Tuesday, June 10, 2014

“Teachers as Story-Tellers (for Writing’s Sake)” Written by John Dorroh

   Some of the best classes for me as a K-12 student were when my teachers told a story. Sometimes the story was meant to stand alone, often emphasizing some point of a recent lesson; perhaps a reinforcement of sorts. Other stories were told spur of the moment, usually at the teacher’s discretion. However, there was a respected clique of “designated de-railers” who were experts at getting the teachers off the subject.
   Ruth Webb, my fourth-grade teacher, was an “extreme” story-teller. The first day of the school year she shared with us in great detail the trip that we’d be taking that year around the world.  Somehow one of her sons had managed to move a small wooden red fishing boat into one of the corners of the classroom. It was in that boat where Mrs. Webb stood to prepare us for the upcoming trip that would take us to at least 15 countries.
   “Our boat, class,” she said, stretching her hand out as if to look beyond the horizon, “is much, much larger than the boat in which I’m standing.  It’s a seaworthy sailing ship with room for all of us and our provisions.”
   To this day I can remember pulling into the port of Venice, Italy, in our imaginary vessel.  We learned about lire, spaghetti alla bologanese, the museums, St. Mark’s Square, gondolas, life along the Grand Canal, the turbulent history of the floating city, and its relationship to the United States.       She told stories about common, ordinary citizens such as Pietro Lombardi, the “Olive Man,” as well as more well-known Venetians who banded together on the mudflats of the surrounding lagoons to protect themselves from the Horrible Huns.
   Ruth Webb made social studies come alive with her stories, leaving us to believe that we’d actually been to those places.  The rich details she used, her excitement in sharing her knowledge and discoveries, and her commitment to having us “fish deep” helped us to learn in an engaging manner, which made learning fun, easy, and all but guaranteed.
   Betty Caldwell, my seventh-grade world history teacher, was another superb story-teller.  She made us take copious amounts of notes from three separate blackboards. The drudgery! But the notes would become a useful reference as she told stories that made us feel we were there, reliving history.
   “Do you know, students, the real story of Cleopatra?”
Silence washed over us as we waited to find out what she had to say about one of the most famous females in history. It was only then that the notes made sense. They were the background of the characters that played such memorable roles in the history of our world.  Perhaps most importantly the notes helped us to make connections to our own lives.
   Unfortunately, the majority of my teachers didn't have the gift of story-telling. That didn't make them bad teachers; they had their own methods. (OK, a few shouldn't have ever been issued a teaching license). Looking back I can state with some certainty that I excelled in the classes in which teachers engaged me with their background character scaffolds, anecdotes, chronicles, and regular humorous asides.
   As previously stated, a few of our classmates were professionals at getting our teachers off the subject.  Some teachers caved in, but others were aware of the underlying motives and refused to deviate from their precious lesson plans. “No time for that…we’ve got to cover these notes…”
   Years later in my own high school science classroom, I understood the value of story-telling and of letting students “get me off the subject.” With a bit of practice and foresight, I could determine where the side-tracking efforts were headed, and I could usually lead the conversation back to the lesson. No one taught me how to do that; I simply modeled what my story-telling teachers had done with me.

How writing tied in with story-telling…
   I often used story-telling as a springboard for writing. My first concern was whether the story (by student or teacher) was unstructured or not. For example, if the story was instantaneous, told as a personal anecdote, I often made a mental note or jotted a single word for reference. Unprompted stories were generally more difficult to tie in with a writing goal (i.e. - giving evidence to substantiate a main point) since it was a chance occurrence.
   An example is the story that Larry B. shared about his motorcycle wreck in front of West Point High School one morning. 
   “…I really wasn't speeding or nothing, and suddenly a red truck…I think it was a Chevy… comes backing out into the street…I had just looked over at the front door of the school for less than a second and BAM!  There was glass and an awfully big crash of metal and glass shattering on the pavement…my body stopped like really quick and I could see the back panel of the truck coming my way. I swear, Mr. D., I was only going about 20 miles per hour. And it almost caused my bike to be totaled…”
   Since we had been studying Isaac Newton’s work earlier in the week, Larry surprised us when he said, “Hey…when my body and bike stopped so quickly, like on a dime, was that Newton’s laws or what?  Which of those laws was that, Mr. D?’’’
   What a grand moment for a teacher! Don’t get me wrong. I was sorry that it took an accident for Larry to have such an epiphany, and I was happy that no one got hurt, but hearing his story had served as a vehicle, in part, for him to make a connection of a scientific principle to his everyday life.
   I knew that all three of Newton’s Laws had played a part, but I felt a need for the students to make that discovery for themselves. My mentor, Bob Tierney, an original member of the Bay Area Writing Project at Berkeley, had spoken to thousands of teachers around the world about the “exhilaration of discovery.” His articles and books (How to Write to Learn Science, NSTA, 2014) mentioned its importance as well.
   To begin the discovery process, I instructed my students to write a journal entry about Larry’s accident, focusing on, and being aware of instances where forces of motion had come into play.  My accommodations included a longer period for writing and large pictures of motorcycles, trains, and cars taped on the walls near the front of the room, to help establish a tone. I didn’t know if or to what degree video clips might prejudice their writing, so I didn’t use any.
   Fifteen minutes later after the buzzer sounded, most of the students volunteered to read their entries about Larry’s crash. It quickly became evident that most of them were discovering, through Larry’s story and their own reflective writing, that all three of Newton’s laws had played a part in Larry’s wreck that fateful Friday morning. Andre R. wrote:
      “…Larry is lucky!  He could have been killed…I wonder what Mr. Newton would have said about that?...Of course, Mr. Newton didn’t invent the laws of nature, he just found a good way to describe their effects to the rest of us…The first law says that things in motion stay in motion and things at rest stay at rest. Well, everything was in motion, including Larry and his motorbike…When he hit the truck, it stopped him like Larry said. Actually he said that he saw the truck coming toward him!  The second law was something about momentum. Bigger things have more force in motion, something like that…the truck had lots more of that than Larry or his bike…and the third law is that all motion has an equal and opposite reaction. I’m not sure how this ties in with Larry. Like I said, Larry is a lucky dude. Keep your eyes on the road Larry!”
  Although there were a few misconceptions in their writing, we cleared these up with some “mild conversation.”

More structure…
   Often I used a more structured form of combining story-telling with writing. For example, when we began a unit on amphibians and reptiles in a biology class, I invited everyone to tell a personal snake story. I hypothesized that everyone in the world who could walk and talk had at least one snake story to share with anyone who’d listen.
   To model a good snake story, I went first. I used my facial expression, change in volume, and mannerisms to convey how frightened I was the day I encountered a water moccasin floating on a piece of lumber where some buddies and I were swimming. Everyone had had such experiences and was willing to tell them to the class.  When we were finished, I felt sorry for snakes, who had received such a bad rap from us humans.
   The readings were followed by our first writing component, which was a short composition in which the students recounted someone else’s snake story. I instructed them to interview that person after writing 5-8 probing questions intended to draw out information about their snake experience: Where did the snake story take place – woods, backyard, lake, etc? What was the weather like that day/night? Were there other animals in the vicinity?
   After interviewing their fellow classmates, we collaborated to prepare a large table on chart paper that had headings on tops of the vertical columns: “Habitat”/ “Time of Day” /  “Description of Snake”/ etc. That chart served as a basis for establishing a foundation for our studies on reptiles. We referred back to the chart paper throughout the unit, adding additional columns and data as we learned more information.

   Good teachers, I believe, have been telling stories for thousands of years. Aristotle, Socrates, Jesus, Dr. Seuss, and Ruth Webb all used story-telling to convey main points of all sorts of lessons. With a bit of effort and planning a mediocre lesson can become memorable for even less-sophisticated students. Combining writing with the story-telling can make help your students “go deeper” with the text and with their understanding of any discipline.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Let's Discuss Code Switching and Culture

Layla Azmi Goushey is a beloved Gateway TC.  She wrote an interesting post for Something’s Developing that we wanted to share also.   She graciously agreed, but after reading, we’re sure you’ll want to check out more great thoughts on writing at http://somethingsdeveloping.blogspot.com

I grew up in a code-switching environment in Dallas, Texas. 

I used to puzzle over the Arabic language on labels of my family's Arabic pantry staples; for example, Ziyad Brothers brand of Tahini.
I knew the term Tex-Mex as an identity. The term Tex-Mex reflects a synthesis of Mexican and Texan traditions that result in a unique, vibrant culture.  
 And in Dallas, Texas, who can forget Big Tex at the State Fair, giving us a hearty, cowboy-friendly welcome?  Howdy Ya'll!

These linguistic curios represent subcultural and behavioral norms.

 If we think about it, most of us come from a code-switching environment. Our codes just reside in varying distances from our mainstream American-English code. From my American mother and grandmother, I learned linguistic novelties that most likely hailed from the fields of Alabama where my great-grandmother was from. Active kids were "little fireanzies" (little and full of frenzy) and during moments of levity or chaos we often wondered "what in the sam hill  is going on?!"  I noticed my maternal grandmother and mother liked to add words in-between the syllables of other words; for example, "I guaran (insert favorite word here) tee you" as in "I guaranDARN tee you." 

My father, a native Arabic speaker, taught me basic Palestinian Arabic; enough to navigate my way through a social event: Marhaba (hello), Ahlan (welcome), and biddac ishrab qahawa (would you like to drink coffee)?  He also liked to replace similar-sounding English words such as seat  belt for suit belt.  I still fondly say that I am buckling my suit belt when I get in my car.

Finally, I learned much about mainstream American English from my favorite television shows. 

For that reason, I think it is important to bring the concept of code-switching to the fore when we begin a new semester in writing, reading or communications.  In fact, any course that introduces new vocabulary to students, such as when they are entering a specialized field, could use a good discussion of code-switching to lay the ground work for what is to come in the course.  This way, students understand that they are not negating their home dialects, but expanding their reach into new socio-cultural areas through communication structures.

There are great examples of this concept available in video and audio form on the internet.

For the incoming freshman who has an interest in health care but is not familiar with  health-care settings:

For students whose parents are immigrants, an example that could mirror their own early years, and how they have arrived at their Spanglish, Arabizi or other multilingual dialect.


Multi-lingual (Indonesian, English, French)


For African Americans and all Americans who switch between regional and home dialects.

So as we begin a new semester, let us remind ourselves and our students that our home dialects are not wrong; rather, they are essential aspects of who we are. Home dialects have intrinsic value that honors our cultural heritage.  Learning new literacies, or codes, helps us navigate more social, academic, and professional spheres.


Academic English

African - American Culture

And let's not forget texting and emoticons as an emerging home dialect.

تتمتع الفصل الدراسي الخاص
(Enjoy your semester)

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Caroline Hackmeyer

This has been a busy year for me: undertaking National Board certification, chairing my department, teaching a couple of new-to-me courses.  It may be my seventh year of teaching, but—as always—I feel a little bit like a rookie trying to figure things out.  My family and friends outside the profession say I’m a perfectionist, but I see myself as always being in the midst of the very messy process of revision.

I’m always trying to get better:

·        How can I get my kids past the raw comprehension of Othello and into the 
         study of Shakespeare’s language choices?

·        How can I move students from making inferences as they read to recognizing 
         patterns throughout the entire text?

·        How can I create student independence in the thinking and writing process?

·        Etc. Etc. Etc.    

Now, as I embark on my newest endeavor, leading the GWP’s study group on Writing Craft, I find myself asking more and more questions:

·        What books should we study?

·        With the push towards argument and informational writing, where does 
          narrative writing fit in?

·        How can we make room in our classrooms for narrative writing despite our 
         other time constraints?

Narrative writing is something that English teachers have always excelled in, but we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Over the past few months, I’ve begun to realize that my baby might be long gone.  The thing is, the rest of the community and our administration haven’t even realized my baby is missing yet.  I’m being contacted left and right about this writing contest and that guest-poet, told second-hand of my administration’s full commitment to our students taking advantage of these opportunities, and left wondering how I am supposed to do it all.

As teachers, we deal in the currency of time.  A mandatory assembly here and test-prep lesson there are time spent that can never be recovered.  Yes, perhaps it is an investment, but will we ever see the return?  And what about the bills we have yet to pay: critical reading and analysis, argument writing, informational writing, performance tasks?  Is there any time left to budget towards narrative writing?

Tough questions.  I think the answer is that we have to make time for narrative writing.  So, how do we do this?  And how do we convince the rest of the world that class time working on narrative writing is time well spent?  I hope these are questions our Writing Craft Study Group will be able to answer.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fifty (Thousand) Frantic Words

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for those who have never summoned the courage to try it...for those who are (bluckbluckbluck) chicken.
Yeah, courage. I'm trying to rile you up. Is it working? 
What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? It's a network of writers all over the world who are hoping to tap out 50,000 in November. It's simple to begin. You create an account, and beginning November 1, you work on your novel. The site keeps track of your word count, along with updating little bar graphs that show your progress (or lack of, if the bar doesn't grow for a few days).
It's also simple to physically connect to other NaNo-ers. All over St. Louis and St. Charles are write-ins and get-togethers aimed at keeping you on track.
Unfortunately, it's also simple to crash and burn. I've had two years where I've wrapped my novel around a huge tree trunk, and ended up going up into the sky in a enormous fireball. Last year, I got to 42,000-something, which makes me a loser, but in my opinion, I was a winner. During that short month (which has a major landmine--Thanksgiving--but I'm sure your family won't mind if you drag a plate back to your lair so you can keep on writing while you ignore the family festivities and hey--if you are supposed to be responsible for cooking the holiday meal, just shriek repeatedly, "I am writing a book! Leave me alone!" They'll understand. And they'll be content with some cold hot dogs straight from the fridge), I made a great deal of progress on my story.
And this year I'm back. I'm hoping to finish my novel sometime before January, so I can start to seriously revise it in the spring.  
The big surprise is once you begin writing, and once you banish your inner critic to another solar system for the next 30 days, the surrender leads to the story writing itself. Different plot twists rear their heads at surprising spots. You're not in control of the story any more. The story is rolling out in front of you on its own power. You no longer scrutinize every word as you write--"Just get the story down," becomes your mantra. And NaNo helps you develop discipline (if you don't already have an overabundance of the stuff). Writing every day becomes a habit.
So be brave. Go to http://nanowrimo.org to get more details. 
But most importantly, write...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

GWP Teachers as Writers Group

GWP Writing Marathon Report

The Teachers as Writers group of GWP has held writing marathons exploring various parts of the metro area.  At each event teachers use the time to write and be inspired by the environment.  At the end of the marathon, everyone gathers for lunch and writings are shared on a volunteer basis.  Additionally, all teachers leave the event with a take-away activity they can use in their classes.

On Friday, June 14, a dozen GWP members met at Picasso’s in downtown St. Charles for the spring marathon.  The temperature was in the low 80’s outside, the sky was clear, and there was a general enthusiasm in the air as Angela Muse reviewed the procedures of the activity.  To help inspire creativity, she provided each person with a map of historic Main Street and pointed out a few areas where people could sit and draft. Jeff Church distributed an outline which included times.

Before everyone scattered to write, Kim Gutchewsky shared her takeway: a triolet. She explained that a triolet is an eight-lined poem with one line appearing three times and another one appearing twice.  Her handout broke down how to compose the poem line by line and included three samples.   

For the next two and a half hours, the ideas and environment took center stage as the small crowd broke up so people could explore and write.  At noon, writers regrouped at Winery of the Little Hills to share their writings over lunch.  It’s worth noting more than a few of the participants wrote triolets during the marathon.  I’ve included one of mine at the end of this post.

Caroline Hackemeyer shared a handout outlining how place-based writing aligns with the Common Core. Her handout was a linear flow chart on one side which broke down the steps a teacher can use to facilitate a writing assignment.  On the other side, various components of the Common Core Standards (CCS) were discussed as well as how writing creatively can help prepare students for the performance tasks in the CCS.

Besides their personal writings, full stomachs, the joy of sharing and hearing the works of other teachers, and the classroom activities, everyone received a certificate of attendance to include in their personal portfolios.  As Angela Muse noted, “This is professional development.” 

In the fall, the Teachers as Writers group will have another writing-centered event.  Stay tuned.

Overenthusiastic Tour Guide (a triolet)
A tourist at home showing off
The sights and sounds of her hometown.
She ignores the boredom cough,
A tourist at home showing off.
“Here was So-and-So’s water trough.”
Pleasant smiles slowly turn upside-down.
A tourist at home showing off

The sights and sounds of her hometown.

by Linda Barro
GWP writing marathoner, Kathy Lewis writes by the Missouri River
in Frontier Park in St. Charles

Diane Scollay composes in Frontier Park

Caroline Hackmeyer, explains how creativity fits into the Common Core to the group as
 Kathy Lewis and Donna Nix listen

 Lauren Flecke and Jeff Church look through one of the take-aways from the marathon

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Maggie Klonsky

This I Believe Project

            During Summer Institute one of my colleagues mentioned using NPR’s “This I Believe” pieces in her Language Arts class, so I decided to develop a project using this great resource within my own classroom. The past couple of years, I’ve used this with my eighth-grade students at the end of the school year, as we all know, a challenging time to keep students engaged. But because these projects were of personal importance, they became invested and worked tirelessly through several drafts to complete finished products that they could be proud of and hopefully cherish for a lifetime.
First, I immersed my students in samples from This I Believe II that we annotated and discussed. Since these essays were very different from the more familiar content-area essays, we spent a lot of time discussing the structures, the craft of the authors, and how they were able to weave their themes throughout the pieces. As we looked to these mentor texts, I encouraged the students to start thinking of their own guiding philosophies, beliefs, pet peeves, passions, interests, etc. They also had to decide on the tones of their pieces, humorous, light-hearted, cynical, or serious.
We spent time brainstorming in small groups about potential ideas. Once the students narrowed down their topics, we worked on incorporating autobiographical anecdotes to portray their themes. The students posted the pieces to their blogs and received feedback from their peers on how to strength their writing and they frequently looked back to the published samples for guidance. 
After finalizing the written pieces, the students shared their works to the student body as words of wisdom during our daily school assemblies. This was a great opportunity for the eighth-graders to showcase their work and to serve as leaders to our younger students.
To add richness to these projects, the art teacher and I have collaborated. The first year, the students created dioramas of buildings or spaces in their future communities using their writing pieces as anchors. This past year, the students were given disposable cameras to take self-portraits and other pictures that represented themselves.  Many of them also took pictures of family and friends or important objects. Then, we took the cameras to Laumeier Sculpture Park and the students looked for sculptures or objects in nature that characterized aspects of themselves.

One student knew that she wanted her piece to be about writing being her outlet, so she wanted to reflect this in her self-portrait.

            Once the pictures were developed, the students created collages with their writing pieces in the center. We used large frames with plenty of white space on the edges. This way the students could select from their photos and other mixed-media to create pieces of art.

             Finally, we displayed the final products at their graduation dinner so that the students and the families could celebrate the creativity and uniqueness of the students and their pieces.

Below is a sample from Lauren:

This I Believe
I believe in fairytales.
            When most people are children, they hear magical stories of princesses and wizards and talking animals. We learn about a jolly old man who brings us presents on a cold December night, a fairy who leaves rewards when our teeth fall out and we hide them under our pillows, or a human-size bunny that leaves eggs filled with treats in the spring. And we believe in these stories, because why shouldn’t we? A child wants to believe that there can be more, that there is more. They want to be the knight in shining armor that saves the day. They want to be the regal queen who rules her kingdom fairly. So as a child, we strive for this more.
            But as we grow older, this “more” dies within us. We look back at these stories we read as a child and say, “I believed in that?” Looking back at the tales of magical beings, we call them childish and stupid and not real. Why is that, though? When did we lose touch with what was important to us, what we made every effort for? When Reality set in. As we grew older, we were told to believe what was factual and what could be proven. Who cared what we wanted to believe, it was all about what they wanted us to believe.
            When I was little, I had a strong adoration of mermaids. I loved the idea of just being able to swim and swim and swim and not worry about anything at all. But as I grew older, that idea seemed unrealistic to me. My views changed, and I thought, ‘That’s never going to happen; I was so silly to ever believe that.’ Then my outlooks changed again when I first learned about Eric Ducharme. For a living, he made mermaid tails that people could swim in. He’s said that people always thought what he did was weird because most people thought of mermaids and never mermen. But he said he did it because it was something he loved to do, and he could have fun doing it. He helped me to start thinking, ‘Maybe being a mermaid is possible after all.’ He helped me to get my beliefs back
             Maybe if more people had someone to tell them, “Yes, this can happen! Believe it can happen!” they would still hold on to these visions of magic and love that always works out and a near perfect story. Or maybe just the possibility that their dreams can come true.  Because of society, we’ve been told that the fairytales we heard when we were younger was a bunch of bull. We need to begin to encourage ourselves and others to never stop believing, whatever we want can happen, including our dreams and our goals.
            I believe my letter to Hogwarts was lost in the mail, and that it is on its way. That if I travel to the second star on the right, I will find Peter Pan and Neverland. I believe in princesses and knights and dragons and animals with human characteristics. I believe that anything and everything is possible. And because of these beliefs, I want to push for that more so that I can end up with the fairytale ending God wants for me.
“Every man's life is a fairy tale written by God's fingers.” –Hans Christian Andersen

Monday, May 27, 2013

Sioux Roslawski

  A random autobiography is an autobiography--in free verse form--with tidbits of our lives arranged randomly. I've likened them to a 3-D movie. Events from our lives come flying out at the reader in an unpredictable way. Look out! Duck! There goes another thing zinging at us from our past.
          After we talk about what an autobiography is, and what random means, we do some brainstorming. What kind of happenings can we include? The contributions that usually come up are things like:
  • a trip to the ER
  • a special holiday
  • the death of a friend/relative
  • a memorable gift
  • having to move
  • losing a pet
  • a incredible vacation
       Below is a kid-friendly random autobiography I recently shared at a writing festival for students in the 3rd-5th grade. I was quick to say that it was still rough, and I was not at all happy with the ending yet (the conclusion is just kind of crammed in there), but the young writers gave me some ideas.  One student noticed that nature is a major theme, so when I'm revising it, I might include that as a "thread."
     I suggest, if you haven't already, working on a random autobiography on your own...and then having your students work on one.
A Random Autobiography
When I was 7 or so, I caught a stingray.
We were fishing in Florida, and since it wasn’t a fish,
my dad cut it loose.
(I was furious.
Still am.)
It dangled from my fishing line,
its sleek gray body thrashing as it tried to get away.
Once my father took a pocket knife to the plastic fishing line,
it glided away…out of my life forever.
Once, my brother brought us home a puppy.
We already had a dog—Lady—so we had to hide it overnight
in our garage.
We put the little girl pup in a box, with a bunch of blankets.
When our parents heard strange noises,
they discovered our secret.
At first they said, “No more dogs,”
but we begged them to, “Look at its face”
and they fell in love with her.
We named her Jen Jen,
and she was a member of our family
for the next fourteen years.
Words on paper have power.
When I was 13,
I got a spot on the school newspaper.
The other kids laughed at my humorous stories.
How exhilarating.
I loved the idea of my writing
making people chuckle.
I still get excited over it.
I discovered at recess that I was definitely not an athlete.
I think I was ten.
No matter how the kids yelled at me
or how hard I tried,
I could only swing…and miss
(and I missed every time)
when we played baseball.
To this day, the thought of playing ball
makes me sweat.
When I was eight, I got to ride on an elephant.
It happened an hour or so before the circus began,
and my mom and dad paid $20
for me to sit on top of that huge animal.
I rocked back and forth,
Like I was on a six-ton rocking chair.
still remember how its skin felt.
and dry,
with wiry hairs
sprouting out here and there.
I traveled through the Smoky Mountains
with my family
in our old station wagon
and saw bears come right up to our car window.
I once fell off the high diving board
and broke my arm,
and I’ve hunted for crawdads and snails
in the creek across the street.
What I’ve found—so far—is life is great.
When Jen-Jen died, I sobbed for days
but when I saw my byline
(my name!)
on the front page
of our school newspaper,
I squealed with joy.
Yes, life is good…