One lesson I learned in my early years as a teacher was that students learn more, I have more time to teach, and the classroom seems to work more smoothly when everyone in the room is on the same page with our use of language and procedures. This may not seem critical or important, but when these things aren’t in place, lots of teaching and learning time is wasted due to continual explanation and re-explanation of where to go, where to find things, what to bring, what to do, and how to do it.
A big part of being a member of a community is knowing the terms used and expected procedures and routines for how things work. For example, when I say, “Readers, meet me in the meeting area for reading workshop,” my students know it means it’s time to grab their reading notebook, pencil, and current book, walk to the meeting area, and sit next to their literacy partner because the lesson is going to start soon. This does not happen by chance. Rather, it happens intentionally with explanation and practice at the start of the school year. Eventually, it becomes a natural, expected part of our day to day community. Everyone is in-the-know and our reading learning starts off seamlessly without too much fuss or confusion.
If students forget what they need to bring or do, there is a co-created chart for reference displayed in the room. All it takes is the point of a finger or reminder from a friend to check the chart to support students who need a nudge. The chart is also helpful for guest teachers, new students, and visitors to welcome them into our community.
Plus, when a common set of procedures and language are in place, students feel supported and safe. They feel in community with everyone else who share the common procedures and language.
Every classroom community is comprised of unique individuals who make it a special place to teach and learn. The terms and procedures in my classroom might look a little different than the terms and procedures in your classroom. Spending time explaining, co-creating, teaching, practicing, and learning the terms and procedures in your classroom at the very start of the year will be time well spent that will make your students feel safe and confident and will ultimately save you a ton of instructional minutes in the future.
I just spent the first two days of school with my new group of 5th graders. We are already on our way to growing into a community of readers. Over the past two days, I observed my fifth graders choosing and reading books from browsing boxes set at each table. I also spent a lot of time listening to their conversations to learn more about them.
In a couple days, I’m going to give our first book choice lesson of the year. Years ago when I set students free in the classroom library prior to teaching about choice, I noticed some students didn’t know where to start and seemed a bit overwhelmed by all of the reading options. This caused some of them to just grab a book without previewing it, which in many cases led to unengaged reading or repeated book abandonment. Because of this, I started explicitly teaching students how to choose books.
Two Questions to Consider When Teaching Book CHoice
Interest: Does this book look like it will interest me?
Readability: Do I understand what I’m reading?
Inviting students to ask themselves these two questions (or versions of the questions) when considering whether or not to select and stick with a book has the power to guide them in an authentic, transferrable way each time choice arises.
The way these questions are framed and explained in the lower and upper grades will vary. For example, when thinking about question two, in a first grade class, I might ask students to consider if they can read most of the words on a page yet. If not, this is a book that might be saved and understood for later instead of a book to read right now.* I avoid the terms “just right” and “at your level” because those are fixed, rigid, and often have a negative connotation with young readers. Instead, I opt toward language that emphasizes growth and learning. I’ve found students engage more in this deep thinking about their choices when it’s framed as “books to read now,” and then “books to look forward to reading later.” Those books for later can even be saved on a to-be-read list. Students learn that the more they grow and learn as readers, the more books they will be able to read and enjoy in the future!
In a fourth grade class, it will look and sound a little different. I might invite students to ask themselves if they want to talk about the book with a friend after trying out a few pages. If it is a book they do not want to talk about or a book that just isn’t holding their interest, it’s time to pick a new book. The big idea is that I want to give students tools and strategies so they can successfully choose books on their own. Much more is involved in book choice, but this is a good starting point to think about the language of book choice in the elementary classroom. Pages 49-54 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading go much more in depth.
Keep in Mind
Book choice is an art, not a science. It might be messy and mistakes will be made. Embrace these times as learning opportunities for next instructional steps.
One lesson on book choice is never enough for all students. Some students will likely still need your support with choosing books they can read and want to read. Teach toward independence, but don’t expect it immediately.
*While kids must have access to books they can accurately read (decode and understand), they also need to explore books of high interest- even if they can’t yet decode all the words. For example, if a 1st grader wants to read a book about dinosaurs but can’t decode all the words, of course you encourage them to keep that book! They can have that book AND books they can accurately decode. Book choice is nuanced and complex. To learn more about the different types of books (emergent story books, decodables, etc.) that will especially support kindergarten and first grade readers, take a look at pages 96-100 in Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading.
One of the more powerful things a teacher can do to both positively build a reading community and enhance teaching and learning is to embrace the mind shift of seeking out what students are doing as opposed to what they are not doing.
When students feel valued and that their strengths are seen and honored before all else, many positives will arise. Some of the benefits I noticed in my own classroom when I made this shift years ago were that students became more likely to share, their motivation grew, they felt safer to take risks in their learning, and they started to support and lift each other up more.
If making the shift to asset-based thinking about students is new to you, consider framing your thinking around these questions. Sometimes, the first questions will be all you need. Other times, you’ll need to use the second question to guide your thinking.
What is this student doing well? or What is a reading strength I see in this student?
How can I turn this observation into a positive to better serve this student?
I actually have these questions written on a note taped to my conferring clipboard. So, every time I meet with a student, I’m reminded to seek out the assets before all else. Below are two examples of intentionally pushing my thinking as a teacher to make the shift from deficit-based thinking to asset-based. The more you make the shift, the easier it will become. Eventually, it will become your default way of thinking if you continually work on it.
It’s quite easy to notice all the things that aren’t going well. Noticing the positives, or reframing the perceived deficits to be assets will change the trajectory of your reading community in a big way!
Choice and access to a classroom library full of books is an incredibly joyous, central part of thriving classroom reading community. Getting books into students’ hands from the get-go is key for setting the tone that reading is the central focus of the school year together. However, for students who have not experienced choice before, this access can also be quite overwhelming. Contrary to what some might think, choice is something that actually needs to be taught to support elementary students with making solid book picks for themselves (the fifth post in this series will take a deep dive into teaching choice).
To ease the overwhelm and still provide all students choice in their reading at the start of the school year, give browsing boxes a try. During the first two to three days of school while I am still introducing procedures for the classroom library and tweaking it a bit based on learning more about my students, I place browsing boxes full of books of different topics, genres, and readability at each student group table. Students browse though the books in the boxes while chatting with their table mates. The boxes provide book access, more opportunity for student conversation, and choice in reading without the overwhelm a larger classroom library might bring at first.
Steps to Getting Started with Browsing Boxes
Gather large boxes to fill that will be placed at student tables.
Select a wide variety of books including different genres, topics, and even books from past grade levels that might serve to give some students the comfort and familiarity they need in a new classroom. I like to ask my colleagues in the grade levels below me about some loved books in the prior school years.
Place the books in the boxes.
Places the boxes at student tables for student reading choice. Encourage students to try out some of the books and even settle in to reading one or more. Also be sure to encourage conversation around the books: What looks good to you? Have you read this book before? etc.
Use with flexibility! Remember, browsing boxes are a starting point, not a gatekeeper to other books. If a student sees a book of interest in a different browsing box or somewhere else in the room, offer the book to the child!
Take note of the books students are gravitating toward. This will be valuable information for you moving forward. Swap books out if needed.
Have a plan for removal or an extension of the browsing boxes. They may continue to serve a purpose in other ways throughout the school year, but their purpose is to be a starting point of comfort to get students accustomed to choice. They are not the end point when it comes to choosing books.
Browsing boxes work in every grade level. Many kindergarten and first grade teachers even make use of them well after the first weeks of school. As long as boxes are kept fresh with books being added and swapped out, browsing boxes can serve different purposes all year long in classrooms. They can even be used instructionally. Pages 52-53 and 100 of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading discuss using browsing boxes along with instructional reading more in-depth.
The key thing to remember for the first days of school is that browsing boxes offer curated choice in a way that is manageable for students before complete open access to the classroom library is given.
Before diving in to the academics of the school year, prioritize learning more about your students as the full and complete people they are. All students come to our classrooms with full and complete lives comprised of many aspects that should be both appreciated and celebrated. Their experiences, interests, and backgrounds need to be fully seen and celebrated if they are to feel like valued members of the classroom community.
Taking the time to really get to know your students will build their trust in you, deepen your relationship with them, and enable you to better make decisions about language to use, books to seek out, and so much more regarding reading instruction. Plus, and perhaps most importantly, when you get to know and celebrate your students for the people they are, they will feel more comfortable and confident in celebrating themselves and each other.
Classroom Practices to Better Learn ABout Your Students During the First Weeks of School
Start your school days with a morning meeting, or as I like to call it, morning circle, where we all sit in a large circle facing each other. Pose questions for students to consider and verbally answer to get to know them (*note- it’s also important to allow students to pass. It takes some more time to feel comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, and this should always be respected). Also, in addition to you getting to know students, this will enable students to learn more about each other. Choose a question or two each day that applies to all students. Avoid questions about material possessions, vacations, and anything that would not equitably apply to all students. Some questions to get you started might include:
What is something you enjoy doing with your family?
What is a favorite food you like to eat at home?
What is one activity you like to do outside of school?
What is something that makes you smile?
What is one special thing you’d like to share with all of us? TIP: Also be sure to share your answers to these questions as well. Students are more likely to share their lives with us when we also share our lives with them.
Prioritize conferring from day one. If you’ve read this blog or any of my writing before, you know that conferring is the most trusted tool in my teacher toolbox. A conference is a one on one conversation between two people. It can be instructional or just informational. Contrary to what some might say, there are no required steps to a conference, especially to a conference with the purpose of getting to know another person. A bonus of engaging in casual conversation conferences during the first couple weeks of school is that doing so will also build students’ comfort level with conferring when instructional conferences begin. To start beginning of the school year conferences, simply sit beside students one at a time, ask if you can join them for a minute or so to chat, ask a thoughtful question, and listen. Students should do most of the talking. A casual conference can start with
How are you enjoying school so far?
What has been your favorite part of our first couple school days together.
Do you have any suggestions for our classroom? TIP: After the short conversation, end the conference with a celebratory statement. A simple, “I am so glad we chatted and am so glad you’re in my class this year!”
Give students lots of time to chat with each other. One of the best ways to get to know students, and to help them get to know each other and find comfort in the classroom, is to offer multiple opportunities throughout each day for them to chat with each other. While they are chatting, listen in to learn more. But, be sure to listen rather than talk so they are the ones setting the tone and topics for the conversations. Here are a few simple ways to do this within the first days of school:
One thing: In table groups, or in small groups of 3-5, ask students to find one thing they all have in common outside of school. Encourage students to start by simply asking each other basic questions– How many siblings do you have?Do you play or watch any sports?Do you enjoy music?etc. I’ve been doing this activity for years, and I can safely say there is no other activity that provides nearly as much information about students in a short amount of time! As students do this, I roam around the room and listen in. When groups have found one thing, ask them to find another. Students of all ages absolutely love this activity as it gives them a safe space to share their lives and get to know the lives of their classmates.
Free choice time: Providing students with free choice time a few times within the first couple weeks of school enables me to learn their preferences in activities, listen in to authentic student conversation that naturally occurs, and allows me to see whether students prefer to work with others, independently, or a mix of the two. During free choice time, students may choose to read, draw, write, play/build with blocks, play games, work on puzzles, and more. They may choose to do things with others or independently. They are also free to change their minds and try something new! TIP: Free choice time does not mean unstructured time or a free-for-all. Prior to the first free choice time, sit down with students to co-create a set of norms for this time.A co-creation of norms is a community builder within itself as it gives students voice and choice in classroom procedures.
At the end of the first two weeks of school, sit down before or after school one day to list three outside-of-school asset-based facts or celebrations you’ve learned about each of your students. Doing this not only solidifies your learning about your students, but it will also show you which students you will still need to learn more about. The first step in building any community, reading or otherwise, is learning about and then celebrating its members. Dr. Gholdy Muhammad reminds us, and I strongly agree that, “It is our job as educators to not just teach skills, but also to teach students to know, validate, and celebrate who they are.” Once you celebrate your students as the people they are, it opens up space for them to celebrate themselves in the classroom community. There is nothing more important in education.
Like many of you, I will be heading back to my classroom soon. While still relishing in the final days of summer relaxation (and let’s be honest, recovery from the past two and a half tumultuous school years), I’m beginning to think about the steps I’ll take starting on the first day of school to build a classroom reading community that will enable each of my individual students to become members of a collective, supportive, cohesive community of readers.
A well formed community is celebratory in the good times, supportive in the tough times, and successful due to everyone collectively working together toward common goals that evolve over time as the community grows. Also, being a member of a safe and nurturing reading community makes students more apt to take risks and unabashedly embrace new learning. Building a well formed reading community doesn’t happen by chance. It takes intention with teaching decisions, consistent practices, and predictable procedures. It goes well beyond the pages of any required curriculum.
The upcoming posts in this blog series will be short for end-of-summer reading ease but packed with practical ideas and methods that I have refined over the years in my own fifth grade classroom and the classrooms of my lower grade teaching colleagues (who always graciously try out my ideas, offer feedback, and invite me into their classrooms to work with their students).
This series will run from 8/1/22 to 8/27/22. Follow the blog to receive every post in your email inbox or check back here then. All posts will be linked here after they publish.
*This post was originally published on 5/30/22. It was updated on 6/4/22 as I added even more resources to my summer learning stack! Enjoy!*
Summer break is just weeks away or already here for many! It’s the perfect time to unwind, recharge, and do a little self-paced reading or learning in a book club!
If you and your colleagues are reading Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading in a summer book club, I’d love to casually chat with you and answer questions through Zoom (or potentially even in person if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area or Seattle area). Additionally, if you are leading a group of new teachers or preservice teachers, please do not hesitate to reach out this summer or in the fall. I will always make time to openly chat with new and preservice teachers– I’m here to answer their questions, hear their thinking/feedback, and ultimately learn from them as well! Just send me an email at email@example.com.
A key aspect of Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Reading is pointing teachers in the direction of other great resources to continue their learning and answer further questions. I am the teacher I am today because my first year mentor, Midge, introduced me to the habit of professional reading to continually inform my practice. This summer, I plan to read and reread the following professional texts. I hope you’ll join me in reading one or more of these books!
If you’re looking to make your writing instruction more student-centered or are looking to make your writing routines, procedures, and instruction more effective, Melanie Meehan has you covered with her newest book, Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Writing. Does the book look familiar? My book and Melanie’s are in the same series! We actually even collaborated during the process of writing the books as well.
If you’re looking to make your literacy practice more culturally responsive and are ready to do the work and make some important changes to benefit all students, Dr. Kim Parker has the book for you with Literacy is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching. A key focus of this book is the emphasis on creating an intentional space and community where students feel safe to talk about pressing issues.
What a complete joy it was to read this gorgeous book by Donalyn Miller and Teri Lesesne. I highly recommend the audiobook read by Donalyn herself! Helping every child find reading joy is in reach of all classroom teachers. The Joy of Reading offers key considerations and shifts in classroom practice to make reading joy a reality for all students.
This new book by Afrika Afeni Mills will be released in a few weeks, and I cannot wait to dive in. Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students, “fills an important gap in the arena of diversity, equity and inclusion... If you’re a White educator or parent, this book will help you to let go of the things that no longer serve you, and to teach your students to embrace those things that will help create welcoming environments where all feel a sense of belonging.” (review from Zaretta Hammond on Corwin’s website). This is a book many of us need, myself included as a White teacher working to do better.
I typically only write about literacy education, but like most elementary school teachers, I teach all subjects! The longer I teach, the more it’s confirmed that my classroom instruction is more impactful for students when I blend subjects by concurrently finding cross-curricular and community connections. Enter Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Elementary Math. From Building a positive math community to encouraging talk about math, the four authors of this book bring their years of math expertise into this question/answer format book that is sure to help all who teach or support elementary math. If this one also looks familiar, it’s in the same series as mine and Melanie Meehan’s books!
A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Mini lessons by the writing team of Lisa Eikholdt and Patty Vitale-Reilly will support both new and veteran teachers alike in mastering the important teaching method of mini lessons. As a new teacher many years ago, my area of focus was keeping my mini lessons mini– this is no easy feat! Now, as a veteran teacher who’s mastered timing, my current area of focus is ensuring all of my mini lessons are relevant and engaging for all students while still keeping them appropriately academically challenging. I wish I had this book as a new teacher, and I’m so glad I have it now as a veteran!
Interested in additional budget-friendly options for professional learning this summer? A few months ago, Melanie Meehan, Georgina Rivera, and I recorded a webinar about bringing more joy to the elementary classroom. This hour-long webinar can be found for free embedded here or at this link on YouTube. In this video, we offer lots of “party favors” (free teaching resources) for teachers.
Another resource I highly recommend reading, rereading, and savoring throughout the summer months is the annual 31 Days IBPOCblog series (linked here) hosted by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Kim Parker (author of the above recommended book, Literacy is Liberation). Every May, 31 educators of color generously share a blog post with the education world and beyond. I have learned a ton over the years from this blog series and have found many authors and educators to continually seek out and learn from because of it.
The final resource I have to share is a podcast I recently participated in with a few educators I deeply admire. In this podcast, Dear School Leaders (linked here), from Peter DeWitt’s Leaders Coaching Leaders podcast, Ayanna Perry, Matt Kay, Georgina Rivera and I discuss building community, relevancy for students, authenticity, teacher entry points, book banning, and so much more! The podcast can be found at the included link or on most podcast hosting platforms.
Whatever you do to support your professional learning this summer, please also prioritize rest, recreation, and recharging. It’s been a rough year for all of us in schools. I, for one, need a reset.
Also, check back here periodically over the summer or click the blue follow button to have more teaching and learning tips delivered directly to your inbox.
I hope this summer brings you and your loved ones what you need.