Tuesday, February 14, 2017

loving warm fuzzies... as usual

Today a student said to me, "Thanks for making me like reading again."


As much as I would like to report that they came up to me and said this out of the blue, that wasn't the case. But, the activity I did with them today always draws compliments like this.

Behold, the Warm Fuzzy:

These little yarn necklaces entered my life when I was and 8th grader, when a bunch of high school kids from a group called Snowball put on a day-long activity to teach us about positive self-esteem, staying away from drugs and alcohol, and being kind. Warm Fuzzy necklaces were handed out to each student and we were instructed to compliment one another and with each compliment, give a little string from yarn ball.

Fast forward to teaching, and every Valentine's Day I do this activity. I *always look forward to it. This year, I had my middle school kids do some Quick Writing afterwards to collect their thoughts. Three minutes of writing on their behalf yielded (yielded?) these ideas...

"I enjoyed it. It shows how many people appreciate me and how I make them laugh, how I've been a true friend, and how nice I am to everyone."

"It's awesome because you tell people nice things about them and they feel happy and feel like people care about them and that we're all like a whole family."

"I loved the fuzzy activity because we could remember who made us laugh and thank you for doing the fuzzy balls for us, Ms. Brezek."

"I noticed when everyone would say something to someone, the person would smile. It's good to see others smile."

"The Warm Fuzzy activity is fun and I think it helps you to talk about your feelings to others."

"My friends mean so much to me and I couldn't get them all candy, but the strings showed even more meaning to it."

"I enjoyed the activity, it gave us a moment to realize the positive things we see in each other."

"The warm fuzzy activity made me feel good. I walked into class not feeling so well, but as usual ELA made my day."

After class, one of my students wrote a blog post about our activity, too. Check that out, here.

I seriously love kids and love teaching, especially on days like today. You should totally use the Warm Fuzzies for community building, on Valentine's Day or on any day. Check out this post that explains how to make them.

So, ELA...what am I loving? You guys, definitely. Thanks for sharing the love today!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

a day in my ela (class)

I teach an 88 minute ELA block each day. Eighty-eight minutes is a lot of time, but we have so much to do. Here's how I spend my time most days.

10 minutes: Do Now
Students start the day by working on a Vocabulary as a Do Now. Our building has created school-wide vocabulary lists, so as as they study words for the week, I take attendance and status of the class, pass back work, and answer any burning questions they might have.

2-3 minutes: Book talk
First quarter, I gave a book talk each day. Now that students are used to it, each day, one of them delivers the book talk. My students keep a "books I want to read" list in the front of their notebooks, so the goal here (as advised by Penny Kittle) is for kids to have books on deck, so when they finish a book, they know what is coming next.

10-15 minutes: Silent Reading
If you want students to read at home (I do, their homework is 20 pages a night) then you have to dedicate time in your class (preferably every day) so that they can read. These minutes are not free time for me. Now that kids are in a habit, I can confer with students about their books, but this time is also used for anecdotal observations. When kids are reading at home, they can easily get into their books for 10-15 minutes at a time in class, and quickly. Since I take status of the class, I know who is beginning a book, in the middle of a book, has finished a book and is writing a book blog, or who is spending time selecting books. There are no longer days when kids are wandering, swapping books every day, or forgetting books at home or in their lockers. These 10 or 15 minutes along with status of the class and conferring sends a message: In this class we read and finish books.

5-10 minutes: Poetry
Tiny packages full of big ideas. With poetry, kids are forced to peel back layers of meaning and determine what the poet is *really about. Additionally, it's time for me to read aloud to them on a daily basis, time for them to practice oral reading with a peer (after I read the poem to them, they read it with the person sitting next to them), time to determine meaning of unknown words, and time to be blown away by what poetry can do. Yesterday I showed them my favorite spoke word poem, Poet, Breath Now. I get chills every time I hear this poem. They listened, then they were give a copy of the text. Because they are used to reading poems with a peer or choral reading as a class, many of them were reading the poem aloud with the author the second time. After the reading and uncovering meaning, we then "say something" about the poem, what it might actually be about, what we're confused about, if we like or dislike it. This discussion part is still a work in progress, but with consistency, I'm hoping it continues to improve.

I usually share two poems each week, but in the case of Poet Breath Now, we'll probably spend a whole week uncovering meaning.

10-15 minutes: Mini-Lesson
Next we move into workshop. Mini-lessons are just brief teacher demonstration and direct teaching about a topic we are currently working on. This past week, we were reading argument articles and my mini-lessons included:

  • Vocabulary instruction on argument terms (claim, evidence, statistics, testimony, anecdotes, elaboration, counterargument)
  • How to do note-taking with argument articles (list claim, evidence, counterargument, and then tell if you think the argument is weak or strong)
  • How to locate evidence (look for key words: researchers, studies, universities, journals, scientists, etc)
  • Revision on argument note-taking: Instead of writing the claim first (How can you even do that if you haven't read the text?) list all the evidence first, then think about the claim and counter argument at the end.
  • How to make evidence mirror the claim - I had noticed some kids were listing evidence that was irrelevant to the claim they were hoping to cite, so we practiced sorting some evidence and deciding that if it doesn't necessarily fit with the claim you're thinking, you should throw it out
  • Remembering that not all of an argument article is just evidence, some of it is elaboration, too!
I am currently not working with a Calkins unit - middle school only has the writing units so far (they are writing the reading units, now, fingers crossed!) So, you might be wondering where I come up with the ideas for mini-lesson. It's all in the workshop and conferring!

20-35 minutes: Workshop
During workshop, kids do the work of the day...remember, whoever is doing the work is doing the learning! Each day last week during workshop, a group of students meet with me and another group meet with my co-teacher. Students who are left work independently, but because of my low numbers and two teachers, kids are lucky to see an adult every other day:

Conferring schedule - I have four different ones that alternate every day.
 So kids come to confer with me. Sometimes I confer one at a time with the four or five kiddos seated with me and sometimes we work as a group. But through these conferences or group work, misconceptions about what we're doing really stand out, and I'm able to do some note-taking of my own, which informs my instruction. And even better than finding misconceptions, is when kids share ideas about their thinking that are even better than my own thinking. This week, as we were talking about evidence from an article, one kiddo said, "Well this sounds like it's going to be evidence to support the counterclaim, so should we write it at the end of our notes?" Such brilliant thinking!

I think many times, us adults are limited in our thinking, we're not as free and creative as kids are because we've been around longer. I would have never been able to draft the set of mini-lessons I delivered without the kids working at my side.

I'm lucky also to have some alternative seating, so the independent kids are free to move around and work together, after all, there's really 20 teachers in the classroom, not just the two adults.

3-5 minutes (or 1 minute if I'm being honest): Share Time, exit slip, homework
I need to be better at share time. It's so important for kids to share the work they did, but many days the time slips by and we, in a hurry, just get the homework out. (Homework is always the same - read 20 pages and write two blog posts a week.) 

Some caveats
  • On Mondays, my schedule is different. On Mondays, they have more time to read independently, like 20 or 25, and my mini-lesson is always focused on blogging. Again, I can't expect kids to write two blogs a week if I don't give them any time in class to accomplish this work.
  • In order to accomplish Reading & Writing Workshop, I teach them by weeks. We just spent a week in Reading Workshop reading argument articles. Next week, we will switch to Writing Workshop and write argument papers. To me, this makes the most sense and flows best.
  • Sometimes poetry time get absorbed into other things we have going on, but I try my best to share at least one poem a week.
  • Sometimes I get stuck in a rut and don't even realize it until I visit classrooms of my colleagues, like my Vocabulary Do Nows - I've had them doing this work in their notebooks, but then I was just in a room and they have them on google slides. Making that change on Monday, don't know why I was missing that. This is one of many reasons it's so important to visit classrooms of your colleagues! (Check out the Pineapple Chart on this post if you're unfamiliar.)
  • Sometimes kids don't want to come work with me in our group during workshop. In this instance I pick my battles - if they conferred with me recently and are doing well, I'll let them work independently.
  • On the other hand, sometimes kids are not on my conferring list and *ask to come join our group. This is awesome when it happens, but I also want to build their sense of independence, too.
  • Sometimes it's an off day - either I'm off with some anxieties unrelated to ELA or the kids are off for a multitude of reasons. Once in awhile you could stop by my room and I'm not conferring and kids are not working together. We're human and this happens at times, I'm not going to sweat it though. I teach in real life ELA, not a perfected version of reading and writing.
So that's my day! It's taken me about 5 months to get the routine going, but I think it's effective for the kiddos and me! What about you? Are you block scheduled? How is your pacing similar to or different from mine?

Happy Weekend!

Monday, January 23, 2017

favorite quotes

This week, students in my ELA classes will be writing about their favorite quotes. Here are a few of mine.

Maya Angelou spoke these wise words. I think they are so true. Personally, I can remember back to middle school, and I have no idea what we were learning, but I just remember that I had this awesome homeroom teacher named Mrs. Poe. I knew she really cared about me.

Another teacher I can remember that fits this quote is Ms. Thompson. She was my senior government teacher. I have no idea what we learned about in government that year, but I do remember that she was interested in my life and made an effort to talk to me and joke with me. She is still one of my very favorite teachers.

Moving on, here's a second quote I really like, that has came to my attention within the last six months.

I like this one because what it's telling us is that we need to do things we are scared of. We have the ability to make any dream we have come true, but that doesn't happen by just doing what we've always done. We have to "jump out of our nests" to try new things, and who knows where that will take us!

What are your favorite quotes?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

devos funnies...but first a call to action

By now I'm sure you've all seen the hearing with the Senate and Betsy DeVos. What a train wreck! In case you haven't called any of the senators, you should definitely do that. Here are a few numbers to make it easy:

Senator Burr. NC (202) 224-3154
Senator Lisa Murkowski (202) 224-6665
Senator Lamar Alexander (202) 224-4944
Senator Enzi (202) 224-3424
Senator Isakson (202) 224-3463

Or, if you prefer to leave a signature online, you could go here to do that.

Please don't just stand by - sign a petition, write a letter, call a Senator!

So much for draining the swamp, right? Now that Trump is in office, Truth Trump comes out. There's no draining the swamp at all. Bunch of millionaires and billionaires in his cabinet, Betsy DeVos is a perfect example: over the course of years past, her family has donated upwards of $200 million to the Republican party.

I always thought that people in government were there because they wanted to make our country serving others. I thought they were people who worked in the best interest of everyone, like, they thought not only of the insanely rich, but also of the many who live in a state of poverty. And the middle class. And also, I thought they would be highly qualified to do their jobs.

But it seems that some believe we should privatize public education, because it's "failing." (Perhaps they've found that if you privatize and let charters operate with less oversight, there's extra money there, and maybe some left over for the people running the biz.) But, newsflash! If you fully funded public education, the very thing that makes our country amazing and beautiful and special, and you leveled the playing field in the poor neighborhoods, we'd have progress.

So while we might not have a Secretary of Education who has one iota of knowledge related to the job she is more than likely going to take on, at least we can have a laugh.

So start here with Trevor Noah's complete clip on Betsy. It's awesome.

And then you'll get these funny memes that came out...

Friends, let's not let tomorrow be the day we give up. Get out into your communities. Volunteer! Walk in a march! Send some donations to the organizations that will need in most in the coming years. Make your voice heard! It's not the time to sit back and be quiet, it's the time to act. And let it start with laughter.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

(re) designing argumentation writing units for grades 5-12

Last week Ashli from Solution Tree emailed asking if I'd like a copy of a new book that was just released: (re)Designing Argumentation Writing Units for Grades 5-12. Now, there are many things I do well and know about writing and teaching writing, but argument is not one of them, so for my own selfish reasons, I replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!" right away!

Yesterday I took at look at the first two chapters and I love it so far. It's already been super helpful in building my understanding of argument writing - both writing it and teaching kids how to write it.

The first chapter begins by just explaining all the key ideas a teacher would need to know about argument. First, there's discussion about how argument is a subset of persuasion, and explains what makes it persuasive writing and also what is different about argument. Then it launches into the characteristics of argument, explaining each in detail: claims, audience, style, reasons, evidence, elaboration, counterarguments, and citations. It ends with structuring an argument paper, and I found something I was especially thankful for in this part.

Many times, writing teachers give students, for lack of a better word, formula, for writing. Like it has to be five paragraphs or it has to have so many words. While this can be helpful for less experienced writers, it can be problematic for advanced writers who have been a part of a Writing Workshop for a few years. For my first 10 years as a teacher, I didn't write. Once I started blogging, it opened up so much more insight for me as a writing teacher, and I'm glad to see that reflected in the content of this book. I wanted to share a quote I found particularly insightful:
"The simplistic structure is comfortable and well intentioned, given the demands to help ensure students perform well on standardized tests. However, subjecting advanced writers to a lockstep structure whereby they are mandated to use a formulaic approach may do them a disservice in which they focus too much on form rather than content. An overly restrictive structure that largely relies on prescriptive phrases and paragraphs can make all papers appear too similar and discourage any student from deviating from the set frame.This mandate can limit their creativity and sophistication as writers, squashing a potential gem of a piece."
Personally speaking, prior to blogging, I did this exact thing as a writing teacher - I dictated which paragraphs included which kinds of information, rather than giving students some freedom. The five paragraph essay is a perfect example - I taught students how to write them but it was so structured the kids never had any chance for creative freedom at all. Then just a few years ago, after I had been blogging awhile, I heard someone say, "Parts, not paragraphs," meaning that students should have an introduction, three parts (and each part may have had one or more paragraphs), and then a conclusion. This kind of knowledge about writing is so important for teachers - writing is a space to create, and when we limit our kids' work to a super-specific set of parameters, they aren't fun to read, they do seem formulaic, and they probably aren't fun for the kids to write, either. We need to find ways to give students some freedom so they can engage their creativity, but at the same time, have students understand the parts of an argument paper, and make sure to include each of those.

Chapter one of this book was fantastic, and in chapter 2, the author launches into how to plan a unit with a Backwards Design framework. She shows an example of how to break standards down by what students should Know, Understand, and be able to Do (KUDs). There's a detailed example of standards breakdown for an 8th grade argument paper that really illuminates how to think through the standards; after all, the more clarity you have about the standards, the more clarity you'll have when delivering instruction to students.

I'm only two chapters in but highly recommend this book. With all the knowledge Kathy Tuchman Glass has about the genre of Argumentation, it's a great tool to have at your side when it comes time to teach your argument unit.

What other fabulous argument resources do you all keep in your back pocket? Leave a comment below and let's keep the conversation going!

Happy Sunday!

Friday, January 13, 2017

library organization

Over the years, I've had many different ideas for organizing my classroom library. For the better part of my first 5 years, I didn't really pay any attention to it, an so similarly, neither did the students. Then, in grad school I got that the library is the heartbeat of your classroom, and that the more effort and energy you put into it, the more the students would use it. The library really is a great reflection of a teacher's beliefs about student-selected independent reading!

In the past, I had lots of baskets of books, by genre, by author, by topic, and so on. The baskets were numbered so it made reorganizing it easy for students to help with. Here's a pic from my library back in 2009, not exactly up close, but you get the idea:

Since coming back to the middle school, I have been able to rethink the library again. I decided I didn't want to use the numbering system because I wanted kids to be thinking about genres more. So, I got some color coding labels and here is what I came up with:

Pink labels represent fiction.
Green labels represent nonfiction.
Yellow labels represent poetry.

Then, within each color, I also label a more specific genre:

Fantasy, with an F on the pink label --

Realistic Fiction, with an RF on the pink label --

Informational Nonfiction, with an I on the green label --
I also have biography, which is not pictured here.

Poetry, just a P for poetry on the yellow label --

And this year, one of my new additions in fiction, Young Adult, with a YA on the pink label --

I started to get some of my old books out of the basement (they were stored at home while I was at the elementary school) and I'm finding that I still might need some baskets. I have a bunch of the Percy Jackson books, Harry Potter, and Cirque du Freak that should probably stay together, but I'm glad I've got this color coding and genre listed on the spine of the books.

I'm just reminded that it takes time for students to get into the books. I was so excited to have all these new YA books for kids, but then no one was reading them. Beautiful, brand new books, mostly hardcover! Some of my seventh and eighth graders are still going back to the Wimpy Kid and Big Nate books, which are fine, but with the elementary perspective I now have, I know that kiddos in third and fourth grade read those, and so what I want for my kids is to be reading books that are more age appropriate.

So, we will continue with our book talks, and I will keep pushing kids to try new books. It's one thing to hear a book talk from your teacher. It's another when a friend recommends a book.

How is your library looking this year? Any new insights into organizational tips? I'd love to hear about them in the comments!

Happy Friday!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

to the coaches at my side

I haven't written much about coaching since I began this blog. I think the knowledge you get comes over time and comes with experience. I'm about halfway through my fourth year with the title of Literacy Coach and finally feel I have some perspective and ideas about this work to share with my PLN.

This year, I went back to the middle school and in addition to coaching, I'm also teaching an ELA class each day and a Challenge Based Learning class every other day. I have one block every day for coaching, and opposite of the the Challenge Based Learning class, I have another.

In our district, there are 8 literacy coaches, so you can see what a wonderful opportunity we all have for working together. We take turns meeting at different buildings, and then when we get together, we visit classrooms, do a little bit of professional development (lately it has been with a Webinar with the EdCollab, thanks for sharing that, Leah!), and then we talk about and maybe make suggest ideas about literacy related items around the district. For the first part of the year, I wasn't going to the coaching meetings and I was blaming it on not wanting to leave the two classes I was teaching. Then, in December, I decided I *had to get there, and I'm so glad I did, because a big lesson came from this.

Although it is my fourth year as a coach, I'm on year one of coaching at the middle school - it's their first year to have a part-time Literacy Coach on staff. For the better part of this year, I have been so anxious, thinking about the things that I'm not doing, or not doing well enough. And, I've been carrying all of that around by myself, because I wasn't making it a point to get to the coaches meetings.

Then in December, I got it. I have to see the other coaches in my district on a consistent basis. Even though my schedule is slightly different from the other coaches (since they are mostly at elementary schools) it is so helpful to meet with the people who do the same work as I do.

For the first four months of the school year this year, by not going to these meetings, I was basically on a little island by myself, feeling the stress this position creates and holding it all by myself. To which I finally found a key: you have to see your people on a regular basis.

Every time I see them, I am reminded that we share similar struggles, we are always there to support one another, and that yes, I can keep on. I don't know what I would do without this network of colleagues who I now call friends. So to the coaches at my side - the ones in my district I am lucky to see on a regular basis and others who I know via Twitter and this blog, thank you for sharing with me - ideas about coaching, ideas about teaching and learning, and even just an ear to listen. I am so thankful for you.

Which got me to thinking. I know there are really small districts out there where maybe there is only one coach. That could be a real challenge, not having a support system. Which is why I think twitter and our PLNs are so important. We have to connect with others who do similar work, for so many reasons, but in my opinion, mostly importantly to stay connected with peace of mind so we can be our best for the students we may be teaching every day and also for the colleagues we collaborate with in our buildings.

Coaches out there - what has your experience been? Any similar feelings on this topic? Please leave a comment to share, but also so that we can get connected!

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