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!

Why I love soft starts and what I hope for soft closings

Writing about my “July dreams” yesterday, got me thinking about how valuable it was to experiment with soft starts last year, which makes me want to try to bookend our sixth grade block with a soft closing this year, too.  (You can read more about soft starts by going straight where I did: Sara Ahmed’s book with Harvey Daniels – Upstanders)

Why it worked so well:

  • The kids really needed it. Morning block (three periods-writing workshop,reading workshop, social studies) begins first thing in the day at 7:50, when my kiddos are still half asleep.  They need some time to get into school mode.  Afternoon block begins right after lunch, when my kiddos are either half comatose from all the carbs they just consumed, upset about something that happened at lunch recess, or still hyper from recess activity. They also need some time to get back into school mode.  About ten minutes gives them a chance to collect themselves, so that when we begin our learning time, we really begin.
  • It worked the same way every day: classical or jazz music to set the tone, and both the day’s “order of operations” and the “starting menu” posted so that everyone was always in the know about what to do, and I didn’t have to field a hundred questions first thing:
  • Allowing time for issues settled kids down and eased their minds. If someone had forgotten lunch money, or just had a big melt down at lunch, it was best to address concerns before we began working, rather than have a student worried and miserable and therefore not able to pay attention.
  • Be flexible about the timing.  Somedays we need more time than others, most often it’s the idea that kids know they have some time, rather than sticking to a rigid timeframe.  When time’s up, the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, please meet at the rug to begin our day” is all it takes – they already know what to expect and have, it’s just a matter of picking it up and moving there.

Why a soft closing and what would that look like?

Our block ends with Social Studies, which is discussion based and project oriented.  I find that my kids rarely leave our classroom in a calm way  – they are either still bubbling over with discussion points and ideas, or not quite done putting away their supplies.  Most importantly, they don’t leave in the same frame of mind they had when we began our work day, and I’d like to change this.

I’m thinking that music could signal this time frame, too.  And, perhaps a reference chart for closing that could look like this:

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Who knows, maybe this soft close to our day will have as much of a positive effect on me as the soft start does!

 

Slice of Life Tuesday: July dreams

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

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July has come and gone, and August begins today.  Those were my first thoughts upon waking this morning: July is gone, here comes August…here comes the new school year! Even though I have three more weeks of Summer vacation stretching out before me – somehow, the moment I see August on the calendar, I think about Room 202 and the kids who will be walking in.

July is for dreaming…August is for planning to make those dreams come true; here are some July dreams:

*carving out more time for students to share what they have been reading with each other. My summer book club has been so much fun – lots of reading, and lots of talking about the different books we’ve read and how they have impacted us as readers. I want to give my students a chance to do this, too.

*opening up our reading journals to new ways to experiment with reading responses.  For my summer book club and the PD book groups I participated in, I deliberately experimented with sketch noting and a few other forms of responding to both fiction and nonfiction.  I want to make time to share these with my new students, and to brainstorm with them for ideas they will undoubtedly also have.  It’s time to have more response options in reading workshop!

*our soft start of the day was such a success, that I want to experiment by bookending our block of time (three periods) with a soft closing as well, just to give my sixth graders an opportunity to end their time in our classroom in a calm way as well.

*designing a short unit on “how to think like a historian” before we go on to examine the historical time frame mandated by our curriculum. My friend Julieanne shared this link with me:http://sheg.stanford.edu/rlh, and now I am more excited than ever about opening our year with this unit.

*creating a history blog, so that we are writing about the events we’re learning about, and carrying on with our class discussions after time to think/do some independent research.  This is a work in progress, but that’s what August is for.

*a graphic novel book club.  I think it’s time for this!

I have a few more dreams up my sleeve, but the above seems quite enough to get through for the moment.  After all, three weeks is not that long of a time to make all of those July dreams come true!

#celebratelu: Books, book communities, and book talk

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

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Today serves as a mid-marker of sorts, as of today, I will have been out of school on summer break for exactly one month…with exactly one month to go.  When anyone asks me what I’ve been up to over the past weeks, the first thing that comes to mind is reading.  I have read more over the past four weeks than over the last six months!

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What I’ve read…so far.

This is not to say that all I have been doing is reading, but I am amazed at the pace I’ve been able to keep without losing either the energy or the enthusiasm for reaching for another book the moment I finish what is currently at hand.

Of course, my summer reading has me thinking about the new school year and the readers who will be walking into Room 202 at the beginning of September.  What am I learning about my own reading life that can be put to use for them?

Choice, yet pre-selection: Although I could choose to read whatever I wanted and in whichever order I preferred, every book in my TBR pile (whether YA or middle grade or for professional development) was pre-selected carefully, based on reviews or word of mouth.  This meant that I could count on each reading experience to be a pleasurable one, some more than others to be sure, but not one of them a disappointment – each good reading experience fed the desire for another.   This is what I want for our classroom library as well: it must be consistently good, carefully selected, every read a worthwhile one.

Communities of reading and responding: some of my books were “book group books” and some were ones I read on my own.  But, even in the case of the latter, I had a group to share my thoughts with, enthuse and mull over, problem solve and commiserate with. Our conversations helped spur rich questions and thinking that I would not have had if I had read alone.  This makes me think that in addition to book groups that meet when we do our genre studies, when each group is reading the same text, I should build in some time every week for just “book turn and talks” about whatever it is that my kids are reading.

Latitude in how to respond: There was great freedom in my book groups to find our own ways in which to respond, and to experiment with each response.  We sketch noted, jotted, drew webs, asked questions and wrote long, and in the process we learned new ways of note taking and communicating  ideas.  I want my sixth graders to have this freedom and flexibility as well, which means that I will have to plan for it both in terms of modeling/sharing example as well as assessment.

A sense of responsibility:  We trusted the process, purpose, and value of our reading communities, and felt an obligation to show up prepared each time we participated, so our conversations were always meaningful; best of all, they always pushed our thinking. In my “share whatever you’re reading” group, we could not wait to tell each other (across many miles and a time zone) what had moved us, made us laugh, brought us to tears: it didn’t matter that we did not have a book in common, all that counted was the rich experience we just had to share.  Of course, I would love to see more of this joyful sense of responsibility with my kiddos as well.  I think I will begin laying the groundwork by simply speaking of my summer experiences and how much the fact that others took their reading lives seriously impacted my own desire to show up prepared.

Time: Well, this one needs no explanation.  I have time to read and I am making the most of it.  But, all of the above ensure that I  am using this gift of time to read.  And, for my students, time in our classroom comes down to one person – me. It’s my responsibility to toss aside anything that gets in the way of large blocks of time for my kids to read/confer/share.  That’s on me.

So, this “mid-marker Saturday”, I celebrate all the reading done, the reading to come, for myself…and for those soon to be Smithlings.

#celebratelu: The school year ends

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

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My school year ended at about 1 o’clock on Thursday afternoon.  The last bell of the school year had rung at 12:30, followed by the raucous cheer that only the last bell of the school year can bring.  There was the last wave of students swooping into our classroom to say goodbye and catch one last hug of the school year, then the loud rat-a-tat of sneakers and sandals beating their retreat down hallways and stairwells, and finally the receding shouts and whoops of gaggles of kids heading downtown for pizza and ice cream or towards the town pool for the first summer vacation swim.

The school grew quiet in the way that schools do on the last day – a reflective quiet, as though the building itself was thinking about the year just past, and the children who had given it life and meaning from September through June.

The school year seems long in September, with plenty of time to accomplish all we need and hope to do.  But, at the end of June, exhausted and deplete though we may be, we know once again (as we do each June) that a school year is in reality a very short time when it comes to the lives of the children entrusted to our care.  The eleven and twelve year olds who come to me each September are at the very beginning of figuring out who they are and what they can be.

I am reminded of this every time I run into a Smithling alumni: the sensitive poet who returned to my classroom years later as a new Marine shipping out for duty in the Middle East, the “allergic to books” kiddo in pigtails who barged into my classroom years later to announce that she was off to the college of her choice to study literary criticism, the quick-to-tears self-doubter who stops by to announce he’s off to study “neuroscience with an emphasis on researching brain disease” at a university on the opposite coast of the country.

They change, they grow, they become who they are meant to be.  You begin to realize that you were merely at the starting gate – their jumping off point into a future you can’t even begin to guess at.

We raised our own three children with this poem in mind, but it applies just as well to the children I teach:

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Being that stable bow, year after year, is my life’s work as a teacher.  I send them forth into the future, their future.  Sometimes, I get to see where the arrow journeys…most often, I do not.

Which leads me to a moment from last year: sitting on the New York City subway, I look up from my book to notice a very well dressed young man looking at me rather intently.  His beautifully cut suit and tasteful tie catch my attention, but so does something about his smile.  I know this smile.  It belonged to a sixth grader once upon a time who walked into my sixth period writer’s workshop every day with evidence of the lunch he’d just eaten on his sweaty T-shirt.  Our joyful reunion is a reminder that he lives in that house of tomorrow.  I cannot visit it…but I was a small part of all that it took to get him there.

So, at the end of my 18th. school year, I celebrate the work of teaching.  I am glad for it, for it is the work of the “house of tomorrow”.

 

NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

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For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:

 

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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.