Saturday, May 30, 2009

Literacy Celebration

This was the week of our Literacy Celebration. There were a few confusions along the way but all went smoothly at the event itself. There was a wide variety of projects. We have action research celebrations for several years for schools which were beyond their first few years of the project. Several years ago, we noticed one school Roberts Annex had a professional book club. We encouraged other schools to do this and now their are study groups and book clubs at many schools. What we really noticed at this celebration was evidence of teachers going deeper, really exploring their own learning and working in a team with their staff members. We saw teachers really looking at their practice and really looking at their students strengths and needs and figuring out next steps. We saw evidence of assessment guiding instruction. We saw more evidence of teachers really looking at their data, using their observations to fine tune instruction.
For us the hardest thing, is that we opened up the project to schools next year who hadn't been in a literacy project previously or who hadn't been for more than four years. We have many new schools wanting to join but due to an unexpected cut in my position (I am going back to the classroom and I am not being replaced) we are wondering how we are going to choose who can join the project and what other vehicles we can suggest for schools to pursue teacher research and collaboration. Hard choices.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Poetry and Drama in general

Just a note to say how truly wonderful I think it is to play with poetry. I had so much fun yesterday at Maple Grove working with Grade Six and Seven students on poetry. I think of how Anka in the book, I am Furniture, finds voice through playing volleyball and I think some of our quieter students can find voice working with poetry orally. Several years ago I was amazed by having an artist in residence, an actress who was able to help create an amazing drama using a single poem with my class. I have always kind of loved creative drama and tried to bring it into my teaching but one of my most amazing teaching experiences was again working with a drama facilitator who used Theatre of the Oppressed with my sixth graders to really understand poverty, our unit in Social Studies. I just couldn't believe the focus it gave my students and how doing this enabled them to quickly put together excellent skits on just about anything. Attending a couple of workshops with the amazing Sara Holbrook I began really playing with poetry slams. I am a great fan of Sheree Fitch's amazing tongue twisters and twice was fortunate to have her spend time in my class where my students presented her with a wide variety of responses to her poems in a variety of ways. I love giving away poems to students and seeing what they can do with them. A fun resource for teachers is the book she has written with Larry Schwartz, The Poetry Experience.
Another great experience was doing a couple of workshops on improvisation with Katherine S. McKnight and Mary Scruggs, authors of The Second City Guide to Improvisation in the Classroom. Using poetry and drama make for a wonderful way to bring oral language into the classroom. Students begin to find comfort in front of others.
Angelica's class at Maple Grove are a quiet group, hesitant to speak in the whole group, but after two periods of playing with poetry, they asked for more.
And now for an advertisement, I am giving a one day summer institute on poetry and drama at the end of August at the VSB. I promise lots of fun and resources. Just click the professional development link on the left side and you should be able to find all the details.

Because I am Furniture

Isn't that a great title? I just finished reading an advance copy of this novel written in blank verse by Thalia Chaltas. First I have to say something about blank verse. As a teacher who has loved teaching creative writing to students in elementary school I have so tired of cheap rhyme (Ms. Kezar isn't a geezer...) that I was thrilled when I discovered Byrd Baylor's wonderful picture books written in blank verse. I was able to show my students how she used rhythm and line and word placement not relying on rhyme. I personally liked it because I wasn't very good at rhyming myself and it became a tradition, for instance, for me to write a poem each year for my students capturing our year together.
After 911 I found a wonderful book,911: The Book of Help which was a collection of essays and stories and poems by children's writers about that event and its aftermath. One of my favorite pieces was a wonderful poem by Sonia Sones, a poem that I had students perform at several Remembrance Day assemblies. One year I was wandering the book displays at an International Reading Association convention and asked a book seller who was autographing at her booth. She told me Sonia Sones. I was thrilled to meet her . She told me she wished she could have seen my students do her poem and of course, I bought two of her novels written in blank verse which I thoroughly enjoyed. I noted the dedication on one was to her teacher, Myra Cohn Livingstone, a well known children's poet. Years before I had gone to a workshop with Myra Cohn Livingstone. About a week later a package arrived with the Beverly Hills 90210 postal code. I was sure I didn't know any one who lived in Beverly Hills and of course, it was a bibliography she had said she would send.
When I read the acknowledgments for Because I am Furniture there was a thank you to Sonya Sones for encouraging Thalia with the writing of this novel. As everyone knows I love connections.
Anyway blank verse novels seem more common and I like them. I think it's the sense of interrupted voice. But I am a bit off topic. You are asking, "What is the novel about?" It's about a girl who feels like a piece of furniture in a home where her father is physical abusive to her older brother and sister but other than disparaging comments leaves her alone. Charming outside of the home, her father is a very angry man and her mom is kind but seemingly powerless to see or to deal with the damage this man does. Joining the volleyball team gives Anka finally the courage to break the silence. One commenter felt the ending was a bit simplistic and perhaps, over optimistic, but I will let you judge.
Recently at the International Reading Association YA writer, Jamie Adoff (who also contributed to the Book of Help) and writes in free verse,commented that many teenagers have tough lives and by reading realistic fiction (which probably can never be as bad as some of their lives) they don't feel so alone.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

When Dinosaurs Came with Everything

I brought back a book from the convention in Minneapolis that I just love. I have been reading it to anyone who cared to listen this week. The kindergarten class at False Creek loved it, Marilyn's grade one class loved it as did Dana's grade fours. I heard some author say the secret of writing is asking," What if?" And this is just what this book does. What if instead of balloons the dentist was giving away dinosaurs? What if you went to the movies instead of butter you got a dinosaur? That is the premise of Elise Broach's When Dinosaurs Came with Everything.
Beautifully told and beautifully illustrated by one of my favourite illustrators, David Small (who is married to another wonderful writer, Sarah Stewart). Elise was at the convention but I wasn't familiar with her work so that I missed hearing her speak.
I am always amazed by how much little kids know about dinosaurs...

Another book I picked up at the conference was Teaching Young Writers to Elaborate: Mini-lessons and Strategies That Help Students Find Topics and Learn to Tell More by Megan S. Sloane who has spoken in Vancouver a couple of times. This is an excellent book and I couldn't think of how When Dinosaurs Came with Everything is such a good illustration of this, a great mentor text. Although it says Megan's book is designed for writers in grades one to three it's easily usable for older writers. it's such an accessible book with great ideas. She has a brand new book from Heinemann as well, Into Writing: The Primary Teacher's Guide to Writing Workshop

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Holding On to Good Things in a Time of Bad Ones

Long ago I was fortunate to spend three weeks at the University of New Hampshire studying writing process and being forced to write. It was probably the best educational experiences of my life. My professors there were Jane Hansen and Tom Newkirk who taught me a great deal about what good teaching is by example. Cleaning out my e-mails I read a Choice Literacy newsletter from a couple of weeks ago. One article was on recommended summer reading. Shelley Harwayne's recommendation was this book by Tom Newkirk. And due to the magic of online reading I just read the first chapter and now I want to read the whole book. Just take a moment and read

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Twin Cities

Well, I can't say Minneapolis was on my list of places I had to see before I die or really needed to see at all. I really had no image of Minneapolis. In fact, I had to go look it up on a map to see where it actually was. Yes, it's on the Mississippi.
I remembered bits and pieces of history about fur traders, and I admit I wanted Mary Tyler Moore's apartment in that TV show but really. My first impressions were what weird skyscrapers, what a lot of churches, the trees are bare, no cherry blossoms here, and I wondered if anyone actually lived there because what we thought might be downtown looked rather deserted. That was late Saturday afternoon. As time went on Minneapolis definitely grew on me.
Nicollet Mall is the centre of Minneapolis. Yes, there is a statue of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat right in front of Macy's so that must be a sign. There are lots of restaurants-my favorite being Barrio where the guacamole and chips are delicious as well as good people watching. The architecture even downtown is incredible-I didn't go into depth on studying this but these buildings are unique. One building, the Capella Tower, looks like it has a flying saucer on top. Another has a square on the side, somehow reminding me of a grain elevator. This isn't surprising as yes, cheerios were invented in Minneapolis and it has a long tradition as a mill town. Most buildings have skyways that join them so in the cold winters you don't have to go outside. In Montreal you can go underground, in Minneapolis you go above ground. The churches are more traditionally quite beautiful. Thursdays the Nicollet Mall hosts a farmers' market-the 70 degree weather brought out spring in the city and the street had many vendors with bedding plants and tasty foods. And yes, we did get out the Mall of the Americas.
Friday we went over to have a look at St. Paul's, the sister city. It's also the state capital. I had two missions to check out Grand Avenue and Summit Avenue where F. Scott Fitzgerald grew up (I fell in love with his writing in first year university) and to have lunch at the diner-Mickey's, from the movie, Prairie Home Companion-now that was an experience.
Arts are celebrated in Minneapolis. The Guthrie Theatre is incredible. I have never seen a building quite like it. The views are amazing and ever changing looking over the river.
There wasn't enough time but the Minnesota Art Institute is an incredible art gallery with an amazing collection. We needed a day not a morning. I really wanted to see the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Centre but there was a plane to catch. It seems to me there is a lot Vancouver could learn from Minneapolis. We have great scenery but Minneapolis has friendly people with lots of imagination. And yes, this is where they invented scotch tape, magnetic poetry, post it notes, the seat belt, the pop up toasters, roller blades, as well as cheerios... And did I mention they have the best library system and great public transit?

blogging again this time- Minneapolis...

I am behind again. I can blame it on a week away at the International Reading Association Convention in Minneapolis. I also came in to work a week ago Thursday to discover that four consultant positions had been cut including mine! Now I knew my four years were over but I felt fine as I would be leaving my position in trusted hands and our literacy team in good shape. Not in the tentative budget but in the final, four consultant positions were cut. Surprise, surprise! I know that the news in the schools isn't good this week but it's a strange feeling knowing that your position will be gone and without any warning.

Going to the conference turned out to be an excellent idea. Sometimes it really helps to get a different perspective. The conference was non stop from first thing Sunday to Thursday and it's going to take me awhile to really digest everything. I came home with a suitcase of books despite the fact that the economy had somewhat affected the generosity of publishers. I discovered some great new professional literature. Then there is the magic of all the authors. Just before I left I had read a novel by Jacqueline Woodson, Locomotion, so that it was rather special hearing her read it. The opening session was with the author, Khaled Hosseini, of The Kiterunner, a book I loved. I warned my aunt that when I gave that book to her, she might want to skip over certain sections. She read it and then said she was going to read it again and not skip anything. It was wonderful hearing him and listening to how he came to be a writer and his family's real experiences in America and what inspired him to write The Kite Runner (originally a short story written when he discovered that the Taliban had outlawed flying kites, a favorite pastime of his childhood) as well as learning about his foundation and his views on Afghanistan currently.
Authors... I was able to hear Katherine Patterson describe what led to writing Gilly Hopkins. She described taking in two brothers and finding it all a bit much and realizing that she was treating them as if they were disposable and that was a problem with our society which often seems to view people as disposable.
I went to many practical sessions as well as looking at some of the latest research. I got to be inspired by Carol Santa, Linda Hoyt, Stephanie Harvey, Harvey Daniels, Jerome Harste, etc. etc.
At conferences I always listen for themes, and a few came through to me here. One was the importance of students being able to see themselves in books, another was the importance of inquiry and choice, another was the importance of expecting the most from our students, and for them to see real purposes for reading and writing, yet another was the importance of having a world perspective and a sense of social responsibility which you might hope to see at the International Reading Association Convention.
Anyway it was great to be able to attend this conference and I know this is only a glimpse but I know that you will hear more...