Not a debate,
let them read.
A few months ago, I was thinking about our day. Kids had been complaining that we didn’t have enough time for Writers Workshop when it was scheduled right after lunch, and I wanted to ask the kids what their thoughts were. I had always set our daily schedule. I started to question this, and began to wonder why I had to decide what the schedule would be. Why can’t the kids have a say in this? I initiated a conversation during morning meeting about our daily schedule. They agreed that the time allotted for Writers Workshop was a problem. They wanted more time to write, and they also wanted more Explore (our free play time), so we decided that we should try to fix this.
We started by establishing the “non-negotiables” – things in our day that we didn’t have control over, like lunch, recess and our specials. Those went up on the white board first. Then we took all the cards we had written out at the beginning of the year and looked at them on the rug. The kids talked about how they wanted the day to go and we created the daily schedule together. It was fabulous. They created the schedule to work for them. And they even carved out more time for Explore.
Now, as part of our daily morning meeting, we go over our daily schedule and talk about how we want our day to look. Most days stay similar to how the kids changed it a few months ago, but sometimes a child will suggest having Mathematicians Workshop at the end of the day, or switching Readers Workshop to the morning, or something else they want to try out. I let the kids decide how their day will look. It’s our day – and the kids should have a say.
We had just returned from our monthly walking field trip to a local park, where we had found a fallen log and spent some time investigating and talking about what might live there. I was reminded of a book I had, A Log’s Life, and went over to our nonfiction book bins to look for it. The kids were waiting patiently on the rug, (as patiently as kindergarteners can wait), as I was looking furiously through the many nonfiction bins we have. I finally found the book – just after one of my kids said,
“We need to organize this library better! You can’t find anything in here! Why don’t we make it like the big library?”
Yes! She was right. The books that we had sorted in September as “learn about the world” or “stories” – were ready to be sorted again, with all the book knowledge that my kindergarteners had gained this year. I invited anyone who wanted to help with this project to gather on the rug during Explore time and we would organize the library better.
Several kids were interested and started working together, sorting the books into piles and having such wonderful conversations!
“We should keep all the dog books together. And all the monkey books in one place. And the snake books….wait, there’s a lot of books about animals. Maybe we can keep all the animal books together. But there’s a lot of books about dogs. I think dogs need to be on their own or there would be too many mixed in the animals. Then we couldn’t find dog books.”
“We have books about people…like farmers and nurses and Native Americans…Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama. We can make one place for books about people.”
“Here’s a book about colors. We read this book when we were making art and learning about colors. People use colors to do art, so it should go in the people place.”
I listened carefully and was amazed at how the kids negotiated the task, the organization and the labeling to make sure the library worked for them. Their conversations were so authentic and I loved listening to how they talked about where books belonged. They spent over two hours on this task and then proudly shared their accomplishment with the rest of the class.
It’s been one week and I’ve noticed how books are being returned to the correct bin and that this part of our classroom library has been revived – more kids are getting books from here and sharing new finds with each other. Ownership, pride, persistence, problem solving…these five and six year olds never cease to amaze.
It started with a question.
“Can 5 people go to blocks?”
I typically turn questions like these back onto the kids, asking them if they think that will work. That day, I just said, “no, there’s not enough room”. Our block area was fairly small, and while 4 kids could squeeze in, there were often issues with not enough space.
“Well, then we need to fix that! Let’s change it so there is enough room!” said one girl.
“Yes! Let’s move the furniture. We need to make it bigger!” came the cries from, now, very excited kindergarteners.
In that moment I had to make a choice – to continue with the planned math lesson or to follow the kids and rearrange our classroom, making a bigger block area. I paused, took a breath and remembered what I believe. I believe that kids are capable. I believe they can solve problems and be persistent when faced with challenges. I believe they can, and should, challenge the way things are and question respectfully. I believe they are “can-do” kids.
So, we made a plan. We talked about what they wanted in the block area, what might work, how we could rearrange, and what we needed to make our classroom work for us. And then, we did the plan.
The kids decided to switch the Imagination Station with the current block area, allowing for more space in blocks and building, and a bit less in dramatic play, which was a huge area currently set up as a vet clinic. This class LOVES to build. It totally made sense that we have a huge space for building and making stuff. We began moving furniture, sweeping up the real life dust bunnies – while laughing at the connection to Jan Thomas’ Rhyming Dust Bunnies book, learning how to use the big dustpan, measuring the space and deciding what would fit where, and rearranging our space to work for the kids living and playing in that space every day. It was magical. I pretty much stood back and watched this take place, in awe of these kiddos.
Real life problems and real life problem solvers.
Capable kindergarteners recognizing a problem, making a plan, and solving the problem.
They can do it.
If we let them.
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?
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!
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.
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!