being a student, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, Student Engagement

Creating Foundational Rights for Students Within Personalized Instruction.

A conversation I find myself having often with other educators is just what to do next for curriculum. How do we get everyone on the same page? How do we ensure that what we do is actually happening in different classrooms with different teachers? How do we ensure that the very kids we are entrusted with have somewhat similar experiences within our classrooms all while protecting the art of teaching?

You may think that textbooks with daily lessons are the answer, and for many it appears to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Allington reminds us, “…no
research existed then, or exists now, to suggest that maintaining fidelity to a core reading program will provide effective reading lessons.” (What Really Matters When Working With STruggling Readers, 2013) . Yet, fidelity has become a major selling point as we see many programs being touted to schools who are unsure what to do next. Fidelity has become a point of judgment; how closely aligned are we? Do we use the same texts? The same worksheets? The same words in order to ensure the same experience for all? I was once told by a well-meaning but ill-advised administrator that “I better be on the very same page of the textbook as my colleague next door” as he passed from classroom to classroom.

And yet if there is one thing I know about teaching, it is that our kids are not the same. From class to class, from year to year, the kids have needed different things. Have needed educators that are adept at adapting, that are unafraid to try something new, that know their research, but also know to seek out others for more ideas. Who know their own areas of growth so that they can provide better and better experiences year after year. Sure, use a program to start you off, but don’t forget about the very art of teaching that asks to be responsive to the very kids we teach, that require us to be disruptors of inequitable practices that have shaped the educational experience of so many.

I teach in a district that puts an incredible amount of trust in their teachers and fellow staff who support our students. Whose very core of teaching is autonomy, responsibility, and professional development. Who believes in developing teacher craft so that students can be vested in classroom experiences that speak to them personally and not just whatever the pacing or curriculum guide has told them to care about. Who believes in disrupting inequitable education experiences and providing the room to do so, supporting each teacher on their journey. But how do you then ensure that students aren’t unknowing members of an educational lottery where their growth is based on the experience and know-how of a single teacher? How can you create room for your teachers to personalize while still ensuring that certain experiences are in place?

The foundational idea is deceptively simple; create student rights together. A living breathing document that shows which experiences every child should have in every room, no matter the teacher. Live by it. Work by it. Discuss and change as needed.

But in practicality, how do you get there?

The first step is to have time to discuss what the experiences of students should be. What do we, as the practitioners, believe every child should have as rights in their English (Or whichever curricular area) educational experience? Reading books they like, having a librarian and time in the library, abandoning books, picking writing topics, a teacher that will confer with them, discussing relevant topics. Brainstorm as many things as you can. Group them to see patterns. And then step back.

What is missing? This isn’t something that is done quickly, after all, this will be a guiding document. Do research on best practices within your curricular area. What do you not know about? What do people like Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, Dr. Richard Allington, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, or Dr. Louise Rosenblatt say about the experiences students deserve?

Then group all of the post-its or thoughts together. What are the clusters? What clearly speaks to all of you as a team? Try to come up with words that can tie it all together. Which patterns do you see? The right to read, to speak to one another, to have texts and materials that reflect their experience and the experience of others? The rights to connect with others? To free write? To skillful instruction? Again, pay attention to your own gap areas, which parts of instruction are you not thinking about? Do these potential rights mirror an entire experience or only parts of one?

Then translate the goals into actual experiences, such as if your team believes in student choice in reading, what will that actually look like? When will there be guaranteed time for that? How often do they get to choose? How will you support their choice? Who else will support it?

Then it may look something like this…

If students need…Empowerment – then we will commit to giving them choice throughout their time with us.

How: Choice in their independent reading book, choice in their topic of writing when possible, choice in who they work with, choice in who they share with, choice in how they work through learning. Space to reflect on their experience, speak up about it, and shape the teaching that happens.

If students need to read and write every day, then we will commit to giving them dedicated independent reading time every day and writing time every day.

How: Start with 20 minutes of independent reading focused on developing their relationship to reading and reading identity. An emphasis on free writing when not otherwise steeped in their own writing. Planning reading and writing experiences every day.

It may end up looking something like this then.

Go through each foundational right as a team and then commit to it as a team. Bring it up throughout the year to see whether you are actually living it. What are the opportunities for the students throughout the year? What is missing and needs to be added?

Having a foundational understanding of what the experiences should be for every child provides us with a guide of which direction to go while also being able to see our own gap areas. Where do we need to grow as practitioners? What are we not yet providing for students and how is that impacting them? How do our choices in our learning tie in with these rights?

So often we look at curriculum and think that is where to start with any changes when really what we need to do is step back and look at the foundational beliefs and rights that support and determine the curricular choices we make. Because those beliefs are what shape every single experience kids have with us. Because those beliefs sometimes hurt the very endeavors we are trying to accomplish. While I know our documents and guiding beliefs are not perfect, nothing ever is, it gives us a place to start when we discuss what we are working on, what kids need, and the disruptions that need to continue happening for all of our students. Perhaps these guidelines can help others as well.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.I . f you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.     

being a teacher, new year, writing, Writing Identity

A Simple Sheet for Writing Conferences

I have been thinking a lot about writing, about all of the emotions tied in with what we write, with the bravado and the behavior that sometimes plays out when we ask kids, and at times even adults, to write. The armor. The resistance. The change. The hope. But only for a moment.

I have been thinking a lot about writing because it is something I discuss often with other adults when we share the things we wish we would have known a long time ago, the things we are just discovering. The things we wish we could figure out.

I have been thinking a lot about how despite having spent nearly seven weeks with these new students, I still feel I don’t know them well. I know snippets, small moments, glimpses of their story, but not enough, not now, not yet. How when we discuss their writing they sometimes don’t have the words to express what they need, or the trust. How we have all of these conversations about their writing but what they really are about is their identity, how they see themselves in the world. How they want the world to view them.

And I want to remember it all but I can’t. And I want to remember it all but I won’t, despite trying. Because while I am 100% focused in the moment, I often forget the details after they walk away because in front of me is a new person who needs my undivided attention, who deserves all of me.

So in order to help me remember, inspired by the discussions I am having with other adults and the kids themselves, I created a writing conference sheet. A simple sheet that perhaps will help me center my work a little more in order to be able to pick up the thread the next time we discuss their writing. A simple sheet that will allow me to gather some of the many thoughts kids share with me as I get to know them and help me consider how I can help them grow. Perhaps you would like to use it as well?

A partial view of the sheet.

A simple explanation of the first few boxes follows…

The top box is for the first time I meet with them after they have filled in their writing survey.

Writing + = What do they like about writing

Writing – = What do they not like

Goal = The goal they are currently working on as a writer

Why = What made them set this goal

Last year = What was their experience last year with writing and how did they feel about writing?

You as a writer = How do they view themselves as a writer

Hard about writing = What do they still find hard about writing

The second box is for each time we confer after that about their writing and so it allows me to record what we discussed – I always ask students to lead the conversation – as well as what their challenge and progress has been. Then I wanted space to reflect on what I see as their strengths and goals areas for the current piece, as well as writing overall.

I am starting to use it this week and I cannot wait to see how it will deepen the conversations we have about their writing and how it will help me be a better teacher of writing for them. Isn’t that what so much of teaching is really about?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being a teacher, new year, reflection, Student dreams, student voice, survey

The First Time We Ask

  Instagram · Square,

I think of the many hard lessons I have learned through the years.

About respect.

About feeling valued.

About feeling seen.

About what I needed to change not just as the teacher, but also as the adult in charge of the learning experience we create, day in, day out.

So many learned not because I finally realized something, but instead because the kids I have taught had a way to teach me. Had a way to speak up when they needed to. Had a way to feel heard, even when their words meant I needed to change. How it takes such little time to provide kids with the tools they need to speak up, to be heard, to be a full member of the community we are building. It takes a few questions, an open mind and only a few minutes.

In fact, if I ever had to re-name this blog anything, it would be the lessons the children taught me. The many things they have shared throughout their years as we have strived for a better way of learning, of reading, of being a community of people who already are impacting the world beyodn the walls of school.

And so this week, i will once again ask a few simple yet large questions.

Do you feel respected in this room?

Do you respect others in this room?

What can I do more for you?

What should I do less of?

What do you wish I would notice?

And I will remind them all, once again, that this is their chance to influence how I teach and how we learn. That I have thick skin but to also offer up ideas when they can, not just criticism, however, that criticism is also welcomed because I can’t fix anything I don’t know isn’t working. That this stays between us unless I have their permission to share. That I am grateful for their truths so that I can grow. So that we can grow.

And that this is the first reflection of many to come. That this is only the beginning, because for some I haven’t earned their trust, for some they are not ready to tell me how they really feel, and I respect that as well. But I will still ask because even just asking is a step toward a stronger learning experience. A step toward a more solid us.

We are about six weeks into the year, and it is time for me to learn more lessons.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being a teacher, books, choices, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice

Stop Rushing Kids out of Graphic Novels

The books have been flying off our shelves once again in room 203. So many titles that barely get to rest for a moment before another eager set of hands attached to an even more eager reader grabs the book, so happy they finally got it. This book they have been waiting for, this book that everyone seems to be clamoring for. And while many books are receiving love this year, a few stand out above the rest; an entire format of books, as it has for several years now.

Guts by Raina Telgemeier

Boy-Crazy Stacy (Babysitters Club 7) by Ann M. Martin and Gale Galligan

New Kid by Jerry Craft

Best Friends by Shannon Hale

Books that at a glance may seem easy, or not that challenging, after all, we all know to not call books easy by now, right? Books that entice kids with their colors, their visuals, as they deftly maneuver complex topics but do it in an accessible way for many. In a way that grabs even my most vulnerable readers and tells them to give them a shot. That they, too, are readers and that this is just the right book for them.

I often step back and simply marvel at the wonder of graphic novels and how they make so many kids reconnect with reading or connect with it for the very first time. I am not alone, if we look at sales numbers for graphic novels they are dominating, circulation increase around the nation, and those who for decades have been holding them up as great books are being heard more and more.

And yet, I see so many adults, so many of us teachers, lament the fact that kids continue to reach for graphic novels, for comics, for books that for whatever reason seem to be too easy, whatever that may mean. I have seen it most often discussed when a book has pictures of any form. I hear it when we tell kids that it is time for them to graduate into chapter books. That they should read chapter books rather than picture books. When we tell kids that is time to try something harder and we stare at the graphic novel in their hand. When we pull out comics for fun but not for real reading. When we tell kids that we will take graphic novels away from them if we see them reading them (true story). When we tell them that, sure, they can read graphic novels, but just a few, because then they need to read something a bit more substantial. We say it with the best of intentions, after all, how will these kids grow in to “real” readers? Grow as readers if they only read “those” books? And we share the worry so that those at home start to worry too and they rush in with their questions and their eagerness to make sure their child is becoming the reader they always envisioned, a child who reads serious books that show off their prowess and skill. We do all this so casually that we don’t even see what it is we are all really telling kids.

“These books won’t teach you…”

“These books will not challenge you…”

“These books will not help you grow the way I hoped…”

“You will never be a reader…”

“You will never know how…”

“This will never be enough…”

And so we hand them other books. Anything but books with images. We search for recommendations in order to steer them away, to guide them on a new path instead of embracing the medium. Instead of letting them choose and celebrate their choices. Instead of immersing ourselves as fully as we can as their partners. Instead of embracing this newfound obsession with a complex medium and helping them challenge themselves within the format.

And it hurts kids’ reading lives.

And it hurts kids, period.

Because what we forget is what the research tells us about these books. About books like 150 Years Retold by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damn, Sonny Assu and many others. About books like Last Pick by Jason Walz, Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai, and Stargazing by Jen Wang. About the books that bring kids into our libraries and keep them there. That these books are not easy. That these books do not stop kids from growing as readers. From reading difficult texts because these are difficult texts. Sure, there may be less words but every word matters. Sure, there may be pictures but that every picture tells part of the story and if you skim them, you miss out on the depth of the story. That reading these formats of books will not stop them from growing, from challenging themselves, from gaining vocabulary, or understanding difficult concepts. But indeed, as Krashen and Ujiie remind us, ““…those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked to read more, and tended to read more books. These results show that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds of reading, and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic book reading facilitates heavier reading.” (1996)

And so we must embrace it. We must celebrate it much like we do when a child goes for a deep dive into a specific genre or author. Invite them to build reading ladders as inspired by Dr. Teri Lesene and challenge themselves within their chosen format. We must hold them up as the successful reading choices they are and continue to surround students with amazing choices. When they pick up another graphic novel, encourage it by discussing it, not shun it and forbid it.

This doesn’t seem hard and yet for so many kids this is not their reality.

So the next time a child grabs yet another graphic novel, perhaps we should read it too. Perhaps we should help all of our students see the nuances within these masterful stories, help them read them correctly, to slow down and see all of the details. Honor this format by teaching them rather than thinking of them as frivolous, as desert books, as books we read when we need a little break. Help students create them.

We forget that the kids we teach are on a lifelong journey of reading; why do we feel the need to rush them into different books? Why rush them away from images? From pictures? From anything that embodies visual literacy despite it being the world we live in more and more? Why not embrace the books they read and help them find more books like it instead? Why not let the kids read and be there to hand them another book rather than tell them that it is time to read something different? Why not let kids choose their own books, graphic novels and all, because in the end what we seem to have forgotten the most is that they are books. End of story. Magical, mesmerizing, enticing, books.

It’s not that hard, is it?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

new year, student choice, Student Engagement, talking, writing, Writing Identity

Setting Up Writing Circles in Middle School

This summer, I read the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration, 2nd Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Smokey Daniels as I knew I wanted to focus more on building true inquiry into our classroom.

One of the ideas mentioned in the book briefly was the idea of using writing circles, think lit circles but for writing, with students in order for them to gain a more long-term writing community, as well as a more developed relationship to their own role as writers. I loved the idea immediately and wanted to make it work for our kids., as having my own writing circle of trusted peers has helped me tremendously whenever I write books.

To start us off for the year, we discussed positive and negative aspects of writing by brainstorming. The question was based off of the work we have done with reading and followed the same format, rather than post-its, though, they did it in their writer’s notebook on a t-chart and then created a group response at their table. We then discussed as a class and created our writing rights together. These now hang in our room as a reminder of the type of writing experiences we would like to have.

Image result for pernille ripp writing rights
This year’s writing rights, the yellow post-its are my notes from their group discussion.

Then I wanted to introduce the concept of writing circles to students using something I knew they were familiar with; lit cirlces. How are writing circles like literature circles? I showed my students this side-by-side comparison to help them get thinking about the potential process and benefits waiting for them.

So first, what are the components of our writing circles?

  • Students choose peers to be in their writing circle – 3 to 4 people through an interview.
  • They write together, physically, as well as at times, actually in the same project.
  • They can write on the same topic but in different formats.
  • They share their work, discuss and encourage each other.
  • They serve as editors for each other providing critical and constructive feedback.
  • They serve as long-term writing partners and will, hopefully, develop further skills from each other, as well as develop a more natural writing relationship.
  • They build accountability toward the group and the group is an immediate circle to turn to for help.

The first step toward establishing their writing circles was to reflect on their own writing identity once more – see the screenshot below. This was a continuation of the discussions we have had where they have reflected on how writing intersect with them as human beings, that started with their writing survey for the year.

After they had reflected, they then interviewed seven other people in order to hear more about their writing identity. This was on the same sheet and looked like this – very similar on purpose. To see the full survey, go here.

Why seven? I wanted them go beyond their friend zone and knew that for some that would take a few people. Once they had interviewed seven people, I then asked them to reflect on the following questions.

  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may strengthen your skills as a writer? Note, these are people who have DIFFERENT strengths than you.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may not be a good fit for you because you share the same areas of growth or skills.
  • Looking at other people’s habits, who may you help grow as a writer? Compare your marked areas of strength to theirs.
  • Choose only three peers who you think may be a good fit and who will help you grow as a writer. Go outside of your comfort zone if it will help you grow.
  • If you want, you can add peers who you do not think will be a good fit, this is only for strong reasons, not to list all of the people you don’t want to be with.

Once they had reflected, they handed the surveys in to me and the puzzle began. I told them I would try my best to have at least one “wished for” peer in their group but also knew that some kids may benefit from other peers than the ones they selected.

The following day, their writing circles were revealed. We told them it would be a test run to see how they did with each other and that we would reassess as needed. While almost all groups worked out beautifully right away, a few needed minor tweaks which we handled within a day or two.

After the reveal, we asked them to find a designated spot that would always be their meeting spot. While many chose great spots, a few didn’t, and after a few days we did create new spots for some groups that allowed them to work better together. The main culprit was having space to speak to one another and space to have their materials and with 29 sudents it can get a bit tricky. Then inspired by Tricia Ebarvia’s Jenga games to start off the year, we had them play Jenga with each other in order to get to know each other. Here are her original questions, here are the questions we ended up using, some new, many of them hers. I had bought 5 Jenga games and split them into 9 games with 30 tiles each and it worked out perfectly. not only did it allow us to see how the circles would function as a group, but they also got a chance to get to know each other more. Thank you so much, Tricia for sharing all of your work around this!

Then, it was time to actually write something. And so we have been. We have been doing small prompts that they have shared with each other, they have read personal essays and memoirs and discussed them, they have written 6 word memoir, and most importantly they have shared their beginning writing with each other. As the students just submitted their first draft of a memoir or a personal essay, upcoming usage of their writing circle will be:

  • Navigate the feedback we have left – what does it really mean? Where do they need to start?
  • Be peer editors – we will be working on specific revision skills in order to help them edit each other’s work better as this is not a skill they are ready to just take on. As I model my own revisions, they will be doing the revision work on each other’s.
  • Search for “simple” mistakes such as conventions of writing that their own eyes may miss because it is too familiar with the writing.
  • Challenge them in their writing, hold them accountable to create better writing than what they started with.
  • Assess each other’s writing using the rubric and comparing it to their own self-assessment.

On Monday, as we start a wonky week where the only academic day we have together is Monday, they will write a group story as we have been discussing components of great stories. They will then act it out. So far, having this built in writing community has benefitted us in a few way:

  • They already know who to be with when they are writing and since they are mostly peers they have chosen there is a more natural collaboration happening.
  • They have each other to ask when they are stuck, when they are fleshing out ideas, as well as when they think they are done but need someone else to look at it.
  • They don’t have to wait for the teachers to look at their writing, they can go to each other first and then when their time is for a conference with me, they can come right up rather than waste time.
  • The students really seem to like it, no groans or moans when we ask them to get with their writing circles.
  • There is a lot more talk surrounding their writing, which was the main goal. We wanted to work on the social aspect of writing and to offer the kids a way to know that they are not alone when they feel burdened by writing.

I will continue to share the work of these writing circles as they will be a year-long endeavor, but wanted to share this for now. If you have any questions, please ask, I am just learning myself.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

being a student, being a teacher, new year

I Am Reminded

We continue to get to know each other slowly. Dancing around each other in this forced community which we hope to make our own. Feeling each other out as we wonder where in each other’s legacies we will fit. Will we matter or will we be a forgotten chapter? Simply a footnote in a story that spans a lifetime.

Four weeks into a new school year and I keep thinking how I am already a much better teacher than I was when I started because of the truths these kids, my new students, are offering up. How though they barely know me, and yet in their stories enable us to start havinge these moments together that become our narrative as we weave our pasts together in order to create our future. At least for a little bit.

And I remind myself to slow down.

And I remind myself to pay attention.

And I remind myself to pick up my pen and take notice.

To start the conversations.

To listen fully.

To continue to search for connections, for the stories that pass easily in order to get to know them more.

To give hugs freely and feedback carefully.

To take a breath.

To take a moment.

To feel the power that the adult in the room inevitably holds even when we think we don’t.

And I am reminded of how writing identity carries so many emotions when a child bursts into tears in front of me not sure how to take my words surrounding their writing. Because we don’t know each other that well, not yet.

And I am reminded of how quiet it can be when a child tells me a part of themselves that they weren’t quite ready to share but shared it anyway and I hope I earned their trust a little more. Because they don’t know what I will do with the stories of their life, not yet.

And I am reminded of how much our students notice when they ask if I will do that thing for them that I did for that other kid, and was that a tradition and if not, it should be. That they don’t know that I will pretty much go along with most new traditions because that’s just who I am, not yet.

And I am reminded of the bonds we created the year before when the big 8th graders shout “Hey, Mrs. Ripp!” as they pass my room and sometimes sneak in for a hug or a book. And I wonder if any of the ones I get to teach now will even say hello next year.

Because these moments, the small moments that we take, the ones that we make through our conferring, through our greetings, through our questions and our listening. Through our shared read alouds, through our discussion, through our music playlists, through our stories. Those moments become the foundation for the trust that I hope these kids will place in me as I try to guide them down a path of learning.

Because what I am reminded of tonight as our daughter tells me that her day was great, as usual, but that there were not enough hugs, is that we have only just begun. That there should always be time for the hugs. For the moments. For the connections. And yet the pressure to cover the content, to get through the material, to offer up all of the opportunities to learn urges us on at a breakneck pace but that the only thing we will accomplish from caving to the pressure is relationships left behind.

So I pause once more. Plan accordingly and search for the moments that will tie us all together.