being a teacher, ideas, new year

Some Small Ideas for Implementing Change in the New Year

Don't let your new ideas become forgotten plans. @pernilleripp

I had my first back to school nightmare 3 weeks ago, yes in June, not even a full month into summer vacation.  It was the same standard dream that I think many teachers have as they start to look forward to the year ahead; the children hate you, you are unprepared and everything tends to just get worse from there.  I was surprised at how early the dream occurred at first, yet then I remembered just how excited I am for the next year.  I know it may be too early for some to think about the next school year but when we have this type of job that brings us so much joy, it is hard not to get excited, even if school does not start until September 1st.

As I have been searching for new ideas, new ways to make 7th grade English a better experience for all, I cannot help but think about all of the ideas I have had previous summers.  How my head has been filled to the brim, excitement building, and then something happens between the beginning of the year and the end of the year.  For some reason most of those ideas don’t happen.  Most of those ideas fade away.  As soon as the day-to-day routine starts, our old habits take over and we just don’t do all those things we said we would.  As my colleague Reidun says, “We have all of these ideas in the summer and then  we get into habits and routines because we get busy.”  And that’s it isn’t it?  We get so busy with all the things that teaching encompasses that we tend to not add anything else on as we paddle our way through our days.  But what if we were able to sustain just a few ideas?  What if we planned for the busyness and that way could find the time, break the habits, and actually do some of the things we dream about?  Here are a few ideas to help.

Do things now.  This may sound silly but chances are you already know what you get busy with those first few days of school.  So which of those things can you get busy with right now?  I know that many are on summer vacation but as we relax, what little things can be done right now so that they don’t slow us down later?  I plan on spending some time in my classroom this week shelving books, creating displays, and making a few copies.  Nothing exciting (well maybe making displays gets me pretty excited) but all things that need to get done.

Plan for the change.  If you have a great idea that you really want to implement, then schedule it.  Write it in your planner, create your lesson plan, whatever it is that you need for it to happen.  This is how I go through my first days if school; with a list of things I would like to accomplish and then I plan accordingly.

Change your environment.  We get stuck in the same routines because our environment doesn’t change.  When we work in a space that looks like it did the year before it feels as if our brain pulls us back in the previous year’s mindset.  So if you want to change things, move some furniture around, change the layout, make a physical change to inspire a curriculum change.

Plan your preps.  This idea is also from Reidun, but I had to share it because it is genius.  We tend to focus on planning our lessons but how about we create a plan for what we will do during our preps?  I know I often end up not being quite as productive as I would like because I cannot remember all of the things I would like to accomplish to begin with.  So while you plan your week, or even just your day,  take time to figure out what the goals of your preps should be as well.

Purge.  We get sucked into our old habits because we have all the stuff to do it.  So if you really want to get rid of a lesson or change something up, purge the things that go along with it.  That way you might as well plan for something new since you would have to plan anyway.

Tell someone else.  I have ongoing dialogue with several other educators about what I would like to do next year.  Not only is this a way to get the ideas out of my head but that way they can also check in on me.  We know plans feel a lot more official when we speak them out loud, so find someone to share your ideas with.

Make it visible.  At the end of a school year, where I felt like I had not done enough for my readers, I wrote a post-it to myself.  It still hangs right in front of me whenever I sit down at my classroom computer.  It says “Find them a book.”  This small reminder is all I have needed to keep trying, to keep changing, to keep working toward a better literacy environment for all of my students.  So whatever your idea is, make it visible in the form of a post-it reminder or something similar.  When you look at every day, it propels you forward.  The other post-it I have is a quote from Shane Koyzcan’s beautiful TED Talk, it says “If you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror.”  It hangs there so I remember the good days, so I remember that I am not perfect but that I am trying.

And as always; start small.  Often times our grand ideas fall away because we feel overwhelmed.  So focus on the little things that will lead to those bigger things.  Plan for those small things so that each day becomes a step toward the bigger change that you would like to see.

What do you do to keep your ideas alive?

PS:  To make it official; some of my new ideas include incorportaing writer’s process by using The Yarn Podcast, doing a version of Penny Kittle’s multi-genre project, focusing more on micro writing, and also getting students more time to discuss.  Now you can help me stay accountable.



Be the change, being a teacher, ideas

Why Not You?

I have spent more minutes talking to Charter Spectrum in the last few months than I care to remember.  Apparently our internet is determined to make me not work every night and Charter continues to say there is nothing wrong.  As I spoke to the kind lady on the line tonight, I finally told her that I could not understand how this could be acceptable.  Her response; well, this is how it is with every internet provider.  Little did she know she would inspire me to blog, because this is what we hear over and over in our schools.  In education.  In our teaching.  “This is how it is..This is how we have always done…This is how it works.”

How often have those very words stopped our grand ideas?  How often have they stopped us from taking a risk?  From trying something new?  From being the first?  Or even from being the second?  How often has routine, tradition, and “just fine” ideas stopped us from doing something new?

Evolution happens when something changes.  It happens when someone takes a risk, even a small one, and tries something new.  Creativity is based upon risk taking, invention, and new ideas.  So if we say we want schools to be relevant.  If we say we want schools to work for all children.  If we say we want schools that will foster innovation and help students dare to be more, then why not you?  Why not let yourself be the one that tries something new?  That tries an idea that might not work?  Why not you and your ideas?  And why not now?

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, Be the change, ideas, Reading, students

On Slow Readers and What It Means for Student Reading Identity

I am ready to hang a banner in our classroom to loudly display the following words, “Being a slow reader does not make you a bad reader!” and then point to it every time a child tells me with a downward glance that they are slow readers.  The shame of the designation oozing from them.

Since when did taking your time as you read become something to be ashamed of?

And yet, they continue to tell me they are slow as they share their true reading lives.  They tell me that being a slow reader means they hate reading, that they cannot find any books, that there is no way they will ever read enough books in 7th grade and that there is nothing to be done about it.  They have given up because of speed.  They have given up because of everything they have attached to the word “slow.”

And with our emphasis on getting things done, including books, in our schools I cannot blame them.

So I tell them instead that they are not “slow,” they are simply taking their time.  That yes, increasing reading speed can become a goal for them but that it should not be the only goal.  That I understand that when you read at a slower pace (notice the difference in word choice) that you sometimes lose meaning so we need to find a pace that works for them.  Because you see, being a fast reader does not make you a great reader.  In fact, I struggle publicly with my own fast reading and have as one of my goals that I need to slow down.

Yet, they do not believe me.  Not yet anyway.  And how can they?  When the standardized tests they take to measure their worth as readers are timed?  When the countdown clock appears urging them to hurry up and answer or else it will count against them?  When I give them all a book challenge of reading 25 books or more and they automatically feel that is a mountain they cannot conquer?  When they see their friends whizzing through books and cannot help but compare themselves?

We create environments where fast = good and slow = bad.

So as Thomas Newkirk says, “There is no ideal speed in reading.”  Instead it depends on the purpose, the time, the book they are reading.  And that is what we should be teaching toward.  That students need to find a reading pace that works for them and then make sure that the reading environment we create supports that.  We have to remove the stigma of the word “slow.”  We have to help our students find success as readers, to redefine their own reading identity so that that very identity does not become a stranglehold or the reason they give up before they even begin.

So we hand them books they can conquer successfully to build up the confidence they lack.  And I don’t mean books designated by levels, but books that they want to read based on interest.  We hand them graphic novels.  We hand them page turners where they will want to read on.  And then we hand them time.  We remove the “get it done” pace that seems to surround us as we teach.  And every time they say they are slow readers and mean it as a bad thing, we tell them they are mistaken.  We change the very language we use so that they can find a new way to identify themselves.  So that they can feel proud of the time they take when they read, rather than see it as yet another deficit.

We decide what being a slow reader means.  That change comes from us.  Our job is to make sure students know it.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) just came out!

assessment, assumptions, Be the change, being a teacher, grades, ideas

7 Simple Things that Make Feedback and Assessment About the Students Again

I think we all are always looking for ways to ease the assessment and feedback process in our classrooms, I know I am!  And I get it, giving feedback and doing great assessment with 120 students, or even just 20 students, can seem like an unwieldy beast at times.   So while I wrote about lessons I have learned while trying to limit grades, I thought I would also offer up the practical things that have made my day-to-day better.  Behold, a few things to maybe make your feedback and assessment process easier.

Background:  I now work in a district that is doing Standards Based Grades and moving away from letter grades.  We also believe that formative work is practice work and can therefore not count toward a summative score, and finally, that students have the right to re-take work.  At my middle school, we have a 2 week automatic re-take policy that we encourage students to use in case they need extra help with a concept.  

They have a notebook that stays in the room.  I have learned the hard way that when students leave with their notebooks,  they sometimes do not come back with them.  So this year, I instead created a readers notebook for them to keep in the classroom.  Yes, it was a lot of paper, but it means that my students always know where to write their thoughts, it means that all writing about reading only happens in the classroom, and it also means that I have access to them at all time.  This means that not only do we have a routine established for responding to reading, which frees up time, but also that student scan see their thoughts develop over time along with the feedback I give them.  Each class has a bin on my shelf for easy access every day and they grab them when they come in before they start their independent reading time.

They have a manila folder with their names on it in real life or electronically.  Each class is separated into 5 different groups and each group has a folder.  All work that students do that is not in their readers notebook go in these folder.  This year, the students will even file it themselves to save time.  Why collect the work?  Because my students write way more than I can assess, so this allows them a gathering place for all of their work.  When a unit is nearing its end, I ask them to pick the one piece that they want me to assess.  I also do this for anything we do electronically (but I respect the fact that some of my students want to hand write rather than type).  The discussion that happens based on what they select for me to look at are richer because I know they had to think about it and not just hand me the last thing they wrote.  This also signals to them that they are not working to get through things, but to learn, and that every piece of work they create has value eve if it does not get assessed

I have pre-printed labels with comments.  Not for everything, but when I give feedback in their readers notebooks there are certain things that crop up again and again.  That is what the pre-printed labels are for.  These change throughout the year and I do not reuse the same ones from unit to unit.  It is always catered to what we are working on  what I am noticing with the students, and are explained before they are put on their work.

The students self-assess before I assess.  At the end of unit, before anything is handed back by me, the students will then set goals and reflect on their work.  This involves them scoring themselves as far as where they are with their  proficiency in the chosen standard.  The score is based on a standard they have deconstructed to put into student-friendly language, and also based on a rubric they have built with me or we have discussed.  I want my students’ to have a chance to reflect before their confidence is skewed by my words.

Standards are assessed twice at least.  We have 7 standards to cover in English this year and all of them will be assessed for a summative score at least twice in separate quarters.  It is a chance for students to truly see that mastery may come at a different time for them than their peers and that that is ok.  It also allows us to establish a baseline score and then see how they grow.  When a standard is only assessed once, we assume that all students grow at the same rate, which we know is not true.   So instead, make it a point to show students that knowledge is something we gain at all times and that they are the masters of their growth.

They have a chance to disagree.  Once students have self-assessed, it is my turn.  I will either handwrite their assessment or speak to them about it.  But even then it is not final, it is a conversation, and students know that this is their chance to speak up.  Too often we gloss over the assessment piece by handing things back at the end of class and forget that this is one of the largest opportunities we have for meaningful conversations about their learning journey.  Don’t rush through it but take the time to discuss, reflect, and set new goals.

All work is kept in the classroom, pretty much.   I need to know what my students know.  Not what others know, not what they later figured out, but what they know right now.  So any kind of summative work is done in the classroom, not at home, so that I can see how they work on a product with time management and the need for them to think deeper.  This also fits into my policy of limited homework.  And it forced me to evaluate what I am asking them to do, since I can see how much time something takes.  ( I also do all of the work my students have to do, which has definitely been an eye-opening experience).

PS:  For the how-to for eliminating or limiting grades, please consider reading my book Passionate Learners.  There is a whole chapter dedicated to not just the why, but the actual how.

being a teacher, books, ideas, Literacy, MIEExpert15, Passion, picture books

But How Do You Really Teach With Picture Books?


2 days into the year and already we have shared 5 picture books.  Today I read How to Read A Story by the amazing Kate Messner 5 times as we discussed what we love and hate about reading.  As we discussed what makes a great reading experience.  As I invited my students to come on over, one boy clapped his hands, “Story time!” he said.  And not in a sarcastic 7th grade too-cool-for-school kind of way, but in the way that little kids say  it; excited to hear the story.   Excited to share in this moment.  No one laughed at him, instead others joined in, murmuring their appreciation as well.  Story time began as we sat around the rocking chair.

So I read aloud, and we added one more book to our “How many picture books in a year” bulletin board and my students left feeling like there was absolutely nothing wrong with doing just this; sharing a picture book even though now they are in middle school and maybe too old for some things.

I am often asked why picture books?  Why spend the money on these seemingly simple books?  Do I really teach with them or is it just for fun?  And sure, sometimes it is just for fun, but most of the time?  Picture books are serious business in our classroom.

I don’t just buy picture books because they look fun.  A lot goes into the selection process.  These are sacred texts we are bringing in, ones that will build our community, inspire us, and make us better readers and writers.  That is something I take very seriously.

Selecting one to be read aloud is not done lightly either.  At the moment I am contemplating whether to use The Day I Lost My Superpowers by Michael Escoffier or Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman as we get ready to discuss how we stop identifying ourselves as readers or writers tomorrow.  I use them as a way to bridge a conversation that otherwise might be hard for some of my students to start.  I use them as a way to access topics that sometimes my students cannot speak about because they are afraid of how others will react.  Yet, when a character in a picture book goes through a situation that resonates with them then it becomes a safe conversation for them to have as well.  You want to speak about loneliness in your classrooms?  Read The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig or To the Sea by Cale Atkinson.

I use picture books as mentor texts, guiding us as we hone our own craft as readers, writers, and speakers.  We read them once to find out the story, and then later I bring them back as we look at writers craft.  We use them to figure out how to tell our message in a powerful way, such as by studying the careful word choice of Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson.  We use them for setting up plot while still leaving our reader in suspense such as the storytelling found in The Skunk by Mac Barnett.  We use them for when we are seemingly stuck for topics to write about and forget how extraordinary something simple can be such as the stories shared in Float by Daniel Miyares and Something Extraordinary by Ben Clanton.

Picture books are not just something we read, we write them ourselves in our epic nonfiction picture book project.  We study them.  We speak about them.   We get ideas and inspiration from them.  We carefully protect the time we have to read them.  They are the mentor texts we shape our instruction around.

They become part of the tapestry of our room and something the students search out for solace when they need to feel like they are readers again. As one child told me yesterday after I had shared our very first picture book, “Picture books make you remember your imagination again.”  And I knew that these kids got it.  That they knew that this wasn’t just me having some fun, but that picture books will teach us some of the largest lesson this year.  That picture books are not just for little kids and laughter.  They are for readers of all ages, and in particular, those who have gotten lost.

PS:  If you want to know which picture books, or at least a small sample of which I have in our room, see these lists.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge, but rumor has it that it is out on Kindle already!

aha moment, being a teacher, being me, ideas, new teacher, new year

The One Great Idea Promise

image from icanread

School is nearly starting here in Wisconsin.  Less than three weeks until we say hello.  For some of my friends, it has already started and for others this is not the beginning of a new year.  We are surrounded by the buzz of excitement that comes from starting anew.  We are surrounded by the energy that will lift us up and carry us forward, led by dreams.  We are surrounded by the myriad of ideas we have concocted, come across, and considered as we inch nearer to that first magical day.

But what do you do with an idea?  to quote one of my favorite picture books.  Because we have all of these ideas that we cannot wait to try.  We have all of these ideas that will change the way we teach, change our students’ lives, and hopefully inspire change overall.  We have so many ideas that we often overwhelm ourselves before we even begin.

So I give you the one great idea promise; promise yourself that you will hold on to just one idea and pursue it with every thing you’ve got.  Find your essence, find your core, and hold on to that with every planning step you take.  Write it out, hang it up, and keep it in the forefront whenever you plan.  This is where your energy should go.  That doesn’t mean to dismiss all of the other ideas you have, but to let them slide in when they fit.  Write them down because you will forget them, but circle the one that will set apart this year from last.  Find your one great idea and love it with all of your might.

We say we want to change the world, but sometimes we need to just change one thing.  So find your thing and do it.  Don’t give up because you didn’t do them all.  The students don’t need you to do all things, they need you to do just one; love them and your job.  The students await.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.