Reading

Settling into a New Space

This year began a whole list of new changes in my professional career. After teaching 8th grade Language Arts for the past six years, I made the choice to move down a level to teach 7th. A lot of change accompanied that switch — even more than I realized. But as I settle into this new school year, I’m realizing this could have been one of the best things I’ve done in my teaching career. One of those changes was moving up to the 7th grade Language Arts wing upstairs — a nice, quiet spot!

With my new room, I really wanted to focus on how the space in my classroom is being used. I’ve tried many ways of creating positive work areas for different uses in the past six years, but this year I focused more on what the kids need — what they want. So I’ve been paying attention to where they gravitate these first three weeks. What spaces do they use? What are they asking for? What are they trying to create themselves?

We always have constraints with out given classrooms and furniture, but I’d like to think that we have the opportunity to let the kids help determine what our classrooms look like. Working with what I have, here are some things I’m excited about in my classroom this year.

A conference table. Finally! I have a designated space where I can sit with individuals and small groups in order to conference, and our support teachers can also use this as a meeting place. This table gives me the opportunity to sit across from kids in small group work, or to pull up beside them in a one-on-one conference.

A small group collaboration table. So far, this table has been really popular with kids who want a quiet space to sit together and work.

Tiny nooks throughout the room. If you didn’t know, middle schoolers are their own (weird) little people, and they love to find small alcoves to squeeze themselves into in order to find a comforting space to work. Popular spots so far are under tables and wedged between my supply cart and big cabinet!

Various types of chairs. Over the years, I’ve curated a collection of different chairs for kids to sit in. Last year, I got ride of all my “comfy” chairs, but I still have a tall chair kids like to climb into. I also got a foldable camping stool this summer that has become a popular seat for the most wiggly kids. They can move it around, and I’m not worried it will break with their constant movement.

For my own space, I like my standing work desk. I am not a sitter. I like to stand and work, so this year, I raised my work table so I have a more comfortable space for me. I also chose to use my table with wheels for this, so it’s easy to move around and give more space to kids. I need to keep it a little more organized, but so far, it’s working well!

I’m always looking for ways to utilize my space more efficiently, but so far this year, my 7th graders are finding ways to use the spaces in my room to best suit their needs. And I’m paying attention!

Books · Community · Culture · Reading · Reflection · Students

Book Clubs: Civil Rights Connections

Note: This post was written for a previous unit I led with my 8th graders during historical fiction book clubs that centered on the Civil Rights Movement. Many things that we discussed in that unit continue to feel resonant to me, and listening to these student voices is important.

For the past couple of weeks, my students have been studying the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. They have varying degrees of background knowledge on the topic – many know Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but few of them know many details beyond the biggest names and moments. In order to learn more, students are in book clubs reading different books related to this time period, including New Boy, Warriors Don’t Cry, The Lions of Little Rock and Revolution. Our classes are following the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Historical Fiction Book Clubs. We are also watching a few documentaries from Teaching Tolerance to help them visualize what that movement felt like.

Last week, my students watched a documentary called A Time for Justice, which gives a basic overview of the Civil Rights Movement in about 40 minutes. I had students reflect on the video after watching, including a question that asked, “What personal connections do you make to this video?”

I was impressed and also saddened by some of their responses. I’ve included a few here.

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What struck me most about these responses is that there are still so many instances of injustice that happen today to which students connect. Even my 8th graders recognize how the struggles that African Americans faced during what we call the Civil Rights Movement are similar to those that many marginalized groups face today. Some of their connections are incredibly deep, painful even. Others note moments of injustice they see in their daily lives, even it is what we see as commonplace. Some made connections with amazing books they had read, like Dear Martin by Nic Stone and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

As 8th graders, my students are still figuring out the world around them. But at this moment in time, it feels like we all are. I want to give my students a space to reflect on their own connections to the world, to express what troubles them about what they see in the past and the present. As I read through these, I also think of how much these students have grown over the past nine months. Maybe I can’t teach them everything, but I can help them feel like they are heard. After reading these responses, I will continue to give my students opportunities like this to reflect and make connections, and to share some of these responses with others who may not have similar experiences. Getting books that cover these topics is also important. I will keeping searching for titles that I can recommend for students to not only see themselves, but also to view others’ experiences and learn from them. Building empathy is one of the most important things I can do as a teacher in today’s world.

Culture · Environment · Reflection

Finding the Truth

When I visited my parents’ house a few weeks ago, I decided to do a little “Marie Kondo-ing” in my childhood bedroom. A lot of my work from college was still there, and one thing I found was a big accordion file of letters that the seniors from my student teaching classes wrote to me at the end of the school year. Some were sweet, some were pretty neutral, but one stuck out to me.

The first time I read it, I was so angry with the student. The words How dare he? crossed my mind. What does he know? Even as I started looking through the letters, I was searching for this one because I still thought that it was obnoxious. I was feeling a little bit of that glee you get when you know you’re right about something and someone else was wrong.

Once I found the letter again, I realized that I was the one who was so, so wrong.

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The letter wasn’t signed, but I had my suspicions which specific 12th-grade boy wrote it. I initially thought he was so self-righteous in trying to be philosophical by saying things like “instead show them not the key to the door, but the door so they may open it themselves.” Now as I read it, I completely understand this student’s sentiment. I wasn’t listening to my students as a naive 23-year-old. I was doing what I thought teaching was: giving information and having students repeat it back. Assigning work and expecting them to just do it, no questions asked. This letter is pretty spot on in terms of how much my beliefs in teaching philosophy have changed over the past eight years.

If I am being honest, this 2018-2019 school year has been incredibly challenging for me professionally and personally. I have more students to care for than I ever have before, and many of them seem to have more needs than in years past, or maybe I am just more in tune with them. I have experienced a lot of anxiety myself in the past year, which I think leads me to be more inclined to ask a student questions about their life, listen to their concerns, or just approach the work we’re doing with more of a sense of care.

As a middle school teacher, of course, my job is to teach content, but this year, I have been learning that teaching the whole child is truly more important than whether they can tell me what dramatic irony is. While I’m not always perfect at this, I’m trying to find ways to lean into the true needs of my students while still encouraging them to take steps toward academic progress. If one of my classes loves to talk, I try to spend some of my workshop time to build relationships and share stories about my life, while also listening to theirs. In my mind, building that rapport and trust while sacrificing some content means that I will probably get more effort from these students the next day. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t — this isn’t a perfect system, but it’s something I’m continuously working on.

Our district has been focusing a lot on social-emotional learning this year, and I have come to the realization that middle schoolers need that more. When I take time to listen to them, to give them choice, and to let them explore subjects that interest them, I know they are growing more. Teaching is a constantly-shifting practice, and I am trying to find the balance that works best for me and my students.

So to the student “not all that much younger” who wrote me this letter: thank you. Your words have helped me realize just how far I’ve come since I started teaching just eight years ago.

Community · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Teacher Leadership · Teaching

Three Things from #DubLit19

As others on this blog have posted, the Dublin Literacy Conference is always a day in which I feel renewed and reinvigorated in my teaching. I learn so much from the presenters, the featured authors, and my colleagues with whom I debrief throughout the day. I also have the added bonus of being part of the conference committee, so I feel a sense of pride when I hear people sharing their happy stories about the day. It takes a lot of love, effort, and teamwork to get the conference organized through months of planning, and I feel so honored to be a part of it.

This year, three things really stuck out to me as I think back to my time at the Dublin Literacy Conference on Saturday.

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The Students!

We always receive feedback on how much people love seeing our students’ presence within the conference. They perform our opening ceremony, introduce the authors, show off their tech skills at our Tech Tables, and guide attendees throughout the day. Students of all grade levels are visible, and it is so rewarding to see how excited they are when asked to be a part of the day. This year, our opening ceremony included Six-Word Memoirs from students of each grade level, and it could not have better exemplified our theme: “30 Years: Celebrating Our Stories.” Even our little kindergartener used her “big voice” (as encouraged by my colleague, Lauren) to share her story. There were laughs and awws, and I could tell that the audience loved hearing each of these kids speak to their truth.

I also love seeing the students introduce the authors — and the authors love it too! One of my students introduced Jason Reynolds, and through some of my own miscalculation, I told her to get there over an hour early. She was a trooper though, and sat through Jason’s first presentation with me even when she didn’t have to. When she introduced him, she talked about how he got his start as a poet and he was so appreciative that he referenced back to her words later in his talk. It’s wonderful to see students interacting with authors they admire!

The Authors!

I spent the majority of my day with Jason Reynolds as his author host, which was an incredible experience. Before picking him up with my hosting partner, Rita, I wasn’t sure what we would talk about it. He turned out to be one of the most gracious, laid-back, and thoughtful authors I’ve met in my time working on this conference. I could see how much he cared for his readers, for students, and for teachers who shared his books with eager (and not so eager!) readers. His message during his keynote and later session focused so much on seeing the whole child, while also helping students to know that we see and accept them for who they are.

Another benefit of being on the committee is getting to go to an “author dinner” after the conference. On Saturday, I was lucky enough to be seated next to Hena Khan as we all settled in for dinner. We had such an engaging discussion about books and students, and she was so lovely in all of her responses — I was sad when it was finally time to go!

Getting to make these connections helps me feel even more passionate about getting books into my students’ hands. I see how thoughtful these authors are, and how their books can help students in more ways than I can. But I can help them get there, if I share my love for these books as well.

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The Quality Conversations!

I signed up to present at the conference this year as well, and I was so inspired by the conversations that sprung from my session. My presentation focused on how to have students reflect on their own identities, and how I’ve used Sara K. Ahmed’s book Being the Change as my guide. I only had about 10 people in my session, but the small group ended up being the perfect environment for a rich discussion. Other teachers shared their experiences and plans they had already thought about for incorporating this work into their classrooms. It really gave me a boost to have this dialogue and to continue to rethink the students I teach in my classes.

 

Even with just this small snapshot of the day, I know how powerful these moments are and will stick with me as I head back into my classroom. Overall, I came away from the Dublin Literacy Conference feeling renewed and validated in so many ways. I felt like I was buzzing with excited energy for the entire day — this conference is something I care so much about. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

 

Books · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

Making the Wrong Choice

This past fall, my teaching partner, Jen, and I decided to do a round of historical fiction book clubs before we had our students dive in and write historical fiction narratives. I spent the better part of a week looking at titles and curating what I thought was an excellent list. My personal experience with historical fiction appropriate for 8th graders was fairly limited — a LOT of it was focused on WWII and Holocaust stories, a product of teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night for years. I wanted to find a wider range of options.

When a teacher assigns book choices to students, she wants to make sure she is giving them the best options — high interest, variety of subjects and ability levels, and her own excitement for the books. Students can be convinced to read something they feel a little “meh” about if their teacher gives it a good recommendation. Sometimes, this feels like a lot of pressure! I pulled books from ones I had read, but also took to GoodReads and other teachers’ recommendations before finalizing my list of 11 books they could choose from. However, I did what I probably shouldn’t have done — I put some books on the list that neither Jen nor I had read. I checked the website Common Sense Media for those books, and all seemed fine.

Until I started reading one of them.

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina is an exciting, terrifying, and heartbreaking novel. It’s an excellent version of historical fiction that really grabs the reader, and focuses on a time period that isn’t usually the subject of young adult novels: the summer of 1977 in New York City, when the Son of Sam murders were taking place.

Our 8th graders were drawn to the description of this book and quite a few book club groups chose it as their selection. As I started to have my doubts on whether this book was “appropriate” as a recommended choice, I justified that some of the more mature content was okay for 8th graders. I even told myself that most of the kids who had chosen this book were already reading more mature books in their independent reading lives.

But then I kept reading. And more red flags kept popping up. I could envision parent emails and calls questioning my school-sanctioned book club choice. Then I realized I had forgotten to check if this title was approved by our district for 8th graders. It wasn’t.

I jumped into action, emailing Jen and letting her know that we had to pull this book. I posted on our class page that groups would have to choose a new title. I came up with a plan to offer a couple of other books instead, and give them two more days to get their books. The next day in class, I talked to my groups and explained the situation, apologized if they had already gotten the book. I told them they were welcome to read it on their own — but the school couldn’t sponsor it as a class read. Some kids were initially annoyed, but they didn’t mention it again after the day I talked to them. They had moved on, and it didn’t become an issue. Crisis averted.

If you have the chance to read Burn Baby Burn, do it. It’s a fantastic story. I’m hoping some of my students will still read it (and maybe be even more intrigued now!). But I’m definitely going to read any new books before I offer them as class reads for kids.

Reflection · Teaching

The Emotional Labor of Teaching

I first heard the term “emotional labor” when I read an NPR article about how women in heterosexual couples end up completing not only the majority of chores in a household, but they are the ones who often notice and delegate what needs to be done (Harper’s Bazaar also has a great explanation of this). I was reminded of this article last month when talking to my mom, and realized that this idea of emotional labor is what tends to tax teachers so heavily.

As I neared the end of the school year, I kept thinking about this idea. How even though I was not doing an exorbitant amount of work — I was in the last unit of the year, so I didn’t have much planning, and grading was light since students were mostly working in book clubs — but I felt so incredibly tired all the time. What was going on?

Thinking back to the idea of emotional labor, I realized that had to be it. The buildup of nine months of constantly thinking, worrying, and caring about the 125+ kids in my care was taking its toll, along with a few other end of the year worries. I was still trying hard to reach those students who had been pushing me away or meeting me with indifference all year. I was trying to make sure all students were really making some modern day connections to the Civil Rights Movement through their book clubs choices. I was stressing about not being there on the last day of school (and not getting to say a final goodbye) because I would be judging a writing tournament out of town. I was anxious about getting my room packed up since I would be moving to a new one in the fall. I wanted all of my students to know that regardless of how the year went, I truly wished them well in high school and hoped that they could take some of what they learned from my class with them. That I wanted them to succeed. That they still have people who cared about them.

All of these emotions would repeat on a constant cycle over the last few weeks of school. I tried to maximize my time before school and during my planning period. What could I pack up? What could I get rid of? Which students did I need to check in with during study center? Whose parents did I need to contact because they hadn’t turned anything in lately and currently had below a 73%? Had I tried my best this year? I definitely didn’t do my best teaching this year. This thought cycle was exhausting. It reminded me of that line in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Hermione describes Cho’s mixed emotions about Harry, and Ron says, “One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.”

By the time I got home every day, I would feel too tired to make dinner or work out, even though I would usually push through and get it done. I thought part of my lack of energy was because I ran a really hard, really hilly half marathon at the beginning of May that just wiped me out. Even though that was probably part of it, I knew the main culprit was really the emotional labor of closing out the school year. Even as I write this more than a week after school let out, I am exhausted still thinking about it.

When most people think of teachers, they think of how great it is that we get summers off. (Side note: we all know that most teachers spend time in the summer taking classes or participating in professional development; some even working another job.) After reflecting on this connection between emotional labor and teaching, I feel like I am finally starting to articulate why this summer break is so crucial to teachers, and why we keep coming back for it year after year.

Summer gives us a chance to rest our minds. We still think about those kids who sat in our classroom over the last year, but since we don’t see them each day, we have a chance to worry a little less about them. To entrust that the other adults in their lives are taking care of them, and as they get older, they are taking care of themselves.

Once we have a chance to rest our minds and (hopefully) let go of the worries from the past school year, we have a chance to read and plan for the next year like we never have time for during the actual school year. I try so hard each school year to read professional books while I am actively teaching my class — and I usually fail. Unless I will be using that book immediately in my teaching, it is really hard for me to compartmentalize new ideas in the “save for later” section of my brain while I have all of the normal parts of teaching running at full speed. Summer is the time when I can finally dive into professional learning and make the most of it.

I am not saying that other jobs are not challenging and those professionals may need extended breaks as well. From my experience as a teacher though, there is so much of that emotional labor that we are constantly holding in our minds that it is often hard for us to shut it off. I find myself thinking about students as I’m out for a run, or how I can tweak that new lesson as I’m falling asleep at night. I know I often feel like I am not doing enough for the kids that I teach. There is this notion that I can always do better, but in the chase for perfection, I know it is impossible to teach every kid in the way that I want. To give them the true attention they deserve. When there are more than a hundred of them on my mind each day, it feels like the work is never-ending.

And that takes a toll on teachers. This constant thought process that what we do could always be better is great for reflective growth, but if you’re like me, then you just look at all the things that went wrong. I am working on changing that mindset, but it is a process. All of these pressures coming from so many different angles really can be exhausting — and a big reason why it seems that emotional labor affects teachers more than most other professions.

As I begin this new school year with only a month under my belt, I am already feeling the force of this emotional labor. I have nearly 20 more students in my care this year, many with differing needs, and I am still figuring out how to make time for each of them. I am currently working on finding ways to make this easier — asking for help, surrounding myself with positive, supportive colleagues, and taking breaks for my own self-care. It’s no wonder why so many teachers burn out early in their careers; it’s a lot to handle. But when I am my best self, I know I can do it by relying on those around me, and continuing to take time for myself.

Leading · Literacy · Reflection · Teacher Leadership

Staying Calm: The Dublin Literacy Conference

Friday, February 23

The day was almost here! This year, I was the Chairperson for the Dublin Literacy Conference. We had been working toward this day for months, and today was the day that I would really dig in with my co-chair, Marisa, and get all of the final details worked out. We met for breakfast and discussed what we needed to do for the day – we would get the participant packets organized and she would pick up two of our authors – Kate Roberts and Chris Barton – that afternoon when their flights got in.

Or so we thought.

Later that afternoon, as we were chipping away at the participant packets, we received notice that Kate Roberts’ flight was delayed. Okay, we thought, maybe she’ll still make her connecting flight. No big deal.

Then Chris Barton’s flight was delayed. We weren’t panicking just yet, but we were a little more on edge. He got on another flight set to land around 7 p.m. in Columbus, so we breathed a little more easily. He would miss our author dinner, but would make it for Saturday’s conference.

Soon after that, we learned that even with the delay, Kate made her connecting flight, and was on time for her arrival in Columbus. Marisa left to pick her up, and I kept working.

After another hour or so, I was finished with the preparations for the conference the next day, and I went home. On my drive, I debated whether or not I should go for a run, since I had about and hour and a half before I needed to leave for dinner.

As soon as I got home, however, everything changed. It turned out Kate was getting over the flu, so she wasn’t going to join us for dinner so she could rest up. Then I needed to head to the hotel where the authors were staying to give them some missing paperwork. With no authors planning to attend the dinner, we decided to cancel. I called our accommodations committee member, Aleia,  and set that plan in motion.

But wait! Chris Barton was going to make it by 6 p.m., so he could attend the dinner. I had to quickly call and reverse my previous request – the dinner was back on.

After that chaotic hour (needless to say, I didn’t get that run in), I headed out to dinner a little early to make sure everything was set with the restaurant. Our committee members started arriving, one of our presenters, Olivia Van Ledtje (@theLivBits), and her mother also joined us for this dinner. Marisa had picked up Chris from the airport, and they made it to the restaurant. Everything was running smoothly now.

…until we learned that George Couros’s first flight from Vancouver had been sitting on the runway for over an hour, waiting to be de-iced. We knew the weather wasn’t the best in parts of the United States, but we hadn’t accounted for snow storms in western Canada. George wasn’t going to make his connecting flight in Minneapolis, and couldn’t get out of there until the morning. This didn’t work for us, seeing as he was supposed to start his keynote the next morning around 8:45. We needed a new plan.

Could we Skype him in? Could he fly to another city a couple of hours away and someone could go pick him up? Could we switch our morning and afternoon keynotes? Linda Sue Park’s flight had been delayed, but she was still scheduled to arrive that evening. This seemed like our best option.

One of our committee members called Linda Sue at dinner that night, and she graciously accepted this change of schedule. Granting now that all flights arrived on time from here on out, we would be in good shape.

 

Saturday, February 24

As people arrived the next morning, we simply told them that the morning and afternoon keynotes had been switched, and no one even seemed to mind. Everyone was still going to get what they were promised, just in a different order. The committee kept joking that this whole process felt like a wedding – we would deal with mayhem behind the scenes, and our guests would be none the wiser.

And after all of that chaos, with all of our flexibility, the day went off without any other issues. Linda Sue gave a beautiful keynote in the morning, which inspired educators as they went off for a day of learning. George made it in time for his keynote and spent some time autographing through his scheduled lunch. Everyone was thrilled that they were able to experience so much, and learn from our authors and other presenters there. As a committee, we felt so grateful that our featured authors were incredibly flexible and enthusiastic throughout the day.

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Since the Dublin Literacy Conference a month ago, all I have heard was positive feedback. Everybody loved the day – the keynotes, the featured authors, the teacher presentations – everything learned was valuable and participants felt like they could use the skills and knowledge they learned in their classrooms the next day.

As for me, I learned a lot about staying calm under pressure and relying on a team to help out in any given situation. Though I was the Chairperson for the day, I could not have done anything without my amazing conference committee. They took care of details I didn’t even notice, and they helped keep me grounded when things seemed to be spiraling out of control. I am so proud of the work we did for that day because it seems have had such a positive impact on everyone who was there.

I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Goal Setting · Reflection · Teaching

Getting Unstuck

Happy New Year! The time for resolutions! Right?

Maybe.

By the time second semester hits, I’m usually feeling two conflicting things simultaneously: a new spark of hope for the future and a stinging realization that I have gotten stuck in certain habits.

Last week when we returned to school after winter break, I was ready. Kids were going to find books they love for our independent reading days! My new strange and mysterious short story unit would engage and excite students!

Then I realized I still had more than 100 narratives to grade. Then we had a snow day. And then I came down with the stomach flu and missed two more days. Then we had an early dismissal due to an incoming winter storm. Things started to feel out. Of. Control.

Needless to say, my new semester wasn’t starting off with the bang I was hoping for.

After the chaos of the first two weeks back to school, I need to get myself and my teaching in order. So this weekend, I am dedicating myself to getting unstuck. There are four things I am going to focus on to help me in this process.

#1: Catch Up

With all of the craziness of this past week, I realized that I still had about 20 narratives left to grade, along with new assignments that students turned in this week. My first order of business will be to get these graded. I know that I cannot always be on top of my grading pile, but it’s manageable enough right now that I can tackle it over this holiday weekend and get it finished. This will help me to feel a sense of calm when I walk into school on Tuesday morning, ready to focus on the week ahead, instead of looking behind to what I didn’t do.

#2: Refresh New Procedures

Much of this will have to happen once I get back into the classroom next week, but I am going to start this weekend by creating a new seating chart. I want to try randomized seating so students have a chance to sit by other kids they may not know so well, while also helping with classroom management. I tend to be a little lax in seating and let kids sit where they want, but it’s turned into a bit of chaos in certain classes and lending to this feeling that I am “stuck” constantly redirecting. When students come back this week, I’ll refresh procedures such as how to put the laptops away correctly. How to pick up after yourself. I feel like I shouldn’t have to do this with 8th graders, but if I don’t show that it’s an important expectation (like I haven’t been doing), then the students won’t see it that way either.

#3: Setting the Intention to Be Reflective

I am really good at being reflective for short periods of time. Last year I dedicated a whole journal to reflecting every day…and then wrote in it five times. This year, I am going to try again. Maybe not with a specific journal, but perhaps in spurts. As I was reading NCTE’s Voices from the Middle December 2017 issue, I came across the article “How to Think, Talk, and Write Your Way into Better Teaching*” by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell. The first thing they list in this article is to “choose a notebook” as a catchall for all teaching-related notes and reflection. When I have done something like this in the past, I have been successful. Somehow, it’s gotten away from me this year and I want to go back. This may not only be about reflection, but it will play a part in my intention to be reflective. Also, writing this blog post, and continuing to write is another way I vow to be reflective this year.

#4: Planning Goals (or at least thinking about it)

I want to try new things. I want to be inspired. I want to make time to learn from others, either in person or from educators who write about their experiences. In the first half of the year, I dove into professional development a little too deep, and started to drown. In December, I took a step back, let myself breathe, and trusted myself to do my best. Now that I have taken that step back, I’m ready to dip my toe in again. I returned to browsing Twitter last week to see what people are thinking – about education and otherwise. It’s not such a bad place after all. I picked up a quick professional book to start reading this weekend – Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – because I know their thinking will help spark ideas in me. I also know that anything I read in this book is something I will be able to start working into my classroom immediately. This is a starting point for me to think about planning new units, or trying something new within an existing unit.

My main goal after all of this is just to feel a little better about who I am as a teacher. What is my purpose, and how I am I being intentional about my teaching practices? I may not always have everything under control, but when I have the time, I want to pause and be productive moving forward. Hopefully after this weekend I will feel a little less stuck and ready to move again.

Reading · Students · Writing Workshop

Building Stamina

As I work my way through the first mile of my long run, I usually hit a point when I want to give up. I’m too tired. My stomach aches. Did I just come down on my ankle wrong? There’s always some excuse that I could give for turning around and going home. Rarely, if there really is a problem, I let myself. Most of the time though, I stick with it and push through. I have to build my running stamina, or I would never be able to reach my goals.

While running those long runs (anywhere from 6-12 miles), I am reminded of this idea of stamina. My mind tends to wander when I run, and I can always make clear connections between what my students face as readers and writers, and what I face as a runner.

I get it – we all have things that are challenging for us. For me, running keeps me in shape, but it’s not always easy. Most days, I don’t want to lace up my Hokas and pump out those miles. But the feeling I have when I am done, when I have accomplished something even though it was hard getting started, is so rewarding.

I work toward running long distances because I know it is good for me, and that I have set a goal (usually a half marathon, or 13.1 miles), that I am working toward. It takes a while to build up to the longer distance – I can’t go out and run 12 miles at the beginning of my training, when the farthest I can usually go is six. (And I can only get those six in because I’m always making sure I’m keeping up with some sort of running plan in the “off season” – it’s like students’ summer break!) However, I need to keep this in mind when thinking about expectations for my students – I can’t expect some of them to be able to write a 2-page paper because they’re struggling through that first paragraph.

There’s always a point, a hump, that you have to get over when working on something that takes extended effort. For me as a runner, that point is mile 1 (why is the first mile always so dang hard?), and hitting the halfway point. For students, this may be just getting words down on a page in writing workshop, or reading through a whole page without stopping during independent reading.

Even when I’m reading something that isn’t fully grabbing my attention, it takes me some checkpoints in order to push myself to keep going. Just read for 10 minutes. Finish this chapter.

There are moments when temporarily quitting is okay – injury (running), or just flat-out dislike for a story, character, or a writing style (reading). Most of the time though, we need to stick with it. What makes it hard is what makes it worth it. With practice, you only get stronger.

And that will make it easier next time.

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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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