Writing Alongside My Classroom of Authors

As the mini-lesson about fleshing out characters ends, I send my young authors away from our meeting place to work on revising their personal narratives.  I remind them to consider how they can make their characters more human, more realistic, so that their readers will be able to connect with them.

While everyone is settling, I sit down with own writer’s notebook and begin to consider the revisions my students suggested for fleshing out the character in my own narrative.  We had decided that she was too perfect (or too Goody Two Shoes, as one student pointed out.  Another quickly said, “No one is THAT good!”).  Of course, they were right.  My plan was to work on giving this character some imperfect traits.  I planned to share my revisions right along with my students during the sharing time.

As I write, I notice that several of my kiddos get up to move closer to the table where I chose to work today.  I smile.  This happens every time.  They get right back to work but every now and then, I see them sneaking glances to watch me as I write, also.  Before long, I notice that they are moving their post it note revision suggestions around, spider-legging (adding items to the bottom of the page and drawing arrows to where it should go), and adding additional scenes on separate sheets of paper.  We continue writing until it is sharing time.  I answer a few questions here and there and occasionally walk around the room to see if anyone needs help.  Everyone is working and seems to understand what they are doing.

I am constantly amazed that writing alongside my writers holds so much power.  I could talk all day about these revision strategies, but watching as I apply these strategies to my own writing gives them a model to follow and practice.  As a bonus, I am getting lots of opportunity to sharpen my own narrative writing skills.  It’s a win-win situation.

A Reflection

Nietjuh / Pixabay

This year begins my 26th year of teaching.  My school has been in session now for nearly four weeks.  My goodness! We are almost to midterm already.  As I reflect on this school year and my other twenty-five school year beginnings, I realize that despite the frustrations and realities of the teaching world, I deep down passionately love what I do.  I can’t imagine my life without teaching.

So, what do I love about it?

  • I know and love the people of the community in which I teach.  I have reached the point of having taught parents and their children.  There is something special about that.  I cherish the relationships I have developed with families over the years.
  • My students teach me so much about learning and growing and resilience.
  • I love helping my learners realize and grow their potential.  I truly believe that they will change the world and make it better.
  • Teaching never gets stale.  It evolves from year to year as I learn new things.  I enjoy self-directed professional development.
  • I can share my passion for writing with my students and watch them with wonder as they discover their writing voices.

I do truly love what I do.  Admittedly, there are great days and not so great days, but overall, teaching is a positive and rewarding experience.  I know this is where I am meant to be.

Improving My Craft, Part One

Along with many teachers, I spend my summers soaking up learning like I soak up the sun.  There are many things from my reading and writing experiences this summer that I will implement in my classroom this year.  Modeling how I approach fiction writing is one of them.  Instead of considering the plot first, my learners and I will explore developing main characters, their backstories, and their problems first.  From this viewpoint, my learners will have a focus for developing the plots of their stories.

This idea comes from Story Genius by Lisa Cron.  I am reading this book for the Focus on Fiction workshop I am taking through Teach Write.  In her book, she applies research from brain science to writing fiction.  I have not yet finished the book, as I am taking my time to work through the exercises and truly grasp what the author is saying.  So far, the story I am writing is more purposeful and my characters are more realistic than in other fiction pieces I have written.  Also, there seems to be more ease in moving the story forward.  I am a long way from having a complete first draft, but the bits and pieces I have created so far thrill me and motivate me to continue.

I am excited to see what my learners come up with as they approach their stories from this perspective.  This fall will be an exciting time in my classroom!

My Imperfect Life

I am learning to enjoy my imperfect life.  Each imperfect facet of my life adds color, flavor, and inspiration. Learning to let go of the need for perfection has allowed me to see the richness and spontaneity that come from life’s unexpected moments.

For example, on the way to my house for the annual July 4th cookout, my mother ran over something in the street.  Later, my niece noticed that mom’s tire was completely flat.  My husband and son-in-law jumped to it and fixed it in a jiffy.  They were almost as fast as a pit crew in the Indy 500.  This unexpected event gave us all the opportunity to marvel at their speed and efficiency.

Also, my sister and brother in law unexpectedly brought over massive fireworks.  Awesome, right? Yes, but we live in town, and my overactive imagination could see the neighbors’ houses, or my own, igniting into giant, uncontrollable blazes.  Each time my husband and brother in law lit the fuse on one of the huge barrels or boxes, I oohed and aahed, but I cringed inside.  My guests were enthralled by the show, so I did my best to keep my fears to myself.  I found, though, that my excessive worry was not needed.  My husband carefully ensured the safety of everyone and everything, and he had the hose ready to attack any rogue sparks.  This experience gave me an opportunity to deepen my trust of my husband and his ability to keep everyone safe.

At one point in my life, these unplanned events would have, in my mind, ruined the holiday gathering.  However, I am learning to let go of the rigid and antiseptic world of perfectionism and go with the flow.  Those imperfect moments create memories and often new understandings.  I will always hold myself to high expectations, but I now understand the importance of freeing myself from the bondage of expecting perfection in everything and everyone. My life is all the richer for it.

“Hello! Is Anyone There?” Answering Inspiration’s Calls

My sun room beckons as a perfectly lovely place to read a newly released teaching book.  I finish the first section of the book and move on to part two.  Suddenly, a completely unrelated thought enters my mind.  A thought that is more of a story idea, really, and along with this idea I feel a sense of urgency to do something with it.  I recognize this.  It is inspiration’s signature calling card.  I need to answer the call.

I leave my book open and go to the notebook dedicated to capturing these ideas when they visit me.  I know if I ignore it and continue with what I am doing, the idea will completely leave me.  I grab a pen, open to a clean page, and begin writing.

Sometimes when this happens, I write a lot.  Other times, I only write a small amount.  Quantity does not matter as much as simply writing whatever it is that inspiration sees fit to bring to me.

At times, I walk away from these episodes puzzled, because what I have written makes absolutely no sense.  I have learned, though, that if I wait long enough, inspiration will add to it or the pieces I have written here and there will begin to fit together in some way.

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, says inspiration’s ideas are like “disembodied, energetic life forms” which she says are “driven to be made manifest.”  All I know is that it does not happen all of the time.  I spend many writing sessions staring at blank pages.  However, when inspiration does call, I have learned it is best to answer it and give it my undivided attention.

My Happy Place

One of the joys of summer is spending time in my backyard.  My backyard space offers relaxation, peace, joy, and inspiration.  It is a gathering space for family and friends.  Its quiet beauty makes it a perfect spot to read, write, take naps, or as you can see below, snap lots of pictures!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature Therapy

“Into the forest I go to lose my mind and find my soul.”- John Muir

When the stress of life (or the end of the school year) becomes too much, I make my way to the woods. Nature, in all its beauty and vibrancy, always puts everything in perspective.
With all of the rain in the area this spring, everything is especially lush and full of new life.

 I love the colors and textures of spring and summer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wild Strawberry

Evidence of animal life is everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pond and wetland areas are also teaming with life.

Tadpoles of various stages of development are everywhere in this small pond!

 

This lone turtle is enjoying the late morning on the log. Usually this log is covered with turtles.

 

Look closely.  Do you see what I see?

This little guy is well-hidden!

There is so much beauty in the woods.

Fern

 

Trillium

 

May Apple

 

Bald Cypress Tree with Knees

 

Beautiful reflection even with the breeze!

My spirit is light and happy.  I look forward to visiting again soon and seeing what changes have taken place since my last visit!

Revision: A Little Like Pulling off the Band-Aid

A recent teacher conference with a 4th grade author in my classroom:

Me: (after reading through her literary essay) C____, how do you feel about your essay?

C: It is confusing.  My thoughts seem to be all over the place.

Me: Okay.  What is your main message?

C: The little firefly had friends all along. He didn’t give up, and he finally found them.

Me: Okay.  Where would be the best place to introduce your opinion?

C: In the beginning?

Me: That sounds good.  Do you think we could move some things around?

C: (hesitantly) Okay…

The best part of her essay begins in the middle, so I highlight the top half and press “cut.”

C: (concerned gasp) What did you do?  Where did it go?

Me: Don’t panic.  Let’s paste this part at the bottom and move the rest up.   Remember, revision isn’t about checking capitals and punctuation.

C: That’s editing.

Me: Yes.  Revising means moving things, adding things, or deleting things until your message is focused and clear.

C: Yes, but it feels like pulling off a band-aid.

Me: (chuckling) Yes, I suppose it does.  Good simile, C.

She works through what to keep, where to put it, and what to completely remove.  C finishes and is visibly pleased with her work. 

C: This is so much better because everything was all over the place and wasn’t all relating to the first thing I said.  Thanks, Mrs. V., for pulling off the band-aid.  It is much better.  I like it!

Me: You are welcome, C.  I like it, too.

Finishing May Strong

Steaming coffee mug in hand, I pause to greet the day as it begins to greet me with its lovely pinks and shades of light and dark.  I stop for a moment-just a moment-to notice the calm and quiet of a still slumbering neighborhood and acknowledge the promise of this new day.  I inhale deeply and exhale slowly.  I lift my mug and shut my eyes to fully savor the aroma and taste of the coffee and the way this peaceful moment feels.  I take one more deep inhale and slow exhale.  I offer a little word of gratitude for this moment of quiet and centering before the chaos of the school day begins.

May and December are the toughest months for me.  These months are so chaotically busy.  I feel whipped this way and that with no break in between.  By the time each month comes to an end, I am utterly exhausted and often have an upper respiratory infection or other illness.

So I have been doing what I can to build up my defenses to finish this May strong and positive.

  • I seek and savor small moments of quiet, solitude, and beauty.
  • I try to be mindful to eat more plants and less salty or sugary junk, although when stressed this is difficult.
  • I look for ways to get a few extra steps in each day.  It helps.
  • I keep a gratitude journal.
  • I strive to make time for things that matter most, like family and writing.
  • Finally, I tell myself, “This, too, shall pass.”

It’s May, and I want to finish the school year strong.  With some extra attention to self-care, I think I can.

 

 

 

 

The Power of a Mentor Sentence

A fourth grader crafted this amazing lead sentence after studying the mentor text Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks.

There is tremendous power in mentor sentences to influence writing and help students see authentic purposes for learning grammar and mechanics.  Jeff Anderson’s work on teaching writing and grammar through mentor texts shapes the way I use mentor sentences.  

Each week I introduce a sentence selected from a picture book or a student.  When choosing a mentor sentence, I look for sentences that demonstrate a focus skill (e.g. comma usage), author’s craft (figurative language, etc.), and/or model a particular writing structure.  In the sentence above, we were learning about introductory clauses.

My learners do all of their weekly work in their grammar notebooks.

My learners study the sentence for different purposes throughout the week.

Day 1: We identify the strong points of the sentence.  See what they noticed in Aven’s sentence:

  •  Introductory phrases can change the fluency of the text.  The expression is different than if the sentence read, “Dog awoke in the glistening light of the morning sun.”
  • Glistening is an adjective that not only describes but also helps with fluency.
  • Morning tells us the time and that the glistening is likely dew.
  • The introductory phrase contains two prepositional phrases that help set the scene.
  • The independent clause is only two words.  
  • “Awoke” sounds better for this sentence than “woke up.”

Day 2: The students work together to label the parts of speech, type of sentence, and subject and predicate.  We discuss how knowledge of the parts of speech, etc. helps an author write with clarity.  This activity takes the most time. We typically spend 10-15 minutes per day on mentor sentence work, but on this day, we spend closer to 20-25 minutes.

Day 3: My learners look for ways to revise the original sentence by deleting/adding/changing adjectives, adverbs, prepositional phrases, and/or swapping out verbs.  This is a great place to discuss simplicity, changes in meaning, etc. 

Day 4: This is their favorite day! They imitate the structure of the sentence to create and share their own sentences.  This also provides me with an informal way to assess their understanding of the week’s concepts.  

 

 

I notice several benefits from teaching grammar, mechanics, and writing in this interconnected way.

  1. The students can explain how grammar and mechanics apply to writing.  They no longer see them as isolated subjects.
  2. They have much better retention of the material.
  3. Their writing and confidence as writers improve as they apply what they are learning to their own writing.

Finally, there is the joy on their faces when I select a student’s sentence for the weekly mentor sentence. By choosing their sentences, I send the message that their writing is worthy and a model for others. A model sentence can come from any writer in your class. Imagine the confidence boost you can give to your reluctant writers when you select one of their sentences as a model text.

Mentor sentences take a brief amount of time to implement each day, yet their impact as a powerful and authentic learning tool is deep and lasting.  I can’t imagine teaching writing and grammar any other way.

When they imitate, they have a lot of fun. This is okay. I want them to experience the joy of writing and making meaning.