aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, books, change, Literacy, Reading, student choice, Student Engagement

So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help


I spend too many hours thinking of my students love (or lack of love) of reading.  Of how the things that we do together hopefully is enough to sustain that love for words.  That this year is another part of their journey as readers, as humans who know that reading can unlock the powers of the universe.  And so I think of what is ahead.  Of whether they are truly “Wild readers” to quote Donalyn Miller.  Whether they have the stamina they need to be successful in college to quote Penny Kittle.  And whether the type of literacy instruction they will receive in the years to come will allow them to continue to love books.  To still read something that they choose.  To still see themselves as children who read for fun, not by force.

Today, as I sat next to a friend who teaches high school English, we discussed the concept of the whole class novel.  Something I have opened up for discussion here.  There are districts that mandate that the whole class novel is used for all students, no matter their comprehension ability, which is another blog post in itself, and yet, it reminds me that not everyone works in an environment that trusts its teachers to teach all students, no matter their ability.

So if you teach the whole class novel, whether by choice or force, there is a very little tweak that may make it accessible to all students.  Because if we want the whole class novel to be a vessel for deeper literature conversation and yet we have students who cannot access the text, then we must find a way for them to be successful.  The idea is simple, really.  Create different pathways to access the text by allowing students to select which method they will use.  Those pathways can be:

  1. I choose to read it on my own, ready to come to discussion.  This is the most common pathway of doing a whole class novel but it cannot be the only one.  Think of how many students where this act would be impossible.  Where they would rather defiantly not read then even try.
  2. I choose to read the book with a partner and we discuss as we read.  Sometimes when we struggle all we need is a trusted adviser to bring us through the hard parts.  We see this happen in our classrooms all of the time; students reaching out for help, and then going to back to their task renewed.  Why not let them do that formally?
  3. I choose to have it read aloud with the teacher in a small group.   Sometimes we need an adult voice to carry students through, other times you just need a community of readers to help you process the text, let alone the finer nuances behind the words.  Having a teacher at the helm and making it a read aloud means that it has no longer become an exercise of decoding, but rather one of comprehension.
  4. I choose to listen to the text.  I know some frown upon the use of audio books in our literacy classrooms, but they can be the game changer for some of our most disillusioned non-reading students.  If our goal is to use a whole class novel for students to think deeply about a text, then why not remove the barrier of the text itself?  If a child cannot read a text then the instruction of how to read it should happen with a text that they can access, not something that is far beyond their current skill level.

That’s it really.  Offering student choice in how they access the learning we must do, allows them to find success even within the most mandated curriculum.  We must remember our task at hand; to have rich discussion, so let’s make sure that all of our students can be a part of that, not just the ones that have mastered the act of reading at a certain level.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my 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.

aha moment, being a student, being a teacher, being me, change, education, Passion, student voice

When A Student Stops Asking Questions, Who’s to Blame?

I pulled her aside, wondering how I could help as we face another half a year of 7th grade.  Carefully I asked why she was with me, what had held her back from understanding what I had planned out.  What stood in her way of not completing her work. I searched for clues to be a better teacher for her and hoped she would she some light on why she never asked the questions I am sure she had.

“Do you get what the assignments ask you to do?” I asked searching for a place to start.

“No.” She answered matter of fact.

“Well, why don’t you ask me questions about them then?” A classic follow up question.

“A teacher once told me I asked too many questions.  Whenever I raised my hand he would say, “Oh here comes another question…” and so I stopped.  I figured I didn’t want to upset my teachers.  I figured they didn’t want to hear it.”

The weight of that statement swallowed me for a moment, the enormity of a child telling me they had stopped questions, so I looked her and said the only thing I could.

“You have our permission to ask as many questions as you need.  You have our permission to ask even after you have asked and you still don’t understand.  Don’t ever let someone stop you from asking a question.  Part of my job as a teacher is to answer your questions, don’t forget that.”

I think of what I have probably said in the past when I have been in a hurry.  When I have been annoyed that a student asked that question.  When I felt sure that they just hadn’t listened  and so they didn’t really deserve for me to answer their question.  I shudder at the permanent damage I may have caused from my own terrible judgment.  I shudder at the things I have taught students just because of my own impatience.

The thing is with teaching that I sometimes forget; part of our job is to answer questions, not judge them with our answers.  Not judge them with our veiled contempt at yet another question.  Part of our job is to create classrooms where students feel safe to ask.  Safe to ask again.  Safe to ask in a different way. Our job is to teach all of the kids.  Even the ones who don’t understand.  Even the ones who ask us question upon question.  Our job is not to teach students that they should never ask a question.  Think of the damage our words may cause.  Think of what we truly teach children with our words.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

aha moment, Be the change, being a teacher, change, inspiration

You Don’t Have to Throw Everything Out to Be Innovative


I almost felt guilty walking to the cabinet.  I almost felt as if I would get busted, as if someone would burst through the door wagging their finger and raising an eyebrow.  Touting me as a phony because am I not “one of those” educators that are supposed to be innovative?  One of those that is constantly trying something new and crazy?  One of those that tells everyone to just take a chance and make a change?  Well I am (sometimes), but I am also human.  And on this day I went to the cabinet to fetch an old lesson, something I knew would work, something that I could use again.  Something that I would probably tweak to fit my new students, but not majorly overhaul, and honestly I felt relieved.

We often confuse great teaching with constant innovation.  We think that to reach all of our students in the best way possible, we must constantly change.  we must never rest.  We must never reuse.  Yet, we forget that we are dealing with children that crave routine.  Children that yes can be creative and curious but at the same time also need some predictability.  Children that can get exhausted when we are constantly trying new things and asking them to discard the old to embrace the new.

And let’s not forget about ourselves.  The job we have is demanding, and we must constantly search for new solutions, yet we forget to give ourselves a break.  There is nothing wrong with using something that has worked before, as long as we make it better each time we use it.  There is nothing wrong with trying something we have tried before.  There is nothing wrong with pulling out old lessons.  Innovation should not be confused with discarding every thing we have tried.  There is beauty in the old, in the tried.  There is beauty when a teacher has experience.  Allow yourself that moment.

So do embrace the old when it works.  Fly the flag of your past lessons that have soared.  Don’t get stuck, but allow yourself to rest in familiarity as well.  Great things come from ideas we have tried on before.  Don’t think you have to constantly change to be a change-maker.

I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA,  who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade.  Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day.  First book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” can be purchased now from Powerful Learning Press.   Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press.  Follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.

Be the change, change, students

Where Did the Year Go? It Is Not Too Late to Make Changes

Today we go on spring break and as I keep telling my new teacher colleague, after spring break the yesar seems to speed up and disappear before our eyes.  All of a sudden even the most experienced teacher starts to feel like they are not doing enough, have not gotten where they though they would, and we intensify our desire to teach more, do more, push more.  Yet, the last few months of the year is not the time to get stuck in routines or expectations, for me it has always been the time to really explore, push my students, and create.

So it is not too late to

  • Start blogging with your students.  Even 3 months of blogging is an incredible experience.  This year with my maternity leave we didn’t start until mid-November and yet my students have taken our blogging to a new level amassing more than 1,600 comments.  Look at my friend Rob Hunt’s class, they just started a few weeks ago and are already master bloggers.  If you need help on why and how please see this page.  
  • Get a class Twitter account.  I admit it, I was a skeptic   Even though I love Twitter, I didn’t see much point in my students as a class being on there as well.  Perhaps it just seemed like too much.  On a whim, I went against my own senses and did create them one @MrsRippsClass and it has been amazing to see what they have used it for.  They have tweeted authors  and received replies (!!!), They have asked for book recommendations, recommended great videos, and shared their live learning   I am already excited about what else we can think to use Twitter for.
  • Do something hands-on.  I know we tend to pull the reins tighter as students get more squirrly but I have found that if I give them even more autonomy  choice, and freedom in our classroom they live up to the challenge.  Now is the time to really push them.
  • Put it all together.  I really start to focus more on themes in our learning and bridging it all during these last few months.  One example is their dream city project currently happening; a fantastic exploration of scale, area, and models combining math, art, and science.  The best part?  The students don’t even know how much work their brains are doing.
  • Give them authentic responsibility.  We love doing Mystery Skypes and have become pretty good at them, yet sometimes they just fall apart on us.  The students have taken on the roles as discussion facilitators and teachers and have changed our process quite a bit.  They are living up to the responsibility I am offering up to them and see the results directly in their work.  I step out of the picture.
  • Start planning for Innovation Day.  My students know this won’t happen until May but their wheels are already turning.  They cannot wait to do this day of intense student-driven passion-led exploration day and I cannot wait to see what they will come up.
  • Incorporate Genius Hour.  20% Projects, Genius Hour, Hour of Power, whatever you choose to call it but look for opportunities within your curriculum to have students self-explore topics.  The concept is simple; research, create, and deliver all within an hour of the week.  We will be doing this in social studies after break.
  • Get involved globally.  Whether through quad blogging, signing up for the Global Read Aloud (which won’t actually happen until October), or doing Projects by Jen; do something global.  My students are currently working on a video introduction of our classroom for a 12th grade in Singapore, contact facilitated through Twitter.  They love figuring out how to showcase our room in a positive manner and it is all student-led.
Now is the time to push your students, have a ton of fun, and let them be independent learners.  Trust me you will not regret it.

To Change Your Change

image from icanread

I have often pondered change and how it truly starts with me.  How change is something we all probably strive for, but few of us fully embrace.  How change doesn’t have to be all or nothing, but can be small steps in one direction and giant leaps in another.  Sometimes change comes about out of necessity, sometimes out of sheer survival needs sometimes change comes from boredom, other times from inspiration.  Wherever change comes from it does seem to be a constant in education today.

And yet, sometimes, ever so often, change is simply not enough.  The idea that you have, however grand and wonderful, just doesn’t win anyone over.  It doesn’t change anyone’s mind, or approach, indeed it changes nothing at all.  And that’s perhaps when one has to focus on a different change; changing the people that you present your idea to.  Perhaps your change would benefit from a new audience and a new approach.  Perhaps your change is simply not being heard by the right ears or viewed by the right eyes.  So rather than going to the one trusted confidante seek someone else out.  Perhaps rather than going to your circle of cheerleaders go to someone who you think will disagree, someone who may be reluctant, someone who may argue, and then see how your change holds up.
Perhaps your change can meet someone else’s change and together you can change something really big.  Perhaps together you will find out that change is not really what is needed but instead refinement or further exploration will do just fine.  Perhaps change is not really that frightening and someone new may embrace it.  Whatever happens, think about what you want to change and why you want to change it, then see how you can change your approach to changing it.  And perhaps, in the end, you will find that change was not really needed but a new collaboration was.
Be the change, change, classroom expectations, guest blog

Flying Above the Radar

With the arrival of our twins, I asked for guest bloggers and was super excited to share this post with all of you by Kaitlyn Gentry…

Too often in education, and in life, people aim to fly under the radar. No one wants to fail, but appearing overtly successful makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It is like a cultural regression towards the mean. Occasionally people fly high and norms are challenged, but aren’t those are statistical anomalies, ones that can be corrected with a wider data sample or retests? Why would a tiny point continue to appear above the radar, outside of that regular curve?

            My previous year was a successful one: students grew, parents were happy, and I emerged from my first year as a third grade teacher unscathed. But that is what happens when you fly below the radar. Soon thoughts began creeping in…Why had the year gone so smoothly? It must have been those sticker charts and earned recess minutes, those warnings of “this is impacting your conduct grade”, the “If I were taking this test, I’d be paying close attention to the chart of page 52.” The carefully calculated control I wielded over my group of eighteen boys had allowed for effortless success; except when it didn’t. Those small failures: students no longer caring to earn extra recess because they saw through the ploy, boys ignoring the conduct grade pleas, memorization of the chart on page 52, without understanding the chart. These were easily explained away: these are the strategies that everyone uses, the boys are ready for summer, the required chart on page 52 is actually pretty boring.
Enter the outlier.
I realized I was wrong. Those excuses were just that, excuses, and I began to see that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. There was a cluster appearing outside of the curve…a conversation was growing about the amount of control exerted upon our students, about the threats of grades, homework, lost recess, and the more subtle “positive reinforcement” of earning stickers or treats to memorize, regurgitate, and perform in lock-step fashion. I realized that in order to make my next year a true success it was not going to be smooth, within the curve, or below the radar.
This year was messy: filled with conversations about citizenship, having a voice, effort, reflection, process over product, and growth over grades. Instead of discussing their monthly grades, each student wrote a reflection paper, covering areas of growth and difficulty in every subject, which we reviewed together. These reflections also went home at the front of their folder, to be reviewed with parents, before grades were discussed if they chose to do so. Instead of removing or adding recess time for talking in the hallways, we discussed the impact of showing respect for the other classes in session. Writing assignments were no longer assigned a letter, instead I wrote to each student on their papers, citing strengths and areas for improvement. My students did not simply “aim for an A,” but sought to improve their writing mechanics, structure, creativity, or detail. Not only did this allow my students to understand specific and measurable goals, but it also helped them take responsibility for their growth. They were not relying on me to “hand down” their grade, they were able to improve by focusing on specific skills.  I eliminated many of the multiple choice tests and created projects which gave the students choices to experience authentic learning opportunities. They were no longer memorizing empty facts about the medieval time period; instead they were investigating the history of medieval warfare to design a realistic video game and “teaser video.” I stopped assigning stickers for books read or neatness. Instead, I learned about what my students liked to read, and why. We discussed beautiful artwork and made connnections between finished art and final papers, with students remarking that craftsmanship is present in both. It was eye-opening to realize how I devalued both of these areas by simply assigning stickers for completion, insteading of encouraging a conversation to occur. I was at times very uncomfortable, and so were my students, but our existence above the radar was making a real impact. Conversations were starting in classrooms nearby, students were responding, and growth was happening. Could I view this year as more of a success?  
Enter the point under the radar.
It was one sentence on a final student survey: “I look like I know what I am doing in compositions, but sometimes I do not; next year look for the boys who don’t stand out.” I had missed one…A tiny, small voice, hidden below the radar. In all of my efforts to reach each student, to listen to them, to support their individual growth, I had overlooked at least one. He was reaching out now, but it was too late, the final desk cleaned, the last locker emptied.
However, his message will help me not regress towards the mean, because the mean is created by those who have already deemed their methods as successful, instead of striving for more. I will not count this year as a “success” because I missed at least one, there is much more to be done, and next year I will continue to be an outlier, to work beyond the curve to reach each student, even those hidden safely below the radar.
Bio of Kaitlyn Gentry:
I am entering into my fifth year of teaching, and my third year with my third grade boys at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. I attended Calvert, and I feel fortunate to be able to give back to such a wonderful community where I am encouraged to explore, take risks, make mistakes, and to grow alongside my students everyday. I have loved establishing a PLN through twitter (@mk8g) this year and write about my ever evolving pedagogy on my classroom blog (http://ninthageboys9-1.blogspot.com/) to teach my students not to just be “consumers,” but “producers” as well!