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Striving & Thriving: Remembering Purpose in the Reading Classroom


We sat huddled around our small table. We were delving into Rules by Cynthia Lord. Charlotte hunched over her book. Mya absentmindedly twirled her poker-straight red hair, and Bella's nose was so close to the page that she looked cross-eyed...the price one pays when one forgets her glasses. Aiden sat on his knees and bounced up and down as he read. 

We were at that chapter, that chapter in all good books where you can feel the characters shift, and it feels like the electrical charge that hangs in the air right before a thunderstorm.

Catherine, the main character, forgets to care about what others think and wheels Jason in his wheelchair out to the parking lot. He has just revealed that he sometimes wishes he would die. She describes the boundless freedom that is running, and he asks her to show him. She runs through the parking lot as fast as she can while pushing his wheelchair while he demands that she run faster.

As I read aloud, I can feel the knot forming in the back of my throat, and I think, "Oh damn. Here I go again. I'm gonna cry in front of them. Again." My voice tightens, and my students shift forward in their seats. Aiden's butt finally hits the seat of his chair and stays there. Mya's hand snakes out to the counter behind her and grabs the tissue box and nudges it toward me. They are patient with me. By now they know that good books can have powerful effects on readers, and that their teacher is a crybaby. 

Together, they theorize that I'm crying because I'm happy. Catherine has helped Jason, and as Aiden says, "Jason's helping Catherine remember what's important. And it's not what everyone else thinks." This from the boy, who at the beginning of the year, spent more time shopping for books than reading them. As I listen to each of my readers interact with the chapter, my nerdy reading teacher heart swells with pride, and the tears in my eyes become more about them than Catherine and Jason. 

This weekend, I've been with "my people" at the Michigan Reading Association Conference. I've swooned in the presence of Stephanie Harvey, but drew the line at asking her to sign my chest (Wink, wink. She signed a copy of her book for me instead). Pernille Ripp made my heart skip a beat when she said, "It is time for us to become reading warriors." And I basked in the glow of Donalyn Miller's brilliance as she signed her newest masterpiece. 

Everywhere I went this weekend, I heard the same messages: 
  1. Reading is about behaviors, not abilities. 
  2. In order for students to be motivated and engaged readers, they must value reading. In order for them to value reading, there must be collaboration, choice, relevance and meaningful purpose. 
  3. Our students must have access to texts, and those texts must be culturally relevant.  

It's as if all my teaching heroes skyped with each other before they came to present, and they agreed upon common messages. 

The funny thing is, when I left school on Friday to attend this conference, I was in the foulest mood. I felt drained and cranky, and my famously brutal teacher self talk had kicked in. I bet you know what I'm talking about. 

"You suck."

"You're not doing anything well."

"You're not doing enough."

"Maybe Starbucks will hire you."

But when I attend conferences, there are so many windows and mirrors. There are presenters who hold a mirror up for me so I can glimpse myself and my practice and realize that I'm on track. And, there are those presenters that take me to the window to appreciate a new landscape of pedagogy.  The opportunity to reflect is priceless. 

Without it, I would forget about Friday afternoon moments like this:

 "Ms. Willis! We didn't do First Chapter Fridays today. Can we do it on Monday? I need a new book!" Aiden calls out. 

My butt-in-the-air striving reader is beginning to thrive. 

When I remember to pay attention, I am amazed.


This month, I'm linking up with other fab educators. Visit them below!

You are invited to the Inlinkz link party!
Click here to enter

3 Ways to Keep Your Sanity for March is Reading Month




Every February, I begin to brace myself. The "March is Reading Month" committee begins meeting to plan the month for our school. I get a tension headache just thinking about it. It's not that I don't love the reading activities and the intent behind the month-long focus.  I love reading. I love helping my kids learn to love reading. But, I've noticed a trend in the planned celebrations over the last few years.  The teachers are working hard, and the students are not. The whole month feels like a never-ending circus, and I feel like a demented clown.

Don't get me wrong. The celebrations and special events are great entertainment. Some common March happenings are that every teacher decorates his or her door according to a favorite book. Some of the doors are Pinterest-worthy works of art. Prizes are bought and given out for meeting reading goals. Volunteers dress up as book characters and visit classrooms. Other community volunteers visit classrooms to read books to students. Sometimes, local celebrities come to read.  It's fantastic fun! Over 26 years of teaching in different school districts, the most I've seen students do during the month of March is to read across a reading calendar. 

Again, let me say it: There's nothing wrong with celebrating reading in these ways. But I have to ask...
One of the ways I've coped with the upheaval of March Is Reading Month is to make my students and their learning the center of the celebrations. If we have to decorate our door, my students decorate it, using it as a reader response activity.  It doesn't look like a Pinterest-inspired door, but my kids learned something. 

That reading calendar? I turned it into a Reading Genre Book Challenge.  We discuss how we want our reading to be as balanced as our diets.  It's normal for readers (adults included) to focus on a couple of their favorite genres when selecting reading materials. This challenge helps students break away from their reading trends to try something new. They use the month to earn a total of ten brag tags, one for each genre. They chart their success in their data notebooks, and spend time reflecting on their preferences and how they change over the course of the challenge. 



Another thing that really stresses me out about reading month is that when all of the special stuff is added into our schedule, I have a hard time keeping my instructional oars in the water. So over the years, I've learned to find ways to incorporate our day-to-day learning goals like persuasive writing, literature critique, using direct quotations as evidence, and comparing and contrasting texts.

Every year, my students and I hold an election. We review the major mentor texts that we read over the entire school year. We discuss them. We share our opinions about our favorites and our least favorites.  Then, we vote to elect our Book-of-the-Year for room 13. In doing this my students revisit mentor texts, write persuasive essays about the book they think should get
the award, practice reading their essays publicly, and discuss the merits of each book with their peers. We end with a red carpet event. Think of it as the Oscars for books. I've written about his idea extensively. You can read more about it HERE. It's a FAVORITE project in my classroom.


In March, we also research our favorite authors. I began this practice after seeing how over-the-moon excited my kids became when Avi answered our letters. We had finished reading Perloo the Bold as part of our character study unit. I asked my students to write a letter to him, and I used their letters as an assessment piece. After he responded, they found his website and read everything they could find about him. They were fascinated with his blog and his photographs. They talked about him as if he was a personal friend. And of course, there was a run on Avi books in our school media center. 

So in March, I ask students to identify their favorite authors. I have a list of author websites I've compiled that includes the biggies. They research their authors, take notes, and then create a pennant flag about him or her. They LOVE this assignment, and I love how it gets them talking about authors, books, and author's craft.

The best part about all of these activities is that my students are doing most of the work. I'm still teaching to our learning standards, but students are engaged and having a blast...and there's not a circus clown in sight.

You can find some of these student-centered ideas for March Is Reading Month or Read Across America week below. Just click on the pictures.  




Be sure to listen to the We Teach So Hard podcast this week. We're talking about even more reading ideas! Click our logo below. 




Be sure to visit Kathie, Retta and Deann at their blogs. They're chocked full of fantastic student-centered reading ideas!


From top left, clockwise:
3 Ways to Keep Your Sanity During March is Reading Month




Teacher Shoes: The Story of a Teacher's Vow


These boots were made for walkin', and that's just what they'll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.
                                                            Nancy Sinatra

From the time I was a small child, I've been fascinated by shoes. Maybe it's because I had to wear corrective shoes until I was in third or fourth grade. I longed to wear girly sandals or gym shoes. My corrective shoes were shit-brown lace-ups with clunky soles. Sometimes, I even had to wear orthotic inserts inside my ugly shoes.

When I finally decided to be a teacher, after years of avoiding the "you should be a teacher" talks from my teacher mom and grandmother, I took a vow. I swore to my mother that I would never wear teacher shoes. Those were the days when every teacher I knew wore SAS shoes, either gray, navy, black or brown, to match their polyester pantsuits. To me, there's something about certain pairs of shoes that can make me feel powerful, even when I'm not. SAS shoes were not power shoes.


I celebrated my first year of teaching by purchasing a fantastic pair of pumps. They were red silk with Chinese-style brocade embroidered on them. They were magnificent. With steely resolve, I teetered through my first year of teaching, and my sixth grade girls adored my shoes as much as I did. My feet hurt, but dang! They looked good. My student-teaching supervising teacher, who I had stayed in contact with, coveted them. 

Flash forward fifteen years. I was wandering the shoe aisles in T.J. Maxx when I spotted them. They were gorgeous. Cole Haan calf hair leopard print stilettos...with Nike Air Technology! Even the discount store price was more than I wanted to spend...$150. I believe in miracles. Do you? Two weeks later, there was one pair left, and they were in my size and marked down to $24.99. It was destiny. I wore them every chance I got, usually with a monochromatic outfit in black or chocolate brown. My mother closed her mouth and shook her head. 

Then we entered the age of the clog. While everyone around me wore Dansko and Born clogs that reminded me of those dreaded SAS shoes, I rocked Rocket Dog wooden clogs. They looked great on jean day with my dark boot-cut jeans and turquoise velvet blazer. Everyone could hear me walking, heel-toe-heel-toe. I worked the front hallway like it was a catwalk. My coworker said she always knew when I had arrived at school.

The universe has a way of teaching us lessons. As I power walked down the hallway on my way to my next coaching appointment, the skinny heel of my fabulous fawn-colored, suede, spike-heeled bootie caught a seam in the tile. I went flying and landed on my back.  I rolled around on the floor while 22 passing kindergartners pointed and yelled, "Look! Look at the lady!" My angry ankle swelled until I had to limp in my stocking feet out to my car to go to urgent care. 

Hours later on my couch, I thought about my vow. If I had been wearing SAS shoes, I wouldn't have fallen. It's true. If I'm honest with myself, my vow was never about the shoes. I think it was about wanting to be ME, my own kind of teacher. I wanted to carve out my own teaching identity, different than my mom's or grandmother's.  But when I was an 18 year old high school graduate contemplating a teaching career, that meant I wouldn't wear those shoes. 


If you're in the mood for a good laugh, be sure to check out our podcast! This week's episode is all about teacher fashions throughout the years. We laughed until we cried recording it! Click the picture below!


Be sure to check out my podcast buddies' teacher fashion blog posts below! Retta, Kathie & Deann will keep you smiling!


Inlinkz Link Party

3 Questions to Get You Through Teacher Evaluation Season

I sat across from my principal. I loved working for this woman. She supported my creative classroom adventures. She looked out for her staff. On this particular day, she was wearing a lemon yellow linen suit. She exuded warmth. I was in her office for my teacher evaluation review. After building me up with the "good stuff," she mentioned that I needed to work on meeting deadlines. Puzzled, I asked, "In what way?"

"Well, our evaluation system changed this year, and you missed turning your paperwork into me by a day," she replied. 

Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. It felt like she was stretching for something to ding me on. But, she was right. I did miss that deadline by a day. However, in the big scheme of things, was this one thing really worth documenting on my evaluation? I couldn't argue with her. I was a day late, so I took her feedback on the chin.

As we wrapped up our meeting, she asked me to sign the evaluation paperwork.  "Just sign here," she said. "Oh, and please post date it, because I'm a couple weeks late with this meeting."

I swallowed the laughter bubbling up. After telling me that I missed a deadline and recording it on my evaluation paperwork, she wanted me to fudge one for her. I said nothing, but I can tell you that I smile every time I think of her.  It was another time and place in education. In the big picture, it didn't matter. I was a solid teacher. She knew it, and I knew it, and my evaluation feedback said so. 

Now, teacher evaluations have morphed into an entirely different experience.  I sit on the bench outside my principal's office.  I hold my iobserve print-out of my goals, my evaluation report my school district and state requires, complete with colored graphs and reflection statements, and copies of the lesson plans (Marzano strategies identified in color) I  prepared and my principal observed.  Sometimes it feels like I'm defending a doctoral thesis!

There are three questions I remember when I'm preparing to be observed or evaluated. They make a huge difference for my students, and the quality of my teaching. 

I prepare for my observation by identifying what I'll teach and how I'll teach it. We use Marzano's framework, so after I have an idea about my lesson, I spend some time thinking about how I'll apply his framework. I use the Marzano flip cards I developed for this. They're handy, and I use them anytime I'm asked to reflect about my teaching and my students' learning.  Then, I ask myself, "How will I know if my students have met the learning goal?"


Next, I look at my lesson, and I ask myself "What will I do if they don't get it?" This question helps me think through the differentiation I will need to address my students' varied needs. How will I respond when my students struggle? I have contingency plans in place, just in case.  Incidentally, this is another Marzano strategy. 

Finally, I ask myself, "What will I do if they do get it?" Do I have higher level differentiation in place? What if this is easier than I expect? How will I add challenge? How will I increase rigor? I find that when my learning activities are student-centered and open-ended, this is pretty easy to do. 

When I ask myself these 3 questions, and I wear my Marzano goggles when viewing my own teaching, my evaluation conferences are authentic. I'm able to be reflective about my teaching and my students' learning experiences. To me, that's what professional growth is all about...the ability to reflect and then act on that reflection.





As a former literacy coach,  I saw first hand the empowerment teachers feel when they can identify and then reflect on their teaching strategies.   One of the difficulties I ran into as a coach is that teachers often had a hard time identifying what they did to make a lesson "work." They needed an easy go-to resource at their finger tips.   So I created that resource, and, I put it into the hands of my coachees and the new teachers I was mentoring! Now that I've returned to the classroom, I use my Quality Instruction Tool constantly. 

You can find it by clicking the picture!


Give WE TEACH SO HARD A LISTEN! This episode is all about teacher evaluation. We laugh, commiserate and talk shop about evaluation season. Click the image!


This month, I've teamed up with some phenomenal teachers. Check out their goodies below!










Inlinkz Link Party

Valuing Student Voice to Create a Love of Learning


I sent my neighborhood minions out to gather paying customers for our newly practiced theater production. We had worked all morning in the hot summer sun, and now, clothed in the splendor that was my mother's old bridesmaid gowns and cast-off Halloween costumes, we were ready to perform. The lawn chairs were set up, the sidewalk stage waited, our breezeway was our backstage area. 

You could watch the next award-winning Broadway production for a quarter. Another quarter would get you some Country Time Lemonade while you watched. Afterward, we would sign autographs on the red carpet, my mother's Christmas tablecloth that I had stolen from the bottom of the china cabinet.

Looking back, I think I always had a voice. Whether I was writing plays and directing, crafting poems for our small town newspaper, or mouthing off to my mom and then writing furiously in my diary about her unfairness, I had a voice. I have my childhood report cards to prove it... "Tracy needs to curb her talking."

VOICE. 

As a teacher, one of the surest way to lead my students to love learning is to honor their voices, their thinking, their opinions, and their stories. When I make their voices the center of the learning opportunity, great things happen. 

Every year in March, my students and I hold an election. We review the major mentor texts that we read over the entire school year. We discuss them. We share our opinions about our favorites and our least favorites.  Then, we vote to elect our Book-of-the-Year for room 13. 

My students create a huge mind map about all ten of our mentor texts. They draw arrows to and from text titles to show connections they find between the texts. By doing this, my kiddos are remembering what we've read. They're reengaging with the books. They sit on the floor, surrounding the butcher paper, discussing characters and themes. They begin to find connections between the texts. This delights me, because many of the connections aren't intentional, and yet they can see common threads.




Afterward I ask students to choose one mentor text that they wanted to nominate for our Book-of-the-Year Award. Surprisingly, every book is chosen by at least one student.  They return to their seats to do a flash write about their choices. Because they are invested in sharing their opinions about something they care about, they write their literary essays with zest. They know they have to sell their book choice in order for it to win. 


We study bias in text and discuss how authors use words in certain ways to convince or rile up their readers around a product or cause. My students use these techniques while writing about their book nominations.



After drafting, revising and editing, they practice their nomination speeches at school and home. Finally the red carpet day has arrived. They come to school dressed in their best red carpet attire. Students who don't want to wear their finery to school have photo booth props that they've made. They use these instead. I lay out the plastic red tablecloth I bought at the local dollar store. Each student holds their nominated book, struts down the carpet and stands in front of a podium to give his or her persuasive speech (literary essay) to the class. Afterward we vote, and the winner is declared. My students LOVE this, even my hard-to-motivate student who struggled to finish any writing assignment the entire year. 

When we honor our students' voices, great things happen...every time.



The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw, and build and play, and dance and live as only you can.
                                            -Neil Gaiman 

If you're interested in learning more about this project, click on the picture. 




Be sure to visit these fabulous educators below! There are a wealth of ideas here that are sure to ignite a love of learning in your kiddos!


Spark a Love of Learning with Games  | The Owl Teacher       

Spark a Love of Social Studies  | Tried and True Teaching Tools     



5 Ways to Ignite a Love of Math Problem Solving | Think Grow Giggle          



Valuing Student Voice to Create a Love of Learning | Wild Child’s Mossy Oak Musings