On Friday after school, I attended the fourth session of the UFTTC literacy workshop series. The topic has on to improving students' writing. The facilitators did a 'word splash', where the 'students' brainstormed words beginning with each letter, related to the topic of global warming. Then we watched the first 20 minutes or so of An Inconvenient Truth. It was engaging and fascinating, and I can't wait to show it to my kids and instill some outrage in them. Oh, and we were supposed to keep track of new vocabulary words for our word splash, and also do a "They say/I say" but I forgot.
After the video clip, we did a quick-write focused on a question, which was something about evidence of global warming.
The facilitators handed out examples of student work. I think the papers were in-progress essays based on the quick write, or something. At our tables we were supposed to come up with a list of positives and negatives about the worst paper, and figure out what to work on in the conference with the student. Then we had to share. Blah, stupid group work.
We got some interesting handouts in the workshop. One was the scale of writers, from emergent to advanced. I'd seen it before, obviously, but this time I looked at it through the lens (nice edu-speak!) of my current students and realized that most of my students are still beginning writers, with a few independents thrown in for good measure. Wow. At twelve years old, still not independent writers! Scary.
Another handout was a student writing rubric. There were scales of four for these topics: Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, and Conventions. Obviously I've seen these kinds of things before too (Six Traits, anyone?), but I liked getting it again and reminding myself how useful this could be for me and the students. I hope.
On Saturday, I left Boyfriend's at 7.15 to travel northward, to the NYCWP Teacher to Teacher conference in the Bronx. The breakfast spread was impressive and abundant: fruit platters, bagels, donuts, coffee, orange juice. Yum! The keynote speaker was Walter Dean Myers, and everyone was thrilled about it. He's all famous and stuff! He had such wonderful, down-to-earth, yet passionate things to say about writing and stories.
He described his process for us, how every day he has several hours for pre-writing one book, revising another, and writing a third. Every day! He spends an entire month pre-writing for each idea. After that month, he can tell whether it will be a book or not. He said that the planning helps free him, because he can use language and imagination better and easier. For fiction, he creates a six-square outline, and four for non-fiction. All stories must start with an interesting character and an interesting problem. Books should begin with the character in crisis. Since kids don't like to read long chunks of text, the character needs someone else to talk to, instead of drawn-out internal monologue.
He mentioned that for each book he works on, his wife creates a mural, showing pictures of the character and a couple scenes from the book. The mural hangs behind the computer, so he sees it each time he writes about it. Isn't that wonderful? To have a different format of your story to look at for inspiration.
I loved this idea and want to have my students work on it. They can definitely create a collage/mural for the main characters in their l!t c!rcle books this week, and if we work on fiction writing later, they can create that first, along with their outline. Then, one hopes, they can have a clearer picture of the character and what's happening to him or her, so the student can write their story easier.
During the book signing, he told us (two of my like-minded colleagues came to the conference too) that he picks up fast-food job applications, and fills them out for his characters. If you do that, you know some concrete things about the character: where they live, what they've done in school, and that creates a more real, more concrete character, which I would imagine makes it easier to write.
For non-fiction, he explained that you can't simply write facts and anecdotes. You must begin with a question, and your research must provide the answers, so that your reader can look for the answers. Your work will be focused and more interesting and original if it's focused on answering on a specific question. And of course, plentiful evidence is necessary.
He said that writers aren't geniuses spewing out genius work on their first try; writers are craftspeople who constantly work on their craft. He said that his ideas come from his life and his interest, and that his books reflect who he is. He loves the process of writing and never suffers from writer's block.
Isn't this all so wonderful? I was intrigued and charmed and excited about getting his message to my students. I also hope to take some of his advice to my own 'craft' and practicing writing along with the kids.
For the first workshop after his keynote session, I attended one called "What Makes a Hero?" about creating a monologue. To begin, there were some charts posted around the little room, with questions on them, ready to be answered with markers. What inspires you to write? What makes a hero? Who are some of your heroes? Why? Do societies need heroes? Do individuals need heroes?
The facilitator, a tall, mellow man with big dimples, then had us do some free writes about those same questions. We shared our ideas in small groups. My group had some overlap about the hero definition. We all thought of firefighters, but also every-day types of heroes. Personally, I think the fire/police hero thing has been shoved down our throats by the media, and so I sort of resent the fact that they come to mind so quickly. While they certainly are heroic and brave, putting their lives on the line, there are many more kinds of heroics than that. Which then makes everyone think of Martin Luther King, Jr and Rosa Parks, who fought for what they believed in, sacrificing parts of themselves or their own life. But again, there are heroes who aren't famous or who don't die tragically, but who persevere through struggles, who stand up for what they believe in, for trying to inspire others with conviction and purpose.
We were supposed to create a character and start some ideas about him or her and a monologue for them, but I totally didn't. That kind of open writing kind of paralyzes me, because I don't really have that kind of imagination. I've never been the type who can just create something out of thin air, and I've kind of cheated my students by never pushing myself to be a good writer, or at least a practicing writer, which I suppose is all anyone can do.
The second workshop was by an ESL teacher who shared her unit on gender inequity. It was utterly fascinating for me, because I love that topic (hence, my BA in women studies), and she told us about the incredible work her students did. She brought in NYTimes articles and did guided listening activities (giving them questions to answer, then reading to the article to them, letting them compare answers, then writing an essay about the topic and questions), and her students researched their own topics related to gender inequity around the globe.
One strategy she did with us was called the One-Question Interview. Each person gets an open-ended question, and asks it to a bunch of people, recording answers on paper. Then you can analyze the results and write about your conclusions. My question was, In your country, would you rather be a man or a woman and why? Another similar question someone asked me was, Do you think it's easier to be a man or a woman, and why? Fascinating!
The packet she gave us included a bunch of actual lesson outlines she does, along with useful articles, research project guidelines and peer feedback form, websites related to the topic--all so clear and easy to take in. I love getting those kinds of materials, because it's so easy to get excited about and adapt to my own class or philosophy. I'd much rather get actual examples of the article and questions, rather than the vague explanation, "Well, I read them an article and they had to answer the questions while they listened." For me, that is interesting, but then thinking about finding my own article (Google? NYTimes article that costs money to retrieve? Ugh!) and creating questions? Won't happen. Seeing the actual article and the actual questions is like, oh man, I can totally do this!
And I do plan on reading the article (a discussion of roles, rules, and restrictions for women before the 19th Amendment) to my students, with the questions, but then I'll feel more able to find more on my own, and I'll know what kind of questions to write. I definitely need that structure and guidance to take something back to my own classroom.
So, along with last week's conference, which now I hardly remember, I've got tons of ideas in my head, and I found myself planning, while pretending to sleep in, how to incorporate pieces of these conferences and workshops.
I love attending conferences and workshops because they get me to think, they get me out of my cranky rut, and they get me excited again! Often in the last three months, I have felt so blah and in despair of this ridiculous job, but these workshops really help me feel like striving to be a better teacher.
Since two of my colleagues were there, one of whom is my good friend N, and they're in my same department, we all had plenty to talk about. We lamented the lack of department PD and collaboration in our school. I think that is so vital to an effective and cohesive program across the grades. Working and sharing inspires everyone. But too often, some colleagues don't share, only take, ideas, or are too new to have much to bring to the table, or are resentful of any meeting, or are out on their own planet.
So I suggested to N that we organize our own PD. We'll ask people if they want to meet and talk together. If not, it won't be required or anything, but we can try to create some bonds with our own grade peers and others. Wouldn't it be great if I knew that I didn't need to worry about my students mastering sentence diagrams, because I knew that the next two years, other competent teachers will help them practice and understand it better? That there was an atmosphere of sharing and coming up with ideas and plans together, talking out the kinks and creating interesting projects and follow-ups? And then having other people to support you and help you actually follow through with all the good ideas? That's always my downfall; I have these great ideas, but I rarely follow through, or I have to abandon them, because of student apathy or curriculum restrictions.
Our AP is so fantastic this year that I know she would support us, even if we had to deviate a little from the curriculum. Because, we all created the curriculum together last year, and she and the lit coach have already been talking with us about adaptations for next year, rather than berating us for not doing things "right." I'm so grateful, and I want to make the admin proud of what we do, and I want to get the kids interested, and I want to get more work out of them.
I emailed Nancy and suggested that we add conferences to our NYC Teacher Blogger calendar (see button on sidebar). So if you know of any conferences, let one of us know, so we can get the word out to others!