Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Fish in a Tree - my writing about my reading

In Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, the main characters are trying to figure out how to act when they find themselves in situations where the skills they possess do not help them succeed and it feels futile. Ally, now a 6th grader who struggles with reading, bluntly tells her teacher, "No one can help me."

As a teacher reading this book, I connected more to the secondary characters who work with Ally and her classmates. Though all the teachers are depicted as flawed, they do strive to help the students as best as they can succeed in a place that instead makes them feel like a "fish in a tree". This metaphor is explained when Mr. Daniel's tells Ally, "Everyone is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking that it is stupid."

At the beginning, Mrs. Hall and Principal Silver are introduced. Both are clearly too busy to see Ally and her struggles. But I'd argue that teachers are busy. They are real people with real lives, some having babies, some running a school. So in haste, they shout things like, "Ally, why would you do such a thing." I know I have been that teacher. I've blurted out a stupid statement to a little one in my charge, occasionally in a voice louder than necessary. As I ended chapter three with Mrs. Hall leaving to go on maternity leave, I thought to myself, "No wonder our schools struggle. They are run by Mrs. Hall/Principal Silver-types."

Then in walked Mr. Daniels and he epitomized what all teachers strive to be. A teacher who builds community, who gets to know the interests of his students. He really looks to notice students' strengths. He watches as students struggle. By watching Ally, he sees her shine when given an auditory task like "guess what's in the sealed box?" and orally defines the words lonely and alone. But struggles with all things written. Then after all that looking, he brilliantly introduces Ally to the game of chess to build on her nonverbal skills.

As the story continues, Mr. Daniels is knocked off the high horse I mounted him on. He draws the wrong conclusion about Albert's family and he isn't able to connect yet with Shay who is allowed to be a terror to others. And he stupidly leaves unclear directions for a substitute teacher who ends up humiliating Ally. Yet Hunt's portrayal of Mr. Daniels is spot on. All teachers are trying. Sometimes we get it right and can help our "school of fish". Other times, we are overwhelmed by all the "fish" that we can't see the forest for the trees.

The story ends a bit happily ever after for Ally. But the teacher in me is still wondering about mean-girl Shay and hungry Albert and the three bullies who used him as a punching bag. All the characters, the students and the teachers, will stay with me as I begin a new school year. This year I hope to show grit as it was explained in this book by allowing myself to fail and by pushing through even when it is hard.

As a teacher, I am given the gift of working with students whose minds work differently. After reading Fish in a Tree I now see that teaching is a whole lot like playing chess. I need to see the whole board. I need to know each piece. I need to strategically plan each move. And I must humbly remember that I'll win some and I'll lose some. But I will keep playing! I recommend that other teachers read this YA novel and I hope we all vow to play the best game I can for our students.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Celebration - Virtual Book Clubs

I met Cathy in July at TCRWP Reading Institute and she shared how she blogged each Saturday as a celebration. I immediately liked the focus of this Saturday ritual.  I have made it a habit during the school year to blog on Saturdays. But my focus was just a looking back at a week where I was noticing my life being back in the classroom as a classroom teacher after spending 10 years as a reading specialist. Yes, sometimes I was celebrating but that was just by chance. Now as I am relaxing in July, away from the classroom, I do think I will being to embrace posting to this Saturday Celebration Blog group.

Today I celebrate reading in a BOOK CLUB. While at TCRWP Reading Institute, my advanced sections had me read and share within a book club. That reflection can be found here:
WWI book club work
NF Book Club work

Once I returned home, I continued to communicate with the smart teacher participants I met at TC. We live all over the USA and we wanted to practice this work more during our summer time. So we formed a virtual book club. A book was picked - A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord and google docs were shared. Then I sat and read in VA. I thought about the chapters I read and jotted notes, looked things up, made notebook pages and shared all this thinking to a google doc shared with my virtual club. I then read their thoughts and made comments and they did the same. And because we are in the habit of having twitter chats with TCRWP, we had a twitter chat using the hashtag - #WabtR (writing about reading).

And because that first club book went so well, we decided to do it again.

Today I celebrate my book club friends, most I have NOT met or just met briefly during our intense week of learning in NY. They are learners who are working so hard at their reading this summer in order to teach better come the 2015-16 school year. Because I am reading and spying on myself as I read and then sharing my notes in the company of very smart and devoted teachers, I literally can feel myself growing as a reader!!

Thank you, book club friends!
Today I celebrate that I get to read books WITH you.
I think I will always remember the Summer of '15 as the summer I became a stronger reader and I owe this growth to being able to do the work in a club. I can't wait to guide my 3rd graders into partnerships and clubs once school starts in September.

And I can't wait to read and post my thoughts later today to my virtual book club google document.
Thank you TCWRP and thank you book club friends!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Visitor

Ding dong.

Evelyn heard the sound and out of habit, she set down her cup of coffee on the kitchen table and walked to the front door. She could see a woman smiling and waving hello through the window panes along side the door. Evelyn mimicked the actions by waving her hand and smiling. Automatically, Evelyn pulled open the door and the woman said, "Hi, Evelyn. I'm so glad you are home. I brought pictures to show you from Anne's graduation."

Evelyn heard this woman call her by name and she was smiling. She must be my friend or maybe a friend of Michelle's, she thought. She tried to explain how Michelle was out and that Michael was downstairs. But the only words voiced were, "Michelle...Michelle...out" in a stuttered manner.

The smiling woman, holding a small photo album in her hand said, "That's okay. I came to show you my pictures from Anne's graduation from UVA" and she started walking toward the kitchen. Evelyn followed this lady who seemed to know her way around her home.

They sat next to each other on the kitchen island stools and the lady showed her photo after photo of people posing. One was wearing a black robe and the lady called her Anne. "Isn't Anne a happy UVA graduate!"

"Happy," Evelyn parroted.

Evelyn pulled the photo album closer to her face. She studied each photo a second time, trying to understand, trying to recognize the people. "UVA," she said aloud.

"Yep, just like your Michelle, my Anne's a UVA graduate!" The woman said proudly.

Just then the sound of the front door opening could be heard. "I'm back," a voice called. Into the kitchen walked Michelle, Evelyn's daughter.

"Sally, it's so good to see you."

"I came to show your mom the pictures from Anne's graduation."

"Oh, let me see," and Evelyn handed the photo album to her daughter.

Evelyn thought, "Sally...she must  be a friend. I wish I could remember. How come everyone around me remembers and I can't? How come everyone around me can talk easily and I can't?"

Evelyn folded her hands tightly and looked from Michelle to the woman and smiled.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Writing Practice while People Watching at Starbucks

Last week I began reading Kate Messner's Teacher Write blog and used the writing prompts shared to draft my own story.

I read this suggestion on Tue: watch people in a public space and create a story based on someone you watch.

Then on Wed I found myself in a Starbucks so I gave the prompt a try. I looked around and noticed a man at the table to my left, in his 20s, studying something and drinking an iced latte. I decided to call him Nate. Here's the story I created:

Nate sets his backpack down next to his grande iced latte and pulls out the MCAT practice book and a notebook. Turning to the page he left off from yesterday, he reads the question. Reads it again. Takes a sip of his drink. Pulls his cell phone out of his breast pocket and clicks to check email. Two minutes pass. Five minutes pass. He glances back to the practice book. Nate clicks out of email and slides his cell phone back into his shirt pocket. Grabbing his pen, he begins to solve for the answer.

In ten days he will take a test that he has to score well on so he can submit the score to the med school at UVA so they can accept him into their oncology department so he can graduate with top honors and be selected to head their department where he will lead the researchers to develop the drug that cures all cancers.

But first, the test needs to be taken in ten days. First he needs to remind his brain how to solve for x in a complicated problem. First he needs to stop being distracted by his phone and his daydreaming and focus on the here and now.

Nate takes another sip of his drink and solves the next ten problems in the practice  book without interruption.


So technically this isn't a slice from my life.
But maybe it is a slice  about how I imagined a story and wrote it down while sitting at Starbucks.
Either way, it was a fun way to practice my narrative writing skills.