Sunday, December 14, 2014

5 things I loved about last week

 It's so easy to get overwhelmed and allow a sense of hopelessness take over when you're a teacher. The work just never seems to be finished. So in the spirit of Colby Sharp and Elisabeth Ellington, I'm going to focus on some of the amazing things that happened this past week.

1. Students owning their learning
My 8th graders are writing a reflective essay for their midterms and I'm having them use the comments feature in Google Docs to point out the skill-type things they learned like grammar, 6+1 Traits, etc. and in one period they pointed out to me things they had learned that I forgot to list on the requirements blog post or texts we had shared as a class. Apparently I missed an opportunity to create this assignment collaboratively since they were offering me things that I needed to add to the midterm. Note to self for the final exam.

2. Reading Epiphanies
I am going to pat myself on the back and say that I have been on my game as a writing teacher this year. But because I only teach writing, I haven't done so well motivating my students to read this semester. I want them to see the value of self-selected reading because I firmly believe it makes you a better writer, but having my classroom in a computer lab that is taking up precious bookshelf space (as well as precious space in my students' heads as to what they could be doing once they finish their work), I haven't been able to find a way to make books a part of our daily literacy diet.

Many of my students have said, "If books were actually about things I WANT to read then I would read them." A lot of them think that books aren't written with their issues in mind and clearly I haven't done a good job of communicating that there are lots of books out there for them. So I have decided that over Christmas break, I am going to reorganize my classroom library so that it is more appealing to my mature 8th grade readers. Clearly I am still in my 6th grade mindset and I need to move past that and appeal to my more mature readers.

3. But really, students are begging for books. I just need to pay better attention to their pleas.
To go along with #2, I have also been slacking on my read aloud this year. Students were so involved with NaNoWriMo for the month of November that we didn't read anything at all from Natalie Lloyd's A Snicker of Magic, and as December rolled around, we got busy doing things like preparing for midterms and having frank conversations about race through the lens of what is happening in Ferguson as well as the watermelon joke heard round the world at the National Book Awards that I lost track of our shared reading experience.

But on Friday, through the fervor of working on midterms, I mentioned that next week we would get back into the swing of our read aloud, when an unlikely student, one who rarely speaks and I often question his engagement said, "But you could just read to us for five minutes." Clearly I have been shirking my "literacy is everyone's job" responsibilities this semester.

4. Reason # I've-Lost-Count that I love Literati Bookstore
Last week, Literati posted this picture on their social media sites with the following description:

Since he was accidentally left behind at our store, Teddy has been acclimating to his new life. He alphabetizes books and keeps our typewriter filled with fresh paper. But he's secretly hoping for a holiday miracle to be reunited with his person. He asked me to put up one more post, just in case someone recognizes him.

I mean, how can you NOT want to shop at a bookstore like that?

5. Baby grand pianos have lots of practical uses. A Christmas tree stand, for example.

Is this not the perfect vehicle for a small Christmas tree and a place to put gifts? And I love even more that I don't have to move furniture around.

As you have probably surmised, I am still quite smitten with Tori, the baby grand. I love that now when I come downstairs, this is what greets me instead of a cluttered dining room table.

What did you love about last week? 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Walter Dean Myers Award: Challenge your students to read diverse books

Earlier this spring, a movement began on social media. Frustrated with the lack of diversity in children's literature and the fact that the organizers of the inaugural BookCon in New York City deemed “the world’s biggest children’s authors” to be all white males, authors Melinda Lo and Ellen Oh expressed their frustration via social media and shortly thereafter a hashtag was born: #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which was first tweeted by author Aisha Saeed and began trending on April 29th of this year. It created ripples all over the world of social media.

From this single hashtag, a movement began and now #WeNeedDiverseBooks has transformed beyond simple passive social media activism into something more tangible. Not long after the hashtag went viral, We Need Diverse Books was established as a nonprofit organization, and in October it was announced that they have created a new award: The Walter Dean Myers Award, which "will recognize published authors from diverse backgrounds who celebrate diversity in their writing and '[allow] children to see themselves reflected back' in those works," (Publisher's Weekly).

The award is currently limited to young adult literature and winners will announced in 2015, but there are plans for adding middle grade and picture books to the award in the future.

In the wake of all the racial tension happening in our country right now, reading widely from diverse perspectives is more important than ever. As Matt de la Pena said recently in a panel at NCTE called Reshaping the Landscape of Story: Creating Space for Missing and Marginalized Voices, "The quickest way to create monsters in our inner cities is by never showing them mirrors of themselves in literature." We need to be giving kids positive portrayals of all cultural backgrounds, not just the voices of the privileged. As one contributor to the video above stated, "We need diverse books because they are the vehicles for empathy and empathy is the best weapon against hate."

So just like many teachers and librarians hold mock Newbery and Caldecott awards in their schools, I would encourage you to hold your own mock Walter Awards. Not only will this give your students an opportunity to read from a variety of cultural backgrounds, allowing them to not only look through windows but also into mirrors, it will also give teachers and librarians a chance to add more diverse books to their own classrooms and libraries.

Even though the Walter Award is starting in 2015 with only young adult literature, I would still encourage you to hold mock Walter Awards for middle grade and picture books as well. Encourage your students students to read from a variety of books with diverse characters and authors, and then create a ballot to vote for their favorites. Not sure how to dig in? Here is a list of 2014 titles to get you started. This is by no means an exhaustive list, mainly because my canon of diverse books needs to increase, and also because I don't know what the exact award criteria will be other than "published authors from diverse backgrounds who celebrate diversity in their writing,"  but it's a good place to start so you can seek out further titles. And please let me know what 2014 titles I should add to this list.

Young Adult
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson
The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Hadley Hooper
Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle
When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang
Everything Leads to You by Nina Lacour
Knockout Games by G. Neri
Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina by Michaela and Elaine DePrince
Dreaming in Indian: Contemporary Native American Voices, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale

Middle Grade
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Brenda Woods
Unstoppable Octobia May by Sharon G. Flake
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
Kinda Like Brothers by Coe Booth
Wrinkles Wallace: Fighters of Foreclosure by Marquin Parks

Picture Books
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Qin Leng
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
Green is a Chile Pepper by Roseanne Thong, illustrated by John Parra
The Hula-Hoopin'Queen by Thelma Lynne Godin, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
I Got the Rhythm by Connie Schofield-Morrison, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk,illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison
Ninja! by Aree Chung
Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin, illustrated Renato Alarcao
Bravo, Chico Canta! Bravo! by Pat Mora and Libby Martinez, illustrated by Amelia Lau Carling
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
Sugar Hill: Harlem's Historic Neighborhood by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

In the interest of full-disclosure, book links take you to my Amazon Affiliate page. If you buy any of these books through Amazon, it is my hope that you also regularly patronize independent bookstores, which are important centerpieces of thriving communities. While I am an Amazon Affiliate, that by no means implies that I only buy my books through their website. Please make sure you are still helping small, independent bookstores thrive in your community. To locate an independent bookstore near you, visit IndieBound.  

Cross-posted to my book blog, A Foodie Bibliophile in Wanderlust

Friday, December 5, 2014

Celebrating NaNoWriMo accomplishments and hard conversations

My 8th graders turned in their NaNoWriMo stories on Monday and they are STILL talking about how much they loved the experience. One girl said today, "I learned so much about writing from NaNoWriMo. I wish we were still doing it." Another said, "Now whenever we're asked to a short essay, I'll be like, 'this is a piece of cake' after going through NaNoWriMo." I've only had a couple students write and talk about it being a bad experience for them. Most of them said they really enjoyed it. So I'm still basking in the glow of their writing motivation. Clearly I need to do NaNoWriMo with my students every year.

In addition to celebrating their NaNoWriMo accomplishments, however, we also had some really tough conversations this week about race in the wake of all that is happening in our country right now. I was initially very hesitant to discuss such an emotionally-charged topic with my students, but overall, they were very mature and respectful, even if we didn't always agree. It was hard to hear some of the things they were saying, but I also know that sweeping this issue under the rug would have been a missed opportunity for a teachable moment. I'm glad I decided to stick my neck out, crawl out of my turtle shell, and talk about the tough stuff with them.

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayers

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Remembering Joy

Today I cried while playing a Chopin Nocturne.

It was fraught with wrong notes and stifled rhythms, and for a few moments, I had a hard time seeing the music through my tears. But I played it all the way through and it was glorious.

I cried because I remembered what it was like to sit at the piano again and feel joy. And while I have shed many tears over the past fourteen years as a result of my lost musical passions, today I cried for the first time, not for the years I lost, but instead because I remembered and it didn't hurt.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Today I am thankful for...

I've been back from NCTE for four days now and I still cannot put into words what an amazing experience it was. Every year this event inspires me to be a better teacher and sustains me for the rest of the school year.

Last year in Boston was the first year I presented at NCTE, and this year I presented three times!

Rather than write a long, detailed explanation of all the wonderful things that happened this year, I took a cue from Katherine Sokolowski and created an Animoto video to tell the story of my NCTE experience.

If you want more #ncte14 nuggets, check out my #ncte14 Storify

So today I am thankful for a tribe of teachers who sustain me and keep me going. Teaching absolutely is a calling, but it's one that requires a village to stay the course. NCTE is my village.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Going to NCTE? Hope to see you there!

I leave for the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention on Wednesday night. I can't believe it's here already! I treat NCTE like a holiday... I actually like it better than Christmas (Free books AND meeting revered authors? Hello? What could be better?)

If you're going to be there, I hope you can attend one of my sessions:

Friday 2:30 - 3:45 PM
Heart and Mind: Stories and Ideas That Keep Us Teaching  
Along with students’ narrative writing, teachers must recount their work, to build public understanding and encourage colleagues, especially with education so stressed. After featured speaker Sonia Nieto, three teachers will share classroom stories. Then, in this interactive session, participants write and photograph placards about teaching, published afterward in web videos.

Saturday 8:00 - 9:15 AM
Students CAN Write: Changing the Narrative of a Deficit Model
We’ve heard it in the news and teachers’ lounges across America: 'These students just can’t write!' The presenters in this panel, who span grade levels and subject areas, seek to silence this false presumption and prove that student writing is worthy of recognition and celebration.

And I was added last minute to this Ignite session on Saturday 9:30-10: 45 AM due to a cancellation:
Common Standards, Uncommon Teaching
The standards may be common, but our students deserve uncommon learning. There are spaces in the standards for the additional skills, topics, and passions we want our students to have. Each presenter will give a fast-paced, five-minute Ignite presentation with ideas on where these spaces are and what we can do with them. There will also be time for audience interaction.

My Ignite session is going to be about using social media to transform your teaching.

If you're able to come to any of these sessions, I hope you'll come say hi. Or if you see me in the hallways or exhibit hall between sessions, come talk to me too. I love meeting new teachers and hearing their stories. NCTE is a great place to re-energize your teaching and I love seeing, hearing, and feeling the enthusiasm. It is most definitely contagious!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Celebrate This Week: On Discovering Your Own Writing Journey

Conferring with students this week about their NaNoWriMo stories, I am continually impressed with the progress they are making in their own writing journeys. One particular conference reinforced just how powerful having the time to figure things out is so crucial. Because of the extended nature of this project, the time has allowed this student to see how to move his story forward. He had a problem, and rather than coming to me and saying, "I don't know what to do!" he worked it out for himself. He didn't need hand-holding. He just needed time. I worry that we're dismissing too many young writers as incapable because we're not allowing them the benefit of time...

As Penny Kittle said at the MCTE conference a couple weeks ago:
We need to be looking at embracing all of our students as individuals and helping them on their own journeys instead of forcing everyone down the same pre-determined path.

So in that vein, I am celebrating all the ways my students are discovering their own learning journeys this week.  Here are some quotes from my students reflecting on their NaNoWriMo stories.

On discovering yourself as a writer:
"I have learned that I do best when I listen to music and try not to be a 'perfectionist.'" - Alex H.

"So far my story is going pretty well. Honestly, it feels good and strange saying that because I usually struggle with characterization. At the beginning I was contemplating my entire plot and storyline in a whole, but now I have most everything figured out. With that being said, since I just recently discovered my plot, I still have all of next week to write it, making the weeks following crucial and busy." - Erin R.

"I just write what comes to my mind and when the music speeds up, tension rises and when it slows down, tension falls." - Seth K. 

"I've learned that I actually have really good ideas in my mind that I didn't know I had." - Monse S.

On knowing your writing process:
"It can be lit ablaze with just a spark of imagination." - Jonah S. 

"I learned that my writing process is fairly simple. I just need time and concentration. Sometimes when I am stressed, ideas tend to come slower to me." - Hailey W.

On embracing excitement and uncertainty:
"My story idea in my head right now is what I've always wanted to write, my story blossomed before my eyes which I am pretty proud of myself for. I struggle with actually typing it though. I have everything in my head and then just spitting the words out can be pretty difficult. I get frustrated because I don't know how to word stuff or where to put what. I feel nervous going into next week, but I will make sure to make an improvement this weekend." - Alex H.

On realizing goals:
"10,000 words is not too many words as it may seem." - Jared M

On embracing independence:
"I don't really need help, plus I want to learn on my own sometimes." - Jacksen K.

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayers