Saturday, December 7, 2013

Writing for Pleasure? Are You Crazy, Mr. Dunning? Maybe...

Writer's Notebook
This week marks the approximate halfway point of second quarter.  In preparation for posting interims, one of the things the students and I did was to formatively assess their writer's notebooks.  The purpose of a formative assessment is to monitor student learning and provide the information needed for the teacher to adjust instruction.  For me, the writer's notebook is the most significant artifact of student learning and thinking.  Many of my students have demonstrated a strong commitment to writing with stamina and thoughtfulness.  Their notebooks are filled with writing, even when topics were not favorites.  Entries are titled, dated, and in order.  Handwriting is legible, and in some cases, absolutely beautiful!  The notebooks look like they are treasured, not forgotten at the bottom of a locker.  And when it comes to content, it's not perfect, but it's thoughtful.  These writers are not satisfied with the first try.  "I'm done," rarely issues from their mouths.

No, these students are not naturally good at writing - that's a myth.   Interestingly, not all of them even love writing.  The reality is that good writers are made.  Like anything, getting better requires practice, and these writers practice without giving up.  Grit seems to be the buzzword in education these days; I'm a fan of persistence.  Either way, these kids exhibit a stick-to-it-iveness that greatly contributes to their success in writing, and in reading, for that matter.  In this fast-paced world of instant gratification, social media overload, and iPad mania, students (and adults alike) seem to struggle more and more with slowing down and carefully following through on a task.  Case in point, I had a student earlier this year express her dislike for English because it required too much thinking and writing.  I'll take that as a compliment.  Take a look at your child's writer's notebook.  What do you see?  Does it represent good faith effort, or does it look rushed and incomplete?  If it resembles the latter, don't worry, we have the rest of the year to grow.  It is my hope that you will support my efforts as I try to slow your children down and encourage deep thinking.  Perhaps, like we have with reading, we can emphasize writing for pleasure.  Have you heard of #NerdLution?  It's a 50 day opportunity to start a new habit. Ten minutes a night might be a good start.

photo credit: Amir Kuckovic via photopin cc

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Grandparents and Special Friends Day 2013

Grandparents and Special Friends Day - Click for gallery
Many thanks to all of the grandparents and special friends that came today!  We had a great time creating short autobiographies like the one below.  Students and their guests even had a chance to share their writing with the class, and we all learned a little something new about each other.  Have a safe and relaxing Thanksgiving Weekend!

Seven, green, Cancer
I am told I crawled backwards.
I love Coca-Cola and Candy Raisins
I held my father’s hand.
I have seen childbirth.
I lost my grandparents.
I hear what I want to.
I used to have time.
I’ve learned to follow my heart.
Bass clef on a musical staff.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I wanted to send out a warm thank all who attended conferences last week.  It was humbling to see how much you support your children, your teachers, and your school community.  We truly are partners in this journey.  After spending so much quality time with you, I thought I would share some recurring ideas that were discussed on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • Organization is crucially important to your child's success, and lockers are one place where things can quickly get out of hand.  Encourage your child to take advantage of the shelves in his or her locker.  The top shelf could hold all the materials for the morning, the bottom, the afternoon.  This only works if things are put back the same way they came out.
  • Developing good habits take a long time, but pay off in big dividends.  Students should write their homework in their assignment notebooks (or on their iPad) everyday, in every class.  But that's not good enough.  Those assignment notebooks need to make another appearance at the locker as bags are getting packed, and yet another one at home to confirm what needs to be done.
  • Without a regular time and place for studying, kids will struggle to complete work thoughtfully and in a timely fashion.  Doing homework in a noisy kitchen is distracting, but alone in a bedroom may not be much better.  Likewise, the quality of work suffers if it is done at the end of the night when kids are tired.  Determining a spot conducive to distraction-free studying, as well as setting a reasonable time, will help kids retain what they are learning.  Finally, there needs to be a limit.  Working on homework from 4:00pm - 10:00pm is unhealthy and unnecessary.
  • At USM we encourage students to reach their potentials and do their best.  I understand that eleven- and twelve-year-olds cannot perform at 100% every single day - I know I can't.  At the same time, I want kids to be honest (one of the tenets of our Common Trust) with themselves.  Before submitting an assignment, they should self-reflect.  Is this my best work?  If, not, why?  Getting into the habit of self-critique helps students become more independent and develops metacognitive skills.
  • It's no secret that many adolescents struggle with time management as well as prioritizing.  You can help your kids by encouraging them to look at the scope of their assignments.  When is the work due?  If there is a science test tomorrow and an English project due next month, kids often need explicit instruction as to which should be dealt with first.  In regards to the long-term project, how can it be broken down and spread out into reasonable chunks so that there isn't a last minute rush?  Extra credit can also cause trouble.  Sometimes it appears to be more fun and as a result displaces those required assignments from other classes that need to be done first.  
  • Lastly, make sure that your children have time to play.  Let's not forget that they are kids.  Giving them a break from sports, lessons, and homework is emotionally healthy and can reduce stress.
I'm interested in knowing what you think.  Do you have another idea?  Is there something that I missed?  Feel free to share.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Incorrigible Children and Writing Circles

Students had the honor of listening to Maryrose Wood, author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, discuss her life as an author on Monday.  From attempting Broadway to working as a director, Wood's unique experiences helped build the foundation of her writing career.  Not only were we treated to a dynamic read aloud, complete with character voicing, we were also given quite a few writing tips.  For me, two stood out from the rest.  First, she reassured all of us that first drafts need not be perfect.  Often, writers get blocked because they worry too much about the 'best' word, or how to beautifully phrase the next idea.  It's not that these issues aren't important, but they can be dealt with during revision.  The second bit of advice follows from the first.  Writers need to adopt a 'yes, and' attitude instead of a 'no, but' one.  If, after every sentence, we were to say, "Yes, and..," our writing would would be filled with ideas, details, and elaboration.  Throughout the week, students have heard me repeat these kernels as they worked to develop their writing.

In class, we launched writing circles this week.  Modeled after literature circles, writing circles emphasize student choice while providing an authentic audience.  In groups of four, students will be responsible for choosing the week's topic, composing a draft, sharing writing, and providing feedback. After seven or eight meetings dedicated to generating ideas and drafts, the groups will transform into publishing circles.

One of the things I like most about writing circles is how decisions are left to the groups and the individual writers.  To begin, groups need to reach consensus regarding topics.  This requires some flexibility as well as the ability to compromise.  Initially, we practiced an activity called 'Stack the Deck'.  Using notecards and a simple rating system, writers were able to submit and vote on topics anonymously.  After selecting a topic, students were given time to write (typically, they will have six days to complete a draft as writing circles will meet on D or E days).  I asked them to reflect on what our visiting author, Maryrose Wood, had said about composing a first draft.  After 15 minutes of uninterrupted writing, students shared their work with one another.  This time only, reviewers offered no response.  Various types of peer feedback will be taught and used in subsequent meetings.  I am excited to join the writing groups as well.  Each week, in each class, I will write with one group, share my piece, and receive feedback from the kids.  I suspect I might have a thing or two to learn myself!

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Friday, November 1, 2013

Two-Sentence Stories

Mark Twain once said, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead"  Twain speaks succinctly about the difficulties of concise writing.  When words really count, composition must be precise.  Magazines and Internet sites alike have created competitions for short writing.  In 2008, Smith Magazine challenged its readers to write their life stories in six words. The magazine was inspired by an anecdote in which Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a novel in six words.  The result?  "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."  While the validity of the Hemingway story is questionable, over 760,000 writers have published their own six-word memoirs on the site.  In a similar manner, the two-sentence story has gained popularity.  When Reddit asked writers to come up with their best two-sentence horror stories, the Internet was abuzz.  Check out these creepy tales.

 You hear your mom calling you into the kitchen. As you are heading down the stairs you hear a whisper from the closet saying “Don’t go down there honey, I heard it too. — comparetivelysane

I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, 'Daddy check for monsters under my bed.' I look underneath for his amusement and see him, another him, under the bed, staring back at me quivering and whispering, 'Daddy there’s somebody on my bed.' - justAnotherMuffledVo

I woke up to hear knocking on glass. At first, I though it was the window until I heard it come from the mirror again. - therealhatman

What better occasion than Halloween to try our hands at a few two-sentence horror stories?  It was the perfect opportunity to teach about word choice, conciseness, and brevity.  Armed with bags of treats and listening to scary sounds playing in the background, students created some of their own.  Frankly, many were downright frightening.  Here are a few of my favorites.  Enjoy!

She saw the power went out and then she heard a blood-curdling scream, getting closer and closer. When she reached for the flashlight there was a hand on it already.

I started watching a zombie movie. Until the zombies started watching me.

I was alone in the house when I heard my sister’s footsteps coming towards my room.  Then I remembered that my sister was out with friends and my parents were at a talk.  

I heard a scream coming from the bathroom.  I went and opened the door to find it was empty.

photo credit: ~Brenda-Starr~ via photopin cc

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Progress and Participation

With the quarter coming to a close, we have been preparing for reflection.  Because grades are based on progress and participation, students have been organizing and polishing artifacts that represent their effort and thinking.

To begin, they will need to prove a commitment to their writer's notebooks.  Specifically, students will participate in one-on-one conferences focusing on these criteria: flexibility and fluency; thoughtfulness; and grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling.  A notebook that demonstrates flexibility and fluency is one that contains entries that are more than just two or three sentences.  Writing doesn't end abruptly, and ideas are fleshed out.  Likewise, writers should show a willingness to try new ideas, forms, and genres.  If every entry is a soccer narrative, it's time to attempt something new.  On the other hand, assessing thoughtfulness is a little more subjective.  Entries that reveal new insights to the writer's thinking and that are reflective meet this criterion. Thoughtful writing is neither a list, nor a diary entry. Finally, students should consistently employ what they know about good writing.  Sixth grade writers should be able to differentiate between homophones, use correct capitalization, and apply appropriate end punctuation.  Notebooks are not expected to be perfect, but patterns of errors will provide opportunities for additional practice.

Students are expected to actively read assigned texts.  For each, I will ask students to 'notice and note' specific details.  This quarter, they read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor.  As part of their interaction with the text, readers needed to annotate for glimpses of Taylor's father, the author's use of thunder, and the marginalization of the Logan family.  Those annotations will serve as tracks of the students' thinking.  Like the writer's notebook, readers will participate in one-on-one conferences with me.  They will be expected to show how they interacted with the text to make meaning, and how their annotations shed light on the author's intentions.

Next week promises to be a reflective one as we work together to construct a picture of individual growth and participation.

photo credit: Amir Kuckovic via photopin cc

Friday, October 11, 2013

Simulating Reality

Students were buying and selling cotton last week in an activity designed to simulate the challenges faced by sharecropping farmers in the 1930s.  As a supplement to reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the sharecropping simulation provides students with a firsthand experience of what it feels like to struggle and stress over financial decisions.  At the same time, they can begin to look more critically at the power structures that were in place during the setting of the novel.  While the protagonists, the Logan's, were not sharecroppers, many of their less fortunate neighbors had no other choice.  A relatively common practice in the post-Civil War South, sharecropping gave white landowners a way to reestablish a cheap labor source.  Simply put, tenant farmers rented land in exchange for a share of the crop. Unfortunately, a cycle of high interest loans and exorbitant rent (frequently as high as 50% of the total crop yield) took advantage of underprivileged blacks and whites, and many became attached to the land for life.  While sharecropping like this is no longer acceptable in the United States, agriculture is still a challenging business.  Today's farmers have a tough row to hoe.  Unexpected spikes in cost, unpredictable weather, and a fickle demand name a few.

It is my hope that as students make some tough choices, they will begin to empathize with those tenant farmers as well as appreciate the difficulties that were endured.  Kids will determine what seed to buy based on its current price, and they will be at the whim of the market come harvest time.  Mother Nature will throw in a few cruel tricks, and the plow might not make it this season. Additionally, students will need to weigh the pros and cons of securing a loan.  By making choices like those families did not so long ago, kids may understand why sharecropping has often been called "slavery by another name."

 photo credit: scismgenie via photopin cc

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Racing Sausages and Gummy Worms

It proved to be an absolutely beautiful afternoon as the whole school assembled on the Ken Laird Field to cheer on the home teams this afternoon.  Thirteen original cheers, beginning with a catchy SK hurrah and ending with a Harlem Shake performance by the seniors, launched the Homecoming 2013 Pep Rally.  The excitement crescendoed as the division heads competed in an unexpected gummy worm eating contest! Pie plates were filled with whipped cream and gummy worms, participants were given towels and shirts, and the messy challenge commenced. While Mrs. Nosbusch may not have come in first, she was certainly a winner in the eyes of the Middle School. Surprises were to be found around Willie's Corner, as the Klement's Famous Racing Sausages made their way to the field amidst a crowd reaction befitting an appearance made by Justin Bieber.  After watching the sausages race, Willie the Wildcat threw down the gauntlet.  In an unprecedented athletic event at USM, Willie raced the sausages, emerged victorious, and capped off an amazing pep rally.  Go Wildcats!

Click for photo gallery

Friday, September 27, 2013

Back to School

Welcome Back!
It was great to see so many of you at Back to School Night!  I hope that you are as excited as I am about your child's sixth-grade year.  We are going to do lots of reading, lots of writing, and lots of thinking.  While it is my responsibility to educate students for the world they will be entering, I also believe in balance.  Writer's notebooks, pens and pencils, and iPads all have their respective places in my curriculum.

Being with you last night reminded me of my middle and high school years.  On the ride home, I reflected on those teachers that impacted my life.  Ms. Kohnke, my AP English teacher, believed in me.  She trusted me with responsibility and stoked my interests in writing, reading, and good literature.  She was also the first teacher I got to know outside of school.  I remember how surreal it was for me at the time - Ms. Kohnke was actually a human being with a house and a car!  In fact, it was a compact pickup truck.  Picturing her driving that red Toyota still makes me smile!

My history teacher, Mr. Goldman, affected me in a different way.  He was passionate about what he taught, and I enjoyed his sarcastic wit. To this day, I can clearly hear the excitement in his voice as he explained the workings of capitalism, socialism, and communism.  Without any fanfare, Mr. Goldman had a unique ability to get students interested in his class.  Recently, we reconnected and went out for lunch.  It had been 22 years since I had since him last.  Amazingly, he hadn't aged a bit!

These two memories reminded me of the importance of my job.  To be a trusted partner in your child's education is an honor.  While I can never be a Ms. Kohnke or a Mr. Goldman, I am privileged to be a part of an educational community that cares so deeply about your children.  Here's to a fruitful and inspiring year!


Friday, September 20, 2013

The Block Schedule

At the behest of many of you, I have decided to delve into the way the block schedule should look and work in my classroom.  I say 'should' because even the best-laid plans can diverge from their original intent.  Let's face it, there are 21 different minds and 21 different agendas in each of my classes.

The beauty of the block schedule is the opportunity it offers us to dig deeply into what we are learning.  For example, we can look closely at a passage in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry from a multitude of angles and have ample time to do it.  We can explore the background knowledge needed to appreciate the message, analyze the author's intent, think critically about what is being said, evaluate the writer's craft, study vocabulary, and examine structure.  Then, we can start to write.  It could be a response to the passage, a piece in the style of what was read, a deeper exploration of a topic that was discussed, a method for thinking through a difficult idea, or a way to confront personal feelings about an issue. Because of the ability to do all of these things, reading and writing become intertwined, and students begin to see them not as separate entities, but rather as two interdependent disciplines.  Below, is a typical 90-minute block in English.

15 minutes
Self-selected reading
  •     Teacher models reading
  •      Confer with individual readers (monitor texts and progress)

5 minutes
Book Commercials
  • Based on self-selected reading
  • Students must complete two per quarter

10 minutes
     Whole group

Direct Instruction Reading (mini-lesson)
  • Comprehension strategies and skills (based on text being studied)
  • Group discussion (thinking critically, analyzing, evaluating)
  • Reading like writers (Daybook, Story Grammar)

Direct Instruction Vocabulary (mini-lesson)
  • Content-area terms determined by teacher
  • Vocabulary from reading to be determined by students and teacher
  • Marzano and Frayer strategies, games for reinforcement

15 minutes
Reading and Conferring
  • Strategies and skills practice (whole-class novel)
  • One-on-one teacher-student conferences

10 minutes
     Whole group
Direct Instruction (mini-lesson or Read Aloud)
  • 6 Trait Writing
  • Writing process
  • Writing like readers (Daybook, Story Grammar)

Alternate with
Writing Circles
1-2 minutes
     Whole group
Status of the Class
  • Record individuals' plans for writing

20 minutes
Writing and Conferring
  • Teacher and student-driven
  • Conference with teacher
  • Peer response

5-10 minutes
Personal Spelling Lists
  • Practice and assessment

5 minutes
     Whole group
  • Students rotate within 6-day cycle
  • Group acknowledgements 

* Adapted from Nancie Atwell

As you can see, it's pretty tight.  There are days when we get through every part of this schedule, and there are others where we get stuck in a specific area and don't have the opportunity to move forward.  Today, for example, the kids needed an extra dose of explicit instruction in annotating their novels.  This took more than the time I allotted for the teaching of reading skills, so we had less time to work on our writing task for the day.  It's not a setback, just a necessary focus on an immediate need.

I am thrilled to be teaching in the block schedule.  It allows me to dovetail all of the aspects of my curriculum together.  One of my goals is for your children to read and write as much as they can this year, and the 90-minute block will facilitate the integration of the two, naturally and logically.  I can't wait to hear your thoughts at the Back to School Night on Thursday, September 26.