Ideas For How to Do Better Book Clubs in Middle School

In 2015, I wrote a post discussing how I was doing book clubs with my 7th graders and how their ideas had shaped our process to be more powerful.  Two years later, I look at some of those ideas and see how my thinking has changed and also how much more ownership the student shave taken.  I, therefore, decided to update that post with what it looks like now.

I knew when I moved to 7th grade that book clubs would be one of the things that moved with me.  That shared reading experience where students would get to just read and discuss is something I have loved having in the classroom the past few years.  I knew it would be a  different experience in the middle school classroom, after all , heir maturity would push their thinking, what I had not accounted for was also how my whole approach to the purpose of it would need to change to cater to a more critical mindset.  So what do book clubs in the middle school classroom need to be successful?

Then:

An honest conversation.  I would not have gotten student buy in if I had not had an honest conversation with them beforehand.  They needed a chance to vent all of their frustrations with book clubs in order to see how this time around they might be different.  They needed to know that their thoughts and yes, feelings, were validated and considered.  While most would have invested themselves in the process simply because it was expected, I didn’t want that type of buy-in, I wanted a genuine desire to use this for good, to enjoy the 4 weeks or so it would last.

Now:  

This is still how we start our book club explorations.  This one-day conversation is all about figuring out what they love, what they don’t, and how to make sure that they understand the bigger idea behind book clubs; having great conversations about a fascinating text.  This is, therefore, the first thing that happens as we embark on that adventure, after this, the kids start to figure out who they would like to have a book club with.

Then:

Choice in books.  I know it is easier to have a few pre-selected books for students to choose from so we can help facilitate the conversations, but with more than 100 students to cater to I knew I needed choice and lots of it.  With the help of my amazing library team, bonus points from Scholastic, and the phenomenal Books4school, I was able to present the students with more than 50 different choices for titles.  This way no group needed to share books and all students should be able to find something to agree on.  I also told them that if they couldn’t find anything, to let me know, we would find the right book for them.

Now:

This still holds true – the students all get to select their books and I now have more than 70 titles for them to choose from.  There is no overlaying theme between all of the books, although most, if not all, have a theme of perseverance.  This year, I have also added in some nonfiction titles and am thinking of adding more.  One thing that has helped me is by reading all of the books that I have as choices.  That way I know whether they actually have great things to discuss or not.    I also have this many books because I think it is important that the students can bring their books out of class, that way they can stay on track with the pages they need to read without worrying about access to the book.  Finally, one teacher shared the idea of having kids read individual books and then grouping by theme.  I find this to be a fascinating idea and may play with this next year.

Then:

Choice in who they read with.  Working with adolescents have made it crystal clear to me just how vulnerable they feel in these developing years and how much they value when their input is used to determine groupings.  So students are grouped together using some of their data, but also who they would like to read with and why.

Now:

I am adding an interview component to the process, as some kids do not realize how different their reading preferences, abilities, or ideas are from some of their closest friends.  This year they will, therefore, fill out this inventory and then interview potential people for their book clubs.  They will then hand in their sheet to me and I will group them together as best as I can to their preferences, but also including kids who may otherwise be left out.  For the first time ever, inspired by the idea of Kelly, one of our amazing special ed teachers, a few kids will also be given the choice of whether they want to do a book club with a chapter book or picture books that have to do with perseverance.

Then:

Choice of rules.  While I may have an idea for how a book club should function, I needed student ownership over the reading, as well as how their discussions would unfold.  All groups decided their own rules and posted them on the wall.  It has been powerful to see them guide their conversations, and yes, also dole out consequences to members within their groups that have not read or are not participating.

Students self-made rules hang as a reminder on our wall

Now:

I no longer have students post their rules, instead they just share them with me and I do periodical check ins.

Then:

Choice in speed.  All of my groups read at different paces, so they determine how many pages a night they need to read as well as when they would like to have the book finished by within our 4-week time frame.  One group, in fact, has already finished a book.

Now:

We now reserve three weeks for book club time, I ask them to pace it out so they finish with two or so days left of those three weeks.  They create a reading calendar and it gets glued into their reader’s notebooks.

Then:

Choice in conversation.  Book clubs should not function around the teacher, in fact, I have noticed that when I do listen in to an otherwise lively conversation the students immediately get timid in most cases.  I have learned to listen from a distance and only offer up solid small ideas to push their conversation further when they really needed it.  Too often our mere presence will hijack a group and students don’t learn to trust their own opinions and analysis.  Removing yourself from the process means students have to figure it out.  For those groups that struggle we talk about in our private mini-lesson.

Now:

While I still have students run their conversations, I do give them ideas of what to discuss in their book clubs so that they have a starting point.  They are also given an individual project to work on with their book (figuring out the theme and other literary elements) and so I tell them that they can use each other to help with finding the signposts (from Notice and Note) and what they mean.  This year, I will also be listening in to their discussion once a week and take some notes on what and how they are discussing hoping to work with them on their discussion skills.

Then:

Choice in abandonment.  I do not want students stuck with a book they hate, so some groups chose to abandon their books within a week and made a better choice.  Rather than think of it as lost reading time, I cheered over the fact that my students know themselves as readers.  All of my students are now reading a book that they at the very least like and that is an accomplishment in my eyes.

Now:

This still stands, except they now have to abandon it within three days.  I will also let students switch groups within the first week if they hate the book or the group dynamics do not work.  They, then, have to make up for lost time in the reading of their pages.

Then:

Choice in length and meeting time.  Students are allotted time every other day to meet in their book clubs and have 28 minutes to discuss and read some more.  While I have told student to try to push their conversations, I have also urged them to keep them under 10 minutes unless they are having a great discussion.  Students vary the length of their book clubs depending on what their self-chosen topic of discussion is and figure out how their group works best in the process.

Now:

Students are still given time every day to either read or discuss, they need to discuss every third day for sure and they can decide how long they want their discussions to last.  I do a quick check-in with them after their discussion to see how they did and how productive it was.

Then:

Choice in final product.  While our true purpose of having book clubs is to have a shared reading experience, I am also asking the students to do a book talk of some sort when they finish.  There are two reasons behind this; to assess the standards we are covering in the quarter but also for them to develop their critical thinking skills.  If the book they read is not suited for future book clubs then I need to know why.  I don’t want students to have a lengthy project because that is not what book clubs are about.

Now:

We no longer do the book talk, it didn’t work, it was too loose and the kids didn’t buy into it.  We now have two separate projects – an individual one and a group one.  The individual one is for the students to hand in a literary analysis of their book discussing the theme and the development of one of the main characters.  This is a typed paper, less than a page, that they hand in a week after book clubs end.  The group project is the 12-word book summary, detailed here.  They get two days in class to work on it.

While my method for integrating book clubs may seem loose at best, I have found incredible buy-in from the students.  They have been excited to read their books, they have been excited to share their thoughts, and the accountability that they feel toward one another is something I would not be able to produce through force.  Middle schoolers need a framework to grow within, they need our purposes to be authentic as much as possible, and they need to have a voice in how things function within our classroom.  Book clubs offer us a way to have these moments in reading that abound with deep reading conversations that I may not be able to have as a whole group, they allow even the quietest student to have a voice.  They allow students to feel validated in their thoughts and they allow them to share their knowledge with each other.  What have you done to create successful book clubs?

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.

The Reading Identity Challenge

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At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to tell me how they felt about reading.  I do this every year as it offers me a baseline, a glimpse into their reading truths.  I was not surprised at the results, 25% told me they loved it, 50% told me they didn’t mind it, and the final 25%?  They told me they hated it.  Perhaps slightly higher than normal, but nevertheless, teaching 7th graders, I was not worried.  After all, every year it seems this happens and every year, children change their minds.

This year, though, some have proven to be stubborn.  Those kids that hate reading, they still were fighting me every step of the way.  Abandoning books, which we do embrace, every single day.  Refusing to book shop even.  Flipping pages aimlessly day in and day out.  Not having any desire to change their hatred, content with being part of the statistics of kids that don’t read.

So I created the Student Reading Identity Challenge.  Not just for the kids who still hated reading, but for those that needed a spark, those that needed to stretch their reading legs a little.  For myself to challenge my own reading life, nervously glancing at Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as two books I had no desire to read but knew I should.

A reading challenge for us all, so we all could get better, whatever better meant to us.  The concept is simple; over the course of three weeks or so students would select one aspect of their personal reading life and challenge themselves to make it better or change it.  Much like a personal goal; there was no right challenge, instead, it was based on the individual’s needs, the hopes for the future.   There was no limit to what they could work on and they would be given around twenty minutes every day to read, rather than our usual ten.

We started with this five-page survey; yes, five pages.  I needed students in all their stages of reading relationship to uncover new truths about themselves.  It needed to go beyond whether they liked to read or not and into their actual reading habits.  Where are they reading, what are they reading, why are they not reading more?  Where are their book gaps?  Where do they get book recommendations from?  All those little things that play into who they are as a reader.  It took the kids almost two days to fill it out because I asked them to please slow down, please really think about it, and then show your goal to me.

The goals varied; I want to enjoy reading again, I want to try a new genre, I want to read every day.  Some couldn’t think of one until we looked through all of their answers and something jumped out at us.  Whatever the goal was there was a reason, a personal one, that this was the one thing they felt would help them become a better reader.  Some kids even chose a read aloud with another teacher so they could have a shared experience around a book, trying to help them actually like reading more.  For every goal there was a story; a story of reading blossomed or reading gone wrong.  For every goal there was either excitement or reprehension; how would this actually change anything?  Once all the goals were in place, I asked the kids to somehow keep track – how will you know you are working on your goal?  Some chose a calendar to write down minutes or rank their reading of the day, some chose a peer to speak about their reading.  This is the one component I am still working on, I did not want it to be a writing experience, one where the students would have to jot down their thoughts every day, but instead, an organic process for them that helped them have a great experience, not one more thing to do.

So we began; some kids book shopped the first few days, having to find a great book as part of their goal as well,  others dove right in.  I taught a mini-lesson every day and then the rest of the time was for them to read.  I pulled small groups, conferred with students, and otherwise watched.  Were they actually reading?  Was this actually working…

One child told me she was so confused in her fantasy book and this was exactly why she never read fantasy because “It doesn’t make any sense!” and yet because of the challenge she read on, declaring at the end of the book that she couldn’t wait for the sequel. Another told me she was stuck in the boring part and this was always when she abandoned a book, but now because of the challenge, she read on.  A child who has yet to read a single book this year, no matter my support, is on page 60 of Hatchet, telling me yesterday that he read 20 pages in one day.

Whatever their goal, I saw it gradually start to happen; kids finding a way to make reading better for themselves.  Kids realizing more deeply who they are as readers, where they are on their reading journey.  For some, it has proven to be a huge revelation, for others just a small one.  But for most, it has changed something in them as a reader.  For most, there is a deeper urge to make reading enjoyable, no matter what they are reading.

So yesterday, I taught my first two classes, followed my lesson plan to the tee.  But in my 5th hour, the students asked if they could please read for ten minutes today, knowing I had only allocated ten.  Of course, I said.  When the fifteen were up, they asked for five more minutes.  Of course, I said.  When the five were up they asked if they could please just read the rest of the class.  As twenty-five students stared at me, seemingly holding their breath, I said, “Of course.”  And then watched the thickest of silences fall over the room as they each retreated into their books.  Even the ones who tell me they hate reading.  Even the ones who used to flip pages.  I did the same for the rest of my classes, and it didn’t change; silence, except for the pages being turned, and one child telling me triumphantly that they had read fifteen pages today – more than they read all of last week.

The reading identity challenge is not the end all be all, but it is another step in helping students uncover another aspect of who they are as readers.  It is another tool to help them become empowered in their own reading journey.  It is another step to tell all of my students that reading matters and that they control so much of their relationship with reading.  That new genres await, that it is possible for reading to be fun, that they can make it through the boring parts, that they can go deeper in their text.  That reading should be a part of who they are and therefore also should be something they mold and shape as they develop further.

As for me?  It turns out that Hatchet and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were amazing books.  That I have realized that perhaps I should be looking at other classic children’s book gaps to make sure I am able to recommend them to kids.  That even though I love reading, I still have things to work on.  Just like my students, just like we all do.

PS:  Here is the reflection sheet I had them fill out at the end.  The standard referenced is one that measures providing evidence for their thoughts.

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.

 

 

When They Still Just Hate to Write…

Our son Oskar hates writing, truly hates everything about it. From the holding of the pencil, to the forming of the letter, to the message itself; there is no love lost here.   Last week he was asked by his school to write his name on all twenty  Valentine’s day cards he will be handing out to his friend.  For a week this has been the ongoing conversation…

“Mom, this is like 100 cards, did you really count them?”
“Mom, I only have five friends, so I really only need to write five…”
“Mom, my friends know that I have a “K” in my name so I don’t need to write these letters…”
“Mom, I want to be a job that has no writing in it…”

Oskar is four years old.  I am truly not worried, not yet, after all, he is at the beginning of his writing journey.  Holding a pencil is hard work.  Forming letters that others can read is hard work.  Sticking with something more than five minutes is hard work.  Yet…

I see his words echoed by some of my students, my twelve and thirteen-year-olds.  Not just the boys, the girls too.  We hate writing, writing is hard, please don’t make us write. And they don’t, they fight me every step of the way.  They write something once and then never return to it.  They do not care that it doesn’t make sense, they do not care that words are misspelled, they do not care that their writing is sometimes terrifyingly simple.  There is no love for the fine art of writing because as they tell me, they will never be writers when they grow up.   So I wonder, what can we do to protect the love of writing and are we doing enough?  Are we offering students a chance to feel like writers rather than see it as something to just get through?

And I get it; how many adults identify as writers?  How many adults feel like they know how to write well?  How many teachers see themselves as writers who would quickly identify as readers?  Why is it that this incredible method of communication seems to have had all of the joy sucked right out of it?  So I wonder, what can we do to protect the love of writing and are we doing enough?  Are we offering students a chance to feel like writers rather than see it as something to just get through?

I know we preach about free choice in writing as if this simple change will fix anything, yet even when given free choice I have students who prefer not to.  Who would like the choice to be that they do not have to write.  So what else can we do beyond giving them time?  Giving them freedom?

We can speak to authors.

Through Skype we have had wonderful conversations with authors who have told us all about their writing process.  Not only has this given the students a deeper connection with the very books they read, but it has also given them a chance to realize that not every writer felt like a writer as a child.  That not every writer gets great ideas with no work behind them.  That writing is hard work and something that even those who have gotten a book published say they get frustrated by it.  This opportunity to speak to those who make it seem so easy has cemented lessons that I have tried to teach for years; writing is hard work, writing does not always come easy, and it is okay to doubt yourself as long as you don’t give up.

We can find out why.

I used to assume that I knew why my students didn’t like to write, after all, it seemed to almost always be the same reasons.  I stopped assuming several years ago when a child told me they hated to write because they did not want a peer to edit it.  They had not written a single word yet.  So now I ask, and we should all ask; what about it do you not like?  When did you start not liking it?  What has helped?  What has hurt?  What small steps can we do to make it better if even just a little bit?  Sometimes they don’t know, other times they do, but we don’t assume to know the answer, so we always ask.

We can sit in silence.

Too often we assume writing must commence the moment an assignment is given and yet those of us who do write regularly know how much writing happens before we actually write any sentences.  I need silence to write.  I need inspiration.  I need to find something that is worth writing about.  This is where free choice is so powerful in our writing curriculum, but so is wait-time, quiet, and a way to manipulate the learning environment to work for the individual.  My students know that when they write they are expected to make the room work for them, not the other way around, so they do.  And they sometimes stare into space for a really long time, but almost always, they finally start to write. And those that don’t?  Well, they are a conversation waiting to happen.

We can provide self-chosen support.  

I used to partner students up by need, by whatever skill they needed to work on.  Now I ask my students to please find a partner or two to work with as they process through their writing, rather than artificially pair them up.  Why?  Because sharing your writing is a vulnerable process.  Sharing your writing and asking someone for feedback can make or break future writing.  Because when I write I self-select those that will see my unfinished work so that I know that they are judging the work and not me.

We can give breaks.

Writing is hard work.  Even as 7th graders, some of my students do not have the stamina to do writing well for more than fifteen minutes.  That is ok, as long as we are aware of it.  For my most ardent non-writers we try to give breaks, sometimes through conferencing, but others time just a movement or water break, so they can shake their hands, clear their minds, and recapture the energy they were feeling before.

We can be honest.

I speak about my own writing process with my students as we explore our writing lives.  I speak of the frustration, of how hard it can be to receive criticism, of how I get in writing slumps, how I seek out inspiration.  I tell them that there are millions of ways to write, that none of them are perfect, but that what matters is that they find their own path.  That they experiment, that they explore, that they do not give up even when they are certain that writing will never be anything they actually will need for anything.  I ask for their concerns and complaints, they share their needs so that I can try to adapt the writing curriculum to fit their needs.

We can make it matter.  

My students rarely write in isolation.  Their bigger projects almost always extend beyond the classroom to make a difference in the lives of others.  To make a mark in the world around them.  Sharing our writing globally has helped some students realize the direct impact that their words can have on others.  Giving them tools such as blogging or simply sharing through Google docs, have made them realize that what they write can matter to others beyond our classroom walls.  That their opinion may shape the opinion of someone else.  That what they write may provoke an emotion in others.  It is not the ultimate solution, there are still children who fight me, who fight themselves, every step of the way.  But it’s a start.  It is a way to try to make writing seen as something important, rather than just something we do in school, never to be applied to the real world.

When Oskar finished his twenty Valentine’s Day cards tonight, they were a bit of a mess.  The “O’s” looked pretty good but everything else was illegible.  He had a smile on his face and so we gathered them up and put them in his backpack.  We have a long way ahead of us yet for him to like writing more.  We picked our battle tonight, knowing that if we had asked him to re-do them all, the damage to his already strained relationship with writing would have been significant.  Perhaps this is my last advice for tonight then, spoken more to myself than others; one battle at a time.  One hurdle at a time.  Small successes matter, even if we haven’t completely changed a child’s mind just yet.  As they say in Denmark; mange bække små gør en stor å.”

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 Grading Conversation We Need to Have

 

On Monday, we discussed grades and standards scores in our classroom.  As the end of the semester is here, it is now time for my students to assess themselves and somehow turn that evaluation into not just a standard score, but also a letter grade.  I meet with them individually to discuss as well, but the initial work always starts with them.  So on Monday I asked them, “What does a “1” mean to you?”  as a way to get our conversation started.  I was surprised, to say the least, at their answers…

“It means that I have failed…”

“It means I am bad…”

“It means they didn’t try…”

Receiving a “1” on standard score did not mean they were at the beginning of their learning.  That they had not yet mastered something.  That they had some knowledge but still had a way to go.  No, it meant failure, no effort, that they were stupid.  Even in our classroom where students self-assess all of the time.  Where we have actively tried to change the conversation from a score to feedback.  Where I have tried to put students in control of their learning.  They still think that if they get a “1” they are bad kids.

So rather than move into the definition of letter grades (they did this after) we stopped for a moment and discussed what each standard score really means.  What they need to do when they give themselves a “1” or a “2.” How a “1” does not mean they didn’t try but that they do not understand yet.  That a “2” does not mean they are bad at English but that they still have teaching to be a part of.  That those scores certainly can have something to do with effort but must of the time it does not.  That those scores do not determine how smart they are but are really just an indication of what they have shown me so far.

The sigh of relief in our classroom was nearly visible as a new sense of understanding dawned on the kids. These scores were in their hands, these scores were meant as signals, these scores were meant to guide not punish.  I thought they already knew that, after all, this is not their first year with standards based scores, and yet the conversation showed me otherwise.

So have you had this conversation with your students?  Do they understand what their grades mean and not just from a project standpoint?  Do they feel in control of how they are assessed?  How they are seen by themselves and others?  I encourage you to ask, I encourage you to have students set their own grades.  I encourage you to reframe the narrative that they may have when it comes to scores and assessment.  Assuming they know what they really mean means you are probably wrong.  I know I was.

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.