Just Because It’s Fun, Doesn’t Mean It’s Easy

I’ll admit it—I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. I work tirelessly to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

 Unfortunately, there are many colleagues who are not so enamored of my fun class. They are under the misperception that students enjoy my class because it is fun and therefore easy. Some have even said as much. They don’t believe the students could possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors. This is absolutely not the case.

 To these other teachers, rigor (by the way, I hate that word when applied to education) usually just means hard. It means more worksheets or problems assigned every night. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. It means many students dislike their class.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. This first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it. It truly speaks to my philosophy of teaching.

Below, I will give an example of how I teach a fairly boring required skill (comma usage) in a way that challenges and engages my students. These are some of the activities my students do in class. I don’t use all of them every time and there are a few more not listed here. They are in no particular order.

  1. I show funny examples of comma misuse (such as this one) so they can see how commas avoid confusion.
  2. I show funny examples (such as this one) of how commas placed in different locations change the meaning of the sentence.
  3. We discuss the ongoing debate about the use of the Oxford comma
  4. I give them a set of mentor text passages using all of the different types of comma usage. I have them work in partners or groups to see if they can determine the rule being exemplified in each passage. We share these together to make a master list. They are so excited when they get them right.
  5. They do scavenger hunts in their choice reading books for interesting sentences with commas to share and determine the rule being used. The more advanced version is to have them work together to find examples of every comma rule.
  6. They become human commas to punctuate sentences. I have a group of students write a sentence a couple of words at a time on individual white boards. I have them line up in order and the human commas must stand in the correct positions.
  7. I give them a passage using all of the different comma rules but with the commas missing. I tell them there are exactly X number of commas in the passage and challenge them to find every one. They generally work on this in pairs, but it could also be an informal assessment.
  8. I show them a video such as Flocabulary’s Comma Camp. There are other songs about commas online, but I have not yet used any of them.
  9. If they want to practice more at home, they can play online games. NOTE: these change often and I preview them every year, so I did not provide a link.

Over the years my students have enjoyed all of these activities. At no time was there a lecture with me requiring them to take notes and there was a lot of collaboration involved. Many of these activities require strong critical thinking skills as well. Most importantly, they remembered what they had learned because they were active participants. One of them even bought me this plaque because she saw it while on vacation and determined that I had to have it.

There’s no reason that the serious business of education needs to be serious. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. My students aren’t. 

 

The Shiny, Happy Classroom

One of my favorite bands is R.E.M. They wrote this fluffy little song called “Shiny, Happy People” and hearing it always makes me smile. I want my students to have this same experience when they think of my classroom. I want thoughts of life in Room 132 to bring a smile. These are some of the steps I take to try to make that happen.

As teachers begin this school year, their thoughts undoubtedly turn to the classroom climate they want to establish and maintain. One question that I am often asked (especially by newer teachers) is what kind of classroom management program I use. My answer is that I don’t. What I prefer instead is to develop a classroom that does not call for a system to handle misbehavior because it so rarely occurs. No checkmarks on the board, no list of consequences, no rewards. Just engaged, productive, friendly students.

I won’t go into the many well-known programs for establishing a positive classroom climate, but all it takes is one quick Google search to retrieve millions of hits. There are dozens of books on the subject already written and more arriving every day. I feel much of developing a positive classroom climate is common sense about all how to treat people. After all, our students are people and should be afforded the same graces many of us save for our significant others, friends, and families.

In my experience, there are three things that need to happen for a shiny, happy classroom to exist.

1) Students must feel safe,
2) Students must feel valued, and
3) Students must feel successful.

Safe:

In order for a classroom to be safe, it must be under control. This does not mean that a teacher needs to be authoritarian dominating every aspect of its function. It means that a teacher needs to be authoritative and implement policies and procedures that encourage physical, social, and emotional security. A safe classroom is not that difficult to achieve by following a few basic tenets.

1. Hold high expectations of all students.

This does not mean the same expectations of all students, but rather a high, but achievable standard for each child.

Give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they will do the right thing the majority of the time.

Believe that they can all reach their potential. For that matter, believe that they all HAVE potential.

2. Be firm but fair.

Firm does not mean overly strict or outright mean. It means choosing your battles and determining what is most important to you and having a legitimate reason for that policy.

Students remember nit-picky things like failing a paper because they forgot to put their name on top and it will only damage the relationship in the long run. Is their name in the upper, right-hand corner REALLY the most important thing to you?

3. Model the behavior you wish to see from students.

You cannot be overly emotional or dramatic on a regular basis in front of the students. There is nothing scarier to some students than a teacher who randomly flies off the handle and explodes at unexpected times. On the other hand, I have seen students make it a game to be the one to send a “yeller” over the edge. Mood swings of any kind generally make others uncomfortable and they will begin to block you out.

Don’t tell them they need to pay attention when you are talking and then be a bad listener when they speak.

Don’t tell them they need to be respectful of others and then “tease” some of the students. If you expect them to be kind to one another, then you must also be kind.

Valued:

I wrote about this more extensively in a previous post (The Classroom Where Everyone Knows Your Name), so I will only briefly reiterate those ideas.

1. Get to know students as individuals.

A positive rapport with your students is the secret weapon when it comes to having a happy classroom. If this does not exist, nothing else you try will ever work.

If you know a little bit about the children beyond the classroom, it will go along way. Integrate their interests into the classroom.

2. Always maintain their dignity.

Sometimes it is necessary to have a discussion with a child about his/her behavior, but it should not be done in front of other students and should never humiliate a student.

Whenever possible, determine a solution to a problem WITH a student rather than imposing your will on them. Giving them the tools to manage their own behavior is much more effective than you deciding how to control them.

3. Choose your words carefully

You are your words—so choose wisely. Always bear in mind that your words have the power to uplift or crush a child. Use your power for good, not evil.

Successful:

If a student is not doing well in my classroom, I bear some responsibility. As a teacher, I must do everything in my power to find an avenue for that child to succeed academically. Yes, this is a lot of work and often involves circumstances beyond my control, but if I expect their best effort, I must give mine as well.

1. Provide engaging instruction

Make sure you know what you are doing before you step in front of the students. Nothing undermines you more than not appearing as if you had a plan.

Incorporate novelty, technology, collaboration, etc. when appropriate to the content. (I find Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate to have brilliant ideas for getting students’ attention.)

2. Whenever possible, allow for choice and student directed learning.

A student-centered classroom is crucial for all students to succeed.

3. Clearly communicate your expectations for the assignment.

Students can’t hit a target that they can’t see.

Don’t make them guess what you were looking for. Let students know what a quality assignment looks like in advance.

4. Provide regular, constructive feedback.

There is no place for a “gotcha” grade at the end of an assignment. Students should know their strengths and weaknesses and work on improving BEFORE it “counts.”

5. Nurture and celebrate their successes.

6. It’s okay to have fun. “Don’t smile until Christmas” is ridiculous and was bad advice even when it was new.

Practicing What I Preach

I just participated in an invigorating NCTE twitter chat http://www.ncte.org/community/nctechat about the Teacher as Writer. It was very thought provoking and I wanted to get my feelings down on paper while they were still fresh.

 I believe in the power of the right mindset in achieving one’s goals. I encourage my students to take risks and I don’t penalize them for mistakes. I want them to practice in a fun, low-stakes environment in order to improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed the class so that they share their work with others often. I often tell them to “write what you know.” I remind them that they all have a story to share that others want to hear. Why, then, it is so difficult for me to internalize my own advice? Why do I find the act of writing for others so intimidating when I expect my students to do so on a daily basis?

 I have had a varied and rewarding teaching career and have always shared what I have learned with others and learned from them in return. I took on leadership roles at school and have taught teacher candidates at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve enjoyed these experiences, but always had a desire to write a book on student motivation and engagement. However, I’ve never been able to follow through on this and put the ideas on paper. A large part of this is my own insecurity about sharing my ideas with a larger audience. I am very sensitive and am afraid I would respond badly to real or perceived negative criticism. I guarantee several of my students can relate and I have empathy for them.

 I met several members of the Nerdy Book Club http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of this year. After experiencing their passion and enthusiasm for literacy, I was inspired to start blogging my own ideas about teaching and learning, but was still a bit terrified of taking the leap. But I knew I must be that role model for my students, so I started writing.

On the day my first blog post went live, I was petrified. I was opening up my heart and soul in addition to my ideas and I didn’t know how I would be received. I was writing what I knew and wanted to tell my story. I truly didn’t care if anyone read the posts, but I wanted them to be kind in their feedback if they did. I have now posted several entries and can’t believe that people have actually read them and even commented. The response has been more than I expected and very positive. Even though it is a little bit scary, it is a bit of a thrill to know that something I have written may be meaningful or helpful to a fellow educator. Plus, I truly enjoy the forced reflection of the entire process. This is the feeling I want for my students so I must keep this in mind as I conference with them about their writing.

 Once again, I am reminded that teaching affords me immense power and I must use this power to uplift and not destroy. I am sure many of my students are also frightened of having an outsider (even if it is just the teacher and classmates) read their writing. They may not feel they have a valuable story to tell. They may be afraid that it is not worth writing if it is not perfect. I understand how that feels and can relate. My role as their instructor is to be their coach as well as their cheerleader. I need to be mindful of the words I choose when giving feedback. If I do it right, they may experience the same joy in writing as I do now.

I guess my next challenge is to actually write that book.

 

Short Stories to use with Notice and Note Signposts: Part 3

Because I had many twitter friends ask for this, I am posting a portion of a transcript I sent to a friend about the short stories I used to practice finding the Signposts in Notice and Note as promised.

I teach at an all-girls school so many of the stories have a female protagonist. Because of this, I am giving you lists of short stories that I found on other websites as well. I used many of them when I taught at a co-ed public school.

I love stories by O’Henry, Saki, and Guy de Maupassant. I also enjoy using sci-fi short stories with middle schoolers.

Even though I only teach girls now, I could see the signposts being a huge benefit to teaching boys as well because they are so much more concrete. Also, any short story has signposts in it, so find the stories you like the best to use in class.

 Here is how I organized the first several weeks of school:

  • I reviewed the literary elements of Setting, Plot, Characterization, Conflict, and Theme.
  • We applied these literary elements to our study of the summer reading novel, Surviving the Applewhites.
  • Then, I introduced the signposts one at a time using a story that we walked through together. I read it aloud and they identified signposts as I read then we discussed. I used Beers and Probt’s lesson for Thank You Ma’am as my guide. For your reference, I have listed this story as the first one underneath the signpost.
  • Then, I gave them a story in which to identify signposts independently. You will see that the same story is listed in a couple of different categories. In that case, it is because I had them identity both of those signposts in the story.
  • We also reviewed all of the literary elements in the short stories.
  • You will also see that there are less stories under each category as we progressed. This is because the girls were understanding the signposts so well that they said it felt redundant to do the identification twice so I bumped it down.
  • Finally, I showed the Pixar shorts and they found signposts, plus we focused on the literary elements I specified in each one. I did this for a parent visiting day lesson and it was a big hit.
  • Now, we are reading a novel and as they read they are identifying the signposts. I printed up bookmarks for them with the signposts on them that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. They actually cheered when I handed them out and they say it really helps.

 

The stories I used:

(NOTE: we have copies of a book by Jamestown Publishers called Best Short Stories: Introductory Level that included many of these stories. I have put an asterisk next to those titles. Many of them are available online as well.)

Contrast and Contradictions:

Thank You Ma’am by Langston Hughes

* Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

 A-Ha Moment:

*The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

Charles by Shirley Jackson

The Landlady by Roald Dahl (we read later for Halloween, but they found signposts)

Tough Questions:

*President Cleveland, Where Are You? by Robert Cormier

Words From the Wiser:

*Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer

 Again and Again:

Charles by Shirley Jackson

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros

 

All Signposts and Literary Elements: (I used this as a assessment of the signposts. I might not do that again next year. I will probably make it a group activity because the story confused a few of them.)

*Lob’s Girl by Joan Aiken

Great Short Stories recommended by other websites:

http://www.weareteachers.com/community/blogs/weareteachersbookclub/book-club/2013/05/15/24-short-stories-for-middle-schoolers

http://www.pinterest.com/glanceatnance/teach-short-stories/

http://edhelper.com/short_stories/short_stories.htm

I would LOVE it if any of you would add your titles to this list in the comments. Thanks so much. 

Inspired by the Nerdy Book Club—Again

Last night I returned from a very invigorating “un-conference” called Nerd Camp Michigan. My brain is full and I am, once again, inspired by the people I have met through the Nerdy Book Club.

At lunch on the second day of Nerd Camp, I asked Donalyn Miller and Laura Komos if I could sit in one of the empty seats by them. Donalyn said sure, but told me that there were also a couple of teachers who wanted to sit by her to ask her some questions so we needed to save seats. My first thought was, “How cool is this famous author to give up her free time to, essentially, work?” My second thought was, “Woo hoo—a free consultation with Donlayn that I can eavesdrop on.” I knew her advice would be valuable, so I sat down.

The teachers asked Donlayn their questions and she graciously helped them with their dilemmas and assured us all that we were doing the right things for students. We all agreed that, in the end, we must perform to the best of our abilities given our individual parameters. This is one thing I have definitely learned in my teaching career—all we can control is our own classroom.

Besides this great lunch conversation, I sat in several Nerd Camp sessions delivered by phenomenal educators (and even horned in a bit on facilitating a session given by my friend, Kevin English. Thank you, Kevin.). In these invigorating sessions, it was easy to set goals for future learning. For example, I had not realized the full capabilities of Padlet and Evernote. I resolved to learn more and practice with these tools. My only regret at Nerd Camp was that I chickened out and didn’t volunteer to lead my own session as I had planned (which, coincidentally, was the exact topic that Kevin had proposed which is why I asked him if I could help in his session). I kind of beat myself up over that. Regrets stink.

I have an extremely rewarding career and love every minute of what I do. I’ve taught for over 20 years at all grade levels from first grade to university pre-service teachers. I have been a teacher leader and delivered many presentations to groups of teachers, student-teachers, and administrators. I know that I’ve put in over 10,000 hours, yet there remains this nagging doubt that I am not yet an expert. I always feel there is something I don’t know and can’t ever believe it when people want to hear what I have to say. Perhaps this is because I haven’t yet developed the “Goldilocks” classroom I wrote about previously. I feel that an expert would have had this figured out by now. Also, I have never quite managed to finish writing the teaching book I’ve wanted to do for years so I don’t feel I have credibility. It is for these reasons that I was too insecure to volunteer to lead a Nerd Camp session. I know I have a lot of knowledge and experience, but I don’t know that I will ever feel that I am talented enough to be one of “those” teachers who naturally inspire others like Donalyn Miller and the rest of the Nerdy Book Club. But in the true spirit of an Ed Camp, I am inspired to keep a growth mindset. I want to share what I have learned with others, but, apart from adjunct professor work, I don’t yet know the forum for doing so and this blog is my first step. I don’t feel that I’m an expert—YET—but I will get there. I’ll figure it out. I will keep blogging and tweeting and working on that book. One thing’s for sure–I will definitely sign up to run a Nerd Camp session next year. Thank you for the inspiration Nerdy Book club. I’ll see you on July 6 & 7, 2015!

Thoughts on Avoiding Readicide of Whole Class Novels

At some point, I will formulate this into a coherent format, but these are thoughts running through my head for a future blog post.

How To Avoid Readicide When Teaching Whole-Class Novels

• My teaching changed when I read Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

• Book Whisperer: (127) “There needs to be a balance between picking a book apart to examine its insides and experiencing the totality of what a book offers.”

• Whole Novels for Whole Class: (20) “Structure a literature program in a way that protects the reader’s experience of the story.”

• Readicide: One of the four causes of Readicide is over teaching a book.

• Readicide: (109) “My students are always reading two books at a time: one that requires the teacher to be in the room, and one that is a high-interest, fun read.”

• Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis: Goal of reading is to construct meaning.

• Penny Kittle: (19) “The study of literature is half the job; leading students to satisfying and challenging reading lives is the other, and we haven’t paid enough attention to it.”

• Penny Kittle: (21) Curriculum is presented as either “a rigorous study of the classics” or “fun reading of what’s easy. . . I am suggesting that teaching English can’t be one or the other; it has to be both.”

• Cris Tovani: Whoever is doing the reading/writing/speaking is doing the learning.

• Me: I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING.

• Me: I use the reading of class novels as a community building and learning experience and not as a means to formally assess and grade students.

• Me: Use a balanced approach. Choice and whole class are important.
My Suggestions:

1. Do not teach a book a chapter at a time. We read the book in chunks and I give a reading calendar at the beginning.

2. Provide “framing” (context, supplemental materials, and topic floods) to eliminate a barrier to understanding.

3. Structure around a theme (meets CCSS: “two or more texts address similar themes).

4. Find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bull’s-eye if they don’t know the target.
a. I use Notice and Note
b. Ariel Sacks: Literal, Inferential, Critical
c. Jeffrey Wilhelm: Fresh Takes on Literary Elements
d. Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts: Lens, Patterns, Understanding

5. Honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer.

6. Gradually release responsibility as the novel goes on and as the year goes on. I do, We do, You do, You do together, You do alone.

7. Give writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. BIBITT and Creative. Use novel as mentor text to read like a writer.

8. Don’t choose a book that is too far above their reading level. Provide supports for students who struggle and options for students who fly.

9. Quit grading every little thing! However, do plenty of formative assessments along the way.
a. Mosaic of Thought
b. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It
c. So What Do They Really Know?
d. Making Thinking Visible
e. Notice and Note
f. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Gouvidis
g. Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey
h. Dick Allington

How I Use Notice and Note in Class (part 2)

I am not going to summarize Notice and Note or the Signposts here, but I will tell you a little about how I used them this year in class.

First, I thought about different approaches and decided to teach the Signposts one at a time. My classes are only 45 minutes long so each initial Signpost story lesson took one period and the rest of the lessons were on subsequent days. I chose a short story that I thought perfectly illustrated each Signpost. (One example in the book is “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to show Contrast and Contradiction, so I used it first.) I walked them through the story, modeling my thinking and stopping for reflection. We discussed the essential question that accompanies each Signpost and how it was revealed through what they found. The next day, I gave the students copies of a different story and had them read through and highlight the Signpost. They discussed what they marked in small groups and then shared aloud what they had found and, most importantly, what they thought it meant.

After we had covered all six Signposts, (which took about two weeks), I moved on to applying finding Signposts in Pixar shorts and popular movies/TV which was a big hit. The ultimate goal was that they could find relevant Signposts in the class novel we were about to read—which, coincidentally, was Walk Two Moons. (I had chosen the novel at the end of the prior year and it is covered extensively in Notice and Note.)

The first thing I did was to hand out a cardstock bookmark I had made with all of the Signposts listed (and the students actually clapped because they were so excited). I divided the novel into chunks, and after each chunk there was a class discussion. For the first discussion, I merely asked students, “What did you notice?” and volunteers shared what they had found with the whole class. Students were giving each other positive feedback and actually enjoying annotating. As we progressed through the novel, I incorporated this and many other ways for students to show what insight they had gained from the Signposts they had found besides whole class discussion. NOTE: I generally only spend about 3 weeks teaching a novel so these activities took place every few days over a few weeks’ time with writing workshop in between.

With the two subsequent novels we read, I instructed them to concentrate on one or two specific signposts only. For example, when we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I asked them to focus on finding examples of “Words from the Wiser” because I knew that this would lead them to the themes of that particular novel. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked if they could annotate other Signposts and also highlight more than I was asking (such as foreshadowing—they LOVED to find foreshadowing for some reason) which I delightedly approved.

Some of the feedback I got from students at the end of the each novel and at the end of the year validated my choice to use the Notice and Note Signposts in my classroom. Many students said they felt smarter using the Signposts because they could contribute more to discussions. It was not uncommon for them to give each other praise for finding something “profound” or “insightful” in the text. One student told me she had always read every book that a teacher assigned, but she had never truly “gotten into” and “understood” a book as well before. This is but some of the anecdotal evidence that affirms my love of Notice and Note as a classroom strategy for close reading with the middle school students.