Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Un-sticking Stories

"I don't know what to write!"

It is always a major task to get the writing momentum going at the beginning of every school year. It is as dependable as the seasons changing or the sun rising. We are working to write personal narratives, a task that seems to challenge the children even further. It feels like a chug-chug-chug up a hill. I've been through it enough to know that eventually we will come to a tipping point. The children will hear things they want to emulate in a friend's work, take some advice from a trusted source or start looking to authors as mentors. They will start taking some risks and trying new things. And when they start to see their writing improve, they will barrel forward at an unstoppable pace. But until we get there, it can feel like we ... never ... will.

 Our Writers' Workshops introduce brainstorming ideas for how to identify stories one might tell. We learn to relive the moment with a movie in our heads to remember how the events unfolded. We learn to make timelines and then work to turn those timelines into bare-bones stories that we later go back and fatten up with details-- action, setting and dialogue. And yet beyond all of that there is another level of "stuck-ness" that some writers find. Sometimes, for whatever reason, there comes a time when these strategies just do not work.

One thing I love about teaching at Sabot is the constant freedom to think outside the box, to experiment when things are not going well or just when we want them to be even better. We, like the children, take responsible risks in order to try to help the learning in our classrooms be as productive as it can be. We aren't always sure our new ideas will work, but it is worth a try.

Mauren and I have been thinking hard about how to help a few writers find their stories and get them down onto paper. It brought us back to a story from a few years ago.
 http://toputononesthinkingscap.blogspot.com/2012/05/how-i-work.html
There was a student who had discovered that acting his story out in blocks really helped him to form his thoughts before he put them on paper. Mauren came to third grade from Kindergarten where they work on writing through Story Workshop inspired by Opal School in Portland. Is there a way to bring the media of Story Workshop into our third grade writing without letting it distract from the work? How can we open the process of writing to the variety of ways we know minds can work? What other "languages" can we make room for as children think?

We decided to experiment some more.

We needed to set parameters and limit the pallet to media we felt like would be quick, editable and not make any kind of big mess. We decided on

  • building materials (pop cubes, kapla blocks, pattern blocks etc.)
  • loose piece collage (felt, paper, buttons, feathers, pebbles etc.)
  • modeling clay
  • story boarding
There were also guidelines. 
  • The purpose was not to create a beautiful masterpiece
  • The materials were meant to help us get our ideas out or as Tom put it, "to jot our ideas down." 
  • They were to be built alone and then shared with a friend for rehearsal and feedback. 
  • If the materials were becoming a way to avoid the hard work of writing, we would need to put them away. 

We set out to give it a try. 




After working with modeling clay, the hands and tables needed to be scrubbed. Without a sink in our room this took much longer than we intended and took writers away from their work, so we scratched it off of the list of available materials. 

"Is this helping you think through your story?"
"Not really."
"I wonder if you are building with too much detail. That is a very detailed dog and it looks great. But building it might have distracted you. What if a single pop cube were your dog?"
He built a few more piece in a matter of moments and moved on to rehearsing his story. 



Just today I saw a child playing with things after he had finished his initial writing assignment. I went over to help redirect him to his work. Turns out he was acting out his next story with loose piece collage materials. He was working. Looks like it takes some adjusting on the teacher end too. 

At first there were children who were using the materials as a way to avoid the work of writing. Over time, and as we stick to our guidelines, the children have been using the materials in ways that bring clarity. Not everyone uses them, just an occasional child or two. Mauren and I are watching, undecided. Will this be as useful as we hope? Will the children who like them still want to use them in six months time? We shall see.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Olden Time Photo Shoot

All throughout our project, the children were fascinated with the old photos we would see. They frequently commented about how serious everyone looked and theorized about why parts of some pictures were blurred out. Was it edited like the children see on TV? We realized that a single photo could communicate so much about the times in which it was taken. So one day, towards the end of our project, the children dressed up at their characters and set out to take "historical photos" that communicated information about the times in which the characters lived. Anna brought her camera and served as our photographer. With Anna's help,the children tried very hard to have their photos be as accurate as possible by making them grainy and black and white. They removed modern objects that would not have been present. They tried to match their clothes to the times and even chose books to read that would have been published in the days of their characters. Classmates stood in as family members or friends as needed. They often had to take pictures several times to get the serious faces they had seen in photos from the past (we're so used to giving a grin when we get our picture snapped). 

Nina Watson reads A Little Princess to her daughter, Moses, at bedtime.
The story was a popular one of the time. 
The Snyder family from Germany.
They look quite serious. No smiling in picture back then!

Joan Adwent hosts a tea party with new friends from America.

Bernard Bunnell poses with his copy of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
The story was a hit in his day and so good that it remains well known today.

Rosa Maria De Rosa sleeping in her tenement building.

Kirsten Johnson sews her mothers ripped bonnet.

A Peek Into Our History Project


Our People: A look into history through the stories of our ancestors from Sabot at Stony Point on Vimeo.
A class of third graders learned about ancestors who immigrated to America. They did historical research to fill in unknown details. The truth about their ancestors, mixed with their research, helped form new characters. While their stories are part fact and part fiction, it may surprise you which parts are true (one child's ancestor did actually get captured by Algerian pirates and another's ancestor was split up from his brother when their ship sank and they were rescued by different boats passing by). There are other pieces that are completely fictional, like the characters' stories intersecting, because obviously our ancestors didn't know each other ... or did they? While individual stories may be hard to follow, I hope this video can be a glimpse into the knowledge and understanding the children gained and the power of taking on a character for the purpose of learning



A few teacher reflections on the project this year
  • Taking on a character: There is something magical about becoming someone else for a moment. It is the natural way that children make sense of things and try the world out. We think about this a lot in very young children, but it is still very alive as the children grow older. Making room for that way of learning to be part of the official classroom work and not just saved for the playground has been important. We harnessed the power of their natural way of thinking to help accomplish the goal of learning how to do historical research. I heard one student, new to Sabot, stop to think about how much the playfulness of our project helped her to learn. While all previous years lead to strong investigations about immigration, the years in which the children created characters have been more compelling. The children are just that much more invested in their work when the development of their character depends on it.
  • What they know vs. what they show: I've noticed over the years that there is often a large gap between the level of conversation and discourse during class and what ends up on the pages of something like the scrapbooks we made this year. When looking at the books alone it can be underwhelming. I know how much the children have learned. I see how far they have come in both their understanding of periods in history and in research skills. One of our ongoing goals is to help the children communicate what they know more effectively. That is a major part of an education. I also continue to ponder how to help reveal all that I've seen and trust about the work for others to marvel and enjoy with me. I suppose that is the Reggio way, to try to unlock the process, the thinking, and share it with the world. I'd been thinking about how to share more about this project when Cat (our math specialist) came for a visit. Listening to the children talk to her about the story of their characters revealed the depth of ownership and understanding. That conversation inspired this video as a supplement to the scrapbooks-- a window into just how well the children have come to know the character and their context.






Friday, February 21, 2014

Scrapbooks

After everyone in class shared their Family Immigration Interviews and we began researching items of interest that emerged from those stories, Anna gave the children the genius assignment of setting out to make a scrapbook for a character based loosely on an ancestor. The scrapbook will include things from their life in their homeland, their decision to leave, their journey to America and a bit of what life was like once they got to America. The children can make up some details but need to be as historically accurate as possible.
The children are busily gathering research about a variety of things in order to help their character come to life. They are looking up Swedish girl names or German middle class men's clothing. They are trying to figure out about how much money one would need to have to purchase a ticket aboard a steam ship headed for America, which port their ancestors might have landed at and if those ports were even open during the time their character sailed. Of course this group's research isn't complete without knowing about the fashions of the times and what make-up was like during the times of their characters.
The children are very interested in how to make their scrapbooks look old. How will they make the paper look old? They have ideas about dying the paper with tea or burning the edges. We've often had to put those ideas on hold to make room for the hard work of research. Anna also gave us some old fashioned pens and ink to use. And, of course, most of them are excited to employ their newly acquired cursive skills in order to make their documents seem more authentic.
What scraps will they put in their books in order to help tell the story of their character? The children brainstorm lists of items: passports, ship tickets, scraps of cloth, letters home, stories, family photos, anything that can be a clue to their journey both physical and emotional.
019 (2).JPG
The children are working to expand their ideas of where one can look to research. They are often looking at artwork or photographs of the times to find out about the clothing. Just because there isn't a chapter in the book about the topics of interest, doesn't mean there isn't any information about that contained within the pages. The children are getting used to looking harder for clues about the sophisticated questions they are asking.


025 (2).JPG
We are refining our research skills by refining our understanding of tools like the index to find what we want in a giant resource. The children are also practicing recording their findings in their own words rather than just regurgitating what the resource says. It is tricky, but with more practice the children are getting better and better.

001 (3).JPG
We practice using a pen and ink.
 It is harder than we anticipated.

007 (3).JPG
"The quill is actually easier than the pen. That surprises me."
"Now I know why they all wrote in cursive! When you have to keep dipping your pen it is hard to
 make your letter all blocky. It is easier to just keep flowing."
"Writing was a lot messier back then!"