Friday, October 21, 2016

Celebrating with the National Day on Writing

It is so important for students to share in and celebrate their writing on a regular basis in the classroom. When I heard about NCTE's National Day on Writing (which is celebrated on October 20th each year), I knew that I wanted my classes to join in on the fun. An excuse to write for an entire class period? Sign me up! While we write daily in ELA class, I wanted to give my students an entire class period to play, explore and create with words without the lens of "writing for class." I wanted them to write for themselves.

I decided that the best way to structure the day would be to give students a variety of ways they could experience writing and to let them move about from station to station as they wanted. Most importantly, I wanted my students to have fun with writing. I wanted my room to be bubbling over with laughter, collaboration and joy...and the words of my students.

We started our celebration by doing a "writing warm-up." As soon as students walked into the room, I had them immediately come to the carpet with their Chromebook or their journal, depending on their preference. We watched a very intriguing music video and wrote together for five minutes. I liked starting our time together with a shared writing experience simply because it got the creative juices flowing.

Getting warmed up! 
I then briefly shared the different writing opportunities they could explore for the remainder of the class period:

#WhyIWrite Statements

I love the #WhyIWrite hashtag and getting to read all of the reasons why people love writing. I shared my statement with my students (and some from other teachers & staff members in our school--so important for them to see writing is powerful everywhere, not just in ELA), and then, I invited them to write their own! I wanted to make these statements visible to the entire school (to build community), so I covered my classroom door with paper and asked students to "graffiti" it with their reasons for writing.

I loved reading their statements--as always, my writers blew me away with their depth of thought and perception! This activity was a neat way to build our writing community and reflect on why writing is so important for each of us.

Revise the Story with Little Golden Books

This summer, I was introduced to Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett's hilarious picture book Battle Bunny. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! The gist of the book is that a little boy receives a "cheesy" picture book for his birthday called Birthday Bunny and takes a pencil to it to rewrite and illustrate it into something he'd like to read: Battle Bunny!

I invited my students to do the same thing with Little Golden Books. Battle Bunny  was on the table as a mentor text for students to look through before creating their own "revised story." I provided copies of the Little Golden Book versions of Sleeping Beauty, The Poky Little Puppy, Snow White, The Princess & the Pea and Cinderella for students to rewrite and edit into new stories!

Changing it up! 
 My favorites from the day were The Porky Little Puppy and KinderElla (she longs to be a kindergarten teacher). This station was a big hit and showed students that, sometimes, the best stories are derivatives of other stories. Inspiration is everywhere!

Collaborative story
This station was simple to prep: I just covered two of my tables with large white paper and wrote a sentence at the top that was enticing enough to make my students want to tell the story yet vague enough to be open to interpretation. Throughout the day, students would go over, read the story and add a sentence or two. In some classes, writers teamed up to write together for awhile, which resulted in a lot of laughing and imagination.

At the end of the day, the stories weren't finished, so I moved them to my cabinets so that, if inspiration strikes, students can keep adding to the story. It was so fun to see where the stories went and to see my students' wild imaginations at work! Through this collaborative story, my writers saw the power of harnessing the thoughts of more than one mind and how ideas can grow and change in our writing.

Love Letters from Anonymous People to Put in Library Books
Another way to get students writing was to invite them to write "love letters from anonymous people" to place in books in our middle school library. Our students recently experienced Rachel's Challenge, an assembly where they are challenged to create a chain reaction of kindness in our school. Writing these short, anonymous notes of encouragement and placing them for other students to find randomly is a great way to keep the momentum of this powerful assembly going.

A lot of very sweet cards were written, and I'm excited to give them to the librarian to hide in the books that get checked out often! This simple act shows students that writing can heal, and it has the power to turn someone's day around.

Playing With Digital Writing

For the students who enjoy going digital, I put together a Symbaloo of digital writing websites.

I included comic strip generators, a site to create a 'choose your own adventure' story, focused writing sites & more. I encouraged students to play around with these ways to create writing digitally. A group in my last hour class decided to work on a shared Google Doc to write a collaborative story. With six boys typing over each other, it was pretty chaotic, but they had fun--and they wanted to share their story today during our author's chair time, so I'm going to call that a win!
A lot of laughing was going on. Writing is fun!
By offering time to play and experiment with digital writing, my writers discovered that writing is everywhere, and it doesn't always mean putting a pen to paper. Going digital gives my writers an opportunity to share and create like never before.

Taking the time to honor and celebrate writing on a specific day is so worthwhile. It shows our students that writing is not just an act "for class" but a creative act that is joyous, collaborative and fun. I'm already thinking of how I can continue to create space for this kind of celebrative writing experience as we move forward this school year. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

What They Can Learn From the Pros: Sharing Published Authors' Writing Processes With Students

A great part of living in a bigger city is all of the opportunities I can take advantage of as a teacher--ones that aren't nearly as common in smaller cities. Over the past few weeks, so many wonderful YA authors have visited St. Louis to chat about their new releases. I knew I had to attend as many as I could for two reasons:
1. To get my books signed (duh).
2. To ask the authors to talk a little bit about their individual writing process.

My second reason was perhaps my most important goal for each of these visits because I knew it would translate directly into our next unit: writing and publishing realistic fiction. One of my biggest beliefs about writing is that every writer is different and that no two processes look exactly alike. I strive to share my process with my students quite often so that they see that it is something that writers use.

However, I'm one person and one writer. While I can talk about my process as a writer and share that with my students, I knew that having authentic voices from the published authors that my students read and admire would lend credibility to what I was trying to impart: process is individual, and discovering your own is an important step in identifying as a writer.

Next week, as we start dipping our toes into our first discussions about where ideas for stories come from, I know I'll be telling my writers about what I learned from each of these incredible authors. I quickly discovered that they each have their own, unique approach.

Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles
Marissa also has twins. And she still manages to publish regularly. She's a unicorn, basically.
Marissa shared that she has her own writing cottage (!!) that she goes to when she's writing. She also writes in 53 minute bursts (she mentioned that she read a study that said 53 minutes was the optimal amount of time to stay focused on one task) with 18 minute breaks. Under this specific regimine, she said she is able to write anywhere from 5-10,000 words per day, which floored the rest of the authors on the panel! Marissa got her start writing fanfiction (Sailor Moon fanfiction, to be exact), and she says that the community there nurtured her love of writing and kept her going.

What I'll share with my students: 

  • Having "a writing spot" is powerful. It's why writing retreats are so popular! Quiet spaces that allow for deep thinking are ideal for some; for others, it's being around other writers. Finding "your space" might be part of your process. 
  • Write what you want to write--even if it's Sailor Moon fanfiction! 
  • Making a schedule and sticking with it can be an essential piece of your writing process. 
Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha Trilogy
She's really cool, and now I want to dye my hair silver.
Leigh shared that she actually takes her manuscripts outside and reads them out loud. She told a hilarious story about how her neighbors often hear her and comment to each other that "she's doing it again!" 

What I'll share with my students:
  • Reading your words out loud can be powerful. You can hear your story and where you might want to make changes, add or take out. 
Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl Who Drank the Moon
Kelly had the best reading voice. I loved listening to her read an excerpt! 
Kelly spoke at length about how her first novel, The Witch's Boy, almost didn't exist. She had sent the first few chapters to her writing group and had immediately emailed them back to tell them to ignore her email; she was giving up on the project. Within the hour, she had emails back from every person in her writing group, and they all said the same thing: "ARE YOU CRAZY? We DEMAND that you keep writing this story, and we will bug you endlessly until you do!"

What I'll share with my students:  
  • Sometimes, you have to share what you're working on with others, even if you think it's awful. We're our own worst critics, so finding someone (like your writing partner!) that you feel comfortable sharing your words with is a key part to a healthy writing process. 
Jordan Sonnenblick, author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie
Yeah, I was in the first row. No shame. 
Jordan has written 10 books, so he has gotten to know his process very well. He said that he wrote his first book, Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie for someone: a student of his whose younger brother had cancer. Similarly, his new book, Falling Over Sideways, is the voice of his daughter. Jordan said that having a specific purpose or specific voice in mind helped him develop his story. 
He also mentioned the power of research. he spent a considerable amount of time researching the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments on young patients in order to make Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie authentic, and similarly, he spoke with paramedics, doctors and stroke experts when writing Falling Over Sideways. Getting your facts right when you write realistic fiction is key, according to Jordan. 

What I'll share with students:
  • Have a purpose in mind when you're writing. Who are you writing for? What do you want to achieve with your story? 
  • Don't be afraid of research, even if it's a topic you know well. Your story will be all the more powerful because of it. 
Krystal Sutherland, author of Our Chemical Hearts
Krystal is Australian, and she is hilarious. Go hear her speak if you can! 
Krystal is a debut author, but she has been writing for a long time. She mentioned her first few manuscripts that will "never see the light of day," which were a conglomeration of the fantasy books she adored at the time (by the way, she's a Slytherin). But that didn't stop her. She said that, as a writer, she has good writing days, and she has bad writing days--it's pushing through the bad ones and writing anyway that is the key to her writing process and moving forward. Krystal also shared that she tries to "see the movie of the book in my mind" before sitting down to begin drafting. Her challenge, according to her, is translating that movie into words. 

What I'll share with my students:
  • Your first attempts will be bad. That's okay. Keep going.
  • Write even when you don't feel like it. You'll be glad you did.
  • Some writers want to see the end before they begin drafting. Others don't and want to discover how the story ends as they write. Your process is your own! 

I'm going to keep asking the authors I meet to share their process because, as a writer, I find it fascinating, and as a teacher, I know my students will listen when I tell them that, yes, every writer has a process, and yes, every single one is different. I hope sharing these stories will empower my writers to find their own path this year. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Test That's Not Really a Test: Reflecting on our Reading

This week marked the end of our first unit, which was centered around the following learning goal:

Students will be able to select and comprehend good-fit books, build their reading stamina, and show their thinking in writing and conversation.

When thinking about the best way to assess this unit, I knew that a test in the traditional sense would be at odds with the work that we'd done this year. The only approach that felt authentic and worthwhile to me was to have students do some heavy reflection on what work they'd done in their reading lives so far this year. I decided that the best way was to have students do just that: take some time to reflect in a letter or audio recording to me. 

I really wanted my students to be authentic while still digging deep to do some thinking about their own progress. I realized that I needed to give students some options for paths that they could explore in their letter--a variety of optional questions that would help them discuss their own work towards the learning goals. 

Through collaboration with my fellow 7th grade ELA teachers, we designed a planning sheet for students to use to prepare to write or record their letters. One option we gave students to help get their thinking flowing for what they wanted to say in their letters was to invite them to make a visual reading life that showed their journey so far this year through the moments that stood out to them. 

We did this at the beginning of the year with our reading life up until 7th grade. Having the students do it again with moments from just this year was neat to see! 

The planning sheet also broke down the three parts to the learning goal by asking some questions that they could potentially answer in their reflection letter. 

Selecting and comprehending good-fit books:
  • What books have you started, abandoned and/or finished this year?
  • How did you know those books were or were not good-fit books for you? 
  • Did you meet your reading growth goal that you set for yourself this year? 
    • Why did you choose this goal?
    • How has this goal helped you as a reader?
    • What work are you doing towards meeting this goal? 
  • What are you most proud of regarding your reading life from August 18th, 2016 up until now?
Building reading stamina
  • How often do you read at home?
  • Where do you like to read?
  • How long are you able to read at once without getting distracted or interrupted? 
  • Have you met your page goals? Why or why not? 
Showing thinking in conversation and writing
  • How many jots have you done this year to capture your thinking about your reading?
  • What do you notice about your jots?
  • How has your thinking about your reading changed? 
  • Tell me about a jot that you really liked. What were you thinking? How did you show it? 
When it came time for students to write or record their letters (using Kaizena, which I also plan to use to leave audio feedback for my students), I told them that I intentionally wouldn't be giving them an example letter or a model, simply because I wanted them to reflect for themselves, not write a letter that checked all of the boxes. Similarly, I told them that the questions were just starting points. Their reflection was entirely up to them--what was most important was that they were thinking about their reading lives and reflecting on how they had grown. 

I'm excited to hear about how my students are growing as readers. I love this type of assessment because it asks students to reflect on their learning while also giving them the space to tell me what they think. Building a reading life is a process, and letters like these give me a glimpse into the individual journeys of my students.