Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why?: The Story of WHY The Gift From Mary Virginia Mattered So Much

I know it's the beginning of wonderful new school years all across the country, and as I sit here at my computer thinking about it, I can feel the excitement and promise a new class of students and a new school year brings.
I also know that if you're a teacher like me, you know about those "long after Christmas is over and long before Spring Break is in sight school days." The days that can sometimes seem endlessly long and mundane. The days when we wonder if what we're doing is really making a difference with the kids in your classroom. The days when we might seriously ask ourselves, "WHY did I go into this profession?"
It was a day like this that I got a gift one day from Mary Virginia, a very special first grader. She bounded into our first grade classroom one morning with the book, Why? by Lila Prap. If you don't know the book it's one filled with the answers to "why" about all kinds of "Why do zebras have strips?" or "Why do kangaroos have pouches?" It's a book that begs to be read and studied by the eager and inquisitive kids that fill our primary classrooms.

It's also a book that made me think about the importance of asking and answering articulately the whys in our profession..... and question my own professional "why"?
Why am I a teacher and why do I do the things I do each day in my classroom?

And as you all know, one good book and one big question leads to other great books and other big questions, and my "why" question led me to this book:

I'm only on chapter 4, but I'm finding (and agreeing) that there is compelling evidence of how much more we can achieve if we start everything we do by first asking why.

So, thanks to Mary Virginia (and her wonderful avidly reading parents, Cameron and Jay),
below dancing at my wedding this summer!

Below are my reasons why your gift that day meant so much.

Also cheers to books that lead to new thinking and understanding (thanks Lila Prap and Simon Sinek),
here are my big professional "whys".

WHY do I teach?
....because I believe in both hesitant and eager learners (young and old)
....because I believe in standing up for what is right for children and for our profession
....because I believe in celebrating the differences in each child that enters my classroom
....because I believe in taking children where they are and moving them forward as learners and as people
....because I believe in slowly growing and not racing to the top
....because I believe in giving children the time they need to grow, learn, explore their passions, find their strengths, learn from and conquer their struggles.
....because I believe that one size doesn't fit all and all sizes matter.
....because I believe that children matter more than test scores.
....because I believe in always having an answer about my teaching when asked the question "Why?"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ordinary Things: The Story of Ellie's "Stuff That Nobody Thinks About"

One morning in my first grade classroom in Alabama, little Ellie Friedman walked up to me with Ralph Fletcher’s poetry book, Ordinary Things, in her hand. Ellie couldn’t quite read the poems yet, but she could read the word “ordinary”. “Miss Corgill, what does ‘ordinary’ mean?” My best six year old explanation to Ellie was “It’s stuff that nobody really thinks about. Stuff that’s not so special—just normal. Just……ordinary.” That answer seemed to satisfy the little writer as she bounded back to her workspace to continue writing for the day.
The primary writing workshop is the place for some pretty extraordinary things to happen, and this “ordinary” day was the day that I got extraordinary writing from a six year old. At the end of our writing time, Ellie wanted to share the poem she had written, using Ralph’s Ordinary Things as her inspiration. Below, you’ll find Ellie’s poem titled, “Stuff That Nobody Thinks About”

“Stuff That Nobody Thinks About”
by Ellie, Age 6
The warm feeling
Butterflies in your tummy
The smell of breakfast
The sound of pencils sharpening
The sound of birds chirping
Books talking.
The look of funny faces.
The taste of melting chocolate in your mouth.
The feeling of dirt under your fingernail.
The sound of music in your ear.
Stories ringing in your head.
The feeling of tears rolling down your face.
The soft feeling of your mom’s hand.
The end.

Ellie was a child, a primary writer who lived and saw the "stuff that nobody thinks about" in an extraordinary way.
Ellie is now in college, but her first grade writing will always remind me to give children open classroom spaces where their voices are heard and their abilities are trusted. Her extraordinary poem reminds me to always give students the tools they need to work and create (books as models and inspiration, paper, pencil, crayons, and all the tools a writer might need). She reminds me to keep giving my students time to write and daily moments to read and honor that writing. We need to trust that those ordinary moments in our classrooms can quite quickly become extraordinary if we will just believe in our students and in ourselves.

Below are photos of the writing supply area, table supplies, and writing share/meeting area

Sometimes we forget that these elements of our teaching are just as critical as the articulation of a focus lesson or the manner in which we lead a writing conference.
As we begin a new school year, let's celebrate the ordinary moments in our daily routines and create spaces in our classrooms for extraordinary work to happen.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nature's Paintbox: The Story of Phyllis Faust

Yesterday, I had the privilege of working with the teachers at my old school, Hewitt Trussville Middle, and yesterday I was reminded why the book Nature's Paintbox, by Patricia Thomas is on my "Top 10" list.
If you don't know the book, it's a must have for writers and artists and anyone who loves playing with language and dwelling in its beauty. But all of my reasons for loving this book reach far beyond its pages.

It was just an ordinary day in my classroom last year. I was sharing the amazing language in Nature's Paintbox with my sixth grade writers. And my instructional leader, Phyllis Faust, was there to listen in on the lesson.
There's a part in the book where author, Patricia Thomas, describes the colors of autumn in this way: "bluegray smoke, bluepurple haze.... curled, whirled, brushed in a rush of scarletorangebluegray...purplebrowntanyellow...sandtan....unending blendings....Autumn colors are never known to play alone."
As I read this part of the book aloud, one of my writers exclaimed, "Wow. I never knew that was do that with words...what Patricia Thomas just did!"
And in the background as she watched closely and listened carefully, Phyllis said, "Anything is possible....when you're a writer."
I can guarantee you that she won't remember this moment, but I can guarantee you that I won't ever forget the power of those words.

Those three simple words spoke volumes to my students and to me. The idea of "anything is possible" coming from the mouth of your boss is empowering, and better yet, can transform school communities. You will notice that I didn't call Phyllis my principal, but rather my instructional leader. She made it her job to know her teachers, know her students, and support them in their learning journeys in every way imaginable. She opened the school building long before sunrise to prepare for us. She visited classrooms to learn alongside us. She sat in on parent conferences to support us. She questioned us, challenged us, pushed us, and expected the best of us. She believed that anything was possible because she trusted us to be the best teachers (and learners) for and with our students.

(Phyllis introducing her amazing custodial staff on the first day of school this year)

Even though I don't get to work at HTMS this year (marriage and a home in a new city sometimes make changes inevitable), I get to experience her leadership from time to time when I visit the school. I watched her in action yesterday as she facilitated staff development all morning with her sixth, seventh, and eighth grade teachers. I smiled when she pulled students aside in the hall to have conversations and simply to check in and ask how things were going. I watched her hug the custodians and laugh with the office staff, prepare for an evening parent meeting, and make time just to visit with me.

New school years are beginning all over the country, and there are many lucky teachers and students out there who will get to work under true leadership. I know this for a fact because I've worked for some of those great people in New York and in Alabama.
It would be my hope for ALL teachers, students, and staff members to live in a school, for a 180 days a year, with a leader like Phyllis Faust who believes (and lives) "anything is possible."

To the possibilities of this new day.... wonder where I got that line?? :)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Days Like This: The Story of Dibels, A First Grader, and The Department of Education

I have a p.m. instead of an a.m. post today--all because I got to spend a glorious morning with my "Everybody Needs a Rock Friend" at her baby/adoption shower this morning at HTMS.
This summer Karon and her husband John adopted Isaac, an amazing three year old from China. Below is a picture of Karon ("Mommie") and her two adorable sons, Emerson on the left and Isaac in her lap. Yes, she's an amazing friend AND mother!
So happy for them all!

Now for today's "10 for 10" picture book story...

Poetry is my most favorite genre to teach--especially in writing, and for years I have read and discussed with my students the collection of poems in the book Days Like This by Simon James.
On page 10 in Days Like This, there is the poem, "A Lazy Thought" by Eve Merriam.

There go the grownups
To the office,
To the store.
Subway rush,
Traffic crush;
Hurry, scurry,
Worry, flurry.

No wonder
Don't grow up
Any more.

It takes a lot
Of slow
To grow.

That last line....."it takes a lot of slow to grow" is a message I live by every year in my classroom. It's a message that frees my students to be the children they were born to be and to grow at their own pace. This message also frees me to teach and learn alongside them, and "grow" them forward as learners and as people, patiently and steadily. Children deserve only the best teaching we can give them, and testing them to see who's top won't get us very far.

It is my hope that one day our government (both state and national) will see that it isn't the "racing to the top" that gets children where they need to go to be successful. Faster isn't better. Racing to the top to be a winner or a loser only makes us breathe harder, not learn more.
It is our job as educators to give our students quality teaching and learning experiences, and give them a place where their voices can be heard.

I live in a Dibels state. (Alabama offers much to be proud of in our schools, but this isn't one of them). Even first graders figure out quite quickly that this "assessment race" called "fluency with nonsense words" interferes with their independent reading time. Because I respect my students, value their voices, and won't give up until our voices are heard, I encouraged my students to write about their feelings when asked to miss reading workshop to take the Dibels test.
Below is a letter to our state department of education from Ella, a first grader.

It's days like this when I'd like to hug Simon James and Eve Merriam.
You go, Ella! Alabama Department of Education..... United States Department of Education.... Are you listening?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Everybody Needs A Rock: The Story of Karon and the Thunder Egg

I love Byrd Baylor. Her books like I'm In Charge of Celebrations, The Way To Start a Day, The Other Way To Listen, The Table Where Rich People Sit...have certainly all been on my "teaching/read aloud must have list" for years, but only until this year did I understand why I needed Everybody Needs a Rock.

I learned why Everybody Needs a Rock, by Byrd Baylor was special because of my friend Karon.
Karon was my across the hall, amazing science teaching colleague last year at Hewitt Trussville Middle School.
We became fast friends standing in the hall between classes, thinking and learning together in team meetings, and spending time in each other's rooms either reflecting on the day or talking about our lives outside school.

Karon is an amazing teacher, wife, and mom to two incredible three year old boys (Emerson, adopted from Kazakhstan and Issac, the most recent, very lucky, miracle baby from China).
She's a passionate advocate for taking care of our Earth and the children of our world.
(and she LOVES being outdoors.....VERY unlike me.)
I do not like the Alabama heat and humidity or bug bites or dirt or grass that itches my skin. And I never understood the purpose of rocks. I didn't need a rock. I didn't understand why "everybody needs a rock".
Until one day I faced something that all of you have probably experienced at one time or another in your teaching career.

I accidentally overheard a conversation about myself. And it wasn't a nice one. It hurt. It made me sad and it made me question my teaching practice. I'm sure you know that being courageous and doing what's right for kids isn't always popular and comes often with ridicule and gossip. Even though I knew that, it didn't make those words others were speaking any easier to hear.

The next day Karon shows up at my door with a "present". She asked me to close my eyes and open my hands. Below is a picture of the "Thunder Egg", the ROCK she placed in my palm.

Karon said to me, "The rock is ugly and brown and crusty and rough. A lot like the day you had yesterday. It was hard to hear those ugly, rough words. We have colleagues, and even a student now and then, that seem ugly and hard and crusty and rough, but what's important is that we stand strong and look beyond the ugliness."

Then, Karon turned the rock that had been cut in half over in my hand, and below is the picture of what I saw.

I learned from Karon that day that we must look past the ugliness to the beauty that's hidden inside people. No matter how difficult it may seem, we must trust ourselves to get through that "crusty ugliness". There are colleagues out there that need us to be an example, a mentor, a friend. There are students out there who are aching for us to find that beauty, that talent that's hidden deep inside them. There is so much good inside the halls of our schools and inside the four walls of our classrooms if we will only wait patiently and look closely enough to find it.
Thank you, Byrd Baylor. Thank you, Karon Decker.
Yes, EVERYBODY needs a rock.

To the possibilities of this brand new day....

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thank You, Mr. Falker: The Story of John Richardson

OK. So I'm supposed to be posting in the early morning (am), but I'm a stepmom now. Today (the first day of school for my deep sleeping teenage stepson), I learned that I either need to awake HOURS earlier to work or just face the fact that waking a teenage boy is an early morning job all by itself. My husband and I had a coffee-in-the- sunroom conference, and then I received explicit instruction and modeling on how to wake our son.

"I need to see your feet on the floor. Then I need to hear the shower running...... I need to see your feet on the floor and hear the shower running!..... I NEED TO SEE YOUR FEET ON THE FLOOR AND HEEEEEAAAARRRR THE SHOOOOWWWEERRRR RUNNNIIINNGGGGG!!!!!!!!!!!"

Feet just padded down the hall. The shower is running. YAY!

Yesterday was the start of a great event, with lots of amazing blogging friends sharing their top ten favorite picture books. Thanks to Cathy and Mandy for making the day possible for us all.
Today I begin with the first story of my ten favorite books.
Thank You, Mr. Falker: The Story of John Richardson

The story begins in my third grade classroom in Birmingham, AL. John, a favorite custodian and friend to all the Corgill Kids, stopped by every day to empty the trash, refill the paper towel dispenser, and soak in a bit of reading workshop. One day John was browsing the picture book shelves with several third graders, and picked up the book, Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco. I love everything Patricia Polacco, and told John he had chosen one of my favorites....but I didn't share what the story was about. He asked if he could take the book home to read, and of course, I was happy that he would be reading this book to his children and grandchildren.

Days passed and I had forgotten that John borrowed the book. He still continued to visit us every day, and he always asked the children about their reading and their book choices.
On one of those ordinary reading workshop days weeks later, John brought the book back and asked if he could speak to me privately. He had Thank You Mr. Falker in his hand as he spoke.

"I have a secret to tell you, Ann Marie. I can't read. Will you be my Mr. Falker?"

Thinking for weeks now that this man had been reading this book to his grandchildren and enjoying it at home, I was stunned. I learned that John, this kind, hardworking man in his mid-sixties, couldn't read and had gone through his entire life pretending. He made it through ninth grade without a single teacher learning his secret. He worked an entire career in a factory without a single person knowing his secret. And now, he was working in our school, a place full of readers--a place that called him to be a reader too.
I learned later that John had his wife read the book to him at home. It was simply a miracle that he chose Thank You, Mr. Falker from our shelves.

From that day forward, John and I met in the early morning hours before school and during the summer learning to read. We read books together that John later read to his favorite groups of kindergarten students. We read books together that John would then share with my students in our reading workshop and morning meeting times. Soon after, John began to write too in his shiny blue writer's notebook. Poetry became a favorite of his, and we read and wrote lots of poetry on those mornings together.

I’m happy to say that because of Patricia Polacco'sThank You, Mr. Falker and two years of early morning reading workshops, head custodian, John Richardson, and I met to read, write, and talk---and my now 70 year old friend knows to read and write for the first time in his life.

John now speaks at his church and reads scripture to the congregation, shares his struggle (and triumph!) in literacy with groups in the community, is still invited to read to classes of students—and is still writing poetry! In fact, I have a framed copy of one of his first poems, “The Great Red Bird”.
I’d say it’s a “freeing” piece of work, about a little bird returning to his nest and learning to fly.

If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain, Or help a fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.” --Emily Dickinson

To the possibilities of this new day.....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ten Picture Books....Ten Stories

I'm happy to be a part of the "10 for 10" event hosted by my friends Cathy (Reflect and Refine) and Mandy (Enjoy and Embrace Learning)

For the next ten days, I'll be telling the story of each of these books and why each one made the top ten list in my collection. For are the top ten picture books that have shaped me as a teacher, learner, and person. (in no particular order)

1. Walk On: A Guide For Babies of All Ages by Marla Frazee

2. Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor

3. My Duck by Tanya Lynch

4. Nature's Paintbox by Patricia Thomas

5. All in a Day by Cynthia Rylant

6. Days Like This by Simon James

7. Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

8. Ordinary Things by Ralph Fletcher

9. Why? by Lila Prap

10. The Sunsets of Miss Olivia Wiggins by Lester Laminack

Tomorrow: Thank You Mr. Falker, The Story Of John Richardson

To the possibilities.....

Monday, August 9, 2010

What's Happened Since April?

After completing National Board re-certification,

finishing a year with a group of amazing sixth graders,

planning a wedding and getting married to the most wonderful man in the world,

honeymooning in St. Lucia,

packing up my old life and moving to a new city,

working over the summer with great teachers and teacher leaders in Ohio, Nova Scotia, Alabama, and Iowa,

and beginning a school year (for the first time in 17 years) without a classroom of students.....

I am officially welcoming myself back to the blogging world!

Tomorrow begins an exciting blogging event!

Two brilliant friends, Cathy Mere (Refine and Reflect), and Mandy Robek
(Enjoy and Embrace Learning) will be hosting this event beginning TOMORROW! You can find out more about the event on their blogs, and I'll also be posting my TOP TEN favorite picture books!
It will be a great way for us to learn new titles and find out the story behind these favorites.
We hope you'll join us!

As my wonderful middle school principal, Phyllis Faust, always said in her daily emails to us...... "To the possibilities...."