Teaching writers' workshop is the best thing I do all day. It is powerful to help young children to become writers. Great books, intentional instruction, high expectations, and wide open spaces. Think Katie Wood Ray. Think Ralph Fletcher. It all comes together here.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Teaching as Breaking a Wild Horse


My brother’s new hobby is gentling wild mustangs. (Yes, my entire family that grew up in the suburbs has turned into cowboys without me.) Twice now, he has acquired a mustang from the Bureau of Land Management and then spent months training it until it was ready to be adopted.

It’s a magical process, watching horse and rider learn to trust each other. It requires great skill, patience, and love of horses.

So the other night at dinner my brother was complaining about how much more work it is on days when his 19 year old client comes by to “help” with the training.

“It takes forever when I know he's coming. First, there’s all the thinking ahead of time about what we need to do. How to break it down for him.”

“Then as we’re working, I have to constantly explain everything--the reasons behind every decision.”

“We try it together, and I have to show him over and over again until he can do it himself. It takes so much longer than when I can just go out there and get it done.”

(Pause for reaction.)

Me: “Yeah, it’s called teaching.”

Half the look he gave me was a thank-you-very-much for the smart ass remark. The other half said, “So THAT’s what you do all day every day?”

Yes. Yes it is. (Except I love it.)

Here’s what’s awesome--he completely nailed the essentials of good lesson design: intentional planning, the I-do we-do you-do of gradual release (including think-aloud), the formative assessment involved in deciding when reteaching is necessary, making the learning hands-on and authentic.

I have no doubt that this kid loves working with my brother--he is so obviously a natural teacher. All grumbling aside, he knows what it means to help someone really understand and apply something new. It is work. But without all those troublesome steps, there is a risk of teaching without learning.

And the, “Well, I taught it!” rationale isn’t comforting while being thrown from a horse!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Ten Things I did not Expect to Happen in my First Year as an Instructional Coach

Today’s blog post is inspired by Ruth Ayers’s post on her Two Writing Teachers blog. My own blog has been sorely neglected over the past year, mostly because I changed roles--from classroom teacher to instructional coach--and it’s taken me the better part of this year to even understand myself what the scope of my new work is and how I might write about it here. When I read Ruth’s post, it inspired me to try the same exercise as a reflective tool to think about my first year as a coach and to jumpstart writing on the blog again.
So. . . here goes.

Ten things I did not expect to happen in my first year as an instructional coach.
  • I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in feeling effective in the classroom every day. The shift from being the center of  my own little crew to suddenly being on the outside--and on the outside of a new building where no one knew me or had any idea what I could do--unsettled me to my core. I no longer had those million little moments throughout the day that let you know that what you’re doing is working--and that all the effort is worth it. Some critical piece of myself that makes me myself was missing, and I knew that it was not going to come back in a hurry. I had a lot of work to do to rebuild my own professional efficacy in this new role, and I had to be patient.

  • I didn’t expect to have to think so hard--all the time. I found myself speaking more slowly, pausing more often--and I started to worry that people were going to think I wasn’t very bright. But teachers ask big, thoughtful questions, and they deserve the most careful responses I can give. As a coach I have to think about more than my own classroom and my own grade level. I have so much to learn about grade levels I’ve never taught and a building that is new to me. I’ve had to consider a more global view of the school and the system. And what I’m finding is that people don’t mind a few pauses in the conversation when they can tell the conversation is being taken seriously.

  • I didn’t realize all the work and intention that goes into every staff meeting.

  • I didn’t realize the baggage that comes with terms like “staff meeting.”

  • I didn’t expect to end up in such an ideal place to grow and learn. I think change always brings opportunities for new learning, but this particular change has been so positive. I learn something new every day. I have an opportunity to work with motivated teachers and an exceptional administrator who is truly an instructional leader. I’ve had to jump into so many new challenges this year, but I have felt supported every step of the way--both inside my building and from mentors inside the district. I can only hope that as I get better at this job, I can foster that same feeling of support for all the teachers in my building.

  • I didn’t expect that when I failed in front of someone it would actually build trust. The first time I cried in front of a teacher (out of absolute frustration), I was mortified. How unprofessional! What would she think? Well, it turned out that she thought I was overwhelmed in a new role in a new school (just like her). Imagine that. And that moment of vulnerability gave sea legs to the professional relationship we were building.

  • I didn’t expect some of the windows that opened. I learned to keep an open mind, because some of the teachers most ready to work with a coach might not have been who I predicted. Windows opened suddenly and unexpectedly, and I had great experiences when I just jumped at any opportunity that presented itself. For example, I had a chance to co-teach writing in a grade level I had never taught before. This was not a teacher I expected to initiate collaboration. But then she did. And it was magic. There was something about teaching in front of each other that built trust like a bridge, and everything changed. She and I collaborated and engaged in reflection about writers’ workshop that led to significant growth in her use of conferring and feedback with kids. It was not a perfect collaboration (especially since it was my first real go at it), but it demonstrates the value of persistence--and the power of asking just the right question. Because of teachers like this one, who took a risk and invited me into the work with her, I learned so much--and I’m so ready to keep getting better at this!

  • I didn’t realize all the different ways that people think--and how important it is to pay attention.

  • I didn’t expect to have to run so many things past others before acting. I don’t think I appreciated the power I had to make unilateral decisions all day long in the classroom. As a coach, I am constantly making decisions in collaboration with others (principal, teachers, committees). When I get a great idea, I shoot it past my principal first, and then it goes past Instructional Leadership Team or another committee, whereas as a classroom teacher I hardly ever checked in with my principal (at all, let alone first thing). And while this was initially pretty uncomfortable, I’m realizing how lucky I am to be in a place that values true collaborative decision making. In the grand scheme of community culture and trust building, it’s much better to work as a team player than a lone ranger.

  • I didn’t expect to be so inspired by what’s ahead!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Beyond Book Reviews

So after my philosophical crisis of conscience last week, I thought I'd share a unit we just wrapped up in writers' workshop that is exactly the kind of authentic writing I believe students should be engaged in daily.

Kids today are constantly writing about what they read--in literature logs, in reader's notebooks, in responses to listening centers--but I wanted this project to be different. Students know how to summarize, to make connections, to discuss their favorite parts and characters in the stories they read. However, a book review should have an audience and a purpose beyond the teacher.

We studied reviews as a genre, with our primary focus on book reviews. We did seek out other types of reviews--movie, restaurant, toy, service--to discuss the audience and purpose of review writing.

One resource I found online during the teaching of this unit that particularly connected with kids was book trailers. We found professionally produced and kid produced trailers online for a huge variety of children's literature. (Some of my favorite sites: http://www.mrschureads.blogspot.com/  http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/
http://www.kitlitbooktrailers.ning.com/)

The book trailers were powerful for multiple reasons. Projected on my (brand spanking new) SMART board, kids were captivated as they saw their favorite books come to life in the same way they were trying to make stories in their reviews jump off the page. Trailers have drama and voice and imagination. Trailers accomplish what reviews strive to accomplish: they get kids to want to read the book. Immediately.

Additionally, the trailers helped kids to see patterns in the structure of the review summary: set the stage, get the reader interested by telling just enough of the problem of the story to persuade them to keep reading/listening, then. . . end with a teaser that tells them that they will have to read the book to find out more. Watching book trailers is what internalized this concept for my kids so that they could transfer it to their own writing in a way that reading reviews had not.

I gave my kids an opportunity to bring their own reviews to life using EduGlogster. If you are not familiar with EduGlogster, it is a free, online resource for teachers and students. Kids create digital posters, to which they can import text, photos, links, drawings, and video. It is incredibly user friendly;  my second graders just took off after minimal directions.

At the end of our review unit, students selected their favorite reviews to publish on EduGlogster. They chose a wall (background), added their review as a text box, added titles, a photo, and a video of themselves talking about their chosen book. (EduGlogster gives kids so many fun choices as they build their glogs. And again, so easy.) I cannot tell you how motivated they were to do this, and the quality of their work demonstrates not only their new learning but their understanding of audience and purpose.

I wish I could post some of their projects here, but for digital safety reasons, I can't--especially since they contain photos and video. The nice thing is that we can publish privately on EduGlogster, and students can send the link to only those they select to see them. I also linked them to our classroom blog, which is private as well, so they can watch each other's projects. You'll just have to trust me that their work is exceptional.

The culminating piece to this unit was a collaborative project with a fourth grade colleague. (Her idea, I have to give her full credit! You can check her out at her teacherspirit site.) Her students are currently working on literary non-fiction books. Because their audience is younger kids, we paired her kids up with my second graders when her kids had finished the dummies of their projects. Then my students wrote reviews of the fourth graders' books--including suggestions for revision. The reviews will be passed back to the fourth graders, and then they will revise and publish their projects, hopefully incorporating some of the advice from the second graders.

How empowering is that for the second graders! And how purposeful does the revision process become for the fourth graders when they know their books have a specific audience!

I have to admit, I was a little worried about the advice that my second graders would give. . . However, I have been blown away with the thoughtfulness of my young writers. It is proof to me that they know how to talk and think about writing, and it validates everything we do every day in writers' workshop.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Teaching Outside the Box

Teachers today are under pressure to be systemic, to conform to the decisions of the group rather than stand out from the crowd. And while I have no issue with consistency in standards and curricular content, I do feel my soul beating its tiny fists against my insides as this profession tries to fit me into a smaller and smaller box. I can't help but think that in trying to make our classrooms the same, we will only succeed in making the minds within them the same. Who wants that?

Last week was the annual CCIRA Conference (Colorado Council of the International Reading Association), and I was fortunate enough to hear the mighty Katie Wood Ray and Regie Routman speak, among others. After three days of inspiration and new learning, I was left with one overwhelming message: the best way to fight against what is frustrating and just plain wrong in education today is with excellent, authentic, inquiry based instruction.

At a district technology fair last month, educator Karl Fisch said, "We are the system." I found that so empowering. His argument was that instead of complaining about what is wrong with the system, we need to realize that what we do every day in our classrooms IS the system. And if that is true. . .

My intention is to create the highest quality learning environment possible every day. If my kids are engaged, motivated, skilled, high-level thinkers, who will be able to take issue with that?

That means not being afraid to stand up for best practice and the individual needs of kids who are not all the same.

That means (respectfully) saying no sometimes, even when it is difficult, even when colleagues have expectations for "consistency" and "systemic" practices. I shouldn't have to apologize for having a different philosophy or a different style of teaching. Kids need to experience a diversity of learning and teaching styles.

I have a depth of knowledge in teaching primary aged children that legislators do not have. I am proactive about constantly seeking out new opportunities for professional development. If I cannot be trusted to make good decisions in my classroom, then I don't know who should. (I could do a whole other post on who shouldn't. . . .) My teaching speaks for itself, as it should for us all.

We need innovators in education, not just followers. At my core, I want to create and to foster creative thinking in others. As I feel my own creative spirit being squelched by those who strive for "standardization," I fear for the creativity of our students.

So my choice is to stand up. To speak up. I will not be put in a box. And I will not quietly go along with decisions that are not in the best interest of my students. (My bulletin boards will never match my teammates. Ever. That is not my ideal--that is my greatest nightmare.) I will collaborate, I will share and listen with rapt attention as others share and teach me, but I will no sooner blindly follow than I would want anyone to blindly follow me.

I hope one day we can get back to a place where differences are respected and expected in education. Our kids need us to think for ourselves if we will ever be able to teach them to do the same.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thank you, NaNoWriMo!

It's almost 10:00 pm on November 30, and I am not scrambling to finish my NaNoWriMo manuscript. (In fact I am blogging instead.) How is that possible? Spoiler alert: it is not because I have already won. It is also not because I am delusional enough to believe that I can write 25,000 more words before midnight tonight. There is no NaNo panic for me because I am thrilled with how this month of writing turned out. 

Really? No NaNoWriMo glory? No triumphant tweeting of word counts smashed? No t-shirt? Nope. And yet I could not be happier.

Now I would be a big, fat liar if I said that I didn't want to finish 50,000 words this month. But since that didn't happen, I have been looking for (and have found) some positives.

1. I made writing a priority in my daily routine. This was not easy for me--workaholic that I am. And while I discovered that 1,667 words a day was not feasible for me with my current schedule, I learned that 500-1000 words is absolutely reasonable. So while I missed the NaNo mark, I did learn to set my own daily goal based on how I work as a late night writer. I learned to stop making excuses and just write already. Every day.

2. NaNo pushed me to move forward through my project. Instead of remaining tangled in constant revisions of the opening chapters of my manuscript, I learned to push ahead during the drafting process. This has been very good for me. Trapped in the shallows of a project, it was impossible for me to think through the complexities of the story. I needed to be deep in the writing before I could even see the potential problems and possibilities. Perfectly wordsmithed opening chapters aren't worth much if the rest of the book has a flawed structure/premise/plot/character arc/pace/etc.

And, finally--drumroll, please. . .

3. I still love my WIP! There is no burnout when you work at my shockingly slow crawl across the page. My novel and I are not sick of each other. There is no overwhelming need for space or seeing other manuscripts. On December 1, I will continue writing 500-1000 words a day until my first draft is finished.

Then I will put it in a drawer for a while before I start revising.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Top Three New(ish) Picture Books for Boys

One of the great challenges of teaching primary aged students is hooking the boys.  And by hooking I mean spearing them intellectually and propelling them from the realm of playing with their shoes during group discussions to up on their knees excited to join in the conversation.  (If my metaphor is a bit, er, violent, just remember:  boys dig that.)  I want them all in.  Engaged.  Fascinated.  Motivated.  This is no small feat.  And it is absolutely my favorite thing about teaching.  Because once I have them, that's when our room really gets interesting. 

Books are excellent bait.  Here are three picture books and why they work so well with boys. 

1.  OH No! (Or How my Science Project Destroyed the World) by Mac Barnett

This hilarious story of a fifth grade science project with a few design flaws has the irreverent humor that draws boys close to the teacher's chair.  Who wouldn't be interested in a kid-built robot that bursts out of the school gymnasium and wreaks havoc on an entire city?  And of course the best way to deal with a wayward robot is to create a giant, mechanical toad to take him down.  Boys get it. 

The pictures in this book remind me of a graphic novel super-sized.  Boys love to be able to pore over page after page, finding new details they missed the first five times through.  It's like a treasure hunt just for them. 

The illustrative detail in this book also appeals to those boys who want to know how things work.  The endpapers have blueprints of the two robots.  Underneath the jacket, the cover of the book is designed to look like a child's worn composition notebook.  The inside of the jacket cover is a movie poster of the story.  This book works for those hard to hook boys because Mac Barnett and illustrator Dan Santat so clearly care about the same kind of details that seven year old boys devour (and revisit and share and imitate). 

2.  Robot Zot by Jon Scieszka and David Shannon

This book is imaginative play come to life.  Told from the point of view of Robot Zot, the book follows his adventures--and by extension the adventures of the invisible child behind him--from outer space to Earth.  David Shannon's illustrations mix the fantastical perspective of Robot Zot and the home details (with a twist) that inspire the action.  This book captures (and validates) the way kids (especially boys) escape into their own minds and entertain themselves. 

I used this book during a min-lesson on voice--because throughout the book Robot Zot sounds the way a robot would sound.  "No one stop Robot Zot.  Robot Zot crush lot!"  After reading this book, an explosion of Robot Zot stories followed.  We had a whole series going!  I even had kids exploring the voices of other toys in their writing.  If a robot sounds that way, how would my teddy bear talk?  What would my doll sound like?  I had kids collaborating:  "I'll write the second book, and here's what will happen.  Then in the third book. . . ."  The boys could not have been more motivated to write. 

3.  Never Smile at a Monkey by Steve Jenkins

You know you're on the right track when a book title brings a particular student to mind.  I won't use his name--but he knows who he is, and this book went directly from the bookstore bag into his immediate possession.  In my class he is the kid who knows every obscure animal fact there is to know.  He inhales non-fiction, and his curiosity for everything strange and surprising never ends. 

Never Smile at a Monkey warns the eager boy reader about 17 rare and specific dangers of the natural world.  Who knew there was anything to fear about a platypus, cone shell, or caterpillar?  Venom and weapons and biting, oh my!  Reading this one picture book provides weeks of material for astounding parents, teachers, and friends.  (And believe me, the shock and awe factor is motivating.) 

Another thing Steve Jenkins does so well in all his books, (and I have them all in my classroom), is he organizes information in such an appealing way for boys.  He uses headings, text size and shape, captions, and pictures in creative ways that work for kids who naturally jump around and read based on interest and not necessarily sequentially. 

And the Secret is. . .

The trick to hooking the boys is communicating that you understand what is important to them and that you appreciate and value their boy-ness.  There is a place in the classroom for their inventiveness, their humor, and their creative thinking.  My job is easier when there are so many authors who get it, too. 

What are some of your favorite picture books for boys?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Why Collaborate? Lessons from SCBWI

I had reason today to contemplate the power of sharing expertise in building community.  Earlier this month I attended the SCBWI conference in LA for the first time, where I was overwhelmed by the generosity of so many experienced writers taking time out of their busy schedules to teach and to mentor new writers.  Instead of clutching knowledge tightly in their hot little hands (to preserve for their own use), these writers opened up the vault and let us take a peek inside.  Writing could easily--and understandably--be a competitive field in which individuals look out for themselves first and foremost.  I found the opposite to be true.  It was clear from the energy at the conference that not only were speakers willing to share, but that sharing seemed to fuel them in the same way that the attendees were fueled with inspiration and new insight. 

Like writing, teaching is a job often done in isolation.  Teachers--like writers--work long hours, seek out new learning about their craft, and have to continuously find ways to refill their creative wells.  However, as we find ourselves with less and less time to do more and more work, teachers seem to make sharing and collaborating a smaller professional priority.  As we close our doors and work in greater isolation, community breaks down.  We become competitive rather than collaborative. 

My lesson from SCBWI is that sharing with colleagues should be energy giving and worth the time required if the end result will be exponentially positive.  There is no substitute for being given a true glimpse into how an expert thinks and works.  And we all have expertise to bring to the conversation.  That was a striking feature of the SCBWI conference as well; even as a first time attendee, I was welcomed and treated like a fellow writer, not a clueless newbie. 

In order to put my money where my mouth is, as they say, I have formulated a plan.  One way I am reaching out to other teachers is through this blog.  The writing community online is incredible, and I have learned so much from Twitter and blogs on writing in the past two months.  I would like to connect with the teaching community online this year as well. 

A colleague and I also started a club of sorts (called SPARKS) intended to bring teachers in our building together regularly to share.  A week from Friday is our first meeting, and we plan to have lunch and showcase innovative ideas we are trying in our rooms this year.  (One key rule:  no complaining!  This time is for building energy and community, not for the wah wah wah.)  We hope this group will faciliate more vertical teaming as teachers at different grade levels discover that they have similar interests--creating new support systems and sources of motivation.  We'll see how it goes. . . I'm excited! 

I'm motivated by people who want to learn--like the amazing community I discovered in LA at SCBWI this summer.  I know it took work and dedication to build the SCBWI community.  Children's book authors embraced the concept that the best teaching would have to come from within.  The Golden Kite Luncheon revealed some of that history, and I found myself feeling honored to be in the room and determined to prove myself worthy.  I feel equally strongly that building community among teachers is a task worth undertaking.