Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Slice of Life Tuesday: The Art of the Rage Bake #sol17

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers blog for hosting Slice of Life Tuesday! 
Holly Golightly calls them "the mean reds." I call it the February funk. Either way, last night, I was in A Mood (capitalization intentional). And when I am in A Mood, I rage bake.

Rage baking is easy. It's just like regular baking...except more dramatic. You get out all of your rage, and you end up with (in my case) chocolate chip cookies. A win-win, really.

So, last night, when the mean reds were circling around me like vultures looking for a meal, I knew what to do. I peered into my pantry and spied the bag of Ghiradelli chocolate chips I had hidden in the back corner in an attempt to fool my sweet tooth. The package crinkled in my hands as I grabbed it and tossed it onto the granite countertop behind me. My silver canisters of flour, sugar and baking powder followed and were soon joined by the eggs and two (!) sticks of butter that the recipe on the back of the bag called for.

I lined up my ingredients like a soldiers ready to head into battle. And with that, the rage baking began. I tossed flour, annihilated eggs (no shells, don't worry), liquefied butter, and beat it all together into submission. Despite the sweet aroma that floated around me, my brow remained furrowed as I dug the mixers even deeper into the glass bowl that held my concoction. The oven chirped a cheery tune, signaling that it was preheated and ready, but I wasn't ready to be cheerful. Yet.

I eyed the recipe on the bag. Two cups of chocolate chips. I scoffed. A mood like this calls for the whole bag. An evil grin spread across my face as I shook the bag until every last chip was in the bowl. As I folded the chocolate in (more aggressively than necessary), I realized that I was already starting to feel better.

Scoop, plop, repeat. My tray that has the evidence of years of rage baking written all over its well-seasoned surface filled up quickly with tiny mounds of batter that would soon morph into rage cookies. I opened the oven and shoved my first batch in, slamming the door.

As my kitchen filled with the seductively sweet aroma of freshly-baked cookies, I felt the mean reds fade into a more subdued rosy hue.

Rage baking: works every time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Thinking Outside the Checklist Boxes: Using Stations for Targeted Revision

This may be a controversial statement, but I dislike using long checklists for revising writing.

I've used many revision checklists in the seven years I have taught, and it's easy to see why. It's convenient to throw together a list of "common mistakes" for students and ask them to use it to polish their writing. Moreover, it does feel nice to cross items off of a list! However, in my experience, the longer the list, the more likely I am to see my students quickly checking off box after box without accomplishing any meaningful revision.

I don't blame them. Revision techniques like checklists don't always work well for me either, especially ones that aren't tailored to my writing struggles. I wondered if there was another approach that would help my writers see how valuable revision can be. Good revision requires more work than checking off items on a list, but I was confident that once my writers saw how meaningful it could be that they would be convinced of its importance. But how?

After reading about using stations or tables that each target one revision strategy in Kate Messner's Real Revision and talking it over with my colleague, Liz, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Of course, I thought. This makes way more sense than a long checklist that is checked off and forgotten. This type of focused revision was perfect for our upcoming snapshot writing piece (a slice of life or small moment narrative).

The more I thought about what works for me as a writer when revising, the more this focused approach made sense to me. I prefer to think about one aspect of revision at a time and re-reading my piece with a laser-like focus for one thing, using the areas I know I struggle with as a writer (wordiness, repeated words...the list goes on).

Ideally, writers would know themselves well enough to know what to revise for, but this type of self-knowledge is a tall order for writers of any age, so my fellow 7th grade ELA teachers and I thought about what common writing struggles we saw with snapshot writing when making decisions about what revision strategies to offer at each station. Since students had written three other snapshot pieces this year, we knew that they typically struggled with staying focused, choosing strong words and adding sensory details.

We have 49 minutes with our students each day, so we settled on asking students to spend five minutes revising at the following four stations:

Stay Focused
At this station, students reread their snapshot with the lens of focus, using the questions on the left to help them determine whether their piece was zoomed in on a small moment. We added some ways to revise for conventions to this station as well for those students who found that they were focused on a small moment. Though this is a long list, the time constraint helped students focus on reading specifically for one or two items.

Replacing Weak Words

Messner's book came in handy when compiling a list of "frequent offenders" that students could replace with stronger words. Since students each have a Chromebook, I found that reminding them of the "find" option on Google Docs (ctrl + f) would come in handy for finding and replacing weak words with stronger ones. I also saw many students using a thesaurus for this station to find the best word possible.

The Details
This station was also inspired by Kate Messner (if you haven't picked up Real Revision, it's a gem!). Highlighting sensory details helped writers see if they tended to focus on one sense over the other four and was a quick way to determine whether they had enough sensory details in their piece. We also added a few questions to help writers determine whether they had included details about characters and setting, as well as places to prune details.

Read Aloud 

I'm a big fan of reading my writing out loud. Our brain often "autocorrects" our own writing, making it hard to catch our own mistakes. This station was pretty straightforward: read your writing out loud and underline any mistakes or phrases that needed reworking. Writers used "whisper phones" to help focus on their own writing instead of getting distracted by other people simultaneously reading their pieces out loud.

I really enjoyed using the stations today, and the students did too. Focusing on one purposeful aspect of revision at a time helped writers make meaningful changes to improve their writing. Revision is an ongoing process (and one that is never really finished), but providing students with targeted strategies to help lift the level of their writing is a great way to equip them with revision methods they can use in future pieces of writing.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Not Just Another Chinese Restaurant

Upon first glance, Lemay Wok looks like any other Chinese restaurant. A mural of bonsai trees and cranes in mid-flight that has the faded blue look of a fuzzy television screen stretches across one wall. Each mauve tablecloth is covered by a plastic protector to ward away errant dabs of sweet and sour sauce and hot mustard that overly zealous customers sling Pollock-style across the tabletops. An aquarium sits in the corner, and my favorite fish flutters her angelic fins, her white scales milky and translucent. The menu has the old standards: chicken and broccoli, hot and sour soup, egg rolls. You get the picture.

But Lemay Wok has something that no other Chinese restaurant has: Nick. Quite simply put, Nick is the best waiter I've ever seen. Tonight, just like every night I step into the well-oiled machine that is his dining room, he looks up with a cheery smile, his dark hair falling over his right eye as pauses one of the approximately eight million things he does around the restaurant to wave hello and point to a table. He remembers that I love jasmine tea and brings me a pot without comment, the ceramic glasses clinking as he holds three in one hand without breaking a sweat.

I watch him as he moves across the dining room, a dance of sorts as he spins and sways, ducks and dodges, reaches and pulls. He is always in motion, one hand holding a water pitcher deftly over my glass while his other proffers the straw he knows I will ask for. He is a blur, a whirling dervish, a master of his craft. He recites my order to me, without me having to breathe a word, scrawling it quickly on the pad I am sure he has no real need for, the smile never leaving his face.

And then, he's gone, a faint outline where he once stood for just a beat. He's off to take another order or pack up leftovers or grab another napkin before one even thinks to ask, and I watch him as he spins away, leaving behind a trail of satisfied customers.