Tuesday, December 9, 2014

This is why I teach....

Today our Mock Newbery club held one of its bimonthly meetings for December.  I didn’t have to ask twice when I told the kids it’s alright to bring their lunches to my classroom.  Seventeen happy, excited students brought their bag lunches, hot lunches, milk, snacks, and most importantly, their 2014 Newbery contender books to my classroom so they could eat and discuss the great stories they been reading for the past two weeks.  This has got to be the highlight to my week, listening to my students eagerly discuss the books that made them laugh, cry and shudder in fear, all the while ensuring their classmates that, “this is a book you have to read!”  What truly made this moment memorable was that I have been reading the books right along with the students.  I was able to share in their excitement.  I fell in love with the Beedle in A Snicker of Magic. (“Can we please start our own Beedle club?”)  I cried at the gym when I read A Million Ways Home, and I got fighting mad during the eagle scene in Half a Chance.  Some of us have decided to try writing verse after reading Brown Girl Dreaming and The Crossover, while we all fell in love with Jackson Greene and his band of conspirators in The Great Greene Heist.  Finally The Fourteen Goldfish has captured many hearts and has students looking at their grandparents in a whole new light.

This is why I teach.  I teach for the kids.  I teach to make a difference in their lives, both now and in the future.  Look at all the smiling faces.  So many students just happy to be a part of a group that loves books.  These kids are on their way to becoming lifelong readers.  This is why I teach.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chapters 2 & 3: Getting to Know Our Students & Planning for a Successful Year

A few years ago, I remember sitting in the bleachers at opening session listening to our superintendent deliver his yearly “welcome back” speech.  In his talk that day he shared with us an encounter he had had with some students over the summer.  During the town’s Fourth of July celebration, he had asked these students, “What is one piece of advice you wish you could share with your new teachers?”  He told us that the students wanted their teachers to take the time to get to know them. To get know who they really were, not just as students, put as people too.  To find out what they’re interested in, their hobbies, what’s easy for them, and what’s hard.  In a nutshell, the students wanted their new teachers to build relationships with them.  They wanted their new teachers to see them as more than just students. They wanted their new teachers to care about them.  As I thought about these ideas, I thought about my own three boys.  The teachers they liked the best, the classes they were the most successful in, were usually the classes where the teachers had taken the time to build relationships with them.  As a parent, I deeply appreciated this.  I wanted my children to not only be successful, but to like school and enjoy learning.  Teachers that take the time to build relationships with students honor that request.

In chapter two of Read, Write, Teach, Linda shares with us not only her beliefs on the importance of relationship building, but also several strategies, classroom routines, and even team challenges that help to facilitate this process.  Even the covers of the Reader’s/Writer’s notebooks become an opportunity for getting to know students. Linda has her students create collages of things they care deeply about on the covers.  Following her reflective style, Linda gathers evidence and takes careful anecdotal notes on the students as they participate in each activity.  She learns valuable information about her students, how they learn, their interests, what they care about, and how they work with others.  She is well on her way to building lasting relationships with each and every student within the first few weeks of school!

In chapter three, Linda allows us a peek inside her planning process for reading-writing workshop. Actually it’s more than a “peek”.  Linda generously shares her curriculum overview, the expectations she has for workshop and the writer’s-reader’s notebook, a pamphlet of information for parents (perfect for open house night!), and other forms and strategies she utilizes to help workshop run smoothly.  Again, I felt as if I had found a mentor. This is exactly the type of information I was searching for when I first starting teaching workshop.  Linda offers us ready-to-go ideas that she developed through years of research, working with students and constantly asking for their feedback.  In fact, asking for feedback and allowing for student choice, are reoccurring themes throughout her planning process.  What this chapter gives us is a framework.  This framework, combined with feedback from our own students and the power of choice built into the structure, will provide for a powerful readers/writers workshop.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Chapter One: Grounding Our Choices in Beliefs

Reading chapter one of Read Write Teach, I felt as if I had finally found a mentor.  Someone who not only shares my beliefs about reading, writing, teaching and how children learn, but also is able to nudge me forward on my journey as a teacher with her thoughtful and reflective questioning.  So often I found myself writing in the margins, “yes!” or “love this!”.  Linda sets goals to not only help her students grow as readers and writers but to help them actually enjoy both reading and writing.  She wants them to read and write with their hearts as well as their heads.  She shows them the value in being literate, how it allows a person to be in control of their own destiny, to have more choices and opportunities in life.  Linda is a reflective educator who clarifies her thinking by questioning herself, and her students, in order to continue to grow and improve as a teacher.

Throughout the chapter, Linda stresses the importance of getting to know your students as people.  She stresses the importance of forming trusting relationships with students and forming classroom communities in which students feel safe. Linda learns about her students’ interests, strengths and weaknesses through their writing.  She earns their trust by modeling and demonstrating her own processes as a reader and writer.  She shares her readers/writers notebook with her students.  Her students come to understand that she does not expect them to do something she doesn’t do herself.

Linda’s beliefs about writing remind us that student writing needs to be authentic and for real audiences.  Students need to be reading and writing on a continual basis.  Writing is reading and stronger readers become stronger writers.  Writing is social.  Writers need to share their writing and receive feedback that moves them forward in the writing process. Students need to write for real reasons and care about the topics they write about.  Students need choice, time and models in order to grow as writers.

“We want our efforts to mean something by knowing our words affect someone or something.  The writer may be writing to clarifying her own thinking - thus, the writing is for self first, but then, often, when done well, speaks to a larger audience, whether it is intentional or unintentional.”(p.17)

Just reading this chapter inspires me to write, and isn’t that what good writing is supposed to do?

“Words are sacred.  They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” (p.5)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Just a Little Perspective From a Stranger......

Sometimes we just need a little perspective from a stranger…

I love summer.  I love the heat, the sun, the laziness of it.  I love being able to spend time with my family, see friends, garden, and just sit outside and read as the birds sing. Yes, summer can be paradise.  But as many teachers can attest to, the end of the school year is always bittersweet.  While I’m looking forward to the laid back days of sunshine, I’m also feeling a bit sad about missing my students, kids I’ve spent the last nine months with, five days a week.  I’ve come to think of these students not just as students, but as “my kids”.   And then suddenly, our time is done.   We all move on.  Still, when I run into former students at the public library, or receive an email telling me about a great book someone just finished reading and had to share with me, I get that familiar rush of excitement knowing that my students, “my kids”, are still thinking about me too.

Fridays in summer frequently mean long walks through the neighborhood with my husband, visiting rummage sales looking for treasures.  Today I happened upon a pair of high-back bar stools and a high, narrow table that would be perfect to use as a desk with the bar stools.  Immediately my teacher radar clicked on. This would be wonderful in my classroom.  I could picture two students sitting on the stools at the desk, working on a project.  I even had the perfect corner of my classroom in mind. Excitedly, I started talking about my possible plans for the furniture (to no one in particular, that’s what happens when teachers have a lot of alone time), the man in charge of the rummage sale asked me what I taught.  When I shared with him that I taught 6th grade reading and writing his eyes lit up, although another customer at the rummage chimed in, “Oh, you wouldn’t want my boys, they’re terrors in the classroom!”  Which of course, led to another discussion of how I’m the mother of three boys, and how much I love boys, and how I’m sure I would enjoy having her sons as students.  Sometimes I just can’t help myself; I love talking about kids and education.

I decided I really needed to have the stools and table for school.  I asked the owner if he would be willing to make a deal for the set, as I wanted them for my classroom.  He smiled at me and said, "Since you’re a teacher, I’d be happy to help you out.  I loved my sixth grade teacher. She made me feel excited about going to school and learning. When she got excited about something her eyes sparkled. I saw that same sparkle just now in your eyes.”  He had the biggest smile on his face when he told me this. I laughed and thanked him, but as my husband and I walked home I couldn’t help but think about his words.  I do get excited when I talk about school and my students.  I guess I never realized it was so easy to see my excitement.  But I’m glad it shows, because if it makes others remember happy days in school, then definitely it’s a good thing!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Read, Write, Teach - Introduction

As I read the introduction to Read, Write, Teach by Linda Rief, I felt myself just itching to pick up a pen and start writing my own stories.  I love Linda’s idea:

“Story shows that we are thinking, feeling human beings with connections and relationships to each other.”

Our students are so much more than numbers.  They are so much more than the data spewed out by the endless tests and assessments we are required to administer each year.  Writing allows our students to give voice to who they are, to share their ideas, feelings and thoughts.  Writing allows students to build relationships while awakening new possibilities, not only with others, but within themselves as well.

Reading and writing have always been my passion.  I love being able to teach both subjects everyday to my students. I am someone who could easily get lost in the discussion of a favorite book, or the writing of a story. When teaching writing, I do try and write along with my students, and frequently do get lost in the flow of the words and have to pull myself away. I share Linda’s beliefs:

“I want my students to know me.  I want them to know my stories.  I read them my drafts of writing because I also want them to know I value what I ask them to do enough to do it myself.”

It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never taught writing this way, but some kind of magic happens when teachers write alongside their students and then share their drafts aloud.  By no means do I considered myself a “writer”, but many times I’ve witnessed students glued to their seats, completely engaged, as I’ve read my drafts to them.  Their encouragement means the world to me. But what is even more important is the relationship building forged by our sharing.  The students learn about things that matter to me.  I learn about what matters to them. They learn that I care about their opinions and ideas.

I have a feeling this book, Read, Write, Teach, will open a whole new world of possibilities for us! 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Calm in my Perfect Storm

So many times when I tell people what I do for a living I hear back, "How do you do it?  I could never last a day.”  Usually when I hear that I think how lucky I am because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I’ve had other jobs in my life but none that can even come close to offering the satisfaction I get from teaching reading and writing to 75+ sixth graders everyday.  Yes, I’m exhausted when I get home, and there are very few nights I go home empty handed.  More likely I’m loaded down with not one, but two tote bags filled with papers to read, feedback to be give and lessons to plan. I do as much as I can after dinner, fall asleep late, and then get up at the crack of dawn (or earlier) to start again.  By now you might be thinking, is she crazy?  Why would anyone one continue to do this day after day?  (And I haven’t even gotten into the nitty gritty details of my job.)  I guess it’s just something you have to experience for yourself.  Once that bell rings at 8:20 in the morning, my homeroom students arrive at their lockers, call out greetings to their friends and come into the classroom.  I enter autopilot, top speed.  It’s show time.  I have my game plan ready for the day.  I call it a game plan because it’s flexible.  I’m prepared for the expected and the unexpected.  But what’s truly amazing is that I am able to keep going at this speed until 3:30 pm, when the last student heads out the door at the end of the day.  During the day I am almost constantly in motion, whether I’m delivering a lesson, conferring, on lunchroom duty, facilitating writing club, some part of me is always moving, especially my mind.  Even after the kids go home, I usually don’t slow down until it’s finally time for me to call it a day and head home, again with tote bags in tow.

Today there was a calm in my “perfect storm”.  While in the library, moving between helping students look for books, advising two groups on their text structure posters, and trying to keep the noise level to a low hum, I look up and see my son in the midst of all of this. It took a minute for my mind to register what I was seeing it was so unexpected.  And then I noticed what he had in his hands, Starbucks!  He had come in the middle of the morning to bring me a hot Chai Latte!  For the first time in I don’t know how long, my autopilot stopped in the middle of the day.  I was stunned.  Even the students stopped for a moment (yes, that’s very unusual).  Then I hugged my son, the students went into overdrive asking me questions, then asking my son questions, and soon it was back to the happy continuous buzz of daily life at school.  My days are nonstop and hectic on a regular basis but I can’t imagine it any other way.  If anything the pace has truly helped me to appreciate the simpler things in life like family and a hot Chai Latte in the middle of the day.

Monday, March 24, 2014

100 Words 100 Days Challenge via #Engchat

       Today I rushed home from school to take part in a Twitter chat about writing.  As the only sixth grade ELA teacher in my school I sometimes feel like an island.  Twitter chats allow me to not only share ideas, but also gather tons of inspiration from teachers and experts around the world.  Tonight was no exception.  A large group of ELA teachers voiced their concerns, shared ideas, and offered inspiration on how to teach writing, offer feedback, and develop the writing habit not only in students, but in teachers as well.  After an hour of this fast-paced back and forth tweeting many of us echoed the same sentiments in our tweets, we were ready to grab notebooks, pens, keyboards, etc. and start writing.  Then the challenge was made:  100 words for 100 days.  I don’t even know who first offered the challenge, but it caught on and was quickly retweeted.  So here I am, writing, officially starting my first day of the challenge.  What will I write about?  I’m not sure: school, writing, reading, education, life in the classroom, most likely a mix of all.  But I’ll be writing and isn’t that what the challenge was all about it?  Feedback is welcome but stars and wishes only please!    

Friday, February 21, 2014


I had a student ‘sneak-read’ today… 

And I’m celebrating!  This is a student that came into my classroom at the beginning of the year and stared at the floor.   When I wanted to be sure he was listening I would get down on the floor and look up at him.  This student not only was uninterested in reading, I was having a difficult time trying to find books to appeal to him because of his unresponsiveness.  I had never seen anything like it!  And today….  Today I actually had to tell him to close his book for a moment so he could participate in our mini lesson on making inferences.  Then I promised him he could continue to read and use his book to practice inferring.  He agreed, albeit begrudgingly.  Truth be told, I would have loved to have just let him continue reading.  I had been waiting a long time for this day and I just want to revel it.  The site of this student so engrossed in a book that he was able shut out all distractions around him, made me feel like I had just won the lottery!

It seems hard to believe but last week I had another student make a profound revelation that set my heart racing as well.  After our mini lesson in workshop, the student looked up at me, smiled and commented, “I used to just read to be ‘done’.  Now I get it.”  I think I stared at him in what I can only image was shock and asked him to repeat his statement. I had to be sure I had heard him right.  He repeated it.  I had him heard correctly.  I wanted to jump up and down and clap my hand and dance around the classroom.  I had made a difference! 

This is what we reading teachers dream of, students that “get reading”. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.  I could use a dose of this every day but feel so lucky to have experienced it two weeks in a row.  I can only hope we have started a trend.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Power of "Believe"

This year our principal challenged all of us to choose our “word” for the year.  A word to inspire us not only as we start the year, but to provide a focus for ourselves and our students as we move though the challenges of the coming school year.  Without hesitation I chose the word “believe”.  This has been my unofficial “word” for many years.  When I’ve had challenges in life, whether as a teen, a college student, a mom, a teacher, I’ve focused on the power of believe, believing everything would be all right. Believing I could do what others told me was impossible.  Believing I could achieve my dreams.  Believing my children could achieve their dreams.   So it was natural that I chose “believe” as the word for my classroom.

         I didn’t do anything special.  I simply wrote the word in red marker across a sheet of typing paper and posted it on the chalkboard in the front of the classroom.  I told the students that it was our “word” for the year.  In our classroom there would be no giving up, no “it’s too hard”, no excuses.  This became our classroom policy.  If a student complains that something is too hard, I simply walk to the chalkboard and point to “believe”.  If that doesn’t do the trick, we all remind the student to believe.  It has almost become a chat for us, “Believe.  You can do it. PMA (positive mental attitude)! Believe!” Corny as it may sound, it works.  The student sees that I believe, classmates believe, finally the student begins to believe. 

Is it the power of the word at work? Is it the power of realizing that the teacher and classmates believe?  Is it the positive energy generated?  Whatever the reason, the energy created is palpable and students are changing.  They believe in themselves.


When you enter this classroom…
Believe you’re a reader
Believe you’re a writer
Believe in the power of books
Believe in the power of words
Believe that you’re smart
Believe you deserve respect
Believe others deserve respect
Believe we all matter, always
Believe that you’ll try your hardest
Believe that “OK” is not enough
Believe in doing your best
Believe the best in others
Believe honesty is the only way
Believe in the possible
Believe in the impossible

Most of all
When you enter this classroom…
Believe you’ll never stop believing in yourself!