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   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 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.   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

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.

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

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 --->

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.