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”

Design Thinking and Choice in Summer Reading

Summer reading assignments are a hotly debated topic this time of year, especially when it’s tough to reconcile the workshop model’s foundation of student challenge and choice with something like a required reading program. What’s a teacher to do?

It’s a given that students need to read over the summer. When teachers and students have built a culture of reading over the course of a school year, it is essential to capture that momentum and carry it onwards in order to avoid the dreaded summer slide, but it’s also equally important to balance student choice.

Our school implemented PLCs this year, so we have “late-start-Wednesdays” during which small groups of teachers meet and plan around goals we set in the fall. My PLC focus is around student reading goals, and yesterday we posed a question to each other about how we could celebrate the progress our students have made over the course of the school year.

Individually, they are better readers than they were in September.

As a group, they have helped to foster a school culture of reading that is more robust than it was in the fall.

Some examples: our school library’s circulation numbers have dramatically increased over the school year, and students are regularly overheard “book talking” favorite titles or asking about each other’s next reads lists.

This change is worth acknowledging and celebrating, no doubt.

As a PLC, we also have a concern that once they are out the door in June, some of them will forget what it’s like to enjoy a healthy reading life, so we want to make a plan for that.

What we want to avoid is something like the summer reading programs from when we were kids, the well-intentioned ones that we remember our local libraries promoting. Remember the t-shirts and sticker charts? The programs that encouraged extrinsic rewards rather than finding focus in the intrinsic motivation that arrives when students discover favorite titles, authors, and genres?

I think those old-fashioned reading programs are the result of too many adults trying to figure out what kids like. Yes, kids like puppets and lollipops and popcorn. But those extrinsic rewards won’t turn kids into life-long readers.

Continue reading “Design Thinking and Choice in Summer Reading”

Surfing Lessons and Jungle Hikes – Getting rid of the podium.

When we lived in the States, spring break was often a time for slow-paced days at home, sleeping late, organizing the kids’ closets, and taking care of some outside chores. We might have gone to visit friends or family for a weekend, or even braved the Oregon Coast, where unpredictable weather forecasts forced us to pack our suitcases for all seasons.

Now that we are living and teaching abroad, spring break is a whole new experience, that quite frankly, I had never even dared to imagine. Sri Lanka for spring break? No problem! We decided to split our week between the jungle and the beach, we exercised and we relaxed, and we learned about ourselves and the world around us.

Below is a map I saw at a local Sri Lankan school:

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At the tender ages of ten and fourteen, my boys still love to travel with their parents and each other. They willingly and enthusiastically embarked on a 21 kilometer jungle hike, during which time the temperature and the humidity agreed on a number: about 90. The UV index was around 12, but because we were below the forest canopy, we didn’t worry about getting sunburned as much as we had to constantly check our shoes and socks for invading leeches.

The boys didn’t complain when we arrived at our destination: no roads, no electricity, no beds. Just delicious jungle food (including wild pineapple!), a cozy campfire, heat lightning that might rival the Northern Lights, and the magic of fireflies. Here’s where we slept that night:

My boys were open to new experiences, were willing to hike up slippery leech laden trails, and sleep on concrete right along side us.

And I think that’s the key. We, their parents, mentors, leaders, the adults in the room, were willing to do all of the things that we asked the children to do, right next to them. Sometimes offering a balancing hand, an encouraging word, or help with a pack, but always next to them, working on the same tasks. Taking the same journey together.

I couldn’t help but see this hike as an analogy for teaching. As an educator, I must be willing to work and learn right along side my students. To be uncomfortable, to struggle, to pick myself up from missteps, and especially to celebrate successes while I’m next to the kiddos. I can’t lecture them about what to do from a podium at the front of the room and then expect them to find success in an authentic task. I have to talk, demonstrate, model, teach, and learn with them.

And that’s when teaching and learning are especially rewarding. Continue reading “Surfing Lessons and Jungle Hikes – Getting rid of the podium.”

Encouraging Independent Readers – I can’t confer with them forever.

The whole point of this reader’s workshop adventure is to encourage and foster independent readers. Readers who pick up Ready, Player One rather than a wii controller. Readers who speculate about what crazy new events will happen to Shy in The Hunted, Matt De La Peña’s action-packed sequel to The Living (both of which, by the way, my own two boys recently devoured), rather than watching the latest youtube channels.

I wish for my students to feel the same excitement and confidence for YA novels that they did when they were littles for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and to feel that they are confident and capable enough to tackle memoirs like The Glass Castle any day of the week if they want to.

That’s the thing: when my 9th graders made reader’s timelines, there was a buzz in the room. They were excited and confident in their talk about the books they remembered from toddlerhood and childhood. They beamed when they talked about Curious George and Clifford, the Big Red Dog with a fondness I hadn’t heard from them en masse until that day.

I’m not sure they will all have that same buzz about books again until they are fully independent readers, so I’m making it my business to help get them there.

One of the things about the workshop model is that through offering challenge and choice, students can develop their own tastes and habits which lead them to being grown-up readers.

And arguably one of the most essential aspects of the workshop model is conferring with the teacher.

With the teacher.

But I want my students to be independent, healthy readers. So I have to teach them to remove me from the equation. But I have to confer with them to teach them.

Quite a dilemma. Continue reading “Encouraging Independent Readers – I can’t confer with them forever.”

A Healthy Reading Life for All

It occurred to me that maybe my students don’t really understand why we talk about books all of the time, or what it looks like to be a mature reader. That while I’ve focused on the fact that they should read, set goals, and have a next reads list, maybe we haven’t discussed what all of those pieces add up to be. That all of our goals, conferences, independent reading time, and book talks should help support, encourage, and result in each student having a healthy reading life.

So we talked about it.

Last week, the grade nines brainstormed answers to the question What does a healthy reading life look like?

 

 

They came up with what I think is a well-rounded picture of what a mature reader does.

They recognized that a healthy reader should be able to pick out a book independently, but also ask for and welcome recommendations from others.

They noticed that a mature reader should put in effort, but enjoy the process.

They talked about setting aside time to read, or making a plan, but also reading in a more impromptu setting as well.

They realized that it’s important to be able to have thoughtful discourse about a book, but also to form their own opinions and not automatically agree with the author or other readers and reviewers.

These grade nines had insightful ideas about what it means to be a healthy reader. Continue reading “A Healthy Reading Life for All”

Anchor Charts aren’t just for Elementary School Classrooms

When I first started practicing with the reader’s workshop model in my classroom, I didn’t know what an anchor chart was.

The posters in my room were :

  • a large landscape of an unnamed beach in Thailand
  • a series on how to cite sources using proper MLA formatting
  • a poster of Van Gogh’s Almond Blossom
  • an old advertisement for A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • a world map

Okay, as an overseas teacher, it’s understandable that I didn’t pack up posters that were on my walls when I taught public school, and bring them with me to Jordan. (In the weeks before I packed up and moved out of my old classroom, I gave many of those beloved posters away to students – and anyway, they weren’t anchor charts.) But I was starting my third year in this same classroom, and I should have had at least a plan to have something better than other teachers’ cast-offs on my walls.

I won’t beat myself up though; teaching is a process, and I’m still learning how to do it. Once I stop learning about teaching and learning, I might as well be done. Because I’ll never be “there.”

But I digress.

I did in fact learn about anchor charts this fall, and was immediately skeptical.

I didn’t understand how I could take an elementary idea and transfer it to high school. I know, I know, I’ve used that excuse for different initiatives my whole career. Haven’t we all? We see an example of student work that comes from a level that we don’t teach, and we immediately dismiss it and find excuses for why it won’t work instead of figuring out how and why it should work. I tell my students Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you can do all the time – perhaps it’s time to heed my own advice.

I really didn’t see how I could make an anchor chart with one class and make it meaningful for all of the students who are in my room throughout the day. There just aren’t enough walls.

But then I started thinking about how all of my classes, regardless of the grade level, have made some commitments. And I made my first anchor chart, pictured below:

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  • Read at least two hours per week.
  • Read to understand.
  • Choose a book you want to read.
  • Have a “books I want to read next” list.
  • Drop books you don’t like.
  • Save books for later.

This one is right by my classroom library, and I point to it all the time – I tend to go to the third and fifth bullet point the most – sometimes students forget that if they don’t want to read a book, they don’t have to. That they really should have some excitement about the book they are reading, and it’s okay to drop a book when it feels like a chore instead of pleasure. Continue reading “Anchor Charts aren’t just for Elementary School Classrooms”

Don’t share your answers – share your thinking!

My thinking has changed since I started teaching using the workshop model.

I think my students’ thinking has changed, too.

I think that’s the point.

 

For the first seventeen years of my teaching, I was concerned about whether the students turned the assignments in on time, read the short stories and novels that were on the syllabus, and if they were generally compliant.

I assigned packets with study questions when we read The Great Gatsby together. (Big packets! Short answer questions with one right answer! Find it in the text!)

I asked my students to write letters that Huck and Jim might have exchanged after leaving the Phelps’ farm. (Bonus points for burning the edges of the paper or dipping the letters in tea to make them look old!)

I had students create their own real life versions of scarlet letters. (The ones that were made out of rice crispy treats and red M&Ms got an A for Awesome!)

Here are a few gems from past years.

For the first seventeen years of my teaching, I mostly asked all of my students to do the same thing at the same time. 

For the first seventeen years of my teaching, my students mostly gave me the same answers at the same time. 

At least, that was my hope (gah!) – I wanted them to get it! To come up with the same connections that I had! So they would “understand the canon!”

Maybe I’m too hard on myself. I know teaching and learning happened in my classroom before workshop, but I can’t help but think that things could have been better.

 

Things are different now. I don’t want the same answers from anyone any longer (or any more arts and crafts).

I’m not looking for answers, necessarily, either.

I realize now that I am looking for evidence of thinking.

I noticed this the other day in class. My students were learning about aphorisms (mentioned in an earlier post), and one of them asked if they could talk to each other to make sure they had the right answers.

I. Stopped. Everything. Continue reading “Don’t share your answers – share your thinking!”

Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice

“I’d like to talk to you about some books.”

That’s how I start nearly every class period. My students are ready with their own independent reading books, and their phones are usually on their desks, which is what I want. They’ve got their next reads list in the notes app, and they are ready to add some new titles to the lists. They just need some inspiration!

I’ve tried a few different ways to introduce students to books, and there are all sorts of strategies that work. I’ll describe the one I’m currently using; students are enjoying it, and I am getting titles in front of them en masse.

I’ve explained in previous posts that my students set some second semester goals by drawing randomly themed cards out of a bag. The themes offer challenge and choice, and generally serve to expand their comfort zones.

I’ve started drawing cards out of the bag, too, and those cards are now shaping my themed book talks.img_7298

Today’s book talk theme was nutrition. Included in our grouping: a multicultural cookbook, some nonfiction about the Irish potato famine (also counts for the immigration card), Eating Animals by Jonathan Safron Foer, the Neil Flambe series, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, a quirky graphic novel titled Chew by John Layman, and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley. By the end of the day my students had added more titles: Sickened: The True Story of a Lost Childhood by Julie Gregory, and Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson to name a couple. Continue reading “Themed Book Talks: Offering Challenge and Choice”

Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud

I try to confer with students every day and every class period. I try to confer with each student at least every two weeks. These are challenging, measurable, and attainable goals. But I rarely meet them. Life gets in the way, and official conferences don’t happen as much as I’d like. So when we have conferences, I really try to make them count. I have to admit that I’m a little intimidated, though.

In chapter six of Book Love, Penny Kittle describes three different purposes for conferencing with students:  Monitor a Reading Life, Teach a Reading Strategy, and Increase Complexity and Challenge. 

I’ve gotten comfortable with the first category, Monitor a Reading Life, which is essentially a check-in. I absolutely do this type of conferencing in class, but I also do it informally all day, every day. It’s the “What are you reading?” when I see a student in the hallway. Kittle’s go-to question is now my go-to, and it has power while still being casual and comfortable. It’s a great way to help make up for the lag time I’m experiencing with students between more official, sit-down conferences. I also ask questions such as:

  • “How is Angela’s Ashes working for you?”
  • “How many pages did you read last night?”
  • “What’s on your next reads list?”
  • “Do you have enough to read over the weekend?”

There’s a lot of power in these unscripted, impromptu hallway conversations. I can tell right away if a student is excited to read a book, whether I should consider counseling a student to drop a book, and most importantly, if a student is regularly reading enough.

I’ve also gotten comfortable conferencing with the third category, Increase Complexity and Challenge. After I’ve monitored the reading life of a student (the time required varies from student to student; trust your teacher instincts), I can easily judge whether or not a student is challenging herself.

For example, when I noticed that one of my students was only reading books that contained essays or short stories, but not text of any significant length, I talked to her about choosing a short novel so that she can increase her stamina and stick with one longer narrative. When I noticed that one of my eleventh-grade boys was only reading Percy Jackson, through a series of conversations I encouraged him to read something different; he reluctantly chose A Thousand Splendid Suns, and has since moved on to enjoy an expanded comfort zone.

For the whole-class text complexity challenge, students drew categories of text out of a bag and then committed to at least trying to read some of these new categories during semester two. Some cards are speciimg_7294fic- like Biography A-J. Others are more general, like Long Title or Setting in Asia. Students had fun with that activity and there was really good energy about the challenge. I pictured the bag of challenge cards here on the right.

The category of conference that really intimidates me is Teach a Reading Strategy. My inner dialogue is all “You aren’t a reading teacher! You teach literature! Reading teachers teach the little kids! Your students are almost adults!” All semester I doubted myself and my ability to teach  mini-lessons that I could just conjure out of thin air. At least that’s what it felt like.

The flexibility that is required when conferencing with students is vast and unpredictable. As teachers, we often pivot when asked questions during class, we allow students to explore different ideas and topics, then we bring them back to the topics we think they are supposed to learn. That’s hard enough when dealing with one whole-class discussion. How was I supposed to do that with each and every individual student in each of my classes? How was I going to prepare for unpredictable, off-the-cuff mini-lessons? Continue reading “Conference Strategy: The one-sentence read-aloud”

Book Talks Make a Difference

Yes, students want choice. They don’t want to read our favorite books – they want to discover their own favorites. But many high schoolers are out of practice and don’t know how to choose a book. That’s where the book talk comes in.

The teacher has to lead the way. Even if you are unsure about this whole workshop approach. Even if you haven’t read any young adult fiction lately. You can read the back of the book out loud. Or you can read the first few lines of the first chapter. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And you might find a book you want to read, too!

Start every class with a book talk and silent reading. Flip the order around from day to day if you want to, but start with these two things. Students should know that they need their independent reading books and their next reads lists. At the end of each book talk, remind students to add the title(s) to their lists if any of the books seem interesting to them.

I can share part of my workshop story here. At the beginning of the school year, I didn’t even know what Readers Workshop was. But I agreed to try it out.

I (naively? hesitantly?) started giving all of the book talks, but eventually the students wanted to join in.

That’s when the momentum really picked up. 

 And, they got to choose their own due dates. They love that. 

Here’s how it worked: with a google spreadsheet, students signed up for a weekly due date that was sometime during the semester. During the week of their book talk, they would arrive to school on a Sunday morning, and in theory, were prepared to present the book talk first thing, or any other day that I might call on them during the week. About five students signed up for each week, so I would have anywhere between one and three students book-talking in any given class. 

Here’s an example of the spread sheet the students had access to. If they changed their minds or presented on a different book, it was okay. But, as with all things, the teacher gets to set the boundaries in which the students have choice. Continue reading “Book Talks Make a Difference”