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.
I’ve been thinking about the hurry. The rush to get into habits. To get kids reading. To get kids writing. To not waste a moment of instructional time so that we can get to the real work. I see it surround us, this pressure to get moving, to get going as quickly as we can so we don’t lose time. So we don’t miss our chance for cramming as much as we can into a year. After all, we only get them for so long and the tests will tell us whether we did enough.
It plays out a lot when we meet kids who don’t like reading. Who either proclaim it loudly, or whose behaviors clue us in. The aimless browsing, the grab-and-go when it comes to book selection. The kids who go with the motions at times but you can tell that the book they are currently reading is not one that is going to make it home. Who look at us wide-eyed or with a grin when we tell they we hope they will read over the weekend.
We rush them with book recommendations. Have you tried this one or this one? We tell them they just haven’t found the right book yet and then we hand them a stack hoping that in that stack will be that right book. You won’t know until you start reading, so read.
And I get it, I do it too, after all, the year looms and we have so much work to do. Yet, to quote Taylor Swift, I feel we need to calm down. To take these moments, these aimless wanderings, these negative reading relationships, and ask more questions. Sit in silence and let kids think. If a child can’t answer why they hate reading beyond that they just do, then they haven’t been given an opportunity to fully think about their relationship with reading. They haven’t been given a moment to recognize that their path with reading has been filled with choices, both their own and others, that have now brought them to this point in time where they feel that they are not readers. That reading has no value. That reading is not something they need. Nor something they feel they can do.
So when we hand them another book without conversation beyond “What types of books do you like?” Without seeing the child and giving them a chance to reflect, we are not changing habits long-term. We are not changing lives long-term. Sure, they may love that book – hooray – but what happens when the book is done? Have they really changed their relationship with reading or was it just a fluke?
So before we rush to our piles of recommended books, we slow down. Yes, we surround them with incredible books, people who love to read, we give them time to read, we give them the space to read, the air to read, and then we talk. (This should be a right not a privilege of all kids). We reflect. We give kids the opportunity, the expectations, to know themselves as readers so that we, the adults that surround them, can invest in long-term change.
I am not teaching kids to just like reading this year. I am trying to teach kids to find value, inherent value, in the act of reading itself. While books and texts are the tools, the real work starts with the recongition of one’s own journey and subsequent relationship to reading and how it impacts the child that stands before us.
It takes time. It takes patience. It takes careful planning. And it takes us realizing that being a reader is not just something we want kids to experience in the brief time they are with us, but instead be a part of their being that exists without us after the year is over. That doesn’t just start with a book. That book needs to be wrapped up in reflection, in time, and in conversation. Then changes may happen.
I moved to a new space this year. Still teaching 7th grade on the “O” team at Oregon Middle School, go Sharks! However, with the departure of one of my closests friends, her room opened up and I was allowed to move into what used to be the choir room (Choir now has a beautiful new space).
All summer, I have been tinkering with things. Trying to figure out the flow, the space, the needs of kids who I haven’t even met yet. And so while the room is as cleas as it will ever be, as organized as it will ever be, it is still not ready. it won’t be until the kids show up tomorrow – finally – and make it their own. They will get to move the furniture, find the spots that work, tweak the systems I have thought up and make it our space.
But until then, this is what our classroom looks like right now as it sits in suspense, waiting for the kids to show up.
So a few questions I get a lot are…
How do you have so many books?
It is a triple answer: My school district, Oregon School District, believes in funding books. Last year they gave us each $500 to buy more books. So some of the books come from them. Some of the books come from publishers who graciously send me books in order to consider them for the Global Read Aloud. If they send me an advanced review copy, I always purchase the book as well when it comes out to place it in my classroom collection.
And finally, I buy a lot of books. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is, so I do. I spend too much money each year buying books for our students in order to help them have a better relationship with reading. Funding books does not seem like a priority in many places, and I don’t understand it, why wouldn’t we want all kids to have access to this many books in every classroom? If we can fund Chromebooks, then we can fund books. Pair this with a certified librarian running a fully-stocked library and you have the ultimate reading combination. All kids deserve to have this many books in their lives, not just those whose teachers spend their own money to do so.
Where do you get your books from?
I get many of my books from Books4School.com, a great warehouse here in Madison that sells overstock supplies of books for about $2 each. I also use my Scholastic money to buy books. I use our independent book store, A Room Of One’s Own, when we are downtown. I try to support my local Barnes and Noble as well because I don’t want them to go out of business, and I use Amazon. Sometimes the prices can’t be beat.
What are those ledges on the wall?
Built by Ryan, my friend’s husband, they are wooden ledges with a lip drilled into the wall. Now, you can also use rain gutters to display books. I had rain gutters below my whiteboard in my old classroom and loved having the extra display space. Another idea shared by someone (and if it’s you please let me know so I can give you credit!) was to have a bulletin board with books clipped onto it using larger binder clips tacked to the wall. That way kids can easily check out the books and you can easily replace them.
Where did you get the spinning rack?
I was handed it when I moved to OMS, however, you can order them online as well. Beware that it needs to have some sort of metal or solid base or it will not carry the weight of books, we discovered this the hard way last year when we purchased one with a plastic base. The spinning rack, while full right now, will be emptied within the next few days as students use it to recommend books to each other. When you place a book on the rack it is an automatic recommendation. I also use it to keep our “hot” books in circulation as they are returned.
One addition this year to our recommendation ideas is this stamp inspired by the stamp that Cassie Thomas shared on Twitter. I ordered mine from Amazon here and changed the wording slightly to just be the books I loved, I will be stamping books as I come across them in our library.
This helps books come back. If it is a softcover, kids just grab the books. If it is a hardcover, then they remove the dustcover, write their first and last name on a post-it, place it on the dustcover, and file the dustcover under their class section. Then they grab the book. When done, they reunite the dustcover with the book and place it in their return bin.
Where did you get your posters from?
The ones on the cabinets are from Amplifier.org and are from last year where my colleague, Katy, pointed them out to me. They offer incredible lessonplans to go with these posters. I am so excited for the coming year as well to see who they will focus on.
The @SonofBaldwin quote and poster that will ground our work was an image shared online that I blew up and ordered through Walgreens.
The Battlestar Galactica Happy Birthday Cylon poster is from Keyanna
The poster on the glass that says “You are just the child…” is one my husband designed for me, the file can be found here.
The poster “the only Reading Levels that Matter…” is created by Dev Petty and can be found here.
Which picture books do you have on display?
Right now, we have a lot of picture books on display that have to do with personal essay and identity. I wanted kids to see themselves potentially reflected in the picture books as we work to create a community.
Well, it changes depending on needs but mostly by genre and sub-genre. So books can have multiple designations and they have the abbreviation of the genre under the stamp on the inside cover. We don’t have a lot of author bins because kids asked me not to to do that in previous years.
Are there other questions?
I try to make the space functioning, welcoming, and flexible. I want the space to feel welcoming and safe for all kids. And I want the space to work for us, not for us to have to work to fit into the space. Yet, even though, I am know I am in an incredible space to start the year, it won’t matter if what we do doesn’t matter. Because while sharing my space is easy, doing the work is not.
And also, that we have an inequity in the US when it comes to funding for our schools. I am privileged that I get to work in a district where we have funding to have clean, inviting spaces. Every child deserves that and yet not every child gets that. Until we fix school funding, our system will continue to be horribly inequitable and not conducive nor safe for all kids. We have so much work to do.
This year will be another year for exploring our identity, for connecting with the world, for hopefully finding value in our time together. And that matters more than any piece of furniture or any poster I can put on the wall.
Not the kind that surrounds us on a dark night, but the kind that surrounds us as individuals.
Perhaps it is because I have been flying more and as a woman, I constantly find my space taken by white men sitting next to me, refusing to even share an armrest. I am so used to it, I have found I slip into patterns to make myself smaller in order to not encroach on their space.
Perhaps it is because in my thinking work this summer I keep coming back to how white my professional space is within my district, reflective of the lack of diversity of so many districts here in Wisconsin. How can we change this to be reflective of the kids we teach?
Perhaps it is because I see the critical conversations surrounding education online and how often it is silenced because people say we need to speak nicely to each other, to not make the space unwelcoming or unkind. We use these platitudes so often to silence the voices of those who have been silenced for so long that we fail to recognize the same destructive patterns.
Perhaps it is because I see my own daughters apologize for the space they take up at times as we remind them to be nice, to be kind, to speak appropriately, whatever that may mean. Even as I cringe when the words slip out inadvertently, taught to me by many years of public socialization where we are taught which type of women should be heard in this American society. And I can tell you from experience that the minute you raise your voice, you are deemed angry as if anger is a bad thing.
Perhaps it is because I feel like as a white woman I am often afforded more space because of my skin color than I really deserve.
Space, and how much space we are given, seems to be crowded with well-meaning intentions and misguided constraints. Space and what we do with it also seems to be dictated by those who feel their space encroached upon and who must make a decision of whether enough there is enough space for us all. (I think there is, but that is for a different time.)
I think of space when it comes to our students, how for years I have discussed student voice on this blog and how I have attempted to create an environment where students can speak up no matter what they are saying. How for a long time, through my personal reflection, I have implored others to give students’ voice without recognizing the inherent problem in that statement; students already have a voice, they come to us loudly, yet, it is within our pursuit of calm and compliant that we silence them for the benefit of “learning for all.” And so I come to the natural conclusion that my work is not about giving students a voice but instead about space and more specifically, giving them back the space we took from them in the first place.
And that starts with the very first day, the inequity of our voices as we go through our day with kids we don’t even know. How many of us talk about those first days as exhausting because our voices are constantly heard? How many of our students feel drained not because of all that they had to do but instead all they had to listen to? How many of us plan out to the minute what we will be doing in order to “Set the year up right” without a care for how welcome or even safe students may feel in our rooms? Perhaps what we need is a little bit of silence, more them than us, more we than I.
So as I plan for those first of many days, I am thinking about the space of my voice. The space of me within the room and how it needs to be balanced with the space of others. How I need to think of my voice, the adult voice, as something that also takes up space and therefore needs to be weighed in order to give back space to others. And not just in the classroom, but in life. After all, we get one chance to start off right with these new kids, why not get our priorities straight from the get-go?
Every year, I do several surveys at the beginning of the year, I don’t think I am the only one. As we try to get to know these kids that have come into our lives, I think it is so important to gather as much information as they are willing to tell us in order for us to be better teachers for them. But I also think about how hard it can be to answer questions those first few days of school when you don’t really know what your answers will be used for, when you are not quite sure who this person is who is asking you these questions, when you are perhaps not even sure what the questions mean.
So this year, I am changing my approach a little bit. The questions have been changed to be more of a progression of trust, not because I am under any impression that from Tuesday to Friday the students will trust me, but because I want to honor the relationships we are building and the fact that they take time. Students will be asked to answer a few questions every day, but can also choose to speak to me about these things. They are focused more specifically on what the child needs from me potentially to be successful and not so much on academics. Students will do a separate survey every day, while not ideal, it will allow me to see their answers as the week progresses and then create one answer froup per student at the end of the week.
Along with these questions, I will also give my reading and writing surveys during that first week. Those will be on paper as I place them in my conferring binder alongside the notes I take during our conversations.
Before the children have shown up, we will also have asked those at home about them. We want to reach out to parents and caregivers as experts on their children and honor the knowledge they have through a home survey. It is sent electronically before school starts and I respond to each person that takes it with follow up questions, those who do not have access to email or choose not to take it online are handed a paper version once school starts.
While the first-week surveys are not done, I am sharing here in order to receive feedback. What have I missed? What have I misworded? What would you add or remove? You are more than welcome to make a copy and make it fit your students, just please give credit. To see the surveys, please see here:
I became disillusioned with traditional peer editing a few years back after I had once again spent a long time coming up with a specific checklist for students to work through in order to help them strengthen their writing. I think this was my 10th version of said checklist, a list that was specific in its purpose, supposedly easy to follow, and exactly what we were working on. Almost every single student pairing blasted through the list and turned to me proudly to tell me that it all looked good, that they had now produced their very best draft, and that surely, there was nothing else they needed to fix.
And yet…when I inevitably peered over their shoulder, I saw the same mistakes. The same missed opportunities for discussion about their writing. Depsite the checklist. Despite all of my careful planning.
Move to 7th grade and I mention peer editing and all I am met with is groans. “Please not that, Mrs. Ripp…” and so as always, i would ask students to tell me more about their reaction and what they told me was the final nail in the coffin for my traditional way of doing peer editing.
We don’t trust our editors and writing is personal.
They just tell us it’s all good.
We don’t know how to help.
They don’t want my help.
I knew then that not only was I past the checklist days, but I had to change the whole writing community we had established in order to help them grow together as writers, a dream I am still working on year after year.
So in the past few years, we haven’t had a peer editing process per say, what we have done instead is focus on creating a writing community that is established early. A writing community that celebrates our writing, a writing community that (at times, because let’s be realistic here) doesn’t hate to write.
While this is still major work in progress for us, there are a few things we are proud of. These include:
The choice of who you work with in your writing. This way students start to see who can naturally help them with their writing rather than the constant forced pairings of years passed.
The choice of whether to continue revising/editing or to be done. Students know that when they see work as done, it often is, they then choose to either start a new piece or continue to work on the current one.
The understanding of the need for others’ eyes on your writing at times. The students we teach often ask each other naturally to look at their writing because they know that if they don’t, they will miss opportunities for growth. This is encouraged with built in time and conversation about what it means to be with fellow writers. Students are encouraged to share, read, and comment on each other’s writing when it makes sense to them. This is huge for ownership and lens of what they need.
The choice of whether to share or not. While students are expected to share some of their writing with the community, not all writing is for others. This has been a part of our foundation as it is important that students see their writing as theirs to own, not mine.
The choice to write poorly. It has been important for our students to understand that not all writing is going to be great. That sometimes what we are writing is not working, is not great, is not something we want to share. What we work on is getting past that feeling whether by abandoning a piece or working through it.
I know when I started writing books and realized what editing and writing communities really did for my writing, I know I wanted to emulate that in my classroom and yet for many of my students, they don’t see a purpose in their writing beyond the teacher telling them to get it done. This is why it has been such a long process for me because not only am I trying to get them to write better, but also to see power in their writing. This is also why I don’t write about our writing work very often because it is such a huge work in progress and I doubt my own ideas a lot, despite the growth I see.
So, the other day as we were finishing our This I Believe scripts, I turned to my learning community to see what else is out there for ideas in better writing partnerships, especially with an eye on revision, and I was not disappointed. There were so many great ideas and opportunities for growth shared that are helping me go further in my journey. So wherever you are in yours, perhaps some of these ideas will help you further develop your writing community as well. I know I have a lot of work to do with my current and incoming students as we continue to try to make our writing more meaningful.
This is yet another reason why I love social media so much, thank you so much to everyone who shared. There is a wealth of ideas here, many of them centered around the individual child’s identity as a writer and the vulnerability that is naturally involved when it comes to sharing what we have written with the world. And that for me is always the biggest piece; how will my students feel after they have shared their writing? Will they feel empowered or will they feel taken apart? Will it truly have transformed their writing or will it just be one more reason that they think they cannot write?
I know I have much to learn!
PS: In case, you missed the announcement, I am running a book study of my first book Passionate Learners this summer in the Passionate Readers Facebook group. You should join us!