Journaling: The Most Important Writing of the Moment

I’ve now been offering optional screencasted journaling sessions for my fifth graders for a little over a week. Tomorrow marks week three of being away from the classroom. It will be the start of week two for those of us in California sheltering in place.

I’m screencasting a new journaling session each day for my fifth graders. The kids who are taking part are saying that it is really helping them sort through their feelings and just feel better about this situation we’re all in. The cathartic side effects of journaling are like medicine right now. Some of my classroom families have even mentioned they’ve started a journal as well to capture their thoughts at this moment in history.

If they can be helpful to you, I am adding these sessions to this document as I make them. They are not mass made for all, but rather are made specifically for my fifth graders at this moment in our history. If they might help you as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being right now in these trying times, here they are- just know they were made for my students, not for all students.

If you are a teacher, consider recording some journaling sessions for your students (if you’ve never done this before, there are tons of tutorials online, or just reach out- I’m happy to take a little time to help out a fellow classroom teacher right now). We’ll never have this time in history again- I hope. The most important writing, capturing, composing, and sketching our kids (and we) can do right now is to create from the heart, not from a set of standards.

Ten years from now, I suspect many of my students and families will look back on their journals to remember. I know I will.

Stay safe and take care.

-Christina

Journaling With Kids via Screencastify

Online teaching is hard. It’s really hard. To my fellow classroom teachers trying to navigate this without much to go on or follow, hang in there!

Today, my fifth grade teaching team and I talked about using the Chrome extension, Screencastify, to start journaling with our students from afar. We’re going to give it a try.

This morning, I watched a tutorial from Screencastify, put together a Google Slides presentation to share my examples, and just went for it!

Here’s my first attempt with it- it’s not perfect, and it’s not mass made for all. It’s from my heart, for my students, at this moment in time. Maybe it can give you some ideas for journaling with your students at this time. I encourage you to try making one on your own. You can do this! We all can. Good luck, friends!

Read Across America: If not Seuss, then who?

Read Across America is coming up this Monday, March 2nd. Originally, the National Education Association (NEA) started this nation-wide event on the birthday of political cartoonist turned children’s book author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, to celebrate and promote reading. In 2018, the NEA dropped the celebration of Dr. Seuss in favor of a more inclusive and appropriate message to all children and families. The following message on the NEA website now greets readers.

Join us as we celebrate a nation of diverse readers with these recommended books, authors, and teaching resources that represent an array of experiences and cultures.

The original message and details can be found here: https://www.readacrossamerica.org/

Much has been studied, written, and determined about the racism of Dr. Seuss. I’m not writing this piece to make the case against reading Dr. Seuss books with children. Many well respected scholars and educators have already clearly made that case. If this is new to you, you can start to learn more about that with the following pieces.

I certainly have nothing new to add to this conversation. However, I did read, listen, and think quite a bit on it. So now, it’s time to take action. I hope you’ll join me.

Saying goodbye to Dr. Seuss does not mean you’re saying goodbye to joyful literacy experiences with children. In fact, I and many others, would argue that saying goodbye to books written well over four, five, six decades ago and even longer, will open up space for books that are of much higher interest and more relevant to kids today. Plus, if we are not choosing books for our classroom libraries and read alouds that reflect our kids’ current experiences and the lives of all families, we are doing them a huge disservice. Not only are we doing them a huge disservice, but also we are assigning value to some experiences while devaluing others.

A couple years ago at the NCTE annual convention, Jess Lifshitz, a fellow fifth grade teacher, shared a message that has stuck with me and guided much of my classroom book curation ever since. I’ll try to paraphrase that message- We value the lives reflected in the stories we share. We also send a big message about whose lives we do not value by choosing not to share some stories. Many different people live in our world. Our kids deserve to know and and celebrate all of them.

Also, all of our children deserve to celebrate themselves. They deserve and have the right to recognize themselves in the pages of the books we choose to share. Our job as teachers is to facilitate this. When we limit our classroom read alouds and library collection to old favorites, white faces, and books about experiences that just aren’t relevant in the year 2020, what are we accomplishing? What message are we sending? Who are we actually reaching? Why are we making that choice? Let’s be clear, it is an intentional choice.

Our kids deserve better. They deserve to read books that reflect the world they live in everyday. They deserve to read books that accurately reflect the world of the past. They deserve so much more than Dr. Seuss. So, what do we read instead of Dr. Seuss on March 2nd? There are countless options! Listed below are just a few current favorite picture books that my fifth graders love and are appealing to all ages. In fact, each of these books are favorites across all grade levels at our school.

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal At first, our class thought this might be a cute story about a particular type of bread, but as soon as we dove into the pages, we learned that this relevant and engaging book is about so much more. All of our children, all teachers, need to know this book. So far, I have to say that Fry Bread is my favorite picture book read aloud this school year.

Hair Love written by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. This book should look familiar. The short animated film adapted from this wonderful book just won an Academy Award! Hair Love is about hair, love, family, commitment, and just so much more. After our whole group read aloud of Hair Love, it was passed around and loved throughout the entire class for the following couple weeks. This book is everything.

Just Ask: Be Different Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor does a beautiful job discussing differences that so many of us live and work with everyday. She invites readers to just ask each other and learn about our differences rather than ignoring or dismissing them.

All Are Welcome written by Alexandra Penfold and Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman The images in All are Welcome share a message of inclusivity just as much as the words do. This particular book is a K-5 favorite at my elementary school. My principal even bought a copy for every classroom, and we have extra in our school library! It’s important to note that we also assign value to how we spend our school funds.

In my work with elementary teachers, I often get asked for lists of books that I recommend. While I cannot offer lists of books, as those lists often become outdated when printed and pinned to a wall, and I don’t know the readers for whom I’d be recommending, I always recommend regularly consulting the websites of other educators who dedicate a great deal of their time and energy to the work of curating book collections and recommendations. Here is a short list of those I seek out for recommendations.

Our read alouds and books we choose to create our classroom library collections should always be based on the children in front of us right now, not on what we did last year or what we read as kids. After all, it’s not about us, it’s about our students.

Happy reading, friends!

Small Language Shifts, Big Classroom Difference

When Kari Yates and I were collaborating to write To Know and Nurture a Reader (Stenhouse, 2018), we engaged in many long conversations around the idea of rethinking how our teacher language impacts students in different ways. We often referenced the work of Peter Johnston during these discussions, always reminding ourselves that our words in the classroom must have intention and center students, not ourselves. In his book, Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives (Stenhouse, 2011), Johnston tells us

“The purpose of feedback is to improve conceptual understanding or increase strategic options while developing stamina, resilience, and motivation—expanding the vision of what is possible and how to get there.” (pg 48).

If we really think about it, everything we say to students can be considered feedback of sorts. Our language choices are a source of ongoing feedback for every single one of our students each day they are in our classrooms. These choices have the power to affect student motivation, understanding, and more.

If this idea is new to you, a few simple language swaps are all that’s needed to get you started in applying this thinking. Once you more consistently start considering the language you use in the classroom, incredible things start to happen. More often than not, small language shifts can make a huge difference. Consider these three language swaps below.

Swap #1Next Steps Rather than telling students what they are not doing, offer a next step to help them grow.

Instead of “You’re not indenting your paragraphs. You need to do that.” Try “You’re ready for a next step as a writer. Would you like to hear it?” “Each time you start a new paragraph, either indent it or skip a line to give your reader thinking space.”

Swap #2Redirection If a student’s chatting with a friend is keeping them from their reading or other classroom learning, and the chatting is not productive, consider using empowering rather than condemning language.

Instead of “Stop talking to your friend. Get back to reading.” Try “You deserve to lose yourself in this story. What is something you might try to support yourself to really get into this book you picked?”

Swap #3Decentering Ourselves Our classroom language can also send messages about pleasing the teacher or supporting one’s self to work toward solving problems. After all, a student’s education is about them, not about us.

Instead of “I like how you used a different strategy to solve that problem.” Try “You used a different strategy to solve this math problem. Perhaps you can try this strategy each time you come to a problem like this.”

Our language choices matter. They can determine the difference between a student centered or adult centered classroom. They also impact motivation, learning, and the overall school experience of our students. I’d love to hear some of your language swaps that have improved your students’ school experience!

Kari Yates and I have talked and written a lot about language! If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out our book To Know and Nurture a Reader at Stenhouse or visit our blog series from 2018 around Power Language.