Friday, June 28, 2013

A Thank You to You All...

Wow. Wednesday night I sat down to write a blog post. Like every time I write, I have a seed, something that has jumped into my head and inspired, but I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it. I typed as I often do, on the mattress sitting on the floor of Liam’s room. Liam is eight and still likes someone to sit in his room as he falls asleep. While it does take up a chunk of time – about an hour a night – I don’t mind. I have learned long ago that they grown up quickly.

As I typed, Liam twirled my hair. Words flowed out as I thought about what I love about teaching. Believe it or not, it isn’t writing curriculum, unpacking standards, dealing with tests, analyzing data. No, what I like about teaching – what I LOVE about teaching – are the kids. I love building relationships between the students and myself. Getting to know their parents. Realizing what makes the kids tick. Matching kids to the books that will help them see the beauty of reading. That stuff I love.

Wednesday night the inner critic I had written about on Tuesday had taken a vacation, and apparently not to my garden to weed. As I wrote it felt good, it felt right. I remember worrying others might think I was calling them out on reading logs and relationships, because I don’t want to be like that. I write what works for me, what works for my students. Years ago when reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, I remember reading her thoughts on whole class novels. I still used them at the time. I loved that she didn’t make me feel bad for using them, she just gently pushed my thinking. Not surprisingly, about four weeks into the school year I moved away from whole class novels and have never looked back.

Waking up Thursday I saw that many folks had already read the post and responded positively. What a great feeling. All day long I received more messages, comments, retweets, etc. I love seeing a post take off because I know it struck a cord and that inspires conversation.

As I read through comments and responded back, I learned a lot. What I was left with is this feeling of possibility. In a time when there is backlash against teachers, narrowing of curriculum, and more standardized crap than ever before, I felt hopeful. Looking around at my life I am surrounded by educators who are working hard to make a difference. I know teachers who attend conferences on their own dime – some even getting up at 3 am to drive four hours to the first session. I know teachers who spend thousands of dollars buying books for their classroom. I know teachers that participate in chats on Twitter. I could go on and on, but my main takeaway is that I think we are going to be ok. Public education is in a bumpy spot, but we will persevere because all of these educators I know will not give up.

So, if you read my blog, thank you. If you subscribe by email, Feedly, or here on the site, thank you. If you share it, thank you. If you comment, thank you. It is humbling to put your words out there and have such kind things said in return. You all make me want to write, make me want to teach, and make me want to learn. I am a better person for this community and I wanted to reach out and share my thanks with all of you.

Have a wonderful weekend! Blogging might be sporadic this weekend, I am headed to ALA to spend time with friends, rejunivated my spirit, and see Katherine Applegate accept the Newbery for The One and Only Ivan. What a special weekend it will be. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

How Do You Know They Are Reading?

Yesterday I read Teri Lesesne’s blog on student engagement (HERE) shortly before heading to the local pool. I was intrigued by the article she links in the beginning – a teacher explaining why they used reading logs one year and why they gave them up after that. Teri goes on to discuss the question many teachers ask – without reading logs, how will they hold the students accountable? How will they make sure they read? The answer, I believe, is that you can’t.

Students can “fake” read with reading logs or without. To me, the logs just encourage that. A strong reader will read with or without the logs. Typically they will resent having to fill them out – or their parents will. The student who does not enjoy reading is not going to magically become a reader because they need to fill out a grid detailing what they read the previous night. More work? No thanks.

The question that begs to be asked, then, is how will you know they read if you don’t use reading logs. Conferences. By conferring with my students I know if they are reading or if they aren’t. Do some kids still try and fake it? You bet. Can you catch them? Absolutely. But really, it isn’t about “catching” them – or, it shouldn’t be. What conditions can be put in place to make kids want to read? That’s the question I’m interested in. Because I can confer, book talk, and fill the room with books all I want, but until the students decided they want to join our reading community, it won’t work.

Engagement. I’m fascinated by it. Each year I watch kids and wonder –what made them decide to do the work? Why do some kids “check-in” in my class, but not in another? I was pondering this idea when my student, Josh, came up to see me at the pool. Actually, to be more accurate, I was reading when I heard, “Mrs. S, watch this!” shouted to me from the diving boards.

Josh came over to my chair after his crazy flip off of the high dive and quickly told me he finished Last Olympian. He had borrowed the last two in that series from my son. We quickly fell into a discussion over what made that book a great conclusion for the series and what parts surprised you. I told him that I had to flip back into previous volumes to check on a certain character I had ignored. He told me how impressed he was with Luke’s actions at the end. We had a quick discussion regarding the next series and what his reading plans were for the rest of the summer. (Heroes of Olympus and Maze Runner)

I quickly asked if I could snap a photo of him for my blog, he assented and asked what the topic was. I said I felt like I needed to talk about reading logs and why I didn’t feel they were necessary. He gave me a look and I asked his opinion on them, should I have used one this year? His response, “No way, I hate those things.” Amen, Josh.

This is the face of a reader – a reader I happen to adore. How do I know he’s a reader? I talk to him. I read the same books he reads. We converse –not as teacher-student, but as peers. Josh can teach me just as I can teach him. I don’t think a reading log would ever have given me the insights I have into his reading habits, and I don’t think it would have caused him to become an engaged student. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. Thanks for the reminder. 

Edited to add...

After writing the above post on Wednesday night as I put Liam to bed, Josh's mom texted me. They were dropping the books he borrowed on the porch. After Liam finally went to sleep, I went down to find the books. Tucked in with the books were some warm chocolate chip cookies and this note. 
Thank you, Josh. 

And, in the spirit of this post, I will note that no reading log created any of this. Relationships did. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Inner Editor for Sale

Yesterday I sat down with my notebook and looked at the prompt for Teachers Write. Scribbling away in my notebook, I felt ok about my writing. Shared it on Kate’s website and put my notebook aside.

Looking at my laptop screen, I sighed. After what felt like an eternity of staring at a blank page in Word, I began to type. Words flowed out, but they felt wrong. Not to be deterred, I opened another document in Word – one I’ve already worked on. Still, that voice in my head said my writing was off. Grasping at straws, I opened a third document – again one I had worked on previously. The inner editor was now speaking loudly, sharing wonderful and helpful insights with me like:

This writing is horrible.

Do you really think you can write, much less a book?

What is the “so what” here? You don’t have one.

Everyone knows this stuff already. You have nothing to contribute.

I kept at it, turning on music, attempting to tune her out. After writing about a thousand words through the three different documents, I closed them for the day. Frustrated, I took to Twitter and tweeted this:

Logically, I know that I am not the only one to struggle with the inner editor. I heard so many people I admire at All Write – Ruth, Donalyn, Penny, Chris, Terry, Jeff, and more say the same thing. I loved learning that Terry often stops writing to go look in the fridge. Donalyn calls this #prewriting. I loved knowing that theses people – who write beautiful and important books – struggle with the same internal conflict that I do. That being said – how do I get rid of this voice?

Linda Urban on Twitter shared that Cynthia Lord sends hers on a vacation to the beach complete with margaritas. (I think I should just drink the margarita myself – that could make my writing more interesting!) Donalyn said that was too nice, I should just send the inner editor out to weed. Hmm, my flowerbeds are looking a bit neglected. Over and over I heard from friends on Twitter and knew more than ever that I wasn’t alone.

It was that realization that made me stop and pause. Isn’t this why I started writing to begin with? Because if I feel this way, I know with absolute certainty that my students are as well. I suppose I can’t tell my students to have their inner editor go drink a margarita, but I can share how I felt this day in June. (And surely will again.) By talking about our inner editors in class my students can realize that we all feel this way, it isn’t a reason not to write – or worse, stop writing.

Yesterday was a reminder to be kinder to myself. I can see my own growth in my writing since starting this blog. I know with certainty when I look back three years from now, my writing will have continued to improve. This is where I am; this is the message I need to share. I need to go do it. The inner editor will just have to play nice or she’s out of here. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Slice of Life - Fresh Eyes

I remember becoming a parent. After the exhaustion of the first year or so, the questions began to flow:

Why is the sky blue?

What is that?

Why do you have to pull those plants out of the ground, but not those?

Who made the first chair?

Rather than be irritated by the endless stream of questions, they fascinated me. Ordinary events were new. The marvel that is our world surrounded me. These questions changed me. I began to appreciate more, slow down, and realized how much I love a beautiful sunset.

You don’t have to be a toddler to open the eyes of others. When we moved to our tiny hamlet years ago, my husband delighted in seeing Cardinals. He’d point them out, especially during winter when the male’s red feathers stood in stark contrast with the white snow. I asked him why he was so fascinated – apparently even though they are our state bird, Cardinals are not plentiful in the busy city of Chicago.

These thoughts were swirling around in my mind during today’s run. As I plodded down the sidewalk, bunnies raced off, afraid of the woman puffing along beside them. I had seen a few bunnies hop out of the way of my car when driving a friend to my house the other night. “Bunnies!” she said glancing out the window. I’m guessing that they aren’t as prevalent in Texas as they are in Illinois. My dog, Bally, could give her an entire lesson on where you find the nest of the bunnies in the spring.

Running past the rabbits, I reflected back on All Write. I love conferences. Friends think I am crazy to spend so much of my own money to attend these, but I know it is critical to my well being to go. Not only do I get the chance to see friends who live so far from my town, but I leave with fresh eyes. I am rejuvenated and ready to teach – or will be in a few weeks. All Write did not disappoint. I have many notes scribbled away on snatches of paper and wanted to share a few.

Here are just a few snippets of the wonderful insights I walked away from All Write with. Some are quotes; some are just what I realized while sitting and listening. Thanks to all of the amazing presenters. My eyes are open once again.

Creative, innovative, successful people spend ten thousand hours developing a skill. (Gladwell) Have writing territories (Murray) that we return to again and again helps us become experts in that area. We need to encourage more creativity and initiative amongst our students. Writing Workshop can do that. – Carl Anderson

The idea that I work my tail off helping students to develop their reading lives, I need to do the same for their writing lives. Starting my notebook up again today.  – Penny Kittle

The difference between relevant and related instruction. I think I mess this up often. Also, the realization that I need to do more with word study. – Terry Thompson

A reminder that in writing – as is true in life – the importance lies in the journey, not the destination. – Ruth Ayers

The importance of listening to my students, really listening, when I confer. Also, the idea of video taping myself for reflection. – Penny Kittle

The crazy notion that research can be fun. (!!) Ideas as to how to help my students summarize and not plagiarize. – Chris Lehman.

The importance of the work done by those who came before – listening to Penny talk about the amazing Don Graves and being in awe of all that he accomplished. – Penny Kittle

Thinking through the current state of education and reminding myself that I need to be aware of what is going on in relation to CCSS, Pearson, and more – even when (or maybe especially when) I don’t agree with it. – Chris Lehman

Being inspired and in awe of Lester’s way with words and storytelling capabilities. Realizing ideas take time – seeds for stories are everywhere. “Chasing ideas is not about getting published, it’s about finding what resonates in your soul.” – Lester Laminack. 
Slice of Life is sponsored every Tuesday by Stacey and Ruth from Two Writing Teachers

Monday, June 24, 2013

Reflections from All Write - Mentors

Last week I attended the All Write conference in Warsaw, Indiana. This was my third year in a row that I had the chance to attend – and it was as wonderful as ever. Over the course of two days I attended ten sessions, each one teaching me something new. Tomorrow I hope to write up a blog post highlighting just a bit of the learning I walked away from this conference with. Today, however, I wanted to share some ideas from the Thursday night dinner.

Each year at All Write they invite an author to speak at a dinner on the first night of the conference. Two years ago we listened to Gordon Korman. Last year we were honored with Ralph Fletcher. This year it was Kate Messner.

Kate is one of the first people I “met” on Twitter. I still remember being in awe when I learned that she was writing a book – The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z – AND teaching middle school. That first year she Skyped with my school, shared insights from her classroom, and wrote more books. Amazing.

Kate’s talk at All Write dealt with the idea of mentors. She had a picture of Dumbledore up and said we often think our mentor has to be an old wise man, but really it can be anyone. Kate shared that it is important to look for your mentors, learn from them, and thank them. Mentors can help enrich our lives while helping us to grow and learn.

I sat at the table that night and reflected on this idea – who were my mentors? Truly, I am blessed with many. I have mentors that show me how to be a good parent, friend,
teacher, wife. The mentors in my life help me to grow, push myself, reflect. When I lose confidence in my abilities, there are mentors I turn to and gain guidance. And while I have fabulous mentors in my town, the mentors I thought of while sitting at Kate’s dinner have all become part of my life through Twitter.

Starting Twitter four years ago, I don’t think it would have dawned on me how important it would become. I attended this conference because of Twitter. Two teachers from my own district came for a day of it because I knew about it to share with them. I sat at tables, in sessions, or at dinner with people I consider close friends and those friendships began on Twitter. Leaving the conference, I brought my friend Donalyn to my home for a night to meet my family and talk books. I wouldn’t have known her without Twitter. And Sunday she and I drove three hours to meet two friends, shop for some books, and share a meal. Guess where we all met? Twitter.

These friends I have met through Twitter have become my mentors. They have shared ideas for teaching, helped me to solve issues in my classroom, and encouraged my own professional growth. They have pushed me out of my comfort zone and nudged me to think of writing a professional development book when I was sure that was impossible. They have become more than friends on a screen, they are my friends in real life and my mentors. So, as Kate suggested, I want to thank all of those Twitter friends for spending time with me at All Write and more – I’m grateful to you all.