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. 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: 5 days to go, Drawing Inspiration from an Important Read Aloud

Written while enjoying a rare Bay Area rainy Sunday morning in late May with coffee.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

“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).

While walking through the festival, a local bookstore booth (I wish I could remember which store), caught my eye. The tables in the booth displayed books from a few of our local Bay Area authors. I was immediately drawn to this book: The Wedding Portrait: The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes We Break the Rules by Innosanto Nagara.

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.

a few thoughts from the fifth graders…

The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 6 days to go, Drafting Our Summer Reading Plans

Post #8 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after a crazy early release day of 5th grade promotion practice, music, PE, and a little literacy time squeezed in.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

Starting a new-to-them book series is a part
of many readers’ summer plans!

For the past few weeks now, we’ve been chatting about our plans for summer reading in class. The fifth graders have shared book recommendations with each other, chatted about when and where they’ll read this summer, and have even made plans to connect with each other around their reading while they’re away from school.

After casually chatting with each other and recommending books the past couple weeks, we sat down to draft our plans today. Because we spent so much time thinking, talking, and jotting about our plans, the kids were ready and anxious to get drafting today! Some students sketched their ideas, some wrote paragraphs, some created charts- all the plans were different and created with each fifth grader’s personal vision of their summer reading in mind. No two plans looked the same.

Students working to draft plans for their summer book club

In addition to choosing which books they’ll read, they discussed how they will access their books, when and where they’ll read, and how they will connect with others around their reading. A few fifth graders made plans to connect with each other digitally and two groups of students formed book clubs that plan to meet in person.

Many will access books through our local libraries and our online middle school digital library. Some asked if they can borrow books, and I said yes. Even though they are heading to a new school next year, I trust I will get (most) of the books back. Part of the reading plan for students borrowing books is figuring out how they will get the books back to me- some will send the books back with younger siblings while others will figure out different means to get them back to the classroom.

While drafting their plans today, the fifth graders were truly giddy with excitement about the possibilities to come. This entire school year, my biggest goal, my most important goal, was to make choices as a teacher that would lead my students onto a path of lifelong reading. After watching and conferring with them today around their drafted plans, I feel like that goal is on its way to being accomplished. Simply put, it feels really good.

Tomorrow, we’ll revisit our drafted plans for revision and then start to generate ideas for putting the plans into place. One of my posts next week will share a few finished plans for summer reading. Until then, here are a few drafts…

For some further thinking on summer reading, Kari Yates and I share some ideas here.

The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 13 Days to Go, Classroom Book a Day- Pride

Post #7 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written while scarfing down a salad during my 40 minute, oddly uninterrupted, lunch.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

The absolute best thing that has happened in my classroom this school year has been our commitment to reading a picture book a day. Now, I say our instead of my because this is a group effort between my students and me. A few months ago, my fifth graders decided that they also wanted to choose and read aloud books to the class. You can read about that here.

Somedays, our read alouds are hilarious and have us all laughing out loud. Other days, they get us thinking about something we studied in a content area. On days like today, they bring about an incredible conversation that we’ll hold with us for a long time to come.

Today, I read aloud Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steve Salerno.

While reading the book aloud, we stopped at a few spots to discuss Harvey Milk and what an important contribution he made to humanity. Our conversation took a turn when my students learned that he and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated for being who they are and standing up for all people. The conversation then went on to discuss how we might react when we see, hear, or face discrimination- if we don’t feel safe standing up to a bully or bigot, we know there is safety in friendship. Showing someone kindness, understanding, and friendship is something we can always feel safe doing. It is something that will also spread the feeling of safety to others. We can also always report bullying and bigotry- the safe ways to do this were discussed.

Then, the conversation took an even deeper turn. One of my students shared that her older sibling in 8th grade is transgender. She went on to describe how she hurts so much knowing that some people make her sibling feel bad just for being who they are. As she was talking, another of my students put their hand on her shoulder just to send a message of love and support for her sibling.

Another student shared that her cousin is gay and that he’s a cheerleader. She bravely told us that at first she thought it was weird, but then she realized over time that nobody can make the determination of what is weird or not for someone else, and that her whole family loves her cousin and they love watching him cheer.

Another student said she felt it was “disgusting” that there are people in our world- in our community who feel they are better than other people because of how they were born. Yes, she said disgusting. I told her that I agree.

Picture books make all topics of humanity accessible. They give us an access point from which to have safe discussions about topics we may not know how to approach. On our classroom book a day journey, I’ve realized more and more how as adults, we are the ones who tend to make things awkward and uncomfortable- kids don’t. Kids seem to get it. Kids see and understand the humanity and worth of their fellow human beings in a way that has unfortunately, and terrifyingly escaped many adults. Participating in classroom book a day this year has only confirmed this idea again and again.

For more info on Classroom Book a Day, visit Jillian Heise’s website.

Check out all of our books so far this year here on our Classroom Book a Day Padlet.

The Last 20 Days of Literacy Learning: 14 Days to Go, A Little Self Reflection

Post #6 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written in quite a rush after the teaching day and right before heading to the Shark Tank in San Jose to see my beloved San Jose Sharks take on the St. Louis Blues in game two of the Western Conference NHL Final. GO, SHARKS!

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

This will be a quick one…

After our class novel read aloud for the day, I introduced my students to a new project we’re embarking on as a reading community. I told them that each of them will create slides to accompany a book talk that they will give on the day before our last day of school. Their task was to think about and choose the book that meant the most to them this school year for this project, and create the book talk and accompanying slides around it.

Cheers erupted! The fifth graders were so excited to jump into this new project! We’ve both written books talks and created Google slides before. So, I decided just to let them have at it. I figured they could just start without having to listen to me talk much further. So, after not saying much more than that, I invited them to get to work.

A few students jumped up and proceeded to walk to different areas in the room to grab their reading notebooks, Chromebooks, and pencils. Others walked over the the Books We’ve Read Together bin to look through our class read alouds to jog their memories about the different books we’ve read as a group this year.

However, over half of my class remained in the meeting area. One student asked a question. I answered it. Then he got to work. Another student did the same.

Eventually, I had a line of students in front of me who needed clarification about our work for the period. At first I was admittedly a tad frustrated- why weren’t they just getting to work? We’ve done this before. They know how to do this! What’s the issue…

I then realized it. It was like a big lightbulb went off while ten students were staring at me waiting for their turn. I was the issue.

Clearly, I did not model, show an example, or even sufficiently explain how to get started in this work. I made the assumption that they could just get started without much direction of any kind, and I assumed wrong.

Sure, many of my kids were off and running with their pencils flying across the page or their chosen books already in their hands being reread. However, most were not. I did not give most of them what they needed to get started. So, instead of letting it go and answering their questions individually, I stated out loud, “Please quickly give me an indication if you feel I need to better support you in getting started.”

Heads started nodding, a few hands went in the air, some gave thumbs up, and a sense of relief washed over many faces.

So, we started over. Those who wanted to keep working kept working. Most met me back down in the meeting area and I got a do over.

When I was in my teaching credential program at San Diego State University back in 2001, a wise professor told our cohort of eager student teachers this about classroom management… “When there’s an issue, first look in the mirror before you look in the microscope.” I keep this advice with me even 18 years later.

After looking in the mirror, realizing I was the issue in class today, and then forgiving myself and reteaching the lesson, my students started writing and creating some incredible book talks and slides.