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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ralph Fletcher: A Way with Words

A few nights ago I had the genuine pleasure of hearing Ralph Fletcher speak on Helping Young Writers Develop Writers’ Craft at an event sponsored by the Tri-County Reading Council here in New Jersey. For those who may not know him, Ralph Fletcher is a writer of picture books, novels, and poetry. He is also a teacher of teachers, having created such excellent writing instruction books as Craft Lessons: Teaching Writing K-8 and Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide.

What I personally took away from his talk is that we, as teachers, make writing far too complicated. We fail to keep it simple, and as a reult students see it as a complicated task they they are ill-equipped to tackle. We perhaps attempt to accomplish too much in any given writing lesson, which makes the average student reluctant to write (How can I possibly get all that stuff right?) and the average teacher reluctant to teach (How can I possibly choose from among all those skills that students must demonstrate?).

Throughout his presentation, Ralph shared many examples of student writing which were equal parts skillful, humorous, and charming. Some pieces made us laugh out loud; another piece, when shared, caused a colleague at my table to remark, “If one of my students wrote that, I would not be able to hold back the tears.” These authentic, concrete examples reminded us, in Ralph’s own words, that “story comes first,” and that we, as readers, need time to respond in a natural way to students’ writing.

Interspersed between picture book readings and student examples were the “nuggets of wisdom” we had all come to hear. How shocked we were to learn that we already knew them! As writers, as teachers, we already knew what he had to share. But in our attempts to follow the curriculum, meet the standards, and pound every nail, we had forgotten the simpler things.

Ralph had three straightforward (read: simple), yet powerful, ideas to share on the topic of Craft Elements.
His first: Take advantage of micro-texts.

The readers of this blog know how I feel about picture books and the unique role they play in modeling colorful, yet concise, writing. As I posted at the sister site (which provides support for picture books in the middle grades):
When we ask our students to "write a story," we rarely mean a story with chapters. Why, then, should we have students read only those types of books? Picture books provide succinct models for student writing. Nonfiction picture books also exemplify brevity versus exposition in presenting the facts that the reader needs.

Ralph illustrated that very idea by pointing out that in first grade, children write what they are reading: few words with many pictures. This changes as they move up in grades, however, until by fourth grade students are reading novels that they couldn't ever hope to write, given their existing skills. In other words, (mine, not his), children who have little or no access to micro-texts are being denied accurate, realistic models for their own writing.

As an example, Ralph shared his wonderful picture book Grandpa Never Lies. He then recounted a classroom lesson he had observed about that very book, and how the teacher had used the analogy of a snowball rolling downhill, growing ever larger as it progressed. The recurring line of the book acted in much the same way, growing with importance each time it was repeated.

Such a concept is easy to study in the context of a picture book; so much harder to extrapolate from the noise and confusion of a novel.

Ralph’s second observation: Use literature that kids already know. (By the way, I dig Ralph because he uses the word kids. Too many teacher bristle at that!).

Is it okay to reread books? Absolutely! According to Ralph, “Really deep connections come from rereading books.”

And if students say, “But we read that book last year,” your response can be, “Great! Then this time we can read it the way that writers read.” That, in turn, leads to new, fertile ground for understanding: How do writers read differently from readers?

And lastly: Note what your student writers are already doing.

Yes, we can spend time marveling over what professional authors have produced, but are we taking time to recognize our own students as writers? Are we acknowledging their efforts? Do they feel that, as humble students, they have the credentials to call themselves writers? Are we, in Ralph Fletcher’s words, “putting kids into the game” and allowing them to be in the “circle of authorship?”

Celebrate the successes you see, no matter how small. Use students’ work to model strengths, but never to illustrate deficits.

It is so tempting, he says, to try to teach everything (voice, leads, character development, etc.). This leads to teachers “mentioning” elements of writing rather than actually teaching them. One of the most important skills that we miss, due to our efforts to “teach it all,” is that of having children critically reread their own writing. How can they improve their writing if they never take time to reflect upon it? It is so much more beneficial to take your time, focus on just a few aspects of writing, and teach those well.

In closing, Ralph reminded his audience that when looking at student writing, it’s important to “respond as a human being first and a teacher second.”

I’m glad he said that. Sometimes I forget. Even though I already knew it.

So check out Ralph’s work, both for your students and for yourself. Craft Lessons is my favorite (I bought my third copy tonight, since colleagues have “borrowed” my previous two), A Writing Kind Of Day: Poems for Young Poetsis hugely popular in my class during Poetry Month in April, Marshfield Dreams: When I Was a Kid is an autobiography with authentic voice, and Grandpa Never Lies is on my “Gotta Have” list after hearing it tonight. (These and several others are featured in the slide show in the right margin of this page).

Also check out Ralph Fletcher’s homepage, which features tips for teachers and young writers, plus additional information about the author and his work.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

How to Create Blog Interactivity with Apture

Just recently I discovered Apture, a nifty add-in that truly makes my humble little blog a better experience for visitors. I love it because it's so sticky: simple to install, unexpected for first time viewers, and concrete in its elaboration of words, phrases and concepts.

So what is it, exactly? Apture provides inconspicuous little icons (like the one you just read past) which (when paused upon with the cursor) will provide additional content (in this case, a brief blurb on the word Apture). Of course, if the reader doesn't want the additional media, he or she can blissfully read past the icons. And regardless of whether or not the reader wishes to hear the Beatles classic Hey, Jude when I reference it, the application resides in the text unobtrusively.

So if you're a blogger, definitely check out this application. It may just give you a reaction as enthusiastic as Meg Ryan's in When Harry Met Sally. And, as always, email me if you'd like to share your own ideas!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: The Movie

The latest children's classic to be headed to the big screen is Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Am I alone in thinking that some things should simply be left in their pure, original form?

As a teacher I fully understand the argument that some classic works must be adapted in order to resonate with modern audiences. Critics may claim that Shakespeare, for example, must be reinterpreted (or reimagined) in order to be understood and appreciated by today's youth.

That is why I particularly enjoy a performance such as Kenneth Branagh's in Henry V (see below). The words are unchanged but their meaning made clear by the acting, the editing, and the accompanying score.

For those who love the "band of brothers" theme but feel that the original is inaccessible to today's audience? Well, take the theme and run with it. Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg chose Band of Brothers as the title for their excellent HBO miniseries on the 101st Airborne; the speech itself appears prominently (and respectfully) in Danny DeVito's Renaissance Man, and certainly a derivation of its themes appear in Mel Gibson's speech to his men before the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart. In none of those films is the message dumbed down.

Okay, that's Shakespeare. So do we really need a movie to make this classic children's book accessible to modern audiences? No. So I'm guessing that it's simply meant as a film interpretation. And perhaps as a teacher I'm supposed to happy, since it might encourage more children to get out and read. But considering that the book, after several decades, is still in the top 200 at Amazon, I don't think our children are having difficulty comprehending it.

My earnest desire is to be proved wrong. I really hope this movie does justice to the book's art, simplicity, and motifs. Please don't blow it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Interactive Writing Sites

A visitor tried out Wordle after reading about it here and said her kids loved it! Stacey wanted to know if I could recommend similar sites that might encourage her kids to get more psyched about writing.

Glad you asked. I recently finished compiling some Interactive Writing Tools that my students just love!

The collection is by no means complete; for example, I have since heard from Martin Jorgensen, creator of Lightning Bug, who informed me that he has recently launched The Digital Narrative, which looks like a pretty awesome blog/resource compilation. I've spent only an hour there and barely scratched the surface!

So check out those sites, enjoy them with your students, and please email me any other recommendations that you might have.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Playing with Blocks: Not Just for Kids

From TED talks:

MIT grad student David Merrill demos Siftables -- cookie-sized, computerized tiles you can stack and shuffle in your hands. These future-toys can do math, play music, and talk to their friends, too. Is this the next thing in hands-on learning?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Teaching That Makes Sense

Teaching That Makes Sense, founded by Steve Peha, is an impressive web site full of well-organized, original resources on reading and writing.

They're all in pdf format and they're all free.

Is this guy insane? It would be easy to understand his generosity if the stuff was mediocre. But Steve has put together hundreds of pages of strategies, structures, checklists, and posters for teachers that are high quality, practical, and immediately usable.

Getting started in Reader's or Writer's Workshop? Looking for authentic student writing samples? Seeking sound ideas for writing across the curriculum? Need a writing lesson to use tomorrow? It's all there. And if that's not enough, Steve and his crew are continually adding articles on the teaching profession that are truly worth a read.

And it's sticky stuff, because the ideas are concrete (yet not closed-ended) and simple (yet not dumbed down).

So visit the site. Read the articles. Download the pdfs. Before Steve comes to his senses.
UPDATE 03/09/09: Apparently they loosened Steve's straight jacket long enough for him to peck out a response to my post:

Hey, Keith! Love your blog. And your kind words about our work are really
appreciated. Here's a link to our newest strategy guide (not yet on the site) if
you're interested: We've also got a new
book on reading that we'll be giving away, too. Is this guy crazy? Perhaps. But
I really just want teachers to have access to good materials.

Thanks for stopping by, Steve! We appreciate your efforts.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Presenting: A Two Way Street

In his most recent blog, marketer extraordinaire and all-around-knowledgeable guy Seth Godin points out that emotional give and take is a key for successful presenters. Check out his thoughts on respect for the audience.

It's All Greek to Me

While most educators would agree that the best method for vocabulary acquisition is the act of reading itself, there's something to be said for word root study, especially Greek and Latin roots.

This became clear to me years ago when we were studying decimals. I made the casual observation that deci- typically means "one-tenth of" and mentioned the word decimeter as an example. Michael raised his hand and asked, "So is the word decimate somehow related to that?" Being the confident, all-knowing teacher that I was in my third year teaching, I answered, "No," and dismissed the class to lunch.

As I munched on my chicken salad sandwich, and regained strength of both body and mind, I realized that I had missed an opportunity. Following the lunch period, I encouraged Michael to look up the word in the dictionary.

The word decimate in present use means ‘to destroy a large part’ of something, but its origin sheds light upon a somewhat drastic means of behavioral intervention. According to the Merriam -Webster New Book of Word Histories,

A technique used by the Roman army to keep mutinous units in line was to select one-tenth of the men by lot and execute them, thereby encouraging the remaining nine-tenths to follow orders. The Latin verb for this presumably effective form of punishment was decimare, literally, ‘to take a tenth of,’ which was derived from decimus, meaning ‘tenth.’ (pp. 133-4)

Since that time I've been an ardent believer that vocabulary instruction can greatly benefit from word study (etymology). Etymology can, in fact, shed some light upon the world in which we presently live.

The Greek origin of the word ostracize, for example, cements its meaning into the memory:

Ostraka were shards of broken pots re-used as voting 'ballots' cast by the
Athenian assembly, who would each choose a politician they wished to have
'ostracized', or exiled for ten years. If any one name received a majority and a
total of 6,000 or more votes, that man would have to leave Athens.

At the time the hit television series Survivor premiered, it was hailed for its originality. Turns out that its premise was actually thousands of years old!

Below you'll find some links where you and your students can check out word origins for yourself.

Etymologically Speaking... Word origins appearing alphabetically. For word origins, click where it says "Expand your vocabulary."

Greek and Latin Roots Information and activities for understanding Greek and Latin roots.

Meanings and Origins of Phrases Searchable database.

Online Etymology Dictionary An A-Z searchable collection of word origins.

Word Detective Origins plus other cool word-related facts.

Word Origin Game Given a word, select its origin or meaning from three choices.

Word Spy Web site is devoted to lexpionage, the sleuthing of new words and phrases. NOTE: Some adult themes here!

I Want to Teach Forever: 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons

At 52 Teachers, 52 Lessons, Mr. D has started a project called "52 Teachers, 52 Lessons." Once a week for a year, Teach Forever will share an essential lesson submitted by teachers, for teachers. 52 different "mini-lessons" will answer the question:

"What is the most important advice you can give to other teachers?"

Yours truly was featured on March 2nd, with some Advice for New and Student Teachers.

Stop by the site to hear some great advice, or weigh in yourself on the topic.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The World According to Ben Hillman

Slam dunks are no problem for this guy.
Polar bears are the largest carnivores on Earth. And when they stand on their hind legs, they’re the tallest. The biggest polar bear anyone ever saw stood at astounding 12 feet tall (3.7 m.). That’s two feet higher than the rim of a basketball net.

from How Big Is It?
by Ben Hillman

Ben Hillman has created four wonderful books which illustrate the magnitude of real life objects by comparing them with everyday phenomena. How Big Is It?, How Strong Is It?, How Fast Is It?, and How Weird Is It? have quickly become nonfiction must-reads for the upper primary and intermediate school set.

As shown above from How Big Is It?, the largest polar bear on record is a whopping 12 feet! Yes, students will be surprised to hear that a polar bear is taller than their classroom ceiling, but the surprising juxtapositions created by Ben Hillman's composite illustrations drive home each book's concepts in a really powerful, fun way.

Have some reluctant readers? They will devour these books! The text is as wonderful as the pictures, and is in no way dumbed down for the young audience for which it is intended. In speaking about the Akula (Shark) Submarine, for example, Hillman writes

This leviathan of the deep is one of the most dangerous submarines imaginable –
a giant submersible weapon of mass destruction.

Many of the contextual clues needed for comprehension are provided by the illustrations. Some words, however, are not made clear by the pictures alone, and the reader's curiosity will promote an interest in word study.

As seen in this description of our polar bear from How Big Is It?, the text, like the illustrations, uses similes, metaphors, and hard data to create memorable juxtapositions,

For short distances, a polar bear can charge along at 25 miles per hour (40
km/h) – almost as fast as the fastest Olympic sprinter.

From How Strong Is It?, a description of human hair's amazing strength:

The average human hair can support 2 to 3.5 ounces without breaking. That doesn't sound like much, but the average human head has more than 100,000 hairs.
And blondes have more than most. About 140,000 hairs per blonde... So how many princes can Rapunzel handle? Do the math. Her two golden braids can hold at the
very least 17,500 pounds of princes!

All four books are a blast! They make excellent nonfiction read-alouds due to their brevity and brilliance, and the individual topics need not be read in any particular order. How Strong Is It?, for example, features twenty-two two-page spreads, with a full color picture on the left (running onto the right page), and an article-length text appearing on the right.

Visit the author's site for an up-close preview of these books. Students especially enjoy the cool roll-over feature used to illustrate the sample pages provided.
Looking for questions and extension activities to use in the classroom? You can find those at my Teach with Picture Books site (along with suggestions for other excellent picture book read-alouds).