Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Home for the Holidays

I hope all is well on the home front. It's been quite a busy break. I kicked it off with a Nurturing Narratives session at my old high school. It was so fun to see so many old faces and lots of new, little ones! We read The Night Before Christmas, The Magical Snowman and The Polar Express. Hot chocolate was served and fun was had by all!

I have been reminded this holiday season about the importance of family. About acceptance and about love. Many of us live far from home and even though we miss them it's not always easy to spend 24/7 with our family. They do things differently than we do, they are too loud or too opinionated. The truth is, though, that they help us grow. With each adversity, with every irritation we exhale, we get closer to the real definition of family...love. Some of our families are those we are born into and others are those we create for ourselves. Some of us may be coming home to re-build relationships and others might be re-defining what family means after years. Whatever your situation is, I wish you all a season of love, joy and growth. May we continue to evolve as readers, writers, listeners and people in the new year.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009



Yesterday I taught my first class with PenTales, a wonderful organization I have partnered with to help them with their children's curriculum. It's a new age group for me (10-12 year olds) and I was a bit nervous, not entirely sure if my methods would hold up (given that I spend my teaching time with very young children). But I had nothing to fear, they were an amazing bunch. Excited, eloquent, respectful, eager and a real treat to have in my classroom. I am thrilled to be working with them and look forward to a January filled with adventure. I wanted to share the writing exercise we did yesterday in case any of you have older children. I know I talk a great deal about early literacy but the process continues well into grammar school. These children are still, in many ways, coming to the written word. It is a joy to see them grow and expand on the platform they have already built. Here is what we did:

A writing exercise I call the "What If?" exercise.
I spoke at the beginning of class a bit about how stories usually come out of one of three things: people, places and things.

I asked the students what people are called in stories. Characters!

I then asked if anyone knew what places were called...setting!

And the third, things, I call details...little things that make a story special.

The goal is to get them thinking about narrative in terms of elements, so they understand the structure for how a story is built.

I told them we were going to pay some attention to setting today and do an exercise I use when I need to get in the writing mood. I then had everyone close their eyes (I imagine many of them didn't do it but I couldn't tell you, being as that I kept mine closed!). With their eyes still closed I asked them to think about if they could be absolutely anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?

It could be a made-up place, a place from a dream, a faraway place they have never been to or a place that makes them feel really happy and at home. Once they had chosen a place I told them to "open" their eyes in the place (with eyes still closed) and record every single thing they saw.

What does it smell like there? Taste like? What colors are there? What do they feel? Hear? "Look around, remember everything you possibly can about this place." Are there other people there? Who? Where are they? I gave them 30 more seconds to really take some mental snapshots and then had everyone open their eyes, get paper and pen or use a computer, and write it down. Everything about the place they could remember. "Make us feel like we were there with you. Tell us everything you possibly can about this place."
I gave them 15 solid minutes for writing but the children wanted more...as a writing teacher, is there anything better? Afterwards we all sat in a circle and shared our pieces. Some children had written more of a list of details, that read like poetry. Others got really into the description of their place. All of them were wonderful.

Next up: a character description and three details. Then we are going to put all three elements together and start talking about that big one...PLOT!

Read away,


Monday, December 7, 2009

Protective Parenting...a problem?

I came across this great lit list of 7 fascinating books about our parenting culture. I haven't read any yet so I cannot give a review (I will soon) but I wanted to make some umbrella points that the post seemed to hint at. And, of course, encourage you all to glance at the list and summaries.

The overwhelming feeling seems to be that parents need to relax. The books range in emotion from one that acknowledges and explains our culture of fear to another that says we are downright crippling our children with these methods of protection. Will a room-temperature baby wipe really injure a child? Children need to be exposed to mild discomforts so that as they grow older they can take on more challenging ones. Almost all the books seem to assert that we are doing a disservice to our children by catering to them this much and for this long.

I have always been of the mindset that you cannot spoil a child with too much love, it's an impossibility, but how do we draw the line between love and love's gestures? Certainly we want to buy pre-warmed wipes because we love our children and we want them to be comfortable and happy but how do you distinguish between productive and unproductive acts of love? I'm curious what your thoughts are on this topic and how you parents out there view the current "protective" parenting culture. Comment away!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The 7 Conditions of Learning Language

I have been reading Helping Children Become Readers Through Writing by Arlene C. Schultze and I'm finding it very illuminating. It is accessible and draws on many staples of literary fact and example. I wanted to share for you all here today Cambourne's 7 conditions of learning language. I have read them before but have greatly enjoyed the reminder as the philosophy is one I agree with and employ.

Cambourne (and Schultze) assert that there are 7 conditions that must be present for a child to learn language. This translates from spoken language to written language over the course of a child's developmental years. They are conditions used mostly in the classroom for teachers of kindergarten and first grade...but why shouldn't parents know, too? If there's one word to describe a great literacy trajectory it would have to be abundance. Abundance of words, of chatter, of books, of encouragement, of practice. As Schultze says "parents do not force children to wait until it is 'talking time' two or three days a week to have experiences with language. Teachers too should allow students plenty of opportunities to independently use meaningful speech, reading and writing everyday." I would add to that that parents, too, should allow children the same written opportunities.

The 7 Conditions of Learning Language

1) Immersion.
When teaching literacy children should be saturated with language. This includes meaningful reading and writing and lots of talk time. A book before bed instead of television, your child's name on the refrigerator spelled out in block letters, nursery rhymes and poems recited out loud. We want to create a culture of literacy at home.

2) Demonstration.
When a child is learning language they receive thousands of demonstrations of speech all the time, every day. Demonstration in this sense refers to demonstrating to a child not just how you read and write but how you LEARN to read and write. This involves pointing at words as you say them, doing shared writing exercises, and, at home, demonstrating your own desire to read. I have spoken before about the importance of a strong "book" presence in the home. Children model what you do, not what you say. Read.

3) Approximation.
Young children use approximation in speech as they are learning to talk. They often do the same as they are learning to write. While a child is praised when they say "writed" they might be reprimanded when they put the same thing down on paper. Children should be encouraged to use approximations both in oral and written language. They are testing out the literary waters and beginning to store information that they will refine as time goes on.

4) Employment or Use.
There should be plenty of opportunities to engage in reading and writing. There should be independent reading and writing time as well as shared reading and writing time. Remember our key word: abundance.

5) Responsibility.
This is a condition I really believe in and love. It refers to the idea that children should be able to decide what topic and what conventions of language they want to master based on their individual needs. They should be responsible for the direction of their own language learning. If a child lives in Southern California, he or she might want to read and write about the ocean. If a child loves art, he or she might want to learn how to write the colors. When children are engaged in what they are learning they retain information much better and often at a much faster rate. Not to mention that then they begin to develop not just a need for but a love of reading and writing.

6) Feedback or Response.
The example Cambourne uses is this one: "How do we get a child to progress from saying 'I goed downtown' to 'I went downtown?'" Correcting a child, no matter how tempting, is not the answer. Instead we should use what is called "feedback and response." When a child says to you "I goed downtown" instead of saying "it's went downtown," we repeat their statement using the correct form of speech and then expand on it.
Example: "You went downtown? How exciting! What did you do when you went downtown?"
When a child hears the correct form in a non-corrective way it registers in their memory. By expanding the statement we also get the child to continue actively constructing language. The same method should be employed in a reading a writing workshop. Approximations should be encouraged and congratulated and then built on verbally. If a child has written "I goed downtown" on the page we can say the same thing in response that we would to a verbal comment and then encourage the child to keep writing from there.

7) Expectation.
Teachers (and parents) can expect that when all seven of these conditions have been met that children will learn how to read and write. Expectation is important when it comes to literacy. We want to let children grow with words in their own time while simultaneously retaining the belief that they will learn, and flourish.

Take some time this weekend to employ the 7 conditions and begin to make them staples in your own home.

Have a beautiful day,