Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Creative Writing and Literature Masters Program Complete!

I am just waiting to receive my final grade in my last class and have my program portfolio approved, but all of that is out of my hands!

To celebrate, I thought I'd post a bit of my work (just poetry for now) from the program. 


5:18 A.M

Emily Dickinson beckoned me to my window
with a tattooed moonprint
on the carpet below the sill,
six-paned and lovely.

And I saw, through Emily’s eyes,
one neighbor’s light dancing through red sheers,
one sedan gliding down the road.

She brought me to my window to find this poem.
She showed me how to see what there is to see
when no one is supposed to be looking.


All these years of hips and thighs and muscle and instinct,
my body delivered my girls with the reflex of knowing.

You, though, kicked and fought with angry heels
your path artificial, not of my flesh.

My girls arrived with shrill cries of life.
You sulked into the world broken, insolent.

Daughters borne of me
A poem born in me. 

Blood and ink


slides out of her cracked shell
so sweet
and urgent and
Jackson Pollock fills the sky
with drips and splashes
of to-do lists only half-formed
in my mind.
There is still time,
I tell the birds.
So sing, even though
it’s early and you are chirping
more loudly than my alarm clock
that will never be set as long as you
keep chirping
the morning news
starts even earlier now
because the breaking news ticker
scrolled all night so there
must be something to report first and fast.
Each morning the same
routine, procedure, schedule.
What began as beautiful becomes
a metronome of must
go and do and get
until day bends toward evening
and there is only the threat of
tomorrow to lull me to sleepy
haze of dreaming of the
magnificent morning.

For Esperanza

Outside the petunias in a pot
will blossom when the soil’s richness
can grow dollars instead of flowers.

Inside I write words forward and backward
and upside down, just like I lived them. 
I never type them,
the whack of the keys like gunshots. 

You cried when I left, but not the kind of crying that cracks
your heart into so many pieces that you
can never find them all. 
Your crying was the song of a hungry kitten.

I will not be gone forever. 
Only until my petunias have blossomed.

I will have legs that carry me back and away,
filled solid with dirt and words and blood and love. 
Home to complete the circle
and away to begin my own.

Straight Lines

This morning I was rereading Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough's A Place for Wonder:  Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades when I was stopped short by this beautiful poem.  It captures what I believe so movingly:

All the kindergarteners
walk to recess and back
in a perfectly straight line
no words between them.
They must stifle their small voices,
their laughter, they must
stop the little skip in their walk,
they must line up
at the water fountain
straight, and in perfect form,
like the brick wall behind them.
One of their own given the job
of informer--guard of quiet,
soldier of stillness.
If they talk
or make a sound
they will lose their stars.
Little soldiers marching to and from
their hair sweaty
from escaping dinosaurs
their hearts full of loving the world
and all they want to do
is shout it out
at the top of their lungs.
When they walk back to class
they must quietly
fold their pretends into pockets,
must dam the river of words,
ones they're just learning
new words that hold the power
to light the skies, and if they don't
a star is taken away.
One star
by one star
until night grows dark and heavy
while they learn to think carefully
before skipping,
before making a wish.

I believe childhood is too precious to press into straight lines.  Thank you Georgia and Jennifer for confirming that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"5-Paragraph Essays Allow Students to Say Nothing in an Organized Way"

 5-paragraph essays allow students to say nothing in an organized way.

I have been trying to track this tweet back to its source, but I can't.  It is flying around the #ncte12 Twitter feed--retweeted by so many people that I can't figure out who actually said it in a session. 

Whoever said it, THANK YOU.  I've been arguing against this structure for years, but this one line captures my feelings about the five-paragraph essay.

We owe it to our students to invited them to write authentic pieces for authentic audiences.  We must teach them the essential skills of writing and allow them to write about topics they care about.  All kids--even the ones that struggle with organization, deserve that.

Here are just a few a few interesting links on the subject:

Death to the Five-Paragraph Essay
If You Teach or Write 5-Paragraph Essays, Stop It
Teaching Writing:  5-Paragraph Essay is Not the Answer

Sunday, November 18, 2012

NCTE Reflections

On the flight home from NCTE I had a long time to think about what I learned there, the trends I noticed, and what I want to put into practice right away...5 whole hours awake on a red-eye can be great for reflection.

My top 5 moments from NCTE:

1.  Presenting with Melissa.  It was wonderful to have a partner to share the journey with and who taught me so much about how to craft an effective presentation.   I believe that people left our session having learned something new and useful.
Proof that we presented

Our standing-room only crowd
2.  Listening to Sir Ken Robinson with thousands of other dedicated professionals.  I was charmed by his sense of humor and reinvigorated by his call for sweeping changes in education that begin in each person's classroom.

3.  Learning from my teaching heroes in an intimate setting.  Though NCTE is a huge conference, the sessions are small and allow for a sharing of ideas.  I was lucky enough to attend sessions with Ralph Fletcher, Georgia Heard, Laura Robb, Matt Glover, Ginny Lockwood, Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Donalyn Miller, and my new teaching heroes--Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer Mcdonough.  Everywhere I turned I found inspiration.  I also found comfort in the way these mentors presented their ideas--they are still forming them, toying with them, changing them. 
Ralph Fletcher

The Two Sisters!  Joan and Gail sitting in front of me in Kristin and Jen's presentation

The Nerdy Book Club session
 4.  Listening to Natalie Merchant perform the poems-turned-songs from the collection Leave Your Sleep.  She reminded us all about the power of poetry for children (and adults!).
 5.  Being stopped by someone in a hallway in the conference center who said, "I loved your presentation yesterday."  That brings me back to my first favorite moment... 

My Top 5 Action Items:
  1. Find a few teachers who will try Biblionasium with their students to create stronger communities of readers.  Thanks, Nerdy Book Club, for that idea.
  2. Urge all teams K-6 to plan at least one non-genre-specific writing workshop unit.  Thanks, Matt Glover, for reminding me why that's important to kids.
  3. Find one classroom teacher who will allow me to try out Georgia Heard's poem-a-week model for poetry instruction (Tanya, if you are reading this...)
  4. Visit the DailyCafe website to follow Kristin and Jen's progress with their ISCORE writing concept and design lessons for our teachers.  Their idea is fantastic--let's not compartmentalize the writing lessons we teach by genre.  Let's teach kids that good writing is good writing, no matter what the genre.  Good writing has Ideas, Structure, Conventions, One Focus, Real Voice, and Elaboration.  Let's set up those concepts just as we do with the Daily 5 and Cafe menu.
  5. Work with Melissa on an in-house presentation on knocking down the classroom walls--how to use technology to broaden our students' writing and reading lives beyond the classroom.

My Top 5 Realizations and Reminders:
  1. Ralph Fletcher shared that he is rethinking mentor texts. (Wait, he wrote the book on mentor texts!)   He is thinking that perhaps it is better to provide kids with examples of great writing and see what the kids find, rather than saying, "Kids, this piece uses excellent similes."  He's rethinking his work with mentor texts to balance the teacher-directed and student-led noticings.  I heard this idea in more than one session--this reminder that we should trust the kids to make their own discoveries, even if they aren't what we intended.
  2. Student choice continues to be at the center of student engagement and achievement.  This choice is important in all areas of their day--what they read, what they write, what they discuss, and how they think.  Ginny Lockwood demonstrated a mistake so many of us make when doing a read-aloud--directing the kids on how to feel about something in the book.  Let's work on shutting up and letting the kids think!
  3. Teachers of reading and writing must be readers and writers themselves.  I must work to encourage this with the teachers.  Our kids must see that we build reading lives.  And the only real way to name what they are struggling with as writers is if we are writers doing the work we ask our kids to do.
  4. When we catch ourselves saying, "These kids don't..." or "These kids can't..." then it's time for a gut-check.  What are we doing to make kids BE school instead of DO school.  It is our own fault when they ask questions like, "How long does this have to be?" or "When I'm done with this can I..." or when we say things like, "What I'm looking for is..."  Kids came to school as joyful, creative creatures.  There's nothing to blame but SCHOOL when kids lose that.
  5. 93% of a teacher's day is spent in isolation (from other adults)!  When is the time for collaboration, deep reflection, and planning?  How can we allow more time for the collaborative planning and reflecting side of teaching that is just as important as the time spent in the classroom with kids?

NCTE 2012 Presentation: iPads in Language Arts

Here's our presentation
Just a screenshot!  Click on the link to see the video on YouTube

And here are our app handouts for Writing, Reading, and Word Study

Friday, November 2, 2012

How did you get this way?

I've been asked this question twice in one week.  So I suppose it's time to think of an answer.

First, let me clarify the question.  They wanted to know how I became the teacher I am now--how my philosophy of education has evolved into its current "progressive" state.  One of Seth Godin's recent blog posts has helped me realize my answer:

Who you hang out with determines what you dream about and what you collide with.
And the collisions and the dreams lead to your changes.
And the changes are what you become.
Change the outcome by changing your circle.

I have had the chance to collide with a wonderful assortment of people throughout my 18 years in education.  I have changed my circles every 5-7 years, moving from two public high schools schools in Howard County, Maryland to the SEED School of Washington DC (a middle and high charter boarding school) to  Flint Hill School (a JK-12 independent school).  In each school I have found adults who have challenged, shaped, and supported my views about education.  And I have been lucky enough to have students who have let me try out these views.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Dipping my Toe into Infographics

I spent hours today trying out different infographic design tools and making my first infographic.  After visiting many sites, I made my choice: Easel.ly.  This website is still in beta form, so its features will probably improve, but this was, by far, the most user-friendly infographic generator I tried.  Users select a theme and get going right away. 

The toolbar looks like this:
The workspace looks like this:
My first attempt looks like this:
I know it's not very fancy or text-rich, but I think it will work for now.  Thanks, Easel.ly, for really making it easy!

Monday, August 13, 2012

On the eve of returning to work, for my daughters, 6 and 9

So.  This is it.  The year of no homework.  The year of no worksheets.  No desks in rows.  This is the year of "what if" instead of simply "what."  After swimming around in our faculty summer reading of Tony Wagner's Creating Innovators, surely we are all ready for a year of igniting creativity, nurturing bravery, and challenging the real or imagined barriers students carry to school.  


It has to be, because this is our chance to leap into whatever magic is through the portal, glittering not so far away.  If we wait, if we hesitate even one day more, the portal will pass and we will be stuck in rows and worksheets and rote memorization and complacency for another school year.

So.  As a parent I will be my children's advocate.  As an educator I will be your children's advocate.

My inspiration for my work this year comes from this poem I found in a book marked for Goodwill, If You're Not Here Please Raise Your Hand, by a former teacher, Kalli Dakos:

"The Wind is Calling Me Away"

How can I sit through one more day,
For the wind is calling me away,
And I want to change with the leaves that fall,
But I'm here in school and I'm missing it all.

While leaves as bright as the sun fly by,
We add, subtract, and multiply,
And none of these numbers makes sense to me,
When the sky is as blue as the summer sea.

Oh, teacher, please let's race the leaves,
Let's jump in piles and climb in trees,
Let's add, subtract, and multiply,
The wind, the leaves, and the deep blue sky.

--Kalli Dakos

And one more, just because in my crusade to make school different, I can't forget about my first passion, the fight to make reading wonderful.

"I Have No Time to Visit with King Arthur"

I have no time to dream a dream,
Or think a splendid thought,
Or visit with King Arthur
In the land of Camelot.

I've underlined one hundred nouns, 
And circled thirty verbs,
While wishing that this workbook
Had a story to its words.

I could travel to another time
With Huck Finn on his raft,
Or read a poem by Silverstein 
That really makes me laugh.

Instead I fill in compound words,
A neverending chore:
How I long to be with Gulliver
On a strange and distant shore!

Nouns and verbs and compound words
Are sad and dull and stale,
Unless they're fired with the spark
Of a mighty, wondrous tale.

--Kalli Dakos

Friday, June 22, 2012

Summer Reading Begins

Since my twitter handle is "bookcrusader," it's time that I posted about a few good books.  In the past few weeks I've read a mix of literary fiction, nonfiction, and young adult fiction.  I highly recommend each of these:

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner
This interesting and motivating book challenges parents, companies, and schools to nurture innovation by doing things differently.  Parents should encourage their children to explore their passions, even when those passions fall outside the "mainstream."  Parents should give their children freedom (but not at the risk of their safety!) and support, prioritize play, and promote reading.  Educators must overhaul school so that it is a place where children tinker, think, create, play, and collaborate.  Companies must reconsider how they manage and train their employees to leverage everyone's talents.  Tony Wagner's PLAY + PASSION = PURPOSE is an equation we should all be following.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Now, for an escape from reality, this book offers the reader a trip deep into the Amazon and even deeper into the ethics of a pharmaceutical company.  What happens when a scientist knows she is developing a drug that will not bring in a profit for the company but will save thousands of lives?  Can she manipulate the system so that everyone is happy?  There are so many layers of plot in this book, from pregnant 73-year-olds to a mysterious death to a secret romance.  It took me two days to journey through this; I only wish it could have taken longer.
Trouble by Gary D. Schmidt
This YA novel is heavy; Henry learns fairly quickly that his father could not have been more wrong when he said that if you build your house far enough away from trouble, trouble will never find you.  Henry and his family face trouble when Franklin, the oldest son, is hit by a car and hospitalized with "indeterminate brain activity."  Worse, his sister's secret boyfriend, Chay Chouan, a Cambodian immigrant, is accused of driving the truck that hit and eventually killed Franklin.  Henry is left to resolve his feelings for his brother and Chay Chouan without the support of his parents, who are too lost in their own sorrow to be of any use to him.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Forget Thinking Outside The Box

Yesterday in New York City Seth Godin told us to dance on the edge of danger.  He told us to find our edge, to consider what we'd be willing to get arrested for.  He asked us to figure out whether or not we are doing something so important that we are willing to fail at it.  What story, he pushed, are we prepared to live?  Most passionately, he implored us not to wait for someone to pick us; we need to pick ourselves.

Most of the attendees were entrepreneurs, marketers, and writers.  But a few of us were educators, eager to hear more about Stop Stealing Dreams and how to "make school different."  About five of the questions asked all day centered on making change happen in schools.  What follows are MY major take-aways from his responses:

  1. At our school, we need to tell the same story.  All of us.  So who gets to decide the story?  And when?
  2. Would anyone miss us (the school) if we were gone?  If not, our story doesn't matter.
  3. We need to help kids find their superpowers and then celebrate those powers all the time.  Kids need to find their heroes among themselves.
  4. We need to understand the parents' worldview--they want their children to be successful.  Instead of fighting that, bank on it.  We want success, too.  Let us show you how...
  5. School can't change overnight.  We need to work from inside the box, lean against the walls, find the weakest wall, and leverage that weakness. Stop thinking outside the box!  Get in it--then bust through one wall.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Make School Different

This weekend I did something I swore I'd never do:  stick a bumper sticker to my car.  I really stuck it--no magnets, tape, or other alternative affixes.  For the past few weeks I drove around with it curled up on the front seat of my car, debating whether or not to take the plunge.  In all my years of driving, I have never peeled the backing off a sticker and placed the sticker on my bumper--not just because I don't want to damage the paint (though that is part of it), but because I cannot think of a sticker that holds a message significant enough that it should be a permanent and public banner of my beliefs.  So why now?  

Because Phil Sharp's "Make School Different" sticker, inspired by Seth Godin's Stop Stealing Dreams, is that important.  I will never stop believe that our children deserve a new vision, an entirely different concept, of school.  Car paint be damned. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Lessons Learned in Vermont

Rather than outlining my third day in Vermont, which included a trip over to the 3-8 building (Williston Central School) to see kids blogging, writing pieces for the Vermont Young Writers' Program, skyping with an author, using Pixton to create graphic novels, I'll close out my reflections from the trip as a whole.

Here are my major takeaways:

Third grade classroom

Sixth grade classrooms
  1. In every classroom I visited, I saw kids sitting at tables--not individual desks.  This arrangement is a physical representation of the belief in collaboration.  I'd love to see our individual student desks replaced with collaborative work spaces like tables.
  2. Kindergarteners can and want to blog, tweet, video chat...and not for a gimmick.  These activities transform their learning, helping them explain their thinking, publish their work, and connect to the larger world around them.  I'd love to see every student in our building publish work and thoughts on a blog hosted by their teachers.
  3. Teachers who are connected via a PLN (personal learning network) can transform their instruction virtually (no pun intended) overnight.  Of course we should support the work of the teachers right next to us or down the hall, but why not reach out beyond our building to share best practice ideas with other teachers throughout the country and around the world?
  4. If we are truly child-centered, our decisions about schedules, facilities, access to technology, and curriculum and instruction must not be based on adult-conveniences but on what's best for kids.  We also need to figure out how to help parents understand our choices, offer them boundaries, and hold them to those boundaries so they do not interfere with their children's learning.
  5. We cannot depend on programs to define our instruction.  While teachers may benefit from following a set of lessons or a packet of resources, we must bring our understanding of best practice to everything we teach.
 Many, many thanks again to all of the people at Allen Brook School and Williston Central School who opened their classrooms to me and spent time talking with me.  Of course, I am especially grateful to Sharon Davison for coordinating my visit and for being an inspiring, motivating teacher.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Allen Brook, Day 2

Today at Allen Brook School I was treated to a full schedule beyond Sharon's kindergarten class.  She so wanted me to see as much as possible that she thoughtfully arranged for me to see a variety of language arts instruction, a Reading Recovery lesson, and iPads in math.  I also spent time with one of the district's literacy coordinators.  I won't detail my day here--I'll just highlight a few parts of the day (like the Vermont cheese sampler we enjoyed for dinner!).

The day began with a visit with Julie Rogers' first grade students during their morning meeting.  I loved watching how her students so confidently lead, participate in, and enjoy the meeting that Julie facilitated.  Julie's morning meeting affirmed my belief that students should be at the very center of their learning.  There's so much more to say about the Julie's teaching--I will share what I observed from her in a post in the near future.

Just after morning meeting I flew down the hall to Maria McCormack's room where I watched her students using iPad apps as a way to target their specific needs.  They could choose between the Multi-touch Math app or the Number Rack app.  Not only did Maria invite me to observe her students but she opened her own vault of resources by sharing her team's website, her curricular wiki, her email address, and her twitter handle.  I will certainly be checking in on all of her digital gifts.

Later I met with Carol Huntington, Allen Brook's literacy coordinator.  My hour-long conversation with her made me feel connected to a larger community of literacy leaders.  Her words were reassuring--just the reminder I need as I prepare to head home and do important curricular planning for the 2012-13 school year.  Carol said that she tries to get the most bang for her buck in her work.  In her school she began by defining balanced literacy, looking at the schedule to find time for a 90-minute literacy block, and agreeing on standards of practice for each team.  She also reminded me that the WHAT of what we teach is non-negotiable, but the HOW is debatable; we must not get derailed by the "side conversations" that drill down into minutia or veer into complaint sessions.  I look forward to meeting with the K-6 teams to discuss the standards of practice for our reading instruction.

I ended the day with a visit to Jessie Stein's second grade Writing Workshop.  Her students were using Scribblepress to publish their realistic fiction stories.  Her students were so eager to share their stories with me and show me how to use this app to create books.

It was another whirlwind day, one that highlighted the importance of organization, forethought, and assessment in instruction.  I am sad that my visit will end tomorrow, but I will bring home ideas, plans, and connections that will enrich my long-range vision and day-to-day work.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Best Professional Development: A School Visit

This week I am lucky enough to be spending three days at Allen Brook School in Williston, Vermont with Sharon Davison and her kind and generous colleagues.  Back in November I found Sharon's class blog when I was doing some research for our kindergarten's Jan Brett author study.  One look at Sharon's jam-packed blog and I knew she was a dynamic, creative, and passionate teacher.  Now that I have had the privileged of spending one day in her clasroom, I understand that she is a remarkable teacher driven to deliver only the most sound, effective, and meaningful instruction to her students. 

Sharon immediately welcomed me into her class, introduced me to her students and co-workers, and then got busy teaching so that I could see all that I came to see (and more).  She knew I was particularly interested in language arts and technology, so I saw her class use the Smart board, iPads, and computers.  I saw the students sort letters, write words, and draft blog posts.  I watched them enjoy the newest addition to their class blog, a slide show Sharon put together using Smilebox.  I heard them ask when they would get to compose their daily tweet, helped two students return the iPads to the technology room, and listened with them as Sharon explained the concept of pinboards on Pinterest.  Students in Sharon's class are at ease with technology because they have learned how to use it and understand how it enhances their learning--it is not a gimmick or a mere substitute for pencil and paper.

Taking pictures during Explore Time
Sorting letters during Explore Time
Morning Message
Fundations with Smart Board and iPads
Nonfiction text displayed via ELMO

Sharon spends a lot of time with her students--I was amazed by her schedule (below).  The students only had one special today:  art...at the end of the day!  Although her days are exhausting, Sharon is grateful for the amount of time she has with her students each day as she layers her teaching, always knitting content, process, character, and metacognition into her work with the children.  It is all fluid.  Not a moment is wasted, not an opportunity overlooked to teach her students how to think, act, and reflect. 

In addition to spending hours in Sharon's class, I also had the chance to talk with Allen Brook's technology integration specialist, Bonnie Birdsall, over lunch.  I loved sharing our experiences and look forward to talking more with her on my final day in Williston.  My conversation with Bonnie further solidified how lucky I feel to work at Flint Hill School, where our 1:1 iPad/MacBook program makes embracing technology so easy.  Our challenge continues to be using technology to transform our instruction; I hope my visit to Allen Brook will help me bring back new ideas on how to do that.

Monday, April 2, 2012

What Writing Teachers Know

This list captures what parents need to understand about how we teach kids to write.  If only the parents could trust us!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Next Stop: Vermont

Now that Spring Break and the VAIS conference are behind me, I am setting my sights on Vermont where I will have the pleasure of visiting Sharon Davison and her kindergarten class at Allen Brook School in Williston.  I am looking forward to learning from Sharon, her students, and her colleagues about the ways they use their iPads and other technology to enhance and transform their teaching and learning.  I would never have known about Sharon or her blogging, tweeting kindergarteners if I had not begun my digital professional development journey this fall.  Each time I run through my Google Reader or Twitter feed I learn something new, feel inspired, and wonder what I might try in my own school. 

I will use my blog to journal about my experiences in Vermont, so perhaps someone can learn a thing or two from me.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reading Comprehension via Silent Film App

When we discovered the Silent Film Director app we knew we had to find a way to use it.  And, luckily enough, one of our fourth grade teachers was game.  She was reading The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh to  her students and wanted to find a way to help them dig more deeply into the text.  Rachel chose to read this book to her class in part because of their study of Jamestown and all of the ways people needed to adapt when settling a new colony (another layer is that in science her students are studying animal adaptation.) 

Here's the description of the book from Amazon:  "We are at Shine, on the first day, " says Pattie, when, as the youngest member of the group, she is given the honor of naming the new settlement. Refugees from the dying planet Earth, they, along with other ships, have been sent into space in the hope that some of them will survive to continue the human race. But the success of Shine remains doubtful as crops fail and provisions brought from Earth dwindle. Even the excitement surrounding the hatching of the giant moth people from the "boulders" in Boulder Valley doesn't make the group forget the hopelessness of the situation. It isn't until Pattie and her sister Sarah make an important discovery that survival becomes a certainty.

Rachel had her students focus on the obstacles the characters had to face and how they overcame those obstacles.  They selected the major obstacles in the book, divided into groups, and began to plan for how to recreate their scenes as silent films.  This began with teaching the kids how to write effective summaries.  Then we taught them about mood, tone, and symbolism.  Finally, we taught them some cinematic terms, particularly those that would allow them to select their camera angles (wide shot, close up, pan, shoulder shot, double shot, etc.).  We also showed them many examples of silent films and analyzed how these films made meaning without dialogue.  The students planned their costumes, selected their setting, and mapped their shots using a storyboard.  They were deeply immersed in an analytical study of the novel.

Friday was shooting day.  The students demonstrated so much enthusiasm about their scenes and so much understanding of the book.  And they had fun with the filming of their silent films. 

The app offers a lot of choice in terms of effects and sounds.  Check it out!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lego Friends: Friend, Not Foe

There's been a lot of talk about the new Lego Friends collection recently.  I've heard several interviews on NPR with angry commentators and bloggers who argue that these new Legos, designed for girls, are perpetuating gender stereotypes and negatively impacting the girls who choose to build and play with them.  For a few days it felt like whenever I turned on the radio I heard another angry woman bemoaning this new Lego line.

Why?  Because some of the blocks are pink and purple.  Because the people are not boxy--they have curvy figures and more human-like features.  Because one of the sets is a beauty shop. 

I think these arguments are silly.  There are plenty of blocks that are white, brown, black, and blue.  And Lego people have come a long way since the early robot-esque figures.  Most of the sets are interesting with lots to play with--a vet clinic, a tree house, a cafe, and a dog show, to name a few.  These Lego sets are not harming my daughters; they are inviting them to play with a toy that was otherwise not very interesting to them.  And best of all, they build these sets with Daddy.

I'm glad that my girls have the choice to play with Legos that appeal to them, especially since these sets do not involve weapons, tanks, or other forms of devastation as so many of their other collections do.  Where are the angry bloggers complaining about the violent Lego toys?

Friday, February 10, 2012


I just finished reading Nothing by Janne Teller and I'm not sure what to do with it.  The book or the ideas in it.  Nothing is a Michael L. Printz Award Honor book and a Batchelder Honor book.  Both awards are given to notable young adult and children's books.  It is a small book:  just 227 pages and a lot of white space on each page.  But the message is weighty.  Here's the first page:

Nothing matters.
I have known that for a long time.
So nothing is worth doing.
I just realized that.

From there the narrator, Agnes, explains that her classmate Pierre Anthon walks out of school on the first day of seventh grade pronouncing that life has no meaning.  He spends each day in a plum tree on the road to school, taunting his classmates from high in the branches.  Desperate to prove him wrong, Agnes and her classmates decide to collect items of meaning to show Pierre that life has value and to get him out of the tree.  Item by item, the meaningful contributions become more serious.  What begins as a pile of Dungeons and Dragons books and a fishing rod becomes a gruesome heap of mortality:  the grave of a two-year old, the head of a dog, one boy's finger, and one girl's virginity.  And still Pierre won't come out of the tree to see the collection.  Not until things turn really ugly.

So I don't spoil the book, I'll leave it at that. It's worth reading to see what happens.

What I'm wondering is, should I put this book in our seventh and eighth grade classroom collection, available to any student who wants to read it?  I want to.  I really do.  The Printz and Batchelder people want me to.  But this is not the sort of sci-fi dystopian novel our kids love so much these days.  There's nothing magical or fanciful in it that can leave a comfortable distance between its message and their minds.

If I don't put it on the shelf, then Pierre may be right.  I want the kids to think about life's meaning and find what matters to them, even if the book will be disturbing.

There's my decision.  Wish me luck.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Make it Real to Make it Matter

So we began the fourth grade blogging unit lessons on Monday.  Some kids were excited, some were nervous, and many were confused.  What would they blog about?  Who would read their blog?  Would the whole world get to see it?  They settled down enough for us to go through our blog overview lessons and our two internet safety and responsibility lessons over the next several days.  They even played along during the third lesson when we asked them to write simulated respectful blog posts about scenarios like these:
  • You want to write a blog post about your most recent math test, which you finished before anyone else and answered all of the problems correctly.  How can you write this AND be respectful of your classmates who did not finish as quickly or as well?  What would you write?
  • You want to write a blog post about a group project that you recently participated in, but you don’t think that everyone in your group contributed equally.  You are proud of the work you did.  What would you write?
There's nothing wrong with these scenarios, except that they were scenarios, not real and immediate.  While some of the students have actually experienced these situations and my choose to blog about them when they get underway next week, the kids all knew that this wasn't for real.   The blog posts they wrote in this practice session were generally vague, overly polite, and forced.

But things took a turn for the beautiful on Thursday when we taught the lesson on how to write good comments on a blog.  We showed strong and weak examples of comments and discussed the "rules" of blogging, which we adapted from Grammar Girl's blogging rules.  And then...and this is when things got good...we showed them Mrs. Emerick's real blog post and asked the kids to write real comments to her.  Mrs. Emerick amazed her class with her blog about helping the dogs at the animal shelter where she volunteers find homes.  The kids were moved by the pictures of the dogs and by the stories Mrs. Emerick told them about the dogs.  They wrote heartfelt comments about how her blog made them think about their own dogs who have passed away, about how they wished she had included more stories about the dogs on the blog, and about how they'd like to come help her at the shelter.  Their comments were respectful and thoughtful and sincere.   We were amazed by how well they responded when they were writing to a real person (and even more importantly, to their teacher) for a real purpose. 

Students see right through simulations and role-plays.  What they need are more opportunities to put the skills we teach them to use for real, about things they really care about, and for real audiences.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Leveled Library Launch

Finally, after six months of planning, ordering, cataloging, and shelving, our Lower School Leveled Library is open for business!  For several years we have been using the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System to assess our students' reading levels, organize them into guided reading groups, and help match students to their just-right books.  Many teachers took time to level some of the books in their classroom libraries and teachers found resources on Reading A-Z to use with their students during guided reading instruction.  We also invested in a RAZ Kids account so students could practice reading at their level from home or in school.  But we did not create a large resource collection of leveled books...until now.  It has only been "open" for one week but it has already been used as a resource to pull books at various levels for an upcoming mystery unit and a historical fiction unit and as a great place to find new books for students' independent reading book baggies.

It's time for a new sign!
So here's how it went down.  We received permission from the Lower School director, Sheena Hall, to empty a storage closet (this was a major production that could have earned us a special on Clean House). 

Then we purchased mountains of books from all kinds of places including Scholastic and my personal favorite, Booksource.  We also collected books from classroom libraries that were not being used frequently.  With major help from Glynis Miller,  Michelle Plaut, parent volunteers, and most especially Guni Cambata, we leveled, labeled, cataloged, and organized over 1,000 books.  Now our storage closet is a fledgling leveled collection that will allow our teachers to offer a wider array of choices to our young readers from A-Z.
A peek into the closet

Our wonderful team of librarians created a new collection in our library database, so now teachers are able to check the books out.  We are still working through the best way for teachers to do this (a portable scanner that can fit into their iPads?) out and then process them when they are returned.  If you have any suggestions, please share them!

Third graders exploring the new bins of books