New Year Message: Three Connected Promises to My Students and Myself

As I prepare to head back to my fifth graders on Monday refreshed and recharged after a wonderful winter break full of family, friends, and adventures, I’m going to work on keeping a few promises to myself and my students that I quietly (and some not so quietly) made at the beginning of the school year…

Promise 1: I am going to make a greater effort to ensure my teaching is anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-oppressive, and inclusive of all who enter my doors and who live outside those doors. This promise is a continual work in progress. It’s one I quietly made a while back, and I now realize keeping it quiet is not the way to proceed. As a white, cisgender teacher, writer, and speaker in the education field, I see it as a moral imperative. I owe it to my students, my colleagues, my peers across the country, and children everywhere. To engage in this continual work, I’m listening, watching, reading, and trying to recognize my privilege at every step. It can be uncomfortable at times, and it can be downright shocking at others, yet is is something I must continue to engage in. I know I am making mistakes, and I know I will make mistakes in the future. The key is to recognize those mistakes, honestly admit to them, remedy them, and do better next time. One thing I know I need to do as well is to step back and give voice to others- I need to recognize whose voice is missing in my classroom, whose is over represented, and take steps to make representation more inclusive. This could be an entire blog post on its own so I’ll stop here for now. If you’re interested in also making this promise to yourself and your students, here is a list of resources that helped me start this work.

This is not a complete list, rather it is simply where I started on my path with this work. These sites, the resources they provide, and ideas they challenged me to ponder have helped me grow immensely as an educator and a human. I’d love to see your resources as well- as I said, I am listening and learning.

Promise 2: Everyday, no matter what, we will engage in independent choice reading and read aloud in the classroom. So far, this promise that I vocally made back in August has been kept. Each and every day my 5th graders come into the classroom at 8:00, put away their materials, take care of tasks such as signing up for lunch, and then engage in independent choice reading for 15-30 minutes. On days when I announce we’ll continue independent reading through 8:45, cheers erupt! More on the why and how of our daily independent reading can be found here and here. In addition to daily independent reading, we’re also engaging in daily read aloud. Everyday we read a picture book together as a community. On most days, we also have a novel read aloud. More on the why and how of daily read aloud can be found here and here. A critical component of this promise has been continually searching for classroom library books and read alouds that represent all of my students, their families, our community members, and those who we discover are missing from our shelves. Frequently consulting The Nerdy Book Club, School Library Journal, and We Need Diverse Books helps with this ongoing process.

Promise 3: I will simplify and say no.  At an NCTE session a couple years back, I heard Penny Kittle respond to the question, How do you fit it all in? by saying, “I don’t.” These two simple, yet powerful words struck a nerve in me. I feel that they released me. They forced me to question what I was doing and ask why I was trying to take on everything at all times. However, I only started applying this idea a few months ago at the beginning of the school year. The first thing I did was remove my school email from my phone. There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with not being a complete workaholic. It is possible to both be a completely dedicated educator and to set personal and professional boundaries. When I was working every moment, I was not taking care of myself, and I certainly was not bringing my best self to my students. I also took a look at everything I did in my classroom and really asked which practices made a difference in my students’ learning lives and which were just filler. I made my best effort to eliminate the filler. I will continue to do so. Less truly is more when it comes to good teaching. Identifying what matters and saying no to everything else makes a huge difference. A few other things I’ve done to simplify and say no…

  • I removed myself from a couple committees at work that had no impact on my students or my own professional growth. I gave my all to everyone for a while, and now realize it’s ok to allow others to fill those jobs.
  • I removed Facebook from my phone. This is something I did only a few days ago while on vacation. Facebook can be a huge rabbit hole and waster of time if one allows it to be- self admittedly, I allowed it to be! There are a few things I appreciate about Facebook, and I can still visit those once a day while sitting at my computer. Endlessly scrolling through the Facebook feed does not have to be a continual part of my day. Deleting the app from my phone has been the best move I’ve made in 2019 so far. It’s been rather freeing!
  • In 2019, I will only say yes to things I want to do and believe in. This may be my biggest challenge. One of my fears in life is letting others down. However, I can’t make time for things that matter to me if I continually make time for things that don’t. I’m sure I will think more on this and revisit this idea through writing in the future.

From the outside looking in at this blog post, it may appear that these three promises are not connected. Yet, I see them all living within each other. By simplifying my life and saying no more often, I am making more room for the things that matter to me and my students: sound literacy practices and anti-oppressive actions in the classroom and in my life outside of school. Come to think of it, a sound literacy practice is anti-oppressive. It’s not something that just happens. It’s something that is a work in progress. I’d love your help on this journey. I’m listening and learning. 

Cheers to a happy, healthy, inclusive,
and intentional 2019!
-Christina

It’s Monday! What are you reading? 11/19/18… We Got This

Okay, okay. It’s Tuesday, not Monday. Yesterday was my travel day after an incredible four days of connecting and learning at The National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention (NCTE18). After a few nights of restless sleep, a flight delay due to smoke in The Bay Area, and a much needed dinner of decompression with dear friends, I let Monday slip by without mentioning my reading.

IMG_0839

Cornelius’ ideas and insight kept me company as I was squished in the back of my United flight in seat 25D. 

However, I did not let the day slip by without getting some great reading in. My friend and teaching mentor, Cornelius Minor, just published a much needed book in the field, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.  This much needed book kept me company on my four hour flight from Houston to San Francisco.

 

I am so excited to share his book with my colleagues- in fact, the friends I met for dinner last night were my two teaching partners. As they previewed the book, while we were waiting for our food, they kept saying, “This is what we need. This is a needed book!” Obviously, I concur. Rather than summarizing or pulling out key points, I’ll end with a quote from the book’s introduction…

“I am not OK with a world where only some people – the ones who were born on the right side of town or the ones who happen to make the right friends- get a shot at success…

As teachers, we cannot guarantee outcomes- that all kids will start businesses, lead their families, and contribute in their communities- but we can guarantee access. We can ensure that everyone gets a shot.”  -Cornelius Minor, pg. xvi

Access. Access is everything. Thank you for this work, Cornelius. I am so excited to join you and many others in this important and vital work for our society.

Friends, if you’re also reading We Got This, I’d love to chat!

 

 

You can find more of my current professional reads, 5th grade classroom read alouds, and my relax reads here. Happy reading, friends!

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 8.16.38 PM

 

My first book for teachers, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy, cowritten with Kari Yates, is now out and available from Stenhouse Publishers. Our goal with this book was to help teachers make the important practice of conferring with readers manageable, effective, and joyful! 

 

 

 

Scaffolds & Crutches

On Monday evening, I started experiencing an odd pain on the backside of my knee. On Tuesday  morning, I woke up not being able to walk or even straighten my leg. I was experiencing a terrible amount of pain.

After a trip to the doctor’s office, I learned I sprained my knee. The timing is not ideal- but, when is it ever ideal to sprain a knee?  In six days, I’m heading out to Austin for the 2018 ILA conference. Then, in 13 days, I’m boarding a transatlantic flight to head to Spain for a long awaited two week vacation. So, needless to say, a sprained knee is not exactly welcome at the moment. However, I now have crutches and a thoughtful and wise physical therapist to support me while I am temporarily not able to walk on my own.

Crutches are a scaffold. I need them to support my efforts with walking right now. However, I will remove them gradually as I gain mobility.  I get to make that decision under the guidance of my physical therapist. If I keep using them after I gain mobility, I will actually cause more harm to myself and potentially impede my future mobility.

Using crutches to assist my walking efforts over the past few days has sparked some thinking about scaffolds in the classroom. Scaffolds, like crutches, are meant to be a temporary support that are gradually used less and less until independence or near-independence is reached.

Also, just because I need crutches right now doesn’t mean everyone with knee pain also needs crutches.  In addition, the length of time I am using crutches may be different than someone with a similar knee issue. All bodies are different with different needs. In the same way, all learners are different with different needs.

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 10.57.15 AMGraphic organizers in writing come to mind when I think of a scaffold similar to crutches- as a writer myself, I have never used a graphic organizer, but I have talked out ideas with other writers. Some writers prefer to make lists prior to writing, and some just need to be set free to write. The process is different for all. This also applies to young writers- their processes are just as varied as adult processes and should be honored. Like crutches, graphic organizers can cause more harm than good when inappropriately used- why give a writer a contrived organizing tool when they actually don’t need it? It would be like giving someone without an injury crutches and asking them to walk using them. It just doesn’t make sense. That being said, sometimes, some writers may choose to use a graphic organizer of sorts to help themselves. The key is to help our writers learn what they need so they can advocate and make decisions for themselves- not to just give them a crutch.

The same thinking applies to insisting early readers use their fingers to point to words while reading when they are tracking successfully with their eyes.

Or, in group discussions, requiring students to select a sentence starter from a list when they want to think of what to say on their own.

I could go on and on.

Scaffolds can impede thinking and actually harm the learning process when they are not removed or if they are unnecessarily used.  Rather than discuss every single scaffold that may be used in the classroom, I just ask that all of us consider the need before the scaffold, and ask if a scaffold is even necessary.

Every morning when I wake up, I am reevaluating my need to use crutches. I’m even reevaluating as I move through the day. When the need is no longer there, the scaffold (or crutch) will be removed. Using a scaffold after it has outlived its necessity creates a new kind of pain, one that is difficult to overcome.

I hope when I see many of you at ILA next week, I will have outgrown my need for the crutches. But, it will be ok if I’m just not quite there yet. The decision will be mine. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we could empower our students to make the decision about scaffolds theirs, too?

Screen Shot 2018-07-13 at 10.48.07 AM

 

 

My first book for teachers, cowritten with Kari Yates, To Know and Nurture a Reader: Conferring with Confidence and Joy is available to order from Stenhouse Publishers! 

Kids These Days

“I want to write about what happened at the school in Florida,” is the phrase that started the conversation today with my fifth graders.

I’ll let this email to my classroom families explain the rest.

Dear Classroom Families,
          I’m writing to let you know that we had a whole class discussion today about what happened in Florida. It was not planned- it came up naturally. 
          During our morning meeting, I asked the kids to think about an issue they care about for our argument writing pre-assessment later today, which is a regular part of our fifth grade curriculum (we call these on-demand writing assessments). The kids started to share out their ideas: Pollution, global warming, and then one student said she wanted to write about “what happened at the school in Florida.” Suddenly, hands flew in the air, and the kids really wanted to express their thinking around the topic, which turned into a talk about what they think and feel about school safety and even the issue with guns. Please know that I completely kept my opinion out of the conversation and just made sure they had a safe space to express their thinking.  We actually have a lot of differing opinions and beliefs in class, and the kids did a beautiful job listening to each other and talking out how they feel. I’m very proud of all of them. 
          I told them I was going to write to you to let you know that this issue came up in class, and that it is a conversation they should also share with you when they get home today if they still wanted to talk about it.  Please, do not hesitate to let me know if you have any questions. Again, this wasn’t planned, but I am glad we had the conversation because many kids in class desperately wanted to share their thinking.
-Christina 
Did I say and do the right things? I think so. I hope so. I’m not sure.  However, one thing I know for sure is that kids these days are just incredible. We, adults, could learn a great deal from them. They listened to each other, they actually heard each other, and when one had a differing opinion from another, they tried to understand where that person was coming from as opposed to trying to convince them otherwise. It was refreshing to listen in as they lead the honest, mature conversation.
If dialogue like this continues to happen in our schools and in our homes with the younger generation, our future as a country is in good hands. We need to start listening more to our kids rather than telling them what we think. They have a lot to teach us. I hope our present leaders take note.
Screen Shot 2018-02-27 at 11.29.43 AM

Book Mingle!

I’ve been thinking lately that my fifth graders need more opportunities to talk about books that they are reading  and learn about books that may be new to them. We often do book talks as a whole class and partner talks, but I wanted to incorporate a more fun and casual way to chat about books. So, last week in class we started a new activity to get us moving and quickly talking about books. We call this activity The Fifth Grade Book Mingle! Book Mingling happens in a few simple steps.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 9.58.24 AM

Step 1: Students come in at the start of the school day and get right to our morning soft start (thank you, Sara Ahmed!). During soft starts, students enter the room, put their things away, and settle into reading a book of their choice for 15-30 minutes. It is a great way to start the day! All of my students read and I get to confer with them as they do. We do this every single day.

Step 2: I ask students to come to a good stopping point in their books and then announce,”Get ready to mingle!”

Step 3: Music starts and students move about the room while holding up their books in view of their fellow minglers.

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 9.58.36 AMStep 4: Music stops, students talk about their books and ask each other questions! To get students going with this, I modeled talking about my current read, Love by Matt de la Peña, with a couple different students. I talked about what I really liked about the book and how it made me think and feel. I also asked questions about the books my temporary book mingle partners were reading.

 

Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4 a few times!

Book mingling is such a fun way to get kids up and moving, talking about their books, and then learning about new books their friends are reading- which will grow their to-read lists. My goal is to do this with my fifth graders two to three times each week. With book mingling, engagement is high and the talk around books is natural and authentic.