Teaching writers' workshop is the best thing I do all day. It is powerful to help young children to become writers. Great books, intentional instruction, high expectations, and wide open spaces. Think Katie Wood Ray. Think Ralph Fletcher. It all comes together here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thank you, NaNoWriMo!

It's almost 10:00 pm on November 30, and I am not scrambling to finish my NaNoWriMo manuscript. (In fact I am blogging instead.) How is that possible? Spoiler alert: it is not because I have already won. It is also not because I am delusional enough to believe that I can write 25,000 more words before midnight tonight. There is no NaNo panic for me because I am thrilled with how this month of writing turned out. 

Really? No NaNoWriMo glory? No triumphant tweeting of word counts smashed? No t-shirt? Nope. And yet I could not be happier.

Now I would be a big, fat liar if I said that I didn't want to finish 50,000 words this month. But since that didn't happen, I have been looking for (and have found) some positives.

1. I made writing a priority in my daily routine. This was not easy for me--workaholic that I am. And while I discovered that 1,667 words a day was not feasible for me with my current schedule, I learned that 500-1000 words is absolutely reasonable. So while I missed the NaNo mark, I did learn to set my own daily goal based on how I work as a late night writer. I learned to stop making excuses and just write already. Every day.

2. NaNo pushed me to move forward through my project. Instead of remaining tangled in constant revisions of the opening chapters of my manuscript, I learned to push ahead during the drafting process. This has been very good for me. Trapped in the shallows of a project, it was impossible for me to think through the complexities of the story. I needed to be deep in the writing before I could even see the potential problems and possibilities. Perfectly wordsmithed opening chapters aren't worth much if the rest of the book has a flawed structure/premise/plot/character arc/pace/etc.

And, finally--drumroll, please. . .

3. I still love my WIP! There is no burnout when you work at my shockingly slow crawl across the page. My novel and I are not sick of each other. There is no overwhelming need for space or seeing other manuscripts. On December 1, I will continue writing 500-1000 words a day until my first draft is finished.

Then I will put it in a drawer for a while before I start revising.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Top Three New(ish) Picture Books for Boys

One of the great challenges of teaching primary aged students is hooking the boys.  And by hooking I mean spearing them intellectually and propelling them from the realm of playing with their shoes during group discussions to up on their knees excited to join in the conversation.  (If my metaphor is a bit, er, violent, just remember:  boys dig that.)  I want them all in.  Engaged.  Fascinated.  Motivated.  This is no small feat.  And it is absolutely my favorite thing about teaching.  Because once I have them, that's when our room really gets interesting. 

Books are excellent bait.  Here are three picture books and why they work so well with boys. 

1.  OH No! (Or How my Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett

This hilarious story of a fifth grade science project with a few design flaws has the irreverent humor that draws boys close to the teacher's chair.  Who wouldn't be interested in a kid-built robot that bursts out of the school gymnasium and wreaks havoc on an entire city?  And of course the best way to deal with a wayward robot is to create a giant, mechanical toad to take him down.  Boys get it. 

The pictures in this book remind me of a graphic novel super-sized.  Boys love to be able to pore over page after page, finding new details they missed the first five times through.  It's like a treasure hunt just for them. 

The illustrative detail in this book also appeals to those boys who want to know how things work.  The endpapers have blueprints of the two robots.  Underneath the jacket, the cover of the book is designed to look like a child's worn composition notebook.  The inside of the jacket cover is a movie poster of the story.  This book works for those hard to hook boys because Mac Barnett and illustrator Dan Santat so clearly care about the same kind of details that seven year old boys devour (and revisit and share and imitate). 

2.  Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

This book is imaginative play come to life.  Told from the point of view of Robot Zot, the book follows his adventures--and by extension the adventures of the invisible child behind him--from outer space to Earth.  David Shannon's illustrations mix the fantastical perspective of Robot Zot and the home details (with a twist) that inspire the action.  This book captures (and validates) the way kids (especially boys) escape into their own minds and entertain themselves. 

I used this book during a min-lesson on voice--because throughout the book Robot Zot sounds the way a robot would sound.  "No one stop Robot Zot.  Robot Zot crush lot!"  After reading this book, an explosion of Robot Zot stories followed.  We had a whole series going!  I even had kids exploring the voices of other toys in their writing.  If a robot sounds that way, how would my teddy bear talk?  What would my doll sound like?  I had kids collaborating:  "I'll write the second book, and here's what will happen.  Then in the third book. . . ."  The boys could not have been more motivated to write. 

3.  Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

You know you're on the right track when a book title brings a particular student to mind.  I won't use his name--but he knows who he is, and this book went directly from the bookstore bag into his immediate possession.  In my class he is the kid who knows every obscure animal fact there is to know.  He inhales non-fiction, and his curiosity for everything strange and surprising never ends. 

Never Smile at a Monkey warns the eager boy reader about 17 rare and specific dangers of the natural world.  Who knew there was anything to fear about a platypus, cone shell, or caterpillar?  Venom and weapons and biting, oh my!  Reading this one picture book provides weeks of material for astounding parents, teachers, and friends.  (And believe me, the shock and awe factor is motivating.) 

Another thing Steve Jenkins does so well in all his books, (and I have them all in my classroom), is he organizes information in such an appealing way for boys.  He uses headings, text size and shape, captions, and pictures in creative ways that work for kids who naturally jump around and read based on interest and not necessarily sequentially. 

And the Secret is. . .

The trick to hooking the boys is communicating that you understand what is important to them and that you appreciate and value their boy-ness.  There is a place in the classroom for their inventiveness, their humor, and their creative thinking.  My job is easier when there are so many authors who get it, too. 

What are some of your favorite picture books for boys?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why Collaborate? Lessons from SCBWI

I had reason today to contemplate the power of sharing expertise in building community.  Earlier this month I attended the SCBWI conference in LA for the first time, where I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many experienced writers taking time out of their busy schedules to teach and to mentor new writers.  Instead of clutching knowledge tightly in their hot little hands (to preserve for their own use), these writers opened up the vault and let us take a peek inside.  Writing could easily--and understandably--be a competitive field in which individuals look out for themselves first and foremost.  I found the opposite to be true.  It was clear from the energy at the conference that not only were speakers willing to share, but that sharing seemed to fuel them in the same way that the attendees were fueled with inspiration and new insight. 

Like writing, teaching is a job often done in isolation.  Teachers--like writers--work long hours, seek out new learning about their craft, and have to continuously find ways to refill their creative wells.  However, as we find ourselves with less and less time to do more and more work, teachers seem to make sharing and collaborating a smaller professional priority.  As we close our doors and work in greater isolation, community breaks down.  We become competitive rather than collaborative. 

My lesson from SCBWI is that sharing with colleagues should be energy giving and worth the time required if the end result will be exponentially positive.  There is no substitute for being given a true glimpse into how an expert thinks and works.  And we all have expertise to bring to the conversation.  That was a striking feature of the SCBWI conference as well; even as a first time attendee, I was welcomed and treated like a fellow writer, not a clueless newbie. 

In order to put my money where my mouth is, as they say, I have formulated a plan.  One way I am reaching out to other teachers is through this blog.  The writing community online is incredible, and I have learned so much from Twitter and blogs on writing in the past two months.  I would like to connect with the teaching community online this year as well. 

A colleague and I also started a club of sorts (called SPARKS) intended to bring teachers in our building together regularly to share.  A week from Friday is our first meeting, and we plan to have lunch and showcase innovative ideas we are trying in our rooms this year.  (One key rule:  no complaining!  This time is for building energy and community, not for the wah wah wah.)  We hope this group will faciliate more vertical teaming as teachers at different grade levels discover that they have similar interests--creating new support systems and sources of motivation.  We'll see how it goes. . . I'm excited! 

I'm motivated by people who want to learn--like the amazing community I discovered in LA at SCBWI this summer.  I know it took work and dedication to build the SCBWI community.  Children's book authors embraced the concept that the best teaching would have to come from within.  The Golden Kite Luncheon revealed some of that history, and I found myself feeling honored to be in the room and determined to prove myself worthy.  I feel equally strongly that building community among teachers is a task worth undertaking. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Brand New Year

A new school year is about to begin, and I can't wait to get writing!  There is nothing more magical than a classroom humming with creative energy:  pencils flying over rustling paper as ideas flow faster than developing motor skills will support.  There is no, "I don't know what to write about. . ." in here!  Writers' workshop is all about possibilities, and once kids are empowered to explore all their possibilities, they're in.  (Granted, this doesn't happen for all kids on day one, but they all get there.  And this year I'm looping with my first graders from last year to second grade, so we're starting off sprinting--no warm up required.) 

On this blog I plan to share units and lessons that work--and maybe a few that go down in flames.  I'll include mentor text I use, mini-lessons, student work samples, and rubrics for grading.  I'll post links to web sites I love and resources I find along the way.  Hopefully, we'll get some conversations going and build up our writing instruction together.  Writing is my absolute favorite subject to teach and I take it incredibly seriously.  Every year I am proactive about professional development in writing, and I try to crank my instruction up a notch or two (or five).  Blogging seems like a way to potentially collaborate with other writing teachers, and I'm thrilled to get started.  Bring on the kids!  I'm ready!