Saturday, April 21, 2018

I Am a Writer

I'd like to imagine that most days I have a fairly decent handle on writing instruction. I understand the conditions for providing a space where writers are welcomed into the literacy club. Yet I still struggle with those who I have yet to win over -- those who would rather not say, "I am a writer." 

As a teacher in the Idaho Coaching Network, I was challenged to develop a special inquiry project this year, so with the help of Ralph Fletcher's book, Joy Write, I tackled this writing identity problem of practice. My goal was to use writing notebooks as a place to enjoy the process of playing with writing in hopes that each writer, specifically the reluctant ones, would find him/herself falling in love with writing.

At the beginning of the year I sent home a composition notebook with each student with directions to decorate the front and back cover before sending it back to school. 

At some point during the first month of school, I told my writers that their writing notebooks were designed to hold their most special thoughts and words. No strings were attached. No mandates were made. We put them in a special place where kids could grab them during Daily 5 and independently write in them if they wanted to.

My Frustrations:
  • The excessive random scribbles and pictures drove me crazy. Drawing and sketching are viable parts of the writing process for young writers, and I expected to see evidence of this. Unfortunately, it seemed like much of it had very little purpose and did not lead to writing.
  • I knew celebration would be key, because great writing is contagious. So when I saw that a writer had "invented" a way to use her writing notebook in a creative way, I made a huge deal out of it. This helped a bit but not considerably.
  • Many kids never chose to use their writing notebooks.

(early entries that we celebrated)

My solution:

  •  Over halfway through the year, I borrowed the open cycle idea from Ralph Fletcher. Between units, I took a break from genre studies and spent a week during writing workshop using only the writing notebooks. 
  • Each lesson began with a mentor text that I thought could inspire a new way of playing with writing. I never mandated that writers use the strategy, but I sure made a big deal out of how fun it would be to try.
  • Each writing time was sprinkled with lots of celebration and sharing of how they played with writing.
  • I also introduced the idea of collaboration. One day during our open cycle, writers were invited to work with a partner in their writing notebooks if they so desired.

 (open cycle pieces that included talking bubble stories, narratives, comic strips, fiction, and collaborative pieces)

  • After the open cycle, I saw that more students were choosing to write in their writing notebooks on their own time during the day.
  • There was less random scribbling, more drawing with purpose, and more actual writing.
  • I noticed more engagement from some of my reluctant writers.

For a first iteration, I'm happy with my first attempt at using writing notebooks as a way to encourage the play and joy that can lead to writing identities. I have plans to use them again next year with the intent of incorporating open cycles into my writing workshop time from the get go. I'm looking forward to seeing how this next iteration helps increase transfer of joy and identity into daily writing even more so than it did this year.

Thanks Idaho Coaching Network for encouraging a space where teachers can safely experiment with problems of practice and find solutions that benefit their students in the best of ways.

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

My Summer Reading List

It's only spring break, yet I'm already thinking ahead to my summer pile of teacher reading material. I've got plans to read:

This one is no surprise to anyone who knows me well. I have to read every word Regie Routman prints. Some day, I'd really love to sit down and have a conversation with her. She's my hero.

I'm a huge fan of these authors. If you haven't read their previous book, A Mindset for Learning, you're missing out. They're both just incredibly smart about kids and classroom practices.

I "met" Joan Wink when one of her grandsons was in my class about six years ago. She's been on my side ever since. She has an amazing story to tell. I'm so looking forward to reading this one.

Which brings me to this final book. I'm actually not going to read this one, but I'd be so honored if you did. I published Gatekeepers last June, and I've had the privilege of sharing it with over 300 people. I'd love to share it with you too. As you're making your summer wish list on Amazon or tagging books you want to read on Goodreads, I'd like to recommend Gatekeepers as an option. (You can find reviews on both sites.) I do believe with all my 24 years of teaching that it's a reflective and inspiring compilation of thoughts that any educator can learn from. I'd be so tickled to share it with you.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Visualizing: A Mathematical Must

Close your eyes. Visualize 8 on a ten frame. What do you see? How many are on top? How many on the bottom? How many blank spots are there? Turn and describe what you see to your neighbor. Go. 

This kind of thing has been happening often during the past few weeks in my classroom. Through the guidance of Christina Tondevold from, I have seen the light, and the light is called visualizingThe results leave me wondering, Why haven't I been doing this for 24 years? It seems so obvious now that it's officially become a staple of number sense in my room.

Asking my mathematicians to visualize and to visualize within the structure of a ten frame is helping them make huge connections. For one thing, it helps them with facts. If a child can visualize 8, he can see the extra 2 spots that are needed to make 10. Today my class used visualizing in order to use the Make 10 strategy. After days of visualizing, ten frames, scaffolding, and a gradual release of responsibility (all credit goes to Christina Tondevold), a majority of my students were able to explain how to solve the problem below. In fact, my notation came directly from their mouths.

"Give 2 to the 8 to make 10. That leaves 2 left out. 10 plus 2 equals 12." 
(Do not try this at home without all the essential conceptual steps.)

Why can they do this? Because they can visualize. When one of my mathematicians decided to use her free time to solve an additional problem (9 + 5), she knew to give 1 to the 9 but then got stuck in her notation. She didn't automatically know what was left from the 5. As soon as I said, "Visualize 5 on the ten frame. Now take one away. How many are left?" she instantly wrote 4. It was kind of magical.

I will forever now promote visualizing as an essential math strategy. It gives all kids access to numbers. It's really a must. Thank you Christina for leading me to the light!

P.S. It's possible I'm the only one on the planet who didn't know this already, so thanks for celebrating with me regardless. :)

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

March Madness Year #3

If you haven't heard of the book lover's version of March Madness, you and your students are missing out. This is my third year using it in my classroom, and though it might take some prep time to find the perfect 16 books for our tournament, it's well worth the effort. The right books will be the same books the children will then want to read over and over. They'll ignite questions between readers like, "Can I read that when you're done?" If you want to know more about my previous March Madness tournaments, find a free voting sheet that helps us keep track of votes, and get some great book ideas, simply click on topic "March Madness" on the right-hand side of my blog under "Labels."

Here's a picture of this year's poster. Enjoy!

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Sunday, February 18, 2018

If Not You, Then Who?

You know you're investing a lot of time into something when it sneaks into your dreams. Last week's subitizing dream confirms where my attention has been of late. I've been immersed in math, specifically number sense.

How long have we teachers been saying that students lack number sense? Don't we say this every year? It's certainly the pattern in my experience. Truthfully, I haven't felt equipped to know how to fix the issue. Number sense has been nebulous and difficult to assess. Well, I've been digging deep into Christina Tondevold's number sense videos via Build Math Minds. She's inspiring and challenging me to know better so I can do better on behalf of my mathematicians.

Here are a few takeaways from her videos that are challenging me to approach number sense and math instruction from a new and better angle.

  • Build knowledge through experiences.
  • Number sense cannot be taught. It's caught.
  • Relationships between numbers are more important than strategies.
  • If kids don't have number sense, strategies are useless.
  • Focus on sense, not strategies.
  • Textbooks teach strategies and not sense.
  • It's about fidelity to students, not a math curriculum.
  • If kids have great number sense, they won't count as much.
  • Counting can become a substitute for sense making and teaching them strategies won't fix this.
  • Kids have to be able to subitize. Subitizing will move them from the counting phase to using derived facts.
  • Kids must learn to visualize numbers.
and finally...
  • If not you, then who?
I really must stop being the one who says that kids don't have good number sense and then proceed as always. I'm educating myself and giving myself permission to slow down in order to build a strong number sense foundation so that later I can speed up. If not me, then who? 

Thanks Christina!

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Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saturday Sayings: No Breaks

I woke up Monday morning to an email with news that a good friend from church unexpectedly passed away the night before. Life doesn't give teachers a break, so after many tears and prayers, I headed to school and spent the day teaching 25 first graders with a surprising amount of both patience and energy. 

Even though I managed okay in the classroom throughout the week, I found it difficult to concentrate on any kind of evening schoolwork that needed my attention. In the midst of my struggle, I couldn't help but reflect on my students -- on this generation of students. 

In the past few months I've heard statistics regarding the percentage of students who have experienced trauma. Though I can't recall the number, I remember my reaction. That's way too high. Our students, both young and old, are carrying around a lot of baggage.

If I, with my adult-sized willpower and ability to process, struggles to concentrate on school-ish tasks when in the midst of crisis, how much more of a challenge do our students face when required to physically and mentally inhabit a space that feels trivial compared to the load they bear. As the adult in the room with a long list of tasks to accomplish, I'm guilty of forgetting this and pushing on regardless.

Sometimes if we're paying attention, we'll notice that life sends us the gift of perspective, and more importantly, empathy. That's what my week did for me. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is the real deal as much for me as it is for my students. I'm reminded of the need to investigate, listen, offer some wiggle room for those bad moments or even bad days, because life doesn't give students a break either. 

Dedicated to my friend, Ryan, who always took such great care of the sprinkles on the sound cupcake. You will be both dearly missed and remembered. Know that we'll take good care of Vaness and the boys.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday Sayings: I Can Do Better

Here I am writing the post that's been written a million times over in a million different ways. My own hand has contributed a handful of versions. Yet it won't leave me alone, like a tiny but persistent first-grade finger poking me in the backside. Though I might reply to that six-year-old with, "I talk to boys who don't poke me," I'm surrendering completely to my relentless thoughts and giving them my full attention and mindful energy. 

I can do better. 

These are the words playing on repeat in my mind while walking the halls of my school. They communicate with me on my drive home after a long day. They greet me the following morning. It's a constant refrain, like the song in my head that's playing even when I don't recognize its presence. 

Is my classroom a place where mistakes are safe to make?
I can do better. 

Are my students allowed to have bad days?
I can do better. 

How do I react to those behaviors that make me vibrate?

I can do better.

Why are some students struggling to find joy in writing? 
I can do better. 

Are all readers willingly engaging with books? 
I can do better. 

I feel inspired and challenged, a dichotomy of simultaneously feeling energized and overwhelmed. I'm energized by the realization that I'm on an upward trajectory of developing the art of teaching. It's simply impossible to flatline on this path I've chosen. Yet the cognitive work involved can at times feel so daunting. My list of I-can-do-better items is longer than I'd like to admit. 

As I sit here with tears in my eyes, I resist the urge to wallow  and instead challenge myself to accept the hard parts of this job because of my "why." Why did I sign up for not simply this job but for this lifestyle? Because I believe what I do makes a difference in the lives of a young generation who deserves better than the world at times gives them. So...

I can do better.

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