Friday, February 5, 2016

Making Research Relevant

The research paper.

It's the bane of every English teacher's existence.

Why? Because students are either forced to write about a topic that is irrelevant to them, or they are disengaged from the research because they don't understand the point of the assignment.

I have been teaching language arts for almost ten years. And every single year I have gotten it wrong. I fully admit that my students have left my class disengaged from the research process.

Until this year. I am determined to get it right this year.

Thanks to my wonderful adviser at Eastern Michigan University, Cathy Fleischer, and her writing partner Sarah Andrew-Vaughan, I have decided to have my students complete an Unfamiliar Genre Project as their research paper this year.

The Unfamiliar Genre Project takes the research process and turns the focus to writing, asking students to immerse themselves in a genre they're interested in, but not familiar with, and then to eventually write in that genre. 

I just introduced the UGP to my 8th graders this week and already I'm seeing way more engagement and motivation than any research project I've ever assigned. And what I've loved the most this week is hearing the conversation around the room as students talk about what genre they're going to choose and are bouncing ideas off of each other.

So this week I am celebrating making research relevant in my classroom. 
What makes the UGP such an engaging research project and something I'd encourage you to try is as follows:

1) It teaches students that writing is not one thing but multiple things, and one must study the conventions of a genre in order to write well in that genre. So when we tell students things like, "avoid passive voice" or "no first person allowed," we're doing them a disservice because different genres call for adherence to difference conventions.
2) It puts the research focus on writing rather than some random topic that bears no significance to English class.
3) It empowers students by showing them that if they can develop the tools to write in one genre, then it's possible to do this for many genres. It's essentially taking the mystery out of writing for them.

If this sounds like something you'd love to learn more about, I highly recommend you check out Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughan's book Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone. I can't say enough about how much this project has changed the way I view not only teaching research but how I teach genre as well. It also made me realize the importance of having students study multiple mentor texts rather than just giving them one to emulate.

So if you're like me and you'd rather scratch your nails down a chalkboard than teach another group of disengaged students the tired old research paper, then I highly encourage you to give the Unfamiliar Genre Project a try.

Book info:
Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone: Helping Students Navigate Unfamiliar Genres by Cathy Fleischer and Sarah Andrew-Vaughan
Published: January 9, 2009
Publisher: Heinemann
Pages: 184
Disclosure: Purchased Copy

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Of pens and procrastination

This weekend, while I was supposed to be grading essays, I decided on a whim that my favorite pens needed to be in a separate container from the rest of the "common" pens. I mean, when I want to use one of my special pens, I can't waste precious time digging through the giant flower pot on the kitchen counter to find my perfectly smooth and liquidy (yet quick drying!) Pentel EnerGel pens. Now instead of a giant flower pot, my special pens are hanging out in a dainty little mason jar, easy to spot and grab at a moment's notice.

Because that needed to be done rightthisveryminute, don't you know? Those essays have been waiting all week. They can wait another 5 minutes. 

Do you have favorite pens? What are they? I want to know so I can try them out. Because even though I am fiercely loyal to my EnerGels, I am willing to entertain other options.

What are some of your infamous procrastination techniques? Besides unnecessarily organizing pens, I also like to:
  • play the piano
  • clean out the refrigerator
  • clean off my desk
  • go to the library because I JUST realized I had a bunch of books on hold that I need to pick up rightthisveryminute
  • go grocery shopping to replace all the food I threw away when I was cleaning out the refrigerator

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Links Worth Talking About 1-31-16

Links Worth Talking About is my weekly post of curated links about education, books, and apropos of nothing.

This week I reviewed Tom Romano's latest book Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others

Ricki Ginsberg makes a compelling case for why teachers and librarians need to lay off the lexiles.

I love Jenni Holm's Nerdy Book Club post this week: Back to (Board Book) Basics

Hank Green concurs with his brother John and discusses why the term millennial makes him cringe.

Danielle Davis shared a great post on All the Wonders: 12 Delightful Picture Books with Diverse Characters

Sometimes educational communities on Twitter are criticized for living inside their own little worlds and not responding to issues and problems as they are unfolding. They conduct their regularly scheduled chats with little to no recognition of the problems occurring in real time, causing them to appear somewhat tone deaf. This week, the #MichEd community focused their chat on the crises we are dealing with in Flint and Detroit. I was happy to see this educational community on Twitter rally in support and pose questions to try to move beyond simple Twitter activism.

Shannon Houghton shared this link with me this week and highlighted the Ignite session by Saraswati Noel about social justice in math class.  

Pernille Ripp shares how to make grades about students again.

The Michigan Daily, the University of Michigan's student newspaper, wrote this wonderful article about my favorite bookstore, Literati.

More discussion this week about A Birthday Cake for George Washington after furor of its overt racism caused Scholastic to pull the book from publication.

This week I found out that one of my favorite books of all time, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is getting a sequel!

And apropos of nothing...

Three people shared this link with me on Facebook this week. Because my friends on Facebook know that I am obsessed with sloths: Police Officers Rescue Sloth Trapped on Roadway

I am a huge figure skating fan. I have been ever since I was 14 years old and the whole Nancy/Tonya showdown of the 1994 Olympics. I finally got around to watching the U.S. National Championships on my DVR this week and I was completely spellbound by ice dancers Maia and Alex Shibutani. "Fix You" by Coldplay is my favorite song. So when I heard the first notes of the song, I worried that they wouldn't do it justice. Oh boy was I wrong. Not only did they interpret the music perfectly, but they created a moment and will now always be remembered for this performance.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A post about familial influences and as a result, a very biased book review

"So why do you want to write? For most people, living a good life and writing are not synonymous. In your case, however, they might be. Words call you. You aren't content to merely take note of life swirling around you and rising within you. You want to have a say about it, and talking isn't enough. Talking is evanescent. You want some permanency to your words."

 English teachers know the name Tom Romano as the author of many books about the craft of writing and most significantly as the face of the multigenre writing movement. He has inspired many teachers with his words and his teachings but long before he was inspiring future English teachers, he was inspiring me, a young impressionable child, not even a decade old yet. You see, Tom Romano is my uncle.

But even before I read every single one of his books, he was my writing role model from a very young child. He modeled a writing life for me and I am a writer today because of his influence.

I still remember the summer my family stayed with him and my Aunt Kathy when we moved to northern Kentucky (they live in southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati). At the time, he was working on his very first book, Clearing the Way. I didn't know what a big deal this was until years later when I became a teacher and actually read the book for myself. But what I do remember from that time is that he would get up very early in the morning, hole himself up in his office, and write for hours.

He explained to me, a rather boisterous and opinionated 6-year-old, his strict rules about noise level and distractions in the house until a certain time of the morning. If I woke up before 11:00, even if it was 10:59, the mandate given by the resident author of the house was as follows: “No TV before 11:00!”

This became such a routine that I found myself, upon awakening every morning, walking down the hall, peeking my head in the doorway of his office and chiding him with an exasperated, “I know! No TV until 11:00!”
Reading with Uncle Tom as a wee one

But even if he weren't my uncle, it would be very hard not to be inspired by his words. Because for him, writing is life. It's not a pedantic set of rules and regulations one must follow in order to be considered talented or proficient. In his mind, in order to be a writer, one must write. Trust the gush. Revel in words and language. Write to elucidate your own thinking. It's as simple as that.

With Uncle Tom and Aunt Kathy at my recent graduation party
And so, as I suspected, Tom Romano's seventh book is just as inspiring as all of his others. Write What Matters has a somewhat different feel to it though. It has more of an imperative tone than his previous books, but it's done in a kindly way that compels one to write, not a condescending and sanctimonious way that will discourage young writers. *coughcoughThe Elements of Stylecoughcough* Romano comes across as the wise but gentle sage, ready to take on his young charge, not unlike say, a lovable and revered Mr. Miyagi or Obi-Wan Kenobi.

I especially appreciated the short chapters in Write What Matters, making them easily transformed into mini-lessons or quickwrites to share with students. I already know of quite a few chapters I will be sharing with my own students.  And as a self-proclaimed foodie, I will no doubt be using the "Make Me Taste It" chapter as a writing prompt in class. After all, one of the reasons I'm a such foodie to begin with is because I take pleasure in not only experiencing the flavors and textures of a perfectly executed dish, but also in describing those flavors and textures with language. I drive my husband a little bit crazy when we try a new restaurant because I spend just as much time describing my food as I do eating it.

So if you're looking for a book that will inspire your students (AND YOURSELF!) to pick up a pen or stare down the blinking cursor of a blank computer screen and say to it, "You don't scare me," you'd be hard pressed not to find inspiration in Write What Matters.

Write What Matters: For Yourself, For Others by Tom Romano
Published: October 20, 2015
Publisher: Zigzag Publishing
Pages: 158
Disclosure: Copy gifted to me by the author

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Links Worth Talking About 1-24-16

Links Worth Talking About is my weekly post of curated links about education, books, and apropos of nothing.

So this has been an interesting week in the world of Children's literature. Scholastic did something unprecedented. After only being in bookstores for a matter of days, they pulled the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington after furor of its overt racism. Lots of people seem to be weighing in on the topic without having actually read the book so rather than give my opinion, I just shared a link of someone who is more informed than I am.

Despite the unfortunate situation with a book being pulled from publication, this has been a rather prolific couple weeks in announcing children's literature book awards. In addition to the ALA Youth Media Awards, we also just learned the winners of:
Charlotte Zolotow (award for best picture book text)
Amelia Bloomer  (award for feminist literature from birth to age 18)
The inaugural Walter Award that was created by We Need Diverse Books 

Mr. Schu interviewed Newbery medalist Matt de la Peña this week and it was just as wonderful as you'd imagine.

This week I wrote a post about how a story in Elizabeth Gilbert's  Big Magic inspired my class to create a new mantra: Be the lobster.  

My friend Gary Anderson wrote this wonderful post about his top ten favorite interview questions for hiring English teachers. This post is so on point that the next time I have a job interview, I will ask these questions to myself and then answer them for the interviewers if they don't. :) 

I am a huge fan of the 826 organization that was founded by author Dave Eggers. We have one 826 location in Michigan, in my soon-to-be hometown of Ann Arbor, and I am elated to find out that Detroit will also be getting an 826 location.

This is an important article from the New York Times about Ivy League and other highly selective universities rethinking their admissions process.

Feeling burnt out? Pernille Ripp shares 12 ways she got her life back in balance as a teacher.

For those of my teacher friends who give their students choice and agency in their reading lives, you should be applauded. But Erica Beaton wonders what happens when we don't ask our students to push themselves and read hard things they wouldn't choose on their own. 

I need to put these words somewhere prominent as something to say the next time I have an anxiety attack.

This is an amazing TED talk by author Linda Sue Park: Can A Children's Book Change the World?
"In order to find yourself in a book you have to lose yourself in a book."

 Did you know you can order cards by beloved illustrators Jon Klassen and Christian Robinson? Check out Red Cap Cards.

And finally, if you haven't seen this parody of Adele's "Hello," but by a teacher wishing for a snow day, it's brilliant. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Be the Lobster

I recently read the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and was absolutely gobsmacked. The book is a paradigm shift in how we should approach creativity. Gilbert posits that we need to throw away the trope of the tormented artist in favor of lightness, curiosity and play in our creative work. She has definitely inspired me in how I will approach my writing life from this moment forward. 

To illustrate an important point in this book, Gilbert tells the story of an American artist who goes to Paris to be inspired. One day he finds himself at a cafe and meets some charming aristocrats. In the course of their conversation, they invite the American to a costume party at a castle in the Loire Valley. Being the starving artist that he was, he had to use his creativity and ingenuity to come up with a costume for the party. 

Upon his arrival, he immediately realized that he missed something in translation of the invitation: the costume party was a theme party -- a medieval court. Everyone was dressed in period gowns and were dripping with jewels. The young American came dressed as... a lobster, replete with red tights, a painted red face, and giant foam claws. 

At this moment, the young American had two choices: run away in shame, or stay and risk the torment of being the only one not dressed like everyone else. In that moment, he decided to descend the stairs and join the party. In so doing, he ended up being the life of the party and even danced with the queen of Belgium. 

I read this story to my students this week. They wrote about it in their writer's notebooks and we talked about it as a class. As I discussed this story with all three of my 8th grade classes, there was the inevitable suggestion that, "Hey! Let's all dress as lobsters for Halloween!" Or, "We should all go to homecoming dressed as lobsters next year!" As some students nodded their heads in assent or verbally expressed their enthusiasm, I immediately thought to myself that some of them had missed the point. 

So the next day, I brought in the picture book The Hueys in the New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers. This is a book about a group of people who are all the same. Until one day one of the Hueys decides to knit a sweater and be different than everyone else. At first the Hueys are horrified, but eventually the sweater catches on, and then this happens:

So now the new mantra in our classroom is BE THE LOBSTER. But let's make an important distincton here -- "be THE lobster." Not "be A lobster." When given the choice to be like everyone else dressed in gowns and jewels, walk down those stairs into the ball wearing your red tights and giant foam claws and dance with the queen of Belgium. Put yourself out there. Be vulnerable. Don't be like the Hueys. 

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Links Worth Talking About 1-17-16

Links Worth Talking About is my weekly post of curated links about education, books, and apropos of nothing.

 I hope you'll join us tonight at 8 PM ET on Twitter for the first #nctechat of 2016, hosted by members of the brand new NCTE Assembly on the Studies of Literacies and Multimedia (SLAM)

Speaking of #nctechat, remember that time Newbery Award-Winning author Matt de la Peña co-hosted the chat for Banned Books Week? I know I do. :)

I'm still so happy and thrilled about the news from earlier this week that Matt's book Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery medal. After I heard the news, I read it to my students the next day without the pictures and asked them to write about what they thought made it distinguished. Many of them had trouble articulating just what made it distinguished, but even those who seemed a little dubious of this choice still could tell that there is something special about this book.

Caldecott medalist Sophie Blackall, illustrator of Finding Winnie, tries to put some of her feelings into words
 Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, author of the Newbery honor book The War That Saved My Life, talks about hope

Here's a great NPR interview with both the Newbery and Caldecott medalists. 

And Kevin English reminded me of this great video from last year's Caldecott medalist, Dan Santat, where he talks about his art influences. A wonderful mentor text to share with students to have them ponder their own artistic influences.

I found this Washington Post article fascinating:
The totes amazesh way millennials are changing the English language
I have a confesh: I am totes guilty of totesing. I approach language like a linguist, not a grammarian. I love studying (and participating in!) the ways in which culture causes language to evolve.

And speaking of millennials, John Green has some words for the adults in the room:
Stop patronizing young people and start listening
I've been saying this for a long time. You can either yell from your porch to "get off my lawn" or you can bother to listen to young people and seek to understand what they have going for them. If you hadn't noticed, all adolescents are self-absorbed. It's called being an adolescent. You were no different.

The book Quiet by Susan Cain changed my life. It made me realize that not only am I an introvert, This article really resonated with me because, yes, as an introvert, I abhor small talk. but that in a culture that only seems to embrace extroversion, it's time to find ways to value and nurture the introverts of the world.

An important article from the New York Times:
How Measurement Fails Doctors and Teachers

And apropos of nothing:
All the Times President Obama Lost His Chill Around Kids