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.



Giggles, Tears, and the Secret to Success in Teaching


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


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 🙂

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

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!


This week my colleagues and I took 140 4th and 5th graders on an Outdoor Education experience. The fourth graders studied the Gold Rush in the place where gold was discovered in CAlifornia in 1848, and 5th grade was immersed in a science and ropes program.

I cannot understate the organization and effort it takes to make this program happen. Planning for this 3 day 2 night trip begins in August when we start school and doesn’t let up until we go in January. It’s a tremendous amount of effort on the part of our 4th and 5th grade teams to ensure that everything runs smoothly, students are safe, and authentic learning takes place.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

We see students who have never set foot outside their city spend three days in the beautiful Coloma valley – hiking in the mountains, studying the American River and learning to work together to achieve their goals. Students who have never spent the night away from home, enjoy a giant two night sleepover with all their classmates, under the guidance and care of endlessly patient and positive parent chaperones. Everyone leaves feeling proud of what they have achieved and begging for more. When we get back to school, our study of the California Gold Rush will be connected to the sights, sounds, and smells we all experienced. Every year before we go I wonder “is it worth it?” and every year when we return, I know we simply must continue this amazing experience.

But every year, it’s becoming harder and harder to go. The cost of the trip this year was $250 which includes the cost of the program, plus the buses to and from our destination. As a public school, we cannot deny access to anyone if they wish to participate, so we have a scholarship program financed by our PTG that will pay for any students whose families cannot afford the trip. But every year, those numbers are going up. I don’t know how much longer our PTG can sustain this financial burdern. We have fundraised, garnered grants, and donations from community organizations, but it’s still not enough. We are going to meet as a staff this week, and try to come up with some more creative ways to raiser money so our students can continue to participate in this amazing experience. So many of our students would never have this kind of opportunity without our Outdoor Education program.

Do you have Outdoor Education at your school?
What kinds of fundraisers have worked well for you?

I would love to hear from you.
Have a great week,


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.