The focus of my third visit was reading and writing about informational texts. I thought about Aulander’s sad library. Nonfiction titles become obscure faster than any others and with today’s curriculum stressing nonfiction, the school needed new and intriguing books. So I put together recently published titles that I’d shared successful in classrooms. I would halve my collection, give myself needed shelf-room while refreshing teaching and learning.
I was still worried about telling the teacher that they would be taking the lead in our modeling sessions. Could I be good support? Would I know when to hush up and when to leap in? Did I really know how to collaborate. Stress helped me find the sense in this situation. So many of these children have impoverished intellectual backgrounds that they need to see meaningful book talk modeled. That was a better and truer reason for co-teaching.
My professional development session began with a booktalk about the informational texts I’d brought. “Are you going to leave all those with us?” one teacher teased.
“Actually,” I told them. “I am!” Not only were they in shock, but excitement thrived and thrummed.
During this professional development session I told teachers how I use the “Mohammed Ali Method” while composing a piece of informational writing. I begin with a “punchy” first point. The second point is less strong-it “floats like a butterfly. And the last, “stings like a bee.”
“My kids aren’t going to relate to that,” one teacher said. Ah-ha, I thought, an opportunity for co-teaching arising without effort!
“What do you think would speak to them?” I asked.
“They love hot sauce,” she said.
“So the first point could be covered with one bottle of hot sauce, the second would have no hot sauce at all, and the third would be drenched in five bottles!”
I presented my Story Skeleton for Informational Reading. I use this same Story Skeleton for all kinds of analysis and composition. A teaching colleague told me she saw it as a structure without stricture.
In all writing something should head up a piece of writing (that goes in the head), something should hold the writing together (the spine), something should breath excitement into the writing (the ribs which cover the lungs) and you walk out with a meaningful conclusion (the feet).
Suddenly the fourth grade teacher came alive. “Wait,” she said, “I could use this for cause and effect.”
“I have Skeletons for everything,” I told her,” and reeled off the ones I’d composed. “Scientific Observation, Opinion, Biography…”
“We’re studying biographies now, can we use that one tomorrow?” she asked.
And so the next day, in the fourth grade, we studied the new picture book by Carole Boston Weatherford, Gordon Parks: how the photographer captured black and white America (Whitman). The teachers copied the Biography Skeleton so their students could fill it in themselves and keep in their writing notebooks. “You’re a genius,” I said and went on to explain how kids wiggled when I operated in large groups for too long.
In the previous two sessions, the students seemed sleepy and quiet. Their two fourth grade teachers told me I was lucky because usually they were usually giggly and hard to control. But on that day, we had some of the best conversations I’d ever had in a classroom. We began by listing Gordon Parks’ traits. One student described him as “thinkative.” “That,” I told the student, “is a great example of why I adored invented words. Thinkative perfectly describes Gordon Parks’ reflective, thoughtful, considering nature.” We spoke about how Parks had been stillborn (a word none of the children knew), then revived by the doctor for whom he was named. I talked about how that would change your life, how events had changed their lives, or the life of someone they knew.
We remembered how Parks’ teacher had told her black students, “You’ll all wind up porters and waiters.” We talked about what a porter was, the limited job possibilities for African-Americans in that era. Then we spoke about racism in the past and the present. One of the teachers related her experiences of desegregation in Bertie County. We spoke about Trayvon Martin. Not one child in the class knew who he was. The entire period felt as if our rich discussions were engaging children fully while combating their many missing meaningful conversations.
One of the things I love to do is share my learning from classroom to classroom. When I visited the 5th grade I told them about how a teacher had re-imagined my “Mohammed Ali Method” and asked what metaphor they would use. In groups they came up with wonderful analogies—the roller coaster starts out strong enough to take you up the first hill, pauses, then zooms to the bottom. A house metaphor suggested starting with a brick house idea, then moving quietly past a trailer idea and ending with a two-story house. Sports lovers came up with basketball terminology—a free throw, a brick and finally a 3-point field goal. Amazing symbols, all of them!
Those two classes are how I love to teach best. When books and writing launch learning, meaningful discussions and deep thought are sure to follow.