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.

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.  

Photo Jan 27, 9 46 39 AM

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.

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.

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.

Routines, Goals, and Risks for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

AARI LogoNow that I’ve covered the elements of a strong learning community, I want to delve deeper into some of the practical strategies you might use when building a community in AARI, the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, which brings students quickly to grade level. The students you have in your class might start out afraid and guarded. And so it’s appropriate to look closer at routines, protocols, goal setting, and risk taking.

Use Routines and Protocols to Promote Community

Consider teaching your students ways in which to talk to each other. I learned the 7 Norms of Collaborative Work from an Oakland Schools consultant (Jen Davidson), and I have used them with teachers and students alike. You could start small, with just the first three, and challenge your students to pause, paraphrase, and pose questions. You will probably have to adjust the language for students and use a “sounds like”/ “looks like” approach to show students how to carry these out.

Use thinking routines. Consider using some of these routines to check in with students each month, or at the start or end of your books.

Set Goals and Share them to Encourage Community

Try posing some questions for students. What has been a struggle for you in reading? What do you hope to get out of this class?

Develop shared goals. These include improving nonfiction reading through inferential questions and text mapping.

Don’t forget to revisit these goals throughout the year. Also, post them in a place that students will look at every day (like their work folder or a bulletin board). If your students are tech savvy, you could have them tweet their goals or use some other platform to share the goals and be held accountable.

Take Risks as Readers and Be a Vulnerable Teacher

Draw on your previous struggles. Youshutterstock_117860992 (2) are probably not a struggling reader. But you probably have struggled with learning something new or tackling something difficult. You could try something new, or bring in your graduate school work and explain what is difficult for you–anything to show that improvement takes time, practice, and strategies to succeed.

Give students an initial success. In order for students to take risks in reading, they have to feel comfortable. For this reason, I often started my teaching in AARI with a much lower-level book, so students can experience some initial success in the class and become experts at the texts’ structures.

Try a new book, one you’ve never taught before. (You can always borrow a set of AARI books from the Oakland Schools Library.) If you are new to AARI, don’t be afraid to tell students the areas in which you are struggling. Being vulnerable goes a long way with struggling readers.

All of these areas, when used to help students soften and open up, lead to strong communities. You are setting up your students for success when they have a group they can turn to for support and growth.

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 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 lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

Shared Experiences for Struggling Readers

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

shutterstock_183163214Even if your group of struggling readers is blossoming, it’s important to consider how your community can continue to grow and thrive. That’s especially true for classrooms organized around the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, or AARI, which brings students quickly to grade level.

Several steps can help build a set of shared experiences, which in turn can enhance your classroom’s community:

Promote a book-club atmosphere. First and foremost, remember that by reading a book together, you have shared an experience together. When you question and ultimately critique the author with your students, you are empowering your students within a book-club community.

Use extension activities to excite students. Challenge students to find YouTube videos that relate to your book’s topic, and that you can watch in the last few minutes of class. Nothing builds community like watching documentary science videos of scary eight-legged creatures if you are reading A Look at Spiders. Just remember not to get carried away, and always bring students back to the text.

Take to the open road with a field trip. Field trips can be expensive, and if you have a small group of students, they may not be realistic. But don’t rule them out! Maybe your district has access to a ropes course. You could head off to a local bookstore. Or maybe you could go to the local retirement community or elementary school, in order to read aloud the books you have gone through. Anything that builds bonds and positions students for success can be beneficial.

Institute a game day. Sometimes being silly together is just the experience needed to solidify a community. Here are some of my favorite board games to play with students. And remember to actually play with your students!

shutterstock_184237007Break bread together. One Friday a month, my classes would have what came to be known as “Food Fridays.” It usually started with my bringing in some snacks (think Costco/Sam’s Club granola bars or crackers). Some years, it took on a life of its own. Students would initiate elaborate sign-up sheets, and they would bake brownies and frost cupcakes. Other years, the kids were just happy to have a little something to eat while we worked.

Consider sports. Maybe instead of food, bond over sports. One year, we had a monthly “Fun Friday,” in which I would take students to the auxiliary gym for the last 20 minutes of class, and we would shoot hoops.

Check out some community-building websites. There are a bunch listed on the AARI Moodle. But if you don’t think the activity is fun, don’t do it! Building community is about building authentic relationships with students—so if you aren’t willing to participate, pick something else.

Repeat and revisit fun times together. Try returning to favorite activities or games throughout the year. This maintains your bonds and steps away from the hard academic work you will be accomplishing together.

You, the teacher, are the reason a community is created! Don’t forget this. Know that it takes work to maintain a community. Know that you have to become a part of that community. Some days you might plan to do an activity unrelated to AARI; other days, your community building will be embedded in your questions or text mapping.

Regardless, community building is not something to do only once in the fall, only to check it off a to-do list. It is an ongoing, ever-evolving process that needs adequate attention in your daily lesson planning throughout the year.

 

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 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 lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.

Powerful AARI Communities Start Here

AARI Notes from the Classroom Oakland Writing Project

AARI LogoAlthough it is already October, and classrooms around the county are settling into their practices, teachers are still focusing on how they will foster and fuel their learning communities.

Teachers of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Initiative, an initiative to quickly bring students to grade level in reading skills, need to be especially vigilant in their community building. It’s important to build community to gain credibility as an advocate, to promote buy-in to AARI, and to encourage thoughtful conversations.

Building a community with readers can be challenging – you’ve got so many different reading levels, different student interests, and different backgrounds to meld together.

And building a community with struggling AARI readers can be overwhelming. To do so, you have to convince students that AARI is going to help them become successful readers. You also have to convince them that the books you are using (although they look like “baby” books) are going to be challenging because of the work you will do with them, and that this class is going to help them think in new and life-changing ways.

So how do you create a strong learning community?

Oakland Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2008 was the most powerful learning community I have been a part of. Never have I felt so connected to people I had never known, and in such a short period of time. As I recall our time together and consider what exactly led to our strong community, several key elements surface.

 Successful Learning Communities

At Oakland Writing Project’s 2008 Summer Institute, we:

  • Used routines and protocols to structure our discussions about writing and reading.
  • Had individual and shared goals as a community of writers and teachers.
  • There was a sense of accountability and a helpful attitude of wanting each other to meet our objectives.
  • We were encouraged and challenged to take risks; and our teacher-leaders modeled this by being vulnerable from the get go.
  • We shared experiences and we shared food.
  • We did all of this because of teacher-leaders that purposefully planned for these things to happen.

Building a community of AARI readers isn’t easy. But by looking at learning communities that have been successful, we can refocus our teaching practices, and continue to offer the best support to our students.

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 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 lives in Berkley with her husband and their 2 year old daughter.