Modeling Vulnerability

I’ve always loved writing. My earliest memory of feeling like a writer was in Mrs. Jones’ sixth grade class at Piedmont Middle School in San Jose. I distinctly remember how Mrs. Jones invited each of us in class to write about a memorable experience we had. I chose to write about a boogie boarding experience gone wrong. I don’t remember everything about that exact piece, but I do remember finally feeling like a writer. Ever since this writing assignment in sixth grade, I have loved writing. I constantly find myself writing down my thoughts, lists, informational pieces, narrative tidbits here and there, and even responses to things I read. However, I have never ever sat down to write poetry. In fact, poetry made me really uncomfortable. Honestly, I can’t pinpoint why. The fact is, I never considered myself one who could actually write poetry. It was intimidating.

Yet, as a writer I know that my best writing often comes when I push myself out of my comfort zone. Come to think of it, the best of many things in life come when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones. So, on the first day of this month, National Poetry Month, I decided it was time to become comfortable with discomfort. I decided it was time to start writing poetry.

During the first few days of April, I found myself on spring break, so I had a little bit of time to warm up to poetry before writing in this form with my students. After seven days of writing it on my own- stressing about the right words, thinking my poems will never be up to snuff, I decided to just stop worrying about it and allow myself to be vulnerable.

So, when it came time to write poetry in class, I sat in front of my students, only the classroom document camera between us, and I started chatting with them about free verse poetry. When it comes to writing, I am not a rule follower. As a student, my assigned five paragraph essays were always four or six, and I always refused to use the teacher mandated planning pages because I wanted to make my own plans (I suspect this does not surprise anyone). Naturally, I gravitated toward reading and writing free verse poetry.

So, when it came time to finally write a poem in front of my students, I told them that after reading and discussing our ideas around Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, which was projected on our board, I suspected that poets often write poems about strong feelings or emotions that became overwhelming or all encompassing. I suspect that they do not worry about rules and fitting into prescribed boxes. It sounded something like this…

“Based on Jacqueline Woodson’s poem Reading, I’m guessing one way poets might think of ideas is by identifying really strong feelings or emotions they’re having. Then, I suspect they just start writing from their hearts and minds without worry.”

My students were nodding while looking up and me and Jacqueline Woodson’s poem projected on the board. I continued…

“So, I’m going to try that right now… Last night I went to a concert. I saw Weezer and the Pixies. It was just amazing!”

(As an aside, a few knew Weezer’s music, but I was alone in my love for the Pixies among my 10 and 11 year-old poets)

“When the band came on, the lights dimmed, the crowd jumped to their feet, and the beat of the drum and the strum of the guitars started to just overtake me. I felt pure joy!”

Then, I turned on the document camera and started writing in view of all my students. I just wrote what I felt while thinking of the previous night.

Once my poem was written, I continued chatting with my students…

“So, did you notice how I just thought of a really strong feeling I had? Did you notice how I just wrote from my heart without really worrying? It’s now your turn…”

Before I could even get my last words out, I noticed many of my fifth graders had already started writing their poems- from their hearts.

What they envisioned, felt, and created that day just blew my mind! I am so excited to see where the rest of the month, and actually the rest of this school year takes us. Sometimes, our most powerful lessons come when we don’t make exact plans and we just model vulnerability as writers and poets (yes- I’m a poet!) for our students.

Here are some of the poems my students wrote that day. All poems are shared with permission.

Thank you for reading and welcoming my vulnerability.

-Christina

5 Decisions I Made to Support Kids Reading Over the Break

Spring break is here! Well, it’s here for those of us in my corner of the San Francisco Bay Area. All of my fifth graders have made plans for reading over the break, and I trust that hundreds upon hundreds of pages will be read over the next nine days. Why? Well, as a teacher, I made a few intentional decisions to set them up for reading success.

Decision #1

My fifth graders have started every single day this school year by reading self-selected books for 15-40 minutes. That’s kicking off 141 consecutive school days with reading! Reading has become a habit for all of us. The more you read books you love, the more likely you are to continue reading- even when school is not in session.

Decision #2

We talk about books everyday, multiple times a day. Our constant talk about books across the school day has made reading a part of our all-day everyday in the classroom. This talk has even transcended beyond our school day. How do I know?

  • I confer with my students each day. Sometimes, they talk about their reading and discussions about reading beyond the school day during our conferences.
  • On our online class discussion (ours is in Schoology, but there are many other platforms available), kids chat about their books and reading- they do this by choice on their own time.
  • Parents have casually told me how much their kids read and want to talk about their reading at home.

Decision #3

I’m a reader myself. Perhaps this isn’t a decision. Well, at some point in my life (it’s tough to pinpoint when), I decided I was a reader. But, the most important decision was intentionally deciding to share my own reading life with my students. They all know how my favorite time of the week is my first cup of coffee with The New York Times on Sunday and that one of my main reading goals right now is to read more realistic fiction to grow as a reader. They also know I made this goal for myself because I’ve fallen into a habit of mostly reading narrative nonfiction. My point is, they know who I am as a reader. By sharing my own reading life with them, they are more apt to honestly share their individual reading lives with me. Because of this, I am better positioned to support them as readers- I am better positioned to affirm what’s working well in their reading lives and offer next steps when roadblocks arise. When we affirm what’s going well in a reading life and offer support when trouble might happen (which it often does), our readers are more likely to succeed in reading more and sharing more with us.

Decision #4

I give my students free rein of the library with no restrictions at all. We have been in school for 141 days. Free rein did not start on day one. It took time. At first, we used browsing boxes. Then, the library was introduced. After that, tons of book talks and book basket talks were given. Oodles of mini lessons, small groups, and conferences were conducted around how readers choose books. And, eventually, we got to where we are today. When students have choice over their reading, we know they read much more than when they don’t have choice.

Decision #5

I invite kids to take books home. I know this scares many teachers, and I completely understand. I was quite worried, too, before I made this decision a few years back. The fear of losing books terrified me. Books cost money- my own teacher salary money! That’s kind of scary. However, when I realized that many of my students would not continue reading if I didn’t allow them to bring the books home, I knew I had to make a change. So, my students bring home books to enjoy. They bring home the books knowing the importance of returning them. They know that other readers need to also have access to the books, and they know that books cost money (there is no reason to pretend they don’t!). Do I lose a few books each year along the way? Yes- a few. However, the vast majority of books lent out always come back. Simply put, kids can’t read books if they don’t have access to them.

All of these decisions were made long ago. If we want kids to read when they are not with us, we have to first figure out ways to cultivate a vibrant and engaging culture of reading in our classrooms everyday. We can’t expect kids to do what we don’t model or show them. It’s not too late to start now. It’s never too late to grow a love of reading.

To get kids reading over break- spring break, summer break, winter break, any break, make the decision get them reading every single day in the classroom first.

Our low tech and public spring break book check out system. Not only does everyone know what everyone else is reading, but also I know which books have been taken home at a glance. I’m looking forward to all of our conversations around reading when we return!

Rethinking “I’m proud of you.”

Andi, a student of mine, was so excited during writing workshop today. After trying a few different things out, she finally wrote an introduction to her persuasive essay that she felt would really grab her readers’ attention. She excitedly requested a conference with me to ask what I thought about her introduction.

I didn’t plan to meet with Andi today, but she was so excited to share her writing that I certainly couldn’t say no. When we settled in for our conference together, I started off how I typically do with my fifth grade writers, “Hi Andi- what would you like to talk about?”

“I think I really wrote a great introduction! I want to know what you think!”

“Ok, can you read it to me?” I responded with a smile.

Andi then read her introduction aloud (which I have to say was very clever, and definitely made me want to read more!). As soon as she finished reading it aloud, she looked at me with a huge smile seeking out my approval by asking, “Do you like it?”

Some of you might be thinking- that’s great, she wants to share her writing! She’s seeking out the teacher to share her great work.

Well, I honestly had a different reaction. The last thing I want as a writing teacher is my students seeking out my approval. I don’t want them to look for the standard response of “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” Their job as writers (readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc) is not to gain my approval. So, I responded with something else. I tried to respond in a way to get Andi to seek out her own approval and to notice exactly what she did as a writer to make her feel this way.

“Well, what do you think about your introduction? Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?”

Andi quickly responded, “Yes! Definitely. I think my reader will want to keep reading. I think the statistic I shared will surprise them and make them want to know more about the topic.”

I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Andi, recognize how you’re feeling right now as a writer. Think about the decision you made to provoke this feeling in your future readers. This is potentially a strategy you can use again in your writing. I bet you can even share it with some classmates to support their efforts. Would you be up for that?”

“Yes! I’ll share why I decided to use the statistic to start! I really like how it sounds.”

“Take note of the pride you feel in yourself right now, Andi. Consider jotting down the decision you made as a writer in your notebook. Revisit it the next time you’re starting a piece of writing or perhaps when you’re conferring with a friend to support their work.”

“Ok. I will. Thanks, Ms. Nosek.” Andi then jotted down the strategy she made the choice to use in her notebook, and walked off feeling proud of herself as a writer. With that, our conference ended.

Now, imagine if I just told Andi that I was proud of her. If I used those words, it would have made her writing about pleasing me instead of empowering her. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling kids we’re proud of them. However, I’m making the effort with my teacher language to help them recognize when they are proud of themselves. The goal is helping my students empower themselves, not making me proud. Simple language choices make a big difference.

I Haven’t Read Aloud in Days

That’s right. You read that title correctly. If you know my work with teachers or my work with students, you’re probably thinking the title just can’t be true.

Well, it’s true. I haven’t done our picture book read aloud in days… My students have taken over! They are now taking the initiative to bring in a picture book from the library or home to read aloud to the class nearly everyday. In fact, I’m now scheduling ahead with readers because so many fifth graders want to do the read aloud!

Why are my students taking the initiative to read aloud to the class? I suspect it’s because read aloud is just a way of life in our classroom. No rewards, points, or extra kudos are given for reading aloud. It’s just what we do. It’s just who we are. There is nothing quite like the feeling of sharing a book you love with others.

Take a look at all of our read alouds so far this year: https://padlet.com/cnosek/BookaDay

10 Reasons We Read Aloud Everyday

Committing to reading aloud every single day is perhaps the best promise I made to my students and even myself this school year. The simple practice of reading aloud a different picture book every single day with my class has changed us in ways that I did not even expect.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with elementary teachers in the Los Gatos School District to share the benefits of read aloud. We spent two hours engaging in a few read alouds, discussing our thinking and ideas, sharing great books with each other, and committing/recommitting to this powerful classroom practice. It was a refreshing and invigorating way to spend the afternoon after our collective teaching days. The next day, we all walked back into our classrooms excited about the reading and discussions to come!

Here are ten of the points we discussed in depth at our session earlier this week…

1- Read aloud sets us up to model a love of reading.

2- Each read aloud provides every student in class a shared experience with every single other student in class.

3- Read Aloud provides a predictable context for laughing, thinking, and learning together.

4- Reading aloud offers the entire classroom community access to books as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors (Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, 1990)

5- Read aloud gives each of our students the opportunity to feel validated and visible when we make the commitment to ensure they are each represented in our book choices.

6- Read aloud together paired with discussion and modeling of strategies provides access to more complex texts and ideas- especially with social studies and science concepts that may be new or unfamiliar.

7- Read aloud is the perfect introduction or way to kick off independent reading for the day. Offering visibility of the decision making process that a reader goes through is a great way to teach a quick lesson before students set off to read on their own. Read aloud and talk makes the often invisible process of reading and meaning making visible. 

8- Read aloud has the potential to give students leadership roles and decision making power in the classroom when teachers invite students to choose and share class read aloud books.

9- Read aloud is an instructional method that appeals to all students of all ages, from pre-kindergarten through college level learners.

10- Read aloud is a joyful and reflective part of our day everyday! Simply put, we need more joy and reflection in all of our classrooms and schools.

Let’s continue the conversation! I’d love to hear your thoughts on read aloud and chat more.

-Christina

View all of our classroom read alouds so far this year here…

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