   Most of the changes were probably to simplify a comprehensive and complex text for a wider audience.  

The last two scenes frustrate me the most.   Mr. Frank's brief explanation of what took place after the inhabitants of the annex were taken to camps leaves too many questions, and some of the information is simply not in line with historical fact.   Kesselman does a better job explaining what happened to each "character" in her version.  

Additionally, when the Nazi officers enter the annex to force the families out, Kesselman's Anne does not write a final entry in her diary.   What does Anne's real last diary entry look like?   You should share this with your class.   Many of the ideas that run throughout Anne's journals are present in her last letter to Kitty, but it's not the concocted wrap-up in the 1956 play, "And so it seems that our stay here is over.   They are waiting for us now.   They've allowed us five minutes to get our things."   Can you imagine your teenage self writing anything while you are in such a dangerous position?   Anne knew what was happening in the outside world from listening to radio broadcasts.   She was very aware of the horrific possibilities that resulted from their discovery.   She did not write a pat goodbye note to her diary.   Who would?

Finally, both plays are missing a key "character" in the discovery scene.  Miep Gies was there!   This is incredibly important to understanding the full heroic nature of this amazing woman.   Read a captivating Scholastic interview with Miep Gies.

I should probably confess to you that I am not a big fan of historical fiction that morphs the carefully documented thoughts, feelings and experiences of a real person for dramatic purposes.   Real life is dramatic enough.   I like my history to come from the non-fiction section of the library.   Primary sources are preferable to me.   When it comes to the Holocaust, I feel an additional responsibility to point students to firsthand accounts due to the fact that there are some people who still deny that the Holocaust occurred.   I won't spend any time giving those folks any press here.  

Anne Frank was a real girl.   Also, the Anne of her diary is endlessly more engaging, irritating, witty, curious and vibrant compared to the 1956 characterization.   If you use either play, supplement it with the actual diary entries that Anne wrote.   Why not use the whole diary?   You could, but it's a diary.   It will not appeal to all of your readers based on structure alone.   Also the length and vocabulary level may put it out of range for some of your students.  

The BBC has released a terrific dramatization of selections of selections from Anne's writings.   Please preview it before showing it to your class.   I start from the beginning and stop before the bath scene.   The Anne of this series matches the spirit of the real Anne.

Find photographs to enhance your study of Anne's life.

As of today, here's the latest edition  of Anne's diary, but I've heard that more material is yet to come.

The Anne Frank House provides many resources for you here, including a virtual, narrated tour of the Secret Annex.   You could easily spend hours on this site.   Let your students know ahead of time to bring in their earbuds on the day you let them tour the Annex.

Note: There's a part in Anne's diary that causes teen readers to show it to at least 10 of their closest friends.   January 5, 1944 goes down in Anne's diary as a day of raging hormones.   After all, she is a teenager.   Goodrich and Hackett subtly allude to this entry at the beginning of Act II.   Kesselman includes a bit more.   Use your judgment in how to negotiate this passage with your students.

Thank you to educator extraordinaire Michelle Crotteau and all of her colleagues who rounded up book donations for my classroom.  
Nestled in one of the boxes was a copy of Anne's diary which I immediately set aside to read...again.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Bookcase at the Back of the Room

Find a bookcase you can place at the back of your room that is devoted to featuring your school's library books.   Have your librarian check the books out to you, so their location is known.  

It's best if you can display books with the cover art facing out.   This allows students to browse efficiently.   I like to keep some quick-reads on hand for my students.   Captain Underpants, Babymouse, How to Draw (with drawing paper provided), picture books, or several copies of a novel that I may do a read-aloud from during the week.   Sometimes the selections are all non-fiction or graphic novels.   You can group them however you please. 

Here's a small display rack that was no longer needed in the main office.   It's perfect for maximizing "face the front" space.   All featured books are from Ollie's.

Why?   Some students will only read books within their independent reading range when they are with you.   They don't want to carry around "baby" books.   They will carry a "decoy" book for ineffective pretend reading, but they may be brave enough to read something more attainable in the privacy of your classroom.

When you do a riveting read-aloud from a novel, it's good to have multiple copies for students to "try on" before checking the book out in their names.

If your school runs the Accelerated Reader Program, it's nice to encourage some "easy" points with children's books to build up some momentum for non-readers.   Also, if you've looked at some of the children's books that are available today, many are more sophisticated than you may remember.   They are a great help in teaching story frame and written expression.   Their fantastic illustrations remind us of how magical books can be.

If you teach above-average students, you may want to include books that feature gifted characters.   Contemporary young adult fiction titles that mirror plots of traditional classic literature are also engaging for confident readers.

I still take my students to the library as a class every two weeks.   Even so, there is always someone who sneaks back to the room without a book, usually due to a library fine.   I always have something available for independent reading in the bookcase.  

The idea is not to hold on to these treasures.   If a child expresses interest in taking the book home to finish, have the librarian transfer the item number to the child's account.   Will books disappear from your room?   Sometimes.   Check behind the bookcase before announcing that the book is lost.   If you have a librarian who understands that now and then books fly free, he/she may pardon the replacement cost.

Switch out the books in the case at least every two weeks.   Think of it as a garden with changing seasons.  It will become one of your favorite classroom features.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Guys Read

It's easy to go on and on about fellas and reading, so I bet this won't be the last time I mention the topic.   I just had to drop in and whisper a name to you, "Jon Scieszka."  

He's written one of the funniest children's books ever.   Cowboy & Octopus is one of the most unlikely buddy stories around, and when I read it out loud, I laugh so hard that I snort when I get to the hammer scene.   Don't ask me to spoil it for you.   Just find it at your local library.

I've mentioned one of his collaborative efforts before in the entry on Exquisite Corpse Poetry.   He's even reigned supreme as our National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.   I think that it would be worth your time to get a copy of Guys Write for Guys Read: Boys' Favorite Authors Write About Being Boys  and Guys Read: Funny Business .  

The fantastic Mr. S. edited both editions and his story about a family road trip in Guys Write is one of my favorite read-alouds.   Well, that and "The Follower" by Jack Gantos.   And guess what?   Thanks to NPR, you may meet Scary Gary for yourself...for free.  
It's so much fun for students to hear their favorite writers telling true tales from childhood.   Spend some time on the Guys Read website for more neat-o tips, book recommendations and good times.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

To Be A Boy, To Be A Reader

Healer, pilgrim, patriarch, king, warrior, magician, wildman, prophet, trickster and lover.  

William G. Brozo explores these 10 positive male archetypes in his book To Be A Boy, To Be A Reader.   Brozo's book is full of practical advice for offering a balanced reading diet for young men.

A few years ago, I used this book to help round out our school library's novel selections.   As with similar guides, some of the recommended titles were not in print when I looked for them on Titlewave.com.   Brozo's released a newer edition of the book, so maybe he's included some fresh titles that are currently in a bookstore near you.   That said, the book is still worth reading.   It will remind you of Robert Bly's Iron John.   Both books make sense.   After all, archetypes are archetypes for a reason. 

Of course, girls will read many of Brozo's recommended books and identify with the main characters as well.   It's also important for female readers to see boys and men in a variety of positive roles.

If you have a chance to hear Dr. Brozo teach, take it.   Once at a conference, the speaker I signed up for cancelled her session.   Brozo was the sub!   Having read his book, I couldn't believe my luck.   He's just as interesting as his writing.   He is currently a professor at George Mason University if you are interested in being one of his students.  
Please note: You'll want to be careful before labelling novels as "girl books" and "boy books" in front of your readers.   There are many books that seem to be packaged for a specific gender that will appeal to both sexes.   Two examples that come to mind are Stargirl (Spinelli) and The Uglies (Westerfeld).   When it comes to providing books for children to read, keep as many options open as possible.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Exquisite Corpse Poetry

Now and then, it's good to remind your students that once upon a time people wrote poetry as a party game.   I know.   It doesn't sound like a particularly thrilling evening to me either, but you may want to try this "game" in class.  

The whole idea of the "exquisite corpse" hinges on the mystery of accident.   Writers and artists made communal works by sharing in their creation.   The process is linked to Surrealism, and if you want to explain all of that in depth, you should.   It's too much for me to delve into right now, but it's fascinating for sure.

I think I saw the altered version that I use in Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life (http://amzn.com/1600595103)

The play-by-play directions that you have to give...repeatedly...will pay off with some quiet grading time later!

Here's how I run exquisite corpse poetry in my classroom.   Students use college ruled paper since this game can use up lines quickly.   They must keep their work private and not talk at all.  

They write two lines of poetry (no rhyming) in which they try to carry an idea/ image across both lines.   They fold the first line backwards, so only the second line is in view.   They pass the paper to the next writer.   The next writer reads only the second line and adds two lines in an effort to continue the original poet's ideas forward.   The writer then folds back two lines so only the fourth is showing.   Sounds complicated, but you'll get the groove going after a while.  

In short, unless you are writing the first two lines, you are always reading one line, adding two and folding two backwards.

The first run goes for no more than 10 minutes.   After that, kids unfold the papers and read the poems.   This will seem chaotic, but they're having a good time running around the room sharing the poetry.   Let it happen.   Ask for any examples that students feel particularly proud of and read those to the class.   Discuss what works in the samples.  

Next, do a 15 minute round and reverse the flow of papers.   Let's say you decide for one row to be a group and pass their papers backwards, the last child running his paper up to the front of the row.   During the second round, reverse the direction so writers don't always respond to the same poets' lines.

Most kids will enjoy this.   If you have students who have a delay in processing before they write, this may be a source of frustration, not your intended party game.   Be creative and flexible.   You can find ways of making this activity work for them.   This is one assignment that I let kids opt out of easily and give them an alternate assignment, although I encourage kids to stick with it if I know that they'll love it.

To see a similar idea in the hands of professional writers, don't miss http://read.gov/exquisite-corpse/   Read.gov retired the option to read the book on line, but you can buy it at Amazon.   The chapter-by-chapter podcasts are free though.   http://www.loc.gov/podcasts/exquisitecorpse/index.html   This group effort will be featured at this year's National Book Festival in D.C.   To see the complete lineup of authors, visit http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/authors/?PHPSESSID=a6eed85761bd15cc3f253acc6106e0eb

Art teachers, I think you know about this process already!   Let me know how it works in your classrooms.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Strong at the Heart & Book Sox

Strong at the Heart: How it Feels to Heal from Sexual Abuse (http://amzn.com/0374372829) is a non-fiction collection of survivor stories from 11 people who were sexually abused.   The School Library Journal recommends it for grades 9 and up, but I found it appropriate for my 8th grade classroom.   At first, I added it to my bookshelf at the back of the room.   I use this bookshelf to feature our school's library books for students to "try on" during class.   More about this later.   This is where the book sat quietly until I made a better plan.

Sometimes eighth graders want permission to read the books at the back of the room.   This happens for a variety of reasons, but I think you can imagine a teen's tentativeness in picking up this particular book.   "If I pick up this book," a child wonders, "will everyone judge me?   What will people say?"

I chose one of the stories to read aloud to the class.   You will need to look at the book for yourselves to understand the frank way that Carolyn Lehman and Laura Davis handle the difficult subject.   The emphasis is on the fact that 11 survivors have begun to heal and continue to heal.   It's about creating a community of people who are "strong at the heart."  

I introduced the book to the class by saying something along the lines of, "This is a great book that we have in our library about surviving sexual abuse.   It's not just for people who have experienced abuse firsthand.   You may have a friend, a family member, even a parent or grandparent who has dealt with this.   Sometimes reading about what they may be going through helps us support them."

Now, did I think that sexual abuse was unlikely among all of my students?   Is that why I said what I did?   No.   The statistics say otherwise.   Also, in giving everyone a reason to look at that book, students who had been abused could now read it without letting everyone in on something that can be private and painful for them.  

I'd love to teach in a world where all of our children are safe, but I don't.   This book is a healing book.   It also includes a list of resources for readers who need additional support.   It's good to remind students of their school guidance counselor if they need a professional to help them with personal issues.

While we are talking about books that students may be shy to read, here's a tip that I learned during a What's New in Adolescent Literature seminar.   Book Sox.   The same presenter who featured this book said that Book Sox are a great tool for children (or adults) who want to keep what they are reading private from the general public.   They are frequently on sale at office supply stores, but if you'd like to see a link, here you are http://www.booksox.com/webstore/productgroup.aspx?grphead=BOOKSOX.  

Now, you don't have to hide what you are reading from anyone, but some readers are more sensitive to their privacy.   This is one way to empower them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Holly George-Warren & Laura Levine: A little bit country and a little bit rock and roll

Shake, Rattle and Roll: The Founders of Rock & Roll  

Honky-Tonk Heroes and Hillbilly Angels:
The Pioneers of Country & Western Music

These books are short and sweet, so I'll keep this brief.   Both have one page biographies of important rock and country performers.   Ms. Levine has created a fun, folk art likeness of each entertainer.   You can use these titles for read alouds and YouTube time.  

I like to present two performers at a time and show one song from each artist.   For example, the pianos of Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis pair up nicely.   Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens have become linked through tragedy.   Love matched Johnny Cash and the Carter Family.   George-Warren already yoked George and Tammy for you.  

If you don't want to read the whole book, it can supplement a study of The Outsiders since both Elvis and Hank Williams are featured in these books.   It's also a good reminder of writing for an audience.   Watching a live performance makes the sometimes abstract idea of audience literal for students.

Hey, Bo Diddley!   If you are an art teacher, how about making diddley bows with the kids?   Here's a link so you can watch Jack White make one in the opening scene of It Might Get Loud.   He goes electric with his, but I'd recommend acoustic for the classroom.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZNk76_4lds

Right now both books are inexpensive enough on Amazon to buy a spare set to deconstruct and use as classroom art.

Thank you to my dear art teacher friend and fellow music fan, Robert Mercer, for donating new copies of these books to my classroom!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Stephen King isn't as scary as you think he is.

I grew up in a neighborhood with sewers.   After the made-for-television film of Stephen King's novel It stalked our living rooms, I noticed that formerly fearless friends no longer saw that clean patch of concrete hugging the curb as an acceptable gathering place.   Commonplace manholes had transformed into cursed portals to fear overnight.   This is the power of prose.   I remember spending a day of spring break as a teenager stretched out in my backyard reading It.   Horror is not my preference, but I loved the film Stand By Me which was based on King's novella The Body.   I decided to give It a try.

Zoom.   That book is a hunk of pages, but I was done in record time.   King's writing style is economical and his pacing is genius.   It's like getting on a well-oiled machine and zipping along a track.   Weeeee.   Even if you don't care for his subject matter, there's a lot to learn from his style.

Pick up a copy of his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.   My favorite bit of advice is to prune adverbs from our writing.   An adverb can be a blinking neon arrow that says, "This verb is weak."

Now and then, you will need adverbs, but be merciless when it comes to those that water down your writing.   Once you are on the lookout, bad adverbs become very, very, very obvious.   It's also great fun to teach the workbook lessons on adverbs and have students get the right answers and then revise the sentences that remain.   Sure, they are grammatically correct, but we can do better than that.   Really.

If you need to brush up on your adverbs, here's a link to Schoolhouse Rock's instructional film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWYmEICNgOQ

Thank you to one of my Christopher Newport University college professors who helped shape my writing style, Dr. Roark Mulligan, for donating a new copy of On Writing to my classroom.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Paint Chip Poetry

I have to confess that I have always loved standing in the middle of those paint chip displays at hardware stores.   It's like being inside a no-maintenance flower garden.   And Lowe's sometimes opens at 6 A.M. on weekdays.   Let's say you wake up after a rough night without a lesson plan.   Swing by Lowe's.   I've got you covered.

Some of the chips come in a single color, some have several variations of a similar hue.   Take the number of students you teach and offer twice the number of paint chips for their selection.   They are free.   Just be polite about it.

To tell you the truth, my paint chips are still in the console of my truck because I kept forgetting to bring them inside to use.   I have a plan for the coming year though.   Simply writing while being inspired by a color may be a little too unstructured for eighth graders, so I think I'll make a pattern for poets to follow for those who choose to use it.

I should probably tell you now that I am not a huge fan of rhyming poetry generated by 8th graders.   Every now and then my best writers will surprise me with something artfully crafted, but most often finding a rhyme blows the whole point of careful word choice.   A desperate rhyme jolts the reader out of the poem.

Colors evoke memories.   This is a good activity in teaching tone, specifically nostalgic tone, and sensory imagery.   Pick one paint chip that reminds you of a person, place or object from your childhood.   (For writing purposes, I consider an 8th grader's childhood to be 5th grade or earlier.)  

Arrange the chips in groups of blues, greens, yellows, oranges, etc. and allow the writers to choose their own colors.   Students usually choose happy memories, so their tone easily translates into nostalgia.   If some children want to write about a negative memory, give him that opportunity.   It's a great moment when those memories are ready to have a voice.

Here's a general idea for the structure of the poem, but please modify it to make it work for you.   I also included a rough sample of something that I could have written as an eighth grader.   When I model writing for students, I try to choose from the topics that I would have had on-hand at their age.

[Paint color's name] is the color of __________________
I remember __________________
and how it felt to__________________
I can still hear__________________
I can still see __________________
I miss__________________
[Paint color's name] is the color of __________________

Summer Sigh is the color of July
I remember mint chocolate chip birthday cake
and how it felt to be able to invite everyone I knew
I can still hear my mom wondering aloud if we had left anyone out
I can still see my dad showing off the severed thumb trick...again
I miss my grandparents gathered around the picnic table waiting for my wish
Summer Sigh is the color of days melting away

With your writers' permission, it would be fun to post the colors and poems around the room for their classmates to enjoy. 

I've also seen paint chips turned into simple bookmarks.   Just punch a hole and add some ribbon.   Thread a bead, but only if you are feeling fancy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

You already know Chris Van Allsburg's art and prose from Jumanji, Zathura, The Polar Express and several other gorgeous children's books.   His illustrations are full of wonder and possibility.   The Mysteries of Harris Burdick was published in 1984, but I had not seen it until my pal, Willie Thornton, recommended that I hunt it down a couple years back.   Better yet, check out an entire site based on the book .
In this book, each of Allsburg's exquisite one page black and white illustrations is titled and paired with one simple line.   For example, in the picture "Under the Rug" a man holds a dining room chair over his head poised to smash a lump beneath his living room carpet.   The caption is, "Two weeks passed and it happened again."

Now, there is a portfolio version of the book available.   You get the captioned artwork on large sheets to hang in your classroom.   Yes!

Make the book fit your students' needs, but let me tell you how I use it.   I read the whole book aloud to the class, but I choose six of the pictures that I think kids have a good chance at tackling.   I number the pictures.   A student comes up and rolls the die to see which prompt the class will receive.   It's a nice touch to add more mystery to this assignment in keeping with the mood of the book.   Students may use the caption to either start or end their tale.

Selfishly, for this activity I relish reading 25 interpretations of the same piece of art.   Generously, I allow students to write a second story on the picture of their choice.

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Fourteen Amazing Authors Tell the Tales comes out right before Halloween.   Oooooooooo.    Scary.   I mean it.   Please, don't show this book to your precious writers until after they've written their stories.   There's nothing worse than an expert intruding on your creative head space and tap dancing all over your vulnerabilities while you are trying to call up your own magic.

If you are an art teacher, it could be fun to work this activity backwards with your students.   Keep the book hidden, give students the titles and captions and see what they create before revealing Van Allsburg's interpretation.

Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Teacher Preparation Program for donating a copy of the portfolio edition to my new classroom!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Potluck Bob

Oh to have Bob Dylan's complete lyrics for a textbook!   His extensive song catalog could keep students well-fed indefinitely.   This is a quick, fun exercise that pairs Dylan's often elusive writing with the mystery of chance.  

You will need some of Mr. D's lyrics on hand.   I recommend http://www.bobdylan.com/songs.   If you open a word processing document, you may alt+tab between the lyrics and the document to cut and paste intriguing lines.   Print the lyrics out with enough white space to cut them apart.   Place them inside a container that allows students to reach in and pull out a slip of Bobness without peeking.

These Boblines now become the opening lines of your students' creative writing.   Here are three examples:

"Girls like birds flying away"
"I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it."
"Well, I’ve spent my time with the fortune-telling kind."

Okay, four.   I've always wanted this curious line to open a story, "Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule."

Imagine the beautiful stories waiting to bloom right inside your classroom walls.  

And there's always that kid who asks the same question when you are requesting fiction, but he just wants to be certain, "Can we make this up?"

"Yes.   Yes, you should."

Here's Dylan's song "Forever Young" that he wrote for his son Jakob... if you are itching to hear some Dylan right about now.