#Celebratelu: Celebrating The Great Thanksgiving Listen…year three

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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As Thanksgiving nears, we are preparing for The Great Thanksgiving Listen – StoryCorps’ brilliant initiative to: “Honor someone important in your life by interviewing them for The Great Listen 2017. Help us create a culture of listening that echoes across the nation.”  You can read all about it, and avail yourself of classroom resources here.

This will be the third year in which the students of Room 202 will select an elder they want to interview, decide which burning questions they will want to ask, and prepare to listen to family stories they will be hearing (perhaps) for the first time.   Last week, we previewed a few of the StoryCorps interviews which modeled the  questioning and listening process, the favorite of which is this one:

This weekend, my kiddos will be deciding who they will interview and formulating about twelve questions to ask.  They will also make sure that their interviewees will be aware of the project and ready to set aside the twenty minutes to half hour needed for the interview process.  Some will call grandparents far away (Russia, South Korea, and India are some of the places they’ve mentioned so far), and some will sit across the Thanksgiving table with parents, aunts, or uncles; all will use their phones to record their interviews.

After Thanksgiving, they will listen to these conversations and transcribe their favorite parts. I love watching my kids listen intently to these recordings the day we return from Thanksgiving break.  With ear buds securely in and pens scribbling away, they stop often to rewind and relive those conversations, and to laugh or sigh at what was said.  We learn to lift the best quotes from these interviews and then to craft writing pieces to share with classmates.  So many lovely stories have been shared over the last three years, but the most meaningful aspect of the Listen is that my kids learn about their own histories, and that these histories surprise and move them into a deeper appreciation of who their elders are, and what they have survived.

Last year, E.K. wrote:

This interview was important to me because I felt that I got to know and understand my grandma better, now that I know what she’s been through, and how hard her childhood was. Before this interview, I was just really doing it because I had to, but now I’m glad that I did, because I got to know a side to her that I didn’t know before. I guess I was just a little too late for my grandpa, but at least now, I have my grandma by my side.

(You can read her fabulous piece in its entirety here.)

This weekend, I celebrate getting ready to participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen, and look forward to hearing my students celebrate the stories of their families.

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#Celebratelu: Of gardens and classrooms

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

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For her Poetry Friday post, Ruth – our poetry friend from Haiti, wrote beautifully about the connection between the crafts of teaching and gardening:

I find teaching like gardening because you can do everything “right,” all the planting and watering and fertilizing, and still there is a large part of the process that’s just a complete mystery.  It takes place out of sight, and it’s out of your control.  In addition, of course, there are all the other factors – the “weather” of your students’ lives, like their home situation, their relationships with other kids in the class, their hormones, whether or not they had breakfast this morning.

Ruth’s musings led her to compose a lovely poem, and led me down the rabbit hole of thinking about how wise and accurate her comparison had been.  Yes, I’ve been thinking ever since, our classrooms are like garden plots, ones we tend to with care from September through June and then ponder over ever after: what went well, what did not, what are the lessons learned, and what do I feel I am ready to experiment with in the year to come.

As I sit before a tabletop covered with my students’ reading and writing lives which need to be commented upon and assessed, I have flashes of memories from our first marking period: the anticipation of setting up our classroom, the excitement of the first day, and the fits and starts with which my kids progressed from nervous sixth graders to ones who have settled in.

Following Ruth’s gardening metaphor, the first quarter of the year feels very much like the very beginning of Spring, when the detritus of winter must be cleared away, the weeds of the Fall cleaned off, and the soil tilled and enriched so that growth might (fingers crossed) occur.  Going into the second marking period feels like the end of Spring: each plant has its own spot in which to grow and thrive, and has begun to grow.  The garden now looks a bit uneven still, for each plant grows at its own rate, but it is taking shape, and that gives the gardener hope.

Reaching for each reading journal or piece of writing by my students has begun to feel familiar – when I read my students’ work I can hear their voices, I can remember the goals we have set, and I can appreciate the ways in which they have grown.   The gardener has come  to know her garden.

As we look ahead and plan for the second marking period, I celebrate the way in which each of my students has claimed their very own place in the learning arc of the year.  They’ve settled in, they are beginning to grow…and I celebrate that.

 

 

The Year’s First Read Aloud

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“Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters – the saints and the sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”

Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

My most important goal every new school year is that I want my sixth graders to leave our classroom more invested in their reading lives in June than they were in September because they have come to know the value of “wild reading” – the kind of reading that Donalyn Miller’s quote above describes.  To achieve this goal I will have to effectively organize time, assemble a library of great books, communicate the joys of my own reading life, talk to my kids about the books they are reading, and find opportunities to nurture a community of readers who love nothing more than a lively conversation about what they are reading and how it speaks to them.  

The surest tool in my reading teacher toolkit to lay a foundation for all of that is the read aloud, and this is why I spend so much time choosing and planning out that first read aloud of the school year.

Choosing that first shared book is both joyous and nerve wracking – after all, there are so many fabulous books to read, how is one to choose?!  Here are a few things I look for:

*length: the first read aloud has to be on the short side, a book I can finish reading to my kids in two weeks.  Kids hate it when we teachers begin a book with great gusto and then peter out, either reading a chapter a week or just abandoning the book entirely.  So, I go all in – I make it as intense and theatrical as I can, so they remain engaged in and remember the story.

*a mystery or an adventure: I find that these books work really well for the beginning of the school year, when my sixth graders are usually distracted by all their concerns about middle school life and are not looking to be worried by books that tackle topics like bullying and learning differences.  A mystery or an adventure is somewhat escapist, and you have to pay close attention for clues – that’s a perfect combination for those challenging first two weeks!

*heart:  the story and characters have to have heart – they need to pull each reader into the story, and make them care about the outcome.  I look for positive characters who show a capacity for growth – characters my students can find believable but can also emulate.  The struggles and victories of these characters must stick with my students in ways that they will remember across the span of the school year, for they will be the touchstones we will refer to many times and for many reasons.

*content: we will spend the year reading many books about difficult and timely topics, books that present challenging  circumstances in our past and current history, and books that explore all manner of personal issues – from bullying to divorce, learning differences, and gender identity.  I find that my sixth graders are consumed with stress about their first year of middle school, a book focuses on something they are privately struggling with and are not yet able to speak about in their new classroom community (divorce or gender identity for example), might just add to that stress.  So, I reach for books that touch upon such difficult issues in a tangential way which allows for broader discussion.

*humor: it helps to have reasons to laugh together at the beginning of the school year, it’s always reassuring for both students and teacher to know that they can count on the fact that everyone in the room (to varying degrees) has a sense of humor.  We are ALL going to need this!

*sorrow: it also helps to have reasons to sniffle a bit together.  When I choke up or have to reach for a tissue, it gives my kids permission to know (right away) that it’s okay to cry – great stories reach into our hearts and make us want to cry, too. I choose books that have moments of sorrow so that reaching for that tissue is a collective experience; after all, we bond through laughter and tears alike.

*addressing “the curriculum”: The first read aloud of the school must also touch upon certain foundational teaching points which we will address as we read – the story arc, character development, the role of setting, and the Notice & Note signposts.  In our school, we move from the first read aloud to realistic fiction book clubs where our students will dig deeper and elaborate further in smaller groups; that first read aloud must also serve the mandates of our curriculum.

Two past selections:

Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings: Set in the Chesapeake Bay area, this is a story of friendship, and choosing between what is true and what is safe.  Cummings does a wonderful job setting up the problem and developing the main character’s moral plight – it is a true page turner.  This served as our first book for many, many years.

Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart: Set in the wilderness of 1890s Washington State, this is a grand adventure.  Eleven year old Joseph Johnson has lost everyone in his life but his beloved horse, Sarah, and then she is stolen, too.  Joseph has no choice but to face whatever stands in his way to getting Sarah back – bears, murdering thieves, or dangerous terrain.  This was our read aloud last year, and my kids were thrilled to follow the experience with a Skype visit with Gemeinhart, which was a wonderful experience for us.

This year, after mulling over several excellent new books, we  returned to, and just finished,  Some Kind of Courage. My students were thoroughly engrossed in the story, once again, and the whole experience of following the highs and lows of Joseph’s adventures has brought our class closer together as community of readers and learners. 

 

#Celebratelu: Time for play

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

We went out to play on the last Friday of September.  Fall was in the air, and we’d been looking longingly out the window at birds and clouds flying free in the the blue sky.

As we raced onto the soccer field, all our cares left in a heap of books and pencil cases at the edge of the field, it did not matter that we didn’t have anything to play with – just a green field, our classmates, and our imaginations.

Tag.

Duck duck goose.

Who can cartwheel the fastest?

We laughed, we goofed around, we yelled our heads off.  We discovered that Will could run like the wind, that it was impossible for Zach to get tired no matter how much he ran.  We learned that someone we thought was rather quiet actually had a lot to say, and that someone we thought shy was … NOT!  The outdoors, and a whole period to just “be!”, brought us closer together.

We sixth grade Smithlings work hard…but every once in a while, we just need to play.

#celebratelu: Creating the space

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

I first learned about the idea of querencia from Writing Toward Home, Georgia Heard’s sublime book inviting writers to write, where she explains it this way: “In Spanish, the word querencia describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.”

From September through June, the place where I find querencia is my classroom – it’s where I want to be, where I feel most at home, for the work I do there defines who I am.  The last week of August is always given over to unpacking last year’s classroom and preparing it for this year’s kiddos – and it is one of my favorite tasks ever.  Because, as I prepare our learning space, I am hoping that it will be also be where fifty new sixth graders feel their querencia lies for the school year ahead: their home base, place of comfort, place they want to be.

In setting up my pods of desks, I thought about all the talk and activity that would transpire there:

In setting up our classroom library, I imagined the way our books would circulate – joyfully passed from one reader to the next:

While putting aside a space for conferencing, I could hear the important book talk and writing talk that I would be privileged to be a part of:

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And in setting up my student’s bins, I thought of all the organizational learning this year would also come to mean:

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Arranging our easel space for mini lessons and conversations is my favorite thing to do – this space is really the heart of our classroom:

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Our walls await the learning we will do together, so they are mostly bare, but our bulletin boards hint at what our first week of togetherness might bring:

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And putting together my corner of our room filled me with anticipation for all that will unfold in the year ahead:

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Our classroom space, a place of our querencia, is ready for another school year…and I celebrate that!

Slice of Life Tuesday: What I would like to hear and do on “Opening Day”

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

 

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A new year – a new lesson plan book!

Opening day, the first official day for teachers in our school, is about a week away but I am dreading it already.  It is my least favorite day of the school year, which is probably not a politically wise thing to admit to…but true.

Here’s what every opening day of my teaching life has looked like: Everyone arrives to sign in sheets and a breakfast of doughnuts, danish pastry, and weak coffee. Thank goodness for that weak coffee, though.  We move from the cafeteria to the auditorium (more sign in sheets) and prepare ourselves for opening remarks in which someone from the School Board essentially tells us that we must do more with less and that (nevertheless) our school is the crown jewel of our town.  A few inspiring quotes will be shared for that humanistic touch. There may be a PowerPoint. That is followed by someone from the school’s  administration telling us what the district’s new goals will be (remember, we must do more with less) and how important it is for us to keep these goals in mind as we march into the new school year.  There will definitely be a PowerPoint – many with pie charts and graphs so we can visualize how to do more with less.  And inspiring quotes, hopefully not the same ones we saw in the previous one. Then we will troop out of the auditorium and into another meeting just for our particular school.  Sign in sheets, and another PowerPoint to remind us of procedures, rules, expectations, changes in how things are done.  There may be an ice breaker activity so that we can be reacquainted with our colleagues in the most awkward way possible.  There may be additional quotes, one year we even had a pop song thrown in – the less I say about that, the better.  Then we will be asked to meet with our teaching teams so that we can go over said rules, and changes in procedure.  Definitely no PowerPoints to look forward to, thankfully.  Finally…we can go back to the places where the real stuff of our teaching lives happens: our classrooms.

Every year, I sit through all of the above thinking of only that last part: my classroom.  To be honest, I’ve been thinking about my classroom all summer, and I would have been there the week before getting it ready for the year (which is a good thing, because getting a classroom ready for a school year is a labor and thought intensive process).  Our classroom is half of the  beating heart my teaching life – every book, stick of furniture, placement of furniture, wall and corner of this room has been thought out to best suit the other half of the heart: the children.

When I think of these children, and the year ahead, I am filled with so much emotion: they are why I show up every day, they are why I read and think teaching things all summer, they are what will keep me up late into school nights. The children.

I wish Opening Day could be less about procedures and  facts and directives and opining about lofty goals for the school district.  I wish all of that could just be sent to us via email sometime before, so that our first official day back in our building could be more joyful, more nourishing of our teaching souls.  Teaching is hard, hard work.  The school year makes many demands  on our time and on our emotions that vary as wildly from year to year as do the children we are responsible for.  Opening Day should acknowledge that.  I would love for it to be about a quick gathering of building staff and then TIME to get back to our rooms.  I would love it be about being in that space upon which so much depends with time to make that shift of mental gears: from summer time research and planning to school time “here we go” reality.  I would love the luxury of quiet time in which to put the last few things in order and immerse myself in thoughts of hope, and dreams of doing with the children – to get into the teaching zone again in the way I, the teacher, see best fit.

That’s what I would like to do on Opening Day.

 

#celebratelu: Celebrating fresh starts

celebrateCelebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

This year, I’ve decided to go old school with my plan book. I’ve been working with Google docs for the past few years, and have loved going paperless.  But…some part of me has missed the old way of  sharpening my pencils and actually writing down those plans, so I ordered a planbook via Etsy which would give me the layout I needed and the option to customize the cover:

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This quote by Kylene Beers and picture (created from a Waterlogue photograph of my classroom and Picmonkey) has been on the wall behind my desk for a long time, but this year it felt appropriate to have it in front of me  – a quote that defines my teaching spirit every day of the school year: each day is a new opportunity to affirm the hopes and dreams of the children in my classroom.

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I’ve been thumbing through the blank pages of this new plan book – looking ahead to ideas I have for each day, month, and the year as a whole.  I love the blankness of it all and the opportunity for a fresh start that it represents, and I love the fact that it is neatly contained with a sturdy cover and spiral, which suggests both resolve and flexibility (two necessary and key ingredients in any school year).

Every September, I choose two excerpts from my summer PD reading as new guideposts – wise words I want to live up to in my planning, in my teaching, and especially in the way I listen and guide my kids along in their sixth grade year.

From Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s new book, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters :

We argue that the ultimate goal of reading is to become more than we are at the moment; to become better than we are now; to become what we did not even know we wanted to become.  The transactions we have with texts might enable us to do that.  If we read actively, assertively, thoughtfully, responsibly, then any text we read may offer us the possibility that we can reshape ourselves…

Our students, however, too often go to reading expecting a grade not growth.  So, we want to disrupt the thinking kids are doing as they read, thinking that is primarily focused on helping them extract evidence from a text.  We want them aware of the possibility that reading may – perhaps should – give them the opportunity to reshape themselves.  We want them to realize that reading should involve changing their understandings of the world and themselves…We want to ask students to be open to the possibility that a text might be disruptive, and that it is this disruption that gives them the opportunity to learn and grow. (pgs. 59-61)

And from Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

…it’s my hope you feel something akin to that as you emerge from this book: excited, reenergized,and eager to take this work into your classroom…It creates opportunities for us to be big-picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too.  And by not tying us down to a script or a lesson plan that claims students will meet outcomes that are hard, if not impossible, to reach in a single sitting, it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that often sees us as the problem.” (pg. 216)

July has been a time of reading, reflecting, discussing, and writing.  As I gaze upon my new planbook, freshly unwrapped and fragrant with “new paperness”, I celebrate fresh starts – how lucky we teachers are to have this opportunity every September!