Posts Tagged ‘language arts’

Encouraging Signs

November 10, 2020

It all started with a super-cute dog video.
(Go ahead and watch. it’s only about a minute long.)

And then a question. “Is this language?”

Boy oh boy, did THAT ever stir up conversation. For me, as a teacher, this could not POSSIBLY have gone any better.
I wanted students to be engaged from the get-go. Check.
I wanted them to be excited to talk about big ideas. Check.
I wanted them to be curious about stuff they didn’t know. Check.
I wanted them to have conversations about difficult things without getting into arguments. Ch-well, no. We have some work to do on that one.

But the fruits of their labor are spectacular. Small groups worked together to develop rules for what language is. Here is their work, collected together:

Rules for Language:

Only represents part of communication 
A code that uses sounds, symbols, signals
Has to convey meaning and be understood by who is using it
Needs to be consistent
Set grammar and structure
Many people share
People can both understand and talk back
It can be translated to other languages
Doesn’t have to be spoken
Don’t always need a recipient-can just be for self-expression
Verbal language involves phonics, structure
The symbols and codes can change, but people need to know about it
People have to USE it
Requires socially shared rules

Whoever said that 10 year-olds are not ready for thinking about and exploring big ideas, I offer you THIS as evidence to the contrary.

And this is only day TWO of our work together. Am I excited to see where this goes? Maybe a little.

Stepping Back Up to the Soapbox

September 15, 2020

I have a lot of soapboxes to stand on when it comes to education.

I mean…c’mon. Just look at the name of my site.

from Etsy.com

It’s easy to get riled up about things when you feel as passionately I do about teaching, when you have as much faith in public schooling as I do.

One of my soapboxes is storytelling. It’s an incredible medium for sharing text that we don’t give enough credit to. People, the number of things that happen in our brains, big or small, when we hear a story being told? You could track the research here, or here, or here, or…

Aaaugh, I’m doing it again! All right, Lainie. Inhale. Exhale.

Now.

One of my storytelling soapboxes? Using storytelling as a way of crafting narrative. The way I put it is this. Our brains our lightning fast, like cheetahs. Our hands are super slow, like turtles.

When we ask children to write, we tell the cheetah and the turtle to keep the same pace.

No wonder so many kids struggle.

Oral language is that bridge, and it links our thoughts and words together in a manageable way. Think of it this way – how often do you have to talk through a problem to find a solution for it?

Through storytelling, writers at all stages of readiness understand that they hold the power of composition, even if their handwriting or typing skills don’t yet demonstrate it.

And yet oral language largely goes ignored at school, despite the fact that it’s one of the most powerful tools we have.

It’s why I had such a WIN when, a few years ago, I was able to bring a storytelling unit to one of the grades I work with. I crossed my fingers and hoped it would be in good hands with my colleagues.

Boy was it ever. I got the most amazing affirmation of my efforts in a planning meeting today, as teachers discussed their upcoming unit on personal narrative. Here are a few highlights…

Me: This might be a place where storyboarding would be great. It would help your writers use oral language to draft and organize your thoughts.

Them: Oh, we already do that!

Me: I find it helpful to sketch the first and last squares of the storyboard, then fill the action in between to build the story.

Them: Oh, we already do that! You taught us that.

Me: One trick for kids working on dialogue is to make quick puppets out of pencils and let them play with the characters.

Them: Oh, we already do that! That’s what you taught us.

Me: … (smiles inwardly, shuffles feet) …

What do I love best about these exchanges?
1. I love to learn and grow. I feel lucky to see colleagues do the same.
2. It’s affirming to know that things I see as good teaching…ARE.
3. I love making myself obsolete because others have pushed forward.

…I’d probably better stop before I get on another soapbox. Like I said, it’s easy to get riled up about things when you feel as passionately as I do…

Poetry, Found

February 25, 2020

If you had asked me today whether or not writing poetry should be on my to-do list, I might have laughed at you. But knowing that the universe has a way of conspiring, and knowing that grocery list poetry is a thing in this world, I felt compelled. What I loved were the ways this poem unfolded and surprised me in ways I didn’t quite expect. Enjoy.

Poetry, Found

In the way-too-early morning,
In my hurry out the door
Obligations (too many for my own good)
Slung from my shoulders, my back –
I catch, among the rocks,
Someone’s grocery list
Delivered to my doorstep,
And I wonder:
-Whose list is this?
-Did they ever get their pancetta?
-Do they always cook like that?
-Or is it for company?
-And can I be invited?
-Is it true what they say, that there is poetry in lists?
-And why did this one find me?
-Did it blow out an open car window,
            On a warm February day,
            Unexpected?
-Did it slip from the wallet of a grown-up,
            Anxious to get going?
-Is anyone missing it?
-How do they know what they’ve got?
-How do they know what they need?
-And how many things
            Flutter away
            With no one to feel their loss?

-(c) Lainie Levin, Feb. 25, 2020

Sometimes Things Go Well

November 8, 2019

Sometimes I just need to take a moment.

There are sometimes days when lesson after lesson goes haywire, when I don’t have the materials I need at the school I need them. Or when technology throws a wrench in my best-laid plans. Or when all of these things work, but the kids just. Aren’t. Feeling it.

Today was different.

Today went better than I had expected or imagined, and I owe it to myself to enjoy it.

It started with last year’s third grade mythology unit. I wasn’t happy with it. The kids read stories, and they liked them, but missed the overarching idea that myths help us examine and answer the really big questions in life. I needed a different approach.

So this year, I waited to start reading the myths, and started right out of the gate with big questions. Where did we come from? Why do bad things happen? Why are humans so different from other animal forms around us? Kids wrote their own stories to explain these phenomena.

That’s when I knew that I could push them in a new direction. We could talk about how across time, and across cultures, people have ALWAYS wondered about big, important questions. And how across time, and across cultures, people have ALWAYS come up with answers.

Myth.

I then read aloud from (my very favorite!) D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, starting from page one.

Oh, I wish you could have been there.
I wish you could have heard the kids as they realized how very many big questions these stories answered.
I wish you could have felt the excitement as they leapt from idea to idea. From question to question.

Next week, I’ll get to teach this same lesson to my loveys at another school. It’s possible that they will greet these ideas with the same love and enthusiasm. It’s also possible that this lesson will crash and burn. (It’s been known to happen.)

For now, though, I’ll take a moment to appreciate how things can sometimes go well, and call it a win.

Troubleshooting: Questions Edition

March 15, 2019

It started out easy enough.

My second graders were sharing the questions they had written with one another, and to promote supportive listening I had the kids nominate strong questions for a light-hearted “awards” ceremony.

Our “Questies” consisted of 3 categories:
*Questions we’re most curious to find the answer to
*Big questions, that nobody really has the answers to
*Questions we’re jealous of because we wish we had asked them ourselves

I solicited nominations, and it went well. At least…in TWO of the three categories. See for yourself:

We knew which questions we were jealous of, or curious about, but we just couldn’t seem to nominate any big questions. Which means a few things might be happening:
*None of the kids wrote any big questions on their homework.
*The kids weren’t listening to one another as well as they could have.
*The kids don’t know what a big question is.

Situations like this always present themselves like a choose-your-own-adventure story. I’ll have to start by diagnosing the homework assignments. If there are several “big” questions on there, it looks like we’ll have to do some activities on how to be a listener.

If there aren’t any “big” questions on there, I’ll have to figure out if it’s because kids weren’t giving their full effort, because they’re not connecting deeply with the reading, or because I need to do some teaching on what big questions actually are, or how to ask them.

I do know that, as a teacher, I do this kind of problem-solving every day. Multiple times a day. Sometimes in bigger ways like this, that make me stop and think. But most of the time, I’m performing dozens of these calculations without even noticing.

And what will the answer be to THIS question? What will be the diagnosis of my “Question” question?

Only time – and a bit of investigation – will tell.

March: Blowing in Like a Poem

March 8, 2019

So many little miracles happened for me today. I got a hug from a reserved second grader. A tricky third grade class was beautifully behaved. And this morning the world brought me a seed for a poem, which I carried in my pocket and thought about through the morning. And when my fifth graders held their Freelance Friday writing time, I joined in the fun. Here’s what I wrote.

To Today’s Snow, Who Surprised Me This Morning On My Way To Work

I feel sorry for you
For coming on Friday
In March
When we were cold, and tired,
And tired
Of being cold, and tired
And people huffed past you
Without a glance,
Wishing you had been sunlight.

If only
You had arrived in October
We would have greeted you
In wonder.

If only
You had arrived in October
I would have gathered my class
To run outside,
Black paper
And magnifiers in hand.
And we would have seen you,
Really seen you
Marveling at your structure
And intricate detail.
There would have been squeals
As we caught you on our tongues
And you stuck
To our eyelashes,
Our hair,
Our not-ready-for-winter clothing.

But it is March.

So I hope it is enough
That I saw you today,
That I noticed
The delicate fluff
Of sparkle
You laid upon the world,
And that I spent a wistful moment

Before snapping a photo,
Starting the car,
Turning on the wipers
And pulling away.

(c) Lainie Levin, March 2019

Ah, Fiction! We meet again.

May 12, 2018

I have a confession to make.

I have not written fiction in…I cannot remember how long.

There’s just something about writing fiction that stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what it is. Personal narrative? Poetry? Essay? I’m all in. Fiction? Move it along, nothing to see here. I’ve tried countless times, with stops and starts.

To tell you the truth, I had been feeling guilty about it. After all, I’m the queen of getting in there with my kids, rolling up my sleeves and writing along with them. Except with fiction. I always demonstrate my pre-writing, model my storyboards and such, then quietly fade away when it’s time to do the actual composition.

Well, this week I had an assignment for one of my classes. We were supposed to imagine that an educational reformer from history visited our classroom, and to respond creatively.

My original thought (as it so often is) was to use poetry. Little by little, my verse started reading more and more like prose. Until I finally sighed, gave in, erased the line breaks and embraced my writing for what it was. Fiction.

Here goes. It’s a little rough around the edges; I’m not gonna lie. But boy am I proud that I climbed this mountain after who knows how long.

———————————

Monday morning, 7:36 a.m. Time to begin my daily ritual. I slung my teacher bag to the floor, threw my coat over my chair and slumped down. I reached into my bag to unpack. My laptop and plan book assumed their rightful positions at the altar, as did the pile of grading I should have done the night before. Pencil in hand, I began to assimilate just exactly how the day would go.

A shadow in a dark suit appeared at the door. Crikey, I thought. Please tell me I haven’t forgotten some sort of meeting. I straightened and turned to the figure, then grew puzzled. It wasn’t someone I knew. “Good morning. Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for a…Mrs. Levin?”

Rising from behind my desk, I reached out to shake hands. “I’m Mrs. Levin, and you are…”

“Dr. John Dewey. They didn’t tell you I was coming? I’m here to observe your class for the day.”

“Wait…John Dewey?” I replied.

“Yes, from the Time-traveling Reformers for Enlightened Education.”

“Ah…TREE. I’ve heard of you. Well…welcome! Have you been to many classrooms before?”

“A few,” Dewey said. “So here I am, ready to learn from you.”

Holy cow! This guy wrote the book – literally! – on progressive education. I better have my A-game ready today. “I don’t know,” I stumbled. “It seems I’m probably the one who has some learning to do from YOU. Well, Dr. Dewey, my mentor teacher always says that you can tell a lot about a teacher based on how the classroom looks.” I gestured towards my clearly lived-in classroom space. “So what do you think?”

John Dewey adjusted his spectacles, cleared his throat, and began his tour. He started by examining the tables for groups of students, the supplies I keep in the room available to the kids, the Wonder-Bot 3000 some of my loveys made for when kids had questions to research for fun. He thumbed through my shelf full of professional books (Reading with Meaning, The One-World School House, Learn Like a Pirate) and gave a satisfied “humph.” Turning to my desk, with the too-large pile of grading on it, Dewey gave me a quizzical look. “Are these…worksheets?”

What? If only he knew how much busywork is my nemesis. “Oh, no,” I quickly say. “My students are exploring the evolution of the English language. These packets help guide them on their research.”

“Ah, I see.” Dewey looked through the pile, pulled out a random paper and began reading. “So, you’re studying Noah Webster and his contribution to American language.”

“Well, he IS kind of a dude.” I feel myself turn red before adding, “At least the kids think so. You know that’s one of the highest compliments they can give a person.” An awkward silence. “Perhaps you’ll understand when you meet them during your observations.”

“I suppose I will. Well, Mrs. Levin, your classroom does seem to be quite student-centered, and their work does seem interesting. When do the children arrive?”

“In a bit. They just need to check in with their home rooms.”

“Home rooms?”

“Yes. The students just come to me for language arts enrichment. These are students who demonstrate a high aptitude for reading, so they come to me for additional challenge.”

John Dewey furrowed his brow and folded his arms. “So…this opportunity isn’t available to all students, then?”

“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Dewey. All students need the opportunity to be creative and to explore. You may not entirely agree with the premise of gifted education. I know not everyone does. Heavens, even I didn’t for part of my career, and I was even a product of that system.”

“You’re not making a strong case for yourself.”

“Allow me to continue,” I said. “The thing is, gifted students need each other. This classroom expands their opportunities to be creative and explore the world around them. To make it better, they often go back to their classmates and spread that knowledge and those skills.”

“I see,” Dewey said.

“The thing is, Mr. Dewey,” I went on, “I agree that it might be nice if ALL students had the chance to engage with curriculum to the same degree of depth and complexity as these students do. But…given the time constraints classroom teachers have, plus the expectations to meet our state and national standards for every child, many classroom teachers don’t have the room or the freedom to pursue courses of study like this one. You can thank your friends in the standardization movement for THAT one.”

He replied, “We have some philosophical differences, Mrs. Levin, but you do seem to have your students’ interest at heart.”

“I’M HERE!” interrupted Sandro as he strode through the door. “DID YOU MISS ME?”

“Of course I did, Sandro. It’s been a whole three days! Where are your classmates?”

“They’re coming.” He turned to John Dewey. “Who are you?”

“I’m Dr. John Dewey, young man. I’ve made some important contributions in the past to the way you learn, and I’ve traveled through time to visit you and your teacher.”

“Wait. Dr. DEWEY!? I know that name!” he shouted, as the rest of the class came straggling in. “Hey you guys! This is the Dewey Decimal System guy. Can you believe it? Here’s here from the past – to visit US!” A commotion arose as the other students gathered around, asking all kinds of library questions all at once.

John Dewey’s shoulders sagged, and he gave a heavy sigh. Clearly this was not the first time he had heard this one. He adjusted his spectacles, shook his head (did he just roll his eyes?) and said, “No, no. That’s not me. You’re thinking of MELVIL Dewey. He’s the library man. I’m JOHN Dewey. I made reforms in progressive education throughout the early twentieth century.”

Amelia piped up. She was never shy about asking questions. “What’s progressive education?”

“Simply put, young lady, progressive education means that learning is there for you to explore and learn about your world. Learning is not just to prepare you for some job later in life, but to help you make the most meaning of your life now, as you live it.”

There was a general murmur as the students considered this idea.

“That’s kind of like what Mrs. Levin does!” answered Jenna. “She lets us explore cool stuff all the time! Have you ever heard of Noah Webster? We’re studying him now.”

“I am vaguely familiar,” Dewey said as he shot me a look. He continued, “I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your studies. You must remember how important it is to seek out big ideas and make them a part of your educational experience. It is the best way for you to understand and connect with the world around you.”

“Dr. Dewey,” declared Sandro, “you’re a DUDE.”

From behind his spectacles, John Dewey blushed as the other kids nodded in agreement. Check’s in the mail, kid. Check’s in the mail.

 

Right Poem, Wrong Assignment

April 24, 2018

Today I had my fourth graders write about something small, taken for granted, or unappreciated. We started with a poem I wrote and shared about lowly feet. Then it was time for the kids and me to get cracking.

I meant to do the assignment along with them. I really did. But I couldn’t think of ANYTHING to write. So after a few minutes of being blank (which felt like an eternity) it struck me that perhaps boredom itself goes unappreciated.

In I went to compose a poem elevating boredom through poetry. But then a different poem came out. It’s still one I kind of like, so I’m sharing it here.

The kids still have me on the hook for the real assignment, though.

Boredom

When my pencil
(poised above paper) awaits,
Anxious to do the bidding
Of my master/mind
Yet no command comes
A standoff:
As my hands
(eager to get moving) wonder
What is wrong with
The machine that moves them
And my mind
(unused to blankness) panics
When finding itself
In silence.

So my imagination
(relenting to this break in the action) sighs,
Succumbs to numbness,
Twiddles its thumbs
And waits
For a lost, lonely idea
To find its way
Home.

Going with Plan B

April 18, 2017

I wasn’t going to have them watch it.

As part of my daily blogroll, I came across the wordless animated short “How to Wait for a Very Long Time,” and the first thing I thought as I looked at the title was, “This will be a quick way to teach my kids patience and persistence.”

And then I watched the video. It’s about 3 minutes long. Go ahead and click here to watch. (I promise I’ll wait for you.) You may as well, because I’m spoiling it below.

Needless to say, this video is NOT about patience and persistence.

I worried that students would be let down by the ending. That they would be disappointed with how abruptly the guy dies at the end. That they wouldn’t see the point. That on this day, which marks two years since my brother’s passing, I would not be able to manage teaching anything close to this subject matter. That it was better to go forward with my plan book as written.

And yet. When a great opportunity to have rich discussion or work on literary argument arises, I’ve can’t help but grab it. So…onward.

As a group, we watched the video three times.

First time? I stopped at the title and had the kids predict what they thought the lesson of the story was. That’s just before I confessed to them that MY prediction was dead wrong. Then they just notated plot.

The ending surprised them just as much as it did me. There was a lot of, “Whoa.” and “Oh!” and “Wait…what!?” We spent time sharing our surprises and questions. And yes, ALL of us fell for the easy predictions from the title. Silly us.

Second time? Pick up on everything we missed the first time. Talk to people around you. What’s the ONE THING you NOW believe is the point of this story?

Third time? Note the evidence to support your claim…then get writin’.

unnamed.jpg

 

Once again, my kids surprised me.
Once again, they inspired me.
Once again, they allowed me to see things in new ways.

Proving, once again, that some of our best teaching moments aren’t the ones we put in the plan book.

 

 

Mother’s Lament (NaPoWriMo Day 9)

April 9, 2013

I can taste it,
Like the first bite of a hot-fudge sundae
Or a gooey, cheesy pizza
So delightful
Rich
Decadent,
Yet well-deserved.

I long for it
From deep within my bones
I hunger
I ache

For a
Good
Night’s
Sleep