co-teaching · Community · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reading · Reflection

Sink or Swim

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It was an early morning this past June, and I was scrambling around my kitchen trying to get a breakfast casserole out of the oven, coffee started in my brand new coffee pot, and the apple fritters out of my eye line so that I still had some when everyone got there. It had been a couple of weeks since we all had seen each other–Amber had just gotten back from a Disney cruise, Michael was returning from a wedding in the Dominican Republic, and Sarah had been climbing in West Virginia, so we had lots to get caught up on together. 

When everyone arrived, there were lots of smiles, hugs, and “I’ve missed you!”s. After about twenty minutes of lively discussion (which involved stuffing our faces and guzzling coffee like pros), we settled into what we came to do–discuss standards based grading.

But before we talk about standards based grading (in another blog post!!), I want to talk about something that can sometimes be overlooked or forgotten about unless nurtured properly–teacher friendships. We’ve all seen the quotes on Pinterest or other teaching blogs about how there’s no way we can survive the days or years without teacher friends. But in all seriousness, this couldn’t be more true.  

As a child and teenager, I was a competitive swimmer. While swimming is an individual sport, we always practiced, traveled, and bonded together as a team. We were friends both in the pool and out of the pool. While I swam in the water by myself (unless I was in a relay), and finished the race by myself, without the extra push from my teammates during practice, I wouldn’t have been as successful as a swimmer. My team was with me all the time, requesting and expecting 100% from me every single day.  

It is the same with teaching. 

Working with a Professional Learning Community (PLC) is key for success for both teachers, and students as learners. I learn something new every day from my colleagues that helps me in my classroom whether it’s small, like an organizational tweak to my classroom library, or big, like discussing how to overhaul our entire grading system.

My PLC is definitely my support system at school. I don’t just get teaching advice from them; I also get life advice. We are all different ages and offer each other very different perspectives, which is what we want our kids to be doing when they meet in small groups. If I come to work in a sour mood because of a meltdown my 4yo son had that morning, they know that I need a few minutes of space before they come to hear the crazy story (It’s never simple, is it?!), offer their support, and give me some motivation for the day. My workload, both at work and at home, seems much more manageable when I can talk to others about it and get some valuable feedback to move forward, much like what our learners expect from us. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m a procrastinator. I also don’t like letting people down. Knowing that my PLC is relying on me to get my work done on time, and my wanting to contribute to the group, motivates me to get my part of our workload done. These friendships have also pushed me to challenge myself to tackle some work that I would otherwise avoid doing, or try to find something someone already uses that may not be great for my learners, but already completed, thus easier. They are my thinking partners and really push me to be the best version of myself that I can be for my learners.

Let’s face it–sometimes we spend more time with our colleagues than we do with our own families. When we are happy with the people we interact with every day, it makes going to work and being happy at work easier, which then makes for a happy workplace for everyone. I want to be happy where I work. I want to feel comfortable and welcomed there. I also want to be able to prevent teacher burnout. In order to do that, I need to have people I can talk and connect to. 

I certainly don’t think all of your work friends need to be in your PLC. I’m lucky enough to have friends at my building in every department. I’m even luckier that I have gained some really solid friendships over the years from the three buildings I was in before moving to Ohio–friendships that have remained even after I moved out of state. I’m grateful for the multiple views and perspectives offered to my teaching and also to my life. 

At the end of the day, we want to be successful at our work for our learners. At its most basic level, teaching, like swimming, is an individual activity. But to be a successful teacher, you need that extra push in practice, a cheer in the meet(ing), and for someone to say that your craft inspired them. Teaching is a team sport. So go find your team! 

Community · Culture · Environment · Goal Setting · Reflection

What’s Your Why?

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I don’t know about y’all, but I was ready for the end of the school year. And I feel terribly guilty saying that. I love my job. I love my students. But I need a nap. Desperately. I haven’t felt like this, especially with my work, in a long time. Because of this unsettling feeling, I keep asking myself the age old question, “What’s your why?” every couple of days. What exactly is my why? I feel like it’s definitely changed over the years. Or maybe it’s been added to? Regardless, because the school year is now officially over, what better time to reflect than right now?

I’m very aware that Simon Sinek, author of Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team, as well as a well-known TED Talk called How Great Leaders Inspire Action, which I frequently show to my gifted students, believes that your why cannot be associated with your work, your job. I disagree. As a teacher, so much of who I am is connected to my “job,” so it’s not even a job to me. Teaching is a passion. It’s a way of life. It wakes me up–in more ways than one. It helps me be a better parent, and even wife. And really, a better human.

I knew I’d be a teacher at a young age. I used to send my mom to work with coloring book pages and ask her to photo copy them to give them to my “students,” who were stuffed animals sitting on the couch in our basement. As I grew older, my love of reading made me fall in love with all of my English/Language Arts classes, including Mrs. Loper’s class in 8th grade, even though I got detention for talking. (I swear, it WASN’T ME!!)

While in high school, my boyfriend’s mom was an English professor at the local college in my hometown, and she knew I loved to read. She would often ask me what I was reading for pleasure outside of class, and in high school, I just didn’t do that. It was hard for me to read more than one book at once (I have since changed!!), and keeping track of The Merchant of Venice and 1984 were difficult enough, so I simply didn’t read for pleasure. But, I remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time. The long, descriptive sentences that flowed endlessly across the page. The jaunty cadence and rhythm, as well as the rich and poignant diction, made me fall in love with reading, and, discussing the text with others who felt the same way, only intensified that love. I knew in that moment that I wanted to do for people what my English teacher had done for me–instill a love of texts and have in depth conversations with students about books and reading. To me, Gatsby was a love story, albeit a terrible one, but a love story nonetheless. I like that Nick had a front seat to this love story and narrated it as best he could. It also has elements of drama and suspense, which have always been a favorite of mine in literature–not to mention the Real Housewives-esque vibe. For me, this classic text had everything I was looking for in a novel, and thus really inspired me to jump back into a reading life.

That school year gave me so much confidence as a reader. I thought that because I could read and discuss these classic texts that I was well on my way to being an English scholar extraordinaire. So I signed up for AP Literature and Composition. I wanted the challenge and I wanted to talk about these texts with peers who loved literature as much as I did–or so I thought. At the end of my junior year, the AP Lit & Comp teacher called me down to his room for a chat. I was under the impression that he was going to give me some reading material for the summer months, but when I got down there, I quickly realized that he was encouraging me to not take the course, citing my average to low testing scores. Looking back on this instance in my life, I’d have been so much more receptive to what he was saying to me if he’d given me another chance. Some kids aren’t great test takers. There has to be another way to measure the skills of that child. I clearly wanted to read and grow more in English–I had the motivation, but not the skill. He could have certainly helped me with that. I regret not asking for a second data point from him–a chance to prove that I was worthy to take the class. Instead, he dismissed me back to class, and asked me to stop by the guidance office to get my schedule changed for the next year.

Being the stubborn girl I was and still am, I ignored his request and remained in the class, but moved forward with a sour taste in my mouth. AP Lit & Comp ended up being one of the hardest classes of my life because I couldn’t connect with that teacher after that conversation. I didn’t WANT to connect with him. I won’t lie, I struggled through the class and never once did I ask for help. But he didn’t help me either. He saw me struggle and the urge to say “I told you so” was greater than his desire to provide help and feedback. I ended up with a C overall in the class and an embarrassing score on the AP exam. I knew after that experience that I needed to make it better for students who were struggling through English classes. I loved to read. He didn’t take that away from me, thank God, but some students hate English classes. I wanted to be the one to show them there was nothing to hate. Today, I credit one of the main reasons I teach English/Language Arts to that one teacher, despite his best efforts to derail me.

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While my why is centered quite a bit around that horrible experience in class, I am grateful that it taught me the value of teacher/student relationships. I had so many wonderful models of amazing teachers growing up, and I remember how each of them made me feel when I walked into their classrooms. I tried to emulate those feelings when creating my own classroom environment during my first year of teaching. During my 5th year of teaching, I had an extraordinary group of students in my first period class, who I saw every day. They were quirky and funny, yet some of the most intelligent students I’ve had the pleasure of working with. I taught this class during the time when Daily Oral Language (DOL) warm ups were considered one of the best ways to teach grammar, but I was starting to feel otherwise. I decided to scrap the DOL’s about halfway through the school year and go rogue with my own warm ups, which ended up being some really quirky and funny writing prompts. The kids got a HUGE kick out of them and would try to outdo each other on how silly or funny they could write in response to the prompt. What first started as a warm up activity turned into half a class period! We laughed together every single day until the end of the school year.

Looking back on that, I reflect on the class time that we spent doing these writing warm ups. Was the time spent appropriately? Was there something better we could have been working on instead? Probably. But about four years ago, a former student had a local newspaper feature an article about him as an area athlete turned coach. He had graduated high school, become a teacher, and also a wrestling coach who had gone on to be pretty successful. When he was asked what his favorite class was in high school now that he was a high school teacher and coach, he responded that 10th grade English was his favorite class and it was because he and his peers were allowed to write about whatever they wanted at the beginning of class, and that time and silliness together created lifelong friendships with everyone in the class, as well as with his teacher.

These three stories contribute to the foundation of my why. There’s not a day in my life where I don’t come back to them, either consciously or subconsciously, and use them to frame how I work with my students each day. I want to instill a love a reading, provide students as much feedback as possible, and ensure that each student walks away with a sense of belonging and, perhaps, a few friends. Now that the school year is over, I’m revisiting these stories and reminding myself of what I need to do for next school year to make sure these whys, among many newer ones, are still on my mind. As I look to next year, after reminding myself of my whys, I plan to incorporate more choice writing into my weekly plans, and really encourage relationships among my students, both centered around reading and writing, but also, around togetherness.

And just like that, I’m looking forward to next year. After a little break, of course. 😉

Community · Culture · Environment · Students

Words Are Power

No surprise The Magic of Words book was my favorite.

I have always loved language and words! I know that sounds kind of weird, but it is true – crosswords, word searches, Boggle, UpWords, Scrabble, the Childcraft books that came with the World Book Encyclopedias, and Babysitters’ Club books filled many days when I was young. Then my favorite class in college – LINGUISTICS. I thought I was in heaven!

Words make us feel!

  • Excitement … my infant says momma (or something that sounds like momma) and tears immediately fill my eyes.
  • Fear … “I think we need to talk.”
  • Happiness … my 14-year-old says “Mom, I love you” (or anything at all to me).  Grief … “Pap has passed.”
  • Inspiration … Mom saying “I am proud of you” (yes – even at 43 this still matters).
  • Disappointment … “I am sorry, but we chose another candidate.”
  • Love – “I appreciate you.”

Language. This stringing together of words that we often take for granted is so important. It allows us to think together. It creates culture … language creates a community.

What we say and how we say it shows others what we think and how we feel – and it matters. A group of students is off task … a teacher says “Get back to work or you will be eating lunch with me.” Or “When you are off task it interferes with the learning of others and makes me feel frustrated.” Or “What is going on? What is getting in the way of your learning? How can I help you get back on track?”

Using we to describe our classroom communities, referring to our young learners as readers and writers, describing our English learners as developing bilinguals – all of these nuances are meaningful and convey different messages.

Recently a teacher shared a quote with me that reminded me of the power teachers as the adults in the room hold.

“The messages that students receive externally become the messages they give themselves.”

What messages are our students hearing? Are these messages what we want them to hear? We must be more careful with our words and never forget the power they hold!

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.

blogging · co-teaching · Culture · Environment · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

It’s Not About the Donuts: When the Learner is the Teacher

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My students teach me so much. I mean that. I feel like I’m always apologizing to my 1st period class.

I’ll use today as an example, but first, let me back up a step.

We have been working on persuasion. We studied the rhetorical devices (repetition, parallelism, analogy) used in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Students practiced using those devices in their own writing. Students performed persuasive skits using ethos, pathos, and logos. We then analyzed Super Bowl commercials for persuasive techniques. Now, students are embarking upon a journey to practice persuasive writing and argumentative writing which we spent Monday distinguishing.

Here is a list of differences that  students generated:

Persuasive Writing Argumentative Writing
  • Aims to get readers to believe you opinion
  • Supported with persuasive techniques
  • Informal
  • Supported with facts and statistics
  • Involves two sides
    • counterclaim/rebuttal
  • Involves research
    • Investigative
  • More formal

Tuesday, we officially started our persuasive writing unit. We told each class that they’d work together to write and publish a blog, so each class period voted on a topic. Our desks are in groups of four, and we asked groups to discuss the topic and then craft claims. This caused quite a bit of fun, healthy debate, but in each class period, we were able to come to a decision.

  • Period 1: The driving age should be lowered to 15.5, and teens should be able to get their temps by 14.5.
  • Period 2: Dublin Coffman High School should start at 9:00AM (instead of 7:55).
  • Period 3:Schools should never completely block social media use nor search engines, but these technologies should be heavily monitored.
  • Period 5:Dublin Coffman High School should adopt an open campus schedule like colleges.
  • Period 6:The legal drinking age should be raised to twenty-five.

We showed students a model from last year as well as the requirements of the assignment.

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We have 7 groups of desks in our classroom, so we decided to have groups volunteer to complete different parts of our persuasive blog post, so three groups chose three different persuasive techniques, three other groups claimed the rhetorical devices, and one group found media to include. This all happened on Monday, and it was AWESOME. It went so well, in fact, that I emailed our literacy coach to brag. I just knew that she’d be so proud of all the modeling, scaffolding, and most importantly, learning happening in our room.

Fast-forward to today. I enter 1st period with 1 goal in mind. I want the whole class to collaboratively work on piecing together the parts of the blog that groups crafted separately yesterday. I tell them this. I stand at the board and ask students to help me outline our blog. One student helps me do this. One student. One. So, we are not off to a great start when it comes to collaboratively writing a blog post, but I have high hopes for the next part. I ask a student from each group to get on a shared Google Doc. I ask them to copy and paste their group’s work from yesterday into the document. This takes longer than expected, and as I look around the room, only the 7 students logged onto the document are engaged in organizing the blog. The other 20 are not interested in what we are doing no matter how hard I try to redirect their attention to what is happening on the projector. It doesn’t take me long to realize that THIS IS NOT WORKING. It’ll be torture to continue this for another 30 minutes, and I definitely can’t continue this all day long, so after 10 minutes of this unbearable struggle, I abandon ship and QUICKLY come up with an alternative.

I tell 1st period, “I’m sorry guys, and I’m sorry again for having to apologize to your class period so often, but this is not working like I imagined it would. I really wanted us all to craft a blog together, but this is just not going well, so here’s what we’re going to do. Students currently on the Google Doc, make a copy of the document and then share your copy with the rest of your group that you’re sitting with now and that you worked with yesterday. You’re now going to work in teams of just four rather than as a whole class. I want you to act like you’re a real editing team for a real blog. Turn what you and your classmates came up with yesterday into a cohesive blog. The best blog of the class wins donuts tomorrow, and I’ll also publish your blog to my real blog. You only have until the rest of the period. Ready? Go!”

And just like that, all students are involved again, and many are more invested in their writing than I have ever seen before!

… and then we run out of time.

Darn.

I’ll have to give them more time tomorrow….  

BUT, at least I know what to do 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th period because I have learned so much about what not to do during 1st period.

2nd period enters, and so does my co-teacher, Deb (she was in a meeting during 1st period). I get the students all set up to use the entire period productively in groups of four, and I use the same incentives of donuts and the most authentic audience I can conceivably provide on the spot(this blog). I fill Deb in on the debacle of 1st period.

We watch second period closely. We celebrate. We celebrate because we’ve been reading Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani, and therefore, we no longer want to make decisions for our students that they can make for themselves. Our conversation goes something like this:

“This is going so much better than last period”

“This is good. I like this.”

“They’re struggling, and struggling is good.”

“They’re having to use each other and their resources instead of us. ”

“You’re right! Remember last year?

“We gave them a blog template to fill in. That was dumb.”

“We designed their blogs for them and removed all of the creative fun on accident”

“Look at them arguing over titles and fonts this year.”

“They’re really getting into it!”

We continue to watch closely. We circle the room. We listen to conversations. We mostly try to remain hands-off so that students figure it out on their own. Toward the end, we start to peek over shoulders. Many of the blogs don’t look like blogs at all. They look like a bunch of copied and pasted elements lacking any cohesive whole. Even the blogs that look like blogs don’t really read like blogs. We troubleshoot, and we try to explain this quickly before they head out the door.

3rd period enters.  We know what to do now. We explain everything just as we did last period including the donut incentive and semi-authentic audience deal, but this time, we get them set up for even more success than our 1st and 2nd periods by showing the model again and emphasizing what the end product should look like. We watch closely. It’s going well but not perfectly. I notice that some groups are totally engaged. I pick up on the fact that some students really want to win the donuts. Some students really want to show up on my blog. Some students just want to win. Some students are not engaged. Some students are letting their group members carry all the weight, so Deb and I chat.

“This is going pretty well, but it could be better. Why aren’t all our kids empowered?”

I think about the Empower book again.

What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?

“Next period, let’s let students pick their own groups. I don’t think we’d see the lack of engagement if we let them pick their own groups.”

“Let’s try it!”

5th period enters. We really know what to do now. As students walk in, we tell them to choose their own seats and to choose wisely because they’re expected to communicate well and work collaboratively. We show the model and explain expectations. We incentivize with donuts and a chance to appear on this blog. Groups are working fanatically! Everyone is engaged. This is what teachers dream of.

I watch closely. I keep thinking. I start to worry. I’m a worrier. This is going well… right? I’m not just imagining it, am I? It took a lot to get here. I bribed kids with donuts. I’m pretty sure that’s a huge pedagogical NO-NO, but I was desperate, and desperate times call for desperate measures. They look engaged. They even look empowered. I wonder what would have happened if I had never mentioned donuts, but I can’t renege on that now.

6th period enters. Despite my worries, we do everything the same as 5th period because it worked and because I can’t offer donuts to 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 5th period without offering them to 6th period. Deb and I stand in the middle and watch closely. There’s no doubt;  they’re engaged; they’re empowered. They’re working so hard, and they’re learning so much. They bell is about to ring, and one group is arguing. I listen.

“We should NOT have all of our names in the header.”

“Yeah, then all our names show up on EVERY page!”

“Yes, we should! It looks good!”

“No, we shouldn’t. It looks dumb!”

[warning bell rings]

“Mrs. Belden will just remove our names anyways.”

“Yeah, because we’re going to win and make it on her blog.”

“Well, we’re NOT going to win with our names on EVERY page!”

“Yeah, remove the names so that we can win the donuts!”

“We’re not going to win guys. We’re NOT going to get the donuts!”

“YES, we ARE going to win the donuts!”

“Guys, we did really good today, AND IT’S NOT ABOUT THE DONUTS!!!”

“Yeah, IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY!” [boys exit in fits of laughter]

The room is empty, and I’m sitting at my desk smiling like a fool because they have NO IDEA what a journey the day has been.

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Culture · Environment · Teaching

Preparing Kids for the Future and Losing Sight of Today

Screen Shot 2018-01-10 at 8.23.50 AMI have been thinking about this a lot recently.  It seems like over the past few weeks I have heard many educators bringing up what the next phase of education expects as a justification for decisions being made in schools and classrooms.  I don’t believe that this is how we should be making decisions!

Right now my time is spent in high schools and while I know it is important for all students to get into a good college and be able to pursue the career of their dreams, I do not feel that we should be making decisions about how we educate our high school children based on how colleges are doing things.  First of all, most colleges are pretty traditional. College classes today do not look much different than they did twenty-five years ago when I entered as a freshman.  Also, there is a maturity level to a college student that many of our high school students simply do not possess YET.  Finally, college students have a lot more choice in their learning than high school students do. (Do I want to take a class at 8 am or would I rather start my day at noon? Do I want to take calculus and chemistry during the same semester or should I spread them over two semesters?)

I fear that this constant worry about what is coming clouds what is happening. We have well-defined standards for learning at each grade level and I strongly believe by focusing on these standards, asking students to think deeply, providing choice and listening to students voices about their learning we can ensure that all students will be successful, enthusiastic, curious, innovative, civilized participants in life.

We need to let students enjoy the learning they are engaged in and build upon the skills and strengths they have come to us with. We must continue to push them to think deeply, question and take risks while trusting that we are doing a good job and knowing that they will be prepared for any next step in life they might take.  We must encourage them to love the life they are experiencing and learn each step of the way.

Each phase of learning –  a 6-year-old beginning to read, a 12-year-old discovering that the segregation of our history still impacts our country today, or an 18-year-old writing a killer college essay that ensures acceptance to the college of his dreams – is something to be cherished!

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.

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