Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lean In

Did you see Fran McVeigh's post today about books she will read? If you haven't, jump over there. Go now.

I'll wait.

I love so much about what Fran wrote today about reading and record keeping. I love how she gets to the heart of what's really going on with her own reading and how that translates into classroom practice.

I love how she uses a question and answer structure to reveal her own thinking and debunk some practices that fly in the face of what real readers actually do. And I love the honesty of her voice. Don't you?

I'm talking about reading on Friday at the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council (#SoMIRAC). Fran reminds me to make room for all kinds of readers and reading and reading practice. Her post reminds me that it's not about the record keeping--even in my classroom--it's about how do I get kids EXCITED about books. It's about how do I get kids to, ask Dr. Ernest Morrell says, "lean in to their learning."

On Friday, we will no doubt talk about how to get to know the readers in a classroom. We will talk about ways to monitor progress, ways to listen to kids and certainly record keeping will creep in to our conversation. But the best part is going to be sharing the excitement. Sharing the stories from my classroom that capture the incandescence of readers talking books and sharing joy. This time of year, in my room reading magic happens.

Just today, I was sitting in the "journal U"- it's seven desks arranged in a U shape on one side of the room. I meet with five to seven readers each day in that space in our classroom. During independent reading time, I confer with students over a piece of writing or their current independent reading book. We are just back from spring break, so this week's conferences are check ins and check ups. We follow a schedule so that I see everyone once a week (at least).

I love how meeting in our U is working. I love rolling around in the you, desk to desk (I sit in a wheeled "teacher-chair" in the center of the students). I love the leaning in and the conversation. I love LISTENING to kids to talk about their reading lives.

Did you read over spring break?
Where are you in the story since we last talked?
What'd you think of the ending?
What made you chose this book next?

Those are few questions I posed to start our conversations about books and reading this week. And I have to ask...

Did you read over spring break? 

Some kids did. I did. Some kids didn't. Isn't that how it always is? 

My job remains: get them excited about books and reading. I can't spend our time together chastising or punishing or lecturing kids about why they should be reading. Instead I can be honest. I can meet them where they are. I can tell them about a great book I recently read and I can share something I've noticed about them and say how it reminds me of this book  (or books) they may like. And I can keep on surrounding them with books and stories. I can keep on connecting them to other readers in the room and online. 

Just today, when I asked one of my readers why she chose the book she did, her answer made me cheer inside. I knew she had a different book "up next" because I'd written in my notes. When I said, "What made you choose this book instead?"

She said, "Oh, I chose it yesterday because on our Padlet of book recommendations someone wrote about it and it caught my interest."   

Made my day. 

Thanks, Fran, for inspiring me today and for bringing my attention back to those moments in our reading lives that grab us. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Community Circles

It's the last school day before spring break. Teachers have a work day tomorrow to finalize quarter three grades. I want to keep our community connected and send kids off to break with positive thoughts. So,  today we celebrated with a compliment circle and donuts! 

  1. Circle the desks.
  2. Give each person a blank pice of paper.
  3. Write names at the top of the page.
  4. Pass the paper to the right (or left as suits you).
  5. Set a ine minute timer.
  6. Write a specific compliment for the person on the page.
  7. At the timer, pass and repeat.
I am always impressed with what kids write to me and to one another. During one class period I saw a lot of students write vague notes along the lines of " I don't really know you, but you seem pretty chill." I asked one of the kids about it after class and he helped me see that the kids in that class period really didn't know each other. As members of our magnet program they've traveled as a pack for a year, but as I realized today, being in a program together doesn't equate with making friendships or building connections with everyone.

Next time maybe I need to do a questions circle, I thought aloud with my son after school. Same concept but each person takes a line and writes a question. The. Then each person gets a day to briefly answer questions before sharing via a gallery pass around the circle the next day. I think we'd learn a lot about each other. I wonder what kinds of questions kids would ask? 


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Language Shakespeare, Language

Picture this: twenty-eight students sitting in the semi-darkness of a high school classroom,  midday. Some sit on the rug, some in the U-shape made by desks, some at tall tables. All look to the screen and watch the second half of the first act of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is about to tell her husband to man up, but what do tenth graders hear?

"I have given su..."

"Language Shakespeare!" someone calls as if calling out a curse or a bad word.

The room explodes in laughter. Kids turn to see my reaction and miss the next few lines.

Did I mention I teach tenth grade?

Even when I prepare kids for the scene many are still caught off guard and distracted by Lady Macbeth's language.

We laughed. And the moment? It worked  as a sequeway to a quick assessment of what kids actually understood. To borrow from Carol Jago, I had kids do a quick four-square to record their  thinking about the scenes we watched, so that I could assess their understanding.
Lots of them thought they didn't understand anything, but in reality many understood more than they thought they did. Loved that.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Exercise in Teaching

"Breathe in. As your arm moves away relax your shoulders. Relax you neck. Sit up, up, up on top of the sitting bones." I hear Ligia, my Pilates teacher as I sit with "mermaid legs" on the reformer,  the tower to my side, right hand on the silver bar.

I shift, shift, wiggle my seat on the mat, try to push my left hip down level with the right. Tight is that joint. There. Sit tall. Breathe in. I feel my chest expand as I inhale. As I push the bar forward with my right hand, I exhale: shhhhhh. Movements are slow and controled. I focus on keeping my hips heavy, ribs lifted 

"Grow your spine. Long, long ...Lee Ann what are you doing with your head? You have the side to side head, the "Walk like an Egyptian"  happening there. Maintain one line from the spine. Inhale into the ribs.  Exhale, push the bar away."

I love how Ligia pays attention. I might not love specific corrections (who does?) but boy do I appreciate it when she walks over and puts two, red, squishy balls on either side of my neck. Those "scaffolds" help me self- correct.

I am learning a lot about language: repetition, humor, consistent direction and clear explanation. Ligia reaffirms much of I believe about good teaching too. I am loving Pilates class.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Winning Teams

"We've got to work together, guys! 'A meditative speech...' geez I don't know three of those of those words! Have you looked at his words?" Ivanna asks Sebastian and Kevin.
"I don't know them. Want to guess?" Sebastian replies.
"Okay, I'll guess," Kevin decides.
"Oh no!" Ivanna yells as team Unicorn loses all its points . "We're all the way at the very bottom again!"

Each time a team member guesses incorrectly the team score resets itself to zero! Groans and cheers are heard simultaneously during Quizlet Live rounds.

And so it went during a few rounds this morning. Quizlet Live randomizes animal-themed teams for a vocabulary review game. It's quick. It's fun. It serves a variety of purposes: activating background knowledge, practicing vocabulary, generating atudent talk and building team spirit.

Each person on the team has a different set of answers but everyone sees the same question. The key is talking about the answers and sharing what you know with your group. Team members that talk and think aloud with each other usually win. Watching how kids strategize informa me too. 


Instead of talking it through, some kids will line their laptops up and stand so that they can read all the screens at once and then gesture at the answers. The game gives every group questions in a different order, but some kids don't want to give away answers to other groups with their conversation. . Sometimes one student will take over a group and answer for all. The best teams talk through answer choices, listen to each other and trust when someone knows it.

 With a minute keft in sixth period, kids demanded another round! They love this game.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Talk Books

Note to self: Give more book talks.

What is my next great read? Can you tell me about the best book you've read recently? I'm going to have a reading weekend as I rest my wrist after surgery, and I'm hungry for new-to-me titles!  

I will tell you about one of my recent reads: Wolf by Wolf   by Ryan Graudin. Graudin's series is an alternate history, which tells a post World War II tale. Imagine the world if Hitler's Germany had won the war. Imagine a young Jewish girl, a survivor of medical experiments, taking on a new life as a "skin shifter." Such is Yael's new life. Yael's mission? Compete in the annual motor cycle race across countries, win and take down the Third Reich. My students love this book for so many reasons: the race, the espionage, the resistance, the love and the journey. Students who enjoy politics, dystopian fiction, historical fiction and adventure are drawn to this series.  I enjoyed Graudin's series too reading the first two back to back in quick time. When I book talked the titles in class a student connected them to Phillip K. Dick's Man in the High Castle  which has a similar setting and premise, so that is a soon-to-read title for me. I love how book talks help readers make connections. Score!

Many of my friends and many of my students are voracious readers with varied appetites. They read different genres or authors than I do. I have a friend who  is always good for great science fiction titles and another friend who summer after summer picks perfect beach reads. Some of us  have similar tastes but others are entirely different types of readers. The mix-- when it comes to making reading plans -- works. Book recommendations give me ways to explore the literary landscape. 

They do the same thing for my students. 

A good book talk acts like a movie trailer or a teaser. When I share an intriguing moment, scene or spin from a book, kids kids get curious. Inevitably the books I talk up are the first books checked out and passed around the room reader to reader. My goal is to share a title a day, whole class or student to student. 

This year another one of my goals is to better organize my book talks, so I have been working on book displays to help do just that. Think: door coverings,  bulletin boards, table and shelf displays (pictures and post about book displays coming soon). 

I admit, I am a book pusher. Surely, you are too. Do tell in comments!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Grade the Learning

Overheard after school: "I don't understand why I have a B in that class when she says I'm one of her best students!" 

Kids get frustrated by grades. Parents do too. Understanding and knowing what grades actually represent is tricky. One of my mentors used to say "grades are a work of fiction." Often, they are. Who defines them? What does a grade really represent? How do they transfer class to class, school to school? 

As a teacher/parent, I tell my own tenth grader that what matters most to me is effort and learning. If he is putting forth effort in his classes and he is learning (and able to article what he is learning), then he's doing his part. 

Our third quarter (a.k.a. the quarter that never ends) comes to a close March 15th. All of the talk I heard about grades today from kids got me thinking (again) about grades today.

When I grade students' works, I want their grade to reflect what they know and are able to do. At some point, if I believe in learning and I am hustling in terms of reaching and teaching all of the learners in my classroom. Shouldn't everyone have an A if I'm meeting their needs and we're both doing our work?  I don't mean the gratuitous, Oprah-esque, "You get an A and you get an A and you get an A and..." ad infinitum. 

I mean that if students are working toward learning and mastering concepts or skills in my classroom then the grade they earn at the end of the learning should reflect what they know. And that's not always an average of all of their attempts at knowing. The grade they end up with should capture their best thinking, their best doing, their best understanding. 

What does it mean to value learning? Does it mean we honor practice and give participation grades? What does it really mean when we say we value what kids know and are able to do? Does it mean that as students' understandings or skill levels improve their grades reflect that improvement? In my class it does. In my class it means grades are in a constant state of "rough draftness"-- revised until the end of the quarter and even then the learning and revision continues.

What does that mean in terms of what a parent or a child sees in our grade books? As the parent of a high school student, I wonder.  My tenth grader's grades in his classes are so very, very different. There are different categories, different weights to categories (some teachers count tests more than 50% of the grade and others count homework or don't). It's complex and idiosyncratic. Teachers control their grade books. As a teacher anything else would give me pause or reason to protest, but as a parent... I wonder.

How does my grade book show you what I believe? 

Here are two students (identifiers removed)-- one currently has an A and one is still working toward an A.

 Here's the A student:

And here is the student still working toward the A:

It's not too exciting to look down a list or scan grades by category to see what's going on, but I do think what we note in our grade book sends a message to kids and parents. 

 What messages do you see here? What's not here? 

I wish I had notes in comments about Resource (tutoring) time on Tuesdays. That's lacking on these two screens. I'm also not to pleased with the comment I have about the poetry explication exercise from 2/24. Some of my assignment titles seem squarely aligned with standards and others denote activities in class. I have a lot of room to grow when it comes to communicating what kids know and can do. That's the learning I love about being a teacher. 

Thanks to the team at Two Writing Teachers for hosting the Slice of Life Story Challenge. This month of daily blogging always pushing my thinking as a teacher and writer and I do so love the sweet community that forms. Stop by Two Writing Teachers and your own slice to the link-up or dive into comments to discover more. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Post Test De-stress

For many tenth graders in my state this week starts testing season. We had our writing test today: 120+ minutes of high-stakes performance. Post test I figured the two classes I had would need to decompress, so I borrowed  ideas from our high school youth group and pulled together some game time. 

First, we played musical shapes. For this game, we pushed all the desk back against the walls to clear the center floor. Then,  I used blue painter's tape to tape 4-6 shapes of varying sizes to the floor. The idea is to walk around (not in) the shapes while the music plays and then land inside one when the music stops. After each round a shapes are pulled up from the floor or made smaller depending on how fast you'd like the game to go.  

Boy did we laugh! So much so, I forgot to take pictures.

After musical shapes we played "the family game" in one class and F.E.A.C.H. Charades in another. FEACH  stands for fast food, electrical appliance or cartoon hero. It's one of my favorite charades games.  

I had to go first to break the ice. I reached my hand into the cup and pulled out a scrap that read "fridge." I channelled big and boxy. I squared my shoulders. I stuck my arms out, elbows high and let my fore arms dangle from my elbows. The sound of kids laughing and guessing got louder: "box, no, no, stove.."
"No, pantry, no, ha, no , wait... "

Then I mimed opening doors in front of mu stomach like opening  a fridge and some guessed it. Whew! The we were off and giggling into the next game.

We played boys against girls- each person jotted  one item (fast food, electrical appliance or cartoon hero) on a scrap of paper to make the set of items we pulled from. 

Just try keeping a straight face when you have to act out "washing machine" or "Pokeman Ash." I dare you.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Books Walk

At the end of the week, kids often check out a book from the media center or our classroom library. I expect kids to read two books a month. They have reading homework five days a week for a half an hour a day. How I monitor that reading is the stuff of another post. Today I'm thinking of how books walk out of the room. When kids borrow books from our classroom, the process currently goes like this:

"Hey, Spillane..." Kyle holds up a book.

I nod or maybe do a quick chin lift sort of thing.

Kyle adds,  "I finished this one, so can I take this one home over the weekend?" He holds up The Alchemist and The Last Lecture.

"Yep. Got it." Thinking, hmmm... those two titles are quite different. That's quite the range. I keep my thoughts to myself as I'm mid-stride doing something else in another part of the room as is. Then I take a quick picture.

I need a better process. What we have is working. Books are walking out of the room at a regular clip, but they are not always finding their ways back.

I have had students sign out books on a clip board. Having the sign out sheet handy, in a spot where students are responsible for checking books in and out works well once you build it into a classroom routine or reading community.

 I have used the Classroom Organizer app. I love that app from Book Source! I love using the barcode scanner feature to add books to the library and track inventory. I am not as good at taking books out of the inventory once they are missing though.  Making time to track down titles or check up on readers who have not returned titles is something I struggle with.  I still have 47 books checkout to last year's students! These are all books I purchased and paid for with my own money, so at least these are not school materials I'm allowing students to take.

Record keeping is all about routine. I know I need to re-establish some routines when it comes to returning and checking books out of our classroom library. Once things get rolling it's tough to keep up. I lose books,  every year. Sometimes that frustrates me (especially when I know a just right next title for a new reader), but more often than not, I'm glad that books find travelers to take them away. After all, books take us places.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

On the Ladder

It's March! That means the readers in my room are starting to make interesting choices when it comes to the books they read. This time of year many kids start reaching--stretching themselves as readers by choosing texts that challenge them. I've noticed it in each class period. Kyle's reading Kafka and the Shore, and Gabi's just finished The Great Gatsby. To borrow from kids' gaming language, they are leveling up when it comes to reading.

Megan just started Outliers,  David picked up The Maltese Falcon, Enrique's into Founding Brothers and Hanz just finished This Boy's Life.  These students are starting to choose what I will challenge all students to choose before year's end: complex books that challenge their reading skill and stamina.

For some, I've started to create what Lesesne calls Reading Ladders. I book talk titles of increasing complexity around topics that interest the reader. I have one student, for example, who recently read Meg Medina's Burn Baby Burn. She was interested in the Son of Sam, serial killer aspect of the book, so I suggested Alphin's Counterfeit Son. She went out and got that book and finished it that same week. So then I suggested a few titles written from the antagonist's point of view: Inexcusable by Lynch and Breathing Under Water by Flinn. we looked up which was available in the l library (both), so she headed over to check one out. Here's a reading ladder for crime stories. I'm talking up one or two titles to her at a time.

Reading ladder ideas for crime and murder.
I love thinking up possible ladders for kids. I don't have a good way of tracking or systematically holding onto title lists (yet) though. My Google Drive and Dropbox accounts are littered with book lists: themed, un-themed, leveled, and laddered. You name it-- I love to collect (and share) titles.

I also love to support students as they reach for and read challenging books. Soon I'll be sharing strategy conferences I do with readers to help them climb.

Thanks for stopping by. I'd love to hear about the titles you and your kids are currently reading!

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Talks Matter

Thanks to the Two Writing Teachers Team,  StaceyBetsyDanaTaraBeth, Anna, Kathleen & Deb, for 
creating community and hosting a weekly Slice of Life link up. 
 Discover more at Two Writing Teachers

Every class period begins with reading in my classroom. I confer with five to seven high school students each day during structured independent reading time. I have a special place in my classroom that we call "the journal U" where I meet with readers and writers each day. The journal U is seven desks arranged in a  U shape at the front of my class. Much like a kidney table, the shape allows me to interact closely and quickly with students in a small group each day.

For today's slice, I'm going to share a conversation I had with Natalie, a tenth grader reader in my third period class.

Last week during a reading conference, Natalie and I talked about Ismael Beah's book, The Radiance of Tomorrow.

I updated the reading conference notes from last week with Nathalie's new titles.

You can listen in to what she had to say about that book by watching the conference video below.

Today's we are focused on last minute preparations before our writing test, but I couldn't ignore the new book on Nathalie's desk, so we had a short conversation today.

"What are you reading now? " I asked.

"We Were Liars," she said.

"Oh, I thought you were going to read Milk and Honey next."

 "I did. I finished it this weekend." She paused,  looked up at me and grinned.

Of course she did, I thought. Milk and Honey is the hot title making the rounds this spring. Line drawings, poetry, a book that fits in the palm of your hand, the pages are sweet, if a bit too sexual to actually shelve in my classroom.

"Of course you did," I say to Nathalie.  "Good for you, finishing another book this month! So, why did you choose We Were Liars next?" I love the book about a group of teens, a tragic event and how to come back from a wrong. When I first read it, I think I got to chapter three or four before the unreliability of the narrator dawned on me.

"I think you book talked it earlier this year," she said. "And I wanted to read it."

Yes! Book talks for the win. Too often I forget the power of a simple book talk--it's easy to let go of it, especially as we get into testing season (today is SAT day at school and our state's, high-stakes writing test is Monday).

When I talk up titles in our classroom library, kids remember them. They may write the title down on their "to be read" list. They may tag the title "to be read" on their Good Reads accounts; they might not do either of those things if the books I talk about don't appeal to them, but they do listen and odds favor the titles I talk up. Today's conversation with Natalie made me feel good about my practice. I'm glad she remembered the title when it came time to pick her next book!

Having a plan for what to read next--even just having an idea-- helps keep the reading momentum going.