I’ve now been offering optional screencasted journaling sessions for my fifth graders for a little over a week. Tomorrow marks week three of being away from the classroom. It will be the start of week two for those of us in California sheltering in place.
I’m screencasting a new journaling session each day for my fifth graders. The kids who are taking part are saying that it is really helping them sort through their feelings and just feel better about this situation we’re all in. The cathartic side effects of journaling are like medicine right now. Some of my classroom families have even mentioned they’ve started a journal as well to capture their thoughts at this moment in history.
If they can be helpful to you, I am adding these sessions to this document as I make them. They are not mass made for all, but rather are made specifically for my fifth graders at this moment in our history. If they might help you as a teacher, as a parent, as a human being right now in these trying times, here they are- just know they were made for my students, not for all students.
If you are a teacher, consider recording some journaling sessions for your students (if you’ve never done this before, there are tons of tutorials online, or just reach out- I’m happy to take a little time to help out a fellow classroom teacher right now). We’ll never have this time in history again- I hope. The most important writing, capturing, composing, and sketching our kids (and we) can do right now is to create from the heart, not from a set of standards.
Ten years from now, I suspect many of my students and families will look back on their journals to remember. I know I will.
Read Across America is coming up this Monday, March 2nd. Originally, the National Education Association (NEA) started this nation-wide event on the birthday of political cartoonist turned children’s book author Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, to celebrate and promote reading. In 2018, the NEA dropped the celebration of Dr. Seuss in favor of a more inclusive and appropriate message to all children and families. The following message on the NEA website now greets readers.
Join us as we celebrate a nation of diverse readers with these recommended books, authors, and teaching resources that represent an array of experiences and cultures.
Much has been studied, written, and determined about the racism of Dr. Seuss. I’m not writing this piece to make the case against reading Dr. Seuss books with children. Many well respected scholars and educators have already clearly made that case. If this is new to you, you can start to learn more about that with the following pieces.
I certainly have nothing new to add to this conversation. However, I did read, listen, and think quite a bit on it. So now, it’s time to take action. I hope you’ll join me.
Saying goodbye to Dr. Seuss does not mean you’re saying goodbye to joyful literacy experiences with children. In fact, I and many others, would argue that saying goodbye to books written well over four, five, six decades ago and even longer, will open up space for books that are of much higher interest and more relevant to kids today. Plus, if we are not choosing books for our classroom libraries and read alouds that reflect our kids’ current experiences and the lives of all families, we are doing them a huge disservice. Not only are we doing them a huge disservice, but also we are assigning value to some experiences while devaluing others.
A couple years ago at the NCTE annual convention, Jess Lifshitz, a fellow fifth grade teacher, shared a message that has stuck with me and guided much of my classroom book curation ever since. I’ll try to paraphrase that message- We value the lives reflected in the stories we share. We also send a big message about whose lives we do not value by choosing not to share some stories. Many different people live in our world. Our kids deserve to know and and celebrate all of them.
Also, all of our children deserve to celebrate themselves. They deserve and have the right to recognize themselves in the pages of the books we choose to share. Our job as teachers is to facilitate this. When we limit our classroom read alouds and library collection to old favorites, white faces, and books about experiences that just aren’t relevant in the year 2020, what are we accomplishing? What message are we sending? Who are we actually reaching? Why are we making that choice? Let’s be clear, it is an intentional choice.
Our kids deserve better. They deserve to read books that reflect the world they live in everyday. They deserve to read books that accurately reflect the world of the past. They deserve so much more than Dr. Seuss. So, what do we read instead of Dr. Seuss on March 2nd? There are countless options! Listed below are just a few current favorite picture books that my fifth graders love and are appealing to all ages. In fact, each of these books are favorites across all grade levels at our school.
Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story written by Kevin Noble Maillard and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal At first, our class thought this might be a cute story about a particular type of bread, but as soon as we dove into the pages, we learned that this relevant and engaging book is about so much more. All of our children, all teachers, need to know this book. So far, I have to say that Fry Bread is my favorite picture book read aloud this school year.
Hair Love written by Matthew A. Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. This book should look familiar. The short animated film adapted from this wonderful book just won an Academy Award! Hair Love is about hair, love, family, commitment, and just so much more. After our whole group read aloud of Hair Love, it was passed around and loved throughout the entire class for the following couple weeks. This book is everything.
Just Ask: Be Different Be Brave, Be You written by Sonia Sotomayor and illustrated by Rafael López Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor does a beautiful job discussing differences that so many of us live and work with everyday. She invites readers to just ask each other and learn about our differences rather than ignoring or dismissing them.
All Are Welcome written by Alexandra Penfold and Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman The images in All are Welcome share a message of inclusivity just as much as the words do. This particular book is a K-5 favorite at my elementary school. My principal even bought a copy for every classroom, and we have extra in our school library! It’s important to note that we also assign value to how we spend our school funds.
In my work with elementary teachers, I often get asked for lists of books that I recommend. While I cannot offer lists of books, as those lists often become outdated when printed and pinned to a wall, and I don’t know the readers for whom I’d be recommending, I always recommend regularly consulting the websites of other educators who dedicate a great deal of their time and energy to the work of curating book collections and recommendations. Here is a short list of those I seek out for recommendations.
Our read alouds and books we choose to create our classroom library collections should always be based on the children in front of us right now, not on what we did last year or what we read as kids. After all, it’s not about us, it’s about our students.
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.