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”

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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.”

Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project

It’s not easy to come up with a short, creative, engaging research prompt that every student is interested in responding to, given that they are all reading different books (save for the three eleventh grade girls who chose to read The Kite Runner together).

It’s important to assign tasks that challenge students who are often looking to take things to the nth level, but that will also provide an opportunity for scaffolding and success with the students who sometimes struggle with research, reading, and writing assignments.

That’s why, when I saw this article about literary journeys on CNN.com today, I realized that I had found some virtual classroom gold.

The travel article 23 literary journeys with the world’s great writers is a list. It’s a list of authors, books, places, and potential adventures. And it’s the perfect mentor text for an in-class, community-building, short-and-sweet piece of mini-research writing.

Continue reading “Virtual Travel with Authors- Creating a Reading Community with a Short Research Project”

Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity

I spent most of my weekend with over 200 middle and high school students at the World Scholar’s Cup Amman Round. It’s a fun event that has students participate in trivia and academic knowledge quizzes, a team writing competition, and a team debate competition.

There was a talent show after the competitive events and before the awards ceremony, when they gave out more medals and trophies than I ever thought was possible. You can imagine the energy was loud and high.

I accompanied five smarty-pants high school boys. It was a first for me and the students; I had read about it online, but had never experienced what it looks and feels like in an up-close and personal way.

I love that all of these students were so enthused about writing and debating that they spent most of their weekend (it went until 11pm on Thursday and all day Friday) competing individually and as teams.

The boys found success in different ways and in different events, and look forward to competing again. They all agreed that the team debate competition was fun and different from what they had done before, and that their anxiety level was raised just enough to keep them interested but not terrified.

Perfect.

So let me bring it around to teaching with the workshop model. Yes, the students were writing and debating this weekend and that’s not new or news. But the writing and the debating were especially cool because they were doing some heavy-duty thinking, and they were thinking and communicating as teams.

Here’s how the team debate works:

Students are split into teams of three. Teams are randomly assigned either the affirmative or negative side. Then they are given the motion, at which point they have 15 minutes to prepare. After the preparation is complete, each team member is given four minutes to argue his point, and the teams alternate back and forth. It’s a lovely example of respectful dialogue and persuasive speaking.

After the debate, before the winning team is announced, students are required to provide feedback to the opposing team. I love this part!

As judges, we were given scoring criteria and a script, so adjudicating was a simple task, and I was able to pay attention to what they students thought about some hypothetical situations, like whether or not Jordan should send a manned mission to Mars. With a topic like that, students had to look up some real-world information, process, synthesize, and argue their points in a very finite period of time. It was an opportunity for students to demonstrate their thinking and practice some organized speaking and listening.

I think this activity has a ton of potential, because I can modify the team debate event for classroom use, and then have a window into some complex student thinking.

I can see it used with some topics that are relevant to what students have been studying recently.

For instance, eleventh grade students can debate whether they think transcendentalism is still relevant in the 21st century. They have a depth of knowledge about the topic that they didn’t have before we started studying it together, and this would be an authentic way to assign group work while still being able to see the individual students’ skill and thought process.

Continue reading “Team Debate as a Pre-Writing Activity”

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”