How to Confer with Your Readers

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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!

Annabel

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

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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

Annabel

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

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

Don’t Be Afraid to Start Over

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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!

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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’

Wow.

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’.

Freedom to Teach

The last two weeks I have been down the black hole of report cards, immersed in grades, comments and discussions with my partner teacher about the progress of our students and where to go next. I’ve also been a leader on a committee that is creating our District’s new Standards Based report card that will reflect our implementation of Common Core and a new 1-4 grading rubric. In short, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about assessing students – how it’s done, how it’s shared with parents, students and teachers; and what it means for those fourth graders that sit in my classroom every day.

This year California teachers and students were given a rare and precious gift. The California Legislature chose to opt out of the State testing that typically happens in April, in order to prevent students from having to experience a ‘double testing’ regimen of STAR plus the new Smarter Balanced pilot tests.

I like to think of myself as a teacher who does not ‘teach to the test’. I look at the standards and plan my curriculum accordingly. I teach what I think students need, based on where they come in to my class, and where I want them to be by June. I give them academic and emotional support. I try to share some life lessons along with my reading and writing lessons. I have high standards for my students – I want them to soar academically and socially. And I am fortunate to have an Administrator who supports me.

But not having the STAR test looming over our heads this year has taught me an important lesson. It changed the way I teach. This year I took more risks, I tried different strategies, I took more TIME. I focused on what I really wanted my students to get out of fourth grade, without worrying about whether I had covered every way they could be asked about a particular aspect of writing strategies and conventions. We had more book talks, more partner work, more book clubs. I finally started my long-planned but never implemented Breakfast with Books Club. I did ‘close reading’, but with texts that I knew the students would be drawn to (every single copy of The False Prince has been checked out of our school library since we read closely from the first chapter last week). My overarching goal was for this group of students ( at least 40% of whom came to me reading below grade level) was to get them excited about reading. To teach them the joy, fear, excitement and grief that can be found in the lines of a text. To make connections with characters and authors and to share their love of reading with each other.

As I assess my students at the end of second trimester, I feel very positive about where we are. Monday mornings are filled with conversations about books we’ve read over the weekend. I hear students randomly discussing characters and plots from books during their free time. Spontaneous book clubs have sprung up as kids share their love of Harry Potter and the Stranded Series of books. They are reading for pleasure and knowledge. And in the end, this is what I wanted. Are they ready to take the Smarter Balanced test? I’ll know in May when we take the pilot. But from what I’ve seen and read so far from other Districts, we will most likely do very poorly. However, in my mind, my students have already succeeded.

I am not an anti-testing advocate. I believe we need ways to assess our students – but we need multiple measures. No single test should define the way we teach. And I’m especially concerned about the money and industry that has sprung up around testing our students. For myself, this year has been enlightening. I am a different teacher when April isn’t looming as ‘testing month’, and I like what I’ve learned.

Having the freedom to teach has indeed been a precious gift.

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Giggles, Tears, and the Secret to Success in Teaching

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Last week was a challenge. You know those days……the days when well planned lessons go awry, even our ‘best’ students seem to have forgotten that well laid foundation for independent work, and the more challenging students are spinning notebooks on their pencils during the mini lesson, or passing notes to each other during work time. Call it Spring Fever, call it barometric pressure, call it a full moon – whatever you call it – you know how it feels! I think the ‘high point’ was when a visiting teacher, coming to learn about my workshop model, helped one of my students dispose of a cockroach that had cozied up to him while he was writing on the floor. You can imagine how much learning happened in the following 10 minutes!

We’ve all had those days, those weeks, and sometimes those years when the reality of your classroom doesn’t quite match the vision in your head. Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon and if it were in my power, I would make sure every teacher in the country had access to it.

My teaching partner.

I am lucky enough to teach with a person whose passion for teaching rivals mine. We have similar teaching styles, but enough differences that we complement each other. I know this is a rare and precious thing, because in my 9 years of teaching, this is the first time I’ve experienced it. I know that when I have those days, I can walk next door and tell my stories and we can both have a good laugh and/or cry – this week we laughed until we cried and it was such a wonderful release. Everyone should have a good giggle like that on a regular basis!

What makes our partnership even more special is the model we use to teach. I certainly take no credit for this model – it was well and truly entrenched at my school when I arrived and boy, am I glad I was willing to give it a try. I’ve recently heard it called ‘platooning’ in this article from Edweek. But you may know it as Departmentalization or Specialization. It’s the norm in Middle and High schools, but pretty rare at the elementary level.

Between us, my teaching partner and I have 60 fourth grade students – two homerooms of 30 children each. I teach Language Arts (reading and writing) and some Social Studies, and she teaches Math, Science and Social Studies. For example, my regularly scheduled day means I start by teaching Reading Workshop to my homeroom for 90 minutes, until morning recess. After a ten minute break (yard duty for us), the students switch homerooms (we are right next door to each other) and then I teach the same Reading Workshop to the second group of students for 90 minutes. Lunch time is 40 minutes and then I see both groups again in the afternoon for 50 minute blocks of writing, social studies, or grade level novel work. Mrs. R., my partner teacher, teaches Math to both groups in the morning, and alternates Science and Social Studies in the afternoons. Our students get all the required minutes for their subjects, plus the following benefits:

1. Movement and Variety – students move between the two classes and work with two different teachers.
2. They have two teachers who are specialists in their subject matter and teach accordingly – i.e. very well!
3. Students have two teachers who get to know them over the course of the year and work together to come up with ways to support and/or challenge them.

The benefits for teachers are as follows:
1. Having the opportunity to dive deeply into your content area and really expand your expertise – “Common Core” anyone??!
2. Getting to know twice as many students and make twice as many connections.
3. Sharing ideas/celebrations/frustrations with a partner who knows ‘exactly’ what you experience in your classroom. Say goodbye to feeling isolated and alone in your four walls.

I couldn’t think of a better way to teach. But I know that I’m lucky to work with someone whose ideology and beliefs about school, students, and teaching are similar to mine.

You may not have the opportunity to Departmentalize at your site, but you always have the opportunity to connect with another teacher. Trust me, this is the thing that will get you through the hard days, help you celebrate the great days, and smile at everything in between. Forge that connection – start small with a short conversation about curriculum, or how to help a struggling student. Make the jump to embrace connectivity – of the old fashioned kind 🙂 I promise, good things will happen.

I wish you giggles and tears and a partnership that brings your teaching to a whole new level.

Thanks Mrs. R. for being my other teaching half 🙂

Just Happy to Be Here

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Wednesday was the highlight of my week last week. I was able to spend almost the entire day discussing books – with students, with other teachers, and with administrators. This my friends, is my Happy Place.

The morning began bright and early with my first Breakfast with Books Book Club Meeting. I invited all 60 of my fourth grade students to join me for breakfast in my classroom every two weeks to discuss books and share literary experiences. I had been wanting to do this for a while, and finally took the plunge after reading a tweet from Patrick Andrus and checking out his blog . I’m so glad I did. I had 8 students sign up and it was perfect. We shared out the books we are currently reading and voted to read one together – Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage. I wanted the kids to choose and I haven’t read this Newberry Honor winning book yet, so I was excited when it came out on top of our list. Breakfast with Books started at 7:45am and went until 8:25am when the bell rang and it was time for school to start. Everyone left happy and eager to start reading – I’m sure the donuts added a little pep to their morning too!

The rest of Wednesday morning was spent collaborating with my fellow fourth grade teachers from around the District, creating a Common Core Unit of Study for the novel Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan. I adore this book, and convinced my colleagues it would be a way to teach reading, writing and California history through the pages of an outstanding novel. As we transition to a Reader’s Workshop model and move further into Common Core, many of our teachers are struggling with what it means to teach without worksheets and a pacing guide. Our first attempt at this collaboration did not go so well, but thanks to the perseverance of our Curriculum Director, Common Core liaison, and a few fourth grade teachers, we tried again with great success. Teachers worked in small groups (not organized by site/school) and had wonderful discussions about the powerful themes, language and characters in the book. As people talked about their experiences with the novel, they were beginning to see the power of having students think deeply about what they read. The opportunities for thinking, talking and writing about reading were instantly obvious and I was so excited to see the buzz and enthusiasm that ensued. It was an extremely productive and enjoyable morning,

But as much as I loved this experience, I missed being in my own classroom with my own students. They are making some great strides right now and I am really enjoying watching their progress. As I reflected on my Breakfast with Books experience and the joy I saw on those faces, I realized THAT is the feeling I want to create in my classroom every day. Not just for those 8 children, but for all 60 of them. I know that the Daily 5/CAFE Workshop model I’m using has gone a long way towards helping me to create that atmosphere, but I still have a ways to go. This summer I am hoping to participate in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. This is my Holy Grail, my teaching Mecca. I will be on the computer on February 26th completing my application with all fingers and toes crossed! Hopefully I will have the opportunity to attend, and learn from the people I think are the very best at what they do. I will be just like one of those 8 students in my classroom on Wednesday morning, eyes lit up, face beaming, brain going full-speed ahead – just happy to be there 🙂

What Does “Teacher Leader” Mean to You?

20140209-105448.jpgThe term Teacher Leader seems to have become a part of the education lexicon over the last couple of years. There are blogs devoted to the topic, chats on twitter, books on the subject and countless articles appearing on websites like Edutopia and EdWeek. Whenever I see something with Teacher Leader in the title, I invariably click on it. I have been asked to take on leadership roles at my school. I have led committees, demonstrated teaching practices for colleagues, and organized school-wide events. As the first teacher in my school to use the Reading Workshop model, I have become the ‘go to’ person for my principal as our District moves all of us in that direction. I guess you could say I am a Teacher Leader.

But I’m not comfortable with it.

I recognize that a good portion of why a resist the term is because I’m afraid. I’m afraid to be in charge – afraid of failure, afraid of blowback from peers, afraid of resentment. These are my issues and I’m working on them. Stepping into a leadership role means having a thick skin and a certain knack for ignoring negativity. I’m working on it.

But, there’s something else that just doesn’t sit right with me when it comes to the idea of “Teacher Leaders”. Those of us who are devoted to our profession and constantly seek to improve our practice know the amount of time and effort it takes to be an excellent teacher. Many of us devote weekends, evenings and holidays to planning lessons, researching techniques and reading up on our content areas. Being an outstanding teacher takes time – and I don’t mean that in the sense of years in the job – I mean it takes UP time – hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the summer.

The irony of “Teacher Leadership” is that we are taking outstanding teachers who already work incredibly hard, and putting even more on their plates. They are expected to take on a larger workload, endure possible resentment from peers, and lose time in their own classrooms – and their reward – the unofficial title “Teacher Leader” and nothing more. At least that seems to be how it works in my District. And this is what I am trying to find out when I click on all those ‘Teacher Leader’ links. Is my District the exception, or the norm? Could it be possible that all across our country we are asking our best and brightest teachers to assume leadership roles, to work harder and sacrifice more, for nothing but an unofficial title and a sense of altruism?

Being the purveyor of positivity that I am, I prefer not to dwell on what is wrong with our profession, but focus on a solution. Right now we have the opportunity to restructure our profession.

Currently, educational structure at the District level is comprised of Teachers and Administrators. You are either in the classroom, or you’re in the office. There is no in between. Opportunities for advancement exist only for teachers who see the title “Principal” or “Adminsitrator” in their future. Perhaps it’s time to think about a layer of ‘Teacher Leaders’ that work in between Principal and Teacher. These outstanding teachers could be selected to work with teachers and students, to advance practices, support learners (both students and teachers) and implement change. Principals would have more time to focus on administrative tasks and teacher leaders would not feel the pressure of having to run their own classroom while they support their colleagues. I know this happens to some degree now under the title of “coach”. But I would like to see it implemented in a more formal way in every District in the nation.

Talent in any profession should be recognized and rewarded. I know I would be extremely interested in a position that allowed me to focus on teaching practice, curriculum and implementation, that didn’t remove me completely from classrooms, and provided me with the time and resources to do my job well. I don’t want to be removed from what’s happening on a day to day basis in our classrooms, but I want to be an agent for change and growth.

What does “Teacher Leadership” look like in your District? Do you see changes ahead? Am I way off base?! I’m eager to hear from you. Please comment below.

Have a great week and keep on reading!
Annabel

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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The Art of Reflection

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As 2013 draws to a close, I’m reflecting on my teaching practice and Thinking about how my year has gone so far. I know that in our job, it is so easy to focus on what we haven’t done – there’s never enough time, always too much curriculum to cover, and one more read aloud we really want to fit in. But this school year one of my Resolutions was to focus on the positive when I reflect – to know there’s always further to go, but to make sure I take the time to look backwards at how far we’ve come.

This year I have made an effort to institute regular reflection times in my classroom. At the end of each month, students fill out a reflection sheet, giving them the opportunity to think about their successes, where they would like to focus for the coming month, and how my teaching partner and I can help them. I have really enjoyed reading these reflections which I adapted from Pernille Ripp’s blog (here). I love the insights I’m getting into what students enjoy and what they have found challenging over the month. (I also love how many of them ask me for more reading time :). They take the reflections very seriously and their insights into the workings of our classroom and their own learning processes are both informative and poignant. One question asks students what they would like to focus on for next month and I’m impressed that so many of my fourth graders make choices that I would have chosen for them based on where they are both academically and socially. Sometimes I don’t think we give our students enough opportunities to reflect on where they are, how far they’ve come and where they want to go. With the reams of data we are asked to collect and interpret, it’s easy to lose track of the students behind the numbers. It is my firm belief that taking the time to do this kind of activity provides just as many valuable insights into how we can help our students as any standardized test does.

These monthly reflections have been a way for me to do some self-assessment too. What has been successful? What has stuck with my students? What are they still unsure of? What do I need to re-visit?

I’m looking forward to re-starting the school year on January 6. I love that both teachers and students have these two weeks to rest, reflect, and recharge. I can’t wait to get back into my classroom and talk about what we read over break, share how far we’ve come since August, and set goals for the rest of our school year. We will celebrate our successes together and hopefully create a feeling of trust and support for our future goals. Nothing would make me happier than to see my students working together to achieve our classroom goals and being there to support each other with their individual goals. In fact, I’m looking forward to asking them how we can do this. I know they will undoubtedly come up with ideas that I would not have thought about.

Here is My challenge to you as you return to your classrooms next week:
1. Write three things you are proud of achieving in your classroom so far this year (could be as big as implementing a program like readers’ workshop, or it could be as ‘small’ as making a perfect book recommendation for that reluctant reader. Take five minutes to pat yourself on the back and celebrate your successes.

2. Write three things you want to focus on in your teaching practice from January-June. It might be reading a professional book, implementing some new technology in your classroom, or re-working your reading conferences.

3. Now, ask your students to do the same. Give them the opportunity to reflect on their learning and set goals for the future. Then make sure you revisit them regularly (once a month) so they can see their progress. Of course if this is the first time you’ve done anything like this, you’ll need to provide plenty of scaffolding for your students. Generate some lists of curriculum areas and behavioral goals together, and provide them with some sentence starters. Keep goals specific and attainable for example “I will read three books by the end of January” rather than “I will become a better reader”.

Enjoy the rest of your break and I wish you all the best for 2014.