Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reading: It's Just What We Do!

A few weeks ago, as I was talking with my students about their homework for the evening, one of my fifth graders casually mentioned, "You know Ms. Nosek, reading doesn't feel like homework.  Reading is just what we do."

As those words left her mouth and entered my heart and mind, I knew my initial goal from the start of the school year had been met.  My students are readers. They have truly become happy, healthy, engaged readers. Collectively, we are a community of readers.

Why maintain a boring book log when you can create a visual personal
 bookshelf of books read, books tried, and books you want to read!
 Thanks for the idea, Jenna Segall
Two weeks into our school year, I reflected on the steps we'd taken so far to help transform of classroom of 24 students and one teacher into a community of readers.  In addition to daily morning circles with book talks, understanding how the classroom library works, and rethinking the dreaded traditional reading log, we spent time every single day reading.  Daily independent reading was, and still is, our one nonnegotiable.

Now, seven months into the school year, I can honestly say that consistently putting the big four ideas of access, choice, volume, and support into practice have worked wonders in my classroom. The ideas are not new, and I certainly did not invent them myself. They do not involve gimmicks, big projects, or any paperwork. They are simple, but extremely effective.  To implement these big four ideas, all it takes is a little determination and commitment.

The Big 4 Ideas That Built Our Community of Readers  

This may seem like a no brainer, but kids can't read great books unless they have access to those books. Maintaining a classroom library full of books of multiple genres, topics, authors, lengths, writing styles, formats, and time periods is perhaps the most important thing one can do as a reading teacher. Part of classroom library maintenance includes continually updating the library with what kids are reading now.  The easiest way to find out what kids are reading now is not through doing extensive online research or consulting your teacher librarian (though those are great options).  Rather, the absolute best way to find out what kids are reading and want to read is to ask and observe! In addition, invite kids to take books home.  By doing this, I know my kiddos have had access to books both at school and at home.  Plus, as far as I know, less than three books have gone missing since the start of the school year!  

Two shelves in our library providing access to many different kids of books! 

There is nothing more important than empowering readers to take control of
their own reading decisions than choice: what to read, where to read, how long to read, with whom to read, how often to read, when to read, how to keep track of books read, etc. Once students are reading for their own purposes rather for compliance with a teacher's orders, a transformation takes place.  They move from the realm of student to that of reader.  According to 2014's Scholastic Reading Report, 91% of kiddos surveyed reported that their favorite books are the ones they chose themselves.  If we think about it, as adults we only read the books we choose for ourselves.  We'd be less likely to read and become engaged in a book that was randomly selected for us. Since we're preparing our kiddos for life   outside of our classroom walls, we must prepare them to empower themselves to make their own choices as much as possible- especially when choosing their own reading material.  Choice has truly turned some of my students into readers this school year.

Daily book talks & written book recommendations expose kiddos to countless books!

Access and choice are great, but they are not really meaningful until volume comes into play.  We can think of this in the way we think of eating healthfully
Katryn with her monthly book stack
and exercising.  If we eat healthfully and exercise one day, we may feel great for that one day. However, if the healthful habits stop after one day so do the benefits.  If we eat healthfully and exercise everyday for one month, the benefits will not only be 30 days strong, but also a habit may start forming.  The more we do something and see or feel positive results, the more likely it is we will stick with it.  Hence, reading is just what we do now in the classroom- and at home!  Really, it's something we do whenever we have time.  It's a way of life.  Every single day, we do a soft start in the classroom (thank you to Sara Ahmed for this genius but simple idea!).  This is where students come in, put their stuff away, and settle in to read for a good 20 to 30 minutes every morning, every day.  Not only do we read first thing in the morning, but also we read for an additional 25-45 minutes four days a week during reading workshop. Needless to say, we read a lot!  It is a priority.  It is our one daily nonnegotiable. When I had the good fortune of seeing Donalyn Miller speak at The California Reading Association Conference this past fall, she spoke of always having a book on hand for those in between times- waiting in line, sitting in the car, those five spare minutes, etc.  Think about all the reading that will add up for our students if we encourage them to just always have a book on hand! 

In their book, No More Independent Reading Without Support, Debbie Miller and
Barbara Moss do a beautiful job of not only stressing the importance of independent daily reading, but independent daily reading with support (it's a short, quick read packed with relevant research and analysis- I highly recommend ordering it now if it's new to you!). In my fifth grade classroom, the support that has brought about the biggest impact has been from individual reading conferences every single day. Reading is great, but knowing how to choose books, thinking deeply while reading, setting personal goals, and truly engaging with others around books is even better!  Conferring with my readers on a daily basis has helped them attain and practice the skills and strategies they've needed to grow and stretch themselves as readers.  It's also given them the needed mirroring (as Gravity Goldberg so wisely calls it) to show them what they are already doing well as readers.  When we act as mirrors for our students, we are naming the great things they already do as readers.  This is a critical component because when we name it and point it out, they are likely to intentionally replicate those great skills and strategies.  Providing students the support they need everyday (yes- every single day without exception) has been the not-so-secret ingredient to creating our fifth grade community of readers. 

Now, every Monday through Thursday when we talk about homework, rather than regarding reading as homework, we have a little chant that has naturally evolved over the past few weeks.  When I pose the question, "Fifth graders, reading is not your homework tonight, right?  Rather...

"Reading is a way of life!" they chant back.  It's just what we do.  

Happy Reading, Friends!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

One Little Word for 2017: Priorities

We've come to the end of 2016.  Honestly, I've attempted to write a meaningful reflection a few times, and have found it just terribly difficult to truly capture my feelings for it.  It was a year of great personal and professional growth for me, but at the same time a completely disheartening year overall on a larger scale.  

So, I now choose to look ahead.  I'm going to take what I've learned and connected with in 2016 to build an incredible 2017.  To do this, I am embracing one little word for 2017:  priorities 

Perhaps I am technically cheating with this whole one little word idea.  So many great beginnings happened for me in 2016.  To see them through and accomplish what I've started, I have to consistently keep my priorities at the forefront.  Those priorities fall under three main aspects of my life: health, writing, and relationships.


2016 was a milestone year for my health.  I finally decided to go under the knife
April 2016, four days post surgery
and shave off some extra bone on my femur that has been there since birth. Well, it's not actually as dramatic as I just made it sound. To shorten a long story, I was born with hip dysplasia.  It went undetected for years.  Around the age of 28, intense pain started to develop while I was training for my second marathon. Fast forward 10 years (did I just give away my age?), I finally found a great doctor, received a correct diagnosis, was referred to a stellar surgeon, and underwent surgery to correct my bone abnormality.  Now, I am once again running and cycling pain free after many years of struggle.

So, I am going to keep health as one of my three priorities.  I greatly miss being an avid triathlete and Crossfitter.  These are two aspects of my identity that I have not prioritized in a couple years.  Needless to say, I have really felt that hole.  Now that my hip is fixed, I can once again prioritize one of my deep loves in life:  being an athlete.  How will I do this?  Since being an athlete is not something new to me, I'm fortunate in that I already know what works.  For me, committing to 30-60 minutes of physical activity every weekday and 60-120 minutes every weekend day is a doable goal for starters.  I've achieved this, and much more in the past, so I know it is something I can prioritize again moving forward.


Kari and me at the Stenhouse booth at
 NCTE 2016 in Atlanta this November
Much of my time spent not being able to run and cycle in 2016 was spent either writing, talking about writing, reading others' writing, or teaching writing.  Hands down, the best thing that happened to me in 2016 was connecting with my now dear friend and writing partner, Kari Yates. Shortly after my hip surgery, Kari reached out and asked if I'd like to join her in doing some writing together. Since I admired Kari's work for a while and we shared the same educational philosophies and mission, I jumped at the chance!  Our collaboration of thinking and writing turned into a book contract with Stenhouse Publishers in October. Kari and I are currently co-writing a book about conferring in the reading classroom.  It has been both a joyful and fulfilling adventure thus far! Needless to say, this has been a complete dream come true for me.

Therefore, in 2017, writing is going to be one of my biggest priorities.  Simply put, books do not write themselves.  The only way to write a book is to sit down and actually write.  Plus, in addition to co-writing our book, I also am committed to keeping up The Teacher Triathlete, writing in my classroom with my students, and working on some other writing projects.  This takes time- a lot of time.  So, writing has to be a huge priority.  My goal is to write for at least an hour a day or at a minimum- 7 hours each week.  


My brother, parents, best friend since high school, and
her kiddos who call me Auntie Chris. December 2016
Ironically, the two things I love the most do not really help in relationship building with those that I love. Triathlon is a solo endeavor.  Even though I am a member of one of the largest and most active triathlon clubs in the country (hurray, Golden Gate Triathlon Club!), the great majority of most triathletes' training time is spent going it alone.  In addition, writing must be done alone.  I do not know any successful writers who can write in the company of others for the majority of their time spent actually getting words on the page.  Despite the fact that I am cowriting with Kari, much of our actual hand to keyboard or pen to paper time is spent on our own.

So, since both of my loves are mostly time consuming independent endeavors, I must prioritize how I spend my relationship time with those I love.  After all, at the end of life, no one ever says they wish they worked more or spent more time exercising. Most say they wished they spent more quality time with loved ones.  
Auntie Chris' kiddos: How could
I not prioritize these faces? 

My final priority for 2017 will be to foster the healthy and loving relationships I have now and only make room for healthy, positive new relationships to come. Since my first two priorities are mostly time consuming solo endeavors, I will make a larger effort in 2017 to prioritize those who are closest to me. This means more car time to see those close and more phone time to connect those far way.

2016, I bid you farewell.  Thank you for all that you have given me both health-wise and professionally.  It's now time that I give back and keep my one little word at the forefront of everything I do. My priorities will be everything to me in the coming year: health, writing, and relationships.  Despite the overall sadness and eye opening insanity that encompassed 2016 on a larger scale, it will always be a year of new beginnings for me.  2016 helped me realize my priorities in life.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

My one little word may have turned into three bigger words, but that's ok. Alas, none of those words have anything to do with following rules or staying within boundaries! Here's to a year ahead of priorities: health, writing, and fulfilling relationships. 

Happy New Year, Friends! 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Four Steps to Immersing Your Students in Reading Over Winter Break

Here in The San Francisco Bay Area, five school days stand between us and two glorious weeks of relaxation, rejuvenation, and reading!  I suspect it's the same for most of you spread across the country.  For many of our students, winter break also means the same thing- relaxation, rejuvenation, and hopefully reading. However, as educators, how can we ensure that our kiddos will continue to immerse themselves in books while they are on an extended break from school?  

While we cannot head home or on vacation with our students, we can take a few simple steps both in the classroom and through parent communication to increase the odds that they will continue to read over break.  

Step 1:  Share your personal winter reading list with your students & invite them to create their own.  
This coming Monday, I am really excited about sharing my pictorial winter break reading list with my class of fifth grade readers.  During a very brief mini lesson on Monday... 

  • I will simply show them my pictorial list
  • Discuss why I chose to include each item
  • Invite them to think about which books, magazines, and articles they may want to consider adding to their personal lists
  • Ask them to discuss those lists with their reading partners
  • And finally, invite them to create their own via Google Drawing or by their own hand on paper.

Step 2:  Include parents and families in on the winter reading lists.  Partnering with parents around helping our students build their reading lives is not only a good idea, but it is also a critical building block of ensuring our kiddos will continue to read while they are away from our classrooms.  A simple email, newsletter, or even letters written from their children about their plans for winter break reading may do the trick. Educating parents on the importance of reading should happen all school year long, not just at Back to School Night in the fall.  Last winter and the winter before, I offered tips for parents on encouraging their kiddos to read at home during the break. Those can be found here and here

Step 3:  Provide access to books.  
Students who have books readily available at home read more than students who do not (read more about that here).  This is something we educators can take control of if we choose to do so. I'm a firm believer in opening my classroom library to students for reading both at school and at home.  When we invite students to bring home books from the classroom library we are providing both access to books and a little book education to families.  Many classroom parents over the years have mentioned that allowing students to freely take books home has been a gift in two major ways: It has saved them time, and it has exposed them to many different genres, authors, and titles they may have otherwise never been exposed to. In turn, this has helped them with future visits to the library, bookstore, and even while shopping on Amazon.  

Worried about losing books?  This is what prevents many teachers from sending books home.  Don't be worried!  If you do not have a manageable system for checking out books in your classroom, create one.  Mine is a simple column of sticky notes. When a student takes a book home, they write it on a sticky note and slap it on a small section of wall near my desk. When they return the books to the classroom library, they recycle their sticky or cross out the book returned and write in the new one they are borrowing.  Very few books (that I know of) have been lost along the way.  Of the books that are never returned, I just imagine that they are being loved and read somewhere by someone! If you are just starting out with building your classroom library, and are hesitant to let go of books because of this, there are ways to build your classroom library without breaking the bank (read more about those ways here).  

Step 4:  Follow up the first week after winter break.
Creating reading lists with students is one thing.  Students reading over the break is entirely another.  One surefire way to ensure the likelihood of students reading while away from school is to offer them a voice. If you're a classroom that uses Kidblog, Schoology, or another method of communicating online, you may consider inviting students to chat with each other about their reading, share blog posts, or emails over the break.  

Student book recommendations are sprinkled
all over the walls in our classroom library.
Regardless of whether your students connect about books online or not over the break, letting students know that the entire class will be following up with each other about their reading the first few days after break will increase the likelihood of students reading.  I'm not a big fan of assigning reading- I truly do not believe giving reading as an assignment motivates kids to read. In fact, I think assigning reading does the opposite.  When we assign reading, it turns into a have-to-do-for-my-teacher, instead of a want-to-do-for-myself.  Rather than giving an assignment, offering students a space to give book talks, share their reading with each other, and make book recommendations to friends in class does motivate them to read.  Our first Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday back in class, students will know that they will be invited to share their winter reading with each other through book talks, written recommendations to add to our book recommendation wall, and by physically handing books off- one reader to another.  For our entire school year so far, students have shared books with each other during our daily morning circle (you can learn more about that here). This has turned into an expected and loved routine in our classroom.  If you haven't tried something like this yet in your classroom, January if the perfect time to try! 

Just to recap... 
We can all increase the odds of our students immersing themselves in reading over the upcoming winter break in four simple steps. 
Step 1:  Sharing your winter reading list with your students & inviting students to create their own. 
Step 2:  Including parents and families in on the winter reading lists.  
Step 3:  Providing access to books.   
Step 4:  Following up the first week after winter break.

I'm looking forward to reporting back after winter break. Enjoy this joyous time of year and happy reading, friends!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Falling in Love With Books

This past Wednesday, the introduction of my self-created reading workshop mini lesson went something like this... 

Fifth graders, I have to tell you something exciting!  Do you remember when we shared our reading goals with each other a little while ago?  (Nods all around)  Do you remember my goal as a pleasure reader?  
Yes!  You want to focus on finding books you love and abandon fewer books.
That's right!  And, I am excited to tell you that I have once again fallen in deep, deep, magical love with a new-to-me book!  This feeling is so great, so satisfying-  it is my biggest wish for all of you.  Fifth graders, today and for the next couple weeks we are embarking on a new unit in reading workshop.  We are going to focus on falling in love with books and reading those books we have fallen for.  That's it! 
Clapping, nods, and cheers suddenly filled the air space in my fifth grade classroom.  

Over the next couple weeks, we're taking a break from the Reading Units of Study and heavy analysis of our reading to take some joyful steps back into our roots as readers.  For the past two school days and the next 10 before winter break, we're reading books we love in my fifth grade classroom!  My students are tasked with two things: 

1.  Read a book you love every single day in class.  
2.  Read a book you love every single day at home. 

Two boys rediscovering their love for Dr. Seuss!  The whole
class enjoyed a book talk on The Lorax from one of
the boys the next morning.
For the short amount of time that we have been reading in our falling in love with books unit, I have engaged in the most meaningful  and thoughtful conferences that I have had with students all year. Even though my current mini lessons aren't exactly packed with complex ideas and strategy practice, my students are continuously using the strategies they need to access the texts they choose.  They are doing this in books that they truly love. This is transfer at its finest!  A peek inside the classroom right now will show students taking their time to browse through the library, stacks of recommended books from friends sitting on tables for others to try, kids reading, kids talking reading, and kids writing book recommendations for each other.  Reading workshop time in the classroom is just completely joyful and fun right now!  Isn't this how it should always feel?

When I talked about the plans for my class through winter break with my trusted and beloved group
El Deafo has become a recent
class favorite!
of literacy colleague friends from across the country, one of them mentioned that I am diving back into the origins of workshop.  Our mini (almost micro) lessons will be based on what I see in my students, not on a predetermined sequence or strategy lesson of the day.  Conferences will be truly authentic and reader-centered as there will be no genre, author, topic, or level boundaries.  Most importantly, my students will focus on finding books they love, reading those books, and thinking about what they have learned about themselves as readers in the process.

I cannot wait to see what happens over the next ten days before we all say goodbye for winter break. I'll report back shortly after.

Our wall of "favorite books so far" this school year:  I'm looking
forward to seeing it evolve as the next couple weeks progress! 

By the way, the new-to-me book that I've fallen in love with is Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.  

Happy reading, friends! 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

I'm a Lucky One- I'm in the Business of Hope

I'm a lucky one...

I'm in the business of hope.  I have the great task every single day of making this world a little better. I'm also in this fortunate position with many other incredibly strong and brave people who I proudly call colleagues.  We are entrusted with America's youth everyday.  Their parents hand them over to us with trust, love, and hope.  They have hope for their children's future and so do I.

I'm one of America's teachers.  I'm a lucky one.

Today, I cried my eyes out on my way to the job that I am so incredibly blessed to hold.  Prior to driving to my beloved school, I had a long talk with my dad- a man who fought for our country before I was even born, a man who worked tirelessly every single day of his life to provide for his family, a man who (in his retirement) continues to work to better the lives of veterans, the elderly, and my family- a man who voted for hope and a better future a few days ago, a man who assured me that we are America and we will persevere- we've done it many times before and we will do it again.  I'm a lucky one.  I'm so lucky to call that man my dad.

Then, I drove to work.  I sent a voice message to my dear writing partner, Kari.  Kari and I are lucky ones.   Right now, she and I are collaborating to help make reading instruction more joyful for many of our nation's other lucky ones- our fellow teachers.  After I sent a voice message to Kari, I called my dear friend and colleague Jim.  The night before, Jim, his partner Jason, and our dear friend Jenn, and I were sending messages to each other of hope, but also of fear.  We were two American women and two gay American men who were terrified- who still kind of are terrified.  But, we are lucky ones.  We live in a community surrounded by a vast majority of other Americans who voted for hope, love, and acceptance of all Americans, of all people.

During that phone call with Jim, we thoroughly and thoughtfully discussed how we would handle the morning with our different classes, my fifth graders and his sixth graders.  We decided to choose hope. We decided to choose to listen.  We decided to choose literacy... to read to escape, to write to feel, to change, to express anger/fear/uncertainty/love/hope.

Jim and I are lucky ones.

You see, we are in the business of hope everyday.  Today, we saw why we do what we do.  My tears are still sneaking up on me here and there, but my students are giving me hope.  Today, they talked, wrote, read, thought, analyzed, questioned, and loved.

When I tearfully told them this morning that I was not able to talk about it yet, one of my boys looked me in the eyes and said, "We can respect that Ms. Nosek."  Then, they went off to their chosen spots in the room to write, to read, to unknowingly show me that I truly am in the business of hope.  My inability to talk about it began to fade.  As I witnessed hope unfolding in front of me, as I saw them read, as I read their incredibly honest writing, I found my voice.  I was reminded that I am in the business of hope.

Our kids are amazing.  Regardless of who you support, your political affiliation, or your fear for the future, I offer hope for I am a lucky one.  I am in the business of hope.

I wish you could spend a day with me in my world.  I wish you could see the hope that I see every single day in my work.  I am a teacher.  I am an American teacher.  I am proud to be an American teacher- absolutely nothing can take that away from me.

You see, I'm in the business of hope.  I get to work with our real future every single day.  When my current kiddos graduate from high school, the year will be 2024.  They have hope, so I have hope. They can both live in the moment and look far ahead to the future- and so can I.  I choose to follow my students' lead.  I choose hope.  They are our true change makers.  I will do everything in my being to empower their possibility.  I am a lucky one.  Everyday, I get to see that...

Whenever a child laughs, we have hope.

Whenever a child smiles, we have hope.

Whenever a child gives a hug (thank goodness for those today), we have hope.

Whenever a child reads, we have hope.

Whenever a child writes, we have hope.

Whenever a child critically thinks, we have hope.

Whenever a child questions the status quo, WE HAVE HOPE.

In the America I live in everyday, there is more hope than I even know how to handle.  I am a lucky one.  I see it everyday.  I was reminded of it this morning when I was greeted with hugs and this afternoon when I was left with hugs.  I am a lucky one.

You are, too.

We do have hope.  Please believe me.  Please let your voice be heard.  Please show our little ones that we are America and we have hope.  Please join me.  Show them that they are change makers when they believe in themselves and in hope.  We have this power and so do they- as long as we read, write, think, question, speak, and act. We are lucky ones.  We are America.  Nothing and no one can take that away from us- not even our elected officials.  We are a country of the people, by the people, and for the people.  We are the people.  Never forget that.  WE HAVE HOPE.

Love to you all.
Love to all the children.
Love to this great country of ours.
Love trumps hate...

Please believe me.
I see it everyday.
I wish for you to see it, too.
Alas, I am a lucky one.

After you cry, after you yell, please act.
Rest assured, I will.
After all, I'm in the business of hope.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

It's Time For an Honest Conversation...

A wise person once said, "We must prepare our kids for their world, their real world, not the world that we wished they lived in."  

I wish I could remember who said this and where I was when I heard it. This simple idea had such a huge impact on my philosophy and practice as an educator ever since I heard it many years ago.

Throughout my almost two decades working in education with kiddos ages 5-12 and their parents, I've engaged in and facilitated many difficult conversations I never wanted to have.  We don't get to choose or create the world we live in.  We also don't get to choose the conversations that kiddos and parents initiate with us.  However, we do get to choose how we respond.  While I'd like to wish the bad away and only talk about fun and learning at school, that is not the world they live in.  It is not the world any of us live in.  School does not happen in a vacuum.  It happens in the reality of our world, and kids do not compartmentalize.  Let's face it, we're not very good at it either.  When reflecting on these hard conversations from over the years, I know I've made some missteps.  Yet, I always try to do my best when answering.  Sometimes my best is not ideal, but I keep trying... 

"There was a shooting in Colorado. At a high school. There was a shooting at a high school! Kids are dead!"
A classroom mom franticly squealed during a conversation on April 20, 1999 as I was walking from the kindergarten classroom where I was a teacher's aide to the parking lot.  I was speechless.  

"Christina, we're under attack."
During a tearful phone call around 6:30AM PST on September 11, 2001 with my dad as I was getting ready to drive to my first day as a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom.  I wanted to stay home that day.  I didn't.  

"Why did this happen?"  Can it happen here?  I mean, are we safe?"
Asked by one of my third graders after our school-wide moment of silence around the flag pole on September 11, 2002.  I told them we were safe and that they had nothing to worry about.  I knew I was not being honest with them at the time.  I didn't actually know if we were safe.

"Ms. Nosek, my dad told me we're at war now.  What does that mean?"
Asked by a third grader during a whole class morning discussion in March of 2003.  I didn't know how to respond.  I just told him that his dad is right and that the war was very far away.  

"Did you hear about what happened at Virginia Tech?  My dad was crying.  He went to school there." 
A third grader told me in a conversation after school in April of 2007.  He then went on to talk about how he's never seen his dad cry before and that it must have been really bad to make his dad cry.  My response was that it was an awful thing that happened and that I cried, too. 

"Ms. Nosek, are we going to talk about what happened in Connecticut at the school?"   
The first thing said to me as I opened the door for my fifth graders the first day after winter break, which was the first time I saw my students after the Sandy Hook tragedy.  My eyes immediately welled with tears.  We talked about it as a class for about 20 minutes that morning.  They all knew what had happened in an elementary school classroom just like ours.  They all knew what happened to kids just like them and to teachers just like me.  As the conversation went on, I choked many tears back.  I wasn't ready for it then.  I'm still not today.

"Someone can jump the fence right outside our classroom. It's a chain fence!  We're not protected here."
Overheard in conversation later on that same day between two of my fifth graders in January of 2013.  I wanted to assure them that we were safe and that they had nothing to worry about, but I didn't.  I didn't even believe it myself.  They would have known I was lying if I looked them in the eyes and told them they had nothing to fear.  Instead, I jumped in to their conversation to remind them that all of the adults at school are trained to do our best to keep everyone safe if something bad happens.  I even showed them the special door block locking mechanism on our classroom door.

"Why would two guys bomb a marathon?  The runners didn't do anything! My mom runs marathons!"
Asked by a student in April of 2013.  All I could say was that I just didn't know, and that I had the same exact questions as her. 

A Screenshot from Last Week's
Scholastic News 5th/6th Grade Edition
"What's nine-eleven?  You mean like the emergency phone number?" 

"It's when some guys crashed their planes into tall buildings in New York."

"I never heard of it.  That actually happened?"

"It's the terrorists."

"We weren't born yet, but my parents told me all about it a few years ago when we were watching the news."

"My mom's good friend was in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  He was a hero.  He tried to stop the hijackers."

These were a few of the questions and comments from my fifth graders as I introduced last week's issue of the 5th/6th grade edition of Scholastic News.  

Honestly, I was completely shocked that two of them had never even heard of September 11th while the others knew many of the details.  It's amazing how in a diverse San Francisco Bay Area classroom of 10 and 11 year-old adolescents that some knew vivid details of our country's most devastating day, one had family connections to someone lost, others knew about it without knowing the vivd details, and two of them didn't even know it happened.  As a teacher, I knew it was time for one of those honest conversations.  By coincidence and good luck, Back to School Night was the following night.  I mentioned this conversation in my talk to their parents.  Many silently, slowly nodded.  A few just dropped their heads in sadness.  I could tell by the looks on many of their faces that they realized 5th grade was the year of a fine balance- the last year of an innocent and fun elementary childhood, but at the same time a year when their children will truly start realizing some of the scary realities of our world. Due to this, many hard conversations take place in fifth grade.

These conversations already happen between kids on our playgrounds, in our backyards, and in their homes.  In turn, they also must happen in our classrooms.  I wish they didn't.  I really wish I could just get on with the business of teaching academics to kids. However, when a child has something difficult on her mind, there is no way academic learning can take place until the big issue is addressed.  When fear and uncertainty, or even just innocent curiosity, are overtaking a fifth grader's thoughts, he won't be able to focus on the math lesson until he gets the chance to safely explore his thinking.

In a world where Code Red Drills are now the norm for our kindergarten through college age students, it is our job as educators to help kids openly express their feelings and questions so we can help give them the tools and strategies they need to start trying to understand them. Even if we choose to ignore the reality our kids live in, they are still talking about it outside at recess, looking at YouTube videos at friends' houses, and chatting about it with each other whenever they are out of earshot of adults. They already know we do not live in a perfectly safe world.  We'd be doing them a disservice to pretend any different.  Let's stop pretending with our kids and start being honest with them so they can have a real opportunity in starting to right our world's wrongs.  

In kindergarten, this may involve things such as helping kiddos attain strategies to solve their own personal difficulties with sharing and using kind, helpful words.  In second grade, it may involve just listening and giving a warm hug when an individual child initiates a difficult one to one conversation.  In fifth grade, it will involve truly being honest with our kids when they ask questions, and providing a safe and caring space to talk about the fears they have about what's going on in the world.  It will also involve letting the parents in on these conversations. When a difficult conversation is held in the classroom, it always warrants an email to invite parents in as collaborators.  In addition to holding open and honest conversations with our students and their parents, we can also turn to books.  On Monday, I plan to do a book talk with my fifth graders on both Nora Raleigh Baskin's Nine, Ten and Jewel Parker Rhode's Towers Falling. Both books are beautifully written realistic fiction stories where adolescents are the main characters. These two thoughtfully crafted stories can help upper elementary and middle school aged kids who may not be familiar with the attacks on September 11th understand the meaning of that day without being exposed to the graphic images and details that they will surely see one day soon, if they haven't already. 

When we do not appropriately name and recognize the issues in our kids' world, we are leaving them on their own to understand, and potentially, misunderstand them. Making a subject at school or home taboo will only increase a child's natural curiosity about it.  Rather than dismissing or ignoring the issues in their world, let's honestly acknowledge what they're feeling and seeing so we can empower them to start taking the steps to make their world, our world, a better place. We owe it to them. 

Much Love, Friends  

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

"I don't even have to remind him to read!" Building a Community of Readers

"Nooooo." came the soft sigh from a student as I asked the entire group to put their books away so we could move on to our next activity.  Three students didn't even budge as the others marked their places and closed their books. Those three were so wrapped up in their books' characters, stories, and worlds that they just continued reading.  Their table mates nudged them.  One of those students gave me the look.  The are you really making me stop right now look. The I'd rather be reading than moving on to whatever activity you have planned for us look.  That look brought me an immense amount of satisfaction as I just smiled back in return. My students are readers. 

We've been in school for 14 days, and I can safely say that our classroom is a community of readers. It started on day one, and it will continue on through day 180.  It certainly didn't get there by accident or chance, nor will it stay there just because it is in place now.  Creating a community of readers takes a good amount of intention, persistence, and even bucking the trends in some areas. Not one assignment, reading log, parent signature, comprehension worksheet, or reading level played a role in creating our community of readers. Rather, over the past 14 school days, it took quite a bit of talk, choice, independence, exploration, and trust to get there.  

How our classroom of 24 students and one teacher became a community of readers in 14 days...  

Morning Circle
Every single morning after a 20 minute soft start, where students come in, get settled, and choose to either read, write, or work on math, we all gather together in our morning circle.  We always start with greetings of some sort and then move on to discuss our reading from the night before or that morning. Before a few students volunteer to share out with the entire class, everyone shares with the two or three people nearest them in the circle.  We do this every single day without exception.  We've only been in school for three weeks, and already we have a vibrant and growing buzz around books taking place! Much of our current classroom buzz and continued conversations seem to be centered around Gregor the Overlander, Joey Pigza, and the classic character, Charlie Bucket! From our morning circles, students have created book waiting lists, a book return system, and book recommendations for their friends. They have done all of this with my support, but without my guidance. They are the ones taking ownership of how our community is run. Devoting time every single day to the morning circle to talk about books and reading issues that arise has been so incredibly valuable. If you're wondering how we make time for our morning circle each day on top of everything else we do, take a look at our daily schedule.  Everything certainly does not all fit in everyday.  However, reading and talking about reading will always fit in each day- no matter what.  

Setting Up the Understandings of the Classroom Library
Part of our fantasy/sci fi bookshelf
During our first morning circle on the first day of school, my students were introduced and invited into the classroom library.  We discussed how the library is currently organized and how ownership of that organization will be turned over to them as the year progresses.  I explained that they are welcome to try out any book in the library.  All of the books are for all of the readers in our classroom.  There are no limits.  Since that first morning circle, we've talked about how to evaluate our book choice, when it's worthwhile to abandon a book, and when it's better to stick with it.  

The biography section of our nonfiction area.  
Right now, the library is setup by genre. The larger categories are realistic fiction, historical fiction, fantasy/sci fi, picture books, old favorites (loved books and read alouds from 2nd, 3rd, & 4th grades), and nonfiction grouped into many different categories. As we continue moving through our year, students will be invited to reorganize the library by grouping and displaying books in ways they feel makes better sense for our reading community. The library is not, nor will it ever be organized by level. I've written and discussed this idea in earlier blog posts: book levels play an important role in teacher instructional decisions, but have no place in a library.

Ditching the Log
Our community of readers was created without many of the tools teachers have traditionally used during reading instruction.  The one tool that I completely ditched a few years back is the traditional reading log. Rather than requiring my students to comply with an activity that does not mimic anything in the world outside of the classroom, I decided to offer activities for them to "track" their progress that promote and encourage reading rather than deter from it.  Let's face it, no child ever said, "I can't wait to stop reading my book so I can go fill out a log, write a summary, list the pages I read, and ask for my dad's signature in order to prove to my teacher that I did, in fact, read."  

One of my student's personal bookshelves 
Rather than the traditional log, we turned to technology, art, and talk. Each time a student starts reading a new book, they are invited to share it on the Classroom Padlet titled What We're Reading Now.  At anytime, students may check out the Padlet to see what their friends in class are currently reading.  It's a great place to go for recommendations. In addition to the Padlet, every student has created their own personal bookshelf on the inside cover of their reading notebooks.  I found this brilliant idea from my friend and fellow fifth grade teacher, Jenna Segall.  Basically, students draw books they are reading and books they want to read on the shelf.  As they read a book they color it in.  A book that is 50% colored in is about half way read.  A book fully colored is finished.  When they discover a book they want to read, they simply write the book on their shelf!  Not only is the shelf a fun visual "log," but also it is a great place to be reminded of possible books to read next!  

As the year continues, we will talk every morning about our reading and share in many more ways.  However, mark my words, we will not fill out traditional reading logs, ask for parent signatures to prove we read, or do projects that readers in life outside of school never do.  

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the challenges that have popped up along the way over these 14 days. Challenges are not a bad thing.  They help us learn more about ourselves and where we're striving to go.  A few kiddos in class found the sudden freedom to choose their own books a little overwhelming.  After conferring with those students around how to make a book choice, they started to become a little more comfortable in choosing their own books.  They may not be perfectly comfortable yet, but they are certainly on their way.  Another student has found it very challenging to sit with a book, any book, for an extended period of time.  After a few conferences with him, he discovered that it wasn't his book choice getting in his way, rather it was actually his choice of where to sit in the classroom.  He now knows to choose his reading spot with a little more intention each day.  Aside from these two challenges, a few others have also popped up along the way.  When challenges pop up, the best way to address them is to sit down and confer to figure out what's going on.  More challenges are sure to pop up as our reading community grows and changes. We welcome those challenges as they help us learn more about ourselves as readers. 

We have a strong community of readers in place now, but this community will not stay strong and grow even more vibrant unless we continue what we've started for the next 166 school days. Consistency matters. Readers grow by doing one thing only: reading every single day without exception.  A community of readers grows by doing two things: reading every single day and talking about reading every single day- without exception.  That's it.  

On Wednesday of last week, one of my classroom parents popped in after school for a quick chat. After she kindly welcomed me to the school and mentioned that her child was enjoying class, she said the one thing that I am hoping all of my classroom parents will say or notice this school year.  She looked at me with a little confusion on her face, as if she couldn't believe what she was about to tell me.  She took a breath and simply said, "Since the first week of school, Andy is reading on his own at home. I don't even have to remind him to read. He wants to read!"  

Friends, nothing else matters.

For more information on some of these ideas & methods: 
Upstanders by Sara Ahmed & Smokey Daniels 
Poor Readers Don't Get to Read Much by Richard Allington 
One Sure Way to Create Reluctant Readers by Kylene Beers
What the Research Says About Enjoyment of Reading and Reading Achievement by Kylene Beers
Text Levels, Tool or Trouble by Irene Fountas
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
I've Got Research, Yes I Do, I've Got Research, How About You? by Donalyn Miller

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

10 Days In... by the numbers & photos

We've now been in school for 10 days!  Coming back to the classroom this school year has brought me such an immense feeling of joy that I did not quite expect.  I knew I would be very happy to be in the classroom, but honestly, there is no better word to describe how I feel than just joyful.  However, to be completely honest (as you know I always am), the joy is also accompanied by extreme exhaustion- it's going to take a while to get my teaching stamina back up to where it used to be!  Just like training for a cycling, running, or swimming event- the first few sessions are always the toughest, but always some of the most fulfilling.  Then, all of the efforts, time spent, and everything gained culminates on race day- or during 5th grade promotion in June in this case.  

Yes- another incredible journey has begun!  Needless to say, all of my brain power is being used up between the hours of 7 and 4- this doesn't leave much left for thoughtfully writing a blog post about the beginning of the school year.  So, as I've done before, and as I usually do when I'm just too wiped out to thoughtfully string together multiple inspiring paragraphs of educational insight, here are the first 10 days of school by the numbers and in pictures...

10 Days in By the Numbers

Time students spent independently reading in class:  400 minutes 
Time spent reading aloud our first novel of the year, Wonder: 200 minutes
Time students spent working together on the Marshmallow Challenge: 120 minutes
Time spent thinking about how numbers in base 10 work in relation to place value: 240 minutes
Time spent applying this mathematical thinking to the real world: 40 minutes- this number will greatly increase this week!
Time spent in PE or similar activities in class: 120 minutes
Time students spent at recess or lunch: 600 minutes
Number of classroom birthdays celebrated with Krispy Kreme Donuts:
Number of donuts I consumed: 0 (for the win!)
Average hours I spend at school:  6:50AM-4:00PM
Time I will be at school today: 6:50am-8:10PM... Back to School Night
Average time spent working at home each night so far:  2 hours
Number of smiles, laughs, and good times had: too many to track!

10 Days in By the Photos 

Partial view of our classroom library

Our hopes & dreams for 5th grade and beyond! 

Desiging the cover of our writing notebooks

Reflecting on our reading lives

Books students checked out from the classroom library to take home.
Why create a complicated checkout system when you can use a post-it!

Students building together in the Marshmallow Challenge

Personal bookshelves: What we're reading and what we hope to read!

Happy Back to School, Friends!