Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE

balloons

My last post shared some words and ideas from two of the sessions I attended at this year’s NCTE convention, both of which powerfully demonstrated the deep and insightful work students can do if they’re given enough space and time. Those students also benefited from teachers who trusted them enough to let go, which isn’t always easy. We can fear, for instance, that if we let go we’ll lose control of the room. We can fear that students won’t learn what they need to, which will reflect on us badly. Or we can fear that if we veer away from our lesson plans or scripts, students may start to ask us questions we don’t have the answers for, which will reveal perhaps our other deepest fear—that we don’t always know enough.

Dropping the MaskThose fears and what can happen when we move beyond them were explored in a session called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” that I also wanted to share because the ideas were simply too inspiring not to spread around. Chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by a dynamite trio all connected to the Learning Through Teaching program in New Hampshire, Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey and Terry Moher, the session kicked off with a quote from yours truly and another from Tom Newkirk who, in an article called “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” suggests that

“‘opening up’ the discourse to allow for the expression of confusion and difficulty . . . allows us all, teachers and students, to drop the masks that can inhibit learning. We can all act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are. We can reveal ourselves as learners, not always the most graceful of positions.”

To help us feel the power of those words, Louise invited us to look at some of the iconic photographs she’s been sharing with students, such as the one below, and to consider the same three questions that she asks students to ponder: What does it say? What does it mean? and What does it matter?

KKK-Burning-cross

Those simple questions compelled us to look closely, ‘reading’ the details of the picture as closely as we want students to read the details of a text, and ‘suspending conclusions’, as John Dewey advises in order to share the different things we noticed and consider what they might mean.

Then Tomasen put us all in that ‘not always graceful position’ of learners by asking us to choose one of the images of faces she’d placed on each table and add to the drawing, which led many in the audience to say that the didn’t know how to draw. But draw we did, with most of adding a body and clothing to the head that seemed in keeping with the kind of person we imagined that face to be.

Vicki at NCTE

Next she shared some images from a blog post called “Collaborating with a 4-year Old,” which was written by an illustrator whose daughter commandeered her new sketchbook, much to the mother’s chagrin, to ‘finish’ the drawings she’d started:

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

After laughing at the mother’s story and marveling at the drawings, Tomasen asked us to turn our own drawing over, where we found the same disembodied face, and to try to add to it again. With no more than that we all started to draw, this time capturing who we thought the person was in much more creative ways than before as we instinctively moved from the literal to the figurative. And we picked up our pens with none of the hesitation or protest we voiced before, drawing the way the mother described her daughter doing: “insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done.”

This was possible, I believe, because we used the blog post drawings as a mentor text—a text that opened up what had been until then unimagined possibilities of how we could convey our thinking. Terry then took this one step further when she shared what happened when she used a visual mentor texts to a room of high school students who were reading The Scarlet Letter, a text that many students I know have considered to be the bane of their existence.

Having snagged a used class set of the book, Terry invited her students to mark up the text in any way they wanted, and rather than holding on to any of the practices we use to hold students accountable for reading—entrance slips, chapter summaries, pop quizzes—she gave them the option to not read sections provided they explained why in writing.

Moby-Dick in Pictures CoverAll by themselves, these choices helped her students read more than they otherwise might have, but things got even more interesting when she brought in what would be their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish, which I bought as soon as I got home. As Kish explains in the book’s forward, Moby-Dick had fascinated him since he first saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and also being obsessed with images, he decided to create an image for a quote from each and every page of the book. And as you can see from the images below, he used a wide range of materials and techniques to capture what he describes in his forward as his desire and goal: “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (p. 48)

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” (p. 48)
From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

“For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing – be the end what it may.” (p. 544) From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

With this text as a mentor, Terry asked her students to choose one quote from each chapter of the book and create an image for it. And just as happened with us in the room completing the drawings of those heads, the students images started out quite literal—think cut out pictures of Demi Moore in a white puritan cap—before they became more figurative. What was fascinating, though, was that, as some students ventured beyond the literal, the whole class decided that their pictures should attempt to capture something deeper about the characters’ psyche. And that class-wide decision yielded images like these, which I think are simply amazing:

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

Terry, herself, was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process. And that made me think that something Tom Romano had said in his poetry session—”No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”—applies to teachers and students as well: If there’s no surprise for the teachers, there can be no surprise for the students. Of course that means that we need to be willing to live with uncertainty—or as Cynthia Merrill, another amazing educator from New Hampshire, said in another session, “We need to be sure enough to be unsure.”

To do that, I think, we have to trust not just our students but ourselves and hold on to the belief that it may, in fact, be that willingness to be unsure that makes us, not only learners, but professionals—unless, of course, it’s something in the water in New Hampshire.

Edublog Finalist LogoP.S. Click through to vote for To Make a Prairie, a finalist for this year’s Edublog Award. Voting ends on December 18, 2013. THANKS!

Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.

Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.