being a student, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, Student Engagement

Creating Foundational Rights for Students Within Personalized Instruction.

A conversation I find myself having often with other educators is just what to do next for curriculum. How do we get everyone on the same page? How do we ensure that what we do is actually happening in different classrooms with different teachers? How do we ensure that the very kids we are entrusted with have somewhat similar experiences within our classrooms all while protecting the art of teaching?

You may think that textbooks with daily lessons are the answer, and for many it appears to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Allington reminds us, “…no
research existed then, or exists now, to suggest that maintaining fidelity to a core reading program will provide effective reading lessons.” (What Really Matters When Working With STruggling Readers, 2013) . Yet, fidelity has become a major selling point as we see many programs being touted to schools who are unsure what to do next. Fidelity has become a point of judgment; how closely aligned are we? Do we use the same texts? The same worksheets? The same words in order to ensure the same experience for all? I was once told by a well-meaning but ill-advised administrator that “I better be on the very same page of the textbook as my colleague next door” as he passed from classroom to classroom.

And yet if there is one thing I know about teaching, it is that our kids are not the same. From class to class, from year to year, the kids have needed different things. Have needed educators that are adept at adapting, that are unafraid to try something new, that know their research, but also know to seek out others for more ideas. Who know their own areas of growth so that they can provide better and better experiences year after year. Sure, use a program to start you off, but don’t forget about the very art of teaching that asks to be responsive to the very kids we teach, that require us to be disruptors of inequitable practices that have shaped the educational experience of so many.

I teach in a district that puts an incredible amount of trust in their teachers and fellow staff who support our students. Whose very core of teaching is autonomy, responsibility, and professional development. Who believes in developing teacher craft so that students can be vested in classroom experiences that speak to them personally and not just whatever the pacing or curriculum guide has told them to care about. Who believes in disrupting inequitable education experiences and providing the room to do so, supporting each teacher on their journey. But how do you then ensure that students aren’t unknowing members of an educational lottery where their growth is based on the experience and know-how of a single teacher? How can you create room for your teachers to personalize while still ensuring that certain experiences are in place?

The foundational idea is deceptively simple; create student rights together. A living breathing document that shows which experiences every child should have in every room, no matter the teacher. Live by it. Work by it. Discuss and change as needed.

But in practicality, how do you get there?

The first step is to have time to discuss what the experiences of students should be. What do we, as the practitioners, believe every child should have as rights in their English (Or whichever curricular area) educational experience? Reading books they like, having a librarian and time in the library, abandoning books, picking writing topics, a teacher that will confer with them, discussing relevant topics. Brainstorm as many things as you can. Group them to see patterns. And then step back.

What is missing? This isn’t something that is done quickly, after all, this will be a guiding document. Do research on best practices within your curricular area. What do you not know about? What do people like Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, Dr. Richard Allington, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, or Dr. Louise Rosenblatt say about the experiences students deserve?

Then group all of the post-its or thoughts together. What are the clusters? What clearly speaks to all of you as a team? Try to come up with words that can tie it all together. Which patterns do you see? The right to read, to speak to one another, to have texts and materials that reflect their experience and the experience of others? The rights to connect with others? To free write? To skillful instruction? Again, pay attention to your own gap areas, which parts of instruction are you not thinking about? Do these potential rights mirror an entire experience or only parts of one?

Then translate the goals into actual experiences, such as if your team believes in student choice in reading, what will that actually look like? When will there be guaranteed time for that? How often do they get to choose? How will you support their choice? Who else will support it?

Then it may look something like this…

If students need…Empowerment – then we will commit to giving them choice throughout their time with us.

How: Choice in their independent reading book, choice in their topic of writing when possible, choice in who they work with, choice in who they share with, choice in how they work through learning. Space to reflect on their experience, speak up about it, and shape the teaching that happens.

If students need to read and write every day, then we will commit to giving them dedicated independent reading time every day and writing time every day.

How: Start with 20 minutes of independent reading focused on developing their relationship to reading and reading identity. An emphasis on free writing when not otherwise steeped in their own writing. Planning reading and writing experiences every day.

It may end up looking something like this then.

Go through each foundational right as a team and then commit to it as a team. Bring it up throughout the year to see whether you are actually living it. What are the opportunities for the students throughout the year? What is missing and needs to be added?

Having a foundational understanding of what the experiences should be for every child provides us with a guide of which direction to go while also being able to see our own gap areas. Where do we need to grow as practitioners? What are we not yet providing for students and how is that impacting them? How do our choices in our learning tie in with these rights?

So often we look at curriculum and think that is where to start with any changes when really what we need to do is step back and look at the foundational beliefs and rights that support and determine the curricular choices we make. Because those beliefs are what shape every single experience kids have with us. Because those beliefs sometimes hurt the very endeavors we are trying to accomplish. While I know our documents and guiding beliefs are not perfect, nothing ever is, it gives us a place to start when we discuss what we are working on, what kids need, and the disruptions that need to continue happening for all of our students. Perhaps these guidelines can help others as well.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.I . f 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.     

being a teacher, new year, reflection, Student dreams, student voice, survey

The First Time We Ask

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I think of the many hard lessons I have learned through the years.

About respect.

About feeling valued.

About feeling seen.

About what I needed to change not just as the teacher, but also as the adult in charge of the learning experience we create, day in, day out.

So many learned not because I finally realized something, but instead because the kids I have taught had a way to teach me. Had a way to speak up when they needed to. Had a way to feel heard, even when their words meant I needed to change. How it takes such little time to provide kids with the tools they need to speak up, to be heard, to be a full member of the community we are building. It takes a few questions, an open mind and only a few minutes.

In fact, if I ever had to re-name this blog anything, it would be the lessons the children taught me. The many things they have shared throughout their years as we have strived for a better way of learning, of reading, of being a community of people who already are impacting the world beyodn the walls of school.

And so this week, i will once again ask a few simple yet large questions.

Do you feel respected in this room?

Do you respect others in this room?

What can I do more for you?

What should I do less of?

What do you wish I would notice?

And I will remind them all, once again, that this is their chance to influence how I teach and how we learn. That I have thick skin but to also offer up ideas when they can, not just criticism, however, that criticism is also welcomed because I can’t fix anything I don’t know isn’t working. That this stays between us unless I have their permission to share. That I am grateful for their truths so that I can grow. So that we can grow.

And that this is the first reflection of many to come. That this is only the beginning, because for some I haven’t earned their trust, for some they are not ready to tell me how they really feel, and I respect that as well. But I will still ask because even just asking is a step toward a stronger learning experience. A step toward a more solid us.

We are about six weeks into the year, and it is time for me to learn more lessons.

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.

books, new year, Reading, Reading Identity, Student dreams

Kicking Off Our Reading Conferences For the Year

We are two weeks into the year and slowly the routines are starting to shape up. We know each other just a little. Our community is growing. The incredible inquisitive and funny nature of our 7th graders is coming out more and more. And every day we start the same way; twenty minutes at least of independent reading. Twenty minutes to “Settle in, settle down, and get reading.” Twenty minutes where I get to book shop with kids, check in on their day, and also do initial reading conferences with the kids as we start to get to know each other more. After all, how am I supposed to help them grow as readers if I don’t know them as readers, as people?

Our first reading conferences are simple yet effective as we start this journey together. All it takes is a few things: our reader survey, their goal setting as it ties in with their 7th-grade reading challenge, my note taking sheet, my home information sheet and time. Hmm, maybe that sounds complicated, but it is not. What these different things do is allow me to slowly gather information on the students and open up conversation.

The reading survey helps me get insight into their reading habits and emotions tied in with reading. They do this within the first few days of school.

The goal setting sheet helps me understand where their priorities are. It’s part of our 7th grade reading challenge. This is about a week in after we set our reading rights.

The home sheet was used during our ready-set-go conferences prior to school starting but I also use it throughout the year to fill in more information. (The pronoun question/answer is an optional question from a different survey).

And my note-taking sheet, a constant work in progress, gives me a place to keep all of my information, in order to have a place to remember our conversations by.

Every class has its own binder where the information is placed alphabetically, and that’s how I start; alphabetically and call up two or three students every day during their reading time.

A few easy questions start us off: When we meet would you prefer to come to me or me come to you? (Many prefer the relative privacy of coming to me). Which book are you reading, how did you choose that one, how would you rank it on a scale from 1 to 10?

Then we move into their reading goal. Questions I ask are: What is your goal, how come you set that, and tell me more about your reading life last year? I take relevant notes throughout our conversations and I make sure the kids can see what I am writing down, I don’t want them to have to worry about what I may be recording. There are often follow up questions but I also want to be cognizant of wait time and the delicate nature at times of reading and how kids feel about themselves as readers.

Then we discuss their progress, how is it going? How is the book working for them? How is reading outside of English going? We also discuss what is hard about reading, no surprise, even my most adapt readers have challenges. Finally, I ask them if there are things I can do to support them right now better as we get to know each other. Many don’t have ideas right now but I like the openended question in case they do.

As we wind down, I ask them a few more questions. What is their favorite color? What is their favorite treat? And what do they do well? This information is used throughout the year as I celebrate them. It also gives me a peak into where they see themselves right now, many kids tell me they don’t do many things well, and so I always try to help them see great things about themselves.

I thank them for their time at the end. Thank them for investing in our class and allowing me this time with them and that I look forward to helping them grow this year.

The next time I meet with them, there are less questions so the conference goes quicker. Then it starts with, ‘What are you working on as a reader?” as you can see from the note-taking sheet and then evolves from there.

A simple way to start but one that sets us up together to work on reading, to maybe better their experiences in reading, to make it matter beyond the work, the pages, the labor that it is for some. I am so grateful for these kids and the conversations we get to have.

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, new year, Reading, Reading Identity, student choice, Student dreams, students teach me

Planting the Seeds for Our Year of Reading Together

Today, we managed to pull off the unimaginable; every child walking out of room 203 with a book in their hands that they are willing to try tomorrow, which will be our first day of independent reading.

How did we do it? Well, a few things had to happen.

We gave it some time. While our students have certainly been surrounded by books these past few days, we have worked our way slowly toward book shopping. Some kids have checked out books because they asked but many looked more warily at the books surrounding them. Taking it slow, for us, has worked because we can offer up an opportunity to establish some trust and community before we dive into book shopping.

We read aloud. Read alouds tie us together as a community which is why I love to use picture books often with our students. It also allows us to dive into conversations about consent (Don’t Touch My Hair), how we feel about reading (I hate Picture Books!) and the expectations we want to function under in our room (We Don’t Eat Our Classmates). Read alouds ease us into the important work we are doing while exposing us to others’ stories.

We had some powerful conversations. Starting with our beginning of the year reading survey which gave me a sneak peak into how the kids see themselves as readers. While many are okay or even great with books and reading, some are decidedly not and the survey starts to let us see that. We then move to discussing the feelings and experiences tied in with reading as detailed in this post. This year the students decided to share when reading is dope and when it is trash. This then laid the groundwork for revealing the 7th grade reading challenge, as well as setting a meaningful reading goal to begin the year.

They determined their reading rights. After we have discussed their past experiences with reading, both the good and the not so good, we brainstorm which rights we would like to have for our independent reading time together. While there is not an option to not read, the students have great ideas for the type of reading experience they would like to be a part. After all three blocks of kids brainstorm, I created our chart which the students then approved today.

Reading Rights for 2019 -the yellow post-its are my notes from their conversations in order to make sure I stayed true to their hopes.

We have reading loving staff members. And not just this year. I am fortunate to work in a district that emphasizes the joy of reading in many place and I am part of a chain of people who spend a lot of time trying to match kids with books and also protect how their readers feel. While kids come in with many different experiences when it comes to reading, many also speak of the great moments they have had with reading throughout the years. And this only furthers the work we get to do in 7th grade.

We have lots and lots of books. While my district funds books, which seems to be a rarity these days, I have also spent a lot of money on books throughout the years, I wish this wasn’t the case, but it is what it is. However, our district also funds our school library and has staffed it with an amazing librarian and library aide. This provides our kids with the opportunity to not only look for books in our classroom, but also in the library and other places that have book collections. It is a powerful partnership between many of us that only continues to expand.

We took the time today to discuss how to find a book. While book shopping and book selection is not something new, centering our book shopping in what they already know and discussing the habits they have provide us with a place to start. It introduces our classroom library as well as our check out policy. It also helps us remind kids that they have a lot of strategies to try a book on, as well as to remind them that to cease reading a book is always an option at any point. We would much rather have them spend a lot of time selecting a potential great book than just rushing through the process.

So we gave them time. As much as they needed to touch the books, to browse the books, and to discuss the books with each other. I had pulled several stacks of books, one per table, to get their interest but they knew that they could browse the entire classroom. They could check out whichever book(s) they wanted and all of the other potential titles they put on their to-be-read lists. And it worked. Every child was up and moving, every child left with a book or more. To see so much book excitement was frankly a major highlight of this whole week.

What were big interest books today?

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

Anything by Jason Reynolds

Guts by Raina Telgemeier

Until Friday Night by Abby Glines

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon

Now don’t be fooled, the work is far from over. But this is a start, a seed that will continue the work we do as we try to help some of our students go from kids who see little to no value in reading to kids who do. As we help kids continue the already positive relationship with reading that they have. But it also work that is shrouded in privilege. Our kids have access to books. Our kids have access to teachers who love reading. Our kids have time to read. Every child deserves that as an educational right.

For me the best part is; I am not alone in this. Our school and district is filled with people pursuing the same goal that I am; helping kids find books that matter, helping kids see themselves as readers. Today was a start and I cannot wait to see how it continues to evolve.

Tomorrow we read.

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, Student dreams

After the First Day

I have been awake since 4 AM. Call it the first week jitters, exhaustion, or just the buzz of the never-ending to do list as the year finally, finally, gets underway. The students showed up yesterday and our second day together beckons. I cannot wait to see how it will go because we all know that the first day of school carries a certain excitement, but that it is the second day of school and all of those after that are the true test. Will this year be worth it in the eyes of students? Will these teachers, the adults that surround them, really care?

As I look back on the blur of the first day, a few things stand out.

Learning names is so important, and so is learning their pronunciation. I spend a lot of time in the weeks leading up to the first day simply looking at student pictures. I label what needs to be labeled in the classroom. We also meet with parents and caregivers that want to before school starts to learn about their child. And then we wait, because we won’t know a kid until we have met a kid and spent a lot of time with them. But their name? That shouldn’t take that long and neither should how to say it right. Today, as they walk in, I will try to address each of them by their name. By tomorrow I should have them down and if not, I start to owe them treats. Relationships are built in being seen, that starts with their name,

Your room will never be ready. I was as ready as I could be but the minute the kids showed up I saw a few problems with our space. The tables were too tight, there is no natural flow to walk through and where they store their notebooks created a traffic jam. After minor adjustments, we shall try again today, however, I also made sure to tell them that they can move the furniture as they see fit in order to not feel so crowded.

I had too much to do. I overplanned, I knew I did but not by how much. The day felt rushed and too full as we tried to do one thing after another. Today, two things are on our agenda – discussing consent and discussing why reading sucks at time. Yes, we got stuff done, but we didn’t slow down enough to just be together. That changes today.

What did I learn today? I am really trying to remember to gather information about my students that goes beyond the large stuff. This may sound dumb, but I fear that at times I learn things about them but then because I don’t write it down, it disappears. Yet knowing things about their lives, about them is what builds a relationship. So this morning, I am going through my student info sheets and just adding what I learned yesterday, even if the knowledge seems really insignificant.

Even a small note makes a difference. In my fog of exhaustion last night, I remembered that our team likes to send a “We had a great day and are excited for the year ahead…” and so we did and we think it matters, because there was a buzz in the building of excitement. Because at the end of the day even though the exhaustion felt tangible, we also left wanting to come back, excited for the year ahead, and that is something worth noting and celebrating. I also made sure to send thank you’s to my own children’s teachers, after all, they also had great days. Those emails or notes, they matter as we start to build a community of trust.

We get another chance. One of the best parts of teaching is that it is not just a day thing. Yesterday was just the beginning of what will be a year of learning, of exploration, of community, and of growth and today we continue that journey together. So even if the day before was not great, even if the day before was exhausting, we get another chance. And not just the adults, but the kids too, and that matters sometimes more than we know.

So here’s to many more days ahead. I cannot wait to see what happens.

Be the change, being me, failure, Student dreams

It Starts Now

White, Black,  Free Image

I have been thinking a lot about failure. About this whole notion of growth mindset and having kids take risks. About how often we ask kids to just keep trying even when it is hard yet seem to fail to do so ourselves. About how often we expect kids to give us their all, their best, their utmost, and then for them to navigate the pieces when it all falls apart, after all isn’t that what having grit teaches you to do?

About the supposed safety nets we have in place for students to fail safely.

About how we tell them that experimentation is great, that trying something new is the way to learn, about stretching themselves into unknown territory so they can discover who they truly are.

About how it doesn’t all add up.

Because the thing is, and I know I have said this before, we say a lot of things as educators without really thinking about what we are asking all kids to do. We say a lot of things without looking at the systems we already have in place, the routines and procedures that wield so much power in our schools that actively fight against this whole notion of embracing failure as another way to learn.

Take grades for example. We tell kids to take risks but then expect them to all succeed even if on shaky ground. If they don’t, then their scores or assessments reflect that. How often do we fail to recognize that it is because we attach subjective scores to something that we boil learning and curiosity into something we never intended. It becomes nothing more than an experiment in playing the grade game rather than the true learning experience it should be.

Take control and compliance. How often do our beginning of the year routines surround getting kids to be quiet, to sit still, to only ask questions when we designate the time for it. To make only the smallest of spaces for themselves in order for all of us to function because you can’t have a functioning classroom if kids are too loud, too energetic, or take up too much space.

Take how we handle behaviors. How often the preferred method is social isolation playing itself out in some form of removal from the classroom. How often we ask kids to leave in order for us to keep teaching and yet we see the behaviors continue as they rejoin us because nothing has changed in the experience, only paused.

How often we tell our loud kids to quiet down.

How often we tell our quiet kids to speak up.

How often we tell our dreamer kids to come back to Earth.

How often we tell our pragmatic kids to dream.

How often we somehow tell kids that to be a successful student all you have to do is play by the rules but then we never hand them a rule book or we change the rules altogether.

And then we wonder why kids say they don’t think school is for them.

So as we race toward the end of the year, or perhaps only the middle depending on your hemisphere, I want to take a moment to think about what my students are telling me they need. About what I am telling them not just with my words, but in my actions, my routines, and my expectations.

About how I need to continue to ask whether I not only would want to be a student in my own classroom, but also could be a successful one. About how we need to not give students a voice because they already have one, but instead need to carve out an authentic space for the things they have to say.

How it starts with asking questions – do you feel respected, does this learning matter, how can we create engaging learning opportunities together? How it continues with reflection – how is my voice and my power being used as a potential tool for inequity, does every child feel safe with me, does every child have a chance of truly belonging? How it rests with us as we realize that there is still so much to be done, and yet so that can be done if we start within the small decisions we make every day. If we take apart the small routines and structures that we put in place to make it work for everyone and ask whether it truly works for everyone, because almost everyone is not close enough. How along with our thoughts surrounding how we want to have better curriculum, we also need to think of how we want students to feel with us and then how we are going to accomplish that.

How when they tell us that they want to change the world, we start with the one they live in every day; our classrooms, our schools, our attitudes.

And it starts now.

And it continues each day.

Because much like our students, we all have so much to learn. I have so much to learn. I have so much more failing to do, only so I can keep growing.

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.