Friday, October 26, 2012

Ignore the "Yucky Voice"

Jane Kelley at USM - Click to view gallery

This past Wednesday, sixth graders had the amazing experience of meeting Jane Kelley, author of Nature Girl and The Girl Behind the Glass.  Before Mrs. Kelley presented to both the fifth and sixth graders in the theater, sixth grade composition students talked with her more intimately in the Middle School Commons.  She shared many of the details of her writing process and, in doing so, validated what is being taught in composition classes.  To begin, she discussed the importance of the Writer's Notebook and how she uses it to gather and write through her ideas.  Mrs. Kelley stated that often her best ideas do not come when she is writing, but rather when she is walking.  She takes daily walks for inspiration and to get her creative juices flowing.  On a personal level, Mrs. Kelley allowed us a peek into her private writing environment and schedule.  It's hard to imagine, but she writes upwards of eight hours a day at a table looking out of her Brooklyn apartment window.  Often, her cat, Blackberry, walks back and forth across her papers and her laptop. Most importantly, Mrs. Kelley emphasized that writing is rewriting.  She described how revision excites her because it's like solving a puzzle.  "My dad was an engineer and I think I got it from him, " she explained. "I like fixing things and problem-solving."  She went on to state that she is grateful for rewriting because she can relieve herself of the idea that a piece has to be perfect the first time out.  It was wonderful to hear a professional writer confirm what students have been learning in class.

Once both grades assembled in the theater, Mrs. Kelley read aloud from Nature Girl and described some of the inspiration behind the story.  Throughout the novel, Megan, the protagonist, battles the "yucky voice" in her head - the voice of self-doubt.  Mrs. Kelley explained that this is the voice talking in our heads giving us all the reasons we will never reach our goals and dreams.  She quoted Sylvia Plath, "The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."  Rather than being intimidated by the blank page, Mrs. Kelley said we should be excited by it.  "Everybody has to start any creative process the same way - a blank page," she explained. "It's exciting because you can fill it with your ideas and plans."

Without a doubt, Mrs. Kelley encouraged some aspiring authors on Wednesday and, if nothing else, she inspired many of us to ignore the "yucky voices" in our heads.  She made me feel like I have novel inside just waiting to be written!

If students have any additional questions for her, Mrs. Kelley would welcome an email at

Playing Password - Click to view photo gallery

In preparation for The Outsiders vocabulary quiz, students spent some time reviewing this week.  Robert Marzano indicates that one of the most effective ways to review is by playing games.  Luckily for us, this proved to be a great opportunity to play Password.  While one student sits with her back to the SmartBoard, her team tries to get her to guess the vocabulary term projected on the screen. The clincher was that only the guesser could use words, the rest of the team was relegated to acting.  Not only was the game fun, but it was challenging and it forced students to activate different schema in order to be successful.  Students took the quiz on Thursday and can expect their grades on Monday.  After the three-day weekend, we will begin next week by working on The Outsiders book projects.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Which Did You Prefer?

 "I think the movie was amazing and I liked how in some parts they had things word for word from the book."

"If I had just watched the movie, I would have missed out on all that detail in the end." 

"The book was more vivid than the movie in the way that it described and had better examples of the characters' feelings" 

"Another reason I liked the book is because it made me feel like I was living in the moment and it was really happening." 

Those were just some of the many arguments that students wrote in defense of their favorite version of The Outsiders.  After critically viewing the movie this week, they had to decide on the version they preferred.  Not surprisingly, many advocated for the novel and its ability to engross the reader.  Over and over again, those in favor of the book cited their deep connections with the characters as the main reason for its superiority.  The feeling was not unanimous, however.  Many believed that the movie held the edge.  Those in that camp loved its intensity.  From its dramatic music to its visual appeal, the film adaptation of The Outsiders certainly earned its accolades.

After reading the novel and viewing the movie, there's just one thing left - assessment. Wrapping up The Outsiders Unit, students will develop projects based on the following ideas:
  • The Outsiders was published nearly 30 years ago, yet students still seem to relate to it today. What ideas in the novel do you find to be timeless? Explain.
  • Do you think reading The Outsiders would positively influence someone who is prejudiced against another class of people? Why or why not?
  • Do you agree with Cherry that “things are rough all over”? Provide examples from your own life.
  • What have you learned from this book that would be important enough to share with others?  Explain.
It will be exciting to guide them through this learning journey!

Making the Choice - Click to view photo gallery
Did you know that one dictionary lists 14 definitions for the word love? And those are just the nouns!  What exactly is love? Mr. Dunning loves his children and he loves chocolate ice cream, but it's not the same. As the sixth grade composition students quickly discovered, abstract ideas are complex and difficult to define.  Nuances are the name of the game when it comes to defining family, friendship, bravery, courage, strength, weakness, and love.  Students will be tackling these abstract ideas and others from The Outsiders as they work on their last expository writing piece - the definition essay.  After choosing a term, students started by looking at it from a variety of angles.  How could it be described?  What examples would best illustrate it?  What metaphor could be used with the term?  What conditions might cause the term?  What is the denotation (dictionary definition) of the word?  What are some synonyms for the idea?  How could the idea be sketched?  What is it not? With their peers as their audience, students will draft their extended definition essays next week.  Inevitably, we will all learn how complicated abstract ideas can be!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Farewell, Ponyboy

Heart Map - Click here to view photo gallery.
One of the greatest difficulties students face when they are writing is getting started.  'I don't know what to write about,' is a frequent refrain in the language arts classroom.  That is why it is so important for students to have a wellspring of readily-accessible topics.  One recurring mini-lesson in composition is generating ideas.  The fact is, kids have more topics on hand than they could ever use.  The key is unlocking those topics.  Earlier in the year, students created a list of their interests, pet peeves, concerns, personal causes, and areas of expertise.  We called these our writing territories.  This week, students created heart maps.  After drawing an outline of a heart, kids then filled it with people, journeys, secrets, milestones, and events that they hold dear.  By using techniques like writing territories and the heart map, writers tap into the vast resource of their experiences and flesh out meaningful seeds to grow their ideas.  Encourage your children to replenish their topic resources.  When they are struck by a new idea or an interesting experience, kids should pause and take a moment to add it to their lists.  It doesn't need to be written about now, but it could prove to be useful later. 

Sketching to Understand - Click here to view photo gallery.
The sad news this week is that we had to bid farewell to Pony, Darry, Two-Bit, and the gang.  Upon finishing the novel, students discussed how this is a book of hope.  In fact, as one particularly insightful student put it, "Hope is on every page, because this is Pony's story."  Next week students will start work on their assessments and spend some time comparing the film version of The Outsiders to the book.

One of the ways that students are learning new vocabulary is through their reading.  The Outsiders provided a wide array of terms for students to add to their repertoire.  As I am sure you can imagine, how vocabulary is taught should be systematic and based on solid research.  The Marzano method of instruction is both powerful and intuitive and has a lasting effect on student comprehension.  I have adapted this method for my classroom and have found it to be quite successful in increasing student vocabulary. I begin by providing a description, explanation, or example of the new term.  Part of this involves asking students what they already know about the term in order to help build an initial understanding.  Once I have introduced the term, I ask students to restate its description using their own words.  I often ask, "What does it mean to you?"  As students are creating their own descriptions, I circulate throughout the room to check for misunderstandings and misconceptions.  This is also a great time for students to share their new descriptions with a partner or in small groups.  Next, students need to draw a symbol, picture, or graphic to represent the term.  This is a very important step in the process, as it requires them to process information in a nonlinguistic manner.  As you can see in the photo above, students are encouraged to share and explain their sketches with the class.  In addition to the sketch, I also ask them to come up with an example of the term.  It is my hope that they can make a connection to the term through something that they have seen or experienced.  Finally, students are also encouraged to begin to think of ways in which the newly acquired term can enter their written and verbal communication.  I love to hear the terms used in our discussion or even find the terms used in their own writing!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

EdTechSandyK: Parent Concerns in a 1:1 iPad Initiative

I ran across this Sunday morning and felt that it might be valuable even though our sixth graders are not 1:1, yet.  It is excellent advice for any parent who may be concerned about the amount of screen time they may be observing at home.  Please feel free to share.

-Mr. Dunning

EdTechSandyK: Parent Concerns in a 1:1 iPad Initiative: Used With Permission  Under a Creative Commons License Last Sunday, I received a note via the contact form on my blog that was a first ...

photo credit: <a href="">courosa</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fishbones and Claims

Fishbone Diagram

Did you know that some people eat gorillas as a cheap protein source or even as a status symbol?  Neither did the sixth grade composition students, until this week.  After reading "Gorillas in Crisis" by Kathleen Donovan-Snavely, students learned this and a myriad of other reasons as to why central and West Africa gorillas may be in trouble.  Working individually and in small groups, their task was to determine the root cause of this trouble as well as its possible effects while using a fishbone diagram like the one above.  Finally, students drafted individual summaries employing the fishbone diagram as a way to keep their ideas organized.  Mastering the summary is beneficial because it requires students to write clearly and concisely without resorting to plagiarism.  In addition to their summaries, students met with their writing circles on Friday.  Each circle had picked a topic last week, and students shared their drafts for those topics with their group members.  Writing was only limited by the topic and class-wide pieces reflected a variety of genres.  Circle members provided positive feedback for each writer in the form of "One thing I liked about your piece was..." Each week the groups will learn and practice additional kinds of response, and eventually the writer will get to choose which type he or she desires.  I have to admit, it was a little nerve-racking for me as I had to share my writing with a circle as well!  My topic for next week - animals.

Many students finished The Outsiders this week.  While they will need to have the book read by Monday, some just couldn't help themselves.  And can you blame them?  The last few chapters have had all of us on edge and biting our fingernails!  In addition to learning a number of new vocabulary terms, students wrestled with some big questions this week.  Should Cherry have helped the greasers? Who's most at fault for what happened to Johnny? Is Darry setting a good example for Ponyboy and Sodapop by joining in the rumble? Should Two-Bit have given Dally his knife?  These questions framed a group project that required students to reach consensus on an issue and to use evidence from the text to support their stance.  Each group had to present their opinion to the class and then were open to further discussion and questioning.  By practicing how to strengthen assertions using textual evidence, students gained a more profound understanding of a character's motivations.