Four Essential Steps for Workshops

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom

We bought our daughter a new Strider bike for her upcoming birthday. These bikes have no pedals, and they teach kids how to balance and use their bodies to move the bike and steer. The “Learn to Ride Guide” sets out “four essential steps” to ensure your child will ride successfully:

  1. Adjusting the bike properly to fit the child.
  2. Being a cheerleader, not a coach.
  3. Letting the child set the pace.
  4. Supporting the child — NOT the bike!

As a reading and writing workshop teacher, I really fell in love with this guide, as these four essential steps could inform what we do in a workshop classroom.

Adjust the Teaching to Fit the Student

Conferring with kids is basically adjusting your teaching to meet the students where they are.

Using formative assessment tools, like a quick exit ticket, you can adjust your entire lesson. And after looking at class writing samples, you can decide if the majority of students actually need that mini-lesson on punctuation–or if you can move on to something else.

Know When to Cheer and When to Coach

As a literacy teacher, you are so many things at different times, and for different students.   

  • Sometimes you are a coach, honing in on specific skills that your students need and explicitly teaching them, while giving them drills that will help strengthen the skills.
  • Sometimes you are a cheerleader, praising what students are doing well, and lifting them up when they are being too hard on themselves or just not getting it–yet.
  • Sometimes you are a teammate, sharing in the discovery and laughter of the class.  
  • Sometimes you are a spectator, observing in the stands and letting the writing and reading play out.  
  • Sometimes you are the referee, making sure the rules of the workshop classroom are being followed.

Let the Students Set the Pace

There has to be some level of commitment on the part of the student with the work that you do in a classroom. I think this is where choice comes into play.  

Giving students choice about their writing topics, and in the titles or genres they read, allows students to set their own pace. Even giving them options in when assignments are due, or in how they can demonstrate their learning, can help students set their own timetable and be in control of their learning.

Support the Writer and Reader, Not the Writing and Book

Teachers teach children, not content. When you support the student, and the content comes second, you can really make a difference in the life of that student. This doesn’t just mean forming a relationship with each student; it means deciding what they need next in that conference or small group situation.

Each new skill our students and children learn has to be practiced. As teachers and parents we need to be there for our kids–but we also need to know when to take a step back, and let them go it alone. If we keep these four essential steps in mind, we can help kids become independent, skilled writers and readers on the road of life!

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

#MACUL17: Creativity and Play

AARI Literacy & Technology Notes from the Classroom
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Photos from the conference. Click the image to enlarge it.

My head is still reeling after attending the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning (MACUL) conference, which took place in mid-March in Detroit. The conference, for those who haven’t attended, is “one of the Midwest’s largest educational technology conferences with 5000+ educators from across Michigan, the region, and Canada,” according to the conference website.

While there, I witnessed two days of inspiring technology ideas, three amazing keynote speeches, and 10 thought-provoking sessions.

Not to mention all of the students and teachers demonstrating some really cool technology. I attended sessions on creating a Makerspace, using technology in a reading workshop, and looking at YouTube videos as a genre of storytelling.

For those who weren’t able to make it, here are some of the major takeaways.

#MACUL17 Keynote Takeaways

#1: Ken Robinson. Sir Ken Robinson, an author and expert on creativity, reminded us that children are inherently creative. Schools should be cultivating creativity through personalization. At the same time, teachers need to connect with and customize learning for each student.

#2: Jane McGonigal. McGonigal, a game designer and the author of Reality is Broken, argued the importance of gaming techniques. Being playful and employing gaming techniques in education, she said, creates super empowered, hopeful individuals.

#3: Jennie Magiera. Magiera is, among other roles, the Chief Technology Officer of Des Plaines School District 62, in Illinois. Taking risks in education, she said, is one of the most important things teachers can do for their students.

The Maker Movement and AARI

I’m new to the maker movement, but after attending my first session, I knew that I wanted to start implementing a maker-mentality in all of my classrooms, and especially with my struggling readers in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative.

AARI teachers want our students to:

  • Take risks in reading and thinking
  • Find patterns in text structure
  • Be creative in their representations of text
  • See themselves as readers
  • Feel like they’re a part of a community
  • Approach new texts with a critical stance

In AARI, we also believe that it’s the process that matters–over the end results and even content.

Everything I’ve heard and read about the maker movement, so far, tells me that I’ve got to start including this kind of playful tinkering in my AARI classes. Maker education, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, uses “a wide variety of hands-on activities (such as building, computer programming, and sewing) to support academic learning and the development of a mindset that values playfulness and experimentation, growth and iteration, and collaboration and community,” according to a blog on Education Week.

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Materials set up for building a car to race on a track at MACUL.

Maker education benefits students’ creativity, problem-solving abilities, and personal identities. One white paper concluded that “the most salient benefits of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.”

That really resonated with me. It sounded just like that which AARI strives to do for struggling readers, with any informational text that comes across their desk or device.

There’s a lot to consider when starting up a Makerspace. Here are a few of the things I’m thinking about right now:

  • How can I learn more about Makerspaces and how to integrate them into my classroom?
  • How will I fund materials and technology/equipment?
  • How will I organize and set up my materials and classroom to truly embrace the “openness” of a Makerspace?
  • How can I best connect this to my curriculum?
  • How will I protect my Makerspace, once created?

There are those that scoff at the maker movement, calling it just another fad and no better than art classes or drama clubs. And there are those of us that scoff at those people that would dismiss anything so creative and fun and enjoyable.

But if I took away anything from the MACUL keynotes, it was that being playful and creative is super important to children’s ability to learn, adapt, and grow as human beings.

So, in the spirit of taking a risk, let’s start making! If you have any ideas or suggestions for my Makerspace journey, please post on social media or in the comments below.

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My first attempt at tinkering with Strawbees building kits.

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

 

Communicating with Parents

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

CommunicationI’m having a really hard time with the fact that I will not be in the same place as my daughter when she is in preschool, even though I know that parents before me have done this. I won’t have a shared experience. I will not be privy to that part of her life.

As we’ve been looking at different schools, one of the metrics I find myself using to measure whether I like a school or not is how the teacher and school communicate with parents. So when I asked one teacher, “How do you communicate with parents?” and she answered, “Well, there’s conferences,” I was a little freaked out. Just to be clear, if you are waiting until conferences to talk to parents about their child, you are waiting too long.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I have re-prioritized my list of things I must do as a teacher, and elevated parent communication as one of my top three things. (The other two are: build personal relationships with students, and model reading and writing for my students.) Communication is a fundamental part of a teacher’s livelihood. I understand this better as my child is making her way into school.

As a parent, I will want to know what my child did in school, if anyone was mean to her or vice-versa, and what she did that was admirable or that needs work. In the beginning, I will want to see glimpses of what happens in the classroom–so that I can “be there” and know the routines, and have the language of the class, so that I can draw more out of my daughter in our conversations about school.

A Question of Frequency

Each fall, I go into the school year with lofty plans to call or email every student’s parent or guardian within the first month of school, with a positive, thoughtful comment that would demonstrate how I got to know their child–and which would also give me some leeway if I needed to contact them later in the year for an issue or concern. The years I met my goal, I needed some planning and dedication. One thing that worked was writing the names of four to eight students a day in my planner so that I would have them in my mind for each hour. That way, I could try to write or say something specific about the student’s participation in my class that day.

How often should a teacher communicate with parents and what do parents want to hear about? As students get older, do parents want to know different things? How much is too much? Which forms of communication (texts, phone calls, emails) work best for parents? How can I best manage showing glimpses of my classroom while respecting any anonymity requested by parents or students?

These are all questions that I’m pondering as I think about communication in my classroom. In the past, I haven’t really had a definite plan, just a few things that I did that fall under communication:

  • Weekly email to parents, describing key topics covered in class and any big projects or papers
  • Daily emails with homework to specific parents that requested this
  • Daily or weekly updates to Moodle with homework and “today in class”
  • A blog with student work and classroom photos (some years)
  • A blog with links and resources for students and parents to use (other years)

Technology should help make communicating with parents easier. There are tons of platforms, like Moodle or Weebly, that offer a way for you to easily communicate with parents/guardians. Mainly, I want to use something that is easy for me to update and easy for parents to access.  

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Welcome board at Pierce Elementary School with a calendar for parents and guardians to sign up to volunteer in the preschool classroom.

One area that I haven’t tapped into, but that I really liked in my visits to preschools, was how teachers invite or welcome parents and guardians into their classrooms. I know that this might look different in varying grade levels, but I really liked the schools that offered some way for me to be able to come into the classroom if I wanted to. Just by having this option available, it gave me a sense that this teacher was confident and capable.

Not only would I like to invite parents into my classroom to help out with preparing materials or bulletin boards, but I would like to have them come in for classroom celebrations of writing. Another thing to consider is how to engage parents and guardians of low-income students or English Language Learners.  

I’d like to be more deliberate in my plan for communication, so here’s my list of what a comprehensive communication plan for parents and guardians should include:

  • A survey or initial email that invites parents and guardians to share their concerns or hopes for their child in the coming school year
  • An invitation for parents and guardians to come visit your classroom in some way
  • A way for parents and guardians to know what is happening in your classroom
  • A place where students can share their work for a wider audience, including parents and guardians
  • Resources for parents and guardians who are looking for ways to support their students in your subject or grade
  • A calendar of important due dates and classroom events
  • Ideas for connecting with parents and guardians throughout the year

Parents want teachers who are accessible and transparent, so what is your plan for communicating with parents on a regular basis? Post your ideas in the comments below or on social media.

blog preschoolCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

4 Ways to Energize Your PD

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project Professional Learning

hub-course-searchThe best professional development has to inspire me, engage me, and challenge me to try something new. Some of my favorite conferences have been MACUL and NCTEI always leave feeling exhausted from attending so many amazing sessions, overwhelmed with all of the great resources I’ve been introduced to, and excited to try something new with students the next day, back in my classroom.  

But I can’t always attend the conferences, due to location or funding. So I’ve had to get creative with ways to provide comparable experiences in my professional life. Here are four virtual professional development ideas that have energized my teaching.

  1. Use Twitter Hashtags.
    I hope you are on Twitter.  If you find the right hashtags, you can learn a lot about the things that matter to you as an educator.  Want to learn more about using technology in your classroom?  Search #CEL16 or #4TDW and
    get lost in the conversations, links, images, and resources.  Teach English? Search #NCTE16 or #EngChat.  Once you start searching, you can find people that you might want to follow, based on their tweets.  If you are attending a conference, you might start tweeting with a hashtag and follow likeminded colleagues from different places.  And if you can’t attend a conference (like the recent NCTE conference), you can still benefit from the learning and thinking that took place because of hashtags.

  2. Attend a Webinar.
    This past October, I was a moderator for the 4TDW conference on digital writing.  As my partner and I were creating his session on using collaborative digital writing, I learned a lot about what goes into creating an effective, engaging webinar.  Much thought is put into creating a virtual space that fosters participation, focuses your learning in a short time, and pushes your thinking (many times you are able to gain SCECHs too).  Even if you can’t attend a live webinar, usually you can watch the recorded webinar on your own timetable.  Oakland Schools has a great series on vocabulary, word study, and grammar that you can still register for.  Best of all, these types of professional learning are usually FREE!

  3. Sign up for an Online Course in miPLACE.
    One of my new job responsibilities has been to help create engaging, online professional development for teachers who support struggling readers.  There are a ton of great modules created by teachers and
    teacher consultants in Oakland School’s virtual community, MiPlace.  If you haven’t been there to check them out yet, now is the time!  Once you create an account or log in, you can browse or search the Course Catalogue under the Hub tab.

  4. aari-hangoutCome Hangout!
    If you teach AARI, you can
    attend our next “Come Hangout!” on December 7th.  We use Adobe Connect to talk about relevant topics virtually, and from the comfort of your own home, you can have an experience like an after-school meeting. We had a great discussion about student engagement in September and created a resource document around our thinking.  Still, you don’t need a special platform like Adobe Connect to meet up virtually with colleagues.  You can create a Google Hangout or shared Google Doc with a group of colleagues from your building or beyond (maybe someone you follow on Twitter?!) around a topic you are interested in discussing.  It is rejuvenating and validating to talk with other teachers around shared topics to help each other, push each other, celebrate, and learn.

When you take control of your virtual professional learning, and make use of technology to fit it into your life, you can really enhance your teaching practice to benefit you and your students.

file-sep-29-8-45-18-pmCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

NaNo What Now?

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

6th grade gifted writer, Sydney, working on the next great American novel

NaNoWriMo is coming!

National Novel Writing Month happens every November and is something you should bring into your classroom to encourage community, creativity, perseverance, and independence in the writing lives of your students.

NaNoWriMo asks you to write a novel in one month. It seems insane and impossible, but over 300,000 people do it yearly. If you have never participated, you should try it out this year. And if you have a classroom of students, you should use NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program to help your students engage in this experience.

I made participating in NaNoWriMo an option in my 8th grade classroom. The camps of students who usually participated included: serious gifted writers, everyday kids looking to be challenged, and special education students.

The Young Writer’s Program has lots of tools and resources to help you give your student writers all the support they need. This includes novel-writing workbooks, lesson plans, charts, buttons, and swag. Not to mention an awesome online community of student writers and mentor authors who give great pep talks.

Quantity Leads to Quality

The whole idea behind NaNoWriMo is just to get your story written. Don’t worry if it makes sense, or if you spelled a word wrong, or if your characters are flat. (Editing comes in later months, for those of you grammar sticklers who were wondering.) Just get your story out there and quit making excuses!

Now, some would argue that writing every day is crazy business! And, having participated in NaNoWriMo, I know that it really is rather hard to write every day, on top of all the other things going on in your teaching and personal life. But, because you have committed to doing this, and because you have a community of other crazy writers on your side, something makes you keep going.

 Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school wide chart.

Students in the media center at Oakview Middle School, updating their novel progress on the school-wide chart.

Community of Writers

When you commit to joining NaNoWriMo with your students, you are really creating a community of writers. I had a wide range of student writers participate. The special education students had IEP goals in writing and spelling, but they saw themselves as writers and would come with notebooks full of the stories they had started. These were stories that paralleled video game plots or stories they knew from movies, which they claimed as their own and added new twists and turns to. The gifted writers came to try out new genres and forms of storytelling, and to work on stories they had started on Wattpad.

Some years I started an after-school club for NaNoWriMo. This was nice because I could offer it to different grades and was able to get the other ELA teachers in my school involved. Many of them would come to one of the after-school meetings to see their students write and share in the fun. I even convinced our singing-science teacher to create a NaNoWriMo commercial one year.

The NaNoWriMo website also has an online community that students enjoyed participating in. You can friend people if you know their username, you can send encouraging messages to users, or you can post in the private forums to ask for advice or get feedback on sections of your novel.

Sense of Accomplishment

Most of my students who participated met or exceeded their word-count goals. Yet one of the first things we talked about as a group was setting realistic, attainable goals. We used charts and stickers to mark our progress, and our community was really supportive of each other.

We enjoyed the challenge of meeting our daily word-count goals. But another benefit of NaNoWriMo is that students who meet their word-count goal can submit their novel and get a published copy of their writing. This is a highly motivating factor for most students.

I have attempted to write a novel in NaNoWriMo every year since 2010 and I have never won (it all usually unravels for me around Thanksgiving). But I’m still planning on doing it again this year. If you want to do it, but don’t think you can manage during the school year, you should consider Camp NaNoWriMo–where you can pick any month (think summer!) and work on a month-long writing project. And if you like to compose with digital writing and mixed media, check out DiGiWriMo.

Regardless of whether you try it out, you should definitely bring it up to your students as something they might want to try. You might be surprised to find how many aspiring, excited writers you have in your class.

file-sep-29-8-45-18-pmCaroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

 

My Classroom, My Museum

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_396724789The last days of summer are ripe for a frantic, spontaneous trip to Washington, D.C. We’ve visited before, because my sister lives there; but what was different this time, was that we have a vivacious three-year-old. We had never seen monuments as deserted as we had at 7:30 in the morning.

After our third day at the National Museum of Natural History, I realized that I was noticing things that I hadn’t in the days past, and I was surprised to find I was still learning new things. And this got me to thinking – how could I make my classroom more like a Smithsonian museum?

Independent Learning

Museums foster independent learning. My daughter really enjoyed roaming around and looking at things at her own pace. How might I have more interesting information at the ready, in my classroom? What could I have up or around in my room to help self-directed learning happen more? (Even the plants outside the museums are labeled with the scientific names.) How might I leverage technology to help me provide some interesting sites that students could look at on their own?

Ideas:

  • Museum-like placards in books or around the classroom library, inviting readers into different genres or books or author tid-bits.
  • QR-Codes around the room with links to different websites that promote collaborative writingreadingauthor sitesself-publishingNaNoWriMo, or other cool new wonderings.
  • Have interesting quotes or information around the room that I change and update — or put students in charge of the alteration.shutterstock_233608252

Sparking Curiosity

What happens when I press this button? What is around the corner in that dark, spooky hallway? Who are those people in white lab coats behind the glass looking through microscopes?

The questions and wonderings of my preschooler were endless! What kinds of things will grab the attention of my middle school students? Could I have up different questions, artwork, or inventions that tie into my units of study somehow? What visuals or puzzles could I have up that contribute to students’ knowledge of what we are studying in each unit, or are just plain word-fun?

Ideas:

  • Hang Harris Burdick photos — or other strange images or objects (estate sale finds) — with a poetry or sentence starter.
  • Hang a Pro/Con stance that students could consider or debate, in writing or verbally, at the end of each class or week.
  • Always have a different copy of a word puzzle or brain teaser up for students to look at or work on.

Different Levels of Knowledge

My husband, daughter, and I all enjoyed our time at the museum. We each left with a different knowledge base than we had before. Visuals and audio were more important to my daughter’s learning. Words and graphs spoke more to my husband and me.

In class, what metaphors would fit well when trying to explain different parts of a unit?

Ideas:

  • shutterstock_258415694Rethink mini-lesson charts to include drawings and visual component.
  • Flip mini-lessons so that they are available online for homework viewing. Maybe have an interactive piece to them – or offer them as a supplement for students who need more time to process or think through the material.
  • Use music, video, popular culture more in quick writes with students.

Increase Engagement

From picture boards with red buttons to press, to digital display screens, to real-live bugs you can touch, my three-year-old was really enjoying all of the interactive features of a museum. That had me wondering: In my classroom, what could I have hanging from the ceiling? What spaces in my room, where students congregated, could house some unique, hands-on aspects of literacy? How might I make my bulletin boards more engaging?

Ideas:

  • Create a graffiti wall of favorite lines from books that students have read.
  • Rethink bulletin boards to always include some level of interactivity. Maybe include an extension into technology – like six-word memoir bulletin board with special hashtags.
  • Offer different writing implements from past ages that kids could touch or use.

I know that museums have bigger budgets — and larger sources of information and more people working for them. But I can still try to harness the power of a good museum. I just need to think about what questions or visuals will challenge and engage my students, present lots of different viewpoints and interesting ideas that they might want to talk or write about, and be innovative in how I represent these things in my classroom.

IMG_8096Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University. She lives in Berkley, Michigan with her husband and their three year old daughter.

 

Reflect. Reinvent. Renew.

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

daybook-titleMy daughter is turning three and my house is a disaster area. There is papier mâché residue on the carpet and ceiling from the piñata we decided to make today. The sink is piled high with half-filled milk cups I haven’t gotten around to emptying.

I look around and wonder if this is the best environment for a three-year-old to live in, considering we have decided to keep her home from pre-school next year. And that’s when I realize: I’m reflecting, and it feels good.

Reflect for Yourself

One of my favorite things I used as a teacher was Jim Burke Teacher’s Daybook Personal and Professional Workshops. Burke is a trusted English high school teacher who helps teachers try to balance their work and home lives. I tried to make a habit of doing his Beginning of the School Year Workshop–which was easy. But I didn’t always make it to the End of the School Year Reflections. I was too busy closing up my room or grading finals or just plain exhausted from the year.

What I know is that I always felt better, and had more closure maybe, in the years when I made the time to reflect.

Reinvent One Area of Your Teaching Life

I’ve adapted to my role as mom, as my daughter has grown. In the beginning, I was basically a source of nourishment and comfort. Now I’m that, but I’m also a disciplinarian, a television and internet censor, a teacher, a nutritionist, a coach, a problem solver, a storyteller, a fort builder, and a small toy detective.

OWP logo copySomething I miss from my teaching years is the opportunity each new school year afforded me to try something new. Maybe it was something small, like a new desk arrangement. Maybe it was something big, like the Oakland Writing Project, seeping into my teaching and changing the way I would look at myself as a teacher and writer. But each year, I could decide to change, and I would get a new batch of students to adjust with.

Some questions to reflect upon: What will you change next year? What worked this year? What flopped and why do you think it did?

Renew Your Love Affair with Teaching

My daughter loves hearing stories about herself. We started a bedtime tradition of reading a book and then telling a story about the day, or the last trip we were on together, or the time we went to a favorite place. I was just starting to tire of the same old stories about the zoo and the bookstore. Then last week, genius struck, and we retold the story of the day she was born. And we all were excited to remember.

Do you remember why you got into teaching in the first place? Do you still hold the passion you did when you first started?

Spend some time reflecting on the first-year teacher you were and the teacher you are now. What has changed? What hasn’t? What do you wish you still had? What do you wish you could leave behind?

You are probably already signed up for a workshop or a course this summer. If not, you probably have plans to grow and change in some area of your teaching. Maybe this is the summer you figure out how Twitter can expand your professional reach. Maybe you decide to research UDL and find out what it stands for.

Or maybe you could start to explore MiPlace and all that it has to offer. What about joining Camp NaNoWriMo this July and deciding to get your students involved in November? You might take the entire summer just to be with your family, and promise yourself you will only go back in the fall on the day that the school requires you to be back to set up your classroom.

If you’d like to spend time with deliberate reflection, you might try a Thinking Routine like “I used to think…but now I think…” Or you could check out what this guy from Edutopia has to offer.

Whatever you need to do–to renew your teaching life or your personal life–make sure you do it this summer!

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

Ending Your Year with Letters

Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_161854607When May comes, and the green starts to overtake the landscape, and the purple lilacs send their sweet smell to my side door, I know that summer is near. When I was teaching, I usually would go through a series of states at this point:

  • Exhaustion from all the testing and planning and grading of essays and after-school ceremonies and concerts and plays
  • Panic that I didn’t get through all of the required curriculum
  • Regret that I didn’t give enough feedback to students or make enough emotional connections with some of my kids
  • Great anticipation that summer was almost here and I could make it through these last five weeks and four Mondays
  • Sadness (or sometimes Relief depending on the group of kids) that we only had a few weeks left together in my classroom

After running the gamut of emotions, I would try to regain some semblance of teaching dignity. This usually took the form of writing letters, as a classroom activity.

Two of my favorite types of activities were Letters to Your Future Self and Letters of Thanks to a Teacher. Neither assignment was very formal. I think I tried to tie in some sort of lesson on letter writing, just to keep it legit. Often the “grade” was based solely on completion of the assignment.

Over the years, I have collected lots of stationery and envelopes (even asking parents for donations at the beginning of the school year) and so I would pull out my box and let students choose their paper and favorite writing implement.

Sometimes, with the Letters to Your Future Self, I would include a stamped envelope and have students write: Do Not Open Until the Year 20XX on them, and have them address the letter to their home address (usually after a short tutorial on how to do this!). I would then mail the letters to students in the summer with a short note from me too!

Lasting Relationships

Letters of Thanks to a Teacher always brought about a lot of questions from students. Can I write to an elementary teacher? Sure – I can inter-school mail the letter to them. What about a custodian or lunch lady or counselor? Of course! How do you spell this teacher’s name?! (List of names goes up on the white board.) Can I write a letter to you? Well, only if you also write one to someone else too. Can I deliver it to the teacher now? Nope, I need to grade them first – so make sure I can read your signature! Can I write more than one? YES! I’m not finished, can I take it home for homework? Yes.

shutterstock_144790756I would have the students keep the envelopes open, so that I could “grade” them and also screen for any letter of bad intent (only one or two in the many years did this, but I’m glad I checked in the end).

The best part about Letters of Thanks to a Teacher came later, sometimes not until next fall, when I would catch my colleagues looking in their mailboxes, sometimes greeted by piles of letters from past students, thanking them for some aspect of teaching–or more often the relationship they had created.

The Importance of Gratitude

Giving students time in a full class period to write the letters in a leisurely and yet thoughtful way always made my students and me feel good. You could tell they were thinking about what they would say and how they would say it, and many of them would ask how to spell words and took care in their writing–more so than any other assignment they had worked on that year. This is the kind of forced assignment I didn’t mind giving or grading.

And what was I doing while they composed? Besides helping any student with their spelling or ideas, I was writing my own letters of gratitude to colleagues and friends who had helped me that year.

File_000Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

Write. Revise. Read. Repeat.

Common Core Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

 

shutterstock_283334561When I think back about why I wanted to become a teacher, I remember an ambition I had to make a difference in the lives of others. A want to share my passion for the books that I loved. A desire to help people express themselves in new and powerful ways. These are ideals that I still hold after twelve years of teaching, amid different political landscapes and ever-changing initiatives.

So, when I asked our blog editor for some topics to write about, I was taken aback by one of his suggestions: Can beautiful (or good) writing be taught?

Of course! I immediately thought. What kind of a reading and writing workshop teacher would I be if I didn’t believe this, deep in my heart?

Practice and Feedback

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
– Vince Lombardi

I believe that the first thing you need to carve out and protect in your classroom is deliberate writing practice, coupled with feedback from an expert. An expert, as Penny Kittle reminds us, need only be a teacher who is a little bit better at writing than a student.

Logging practice time in writing is important and necessary for getting all of the ideas out, but it is only the first step; teachers are only as good as the feedback they give to student writers, and feedback in the moment of writing is always the gold standard.

Revision

“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.”
– Raymond Chandler

Teaching and encouraging revision are also necessary components to the writing classroom. Modeling revision in your own writing shows students how to mine their writing for rocks, and how to polish these rocks into gems.

Penny Kittle talks about taking photos of your writing work, which shows students the revision process in action. This also helps students to recognize that it is in small changes to our writing that we learn to get better.

Learning through Mimicry

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
– Charles Caleb Colton

shutterstock_284746478Recognizing, naming, and even copying good writing are all important pieces in the quest to shape good writers.

Using mentor texts is one way to help students read like writers. Another way is to look at student writing samples, select the best as models, and then go through a process of naming what is good in that writing, as Ron Berger from Expeditionary Learning suggests.

A paramount exercise for any student is to notice an author’s craft and imitate good writers. This can mean inviting students to “copy change,” compose sentences, or keep a notebook of favorite lines from books they’ve read.

Practice, Practice, Practice

“The writer’s secret is not inspiration – for it is never clear where it comes from – it is his stubbornness, his patience.”
– Orhan Pamuk

Student writers need to realize that good writing comes less from talent and more from repeated practice. And teachers of writing need to remember that good writers can be guided with deliberate practice and teacher modeling.

 

IMG_3075Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for twelve years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their two year old daughter.

The Value of Reading Conferences

Formative Assessment Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project
IMG_3665

Notes from a reader’s conference

Feedback is a part of every great formative assessment. And a lot has been written about how to give effective and meaningful feedback.

But nothing has solidified the effectiveness of meaningful feedback for me more than the daily conversations I now have with my two-and-a-half-year-old. She is constantly refining her understanding of syntax and semantics, solidifying her understanding of the world around her, and building her self-esteem–all through the words that we exchange.

These kinds of conversations with readers–hearing their thinking and asking them to clarify what they mean–help them in the moment of their understanding. Nothing is a more powerful tool for student learning and growth.

Conference Starting Points

Everything I learned about reading workshops and conferences started with Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins. They are the workshop gurus that you should turn to for all of your burning questions. But even if you aren’t ready to jump into a workshop, you can still use conferences in your classroom.

The basic structure of a reading conference is:

  1. Gather data about the reader
  2. Compliment the reader
  3. Teach the reader something new
  4. Jot notes about the reader’s thinking and how you pushed him/her; plan your follow up

In a conference, you can use questions to get at the heart of a reader’s confusion or difficulty:

  • What questions do you have as you are reading?
  • What in the text makes you think that?
  • I noticed… I wonder…?
Response Journal 2

A response journal entry

Depending on the student, I might have them read part of their book aloud to me, and then ask them a question. I may also read their response journal over their shoulder, and then ask them a question about it, or ask a big question (What is the theme of your book?). From here, I can scaffold if they aren’t getting to this (What are some of the important moments of your book? What are some things that the characters are learning?). In a conference, I can also look back at an exit ticket and ask students to clarify what they meant by something they wrote.

Logistics

In a good week, I could confer with five students a day. So I would usually allow myself two weeks to get to each student in a class. Sometimes I would have to make daily quick returns to those needy students until they got on track. So, three students a day, over the course of two weeks, is 30 students. This translates to 15 minutes of reading or independent practice that the other students are working on, while you make your rounds conferring with each student for three to five minutes.

While planning conferences, I would meet with students randomly. If there were a pattern, my students would become complacent. And I liked to keep them on their toes.

It’s important to note, too, that conferring has its own special way of keeping students on task. You are among the students. And your proximity to them makes them stay focused. You can move to different sides of the room between conferences, when you are taking notes, and therefore can quell whispers.

IMG_3664Another benefit: your notes are a cheat sheet. Doctors take notes, in order to help them remember what they talked about, what’s happening in your personal history, and why you are there. Teachers can do the same thing. I’ve used a clipboard with student names, and I’ve also used my iPad with Evernote and a page for each student. (A sample note is listed on the left.)

Even if you aren’t using a workshop model, you can incorporate conferring with readers. (But, no matter the grade level you teach, you should really consider workshops! You can learn more about workshops HERE or HERE or HERE or HERE and especially HERE.) You can do so while students are working on whole-class novel reading or working on questions or starting their homework.

The Benefits

Conferring really helped me to become an effective teacher. I was connecting with students on a personal level and felt like I knew each and every one of them like never before. Students were also held accountable for their reading and thinking, and started to take more ownership over their own learning. And by meeting with students individually and then talking to the class as a whole group about emergent patterns and provocative statements, I was able to help connect readers and create community.

Caroline Thompson

Caroline Thompson (@TeacherThompson) taught middle school ELA for 12 years in Lake Orion before becoming a stay-at-home mom. She supports AARI teachers for Oakland Schools as an independent literacy consultant in the areas of digital media, professional development, and non-fiction resources. Caroline is a Reading and Writing Workshop advocate, a 2008 Oakland Writing Project Teacher Consultant, and a 2009 Oakland County Outstanding Teacher of the Year Nominee. She has a BA in English from Michigan State University and a Masters in the Art of Teaching Reading from Oakland University.  She lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter.