Thursday, March 25, 2010

on teaching writing

I’m looking forward to teaching writing. In fact, I predict it'll be one of the things I love the most about teaching young children, because writing has great meaning in my own life.

Before I became a teacher, I was a writer. If I met someone new, I would tell them, “I’m a writer,” and for a while in my late twenties, I could even say that without cringing. I could point to my Masters in creative writing, and the few poems and short stories that found willing publishers in small, literary journals. There was the smattering of book reviews and articles that appeared here and there in those years. I even held an editorship of one of those small literary journals, doing my part to save a piece or two from the depths of the slush pile. Writing was serious business for me, and I worked at it.

But then I had children. I stopped sending pieces to publishers, and my confident, level-gazed assertion of being a writer faded quietly into the daily rhythms of motherhood. I wondered who I was and what I’d do next, and I wrote those questions in the multiple journals I stashed around the house. I wrote snippets of poetry on grocery lists, and I jotted notes for essays on the back of receipts. When my children went to preschool and I became passionate about early childhood education, I wrote about that, too. I sure wrote a lot for someone who wasn’t a writer anymore. And that, I finally realized, was all in my head. The problem wasn’t a lack of publication credits. The problem was that I didn’t accept and enjoy my writing in the organic way it was woven into my life. All healthy people find a way to express creativity, and my way was a collection of words and bits of prose with which I formed a nest around my children and me. I wrote because it helped me think. I wrote because it made me feel human. When writing wasn’t my work anymore, it became a valuable element in a rich, creative life. For me, this was a new way to see the use of writing, and it gave me a sense of peace as I transitioned to my new work as a teacher.

Now I see writing in a third way: as a part of my students' curriculum. Some may be writing for the very first time. I will make sure that they have sharp pencils and sturdy paper, word walls full of sight words, phonics lessons and spelling lessons—all vitally important building blocks toward the skill of writing.

But the most important lesson I want to share with my future students is that writing can make them feel human. Not only do I want them to be able to pick up a pencil and write down a thought, I want them to want to. I will tell them, you can have a thought—a unique thought that belongs only to you—and you can put it down on paper. Then I can read it, and I’ll understand. It’s a way of saying, “I am human! I exist!” and both of us will know it because there is your unique thought, right there on the paper. What power! I think this has the potential to be a great joy for a brand new writer. Perhaps it will become the way in which a child expresses himself or herself the best. Or perhaps there will be another way, but that child will know about writing, too, and take pleasure in the act writing for years to come. In the parlance of the Reggio tradition of early childhood education, writing will be one of my students’ hundred languages. I feel fortunate that I’ll be a part of that discovery.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

your favorite baby and toddler books?

I have the opportunity to buy a baby gift for an expecting friend, and naturally I want to buy books. A big basket of magical books that I'd like to give to every baby, you know what I mean?

The basket will need to include a volume of Mother Goose. My children and I especially liked this one, edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells, which sends me into a little reverie of nostalgia just looking at the cover.

And I think a Tana Hoban title or two is in order.

But I'd love to hear from you if you work with babies and toddlers, or are parenting them, or just remember your family's best books from that stage.

What book would you put in the basket?

Monday, March 15, 2010

a popcorn poem

This child's task was to practice writing the classroom "popcorn words" on her white board. "Popcorn words" are sight words, or words that the children are encouraged to memorize and know on sight, without needing to decode them--as quickly and effortlessly as popping a kernel of popcorn. It's a pretty good task--it's empowering to know those popcorn words, and everybody likes writing on (and erasing) the white boards.

She did this at first, and then she was struck with the idea of trying to make sentences with them. I think she went beyond even writing sentences, and wrote a poem.

I was assisting at that literacy center, and I'm pretty sure that technically, my given task was to discourage the fancy outlining of the letters, and encourage her to carry on practicing writing the popcorn words instead.

But I pretended I didn't notice. When she finished, I took a photo and told her I felt she had written a poem. She gazed at the white board for a while, then carried it around to share with her friends. She created learning for herself and others that was far beyond the original task.

Everyone read it, even children who are struggling to read the popcorn words. We all understood it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

shadow and light

A classmate and I are creating a unit of curriculum for a Kindergarten class hovering around, and expanding from, SHADOWS. We're having a great time dreaming up ideas and researching, but I know there are more ideas out there.

Will you share with us your classroom explorations with shadow? We would be so grateful to learn from you. All ideas are very welcome. If you are using a projector in your classroom, as many Reggio Emilia classrooms do, I'd especially love some info, a book reference, or a link to your ideas with that.
The sun has just made its welcome return to the DC area, so it feels like perfect timing to dream up ideas with light and shadow. I hope the sun is shining where you are, too.

Monday, March 1, 2010

lunch box poetry

I pack my children's lunches every day. When my son was in Kindergarten, I also carefully included a note, every single day. I tried to vary them to keep them interesting--a drawing, a sticker, a new word I knew he'd learned to read.

All that creativity was a hard act to keep up first thing in the morning, and as the years went by, I did it less and less. My daughter got notes once in a while, and now, neither of them has received a lunchbox note in a long time.

Well. Yesterday, I happened to be standing next to a Kindergartener who was getting ready for lunch. He had just fetched his lunchbox from his locker, and having a moment to spare, he opened it and pulled out a paper towel. Carefully, with both hands, he smoothed it out, and I then saw that it wasn't just the napkin for his lunch, but something very special.

I love you! oxo, Dad

He saw that I was looking, and he read it to me. Then another friend read it over his shoulder.

The little boy unzipped a side pocket on his lunchbox and pulled out five more paper towels that he had saved from previous days. One by one he smoothed them and read them to us. Every one of them said,

I love you! oxo, Dad

The little boy wasn't interested in creativity and variety. He was interested in his dad's notes. He loved them and saved them, and shared them with pride.

Which was the more beautiful poem: the dad's notes, or the little boy's face as he read them? It's a toss up.

This morning, I wrote both my children notes and put them in their lunches.

I love you! oxo, Mom