Sunday, January 31, 2010

Creative Writing Idea: Shorten That Autobiography Assignment

When I started teaching, I had the notion that a great creative writing assignment would be the ever-popular "write your autobiography in an original way". Some students did a great job; others not so much. The point that I missed in this whole writing exercise is that it really had no point. I was not sure about how this assignment fit into the curricula and/ or my philosophy of teaching. Now, I firmly believe that I need to work with students to form a vision of who they are and who they hope to become. My entire four years with students has become a journey in five questions:

Who are you?
What are your thoughts and beliefs?
What are your dreams?
Where are you going?
How will you get there?

These questions reflective my philosophy that my teaching should be student-centered and should work to value the experiences that my students bring to the classroom. Also, these questions fit in nicely with our district curriculum, which requires a certain amount of career and/or prep and experiences with a variety of writing styles.

Now, as I become more cognizant of my goals and objectives in asking students about their autobiographies, I have decided that less is more. I don't really want them to labor over drafts of writing that start with their birth and end with them graduating high school. One way yo get them to pare down their writing is to narrow their focus. Here are two options of several that I've employed in my lesson planning:

The Six Word Memoir: As simple as it sounds. There are a series of books, an online site, and lots of youtube videos for use as samples.

Your Life Story on a Postcard. Allows for more writing than a Six Word Memoir, but not the pages and pages that a traditional autobiography assignment requires. Helps to narrow down thinking and adds an element of creativity with the choice of postcard.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Survey for Teachers Who Work With Struggling Readers

A message from Kylene Beers:

Looking for some help....

Bob Probst and I are looking for some information on how teachers teach novels to struggling readers. We’ve created a survey on survey monkey and will keep it open through January 30.

Survey link:

Would you each spread the word about the survey through your own twitter accounts, Nings, Facebook page, or email distribution lists? Some of you might even actually talk face to face with teachers. That’s also an acceptable word to encourage folks to participate. Those of you with college classes of inservice teachers might encourage them to respond.

We’ll post results on my blog site ( in a couple of weeks.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

One Little Word

This year, I'm joining groups of people all over the country who are choosing to focus on One Little Word. The actual word each person chooses will vary depending on the person's goals for this new year. My word is:


It's a simple word, but it's a feeling, an action, a state of mind that evades me on a daily basis. I started a graduate program two years ago, work full time, am involved in my school and community and generally feel a bit nutty on most days. Some who know me cannot believe that this would be a word that I would choose to focus on because I seem like I have it all under control. This is an illusion. I have a hard time letting go, so to speak, and just living. I hope to adapt my schedule and my mind to accepting a more relaxed pace. This is the goal.

What is your One Little Word for 2010?

Link to flickr photo group

Monday, January 18, 2010

Real World Reflections: Students Blog about the News

As I've mentioned before, I start every workday by driving to school with National Public Radio (NPR) blaring from my speakers. I am more than a fan of NPR; I am obsessed. The difference? Well, if I don't get a regular dose of news in the morning, I feel disconnected. If our local station is conducting a pledge drive or if the radio is so static-y that I can't listen, my day is not as smooth. There is something about being informed that makes me feel, well, part of the world.

Though what my students listen to on their ride to school in the morning differs from my choice of stations, I know that they're interested in what's going on in the world. They may not be ready to sacrifice a half-hour or twenty minutes of music for news, but that does not mean that they don't care about what's happening in the world. Their world.

For instance, Miep Gies, the brave soul who helped hide the Frank family during the Holocaust, died this past week. She was 100 years old and humble able her role in saving Anne Frank's diary so that the rest of the world could read it. As I listened to an interview with Ms. Gies, I knew that students needed to know about her life. I had planned for students to write a blog post about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. I still wanted to give students the option to write that post, but decided to offer an alternate assignment. Now they could choose to write about either Dr. King or Ms. Gies. Some students chose to write about both.

Part of my realization in this lesson was that most of my students are disconnected from the daily news, but truly care about important events and happenings when someone takes the time to share it with them. As I introduced the day's blogging assignment, a regular feature in our classroom, many students genuinely wanted to know more about Miep Gies, the Holocaust, Anne Frank, and genocide. We had a rich discussion about these topics, which totally lead the whole lesson for the day off track, but I did not care. We talked. Like people who care about the world and humanity and history and society talk. It was real. They learned from that conversation, and so did I.

I promise to continue to bring up news items in class, even if we are lead astray and I don't accomplish all of what I've planned. I look forward to have real, relevant discussions with students about news that matters. Just as I need to hear the news on my drive to work to feel connected, talking about important news events like Miep Gies, the recent earthquake in Haiti, the economy, elections, and other items of interest will engage them in the larger world.

Here is a student sample blog post about Miep Gies:

Student 1

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Daily Bread: Famous Poems & Quotations

Every work day, I follow a routine. I drive to work listening to National Public Radio (NPR), stop at a coffee shop, scoot over to school, open my email, and read a famous quote and a poem. Every day.

I cannot tell you how much I look forward to these regular features in my email inbox. I am often inspired with a lesson idea, a purpose for the day, or am either made to smile or get all goosebumpled by something profound that someone else has either said or written. I think that these daily doses of thought have also opened my line of vision to new poets, politicians, and literary figures that I've never read or heard about before. I regularly want to know more about the person behind the quote or poem and will research them further. I have found quite a few new favorite people and poems this way.

Here is the poem I found in my email inbox this morning:

"Snow Day"

Snowing outside,
and the boy in short pants
swings a broom.

He’s at bat
in his room
that’s a park

for the other boy
smaller and kneeling
waiting his turn

for the Sun,
maybe Spring,
whichever comes first.

by Donal Mahoney

I found this poem to be absolutely beautiful in its simplicity and in its powerful imagery. I love poems like this, but doubt that I would've ever stumbled across it, as I'd never heard of the author before and very rarely seek out poems about snow. I conducted some quick research about Donal Mahoney and found out that he is the son of Irish Immigrants and has tons of poems available online.

Here's the quotation I received in my email inbox this morning:

"Inaction saps the vigor of the mind." ~~ Leonardo da Vinci

Not one of my favorites, but it definitely inspired me to get up and start working! Sometimes I save these emails (I have a special folder for both poetry and quotations) and sometimes I delete them. I often refer back to these emails when I'm looking for inspiration or a new author. Either way, I love getting up and driving to work in the morning, anticipating the poetry and words of wisdom that await me in my email inbox!

To subscribe to Daily Poetry, simply visit this site and enter your email address. It is just as easy to receive a famous education-related quote in your email every day. Just follow this link.

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Book for a New Year: Today I Will

Jerry and Eileen Spinelli have coauthored a new book entitled Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes, and Promises to Myself. I have to admit that when I saw this I had to have it. Mostly, this is due to a serious soft spot in my heart for a few of Spinelli's books (Stargirl, Milkweed, Loser). Though primarily an author for middle level students, I felt that this title might be put to good use in my Study Skills classes.

I sometimes struggle to come up with meaningful, creative exercises and projects for these students. With my English classes, there is a set curriculum and there are books and poems to read. Study Skills, on the other hand, is more of an elective class with no specific reading materials. So, I've worked and searched and pulled together a bunch of activities for students who finish their homework, studying and make-up work for other classes.

The appeal of this book for me is the fact that it is arranged in a sort of calendar. I have read through the book and have earmarked a number of writings that seem like they'll lead to thoughtful student products. I especially like:

February 6th: In this entry, the Spinellis talk about hatred and the power of forgiveness. I can easily think of some writing prompts to go along with this topic.

April 6th: The discussion in this entry is all about rain. I have to admit that I love a good spring rain. There is nothing more refreshing. So, maybe we'll all go outside and dance in the rain (or snow!) that is bound to be falling this April 6th!

September 9th: Like the Spinellis, I have a lot of opinions concerning a whole host of issues. This entry acknowledges that we have have some opinions that we hold, but that we also need to learn to listen to others. I have found that the notion that opinions need to be respected could use some work in many of the classes I teach.

These are just a small sampling of the 366 pages of ideas offered in this book. This is a great resource to have if you're looking for some writing prompt inspiration or some great quotations by famous authors. They can easily be used for student blogs or writing journals. Either way, this text is good for a rainy day activity or as a regular feature in your classroom!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: The Book Thief

Though I'd planned on reading all nonfiction titles for the Bibliophilic Book Challenge, I found myself needing to reread The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and realized that this title fits this challenge perfectly. For this challenge, I need to read a certain number of books (I'll explain this later) that relate directly to reading or books. As for the number of books I'll read during this challenge, I can choose from the following levels:

  • Bookworm: Read three books
  • Litlover: Read six books
  • Bibliomaniac: Read twelve books

  • Now, I already know that I am a book lover, but am I a bibliomanic? I guess that this remains to be seen. If you're interested in joining this challenge, there's still time. In fact, you have until January 31, 2010.

    And, on to the book review.

    The Book Thief is the current title for a local and online book club I started with a middle school teacher this year. We started this club because we felt that there was a disconnect between the English departments in the middle and high schools in our district. What better way to bring English teachers together than over some great young adult lit? We decided to start the club this fall and we're now on our fourth title, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. We have about ten or eleven members who're participating in our monthly meetings and 110 online book clubbers. Pretty amazing.

    Again, on to the book review.

    I was excited to have this selection pulled out of the dish (for lack of a hat) at our November meeting. I had read this book once before, but in a bit of a hurry and it's not really a book that should be read in a hurry. I knew that I remember the basic plot and some of the scenes, but knew that I needed to reread in order to participate in our book club discussion. And, as a facilitator of this club, I should be participating in discussion!

    I out off reading this title for most of Christmas break, thinking that it would be too dark for me to go and have fun during reading breaks. I've found the opposite to be true. I am having a hard time putting it down and am not feeling depressed by its story, but uplifted. This is odd, because it is about WWII and the Holocaust, though not directly, and there's plenty of suffering and hunger and war going on. But, there's a huge amount of humanity and tenderness and care in this novel that I hadn't really sensed during that first rushed read.

    I am moved by the main character Liesel, and her foster family. I love that there is love in her home and that her foster parents genuinely care for her and for the Jewish man that's hiding in the basement. Not that there's not a whole ton of madness, too. There is. But there's also a deep humane sort of current running through this novel. It's inspiring.

    It's also about books. The main character is illiterate at the start of the novel, and therefore has a deep desire to learn to read. She is appreciative of language and books in a way that I have never seen. She is a book thief, but this is to her credit as a person and not to her detriment.

    I also love the way that the Jewish man, Max, who hides in the family's basement takes Hitler's Mein Kampf, which is filled with hate, and transforms it into stories of love and redemption. It's quite marvelous.

    If you have not yet read this book, or have only had a cursory reading, you may want to pick up a copy. It is long and it is about war, but it's also extremely moving and shows a side of humanity not often portrayed in war stories.
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