Monday, August 24, 2015

It's a Writer's World

Something magical happens when we go out into the world as writers.  You see the hair on your slice of pizza as an op-ed piece waiting to happen.  You see the can of red paint in the middle of the highway--the one that splatters the driver's side of your truck like a crime scene--as the opening line to a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day kind of story.  You see the way the light hits the trees--casting more shades of green than you can name--and the haze from the fires in the west as helping to paint the setting of your post-apocalyptic fantasy.   You capture conversations and embellish experiences as a way of practicing your craft. And sometimes, just as it seems the ideas have run out, you take a walk in the woods and give birth to an entire series of stories.  This is exactly what happened to our friend, Mary, author of the Magic Tree House Series:

In this way, Mary becomes a mentor to us as writers.  She entices us to go out into our world, open to possibilities. While many writers tell us that one of the major hurdles to writing is putting your seat in a seat and actually putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.  But what Mary helps us to see is that sometimes what we need is to get up from our chairs and go out into our world. Sometimes what we need is to let the world make its own suggestions.  This requires a writer's eye, so a lesson to this effect might go something like this: 

Target:  We will learn to see our world as writers.
Success Criteria:
  • Gather 3-5 seed ideas from our trip to the courtyard (playground, through the halls, around the school, etc)
  • Capture at least two more ideas outside of writing time (during another part of the school day or at home).
  • Describe what it means to see the world as a writer. 
I've used this lesson--or a variation of it--every year for the past ten years.  I've enjoyed it with students at a variety of grades as well as with adults in our summer sessions. One year, I even went so far as to make writers' notebooks entries mandatory, but just like a required reading log, the compliance of the capturing took the joy out of the jotting.  So now, I enter this lesson with as much enthusiasm as I remember from memories of students' faces as they find a praying mantis in a tree or drop a pencil down the drainage grate.  To set the stage for our yea together, we get out into our world and we let the ideas come.  And come they do, without fail.  (Click here to read more about my latest writers' world lesson experience.)
Seeing the world as writers gives us all that we could ask for and more. It helps us to see that even though we may not be published authors, we can all find reason to write.  So don't just sit there, get up and try it!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Where ARE we from?

Where We're From

We are from coffee, co-workers, and the clutter of shelves,
From boxes and books,
From butcher paper and borders (the kind that bring our classrooms to life).
We are from Friday treats, 
From teammates, friends, and hard working janitors, 
From last year's students and this year's fresh faces who come with new school supplies (or don't) and the excitement for the possibilities...

Where are you from? 
It's a pick-up line in a bar.  An icebreaker at a staff breakfast.  Girls gabbing around the lunch table. Posed to a group of teachers interested in exploring who they are as writers. The kind of small talk that merges with the weather, traffic, and all those other nice-ities that punctuate the getting-to-know-you phase in any budding or busted relationship. Small. Tentative. A toe in the water. 
Where are you from?  
And yet, what if it only feels small to start?  It begins geographically - from south to north, from mountains to foothills to suburbs, from natives to as-soon-as-I-could-get-here's.  From Colorow and Powderhorn to Pleasant View, Maple Grove, and GME. And yet, what if it's this question that leads from families and familiarities to the heart of the human in all of us?
If I ask it again, does it start to feel bigger?
Where are you from?
 I mean really.
Where are you from?
This is about more than just a toe in the water.  It's about connecting to who we are.  About sharing. From our depths.  From our complexities.  From our humanity.  About wading waist deep.  Letting it wash over us--this question--if only for just a moment.
First introduced to George Ella Lyons' "Where I'm From" poem  in my Masters' writing class with Mark Overmeyer, I can't think of a better way to get to know each other, and share ourselves, than by asking this seemingly simple question.
So we read the poem.  We even listen and watch as George Ella reads it.  We talk very little.  The categories that we notice keep the conversation safe.  At a distance. Objects, People, Other People's Words, Memory Moments, Food, and Environment (or Places), Events, Activities and on and on.  Then, with a burst of energy on every splash of sticky-noted color, we decorate the walls with ideas from all corners of possibility.  Our feet are wet.  Ten minutes of shared writing later--from alliterative expressions to elaborative experience--and we are waist deep. More time could have us holding our collective breath to a possibility like this one:
...From last year's students and this year's fresh faces who come with new school supplies (or don't) and with excitement for the possibilities.
From south and north, mountains, foothills, suburbs, and urban corridors,
From predictable boundaries that allow the unpredictable to unfold "one day at a time" (and nothing like the TV show).
We are from standards that anchor us to the new and the known,
From green mountains and maple groves, pleasant views, color rows, powdered horns.
We are from kids' cheers for Olympic realities and reenactments, GoCo granted playgrounds, and Gingerbread manhunts.
From natives and I-got-here-as-soon-as-I-coulds, 
From no longer the new kid and paving the road as we drive it.
We are from families and familiarities,  
From sleepless nights and first day dreams, 
From alliterative expressions and elaborative experiences.
From the deep.  The complex. 
From the heart of humanity, the reach to each growing mind...

From "Where We Are From," we submerge in the quiet of our own minds, into the realities of our own existence. We ask, "Where am I from?"  
The first time I ever answered: 
I am from hot dogs and homemade pizza,
From Pepsi after seven
And that first sip that tastes like a dream...
I am from ballet slippers and tap shoes,
From kicking off my jellies to the tune of Footloose...
From halted piano music and the 'Wood.
I am from friends, families, and fond memories.
I am from love.
Again the next year (after my dad is gone and my daughter is born):
I am from salty tears over St. Patty's Day root beer floats.
From a whole bag of Sour Patch Kids....
I am from boiling baby bottles before baby bubble baths,
From goodness and grace.
I am from this life and the next.
One full of hope.
Dreams upon dreams.  
And this year:
I am from "the world doesn't have to go at the speed of your mind"...
From the "Big!" answer to the "How big?" question.
From the wind named Mariya and seeing third grade through her eyes...
I am from the return of balance to this life.
From those who help me to find myself.
From the strength and productivity of struggle. 
I am from all the wonders of this world,
A depth from where the imperfection in me shines. 
And as I think about this coming year, I wonder What if all beginnings start as small as a this? Where are you from? One from Kansas, three Colorado natives, Jeffco born and bred. From all corners of our district to the same job.  A new team.  Endless possibilities.  It all starts from where we're from.  
So how will you answer now that someone's asking?  
Where are you from? 
I mean really. 
Where are you from?  
Go on, try it

Sunday, June 30, 2013

What do Tom Hanks & Tuesday Quick-Write have in common?

Here I am in the first week that actually feels like summer vacation, participating in the  #TeachersWrite Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Our camp "counselor" posts a quick write prompt every Tuesday and Thursday morning. In true teacher-can-never-truly-vaca fashion, I wonder how everyone in the cosmos knows exactly what Kate means with this assignment. In other words, just what is a quick write? Two possibilities come to mind:
  1. I write quickly. That is, I move my fingers at a frantic pace across the keys or sloppily jot ideas in a hybrid of cursive and print to get ideas that flow at lightning speed onto screen or paper.  OR
  2. I write quickly. That is, for a short period of time, maybe only a few minutes.

So which is it? 

In the words of my friend Forrest: 
I think maybe it's both. Both things is happening at the same time.

This is the point where the act of writing to learn is enhanced when we pause to reflect on how we learn to write in this way. I look at the comments section for Quick-Write Tuesday and can't help but notice that everyone seems to know just what to do. Just how do we learn to write this way? What are the critical attributes for a quick write?  

Take a look at the attributes identified in Content-Area Writing  in the Wordle on the right.

It seems like a quick write is, by definition, not something then we could find in a published mentor. However, if you consider a quick write as stream of consciousness--the kind of writing the main character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close uses to tell his story--you'll find some ways to enhance your own and those of your students. Take a look:

Isn't it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn't going to be room to bury anyone anymore? For my ninth birthday last year, Grandma gave me a subscription to National Geographic, which she calls "the National Geographic." She also gave me a white blazer, because I only wear white clothes, and it's too big to wear so it will last me a long time. She also gave me Grandpa's camera, which I loved for two reasons. I asked why he didn't take it with him when he left her. She said, "Maybe he wanted you to have it." I said, "But I was negative-thirty years old." She said, "Still." Anyway, the fascinating thing was that I read in National Geographic that there are more people alive now than have died in all of human history. In other words, if everyone wanted to play Hamlet at once, they couldn't, because there aren't enough skulls!" (pp 13-14).

And though I know the author (Jonathan Safran Foer) and his editor(s) did much polishing on a paragraph like this, it gives me a mentor to get stream of consciousness going (responding to something I've seen or heard or--in this case--read) and then--more importantly sometimes--how to keep it flowing (with words like "anyway" to get back to the topic and "in other words" to add clarity). So, let's give it a try.  I'm going to time myself for two minutes and quick write on the topic guessed it!  Quick Writes:

I think of all the times I've been asked and have asked others to engage in a quick write.  What am I really asking them to do?  Sometimes activate their background. Sometimes synthesize or summarize their learning so far. Often times we come back to it (though sometimes we run out of time!) we come back to it to see what about our initial thinking was confirmed, challenged, or off topic...In other words, a quick write is a way of solidifying, making my thinking visible so that I can find my focus so that I can put what I'm thinking into... 

(And the timer goes off). I SOOOOOO badly want to finish, and there at the ellipsis, I totally got off track.  My daughter came racing through the room and all my trains of thought were derailed. So, I used a line from the mentor above..."In other words" and got myself going again. Going just enough to get frustrated when the timer went off, but now I have a few ideas that might help me to engage in conversation with others, to generate a formal definition, to reflect on the purpose for the quick writes I've used or to begin drafting for the November Ed Leadership deadline.  I could also go back and harvest an idea (like quick writing to activate background knowledge) and engage in two more minutes to flush this idea out a little further (this is a strategy known as looping). 

In any case, let's not assume that our students understand how to engage in this kind of writing. Let's be transparent that sometimes it doesn't get us very far. But let's not call it a quick write when what we've really done is polished the product and shrunk it to fit in a quick write form.  In other words, writing is not like pulling a cake from the oven at the end of the cooking show.  That makes writing look easy. And we all know from our own experiences, that writing--even quick writing--is anything but easy!

Today's Try-It: Quick Write.  In other words, stream of consciousness.  Maybe you'd like to harvest an idea 
  • From this post
  • From a Tom Hanks' flick (with two completely unintentional references in one post!)
  • From a word that is standing out from your own summer vacation.  
  • From Tuesday Quick Write
Or maybe you'll just bookmark this little Try-It for the next time you assign a quick write.  Any way it works for you: set the timer and then.... try it!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

That's Absurd

Do yourself a favor: go to Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s website or the web-based version of his column and read. Read to enjoy, read to argue, read to bask in the humor, wit, and true talent of this Pulitzer Prize winning author. For this Try-It, at least read "Don't Lower the Bar on Education." And do yourself another favor: read it aloud. Read it with all the sarcasm required of the rhetorical questions and informal voice that he uses to talk directly to you, the reader. Read it through, and don't worry whether you agree with him or not. Then ask yourself: How does he do that? Where did he make it nearly impossible not to agree with him? Likely you landed in the same place I did:  

"But if that’s what these standards are, can we talk for a moment about what they feel like? The best analogy I can give you is based in the fact that some coaches and athletic directors have noted a steep decline in the number of white kids going out for basketball. They feel as if they cannot compete with their black classmates. What if we addressed that by lowering the rim for white kids? What if we allowed them four points for each made basket?
Can you imagine how those white kids would feel whenever they took the court? How long would it be before they internalized the lie that there is something about being white that makes you inherently inferior when it comes to hoops, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki notwithstanding?"
 So what is this?  This technique he uses?  He calls it "analogy."  My colleague, Sue, calls it "Absurd." So, let's call it "ANALOGY to the ABSURD."

And why does it work? Would you ever agree to what he proposes here? Doesn't it seem ridiculous to consider treating white kids this way? And yet--a technique I know recognize is a signature of Pitts'--this analogy to the absurd makes the topic of the piece itself seem utterly ridiculous. We would never accept why are we accepting that?  Who hasn't been told (or told their child): "And if all your friends jumped off a cliff..."

And I didn't have to go very far to find another example. Consider Charlotte's Web: "But it's unfair," cried Fern. "The pig couldn't help being born small, could it?  If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?"   

To think of my own example, however, was much harder.  I started by thinking of topics I feel passionate about, topics of injustice, topics that are fresh right now. I talked with my friend Pam, who can now no longer pick up a newspaper or answer email without taking each topic to the absurd. She started by considering her position on the death penalty, realizing quickly that her position against it is made stronger when she points out that the countries we align with on this matter belong, not the civilized West, but to the tyrannical regimes we are often trying to undo. 
Again, though, I was stumped. I don't consider myself passionate about the same kinds of things. Right now, my days are driven by a 45-minute commute, a seven-year-old, a teaching career, and sleep that usually comes before my loving husband. Oh, and there it is! My husband, Micah! Since starting this blog post back in December, there are so many more stories to tell that could follow this train of though to the absurd. Let me give one a try: 

Imagine you (or someone close to you) owns a '60-something classic of a car. The engine has seized from years of sitting in your sideyard, and you'd first and foremost, like to hear it run again. Now imagine, after days of having it worked on by your regular mechanic, you call to check up on it. You are surprised when he invites you to come in the next day; even more surprised when he informs you that it's ready for pickup, and the cost is exponentially less than you had anticipated. When you arrive and see the invoice, you realize why: He has changed the oil, replaced the spark plugs, and done overall maintenance on the car--including rotating your dry-rotted tires, checking your brakes (which will need to be replaced at a later visit), and topping off the washer and radiator fluids. He informs you that if you are not satisfied, you can always bring the car back to him and he'll look more carefully for the source of the problem. He explains this, mind you, as you carefully winch the car back up onto the trailer that you had hoped to drive it upon.  

Of course, if this were your car, you'd never pay. You'd also never bring the car back to this mechanic. (Instead, you'd take it to Micah, by the way, who would start by convincing you to replace the motor with an LS complete with turbo. And when you did hear it run, you'd grin from ear to ear and gladly open your wallet.  But that is beside the point.) The point is that a mechanic like this wouldn't be in business for very long. But we routinely--and sometimes for reasons not so routine--visit doctors who practice medicine this way. We are treated for pneumonia when we, in fact, have lung cancer. We are treated for asthma when we, in fact, have a chronic sinus infection. And we are treated for a sinus infection when we, in fact, have a brain tumor. 

We are told in as many words, "We don't go looking for zebras in a field of horses." In other words, we don't replace a seized motor when we can clearly see that the oil is dirty. This is fine when the people you are treating do, in fact, have pneumonia or asthma or a sinus infection. When the car in front of you truly just needs an oil change. This becomes another matter entirely when my dad, my daughter, or my husband walk in, says they feel like a zebra, lets you examine their stripes, and demands to be treated as the unique individuals they are with the unique and very not-so-very-horse-like symptoms and response to medication so far.  It is a very different matter because treating a brain tumor like a sinus infection is like changing the oil in a car that needs a new engine altogether. 

Thankfully, we have not returned to that doctor's office. When Micah needed brain surgery, we had the best. And though Dr. Crawford didn't offer him an upgraded model, Micah did get his turbo back and we did gladly open our wallet for this restoration. Unfortunately, this kind of business is rare in medicine. Doctors are not the diagnosticians we need them to be, but perhaps we need to demand that they move away from the computer and take a look at our stripes. That they look at our 50-something, 30-something, or even single-digit-something bodies with an eye toward seeing it run like new again. 

For this try-it, you might try listing the things that drive you.  In my case, it took not only a list, but a little time for the right idea to emerge.  And when it did, I grabbed that zebra by its stripes and took the analogy all the way to the absurd.  Now it's your turn. Go on, try it!
Read more here:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Unlock the Power

For the fifth year in a row, I have closed up shop by leading professional development around the "Power of Mentor Texts." And it wasn't until recently that I noticed how limited my view of mentor texts has been. 

Katie Wood Ray helped me to see it; my daughter (under the masterful eye of her first-grade teacher) brought it home: 

We were reading one of our favorite bedtime stories--Marla Frazee's Boot and Shoe--one night, when Cami stopped me, mid-sentence, to close the book. She carefully scanned the cover for what she was looking for and then turned back to the page I was marking with my thumb. "Mom, look at how Marla..." and she went on to describe how this author makes decisions about the use of the page to tell her story.

It was then that I realized that my focus on the use of mentor texts was far too narrow. It's interesting that I didn't realize it sooner, especially given the topic of my last entry here. In fact, the very reason that my blog went dark after my writer's notebook post last year was that I wasn't satisfied that a mentor text would help me to say what I needed to say. I now know that my search was misdirected. I was looking for a mentor text when what I should have been looking for was a mentor, plain and simple. So, instead of posting today about a mentor text, where the craft and style have inspired my hand, I intend to broaden my definition of "try-its" to include writing processes that have brought my pen to paper:

Listen to Ralph Fletcher's "Developing a Seed Idea." He describes so many possibilities for try-its--from capturing the "ordinary and a little bit mysterious" to looping ideas out of one brainstormed list into another--that I will, hopefully, get this blog up and running for another "Slice of Summer" series. It has me thinking and noticing differently already:
My little girl's birthday is on Wednesday, and as we count down this last-Monday-'til-she's-seven, I realize that this is actually the end of her seventh year on this earth. In fact, this will be her eighth birthday, technically. And this last-Monday-'til-she's-seven is, in fact, the eighth June 10th I've spent with her. From those days when she pushed against my ribs and made my belly lurch with hiccups from within to today when her eyes lit up at the idea that if this is her eighth birthday, she must be getting an iPhone, she never ceases to amaze me.
I have a seed idea. This idea "feels like it has real potential." I could develop this topic by capturing stories of Cami as keepsakes. I could research to discover all the ways birthdays are counted around the world. I could even write an argumentative piece about just how old kids should be before getting a cell phone (neither seven nor eight, by the way). In these (and many more) ways "this is one that could grow into something big." 

And more importantly, I have broken my blogger's block. I have expanded my view of mentors to include the processes that shape the texts we love to read, the texts that make us close the book to see just who is making the decisions that unfold across the pages. This process is plain to see, as we have the benefit of Ralph's think-aloud, but I know there is more work to be done here, inferring the processes of those books that do not feature an author's audio commentary. I can't wait to dive into this way of looking at writing under the influence of my favorite authors.
And while my summer class (and this blog) are still founded on "The Power of Mentor Texts" I now see that whether we write like mentor texts or mentor authors matters less. What does matter is that we WRITE....So go on, try it!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Notebooks Closer.

In his "How to Use Your Writer's Notebook" section of Tips for Young Writers Ralph Fletcher suggests,  
"Use your notebook to breathe in the world around you." 
An interesting idea: your notebook as a way of taking in the outside world.  And for something as critical as breathing, it seems you might want to keep it close.  

I had a writer's notebook at school for years before I ever thought to take it home with me.  When I did take it home, it usually sat in my bag at the top of the stairs with all the other work I intended to do.  
A few years ago--about the time Twilight author Stephenie Meyer started talking about the dream that inspired her--I started taking my notebook out of my bag and keeping it by my bed at night.  And it seems we're not the only ones.  Barbara Park, author of the Junie B. Jones series (and I didn't know it, but also Operation: Dump the Chump), says, "I don't keep a notebook, but I do keep a paper and pencil on my nightstand in case I get an idea in the middle of the night." (That's the same thing as keeping a notebook, if you ask me.)

At first, my bedside notebook was for those nights where I'd awake at 3am to download a nagging list of things to do and return to sleep.  But lately, I've also found that a good movie before bed can inspire me to pick up the pen at all hours, desperate to catch an elusive dream like this one:

We were onboard the container ship and had been separated for some time.  I could hear the game coming through the satellite radio on the bridge as I surfaced. My senses were alert, desperate for a sign that would let me know everything was all right, that our mission was still a go.  We had left our last port two days ago, and we didn't have much time.

Disappointed that a sign wasn't waiting for me above deck, I retreated below and headed to the chow hall.  I grabbed a page off the stack of freshly printed daily briefings.  And this morning would have unfolded like the last two if I hadn't given that stack a second glance:

News Briefing
June 30, 2012
News Briefing
June 30, 2012
News Briefing
June 34, 2012
News Briefing
June 30, 2012

And just like that, I knew today would be different.  Today was the day we'd sink the ship or die trying. 

It seems that having a notebook nearby helps me see stories where I never thought I'd find them. It even helps me unearth stories that might otherwise remain buried.  
You never know when an idea might strike you.  Who hasn't said, "Oh, I should write that down before I forget it"?  For many of us, the story stops there.  We say it, but we don't write it down, and before we know it, ideas are lost.  

So what happens if we start keeping our notebooks close?  
  • Do we start to see our world as writers (even in our sleep)?  
  • Do we start to see authors as mentors of the writing process as well as of the writing? 
  • Do we start to see writing as essential as breathing? 
I think so.  But don't take my word for it; try it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Joyful Noise

For all those who thought this was going to be my attempt at turning a movie into a mentor, think again. (Though it's not a bad idea.)   But, no.  Today, I am not channeling Dolly Parton or Queen Latifah.
Instead, I am sharing a way of capturing those moments in life that require a different kind of voice.  In this case, multiple voices.  Some things in life deserve to be told through poetry.  So, taking a cue from Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman, you can craft poetry to tell a story you might not be able to tell any other way.
Do you know how the poems go?  They are meant to be read aloud by two people, one reading the left column, the other reading the right.  Sometimes the words come together.  Sometimes, deliberately, they come apart.  Find someone to read this excerpt from the poem "Grasshoppers" with:



Vaulting from              
leaf to leaf
stem to stem
plant to plant



leaf to leaf
stem to stem

This form of poetry can put our writer's observations in new light, setting a new  pace, and--in this case--giving readers the sense that these tiny insects are skittering across the pages.  It can also catch hold of conversation, as in the 
You Read to Me, I'll Read to You series.  But, for my purpose, I needed it to hold onto a precious memory (Again, the power is in reading this kind of poetry aloud, so find someone to read this with you or click on this podcast):

I Remember

Tickle my feet


Do it again

Push me

I could touch the sky
I swing so high

Grab my feet

Let go

Just for me?


I can still remember
How you would
Tickle my feet

Even when I'd beg you to 

Do it again

I'd swing forward and you'd
Push me

Until I thought
I could touch the sky

Grab my feet

And pull me until I thought
I would come out of my seat
And then you'd
Let go

I knew you'd built that swing set
Just for me

Sometimes I close my eyes and
I remember

Putting thoughts and experiences into narrative doesn't always come easy.  But this form of poetry--by the virtue of its poetic form--takes the pressure off.  And gives us a way of experimenting with language  that sometimes lets the story tell itself.  Have fun with this one!  Go on, try it!