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.

The Last 20 days of Literacy Learning: 17 Days to Go, Interruptions Galore is No Excuse

Post #4 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after a day of not much instructional time.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

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.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy Learning Blog Series

So much is emphasized, written, and said about the first 20 days of school. Well, I’m entering my last 20, and the work isn’t even close to being done. This blog series will chronicle the literacy learning of the last 20 days of school in my fifth grade classroom.

The Last 20 Days of Elementary Literacy

How are you making your last 20 days count? Share your work!

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!