Beliefs and Practice

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I’ve been thinking a lot about beliefs lately. At the start of my Literacy Instruction and Assessment graduate course, I asked my pre-service teachers to write a “This I Believe” piece, reflecting on their beliefs as they begin our course. We will revisit these at the end of the course and see how our thinking has evolved. Doing this in my graduate program several years ago was a meaningful writing experience that I’ve revisited frequently. I think it’s important to continually revisit our beliefs and more importantly, ask ourselves…How does our practice reflect those beliefs?

Every move we make in our classroom speaks to our beliefs. Everything we do sends a message to our students, colleagues and families. And our practice needs to reflect our beliefs. I share two of my beliefs below. I feel like these are ones I hear other educators talking about. Perhaps you can relate, as well.

If we believe children are capable and we promote independence and problem solving, then…do we have a seating chart? Do we require children to sit in a certain way on the rug? (I’m talking to you, criss cross applesauce) Do we require straight, silent lines in the hallway? Do we hand out supplies like scissors, glue, tape, staplers when we think they are needed? Do we stick to a strict pre-determined schedule? Or…do we allow children to choose where and how to sit and move their bodies? Do we teach them how to be respectful of other learners in the school? Do we make supplies accessible all the time, for children to choose when they need them and how to use them? (yes, kindergarteners can use staplers independently) Do we negotiate the daily schedule to meet the needs of our learners that day? Do we honor and respect children and trust that they can make good choices about what they need – and if they aren’t able to, do we coach and help them learn how to make good choices?

If we believe school should be a meaningful and authentic place of learning, then…do we tell children what they have to write about? Do we only allow children to read books that are on “their level”? Do we stick to the standards and curriculum and not allow time for inquiry and child initiated learning experiences? Do we allow pacing guides, standards or other outside forces to drive our teaching? Or…do we honor choice as a key element of everything we do from readers and writers workshop to play time? Do we teach reading and writing from a place that considers what readers and writers REALLY do? Do we use leveled texts as ONE PIECE (for teachers) of our readers workshop, and provide lots of time and choice for children to read self-selected books regardless of the level or genre? Do we provide lots of opportunities for authentic talk because learning is social? Do we set up learning opportunities based on what we see and hear in our current classrooms, following the children’s interests? Do we teach children first, not the curriculum?

I had the pleasure of hearing Vicki Vinton speak at NCTE this past November. It was a powerful talk, and left me with much to think about. She reminded me that Reggio Emilia is the alignment of beliefs and practice. This speaks to me louder than ever.  I’ve been questioning so much of my practice since leaving her session and have been challenging myself to truly look at my beliefs and how they are reflected in my practice. I challenge you to do the same. It can only make us better, more thoughtful educators. And isn’t that what our kids deserve?

What are your beliefs? How does your practice reflect these?

Learning & Growing in 2018

I remember writing my first professional resume. I was advised to write, “stays abreast of professional literature” by a mentor in my education program. I loved that line. And I’ve lived into it for 27 years of my teaching life.

I devour professional books, spend time on Twitter (@bluskyz and @catchingreaders) and Instagram (@bluskyz and @kinderunicorns), follow professional authors on Facebook and other social media, read many blogs, attend as many professional conferences as I can, take online courses, participate in book clubs, write in my journal, blog, seek out evening and weekend workshops locally, and love having dinners or texting sessions with my thoughtful teacher friends to “talk shop”. I love thinking, talking, reading, writing and thinking some more about education.

I’m in a place right now where I am hungry for professional learning. Perhaps more so than usual. I’m questioning and wondering and exploring many different aspects of my teaching.  I feel like I did when I pursued National Board certification and again when I started my master’s program in literacy studies. I felt this way when I left the classroom and became a literacy specialist and again when I became a kindergarten teacher for the first time. I am at a place, again, where I want to learn and grow and evolve into an even more reflective educator. It’s exciting! Right now, my passion lies with learning as much as I can about the Reggio Emilia approach. This is something I’ve been interested in for many years. I’ve taken some online courses and I’ve read extensively about this amazing approach to education. But right now, it makes more sense to me than ever before. I want to pursue learning about this as a teacher researcher and how this approach can make a difference with our most vulnerable students. I’m currently looking into ways to follow this path of interest as a teacher research project into 2018 and beyond. I’m very excited about what might be possible!

If we are passionately curious and pursue new learning opportunities as teachers, we model this for our students. We not only become better at what we do as educators, we impact student learning in powerful ways. So what will you do to continue growing as a learner and an educator in 2018 and beyond? Here are a few suggestions:

Order a new professional book or two or three.. from Stenhouse or Heinemann or Teachers College Press. Regie Routman’s new book, Literacy Essentials: Engagement, Excellence and Equity for All Learners and Practicing Presence by Lisa Lucas are the ones I’m starting in 2018. Get together with a friend or a group and have a book discussion club. I’m doing this with Powerful Book Introductions: Leading with Meaning for Deeper Thinking starting in January at my school.

Plan on attending a conference this year. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference is the best professional conference I’ve ever attended.  It happens yearly, the week before Thanksgiving. In 2018 it is in Houston. The Whole Language Umbrella, a group within NCTE, has a yearly conference that is smaller. This year it’s in Baltimore in July. In addition to those two major conferences, I’m planning on attending the Annual Progressive Education Summit – Creating Cultures of Thinking in Baltimore in January and the Bank Street 2018 Teaching Kindergarten: Where Did the Garden Go? Democracy, Diversity, Dignity & Dewey Conference in NYC in April. The National Reading Recovery & K-6 Literacy Conference in Colombus, OH in February and the International Literacy Association Conference in Austin, TX in July are two other excellent conferences.  I can’t imagine my teaching life without attending conferences. These amazing learning meccas provide opportunities to connect with other educators, authors and friends, hear different perspectives and voices from outside your district and think deeply about your practice and take new learning, life and inspiration back to your school. While most of us take personal days and pay our own way – it’s worth every penny and any struggles you might have to endure to take the time out of the classroom and travel. Professional conferences are a critical piece of my learning and growing as a teacher.

Put in a proposal to present at a conference. Presenting is such a powerful way to reflect on your practice, to share with others the work you do, and to question and refine your own best teaching. Proposals are due soon for NCTE in Houston and WLU Literacies for All Conference: Sustaining Joy in Our Learning Communities during Challenging Times in Baltimore. I will be submitting proposals and making plans to attend both conferences.

Pursue other local professional development opportunities. The Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) evening workshops are available for people in the DC, Virginia and Maryland areas. Check out their website and invest in an evening of learning for yourself. This is outstanding professional development for only $20! Many universities have opportunities for professional development classes, Saturday workshops or conferences, as do many museums. Check out your local art or science museum for opportunities for teachers.

Create an online PLN (Professional Learning Network). Twitter has exploded over the past 7 years that I’ve been tweeting. There are so many chats and hashtags to follow, and an abundance of educators who tweet and share, question, reflect, inspire and challenge. I’ve recently become a big fan of Instagram. I love the photos and glimpses into people’s classrooms and teaching lives. I suggest finding someone you learn from (an author, a respected professional in the field, an organization, a friend, etc…) to follow and then see who they follow and follow them. Google areas that interest you and find out the chats that are available. Many of these are archived and you can get a feel for how they go. I’m amazed at how much I can learn by reading a few tweets at lunch or waiting for the copier or in line at the grocery store. I hope to be more involved in Twitter chats this year. There are so many good conversations going on out there!

What other ideas do you have for pursuing your professional growth and development? What is the best professional book you’ve read lately? What chats or favorite Twitter or Instagram accounts can you recommend? Please share! Here’s to a fabulous year of learning and growing in 2018!

 

 

Parents and Levels

 

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We have started organizing our classroom library by favorite authors and favorite topics.

 

Yesterday, during Readers Workshop, I suggested a book to one of my kindergarteners. He looked at it and then asked me, “what level is it?” I was stunned. Where had he heard about levels? It certainly wasn’t in our classroom. None of my books are leveled and I’ve never mentioned anything about levels in our talks about how readers choose books to read.

I asked him what he meant. He told me, “the level tells you whether you can read the book or not.” Wow. We went on to have a great conversation about how readers (not levels) decide if they can read a book. Readers can choose a book that interests them, an old favorite, a favorite author or character, and they can read the pictures, read the words or remember read.

But I couldn’t get this conversation out of my mind. This five year old has already heard about levels. A system that is meant for teachers to use to guide OUR instruction. (see my previous blog posts about this) Chances are, he heard about this from a well-meaning parent or adult in his community. Which led me to question – do parents need to know reading levels? What does that really tell our parents? It gives them a number or letter to compare their child to others. It gives them a number or letter to talk about with other parents at soccer practice, the playground or gym. It gives them a number or letter that, most likely, doesn’t really mean much more than a letter or a number that ranks their child. And it may give them a letter or number that their child uses to define himself or herself as a reader and that limits what they can read or not read.

Parent – teacher conferences are coming up in the next months. There are so many things we can share with parents to help them understand where their child is in reading. A level doesn’t really help them understand, and it can do harm.

  • What if we shared their child’s book box and shared the kinds of books their child enjoys?
  • What if we showed our parents texts that their child is reading in guided reading and then compared that text with benchmark texts – showing parents where we are headed?
  • What if we shared the goals their child has set to work on as a reader or the goals we have set for their child?
  • What if we shared how we are teaching strategies to help their child as a reader?
  • What if we shared language that parents can use to help their child talk about books or problem solve when they get to tricky parts?
  • What if we shared our class charts that help guide our readers? (I send these home in our weekly poetry notebooks so parents can see the language we are using and so that kids can share what they are learning in Readers Workshop.)
  • What if we shared lists of suggested books to check out from the library? (Most librarians aren’t going to be able to help you find a “level L” book – however, they can help you find Mo Willems or Jan Thomas books)

I think this is an important conversation to have in our schools. Are we sharing levels outside of our school? And if so, what is that purpose? I worry that talking about levels with parents serves no other purpose than to further define readers by a level and widen the gap between home and school. Choosing a book by the level is not an authentic way of choosing books in the real world. Libraries don’t level books. Book stores don’t level books. Speaking in terms of levels is a language most parents don’t understand, and it doesn’t serve our purpose of creating strong, lifelong readers who love to read.

How do you communicate with families about where their child is as a reader, and where they are headed? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Update: Here is an interview published on October 12 with Fountas and Pinnell that echoes our thoughts on leveled texts and who the levels are for – from the experts who created this leveling system. Well worth a read!

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Why?

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Why?

As educators, I think this is the question we need to be asking. All. The. Time.

I’m worried. I’m worried that our profession is moving towards the timesavers, the quick fixes, the lessons-in-a-box (or book). I’m worried that we are easily accepting what we are asked to do without questioning, without asking for evidence that it is best practice, without asking whether it is what’s best for our students, without asking “why” we are doing this.  We are asked to follow scripts written by people who oftentimes aren’t even educators, to follow lessons written by well-meaning educators (but educators who have never met our children) without thinking them through, to put children in front of computers to assess their reading and math abilities (and, even worse, to deliver instruction) without asking why in the world we would rely on a computer instead of a trained professional educator to assess and teach our children.

We are busy. So. Very. Busy.  Believe me, I get that. But we can’t stop questioning. We can’t stop thinking.  We can’t stop “being brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching”, (as Lucy Calkins wrote). We can’t look for the quick fix, the timesaver, the intervention-in-a-box. We can’t stop believing that it is highly trained educators that can make the difference. Not for any children, but especially not for our most vulnerable children. Not for the kids that need us the most. These children need us to be thinkers. Questioners. Fighters. They need teachers who are willing to go the extra mile, who aren’t willing to give up, who realize that the fastest assessment or the quickest lesson plan or the packet on TPT  may not be the best. Teachers who view every lesson idea and plan through the lens of the children who are in their class at this moment. Teachers who put children above curriculum, standards or objectives. Teachers who are advocates and not afraid to speak up. Teachers who are willing to put their heads together to figure out what is going on and how to best help these children. Teachers who will never give up. Teachers who realize that we cannot waste time with activities and tasks that are not authentic and meaningful. Teachers who keep learning and thinking and talking and digging deeper into curriculum, assessment and most of all, the children in their rooms right now.

Teachers who collaborate, think and constantly question their practices, and what they are asked to do – are the ones who can, and will make a difference.

Be brave, my teacher friends. Be brave. Ask why. And keep making a difference every day.

 

 

Integration

img_1715Pat and I wrote about the importance of integrating strategies in Catching Readers Before They Fall. We love the analogy of an orchestra. In a symphony orchestra, all the instruments blend together to form incredible compositions extremely pleasing to the ear. The strategies in the head of the reader combine together to make meaning of the text just as each instrument joins the musical composition perfectly in tune with the others.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my kindergarten readers are taking off in their independent reading. Teaching integration right from the start is key to developing strategic readers. I teach many strategies through reading aloud, thinking aloud and showing kids how that strategy can help them as readers. Together, we create an evolving chart of what readers do. It’s important to me that this chart, and the language on the chart, is co-created with the kids so they have ownership.

As we add to our anchor chart of what readers do, I make sure to refer to this chart often by thinking aloud during interactive read alouds, and referring to it during small group instruction and conferences. I show the kids how we don’t just use one strategy at a time, rather, we use many of them simultaneously.

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I help the kids reflect on what they are doing as readers and see these strategies as tools to make meaning from text. I want them to have several things to pull from when meaning breaks down and when they are stuck on a tricky word. I keep small photos of our large, evolving, strategy chart around the room for them to refer to as they read.

As I send the kids off to read independently, we read over our anchor chart. I have them put up their fingers, one at a time, as we read each strategy. Then we weave our fingers together, showing that the strategies all go together. This physical movement symbolizes the integration of strategies.

Teaching integration right from the start helps build a solid foundation for our readers. How do you help readers see the importance of integration?

 

Fidelity vs. Thoughtfulness

img_9986 We live in a time right now when professional resources are abundant. We have endless access to lesson plans, problem based learning projects, activities, ideas, blog posts, professional books, teachers sharing with teachers, curriculum guides, programs, etc… I can Google any topic and find a wealth of resources. Teachers are not at a loss for what to teach and ideas for how to teach it. But there’s something that I keep coming back to:

Are we being thoughtful with what and how we teach?

There are now scripts written out for literacy workshops, charts to copy or simply post, literacy “cookbooks” of sorts with specific lessons for exactly what your students might need and other resources to make our lives easier and to save time. These are good things, for the most part. Don’t get me wrong. They are based in research, carefully thought out by expert educators who know how kids learn best, tested in real classrooms with real kids. I own most of these resources and use them as I plan – (as a resource, not as a script). And these are WAY better than any basal textbook series I’ve ever seen. These resources have definitely lifted the quality of literacy instruction in many schools. They’ve provided a scaffold for implementing literacy workshops.

But are we thinking deeply about the kids we are teaching? 

img_0082Years ago while teaching in Florida I was at a required basal textbook training for a series my county had just adopted. The representative said, “Look! Everything is written out for you. Even the teachable moments. You don’t even have to think!” And that’s when I walked out of the meeting. I didn’t go into teaching to not think. And I value my profession way more than to accept the idea that it would be a good thing if I didn’t have to think. It’s offensive and degrading to be told you don’t have to think.

It’s easy to flip open a book and have your lesson plan written out for you and ready to go. And chances are, with many of these resources, you would be teaching a good lesson. We get ideas from each other – that’s what teachers do. We don’t have to constantly recreate the wheel.  But I hope that we are still thinking. And reflecting. And connecting with OUR kids – the ones sitting with us in our classrooms at this very moment. I hope we are not taking exactly what’s handed to us and teaching it blindly because we were told to “teach with fidelity”. We need to think and question. We need to teach our kids to think and question. We need to continue learning as teachers and understand the WHY behind what we are doing. We need to be responsive and reflective as teachers.

img_0081A teacher leader in my county once helped me reflect on the idea of fidelity vs. thoughtfulness. I keep coming back to that. Perhaps we need to be implementing new structures, programs, etc. with “thoughtfulness”, rather than “fidelity”. We need to look at the programs, curriculums and expectations our district and administration give us with a critical eye. We need to be very careful with resources we find online. We need to tweak the “recipes” in these literacy “cookbooks” to meet the needs of our students. We need to use the pre-printed anchor charts as a temporary scaffold for us as teachers – and replace them with kid pictures and drawings and our own students’ words as soon as we feel solid in that teaching.  We need to deconstruct these things together with our team, be thoughtful in our implementation, question and reflect on what works and what doesn’t.  As one of my former principals always says, “the answer is in the room”.  Talk, reflect and think together – don’t just blindly follow something from outside. We need to use the abundance of resources we have as departure points to launch our own best teaching. We need to keep talking, questioning and thinking with our team and on our own.  As I’ve said before, we teach children, not curriculum, programs or standards.

Be thoughtful. Question. Be willing to change your thinking.  And as Lucy Calkins once wrote in my copy of The Art of Teaching Writing, 

“Be a brave learner. Be brave enough to outgrow your own best teaching.”

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What Kind of Class Do We Want?

img_6072I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. Books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss.

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.

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Last year’s  finished chart with photos!

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here is our chart from last week (January 2017). We will be working on making our class chart next week. Stay tuned!

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