Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda, DID!

I sit here in the sunshine, smelling freshly cut grass and sipping my coffee slowly, back home in Oregon after finishing my third year teaching abroad.

I am reflecting on the school year. I think about the things I didn’t do, about what my students didn’t learn. It’s not the best mental space.

I don’t think I’m the only one with these thoughts. Some of us teachers sometimes suffer from imposter syndrome. We imagine we could have squeezed in more conferences, or if it hadn’t been for some extenuating circumstances beyond our control, we would have taught one more unit, and of course, whatever we did, we should have done it better.

I often feel this way. I wish I’d been better at assessment this year. I wish I would have held a few of my students more accountable, and sooner. I wish I could go back and have some “do-overs,” but of course that’s not realistic.

I think a lot of us teachers have these moments of self-doubt, and in these moments we forget about the successes we have shared with our students.

Instead of wishing for things I can’t have, I am going to try something new this June. I am going to think of the successes, the celebrations, and the improvements. My students grew, and I think instead of questioning this concept, I should attempt to validate it.

I think that’s what all of us educators should do in the month of June. Celebrations, small and large, should be spoken out loud, written about, discussed, and high-fived over coffee. We’ve all faced challenges over the course of the school year, and we have overcome. We’ve won.

Let’s talk about it.

I’ll start with some of mine.

Many of my students now remember what it’s like to be readers. They rediscovered that love within themselves, and they can articulate it. They smile about it. And they are grateful. It’s good energy to be a part of.

Many of my students have increased their text complexity comfort zone. I had one student who started the year saying his favorite book was from the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Our teacher-librarian then recommended The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to him, which he read. It was his first book of the school year. He was in grade eleven.

Some time after Part-Time Indian, he picked up A Thousand Splendid Suns, because it was a book that I book talked to the class. He then read The Kite Runner, and didn’t stop there. His text complexity band and comfort zone expanded far beyond what he or I had hoped, and it didn’t take too long. He now says that he likes reading, but before this year he hated it, and never considered himself a reader. That’s a big deal.

I have several anecdotal stories like his. One girl reflected that she is now a competent, confident reader because of the daily book talks. She hadn’t realized how many great books were out there, and she didn’t know how to choose books on her own. Now she does. She’s a better student and is grateful to have rediscovered her love of reading.

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Another student has already emailed me about her summer reading. She chose 13 Reasons Why off of the Summer Reading Suggestions board pictured below, and listened to it on her flight home. She took the time to send me a picture of her progress and let me know that she is enjoying it. It my sound like a small thing, but I’m not so sure it is. She’s someone I haven’t had in class before, but our school culture has changed to one that expects reading from everyone, and she knows that her new English teacher thinks it’s just as important as the teacher she had this year did.

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On the last day of classes, I asked my eleventh grade students to do an impromptu book talk. I asked them to recommend a highlight from the school year, and to share it with the class for summer reading suggestions. I gave them a few minutes to prepare, and then let them start.

Each student immediately had a book in mind.

If I’d asked them to do this at the beginning of the year, I think only a few of them would have felt as confident with the titles they chose. As a class they organized the time and presentation order, asked each other thoughtful questions, and even referred to our anchor charts about what makes a good book talk. It was a fun and useful end of year wrap-up.

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Anecdotal evidence is good, but it’s also nice to look at the numbers. This was the first year our school tried the readers workshop model. By mid-autumn, all of the teachers in our department were all-in, pushing reading hard. It paid off. The circulation numbers in our learning commons went up by 76%.

SEVENTY-SIX PERCENT.

The teachers and students in our school should be proud. We should celebrate.

Students are using the library more than ever, selecting books, recommending titles, and best of all, they are reading.

There’s a lot to celebrate, and I’m going to do my best to focus on the celebrations rather than the regrets or the things I wish I’d done better. I’ll give myself permission to celebrate what’s good, and not mourn what wasn’t perfect. I’ll of course think about how I could improve the things that need improvement, but unlike other years, I’ll try to commit to myself that it won’t be my main focus.

I know that the school year wasn’t perfect, but the myth of the perfect teacher, the perfect school year, is just that: a myth.

We grow by reflecting on our mistakes, failures, and regrets, but we also grow by reflecting on what goes well, and what we want to repeat with other students and in new classes. 

So, as you reflect on your own school year and your own practice, I encourage you to remember the successes large, small, and all the sizes in-between. By focusing on them, we will gain momentum in planning for future school years, lessons, and interactions with our students. We all have stories like or better than the ones I’ve shared in this post.

Let’s focus on the positives, give ourselves credit, and share with each other.

Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

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Book Talks for Summer Reading

I wish I had another couple of weeks with my students.

I know that’s counterintuitive – often teachers are counting down the days until that first glorious lazy summer morning. We dream of sipping our coffee slowly, while it’s still hot, and of eating breakfast at an actual table instead of during the drive to school or even during the break between our first and second classes of the day.

I look forward to those things, too, but I still wish I had a few more days with my students to really get them geared up for their summer reading.

In a way, we’ve been preparing for summer all year. They have been developing healthy reading lives, learning to read independently, to choose their own books, and to have rich discussions about what they’ve read.

But I know summertime is when some good habits slide, when schedules change from week to week, and when routines can be scarce.

It’s when fragile reading lives can falter, and I want to encourage my students for just a few more days, reminding them that they, too, are readers.

We’ve focused on creating robust next reads lists, most often through daily book talks. We’ve book talked titles that can be found in our school’s library and in my classroom library. Books that students can have in their hands before the end of the class period.

But for the last few weeks I’ve tried something a little different. I’ve chosen books that we don’t have in our school library collection, and that I don’t have in my classroom library. (One unique aspect of teaching internationally is that we get shipments once per year. I can’t wait for next fall when we will get tons of new titles in both our school library and our classroom libraries! Waiting is the hardest part… but it will be so worth it!) For these booktalks, though, I’ve chosen titles that can be found in airport bookstores, in county libraries back in the States, and of course, online.

I have booktalked new-to-us titles that many students have never seen before, and they are adding these titles to their next reads lists, which they keep in the notes app on their phones. This way, when they are traveling, out of their normal routines this summer, and they find themselves needing a book, they can reach into their pockets and find those lists of books they knew they would like.

I’ve encouraged my classes to download the kindle app onto their phones and other devices so they can access books and read anywhere. I’ve told them that if they are traveling to the US, their local libraries will have many, if not all, of these titles. If they don’t have access to a library or bookstore, downloading the titles is pretty simple. It’s exciting to think that their healthy reading lives can and will extend into the summer months.

Continue reading “Book Talks for Summer Reading”

Some Thoughts about Voice and Choice in High School Readers Workshop

I remember when my school district was all about the Love and Logic model. It was the autumn of 1999, and it was my very first year of teaching.

We teachers were encouraged to offer “natural consequences” and to allow students an opinion when it came to disciplinary measures and classroom management. We were taught to offer choices to students, but choices that we adults could live with.

Love and Logic helped me get through my first year of teaching, no question about it.

I can’t help but connect the ideas behind the behavioral issues to those with readers workshop.

I offer choices to my students every day. I am transparent about it. For instance, I recently gave an assignment regarding their Week Without Walls travel. They were assigned, about six weeks or so before their travels, to read one text about where they were headed. The idea was that they would learn something new and have a more enriched experience while they were in a new country.

I explained to each of my classes that because I value choice so much, it didn’t matter to me what they read. Cookbooks, novels, travel blogs, poems, folk tales, memoirs, and most anything else were all on the table.

Because my students are expected to read at least two hours a week, these choices were absolutely okay with me. I knew that even if they weren’t reading something related to their travels, they would be reading.

Students ended up reading a variety of texts, genres, and forms, and we were all fairly satisfied with how it went.

The thing is, the choices I offered were choices I could live with, but more importantly, choices my students could live with.

I would have preferred that my students read longer texts like a memoir or novel about their destinations, but I had to be realistic about their individual reading lives.

Some students were entrenched in series and didn’t want to take the time to read a longer text between their preferred books.

Some students had healthy next read lists and didn’t want to prioritize something new over what they were looking forward to reading next.

Many students had valid reasons for not wanting to read a longer text, but were more than willing to read something shorter. This still allowed students to learn something new, and to create background knowledge about where they were traveling to, which was the point of the assignment.

policy preferenceSo as I reflected on it, I realized that my preference should not automatically turn into classroom policy. I should not only allow voice and choice when it comes to what they read, but in many other aspects of my courses. Continue reading “Some Thoughts about Voice and Choice in High School Readers Workshop”

ruBRICKS Part II – A Follow-Up

Blogging, writing, talking, being part of the conversation about what it means to be an educator in 2017, it’s all easier to do than to actually live it and breathe it and teach it. We can talk about theory, we can read our guiding texts, we can attend professional development conferences around the world, participate in twitter chats, and we can all talk the talk.

Walking the talk is the hardest part.

Theory doesn’t always meet practice. But we try. I try.
I recently wrote about the idea of rubrics

– that they should serve more as a foundation than a weight or a wall pinning students in. That they should allow for creativity rather than limiting imagination.

One way that I have tried to allow for student voice and creativity is with the most important thing I can help my students learn.

The topic is the habits of a healthy reading life.

If my students learn to read literary nonfiction, classic novels, and short stories, it will be fantastic. But it’s fantastic only if they actually choose to read these texts on their own. Most importantly, they need to have a habit of reading, to discover the reader within themselves.

This winter I realized that I wasn’t sure that my students knew what the endgame was. So we talked about it. We talked about what it looks like to have a healthy reading life, and we brainstormed the attributes of a healthy reading life.

I did my best to organize their ideas into categories and indicators that made sense. I used our school’s student profile to help with the organization. The six categories are Respect and Integrity, Global Awareness, Reflective Thinking, Critical Thinking, Creators and Innovators, and Communicators and Collaborators.

From that, I created a rubric.

I think the process for this rubric can be re-created with other standards and goals, and can be simplified to a simple yes/no checklist, or a one point rubric for student self-reflection.

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I know, I know… There are still problems with the document. But I think the point is that the ideas in it originally were theirs. The ideas belonged to the grade nine students.

While it’s an intimidating double-sided checklist in its entirety, it is easy to split into the six sections, which means we can examine just one section of a student’s reading life at a time. At that point it becomes smaller and quite manageable, and it’s not a brick wall of text.

I can print just one section at a time, and use it as an exit ticket or as a prompt for a reflective quick write. It doesn’t weigh students down when they simply examine only two or three indicators about their habits of reading.

The document still needs to be refined, and maybe all of the Common Core standards I’ve attached to the indicators aren’t exactly right; it’s still a draft, a work in progress. But this rubric, one that could be revised to a simple yes/no checklist, has been the catalyst for some seriously authentic and relevant conferences with my students.

Because I used their criteria and ideas, it’s not a brick wall, and it doesn’t confine my students between narrow rails. Instead, it’s a conversation starter, a tool for goal-setting while conferring, and it’s something that shows my students what to strive for.

It shows them what this readers workshop is all about: healthy reading lives.

I think the takeaway here is that teaching is always a work in progress, as is learning. Setting goals is important for students and for teachers. Creating authentic scoring guides continues to be one of my goals. This year I created one about the topic that I think is the most important of all – the healthy habits of reading. Next year we will tackle the habits of being a writer.

I will keep talking the talk – that means I am learning and reflecting on my practice. I will also keep trying to walk the talk, which I think has to include student input, because student voice is so essential to readers workshop, and is of course essential to building the habits of healthy reading lives of students.

We can’t weigh them down with our “help” – our rubrics and scoring guides should serve as foundations for growth, which is what I think this one does.
Nothing’s perfect, and we teachers have to be okay with that. We will continue to read, learn, discuss, and to walk the talk. Walking it and living it is a work in progress, and our students are better because we keep trying.


Originally published as a guest post on blog Three Teachers Talk 
Follow Julie on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS

When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS

My fourteen-year-old son surprises me with some of the things that come out of his mouth. I won’t repeat them all here (you’re welcome), because sometimes I’m astounded in a way that makes me laugh, but doesn’t necessarily make me think.

But the other day, he did make me think.

We were at the kitchen table. I was reading my students’ online readers notebooks while he was working on homework. Responsibly, he checked the rubric that accompanied the assignment he was working on, but by doing so, he seemed to get more frustrated instead of finding clarity.

I looked over at him, eyebrows raised in silent question. His response was, “This rubric is more of a brick than a help!” and he went on to explain that it felt like he was weighed down by the rubric rather than feeling like it provided guidance.

I immediately understood his comparison. Rubrics as bricks, hobbling students, confining them to strict definitions and requirements, weighing them down instead of allowing them to soar. Continue reading “When rubrics are unintentional ruBRICKS”

Cultivate Your Garden

I love the advice given by Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy: Find your Marigold.  She writes that new teachers should find “positive, supportive, energetic teachers” and stick close to them, ask them for help, advice, and support. I couldn’t agree more.

I only recently discovered this particular post, and it resonated. Loudly.

As a veteran teacher, though, the advice to new teachers to find their marigold still applies. Everyone needs a marigold.

I immediately knew who my marigold was when I read that post. It’s the teacher-librarian I’ve been friends with since the day we met. She’s the one whose family my family has shared the last two Christmases with, she’s the one who pushes my thinking when she disagrees with me about some educational theory or practice, and she’s the person I can go to when I need to smile.

I told her right away that she’s my marigold.

She’s also the person who first asked me, oh-so-casually, “Have you thought about trying the readers workshop model this year?”

Jess (@jtlevitt) has been my go-to coworker and friend as we have explored readers workshop in my high school English classes this year. She’s encouraged, pushed, nudged, and challenged at the right times, in the right ways, and has helped our students discover their own personal, healthy reading lives this year.

I couldn’t have, and wouldn’t have tried or found success with this model without her.

Everyone needs this person in their lives.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same luck and friendship and help from the universe that I have had. Some people work in small schools, or feel isolated, so there are other places we can explore to find encouragement and help.

Three categories, in addition to the marigold you will (hopefully) find in your workplace are: expert/consultant, guiding text, and blog. I think it will vary from person to person, but some combination of these categories will probably serve. Continue reading “Cultivate Your Garden”

Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop (Part 2)

Since I wrote my first post regarding Do’s and Don’ts for Readers Workshop, I have felt a positive response from my small online community. I have more ideas to share, so keep reading if you want some additional beginner’s workshop advice.

Do confer with students on a regular basis. I know in my previous post I wrote that student choice is the foundation of workshop, and I do mean it. But conferring is, too. If you can meet with about four students each day, and keep the conference time to three to four minutes, then in about fifteen minutes you’ll get the job done. The rest of the students should be reading or working quietly, and might even overhear what you are working on during the conference time. That’s totally okay.

Keep a record of who you confer with, how often, and a quick note of what you discussed. I simply use a spiral notebook, which I think is a great way to start with note taking. I might try something new next year – maybe some sort of pre-made form or checklist to make it even more streamlined and easy, but honestly, the spiral notebook system is fine.

Simply put your students’ names at the top of every other page so you have plenty of space to write throughout the year, realizing that you will staple in pages, use post-its, and sometimes even forget to take notes about the occasional conference.

It’s okay.

The conferring is what matters. It’s about the talk. About the exchange, and the relationship you will build with your students. You’ll get to know your students quicker at the beginning of the year, and by the end, you’ll have a more authentic, individual relationship with each of your students because of the conferring. It’s rewarding and they will do better because of it.

Often, students look forward to conferring, and want to share their thoughts with you about what they are reading. Other students will try to avoid it, and that’s why it’s important to keep track of who you confer with so you can even out the time you spend with your students. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to spend the exact same amount of time with each student – some kids need more than others  – but be deliberate about how you make those decisions. Continue reading “Do’s and Don’ts of Implementing Readers Workshop (Part 2)”