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: 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: 16-15 Days to Go, Literacy & Math

Post #5 in the Last 20 Days of Literacy Series… Written after the teaching week on Sunday morning while savoring a cup of coffeewell, three cups of coffee.

All posts in this blog series can be found here.

A few years ago, I was given the best advice about teaching math that I have ever received.

Christina, you will start feeling more comfortable with teaching math as soon as you make the decision to approach it in the same way you teach literacy.

Those words, spoken by my friend and then math coach, Mangla Oza, have stayed with me years later. Mangla’s words have propelled my math thinking and my students’ math learning forward since that day.

Like many of you, as an elementary school teacher, I am responsible for teaching all subjects- not just the subjects that I have most intensely studied as a student myself. If you’ve taken a look at the requirements of elementary school teachers, or if you are one yourself, you know that this is no easy feat. In my multiple subject, self contained, fifth grade classroom, lesson design, implementation, reflection, and redesign is a constant process- the kids are new each year, therefore so are many things I do. No two classes ever receive the exact same experience- nor should they!

So, for the past few years now, I’ve held Mangla’s words close. Those words have actually guided much of what I do across the entire teaching day. I now approach math (and all the other elementary school subjects) with the same thinking that guides my reading and writing decision making.

When thinking of a new lesson, I first think about what my students already know. Then, I consider ways to get them interested. More often than not, the way to get them interested is to tap into their curiosity and invite them into inquiry.

I attempted this on Thursday and Friday when we we started a study of circles. That’s right- Pi Day came late to fifth grade in room A1 at Nixon School this year. Back in March, on March 14th specifically when Pi day is traditionally celebrated in schools, we weren’t in a place in our studies where we could just throw in Pi. It would have been out of place and not exactly meaningful. Now that we are concluding our geometry unit, I thought I’d introduce it. I knew the interest was there, and gauged that my kids were ready to dig into this study based on many different assessments- informal conversations, observation during group and individual work, and student math work samples.

After some informal assessment- asking who was familiar with pi and how to measure the dimensions of a circle and listening to partner talk, we dove into inquiry using this web page on Smithsonian’s site: A World Full of Circles.

As an entire class, we viewed the first two circles on the page as a group. I invited students to ask and jot down questions, describe what they noticed, and to think about these circles using our first draft of a guiding question: Why are circles important?

After doing this with the first two images, I invited students to go through this process on their own or with a partner. So, they busily got to work observing, wondering, noticing, questioning, chatting, and jotting…

After my students’ exploration time, we shared our thinking, questions, wonderings, noticings, and observations as a whole group. My entire goal for this first day was to get students thinking and wondering about circles and why they are important. Well, as a group, we came to realize that important was not exactly the best word. We revised our initial guiding question of why are circles important, and narrowed down our new guiding question to a few contenders:

Why do developers make communities and other places circular?
Why and how are circles so often found in nature?
How can circles be made to look perfectly symmetrical?

What more can we learn about circles to apply our own lives?

The next day in class, we revisited circles. We talked a bit about our ideas from the day before and angled our workshop time to explore circles found in the classroom. So, I invited the fifth graders on an exploration of sorts- I invited them to view the classroom in a way they never had in their first 164 days there. I invited them to view it as a place to explore circles.

After student exploration around the classroom, I then introduced a way for us to think about how mathematicians might start to measure and compare circles. I wrote terminology used when thinking about circles on the whiteboard, modeled how to measure the different aspects of a circle under the document camera, and then invited students to try it on their own with the circles they found in the classroom. So, off they went to explore measuring circles…

Many students in class already had background experience with this vocabulary, as is evidenced in some of their writing from the day before. But, for others, it was brand new.

Having the time to think about this terminology, apply it to the work they did in discovering and exploring circles around the classroom, and then ultimately reflecting on what they learned through discussion and writing (some examples of this are seen below), naturally provided access points for all students. They all came to this work with different understandings about circles, and were all offered a way to explore them that hopefully fit their academic and intellectual needs.

In reflecting on the past two days’ math lessons, I’m realizing that the more I infuse the moves of good literacy instruction into my math lessons, the more engaged my students are with the work. The more engaged they are with the work, the more they will benefit from it.

Some of these moves I borrowed from literacy instruction included invitation into inquiry, reading and viewing images and descriptions, lots of group and partner discussion, writing to question/wonder, writing to think, writing to discover, and writing to reflect.

I used to think infusing literacy into other subjects meant reading aloud a picture book to go along with a lesson. I still think this is a good practice, but I now know that this practice needs to be a bit more intentional…

On Thursday, the first day of this study, I decided to read aloud a picture book that I felt would complement the lesson nicely. If you’re an upper elementary teacher or middle school math teacher, you probably guessed correctly that I read aloud Sir Cumference and the First Round Table. During the first few pages, my fifth graders loved the clever play on words, and even tried to figure out the math diagrams displayed on the pages. Then, the conversation took a different direction altogether…

"Why is it all men at the round table?" 

"The one woman is solving problems and not getting any credit."

"That's not right."

"But, it's fiction!"

"Well, the author could have decided to make things different."

I couldn’t help but smile inside when this conversation arose. It certainly isn’t one I intended, but it was an unintended bonus. My thinking then went into a different place. I thought that maybe this isn’t the best book to share with my students because it perpetuates the misguided idea that men need to be in charge. However, without this book, this conversation wouldn’t have happened on Thursday. It’s just something more to reflect on, and should probably be a whole blog post on its own.

Who knew our math learning could take us in so many different, yet really important directions! I’m really looking forward to continuing this exploration next week.

Magic seems to happen when the moves of literacy instruction are infused into math class. Perhaps there are many math teachers out there who knew this all along. I’m still on my learning journey with this idea, and it’s a wonderful journey to be on!

Now, imagine if instead I just assigned my students a worksheet?

Three Questions

Just a few thoughts on a social studies lesson today…

This afternoon in class, I showed a short video that discussed a few events that lead up to the American Revolution. In California, the American Revolution is quite a big deal in fifth grade social studies instruction.

Prior to watching, I asked my fifth graders to keep three questions in mind while the video was playing:

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  3. Why?

I then wrote these three questions on the board. This was not our first time using these questions as a guide in the classroom. In fact, my fifth grade colleagues and I have been using these questions quite a bit. We’ve been using them for a few months now during social studies and with many read alouds. The conversation and lesson I’m about to describe is similar to many others from earlier in the school year. However, this is something I need to make the effort to do more often and to go even deeper with in discussions.

After writing the three questions on the board, we started watching the video. Throughout the short video, I paused here and there asking students to jot their thinking, chat with their partner, and then invited them to share out. Here are a few responses shared regarding the first two questions…

  1. Whose story is being told?
  2. Whose story is left out?
  • The colonists story is being told.
  • The European colonists.
  • A little of King George.
  • The white colonists.
  • Well, what about the native people? Where are they? I know they were on the land. Why isn’t this video showing them?
  • How about the slaves? It was the 1760s. What were they thinking or feeling? I want to know their perspective.
  • This video is trying to make us feel sorry for the colonists, but I just can’t knowing what they did.
  • Why isn’t the video telling everyone’s story? There are a lot of stories to tell, and this is only one.

I did not share this video to simply give my students information about the American Revolution or colonial life. Frankly, that’s not my goal despite what one might think a fifth grade teacher’s goal should be. Rather, my goal was to get them thinking, to get them questioning, to get them to ask the tough questions about how history is fed to us as a society. If my fifth graders leave my classroom not remembering every detail of the American Revolution, but asking these questions when they approach a text, a video, or really any source, I know I will have better prepared them to tackle and think about future readings, viewings, and discussions.

So, when it came time to discuss the third question of why, many of my students responded with followup questions.

  • Well, why did the writer of the video leave out the slaves? Do they not want us to know their story in these events?
  • Why are the Native Americans never discussed anymore in some sources? I know they were there! That seems wrong.
  • I don’t know why other stories aren’t being told. Can we watch other videos from other perspectives?

To answer that final shared response… yes. Yes, we will. We will continue to consult many different sources told from many different perspectives to try to understand more than the dominant voice’s story- the story that has been traditionally feed to us in our education system.

My goal is for my students to see America’s story as their story. But, if we, as a system, only share stories and sources from the dominant (white, Euro-centric) culture, we are communicating that America’s story is a white story. This is not ok. This is what has been communicated for decades in our system. This must change. We, teachers, have the power to start working toward that change. I could have made the choice to keep these ideas and conversations between my students, my colleagues, and myself, but I know that’s not enough anymore.

I’m taking a hard look in the mirror every morning and asking myself what I believe and how I will demonstrate that in my classroom. I believe my students should think for themselves, ask hard questions, and consider all perspectives when making a decision or trying to come to an understanding. It’s not easy work. I honestly feel as if I am just scratching the surface of this work. I am not an expert by any means. I’m just asking my students to continually ask three questions as we approach our learning.

I’m continually learning on this journey. My thinking is evolving and growing with every conversation, every time I sit down to write, and every time I consider perspectives other than my own. I’d love to know how you’re engaging in this work or if you have other ideas to add to the conversation.