Reading

Professional Spring Cleaning: Tips for Veteran Teachers

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.

#3–Organize

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!

Community · Culture · Environment · Students

Words Are Power

No surprise The Magic of Words book was my favorite.

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

Words make us feel!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Culture · Environment · Reflection

Finding the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing Workshop

Rigor Mortis Bend

CD01EE2F-A29F-4FBA-86C6-4102F3C6FAA8Excerpt from The Running Dream

by Wendelin Van Draanen

“Rigor Mortis Bend.

It’s a place in the 400-meter race where every cell of your body locks up.

Your lungs ache for air.

Your quads turn to cement.

Your arms pump desperately, but they’re stiff and feel like lead.

Rigor Mortis Bend is the last turn of any track, and at Liberty High you’re greeted with a headwind.

The finish line comes into view and you will yourself toward it, but the wind pushes you back, your body begs you to give up, and the whole world seems to grind into slow motion.

Your determination is all that’s left.

It forces your muscles to fire.

Forces you to stay in the race.

Forces you to survive the pain of this moment.

Your teammates scream for you to push.

Push! Push! Push!

You can do it!

But their voices are muffled by the gasping for air, the pounding of earth, the pumping of blood, the need to collapse.

I feel like I’m living on Rigor Mortis Bend.” (16-17)

So, I knew I was scheduled to write this blog post for about two and a half weeks now and I just kept pushing it to the metaphorical back burner. I tried to sit down and write. I made a list of topics to write about. I definitely thought about what to write. But no ideas emerged. Nothing worth sharing. Spring break is right around the corner, and I’ve hit a wall. Like Jessica, the protagonist in Wendelin Van Draanen’s award-winning and inspiring novel The Running Dream that I recently read, I hit Rigor Mortis Bend, the place where you have to push yourself to complete something.

I continued to find other tasks to complete, no matter how menial, in order to avoid thinking about and coming up with a topic to blog about this week. I changed all of the bed sheets in the house. I did the dishes. I looked for a missing library book that has been renewed on my account over a dozen times. When at school, I organized my desk, I walked around the building finding others to chat with. I contemplated e-mailing our blog team to let them know I was going to have to bail on this week’s blog post, and to see if anyone else was ready to post instead.

Then it occurred to me that I was doing EXACTLY what some of my learners do–they hit Rigor Mortis Bend when writing, and then they stop. They avoid. They quit. Like me, they have things they’d rather be doing. They have other things to think about. The problem lies in that I can usually come up with something to post or submit, but once learners hit this wall, they’re finished. So, how can we help learners fight and push through Rigor Mortis Bend when writing?

I think the answer to this question is twofold. First, as teachers (and notice I didn’t say JUST English/Language Arts teachers!), we need to create opportunities for learners to write more in class, not for homework. And second, we need to be writing beside students to model our own imperfections and struggles with writing.

My PLC saw that we weren’t giving learners as many writing opportunities as we wanted to when we started off the school year. Things happened–snow days, lessons ran over, assemblies, changes in the schedule, you name it. And for whatever reason, time with writer’s notebooks haven’t made the final agenda in quite some time. Now that we’ve recognized this, we are devoting Friday’s classes to writing and conferencing about writing. We want learners to know that writing is important and that talking about writing is important as well. We are being very cognizant of making sure that learners are drafting and writing in class and not out of class where they can’t ask questions, or talk to friends about their writing. This also gives us the chance to do a better job of talking to students about the writing they are doing, whether it’s a quick reflective piece in their writer’s notebook, or one of our big essays for the school year. We are planning to use things like “What’s Going on in This Picture?” from The New York Times and The Quickwrite Handbook by Linda Rief to get our learners thinking about something, whether it’s a picture or more writing, and build a volume of writing from which to draw ideas for more extensive and developed pieces. We totally regret not doing these things at the beginning of the year, yet we aren’t waiting for the beginning of next year to try these ideas in our classrooms. Why? Because it’s never too late to try something new. Our learners are more flexible than we think, and if it’s something they can do and have fun with, they will do it and not even realize that they’re learning.

In the same fashion, we need to be sure we are modeling our own drafting and thinking process for students. Don’t get me wrong, I struggle with this as well. I have a young family at home who demands my attention and I’m currently teaching four preps and six classes at school every day, so I completely understand the excuse that there is no time to get writing done to share with learners. But that’s the thing–they need to SEE/WATCH/OBSERVE us in this process, so it’s not about coming to class prepared with a mentor text to share with them. It’s about drafting on the SmartBoard or Elmo, in front of them, and doing your thinking out loud, letting them watch you struggle. In her book Write Beside Them, Penny Kittle insists, “I wasn’t supposed to be a writer–just someone trying to write–like them. In fact, I was a better model because my hesitations and insecurities were just like theirs…I finally understood that ‘model’ was a verb. I wasn’t creating a model, I was the model–which made the difference.” (9). So, in that vain, I pulled this very blog draft out and shared it with my students. I told them I couldn’t think of anything to write and that writing, in general, was on my mind and this is what I had come up with so far. I talked through what I wanted to say, and hearing their feedback and ideas gave me a better idea of what I wanted to write in this post AND what they need from me in class when practicing writing.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order to help our learners push through Rigor Mortis Bend in their writing, we need to be able to push through it with our teaching (and with our own writing!) as well. Teaching writing is tough and we have to be willing to accept that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t working as we intended it to, and make the change to be better, despite the timing. It’s never too late to try something new.  

Reading

Packing Up and Moving Out

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. Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 6.57.31 PM.pngI 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.

 

Reading

Celebrating Our Stories

Ah, 1989.

Our president was George H. W. Bush.

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!


Community · Culture · Goal Setting · Literacy · Reading · Teaching

Never Stop Learning. Ever.

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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:

  1. 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!  

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. “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.

  1. 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? 

  1. 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?  

  1. 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.

  1. 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.  

  1. “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.

  1. 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!

 

ASSESSMENT · blogging · Community · Leading · Literacy · Students · Teacher Leadership · Uncategorized

Raising Voices in Secondary Classrooms

I had five minutes to inspire ELA teachers at Dublin’s Literacy Conference. This is what I said:

I co-teach 9th-grade inclusion English I at Dublin Coffman High School, and I’ve been to NCTE twice now.

There’s a LOT to love about NCTE. 

NCTE’s theme this year in Houston was “Raising Student Voice,” but what I’ve come to learn about the conference in the two years I’ve attended is that the learning transcends so much more than the year’s theme.

I got to attend the First Timer’s Breakfast this year as a table host, which was super exciting. I got to see Donalyn Miller and Ernest Morrell speak.

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The way Donalyn opened her speech will stick with me forever. She said, “Look around you. This is where you need to be. This is your family. This is your home.”

And she went on to talk about the importance of surrounding yourself with others who are proactive in seeking out their own learning. Her wisdom can undoubtedly apply to today. I always consider Dublin’s Lit Conference to be a mini-NCTE. Look around. We may not know each other, but we are all related because we share common hopes and dreams for our students. So, to me, days like today are as much about professional development as they are about networking.

Donalyn also said this: “Kids need champions, but teachers do, too.”  Ain’t that the truth. We’ve all heard the statistics of teacher retention rates. And I’ll be honest here. Every year, as NCTE and as Dublin’s Literacy Conference approach, I start to hesitate. NCTE is RIGHT before Thanksgiving. I find myself asking do I have time for this? Shouldn’t I be home with my family preparing for the holidays? I’m tired, and I’m busy, and I’m wearing 100 hats, and I don’t feel good… Why do I keep signing myself up to go to these things? And then I go (because I already signed myself up for it), and get this: I NEVER regret it.

I never regret attending NCTE or DLC because of (1) the networking and (2) all the reminders as to why we became English teachers in the first place (like how to raise students’ voice). I don’t know about you, but when I don’t attend or participate in PD, I start to lose focus on what’s really at the heart of my job.

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So, I keep attending these conferences and surrounding myself with the people who also do because these people push me and praise me and help me find and reach my “true north.” This is a term that Kate Roberts used at NCTE. I figured out a few years ago that my “true north” when it comes to reading instruction is choice, and that has been the focus of much of my professional development over the last few years. I decided that in order to be a truly skilled teacher of reading, I better be a reader. I started reading YA books with my students, I worked on perfecting the art of the book talking, and I do all this because I strive to provide choice to insure success for all of my students.

This year, though, I’ve decided to put more focus on my writing instruction, and call me crazy, but I’ve decided that in order to be a truly talented teacher of writing, I need to be a writer.

Falling back in love with reading and identifying as a reader was easy for me. This new journey? Not so much. I’ve never in my life called myself a writer, and I don’t know how long it will take me to identify as one, but I’m trying.

A big part of this journey is a switch that I’ve made in my mind frame.

I used to teach writing with this in mind: “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” I always try to praise a few specific parts of students’ work before providing one or two pointed bits of criticism to show room for improvement.

Then I saw this:

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It stopped me in my tracks. I’m always the critic. I’m always either reading and analyzing student work or reading and analyzing literature, and let’s be honest, it’s a LOT easier to be the giver of criticism than the receiver.

So, if I haven’t made it clear by now: I’m currently mustering the courage to build a writing identity.

A group of educators for Dublin City Schools has taken on this journey together. We’ve started an educational blog, we meet in person monthly, and we try to post weekly.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.57.49 AMFor many of us, this is truly scary work for countless reasons. First and foremost, as someone at NCTE said, “Teachers, on a daily basis, are reminded of their failures.”  It isn’t often that we are reminded of our successes. So, it’s scary to write about the happenings of our classrooms in a public forum that is open to criticism.

Someone else at NCTE said, “Every student has a story. The most dangerous presumption is that they don’t want their voices heard.”

Now that I’ve started to write beside my students, I’m coming to learn that every teacher has a story, too, and the world needs teachers’ voices. I read this on teachthought a few days ago:

“In the next version of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal legislation that guides education policy in this country, the words accountability and assessment are mentioned in some capacity at least 250 times each.

The words teaching and learning? 22 times.

Combined.”

This is scary stuff because we all know words have power. I want you to ask yourself this today:

Who is currently writing the story of what happens inside your classroom? Whose voice is loudest?

In these ways, I’m learning how to raise student voice while simultaneously learning how to raise mine:

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And these are just to name a few. As I continue this journey to becoming a writer, I will share more on how my teaching of writing improves.

If you had five minutes in front of a room of ELA educators, what would you say?

Uncategorized

Timely Affirmation

The annual Dublin Literacy Conference is one of my most favorite days of the year. It is marked on my calendar a year in advance and I never compromise on my attendance because I always walk away invigorated by what I learn. Usually I leave the conference with pages of notes and an overstuffed bag of books. This year, I left with something more- a timely affirmation that independent workshops should be non-negotiable classroom routines.

Our district heavily supports the idea of reading and writing workshops, mainly because the model naturally provides room for teachers to differentiate strategies, approaches and materials. Additionally, as a reading and writing teacher, I know that self-selecting text and self-selecting topics on which to write is an age-appropriate skill 7th graders need to develop if I want them to be self-directed readers and writers.

With that room to explore independently chosen texts and writing topics, however, there comes a challenge of showing accountability. There is something about the word “independent” that triggers an adult mindset that kids are not accomplishing anything real. In actuality, the opposite is true. Independent productivity is an indicator success! It is what we hope all students graduate knowing how to do. When students are free to choose what to read and write about, they tend to make more headway in practicing the targeted skills I want them to practice. In a way, the freedom to choose liberates their entire learning process. Instead of interpreting uninteresting text or trying to generate writing within a defined box, students end up spending more time refining skills.

Still, some teachers continue to question the value in providing independent reading workshop time: “How will I know students are really reading?” and “How will I know if my readers are interpreting texts correctly if I haven’t read what they are choosing to read?” And independent writing is practiced in even fewer classrooms: “What if they choose a topic they have written on a million times?” or “What do I do with the student who never writes during independent writing time?”  If teachers do not sort out their answers to these questions, or they don’t acquire the resources to steer their teaching strategies for independent workshop time, it is typically the first teaching routine to be tossed aside.

Last Saturday, both Pam Allyn and Jason Reynolds reinforced my dedication to providing weekly independent reading and writing workshops.  In Pam Allyn’s “Top 10 List” she made the comment that when people walk by a classroom of kids who are independently reading, she has heard passersby say, “Oh, they’re not doing anything. They’re just reading.” The audience of reading teachers nodding emphatically, knowing this frustrating perspective. We also know if we want to foster good readers, then, as adults, we have to teach what good readers do. And of course, good readers read! They read. A Lot! And they read by choice, even when someone isn’t watching them or telling them to.

Jason Reynolds also addressed how important it is to provide room for student choice. He talked about his rocky educational experience K-12. He refused to read the books he was told to read because he didn’t feel any connection to them; the texts he was asked to read were so far from his experience, he was not motivated to read. He didn’t feel seen or understood. It wasn’t until college that he saw himself in a book. And with that, he was hooked. Now, his mission is to write books in which kids can see themselves.

This was a timely takeaway because I feel as though independent workshop time comes under fire too frequently. Especially as we prepare for “testing season”, our schedules will be intense and irregular for the next two months. We will have some important planning conversations. What is the most important instruction to provide during these next two months? No matter what, which routines are non-negotiable?

For me, time for my students to independently read and write is non-negotiable. No matter how wacky the schedule gets, I am not going to compromise this component of my structure. As I have reflected on all of this throughout the week, I have come to the conclusion that there are some safeguards I will put in place to ensure that independent workshops run smoothly and true to my overall instructional design.

I will…Students will…
…align the whole-group learning targets with the targets I propose for practice during independent workshop time. …self-select appropriate goals and be able to articulate what they are working on
..focus on process and not product. …track their progress and be ready to talk about it when it is their conference time
…be ready to redirect students who get off track during work time and realize this is training ground for helping them manage their time.…use their work time well, or work with me to figure out what is getting in the way and develop a plan to move forward
…get to know my students as whole people, not just their academic selves as I talk to them and they share their thinking…reflect on their strengths and weaknesses

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

Three Things from #DubLit19

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

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

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The Students!

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

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

The Authors!

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

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

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

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The Quality Conversations!

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

 

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