Even Our Youngest Writers Are Making Strategic Decisions

In our work together, Kari Yates and I often share with teachers our belief that all readers are constantly making strategic decisions. It is our job as teachers to let students in on the secret. Many times, students are using skills and strategies and aren’t even aware they are doing so. When we recognize and name what our readers are doing, it is very likely they will do it again. Thus, they will continue to grow as readers.

Our work as teachers is to celebrate the effort, approximations, and new strategic work that our students are continually doing. Kari and I often talk about this with readers, but the same goes for our student writers.

During conferences and small groups with students, when we recognize, name, and point out the strategic moves they are making, we are intentionally offering teaching that will support them in using these skills and strategies again and again.

I am so excited to share this idea tomorrow with elementary teachers in Los Gatos, CA! In our three professional development sessions around writing workshop, we are going to practice recognizing, naming, and pointing out the strategic moves that student writers are making, and then thinking about possible next steps to help them grow. Can you name some of the strategic decisions these writers made?

As teaching colleagues, one of the most powerful things we can do to refine our practice and grow ourselves is to analyze student work together. I can’t think of a better way to spend a staff meeting, grade level collaboration session, or professional development day. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Beyond the Textbook: Using Picture Books in Our History Learning, Part 1

Some picture books make us laugh. Others tug at our heart strings and make us cry. Many support our work in studying the craft of writing. Then, there are some that just truly stop us in our tracks.

Today’s picture book read aloud, The People Shall Continue written by Simon J. Ortiz and illustrated by Sharol Graves, changed my classroom. It changed the way we are approaching our year-long study of American history. It changed our collective thinking.

Next week, we’re going to compare this text and another we read a couple weeks ago, Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes written by Wab Kinew and illustrated by Joe Morse, with the chapter on Indigenous Nations in the text book purchased by my school district. After today’s read aloud and discussion, my students are eager to dive in, read with a critical eye, and ask the tough questions that many adults just choose not to ask.

In part 2 of this blog series, I’ll report back with student thinking and my own teaching notes after we dive further into this work. In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out both The People Shall Continue and Go Show the World: A Celebration of Indigenous Heroes. If you teach upper elementary, middle school, or high school history or social studies, both of these books are a must.

I learned about both of these books and many more that I plan to share during the year by reading the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature from Debbie Reese and Jean Mendoza. I’m also learning a great deal from their recent book with Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, An Indigenous People’s History of the US for Young People.

So, I took a risk…

This school year, I took a risk (which is so unlike me) by taking a slightly reduced teaching contract so I could open up more days to bring my deep love of literacy education to teachers in other schools and districts across the Bay Area and other parts of the West. I love teaching kids, but I equally love teaching teachers- I feel so incredibly fortunate to be able to do both. My schedule is already completely full for the year. Day one of working with teachers is this Monday! I am so excited for the opportunity to work with the teachers at Laurel School in Menlo Park… I’m looking forward to sharing these great books and discussing different ways to kick off and make the most of reading workshop for all students. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.  And, I’m now booking for the summer of 2020 and the 2020-21 school year!

180 Days of Literacy Learning: Three Things That Mattered Most

Written off and on a week or so after the last day of school while enjoying a weekend away in the woods at Northern California’s Russian River and also in my backyard after summer school.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

If you’re a classroom teacher, you can probably understand why it took me a while since the last day of school to write the final piece for this blog series. The last few days of school are a bit crazy to say the least- they included an all-fifth grade day long pool party, two 5th grade promotion practices, year book distribution and signing, longer announcements, and just pure and utter exhaustion. All of this encompassed our final four days of school in addition to our literacy and math learning and reflection.

Now that I’ve had a bit of time between between my last day of school and packing up my classroom (which all of us do at my school at the end of the year), I’m reflecting on what mattered most during these past 180 school days. When thinking about our literacy learning all year long, I can easily narrow it down to three consistent, daily practices that mattered most:

  1. Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts
  2. Daily Picture Book Read Aloud
  3. Daily Writing

Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts– 180 days of it- even on the first and last days of school, even on field trip days, even on assembly days, even on minimum days- we did this every single day without exception. When I first read Allington’s landmark piece If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good (1977) while in grad school well over a decade ago, his words made perfect sense to me. It was baffling to think that some in our field expect kids to become proficient readers without really reading much. It just made no sense. From that day forward, independent choice reading has been a daily nonnegotiable in my classroom.

Daily choice independent reading soft starts gave this student an opportunity to read, think, and talk about Inside Tennis, his favorite magazine. This was one of his favorite relaxed reads- he saved his stretch reads for reading workshop time later in the day.

Thanks to learning about soft starts from Sara Ahmed at a conference a few years back (I wish I could remember which conference!), our independent choice reading time has started our every day in the classroom. Without exception, I open my classroom door at 7:55, the kids walk in and take care of any needs (putting their stuff away, ordering lunch, finishing up a conversation with a friend, etc.), then they settle in for 15 – 40 minutes of independent choice reading. During these 15 to 40 minutes, I confer with a couple students, and am also able to do a quick check-in with each of them. Not only do kids get in a lot of low pressure time in with their eyes on text, but also it is a great opportunity for me to build and foster relationships.

On the last day of school, we even squeezed in 5 minutes for our final, almost ceremonial, independent choice reading soft start. We could only do five minutes as school started at 8:00 and we had to line up for our big 5th grade promotion ceremony at 8:25. However, we made those five minutes count! After those five minutes, my fifth graders joined me in our meeting area for our final picture book read aloud and discussion of the year.

Daily Picture Book Read Aloud– yes, again, every single day, we made time for our picture book read alouds. In addition to supporting students in recognizing and learning the skills and strategies that readers and writers use, our daily picture book read aloud was instrumental in both fostering our caring classroom community and examining how we can work toward empowering ourselves and others. Reading a picture book aloud every single day provided students with 180 shared experiences, shared stories, and shared discussions. You can view all of our read aloud titles here.

While I have always valued picture book read aloud in the classroom, this is the first year I made the commitment as an upper elementary teacher to share one every day. The inspiration came from two places: Jillian Heise’s work with Classroom Book a Day and a little prompting from my friend and colleague Jennifer Ford.

One student’s experience with Sparkle Boy inspired her to seek out more books featuring LGBTQIA kids and families, and then recommend those books to friends. Here, she’s recommending Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee to the class.

The day before the last day of school, each fifth grader shared a book talk or screencast around the book that impacted them the most this year. Many of the fifth graders opted to present on one of our picture books. During these presentations, we heard how Duncan’s Tonatiuh’s Seperate is Never Equal prompted one student to further dive into her family’s history in California’s Central Valley. Another student shared that Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman inspired her to seek out more books featuring LGBTQIA kids and families, and then to share those books with friends. We even learned that another student felt she gained more confidence in herself after reading and reflecting on Louisa Belinda’s courageous story in Larissa Theule’s Born to Ride.

On that last day of school, right before we took our last day class selfie (a silly tradition I started years ago) and walked out to line up for our 5th grade promotion ceremony, I invited my fifth graders to quickly write a note about their selected inspirational book or another book on a sticky note for next year’s fifth graders.

Daily Writing– I am so fortunate to work in a school that believes in and practices a daily writing workshop. I say practice because all of us on staff have been refining our workshop practice for years now. I can say this with confidence because prior to working as a fifth grade teacher at my school, I was the literacy coach! At one time or another, I’ve worked with every teacher on staff in developing our workshop practices.

My students came to me as writers- on our first day of school when I said, “Writers, meet me in the meeting area,” they knew exactly what to do and where to go without much prompting. It was pretty obvious the teachers before me helped instill a workshop lifestyle into their consciousness. I’m happy to say we continued that way of life every single day in the classroom.

That being said, it is important to note that I did not deliver a brand new mini lesson each day. Nor did I require students to engage in what one might consider high stakes academic writing each day. We wrote each day, but often times our writing existed in what Ralph Fletcher refers to as the Greenbelt (2017). In his book, Joy Write, Fletcher describes the joy of autonomous, playful, low-stakes writing. On days I would announce, “We’re heading in to the Greenbelt for writing workshop today,” students cheered! They loved experimenting poetry, cowriting fictional stories with friends, creating detailed comics, and even working on stories that they first started in fourth grade! Greenbelt time was their opportunity to have 100% free choice in how they would use workshop time- they chose their writing space, writing modality, genre, topic, whether to write independently or to coauthor pieces, and even their audience. Every single aspect of that time was up to them.

When we weren’t in the Greenbelt, we were largely working within the TCRWP Units of Study in Writing. While the Writing Units of Study for 5th grade was the foundation for our workshop mini lessons, my grade level partners and I often infused in our own teacher-created mini lessons based on what we thought our students would benefit from after talking about their writing. This collaboration with my grade level partners not only helped me grow my practice as a writing teacher, but also it helped my students grow as writers. Three minds thinking about student writing is definitely greater than one!

This student felt so proud when he was reminded of where he came from as a writer!

Perhaps one of the more powerful things we chose to do as a grade level team was invite our fifth grade writers to take time to view their saved writing from previous grades to reflect on how much they’ve grown in their writing practice.

One of the most satisfying experiences for a writer is realizing how much they’ve grown. While reading old pieces of writing can be scary for some adult writers (I’ve shuddered rereading some of my first blog posts), the experience was quite different for my fifth graders. On the day that I handed out their K-5 writing portfolios, the room was filled with kids poring over their old pieces with wonder. The sounds of joyous laughter, shared discussion around old pieces, and gasps of realization of growth filled the room for well over 45 minutes. These 45 minutes were time well spent with three days to go in the school year.

On that last day of school, with only 25ish minutes together with my class, we independently read, shared a beautiful final picture book and discussion, and jotted notes to future fifth graders. We make time for what we value. And that concluded our 180 days of literacy learning.

My annual last day silly Waterlogued selfie with the fifth graders… Wow- I really miss them. Thank you for sharing in our literacy learning this school year.

For more information on why these three practices matter, I highly recommend these resources. There are many more resources in addition to the ones listed below, these are just a few that I’ve turned to again and again in my practice.