Posts Tagged 'writing workshop'

Lessons from the Backyard: What are you Noticing?

When we bought our house about eight years ago, we moved into a house that was already seven years old. From the bare yards all around, it was obvious the whole neighborhood had been clear cut when it was built, and even when we moved in, not many trees had been replanted.

So, among our first priorities was populating the lawn with some beauty, shade, and interest. Over the years, the trees and bushes have done well. Our apple, fig, and pear trees are incredibly productive. The dogwoods are coming along. Eight years later, the yard is starting to mature.

We have many beautiful plants. This summer, though, the biggest surprise has been the butterfly bush. I’d say it’s about the size of a VW Beetle – bigger, actually. As a plant, it’s not particularly pretty to look at. But over the summer it has become a hangout spot for, at any given moment, 20-30 butterflies of various shades and sizes. Watching the butterfly bush is a mesmerizing delight, full of fluttering fanciful flyers, constantly moving their wings, hovering, and then sailing off again. I could watch the butterfly bush for hours.

Recently, I realized that I’ve started noticing butterflies more and more in other places – on a walk at the park, getting out of the car, even stopped at a traffic light. I tend to “live in my head” a lot of the time, and I usually don’t notice much of nature unless something is brilliant. So, noticing the butterflies in my everyday life has been something of a surprise. It’s as if a switch turned on. Now, when I see a butterfly while going through my daily routines, I’ll notice it, and find myself comparing it to the butterflies who frequent the bush in my yard.

I also find myself wanting to know more about the butterflies who spend the day at our bush – what kind(s) are they? Why do they like the butterfly bush so much? How does the bush nourish them? Most importantly, will the butterflies stay here all year?  I’m reminded of Laurence Pringle’s amazing book An Extraordinary Life, which taught me so much about monarch butterflies when I read it years ago.

Why does all this matter?

Our butterfly bush reminds me of several elements of education, from kids all the way to adult learners (like educators!).

First, it reminds me of the kinds of noticing we do in writing workshop. We encourage writers to notice decisions about craft in writing. We immerse them in amazing examples through libraries and lessons. Then, we hope, they take that noticing eye and carry it with them to other pieces of writing they come across in their everyday lives.  They start noticing the butterflies that may have fluttered past them before.

Second, it reminds me that what we surround ourselves with can affect how we notice the world. For a professional example, if we are reading a lot about e-books, or bilingual education, or (ahem) butterflies, it is only natural that we would start to notice mentions of e-books in the news, stories about bilingual education, and so on, in our everyday lives.  I think we pay attention more, anxious to make connections with what we’ve been learning. This makes me want to be more intentional in what I read, knowing I’ll be on the lookout for those topics in my everyday life. It also makes me wonder how I can find out more about what my students would like to surround themselves with – what can I connect them with that will help them learn and notice?

At the same time, as I start to notice certain things in my everyday life, and work to use this to my benefit, I worry that my focus might narrow a bit too much. To use a personal example, I follow many people on twitter who share my interests and, to a great degree, my point of view about libraries, literacy, technology, and other topics. How do I keep from becoming too closed off and insular? One thing I have tried is, when I see one of my twitter friends arguing with someone I don’t know, I follow the person who thinks and believes differently than my friend (and, usually, me). One worry I have with twitter is that it is easy to build our networks without diverse and dissenting voices.  I try to push back at this consciously, but I’m not sure how successful I am.

For another crude but related example, when we go to the park, my youngest daughter is always trying to catch frogs. She has special places to look for them on the path we often walk. I try not to be too busy looking at butterflies to miss the frog that is hopping a foot to my left. So I have to remind myself to attend to many things, not just butterflies. Having her around and being interested in her interests helps keep my eyes open to different things.

Keeping my eyes open – I guess that is what it all comes down to. It’s amazing how a seed planted years ago can change the way we see today. What seeds are you planting, for yourself, for others? What have you been noticing lately? What would you like to notice more of?


Starting with Words: Our Writing Workshop Begins

I’m teaching Language and Literacy for Elementary Educators this semester. Yesterday was my first day back in the classroom. I was thrilled to meet my new students and get started.

Much like previous semesters of the course, the reactions to spending a semester writing and learning about writing pedagogy were pretty negative. Several students mentioned that they stopped enjoying writing when they reached high school. Keeping in mind that these are college seniors, it’s been a while since writing was pleasurable for many of them. Writing, as one student put it, is “anxiety-producing.”

Given these mindsets, which are not unexpected or unusual, I see one of my big jobs throughout the course as changing the students’ views of writing and, perhaps more importantly, their views of themselves as writers. It’s hard for me to imagine a teacher being able to encourage enthusiasm for writing with their young students when they dread it themselves. So, we work on the idea of becoming a “writing teacher” – not only a teacher of writing, but also a teacher who writes.

Each of my students develops their own writer’s notebook during the course. Last Spring, my students suggested that I start the semester with the writer’s notebook. During last Spring’s course, I put off the notebook until after midterms, focusing on the multigenre research project at the beginning of the semester instead. For my students in that class, the writer’s notebook was such an enjoyable and meaningful assignment, they thought it would be good to start using it on the first day of class.

With that in mind, yesterday I started the writer’s notebook with my new students. Given their feelings about writing, I decided to start small, by focusing on words. Words are some of the basic building blocks of writing. All writers need words and language as part of their process. Noticing words is one way we can start to develop as writers. We’re working our way toward reading like writers.

I offered several mentor texts for this lesson. (Since my students will be certified K-5, I try to offer mentor texts appropriate for different grade levels whenever I can.)

The first two texts are about boys who collect words. For younger students, I suggest

Max’s Words by Kate Banks

For older students, I would suggest

The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter

I also read the first couple of pages of Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper. This book, which I just finished reading a few days ago, tells the story of a girl named Melody. The book opens with a brief chapter that highlights the importance of words in Melody’s life. The chapter is filled with interesting words (and also makes a great booktalk with its surprising twist at the end.)

After sharing these texts, I invited my students to start a list of words they love in their writer’s notebooks. I share some of my favorite words: walrus, nostril, azalea. We branch out into words we don’t like (mine: moist, mixed). We can also collect images we love, lyrics, phrases, passages, and so on.

Throughout the semester they’ll be collecting words and other inspirations in their notebooks. My hope is that this week they’ll start to notice words around them and record them in their notebooks.  Later in the semester, these lists can become a part of the revision process. Some may even inspire a new piece.

Lively laughter filled the room as students discussed words with one another. Many students had quite a few words they could immediately name as favorites, or as words they’d rather do without.

As our sharing activity for this first writer’s workshop, each member of the class shared one of their favorite words.

Here are the words shared in class yesterday:

It’s an interesting collection of words. Some are fun to say, some evoke memories or good feelings, a couple of them are made up.

Last semester I asked my Twitter network about their favorite words and shared them with students as a part of the lesson. This semester, I’ll ask the question here: do you have any favorite words? I hope you’ll share them in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Welcome back!

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