Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I heart teaching writing.

One of the best times of my school year (when I had my own class) was the beginning of the school year when I got to do tons of community building, while at the same time, writing memoirs with my students in Writing Workshop.

I love teaching writing. Think about real do you think they do it? Real writers sit down and write in notebooks or on Microsoft Word or their blogs. They go about their daily life with a writer's eye, making notes in their iPhone and snapping pictures of things that inspire their work as they go about their daily business. They read - read lots - and become inspired by great writers. Then they sit down and write. While my students didn't express all of these ideas when I asked, "What do real writers do?" they did have lots of great ideas:

Two of my favorite ways to get kids to write like this:

is to use literature and list making.

I almost always start off writing workshop in the very beginning of the school year with Fireflies (Brinckloe). Fireflies is a story about a boy who goes out in the summer to catch fireflies with the neighborhood kids. Like all kids who have had this experience, the boy puts the fireflies in a mason jar to save them, but as they fall to the bottom of the jar as the night wears (wares?) on, he realizes that it might be a better idea to let them go.

So, I read this book to the kids, and then ask them if any of them have ever caught fireflies. Everyone raises their hands. I then ask what other kinds of things they do in the summer. We compose a list of all these ideas (you can see ours on the anchor chart at the top of this page): getting ice cream, going to Six Flags, taking a boat ride at the lake, going to Millennium Park and playing in the fountains, festivals, carnivals, sleepovers with cousins, swimming in the pool, playing in the park....the list goes on and on.

We then move into the "Rehearsal" phase of writing, where kids get to choose any idea from the list and tell a partner sitting by them all about what happened. 

Rehearsal is so important. Many kids are not a fan of writing because they think if it isn't perfectly punctuated and spelled then they are not not doing a good job, and so they may as well not do it at all. Rehearsal lets students tell stories to friends, and then the transition to writing the stories isn't so scary. Plus, you let them know that their Writer's Notebook is their "safe place" to make mistakes and just let all their ideas pour out of their minds onto the paper. No judgement, no red pens....just ideas.

At the end of the writing session, there has to be a share time. It's so important that they get to read their stories to a peer, their teacher, or the class. Without a share time, their writing isn't for anyone, just locked in a notebook without an audience. Share time is also important because it normalizes insecurities about writing for them - they think, "Oh, if Meghan wrote a story about roller skating in her basement, I can write a story about that too!" 

It takes about three weeks worth of sessions like this, and lots of great books and many different lists, but then this funny thing happens. The kids begin to love to write. You have to dedicate your time and energy, and it's best to write along with the kids and share your writing too....but it's so amazing when the kids start writing in their free time, just because they have so many stories to tell.

In my next blog, I will share my most favorite beginning-of-the-year stories that I read with my students. They mimic their daily lives - fights with brothers and sisters, friendship and bullies, stories of pets, struggling in school....the list goes on and on. Follow my blog to stay updated with great ideas for your Reading and Writing Workshops!

Have a blast as you celebrate 2014! I'm so ready for it to begin!

Monday, December 30, 2013

BigTime Literacy Book Club

I can't believe BigTime Literacy is six months old already, and I'm so impressed with how far it's come! I would have never thought that I'd have followers - me? I'm just a Literacy Coach in Chicago....but I do! I thought it would be cool to start a monthly book club where other bloggers could link up and share great reads with all the readers here at BigTime Literacy. So I introduce:

For the first few months, please share any book you've been reading - a picture book you read with your kiddos over the holiday, a young adult novel, a book on professional development...anything that you've been reading. Perhaps in the future we'll figure out a title we can all read, but for the first few months, let's just share whatever we've been reading.

I just finished Divergent (Veronica Roth) on the plane home from Florida last night:

I had a few friends who read this, and said they liked it even more than Hunger Games. When I went to see Catching Fire, I saw a preview for the movie which is due out in March. You'll see the preview below!

I love this book for tons of reasons:

  • First, it's the first book I couldn't put down in ages. You know, the ones where each chapter leaves you hanging, so you can't stop reading?
  • It's set in a future Chicago. References to Navy Pier, Millennium Park, the Hancock Building, the Willis Tower and the El populate the entire story, that is set all over the city. Unfortunately, Lake Michigan is mostly dried up and just a marsh, but it's awesome that it takes place right here!
  • There is a little big of a love story within the pages, so that will keep your girls interested!
  • There's tons of action as well, so boys will be engaged with this text. There's a suicide, a few murders, and chases with guns and knives. (Wow, this sounds violent...but whatever. Look at Hunger Games!) Definitely engaging for middle school boys!
  • One of the author's favorite books, as I had guessed based on this Utopian Society she's created, is The Giver. The Giver is my All. Time. Favorite. Read. I've read it with dozens of classes of kids and also on my own - so as I read Divergent and it's futuristic society that tries to solve all of the world's problems as it creates it "factions," it made me remember all the great experiences I had with all my former students reading The Giver.
  • This society forms themselves into "factions" which are the five groups within the society. The names of the factions are awesome - the way Roth uses unfamiliar words to force the reader to observe what happens within each faction to figure them The factions are:

What qualities do you think the people of each faction possess based on these characteristics? Teaching wise, I could totally see a small group of kids reading this - and using Close Reading strategies around the names of the factions. They could record all kinds of notes about each of the factions to draw conclusions about each of them. Not only that, but they would get to read a really great book.

I got a gift card to Barnes and Noble from my bff's parents (thanks, Gary and Janie!) but I'm totally going to get the next two on my iPad as soon as I finish this blog.

Let me just end by showing you the preview to the movie. Once you see it, I'm sure you're going to want to run out and grab the book to read it before March!

If you've read the book, let me know your thoughts! Better than Hunger Games? Did you read The Giver, too? Are you reading the whole series?

Now it's your turn! Please share a book you've read with us! (The link-up is at the bottom of this page.) Also, mark your calendars for January 30th - I'll be posting the next book club on that date - share any book you'd like!

I'm of to download the rest of the series!

Enjoy your New Year!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Christmas Questionnaire's Christmas break. Ahhhh...exhale :-) Time to relax and spend time with family. I'm in Florida with my mom and stepdad - we already spent a day on the beach and I've got some color! I feel like I look so much better with a little tan.

But I digress.

On with the Christmas Questionnaire, brought to you by Fabulous in First.

Hot Chocolate or Eggnog? 
Definitely Hot Chocolate. I mean, maybe I'd like Eggnog, but I never really tried it, probably because of the egg part of the eggnog name of it. Sounds strange. If it's cinnamon-y, that reminds me of Horchata. Does it taste like that? (Don't like Horchata.) I'll pass...bring on the Hot Chocolate, and garnish it with a candy cane, please.

Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them underneath the tree? 
I don't have my own kiddos yet, but when we were little, Santa wrapped our presents and put them under the tree. But he always had his own special paper that was different than my family's paper. So it seemed legit.

Colored lights or white? 
I think we've always had white lights. And now, my own tree, I also have white lights. Here's my tree:

So I used to have a themed tree - with all these pink decorations. But, ever since I moved to Chicago, I've been going to the Christkindlmarket and getting ornaments every year. Well then this year, my best friend sent me this:

We're going to Europe next summer, so I loved this ornament. So now I think I'm going to forego the themed tree and just collect lots of cute ornaments inspired by memories every year. One of my other best friends got me a really cute Chicago one, too. (Since I'm in Florida, I don't have a pic, but trust me....totes adorbs!) Oh - and the one I picked for myself: Sushi. I started liking it this year, so it was perfect (and glittery!)

So to answer the question: White lights :-)

When do you decorate? 
The weekend after Thanksgiving is my favorite time to do so. That's the usual, but this year, I spent Thanksgiving in Phoenix, so I waited another whole week. I don't have lots of decorations - just the tree and well, really that's all. 

Real or Fake Tree? 
I don't think we've ever had a real tree. I have a fake one now, but this season I was thinking it would be cool to go out to the country, pick one that was growing on a tree farm, and cut it down. I don't think I'd ever buy a tree from some little sales guy in the my fake tree is good until I can make it out to the country.

What Tops Your Tree?
A bow. But, I just read this book:

Have you read it? It's a great story! Anyways, in their story, one family in this little Appalachian town has to donate a Christmas tree to the town church every year. The child from the family who donates the tree gets to be the Angel in the church's play that year. The little girl is so cute and she's the angel, and a matching angel is put atop the tree. Anyways, just in initial thoughts right now, but I think I'm going to be on the lookout for an angel for the top of the tree.

Favorite Christmas Memories or Traditions?
I love making Christmas cards and sending them out. I started doing this the year I moved to Chicago - in 2009. Here is my first card from 2009 and this year's card:


and this year's card :-)

Last year I started writing notes on the back of them too, just to fill family and friends in on what's been going on the last year. I guess most people can follow me via facebook, but it's still a good tradition either way!

Do you remember your favorite gift as a child? 
Not really, but I do remember this picture I had of all my gifts one year - I was probably like 6 or something - but I had set all my gifts upright on the couch and taken a picture. There was a Popple in there (remember those?) and a little purse with some kind of cartoon character on it? I think I also got a glo-worm one year that I loved.

Do prefer giving or receiving? 
I really love to find the best gifts for people and then watch their reactions as they open them. Now that I'm an adult though, most of my favorite family and friends live far away, but it's still cool to get them gifts and then get a text saying that a box just arrived and is under their tree.

What is your favorite Christmas song? 
Okay don't judge me, but I love all the poppy Christmas songs - like Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays by N*Sync and All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey. I also love any of the songs associated with Home Alone. Love that movie!

Gotta love a young JT!

Candy Canes. Yuck or Yum? 
They're pretty good. Chocolate and peppermint candy is some of my favorite, so if you can find a way to mix it, that would be awesome.

Favorite Christmas Movie? 
In addition to Home Alone, love Elf. Still trying to talk someone into watching it with me!

Do you shop online or at stores?
Well, I love to go to stores to shop, but I was so busy this year with finishing up a semester of grad school and work and friends visiting. Plus, the traffic in Chicago is a nightmare, so I shopped lots online this year. I like both...especially when there's time to get out to the stores.

Photo Cards, Letter or Store Bought Card? 
Photo cards, of course! I hope there are more cards waiting for me when I get home - seems like it was a slow year for cards this year!

Merry Christmas Blogging Friends! Hope you enjoy all your time with your family and friends!

Monday, December 16, 2013

It's your own *special* book!

My new favorite thing ever? Personal Readers. Yes, LOVE them:

Since we want our kiddos to be reading, reading, reading, you might be wondering how you make that happen for kinder kids. They need decodeable texts or books that they have read repeatedly with their teacher. So how do we find enough copies of short, decodable books for our youngest readers?
Now, maybe this is nothing new, but I am only in my first year of learning about reading in the primary grades. In middle school, I could get Just Right books into my kids hands no problem. Kinder presents a little extra challenge - how do you find stories that are just right for the levels that they are reading?

So what are they? They are basically just a folder or a binder with pages of stories the kids can read on their own. Here are a few samples of the pages that the homeroom teacher and I have added to the folder:

What a School Needs was a leveled reader with predictable text that I had done with a guided reading group. After we finished with it, I typed it up on two pages, scanned the pictures from the book, and inserted them into the doc. It took me about 30 minutes, but I saved the file in case anyone ever uses it again.

We Travel was another leveled reader with predictable text that the Melinda, the kiddos' homeroom teacher, did with some of her groups. I let the kinder teachers know that if they give me any text they find, I will convert it to a Personal Reader page.

Then, Melinda found these two decodeable texts for the kiddos on the web. The kids have finished all their initial consonant sounds and are now into their second week of short a word families, so these were perfect!

I can't even tell you how excited the kids get for these readers. They're just plain folders with three prongs in them, but each child gets their own stories and has their own folder of "Just Right" stories to read. We're moving more and more towards a Reading Workshop model with kinder, so they have to have independent reading. Well, here we go!

Here's one of our students reading from her Personal Reader:

Is it so so cute, or what? I need to get in there when she hands out new stories for the readers so I can show you how pumped the kids are. You're going to love it!

So, if you are a kinder or first grade teacher, and you use leveled reading books for your guided reading, go ahead and create these personal reader pages and buy your kids a folder. They will feel so proud as they read through all their stories!

And just wanted to share a picture of one of the great reading specialists at my school - I am learning so much from her and I'm so glad she's my new friend! Christine is totes amazeballs! :) This was us last Friday after our work party. So fun!

And teachers....I know it seems like a long week left so far, but only four more "get-ups," so:

You can do it!

Happy Monday!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Slice of Life: I'll be your sub today.

Today our music teacher was out sick so my principal asked me to cover first grade music class. Me - a music? For first grade?

I reasoned that if I could teach middle school, I could figure this out. There were no sub plans, so I wasn't really sure what to do - my family and friends wouldn't exactly call me musically-inclined...

When the first group got there, I asked them what songs they wanted to sing. I had a few kids come up to the front and be the leaders, and they all sang. They just did what I asked - no complaints, no one was mad! (Very unlike middle a fab way!)

After a few songs, I thought I should check out You Tube - maybe some karaoke. Well, I found one of the songs the kids did for the winter concert and it was adorable:

The kids all sang in and did the clapping and had fun. Our music teacher is pretty amazing, so they knew all these little movements to the song, too.

There's one little girl who is the little sister to a boy I coached in middle school last year. She's totally going to be a cheerleader when she gets bigger! Anyways, she's boppin around and acting out all the songs. In between numbers, she ran up to me:

Devynn: Ms. Brezek - my mom called the *real* Santa.

Me: No way.
Her: No, she did, Ms. Brezek.
Me: I can't believe that.
Her: <really convincing, now> No, she did, I swear! <Changes subject.> Can we listen to Rockin' around the Christmas tree, next?
Me: Of course.

To be that young - to believe in the magic and spirit of awesome. I don't have kids yet, so I guess it's cool to be a primary teacher to see the wonder and excitement in their eyes during this unlike anything I've ever experienced in my 10 years of teaching.

Anyways, that's just a small glimpse into my life for Slice of Life. If you're a writer, please link up with Two Writing Teachers each Tuesday for the Slice of Life!

Hope you're cozy at home getting into the Christmas spirit - maybe trimming the tree or writing cards. I just got my first one from my Aunt Chris and Uncle Bob today - I love getting Christmas cards!

Until next time...
PS - Sidenote: I'm loving all the Elf on the Shelf shenanigans I've seen around school and in my facebook feed! My cousin posted this though, an alternative to that tradition and I LOVE it. Check out the "Kindness Elves," they're adorbs!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Flash Freebie: Word Study Posters and Implementation Guide

I just created a new doc that is now in my Teachers Pay Teachers store - Word Study Posters & Implementation Guide. It will be free for a short period of time, so hop on over there, download it, and let me know what you think!

You can find it in my store here.

Hope it's something you can use with your kiddos!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Pedagogy of Poverty....Say it isn't so!

I was reading this article by Alfie Kohn: Poor Teaching for Poor the Name of Reform. Within the pages, I found a reference to Jonathan Kozol: "The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality, while the inner-city kids are trained for nonreflective acquiescence." After my immediate love affair with the phrase 'nonreflective acquiescence' began to subside, I got to thinking about teaching and learning.

Do you work in a low-income school? Are you in a middle class town or an affluent neighborhood? I have worked in a super low-income area and now work in more of a middle class neighborhood. Needless to say, I have been in the schools that teach to children of poverty. In my decade of my teaching career, I have been that teacher who led kids to a nonreflective acquiescence. In the past five years, I've had some major philosophical shifts...

In the days of standardized testing and accountability to the state, feds, and parents, all teachers are in a tizzy to raise test scores. But how are teachers going about doing this?

hahhahhaaaa....also, kinda scary!

Is raising of the test scores focused entirely on skill practice...moving from one reading strategy to the next literature analysis question that might be on the test? Do worries of the test keep coming up and that is the only focus we have? While I believe that we do need to prepare our kiddos for these kinds of exams, I believe a higher form of literacy happens when students are learning around a content and using those skills to navigate it. There has to be some big meaning they are working toward, otherwise are we really teaching about how education is meant to empower?

When I was at Heritage Middle School, I was lucky because I taught on a 7th-8th grade loop. During seventh grade, kids did get a lot of reading strategies, but it was always centered around making meaning of text. I threw out my books of worksheets, bought hundreds of books for my library, and made sure kids were reading every night. During seventh grade, my students learned how to be great readers. (Our mantra: Reading is thinking. Reading is thinking. Reading is thinking.) As Kohn cites: A three-year study (published by the U.S. Department of Education) of 140 elementary classrooms with high concentrations of poor children found that students whose teachers emphasized 'meaning and understanding' were far more successful  than those who received basic-skills instruction."

During eighth grade, our focus shifted. In light of an inspiring leader who has just passed away today, I remind you of something he said: Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. After getting into critical literacy briefly at my beloved Arizona State University, I decided it was time to figure out exactly what that meant. So, when my seventh graders turned eighth, our theme became, "You can change the world." Posters of this phrase, quotes by Ghandi, and all of the work we did in literacy during that school year centered around this.

We studied the Holocaust and the people who secretly helped those who needed it. We read about teenagers who did things to make a difference in the world. (See the book: It's Our World, Too by Hoose.) We watched movies about kids who made a difference: Freedom Writers (I cry everytime I watch it!) and Walkout. We wrote short reports in small groups about "Upstanders" - the people who made great change through peace in our addition to Nelson Mandela, they studied Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Rosa Parks, and Mother Teresa As they studied these Upstanders, they learned how we reserach and write reports.

Eventually, my students had to pick a cause and then research it. They chose something that was important to them for any reason and then wrote a research paper on. That was just getting us started. Then, they had to do service - go out and make a difference in the world.

Some of the memorable groups who participated in this action research project did the following:

A group of three boys whose passion was music held a benefit concert where their band played at a local coffee shop. Ticket sales and sales of their music on CDs all went to the chairty Autism Speaks. They even had their friend be the body guard. He brought brownies and sold them, adding those profits to the donation as well.

Another pair of girls raised money for the Walter Lawson's Children's Home. Crystal's cousin had Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) which causes the patient to be unable to walk, talk, see, or hear. With her partner, Jasmine, the girls had an open gym event at the YMCA, where they raised $170 to donate to the children's home.

Yet another pair of boys studied illiteracy and then held a book drive at our middle school. They collected over 400 books and donated them to a food pantry in town.

We had a whole team car was as well, for any students who didn't figure out their own project. We washed cars for 4 hours and made $400 which was divvied up to all the different charities.

In the end, these are some of the things my students said about this culminating project:

So, I come back to my original thought: Are your students being taught with a curriculum around a big idea that causes them to use literacy practices for authentic purposes? Are they skilled and drilled with an endless supply of worksheets? Are they reading for meaning and discussing new "lived-through experiences" with their peers?

My hope is that all children come to find that education is the most powerful weapon with which you can use to change the world. Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. You've touched my life, through my profession, and that of all the kids who may be my students in today and for years to come...

Have a great night, blogging-land!

Some references:

Poor Teaching for Poor the Name of Reform
Alfie Kohn
Education Week
April 27, 2011

There's No Such Thing as a Reading Test
E.D. Hirsch, Robert Pondiscio
The American Prospect
June 13, 2010

Heath, S.B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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