Monthly Archives: January 2012

Character Traits

About a year ago, maybe more, I read The Complete Four by Pam Allyn.  See it here http://amzn.to/zpRRWl  I appreciated the concept of integrating reading and writing lessons so that what you do in reading workshop directly impacts what you do in writing workshop.  Here’s what the authors say about “the complete year”:  “Organized around the Complete 4 components (Process, Genre, Strategy and Conventions) and four unit stages (Immersion, Identification, Guided Practice, and Commitment), each book in the Complete Year series features a year’s worth of integrated reading and writing curriculum.  Because we honor your professional decision-making, you will find the Complete Year provides a flexible framework, easily adapted to your state standards and to the needs and goals of your community, your students, and your teaching style.”  I particularly like the last sentence of the above description of the “complete year”, and that is why I’ve put the quote in italics and bold, as well as underlined it for the sake of emphasis.

     Although this is not a new idea, subsequent grade level books fleshed this out even more and I went ahead and purchased the grade 2 book, The Complete Year in Reading and Writing by Patty Vitale-Reily and Pam Allyn which I am just getting into right now.    You can view the grade 2 book here http://amzn.to/yIxNjX  I didn’t start at the beginning of the calendar year (the book is divided by seasons – early fall, late fall, winter, and spring) but I went smack to the middle of the book to the section entitled The Second Grader as Researcher, which includes lessons on recognizing strong characters in reading and applying these understandings in writing. 

     Yesterday I started reading workshop by talking about different ways that an author lets us know what his or her character is like – telling us, through the character’s actions, or by what the character says.  Then I read Jessica by Kevin Henkes and we briefly discussed the main character, who is not named Jessica by the way, and what we could say about what she’s like from her actions.  The discussion was not easy but the children were engaged and there were hints of potential gems in some of their comments.  To be fair, we didn’t have enough time for a full disclosure type of conversation; we’ll get back to that today. 

     The biggest stumbling block, however, was when we started listing “character traits”.  I have found that although it seems like children should know about character traits, they don’t.  (Of course, should is the absolutely wrong word to use here but I won’t edit it out for the moment as it exemplifies my thinking in this particular process.  I recognized that I rarely talk about this when we discuss books during read alouds.  That’s a change I am going to make immediately.)  Nevertheless, I plunged ahead and we created a list of character traits after I explained that a trait is more about what a character is like inside, rather than on the outside (in their heart and mind).  This wasn’t an easy process.  Some children used words like sad, happy, nice, good, and bad until I said that we needed to think of other words besides nice, good, and bad.  (Sad and happy are for another character traits discussion.)  After a few words had been on the list they started coming up with opposites which will allow for further discussion.  When we started our discussion of the main character of Kevin Henkes’s book, a few children suggested that we could use our list to talk about what the character is like. 

     Our final list included the following words:  honesty; dishonesty; responsible; irresponsible; smart, etc.  I can’t wait to get back to this discussion later today.  I will write more on this as it develops.  My big question to readers is:  how do you teach character traits in an early childhood classroom?  What are some books with strong characters for doing this?  What do you do prior to identifying the traits of a particular character?  Why do this in the first place anyway?  How do you get children as young as 6 or 7 to think about characters in a more robust way?  I look forward to reading your comments.

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Filed under character traits, Pam Allyn, reading workshop, The Complete Four

Writers’ Notebooks and More

As I walked around the room during writing workshop, I noticed most of the children had no sense of what they were writing about and why they were writing about that topic.  In fact, many of them seemed aimless in their writing with little energy and interest to write.  Instead, they were drawing or cutting or coloring.  Had this been going on for a while and I hadn’t noticed?  Was this due to the fact that we’d had to adjust our schedule over the last couple of weeks and we’d missed our regular writing time?  Was it because I had not spent enough time, including occasional revisits, on how to find and choose good writing topics?  Were had I been that I hadn’t noticed what was happening in the classroom?

So, right then and there I decided to pull out the extra set of notebooks on the shelf and institute writers notebooks in my grade 2 classroom.

I called the children to the carpet and told them what I had observed.  I did a quick introduction – maybe not the best way to bring writers’ notebooks into the classroom but I felt desperate – about writers’ notebooks telling them that all writers keep a notebook where they try out writing ideas, or keep lists of topics, or jot down thoughts that come up that they might want to use in a piece of writing later.  I told them that we would be doing this at the beginning of every writing workshop for a while.  Then, I told them to make a list of up to ten things that they are good at.  This was challenging for some.  I told the children that it was OK if they only came up with one or two things on their list for right now; they could always add to it later.  Some misunderstood my directions and wrote what they were good at as a writer, which was fine and will be useful information for me later, but many wrote the typical list of what they’re good at – swimming, riding a bike, writing stories (surprisingly this one appeared often), etc.  They had three minutes to make their list.  Then, I told them to circle one thing on their list that stood out for them that day and write about that on a clean page for about seven minutes.  We did this the next day as well with the children adding to their list for a few minutes first and then continuing their writing from the day before or starting a new piece about something else on their list.

I had a chance to read their entries yesterday and I was impressed by what they wrote though some children wrote very little and some wrote more than is customary for them.  I can now go back and do small groups or confer individually with each child on things I noticed that would help them improve as a writer.  For example, when I said to write on one of the topics on their list, some children had no idea how to start.  Even though I had suggested they could start by saying, “Swimming is…” or “I like to swim because….”some children had trouble expanding on that, and so I will be conferring with these children in the coming days.

In the past, I have done writers’ notebooks using suggestions from Aimee Buckner’s, Notebook Know-How.  I have sometimes wondered if grade 2 is too young to start writers’ notebooks but now that I haven’t done it this year until recently I can see a difference in the kind of writing my students are doing.  I am also noticing that in the past I gave the children the choice of writing during reading workshop a la Daily 5 and this year I decided not to do that because I wanted reading workshop to be solely focused on reading with a once a week time for writing a response in readers’ notebooks.  So, that means that the children are actually having less writing time this year than in the past.  Also, previous classes had the choice to write and read during the Spanish portion of our day.  This year, I am more directed during this time because I’ve felt I needed to in order to stay closer to what the other teachers are doing.  Not working either.  There is a transference about the process of reading and writing from one language to another that happens naturally if this is given space and time.  I am going to reconsider writing as an option during writing workshop and reinstitute wider choices during our Spanish language arts time.

Lesson learned:  trust my expertise and knowledge as a teacher and use that to impact my students’ learning rather than doing things because I feel pressured to conform.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ruminations today.  Please leave your comments below.

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Filed under choice, writers' notebooks, writing workshop

Writing Club

        Yesterday we had a meeting of the children interested in writing club.  There were about 70 children present from grade one through grade four.  Although I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was.  This year we’re starting late.  Normally, we start in October but the start of 2011 was fraught with atypical personal and professional challenges.  So, here we are, it’s mid-January and just getting ready to start.  Yet, despite the late start, there were lots of children interested. 
Of course, it’s encouraging that so many children want to stay once a week during their lunchtime to write because they love it.  However, there are only two us sponsoring writing club so we needed to set some parameters so that the children who finally end up staying would do so because (1) they love to write, (2) they are willing to spend a lunch period writing, (3) they are fairly independent when it comes to writing – they won’t need much supervision (a concern in the past with some playful grade one boys) and will use the time they have in a productive manner, (4) they won’t quit in the middle of the semester (we go until May) because another more enticing club has come along.  In other words, writing is their passion. 
We’re starting on Thursday this week and I, for one, can’t wait!  I plan to spend a few minutes at the beginning of every writing club time doing my own writing, as well.  I’ve recently come to call myself a writer who can write well.  Therefore, I need to make a habit of writing in order to become a better writer.  So, I’ve started a commitment to writing every morning for about an hour when I wake up.  Since I’ve started doing this I find my days go more smoothly and I feel calmer.  This last result is not something I was expecting. In New Orleans, where I lived for four years, we call this lagniappe! 

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Filed under daily writing habit, writing, writing club

Writing from My Soul

First, let me say that publishing one’s writing can be a soul changing experience that exposes the writer to harsh criticism and/or lavish praise. At least, that is how it is for me as a writer.  Whether you are a teacher blogger or a contemporary novel writer, the act of going public is about bearing your soul to others. Writing in a public way such as this makes you vulnerable.  

But there’s a lot to be said for not going public, and just writing for yourself.  The kind of writing I’m referring to here is the kind most often found in journals.  Although I’ve always kept a journal of one kind or another, I’m rediscovering this kind of cathartic writing to help see me through difficult personal and professional situations.  You could say it has become my main morning ritual.  It cleanses my soul and allows me to go deeper than I might when I publish a post; the private writing is just for me and I can say anything I want to without feeling judged.  

So, thanks to Stacey’s post about a site called 750 words, on her blog (Two Writing Teachers http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/750-words/), I am now on a 14-day streak!  That means that I have been writing a minimum of 750 words for the 14th day in a row.  It feels good to be doing this every morning when I first wake up.  It’s my brain dump for the day.  At first, I found that I was writing in a stream of consciousness style only but over time I’ve discovered that this kind of writing allows me to solve problems on paper that had been bothering me when I went to sleep and were still nudging at me when I woke up.  I feel so much better at the end of my 750 words.  I often write over 800 and I could probably keep going but I have to set a time limit otherwise I might be late for work every morning!  

Sometimes, I’ve had to write my 750 words by hand and then typed them into the website later because I’m on a daily writing challenge this month. 

So far, so good.  

So far, so good that I’m writing every day about whatever comes into my mind at the moment.  

So far, so good that I’m working out thorny problems through my writing.  

So far, so good that I’m not censoring myself and no one else is censoring me either.  

So far, so good that I have challenged myself to keep going whether or not I want to.  

So far, so good that I’ve seen the positive effects that writing things down as they surface in my head, first thing in the morning, has on the rest of my day.

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Filed under 750words.com, brain dump, writing

A Slice of Life Story: Wishin’ and Hopin’, A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

I normally only write about teaching related issues on this blog.  But, I’ve decided to make some changes in the New Year.  One change I am making is to start posting book reviews, or posts prompted by books I’m reading, that are in some way connected to teaching, learning, schooling, or education in general.  I aim to broaden the scope of my blog so that I don’t find myself frantically searching for a topic to post about every week; this has stopped me from posting on a regular basis.  The purpose of making this change isn’t to proliferate my blog with trivial posts, but rather to allow myself a broader scope from which to ruminate about learning in the broadest sense of the word.

Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, A Christmas Story is a great read and not just at Christmas time.  Lamb was able to take a one-time fictitious event – the 1964 Christmas play production by the students at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School – and build a story around it that touches on current events of the time with parochial school culture as the backdrop.  Most of the action takes place in and around Felix Funicello’s 5th grade classroom.  (Yes, he’s a distant cousin of Annette’s and she does play a part in the development of the story!)  As the events unfold, we get a taste of how the social mores of the time coupled with petty jealousies, and a strong sense of good vs. bad, inform (not always accurately) Felix’s particular point of view.  Lamb manages to write a story that is both funny and endearing, but like all good stories, Wishin’ and Hopin’ pushed me to reflect about myself in the context of the story:  what was it like to grow up in the mid-60’s in the US?

My family emigrated to New York from Cuba in 1966 so a lot of the cultural and political events in the book resonated with my own memories of the time.  Even the character of the new Russian student, Zhenya, who joins Felix’s class right before the school gears up for its annual Christmas pageant and whose feisty personality gives the class goodie two shoes (Rosalie) a run for her money, brought back memories of my Russian playmate, Lucy, the daughter of the Russian supers in our building.  From Lucy I learned a few Russian words, how to summon spirits on the Ouija board, and how to play some of the NY signature street games of the time.  Lucy was instrumental in my acculturation into life in the US during the five years I lived in that building, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It wasn’t until I started writing this post that these memories, scant as they are, came flooding back.

So, what is this post about really?  Wally Lamb’s book or my memory of starting life in the US?  Does it really matter?

I go back to the introduction to this post and revise it somewhat:  I am expanding my blog topics as a way of understanding myself better through books or events that have impacted me and have pushed me to reflect, revise, and retell my own life story.  Sometimes I will ruminate on how these experiences have impacted me as a teacher.

That is the learning in this piece.

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Filed under book review