Saturday, April 25, 2015

Celebrating new friends and new books

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Today I am celebrating the kindness and enthusiasm of my new friend Victor whom I met at ALA Midwinter in Chicago back in February. The first booth I stopped at the in exhibit hall was Simon & Schuster and Victor was the first publisher rep I talked to. He was so enthusiastic about the S&S YA books that I couldn't wait to come back and share them with my students. We got to talking and Victor asked where I was from. When I told him I lived near Ann Arbor, he then said, "I live in Ann Arbor!" I was definitely not expecting to hear him say that since I assumed if you worked for one of the big publishers you had to live in New York.

Once I realized that I had an enthusiastic booktalker right in my own backyard, I asked if he'd be willing to come to my classroom and talk to my students about publishing and share some of his favorite upcoming books from Simon & Schuster. He graciously agreed and visited my classroom on Friday.

I'm always grateful to others who are willing to share their love of writing and reading with my students because I'm sure they get tired of listening to me yammer on all the time. I can't tell you how delighted I am to see so many kids who haven't wanted to read all year suddenly fighting over books So thank you Victor for helping to bring some excitement and variety to our day!
Class visit

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Celebrating a Beautiful Mess

When I first started teaching nine years ago, I had much different beliefs about classroom management than I do now. Before I was all about structure and routine. Make sure those kids know who's boss. I'm your teacher, not your friend.

I was someone to fear and revere.

As I've grown as a teacher, however, and thanks to the guidance of my friend Katherine Sokolowski, I've come to realize that it's the relationships we build with students that matter more than structure. Does structure help? For sure. I am not anti-structure or anti-routine. But in the beginning I was letting my vision of the structured, disciplined teacher cloud my ability to see that before you can teach content, you have to reach students' hearts and minds.

When I started at my new school this year, I decided that I didn't want to be that scary teacher that kids feared anymore. Do I want them to respect me? You betcha. But I realized that they don't have to fear you to respect you. I found a different way to earn their respect that doesn't involve an inauthentic classroom management "system." I call my system Practicing What I Preach. Being a model of the writers and readers I want them to be. Jumping in the pool and swimming right along side them rather than barking orders from my chaise lounge as Penny Kittle would say. As an English teacher, I let my students see a window into my life by sharing my writing and reading with them. And as a result, they have come to respect that we are on this journey together.

Is my classroom loud? Yep. Is it messy? Absolutely. Do students turn in work late more than I care to admit? For sure. But to me that's what REAL learning looks like. And over the years I've come to realize that there is a difference between real learning and compliance.

Sit down.
Be quiet.
Do your work.

That's fostering compliance, not learning.

So today I am celebrating the beautiful mess that is my classroom. I am celebrating my students for all their joyous imperfections. And I am celebrating the need to let the control freak in me remember these things because, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: there are many more days than I care to admit when the Compliance Fairy rears her ugly head. She shrieks a lot and feigns tearing her hair out. But I'm trying my best to keep her at bay in the name of real learning. 

Celebrate This Week was established by Ruth Ayres

Friday, April 17, 2015

Always seeking ways to spread Book Love

Last night I attended an event at my town's public library. It was a reception to introduce the community to the book givers for the Canton Book Project, which is the Canton Public Library's version of the now dissolved World Book Night. I was excited to be one of the people selected as a book giver for a program that seeks to reach out to residents who might not have been infected with reading bug yet. For me, I wanted to find a book that would appeal to middle school students who have yet to discover a love of reading -- or maybe they used to love reading but don't anymore. As a middle school English teacher, I see so often what school does to kills students’ love of reading. In our quest to "cover" all the material in our planned curriculum, we have left our students' love of reading and love of learning in our wake. So I have made it my mission to try to bring that love of reading back into my students’ lives.  

The book I chose to give out as a book giver in the Canton Book Project was  The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

The Crossover is one of those few books that has universal appeal. The gateway is basketball but at its heart it's a story about family and growing up. You don't have to love basketball to love The Crossover. Kids love it. Adults love it. It appeals to lovers of language with its bouncing, rhythmical verse. It appeals to reluctant readers with its minimal text on each page and accessible use of poetic language. And yes, it appeals to sports lovers too. 

Canton Book Project
With the book givers and also, I'm a READ poster!
I have made it my mission as a middle school teacher to show students who think reading isn't for them, that it is for everyone. And so while I am grateful to be giving out copies of a book I think many kids will love, I'm also cautious. As universal as I think this book is, as a teacher, I also need to respect that there is no one book that appeals to all people. I want this book to be a conversation starter rather than shutting it down before the discussion even begins. I don’t want this to be yet another way for adults to force their “because it’s good for you, that’s why” agenda on kids' reading lives.  

So if you're a teacher and you care about your students' reading lives, I encourage you to discover what they like to read and talk with them about it rather than just force feeding them books that YOU like. If they don't know what they like, keep encouraging and nudging. Lots of reading lives are built on a teacher saying, "I read this book and I thought of you..." 

Also if you're a teacher and you want to build a classroom library but don't have the means, I encourage you to apply for a grant from the Book Love Foundation, which gives out ten classroom libraries per year. Applications are due May 1st. Even if you're not a teacher and you're reading this as a concerned  parent, feel free to share the Book Love Foundation website with your child's teacher or even make a donation to the foundation. Spreading Book Love takes a village.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Teaching: Never a Dull Moment

Actual thing that happened in my last hour class today: One of my 8th graders, whom I adore but he cannot sit still or be quiet for any extended period of time, noticed that I had The Crossover by Kwame Alexander sitting on my desk. He took it off my desk without asking, which normally I light into students for taking stuff off my desk, but I forgave it because clearly something about the book called out to him. He looked through it for a few minutes and then said, "This is a good book. I'm going to go flop around on the floor like a fish now." And then proceeded to plop down on the floor and well, flopped around like a fish.

I suppose I should have been mad about it, or tried to stop him, but he wasn't doing it to try to draw attention to himself (he moved over to an area of the room where others weren't around); I could see that this was clearly a self-regulating move on his part. So I just laughed and moved on to helping the next student. These are the kinds of moments that remind me why I teach. Because every day is always different and comes with new, interesting, and hilarious challenges. No matter how much politicians and the news media try to relegate my job to a set of data points, you will never get me to see my kids as numbers. All of them have hearts and souls and their own unique challenges. I hope one day we all come to understand that.

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