Friday, June 27, 2014

Title Talk Sunday Night - Writing About Reading

Sunday night I am excited to guest host the monthly chat, #titletalk, on Twitter with Colby Sharp (@colbysharp). Donalyn is out of town at the amazing ALA Annual Convention, so Colby kindly asked if I could join him. What I am even more excited about is that our topic is Writing About Reading.

Writing about reading is something I’ve struggled with for the past few years. When I was self-contained, it wasn’t an issue. My students wrote me letters each week, I wrote them back. My letters in return were thoughtful, lengthy, and really – in my opinion – beneficial to the students. Enter semi-departmentalization.

In teaching three reading classes a day, I assumed I would continue as I had begun. Trying to grade upwards of seventy-five notebooks per week was insane. Last year I bruised up the inside of both of my arms just trying to carry the notebooks home during the second week of school. It was a mess.

I’m also fascinated by a quote from Penny Kittle in a podcast on Choice Literacy with Franki Sibberson where she mentions that in English Language Arts we have the kids do entirely too much writing about books. I want to know more.

At any rate, this is one area I’ve felt the need to grow and push myself next year. My thinking is that my students’ “writing” might, indeed be writing in a notebook. It might also be blogging, podcasts, or creating videos. And what I keep coming back to is the word authentic – I am a reader, but I don’t write a letter when I’m done with every book. My thinking is evolving even as I type so please join us tomorrow night, I can’t wait to learn from all of you.

If you are new to Twitter chats, or #titletalk, here are a few pointers.

First, the way #titletalk works is that the first ½ of the chat is typically about something in our classrooms, Sunday our topic is: Writing About Reading. The second ½ is titles – and they do fly! We’re going to focus on titles we’ve read so far this summer that we highly recommend or titles we are dying to read before school begins.

Second, the chat is pretty fast. You will never keep up with all of it, and shouldn’t stress. I usually try to contribute to whatever the given question is at the time and then retweet when I see other folks type smart thinking.

Third, I use TweetChat to follow the chat. You can also follow it on Twitter. The reason I like TweetChat is that the Twitter stream you are looking at is only for our chat. It also adds the hashtag #titletalk automatically into your tweets. (If you are on Twitter, you have to do that yourself.) I wrote a blog post awhile ago with screen shots that will help you understand this:

Hope to see you Sunday night – 8pm EST/ 7 Central.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Living Our Lives Online

I’ve been thinking about how we treat each other a lot lately for several reasons. On Facebook, I read posts about some bullying happening on Instagram with a few kids. Talking to friends, I remembered the need to reflect on my own discussions in front of my children, what did they hear me saying? In reading, I encountered a boy named Albie, who had to deal with his own group of mean kids.


It seems to be everywhere. It is enough to make me want to lock up my children in our house, remove them from the online world, limit their exposure to what I can control. Yet, I know that is not feasible. I cannot control much, in truth. So what to do?

I think I am a fairly responsible parent and teacher. In regard to our home, Luke does have a phone now, Liam doesn’t yet. We, of course, have rules about phone use. I monitor it. We’ve talked about what is ok to post, what isn’t ok. We’ve talked about what to do when you see something you aren’t comfortable with. We’ve talked about using me – a mean mom who checks in – as an excuse if you are in a bind.

In regards to my students, we spent two weeks this year discussing digital citizenship. We’ve talked about living our lives online. What is acceptable to post, what crosses the line. We’ve discussed how what we put out there lives “somewhere” forever, even in Snapchat. We’ve talked about it all, but it isn’t enough.

I’m fairly certain that no matter what I do, or what I say, that my students and/or my own sons will screw up online. I pray they won’t, but I know that they are kids, and they are impulsive, and sometimes it will get ugly. I hope if they do mess up, someone calls them on it. I hope that they will take mistakes and learn from them, because that is what life is for. I hope they don’t hurt others. I hope they choose to be kind.

So as adults, what can we do? I have honestly thought a lot about this. I’ve done what I mentioned above, but that didn’t seem like enough, so I had a plan.

Some friends have asked me why I am always optimistic. Why I’m never upset online. That they are glad that life is going so well. It is true, I am blessed. I have an awesome family, an amazing job, and fabulous friends. But not all days are like that. There are days that are hard. Where the adults – and kids – in my life make me crazy. Those days it would be easy to go on any social networking sites and post a comment calling people out, or saying that “X” was making me mad. I choose not to. It isn’t that I don’t feel those things, but I know that whether I like it or not, I’m a role model.

I’ve chosen to be a parent, so I’m a role model by default there. My kids will hear my words – be kind, be forgiving, be generous – but my actions speak way louder. If I’m complaining about the people I interact with daily, they hear that. If I’m typing comments negatively online, they can see that. I can’t tell them to behave in a way that I don’t, so I try really hard to be the person I want them to be.

I’ve opened myself up to being an online role model too. Teachers are stuck in a weird world – we’re learning about social media right along with our students. I have gone back and forth on allowing my students to be my online “friends.” For a long time it was easy, I said no. When you graduate, maybe. Then I thought why not? Then I decided no again. It’s a bit strange to be “friends” with your students, right? Enter Instagram.

Evil or awesome, depending on who you talk to, a lot of my students are on Instagram. Like Twitter, I left my Instagram account open – people could friend me at will. One day I realized that I had several current students following me. I debated making my account private and asking them not to, when I reconsidered. I try to be a role model for my sons, for my students at school, why not try to be a role model online for them? Maybe they needed to follow one person who just posted positive photos. Who enjoyed sunsets, books, food, and nature? So I let them.

I’ve lost count of the number of kids who now follow me online. I don’t follow them back, because I don’t think that is needed. I hope that by seeing my posts in their feed, they maybe have a second to think of how they are living their lives online. I hope it is a quick reminded of a teacher who loves them and believes they can do their best. I think that’s all I can do.

As adults, we have so much hope for our kids. We want them to be kind, caring, and accepting of others. I think that is exactly the right goal. We also need to strive for the same in ourselves. We need to remember these kids around us are watching us at every turn. We need to strive to behave as we would like them to. I know I will fall short, but I try a bit harder each day. I love them all too much not to. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Crazy June

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in!

My last day of school this year was June 4th. By early morning on June 6th, my family was on the road. For the next eleven days we drove 2,600 miles and spent 42 hours together in the car. We visited Nokomis, Florida; Disney World; and Daufuskie Island. On the 16th of June we drove fifteen hours straight to be able to get home in one day. The 17th found my sons and I running errands, restocking the house with food, and me packing. And on the 18th, I headed out again.

It might be insanity to plan the June I did, but there are times when the opportunities are too good to pass up. I didn’t originally plan an eleven day road trip for my family – just five days in Disney was the original idea. But seeing family for the weekend before and after? Too good to miss.

Final dinner at All Write 
Now I am wrapping up another week away. The All Write conference was in Warsaw, Indiana on the 19th and 20th. On the 21st, I said goodbye to my friend Donalyn and headed west to La Porte, Indiana. The Choice Literacy retreat was scheduled to start there the next day. I’ve spent the last seven days at All Write and Choice Literacy learning about reading and writing. I’ve also spent it with friend—some old, some new—laughing and being rejunivated. Our retreat’s theme is renewal, and I’m feeling that right now.
Morning coffee run at Choice Literacy
In just a few hours I will jump in my car and head home, the first real time at home since June 5th. Almost half of my summer is gone, but that is completely ok. I think sometimes we have to give up something we treasure to get even more in return. I am a homebody by nature. I love staying in pajamas, reading all day, hanging out with my family, and relaxing. These three weeks have been the opposite of the way I would normally spend my June, but have brought me more than I could ever imagine in return. One of my quotes in my classroom is We Do Hard Things. While this summer hasn’t been “hard” in the difficult sense, it was hard to give up a week with my family, it was hard to be gone from home. I also know I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Thanks for the laughter, my friends. It has been wonderful. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rethinking Teaching Choices

I have recently returned to the 21st Century after being on vacation – meaning I have semi-reliable Internet access again. One of the first places I visited when returning to the Internet was, of course, Twitter. I scanned some tweets from friends, read through the recent stream from all folks I follow, and then caught up on a few education chats I had missed. One thread in particular jumped out at me. The topic? Accelerated Reader or AR.

Some teachers had become upset when other teacher dismissed AR as not necessary, lacking research, etc. I read the exchange with interest. Folks obviously felt passionately one way or another, but unwilling to bend to the other line of thinking. In full disclosure, I’m friends with several who were tweeting from the anti-AR stance, and I know they’ve done their research. They love to read research in a way that I don’t quite comprehend. On this topic, however, I’ve read my fair share.

In regard to AR, my district used to use it too. I was never a big fan – the questions seemed like they focused on trivial points and really didn’t show if they child understood the bigger picture – but I wasn’t “anti” AR until I reflected on the program.

AR is expensive; someone on Twitter quoted $4 a student in the chat. That seems a bit low to me. I don’t have exact numbers because it has been years since my district eliminated the program, but there is a fee from Renaissance Learning and then you also need to purchase each test. When new books come out, the tests must be purchased, yet sometimes schools get behind. Kids can’t read a book because there isn’t a test, which is ridiculous. That being said, the cost wasn’t even what made me really take a second look at AR.

AR is praised for getting kids to enjoy independent reading and being an easy way to track that they’ve read. I have a few issues here. One, I abhor the rule in some schools that kids can only “count” a book if it is at their “level”. What if they want to read below for fun? What if they want to read above because they’re interested in a book? What if they are high level readers, but the higher books are not appropriate for their age? In some schools, there are considerations given to these questions. In others – and unfortunately I’ve seen the bad side here – there is a hard and fast line.

As for getting kids to love to read, I think most, no all, teachers can do that without a computer program. Talk to kids about your reading life. Recommend books to them. Show book trailers. Give time for them to talk to each other about what they’re reading. Have new books in the classroom available to them. Let them read what they want. The love of reading will come forth without the program.

And finally, the ease of tracking. This I just don’t get. It’s easier, I supposed to print out a list of who has passed what test, but is there joy in that? When I confer with kids, I can easily track what their reading. I find joy in sitting with kids and discussing their books. I also build relationships. I get to know my students – their likes and dislikes. I also get to know them. I can track books easily, so can a computer program. Only one, however, helps strengthen the bond between teacher and student which pays across subjects, in behavior, everything.

So why all of the defensive tweets defending AR as the end all, be all, of independent reading programs? I think it is likely simple. When you are questioned on a practice that is part of your classroom, it is human nature to get defensive. I get that. I’ve done that. See, in 2009 I read a book by a new author and teacher, Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. While I agreed with 75% of the book, on the topic of whole class novels, I was adamant that Donalyn was wrong. Maybe they didn’t work in her room, but in mine they were terrific. I was known for being an excellent reading teacher, she was wrong. If I had been tweeting, my tweets would have reflected my passion and irritation at the idea of moving to a classroom of choice.

I am a reflective teacher and tend to mull over ideas. Once this seed had been planted, I kept returning to it, each time with a shake of my head and a reminder that I was right. And then, the kids came, and everything changed.

That year I was teaching my reading class with all special education students pushed in. It took me one week to see that one novel would never meet the needs of all students. I had kids reading from a first grade level to a ninth, all in my fourth grade classroom. I was able to step back, look at the evidence, and realize I needed to make a change.

Yes, I do believe every classroom in our country would be better off without the AR program – I think teachers are effectively putting a computer program between the students and themselves when they could simply sit side-by-side and do the same thing. I think relationships with our kids should be the top priority, not the ease of printing off scores. More than that, I hope that teachers everywhere take the summer to reflect on their teaching practice. Are you like me? Is there something you’ve been contemplating changing? Take the summer to research, reach out, think it through. Anger is our natural reaction at times, but action is better. If you believe in your practice – awesome! I usually find at least one area I want to tinker with, and use the summer to attack it. This year? Combining Writing, Reading, Word Study, Grammar into one class, Reading/Writing Workshop. I’m nervous, I’m going to mess up, but it is going to be fun. I wish you the best as you rethink your classrooms too.

Slice of Life - Summer Trip

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in!

When I began planning our vacation for this summer, I knew it would be amazing. Starting with a weekend at my Aunt and Uncle's home in Nokomis, Florida. Moving on to Disney World for five days. Ending with a weekend on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina with my parents and their friends. Eleven days. The longest my boys have ever been away from home, but I was sure it would be worth it. 

It was. 

2,600 miles, 42 hours in the car together, and we're all still speaking. 

I'm home for a day and then head off to the All Write conference tomorrow followed by the Choice Literacy writing retreat. Another week gone. Another week that I cannot wait to experience. Blogging will be sporadic, at best, until after the 24th. By then, I'm sure, I will have so much to share. Until next time, enjoy a video of some photos from an amazing eleven day trip.