With all that I have, in the time that I’ve got

This week was a frustrating one in my classroom.
I don’t know if it was the full moon, the anticipation of a four day weekend ahead for my students, or poor teaching on my part, but things just did not go as planned. More than likely it was a combination of all three.

When things don’t go well in my classroom, it’s hard not to take it personally. I’m my own worst critic and I want everything to go perfectly all the time. This year, my goal is to focus on the positive and to look at things in terms of a continuum, not an end game. Don’t get me wrong, I still want everything to go perfectly, but I’m learning to reflect in a way that opens doors rather than shuts them.

So – what went wrong this week? In my last blog I wrote about putting my students into reading partnerships a la Lucy Calkins. Their first meeting – interviewing each other, thinking of a partnership name and drawing a logo was a great success. I should state upfront that assigning reading partners is not something I’ve been comfortable with in the past. I believe strongly in choice – kids who choose their own partners tend to be more invested in the work. But, I wanted to try this. There are benefits to putting “like” readers together, and giving students the chance to work with someone new. They can read the same books and talk about them together. I envisioned lofty conversations and highly engaged students sharing their love of reading with each other. I mean, thats what happened in the readers’ workshop book right?!

But here’s what I saw in my classroom this week. Bickering about where to sit, awkward silence when it came time to discuss novels, refusal to participate, tears, hurt feelings and anger. My response was to call everyone back to the rug, ask what worked and what didn’t work and send them out to try again. Some did better, most did not. Why didn’t it work? I mean, it’s mid way through the year, I feel like I’ve established a community of readers and a safe place to talk. We’ve done group work and partner work all year. It was definitely time to pull back and reflect and here is what I came up with:

1) no matter how many times we’ve discussed books as a class, my students needed more than just a list of things to talk about. (Your sticky notes, characters, plots, predictions). They needed sentence starters and more structured conversations. I was way too ambitious. In her book Writing about Reading, Janet Angellilo says “carefully scaffold students towards accountable talk, that is including everyone in the conversation, staying on topic, keeping with the text and so on”. P5. But there’s so much hidden in that “and so on”. This week I started thinking about WHY my students were having such a hard time talking to each other and sharing their ideas about books.

2) I teach in a Title 1 school where 50% of my students are in the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. I have students who are homeless, students whose parents are on drugs, students whose lives are anything but stable. I realized this week that I needed to look outside of my own middle class values and realize that many of my students do not have good conversational models at home. More often than not they are likely to witness arguments rather than conversations. If they do not have two parents at home, their conversational models are more likely to be the TV or radio. My own child attends my school and is in my grade level. Both his parents have post graduate degrees, and he hears us talk about books and current events on a regular basis. More often than not we sit around the dinner table and talk about our respective days. I’m sure this happens in the homes of some of my students, but not all. The children who have this experience are already so far ahead of those who don’t. They know how to interact politely and respectfully with others. They know how to share differences in opinions without offense. They can CONVERSE and LEARN from each other. How do I give my students what my son has learned in 9 years of life when I have such little time with them?

3) The answer is……with all that I have in the time that I’ve got.
I CANNOT not do this. I’ve been searching online for a curriculum that teaches accountable talk. I’ve found Pinterest boards and sentence stems. This week I plan to implement all that I can and have students talking to each other as much as I can. We have a lot of work to do.

So, I will not abandon my reading partnerships yet. In fact, I have made it my goal to get those kids talking to each other about books in a respectful manner if it kills me! We will bond, we will practice, we will talk, we will learn. From each other.

Please let me know if you’ve found anything that has helped your students practice the art conversation.

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Reading Peeps

Today was one of my favorite days so far this school year – I gave my students companions in their reading journeys. Each student was paired with a reader of similar ability and given time to interview each other, choose a reading partnership name, and design a logo for their partnership. We began by talking about what a good interviewer does and what kinds of questions they would need to ask to get the most out of their interviewee. This idea came from Lucy Calkins’ Readers’ Workshop books. I have been usingDaily 5/CAFE for the last two years, and now I’m trying out some of the original Readers’ Workshop ideas. I’ll admit I’m a little dubious about pairing children up long term. Up until now, my classroom has been all about choice – choosing who you read with and how often. But I can see the benefits of sticking with one partner, reading the same books, and having extended conversations about literature that are based on a shared reading history. So I’m giving it a go.

I have 2 classes of thirty fourth grade students. Today took a great deal of planning – I wanted to make sure each student was paired with someone that I felt would be an excellent reading companion, and a good match personality-wise. At the same time I was also looking to create ‘new’ partnerships by putting students together who wouldn’t naturally gravitate to each other. When you factor in the students who are overly shy, on the spectrum, or just generally anti-social, this becomes an overwhelming task. But today, I was ready.

And it worked. Really well.

My students were serious in their interviewing. They discovered shared likes and dislikes, created some very cool Partnership Names (The Reading Peeps, The Book Bros, The Fictioneers to name a few), and had fun designing a logo for their partnership (I scaffolded this activity by asking them if they were to design a t-shirt for their partnership what would it look like). What with all the preparation and the discussion of our next Project (creating a Book Trailer using iMovie) our 90 minutes flew by. They were literally groaning that they didn’t have time to read their book with their partner today! Actually, I’m glad, because it keeps that anticipation and excitement going for tomorrow. It’s like looking at the present under the tree that you can’t unwrap yet. So much of what we do in our classrooms involves framing things in the right way to motivate students and I can tell you, today was a BIGGIE!

Naturally, there were two or three partnerships in each class that I have some concerns about. I knew it would be more challenging for them to find common ground and/or communicate with each other. Some were boy/girl partnerships, some were students who would never choose to work together on their own, and some were challenged by their social skills – which is actually one of the main reasons I want to do this. I want my students to learn to converse with each other in a trusting, respectful manner about books and hopefully about life. I think this is a set of skills we need to TEACH – especially at a school like mine where students are struggling with so many of the issues associated with poverty and low Socio-economic status. So, here was my strategy for starting those groups off on the right foot today. As they were interviewing each other I approached them and told them, I was so very excited about this particular partnership. I outlined the strengths of each reader, and explained that both students were at a point in their reading lives where they were ‘taking off’ with their reading. I told them that together they would be unstoppable and I couldn’t wait to see how far they would go. Without fail, their eyes lit up with pride and they were excited to get back to work.

I know there is still so much work to do, but I feel great about our first day as long term reading partners and the way it will shape the learning that happens from here on out. I’m very proud of my Reading Peeps.

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Juicy Goodness

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This week, I have been able to experience my absolute favorite reading feeling. I spent several days immersing myself in some truly incredible professional books and lapped each paragraph up for its juicy goodness. I mean, I feel like I have the juice of ripe fruit dribbling down my chin, the sticky chocolate bits on my fingers, and the melt in my mouth gorgeousness of sugary meringue on my tongue. There were so many wonderful nuggets in these books that I literally had to set them down every 20 minutes or so and spend some time just absorbing what I’d learned. My family was slightly amused by my desire to start conversations with them about reading, and to discuss the meaning and validity of certain teaching practices (not so easy with my 9 year old who was lucky enough to be home with me most of the time and the recipient of the majority of my ramblings!) I miss my co-workers!

This, my friends is my reading Nirvana – my truly happy place. I love exploring my profession and learning from others. I am the proverbial “sponge” that can’t wait for school to start on Monday so I can implement the things I’ve read about. But more importantly, I can’t wait to tell my students how much I enjoyed my reading life over the break. If I could boil my teaching down to one single statement it would be “find your juicy goodness”. Well, maybe to be a bit less amorphous, “Find your reading bliss”. I want my students to discover the books that make them smile, exclaim “YES!”, grab the nearest warm body to discuss, sometimes cry, wail, and ultimately be changed forever. If I can do this lofty thing, then I have created readers for life or Readers in the Wild as Donalyn Miller would say. Connecting students with books that make them want to read more is, after all, the best way to start them on the road to educational success.

I hope you have enjoyed this respite we call Winter Break, and had a chance to rejuvenate your teaching core. I know I’m ready to jump back in and I can’t wait to get my students reinvigorated for 2014. I will share my reading life with them, and spend some time helping them set goals for the rest of the school year – including reading goals. I can’t wait to hear what my accomplished readers and formerly reluctant readers read over the break, and I will begin anew my quest to bring those last few stragglers into the fold of juicy goodness.

Best wishes to you for 2014 and may you always have a good book on hand.

Annabel Hurlburt

If you’re interested, my amazing reads this week were:

Writing about Reading by Janet Angelillo (I’m starting a book study with this book at my school – inspired by a post Donalyn Miller shared on #titletalk)

Building a Reading Life by Lucy Calkins
A Guide to Reading Workshop by Lucy Calkins
These books were a part of this set
(I do a form of Reading Workshop in my classroom already – Daily 5 and CAFE which was designed by the Two Sisters and I LOVE it. I wanted to read Lucy’s work and see how they compared and where I could add more. )