Thursday, May 30, 2013

When you give students choice...

As I read through my students' end of the year reading reflections, as I always, I was excited and my heart was full by their responses. It's amazing what growth you find in your students when you give them choice in what they read.

My students and I are celebrating our reading for this year
Yesterday I took pictures of my students holding up a sign with the number of books they completed during the school year.  It was so heartwarming to see their proud smiles, relishing in their accomplishments.

Rather than writing a manifesto on why setting aside time in class to give students choice in what they read is important (which I have done many times before), I thought I'd let you hear directly from my students...

Lauren K:
My reading preferences changed this year because I used to not know what kind of books I liked . Now I know my favorite types of books are historical fiction.

Elizabeth Z:
My reading life poster looking rather worn out
My goals at the beginning of the year were to like reading and achieve more in the year. I now love reading and I achieved more this year than any year ever.

I hated reading. I would never read. Now I love reading. I think it is one of the best things in the world. Also one of the most important. I hated fantasy and I would not go near the Harry Potter series with a ten foot pole. My dad wanted me to read them forever. Then Mrs. Shaum assigned Harry Potter as a lit circle book. Now I love fantasy!

(Side note: in a reading conference with Elizabeth, she told me that she thought her dad had talked to me and that's why she was assigned Harry Potter as a lit circle book. I knew nothing of her dislike for the series other than the fact that most kids I assign this book to are in the same boat I was: wanted NOTHING to do with the series, were coaxed into it, and then ended up loving it.)

Vicky S:
Now instead of reading before bed, I read at the dentist, doctor, in the car, instead of watching TV, in my room when I'm punished (most of the time) AND before bed.

Nicole S:
Mrs. Shaum got me to read (well listen to) The Hunger Games and she got me to really like authors I have never even heard of: John Green, Christopher Healy, Ruta Sepetys, and especially RJ Palacio. She also got me and my mom to have reading competitions.

Mickey K:
My reading habits have not changed very much. I still read often at home. My preference for books changed when Mrs. Shaum came back from NCTE with a bunch of books and did book talks on them. Another time they changed was when our classmates did book talks. 

Grace R:
My reading habits have changed over the year. I am now reading young adult books. Last year I was reading books below my grade level. I'm glad I'm reading more. Young adult books give me ideas for stories too.

Bea B:
When I started I really only liked realistic fiction and mystery. Now I have grown to like fantasy and historical fiction. I also used to only read when I was told to. Now I read whenever I have the chance.

What these students have to say show exactly why lower test scores don't always equate to lack of progress:

Maria H:
My reading rate went down but I can explain. I'm reading a biography that's a very tall book with small text. The other books I read were shorter and even bigger text. I probably would have done better if I read the same book from my last encounter of doing reading rate.

Tommy S:
Throughout the year my reading rate went down. I was reading harder books. I also started to think about the words more so I understand all of the story.

My reading habits have changed because during the summer I used to read every morning. Now I read whenever I can, which is never in the morning. I used to absolutely only read fantasy, but now I also read some realistic fiction and historical fiction. Not to mention mystery and classics.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Outside Voices from the Inside: Katherine Sokolowski

I have known Katherine Sokolowski via Twitter for a few years now but I finally met her in person at NCTE last year in Las Vegas. If I ever have the opportunity to travel around and visit classrooms of my Twitter PLN, Katherine's classroom in Monticello, Illinois would be one of the first I'd visit.

Read Katherine's inspiring blog: Read, Write, Reflect
Follow Katherine on Twitter: @Katsok

What grade(s), subject(s) do you teach?

I teach fifth grade, three classes of reading, one class of writing.

How long have you been teaching? 
This is my fifteenth year teaching.
What initially drew you to a career in education?

My mom taught third grade for years. I would help out in her classroom. Also, my first grade teacher had me read to her classroom. I was hooked.

What motivates you as a teacher?

I want kids to see their potential and work hard to help them realize it.

I also love to teach the kids who can’t sit still, who have had a rough time up to fifth grade. Those kids who don’t like school. Getting them to change that viewpoint and see how successful they can be is very rewarding.

And, of course, I love helping students find a love of reading.

What has been your best classroom memory thus far?

Wow, that’s a hard question. There have been amazing memories every year, every week, every day. I’ll go with a current one so I don’t have to think so hard.

A boy in my class came in this year very angry. He hated school and reading. He did love graphic novels, but didn’t think I would count them as real books. (Of course, I did.)

Last week we added up how much he had read this year. He’s read over 200 books, has grown almost two years in relation to reading. He jumped up six levels in Fountas and Pinnell and increased over one hundred words per minute in regard to reading fluency. When he and I conferenced at the end of the year, he hugged me and said he’d miss my classroom. That was a good day.

What do you want the future of education to look like?

Student centered with student voices being heard.
Choice in regards to reading and writing.
Authentic work being done in the classrooms.
Teachers being viewed as the experts in their classrooms.
Time given for reflection instead of just cramming more on our plate.
Teachers viewed as the experts they are and the profession treated with respect.

What makes you stay in the classroom?

The students. I love interacting with them, seeing them grow, visiting with former students year after year and hearing what they took away from our time together.

 What do the words “use your outside voice” mean to you?

That we need to speak up and tell the world what we know to be true:
 We are the ones inside the four walls of our classrooms. We know what children are capable of at the age we teach. We know what is important that children learn. We should not sit back and let others dictate how and what education looks like. We are the experts, the artists. It is time to take our profession back.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why read alouds are important: from the mouth of middle schoolers

There is the presumption that when kids get older, like upper elementary, middle, and high school, that they don't need to be read to anymore. I was under that presumption for a long time, but then I realized after building a supportive personal learning network on Twitter what opportunities I was missing by not reading aloud to my class. Read alouds build community, they allow students to experience a reading role model, and they give a class an opportunity to just sit back and enjoy a great work of literature.

Often teachers think they don't have time to read aloud to kids when they get older because there's just too much curriculum to cram into a day, week, month, and year (high stakes testing certainly doesn't help with this presumption). 

A few years ago, I decided to make a commitment to setting aside time everyday to read aloud to my sixth graders, and their responses this year to their favorite read aloud only solidified my reasons for sharing this experience with my students, no matter how old they are.

Here's what some of them had to say:

Connor H:
My favorite read aloud was probably When You Reach Me because it didn't leave you bored at any time. Also it was kind of funny when everyone started arguing of what they think's going to happen.

Alice W:
My favorite read aloud this year was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I read it before, but hearing it read aloud is different, better somehow. I noticed details I had sort of mentally overlooked in my excitement to finish the book. I really enjoyed listening to it, as it is one of my favorite books anyway.

Samantha M:
My favorite read aloud this year was When You Reach Me. This was my favorite because there was a lot of suspense and it was very fun to predict what was going to happen. I also really liked Turtle in Paradise because it was easy to follow and in some ways, very relateable.
I hope the new literature/English teacher does read alouds. 

Rosie W:
My favorite read aloud was Wonder and When You Reach Me because I loved reading Wonder by myself and it was even more fun reading it with the class. When You Reach Me had so much anticipation! I loved it!

Andrew F:
My favorite read aloud was by far Wonder by RJ Palacio. It was very descriptive and was really funny in some parts. My favorite part was when Jack was being yelled at, so Justin walked up to the boys that were bullying Jack and showed them his fiddle case. The boys thought there was a gun in the case. They ran away screaming like six-year-old girls.

Tommy S:
My favorite read aloud was awesome. It was Wonder. It really made me think about what Auggie went through. Not to mention that the story was super funny and emotional. You (Mrs. Shaum) even cried! So I loved the book Wonder. It was easily the best.

Bea B:
My favorite read aloud this year was Wonder. I really liked the characters, especially Auggie. This book was very emotional for me and Mrs. Shaum. This book is one of my true favorites and always will be.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Outside Voices from the Inside: Niki Barnes

Niki Barnes is one of the most passionate, enthusiastic educators I have ever met. She was a member of the Nerdy Book Club before there even was a Nerdy Book Club. I had the privilege of visiting her classroom in Dorr, Michigan back in March and it was one of the most memorable days I've ever had as a teacher. Niki's students share her enthusiasm and passion for books and weren't shy at all about sharing that with me. 

Follow Niki on Twitter: @daydreamreader
Read her blog: Daydream Reader

How long have you been teaching?
I have been teaching for eleven years. I’ve taught 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade. I’ve been teaching at my current school for the last 7 years. I love it at Dorr Elementary! Plus, I get to hang out with awesome teachers like TravisJonker!

What initially drew you to a career in education?
Well, I didn’t always want to be a teacher. My dad is a math teacher so I wanted nothing to do with teaching at first. Then I worked at a day care in college and loved it. So I decided teaching was for me after all.

What motivates you as a teacher?
I love when my students get excited about books! My favorite quote this year from one of my second grade students was, “I’m a book worm because I love Lunch Lady books!”

What has been your best classroom memory thus far?
I love our classroom celebrations around books and literacy. My favorite celebration was our Fake Mustache party. We read Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger as a classroom read aloud. Then we had a party where we all wore fake mustaches. It was a blast! I don’t know who had more fun…my students or me.

What do you want the future of education to look like?
I am so hoping the high stakes testing craze is on the way out! Sadly, I think testing companies and politicians are the only people that are for it. I would love to see the pendulum swing towards developmentally appropriate learning, hands-on activities, choice and much more collaboration time for teachers. I think teachers are the professionals and should be making the decisions in terms of curriculum and what works best for their students.

What makes you stay in the classroom?
My students!! I stand by the 22 reasons I am a teacher. The 22 reasons are my 22 second grade students.

 What do the words “use your outside voice” mean to you?
I think it means standing up for your students and your profession. Right now I believe teachers need to stand up against what they know is wrong in terms of high stakes testing and teaching practices that are not developmentally appropriate for their students. I think it is important to spread the word that you are making a difference as a teacher. When it comes right down to it “using your outside voice” means shouting loudly about your passion for your students and their learning! We need the public to know that learning shouldn’t be about students filling in the right bubble. It needs to be about students being fulfilled when it comes to their learning right now.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Beautiful Noise

One of the best parts of my day as a middle school language arts teacher is getting to sit down with my class and reading a book aloud to them. At the moment, we are reading Rebecca Stead's Newbery-winning novel When You Reach Me.

Yesterday we came to the climax of the story where a great deal of the mystery was revealed but there was still enough unresolved where students didn't quite know all the answers. I stopped at the end of this chapter and asked students to create a t-chart in their literature journals of "what I know" and "what I'm still confused about". That writing assignment lasted all of about 30 seconds before students just started shouting across the room at each other, trying to explain what they knew and what they were still confused about. Normally a din in the classroom causes my hackles to be raised and I quickly put a stop to the noise, but in this case, I just sat back and enjoyed the friendly debates. At that moment, there wasn't a single student in the classroom who was talking about anything other than what just happened in the book, what they knew, and what they were inferring. It was a beautiful sight and sound to behold and will probably be one of my all-time favorite classroom memories.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Guest Post: a teacher responds to recent student rant video

Like many teachers, Brian Wyzlic viewed this recent video of a Texas high school student ranting in the classroom with mixed emotions. Below, he shares his commendations, but also his concerns about what it means for a video like this to go viral. After watching this, one thing is definitely clear: we need to be using incidents like these as opportunities for intelligent discussion and debate, not swift, sweeping responses worthy of soundbites for the 11:00 news.  
What are your thoughts after watching?
 Follow Brian Wyzlic on Twitter: @brianwyzlic, or read his blog: Wyz Reads
Many of you have probably seen the video of the student going off on his teacher in history class.

Here's what I like about the video:
  • The student recognizes what doesn't work for him and vocalizes it. 
  • The student believes someone should take action, and he steps up and takes it.
  • If the teacher really does just sit back and hand out worksheets all day, something different probably should be done.

Here's what I don't like about the video (and some of the fallout, including news station interviews): 
  • It glamorizes one voice and acts as if that's the whole story.
  • It is likely to be used by many to state what is wrong with education, even though it's just a 90-second rant.
  • It puts the student above the teacher, and he is being viewed as a hero because of this. There are certainly times this is appropriate (and this may be one of those times), but to act as if that is or should be the norm is dangerous (for the same reason it's dangerous to act as if policy makers know more about effective teaching than those who have actually been educated about teaching and child development/psychology and are working in the classroom).

Monday, May 6, 2013

Outside Voices from the Inside: Gary Anderson

Gary Anderson teaches English at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois. I've "known" Gary via Twitter and Facebook for quite a while now, but it was only in November that we finally met face to face at NCTE in Las Vegas. Gary is an inspiring teacher and an accomplished writer with a kind and giving heart. I have learned so much from him as part of my personal learning network that it seems like I've known him forever. If you are an educator in any sort of capacity, you should get to know him too.

Follow Gary on Twitter: @AndersonGL
And/Or read his thoughtful blog about teaching and writing: What's Not Wrong

How long have you been teaching? 
This is year 33.  I’ve been at the same school for 26 years.

What initially drew you to a career in education? 
I’ve always respected what education can do to improve the lives of individuals and the quality of a society.  All I’ve ever wanted to do is make positive contributions toward those ends.  As a student, I had a few very good teachers. From them, I learned important lessons about how to do this job in ways that makes learning fun, interesting, and relevant.

What motivates you as a teacher? 
Nothing is better than when students take steps forward as writers or readers or thinkers, and they know it and are proud of it.  When I can see that I designed an experience or laid the groundwork for making that happen, I get pretty excited and look for ways to repeat it or build on it. 

At this stage of my career, I’m also motivated by designing programs and systems that help students, teachers, and schools make authentic improvements in their approaches to improving literacy.  I love helping my students, of course, but I also enjoy helping other educators help their students.

What has been your best classroom memory thus far? 
I’ve been privileged to witness some moments when people claim an undiscovered part of their identity or share a life-changing experience.  It’s incredible when someone says or writes, “This is who I am,” or “This happened to me, and I learned how to help other people because of it.”  Because English teachers deal with expression, communication, and artful story-telling, these kinds of situations will come our way if we provide authentic opportunities for students to express themselves.  And, no, those moments were not covered on any test.   

Other fun, memorable experiences have involved directly connecting students with authors.  This has happened countless times through our school’s Writers Week program, but also in more recent years through students’ book blog posts and authors’ comments on them.

What do you want the future of education to look like? 
The future of education needs to be highly individualized.  Future (and current) educators need the ability to help each individual student discover how she or he can go about solving problems, creating new possibilities, and living a satisfying life in an era of rapid change.  Technology will play a big role in that. 

Students need to become responsible digital citizens, and teachers need to take the lead in making it happen.  Students are becoming more restless as they find that school is less relevant than what they are learning online.  I understand that frustration. (I was a bored high school kid too.)  That frustration can serve as the basis for a new era in education if we can transform their restlessness and channel it into curiosity, discovery, and practical or creative applications.

What makes you stay in the classroom? 
I’m the luckiest guy in the world.  I found a school and a community that values education and educators, and allows me to provide an honest living for my family.  Although my on-site colleagues and I face more and more challenges each year, especially in this current educational climate, we do a fine job of preparing students for what comes next. 

In addition, my professional life is immeasurably enhanced by the online colleagues who I learn from and share with each day.  We all need a professional community supporting us and helping us serve our students.  I’m blessed that my professional community includes talented, dedicated people from within my building, across our state, as well as from around the country and the world. 

What do the words “use your outside voice” mean to you? 
Classroom teachers are the lost voice in today’s education debate.  We constantly hear from politicians, policy-makers, bureaucrats, and self-appointed experts.  Classroom teachers are the real experts on what is happening in schools today, and we need to speak up and speak out.  Others are framing and defining the debate, and they’re getting it wrong and spreading misinformation. 

So much positive, important work is going on in classrooms all across America, but the messages in the media about teachers are mostly negative.  I personally know hundreds of teachers, and that image is flat out wrong.  The vast majority of classroom teachers are noble, honest, dedicated, smart, generous professionals. 

The other half of “using your outside voice” is getting the right people to listen.  We need to do a better job of claiming and maintaining the attention of decision-makers and the general public.  We can’t just be preaching to the choir.  We can’t just be trees falling in the forest with no one there to hear the crash.  Although talking to and supporting each other is important, we need to be even more strategic in how we communicate progressive ideas about reform.

Every day we need to show our support for one another.  Every day we need to counter misinformation with truthful evidence.   Every day we need to do something positive for our profession.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

That was cool Robert Frost

To culminate the end of poetry month, my students performed a poem of their choice from memory on Tuesday and Wednesday. On the first day of performances a student froze, couldn't remember his poem and, on the verge of tears, asked if he could do it again the next day. Yesterday, he got up to perform his poem again and nailed it. He was confident, his head was high, and he didn't let the previous day's failure defeat him. 

The poem this student performed was one by Robert Frost and upon finishing his performance, another student declared amongst the uproarious applause, "That was cool Robert Frost!" 

If you've seen Kid President's Pep Talk, then you know why this was such a significant gesture. Both the student's performance and the class's reaction brought tears to my eyes. 

If anyone ever doubts why I require my students to perform a poem from memory in front of the entire class, it's moments like these that help argue my case. Every year I always have these kinds of moments that stop me in my tracks and make me see certain students in a new light. April is by far my favorite month to be an English teacher.