The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy Learning Blog Series

So much is emphasized, written, and said about the first 20 days of school. Well, I’m entering my last 20, and the work isn’t even close to being done. This blog series will chronicle the literacy learning of the last 20 days of school in my fifth grade classroom.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy

How are you making your last 20 days count? Share your work!

Modeling Vulnerability

I’ve always loved writing. My earliest memory of feeling like a writer was in Mrs. Jones’ sixth grade class at Piedmont Middle School in San Jose. I distinctly remember how Mrs. Jones invited each of us in class to write about a memorable experience we had. I chose to write about a boogie boarding experience gone wrong. I don’t remember everything about that exact piece, but I do remember finally feeling like a writer. Ever since this writing assignment in sixth grade, I have loved writing. I constantly find myself writing down my thoughts, lists, informational pieces, narrative tidbits here and there, and even responses to things I read. However, I have never ever sat down to write poetry. In fact, poetry made me really uncomfortable. Honestly, I can’t pinpoint why. The fact is, I never considered myself one who could actually write poetry. It was intimidating.

Yet, as a writer I know that my best writing often comes when I push myself out of my comfort zone. Come to think of it, the best of many things in life come when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones. So, on the first day of this month, National Poetry Month, I decided it was time to become comfortable with discomfort. I decided it was time to start writing poetry.

During the first few days of April, I found myself on spring break, so I had a little bit of time to warm up to poetry before writing in this form with my students. After seven days of writing it on my own- stressing about the right words, thinking my poems will never be up to snuff, I decided to just stop worrying about it and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So, when it came time to write poetry in class, I sat in front of my students, only the classroom document camera between us, and I started chatting with them about free verse poetry. When it comes to writing, I am not a rule follower. As a student, my assigned five paragraph essays were always four or six, and I always refused to use the teacher mandated planning pages because I wanted to make my own plans (I suspect this does not surprise anyone). Naturally, I gravitated toward reading and writing free verse poetry.

So, when it came time to finally write a poem in front of my students, I told them that after reading and discussing our ideas around Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, which was projected on our board, I suspected that poets often write poems about strong feelings or emotions that became overwhelming or all encompassing. I suspect that they do not worry about rules and fitting into prescribed boxes. It sounded something like this…

“Based on Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading, I’m guessing one way poets might think of ideas is by identifying really strong feelings or emotions they’re having. Then, I suspect they just start writing from their hearts and minds without worry.”

My students were nodding while looking up and me and Jacqueline Woodson’s poem projected on the board. I continued…

“So, I’m going to try that right now… Last night I went to a concert. I saw Weezer and the Pixies. It was just amazing!”

(As an aside, a few knew Weezer’s music, but I was alone in my love for the Pixies among my 10 and 11 year-old poets)

“When the band came on, the lights dimmed, the crowd jumped to their feet, and the beat of the drum and the strum of the guitars started to just overtake me. I felt pure joy!”

Then, I turned on the document camera and started writing in view of all my students. I just wrote what I felt while thinking of the previous night.

Once my poem was written, I continued chatting with my students…

“So, did you notice how I just thought of a really strong feeling I had? Did you notice how I just wrote from my heart without really worrying? It’s now your turn…”

Before I could even get my last words out, I noticed many of my fifth graders had already started writing their poems- from their hearts.

What they envisioned, felt, and created that day just blew my mind! I am so excited to see where the rest of the month, and actually the rest of this school year takes us. Sometimes, our most powerful lessons come when we don’t make exact plans and we just model vulnerability as writers and poets (yes- I’m a poet!) for our students.

Here are some of the poems my students wrote that day. All poems are shared with permission.

Thank you for reading and welcoming my vulnerability.

-Christina

Rethinking “I’m proud of you.”

Andi, a student of mine, was so excited during writing workshop today. After trying a few different things out, she finally wrote an introduction to her persuasive essay that she felt would really grab her readers’ attention. She excitedly requested a conference with me to ask what I thought about her introduction.

I didn’t plan to meet with Andi today, but she was so excited to share her writing that I certainly couldn’t say no. When we settled in for our conference together, I started off how I typically do with my fifth grade writers, “Hi Andi- what would you like to talk about?”

“I think I really wrote a great introduction! I want to know what you think!”

“Ok, can you read it to me?” I responded with a smile.

Andi then read her introduction aloud (which I have to say was very clever, and definitely made me want to read more!). As soon as she finished reading it aloud, she looked at me with a huge smile seeking out my approval by asking, “Do you like it?”

Some of you might be thinking- that’s great, she wants to share her writing! She’s seeking out the teacher to share her great work.

Well, I honestly had a different reaction. The last thing I want as a writing teacher is my students seeking out my approval. I don’t want them to look for the standard response of “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” Their job as writers (readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc) is not to gain my approval. So, I responded with something else. I tried to respond in a way to get Andi to seek out her own approval and to notice exactly what she did as a writer to make her feel this way.

“Well, what do you think about your introduction? Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?”

Andi quickly responded, “Yes! Definitely. I think my reader will want to keep reading. I think the statistic I shared will surprise them and make them want to know more about the topic.”

I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Andi, recognize how you’re feeling right now as a writer. Think about the decision you made to provoke this feeling in your future readers. This is potentially a strategy you can use again in your writing. I bet you can even share it with some classmates to support their efforts. Would you be up for that?”

“Yes! I’ll share why I decided to use the statistic to start! I really like how it sounds.”

“Take note of the pride you feel in yourself right now, Andi. Consider jotting down the decision you made as a writer in your notebook. Revisit it the next time you’re starting a piece of writing or perhaps when you’re conferring with a friend to support their work.”

“Ok. I will. Thanks, Ms. Nosek.” Andi then jotted down the strategy she made the choice to use in her notebook, and walked off feeling proud of herself as a writer. With that, our conference ended.

Now, imagine if I just told Andi that I was proud of her. If I used those words, it would have made her writing about pleasing me instead of empowering her. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling kids we’re proud of them. However, I’m making the effort with my teacher language to help them recognize when they are proud of themselves. The goal is helping my students empower themselves, not making me proud. Simple language choices make a big difference.

Greenbelt Writing- Thank you, Ralph Fletcher!

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Greenbelt writing inspires students to discover who they are and how they can grow into themselves as writers. This is just one of many pieces from the past few weeks.

 

How often in a child’s life do they get to set their own purpose and carve their own path? Perhaps a better question is, how often do the adults around them relinquish control to encourage kids to find their own way?

Well, I venture to guess that in today’s standards-focused schools, much of what kids do is decided by the adults around them.  Even in my own classroom, this is definitely the case. I set the schedule and I choose the lessons for the day. Again, I venture to guess that this is the case in most classrooms across the country.

However, I am a firm believer in choice- choice in where to sit, what to read, with whom to work, and at what pace to work. After all, I may set the tone in the room, but it is my students who are doing the actual work of learning.  In our reading workshop, choice is truly the name of the game, and my kiddos are all readers because of it.

However, I have to say that our classroom writing workshop just had a different feel to it. In writing workshop, I selected the genre, the lessons, the small groups, and the time of day. My students always selected their topics, but it just wasn’t enough to get them as excited and engaged in writing as they were with reading.

Enter Joy Write.

In Ralph Fletcher’s groundbreaking professional book for teachers, Joy Write, writing isScreen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.09.38 AM given back to the writer. There are many aspects of Joy Write that I could bring up, but the one that has had the biggest impact on my fifth grade writers this year is the idea of Greenbelt Writing.

Earlier this school year when I introduced Greenbelt writing to my young writers, I first showed an aerial picture of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. We discussed how in the park some people choose to bike, while others decide to go for a run or walk. Some might choose to have a fun and lively picnic with a large group of friends while others find solitude on a quiet bench reading. And, just a few yards away, others are walking their dogs, joining the Sunday outdoor lindy hop, strolling through the rose garden, or suffering through a paddle boat ride on a rickety old boat on the Stowe Lake. The point is- everyone uses the city’s greenbelt in a way that suits them at that moment in time. And, what to do and how to do it is completely up to each individual park-goer. We then connected this idea to writing.

In Greenbelt writing, young writers have complete choice over absolutely everything- genre, writing partners (or no writing partners), topic, place to work, publication for all to read or not, etc. Essentially, it is a space and time for students to discover who they are and what they need as writers. Needless to say, after this idea was first introduced, there were squeals of joy and wide eyed anticipation for the possibilities to come!

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Students can choose to share their pieces on our classroom Greenbelt wall.

Roughly once a week now for the past few months, one of our writing workshop sessions has been dedicated to greenbelt writing. In addition, when students feel they need a break from assignments, they are encouraged to do what is best for their growth as an individual writer, which may be to take a break from the assignment and head into the greenbelt- I compare this idea to the time I was writing my thesis in graduate school. I could have sat and written that thesis straight for eight hours a day without a break, but it probably would not have been my best writing. Rather, I wrote it in shorter bursts, taking a break to explore other creative ventures. And, those other creative ventures actually made me a better writer and my thesis a stronger piece of writing. Those creative ventures added to who I was as a writer.

This is the beautiful side effect of Greenbelt writing- by exploring who they truly are as writers, my students’ assigned writing volume and quality has also increased. It’s amazing what kids can do when we put all of the decision making power in their hands.

Thank you, Ralph. Thank you for helping me to inspire my young writers. You’ve given so many teachers and students such a gift with Joy Write.

 

 

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Another small sample from the Greenbelt…  You never know what young students will come up with when given the opportunity to explore who they are as writers!