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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Teach It Forward

Isn’t It Time to Listen to the Teachers?

Recent headlines are sounding the alarm:

Star Tribune articleMore Minnesota teachers leaving jobs, new state report shows
One-fourth of new teachers leave within first three years, according to a new state report. 

The statewide teacher shortage described as an “epidemic” has Minnesota school districts searching for strategies that will increase teacher retention. A February, 2017, Star Tribune article offers a startling statistic that should be stopping school boards, administrators, legislators and most importantly parents in their tracks:

“The 2017 version of the Minnesota Teacher Supply and Demand report issued Wednesday found a 46 percent increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession since 2008.”

While I believe a number of other issues also deserve our attention (increasing the number of teachers of color, improving teacher training, and closing the achievement gap), we cannot ignore the fact that the future of education is uncertain at best. Some might even say the future is bleak.

However, as a self-professed champion of positivity and on behalf of the hundreds of colleagues I have worked with over the past 26 years, I have compiled a short list of requests. Investing in these five straightforward conditions would send a strong message that we are serious about addressing the need to attract and retain high-quality teachers for our children.

Isn’t it time to listen to the teachers when we ask for the following? 

#1. High quality training in classroom management and engagement

Ask any first year educator what he/she learned about these essential components of teaching in their undergraduate courses and the answer will likely be “Little, if anything.” The sad truth is that our colleges and universities are not doing an exceptional job of preparing new teachers for the challenges they will face when it comes to creating classroom environments that are conducive to learning. We must do better. Before the degrees are granted, as well as once new teachers are standing in front a classroom full of kids, learning how to establish a climate where kids can and want to learn is essential. 

#2. Reasonable class sizes

And speaking of that classroom full of kids… Despite the studies that insist class size doesn’t really matter all that much, 99.9% of teachers will tell you, CLASS SIZE MATTERS! A lot! Last year I taught two sections of Language Arts. My first section had 31 students, my second section just 22 students. The amount of time I could devote to small group reading with students in the second section was obviously much greater than with students in the first section. Excellent teachers strive to create meaningful relationships with students, they believe in providing relevant feedback, and they understand the importance of connecting with parents. Accomplishing these goals is possible with 22 students. Making it happen consistently with 31 students is a feat that most teachers find overwhelming.

#3. Ample classroom library and supply budgets

There is a joke often shared on social media that teaching is the only profession where you steal from home and take things to work. Surveys have shown that the average teacher spends at least $500 out of their pocket for everything from Kleenex to snow boots to graham crackers. We not only worry about keeping students healthy, warm, and fed, but we also invest heavily in putting books on our shelves year after year. Many teachers I know dream of winning the lottery in order to stock his/her classroom with the basic essentials. Rather than make us wait for our lucky numbers to hit, how about if the school boards, administrators, and school finance gurus help us meet the needs of students today! We’re not asking for millions, but $500-$1,000 per year would help a great deal.

#4. Time in our classrooms during “back to school workshop” days

Every August it’s the same old story. Teachers sit through hour after hour, day after day of meetings and workshops that are supposed to help us become the best teachers we can be. The intentions are honorable. Most of us realize this. But here’s the thing, our minds are elsewhere during this crucial time period. It is tough to get or stay engaged in talk about interventions, effective math routines or even worse, new rules for using the laminator, when more than two dozen little people and their families will be walking through the door for open house in 48-72 hours. Give us the time we need to get our classrooms ready. Make it a priority to limit those August workshop sessions in favor of supporting us in a substantial way – with adequate time to be in our classrooms preparing for our learners and the adventures that lie ahead. 

(l. to r.) Maurna Rome, Meghan Malone, Lynn Searle, Ashley Hall, Kali Gardner, all second grade teachers at Peter Hobart Elementary in St. Louis Park, MN. Team members not available for photo: Suzanne Knauf and Molly Borg

#5. Ongoing, job-embedded, teacher-driven professional development

The benefits of “one and you’re done” or “sit and git” workshop training days are minimal. Oftentimes there is little change in beliefs or behaviors after attending this type of PD. As an instructional coach, I am privileged to be in a district that values investing in teacher development and growth. I have worked in several other districts that have not approached professional development in the same way. Honoring teacher voices in this process is the way to foster systemic change and sustain improvements. Recently I joined a group of teachers as they collaborated on creating a teacher-friendly guided reading lesson plan format. It was so impressive to see how they bounced ideas off of one another, discussed their rationale and insights, or offered differing opinions on how to approach the plan. There was a lovely mix of synergy, respect, and affirmation. They knew what they were doing and they were doing it well. The next day, they decided to put in a request for half-day subs so everyone on the team could dig even deeper into their understanding and implementation of the new approach to guided reading. This is the type of professional development we need. No one at the district office or State Department of Education could do a better job of prescribing or designing effective training.

Ask the teachers. And most importantly, listen to them. They know. Trust me. They know. Trust them. They really know.

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Do Over

The notion of a “do-over” is alive and well on school playgrounds across the country. Ask any recess supervisor and they will confirm this. You hear it being requested on four-square courts, under basketball hoops, and on football fields… “Awwww, that should be a do-over!” Kids know that sometimes you just need another chance to get it right.

As an educator with nearly three decades of teaching experience, one might think that by this point in my career, my wish-list for “do-overs” in the classroom would be getting smaller and smaller. Yet, the truth is, it’s the exact opposite. That list of teaching regrets, what I wish I could “do over,” continues to grow. You see, as I become older and wiser, I realize more than ever the importance of reflection. Whether I am pondering the effectiveness of my lessons, examining formal or informal data, or speculating on my ability to be proactive versus reactive, I find myself feeling like a 4th grader on the playground, pleading for a chance to do it over.

Do Over

This school year I’ve been given an incredible opportunity to raise my racial consciousness and learn what it means to become an interrupter of racial inequality. My school district invests heavily in promoting this unique and very necessary form of professional development. (See more information below.)

As part of my racial equity journey, I am writing my “racial autobiography.” The ultimate goal for composing this personal narrative centered on race is to disrupt the current state of affairs by eliminating the racial predictability of the achievement gap. My personal goal in writing a racial autobiography is to positively impact how I approach my role as a culturally responsive educator. Within this program, I’ve discovered that creating and sharing personal racial identities is an effective way for educators to promote a greater understanding of our collective racial experiences. It provides a chance for us to engage in courageous conversations centered on race.

Brian's SongIn writing about my life in terms of race, I’ve discovered that until my senior year of high school, the interactions I had with people of color were only through books and movies. Growing up in Dubuque, Iowa, it wasn’t until I plopped down in front of the TV in November 1971, for the ABC Movie of the Week, that I met a black person for the very first time. I was eight years old when I watched the tear-jerker about cancer-stricken Brian Piccolo and his teammate, Gale Sayers. Brian’s Song depicts the experiences of two Chicago Bears football players who became the first racially integrated roommates in the NFL. Sitting next to my older brother who just wanted to watch a football movie about his favorite team, the story captured my attention for very different reasons. I was full of questions as my racial consciousness was stirred. My childhood naiveté about race left me wondering why it was such a big deal for a white man and a black man, players on the same team, to share a room. I was curious and confused. After the movie ended, I could not stop thinking about the friendship between the two men.

The story of Piccolo and Sayers stayed with me. What for some was an ordinary weekly TV-watching experience, this movie remains one of the most vivid memories from my childhood.  I recall going to the public library five years later as a junior high student to check out the book I Am Third by Gale Sayers. As a teenager I had begun hearing about and witnessing more examples of bigotry and stereotypes, racism, in subtle and not so subtle ways. I wanted to get to know this man of color who I had encountered years earlier. It wasn’t until just a few months ago that the significance of that Tuesday evening in 1971 would be fully understood. In writing my racial autobiography, I discovered that this initial exposure to people who were intent on interrupting racial injustice contributed in profound ways to my racial consciousness.

So what does wanting a “do-over” have to do with my racial autobiography? My desire to have another chance stems from the realization that, as an educator, I missed out on far too many opportunities to create critical literary experiences, as well as lived ones, that were focused on racial awareness and racial equity. The idea of teaching about “white privilege” in an explicit way was barely on my radar. My classroom was filled with mostly white students for years, yet I did little to help those kids learn about and appreciate others who not only looked different but experienced life in a much different way. Yes, there were stories about Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks and there were lots of books brought out for Black History Month. However, now I see that those minimal efforts actually may have done more harm than good. By isolating the teaching and learning about people of color to just a few individuals and one month out of the entire school year, what message was I sending to kids?

If I had to do it all over again, I would be intentional in my teaching about race, racism, and white privilege. In a classroom full of six-year-olds, I would seize opportunities to talk with kids about these issues. I would devote time to helping my students gain an appreciation for racial equity by exploring the need to embrace diversity in people, thoughts, and approaches to problem-solving. We would learn about how talking about race and working towards social justice benefits everyone. As former Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it, “It’s not just understanding somebody’s heroes and holidays.”

As a white, female educator, I represent the demographic of approximately 75% of public school teachers in this country. Since do-overs are much easier to come by on the school playground than they are in our classrooms, I invite all who read this essay to join me in my effort to get it right from here on out. Let’s embrace the opportunity for learning and teaching about racial awareness in order to address the urgent need for racial equity in today’s world.

Resources

I offer this list of resources to help you with your racial equity teaching and learning journey:

Be a ChangemakerWhat I’m reading with kids

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagaro

Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters by Laurie Ann Thompson

What I’m reading for personal and professional development

Born a CrimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

The mission: Putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children. Visit We Need Diverse Books.

The vision: A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.

More information about Glenn Singleton and Courageous Conversations.

To learn more about writing your racial autobiography, check out this link.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?Author of the book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Beverly Daniel Tatum offers insights on color blindness, racial stereotypes, and the media in this PBS interview.

60+ Resources for Talking to Kids About Racism” by Lorien Van Ness, provides a lists of books and activities to help adults begin the dialogue, starting with birth to three-year-olds.

An extensive list compiled by The Washington Post, offering articles, resources, and research, “Teaching about race, racism and police violence: Resources for educators and parents.”

More about the St. Louis Park (Minnesota) Equity Coaching Program

Every educator in St. Louis Park schools works one-on-one with an Equity Coach, who offers support, resources, and training in a number of ways. Through conversations, workshops, observations and coaching, teachers learn about the importance of raising their racial consciousness in an effort to disrupt systemic racism.

 

In September, 2013, the St. Louis Park School District started a program called Equity Coaching to help address the achievement gap and to improve educational equality in its schools. Grant funds from the state-sponsored Quality Compensation (Q Comp) grant (also known as ATPPS; Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System) help fund the Equity Coach initiative.

The Equity Coaching blog further describes the St. Louis Park Schools Equity Coaching Model:  “Systemic racial equity change transpires when educators are given the space and support to critically reflect on their own racial consciousness and practice. Equity coaching provides sustained dialogue in a trusting environment to interrupt the presence of racism and whiteness. Using Courageous Conversations Protocol, tenets of Critical Race Theory, and instructional coaching methods, educators, and coaches engage in this.”

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Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors, and Maps

“There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.” —Nancy Larrick

“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” —Rudine Sims Bishop

“Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.” —Christopher Myers

Three profound quotes, all contemplating the troubling reality of the predominantly white world of children’s literature. These quotes appeared in three separate articles that were written decades apart in 1965, 1990 and 2014, respectively. It has been more than 50 years since Nancy Larrick penned “The All White World of Children’s Books.” And then, 25 years later, Rudine Sims Bishop addressed the same travesty in her article “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” Skip ahead another two dozen years and we hear from Christopher Myers when he discusses “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” It is a sad reality that so little progress has been made over so many years.

bk_courageeousconversationsYet, I am compelled to feel optimistic. I have sincere hopes and dreams that bigger change is possible. One reason for this positivity comes from the investment and effort my new school district has made towards racial equity and promoting the equity journeys of every district employee. The two-day “Beyond Diversity” workshop I recently attended, based on the work of Glenn Singleton and his book Courageous Conversations About Race, was one of the most powerful “back to school” professional development sessions I have ever experienced. Simply put, race matters, and so do our discussions, beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions related to race. 

Emmanuel's DreamSo how do I grapple with the current reality, my role as a white woman working in classrooms with a mixture of precious brown, black, and white faces, eager to share a side of children’s literature that honors each and every one of them? We are in our second week of school, establishing classroom communities, discussing our hopes and dreams. I pull out a treasured book, one that packs a powerful message about the importance of not letting disabilities become inabilities. A true story that delivers an uplifting message of bravery, respect, determination and love. As I read the first few pages of Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson, the little guy right in front of me asks the question, “Hey, how come everyone in that book looks like me?.” I dream of a day when this experience, the sharing of a picture book filled with children and adults of color, does not prompt a child, any child, to feel this is an unusual occurrence, but rather one that is commonplace and expected.  

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Books for My Grandbaby and Me

Reading to my GrandbabyIt’s no secret that I am a big fan of books and reading. I am actually an even bigger fan of babies. I am instantly smitten. I can think of nothing better than cuddling an infant, blanketed by that new baby smell, reading to an audience of one. You can imagine how thrilled I am to announce that there’s a new baby in town! My incredible daughter-in-law and son are celebrating the joy of transitioning from loving couple to loving family and I am a first-time grandma.

A sweet, little baby boy (well actually, not so little, with a birth weight of 11 lbs. 12 oz. and length of 24”) to bounce on my knee as we create reading memories together! I’ve looked forward to sharing my passion for literacy with a precious grandbaby for a very long time. And so, with my heart full of  more love than I ever thought possible, I will settle into this esteemed and honorable role as grandma by reaching for a treasured stack of books. Carefully selected books that will begin a lifelong adventure of discovery, wonder, snuggles, and joy. Books filled with lessons for my grandbaby and me!   

Book and Lesson #1: On The Day You Were Born
Books help us celebrate and learn.

On tThe perfect first book to share with my grandbaby offers this sweet greeting: “Welcome to the spinning world… We are so glad you’ve come.” Debra Frasier’s lovely picture book will, without a doubt, become a tradition for us. The miracle of nature explains the miracle of a very special baby’s entrance into the world. Each year on the anniversary of his birth, we will marvel at the universe as it is depicted in page after page of charming nature collages. An extraordinary book to commemorate an extraordinary event in our lives!   

Book and Lesson #2: More! More! More! Said the Baby
Books help us cherish memories from the past and create new ones.

More! More! More! Said the BabyLittle Guy, Little Pumpkin and Little Bird, toddlers from More! More! More! Said the Baby, by Vera B. Williams, bring out the silliness and playful fun that are essential qualities for grandmas and grandpas. After reading this delightful story to my grandson, I will share another story, one about his own dad that I will call “Little Fish.”  Centered on the memory of an energetic, not quite two- year- old, I’ll reminisce and recall the giggles and squealing “I do gan, I do gan” as my son jumped off the dock into the lake, again and again. You can bet that each time I read this book it will be grandma who pleads for “more, more, more” tummy kisses and toe tickles!

Book and Lesson #3: Snowy Day
Books help us find new friends.

The Snowy DayIntroducing my grandson to a curious little boy named Peter will be the beginning of what I hope will be many friendships sprouting from the pages of a good book. While reading Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, we will get to know an adventurer who loves building smiling snowmen and making snow angels. It won’t be long before my grandson and I enjoy winter days doing the same. And though he will be too young to understand the historical significance of this book (considered to be the first full color picture book featuring a child of color as the main character), it will always be a reminder to me about the importance of providing a plethora of books with diverse characters, books that offer “windows and mirrors,” books filled with friends my grandbaby has yet to meet.

Book and Lesson #4: Four Puppies
Books help us understand life and the world around us.

Four PuppiesThis grandma’s “must read to grandbaby booklist” would not be complete without the book that was my very first personal favorite. As a kindergartener, I fell in love with this classic Little Golden Book. My hope is that my grandson will delight in the antics of this rambunctious pack of pups as they learn about the changing seasons. Eventually my special reading buddy and I will talk about the wise red squirrel and the positive life lessons he passes on to his young protégés.    

Book and Lesson #5:
The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear
Books help us have a little fun.

The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry BearThis delicious story by Don and Audrey Wood provides another walk down memory lane. It seems like just yesterday when my three-year old preschooler begged for another reading of this highly interactive tale. This time around, I plan to wear a pair of Groucho fuzzy nose and glasses as I read it with my grandbaby. The captivating tale that mixes a bit of fear, mystery, humor, sneakiness and, best of all, sharing with others, will likely find a spot on grandbaby’s “read it again” list!

Book and Lesson #6: The I LOVE YOU Book
Books help us express our feelings.

The I Love You BookUnconditional love is a natural phenomenon for parents and grandparents all over the world. The I Love You Book by Todd Parr describes the powerful, unwavering affection that I will forever feel for this child who has captured my heart. With bright, colorful illustrations, the message is simple: I love you whether silly, sad, scared, or brave. I love you whether sleeping or not sleeping. I love you and I always will, just the way you are!

Once Upon a Time BabyBooks for my grandbaby and me will offer a wide range of lessons on all sorts of topics. However, the greatest gift they will provide is a chance to share meaningful moments, a chance to relive fond memories, a chance to create new memories. Books for my grandbaby and me are a gift that will last a lifetime, a legacy of literacy and love, for my grandbaby and me.

Two of my favorite baby literacy gift sites:

I ordered a personalized copy of On the Day You Were Born with my grandbaby’s name printed on the cover and throughout the book.

Adorable t-shirts for my grandbaby, encouraging literacy and learning

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Choice and Voice

Classroom bookshelfIn several past articles I’ve written about the frustration I’ve felt concerning my district’s decision to adopt a new reading curriculum. In recent weeks I have had to reflect and dig deeply to understand my uneasiness and fear related to “an innovative and modern way to teach the gamut of elementary literacy skills” (quote from district website post about the new reading curriculum). I am someone who has never shied away from change or opportunities to grow as an educator. However, this significant shift in the approach to literacy learning and instruction in my classroom (and approximately 660 other elementary classrooms in the district) has contributed greatly to my decision to accept a position with a new school district for the coming school year.

What follows is the letter I am sending to district leaders and school board members in my now former district. My hope is that by sharing this with you, my Teach it Forward readers, and district decision makers, I can respectfully offer something for all of us to think about in hopes of making a positive difference in the lives of our students.

Dear District Administrators and School Board Members,

I believe we have several essential things in common. We care about kids and we want them to succeed. I also believe we share a passion for learning. We aim to do what’s right by our students. We share a sense of urgency. We want to empower our future leaders with necessary skills, experiences, and knowledge. We are intent on making informed decisions and allocating resources wisely.

I applaud the district for its willingness to invest in its kids. A combined $5.3 million for the new reading curriculum, training, and technology is no small expenditure. I know district leaders who supported the curriculum adoption worked countless hours to coordinate the review process, the piloting of materials, and the plan for implementation. For teachers who are new to the profession and have limited experience, this new program offers a detailed overview for each day of the six week units that cover lesson plans for the entire school year, including book selections, alignment to the standards, weekly tests, and interventions. For more veteran educators it delivers a time-saving program that features a fully-integrated curriculum that embeds reading, writing, spelling, and vocabulary, along with a wide range of technology tools.

I’ve spent nine years, more than a third of my 25-year teaching career, in this district. I am a National Board Certified Teacher with a masters degree in literacy and an Education Specialist degree in K-12 Leadership. My desire to make a positive difference in students’ lives runs deep. However, this letter isn’t about me. It is about the 32 incredible kids from Room 123. It’s about kids who need an advocate who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in a position to do so themselves. I am writing to respectfully ask you to consider some of the insights I have about the district’s recent adoption of the new curriculum.

Here are three things I believe those 32 kids would tell you if they had the chance.

Book Wall

#1. Please let us pick books we want to read along with books we want our teachers to read to us. “One size fits all” does not always feel that great.

Readers thrive on having choice and voice. Kids come to us with a wide range of interests, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences. Providing them with plentiful opportunities to have some say in what they read is critical. Imagine showing up at your public library or favorite bookstore every week for the next six years only to be told that the stories and books with which you will be spending 60-90 minutes a day have already been pre-selected for you … would that motivate you to read?

Nancy Atwell, renowned educator and author who is the first recipient of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, speaks to the importance of offering choice and honoring students’ voice when it comes to reading. She explains:

“We now have a quarter century of studies that document three findings: literacy blooms wherever students have access to books they want to read, permission to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Enticing collections of literature—interesting books written at levels they can decode with accuracy and comprehend with ease—are key to children becoming skilled, thoughtful, avid readers.”

I encourage you to read what else this accomplished and highly regarded educator has to say about kids, reading, and achievement.

The new curriculum has all the books pre-selected for the entire year. The read-aloud or shared-reading selections are organized by theme to connect with the titles that are shared in small group reading. Each week there are four titles offering four different reading levels to match four different groups of readers. The district website post announcing the new curriculum adoption states: “… they’re [students] reading the same content no matter their reading ability. So students at different ability levels can participate through collaborative conversations and learn from each other.”

Those 32 incredible kids might want to know what happens if one of those four books doesn’t fit (whether that be because of topic, genre, or level)…do they have a say?

Reflect bookcase#2. Please know that we don’t all have the same access to technology but that doesn’t mean our families don’t want us to do well or that we need more worksheets to do.

While the new curriculum offers digital at-home access to texts and reading materials, not all students have the same opportunity to use them outside the classroom. Nearly 80% of students at my former school are eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch and almost half are English Language Learners. Close to 90% are students of color. Yes, there is an achievement gap between white and non-white students and yes it must be addressed. Acknowledging that an “opportunity gap” also exists is a step in the right direction.

Those 32 incredible kids might not be able to articulate their feelings about the notion of “equity” but there is no doubt they have felt its absence. They might be wondering how the district will address the issue of equity for students who lack access to technology at home. Will getting a “hard copy” of texts and materials instead of getting to use online tools be enough to provide them with self-directed learning opportunities?

Relax bookshelf#3. Please ask and listen to my teachers about how the new curriculum is working in my classroom, at my school (test results are only part of the answer).

 One feature of the new program is weekly assessments, which will provide test-taking practice for students and data for teachers and administrators. While this is one way to measure growth and achievement to aid in planning for instruction, it is not the only thing to consider. The teachers who piloted the program primarily represented non-Title schools in the district. In fact, of the 10 schools (out of 24) selected to participate, only 3 were from the 14 Title schools in the district.

As stated earlier, advocating for my incredible students is my ultimate responsibility and it is the reason I am sharing this letter. It is my hope that the under-representation of Title students and classrooms in the piloting of the curriculum does not signify an indifference to students and teachers who deserve to be included in conversations and decisions about the implementation of the curriculum.

On behalf of those 32 incredible kids I keep talking about, I am happy to report that they are some of the most creative, intelligent, kind and funny kids with whom I have ever worked. Many are bilingual. They write poetry. They play musical instruments. They are artists, athletes, and actors. Most of them believe in themselves and their ability to do and become whatever they choose. Those 32 incredible kids have shared their unique talents, passions, and personalities with me each and every day, some for the past two years. Their desire to read, talk, and write about their favorite characters, authors’ messages, and the things they wonder has been evident, in part because they have been given guidance and freedom to select from the vast collection of books available to them in Room 123.

One final thing those 32 incredible kids might ask is that you never lose sight of the fact that although they might not all be able to demonstrate just how much they know and are capable of doing when it comes to reading and standardized tests, they deal with challenges on a daily basis, challenges that some of us never encounter in our entire adult lives. Don’t let this new curriculum become another challenge. I simply ask that you look beyond the new curriculum to consider what the kids and teachers might need to address the issues of student choice, student voice, equity, achievement gaps, opportunity gaps, and, most importantly, the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to teaching and learning.

Sincerely,

Maurna Rome

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No, Thank You

“Thank” “You Jason.” Three simple words on a cake … an analogy for one of my greatest inner conflicts as an educator.

Thank you Jason

One morning in March I stopped at Sam’s Club on my way to school to pick up a cake. A celebration honoring a colleague was taking place that day. I quickly found a lovely one with cheery red flowers and asked the baker to add the sentiment “Thank you, Jason.” A few minutes later she handed me the cake, flippantly mentioning, “I’m not that great at cake writing …” then adding the zinger “but, whatever, it’s going to taste the same.”  I inspected her handiwork and was taken aback. “Thank” appeared on the first line. “You Jason” was scrawled across the next line. My initial reaction was a quizzical look. Was she kidding? I realized she didn’t know I was a teacher and I wasn’t trying to be rude or difficult, but seriously, doesn’t everyone know that “Thank You” on one line makes more sense than “You Jason” on one line? I looked at it again. “Thank” followed by “You Jason”!? I shook my head, as a myriad of thoughts bounced around my head.

What would happen if I told her the writing on this cake was simply not acceptable?

If I made a fuss…

  1. I might sound like a complainer if I asked to speak to the manager — feeling embarrassed.
  2. I might be late for school — feeling inconvenienced.
  3. I might get the baker in trouble for a sub-par performance — feeling guilty.

What would happen if I silently but grudgingly accepted this confectionery mini-crisis?

If I didn’t make a fuss…

  1. I could arrive at school on time with a sorry looking cake — feeling embarrassed.
  2. I could try scraping off the messed up message — feeling inconvenienced.
  3. I could miss an opportunity to help the baker improve her skills and performance — feeling guilty.

I was perplexed but Minnesota Nice won out (temporarily) as I ambivalently put “Thank. You Jason” in my cart. However, by the time I got to the checkout, I had a change of heart and knew I couldn’t and shouldn’t remain silent. When the checkout clerk asked me if I found everything all right I pointed to the cake and said, “Well, almost … I wish I would have found better writing on my cake …” She took a quick look at my boxed dilemma and called the manager over. In less than 10 minutes the cake was returned to the bakery and then came back to me with a nicely aligned sentiment, along with an apology from the baker. I thanked her sincerely, accepted the apology, and complimented her on the new version. The “icing on the cake” was receiving a store gift card from the manager as an additional token of apology for my inconvenience.

Thank you, Jason

As I wheeled my cart across the parking lot, I suddenly experienced an epiphany. This entire incident reminded me of my district’s recent language arts curriculum adoption (aka a new “core” basal reading program). The whole situation was like the unacceptable writing on the cake. The thought of kids losing their voice and choice in their daily reading lives was simply not okay. I could not let my feelings of embarrassment, inconvenience, or guilt stop me from speaking up.

So I continued to raise the questions … Are they (district decision makers) kidding? I realize some people don’t know just how passionate I am about kids and literacy and I’m not trying to be rude or difficult. But seriously, doesn’t everyone know that there is no “magic bullet” reading program that will automatically “fix” test scores simply because it is taught with fidelity? What about the practitioners? How about investing in long-term, high-quality professional development for teachers? What about the students? How about meeting kids’ individual needs based on what we learn about them as we create positive classroom communities? What about the parents? How about getting their input about a company that puts out elementary leveled texts that have been found to be “offensive and inaccurate.”

Chances are no one is going to present me with a gift card for making a fuss this time. Unfortunately, I’m not expecting an “icing on the cake” happy ending.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “Thank. You Jason” in the next installment of Teach it Forward.

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Words of Wisdom

graduationI may never be asked to give the commencement speech at my alma mater—or yours for that matter. However, just in case the opportunity presents itself, I am ready. After considerable reflection on my 25 years as an educator, I can sum up my message for aspiring teachers who are about to embark on a career in the classroom with the following words of wisdom.

#1. Practice the “Art of Being”

Being available, being kind, being compassionate, being transparent, being real, being thoughtful, and being ourselves, this is the path that leads to success.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in the “doing” when it comes to teaching. Once you jump on that treadmill with your to-do list in hand, it can be difficult to stop and rest. However, it is the art of being that will lay the foundation for building relationships with students, parents and colleagues. It is those relationships that will play the most important role in your success as an educator.

#2. Develop Stamina and Speed

Be prepared to develop a combination of these two contradictory but essential skills. You will quickly realize that some aspects of teaching require you to go the distance (bathroom breaks will be few and far between). At the very same time you will often need to train like you’re competing for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records (not everyone can eat an entire lunch and go to the bathroom in 20 minutes or less).

#3. Mistakes Are Okay

Beautiful Oops!The lovely little book Beautiful Oops! by Barney Saltzberg, offers a profound truth—mistakes are much more than accidents or mishaps. They are opportunities to turn blunders into wonders. Create a classroom climate that embraces trying, failing, and learning from those errors. Set the tone for your students by celebrating those beautiful oops that all of us make so that everyone knows that no one is perfect.

#4. Find a “Marigold”

Several years ago, Jennifer Gonzalez offered this wise advice to those just starting out:

“Just like a young seedling growing in a garden, thriving in your first year depends largely on who you plant yourself next to… Among companion plants, the marigold is one of the best: It protects a wide variety of plants from pests and harmful weeds.”

Seek out someone who will serve as the type of mentor who will support you with positivity. Find a mentor who will not hesitate to show you the ropes, answer questions and offer reassurance—you will never regret spending time with a marigold.

#5.  Words Matter, Choose Them Carefully

Choice Words Opening MindsChoice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston are two of the best books I’ve ever read about the important role that language plays in our efforts to reach students and positively impact their learning. Both books are full of insightful examples of how what we say (or don’t say) can make a dramatic difference in the lives of students. 

#6. Parents Are Our Partners—It Is Not “Us” Versus “Them”

Dear ParentsToo often educators make hasty judgments about what appears to be a lack of interest or involvement on the part of parents. When issues flare with a student, the blame game may surface and the tension mounts. One of the greatest investments any teacher can make is to develop strong communication and rapport with parents. It’s not enough to simply say you value parent input, it is necessary to cultivate a sense of teamwork and mutual respect.  Check out Dear Parents: From Your Child’s Loving Teacher (Handbook for Effective Teamwork) by Dana Arias for a wonderful collection of letters that promote a true alliance between educators and parents.

#7. Network, Connect, or Get “Linked In”

Social media offers an endless nexus of professional groups. Digital natives will have no trouble seeking out and mingling online with other educators who share the same interests and frustrations yet may offer a different perspective or approach. In addition to the virtual world of networking, don’t hesitate to join organizations that meet face to face, offering high quality and ongoing professional development. State and national chapters of the International Literacy Association (ILA), National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), to name a few, are incredibly valuable resources. 

#8. Expect to Be Overwhelmed

Rose-colored glasses don’t make an attractive fashion accessory for educators. The reality of this challenging career is that it is and might always be overwhelming. The teacher’s job is tough and it is not for the faint of heart. Despite this fact, the rewards most definitely outweigh the demands (take extra notice of #9 and #10 to counteract #8)!

#9. Be Patient with Yourself

“Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting.” —Joyce Meyer

You and your craft are a work in progress. It will take time to learn the art and magic of balancing curriculum, technology, classroom management, assessments, and effective teaching strategies. You’ll likely be your own toughest critic. Strive to find the balance between maintaining a sense of urgency and stopping long enough to appreciate the fun and humor that wiggles its way into your classroom thanks to the marvelous little people you will be spending your days with.

#10. Find Joy Every Day 

Be HappyBe Happy! by Monica Sheehan offers excellent suggestions for staying focused on the simplest of things … make friends, dance, dream big, be brave, along with a treasure trove of other ideas. Read this little gem on the first day of school, the last day of school and lots of days in between. It is a masterpiece and might just be the blueprint for a truly satisfying life for all human beings.

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March Madness

March MadnessAsk any 3rd-8th-grade teacher about “March Madness” and there is a good chance you won’t hear much about basketball. You may, however, get an earful about a topic that is about as near and dear to our hearts as standing outside for 25 minutes of recess in bone-chilling, zero-degree weather. In Minnesota, the acronym is MCA. In Texas it’s STAAR. A whole slate of states call it PARCC (ten in all, including Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland New JerseyNew Mexico, New York and Rhode Island).

Teachers are deemed winners or losers because of it (some have even gone to prison). Kids get physically ill because of it. Parents don’t seem to understand it. Newspapers have a field day with it and perhaps most troubling of all, legislators who don’t seem to know much about education make all the rules about it.

Testing. March Madness followed by a month-long extension of what is about as funny as a lame April Fool’s prank. That’s how the topic of testing feels for many teachers like myself. “You have got to be kidding!” is a phrase that is often used in conjunction with the pressure most of us teachers feel to prep the kids and make sure they perform.

Growing up in the great state of Iowa, I am no stranger to #2 pencils and filling in bubbles. After all, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) was the first standardized test to arrive on the scene way back in 1935. These days, however, we’re faced with hours, days, and weeks of eye-straining, posture-breaking, stuck-to-the-chair, online testing. Can we even be sure we’re measuring math and reading skills rather than a kid’s ability to use a mouse and scroll tab correctly?

Recently, someone asked me if I thought there was any merit to these tests. There was a hint that maybe my poor attitude about high stakes testing is directly related to the fact that my school’s proficiency rate on the reading test is an unimpressive 41.3% (more than 20% lower than our district average). Could I be a bit biased about the value of the tests because my students simply aren’t able to show what they know or that they know much? Am I just making excuses for my students because of their demographics (more than 70% free/reduced lunch, almost 50% non-native English speakers, about 90% students of color)?

I struggled to find the words to express my feelings and share the real  story. If only the general public and all those uninformed legislators could spend a day in Room 123! They would see how brilliant my kids are. I have the list of all those qualities that can’t be measured by a test committed to memory. I believe in the wisdom offered up by that list. Kindness, empathy, creativity, musical talent, perseverance, positivity, etc. My students live and breathe that stuff every single day.

In lieu of hosting all those folks in my classroom (limited space that already contains 32 little people), I decided to ask my kids to share their “completely honest, totally true, and very thoughtful thoughts and feelings about MCA testing.” I wasn’t prepared for their responses. Some made me smile, others brought tears, a few shocked me and all made me proud to teach such capable learners. The spreadsheet of test scores may not back me up, but their words will.  Then again, maybe I am biased. I’ll let you be the judge.

From kid #1:

I think sometimes I just can’t do some things. I think on MCAs sometimes I just press on things that I don’t even know. I think I will need a walk around the school. I think sometimes it’s so quiet and I think when it’s the MCAs I’m bored. I think I just want to go somewhere. I think I’m not even doing my best. I feel mad like I can’t do some things. I feel bad if I get bad grades. I feel hot in there [computer lab]. I feel like MCAs are not even good for you. I feel like I just want to sleep. I feel like MCAs are horet [horrid]. I feel not so happy. I feel like I just want to make things feil on the grow [fall on the ground].

From kid #2:

I feel weird doing the MCA because I’m so stressed out that I’m going to fail and I don’t want to fail. Sometimes I’m nervous because I have to think a lot and it hurts my stomach. I feel like I’m going to throw up but I don’t. When I feel nervous my head hurts and I most of the time wish I was somewhere else or someone else.

From kid #3:

Honestly I’m not really worried at all because I have been doing Read Theory a lot. I’m just happy for the MCAs and trying to stay positive that I’m gonna do great. Relax and try my best. And try to give evidence and reread and use what I know. I’m gonna try to do the MCA practice about 2 times a week to understand things and know how to do things when MCAs don’t have instructions.

From kid #4:

I think that the MCA test has a big impact on me because it’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my back all week. I am so so stressed out because of this test. It’s making my head spin around like a ride at the state fair!

From kid #5:

Try not to be fast. Take it slow. Think hard. Concentrate. Know what you’re doing. Reread it. Do what you can. Think what the teacher told you. Never give up. Read. Keep reading. Read more. Think what you’re doing. Answer questions. Learn new words.

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Juxtaposition

jux·ta·po·si·tion | jəkstəpəˈziSH(ə)n/ | noun

  1. the fact of two things being seen or placed close together with contrasting effect. Example: “the juxtaposition of these two images”

Parking lot signJuxtaposition.  The word has been swimming around my head for several weeks. The best month of my entire career filled with some of my proudest moments as an educator happening at the same time big decisions are being made by the “powers that be,” changes that will profoundly affect what happens each day in Room 123. As my colleagues, students and I celebrated our love of reading, the inevitable pendulum of change swept through, rattling my hopes and dreams for kids to become lifelong readers and lovers of literacy.

As mentioned in my previous post, my school celebrated with the theme “Reading is its own reward.” The bucket-list wish to stage a small-scale “flash mob” came true during our kick-off event. A talented crew of performers (we will likely need to keep our day jobs) danced and sang, “Darling, darling, read with me, oh read with me” to the Ben E. King classic “Stand by Me.”

Parent surveys gave an enthusiastic “thumbs up” to the surprise entertainment and, once again, a month of literacy-filled memories were in the making.  

Trophy wall

The days flew past as the paper trophies multiplied. Kids and teachers were reading and nominating books in droves. Doors were decorated with reading-related themes. Books were awarded to lucky kids in every classroom each week. Authors came into our classrooms via YouTube videos and Skype visits. A writing/art contest was held to select the “Crossover Crew”; two-dozen prodigious (as in getting Kwame’s autograph) artisans (as in creating a high-quality product) who would get to spend some one-on-one time with the author of a book they adored. And then came the day we had been planning for since November.

Kwame AlexanderBest. Teaching. Day. Ever! Friday, February 19th. Kwame Alexander was in the house. Kwame actually brought down the house. In all my 25 years of teaching, I can honestly say this day was the best. Thanks to generous funding from Penguin Random House, who sponsored Kwame’s visit and Scholastic Reading Clubs, who helped provide copies of The Crossover for every 4th and 5th grade student, I am convinced this was a day that will be a lifelong memory for the kids and their teachers.

The energy and excitement shook the shelves in the Media Center as our 4th and 5th graders hung on his every word. They recited words from The Crossover verbatim, chimed in during a lively call/response rendition of his latest picture book, Surf’s Up and had plenty of questions for this award-winning writer. 

Kwame Alexander Crossover Fans

One of my favorite exchanges of the day came from a thoughtful young man who asked Kwame about his TV viewing rules. After hearing that as a boy, Kwame was not allowed to watch TV and his parents pushed reading so much that he actually hated it, this curious kid wanted to know what the rules were for Kwame’s daughter. The answer was a good one. Each chapter of reading equals 15 minutes of TV. The questioner was apparently impressed with this idea. Later in the day, he announced to his teacher that he liked the plan so much that he was going to apply it to his own reading and TV viewing life. I’ve always believed that books change lives. This author and this book changed an entire school community. If you work in a school, I highly recommend bringing both to your students.

The culmination of our month-long literacy love fest brought 500 readers together to reveal the winners of the coveted Tiger Trophy awards. Our theme “Reading is its own reward” was reinforced with students and staff performing in our “EP Tigers Read” video.

Trophy case

Amid thunderous applause and an abundance of cheers (if our gym had rafters they surely would have been shaking), the book titles were announced. Feel free to insert your own drum roll before you read the following list of award recipients:

Kindergarten picks: Harry the Dirty Dog, Pete the Cat and the Bedtime Blues, Rainbow Fish, and Henry’s Wrong Turn

1st Grade picks: Zoom, The Snow Queen, The Book With No Pictures, and Duck, Rabbit

2nd Grade picks: The Jungle Book, Have You Filled a Bucket Today, and When I Feel Angry

 3rd Grade picks: Dog Breath, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and Bone

4th Grade pick: The Crossover (triple award)

5th Grade picks: The War That Saved My Life, Everyone Loves Bacon, and The Crossover

The Flip Side

When the confetti settled and the joy that had been tap-dancing in my heart subsided, I pondered the recent activity in my district regarding adopting a new reading curriculum. This is where that flip side of the juxtaposition coin comes into play. The reality is that the fall of 2016 will bring about vast changes in the way business is done in hundreds of classrooms across my district. The curriculum adoption process has determined that our current state of curriculum is sub-par. The data indicates that our test scores are simply not good enough. A “core” reading program (no longer referred to as a “basal”) at the price tag of $3.2 million is being touted as “the ticket” to fixing the problem. As a proponent of a growth mindset, I am someone who embraces change (over the years I have taught grades 1 through 5, in 12 different schools in 8 different districts and lost count of the number of times I changed classrooms). I typically do not take a skeptical stance going into a new initiative. Yet I cannot seem to ignore the questions that are tugging at my heart:

  1. Will weekly skills tests help my students gain confidence and grow as readers more than reading conferences, readers’ response notebooks, and small group reading sessions do?
  1. Does a one-size fits-all curriculum that promises to improve test scores also foster a joy of reading among my students?
  1. Will following the teacher’s manual with “fidelity,” as expected by my employer, allow any room for me to make informed decisions about what happens in my classroom based on my years of training and experience?
  1. Do the publishers of this “core program” know my students better than I do, so much so that the vocabulary lists and pacing of lessons (pre-determined and pre-selected for the entire year) will meet their wide range of needs?
  1. Will the set of anthology texts (again, pre-selected for the entire year) be more interesting and engaging than the authentic literature and award winning trade books my students and I are interested in reading?
  1. Where does the quality and expertise of the practitioner fit into this “ready to go” curriculum? In other words, what about our beloved read-alouds and book clubs that are cultivated from my extensive reading, networking, and knowledge of children’s literature?

And there you have it, the juxtaposition of my role as an educator. The elation of witnessing hundreds of kids pumped up about books, authors and reading sitting side by side with the trepidation of witnessing decisions that may or may not be in the best interest of kids. Stay tuned…I will be searching for answers to these questions and you can bet that I will be sharing more about this topic in future articles.

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I Love to Read Month

“Why would we employ reading initiatives that derail internal reading motivation and divide kids into reading winners and losers?” 
Donalyn Miller

I Love to Read BookmarkI’ve been thinking about this question from literacy guru Donalyn Miller ever since I read it last May. It struck a chord and made me challenge some of my past practices as a champion of motivating readers. What about all that time and effort spent promoting reading by asking kids to log their minutes in order to receive some trinket totally unrelated to reading? Could I have actually done more harm than good?

As a long-time committee chair for “I Love to Read” month festivities at several different schools, the shortest month of the year has always been one of my favorites. While some folks experience visions of hearts and chocolates when the calendar page flips to February, my head has always been filled with images of books and kids reading. As I reflected on that article by Donalyn, I thought about last year’s “I Love to Read” month awards ceremony. Our students who met the quota of required reading minutes—or at least claimed they did—were called up on the stage by their teachers to receive a coveted “reading medal.” I remember the look on some of the little faces out in the audience and imagined what they were thinking or feeling… “Who cares about reading medals?” “I guess I’m not a reader.” “Maybe I should have just fibbed about those minutes!”

As a firm believer in “it’s never too late to change” (for the better), I vowed to completely revamp my approach to encouraging kids to read. My school community and fabulous “I Love to Read” committee co-chairs also embraced the idea of celebrating reading for the sake of reading. The entire budget from our Home-School Association was earmarked for books, which we purchased way back in September when Scholastic Reading Clubs offers the very best bonus points offer (we spent less than $2.00 per book for many high demand and hot-ticket titles!). The idea of rewarding reading with reading is simple and the research to back it up is convincing. Yet we know that our kids still hope for something a little snazzy and jazzy. I’m delighted to share how we plan to WOW kids with a month of activities designed to affirm every child as a reader!

gr_wow_450px

Several weeks ago we designed and ordered special t-shirts for our staff. We will be wearing these at our kick-off event during the first week of February. This FUN and FREE family event will highlight our theme Reading is its own Reward with a “Reading is golden!” snack bag: Rold Gold pretzels, Goldfish graham treats, and a chocolate treasure candy. Activities will include a book swap (kids bring their gently-used books to trade), a bookmark craft, nominating a favorite book, a brand new book for every child and best of all, a READING CONCERT! The talented educators at my school will be making one of my bucket-list wishes come true, by staging a mini-flash mob, singing “Read with Me” (sung to the Ben E. King song, Stand by Me)! I’ll be sharing a video later this month that captures the crowd’s reaction to our surprise serenade!

EPWCCS educators

From left to right, educators Sam Goodman, Maurna Rome, and Caitlin Meyer

The centerpiece of our celebration of books and reading will be the “Tiger Trophy” Awards. Students will be given a paper “trophy award” to fill out each week, nominating a favorite book. Paper trophies will be displayed around the school. Weekly book winners will be chosen from the paper trophies and we will also be filming students as they share something about their favorite books.

School-wide Tiger TrophyIn addition, for three weeks, each classroom will award one paper trophy to one book that has been chosen as a class favorite. During the last week of February, classrooms will vote on which of the three paper trophy books is their ALL-TIME FAVORITE, which will be awarded a real classroom trophy designed with the initial of each teacher’s last name (cute and inexpensive, made from dollar store trophies and alphabet blocks). All classroom trophy books will be eligible to win a SCHOOL-WIDE TIGER TROPHY, with a ballot of books listed in special categories given to each student.

Our “I Love to Read” month activity calendar includes an overview of our lively literacy-filled month. We will display our love of a great book with our “Door Decorating Contest” (the winning classroom will get BOOKS) and each week teachers will share short YouTube videos featuring 2016 award-winning books and authors.

2016 Newbery Medal Award Winner: Matt de la Pena Last Stop on Market Street

2016 Caldecott Medal Award Winner: Lindsay Mattick Finding Winnie, The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear 

Coretta Scott King – Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement Winner: Jerry Pinkney 

2016 Newbery Honor Award Winner: Victoria Jamieson Roller Girl

We will also participate in a powerful event called the “African American Read In,” sponsored by NCTE “celebrating 25 years of encouraging diversity in literature.” More information and free resources can be found here. The AARI at my school will definitely be a memorable day for 4th and 5th graders who will be meeting Kwame Alexander, 2015 Newbery Medal Award Winner for the exceptional book Crossover.

I Love to Read Trophies

Our culminating event will take place on the last Friday in February. During the finale we will announce our Tiger Trophy Award Winners and bestow our very own prestigious medals to the book covers. We’re even planning on sending the Tiger Trophies to the winning authors with a request to snap a selfie posing with our little literary prize! Oh and about those reading medals… this year, EVERY student will be awarded one because we know that EVERY CHILD is a reader and should be recognized as one!

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One Word

by Maurna Rome

One wordThis year I resolve to forgo the typical New Year’s resolutions. Truth is, they rarely make it past Dr. King’s birthday in mid-January. Beginning this year, I’m committing to a much simpler idea. It may seem trendy with a lot of recent hype, yet a quick Google search reveals a 2007 blog post by Christine Kane introducing the idea of a “one word” resolution (you can even download a free “Word-of-the-Year Discovery Toolkit”). In the past eight years, the concept of narrowing down all those soon to be forgotten New Year’s resolutions into a singular word has erupted into a major presence in the world of Twitter, published books, and blog posts (see list of resources at the end of this article).

The more I think about it, the more I like it. After a bit of reflecting, it was easy to choose my “one word.”  It encompasses all aspects of my life… teaching, learning, family, home, health and friends. It’s a theme I believe in, one that could propel 2016 into a stellar year.

As I think about applying this “one word” concept to life in the classroom, I am drawn to consider the challenges and rewards that I experience each and every day and also how it might impact my students’ learning. The double-sided coin of teaching and learning must be examined. My colleagues and I encounter the heart-tugging, tough questions, along with the nuggets of gold offered by our students, and everything in between on a daily basis. As we think about our approach to literacy instruction, we must also take our students into account.

My reflection on a “one word” choice for 2016 included:

  • Do I collaborate with my team effectively, and enough, while also maintaining my sense of uniqueness and spontaneity?
  • Am I giving kids enough freedom and self-direction in creating their literacy life while also holding them accountable?
  • When it comes to writing, which deserves more time, attention and effort: the formal process with a focus on mechanics or the open-ended, unstructured, “freedom to write whatever” approach?
  • Is it possible to promote an effective use of technology while also teaching students the value of being unplugged and tech-free?
  • How do I mesh a sense of urgency and passion for student learning while also creating a tranquil climate that evokes peace and security?

One WordAnd now for the drumroll please…. the “one word” I have chosen for 2016 is balance. It’s more than familiar. We’ve all heard of balanced literacy, a balanced diet, and even a balanced budget, all desirable and do-able. Yet for me, balance is something I seem to struggle to attain even though I yearn for it. I am hopeful that the answers I seek to the questions mentioned above can be found by focusing on my one word, balance.

A few weeks ago, students in my after-school “Literacy L.I.F.T. Club” selected a favorite word from a book they were each reading to create something we called “vocabulary bracelets.” At the time, the notion of a “one word” resolution had not even entered my mind. However, now that the New Year is here, I am excited to combine the two ideas.

On the first day of school in 2016, I’ll share my story about how and why I chose balance. Then during the month of January, I’ll invite my students to be on the lookout for their own “one word.” I’ll ask them to read with intention, reflecting on words that might fit the bill for a theme or goal they might create for themselves in 2016.  Then we will make another round of bracelets… “one word bracelets,” a perfect accessory for the New Year!

How about you? What one-word theme have you chosen for 2016?

“One word” author/advocates worth checking out include:

2007 Blog Post by Christine Kane

A “Lead Learner” from Cabot, Arkansas by Bethany Hill

Compilation of #oneword on Twitter

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Creating a Curriculum and Culture of Kindness in the Classroom

bk_wonder_140by Maurna Rome

When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” ― R.J. Palacio, Wonder

Wouldn’t our classrooms be grand if students were given opportunities to learn about and experience what being kind looks like, sounds like and feels like on a daily basis? Wouldn’t life be grand if we could all simply choose true collaboration with our teaching colleagues to promote kindness? Wouldn’t our schools be grand if our districts would invest in kindness? My answer is a resounding “YES!” to these questions, and I hope other teachers would agree on all counts.

True, we are faced with constant pressure to prepare students for “those tests.” You know, the ones that are used to determine just how accomplished we teachers and our students are. Many of us still feel the urge to just close the door and do what we do in isolation. And yes, in many districts, significant funding is being used to buy new and comprehensive “core” reading programs (remember those test scores). Yet what about the content of our students’ character? What about their current level of engagement and future happiness? Could the answer be the pursuit of kindness and utilizing authentic literature in our classrooms? Do books really have the power to change lives? Again, my answer is a resounding “YES!”

from Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s “Thought Bubble on Kindness”

Despite the challenges, my incredible colleagues and I have sought out an intentional approach to weave kindness into our teaching. As “humanities” teachers, it seems only fitting that along with lessons on parts of speech, comprehension strategies and writing literary essays, we include a commitment to teaching kindness. It is after all, an integral aspect of belonging to this thing we call humankind.

Smart teachers know there is a sense of urgency in our classrooms. Time is always in short supply while meetings, lesson planning, paper correcting, and grading are a constant demand. It helps to have a team like the one I work with. The strong levels of trust, mutual respect and shared enthusiasm for what we do is invigorating. We encourage each other to want to be the best teachers we can be. We continually brainstorm, test, succeed, fail, and try again, as we share our ideas, resources and instructional strategies with one another. This is a recipe for professional kindness that works. If you want to teach kindness in your classroom, it is much easier if you have camaraderie among your colleagues.

12_1Glow-Ball-Read-Dahl-Loud-Kindness-Day550

Global Read Aloud (aka Glow Ball Read Dahl Loud) day. Click to enlarge.

And kids seem to notice when their teachers love what they do. On November 13th, classrooms near and far participated in two simultaneous events: World Kindness Day and Global Read Aloud (aka Glow Ball Read Dahl Loud). My teammates and I wore our glow sticks and ball gowns, while reading poetry by Roald Dahl (loudly). We also shared the short film, Snack Attack, to promote a message of kindness and generate lots of discussion. Our unusual attire and this award-winning movie with a twist were excellent ways to reinforce the concept of “Contrasts and Contradictions” a signpost from Notice and Note; Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. 

It’s up to us teachers to work our magic to carve out the time, to create an integrated curriculum and culture of kindness. Kids who learn the importance of kindness are kids who develop empathy and compassion. They are more apt to be selfless in a world where “selfies” rule. Consider these “Words of the Wiser” (another Notice and Note signpost):

I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else. Kindness—that simple word. To be kind—it covers everything, to my mind. If you’re kind that’s it.”  ―Roald Dahl

The following kindness resources have been field-tested and have earned a solid stamp of approval from dozens of wise (and kind) 6-11 year olds.

Film

 Children’s Picture Books:

  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson
  • Have You Filled a Bucket Today by Carol McCloud
  • Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
  • My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems
  • Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts

YA/Middle Grades Chapter Books:

  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
  • The Misfits by James Howe
  • Sahara Special by Esme Raji Codell
  • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio

In addition to reading books to and with kids to teach kindness, these professional books are well worth the investment of time and money:

  • Beyond Nice: Nurturing Kindness with Young Children by Stuart L. Stotts
  • Bullying Hurts, Teaching Kindness through Read Alouds and Guided Conversations
    by Lester Laminack
  • Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World
    by Ferial Pearson

Finally, if you are looking for ways to bring a kindness campaign to your classroom, consider these special events.

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The Book That Saved My Students and Me

by Maurna Rome

gr_burnoutA rough start to a new school year can be unsettling for rookie teachers. It can produce feelings of self-doubt and immense stress.  Inexperienced educators may question everything from the quality of their undergrad teacher training to whether or not education was a wise career choice. The lack of preparation for managing challenging behaviors, dealing with an abundance of curriculum standards, and building enough stamina to keep up with an exhausting daily pace is enough to make “teacher burn out” more than just a buzz word. 

A rough start to a new school year can be unsettling for veteran teachers, too.  It can produce feelings of self-doubt and immense stress. Experienced teachers may question everything from the quality of the many years of extensive training (masters program, education specialist degree, and National Board Certification for yours truly) to whether or not it’s time to say goodbye to a beloved career choice. The years of experience managing challenging behaviors, dealing with an abundance of curriculum standards, and building enough stamina to keep up with an exhausting daily pace are not always enough to make “teacher burn out” just a buzz word.

500px-PostItNotePadA few weeks into the school year, my colleagues and I were asked to share two things on Post-it® notes: something that causes great frustration and stress and something that brings a sense of calm and “low breathing.” I immediately thought of more than a dozen things that were weighing heavily on my heart. However, I could honestly think of just one thing that had the power to settle me down and make me feel worthy as a teacher. Just one thing that seemed to affirm all the reasons I became a teacher. Just one thing I could count on to bring a sense of peace to my classroom. How appropriate that the one thing that could do so much is a book—a read-aloud book that my students can’t get enough of. This book could be called “The Book that Saved My Students and Me.” How fitting that this book is actually called The War That Saved My Life.  

bk_-The-War-That-Saved-My-LifeWritten by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley and set in 1939 England, the novel is a different type of WWII saga. It is a story filled with pain and triumph. It’s about the importance of oral language, kindness, and belief in oneself. It teaches lessons of perseverance, courage, and compassion. The War That Saved My Life is comprised of so many of the same teachable moments that educators like me strive to capture and make the most of on a regular basis.

The story of Ada was mentioned in a previous Bookology article about my “summer school kids.” I knew then that this book was one that would stay with me… and it has!  I was convinced it would be the perfect book to share with my students at the start of the school year… and it is! I hoped my teaching partners would agree… and they did! Each day 150 4th and 5th graders at my school plead to hear more of this story. When students from different classrooms discovered their teachers were all reading aloud the same book, they started discussing the story during recess. In the middle of a spelling test, when the word “trotted” was announced, a student immediately connected it to Ada and exclaimed “Hey, Ada trotted with Butter.” For the next two weeks we challenged one another to use spelling words in sentences that connected to the story. It was surprisingly easy for students and it certainly jazzed up our typical routine for studying words.

A final testament to the power of this book came when I told my students I would be at meetings for several days in a row and I needed their help with an important question: “Should I ask the guest teacher to continue reading aloud Ada’s story or should we put it on hold for a short while?” My 4th graders responded with “We can’t wait that long to hear more! Let the sub read it!” Clearly, they love this book! The same question was also posed to my 5th graders. Their response was different but tickled me just as much as the first one did: “No one can read the story like you, Mrs. Rome. We want to wait for you to come back and read it to us.”

In the world of education where teacher burnout is a very real thing for the young and old alike, there is one thing that has withstood the test of time and is proven to cultivate community, create calm, and contribute to the curriculum: one good book. The War That Saved My Life is the book that saved my students and me!

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Creating a Classroom Community with 31 Letters

by Maurna Rome

Long gone are the days of “Don’t do this or that or the other thing” lists of classroom rules. At least I hope they are long gone… The influence of “responsive classroom,” greater awareness of the power of being positive and much research on effective classroom management have ushered in a new approach to establishing expectations in our schools. Most educators know that in order to learn, there has to be order in the court. Most educators know that “buy in” from the kids is the shortest route to arrive at the destination. Most educators know that it is a worthwhile investment of time and energy to lay a solid foundation at the start of each school year that incudes discussion about goals, hopes and dreams (see First Six Weeks of School, Responsive Classroom). 

Yet after 24 years (this year marks the beginning of my 25th !) I have just recently realized how much easier it will be to establish and reinforce the shared classroom agreements we will be creating using some of my favorite literary treasures. My vision includes a fair amount of “guided discovery,” AKA, I know what I want the outcome to be but I want the kids to feel like they have come up with it on their own. Here’s my plan…

The 31 letters are scrambled on the wall. This invitation is posted above.

  Dear Students,

   Please think about the kind of classroom where cool kids make

   awesome things happen every day. A place where we are all making   

   our hopes and dreams come true. The type of environment where  

   learning and looking out for each other are the name of the game.

   Using the 31 letters below, can you help build the 9 words that will

   guide us as shared agreements on this wonderful journey together?   

   Thanks!  Mrs. Rome

Rome_31Letters
My hope is that my students will think, discuss and work together to take 31 letters and turn them into our classroom creed containing just nine words. Nine powerful words that when combined become five simple and short, yet powerful sentences. Just 31 letters that will guide us all year long as we design and navigate the roadmap to success in our 4th/5th grade Humanities classroom.

Be safe. Be kind. Work hard. Have fun. Grow.

These nine powerful words encompass all that I hope to accomplish with each one of my 50 scholars in the coming year. I am convinced that this mantra is something we can all agree on. Bringing these words to life, making them a part of our daily actions and most importantly, what we feel compelled to do in our hearts, is another order of business. A tall order of business. Yet this IS my business… to keep kids safe, to help them be kind and develop a strong work ethic, to experience joy as often as possible, and always, to cultivate their talents so they can grow and develop.

ph_NineWords
As is most often the case, when I find myself searching for wisdom from a reliable friend, I turn to the vast collection of books in our classroom library. As I begin my 25th year as an educator, I marvel at just how important my books and the lessons they provide are. Allow me to share how my treasures—picture books and chapter books—will pave the way to creating our classroom community in Room 123.

I will begin by sharing some of my favorite picture books, stories that can be shared in the first week or two of the new school year to help us establish the importance of our 31 letters. I don’t hesitate to read aloud these books that are usually reserved for the younger crowd, because I know that the big kids benefit from picture books just as much. The insights and discussions that come from these terrific titles help my students learn more about how our shared agreements will support our learning. The chapter books will unfold over days, weeks, months, yet again, the stories will illustrate how those 31 letters take our fictional friends through many life lessons.

At this very moment, educators all across the country are carefully planning or presenting lessons that are designed to promote enthusiasm for reading. At the same time, those dedicated individuals are working on building a positive classroom community. Most educators know that the right book in the hands of the right kid can make an enormous difference. Some of us even believe books have the ability to changes lives. I am grateful to know, love, and share these books with my colleagues.

Rome_stripBe Safe

The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Be Kind

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Work Hard

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Thank You Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco

Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Have Fun

Wumbers (or anything by Amy Krause Rosenthal)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Christopher Grabenstein

Grow

Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg and Beautiful Hands by Kathryn Otoshi

Wonder by RJ Palacio

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Summer School

by Maurna Rome

photo salt flats

Maurna, reading at the salt flats in Argentina

The bumper sticker reads: “Three reasons to be a teacher; June, July and August.” This may be true for some, but it was never my mantra, at least until this summer. This summer I decided to participate in summer school and what a good decision that was! My class of “summer kids” included the most diverse, interesting bunch of characters I have ever experienced in my 25 years of teaching. And best of all, rather than being confined to one classroom for the entire stint, our lessons took place in a variety of locations including London, New York, and New Orleans. If you’re thinking this was one of those online “virtual” schools, think again. It wasn’t. I had the pleasure of creating this summer school experience that was like none other. I hand picked most of the kids and the places to which we travelled. I know it sounds too good to be true in many ways and, although it wasn’t always easy, it has been one of the most rewarding summers of my career.

Let me tell you a bit about the kids… Trust me, learning about the histories of kids who have dealt with some unimaginable hardships at a very young age can pull mightily on your heartstrings and make you lose sleep. My “summer kids” have had to navigate some serious challenges. Ada was born with a physical impairment that could’ve been treated at birth yet her abusive mother chose to keep her locked in their apartment, away from other kids. Her language development was severely impacted by this neglect yet she finally

photo bookstore

Visiting a bookstore in Argentina.

learned to read at the age of 9, thanks to her foster mom. Albie is one of the kindest, most hard-working, sincere boys I have ever met. Although his parents try to be supportive, they are extremely frustrated with low academic achievement and the fact that they were asked to remove him from his highly regarded private school. And then there’s Rose. A very high potential girl with autism who lives with her emotionally distant father and a dog she loves dearly. Rose has frequent meltdowns in class and has been known to throw things, scream and make it difficult for others in the classroom to learn. Armani is a sassy, brave young lady who survived Hurricane Katrina and has had to grow up fast as she helped her family pick up the pieces after they lost everything. Finally, there is Robert, a very lonely, troubled boy being raised by his grandmother. He yearns to find out more about his mother who died when he was a baby. These incredible “summer kids” are just a few of the 20 or so who have filled my days with worry, sadness, inspiration and joy. Many of my “summer kids” have been teased and tormented by peers. Not all of them have endured such trauma, but they all have a story to tell. My time with these “summer kids” has taught me much about the power of friendship, perseverance and hope.

Meeting Caldecott award winning author, Dan Santat at the ILA Convention.

Meeting Caldecott award winning author, Dan Santat at the ILA Convention.

One of my students had a real gift for making up rhymes. Consider this gem:

Home is a place to get out of the rain

It cradles the hurt and mends the pain
And no one cares about your name

Or the height of your head
Or the size of your brain

Another quote worth pondering came from the mother of one of my “summer kids”:

If you have to tell lies, or you think you have to, to keep yourself safe—I don’t think that makes you a liar. Liars tell lies when they don’t need to, to make themselves look special or important.

And imagine how taken I was with this thought for the day, shared by that same young man who was removed from his prestigious school for not being smart enough:

You couldn’t get where you were going without knowing where you’d been. And you couldn’t be anywhere at all without having been almost there for a while.

I love my “summer kids” and the time we spent together but I have a confession to make. The truth is, I did not receive a paycheck for any of the hours I devoted to summer school. That may seem absurd, yet I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. What I got out of the experience was worth much more. There is no denying how real and full of grit my “summer kids” lives are. There is also no doubt that I learned some tremendous lessons from this group. But, you see, my “summer kids” came to me from the books I savored throughout several weeks of travelling and time with family and friends. While I was swept up in the worlds in which they live, they accompanied me on my summer Rome_SummerKidsadventures, from Salta, Argentina to St. Louis, MO. And just like every eager learner who greets me at the start of a new school year, their challenges and triumphs become mine and their stories will remain in my heart forever.

I’ll bring these “summer kids” into our classroom this fall where they’ll join us on our literacy journey in the coming year. We’ll all get to know and discuss this bunch of characters as I read their books aloud. I am a reader and it is so important that my students learn about my reading life as they continue to create their own!

***

Some of the “kids” I spent my summer with:

  • Ada – The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  • Albie – Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
  • Rose – Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin
  • Armani – Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana
  • Robert – Rump by Liesl Shurtliff
  • Jack – Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
  • Ellie – 14th Goldfish by Jennifer Holms
  • Lina – Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • Hyung-pil – Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
  • Dinky – Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack by M.E. Kerr
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Cardboard L.I.T. Club: Linking Imagination & Text

by Maurna Rome

“There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Living there you’ll be free if you truly wish to be…”

                            —Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

Each year I introduce my students to a young man named Caine. This creative entrepreneur had spent the entire summer in 2012 building an elaborate cardboard arcade in his dad’s auto shop garage in Los Angeles. Defining the essence of perseverance, he waited patiently for weeks to meet his first customer, Nirvan, who happened to be a filmmaker. The inspiring story of this 9 year old and the guy who made “a movie that became a movement to foster creativity worldwide” is captured on several YouTube videos

6_30Cardboard-ClubBorderThe result of this unlikely partnership is the “Global Cardboard Challenge,” an event that takes place in 46 countries around the world. It is also the backstory behind a little project that took place in Room 132 this past school year. After learning about Caine’s story, my class also explored several cardboard themed books: Not a Box and The Cardboard Box Book. We then brainstormed ways to incorporate Caine’s creativity and passion for cardboard into a literacy-based activity. We came up with the “Cardboard L.I.T. Club.”

Thanks to a generous grant (see note at the end of this article) from the Minnesota Reading Association, the mission was for kids and adults to come together to:

  1. Be creative
  2. Promote the reading/writing connection
  3. Learn about teamwork
  4. Encourage each other to read and discuss good books
  5. Use art, technology, math, and engineering to increase literacy learning

Before launching the club, kids were required to fill out a club application stating why they wanted to join the club. They were also asked to complete a self-reflection survey about how they were doing in school in the areas of homework completion, showing respect, working hard and being helpful to others. Students who were on shaky ground were asked to sign an extra agreement with the understanding that in order to stay in the club during the next two months, they would need to maintain good academic and behavior status. This proved to be a huge motivator for a few students who made improvements with homework and behavior in order to keep their good standing.

In mid-March, we met for our first of five Cardboard L.I.T. Club meetings. Kids were free to pick a book from a huge selection of titles then groups were formed based on the titles chosen. The majority leaned towards ever-popular graphic novel titles while others selected Mercy Watson to the Rescue, Dork Diaries and Myths in 30 Seconds. From there the plan was simple. Kids were asked to read the book, discuss it with their group focusing on what mattered most, and finally, decide how to represent the story and characters using cardboard, paint and tape.

Other essential ingredients were snacks (we started each session with a “chat and chow” with kids talking to one another about what they were currently reading), parent and high school volunteers (a ratio of 1 helper to 5 kids is recommended), an abundance of cardboard (donations from local businesses), lots of collaboration (a.k.a. problem solving), a photographer/videographer (a visual record of progress) and time for cleaning up (keeping peace with the custodian is a priority).

Thanks to Caine and the “Cardboard L.I.T. Club,” we are ready to take on the Global Cardboard Challenge in October and will be expanding our club next year to the “Literacy L.I.F.T. Club” — Linking Imagination FUN and Text! Check out a little video showcasing our work.

FYI:

I will be teaching two classes on August 5th at Resource Training and Solutions in St. Cloud, MN. The morning class will cover launching and coordinating a successful “Cardboard Club.” The afternoon class will offer an overview on using and creating videos in the classroom. Registration information can be found here.

Be sure to consider participating in the 2015 Global Cardboard Challenge on October 10th. 

Each year members of the Minnesota Reading Association are invited to apply for grants to support classroom projects and/or book clubs for boys. The application process is very straightforward and do-able! The deadline is February 1st, 2016. 

 

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Ready for the World with Powerful Literacy Practices

by Maurna Rome

I believe whole-heartedly in the importance of reading aloud daily to my students. On days I fail to meet this goal, I go home feeling like I’ve let the kids down. I recall the frenzy of Valentine’s Day with the excitement of school-wide bingo, special class projects and more than enough candy—but no time spent reading aloud. I doubt that the kids left my class thinking that something was missing that day and I am sure no one reported to their parents that their teacher really blew it by not reading to them. Yet it bothered me greatly. It wasn’t the first and won’t be the last day I fall short. However, I am dedicated to making reading aloud a priority in my classroom. I encourage every teacher to join me in making it a goal that students will not miss out on this essential ingredient from our arsenal of literacy best practices.

cover imageMore than 30 years ago, Jim Trelease wrote a little book that would become a national best seller, with more than a million copies sold. The 7th edition of The Read Aloud Handbook was released in 2013. It highlights present-day literacy challenges as well as those that have remained the same since 1982. I highly recommend this gem, along with several other “professional books” on this topic by experts I greatly admire: Unwrapping the Read Aloud by Lester Laminack; Igniting a Passion for Reading by Steven Layne, and Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox.
I can guarantee that none of the 9 year olds in my classroom have read any of the texts mentioned above. Chances are that they are also not aware of the recent report issued by Scholastic asserting that we can predict which kids will become our best readers based on how often they have benefitted from being read to.

However, when I recently challenged my students to write a letter to teachers everywhere about the importance of reading out loud to kids, they seem to have hit the nail on the head. Here is a sampling of their wisdom and insight:

  • I think it’s a good idea because every student will be wondering every time you read.
  • Your students might learn new words that they don’t know.
  • It’s a good idea to read chapter books to your students because they can see pictures in their minds.
  • Chapter books are full of adventures.
  • They can relate with something they did or something one of their family members did.
  • They can be better writers.
  • If it’s a funny chapter book, you will get a laugh out of it.
  • It gives kids ideas and more imagination. It might make kids want to read even more.

Laminack has identified six types of read alouds that offer teachers a sure fire way to accomplish the following: support standards, model the process of writing, build vocabulary, encourage children to read independently, demonstrate fluent reading and promote community. As I reflect on the responses from my students, I see that all six purposes are mentioned. I am convinced that the very best books for reading aloud are able to incorporate all of the above. What a powerful approach to making an impact on literacy achievement!

cover imageLast week we finished the unforgettable 2013 Newbery Award winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate. Here is a peek at how this touching story played out in Room 132.

Supporting the standards: See the following examples and notations.

Modeling the process of writing: Using the six “sign posts” from Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, we are always on the lookout for techniques the writer uses to tell the story. While reading Ivan, we have discovered that “tough questions”, “again and again”, and “words of the wiser” are woven throughout the story. Kids are now beginning to work these same elements into their own stories!
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.3.3.B Use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.

Building vocabulary: During each read aloud session, a student serves as the “word recorder”. Students are encouraged to listen carefully and hold up their thumb anytime they notice a special or fancy word in the text. We talk about those words and the word recorder makes a list of all the words we discuss. Once we had over 30 words, each student selected one word, painted it on poster sized paper (as Ivan would have done) and then drew a picture to show the definition.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, distinguishing literal from nonliteral language.

ph_IvanFigures

Ivan characters in the classroom

Encouraging students to read independently: As with all of the books I read out loud in the classroom, students are eager to check out that very same title from the library. Those that are lucky enough to get their hands on the book bask in the light of knowing what is yet to come in the story. They keep the promise of not spoiling things for their peers, as they are clearly motivated to read ahead on their own.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.10 By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poetry, at the high end of the grades 2-3 text complexity band independently and proficiently.

Demonstrating fluent reading: To show my students what smooth oral reading sounds like, I emphasize the voice of each character. While reading The One and Only Ivan, Ruby is represented with a 5 year-old little girl voice, Ivan has a deep voice and Bob takes on a more sarcastic tone.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RF.3.4 Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.

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Lit lunch celebration of Ivan

Promoting Community: The well developed characters from our read aloud stories become new friends to us. We talk and think about them as if they are actual members of our classroom, with lines such as “What would Ivan do?” or “Remember when Ivan …” One rainy day during inside recess, the kids playing with our plastic animal collection proudly set up a display of “Ivan” characters; Stella and Ruby the elephants, Bob the dog, Ivan and his sister, Not-Tag, the gorillas, were all arranged to reenact a scene from the book. It struck me that my students really are mindful of the characters we grow to love and admire. I stopped everything to draw attention to this sweet gesture and once again, my heart fluttered all because of a great book. This little pretend group of friends remained intact until we finished the book and celebrated with a “Lit Lunch” featuring yogurt covered raisins and bananas!

Yes, an effective read aloud can pack a lot of literacy into a short amount of time, yet I know it is often one of the first things that goes when the schedule gets too full. If you need more convincing to keep the read aloud front and center, consider what this young lady has to say…

Dear Teachers of Every Grade,
You should read to your students because they will be better readers and writers and learn faster and they will be ready for the world!
Love,
Ashley

Looking for resources to help you plan for successful read alouds in your classroom?
Finding the best of the best books to read aloud:

Bookstorms on Bookology
Teacher’s Choice from ILA
Children’s Choice from ILA
Nerdy Book Club Awards 

 

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Graphic Novels: A source of inspiration and mentor texts

by Maurna Rome

Slacker illustrationFlashback to the first week of school … we were passing the microphone around our large circle of 29 third-graders. It was easy to see that many students were shy and nervous, but one young man was apparently looking for some shock value. He began with “My name is Michael” then nonchalantly added, ”I’m a slacker.” Huh? Most of the class mumbled and murmured about that intro. Many were obviously not familiar with this unique adjective.

I made note of the kid’s attitude and advanced vocabulary, and put him at the top of my list for a one-to-one reading conference. A few days later, I discovered that Michael devours books, has excellent comprehension and is actually a very motivated reader. He became quite animated when telling me all about Greg, the main character from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (who no doubt was Michael’s current role model). In the weeks to come, my classic under-achiever proudly and often proclaimed to his peers how much he enjoyed being lazy. I was determined to help Michael find a new identity by figuring out how to tap into his obvious love of reading.

cover imageThanks to an insightful book called Of Primary Importance by Anne Marie Corgill (Stenhouse, 2008), I am committed to immersing my students in authentic literacy learning. Publishing “real” hard cover books in my 1st grade classroom proved to be a successful strategy. However, now that I was beginning my first year in a 3rd grade classroom, I knew I needed to change things up a bit. Finding the best mentor texts and simply getting kids to want to read voraciously was the first order of business.

I quickly learned that this group of 8- and 9-year-olds could be reeled in by reading graphic novels. Since our classroom inventory of graphic novels mainly consisted of Squish, Bone, and Lunch Lady, I did some research and over the next few months added more titles to our classroom library. Baby Mouse, Zita the Spacegirl, Cardboard, Knights of the Lunch Table, The Lightening Thief, and Sea of Monsters (graphic novel versions) became all the rage. Library checkout of high demand titles has included Amulet, Smile, Sisters, and all of the titles from our classroom collection, since they are limited in number.

cover imageI’ve learned that a powerful approach to motivating kids to read is to be selective when suggesting a new book to students. Sometimes, I share whole-class “book talks” but, more often, I pull a student aside and confide that I thought of him (or her) the minute I turned the first page. I am sincere when I say that I am interested in his opinion, and would really appreciate hearing if he would recommend the book after reading it. Kids care much more about what their peers are saying or thinking, so it makes sense to drum up business for specific book titles in this way.

Giving kids access to what they want to read and finding ample time for independent reading during the school day (usually 30-40 minutes daily) was just the first half of my strategy to convert my smug slacker and inspire the rest of the class as well. The discovery of blank comic books on the Bare Books website ($15 for 25 books, just 60 cents each); was the golden ticket. Offering choice and no judgment (or at least very little) about what kids are reading combined with encouragement to explore their own interests in writing, became the perfect combination.

Kids were eager to create their own version of graphic novels and soon, our classroom library grew to include such interesting titles as The Day Lady Liberty Came to Life and Bacon Man and Pig Guy, both of which became series, each with 5 volumes! The adventures continued with a line-up of Pigeon titles; Don’t Let the Pigeon Ride a Unicorn and Don’t Let the Pigeon Play Five Nights at Freddy’s along with a fun and frolicking set of books entitled Party in the USA!

Here is one of the graphic novels created in the class, Bacon Man and Pig Guy, by Ian Clark.
Click on the four-headed arrow symbol to view in full screen mode.

No flipbook found!

 

Students in my class are encouraged to use literacy choice time to continue reading or writing independently, with a partner or a collaborative group. This type of peer modeling and mentoring has led to an explosion of self-published graphic novels and short stories in 3MR. Kids actually cheer when I announce that we will have time to write in both the morning and afternoon. They are “publishing” their own graphic novel series, asking each other to write reviews of their books and they are waiting patiently for their turn to read a classmate’s latest offering. Best of all, they are signing up in droves to do a “Book Share” on Fridays, a new addition to our “Book Talk, Book Shop, Book Swap” Friday activities (see my previous article on that topic!).  

cover imageFast forward to the end of December. Students were once again introducing themselves, this time to a visitor in our classroom. However, when it was time for my “slacker” to take center stage, he offered this: “Hi, my name is Michael and I’m a cartoonist.” My heart did somersaults! To really seal the deal, this same student recently approached me with a delightful idea. Taking the lead from our “Cardboard L.I.T. Club” – an afterschool book club designed to Link Imagination Text, he proposed a “Cartooning L.I.F.T. Club”, adding “F” for FUN to the acronym! This one-time slacker had actually jotted down all the information needed for the invitational flyer, complete with a catchy explanation about the club’s purpose, a schedule, and contest ideas. Despite the craziness of the last few weeks of the school year, how could I say no? 20 aspiring “Cartooning L.I.F.T. Club” members will be diving into our newest mentor text, Adventures in Cartooning, for three after-school sessions in May.

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Lit Lunches:
Promoting a love of reading one bite at a time!

 

by Maurna Rome

ph_Maurna_SandwichSwap2

Ready for Lit Lunch.

I admit that I am sometimes envious of my friends who work in the business world and get to enjoy frequent dining out excursions during their lunch breaks. A 20-25 minute rush to digest school cafeteria food, microwavable leftovers or a brown bag sandwich isn’t the most appetizing mid-day meal experience. However, once a month I do get to enjoy a special book club of sorts, called “Lit Lunch,” with some of the most thoughtful, deep thinkers I’ve ever chatted with about books!

It might be hard to believe that “dining in” with thirty 9-year-olds could be such a delightful affair, yet this once-a-month event has become one of the highlights of the year in Room 132. From a kid’s point of view, getting to eat with the teacher in the classroom has some kind of magical appeal. For this teacher, anything that motivates kids to think and talk about a good book is worth doing.

Sandwiches

The Sandwich Swap

When choosing our lunch book of the month, our criteria are quite simple. The book must have a connection to some type of food item that can be added to the lunch menu with a reasonable amount of prep and cost.  It also helps if the story has a “meaty” author’s message we can really dig into.

I’ve used “lunch with the teacher” as a special reward for many years, but this is the first year I’ve realized that adding a literacy element gives it an added purpose. An unexpected result from hosting the first few Lit Lunches was that many kids made it their mission to find the perfect book for next month. My students are always on the lookout for a good story that features a favorite fare to nibble on.  I know the extra effort and small investment in a few ingredients are more than worthwhile. I’m not sure who enjoys Lit Lunches more—the kids, our lunchroom supervisor, or me.

ph_Maurna_Amanda

A favorite book

Through chowing and chatting, my students identified several common words of wisdom from the books we’ve devoured so far this year. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies beautifully to The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah, Enemy Pie by Derek Munson, and Green Eggs & Ham by Dr. Seuss. Nibbling on a hummus and PB&J sandwich, slice of pie, or green eggs and ham while chatting about the importance of getting to know someone or something before passing judgment helped made our first few Lit Lunches a success.

The message “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” came through loud and clear after reading and discussing The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco. This selection was special for several reasons. Several of my students and I have dealt with the challenge of helping a family member battle cancer. It was also the first student-selected book, thanks to an enthusiastic young lady who visits the public library often. Amanda was so excited to share her checked-out collection of Polacco’s books. As we swapped our heartfelt personal connections, we shared lemon poppy seed muffins and, of course, lemonade.

Green eggs and ham

Eating green eggs and ham.

Our most recent lesson to be learned came from the light-hearted best seller Dragons Love Tacos. “Always read the fine print” was the take away from this silly but fun tale. The food tie-in was by far the biggest hit with kids, though it also proved to be more time intensive and costly than the other monthly selections.

My advice for any teacher who is interested in making lunchtime a little more interesting, though perhaps not as relaxing as a meal out on the town, is to start small. Consider inviting a group of 5-6 kids to join you for a Lit Lunch based on a recent read aloud. For your second helping of Lit Lunch, add another group of kids. When holding a full class Lit Lunch, a hand-held microphone that can be passed around is a must. Securing funding through the school parent-group, a grant, or grade-level budget would be a good way to offset the cost of providing appetizing titles that are paired with some tasty treats.   

Green eggs and ham

A lot of green eggs and ham.

It may take time, practice, and group reflection to make the Lit Lunch feel more like a real book club with impromptu contributions versus a traditional classroom, teacher-led discussion. It is helpful if kids practice being a part of informal conversations in both small and whole group settings. Facilitating a productive discussion about character traits, the gist of the story and/or the author’s message is not an easy feat with a group of thirty hungry 3rd graders, but Room 132 is proof that it can be done.

Finding the right food-related book is a must. A free 100-page, annotated book list featuring  “over 400 books with positive food, nutrition and physical activity messages for children in grades K-2” can be downloaded thanks to a project from Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan State of Education.

 

 

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Book Talk, Book Shop & Book Swap

by Maurna Rome

As my students pass through our classroom door, the morning buzz begins. The kids are already reminding me… “It’s Friday, Mrs. Rome!” We all know what that means. It’s Friday Fun Day! It’s time for “Book Talk, Book Shop, and Book Swap.” 

The kids in Room 132 do not seem to care about missing out on the usual “Fun Day” menu choices of extra free time, videos, or games. They are excited about our special day of literacy-based activities. The sign-up list for book talkers is growing… the maximum of 10 is quickly reached. The titles being promoted come from a variety of sources; the public library, our school or classroom library, personal collections from home (which change frequently, thanks to our weekly book swapping) or even from our very own “classroom author collection”. 

Keme booktalks with assistance from Austin.

Keme book talks Cardboard with assistance from Austin.         (Click any photo to enlarge.)

The first book talk title is Cardboard by Doug TenNapel. A lover of graphic novels, Keme explains that it all starts with a birthday present that is nothing but a cardboard box. A boy and his dad turn the box into a cardboard person but when the clock strikes midnight, it comes to life. Since the only rule for “Book Talk” is NO SPOILERS, we are left hanging with this teaser: “After the cardboard box breaks, the boy rushes home but his heart is pumping so fast, so he might not make it!” Several hands fly up in the air… “How many copies do we have?” “Can I have it after you, Keme?” 

Exploring the crates

Exploring the crates.

Once the book talkers wrap up, the book crates that store our massive collection of classroom books are uncovered. Eager shoppers are ready to select new titles for their personal book boxes, which are stored on the counter that runs the length of our classroom. Each plastic bin holds from 4-15 books, depending on the genre and thickness. These books are selected almost entirely by students. Although we all understand what it means to have books that are “just right”, occasionally students need to reflect on their book choices. However, I don’t insist that kids pick books that are only from a specific Lexile or guided level. The main criteria is that kids choose books they want to read. I often wonder how this could be considered a “novel” idea… shouldn’t this be the rule of thumb? 

Finally, the last piece of our Friday trifecta. The book swap is

Classroom Book Shop

Searching, searching…

underway. Gently used books that were turned into the book swap box in the morning are carefully laid out on a table. Book swap coupons are place on top of each book. Coupons can be used right away or saved for a future swap. In addition to this day’s inventory, we add many other books from previous Fridays’ book swaps. Readers who are ready to make a trade, collect their coupons and begin perusing the available titles. Sometimes, extra coupons are handed out as rewards. The classroom is transformed into a bustling mix of book swappers, some choosing new “gently used” books for themselves while others are looking for a book to give to a younger sister or brother. Unlike books that are chosen during “book shopping”, book swap books are taken home “for keeps” or perhaps, brought back to be traded in a future book swap. 

Coupons and books, ready for swapping.

Coupons and books, ready for swapping.

As I sit back and watch a love of books and reading take over our classroom, a satisfying smile spreads across my face and my heart. This is really what it is all about. Kids who want to share their thoughts and opinions about what they are reading.

Kids who want to make their own choices about the books they are reading. Kids who want to read. We always seem to struggle to fit all three components of Fun Friday in before the end of the day, but we do our best. Sometimes the kids plead to do more book talking, shopping and swapping on Monday. My answer is always the same, “Well… I suppose!”

This afternoon of promoting a love of literacy is not outlined on any district curriculum plan, it is not found on the pages of any teacher guide, and it most certainly won’t be the focus of any questions on the mandated standardized tests coming next month. However, I will wager a bet that years from now when these amazing 8- and 9-year-olds think back to third grade, they will fondly recall “Book Talk, Book Shop, and Book Swap” and the fun we had on Fridays in Room 132!

 

 

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