Monday, March 31, 2014

The Habit of Writing

I've always heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit.  I'm not really sure if that is scientifically proven or not.  I'll probably go research it online a bit after I finish typing my blog post.  But I do know that spending 31 days in a row writing a blog post has been a fun, challenging, and positive experience for me.  Each day this month, after work, I knew that whatever else I had going on, I needed to commit to writing this blog post.  Why?  Because I committed to it.  I promised myself I would do it.  I wanted to truly follow through, and see the fruits of that commitment.  Part of what drove me to fulfill this commitment each day is simply that I am a perfectionist in many ways.  I didn't want to fail at something over which I had control.  Another part of it is that because my class is (unofficially) joining me in this writing challenge, I didn't want to let them down, either.  But another reason I wanted to stick with this writing challenge is that I wanted to integrate writing into my life the same way that I do reading.  I realized that I make reading a huge part of my daily existence.  It's almost as natural as picking up my toothbrush and brushing my teeth every day.  I don't even really have to think about it; it's a no-brainer. However, with writing, it seems to be more of a hit or miss situation for me.  In my classroom, we are committed to writing workshop, but the fluency piece of writing voraciously, and expecting my students to do so on a consistent basis is not yet on the same level as reading.  So, I wanted to make it happen -- to put it on the same level as reading.  I've always believed that reading makes one a better writer, and that writing makes one a better reader.  The two go hand in hand.  I feel I just needed to step it up a bit more.  And, I'm so glad I did.

From this writing challenge, I found that:
*Commitment to something new is sometimes difficult.
*Writing every day is a wonderful opportunity to express yourself.
*There is no right or wrong blog topic; writing from one's heart is the only requirement.
*Meeting new writers is a pleasure.
*Writing every day has made me want to write every day.
*Like brushing my teeth, I didn't always want to write these past 31 days, but doing so has been positive.
*Writing helps me process my thoughts on teaching reading and writing.
*This writing challenge has been a way to further bond with my students.
*Participating in this challenge has made me want to blog more often than I did before.

Thanks to all who participated in this challenge, and to the Two Writing Teachers, who hosted this challenge.  Since it is my first "Slice of Life" Writing Challenge, I was a bit nervous about doing so.  I'm so glad I participated, after being on the fringe for a couple of years before participating.  I learned a lot, met some new friends, related to others, and gained a new sense of appreciation for various types of writing.

Writing connects us as individuals.
Writing is a wonderful way to communicate.
Writing is freeing.
Writing gives us avenues for expressing ourselves to an audience.
Writing freely is therapeutic.

I like the quote by Sean Covey: "We become what we repeatedly do."  Some habits are positive; other habits are not beneficial.  Writing is a habit I look forward to doing more and more often.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Reflection of Time

I realized today that we only have 44 days of school left in the school year.  Many teachers, at this point in the year, count it down to encourage themselves and gear up for the summer months off.  I'd like to think of it in a slightly different way. Today, I'll think of 44 more days to do positive things in my instruction, rather than simply a "count down to summer."

I have 44 more days to work hard to instill in my students a love of reading -- to guide them toward becoming lifelong readers.

I have 44 more days to encourage them in their writing pieces -- to gain confidence with writing voice, adding details, revising, editing, and exploring different topics.

I have 44 more days to help them and encourage them in their school work.

I have 44 more days to add to their positive self image.

I have 44 more days to make connections with them, to share with them, to laugh with them.

I have 44 more days to work with them on different math strategies, help them add explanations to their math thinking, and challenge them to grow even more.

I have 44 days to teach them about what it truly means when I say that "Character is who you are when no one is watching." 

I have 44 more days to help them feel more confident in their study skills.

I have 44 more days to work hard, assess, grade, learn, be there for my students, and encourage them as best I can.

Only 44 more days.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Random Thoughts

My head is full of thoughts today.  So I think my "Slice of Life" today will be a place just to express those thoughts...

I'm thinking that I truly hope that winter is almost over (despite the sleet and snow we got, even today!)...

I'm thinking about how I really don't have a very good "in between" wardrobe for this time of year...

I'm hopeful about a fresh start to the remaining weeks of school with my students...

I'm of course thinking toward testing week...

I'm preparing for a new round of reading conference times with students...

I'm thinking about my ever-growing "To Read" list, and how many books are on that list...

I'm reflecting on my students' next writing project, and how to best incorporate student choice with the required standards...

I'm wishing that spring break wouldn't end...

I'm feeling grateful for some extra sleep...

I'm feeling thankful for time spent with my husband over the week we spent together on house projects and spending some quality time together...

I'm very grateful for the Slice of Life month-long challenge...It has been a wonderful way to push myself to write each day...

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Value of Independent Reading

How important is it that we build in time for independent reading in our workshop schedule?  Do we consistently keep it as one of the most important elements of our reading workshop?  Or, is it one of the first things to go when the schedule tightens up?

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Dublin Literacy Conference.  This conference is an annual conference the school district hosts, and the purpose of the conference is for people to engage meaningfully in sessions surrounding literacy, in order to gain more knowledge about reading and writing instruction.  The keynote speakers are always wonderful, and the session presenters are informative and practical with their thoughts on ways to engage our students in the literacy world.  This year, we were able to hear Penny Kittle speak.  She's the author of Book Love.  She showed a graphic during her presentation, which indicated number of minutes that students read per year, and compared it to the number of estimated words read per year, and how that translated to a percentile rank on a standardized test score.  

The results were astounding....

On the graphic, there was a column listing the total number of words that students read per year if they were to read 90 minutes a day, for example.  Over the course of a year, that results to over four million words read per year.  If students only read for one minute a day, their total words read for the year is estimated at only 51,000 words per year.  And the percentile rank in standardized scores shows such a huge gap:  from 98% (reading 90 minutes a day) to 10% (reading 1 minute per day). That is absolutely eye-opening.

But are most educators seeing the value in independent reading?  Are they truly building in time for reading within their workshop schedule, consistently?  Though I also expect students to read at home, I don't always know if that is taking place. So, I MUST build that into my workshop schedule.  

I can't help but continue to ponder the information in this graphic, and be so glad that I honor independent reading in my classroom as a non-negotiable.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Wild about Books!

I love those days when Amazon packages come in the mail, and the boxes are full of nothing but BOOKS!

I admit, my husband has gotten to rolling his eyes about my book buying habit, but I'm excited for this batch of books.  They are books I'm looking forward to reading and sharing with my students.  I hope to read one or more of them aloud to my students yet this year.

I'm so excited to read Counting by 7s.  This book, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, has so many awards and positive comments on Amazon, I hardly had to read the summary. 

This book, Stand in my Shoes, appealed to me.  I often feel that kids need more direct instruction about how to show empathy towards others.  I can't wait to share this book with my fifth graders after spring break!!

A colleague recommended My Weird Writing Tips at a meeting this year, and it automatically went on my Amazon "wish list."  I love the style of this book, and I think kids will really appreciate the way Dan Gutman writes in this book.  I'm sure that kids will see writing as a really cool thing to do, after reading this book!

I really enjoy Newbery books.  Though I've never taken a "Newbery Challenge" before (to read all of the Newbery books), I think Penny from Heaven will be a great read.  Set in 1953, it's about a girl named Penny and her life experiences during that time period.

I hadn't heard of Touchblue book before, so I am eager to read it.  It's by the same author of Rules.  I loved the cover.  I know, we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but it's still an okay reason to initially pick up a book...

I'm heading toward the tail end of my spring break...Will I read all of these books before the end of break?  No, likely not.  But I have lots of great reads ahead of me, and that makes me happy.

Excuse me, I think that is the doorbell ringing.  It might be another Amazon package for me.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Joy of Journal Writing

I just finished a historical fiction novel today.  It's one of the great joys about spring break = the ability to catch up with my reading!  The format of this novel was a journal.  Reading this book made me reflect on how much I loved keeping a journal when I was younger.  I still keep a journal, but I write in it less often than I used to -- mostly due to time constraints.  But the more I progress through the month writing these "Slices of Life," I realize that it's a choice.  Writing daily is a choice, and I have to see it as a commitment of time.  I always loved keeping a journal, for many reasons.  Though many of my journals are comical to read now, it was a very special place in which to write my thoughts, emotions, and learnings about life.  I have been motivated more and more lately to renew my journal writing habit.

There are several purposes for writing in a journal.  Some of these are:

*Writing in a journal helps me to capture the events of the day.
*Journal writing is therapeutic.
*Writing in a journal may not help to literally solve problems, but it's very calming.
*Journal writing is a stress reliever.
*Writing in a journal helps me to think through situations.
*Journal writing is a great place for list-making.
*Writing in a journal promotes a sense of peace and helps me to think positively.
*Journal writing is a place for writing deepest thoughts.  It's a confidant of sorts.  
*Writing in a journal is a great place for setting goals.
*Journal writing is comforting.
*Writing in a journal helps with further writing ideas.
*Journal writing is a place to share sorrows, hopes, and fears.
*Writing in a journal helps to tell a life story.

I encourage my students to sometimes choose journal writing as a writing activity in their notebooks from time to time as well.  I use the term, "Daily Pages," which is a term that Aimee Buckner uses in her book Notebook Know-How.  This is one strategy that students can use to describe their day, what they are thinking about, or just as an old-fashioned "What I did Today" kind of entry.  This type of writing doesn't take up the bulk of their writing in writing workshop, but I encourage students to write a "Daily Pages" entry every once in awhile in order to be reflective and thoughtful about their lives and daily happenings.

After all this talk about journal writing, I think I'm off to write an entry now!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Real World Experiences

We are currently doing some work in our house with attic insulation.  My husband is reading articles and is researching information pertinent to how to fix some of the air leaks in our attic, so we can try to lower our utility bills and help our house become more efficient.  Recently he is taking the time to read, study, learn, and go over notes he has made.  He takes his time so he can learn as much as possible about what works best, what materials to use, what tools he will need, and how long it might take him to complete the project.

It's a real world project in which he is using multiple texts and resources to help him learn what he needs in order to complete the project successfully.  So far, he has:

*Studied the attic space
*Taken measurements
*Read articles
*Viewed multiple videos
*Talked to experts at stores
*Taken notes
*Read more articles
*Viewed more videos
*Studied the attic space again
*Read more articles
*Taken more notes

When I think of how we guide our students to complete a variety of projects or writing pieces, I'm wondering:  Do I give them enough time, resources, and reflection opportunities?  Am I teaching them how to think independently, or am I teaching them to think about a topic too narrowly, so that they just graze the surface of the topic?  

I want my students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and doers.  Like my husband, I know the answer for my students won't come from one website, one video demonstration, or one short writing session.  The answers won't be immediate.  Sometimes, my students need to learn to persevere, research a bit longer, think deeply, and try again the next day.  

This house project gave me insight into how I might provide more time for students to examine topics, do research, and process knowledge.  Of course, not every project requires this kind of time or effort, but some things do require more time and reflection.  I'm glad to be able to take away nuggets of information from our real-world experiences and apply it to teaching situations!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Relinquishing Control

We can't always control what happens to us in life.  But we can control how we react to it.

I have been reflecting a lot lately on the reality that we all like control.  We may not admit to it, but we like it; we feel happier when we feel in control, and when we can manage things on our own.  We feel more secure, and we know what is going on, so we have a handle on things, and the feeling of "unknown" doesn't impact us as much during those times.

So much of our lives, though, is out of our own control.

We don't always know what will happen to us every day.

We don't have control over how someone will treat us at work or in our personal lives.

We don't have control over the line at the grocery, or with traffic on our way to and from work.

We don't have control over the weather.

We can't control our parents, our siblings, or our students.

We don't have control over much of what we encounter, day by day.

But I know I CAN choose how I react to the things that happen to me each day.  I can ask God for wisdom, trust Him to guide and direct me, and seek the best in situations each day.

I don't have to choose frustration or anger.

I don't have to feel helpless or lose hope.

Choosing positive reactions when things happen in life takes lots of training and practice.  We must learn how to be content in any and all circumstances.  In my personal life, I trust that God is in control, and that He has my best interest in mind. I may not always understand everything that happens to me, but I can relinquish the need for control of it, because I'm not supposed to control every single thing that happens to me.  That's where faith comes into the picture.  Faith sustains hope, and hope is what carries us into a new day.  Faith strengthens us and gives us perspective.  Faith in God is a certain path to happiness, but my own sense of control is fleeting.  I'm glad that no matter the circumstance, I can have solid reassurance, even when things are unknown.  Knowing Who is in control helps me greatly in life when I feel out of control.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Lifelong Reader in the Making

Today was a great day.  My husband and I got to visit my sister and her family in their new home about an hour away.  We got to tour their house and the town, and we got to spend time together and catch up.

As we took a tour around their house, I noticed several things about ways that my sister and her husband were building a reading habit for their daughter, my 6-year old niece.

Their bookshelves outnumber mine in my house.  That's saying something.

They have a wide variety of reading material in their home -- from novels to nonfiction texts, to cookbooks, to newspapers, and lots of magazines.

While we ate lunch, my niece insisted that she be able to bring part of the newspaper to the table to enjoy a bit of the comic section.

While we were playing with dolls and playing in her room, I noticed a growing number of books on her own shelf, too.  I know this is a habit that her Mom and Dad have been cultivating from a very early age in her life--the routine and habit of reading daily -- so this is not too surprising to see many books on her bookshelf.

One of the choice activities in which she wanted to participate today was "writing books" together.  She wrote dialogue and drew detailed pictures to illustrate a simple plot.

I love the reading atmosphere that my sister and her husband are building for their daughter.  Leading by example is surely the best way for children to learn the power of reading.  I hope they know what an amazing job they are doing.

What a joy to spend time there today, and to be able to take notice of these excellent examples of guiding and supporting the love of reading.  My niece will most certainly grow up to be a lifelong reader.  The signs are already there, and the modeling, time, energy, and support they have provided for her have helped her to already love reading and writing.

My heart was glad today for the visit, for the opportunity to catch up, and to see their new place.  But I was so glad to have been able to notice the obvious love of reading in this house.  

It made my heart happy.

Read on, little girl.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Being in the Moment

Tonight, my friend Allison and I were texting a bit, and I loved something she said:

"Be in the moment and appreciate it all."

I love this quote for many reasons.  I attended a wedding tonight of a former student of mine.  I could tell that the wedding party and most of the guests were "in the moment" and "appreciating it all." They were smiling, laughing, enjoying one another's company, and appreciating God's blessings in their lives.

Being in the moment means taking care to notice the small things in our lives each day.  Here are some things that I noticed today:

*I noticed how nice it was to sleep in and get some much needed rest on my first day of spring break.

*I noticed how much joy I got in being able to read today for an extended period of time.

*I noticed today, sitting next to my husband at the wedding, how happy I was having him sit next to me.

*I noticed today that despite the cloudy and cool weather, it was so much nicer than our brutal winter weather, just a couple months ago.

*I noticed a few green patches of grass coming through the dormant layers in our backyard today.

*I noticed that my dog seemed happy to have us home; I know she can always tell when it's the weekend, and that she has more time with us.

I'm indeed happier being "in the moment," and I'm learning to appreciate what's in front of me.  It's just fine to look forward in the future, but it's so important to appreciate the here and now.

Thanks, my dear friend, Allison, for that sage advice today.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Personal Reading Time

Things have been so busy lately, and some of my reading time has decreased.  

But I'm slowly building back time for my personal reading.  And it feels so nice.

Now that I've just begun spring break, I am so thrilled to have some of my reading time back.

I reflected today on why personal reading time was so important to me.  Here are some thoughts that crossed my mind:

*Reading relaxes my mind.  My breathing changes, and I can sense myself visibly relaxing.

*Reading helps me to take my mind off of other things -- school, housework, other concerns in my life.

*Reading helps me expand my knowledge of events in history, aspects of empathy, points of view, cultural differences, and more.

*Reading allows me to experience life through another character's eyes, expanding my imagination.

*Reading gives me perspective.

*Reading helps me to see the world in different ways.

*Reading enhances my mood.

*Reading helps to grow my vocabulary.

*Reading makes me feel more whole, more complete.

*Reading is a whole lot of fun.

There are many more reasons for taking time to read, but it is most of all life-changing.  Maybe this could be a good mini lesson to do upon returning from spring break.  Asking students to reflect on why personal reading time so important to them will help to refocus the home stretch of weeks left in our school year, and will help give structure and purpose in a very busy upcoming grading period.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Trust is Everything

I love positive quotes.  I like being able to surround myself with sayings, quotes, and Bible verses that uplift me and help me throughout the day.

I saw this quote on a bulletin board down the hall from my classroom.  I took this picture about a year ago.  I believe the teacher was focusing on teaching about theme with her students, and they were creating bumper stickers about a common theme in a book they were reading.  As I was walking by, this one really caught my eye.  So, I snapped a picture of it.  I look at this photo often.  The more I think about this quote, the more I realize how true this statement is in all areas of our lives.

Trust is essential in friendships.  Without it, the friendship isn't real.
Trust is critical in marriage.  Without it, there is no foundation.
Trust is so important with our students.  They must trust us, and we need to be able to trust them.  It's the foundation for all we do with them throughout the year.
Trust in God gives us purpose, meaning, and hope.  It is the basis for our faith.
Whatever we do, believe in, or hope for in our lives, trust matters in all things.
Trust is everything.
Kids are smart indeed.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Book for Every Reader

"There's a book for every reader, and a reader for every book."
-Reading in the Wild, page 61

Sometimes, when we hear about students (or adults) who "hate" reading, we do little more than gasp, followed by a slow shake of our heads to show our true disappointment.  But when it comes to students in our classrooms, I simply can't leave that statement alone.  It brings out such passion in me.  I automatically want to come to reading's defense, but I know I need to draw them in gradually.  It's truly a matter of finding the right book for each child at the right time and place.  We never know when the spark or joy of reading will take place, but every person has a book waiting for him or her.  

Our job as teachers is to be excellent listeners, from the very first day of school. When we gather information about them through the year in terms of their hobbies, their pets, their interests, and even their struggles, we can begin suggesting book titles for them.  I've often found that asking students to bring several bins to a comfortable spot, and talking through several titles with them works well.  Book recommendations also works wonderfully, as students are definitely motivated to read what their peers are reading.

I'm so thrilled that most of my students are reading voraciously, and that most of them have found many books they love.  But a few outliers still struggle with book selection and abandoning books too often.  These are prime opportunities for me to revisit their interests, and take some time to sit with them to discuss their next book to read.

Every year, my biggest passion is to help guide students toward the love of reading.  Many students already have this foundation well before they step into my room.  Others just need a gentle push, while a few others hang on the outside looking in.  I hope tomorrow is another student's opportunity to find a book that totally captivates them, leaving them with a hunger for more and more books.  It will happen.  I just need to be patient.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Boosting Enthusiasm

With so much of a focus on testing, data, assessments, and accountability, it can drag even the most positive teachers down.  What can we do on a daily basis to keep our enthusiasm up?  

We can...
*Learn to listen to a child tell all about a wonderful new book he or she is reading...
*Ask a child how he or she is feeling after being sick.  This interest will help them connect with us even more...
*Be grateful when students ask you if you will eat lunch with them...
*Be thankful when students show enthusiasm for a lesson you are teaching.
*Appreciate when students laugh at something you say (I guess I'm not that dry after all...) 
*Listen to students when they share their problems with you, and offer your support...
*Give students sincere smiles and positive words...
*Provide lots of time for authentic learning through read aloud, independent reading, cooperative group work, and thoughtful independent work...
*Communicate honestly with students about your expectations so your day will run smoothly...
*Praise students and give specific feedback when possible so as to reinforce behaviors that are desired...
*Realize that children are the reason why we are doing this job...
*Understand that teaching is a unique profession, and not everyone is called to do it...we are blessed...
*Realize that tomorrow is another day to accomplish more...
*Know that our presence makes a difference...
*Trust that our efforts are indeed worth the time and energy we put forth each day...
*Know that kids deserve the best we can give them, and keep focusing on keeping it real, every day.

I need to reflect on many of these reminders each and every day.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pockets of Time

As I was teaching my social studies class today, I realized that the lesson would likely end about ten minutes early.  Usually, I plan so much for a given lesson that there isn't a lot of "down time" on any given day, but once in awhile, it happens.  I didn't want to start another part of my next social studies lesson, however, because I found that many students were still working on an assignment; they were engaged in partner work that was beneficial, so I wanted to give them time to work on it.  

I talked with the class briefly to remind them about materials to bring to class--one of which was a current independent reading book.  I shared with them that when they finished the given assignment for today, they should read independently for the remainder of the period.  We started to talk about the importance of reading independently, and I mentioned that I couldn't think of a better activity to do when finished with their classwork.

I know this is a topic that could be met with some criticism, but for the most part, I just don't believe in busy work or centers.  These activities "fill time" for early finishers, and may provide ways to manage students in an organized way.  Some teachers spend hours creating multiple activities, centers, or worksheets in response to students exclaiming, "What can I do when I am done?"  While I don't disparage any teachers' efforts to be deliberate about planning meaningful activities for students to keep them on track, I just have a different take on what method I use to get there.  I believe that independent reading is essentially the best activity for students to do when they finish work.  There are a whole host of reasons for this, but primarily, it helps to promote the love of reading even further with students. I do not default to independent reading as an "out" to preparing things for my students.  I am not a lazy teacher.  The reality is that I believe independent reading is so important, and building in maximum time for it only helps students in developing reading as an automatic habit.  Think about it:  What do we adults do when we finish a required task?  Do we do more of the same task, just to pass time?  No way!  We fill our extra time with an enjoyable hobby so we can relax and rejuvenate.  Teachers who value reading this much will always find time for these small bits of time, realizing the power of books and their impact on young readers.

Donalyn Miller also addresses this topic in The Book Whisperer.  It's good to hear that I am not alone in my thinking.  Like Miller, I believe that small windows of "down time" through the day can be wonderful pockets of time for meaningful reading. Depending on a given teacher's schedule, these small windows of time are very special opportunities in building the habit of a lifelong reader.  I related to an example that Miller explains about her school's picture day, where her students brought their independent reading books with them to read during moments they were waiting. Whether they were waiting to get their picture taken, or waiting for other classmates after they finished their picture, students were invited to read their independent reading book.  While there isn't essentially anything wrong with students spending twenty minutes of time socializing while waiting, structuring this time purposefully for reading is a perfect example of a way to honor the love of reading and the habit of a reader.  Will every student embrace this quality reading time?  Maybe not, but the example is powerful, and peer pressure from other students setting an example to read will be almost too hard to resist.

As a teacher, so much of my time is filled to the brim with everything a teacher has to do.  My time for personal reading, like most teachers, can sometimes be stretched incredibly thin if I am not careful to literally carve out time for reading. How can we do that?  I do that in those small "pockets" of time where I'm waiting in line, while fixing dinner, before going to bed.  I build in those times for reading, because it's what has made me a lifelong reader.  And, I want this for my students, also.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Three Main Themes

I've noticed lately that many of my blog posts have been about three main themes.

Love of reading
Being grateful

I wonder if I'm starting to sound redundant, and so I'm pondering whether I should branch out and write about something totally different.

But then I realized that so much of my life is about the three topics above, so why wouldn't those things be on my mind today?

Here are some thoughts about my reading life today:
I can't wait to share the letter I wrote last night on my blog with my students about the love of reading and about wanting to help shape their reading lives for the last few months of the school year.
I read several chapters in a historical fiction novel today, and I can't wait to read more.
I haven't read much in my nonfiction titles lately.  I look forward to catching up soon.
I pulled two magazines from my (growing) stack to read, and I look forward to reading them in the next few days.

Here are some thoughts on being grateful today:
I am grateful for my time at church today.  I loved the music and the ability to think about God and all He is doing in my life.  I was grateful for the sermon that our pastor gave today.
I am grateful for being able to see our friends' new house today!  We were one of the first to see the house and be a part of this transition period in their lives.
I'm grateful for having been able to spend time with my mom this weekend.  I love her so much.
I'm grateful for spring break coming up after this work week.
I got a lot done on my "to do" list around the house this weekend.  It makes me feel a bit more prepared going into the work week.

Here are some thoughts on friendship:
I'm thrilled for the friendships that are tried and true in my life.  I am so glad that there are those in my life who I know I can call upon at any time of day, and they will be there for me.  I am honored to be able to be there for them, and they for me. I try never to take my friends for granted.  Each day, I wake up happier knowing that I have friendships such as these in my life.  I am truly blessed.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Letter to my Students

Dear Students,

I am so excited about our learning and our work together this year.  I've been enjoying getting to know you as readers and writers.  I've been enjoying hearing about your hobbies and interests and your dreams.  One thing I've loved experiencing with you is how much reading changes lives.  From the first day of school, I wanted to start communicating to you the immense amount of respect I have for reading, and about how much reading changes lives.  Although I never quite came out and told you like that, I have always believed it.  I have always wanted to see that spark in your eyes for books the way that I feel that spark every day as your teacher.

Books can change lives.  From the pages of a book, we see a heroine conquering some terrible conflict, a boy surviving in the wilderness, a family moving and adjusting to a new home.  We see friendships blossom and change, we experience adventures, happiness, tears, disbelief, and honor.  We come to see the world in a new way, just by reading.

In reading books, we come to see outside ourselves.  We experience the lives of others.  We expand our understanding of the world.  We relate to others.  We learn to sympathize with the characters when they hurt, so we come to understand how to do so with people in our own lives.  We feel fear with different characters when they learn to take risks, and by so doing, we become just a bit less fearful of taking those risks ourselves.  We marvel at a character's bravery or courage, and we discover that we can have some of that bravery or courage in our own lives, if even just a little bit more, from having read the pages of a book.

With books, we can learn and grow.  We can challenge ourselves to learn new skills.  We can enrich our knowledge about the world.  We can discover a new hobby or find out about something we have never heard about before.  Books help us become greater thinkers and problem solvers, because we have more information to work with, and we can use that information practically in our lives as we make daily decisions.

Books are also just plain fun.  When we need to relax or rejuvenate, we can turn to a book.  We can give our minds a bit of an escape, if only for a bit of time.  We allow ourselves the gift of relaxation.  We come away from a reading experience like this even more excited about reading, because for us in that moment, reading for fun is just, well, SO fun.

So, I will continue to work on showing you this love of reading that I have.  For a few more months, this is still my goal, my mission.  I am so glad that so many of you love reading.  You have seen the value in it, and you are living the life of a reader--I can tell.  I look forward to further conversations, great talks about books, and shaping the experiences of your reading lives even more.

Mrs. Unger

Friday, March 14, 2014

It's That Important

I can't imagine not being a reader, or being a teacher who didn't promote the love of reading.
"I simply couldn't live without books." 
-5th Grade Student, sharing with me after class on March 12, 2014
"Reading is FUN."
-5th Grade student, who gave me this note last year. 

The above statements are what keep me passionate about what I do as a reading teacher.  They help to drive my instruction, and help me to keep to the task, every day, of purposefully guiding them toward becoming lifelong readers, readers who will continue to want to read long after they leave my classroom.

I once heard an adult say to me that he thought reading was a waste of time. 
I couldn't believe it.  It was one of the few times in my life that my jaw literally dropped in surprise.

On the other hand, most people I know enjoy reading.  And I am working to support my students in this journey to love reading, too.

I've been reading since I was a very young girl.  I read with my Mom and Dad.  I read books for fun.  I read books during the summer for the local summer reading program.  I took books with me when we traveled.  Books were still "cool" for me in high school and college.  I loved going to the library.  My books are the one of the only things I "collect," since I am an organization "freak," and don't like clutter or knick-knacks. But the books get to stay.

They are that important.

One of the many bookshelves in our house.

I want my students to see the importance in the classroom as well.  I work on growing my library each year, as well, because I never want them to say to me that they simply "can't find a book to read."  Giving students many choices provides them with the ability to explore many titles, and get to know a variety of genres.  It allows them time to browse, and sample books, just as we do in a book store or a library.  And, that IS fun.

It's that important.

A portion of my classroom library
Helping students learn to love reading is still the main goal in much of my instruction.  No matter how many assessments or tests I have to give them each year, I feel I will be doing my job if I still have the honor of my students sharing their love of reading back to me.  And, like the student in my class who uttered those words to me, I don't think I could live very well without books, either.

They're that important.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Gratitude List

I've always tried to think grateful thoughts each and every day, because I know that my life is blessed in many ways, despite fatigue, stress, conflicts in life, and a busy schedule.  But sometimes, life can get overwhelming, and teaching can sometimes bog me down, if I'm not careful to put into place some practices to stay positive.  A gratitude list is something I've been keeping over the past several months. Although the idea of a gratitude list is not something new or unique, it is a newer practice for me.  I have lagged a bit on writing them lately, but the practice is extremely beneficial for me.  When I write an entry, I usually write 10 things each day for which I am grateful.  It challenges me to be truly joyful, and to appreciate the day in front of me.  Here is a reflection for today:

1.  I'm grateful for one of my students saying out loud to me today that she "simply couldn't live without books."
2.  I'm grateful for having wonderful colleagues who share similar belief systems about the importance of reading and writing, and about authentic teaching to the whole child.
3.  I'm grateful for Panera Bread Light Roast coffee, which is now available in a "K cup" for my Keurig!  (Best coffee ever, in my opinion!)
4.  I'm grateful that today was a day I built in time for both personal reading and writing after school.  My day feels more complete!
5.  I'm grateful for the sunshine.  I'm always happier with a little sunshine to boost my overall mood!
6.  I'm grateful for my friends.  I've been very reflective lately about friendships.  Praise God for close friends, those friends who stick with you through thick and thin!
7.  I'm grateful for my renewed interest in journaling.
8.  I'm grateful for my dog Shelby, and how loving and sweet she is.  I'm not biased at all.
9.  I'm grateful for my husband, who understands me and supports me in whatever I do.
10. I'm grateful to be challenged to write every single day in March.  It is not entirely easy for me, but I love feeling that I am able to produce and contribute in some way, and learn a lot in the process.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Writing off of a Word

Sometimes, even though I have so many thoughts in my head, I don't always have a topic ready each day for the "Slice of Life" challenge.  Like my students, I sometimes need some inspiration.  Tonight, I take an idea from Aimee Buckner.  In her book, Notebook Know-How:  Strategies for the Writer's Notebook, she mentions a great strategy for idea generation called "Writing from a Word." With this strategy, students are encouraged to pick a word, and write about that topic for a period of time.  Students write their "stream of consciousness" dealing with this topic.  It's a great way for students to get their ideas on paper, and it could be a good springboard for other story ideas or sparked interest in a nonfiction topic. Tonight, I'll take this strategy and tweak it a little bit.  I will still "write off of a word," but I think I'll try to write about connections to the word, and see where it takes me.

We're reading the book Wonder in class right now, so I'll start with that word...

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
We're reading the part about the 5th grade class going to a nature reserve camp...
Now I'm thinking about my 6th grade camp experience...
Camp Oty'Okwa...
With my first boyfriend...
Sitting around the campfire...
The temperatures were cold enough that we needed jackets...
Jackets make me think about how cold it was today...with the wind chill, it was nearly 18 degrees...
The high temperature yesterday was in the 60s...
Crazy weather.
I'm ready for winter to be over now.  We've had such frigid temperatures and so much snow this year.
Spring will be here soon.
Spring makes me think of March.
March brings some family members' birthdays.
Birthdays mean family time and sharing...
Meals shared together.
Grilling out steaks, baked potatoes, salad, wine...
Baked potatoes make me think of potato salad...
Potato salad makes me think of summer time.
4th of July...more shared family time and memories.
My upcoming class reunion.
Seeing friends...catching up, reuniting....laughing...
Class reunions make me think of my years growing up...
Growing up, I think of my elementary school...
Elementary school makes me think of my wonderful teachers...
My teachers make me think of my Mom, who was also a teacher.
My Mom makes me think of how she helped shape me as a reader.
Reading helps me feel, relate, think, sympathize, think critically.
My love of reading is something I strive to pass along to my students every day.
Reading aloud helps me to do that.
We're reading the book Wonder in class right now...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Friendship Thoughts

Friends are such special blessings in life.  
Here are some of my thoughts on true friends...
  • They have open and honest communication.
  • They laugh...a lot...
  • Friends are there for one another, no matter how busy they are.
  • They share in each other's celebrations and disappointments.
  • They provide support and care.
  • They reciprocate.  Friendship is not one-sided.
  • There is a freedom to talk openly without fear of judgement.
  • Friends protect each other.
  • They make each other smile.
  • They invest effort into each other's lives.
  • They consider each other's feelings.
  • Friends understand and support each other's unique quirks 
  • They forgive.
  • They pray for each other.
  • They make time for each other.
  • Friends believe the best in one another.
  • They take on burdens for each other.
  • They have inside jokes.
  • Friends give of themselves to one another each day.
  • They learn from one another.
  • Friends trust each other.
  • They honor each other's insecurities.
  • They give each other compliments.
  • Friends encourage each other.
  • They challenge each other to grow.
  • They never give up on each other.
  • Friends listen and honor each other's feelings.
  • They provide a shoulder to lean on.
Friends understand that friendship itself is one God's greatest blessings, never to be taken for granted.

I'm so thankful for true friends in my life.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Things that Make me Smile

My Slice of Life tonight is very brief, but contains things that are deeply important to me.
Top Ten List of things that Make me Smile

1.   My faith in God
2.   My spouse, friends, and family
3.   My dog 
4.   My career
5.   Sunsets 
6.   Books
7.   The words "I love you"
8.   Being organized
9.   Music
10. Chocolate

Did I really list chocolate at number 10?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Trusting the Process

I've been reflecting on a couple of "fake" readers in class lately. I've met with them a little more closely, talked about book choice, given them a few suggested texts to preview and try out, and have shrunk back for a few days to see what they might do.  I'll monitor and check back in about a week to see how they are doing.  

I've also been taking a bit of a closer look at some of the books my students have been reading.  It's hard for me when a couple of my students always choose the Wimpy Kid books for independent reading time, but I've always truly felt that if students are genuinely reading, and are motivated by those texts, then they are still reading, so I tend not to coach too much.  Through shared reading experiences, book recommendations, and other exposures to good literature, I know I need to trust in the process.  Just the other day, one of my Wimpy Kid "regulars" picked up a new book from the library.  I was no doubt thrilled, as this is literally the first time I've seen him choose anything other than that to read (Side note: I don't have anything against this series; I just want to provide a rich reading experience for my students, and reading that series throughout the year won't give that to them).

Thinking on this, I realize that what I do every day in the classroom is powerful in helping these students to see, day by day, the power of a variety of texts by different authors in different genres.  They may not choose new books, or read widely in different authors right away, but as they are exposed to it in different ways, over time, perhaps they will. Perhaps a friend will recommend a new book to them.  Perhaps a librarian can entice them with a different book.  Perhaps a parent will share great titles, or show them books they have read in the past. 

I never know exactly what will guide my students toward richer reading experiences, but if I trust in the process, I can be reassured that it is the right path.  If I am exposing them to great titles, reading aloud every day, promoting the love of reading with daily independent reading, guiding success by setting goals, setting expectations for books, and generally setting the tone of reading being an amazing thing that changes lives, then I am on the right path. 

Trust the process.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Blessing of Friendships

I've been thinking about friendships a lot lately in my life.

I stumbled onto a poem the other day about friends.  I have seen snippets of this poem over time, but I hadn't really taken time to read the poem in its entirety before.  
Some of my friends are definitely lifetime friends.  These are precious and rare. These are people who I've known since childhood, or, maybe they are those I've just met recently, but I know they will be in my life forever.  They are those who have known some of my background in ways that no one else has, or who have come to understand me in ways that others do not.  They will always hold such a special place in my heart, because they know so many of the years that have shaped me into the person I am now, or they understand the depth of my soul, and I theirs, too. I think God places lifetime friends in our lives to be true comforts to us in good times and bad.  They are meant to be a "constant" in life.  For those life-long, forever friends, I am so incredibly grateful.

A few other friends in life seem to be those who are friends for a season or a reason. These friends come into our lives to teach us something, or allow us to teach them. These friends sometimes come swiftly, and they help us to see some life lesson in that time in our lives, or in theirs.  Without these "friends for a season or reason," we may not have learned that important life lesson, or we may not have been able to share a special part of who we are to them.  They are special, and are a blessing, but they may not be lifetime friends.  I don't like losing friends with the seasons.  With my friends, I want to care for them for the long-term, and it is my hope that they want to do the same for me.  But that isn't always God's plan.  These friends are definitely ones we are glad God blessed us with, because our lives are made much richer through their presence.  These friends give us purpose, and help us to become better individuals through their presence.  I am so grateful for these friends in my life as well.  So, for those who are in my life for a season or reason, I'll never forget you, or the blessing you have been in my life.

Friendship is an absolutely precious gift.  I do not take my friends for granted.  I thank God for them every single day.  I always have room to grow, and I find that I want to learn how to love, care for, and serve my friends in better and better ways. To me, there are few things in life that are as important as friendships.

So, take a few moments today, and thank a friend for being in your life.  It will mean the world to them.  

Here is the poem:

People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime.
When you figure out which one it is,
you will know what to do for each person.

When someone is in your life for a REASON,
it is usually to meet a need you have expressed.
They have come to assist you through a difficulty;
to provide you with guidance and support;
to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually.
They may seem like a godsend, and they are.
They are there for the reason you need them to be.
Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time,
this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end.
Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away.
Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand.
What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done.
The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

Some people come into your life for a SEASON,
because your turn has come to share, grow or learn.
They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh.
They may teach you something you have never done.
They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy.
Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

LIFETIME relationships teach you lifetime lessons;
things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation.
Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person,
and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life.
It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.

— Unknown

Friday, March 7, 2014

Spring Forward

There are so many reasons why I love this picture...

It makes me think of my Mom's house, and her garden. The garden she tends each summer. 

The back yard where we played, ran around, picked apples, had fun on the "Slip and Slide..."

The times we spent making homemade ice cream on the patio.

Grilling out each year for the Fourth of July...

Mom's garden speaks of warmer weather, of spring, of new things to come...

While always cherishing memories as well.

I'm so glad that her garden can stir up so many thoughts, just from one picture.

I can't imagine what the garden, when in full bloom, will evoke for further memories, or perhaps new ones as well. 

Spring forward, indeed.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Two Essential Things

In Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller challenges teachers to think about what we consider to be critical components of the reading and writing block each day.  Certainly, in a workshop classroom, there are specific elements that are present (mini lesson, guided practice, read aloud, independent reading, conferring, small guided groups).  There are certain "non-negotiables" that we must establish for ourselves, or we will no doubt find that something will slip from our schedule once things get busy.  And, when are our days not busy? 

In thinking about this, two things really stand out for me lately in reflecting on the "must have" elements of my workshop time with students.  Even though all parts of workshop have a purpose, one "absolute" for me, like Miller, is independent reading, and the other is conferring.  These two pieces of reading/writing workshop speak to two slightly different, deeply-held convictions.  I admit:  A long time ago, as a new teacher, I would perhaps have seen independent reading as one of the things I may have let slip from the schedule if things got too chaotic in a given day.  Now, I feel very differently.  Planning for daily independent reading time for my students every single day (pending major interruptions, like an assembly or a field trip) says that I value the reading experience so much, that it must be part of our day. It says that I believe that benefits of independent reading will enhance a child's life going forward. Most students in my class do read at home, as it is part of my reading expectation for students, but I cannot guarantee that they are reading at home.  So, I must build in time with them at school for this essential part of reading workshop.  I agree with Donalyn when she asserts, "I never sacrifice independent reading time for the sake of other instructional activities.  Never (page 38)."

Conferring is another aspect of my workshop block that is becoming very meaningful to me (and for my students, also).  Conferring with students helps me to individualize instruction.  It allows me to build community with my students as individuals.  I love sitting with them, taking time to discuss a current book, goals to set, or evaluating them on a particular area of reading. It helps me to take the next step in processing something specific with them about their reading lives. When I first started conferring with students several years ago, the process seemed a bit stilted and methodical.  I was unsure of how to keep record of our conversation.  While I haven't mastered the one "best" way to track my observations in conferring yet (I change my anecdotal record-keeping each year, it seems), I feel the conversation flows much more easily now, because I know the focus of our conferences.  Students often request conferences as well, which shows their ability to know what they need the most support with at any given time in their reading or writing.

As Miller reflects, "I must find time for daily independent reading even if it means that I cut something else (page 38)."  Although all parts of the workshop model promote learning, independent reading is one of the most essential parts of my day.  I'm so excited to be on this journey with my students, helping them, supporting them, showing them, as best as I can, to see this reality in their reading lives each day.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Classroom Writing Challenge

On the first day of this "Slice of Life" Writing Challenge, I saw that there was a classroom challenge as well.  Though I was too late to enroll my fifth grade students in the challenge “officially,” I decided to still pose the writing challenge to them anyway.  I was so excited about the challenge myself, so I figured that I would go ahead and invite my students to write along with me.  I was both a little worried and very excited about how many students might decide to join.  On Monday afternoon, I explained the challenge to the students.  I reinforced with them that they could write about anything they wanted.  Many students seemed excited about this.  I talked with them about writing stamina, and how writing every single day will help develop that sense of stamina, just as it does for us in our reading workshop every day with independent reading. 

A few parents have e-mailed me about this already, expressing appreciation for the writing challenge to be extended to their children.  Some students came into my classroom yesterday, excited to share with me about what they had written.  I love their fresh enthusiasm for this project.  I think in part, I showed them how excited I was for the project, so in turn, they became excited.  They know that I am committed to the project every single day, so it’s fun to see them get on board and commit to writing something every day.

Twenty out of my twenty-six students have signed up with me to do this writing challenge.  I am thrilled.  I know it’s possible that a few students will drop out of the challenge during the month, but I’m excited for their enthusiasm. 

It’s a great honor to have students who recognize the value in writing for pleasure, and who want to take a commitment to that next level.  As a side note, it probably helps that I’m doing a "donuts and juice celebration" at the end of the month for all of my "Challenge" writers, during which we’ll share our entries, talk about the writing process, and about how things went for them during the month.  But, hopefully, most of my students joined the challenge for the pure joy of writing, and not just for the donuts!