Maybe Next Year…

I was a “just fine” teacher for many years.

The kids who came to me who were successful in school did just fine.  The kids who had already figured out the way to do school were just fine.  The kids who seemed to find things to like about school ended up just fine.

And yet, every year there they were.  Their data staring back at me as fiercely as their refusals.  That little group of kids that no one seemed to be able to reach, to help, to figure out how to make them grow like we hoped they would.

And every year, at the end of the year,  I hoped for the very same thing; maybe next year it will finally click.  Maybe next year’s teacher will figure it out.  Maybe next year they will be a better teacher than me.  Maybe next year…

But what I seemed to forget for so many years.  What I still forget at times is one simple truth; for all of our kids, we are the “Next year…”

We are the teachers that are supposed to finally figure it out, to make the difference, to help them grow.

We are the teachers that are supposed to find just one more idea when we seemingly have tried everything and yet nothing has made a difference.

We are the teachers that we hoped all of “those” kids would get.  We are the maybe next year…

So we cannot sit back and wait for next year when that is exactly what we are.

We cannot hope that others will figure it out better than us when we are what these kids got.  We cannot pass the child on as an unsolved mystery without working until the very last day, the very last moment, in the hopes that something, even something minuscule, will finally help them grow.

So we keep trying, and we keep reflecting, and we keep asking questions.  And we slide those book stacks across their desks with our most enticing books, and we keep sliding them even when they dismiss us through their eye rolls or outright refusal.

We purchase the books we hope they will read.

We confer with them even if they have little new to say.

We give them as much of our time as we can so that they can see that rather than giving up we keep coming back.

And we rediscover the hope of becoming a reader that may have been extinguished either by our own actions or of actions outside of our control.

So when I am asked but what do we do when the kids still don’t read?

When they still don’t care?

When they still just don’t?

I remind myself and anyone else.

Not yet.

But they will, however small.

There will be a moment of success, perhaps not transformation yet, and we will know that instead of simply hoping that next year’s teachers would figure it out, with this one little piece we have gotten one step further.  And we cannot dismiss that.  So look for the little, for the often overlooked, pump up your patience, and find your successes.  Don’t give up on a child just because it hasn’t worked yet.  Don’t give up just because nothing seems to matter.  Don’t give up and hope that others will figure it out when you are what that child has.

Teach, work, believe and love, and know that instead of “next year” we can make it become “this year…” and then for this one child, we will make a difference.  But we can’t do that if we already are waiting for next year’s teachers to figure it out.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

 

 

 

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In It For the Long Game

It’s been four weeks since I have had a chance to discuss his reading one on one.  Four weeks since he decided to abandon the first book he had started after he was only 60 pages in and it had been more than three weeks of reading every day.  Four weeks since I got to have more than a surface level conversation about his reading life and I cannot wait to see what he says.

He tells me his goal is to read more, a goal I hear quite often in 7th grade.  I ask him to tell me more, why this goal, how is it going.  he grins and says, not so well, he really isn’t reading much.

I ask him about his book but that’s not it, he likes it a lot.  Then what is it?  He says, like so many kids before him, “I just don’t like to read…”

We finish our conversation and he pledges to try to find some time outside of class to get further.  After all, he has yet to actually finish a book this year.  I pledge to check in more often, even just a short visit, just to see if his new laid plans are working out.

He returns to his book and I return to the next child waiting to tell me about their reading life.

How often does this moment play out in our schools?  How often have we met those kids that tell us that they just don’t like reading and we feel the end of the year rushing toward us as if we, too, will fail in helping these kids create positive reading identities?

How often do we question the very practices we know kids need to become readers; time, access, choice, and community?

How often do we feel like we must be the teachers that cannot crack the code of this child and that all is already lost?

But before we despair.

Before we punish.

Before we tighten the reins.

Before we add more steps, more logs, more comprehension worksheets.

Before we think of what else we need to keep them accountable.

Take a moment and realize that we are in this for the long game.

That a child not liking reading even after we have been their teacher for almost two months does not mean that we have failed.  It does not mean that they have failed either.

It means that we are working on it.

That we celebrate the honesty when a child dares to tell us that they don’t like reading, and no, they are not reading outside of school.

That we thank them for the information and then ask them what they plan on doing with it.

That we remind them that reading matters and that we hope that they will find a way to make it matter to them.

We are not in this reading game to get them reading just this year.  We are in it to get them reading for life.

So before we change the approach of giving kids choice in books, time to read, access to books, and a community to read with, remember to have some patience.

Patience to remember that creating new habits takes time.

Patience to remember that it often takes many books to see yourself as an established reader.

Patience to remember that it often takes many conversations, many opportunities, many check-ins and walk-aways to really help a child find themselves as a reader.

And then when we question our own practices that we thought would work for every child, we remember that we may be up against years of unestablished reading habits and that just a few short months with us is not enough.  That sometimes we are just the tourniquet that stops the flow of hatred of reading and that it won’t be until later years that a child finds themselves within the pages of a book and cannot imagine coming back out.

So give yourself credit for the successes you see in your reading communities.  Give yourself credit for the books being shared.  For the joy being created.  And give yourself credit for having unlimited patience, especially for the child that tells you once again that they just don’t like reading.  Not yet, anyway.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

 

Recapturing the Magic of Stories – Practical Ideas for Better Creative Writing

“Do we have to write?”  He looks at me and awaits my answer.  I know he wants me to say no, but instead, I nod.  Every day.  Just try.  It’ll get better.  “But I hate writing…” and the kids around him nod.  So many kids not considering themselves writers.  So many kids who write simply because school tells them to.  And I see it every time I assign a story project.  I see it when they write summaries of stories rather than an actual story.  I see it when they fiddle with their papers, break their pencils or write one line.  We hate writing, and there is nothing you can do about it.

And yet….writing is stories.  Writing is our past and our future.  Writing has the power to break us apart or put us together.  So when our students tell us that they hate writing, it is usually not the writing itself they hate, it is everything attached to it.  All of the tasks we add in with writing to make sure they know how to write.  To make sure they can write.  And I wonder, once again, in our eagerness to create students who can write are we, instead, producing students who won’t?

So what can we do within our writing instruction to reignite or protect the writer that lingers within each child?  What are ways we can help them see that writing is something we need as human beings, and not just because the teacher told us to?

We hear their truths.

Much like we must uncover what protects or demolishes their love of reading, we must ask the hard questions about writing too.  Why do you think you are not a writer?  When is writing hard?  When is writing amazing?  How can I be a better teacher of writing for you?  And then we take those truths with us, we unpack them and then we reflect on our teaching practices; what have we done that have done damage?  How can we navigate all of our requirements without doing irreparable harm?

We make it a priority.

I know we do a lot of writing but how much of that is process writing; summarizing, essays, analysis, informational writing.  Where is the creative writing?  I know when I taught 5th grade it was the final unit of the year.  If we got to it, that is.  Why not start with them finding their writer’s voice.  Tell them to write a story, either real or fictional.  and reconnect them with their storytelling skills.  Begin the year with free writing and maintain it throughout the year.  Don’t save it until the end of the year when we can have done so much damage already.

We give them time.

We cannot create writing opportunities in our classrooms without dedicated time.  And I don’t mean the writing instruction slot where they are working on their assigned project, but free writing time, where they are encouraged to write whatever they want.  Free writing time every day so that they get in the habit.  Free writing time so they can work through what it means to be a writer and start to see the small success that will carry them forward.  Whether it is ten solid minutes like it is in my Informational Studies class or even just four minutes like it was last year for me.  Time should be dedicated to free writing every single day, even if you only have 45-minute classes.

We give them freedom.

Every day we tell our kids to write something in their writer’s notebook.  We offer up a prompt but we also tell them they don’t have to use it.  And then we step back, encourage them to write, but nothing else.  This is about them, not us.

We tell stories.

Great writing starts with stories, so we tell our own stories and model what it means to capture an audience.  We have them share their own stories as they practice how to hold an audience captive.  We do speeches so they can see what grabs people’s attention and what doesn’t.  Through the stories we tell we encourage them to write someday, to find ideas for writing.

We withhold judgment.

Every few weeks I look through their writer’s notebooks just to get to know them.  I don’t assess, I don’t correct.  Instead, I write comments, genuine reactions to what they have written so they know I am reading.  But I do not tell them how to be a writer, not here, not now.  That writer’s journal is exactly that; a journal, not an assignment.  And so some write comics, others journal, some writ lengthy stories.  Poetry, scribbling, moments of their lives burst at me from their pages and I hope that within all of their ideas they start to see what writing really is; an extension of self, of who we are and an exploration of how we fit in.

We bring authors in.

Many of my students are under the impression that “real” writers knew they were writers from a young age.  That story ideas just come to them.  that they sit down and a whole book just flows from their fingers.  But that’s often not the case at all.  how do I know?  Because “real” writers have been speaking to my students via Skype for the last few years.  And they dispel their writing myths one at a time.  It turns out there is no one right writing process.  There is not a right way to write.  Inspiration comes from many places.  And it also turns out that writing is hard work.  That getting the idea is often the smallest part but the actual revising and cutting out and making better is where the work comes in.  They don’t believe me when I say these things always but when authors do, they start to.

We are real writers.

How many of us teach writing but don’t write ourselves?  How many of us create our modeled texts at home because we know it will be hard to do it on the spot in front of the kids?  How many of us would never consider ourselves writers but then expect our students to be?  Be a writer yourself, it doesn’t have to be published, but go through the process and do it authentically.  Share how hard writing is for you, share your bad habits of writing, give them a real role model of what writers are so they don’t think that it is something that just happens.

We ask them who they are as writers.

And we come back to the question throughout the year.  We ask them to explore what writing means to them.  We ask them what their writing process is and we share our own.  We ask them to find some sort of value in writing, not because they have to love it but because they should be at peace with it.

We have them lead the conversations.

Less checklists.  Less pre-determined goals only set by the teacher.  Less specific feedback that teaches them that this is the only thing they need to work on because that is all the teacher told them to work on.  More student reflection, more student questions, more student ownership over how they need to grow.  When we confer they should do most of the talking.  When we confer they should start to find out what they need our help with, not vice versa.  In the beginning, it is hard but it will never get easier if we don’t start the conversations and hand over the reigns.

We don’t give up.

Every day we write.  Every day we share stories.  Every day we create something.  Every day we become more than what we were.  And we don’t give up.  We hear their truths as we gently encourage them forward.  We showcase many kinds of writing.  We give them freedom, trust, and a safe space to share.  We tell them to share when they can and not when they don’t want to.  We tell them to use our space as writers would; get comfortable, listen to music, discover your writing process.  Find your writing peers so you have people you trust that will give you honest feedback.

For too long creative writing has taken a backseat to task writing and while I know we need to be able to write things that fulfill purposes, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture here.  We have to give our students opportunities to have a relationship with writing that goes beyond what the teacher told them to do.  And that starts with the very decisions we make every day in our classrooms.  That starts right now.

 

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

Finding Our Voices Again

It has been six full school days.

Six days of remembering names and sometimes still getting it wrong.

Six days of questions. Of answers.  Of repeated directions and pointing to the right place.  Of saying yes more than no, of smiling wide to make sure they all see it.

It has been six days of feeling like everything is taking a long time.  Of not getting enough done. Of not having any assessments yet and feeling like already I am behind.

And yet…

In those six days, we have read our own books, perhaps even abandoned a few.

We have discussed why reading is trash or magic.

We have set goals that matter to us and fit our needs.

We have started our reading check ins as we figure each other out.

And we have talked.  A lot.

I have withstood the urge to have them write their answers and instead just talk it out.

I have withstood the need for silence and seen where the conversation will take us.

I have withstood my own imposed pressure of having them produce something in order for me to say; look I taught them something.

Every day instead of finding our pencils, we have instead found our voices and shared with each other.  We have pondered.  We have sighed.  We have even been shocked.

The writing will happen.  The assessment will too.  But for now, we are speaking up instead of writing down as we figure out how this learning community is going to work.  We are finding ourselves in the cacophony of thoughts and we are finding each other as well.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

 

 

On the Need to Plan for Reading Enjoyment

A question I receive often is what do you teach?  Meaning what reading skills do I get to explore with my 7th graders in our English block?  And how do I cover it all?  I get it, teaching English Language Arts in the forty-five-minute block is daunting.  We feel like we are behind on the second day of school.    (Incidentally, this is what prompted me to write Passionate Readers because I figured I could not be alone in trying to deal with the madness).  And yet, while I gladly share what we do as I try to help my students become better readers, there seems to be a missing part in this curriculum conversation; the need to plan for reading enjoyment.

Why does this matter?   Because our assumptions about what we can do to kids’ reading lives through our well-meaning intentions are wrong.  We have assumed for too long that kids will just like reading, no matter what we do to them in class.  No matter the task we assign them.  No matter how we teach and what we discuss.  And yet, the numbers don’t lie… As kids get older, reading for fun decreases and with it outside reading.  We all know where this goes, by the time kids leave our classrooms and become the adults we have hoped to shape, many of them; 26% to be exact, choose to not read a single book for the next twelve months.  And we know this, we see it in our classrooms every single year; those kids that come in and sigh, that pick up a random book, that look us in the eyes and tell us proudly that they will never like reading no matter what we do.  It seems, in our eagerness to create amazing readers, we have lost sight of the end game; people who actually want to read once they leave our schools.

The decisions we make today, as we plan for the year ahead, or for the next day’s lesson, matters more than we know.  Yes, kids need reading skills, of course, but we also must plan specifically for protecting the hope of reading.  For protecting the positive reading identities that are already present in our school communities, for investigating and hopefully changing the negative reading identities.

But this won’t happen just by happenstance. Joyful reading experiences don’t just happen magically even if we provide choice, time, and plenty of great books.  We must strive to make it fun.  To create meaningful opportunities to interact with others through the books we read.  To abandon the books that do not work for us, even the ones we rank a seven or an eight.  To read picture books aloud not just for teaching the skill but for creating a community, for laughing together.  For speaking books with one another.  For reading aloud.  For finding time to slow down so we can savor what we read, rather than just to get through it.

And don’t take my word for it, here is just some of the research of the benefits of focusing on reading enjoyment from The National Literacy Trust.

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We may lament the amount of time we have in our classrooms.  We may worry that we will never get “it” done.  That we are not enough or that what we are doing is not the right thing.  But we must not forget how much we do control in our limited time with students; how many decisions we do get to make.  One of those has to be what we are going to do to protect the love of reading.  How will we make reading fun again and then stand proudly behind our decisions?  So next time you plan a lesson or have a curriculum discussion, ask yourself this; will there be enjoyment in this?  Will the very students we are teaching find this fun?  And if not, why not?  What can you do to change?  Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

Our classrooms were never meant to be the place where reading came to die, they were meant to be places filled with reading explorations.  What will we do to change the very experience we have with our students?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  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.

Ten Tools for Changing the Grading Conversation

While I have tried to move away from giving grades over the last seven years, I have been a failure at it.  Those pesky numbers or letters keep popping up in our classroom, whether I want them to or not.  That seems to be what happens when you work within a public school system that has made the grading decision for you.  For the past seven years, I have written about how to move away from grades, but what if that is not an option?  What if grades are a part of your duties and you have to give them no matter what?  And let’s face it; assessing students through grades is easy; put a number/letter on it and it tells the whole story for you, or so we think.  Put a number/letter on it and surely a child, or a parent, will know exactly what we are communicating and how they are doing.  And yet, that is not what happens within most traditional grading; kids don’t know why they get what they get, they feel they have no control, and parents aren’t aware of the full story.

I have to come realize that while I can pine for a gradeless system, where we do not place children into such boxes, in the meantime I can work within the confinement currently presented and change the conversation itself.  So rather than focus on trying to remove grades completely, I can make sure that the ones I am in charge of giving are actually meaningful, as well as controlled by the students, providing us with another tool for giving the learning back to the students.

We start by breaking down our learning targets whenever possible, and while this sounds incredibly formal, it is more of a pointed conversation.  What are we learning and why are we learning it are questions that students should be able to answer, even if the answer to why is to be better human beings.  Students have a hard time taking ownership over their learning process if they have no clue where they are headed.

We then discuss ways to get there.  As often as possible, students need have to different pathways to reach their learning goals.  While full personalization of product would be lovely, I am not able to provide that for my students at all times.  We then look to the five tenets of choice as ways to incorporate more personalization.

Students must know themselves.  We have two central questions we pursue as an English class all year; who am I as a reader and who am I as a writer?  Both of these lead to the self-reflection and discovery that students undertake.  After all, I need each child to know themselves well enough to know how they actually need to grow and also to find the motivation to become better.  That will not happen if I make the same goal for each child. It is also telling that many of my most resistant learners do not know who they are as learners.  How can we expect them to grow if they don’t even know who they are?

We know what the end assessment will be.  We have to discuss with students and help them understand what our grade level work reads like or presents itself as, otherwise we are asking students to shoot their learning into the dark and hope it sticks somewhere.  So actual student examples, modeling, and shared conversations have to be present during our learning as guides to the students.  Make it accessible without your direction so they can access it at any time.

We change our language.  Two years ago I adopted the “Best draft” terminology from Kelly Gallagher and have not looked back.  Often students will hand in their “best draft” rather than their final product.  Final product means exactly that; final, no need to revise, revisit, or rethink.  But “best draft” means that it is unfinished, that there is still work to be done, that even if the assessment is attached to it, it is preliminary at best and can be molded by their own efforts to change their learning product.

Students assess themselves first.  For big projects, (and I need to do it more) I will not assess it unless a child has first.  Otherwise, my voice is what they will conform to rather than their own reflection on where they are on the learning journey.  I need them to do the hard thinking work of breaking down their own skills and then seeing what their strengths are and how they need to grow further.  They, therefore, need to understand the rubric, the terminology used, as well as how they CAN grow.

They come up with a next step.  While I focus my feedback on the one next step, they also need to focus on what they are working on next and how else they will grow.  It is not enough for them to place themselves into an assessment category and then do nothing about it.  Every child needs to set the next step goal for themselves and then come up with a tangible plan to pursue it.  This will be a major focus for me next year as I am still trying to figure out how to do this best with teaching 130+ students.

They direct their learning.  Part of our learning journey is figuring out how they learn best within the confinements of our time, our environment, and the curriculum we do need to explore.  So who do they work best and where in the room do they work best are parts of their self-assessments, not just a number or a letter grade.

They take ownership over their assessment.  While the number (we are standards based) is not the description of them as a learner, it becomes part of our conversation.  We must go beyond handing out numbers or letters so that students can understand what it means to create work that is at a “2” or a “3” and then move beyond that even.  Making the number or letter something that is in control of the students changes their own classification.  No child is a “2” in our classroom, the specific work may be at a “2” level; there is a big difference there.

They want more.  My students know that their score, which is often selected by themselves, is just a part of their assessment because they are consistently provided with feedback either through a rubric, written out, or a conversation.  Very rarely, except for on our spelling packets, are they just given a score with no further explanation.  That means that they know that the number is merely a symbol of something larger and not the only designator.  They know that there is more to the story.  In fact, they get so used to this that if feedback or reflection opportunity is not provided that they ask for further clarification.  This is an indicator, in my eyes, that they see how little the actual number/letter symbolizes and need more information.

The thing is with grades, they are a tool like any other.  It is when we let them dominate our conversation when they become the only thing we discuss that we lose kids in the process.  Grades were not meant to be easy, they are meant to be a conversation starter and so it is up to us to start having those conversations if we want students to truly have ownership over their own learning journey.

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 to infuse global collaboration into their curriculum, was just released.  I am currently working on a new literacy book, called Passionate Readers and it will be published in the summer of 2017 by Routledge.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.