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!