Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thankful To Be Back

In the past week, I've spent lots of time thinking about the things in my life for which I am thankful. The list is pretty long, but when I considered the things in my professional life that I would include, I kept coming back to one thought.

I am so thankful to be back in the classroom this year.

At first, it was just that, but when I kept coming back to it--just that one thought--I took the time to ask myself why. And what I realized is that it goes deeper than the joy of being with my own class full of little learners, though that would be reason enough.  Yes, I am so happy to have my own classroom again, to be greeted by 23 little smiles each morning, to be there when a kid gets that "oh--I get it!" look on his face. But there is something even more professionally satisfying and energizing that makes me thankful for this year.

During my time out of the classroom, I learned a lot--a tremendously huge bunch of stuff--about teaching and learning and literacy and teachers and kids. I'm thankful for all the experiences I had and for all I was lucky enough to learn. But in returning to the classroom, I am reminded that, for me, the real learning comes when I am applying and trying and adjusting what I've learned while I'm engaged in the real work of my classroom.

What I've found is that real learning--understanding, deepening, extending, modifying, even innovating--comes when I am engaged most closely with a school, a grade level team, and mostly when I am immersed in work with kids day after day across time. To join in classroom work for short blocks of time is powerful; to do it as all teachers do, across whole days with multiple contents areas and other duties to juggle, is to really begin to understand the work teaching and learning more deeply.

When I think of professional leaders whose work I study and admire, I find there is a balance--those whose work is done mostly at the university/research level or in the capacity of coaching/consulting and those who still spend most of their time working in the classroom with their own students. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to do both, but after a time in the world of coaching and consulting, it feels good to take the things I've learned and helped others learn and put it all to work with my very own group of kids.

I'm learning a lot, and for that, I am very thankful.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

When Saying Nothing Works

I still have a lot to learn about conferring. I've been conferring with kids for a long time--and I still feel like there's so much to learn about doing it well day after day. I've been lucky to have great teachers. My trainers, the work of Carl Anderson, Lucy Caulkins, Katie Wood Ray, Peter Johnston, my colleagues--all have helped me become better. Sitting beside me right now is my new copy of Day by day: refining writing workshop through 180 days of reflective practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz--chapter 5 is on conferring, and I can't wait to read it.

But what I learned from one of my students recently is that sometimes what's most important and powerful in conferring isn't what I say or how I say it. Sometimes the the most powerful stuff happens when I force myself to stay quiet, wait, watch and listen.

I sat down next to C., and I will admit that I took a deep breath first (or maybe 2). His folder is stuffed with loose writing papers and writing books, most of which have a barely representational drawing--outlines only--and either no writing or a single sentence which neither of us can make heads or tails of despite the fact that he wrote it and I have quite a bit of experience deciphering early attempts at writing.

As soon as I sat down next to him, C. pulled a paper from the heap and bent his head over it. There were 2 things that sort of looked like rectangles on the page. I've been working and working with C. to help him learn to draw his story and to be able to begin to tell it in words--verbally and in writing. I didn't know what else to say that would help him. So I didn't say anything. And while I was waiting for inspiration to strike or the conferring fairy to bestow wisdom on me, something happened.

As he picked up his pencil, C. started talking.
"See--these are 2 trucks...semi trucks." He added a kind of cab shape and wheels to each rectangle.
"And they have to get gas but in a spot only they go to and the red one goes here [drew a box on the edge of the paper] and the green here [another box goes onto the page] and they have things here where they load it up." C. drew a hose-like thing coming from the back of each semi truck.

A little voice in my head told me to keep quiet and keep watching--conferring fairy? And C. continued. He kept talking and drawing and even started to add labels and a sentence all on his own. I realized that his story was coming into his mind as was drawing it--like both were happening at once. C. didn't have a story in mind that he could tell or draw until he started drawing. But as he drew, he continued talking and suddenly there was a picture with recognizable objects, some labels, and a definite story.

I never spoke during that conference. But I learned an awful lot. C. did more with that story than with any other up to that point in the year. He even added another page to show and tell about the trucks driving off down the highway. And when I got up to move to the next kid, C. looked up and thanked me for helping him. Really? I had done nothing more that sit down, wait and watch.

Later, as I thought about it, I realized that maybe what I did--or didn't do--was helpful. I did learn more about C. and his process as a writer. As for him perceiving my lack of conferring action as a helpful thing, maybe he just needed someone there. Not someone teaching him at that moment, or helping him do something he knows he needs help with, but someone just to be there while he gave it a go.

I still believe that most conferences should involve the teacher teaching or supporting the writer. After all, conferring is a teaching context geared toward the specific strengths and needs of the individual. But I never would have learned so much about C.'s process, his strengths and his needs if I had tried to come up with something to say during that conference, and now I have a much clearer idea of how I can support him in future conferences.

So whether it was the conferring fairy or sudden insight or a happy accident, I'm glad I didn't know what to say. What I learned is that if I'm willing to wait and watch carefully, sometimes the most powerful thing for me to say is nothing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Abandoning Projects...Sort Of

This week in our class we abandoned a project...sort of.  We had been using interactive writing to write about a field trip we had taken near the end of October. The day we let the project go, 2 student teachers from other schools were in our room observing, and they were curious about that decision.

They had seen our class meet on the carpet and heard me remind the kids that we had a decision to make--keep going with our writing about the trip, or let it go and move on to a new project. The kids all wanted to move on. We had printed pictures from the trip, mounted them and had written captions for all but 2 of the events from that day. Most of the pictures and captions were already hanging in the hallway, and the energy created by the trip and our remembering it had been slowly waning over the past week. While the kids still remembered the trip and wanted others to know about the trip, they were not all that interested in writing about it any more.

As soon as the kids went to recess, the questions came. "Why did you abandon the project--and what really does that mean? Does it happen a lot?"
"No," I replied, "not often. But it does happen sometimes and it's hard as a teacher to let it go. Especially if in my mind it's a great project. In this case, the energy from the trip has sort of died down and the kids just weren't engaged in the project any more--even though it was their idea."  I went on to explain that abandoning the project just means that we aren't going to work on it as an interactive writing project any more. I took about 1 minute to have the kids tell me again what was happening in the 2 remaining pictures and I quickly wrote it down without any further comment or teaching. The project will remain displayed in the hallway outside our room.

The other student teacher piped up, "But why didn't you have the kids go ahead and finish it? I thought that interactive writing means the kids help write down things."  She's right--that is a large part of it. But not all.

Interactive writing is a powerful instructional piece in which the teacher and kids share the task of choosing a writing project based on some common experience or learning, negotiate what kind of text will be created and what it will say and then work together to write the actual message. It's a place where the teacher supports kids in using all they know and are learning about writing and about how letters, sounds and words work.   But the key to the power of interactive writing is in the engagement of the kids. If they are not engaged in the work--if they don't feel a strong sense of ownership and control over it--then they really don't gain anything from the experience.

"That's what was happening here," I explained. "The kids had lost interest, probably because it's been a while since the trip and we've been studying some other things that they are really into right now. I was working my rear end off trying to keep them focused and they weren't really getting anything out of it.If I'm the only one really working and still interested in the project, that's a problem."

What I had realized was that I was plowing ahead just to get the thing finished. Then I stopped to think about why I use interactive writing. The goal isn't to get really cool looking projects hung in the hall outside my room (though I have to admit, I do love that part!)--it's to support the kids as writers. To help them think about what they want to share with the world and how they want to share it and then how to do it.

In the real world, writers often have multiple projects going and regularly set aside or abandon projects that no longer seem to hold their attention. Interactive writing should work the same way.  I wasn't abandoning the important things. I was just letting go of that particular project, and in the process was showing my young writers that sometimes that's what writers do. Calling it done so we can keep working on the same things but within a new project--something the kids are excited about and genuinely want to share with others.

I'll admit it's not easy for me to walk away from a project or to end it before it gets to be what I had envisioned. But if I'm honest with myself, it's better this way--knowing when to abandon a project and then being willing to do it is not easy, but I also have to admit that I can't wait to see what the kids have in mind for our next project. So in thinking back, I'm glad those student teachers were there that particular day, and I'm glad they asked the questions they did. It made me think over my decision and realize that it was the right one for now--and that while I was abandoning that project, I was not abandoning the powerful learning and teaching that happens during interactive writing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Informational Text Writing--Teaching Leading Learning Leading Teaching...

My last post was about how my colleague Mr. A. and I were working on plans designed to raise the awareness and interest of our young writers in writing informational text. Since both of us had noticed how much our kids seemed drawn to informational text as readers, we were puzzled by the fact that the kids just didn't seem interested in writing it.

I have good news--not only is it working, but I was able to follow the lead of one of my writers and add to our original plans. I love when teaching and learning becomes teaching and learning and teaching and learning and teaching and learning....the teaching following and leading the learners who follow and lead the teaching. I'm pretty sure there's a cool graphic in that somewhere...

So here's the proof.

I'll start with the chart based on the original plan Mr. A. and I devised--remember that this was done over a period of a few days, not all once. You'll also have to forgive me for my lack of foresight, as I did not take a picture of the chart before what happened this week...but you'll get to see that part in a minute.

And here's what H. did in response. She remembered what we had read about ladybugs earlier this year, and she also carefully put each kind of information on its own page.
Ladybugs have spots on their wings.

Ladybugs can fly.

So far so good, right? Now, look what she did on the last page!

Ladybugs have two set of wings.
She used a diagram! Not only that, but it actually is purposeful--it helps the reader understand what she's trying to teach. In case you can't read her labels, the ones on the top and bottom say thin and the one in the middle says hard. And yes, that is something we read in a book about ladybugs (all the way back in August, so way to go on the long-term memory H.!) H. took what she was learning about informational text during writing minilessons and then went further. I can't be certain, but I'm guessing that after the minilesson where we used informational text to see how authors put one kind of information on a page, H. started to notice some other things those authors were doing.

And here's where the teaching follows the learning--I asked H. to share what she had done with the rest of our class, and we added to our chart on writing information books.

I could see the rest of the kids really thinking over what H. was showing them. We made sure to talk about how her diagram actually helps the reader--it's there for a reason, and not every illustration in an information book will use diagrams. S. piped up, "yeah, it might not help so that's not a reason to just do it."

I have a feeling this may lead somewhere...