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The Case of the Anonymous Commenter

25 Apr

They don’t teach handwriting analysis or crime scene investigation in teachers college. Those are skills good teachers just pick up along the way.

I had to call on these superpowers last week in The Case of the Anonymous Commenter.

You see, we have a classroom tradition. At the end of a writing unit everyone displays their finished product and students wander the classroom, take a seat and read a person;s paper. When they have finished reading they make a positive comment that acknowledges a move the writer has made. After reading and commenting on one piece, they get to take two cookies.

We like to splurge when we celebrate writing.

The kids know the rules: Sign your actual name. Comment on the moves. No ‘suggestions’ or criticism.

Well, last Tuesday, we celebrated the end of our sci-fi mini unit. The room had a minty scent because I bought mint Oreos. What I really wanted to buy was alien head cookies at a bakery, but, with 600 6th graders in two classes, that was not in the budget. Minty Oreos, green like alien heads, were. In any case, students were milling around absorbed in the creativity of their peers, munching their Oreos. It was good. All too soon, it was time to wrap things up.

“When you finish the story you are reading,” I announced in my best Lt. Uhura voice, “please return to your seat and take a few minutes to look over the comments you have received. When you have finished reading the comment, staple them to you paper, turn it into the basket, and take your break. ”

I looked around the room monitoring student behavior. A quiet girl came up to me, her paper in hand.

“Someone didn’t sign their name,” she said, concern in her voice.” They just put anonymous.”

I looked at the paper. Indeed, someone had signed something other than their name, for written on the line for a name, was  “anonomous”. Interestingly, the comment was actually quite complimentary. It turned out she was not the only recipient of  an anonymous comment.

Break buzzed with the mystery of who the anonymous commenter might be. I overheard a conversation and knew which papers to start with to solve the mystery.

When the students returned from break, they got started on their Social Studies project while I got to work sleuthing. I took the stack of papers from the basket and found the ones with Anonomous’ comments. All in the same handwriting. Then, I looked through the others, paying special attention to the one belonging to the name I’d overheard at break. Sure enough, there was a match. In fact, he used some of the same words in his comments, anonymous and signed. I had him. The funny thing was, all of his comments were kind and supportive. I didn’t really understand why he hadn’t signed his name.

While the class worked, I sauntered over to his table feeling like Miss Marple must, just before cracking a case. I crouched beside the boy and simply asked, “Are you Anonymous?”

He reddened and spluttered, “Yes, but…. I….” and didn’t really know how to excuse his crime. I complimented him on his comments, reminded him that he should always sign his own name, then I slipped him a sticky note.

“By the way, ” I said, a smile on my face. “This is the correct way to spell anonymous.

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The Paper Mountain

15 Mar

I buried myself. It was unintentional, but it was all my fault. One assignment was a longterm project to be done at home. The other was the final project for our information unit, the teen activism book my 6th graders produced, much delayed after 10 snow days this year. And I collected their writer’s notebooks. I was swamped with paper,stressed and worried about getting the work back in a timely manner. Two classes of 30 x all this work due at the same time. Are you feeling my pain?

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Today, though, I finished grading the information books and I feel like I have summited  a mountain. Or maybe crawled out from under one. Maybe, really, I can just see the summit from where I am. Bu this feels like significant progress.

The science teacher on my team has kids turn in everything electronically, but I don’t really find that a good process for me. I was feeling a little behind then times, until a colleague shared this article about the value of hard copies. Vindication.

I still have a bunch of papers to grade, but I am feeling less burdened. If I may mix my metaphors a bit, I might say there is a light at the end of the tunnel I just crawled out of.

One of the good ones

26 Sep

Today, we begin the 4th week of school. That means my students and I have been together 19 school days. It seems like more. I mean that in a good way, that it seems as though we’ve known each other more than 19 days. The first day of school feels a long time ago. And yet, the last day is so far in the future it is unimaginable.

In John David Anderson’s Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, a trio of sixth grade boys skip school to spend one last day with their teacher who has been hospitalized with cancer.

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Publisher’s Summary: Everyone knows there are different kinds of teachers. The boring ones, the mean ones, the ones who try too hard, the ones who stopped trying long ago. The ones you’ll never remember, and the ones you want to forget. Ms. Bixby is none of these. She’s the sort of teacher who makes you feel like school is somehow worthwhile. Who recognizes something in you that sometimes you don’t even see in yourself. Who you never want to disappoint. What Ms. Bixby is, is one of a kind.

Topher, Brand, and Steve know this better than anyone. And so when Ms. Bixby unexpectedly announces that she won’t be able to finish the school year, they come up with a risky plan—more of a quest, really—to give Ms. Bixby the last day she deserves. Through the three very different stories they tell, we begin to understand what Ms. Bixby means to each of them—and what the three of them mean to each other.

Ms Bixby is, what the boys call, “one of the good ones”. She makes a difference in a way I think we all wanted to when we decided to join the profession. She inspires and brings things out in these boys that feel real. I am not ashamed to admit that I simultaneously laughed and cried as Steve, begins to sing

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.

I’m thinking that this one might be a read aloud. It will certainly be the subject of a book talk soon.

 

No Regrets

28 Jun

The portable toilets were the first to arrive and the last to leave.

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Of course, they were nice toilets, not the blue plastic ones that give everyone the creeps. These untippable beauties were parked on the corner by my house, awaiting the film crew.

We’d been contacted about a week ago asking if a film crew could use our courtyard to film a Toyota commercial. In the time it took the unit owners of our small condominium to make a decision, they’d chosen another building nearby. This is a neighborhood full of small complexes built in the 1940’s after all.

Although I’d ultimately said yes to the project, I was relieved we weren’t the chosen ones.  As we discussed the prospect, I surprised myself by asking questions about liability and contracts. Where did I get the wisdom to ask these sorts of questions?  The amount we’d have been paid wasn’t huge and we would have had to use back doors all day, since the front doors lead right into the area to be filmed.

And so the fancy toilets arrived Friday night. The film crew started arriving around 8 Saturday morning. People and trailers slowly filled the street that intersected mine. Lucy and I took several walks to see what was happening, though we never walked past the courtyard where the filming was being done – just too many people there.

My takeaway is this. There is a lot of standing around and waiting in the film industry. As a teacher, I know wait time is important, but it seems that is all these people did. I sometimes wonder what it is other people do at work all day. I look thorough bank and office windows and wonder, are they really busy, as they type on their computer or shuffle papers. And I think even my worst day at school is more exciting than this. I haven’t ever seriously regretted going into teaching  and the older I get, the more I feel it keeps my brain sharp and my heart young.

The toilets were finally taken away Monday morning and my whole summer vacation stretched before me. Definitely no regrets.

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Literary spiritualism

8 Nov

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It’s YALSA Symposium weekend…two days to talk about Young adults, books and libraries. I don’t often give up a Saturday, but this was definitely worth it.

I sat in on 4 excellent sessions, heard a number of authors speak and picked up some new books.

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I am excited to go back to school on Monday and tell the kids about meeting Jack Gantos, who talked about his internal and external writing process and even referenced his neighborhood map that we used as an idea generator.

Gantos' Neighborhood Map

Gantos had a lot to say about books and writing. he talked about the books that “move into you like a squatter”. He also talked a lot about balance: the balance he tries to find between the internal and external story. He explained how a lot f his work is about the unevenness and self loathing that kids go through during their adolescence, when their balance is off.

He also talked about the “literary spiritualism” of community reads programs. He was the first person yesterday to mention the significance of having people of multiple generations in a room talking about a book or an idea. It came up later in other sessions, too. It was a call to be involved with a community of readers, share books and put books in the right hands.

I was exhausted by the time I got home, but it was that good exhaustion that you feel after doing something worthwhile.

What do you call it?: A Slice of Life Story

22 Sep

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Two weeks before teachers had to go back to school, the middle school humanities teachers had a 4 day writing workshop put on my TCRWP. I can honestly say that it was one of the best professional development events I have ever participated in. The middle schools have adopted the writing Units of Study and my 6th grade PLC (professional learning community) is currently implementing the first 6th grade unit. But we are left with a burning question:

WRITER’S WORKSHOP OR WRITERS’ WORKSHOP?

I was wrestling with this dilemma on day when a teacher came in and asked me that very question. It felt good to know I wasn’t alone.

What do you call it? When I say it, it makes no difference. I can see WRITER’S WORKSHOP because each kid is working on their own stories, techniques and pace. I can also see a case for WRITERS’ WORKSHOP because it is a group of writers simultaneously working on their own stories, techniques and pace. I get around it by writing WRITING WORKSHOP on the board, but saying WRITERS WORKSHOP aloud and letting kids insert the apostrophe wherever their minds want to.

So, I would love to know: what do you call it?

The Alex Crow and my 10 minutes with Andrew Smith

9 Jul

The YA coffee Klatch at ALA was exciting and disappointing. There were lots of cool authors I didn’t get to see. Scott Westerfeld started at the table next to mine, but never sat at mine.

Fortunately, we had several very cool people stop by, like Andrew Smith. He was promoting The Alex Crow. 

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Until that moment, when he sat down and started talking, I did not know that Smith was a high school teacher. Not an ex-high school teacher, like Sting used to teach high school before he became famous.. He still teaches high school in California and he is a famous author. How cool is that.

A lot of what he told us, in his 10 minutes at our table, was about teaching and the story of one boy, a Somali refugee, who was in one of his class, and how that boy’s story became the inspiration for The Alex Crow. 

Smith’s last few books are not for everyone.  In fact, he is part of a  national “Keep YA Weird” campaign that celebrates literary experimentalism and extreme imagination in YA literature.

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Publisher’s Summary: Once again blending multiple story strands that transcend time and place, Grasshopper Jungle author Andrew Smith tells the story of 15-year-old Ariel, a refugee from the Middle East who is the sole survivor of an attack on his small village. Now living with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, Ariel’s story of his summer at a boys’ camp for tech detox is juxtaposed against those of a schizophrenic bomber and the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century. Oh, and there’s also a depressed bionic reincarnated crow.

It is hard to explain the book, but, Smith brings all the weird story strands together at the end in a way you weren’t expecting. It is a dark journey, but not without hope at the end.

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