Sunday, October 27, 2013

Meeting Baby Mouse!


I'm a little stumped as to how to even start this post, because the chain of events that led to meeting Jenni and Matt Holm were years in the making.

I read Jenni Holm's book, Our Only May Amelia, when it was first published in 2000. I loved the book, and it was my first introduction to Jenni.  My 4th grade students in California often chose this book as their independent reading book selection.

Fast forward 10 years which included 2 country moves and my marriage to David.  While working at Hong Kong International School, I was reintroduced to Jenni Holm by the most awesome librarian EVAH, Amy Robinson.  She often came into my 3/4 combination classroom to do book talks.  One series she shared was Baby Mouse.  The kids LOVED them because they were clever and fun graphic-novels.  They were all pretty obsessed with graphic-novels.  

Now we are up to 2012.  David had reconnected with many of his buddies from college.  Through Facebook they were having some active conversations.  Sometime in this time period, David mentioned Jenni's name.  It blew my mind, that after all these years of loving Jenni Holm's books, that my husband actually knows her - went to college with her and is friends with her on Facebook.  Small World!  I was so sad that we hadn't made that connection while I was in Hong Kong. It would have been so fun to connect Jenni with my students, who were so in love with Baby Mouse.

Fast Forward to September of this year, 2013.  One Sunday, while reading the newspaper I came across an advertisement for the National Book Festival in DC.  (Side note - we went to this fabulous event in 2012 and it was amazing. I had the chance to hear Patricia Polacco speak, which brought me to tears. She is so inspiring!)  Lo and behold - who should be coming to the Book Festival this year?  Jenni and Matt Holm!  AWESOME!  I went to put this event in our calendar and was dismayed to see that we were going to be out of town.  Boo!

I shared my disappointment with David and casually asked if he could help arrange for her to drop by to talk to my students.  Remarkably Jenni had time in her schedule AND was more than happy to come by and do a presentation!  I was beyond elated, excited and grateful!

Both Jenni and her brother Matt, who illustrates the graphic-novels, came by the Friday before the book festival and did a presentation for 3 of our classes, including mine.  The presentation was interactive and so entertaining.  They called up several students to read and draw with them - what an amazing opportunity. One of my students was especially excited to meet them because he LOVED their new series, Squish.  I made sure to get him up there with the author, and he was over the moon walking away with a picture with the authors and a signed drawing that he created with Matt.  Super Hero status was achieved.

David was able to step away from the office to join us for the presentation allowing the college buddies to reunite after 20+ years.  Jenni and Matt are so kind and nice - and extremely talented.  Baby Mouse and Squish are wonderful books that reach students at all reading levels.  My only regret about this day is that we didn't have time to sit down outside of school to chat.  Now that we have met, I am determined to connect with them again and get to know them not just as author and illustrator, but as college buddies and friends of my husband.  

The story will continue….

Check out their websites:

Hidden Gems by Katherine Bomer


Over the July 4th weekend, we were invited to stay at our friend's house up at Lake Anna. What an opportunity!  There would be boats, skiing, jet skiing, ping pong, Corn Hole - so exciting. And it would have been had I not been in a non-weight bearing cast.  Boo hoo.

I didn't have a ton of fun in the water, but I was given lots of quiet time on a deck to catch up on some professional reading.  Katherine Bomer's book, Hidden Gems, was first on my list.  In the summer of 2010 I attended the summer Writing Institute of the NY Reading and Writing Project at Teacher's College.  Bomer was keynote presenter and she was inspirational - hence why I ran right to the bookstore to buy her book.  As luck would have it, HKIS brought her to our school and I was able to hear her words of wisdom again.  The real "gem" though was that she did some conferring with my students in my classroom!  LOVE! 

I must confess that while I bought her book in 2010, I never got around to reading the whole thing until this summer (yes..three years have passed. sigh.).  

Anyway - I'm going into a new job and it is time to reflect on how I want my writing lessons and conferences to go.  

Here are a few nuggets I want to remember and incorporate:

1) Teachers need to take on the role of researcher.

She quotes Lucy Calkins in saying that as a researcher, we are "looking for a window onto a child's thinking" instead of feeling exasperated by error. (page 5)

Note - Lucy Calkins is just ever present in all my reading and thinking about reading and writing.  I need to get back to Teacher's College!!

2) "Teachers should respond to all student's writing with astonished, appreciative, awestruck eyes!" 
(page 7)

This is something I have to remind myself to do. It's so so so so easy to get caught up in how a paper looks.  I'll be honest - Bad handwriting turns me off.  Massive spelling errors frustrates me to no end.  But what if I could get over that and read papers with wonder - wouldn't that be more productive in developing writers - especially reluctant writers?

3) When Conferring have a plan!  Research - Decide - Teach - but don't forget to Compliment!

Conferring is hard for me.  I don't consider myself a writer.  I make grammatical errors.  My thoughts are often rambled.  Who am I to find something to teach?  I think I have to give myself a little more credit - I can always refer to my teaching points.  But this is an area where I need to grow as a teacher.  

Compliments can be the key to building a writer's confidence.  Bomer quotes Ralph Fletcher who says "Language can deeply wound, and leave lasting scars.  On the other hand, the words we speak can be crucial missing ingredients to help a kid make a breakthrough in his writing."  (page 14)

There is such truth in this. I still remember hurtful words that teachers have spoken to you - right back to when I was in elementary school.  While they haven't scarred me - I do believe they have made me doubt myself.  What's worse than that?  

"The true secret to leaning how to write is to read." (page 33)
How true! In recent years I have finally figured out that good books are examples of good writing!  Talking about read alouds helps kids see the possibilities in words.  I have even seen kids model their own writing after texts that spoke to them.  Studying mentor texts to see how genres go is something I want to continue to do and experiment with in my lessons.

Bomer writes: "After reading  text together in a mini-lesson, the kids work with partners…to look at more samples of whatever genre we're studying.  ….they list more places in the texts where they admire how a writer has arranged words, structure time, entered a character's mind or painted the scenery.  These lists of literary devise become the guidebook for kids' own writing when they begin to compose."  (page 48)

5) Conferring tools 
I need to copy the "five ways to name and teach….Voice (page 62), Organization (page 66), Word Choice (page 68), sentence structure (page 70), Details (page 72) as well as The Characteristics of Good Writing (page 74).

I should keep these copies near my conferring notes - so helpful to look at before conferring.  I think they would help keep my mind in check - I also think that they would help me when I felt "stuck" with nothing coming to mind to support a writer.

6) Good writers write EVERY SINGLE DAY!

"Good writers realize they need to write every single day, often for long stretches of time, and that they will have to revise their work dozens and dozens of times until it begins to approach the vision in their heads."  (Page 76)

The challenge in the classroom is time.  How do you make this a non-negotiable when there are plays to produce, fields trips to go on, special classes to attend?  I believe in this whole heartedly but the reality challenges my beliefs. At my new school I'm thinking this will be a challenge, especially with the number of "extras" the students have. 

7) A great quote:
"Let us look carefully and with generosity past what is missing and what is incorrect, to the extraordinary beauty, freshness, and yes, the brilliance in children's writing. Believe that a children are trying to make something. That they have intentions, purposes, and reason for writing the way they do."  Pg. 125

I love this quote because it reminds me that kids are trying all the time to express themselves. Sometimes we just have to look a little deeper into their thoughts to understand - but we should always give them the benefit of the doubt.

8)  Looking at Student Work
Check out the template pg 182.

I think using these templates would be incredibly helpful to keep track of my thoughts about the child's writing - especially from conference to conference.  I also think that the comments made on a sheet like this would be VERY helpful when writing up report card comments.

I almost wish that there was something here that students could use together on peer editing. Perhaps something could be adapted. If the templates are similar there is more understanding of what the review is all about.

9)  Writing Portfolios     
Bomer is not a fan of grading children's writing - it is very evident in the book.  However, she does suggest keeping a writing portfolio as evident of their story of their own writing journey.

She suggests that students write reflections on the their journey throughout a piece of writing - what worked, what didn't. What strengths do they see in themselves as writers. This portfolio could also be used in student led conferences to help the children show their process.  I love this idea and hope I can implement it next year.

10)  Celebrate!!!
 How awesome is it when kids have the opportunity to celebrate.  I need to remember this. Some celebrations can be big - some small - but recognizing their great achievements is a must. At HKIS we would often invite parents in to have the kids read their stories in small groups. It wasn't dramatic - but it was always a huge success for both parents and students.  

She does suggest to think GRAND for some celebrations.  Hmm…what would that look like?  Reading stories in a coffee shop.  Publishing Podcasts?  I don't think of myself as a GRAND thinker but this might be something to investigate in my new school adventures.



Reflection on Conferring


Conferring.  Just thinking about it makes me nervous and question my ability to teach. I have seen many "greats" such as Kathleen Tolan and Katherine Bomer confer with students.  I am always in awe and questioning whether some day I will ever have the ease that that they do.

I do believe that conferring is important and valuable for both me and my students.  How can I get better?

Well, one thing I decided to do was tackle Carl Anderson's book - How's It Going?  
This is another book that I bought after attending the week long writing institute at Teacher's College in the summer of 2010. I loved hearing him speak and went and bought the book immediately.  However, I didn't read it immediately.  Now hear I am in the summer of 2013, inspired to catch up on my professional reading.  Thank you foot tendon surgery for giving me the gift of time!

Here are my takeaways and thoughts while reading his book.

1) We confer with students to help them become better writers - not to fix one piece of writing.  
"When we finish a conference, we should be able to name what it is we did to help that student become a better writer." (Page 9)

Conference Pitfalls -
1) getting caught up in what the story is about
2) wanting to fix EVERYTHING

I'm super guilty of wanting to fix the grammar/punctuation when I first sit down with a piece of work.  I need to remember to take a deep breath and LISTEN. Be a researcher and be present when the student is talking about their work.  

2) Conferences have a predictable structure
I like structure. Knowing that I should be able to conference in the same way every time comforts me.

Part 1:
Conversation about the work the child is doing as a writer

Part 2: Conversation about how the child can become a better writer.

When choosing  the line of thinking for part 2 I will be faced with several option.  Something to think about is: what can I teach this child that will keep them moving forward in their work?  I may choose one option and then note other options for future conferences. There is no wrong direction - I have to release myself of this guilt.

Students need to understand that they have a role in these conferences.  Students will feel more ready to talk to me when they know what the expectations are.  I think that having a mini lesson on this is a good thing.  I need to hold the kids accountable for being aware of what they are doing in their writing.  

"The success of a conference often rests on the extent to which students sense that we are genuinely interested in them as writers - and as individuals." (page 22)

I care about my students.  I need to make sure that I leave every conference knowing that each child feels listened to and cared for.  

3) Students need to be taught that they too have a role in a conference.
I know that many students feel awkward in their initial conferences but that soon fades away as they become more comfortable with what their job is when I sit to confer with them.

One way to teach them this is to "Give mini lessons that help students understand their conference role" (pg 87)  I've done this in the past and know that it is effective - and the kids seem to enjoy being models for this activity.

He offers four conversational strategies to support students:
1) Reflect and Pause (pg 100)
2) Show and Describe
3) Refer back to the last conference
4) Naming what I observed

4) Mentor texts - Mentor Texts - Mentor Texts - Did I mention Mentor Texts!!

In my last few years of teaching I became more comfortable using mentor texts.  All of a sudden it just made sense to use well written pieces of writing to help model my own writing - DUH!  I love the idea of having kids explore mentor texts before the start of a unit - letting them discover what is important in a writing style.  I do, however, need to keep better track of the mentor texts that I do use.  This year I hope to track my use of mentor texts and starting developing more mentor text stacks.

5) Mini (not maxi) lessons are essential

Structure of a mini lesson:
Teaching point
"Have a go" or "let's try this"
Link to independent work

6) Record Keeping
I have tried many things to keep track of my conference notes.  All work well - but not great.  THis year I have the unique challenge of working with a co-teacher.  How are we both going to confer and share our notes we take on individual kids.  My latest idea is to use Evernote.  We can create a shared notebook with pages for the kids.  We could even have a notebook for each kid- with different notes such as "Sally - Writing Sem 1", etc.  I really like this idea - and I hope my co-teacher will be as excited.

To support the use of the ipad and evernote I actually just bought (and now am using for the first time) an ipad keyboard. What a difference that makes!  Something to think about for all the kids if we really want them typing a ton on their ipads.  I'm loving it so far - so much faster to record my ideas on a real keyboard rather than the ipad touchscreen keyboard.

Bottom line - My goal in a conference is to help students become better writers.