I recently came across the following image from one of my favorite comics, The Awkward Yeti, by Nick Seluk:
The modes of communication have undergone such dramatic, exponential change in the past couple of decades that it makes sense that communication itself is also undergoing change. But even as language gets sometimes stripped away to basic emojis, it’s significant to examine the enduring principles of powerful word choice.
I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.
For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.
I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.
First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.
Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.
When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.
These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).
In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.
This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.
When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.
I expected that this opportunity to blog regularly would bring benefits to my writing over time — if nothing else, at least train words to flow a little more easily as I typed more and more.
But I did not anticipate the powerful lessons about writing that would also come my way, lessons that I can and most certainly will apply when I return to the classroom. They all stem from a place of authentic, raw honesty about what it really means to be in that writing arena.
1 Writing elements and structure are not about ticking off a checklist; they are about making your writing more enjoyable to read. When I skip out on a conclusion on a post, I might have convinced myself at the time that the rest of the content was sufficient and that a conclusion would just be excess. But more often than not, I know that what it really came down to a “good enough” mentality.
When I return to the classroom and we’re breaking down those elements of good writing, we will search together for that sense of completeness. We will analyze how and why pieces do or do not feel quite right, and I will work to help them discover and seek out each of those elements for themselves.
2 “Write only what you alone can write” (Elie Wiesel) Most of us have probably heard some variation of this advice before. But it was only when I really started to take it to heart that I began to understand. If I stuck to writing just what I thought was supposed to go on an educational blog, or if I just wrote about those trending topics all the time, I knew my desire to write anything at all would dry up. The surest way of making writing feel like a burden is to deny it any sense of personal touch. After all, the entire point of writing is connection; if we never connect with what we write ourselves, how can we expect to find meaningful connection with our audience?
I know that in the past, I have spent far too much time trying to help my students prepare for those state writing assessments or otherwise drilling template, soul-less writing. Even if those tests don’t go away, we can still prioritize the notion of identifying and conveying the messages within each unique individual.
3 Trust the authentic writing process. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just follow one linear, well-defined process and produce good writing every time? The above-mentioned state writing assessments would have had me and my students thinking so (and we worked hard to meet all those requirements — 1 thesis statement, 3-4 reasons, 3-4 details per reason, x # of transition key words, and on and on).
The reality is, the authentic writing process requires a lot of trust. Trust that as we live our lives and engage in the things that matter most to each of us, inspiration (those stories only we can tell) will come. Sure, the viciously practical part of me might prefer to have the next 6 blog posts all neatly planned and ready on the assembly line. But if I am to truly discover the rich stories and powerful observations woven into the fabric of real life, then I must engage with real life, compartmentalizing less and engaging more.
I’m far from a perfect blogger or writer now. But I know I can hope for greater capacity and joy in the future as I work to live and write as authentically as possible.
…she will need words that are on a developmentally appropriate, differentiated level.
If the words are on the right level…
…she will want to break them down for patterns, connections, and language concepts.
If she is breaking them down for bigger concepts…
…she will want to know why spelling matters in general.
If you show her why it matters…
…she will want to take ownership over the way she practices it.
If she is practicing spelling with more ownership…
…she will begin to find more autonomy elsewhere in her learning.
This “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” (by Laura Numeroff) thinking arose from reflecting on how spelling is great example of the need to challenge the status quo.
Spelling has looked the same for decades in many classrooms: everyone gets the same list on Monday, practices copying down the words throughout the week, gets tested on Friday.
This pattern often persists despite all we’ve come to know and continue to learn about spelling instruction and development (see the checklist for evaluating spelling programs on page 35 of this document by D.K. Reed at Center on Instruction).
Some of the most important changes include the following:
Instead of the same words, we should be differentiating. I enjoyed using the program, Words their Way for this purpose, as I was able to assess students within their individual stages of spelling. Quite apart from reaching students’ developmental needs, I also appreciate approaches that do not make spelling a one-size-fits-all situation that unfairly challenges only those who are below “grade level.”
Instead of mandating uniform spelling practice each day, we should be teaching students to recognize how to allocate their word study time. Even when spelling is differentiated, it will still come more easily for some students than others, which results in wasting valuable time. A framework that helped me adopt this approach was Daily 5 (for literacy; Daily 3 for math). It was wonderful to watch my students make informed decisions about their learning time rather than just passively checking everything off the teacher’s list each day.
Instead of focusing on memorization, we should be helping our students break down and investigate each word. This better scaffolds students in their language acquisition, building upon their grasp on patterns in phonology.
When we step back to see an even bigger picture, we see that these changes are not only about better spelling instruction, but about broader 21st century principles including student ownership, inquiry, and personalized learning.
I just finished putting a slew of new picture books on hold at our local public library.
Some were new releases by more contemporary beloved authors, like a new Jon Klassen (Another hat book! “We Found a Hat”), Andrea Beaty (“Ada Twist, Scientist”), and Oliver Jeffers (“A Child of Books”).
Others were by newly discovered authors like Amy Young (“A Unicorn Named Sparkle”) and Dan Yaccarino (“I Am a Story”).
And one was Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which I should really just go ahead and buy already, because my 2 year-old is obsessed with cows.
As my mind sifts through all these authors’ styles, I’m struck by the huge amount of creative narrative voice out there these days. And even more by how dramatically the narrative seems to have evolved over the course of my lifetime.
Classics I enjoyed in my youth, such as Tomie Paola’s “Strega Nona,” Rafe Martin’s “The Rough-Face Girl,” James Marshall’s “Miss Nelson is Missing,” and Ellen Jackson’s “Cinder Edna” (publications ranging from the 70’s to the 90’s), almost always used a more traditional third-person narrative and voice.
A larger flux of first-person reads comes to mind when I think of the 2000’s, like Melinda Long’s “How I Became A Pirate” and Jane O’Connor’s “Fancy Nancy.”
And today it seems like most of the books I check out have incredibly unique narrative techniques and voice–so much so that it’s hard to neatly classify them. There’s Adam Rubin’s playful way of alternating speaking directly to the reader (“Hey, kid! Did you know dragons love tacos?”) and to other characters (“Hey, dragon, how do you feel about spicy taco toppings?”). Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett’s “Battle Bunny” with its dual narration. And of course, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” is truly in a narrative league of its own.
The upside of this shift is obviously our literary enjoyment.
But a potential downside/caution can arise when teachers get stuck in a rut on what a story should look like. Especially if they haven’t familiarized themselves with these modern classics that don’t always comply with the rules. Especially if they push the upside-down V story map so hard that students’ creative voices are quelled when their stories lack a setting (like Mo Willems’ Pigeon books) or when their pictures–not their words–illustrate the problem (like Mac Barnett’s “Sam & Dave Dig a Hole”).
In the end, I think the most important take-away is that it’s easier for us as teachers and parents to embrace the creativity if we stay current on it ourselves. If we stay stuck in the nostalgia of how things looked in our childhood, we may miss incredible opportunities to re-imagine and push the status quo.
You know when you get those moments of clarity that make you giddy with excitement? I’m currently in the thralls of one of those right here!
I’ve been reflecting lately about my blogging habits that I know are holding me back. Like the fact that my brainstorming process reminds me of chicken feed scattered thin across a yard (I have several dozen Google Documents of ideas I start and then abandon to jump to something else). Or the time I waste second-guessing myself before I hit publish. Or the mental energy I squander with worry that since I’m not currently in a classroom, my ideas are less valuable.
But today, I’ve had a stroke of inspiration that I hope will help me better organize, focus, and refresh my thoughts and time. I’ve decided to try joining those bloggers who create weekly topic schedules for their posts:
Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry
Friday: Learning Through Reflecting
Some background on each topic:
Mondays: Inspiring Inquiry
I feel like I’m constantly stumbling across beautiful and thought-provoking images, articles, or videos that I think would make incredible Provocations or conversation-starters for students (for those not familiar with International Baccalaureate or the PYP–Primary Years Program–a Provocation is a component of an inquiry unit that provokes students’ questions and thinking, hopefully orienting them toward that unit). Sometimes I’ll tweet them and sometimes I’ll bookmark them. But I’m generally left with a nagging, back-of-mind worry that I’ll want to find that one resource again for my future students, only to be thwarted by my hopeless lack of organization.
So I’m setting aside Mondays as “Inspiring Inquiry” as a personal goal to not only better organize provocation-worthy material, but to share with my fellow teachers. In addition to publishing my favorite resource of the week, I’ll also plan on listing open-ended questions you can have students consider.
I’m particularly excited about this one. I’ve often heard the advice for bloggers to “write what you know.” As a teacher writing for an educational blog, I never anticipated this being an issue (after all, despite being on year two of my extended parental leave, I still can’t seem to turn off “teacher mode”). But the longer I’m away from my classroom, the more difficult it’s becoming to reach back to write about my experiences in the classroom. And if I’m not reflecting about personal teaching experiences, I worry about originality–I don’t want to just recycle other people’s ideas.
What’s more, child-rearing has taken center stage on the “what I know” front while I’m home with our three little ones. And I don’t often turn to this all-encompassing aspect of my life for writing inspiration because it’s not the classroom.
But I recently realized how very silly this has been. Though my students are much smaller, they still offer rich learning opportunities every day. And not only run-of-the-mill parenthood learning (ie, don’t lay down on your picnic blanket during a crowded library storytime, or the toddler behind you might try to pick your nose), but learning that very much uses and extends my professional development as a teacher. So it’s time for those #TeacherMom stories to come to light. Buckle up!
Friday: Learning Through Reflecting
I’m setting this aside to reflect on lightbulb moments on my previous teaching practices. These “aha” moments usually come as I connect with and learn from my PLN–their tweets, blogs, and photos. They also come through keeping up with educational journals and news.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about making this kind of commitment. I know there will be days or even weeks where it just doesn’t happen. But since I want to continue to model important learner qualities to my students (current small ones and future bigger ones), I refuse to let fear of failure keep me from taking a chance that might help me grow and improve.
Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever tried a blogging topic schedule? What worked for you and what did not? What are your thoughts on the topics I’ve chosen? And I’d also love to hear your feedback on these themed posts as they start rolling out next week!
My introduction came early in my teaching career. A visiting professional development speaker invited us to maintain “small daily doses” when it comes to modeling quality writing, emphasizing consistency over complexity. One of his recommendations was the Morning Message. Working on improving visual imagery? Add an example to your morning message. Having some confusion with certain homonyms? Toss ‘em in. Intrigued by the concept, I portioned off a space on my whiteboard to give it a try.
The results were as he described. I often modeled very specific writing skills in my morning message that we sometimes dissected as a whole class. Other times, I just let students notice them on their own. Soon, they were grasping the idea that writers employ specific tools with great purpose, and that they could identify and use those tools, too. They added techniques to their toolboxes. They openly discussed their strategies. And slowly, they came to see themselves as capable authors, too.
But there were certain other results that were quite unexpected. Wanting to be authentic with my students, I wrote those daily 3-4 sentences about my real-life experiences and feelings–and what much of my life revolved around at that time was my new baby girl, Lizzie. Her first year of life was my first year of teaching, and morning messages became a window for my students into my world with her.
Mostly, I shared moments that made us laugh. Like the time Lizzie tripped and then insisted that the floor pushed her. Or the time she instructed herself to smell a dandelion (and not to eat it) and then did so for 10 minutes. Or the time she combed her hair with a syrupy fork to be like Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
Occasionally, I shared moments of sadness. Like when she woke up from a nap helplessly covered in vomit. Or the morning she told me, “Mommy no bye-bye.”
Whatever I shared, it was real. And my students came to see me as a real person, experiencing the ups and downs of real life.
But that wasn’t the end of the surprises that morning messages brought to our class. Eventually, I realized that it would be fun to capture those little memories for my daughter to enjoy someday. Quietly, at the end of the day as the students cleaned up and did classroom jobs, I’d snap a photo of the morning message and email it to an account I’d created for her.
My students started to notice.
And then they started asking to take the photo for me.
And then they started fiercely safeguarding the message from getting prematurely erased before it could be photographed.
I started to hear them swapping “Lizzie stories.” Former students came in and reminisced about them. Even parents expressed how much their students looked forward to those stories.
In hindsight, I’d say that the morning messages became an instrumental way we built rapport, authenticity, and empathy in our classroom–because being real with our students is one of the most precious gifts we can give them. For you, that may be better achieved in other ways, but if you’d like to give morning messages a try, below are some tips to keep in mind.
Tips for Morning Messages
Keep them brief. For younger grades, maybe even just a sentence. For older ones, just a few. Don’t bog yourself or your students down.
Keep them optional… At first, we tried reading the messages aloud together, but it just felt so awkward for all of us that we decided to skip it. Maybe it would be suitable to read it together with younger students, but for my fifth graders, I didn’t want to burden them with another “to-do.” The only time we read it together was when we were evaluating specific writing techniques as part of our unit.
…but make them engaging. Make it something your students will want to read, even if you don’t require it.
Tie in current writing concepts... Though it was always a small dose of modeled writing, sharing my thought-process with my students on how exactly I decided to craft my sentences was always a powerful teaching opportunity.
…but keep them authentic. Don’t sacrifice authenticity for an overly-contrived teaching moment. Share your true experiences and thoughts. If it doesn’t feel natural and helpful to weave the morning message into your writing instruction, don’t force it for that particular message.
Cursive? I always wrote my morning messages in cursive simply for consistent, but small exposure. As I told them, I didn’t want anything to limit their able to read any text, because cursive does still show up now and then.
What about you? Do you do morning messages? Please share your experiences below!