Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Writing Workshop Uniform

On days when I know I’ll be heading to the tiny studio where I take barre classes, I take time in the morning to gather up the equipment I need to be successful during the hour I spend sweating, stretching and trying to get my heels up a little higher in relevĂ©. My “barre uniform” consists of yoga pants, a loose tank top, a headband for my hair, grippy socks for balance, and flipflops to wear when I leave the studio. Each item has a purpose, and my barre classes wouldn’t be nearly as successful if I didn’t come prepared for the occasion.

Getting ready for a class of writing workshop requires a similar approach. No, I don’t have a certain outfit that I wear on workshop days (I do have an apron...more on that in a minute…), but over the four years I’ve used this approach to writing, I have developed a sort of “workshop uniform,” or a list of tools that I keep near me or on me when I am circulating the room and meeting with writers.

Like most things in life, figuring out what tools to use has involved a lot of trial and error, and I’m certainly still in the process of refining my workshop uniform. Here’s what’s working for me and my students right now:

What’s In My Apron
Yes, I have a teacher apron. Yes, I know that makes me look extremely dorky, but it holds the tools I find essential:

  • Teacher aprons look much more
    acceptable when there are two
    of you wearing them.
    Post-It Notes: I know this probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever run a writing workshop, but Post-It notes are supremely handy to have nearby. I’m always finding new uses for them. Smaller ones can be used to create visuals to leave with students (I often used them to show a boxes and bullets structure during our argumentative writing unit), or they can help capture an idea to save for later. I like to give larger Post-It notes to writers who are in the process of revising and expanding: they can layer the large sticky note over the original writing and easily flip it up to see their progress from one draft to their next. Another use is for writers who are working on volume. They can start by filling a small Post-It note with writing and eventually graduating to the next size up as they increase their stamina and volume. The possibilities are endless!
  • Tiny Anchor Charts: I like to make a few miniature-sized copies of charts that we created during the mini lesson to hand out to writers as the need arises. Though we hang the larger anchor charts around the room, there’s something about having a personal tool to offer to a writer that feels more intentional to me than simply pointing at the anchor chart. Having these available makes conferring run more smoothly for me: I simply pull out the chart, use it while conferring with the writer, and leave it behind for the writer to use. The writer can tape their own personal anchor chart in their journal to reference at any time--I have a giant tub of washi tape in our writing makerspace exactly for this purpose.
  • If/Then Keyring: Our wonderful curriculum coordinator, Julie Paur, took the Lucy Calkins Units of Study If/Then scenarios and turned them into a handy-dandy keyring. It’s a cinch to throw these in my apron and use them to confer on the fly. Each card on the ring has the “If/Then” scenario, which presents an issue a writer might encounter, how to support that writer, and what to leave the writer with (questions to ask or a tool that could be created by using the aforementioned Post-It notes). I love to look at these when planning conferences, and I feel much more confident when sidling up to a writer when I know I have this tool (literally!) in my pocket.

What’s In My Hands
Each day is different, but when I am conferring with writers, I always have something in my hands:

  • Conference Clipboard: My biggest challenge is keeping a good record of which writers I’ve met with during workshop. I’ve tried approximately 8 zillion approaches: using Evernote to type up thoughts (felt disconnected from the conference), creating a binder with a separate page for each writer (too bulky), carrying around a stack of my beloved Post-Its to jot notes that are later organized in a binder (lost ‘em). After reading this post by Lanny Ball, I realized I had been overcomplicating things: all I needed was a simple table with a box for notes on each writer. Lanny’s template allows me to quickly check to see who I’ve talked to (and the teaching point I made during our last meeting), who I need to check back in with, and who I haven’t talked to at all. This portable and practical solution makes tracking conferences much easier for me. Sometimes, the simple approaches are the best.

  • My Own Writing: I write with my students. If they’re writing, I am too. I like carrying my journal with me when conferring because, sometimes, showing my own writing and how I dealt with a particular issue is the best way to approach a teaching point. If a writer is, for example, having a hard time elaborating with description, it’s easy for me to flip to a particular paragraph of my own piece that needs more description and workshop it right there in front of the writer. Show not tell, right? Carrying my own writing around also makes the teaching points I do make more authentic: what I recommend carries more weight, since I’m doing the same writing I ask of my students.
  • Demonstration Notebook: After reading DIY Literacy by Kate and Maggie Beattie Roberts, I started a demonstration notebook that I could use for one-on-one conferences or small-group instruction. My demonstration pages usually identify the tip or strategy, how to use it, and include an opportunity for the writer to try it out themselves. I try to think ahead with what tips and techniques would benefit the writers in the room and create these demonstration pages before class starts. During workshop, I can easily use my demonstration notebook to conduct a quick conference. This requires some forward thinking (it isn’t as easy to create these on the fly), but this year, I’ve found myself reaching for my demonstration notebook because it goes a step further than just leaving the writer with a tip to actually has them try it out!

My writing workshop uniform is in a constant state of flux as I read more and learn more about the insanely complex nature of the teaching of writing. Conferencing is not easy. Much like getting ready for a tough workout class, getting ready to dive into a full day of writing workshop requires preparation and commitment. Having the right tools at my disposal helps me focus on what’s really important: helping my students grow as writers.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: A Very Writerly Party #sol17

My room was packed. Some faces familiar. Some were not. All were united by the simple fact that every single one of them was a writer.

My colleague, Liz, and I had forty kids undertake the Slice of Life Challenge with us this year. Some were 31 Slicers who wrote every single day in March. Some were 17 Slicers, who wrote every school day.  Numbers aside, we all were celebrating the cultivation of a writing habit--no small feat.

In our opinion, no Slice of Life Party would be complete without some literal slices, so we went with a sweet slice (a suitably springy sheet cake from Costco, adorned with yellow, purple and pink flowers) and a savory slice (Papa John's pizza). As the writers munched, they searched through their plethora of written slices, searching for one to share.

One by one, the edible slices disappeared. Their absence was replaced with something equally delicious: good writing. The room filled with the pitch-perfect adjectives, humorous one-liners and emotional topics of the various voices in the room. Each writer was unique, each piece like a fingerprint that left its own individual mark on me. I listened with a huge grin on my face. I couldn't help it; moments like these are why I do what I do.

Our time together was all too short. We gathered together for a quick picture, and then, the writers were off, spiraling away like balloons released into the air. Their words lingered though. They hovered over the room like a fine mist, shimmering with their beauty and power.

I hope that, tomorrow, I will be able to look past the hectic testing schedules and frenetic pace of a middle school in April and see the shadow of those words. I hope I will remember the quiet power of writers bravely sharing their words.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo

There was a rumor going around about me at school.

Like all good rumors, it struck the perfect balance of being just believable enough to gain some traction while still keeping its National Inquirer shock-level status.

There was a rumor going around about me at school...that I had a tattoo of a dragon on my belly. And Mrs. Porter, the math teacher on my team, had started it.

It began casually enough. "Hey, while you were gone on Friday, I maaay have told a few of the girls that you have a tattoo."

I looked at Mrs. Porter. "Well, I do have a tattoo." And I do. A tiny one, on my hip. Barely big enough to bear mention.

She laughed. "Yeah, well, I told them you have a giant tattoo of a dragon on your stomach. Like a huge one. I said that the tail wraps around your belly button. They were skeptical at first, but by the end, I think they were actually starting to believe me."

I grinned. "I like it. I am now The Teacher With the Dragon Tattoo."

Like all good rumors, it persisted, bouncing around like a superball thrown full force in an empty room.

Maybe it was because it's April. Maybe it was because I was bored. Or maybe I rather liked the idea that students thought that their English teacher with a penchant for floral dresses and bright lipstick secretly had a big-ass tattoo of a dragon winding up half of her torso. Whatever the reason, I decided to fan the flames of the rumor that I had a flame-breathing creature hidden under my shirt.

So today, at lunch, I sauntered casually into Mrs. Porter's room, noting that the three girls who were the original recipients of the Dragon Tattoo Rumor were all sitting within earshot. I leaned over, engaging in a casual conversation with Mrs. Porter. She turned to me.

"Did you know that you're supposed to have a midlife crisis every 29 years? I learned it from Donna on Parks and Rec. Something about Saturn's journey around the sun being 29 years long."

I thought for a moment, pondering. "Hmm. Well, I'm turning 29 in a month. Wonder what my midlife crisis should be..."

I made a show of thinking deeply about this thought-provoking question. "Ooh! I know! I should add on to my dragon tattoo," I said, just loud enough so that The Rumor Mill Trio could hear.

Slam. The sound of palms hitting the desk. "WHAT did you just say?!" Victoria, one of the three girls, twisted around in her seat in a move that would make a chiropractor wince, sheer shock painting her freckled features.

"I...I said I was going to add on to my tattoo?" I said, trailing off and doing my best to look supremely confused.

"SAY IT AGAIN!" she demanded, getting the attention of her two friends.

"My tattoo? I have a tattoo on my stomach." I sighed. "It was a stupid college decision, but yeah, I have a tattoo of a dragon. It's kinda big." I gestured to my stomach, my hands stretching to accommodate the size of my imaginary ink.

Three mouths formed perfect Os.

"Oh my God." 
"We didn't believe her!"


There was a rumor going around about me at school. And I intend to keep it going.

Friday, March 31, 2017

31/31: Target Touching #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge!
This afternoon, over a giant burrito bowl from Qdoba, I told my husband that I needed to go to Target "just to touch things." 

I know that sounds really weird. But this week has been stressful. And sometimes, I like to wander the aisles of Target and browse. I don't actually buy anything. I just look, pick something interesting up, and put it back. It's oddly soothing. 

I think Scott ultimately agreed to let me go Target Touching because he saw my eye twitching as I shoved forkfuls of chicken and black beans into my mouth. He knew it was in his best interests.

So we went to The Land of the Red Bullseye (pretty sure that, according to their business model, the bullseye is my credit card). We started in the Dollar Spot (or, as I like to call it, the Steal Your Dollar Spot). I picked up a pair of socks with a cross-eyed bunny on it. Scott handed me a fuzzy headband with bunny ears, which I immediately donned. As we laughed, I felt a thread loosen in the snarled yarn ball of stress that I was carrying in between my shoulder blades.

We moved on to the clothing section. I touched some very soft pajama pants. Scott found some swim trunks that were covered, inexplicably, with cats.  We debated the pros and cons of him wearing them in public (there weren't many pros), and just the thought of him showing off his cat-clad legs at the swimming pool was enough to unravel a little more of my balled-up anxiety. 

We strolled over to the Easter section, hand in hand, and engaged in a rousing debate about which Easter basket best suited each of us. Scott picked a fuzzy bunny basket for me, and I handed him a basket in the shape of a Despicable Me minion. We analyzed the different types of Cadbury eggs and the relative merits of each (original is perfection, in my opinion, but he feels that caramel has its place). Scott plied me with many fuzzy stuffed bunnies, chicks and lambs because he knows I adore stuffed animals and soft things. I hugged each in turn. He was starting to see the power of Target Touching.  

As we made a left to head back towards the front of the store, I leaned into my husband and rested my head on his shoulder. This movement was much easier than it would have been a mere hour ago, because the Target Touching had worked. The ball of stress that had been wedged between my shoulders had been reduced to an inconsequential pile of untangled strands. 

But it wasn't just the act of window shopping that had helped me feel a little more balanced. Target Touching is way better when you have a partner. And lucky for me, I happen to be married to a guy who is totally okay with indulging my weird yet fun attempts at relieving stress.  

Thursday, March 30, 2017

30/31: Happiness is a Good Book (Club) #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 

I walked down the sidewalk with a purpose. After all, I was already technically late. 

I zoomed past the frozen yogurt shop with its lime green chairs and array of flavors. Past the cute clothing boutique with floral dresses that practically beckoned me. Finally, I stopped, ducking into the doorway of a dimly-lit wine bar.

In the corner, I spied Liz and Dawn.  I slid into the booth, glad to be somewhere I knew I would leave feeling energized, not drained. And then, we were three.

The door opened, and Gail bustled in, sleeping baby in tow. And then, we were four.  The few. The proud. The faithful book club attendees. 

The dark wood of the table contrasted with the shiny pages of the menu that the server plunked down in front of me. I flipped and pondered. What appetizer would best complement the heavy conversation that was sure to accompany the dark Southern Lit novel we had read this month (Joe by Larry Brown)? Would the server be able to recommend a wine that matched the preferences of the protagonist in the book, one with a bouquet of tobacco and banana moon pies that had a gritty finish? 

I eyed him. The perfunctory way with which he took our orders made me decide not to risk the joke. 

With the matter of food and libations taken care of, we leaned forward on our elbows and began to chat. Our conversation started like it always did: casual talk. We vented, we shared, we sympathized. 

Our food arrived. We dug in, and our discussion turned towards the book. One thing I love about our book club is that we really do talk about the book, which I've learned is a rarity in some circles. Gail's eyes flashed as she described her anger at the book's ending. Dawn hypothesized about a character's motivation, and Liz shared her insights that, as usual, made me think deeper about the story. Our conversation vacillated from heavy analysis to light observations, from thoughtful wonderings to a hilarious conversation about the actor who best represented the protagonist in our mind's eyes (in case you were wondering, we decided on a combination between Dog the Bounty Hunter and Mickey Rooney post-face lift). 

Sometimes, I just listened, happy to soak in the thoughtful commentary of my friends and relish the simple pleasure of a bite to eat and a book to discuss. 

As with anything that's fun, time flew, and before I knew it, I had to leave. I waved goodbye to my friends and stepped back out onto the sidewalk and walked past the adorable boutique, past the frozen yogurt shop and to my car. As I started the engine, I realized that I was already looking forward to next month's meeting.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

29/31: The Beauty of Nothing #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge!

I lie face up, eyes closed. My hands, fingers splayed, rest by my sides. I breathe. The yoga mat I'm on is an island, one that refuses to play host to worries or stress. 

The light changes as the instructor passes by, casting a brief shadow as she moves slowly past me. I hear a gentle shushing sound, and suddenly, a fine mist surrounds me. Tiny droplets rain across my face, and I am enveloped with the soothing scent of lavender and mint. 

"Don't think about everything you have to do once you leave here."

The instructor's voice begins to blend with the slowing thumps of my heartbeat that echo in my head as I fade into the sort of beautiful nothingness that is so rare for me these days. The song trickling through the speakers in the room crescendos in time with the rise and fall of my chest. Everything is rhythmic; everything is in sync. 

I feel my muscles relax, my tendons like shoelaces that are loosened on a tied-too-tightly pair of shoes.  I feel my eyelids stop fluttering. I feel the room melt away as the lines of reality blur. I feel the simple luxury of the absence of feeling, the freedom to truly think about nothing.   

"Start to return. Become present again." 

I slowly open my eyes. The late afternoon sun seems amplified, brighter than normal. I feel the strange sort of unease that comes with returning to normalcy, the same feeling I get when I arrive home after a long trip away. This is how things should be, but I'm not quite ready to be here yet.

The transition is abrupt. I hear the traffic rushing by outside. The clock on the wall next to me admonishes me with its hands that are resting on the 6 and the 12. My mind suddenly feels like the Dursleys' house in the first Harry Potter book when all of the letters come flooding in, despite desperate attempts to keep them out.

I'm not quite ready to be here yet. I close my eyes again. I breathe. I put my brain on silent. Because right now, I want to stay on my island of escape for just a moment longer. 

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

28/31: Conquering the Sweet Potato #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers for hosting the #sol17 writing challenge! 
Last night, I decided to try something new for dinner. 

I know. This is dangerous, especially on a Monday. Nobody wants to cook something worthy of a spot on Worst Cooks in America on the Worst Day of the Week. Even worse, if you're anything like me, a ruined dinner means a hard left into hangry territory. Trust me (and my poor husband). No one wants this. 

But I'm also easily bored, especially when it comes to food, necessitating some level of variety in my diet. So that's why I was hunkered over my island yesterday evening, desperately trying to make sweet potato "rice" for a Mexican-inspired dish. I had spotted the recipe on one of my favorite food blogs. The blogger, with all of her culinary finesse, made the creation of the sweet potato rice look simple. Just grab your spiralizer (a device that shreds vegetables into an approximation of noodles), rotate the sweet potato until it transforms into ribbon-like curls, then chop up said spirals into rice-sized bits. As Ina Garten would say, "How easy is that?"

Spoiler alert: it was not that easy, Ina. 

Like most things, at first it was. Vibrant orange curls came out of my spiralizer like pencil shavings from a particularly aggressive sharpener. But quickly, my potato resembled a very fat pencil. Which, if you know anything about sharpening Ticonderogas, you know that they don't produce many shavings past a certain point, no matter how hard you try. 

I began to feel the first inklings of frustration, but I kept my cool, as if I was on an episode of Cutthroat Kitchen and trying to recover from a grievous cooking faux pas. I tried different techniques. I pressed harder, trying to force the sweet potato to bend to my will. It resisted all attempts at transfiguration. I put the obstinate spud down on my island. Great. What am I going to do now? 

Thankfully, Scott saw me struggling and suggested trying my food processor. Oh yeah, I thought. I own one of those. I cubed the potato and threw it in the processor. A few quick pulses later, I had sweet potato rice. "Good call," I told my husband, admiring my orange confetti.

From there, it was a matter of throwing the rice in a hot pan, seasoning it liberally with my favorite garlic-jalapeno seasoning and stirring in the rest of the accoutrements: black beans, pico de gallo, cilantro and some cubed chicken. Add a dollop of sour cream, and dinner was served.

And it was pretty good, if I do say so myself. It was the kind of dinner that makes you look forward to having your leftovers for lunch. High praise in my book. 

So all's well that ends well. Maybe I wouldn't make it past the first round of Chopped with my culinary prowess, but, with a little help of my practical sous chef, at least I can try something new on a Monday and survive to tell the tale.