Thursday, June 25, 2009

bring the noise

This past week was the last week of school, and to celebrate, my program welcomed world renowned drumming master Tony Vacca for three days of percussion instruction and performances. Let me tell you folks, he was loud with a capital L. But he succeeded in grabbing the attention of everyone--kids, staff, and teachers alike--and by the end of his stint, we had a bonafide drumming ensemble going on in the clink! It was a sight (and sound) to behold.

Tony didn't just show up and go, "Ok kids, here's how you play the drums," whambamwhambam and then let them go off and play willy-nilly. No. Tony talked about his experience with drumming, some of the people he's met in his drumming travels (he's been all over the African continent and beyond) and--here's the best part--he talked extensively about the drum as a voice. Drumming, like all music, is self expression. But the drum has the unique ability to capture the simple essence of rhythm. It can be done with very little in the way of knowledge and materials. And when you add the sung and spoken word, as Tony did with a set on drumming, poetry and creative writing, you've got something magical. I saw it happen. Kids of all "reading" abilities were engaged and able to shine. It was beautiful.

During a break, I talked to Tony and told him I loved what he did with the kids, how they really seemed to respond to his presence and open up to a stranger. Not something they do easily. It occurred to me that Tony and I are both literacy teachers. I work more with the traditional "big 5" of textual reading instruction (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension). But Tony's bent on literacy has to do with developing and expressing voice, and becoming literate about the self and our relationship to the world. How can you have one without the other? To be a truly literate person, you gotta crack the books and bring the noise.

I'd love to be able to weave pieces of Tony's drumming workshop into my instruction during the regular school year somehow. Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

do you hear what I hear?

I listen to an NPR radio program called The Takeaway on my drive to work every morning. This morning, John Hockenberry was interviewing the BBC's Kate Arkless Gray, who is spearheading a cool project called Save Our Sounds, which has to do with collecting, cataloguing and archiving audio data. Seems like we're all more inclined to save and preserve visual information, but what about sounds? How is sound a valuable piece of historical data? How do sounds define a place and time? A culture? A region? What sounds are common, and are any actually endangered, as Arkless Gray postulates?

I've thought about the specific sounds of the place I work and teach for some time now. These sounds are unique, distinctive, thought-provoking and, at times, sort of scary. The one that rises to the top of my audio-consciousness is the sound of shackles. I can't get used to this one. It's metal on metal, which by description seems pretty ordinary, but the sound of shackles is different. Hearing this always makes me sit up straight, eyes open wide, a bit more alert. Throws me into a mild state of fight or flight.

The shackle sound isn't perpetual in the clink; that is, my students don't walk around in them 24/7. Here's how it works: a kid gets put into shackles when he is adjudicated and transported from court, and they're taken off (just outside my classroom door, coincidentally) upon being admitted to the unit for detention and treatment. The kids are also put into shackles any time they're transported from the unit (court dates, doctor/dentist appointments). I hear the shackles and I think: Who's coming? Who's going? And I'm reminded, sort of against my will, that no matter who's arriving or leaving, it's a felon. Watch your ass.

Other clink sounds include: the slamming of locking metal doors, the strained shouts of residents and staff during fights and subsequent restraints, the shuffling and sliding of cheap, institutional plastic flip flops on the concrete floors, the coarse profanity that seems to seep into everyone's lexicon, in spite of visibly posted rules against it.

The BBC Save Our Sounds project offers lots of options for people to submit their audio, from high tech (.wav and MP3's) to low tech (cassettes mailed via post). There's a really cool Iphone app called AudioBoo that allows you to record and upload sound to the web. Tag your sound with "BBC_SOS" and it gets fed straight into their map via an RSS feed. Geotags then enable the sound to be placed exactly where it was recorded. Clever. I've just downloaded AudioBoo, and I plan on uploading some audio samples from the unit today. This project has a focus on "endangered sounds." I'd like the sounds of the clink to fall into this group, but I have a feeling they're going to stand the test of time.

You can visit the Save Our Sounds map at and follow them online at

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the wise Bobby Frost

Today's Light A Fire quote of the day comes from one Robert Frost, who once said:

"Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self confidence."

Really? He said that? I thought he was all about bent birches and rustic stone walls, and New England roads taken and not taken. But apparently he had some insight into some other arenas. I cannot picture a straight-up, pissed off Robert Frost, nor can I envision him diffident and unsure. I didn't realize he knew these qualities. But I suppose that he was human, at one time, after all.

This quotation makes me think of my students, a bunch of young fellows who are so prone to losing the above personality traits at the drop of a hat. I half wonder whether some of them have ever known what it feels like to be confident. I know they all think they're cool, but at what point does the adolescent male trade in cool for aplomb?

I can hear it now: "Yo, what the fuck is 'aplomb?'"

I shall print and post Bobby's quote in my classroom. We'll see who notices it. Thanks again to Barbara J. Feldman for distributing her Light A Fire daily educational quotations. You give me, and my students, plenty of food for thought. Here's the link to her page, once again:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Grammar Girl

Something about the phrase "free book" has a knack for catching my reading teacher's eye. So when I saw that Grammar Girl was having a contest to give away free copies of her book Quick And Dirty Tips For Better Writing, I sprang into action. Here I am, posting her contest on my own blog and hoping that I'll be the lucky girl chosen to receive a copy of her book. Grammar Girl also does a neat little podcast on English grammar. She's witty, smart and fun. Here's the link to her contest:

Long live grammar. Long live Grammar Girl!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Scrabble Slam!

I love Scrabble Slam, the new hot game in my Reading Workshop. What is it? Scrabble Slam is a deck of 55 cards, each with a letter on the front and the back. Start by making a four-letter word, then change that word one letter at a time, rapid-fire, until someone plays all their cards. That's it! No taking turns as in regular Scrabble...that's too priggish. This is the clink, baby! Builds on sight-word recognition, word attack skills, even phonics and phonemic awareness. Take that, National Reading Panel!!

The best part is the special rule (which I made up, naturally): the number of cards left in your hand at the end of the game is the number of pushups you have to do. Hit the floor, dawgz! That's a direct quote from one of my students...I'm guessing at the spelling of 'dawgz' but I realize I should check I don't actually force anyone to adhere to this rule, but after they see me drop and bang out a quick ten, my students can't seem to let themselves get outmuscled by KBizzle. We're getting huge in Reading Workshop.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Summer Reads 2009

I'm teaching summer school this year, for the first time in a while. So this means that, in July and August, I'll have less time for that thing called Reading For Pleasure in the setting like the one above. But dooooon't you worry, I'll manage to get my feet in the sand, avec bathing suit, beach chair, boogie board and book bag. Topping my list of what to toss in the tote? The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. It's a tome that's caught my eye primarily because it was so effusively recommended by one of my favorite authors, Wally Lamb.

Mr. Lamb writes, "I savored Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain for many reasons: a dog who speaks, the thrill of competitive racing, a heart-tugging storyline, and--best of all--the fact that it is a meditation on humility and hope in the face of despair. Since finishing this engagingly unique novel, I’ve found myself staring at my own dog, thinking, Hmm, I wonder ..."

Sounds good enough for me, Wally. My personal reading aside, I continue to look for good reads for my students, to build up my classroom library but also to deepen the wells of their literary worlds and experience. Clearly, they won't be chillin' on the beach under an umbrella this summer, but that doesn't mean they should also be deprived of access to the lighter, fun reads of the season. So, gentle reader, I ask you: what's on your summer read list? Please share your recommendations for teens, adults, & kids here. Thanks!