Leading · Teacher Leadership

Finding a New Place

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 10.04.46 AM.png“Is it my turn?!?”

“I haven’t been the ‘lucky duck’ yet…can it be me?”

“Who is the ‘lucky duck’ today? Who gets to sit in the chair?” That’s what I heard as I entered a sixth-grade language arts classroom this week.

I wondered what all the excitement was about when I glanced over and saw this pea green rocking chair sitting next to the #classroombookaday reading area. I smiled. It was my green, creaky, repaired-many-times rocking chair that had been a fixture in my classroom for the past 19 years.

Apparently the ‘lucky duck’ each day got the privilege to sit in the rocking chair during the picture book read aloud. The students were so excited to have the special seat, and I was so excited to see my rocking chair in use and being loved by students as it had been for almost two decades. The chair had found a new space in a different classroom – just like me.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I chose to leave the classroom this year to take on the role of a literacy coach for the four middle schools in my school district. It has been almost three months and I am still finding my groove and my place. But, I have been embraced – just like the rocking chair – by teachers in all four schools.

Taking on a new role was something that I challenged myself to do. I’m not a person who typically embraces change so there have been good days and not-so-good days. I’ve been reflecting on a daily basis about “finding my new place” so that’s a little of what I’m sharing.

There are definite things that I hadn’t thought of before moving to a new place(s):

  • Parking – some people are particular about their parking spot
  • Lunch – do most teachers eat in the teachers’ lounge? Am I taking someone’s spot OR limiting the conversations because of the ‘new’ person in the room?
  • A tribe – I sort of lost my tribe because I’m not at my former school every day. I’m only there every six weeks.
  • Keys/office space – so many keys and such different spaces
  • My back – lugging bags of professional books from building to building is fun:)
  • Momentum – two weeks is just enough time to start building momentum with teachers and students but then my coaching cycle is over and the momentum is lost/deferred

I am certainly not complaining. I really enjoy working with teachers. It is different than working with teenagers – it’s a good different. The amazing work that the teachers in the middle schools are doing every day make me proud and make me push my own thinking. What and how can I support teachers who are knowledgeable about the learners sitting in their classrooms and are thinking about how to best keep those learners reading and writing every day?

I’m thinking in a different way this year and I’m finding my way in this new role.  I feel like I’m the ‘lucky duck’ who is getting to know colleagues that I didn’t know and spending time with students in all three grade levels that I normally wouldn’t get to. I’m excited to wake up and go to work each day, and I’m challenged by the thinking and reflecting that I do with teachers. My new place is working out really well – just like the new place for that 50-year-old, much-loved rocking chair.

 

Leading · Teacher Leadership

To change or not to change…

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. – Barack Obama

The past few months have brought about a lot of change in my life. I’ve gotten through almost 48 years with not a lot of that. I think I could safely say (before April) that I was not a person who embraced change. Oh, every once in a while I change my hair color or I try a new radio station…but I couldn’t be characterized as a mover or a shaker. I’ve branched out to become a yoga teacher, but other than that, I taught at the same school for 19 years, been married to the same wonderful guy for 22 years, typically vacationed in the same three places, and have the layout of my Kroger burned into my memory.

Personally, my life is about to change as my older daughter heads off to college this fall. This spring brought a lot of “lasts” – last spring break as a whole family, last prom, last time walking through the doors of her school, and last hug as a high school student. I feel like I’ve handled these changes well – probably because my daughter is ready.  But still I’ve wondered what it will be like when she leaves. Will she miss us? Will college be everything that she wants and dreams of? Will this change be a positive one for her? I’ve tried to remain relatively calm as these “lasts” happened and as our lives as a family of four change.

Professionally, I am making a big change as well. I’ve packed all of my belongings from the school where I taught for 19 years. I’m embarking on a new path that will take me out of my classroom and into the classrooms of other language arts teachers across the district as a literacy coach.

If you would have told me that I would be on this path four months ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. I had a great gig teaching 8th grade language arts with three people that I enjoyed working with and had a fantastic professional learning partnership with. My classroom was a place that I was proud of and had worked hard to make into a positive learning environment. My principal is an enviable instructional leader that I was so happy to work for and with. One colleague said I was crazy to leave and that he didn’t understand what was going through my mind – my school is an idyllic teaching situation.

So why did I decide to make the change? I don’t think it was peer pressure. I don’t think it was flattery, I don’t think it was “I’m going to prove to people that I can change” (ok, maybe a little bit of this if we’re talking about my husband).

At some point, after making lists of positives and negatives and after sitting in silent reflection for long periods of time, I decided that it was time for me to try something new. I love working with teenagers, but I also love working with adults. I would visit other classrooms once a week if I were allowed. There are so many smart, reflective teachers around the district that I will get to learn from every day. Hopefully, I will be able to impact more than the 120 students I saw on a daily basis last year. My professional learning and personal reading will be different which is exciting and challenging. Finally, my daughters both were cheerleaders for this position and told me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing and to go for it.

Making the decision to change my career path for a few years felt like a weight was lifted from my shoulders once I accepted the job. Up until I said “yes”, I felt unsure but all the second-guessing was gone when I made the call. Honestly, it wasn’t what I thought I was going to do, and I rebelled against the idea for some time. However, I am ready to move forward and see what the next school year brings for me and for my family.

 

**I wrote this piece during the #SWI18 in June while surrounded by other Dublin teachers. I’ve started my journey as a coach now and I’m sure will share more about that soon.

 

Culture · Environment · Students · Writing Workshop

Slowing Down for Writing Success

It seems like everyone is in such a hurry these days – me included at times. This past week my older daughter was in a hurry to get to work. As she prepared to turn into her workplace, there was a car taking up most of her turn lane. She was going too fast to stop and allow the car to make its turn, so she ran up onto the curb HARD. The impact slashed a hole in her tire which was flat by the time she parked. (Luckily she was at her place of work and didn’t have to pull over on a road, and she was completely safe.) There were tears when she called and plenty of panic. Once we took some time to process what happened, our conversation consisted of “What could you have done?” and “Would things have been ok if you had slowed down and allowed the vehicle in your way to get out of the way?”

As I spent a few days processing this incident, I was reminded of the fact that even in my classroom I am often rushing to get to the end goal. Sometimes it is with reading a shared text or with a writing project. Teachers often ponder where to find more time and sometimes if it’s worth it to take the time.

My learners recently embarked on a narrative writing assignment from brainstorming to first draft to revising to a final draft. As a teaching team, we chose from the beginning to slow down and spend time before putting pencil to paper or fingers to a keyboard to begin the stories. Using “data” from the previous year’s students’ struggles, we knew that taking the time to fully research and to fully develop a character was important. That meant spending multiple days in class asking students to plan and get ready for writing.

Believe me, there were quite a few students who said, “Can’t we just write?” I explained that I had watched students struggle the previous year to fully develop characters and to write narratives that had a theme (which is required by Ohio’s standards for eighth grade writers). Students spent two days researching the time period for their historical narratives, three days working on who the characters were going to be, and another day on story arcs. Several lessons were modeled on Units of Study for Teaching Writing K-8.

The next week, the writers in my classes began to compose their first drafts. As they worked all they needed was time. Often they would walk into class itching to get to the Chromebooks. It was a slow process for some as they’d sit and stare at their computers or their notes. It was a quick process for others whose fingers would fly as they got into their writing. After about a week of drafting in class, most first drafts were complete. Others were finished quickly after.

Then we took a break. Just like my daughter, I asked my students to process and think about what had happened. This time away gave them a different perspective, and it also gave them ideas about what to do next and what to do the next time they looked at their drafts.

During the “break”, I read the historical narratives and gave feedback – the positives and the places where extra work was needed.

The third week of work brought us to our revising phase. There were many small group mini-lessons offered for both extension and refinement areas. Every day in class was offered as time to revise and edit. Again, we took our time.

I sometimes feel like taking “time” is undervalued in education. There’s so much to cover or we have to get to ____________ before the semester is over. I try to never let myself feel like this in my classroom. My students did good work this past week. There were many conversations between writing partners. I saw students going back to do more research on the time period. Quite a few students worked on elaborating with characters and theme. The use of dialogue was examined and questioned. Drafts were scrutinized and edited.

Slowing down is a good reminder for all of us – whether we’re driving in a car or working with students. I still have to remind myself of this in my classroom, but I firmly believe that my students are better writers because of the time we take working through the process.

 

Environment · Students · Teaching

Writing Partners in an ELA Classroom

This blog is a testament to the power of writing and working with a group or a partner. As Rita and I explained in the “About” page of the blog, writing can be a daunting task – for adults and certainly for students too. Some people find that writing rolls right off the fingertips and others find it difficult. As I sit on this Labor Day morning at a Starbucks near my house, I find it challenging. The atmosphere seems perfect – coffee, laptop, beautiful sunrise, no TV or kids, inspiring music; however, I’ve been sitting for a while trying to decide where and how to start. My students are embarking this week on their first writing which will serve as a diagnostic tool for me and then they will take the initial draft to a final copy. I envision that starting the writing will be difficult for them too. Luckily, I have a group of writers to support me and who will give me honest, needed feedback before I publish this post.

For the last few years, I have tried to provide my students with the support that I have received from my writing friends by allowing them to work with a writing partner. The idea comes from Units of Study – Writing for Teaching Writing K-8 by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teacher’s College. I love how this has worked in my classroom. Writing partners start working together from the brainstorming phase of the writing process all the way through to the final product. The students get to know their partner’s writing almost as well as their own. There is definitely power in that.

Writing partners are NOT editors. I honestly have found very few eighth graders who are qualified to correct the spelling, grammar, punctuation, or usage of their peers. Writing partners are question-askers and feedback-givers. Helping another person with writing is not something intuitive to most students/adults. We spend time in class learning about how to be a good writing partner. It is a process!

These are the main guidelines in my classroom for writing partners:

  • Read the writing carefully and think carefully about the goals for the piece
  • Offer constructive criticism – what MIGHT your partner change to make the writing better?
  • Give feedback on how to improve the writing – what can your partner do better?

With our first writing of the year, I introduced the concept of writing partners to the class. I modeled what working with a writing partner looks like by using this writing group. Along with discussion of how everyone (even J.K. Rowling) works through multiple versions and drafts of writing and how everyone elicits feedback from others, I showed students Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 10.04.24 AM.pngmy draft of an earlier blog post. We talked about how my writing partners read my writing carefully, gave me suggestions on how to make the writing better, and also what they liked about the piece.

Getting writing partners started is definitely a process. It isn’t easy sometimes. You will have partners who gel immediately and have the most amazing conversations about their writing. And you will have partners who struggle and need one-on-one guidance from you. Students get more comfortable working with a writing partner as the year goes on and the discussions expand to lengthy conversations. I firmly believe in the power of using writing partners and work throughout the year to make the experience worthwhile for every student.

Some things to consider when and if you want to incorporate writing partners into your writing workshop:

  1. How do you want to put partners together? Do you want to assign partners or let students choose their partners?
  2. Will you allow students to team up more than once throughout the school year?
  3. How do you want students to share their writing? Google Docs? Pass Writer’s Notebooks back and forth?
  4. What strategies will you have at the ready if the partnership isn’t working well?

Student thoughts on writing partners:

“Writing partners are very helpful for me because I am very appreciative of getting many opinions on my writing so that it can be exactly how I want it to be when I turn it in.  It’s very helpful, also, because writing partners are a fresh pair of eyes that can catch small mistakes that you did not previously see.” -Olivia B

“I like the use of a writing partner because after awhile you get sick of reading your essay over and over again and it starts to make all of it the same. In the end, it was nice to have fresh eyes to read it and suggest anything to add to or take away from my writing to make it the best it can be.”  – Alyssa H.

“The good thing about our writing partners is that we had someone to ask a question whether it was about a word or if a sentence made any sense.  Also, they gave us some constructive criticism which helped make our essays better.” – Scott S.

I love reading student reflections at the end of a writing unit, and I always elicit feedback about writing partners. These responses help to validate the choice to incorporate partnerships into daily practice. I don’t know what I would do without my partners, and oftentimes, my students feel the same.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-09-07 at 8.24.02 PM.png

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.

Environment

Getting a classroom ready for school to start

Last evening, I attended a local festival which is very popular in Dublin, Ohio – the Dublin Irish Festival. As I walked around and listened to wonderful music and talked with many friends,  I am sure that I had at least twenty people ask me, “Are you ready for school to start?” I could tell by some of their faces that they were surprised by my reaction – “Oh my gosh, yes! I am so ready for school to start!” I’m not sure why people assume that teachers are sad or disappointed when the school year is upon us. (Unfortunately,I would imagine that there are some teachers who are not excited for school to start – I’m not judging…people are in different places/stages of life.) This is one of my favorite times of the year because I get to organize books and add new purchases to my bookshelves, I also get to talk with colleagues and “plan” for what’s to come, and I get to create a bulletin board – wait, actually, that is my least favorite thing to do at this time of year.

 

So today, I spent four or so hours in my classroom in order to start preparing for the start Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.06 PMof school. (I did put paper on a bulletin board and a boarder…no idea what else is going on it yet.) I used to wallpaper my walls with cute posters, but I don’t do that anymore. I have a “Reading” sign and a “Writing” sign on my back wall. As the year progresses, chart paper and other posters will be displayed as they are created by my students and myself as we learn, think, and reflect. (I’m sure I saw this idea on Twitter, but I am unable to remember who shared it – sorry!)

 

My “Word Wall” is also easy to put together since it only says “Word Work” on my cabinets. Each year the words that will make it onto the wall are different because my Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.13 PMstudents are different. The words that we discussed and studied last year will probably not be the same ones as this year. I love the fact that our wall is unique to my current students and based on what vocabulary words they need and not the work I assume they will need.

 

I added two new bookcases to my classroom this year and spent some time rearranging books. My preference is to organize my books my genre. I never seem to Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.21 PMhave enough space for all the books! Since I am an “old” (maybe a better word is “veteran”) teacher, I have hundreds of books that I have purchased or that my district and principal have generously purchased for my classroom library. As I reacquainted myself with the books,I couldn’t help but think about former students and what books I shared with them or recommended to them. I also couldn’t help but envision the students who will join me in two weeks and wonder what types of books they will like or want to read. Such an adventure is awaiting me!

 

Finally, I moved a few bookcases around to create a “meeting space” for us. (For those of Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.29 PMyou who know me, this was a difficult task. I tend to be a creature of habit, and I moved two bookcases to partly cover my bulletin board – gasp!) The last few years, my students have crowded into a rather small area for read-aloud time. It is difficult to convince growing and gangly eighth graders to cram into a little corner of my library to listen to picture books or have discussions about short texts. My new “meeting space” isn’t big, but I hope that it encourages a little more willingness to gather and chat without sitting in traditional desks and tables.

 

My room may look a little “sparse” for the start of school, but I know that soon it will be filled with students and the thoughtful learning that we will do together. I hope that Room 241 will be a safe space for the 130 students I see each day to talk, read, write, process, struggle, learn, and reflect together. I’m ready!

 

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Two other pictures I had to share:

My only other “poster” – who would argue with a quote from Wonder adorning the wall in a classroom?Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.36 PM

 

First book to book talk is on my chalk tray and ready to go!Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 3.19.49 PM