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