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Reflections on NCTE 2010

Yesterday I returned home from the National Council of Teachers of English annual convention and the National Writing Project annual meeting at Disney World.  It was my first time to attend either event, and my head is still spinning from both.

While in Orlando, I was able to hear from speaker after speaker (including Gary Paulsen!!!!) emphasize the importance of putting the right books into kids' hands at the right time and the need for kids to write, a lot, about the topics they are passionate about.  I can't say that I'm walking away from the conference with a new idea that is going to change my teaching, but I feel re-energized to, as Paulsen put it at the ALAN breakfast on Friday morning, "Go back to work and kick some ass."  Not the kids', mind you, rather Paulsen was encouraging us to stand up and speak out against policies that are not in the best interests of kids, such as shutting down libraries.  Paulsen's life was changed in a library because someone put his name on a library card and put a book in his hands.

Another moment I am taking away from me is Donalyn Miller's keynote address at the National Writing Project's annual meeting.  In case you don't know, Donalyn is the author of The Book Whisperer and she writes a column of the same name for EdWeek. In her address, Donalyn spoke eloquently about how the National Writing Project changed her both as a teacher and a writer.  Early in her speech, she exclaimed, "I hate writing!" and she means it!  She hates the writing, but, like Dorothy Parker, loves having written, so she sits down and pushes her way through the hard part.  This was inspiring to me, because I feel the same way about writing.  I have such a hard time believing that anyone would want to read what I have to say that I rarely sit down and put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).  Donalyn's story of her own struggles with writing have inspired me to be more diligent with my own writing, and perhaps get that book that's been cooking in my head for a while written - and hopefully sold!  Until I write that book, I've started a second blog over at blogger where I will blog about the books I've read.  Check it out - http://nextbestbook.blogspot.com/.

The best part of NCTE, however, was meeting in person my online personal learning network.  Over the past two years, I have found for myself like-minded teachers to reach out to in both good times and bad online, mostly through Twitter and The English Companion Ning.  I almost hate to list the names of all the people I met face-to-face for fear of leaving someone out!  At my very first session, I met Teri Lesene, the "Goddess of YA."  When she walked in, SHE recognized ME from my Twitter photo!  I nearly fainted!  Then, in came Paul W. Hankins, a high school teacher who runs a fabulous website for his students that counts numerous YA authors among its members.  THEN in came The Book Whisperer herself, Donalyn.  Cindy from the ecning, Kellee from twitter, over and over I got to put faces to names.  The interactions I had with these folks made my weekend.  I was able to continue and expand on conversations about books and writing and teaching that had started with just 140 characters.  The fact that I had not met any of these people face to face before did not matter one bit.  We KNEW each other. 

So what next?  I'll wait impatiently for next year's NCTE conference in Chicago.  And start saving my money so that the Chicago convention isn't my last.

Where did the time go?

It's hard to believe that the last time I posted anything on this blog, I was anxious and excited about school starting.  Here it is, the beginning of the second quarter, and I've barely had time to breathe, much less take some time for personal reflection.  I'm finding it hard to find balance, both at school and at home.

Balance.

What a big word for just seven letters.  Balance can make or break a year, and it is something I'm not very good at finding.  I'm constantly telling myself that something has to give, but I can't figure out what that "something" is.  Perhaps it is my perfectionist streak that can't let go of the tiniest thing.  Perhaps it's the pressure I feel from added initiatives and responsibilities at school.  Perhaps it's the new schedule that has my plan periods the first two periods of the day and non-stop go, go, go for the rest. Perhaps it's because I have a hard time saying no.  Perhaps it is all of the above.

This school year I am doing a coaching cycle on conferring with another colleague and our literacy coach. We are using Conferring: The Keystone of the Reading Workshop by Patrick Allen (Stenhouse, 2009) as our guiding text, and as I read the first chapter I got to thinking about the non-negotiables in my reading/writing workshop.  I refuse to give up:
  • our three-times-a-week read aloud.  This half-hour a week is among my most favorite times with my kids.  During this half hour I read aloud to my seventh graders as they lounge comfortably in our class's "living room".  They get to hear some really great books purely for enjoyment.  The kids almost always beg for me to read more, and it makes my heart glad.  I know that there are curricular benefits to the read aloud, too, but what's most important is how it adds to the feeling of community in our classes.
  • student choice.  Allowing the kids to choose their books and their writing topics gets me more buy-in from my most reluctant readers and writers.  It might be easier for me to assign topics like "A Day in the Life of a Shoe," but I don't get nearly the quality of writing that I get when I allow the kids to write about topics they're passionate about.  Since I've moved to giving students more and more ownership over their learning, I've seen great gains in both enthusiasm and ability.
  • time.  The 20-30 minutes each day that students have to work independently gives them the opportunity to make decisions about their learning and how to use their time.  While I sometimes have specific tasks that students must complete during this time, most of it is guided by the kids.  I strongly believe that allowing students to choose how to use this time helps them learn how to prioritize tasks and work independently.  It also shows them the consequences (both positive and negative) of their decisions.

What gets pushed aside, though is probably the most important part of my workshop:  the one-on-one conferring that SHOULD happen during the independent work time.  I haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why I haven't been getting to those conferences.  It seems as if I finish my minilesson, answer a few student questions, and POOF, the bell is about to ring!  I haven't found a way to BALANCE all of the things I need to do in the 80 minutes a day I'm given with the students.  This frustrates me to no end, and I think about how to fix it almost constantly.  It's to the point where I think I need some sort of intervention before I lose my marbles!

So that's the imbalance in my classroom.  The imbalance in the rest of my life is a whole nother story!

What my room says about me (part 2)

Last week, I spent several hours every day working in my classroom, getting everything ready for two professional development workshops I've been teaching this week.  Since teachers were going to be working in my classroom, thinking about the reading/writing workshop and genre studies, I thought the environment should be just as inviting as it would be for the kids.

I made the right choice.  I finished setting up with more than week to go before school starts, and I have had several days to work in my newly-arranged space.  I'm finding that I mostly like the set up, and that when I walk in the room, my focus is on the areas where the kids will work and learn, not on my desk space.  You can see photos of my finished classroom here.

The area I am most excited about is (as usual) my living room meeting space.  I've had these two sofas and rug in my classroom for two years, and I've found that whole class discussions and mini-lessons have a more intimate feel when we meet in this space.  Yes, it is a more informal space, but it is a more comfortable space for most kids.  In addition to the sofas, I have several bean bags, a couple of stools, and some kids usually choose to sit in the chairs near the space.  Sometimes I encourage the kids to sit in a circle so everyone can see everyone else, and sometimes I just let them sit willy-nilly in the space.  It really just depends on the nature of the activity we're doing.

Way back when, I never would have believed that a meeting area was necessary in my middle school classroom, but about five years ago I had the opportunity to observe in our elementary buildings.  Almost every classroom I went into had a meeting area of some sort.  I noticed how at ease the kids felt and how willing they were to participate in discussions and share their thinking.  I compared that to the kinds of discussions that were happening in my own classroom, which were often flat with very few students participating.  I know that the change I've seen over the past few years can not be chalked up simply to the addition of two ugly couches and one old rug.  BUT I truly believe that the fact that I put much more thought into creating a welcoming environment where kids feel safe to take risks has certainly helped.

So what do I think my classroom says about me?
1.  I value reading.  Books are all over my room, shelved face out, and I talk about books all of the time.
2.  I value kids' thinking.  Eventually (once there are some kids actually in my room) co-constructed charts and student work will cover the walls and bulletin boards.
3.  The main focus of the class is the kids.  My desk area is in the back of the room.  If there was space in my school to move my desk to an office space, I would move it out of the room completely, but that's not an option at this time.
4.  I understand that different kinds of work require different work spaces.  I have whole group spaces, small group spaces, and spaces where kids can work alone or in pairs.

I'd love to know if you agree.  What does my classroom say about me?
This is a photo of my living room meeting space.  It is the first thing visitors see when they walk through the door.
For teachers, that big day, is of course, the first day of school.

As I write this, I am sitting at my newly organized desk, looking around at my newly arranged classroom.  I feel strangely empty.   This will be my seventeenth year of teaching, and for most of them I've been insanely excited to go back to school in August.  This year?  Not so much.  I have thoroughly enjoyed my summer - spending time with my kids, reading an amazing number of books, and thinking deeply about my practice.  One would think I would be chomping at the bit to get back into the swing of things.  But I'm not.

I've felt like this before, and I  know that when the kids arrive on the 25th, their excitement and energy will fill the hallways and my classrooms.  But I have over a week before then.  Next week I will be leading some professional development for my school district, and perhaps that will help generate some back-to-school excitement.

Over the past few days, I've been pondering my reasons for not feeling it this year.  I wonder if I am perhaps overwhelmed and anxious about some major changes at our school:  a new curriculum, a school-wide switch to the workshop approach in reading and writing (which I've been using for awhile now, but still), and a new layout for our school day to name a few.  These are huge changes, and I am a perfectionist and a worrier, so it only makes sense that I'm feeling apprehensive.

I need to tell myself to breathe and to go enjoy the last stress-free weekend of the summer.

What my room says about me (part 1)

My classroom - day 1 of set up

Each year as I set up my classroom, I wonder, "What does my room say about me?"  Well, going by this photo, you might say, "That photo says Mindi is a mess!"  Yes, at this point, my room is a royal mess.  Boxes are stacked around the room, bulletin borders are only halfway attached to the walls, and the air is heavy with moisture since the dehumidifier hasn't run since June 7. Even my library, which looks decent in this photo is a wreck when viewed close-up.  Between the baskets are books that were just shoved onto the shelves as kids brought them back to me even at the last minute.

This will only last a few days, however.  Over the next week or so, I will consider the placement of every chair, every table, every lamp to make sure my classroom reflects those things that are important to me:  spaces for kids to read, to write, to confer, and to discuss.  If you look closely at the left side of the photo you can see my ugly-as-sin sofa and a bright red beanbag.  These are part of my "living room" where the kids and I gather on almost a daily basis to consider the hard work of readers and writers.  Students can read in the living room, sitting on the sofas or lounging in one of the several beanbags I've managed to procure over the past few years.  On the other side of the room I have created a little nook just big enough for a small round table where I can do small group work with students.  This will be the first year I have had such a space, and I am looking forward to using it to help move my learners forward.  I found that neither the living room or the large-group learning space was conducive to the types of conversations and practice I was working on with my small groups.  

The center of the room is the most readily visible and is the part of the space that I am perhaps most unhappy with at the moment.  I have these ginormous blue tables that can only be configured a few ways.  I really like the U-shape because it allows all of the kids to look at each other while at the same time providing unobscured views of the whiteboard and projector screen.  I don't like that a person walking into my room or looking at photos of my space would think that the thing I value most is large group instruction.  I'm still toying with different ways of arranging those doggone tables!

My favorite part of my classroom (besides my living room) is my classroom library.  The book cases you see in the photo are most of my fiction books.  My nonfiction books are still packed in boxes and will go on bookshelves in my small-group area.  Several years ago, after visiting some of the K-5 classrooms in my district, I decided my classroom library needed an overhaul.  I noticed that the classroom libraries in the younger grades were organized in baskets with titles facing out.  I decided to see what would happen if I switched from a traditional library shelving system (spines out, alpha by author) to the sorted-by-genre, face out system.  I was pleased to see usage of my library skyrocket!  I label each book with the genre so reshelving is easy.  I am going to have to spend a couple of hours weeding my library, though, because I have over 700 books, and I've bought more this summer (and I'm going to the Scholastic Warehouse Sale tomorrow!). 

I am also a bit ashamed to admit I like my tile floor.  Not because of its beauty (holy diamonds!), but rather because it is SO MUCH FUN to roll across it in my office chair! :-)

Anyway... that's my thinking about my classroom in a nutshell.  Believe it or not, that photo was taken when I walked into my room this afternoon.  It was an even bigger mess when I left!

Living a Writerly Life

This summer I've been thinking quite a bit about my own writing (or lack of it).  Every summer I tell myself that this is the summer I'm going to become a writer.  This is the summer I will commit to writing each and every day about things that matter to me.  This is the summer where I will do those things that I ask my students to do so that when I go back into my classroom in late August I can speak with authority about seeing myself as a writer.

Guess what?  It didn't happen again this summer, or at least not yet. There is hope, however, since I have just over a month before school starts.  I can get that writing notebook out and start looking at my world through a writer's eyes.

It's not as if I don't have time.  I spend plenty of time each day on Facebook and Twitter, I have about fifteen different blogs I follow, I knit, I read, heck, I even play with my kids.  What I don't do is allow myself the time and space to sit down with my thoughts and see what I have to discover.

It's not as if I don't enjoy writing.  I do.  When I do write, whether it is something for school or a letter to a friend or even this blog, I find that the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) helps me crystallize my thoughts and get to the very heart of the issue I'm thinking about.  I walk away from the writing feeling lighter and sometimes even smarter.

So why don't I become that writer that I know is hiding there?  Am I afraid of what I might uncover if I let myself explore some of those hidden corners of my mind?  I'm not sure.  I think, perhaps, this is the summer I need to find out.

In her book Writing Workshop:  Working Through The Hard Parts (And They're all Hard Parts) (NCTE, 2001), Katie Wood Ray and co-author Lester Laminack discuss the question of whether teachers of writing need to be writers themselves. Once upon a time, I would have said no.  That was back in the day when I was giving the kids writing assignments ("Imagine you are a shoe.  Write about a day in your life.") that each child would dutifully write (kind of) and turn in (most of the time) and which I would slog through, marking with notes like "frag" and "awk" just like my English teachers had marked my papers about the life of a shoe.  As I've grown up as a teacher, though, and read and learned and thought about my practice, I've come to believe strongly that kids need to write about things that are important to them and that I need to teach the writers, not the writing.  I need to show kids how writing is important in their lives, not just so they can write a decent cover letter and get a job, but also so that they can work through tough times and celebrate joyous ones.  I need to help my students lead writerly lives.

And more and more I'm convinced I need to live a writerly life myself.  I need to be able to open my notebook and say to a student, "Look! I was trying that exact same thing this morning.  Here's what I discovered."  I need to do this hard, messy, sometimes painful work right next to them so they see that I know what I'm talking about.

In that same book, Ray says, "Writing is something you DO, not something you know."

So I guess I'd better go DO.

Sticky Note Madness

As I've been reading and thinking this summer about ways to improve my reading/writing workshop, I keep thinking about the ubiquitous sticky note and how kids use (and misuse) them to track their thinking about their reading.

Over the past five years or so, our district has stressed strategy instruction as part of our comprehensive literacy program.  From kindergarten on, students learn the language of the comprehension strategies, as described by Keene & Zimmerman in Mosaic of Thought.  Teachers have students annotate their texts, showing evidence of understanding and independent use of the strategy under study.  Often times, because the students are using school-provided, non-consumable texts, that annotation happens on sticky notes.  This is a practice that is common across the country; sticky notes are now a regular item on school supply lists.  So what's the big deal?

Here's my beef with the sticky note.... too many times, kids do the sticky notes because the teacher says they have to.  They'll ask, "How many stickies do I have to write for every chapter?"  They are focused on completing the assignment, not on pushing themselves to think deeper about text, which is the whole point of engaging those comprehension strategies. The sticky notes are the end, not a tool to help them become better readers.

Because thinking is not an observable behavior, teachers need some way to assess it that IS observable.  Marginalia is one way to do this, I get that, and yes, I, too, ask students to annotate the reading they do as part of a unit of study.  Because I teach seventh grade, and because I know that students in my school district have been working on these strategies for six years before they get to me, I often assume that they know how to write a "good" sticky.  Sometimes I need a reminder about the dangers of assuming anything.  I have to remind myself that I need to model, model, model what I expect the kids to do.  So when we are talking about WHY we annotate text, WHEN to annotate text, and HOW to annotate text, I'll be bringing in the books I've read this summer and share my annotations and the thinking behind them with the kids.  In addition, I'll be more deliberate in my think-alouds when demonstrating my own thinking about a shared text.

I'm also working on ways to take the thinking the kids capture on those stickies and incorporate it into their reader's notebooks.  That way, the thinking doesn't stop when the sticky gets stuck to the page.  By having the students go back through their text and choose the BEST examples of their thinking, they are being self-evaluative.  Asking them to think more about the subject, follow a train of thought or consider other options, gives them an opportunity to reconsider their reading and perhaps even go back into the text for a closer, second read.  I'm hoping that through the modeling and the opportunity to do something with those stickies besides stick-then-forget, students will see that they are a useful and simple tool for deeper thinking.

I guess this meandering rant about sticky notes is really about providing kids to be thoughtful and reflective about their reading, something that I know is best practice but often gets pushed to the side in the rush of all of the other things language arts teachers are supposed to do.  Just one more reason I need to figure out what of all of that "stuff" is really essential and what I can let go of.  Thinking through these tough subjects out loud on paper (or screen, really) is the whole purpose of why I set out to write this blog.

Climbing Ladders



I've just finished Reading Ladders by Teri Lesesne known here on livejournal as professornana .  I purchased this book when it came out earlier this spring since I follow Teri here and also on twitter.  I love reading her reviews of books, and I know, from reading her previous books, that we share similar views on the importance of giving kids the time and space to read during their school days. I finally got around to starting the book because it is the subject of the latest book club on the English Companion Ning.  (If you are not already a member, come join us!  It's some of the best professional development you'll find.)  This book turned out to be a great first-professional-book-of-the-summer.

Reading Ladders did not disappoint. While there was not a lot of information in this book that was new to me, it did give me more ammunition to use when people ask why I give up "valuable classtime" to let kids read. For a teacher who is considering moving toward a workshop approach in her reading class or a new teacher just starting her career, this book offers some great advice for building and maintaining a classroom library, rationale for student-chosen reading in school.

The real thinking for me happened when Teri began discussing her concept of reading ladders and how to build them.  These chapters really had me considering how and why I recommend books to kids in my classroom.  When students ask me to recommend a book for them, I usually ask, "What are you in the mood for?" as we wander over to my bookcases.  I know the books my students have read, because they write to me each week about their books.  However, I don't always try to move students to a more complex or more challenging book.  Teri's reading ladders do just that - they take readers where they are and purposely and thoughtfully move them forward.  This is something I need to think more about as I plow through my huge to-be-read pile of YA books.  With over 800 books in my classroom library, I have hundreds of ladders just waiting to be built.

Thank you, Teri, for your unwavering campaign to get kids the time and space they need to read and unfettered access to quality YA literature.  With the move in education toward scripted programs that drill and drill, we need voices like yours (and Kelly's, and Jim's, and Donalyn's, and Nancie's) out there to speak out for what's best for kids!

Reflections on the year gone by....

As a teacher, I don't measure time the way the rest of the world seems to.  The new year, for me, begins in August on the first day of school and ends on the last day in June.  I spend my summer thinking and rethinking my practice.  School ended today at about 10AM, so.....

What went well...
First of all, I was committed to making my reading/writing workshop really work this year.  I spent a good part of last summer reading just about every book I could get my hands on that related to the reading/writing workshop, conferring, and reader's notebooks.  After teaching for fifteen years, I know that I cannot take a book like In the Middle by Nancie Atwell or How's It Going? by Carl Anderson and just expect it to work in my classroom.  I know that I have to think about my specific kids and my specific classroom and figure out how to make things work for me. Overall, I think I did a fairly good job.  I managed to keep the basic structure I had figured out going for the whole year, and my kids read and wrote more than they ever have before in my class.  The quality of their writing steadily improved over the course of the school year, and many of them told me how much they appreciated being able to write about topics that were important to them, rather than topics I assigned.

Another positive for me was the language arts block I share with another teacher.  In my school, the teachers teach five classes each day.  This is fine for the math, science, and social teachers but not so much for the LA teachers.  We are the only subject that's blocked, so we have two double-period LA classes and then this single period that's hanging out there that we have to teach.  The solution has been to have two teachers share a block.  Usually what happens is one teacher is responsible for the reading and one for the English.  The other teacher and I want to keep our shared class as much like the other LA classes as possible; we firmly believe that the reading and writing need to be taught together - that one builds off of the other.  We decided to structure our time differently.  We alternated days, meaning that one day I would teach six classes (so I could have both parts of the LA block) and the next day I would only teach the two blocks that are mine.  This worked out very well for us, as we both got to talk to the kids about their reading, and we both got to read the amazing writing our kids produced.  Our administration was very supportive of our solution, and we plan on continuing this system next year.

What I'd like to do better...
I did not do such a great job of keeping my reading conferences and my writing conferences going for the whole year.  I found myself often getting sidetracked by so many other things that kept sucking at my time.  What they were, I can't actually remember, which tells me that they were not as important as I thought they were at the time.  I truly believe that the most authentic assessment I can do in my language arts classroom is to have conversations with my kids EVERY DAY about their reading and their writing.  

So what is this blog going to be about anyway?
The past few summers I've set a goal for myself to focus on my own writing.  I've never actually achieved this goal, so I decided that this summer I would blog about my thinking and rethinking about my classroom and my practice.  That way, I am documenting the changes in my thinking while at the same time putting my writing out there where anyone who stumbles upon it can read it.  This, to me, is a very scary thing!  Sometimes I'll write about the books I'm reading, sometimes I'll write about the conferences I'm attending, sometimes I'll write about the tangled mess of ideas and thoughts that are swirling around in my brain at any given moment.  Should be an interesting journey!