Is Test Prep the Mint of Education?

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Close reading has been my mind a lot lately. I recently read What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. I revisited Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst as well as Falling in Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Yesterday, Tara Smith’s excellent post on reading journals gave me more to think about. This is important work. Work that will help our students “grow and develop new ideas and insights.” (Barnhouse & Vinton, pg. 152) I need time to process all this wisdom and work with my colleagues to determine how we’ll integrate these ideas into our teaching. I’ll be sharing more about this in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I want to share a post from 2013 that still holds true today.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Originally posted on Reading to the Core:

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via Wikimedia Commons

This morning as I was weeding my garden, it occurred to me that the mint that had overrun my herb garden was like standardized test prep. As schools across the country do their best to prepare students for the new CCSS-aligned assessments, test prep is running rampant. Just as the mint in my garden has choked out the basil and parsley, test prep, and the tests themselves, threaten to take over the school day, leaving no time to savor novels, delve into a character’s motivation, or write a deeply personal narrative.

I grow a variety of herbs in my garden because each herb has its own distinct flavor and use. The amount of the herb I use depends on what I’m cooking. The same is true for teaching. We have a wide variety of instructional resources and strategies available. As professionals, we take great care to make…

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Poetry Friday: “Headline”

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“Make poetry out of every moment.”

~ Cid Corman ~

The weather has been beautiful in Connecticut this summer, but several recent cool nights signal a change is on the way. Poets love to celebrate the seasons, and many wonderful poems sing the praises of autumn. Today I’m sharing a poem from Firefly July, (Candlewick Press, 2014), Paul B. Janeczko and Melissa Sweet’s gorgeous new anthology.

“Headline”

A leaf on

the doorstep—

dont even

have to pick

it up to

know the news.

by Cid Corman

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There are several wonderful poetry collections for children specifically about fall. My favorites include Autumnblings, (HaperCollins, 2003) by Douglas Florian, and Autumn: An Alphabet Acrostic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Steven Schnur. Both books are perfect to use as mentor texts for young poets.

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Be sure to visit Jone at Check It Out! for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: This Post Is Not Perfect!

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I thought about starting a blog for at least two years before I finally took the plunge with Reading to the Core. Many questions plagued me before I started. What would I write about? Would anyone read my ramblings? But the loudest and most persistent question was this: What if it’s not perfect?

Perfection paralysis (not my phrase, but I can’t remember where I first read it), I’ve since discovered, is quite common among writers and bloggers. And it seems that teachers with blogs are the most seriously afflicted. Many teachers are perfectionists to begin with, and the thought of sharing a piece of writing that might not be perfect with the whole world is sometimes more than we can take.

Here’s the thing about perfection paralysis, though. Paralysis is not a good thing. We are meant to move and learn and grow. This lesson has played out in my life a number of times over the last year, most recently during my week at the TCRWP Reading Institute.

Last week I shared the story of my trek over the Brooklyn Bridge with Dayna Wells. When I got back to my hotel that night, it occurred to me that our adventure was an apt metaphor for the situation many teachers find themselves in these days. Neither of Dayna or I had ever been to the Brooklyn Bridge, and the windy, rainy weather was less than perfect. But we ventured out anyway.

We took a risk that paid off not because we were lucky, but because we set ourselves up for success. First of all, we were together, supporting each other along the way. We had several tools at our disposal, namely the apps on our phones. We did head off in the wrong direction at the start, but our instincts helped us realize our mistake and we quickly turned around. And finally, we had a positive attitude, and set off ready to succeed.

Today, teachers around the country are at the foot of the bridge into the future. We have many tools and resources at our disposal to help us on this journey. We have instincts and knowledge to help us know when we veer off the right path. It’s up to us to bring a positive attitude to this challenge; one that will help us when we get discouraged. It’s critical, though, that we support one another along the way. In her keynote that kicked off the Institute, Lucy Calkins urged us all “to lift up the level of the people” we work with. We have to help one another improve our teaching so our students can learn and grow at higher levels.

Starting my blog and becoming part of the amazing community of teacher-bloggers on Two Writing Teachers, Poetry Friday, Twitter, and more has lifted the level of my teaching in ways I could never have imagined two years ago. So as we begin a new school year, if you have perfection paralysis about joining Twitter, starting a blog, or even trying a new unit, let it go. You may have a false start, and there will be bumps along the way. But the view from the top of the bridge is spectacular!

Photo via everystockphoto.com

Photo via everystockphoto.com

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: Notes on the Art of Poetry

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“When we read together…we are taken out of our aloneness. Together, we see the world. Together, we see one another. We connect. And when we connect, we are changed.”

Kate DiCamillo

Kathy Collins reiterated this message in her closing keynote at TCRWP’s Reading Institute last Friday when urged hundreds of teachers to “make this the year of the story in your classroom.”

Unfortunately, many children arrive at school without a sense of the importance of stories. So it is up to us, their teachers, to instill a love of stories and reading in our students, to turn the children in our classrooms into readers. As we get ready to welcome our new students (or reflect on the first weeks of school), here’s a poem celebrating the power of story to enrich and change our lives.

Notes on the Art of Poetry

by Dylan Thomas

I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on

in the world between the covers of books,

such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,,,

such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,

such and so many blinding bright lights,, ,

splashing all over the pages

in a million bits and pieces

all of which were words, words, words,

and each of which were alive forever

in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.

Please be sure to visit Laura at Live Your Poem for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Over the Brooklyn Bridge

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One of the things I miss the most about having a class of my own is the chance to talk with the kids each morning about what they did the night before. I loved hearing about their soccer games, ballet lessons, or time spent with their family. This kind of talk is essential to creating relationships and developing friendships.

Unfortunately, in our busy lives, it’s sometimes hard to find time to maintain relationships and friendships we already have, let alone make new ones. But that’s exactly what happened last week when I was in New York for the TCRWP Reading Institute.

Fellow slicer and tweep Julieanne knew I was going to be at the Institute and told her friend, Dayna, to look me up. Miraculously, she found me as we were leaving Riverside Church after Lucy Calkins’ inspiring keynote. We agreed to meet at the end of the day and make plans for dinner.

We hit it off immediately, and decided to meet again after our sessions on Tuesday. That morning, my section leader, Annie Taranto, mentioned that one of her favorite things to do in the city was walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. This idea appealed to me immediately, and I hoped Dayna would want to come along.

She loved the idea. So even though it was windy and threatening to rain, we set off, armed with the apps on our phones and our sense of adventure.

We got off the subway at the City Hall station, and proceeded to walk a block in the wrong direction. We soon realized our mistake, turned around, and found the entrance to the pedestrian walkway leading from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Despite the weather, many people were out enjoying the views. The Empire State Building towered over the city to the north.  To the south, the Statue of Liberty came into view.

Then there was the bridge itself. The distinctive gothic arches of the towers and the web-like steel cables give the bridge a graceful beauty. We peered down onto the cars and trucks below and agreed we were glad not to be sitting in the tangle of traffic beneath us.

Without a doubt, though, the best part of the whole evening was spending time with Dayna and getting to know her. We talked about our families, our histories, and our jobs. We shared ideas from the sessions we’d been in that day and talked about books we love. It felt like we were long-lost friends.

On the bridge with Dayna, wind-blown but having a great time.

On the bridge with Dayna, wind-blown but having a great time.

By the time we arrived back in Manhattan, it had started to rain and it was getting late. We found a pub not far from City Hall and continued to talk through dinner. It was much easier to find our way back to the subway, and soon we were headed back uptown to our hotels, tired and happy from our trek to Brooklyn and back. Happy to have found a new friend along the way.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: “I Am Poetry”

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I have spent the past week at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Summer Reading Institute. My brain is bursting with all I have learned from my amazing section leaders and the keynote speakers. My senses are overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of New York City in August. My life is richer because of people I have met and friends I have made. It has been a glorious week.

How could I possibly choose a poem to share today that reflects my week? By focusing on one small piece of my experience.

Each teacher was given a book at the beginning of the week to use as a mentor text for the work of the Institue. I received Becoming Naomi León (Scholastic Press, 2004) by Pam Muñoz Ryan. I have loved every book I’ve read by Ryan, but somehow, I had missed this beautiful story about a young girl finding her true self. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s writing is so lyrical, I wondered if she’d written any poetry. A quick search reminded me about The Dreamer, Ryan’s lovely book about the young Pablo Neruda and led me to this poem:

“I Am Poetry”

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

I am poetry,

waiting to seize the poet.

I ask the questions

for which all answers

exist.

I choose no one.

I choose every one.

Come closer…

…if you dare.

I am poetry,

lurking in dappled shadow.

I am the confusion

of root

and gnarled branch.

I am the symmetry

of insect,

leaf,

and a bird’s outstretched wings.

Read the rest of the poem here.

If you haven’t read Becoming Naomi León, The Dreamer, or any of Ryan’s other novels for children, read one today. You’ll be glad you did. 

Please be sure to visit Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Recipe for a Perfect Summer Day

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Last week I was lucky enough to spend four wonderful days at a lake in northern Wisconsin with my son, daughter-in-law, and her family. Inspired by the beauty surrounding me, and a poem I read recently by Laura Purdie Salas, I decided to write a recipe poem about my visit to Lake Minocqua.

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“Recipe for a Perfect Summer Day”

Take one lake filled with calm, clear water,

sun-warmed and sparkling.

Surround it with towering pine trees,

where bald eagles nest and perch.

Fill it with musky and largemouth bass,

walleye and northern pike.

Add:

pairs of loons, warbling their mournful cry,

graceful herons, still as statues on the shore,

iridescent dragonflies, darting over the surface.

Mix in families and friends who spend the day:

swimming and kayaking,

biking or hiking;

your choice.

Top with a campfire,

toasted marshmallows,

and gooey, chocolatey s’mores,

under a star-filled sky.

© Catherine Flynn, 2014

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Picture Book 10 for 10: Friendship Favorites

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“…nothing breaks this golden strand

spun by heart and not by hand.”

Clare Mishica

Picture Book 10 for 10 is the brainchild of Cathy Mere of Reflect & Refine: Building a Learning Community and Mandy Robeck of Enjoy and Embrace Learning. During this annual event, now in its fifth year, teachers, librarians, and book lovers create lists of 10 essential picture books. Cathy and Mandy collect and share these lists, and everyone is richer because of their efforts. Be sure to visit their blogs to see their lists, and check out links to other lists. Thank you, Cathy and Mandy, for organizing this celebration of children’s literature! This is my third year joining in the fun. Last year, I devoted my list to favorite books by Jane Yolen, and the year before, I shared favorite wordless picture books.

Last month, Jillian Heise and Kim McSorley wrote about their “Top Ten Favorite Picture Book Friendships” for Nerdy Book Club. Their list included many of my favorites, especially several of Mo Willems Piggy & Elephant books, Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle and Deborah Freedman’s The Story of Fish and Snail. But their list got me thinking about picture book friendships from the past, stories that my own children loved when they were small and stories that I’ve shared with my students throughout my teaching career. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites.

Amos & Boris  by William Steig (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971)

9780374302788_xlgI adore this timeless tale of friendship between a mouse and a whale. I spouted off about this book about a year ago. You can read more about it here.

Rugby & Rosie, by Nan Parson Rossiter (Dutton, 1997)

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This is a classic boy-and-his-dog tale with a twist. Rugby and the nameless narrator are always together: on the way to the bus, after school, and “he sleeps beside my bed at night.” Rosie, a puppy being trained as a guide dog, soon arrives and quickly becomes part of the family. Rossiter’s story follows the friends throughout the year of Rosie’s training and how the family deals with their sadness after Rosie’s inevitable departure.

Oma and Bobo by Amy Schwartz (Bradbury Press, 1987)

665429Alice is thrilled when her mother tells her she can have a dog for her birthday. She finds Bobo at the local animal shelter. When Alice asks her grandmother, Oma, what she should call the dog, Oma replies, “Trouble, Bother, and Nuisance.” Of course Oma’s feelings change by the end of the book and she plays a key role in Bobo’s success at obedience school.

Mrs. Katz and Tush, by Patricia Polacco (Bantam Books for Young Readers, 1992)

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Patricia Polacco is a master at telling tales of friendship, and this story of an elderly woman and her young neighbor is a classic. Strangers at the beginning of the book, Larnel, Mrs. Katz, and her kitten, Tush quickly become friends. Larnel learns much from Mrs. Katz about caring, family, and tradition.

Chicken Sunday, by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 1992)

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Another classic tale of intergenerational and multicultural friendship. As in many of her other books, Polacco combines illustration with family photographs, which give this book a very personal dimension. Kids love speculating about who’s who in the pictures on Miss Eula’s sideboard.

Pink and Say, by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 1994)

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Polacco tells this heart-breaking true story of two young Union soldiers with honesty and sensitivity. At the end of the book, Polacco shares how this story has been passed down through her family for generations. Thank you, Patricia Polacco, for sharing it with us.

Frog and Toad are Friends, by Arnold Lobel (Harper Trophy, 1970)

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Is there anyone who doesn’t love Frog & Toad? In this perennial favorite, Lobel depicts Frog and Toad weathering the everyday trials and tribulations of friendship with humor and compassion.

Farfallina & Marcel, by Holly Keller, (Greenwillow Books, 2002)

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Holly Keller’s gentle tale follows the friendship between Farfallina, a caterpillar, and Marcel, a goose, and how they withstand separation and BIG changes.

The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Kathryn Brown. (Harcourt, 1996)

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The old woman of the title has outlived all her friends and makes up for her loneliness by only giving names to things that will outlive her. But when a shy, brown dog arrives at her gate, the old woman reconsiders the wisdom of this decision. Rylant explores our universal need for companionship with tender understanding.

Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books, 2000)

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Poor Wemberly worries about everything. Her family tells her she worries too much, but this doesn’t stop her. Wemberly’s list of worries gets even longer when she starts school. But when she makes a new friend, Jewel, her worries are forgotten. Wemberly Worried is a fine example of Henkes’s mastery of capturing the feelings of preschool and primary kids.

There are so many other books I could have included on this list. What’s your favorite tale of friendship?

Poetry Friday: “The Picnic”

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“The Picnic”

We brought a rug for sitting on,

Our lunch was in a box.

The sand was warm. We didn’t wear

Hats or shoes or socks.

Waves came curling up the beach.

We waded. It was fun.

Our sandwiches were different kinds.

I dropped my jelly one.

by Dorothy Aldis

I discovered this poem years ago in Jack Prelutsky’s wonderful anthology, Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young. (Knopf, 1986) And although Dorothy Aldis wrote it almost 100 years ago, children can relate to this simple depiction of a picnic at the beach just as easily today as they did then. First graders love this poem, and the concrete details help those kids who don’t automatically visualize learn to create images from a poet’s words.

"Cassatt Mary Children on the Beach 1884". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cassatt_Mary_Children_on_the_Beach_1884.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Cassatt_Mary_Children_on_the_Beach_1884.jpg

“Cassatt Mary Children on the Beach 1884″. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Hope you all have time for one more picnic at the beach before summer ends! Please be sure to visit Mary Lee at A Year of Reading for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Slice of Life: Becoming Fearless

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“Play around. Dive into absurdity and write. Take chances. You will succeed if you are fearless of failure.” 

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within

I highlighted these lines in my copy of Goldberg’s wise and funny book years ago. But I feel like I’m just beginning to truly understand their implication in terms of what is possible for me as a writer.

Why did it take me so long to come to this understanding? Maybe I’m a slow learner. More likely is the fact that I’ve been writing a lot this summer. And through the process of becoming more immersed in the story I’m working on, I have become fearless. Okay, less fearful.

But there’s more to it than just writing more. Two experiences from the past month have played a huge role in helping me get to this point.

Thanks to a conversation Melanie Meehan and Betsy Hubbard had on Twitter a few months ago, I am now part of an online critique group. I cannot overstate how lucky I am to work with Melanie, Stacey, and Julie. They are incredibly supportive and kind, but also offer meaningful suggestions and advice. Another benefit of being part of this group is reading my partners’ amazing writing. Melanie, Stacey, and Julie are all talented writers, and I’ve already learned so much from the pieces they’ve shared with the group.

My experience at art camp earlier this month also helped me be more comfortable to “play around” and “take chances” in my writing. One of the activities that I found especially helpful was creating an “analog drawing” of a problem. In analog drawing, only lines are used to express emotion, among other things. As I sketched my problem, I realized I was creating a narrow doorway with a border that looked very much like battlements. “Is this how I approach problems?” I wondered, appalled at the thought. I began to sketch other doorways, doorways that opened wider and were less rigid. As I continued to draw, I came to the realization that these narrow doorways were impacting my writing.

So it was with these two experiences in mind that I was able to not, in Natalie Goldberg’s words, be “tossed away…by [the] fiasco” of this line in my first draft of a story about a girl whose mother has just died:

“Holly was devastated that she would be separated from her two best friends.”

As my husband might say, “Well, no s*&t, Sherlock.” As soon as I read this line, I knew my critique partners would point out its many weaknesses immediately. I really didn’t want them to even see this lame line. I also thought of my drawing of the opening doors. Why was I afraid to find out how Holly dealt with this devastation?  Just write. Dive in and see where this line leads.

After an hour of revision, one short sentence had become two pages of action and dialogue that reveal much about Holly and her mother. These are the lines (which still need plenty of work) that replaced the original, obvious statement of Holly’s feelings:

“Holly stared in disbelief at the lists taped up on the glass doors. Tears filled her eyes as she turned away and ran from the parking lot toward the playground. “Arrrgh!” she screamed as she jumped onto bottom rung of the jungle gym. Her hands clung to the cold metal of the bars as if they were all that kept her from falling into a giant black cave.”

In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron writes that we are “creating pathways [into our] consciousness through which the creative forces can operate.” I realize now that I had to write the first line in order to create the pathway to get to the second line. Uncovering deeper understandings about these characters and their story isn’t always possible without a surface level understanding of who they are. Put another way, just as artists have to sketch the outline of a subject before they can add layers of color that create nuance and depth in their drawing or painting, writers have to start with a general idea of what their writing is about before they can add the nuance and depth that creates memorable characters.

While I’m happy about the writing I’ve done over the past month, I’m unsettled by the implications of how I arrived at these insights for teaching. Having the luxury of filling my days with reading, writing, drawing, and thinking about what interests me, at my pace, is not an opportunity we give our students very often, if ever. Children need the time to play and explore, to discover what is possible, not just in writing, but in all areas of their lives. They also need the kind of supportive and nurturing environment my critique group has given me. Finding a way to provide these conditions is critical for anyone, young or old, to create the pathways into their consciousness that will awaken them to all the possibilities within themselves.

Thank you, as always, to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting Slice of Life each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

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