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!
Category: Read Aloud
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:
- Daily Independent Reading Soft Starts
- Daily Picture Book Read Aloud
- 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.
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.
- Books & Articles
- Upstanders by Sara Ahmed & Harvey Daniels
- If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good? by Richard Allington
- Joy Write by Ralph Fletcher
- In Defense of Read Aloud by Steven Layne
- The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
- The Units of Study in Writing, by many great minds at The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Lucy Calkins series editor
- The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (and They’re All Hard Parts) by Katie Wood Ray & Lester Laminack
- To Know and Nurture a Reader by Kari Yates & Christina Nosek (had to throw in my own book… after all, I learned a ton about refining my conferring practice while cowriting this book!)
- Blog Posts/Websites
- Classroom Book-a-Day from Jillian Heise
- I’ve Got Research, Yes I Do. I’ve Got Research. How about You? from Donalyn Miller
- We Need Diverse Books
- Children’s Book References
- Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee
- Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman
- Born to Ride by Larissa Theule
- Seperate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
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: 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.
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 Literacy Learning: 20 Days to Go, The Art of Comprehension
*Disclaimer- this blog series will most likely not include poetic, profound writing. Rather, it will consist of on-the-fly quick writes after my teaching day during the last 20 days of school. Reader, you’ve been warned.
Today marked day 160 of the school year. My fifth graders have 20 days left of elementary school. While we have many typical end of year festivities ahead of us- assemblies, kickball games, a pool party, promotion practice, a class party, a middle school tour, and the big promotion ceremony on the last day, we still have quite a bit of literacy learning ahead.
Rather than detail the entire day in each blog post in this series, I plan to share one or two things we did in class to continue the literacy learning through to the very end of the school year. I decided to write about the last 20 days of school for a couple reasons…
First, the last couple weeks of school do not need to be viewed as throw-away, meaningless days which often ends up being the case. These final days will likely be the ones many students remember. How do I want my fifth graders to remember their time together in my classroom?
Also, over the past few years, I have become increasingly interested in why many kids tend to read less and less on their own as they get older. So, I’m trying my best to help my students build a love of reading and writing as they leave elementary school, and hopefully continue that love in their own lives away from school. This has actually been my #1 goal all year.
As you can probably tell, I deem these last 20 days as critical ones- in my opinion, they are actually more critical than the first 20 days of school.
My goal with this blog series is to do a little bit of writing on our literacy learning in class each day, but the reality may end up being that I write about it every few days- you know how crazy the end of the school year can get! However, despite the craziness, the literacy learning will go on. It will matter. It will count.
Thanks for sharing in the literacy love and learning of the last 20 days with me!
20 Days to Go, trying something new…
The Art of Comprehension
Finally, after reading Trevor Bryan’s fantastic book, The Art of Comprehension, I introduced his Access Lenses to my class earlier this week. The Access Lenses support students in thinking more deeply about viewing art, and in turn transferring that framework for thinking over to their reading and writing.
Earlier this week, we viewed and engaged in a wonderful conversation around The Library by Jacob Lawrence. Students discussed how color and body language can give us clues to mood. The conversations were vibrant as students openly shared their differing opinions grounded in the Access Lenses that Trevor offers in his book.
Then, earlier today, during our class read aloud of The Thief of Always, I noticed my students’ conversations shifted a bit. I heard them talk about mood in reference to how the author, Clive Barker, wrote about and described facial expressions and body language. Many of them even asked to look back in the book during independent reading time to think about earlier scenes in the book using the Access Lenses. WOW! They asked to look back in the book- sure, by all means, have at it!
Now that I have finally introduced my students to the Access Lenses and saw how they have a huge impact on understanding and response, I wish I started with this work earlier in the school year.
Next school year, I plan to start right away with The Art of Comprehension!
It turns out, the last 20 days of school is a great time to try something new.