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.
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:
Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts
Daily Picture Book Read Aloud
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
“Wow- you’re still teaching?” These words were actually said to me last week when I was asked what my students were doing in class right before lunch on Friday.
“Yes, I’m still teaching! You should be, too!” is what I wanted to respond. But, I just walked away. In retrospect, I really should have said that.
This very question is partially why I decided to write this blog series. I view my job as teaching children 180 days of the year, not 165. Yes, my students are tired and a bit burnt out. So am I. Yes, many of them are counting down the days until summer break. So am I. However, many of them are also worried about what summer may mean for them. So am I.
Every single one of these 180 days matter. Not every minute is instructional with the immense number of interruptions at this time of year. But, with the minutes I do have, I am making the most of them. We all should.
On Friday, I made the most of the 30 instructional minutes I had between our 5th grade promotion practice and lunch. I chose to read aloud a book that I recently picked up at The Bay Area Book Festival (by the way, if you live in Northern California, I highly recommend this weekend of celebrating books and authors in a beautiful downtown Berkeley setting).
I picked up the book and started reading. Interestingly, a mom and her two kids looked over my shoulder, saw what I was reading, picked up the book, and started reading a copy themselves. We both ended up purchasing the book.
On my BART ride from Berkeley back to my home on the peninsula, I revisited the book a couple times. This is one of those books where my thinking about the past and today swirled around in my mind in a way that one reading was just not enough. Each time I reread the book, my thinking evolved and my questions just built upon each other. The story Innosanto Nagara tells about sometimes breaking the rules because the rules are wrong truly took my breath away that day. I could not wait to share it with my fifth graders.
In the book, Nagara tells of many injustices of the past and present day where regular people made the choice to do something about them. Learning the story of the wedding portrait on the cover at the end of the book was just a beautiful end that inspired a round of applause from my fifth graders (I really wish every author could be a fly on the wall when this happens).
For this read aloud, I invited students to jot notes, sketch, or quick write whatever came to mind. I also invited them to just listen if that was what the book inspired them to do. During our reading, we stopped at certain points in the book, talked with the people around us about our thoughts/questions and paused for thinking and jotting/sketching time. Once we finished the book and after the round of applause, we engaged in a longer group discussion.
While I can’t accurately recall all of the discussion points my students brought up, I can share some of their jots, notes, sketches, and quick writes below.
In closing, I am so grateful for authors like Innosanto Nagara who choose to write books that show kids that they as individual citizens have power and voice- that they can create change if they choose to stand up to injustice. I highly recommend this book for all school libraries, home libraries, and classrooms from upper elementary through high school.
Through his story telling, Innosanto Nagara is creating change- perhaps a change that can never be measured as we don’t always see the impact of the stories we tell. Teachers, we can help create that change too if we choose it.
We now have four school days to go, and yes, I am still teaching.
The absolute best thing that has happened in my classroom this school year has been our commitment to reading a picture book a day. Now, I say our instead of my because this is a group effort between my students and me. A few months ago, my fifth graders decided that they also wanted to choose and read aloud books to the class. You can read about that here.
Somedays, our read alouds are hilarious and have us all laughing out loud. Other days, they get us thinking about something we studied in a content area. On days like today, they bring about an incredible conversation that we’ll hold with us for a long time to come.
While reading the book aloud, we stopped at a few spots to discuss Harvey Milk and what an important contribution he made to humanity. Our conversation took a turn when my students learned that he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated for being who they are and standing up for all people. The conversation then went on to discuss how we might react when we see, hear, or face discrimination- if we don’t feel safe standing up to a bully or bigot, we know there is safety in friendship. Showing someone kindness, understanding, and friendship is something we can always feel safe doing. It is something that will also spread the feeling of safety to others. We can also always report bullying and bigotry- the safe ways to do this were discussed.
Then, the conversation took an even deeper turn. One of my students shared that her older sibling in 8th grade is transgender. She went on to describe how she hurts so much knowing that some people make her sibling feel bad just for being who they are. As she was talking, another of my students put their hand on her shoulder just to send a message of love and support for her sibling.
Another student shared that her cousin is gay and that he’s a cheerleader. She bravely told us that at first she thought it was weird, but then she realized over time that nobody can make the determination of what is weird or not for someone else, and that her whole family loves her cousin and they love watching him cheer.
Another student said she felt it was “disgusting” that there are people in our world- in our community who feel they are better than other people because of how they were born. Yes, she said disgusting. I told her that I agree.
Picture books make all topics of humanity accessible. They give us an access point from which to have safe discussions about topics we may not know how to approach. On our classroom book a day journey, I’ve realized more and more how as adults, we are the ones who tend to make things awkward and uncomfortable- kids don’t. Kids seem to get it. Kids see and understand the humanity and worth of their fellow human beings in a way that has unfortunately, and terrifyingly escaped many adults. Participating in classroom book a day this year has only confirmed this idea again and again.
Take a look at today’s teaching schedule. As you can see there was not much instructional time. If I had absolute control over my teaching day everyday, it would probably look different than this. Alas, I teach in a school community that highly values learning outside of the traditional elementary school subjects of reading, writing, and math as much as it values learning inside of those subjects. While the lack of traditional academic instructional time irks me on days like this, when I take a step back and think about the benefits of all of these programs, I realize how fortunate my students are to receive consistent learning in the arts and physical education. It’s rare. It shouldn’t be.
Where I teach, days like this are a common occurrence. The scheduled assembly, music class, and PE class are completely out of my scheduling control. Plus, every Wednesday is an early dismissal day for students. While all the other days of the week students are dismissed at 2:30, on Wednesdays, they are released at 1:20. Our Wednesday afternoons are dedicated to staff, grade level, IEP, SST, and parent meetings. On the rare Wednesday where we don’t have a meeting, we might have a district-wide professional development afternoon, collaboration time, or teacher prep time. Obviously, my instructional time is limited on Wednesdays- even more so today due to the hour long assembly this morning.
However, lack of instructional time is not an excuse for robbing kids of precious learning moments. I’m a firm believer that we must make use of the valuable little time we have on days like these. Also, the saying that we make time for what we value is so true. If we value it, we do it.
Years ago, I made the deliberate choice to make time for self-selected independent reading every single day. Some days, independent reading time lasts 45 minutes. On days like today, we independently read for 15. Those 15 minutes of time matter.
We should never discount even small chunks of time- we must make the most of the valuable little time we have on the days where we feel like we have no time at all.