being a teacher, new year, picture books

My Favorite Back to School Picture Books for 2019

One of my favorite parts of our classroom is our use of picture books to create community, to settle into routines, to get to know each other, and so much more.  This means I am always searching for great new picture books to share during those first few weeks and why not share those.  Some of these are new, some are older, but here is a discussion of what I  will be sharing and why.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins will be our first day read aloud (I think) because it is funny and also because we can talk about some expectations we may have when it comes to our community.  When we can laugh a bit together, it helps ease some of the anxiety that there inevitably is wrapped up in the first (and sometimes many) days of school.

Consent is something I really want to weave throughout the year because there are so many aspects to it that impacts our students.  That’s why we will use Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller to lead us into a conversation about consent as modeled by Elizabeth Kleinrock.  

Being an immigrant and a child who moved a lot means that there were a lot of new days at schools.  As we start our identity work, The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez is used as a mirror text for me, something that speaks to a part of my identity because I have the name teachers have to think about how to pronounce, because I didn’t speak the language, because I never knew who would sit with me and what they would think of my food.  

I was so excited about the new Pigeon book to come out and this one is perfect for discussing emotions regarding going to school.  In The Pigeon Has to Go to School by Mo Willems we get to see how Pigeon feels about going to school which may mirror the feelings of some of our students as well.  This is, thus, a great conversation starter about how school makes us feel as we start to think about identity.

Independent reading is a cornerstone of our classroom and so using How to Read A Book by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Melissa Sweet will fit perfectly in with the conversation about books and how they impact us both positively and perhaps even negatively.  This will be the invitation into how we book shop.

The story of football player and reader, Malcolm Mitchell, is one that I share every year with students and so reading his picture book The Magician’s Hat  is the logical next step.  It is always interesting to see a few kids start to let their guard down about reading books because of him.  

Inquiry is at the heart of our year together in my plans, so I want to use Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s great new picture book Why to discuss what it means to pursue answers and ask many questions.  I like how the book also shows that sometimes there are no answers but there always more questions.

Another picture book to use as we launch inquiry is Does it Fart: A Kid’s Guide to the Gas Animals Pass by Nick Caruso & Dani Rabaiotti illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths. This new picture book is a great way to show how a single question can offer a lot of information and how we can navigate all of that. It is also funny, which is a nice juxtaposition to some of the heavier work we will be doing.

What do we need when we write? I may teach 7th graders but that doesn’t mean that they embrace writing or even know what to add in to their writing, so Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Benji Davis will be a great reminder to the writing process.

Because I haven’t met my students, this is a tentative list. A few of these I will for sure use, some I may or may not, and then are many others that I may use after I meet the kids. There are so many amazing ways to start a conversation, courtesy of the picture books that are created. I cannot wait to uncover which ones we need.

And then we launch into Memoir and Personal Essays where the books I am sharing are on a another list that can be found right here.

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, being me, new year

A Few Ideas for the New Year That I Am Trying

Every year, a few new ideas surface over summer that I just cannot wait to try. A few ideas that make me even more excited for the kids to come, if that was even possible. These ideas are not tried and tested yet, how can they be since summer still beckons, but I thought I would share them anyway in case they are ideas that maybe others want to explore as well? Or perhaps you want to share some of your own ideas as well? Either way, here are a few things happening in my head and in our classroom, room 203.

Ready-Set-Go conferences. These conferences are nothing new, but I have never done them at the middle school level. The concept is simple; offer up a 15 minute time slot ( or longer if you can) to every family that would like to meet with us before the year starts in order to give us a sneak peek into their child’s hopes and dreams. This is not for us to talk, but for us to listen as we meet the families that will be impacted by their child’s school experience with us. I also am pondering offering up “open office” time at a local coffeeshop for those who do not want to go into the school – thank you, Mindy, for that idea. I cannot wait to see how many are able and want to take this opportunity.

First writing unit is all about writing identity. While I do a lot of work with the kids surrounding reading identity, our exploration into who we are as writers has been piecemeal in the past few years. Not this year, our entire first exploration is an inquiry into who they are as writers, being mindful of privacy and how comfortable they are sharing anything, and picking up their journey wherever they are. This will center around personal essays/memoir and also feature a portfolio rather than one finished product. We will go slow, and hopefully, develop trust for writing instruction to truly be centered around not just the needs of each child but also how they hope to grow. And, it will take the time it takes.

Writing Circles. I was thrilled when I learned about the use of writing circles as a way to develop authentic writing partnerships in the book Comprehension & Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels. Now, I want to implement this great idea into our writing throughout the year. Centered on the same concepts as literature circles, writing circles offers each child a unique opportunity to write with others around the same topic, or in the same format, writing alongside each other offering up critique and feedback throughout the process. This is trust based and so the students will get to select their first writing circles to see how they work for them and then I will help them adjust as we go. I am hoping this will provide students with a more natural collaborative group throughout the year that can help them grow as writers, rather than only having a few opportunities throughout the year to work with others. I will probably write more about this as I go.

Pairing book talks with author videos. Every day for the first month, I do a very short book talk every day in the hope that students will find great books to read. (After the first month, students start to do them as well, but they continue all year). This year, after our quick book talk, I will show a short video of the author speaking about the book, their writing process, or just being interviewed in general. This will serve a few purposes; students will see what the creators look like and hopefully connect with their work on a deeper level, seeing authors speak about their books can generate further excitement, and also, representation matters. When I am searching for author videos, Youtube or TeachingBooks.net are great places to start, I am further reminding myself that we should be highlighting the works of underrepresented authors and creators. With older works, I will search for audio recordings.

Supplies for all. I have always had extra supplies ready for kids, but in the past they had to ask for them because I didn’t really have space for them anywhere. Not this year, after heading to the Dollar Store, I am ready with several hundreds of pencils, erasers, post-its, markers, glue etc and they will be set out for the students to just grab when they need. No more needing to ask the teacher, just get what you need, bring it back if you remember, and then get to work. Most kids won’t need them, some will need them a lot, and others will need them once in a while and I am okay with that.

Group writing. We offer up a free writing prompt every day at the end of class, so that kids get a chance to either work on writing of their choice or do the prompt displayed, this is a way for them to continue to develop their writing and also dive into topics that they want to write about. This year, I am purposefully adding in opportunities to write as a group on Friday’s, I am hoping this practice will strengthen their writing circles as well as they will create together. (Writing will take many forms – acting out, drawing, and other multi-media expressions will also be included).

Incorporating an often overlooked history focus. I used to do a meme a day on our morning slide, which most of the kids found mildly amusing, but realized that the morning slide that greets kids is yet another opportunity to highlight the important work of historical figures that may have been overlooked in some of their lives until now. So every day, along with my welcome, will be a historical fact that abut an event or a person that they may not already know. On Fridays, we are also incorporating a small segment called Overlooked History where I use videos to start a discussion about historical events and people such as the Doctrine of Discovery, The Navajo Code Talkers, Henrietta Lacks, Japanese Internment Camps and many others.

While there are many more ideas being explored this year, these are just a few that I am slowly developing in order for them to feel naturally embedded into our classroom culture. I am hoping that this year, once again, is a year filled with questions, curiosity, and also work that means something beyond “just” reading and writing. I hope that what we do will matter more than just the grades, but time will truly tell.

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, being me, new year

On Posters and Welcome Displays

The post I wrote before this was really long and rambling, so much so that I got sick of writing it and instead decided to just get to the point. So here’s the point…

If you come to our room, and many people do, you will see this poster hang next to the door, in a prominent place where I hope every person sees it. This poster is my heart on display, but it also so much more.

Image result for you are just the child we hoped

It is a promise.

A reminder.

A stern warning when needed.

And not to the kids, no, they barely glance at it, but to myself.

A promise to every child that walks in that day no matter their mood, no matter their temper, that in our space they will have space and I will do my best to value them.

A reminder to live the words I choose to share with the world, even when I am tired, frustrated, out of ideas.

And a stern warning to myself when my actions and reactions go against the very words I say I believe in. To stop. To breathe. To find love.

Because let’s face it, the display is easy to make but hard to live up to. Especially after the first few week’s excitement has worn off, especially once we settle into the every day routines, especially after the dust settles and we realize that we have so much to do and somehow we need to get doing it. Especially once we realize that we are, indeed, only humans with dreams and flaws that sometimes get in the way of success.

And so the poster hangs proudly as a reminder to myself to continue to reflect. To look at my own practice, to hold myself accountable even when others may think I am doing just fine. To use my voice to speak up, to try to make change, when so many inequitable practices still exists within the structures of school. To stick my neck out and fight for the kids who we don’t always fight for, even when I am the problem, even when my choices are the problem.

To remember that I cannot say that every child is welcome if the truth is far from it. That I cannot support the education of all children if the inequitable systems are not questioned, changed, broken. That I cannot pretend to be happy that these are the children that showed up if my pedagogical and psychological decisions don’t reflect that.

And so at the beginning of this brand new school year, with a classroom as ready as it can get for now, with all of these ideas in my head, with all of these hopes and dreams, I say this out loud so the universe knows; how will I live up to the words that I promise? How will you?

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, writing, Writing Identity

Why Writing Sucks and We Need to Talk About It

Six years ago, I wrote a piece on here called, Why Reading Sucks and It’s Ok to Talk About It. It has shaped my work ever since. It has become a defining feature of what I believe in when it comes to the work we help students do in our year of reading together. The need to focus on the emotions and experiences that a child carries with them when it comes to the act of reading, the need to validate them wherever they are on their journey in order to, hopefully, help them shape their journey in a more purposeful way. In order to protect those who love reading. In order to help those who hate reading perhaps dislike it a little bit less.

Much like that post, i try to teach kids to care about writing. To see their writing as something they can use beyond the lesson, beyond the product. I try to create situations where they find value in what they do and feel like they were actually taught something that perhaps will help them in their lives. Yet, every year, without a fail, no matter the amazing teaching and classrooms they have been a part of, so many of my students loudly proclaim how much they hate writing. And their actions show it.

“Forgetting” their pencils and not saying anything about it. Repeatedly telling me that they just don’t know what to write. Anger, shut downs, outright refusal. Quickly writing something in order to be done. Sometimes tears. And our students are not alone, often when I teach other teachers, I ask how many of them consider themselves readers – most raise their hand – when I ask themselves how many consider themselves writers, almost all of their hands go down. When I ask them to share a written reflection, you can see the pain behind that in many. And these are adults.

Writing is something that carries a lot of emotions. And we need to talk about that more.

And it needs to be direct, not hopefully something that comes up at some point, but a conversation that acknowledges that writing and the act of sharing one’s writing can be emotional for some, downright terrifying for others.

Because here’s the thing, if we say we want to create classrooms where students feel safe, where they feel accepted, where they feel that we care about them, all of them, then we need to make room for the complicated emotions that can be attached to the work we do. We need to make room for the identity of the writer that shares our space, not just the skills of the writers. And we need to do it purposefully. Not leave it to chance or hope that we will navigate it when it comes up. Think of how powerful it can be when we ask a child to share what they feel comfortable sharing before we dive into the work. When we set up the conditions to say, “It’s ok to not like writing, tell us more about that, so perhaps we can work on that together…” To acknowledge that some of our kids think they are bad writers because their spelling is not strong. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because their grades tell them so. That some of our kids think they are bad writers because they see no value in the types of writing we do, so why invest themselves?

To write something is to make yourself vulnerable to the world. It is to not only share your thoughts but to share them in a way that tells us when they are incomplete, when they perhaps are misspelled, when perhaps our grammar or way of speaking is different than others. It is to create a somewhat permanent record of who we are at that very moment. It is to let others into ourselves.

So as I plan for my first few days of school, one of the central conversations that will ground our identity work for the year will be, “When does writing suck?” I will share my own experiences as a writer in the hope that students will share some of theirs. Then I will hand them post-its; write down as many reasons you can think of for when writing sucks or for when writing is great. You don’t have to put down your name if you don’t want to. You can write to only one side of the experience. You can write down as many as you want. You can share as deeply as you want. Tape them to the board so they don’t fall down.

And then we will step back and look. See the patterns, discuss the patterns. We may see how others share the same thoughts as we do. We will decide on ways to move forward.

We will create our writing rights together, let these community agreements determine our path forward.

Image result for pernille ripp writing rights
Our writing rights based off of last year’s discussion.

I know this is only the beginning, a start that will work for some but not for all. I know that the students have no reason to trust me, yet some will. I know that with others it will take time, action, and courage. I can hope to create the conditions in our shared experience so that at some point, perhaps, writing will be something they don’t hate. Something they can see their own growth in. Something they can see value in. I can hope. But I can also plan.

PS: I just wrote about writing identity some more here.

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, writing, Writing Identity

Starting With Writing Identity First Rather than Writing Skills

White,  Free Image

As I plan our first exploration for the coming year, one that dives into personal essays, I have been thinking about the writing experience itself. About how personal it is. About how draining it can be. About how asking a child to write is really asking them to trust us enough to show off where they need growth. The emotions attached to writing are often overlooked and yet how many of our students will gladly tell us how they are not writers, or at least not good writers? Now many of my students can technically write. They can produce stories that make sense, that use appropriate vocabulary, that move the action along, that convey a meaning or an idea. They can do the writing, but they will tell you quickly, loudly, that they are not writers. This is despite the stellar teachers and experiences that come before them entering our classroom. This is despite the powerful curriculum and experiences put in place in order to help students develop their writing repertoire so they can feel comfortable.

And yet, the same story plays out every year, perhaps it does for you too, classrooms filled with students who groan at the mention of writing. Who tell me they will never use writing for anything outside of school. But it doesn’t match up with what we see; their urgency to tell stories through the social media apps that they use. Their animated conversations as they hurry up to one another, eager to share what just happened. The many students who invest in the world at large, become emotionally engaged with the stories that surround us, I see them interact with writing so much, and yet, if you were to ask students how many of them would find value in writing beyond the grade? The process? The box checked off and onto the next assignment?

So I have been thinking about the rush we feel to get started with skills. With how we plan our units in order to teach as many practical components in order to equip students with the technical know-how they need to produce good writing. With how we plan our first writing unit in terms of what the end product should be to show mastery of skills rather than focusing on the process to see growth not just as a writer but also as a person. I get the urgency to start; education seems to be a race we are all failing at keeping up with, but I wonder at what cost to developing a writing identity does this rush to get started with skills produce in the long run?

When we fail to discuss the identity as writers that students bring with them into our communities, are we really providing students, kids, with a chance to see themselves as writers beyond the classroom?

Can we affect long-term change if we do not recognize the emotions attached to writing and what it means to write at school?

A main focus for me for many years has been the development of reading identity, this is what I teach others to do and what I often share about here. I have been proud of how our students have invested in this work, and yet, I have failed to transfer that work in a meaningful way over to the process of writing and being a writer. While I have used surveys to discuss their writing identity, I have let it fall off the radar, lost in all of the to-do’s. I have failed to create a community where writing identity is seen as important as writing skills. And I think it has been one of my largest missed opportunities.

But not anymore, not this year. This year, we are slowing down. We are starting with an exploration of what it means to write, notice I didn’t say write well, because language matters and sometimes weighted language is all a child needs to remove themselves from the promise of growth. We will focus on what it means to be a writer, on the language that surrounds us as we see our own writing identity. Each day will have a specific discussion point as I slowly, hopefully, build trust within our community to share the emotions or experiences attached to writing.

It will start with a survey after we have discussed why writing sucks and when it doesn’t, a opportunity to set a writing goal, it will continue with chances to play with writing rather than the immediate focus on a product, instead using their writer’s notebooks to try different prompts (with a permanent option to write whatever they want ) as they read powerful essays we have collected to hopefully show them that writing doesn’t have to follow all of the same rules and that there are many different ways to write.

Slowly, hopefully, we will have conversations about the value they want to find within their own writing. On the worth they want to place on their own stories, their own communication.

Will it be enough? No. But it will be a start. A start to something better for me where the very identity of the child that is entrusted to us is at the center of the work, not just the skills, not the program, not the finished product, but the child itself, as much as they will allow it. A start to the yearlong identity work we do as inspired by the Social Justice Standards created by Teaching Tolerance.

Writing is something so many adults don’t do because we feel like our words have no place being shown and shared with others. Even now as someone who has written four books and had them published, as someone who has written publicly for more than 9 years, I still don’t feel like I get to call myself a writer. And I want to change that.

I hope our students will find some sort of value in the work that we will do beyond “the teacher told me to do it…” I hope that by making intentional space for conversations about who they are as a writer and how they want to grow, embracing both the positive and negative aspects of writing identity, will allow us for a more meaningful overall exploration of writing. Lofty goal? Sure, but we have to at least try.

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, Student Engagement

Space

I have been thinking a lot about space lately.

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?

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.