November 21, 2013

5 Reasons To Use Evernote When Conferring With Students - NCTE13

I won't bore you with tons of wordy paragraphs about what Evernote is. If you're here to read this post, chances are you already have the app downloaded on your iPad. If not, go here and get started learning all there is to know. You can read this post while you setup your account. Why should you listen to me?

Well, friends, with Evernote you can....

1. Organize your thoughts with purposeful tags: I don't know about you, but helping students grow their writing skill is not the only thing I have going on in my classroom -- or my life. Don't get me wrong, I love speaking with young writers about their work. But keeping everything straight in my head is not easy. I need to be able to quickly assess who I need to conference with and what piece they were working on last. Evernote has definitely come through to help.

Some of the Reading and Writing tags I used last year.
By creating tags specific to my students and the skills we work on, I can easily decide on mini-lessons for upcoming lesson plans or simply recall all the notes I've taken on a specific student to help prepare me for our next conference.

2. Use notebooks to categorize large groups of notes: I work with more than one group of students, especially now that I am in the library. Instead of having a huge pile of notes all jumbled together, I've found that it helps me to create a tag for each student that matches the notebook I keep all their data in. This way, I can look at the whole group as well. Whether it is a writing club, classroom, tutorial group, or even a teacher writing group -- everything has a place!

Group A and B are classroom notebooks

Inside each notebook "stack" is a notebook for each student with the same tag.

 3. Say it with pictures: Sometimes a picture isn't just worth a thousand words -- it's also made of a thousand words! One of my favorite things about Evernote is the ability to snap and tag photos of student work. I can refer back to these photos during student conferences, data meetings, or anytime a student wants to look back at older pieces. At the end of the year, I have an entire collection of work all stored in one digital location to serve as their writing portfolio. (And I haven't even mentioned the audio recording!)
Student work showing my sticky note feedback.
Photos of response to reading of The One and Only Ivan

4. Be a Follower: There are a multitude of helpful tutorials already out there explaining how to set up your very own Evernote wonderland of organization. You don't have to come up with a system all on your own. It's been done for you. Check out some of these great tutorials--

Russ Goerend's site was the first I used to start my Evernote journey!

The Together Teacher on Evernote as a conferring tool
5. Share the love, because sharing is caring: You can share your notebooks, people. Share. Your. Notebooks. How awesome is this? Beyond sharing with parents, this opens the door to teacher to teacher collaboration -- not just what is happening in your writing conferences.

Jason Frasca on Sharing Notebooks

So. How ya like Evernote now, friends? Ready to give it a whirl in the classroom? 

November 20, 2013

Conferring with Inquiry in Mind - #NCTE13

I love the way my peers in The North Star of Texas Writing Project challenge me to think deeply about the decisions I make when working with young writers. Here is the thinking I've been sifting through about conferencing with students:

I believe student conferences are the heart of writing workshop, but how do I guide conversations to encourage student growth without doing the work for them or squashing the young writer’s voice or desire to write? There is a Don Murray quote in Write Beside Them that embodies my goals when conferencing with a writer: “you should always leave a conference excited to get back to the writing.” I want to create contagious enthusiasm in an environment that encourages writers to take joy in the risk of playing boldly with their craft.

So what? 
Lucy Calkins said, “Helping [students] take themselves seriously is crucial for them as writers and as maturing human beings.” I believe daily modeling through mentor texts helps students identify what works in a piece of writing, which is essential to scaffolding their ability to discover both what works and does not work in their own writing. Mentor texts and conferencing work hand in hand. I also know a student’s decision to share their writing heart with me is dependent on how I treat them -- as a person and as a writer. Don Murray said, “I must create a climate in the writing conference in which students can hear what they have to say so they can learn to listen to their own writing.” I must be purposeful in my planning and my words each time I work with a writer.

Now what?   
I invite writers to share their work with me, and sometimes offer to read back their writing to them. This seems to help them hear their writing as their audience will receive it, and gives them the opportunity to write down what they notice about their own work. I’m learning to wait on writers when they are contemplating what their writing needs. My silence gives them space to think, and my “I notice” and “I wonder” statements help them look for their own answers, building their writing confidence. Research shows that writers grow best from receiving feedback, not evaluation. In fact, in The Essential Don Murray, he states it so eloquently :
"How do you motivate your student to pass through this process, perhaps even pass through it again and again on the same piece of writing?
First, by shutting up. When you are talking, he isn't writing." 
So my job during a writing conference is not to correct or change their work, but to listen and guide through gentle feedback and the silence that allows self reflection. I praise what has worked, and invite them to experiment with these techniques in other ways.

As a writing partner, it’s my job to be prepared when we sit down together. In this way, I show respect for the writer and their work. This means knowing where my learners are in their writing journey. I need strong organization and notes on each writer. I have found Evernote to be indispensable tool helping me efficiently organize my conference notes. By creating folders for each student, I can tag their work and include photos, my own conference notes, and audio files on the work we do together. This also allows me to keep a digital writing portfolio on each writer to share with parents, in data meetings, and for the student to reflect on their work throughout the year.

November 16, 2013

The Art of Conversation - #NCTE13

Our students need a champion.
They come to us so often with voices screaming in their head, "I can't," after a lifetime of teachers and tests whispering try harder in their ears. And if you think a lifetime sounds like an exaggeration, consider the struggling readers and writers that have been trying harder since they were just four years old. When I first meet my young learners, they have been trying harder for half their lives, or more.

Young writers have a voice. They were born with it. Brilliant, beautiful, true words that sing of who they have been, who they are, and who they want to be. Somehow along the way - struggling through family issues, peer pressure, test trauma - they become detached from what is meant to be natural.

After all, we've been telling stories since time began.

I say to my students, my young readers and writers: "It's your story. Who better than you to tell it? Who better than you to know the perfect words to shout your story from the mountains? Who better than you to share your genius with the world?"

They already have the story. It's our job to light up the path, to put the tools in their hands and cheer them on, to be there when they need reassurance, saying, "Now, go forward. Be brave. You've had it in you all along."

Photo taken during a North Star of Texas Writing Project Teacher Training session

When we step into a classroom, sit alongside our  students, and invite them to share their writing, we have important choices to make. We can become either their greatest champion or an unknowing saboteur of their voice and desire to learn.

When I sit down with struggling writers to discuss a piece of writing, I first ask them to read the piece to me. Often I find that they tell me the idea of the story instead of reading the actual words on the page. When this happens, I ask if they mind if I read it to them, exactly as it is written. I suggest that they listen to hear if the story I read is what they feel like they have written. I ask them to listen like a reader, noticing what they love and what doesn't work for them. They've done this before with mentor texts I've shared in class, so adapting this skill to their own writing isn't difficult.

Almost always, they are magnificent at discovering exactly the things I noticed when I first listened to them read. They are the drivers in these conferences. I am merely there to help navigate the path. We go over their list, and I praise both what they have done well as a writer and as a reader -- their ability to notice is a key to improvement. When I help students hear how their audience will experience their story, their perception of their work changes, and they are open to experimenting with revision. They want their message understood with the same passion and enthusiasm they feel for it, so the work of revision becomes an authentic means to reach their goal.

Conferring with young writer during a Saturday Writing Camp
Although I feel there is no magic formula for the perfect conference -- conferring with students, much like writing, is an art -- my conversations with writers do have some common elements. Here you will see my inspiration comes from the teachings of Donald Murray, Lucy Calkins, Donald Graves, Penny Kittle, Mark Overmeyer, Ruth Ayers, and countless other masters of writing instruction, so I've tried to share some links that point to their work, along with my thoughts on what makes a successful writing conference:

  • Community: we write and share as a group every day, playing with words and celebrating one another for having the bravery simply to explore our craft.
  • Listen - what is the message you are trying to share with your audience? What is the truest sense of the story you want to tell?
  • Notice - elements in the writing that work, and places that make the reader stumble.
  • Wonder - guide the process, wherever the writer is at, asking questions like, "I wonder what this piece would be like if..."
  • Wait - give writers time to think, don't jump in to solve their problems for them, choose words sparingly - don't be afraid of silence.

But mostly, I follow my heart. I speak with my young writers the same way I would want anyone to speak with me about my writing: gently, with great compassion, and a desire to help. In this way, I am able to help them build trust. Not simply trust in me as a teacher -- that isn't enough to sustain their growth as writers. These conversations build the trust they have in their own abilities. Each word I choose is specific to the writer and focused on what they do well. By modeling these conversations daily through our conferences, they are able to read closely for themselves when working alone or when revising with a peer. Our classroom becomes a space open to respectful conversations focused on growing every writer to their full potential.

Video from Stenhouse Publishers

September 19, 2013

Fifty Shades of Censorship

Last week on FaceBook my sister posted an article titled, Fifty Shades of the Common Core. The article is about the use of the book Dreaming in Cuban in a high school classroom. Knowing I'd have an opinion, but probably not realizing I'd write my own book in response, she tagged me and asked or me to speak up.

Here's what followed:

My sister (not posting her comments as I haven't asked permission to show her name here) responded that I had some good points, and went on to say "But the porn in the section showed is still a bit much for me to handle being in a school library."

Even though I know her heart and her concerns come from a good place, this comment hurt, and here's why -- if one person wants a book out of the library, and pushes hard enough, it can definitely happen. In fact, in this case, it did. On the same day my sister shared the original article, I found an article from The Huffington Post explaining that Dreaming in Cuba was pulled from Sierra Vista School in Arizona after a parent complained about the "pornographic" nature of the book.

Banned Book Week

While my sister agreed that the book probably doesn't deserve to be banned completely, she wondered if it might still be acceptable to ban it from school libraries, since most parents probably wouldn't want their kids reading it. She argued that since we don't allow things like Hustler in schools, why is it any different when it's "just" in written form? Where is the line?

I think it's dangerous to see one section of text from one page in a book and determine the book's literary value from that tiny glance within those pages. If a work has literary value, cultural significance, or otherwise important contributions to offer the reader, who am I to judge it as unacceptable for a library collection? But her points are valid. Parents are concerned about the material being put in front of their children, so where is the balance?

I still want the other side of the story. Where is the teacher's voice in this discussion? I'm definitely curious to know what s/he has to say. Or any teacher or librarian of young adults. I hope you'll speak up in the comments and add to this conversation.

September 16, 2013

Let Them Be Boys!

In the past few years I've found myself rewriting, resending, and basically just resharing the following post. Since it's information I'm asked about so often, it suddenly dawned on me (I'm fast, that way) that it was worth blogging about.

I have a heart for helping boys find their voice in a world that tends to prefer they leave the rough and tumble at the door. Yes, by world I mean school - because when you're eight, nine, ten, or even older, school is your world. It's difficult for boys to become strong writers if they never have the opportunity to become strong readers. And many boys struggle to find a place as a reader, because their desire for blood, guts, vampires, and fart jokes is seen as unacceptable for school.

When we tell a child that their reading or writing choice is unacceptable, we may as well point at them and say, "You sir, are unacceptable."

I think that's when we lose many boys that so desperately need to be found.

For me, the important thing about boys is remembering they need to feel like they have a place and a say. Often, we let our own thoughts on what is appropriate dictate their reading and writing style, and it shuts them down.

They want to read Captain Underpants? Cool. Only will read Sports Illustrated for Kids? Good enough for me. Reading Stephen King? Eek, that terrifies me but if it’s working for them, more power to them! Refusing to even glance at anything that's not a comic book or graphic novel? Awesome. What better place to get excited about reading than a book filled with amazing illustrations, built-in scaffolding devices, and nonstop action? 

Let them know they have a choice – even if it seems completely backwards, and things will change. Comic books, blogs, magazines, picture books; if it has words and they’re not cussing or otherwise profane or harmful to anyone – let those boys read.

Some places for help:

Guys Read is an amazing website for books and other resources that boys will love. It has never failed me.

Any of the actual “Guys Read” books – each is a collection of short stories written by male authors with the intent of being interesting for boys. Also, this book by the same authors, all about what it means to be a boy.

Ralph Fletcher is another "can't miss" author for boys, and for teachers. Definitely check out Boy Writers and Spider Boy, for starters.

Any blog post by The Nerdy Book Club gang. This book-savvy blog is a mashup of posts on reading and includes several noteworthy book recommendations, written by teachers, librarians, and authors  -- basically anyone with a passion for reading and getting kids excited about reading. Follow this link to a search of all their posts on graphic novels.

And if you can get your hands on The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, it is so worth your time. It's one of those books that make you rethink your current practices, and we all need that from time to time.

When in doubt, just let them read. How can you go wrong when they happily have their nose in a book?

September 12, 2013

Join the Creech-a-Thon!

You guys. I am doing my best not to completely geek out over this one, but trust me – it’s awesome!

First, if you haven’t read Love That Dog (with your class or for yourself!), you’re missing out. It’s short, sweet, sad, empowering, and just lovely for teaching figurative language, inferring & predicting, poetry, and more.

Second, kids LOVE her stuff. Seriously, it’s a little crazy. Put a copy of Granny Torrelli Makes Soup in their hands.

Last, did I tell you last year she actually commented on one of my student’s blog posts? All I did was tweet that I had a student writing poetry inspired by Love That Dog… she saw the tweet, went to the post, and commented to the girl, “Love that poem!”

Talk about igniting a love for reading and writing!

Anyway, if kids sign up for her reading pledge in September, they could win all 16 of her books, including a signed hardcover of her newest, The Boy on the Porch!

You can follow this link to see the pledge page – hope you will consider sharing this with your readers! For more stellar Creech stuff, be sure to follow her on Twitter @ciaobellacreech.

June 27, 2013

Teachers Write: Journaling - Is there an app for that?

This summer I am once again joining Kate Messner's Teachers Write Camp. We started this week, and will write together (there's over 1,000 of us!) along with authors that have signed up to help out with posts, prompts, inspiration, and more.

It's an exciting time of collaboration and community, and I wouldn't miss it for the world.

If you'd like to join us (it's never too late!) you should check out Kate's first blog post from Monday this week. It's all about keeping a writer's journal. This post resulted in over 400 comments; teachers sharing their journaling ideas, discussing the types of journals they use, and swapping new ideas for how to integrate technology into our daily journaling time.

Personally, I love sketching out ideas and letting words flow freely in my old school spiral-bound journals. I've dabbled with apps that might change my mind, but haven't found anything that makes me want to give up my paper for good. However, inspired by this discussion, I went off in search for the Holy Grail of writing apps.

Here are my two favorites. Honestly, of all the writing apps I've downloaded in the last year, these two climb above the rest:

  1. Werdsmith has a simple design, is easy to use, and it's free! I love that I can open it anytime I have a new idea and jot my thoughts down. Later, if I want to work on an idea I've added to Werdsmith, I can change it to a project and set myself goals. Best of all, Werdsmith will send me daily reminders to write -- if I tell it to. Nice! All in all, a beautiful little writing app well worth checking out. This may quickly end my search for the perfect writing app.
  2. MaxJournal is an actual (FREE!) journaling app, complete with a calendar system to let you see which days you've written on. There are several options that allow you to play with journal covers, text style, and more. You can even add photos and tags to each journal entry. I also like that you can create several journals within this app, because I tend to keep separate journals for various projects I'm working on.
I can't say I'm completely ready to give up my sweet Sharpie pens and colorful journals just yet -- but with these two new apps, I am one step closer to a paperless existence.

What about you? Are you an app hound like me, always searching for the one app to rule them all? Or are you happy to open your old school hipster journal and jot your thoughts in pen (or pencil!)?

January 28, 2013

Hold Fast to Your Professional Learning Network

Quite often this year I've found myself feeling a bit like an island marooned out somewhere just beyond the Bermuda Triangle and the Twilight Zone.

I know, I've talked about this before.

I'm so sad, I've said.
All these procedures are so different, I've groaned.
Nobody understands my pain, I've wailed.

And on and on. I know. Change is hard. But change without adequate support is akin to emotional amputation.

So what has made a difference for me in the last six months?

  • A dear friend whose timely phone calls and text messages keep the embers burning. (Thank you, Jenny. I'm positive I wouldn't have made it this far without you.)
  • The professional network of friends I meet with throughout the year as we collaborate and plan together. My friends in my local NWP site, the North Star of Texas Writing Project, inspire me to grow more, know more, and do more all the time.  (Thank you Carol, Joan, Dr. P, Amanda, Audrey, Heather, Janelle, Amy, and all the many other movers and shakers that keep me on my toes!)
  • Twitter. Oh yes, you heard me right -- Twitter is one of the best things that has happened for my professional development. I urge every teacher I know to test it out -- it's not just celebrity brawls and teenage angst, I promise. (I would not be the teacher I am today without the ability to peek into the minds of educators such as @dogtrax, @donalynbooks, @teachingwthsoul, @TechNinjaTodd and @AngelaMaiers, to name a few.
  • Blogs. Delicious, mind-feeding, passion-inspiring blogs. (Kudos must go out to Cynthia Alaniz over at Teaching in Cute Shoes, my pals over at Three Teachers Talk, and Deb Day over at Coffee with Chloe. Your words move me to scribble down my own, on days when writing would otherwise feel like plucking bees from the air.)
There are so many more minds, authors, teachers, speakers, and fellow learners-in-crime that I have not mentioned here. You each deserve a standing ovation that you watch with tear-filled eyes from the stage in Madison Square Garden. If no one else has told you today, I appreciate you. Thank you for helping me to continue growing.

As teachers, I think we often fall into the trap of thinking we can't ask for help. We're professionals, so we must know it all already. Right? For goodness sakes, people have trusted us with children!

Well folks, I don't know it all. I'm trying, really -- I am, silly as it may sound. But until then, I'm thankful to know this much: I need my Professional Learning Network like I need air. Or M&Ms (don't act like those aren't a necessity). And I am indebted to the knowledge they freely share, every day. My students are too, they just don't know it.

Maybe I should change that. Maybe they also need to know the importance of leaning on and learning from one another -- even after they are all growed up. So hold fast to your friends, teachers. Hold fast to your network of educators, professionals, and thinkers -- for if these go, learning is "a barren field, frozen with snow." (And a final thank you, of course, to all the poets of the world, including the lovely Langston Hughes.)