Books · Classroom Libraries · Community · Culture · Leading · Literacy · Reading · Students

TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY All High School Teachers Should Read Young Adult Books

blog41. For all of the same reasons that you read adult books!

In all seriousness, young adult books can be just as fun, entertaining, moving, informational, important, and challenging as books that are written for adults.

2. To realize that YA books have a place in the classroom.

By exposing yourself to a wide range of YA texts, you’ll be able to purposefully expose your students to those texts, too. More importantly, you’ll want to do so. Much of this post may sounds like it is for English teachers, but that is absolutely not the case. In recent years, we have had both history and science teachers add libraries to their classrooms because our staff is recognizing the importance of promoting literacy across the contents. The more I read YA, the more I recognize that these books(plural!) NEED to be in the hands of my students.

blog1

3. To teach students how to read.

After recognizing the value of YA Literature, I came to realize the necessity of teaching students how to read whatever they’re reading rather than teaching what I’m looking for students to gain from a whole-class novel. In a sense, by valuing YA books, I like to think that I’m now focusing on teaching the reader, not the reading. This includes teaching basic and specific reading skills as well as universal themes and archetypes.

4. To be able to actually converse with students about books (and not interview, quiz, interrogate, or grade them).

There’s nothing shocking here. When you’re reading books that students are reading, you’re able to authentically dialogue with students. I will be the first to admit that when I wasn’t reading YA books, “conversations” with students about books were somewhat phony. Students need to see adults who read for pleasure, and students need reassurance and reinforcement that reading is both a delightful and a worthwhile pastime. If we as educators always associate required assignments and grades with students’ reading, we are killing these notions. Make your passion for reading visible to students and show students that you care about their passions by reading YA books.

13597839_743031755847778_1022024993_n

5. To build rapport with your students – truly!

THIS IS MY FAVORITE REASON! I’m not sure that there is any better, quicker, easier way to get to know students than by showing interest in their reading lives. You can learn a LOT about students’ interests, hobbies, after school life, home life, etc. by asking some simple questions such as these: What are you currently reading? What did you read this summer? What’s the best book that you’ve ever read? Why do you think you enjoy that genre so much? How many books do you have in your home?

Rapport is built by continuing to show interest in students’ reading lives beyond the first week of school (after beginning of the year reading surveys). It is built by finding ways to celebrate students’ individual reading successes and by finding that book to make a difference for a non-reader.  Imagine recommending a book to a student that becomes their favorite or changes their life. By starting the conversation now, this is the type of work that lays the foundation for a life-long relationship, one where you can genuinely ask students “What are you reading?” when you run into them ten years from now. This is the type of work that feeds the soul. This is why we became teachers.

6. To be reminded of what teen life is like.

From attending prom senior year, to combating bullying on a daily basis, to experiencing lovesickness and hormones for the first time, to living in less-than-ideal homes, to navigating the cafeteria, to finding a place where you fit in, to feeling anxious about college admissions, to playing on a team and learning how to be coached, to learning about your sexuality or questioning it, etc. etc. etc. Let me just put it this way: when you’re reading YA books, it’s a little easier to empathize with students and understand why your class’s assignment may not be at the forefront of their priorities. More importantly, it may be a little easier to understand why your class’s assignment shouldn’t be at the forefront of their priorities.

7. To stay focused on what is most important.

If you start to prioritize time to read young adult books when you haven’t in the past, you may find yourself re-prioritizing many aspects of your personal and professional worlds. Since it is obvious that students need me to make time for them to read, when making decisions for my students and my classroom, I now ask myself questions such as these: What do students really need to learn? What do students truly need to do? Is that lesson actually important to students’ growth, or do we just do it because we’ve always done it? And, if I don’t prioritize time to read, how can I expect students to?

 10575944_793289530804756_296817116_n

8. To become a better book matchmaker.

Students desperately need help finding books that they enjoy! It’s no surprise that the more YA I read, the better I become at this. Nothing excites me more than (after engaging in conversation with a student) being able to exclaim, “OHH! I have the PERFECTbook for you!” Also, now that I’ve read a fairly large percentage of the books in my classroom library, I am able to notice patterns between books and students. For example, I can make recommendations such as, “You liked All the Bright Places? Then try A Million Junes. I think you’ll like it, too!”

Admittedly, I used to recommend books pretty superficially, based on the little that I knew about them from reviews, colleagues, word of mouth, and the descriptions on the books’ covers. Let me be clear – I still do this and probably always will (with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually read the book); I just don’t do this as often as I used to for two reasons. (1) I’ve read more books and continue to read YA books. (2) I sometimes cringe now when I’m currently reading a book that I have recommended in the past while thinking to myself, “Yikes… I recommended this book to that student?”

9. To be able to book talk – an art in itself.

Magic happens when students trust your judgment. Because students quickly learn that I read YA books regularly, students are willing to try books that I recommend. I am able to reach multiple students at once through book talks. When I book talk, I choose one, two, or three titles to present to students. I love exposing students to different genres, topics, and authors, and I try to let the books speak for themselves by reading short passages aloud. Book talking is just one way to celebrate reading publicly and routinely. Sometimes, I have to create waiting lists for titles or scrounge up extra copies of books because the demand for the titles is so high after book talking them.

10. To build a classroom library for your students.

Notice the emphasis on your. Nobody knows what books your students need better than you and your students. Every year, I ask students what books should be added to our classroom library. It is important to me that students know our classroom is truly a community where their voices matter. Also, students want to read books that I wouldn’t have chosen for our classroom myself. Personally, I don’t enjoy sci-fi/fantasy much, but my students do, so I need their help in selecting titles to add to this genre. This year, I plan on asking my students to help me identify gaps that need to be filled in library. By using Goodreads.com and a few other sites and blogs, I am able to keep up with the newest, hottest YA releases and popular authors, which excites me and my students.

14723440_701082820047789_3562411141348982784_n

11. To get to know your students’ academic abilities better.

Now that I’m reading what students are reading, I have a better grasp on students’ current reading abilities, what reading skills I need to teach, who just needs a confidence boost, who doesn’t read at all, who reads avidly, who has access to books at home, who is good at faking it (playing the “game” of school), who has reading stamina and who needs to build it, and I don’t have to test or survey students for this information. I can gather it simply by observing what students are choosing to read.

12. To be a role model for colleagues and to build a reading culture/community in your school.

If you’re genuinely enthusiastic about reading YA for your students’ sake and for your personal pleasure, your excitement will spread! Just a few years ago, I was inspired to make independent reading a priority in my classroom, and now I’m reading 50-75 books a year when I used to read just a handful. In the last 3 years, a student book club has formed (lead by a history teacher!), two different staff book clubs have formed, non-ELA classrooms have added libraries to their rooms, and relationships between students and colleagues have been strengthened. We (Dublin Coffman High School) legitimately have a reading community to be proud of now.

I feel a calling to model and spread enthusiasm for reading YA books to my colleagues because every single year there are students that I fail to reach in English class, that I fail to recommend the perfect books to in order to turn non-readers into readers and occasional readers into avid readers. I truly believe that the right book(s) can have this impact, which drives me to read as many books as I do. It also makes me acutely aware of the fact that I won’t ever be able to reach all of my students, BUT I have high hopes that my students’ sophomore, junior, and senior year teachers will be able to reach them with their book recommendations! As the saying goes, ‘it takes a village,’ and an entire school community of readers will obviously have a much bigger impact than a few teachers, so I am begging you; if you work with adolescents, please read young adult books.

blog3

13. To #bewhatyouteach

“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Students

Every child can become a mathematician

My father instilled a love of math in me at a young age through challenging math riddles, logic puzzles, games and conversations.  I remember him casually presenting ways to push my thinking, challenge my abilities and have fun with numbers, shapes and logic.  This laid the foundation of an early confidence in me that I could think critically, mathematically, and logically.  But more importantly, it instilled in my young self the norm that math can be entertaining….dare, I say, fun!  He did this effortlessly.  It wasn’t something he made me do;, it was something fun for us to do together.  I don’t know that he could predict the impact that this kind of family fun would have on his three daughters because it wasn’t forced…these fun family times just happened.  

It’s been 15 years since I entered the education world as a high school teacher.  My goal each day has been to bring enthusiasm to the math world through my work with students and teachers.  I have watched thousands of teenagers pass through high school.  Many arrive in 9th grade saying (nearly bragging) that “I can’t do math!”.  I have found that I must remind parents at Open House that, “No matter what, please never say to your child, ‘I hated math’, ‘I was never good at it’, ‘It’s not in our genes to be good at math’, or ‘Math doesn’t really matter. I never use it.’”  

I have yet to hear a student enter high school boasting, “I can’t read!” It’s just not educationally or socially acceptable. Yet, we allow and accept this sort of thinking in regards to math. Math educators are faced with fighting a battle against a society that has been brainwashed to believe that math is boring and only important for some people. But, we know now, that isn’t true.  We know that engaging in math, critical thinking, and logic strengthens the brain, is attainable for all and is an indicator for future success for all children.

Each day, I fight the good fight, encourage my learners to believe in their ability to grow as mathematicians…each and every one of them.  Math can be fun and it is all around us.  Each child can grow their brain mathematically.  We are not born good (or bad) at math.  With hard work, a growth mindset, and a desire to improve, we can all master mathematical thinking.

Why then, does our society continue to view math as something for an elite, small, specialized group?

Literacy education has it right.  

Here is what the literacy world has taught us:

  • Having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 2010
  • The single most significant factor influencing a child’s early educational success is an introduction to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school. National Commission on Reading, 1985
  • A single, brief exposure to good reading material can result in a clear increase in enthusiasm for reading.  Ramos and Krashen, 1998; Cho and Krashen, 2002

Here are the messages I have heard about developing readers:

  • Remember that learning to read and to read very well are crucial to your child’s well-being.
  • Surround your child with all kinds of books and make what she’s reading a topic of dinnertime conversation. Listen to the way she talks about books to ensure that her comprehension continues to deepen.
  • Parents should read to their child in the womb.  
  • It may take hard work, but everyone can learn to read.
  • Make it a family affair.  Read together.  Make it fun.

I wonder what impact we can have on kids if we change our messaging about math.  Go home tonight and work through a fun math puzzle with your kids tonight.  Smile, laugh and enjoy it.

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.

unnamed-1

  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.

unnamed-3

Students

The Power of Labels

screen-shot-2017-08-30-at-10-40-57-am.png

Last week my son began seventh grade! I have never been so anxious about the start of a school year.  Yes, I was nervous when he went to kindergarten, but there was much more excitement than anxiety.  This year there is worry … Can he handle the independence of middle school? Will he align with the “right” peer group? Does he have the study habits necessary for success? (I don’t think he does… AHH!) How can I support him without being overbearing? (He is entering my wheelhouse and I have to be Mom and not Mrs. Shaffer!)  But most importantly I worry that his teachers will see his label and not see him.

In first grade, my son was diagnosed with ADHD.  This was no surprise! When he was a toddler, I sometimes described his activity as a top that just kept spinning and spinning – words that I am pretty sure I stole from an ADHD rating scale.  Although he has made significant strides managing his inattentiveness it is a journey and last year his teachers and I decided that a 504 plan would be beneficial to ensure his success. As an educator, I know this is only a document that will guarantee he receives everything he needs to ensure he learns; but as a mom, I was making the decision to label my child, the person who matters more to me than anyone in this world. 

When a label is placed on a child assumptions about that child follow. All learning is easy for the gifted child, but they may need help making friends. A child with anxiety is going to struggle with attendance and can not handle redirection. The ADHD child must sit close to the instruction, will be distracting to those around him and will never turn in homework on time. While some of these generalizations may be correct some of the time for some kiddos and may provide very early guidance for classroom teachers, they are generalizations!

Screen Shot 2017-08-30 at 9.31.26 AMI beg that all educators look past these labels and truly get to know the learners in their classrooms. I also demand that all educators remember that these labels are A descriptor and not THE descriptor. Every child in our classrooms is an individual and needs different things from the adults who are supporting learning … please value each child’s uniqueness and help his or her learning thrive! 

Goal Setting · Leading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

New Year’s Resolutions: Goal Setting to Ensure Work-Life Balance

Balance

It’s that time of year!

(and I’m not talking about the winter holidays)

If you work in the education sector like me, August is when the “new” year begins, and it’s the month that holds the most promise for change. Hopefully due to taking the time to temporarily power down and recharge over the summer, it’s probably also the month that you feel the most energy to make changes happen. And if you’re anything like me, as you’re rebooting for the upcoming school year, your mind is constantly racing with thoughts such as, “This year is going to be my best year yet! I’m going to do this differently… and this differently… and this… and this…”

I’ll admit that I’ve earned a reputation at Coffman for being a “yes-woman.” I’m the type of person that is inspired by new ideas and driven by change. I’m the type of person who will try anything if I think it will benefit my students’ learning. I have a hard time saying “no” when asked to lead or advise a student group/club. When approached by like-minded colleagues who love to “take a risk,”  my standard answer is “Let’s do it!” I once stayed up until 3AM creating a new grammar lesson for the next day simply because I was introduced to Pear Deck the day before.

Some of this I’m proud of. I want to be a teacher who isn’t afraid to make a change if it is what’s best for students. I’m actually really proud of many of the changes that we’ve made in the five years that I’ve been teaching English I and Honors English I. Looking back, though, I know that staying up until 3AM to use some new technology that I’ve stumbled upon is pretty silly.

I’m entering my 6th year of teaching, and though I’m inspired to make important changes and am as confident as ever that I’m about to have my best year yet, I’ve come to realize that I’m not the energizer bunny (at least not any more). I’ve also learned a LOT about work-life balance because a lot has changed in five years; I’m now married and have a house, a dog, and two daughters. Because “life” happens, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be super-teacher, AND super-mom, AND super-wife, which has been difficult because I want to be it all and do it all well. Every single day, I continue to learn how to navigate these three roles with balance and grace.

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer reflecting on my first five years of teaching. Most of all, I just keep thinking about how many of us know (but may be too stubborn to admit it) that there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. So, my “New Year’s Resolution” is to be intentional with my time, and I’ve come up with 3 goals to ensure that I am.

Here they are:

GOAL #1:

I promise to provide time to my students for meaningful reflection on a weekly basis.

I’ve created this goal based on my current levels of confidence within the workshop model. This is one of those changes referenced above that I’m especially proud of  (our team has switched to and embraced the workshop model). This is important to note, as I’m sure that learning how to be especially intentional with my time each class period has simultaneously inspired me to be intentional with the time I spend throughout the day and outside of school, too. In order to limit my lessons to 15 minutes or less, I constantly reflect on these questions: what is truly important for students to learn? How can I make the most of every second of my instructional time? If students only have 25-30 minutes to practice, how should they use each minute?

Last year, I focused on keeping my mini-lessons mini to make time for meaningful practice, but I still struggle with the reflection piece. We often run right to the bell, and when I do remember to stop class with a few minutes left, the reflection that I’ve come up with often feels forced and inauthentic; therefore, if I’m being truthful, I haven’t found much value in this part the workshop model yet. I’m not giving up on it because I know that reflecting is such an invaluable step in the learning process. When expressing these challenges to a colleague this summer, she suggested that I just take baby steps and commit to making time to reflect with students once a week rather than every day. What a brilliant idea! So, my initial idea is to make 15-20 minutes on Fridays sacred to reflecting (but if the day of the week must change, I am flexible, which is why I wrote my goal above to state “on a weekly basis”). I’m looking forward to this flexibility, and I’m not overwhelmed because we will have plenty to reflect on during any given week.

 

GOAL #2:

I will sweat at least twice a week.

I know this one sounds weird, but hear me out. I HATE to sweat. I always have. I do not enjoy exercising. If you know me, you know this, and therefore, you also know that this is a BIG deal because you know that this is twice as often as I’ve ever worked out in the past. I wrote my goal to say “sweat” because I feel better after (I don’t feel good about it before or during) sweating, and I swear my food even tastes better! My aversion to sweating aside, this one will be difficult for me to achieve because every time I try to get out of the house so that I can actually exercise, I think about all of the other things I should probably do instead.

I obviously know that this goal has huge physical health benefits, but to me, this personal goal is more about mental health. I’m clearly self-aware and reflective and have learned that it is so very important for me to make time for myself. I’m moderately confident that I’ll be successful in mastering this goal because my sister recently inspired me to try System of Strength with her, and I am now addicted to their “ebb and flo”(hot yoga) classes. My addiction comes from sweating + meditation + sweating + challenge + sweating + time to myself. Did I mention that it’s HOT?

It has taken me years to believe it, but I deserve to give this time to myself. As one of my all-time favorite sayings goes, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

 

GOAL #3:

I will read to or with my daughter every evening.

This should be the easiest, but if I’m being totally honest, sticking to this goal worries me the most. First of all, let’s talk logistics. This is a daily goal, which I’m just not sure will actually be possible. Like, what if I’m traveling without her? Logistics aside, I have now officially committed to playing a part in the bedtime routine every. single. night. The thought of this alone is pretty overwhelming and exhausting.

Some of the reasons behind this goal are obvious. I’m an English teacher. Of course I want to instill a love of reading in my children. The gift of literacy is undoubtedly invaluable, but for me, this goal goes beyond all of that. Most of my fondest memories related to reading involve my dad, a backyard hammock, and hours of time spent together. My parents are divorced, and I didn’t get to see my dad often, so that time was precious to me. I equated this activity to a direct reflection of my dad’s love for me.

Because of this, it breaks my heart that when Delaney asks if we can read some books together, I sometimes struggle internally to say “yes.” I don’t like that I’ve busied my life so much that I feel like I don’t have the time to read to my daughter. One day I do want my daughter to recognize that I’ve found a job that I’m so passionate about, a job that I truly believe is one of the most important in the world, but that time isn’t now. She’s three years old. She doesn’t understand, and she shouldn’t have to, so this goal is as simple as saying, “YES” every single time she asks me to read to her.

Another one of my favorite quotes inspired this goal, and I think it is especially applicable to teachers and fellow workaholics: “If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” – Mother Teresa

Time. It’s life’s most precious commodity. Time given to students. Time given to family. Time given to yourself. How are you going to be intentional with the time you spend this year?