Building a Relationship (between characters) – SOLSC Day #22

This morning, I’m trying to build a relationship between my main character and his soon-to-be-girlfriend.  Considering I was up VERY LATE watching my favorite college basketball team play, it’s been a great morning of writing.  I’m happy (for now) with this scene.

Here’s an excerpt: 

Buzz…Buzz…Buzz… The phone is scooting across the desk.  No one ever calls.  I grab the phone, look at the screen and it reads Sweet Samantha.  When did she put that in my phone?

“Hey, Sweet Samantha,” I say and hear laughter.

“What are ya’ doin’?”

“I’m heading to the library.  It’s way too quiet around here.”

“You did just hear what you said?  A library is the quietest place I’ve ever been.  You do know that you’re supposed to be quiet in the library.”  I can still hear her smile.

“It’s hard to explain, but I love the library.  I have a ton of homework, so I’m heading over with hopes of getting it done.”

“I still have to finish the research for the water turbine project.  Can I join you?”

“Absolutely, but do you promise that you won’t distract me?”

“I can’t make any promises.  I’ll meet you there in fifteen minutes.”


The walk over is so quiet.  The snow has been flying around the sky all day, but it doesn’t seem to be sticking to the ground.  Almost every house is lit up with Christmas lights.  When I get to the corner with the library, Patty drives out of the exit and is waving frantically at me with a big smile on her face.  What a smile!  No wonder why Casey liked her so much.

The parking lot is nearly empty.  As soon as I walk through the door, I see Samantha lounging in one of the sofa chairs to my right.  She’s holding up a flyer.  I know exactly what it says.

“Grif, there’s so much that I don’t know about you.  How long have you been the special guest reader during story hour?” She asks while pointing at my name on the flyer.

“I’ve been doing it for about a year.  I love it.  The kids are a bit squirrely, but they love when I change the voices of the characters and get all into the story.  You should come.  I could use some help controlling the kids.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  I’ll be there on Saturday.  In fact, I can’t wait.” And she gets up and hugs my arm.

We head towards the front desk and the stairs in the back of the library.  All of my librarian friends are behind the counter.

“We were hoping that our favorite hockey player was going to stop in.” Mrs. Dwyer turned to get Ms. Madigan’s attention.  “Who’s your study partner?”

“Mrs. Dwyer, this is Samantha.” She comes around the counter and gives Samantha a hug and tells her that she better not distract me.  Before I can even introduce Ms. Madigan, she too comes around the counter with a pamphlet in her hand.

“We got this in the mail today and thought of you.” She hands me the pamphlet acting as if Samantha isn’t standing right next to me.  “It’s a state poetry contest and we thought that you could submit some of your work in the high school division.”

Samantha’s mouth is wide open and she has a look of shock on her face.  “Thank you, Ms. Madigan, I’ll submit the poem that I wrote about the Harvest Moon.  This is Samantha.”

Ms. Madigan is not a hugger, so she shakes her hand and shoos us downstairs to the study room.  While we head to the stairs, I can hear them whispering to each other and giggling.

“I’m learning SO much about you tonight.  And here I thought that the only thing you did was play hockey.”  She grabs my arm and we head downstairs.

If a running sneaker could talk… – SOLSC Day #21

Better yet, if a running sneaker could get into the head of a runner and talk, my sneakers would have a ton to say.  Right now, they are feeling a bit jealous because Wednesday afternoon they were left behind for my new pair of sneakers.  They are also angry because yesterday was sunny and in the mid 50’s, which is very rare in Syracuse, New York in the middle of March.  They have carried me many miles for the 224 of my 238 straight days of running.  I did not start the streak with them, and it is not at all likely that I will end the streak with them (unless I save them for day 365, which I’m not even sure will be my final day).  They have been so good to me.

The sneakers are road salt covered and the right one has a teeny tiny whole in the corner (near the big toe).  They have traveled 898 miles in seven plus months, which is about 79-years-old in human years (please don’t quote this because it is not at all based on scientific research).   I am feeling bad because I usually limit my sneakers to a little over 800 miles (this is my 23rd year of running and I have found that sneakers are worn out after 800 miles).  They’ve been struggling to breathe because each night (after I go to bed) my wife stuffs dryer sheets in them.  She says that they smell like running sneakers.  I say that is what I love about them.  Isn’t it funny how people have different perspectives of smells?  To me, they smell like running roses.  Unfortunately, dryer sheets or no dryer sheets, the end is near for them.

Now, if they could talk, they would say, “I never want to run on a -25 degree day again.”  They would say, “I’m grateful that we do afternoon runs because I love to sleep in.”  They would say, “Does my owner know everyone?  He waves or says hello to everyone in Westvale.”  They would say, “I wish they would put in a soft-serve ice cream shop where the gas station once stood.”  Okay, maybe that is me saying that one.  They would say, “I’m not psyched about running on dirt because I don’t like getting all dirty, so I’m glad that he stays on the road.  Although, I’m not loving all of this salt because it gets in every nook and cranny.”  Lastly, they would say, “It has been an awesome seven months.  I’ve climbed hills, traveled down hills, skidded across ice, and got soaking wet, but I’ve always stayed upright.  And though my owner’s wife plugs her nose around me and makes me feel kind of bad, he’s been great to me.”

Now, if they could think, they would tell you that I’m always being extra cautious with traffic, even when I’m daydreaming.  They would tell you that when I’m not daydreaming because that doesn’t happen much, I’m thinking about my kids, my wife, teaching, events from the day (or night), coaching (plays), and of course, things to write about.:)  They would tell you that sometimes I start a run feeling stressed and almost always finish feeling calm and awesome.  They would tell you that I love when my kids run with me.  They would tell you that running has changed me as a person.

So, as they sit next to my new pair on the rug that runs across the mudroom floor, they would tell you that they had a good seven months or 79 years (again, not scientific).  They would tell you that even though they get a little jealous, they are happy for the new sneakers to continue the journey.  In fact, they are thrilled to have a little rest.  

This morning’s challenge – unrevised and authentic – SOLSC Day #20

When I got home from school yesterday, I was reading through many different blog posts, which I thoroughly enjoy doing.  After reading one about taking on different challenges, I wrote a response that I don’t like to take on too many challenges all at once, but later in the evening, I began thinking that I often take on many challenges (even though they are not called “challenges”).  Well, in March, I am challenging myself to write a blog post each and every day, but the other challenge comes in the fact that with the blog, I have been writing my story each and every day.  I’ve never thought of it as a challenge (outside of the challenge not to post part of my story each and every day – I have been good about posting only twice a week:).  After further reflection, my week is filled with little challenges, but I often don’t think of them as challenges because I enjoy doing them.

Here’s a snippet from the story I’m writing this morning:

“Reynolds, Evans, Cavanaugh, get out there.” Coach says after blowing his whistle.

We skate to mid-ice ready for the next play on coach’s whistle.

 “The freshman line.  Great!  Fresh meat.” Will Crowley, the senior captain, snarls as he skates a circle around us before heading into the defensive end.  Before he even turns around, coach gives a loud blow of the whistle.

The first play as a varsity player is a simple weave down the ice.  I race to the middle from the right wing and Cavanaugh zings the pass right onto my stick.  Keeping my head up, I dribble, and look to connect with Bradley, but as Bradley makes his way to the middle he is crushed by an open ice hit from Crowley.  Bradley hits the ice like a rag doll and Crowley lands on top of him.  Crowley grabs the back of his neck and pushes his face into the ice.  Bradley squirms while Crowley applies more pressure.

I race over and tackle Crowley off of Bradley.  As he tries to stand up, I grab his shoulders and slam him into the glass.

“Evans, are you outta your mind?  You’re a dead man.”  His glove is off and he grabs my throat.  I level him with a right arm jab and he lets go.

“You’re kiddin’ me, Evans.  Reynolds has been punkin’ you all season and you’re stickin’ up for him.  Not on my team.  You’re both goin’ down.”

He grabs me again, but I slap his hand away.  And now Coach and his whistle, which has blown for the hundredth time, is standing next to us.

“Crowley, Evans, stay after practice.  You’ll be doin’ red line sprints until I see your breakfast and lunch.”

Coach heads back to the bench.  Crowley is following close behind pleading his case.  Bradley skates up from behind and hands me my stick.  He reaches out his hand.

“Thank you, Grif,” he says while shaking my hand, “I owe you big time.”

Forgiveness.  He’s been riding me all season and our first play on the varsity team, he’s sorry.  He knows that if I didn’t jump in, he’d be in the hospital.

*This snippet is raw and unrevised, but I’m out of time and need to go to work.  I don’t like hitting “publish” without a little more time to revise, but I’m taking a chance this morning.:)

Writing: The Persuasive (Argumentative) Essay – SOLSC Day #19

We are less than a month away from my favorite essay of the school year – the persuasive (argumentative) essay.  The persuasive essay unit will be five weeks long.  This is one of the most important essays that the students will learn to write in sixth grade.  It is likely that they will write many more persuasive essays in the rest of their middle school years and their high school years (in both English and history class; possibly even science class).  With it being a little less than a month from the start of the persuasive essay, I will spend the week preparing for this writing unit.

The persuasive writing basics (strategies that I will teach the students):

  1. Know your purpose/reason for persuading (Know your opinion)
  2. Keep your audience in mind
  3. State the facts/reasons clearly and well
  4. Look at the other side’s opinion and prove them wrong
  5. Connect with the audience’s head and heart
  6. Say what you want, or ask for action
  7. Think about “quality” words, not quantity.” (Keep it short but powerful)

As we prepare for the persuasive essay, we will learn how advertisers persuade.  We will read an article entitled “How Advertisers Persuade” from Writing magazine (September 1999).  The article may be twenty years old, but the strategies and tactics are still relevant today.  We will visit (in Google Hangout) with a director (from Hero Status Films) who produces commercials, short films, and one full-length film about the strategies he uses when producing commercials.  We will watch and analyze commercials (looking for the strategies used).

Then, we will learn how lawyers persuade a judge and/or jury.  We will watch the court scene film clip from the new Miracle on 34th Street.  We assess the lawyers on their closing arguments with the persuasive writing strategies (listed above).  The students will then be assigned specific court cases (school uniforms, year-round schooling, curfew), and working in small groups, they will write and present closing arguments.  They will need to use the strategies that we learned at the beginning of the unit to develop their closing arguments.  The presentations will happen in class (court room setting) with their peers being the jury.  Their peers will assess their closing arguments on how well they presented the closing argument while utilizing the persuasive writing strategies.

Independently, the students will write a paragraph answering the question, “Who is the greatest ___________?”  The students will pick a topic (example: basketball) and a person (LeBron James), and then, they will use the digital resources within our school’s library to research the person.  They will write a paragraph about why the specific person is the greatest at the specific topic.  The paragraph will only contain details that are relevant (example: no details about the person’s birth) in persuading the reader.  The students will be assessed individually on their paragraphs (and utilizing the seven strategies).

Using the same digital database, the students will choose a topic and begin researching.  After doing thorough research and gathering three (or four) articles about their topic, they will begin writing the persuasive essay.  They will be encouraged to use the “Opposing Viewpoints” as part of their research.  They will write a four-paragraph essay persuading the reader (their peers and myself).  Each student will work through the writing process to write, revise, and edit the essay.  This will serve as the final assessment of the persuasive writing unit.

Highs and Lows from the Week of March 11th – SOLSC Day #18

What a weekend!  My oldest daughter didn’t have lacrosse practice and my sixth grade daughter has walking pneumonia (she texted her friends that she couldn’t go to the Saturday night sleepover because she had walking phenomenon – the crazy thing is that all of the girls in the thread wrote back feeling really bad because walking phenomenon is terrible – UGH!), so no where to drive them.  My youngest had a birthday party up the road from where we live and my son had musical rehearsal at the high school, which is four miles from our house.  This was the first weekend in months that I did not have to drive all over Central New York, so I got tons of school work done and did lots of reading and writing.  I also spent tons of time reflecting.

So, here are my highs and lows from this past week.  After two full weeks with snow delays or closings, I feel like we have a steady rhythm of learning going on in my classroom.  It feels good and gets me excited for the weeks that lie ahead.

My highs:

  1. A few weeks back, a friend that I work with was telling me about her husband making a trip to Europe and taking tons of pictures of important places/buildings in Jewish history.  He visited many cities and areas impacted by the Holocaust.  She offered for him to come into my classroom and speak, and I said YES, YES, YES.  On Monday, he came in and presented his beautiful pictures with Jewish history and history about the Holocaust.  He had the audience’s (my class) attention the entire time.  Obviously, his presentation was very sad.  At the end of his forty-minute presentation, a few kids asked questions but I could tell that they understood (for the first time) the impact that the Holocaust had on Jewish history and European history.  My class can be very chatty (especially when they come back for lunch for ELA class).  After the presentation on Monday afternoon, you could hear a pin drop.  It was eerily quiet.  They were reflecting, and there was no doubt in my mind that they all learned something new during the presentation.  I am really hoping that he will come back in next year.
  2. On Friday, the class had the opportunity to see and listen to a storyteller.  Ms. Johnson is actually a Griot.  She tells stories from Africa and from African-American culture.  For the morning presentation, she told stories from the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century.  In the afternoon session, she told stories from Western Africa.  She was absolutely amazing.  The kids LOVED her and her stories.  It was such a special event for my sixth graders.  They spent the entire day talking about Ms. Johnson and her stories.
  3. Our first literature circle was a success.  I wrote about the literature circle meeting on Saturday.  This is the third time of the school year that we are doing literature circles, and each time, I give them more freedom to talk about the book (and less of the literature circle role sheets).  They complete a close reading bookmark, and then, during the discussion they use the bookmark to guide their conversation.  During the first literature circle meeting, only one group used the bookmarks to guide their discussion.  The other groups just discussed their book, and the discussions were AWESOME.

My lows:

  1. I have struggled with time management in science throughout the year.  The matter unit had sixteen weeks of information to cover in twelve weeks.  Well, on Friday, I was out of time.  I needed to send the materials to the next school building to use.  I made it farther in the unit than my colleagues, but I did not make it as far as I had wanted.  Over this coming summer vacation, I am going to review all of the notes that I have taken during the unit and recreate a unit where I can get through more information.  I am not confident that I will make it through the entire unit, but I will get far enough to cover all of the standards with time to master the skills.  My colleagues and I went to training in November, and we started the unit in December, so we had very little time to work with the materials prior to using them with the students.  I will write that I had great success with many of the investigations (including this past week’s electrolysis of water lab), but next year, my goal is to get farther in the unit (with even more investigations).
  2. Over the last few weeks, I have been struggling with my teaching of grammar.  I am teaching it in isolation of writing.  Of course, when the kids are writing, I am reminding them of the grammar and convention rules, but I am doing my grammar lessons before or after writing time.  Next year, my goal is to incorporate my grammar lessons into my writing lessons.  I have also decided to only do grammar lessons on topics that the students need.  This year, especially the last few weeks, I have been wasting time doing lessons on skills that the kids have already mastered.   I am already in the process of individualizing my teaching of the skills.  In my reading notebook, I keep track of the books that the kids are reading.  I am putting together a grammar notebook to track the student’s grammar and convention skills.

As a teacher, you always have work to do (teaching and learning is never perfect), but while reflecting over this past weekend, I discovered that we’ve had many highlights in both the science and ELA classrooms over the last few weeks.  I am hoping for another week of highlights.

The Beauty and Simplicity of the Neighborhood Walk – SOLSC Day #17

This morning, I awoke to the ground covered in snow and the temperatures back to the normal winter cold.  Even as I watch the light snow fall from the sky, I am hopeful that spring is almost here.  For the last week, we’ve watched the warmer temperatures melt away ALL of the snow, and with that, we’ve watched our neighborhood come back to life.  The kids are back out playing basketball, soccer, and riding their bikes, and dozens of walkers and runners pass the house in the early evening hours.  And for me, the neighborhood walks have started back up (ended when the cold weather settled in).

Title: Westvale Walks

The snowflakes flutter through the air,

but they never make it to the ground.

Fiona places her small hand in mine,

as we make our way through the neighborhood. 

“Nyasia is two heads taller than me.”

“Clara wants twenty kids.”

“My kid’s names are going to be 

Elliot, Emerson, Evelyn, and Ethan.”

We never walk in silence,

my stride to her two strides.

I need to warm my hands in my pockets,

Fiona holds onto my arm.

“I’ll still hold your hand when I’m

in sixth grade.”

“When I grow up,

I’m going to live on this street.”

I wish it would slow down,

and she’d walk with me another ten years.

But I won’t waste a minute of this time,

to learn everything I can about my baby.

Last Saturday was the first walk of the upcoming season (this poem was inspired by yesterday’s walk).  My nine-year-old daughter, Fiona and I spend our spring weekends and summer days going for walks in our quiet neighborhood.  I’ve walked the same route with all the three other kids, but they have outgrown the walk, but I’m hopeful that they will join me again when their “too cool for school” teenage years pass.  For now, I will enjoy every minute/second of time with my nine-year-old baby.

Literature Circle Discussions – SOLSC Day #16

This is my favorite time of the school year for literature circles (some call them book club meetings).  Over the course of the last seven months, each student has learned the various roles that she/he will take when discussing the specific novel that they are reading with a small group of friends.  They are still sixth graders, so they need some type of close reading activity to guide them through the assigned reading.

Current literature circle books: All of the books are written by Kate Messner – All the Answers, Wake Up Missing, Eye of the Storm, Capture the Flag, The Seventh Wish, and Breakout

Current close reading bookmark: The bookmark that the students are utilizing during the reading asks them to define difficult vocabulary words, confusing parts in the story, important quotes, predictions for the next reading, connections to their life or current events, and just miscellaneous (or “other things) that they want to discuss with their group.  The bookmark is used as a guide while they are talking about the book.  One of the interesting things that I have found with the bookmark over the last two school years is that the kids will often talk about the bookmark while they are reading the assigned pages before the meeting.  I find this reassuring because they are comparing notes and ideas that they have collected even before they meet with the group.

Tidbits (interesting information) from the discussions: For this specific literature circle, there are seven groups reading six books.  I attempted to keep the groups as small as possible (six students are reading All of the Answers, so it is two groups of three).  There are seven groups and one teacher, me, so you can imagine the difficulty I have getting around to each and every group.  I do make it to every group, but as you can also imagine, I sometimes get stuck with a group (listening to good book conversation, offering assistance about a confusing part).  Here is what I heard in the first meeting:

“Do you guys know that there was a real prison break a few years ago?  My grandpa has a farm up north and he has tons of land.  We were visiting him at the time, and he was afraid the criminals were hiding on his land.  The police came to his house.” (Breakout) Says the student that is very excited about the first sixty pages of the book.  He talked and talked about the book and needed to be reminded that other people need to share.  The interesting fact that his partner’s don’t know is that he has only read about five books from cover to cover in his entire life.  It was difficult to stop him because of his enthusiasm.  He loves the book.

“I would love to see the real flag.  I wonder if it really exists.” (Capture the Flag)  His partner quickly says, “I would want to see it, but I wouldn’t want to get to close.  I wouldn’t want to hurt it.  It’s old.” I proceeded to show them pictures of the American History Museum (from my phone) and discuss with them that the flag is at the museum.  All three of the kids now want to go on a trip to Washington, DC to see the flag.

All of the conversations flowed like this.  I was on one of my “teacher highs” as I moved from group to group.  The most surprising/interesting thing from the first literature circle meeting using the bookmarks was that six groups just piled their bookmarks in the middle of the table and were talking about the book from memory (HALLELUJAH!).  Only, one group, which was also having good conversation, was using the bookmark as a guide.  I am really looking forward to the next literature circle on Wednesday.