Thursday, December 13, 2012

Reflecting on Core Beliefs

My mind never seems to shut off in thinking about reading and writing instruction. As the holidays are approaching, it's a good time to refresh our thinking on some core beliefs in order to help keep a sense of focus with our students in the midst of our hectic daily schedules.  The following reflections are not original, flashy, or unique to me, but these thoughts keep coming back to me week after week, and I know that if these are truly in place, then I can rest assured that the foundation of my work is at least solid, and I can build on that foundation with other skills and learning objectives along the way.

  • Students need lots of time for reading and writing.
  • We need to promote the love of reading in everything we do throughout the day.
  • Noticing when students reflect honestly and thoughtfully about their learning is one of the greatest joys of teaching.
  • Differentiating for our students' needs is important in order to truly help them grow meaningfully.
  • Planning for differentiation takes time.  It is not a perfect process every day, and trial and error is okay, as long as we have kids' needs at the forefront.
  • Students need to have lots of choices in their reading and writing workshop.
  • Students need to be actively involved in creating reading and writing goals alongside the teacher.
  • We do not need to have parents "sign off" on reading logs each week when authentic reading habits are the goal. However, using a different tool such as reading lists can help students feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in what they've read, as well as provide a record of accountability.
  • We can help grow our kids' test scores through more reading and more writing.
  • Don't ever lose sight of the main thing:  To help kids learn to love reading and writing.  A lot.
A student of mine showed me this reading bookmark that she had created recently.
The message I got when I first saw this bookmark is that teaching kids the joy of reading always has been, is currently, and always will be, the key to our work in teaching reading.  Amazing the perspective that our students can provide for us on any given day!

In the midst of how busy I am throughout a given day, I must remember these core beliefs.  There are dozens more of them.  I know that when I follow through and keep my focus, both my students and I will benefit, and we will remain motivated and encouraged as readers and writers no matter how busy we may be.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Owning" the Workshop

At the beginning of the school year, it seems that in instruction within reading and writing workshop, teachers are largely the ones to "own" the learning experiences at first.  By that, I mean that we are largely the ones who are deeply aware of the objectives and purposes of each mini lesson--those several, specific, very focused lessons in the first few weeks that aim to develop our workshop in meaningful ways.  These lessons will no doubt continue throughout the school year.  We are very purposeful in the implementation of these beginning lessons, because we know that it truly sets the tone of the workshop for the entire year.  Though they vary a bit from year to year, my first few mini lessons are always centered around how we "do" things in our reading and writing classroom.  I want students to see how serious we are about the "business" of reading and writing, and these first lessons guide students' understanding and purpose.  Students can readily begin to see the "routine" of workshop, including aspects of mini lesson work, read aloud, independent reading, conferring, and so on.  Students come to understand the expectations.  They begin to follow the routines and know the daily components of workshop.

What's amazingly special to me as we come close to the end of a grading period is learning when our kids really begin to "own" the workshop for themselves.  For example, in writing workshop, we have been learning about using excellent details in our writing, and the recent mini lesson focus is on how to truly "show, not tell" in our writing pieces.  After several sessions of guided practice with this skill, students, during the "practice" phase of writing workshop, continue typing the drafts of their narrative pieces.  During some writing conference time in the past few days, students have shared with me some of their reflections as they were working on their writing.

Here are some of my "noticings" about their work thus far:

*Students are using more details to enhance their leads.

*They are including more sensory details in order to include rich language in describing people, places, and events.

*Students are more excited about wanting others to read their stories, because they see the power in using strong, vivid words.

*They are conversing with me more about the process of reading over their work several times, and finding many areas to revise in order to provide their reader with a better glimpse of their true intent for writing.

*Students are beginning to see the value in revising their work so that it is made better.  They are more aware of the reality of how authors are not finished with their work until after many revisions.

These are just a few examples of ways I've seen students really "owning" their experiences within writing workshop.  I love seeing their enthusiasm grow with this writing project.  I talked with students today regarding how critical a skill it is to learn how to include amazing details in their work.  I reinforced with them how powerful it is to "show, not tell," and that it is definitely not just a "catch phrase."  I told them that the more they learn (and practice) this skill early on, the better writers they will be.  Their future teachers will be excited about what they can already do, and they will be encouraged to take them to the next level in their writing.

Of course, there are many other essential learnings in teaching upper elementary students how to write well.  But this particular skill has resonated with my students. They love details that help them see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.  They care about how their stories sound to others.  They want others to read their pieces.

The strategy of "show, not tell" (or using vivid details, descriptive language, etc.) is so powerful.  I believe if we can "catch" or motivate more of our students in this stage of their schooling to love how writing can influence others through rich details, then we have perhaps made them writers for life.  Just as we have such passion for growing our students as readers, we can have that same hope for writing as well.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Finding Time for What is Important

Many people know that one of my favorite quotes of all time goes like this:

"People find time for what is important to them, no matter how busy they are."
~Carole Lewis 

This quote transcends so many areas of life, and especially so in teaching.

Today, a few former students came to visit me after school.  We were talking about our reading routines from last year, and one of the girls said, "If we just could take out all of the little routines in our daily class, we would have more time for reading." They were reflecting about how little independent reading time they had in class, and they were actively constructing different possible solutions as to what areas of their teacher's instructional class period they could change in order to gain more reading time.  I just sat, blinking hard, because I so agreed with every word they said.  It just makes sense.

It got me thinking, too.  So, what routines or procedures are we performing with our kids in class that we can simplify or eliminate in order to provide kids with more time to read?

Donalyn Miller, in The Book Whisperer, references some similar experiences when former students come back to visit and reflect on the world of reading.  She mentions the idea that while she doesn't want to become unprofessional and discuss aspects of other teachers' reading practices, it is hard not to inwardly cringe.

I think my former students have simply learned the best way to continue to grow as readers:
Yes, it is a sacrifice in some ways to carve out time for practices such as independent reading and read aloud, but these are two things that should be at the forefront of our instruction, not the first things we cut out when we are pressed for time!

I was both thrilled and disappointed when I talked with my former students this afternoon.  I was so happy to see them yearning to read; I could see they really were wanting to find some possible solutions for change.  Though I didn't feel it was my place to say anything (out of respect for colleagues), this admission on their part was proof positive that they "get it." They really understand what reading is all about.  This is enough to put a smile on my face because I realize the power of reading workshop became very real for them in past experiences through the years.  But the other part of me is disappointed, because there isn't a whole lot I can do, except encourage them to read that much more at home, even in the midst of their busy schedules.  I sure hope they do so, no matter how busy they are.

Perhaps the next time I see them, I will share the above quote with them, and hope it resonates with them, as it has with me.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Planning (too far) Ahead?

The other day, my husband was shopping at a local retail store.  He called me in a state of disbelief, saying, "They actually have Christmas decorations out already!" It is not a new scenario, for sure, but when I thought about his observation at the store, I was a bit incredulous, thinking, "Gee, we haven't even had Halloween or Thanksgiving yet, and people are already thinking about decorating for Christmas!"

Now don't get me wrong.  I love the spirit of decorating for Christmas.  It is my favorite holiday, for more than one reason.  But jumping so far ahead already in our calendar, when we have more than two months before Christmas, just baffled me.  I kept thinking, "Why do stores always plan so far ahead?"

This observation has stuck with me for the past few days.  It was meaningful to me, and it became an analogy with which I can relate, because I think of this example in my own life as a teacher.  You see, for nearly 20 years, I have always taken time to plan an entire week's worth of lesson plans at a time, laboriously writing out every single detail in my lesson plan template a week ahead of time.  I always figured that is how it should be done.  For some teachers, they are required to submit lesson plans to an administrator, indicating their plans for the week ahead.  Though I am not required to do so in my district,  I always felt (at least initially) so ready and prepared by doing it this way.  I also felt a bit "victorious" when I finished my plans (though my head hurt a little bit from all of that planning).

The problem was, each week of teaching through the years, I found myself drawing lots of arrows on my plans from one day to another when I couldn't finish an activity with my students, or when I needed to slow down (or speed up) in my lessons in a content area.  My lesson plans were no longer neat and tidy.  And, on top of that, I found myself rewriting each day's plans on a piece of paper or sticky note, since my master lesson plan for the week was not accurate (ambitious, perhaps, but not accurate).

This year, as I was planning my first full week of instruction, it just worked out best for me to plan day-by-day.  I've found that those first few days of the school year require day-to-day planning, as the individual students in the class really do dictate how far we get in a variety of activities.  So, with a bit of trepidation, I planned my lessons day by day for the first week.  Then, I found that the process seemed to work well.  By planning my lessons one day at a time, I knew, with more precision, what I wanted to cover the next day, since logistically, I was very aware by the end of the day of what needed to be taught next in each unit of study I was teaching.  I found myself really looking forward to my planning period those first few weeks, because I was eager to write (or in my case, type) my plans in such a way that made total sense to the flow of my week.  For the past six weeks, I have not been planning out my entire week in one sitting.  Yes, I am purposeful and knowledgeable well ahead of time about the content or units I need to cover for the week in general, but in terms of the specific plan and activities for each day, I do so the day before.  It just feels much more efficient this way.  As I say in my book, Organized Teacher, Happy Classroom, "When your lesson plans are concise, creative, and well thought-out, you are well on your way toward efficiency and purpose for the long haul" (Page 120).

I don't think it's wrong for stores to set up their holiday decorations two months early.  For some customers, this is helpful for them in order to plan far enough in advance so that they are able to better plan out their shopping.  It gives them a better idea of what to do leading up to the busy holiday itself. For me, though, in planning as an educator,  I've finally found, after nearly 20 years, a system that I hope will allow me the ability to continue to be just as thoughtful, but utilize instead a method for planning that meaningfully represents what my students need each day, on their timetable, rather than on my own.

I have a lot to learn still about teaching, but I am excited about this change in planning my weekly instruction.

Now I need to begin planning for how to decorate for Halloween.  Or Thanksgiving. Or Christmas.  I think I'll stick with planning for Halloween for now.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Building on the Foundation, Part I

We're into our sixth week of school already, and I'm working on planning how to "launch" the next phase of reading workshop in my classroom.

In the first five weeks so far, it's been all about setting up reading and writing workshop in the classroom.  We've discussed routines galore.  We've had many discussions about what good readers do and how they act.

To summarize some of our class thinking thus far in Reading Workshop, I thought I'd post some pictures of our reading workshop anchor charts in order to share some workshop "foundations" for the school year.  Anchor charts are nothing new, certainly, and many teachers find the value in using them to capture student thinking and important teaching points about a variety of reading and writing routines.  

I've had teachers ask me about reusing anchor charts from year to year.  I always re-create anchor charts with students each year.  I feel it's very important to use student thinking in creating the anchor charts.  Nearly all of the writing on these anchor charts has come from student responses.  This way, students have true ownership of the learning and thinking that we've collected on these charts, and they are therefore more inclined to refer back to them as the year progresses.  After all, that is why we create these charts in the first place--to refer to and build a strong reading experience for our students.  

Ways We Choose Books
There are two anchor charts here.  The top chart is a brainstorm on the first day of school where I gathered students' thinking about the all-important question, "Why Do We Read?"  The anchor chart underneath is one we completed together several days later, entitled, "Ways We Choose Books."  This chart was inspired by Pinnell and Fountas, in their book Guiding Readers and Writers.

The anchor chart on the top of this picture captures our thinking about Reading Workshop Guidelines.  These guidelines were inspired also from Pinnell and Fountas's thinking about workshop guidelines.  The anchor chart on the bottom was from a mini lesson describing the Genre Requirements for students to read 30 books.  The "30 Book Goal" was inspired by Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer.  I love having kids set this goal, and I am so excited each year to help guide students in meeting their book goal to further their growth as readers.  Students will work toward a goal such as this, and they respond well to teachers with high expectations.

In this top anchor chart, I wanted to gather students' thoughts about what they thought good readers did on a regular basis.  This group thinking will help us to set goals and work toward behaviors that strengthen us as readers.  They brainstormed many thoughtful ideas, many of which are ones we will reinforce throughout the year.  The bottom anchor chart gives kids an understanding of their ultimate goal during independent reading time, which is to truly be in "the reading zone."  Thanks to Nancie Atwell for "coining" this term.  I love helping my kids become aware of identifying what it truly means to be in the "reading zone," and I look forward to guiding them more and more each day to becoming better and better readers.

Those are just a few of the charts on our Reading Workshop wall.  I am thrilled each day to be able to engage in conversations with my students about the books they are reading.   Though the "foundation" is overall solid, we have much more to build upon within our workshop this year, and still many more "layers" of "mortar" to place, so to speak, in order for all of the reading workshop elements to truly come together.

I'll be sharing more soon about our reading workshop anchor charts and will reflect more on how these mini lessons are a critical part of students' reading instruction for the remainder of the year.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing Revelations

It’s amazing what I can learn from just the first few interactions I have with my students at the beginning of the year.  It seems that my students have lots of opinions on writing.  I am eager to learn about what excites them about writing, as well as what they are not thrilled about in the writing world as well.  Learning about them in these ways will help guide me in personalizing instruction for them as the year progresses.

Each year, I ask students to fill out a “Writing Interview,” and though it may get buried under paperwork for a few days, I always look forward to finding the little gold “nuggets” in order to learn about my students as writers.  When I study these writing surveys, I am particularly interested in ways that my students feel I can help them grow as writers during the school year.

Here is some advice they have given me about how to be a good writing teacher, based on a writing interview that I asked them to fill out:

*Help me think of topics easily for writing workshop.
*Help me with my handwriting/cursive writing.
*Teach me useful English words in writing.
*Show me some good writing pieces.
*Read me challenging books
*Talk to me about punctuation and capitalization.
*Make me write and read more often.
*Ask me to write about different topics.
*Teach me everything you know as a teacher and book author.
*Spend a little time on writing every day.
*Teach me a larger vocabulary.
*Let us choose what we want to write about.
*Challenge me to write in different genres.
*Give assignments for writing, like writing reports.
*Help me like writing more.
*Let us write a lot.
*Read my work and give me suggestions on how to improve.
*Inspire us and help us mold our writing into masterpieces!
*Teach me to express myself better.
*Keep reading books aloud so I can get more ideas.
*Help me pick good topics that are not already taken.
*Explain how to “mix genres" in a story to make the story more interesting.
*Help me to learn more specific words/details.
*Help me learn how to write a mystery story.
*Help me to learn to spell better.
*Help me use descriptive words.
*Teach me how to write a good plot.

It’s clear that I have a lot to do with my students this year in writing workshop, but I love these examples and forthright comments as beginning conversations toward guiding students to becoming better writers.  Listening to kids share what they need as a writer is often a great first step.  I look forward to implementing these suggestions into my mini lessons throughout the year.

I saved the best for last. In response to what I can do to be a good writing teacher, one student simply wrote, 

“Do whatever you can do.”

I endeavor to do that, and much more.  

Here's to a great year in Writing Workshop!

Friday, September 7, 2012

A Classroom Library "Mini Makeover"

Like most teachers, I want everything that I do in my instruction and classroom set up to reflect a love of reading.  To that end, much of my classroom surroundings promote reading.  From posters that promote a positive attitude of reading, to our class anchor charts, to a growing classroom library of almost 100 bins, I hope that when my kids step into the room, they see that reading is valued here. 

Part of my classroom library after I bought new, sturdy bins!

This summer, I noticed that my classroom library had book bins of all different colors and sizes, and while there is nothing wrong with that, I observed that many of the bins were beginning to show wear and tear or cracks and marks from lots of use.  After seeing a colleague’s classroom library, I decided to streamline my own library and buy bins of all one color, so that the books looked even more organized and accessible.  I knew that this would involve quite an investment on my part, but the bins I chose were sturdy, so I know they will last a long time. 

At one point during this process of running to store after store in our area, I questioned myself, thinking, “What am I doing?”  “Is this all worth it?”  I knew inherently that kids could access my classroom library just fine with the current set up.  My book bins have always been clearly labeled and well organized.  Except for the few worn/cracked bins, the classroom library was a “well-oiled machine,” one in which kids usually found books and enjoyed the experience of picking a just right book.  But as I was shopping to replace so many bins, I wondered, “Have I gone a bit nutty?”

My main classroom library "nook" :)
I love the streamlined look of the bins!

I know that the practice of changing out book bins is not all that unusual a practice.  But I didn’t know for myself if it was really necessary.  Upon reflection, I realized that this effort was one more step for me to continue to promote a love of reading.  I wanted the library to look pleasing to the eye; I wanted the library to be an inviting place to be, and even easier to access than before.  In the process of relabeling, I further specified my book bins.  I decided to create some popular author tubs (Gary Paulsen, Jeff Kinney, J.K. Rowling, Gordon Korman, etc.), and I also wanted to try to place lots of series books together as well, so that kids could quickly find the popular titles that they were looking for.  I still have some work to do in my classroom library, as I want to look into my nonfiction titles and break them down more by topic or author, to really become more thoughtful about the direction we are going with the Common Core Standards, but for now, I feel thrilled with the progress.  The time and energy spent on revamping the library organization was done with a heart toward promoting reading.  Aesthetics is one way in which we can pull kids into a love of reading, but it’s also about organizing books in smart, logical ways.  No one way of organizing our libraries is perfect, and it is a process that evolves each year.  But I am excited for my kids to dig into the library and find scores of books toward their yearly book goal, and all the while, growing in their love of reading day by day. 

An overall view of the classroom.  My classroom library is against the back wall.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pacing our Mini Lessons

During the "beginning of the year" rush, it can sometimes be tempting to want to push through some of the first few lessons on setting up reading workshop with my students.  We have multiple mini lessons to present to our students in order that they begin to see the workings of what our daily routine will look like.  I am so eager for them to dig into reading, to experience new books, and to see the value of conferring and responding appropriately and thoughtfully to books they are reading independently.  In planning for lessons, I see ahead the work I need to do with assessing them with beginning-of-the-year assessments, and it can sometimes be difficult to slow down.  But it's so important to do so.

To ensure that my pacing matches what my students need, I must be an excellent listener during discussions.  If my students have a strong command of the various genres in our classroom library, for instance, I may not need to focus as much on direct instruction on this specific topic.  I will want to gain students' background knowledge of the genres in general so that I can clear up any misconceptions or misunderstandings, but for the most part, I can move on with other important mini lessons once students show me their knowledge about various aspects of reading.  

Using anchor charts is one way to guide our mini lessons.  It's a practice that most teachers find extremely beneficial, because it helps students revisit important parts of reading workshop later on, whether directly in a review mini lesson, or simply when a student rereads the anchor chart on her own for clarification.  Anchor charts allow students to see a "timeline" of their reading learning as the year goes by.  Using these charts promotes what is most important for students to remember as the school year progresses.  One note on anchor charts (as most teachers already know):  I create new anchor charts every year.  I want student language and participation on these charts.  Yes, I may rewrite their ideas and contributions neatly on these anchor charts, but I make it clear to them that it's their thinking that appears on the charts.  Such an action gives students a great deal more ownership of their learning.  They will be more likely to refer to these charts through the year, as a result.

By presenting my reading workshop mini lessons at a proper pace with my students, I know that they truly grasp the purpose behind instruction.  They can see the reason for my taking time to discuss something in detail.  Our mini lessons should represent important aspects of setting up our classroom for reading and writing behaviors, or the focus can also be part of our required curriculum.

By taking the appropriate amount of time with my mini lessons, I am happier in the classroom as I guide my students to understand what workshop will look like in the current year.  Do I want my students to see workshop as a harried, rather frantic period of time, or an appropriately paced (yet busy), productive time?  I want the schedule to flow and make sense for my students. 

In keeping with my personal goal of "quality," not just "quantity" (in reference to my instruction), I challenge all of us to remember that our school year, while sometimes very hectic and certainly crammed with all of our curricular "must do's," will flow much more smoothly (and meaningfully) if we just keep an eye on what we want most from our reading workshop time.  It's not necessarily about crossing off all the standards we need to teach (although that is certainly important and what we are paid in part to do), but it's about creating a classroom community of readers; it's about students who bring their knowledge, their current views on reading, their questions, and their abilities to reach higher in their thinking and love of books.  It's a challenge I look forward to each year with my group of learners.  

I must keep this blog post message in mind as the year gains momentum, and tempts me to go faster, to put more and more into my lessons.  It will be good to recall the recognition I have in this moment, and to focus on meeting my students' needs.  I can then be cognizant about one of my most sacred responsibilities, that of guiding and supporting kids on their journey toward loving to read.

Here is an anchor chart we build together toward the beginning of the year.  I like this mini lesson because it helps readers of all abilities to see what good readers really do as they engage with text.  Additionally, this chart is something I can use as I confer with kids; sometimes I can pull aspects of this chart into setting goals with students as the year progresses.  

Here's to a great year of building our reading and writing workshop with our students, one mini lesson at a time!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Inspiring a New Class of Readers

Each time this school year, I get butterflies in my stomach.  It speaks of new beginnings.  I get nervous, not so much in thinking about greeting a new group of students (although that still happens, even after many years of teaching!).  But most of all, I get both excited and nervous in thinking about the best ways to mold and shape my students into lifelong readers.  Many students already come to me loving to read, but several, upon hearing me ask them if they like to read, shrug their shoulders, and say, "Well, yeah, sometimes."  This is a red flag for me, and I take it seriously.  That simple statement means I have lots of work to do.  With so much to teach, I want them, above all, to learn to love to read voraciously, and I want them to enjoy it for many purposes.  I want everything I do in my instruction to engage students to learn what the power of reading can do for them.  It's that time again.  The beginning of the year.  

Some of my goals include:

  • Helping students to get to know themselves better as readers (Exploring topics they want to learn more about, ideas they want to research, reading across various genres)
  • Promoting a rich learning environment for lots and lots of reading
  • Guiding students to become familiar with their strengths, as well as skills they need to focus on improving as a reader
  • Proving specific feedback to students that helps them grow as readers
  • Promoting accountability for reading behaviors (by having discussions about how to fit reading into their busy lives, recording books on their finished book lists, talking openly about distractions they encounter as readers, etc.)
  • Teaching students the powerful practice of always having books on their "Next Reads" list
  • Providing rich experiences for writing in response to their reading.
The list can go on and on.  Setting up a reading and writing workshop is a special routine.  It can sometimes be an intense few weeks, but it is sacred. That's what this blog is about--helping kids learn the amazing power of reading, and supporting them in their journey to become voracious readers.  

If I can inspire in my students a love of reading, that is the true icing on the cake for me as a teacher.  What do you do to inspire the love of reading in your students?