Celebrating – Poetry and Wild Readers


I’m joining up with Ruth Ayres for her weekly link-up, Celebrate This Week. Check out all of the posts linked up at her blog HERE.

This week I want to celebrate two very special events – one inside the classroom and one outside.

The first was one of those spontaneous ideas that turned into something truly amazing. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ll know this year I’m focusing on improving my teaching of writing. It’s my goal, my focus and also my frustration! I’m working with Ruth, trying to wrap my head around what I already know about teaching writing and how that fits with our new curriculum. Last week our students dissected owl pellets – always an exciting event in the classroom. They really enjoy being scientific ‘detectives’; identifying and categorizing what they find in each pellet. To connect with this work that was happening in my partner teacher’s room, I decided to take a break from our narrative writing unit and try some poetry. When I teach poetry, I always tell my students “There are no rules”. They love the freedom that comes with this genre – “You mean I don’t have to use a capital letter at all?!”, “It doesn’t have to rhyme?”, and my favorite “I don’t even have to write in straight lines?!” Something special happens when we give students the freedom to write without the boundaries. Their confidence soars and their creativity shines through.

I began with a mini lesson using a mentor text Water Dance by Thomas Locker. This wonderful picture book uses the phrase “I am….” at the end of each page. We discussed the power of this phrase and how it gave the writing a lyrical quality. To help with inspiration, we made a list of words describing owls on chart paper. The only instruction I gave my students about writing their poems was that it should include the words “I am the owl” somewhere in the text – to line up with our Mentor Text. Their excitement was palpable and students worked enthusiastically on their poems. The finished products were truly wonderful and I was so proud of their work. We completed this writing project in two days and my students were thrilled to see their published work up on the wall with their owl directed drawing. It is so important to me that there is not a long space of time between pre-writing and publishing at the beginning of the school year. I truly believe this gives my students a sense of accomplishment and pride and motivates them to keep writing ever more complex pieces. They need to see their work finished and displayed in order to move ahead.

My second celebration is very close to my heart. On Friday night I received this email from one of last year’s students:

This young man did not really enjoy reading when he came to me at the beginning of last school year. By the end of the year, he was reading every day and joined my Breakfast with Books Bookclub. He loved coming and talking about books with me and his classmates. When I read this email, it brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t help but think about Donalyn Miller’s book Reading in the Wild
I know this young man is now a ‘wild reader’. And I am truly celebrating.

Have a great week and remember to look for your own celebrations. Big or small, they keep us feeling positive about what we do and your joy will show in your teaching.


How to Confer with Your Readers


It’s been just over a month since school started. My fourth graders and I have spent four weeks building community, establishing routines and practicing procedures. Every day we increased our reading stamina by agonizingly slow (for me!) increments, until we finally reached the 20 minute mark – and the heart of my teaching. Finally, a week ago, I was able to begin conferring with my students.

For me Reading Conferences are the reason to use a Workshop model. This format allows me to meet with each and every student, discuss their reading, set goals, and tailor their instruction in a way that nothing else can. I know every child’s reading habits, strengths and challenges, and I work with them to grow their learning over the course of the year.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic, trying to find the perfect formula for my conferences and there are some great resources out there which I’ve listed at the bottom of this post. But the truth is, the way my conference goes depends on the student sitting in front of me. And to my mind, this is the way it should be. The whole point of conferring with my students is to be able to create an individualized plan for each and every one of my readers. I want them to feel like they have a ‘personal trainer’ for reading – someone who will guide, support and celebrate their reading goals. That being said however, I usually follow an outline that helps keep me on track and ensures I cover all the important bases.

The first conference I have with a student usually takes longer than future conferences will. This one sets the tone and provides momentum for learning.  Below is an outline of what my initial conferences look like:

1) This is What I’ve Learned About You as a Reader
We review the Reading Survey students filled out for me at the beginning of the school year, and then go over assessment data (formative and summative). I also review their Reading Logs to see what they’ve been reading since school started.  I make sure to give a compliment and highlight strengths.

2) This is an Area We Could Work on Together
I always ask first, “Is there an area of reading you feel you need to work on?” (I use the broad categories comprehension, fluency, accuracy and vocabulary – there is abundant research to support these as the building blocks of reading). I want my students to feel like they have some control over their learning.  If students are unsure, we go back and review the data and pick an area together.

3) Now You Pick a Strategy to Focus On
I use Gail and Joan’s amazing CAFE Menu for this part. The CAFE Menu lists reading strategies under the four categories above. My mini lessons have already explored many of these strategies and taught students how to implement them in their own reading.  I let students pick one that they would like to focus on and we highlight it in their Readers Notebook.

4) Here’s a Plan to Help You Grow
I provide students with a step by step plan to implement this strategy. This is the central part of our conference – it’s the ‘teaching moment’ and differs for every child. The depth and complexity of the plan depends on the needs of each student. This is where your knowledge as a reading teacher is so crucial. You need to know what will help your students meet their goals.

5) Tell Me Your Plan and Put it on Paper
I have students write down their focus area, and strategy plan in the “Goals” section of their Readers Notebook. I ask them to tell me in their own words what their plan is. They also write their name on a small sticky note and place it on our Reading Strategy Board under their area of focus.

6) Let’s Set a Date
I mark a date on my calendar to meet with the student to review the work they have done on their goal. This is when I will assess their progress and we will either move on to a new strategy if they have mastered their first goal, or rework our plan if they are still struggling. The frequency I meet with students depends on their needs. I may be checking in with some students every day if they are well below grade level expectations. Others I may not see (in a formal conference) for two weeks if they are working well above grade level, and their goal requires significant time and thought.  I will still check in with them informally in a “how’s it going?” style in between formal conferences.

I have so enjoyed the conferences I’ve completed so far.  Right now, I get through 2 or 3 in one Independent Reading period (25 minutes).  It’s a slow process, but I’m already seeing amazing results.  This year, I made sure to incorporate goal work into my students’ Readers Notebooks, so now I have a written record of the work they’re doing (pictures to come in a future post).

Below are some of the best resources I have found for conferring.  I welcome your comments and feedback – how does conferring work in your classroom?  What are your conferring strengths and struggles?

Have a great week!


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This Much I Know is True – Putting Your Beliefs in Writing


This week I was lucky enough to Skype with Ruth Ayres, who is working with me as a Writing Coach. I feel very confident in my ability to teach reading, but I’m not completely satisfied with my writing program as yet. When Ruth posted that she would be available to work as a Writing Coach, I was thrilled beyond belief to have the opportunity to learn from someone with her knowledge and skills. This year my District adopted new curriculum for both Reading and Writing, and I’ll admit I’m finding the Writing more challenging to work through. I wanted some extra insight and a chance to get feedback from someone who really ‘knows her stuff’.

I’ve been feeling more than a little frustrated with the way things were going in my Writer’s Workshop. I couldn’t quite put it into words, but it just didn’t FEEL right. I contacted Ruth and she listened patiently to my frustration and confusion and in her sweet and thoughtful way said “I think a little list in your notebook called, “This I Know About Teaching Writers…” might unleash some of your beliefs and help you filter through the (new writing) resource.” So I sat down and started writing. WOW. This assignment really did ‘unleash’ my thinking in a way that nothing else could have. Putting my philosophy about teaching writing on paper really made me think about what I do and what I believe to be TRUE. It gave me clarity and direction and helped me pinpoint why I’d been having so much trouble. I think the hardest part about adopting a new curriculum as a veteran teacher, is that we already have some knowledge about what works well for our students and a philosopy that guides the way we have taught that subject. Correlating what we believe with what the new curriculum is asking can be a stressful and sometimes conficting experience.

However, the very act of putting in writing what I believe gave me such a sense of peace. I took a breath and gave myself permission to admit what I know and believe is true for my students, and ultimately I realized I’m just not that far apart from the new curriculum I’m teaching. I may not teach it in ‘exactly’ the same way, but the bottom lines are there.

I will be forever grateful to Ruth for giving me this assignment and I HIGHLY recommend it for every teacher. Putting what you believe about teaching in writing is an experience that will both center you, and help your every day teaching. When you know what’s at the core, the edges are not so blurry.

Have a great week


Thank you Ruth for your wisdom and patience. Ruth’s Website


If you’re interested, here is what I came up with: My Writing Truths

It Takes Time

Back to school is always a time of contradictions for me. While I love the ‘clean slate’, fresh new group of fourth graders, eager, smiling faces and loads of possibilities, I’m also feeling frustrated about having to re-teach the rules, start at the beginning, and remember everything takes longer than I think it will. I want to be diving into curriculum, having great group discussions, watching partners work with each other, and reading astouding fourth grade thoughts – NOW! I want that hum of a busy and productive classroom that was my favorite part of last year.

But I know that all these amgood thingsazing things come with a lot of hard work and time. It takes time to establish routines, behavior expectations, and most importantly, trust. Some students will walk in your room ready to take risks and dying to share. Others will come to the conversation over time. Each deserves the best education I can give them. And that takes patience. Right now I’m reminding myself daily of the importance of slowing down. I know that an effective classroom takes time. Time to build reading and writing stamina, time to grow relationships with and between students, and time to acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. One day last week, I had to stop independent reading after only five minutes because a student got up to walk across the room. I didn’t ask why, or single out the student for reprimand. I just stopped the session, explained why we had to stop and told students we would try again tomorrow. Their disappointment was almost as deep as mine. But the next day we made it to our goal of 10 minutes – easily. These are the lessons that are so very important. Sure, I want them to read for 20 minutes right off the bat so I can start conferring, but I know that if I don’t take the time to do it the right way now, my quietly humming classroom full of hardworking, engaged students will never exist.

Every day, I’m chanting quietly to myself, “it takes time, it takes time, it takes….time”. I’m stopping to enjoy the smiles, handshakes and stories that greet me at the door and giving a few extra minutes of partner sharing about the weekend. I’m starting over when I have to, and reminding myself that in end these small moments are what will make our classroom the special place I will miss when I begin again next year.

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over


This week my students and I are having a well deserved Spring Break. When we return to school, we will have a short 7 weeks together, and then the year is over. I’m resisting that urge to squeeze as much as I can into that short time, and instead I’m focusing on what I think is most important.

We still have one novel left to share, and it’s my favorite, Esperanza Rising. Every year, my students leave telling me they loved Esperanza the most – they even come back to my current fourth graders and tell them how much they will enjoy it – which is why I will squeeze it in, even though we are fast running out of time. This coming of age story filled with love, loss, pain and triumph is the perfect vehicle for discussing so many aspects of literature and life. Despite the fact that this book is set in California in the Great Depression era, there are still so many ways my students today will relate to her situation. My Spanish speaking students love seeing their language and culture explored in the pages of the novel. We will all laugh and cry together as Esperanza undergoes the transformation from indulged child to empathetic, wise, young woman at the tender age of 12. Sadly, I know more than a few of my students will relate to Esperanza as she struggles with issues of poverty and is forced to become ‘the responsible one’ well before her time.

But the reason I truly adore this novel and continue to teach it every year is because of the underlying theme – “Don’t be Afraid to Start Over.” If I could leave my students with only one message to carry with them as they move on in life, it would be this one.

“Kids are so resilient” was a phrase I heard often around the hospital wards we frequented with my daughter when she was younger. And it’s true. I was always astounded by the strength and optimism I saw there. I can say the same about the Kindergarten classes I taught and even the first grade children I see in my hallway now. But something happens between 1st and 4th grade. Kids start to worry about taking risks. They want to get the ‘right answer’. They are afraid of making mistakes. Somewhere along the way in their educational journey our children’s optimism is defeated. Maybe it’s ‘the tests’, maybe it’s poor teaching, maybe it’s pressure from home, or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

But I want my students to be resilient. I want my students to know that making mistakes is part of life. That the reason we are who we are is because sometimes we’ve made the wrong choices. Life and learning are always about starting over. About trying again, about seeing opportunities to learn from our mistakes, and about knowing that we are more than one test result.

Next Tuesday we will be back at school and I cannot wait to introduce Esperanza to my students. We will talk about mountains and valleys, love and loss and not being afraid to start over.

“Authentic Learning”

I’m tagging on to Ruth Ayers Celebration Writing, although I know it was supposed to be up yesterday!


We have been working on a unit for Opinion Writing in my classroom over the last couple of weeks. I’ve been feeling more than a little frustrated, wondering if my students would ever ‘get it’. The strong thesis statement backed up by logical reasons, the engaging hook, the neatly formed paragraphs, the sound conclusion – and don’t forget citing evidence from the articles we read! It’s overwhelming what I want these 9 and 10 year olds to do and I admit I was feeling a little disheartened by the task.

But then, during my Daily 5 workshop time, two boys approached me with that ‘look’ on their faces – that look that means “we know we’re not supposed to interrupt you Mrs. Hurlburt, but we have something really important to share”. I can never turn them away when they look at me that way 🙂 With words bubbling over and an enthusiasm 10 year old boys don’t usually like to show when it comes to reading and writing; this is what I was told:

“Mrs. Hurlburt, Ethan and I were just talking about what we thought was better, the PS3 or XBox console.”
– I admit I may have those console names wrong – and at this point I was ready to jump in with – “and what does this have to do with reading???!!” – but I held my breath and I’m glad I did, because this is what came next:

“And then we both said at the same time ‘OPINION WRITING!’ So we both want to write an opinion essay on which one we think is best – is that OK with you?”

Is that OK with me??? Do you know how hard it was not to burst into song/tears/shouts of joy right then and there?! It was one of those moments where I took a deep breath, smiled my biggest smile and said “Boys, I think that’s a great idea” while secretly high-fiving myself all over the room.

This, my friends, is what makes my day/month/year as a teacher. When my students see a way to apply something they have learned in class to their own lives – well isn’t that the ultimate definition of “Authentic Learning”? It truly was a celebratory moment.

Later that week, I did a 4th Grade Feedback Survey with my students (I got this idea from the fabulous Mr. Jones. You can access my version here if you’d like to try it with your class). And here is one of the responses I received to the question “What project, experience or lesson did you most enjoy this year?”

‘I loved the opinion writing it was my favorite I liked it so much I actually started to do one with ethan’


We still have a ways to go with our opinion writing. We will have a benchmark test at the end of April. But I will carry those words with me for much longer. I know that at least two of my students discovered that writing has purpose and power. They know they can use their words to convince others, to create change and to make their mark – even if they don’t have the perfect ‘hook’.