Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bookstacks for Break Reading

I love that the past two days in my classroom have been filled with students coming in and perusing the bookshelves more intently than they usually do. Why? Because we're only a few days away from a two week holiday break, and they want to make sure they have books to carry them through those weeks.

Overheard in my room this week:

Student - "Why do you need so many books?"
Another student --- "Our break is two weeks!"
Student - "It is? I better get a couple more."

Student - "Mrs. Heise, can you recommend some books for me for over break?"
Me --- "Of course, what kind of books do you want?"
Student - "Something like The Distance Between Us. I want a Kasie book."
Another student - "Oooh, I loved that book! Wait, what are you recommending?"

Student - "Mrs. Heise, Do you have any new books?"
Me --- "Yes, I do. I have these and I just got some last night."
Student - "Yes! I call dibs."

Student - "Hey, have you read xyz?"
Another student - "No. Not yet."
Student - "You need to read it now. Add it to your stack."

Student - "Mrs. Heise, how many books can I check out?"
Me --- "As many as you want."
Student - "Really? Good."

These kinds of conversations are secretly thrilling to me because I can see that my students are becoming readers. They're becoming the kinds of readers who want to make sure they have books available for when they know they're going to have free time. They're making plans for reading. They're excited about books and authors and reading. I've seen more, bigger bookstacks than I ever have heading out of my classroom before. This is what I love to see.

Tomorrow we'll be "officially" setting goals for our reading over the holiday break and making sure everyone has enough books to get them through, but I especially love that this year students have started initiating this on their own.

One of my 7th graders took out his break reading bookstack to show off during after-school study hall.

My break reading bookstack - and, yes, there are many more titles on that Nook.

A sign one of my 8th graders made me after school today. Just had to add it because it makes me smile.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sometimes You Just Need a Break

Sometimes you just need a break. Sometimes kids need a break. You can see it in their eyes, their body language, their responses...and today my kids were there. They've been working really hard lately on their research papers for science fair, and as we get closer to winter break, and the snow has come, I could sense they needed a break today. We all independently read our choice books for the first 15 minutes of class each day, and my cue to them at the end of that time is, "Okay, get to a good stopping point." Sometimes I hear groans in response to that. Sometimes I hear (my personal favorite), "Mrs. Heise, I don't believe in good stopping points." Sometimes I hear, "This book doesn't have any stopping points. I need to keep reading." Sometimes I hear, "But, I'm almost done! I just have a little bit more to go." Sometimes I hear, "Can't we just keep reading? Pleeeaaase?!" Today was one of those days with groans and begging to read longer.

I could sense it. The need for a break. And in that moment I realized that there are those days when we need a break, or a chance to get re-caught up, or just an opportunity to breathe. Today was one of those days. So I went with what I could see on their faces and hear in their voices. For some of my students, that meant they had a chance to work on their research papers because they had fallen behind and needed to use the time to get caught up. For some of my students, it meant they could catch up on their logging of books they've read and recording their thoughts about them. For others, it meant some time to continue getting lost in their books and be engaged in their reading. For some, it meant time to scour the bookshelves for TBR stacks to check out for our two week winter break. For a few, it even meant the chance to finish a book they were so close to getting to the end of after the first fifteen minutes. It was one of those days where they needed a break, and it worked out well because a break for some of them meant just getting caught up instead of continuing to push forward, which means they'll be better prepared tomorrow and we'll all be able to move on to the next lesson together. Although it was a "break", it was not free time - it was productive time for all. Sometimes a break is just what we need.

A peek into our "break" room.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Expect Delays Ahead

Last week I was lucky enough to have dinner with Donalyn Miller. That meant I was out later on a weeknight than I usually am (obviously for very good reason) and when I got on the highway to head home, I saw brake lights ahead and flashing lights...and the Expect Delays and Two Left Lanes Closed Ahead signs. Even in the middle of winter, it's apparently still construction season in Wisconsin. The flashing lights were because the construction workers were actively pulling the barrels into the roadway to block the two left lanes for overnight work. So what was once a three lane highway was now down to one. As I sat and waited as cars from three different lanes merged and slowly funneled into just one, it got me thinking. Now, normally this would be just another thing happening, but since I was heading home from a dinner with much conversation about teaching and books and things of that sort, my mind was spinning.
This funneling of so many cars into one narrow lane where we all had to slow down got me thinking about the state of education. Is it really best to try to take so many people in varied states of readiness, ability, desire, and make them all conform to one narrow vision of what should be at that exact time? maybe I'm losing my comparison here a little - of course we need to all move over and slow down for the construction workers and lanes being closed. But in the matter of education, is it really best to try to funnel all kids through the same narrow focus at a prescribed time? As I picture the slow down from all of those cars going to the one same place, all I could think of is that if we are doing that to our students, wouldn't that cause the same kind of jam? Expect delays ahead. Yeah. Some move slower, some are ready to go beyond, some have more capable vehicles, some need to watch more what's going on around them, some need to take a detour. Delays can be expected if we aren't thinking of our students as individuals with individual needs and paths to get there. If we try to funnel them all into the same lane, we're not meeting their needs, and we're likely just slowing things down for all.

That vision of the funneling car has stuck with me and reminded me throughout the last week that I need to allow my kids to do what they need to do in their own way, and that they each may have their own path...there's not necessarily just one narrow funnel through which they must pass.

Funny how one small thing + different thoughts in mind = a clarified perspective.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Making Time For What's Important

As I was driving home from what ended up being a three and a half hour dinner/chat with Donalyn Miller (it's hard to stop talking when you see each other so rarely and are having so much fun), I was thinking back on what Chris Lehman said each time I've seen him speak recently, whether in reference to reading or writing, about making time for what's important. We make time for what's important in the classroom for the reading and writing and the talk and the community building and relationship building because we make time for what's important to us, and those are the things that are important in helping students develop. And as I was driving home, I was thinking about this and realized that it was important for me to make that time last night. No matter how busy or tired or overwhelmed by to-do lists or thinking about teaching the next day I am, it's important to make the time for evenings like that with friends who understand and can relate to what I do everyday. Talk is's a way to work thorough things I've been thinking about, confused by, wondering's a way to process my's a way to feel better about where my head is at. It's important. I need to make time for it.

To make that time to discuss and just have a really enjoyable evening was important. Because I need to make time for what's important to me. You make time for those things that matter and I'm glad for the people who make time for me. Friends who help me to be a better person. People who make time for what's important-that connection and community.

I make time in my classroom for reading and writing. It's important for my students to believe they're readers and writers. I need to make that dedicated time for them to experience and delve into their reading and writing because that's what is important. It's important for them to find the joy and interest and motivation and engagement in reading and writing. I need to make time for that because it's important. The kids who enter my classroom need to discover themselves as readers and writers and believe that they can do it. I know that's important...and everybody should make time for that.
Image from: MelissaJoyKong

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Trusting My Teacher Instincts

It struck me today that teaching is instinctive. A teacher has to be constantly flexible and ready to adjust on the fly. One never knows when that teachable moment might arrive. I started thinking about this as I was reflecting on a lesson that went really well earlier this week and why it went so well. And I realized that beyond the pedagogy, beyond the lesson plan, beyond the responses of the students, it was the instinctiveness I have when I’m teaching that helped it to be successful.

I have a general plan when I teach, but there are times when I’m talking about reading or modeling writing that I realize I’m adding in many more things than I might even have identified or thought about ahead of time. It’s instinct that helps me see that as I’m talking about teaching through our writing I can also talk about point-of-view, grammar, voice, organization, audience, word choice, and so much more. Teaching language arts as a subject is always interesting because there are so very many interconnected elements. And no matter what I plan to do, there is always something that I see during the teaching that I know I can add to make things clearer to students that I didn’t plan on ahead of time. I was trying to figure out how I could explain this to a new teacher or someone not in this profession, but I wasn’t sure.  That’s the point when I realized it’s about instinct. 

My instinct drives what I do in the classroom. It’s how I make decisions on the spot, make adjustments to lessons on the fly, make use of teachable moments when they come up…because I know, in that moment, that those are the things I need to teach, address, explore, connect, discuss, make clearer. Instinct guides what I do in the classroom, and I think it has to because when I have a depth of knowledge behind me, it can support me in moving forward or changing directions in the moment. So it comes back to learning and using that knowledge to guide my instincts for what to do next. I’m not sure if teacher instinct is teachable, but I know that without being a learner myself and constantly striving to understand best practices and better ways to teach and using that knowledge to support me, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to trust my instincts. And I need to be able to trust my instincts in the classroom, so I need to keep learning and challenging myself, and taking advantage of those moments when the metaphorical lightbulb goes on above my head to let my instincts guide my way.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Learning IS Hard

Heard across my classroom today: "This is hard!!!" {I hope you're imagining the half whining/half frustration overload tone of voice this was yelled in} to respond?
-Well, yeah. Learning is hard, but how great - you must be learning something new!
-Yes, but that doesn't mean we give up.
-Please don't yell across the classroom and disturb everyone who is writing. It's okay to be frustrated, but it's not okay to interrupt everyone else who is working.
-What can I do to help you?
-Remember when I've talked about that idea of cognitive dissonance, where things get more confusing before they start to make sense in your brain when you're learning something new? Well, I think you're in that stage right now.

Take your pick. I'm actually pretty sure I said a variation on every one of those options in the minutes following that outburst.

Then I started thinking about it some more. My thoughts first went to...hmmmm, I really thought I had explained that well when I was talking with him, but maybe not. How can I explain it in a way that will help? Then, as I looked at the boy's face across the room, I realized that I recognized the body language and look of utter frustration. Just last spring I had been exactly there. When? At a writing retreat for my National Boards portfolio. I get it. I just wanted to be done and have it make sense and write whatever and just get it over with. I understood the emotion this kid was feeling. And it made me change my thinking to empathizing with him versus questioning it.

And as I write this, I realize what perhaps I came to understand even more today. It's crucial that I continue to be a learner. It's important for my role as a teacher that I put myself in situations that can help me feel what my students might feel like on a daily basis (without quite as much middle school angst). How can I possibly understand what my students are going through if I haven't gone through it? And I'm not just talking about thinking back to all those years ago when I was in middle school. I'm talking about continuing to be a learner today. With my understandings where they are, if I hadn't pushed myself past my comfort zone to that stage of cognitive dissonance recently myself, I'm not sure that I would have so quickly moved in my mindset to understanding just exactly what that feels like. And what did I need when I was feeling that way? To get up and take a walk, get a drink of water, talk to someone about something else for a few minutes, give my brain a break...and then get back to it. So why shouldn't I give my students the opportunity for that same outlet of taking that break to keep the thinking fresh? Something I'll be remembering the next time this happens.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Back to Basics (focus on the kids, best practices, and the day that flowed)

Sometimes you have one of those days in the classroom where things just flow. You know what I mean, right? The class period where even if the kids come unprepared, even if things don’t all go according to plan, even if it’s not what you thought would happen, some things just work really well and you’re left with a sense of accomplishment at the end? I had that day today. It reinvigorated me. It reenergized me. It reminded me that I do know what I’m doing. It put things back in perspective for me. It gave me a sense of peace and feeling like I’m in the right place with the right people at the right time.

I was out of the classroom on Friday at a workshop on close reading put on by Chris Lehman. I also got to see Chris speak about building a culture of writing in schools on Saturday morning. I made this comment on twitter:
And it’s so true. He is one of those speakers who inspires me and reminds me what being a teacher is all about…the kids. It’s about the kids becoming their best selves. It’s about being there for them. It’s about helping them see themselves in a new light. It’s about doing what I can to give them the tools for success. It’s about engaging them so they learn. It’s about the kids. No matter what else is going on with directives, assessments, standards, paperwork, or anything else that can be a distraction…It should always come back to the kids. They are the reason I'm here.

This morning when I got into school, the first thing I did was look at the notes from my sub on Friday. There was some confusion and I knew I needed to tailor my lessons today toward what my kids needed from me to clear up the confusion. What did I go to? Formative assessment, Conferring, Feedback, Modeling, Think Alouds, Time to Write…and, no, I’m not just trying to throw educational buzz words out there, I’m talking about the instinctive things I go to that I know make a difference. And that’s the key I realized today.  I turned off all of the “noise” and just did what I know works to support kids. That’s why it seemed to flow so well…I was going back to the basics that I know are best practices and I was giving my students what they needed.

Some days we lose sight of that in the press to reach the standards and cover the curriculum and meet requests, but it should always be about the kids and what they need and how we can best provide that. I know what it is, and I need to remember that. The difference in what I saw my students come to class with compared to what they left with after assessing where they were at and where they struggled, modeling the writing and thinking aloud, conferring with them and giving feedback, and allowing them the time to write, was impressive. Back to basics…that’s where I’m headed. What about you?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

We Interrupt Your Regularly Schedule Lesson for this Tangent

Today we were working on teaching through our writing (a concept we're working on for the research papers we'll be starting to write soon), so we were practicing with the ways we had identified that non-fiction authors use to teach through their writing (you can see our messy brainstorming here). Instead of getting right into it, I wanted to have my students practice first, so I told them to pick any topic that they know something about, and we were going to take ten minutes to write a paragraph teaching somebody about that topic. Starting with a known topic would allow us to really focus on the craft of the writing. If my students have to write it, so do I, so I did. My topic? Chanukkah. Why? I don't really know other than it's what came to mind when I was trying to think of things that I know about, and we had just been lighting the candles with my nieces and nephews last week at my parents house. And then I shared.

First class: Went just fine. They seemed to like it and they identified the things I had tried to do in my writing. The topic didn't seem to phase them. It did however cause them to question why I chose that topic, which led to my explanation of being half Jewish and half Christian and a bit of background about growing up knowing both sides of my heritage.

Second class: Went fine again, although this time I got applause when I finished reading. That was appreciated because I was actually pretty proud of what I had come up with on the spot and how I had made it interesting for the reader, so I was glad they recognized that. The topic led to some questions again and the basic explanation was fine for them.

Third class (now we're getting to my 8th graders who have had me now for a year-and-a-half): Before I even had time to share my paragraph, Excuse this interruption in your regularly schedule lesson plan...the topic led to a fifteen minute discussion on religions, faith, heritage, the difference between religion's beliefs, where certain ethnicities originated, international travel, rich, poor, levels of wealth and if you can judge someone based on that, and cheese. Somehow we got off on a tangent and it just kept going. I'm not even really sure how it happened, but the kids were really engaged, and I even heard one exclaim, "This is the best language arts class ever!" Hmmmm...should I be concerned?

I'm thinking no. We want our kids to be critical thinkers and participate in discussions, right? Well, there was definitely some critical thinking going on there, and there was debating and making points and arguing perspectives and acknowledging others. It wasn't intended, but it was interesting to hear their perspectives, and the fact that this tangent led to interesting conversation, a little bit of learning (even if not what I thought it would be about), and caused my students to have to make points and defend them...well, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Students need to think, they need to be challenged, they need opportunities to construct arguments, they need the chance to share their thoughts, they need to think sometimes that language arts class can be fun...and if it happens to come from an unexpected tangent instead of a planned lesson or writing assignment once in awhile...well, I'm okay with that.

Now back to your regularly scheduled lesson.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From Dread to Hope (a Confessional on Teaching Research)

Confession Time: I dread teaching research. Ugh...the research paper. I hated it in 8th grade when I had to do it, I was dismayed by it when I had to do it in graduate school, and I've yearly lamented on having to teach it. There's just something about the entity that is the formal research paper that has always seemed overwhelming to me as a student and now as a teacher.

All 7th and 8th graders in my school participate in the annual science fair, and a formal, traditional research paper on a topic related to their experiment is a required part of entering the science fair. This is my least favorite unit because of the beast that is a formal research paper.

After going through teaching research on this particular topic for the the first time last year, I knew I needed a better way. A better way to approach it, to teach it, to engage my students in the process, and definitely a better way to get a more interesting end result. There's not much that can be done when the traditional, formal research paper essay is required, but thanks to Chris Lehman and his professional book, Energize Research Reading and Writing (Heinemann, 2012), which is 160 pages of logic and smartness, I have found so much more I can do to remedy the rest of the process of teaching research.
If you teach research in any way, you're going to want to get this book.
Having the notes from when I attended a workshop on this topic led by Chris over the summer, and opening his book as I sat down to begin planning out our big research unit, I began to feel hope. Hope that I could make it more interesting. Hope that I could make it more meaningful. Hope that I could make it more engaging. Hope that I could make it something that would be lasting and students would use again. Hope that I could make it something I would be interested in teaching. Hope that I could make it something my kids would be interested in learning. And hope that it would lead to final products I would actually be interested reading.
My unit planning session in progress - notice I'm opened to the page where Chris has kindly given us a unit design overview (including page numbers for mini-lessons that you could include!)
Side-note: I've learned to use post-it notes for lesson topic in planning - it makes it much easier to readjust things as/when needed!
Chris' book is laid out in such a teacher-friendly way. It's utterly useful and easy to follow and includes reasoning, chart examples, transcripts of teacher language to use in mini-lessons, unit planning, and so much more! It's the kind of book you can pick up, read, and try out in the classroom the very next day.

So, thanks to this book, for the very first time in my nine years of teaching, I haven't hated or dreaded teaching research, but I've actually been looking forward to each new lesson to see how it would be received by my students through this new lens.

A lens of thinking about research as Reading to Learn & Writing to Teach. 
A lens of realizing that it doesn't all have to be one set way, there's room for choice and inquiry in teaching research. 

That mantra and focus has gotten me into it this year and we've had several successful lessons so far, and I'm looking forward to reading what my students will come up with as they teach through their writing.
I no longer dictate what type of notes to take, the information and purpose does.
Our messy list of ways non-fiction authors teach through writing after looking at mentor texts, which naturally led into the ways non-fiction text can be organized/structured. This will eventually become a neater reference chart posted in the room as students start writing.

So, if you teach research in any way (hello, CCSS!), I highly recommend you get Chris Lehman's book, read it, and use it to guide your teaching. It's been a game-changer book for me and my teaching.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sometimes It's Best to Go With the Distraction

It was a dreary day in Southeastern Wisconsin today. I had lessons planned. After our Independent Daily Reading and choice quick write, we were moving on to looking at non-fiction books together to identify what types of things authors do to teach through their writing. You see, we're doing our big research unit right now, and I'm trying a new focus this year. But in my last (4th) class of the day doing this, after our quick write time, a student looked out our classroom windows and exclaimed about this.

How could I ignore that distraction? It was an eerie view outside those windows. My kids were totally distracted. So I made an on-the-spot decision to go a different direction and follow the distraction. Sometimes a teacher just has to do that. You see, I wasn't going to get them back and focused on the lesson at hand at that point. So we didn't even try.

Instead? I told them maybe we should work with the distraction and go with the nature at hand - let's write stories about it! We'd spend the last twenty minutes of class writing stories - the only stipulation was that the setting had to be what we were seeing outside those windows. We did a quick review of narrative structure and what elements should be included in a fiction short story, then we looked out the windows at our setting inspiration, and we started writing our stories. And, yes, I do mean we. I sat down to write a story of my own as my 8th graders were writing theirs. There were smiles, and engagement, and glances out the window, and giggling, and sharing of ideas, and the sound of pens scratching across paper...and every one of my students was writing for that whole 20 minutes. Sometimes it is best to go with the distraction. That other lesson? It can wait until tomorrow.

My last line at minute nineteen: As she tried to look beyond the edges of the white fog blanketing the woods, she heard the screaming start.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why My Students are Readers...What They Have to Say

Today I heard some interesting comments during a conversation with a couple of students. These comments were unexpected in the way that I wasn't expecting to hear them at that time, but not unexpected in the sentiment that was shared. You see, I was talking to a couple of my 7th graders about the books they're reading right now and we got to talking about what all they've read this school year. And both of them shared that they've read more already this year (two months in) than any other year in school (one even admitted that perhaps more than she's read ever). I always smile when I hear this because I love when students come to this realization themselves. I told them how great that is. And then they kept talking. 

They shared thoughts that they didn't like reading as much last year because the teacher chose what they read instead of the students choosing themselves. They shared that they liked reading this year because there are so many books in my classroom to choose from...and they're good  books. They shared that they find they're reading more because they have to read during class time, and then the books they're reading are so good that they want to find out what happens next, so they read at home. They shared that they were already figuring out what books they don't like reading and the ones they do. They shared that they're sharing books with each other - making the other one read ones they really like. They shared that they hope they can read even more next year. They shared that they're scared or not looking forward to high school and what they might have to read. They shared that they're readers this year. 

None of this was prompted. This was an unplanned conversation. It was not a formal formative assessment opportunity, but oh so much was learned. I learned that these two students are making determinations about genre and what books fit their interests. I learned that they are able to identify what they do and don't like in books they read. I learned that they know how to navigate the classroom library to find what they want. I learned that they are finding ways to make a reading habit at home. I learned that they are engaging with their books and carrying that over outside of school. I learned that they are paying attention to what we talk about in class and applying it to their books. I learned that they are sharing with each other what they're reading and building their own community for book recommendations. I learned that they see themselves as readers as they never have before. I learned that if we take the time to listen, our kids will tell us what they know, want, and need as readers. 

What was my takeaway? With time, choice, access, and community, students will be readers. 
Something I will always think about at the start of a year (and throughout) Am I giving time to read, allowing choice in what is read, providing access to reading material, and creating a supportive reading community?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Why Do I Love Reading?

I've been thinking about this for awhile, ever since reading students' beginning of the year surveys and seeing that one of the questions they had for me is about why I like reading, and I was trying to figure out how best to explain how I feel. I think this poem does it.
Why Do I Love Reading?

Why do I love reading?
Because it takes me
to other places
Because it lets me
escape from this world
when I want a break
Because it entertains me
in so very many ways
Because it lets me
experience things I might not
outside of a book

Why do I love reading?
Because it helps me learn
about myself
and the world around me
and my place
in it
Because it lets me live
so many lives
other than the one
I have been given

Why do I love reading?
Because it helps me know
I am not alone
Because it lets me know
that other people have
experienced what I have
felt like I have
loved like I have
cried like I have
wanted like I have
laughed like I have
struggled like I have
and thought like I have
Because it lets me know
that people have done
all of those things
in ways I could never
and helps me understand
those around me

My students ask
Why do you love reading?
and it's not a simple answer
because it's so much more
than just a book
it's so much more
than just words on a page
it's so much more
than just sentences put together
it's so much more
important to me

Why do I love reading?
Because I know it saves kids
Because it gives them an outlet
Because it helps them see
different ways to live
and it helps them see
ways not to live
and it helps them imagine
what they might do
in a situation
so that they don't
have to experience it
for themselves

Why do I love reading?
Because it helps my students
escape from
the struggles of adolescence
Because it helps them
do something that can be
Because it gives them
a safe outlet
something to
spend time on
that will help them

Why do I love reading?
Because it helps me know
about people
Because it helps me know
about the world
Because it helps me
develop empathy
insight and
knowledge and
experience and
hope and
it lets me become
a better person

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Best Laid Lesson Plans

What's the saying about the best laid plans? That they often go astray, right? Well, that's pretty much how I've been feeling about lesson plans lately.
Today I had a plan in mind for my 7th graders. I mean, hi, I'm a teacher, I have solid lesson plans...but...then, as I was interacting with the students and seeing their reactions and their responses, I realized I needed to adjust on the fly. There is truly no point to wasting any of the limited time we have together, and if something isn't working, or not even really that but more so if something isn't quite what my students really need right then, it would be doing them a disservice to stick to a plan that isn't going to provide the best learning experience for those students at that moment. For this reason, my plans often change in the middle of a class as I monitor understanding or after I read through an assessment piece and see what direction my students need to go to most improve. And, honestly, sometimes it's just that as we're in the moment, I remember something I've seen that might help them understand a concept even better than what I had planned. And why wouldn't I switch to that? Because I have an overall plan, and I have an outline of the structure of the class period, it allows me to change things if I realize they need to be adjusted.

Today it was when students were reading the feedback on their first book responses they turned in. Because it was the first one, I gave quite a bit of detailed written feedback so students could see what I expect, how their first attempt went, and areas of strength and areas to improve on. They were going to find their golden lines (thanks Kelly Gallagher!) so we could celebrate their strong writing and see a model of what it looks like, but then I realized something. There was a comment I had written over and over on their papers, and I remembered I had seen an anchor chart about that exact topic that just might help them to see it more clearly. So the search was on for me to remember where I'd seen it and share it with them. Within a few minutes I was able to figure out that it was a tweet I had seen of a chart on "Prompts to Help Us Push Our Thinking" - and that was just what I needed my students to do. I asked my students to find the commonality in the feedback within their groups, and they realized it was the comment about explaining more or giving evidence or examples to support their thoughts. So the lesson plan was adjusted. The chart went up. The students saw it, and then I had them find a place in their own papers (which were already graded, but that's ok, they can still improve them) where they could push their thinking. I had them put a star in that spot, and then they got to work adding that further thinking.

So, if it hadn't been for my willingness to adjust a lesson plan on the fly, and respond to the need of my students and my own lightbulb moment, I might not have had that experience of students seeing something concrete that really helped them see a way to improve their writing.

And this is why I'm okay with plans going astray. Because sometimes, in a classroom, they need to in order to do what's best for students.

When I think about some of the highly detailed curriculum maps I've seen, and try to put that in place for my classroom and teaching my students, I can't even fully wrap my mind around it. Why? Because I don't know exactly who these particular students will be in seven months, after the new year, even next week. And that matters. Because I need to teach these students what they need at this moment. Why? Because my students are constantly evolving and learning and growing. And if I'm going to be the best teacher for them, I need to be evolving and learning and growing right along with them...even if it means the best laid lesson plans go astray.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Excited Readers (or How I Know My Students Are Reading)

There were quite a few joy-inducing moments today when students came up to me on their own to share their excitement about the books they're reading.

As the students started coming up the stairs to their lockers today, I was greeting students and monitoring the lockers, when the following interactions happened...

"Mrs. Heise, I finished my book last night!"

"Mrs. Heise, I really like this book!" [which I booktalked to her yesterday at the bookshelves during an impromptu, individual reader's advisory]

Student: "Mrs. Heise, I finished Just One Year - that ending!"
Me: "I know, right?! Now do you see why I had to check back in Just One Day while you were reading it to see if what I thought happened really did?"
Student: "Yes! That scene on the beach..."

"Mrs. Heise, I started that book last night...and I already cried."

"Mrs. Heise, I need a new book."

"Mrs. Heise, I read for two hours last night! This book is really good."

"Mrs. Heise, where's the next book in this series? I know I'm going to need it this weekend."

"Mrs. Heise, I loved that book. Best. Book. Ever!" (to which I inquired why and got an explanation)

The awesome poster my reading specialist has in our book room (that she got from the publisher of this picture book at ALA) pretty much sums up my mood today.

And later in the day, these conversations happened:

Student 1: "I'm probably going to finish this book tonight."
Student 2: "I want to finish my book tonight."

In library working on computers, listening to librarian read aloud to K5 class, "Mrs. Heise, Click, Clack, Boo!" [with huge smile on her face because she remembers how much fun it was when I read aloud Click, Clack, Moo to them in language arts class last year]

Student (with a big smile): "Mrs. Heise, I finished!"
Me: "What did you think?"
Student: "That ending..." *pantomimes head exploding with sound effects* "He really grew on me. I'm not embarrased to say I cried a little bit."

This. This is the reason I love what I get to do everyday. The moments like these. Seeing readers growing before my eyes. Hearing the excitement build as they read books that they are interested in. You want to know how I know my students are reading when I don't make them all read one specific book? This is how. These interactions. These moments when they share their responses to what they're read. These reactions can't be faked. They can't be made up. They are how I know my students are reading.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Because I Read What My Students Read

Today I was still feeling the joy from what I got to share with my students yesterday. I shared in the anger at an ending, sadness at a character dying, shock at a surprise twist, and swooning over a guy - all in the books that my students are reading. I realized this morning, when they cheered at breakfast when they heard we'd be reading for a large amount of time in class today, that I have built the community I have because I read the same books my students read. That thought sat in my head all day...and resulted in this poem tonight.

Because I Read What My Students Read

Because I read what my students read
I can do my job better
I can recommend books
to specific students
meeting their interests
growing readers

Because I read what my students read
there are days
when students can't get into my room fast enough
to tell me about what they read the night before
and share in the emotion
from that part of that story

Because I read what my students read
I can hook readers
with hints at what lies
inside the pages of that book
they've taken off the shelf
but unsure
if it's the book for them

Because I read what my students read
I can match students
to books just right for them
based on what they need
in their lives at that time
or what kind of mood
they're in
or what topic
they want to read about
or how ready they are
for a certain topic

Because I read what my students read
I can share excitement
over a favorite story
I can share the frustration
over a cliffhanger

I can share in the reactions
to the moments contained
within those pages
expanding their minds
I can share in the swooning
over certain characters
I can share in the desire
to have that character be real
and a friend
I can share in the tears
when something happens
in their lives
and in their books

Because I read what my students read
I know how they're feeling
with just a look
just a word
just a glance at a page
just a peek at a title
knowing what they're experiencing
because I have

Because I read what my students read
I don't have to have read the exact book
to relate to being a reader
of middle grades or young adult
I can empathize
and understand
what that reading
must be like

But because I read what my students read
when I have read that specific book
and lived within that story
it creates an even more powerful
of being a reader
and making recommendations
earning trust
to know what they might need

And because I read what my students read
when something happens in their lives
whether big or small
whether happy or sad
whether right or wrong
I turn to books
to let them know I care
to help them see how to cope
to let them know I am there
for them
to help them see another path
and I turn to the stories
on those pages
to help my students get through
their struggles
and celebrate
their successes

Because I read what my students read
I am a reader
teaching and growing
more readers

Monday, September 30, 2013

Ask & You Shall Receive (on Self-Reflection)

Once of the best parts of my PLN on twitter is the opportunity it gives me to virtually collaborate with, and be inspired by, other really smart teachers. Last week it was this post from Pernille Ripp, which also inspired this post from Katherine Sokolowski...both of which inspired me and what I had my students do in class today.

As a teacher, one of the things I do most often is reflect on my practice and determine what went well, what didn't, what could be changed, what my students need, how I acted/reacted, and how to make things better for the next time. Being a reflective practitioner is essential to continuing to improve myself as an educator and to be the best teacher I can be for my students. And if self-reflection is such an important skill for adults in the workplace, it's a skill I should be helping to develop in my students as well. I loved the idea of a monthly self-reflection for students to complete as a wrap-up to the previous month, and a fresh start to the new month. I saw it as a way of not only reflecting, but also celebrating the accomplishments and setting goals for achievement in the month ahead. I took some ideas from Pernille's reflection sheet, and added in a few ideas inspired by things Katherine mentioned in her post, and before school started this morning, I crafted a Monthly Reflection Sheet for my students to use for self-reflection.

I included a line for students to share how many books were read in the previous month and which was their favorite, a line for how many they'd like to read in the next month, along with a few other things. But the most important one, and the one that was my reason for really wanting to do this, was this one:
I gained insight into my students a way I didn't expect and in a way that will be valuable to not only my teaching them, but also in cultivating relationships with them. Some comments made me smile, some made me laugh, some made me groan, some made me tear up, some made me cheer, some forced me to look a little more carefully at myself and how I've been approaching certain things this year...and really, isn't that what this was all about? Self-reflection not only for my students, but for myself as well. The more feedback I can get from my students, the better I can make my teaching, and sometimes it takes seeing it written down to really help me process it and figure out how to make things better. I look forward to continuing to use this self-reflection each month as we move through the school year as I know it's going to help me make things better and help my students reflect on themselves as well.

On a sidenote: So many students mentioned, in one part or another of their self-reflections, that they wished I would give more reading time in class. On the one hand, I love that so many are excited about reading and want more time to do it (and make no mistake, they already get quite a bit of class time to read!), but on the other hand, it worries me that they say that as it's also a way to avoid writing. A thought I will be continuing to reflect upon...

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Being Encouraging

I'm sitting here staring at a blank screen trying to figure out what to write and getting stuck because I'm not sure what to write, and all I can think about is that my students must feel the same way sometimes as they're sitting in class having to start writing.  Today alone, I heard several times, "I don't know what to write." No matter how much modeling, instructing, and scaffolding I do, sometimes there will be kids who are still just stuck (like I am right now).

But then something encouraging happened in my classroom today. As I walked around and checked in with students on their first drafts, many of them commented that what they had wasn't good. Even as I reminded them that our first drafts don't have to be great because we get to revise them to make them better, they didn't seem convinced. That was the discouraging part. But then I had some conversations. I made sure those short conversations were focused on encouraging the student that his/her ideas were a good starting point to revise into even better or that the ideas they had were already good. And I saw faces change; I saw attitudes become more positive; I saw students more willing to work; I witnessed students being more confident in their own writing. All from just a few encouraging words.
And, gee, isn't it the same for me? A little encouragement goes a long way. Something to remember...especially when it comes to something as personal as one's own writing. I'm going to convince my inner critic to be more encouraging, I'm going remember to focus on keeping my talk about students' writing encouraging, and I'm going to look for those encouraging reminders for myself.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Making Something Out of Nothing

I'm skipping writing a blog post tonight. For numerous reasons: I'm exhausted, there are some things going on I can't talk about, I'm feeling a bit negative/worried tonight and don't want to put that out there, but first and foremost...I'm just not feeling it. I have a few ideas swirling in my head, but I can't quite get a solid grasp on any of them enough to make it into a whole post. (by the by, that's such a frustrating feeling) However, after yesterday's reflection on routines, I am forcing myself to type essence, to make something out of nothing. Why? Because if I at least type something I'm keeping that routine...even if I don't really have anything to really say.

So, I'll leave you with this final thought that brought joy to my day: 
THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu released today. It's a book I loved and I hope you will too. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Thinking About Routines

I feel guilty.
I didn't write a post on this blog last Thursday.
I had gotten myself into a writing habit up until then.
I wrote a blog post every weekday when I got home from work.
I broke that pattern/streak/habit/routine on Thursday for good reasons.
I couldn't stop thinking about not having written a post.
I felt weird that I didn't sit down and write.
I never found the time.
I felt guilty.

I worked late and, when I got home, had to prepare for a weekend getaway to experience this:
I had a wonderful, much-needed, enjoyable weekend away.
But I still felt guilty. For not writing.

And here's the thing...I haven't been able to figure out if I should or shouldn't feel guilty about it. I haven't been able to figure out if I ruined my momentum by skipping that day. I haven't figured out if this is a necessary thing, or a detrimental thing. But I do know that even though I didn't write that day, I kept thinking about topics I could write about. Thoughts are percolating in my mind. That's a good thing.

But what I really came to realize is that routines are important. Even those days I didn't want to write, I did it. And it helped me see myself as a writer. It helped me feel what my students go through when they come to class and have to sit down and write. It kept my momentum going. So I'm pondering writing routines in the classroom...because if just a short time helped me get the ball rolling, it might help my students, too.

But I'm going to stop feeling guilty. And I'm going to make sure my students have time to write. And I'm going to make sure I try my best to stick to a writing routine, but if life gets in the way, that's ok. It happens. It's important. It gives me things to write about.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What is "real" Reading?

In helping my students think about increasing their reading stamina now that they're in middle school, I often look for ways to make it clear what reading behavior looks like in the classroom. I want to help them avoid the "fake" reading that often happens before they're fully into their books and to understand that I do realize it happens, but give them ways to try to become more focused so that they aren't distracting others and are able to make use of their reading time in class. I came across some anchor charts on Pinterest showing Real Reading vs. Fake Reading. I liked the idea of the chart delineating what each looks like, but as I started to make my chart I realized that I really disliked the idea of there being such a thing as "real" reading.

Something about that terminology just didn't sit well with me. I want my students to be motivated to read the books they choose based on their interest, and what I really want to see when I look around the room during reading time is a roomful of engaged students. Ones who are engaged in their books, instead of distracted by or distracting others around them. So as I compiled my list for the anchor chart to present to my students, I made a slight adjustment to the idea I saw. I talked with my students about Engaged Reading vs. Distracted Reading.

I introduced the chart saying that the distracted behaviors are ones I've seen in observations the first few weeks, but that they're also things I've occasionally done myself if a book isn't jiving with me or something major happens that distracts me that I can't stop thinking about. By acknowledging that it happens to all of us, and is something that even I (a "real" reader in their eyes) struggle with at times, I think it helps them be less worried about admitting they do it, too. They don't have to worry that if they sometimes do these things, they can't be "real" readers. But by presenting the engaged behaviors, it also gives them something tangible to try to do to move from distracted to engaged reading behaviors.

And whether engaged or distracted at a given moment, all of my students are real readers.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Who Will You (Choose to) Be?

If you follow any teacher pages on Pinterest, you've probably seen this bulletin board idea.
Via Pinterest from Entirely Elementary's Be yourself theme 
I know I did. And I wanted to put it up in my classroom as a kind of mission statement for the school year.
The idea behind it for me is helping my middle schoolers have a visual reminder every day of what they're working toward as a member of our classroom community. Kids who are reminded to Choose Kind after hearing Wonder read aloud last year. Kids who have the Core Values of the school they're expected to demonstrate. But here's the thing...I didn't want to just put up another bulletin board that they might just ignore, or only read when they're bored. I wanted it to be something meaningful to them. I wanted them to take ownership of the idea. I wanted them to live this statement this year.

So why not have them create the words to fill the board?

I started with this; my mission statement for the year (+ above Be, I added Snail's reminder from our first day of school read aloud on bravery and friendship, The Story of Fish and Snail) on our classroom "Identity" board reminding us of what makes us who we are.
Then I introduced the idea.
I shared a read aloud of One by Kathryn Otoshi (a fabulous book with a powerful message - If you haven't read it, you should!)
I told them they would be filling in the blank: Be __________
I showed them my train of thought for what I chose: Be you. Be yourself. Be your best self.
I gave them some thought-provoking prompt questions: What matters to you? Who will you (choose to) be?
They had time provided to brainstorm a list of ideas.
They were encouraged them to choose the one that really spoke to them.
They discussed with classmates.
They showed me what they chose.
They got a blank piece of paper to fill in the blank in whatever way they chose.
They created a board that is better than any pre-created one I could have had...because it is meaningful to them. It is their ideas, and their classmates ideas, and their reminders of how/who they want to be this year.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My Favorite Moments of the Day

Some of my favorite moments during the school day are the impromptu, unplanned moments when I get to talk books with students. Why? Because when I see their enthusiasm, excitement, eagerness, and energy about books, authors, and reading, it lets me know I'm doing something right. It shows me that they are reading and that they are finding enjoyment in it, which we all know will lead to increased learning and engagement.

Some snippets from today (it was a good Monday)
Student rushing up to me as we're lining up for buses, "Mrs. Heise, I finished it."
Me: "Do you need to check out a new one before you leave?"
Student: "Yep."

Student: "Mrs. Heise, what was that book you were reading last week?"

Student: "Mrs. Heise, this book is really good."
Friend: "Wait, which one? I want to read it, too."

Student to Friend: "You read Crash already?!" turns to me: "Mrs. Heise, Where is Bang? S needs it."

Me: "Okay. Get to a good stopping point."
Students (at various times):
"No! Can't we just keep reading all day?"
"Can't we read for just 10 more minutes so I can finish?"
"Can we just read the whole class today?"
"No! I only have four pages left!" (My response to that one? "OK. Everyone read a few more pages so B can finish."

These are the kinds of comments that keep me going and energize me during the school day. I particularly love that this year these moments are happening most often at the start of the day and at the end of the day. Why? Because that tells me my students are reading at home. And I love that culture being built, supported, and embraced.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Why Movies Can Be Good for Books

It's no secret I love reading and books. I also happen to like escaping into movies quite a bit. I mean, let's be honest, they're pretty related fields. And take a book I love, and make it into a movie? I'll be at the theatre to see it for sure. the sign in my classroom says, Don't judge a book by its movie. 

This rings so true to me because I do think the book is always better than the movie. However, I can appreciate that there is an element to movies based on books that serves as a really long commercial of sorts for that book. I've seen how it works for my and excitement builds about a movie...and the readers will come so they can be a part of it (Yes, Twilight, I'm talking about you). I always try to encourage my students to read the book before the movie comes out (I'm looking at you Hunger Games). I do this so they can appreciate the book more and make their own pictures of characters and settings in their heads before seeing what the movie's creators have envisioned. I know I personally get so distracted when I go to see a movie and the actor is so different from what I pictured in my head while reading the book (I mean, really, Jace in City of Bones? Not at all what I thought he should look like). But the reality it that sometimes it's the fact that a movie is being made that brings the readers to the books. *This is where I admit that I didn't really know about the Harry Potter books until I went and saw the first movie with my family. I loved it so much, of course, I immediately went and devoured all of the books that were already released and was one of the many waiting on my doorstep for each subsequent book to be delivered on its release day.* So Harry Potter is my perfect example of how a movie can help a reader fall in love with a book series.

Why is this on my mind today? Well, I've been talking book movies with my students. They all went on a field trip to see Hunger Games when it came out, so they're already asking me if we can do a school trip to see Catching Fire in November. I'm also anxiously awaiting the Divergent movie's release in March, and have been planning to use the book as a read aloud for our dystopian book club unit and then go see the movie on a field trip. It would create a fantastic opportunity to see the movie with my students to get their instant reactions, as well as providing a chance for them to create their own opinions on whether the book or movie is better. I feel a writing piece coming on.

So as I spent some time sharing book trailers with my students today, showing them the options for the first read aloud of the year and letting them vote to choose which one to read, I also chose to show the Divergent movie trailer after the book trailer. And, in what I bet will be no surprise to many, the winning choice was Divergent. I wonder if the movie preview had anything to do with that.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Today I Shared a Story

This morning I thought about stories. I shared a story with my students of events that actually occurred. I read aloud Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey. I've cherished this book since I first read it, and I value the way in which it tells the story, and also the focus it has on bravery and those who helped during this time. I shared this story because it is September 11th. I shared this story with 7th graders who were less than or around a year old at the time of the attacks. I vividly remember where I was and how I felt and what I did when I heard the news, but my kids don't. So how do we share the feelings of events with someone who wasn't there? How do we try to help them understand what it was like? We share stories.
Since the dawn of time, we have shared stories. When tragedy occurs, we share stories of those who were there and those who weren't. When we need to process events, we share stories of the causes and effects. When we want others to understand, we share stories from multiple perspectives. As I told my students, You may hear about the details in social studies class, but what do you think we'll do in here? They all knew. We would read a story.

I am so thankful for the authors who do the hard work of telling stories of real events. I asked my students to reflect on: When we read stories about things that have happened, how does it help us understand them better? Well, here's what I think: Stories of real events give me a way to help my students have a better understanding of the world. They give me a way to show my students other perspectives in a non-threatening way. They give me a way to show students things that have happened. They give me a way to talk to my students when I perhaps can't find the words myself. We share stories because they bring people together, they explain what has happened, they add the human element to events, they touch on emotions, they help us to understand. So today I shared a story, only one of the very, very many that there are from an event that affected and touched so very, very many people. But in all of that, we went back to the story.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Best Part of My Day: I Have Readers

The best part of my day today? 
It involves one of my book obsessions.
When walking back in from taking my homeroom to their buses, I heard my name called from a window. I stepped onto the bus questioningly. One of my 8th grade girls, to whom I had recommended one of my all-time favorite books (The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin),which I knew she was loving because we had discussed what she thought earlier in the day, was just checking to make sure that I would have the sequel (The Evolution of Mara Dyer) ready to give her tomorrow. I had to laugh because she was so eager because she knew she would finish the first book tonight and that my classroom copy was currently in another student's hands. I told her I would check for the library copy, but if it was out, I would bring my personal signed copy from home.

Why was this the best part of my day? It reaffirmed for me yet again in a small way that choice works.
I have readers. I have readers who are excited about books. I have readers who want to make sure the next book will be waiting for them when they get to class. I have readers who maybe weren't readers at this time last year. I have readers who advocate for themselves to get the books they want. I have readers fighting over books and racing to be first to the bin to get the sequel. I have readers sharing their favorite books. I have readers who are recommending books to each other. I have readers talking to me about the book they like. I have readers I can connect with because I've read the books they're reading. I have readers who take my recommendations and read. I have readers. Because I let them choose the books that they want to read that are interesting to them, because I don't force a specific book on them, because I allow them to try books and not read them if they don't work for them...I have readers.

Slice of Life: Saving the Good Things

This is my first official Slice of Life post...of what I hope will be many more. 

This weekend my husband and I went to the farmers market, for perhaps what might be our last visit of the season. One of the best things about Wisconsin and the midwest? Our summer sweet corn. We bought our corn, and then turned the corner and saw the sign for the one we've had before that we really liked, "You've tried the rest, now try the best." Love that slogan! Especially because it's so true. It's delicious, juices run down your chin, sweet bicolor corn that I wish I could eat all year. So we bought more than we can eat this week, knowing that we would be cutting some off the cob to freeze so we could enjoy the sweet taste of summer throughout the gray, dreary, cold days of winter.

And as I thought back to this weekend as we stood there scooping corn kernels into bags, I realized what we were really doing: saving the good stuff for later when we would really need it. And it hit me that I do that in many aspects of my life. It's more than just saving the best for last; it's saving those moments of joy or greatness or celebration for the times when I need to be reminded of them. Those nice emails from friends or family? Saved in a file. The kindest of the personalized signatures from authors I adore? Torn out of those books before taken to my classroom and kept in a file to be made into a display at some point for my library. Those sweet, laugh-out-loud, kind notes from students? Saved in a drawer where I can pull them out whenever I need a pick-me-up or reminder that they appreciate the work I do to help them be successful. And I'll continue to keep those reminders of the good for the times when I need the reminders. I'll keep the good corn and freeze it so it'll be waiting in those times when I can't get it.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Life's Too Short To Read Books You're Not Interested In (aka: The Charts We Made Today)

I stood in my classroom at the end of a long day trying to think back to decide if there was anything I wanted to make note of to write about today when I got home. It was an OK Monday, but there wasn't anything that really stuck out. But as I looked around the room, I realized there was clear evidence of the thinking my students had done today. It was really only our 3rd actual day of class (due to testing and field trips last week) so we're still working through some of the nitty gritty details about books and building our culture of literacy in the classroom. So today was the day of charts. For some charts I have all four classes brainstorm and we add to a messy copy of the list on the whiteboard throughout the day, which I then convert to a neat enough to put on the wall chart later on. For other charts, where it's more limited what might be on it, I'll go ahead and attempt a neat copy as we talk through things (although I sometimes still have to make neater ones if my spatial skills aren't accurate for what I think we'll need when I start). Today was a mix of both.

First up was What We Think About When Choosing Books and Reasons We Might Abandon/Pause a Book made with my 7th graders and shared with the 8th graders (because for them it's review from last year). Both of these are discussions I feel are important to have in the beginning of the year with my classroom reading community. I have students brainstorm in groups and then share out as I messily write their thoughts on the board. Some items we have to discuss more, clarify, question, add to, reword, or combine together as we go. But I strongly feel that to be effective in our readers workshop and choice reading classroom, students need to realize there is a process to choosing books and we do put thought into it, we don't just randomly pull a book off the shelf. And they also need to realize that it is perfectly OK, and in fact encouraged, to abandon or pause books that just aren't working right now. I tell them that life is too short to spend time forcing ourselves to read books that we're not into. That just doesn't work for my class or my teaching philosophy. Now, that doesn't mean that you give up on a book forever - it could just be that it's not the right book for right now at this time in your life or day or week, and that's why we also have the ability to "pause" a book. But in order to meet the goals of this class (reading more!), they'll always have to have a book that makes them want to read during reading time, and if the one they have doesn't do that, they need to put it back and choose a new one.
I loved the ideas my students came up with - it especially made me laugh (and think of Colby Sharp) when one boy started talking about abandoning a book because it is too "girly" - so I had to ask him to elaborate on what that meant, and he said if it has too many detailed kissy scenes. [Granted, we did talk about ways you could work around that by skimming/skipping those scenes, and that sometimes boys like to read the books that tend to be more popular with girls because that way they know what the girls are thinking/reading about {which one 8th grade boy thought was genius!} but that could be a valid reason for abandoning a book.]

Our other chart today was made with my 8th graders to explain book genres. It was a way for me to quickly assess what they remember from last year, and they essentially made the chart that will be shared with the 7th graders tomorrow. Today was the invitation to the 40/50 book challenge day, so it was important to bring up genre and form. 
We, of course, had to discuss the fact that some genres combine together in a single book and that sometimes it's not completely clear where one would fit, but they're at least getting the overarching idea of genre and where things might fit. {We also got into a very interesting tangent about where various superhero characters would fit. When students could defend their answers, "No, Superman is an alien, so it's si-fi," I knew they were thinking.} It's another example of me wanting my students to have the big idea understanding of something in a way that will be usable to them, as opposed to needing to memorize a specific detail. I do think it helps them to think about books in this way because it allows them to look more closely at what an author has created to determine where it might fall. Ultimately, if a student can tell me what genre they would categorize a book in, and can defend that with textual evidence, that's where they show me their thinking, and that's how I assess their learning. 

We didn't only make charts today. We also did our Independent Daily Reading (IDR), and read the week 1 poem from the Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School (which for various reasons is happening on Mondays for us), and we jotted responses to said poem, and we set up our reader's notebooks, and we laughed and made it through our first Monday and first school day on a regular schedule. All in all a good day in middle school. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Slowing Down and Finding Joy

I was running late this morning. My hair wasn't cooperating, so I was rushing to get moving and get to school because I knew I had a couple of things yet to prep. I knew they would only take a few minutes, but I hate feeling rushed when I arrive to school in the morning. I opened the back door to the deck to let Dooley out, I had my breath taken away by a beautiful sunrise. It made me pause for a moment and I realized I wanted (perhaps needed) to take a few minutes to snap a few pictures. Because when you see something so beautiful, it's worth the time it takes to appreciate it for a few more minutes. And it calmed me down. It made me slow down a little bit. And it put my day, and my morning rushing, into perspective for me. That sunset made my day because it changed my whole mindset.
As I drove to school, I was still thinking about the beauty of the orange and bright yellow with the pink swirling into the blue clouds and how it forced me to slow down. I realized I needed to keep that calmer perspective throughout the day, and that I should take the time to appreciate the "sunrises" throughout my day when they came.

And they came...

First thing this morning a seventh grade girl came right up to me, "Mrs. Heise, I finished my first book!" This was the start of the third day of school, and she's already done with a whole book. And she's excited about it. And she immediately asked if I had the next book which we went to find on the shelves. That was a joyful moment. I slowed down to appreciate it and remember it. That helped make my day.

Looking around the room during Independent Daily Reading (IDR), I saw how much my students are enjoying the "poufs" I took quite a bit of time last week to procure for them to use during reading time to get more comfortable on the floor. Seeing them leaning up against them, sharing them, sitting on them, flopped over them...made it completely worth the effort I put into finding them. It makes me smile every time I see them using them so happily.
At the end of IDR time in the next class, a seventh grade boy walked toward me holding up I Am Number Four proclaiming, "This book is awesome!" I agree kiddo, and I have the rest of the series ready to hand you when you're done.

Because technology class isn't happening due to MAP testing, my seventh grade homeroom came back to me later in the day during that time. As they walked in, (keeping in mind this is only day 3 of school so they don't know me super well yet) this conversation occurred:
Student: "Are we reading?"
Me: "Yes."
Student: "Awesome!"
2nd Student: "Ugh."
3rd Student: "Wait, what are we doing?"
2nd Student: "Reading."
3rd Student: "And that's a bad thing?"
Me: *Walks in behind them with a big grin*

And finally, later in the day with my 8th graders, I asked them to "Get to a good stopping point," at the end of IDR time, and I received a chorus of groans and "Can't we just keep reading the whole time?"

I slowed down and found the joy in my day today (and it was so joyful to see these student reactions already!). Thanks for the reminder early this morning, Universe. I'm remembering to pay attention now.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Wasn't Going to Blog Today, But...

It was a long second day of school. My students were doing their reading MAP test all day, so as I monitored, I also worked on checking in beginning of the year paperwork, and read some picture books I'm considering using in class later this year so I could assess how they might fit in, and I got to know my students better by reading their responses to the first day of school questionnaire I gave them (thank you so much for sharing, Katherine!), and I started inputting data on my overview sheet so I could get a quick glance of summer growth or slide. That was pretty much my day. And then I had to stop at the grocery store on the way home to get a few items to get us through the rest of this week (this is what happens when I don't go on the weekend). Sidenote: It's really time for me to get back into the school year routine. the time I sat down and could look at my computer, I was exhausted. And I'd had a headache since I woke up. And I'm hungry. And I figured I'd just skip blogging today. I mean, it's not like I made a committed declaration to blog every day. It's not like I have to blog. It's not like anything major happened to write about. . . . . .and there's the crux of it. See, now that I started this teaching/writing blog thing, I realize throughout my day there are moments when I think I could blog about that tonight. There are times during the day when I think Hmmm, maybe I could figure out my thinking about this by "talking" it through in writing. And the fact that I didn't want to write? It probably meant that I should. Why? Because how many times will I have a student in my classroom who doesn't want to write? Spoiler alert: Every. Single. Day. So many times my students probably feel like I do tonight. They're tired. They don't want to write. They have other things on their mind. They don't feel great. They don't have any idea what to write about because nothing happened. And there it is again. That crux thing. If I can't figure out what to write about when I don't have anything to write about, how will I ever be able to help my students through the same thing?

And then I remembered that lesson on small moments and how easily they can be made into something to write about. So I opened up my blogger window and started to write. Because I know I need to model for my students. And I bet I'll come back to this post sometime as an example of what happens when you just start writing even if you think you have nothing to write about. And you know what? This post kind of wrote itself as I worked through my thinking. I was going to talk about how much better I got to know my students through the questionnaire (what a great use of testing time for me!) and that I have a book recommendation for each of my new students jotted down and ready to go. I was also thinking I could share with you the most joyful moment of my day - it was when...oh, wait, maybe I'll save that seed to write about another day when I feel like I have no idea what to write about because, you know what? Somehow in writing about why I didn't want to write today, I have a blog post written.

Lesson of the day:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Best First Day of School Yet

Today was the first day of school. It was my 9th first day of school as a teacher, and it was the best one yet. This was the first year that I didn't feel nervous the night before (which I did think was weird - I was actually a bit worried about that). I felt as ready as I could be (I had even blogged about it, which come to think of it might be part of the reason I felt calmer...hmmm, maybe there really is something to this writing thing). I was excited to see my students again - I had missed them. I read six picture books last night before going to bed (taking my total for the summer to 92!). I set my alarm nice and early so I wouldn't feel rushed in the morning. I laid out my clothes and shoes. I went to sleep (we won't talk about the three times I woke up throughout the night - this seems to be a common thing with teachers on this big night). I was still excited, and not nervous, when I woke up and got ready this morning. I had a feeling it was going to be a great day...and it was.

What did we do today? We talked books. We looked at the classroom library setup. We saw how Booksource's Classroom Organizer works. We chose our first books of the year to check out. We started reading. We got cool WONDER-themed bookmarks reminding us to "choose to be a little kinder than is necessary." We saw the awesome floor cushions and poufs that are the newest addition to the classroom (with more to come since they were such a hit, we'll need enough for everyone to have a pouf). We shared picture book read alouds (THE STORY OF FISH & SNAIL and BOY + BOT). We responded to those stories individually and then thought about the common themes and why they might have been chosen specifically for today. We started (or in the case of the 8th graders, continued) to become a community of readers in our classroom.
I needed a place to collect the students' jots of their thoughts responding to the read aloud books, so on-the-spot decided to have them stick them on the back cover. They loved it (and it worked so well)!
There is definitely something to this looping thing. Knowing that with my 8th graders we could just pick up where we left off and didn't have to do any of the get-to-know-you stuff was great. Being in a small school where the 6th-8th grades are on the second floor, so I knew all of the incoming 7th graders by face, and most by name, made for a smoother transition into the year with a new group of students. By the end of the day I was just so happy to have my middle schoolers to talk books with again. This community is what it's all about...because if it starts with that, learning will be the inevitable end result. We have lots of books to share, read aloud, and discuss. We have lots to write about.  I can't wait to see what the next 179 days brings.