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.