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Monthly Archives: September 2013

The View from Saturday #3

It’s time again
to look back
while stumbling

Here’s a milestone for you: This was the first week that didn’t end with me completely exhausted, completely overwhelmed, and completely frustrated. Sure, I’ve had my small successes, but it’s been rough, as you know. This week felt better, even though it might not have looked better.

This week began three guided reading groups, one of them led by me, and two led by able assistants as part of our school-wide Title 1 program. One of them will end next week, as our Special Ed teacher has decided, and I agree, that a couple of my students are fully unable to function at the independent level required of Reading and Writing Workshop. She’ll stop leading a group and work with them on her own. Maybe in a few years, if I get this thing down, that wouldn’t be necessary. But for now, I think it is best for those two students.

Management continues to be the big struggle. I’ve been trying to decide if this really is the most difficult class I’ve ever had, or if it just seems that way because of all the new things I’m trying to do.  I’m leaning toward most difficult. If I think back to every class I’ve had before, I think I’d rather have started RWW with any of them. But I didn’t. And I’m here now. And we’re doing this thing, whether I like it or not. And whether they like it or not. I’m not one to give up. I tell my class, “I believe in you. I believe you can do this work.” I believe in myself, too.

So management. It’s been so, so hard, because I find that I have to manage our independent work so much, which sabotages my ability to run groups and confer. Conferring was pretty much nonexistent this week (Ack!). I checked in with several students about their Reader’s Notebook letters, but that was it. Argh! Actually, thank goodness for those letters–they give me at least a little interaction with each student, each week…though not face to face. Ugh!

Still, slight improvements this week. Slight. Too slight to list, maybe too slight to notice, even. But enough to make me feel OK when Friday rolled around.

We also all made a learning goal and a behavior goal. Two reasons for this: One, I started student-led conferences last year and intend to continue them this year. The goals will be talking points for the students during Fall Conferences. And two, we need them. I made–and shared–them, too. My learning goal had to do with tracking missing work, which I needed to improve but wasn’t quite relevant to students. But my behavior goal was about what I wrote last week–my sudden lack of patience. I made it a goal to be more patient and get angry less by taking a deep breath and counting to five in my head. I demonstrated it several times this week…

A teacher across the hall said, “I heard stern talking and I thought, ‘Is that Adam? Always so level-headed and calm? He must be joking.’ I peeked in and saw ‘Oh. Nope. He’s serious.'” She was surprised. And nervous, I think–she’s a fifth grade teacher. If these fourth graders are making me crazy, then…

Sigh. I hope my blood pressure’s not going up.

I’m going to stop writing this now and not go read student letters and not go read Units of Study and not enter grades or correct work. I’m going to go finish my book.

Thanks for reading. I’m glad you’re with me.

The View from Saturday #2

How do you do?
View #2.
Feeling blue?
Have some stew.
Poem is through.

So, the third week of Reading and Writing Workshop is complete. I’ve had my students for fourteen days. Some things are looking up. Some things are…in progress. I’m going to try hard not to make this a rant-release.

The Good:

Two things. First, I was able to take a breath this week by pausing with the Lucy Calkins Units of Study for Reading and taking a week to set up our Reader’s Notebooks. Weekly letters to me was something I did last year, and it is important to me to do it again. Especially when it is so hard for me to get around to confer with every student in a timely fashion, having a weekly check-in is very helpful. I’m not using Calkins’ reading logs, so letters is sort of a replacement for that. Of course, reading logs don’t take 5-7 minutes to read and respond to, times 28 students. So I’m a little nervous about adding close to an hour a night, three days a week, to the already-full-of-reading Calkins units every school night. It was a small relief to not read and process two Calkins lessons every day for a week, as informative and helpful as they are.

Second, most exciting of all, is that students are starting to get a little excited about their writing. We’ve slowed way, way down, trying to catch up the students who are a little thick  aren’t paying attention  haven’t caught on yet. There are still a few. But they are getting there. And there are many students excited about their story. Everyone is excited about our example class story. We will get there. This was a promising week. But 28 students! I still haven’t really conferred with anyone, outside of quick group check-ins. But it was so exciting to be able to actually use examples from our class during minilesson, to say, “T was telling me how she thought her first scene was only going to be a quarter page, but she got caught up in it, and filled the whole page! Things just kept happening to her character! She let the story go. She wasn’t writing it, she was recording it. She let her character take over and just watched where it led her.”

That made me feel good. Yeah? T is even one of the tough ones.

The Bad:

There’s not too much that’s going “badly.” Maybe I should skip right to ugly.

OK, I can share one thing. It’s me. Sometimes I’m going badly. I have always been a very patient, calm teacher. Probably to a fault. I’ve often let too much go. This year, I have had some very snappy moments. Angry moments. When students are wasting time. When students are deliberately disruptive. This is a difficult group with which to try my first true foray into Workshop. And I’ve been bad sometimes.

I always own up to it. I always tell the students, later, how I was feeling, and how badly I felt about how I acted. About how much I care about them and how I care so much that sometimes my emotions get a little heated when I see them making choices that don’t help themselves or their classmates. And at home each night, I agonized less about my students and more about how I was behaving. This week, I was very intentional about pointing out “leaders.” I had been encouraging positive behaviors through noticing. “I see C working so hard.” “I see A reading so quietly so he isn’t disturbing his neighbors.” But it wasn’t working. The disrupters were pretty indifferent to the positive attention that others were getting. Which was making me snappy at them. So this week, I switched it up a little. “I notice C really being a leader for the rest of us, working so hard on her writing. If we looked around the room and saw her, we would know what we were supposed to be doing.” Identifying students as leaders seemed to work better. Everyone wants to be a leader.

The Ugly:

It’s pretty simple. Management. Always the thing I have struggled the most with. Always, always, always.

In our class, we struggle with this most during minilessons in the meeting area and sometimes during independent time. We are working on it. We identify helping behaviors every day. We identify acceptable volumes every day. We talk and talk about choosing helping behaviors rather than harmful behaviors. But still. Yesterday, in writing, our minilesson took half an hour, leaving just ten minutes to write. So frustrating. It should be the opposite! I don’t want to ignore and talk over disruptive behaviors, I don’t want to ignore those students who are completely tuned out. I know that I can’t do that. Those things are not acceptable, I do not want to let them slide now and have them become habit (though clearly some of these students had these habits already…). But oh my god it makes things take foreverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

A friend of mine today told me about the Daily 5. That it is great for setting up stamina and helping behaviors. Some of the 3rd grade teachers use it. I’m not sure if it would work to start that in the 4th week of school. I really don’t know how I could fit something else in–we haven’t even started Science or Social Studies yet!

What do you think?

Too ranty?

I’m glad you’re with me, Sam.

The View from Saturday #1

Clever name for a weekly reflection on my Reading and Writing Workshop, yes? One of my favorite read alouds for 5th grade. But you’re not doing it right if you don’t give Julian a British accent.

It was my plan to make this a weekly reflection, though I didn’t even make it one week. After the first week of school, I was so, so tired–mentally and physically–that I could hardly muster anything. I guess you can consider this paragraph last week’s reflection, and use your prodigious inferencing skills.

So, this week. I guess let me first say that Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study series are both excellent and maddening. It reads a lot like a professional development text, which I love, but it reads a lot like a professional development, which makes for a lot of reading and thinking for each lesson. Reading and thinking is exactly what I need to be doing, but it’s hard when I have to do it every night when I’m already pretty tired. However, having taught about seven lessons from the Units in both Reading and Writing, I’m starting to get a sense of what I (and my students) need, and what we don’t, and how to not make myself crazy.

The hardest thing, by far, has been managing and motivating my students. In my first post, I mentioned my new meeting area. Man! What a tough spot. I love the community and intimacy that a meeting area brings, but dang these fourth graders are squirrelly and not used to sitting so close to each other without bugging or distracting each other. I don’t want to sound like I’m bad-mouthing my district, but I definitely feel the struggle that comes with moving to Reading and Writing workshop with 28 nine year-olds who have not really participated in a workshop model before. There is a ton of teaching that needs to happen. My minilessons have been running so long, because we spend so much time stopped and examining behaviors. It’s a wicked cycle, because they get more antsy the longer they sit, and the more they get antsy, the longer it takes to get through the minilesson. Yeesh. We are improving, but slowly. Soooooo slowly… Writing suffers the most–there’s been a day or two when we’ve only had about 5-10 minutes to write independently. End-of-workshop sharing also suffers. Time is a killer, as it always is for teachers.

So, the management aspect, which is already a general challenge for me, has been difficult. We are making progress, but it is a bit draining in the meantime.

Thoughts on Reading:

A lot of my students like to read. This is a big plus. And they’ve also never had a teacher with a graphic novel shelf like mine. Some of them are pretty comic-starved–I haven’t seen a Babymouse, Lunch Lady, or Smile on the shelf since the first day. 

What my students are not used to is valuing reading as a part of their lives, or “building a reading life.” They’ve taken a lot of AR tests. They’ve heard a lot about what they are “supposed” to read, and what they “can’t” read. That’s something pretty hard to break. When I talk with them about a reading life, I get a lot of blank stares. I’m reassured by this passage from Lucy Calkins, in response to initial fears that the beginning lessons were asking too much of students:

We’ve made the decision, then, not to scale back aspects of these early lessons that might, at first, seem a bit much. So my advice is this: Try to teach as if your kids are totally taking in what you are saying. As when you read aloud a poem–more of the message gets through than you realize. (Unit 1, “Building a Reading Life,” p. 45)

So, that. 

A little anecdote from Reading Workshop. I had a student who refused to read. He “didn’t like chapter books.” I gave him Squish and he devoured them. Lunch Lady and he consumed them. He checked out a chapter book at the library and stalled out. Too resistant to even read a page. So scared of anything without pictures and over 100 pages. So I sat with him and read the first two pages to him. The book was How to Survive Middle School, by Donna Gephart. Instantly, we meet a boy who is short, has a hamster, and loves TV. Well…guess what was true about the boy I was reading to? He got excited and agreed to read it for the rest of workshop. He took it home. Success! He came back to school not having read another page, and saying he just couldn’t do it. Almost a success. Almost. “I just don’t like reading,” he says. “Not true!” I reply. “You ate up Squish and Lunch Lady! That is reading! You do like reading, when you find the right books.” He is currently swallowing up Mal & Chad, and I’ll keep working him.

By the way, how in the world can I confer with 28 students in one week, in 2.5 total hours, especially when I spend 8 minutes with one student trying to help him understand that he is a reader and spend 5-10 minutes a day managing? 

Thoughts on Writing:

This “View” is getting long, so I don’t want to write much more. We run Writing Workshop right after Reading, and it gets crunched pretty hard. We start late, the minilessons run long, and we end up with very little writing time. Some students have responded very positively to the work we are trying to do to start the year. Others have done nothing. I think I really need to do the minilesson as quick as I can and then cut the class about in thirds. Those who can go off to write, and I run a sort of guided writing group with the other two-thirds(!) to continue the work of the minilesson and to get kids on the right track. Unfortunately, for this to work I really have to tighten up the times so I can still preserve at least a little conferring time for the rest of the class. I’ve been pretty frustrated by the time. We’ll see how it goes. A lot of students not used to choice and self-motivated writing. We’ll get there. I think. I hope.

Thanks for reading.

Poor old Michael Finnegan…

…Begin again.

Hi, how have you been? I promise to come around more.

This will be a big year. Big year = big post.

I’m returning to 4th grade, after two years in 5th. I’ve taught 4th for eight out of eleven years, so the transition shouldn’t be too hard. Unless I make it hard. Which I’m going to. On purpose. More in a second.

We’re moving into a new school. After winter break. Some construction delays made it so finishing in time for the beginning of the year was impossible. So it goes. I’m excited to be in a new space. Moving mid-year isn’t ideal, but…new school! Ya!

Our two wonderful principals, stolen two years ago from other schools and districts, were stolen back at the end of the year. So now we have two new wonderful principals. I feel confident that they will be wonderful. I also feel confident that they are new.

Plenty of change. Plenty to do. Plenty to think about. And so I went ahead and threw in some more.

For seven years, I struggled to make my way at my school. I was missing two things that I think a new teacher desperately needs: A professional learning community and innovation. It wasn’t that my colleagues were not helpful–they would help me with anything I asked. It wasn’t that my colleagues didn’t believe in what they were doing–they just were not very interested in trying something new.

So I struggled. And after about seven years, I finally felt like I had a handle on what I was doing. Great, right? Sure, except what I really had a handle on was what everyone else was doing. I felt little ownership.

For a couple of years I went through the motions generally stress-free. I finally had things figured out! Sometimes they weren’t that exciting–for me or my students–but at least I knew what I was doing.

And then I joined Twitter.

I started out by following the people who were truly in my heart–children’s authors. Since my third year, the one thing I was doing that I truly believed in was my Guys Read book club.  So, it was natural to pursue those who I felt most comfortable with. The first author I followed was Sharon Creech.

Then I started following teachers and librarians who were following (and were followed by) those authors. You know who they are–John Schumacher, Colby Sharp, Donalyn Miller, Katherine Sokolowski.

Then my world exploded.

Because all of a sudden I had a PLC. I had access to people who were motivated and enthusiastic about growth and innovation. They didn’t know me, but they changed my life.

I started reading professional books again, something I hadn’t done since college. I started pushing back against things I always knew, deep down, were not best practices–AR, Open Court, contrived writing programs.

Suddenly I had the support system I never had. Which gave me the confidence to change the way I teach.

Which brings me to today. The first day of my twelfth year of teaching. The year when I start over.

I am abandoning Open Court. I am ignoring AR. I am lining up my teaching with my heart and with my mind. I’m going all in with Reading and Writing Workshop.

It’s convenient that my district is in the process of adopting new literacy “curriculum.” It makes it so other teachers look at my changes with less raised eyebrows. I am on the adoption team. So I get to be a “pilot.” But I have no intention of ever going back to teaching that is about following a book instead of following the needs of students.

So here I go. To help me, I read the entire huge, thick Fountas and Pinnell book, Guiding Readers and Writers. One of the perks of being in mid-curriculum adoption is that I have Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for both Reading and Common Core Writing. My district also held a Summer Institute on Balanced Literacy. I’ve learned a lot in the last two months. I feel a little less stress having something to guide me. But I’m still nervous. A little scared. A lot excited.

It won’t be easy. We have no book room, no leveled sets for guided reading. We have plenty of books for literature study, but few of them are nonfiction, and almost none are recently published (the exception is books I’ve pushed for purchase for my Guys Read club). And, of course, I have no other colleagues trying this with me. But I have Twitter. I have #nerdybookclub. I have a PLC, they’re just not at my school.

I built benches for my classroom. I’m not even handy! Eleven years of teaching upper elementary and for the first time I have a dedicated meeting area. I never thought it was necessary, before. I never knew how important it was. Now I know better.

Eleven years of teaching upper elementary and I finally have enough knowledge in my head, and confidence in my being, to be able to teach literacy from my heart.

I’ll keep you posted.

Starting over feels so, SO good.