Reflections From the All Write Institute — #6: Dinner with Seymour Simon
“What an amazing opportunity!” I told my family as I planned for All Write. My mother-in-law was listening to the conversation and looked up from her chair, “What? You’re going to dinner with another man?”
“Yes, Mom. And probably 60 other people.” She did not understand. Who was this guy? Why was it so special to have dinner with him?
Seymour Simon’s works are some of the most beautiful and interesting books for science, and nonfiction in general, that I’ve ever read. I remember teaching 5th grade, reading Wolves, Volcanoes, and The Brain over and over. (Did I mention that he has written over 250 books for children, Mom?) He hosts a fabulous website, he’s on Facebook and Goodreads, and even has a famous app called “Science Fun to Go.” Yes, it was an honor to have dinner with him. We even got to meet his wife, and we asked her how could she possibly put up with all of us google-eyeing her husband! She laughed and was very understanding.
Seymour Simon talked for a while about making paper airplanes, teaching the students in his class to make them just right, so they would fly far across the classroom. He even held outside flying contests on the school grounds. He wrote a book about flying paper airplanes. Traveling back in time, he told us the story of riding in a propeller-powered aircraft, and how he was so scared. I was there with him — his words so eloquent — his story so upsetting to the stomach (LOL). Fast-forward to the present: he told us about teaching, writing, and some life lessons learned along the way. (A friend sitting next to me at the table leaned over and said to me, “There just aren’t many great storytellers left.”) I believe she’s right. This is an experience I will share with my students, for sure.
“We are story.”
“Start with the Why.”
Everyone has stories to tell. Lives matter, and sharing experiences is just one way to carry on our culture to the next generation(s). Students should find value in telling tales and listening to stories. It’s truly a one-of-a kind experience, and I will start my school year with storytelling. I cannot wait to share Seymour Simon’s talk with my class. It’s almost like I want school to start sooner than planned. Please check me out; do I have a fever?
The Title of This Session Hooked Me and Reeled Me In: Reflections from the All Write Institute — #5
After finding out that Kylene (Beers) and Bob (Probst) were not going to make it to the institute, I quickly looked at my choices and found this: “Structuring Reading Workshop for the Magic That Might Go Down” with Christy Rush-Levine. I was hooked! Who wouldn’t want some magic in their reading workshop? I know I need some new sparks to start next year off right. I sat near the front of the auditorium and watched; the magic unfolded right before my very eyes! Christy reeled me in — showing me that a reading workshop classroom, even in middle school and above, can be a desirous, illuminating, and magical place.
Christy started with the WHY (the theme of the institute). Why? Why do I have to do this? (Read, write, etc.) She shows her students that thinking about their understandings, making connections, and gathering ideas for their own writing is important. She takes the standards (never mentioning “standards” or “testing”) and shows them HOW they can achieve. “In response to a text, write down thinking for your favorite part, questions you have, connections you made…” When I looked at the standards for my first scheduled reading workshop in the fall, I could “check off” almost all of them by following her plan for students! For example, Standard 6.RL.2.1 (and its RN version) want students to “Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says and inferences drawn from the text.” By using metacognitive thinking to analyze and response writing to show what they know about texts, I predict that my students will easily “pass” the formative assessments of the workshop.
Christy’s rules for response writing are simple: write (the whole time), write quickly (it’s not editing time), and relax, have fun, play! I love it! Relax, you can pass the standards! Have fun (I want to have fun in school again)! Play! More time to play and create leads to higher achievement. It’s true. (Administrators don’t look for that on their observations; they look for engagement. Same thing!)
Reading territories, assessments that follow students’ goals, reading ladders, and conferring with students kept the audience engaged. All the research — put into practical practice — helps students meet the goals. I learned that classroom teaching can be enjoyable and manageable again. Christy reminded me of what it was like to be a student; she told me that I can bring the joy of reading and writing back to my classroom. It’s not a trick — the MAGIC happens! So inspiring!
To Lunch…and Beyond! Reflections from the All Write Institute — #4
The lunch session took me by surprise. I didn’t want to miss the session called “From Boring to Enjoying”, but I was hungry, so I ate some wonderful food catered by a local BBQ. After filling up and meeting with some blogging buddies in person (!), I headed off to see teachers from Fort Wayne, IN talk about how they used Notice and Note strategies (Beers/Probst) in their classrooms to make reading come alive. The speakers were wonderful, entertaining, and knowledgeable. I loved hearing how they used journals, Edublogs, and stations to keep students interested in reading. “Tabletop Twitter” sounded engaging — a way to have kids respond to reading or writing — a way to collaborate and also have some fun.
One of my main goals next school year is to get students started with blogging. I have found blogs to be a fulfilling way to spend time with writing, and it’s social, academic, and fun! Students can write stories, poems, reflections, and share their views — all from the comforts of “home” (school classroom). Blogging also allows for differentiated instruction and small group work; I can have students easily save their work without losing papers, etc. as well. If there’s one thing I am learning as a veteran teacher, it’s that technology is available and useful, and I need to work with more technology in my classroom.
After lunch, it was time to talk books! This was my favorite part of the day! Tammy and Mary Helen were also wonderful, animated presenters that shared their favorite books for mini-lessons and read alouds. Although many of the books were geared towards the primary grades, I know for sure I will be using many of them in my middle school classroom next year. Why? Because research (and my own experience) shows that reading aloud to students works. Many higher-level thinking skills are used in reading these books, yet they are easy to read (so students can focus on craft and not so much vocabulary), and teachers don’t have to use more time than a mini-lesson to make teaching points (time management). Plus, these books are engaging! (What administrator isn’t looking for that?)
For example, Pitter Patter by Martha Sullivan, shows different ways to say Hello (kids love “different ways to say…”), has information about the water cycle (meeting the standards), and provides extra activities with interactive apps (centers or at-home extension). I love books that include extras at the end. “For more reading, go to…” This keeps students engaged after the school day is over. Another engaging book is I’m a Shark! by Bob Shea. This incredible author is a favorite in schools, and this book includes connections to life, grammar/spelling reminders, and figurative language (also meeting the standards!). One book I have not used before, but I will this fall, is Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin. I learned about the “Power of 3” many years ago in writing workshop, and the students always love the lesson when I teach them this “magic”. This book has voice, which some students find difficult to write. Also, everyday happenings CAN be stories, which students learn quickly in writing workshop. We work on personal narratives first in our curriculum, and Dragons…can help us, I’m sure!
Sharing books and joy is an amazing way to spend time, not only in the classroom with students, but also during a summer PD institute! I was inspired; as I left the room, the only question I had was, “I wonder how much money we are allowed to spend this year on books?”
The All Write Consortium hosted a summer institute in June in Warsaw, Indiana. I signed up because of the literacy leaders on the agenda: Lester Laminack, Jennifer Serravallo, Chris Lehman, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, Maggie Roberts, Kate Roberts, Greg Tang, and the list goes on and on…I was only a little disappointed! (Kylene and Bob got stuck in a TX storm and couldn’t fly in.) Truth be told, I wanted to attend the “Notice and Note, Going Deeper with the Literary Signposts” session with Beers/Probst, but I chose “Studying Digital Texts to Improve Writing Craft” with Maggie Roberts instead. She’s one of my rock stars from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and I really needed more experience — I am still a tech newbie, after all these years. I was sure she could help me.
Studying Digital Texts to Enhance Writing Workshop
As I walked into the room, I knew I was behind the technology times, but boy was I out-of-place! People were logging into the website shown in the front of the room, and already looking at presentation notes, and here I was, with my iPhone, which did not turn out to be worthy for this cause of learning about digital texts and how to use them better in my classroom. All I could think of was, “I WISH we had the technology needed for the 21st century in our district!” (Maybe someday? Maybe I could buy it on my own?) Ugh. Anyway…I listened closely while I retrieved my notebook from my bag, low-tech as it was, and I saw an excellent lesson in action. Roberts said, “Strong writing is strong.” Students know when they see it, and they can learn to emulate great writing. In the first lesson activity, we watched a clip from The Dust Bowl, by Ken Burns. The teacher (Roberts) asked the students (audience), “What makes this a strong piece?” Audience members answered with: word choice, use of quotes, music, images that matched the author’s voice (dark, painful, etc.). Then we “wrote like Ken Burns.” The writing makeover activity helped us to see that students can write, and write well, when guided to notice and use what they already know, in their own texts.
The other two activities presented involved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, I Have a Dream, where we studied argument (front-loading with a chart “12 Techniques That Argument Writers Use”) and answered the question again: What makes this a strong piece? Then we saw a clip from Modern Family (“We Cool” episode), the crowd-pleasing TV show (she called this method “crowdsourcing”). We discussed characterization, conflict, plot, and how the characters on the show played different parts in one scene — talking and making faces at us, the viewers, while also being in character and playing through the scene in the show.
I long to use more technology in my classroom this coming school year. The lesson activities we saw (we ran out of time, actually) left me wanting more! The idea that students already know what makes good writing, drawing it out with them using digital texts, then leaving the students to try it on their own, is an engaging and wonderful lesson opportunity that I want to use. I definitely have questions about gathering and using more digital texts in my classroom, and I can only hope that I will ask the right administrators — when I ask about technology updates in the fall — and that I will become a better, more advanced teacher of writing.
What is a Strategy?
Jennifer Serravallo is one of my reading teacher heroes! She is a teacher, writer extraordinaire, and professional development speaker specialist, as far as I’m concerned. I have all her books — even 2 copies of Conferring With Readers (I thought I lost the first copy, so I purchased a replacement.) — The Literacy Teacher’s Playbook, and now The Reading Strategies Book. One of the main reasons I chose this particular book to buy, besides that it was written by Serravallo, was that it addresses the needs of every reading teacher where they are. If you’re trying to teach reading without a set curriculum, she’s there for you. If you must follow a district program or use a basal in your classroom, she knows how to help. Serravallo explains, in detail, step-by-step, category-by-category, level-by-level, 300 reading strategies to use with students. And the book is a great desk resource — pull it out and everything is right there, ready to go.
At the All Write Institute, Jennifer started her quick-but-chock-full-of-information session by asking us, “What IS a strategy?” Strategies, skills, goals…the hierarchy helped me to picture in my mind the ways that I can help readers to learn. Then she said what makes sense: “A strategy is a step-by-step HOW you do something.” Concentrate on the verbs — the ACTIONABLE steps needed to meet a reading goal. For example, what do you do as a reader to figure out the main idea? Well, I find key words in the title, visualize the scenes, read the first sentences of paragraphs as clues, look for repeated words, think about how all the scenes fit together…(“Strategies are wordy!”) Serravallo pointed to the fact that strategies have actionable steps that can be taught.
I don’t think that I ever thought that much about what is involved with teaching a goal before. I just did it. Now I understand that the goals I want to teach have visible parts. Also, I will remember to make sure that the strategies I teach (to reach the goals) are authentic and transferable. These strategies can be used with any text. I will place this book at my reading table to use every day next school year. I will read the quote on the back of the book to myself each time I sit down with my students. I will remember “Strategies make the often invisible work of reading actionable and visible.” Thank you, Jennifer Serravallo, for your time and efforts to help reading teachers become the best teachers they can be.
Reflection #1: The Art of Smart
Greg Tang opened the first day — early! Driving from Fort Wayne, where I scored free room and board with my mom (!), took longer than I thought, but I was ready to learn! It was 8:15 at the All Write Institute, and Greg Tang — the math teacher — started his keynote session: “What’s that math guy doing at a literacy retreat?” (Laughter and fun ensued throughout the hour presentation!) Although I was not present at this particular institute to learn math or how to teach math, I learned! I listened as teachers “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed” at his pattern “tricks” (which he firmly told us were not tricks, but ways to see patterns). I learned to use larger numbers. I learned that one uses math every day to experience the world. I learned that math, like reading or writing, is an art. The art of smart. Students should not learn their multiplication facts to 11; they should learn how to multiply. Greg Tang taught us, and we were in awe!
One area of new thinking for me was that math is a language. I heard this before, but during this session, I lived it. Math — my somewhat foreign language — can become easier with practice and guidance (and more practice) that lead to understanding. Understanding is the key. Just like in reading! We read to make meaning. These literacy teachers from far and wide came together in Indiana to learn, to understand, and to have fun. Greg Tang makes math fun! I want to use Greg’s message in my classroom each day: You can learn to understand with the right supports and lots of practice, and you can have fun doing it! I want my students to practice what I teach. I want my students to understand what I teach. I want my students to have fun as they learn. Every day.