Evolving Understanding

Our district has been rolling out the TC Phonics Units of Study for the past three years. Throughout that time, we’ve been growing our understanding and practice when it comes to teaching children how words work. In growing our understanding and practice, we find ourselves looking at children through multiple lenses in order to know their strengths and find teaching points.

Last week, I walked into Rachel’s room for Reader’s Workshop. Her second graders were all engaged in reading. Red book bags lay open and children were scattered. Rachel was at her table working with a reader. I quietly called three children over for a guided reading group. We began our work with a snap word warm up. “I know you all can read these words, but we want to be sure we can spell them, too!” Then, I modeled how to trace the letters of each work, whisper the spelling into their mask and then read the word. They followed my lead and independently worked. I watched. I taught into formation while they concentrated on spelling. I transitioned them from the snap word warm up to the book with, “Now that you’ve practiced spelling, let’s read.” Eagerly, the children took the book and we went on to guided reading which then led them back to independent reading.

As the group dispersed, Rachel came over with a stack of papers and sat down next to me. “So, here’s the DSA (Developmental Spelling Assessment). I’ve got a couple of kids who are strong readers and their DSA surprised me.” “Great!” I said. We then talked about how important it is to use the information from a spelling assessment to let it inform our instruction for not only the reader, but the writer. “If children know phonics elements in reading, we need to be sure expect them to use them as writers. If they aren’t using those elements then we need to adjust our teaching and our expectations.” I said to Rachel as the workshop came to close.

This moment has lingered in my mind. A few years ago, without the TC Phonics Units of Study and the DSA, this conversation would never had happened. But now, thanks to a careful roll out of the Units and continued conversations within and across grade levels our understanding of what it means to teach phonics is evolving. We are striving to expect the transfer of phonics to reading and writing all while growing confident, strong readers.

summer still…

I sat, saw, and heard….

it’s still summer

the sunflowers told me so

the green leaves

echoed the sunflowers sentiments

whispering in the wind

it’s still summer

the year is underway

school has started

but summer is still here

cherish all it gives

Back on the Bleachers

“Keep the ball rolling!” Billy mutters. “Oh! Ugh!”

“Ugh! Oh!” I mutter.

“They all look the same out there.” Billy laughs.

“They sure do, their ponytails all sway the same way!”

The sound of sticks cracking and the thwump of the ball meeting the stick echo in between whistles. The game is fast paced and the girls have been playing more offense than defense.

“Oh! Oh! Shoot!” someone says, and then, “Ugh! So close.”

Parents are in the bleachers, under a clear blue afternoon sky. They’ve come, we’ve come, to watch the first high school field hockey game of the season.

Last year, they practiced in small groups. They played under strict rules and heavy fear. Watching them today was a welcome sight. The practice, the positioning, the teamwork all appeared on the field.

Sitting in the bleachers, watching, I was reminded how much being together matters.

Stronger Communities

First day of school, 1999ish: “My” third graders have just come back from lunch. Red faced cheeks and sweaty brows greet me. They gather on the rug in front of the easel. Beside me sits a stack of thick, unlined sketch journals – waiting. I introduce the sketch journals by sharing my own sketch journal. I reveal the invitations for the first workshop. Sketch/draw a moment from your summer. Describe the moment. Sketch or write about something you love. Write about why you love. “There is no right or wrong here, just think, draw, write. Explore.” There are no questions, just eager writers. Children scatter the room and begin pouring themselves onto the blank page. Our first workshop together ends with a share. I watch as a community forms on day one, through pictures and words.

A few weeks ago, our writing group – Community of Teachers Learning – Teachers Who Write, met at my house. Jess, fellow slicer, friend, colleague, was not able to make our meeting. Her beloved Grandma had passed away the day before. Jess has been a constant at our meetings over the past five plus years. She brings a belief and energy to our meetings that grows teachers not only as writers but as researchers. The anticipation of her absence left me feeling a bit empty.

Our meeting was about to “officially” begin. There was a pause in the casual kitchen chit chat and we moved to the family room. I sat on the floor and just as I was about to speak, I spotted a cardinal perched on the string of lights. “Oh…look at the cardinal!” All eyes made their way to the window. I jumped up with my phone. “Stay. Stay. Stay.” I muttered as fiddled getting to the camera on my phone. “Success!” I proclaimed. I returned to the floor. Again, a flash of red caught my eye out the window. The cardinal came to rest again. This time on the fence. Peter got up quickly this time and perched himself in front of the window to “capture” the visitor. It was at that moment that Peter and I remembered Jess’s slice about the cardinal and the meaning of it’s appearance, earlier this year. Without much conversation, we all got the feeling that this cardinal was sent to us.

Today, I started my fourth collage of the summer. Creating collage, much like line drawing is way to find and connect with ideas. Working today, it occurred to me how well I know my fellow slicers who are also my colleagues (Jess, Peter, Elena). I know them better because we are connected through our written stories. There’s something raw and revealing when we read our writing out loud or publish it for others to read. It allows us know each other in a way that our day to day work does not offer. We know each other better because we write, read, and share.

As teacher writers, let’s remember the power of journal writing, art and story. As we begin the year, let’s not only teach the curriculum but help children find their voices and passions so their journals and writing creates a stronger classroom community.

for jess xoxo

Art, Discovery, Writing and Choice

I think I have a series. I have a series of collages. Yes, when I step back and look at my work I see a series. Yes, when I step back and read my pictures, they tell a story. They tell the summer story that has been writing itself bit by bit, day by day.

Last week, a fellow slicer asked me if there was a link to a lesson plan for my work. The answer is no. There is no link, no lesson plan. It’s about seeing the world and capturing snippets of it in a picture. It’s about building by habits in what Ralph Fletcher calls, “the greenbelt”.

When I’m in my greenbelt, I don’t just look, I see. I study. And, with collage (material of choice this summer), I notice the colors and shapes. I tear, rip, observe. I’m deliberate and playful as I work. I let go of making a perfect picture. “Let me put this piece here and this piece over here. Oh, that’s not right, let me move this.” Much like a writer does with words.

With each piece I discover my interpretation of what I see. I create. Seeing my world in pictures has become an invaluable piece of my process as a writer. It’s path I take to connect to ideas, find memories and write.

I often wonder why, when children can write words, we move away from the pictures, the art.

As summer began, Amy Ellerman invited us “to seek out the magic happening in your own environment.” Back in July, I took her up on that offer and invited readers to try it through a line drawing (here). And today, as the beginning of a new school year is upon us, I invite you, to try see the magic in your world in a color, in collage. I invite you to try to weave your experience into your work with children and see the magic through their eyes.

at first I saw the lone black eyed susan that stood, uneaten by the pesky munching rabbits…

then it was the hydrangea, book ended by the full blossoming blackeyed susans, that caught my eye…

then, the sunflower growing tall and mighty stretching reaching as if it could touch the sun called to me…

what will call me next?