3 Questions to Ask for a Critical Re-Evaluation of Your Classroom Library

“Really, Mrs. Ripp, another book about Civil Rights?” Spoken by one of my African American students as I pulled out the picture book I intended to use in our mini lesson.

Another book about Civil Rights….

His words followed me all of the way home.  Not because I was worried he didn’t know enough but because of what had followed those first words.

“You always pick those books…”

And he was right.  In my eagerness to embed more knowledge about the Civil Rights Movement into our mini lesson on advice from older characters, I wasn’t thinking about his representation to the rest of our mostly white class.  How once more what I showcased only supported a familiar narrative.  His words prompted a realization that seemingly the only picture books I used or that we even had in our classroom library featuring African Americans in them had to do with either slavery or Civil Rights.  Not every day life.  Not non-famous African Americans.  Just those two topics.  This realization has shaped a lot of my book purchasing decisions as of late and just how much work I still have to do.

I have been focused a lot on diversity of books, it’s hard not to when our world seems to need understanding, empathy, and fearlessness more than ever.  While our classroom library has been ever expanding with more diverse picks, I have realized through the help of my students that diversity is not enough.  That simply placing books that feature anything but white/cisgender/Christian characters in them is not enough.  It is a start, sure, but then how do we go further than that?

We ask ourselves; how are characters represented?

Prompted by the comment from my student, I now look for how characters of any race/skin color/culture are represented in all of our books.  Is everyone represented?  Even sub-groups that my students may not even be aware of?  Are we only showcasing one experience?  Are we only highlighting the famous people of that sub-group?  Are we only representing one narrative of a group of people that live a myriad of narratives?  My own ignorance has often led to blunders, such as the one described here, but I can do better. I can make sure that the books I bring in lead to realizations and understanding about others, not more of the same.

So don’t just ask who is represented, but ask how are they represented?  How would I feel if my own children were represented in this way?

We ask ourselves; do we have #OwnVoices authors represented?

The #OwnVoices hashtag is one I have been paying attention to as I look at the diversity of our classroom library and even on my own reading experiences.  Started by Corinne Duyvis the hashtag focuses on recommending books written/illustrated “about marginalized groups of people by authors in those groups.”  That is why I know Google who the author is and what their background is as I decide on placing a book in the library.  That is why I read blogs like Disability in Kidlit  (soon to be shut down which breaks my heart), follow Reading While White which had an entire month dedicated to OwnVoices books,  and also try to educate myself on what is out there.  If we want true representation in our classrooms then we have to do the legwork to make sure all marginalized groups are represented in the books we share with students.

So don’t just ask do I have broad representation in characters, but ask do I have broad representation in authors/illustrators?

We ask ourselves; how are books highlighted and selected?

Gone are the days where I haphazardly selected books to put on display or book talk.  Now my displays and selection process takes a little bit more time; which books are put out to grab for students?  What do the covers look like?  Who are the stories representing?  I also do not “just” put African American books on display for February to celebrate Black history month, but have them out all of the time.  My students should be immersed in a diverse reading experience at all times, not just in carefully selected months.

So don’t just grab a few books to put out because they are new; grab books that will offer students a wide reading experience and will expose them to new authors/titles that will broaden their own world.  Do not reserve diverse texts for a few months but have them on display at all times.

While I have grown, I have a long way to go.  My wish-list of books right now are a few hundred titles deep, especially as I focus on the sub-groups that are severely underrepresented in our library.  I am still educating myself, seeking out new titles, and seeking out those that know more than me.  If you want to see books that are getting added to our classroom library, follow me on Instagram as I share all new titles there.

One picture book that I urging every one to read and buy is this one

when-we-were-alone

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson and Julie Fleet.  

From Amazon:

When a young girl helps tend to her grandmother’s garden, she begins to notice things that make her curious. Why does her grandmother have long, braided hair and beautifully colored clothing? Why does she speak another language and spend so much time with her family? As she asks her grandmother about these things, she is told about life in a residential school a long time ago, where all of these things were taken away.

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

5 Tenets of Choice

I have long believed in putting the “person” back in personalized learning.  In creating engaging classroom experiences with our students as we try to help them discover how they learn best and what they still need to grow in.  However working in the public school system in a state that has mandates and tests to take, means that we sometimes cannot just do whatever we want as we explore 7th grade English.  Means that I am not always able to tell my students to create whatever they want and make it work within our standards.  Means that sometimes we all do the same lesson or produce a similar outcome.  Even if I work in a district that is focused on doing what is best for each child and puts immense trust in its teachers.  Even if at my core I believe that children need to feel like they have control in their learning experience so that they will invest themselves.  And I think this is the reality for many teachers that are trying to do their best in engaging all of their learners.  So how do we truly create experiences where students feel empowered and engaged and have choice, even when it is not free rein at all times?

One of the foundations in our classroom is the five tenets of choice.  These ideas by themselves are the foundation for many successful educational experiences, these ideas have been around for a long time, and these ideas, when coupled together, mean that my students always have choice in something, even if it is not apparent at a quick glance.  While the optimal experience would be for them to have all of these choices at any time, sometimes this is not possible within the system I work.  So, instead, I strive for at least two of these, but preferably more, at any given time.

This tiny excerpt from my forthcoming book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Engaging and Reaching Every Child, details the five tenets of choice, hopefully they will be of help to others as well.

1st Tenet

Choice in engagement, meaning how they access the learning; do they need small group instruction, one-on-one conferring, are they independent or want to work with a peer?  I have students do a pre-assessment of how they would like to work through a project and then plan my classes according to their needs.  To see a sample pre-assessment survey, please see the appendix.   

2nd Tenet

Choice in product, meaning what would they like to create to show their understanding and exploration of a concept.  Sometimes this means full control of the product depending on the standards we are working with, while other times it only means minimal choice such as the format of their written work.   

3rd Tenet

Choice in setting, meaning how and where would they like to learn.  As discussed previously, students need to be afforded opportunities to manipulate the learning community environment to suit their needs.  This is part of their learning journey and so students can choose where they sit, how they sit, whether they work in the learning community or in other designated areas, as well as how they use the environment they are working in.   

4th Tenet

Choice in timeline, meaning when they are ready to be assessed.  While this one is harder to do at times, I do try to provide flexible timelines for students, as well as stay in tuned with what else is happening in other classes.  This may mean that for a longer project I will tell students what the final day is for them to turn something in but that they can turn it in any time they are ready before then.   

5th Tenet

Choice in assessment, meaning how and what I assess as far as their mastery of concepts.  Inspired by Kelly Gallagher I will often ask students to turn in the piece that they think showcase their depth of understanding the best and then assess and confer with them regarding this one piece of work.  This allows students more flexibility and control over how they are assessed, as well as gives them the opportunity to reflect on what mastery really means.  This tenet also means that once students have shown mastery for a quarter, they do not have to prove it to me again but can instead move on to more challenging work.  This is a way for me to ensure that students are provided with learning that matches their needs better and also allows them for more self-directed learning.  

If you like what you read here, consider reading any of my books; the newest called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  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.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 .   Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

The Best in 2016 – My Favorite Posts of the Year

Who would have known what this year would bring, how the world would look so different from the promises we arose with in our minds on January 1st.  We have made it another trip around the sun and tomorrow we start a new year, a new book so so to speak.  Who knows what will grace this blog in 2017.

This was a year of change for my family.  Theadora, our oldest, changed school districts, the twins, Ida and Oskar, started 4-K, and my husband left the construction business after 19 years to become a stay-at-home dad and also go back to school to pursue his dream of being a teacher.  It seems in a family life of change, I was the only constant.  A new book was published, another one almost written and so many opportunities to grow as a teacher.   There were 154 posts published on this post, many of them involving literacy, many of them involving books, so which are the ones that stood out to me?

Broken Child

A post about our oldest daughter and realizing that while she does not learn in a typical fashion at times, she was never broken.  Excerpt:

She’s got my eyes, you know.

Blue mixed with gray depending  on the weather.   She’s got my long legs, arms for miles, and a laugh that comes from her heart.  Her hands look like my grandfather’s who gave her her name.  And those feet of hers are just like mine, growing too fast for her shoes to keep up.

She’s got her daddy’s sense of humor, always ready to make you smile.  And also his artistic eye, declaring one day she will be an artist.  She will paint the sky with every color she knows.

But she doesn’t have my skills of sitting still.  Of staying quiet.  Of focusing in.

She doesn’t smile easy or understand when others are kidding.  Friendships are sometimes hard to find.

Some would say she is a broken child.  Some would say she is a broken child.

12 Ways I Got My Life Back in Balance As a Teacher

A post I needed to remind myself that while teaching is an incredible job it is not the only thing I want my life to be consumed with.  Excerpt:

I get asked often how I do it all.  How do I teach full-time, have 4 children, a happy marriage, and also write, speak, and all of those other things that I am so lucky to do without losing my mind.  And the truth is; I don’t know.  There are good days where I feel like I have succeeded in most things and there are days where I feel woefully overworked.  There is definitely a chase of balance always going on.  Yet, there are some things that have simplified my teaching life that I now take for granted.  Things that used to take up a lot of time that I no longer do or have changed to allow me to not work as much as I used to.  Because the truth is; being a teacher is a never-ending job.  Your to-do list is never done.  There will always be one more thing that should get done, one more idea to try.  Knowing that, I knew I needed to change a few things, in and out of the classroom in order to save my sanity and have a life.

On the Need for Classroom Libraries for All Ages

A post to remind ourselves that the need for classroom libraries coupled with a school library (and librarian!) does not end after elementary school.  We need classroom libraries in all of our classrooms, no matter the age.

It took me 3 seconds to decide that I was going to move my entire classroom library into my 7th grade classroom.  Coming from 5th grade I wasn’t quite sure what the use of a classroom library would be on my new adventure, after all, we would only have 45 minutes together, but I couldn’t leave my books behind.  I couldn’t leave them in boxes.  Even if we didn’t need the books as a class, I needed them.  My books were home to me and when you change schools, when you change districts, when you change grade levels, you need all of the pieces of home you can find.

My husband carried every single box of books into my classroom.  There were more than 100 and they took up an entire wall as I waited for my bookshelves to arrive.  He didn’t mind too much, he has realized a long time ago that I my obsession with books is part of who I am.  As I opened each box and shelved the books in their new home, I couldn’t help but wonder if any child would ever read them?  If dust would soon become their second skin rather than the hands of children.  Was there any point in my meticulous placement of books?

Reading Conferences Within the 45 Minute English Classroom, Yes, It Is Possible

I have tried for the past three years to find time to confer with my students within the 45 minutes that I teach.  It is so hard, but here are the ideas that have helped it become more of a reality.

Confession time; I am terrible at conferring with my students.  This once proud foundation of my elementary classroom is now a crumbling pillar in my 7th grade English class.  Call it a victim of the 45 minute I have to teach everything in.  A victim of the so much to do.  A victim of not quite knowing how to make it productive.  Whatever it is, the conferring that I know I should be doing has simply not been getting done.

Yet a few weeks ago, I realized that the one thing I needed the most (besides more time, more books, more knowledge) was the simple conference.  The one to one interaction with every single one of my students if even for just a few minutes.   Because conferring is the one way I can really reach all students.  Is the one way we can connect the best.  Is the one way that I can really see what each child needs.  Conferring is the best way for me to be a better teacher to all of the needs must of us are faced with.   So even within the 45 minute English class, with almost 120 students spread over 5 classes, there had to be a way.  There had to be tweaks that could be made to make it work so an experiment began.

The Test Does Not Care

Every spring I am confronted with the hours of tests my students have to take, this year was no different.  I have realized though that the test does not care about my kids and it never will.

We teach our students to ask questions, to share, to discuss.  We teach them to find help when they need it, take their time when they can, and to always use their tools.

They sit where they are comfortable in order to access the learning best.  They reach out to those they trust and they use us whenever they are lost or just want to make sure that the path they are headed down is, indeed, the right one.

We try to create learning environments where discovering facts is only the first step of the journey, using them as a way to further understanding is the next.  We use our shared ideas to further the knowledge of others.  Where mistakes happen and we try again.  We try to create learning environments where students have a voice, where they have choices, where we try to make it personal so that the experience they have makes sense for who they are.

What Every Teacher of Reading Should Do According to My Students

Besides my own children my students have always been the biggest professional development I have received.  So it made sense to share their truths as they told me what made them love or hate reading with the world.

I have watched in amazement day upon day as our 7th graders have fallen into reading.  Have become still.  Have been whisked away to other worlds with their books in their hands and nothing to do but read.  I have listened as they have spoken of books, have handed them to each other, have recommended and requested.  Have been in competition with one another to read the book first, have asked me for that one book that they just can’t seem to find.

I have watched as my 118 learners became readers.  Not that they weren’t before, well some weren’t, but now; books are a part of who they are, at least in the 45 minutes we share.  Readers who were dormant are now awake.  Readers who were resistant are now in a fragile dance with books that entice them to keep reading.  Readers who already read have found bigger challenges to keep themselves engaged.  And I am so grateful.  Because these kids gave me a chance  and I now see the difference as we race toward the end.

So today I asked them; what do you wish every teacher would do for you as a reader and they told me, and then they told me to tell the world.

I’ve Had Enough  – No More Public Behavior Management Systems

For years I have fought against the use of public behavior management systems for kids and yet I still see, hear, and read about them every month.  Our job is not to publicly shame children, it never was, why do we seem to forget that?

When I was a 5th grade teacher, my classroom was the very last one before the buses.  Every day, all of the school’s students would pass by and inevitably some of those students and I would strike up a conversation.  Day after day, a little kindergartener would tell me about his day, his shoes, his new fish, or whatever else popped into his mind.  One day, he saw me and beamed,”Guess what, Mrs. Ripp!”  “What?” I asked.  “Peter was on yellow today!”  He told this news as if it was the biggest gift, excitement spilling from his little body.  Momentarily confused, because wasn’t this child’s name distinctly not Peter, it finally dawned on me; he was talking about another student.  “Oh yeah?” I said.  “Yes, Mrs. Ripp, it’s exciting, he hasn’t been on yellow all year…”  It was November.  My heart dropped.

Here was a kindergarten student who every single day so far of the year had been on red. Who every day had their behavior dissected in front of the rest of the class.   Whose classroom identity was being distinctly shaped by poor decisions and whose biggest identifier was his behavior.  I can only imagine what my kindergarten friend would tell his parent every day about Peter.

The Reading Rules We Would Never Follow As Adult Readers

Written as a reminder to myself, this post resonated with many when we spoke about the insanity of reading rules we sometimes create in our classrooms.  I am grateful for the discussions this one continues to generate.

Choice.

The number one thing all the students I have polled through theJust an ImmigrantJust  years want the most when it comes to reading.  No matter how I phrase the question, this answer in all of its versions is always at the top.  Sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding, sometimes just stated as a matter of fact; please let us choose the books we want to read.

Yet, how often is this a reality for the students we teach?  How often, in our eagerness to be great teachers, do we remove or disallow the very things students yearn for to have meaningful literacy experiences?  How many of the things we do to students would we never put up with ourselves?  In our quest to create lifelong readers, we seem to be missing some very basic truths about what makes a reader.  So what are the rules we would probably not always follow ourselves?

Just an Immigrant

Many people are not aware that I am not an American and this year I became even more aware of the privilege my origin and skin color carries.  I had to write about it.

Eighteen years ago, almost to the day, I stood in a small office in the Logan International Airport, Boston, Massachusetts clutching a sealed envelope to my chest as I tried to slow my galloping heart.  In the envelope was a copy of my chest x-rays, not seen by anyone until the official in front of me would open them up.  My pile of papers had been handed over and he riffled through them, tossing those aside that seemed unimportant.  I am not sure I took a breath at all.  I knew that if he found a mistake, if something seemed out of sorts, if something was missing, or a box was not checked, that was it.  No questions, no explanations, I would be back on a plane to Denmark and all of the time, money, and hoping would have been for nothing.  Standing there as an eighteen year old, I remember feeling so little, so scared, and so unsure of myself.  My fate was in the hands of a stranger and all I could do was smile.

“What are you doing here?” or something similar is all I remember being asked.  I must have answered correctly, in my perfect English, because he finally stamped my passport and handed it back to me.  “Welcome to the United States of America…”

The Worst Class in (X) Years

What do we do when a class’ reputation defines them as a group?

My last year as a 5th grade teacher we were warned, in a friendly way ,of course, as these warnings tend to be.  “Oh, you will have your hands full…”  Oh, THAT group is coming up.”  My team and I had seen these kids come up through the years, that is the beauty of elementary school.  Yes, we had seen the tantrums, the fighting, the crazy behavior that made many label this group as the worst in (insert however many) years.  But we also had seen the kindness, the energy, the fun that these kids projected and knew that while we may have our hands full, the year with them would be a year where we would always strive to look for the good, rather than the bad because although the bad was so easy to spot, it should not define a group of kids.  Sure there were days where we could not believe what was going on but what I remember most about that year was how incredible the kids were.  How much fun we had.  How there were these incredible lows but also days that were some of the best of my teaching career.  My team would agree with me on this.  Yes we had THAT group but also loved THAT group.

Every year since then I have taken that same pledge; to always look for the good first.  To always praise, to always point out how great of a group this group is.  To change the group narrative in some small way.   To always assume that this will be an incredible year no matter the reputation of a group.  I think it is so easy to fall prey to the notion of the worst class ever.  I think it is so easy to just want to get through a year as quickly as possible, I know there are days that seem never ending where we question everything we do.  Yet when we do, we forget something very important; not every kid is going to have a bad day every day.  Not every kid is going to have a bad class every class.  Sometimes it may seem like this is the toughest day yet, but that too shall pass and just like we hope for a better day tomorrow, so do the very kids we teach.

 

The Least We Can Do 

I was asked to do an Ignite at ITEC, I realized that there was one story I wanted to tell above all; the story of Augustine and her much too soon arrival and how it reminds me that the least we can do is love the kids who show up.

On December 19th, 2013, our youngest daughter, Augustine, was born almost 10 weeks early.  She came so fast that there was no doctor in the room, just the nurse.  She came so fast that I now know what the big red emergency button in a hospital room does.  She came so fast that I did not see her.  I did not hold her.  She did not cry.  For the first minute of her life, I did not know if she was alive.  It wasn’t until my husband, Brandon, told me she was breathing that I think I took a breath.  That life started up again because for that longest minute of my life, with no wailing to calm me down, I had no idea if I was still the mother of three or the mother of four.

They whisked her away from me into their machines, into the equipment that would help her tiny body breathe, stay warm, and her heart keep beating.  See when babies are born that early they need help with everything.  And we can prepare all we want but it is not until they actually arrive and we see how much they need us that we realize that all of a sudden we have started a new journey, one that will take us down a perilous path where we might not be able to see our destination for a long time.

Dear Dav Pilkey

I have long chronicled Thea’s reading journey on this blog and how it has shaped me as a teacher and as a human being.  This letter of gratitude to Dav Pilkey sums her journey up to now.

Dear Dav Pilkey,

You don’t know me, not unless you count the every brief moment I stood in front of you a few hours ago in your book signing line.  Yet I feel like I know you, perhaps that is what happens when your books have shaped the reading lives of so many of my students, I have seen the power they hold to transform children, I am grateful.  But just recently your books have taken on a new meaning for me.

You see, our oldest daughter, Thea, is what some would define as a struggling reader, we choose not to but instead just see her as a child who has not yet found her place in the world of reading, who so desperately wants to belong but still feels like she is on the outside looking in.  Who is developing with every book encounter she has.  Who has to work so hard when it comes to something that others find to be so easy.  Who for all of the years of her school experience has been given support by extraordinary teachers who have helped her believe that one day those words will come off the page and come alive.   Just not yet…

A Quiet Moment

These kids we teach and the books we read, oh what a combination it can be at times.

Life is full right now.  Full of so many wonderful things.  Full of so many privileges, but also challenges, things that will make me grow as a person, as a teacher, as a human being trying to be a better human being.  One of my privileges is to get to teach a class with some pretty incredible kids in it.  They are bouncy, creative, loud at times.  Sometimes they need reeling in that can take more than few minutes and yet every day as they walk out, although I am a little bit tired, I cannot wait for them to come back.

Today, the day after Halloween, I did not know what to expect.  After all, one child had declared to me the day before that really all school should just be cancelled the week of Halloween.  As a mother witnessing my own children’s lethargy this morning, I had to wonder what the day would bring.  Would these boys even be ready for anything?  Would it be a day of wasted time?  As the day grew on and the kids seemed to wake up from their tiredness, I started to ponder just how loud the end of the day would be?  Where would the crescendo hit?

A Story of A Child That Can

Rather than viewing our children through what they cannot do, we need to view them as they are now; capable, changed, and facing a whole life of possibilities ahead.

For the past three years, on December 19th, I have written about the miracle that is our youngest daughter, Augustine.  About her much too soon arrival.  About the fear.  The uncertainty.  The guilt…

I have written about my hope for others to see how a child’s start in life may still haunt them many years later when they show up in our classrooms.  I have written about how the very least we can do is love them when they come.  How we can prepare all we want and yet never be fully ready.

Augustine’s much too soon arrival has shaped our lives in many ways, and yet…last night when I came home from school I did not see a baby that arrived too early.  I did not see a 4 pound miracle.  I did not see a child wrapped up in long nights and frightening futures.  In machines and medical personel.  I saw an almost three year old showing me her pig, Pua.  I saw an almost three year old that wanted to watch that monster show.  I saw an almost three year old that kept her siblings awake by making cat noises.

As I look ahead to 2017, I cannot wait to see what I will write about.

 

 

We Don’t Just Teach Curriculum

My first year of teaching I don’t think I ever thought about the end of the year until the end came.  Taught every day as if this was the only day that mattered.  Taught every day with short-term goals in mind but was too overwhelmed to think about the whole year.  To think about how my 4th graders would have changed by the time they were ready for 5th.  I think this is common, it is part of the first year survival strategy.  One day at a time, sometimes it seems like one lesson at a time.  We keep the whole child in mind but really just teach the skills that we set out to cover and hope we do a well enough job.

Now, nine years in and counting, with the feedback given to me by my students, I keep an eye on the end.  Not to count it down, in fact the end always comes to soon, but instead to remember the big picture, the end destination; better children, bigger minds, more knowledge, more self awareness.

So while I teach to ensure equal success with our content, I also teach with a larger goal in mind, always propelling us forward; how to become better human beings.  How to walk away from 7th grade English and feel like they know themselves better.  How to adapt any learning environment to learn better.  How to have courageous conversations.  How to figure to figure out who they are and where they want to go.

So we weave in the small, but often missed, questions throughout our curriculum, throughout our explorations.  I ask my students what is their writing process, they often have little clue, and we revisit the question as the year progresses, so that they know that this matters to who they are.

I ask them how they adapt the environment to fit their needs.  Where do they sit to learn?  How do they learn best?  How does who they sit by affect the way they feel about our class?

I ask after every major unit what they grew on and what is next, how will they get there?  They always assess themselves on anything bigger before I do, after all, they need to have a part in what they have accomplished.  I ask for feedback on the things we do to make sure they matter to the kids.

I offer choice, of course, but not just in product, but in engagement, in assessment, in process, because sometimes product choice is not an option.  I constantly ask them to self assess, even those who cannot be bothered, so that they know that how they feel they did matters to me and to them.  We stop and discuss when we need to and adjust course when we must.

I ask them who they are, how they feel, and how I can be a better teacher for them, for the class.  Do they feel respected, do they feel this matters, do they want to come to class?  And I listen, and I do something based upon what they tell me.

We were never meant to just cover curriculum, we were never meant to just prepare kids for the test, for the next year, for college and career readiness.  We were meant to be the handlers of the future.  To guide our children to stay curious.  To protect the innate love of learning they come to us with.  We were meant to help create a better populace that can accept who they are and know that within them there are things that matter, things that still need work.

So don’t just cover the curriculum, don’t just go through day to day.  Embrace the amazing opportunity that comes with being in education; the chance to shape the future with the conversations we have now.  We are not just teachers of our subject areas, we are teachers in every wonderfully convoluted term of the word.  So ask questions beyond the subject, give time to reflect, to slow down, and to find  a pathway to being better.  Keep an eye on the end not because you want the year to be over, but because in the end, you know that what you did together mattered.  That those kids you were lucky enough to teach grew in more areas than one.  That is the promise we can make every day.  That is a promise we can keep.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then 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.

Teaching Tough Topics – An Exploration into Suicide Prevention

For the past two weeks my students have visibly struggled in class.  They have questioned.  They have reflected.  They have stopped and spoken to each other as they have made their way through a topic that I wasn’t sure we were ready to do.  A topic I felt uncomfortable even discussing, but I knew we should.  For the past two weeks my students have to come class ready to learn, eager to get started, and worked until the very last moment, asking if we were continuing the next day.  They have been fully invested, fully aware, but also just a little bit timid.

One month ago I saw an article get released by NPR, it spoke of how the suicide rate among middle schoolers is at the highest peak ever.  It stopped me in my tracks, after all, this is my age group, these are my kids.  And while I am lucky to have never taught a child who has committed suicide, I know I have taught kids who have tried, kids who have contemplated, kids who still carry the weight of suicidal thoughts and are not sure what to think of themselves.  The article sat in my inbox staring me in my face, daring me to do something.  And yet…would my students be able to handle a topic like this?

On Monday the 5th, I cleared my voice and told my students that for the next few weeks we were going to pursue knowledge, that we were going to discuss, explore, and question.  That we were going to go as personal as we wanted to.  That the topic was dark but necessary. Were they ready?  Yes, they told me.  And so we began; focusing a unit on the question, “How do we prevent suicide in middle schoolers?”  And I am so glad we did.

For the past two weeks we have been surrounded by hard conversations.  Surrounded by outrage, by questions, and even by sadness.  They have asked things out loud that they might not have had the courage to ask out loud before.  They have shared their truths and also shared (some) of their fears.  They have cried with me when we heard a glimpse of a parent’s 911 call pleading for help for their own child.  They have been outraged at the intense bullying some children have suffered from.  They have discussed responsibility and guilt.  They have struggled with the central question and reflected upon their own actions and how they affect other people, even when they don’t mean to.

I have sat in awe as they have taken this topic and explored it in a way I could not have planned for.  As one child told me, “Mrs. Ripp, I know this sounds strange but I find this to be fascinating and yet also so sad.”

I wasn’t sure my students were ready.

I wasn’t sure their parents would understand.

I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be.  If it would matter.  If it would be worth our time.

I wasn’t even sure that I could handle this topic in a meaningful way.

But we did, and it was, and the kids now know what the warning signs are.  Now know to ask each other if they are worried.  Now know that suicide tends to not be impulsive, that there are hints dropped.  Now know that even “normal” looking kids can have suicidal thoughts.  Now know what the real effects of bullying can be. Now know to have conversations with someone they trust if they feel like this is a solution for them.

Too often we shy away from the hard topics because we are not sure it is the right time.  That we are the right person to teach it.  That our kids can handle it.  That our community will support us.  Yet time after time, these kids amaze me.  Time after time, they prove that they are more ready than we could imagine.  That they don’t want to invest their time in “boring” topics but want to deal with the real side of the world.  They want to know what really happens, how people are really affected, and they want to know what they can do to make it better.  Our job is to support them.  To help them understand. To help them navigate this world that they live in so they can have better lives.  Our job is to educate and not be afraid, to plant seeds that may in some way help them as they grow.

For the past two weeks I have had more hard conversations behind closed doors with more kids than I ever could have imagined.  I have cried with my students.  I have thanked more kids for their bravery.  Told them that no matter how they feel they matter to me, to us.  For the past two weeks I have marveled as the facade of some my kids have crumbled and they have risen from their pasts like a phoenix from the fire.  All because an article haunted me.  All because I thought it might just matter to them, to me, to us.  And it did.  And so we did.  And we grew from it; closer, stronger, better.  Isn’t that what teaching is about?

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out December, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then 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.

Planting a Seed – Our Project on the Refugee Crisis

I grew up in a home that had a newspaper on our table every morning.  Laid out for us kids to see, we grabbed the comics first, then the Danish news.  I was a teen when I started reading the international news.  Being aware of the world was something that was expected of us, after all, Denmark is a small nation.  We read the paper, we listened to the radio, we watched the news.  Not always fully attuned but always aware of at least some of the bigger things happening in the world beyond our own.

Being a globally aware and invested teacher is something I have tried to live and breathe for many years now.  After all, the Global Read Aloud was created with the idea of making the world not only smaller, but also more interconnected to create more empathy and kindness.  My students have therefore in varying degrees always brought the world in, been a part of projects that involved others and tried to know more about the outside world than when they came in.  Working on a team with an incredible geography teacher has only made my job easier.

So this year as my English standards starred me in the face a small idea started to form, a seed began to grow; what if instead of “just” doing summaries, what if instead of “just” having an opinion, I was able to structure an inquiry project into something that I have been following myself; the Refugee Crisis?  What if we created a two-week experience where the students got to learn at their own pace with the end goal of having an opinion?  With that, I started to plan…

We would have two weeks roughly of work time, with time dedicated every single day after we do our 10 minutes of independent reading.  Students could choose how they wanted to work and engage with the materials.  I used a sheet that simply asked kids how they would like to engage with the learning and then crafted lessons based on this.  I have used this approach in the past and it has worked pretty well, this time I should have been more diligent with using it though after the kids filled it out.  However, that being said, kids were also good at reaching out and asking questions, as well as use each other for help.  I did promise the students that I would only do one whole class lesson; how to write an opinion piece using the MEL-Con format, and I kept my word.  My students have asked me to do less whole class teaching and I am adhering to that as I can help them better in small groups anyway.

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Our anchor chart for the MEL-Con format

We first needed a question, one that would give us a focal point but would not be shaped or tainted by my opinion, after all, I did want the students to come to their own conclusion.  So our guiding question became ; What should America’s role be in the refugee crisis?  This was what the students would work toward and discuss.

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We created a running word wall as student questions came up.

I knew I needed texts to start with; thank you Newsela for your text-sets, you saved me so much time.  So I pulled nine different texts that highlighted different aspects of the crisis, printed them at three different reading levels and told the students to choose three of them to read at least.  I also made all of the texts available as a folder in case they lost their copies.

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Another teaching tool for students to reference

I also wanted students to watch videos; I created a padlet with different short videos that would be appropriate for 7th graders and also less than 20 minutes.  Students were asked to watch at least one, but could do more if they wanted to.

I then crossed my fingers and asked on Twitter; would anyone Skype with my students about being a refugee?  I am so grateful for the response.  Three of my classes were so incredibly lucky to Skype with the incredible Rusul Alrubail,she graciously and courageously shared her story of how she became an Iraqi refugee at a young age.  To say my students were moved by her story would be an understatement.  Yet, the kindness of strangers continued.  Another teacher, Emily Green, from Michigan asked her students, some of them refugees, if they would create a small video for my students.  Last night, I received three different videos from her courageous kids sharing their stories.  Today as I played them for my students, you could have heard a pin drop.

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So for the past two weeks, my students have annotated the texts (using their own systems rather than ones created by me) for anything that stood out, they have written a summary on one article, and they have crafted an opinion on the guiding question, as well as craft an opinion piece based on all of their newfound knowledge.

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In some classes we started in small group before we went to whole class discussion.

Today, as we came together as a group to discuss what we have learned and what our opinion is, I sat back behind the kids and watched them practice their discussion skills.  As kids navigated the ins and outs of adult unmoderated conversation, I couldn’t help but feel just the tiniest bit proud.  Yes, they were discussing, yes they were listening to each other, but that was not the only thing I observed.  I observed kids who all of a sudden understood just how vast of a nation we live in.  Kids who now know where Iraq and Syria are.  Who know tales of children passing through Europe unattended as they try to reach freedom.  Of people who never wanted to leave their homes but were forced too.  Of what we can possibly do as a nation but how many hurdles there may be to making any decisions.  I also saw kids who started to understand that for some reason they equate refugee with terrorists.  Who thought 10,000 refugees is a large number but have since discovered it might not be.  Who know that we need to help but are not sure just how to do that.

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Discussing  as a whole class

I didn’t set out to shape the opinion of my students, that is not my job as their teacher.  Instead I wanted to create an opportunity for them to form an opinion on fact rather than hearsay, on research rather than rapid talk.  I know that some believe America should do more and others think we do too much already.  I know that for some they don’t really care either way.  But I also know that by giving them more control over their learning, by giving them tools to start with, by creating a guiding questions and then by bringing others in via Skype and YouTube that we have created an experience that matters.  That together we now have this piece of the world that ties us together and that will continue to crop up through the year.

Yesterday, a child asked me what the deal was with Mosul and weren’t they bombing over there?  A child that two weeks before was not even sure that Iraq was a country or what refugee meant.  That child had heard on the news that fighting was starting up again and now wanted to know more.  As teachers of literacy we have incredible opportunities to bring the world in, to help our children find their opinions, and to create experiences that connect us with other human beings.  I wrote a book on how to do just this,  not for the sake of the book, but for the sake of making this world a better place.

I ended our discussion time today with the following words; “My job is not to make you think a certain way, my job is to make you think.  So whatever your opinion may be, all I ask of you is to have one based on fact, rather than what others believe.  Keep your ears open and ask a lot of questions.  That is the least you can do as the future of this country.”

As teachers, we can bring the world in when it makes sense.  To make it matter more than just getting through the year or working off our checklist.  The year has just started and yet we have so much more to discover about the world.  I cannot wait where our learning takes us next.

PS:  If you would like to see my folder of resources, go here, some of it is loose.

I am currently working on a new literacy book.  The book, which I am still writing, is tentatively Passionate Readers and will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.  I also have a new book coming out January, 2017 called Reimagining Literacy Through Global Collaboration, a how-to guide for those who would like infuse global collaboration into their curriculum.    So until then 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.