Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Putting one foot in next year

Over the weekend I received this email notification:

My reflection isn't due until the end May, about a week and a half before school ends, but to be real, I've been reflecting since the first day of school.  I can't help it; it's how I operate.

But... here's the thing.  When spring break rolls around, I start getting itchy to begin planning for next year.  And every year I tell myself that it's too early; I still have a little over two months with my current students, and there's still so much to do.

It's not that I want to wish this current class away... I don't!  I have the best class of third graders a girl could wish for for her first go at this grade level.  They have taught me so much about patience, humor, and trusting them (and myself).  I just keep thinking about how I could do things BETTER next year.

I'm a perfectionist.  I know that I can be a better teacher than I am right now, and I am lucky to work in a district that provides me with the resources I need to grow.  As I talk to colleagues and read their blogs and see their tweets, I am inspired to be better every day.

So what am I thinking about, sitting here on my couch in the middle of my spring break?  What will I do differently next year?

  • My kids will write more.  Looking back, I realize I put a HUGE emphasis on reading during my literacy studio, and I did not do enough writing instruction.  Because my literacy block is almost 2 hours long rather than separated into a reading workshop and a writing workshop, it is easy to focus on just one of the areas.  The whole idea of a literacy studio, though is to blend the reading and writing instruction as much as possible in order to build on the power of the reading/writing connection.
  • My kids will share more.  I am one of those teachers who KNOWS kids are supposed to share every day during literacy studio, but who doesn't remember to do that often enough.  Don't get me wrong... the kids talk every day in lots of situations.  But we don't SHARE our reading and writing lives enough.  This is something I'm thinking about a lot. And it's something I can make myself remember to do when we return to school next week.
  • My kids will do more inquiry-based learning in science and social studies.  I tell myself that because this was my first year learning the new curriculum, it was ok to just follow the units as they were written.  I know, though, that I've done a disservice to my students by not including them in the planning and learning as much as I could have.  This needs to change.
  • I will incorporate more choices into my math block.  The expectation in my district is that our math block is really a math workshop, where there is a short mini-lesson followed by time when students have choice in their work while I pull small groups or confer with individual students.  This did not happen most days, in large part due to my discomfort as a math teacher.  I'm working on learning more about being a math teacher, so hopefully I will be able to make this better next year.

Being a reflective practitioner is an important part of teaching.  It's easy to sit back and think about everything that went well, and a bit harder to acknowledge the things that aren't so great.  But if I am to truly grow as a teacher, I can't just stay in my comfort zone; I have to push myself to face my weaknesses and seek out the help I need in those areas.

So yeah... I have one foot in next year.  But there's still one firmly planted in this year.  And I owe it to my students to be fully focused on them until June 8.

Monday, February 27, 2017

In a slump

Age 3. Reading. Of course.

I have been a reader for as long as I can remember.  Not a casual, "Oh, I'll read for a bit to pass the time" kind of reader.  I'm a "Life is not worth living if I don't have a book with me" kind of reader.  Last year alone, I read 359 books.  I don't say that to brag, but rather to let you know that I am a reader. An avid one.

Over the course of my reading life, I've gone through cycles.  I'll binge on trashy romances and then make it up to myself by reading something literary.  I read more young adult books than I could possibly count when I was teaching seventh grade ELA.  Now, my reading rate is much higher because I'm reading mostly picture books and early chapter books.

Or at least I was.

About age 12. Reading. Of course.

Because right now, I'm not reading much of anything.  Since returning to school after winter break, I have not been able to find a book that will hold my attention.  I've tried just about every type of book I can think of to get myself back on track.  I've started books I've heard about on NPR, ones that I read about in People magazine.  Books recommended by friends, books I bought  from the Scholastic flyer.  Books for adults.  Books for kids.  Books for teens.

Have I found that book that will give me my reading mojo back yet?  Nope.  And to be honest, I'm kind of concerned about that.  I think this is the longest I've ever gone without finishing a book, at least since high school.  Maybe it's that I'm preoccupied by life right now, and my focus is elsewhere.  Perhaps I'm too distracted by Facebook and Twitter to focus on a longer text.

Age 48. Reading Kind of.
Or maybe I just need some time and space to lose myself in words again.  Spring break is just four weeks away, and as of right now, that week is wide open.  Dan will be at work.  Molly will be out of town with the orchestra.  Abby will be with friends or making art in her room.  That leaves a whole week of quiet for just me and the dog and a stack of books.

Now... how do I figure out what I'll read first?

Friday, February 17, 2017

I used to be a literacy coach... and here's why I need one.

I am not a new teacher.  In fact, this is my twenty-third year in my school district.  Eighteen of those were spent teaching seventh grade language arts (and sometimes US history) and four of them were spent as a literacy coach.

As a coach, I worked with the teachers to improve literacy instruction across the curriculum.  Surprising as it may seem, I spent most of my time working in math, science, and social studies classes rather than in the language arts classes.  I loved going into these classes and thinking with the teachers about the challenges of incorporating reading, writing, and choice into their curricula and then working with them to implement the ideas we came up with together.  I was always amazed at how we could take my knowledge of research in literacy education and pair it with their content expertise to find new ways to engage students in the hard work of learning.

Now, I'm back in the classroom, and I'm finally able to put all of the things I've learned over the past four years into practice.  I know so much more about teaching and learning than I did when I first stepped away.  I've had the opportunity to watch teachers and kids and think about engagement and learning.  You'd think I'd be the best teacher I've ever been, right?

I am.

I am much more aware of limiting how much I talk so that my students can talk and think more.  I provide my students with opportunities to make choices about their learning over the course of the school day.  The feedback I give my students is clearer and more targeted than ever before.  You'd think I wouldn't need to work with the literacy coach in my building.

You'd be wrong.

I've spent the past two months working closely with my coach because I want to continue to grow. Having Luanne come into my room to work alongside me provided the opportunity for me to discuss my teaching and my students' learning with a highly knowledgeable peer in a setting unrelated to my professional evaluation.  She could make recommendations for next steps with particular students and small groups because she was in my class, getting to know the students as readers and writers, and we had many conversations about what to do to move students forward.  This time with her in my class was important to my growth.  In some ways, it validated me; it helped me to see that I DID remember how to teach after being in a support role.  In other ways it challenged me by reminding me that my way was not the only, and perhaps not the best, way to approach a topic.  I'll miss having Luanne in my room several times a week.  She's now moving on to work with other teachers in our building.

I know not all teachers are lucky enough to have instructional coaches to support them in their work.  But we can seek out coaches and mentors on our own.  I know that I rely on one of my teammates to help me plan my math instruction - trust me... I need that help as I've never taught math before!  I seek out Twitter chats such as #g2great and #3rdchat which focus on instructional practice in order to "meet" other teachers who are smart and innovative and help me push myself.  This desire to continue to grow as a teacher is as strong as ever.  It is important for all teachers to have this growth mindset. We need to be models of curiosity and life-long learning for our students.  We need to keep up with the research and new thinking in our field.

So I think the thing I've been trying to write through today is the idea that as a teacher, I can never stop learning.  I can never know all there is to know about my craft and there is always room to grow. Need a friend to read and discuss a professional book?  Email me.  I'm always a willing participant. Have a problem you need someone to think through with you? I'm your girl, as long as you'll do the same for me.  Read a great book about teaching and learning lately?  Tell me the title so I can buy it.

Because I honestly believe you can never learn too much.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Lightbulb Moments

Some days, after I've walked my third graders out the front door of the school, I go back to my classroom and just sit at my desk.  It often looks as if a tornado has hit it, since I don't have time to put things away over the course of the day.  I turn my chair so that I'm facing the groups of student desks and I think about the day just past.

I'm not always happy about that reflection.  Some days, it seems like I'll model, and think aloud, and provide practice, and confer, and provide feedback and the kids just don't seem to GET IT.  It's as if we're in a third-grade version of Groundhog Day and I'm Bill Murray, making small adjustments to my instruction, thinking that I've finally made a difference, then WHAM!  That clock flips and Sonny & Cher come on and I'm right back where I was the day before.

Some days, I just want to throw in the towel and give up and move on.

That is a rather hyperbolic description of the weeks since winter break. My literacy coach and I had been working with the students on using text evidence to answer questions in the reading part of our literacy studio and the beginnings of writing opinion papers in the writing part.  We were doing all of the things we were supposed to be doing (see list above).  To be truthful, we did see small movement in the students' ability to answer "right there" questions and to write very basic paragraphs, but it was slow going.

And then it wasn't!  Last Thursday, it was like a switch flipped and things started to click.  I had given students a short piece of text entitled "Should Students Learn Cursive" that we read together and discussed.  As third graders, this is a topic they are interested in, as many of them learned to write their names in cursive in second grade, and they want to learn more.  For their opinion writing practice, I asked them to take a side... should they have to learn cursive in schools?  Why?  Why not?
They started writing like they were on fire!  I saw T-charts and webs and bullet lists being created in the planning space.  I saw them going back into the text to reference the pro and con arguments.  I had students asking me for writing advice.  I had students asking EACH OTHER for writing advice (even better).  I saw students writing multi-paragraph papers outlining all the reasons they SHOULD learn to write (and read) cursive.  I nearly fell off of my conferring stool!

It was a lightbulb moment day.  Teachers live for those.

But it was also a day that reminded me that learning takes time.  I have to avoid getting caught up on where I think I'm "supposed" to be on a timeline or a curriculum map, and I have to honor the students who make up our learning community.  I have to think about where they are at on that day, and what they need NEXT to grow as writers.  Most important, I need to remember to teach the WRITER not the writing.

These are not new lessons for me.  But the reminder is no less important.  If I were not reflective about my practice; if the literacy coach had not reminded me to step back and be an observer in my own classroom, I might have just moved on to the next stop on the curriculum train.  I know in my heart that when I take the time my students need, I am doing the right thing - no matter what the calendar says.

So tomorrow, I'll head back into Room 301, and I'll model and think aloud and confer and listen and give feedback.  But I'll also observe and think.

And I'll watch for the lightbulbs.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

From My Stacks #1

Last week, my friend Patrick Allen wrote about three books he rediscovered in his classroom library.  He shared how he might use them with students in his reading workshop.  After reading his post, I was inspired to take a virtual walk through my classroom library in order to do a similar post.

My library is new.  When I made the decision to move from middle school to third grade, I had to get rid of my YA library (most of which was donated to a group who will get the books into other classroom libraries) and build one appropriate for third graders.  I had a LOT of help.  Friends donated books to the cause.  Others sent me Amazon gift cards to use to purchase books.  The Scholastic Warehouse Sale was a gold mine.  The work was worth it.  The kids are loving the books, which was the goal all along.

Today's edition of From My Stacks will focus on three books that elicited great thinking and discussion among my third graders.

1.  Gleam and Glow by Eve Bunting

Gleam and Glow tells the story of a family forced to leave their home as a result of war.  As the family prepares to flee before the army arrives in their town, the children wonder what will become of the goldfish they've promised to care for.  Eventually, they must leave, and with no other choice, put the goldfish in the pond near their house.  Though this is a story about the war in Bosnia, it has clear connections to the wars happening in the middle east today.

I used this book when showing my students how readers listen to their "inner voices".  My assistant read the story out loud while I modeled being the inner voice (I even held a thought bubble around my head as you can see in the photo), talking about my thinking as the story went on.

When we discussed the story, the kids really wanted to talk about the family and how they had to flee their home and everything they loved.  They were moved by the hardship the mother and the two kids went through as they tried to get to safety and to find their father.  Few of the students knew about the refugees fleeing Syria and we were able to have an age-appropriate conversation about humanity, compassion, and love.  This lesson turned out to be about way more than reading comprehension.

2.  Miss Paul and the President by Dean Robbins

In the lead-up to this year's election, I just couldn't bring the nastiness of the campaign into a classroom where the number one expectation is to treat others the way you want to be treated.  Instead, I chose to focus on the importance of participating in the process.  As a class, we had several discussions on why it is important to cast a ballot, not just in presidential elections, but also in local elections such as those for school board and city council. One of the books I shared was Miss Paul and the President by Dean Robbins.  A picture book biography of Alice Paul, this book shows kids the struggle involved in getting women the right to vote.  Many of my students were surprised to learn that women have been able to vote in federal elections for less than 100 years, and this book became a jumping off point to talk about why women felt they needed a voice in elections and why a vote is important.  The students were very curious about the tactics the National Woman's Party used to convince the people of America, a great deal of whom did not feel women were capable of the complexity of thought to cast a ballot, to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

The kids' questions and comments were thoughtful and thought provoking.  They ranged from disbelief that people used to think women were incapable of voting or pursuing a profession such as medicine or law to curiosity over whether or not a single vote matters so much.  I will definitely use this book again, even in a non-election year.

3.  Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beatty

Since the first day of school, I've been working on growth vs. fixed mindset.  It's surprising to me (though it probably shouldn't be) how many of my students come in to third grade believing that they are not good at math or who give up the minute something becomes challenging. When I read Rosie Revere, Engineer as well as the companion books Iggy Peck, Architect and Ada Twist, Scientist, we were able to talk about how the characters responded to the challenges they faced and how the characters didn't give up.  I also love that these books include girls doing traditionally "boy" activities like inventing and doing scientific experiments.
At first, my students responded to the whimsical illustrations by David Roberts, but they were quickly drawn into the story.  They were appalled when Rosie's uncle laughed at her invention, and cheered when Rosie's invention succeeded - if only for a while.  The kids were eager to talk about what Rosie (and Iggy and Ada) learned over the course of the story, and long after the last page turned, these characters continue to come up in classroom discussions.

I have so many more books that my kids have loved.  I have even more that I am excited to share.  My students know that if there is ONE thing I am passionate about, it is books.  They know that most weeks I have at least one or two new books to add to our classroom collection, and that as soon as I get them catalogued and numbered they are free to read them as often as they wish.  I know that my excitement about books NEW and OLD is contagious!

Watch for my next "From my Stacks" edition in January!

Monday, December 5, 2016

I Control the Weather

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” - Haim G. Ginott

After four years as a literacy coach, there are some things I'm relearning in my return to the classroom.  This is one of those things.  As teachers, it's easy to get caught up in all of the "stuff" that we need to do that may or may not be part of our work in our classrooms with our kids:  attending meetings, reading (both books for kids and books for ourselves), doing report cards, filling out paperwork, reading and answering emails... the list feels endless.

And in December, the stuff feels compounded because we know we have things that MUST be finished before we leave for our two week winter break.

And on top of that, kids come back from Thanksgiving week acting as if they've never heard our classroom expectations, meaning we have to take about ten steps back and reintroduce classroom rules and routines.

One day last week, a girl in my class asked if I needed to borrow her stress ball.

This was a HUGE sign to me that I needed to step out into the hallway, take a deep breath, and re-connect with my vision of my dream classroom.  I needed to clear away the fog, blow away the storm clouds, and let the sunshine break through.  Last week was a clear indicator to me that the kids follow my lead.  Of course they were out of sorts, trying to figure their way through a busy week - their teacher was doing the same.  I was indeed stressed out, thinking of all of the tasks that had yet to be ticked off my list and worrying about what would happen if I didn't get them all done.  Over the weekend, I made some promises to myself and to my students (though they don't know it):

  • I will take time each day, even if it's just twenty minutes, to do something just for me.  Self-care is often the very last line item on my to-do list, and I can tell when I don't take care of my mental and physical well-being;
  • I will PRIORITIZE my to-do lists and work hard to make my daily list realistic.  Just because there are 57 things I need to do over the course of a week, there's no reason to list all 57 every day.  I'm the kind of person who gets overwhelmed when I have too many things to do and I become paralyzed.  There's a fine line between organized and overwhelmed;
  • I will breathe.  I know that sounds a bit dismissive, but I do forget to slow down and take deep breaths.  It's almost as if my shoulders have strings attached to them, and over the course of the day someone pulls those strings to that my shoulders end up around my ears.  When I breathe, I relax and feel more like myself;
  • I will SLOW DOWN and focus on the young learners in front of me.  They, after all, are the reason I'm there.  They'll only be in third grade once, and they're counting on me to do my best to help them learn.  When I'm focused on those eighteen young people, I can't help but smile and laugh.  And laughter is catching.

So I'll make it through the next two and a half weeks.  We'll make it through.  And we'll enjoy the weather along the way.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Good Intentions

I had every intention of using this blog space as a place for reflection, to sit down at least once a week to write about my new teaching life, my thoughts as I got reacquainted with the rhythms and routines of the classroom, my growing relationships with my students.

Then... it didn't happen.

This did:

Life.  Life happened.
I'm a teacher, yes, but I'm also a mom, a wife, President of the Secondary Reading League, Secretary of the Glenbrook North Parents Association.

I spend my evenings driving my kids to dance lessons and orchestra rehearsals.  I cook dinner.  I do laundry.  I plan (as evidenced by my dining room table on Sunday afternoon).

But I do think and reflect, even if I don't always get around to getting it all in writing.  This reflection is important.  If I don't take the time to think about my day, about my successes and flops, I'll never become a better teacher, and really, that is my goal: every day a better teacher than the day before.

What I have been doing is posting a "Highlights of my teaching day" post on Facebook each evening.  They typically look something like this:
These posts do a couple of things for me - they force me to focus on the positives that happen in my classroom every single day.  I am a horrible perfectionist, and if I let myself, I focus only on the things that were less than stellar.  In making these highlights public, I have to think through my day and choose the things that brought me joy.  I'm finding that knowing I'm going to write about them later, I notice these joyful moments more.  I'm looking for them.  I'm savoring them.

Of course, paying attention to the positive does not mean that I'm not considering the things that did not go as planned.  Every teacher, every day has those moments when he or she thinks, "Well... I did not expect THAT!"  Sometimes it's a piece of text that did not engage the students.  Sometimes it's a group project gone south.  Sometimes it's tripping on a cord and landing on your butt in the front of your room (yes... that happened to me and on a day when I had a group of observers no less).  I spend time each evening thinking about those things as well, and I make notes for myself about changes I need to consider in my lesson and unit plans for next year - or even the next day.  My plans are definitely fluid.  They need to be if I am going to be responsive to my students' needs.

So yes... I've been sporadic in posting here on the blog, but I am still trying to make it work in third grade.  Overall, I feel great about what I'm doing.  Here's why:
  • Most of my kids came into third grade loving to read; I get to benefit from that by seeing how excited they get about my classroom library.
  • The kids get to teach me new things every day (especially in math), and I let them know when they've done just that.  The smiles of pride on their faces are priceless.
  • I've had several students come to me, asking to share pieces of writing they did at home, just for fun.  They know I think it's fabulous they do the work as writers even when they're not told to.
  • Even though I'm dog tired at the end of every school day, I go home excited about my work.  I look forward to returning to school the next day.
  • I don't count down to Friday anymore.
And then there's this: