Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Jedi Master Speaks: Try Not, Do or Do Not

This past spring, many of my study group colleagues attended a workshop led by the sisters, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. They returned invigorated and validated and inspired. They found themselves thinking about September and what they would do differently to prepare for a year of solid literacy instruction.

At this particular workshop, the sisters shared videos of their classrooms and talked in-depth about their space and how it supports effective literacy learning. My colleagues were intrigued by their ideas, especially the notion of a classroom where not every student has his or her own desk. They wondered out loud about what this would be like, how it would change the dynamic of the learning, and what the ramifications of making changes in their own classroom environments might be.

Eager for change, several of my colleagues returned to their schools to look at their space with fresh eyes. Should they exchange their desks for a few tables strategically placed around the room? They wrestled with the idea of having more students than desks. Would that work during content area instruction? Would there be fallout with parents or the principal? Where would students keep their things?

Were they sure they wanted to do this?

Where once they were jazzed up and excited to go back and make radical changes, now they weren’t sure they wanted to change at all. They faced a common conundrum: I want to do it differently, but I don’t feel comfortable.

Facing change is a theme that surfaces regularly in my life. I have seen change brought about by necessity to yield glorious and grand results. I have witnessed forced changes bring about unexpected consequences. But in each instance, it seems that change is always accompanied by fear. Sometimes that fear is debilitating, slowing innovation to a turtle’s pace or worse, bringing it to a complete halt. And sometimes fear is what invigorates, making the change positive and successful.

As you begin this school year, think carefully about the things you want change. Will you organize your space differently? Will you form a study group with colleagues so that you can become more schooled at the art of teaching? Will you approach your principal about the newest and best idea that you read about this summer?

No matter what change you’d like to make, do not forget that it is normal to feel afraid when embarking on a new journey and when in doubt, we should all return to the words of the great Jedi master, Yoda:

“Try not, do or do not.”

I intend this to be my year of great change and I wish you all the same. Don’t let your fear of change stop you. Just do it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Poem for the Beginning of the School Year

There’s no more avoiding or denying it. It’s back-to-school season. It is my sincere hope that everybody has the most amazing year ever and as you begin, I’d like to share with you a poem that I wrote last year after attending my son’s first grade poetry celebration.

As he plays, I watch.

He writes books with blurbs
And speech bubbles.
He scribbles song lyrics
And journals about his trip to the zoo.

He is a writer.

He asks to go to the library.
He seeks out books on bunnies
And runs to me when he learns
What they eat
And how long they live
And what we need to do to take care of them.

He is a reader.

He holds coins in his hands
And asks, “How much is this?”
And then counts
And adds
And figures it out for himself.

He is a mathematician.

He mixes chocolate
with water
and yogurt
and salt
and sugar
And says,
“I need to watch and see what happens.”
He waits
And observes
And makes notes.

He is a scientist.

He sits at the table and does his homework.
He’s in a hurry.
He wants to be done
He stops and asks,
Is this my best work?

He is a student.

He is a writer.
He is a reader.
He is a mathematician.
He is a scientist.
He is a student.


Because he has a teacher.

I hope you all have a fantastic year molding writers, readers, mathematicians, scientists, students, and most of all LEARNERS!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Rethinking Curriculum Refuse

I spent some time revisiting some of my old blog posts and came across this one from last August. As I sift through my own files and ready myself for the school year, being reminded that every lesson I teach doesn’t hold equal weight was humbling.

My good friend once said to me that in the life of a teacher, July is like Saturday, a time for relaxing and regrouping; and August is like Sunday, a time to start thinking about and preparing for work.

Well, it’s here. It’s August. While many of us are still enjoying outings to the beach and riding roller coasters with our hands up, in the corner of our minds, we are entertaining thoughts of September. We are thinking about unpacking dust-covered books and decorating bulletin boards and readying our classrooms for the first day of school. In addition, we are organizing our materials, paging through professional resources, and thinking about what we will teach this year.

So many teachers start the school year with good intentions. We vow that children will read independently every day. We promise to make time each day for writing. We will conference and assess and plan meaningful instruction. But then, we have our first faculty meeting and we receive the laundry list of directives for this school year. Then, there’s the pressure of back-to-school night and parent-teacher conferences and report cards. Next, it’s prepping for the ELA, the math assessment, the Terra Nova, and whatever other standardized tests are coming down the line.

There go our good intentions.

Feeling like there is too much on our plates is a common lament. As you start this school year, I urge you to keep your eye on your best intentions. Years ago, I heard Lucy Calkins speak about making time for the teaching you know is important. She said that sometimes, “you have to take carloads of curriculum to the dump.”

As you sift through your thoughts and plans and ideas for this school year, think carefully about what you do. If you’re not sure if a piece of your curriculum is worth keeping, ask yourself this question: How does this benefit my students? If you can’t think of at least three good reasons, take it to the dump.

So, don’t forget to share—what ideas, practices, and lessons will you file in the trash this year?

Monday, August 9, 2010

Reader’s Theater: A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to a Workshop

Last week, one of the workshops that I led was titled Motivating Struggling and Reluctant Readers. In preparation for this program, I had gathered all kinds of research about motivation and what really makes kids want to read. I had it boiled down to a few basic things:

1. Allow them to choose what they want to read.

2. Respect their choices—comics, graphic novels, gaming manuals, and websites are all valid sources of reading material.

3. Help kids know what’s out there to read: Read aloud, bless books.

4. Build in success—don’t require kids to read things that are too hard. People WANT to do things they feel they CAN do.

In the vein of building in success, one of the things I had planned to promote was reader’s theater. It’s fun and engaging. It makes kids want to reread which helps to build confidence and fluency without raising and eyebrow.

And then a funny thing happened.

Two nights before the presentation, my seven year old son Nathan was reading at bedtime. He had pulled out his old friends Elephant and Piggie. Instead of curling up next to me to read aloud like he normally does, he decided he needed to “perform.” On this particular evening, Are You Ready to Play Outside? (Amazon affiliate link) looked like this:

Through his hand gestures and expressions, Nathan internalized the meaning of the words he was reading. He was able to take a book that he loved and make it dramatic and theatric—all without a script.

As he read, Nathan reminded me that reader’s theater doesn’t have to be a time consuming, over-the-top production. We don’t need to run out and purchase commercially produced materials in order to be able to implement this variety of shared and performance reading. The requirements for reader’s theater are actually quite simple: eager students and books. The rest comes naturally from rereading. .

Monday, August 2, 2010

Do Not Read Past This Title Till Next Tuesday

When I met with my colleagues last week who were busy preparing a workshop on reading partnerships and book clubs, a very thought provoking question arose: When kids set their assignments for literature circles, is it okay to say, "AND DON'T READ ON!"?

Teachers have good reasons for saying this. Their biggest concern is that early finishers will spoil the ending for those who haven't finished reading the book. Then there is the fear that the details of the book will become fuzzy for kids who read too much too soon calling into question the quality of their contributions to group discussion. Then, of course, there are those who issue this dictum merely because it seems to be the intuitive thing to do. When you read a book with a partner or friend, you read at the same pace.


Book partnerships and clubs are meant to mimic the reading behaviors of sophisticated adult readers. For years, people have been gathering to talk around books that they are passionate about. It is both stimulating and deeply gratifying to come together to discuss our thoughts and questions about a shared reading experience. Talk helps us to achieve new understandings and insights about the text being read.

This summer, I have been meeting with my study group to discuss Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey's Strategies That Work: Teaching Comprehension for Understanding and Engagement (Amazon affiliate link). Each time we meet, we set a goal for the number of chapters that we'd like to read before our next meeting. I like having a goal. It disciplines me to make sure that reading is a priority. But, if I were to read on, I think I would be equally prepared for the conversation. And my group wouldn't be mad. Granted, if this book were fiction, I'd know the ending before them. But, as a sophisticated adult reader, I'd know better than to reveal the surprise.

Thinking about my own book club has really helped me rethink the "Don't read on" rule. I think it sends a very mixed message to kids to communicate in one breath that they need to read a lot and then impose limits in the next. If we are worried that kids will forget what they read and won't be equipped to make intelligent contributions to the discussion, we need to teach them how to track their thinking and how to prepare for book conversations. And for those worried about the "spoiler," that too comes back to good teaching. Instead of simply solving the problem by saying, "Don't read on," why not say instead, "Today our mini lesson is going to be the problems that can arise when book club members read ahead..."

What do you think? Should kids be able to read to the end? Or, are there other reasons why kids should stay together with the pack?