17 Jul

Sunday Sentiments

Despite the fact that I have minimal, if any, audience here, I’ve been making considerable effort to keep writing here.  By considerable effort, I mean allowing a 3-year-old to style my hair as “bunny ears” plays in the background so I can have the closest thing I get to “time to myself” to write here.  Writing is good for my brain, which I already knew, but it’s always nice to have ideas confirmed.

Stuff gets real in the Atlantic when Jack Schneider talks about America’s Not-So-Broken Education System.  … but I suppose it’s a lot easier to think that performance bonuses and charter schools will fix everything.

But let’s say it is broken.  It sure would be nice to have The Answer to Our Education Woes.  Maybe it isn’t the answer you want.  It’s still a good read.

Why Discipline Should Be Aligned with a School’s Learning Philosophy states the obvious, but boy, it is hard to actually do.  It sounds great in July, but I have a feeling it’s going to suck in April.


16 Jul

Reading Block: Independent Work

This is something I’ve played around with a lot over the years, and I’m excited for my plan for this year, although I’m never really sure if it will actually work.  We’re going to give it a try.  My biggest problem with differentiated independent work is making sure that I’m flexible.  After all, not all students who need fluency practice will also need phonics practice, but there will definitely be some overlap.  At the same time, in the past I’ve attempted to be so flexible that I create an unsustainable level of work for myself.  In an attempt to find a balance, I’m going to use guided reading as a launch pad for this.  Each week, I’ll have 2-3 (depending on predicted time allotment) activities for each of my “centers”.  Then, as I meet with students in small group, I’ll assign them to a particular center using color coded bookmarks.  When I give the kid their bookmark at the end of guided reading, they will be responsible for putting their name card in the appropriate pocket on my centers chart (that way, there’s no excuse for not remembering if they lose their bookmark).  These bookmarks will be what they turn in to me with a short reflection on what they got out of the activity.  In this example, the bold would be printed for them:

Today, I worked in the fluency center.  I learned about reading more quickly and more smoothly.  First read: 56 words.  Second read: 63 words.  Third read: 68 words.

Listening Center: This is a new one for me.  I’m just beginning to understand the importance of students reading and listening at the same time.  This article really got my brain going on this, and it’s so consistent with what I see in my own classroom.

Fluency Practice: I’m late to the game on this one, but several of my students who were kind of borderline below grade level in reading fluency were able to make great strides because of timed reading passages.  This year, I want to make this a daily thing for those kids who need it, and to do that, I’ll make it independent.  Partners will time each other

Vocabulary Practice:  I choose to make this very simple by having students complete Frayer Models for each of our vocabulary words that week.

Word Work: For the vast majority of my students, this is phonics time.  There are word sorts and games for them to play, targeting whatever skill they’ve been assigned.  For higher students, this will be a word building time using word parts (roots/affixes).

Comprehension: We have another time during the day when students self-select books, so this probably won’t be that time.  Instead, it will probably focus heavily on finding text evidence.  I’m not entirely sure where I’m going to pull these texts from, but I will probably rely heavily on Reading Detective and Inference Jones.  I also anticipate that with my higher reading groups, this will be follow-up from our guided reading lesson.  They might be assigned to finish reading the text and annotate it so that they’re prepared for guided reading the next time.

Reading A-Z:  This is a subscription based program that my district pays for.  I love it because it gives students texts at their reading level to read, then answer questions on.  Kids love it too because computers.

So many kids won’t go to some of these.  Let’s say that I have a student struggling in decoding and fluency skills.  She might go to the word work center on Monday, meet with me on Tuesday, do the listening center on Wednesday, meet with me on Thursday, and do the fluency practice on Friday.  Another student in the same reading group might be struggling more so with comprehension.  He might do the listening center on Monday, comprehension center on Wednesday, and Reading A-Z on Friday.

Basically, on any given day, I’ll have 10-15 students meeting with me at some point during the reading block.  Obviously, this will be over the course of 2-3 reading groups, but students who meet with me are unlikely to have time for any independent work.  This will leave 5-15 students (depending on my class size) left to work in centers, meaning 1-3 kids per center.  These low numbers should help tremendously with classroom management and keeping the general volume of the room down.  I find that anything more than 3 students in one group can get very noisy very quickly.

… now I just need to figure out how and where I’m going to store all of this…

14 Jul

Reading Block: Task

After we complete our close read of a text (which, remember, might just be a portion of the text, I give the students a task, which is  a more in-depth, text-centered question or activity for students to complete.  I find that this might take students 15-30 minutes depending on focus, skill level (though often the more skilled students take longer), so I usually use this as a lead-in to my student’s independent work time.  The important (and difficult) part of creating the task is that I try to make it accessible to ALL students.  The way someone described this idea to me (though, admittedly, they were talking about math) was “multiple entry and exit points”.

Many of my tasks fall short of this, but I’m spending some time this summer coming up with tasks for different texts I know I want to use this next year.  Here’s an example of a task that embodies this.  We used this task after reading about the migration of loggerhead turtles:

Create a poster or brochure that could teach people what they could do to help save loggerhead turtles.  Include details from the text as support.

Struggling readers will find that the text says people shouldn’t swim near the turtles and will use that as the basis of their poster.  They accomplished the task, albeit at a very low level.  Mid-level readers might pick up a couple more details, like how turtles lay eggs on the beach, and incorporate that into their poster as well, explaining that beach-goers should watch out for sea turtle nests and leave them alone.  Your more advanced readers might draw conclusions from the details given about sea turtle migration and refer beach-goers to a website that tells when turtles are predicted to be at what beaches.

All of these students complete the task, and all of them are engaging with the text to draw conclusions and find support.  Moreover, all of them are using and creating a cause and effect text structure to complete the task.  All students have something to do that is exactly at their level (remember that the text is read aloud through the close reading process).

Generally speaking, the first day we read a text, the task will be pretty simplistic, focusing on a specific standard and usually at a pretty low level on blooms.  I try to move the students towards higher levels of blooms as we continue working with the text.  The rationale behind this is that the first read of the text (especially since this is usually a grade level text which is challenging for so many kids) is hard enough for the kids.  As the kids read and reread (and remember I’m supporting this by reading aloud), they’re able to go deeper in their understanding, so stretching them to higher levels of blooms is more realistic.

When students begin their task, I begin pulling students for small groups.  As they finish, they can begin their assigned independent work.  Because of this, it is incredibly important that a task be something students can complete on their own.  I frequently allow students to work in partners during tasks more for them to get their social needs met than anything else.  If students aren’t responsible enough for this, they work on their own.  This works for us… most of the time.

13 Jul

Reading Block: Quick Write

At some point during the close read (and I’m very strategic about this because this is one of the ways that I introduce skills), we pause and do a quick write.  A quick write will directly interact with the text, will be timed, and will either introduce a skill or practice a skill we’ve already learned.  Here’s an example from the folktale The Wind And The Sun:Wind and Sun Quick Write


I try to use graphic organizers as often as possible to support the students.  I also find that it helps the students to see and process lots of different graphic organizers that represent lots of different types of connections.  (An added bonus to using lots of different graphic organizers is that it prepares them for end of grade tests as well as mClass TRC written questions.  It certainly wouldn’t hurt to use those question stems as your guide here.)  An activity like this would last 3-5 minutes, depending on how quickly my students seem to be finishing.  At 5 minutes, we’re done regardless.  The timer really focuses the students.

If I wanted to introduce a topic, I would probably ask the same question like this: “What did the man do when the wind blew against him?”  When students found the answer, we could launch from there into a very short (a couple minutes) mini-lesson on cause and effect.  Then, when we picked up the close read again, I would model cause and effect with the sun shining on the man and him taking his cloak off.

The quick write is a formative assessment tool for me.  It allows me to see where my students are with a skill.  It also serves as a first exposure or exploration for my students.

12 Jul

Reading Block: Close Read

As part of my series on my new and improved reading block, today I’m exploring the close reading portion of my lesson.  I first started this a few years ago, and really dived in last year.  Now, this is the bread and butter of my reading instruction.  This portion of my reading block, which is where I do the bulk of my direct instruction (spoiler: I don’t do that much direct instruction) lasts 20-30 minutes.  One text might be read (in pieces) over several days, depending on length.  We also might read and reread the same text several days in a row.  Typically, I might focus in on particular chunks of text each day (maybe just a paragraph or two) in order to focus on a particular skill or strategy.

I’m such a huge fan of close reading.  I think this serves as a pretty decent explanation as to why.  It also creates a classroom focused on texts.  I think the cultural message of focusing on texts is very powerful to students.  When I look around the room, I love that, first and foremost, we are a group of people are delighted by texts (not every text every time, but we have all had this experience).  Not all of us start that way; everyone ends up there.  We read interesting texts.  And then it’s my job, as the teacher, to pull skills out of that text.

The bulk of my direct instruction happens during our daily close reads.  The habit of close reading is by far the most valuable thing I teach my students.  These skills are introduced in a variety of ways, but not during the close read.  The close read is a time to expand on and practice these skills.  This is modeling and guided practice time.  Students are expected to copy EVERY thing I write on my text (I love my document camera!).  Over time, I let them lead this process more and more.

The overall goal of this close reading is to teach students, over time, to comprehend at the word level, building from there to comprehend at the sentence, paragraph, section, and whole passage level.  I find that many of my students lack in vocabulary and word-related skills (like context clues and roots/affixes).  Starting at the word level (and honestly, at the beginning of the year, we spend the majority of our time here) prepares students for broader comprehension skills later.  For this reason, all of our tier 2 vocabulary words come from texts we actually read, which is not to say that all of our vocabulary words are actually in the texts we read.  Often, these vocabulary words will be introduced as synonyms to words in the text or as words we can use to describe things from the text.  Obviously, the words actually being in the text is most ideal, but not always possible.  I work from these vocabulary lists, ensuring that I hit every word multiple times by the end of the year.  This is also where I would introduce and review roots and affixes as it comes up in the text.

We spend a lot of our close reading time talking about text features and using them to comprehend the text at a very basic level.  Then we integrate whatever skill we’re working on within that framework.

Quite honestly, if you had told me my first year teaching, that I would be using close reads as a fundamental teaching tool, I probably would have thought it sounds incredibly boring.  And on the one hand, I suppose it does.  I rarely have a flashy lesson where students act out cause and effect.  On the other hand, because we spend so much time with the actual text, we all come to appreciate the text a little bit more.  Besides, a single text might last us as long as a week, which really helps students deepen their understanding of it.  I find that over time, understanding what we read better helps us love what we read.  Most students are easily engaged by migration of turtles and weather patterns, etc.  They’re not as easily engaged by a text they can’t understand sitting in front of them.  From a planning perspective, this approach to instruction is definitely challenging.  Fully integrating vocabulary, word study, and comprehension skills is certainly not easy.  From a resource and copies perspective, however, this process is much less challenging that more typical reading instruction.

11 Jul

Reading Block: Inferencing Warm-Up

As part of my series on my new and improved reading block, today I’m exploring the inferencing warm-up that I introduced this past year and can’t wait to continue into this coming year.  While students will read the text and explore the question in advance of class time, the actual discussion portion of this will only last for 5-10 minutes.

For morning work, I’m going to give my students short (paragraph at most), low-level reading passages with an open-ended question.  The idea is to get them to use details in the text to support a conclusion that they draw from those details.  Then we begin class with students sharing and supporting their answers.  This is a time for students to learn from and critique each other’s thinking.  It’s also a time for me to really understand what’s going on in those precious little brains.  Because I use low level passages (think 1-2 years below my grade level), nearly all students (I’ll assign buddies to read aloud for my extremely low-level readers) can read the text, so it’s really just stretching them in comprehension.

When we start class, I project the text and read it aloud.  Then I read the question.  Then students volunteer answers.  ALL answers (unless they’re deemed duplicates) are written on the board next to a projection of the text, because all answers that can be supported by the text and valid and valuable.  If student hears another student give the same answer they had, they use a “me too” hand signal.  I’ve noticed this really gives confidence to students who are less sure of their answers.  I watch carefully for this hand signal so that I have an idea of what my students are thinking, whether it’s very mixed or students all agree.

Once all answers are written down, I ask the students if any of them are unreasonable.  When we first start doing this, I find that many students (even the “bright” ones) will notice just a few details in the text, ignoring others.  This time allows students to help each other notice ALL the details because each student focuses on different parts.  For example, I would call on Jaquan who might say, “Cooking is an unreasonable answer because it says that the girl pulled out her wallet.  You probably don’t pull out your wallet when you’re cooking.”

When we have only reasonable answers left, I prompt students with the question, “What is the best answer?”  Here’s where we look at which answer has the most details supporting it.

What I love most about this structure is how much I learn from my students by listening.  This activity is primarily student-led so I have a little more time to sit back and listen.  Open-ended questions are an excellent time to see what answers students come up with on their own.  I learn about my students’ prior knowledge (or lack thereof) and I begin to understand common misconceptions.  Most often, I don’t correct students in the moment (unless it’s just a really egregious misunderstanding) because I want to make sure we maintain that safe space.  I focus instead on questioning students to guide them to correct thinking.  If necessary, I’ll pick up the misconception during my close read, quick write, or task.

10 Jul

Best Practices

I’ve been using a lot of the research offered by Reading Rockets to shape what I’m doing in my classroom.  Specifically, The 6 T’s of Effective Elementary Literacy Instruction has been transformational for my classroom.  Any time I feel frustrated or like I’m losing my way, I reread it.  I can’t even begin to say that I do all 6 of these on a regular basis, but it’s a good reminder of what I’m working towards.

Philosophically, I tend to take a constructivist’s approach to teaching.  I always try to give students opportunities for “Productive Struggle”.  Ellie Cowen explains this quite well in Harnessing the Power of the Productive Struggle.  The problem is, most people who explore this topic focus on math, as though learning reading is substantially different from learning math.  And while I don’t have research to quote you (which is very much unlike me), that idea just doesn’t make sense to me.  Take a look at what Cowen writes about productive struggle:

Students are encouraged to seek solutions that are grounded in logic and prior knowledge and that make sense to them, instead of imitating methods used by their teacher or peers.

Some things about reading require imitation.  I doubt many of our students are going to start pronouncing the symbol “a” the way we do unless we tell them.  At the same time, such is the same with the structure and symbols of math.  The part of math that comes very naturally to students is the relationships and connections.  I would argue that relationships and connections in reading also come very naturally.  And while the basics of phonics are certainly valuable, those skills don’t occupy the majority of our lessons in the upper elementary grades.  Instead, we’re busy teaching students about main idea, cause and effect, and comparison.  All these are just relationships.  For example,

My 3yo and I are driving down the street sometime this winter, and she sees a cat on the railing of a house we pass.  She points it out and tells me that the cat is cold.  Being a teacher, I ask her why the cat was cold?  There was a very long pause here as she puzzled over this.  Think of this as that productive struggle I referenced earlier.  She was working in her “zone of proximal development”.  And then she decided, “Because she doesn’t have a coat on.”

Cause and effect is a relationship we develop over time.  My 3yo has figured out that when she stands up in her chair, she goes to timeout.  She doesn’t do it anymore.  Now it’s just a matter of giving her the language to describe this.  I recognize that many of our students don’t have parents able to ask these same questions, whether through a lack of education or a lack of time.  Still, I have never had a student walk into my classroom who doesn’t have at least some background knowledge on cause and effect (and I would argue on any other relationship we learn about in 3rd grade).  Every child, whether we like it or not, has learned that misbehavior causes them to get attention.  Cause and effect.

And so this past year, I grew frustrated that all the experts seemed to prescribe something very different in terms of “best practices” for math than for reading.  In math, students are supposed to explore and discover the world for themselves, gradually broadening their understanding through a series of purposefully chosen tasks.  On the flipside, though, in reading, students are supposed to listen to their teachers do a task, then copy that same task.  Over and over again.  And then these same experts look around with puzzled faces when our reading scores are so much lower than our math scores.  If students brains develop the way constructivists say they do (and I would tend to agree), then this approach need not be isolated to mathematics instruction.

That said, my struggle has always been “but then… how do you actually do that?”  And while I’m still developing, I do think I’ve come up with an attempt at just that.  Many of these components were gradually introduced into my reading block this past year and have been improved as we do them.  I’m really excited to implement the very best version (so far) of my reading block from the beginning this coming school year.

So this is the first in a series of posts exploring the different components of my reading block.  I teach writing more formally than I’ll discuss here, but I also use Lucy Calkins pretty faithfully, so I don’t have a lot of new ideas there.  I also won’t be discussing guided reading in a lot of depth because I’m still a baby at guided reading.  Here’s an overview of what I will be talking about, though.

Inferencing Warm-Up: This is how we begin out day, building off a simple activity I give the kids for morning work.  The kids love it because they know that as long as they support their answers with the text, they’re never wrong.

Close Read: The “bread and butter” of my reading block.  This anchors us each and every day, and we let the text guide our learning.  This has really helped us all become lovers of reading (myself included) which translates to success in a thousand others way.

Quick Write: A time to apply a task in a bite size chunk.  We never spend more than 5 minutes on this, and I set a timer to focus the kids.  I’m pretty flexible with the kids being allowed to get up and sharpen pencils, get a drink of water, etc.  Quick writes are the exception to this; they are for writing… the whole time.  It’s hard to train the kids on this, but having short bursts of productivity and focus really work well for us.  Afterall, being 100% focused on the task at hand is impossible to manage for any period of time.

Task:  This is a chance for students to explore or practice a new skill.  It should be accessible to ALL students regardless of skill level.

Independent Work:  Here’s where the students apply what they’ve been learning and practice old skills.  This is also a time for targeted intervention and extension activities when they finish their other work.

09 Jul


I spend a lot of time working over the summer.  I don’t think anybody really believes that.  I mean… I also spend a lot of time watching TV over the summer.  Everybody believes that.  It’s called balance.

But I do work over the summer.  I don’t teach summer school.  It’s a policy for me.  But I always have a side job or two to work on over the summer.  And then I spend a lot of time coming up with a vision for the coming school year.  The summer after my first year of teaching, I spent the whole time on pinterest.  These days, I spend a lot more time reading.  Like I said, balance.

Here’s what’s bouncing around my head these days…

When it comes to trauma, there’s so very much to read.  I’m learning constantly on how trauma affects the classroom and on what I can do about it.

Teaching Traumatized Kids gives a simple (not at all simple) approach: 1) Don’t take it personally, and 2) Give them time.   I really like how they never once say don’t give consequences.  I’ve noticed with my own trauma babies that they are much more capable of accepting those consequences when they are calm.

How Trauma-Informed Teaching Builds a Sense of Safety and Care talks all about attachment and how powerful building relationships can be, especially for trauma babies.

I’m not really the most nurturing person in the world.  I’m more of a type A, let’s get stuff done kind of person.  This is where I struggle.  I attended a professional development workshop where I was introduced to this idea of a welcome ritual.  At first, I thought this would be something like high fiving kids at the door in the morning.  I gave myself a check plus because I rarely miss this.  Luckily, I didn’t tune out the speaker completely as he elaborated on this topic.  It definitely is the high five in the morning, but it’s also whenever a student is out of the classroom for any period of time.  A kid goes out to the bathroom, to ESL class, to another classroom for intervention, etc.  EVERY TIME a kid returns to the classroom, you do your ritual.  It could be a fist bump, a wink, as simple as saying, “welcome back, it wasn’t the same without you”.  The idea is to communicate to that student that they are a valuable part of that classroom, because they are.

A More Responsive Schoolwide Approach to Student Behavior also gave me some food for thought.

5 Epiphanies for Reaching Unreachable Learners helps me remember that it’s not my fault that this is hard.  They are “unreachable”.  That’s not in my head or because I’m an awful teacher.  At the same time, I can do better.  It’s no surprise that “don’t take it personally” is on this list as well.

None of this is ground-breaking.  All of it is what I needed to hear.

Then there’s this idea of reaching all learners.  Obviously, this was a topic of discussion in my pre-service education classes.  But this seems to be something I’m perpetually failing at.  It probably has something to do with there being 25 different students and only one of me.  I’m sure I’ll always have room for improvement here, which is why reading about this topic challenges me so much.  Specifically, I’m concerned by how our focus on collaboration affects introverted kids.  Because sometimes I can’t help but think that I would have hated my classroom.  Yikes!

How Teachers Can Help ‘Quiet Kids’ Tap Their Super Powers helps me think about what might be going on in the kids’ minds.  And how I can help them.

And then 6 Hand Signals that Bring Learning to Life helps me think through ways kids can communicate without talking.

My role this year is changing.  It looks like I’ll only be teaching English Language Arts (with Social Studies integrated in) rather than all subjects, and that’s definitely going to alter the structure and culture of my classroom.  I’ll post more thoughts on the instructional approaches bouncing around my head in the coming days.



08 Jul

Trauma Babies

On October 1, 2015, my whole life changed.  I became a parent.  Of two.  A 6yo boy and a 3yo girl.  Trauma babies as they are sometimes called in this crazy foster parenting world.

It has rocked me to my core.  It has been scary, beautiful, tragic, delightful, and everything in between.  I have grown more than I could have imagined.  And I’m a completely different teacher because of it.  Because of the trauma on my babies’ faces.  Because of the trauma in their bones.  Because of the trauma deep, deep in their hearts.  Because of the trauma that I can now see in my classroom.  Because I don’t just have 2 trauma babies at home.  I have many more sitting in desks in front of me.  And down the hall.  And in the cafeteria.

There’s a lot of research about trauma and how it affects a person’s brain development and ability to learn.  There’s a lot of research about children’s very extreme fight or flight responses to seemingly small stimuli.  And I won’t bore you with that.  But if you think it’s just a matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to get over trauma, you’re wrong.  And I say very little with that level of certainty these days.  Trauma changes everything.

But that’s not to say you can’t overcome it.  That you can’t thrive despite it.  I’ve seen a little girl transform from a 2yo I thought could never bond with anyone to a 3yo that strokes my hand when I’m upset, tells me thank you for getting her milk (without prompting), and apologizes to others (again, without prompting) when she knows she’s wrong.  She cares about others and their feelings (albeit in a very immature, 3yo kind of way).  I couldn’t have imagined that even 6 months ago.  And she still throws the most insane tantrums when she doesn’t get her way.  But she’s growing.

As my time with my babies at home comes to a close, I have a renewed energy for applying what I’ve learned in the classroom.  I’ve got more thoughts in my head than I can possibly communicate right now.  I’ll try to organize them and get them into words that others might understand.  I’d like to think that this is more than just renewed summer vigor.

05 Sep

Risky Business

I read this article about creating a classroom culture of academic risk-taking.  It all seemed to click in my head.  Of course kids need to be taught to take risks.  Taking risks means not being afraid to make mistakes or to fail.  And mistakes and failure are a necessary part of learning.  So duh!  I need to get on this.

Interestingly, earlier this week, when we were developing a list of things we should do during number talks, one kid said that we shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes.  She had it even before I did.

That said, I was being dumb in how I taught my kids a particular concept.  It’s pretty complicated to explain and not really that important.  The bottom line is… I made a mistake.  At the expense of my students.  I realized it last night, and I fretted how I was going to change directions today.

And then I realized… I took a risk, and it didn’t work.  And if I want my kids to do that same thing, I need to lead by example.  So I stood up in front of my kids, and I admitted my mistake.  I apologized, and I explained how we would move forward.  And I was embarrassed, because it was an embarrassing mistake.  But I’m glad I did it.  Because that mistake was evidence of my learning.

I must have said it a thousand times today, but…

It’s not a problem if you make a mistake; it’s only a problem if you don’t learn from it.