Saturday, March 30, 2013

My personal educational philosophy

At the beginning of the year, each member of our staff was challenged to create our own personal educational philosophy. Mine has been sitting in my iPad since September. For some reason, yesterday I felt like I needed to drag it out and publish it. Here it is.

As an educator it is my responsibility to instill a sense of independence in all students. I will approach my students with curiosity and collect as much information on them as individuals as I begin my work. Knowing children are vastly different from one another in their academic, social, and psychological needs, I will treat them as such and point out their unique needs to them so that they can become more metacognitive in their learning. In doing this, each child will develop a feeling of safety and self-worth that will support his or her academic needs, ultimately creating independent learners.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Kelly Gallagher

Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing through Modeling and Mentor Texts
Kelly Gallagher

I feel a little naïve in the area of reading/writing instruction sometimes.  I say this because I started my career out with full intention of acquiring a position as a US History teacher and staying there until I retired.  This didn't really work out the way I had planned.  In fact, it wasn't until I was 13 years into my teaching career that I was even offered my first job as a US History, and by this point I had given up and moved into reading.  Now don't get me wrong, by this point I had a deep understanding of how important reading was and I was excited with what I was doing.  It wasn't that reading was a second choice; its more like reading was the place I was meant to be, but I was distracted early in my career by the glory of social studies.  I truly believe that I am where I need to be right now.  It just took me over ten years to get there. 

I bring this up because I've never seen Kelly Gallagher speak until a few weeks ago at the IRC Convention.  It was embarrassing to admit this, as the girls with whom I was traveling had all seen him at least once.  My co-department chair actually paid to go see him next month because she wanted to hear him speak.  Gallagher is a contributing author to our newly purchased literature series.  So, after a crazy morning (I overslept by an hour and a half and still had to pack!), we managed to make it to breakfast without missing anything.  I have NO idea how this happened, but after hearing Gallagher speak, I'm glad that I didn't miss him.

The idea of mentor texts was also one that was new to me - again, I am admitting to this, knowing that I probably should have known this term.  After hearing Gallagher speak, I think I have used this strategy in one form or another, but I have never called it mentor texts.  The name makes sense to me, and the way that the idea is used is really brilliant. 

Gallagher began his session with a quick discussion about what today's students are facing in the next ten years.  Because he currently lives in California, he spoke of the California Highway Patrol assessment.  The examples that he showed his audience were clearly vocabulary-based.  Gallagher reports that the majority of this assessment is vocabulary and writing.  Prospective police officers are even required to write an essay!

One point Gallagher made in his presentation is the idea that our expectations for our students are getting lower and lower.  Gallagher stated that he felt like the expectations for our juniors and seniors are decreasing and yet the college expectations are not changing.  I hear this statement over and over again - the academic comparison of today's kids to kids of the past.  I was a kid a little over twenty years ago, and there is no comparison, in my opinion.  It's like the comparisons that are made country to country, state to state, or even district to district!  The number of variables that would have to be factored into the equations are so vast, it is impossible to make such a generalized statement, and yet educators of all walks do it. 

Sixteen years ago I saw my students' ability to absorb classroom content to be more than today's students.  But sixteen years ago I also communicated with their parents through phone calls and face-to-face discussion.  Today, I text or email parents.  I tweet, post and blog.  Input and output come in different formats for our students and for their parents, and this stimulates different parts of these kiddos' brains.  Sixteen years ago (my first year of teaching), my students were not inundated with digital media at every turn.  They were still reading paper books and researching using books and encyclopedias.  The internet was such a new tool back then, and youtube was nonexistent.  The term "just google it" had no premise, and AltaVista was my go-to search engine if I couldn't find the answer in the library.  These kids' brains were still tapped into things that could be touched.  Today's kids are not like this.  To me, this changes things.  We have added an entirely new type of literacy into the lives of our students - digital literacy, and yet we are expecting them to perform at the same capacity or higher, with all of our new research in higher order thinking, than we have in the past.  And we say our kids are not performing?  Of course they are not performing!  They're not meeting these expectations because we are moving at the speed of light and trying to keep up with the increasingly-complex technologies of tomorrow.  We are piling so much on our kids and then shaking our heads in puzzlement when they do not respond!  The bigger problem is that there are students who can achieve at such high rates, and this causes the chasm to spread between those whose brains have been able to adapt and those whose haven't.  Those whose parents read to them every night since before they were born and keep books in every room of their house.  They are the same who buy the latest technology at home who have a bigger advantage and will perform higher on every assessment than those who don't. 

What we expect of our students is in no way less than what we expected twenty or thirty years ago.  It is just different.  We have skipped over some key foundational concepts like basic mathematical computation, phonics, historical dates, and science definitions and moved into teaching application of difficult, complex concepts beginning at the age of six.  Gallagher even concedes that the math from yesterday is not the same as the math of today - word problems are more complex and requirements for computation and answering require reading and writing skills!  Although I can see where this allegation of educational negligence stems, I think the accusation should change to figuring out how we can equalize the opportunities for all of our students and meet the new technological needs of this new generation, all while meeting the higher expectations and blended literacies popping up all over in our standardized testing and real-world experiences. 

Gallagher sees writing as a key educational component, but no longer are we talking about the five paragraph essay.  Today's writing expectations are much more complex and include a wider range of English words than students from years past.  Each year, hundreds of new words are introduced to the English language, and one of our jobs, as educators, is to help our students keep up.  Again, we move to the idea of vocabulary

Kelly Gallagher's idea of using mentor texts is a neat concept - it's the idea that we use a piece of uniquely organized current writing, analyze the author's craft to identify what makes it unique, and then have our students use their own ideas to create a new piece based from the craft of the mentor text.  Gallagher went through a series of mentor texts during his talk.  These easily-utilized mentor texts are listed below:
  • 6 word memoirs - See the example lesson plan with videos from on what they are.  My brief description will not do them justice.  They're six words long and can be used to say just about anything.  See?  Definitely not the detailed description that would be considered telling.
  • Twitter posts - If you haven't looked on twitter or used twitter, I'll tell you right now, I opened a twitter account a year ago and the combination of number signs, ampersands, slashes, dashes, and stars freaked me out so much I posted very little.  Just within the last month, I've made more of an effort to "get to know" twitter, and I'm really starting to get the hang of it!  The restriction with Twitter is that tweets can be only 140 characters (including spaces), so the composer has to either condense information into a sort of twitter code or tweet more than one tweet on the same topic.  This supports the idea of summarization, and would also pique the interest of the students composing the tweets on whatever topic they're writing.
  • Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life - Definitely a book I will own.  This text is organized in alphabetical order and features words that are significant in the life of author Amy Rosenthal.   Andrea Reichenberger posted a flickr slideshow giving some examples of some great projects created by her students.  Gallagher suggested using this project to start the year.  I LOVE this idea and can't wait to share it with some of our ELA teachers. 
  • The "Unofficial and Unwritten Spokane Rules of Fisticuffs" from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Lisa Larsen,a teacher from Nevada, writes about this list of unofficial rules and how they can be used in the classroom in her book review.  Gallagher suggests using them in this way and then having students use Alexie's craft to craft their own unofficial rules.  A great way to cross writing with character education or PBIS!
  • This I believe . . . It's really unfortunate that I can't recall if this is the mentor text or not, but what a cool book!  I would use it.  There seems to be a lot out there on the web about writing "I believe" essays, but This I Believe: the Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women (Allison & Gediman, editors) seems to support Gallagher's objective.  Again, he suggests this could be a good first week (or first day) activity. So many of our kiddos are resistant to writing, but asking them to talk about themselves or what they believe usually sparks some motivation.  It also sets a premise for a writing class that we start the year writing - we will be writing all year.
  • "If you're looking for a way to  . . . " modeled from the ESPN article "If you're looking for a way to kill little league".  Read the article.  It's pretty awesome, and what a wonderful discussion on author's craft you and your students can have!
In each of the above examples, I am brought back to Jeff Anderson and Anna Deese where both presenters talked about the idea of observing or noticing.  Studying the craft of a writer or author requires this skill, and to use mentor texts like the ones above is a great way to practice this skill. The act of applying this craft then allows students to process what they've observed or noticed and morph it into their own writing.

I was thrilled to have taken so much from Kelly Gallagher's morning session at the IRC Convention, and I know that the ELA teachers with whom I work will embrace much of what I have brought back to share with them.  The fact that he contributed to our newly-adopted literature series gives this information even more meaning.  And . . . I also have a list of more books to go out and buy. 

    Monday, March 25, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Words are Wonderful

    Words are Wonderful
    Susanne Picchi & Margaret Richek

    While at IRC I committed to hitting at least one session on vocabulary until I felt like I had some ideas and theories to mull over for a while.  Thank goodness the first session I chose was "the one".  After going to see Susanne Picchi and Margaret Richek speak on vocabulary acquisition, I had much to consider as I thought about how this information could be applied at school.

    Words Table
    Picchi and Richek introduced their topic by showing their audience the slide to the right.  Interestingly enough, I realize now as I am writing this that I encountered this table just a few days ago when doing some extra reading on vocabulary instruction.  As stated in my most recent CRISS crumble, I think&nbsp our school is ready to really focus on vocabulary instruction.  Because of our demographics, our building already has a disadvantage in the area of vocabulary.  Around forty percent of our students speak a language other than English, and many of them grew up having little to no exposure in the language at all!  We also have a large percentage of those students who come from homes where books (in any language) are not very common, so their exposure to words in any language has been limited to what they have heard through basic conversation and television.  But just look at the exposure some of these kiddos are missing out on because they are not exposed to some of these things!  Even comics and magazines (which are not given much credit in our educational setting) are shown here as having richer and more challenging vocabulary than basic conversation and television.

    Respected researchers and educators agree over and over again that one of the easiest ways to support vocabulary acquisition in our students is to expose them to new words regularly.  The more our students hear the words being used, the more words they soak up naturally.  When our babies, even before the age of one, begin to form words, we don't give them direct instruction in words like "more" and "no".  "Please" is one we might have to teach, but, generally speaking, our children learn these words by being exposed to them over and over again.  As the years go on, the process doesn't change, but the words do get harder.  I recall the word juxtaposed that a former choral director used over and over and over again during rehearsals.  After hearing the word a few times from his mouth, I began to encounter it in other readings - for whatever reason.  And soon I had a familiarity with the word that I hadn't before.  The other word that I loved is the word penultimate, also introduced to me by this same man, and I use this word whenever I can because it sounds cool!  How often does a single word become the "in" word to use, and soon every student walking down our hallway uses it.  Just last week, my third grade daughter brought the word epic home.  Really?  Now I'd heard the word used, but never in the way that it is being used today, so I looked it up.  Of course, on the third definition down said, "impressively great".  Ok.  I'll take it.  But it cracks me up the way words will just show up and then vanish from the mouths of our children -- all because of exposure.

    So how can we support and increase those vocabularies?  Picchi and Richek gave some great suggestions, some of which are listed below:
    • Expect students to practice saying the words out loud.  If I can't pronounce a word, I won't remember it, and I certainly won't use it.  For some of our kids, just the act of learning how to pronounce a word is all it will take to give the kid a self-esteem boost to actually try using the word.
    • Use sentence starters.  Instead of asking students to define a word or use it in a sentence, ask them to give examples.  For example, "If I had to subdue a lion . . . " or "The obsolete computer was . . . ". 
    • Demonstrate how you would use a dictionary. Don't just send the kids to the dictionary.  Have you seen those dictionary definitions? They're as complicated as the words themselves!  Define the words and give examples.
    • Play a game.  The game Two in One is easy enough.  Let the kids play in partners or individually to come up with one sentence with as many of the words used correctly as they can.  Give them points (one word is one point, two words is three points, three words is five points, four words is seven points, and five words is ten points).  Allow students to change the form of the word.
    • TEACH MORPHOLOGY.  Use strategies such as direct instruction, having students go into their real-world text and find examples of words using certain morphemes, have students create nonsense words from morphemes they have learned (this is my favorite and the most fun activity), have students create prefix, root, suffix cards and put them together to create words.
    • Have students rewrite a sentence or paragraph in more common language (try the Pledge of Allegiance).
    • Connect Two is demonstrated above to the right.  A list of words on both sides must be connected somehow, but this activity is not just a matching activity - students must justify why they connected the words.  Matching a word to a definition is not the object - it's finding true relationships between words.  It's kind of an extension to analogies in that the words could be connected because they're antonyms or because one word is an extension of another.  For each, as shown in the example, the student must write the justification under the word to show their thinking.  Kind of like showing your work in math.  Sometimes students will connect words with new ideas and teach the teacher a thing or two!
    • Flashcards with pictures on the front to give students a visual cue.
    • Have students "name a business" using vocabulary words.  For example: Egregious Odors - We eliminate the bad smell! Or Stereotype Hair Salon where you can get the new and trendy hairstyle EVERYONE has.
    • Have students create pictures for each of the words and put them all onto a poster with a word bank.  Kids can use the poster to match the word to the picture.  This hits the kinesthetic and visual learners.
    Each of the above activities made me think of ten more extensions for classroom application at school, and I'm excited to work on some of our teachers to get some implementation.  I heard, loud and clear, the challenge for teachers to use this language in their classroom settings and support the use of it by students in their classroom conversations as well. 

    Saturday, March 23, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Linda Hoyt & Seymour Simon

    Igniting the Power of Craft in Nonfiction Writing
    Linda Hoyt & Seymour Simon

    Our second day at IRC we attended a lunch session featuring Linda Hoyt and Seymour Simon in a seminar on writing nonfiction.  I found myself looking forward to this session because of my interest in my own writing along with how much I enjoy teaching students how to write (if only I enjoyed grading it as much as I enjoyed teaching it!).  Seymour Simon also holds a special place in my heart because my daughter loves his nonfiction books.

    During Hoyt's segment, she spoke on a few things including punctuation to make sentences more exciting, creating a chart of good words to use for writing, and visualizing while writing.  Hoyt's presentation discussed the use of a variety of sentence-types and good description words based upon the visualization process. 

    Once Seymour Simon took the podium, I had finished my dessert (which was delicious!) and could take notes more easily.  Listening to Simon speak about writing nonfiction was as exciting as reading his nonfiction!  If you've never picked up a nonfiction book written by him, do it the next time you step into a Barnes and Noble or other book store.  His combination of words and photographs gives the reader excitement about the topic and makes the reader want to read on. 

    Interestingly enough, one of Simon's first pieces of advice as a writer of informational text is to write nonfiction like you would write an exciting story.  This is excellent advice, especially for children, because if they get into the habit of writing nonfiction text in a manner that makes the reader want to read on, they will continue writing this way.  I was instantly reminded of Voice in the 6+1 Traits of Writing.  Simon knows his readers are younger readers, and therefore he writes his nonfiction in a manner that makes his young readers excited to read on.  Not only is he sucking them into his writing and encouraging them to read, but he is giving them a fantastic model of writing informational text!  The voice in his writing is strong and evident.

    Another aspect of Simon's writing that is unique is the language that he uses.  During his session he explained the importance of the vivid language, action words, and comparisons that his readers would understand.  One example that he gave that afternoon was from his book Whales.  In this book, Simon compares the weight of the tongue of a blue whale to that of an elephant.  The tongue!  Imagine that!  Kids know that elephants are large and heavy.  Some have even seen them at the zoo or on television.  To quote an actual weight in pounds or kilograms would have been pointless to children, but to compare the weight to an elephant, his readers now have a basis from which to consider the enormity of the blue whale.  If the tongue is that big, imagine how big the WHALE is! 

    Simon also touches on the idea of using imagery when writing nonfiction.  Appealing to all five senses is a great way to get the reader involved in the text, and Simon tries to give vivid descriptions that do just that.  The photographs chosen to accompany his writing he feels are just as important, as they give the reader a better visual and break up the text for a more motivating read.

    Finally, Simon reemphasized the importance of writing using varying sentence structures and asking questions to get the reader more involved in the read.

    Although none of what Simon or Hoyt mentioned to the group was an earth-shattering, brand new approach to writing, I found the session to be enlightening.  They were able to give some clear suggestions as to how to help students improve upon their writing (both fiction and nonfiction).  I also thought that the way that Simon spoke about writing nonfiction as an exciting story was important to hear as it impressed upon me the importance of voice in writing.  In my future collaborations, I will keep Hoyt and Simon's session in the back of my mind, as the advice they gave was both useful and practical.

    Friday, March 22, 2013

    CRISS Crumble, March 22, 2013

    In the last few weeks I have been investigating a theory I have about our students who lack progress in areas of comprehension and fluency.  When a student lacks comprehension, we generally teach comprehension strategies - predicting, connecting, inferring, etc.  When a student lacks in fluency, we generally intervene with fluency-directed interventions - repeated readings are the strategy for our intervention SLC classes.  But when a student lacks response to these types of interventions, what do we do?  This is the conversation I have been having with many of you around the building as we puzzle over data and bang our heads against walls in frustration. When we are intervening and it doesn't work, what next?

    The more I work one-on-one with one student, in particular, I am starting to realize that no matter how much I ignore it, this one piece of reading instruction is not going to teach itself, and its about time that I attack it head on: VOCABULARY.  This particular young lady and I have been working through multisyllabic training since November, and although I don't see her big hangup being with phonics anymore, she lacks so much vocabulary!  No wonder she's not making the progress we would like her to make!  I am finding, however, that when my one-on-one students and I work on words, they starve for more words and can't wait to wrap their heads around more.  One of the most fun things I do is watch a student grasp a Greek or Latin root and then start connecting to words they've encountered but never owned before.  It's like another light in the English language has just been turned on, and these kiddos are thrilled!

    Without the vocabulary, I can teach comprehension strategies up one wall and down another, but it won't matter if my students lack the vocabulary to make meaning of the text. If a student lacks the oral vocabulary to make comprehension, word recall and reading fluency may be stagnant. As I listen to my third grade daughter read to me sometimes, I am amazed at the way that she relies on her knowledge of words to help her recall and read words. This is a problem. One that we address, but not with the ferocity that I think we need.

    That being said - try some vocabulary acquisition strategies in the month of April.  Teaching vocabulary is more than just picking a bunch of words and teaching their definitions.  Its about introducing and using academic language with your students and expecting them to use it as well.  Our sixth grade intervention teacher introduces one new word a day.  Why not?  Here are some of her ideas for adding new vocabulary with some of mine thrown in for fun.  These ideas are not my own.  In fact, nothing I write is my own.  I'm a pretty good collector of ideas.  Many of these ideas come from Project CRISS, but some are Marzano as well. Others are ideas I've picked up around the building, and still others are morphed versions of everthing I've learned over the last sixteen years of teaching.  Feel free to use them all, but don't use none of them. 
    • Introduce a new word in context.  For example, tell the students the word and give them a sentence or short paragraph from which the word was taken.
    • Allow students to use their previously-taught skills to make a guess at the definition (write it down, even).
    • Don't define it.  Explain it.  Give examples.  Connect it to their lives.  For example, if the word is ratio, explain it by giving ratio examples of kids in the class or taking a quick pole of kids who use facebook, twitter, instagram, etc.  Then show that ratio. 
    • Come up with a class definition based upon your examples and explanation.  Have the students write it down.
    • Require students to draw a picture to represent the word.
    • Require students to write down an example.
    • Require students to use the word during the lesson . . . for days. 
    • Give an extra credit point for every student who uses it correctly in classroom conversation. 
    • Ask students to have an example of the word used in real-life.  Law of attraction shows that once something is brought to our attention, we start seeing it all over the place.  We notice it more.  Your students will begin noticing words more if you ask it of them.
    My goal for next year will be to hit vocabulary acquisition hard.  I'll be focusing much of my CRISS crumbles on vocabulary instruction and usage, so be ready for this.  I'm looking forward to seeing our students grow for the remainder of the year and into next year as we begin building upon our already-strong reading and content-area vocabulary instruction.  Keep on, my friends!

    Tuesday, March 19, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Inspiring Inquiry ThroughChallenging Texts

    Anna Deese
    Inspiring Inquiry Through Challenging Texts

    Last year I missed the Project CRISS ladies at the IRC Convention, and I was so disappointed, so this year I made it a priority, and boy, was I glad I did! Anna Deese taps onto students' intrinsic motivation using a simple, old technique masked by fancy words.  The old K-W-L got dressed up with two columns as seen here.  Instead of a K, we now see the word observations, and instead of the W, the words authentic questions appears.  Here's how it works.
    • Show the students a visual or two from the lesson - a map, a primary source photograph, a graph, etc.
    • Ask the students to make as many observations about the visual as they can.  Give some examples to get them started.
    • Then tell them to ask questions based from their observations.  Again, give an example to get them started.  (This may take some practice)
    • Categorize the independently-written questions into four different categories: easy resource / look up, inquiry, author and me (making connections with the author - ie.  Is this like . . . ?), and questions for the author (challenges what the author actually did.  ie - Why did the photographer choose this subject?)
    • Start with abstracts or summaries of selections before attacking the entire selection.  Read it to find answers.
    • Give students additional visuals from which to gather more information
    • Finally, give students an opportunity to find the answers for themselves (articles, sections of a text book, websites, etc.)
    I found this idea to be both engaging and extremely authentic, as students were really driving their own learning.  As they are compiling their list of questions, the teacher can always throw in a question that she feels might have been missed so that key targets are met as well.  This strategy can also be used across all content areas in a wide variety of situations. 

    Deese gives other examples of how this strategy can be used.  One example was with their own data collected from a science lab.   Better yet, she says, why not set up a lab with all of the materials and have students write down all of their observations and a prediction of what will happen that day.  She also suggests using advertisements with pieces missing and having students observe and use their background knowledge to try to fill in the missing pieces.  It was at this point that I was almost bouncing out of my chair in excitement because I couldn't wait to share what I had learned in Jeff Anderson's session the day before.  Anderson and Deese both discuss making observations.  Although Anderson calls it noticing, the concept is the same, and the process in the brain is the same.  The connection here was so strong that I couldn't help but share it.  I could tell she and I were on the same wavelength because after I shared that idea, she came up with the idea of observing a citation and commenting on the format.  Again, I loved this idea and hope to share it with my language arts department.

    The second part of Deese's presentation dealt with craft and structure of a selection.  The philosophy is that you can determine the author's purpose of a selection by taking a look at the author's craft and structure.  Handing us a copy of an article and a chapter of a book, Deese asked us to look at both the internal and external text features (see photo to the left) and makes notes about each.  Through discussion we discovered that both selections were written by the same author on the same topic, but the purpose of each was quite different!  The language used in one had a negative connotation, and the more we investigated it, the more we realized that the author's viewpoint was slanted in that particular piece.  Beautiful!  Difficult, but beautiful. 

    Deese's final activity was a listening activity.  She had all of her participants line up around the room with a piece of paper and a marker (this can be done individually, in pairs, and maybe in groups of 3).  We were directed to listen to the lab setup and draw what it looked like.  She read it to use three times slowly while we drew.  This activity was fun, made us laugh at the end, and gave us an idea as to what the lab might look like when set up.  I could see this done in quite a few settings - even in PE where students might be challenged to draw out a lineup of a team on the field or how the team might look on the gym floor just by listening or reading it from a piece of paper or index card!

    The hour I spent with Anna Deese during her presentation was an hour well spent.  Content area reading strategies are golden, in my book, and the ones that she presented here were ones so easily adapted to any content area.  I'm looking forward to sharing them with my staff.

    Monday, March 18, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Sharon Draper

    Sharon Draper

    Last year when I saw that Sharon Draper was going to be at the 2013 IRC Conference I was giddy with excitement. I had discovered Draper's YA novels only within the last few years as I was exploring books to suggest for my reluctant readers. My first discovery was Romiette and Julio. I can't remember why I even picked up that book, but I'm guessing it was recommended by somebody who knows reluctant girl readers well. It is currently my go-to book for our eighth grade girls who are kind of tough and looking for escape into the world of romance. I, personally, am not shamed to admit I am a romance novel junkie, so as soon as I started the book, I knew I was going to love it. I did, too. From beginning to end.

    Three years ago I had an eighth grade girl recommend Just another Hero while doing a book talk on it. I picked it up from the library, and I immediately loved the book, but something bothered me about the book. It wasn't until after I read the entire book that I discovered that I had read the third book in a trilogy before reading the first two! Oops! So off I went to read the Jericho series, and again I loved them.

    Going to see Sharon Draper at IRC wasn't on my agenda, originally, because I often feel selfish for going to see authors speak when I could be gathering strategies and programs to bring back to my staff. I made the decision to see Draper at the last minute because I had gotten to meet her the day before -- also completely on a whim, and I wasn't impressed with the other offerings during her time. So off I went . . . What a fantastic decision that was! What an amazing and insightful educator!

    Draper started off her session with the story that got her started. She was a high school English teacher at the time, and she talked about how her students would write the "Draper Paper" and so on. One of her toughest kiddos that year challenged her after another writing assignment. "Yo, Mrs. Draper. Why don't YOU write something?" So she did. He challenged her to enter a story writing contest. Months after she had written the story and submitted it, she received a phone call telling her that out of 25,000 entries, she had won first place - $5000. This short story became the first chapter of Tears of a Tiger.

    After Draper wrote the first book, she said she marketed herself like crazy. Conferences, conventions, you name it, she was there with a stack of books, flyers - anything to get her name out there. Draper believed that without the hustle she may not have gotten her name out there. This is a solid lesson on perseverance and self-esteem. For one to market herself in this way, she had to have a firm belief that people would love what she had written. And they did. After Tears of a Tiger, Draper went on to write Forged by Fire, and Darkness Before Dawn completed the trilogy.

    The Jericho series drew its inspiration from an experience Draper had with an initiation, so-to-speak, in a high school in which she worked. At this high school, the students had a day called "9th grade chase-home day" on which all of the seniors would chase the freshmen home. Draper recalls the horror of the idea, and the fact that the day was overlooked by the administration year after year as if it was a school-sponsored event. She recalls walking out of that environment and not looking back, but being inspired to begin Battle of Jericho - a story about a hazing incident in a high school that got so out of control that . . . Oh, never mind. Guess you'll have to read the story to find out just how bad it got.    November Blues came as a sequel to Battle of Jericho, and then finally Just Another Hero, a story about school violenceDraper commented on today's world and how she felt like she was able to capture today's teenager in her novels, and I tend to agree with her.  The situations are real, the precursers are real, and the aftermaths are real.

    During her session, Draper also brough attention to her Ziggy and Sassy books, which were written for elementary students.  This news excited me because I didn't realize that she had written books for kids this young.  I also am always looking for books for my own children with characters in them that expose my children to races other than white.  Although my children are biracial, the racial makeup of the school that they attend is largely caucasian, and my husband and I do our very best to expose our children to people of all races through family, playdates, books, movies, games, and television. My daughter is at the perfect age for a Sassy book, so we will be going to the library over spring break to take a look for them. 

    Being a teacher herself, Draper sympathizes with the need for thoughtful questioning.  To support teachers and parents, she has written thought-provoking questions and writing prompts which can be found at the back of these younger readers and on her website.  Upon reviewing the questions after Common Core standards were released, she was pleased to find that many of them were already in alignment with what CCSS is requiring of students.  Those questions that are not aligned will be rewritten in the near future to support the standards of Common Core.

    It was at this point in her session that Draper stopped to answer questions.  She saved her talk on her most recent book Panic for the end.  One teacher asked a great question, "How can I find balance between supporting and getting to know my students on a personal level and hitting all of the standards?"  Draper acknowledges that this is a difficult balance, especially in today's age of education, but she also emphasizes that what makes us good teachers is the personal connections we are able to make with our students.  She also concedes - the standards must be hit.  Her compromise is to get personal in informal settings (lunchtime or after school) and hit the standards hard while in the classroom.  She also highly recommends attending as many of your students' sporting events, concerts, etc. as possible.  Kids notice when teachers show up, and they feel special when we do so.

    The next question that was asked was, "How do you encourage reluctant writers?"  Draper jokes about the trick in "teaching to the test" and instilling a love for writing.  Are we teaching kids to take the test?  Absolutely - but what we have to do is find a way to do it AND instill a love for writing.  Her suggestion?  Alternate required writing and fun stuff, and do a LOT of mini-writing assignments.  Another idea she gave was the idea of writing descriptions of items.  I was immediately taken back to Jeff Anderson's session where he "invites" his students to notice the quotation and comment on the use of grammar and punctuation.  Draper's ideas continued to align with Anderson's in her next idea, which was a compare-contrast description between two things.  Even though Draper is discussing physical items, the alignment with Anderson's idea of comparing the original quotation with the teacher-written one was pretty neat!  I had bells and whistles going off in my head for at least a half hour after this!  Drapers's final though on instilling a love of writing?  NEVER GRADE POETRY.  Poetry is like an extension of a writer's emotions.  She believes that putting a grade to it would be like grading their emotions.

    Sharon Draper took one final question before she wrapped up with a quick talk on Panic.  "What did your teachers do for you to encourage writing?"  Her response was, "You want me to think back THAT far?"  Her audience laughed but hung on her every word.  One of the things of what she felt most sure is that every student has a different need, and that means that not one teacher will have what every student needs.  She picked up a lot from her fourth grade teacher because she felt like her fourth grade teacher focused on writing the most.  Her friend, however, hated the fourth grade teacher and loved the fifth grade teacher because what that teacher offered was what her friend needed.  Our job as educators is to offer as much as we can, and our students will absorb what is needed when it is needed.

    To wrap up the session. Sharon Draper spoke of her most recently released YA novel Panic.  It is book one of a trilogy, and it is definitely a book for grade eight and above.  Through her description of the novel, I was able to pick up that the story is about the abduction of Diamond, a fourteen year old dancer.  There are several other teen characters and an adult Miss Ginger, who is the dance teacher.  I'm fascinated by this book and plan to read it very soon.  What is so unique about it is that Draper, even with years of education and writing behind her, has managed to stay in the digital forefront by being adventurous.  She has included, at the end of her book, a playlist of songs referenced in the novel.  Her thought was to encourage her readers to create a playlist and listen to the songs as they are referenced in the book for a more multimodal experience.  Her next step is to include QR codes in certain areas of the books where dances are referenced.  Her daughter's dance studio has recently completed recording video of the dances and will have them uploaded so that when the QR code is accessed, the reader can also view the dance in the studio from the book.  AWESOME!  And genius, really.  The fact that she is changing with the times and moving into the digital age with the kids is really something to be commended.  Bravo!

    She finalized the session with a three minute video "trailer" for the book and encouraged anybody interested in getting books signed to meet her upstairs.  I had met her the day before, so I was in no hurry to move up there, but I was very grateful that I had made the decision to go see Sharon Draper rather than try my luck with another session.  What did I take away from this?  A few things, really.  I see through this that everything happens for a reason, and inspiration can come from anybody and anything - you just have to look for it and remember it.  Draper validated much of my educational philosophy, even though I've been questioning it a lot this year.  She also made me feel better about not being able to connect with every student - sometimes it just doesn't happen.  But when it does, so much good can happen in the student, which is what has happened to her over and over again.  On this aspect, I can easily connect with her.  I guess Sharon Draper and I have a lot in common.

    Sunday, March 17, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Ellin Keene

    Ellin Keene
    Talk About Understanding

    When our group of reading specialists got together to plan the sessions we wanted to attend, Ellin Keene came up as a must-see, so we made sure to include her on our list.  Her talk on Friday touched upon the idea of looking for signs of understanding.  She started out by telling her listeners that real understanding happens when "we teach a few concepts of great importance in real depth over a long period of time and give [students] a chance to apply those concepts in a wide variety of text and contexts."  This wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it was definitely something I needed to hear again.

    What was earth-shattering to me, however, was the idea of teaching understanding and how we (teachers) have packaged this idea into eight million neat little strategy lessons with an acronym for everything, including walking down the hallway!  But what we haven't done effectively is require our students to really reflect on how anything helps them learn, how they are a better learner because of the strategy, and how they will use this strategy independently in the future.  They've become more and more dependent on us handing them "the organizer" that they can no longer make a move without a teacher telling them what comes next. 

    Not surprisingly, my thoughts immediately went to my Project CRISS trainings.  I always said that CRISS was a really interesting acronym for an amazing set of educational practices.  The acronym itself means CReating Independence though Student-owned Strategies. The word independence is one that jumps out at me because our students are anything but independent in this age of education.  They can't even get an A on a paper without asking for a sticker, a piece of candy, or a party!  So how do we create more intrinsic motivation within our students?

    Keene says that it is our responsibility to point out moments of independence for our students so that they can strive for those moments of success.  The remainder of her talk spoke of indicators that show when students are understanding.  Keene's advice is that if an educator witnesses any of these signals, the teacher should bring the reader's attention to the signal and let the reader know that she has experienced what a good reader would experience.  The reader may need validation that she being successful.

    In the mind (evidenced only if it is expressed by the learner):
    • Empathy - "a belief that the reader is actually a part of the setting, knows the characters, stands alongside them in their trials, brings something of himself to the events and resolution - emotions are eroused."  This is my biggest indicator that I am fully involved in what I am reading.  I often tell my husband that I will have physical responses to books because I've become so involved that I will often put myself in the place of the characters and live in the book.  You know a reader has understood if he can express this type of experience.
    • Advocacy - Keene talked briefly about readers feeling a sense of advocacy for characters in the story.  If a reader expresses that she would take a character's side or feels sorry for a character, this is Keene's reference.   
    • Understanding leadership - When a student expresses how she might immitate the leadership of a leader in the selection she is reading, she has begun to understand leadership through the reading.  Mulling over ways that she can contribute to the same cause or a similar cause illustrates her comprehension of the character in action.
    • Sense of aesthetic - Rereading a selection to enjoy it or relive it is another way a reader shows that she has understood it.  There may be an emotion attached to the selection, and when she rereads it, she can relive that emotion.
    In our lives (evidenced by the behavior of the learner):
    • When a reader is so moved or touched by a selection that she wants to act upon it, she demonstrates understanding.  Selections about child labor, recent natural disasters, national tragedies, etc. might evolk this type of response.
    Ellin Keene's insights on student reflection and indicators for understanding hit home with me during this session, and my plan is to consider these ideas as I go about my job from now on.  The one thing about Keene's presentation that differs from others is that she didn't really give me a "strategy" or lesson idea or an idea to take back to my staff.  What I took from this talk was more information to help me to continue to develop my philosophy as a reading specialist. 

    Saturday, March 16, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Jeff Anderson

    Jeff Anderson
    Grammar and Conventions: When Reading and Writing Collide

    Truly the most dynamic, most entertaining presenter at the IRC Conference, in my opinion, was Jeff Anderson. His wit, use of music, visual presentation, and personal flair made what he had to say to his audience stick as we laughed our way through his ideas for writing instruction.

    One of the first points Anderson made in his talk was the idea of breaking the rules - rarely, purposefully, and never. Always write purposefully, he says, and never say never (it was at this point that he played his own sing-along version of the Justin Bieber song). This made me think of a student that I had in my first few years at Herget. As a sixth grader he had already decided that the writing we were teaching was too systematic and didn't allow him the freedom to be creative. He was a smart kid, and I knew that the rules strangled him a little bit, but I wasn't convinced that he had mastered the organization of the writing that we were teaching. My response to him was that if he could show me that he could play by the rules, then he was allowed to break them and be more creative. He wasn't happy with that, but he did it.

    Anderson's next segment spoke on the idea of editing. He touched on editing personal writing as well as grammar and punctuation instruction. As a writing teacher, one of the most difficult skills I have encountered is the idea of editing and revision.  My first five years of teaching, grammar instruction seemed easy - either that or I was completely oblivious to the fact that my instruction was not making much difference.  The last ten or so years, however, it seems as if grammar instruction is just not sticking, so I was all ears as Anderson went about his business enlightening me on a completely different approach.

    One of his brilliant (and ridiculously easy) ideas is this idea of self editing.  More often than not, kids will come to us with a piece of writing that has a crazy amount of one problem (the use of the word "and", apostrophes in every word that ends with an s, sentences all begin with the same word).  How do we get students to edit their own work and come to their own conclusions?  For students like this one, the answer is so simple that I'm embarassed that I didn't think of it first!  Anderson suggests giving those students individual editing assignments.  For example, "Ok, now I want you to go back and find every time you use the word 'and' and circle it."  The idea is that the student will find them all and realize that he has too many.  Once this is established, Anderson goes on to make this a teachable moment.  Have the student (with your guidance) observe each use of the word and draw some conclusions.  If there are no punctuation marks, and the word "and" just seems to be joining a bunch of independent clauses, then use that moment to explain some ways a student can fix the mistakes.  Maybe even make a small list for him, and then send him off to his desk to make the corrections. 

    Besides using editing as a tool for grammar instruction, Anderson addresses DOL (Daily Oral Language), Mug Shots, Daily Edits, etc.  Actually, he burned them.  Twice.  OK, he didn't really burn them, but he made it clear that he disagreed with their use.  For years I have used DOLs on and off as a way to use a fabricated "teachable moment" for a little grammar instruction.  Anderson's beef with this way of teaching is the idea that the first thing a student sees when she walks in the classroom door is a horribly fashioned, completely incorrectly written selection of text.  I never thought of it that way, but the man does have a point. 

    Anderson then asked a pointed question:  What do writers do?  They read.  So his suggestion is a three step process that, ironically (or maybe not), seemed to be a common theme in the next few days: observation

    Step 1: Invitation to Notice (observe)
    • Display a quotation from a book, song, poem, or a celebrity quote that exhibits the use of a specific (correctly written - even if you have to correct it before displaying it) grammar component.  ie.  "Lightning flashes may even have been detected on other planets, such as Jupiter and Venus." - Seymour Simon's Lightning
    • Ask students to notice the quotation and write down things that they notice about it - you'll have to prompt them until they get the hang of it.  Examples might be "capital L at the beginning of the sentence", a comma after the word planets, Jupiter and Venus are capitalized. If you're wanting to draw attention to verbs, point out the use of "may have been".  Whatever your focus is, be sure that they notice it.
    • Honor it.  Whatever they notice, honor it.  Even if it is bizarre -- honor that they did, indeed, notice whatever it is. You can even have them share with a partner before they share out to keep it engaging.
    • Give it a name. Tell them what it is if they can't tell you.  Ask them what it does when they read it aloud.  Ask them what it does when they read it to themselves.  Are there differences?  If so, what are the differences?
    • Extend. Explain it.  Maybe give some other examples of how it can be used.
    Step 2: Invitation to Compare/Contrast
    • This can be the next day as a follow-up to yesterday.
    • Show the students an immitation quotation that is modeled directly from the previous day's quotation along with the quotation from the previous day.  For example - Hot lunches may even have been ingested by students, such as Alex and Omar.  (Sharon Draper said in a later session that using your own students' names boosts motivation to pay attention, and I tend to agree with her.)
    • Ask students to write down the similarities between the two sentences and explain them (some kids may use the vocabulary you introduced from the day before, which is the goal).
    • Share out.
    Step 3: Invitation to Immitate (Isn't our goal to have students USE the grammar correctly?)
    • Display the two quotations again and tell the students it is now their turn to use what we have discussed in the last few days to write their own immitations.
    • Have them share and evaluate if they've done it correctly. 
    Genius.  Truly genius. I actually found myself a little jealous of the fact that somebody else had come up with something this fantastic for something as dull as grammar instruction.  I envisioned my students so much more engaged with this activity than anything I could ever produce!  It also seemed like this approach left room for practical application and a way to show them through modeling, giving it a try, and then independently practicing. 

    By this time it was 4 p.m., and I was exhausted.  My brain was full, my legs were achy from sitting all day, and my fingers were itching to blog.  Jeff Anderson was a good choice for a late session because he was entertaining, and his session's topic was so practical.  Going to see him was motivating and invigorating.

    Friday, March 15, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Janet Allen

    Janet Allen
    Information Literacy: It's Not just Reading More Nonfiction

    Janet Allen is a seriously hilarious woman. The irony of that statement was purposeful, as she is one of the funniest serious educators I've ever met. This was evidenced by the fact that, although she never left her table, every eye was focused on her as she moved so quickly from one topic to the other, bridging the shifts with funny anecdotes and quick-witted humor. Her talk was separated into eight segments, and she was able to cover three in the hour we were together.

    Off the bat, Allen stated the urgency for students to be writing . . . A LOT.  She said if you are grading everything that they are writing, they're not writing enough. I found this to be a refreshing statement, as the years I taught 8th grade ELA, I had my students write every day at the beginning of the period. They were given a prompt or a quick mini lesson in one of the 6 traits of writing, and away they went! I always wondered if not grading or reading all of their writing was doing them a disservice, but I felt that if they were to become writers, they needed to write every day. Period. Once every two weeks, they produced one of their daily writing prompts for grading on the skill that we were practicing, and then we moved on to an extension of that skill or a related skill, or a new skill for another two weeks.  It worked for us, and as the year progressed, their stamina for writing increased. 

    Getting Students Started
    Getting students started on a topic is tough business.  Allen suggests tugging at students' emotions a bit and giving them something to which they might connect or get emotionally engaged.  She produced a chart at the beginning of her talk that allowed students to take three texts (selections) of the same topics and respond to each one before beginning their writing.  The three texts she shared with us were different perspectives on the Alabama Church bombing in 1963.  She read an excerpt from a text book, a poem, and an article detailing the events related to the bombing that day.  For each we had to write the name of the source, write down some facts from the selection, and then react to it. 

    The process took about 20-25 minutes, and then we all had an entire sheet filled with facts and ideas for a possible writing activity.

    Developing Word Banks
    Allen's next topic was the idea of developing word banks.  Presentation after presentation after presentation touched upon the fact that one of the best ways to build the vocabularies of our students is to get them to read.  Read a lot, and read a variety of different text selections.  Reading TO a student has an effect on the words he or she pics up as well, so she suggests read-alouds as well.  I found some of her quick and painless ideas to be no-brainers and "why didn't I ever think of that?" ideas.  One of the best ones was her idea that students should be read to every day  at the beginning of the period - something quick.  Anything.  A poem, an excerpt from a book.  A short article.  But they should hear from a variety every day so that their exposure to unfamiliar words increases, making the liklihood that these unfamiliar words will stay unfamiliar unlikely. 

    Students can create portable word walls in their binders or notebooks for each unit so that they can start using new words in their writing.  The word wall looks similar to an ABC Brainstorming sheet used in Project CRISS, and it works in a similar way in that students will organize the words in alphabetic blocks, but the collection of the words happens over a lengthier period of time during word-wall-creation wherease the ABC Brainstorming sheet is just that - a brainstorm, usually happening in a very short amount of time. 

    Allen suggests other strategies such as word sorts, and she mentions that context clues are important, but they're not likely to be of large value in anything but science and social studies text books where words are purposely placed into sentences containing definitions or clues from which to identify the meaning of these words. 

    Several frightening statistics were thrown at us that morning, including the idea that 3000-5000 new words acquired represents about one reading grade level on standardized testing.  Allen worked for several years writing standardized tests, leading me to believe she might have some authority on this topic.  She also says that if we can get students to read twenty-five minutes a day, they will encounter 20,000 new words every year.  Will they all be learned? No.  But some of them will, and perhaps the 3000-5000 new words will be achieved.  I guess I hope this isn't an under achieving student, because if it is, then the time spent reading would have to increase to go up two levels.  And so on . . .

    During our time together, Janet Allen talked about another acronym that she uses to teach students to preview books before reading them.  My mind immediately went to the THIEVES strategy that we used last year because it is very similar.  Allen's is below:
    • P - Predict
    • R - Review the table of contents
    • E - Examine the visuals
    • V - Vocabulary.  How hard can it be? (Allen suggests going to the captions of visuals to check out the vocab.
    • I - Index.  What can I learn here?  (Her thoughts are that the table of  contents are the main ideas and the index is the supporting details.)
    • E - Explain what you know about the book.
    • W - What connection can you make? 
    I know that a few of my colleagues will be happy to hear that Janet Allen praised the use of academic notebooks, as she thought they were a great tool for organization and learning!  During the short plug for academic notebooks, Allen gave us probably one of the THE MOST helpful tools that I have gotten in the last two days at the convention - it is called the question matrix (left), and it is a genius tool for helping kids learn how to ask questions.  After previewing a selection of text, students can then write their questions in the matrix as the words connect.  The horizontal row is their first word in the question, and the vertical row is the second word in their sentence.  They have to fill in the rest of the question based upon their preview of the selection.

    Allen's final strategy is the use of "response frames", known as paragraph frames in my Project CRISS world.  The example here shows how a teacher creates a frame for writers who struggle to get started on their writing.  As the year progresses, the teacher creates these, but the teacher's words get fewer and fewer while the expectation for the student gets larger and larger until the student is writing independently. 

    Janet Allen concluded her presentation with a story that had the audience howling by the end, closing a brilliantly constructed and beautifully presented, engaging talk on non-fiction reading and writing.  From her words, I feel like I am able to attack the use of non-fiction more effectively with students - both in reading and writing.

    Thursday, March 14, 2013

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Correlating Common Core Standardswith the Disciplines

    Evanston/Skokie District 65
    Correlating Common Core Standards with the Disciplines

    signatureAfter running to Starbucks and feeding caffeine into my system, I took off upstairs to get Seymour Simon's autograph for my daughter Cadence.  Last year I brought home Nick Bruell's autograph on a book, and she has been giddy all year about it.  So this year when I told her I was returning, I told her Seymour Simon would be at the conference, and she picked out a book for me to take and get signed.  She will be thrilled when I get home!

    At 9:15 I scooted into the room and readied myself to hear from a group of four women talk about their experiences moving CCSS into the science and social studies disciplines.  Their talk was divided into three main topics - Central Idea, Close Reading, and Writing.

    Central Idea
    Finding the central idea of a piece of text or "selection" (as it is being termed), moves away from finding the main idea of a text.  According to this group of ladies, the central idea is a sentence (truly an idea) instead of a one or two-word topic.  This is a shift in thinking.  Ironically, I was working in the READ180 class on Wednesday before I left to come to Springfield, and the small group working with our READ180 teacher was practicing finding the central idea and supporting details. 
    Central Idea
    Early on in the activity, the teacher and I both discovered that perhaps we need to discern between what is considered "evidence" and what is considered "supporting details".  As I watched the presentation made this morning, my experience in this class Wednesday just kept popping up in my head.  Sometimes our kids can find the main idea stated directly in the piece of text (selection).  They then turn around and try to use this as a supporting detail because it can be quoted directly from the text.  What they fail to realize is that the author actually gave them the main idea right there in the text and that the main idea can't support itself.  Students need to go in and find additional information that supports the central idea.  So how do we teach this?

    One suggested way to teach the difference between central idea and supporting detail is by creating sorts (see photo below).  Teachers can create a list of central ideas from a piece of text (selection) and supporting details and have the students separate them into piles of central ideas and supporting details.  This reminds me of pattern puzzles from Project CRISS.  The presenters said that their students were so familiar with this process that it took little explanation and direction now, and the students were able to complete the activity fairly quickly.  My big question was - what kind of professional development did these ladies give to their staff on this change from main idea to central idea, and they said that they did sorts with the staff as well along with continued one-on-one professional, collaborative discussions during planning.

    Close Reading
    Boy, have I heard enough about close reading yet?  Probably not, because it could possibly be the biggest buzz word in education right now (aside from Common Core).  I giggle at this word because I was doing close readings with my science kids in 2005 when I first became a trainer for Project CRISS.  When I first heard about close readings, I researched it and went to conferences, convinced I had missed something - but alas, I had not. This was the same thing that I had been doing with in-depth reading strategies and listening to the "voice in my head".  I really need to find an oldie, but goodie, give it a new name, write a book on it, and make loads of money from it!

    Basically the close read is reading closely.  No lie, friends.  That is what it is.  You pair reading closely with annotation and you get the close read.  From what the ladies said today, it might look something like this:
    • The teacher gives the students a purpose for reading (ie - read the text to find the similarities between the three Abrahamic faiths.
    • The teacher sets the timer for a specific amount of time.
    • The students keep that purpose in mind as the teacher demonstrates thinking aloud and reading while marking the text (a very small selection - possibly 2-3 paragraphs).  The teacher can underline, circle, highlight, and write notes to herself on the selection.
    • If the timer has not gone off (and the teacher should purposely set it for longer), the teacher will go back and reread, including the notes that she made to herself, adding notes to it until the timer goes off.
    • The teacher then gives groups of students an opportunity to try the same strategy.
    • Students must be aware that they can highlight or underline anything, however, they must have justification for everything they highlight or underline!
    According to the presenters, close reading requires a pen or pencil in hand 100% of the time.  I believe that students should do a one-time read through before a close read.  This opinion is based upon my experience with Project CRISS in the lessons on selective highlighting.  Once an entire paragraph or short selection is read, the reader has a better understanding as to what might need to be marked and the reader can make better decisions when marking. 

    The final topic discussed by the four presenters was writing.  They started this segment talking about research.  Although I found their note-taking discussion to be unclear, I thought their ideas for final projects were excellent! 

     The first idea was the creation of a "spread" - equivelent to a 2-page book spread, in my opinion.  Students were required to write a 2 page book spread that used the same text features that their text book might use.  So they were required to go into their book and analyze the text features before taking the notes that they had collected and creating their own informational text.  Finally they were asked to reflect on the text features that they used and why these features were used.

    The second idea was the idea of "real world writing", an idea on whick Cris Tovani presented last year at the IRC convention, and one that I loved, passed on, and then forgot.  I'm so glad that this presentation re-awakened the idea.  Feature articles - like newspaper or magazine articles are so much more interesting than other writing assignments, and the kids get to explore those text features, again.  See a theme here?

    Finally, the write-around was the last, and least formal idea to get kids writing.  The write-around is conducted in this manner:
    • 1. The teacher poses a question (ie - what is the most important discovery in chemistry?)
      2. Each student writes an answer with text-based evidence
      3. Students pass their papers one person to the right
      4. Students read the response and respond to the first response, using text-based evidence.
      5. Repeat several times until all group members have gotten a chance to respond. 
      6. Students MUST RESPOND to the previous responses - not just simply state their opinion over and over again.
    I have to say, for being a group of teachers and not a renowned speaker or presenter, the content was fantastic .  The content carried the presentation, and I was pleased with the information I was able to bring back to our staff.

    IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Neal Shusterman

    Breakfast with Neal Shusterman
    Blood Kills Vampires and Good Riddance

    7 am came pretty early this morning, but the anticipation of hearing Neal Shusterman speak made the 6:35 shuttle ride and brisk walk worth while. The Lincoln Inn served their "vegetarian" breakfast of orange juice, cheese-covered eggs, browned potatoes and pastries, which were actually pretty tasty. I had been dreading the vegetarian meal I had ordered weeks before, and I was grateful that they had an interesting interpretation of vegetarian.

    After breakfast, Shusterman was introduced, and he took the podium.  The authors at this conference amaze me with their audience-friendly manners.  One would figure if you were THAT gifted with words, that perhaps one would just hide behind the word processor, but so many of these authors are just as dynamic in front of an audience as they are in their writing.  Shusterman is one such man.  He explained that this year has been tough for him, being diagnosed with a disease known as TTP, which would not allow him to interact heavily with his audience because he had to maintain his distance.  I was glad that I had met him at the IRA conference last year and got my picture taken with him then because this year we were not able to get close to him.  My heart broke for him as he talked about losing both of his parents this year within four months.  He said that this year has been a year of firsts, and that he was surprised that there were still so many firsts he could have! 

    After this Shusterman went on to talk about when he first became a reader and then later a writer.  I was able to connect with him because his educational experience was not roses and butterflies - in fact, he was a highly energetic kid, and was regularly removed from his third grade classroom and into the library.  I believe that if I had been teaching when he was in school, he would have been one of my students, and I would have loved him.  This was the beginning of his reading, and he said that as the year went on (and he went more and more frequently to the library) he read more and more and increasingly challenging material.  Eventually he went on to increase his reading level so much that he received an award for the highest reading achievement by sixth grade. 

    Shusterman's writing interest started with poetry in sixth grade, and he was gracious enough to read us a copy of his first poem, which made the audience laugh, as so many of our sixth grade poetry often does.  But it wasn't until he reached ninth grade that he discovered how much he really enjoyed writing.  It was his ninth grade teacher who saw a fire in him and used that to push him.  Shusterman admitted that he was not great with deadlines, and actually called himself a self-sabbotaging overachiever - one who goes above and beyond, ultimately missing the deadline for whatever it was that he was supposed to turn in.  His ninth grade English teacher saw an opportunity and challenged him to write a story a month, due on the first of every month.  If he met this deadline, the story would be used as extra credit (which he desperately needed).  This was just the push he needed to practice meeting those deadlines, and he began to produce stories on a monthly basis.

    In college, he met another challenge.  He had a college professor who told him he had to stop writing science fiction.  His professor told Shusterman that he had to write stories in every genre in which he felt most uncomfortable.  So he did.  In the process, he found that he could write in these genres - and his science fiction stories were no longer centered around the science fiction, but around real people with real problems, usually with some science fiction sprinkled in for the Shusterman flaire.

    After sharing all of this with his audience, he began the stories of where the inspiration came from for several of his books.  He started with Everlost, which I have not read.  Unwind is the only series I have read by Shusterman.  The books creeped me out so much that I was afraid to read anything else by him.  His stories hit me at my threshold of tolerance for science fiction in their creep-factor, but my intervention kids love them, so I read them.  Shusterman shared with us that he wrote the first few pages of Everlost  and then shelved the book for ten years before 9/11 when he was inspired by the New York skyline and the missing twin towers.  After 9/11, he said, the story began to take shape, and he wrote the Everlost series.

    After that, Shusterman shared the inspiration for the Unwind series.  I'm not sure where I had read or heard this, but this morning was not the first I had heard him talk about his inspiration for the books.  A British article about rogue teenagers in England was the first piece of news that made an impression on him.  He recalls, from the article, the implication that these teenagers should just be rounded up and put out of their misery.  The second, completely unrelated, article to which he credits the inspiration of Unwind was an article that reported the American public's preferences during elections.  The article reported that 80% of the country would be swayed one way or another on a particular candidate on the abortion issue alone.  Finally, an article on body part transplants - in particular a face transplant of a woman in France.  It was stated in the article that in a matter of just a few years, 100% of a body would be able to be used in a transplant.  Shusterman's big question, and one that is reflected in his trilogy . . . if 100% of you is alive, does that make you alive or dead?  Unwholly was supposed to be the last book, but it got to be so long that he broke it up and created his current book - due out in October - Unsouled.

    All-in-all, the chance to see Neal Shusterman speak this morning was the highlight of my day (although I still had to make a Starbucks run afterward).  To hear him speak of his experiences and inspiration for each of his books, of how he was able to perfect his craft, makes me think that perhaps my writing might still have a chance.  His words also allowed me to take back some key ideas:
    • Find a child's strength and challenge that child individually.
    • Challenge yourself and push yourself outside of your comfort zone to perfect your craft.
    • Use life experiences to inspire your story telling.
    • Start writing.  Stop, if you need to, but come back to it sometime in the future.