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.
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 Martinby 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.
The life of a soccer mom has its ups and downs. (I am not complaining because that stage of my life is coming to a close and I will be sorry to see it end.) One perk is the times I get to spend with my daughter driving to Cincy or Indy or Huntington or Memphis or Louisville. Bailey and I love music and the tunes we prefer on road trips are from Broadway shows – specifically Hamilton, Rent, Wicked, Les Mis, and Dear Evan Hansen. We sing and bee-bop along for hours on end. This past weekend we traveled to Cincinnati for a night game and then drove home Sunday after an afternoon game in Northern Kentucky. I love our time together when I can look over and she’s belting out lyrics like “No day but today!” as loudly as she can.
But like I said earlier, there are some “downs” to being a soccer mom and to trips like this. It is stressful to spend hours and hours in a car driving around your most precious cargo especially when you look down and notice you are driving 85 miles per hour and simply following a stream of cars who are hurtling down a highway. Don’t get me wrong – I am not a slow driver and I am usually 7-8 mph over the posted speed limit when I travel. 15-20 mph over is pushing it for me!
On Sunday, though, I found myself barreling down I-71 at an excessive speed. When I noticed what was happening, I slowed down, moved into the right lane, took a deep breath, and looked at Bailey. Why did I let myself get caught up in moving as fast as the line of cars in the left lane? Why hadn’t I paid attention to my speed and noticed that I was passing quite a few vehicles like they were standing still? Why was I hurrying instead of being thoughtful?
And then my mind wandered to thoughts about how situations like this remind me of teaching and of life in general.
As teachers, we are all trying to get everything “in” – before the test, before the end of the quarter, before semester exams, before the end of the year, before being evaluated. Here are some things I think we can learn from my experience on the highway:
Slow down and take a look at the students sitting in your classroom. Will adding another worksheet or fun word activity or project help them become better readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or musicians? Does every second have to be filled with stuff? Could five minutes to process or practice or reflect benefit them instead of five minutes of rushing through another thing?
Don’t feel like you have to follow the crowd. Again, think about the students. You know them. You’ve talked to each one of them and have learned their strengths and struggles. Just because a colleague is moving onto the next book or the next writing does that mean that your students are ready to do that?
Enjoy the time you have as you are having it. As I looked over and saw my daughter singing at the top of her lungs with a big smile on her face, I realized that this was a precious moment. We get to spend a limited amount of time with students, so treasure it. (Even those moments when it is difficult and I know that it sometimes is.)
Someone may say “Well, I have to stay with my team” or “Won’t my kids (or myself) fall behind and not get everything done?” We are all professionals and we know what good practice looks like. We know how to talk to our students and how to see where they are and then determine where they need to go and how to get them there. Following the crowd or the “this is the way we’ve always done it” may not fit with what you know is good for the students sitting in your room at this time. Don’t be afraid to ease up on the gas pedal and move into the right lane.
As I look at these suggestions, I believe it applies to everyday life also. “Slow down”, “be yourself”, and “enjoy life” are mantras that I try to live by. There are many times that I have to remind myself though; it is so easy to get caught up in everything. But as I diligently and reverently tried to remember all the words to “Wait for It” while singing with Bailey and Leslie Odom, Jr., I realized that speeding home with the rest of traffic wasn’t the best thing for me and that I needed to put my beliefs into practice in order to arrive safely and with a peaceful piece of mind. Do I think I will never look down and see my speedometer nearing 85 mph again? Probably not. However, I am aware and feel I have some strategies for dealing with that both as a human and as a teacher.
Some Back Story: Last month my precious baby boy turned sixteen which means he got his license which means that Mama got herself a new/used Jeep Wrangler and handed down the 140,000+ miles car to her boy.
The thing is, I have no idea how to drive the Wrangler.
It’s a manual.
How I picture driving a manual Wrangler: There are a bunch of rrrrrrrrr, rr, rrrrrrrr sounds as I push in the clutch, press the gas, switch each gear. Maybe I go off roading (of course I go off roading–it’s my daydream), maybe I get stuck in the mud and I have to shift, shift, shift, to get this baby out… maybe I don’t, either way I am driving around in my automobile like freaking badass Barbie.
The reality of me driving my manual Wrangler: I stall. A. Lot. When I’m going 35, I feel like I’m going 90. And I can’t remember if I’m supposed to put it back into 4th or 3rd when turning a corner. There are so many numbers. And how am I supposed to look at the dials and drive at the same time? And what in the world happened to 10 and 2? How can I keep them at 10 and 2 when I have to shift? And I have to Jeep wave? What? Oh, I threw it into third trying to start from a stop and that won’t work? Why not? How do I know which gear I’m in, there’s this sleeve over it. It’s like the mystery sleeve, guess which gear you are in Zakrzewski? And maybe there are a few choice words…give or take.
It’s a process. I’m working on it.
I’ve been driving for over 27 years (Oh sweet mother of victory, I did not think the math would give me that number). So, with 27 years of experience, this should be easy. I mean I’ve been driving a car for a long time. Gas means go. Break means stop. Turn the wheel. Easy freaking peasy.
The thing is, even if you’ve been driving for years, learning to drive a manual is just a little bit different than driving automatic. And it takes practice–in all kinds of situations–practice.
And here comes the parallel (kind of like parking–see what I did there with a sweet continued analogy; you’re welcome).
This Is What Writing Is Like for Kiddos.
They’ve done it for years. They’ve felt like they’ve been doing this since kindergarten. And they have. So when some kiddos come into the classroom and we ask them to write, some become frustrated because they feel they should know how to do this. This shouldn’t be hard for them. They have been throwing their essays into gear for years. But they aren’t in automatic anymore. Now they are in a manual. And that can be very intimidating.
As they move up through the grades, there are subtle changes, subtle shifts. New expectations.
You can’t use I.
Try to avoid passive voice.
You can use one word for emphasis if you want.
But don’t use a fragment here. It’s a fragment.
Oh, but this fragment works because you are emphasizing.
Use a comma here.
You need paragraph breaks.
This line can stand alone…no it’s not a paragraph, but it works.
You can use personal experience.
No you can’t.
You need quotes.
No you don’t.
Can you add more of your voice?
Be more formal.
So many nuances. So, for writers who were used to writing one way, (maybe the five paragraph way; maybe the flip the prompt way; maybe the “get in and get out” testing essay way) what was comfortable before is now hard.
So what do we do? How can we help teach our young drivers how to shift into different gears and just take off.
Write all the time.
You write. Show them what you do. Show them your mistakes. Show them your corrections. Talk them through your ideas. Laugh at your own phraseologies and savor your own voice. Show your “go to moves.” And write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.
They write. Ask them to tell you how they are coming up with their ideas. Have them show you their mistakes and give suggestions in how to fix them. Talk through both of your ideas. Enjoy their phraseologies and savor their voices. Identify their “go to moves” that you are starting to see. And have them write in different situations, casual and formal; academic and non-academic. Experiment.
There are so many paths to writing. So many routes to take. So many ways to do it.
And it can be really fun. As teachers, we can take them off roading, off of the five paragraph essay, off the flip the prompt. We can show it as a structure, absolutely, but we can show them how to break the rules and use those broken rules to make something spectacular.
Be patient. These kiddos are just trying to learn how to push in the clutch, shift, and press the gas. Let them keep practicing because that is what it will take to enjoy the ride.
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.
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!
The middle of February and March brings new opportunities to teachers around the country (or at least in my school district). In fact today we received an email with voluntary transfer information in it. There may be teachers who are contemplating a change to a new grade level or a new subject or a new school or a new district. I decided to share this post about leaving the classroom even though I originally labeled it as “probably won’t post”. Maybe it will make someone feel better as possible opportunities appear on the horizon.
This spring I decided to take a job as a middle school literacy coach in my school district. It was a tough choice and one I’ve written about previously. One of the things that wasn’t a blip on my radar as I was making the decision was the thought that I’d have to pack up my classroom and classroom library for a few years. Forgot about that😆
There are several things I’ve learned from packing up to leave a classroom:
I have a serious addiction to Amazon. Luckily, I have a husband who doesn’t complain about the amount of money I spend on my classroom or my classroom library. I am active on social media and keep up with the publication of books on a regular basis, so I’ve tried hard to pay Jeff Bezos’s salary for the past ten years. I believe I packed 16 boxes of books that the Honeycutts have paid for. I’m pretty sure I left quite a few on the shelves that we bought too, but I want the new teacher to have a nice library for the start of school.
I am not a good purger…I’m not quite a hoarder either, but it’s close. How many overhead transparencies are too much to have in a filing cabinet in 2018? I think I probably found at least 50, along with lesson plans, copies, packets, and student work samples. I had discs with student projects about Greek gods and goddesses from 12 years ago. I attended one of the student’s weddings last summer and know that another one has a baby on the way. Too long since I’d gone through the filing cabinet? Probably. (Do people still use filing cabinets anyway? Thank goodness I got rid of my teacher desk years ago – heaven knows what might have been in there.)
Decisions as to what to keep and what to pitch are tough for me. I guess this goes back to the last bullet, except as I went through my closet, I was thinking about Sarah, the fantastic person taking my job, and what she might need. File folders? Paper clips? Construction paper? Magnets? Bulletin board letters or borders? I left most of it. I can’t carry it from school to school. I tried to err on the side of practicality as I went through the cabinets. I also gave Sarah full permission to toss anything that she didn’t think she’d want. I told her to not ask – just do it!
Leaving a school where you’ve been for 19 years is hard! The last few days of school were rough for me. I was an emotional mess due to leaving colleagues and friends that I respect so much (and my older daughter was graduating from high school which added another layer to my mess). I had several breakdowns and moments of panic as I walked through the halls. I’m ok now – I just remind myself that I didn’t move to the other side of the country and that I’ll be back every six weeks.
My family is fantastic! My lovely daughters and my ever-patient husband helped me make the decision to leave the classroom, so of course, I enlisted their help to move my stuff out. Thank goodness they are all fit people who like to lift heavy things. The boxes have moved from my old classroom to the backs of a car/truck and to the garage. Hopefully, by the time you read this, the boxes will be safely stowed in the basement.
Besides being a cathartic, reflective writing for me, I’d like to say that this could serve as advice for the reader; however, my advice isn’t to never buy books or to throw out everything from years past. My suggestions are to do anything you can to make your classroom what you want it to be – if that means buying books then buy books. If you save student work, then maybe someday you can hand it to the parent or to the sibling of the student as a keepsake/reminder of the time in your class. If it means to shed a few (or many) tears while leaving a building or hugging a colleague, then do that. Allowing all the emotions to flow is important. If it means to remind you of the important people in your life and how they support you, then that’s great. Don’t be afraid to take a new journey or to leave a comfortable place behind.
Hypertext markup language (HTML) and the uniform resource locator (URL), which later became foundational to the World Wide Web, were created.
Rain Man won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
And the Dublin Literacy Conference was born.
Over the past several years, I have worked on the planning committee for the Dublin Literacy Conference. This year, I had the great honor of serving as the chairperson for the 30th anniversary of the conference. The committee came up with the perfect theme and slogan: “30 Years: Celebrating Our Stories.”
In my opening comments for the conference last Saturday morning, I noted that all educators recognize the importance of story. We know that story is a powerful means for communicating; for sharing histories, traditions, and knowledge. But story is not limited to communication. Story is also about interpretation, with the potential to help us untangle and understand the world around us. Ultimately, the true importance of story is in its power of transformation. I truly believe that story can transform the way we view ourselves and others. And story has the capacity to transform not just a worldview, but actually to transform the world.
As author Alan Moore wrote: “There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth. Stories shape the world.”
Let’s think about that. If stories shape the world, which I am inclined to trust that they do, and the Dublin Literacy Conference has been celebrating and propagating stories for 30 years, the potential impact that this conference has had on transforming the world is undeniable. Over the past 30 years, more than a hundred authors have visited, spoken, signed autographs, and influenced students and teachers. Thousands of teachers have come together to contemplate and celebrate literacy with authors and with one another, returning to their districts and their classrooms and using the stories they heard to transform not only their teaching, but the lives of their students. For 30 years, the stories shared at the Dublin Literacy Conference have been, in a real sense, shaping the world. The enormity of the transformational impact cannot be overstated. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to contribute in some small way to this huge task of transforming the world through story, and I am extremely grateful.
Look again at the events listed at the beginning of this post. All of these events have their own stories: stories that precipitated their genesis, stories that ebbed and flowed with their evolution, and stories that continue to this day. These stories communicated messages to us and helped us to interpret our world. Moreover, these stories transformed not only our world views, but they transformed our world.
Thank you to the Dublin Literacy Conference for sharing stories for 30 years. Let’s continue to celebrate for decades to come!
Professional Development is my jam. It’s HARD to be a teacher who doesn’t want to learn, so I embrace the fact that I love teaching and I love learning, and thus I try to attend as many PD sessions as I possibly can–or until my principal says “ENOUGH!” (Luckily, she NEVER does that!!)
That being said, the Dublin Literacy Conference is one of the BEST, local PD sessions I have been to. At my previous school district, good PD was few and far between–even when it was required. School districts are not getting the funding they used to and if they are, funds are being used elsewhere instead of on educating their staff. I’m incredibly grateful that Dublin City Schools sees the value of quality professional development and brings in people worth listening to. Breakout sessions and big name authors are vetted by the Dublin Literacy Conference Committee to make sure topics are current, relevant, and what people want to hear from during their time away from home.
So, without further ado, there is my Top Ten List of AMAZING Takeaways from the 2019 Dublin Literacy Conference:
Presenting at a conference is HARD and INTIMIDATING, but SOOOOOO worth it.
I did a breakout session with my PLC (Professional Learning Community) at the conference on reading conferences in my 8th grade language arts classroom. I’m not going to lie–presenting freaks me out. Being in front of adults is ridiculously different than being in front of students. What if I really don’t know what I’m talking about? What if someone calls me out on that? Regardless of all of the “What ifs?” my PLC and I took a risk and had a really amazing session. And our sessions opened up some opportunities for dialogue with other language arts teachers and how they are using reading conference strategies in their own classrooms!
Networking with other literacy teachers (of any subject or grade) is so rewarding and feeds my soul.
I love talking to people about the craft and art of teaching. Especially people who are willing to give up a Saturday of doing something non-school related. Those people are my people. I overheard laughter, strategizing, lesson planning, and many a discussion on texts to read next while I walked around the high school. I chatted with a woman from a bordering school district walking out of the building at the end of the day about what we both learned that day and it made me look up another presenter’s notes that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It’s refreshing to know that there are others out there who value education, learning, teaching, and facilitating as much as I do.
Humility, Intimacy, and Gratitude need to be at the forefront of our minds when working with student readers (and I’ll argue writers as well).
Jason Reynolds’ “These Three Words” keynote gave me some pause. How often would we say we have humility in our classrooms. We’re supposed to be the experts, right? Reynolds says that in order to really get to know a student and what he/she likes to read, we need to get on their level and stop pushing books we know they will not successfully read. In connection with this, he also implored teachers to know our students’ reading lives intimately, which can help us find better texts for specific students in our classes. Finally, he asked us how many of us thanked our students for coming to class each day. So many times, our students have a choice to come and learn from us, not come to class, or even worse case scenario, drop out of school. We should be thanking them for coming through our door to learn.
“Education is a favor, it is a gift, but students don’t see it like that.”
So, my response to Reynolds’ statement is, how do we make them see that education is a gift and a favor? In my years of experience, the closest answer I can get to is by giving students our time and attention. By being present and available while they are in the classroom.
What’s your WHY for teaching?
Ahhh, the age old question. WHY are you a teacher? What’s your purpose in your job? I found myself coming back to this during Reynolds’ two talks that I attended because he was telling so many stories about teachers who were either making decisions for him or not opening doors of opportunity for him, but rather closing them. It made me sit back and think about why I wanted to become a teacher and if I still had that in mind 15 years later. And I do. I want students to be better when they leave my room than when they first stepped in it. I want them to read a variety of books and write a variety of different writings. This might have to be a future blog post! What’s YOUR why?
We need a schoolwide commitment to literacy.
Literacy is not just 5 days a week 7-8 hours a day while a student is in school. It’s EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR. ALL DAY. Literacy happens in the math classroom. Literacy happens in Physical Education. Literacy happens on breaks. Literacy happens over the summer. It’s not just happening in school. How can we make sure everyone is a part of literacy in our buildings?
Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate!
Literacy celebrations should be happening all the time in our classrooms. Now, I think the common misconception is that celebrations HAVE to have food and drinks and thus a fantastic mess for the teacher to clean up at the end of the day. Not necessarily. While the students LOVE those and they are worth it sometimes, celebrations can consist of just a shout out in class to Little Johnny who made his reading goal for the week! Or to Suzy Q. for finishing her 20th book of the school year. They can be a little post-it note that reads “I’m proud of you!” for someone who you know has been struggling with something in your class. Celebrations need to happen frequently.
Student voices in our classrooms should be louder than ours.
Jason Reynolds, Pam Allyn, and many of the presenters that I listened to at the conference talked about student voice and allowing students to share their stories with their classmates. But Kara Belden said it best when she said that the student voices in the classroom should be louder than ours. This made me stop and think about how much time I’m giving my students to write their stories–to flesh them out and get them on the page. To give them wings and let them fly to find someone else in our class who can say, “Me too” and know they’re not alone. I need to be better about this. About giving more time, regardless of the time restraints we have. This is what really counts in the world of education.
“It’s not that young people don’t like to read. It’s that young people don’t like to be bored.”
How many times have you heard another teacher say, “He/She just doesn’t like to read. There’s nothing I can do about it if they already have their minds made up.” Jason Reynolds (and I!) beg to differ. I’m a firm believer in that if a student doesn’t like to read, it’s because he/she hasn’t found the right book yet. It’s all about finding the right books and getting them into the right hands. We are so lucky to be teaching in an age where there are so many diverse authors and topics to give our students excitement when reading. We just need to make sure we can find them the right book. Or being able to connect them with someone who can find them the right book.
Share the love.
I just left a quick meeting this morning where everyone in my building who went to the lit conference got together to discuss what we learned, how and if we are applying our learning to our classrooms, and what information we would like to share with the rest of the staff. This quick little meeting forced me to revisit some of the things I heard, saw, and talked about during the conference and allowed me a space to talk with my colleagues about my learning. This. Is. Invaluable. in my humble opinion. For me, conversations about learning are where it’s at. It’s how I find most success in my classroom. It’s where I revisit my why. It’s where I find ways to celebrate student voice. It’s where humility, intimacy, and gratitude for my profession starts. And it’s why I stick with this crazy awesome, extremely hard, and unbelievably rewarding career.
I really hope we all see YOU at the next Dublin Literacy Conference on February 22, 2020!
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.
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!
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.
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!
“We argue that the ultimate goal of reading is to become more than we are at the moment; to be better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we want to become.”
– Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, Disrupting Thinking
My 8th-grade son has just finished a book club experience as part of his ELA class. There were several books he could choose from – The Hate U Give, All American Boys, Ghost Boys, Tyler Johnson Was Here, Dear Martin, How It Went Down and Piecing Me Together. After we talked a little about each book he decided to read Dear Martin.
On a cold Sunday afternoon as we were driving home from Target, (I am learning that VERY important conversations often happen in the car with 14-year-old boys.) I asked if he finished reading and if he liked the book.
“I don’t know – I thought I would learn more about how to stand up when people do things they shouldn’t. He told us about a lot of things that should never have happened in the first place.”
I responded, “Yeah, but when I read I learned a lot. I’ve never thought about talking to you about how to talk to police and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a situation where I looked different than everyone around me. And Justyce felt like this every day when he went to school.”
“Yeah, but Mom people are people and I think as generations move on things change … our friends are better.” He then described some things that my 93-year-old Gramma has said over the years. “I get really mad when family says racists things – they know better. How can I respectfully tell them that it bothers me?”
Wow! I honestly am not 100% sure that I navigated this conversation correctly and by no means is this conversation over. But there is one thing I do know – without these books and these amazing authors I would be even less prepared to talk about this with him.
Rudine Sims Bishop writes about how books can serve as “…windows, offering views of the world that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” I am forever grateful for authors who become some of my greatest teachers, through whose words I am able to peek into worlds beyond my experience. Elizabeth Acevado (The Poet X), Samira Ahmed (Love, Hate and Other Filters), Tahereh Mafi (A Very Large Expanse of Sea), Mitali Perkins (You Bring the Distant Near), Jason Reynolds (For Every One), Jewell Parker Rhodes (Ghost Boys), Benjamin Alire Saenz (The Inexplicable Logic of Life) and Angie Thomas (On the Come Up) .you have each recently been my teacher and I want to say THANK YOU!
THANK YOU to all of the teachers and librarians who make these books accessible to young readers. THANK YOU to my son’s 8th grade ELA teacher who used these books as the anchor for book club discussions and learning.
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.