Friday, November 18, 2005

Middle Level Mosaic

For most of my teaching career, I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants. In the Middle School Mosaic, I was finally able to meet the giants I’ve been standing on – Nancy Atwell, Tony Romano, Janet Allen, Jim Burke, Kylene Beers. It was like walking into a museum - each time I turned around, I saw another masterpiece.

Janet Allen

Janet Allen began the session with “Writing Between the Lines.” She focused on how to get kids to write. She recommended the book Freedom Writer's Diary: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them by The Freedom Writer's and Erin Cruwell. First, the teacher needs to met the kids at their level, not where they “should” be. There are some basic lessons that all student writers need to have:
1)Engagement and purpose
2)Getting started
3)Using word banks
4)Descriptive writing fluency
5)Understanding forms and functions of writing
6)Specific craft lessons
7)Grammar, usage and editing

She also stated that student choice only works when students know the forms, styles, and function of writing. If they don't have the background for these things, the teacher needs to do some explicit instruction, otherwise students will flounder. Students should show improvement with instruction, if they don't the teaching needs to change. When teaching revision, the questions she poses to students is, “What would you do if the teacher wasn't here? How would you apply this strategy?” This fosters independent use of strategies.

If you are not effective, it doesn't matter how efficient you are!

Tony Romano

Language has tremendous power, writing describes the world, argues for what we believe, frames our thinking, and changes how we think. Believing that you can fill the empty page takes faith and fearlessness. Part of our job as teachers of writing is to create the fearlessness. The choice of words determine how we think about things. All writing si creative – even forming an argument and describing a chemistry lab. The creativity is in the choice and arrangement of words. Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought.

In prompted writing, many students don't know what to write about or how to get their ideas. A writing teacher needs to open their own minds to the students to show the process. Interrupt students in the process of writing to have them examine their thinking, justify their choices, a critic their performance helps them be more cognizant of the process. A quick guide to writing to a prompt:
Focus – Start small – if the subject isn't given, you need to create that focus. Think about a character and his/her trait.
Organization – From the smallest part, a sentence, to paragraph and the entire piece, the writer needs to have a plan of organization. This should happen before the writing begins and will evolve through the writing.
Development – Strong examples and sensory details a necessary. When looking at the topic, visualize the ideas like a movie in your head.
Purpose – Everything is an argument, you have to prove a point. It could be persuasive, cause/effect, descriptive – but you are still trying to convince the reader of something.

Good readers tend to make these connections more easily. Reading feeds writing and writing feeds reading. It is a circle of cause and effect.

Nancy Atwell

Nancy has a new book coming out entitled “Naming the World” which is a great resource of over 200 poems and lesson ideas. I saw samples at the Heinemann booth and was very impressed! Her presentation focused on poetry and it was a pleasure to see this master teacher in action.
Poetry is important because it teaches 1) good writing 2) close reading 3) a structure to help students imagine what they will be as an adult. She begins every class with a poem. Kids have to have early success with writing in order to be motivated to stick with writing. Poetry is a good start as it is a short, easily managed length of text. It is not overwhelming. Poetry is especially good for boys because it: 1) helps them define and describe emotions 2) illustrate relationships 3) defines identity 4) preserves a moment in time for later reflection and remembrance 5) helps develop critical thinking.

Write Around

This was a neat activity that was a great way to reflect and summarize the Mosaic. It is a timed conversation, in writing that is passed to others for further comments. The timing begins short, about a minute, and as the reading becomes longer, the time increased. Each person has a sheet of paper. They write their initial and then spend about a minute reflecting on the topic given. At the end of the time, the sheet is passed to the next person. That person reads the writing before, writes their initial and then spend about a minute responding. This cycle continues with allotted time getting slightly longer. Three rules:
1) Always write your initial beside your writing
2) Use the entire time for writing.
3) Don't talk when passing.

I had the opportunity to express my overwhelming appreciation for the Mosaic and get to know two other wonderful people. In the future, I will always attend the Mosaic and would strongly encourage all others to attend this session. It was one of the true highlights of the conference for me.

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