Many was the time in my career when I lamented a missed teachable moment. One in particular was when, as newer teacher, I would respond to a wonderful question: “Is this book a true story?” with a shortsighted answer. I remember the look of wonder in a students’ eyes, especially if they connected with the novel. Often, it would be the non- or reluctant reader who’d ask. Not knowing much about pedagogy then I’d respond, “Nope. Made-up. Fiction. Glad you like it,” and make a mental note of finding similar titles. I thought that was good teaching. Wrong.
The better question would’ve been to ask why it seemed so real. I could have explained author’s intention which would have helped their critical understanding of purpose, and how it complements a writer’s attempt to engage readers. Setting, plot, theme, character development, protagonist and antagonist, would have been more meaningfully discussed and learned. It was only after I took my own writing seriously and began to read like a writer, (Smith, F.) did I realize the teaching opportunities missed. Overtime questions like, “Do the characters in your book seem real?” became our standard critical approach. We discussed craft and intention for everything we read, and I learned, too.
As I teacher, of course, I benefitted by having students who were more engaged. I learned to teach authentically. As a writer, it forced me to not only write about what I liked, but to make sure the reader would enjoy it, too. In time, both my teaching and author’s skills improved. It was too bad it took a several years to fully discover.
I think about this now after the Columbia Teachers College dropped its program which was based on Dr. Lucy Calkins' authentic, holistic approach to balanced literacy. According to a recent New York Times article her method was disbanded because she was taking the year off and, “that [scientific] body of research suggests that direct, carefully sequenced instruction in phonics, vocabulary building and comprehension is more effective for young readers than Dr. Calkins’s looser approach.” Unfortunately, that’s wrong, too, like I was years ago.
The never-ending, phonics versus whole language saw, is on again. Teaching students to sound out words is a great idea, and phonics has its place. Sadly, though, phonics and basal readers don’t make youngsters love to read. Instead, it makes them vessels to be filled rather than critical evaluators who enjoy and evaluate what they read. Too bad. In fact, the first ever Global Teacher Award winner was Nancie Atwell, a long-time whole language devotee and pioneer. Not surprisingly, no one came forward to research her methodology. I guess true reading and writing engagement is too hard for academics to quantify. Unfortunately, wrong again.
Reading and writing instruction is highly complex, something public education researchers can’t seem to wrap their minds around. At some point, in later posts, we can take the time to unravel the issue. If you’re an educator or parent I suggest let them read, and help them love it.
Knowing that ungraded writing increases writing fluency, improves student thinking and helps teachers plan better, a few basic prompts are provided below. Please note that although the writing is ungraded, it doesn’t mean that one can’t reward students for their effort. Also, students should be encouraged to share any and all thoughts, no matter how “out there” they may seem. The best teaching results from students sharing ideas, while the teacher builds upon their thoughts, needs or concerns. While tight lesson planning is emphasized in teacher training, the best teachable moments are those that arise when one attempts to better understand each student, and informal writing offers that possibility.
Before a lesson:
What do you know about (topic)?
What do you expect to learn?
Is this (topic) something that might seem easy for you?
Why would do we need to know this?
Is there something about this that you wonder about?
What can I do to help you learn this?
Does this (topic) create an image in your mind?
During the lesson:
What is the key here to understanding this?
What do you need to know more about, right now?
Does it seem like your classmates are getting ‘it’? Please explain.
What question do you have about this?
What makes this easy to learn? Or what makes it hard to learn?
Summarize what you know.
Any suggestions for me?
After the lesson:
If you had to teach this, where would begin?
Was this easy or hard to learn?
What questions do you have?
Did you make any mistakes as we did this? If so, what will you do to avoid them?
What would help to remember this?
Where, why or how can this (topic) be used?
Is this what you thought you’d learn?
Summarize the lesson.
Could I have done this better?
When I first started in the profession, a colleague complained that there was so much to teach, and I fell into the following the curriculum on the mandated days and the times it should be taught only to grow frustrated. I realized the quality of what students learned and could replicate going forward, required a change to my planning. Taking the time to get authentic feedback was worth the effort since I could occasionally target instruction to individual students while still engaging the whole group. The result was a better time management and results.
My Dearest Max,
My beloved husband, sadly we are apart. We barely missed each other on the train platform. I followed the tilt of your black fedora as it moved above the others—so tall! I called, “Max! Max!” but my voice was one among the din of many hoping to bond one last time. My eyes followed the gray and white feather in the band of your hat bobbing like a gull on the sea, lamenting we were destined to travel different paths. I hope now you are as settled as I am and that the time we’re apart moves quickly.
My work consists of sorting clothes by fabric: cotton, wool, flannel, the occasional leather or silk piled into containers the size of horse drawn carts. It’s backbreaking, so I’ll compose letters to pass the time. Today, I remember our first date, when you came and sat in the parlor with mother and me, shy, rubbing your hands together, and gently placing your teacup ever so softly onto the saucer, afraid the thin plate might crack. I thought you too deliberate, slow-witted, no fun--my God, just put it down! And when you spoke of your profession, accounting, I wondered if I’d survive this meeting hour my father had arranged with your business partner. Interesting, isn’t it, how fathers want their daughters to marry well? They seek men of means, those who will improve the fathers’ social status while mothers only want men with kind eyes, gentlemen. I thought this as you sat across from me on the edge of the upholstered chair, back straight, nervous, brown eyes averting mine. Had father no sense? Had he not known after seventeen years of living under his roof what type of husband I’d prefer? Certainly, I’m no beauty, but a man whose voice was barely audible and who lacked passion for anything other than figures and balances was his choice? You sensed my agitation and asked—to my surprise—if we might go for a walk. Mother agreed to let us go alone, “Such a beautiful spring day,” she said, “why not?” It was then I saw the smile in your eyes, a deep, soft glow.
As we walked, you spoke of family, your twin toddler nephews who were full of energy, and your brother whose wife was a gentile. “Quite the scandal,” you said, sarcastically.
“She hasn’t converted?”
“No. My brother is more likely to leave the Faith if mother continues to pester him.” You said I should know what I’m getting into if we were to be married, and I paused. “Sorry, Elena, I don’t mean to be presumptuous.”
“Not at all,” I said, thinking you were fair. “Why don’t you call on me another day, and we’ll talk more.”
“Thank you,” you said with a tip of your hat. You didn’t say, “I had a wonderful time” or “It was a pleasure,” no, instead a humble goodbye for the opportunity to talk and meet again. Of course, you smiled, and waited until I was behind the door. Oddly, you stood on the sidewalk for a few moments staring at the house, so as not to forget, possibly? I admired your square shoulders, thin nose, small ears, and round face—maybe Father was wise after all. “You made an impression,” Mother said teasingly, looking through the parlor window. “Otherwise, he’d be gone by now.”
I blushed; I wanted to know more about the tall, quiet man.
So that is how I’ve spent today, reliving the moment the spark of our life took hold. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
My Dearest Max,
I woke from a pleasant dream: we were ice-skating, hand in hand, before sunset on the night we decided to marry. How we could’ve been on the same lake since childhood and never met astonished me, my future husband skinning his knees on the same ice or stealing the scarf of a neighborhood girl, all before my eyes. Children laughed and fell; teenagers chased each other and screamed in delight while we glided closer to the bonfire on the shore. With the backs of our woolen parkas warming against the flames you said, “I want to ask Father for your hand. Do you approve?”
“Of course! When?”
“After Hanukah,” and I was disappointed in having to wait, to keep the joyful secret for another eight days, but you were right. We’d respectfully observe the Festival of Light as the faithful should, our happiness could wait. My impatience proved to be a gift. With the lighting of each Menorah candle, my excitement grew, and I hopped from bed each day blessed with the thought of our future so near at hand. I listened to the flame of each lit candle, “May the Lord cause you to flourish / both you and your children,” and I imagined a boy and a girl: one tall like his father, the other with her daddy’s thin nose and my hazel eyes. Father noticed my devotion and commented, “I now see a woman lighting the Menorah. One ready to marry, perhaps?” With a smile he said, “I was right to grant the young man’s request to visit.”
So, it was you, Max, who’d arranged our first meeting, not Father! I was flattered to be an object of affection, and it was just like you to quietly plan—should I say scheme?—to meet the young girl who walked past your office on errands to the market. No wonder your hands shook, much was invested in a first impression. Father asked, “If Max were to ask for my oldest in marriage, would you be pleased?”
“Oh, yes,” I said, overwhelmed with blissful thoughts of a wedding, a honeymoon, of becoming a wife and mother.
Not long after, we planned a small ceremony for the spring and found a third floor apartment near the park. “Many stairs,” Father said, “better for you to visit me.”
He was right, the stairs were a chore and it led to our first disagreement. You insisted after the miscarriage that we look for another apartment, but I said no. “Elena, I can’t expect you to use these stairs, be reasonable.”
“Did you not think this might happen when we agreed to rent it?” I said sourly, disappointed in myself. I intended to climb the steps until my water broke if need be to prove I was a capable wife and woman.
Later, upon returning from work you said, “Elena, this place will not do. Tomorrow, I’ll find another.”
I didn’t respond, instead I let tears fall. I said, finally, “I’m not ready to leave,” and you understood. With your arms around me, I heard, “There’ll be plenty of little ones. You’ll see,” amid the lilting chatter of children playing below in the alley.
In time, I understood the infant was your loss, too, and I’d been selfish. I was then more considerate of your feelings. I said, “How could I expect my mother to help with a child while we live atop a mountain?” and you smiled, visibly relieved. Max, I’m sorry I was sullen and left you to flounder in your grief. It’s my greatest regret, My Love: I was selfish. You were kind and patient and your practical wanting of a new apartment masked the pain I should’ve seen and felt. You grieved for me and for our child, and you did so alone. I promise that’ll never happen when we’re together again. Of course, I know little of the outside world or of our army’s success, but I hope. I pray God keeps you safe.
I admit I grow weary as the workday grinds on, but I think of your brave service and understand I must push on and do my part, as well.
My Dearest Max,
Today, as I sorted, I found a brochure for a hotel in Zakopana, not far from where we honeymooned. I laughed then when you tasted the salty Oscypek cheese for the first time. I held you closely as we sat by Lake Morskie Oko, the blue of its cold water a testament to God’s magnificence. We spent our first evening as husband and wife watching the sun gently slide behind the Tatry Mountains, the stillness of the air around us alive with anticipation of our wedded night together. The room’s pine board floors and walls cast a soft, clean scent, and the white sheets were crisp, fresh. We undressed in the moonlight, then slid into bed with cold feet. You were hesitant to begin, only caressing my cheek with a finger. I wondered, “Was it my face that won your heart?”
“No. It was the mystery. Who was that girl who passed by on the same day at the same time?”
“How romantic,” I said, teasingly. “I should’ve known that punctuality was a seduction for accountants.”
“And figures,” you said, sliding a warm hand to my hip. We kissed, my skin responding to the smoothness of touch, the warmth of lips on my neck. Gently, you slid on top of me, and I accepted you. All the time we’d invested came to this moment, our becoming one, a family. Later, as we lay together, I was relieved to think the man I knew in public was the same in private. I was aware of the veil some men hid behind, the true self only known in private, and I admit I was a bit nervous, but now I was content. I’d trusted in you, Max: I was safe in your arms, within our small inn nestled at the foot of the glorious mountains towering over us, protecting us.
My Dearest Max,
I can’t sleep. While everyone in the barrack dreams, my fatigue won’t let me rest. Instead, I lay on the floor staring through the cracks in the wood slats, watching the stars that call to me. They stand alone, clear and strong in the darkness, sirens to Eternity and my soul’s rest. Is it wrong to wish my heart would still, for the ache in my limbs to float away? Would God finally admit I’ve witnessed enough pain to enter Heaven? He asks so much of me to handle the clothes of our brothers and sisters, the clothes of children and babies who’ve perished in the gas chambers. Just today, a baby’s small rattle fell from the worn pocket of a black woolen coat and time stopped. Its round, pink orb tinkled as it rolled to my feet. I was unsure if my eyes deceived me, was I dreaming? I no longer know what is real. Clothes pass through my hands as their lives pass from this earth—am I not as guilty as the Nazis who perpetuate this horrible vanity? I, who gives the coin and jewelry from the pockets of the murdered to the Germans, commit a sin against my fellow man. Max, this grieves me greatly, but you would be proud to know I’ve atoned for my sin by giving my ration of bread to a young woman, Natalie, who shares my wooden bunk. I’ve taken the vow of poverty so I may enter Heaven. It’s comforting to lie here now, as my letters to you swirl round and round in my mind. Isn’t it interesting how time and toil have condensed our life together into exquisite moments: the smile in your eyes, the feel of your strong hands holding mine, or your footsteps on the stairs? I have the child’s rattle, too, tucked under my tattered shirt. Let the guards find me with it tomorrow: “LORD...I look in triumph upon my enemies.”
I feel the sleep of the ages upon me now Max and before I close my eyes, I promise to find you again, my shy, tall man who called upon me and humbly offered his love.
In a classroom where student ownership of learning is expected, individual student portfolios are must haves. Portfolios create running records for students of what they learned or not as the school year progresses, and shapes students’ thinking and learning in ways that allows them to have control over their skills and abilities. Portfolios help them avoid error, revise, write and read purposefully, make connections, and analyze and solve problems based on the good learner habits they develop. With a portfolio, a student begins to think about how she learns which at the very least helps to avoid repetitive mistakes and, for others, accelerates their learning through a process that’s easy to integrate and manage in the classroom.
Every student begins the year with a manila file folder kept in a class drawer and, as the days and weeks go by, items from class are collected: quizzes, test, short responses, and practice or enrichment activities. On days when the opportunity presents itself, a student uses the portfolio to redo any item in it for a better grade, with an explanation provided for the teacher to review. For example, a poor quiz score is improved. The student researches the right answers, explains what was wrong, then how she will remember not to make the same mistakes again. Redoing the quiz has many benefits: it motivates the student to improve a class grade; allows for the independent relearning; eliminates the “downtime” that inevitably happens; is easy for the teacher to grade; ensures a better understanding of content; and puts the emphasis for learning back onto the student.
Reworking assignments provides the time for students to manage their learning, and deal with it tangibly. A test isn’t given then forgotten, in fact, it’s now a primary document in the on-going recording of the history of every student. Letting students relearn at their pace, either alone or with a peer, also provides for a differentiated classroom setting, and a change from the normal teacher-as-gatekeeper routine.
Amazingly, a simple file folder of each student’s work can have a major impact on the day-to-day environment of the classroom, and it requires little planning, preparation or effort, just opportunity and a classwork grade for effort.
A recent national news television vignette about volunteer tutors helping at-risk students learn to read was remarkable not only for the adults’ dedication, but for what became obvious from their work. A kind, older woman and eager child read a popular fairy tale aloud together. When the youngster retold part of the story, she responded well, demonstrating comprehension, pleasing her mentor. More interesting was the child’s use of idiomatic or non-academic language to respond. The little girl spoke in the informal way or “social talk” used in her home and community and I wondered: Is the challenge to learn to read and to assimilate into school more difficult for at-risk students simply because they are less likely to be aware of “school language”?
School language, now commonly referred to as academic language is the use – and understanding of -- words, phrases, grammar, mechanics and textbook terminology, used in the academic setting. Children who aren’t school ready – meaning they’ve had minimal exposure to words or texts they may encounter in primary classroom -- have a harder time learning to read and adopting the use of school language. As the child in the televised report responded informally, I was impressed with her ability to juggle social and academic language when processing a verbal response.
In this case, one can imagine the demanding back and forth mental processing required to make sense of unfamiliar text with informal language. As the sophistication of school talk eventually intensifies, so does one’s need to read and respond. School literacy, then, not only equates to one’s ability to read on grade level, but to think and write effectively using school language. Reading becomes more than associating letters with sounds and word pictures – it serves as the vehicle by which school language is acquired. As such, it should begin early and supported through one’s educational arc.
Home and school partnerships to encourage reading should start when babies first recognize sounds and words. Pediatricians, rightly, provide books in their waiting rooms and encourage parents to read and speak to their children to accelerate language acquisition. Child outreach family interventions, like “Providence Talks” a Blomberg Philanthropies, grant funded program, helps children as young as age one with language acquisition. Local screening should start sooner, before the age of three, to insure toddlers are engaged in language at home.
We can rethink, too, how schools remediate reading and provide long-term support. As of now, reading and special education teachers are solely responsible for intervention, but all teachers should be trained in the ways in which students process language. Professional development -- no matter what the grade level or subject -- should focus on how lessons ensure text understanding in the moment of the activity. Quick writes, either in a notebook or on a Post It note, are easy to do and allow teachers and students to share ideas and thinking at a crucial time.
Content language, as well, is a vital part of the classroom day-to-day talk and should be a focal point. For example, teachers can post word walls to highlight key words and phrases – along with their meanings – for students. In this way, students are exposed to essential terminology, which helps in the processing of content.
The televised example of a child learning to read highlighted the complex mental process needed to link sounds to words, words to sentences, and then transition from social to academic language. For some, reading requires intensive early intervention -- when necessary -- and a wrap-around approach once a child enters school to ensure success.
I hope her journey continues as well as it started.
Somehow, over the many years of public education, it was decided that children could best learn to write by first mastering the basics of spelling and grammar. Unfortunately, this mistaken assumption has been proven false by best practice, yet word searches, spelling lists and the teaching of the parts of speech, still dominate our Language Arts and English classrooms. The fixation on spelling and mechanics – or memory and error – hamstrings writing fluency, so even excellent students feel they, “can’t write.”
College graduates will admit this, even after pursuing some of the most demanding college coursework and degrees. Why? Because we don’t value fluency over basics, and we lose the opportunity to create writers. The best teachers in all content areas understand that informal writing helps them understand how students learn, and allows them to share their written ideas with their classmates. This process not only compliments writing, it builds content knowledge and understanding since writing makes meaning.
Another reason for the insistence on spelling and mechanics is that academic and business writing is “formal” so educators feel obligated to teach formality at the expense of fluency. Also, many feel creative writing and writing to learn waste too much class time, which is too bad since this is what’s required to build fluency.
What I’ve learned is spelling and mechanics are best taught through writing in which students are invested – for example, if a student wants to share a thought with a peer, she’s more willing to listen to – and remember -- how a properly placed comma or period will better convey her idea.
Fluency and confidence go hand-in-hand. Confident writers are willing to take on formal writing, so time initially spent “free” writing brings dividends. Students quickly improve spelling and mechanics once they feel confident in their abilities.
We need to build writers the way teachers of art and music do: they encourage, not discourage, students to try. They use hands-on experiences and don’t focus on error. I once overheard a conversation with a high school art teacher who asked why a student didn’t take her basic art class. When the student said he couldn’t draw, the art teacher told him not to worry. “No one knows how to draw at first,” she said. “It’s my job to help you.”
Helping our students develop fluency throughout the school day will make them better writers and learners, and it’s time to rethink how we do it.
Acclaimed novelist John Irving, whose Last Night in Twisted River opens with the beautifully written account of the drowning of a young man, said that he begins his novels with the last sentence then writes backwards. I was struck by how interesting an approach that is. His acknowledgment is rare in that authors generally have a focal point or idea that they write around, whereas Irving’s is a linear progression, even if it is from end to beginning. One wonders how he then creates the rest of the work: does he imagine scenes, characters, or link images? It’s obvious that he has a strong narrative voice that guides the process, too.
As writers, it’s important that we find a way to develop an idea or inspiration in a way that works naturally for us. Irving’s voice is strong because he’s figured out his story line and has confidence in the way he wants to tell it. I’ve found that when I’m not sure, my words lack energy and crispness, and my voice is stilted, insincere. My best remedy is to stop and image the person I’m writing about by asking, “Who is this person?” In this way, I try to visualize a real person in action. I look for how the person might dress, walk, talk and why it all comes together in this way. I’ve learned that the big mistake is to fight my inner eye and try to only select those traits that fit the story. Inspiration, like a bubble rising to the surface, bursts into my conscious thought; if I were to ignore the others to follow, then I’d do a disservice to the narrative voice inside me.
It has taken a while to trust the narrative or, in my case, the first person voice that likes to visit me, but I'm glad I do. Confidence in one's voice makes writing so much more fun, unpredictable and rewarding. Irving’s unusual backwards design reminds me that our voices -- and our trust in them -- are unique to writers who listen well.
Interestingly, the goals for creating readers (self-motivation, fluency and critical self-awareness) are the same for writers. Giving a writer time, encouragement and choice of topic is essential—no matter what level of instruction—to achieve the same goals. By using a writing workshop approach that includes the use of a writer’s notebook, the blank page anxiety that all writers face is eliminated.
A writer’s notebook is a combination of a daily journal and launching pad for ideas that helps writers build written work from the ideas and observations in them. As a journal, it records thoughts and feelings that when used daily, helps them transcribe thought to paper—a key component of developing fluency. When writing becomes as easy as talking, the student is much more receptive to writing instruction.
The process to build a writer’s notebook varies from elementary to secondary levels, but the similar idea is that it is the writer’s private place to explore feelings, thoughts and emotions as well as to develop thinking. Generally, a notebook split into two sections works best. One part is for private journal writing done daily, and the other is for class notes or assignments. Every day, without a prescribed topic, students write about themselves and their lives. These entries can be as mundane as what they did prior to coming to class or as passionate as venting about life. In either case, these are not read by the teacher, but a grade is given for exerting effort during the five minutes of class time (usually the beginning) to quietly write and no just sit and stare at the ceiling or out the window.
Later, a journal entry can relate to reading, a class assignment, or an observation that can lead to a short written piece. Taking students to observe the action in the school library where they are asked to note what they see, can then lead to a short essay retold from their notes.
What’s amazing is that creating both readers and writers is the same process and the beauty of it is in its simplicity.
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.