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   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 (

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 retired the option to read the book on line, but you can buy it at Amazon.   The chapter-by-chapter podcasts are free though.   This group effort will be featured at this year's National Book Festival in D.C.   To see the complete lineup of authors, visit

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 ( 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  

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.

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

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   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.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Writing About Place

The most effective graphic organizer I have found to help students write about place comes from Wisconsin.   More specifically, from Wisconsin's super-amazing-blow-your-mind cartoonist and author LYNDA BARRY.   I had to shout it.   I had to.   I did.

I first fell in love with the mind of Lynda Barry while reading One!Hundred!Demons!  If I could travel back in time to 13, I would take a million copies of that book with me and stash them in every part of the landscape of my life that found me needing courage.   Like I said before, she's an artist.   The coolest kind of artist because she explains how to paint your own demons with instructions at the back of the book.

When I heard that Barry was releasing a book on writing, I was excited and curious.   I was pretty sure that it wouldn't be like anything I'd seen before.   It wasn't.   It's a series of collages that combine found objects with her original work.   It's an invitation to peek inside the darkest corners of her creative head space.   It's eye candy that resonates and plucks at the memories that you have been collecting all of your life.  It is What It Is.

The graphic organizer, "Stay Inside the Image,"  is basically like this.   Imagine that you have a small circle at the middle of your paper.   You are in that circle in a fixed position.   Now, picture that circle as being on the center of an X.   It would help if you draw this.   The X will create four sections: in front of me, behind me, to my right and to my left.   Finally, at the top of the paper is the "above me" section and at the bottom is "beneath me."

Students fill in this graphic organizer with details.   They don't need to use complete sentences.   Writers should choose a familiar place outside of the classroom and situate themselves in the image.  

You can model the exercise by using your classroom to fill in a grid that you have drawn on your white board.   What's above you?   Well, the ceiling, right?   Be more specific.   Square, white drop ceiling tiles with pock marks. New water damage stains over the teacher's desk.   Old stains that have been repaired and restained over the student computer.   Fluorescent tube lighting.   Black wires at the front of the room that hook to a mounted television.   Black wires that the back of the room that power the document camera.   In the center of the room is a small, beaded silver star ornament with a nickle-sized red heart at its center.

When it's time to incorporate a setting into a story, there's a balance between overburdening your prose with unnecessary details and losing your anchor completely which results in characters becoming "talking heads."   Remember that this is a prewriting exercise to access a place.   When this activity is shaped into a narrative, all of your details will not make the final cut.   This is also a great activity to help students start a fictional story, but it's easier for me to get students started with this new technique if we first base it on a real place that they have experienced firsthand.

Visit's Lynda Barry archive!  

Talk is the Exercise Ground

If you recognize the title of this post, you know it's not mine.   It's one of the chapter titles for Natalie Goldberg's how-to classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.   (   Now, I have to admit that I don't recall doing a whole lot of talking after the class was given a writing topic when I was a student.  

What I have noticed as a teacher is that often student talk bubbles up when I assign a new prompt.   In the first few minutes, it's usually a direct discussion regarding the new activity.   If you let it go on too far past that point, it derails into unrelated subjects.   I've been wondering how to capitalize on teens' innate desire to talk, talk, talk and be heard.

Goldberg's chapter focuses on the talk that occurs spontaneously in life.   The stories we swap over and over.   I haven't thought of the best way to get this type of conversation going in the classroom with 8th graders.   At their young ages, I know that they have some stories to tell, but they probably haven't been in those social situations where the spotlight turns to them and they polish the same gem of a story time and again with each retelling.   I think that I am going to link this approach with a technique from another great how-to book that focuses specifically on teens.

Nancie Atwell has a simple, effective prewriting activity in her book Lessons That Change Writers.   (   Orient your paper/ notebook to landscape, draw a big heart, write down everything and everyone you love.   These become part of your writing territories.  

I modified it slightly to get a variety of topics.   Students label 3 larger portions of the heart with People, Places and Things.   In the bottom of the heart we leave a small spot for Ideas.   And, yes, you may list your sweet little doggie in the "People" column if you want to, Tina.  This is something I do at the beginning of the year, so students have somewhere to go for free writes if they are experiencing writer's block.

 Although this is a prewriting activity, I think if I added another step, I might be able to help students zero in on the juiciest parts of their heart map.   What if I gave them time to think-pair-share one of their topics before they start writing?   If they are unable to mine for anything interesting to say, perhaps they would switch topics before they continue prewriting.   On the other hand, if they light up the room with their passion for the subject and enchant their audience with an engaging narrative...   Well, if they are writers, they will know that they are on the right track.

Thanks to the lovely Susan Pongratz and charming Kaplan family for restoring Nancie Atwell books to my classroom.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Turning it In

If you will be a brand new teacher this year, don't forget to read Harry K. Wong's The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.   Often it's the thought of their first days that make new teachers the most nervous.   The first week of school also sets the tone for the year.   Sure, you'll make some mistakes.   Just make a mental note about what didn't work, so you'll remember next year.   Relax a little.   And...congratulations on getting hired!

Anyhow, read the book for all of the great, practical advice.   My favorite time saver is designating a place for students to turn in completed work.   My students use plastic in-boxes labeled by class period.   Depending on the number of classes I teach, I also have a matching out-box.   (I taught 6 classes this year, so I did not have a plastic tower of 12 trays.   It's back to block this year, so I will be able to use 6 total.)

These boxes live on a table close to the computer I use for entering grades.   There is also space on a nearby wooden chair for their spiral journals, should I ask for the entire notebooks to be turned in.   These locations are at the back of the room, along with the electric pencil sharpener, trashcan and other student supplies.  

Why the back of the room?   Every year you will have a few students who love a parade.   Well, they love their parade.   Any trip to get out of their seat is prolonged and includes side conversations, slothlike movements to complete the intended task...which frequently involves searching for that "missing" pencil for five minutes that they are currently sharpening for three minutes while blocking traffic and instruction.   The back of the room cuts down on some of this behavior.   Also, students should use the trash can at the beginning or end of class...unless they are ill and need an emergency receptacle pronto.

You can't change who they are, so please use these students when appropriate to pass papers back to their rightful owners, assist you with handing out photocopies, books, etc.   In short, give them teacher-approved time to let everyone stare at them for a portion of class.  

If you want students to collect the papers by rows before turning them in, have the children pass their papers to the person behind them until all papers arrive at the back of the room.   Passing papers forwards is much more chaotic and just asks for someone to be cracked in the back of the head.   This is another sensible process I learned from Mr. Wong.

Why is having a predictable place for completed student work so important?   Well, when you are able to steal a few minutes to grade papers while your students are working independently, you really don't want to be interrupted again and again with a student asking where to turn something in and/or adding it to your current stack of papers.   There's never enough time for grading, and you will just have to cobble minutes together here and there.  

Timely feedback, especially when it comes to student writing, is important.  Don't collect more papers than you can grade in a few days.   Combine a couple of small assignments for one grade in the grade book.   Touch the papers as few times as possible.   Think of other ways to simplify the task of grading while still being fair to students.

And, yes, there will be at least one student in every class who will still ask you from September to June, "Where do I turn this in?"   One's better than 20!

Thanks to Christopher Newport University's Student Virginia Education Association President Rebecca Capel and her fellow chapter members for purchasing organizational classroom supplies, so I can hit the ground running.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Keeping It Straight

If you are a teacher, you probably have multiple sets of Bananagrams and Scrabble...or other games with tiles.   Here's how you can keep your sets separate.   You will need zippered mesh pencil bags, spray paint, newspaper/ cardboard and a dry day...the less wind, the better.

First, determine how many colors of spray paint you will need.   It doesn't take much paint, so whatever leftovers you have from other projects will be more than enough.   Of course, you can keep one set of tiles "nekkid."   If you have gathered your Scrabble games from second hand scores, the game board will indicate how many of each letter you should have.   (Usually a student in your classroom will be happy to sort these for you if you plan ahead.)

Place the tiles face down on cardboard, shirt boxes, newspaper...whatever's handy.   Spray the tiles in a sweeping motion.   Let them dry.   Spray a second coat if you are a perfectionist.   This is totally optional.

Once the tiles are dry, return the Bananagram pieces to their zippered fruit cases.   Put the Scrabble bits in the zippered pencil cases.

When you have massive Scrabble tournaments and tiles start hitting the floor, it's easy for students to match them up to the right set.   Also, you and your conscientious custodian will continue to find hidden tiles days later, so using see-through mesh bags will make it simple for you to find their places as well.

Another use of the paint is for identifying class sets of pens/markers that you expect to be returned to you.   A little bit of paint will make it obvious to the borrower that the office supplies belong to the teacher's class set.

Thanks to my former public school classmates Susan Traner, Amanda Upson and Stacy Hunt for providing my students with new Scrabble and Bananagrams games.   Eastern Virginia Writing Project's faculty member Susan Pongratz also chipped in with Bananagrams!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Do you really need to ask for the wild rumpus to start?

Where the Wild Things Are is as full of as much magic as you remember.   Maurice Sendak's illustrations are marvellous.   What you may have missed during earlier reads is his genius use of white space.   This is something that was pointed out to me at the 2009 Eastern Virginia Writing Project by teacher Michelle Crotteau.   Notice how the white pages are taken over by color as Max goes deeper and deeper into his imagination.   That's symbolism-- which isn't always easy to teach to 8th graders.

An activity that Ms. Crotteau connected to this children's book involves using an adjective word list.   The word list included adjectives to describe appearance, color, disposition with both positive and negative connotations.   Students can choose words from the list to describe Max and the Wild Things.   It's something that I have students do individually first.  

Then, I ask them to consult with the other students in their row before adding a few of their adjectives to the white board.   The white board is clean with the exception of the words "Max" and "Wild Things."   Students love writing on the board, and it isn't long until the board is covered.   This is the wild rumpus part of the lesson.  

As a class, we question adjectives that don't seem to fit, and the student who suggested the word defends his/ her choice.   99% of the time the students have logical reasons for what may first seem like an ill-fitting descriptor.  

Here's an example of a personality word list that includes adjectives with both positive and negative connotations.  
Follow this link over to American Masters (PBS) for more information about Mr. Sendak.
Thank you to Christopher Newport University's Spring 2011 children's literature class for donating their copies of Wild Things to my new classroom!   Thanks also to Michelle Crotteau for bringing me more copies of her comprehensive adjective lists.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Artifacts for the Museum

So it's the last month of school, and you are marvelling that your students are still toting around those swollen backpacks.   Why won't they shed some of their papers and keep them at home?   Why won't they recycle some of the unnecessary weight?   Isn't some of it ready for the circular file?   If you could just get them to explore some of that extra bulk, would they part with any of it?  

Here's a fun end-of-year writing assignment that allows writers time to analyze their archives.   Wallets, purses, pockets are also places where something usable may be tucked away.

What's this all about?   Let's say that you are starting a museum display that represents your students' 8th grade lives.   You want one item from each child with a detailed paragraph for an exhibit label.  

Their labels should reflect the importance of their contribution to the collection.   What is this object?   What's its history and significance to the exhibit?   I encourage students to write fiction, non-fiction or a combination of both.   Writers glue/tape their artifacts to a sheet of paper right alongside their descriptive paragraph.   If you have the time and space, it would be fun to actually put these on display in your classroom and allow classmates to browse the collection.

Agenda pages, doodles, movie tickets, candy wrappers, food packaging, notes, programs, small toys, photographs-- these are just a few items from this year's contributions.

This is a flexible assignment that you will enjoy reading.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

End of Year Found Poetry Kit

This is a simple student-made poetry kit.   You will need glue sticks, 3 x 5 note cards, envelopes and scissors.   Ask students to look through their collection of papers and choose an assignment or worksheet that they would not mind destroying.   (I think it's best that the assignment NOT be a math worksheet, but I'm sure some math geniuses see the poetry in numbers.)

Students will cut out 25-30 words.   They will put the words and the note card in the envelope.   Then, they will trade envelopes with someone who is also ready his/her kit.   The writer will create a poem using some/all of the words in their classmate's kit.   Children glue the words to the note card.   Voila.   Done.

This activity can be done using magazines and newspapers as source material, but this version is cheaper.   I also like helping students find ways to entertain themselves with what they already have.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.

My favorite classroom art was completed by last year's geometry students.   I was "babysitting" them while most of the 8th grade was taking the course three SOL.   Our art teacher even let us borrow her classroom, so we felt like real, live artists.

First, I found a couple of photographs of Mr. Cash on line that I liked.   My real, live artist boyfriend made us the patterns you see below.   We then planned out which colors would go where.  

The patterns for the collage. These were traced on poster board and cut out.
I toted in magazines for the students.   At school, we cut out bits of black, light and dark browns, skin tone, silver and fingers!   Yes, fingers!   I was on a Romare Bearden kick since I saw his collage, "Three Folk Musicians," in a Scholastic Art magazine.   You can see it by following this link.   Be sure to zoom in on the fingers!

Designated student pasters worked on different pieces of the collage.   You can really see the beauty of the technique in the guitar below.   We pieced it all together on a piece of red poster board.

The finished collage before strings, frets, tuning pegs and lamination.

When it was dry, I used a silver Sharpie to draw the guitar strings.   I then cut strips from an old map of Arkansas and Tennessee to make the frets and tuning pegs.   I made sure to include Dyess, Hendersonville and Nashville.   Then, I hauled it to Office Max to be laminated.

Mr. Cash kept watch over the back left corner of my classroom behind my desk on the side of a file cabinet.   He took on some water in my classroom when the tornado raised the roof.   The seal of the lamination didn't protect him from mold.   When I heard that the storm hit my school, I couldn't help but think of his song "Five Feet High and Rising."

Just yesterday, a parent of one of my current students sent me word of an end-of-year gift for my new classroom.   She is also a sub, so she had seen my Johnny Cash art.  

Here's what's on its way to me right now:
Johnny Cash - An American Legend Music Poster Print, 22x34

What's not to love?

Note: You certainly don't have to be an artist to facilitate such activities in your classroom.   Leaf through some Scholastic Art magazines, see the lesson plans they've created and modify them to suit your curriculum, time constraints, needs and abilities.   You won't believe the beauty that emerges.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Stress Relief

This has nothing to do with teaching, or does it?   I'm reminded of Nikki Giovanni's poem "Legacies" whenever I get my metal sifter down from the kitchen cabinet, so maybe it is related to the topic after all.   You may read the poem by following this link

I like to bake cornbread when I am feeling the weight of stress.   It's not a family recipe.   I started with the directions on the back of a package of Indian Head yellow corn meal and adjusted it until I felt like it was right.   I have my grandmother's sifter and her sunshine yellow Pyrex mixing bowl.   Like I said before, it's not her recipe, but she sure did love to bake.   I like to think about her standing at her own kitchen counter while I am standing at mine.   It's a simple task that brings me a lot of peace.  

I'm sharing my recipe with you and hope that you also have a few "healing ceremonies" that you use when you need them.   Also, Southerners can't write this long without mentioning food, so I finally gave in to the impulse.

Before you are wild-eyed with hunger, take two eggs out of the fridge to reach room temperature.   Ideally, these eggs should be of the local, fresh variety.

Set the oven for 400 degrees F.
Drip a little sunflower oil in your favorite cake pan.

Sift the following into the same bowl:
1 c. corn meal
1 c. cake flour
1 tsp. salt
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 c. sugar

Pour the following in a smaller bowl/ container:
2/3 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. sunflower oil

When your eggs hit room temperature, beat them with a fork and get rid of any whites that seem stringy.
Next, plop eggs in the smaller bowl and beat them to combine with milk/ oil.

Pour into the bowl of dry ingredients.   Mix with your fork.

Make sure your pan is lightly coated with sunflower oil.
Pour the batter into the pan.
Depending on your pan, it will take roughly 20-25 minutes.

It's done when you can press your palm lightly on the top of the cake and the cake springs back.

Top with honey and butter.

Jump back. Kiss yourself. Have mercy.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


As you know, alliteration is the stuff that tongue-twisters are made of.   According to, it's "the commencement of two or more stressed syllables of a word group either with the same consonant sound or sound group (consonantal alliteration), as in from stem to stern."

You will need 1 regular die and 1 20-sided die from a Scattergories game.   You are ready to teach alliteration.   Roll 'em.   If you get a 1 on the regular die, or a vowel on the Scattergories die, roll again.

The object of this games is to create alliterative headlines.   Say you roll a 3 and a T.   Your headline could be Thumbelina Throttles Thor.    Grrrrr.   This is a fun way to spend a few extra minutes of class, or introduce alliteration to your masses.   You may choose to award the most ridiculous headlines; writers generally want to share their creations when it comes to this game.

Keep your eye out for Scattergories when you visit thrift stores.   There's also a good chance that you have a friend with a dusty edition of that game who would be happy to set it free from storage.

Friday, June 3, 2011


For those of you joining us from another state or another country, Virginia's 8th graders take two state assessments in language arts.   We administer the writing test in early March.   Students must pass a multiple choice portion that focuses most heavily on editing, but includes other parts of the writing process.   They must also write a short paper that is evaluated in three domains: composing, written expression and usage/mechanics.   It's the essay portion that I want to talk with you about today.

A great tool that Virginia's Department of Education made available to teachers and students is the NCS Mentor Program.   It's a collection of scored student essays that were written for the writing assessment.   You are able to show students what passing and failing papers look like.   Essays have been scored in each of the three domains, so if you are giving a lesson on written expression, you can zero in on papers that illuminate those techniques well.  

My favorite part of the NCS Mentor is the color-coded overlay feature.   If you choose that option in viewing a paper, you get to see a student's essay evaluated with annotations that are linked to a color.  
  • Red = Central Idea
  • Green= Elaboration
  • Blue= Unity
  • Purple= Organization
To see this free program for yourself, visit

I wanted to translate the color coding idea into something manageable for my writing classroom.   Two of the materials that I require for class are pink and green highlighters.   I decided to equate pink with "pause" and green with "go."  

Here's what I know about 8th grade writers.   Many students don't really know when or how they got it right or wrong when it comes to writing.   Often, they don't have the right vocabulary to pinpoint what works and doesn't work in their essay.   It's like looking at a great piece of art when you don't have the language to evaluate it.   Your gut tells you it's great, but what techniques is the artist using to please your eye and move your heart?   In addition to giving students the reasons why part of a piece does not work, we need to give them the language to explain why other parts do.   For example, "You are right to organize your story chronologically, but your word choice is flat and the lack of elaboration does not let the reader visualize what is happening."   This book can help you comment on student work

Where do the highlighters come in?   When students are revising, I ask them to identify their best parts in green and the parts that need help in pink.   Sometimes when I am evaluating a paper, I use the highlighters as well.  

The highlighting task can have a smaller scope.   For instance, if you are teaching students the beauty of word choice, ask them to highlight their vivid language in green before turning their paper in to you.   If they are unable to make any highlights, they have already discovered that they do not have mastery of the skill.   They should revise before turning the paper in to you.   It's so important for writers to critique their own work.   Every now and then we do some peer editing, but that's not a realistic scenario, is it?   And peer revising is just too much to ask.   Really.   Writing is work.   Writing is craft.   Expect to sweat a little.

Highlighters, colored pencils, pens, doesn't really matter what students use.  

Also, if you administer the VA writing SOL, check the directions.   This year students were allowed one colored pencil to use for editing and revising their draft...not on the final though.   It looks like the DOE caught on to the good idea they shared with teachers through the NCS Mentor.   And guess what?   Students used those pencils.   What's better than giving students techniques that they can carry with them throughout their writing lives?

For an in-depth look at the new curriculum framework for 8th grade writing, look for pages 73-79 after you click "6-8" at

Thursday, June 2, 2011

When students read aloud in reading class...

Let me interrupt myself to weigh in on having students read aloud in class.   I don't make anyone read aloud in my classroom in front of the group.   I take volunteers.   Well, I take some of them.   I try not to be harsh, but there are some students who would go on and on during the whole class period without modulating their voice a single time.   Although this makes a great teachable moment since the class is unlikely to ever forget what the word "monotonous" means, it tortures your captive audience needlessly and nothing is added to their understanding of the piece.  

Especially with struggling readers, I do not ask them to do any "cold readings" unless I am sure that they will be successful.   Yes, round robin reading does not happen in my room.   I may pre-assign paragraphs or passages and give readers a chance to preview and practice.   I need students to focus on the meaning of the words, not their dramatic performance in class.  

A few years ago, I was so thrilled when my target class read scene after scene of "The Diary of Anne Frank" aloud.   They read it like they knew what had happened, was happening and would happen.   Wow!  

Even so, much to my disappointment, they could not even answer basic comprehension questions on the scenes they had just finished.   All they were able to do was to keep up and tread water.   I didn't build in enough time for them to pre-read or re-read.   They needed an opportunity to think quietly about what was taking place on the page.  

On the other hand, advanced readers will power through this particular play quickly and understand most of it.   Your not-so-careful readers will miss some of the finer nuances that happen when you think about the stage directions in conjuntion with the lines, but they will get the big ideas.

Before you ask students to read aloud, make sure that it will be to the benefit of the class and that the student is prepared enough to be successful.

If you would like another opinion regarding round robin reading, here's Ms. Laura Robb's take on the subject,