Reading

Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers

Some people head to the beach for Spring Break. They bask in the sun, sink their toes into the sand and spend time outside absorbing Vitamin D for the soul. Me? I head to the basement. I know how thrilling this sounds, and my teenage daughters absolutely love me for it. But I enjoy using the break to quietly recharge and get spring cleaning checked off the to-do list. In my house, I clean from the ground floor up. So last week on the first day of my spring break, while seemingly everyone else was packing their suitcases and catching early morning flights, I was packing up boxes of old toys and cleaning out the basement.

My favorite part of spring cleaning is getting to make a mess first. Admittedly, I was pretty energetic as I dragged out all the old toys and lined them up along the basement walls. It didn’t take long before I had a complete mess. I began asking myself: Did we really buy all this stuff? Why are we hanging on to all of this? There is a moderate fortune spent in big hunks of plastic and bins of stuffed animals sitting in our basement. Maybe we can pay our first college tuition payment based on garage sale profit!

Of course, the girls were completely taken when they discovered what I was doing. They weren’t shy about reminiscing and showing love to these old toys one more time as we sorted and boxed; some they had to keep. As memories flooded back, I realized the real reason I had put it off so long. I didn’t want to let go of the memories attached to all these fun moments with my kids.

Isn’t the same true of lessons we do with our students? Teachers go to great lengths to design meaningful lessons. This daily task takes time, effort, collaboration, and often money to do right. It only seems natural for us to develop connections with the lessons we teach, making lessons and activities we have developed hard to let go.   

For me, the most exciting part of teaching is coming up with new ways to approach the lessons I want to teach. I love all parts of my job, but I thrive on lesson planning and instructional design. I am a professional development geek, always in search of fresh perspectives and alternatives for reaching every kind of student. As a result, I have many different versions of lessons. All of those versions have accumulated over the years.

On one hand, I love having this accumulation of choice because it allows for smoother, more responsive differentiation. I can easily tap into the experiences I have had and lessons I have created throughout the years when I set out to meet the unique needs of my current students. I never really thought of this as a problem. After all, don’t all good teachers constantly evolve? [insert a resounding YES here].

Still, there can be a downside to an abundance of resources. Teaching toolkits–like bins of toys in the basement–can get overstuffed. We talk all the time about acquiring skills for our teaching toolkits, but no one ever talks about managing these tool kits when they become too crowded. Just like my basement full of toys, a teacher’s toolkit requires the occasional spring cleaning. Otherwise, teaching methods can become dusty and no longer be as effective as they once were.

Last week I realized that veteran teacher lesson planning is a lot like cleaning out the family toy  stash. Lessons, just like toys, can and should be re-evaluated. And, teachers who have accumulated too many lessons to count should be especially intentional when deciding what to keep, what to tweak, and what to toss.

Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers

#1– Sort What You Have

It is just common sense to keep what works and toss what doesn’t, but before you do that for this year, sort your stash. Lay it all out and see what you have. You know that what worked this year, with this group of students might not work next year with a new group of students. And the opposite is true. Just because an approach wasn’t successful this year, doesn’t mean it might not have value next year. Having choices matters, especially when it comes to making decisions on demand. So, start by sorting your strategies from your tools and activities. Get reacquainted with what you have. Here are some focus questions to help you sort effectively:

1. What strategies did I find myself coming back to frequently?

2. What strategies did I try but could refine?

3. What tools did I use? Where did they fit on the SAM-R model?

4. Was it the tool I used or the thinking strategy that worked for the kids?

5. What did I like about the tools and activities I used? What were the limitations?

#2– Selectively Purge

It will become overwhelming to keep everything, and who doesn’t love a good “Google Drive Purge?” It is important to embark on each new year with a fresh perspective, so don’t give yourself the crutch of planning next year with a simple cut & paste of lesson plans. Instead, save the seeds of your best lessons while saving room to experiment with new ideas and to grow from collaboration with colleagues and professional development.

To easily decide what lessons to keep, what to tweak and what to toss, think about two things: purpose and variety. Most every teacher wishes she had more time. While technology has helped us gain more efficiency, there still is no time to waste. That means every lesson should have a purpose. If you cannot identify your purpose, then tweak it or toss it. Additionally, students deserve variety in their day (and so do you!). What does it feel like to be a student in your class? Are you providing a variety of experiences each day? Each week? Lessons can vary in purpose and style, or you can provide variety by reconsidering resources, strategies, groupings, seating, or tools. Think about what lessons will only work one way. Then think about how more flexible lessons could be tweaked to provide more variety for your students’ experiences.

#3–Organize

We all love it when it is finished (my basement looks AWESOME, by the way), but not everyone loves the act of organizing. However, with so much of our lesson planning and development being digital, it is critical that you organize and protect your “keepers”. Here’s how:

1. Have an organizational pattern. Take some time to reflect on how you might think to retrieve lessons next year. Do you tend to search for things by name? By unit/topic? By time of year? By standard? Decide your preference, then design a digital filing system that will work for you.

2. Create naming conventions for yourself. Naming conventions are codes for your files. For example, I project a mini-lesson for my students each day. In Google Drive, each of those mini-lessons is saved as “Mini-Lesson: XYZ”. My students also work from writing progressions each week, so all of those files are saved as “Writing Progression: XYZ”. These simple naming conventions can save you loads of time.

3. Protect your most beloved resources by having multiple copies. Don’t underestimate the value in printing off your best resources so if something happens digitally, at least you have a hard copy you can recreate. Also, it feels different to search for things digitally than it does to flip through a notebook. Sometimes the old fashioned way just works better.

This is a perfect time of year to do some professional spring cleaning. It’s perfect timing because you are still in the thick of your instructional time and your mindset is still focused on what is working and what is not. Make an appointment with yourself and take it on now.  Not only will you get a trip down memory lane, realizing all the great things you have done to promote your students’ growth, you will also smile every time you go to look for something…and find it!

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Timely Affirmation

The annual Dublin Literacy Conference is one of my most favorite days of the year. It is marked on my calendar a year in advance and I never compromise on my attendance because I always walk away invigorated by what I learn. Usually I leave the conference with pages of notes and an overstuffed bag of books. This year, I left with something more- a timely affirmation that independent workshops should be non-negotiable classroom routines.

Our district heavily supports the idea of reading and writing workshops, mainly because the model naturally provides room for teachers to differentiate strategies, approaches and materials. Additionally, as a reading and writing teacher, I know that self-selecting text and self-selecting topics on which to write is an age-appropriate skill 7th graders need to develop if I want them to be self-directed readers and writers.

With that room to explore independently chosen texts and writing topics, however, there comes a challenge of showing accountability. There is something about the word “independent” that triggers an adult mindset that kids are not accomplishing anything real. In actuality, the opposite is true. Independent productivity is an indicator success! It is what we hope all students graduate knowing how to do. When students are free to choose what to read and write about, they tend to make more headway in practicing the targeted skills I want them to practice. In a way, the freedom to choose liberates their entire learning process. Instead of interpreting uninteresting text or trying to generate writing within a defined box, students end up spending more time refining skills.

Still, some teachers continue to question the value in providing independent reading workshop time: “How will I know students are really reading?” and “How will I know if my readers are interpreting texts correctly if I haven’t read what they are choosing to read?” And independent writing is practiced in even fewer classrooms: “What if they choose a topic they have written on a million times?” or “What do I do with the student who never writes during independent writing time?”  If teachers do not sort out their answers to these questions, or they don’t acquire the resources to steer their teaching strategies for independent workshop time, it is typically the first teaching routine to be tossed aside.

Last Saturday, both Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds reinforced my dedication to providing weekly independent reading and writing workshops.  In Pam Allyn’s “Top 10 List” she made the comment that when people walk by a classroom of kids who are independently reading, she has heard passersby say, “Oh, they’re not doing anything. They’re just reading.” The audience of reading teachers nodding emphatically, knowing this frustrating perspective. We also know if we want to foster good readers, then, as adults, we have to teach what good readers do. And of course, good readers read! They read. A Lot! And they read by choice, even when someone isn’t watching them or telling them to.

Jason Reynolds also addressed how important it is to provide room for student choice. He talked about his rocky educational experience K-12. He refused to read the books he was told to read because he didn’t feel any connection to them; the texts he was asked to read were so far from his experience, he was not motivated to read. He didn’t feel seen or understood. It wasn’t until college that he saw himself in a book. And with that, he was hooked. Now, his mission is to write books in which kids can see themselves.

This was a timely takeaway because I feel as though independent workshop time comes under fire too frequently. Especially as we prepare for “testing season”, our schedules will be intense and irregular for the next two months. We will have some important planning conversations. What is the most important instruction to provide during these next two months? No matter what, which routines are non-negotiable?

For me, time for my students to independently read and write is non-negotiable. No matter how wacky the schedule gets, I am not going to compromise this component of my structure. As I have reflected on all of this throughout the week, I have come to the conclusion that there are some safeguards I will put in place to ensure that independent workshops run smoothly and true to my overall instructional design.

I will…Students will…
…align the whole-group learning targets with the targets I propose for practice during independent workshop time. …self-select appropriate goals and be able to articulate what they are working on
..focus on process and not product. …track their progress and be ready to talk about it when it is their conference time
…be ready to redirect students who get off track during work time and realize this is training ground for helping them manage their time.…use their work time well, or work with me to figure out what is getting in the way and develop a plan to move forward
…get to know my students as whole people, not just their academic selves as I talk to them and they share their thinking…reflect on their strengths and weaknesses

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Teaching Writing In Progressions

What is the best advice you ever got?

My daughter asked me this question last week, and I’m still thinking about it. At the time, I was surprised at how long it took me to decide how to answer her, but in hindsight, the stakes were pretty high! After all, she was listening with such intent; I didn’t want to blow it. I needed to be swift and smart.

You’ll be happy to learn I rose to the occasion–another feather in the parenting cap, if I do say so myself! In the heat of the moment, I reverted back to advice my own parents had given me. I sifted through all the wise tidbits, sorted the practical from the profound. I landed on the advice of my dear ‘ol dad: “Take it one step at a time.”

I love this advice because honestly, it can easily be applied to just about anything. It is especially meaningful to those of us that rely heavily on checklists and like to see our steps toward achievement, no matter what the final goal might be. Taking it one step at a time has been so ingrained in me, it tends to comes out in everything I do–even my teaching.

I heed this advice every time I plan a unit using a teaching progression. I break down what I want to teach over the course of a unit into small, progressive steps, then move through the steps until I see the growth and achievement demonstrated by all of my students. I love planning this way. Progressions help me focus on one skill in isolation, categorize and prioritize the needs of my students, and visually reflect on the effectiveness of the unit.

Progressions can also become tools for students. This idea was new to me when I heard Kate Roberts speak about it last year. In her book, DIY Literacy, she talks about the use of micro-progressions as a reflection tool. As a small group aid, progressions help kids see how small shifts in their thinking can “level-up” in their understanding and work products.

After hearing Kate Roberts speak, my teaching partner and I put it to immediate use. We wrote a few progressions together, and when we got used to the idea, we started writing progressions specific to the needs of our writing classes. I started using progressions in small groups to help students reflect. Then I started using them with individual students to guide their plans for revision. And now, I have graduated to using progressions as a whole group to help us create. Writing progressions are the basis of my weekly independent writing workshop.

Some day, I might fancy this up, but for now this is my latest writing progression:

Using a micro-progression that showcases the depth and complexity of one writing skill at a time, students choose from where on the progression they want to work during their independent writing workshop. During practice time, students have adequate space within the progression to test drive their independent writing skills; the progression becomes an on-demand differentiation tool. With one tool, students can slide back and forth freely between progression levels and try a variety of skills in a writing piece of their choosing.

How I Use Progressions In Conferencing

This tool has helped both the students and me keep focused during writing conferences. I keep the weekly progression by my side as I plan and teach small groups. I can initiate small groups, differentiating writing instruction by teaching through a lens of progressions. Or, I can allow students to take the lead. 1-1 conferences go much smoother now that students come with the language of the progression to ask their questions or seek support.

How I Use Progressions For Revision

Students using a progression have a clear direction on how they can revise more independently. During reflection time, it becomes easier for them to see their efforts and decide where to focus next because they have the progression to inspire them.

I Finally Understand What Ownership of Learning Looks Like

A progression organically leads students to self-assess and take ownership of their writing growth. It gives them a visual cue to where they currently stand on the progression, and prompts them to take ownership of where on the progression they want to be next. They can see– one step at a time— what it will take to make their writing better.

In my experience, students are more driven when they can see where they have been, where they are now and where they are headed. They also love to tell me when they’re “off the chart”. They like to see me sweat it out as I come up with a new addition to the progression because someone’s writing was so good it exceeded what I thought anyone could do.  

Writing progressions have really helped me streamline my focus during writing workshop, and the kids like the simplicity. No matter where they start working on the progression, they feel successful at the end because it is simple to see how much they improved as a result of practice and–perhaps more important for growing reflective writers–HOW they achieved that success.

ASSESSMENT · Community

Feeling Safe Enough To Learn

For the past week, my students’ word study has been centered around observing word parts. As part of our work, I’ve been challenging my 7th graders to notice word patterns to help them make sense of the words’ spelling. Yesterday, I wanted to check to see if they could transfer the work we had done into spelling more accurately. As a warm up, I had them number their papers 1-19 and I explained that I would be pronouncing each of the words. Their job was to try to spell at least 10 of them correctly.  

Yep. I gave a spelling test.

They began numbering their papers and then a couple of hands shot up:

Student 1: Is this for a grade?

Me: I haven’t decided yet. Let’s just try it and see how you do.

Student 2: So, even though there are 19 words, all I have to do is spell 10 right?

Me: That’s right!

Student 2: Huh. Okaaaay.

Student 3: Wait, what if I spell one wrong?

Me: It’s ok. All I’m looking for is 10 words spelled correctly. It’s like “flex points”. Which 10 you get right might be different from the 10 someone else gets right. It’s all good. We’re just trying to get better at spelling.

Student 3: What if we spell more than 10 right? Can we have candy?

Me: No, but you WILL have the satisfaction of knowing you learned some new spelling patterns this week! That’s awesome, isn’t it?

Student: Yea, I guess.

Student 4: What if we spell all 19 right? Can we have candy then?

Me: No, I am not prepared with candy today. You’ll have to be happy with internal satisfaction.

Student 5: What if we can think of other words that use the bases we studied? Can we try to spell those too? Can we get extra credit for that?

Me: [stunned to silence]

Wait, What?! They were all over this. Who knew an old-fashioned spelling test would spark this much enthusiasm on a Tuesday morning? I think they sensed that they could do this–especially when there was room built into this assessment for mistakes. That cushion helped them relax and they were excited about showing me all the words they knew how to spell and even try to spell some new words that came to mind.

After all was said and done, I found moderate spelling growth; all but 4 students could spell at least 10 words from our list correctly. More importantly, though, was that I had found a motivational strategy, providing flexibility and ample room for mistakes in assessment.

A Shift In My Mindset

I realize what I did today wasn’t really that profound. For years, many teachers have been offering students the choice in what questions they will answer on assessments. I have done it myself-many times. But I had a mindshift about this practice today. Is offering more choice and flexibility, even in assessment situations, what it is going to take to make this generation of students feel safe enough to learn?

The world is full of dangers and kids today are being raised in a more protective environment than in generations past. Parents are very present in every aspect of their children’s lives: their extracurricular activities, their play time, their decision making, even in their social lives. Good or bad, this is reality. We have raised kids to know “safety first” and we have worked hard in making them feel safe. The problem is, learning is risky–and students know it.

It is clear that my students feel safe asking questions, they feel safe (and somewhat compelled) asking for clarification; they even feel safe asking for help. What they don’t feel safe enough to do is make mistakes. No matter how big or small the task, they crumble at the thought of making a mistake. They feel their safety is jeopardized if they cannot depend on the outcome. I think they feel this way because they don’t know if they can bounce back on their own.

Like with any generational gap, teachers have to figure out how to respond. We know our kids are afraid to fail, and as adults, we work hard to teach “growth mindset”. Still, my students are genuinely afraid. How can I help them feel safe enough to learn? I try to build their confidence. I tell them there is nothing they can’t do or can’t figure out or can’t work toward improving. This is my mantra, but it takes them a long time to really buy what I sell as the truth about learning.

Today, however, was a step in the right direction. My true purpose was to build awareness and confidence with understanding how language works. Aren’t my students’ reactions to the spelling test the epitome of the growth mindset? FINALLY, they weren’t worried about making a mistake. They were feeling confident and wanted to try more.

Happy Birthday, Dear Flex Points!

I could feel a change in the energy when I allowed a cushion for them to make mistakes. Most didn’t need the cushion, but they thought they did. The revelation I had today was that this generation of students might actually NEED this flexibility in order to feel safe enough to learn.

I wish students were less afraid to learn, but until they get there, I need to act in their best interest and provide appropriate scaffolds. That’s what teachers do. I feel like Flex Points might catch on in my classroom. As I get better at differentiating and move closer and closer toward personalizing my students’ learning experiences, I am finding that I can offer quite a bit of choice and flexibility without compromising my assessment of growth or student learning. If I am willing to “flex” how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, they feel more empowered to make mistakes, and ultimately they will learn more.