Books · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching

Making the Wrong Choice

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

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

Until I started reading one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection · Teaching

The Emotional Labor of Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classroom Libraries · co-teaching · Culture · Literacy · Reading · Reflection · Students · Teaching · Uncategorized

Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students

img_3133Taking “A Novel Approach” to EMPOWERing Students 

Introduction

This year, I read both Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani and A Novel Approach: Whole-Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice by Kate Roberts, and these books inspired me to make huge changes. Most notably, Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I used these two texts to collaboratively make changes to our end-of-the-year unit surrounding The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

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A Novel Approach

Over the last few years, we have made some gradual changes away from whole-class required reads for many reasons, but The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet has always remained a staple of our English I curriculum.

The Debate:

Whole-class texts: Independent reading:
“Believing in teaching whole-class texts–long or short–suggests the belief that struggle is productive for young readers, that kids that kids need to read great books, that focusing on a common text builds strong and literate reading communities, and that students benefit from controlled questions and activities led by a proficient reader (the teacher).” “Choosing to focus on independent reading shows the beliefs that reading ability matters, that kids are going to benefit most from having experiences with great books that they can read on their own with strength, and that knowing the skills it takes to read any book will help them to build greater independence. This also suggests a belief that choice in reading is essential in building a strong reading life and that often our very identities are in part shaped by the books we have read.”
Both excerpts are from Kate Roberts’ A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching, and Choice

I personally tend to value independent reading over whole-class novels, but Roberts’ book provided great reminders of the importance of mentor texts, shared experiences, and modeling. Plus, it merges the best of both worlds, so it gave me fresh ideas and new energy going into 4th quarter, the only quarter that I still teach a whole-class novel. For the last few years, I’ve tended to focus on all the negatives of whole-class novels and all the positives of independent reading, but Roberts’ merging of the two provides a unique balance that allows time for both types of instruction and celebrates both types of learning.

Empower

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Deb Maynard and I both took a course led by Steve Kucinski (@specialkdchs) and Kristy Venne (@KristyVenne) surrounding the book Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. I took photos of the pages that resonated with me the most.

 

With this in mind, PLUS the ideas presented in A Novel Approach, we ultimately decided NOT to get rid of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet altogether, but instead, keep Romeo and Juliet as a mentor text, teach the reading skills required to tackle such a challenging read, and help students apply those skills to their independent reading books.

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 2.33.38 PMIn addition to allowing students to purposely pair choice novels to The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, we gave students choice in writing prompts, and students proposed summative celebrations of learning rather than us assigning and requiring the standard compare/contrast essay that we always have.

You can read more about how we introduced the new unit and unique expectations to students and families here.

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Throughout the unit, Deb and I read contemporary YA novels, too, and modeled all of the thinking and writing that we asked students to do.

We modeled thinking that we actually do when reading any book for any purpose since most of our students were reading different books than us and each other.

Taking the journey with students helped us to better know what skills were truly necessary, what work was especially hard, and what challenges most students would face.  

Critical Questions

1. What decisions are we making for students that they could make for themselves?
2. What changes should be made to inspire students to build independence and take ownership over their reading lives?
3. How can we make this shift:

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WHO – Deborah Maynard (intervention specialist) and I co-teach English I all day (five 48-minute periods).  We worked together to make all of these changes to our teaching routines and strategies and to make changes to our unit expectations and assessments in order to empower students to take ownership over their reading lives. Hear more about WHAT and WHY here: 

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WATCH VIDEO HERE!

WHERE – Dublin Coffman High School, 9th grade, English I, inclusion

WHEN – 4th Quarter, 2018; The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet Unit

HOW – surveys, flipgrid reflections, online discussions, observations

LIMITATIONS – It is difficult to quantify and calculate things such as empowerment, engagement, interest, and rigor, so we’ve had to rely on our observations, and have done our best to encourage students to be 100% honest in their survey responses and flipgrid reflections.

 

Because our unit in its entirety and our Action Research Project involve so many parts, I am going to break all of that info into multiple blog posts. Plus, we haven’t even finished reading Romeo and Juliet, and students are just now starting to work on their summative celebrations of learning, so stay tuned! More will be coming in a week or two, and I can’t wait to share!

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.

WINNING BLOGS:

Goal Setting · Reflection · Teaching

Getting Unstuck

Happy New Year! The time for resolutions! Right?

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

#1: Catch Up

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

#2: Refresh New Procedures

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

#3: Setting the Intention to Be Reflective

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

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

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

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

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!

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.

Students · Teaching · Writing Workshop

Writing Territories

It’s the first Friday of the school year, and my classroom buzzes with excitement and the movement of pencils across a page. My students are working on creating writing territory maps, and there is a lot of chatter as they discuss some of their favorite things with their writing tables. Two students (oddly) bond over a shared fear of kidnapping, while others find out that they have the same favorite food (spoiler: it’s usually pizza). Regardless of what they’re writing down, they’re all engaged in the process. Creating writing territory maps is one of my favorite activities of the year because of this energetic environment.

The idea of writing territories originated from Nancie Atwell, but I got the idea for creating writing territory maps from two places. First, from Penny Kittle, who referred to these as “heart maps” in her powerful book Book Love, and focused on the music that lives in one’s heart; the second source was the Two Writing Teachers blog, one of my favorite websites for practical teaching ideas and inspirational reflection.

Writing Territories are a powerful writing tool for three main reasons.

  1. Students can create something unique to them.

I am always amazed by the wide range of “map” I see – from kids doing something basic like a heart to something incredibly detailed like a rocketship or a pair of ballet slippers. Students take this map to heart because they get to choose the shape. They get to choose what they write or draw within their map. The only part that I play in this activity is suggesting categories to brainstorm ideas (using this lovely handout from TWT), but they are the designers. I stress to them that what they put in their maps are things they think they might be able to write about later, which brings me to point number two.

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  1. Students have something to reference when they feel stuck.

We do a lot of choice writing in Language Arts. Often when we’re working on a skill or a certain aspect of grammar, students will have the opportunity to choose their topic for writing. It is so much easier for students to find a topic for a “free write” if they have a cache of ideas sitting on the first page of their writer’s notebook. Again, students have choice in what they can write about, and their writing stems from choices they made at the beginning of the year. Everything they pull from these writing territories is all their own, which means that they feel more ownership over their writing. Students feel like their notebooks and their writing for them, not for their teacher.

  1. This activity helps build our writing community.

unnamed-4Students love connecting – heck, all humans love connecting. When my students sit at their tables and brainstorm their favorite things, or places they’ve traveled, or issues they care about, they are bound to talk it out with the people around them. Many of them find connections they didn’t know they had. They may end up talking to someone they thought they had nothing in common with. When students share their interests and what is important to them, it opens them up to sharing their writing as a community. When students struggle, they turn to their classmates for suggestions. By brainstorming and creating writing territory maps, students are given a chance within the first week of school to start building this writing community. They also have the shared experience of creating something that is valuable to their individual self.

There is power in choice, and there is power in students sharing their experiences. One of my main goals as a teacher of writing is to help students take ownership of their writing and to see the value in building strong writing skills. I hope that by appealing to their interests, students can use their writer’s notebooks as a place to explore their own writing selves. They can build on ideas they’ve created within their writing territory maps, and little by little, grow as writers.

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Teaching

Independent Reading and a Mala Bracelet

For the past four months, I’ve worn the same bracelet every day to school. It is fairly chunky so it is jewelry that is hard to miss. After a few days of wearing the bracelet, my students noticed the repetition and asked about why I was wearing a new, wooden bracelet. Eighth graders are naturally curious and since they had taken an interest in my “fashion accessory”, I decided to explain to my classes what my new bracelet meant and why I was choosing to wear it every day.

In February, I started a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training at my yoga studio. On our first day together, every trainee received a goodie bag and one of the items in the tote were Mala beads. (Mala beads contain 108 beads and are used for prayer and meditation and as a reminder of a person’s intentions.) I’d worn Mala beads before but always as a necklace. When I left Yoga Teacher Training that weekend, I made the conscious decision to wear my Mala every day until my teacher training was over and I was a certified yoga teacher.

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On my first day back to school after my intense training weekend, the red of my Mala beads clashed with my outfit. As a confident person, I suppose that shouldn’t have mattered, but for those who know me – it did. I realized that I couldn’t go back on my intention, so I wrapped the Mala around my left wrist.  As I went through the day, I loved the feel and sound of the beads. My students got used to the rustling and clanging of my bracelets as I presented mini-lessons or sat with them for reading conferences. After a few weeks, the Mala became part of my identity and routine just like the routines of my classroom, like starting each day with choice independent reading.

One day in early April, I forgot to put my Mala on when I dressed for work. I noticed it as soon as I got to school, and I almost called my husband to request that he bring them to me. I felt a little exposed and out of sorts as the day started. Guess what? My students in every class noticed right away that I didn’t have my bracelet. I heard “Mrs. Honeycutt, where’s your Mala?” and “Hey, did you forget your bracelet today?” and “What is going on with you today, Mrs. Honeycutt?”

My forgetfulness disrupted our day. The slip in one small routine caused a stir among each class. I’m not sure why I was surprised. My classroom environment is built solidly on routine. The most important one to my students is that we start every day with ten minutes of choice reading. Everyone (teachers, administrators, parents, and even students) know the importance of reading. It is well-researched that the more students read, the more their vocabulary grows and the more they are able to understand and process text. Independent reading has been a sacred routine in my language arts classroom for more than 20 years.

On days that our schedule doesn’t allow for independent reading, which is very RARE and only on special odd days, the students walk into class, look at the SmartBoard, and protest. “We don’t have independent reading today?” or “You’ve got to be kidding me! I want to read today!” It isn’t even a question that independent reading time is precious in my classroom.

In a 50 minute class period, some may say that ten minutes is a lot to give up each day for reading. I never feel like I am missing anything by spending those ten minutes suggesting books to students or having individual or small group conferences.

Obviously, my students don’t either because they are upset and flustered when the reading time is missed. Unfortunately, sometimes the ten minutes in class are the only reading minutes a student has in a day. Even my most reluctant readers would tell you if they have a good book, they like to read.

I’ve learned that like forgetting my Mala bracelet – independent reading time and that routine – are important and precious things. My job as a teacher is to protect the independent reading time each day for my students. It is important to them like my wearing a Mala bracelet is important to me.

Teaching

The Introverted Teacher

A couple of years ago, I was at a Thanksgiving gathering with my family at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Cincinnati. My family was doing our normal deal – talking, eating desserts, watching football, and looking through Black Friday ads in the newspaper (my favorite part). At one point, I got up to get a cup of coffee and stopped to chat with my Uncle Jerry. He’s a quiet, always smiling man, who loves to golf and loves his grandkids. He is soft-spoken, but loves any opportunity to crack a joke or laugh.

“How’s school going?” he asked, and I knew he genuinely meant it. He wanted to really know, not just the general “It’s fine” that I say to a lot of people.

“Well,” I said. “It’s mostly going well, but it is exhausting getting up in front of 125 kids everyday and talking to them about the same thing five times a day. My group is a little wild this year, too.”

He nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I could never do that. It’s like you’re giving a performance every class. That’s hard.” And then he smiled and laughed, but it really dawned on me in that conversation: Teaching is a performance.

And for someone who strongly identifies as an introvert, that does make it hard. Performing is not something that introverts typically choose to do. We tend to be more reserved, more deliberate with our words than someone who identifies as outgoing or as an extrovert. We tend to hang out in the wings, quietly supporting the people in the spotlight.

I think about this idea of performance – usually around 8:10 a.m. when my students are about to walk in the door to my classroom and change the dynamic of this little space. Time to drop everything else and put on a face for the kids. I’m not always successful, but I feel like I often have to brace myself for their arrival. I go from the quiet and focused environment of my before-school routine in which I get to work on my to-do list and listen to NPR while I drink my coffee in peace, to hallways full of teenagers excited to see their friends. I like the early morning moments because they do help me prepare for the day ahead and give me the chance to “recharge” before the students arrive. I brace myself for the noise they bring – the laughter, the drama, and even the polite “good mornings” because I thrive in spaces of quiet.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t love and care for these same students who bring a cacophony to my mellow life each morning. You can’t teach middle school without loving these weird and wonderful kids, but sometimes their idea of an acceptable noise level far exceeds mine. I have to let myself be okay with a little “organized chaos,” a term my high school soccer coach used to use. I am not a loud person either, so sometimes wrangling in the excited shouts of 8th graders is challenging. It’s a skill that I’m still developing.

To help with that development of my teaching performance, I decided to take an online class about staying present and using mindfulness in the classroom. This class focused on how to teach mindfulness techniques to students, but also how to be a mindful teacher. As an introvert, mindfulness speaks to me because it promotes the idea of taking time to pause, breathe, and reflect before reacting to a situation. I am going to take some of these techniques to heart as a way to prepare myself for each day.

Most days, being an introvert is a challenging part of my decision to become a teacher. But I like to think that my need to recharge and have moments of quiet helps me to see some of those introverted students who may sometimes be passed over. Introverts tend to be more reflective by nature, and I think that will only help me to be a better teacher. When a student is quiet, I feel like I can connect with him or her. That’s one reason why as an introverted teacher, I love one on one conferences with students. It gives me a chance to lower the stakes for students who may not want to talk in front of the whole class, and who may be more comfortable talking with just me about their thoughts on a book or their writing. When I think about this type of introverted student, two girls from last year come to mind – a pair of ladies in my chatty 7th period class, right after lunch. They were often quiet in class, and hardly ever spoke out when we had whole-class discussions. But they listened. I knew they paid attention, and I also knew that they were thoughtful and brought up great ideas, especially in their writing. I would have such rich discussions with one or both of them when I could speak to them either on their own or in a small group. They knew that I cared about their thoughts and their work, even though I didn’t force them to talk to the whole class.

I see this type of student every day – reserved, bothered at times by the noise of their classmates – so I am more open to students opting to listen to music when it’s time to work. I have grown accustomed to the steady hum of the workshop model in my classroom, with noise from conferences, student collaboration, and the quick movement of pencils across notebooks. Quite a few students, especially introverted ones, often need a way to “check out” from these productivity noises, and they choose to use their headphones while working. I always give the caveat that when I come over to confer, they need to take them out, but most kids are thankful that I give them a chance to use music as a way to isolate themselves. I am continuously looking for ways to accommodate all of my students and create the best learning environment for each one of them.

Not every student is comfortable speaking up in front of their peers, and I can respect that. Just like we make accommodations for other student needs, I think it can really fluster those introverted students to be put on the spot in class. I was that kid once. As a Language Arts teacher, I value public speaking, but I also provide structured opportunities for students to build those skills. They will find their way to speak up for what they need, and for what is important to them.

I did, but it wasn’t always an easy journey. I am slowly finding my voice in wild world of middle school.