Celebrating the Old and New at the Beginning

This post serves a dual purpose:  celebrating a week of creating a new classroom space and DigiLit Sunday topic, preparing for the new school year. Find other celebrations at Ruth Ayers’ blog Discover, Play, Build and DigiLit Sunday posts at Margaret Simon’s blog Reflections on the Teche.

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I have an old pair of sandals. They’ve given me miles of comfort. In spite of new purchases, my old pair finds its way back into my life and onto my feet. They are worn just right and fit my summer feet.

My classroom has well-worn objects as well. They are irreplaceable. This week I celebrate the old that serve every school year.

The easel I found in an abandoned hallway my third year of teaching has held hundreds of pieces of paper. Smartboard technology tried to replace it, but a physical chart, made with students, that hangs on the wall as evidence of thinking, that doesn’t disappear with the next lesson, has value an electronic screen can’t match. This old tool takes any piece of paper and makes it the centerpiece of instruction.

The wooden stools I bought at IKEA my second year of teaching have survived and served hundreds of fifth graders as chairs, tables, impromptu meeting areas, foot stools, outside classroom space, and props in dramatic plays. These old tools allow students to create the space they need.

The bookshelves and book bins have been with me since the beginning. Bookshelves can entice readers into a cozy nook. Bins are transported to the carpet, to a table, to a corner. They can morph to hold any genre. These old tools are the superheroes of the reading and writing workshop.

The books on the shelves will be sought after and loved. Sadly, these books aren’t as resilient as the bookshelves and bins, but their messages endure and speak to kids year after year. Because of Winn Dixie, Tiger Rising, Flying Solo, How to Steal a Dog, Wonder, Firegirl, The One and Only Ivan; series like I Survived, Shredderman, The Treasure Hunters, Vet Volunteers are just a few. These old tools transport students.

I cherish the old. But sometimes we need new. This week I’m celebrating things that revitalize our lives.

I have a new pair of running shoes that have given my running new life. The old pair is broken down and can’t provide the support I need.  Sometimes new is necessary. This year, I’m bringing in new that support the old and signal new beginnings.

I’ve found new strategies from professional books I’ve read over the summer.
Who’s Doing the Work by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris
A “next generation” balanced literacy approach allows kids the space to show what they can do before we teachers jump in with the instruction. Talking less so kids can do more has been my mission ever since I read What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse. Jan and Kim’s book has opened my eyes to the power of shared reading. Shared reading isn’t just for little kids. This year, I’m building in more shared reading time around their read aloud time to support transfer.

DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts.
I wrote about this book here and here and here. I believe the tools we will build with DIY thinking will empower students to do the work with self-made goals. This year, I’m finding places and making time for students to create bookmarks that are supported by the micro progressions, charts and demonstration notebook.

The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer.
The essay work Bomer speaks to is one that grows over time. It is the journey we want our kids to take as readers and writers. This year, I’m building in time to notice and notebook so ideas can grow over the year, not just in a unit of study.

To contain and support all of this new thinking we need new school supplies.
Notebooks, pens, markers, post-its. They are ready and waiting.

The old tools have strength. They are flexible and tough. Like my sandals. They serve no matter the group of students. I cherish them. But every year, I find new ideas that support and enhance. Like my running shoes, sometimes the old needs to be updated.  Sometimes new is necessary.

I look forward to both the old and the new sitting side by side.


#cyberPD: DIY Literacy, Chapters 3 and 4

Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts’ book DIY Literacy gets to the meat of teaching in chapters 3 and 4: reminding and motivating with tools that support students to higher levels of competencySkitch-2012-06-10 11_22_09 +0000.

Thank you, Cathy Mere, Michelle Nero and Laura Komos for organizing #cyberPD. What a great “tool” you have created for teachers to learn and grow together.

Chapter 3: Remembering This: When we teach and reteach and don’t find evidence of the work in student thinking it is easy to lose faith. Chapter 3 tells us that forgetting is normal and to be expected. When we ask students to apply new ideas to their work, we need to give them tools to help them remember, to process and to do.

Bottom line: the teach, model, active engagement, now do this whenever you need to do isn’t enough. Learning and making that learning a part of your repertoire takes lots of practice and reminders of when, how and why.

Chapter 4: You Can Do It:  Kate and Maggie differentiate between the two components of rigor: one, meaning the level of difficulty and two, meaning the effort put forth. I appreciate their focus on the later. Working hard is something we want from our students. And it’s a struggle. Motivating and supporting students is what Chapter 4 is all about. The students who push themselves no matter what are few and far between. It isn’t typical.  Why students don’t struggle to reach higher levels of work could be because they don’t believe they can or because they don’t understand how. Students need tools that build confidence. That say, yes you can. And, they need tools to show how.

The Tools: 
I love how the tools work alongside the gradual release of responsibility. Supporting all the way to independence.  Students aren’t there yet, but we are planning for them to get there.  I’ve listed them below from high to low teacher support.

Demonstration Notebooks:
Reminding students what to do is often not enough because students don’t remember how to or their understanding is weak. Demonstration notebooks are perfect for those strategy groups that provide the extra, explicit teach. Students don’t push to what we think they can because they aren’t sure how. The notebooks provide for students who need the tool and the teacher together to reach for more.

One of the big ahas  I had reading DIY Literacy was how to build a progression based on and inspired by students. At the bottom of the progression is what all students can do and at the top is what the most proficient can do with adult coaching. The sequence of next steps becomes a coach to students. Creating these with students from beginning to end creates accessibility: all students can find themselves and their next step. Microprogressions should say: this is where you are, this is your next step. Go for it!

Student-Made Bookmarks:
“Rigor is relative… the journey of rigor comes in all sorts of paces…there are times we need to empower students with their individual plan for how to work rigorously and at what pace. Bookmarks can help.”

I can’t wait to create these with my students. Giving time to reflect and create their tool based on the classroom tools promotes self-assessment and goal setting. How a student uses charts and microprogressions to collect their list of reminders and examples tell the student a lot about where they are in the learning. This personalized tool is a call to action and an artifact to use and recreate as throughout the year.

Reminder Charts:
Being a fifth-grade teacher, my students come to me with so much teaching.  Still, they often don’t do. I’m sure I’m not alone in that problem.

The co-constructed chart of “things we know” can be the tool that reminds students of all they have learned but need to be nudged to do. That chart paired with verbal reminders, mid-workshop interruptions, and quick coaching tips to notice and use a strategy from the chart can up the students’ game without reteaching. We remind. Then reassess. Notice growth and celebrate! Kate and Maggie see charts as “cheerleaders” for hard work. They are reminders for students on their way to independence, the last step in the gradual release of tools.

Removing the Tools:
We want to promote ownership and agency.  We want it to be automatic. Our goal isn’t mastering the use of tools; it’s using tools to foster independence.

Kate and Maggie offered natural ways to remove or test out the removal of tools.
1. Do  it at specific times in a unit
2. Challenge students to try work without tools
3. Poll students as to what charts they no longer need

I am grateful for the time to read, reflect and write about my new tool, DIY Literacy. Thank you, Kate and Maggie. And thank you to the #cyberPD community, who contribute to the thinking around this book.



Fact that Feels Like Fiction: Personal Narrative Journey

Writing, the process, purpose and place in my classroom, has dominated my thinking the past few weeks. My fifth grade students did not want to write. I knew  (hoped) they knew what to do from previous years of teaching, but they didn’t want to, and that broke my heart. So many balked at the idea of the telling a true story.  I needed to change up my approach.  They needed to see this kind of writing as something they could do and dare I say, have fun doing.

FINDING THE FUN FACTOR: Last Tuesday, I pledged to my students/challenged myself to tell a true story a day for the month of September.  I’ve done this in part to show that story exists all around us, but most of all to see it as a fun thing to do. While it is early in the month, I already feel this challenge is pushing me to think and pay close attention to my surroundings. Feels like Common Core work, a la Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading, Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life.

The first three stories I told were about my cat, raccoons getting into my house and a fear-factor diving board experience from my deep dark past. Now my storytelling starts out our Writing Workshop much as  read aloud starts our Reading Workshop. And just like read aloud, they love it. It’s fun. It’s story. In fact a student asked if she could be the storyteller on Monday. Yes, yes, and yes!

FINDING SUCCESS: Now it was their turn to story tell in the air and on the page. I wanted them to be successful, but not with morphed  cat/raccoon/diving board stories.  So I launched them into a lesson where I gave them five plot points with an “every kid” story line that could be developed in many ways. The plot points stayed the same but it was their job to story tell “their” details,  in between the plot points. They told and listened to stories with two different partners and then they wrote. We did this with two story lines over two days. By the end of the second round, their pens were flying across the page. Paragraph after paragraph. It was one of those amazing teacher moments.  Students actually groaned nooo when I asked them to stop after 35 minutes of writing. This was a class that two weeks earlier were groaning, “do we have to write?”

I spoke to one student after, and asked her what made the difference for her with this strategy. She said, “It was easy because I was making it up. When I tell about what happens to me it just happens that’s all.”  Interestingly all of the things she wrote to develop the plot points were really about her, her personal experience, it just felt like fiction, or maybe storytelling felt like fiction.


MAKING IT OUR OWN: In the next lesson I wanted students to create their own plot points as well as story. I was worried. Would I hear the moan, I don’t know what to write or does it have to be true, or would they lapse back into their bed-to-bed theme park stories.

POWER OF POST ITS AND PARTNERS: This time I set them up with little post its for their notebook’s story arc (bright small post its always increase the fun factor). First they were invited to choose a partner to work out the post it points with.  This partnership was followed up with a second partnership of their choice.  After about 10 minutes of talk, students moved to their desks, notebooks open, post its displayed, pens poised. I pretty much held my breath. Could they do it?  A handful needed support, but the majority had worked through much of their thinking with another student.

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WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT WRITING AND OURSELVES AS WRITERS: The most powerful part of the day was the share at the end.  Students named what they learned:

1) Talking about my story helps

2) Having a structure helps

3) Planning helps

4) Knowing a lot about the story helps

5) Using elaboration tools really helps me write more

Out of the the mouths of babes!