Friday, December 28, 2012

Book Love: Now's the Time

Book Love Book Club screen shot from Facebook

Where I began my reading
about growing readers and
reading workshop.
If you are not following the discussion of Penny Kittle's Book Love, stop reading this blog right now. Go to Facebook and join the Book Love Book Club. There more than 170 teachers, teachers from nearly every state in the nation, sharing their thinking about growing readers and  Kittle's book. It is as if  the changed we worked for during the It's Never Too Late  and Reading for Life literacy institutes has come to life: amazing.

Today's discussion of chapter three will focus on setting goals and encouraging growth. The chapter reminded me of a piece from a book I bought off the Barnes and Noble bargain table to use as a rip-up book for collage. The book is Now Is the Time: 170 Ways to Seize the Moment and the piece follows:

Now is the time...
to be curious 
Knowledge won't find us, we must find it.
Every day is a chance to learn something new.
Cast your net wide,
open your mind to the excitement of learning.
curiosity keeps us young at heart and mind.
When we stop learning, we stop living (124). 
Now is the time to be curious and to learn, to read and to discuss, to share and to enjoy; now is the time in our teaching lives to feed and sustain our teaching souls. When we stop learning as  teachers, we stop living passionate lives in our classrooms. Learning can be simple, like the tweaking we do to our instructional routines or curriculum. Last year, Linda Rief talked with me about how every year is eye-opening as she tweaks something in her practice to bring students closer and closer to where she wants them to be as readers and writers. Simple changes can yield instructional elegance.

That's what I found this morning in chapter three of Kittle's Book Love. She describes how she sets reading goals with students. Weekly goals are about pages read first, hours or time second. Students calculate their reading rate based on a ten-minute comfortable in-class read. Then they extrapolate out to hourly, daily and weekly page rates--their goals come from these calculations and of course, everyone is different. A simple switch flipped in my teacher brain. Ah ha. Brilliant.

Books that continue
to light the way to creating
life-long readers
Students in my English classroom set goals, but perhaps we have built castles on air as we set them. I used to tell students their goal (or my goal for them). I laid clear my expectations: 25 books a year. I wrote a bit about it here. I used to say that if students in New York and California could be expected to read that much each year (by their standards years ago) then we certainly could do that too. What I didn't tell students was that the 25 book standard, of which I learned about from some keynote or another, was actually a standard for fifth grade readers.

Fifth graders read much differently than ninth, eleventh or twelfth graders. Still, each year that I stuck to that spiel, I had students meet and exceed my expectations. The range was wide though with the lowest book count hovering near double digits. I don't use the 25 book expectation anymore. I tweaked that idea after reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and again after spending much of my spring break in Linda Rief's classroom.  Miller helped me better individualize reading goals by book count and by genre. Rief helped me refocus on students.  Kittle will push me to make the entire student-centered process more concrete. Every book I read pushes my practice and shapes what I think and do with readers in my room.

Kittle's  approach to setting reading goals using data quickly gathered makes sense and will be meaningful for my own students. Teaching (and learning) is change-laden. We tweak. We shift. We change. Our instruction, our beliefs, our ideas. All sorts of things evolve and change in our classrooms--I love that.

Passion rekindled.

I can't wait to start the new year with the readers in my room!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Nerd Powers Activate

Slice of Life is a weekly post from the Two Writing Teachers.
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My son sits across a six-foot desk from me in my studio slash office. In front of a wall of books  art-ifacts, paint, partial projects, old books for collage, canvases  dominoes--the ephemera of spare moments stolen to craft and make art. I love having Collin across the desk. He writes on his computer or does homework or plays on Nerdcrafteria and I write or work or watch Ze Frank chase happy. I especially love sitting across from Collin during Project for Awesome because we work together with Nerdfighteria to like, favorite and comment on Project for Awesome videos.

Comments & funds raised as of 10:33 p.m. 12/18/12
As we're watching the live show, we laugh, we tell Vlogbrothers stories. We joke. We comment. We talk.
Yesterday he told me about something that happen in class. The story went like this (pretend Collin is talking now):

Yesterday I finished my exam early so I got a book to read. I was reading for about 20 minutes and So and So and this other girl in class looked at me. Then they looked at each other. Then so and so said "Hey, Collin, what page are you on?"
I replied, "27."
"Man!" So and So said, "I wouldn't get that far in two days! I could never read like that." Then So and So turned back to the girl and they shared a laughing moment.  I  heard nerd or geek tossed between them.
"But you know what, Mom? When people call me a nerd or a geek at school. They think they are insulting me, but because of Nerdfighteria, I take it as a compliment."

Then he grinned. My heart... We talked about So and So's talents on the basketball court and how everyone has different talents. I praised my reader and we got back to commenting on Project for Awesome videos and laughing with Hank Green, whose shout out to me during the live stream last night lit my son up. That was a pink stone Project for Awesome moment. My heart lifted with the power of Nerdfighteria. Nerdfighteria has made Collin comfortable in his own skin in ways even many of high school juniors are not. Amazing. Incredible. True.

So, fast forward to today. I spent 8 hours commenting on Project for Awesome videos. From early morning to through every class period. I left school to go to my son's basketball game. Then the plan was to hustle home and get back to commenting together.

At the game,  So and So's Mom came up to the top row to sit next to me. (There are only 4 rows of bleachers, so it's not like a high school gym or a stadium or anything). She said, "You should have heard what my son (So and So) said about Collin last night."

Unprompted, she told me the same story Collin had shared. So and So's story to his Mom ended with him saying "Collin is amazing. I could never read that way... not with months and months of practice." Like me she had the talent conversation with her son.

I told her the ending I heard from Collin. She said, "Oh no. So and So truly was amazed by Collin. He has a geek brother and he's written about geek power in class. He doesn't dis the geek." We had a long conversation (it stretched through all four quarters of the game). I told her about Project for Awesome and how Collin identifies with the community and how yes, he is an incredible reader. I told her how we love to watch her son So and So play ball. He is elegant and diligent on the court and I can think of no other sixth grader that is. I walked away with a new understanding of something that really troubled me yesterday.

After the game, Collin and I talked about it. He was wide-eyed to hear what So and So's mom said. We talked about how it's easy to think we know what other people are thinking or why other people are laughing--it's not always about us.

they lost the basketball game today, but I'm chalking a win for Project for Awesome and Nerdfighteria.

Thanks, Hank.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Awesome Failure

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with Two Writing Teachers
December brings Project for Awesome. 

Always December 17th, the Project for Awesome is an annual YouTube event.  Thousands of video creators participate by making videos in support of their favorite charities. Anyone can make a video and anyone can participate in the commenting, tweeting and donating fun.

I wrote a bit about how you can participate in the project on the Nerdy Book Club this past week and will talk about it on Engchat on Twitter next Monday. This week in my classroom is all about getting our videos planned, created and published. 

It's Tuesday and already I have to swap out my own ideas. See I had this idea. Sort of like Kristina Horner's 2007 Nerdfightastic mission to spread the word about Nerdfighteria, libraries and First Book. Instead of decorating index cards and inserting them into library books, I thought I could spread the word about organizations that serve the hungry in our community by sticking labels on canned goods at the store. 

I made labels. I did think alouds for my students. I got excited about the mission. I talked through ideas for filming. I was ready to roll when I thought about asking permission. Teaching is a subversive act, but I decided to ask the manager of the store if it was okay, just to make sure. 

Did you know that sticking stickers on items that are for sale in a commercial establishment is considered solicitation? Indeed it is, by more than one grocery store manager. So,  back to the drawing board. Failure means I've learned something. Failure means I revise and (cue the movie music) "keep moving forward."

 If an idea  fails there must be a better one on the horizon.

I want to highlight organizations that feed people and provide food. That's the idea I've been modeling as we gather facts, storyboard and write drafts of scripts.  I want to create a sample Project for Awesome video with things close at hand to show my students that we don't have to be in another country or working at an organization to make a difference. If we do what we can, that counts too. 

Don't get me wrong. I hope I'm raising students to work with the poor. I hope I am raising students to care about developing countries and fight for access to clean water and an end to Malaria and education for all, especially girls. Those pursuits are amazing and wonderful and terrifically needed, but your everyday ninth-grader is stunned by them and fears he will never live up to such amazing deeds. I want to give my students a  starting place. 

I want to teach them to take one step in the right direction. 

Eye level shot of the pantry.

So, my revised idea? Photograph food. Photograph what is in my pantry and or my refrigerator. Photograph what is on the shelves at the grocery store (the manager said that was okay). Beg my friends and followers for photographs of the food at their houses. Piece the images together into a montage and use them to talk about the food we have and the food others need. Highlight the food organization  I will support (I'm choosing between a local pantry and a meta-pantry such as Second Harvest) and close my video with ways anyone can donate or pitch in. What do you think? 

You'd think we don't eat vegetables, but we do.
Will you send me a picture of the food in your pantry ? Or the food in your fridge? Don't clean it first. No one will know whose is whose. Really, it's  not about you or your matching containers or alphabetically shelved cans or even the moths in the bread flour. Just try not to get the beer or the wine in the picture. 

Project for Awesome and the videos created for it are about helping people and raising awareness. If you want to help me inspire my students and  help me serve the hungry, send your pictures to spillarke (at) gmail or tweet them to @spillarke. 

Thank you, thank you! 
Lee Ann 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Word of the Day: Philanthropy

I'm changing my bell work routine today. Instead of doing a daily think write (what my students call quick writes), we are doing word study. I'm just shifting it up in my instructional order during the class period. I'm using a new-to-me tool (the Educreations app) to  record, share and distribute the word of the day notes in order to make my teaching more transparent. Recording and sharing the lessons online helps students recover from an absence or a lack of focus in class--it gives them extra time to take notes or review work at home. Many of them need more time than we have in class.

Educreation's work space is essentially a whiteboard where I can import a picture, draw, or type and record audio as I make notes on the screen. It is easy to use, intuitive. A fellow teacher showed me the app. He works as a DJ at a popular Cuban restaurant on the weekends and he showed me a video he made explaining the DJ's soundboard. Very cool.

I like it so far. It is not complicated to use and it allowed me to create, save and share (via Twitter) in under five minutes (even with the web filtering road-block I ran into during the process). Amazing!  

I ran into two snags, none the fault of the program. For some reason, my district server would not allow me to tweet directly from the app or iPad.  I kept getting an error message and being asked to re-log in. When I was denied tweetability, I found a work around quickly by logging on to my Educreations ' profile online on my laptop. I easily tweeted the link from my teacher computer to my classroom tweet stream. This had everything to do with the restructuring and outsourcing of our web filtering process and nothing to do with Educreations.

The only other issue I had was with my ability to multi-task. Sometimes it is difficult for me to think aloud, write, observe students and spell at the same time. As I was talking students through the word I mispelled meanness. I felt it (the misspelling) as I did it. It's tricky to juggle all of those processes at the same time, especially while navigating and using a new-to-you tool in front of a live teenage audience. Still, it became a good talking point to debrief the process.

Happy Wednesday!
Lee Ann

PS: Philanthropy was our word today because it is time for AWESOME! The Project for Awesome begins December 17th. Will you be ready? Get the scoop from the Vlogbrothers.

PSS: Need more awesome? Time Magazine put's John Green's The Fault in Our Stars at the top of the top ten fiction books of 2012!  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Slice of Life, a Tuesday post, is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers
Driving home from the junior varsity basketball game this evening my son, Collin, confessed. He got another "undone." An undone is what students get when they do not turn in an assignment on time. When a student doesn't have his work, the teacher fills out the undone form in triplicate. The white copy goes home for the parents to sign; the teacher keeps the yellow copy and the pink copy, well my son thinks it goes to the principal. The Violent Femmes came to mind as I was driving home: “I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record." It won't. I know that now, but I remember what it felt like to be forgetful.

I wish that Collin remembered every assignment every week and every day, but I'm a realist. People forget things. I forget things.  People forget things that are more important than a signature on a science fair form and more life-altering than a rough draft. Sometimes they even testify to such in a court of law. That does not mean that Collin should not learn to meet deadlines and develop work habits that will help him succeed in high school. He should. 

I get the undone thing. I might not agree with how it's graded and counted, but I appreciate the intent. 

As a parent another thing I appreciate about the undone is the way it gives Collin and opportunity to talk to me. He has to tell me. He either tells and I sign his form so that he can turn in the assignment that he left finished at home on the breakfast table(or in the printer) for a reduced grade or he goes to detention, something I might only learn about when the monthly bill came. Yes, I pay for him to attend a detention. He goes to a private school and parents  pay for detention time but that is another story. Collin always tells, so far anyway. 

It is difficult for him and I admire his bravery every time he faces it. I hated telling my father when I'd done something wrong at school. I hated telling my Mom too, but it was easier to tell her. Collin is on his ninth undone. That seems excessive to me. Does it seem excessive to you? He's in sixth grade. He has seven teachers. He has not gotten nine undones in every class, just nine total. He says he's perhaps in the middle of the undone pack in terms of the other kids in his grade. I'm just curious about undone norms I guess, though I shouldn't compare. We brainstormed solutions and settled on making a checklist for his mirror or the backdoor--something to remind him to think through his needs for the day.

 I appreciated the conversation today's undone engendered.  Collin asked about how teachers at my school handle late work. We often talk about what he's doing in middle school in terms of getting ready for high school. I appreciate that his middle school teachers work as a team. Frankly, sometimes I'm jealous of that unity. At my school teachers have their own undone or late work policies. Those policies range far and wide. Collin asked about what happens in high school when you don't have your work on time. I gave him a list of how some teachers I know handle late work. What happens if you turn in an assignment late at my high school?  

  • You get a zero. Some teachers do not accept late work at all [period]. 
  • You get a letter grade off.
  • You get 1/3 of a letter grade off for each day it is late.
  • You get 1/2 credit on the assignment.
  • You turn in the work without any points penalty.  
  • You can make up the assignment after school for full or partial credit. 
  • You have to make up the work but you do not get credit for it.
Those are just the policies I know. We have nearly two hundred teachers at my school. Departments do not have standard late work policies. Sometimes specialty programs like International Baccalaureate or AVID do, but they are not consistently followed by the entire team. Exceptions abound. 

I favor  Rick Wormeli's thinking when it comes to grades and late work. I don't want to demand adult-level competencies from children.  Learning is recursive; our current system is not. When I consider how to handle late work in my classroom, I think about knowledge and behavior. I ask myself if I'm grading what a student knows and is able to do or if  I'm grading a behavior. Then I think about how I can set the student up to learn the behaviors he needs to meet deadlines in the future. Behaviors are learned. I want to develop students' character.  What lesson will set students up to learn not to procrastinate or not to rush out without checking you have what you need? What lesson will help students recover their grade and learn how to meet the deadline the next time? Collin and I talked about those sorts of things during our drive home. 

If a student has more than a couple of undones, I would expect the teacher to talk to the student and the parents. Look into causes. If someone is not doing his work, there must be a problem. It might be a matter of forgetfulness. It might be that the student does not know how to manage his time or his resources as he gets ready for school. The student might be doing their work but not turning it in.  Is the student rushed in the morning or over extended after school with extracurricular activities?   Would a checklist or a planner help? Conversations matter. This kind of procedural learning takes time--we don't have twenty-two years, but we do have today and quite a few tomorrows still. . As Wormeli says, "We're in the world to look out for each other, not to play gotcha."