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How Do We Help Our Students Choose Books?

Over the past two years that we’ve utilized the literacy workshop model for reading and writing instruction, we’ve attempted to build our class library and become familiar with the books our students will be reading. It’s worked well. We now have hundreds of books in our class library and have read a good amount of them so that we can make recommendations. It’s helped us grow our program and make reading more engaging and relevant for our students. However, we know that’s not all we can do. We know there is more we can do to make our classroom and class more reader-friendly. We just don’t know about all of the possibilities that exist. So, one of my goals this summer is to read and research Reader’s Workshop and find out what other teachers are doing. How do they effectively implement Reader’s Workshop in their classroom? What do they do to get their students hooked on books and reading? What are some tricks of the trade that we could easily utilize in our classroom?

In reading Penny Kittle’s Book Love, a lot of what we already do in the classroom was reaffirmed. She provides fodder for conversations with administrators and department heads when they ask, “Why are you not teaching books as a whole class?” I’ve also learned a few new things I want to try come September to help beef up our Reader’s Workshop.

One great yet simple idea is Book Talks. Spend 4-6 minutes at the start of class introducing and discussing a book in our school’s library or class collection. Get students excited and interested in a book they might not have picked up on their own. Sell it like a product. Read a sample from the book and provide feedback on the book. Give those students struggling to find a good book an option. So easy to implement. Love it! I will totally try this in my classroom.

Another easy and cool idea is to have the students keep and maintain a To Read Next list which lists books the students would like to read next. It gives them goals and a way to remember a great book a student or teacher told them about. This way when the students finish a book, they don’t need to spend hours meandering through our class library looking for the next big thing. We sometimes had students waste entire class periods “looking” for a book. With a To Read Next list they already have their next book ready to go. Awesome idea!

While I love summer vacation, my reasons are probably different from those my students would detail. I love having more time to read books, develop curriculum, and grow as a teacher. I spent 30 hours last week while my son was away on a road trip working on the curriculum for my new STEM class. It was super fun just like learning about new ideas for utilizing Reader’s Workshop more effectively in the classroom.

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It’s About Volume Not Quality When it Comes to Reading

It wasn’t until the sixth grade when my Language Arts Teacher employed the Reader’s Workshop method of reading instruction that I started to enjoy reading. I remember being so excited to purchase and read Matilda by Roald Dahl. I loved to read. Then in high school when I had no choice in what I had to read, I began to not like reading again. I used Cliff Notes to get through reading assessments in high school. My teachers forced me to read books that they thought I should read. They never thought about me as a student or reader. They never questioned if I was reading or enjoying what I was reading. Luckily, I had a teacher that made me read Catcher in the Rye at the right time in my life. I was hooked. Thus began my life-long love for reading. What about our students? What about my son? How can we make sure that the next generation of students have a love for reading?

In reading Book Love by Penny Kittle, I realize how important it is that all teachers make use of a Reader’s Workshop approach to reading. She uses specific examples and research from great educators to make her point. It’s not about what books the students are reading, it’s about how many. If they are only reading four books a year, even if all of them are considered classics, that’s far from enough. Usually more than 75% of the students will not engage with those books and not actually read them anyway. Thus, we create a generation of non-readers. Is that what we want? No, of course not. We want our students to read and love doing so. So, we can’t force our students to read specific books, but we can help guide them to the right books for them by giving them choices. All English teachers need to strike a balance between whole-novel instruction and independent reading. Our students need to read books that interest them.

I taught my son in the sixth grade two years ago. This May he just finished his seventh grade year and so I asked him which approach to reading he enjoyed more. I told him to be honest, which is not difficult for him. Did you like the Reader’s Workshop approach to reading or the approach used in the seventh grade where you had to read three books all together as a class. His response, “I loved being able to choose my books.” I wasn’t surprised of course by his answer, but it just goes to show that when our sixth grade students leave our class, they almost all love reading because they have been given options and choices. They are in charge of their reading and they love that independence. Then, when they move up through the grades, they have no choice in what they read. They have to read specific novels at the same pace as their classmates. What if they don’t enjoy those books? What if they can’t read that fast? What if they need more time to process what they are reading? Will they begin to not like reading? Will they give up and go online to read the SparkNotes version of the books? I hope not, but unfortunately most of them do and will. We need to continue to help our students grow the passion they foster in the sixth grade throughout the rest of their middle school years.

So, when I finish Book Love I’m going to pass it on to as many teachers as possible to spread the love and help them realize the value of choice when it comes to reading for our students. Hopefully this will help ignite the spark within others. It’s not about which famous books our students read but about how many books they read that they truly enjoy. Let’s get them hooked.

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Am I Being Irrational or Is it the Numbers?

Looking at symbols like pi and square roots when I was in school was like looking at Ancient Greek. I had no idea what they meant. More than anything though, I was intimidated. I didn’t know what those strange symbols meant and had no idea how to figure anything out. I was lost in Numberland without a map. I was scared that I would need to know what those math symbols meant. Luckily, I never did need to know what all those bizarre math symbols meant. However, I wish I had. I wish I had pushed myself a bit harder in high school so that I could have learned more.

So, when I started working on the Haiku page for the advanced sixth grade math course, I was overwhelmed. There were those crazy symbols again. Why can’t they just use numbers and leave the symbols to ancient hieroglyphics? I was scared again. I felt like everybody was looking at me just like in high school. But wait a minute, I’m home alone. There’s nothing to fear. And, I have to learn what these crazy symbols mean now because I have to make a unit pre-test, lessons to teach the material, and then a post-test. There is no escaping Numberland this time without a map. So, I did some investigating and learning on my own. It turns out, those symbols are not so scary after all. They are just place holders for different types of numbers, irrational numbers. So I’m not the crazy one. It’s the numbers that are irrational. Ha, math jokes are so funny. So, I learned all about pi and square roots. It wasn’t even that difficult. Sure, it took me a while to craft the various assessments and assignments for the units because I kept having to look up answers to the problems I had created. But in the end, I did it. Pi is an irrational number, but one that lead to some cool discoveries in more than just the field of mathematics. Thanks Pi.

Like a colleague often told his students, I must do hard things. So, in preparing to teach this new STEM Class come September, I need to learn all about the math concepts so that I can support my students in a meaningful way. Yes, I’m nervous. What if they ask me questions I can’t answer? What if I don’t know the answer to one of the questions in one of the assignments? Then again, what if the world blows up and all that is left is me. I will need to teach the future citizens of Holtland all about math and those crazy symbols. So, I’ll just get on my horse and ride. If I need help, I’ll ask. It’s not like I’m teaching engineering or anything? Wait a minute. The E in STEM stands for engineering? I’m doomed!

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Where’s the F in STEM?

In working on the first unit for the new STEM Class I am co-teaching for the upcoming academic year, I’m realizing that this is going to be an awesome course. I created the class because I saw how disconnected our sixth graders were from their math curriculum throughout the year. I knew it was the right thing to do, but it is shaping up to be super fun. I even incorporated some of the group work ideas discussed in The First Days of School book when crafting the group project.

While the Science, Technology, and Engineering components have created themselves, the Math work is proving to be a bit difficult. Sure, there is plenty of math incorporated into the PBL portion of the unit, but our parents expect a strict math curriculum. So, we’ve set the math portion up like a class. We have three different levels as our students come from varying math backgrounds. So, for each unit, we have three different math units to prepare. It makes the most sense so that we can tailor the curriculum to the individual students, but boy is it proving tedious. I’ve also realized my knowledge of math is quite limited. In crafting problem sets and the pretest, I had to do a lot of researching and learning. It’s been great and I’m excited about the challenge; however, there is a ton of preparation needed for this first unit. I’m sure future units will be much easier to craft once we have the nucleus set. Starting from scratch makes it difficult. I want to be sure we are challenging our students and providing them with the best possible STEM education while not overburdening them with worksheets and extra work. The math portion of the course is all about the skills and objectives and so we are very focused on staying true to that.

As I continue to delve into this new STEM class, I’m ecstatic about the learning I’m doing but also about the great opportunities and challenges we will be able to present our students with. September can’t come fast enough.

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Which Way is Better?

In the dining hall at my school, I often see students lather jelly and cream cheese onto their bagels as though they are preparing for some epic adventure that will take them miles from their home and food. They say it tastes great. I say, yucky! I’m not one for mixing sweet and non-sweet things together. But, as I always say to my students, “To each his own.” Whatever floats your boat works for me. I don’t have to love it and agree with it, I just have to accept it and understand it. That I do. I feel like much of the world gets stuck in this area a lot. Many disagreements come from a lack of understanding or acceptance. Why? Why does it seem to be so difficult for some people to understand why things are the way they are? I’ve never understood that.

I just finished my second summer reading professional development text. it was great and I learned a lot from it. I was shocked though, at first, when I started reading the second book. The ideas the author proposed seemed to completely go against the main philosophy discussed in the first book I read. In The First Days of School the authors discuss the importance of the teacher having control over the classroom and students. Instruction should be teacher-directed. Now, while I disagree with this pedagogy, I can see the benefits and purpose for employing it in the classroom. It’s just not based on current neuroscience research which tells us how students learn best. Read Write Teach suggests crafting a student-centered classroom where the students drive the instruction. Offer the students choice in what they read and write. This I agree with because it is based on the current research about how students learn effectively. While I learned something from each of the books, they were based in different schools of thought regarding the field of education, which goes to show that even different sides of one story can provide clarity and understanding regarding a topic or way of doing something.

Although I don’t agree with much of what the the first book was based in, I was still able to take away some salient nuggets to use in the classroom come September. Much like we want our students to do, we as the teachers, need to be aware of both sides of every story so that we can discuss them both in an objective manner. If we want our students to be open-minded, we must be role models for them. So, while I may think one way is better than another, I need to accept that it’s all about perspective sometimes.

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Out with the Old and In with the New?

In college, I learned a lot about teaching and what an educator needs to know to be effective. I learned about child development, theories on teaching, and classroom management. I felt ready to go out and change the world. Boy was I wrong. My first teaching gig was a disaster. I was planning by the seat of my pants only a day or two ahead of my students. I had no routines or protocol in place for classroom management. I tried to be a friend rather than a teacher. It was a giant mess. My second year was better. I realized the error in my ways. I needed to have procedures in place for the students. I did that. Things went well. I still had a lot to learn. Each year I threw some strategies or techniques out the window and utilized new or different ones. It’s really been the last two years where I’ve felt like I’m starting to get the hang of this teaching thing. I feel like most of what I’m doing is working well. Sure, I have things to tweak, but nothing to throw out, per se.

Having completed Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, I’m feeling inspired to discuss some new ideas with my co-teacher. I love the idea of a genre-author study. I feel as though that could be really fun and engaging for the students. There is a lot of learning that could come from this as well. perhaps we could try something like this during the winter term. It might get the boys excited because it’s a break from the routine during a usually difficult time of the year. Awesome idea.

I’d also like to try some persuasive writing with the students. I feel like we don’t do any of that now. Having a debate or having the students write on various, controversial and serious topics could be beneficial. It would help the students prepare for the next level of writing in the seventh grade. It might also be a good springboard for teaching thesis statements in the future. The author explained a cool activity she does with the students to introduce this genre of writing. Loved it!

So, I learned a lot from this text, but nothing so dramatic that I need to throw out what I’ve done and embrace something totally different. I just need to change a few spark plugs and maybe user a higher quality oil in my teaching machine. The tires are running well and my carburetor is doing fine. Little tweaks is all it takes sometimes to make a big difference.

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Why Is it so Hard to Embrace New Ideas?

As I’m reading Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, I’m ecstatic about the brilliant new ideas I’m learning about how to teach writing and reading. I’m making margin notes and starring the pages that provided the awesome information. Then, of course, like always, that nagging voice in my brain starts yapping again. “How is this better than what you are already doing? Why change? You have great ideas too? How will this work in the classroom?”

It’s my ego trying to take control. Why can’t I just accept and embrace the new ideas? Change only comes about from creative and innovative ways of thinking. If I don’t try new and different things, how will I ever grow and change as an educator? I know that, but my sensitive ego doesn’t want to accept it. So, I’m working on suppressing those nagging thoughts and questions because I realize that most everything new that I’ve tried in the past five years has worked out so well and made me a better teacher. So, clearly my ego was wrong. I’m far from perfect and I know that. I work, each and every day, to grow and become a better teacher, husband, father, and person. If I don’t change, then I won’t grow. What I’ve done in the past isn’t wrong, it just doesn’t work anymore. I need to be flexible enough to appreciate this noticing and forge ahead. So, bring on the new ideas because my ego is taking a permanent vacation.

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Can my Students Utilize a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook in the Classroom?

Pausing on page 56 to take a snack break, I realized that if I don’t document my findings thus far, I may never be able to find them again nor remember them. Sure, I took margin notes like a good little active reader, but I know, as a teacher, that the more variety utilized in the repetition of information, the more likely one is to remember information. So, synthesizing and writing about what I learned so far is just another way to help me recall my learning nuggets later on in the summer when I’m working on preparing for September.

The author shared her ideas on a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook. Loved it. She has the students divide theirs into sections: Response, Notes, Vocabulary, and Spelling. They maintain and update their WRN throughout the year. She grades them once every two weeks. Awesome idea. My concern is that we are a 1:1 laptop school and if we have the students maintain a hardcopy journal, are we effectively utilizing the tools our students are provided? Is there a way for our students to digitally maintain a WRN? Is Google Drive the way to go?

Last year we had the students keep a Reading Log in their Google Drive, which was a place for them to document their reading progress. They had prompts to respond to sometimes nightly. We graded them formally once a term. At the start of the year we were great about providing the students with feedback on the logs. We would read them once a week and make comments on their work. It become tedious, and so we went to once every few weeks. Then towards the end of the year we just sort of stopped. This was also the point when some of the students stopped using their logs effectively. I liked what this book said about checking the WRNs once every two weeks. That’s doable. I also like the sections and combination with writing as the two go hand-in-hand anyway. I hope to find a creative way to implement this idea for our students, digitally, come September.

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Growth Through Learning

In high school, some of my summer was spent meeting the summer reading requirements my school had set for me. While I didn’t hate reading, it wasn’t my favorite thing in the whole wide world to do. I did it because I had to though not because I wanted to. As an adult, or so my age would suggest, I spend my summers reading professional development texts because I want to. I want to learn how to become a better teacher. I want to learn new strategies and techniques for teaching reading and writing. I want to be sure I am prepared when I start the new STEM Class in September. So, I read to grow and learn. I now read because I choose to read. If I had been this strong of a student when I was in school I could have learned so much more. Hindsight is always 20/20 unlike my real vision.

So, my current summer reading text is entitled Read Write Teach and was written by Linda Rief. I chose this book because it had received several stellar reviews and I wanted to check to see if we were running literacy workshops in the best way possible in the classroom.

I’m currently on page 30. It’s not fantastic, but I have extracted a few great ideas. The first chapter was an introduction and a bit boring. It just detailed the author’s philosophy for teaching reading and writing. I didn’t need to know that as I chose the book because the author utilized the workshop method of instruction. What more needs to be said? Engagement and choice are crucial techniques to employ in the classroom.

The biggest take-away for me so far is the use of a Portfolio Wall in the classroom. The author talks about using it early in the year and maintaining it throughout the academic year. Each student has a nametag on the wall with his or her picture and a sample of his or her own work, favorite quote, book recommendation, or other tidbit of literacy information. The students read the wall and update it throughout the year. It’s a great way to build a family atmosphere of support in the classroom. Love it! I could see our sixth grade boys eating it up. They love seeing their own work published and this would be an easy way to make it happen.

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Summer Reading: Final Take

Okay, so while I didn’t love the huge emphasis the authors placed on testing, after finishing the book last night, I was left feeling empowered and excited. I even thought about looking into becoming a National Board Certified Teacher. Teaching isn’t a profession and being a teacher at my school is not a job. Teaching is a lifestyle as there is always something to be done whether it is provide feedback to students on their progress, contact parents, design new projects, revamp curriculum, or work on teaming issues. Being a teacher is something I love and striving to become a great and effective teacher is something I work on every day. I want to provide my students with an amazing, insightful, and inspiring experience. I want my students to recall not just what we learned but how we learned it. I want them to remember their sixth grade experience with fond memories. I want to be the teacher like that one featured in the book who had a student from years ago come back and visit because she was so moved by her year in that teacher’s classroom.

Some notes I made in the book during the last few chapters…

1. The book featured an article about how teachers can use student evidence and grades from elementary school to predict how those students will perform in high school. I was a little upset by this. People can change. Why should we pigeonhole students? If a student struggled in third and fourth grade, like I did having almost failed the fourth grade, does that mean he or she will drop out of high school? I went on to become a member of my high school’s National Honor Society. But according to the data, that should not have been possible as I struggled so much in fourth grade. Why can’t we let our students show us what they are truly capable of and not be tainted by some preconceived notions of what their performance should be?
2. In Chapter 23 the book explains how we should introduce and setup our projects and assignments. Effective teachers explain the objectives to the students and give them a scoring guide, which lays out the expectations for the assignment. Haiku Learning can be a great resource for the teachers at my school as it allows us to do this digitally. As a 1:1 laptop school we need to reduce the amount of paper used and make use of the technology tool every student is equipped with. Haiku Learning makes this possible. Having played around with it a lot so far this summer, I’m excited about using it next year. A big THANKS to the seventh grade team for showing us how beneficial this online tool can really be.
3. The book talks about the need for constant formative and informal assessment as a way to help our students reach the highest possible level of achievement. I agree. We do this in the sixth grade all the time. I had numerous conversations with students on their progress regarding particular assignments before they were due. I explained to them where they still had gaps and helped them figure out how they could fill them. I also allowed students to redo work that didn’t meet their expectations or the learning targets. It’s all about progress and skills so why not allow the students to showcase their highest potential?
4. Effective Teaming+Meaningful and Relevant Talking=Great School. That’s what we try to do in the sixth grade. Now that all teachers are equipped with this knowledge going into the 2014-2015 academic year, we can become a great school. I’m excited!
5. The book detailed some crucial teaching tools to enhance student learning; however, with the advent of technology, these methods need to be reconfigured and reimagined. Our students are not reading out of textbooks as often anymore. We need to teach students how to be media literate. How do you know that a website or online source is reputable? How do you read online? Those are the skills we need our students to gain. While SQ3R was a great method for teaching students how to digest textbooks, it’s no longer relevant.
6. A key idea the book listed in Chapter 25: The more a teacher learns, the more the students will learn. So true. It’s a never ending circle of awesomeness. Read, write, DO, think, question, learn, and then do it all over again. Great teachers are always challenging themselves to be great students as a way of modeling for their students.
7. Effective grade-level teaming is the best way to grow as teachers and create great schools. I realized this when a new sixth grade teacher was hired to teach sixth grade with me. I was of course nervous, but excited. After working with her for a year, I realized I had been so stagnant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about what I was doing in my classroom. Sixth grade had always been an island when it should have been a major city on the mainland. My co-teacher helped me to see this. I learned more about myself and teaching her first year than I had in all of my previous years of teaching. She made me a better teacher and for that I will be forever grateful. Great teachers talk to each other and collaborate for the betterment of our students. We need to do this more.

Finishing this book inspired me to work a little harder and more efficiently to prepare for the start of the academic year so that the rest of the year goes smoothly. I have plenty of new tricks in my bag now thanks to this book. So, despite frustrating me at times with the information and manner in which it was delivered, I gained a lot from this resource book. I thank my school’s administration for choosing a summer reading book for the faculty. These little things help us all grow as educators and individuals.