I know everything, apparently

How do dolphins have sex? How do fireworks work? How come the fireworks echo like that? How do stingray tails sting? How are stingrays related to sharks? How do you know if you’re in love?

My one little word for 2019 is “listen,” but we are nine hours and fifteen minutes into the year – and let’s be clear that I was asleep for most of those hours – and I have already yelled (just a little). We are on vacation. I am sitting on the couch trying to write, listening to the gentle creak of the hammock behind me, the not-so-gentle rise and fall of the children’s voices as they talk their way through some version of tennis on the beach (raquets, a ball, and nothing else), the heavy footfalls on the stairs as the adults try to get ready for the day.

The sounds paint a lovely picture, and I am listening, but I have already been asked approximately 304 questions this morning. Can we go to that abandoned house you found? Can I take home a seashell? Why not? Can I use your phone to take pictures? Can I have more for breakfast? Can starfish swim? Can you read to me when you’re done writing? Can we go swimming? Can we go now?

The metallic thud and clank of the screen door warns me that I am about to be joined again. The boys know that I need some space when I’m writing, but somehow quiet space is hard to find in this tropical paradise. Our senses are alight with novelty, and experiences blossom around every corner. No one is getting quite enough sleep because every minute – even the quiet ones – is full of something.

What’s the name of this bug? What is cassava? What makes bioluminescence? Can we keep it in a jar? Why not? What are you writing? What time is it? What’s for lunch?

So, this one little word thing, this “listen”, this may be a challenge for me. I guess I already knew that. But now – literally as I am writing – the sounds have come together and, astonishingly, I have found the quiet in the centre of the noise. And what I hear behind the tennis negotiations, the breeze, the hammock and all of those questions, is security, admiration, love. There will come a day when these boys will know that I do not, in fact, know everything – or even all that much. There will come a day when they will think I know nothing at all, in fact. These questions show me what a central role I play in their lives right now. Right now, I know everything, apparently.

So here is my blessing for myself today: May I hold onto the revelation that questions are love in wrapped up in words during the 4,537 questions that are yet to be asked today. May I listen and may I hear. May I not lose my temper. (And may I forgive myself when, at question 4,538, I do.)

Why do the birds follow some people and not others? Why do stores close on holidays? Why do we have to go home? Are you done writing? Can you come play yet?

Yes, yes I can. I’ll be there in a minute, my loves.

 

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Listen

We’re working on sharing our opinion in grade 10 English. Wait, I’ll be more precise: we’re working on politely sharing our opinion. That’s a little harder.

Last year, I learned that sharing opinions can be a little easier if we start with oral work and move towards written work. Not that group discussions are easy. How

penny for your thoughts

many times have I witnessed “discussions” where three kids dominate while two fall asleep and everyone else says one thing and is done? Sigh. Over the years, I’ve developed a few ways to support kids when they’re just getting used to group discussions. We pretty much always do a penny discussion (everyone has to put their two cents’ worth in before anyone can talk a third time – I use actual pennies, and students have to pay to talk) and a

Image result for discussion web twine

visible web (twine goes between students as they speak – in the end we have a physical map of the discussion). The kids mostly hate the artificial confines of these discussions; the magic is in the debrief. As it turns out, the best discussions involve everyone, but not everyone needs to talk equally.

Once we’ve laid the groundwork for talking, we start using conversation cards that I made up last year. These cards have sentence starters to help students politely agree, disagree, ask questions and state opinions. I developed them because last year’s crew was having trouble using, um, “academic” words. They laughed their heads off when I suggested that “I hear what you’re saying, nevertheless…” could replace, “What the *#$! are you talking about?” It was slow progress, but we got there.

Last week, the students chose to discuss: “What Advice Would You Give to Your Mom, Dad or Guardian on How to Be a Better Parent?” (I love this 

NYTimes list of 1,000 writing prompts for studentsEach one links to an introduction and an article that provides some background. Careful though, the Times has a limit of 10 articles per month if you’re not a subscriber.) They were excited at first, ready to dish about their horrible parents, but once the discussion got going, the kids came quickly to the conclusion that their parents and guardians are doing the best that they can because they generally want the best for their children. The kids responded to each other, (using those cards!) and by the end they agreed that they really wished that adults would listen to them. In fact, as the conversation shifted to advice they would give to teachers, they talked their way to the same conclusion: they know that we want what’s best for them, but they really want us to listen.

I know that I’m just a kid, but sometimes I have good ideas. But adults interrupt and they talk over me and they don’t even want to know why I did something. I just want them to listen to me, to take me seriously.

That was Thursday. Since then, I keep hearing the same thing: listen. On the web somewhere, someone said, “Listen for the request in the complaint.” My son asked me to snuggle at bedtime and listen to the things that had happened during the day. I thanked my husband for listening to me as I worked through a sticky problem. My friend called and asked, “do you have time to listen to something that [my child] did?”

Listen. Just listen.

It’s a straightforward request, powerful and important. I value this, yet it’s not something I’m always good at. By the end of Thursday’s discussion, my students decided that if they could give their parents and teachers advice, if they could make a New Year’s Resolution for us, it would be “Listen.”

Well, I’m listening. For 2019, my resolution, my one little word is listen.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm Join me on Tuesdays at https://twowritingteachers.org/
Share your slice of life!

55!

On Oct 9 I published a blog post about my 11 Grade 10 students having finished 10 books. We were so excited that I ordered everyone pizza. They could not believe that they had finished ten books in just over four weeks. I was excited and a little relieved that my crazy “read what you want” book experiment with “lower track” students appeared to be working. (Once again, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s work has really inspired me on this road.)

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, today I bring you (drumroll…): FIFTY FIVE!

Just take a peek into our classroom:

And look at the readers:

And check out these reader behaviours:

  • Students are recommending books to each other. As of now, 3/4 of the class has read Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down and one student just convinced another that she “has to” read Carlos Luis Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.
  • Students are reading at home. One girl lost phone privileges over the weekend and finished a book!
  • Students have their next book ready to go. They are developing lists of books they want to read.

Finally, let me tell you what we are reading right now because the sheer variety of levels and topics reminds me of why choice is so important as a motivator for these readers.

Nancy Drew, Amulet, Long Way Down, In Cold Blood, Shadow of the Wind, Tupac’s poetry, The Hate U Give, The Crossover, Skellig, a hockey memoir (forgot the title), The Lovely Bones

They’ve also read Trump’s Art of the Deal, Hatchet, Crabbe, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, 39 Clues, Rupi Kaur’s poetry, another one by Kwame Alexander, One of Us is Lying… and so many more.

So, four-ish more weeks of class, two weeks of Winter Break… We’ll keep reading – and I’m pretty sure that, in the end, we’ll have some readers.

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Author love

My 10-year-old just wandered downstairs to get a book. Specifically, he came for Calvin and Hobbes. I can always tell when he’s reading Calvin and Hobbes because his giggles infuse the house; it’s not necessarily ideal bedtime reading. 

I have no doubt that he wanted the book, but I think he also wanted to know what I was up to because I had refused to read one more chapter tonight even though the title of the next chapter is “The Basilisk” and even though we are pretty sure the dragon has unwittingly settled down for sleep in the basilisk’s cave. (Dragon Rider, Cornelia Funke, in case you’re wondering.) Normally I’m a pushover for “one more chapter,” so he really needed to know what had called me away. What could be more important than reading?

“You’re writing,” he observed nonchalantly, reading over my shoulder. “What do you write about?” I explained the idea of a slice of life and confessed that I was stuck tonight. He had a few suggestions for topics, including favourite books. His faves include the Spy School series and, he thinks, probably the Dog Man series because “even though they’re easy to read they are really funny.” But his favourite of all is The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. It took us a while to read that one aloud, but both of my children were rapt throughout. As he recalled the story, he remarked that he also really loves Witch’s Boy and Iron-Hearted Violet, also by Barnhill. In fact, I think Kelly Barnhill is the first author he has fallen for. He likes his series, but he loves Barnhill for her style and storytelling.

On a whim, we looked up her website – perfect activity for a parent procrastinating writing and a kid avoiding bed. Her tagline reads, “Author, teacher, mom. Newbery medalist. Terrible gardener. Maker of pie.”

“Mom!” he practically shouted, “you’re a teacher and a mom, too. Maybe you could write a book.” He paused, then mused under his breath, “And she makes pies. That’s really good. Grandma makes pies. That’s good.” He leaned in towards my computer and we began to peruse Barnhill’s site.

“She’s writing MORE books! I hope they come soon. I wonder what they’ll be about. I like the titles.” He was so wiggly with excitement that he did a kind of tap dance around the kitchen table. (He will be unhappy if he reads this. He will say he did NOT dance. Twirled around my chair? Moved his whole body with excitement in a little circle?)  He stopped,  suddenly serious. “Is she a New York Times bestseller? She must be a New York Times bestseller. Can you look?” I asked him why this mattered. “Because that means that so many people like her books. They know about her.” His eyes were starry with the idea that others might have experienced the magic that he knows.

I was about to suggest that we could write to her when I realized that his head might explode at the mere thought. And it was past his bedtime. So tonight I will hold the brimming potential of his excitement in my heart; tomorrow, together, we will write.

Ah, Kelly Barnhill, and all the writers out there, thrilling the hearts of readers, thanks for the magic.

 

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Six six-word stories

A few weeks ago Stacey Shubitz posted a six-word story as her Slice of Life. (She, in turn, had been inspired by Jennifer Floyd’s six-word story post.) I’ve toyed with these before, but I’ve never shared any because, well, I’m never quite content with my own. (“I’m never quite content with my own” = seven words) Story of my life. (= four words)

That said, I can’t quite shake the idea, and I keep writing them. So, without too many more words, in no particular order, here are six of my six-word stories:

His tiny naked body snuggles mine.

Found my love at their wedding.

I constantly wonder what students learn.

Started presents early; still not done.

I forsook politeness to pursue learning.

One more page, then I’ll sleep.

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Head over to http://twowritingteachers.org on Tuesdays for more slice of life stories.

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea

Susie Asado.

I am trying to teach poetry to twelve Grade 10 students who, for the most part, are not especially interested. They are very clear about their lack of interest. This year, as I did last year, I am trying to convince them that poetry is about playing with language, and that playing with language is worthwhile because it’s fun and it helps you say things the way you want to say them.

In case you are wondering, they are not interested.

This semester we are struggling. I have done all the things – the interesting intro, the playful, the different, the cool.

We’ve had a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist visit our class. We’ve imitated, tried various forms, talked, created crazy alliteration. We’ve read dead guys, living poets, and instapoets, and we’ve had visits from a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist.

But in case you are wondering, my class is not especially interested.

Now that I’m really sitting down to think about it, the unit is sort of working, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s sort of not. In fact, this year I have been tempted to give up. Day after day, I come in enthusiastic and prepared. Day after day, one girl reads a book under the table, one boy pulls out his phone and two girls whisper giggle at every transition. Four of twelve is a lot of visibly uninterested kids. Others are angling to convince me that compliance = engagement. I’m not buying what they’re selling, but that’s only fair because they’re not buying what I’m selling either.

As I write, I’m realizing that I’ve been assuming that their behaviour is designed to tell me that – in case I didn’t know – they are *not* interested, but they may actually be even more nervous than students in previous years. This lack of interest may be a disguise for some serious fear. After all, I am asking a lot of them, and the most visibly uninterested are also kids who stand to lose a lot by engaging. One thinks of herself as a writer, but she’s very unwilling to edit or consider any direction for her freewriting. (She also has a habit of abandoning books 3/4 of the way through.) One has told me that he will “probably” be interested in reading when he gets older because that’s what happened to his mom; writing doesn’t figure into his self-image. Two are reading and writing at a level significantly lower than Grade 10. (But they are reading! Hooray!) And I’ve got three exchange students who speak very little English. (But they are trying and they are learning. Hooray!) And some non-attenders (who mostly make it to English right now. Hooray!)

I wonder if when I say “play” they hear “I’m actually going to give you grades for all of this and I’m just pretending this is fun”? Wouldn’t be the first time. But they’ve met their match: I will not give up. Honestly, I pretty much never give up. I’ve got more persistence than is realistic by any stretch of the imagination.

And I want to think about today when we took Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” as our mentor texts. The students were pretty interested in “We Real Cool”. They liked the enjambment, the alliteration, the assonance. (They especially like the word “ASSonance.” They always do.) They were able to talk about the way the sounds were “awesome” and “on purpose.” I think they felt competent in their understanding.

“Susie Asado” was a different story. They pretty much sat, dumbfounded, in front of it. I said, “What do you notice about this poem?” and no one spoke. SIGH. I waited. Finally, one of them risked the truth: “This poem doesn’t make any sense.” No kidding. We talked about the sounds of words. We tried to imagine what on earth Gertrude Stein was doing and why anyone thought this was worth publishing. I made my naysayers put away books and phones. We listened. We talked about onomatopoeia. We watched flamenco dancing (because Gertrude Stein said that “Susie Asado” was an attempt to render the sounds of flamenco, particularly of one flamenco dancer. If you believe Gertrude Stein.) We talked about what things we know that have distinct but changing sounds – my mom driving behind a bad driver, a beach, a storm. And then we tried to write our own sound poem.

Ok, that’s a lie. Then I told the students to try to write a sound poem, and 9 out of 11 (because one was absent) stared at a blank page for five minutes. My ask was really really hard. So I suggested that maybe I should write in front of them and they could help me out. That was the ticket. And this is as far as we got. We are trying to record the sound of the hallway just before the bell rings and then as it fills with students…

Sugar sugar hover hope
Wake cake kick stick fake
Shuffle shelf shake fake yell

We did not get very far, but together we got further than anyone did alone. So tomorrow we’ll try again. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Heck, just keep your fingers crossed for me!

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea
Susie Asado

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Stuck in the middle

Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. My legs burn as I push myself to kick a little harder; my fingertips slide into the water as I try to rotate my arms just a little faster. I aim for the wall, swimming hard all the way in.

About a month ago, I joined a swim team. My kids both swim, and I discovered that the team offered an adult practice at the same time, so I signed up too. Now, I say “team”, but let’s be clear that it’s mostly practice with a coach. I am pretty sure there are no races. At least, I hope there are no races because right now I am slow.

I swam competitively through high school, but the last time I was in the water with a coach was 28 years ago. And it turns out that having a coach is daunting. He creates sets, decides what we’re working on and determines how fast we should go. Last night he insisted I could swim “on the :30” – translation: that I could swim fast enough and rest long enough to start again every 30 seconds. I told him exactly how crazy that was, but he was adamant, and I was pleased and proud when I touched the wall on the last lap having hit the 30 every time. On the other hand, two weeks ago we swam nothing but backstroke, and I took a break when an old shoulder injury flared up. The coach was fine with both results.

On this team, I am precisely in the middle. I am either the slowest swimmer in the fast lane or the fastest in the slow lane. Week after week, I have to choose my lane. And week after week, I hem and haw then pick the fast lane, where I find myself touching the wall just as the first swimmer – significantly faster than I am – starts the next set. I gasp for breath, curse the system that allows the fastest athletes the most rest, and push off from the wall again.

I wonder why I keep choosing this. Am I getting faster? I can’t tell. I feel constantly less-than; I am continually trying to keep up. I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes I have to check my jealous thoughts about the faster swimmers, as if somehow they are to blame for their speed, as if they are less nice because I am less fast. Other times I catch my thoughts drifting to self-doubt: should I be here? Should I move to the other lane? What am I learning? Surely if I swim in the other lane I can work more on my technique? If I just move to the slower lane, I’ll improve my stroke, right?

But it’s not that easy. When I swim in the slower lane, I am also out of place, noticeably faster than the other swimmers. I find myself passing people, and I know that I am not pushing myself as much as I could. I am not, in fact, working on my technique. In the slow lane, I slack a little.

What I want is a middle lane, but there are only two tracks. I have to choose. My choice is to swim up. For me, right now, struggling to keep up is preferable to cruising.

Which makes me think about my students – not the ones struggling to read or the ones who I worry won’t make it to graduation – no, as I swim, I think about the students who have chosen the slow lane. I think about C and about J, both strong readers and writers whom I suspect could succeed in the higher track “Academic” English course but who have chosen the “Applied” course. Often I push them: “try this (slightly harder) novel”, “add another detail to that paragraph,” “I bet you could write that essay.” I want them to keep their options open, to reach higher, to see where they could go. Until this swim team, I was confident that I was doing them a service.

But swimming has reminded me that the faster lane is a lot of hard work and there are plenty of good reasons to slow down.  If I were dealing with an injury or using swimming as down time, or even if I just needed a break, then I would choose the slower lane. There are joys in the slow lane, too, joys in taking your time, in being where you are, not where you might be. I think of C, unhappy in Academic English last year, and I realize that she is happy right now. She reads what she wants, and she has plenty of time for creative writing. When she speaks, others listen. She’s a leader in our class. Perhaps my role is not so much to push her to a different level but rather to make sure that she develops in the lane she has chosen.

It all comes back to why I chose a team this year rather than free swim: the coach. In some ways, the coach sees my potential more clearly than I do – he was right to insist that I could swim that fast set – but he also trusts me to know what I can and cannot do – I was right to take a break when my shoulder ached. This is the balance I want in my classes. For C and J and all of my students, I want to hold onto the vision of their potential while I honour the choices they make (for reasons they may not disclose to me and that they may not even know). There is no middle lane, so we’re all going to need to practice.

 

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