What if… Reflections from 35,000 feet between St. Louis and San Francisco
What if we open the lines of dialogue and ask more about where each other is coming from instead of waiting for our turn to talk or becoming defensive in moments of disagreement?
What if we considered the Patterns of Power in literature and our students’ own writing when teaching grammar instead of the harsh rules, exceptions, and limitations found on worksheets?
What if we arm our students with strategies and a platform for writing rather than assigning a topic that will only live on the teacher’s desk and in a folder?
What if we asked our students what they feel is important instead of forcing importance on them?
What if we taught students how to choose books instead of limiting them to a humiliating level label?
What if we viewed the books in our classroom library through our students’ eyes? What will happen if we ask who is represented, who is misrepresented, and who is missing?
What if we stopped to ask students “what can you try?” when they come to difficulty instead of Doing the Work for them?
What if we look at our students’ writing with an admiring lens instead of a deficit lens?
What if we speak up and call out a colleague when they put down a child? Who will stand up for that child if we don’t? Every child deserves a hero.
What if we show our children that they can be their own heroes? What if we empower them to advocate for themselves and others?
What if we ask our students who they are and accept all of their stories instead of forcing the single story upon them?
What if we speak up when we hear or see prejudice in action? Our silence is acceptance.
What if ALL teachers had access to professional development that inspired them to ask these questions instead of PD that simply shows them how to regurgitate a prescribed curriculum?
I will never stop asking what if. It may not win me any popularity contests, but it will cause some to think a little differently or to challenge their own views. I may not change everyone’s mind, but I may plant some seeds that have the potential to grow into change at some point. Friends, I hope you’ll join me in asking what if…
As teachers, and as teacher leaders, we will never truly know the reach of our influence, but as long as we keep publicly asking what if? and challenge the oppressive and unjust status quo, we are making change. Thank you to everyone who inspired me to ask what if? this weekend at NCTE 2017 in St. Louis: Joanne Duncan, Jan Miller Burkins, Kim Yaris, Gravity Goldberg, Renee Houser, Kari Yates, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Nancie Atwell, Jeff Anderson, Whitney LaRocca, the entire crew at Stenhouse, Justin Dolcimascolo, Sam Fremin, Susie Rolander, Kathryn Hoffman-Thompson, Kara Pranikoff, Colleen Cruz, Pernille Ripp, Chris Lehman, Heather Rocco, my table of open-minded elementary educators who willingly asked questions and challenged books, Chad Everett, Dana Stachowiak, my dear G2Great cousins, and all of the incredible educators who led and participated in roundtables around conferring first thing on Friday morning. My teacher and change-agent heart is full. There is work to be done, friends.
Today, one of my fifth graders came in with this piece of paper. She spent time on her own last night looking up Swedish words and phrases so she could communicate with her kindergarten reading buddy who just moved here from Sweden. She did this completely on her own. I love that I get to work with kids. I see the good in the world, firsthand, every single day. Imagine if more adults in the world made choices like this?
The current school year with my fifth graders is now three months in, and I can safely say, we are a community of readers! This past Thursday, I took a step back while conferring with my readers, looked around the room, noticed someone giggling in a corner with his head in a book, saw two readers sharing a book and whispering behind the pages, heard the beautiful buzz of pages turning, pencils jotting, and realized everyone was fully engaged in their reading. It was an amazing moment! My mind quickly thought, “We have arrived!”
But, I know better. We have arrived and gelled as a community of readers in this particular moment, but there will be moments ahead when one of them will struggle through a text, or painfully search for a book without success, or just disengage from reading for another reason. This is why the hard and important work of choosing books and talking about our reading is never over. So, while we didn’t necessarily arrive on our journey, we were in a really nice place along the way this past week.
So, what are the tricks and methods that helped get us to this point on our journey?
We read twice a day everyday for a sustained period- no matter what. A couple years ago, I heard Sara Ahmed speak about how she does “soft starts” with her class everyday. This is where kids arrive at school, put their things away, and settle in to read for 20ish minutes to start the day. I’ve been implementing this in my classroom ever since I heard her speak about it. It’s been such a fantastic way to start our everyday. My students come in, put their things away, and read any book of their choosing- everyday no matter what. We then also read during our reading workshop time- in reading workshop students read for roughly 25-45 minutes after a short lesson. This time in the morning also gives me a chance to check in with everyone, say good morning personally to each student, and get a good grasp of how everyone is doing at the start of the day. I will never ever start my days in any other way.
Reading is not homework- it is a way of life. At parent conferences a couple weeks ago, one of my classroom parents mentioned now that their child is not assigned reading
homework, they are reading more than ever at home. Don’t get me wrong- I fully expect my kids to read at home. But, I don’t phrase it that way. Rather, my kids are asked to work on their personal reading goal everyday outside of the classroom. For some, that will be to kick back, take a break from all of their extra curriculars and laugh along with Raina Telgemeier. For others, it may be to read in what Donalyn Miller calls reading in the in-between moments- this includes always having a book at the ready and reading in the car, in line, or even while waiting at a sibling’s sports practice. For many, it includes carving out a sacred 25-40 minutes at home in a quiet space and continuing on in their current read from class. So, when reading is no longer seen as something they have to do for their teacher, and instead something they get to do to grow, love, learn, and enjoy on their own terms, kids start to read more.
We don’t log our reading, rather we keep track of it through visual, authentic kid-made representations. Reading logs are a complete drag. Really, there is no better way to simply say it. Years ago, I ditched the reading log in my classroom. Honestly, reading logs make reading about complying with the teacher’s requirements rather than falling in love with a book. However, I believe that kiddos still need to have an idea of their reading patterns and a record of growth. So, enter our personal bookshelves and book stack photos!
With personal bookshelves, kids create a page in the front of their readers notebook to visually keep a record of the reading they’ve done all year. Fully colored in books are read, partially colored in books are partially read, and books not colored in are to-be-read. Each child makes their own, and the design of the shelf is completely up to them. I’ve seen pre-made worksheets being sold on some websites with the same idea, but I honestly think that is misguided practice. The personal bookshelves work because they are just that- personal. Each child creates and maintains their own shelf. The motivation is high because is is 100% kid created! There is no reason any teacher should waste their money on a pre-made worksheet for kids to fill in when students can create their own.
I first learned of book stacks when I saw Penny Kittle speak at a conference a few years
back. She does book stack photos with her high school students so they can see how much they have read and grown as readers over a period of time. I loved the idea so much, I started using it in my fifth grade classroom! We take book stack photos at the end of every month to show the books we finished that month. At the end of the year, all of my students have nine photos of their books read all year. It’s amazing to see the smiles on kids’ faces when they see all that they have read and accomplished. However, what really can’t necessarily been seen is how they have transformed into avid, happy, and engaged readers hopefully for years to come.
We model how incredible reading is with daily read aloud. The best marketing device
for encouraging a love of reading is directly modeling it through read aloud and authentic discussion around a shared book. This can include picture book read alouds, novel read alouds, shared reads, and much more! This is something that is done multiple times a day. For example, if I look back at this past Thursday in my classroom, I read aloud to my fifth graders four times: in our opening circle (which follows our soft start) I read aloud a short current events article for all of us to discuss, after recess I read aloud from The Wild Robot for 15 minutes, during writing workshop I read aloud a students’ piece of writing to point out a particular craft move (this was actually more of a shared read as it was projected on the board), and finally during social studies I read aloud for a few minutes from a book about Jamestown. These four modeled reading sessions were not only subject specific, but also they were great marketing devices for how great reading can be! It’s important to mention that I don’t just hope my students see how great reading is in these experiences- rather, I explicitly point it out… “Wow! Did you see how Peter Brown just addressed the reader? That is such clever writing!” or “Huh. I didn’t realize that about Jamestown. It’s amazing how much this little book is teaching us!” Now, my students are pointing it out, too!
While kids are reading, I confer with them.
A conference is a one to one conversation between two readers: a student and me. My goal is to hold a reading conference with 5-7 kids each day. Sometimes I achieve this, sometimes I don’t, but I always try. There are a multitude of benefits to conferring with readers. In fact, Kari Yates and I wrote a whole book about it! We’re really looking forward to sharing our love of conferring with readers when our book comes out from Stenhouse Publishers in early 2018! Taking a step back and watching a classroom full of kids transform into a classroom full of engaged readers is great, but sitting down, and getting to know each of them individually as a reader is even better!
The most important thing to mention when reflecting on our community of readers is that there are no tricks, gimmicks, or purchases (aside from books) that one can implement in a classroom to turn a group of kids into a community of readers. The absolute only way to do it is to provide books, secure and fiercely protect reading time, confer with readers to offer support, and then to let them read- no matter what. As elementary school teachers, there is no task or job that is more important. As one of my education heroes, Dr. Mary Howard often says, “It is our responsibility.” As soon as we start viewing it that way, things will fall into place- with a little hard work, rejection of gimmicks (I’m looking at you, Teachers Pay Teachers and other worksheet mills), and acceptance of the idea that “the only way a kid became a reader is by reading.” Thank you to Kylene Beers for that one.
For a little over a year now, Kari Yates and I have been working on a book! As we head into the final stages of the writing process, we are excited to share some of our ideas with others at the upcoming International Literacy Association Conference in Orlando next week! If you’ll be there, we’d love to have you join us!
Think back to your days in school. What is it that you remember most as a student? Field trips, assemblies, friendships, great teachers, reading, writing?
You might be wondering why I tacked on reading and writing to the end of this list. Recently, in casual conversation at school, a couple people were mentioning that kids don’t remember the academics of school, but rather the “fun” stuff like field trips or field days or festivals. While I don’t disagree with this idea (who doesn’t love field trips?), I have to say that it is only part of the truth.
If academics are presented to kids in ways that both engage and empower them, that is
exactly what they’ll remember. The most powerful teachers are those who effectively inspire students to learn, wonder, create, and take chances. Kids remember being engaged in learning.
Nothing warms my heart more than when a former student writes a letter or comes back to visit and tells me that he loved reading in my classroom or that she never knew the power of writing could be so strong. Better yet, nothing is better than when they tell me that they still love reading or writing.
What do students remember? They remember what we value as teachers. They remember the passion, excitement, and community around what we choose to deem important. I know what I deem important. What is it for you? What will your students remember?
It’s often said that we as teachers really do not understand the full impact we’ve had on our students. Many students find us years years later to thank us or to tell a story about what they remember from their days in our classrooms. Some even contact us to say that we’ve been an inspiration to them.
Well, I’m turning those tables today. This afternoon, I surprised a few of my old students at their high school graduation. This particular group of students truly helped carve my path and purpose as a teacher, and I don’t know that they or their families will ever truly understand what a huge impact they’ve had on my life, and in turn the lives of the many kids I continue to serve.
My fierce advocacy for kids didn’t start when I became a teacher. Rather, it started after I met this rambunctious and lively group of 2nd graders and their families back in 2006. Through ups, downs, successes, misses, and watching true resiliency take place, I learned how to be an advocate. I learned to see kids for who they are, celebrate their uniqueness, believe in them, and stand up for them when the system just wasn’t working with their best interests in mind.
Seeing these former little guys cross that stage as confident young adults to graduate from high school today was the absolute highlight of my teaching career thus far. So, today I want to thank them. I want to tell them that they have inspired me to keep on fighting the good fight, to see kids for who they truly are, to be the best teacher that I know how to be, and to try to always push myself to become better. The system may not always work for all of our students, but I always will. I will never stop fighting or believing in kids- believing in who they are and what they will one day become.
To the class of 2017, I thank you. You truly have inspired me. I am the teacher I am today because of you.