Books · Classroom Libraries · Community · Culture · Leading · Literacy · Reading · Students

TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY All High School Teachers Should Read Young Adult Books

blog41. For all of the same reasons that you read adult books!

In all seriousness, young adult books can be just as fun, entertaining, moving, informational, important, and challenging as books that are written for adults.

2. To realize that YA books have a place in the classroom.

By exposing yourself to a wide range of YA texts, you’ll be able to purposefully expose your students to those texts, too. More importantly, you’ll want to do so. Much of this post may sounds like it is for English teachers, but that is absolutely not the case. In recent years, we have had both history and science teachers add libraries to their classrooms because our staff is recognizing the importance of promoting literacy across the contents. The more I read YA, the more I recognize that these books(plural!) NEED to be in the hands of my students.

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3. To teach students how to read.

After recognizing the value of YA Literature, I came to realize the necessity of teaching students how to read whatever they’re reading rather than teaching what I’m looking for students to gain from a whole-class novel. In a sense, by valuing YA books, I like to think that I’m now focusing on teaching the reader, not the reading. This includes teaching basic and specific reading skills as well as universal themes and archetypes.

4. To be able to actually converse with students about books (and not interview, quiz, interrogate, or grade them).

There’s nothing shocking here. When you’re reading books that students are reading, you’re able to authentically dialogue with students. I will be the first to admit that when I wasn’t reading YA books, “conversations” with students about books were somewhat phony. Students need to see adults who read for pleasure, and students need reassurance and reinforcement that reading is both a delightful and a worthwhile pastime. If we as educators always associate required assignments and grades with students’ reading, we are killing these notions. Make your passion for reading visible to students and show students that you care about their passions by reading YA books.

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5. To build rapport with your students – truly!

THIS IS MY FAVORITE REASON! I’m not sure that there is any better, quicker, easier way to get to know students than by showing interest in their reading lives. You can learn a LOT about students’ interests, hobbies, after school life, home life, etc. by asking some simple questions such as these: What are you currently reading? What did you read this summer? What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? Why do you think you enjoy that genre so much? How many books do you have in your home?

Rapport is built by continuing to show interest in students’ reading lives beyond the first week of school (after beginning of the year reading surveys). It is built by finding ways to celebrate students’ individual reading successes and by finding that book to make a difference for a non-reader.  Imagine recommending a book to a student that becomes their favorite or changes their life. By starting the conversation now, this is the type of work that lays the foundation for a life-long relationship, one where you can genuinely ask students “What are you reading?” when you run into them ten years from now. This is the type of work that feeds the soul. This is why we became teachers.

6. To be reminded of what teen life is like.

From attending prom senior year, to combating bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing lovesickness and hormones for the first time, to living in less-than-ideal homes, to navigating the cafeteria, to finding a place where you fit in, to feeling anxious about college admissions, to playing on a team and learning how to be coached, to learning about your sexuality or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. Let me just put it this way: when you’re reading YA books, it’s a little easier to empathize with students and understand why your class’s assignment may not be at the forefront of their priorities. More importantly, it may be a little easier to understand why your class’s assignment shouldn’t be at the forefront of their priorities.

7. To stay focused on what is most important.

If you start to prioritize time to read young adult books when you haven’t in the past, you may find yourself re-prioritizing many aspects of your personal and professional worlds. Since it is obvious that students need me to make time for them to read, when making decisions for my students and my classroom, I now ask myself questions such as these: What do students really need to learn? What do students truly need to do? Is that lesson actually important to students’ growth, or do we just do it because we’ve always done it? And, if I don’t prioritize time to read, how can I expect students to?

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8. To become a better book matchmaker.

Students desperately need help finding books that they enjoy! It’s no surprise that the more YA I read, the better I become at this. Nothing excites me more than (after engaging in conversation with a student) being able to exclaim, “OHH! I have the PERFECTbook for you!” Also, now that I’ve read a fairly large percentage of the books in my classroom library, I am able to notice patterns between books and students. For example, I can make recommendations such as, “You liked All the Bright Places? Then try A Million Junes. I think you’ll like it, too!”

Admittedly, I used to recommend books pretty superficially, based on the little that I knew about them from reviews, colleagues, word of mouth, and the descriptions on the books’ covers. Let me be clear – I still do this and probably always will (with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually read the book); I just don’t do this as often as I used to for two reasons. (1) I’ve read more books and continue to read YA books. (2) I sometimes cringe now when I’m currently reading a book that I have recommended in the past while thinking to myself, “Yikes… I recommended this book to that student?”

9. To be able to book talk – an art in itself.

Magic happens when students trust your judgment. Because students quickly learn that I read YA books regularly, students are willing to try books that I recommend. I am able to reach multiple students at once through book talks. When I book talk, I choose one, two, or three titles to present to students. I love exposing students to different genres, topics, and authors, and I try to let the books speak for themselves by reading short passages aloud. Book talking is just one way to celebrate reading publicly and routinely. Sometimes, I have to create waiting lists for titles or scrounge up extra copies of books because the demand for the titles is so high after book talking them.

10. To build a classroom library for your students.

Notice the emphasis on your. Nobody knows what books your students need better than you and your students. Every year, I ask students what books should be added to our classroom library. It is important to me that students know our classroom is truly a community where their voices matter. Also, students want to read books that I wouldn’t have chosen for our classroom myself. Personally, I don’t enjoy sci-fi/fantasy much, but my students do, so I need their help in selecting titles to add to this genre. This year, I plan on asking my students to help me identify gaps that need to be filled in library. By using Goodreads.com and a few other sites and blogs, I am able to keep up with the newest, hottest YA releases and popular authors, which excites me and my students.

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11. To get to know your students’ academic abilities better.

Now that I’m reading what students are reading, I have a better grasp on students’ current reading abilities, what reading skills I need to teach, who just needs a confidence boost, who doesn’t read at all, who reads avidly, who has access to books at home, who is good at faking it (playing the “game” of school), who has reading stamina and who needs to build it, and I don’t have to test or survey students for this information. I can gather it simply by observing what students are choosing to read.

12. To be a role model for colleagues and to build a reading culture/community in your school.

If you’re genuinely enthusiastic about reading YA for your students’ sake and for your personal pleasure, your excitement will spread! Just a few years ago, I was inspired to make independent reading a priority in my classroom, and now I’m reading 50-75 books a year when I used to read just a handful. In the last 3 years, a student book club has formed (lead by a history teacher!), two different staff book clubs have formed, non-ELA classrooms have added libraries to their rooms, and relationships between students and colleagues have been strengthened. We (Dublin Coffman High School) legitimately have a reading community to be proud of now.

I feel a calling to model and spread enthusiasm for reading YA books to my colleagues because every single year there are students that I fail to reach in English class, that I fail to recommend the perfect books to in order to turn non-readers into readers and occasional readers into avid readers. I truly believe that the right book(s) can have this impact, which drives me to read as many books as I do. It also makes me acutely aware of the fact that I won’t ever be able to reach all of my students, BUT I have high hopes that my students’ sophomore, junior, and senior year teachers will be able to reach them with their book recommendations! As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village,’ and an entire school community of readers will obviously have a much bigger impact than a few teachers, so I am begging you; if you work with adolescents, please read young adult books.

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13. To #bewhatyouteach

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Students

Every child can become a mathematician

My father instilled a love of math in me at a young age through challenging math riddles, logic puzzles, games and conversations.  I remember him casually presenting ways to push my thinking, challenge my abilities and have fun with numbers, shapes and logic.  This laid the foundation of an early confidence in me that I could think critically, mathematically, and logically.  But more importantly, it instilled in my young self the norm that math can be entertaining….dare, I say, fun!  He did this effortlessly.  It wasn’t something he made me do;, it was something fun for us to do together.  I don’t know that he could predict the impact that this kind of family fun would have on his three daughters because it wasn’t forced…these fun family times just happened.  

It’s been 15 years since I entered the education world as a high school teacher.  My goal each day has been to bring enthusiasm to the math world through my work with students and teachers.  I have watched thousands of teenagers pass through high school.  Many arrive in 9th grade saying (nearly bragging) that “I can’t do math!”.  I have found that I must remind parents at Open House that, “No matter what, please never say to your child, ‘I hated math’, ‘I was never good at it’, ‘It’s not in our genes to be good at math’, or ‘Math doesn’t really matter. I never use it.’”  

I have yet to hear a student enter high school boasting, “I can’t read!” It’s just not educationally or socially acceptable. Yet, we allow and accept this sort of thinking in regards to math. Math educators are faced with fighting a battle against a society that has been brainwashed to believe that math is boring and only important for some people. But, we know now, that isn’t true.  We know that engaging in math, critical thinking, and logic strengthens the brain, is attainable for all and is an indicator for future success for all children.

Each day, I fight the good fight, encourage my learners to believe in their ability to grow as mathematicians…each and every one of them.  Math can be fun and it is all around us.  Each child can grow their brain mathematically.  We are not born good (or bad) at math.  With hard work, a growth mindset, and a desire to improve, we can all master mathematical thinking.

Why then, does our society continue to view math as something for an elite, small, specialized group?

Literacy education has it right.  

Here is what the literacy world has taught us:

  • Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 2010
  • The single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school. National Commission on Reading, 1985
  • A single, brief exposure to good reading material can result in a clear increase in enthusiasm for reading.  Ramos and Krashen, 1998; Cho and Krashen, 2002

Here are the messages I have heard about developing readers:

  • Remember that learning to read and to read very well are crucial to your child’s well-being.
  • Surround your child with all kinds of books and make what she’s reading a topic of dinnertime conversation. Listen to the way she talks about books to ensure that her comprehension continues to deepen.
  • Parents should read to their child in the womb.  
  • It may take hard work, but everyone can learn to read.
  • Make it a family affair.  Read together.  Make it fun.

I wonder what impact we can have on kids if we change our messaging about math.  Go home tonight and work through a fun math puzzle with your kids tonight.  Smile, laugh and enjoy it.

Uncategorized

Daily Call

Olivia is my youngest child. Although, she really isn’t a child anymore.  She is a second year language arts and social studies teacher in a neighboring school district.  And me, I am a 32 year veteran currently serving my school as its Principal.  We are at opposite ends of our careers, and this isn’t the only quality in which we are different.  Liv and I have had a tumultuous relationship.  My recollection is that from the moment she was born we were either completely in love OR completely frustrated with each other.  Fortunately, as both of us have matured, our relationship has too.

In fact, each day between 5 and 5:30 pm, Olivia calls me. I am usually on my way home from school or finishing up with the loose ends of the day.  We spend our 20 minute phone call debriefing the day.  I learn about Cheyenne who eats paper from her math journal, verbalizes every thought that pops into her head and doesn’t believe she can read or write since she was retained when her twin sister moved on to 6th grade. I learn about Jason, a student with autism, limited English proficiency, and a fierce desire to impress his teacher and classmates.  I learn about Dametrese, a boy who Olivia describes as her most advanced reader and writer. She tells me about how they challenge her; how they make her laugh and how they make her a better teacher.   Even though I have never met any of these students, I feel like I know them. I feel like they are my students, too.

Around March of her first year of teaching, our calls changed.  Initially, Olivia was consistently frantic, exhausted, or stumped about the next steps for things that happened that day.  The conversations were very one-sided  She asked lots of questions and I gave her ideas about how to proceed.  However, as the year went on, our conversations evolved.  They became less a question and answer session and more of a dialogue about the strategies she was using.  Instead of Liv asking questions, I became the questioner.  She continued to share the ups and downs of the day, but the essence of her story was more about how she felt about the strategies she was using.  Our roles changed and as a result, our conversations got better and more meaningful, for both of us.  The questions I heard myself asking Liv became questions I asked myself- and the teachers I am learning alongside- about the lessons I observed in our school.  My daughter was providing me the opportunity to practice instructional leadership!  She pushed back when my questions didn’t make sense.  She even hung up on me a couple of times when my questions offended her. Gratefully, she loves me unconditionally, called me back the next day and made suggestions about how to ask the questions differently before I offended one of the teachers at our school.

I cherish the talks Liv and I have about our work.  We continue to grow as professionals. We talk about books.  We talk about what she is learning from her literacy coach. We talk about her perceptions of morning PD sessions. Most importantly, we talk. Not everyone is blessed with a daughter who telephones every day and who shares her passion for teaching.  It is my hope, though, that each of us can find a confidente that pushes us to grow just as Liv and I have done for each other. Who will be your daily call?

 

Students · Teaching · Writing Workshop

Writing Territories

It’s the first Friday of the school year, and my classroom buzzes with excitement and the movement of pencils across a page. My students are working on creating writing territory maps, and there is a lot of chatter as they discuss some of their favorite things with their writing tables. Two students (oddly) bond over a shared fear of kidnapping, while others find out that they have the same favorite food (spoiler: it’s usually pizza). Regardless of what they’re writing down, they’re all engaged in the process. Creating writing territory maps is one of my favorite activities of the year because of this energetic environment.

The idea of writing territories originated from Nancie Atwell, but I got the idea for creating writing territory maps from two places. First, from Penny Kittle, who referred to these as “heart maps” in her powerful book Book Love, and focused on the music that lives in one’s heart; the second source was the Two Writing Teachers blog, one of my favorite websites for practical teaching ideas and inspirational reflection.

Writing Territories are a powerful writing tool for three main reasons.

  1. Students can create something unique to them.

I am always amazed by the wide range of “map” I see – from kids doing something basic like a heart to something incredibly detailed like a rocketship or a pair of ballet slippers. Students take this map to heart because they get to choose the shape. They get to choose what they write or draw within their map. The only part that I play in this activity is suggesting categories to brainstorm ideas (using this lovely handout from TWT), but they are the designers. I stress to them that what they put in their maps are things they think they might be able to write about later, which brings me to point number two.

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  1. Students have something to reference when they feel stuck.

We do a lot of choice writing in Language Arts. Often when we’re working on a skill or a certain aspect of grammar, students will have the opportunity to choose their topic for writing. It is so much easier for students to find a topic for a “free write” if they have a cache of ideas sitting on the first page of their writer’s notebook. Again, students have choice in what they can write about, and their writing stems from choices they made at the beginning of the year. Everything they pull from these writing territories is all their own, which means that they feel more ownership over their writing. Students feel like their notebooks and their writing for them, not for their teacher.

  1. This activity helps build our writing community.

unnamed-4Students love connecting – heck, all humans love connecting. When my students sit at their tables and brainstorm their favorite things, or places they’ve traveled, or issues they care about, they are bound to talk it out with the people around them. Many of them find connections they didn’t know they had. They may end up talking to someone they thought they had nothing in common with. When students share their interests and what is important to them, it opens them up to sharing their writing as a community. When students struggle, they turn to their classmates for suggestions. By brainstorming and creating writing territory maps, students are given a chance within the first week of school to start building this writing community. They also have the shared experience of creating something that is valuable to their individual self.

There is power in choice, and there is power in students sharing their experiences. One of my main goals as a teacher of writing is to help students take ownership of their writing and to see the value in building strong writing skills. I hope that by appealing to their interests, students can use their writer’s notebooks as a place to explore their own writing selves. They can build on ideas they’ve created within their writing territory maps, and little by little, grow as writers.

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Teaching

Independent Reading and a Mala Bracelet

For the past four months, I’ve worn the same bracelet every day to school. It is fairly chunky so it is jewelry that is hard to miss. After a few days of wearing the bracelet, my students noticed the repetition and asked about why I was wearing a new, wooden bracelet. Eighth graders are naturally curious and since they had taken an interest in my “fashion accessory”, I decided to explain to my classes what my new bracelet meant and why I was choosing to wear it every day.

In February, I started a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at my yoga studio. On our first day together, every trainee received a goodie bag and one of the items in the tote were Mala beads. (Mala beads contain 108 beads and are used for prayer and meditation and as a reminder of a person’s intentions.) I’d worn Mala beads before but always as a necklace. When I left Yoga Teacher Training that weekend, I made the conscious decision to wear my Mala every day until my teacher training was over and I was a certified yoga teacher.

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On my first day back to school after my intense training weekend, the red of my Mala beads clashed with my outfit. As a confident person, I suppose that shouldn’t have mattered, but for those who know me – it did. I realized that I couldn’t go back on my intention, so I wrapped the Mala around my left wrist.  As I went through the day, I loved the feel and sound of the beads. My students got used to the rustling and clanging of my bracelets as I presented mini-lessons or sat with them for reading conferences. After a few weeks, the Mala became part of my identity and routine just like the routines of my classroom, like starting each day with choice independent reading.

One day in early April, I forgot to put my Mala on when I dressed for work. I noticed it as soon as I got to school, and I almost called my husband to request that he bring them to me. I felt a little exposed and out of sorts as the day started. Guess what? My students in every class noticed right away that I didn’t have my bracelet. I heard “Mrs. Honeycutt, where’s your Mala?” and “Hey, did you forget your bracelet today?” and “What is going on with you today, Mrs. Honeycutt?”

My forgetfulness disrupted our day. The slip in one small routine caused a stir among each class. I’m not sure why I was surprised. My classroom environment is built solidly on routine. The most important one to my students is that we start every day with ten minutes of choice reading. Everyone (teachers, administrators, parents, and even students) know the importance of reading. It is well-researched that the more students read, the more their vocabulary grows and the more they are able to understand and process text. Independent reading has been a sacred routine in my language arts classroom for more than 20 years.

On days that our schedule doesn’t allow for independent reading, which is very RARE and only on special odd days, the students walk into class, look at the SmartBoard, and protest. “We don’t have independent reading today?” or “You’ve got to be kidding me! I want to read today!” It isn’t even a question that independent reading time is precious in my classroom.

In a 50 minute class period, some may say that ten minutes is a lot to give up each day for reading. I never feel like I am missing anything by spending those ten minutes suggesting books to students or having individual or small group conferences.

Obviously, my students don’t either because they are upset and flustered when the reading time is missed. Unfortunately, sometimes the ten minutes in class are the only reading minutes a student has in a day. Even my most reluctant readers would tell you if they have a good book, they like to read.

I’ve learned that like forgetting my Mala bracelet – independent reading time and that routine – are important and precious things. My job as a teacher is to protect the independent reading time each day for my students. It is important to them like my wearing a Mala bracelet is important to me.

Teacher Leadership

Mentors In All Shapes and Sizes

Year 32. And I have so much to learn.

The start of every school year evokes a variety of emotions in me.  I am excited to meet the students new to our school. I am enthusiastic about implementing new initiatives the summer gave me time to develop.  I am apprehensive about how teachers will receive our professional development plan.  I am energized by the physical and mental break June and July provided.

Even with this roller coaster of emotions, the positive energy I feel far surpasses any unease I might experience. This isn’t entirely my own doing.  It is a direct result of the professionals I surround myself with.  And, these important people are not simply colleagues.  They are my mentors. They come with varying experience, teach different ages of children, and have expertise in a variety of content areas.  Each is essential to my success and to my ability to stay focused on what matters most to me…providing instructional leadership so that every student in our school finds success.

You may be surprised that I have more than one mentor. By definition, a mentor acts as a trusted advisor, and if teaching and leading were single faceted, one mentor might be enough.  However, teaching and leading are complex and to be successful, we need many trusted advisors- all with different strengths. On any given day, I might tap into the expertise of 5 or 6 mentors.  Jill mentors me in my work as a whole group facilitator.  I seek Mike’s expertise when I am thinking about building culture. Lisa is my mental health accountability partner. Brock is my inspiration on Twitter.  I need each of them- and several others- to help me stay balanced and to stay reflective- so I grow. So I continue to learn.

As I begin our new school year, I make the time to recognize my strengths- areas in which I could serve as mentor to others- and my weaknesses, areas in which I can grow.  In both cases, I am purposeful about finding time to connect with those who have similar interests and could perhaps serve as my mentor or those who I could buoy professionally.  I encourage you to do the same.  Challenge yourself to create a list of colleagues you consider mentors and ask yourself how those individuals support you in your work. Tell them how important they are to you.  Your relationships will flourish.

When you’re assessing your strengths and weaknesses as part of your new year goal setting, consider identifying someone who either shares similar goals- and you could learn together- or identify an expert in your school, district or social media circle.   Fight the voice in your head that tells you this person won’t want or doesn’t have time to chat about their expertise. Reach out and share your ideas.  Ask your questions.  Find colleagues who will stimulate thinking.  Invite them into your conversations.  You will be amazed and pleased how these simple steps change your work and most importantly impact your students’ thinking and learning.

Whether a rookie or a seasoned veteran, we still have a lot to learn.