Sorry to gush about my lovely students again, but I received an e-mail from one of my students two days after school was out that explained how I needed to go back and check my mailbox on campus.  I did this yesterday, and I found a great t-shirt and card from two of my used-to-be sixth grade girls who are now my seventh graders.

My new custom-made shirt!
Here's the back-story, if you care to know: six weeks ago, my sixth graders and I had an overnight field trip up to the pine trees 80 miles from here.  I had known  Hannah--one of my sixth graders--loved to watch/identify birds because of her writer's notebook, but I didn't know her friend Mimi had picked up on the habit too.  Hannah and I had talked about birds early on in the school year, and when we left the bus six weeks back and I saw a bluejay, I challenged Hannah to a 24-hour "bird-off."  Who could spot and identify the most birds during our stay in the pine trees, that was the challenge.  Mimi overheard, and it became the two of them against me.

At the end of our first afternoon, I was one bird ahead.  I woke up early the next morning, and doubled my number of spottings before breakfast, which I knew would irk the two ladies I was competing against.  There was one noisy little sparrow, however, I could not identify that morning.  There are too many sparrow types, and this one I found was so loud, but I had no idea which type he was.  Luckily, I have an Audubon application on my iPhone, and amazingly, it played for me the exact same song I was hearing from this little fellow in the pine tree: a chipping sparrow, a totally new bird for me.  After breakfast, I told my two ladies about the birds I had spotted that morning (without the iPhone's help), but then I broached the subject that I had used my phone to learn a totally different bird for my list.  I had thought they'd be impressed that such a piece of technology existed, but oh dear, I was wrong.  They deemed me a "cheater" and pretty much called off the contest.

In insisted I was using technology to better my knowledge, but they (both great little actresses) let me have it for "cheating" them out of the possibility of winning the contest.  When we were back in school, they made a sign for my chair with a chipping sparrow on it; the bird was calling me a cheater in the sign. They made signs for their desks that read, "Only non-cheaters can sit here."

Anyway, it became our joke for the last six weeks of school; I was quietly thrilled to see that Hannah wrote her final expository essay on the chipping sparrow.  When I said, "See how my cheating inspired a new topic to research for you," she jokingly turned her back on me and walked away with a "Humphhh."

In my mailbox--two days after the end of school--I found the pictured chipping sparrow t-shirt with the sweetest thank you card from these two ladies.  I wanted them to see me in my "cheater's t-shirt," so I am proudly posting this picture.

Thanks, Hannah and Mimi!  Can't wait to begin your year as "Sev-ies."  I shall wear the shirt on special occasions.

--Mr. Harrison

Throughout the now-past school year, I kept having such a hard time choosing my "Mr. Stick of the Week" awards (because I was seeing so many great pages in my kids' notebooks).  I give those awards to select students based on their writer's notebooks during my monthly checks; I just love it when a short piece of writing is decorated with a clever use of Mr Stick--our notebooks' margin mascot.

When, in April, one of my students suggested we should have a "Mr. Stick of the Year" award, I wholeheartedly agreed.  I'm not big into class competitions, but my students are.  So I decided that, instead of a monthly writer's notebook extra credit challenge for May, we would have an extra credit contest: The Mr. Stick of Year Award!

I created this contest page at my website, which shared rules and gave suggestions as to what might make a new writer's notebook page stand out so that it might be deemed a "winner."  At our middle school, our kids are put into core teams for the three years they spend with us; our school has seven different teams of students, and when they told us we could name out own team, our kids chose "Team Phoenix" as our name.  I was thrilled to find--while serendipitously searching on e-Bay--a Boy Scout patrol patch that actually showed a stick man on fire--perfect for a Phoenix Stickman ribbon.

With rules and awards in place, we were open for business, and my kids spent the month of May creating multiple entries that they felt might make them deserving of one of the three ribbons I would be awarding on June 1st.  I warned students they would only be allowed to nominate one of their entries into the contest, encouraging students who were creating many entries to select their very best idea and spend some extra time on it.  Though this contest was completely optional, on May 31st I had over 60% of my students enter the contest.  Using my rubric from my rules page, I was able to narrow the search down to the twenty best looking pages, and my wife then helped me choose the three winners and the nine honorable mentions.

The winner (25 extra credit points!) was one of my graduating 8th graders--bass-playing Chris--who borrowed the "How To Be [insert character name here]" poetry format we had used as part of my World War Novel Unit, and Chris composed a charming poem called "How to Be Chris":

click image to enlarge it

Second place (15 extra credit points) went to a sixth grader, the amazing Mimi, who created a two-page notebook spread that shared the highlights of her entire year as a member of Team Phoenix--from the first day of school to her playing a large role in our school musical:
click image to enlarge

And third place (10 extra credit points) went to a seventh grader--Andrea--who decided to offer a two-pages of Mr. Stick sharing advice on how to keep a great writer's notebook.  My wife and I both loved her simple but effective use of Post-it Notes to make the page stand out:
Click image to enlarge

There were also 9 honorable mentions which are featured at the webpage where I've housed the rules.  I've already purchased three more "Flaming Stickman" patches for next year's contest.

Can't wait to show these winners when I introduce Mr. Stick to my new sixth graders next year.  Ah yes, the value of having student-made models to inspire future success.


I have such wonderful students, many with generous parents.  At the end of the year, I humbly accept  thank-you cards, many that have Starbucks gift cards and movie passes, and I also love the home-baked goods I receive from those students whom I know I can trust.  I am so grateful and lucky to have students who care enough to make these gestures to me.  I am.

However...I try to always tell the kids that if you make something to show your thanks, it's just a better strategy than buying something.  Most adults would rather have something that comes from your hands and your brains than from your wallets; I can keep and treasure and show-off to others handmade gifts much longer than I can keep a plastic Starbucks card.  I really stress this lesson during December and February, when we are doing different poetry lessons, which include a "tribute poem" as one of those lessons.  "Make something--like a poem--and give it to someone you love or admire for any upcoming holiday," I always say, "and they will be so happy with your gesture."

I didn't receive any poems at the end of the year this year (which was fine--as I had received plenty this Winter).  I did, however, receive one of the sweetest, hand-made gifts I have ever received.  I just have to share it with you.

Del--one my seventh grade girls--stealthily placed this homemade paper box on my desk some time during the final week of school.  It looked like this:

When the yellow lid came off, the box unfolded to show eight different "memory panels"--shared memories from the school year that involved the two of us.

There were two layers of images and memories.  Here are the first four; each image represents a story that Del and I (and perhaps a few other students) share from our time together.  Most of these are thoughts that we laughed about when she put them in her writer's notebook.

And here is the second layer of images:

I think my favorite panel is this one, which shows Del (in her Team Phoenix mascot outfit, which she made out of construction paper for assemblies; each interdisciplinary team at our school adopts a team name, and we are 'Team Phoenix.')  Another student had made me a crown of fire to wear at assemblies, and we laughed when we saw each other entering the assembly that day!  Here is a close-up of that panel:

Thank you, Del.  You are an amazing student, and the extra care and thought you put into this homemade gift means the world to your silly ol' teacher.  I only hope I can figure out a way to preserve this fragile gift so that I can enjoy it for years to come.   Perhaps photographing it in this way is the first step in doing so!

--Mr. Harrison

P.S. I love this picture of you from our end-of-year slide-show in your mascot outfit.  Next year, let's obtain a picture of me with my crown of flames, okay?  :-)

Ah yes, the end of the school year; everything comes crashing together in the same two weeks, and things like "Teach Writing Right" blogs are neglected.  My apologies.

So that I have it on record for next year, I wanted to make sure I posted the final "Metaphor of the Week" from the two weeks of school.  Next year, I plan to create the first three metaphors of the week, then have a coffee can up front where students can write inspirational metaphors that--if chosen--will become my extra credit "Metaphor of the Week."  I am thinking I will also be "hiring" an artistic student (I've got two in mind) to come in at lunch every week on Friday to write out and illustrate the metaphor of the week instead of me doing it!

In short, the students really liked the "Metaphor of the Week" program, but I want it to be completely student-centered next year.

Anyway, here's is the final metaphor of the week for this past school year.  It came from one of my sweetest 7th graders--Jessica.  I really liked how it built two metaphors based on opposite abstract nouns: truth and lies.  I hope other students are inspired to build metaphors next year based on contradictory abstractions!

Looking forward to a bright new year of student metaphors starting in August!  If you wish to have access to any of my "metaphors of the week" from the 2011-12 school year, click here!