Fall-Preparing for Winter

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I stepped out into air like smoked mint,
Crisp, slightly kindled from fire already burning,
together we stack, clack stovelengths, pack, clack tight
strained and strong we stack, clack, pack clack tight
helping, handing, chuckling and chucking we all pitch in. . .


Book Report Hell-p

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I hopped out of the car, kids in tow and sent the youngest two to play.  My oldest is about to experience his first official teacher conference, we are immediately met by one fast talking teacher, a familiar face and voice he has been working with for a few years.  She gives me a quick heads up about the book report assignment, which I had heard nothing about from him.  “It will be coming home.  The aid made some notes and wrote you a note so you can understand the situation.  He will need to finish it up at home.”  I had only a moment to reflect on this statement, “situation”??  The sixth grade teacher, the new voice for us, pops his head out the door of his room.  “Thanks for coming!  Sorry to keep you waiting!   Let’s head right in, shall we?”  The conference felt good, productive even, and I didn’t give the book report another thought till the following evening when an adult sized eleven year old landed, sprawled one foot straight behind him on the floor, another knee on the bench, and his head laying on the table squeaking out moans of protest, “I don’t know what to do!”  I didn’t need to read the note to understand this was going to be a long night, for both of us.

It took me a good twenty minutes (or more? in the din of protest, it seemed like hours!) to sort through my son’s writing folder, there was a post it from the aid, which helped, a little, but I still needed to get my bearings here, and figure out how to help my guy tackle this.  Unlike the recollection my husband and I have of regurgitating books in the name of “book report”, the structure for this sixth grade book report requires using three kinds of writing; expository, descriptive, and persuasive.  It also has specific guidelines that include a first person narrative from a character’s perspective.  My son had two pieces started and the third final section yet to begin.  So I started him there.  It was as close to a ‘fresh start’ as I could manage and I needed to muddle over the first two pieces a bit and figure out how to help him proceed.  After a few prompting questions, to determine his stance on the book, my son was writing. 

The next night, I was armed with a plan and a chart.  My son, of course, being himself did not want to use the chart.  Part of the problem with this first book report, is that the class was all working on the same book, except him, because he wasn’t integrated into the afternoon ELA workshop till several weeks into the year.  If I know anything about my boy, it is that he is very conscious of wanting to be “like everyone else” and sure enough, he was pretty sure no one else’s mom made a chart.  But for my own sanity I combined several pages of guidelines and instructions into one piece of paper anyway and am glad I did it!

The thing that I think helped my son most was to break the task down into chunks starting with the 3 sections of the book report.  Then I looked for the basics within each section, did he have any or all of the pieces?  He actually did have most of them.  The few missing components then, became easy to point out and for him to tackle.  After the basics, I looked for anything that needed a bit more information, detail, or examples, but for this time, I tried not to get carried away.  I was proud of myself this week, when I read Anna Gratz Cockerille’s “Work Smarter not Harder” post and realized I had intuitively broken down this task into the two qualities of writing to focus on when giving feedback, “organization and elaboration”.  Aside from the one post-it the aid left me in the writing folder, there were scads of notes, not just about the parts of the report, but about craft and language.  (That was why on night one, I got him started on a new section.  With all the notes, I was overwhelmed too!)

I know where she was coming from.  The aid at school certainly knows the sixth grade teacher, and his expectations.  After attending curriculum night, it was clear to me that the students this year will be expected to approach their writing, even the historically mundane book report, with a bit of artistry.  As is generally the case when approaching a job started by someone else, it seems too easy for me to say “She shouldn’t have pointed out quite so many places to “fix””, this is not a criticism of someone in the trenches.  I know, honestly, every teacher of writing has run into this hazard, too many “fix it” notes! Many posts on the Two Writing Teachers blog confirm that as they address how to avoid overwhelming students with comments, how to narrow down a teaching point, etc.

I also realize there are always two sides to a story, and am quite familiar with how my son can put the “Hell” into “helping”.  Things can snowball quickly with him if he is discouraged. Knowing my son as I do, (we’ve been doing this school thing together now for 8 years starting with preK), I figured he would need to learn to build the walls, the structure, before asking him to add paint and trimmings.  He can have a hard time seeing the big picture, and easily gets bogged down in details.  I also know there will be many more book reports this year, and many opportunities for practicing his craft, for choosing paint colors and adding tchotchkis.  This week he has settled into a new report.  He hasn’t asked for a minute of help.  He doesn’t want me to see it till it is done.  He has been working independently, no sprawling or squeaking involved, no protest no “Hell-p”!


The Night Fairy and Company (a Halloween Tale)

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Every year, my two youngest children's birthdays and All Hallow's Eve fall in the same chaotic week. . .Every. . .year!  My husband and I used to handle this diligently by attempting to set our kids to costume brainstorming and creation early in the month, as soon as we turned the calendar over to October.  Even still, we often had that last minute rush for the final piece, or last minute adjustment, but this year it was the night before Halloween, my oldest just lugged home a big chunk of (teethpulling type) homework to complete, and all three kids were desperately in need of costumes, and the oldest didn't have a clue what he wanted to be this year.

As big brother set to homework and middle guy gathered his Lone Ranger gettup, my little girl and I began collecting fairy trappings from around the house.  One of her favorite books is The Night Fairy, by Laura Amy Schlitz, and she decided to be Flory the night fairy this year.  Daddy prepped her to assert, "I am a night fairy" rather than "I am Flory" when people inquired about her costume this evening, in order to avoid any confusion as many people are only familiar with the more pop-culture fairies of the world.  We dug for just the right tights, and sparkly shoes, and I found the perfect dark haired wig.  She tried on three dresses and decided on reworking a tinkerbell costume, removing the tinkerbell broach, while daddy transformed into the magical warlock of wings, (fixing them up like new, after all not everyone is familiar that Flory's wings were damaged for most of the story. . . ) and slowly I evolved into a homework hag.  "What do you mean you don't know what to do?"

The next night, Halloween, I made a mad dash to the grocery before heading toward home.  I realized  exasperatedly that I needed a few things for the next day's two parties.  (This was the fateful year, my daughter finally reached kindergarten.  For years I have told her "no kid party till kindergarten". . .My time was up!)  While I slogged through the Friday afternoon crowd, my husband braved the downtown traffic and Halloween turmoil of trick or treaters literally in the streets, to bring home pizza, so I could help my oldest prepare his Zorro attire.  I fashioned a hat out of cardboard while the boy diligently fabricated a sword out of brakeline and electrical tape.  (Despite our great efforts, most folks sadly dubbed him a "bandit" for the evening, perhaps because he lost his sword by the fifth
house? sigh. . .)

Finally, finally, finally we piled our troops in the van and headed toward town.  (The trees in these here woods make quite fine neighbors, but don't give much in the way of candy at Halloween)  As soon as we stopped the car, Zorro leapt out with great flare, zinging his sword of brakeline with gusto, (and getting scolded for almost zinging mom in the eye)  He continued leaping zig zaggingly in zany Zorro form throughout the night, while the Lone Ranger moseyed through the town with the genuine sore feet of a cowboy without a horse.  A true predictor that the cowboy theme will be abandoned next year.

The night fairy hopped from the car with pure joy glowing from her.  Irridescent wings fluttered happily through the darkness seeking sweet treats as Flory's smile lit up the night and polite thank you's (slightly out of character for Flory) graced the evening.  I laughed out loud as I watched her flit from house to house wings wiggling, and curls bouncing in true fairy form, and thought to myself, "this is what Halloween is all about" . . . despite it's perpetual ill timing.