Uncovering Craft

I was fortunate to attend ELAC a few weeks ago in Banff. The highlight? Penny Kittle, a fellow observer and lover of craft, talking about the craft of one of my favourite creators, Lin Manuel Miranda. Pure joy.

One of her slides read, “Study, imitate, transform.” Lin Manuel Miranda did just that in creating Hamilton. He was inspired by everything from Harry Potter to Macbeth to The West Wing. He studied, imitated, and transformed.

It’s what I do with my students through mentor texts during mini-lessons. It’s also what I do within my own writing. When I’m reading, listening, and watching favourite books, music, and shows, I’m looking for craft moves, sometimes consciously, often not.

Consider these examples:

The engagement and humour created by the smashing of genres in Hamilton becomes a history lesson like no other. The shifts in time, and parallel themes across time, in This is Us lead to connection, reflection, and realizations in our own lives. Neal Shusterman–without the reader even knowing at first–puts us in the head of one with mental illness, enabling us to experience what we might not otherwise.

Studying the craft moves of text in any form leads our students to more creative, more interesting work.

Study. Imitate. Transform.

By the way… connecting Hamilton to lessons in literacy, why did I think of that?

Hold them Tenderly

During a recent writing residency, I was yet again reminded of the power of writing. The residency had a narrative focus. Even still, it was obvious how students explore their identities and process their world through writing.

When I was one-on-one with a student, she tearfully told me that she based the character on herself because she was bullied and wanted to write about that. After a momentary pause she added, “But everyone just thinks it’s my character.”

A grade two student wrote about living in Ethiopia and how he had to help his family (his mom was pregnant and his dad was working) by carrying a basket and collecting fruit for hours and hours.

A grade five student shared that her character was transgender and then described their personality, appearance, and emotions.

As teachers, we hold each of these students–along with their experiences and emotion, their fears and hopes–tenderly in our hands. As they write and explore, revise and share, they learn about themselves and the world around them.

And if we’re paying attention, we might just learn something too.

A Little Bit of Chance…

Have you been studying and writing different forms of poems with your students? Haikus, limericks, acrostics, cinquains, diamantes, found poems, pantoums, free verse… others? Are you and your students ready for a challenge?

Spice up the end of your focus on poetry by adding a little bit of chance to the mix. Use a site such as wheelofnames.com to generate custom spinners. Create one spinner with all of the different forms of poetry you have been working on. Then create a second spinner with broad topics such as sports, animals, emotions, colours, the five senses, family, or food.

There will be much excitement and hype as the spins determine each students’ form of poetry and topic.

By keeping the topics broad, there is still some element of choice for students. For example, if a student has to write a haiku on sports, they could write about sports in general, or pick a more specific topic such as lacrosse. Even with intentional constraints in place, try to allow for some student choice.

P.S. Feel free to share some of the poems created through this process! I’d love to hear them.

Sensing Spring

Spring seems to awakens my senses from a winter hibernation. I love walking and observing signs of spring.

This week, take your students on a quiet spring walk. Before you do, ask them to pay close attention to what they see, hear, smell, and feel while you’re walking. (Remind them not to taste anything along the way!)

When you return to class, give them the structure below to write a spring poem. When they are considering ‘taste’ generate some ideas together. What do you eat in the spring that you haven’t eaten for some time? Sweet peaches or strawberries? Fresh garden herbs? Baba’s bread or chocolate eggs at Easter?

Spring looks like…

Sounds like…

Smells like…

Tastes like…

Feels like…

Spring is…

Book Spine Poetry

For students, creating a “found poem” (words not their own but found in other sources) is often novel and fun. There is a buzz of excitement as students sit on the floor, browse through classroom book titles, find connections between titles, and then stack the books to create a poem.

Embedded within this challenge are the opportunities to read aloud and revise. How? Students stack the books in an order they like and then read the titles out loud as a poem to see how it sounds. They are encouraged to add, remove, or rearrange books to create the most pleasing sounding poem. Revision at work!

I love this time of year!

Along with the melting snow and the return of the geese, National Poetry Month has arrived! Have you pulled your poetry books off the shelf, brought them to the top of the pile, or visited the library for some new finds?

Although poetry is fun to read with students all year long, this is the time to read and enjoy poems each and every day! Invite students to share thoughts and feelings evoked by the poems you read. Explore the figurative language and alliteration, the rhythm and phrasing, the dive into sensory language.

This week, let your students read and explore the poetry in your classroom and then ask them to choose a favourite. Give them time to read the poem repeatedly to become more fluent and expressive. (There is no need for memorization.) Students can then share this favourite poem with their reading buddies, their family members, or another class.

Stay tuned for poetry ideas all month long…

By the way, which poetry book is your favourite for the classroom?

Expert Jugglers

I recently heard a comment that infuriated me: a flippant remark about the perceived realities in our classrooms implying that everyone has low and manageable class sizes.

Sometimes numbers don’t mean much. 25 students in one class is not the same as 25 students in another. The needs, challenges, and behaviour of the individuals within a classroom certainly change the dynamics.

Regardless of your class size, wouldn’t you like to invite a politician into your class? Not just for a short visit but to hand over the curriculum and watch them teach your students for a few days… considering the needs of each individual student, managing student behaviour, planning engaging instructional tasks, preparing materials, assessing and ensuring student understanding, communicating with parents, responding to the social, emotional, and physical needs of students the whole day through. And then, just when they think they’ve survived the day, remind them to spend their evenings and weekends preparing for the implementation of three new subject area curricula (first understanding it, and then planning, finding resources, and developing assessments).

I wonder… how long would it be before they decided to postpone the implementation of the draft curriculum?

When comments are made about teaching and teachers without an understanding of the realities of our work, I get a tad defensive. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a politician and I don’t think I’d be very good at it either. But, don’t take a swipe at teachers. Teachers are amazing and they often juggle much more than seems plausible.

For many of you reading this, Spring Break is almost here. And when it arrives, be sure to take some time away from the classroom and away from your work. You deserve every moment of down time.

Don’t forget to push!

I’m in the middle of a writing residency. The other day, one of the teachers asked if she could speak to me after school.

She showed me the writing of a few of her students and asked, “How can I push these writers?” This was the work of her strongest writers. She recognized their strengths and wanted to challenge them.

We talked through what I noticed and what could be a logical next step. Her plan now is to meet with these writers as a small group: to teach a mini-lesson using some mentor texts and then challenge them to practice and apply what they learn.

My heart smiled at her question. Typically I’m asked about those who struggle with writing. But let’s not forget to push those who have a natural aptitude or gift. They too deserve our time!

A Cautious Approach…

As I was planning for my upcoming residency with students from K-6, I was reminded of the importance of including all strands of language arts–listening, speaking, reading, writing, viewing, and representing–within our lessons. In many ways, I can’t teach one without another.

These strands support each other… they build off of each other… one is often the foundation for another. Ultimately, the interconnectedness of these strands is essential for student success with language.

When I consider the new Alberta ELA curriculum scheduled to be implemented this coming fall, it is divided into Organizing Ideas which seems to imply the teaching of language in silos. We cannot be deceived by the structure of the curriculum and revert to teaching these elements in isolation from one another. Doing so would be in direct opposition to what we know about effective language learning.

Although I have given feedback to the government about my concerns about the curriculum structure, I don’t expect this aspect of it to change. That being said then, we must remember the importance of the interconnectedness of the strands when we tackle that new curriculum. I look forward to working with teachers in the process!

Teachers are Amazing!

We are nearing the end of convention season in Alberta. Over the last month, I have had the opportunity to connect with teachers from around the province.

My conclusion from this convention season: teachers are amazing! Despite being fatigued from this second pandemic year, I see and hear invigorated teachers inspired to return to their classrooms to share their learning with students.

Our students always need teachers, of course. But they need us now more than ever. And motivated, inspired teachers? Well, those are the best kind!

Thank you for continuing to learn and hone your practice. Thank you for sharing your own growth mindset with your students. And thank you for leading your students on their learning journeys with both enthusiasm and joy!