Monday, March 31, 2014

Reflecting on Reflecting

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Writing a blog entry every day for a month was about as hard as I expected it to be.

While I have been writing a book review blog for my students for a couple of years, that isn’t the same as trying to find something new every day to reflect on for 31 days straight. Books are easy to talk about. I’m not putting myself out there in the same way that I am on this blog. Writing knowing that mostly only students I know are going to read the posts is different than writing knowing that countless people I've never met in person might read what I’m writing.

Finding a new take on an old problem, or a new insight into something tried and true, or something I think it worth talking about in print has been a challenge. Some posts came easier than others. When I’m talking about my students, the blog posts write themselves. Successes are always easy to articulate. Struggles are often hard to admit to and take some care to explain.

This blog challenge got me writing more reflectively, kept me writing, and gave me a new perspective on what it must be like to be a student faced with the task of writing for assignments that we give them. My struggle to find the right words mirror what I imagine their struggle must be. I have gained a new understanding of how to help them be find their words and put themselves out there, even if it is just for me to read.

The blogging challenge has also exposed me to so many new blogs and so many new ideas through the other challenge participants. It was hard to read every post I wanted to read. And I haven’t been brave enough to foray into commenting yet, so that is my next challenge. I want my students next year to learn to comment on each other’s blogs, so I need to learn how to do it myself so I can guide them effectively.
I intend to keep blogging, both here and on my book blog. I can’t keep up with blogging every day, but my goal is once or twice a week, including Slice of Life Tuesdays. It will make me a better writer, a better instructional coach, and a better teacher to reflect this way. It already has.

I would like to thank the Two Writing Teachers for posing this challenge to us. It was time well-spent, and I enjoyed the challenge.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

No Down Time

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

The major testing for our grades 3-8 is over, and we still have one more round with select grade levels for writing and science to go in April.

We also have ten weeks to go in our school year. While the pressure has lifted some, there is still work to be done. However, I find that right now, we seem to think that with testing over, we can all turn our focus to next year, rather than concentrating on what is still right in front of us.

Once the writing test is over for me, this becomes the best part of my year with my Pre-AP students. We still have The Miracle Worker, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven to read together. We still need to write about our personal heroes and reflect on our middle school years by choosing our theme songs. We need to travel to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield with the 8th graders. The end of testing doesn't mean the end of the year, it just means that we can all take a deep breath and get back to teaching.

I know that we have to make plans for next year, and we are making a lot of changes in my building, so people are becoming anxious. We are going to a semi-block schedule and extending the time for ELA and math instruction into double what it has always been. We are adding in an academic support period for tutoring and forming grade-level teams. There will be staffing changes, and room re-assignments. All of this takes planning and meetings and packing and more meetings.

As a literacy coach, a department head, and a union president, I have to constantly be planning for next year, reflecting on what I've done, planning what I want to do, budgeting what I will need. There are MOAs to write for the changes that we need to make to contract language to accommodate the new adventures in scheduling and staffing. There is professional development to plan, and consultants to book. There is still data to collect to drive placements for next year.

It’s like this every year, but this year just feels different than others. Maybe it’s because the winter has been so long, maybe it is because we are getting out later this year after a late start in September, maybe it’s because next year is a year of huge changes, or maybe it is because we focused so much attention on making sure we were ready for the state testing that now we aren't sure what to do next.

Whatever the case may be, I’d like just a little more time before we throw away this year and move onto next in our minds. I want to enjoy my 8th graders before sending them away to high school. I’d like to reflect on what I've accomplished and finish up all the books I haven’t had a chance to read yet and need to share with my students. I’d like some time to go back and really look at what we've accomplished so we can make the right decisions about where we need to go next year.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury. This coming week is filled with meetings about all of the changes for next year. I have people asking me to help them plan for next year, and I have to get the final budget numbers in for the purchase of next year’s novels. I am hoping that, with all the looking ahead I have to do, I don’t miss what is right in front of me in the here and now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Finding Their Voices

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Yesterday I talked about how the best part of my job as a teacher of reading is helping students find the right book. The best part of my job as a teacher of writing is helping students find their voices.

I had a parent tell me the other day, while we were working on our short stories in Pre-AP, that her daughter had been begging her the night before to read the story she was working on, that there was finally homework her daughter wanted to do. Her daughter told her I was the only one who ever let them write something creative.

I didn't assign that story for homework. They had all week in class to work on it because it was testing week, and I wanted them to be able to work on something meaningful but that wasn’t “work.” This is not a student who likes to write, not a student who sees herself as a “good” writer. But this is a writer who was working at home when she didn’t have to because she wanted to write.

My students come to me at the beginning of the year with a formula for writing. They are used to being assigned a writing task with a specific purpose and not given much choice. They struggle when I say, “Write what you want.” They often have no idea how to craft a response without being told how many paragraphs, what content to include, and how to choose the words to best express their exact meaning. Most of all, very few of them have found their own voice.

For the first marking period we do “Meaningful Mondays.” I give them a quotation and ask them to respond. I comment on their quotations, but this free writing (which used to be Free Write Friday), tells me more about them as writers and people than any prompt or interest survey could. I gather a lot of formative data from these pieces. I watch how long it takes them to start writing, and how long it takes them to finish in relation to how much they wrote. I can look back over the nine entries and see how they choose to approach the quotations…personally or impersonally…and whether that change depending on the quotation. I see where their areas of need and strength are, and use those to drive mini-lessons and form revision partnerships. The content of their responses usually give me clues to what they consider to be important, how they feel about themselves in relation to the world around them, and what their life has been like. Fifteen minutes a week, and a wealth of information gained that helps me to drive my writing instruction for the rest of the year.

Formula writing has its place. There are rules to writing that must be followed in order for others to be able to extract meaning from a piece. But I believe that, much like we are duty-bound to honor student’s reading choices, we are also required to help students find their own voices when they write.

My students may not all come back advanced on the state writing test or be as prepared for their ninth grade teacher as she would like them to be, but I think most of my students leave my room having found their voices because I ask them to give me more of themselves rather than a "correct" response.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Mix and Match

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Finding that one book that will ignite passion in a student who “doesn't like to read” is the best part of my job as a teacher of reading. It’s one of the reasons I added Library Science to my certifications. Sometime in the next five years, I hope to make the jump from the ELA classroom to the middle school library. I know it will be a huge change for me, not having a class to build those daily relationships with, but what I will still have is the chance to help kids build relationships with literature.

These last few weeks have been pretty successful for me. I have at least four kids who are wending their way through new series I introduced them to. I have two developing readers who have read an I Survived book I handed them in one day and successfully tested at 100% on AR on them the next. I have students lining up for the last books I book talked.  And I have students pulling books from my classroom library daily because they trust that if it’s on my shelf, it’s probably worth reading.

I don’t understand middle level reading teachers who don’t make time to read what the kids are reading. I don’t understand how you can possibly consider yourself a reading teacher or a librarian when you haven’t read more than one young adult/middle grade book a month, if that. I don’t understand English teachers who belittle what a student chooses to read rather than to validate it. And I don’t understand how we think it’s okay to require students to read two books at a time -- one for class and one for “pleasure” --  then turn around and say we don’t think reading is important enough to make time for it in our daily lives.

I am surrounded by those people where I work. I get it, not everyone has the kind of time I have, or is willing to make the time I make, to read. I don’t have children, I don’t have a lot of family obligations, and I can make my own schedules for my free time without having to accommodate too many other people. What I don’t have is a lot of free time. I spend a lot of time working…as a union president, as a literacy coach, as an ELA teacher, and as a volunteer for various school activities. When I don’t have the time to read, as I haven’t the last couple of months, I feel like I’m not doing my job, even though reading books to share with my students never feels like work.

Right now the students in my school have limited people they can go to for help finding books, and that is limiting our ability to help our students grow into the readers they were meant to be. So while I am sure that, down the road I will be anxious about giving up my traditional classroom and making the transition to librarian, I am anxious in a different way to see what I can accomplish with the time and resources to help 500 students find their perfect book. 

I’m going to need a bigger book budget!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

See How They Grow

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

I finally found something good about Accelerated Reader.

This week I had my Pre-AP students, 8th graders, “analyze” their AR reading records from kindergarten until now. I haven’t done this before, but I needed a “filler” activity. And I had an ulterior motive…to gather intel on what the kids really think about AR, and what they remember about the program from elementary school where we still have incentives.

The amount of conversation this simple filler activity generated was amazing. Students were up around the room comparing records, many spent a lot of time looking up book covers to remember those very first books, and they were genuinely excited to see their independent reading career laid out before them.

I wandered around the room, asking questions to get them to think more deeply about what they were seeing, answering questions for them, and helping them figure out which books represented which year in school.

I also had them complete a reflection about their AR record, asking the following questions:
·       What trends do you notice in what you were reading (series, genres, periods where you tested a lot or not at all etc.)? What stands out to you the most as you look at your record.
·       How did your reading change from primary (K-2), to intermediate (3-5), to middle school (6-8)?
·       What do you think your record shows about your growth as a reader?
·       What do you think your record doesn't show about your growth as a reader?
·       One of the purposes of AR is to motivate younger readers to read to earn points. How do you feel about that as a motivator for reading?
·       What do you think are good ways to motivate kids to read?

As expected, the answers were all over the place. A lot of the students talked about how much they had read in primary, but not as much as in intermediate or middle school. I reminded them that we only require them to test on one book a marking period in middle school, so unless they were taking it upon themselves to test on every book they read beyond fifth grade, that might not be a fair analysis.

That led into a class discussion about the difference between being able to read and being a reader. Most of the students in my class are at least two grade levels ahead, and most of them are consistently advanced on the standardized tests. Looking at their reading records, most of these students have read over 300 books in their career, many even more than that.  However, over half of them admitted, in our discussion, that if I was not requiring them to read additional books for a blogging/AR grade, they would only read what they were assigned as whole-class reads. They are the most advanced readers in the school, but most of them no longer identify themselves as “readers.”

When I asked about the elementary incentives, again, most of them agreed that they read to get the points they needed for the parties and the awards. And in some respects, they are still only reading for incentives, now it just comes in the form of points in my gradebook.

I liked having students be able to see their “reading history” with AR. They enjoyed talking about their old friends Clifford and Arthur and Jack and Annie. But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the points for a majority of these students. Maybe it would happen anyway, that reading would take a backseat as they grow and their time becomes more divided into social and athletic activities, but I still can’t help but wonder if having students start their lives as independent readers counting points isn't causing them to become too reliant on external motivators to give them a reason to read.

My district still isn’t ready to dump the program. We have had it too long, and we cling to it like a raft in a stormy sea, afraid to let go because what if it really is help our students become better readers? However, I am committed next year to looking closely at the program and really using the data it provides to better assist our students to become readers, rather than students who can read. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting Creative

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

To celebrate standardized testing this week, I’m letting my Pre-AP kids get creative. There is no way after coming off of testing every day, my students are in any shape to come to class and really work. This is the week when I feel like it’s okay to let them be more creative, when I don’t feel the pressure of getting them ready for the test, or getting them ready for ninth grade. So we are writing creatively all week…short stories and mirror poems. I have students who are embracing this, but others are having a lot of difficulty.

My assistant principal has a first grader who is writing stories (and illustrating them) all the time. First graders love to tell and write stories. They don’t worry about finding an idea, adding details, or what someone will think if they read it. They just write.

And once upon a time, so did my eighth graders. I have two or three students each year who keep notebooks and flash drives full of fan fiction. But most of them, when I tell them they are going to have to write creatively, no longer have the confidence that they once had.


Is it because we don’t consider creativity to be important because it isn’t measured on the test? Is it because, as we age, we become more critical of ourselves and others and become afraid to put our words out there? Or is it because we are afraid that, in writing creatively, we will reveal more of ourselves that we intended?

We should never let our students get out of the habit of telling their stories. We should always be making time to let them be creative, not just as a break from “real work” during testing weeks.

Hopefully at the end of this week, my reluctant creative writers will see that they can still tell their stories…just like they did once upon a time. And hopefully next year I will find ways and time to incorporate creative writing into our whole year, not just save it for “writing recess” during testing week.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's the Point?

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

My Pre-AP students have trouble reading for a purpose. These students are usually my most qualified readers, scoring well on standardized tests and being able to comprehend above grade level. By now my eighth graders are developing their reading styles…some read closely for details, others can’t recall simple facts but can tell you overall impressions of a story, and others just absorb one book and move quickly onto the next.

Setting a specific purpose for reading beyond gathering information or reading for enjoyment can be difficult, and asking students to read for more specific purposes challenges them. Setting the purpose for non-fiction is easier for students. Depending on the text, the main goal is to get the information out or analyze the opinion/argument being presented. Students can manage this easily with a set goal.

Fiction presents a different challenge. By now my students automatically analyze character, plot, and theme. They can determine point of view and how it influences the reader. But setting a purpose for close reading of literature becomes problematic when there are so many different areas in each book to focused on.

My students recently studied Night. I wanted them to trace the changing relationship of Elie and his father. But I also wanted them to connect with provocative passages, analyze the role religion played in his experience, and focus on the motif of the eyes. Obviously these were too many purposes to read for, so I had to choose one and just touch on the others in classroom discussion. So, I chose the father-son relationship as our purpose for reading , then I worried that I had not chosen wisely, that one student might have connected to the text better if I had chosen the role of religion, or if I had just allowed them to choose provocative passages. In the end it went well, but when we finished up I still felt like I should have done more with the text, focused them a different way.

Students need to be able to read for specific purposes. They need to know what the goal is, what to look for in a text, and how to extract what they need from text to reach the end goal. But sometimes, when it comes to reading literature, the best purpose for reading of all is to embrace the text and let each student determine why he or she is reading.