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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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 🙂

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. )