Reflections on Writing about Reading

For the past two days, my 6th graders have been focusing on writing about their reading. Before this week, they have been using stickies for the past few weeks and then using those to help them with their book conversations. This week, we graduated to writing off post-its and growing our ideas.

Yesterday, I started by modeling off one of my post-its from Tuck Everlasting. I decided to use a stickie that discussed a quote where Babbitt compares life to a wheel, always turning. With the class watching, I grew my post-it into a 6 sentence paragraph about my thinking. We reviewed some of Nancie Atwell’s sentence openers for letter-essays and then I set them off. I had the students choose one of their Tuck stickies, place it at the top of their desk, and then grow that thinking into a paragraph in their notebook. I was so impressed with the results! There was a lot of deep thinking and some great connections made!

Today, I wrote off of a personal thinking stickie, from Ch. 10 in Tuck. Again, I modeled for the class but this time I wrote 9 sentences (a typical paragraph that I expect from my students). Like the day before, I set them off to choose a stickie of their own and write at least 9 sentences about it in their letter-essays section of their reading binder. I thought they might struggle a bit more today, due to the length, but boy was I wrong! Most of my students (in both classes) wrote well over 9 sentences. In fact, a few wrote an entire page! They were all dying to share their thinking and we listened to everyone read their thoughts aloud. Again, I was impressed! The thinking had gotten even deeper, and they were writing about things they noticed regarding author’s style, literary elements, symbols, motifs, and predictions they had for the remainder of the book! I was so proud!!!

We will continue to work our way forward with our writing about reading, working our way up to 3+ paragraph letter-essays that they will write to me on a monthly basis. :)

Oh, and my students are LOVING “Tuck Everlasting”. I can’t get them to stop reading! Actually, their enthusiasm must be contagious, because I was never a huge fan of the novel before this year. However, I decided to do a close reading of the book, seeing as it is “the greatest children’s novel”. I was inspired by Monica over at Educating Alice, who was inspired when she read “Charlotte’s Web” critically for a children’s lit course. I went over the entire novel, writing in my book and responding in my own reader’s notebook. I also read every article, interview, and review of “Tuck Everlasting” that I could find through Ebscohost. I have a brand new appreciation for the novel and I absolutely love it!

Like Monica, I plan to spend the weeks after we finish “Tuck Everlasting” going back over the text with the entire class, looking with a critical eye, annotating and digging even deeper. From the response I am getting from my class so far, I know this will be a success. I will be sure to keep you all updated!

Writer’s Notebook Wednesday

A few days ago, while blog-surfing, I stumbled on this post from Miss Rumphius explaining OULIPO poetry. OULIPO is a form of poetry created in 1960 by a writer and mathematician. The form is designed to examine verse written under strict constraints. There are many constraint forms. One of these forms is called S+7. In S+7, the writer takes a poem already in existence and substitutes each of the poem’s substantive nouns with the noun appearing seven nouns away in the dictionary. This can also be used with verbs.

While I am as far from a math person as possible, this idea intrigued me. Below, please find my S+7 constraint form of Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”.

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Where the Sign Ends

There is a plait where the sign ends
And before the structure begins,
And there the gravel grows soft and white,
And there the supermarket burns crimson bright,
And there the morass-bistro rests from his floor
To cool in the peppermint window.

Let us leave this plait where the snake blows black
And the dark structure winds and bends.
Past the pivots where the aster fluoride grow
We shall walk with a walrus that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the plait where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the chinchillas, they mark, and the chinchillas, they know
The place where the sign ends.

How cool! Apparently, if the new poem doesn’t make sense it is all the better. Thank goodness! Though I do like how this new poem seems to plop along.

Hot Books!

As a teacher, I realize I have something different to add to the kidlitosphere. Like a librarian, I am surrounded by kids all day long. That’s right, real live kid readers!  I have decided to start publishing a monthly (or thereabouts) list of books my students are loving.  Hopefully, this will help others choose books for middle grade readers.Right now, here are the books that my “real live readers” are just eating up in the classroom: 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney- Boys and girls alike are reading this. They are booktalking it to each other, too! My single copy has been passed from student to student, along with the multiple copies they bought from Scholastic and the book fair. All my students are eagerly awaiting the next book.  I am asked at least once a week when the sequel will be out and usually another student (who previously asked the same question) will launch into an explanation about the title of the book and when it will be published.  Needless to say, I can’t get my hands on this soon enough!  

Uglies (Uglies Trilogy, Book 1) (Pretties (Uglies Trilogy, Book 2) and Specials (Uglies) by Scott Westerfeld- I didn’t even have to booktalk this series. Two of my students came into school as huge fans and they spread the word. My classroom library has 3 copies of each book and they are rarely on the shelves for more than a day before being checked out by the next person. We have even had the media center order a few extra copies to make sure there is always one available.  Also, other dystopian books have become very popular once I explained that Westerfeld’s books are considered dystopian by many critics.    

Cirque Du Freak #1: A Living Nightmare: Book 1 in the Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque Du Freak: The Saga of Darren Shan) by Darren Shan- I briefly booktalked this series (seriously, for about 2 minutes before lunch one day). One student chose to take the first book home that night. Before I knew it, I was besieged by requests for the rest of the series! Apparently, the book was passed around and my boys are completely obsessed. Of course, there are 12 books and I can’t afford them all right now! The boys are getting pretty impatient. :) 

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick- When I booktalked this book, I knew the appeal to most students was the fact that it has a lot of pictures. However, at least 3 students have read it since and they all enjoyed the story.  They also enjoy the fact that such a ‘nice’ book is allowed to be taken home.  I think they are used to hardcover books, especially ones with gorgeous illustrations, having special rules.  Those rules usually involve keeping the books in school and not allowing them to go home.    

Emma Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis- This is our current read-aloud. My students all know that my goal is to read the Newbery before it is chosen and I told them this is one book I think has a shot at the medal. They asked to read it together and they are loving it! They beg to read it everyday and are definitely identifying with Emma-Jean and Colleen.    

These are the books I can think of off the top of my head. I’ll have to update this every so often and keep the blogosphere updated on my students’ choices.  Again, I hope that this post helps someone find more books for their children or students.

Harry in the Classroom

While reading some other blogs today, I found a great article from Britain’s Daily Mail today about a school in the UK that has experienced a significant turnaround in the academic performance of their students after introducing a Harry Potter curriculum this year. Apparently, the Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery school was in the bottom quarter of schools in Britain. After introducing a student-designed curriculum, they are now in the top 5% of schools in the country!

At Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery school, students are immersed in Harry Potter.

Year classes have been named Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, after the school houses at Hogwarts, the wizards’ school attended by Harry in the novels and hit movies.

Example lessons from the “Harry Potter curriculum”

•Maths: subtraction is seen as a “spell” which has been created by Harry Potter. Children have to say the magic words “numerus subtracticus” when they give an answer eg “58 minus 14 – numerus subtracticus – equals 44″.

•English: to learn about dramatisation, pupils create their own scripts for plays based on the text from chapter two of J K Rowling’s debut novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

•Art: imagine what Harry Potter would do if he painted a version of Vincent Van Gogh’s 1889 masterpiece The Starry Night. The Potter-inspired versions featured witches, dragons and other beasties.

•History: the history of flight, starting with a discussion of Harry Potter’s broomstick, then discussing if that is real and tracing the real development of aviation, including the Wright brothers.

•Geography: comparing the children’s home town of Arnold, Nottinghamshire, with Goathland, North Yorkshire, where the scenes of Hogsmead Station were shot for the Potter films.

•Computers: take a virtual tour of Harry’s fictional school Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on the internet, then create a map of Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School using similar information.

•Science: put a stick of celery in a beaker of blue dye and see how it takes in the fluid, turning the celery from green to blue. Discuss whether Harry Potter could use this to turn one of his foes a different colour.

•Music: learn how to create a mood by performing a piece of music relating to the theme “Hogwarts at night”. Using percussion instruments, the children made appropriately spooky sounds.

•PE: balance and co-ordination is taught by getting the pupils to pretend they are Harry Potter and his friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger getting on and off their broomsticks (pupils used imaginary broomsticks).source

Wow! What a great idea on the part of the school! While some of this may sound silly to adult ears, I can picture primary students eating it up. How fun would it be to treat math as a magic spell, when so many students dread math? Or to treat science as a Potions class, coming up with magic experiments. And the music class sounds amazing. I’m a grown woman and I would have so much fun playing a piece of music that is related to the mood of the Harry Potter film music.

Part of me thinks that the whole “dressing the part, playing the part” aspect of a Harry Potter curriculum might become obnoxious. However, the students are only immersed in Harry Potter for the present term. Right now, the student body votes on a school-wide curriculum theme for each term. Past themes have included the Titanic, Africa, Princesses and Princes. According to the school head, choosing their own themes has had a dramatic “impact on their[students'] enthusiasm and motivation.” Well, of course it has! I see that on a much smaller scale in my own classroom. Whenever my students have the option of designing their own project or assessment they do much better. This is why the workshop format works so well, also. Student-directed learning is always the best choice.

I wish something like this would jump across the pond. The project-based learning taking hold around here has a lot in common with the topic learning seen in Britain. We haven’t yet made the leap to devoting our entire curriculum to a single theme or idea, but I would love to see some variation take hold here. I know it’s a big step and a huge jump away from NCLB, but it would serve students so much more than teaching to a test every year. Even if we only devoted one semester or marking period each year to a theme, it would be great. I know it would force more teachers to co-plan and work together to set up the term, but it would benefit students to much! Definitely some food for thought.

Novels vs. Movie Adaptations

Today I got a hold of Disney’s “Tuck Everlasting” movie, the 2002 adaptation of the Natalie Babbitt novel. Oddly enough, before tonight I had only seen the much older adaptation of the novel. I wanted to preview the movie before we watch it as a class next week, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I had to set aside my thoughts about the novel and view the film as a separate entity.

It should be very interesting watching the movie with my students. We have been analyzing the novel for two weeks now and will have completed our initial reading before we view the film. My students are very adept at picking up on Babbitt’s symbolism, and will notice when anything is changed in the film. Within the first 5 minutes I had already picked out 3 important changes from the novel (and I know they will immediately notice them, too).

The screenwriter has changed the timimg of the story from August to the beginning of summer. This upset me, as the metaphor about the Ferris wheel hanging at the top like August hangs at the top of the year no longer works! Also, Winnie is aged by about 6 years, making her closer to 16 than 10. Finally, her parents play a much more prominent role than they do in the book. While this is a departure from the novel, I didn’t mind that as much. Her parents are characterized as bossy, overprotective, and downright mean! It does make it more obvious why Winnie runs away- in the novel we only hear her grandmother and mother in the background, so to speak. Here they are much more in the forefront of the tale. Most importantly, the ever-present and symbolic toad is barely mentioned in the film. It does appear in a few scenes, but is never explained or pointed out.

Apparently, Natalie Babbitt gave her approval of the film and even participates in the audio commentary and extra features. If Babbitt approves of the film, I certainly do, too! However, I will look at it as a separate entity from the amazing novel. I do wish more people had seen the movie, though. It might have turned them on to the perfection of Babbitt’s novel!

Great Moments in the Classroom

Today my students met with their reading partners for their first “Tuck Everlasting” book meetings. We have been doing a lot of minilessons on thick vs. thin questions, partnership talk, and focusing on a central idea in the text. I walked around, eavesdropping, as they were talking and I was so impressed! While their conversations were not perfect by any means, they were heads and tails above what I expected to hear! Most of the groups were completely focused on their thick questions and I even heard a few debates breaking out!

After listening in today, I have a good idea where we will be taking the unit next. My eventual goal is for the students to be able to respond to their literature both conversationally and in a written letter-essay (a la Nancie Atwell). This week, we will be working on focusing on a central idea from the text and writing about it. We will write about personal connections and text-to-text connections, in single paragraphs. I think we will use the idea of everlasting life as our central idea when we work together: Should we have the option of living forever? The kids seem to connect with the idea immediately and hopefully we can have fun writing off our class stickie note!

I’m under the gun here, because I need to finish Tuck Everlasting before Thanksgiving! However, after the Thanksgiving break I plan to go back through Tuck doing some annotations with the class. :)

Technology in the Classroom

While looking at all the new products displayed at the NJEA Convention, I decided I really want a document camera (or an ELMO). My overhead projector works well enough, but it drives me crazy that I have to copy anything I want to display onto a transparency and then use it. A document camera would allow me to display everything from our read-alouds to my own writing notebook and work from there. It would be in color and could even use the same screen as my smartboard for the display! Of course, document cameras are not cheap. I know I can not afford to buy one on my own, so that means I have to convince the district that we need one or find a grant. I know I can go through DonorsChoose, but I am wondering if there are any grants out there in cyberspace that are for ELMOs/document cameras in particular. I am googling for every combination I can think of, but no luck yet!

Does anyone out there in the blogosphere use a document camera in their classroom? Specifically, in a language arts classroom? I would love to hear about your experiences and even recommendations!!

Parent Visitation

This upcoming week is Parent Visitation. I’ve been looking at my plans and I’m not really sure what lessons I will be doing. I’m not nervous- I enjoy having parents stop by. However, I do like to do something semi-interesting and something that keeps the students interested. Parents coming and going will be disruptive, no matter what, and I want to make sure that there is little opportunity for the students to be distracted.

Parents can come in from 9-10:15 on Wednesday and Thursday, so that is during Reading Workshop and part of Writing Workshop. Right now we are reading Tuck Everlasting and working on our NaNoWriMo novels. In reading, we are on a writing about reading unit, working our way towards writing reader’s responses. Most likely I will just stick with the plans I have down, but any suggestions out there in the blogosphere?

How do you handle parent visitation?

Poetry Friday

I decided to post one of my all-time favorite poems for Poetry Friday. “The Highwayman” is the first poem I ever memorized and recited in its entirety. It holds a very special place in my heart. I have only posted Part 1, but the poem goes on much longer, telling the entire story!

The Highwayman (Alfred Noyes)

Part One
I
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding-
Riding-riding-
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

II
He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

III
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

IV
And dark in the old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord’s daughter,
The landlord’s red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say-

V
“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

VI
He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i’ the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.

A day off….

Today was spent cleaning. And unpacking. And cleaning some more. Not a very exciting day, and it makes me look forward to getting back to school on Monday!

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