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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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.

Book Magic


Something magical happened in my classroom this week.

It's a memory I will wrap carefully in tissue and ribbon, and store in the recesses of my brain to be opened and relived whenever I need a little teacher boost. A package of sunshine and hope for those dark days we all experience as teachers.

I've mentioned before, I work in a Title 1 school. 50% of our students are on the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program. I see the impacts of poverty, drugs, and homelessness daily. I make my classroom a safe place where the focus is on learning and taking care of each other. I give students the opportunity to submerge themselves in reading and writing. To share their words with others and escape the chaos that is sometimes their homelife.
And this week, I saw it pay off.

I purchased 5 Nooks for my classroom with money from our PTG. They are the very cheapest model – black and white, no games, no internet, just the capacity to download books. I found a series of stories for kids based on the Minecraft game – a big hit in any fourth grade classroom at the moment. The stories were $2.99 each and I knew exactly who to share them with.

Brian* was immediately hooked. Here was a student who had not been able to find that 'just right book' in my classroom – whenever we met to conference, he was reading a different book, and skipping over sections so he could say he'd finished and move on to something else. Brian seemed to have trouble with focus and, despite his ability, wasn't making the progress I expected. He became somewhat of a puzzle for me. How could I help this child reach his potential and show him that books were meant to be savored and enjoyed?

The answer was The Herobrine Rises. Knowing Brian was interested in Minecraft, I asked him to read the story for me and help me decide whether the series was something other students would enjoy. He took his role seriously, and finished the story in two days, immediately coming to ask me if we could purchase the next one. Worried, that this was just another ‘skim job’ I sat down and asked him to tell me about the book. Brian gave me a blow by blow of the story line, and answered my questions about the story with detail and enthusiasm. He was hooked 🙂 Three other students close by, heard us talking and requested to read the story. Pretty soon we had a Minecraft Book club going.

Over the next three weeks, Brian came to me every couple of days, asking if I would purchase the next story in the series. Then, just three days ago, he came to me with a look of despair on his face. “Mrs. Hurlburt, I’m almost done with book 7 and it’s the last one. What am I going to do when it’s over?” You know that feeling – when something you love is ending – that was all over Brian’s face. How could I keep this child, who had finally found his place in the pages of a book, from losing that momentum? What could we do to acknowledge the work that he had done and the connection he had made to these stories? “Will there be more?” he asked. And that’s when I knew. He needed to go to the source. I did a quick web search and discovered the author’s website and email address. I asked Brian to sit down with another student who was enjoying the stories and write a letter to the author. They quickly drafted a note which included their passion for the stories, their questions about the next series, and even a suggestion for a storyline. I watched them type their letter on my laptop and send it off – along with my sincere hope that this author would find the time to respond within the next couple of weeks.

I sent the class to lunch and sat down to go through my email. Not 10 minutes later, there was a reply from author Steve DeWinter. He had written the ‘perfect’ letter to my students – grateful, encouraging and full of hope. He gave them the title of his new series, and told them their idea for his next Minecraft story was a good one. As the boys returned from lunch, we read the email together, and then to the whole class. The look of joy on Brian’s face was priceless. He knew an AUTHOR. His connection to reading and writing was complete. He was hooked. An immediate flurry of letters to ‘my favorite author’ began, as students were desperate to repeat Brian’s experience. And he couldn’t have been more proud.

I will be forever grateful to Steve DeWinter, who took the time to respond to my students and may never know the lasting impact he had on Brian. You see, as he sat in my classroom that day, Brian’s mother was in jail on drug charges. He doesn’t have a home and they have been depending on the friends and relatives to take them in. He sleeps on a different couch every night. I think they may have been living in a van at one point. Brian comes to Homework Club after school, not because he needs help with his homework, but because I feed him snacks. Brian’s life outside of our school walls is chaotic, frightening, and messy.

No child needed the escape of a good book more than Brian. Steve DeWinter gave him that and so much more.

Something magical happened in my classroom this week….and I will never forget it.

*Brian’s name has been changed to protect his privacy
Image from http://www.lightbliss.com

Balloons, not Anchors

I have noticed something about me over the last few months that I don’t like.
I have become increasingly focused in the negative aspects of my profession. I’ve found myself drawn in to those tweets and blog posts that decry the corporatization of the public school system, bemoan the lack of adequate pay for teachers and highlight the disconnect between what the common core was supposed to be (a way to give all students access to a quality education) and what it has become (an ever increasing emphasis on high stakes testing and a source of great angst for parents, students and teachers alike).

Back in September, I read this article by Heather Wolpert and felt sure she must have been secretly visiting my classroom. She was writing about me. I had just told my principal that I needed to get off all the various committees I was on and focus only on my students. I had withdrawn myself from all the good work I was doing, and what’s worse is after I read Heather’s article, I proceeded to ignore all of her good advice. I got sucked into the vortex if negativity that made coming to work every day lose its shine. The challenges we face as teachers and parents are tough right now, but no good can come from ‘living’ in that negative place. I found myself ever more reluctant to get out of my warm bed in the morning, put a smile on my face and greet my students with an open heart. That is just not me.

I truly love my job. I know I’m good at it, and that I make a difference to my students’ lives. I want to be the best that I can be for them every day. And for myself. So, Today I tidied up my twitter feed and made a pledge to myself to keep it strictly ‘professional’ – a place for learning and collaboration and a place where I can go to reboot and recharge. In the end, I have 60 children who rely on me to lift them up and show them a positive future. No more listening to or participating in the negative talk.

I want balloons, not anchors.