Rethinking “I’m proud of you.”

Andi, a student of mine, was so excited during writing workshop today. After trying a few different things out, she finally wrote an introduction to her persuasive essay that she felt would really grab her readers’ attention. She excitedly requested a conference with me to ask what I thought about her introduction.

I didn’t plan to meet with Andi today, but she was so excited to share her writing that I certainly couldn’t say no. When we settled in for our conference together, I started off how I typically do with my fifth grade writers, “Hi Andi- what would you like to talk about?”

“I think I really wrote a great introduction! I want to know what you think!”

“Ok, can you read it to me?” I responded with a smile.

Andi then read her introduction aloud, which I have to say was very clever, and definitely made me want to read more. As soon as she finished reading it aloud, she looked at me with a huge smile seeking out my approval by asking, “Do you like it?

Some of you might be thinking- that’s great, she wants to share her writing! She’s seeking out the teacher to share her great work.

Well, I honestly had a different reaction. The last thing I want as a writing teacher is my students seeking out my approval. I don’t want them to look for the standard response of “I’m proud of you” or “Great job!” Their job as writers (readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc) is not to gain my approval. So, I responded with something else. I tried to respond in a way to get Andi to seek out her own approval and to notice exactly what she did as a writer to make her feel this way.

“Well, what do you think about your introduction? Do you feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do?”

Andi quickly responded, “Yes! Definitely. I think my reader will want to keep reading. I think the statistic I shared will surprise them and make them want to know more about the topic.”

I looked at her, smiled, and said, “Andi, recognize how you’re feeling right now as a writer. Think about the decision you made to provoke this feeling in your future readers. This is potentially a strategy you can use again in your writing. I bet you can even share it with some classmates to support their efforts. Would you be up for that?”

“Yes! I’ll share why I decided to use the statistic to start! I really like how it sounds.”

“Take note of the pride you feel in yourself right now, Andi. Consider jotting down the decision you made as a writer in your notebook. Revisit it the next time you’re starting a piece of writing or perhaps when you’re conferring with a friend to support their work.”

“Ok. I will! Thanks, Ms. Nosek.” Andi then jotted down the strategy she made the choice to use in her notebook, and walked off feeling proud of herself as a writer. With that, our conference ended.

Now, imagine if I just told Andi that I was proud of her. If I used those words, it would have made her writing about pleasing me instead of empowering her. There is nothing inherently wrong with telling kids we’re proud of them. However, I’m making the effort with my teacher language to help them recognize when they are proud of themselves. The goal is helping my students empower themselves, not making me proud. Simple language choices make a big difference.

I Haven’t Read Aloud in Days

That’s right. You read that title correctly. If you know my work with teachers or my work with students, you’re probably thinking the title just can’t be true.

Well, it’s true. I haven’t done our picture book read aloud in days… My students have taken over! They are now taking the initiative to bring in a picture book from the library or home to read aloud to the class nearly everyday. In fact, I’m now scheduling ahead with readers because so many fifth graders want to do the read aloud!

Why are my students taking the initiative to read aloud to the class? I suspect it’s because read aloud is just a way of life in our classroom. No rewards, points, or extra kudos are given for reading aloud. It’s just what we do. It’s just who we are. There is nothing quite like the feeling of sharing a book you love with others.

Take a look at all of our read alouds so far this year:

What’s the Point?

It’s that time of year again!

Now, you may be thinking many things after reading that statement… it’s time for spring break, the start of baseball season, the end of hockey or basketball seasons, the time flowers bloom, the air temperatures start to warm, or even the time to start making plans for summer. Well, I’m not referring to any of those things. As much as I appreciate and love everything I just mentioned, this blog post is not about something most of us in education eagerly anticipate. Quite the contrary, actually. This post is about testing.

More specifically, this post is about annual standardized testing that is mandatory in most, if not all, public schools across the country.

Here in California, we give a series of Smarter Balanced tests depending on the grade. In my own fifth grade classroom, my students will endure nine separate testing sessions. I estimate this will take up roughly ten hours of instructional time: nine hours of testing itself and one hour of setting up computers, logging in, etc.

The point of my post is not to give my opinion of standardized tests. Rather, it’s just to offer a story of something that happened in my classroom today around preparing for the test.

However, before I give the story, I will offer this opinion- I do not believe in spending hours upon hours of precious classroom time specifically preparing children for these tests.  Luckily, neither do my principal or my school district. In addition, I firmly believe the idea of teaching to the test is an utter waste of classroom time and dare I say it- educational malpractice. However, I do firmly believe in preparing kids for what they will face.

So, about two to three times each week for the past couple weeks, my kiddos and I have been spending 10 minutes looking over some Smarter Balanced sample test questions and discussing how to approach them.  We do this almost as a shared read. I project the sample questions on the smart board and we all tackle the reading passages and accompanying questions together as a group. We talk about strategies, things we’ve already learned that we can apply to the questions, and we give justifications for why we are answering something the way we are answering it.

Well, today my class got into a heated debate around a passage and the two questions that went with it. We actually had a wonderful discussion! Kids chatted in partnerships, cited text evidence, and even respectfully rebutted other kids’ claims. After passionately discussing two potential answers to a question, one of my students asked, “So, what’s the real answer?”  

Now, If you’ve shared Smarter Balanced sample questions with your class, you know that the answers aren’t provided.  So, I responded that there was great evidence and argument given to support two of the potential multiple choice answers, and that the website does not provide us with the actual answer. And honestly, I couldn’t even decide the correct answer, myself.  The same student then asked a follow up question.

“So, on the actual test, how do we give our argument for an answer if we can only select one bubble to click without writing anything?” 

I froze. I wasn’t sure what to say. However, in that moment I was so proud of my students. All year, they have worked so hard on learning how to make an argument backed up with evidence through writing. And next week, they are going to be judged based on single clicks without the opportunity to justify and explain their thinking.  Finally, I responded

“Well, it’s not always about the actual answer. Think about the great discussion we just had. We all grew a little through working to justify our reasons for an answer and learned more about how to make an argument.”

“But, Ms. Nosek, we can’t do that on the test. We have to pick one answer.”

“Yes, true.”

“So, what’s the point? If we have to choose one answer on the actual test, and we can’t all agree on the answer, what’s the point of doing this?”

Like many of you, I’m a real teacher in a real classroom with real students. I didn’t have his answer. I don’t know what the point is. But, I am proud. I am so proud that my student felt brave enough to ask that question. I am proud that my kids passionately debated something using evidence and argument. I am proud that they kept their debates extremely respectful. I am proud that they listened to each other and were willing to both change their minds and offer rebuttals.

However, I still wonder. What’s the point? What’s the point of these tests?  I don’t believe that these tests will show all that my students have learned this year. Well, to be fair, the multiple choice portions probably won’t. I will say that there are written portions of the test. But, I have no idea how these portions of the test are scored or evaluated.

Yet, I do believe I have to prepare students for these tests. I am tasked with giving my fifth graders nine testing sessions over the next three weeks- of course I have to prepare them for it. However, when they ask “what’s the point” I don’t have it in me to give the canned answer that many feel they are supposed to give. So, I just smiled and told them that I just don’t know. Earlier in this post, I said I wasn’t going to offer my opinion of standardized testing. Now that I’ve written out my thoughts, I suspect that you can infer what I really think.

So, I now ask you to ponder… what’s the point?


By the way, if you’re curious, here’s the reading passage and two questions we debated today.

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.
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.


Quick Lunchtime Thought: The Good of Children

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?


What Kids Remember…

Small Writing/Big Idea

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

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 6.34.45 PM
Making writing engaging and memorable with Heart Mapping inspired by Georgia Heard

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?



Falling in Love With Books 

Reading: It’s Just What We Do!