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Show Up

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There are a few writers that cause me to consider never writing another word. Anne Lamott, author of Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, is one. Ann Patchett is another. Patchett most recently had that effect on me when I read her collections of essays in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

I’m sure Ann and Anne would be horrified to hear my confession, but here’s what happens. I read one line—just one sentence—like Ann Patchett’s:

Hard work is first and foremost hard, and whether or not it’s ultimately rewarding is very rarely the thing you’re thinking of at the moment.

Or Anne Lamott’s:

You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.

And I have to stop reading because it’s that good. The wisdom, the structure, the word choice are masterful. I know I’ve never written something that good and I’m concerned I’m wasting people’s precious reading time.

“If I stop writing,” I think, “people will have more time to read better stuff.”

My teenage daughter made a similar comment about her art that sent me on a rant.

“Just because you aren’t Salvador Dali yet, doesn’t mean you should stop creating. Do not deprive this world of your creativity. And who cares if it’s not great in other’s eyes? It’s great in mine.”

Following my own motherly advice, I strive to observe and record like Patchett and Lamott and remember the point isn’t to be great, but simply to show up for your own personal brand of creativity.

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Mother Sauce: Teams Unifying Professional Development

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My youngest daughter is a fashionista. As a preschooler she was already coaching me about what I could do to dress up my go-to black dress and black tights so I could have a little “pop” of color. Now that she’s ten I take her whenever I go shopping because inevitably if I get a compliment on my outfit, it’s something Ahna picked out for me (lead image–Ahna talked me into it). She’s very good. A few weeks ago we ordered the first DVD season of Project Runway (2005) which is a competition between fashion designers who are judged “in” or “out” based on what they show on the runway.

As expected, each designer has his or her own special style. Austin goes for couture while Kara Saun dresses her models with a classic look. This is true of coaches too. My colleagues and I have read many of the same books, attended the same trainings and spent many 90-minute sessions on Friday learning from each other, but each one has their own special style.

About halfway through the season of Project Runway, there was a challenge for each designer to create an outfit for the year 2025 and have it fit with the other designers as part of a collection. While there were some unique individual futuristic pieces, they failed as a whole. There was no unifying look—no collection. The literacy coaches face a similar challenge when they offer professional development. How can the third- and sixth-grade writing classes look similar enough to be part of the collection, yet be different to fit the coach and the audience?

My colleague Janeal uses a cooking metaphor that I love. She says together we create a “mother sauce” of professional development and then each person tosses in their own special ingredients. Here are a few ways that we unify our professional development without losing our individuality.

We plan together. At least a week before a class we plan a brainstorming session. We start with the end in mind and ask, “What do we want participants to walk away with at the end of our time?” Sean throws out an article idea, Paula pulls up a video we might use and Samantha brings out the notes from something similar we’ve taught before.

We use a common template. When we share a class or co-present, our pacing guides are always the same. The predictability makes it easy for us to read and deliver.

We have a table with these four headings:

Pacing
Purpose
Activity
Materials/Notes

We are each responsible. Often our planning sessions are short or happen over lunch. Before we part, everyone takes on a piece of the work. Samantha is going to type up the pacing guide and send it out to everyone; Paula is going to design a graphic organizer; Sean and I are going to capture some video in a classroom. We also agree on when we will be done with our parts.

We build our bins. In our district we teach classes after school 1-2 times a week. For the one of the writing courses we offer, there is a class for each grade level. Paula, Sean and Sam each teach two different grade levels. A couple days before each class, the clear bins come out. They are filled with the pacing guides, copies, mentor texts, charts and supplies.

We debrief. After we all teach, we come back together. It’s not unusual for one of us to share that we spent a lot more time with one activity while someone else shortened it. A couple of us are known for last-minute text changes or different protocols. We talk about what worked and what didn’t; we try to replicate the successes and minimize the fails.

The result of the “mother sauce” approach is that we use the best ideas of everyone, divide the work and improve continuously.

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Double Take

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We’ve all done it. We are walking down the street and we think we see something and then we snap back to attention to get a better look. Sometimes it’s hilarious. Like a vegetable that reminds us of something else…

 

 

 

Other times it’s disbelief. Is he really wearing what I think he’s wearing? Sometimes it’s just plain surprising. We are compelled to look back and look longer so that our brain can make sense of what we are seeing.

This is what we do when we reread something closely. We read it the first time and then we go back again and again for deeper reads. We do it for many of the same reasons we double take. It’s funny, incredulous, unusual, brilliant, poignant or moving.

So there are a couple of things we need to think about when we take this into the realm of instruction. What are we reading closely? Not every text we read is a contender for close reading. Think Garth and Wayne’s refrain “We’re not worthy!” True dat. I see some colleagues in their quest to fulfill new standards choosing a text–any text–to have the students read multiple times. We must stop to ask ourselves if it’s worthy.

Here are a few literary and informational texts I’ve found worthy because of students’ responses:

Frog and Toad’s “Cookies” story by Arnold Lobel. First and second graders reread this text to gain a better understanding of will power and to make a claim regarding who had stronger will power, Frog or Toad.

Fox by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks. Fourth graders reread this text to track one of the character’s words and actions over time in the story. We also had a great debate about tone. Was it hopeful or soul-crushing? Students rushed to the text to support their perspective.

Gandhi: A March to the Sea by Alice B. McGinty. Fourth and fifth graders reread this text to figure out what salt represented in the 1930s in India. They supported their answers like “freedom” and “survival” and “power” with evidence from the text.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson. Seventh graders reread this text to study a nonviolent approach to conflict. They were hooked from the opening third grader’s quote, “I want to go to jail.” Who would ever want to go to jail? It took several looks back to begin to understand this complex idea.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Young Readers Edition): The Secrets Behind What You Eat by Michael Pollan. I’ve used this with fifth graders up through adults to look at the role our food choices play in our lives. This is an well-written, book-length, argumentative essay. We have to reread to unpack Pollan’s meaning.

The other thing we should consider is how we are reading closely. Recently after I finished a close reading demonstration lesson during professional development, a teacher’s first reaction was, “OK, so we just have kids read something three times. I can have them do that.” No, no, no, no, no. “Purpose,” I said to him. “What was the purpose in each of those readings?” After experiencing it as learners, we reflected back as teachers. It’s not about the number of times or giving kids different prompts or questions to frame up each read. It’s about taking steps as readers to make the meaning more clear the deeper we go.

I loved this quote from Reading Today’s “What’s Hot” issue (September/October 2014) and it has me thinking about how I can increase respect for close reading in my practice:

If the current focus (some of us would call it a mania for) close reading leads to a greater respect for the role text can play as an evidentiary base to support literal, inferential and critical comprehension tasks, then I am all for it. If, on the other hand, close reading gets operationalized as low-level, literal, factual comprehension, it will set back comprehension instruction at least a decade, maybe more.–P. David Pearson

What is worthy of rereading? How do you bring greater respect to comprehension?

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Bring In the Kids

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The past weeks have been a whirlwind of professional development for educators. Even though the students won’t arrive until next Wednesday we’ve incorporated them into our adult learning in multiple ways.

Live running records

When we were asked to present to a staff on running records in August, we pulled out Peter Johnston’s classic Running Records: A Self-Tutoring Guide to make sure we weren’t too rusty with our record taking and then asked my fifth-grade daughter–pretty please–if she’d come be a live model for the staff. You can take a running record at any time with any child with any text and the most compelling way to make that point is to have a student and teacher demonstrate. Ahna brought How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied by Jess Keating and worked with my colleague Sean Moore to do a running record fishbowl style. The adults listened in and took notes as Sean transitioned from a challenging running record (she’s a speedy reader) to conferring with her about the book. Sean had never read the book before and they didn’t rehearse a thing beforehand. The demonstration married the “why” and “how” of running records right there in front of our eyes.

Capturing on-demand assessment

Teachers in our district are going to be giving a pre-assessment before our writing units and a post-assessment toward the end. We knew the on-demand assessments would bring many questions so last June before school let out we captured video in a first- and fourth-grade classroom. I gave the assessment while a colleague ran the camera. With some simple editing tools we created a short video for teachers to watch this week as they prepare to give their own pre-assessments. They heard my language as I outlined the expectations, watched as the students brainstormed and then observed the writers at work.

Conferring practice as students

I hear “I want to get better at conferring” from so many of my colleagues. At six different elementary school writing presentations, we sent our colleagues off to write and gave them choice. “You can write as yourself or as the age children you work with.” Then we walked around with our conferring sheets and spent just a few minutes with several writers. We encouraged the surrounding teachers to stop writing and listen in if they wanted to. I worked with one writer as herself who expressed appreciation of the power of noticing what she was doing well and naming it. Another writer pretended to be a first grader who wrote, “The summer in Kentucky was so hot on my feet. It was really hot. It was super hot.” As I conferred I nudged the writer to think of another time he’d felt heat like that. He mentioned a stove and I encouraged him to try one of the writing moves we’d studied during the minilesson that involved making comparisons. In his reflection he said, “It helped me see how the thread of the lesson can weave through conferring too.”

Soon the hallways will be noisy and those empty bulletin boards will be covered with student work. There will be many running records to take, writing pre-assessments to give and conferring to do. After a long holiday weekend, we’ll be ready for them.

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Tech Tips for Presentations

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When you are presenting, something will likely go wrong. I know that doesn’t sound like me, but this is one place it pays to be pessimistic. If you think about the number of details that go into a presentation, there is a high possibility that something won’t work, something will be forgotten or something won’t connect. We can’t control what happens, but we can control how we react. Breathing and shrugging help me. When my wifi goes down in the middle of streaming a video I say, “Well, we weren’t meant to see the rest of that right now, may be we can come back to it after the break.” I have to accept it and let it go. That’s what is. But the good news is you can prepare for many mishaps. Here are some tips I’ve discovered and learned from other presenters:

*Have a backup.

Whether it’s a laptop, charging cord or projector, having a backup on site is important.

*Don’t forget your dongle.

Often when I go present outside my district I’m hooking my MacBook Air to other projectors. There are two main types of connectors with projectors: VGA and DVI. I carry dongles for both.

*Think twins or triplets.

If my presentation is only saved on a flash drive, that flash drive could be corrupted or lost. If my presentation is only saved on my desktop and I have something happen to my computer, I’m out of luck. If my presentation is only on my Google drive or saved in the cloud and I lose internet access, I can’t get to it. So I make sure to duplicate my presentation in at least two different spots. When I present with a team, we make sure two of us have the presentation. I’ve also printed off my presentation slides and kept the copies. Worse case scenario, I could show the copies of the slides under a document camera.

*Doublecheck handouts.

If someone else is going to be running handouts for me, I keep things as simple as possible. I’ve found “as is” masters are the best approach. That way I can say, “When you make the copies you can look back at this and make sure they are the same.” Still, it’s so important to spot check those copies to make sure they are right before it’s go time. It’s tough to be in the middle of a presentation and have people say, “I don’t have that page.” Also someone running copies isn’t going to notice that they cut off the last sentence on page 6, but I will.

*Wifi waffles.

While connections are constantly improving, I’ve still had many occasions where the wifi was not dependable. Do you need to play a video? See if you can download it. Do you want to show a website? Take some screen shots. Anticipate a problem and see if you can create an alternative.

*Make sure your sound is sound.

A presentation with poor sound will not do. Make sure your microphone or speaker system is adequate for your needs. A portable system will work fine for an audience of about 60 people or less, beyond that you need to be sure that you have enough volume. You can always turn it down so plan for your largest possible audience.

*Dress for your tech

If you are going to need to use a lavalier microphone (a hands-free or lapel mic), think of your attire. Do you have a collar to attach the clip? You may have a power unit that goes with it so you’ll want a waistband, pocket or belt to attach it to. If you happen to be wearing a form-fitting, one-piece dress, it is possible to attach it to a cuff or strap or even tape it to your back, but be aware, wherever you attach it, make sure you (or someone you know) can reach the mute button! Whatever your situation, plan how your clothing can accommodate your needs.

What other tech tips help you navigate presentations?

 

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Because It Makes Me Smile

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Years ago I was at a toy shop downtown and saw a seven-foot giraffe and said, “I have to have that in our house.” Little did I know when said giraffe was being auctioned off for a good cause that my husband would outbid everyone else so he could get it for me. “Savannah” as I’ve named her has made our living room her home ever since. In the lead image, you can see what she looked like as we moved her to our new home in the back of the pick-up. I was recently telling the story to someone who asked if she matched the decor of our house.

“Not at all,” I replied.

I’ve loved and collected giraffes for many years. Maybe it’s because they are very tall animals and I am a very small animal. Or maybe it’s because they have the largest heart of any land animal, but those gentle (except when they are neck fighting) giants make me smile.

Physically when we smile, we tell our brain to feel good and in return our feel-good brain tells us to smile. That’s a cycle I like to tap into. As Mother Teresa said, “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” I’m comfortable answering questions about why I bought a certain outfit or why I gave a certain gift or why I have a kitsch seven-foot giraffe in my home, “Because it makes me smile.”

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Where Are My Sleeves?

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At the Herb Farm in Woodinville, Washington, owners Carrie Van Dyk and Ron Zimmerman work alongside their servers, sous-chefs and sommelier. They dress in the traditional manner of fine dining restaurants: black on bottom, crisp white on top. For one course they might be topping off water goblets while another they are describing their dishes with mouth-watering adjectives. What they are not doing is standing back and surveying the work–they are right in the mix with their sleeves rolled up.

August brings many professional development opportunities. Depending on our roles, sometimes we lead them, sometimes we attend them. I often observe what top decision makers in districts do when they attend workshops and conferences. Some administrators come in and sit way in the back. They’ll wave off my offer of handouts and say, “I’m just here to see how things are going.” Without knowing it, they can send the message, “I’m not here to learn.” Others sit with teams, take notes, ask questions and participate fully. I hear them say, “How can I support you? What can I be doing?” Like Carrie and Ron, their sleeves are rolled up and they are fully engaged in the work.

I believe leaders are doers. I don’t want to ask my team to do things I’m not willing to do. How will I participate in upcoming professional development? Will my sleeves be rolled up or buttoned down? Where will your sleeves be?

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Read This

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Since I made the commitment to read a book a day, there’s been no regret. Oh, there’s been catching up and wondering if I can possibly keep this up until Labor Day, but no regret. Pushing myself to read means I’m watching less media, going to the library more, taking my book in my car to read at any little moment and talking to more people about books. Those are all wonderful things.

At this point I’ve read 34 books. Two books have emerged as favorites.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

One of my friends on Goodreads had written in her review, “I love everything about this book” and I completely agree. I love the characters, tension, dialogue, description and even the fact that it made me cry. My ten-year-old loved it as much as I did. It’s one of those books that I clasped to my chest upon finishing and said, “Thank you.”

Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt

Wow. OK Wow. There is a song from Sesame Street called “Just One Person” that begins,

If just one person believes in you,
Deep enough, and strong enough, believes in you…
Hard enough, and long enough,
It stands to reason, that someone else will think
“If he can do it, I can do it.”

Making it: two whole people, who believe in you
Deep enough, and strong enough,
Believe in you.
Hard enough and long enough
There’s bound to be some other person who
Believes in making it a threesome…

This is that book.

Here are the other books I’ve read and the order I read them in:

Hooray for Hat by Brian Won
I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo by Jill Esbaum
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Neilson
Gifts from the Enemy by Trudy Ludwig
Monkey with a Tool Belt by Chris Monroe
Something Big by Sylvie Neeman
The Cheese Belongs to You by Alexis Deacon
The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes
How to Get a Job by Me, the Boss by Sally Lloyd
The Pocket Mommy by Rachel Eugster
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building by Christy Hale
A Good Trade by Alma Fullerton
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Plastic, Ahoy! by Patricia Newman
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Odd Duck by Cecil Casteelluci and Sara Varon
Fairytale Comics Edited by Chris Duffy
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
To Dare Mighty Things: The Life of Theodore Roosevelt by Doreen Rappaport
Puss Jekyll Cat Hyde by Joyce Dunbar
The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren
The Silver Button by Bob Graham
Bugs in my Hair! by David Shannon
A Dance like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey
My Teacher Is a Monster by Peter Brown
Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt
Flight School by Lita Judge
The Day I Lost My Superpowers by Michael Escoffier
The Grudge Keeper by Mora Rockliff
Jim Curious: A Voyage to the Heart of the Seas by Matthias Picard

I believe if we teach literacy, we need to be up on current books. Educators often ask me how I know about so many books. I say simply: I stay in touch. My children talk to me about what they are reading and I read those books. But you don’t have to have kids. Talk to anyone. Ask, “What should I have on my to-read stack?” and they’ll tell you. Happily.

Or look at a website like

Publishers Weekly Best Books of Summer

Or go to Twitter and type in the hashtag #bookaday

Or get an account at Goodreads and follow what your friends are reading. Friend me if you like. I don’t post often but I check in every couple of weeks.

Or go to Amazon and type in the books you like. Scroll down and see what other people are buying who like what you like.

Or find the “new books” shelf at the library and sign-up for the e-newsletter from your local library. There are new books and suggestions from librarians.

Or go spend twenty minutes in a bookstore. Walk in, find the area that interests you, sit down and begin touching. If you have the funds, buy the books. If you don’t have the funds, write down the titles and put them on hold at your library.

Or follow blogs like mine or this one Nonfiction Detectives or this one Teach Mentor Texts.

There’s plenty of summer left. Keep reading. Find good stuff and share it.

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Trust and Laughter, Laughter and Trust

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If you are going through a change at work, this book by William Bridges Managing Transitions belongs on your shelves. I was rereading the section today on trustworthiness. He has 11 reminders about trust and a few of them really jumped out at me. Maybe they’ll resonate for you too.

Do what you say you will do. Don’t make promises you can’t or won’t keep. Most people’s mistrust has come from the untrustworthy actions of others in the past.

Listen to people carefully and tell them what you think they are saying. If you have it wrong, accept the correction and revise what you say. People trust most the people whom they believe understand them.

Share yourself honestly. A lot of mistrust begins when people are unable to read you. And remember: while hiding your shortcomings may polish your image, it ultimately undermines people’s trust in you. Admitting an untrustworthy action is itself a trustworthy action.

Ask for feedback and acknowledge unasked-for feedback on the subject of your own trustworthiness whenever it is given. Regard it as valuable information and reflect on it. Feedback may be biased, and you don’t have to swallow it whole. But check it for important half-truths.

Try extending your trust of others a little further than you normally would. Being trusted makes a person more trustworthy, and trustworthy people are more trusting.

If all of this is too complicated to remember and you want a single key to the building of trust, just remind yourself, “Tell the truth.”

And now for the laughter…

Many of you have already seen Weird Al’s viral Word Crimes to the tune of Blurred Lines, but if you haven’t, watch this. I bet you’ll find yourself smiling in recognition of both word crimes you’ve been guilty of and the word crimes that get on your nerves.

Word Crimes

Finally, my daughter showed me this video of an interaction between Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster. Kermit’s voice has been slowed down and the effect had me doubled over in hysterics. You must watch it. It’s 59 seconds of funny. I’m pretty sure I felt this same left of frustration toward Cookie Monster at some point.

Kermit and Cookie Monster Slow Mo

IT’S NOT A COOKIE! IT’S AN ORANGE! OF COURSE IT’S AN ORANGE!

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Taking in the Good

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My friends Eileen and Laurie were talking about a book called Hardwiring Happiness. They mentioned a part of the author’s practice from “Taking in the Good” that zooms in on observing or recalling a positive experience for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Why? Unless an experience is intensely wonderful, our positive experiences stay in short-term status and never get downloaded into our memory.

Hanson talks about how our brains act like Teflon with positive experiences, which can slip right out of our memories while negative experiences are more like Velcro. They grip and stick easily. That helps us in survival situations (don’t eat small, red berries, bad!), but it doesn’t help most of us in our everyday lives. Thinking about negative and positive experiences as Velcro and Teflon is helpful for me. Most of us would like to be able to release the negatives and retain the positives. Lucky for us our plastic brains can do that more often if we are mindful.

The mindfulness exercise is simple. When you experience something positive, just stop. For 20 whole seconds. Notice everything you can about the experience. What are the colors and shapes? The sounds? The body sensations? The emotions? I tried this on walks. I’d see the first crocuses poking up or the dew on a spider web and stop to let my body and mind record it. Or I’d hear a birdsong or kids laughing and stop myself 20 seconds to listen and take it in. I shared this with my teenage son and he started doing it too on his runs.

Now I’ll warn you the result of this practice means that you might look like Walter Mitty at times. In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a character who zones out while life is happening around him. I’ve had people pass me on a trail with questioning looks as I record the beauty of a fern’s fiddlehead. The other cool thing is that you don’t have to be in a breathtaking setting. Once you start looking for things that make you feel positive, you’ll find them everywhere. It could be a color, the taste of homemade raviolis, a sharp pencil or even the smell of fresh basil. Or you can just sit and recall those things and let your brain bathe in the positivity.

By writing this I’m reminding myself to do this more. As Rick Hanson writes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So if you can stay with the positive experiences longer and more often, you’ll truly be able to take in the good.