My writing group of second and third graders who are learning English meets two more times. We are making the origami fold books, a favorite vehicle of mine for all kinds of writing and study.
Our club begins with a timed free write. Write fast, no erasing, keep writing. When the timer goes off we count words. Some writers this month have gone from a count of 14 or 19 to 49 and 56. Some wrote much more fluently and all have upped their score consistently. We write the word count at the top, then re-read the piece, and circle any words, phrases, or sentences that surprised or interested us.
Then we move on.
Gathering memories of a pet around a theme has been fun and it helps the students to write with focus.
We’ve got stories going about Smoky the cat who came in with a huge splinter, two birds who escaped from their cage rescued right before the dog ate them, finding a newborn puppy in the trash bin, a funny bunny who scares the family dog, playing with Goldy – a fish, a dog named Bella who picks a strange place to poddy, and getting Rainbow, a cute fish.
We have worked a bit with style and sentence fluency. Writers use verbs to convey images. I read aloud I Am the Dog, I Am the Cat to get us started and we list actions dogs or cats do that prove they are dependent or independent. This starts a great deal of discussion about the children’s experiences, too.
So the grammar understanding is to get the use of conjunctions — and how to make complex sentences. A “cat clause” (independent) plus a “dog clause” (dependent) is when it gets interesting (and complex).
But the really fun piece is starting the paper folding and attaching the pages to a cover for our custom book. These origami books can be flipped over to do an “On the other hand” writing piece. One one side all the wonderful attributes of a pet or person are shown with descriptive mini-stories.
Then, when you flip the book, “On the other hand, Fifi can really sometimes be a pest. You get the idea.
I love the paper folding routine because it is pure demonstration with very few words. It is “watch me,” then “catch up with me.”
One fold, then open into a V and say “valley.” Then fold valley to valley.
Open the double valley up and turn over. It is a “mountain.” Squish the center of the mountain to flatten it. (FUN!)
Turn the corners to point up and down on your desk, and fold the bottom corner to the top, keeping a finger on the center. This is folding your “napkin.”
It’s tricky if kids try to pick it up. Model a proper tea, pinky finger keeping napkin neat on desk.
The next stage is magic. It involves picking up the “napkin,” opening it and reaching UNDERNEATH to the center.
Pop the center up. Not only does the mountain reappear, it now has two little valleys.
(Really we could do this all day.)
Now the two little valleys on the side are going to become “feet” or “legs” and walk them in together. The top, which is the center can be pinched to keep it neat.
This walking in the two sides makes it possible to lay the folded paper down and flatten it. It is now one fourth of the page. (We began with a square, 8.5 X 8.5 inches)
Each page will be corner glued to the next. Kids get how to do this complex fold after two examples. I do. You do. Then they teach others who are less sure.
The secret of assembling the pages is to imagine them each as a bird.
The center fold is the beak and the diagonal is the tail.
Glue the corners beak to tail.
Press down a moment to soak in glue stick, then open gently to check. Monday we’ll make cover art on finger paint paper, because it’s glossy. I have made paste paper covers with combs, but that is a huge art project. The covers get cut out and glued over book cardboard. When attached to the folded pages they look very cool.
It has been a pleasure having a writing class after school, thanks to the Family Literacy Grant via NWP and the Kellogg’s Foundation. For me, since my instructional day is all Fountas & Pinnell leveled literacy groups, I’m so glad to be able to teach writing.
I have learned not to underestimate the power of story telling and to see children’s experiences with pets and animals as a wonderful source of motivation and feeling for their writing. They are writing about what they really know and yet they have a great deal of choice, too. Having a book project honors the effort they have put in, and to celebrate I’ll put the books out for Open House Night.
Last night after pasta and post-movie conversation with a teacher friend — I was driving home when I realized this — The only story I know to counter a lack of vision is art.
After seeing Into the Woods (another recent underscore for how important the story we tell is) I was twirling linguini as my friend Marie listened patiently and sympathetically to me telling the painful issues I’d encountered in coordinating a family literacy grant at my elementary school. (Of course as a high school teacher she encounters similar issues.) Our grant difficulties in logistics were to be expected and, of course, we made changes to adapt. That was the easy part of revision.
I was trying to summarize and not dwell on the discomfort. But I was stuck with swirling alfredo sauce getting cold — trying to responsibly articulate the gap between my grant writing story of a welcoming environment for new families learning English whose children are in primary school learning to read and write — and the story on the ground I encountered. A different vision, perhaps unconsciously held, by our teaching staff.
I ended my sad narrative with saying I didn’t think I could write my piece for our advanced institute (in mid-January) until I could face down disappointment with school tone on my campus. My job as interventionist has the dark side of the woods: A view of the disparity between how “high-performing” children are treated in some classes and the prejudice against intervention students, the students I teach all day, who are learning the language and struggling to read well. The ones who get labeled as “low” whom controlling teachers dislike because those statistics show them they can’t control everything. Even when these students make genuine progress in Leveled Literacy, sometimes teachers still talk smack about those kids, forgetting the growth and ignoring the potential. I take this personally.
My grant work story is just another small chapter in my larger teaching story, a saga not likely to be made into a movie.
So, my next move is to create a Parent Appreciation exhibit in our cafeteria. I want to display poster size photos of parents who have attended writing nights and saturdays.
Instead of waiting to do my photo essay at the end of the work, in January, I envision a banner with headings underneath…thank you for listening to your children, thank you for talking with your children, thank you for reading…I’d like to write poetic captions for the photographs — and ask the team to invite the K-3 teachers to input their own posters of thanks. Express appreciation for our parents. All of them. I want to ask our wonderful translators to help me interview some of the parents about their experiences of school and what they want for their children.
Gratitude may be the only thing I know that can heal defensiveness. I think it may be healthy to appreciate the people some staff habitually gripe about: the generic n’er do well parent who doesn’t support the great work the teachers are doing.
Last night I couldn’t sleep realizing that everyone on the campus — even in alphabetical order — from the aide, after school program, bus monitor, cafeteria worker, classroom teacher, counselor, custodian, health clerk, interventionist, librarian, principal, psychologist, PTA, occupational therapist, secretary, speech therapist, translator, and yard duty — could give our parents a big, huge THANKS.
We have no control over whether a parent enforces homework. But we do control our thermostat on school tone. We have control over how we connect with parents and how we invite them into the world of literacy and learning in our school. A negative report card conference just doesn’t quite do it. And I only have a little say in this since I’m one of the odd balls who doesn’t run with the pack. So the countering move now is to let the photos and some poetic captions speak.
Reflecting a moment on campus tone: What is one of the unspoken leadership pack’s big complaint? (Keep in mind that they can turn anything into a gripe.) We’re being monitored. Which is the job of administrative leaders, for the most part, isn’t it? While I sympathize with every teacher’s desire for agency — to be trusted to do the very best for their students with the curriculum and practice they see fit — I don’t see being whiners winning that for us. But I digress.
And, I can’t go over and turn up the thermostat to warm up the environment after another big bitch session in the staff room, or an attempted take down in a faculty meeting. But I can continue to try to bring some of the Writing Project into my workplace…the art and the democratic respect for all they players — yes, even among unhappy teachers who are frustrated by large classes and top down directives.So what follows is my rewriting for the San Jose Area WP advanced institute which is based on the work of Joseph Harris, in his book Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts. The four moves he models are “metalanguage” for revision. While Joseph intended his book for college level writers, our director, Jonathan Lovell, and associates took it as a framework for powerful coaching.
Giving new teachers agency to revise their practice using the moves to discuss and explore their work — to work with them much as a writing group functions — has great promise. The institute’s secret FaceBook group mission is “We’re going to change the face of professional development.”So, if you want to read on (and I know I’m responsible for making you want to), don’t worry too much about the revision moves — they’re embedded in my narrative. At the very least, scroll through the photos and ask yourself if you see something I consider beautiful and poster worthy?
Think what captions you might write for each…
Coming to Terms
“Coming to terms” involves asking, “What’s your project? What do you want to accomplish?”
My project. What I want to accomplish is to create a welcoming environment in our school that nurtures literacy for primary students and their families. That makes reading and writing fun and meaningful. I want teachers and parents to interact in helpful ways. I want our non-English speaking families to be a part of our learning community and know that their stories and experiences are important.
I think I was secretly hoping that some of the old school attitude to writing would evanesce and be replaced by more cooperative forms of teaching composing. But that would be an underlying motive I was unaware of at the time of writing and revising a grant proposal on the fly.
I wrote and Jonathan and I revised the partnership with the SJAWP with the NWP and the Kellogg Foundation, which was accepted. Only one in California and one of six in the nation. We began the work last summer with a team of 4 teachers training in Memphis, Tenn. with NWP leaders. Teacher consultants from the writing project and two kindergarten teachers at my school have worked — with the invaluable (and monetarily under-valued) assistance of our translators to provide K-1 and 2-3 with positive literacy experiences.
Harris’s “forwarding” move asks writers, “What’s working?” in a draft, so they can build on that as they revise.
What is working for the Saturday programs is to have one, not two sessions. We had to override the teacher view from the previous “Saturday Reading Boosts” that this was a program just for struggling students. What’s working is that the parents who show up enjoy participating and the sessions are fun.
Yet we had to realize that modern young parents are not disposed to get up and be at school at 9 am on a Saturday. Starting at 10 with breakfast treats — and having an RSVP for each event — has raised the participation numbers.
The teacher consultant who is an ELD literacy coach in her school does a superb job of gathering the first grade children, showing them how to do something while the parents watch, then having the parents do the activity with their children. Very high engagement. Parents want more games to use in teaching their children.
Parents of kindergarteners have appreciated telling stories to their children, childhood accounts that otherwise may have not been told. They have been encouraged to listen to their children talk while they draw and not put so much emphasis on the correctness of written language at this point.
When revising an essay, “countering” means considering your draft and asking, “How might I acknowledge other views and possibilities?”
This first step in getting well is to admit I have a problem, right? I have a point of view, a vision for creating welcoming literacy experiences. I have to admit that vision was inadequately shared with our staff. The principal had the two kindergartner teachers on our team do an activity at the first staff meeting. I gave hand outs to teachers and copies of the welcome letter we sent to our K-3 EL families. I assumed everyone would support and welcome the work of talking it up and bringing in families.
As an interventionist, I see parents as my link to best serving the child. Teachers want parent cooperation, but tend to see themselves at odds with many parents who don’t comply with the homework program. At school my position is intervention teacher. This grant coordinating is looked upon by some of my colleagues as “just one more thing,” and not viewed with the same passion as drives me to work the extra hours for a small sum of money.
Our first grade teachers, it turned out, looked on the grant work as remedial reading only for the struggling students. Some teachers are so busy that they are barely aware of the events being offered. Why should they care, when they have grades and lessons to plan?
My role as grant coordinator is, of course, to make things happen on the calendar and get all the people and things in place. I hire the teacher consultants and translators and track the project for the writing project admin and the Tower Foundation at SJSU. I report to my principal and sit in with the teacher team on monthly phone calls with other family literacy grants around the country. These assistance calls are directed by the NWP leaders who obtained the grants from Kellogg Foundation.
But my role is more. Things don’t get advertised or communicated without me writing, posting to PTA, getting events on the school marquis and sharing feedback with teachers. I am the primary mover of the project. The teachers just show up for the niches they agreed to teach.
I think the countering work that matters most of all at this point is my art project to bring the vision — and appreciation of our EL parents into the school view. This was not planned for in the original version of the project. The next K-1 Saturday session and the next writing night for grades 2-3, Penguins and Eskimo Pies are Polar Opposites, will go on as planned. The ELD writing workshop and the teacher consultant push in to a classroom to support the reading and writing of a group of EL third graders will go happen.
In addition, the art show in the cafeteria is my attempt to counter the below-the-surface-nature of the work. In one sense I want to address below the surface attitudes. There is an unconscious elitism. Perhaps from the days when our school was peopled by more affluent families and not a transient place for many economically disadvantaged families. Like when America was a different nation.
And I also want to raise awareness of what the project really is, not just write a report at the end.
Taking an Approach
The move that Harris calls “taking an approach” involves asking about a draft, “What’s next? What are the implications of what you have to say?”
I still believe that art has much to offer the world of academic education. By understanding the art of composing, I understand the reciprocity of reading and writing. Art, visual and literary, can offer vision where words have become just words and the spirit of the work is not addressed.
Sometimes too many words are hammered on the table and not very much listening happens. And the tone of the conversation has not been conducive to my wanting to work. Take note, reader, I love to work. There is a strong desire in me to move somewhere else – is it a fantasy land where teachers are grateful for the privilege of serving especially our neediest students? Is this my Disney wish I ought not to be wishing?
Maybe the soul work inside me will make it possible to continue in my somewhat awkward role as not-quite-a-classroom teacher and not an admin — maybe I will find the strength to not care that my job is viewed by my peers as a solo performance. I have been hurt to be excluded from collaboration, but carry on. Teaching the kids has to be enough for now…with sneaking in grant opportunities.
Gratitude is powerful. Vision and poetry matters. These people, the parents we invited to our education party, are important. Revision here means taking an approach that matches what I believe to be true and good. It means I can treat the staff as if they are happy and generous, too, as well as those parents I have come to love. Well, only with art can I do that. So let’s bring on the Parent Appreciation Party. Exhibit it. Write them. Talk to them. Invite them.
I had to write up this description of the ELD unit from memory since not only did my school computer crash, but my laptop was stolen and I could only piece together fragments from backups. Ah well, then that means this is the main stuff that stuck in my mind. And I’m already thinking how I will revise my practice was the Forwarding the ISI 14 groups meets to work with Joe Harris’ book, Revision. Not just revising our writing, but using the moves of revision to revise our teaching of units.
Stamina and Sentence Fluency for ELD Students at LEP 3 Level
This was my first draft teaching a fall 2013 unit intended to improve the writing of 22 English language learners in grades 4 and 5 who were at the intermediate, or LEP 3 level. The intent was to boost their writing to match their speaking and listening proficiency, so that, when taking the CELDT in one month, the students would move up one LEP level, at least.
I used the Summer Invitational community building when the students first came to me — name tags, alliterative introductions and we drew self-portraits.
Writing stamina and sentence fluency are interrelated, but I began the unit with a stamina study. The shape of the 4 week unit was modeled after Peter Elbow’s work in Freewriting with the first half focused on creating and the second half aimed a bit more at criticizing, or at least self-monitoring the use of sentence conventions.
The ELD group met three times a week for an hour first thing in the morning, giving us 12 sessions. We always began with getting out journal notebooks and doing a timed free write, followed by a word count.
The set up for the stamina study was to use cat and dog photos, the sort that friends sent me or posted on FB that I mostly wondered what to do with. I projected a toy Pomperianian (among other cutesy photos) on the big screen with the instructions, “You will write nonstop for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, you will put down your pencil and count the number of words you wrote.” The rules for free-writing were posted on a lime green chart: Write fast. Don’t stop. No erasing.
I bumped up the time alloted for writing to 8 minutes after 4 quick writes and then to 10-minute writes after 8 sessions, however, we no longer counted words. I had the students read aloud their draft to a partner. In the later sessions I also added some discussion about the free write photo that prompted students to use dialogue and to push into the character rather than write “about” the picture. We discussed verbs and what may have happened right before or right after the camera snapped. We thought about what the viewer, or photographer, may have had in mind, as a simple exercise in visual literacy.
The purpose of doing ungraded, unedited free writing was to help students learn to write whether they felt like it or not, to learn not to waste writing energy worrying, crossing out and to learn to think straighter. There would be time for criticizing writing later.
After the opening free writing, the next part of class was read aloud time. I had a number of cat and dog themed picture books and Sharon Creech’s free verse diaries, Love That Dog and Hate That Cat. I seated the students up close on the rug for read alouds, with pauses to partner talk oand I gave scenic turn-outs into the writing style.
I began the final part of the class period with pictorial inputs on cat/dog sentences, and brainstorming lists of actions. I taught a series of mini-lessons on writing compound and compound/complex sentences, which was also on the cat/dog theme using the analogy of cats’ independence and dogs’ dependence for the two kinds of clauses. The “leash words” on “dog clauses [dependent] were the subordinating conjunctions. I scaffolded this sentence level instruction with clauses collected from other student writing on the topic of what evidence do we have for the claim that cats are independent and dogs are dependent. What do they do?
My ELD group had two sessions of taking those “cat” and “dog” clauses combining them into complex sentences. Some students were still unclear about what was a verb and what the subject so I did some reteaching on that issue, using a few of their journals for examples.
On the third week into the unit I added in a half-page student checklist to tally up the number of times they wrote a complete sentence, a complex sentence, used onset capitalization, end marks and punctuated dialogue. Students had by then chosen at least one canine or feline creature to write about. When the CELDT testing started I would have the group create origami books which flipped so they could write about the good side and the down side of one pet, or contrast a dog and a cat in their books. Some students used some of the free writes as a basis for building a short narrative. So the three parts of each session were, loosely, free-writing, sentence level instruction and drafting with sharing or conferences.
Students wrote and read their drafts to each other in the final section of the class period. I emphasized listening to each other, not peer editing. I took home the student journals midway in the unit and culled out the main grammar and conventionn errors I deemed important to address. Still avoiding the error-correction model however, I persisted in having students tally the number of times they wrote sentences completely and correctly. I conferenced and coached them on spelling during the drafting time.
I gave students two different colored pencils to do the tally charts two more times after doing them in pencil. I wanted them to see the growth, not only in using conventions, using conjunctions and dialogue, but also to see that they were writing more. In the final week, I used the read aloud time to confer with writers and allowed students more time to develop their drafts.
The focus on stamina and sentence fluency turned into writing narratives for the origami book project after the CELDT testing began so the focus of this unit ended here.
Of the 22 students who were not only LEP 3 but also Below Basic on the ELA California Standards Test (STAR) 15 of them, or 68%, moved up to LEP 4 on the CELDT which was administered at the end of September. By January a third of those students had raised their STAR reading percentile ranking (PR) significantly, moving from intervention to on watch or even benchmark level.
The tally sheet looked like this:
I wrote x number of sentences: ______________
I capitalized x number of sentences: _______________
I used conjunctions [leash words] if I joined two clauses: ___________________
I used an end mark for sentences (period, question mark or !) _______________
I wrote an interesting opening sentence: Yes ______ No _____