August 21, 2011

Junk In; Junk Out?

So... I have a slew of students this past year and more this summer who have jumped on the bandwagon of reading (phew), but something is gnawing at me about their book choices. I imagine children's librarians, as well as critics of our declining cultural standards, are restless too.

There is a new genre of books that are "conversational" in tone, and graphic novel-like. Although actually old-fashioned comic books, and a certain type of graphic novel, are filled with complex plots and rich vocabulary. The ones I am referring to are a type of hybrid.

The Wimpy Kid series is probably the best known, and a few others that are about the same reading level (4th and 5th grade) are:

Big Nate Series
The Great Hamster Massacre
Charlie Jackson's Guide to Not Reading
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

These are titles that make overnight readers our of reluctant readers. Score! These are books that kids love so much that read them over and over again. So what is the problem? Well, if we adhere to the nuances of vocabulary research and the studies on how connected writing skill is to rich reading, not to mention variety and volume, then I have some basis for my gnawing.

A few of the Amazon reviews of Wimpy Kid #1 that I resonate with:

Great book if you think burping, farting and acting badly is great.

The words moron, jerk, dork and hot girls are used in the first 5 pages.

While I am not a proponent of sanitizing our kid's lives and reading materials so as to insulate them from the realities of growing up, neither am I a cheerleader for steering kids into books that glorify teasing and bullying. Plus, in my small, but reliable, literacy laboratory of my private practice, the readers of these books unconsciously drag the informal tone of the writing into their own.

"At camp I was like so totally hanging out with the other kid
who is lots like me, and totally liking that."

"The koolest part of the book I read was when the kool snails
turned into warriors cuz you know how snails look, don't you?"

It truly hurts my ears to read it aloud.

So, what to do? I tell parents to let these be "dessert books" and the main course be ones with thicker plots, richer vocabulary, sophisticated grammar, and a lot less mean. Okay, Huck Finn was mean, but there is an undertone that proves a lesson for him about that behavior. The Wimpy Kid never grows and changes, but his sentences get a little longer in each book!

August 13, 2011

Neurotransmitters need more than just ME to make them work

Today a normally foggy and frozen student, aged 10, brightened up and lightened up and wrote up a storm.

He has spectrum-like tendencies, which in layman's terms means he is a little Asperger's-like.

I wish I could take the credit, but Concerta gets the trophy.

It is his first week on it, and he was articulate, not at all dreamy, honest to a fault about his writing goals, and he produced three times as much as usual without arguing. This is a miracle. Granted, he needed some organizers, tips, and tools that I provided, but wow.

So once again, my tried and true line gets inserted here: Success is a Vitamin. Stole that from Mel Levine.

MelLevine may be controversial, and accused of all sorts of things that cut to the heart of our trust, but he was brilliant, dedicated, and widened my vocabulary. I never talked about "de-mystifying" children before I read his books.

He makes grave efforts not to use traditional labels. When he spoke for our local IDA (International Dyslexia Assoc.) he would not use that term!

This is how he describes the input/output mechanisms, very succinctly:

Mental Energy

A student:
  • has difficulty concentrating; may complain of feeling tired or bored
  • does not seem to be well rested and fully awake during the day
  • has inconsistent work patterns that negatively impact quality and quantity of work
  • shows overactivity and fidgets -- especially pronounced when sitting and listening


A student:
  • processes too little or too much information; can't distinguish between what is important and what isn't
  • focuses too superficially or too deeply on information presented
  • has difficulty connecting new information with information already known
  • only pays attention to exciting information or highly stimulating activities
  • focuses for too brief a period
  • has problems shifting focus from one subject or activity to another

A student:
  • fails to preview the effects of statements or actions or to predict the outcomes of tasks or activities
  • has difficulty coming up with the right strategy or technique to accomplish a task
  • does not monitor quality of work or the effectiveness of strategies
  • does not use past successes and failures to guide current behavior, actions, or strategies
  • is apt to do too many things too quickly and some other things too slowly
  • has a poor sense of how time and how to manage it

If any of these signs occur inconsistently or in a particular subject area, they may be pointing to a different learning problem. When children struggle with reading, for example, because of a neurological breakdown that hinders their decoding ability, it is very difficult for them to concentrate and stay focused.

So with tools, and nutrition, and medication (sometimes) and breaking the whole thinking process down more than seems natural, we can send kids (and adults) soaring, in written self expression.

August 9, 2011

Back to Writing - Back to Strong Sentences with Kids

Oh My. Mea Culpa and all that.

I have written in my journal. I have composed long Facebook posts. I have calligraphed detailed cards to friends. I have, in stream-of-consciousness style, blown the air out of my lungs onto the page with friends and loved ones who I trust to hear my truths. I have compiled compassionate and sometimes contentious emails to people who have not stayed true to their word, and asked for forgiveness for judging them for doing so. It is the week of International Forgiveness Day, after all.

What is missing in that list is of course, my blog.
I have read many blogs, talked about my own blog, heard advice about where to link my blog, and considered shutting the whole thing down, but I have not written.

I led a Writing Camp for 5 days, 90 minutes each day, with 5th and 6th graders. I have coached summer tutoring students in writing. I have gotten accepted again this year to present on Writing for ADD kids, in the annual ADD Conference in October. I have searched endlessly on my new ipad (birthday gift from my 83 year old mom) for writing apps to use with my students. (have only chosen 2 so far!). I have looked up new curriculum on writing to use with unique students, and met with other professionals for coffee and talked for hours about how to teach writing to our tougher students. But I have not written in my own blog.

Summer students have an interesting array writing needs, and I am loving going slower than is my nature - I am going over and over what makes a good sentence, and reviewing the grammar pieces more than I usually do - I tend to give them a Mad Lib, and all my cheat sheets on parts of Speech, and a few grammar card games, and then a week later I tell them to add an adjective to a sentence, or switch to a stronger verb, and they forget what those are. Argghh. But in the face of them, I just ask, ask, ask questions and don't show my shock.

So a good lesson for me is to review more, teach less. Even though the clock seems to be ticking and they still can't write a paragraph that holds together, or that is not rambling or robotic, I have to conk myself on the head and remember to get their sentence-level writing SOLID as a rock. I love my job.