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.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beyond Book Reviews

So after my philosophical crisis of conscience last week, I thought I'd share a unit we just wrapped up in writers' workshop that is exactly the kind of authentic writing I believe students should be engaged in daily.

Kids today are constantly writing about what they read--in literature logs, in reader's notebooks, in responses to listening centers--but I wanted this project to be different. Students know how to summarize, to make connections, to discuss their favorite parts and characters in the stories they read. However, a book review should have an audience and a purpose beyond the teacher.

We studied reviews as a genre, with our primary focus on book reviews. We did seek out other types of reviews--movie, restaurant, toy, service--to discuss the audience and purpose of review writing.

One resource I found online during the teaching of this unit that particularly connected with kids was book trailers. We found professionally produced and kid produced trailers online for a huge variety of children's literature. (Some of my favorite sites: http://www.mrschureads.blogspot.com/  http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/
http://www.kitlitbooktrailers.ning.com/)

The book trailers were powerful for multiple reasons. Projected on my (brand spanking new) SMART board, kids were captivated as they saw their favorite books come to life in the same way they were trying to make stories in their reviews jump off the page. Trailers have drama and voice and imagination. Trailers accomplish what reviews strive to accomplish: they get kids to want to read the book. Immediately.

Additionally, the trailers helped kids to see patterns in the structure of the review summary: set the stage, get the reader interested by telling just enough of the problem of the story to persuade them to keep reading/listening, then. . . end with a teaser that tells them that they will have to read the book to find out more. Watching book trailers is what internalized this concept for my kids so that they could transfer it to their own writing in a way that reading reviews had not.

I gave my kids an opportunity to bring their own reviews to life using EduGlogster. If you are not familiar with EduGlogster, it is a free, online resource for teachers and students. Kids create digital posters, to which they can import text, photos, links, drawings, and video. It is incredibly user friendly;  my second graders just took off after minimal directions.

At the end of our review unit, students selected their favorite reviews to publish on EduGlogster. They chose a wall (background), added their review as a text box, added titles, a photo, and a video of themselves talking about their chosen book. (EduGlogster gives kids so many fun choices as they build their glogs. And again, so easy.) I cannot tell you how motivated they were to do this, and the quality of their work demonstrates not only their new learning but their understanding of audience and purpose.

I wish I could post some of their projects here, but for digital safety reasons, I can't--especially since they contain photos and video. The nice thing is that we can publish privately on EduGlogster, and students can send the link to only those they select to see them. I also linked them to our classroom blog, which is private as well, so they can watch each other's projects. You'll just have to trust me that their work is exceptional.

The culminating piece to this unit was a collaborative project with a fourth grade colleague. (Her idea, I have to give her full credit! You can check her out at her teacherspirit site.) Her students are currently working on literary non-fiction books. Because their audience is younger kids, we paired her kids up with my second graders when her kids had finished the dummies of their projects. Then my students wrote reviews of the fourth graders' books--including suggestions for revision. The reviews will be passed back to the fourth graders, and then they will revise and publish their projects, hopefully incorporating some of the advice from the second graders.

How empowering is that for the second graders! And how purposeful does the revision process become for the fourth graders when they know their books have a specific audience!

I have to admit, I was a little worried about the advice that my second graders would give. . . However, I have been blown away with the thoughtfulness of my young writers. It is proof to me that they know how to talk and think about writing, and it validates everything we do every day in writers' workshop.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Teaching Outside the Box

Teachers today are under pressure to be systemic, to conform to the decisions of the group rather than stand out from the crowd. And while I have no issue with consistency in standards and curricular content, I do feel my soul beating its tiny fists against my insides as this profession tries to fit me into a smaller and smaller box. I can't help but think that in trying to make our classrooms the same, we will only succeed in making the minds within them the same. Who wants that?

Last week was the annual CCIRA Conference (Colorado Council of the International Reading Association), and I was fortunate enough to hear the mighty Katie Wood Ray and Regie Routman speak, among others. After three days of inspiration and new learning, I was left with one overwhelming message: the best way to fight against what is frustrating and just plain wrong in education today is with excellent, authentic, inquiry based instruction.

At a district technology fair last month, educator Karl Fisch said, "We are the system." I found that so empowering. His argument was that instead of complaining about what is wrong with the system, we need to realize that what we do every day in our classrooms IS the system. And if that is true. . .

My intention is to create the highest quality learning environment possible every day. If my kids are engaged, motivated, skilled, high-level thinkers, who will be able to take issue with that?

That means not being afraid to stand up for best practice and the individual needs of kids who are not all the same.

That means (respectfully) saying no sometimes, even when it is difficult, even when colleagues have expectations for "consistency" and "systemic" practices. I shouldn't have to apologize for having a different philosophy or a different style of teaching. Kids need to experience a diversity of learning and teaching styles.

I have a depth of knowledge in teaching primary aged children that legislators do not have. I am proactive about constantly seeking out new opportunities for professional development. If I cannot be trusted to make good decisions in my classroom, then I don't know who should. (I could do a whole other post on who shouldn't. . . .) My teaching speaks for itself, as it should for us all.

We need innovators in education, not just followers. At my core, I want to create and to foster creative thinking in others. As I feel my own creative spirit being squelched by those who strive for "standardization," I fear for the creativity of our students.

So my choice is to stand up. To speak up. I will not be put in a box. And I will not quietly go along with decisions that are not in the best interest of my students. (My bulletin boards will never match my teammates. Ever. That is not my ideal--that is my greatest nightmare.) I will collaborate, I will share and listen with rapt attention as others share and teach me, but I will no sooner blindly follow than I would want anyone to blindly follow me.

I hope one day we can get back to a place where differences are respected and expected in education. Our kids need us to think for ourselves if we will ever be able to teach them to do the same.