Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Power of Multiple Mentor Texts

Writing is hard work.  Some days the writing flows and I know how to put my words together to achieve the desired effect…but at other times I feel  stuck or confused or unsure about how to approach the writing task in front of me.

That’s where mentor texts come in.  I look for pieces written by others that do what I am trying to achieve…and study them to learn from those writers who are acting as my mentors. Sometimes I learn about structure and how to organize my ideas.  Sometimes I am inspired by word choice and craft elements.  Sometimes I notice text features and literary devices.

And for the young writers in our classroom, we work for find mentor texts to support their development as writers.  We like to use multiple texts, knowing that not all texts work for all students…and to show that not all writers approach the same kind of writing in the same way.

And sometimes the just-right mentor text sings.

Last week our students studied four poets and their poems about snow as they got ready to write poems about snowflakes.  We started with an old friend, Valerie Worth.  Her small poems are a treasure: short and rich, filled with imagery and powerful language.  And then we turned to an unusual mentor text…an “old” poem with some unfamiliar language.

On a Night of Snow

Cat, if you go outdoors you must walk in the snow.  You will come back with little white shoes on your feet, little white slippers of snow that have heels of sleet.  Stay by the fire, my Cat.  Lie still, do not go.  See how the flames are leaping and hissing low, I will bring you a saucer of milk like a marguerite, so white and so smooth, so spherical and so sweet–Stay with me Cat.  Outdoors the wild winds blow.

Outdoors the wild winds blow, Mistress, and dark is the night.  Strange voices cry in the trees, intoning strange lore; and more than cats move, lit by our eyes’ green light, on silent feet where the meadow grasses hang hoar–Mistress, there are portents abroad of magic and might, and things that are yet to be done.  Open the door!

Elizabeth Coatsworth

The first response from my students was, “What?”  We reminded them to focus on what they understood about the poem rather than what they didn’t…and they picked up on the “little white shoes” right away.  Then one of our students pointed out that each of the stanzas was told from a different point of view…the first was talking to the cat, the second was the cat talking to the Mistress.  With that comment, one of our third graders, M,  couldn’t contain herself!  “Oh, now I see it!  I want to try that!”

When we went to write, she started immediately.  M had already talked about the metaphor she wanted to try on…an idea about a blank canvas to represent the whiteness of snow…when we had studied Valerie Worth’s poem the day before.

Here’s her poem:

The Snowflake Outside

Snowflake, you have no choice but to fall. So keep dancing down like a ballerina, making the world empty of color like a frustrated artist’s blank canvas. Snowflake, keep whirling magically and descend daintily onto my sleeve. From a great sky you fell.

Yes, from a great sky I fell so let me keep falling forever and ever. Don’t let me land on the frosty ground. I want to have my life forever. I want to show my style and unique ways. I don’t want to land, melt, or be unnoticed. Let me keep falling and blowing with the wild whistling wind.

M

There’s magic when the just-right mentor text provides the just-right support for the writer. You can see how M used the structure of Coatsworth’s poem as a container for her ideas, images, and feelings about snowflakes.  Before she was introduced to this poem she had already done some writing about snowflakes, thinking about movement, metaphor, and imagery.  The idea of shifting the speaker inspired her writing and gave her the shape she was looking for.

Most of the time we try to avoid mentor texts that directly address the topic/subject we are focused on.  But poems about snow are plentiful and we had many choices of mentor texts about snow…and our students have little experience with snow and snowflakes (except those they made by cutting paper) beyond what they have seen in books, movies, and photographs since it doesn’t snow where we live.

I love when a mentor text nudges a writer to try something new and stretch her wings.  And I am reminded that writers need a variety of mentor texts to learn from…rather than a single model.

What mentor texts have you used lately?

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Following the Tracks of Lights

It’s December and the frenzy of the holidays is in full swing.  With only a week until school breaks for the winter there are projects to complete, plans to create…not to mention the shopping, decorating, event attending and more that comes with the season.

Our neighborhood is one that hangs their Christmas lights on Thanksgiving weekend, with each house just a bit more sparkly than the one next door.  With the short days and early dark I notice the lights coming on as I head home on the evening.  We’ve been talking about taking time to go out and walk our neighborhood after dinner one night so we can look closely at the lights rather than simply drive by them on the way home.

So, in spite of being tired on a Friday evening after a busy, work-filled week, we headed out tonight to follow the tracks left by the lights.

Bundled up in heavy (Southern CA heavy) jackets and with camera in hand, we set off.  We decided to go in the direction that we don’t see on our way home each day, up and around the corner.  In addition to the lights on the houses, we also noticed the tracks left by the stars in the sky.  As I photographed electric lights, my husband searched the sky for tracks of constellations (and consulted his constellation app for more information about what he was seeing).

The traditional white icicle lights are definitely the most common decoration in the neighborhood.  But there is no shortage of the traditional trappings of Christmas.  We found Santa…with a couple of arctic bears.

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And a variety of versions of reindeer, including the red-nosed Rudolph.  I’m partial to this more natural version set in among the trees (even if they are palm trees).

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And it wouldn’t be Christmas without a trail marked by candy canes!

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A couple of houses sported these inflatable characters.  During the day they appear to be melted as they sit deflated until they are plugged in at dusk.

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We saw twinkling lights, flashing lights, lights that were all red, lights in trees, on bushes, wrapped around pillars and poles.  Lights arranged in the shapes of trees and wreaths. Sometimes the simplest were the most beautiful.

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I often wonder about the electric bill of the people with the most lights.  Do they plan for the increased usage as part of their annual budget?  I have to admit, my house is one of the unadorned with only the porch lights to penetrate the dark.  And yet I enjoy the display of lights my neighbors set out, adding light to the long nights of December.

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Following the tracks of lights was a perfect ending to a busy week.  Walking in the crisp cool evening was energizing and it was fun to notice the details of the displays and even get some new perspectives on decorations I had only previously seen from a particular angle.

I might just add this activity as a December tradition…and maybe even branch out a bit further to take a look at how others create tracks with lights.  This was definitely a learning walk…my first focused on lights!

Making Time for Making

We’ve been doing a lot of making in our classroom this past week and a half.  Snowflakes, poinsettias, Hopscotch projects…  It’s not that we don’t make at other times, but it seems that we have really gotten in the flow of making lately.

I love it when we can give ourselves and our students the time to plan, design, improve, and finalize a project.  Our snowflakes were just such a project.  Math and science, reading and writing, along with problem solving and some systems thinking all came together to create animal shaped snowflakes that will be accompanied by original snowflake poems later this week.

I wrote about the start of the project here and the value of tenacity and iteration for students.  Our students had at least four opportunities to create their snowflake designs–with time to study their own and others’ attempts in between.  And yesterday, all of our students successfully created an animal-shaped snowflake of their own design.  (We did not provide templates, although we did help the few students who needed some additional scaffolding.)

Here are a few examples…and remember these students are 6, 7, and 8 years old!

If you look closely you will notice a moose, a giraffe, a squirrel, and a lizard in these four designs.

Students also created winter scenes using computer programming yesterday.  You can read about it here.  And then today, in addition to writing about snowflakes, we began assembling the poinsettias we are making from the paper we painted on Monday.

They still need their finishing touches…but already are beautiful!  And students have learned a lot about poinsettias and a bit about their history.  (The Ecke family, locals from our area, established themselves as primary producers of poinsettias around  the world!)

But what I love best about this making is the productivity and collaboration from our students.  They love making…and once they get past the fear of failure, are willing to take risks and try new ideas to improve their products.  And we see evidence of students taking these ideas home and trying them out there.

One of our students came in this morning with a huge snowflake…a good three feet across…that she made at home.  She had talked her mom into a trip to Michaels to get the big paper that she designed (a butterfly), cut and decorated…and then brought to school so we could see what she had done.

I know there are people who might call these activities “fluff” and complain that this isn’t real learning.  For those people, I wish they could see the energy and enthusiasm, the collaboration and problem solving…and all the reading, writing, math, science and history that are learned in the process of the making.

Have you made time for making lately?

Hour of Code

Coding, programming…words that are used to describe the process of “speaking” a machine language.  This week classrooms and schools all over are participating in the Hour of Code, an attempt to get 10 million students to try computer science for an hour during Computer Science Education Week.

If you read this blog you already know that we have been working on computer programming using the Hopscotch app for a while now.  (See here, here, and here)  So in honor of the Hour of Code, we decided to pose a Winter Scene Design Challenge for our students.

Today was the day.  Students were asked to create a scene using Hopscotch that depicts some aspect of winter.  As you might expect, students thought snow, snowmen, Christmas trees, and more.  They were super excited…with my speech students arranging to get out of speech (something they love!) so they could be part of the challenge.

And there were many highlights today–lots of successes, lots of students genuinely collaborating with one another and supporting each other without teacher direction.  But my favorite moment was Esther.  Esther is an 84 year old grandmother who lives in Australia and visits her daughter in our town each year in the winter.  I taught her grandson and granddaughter many years ago (they are both college students now) and Esther has continued to come to our classroom several days a week when she is in town to help out and hang out.

As Esther began to watch the students at work on their winter scenes, I asked her if she would like to try it too.  I handed her my iPad and asked Sophie if she would show Ms. Esther how Hopscotch (and the iPad) worked.

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Esther was delighted!  And so was Sophie.  It is wonderful for my students to see the embodiment of lifelong learning…and Esther is just that!

An article I read recently points out the advantages of learning to code:  problem solving, (digital) confidence, and understanding the world.  And I see those advantages when my students work to program.  They also learn about systems…and working through the many variables to figure out why their plan isn’t working as they imagined.  They become persistent and learn the value of iteration.  Each mistake becomes another opportunity for learning rather than a sign of failure.

Here are a few examples of students’ winter scenes:

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A first grader who figured out how to use o’s as text features for eyes and nose on his snowman.

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A second grader’s winter tree.

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A third grader’s winter scene.

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A peppermint candy created by a third grader.

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And a holiday greeting card, Hopscotch style!

You can see that students are gaining confidence and expertise with this programming tool. Most of these projects were completed in less than 30 minutes and they represent only a fraction of the programming that was happening in the classroom today.  Some of our students are still struggling while others can’t wait to go home and try some more programming on their own time.

Next week we plan to have student-led tutorials where students will teach and learn from each other in small groups.

How was your Hour of Code?  What did students learn and create?

Frosty Beauty

White crystalline structures, both fragile and surprisingly strong, appeared this morning on the lawns and cars in my neighborhood.

All too often frost is just another annoyance…evidence of cold weather and the need to either scrape the windshield or wait for the defroster to gain enough traction to melt it so I can see through the windshield to drive off to work.

But this morning, when I heard there was frost on the cars, I put the macro lens on my phone, grabbed my jacket and headed outside…before even taking time for breakfast or coffee.

And I was rewarded by the intricate lacy beauty of this micro winter wonderland.

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When viewed through my macro lens, those ordinary blades of grass were transformed.

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This stray leaf blossomed with delicate white crystals of ice.  I was afraid to breathe too heavily for fear of melting these structures before I could capture them through my lens.

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The frozen moisture seems to grow, creating intricate pathways of texture extending over the roof of the car.  It seemed to stay colder there longer than along the sides.  I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy as I crawled along the lawn photographing blades of grass and peered along the top of my car examining the patterns of frost in the crisp, cooler-than-usual morning air.

But for me, I rediscovered my sense of wonder and curiosity as I worked intently to find and capture this minute beauty.

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My macro lens has reminded me once again to take the time to look closely and appreciate the beauty in those things that seem uninteresting or annoying on the surface.

I didn’t get to work quite as early as I usually do this morning, but I had the perfect start to my day…just by looking a bit more closely.

Snow in San Diego…Really??!!

A rainy Saturday set the scene for our adventure.  Remember, rain in San Diego is an event! The smallest amount makes our roads crazy and all the talk…on news stations, in coffee shops, in bars, on the street…is about the rain.

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On the surface, we told ourselves that we were off to do some holiday shopping, but really we were looking for a bit of adventure!  Parking itself was an adventure…and as we searched we discovered that we were just in time for the Little Italy Tree Lighting Festival. And as we searched for parking we also spied this magnificent rainbow.

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Once parked we emerged into the cool, crisp afternoon.  The rain was done for the time being, the sun made an appearance…a perfect time for a bit of exploring.

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As we wandered and walked and ate and talked the sun began to set, painting splotches of brilliant pink onto the gray rain clouds in the distance.

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We explored the booths at the festival as darkness arrived and looked up, turned to each other and asked…what is that?  Small white flakes floated in the air…could it be…  As always, as someone who grew up in dry, relatively warm southern CA, when I saw the flakes my first thought was ash…a fire?  No…snow swirled and danced in the glow of the lights. Snow?  Really?

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Sure, it was snow.  The man-made variety.  But it did lend an air of festivity and winter-ness to the event.  It was noisy…and turned off and on as the guy manned the switch.  But when it was blowing snow, everyone around responded.  Children danced and chased the flakes, trying to capture them in their hands, on their tongues (I have no idea how it tastes), in their outstretched hats.  Adults flocked around capturing pictures of their children, of each other, and of themselves.

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I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try my hand at photographing snowflakes…and this version of snow lacked the hush and wonder of the snow gifted from clouds.  But it was fun and unexpected.  Remember, we think light rainfall is a major weather event.  So snow in San Diego…  Maybe a snow day will be next…

The Grand-ness of Small

When I saw the Weekly Photo Challenge yesterday I started to think about photos to represent the word grand.  Would I choose a picture of the ocean?  A sunset?  The magnificence of the redwoods?  The intricate design of a bridge?  Should I focus on the size…the “wow” factor…or something else?  I went to bed last night without posting because I really couldn’t decide which photo to post.

This morning when I woke up and headed down to the kitchen I noticed that our Christmas cactus had bloomed.  For most of the year the Christmas cactus is a pretty ordinary green plant with characteristic sharp spines expected of a cactus.  But once a year (or more if we’re lucky), usually in December, the cactus develops red buds that open in a spectacular burst of color.

When I saw the blossoms this morning I couldn’t wait to get out my macro lens and try to capture some of that splendor in a photograph.  I love the idea that this small blossom represents grand.  When we look closely and notice the details, we can find the beauty and magnificence in the tiniest of places.

This is the unedited photo that I captured this morning.  I hope my photo helps you see the grand in this blossom!

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Spontaneous: a Photo Essay

There are so many routines…and they help me get things done.  They get me to work on time , allow me to accomplish the mundane and the inspirational work in my life, and remind me to make time for work and play, relaxation and exercise, books and art and more. But sometimes my routines get in my way.

I almost let that happen today.  I had a meeting at a school site near a picturesque part of our city.  As I pulled up to park I thought about taking some time after the meeting to drive the couple of miles to the cove and see if there was anything to photograph.

After my meeting I wanted to go home.  I knew the traffic would be bad… and it gets dark so early these days…I had lots of excuses.  But then I decided to take that short drive anyway, even if it meant some miserable traffic on my way home.

And I’m so glad I did!  La Jolla Cove is truly a treasure.  This little protected piece of ocean is a refuge for wildlife…and for people.  When I pulled up and immediately found a parking place, I knew this would be worth the spontaneous decision.  I first noticed this little structure with sea gulls roosting on top.  Through it I could see a small fishing boat in the surf.

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As I continued up the walkway, I heard barking.  But it wasn’t dogs…it was sea lions!  Some sunbathed in the cool December air while others seemed to play hide and seek in the waves.

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I looked up and noticed pelicans cruising the coast…almost close enough to touch!  (Of course I missed photographing the ones that were close!)

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I noticed this big seagull cruising the park area.  He had been perched up on the tree, but had moved on by the time I close enough to use my camera!

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I was right about the traffic, by the way.  It took me more than an hour to get home after this excursion.  But it was so worth it.  My photos don’t begin to do justice to my experience. The sights and sounds and smells along with the crisp, cool air and low afternoon sun made for a perfect respite on a work day.

When I got home it was dark…and I noticed the sliver of moon rising.  Geoff and I headed out after dinner to get gas for my car…and decided to stop by Starbucks for a cup of coffee. And spontaneously, as we turned the corner and spied the moon we headed off to the beach where we knew the view would be spectacular.

And we weren’t disappointed.  That shy smile of the moon reflected on the surf below.  The colors were incredible…whites and golds.  The moon made the water glow…and the froth of the surf curled in frosty waves.  I tried my camera…with little success.

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But standing side by side in the dark appreciating the beauty of the moon and water in the cool of December with a hot coffee in our hands was priceless.  A reminder to be spontaneous now and then.  Routines can return tomorrow.