Last night as I walked back to the school to try and fix a vinyl cutter with some trusty youtube tutorials I heard the sound of sirens. Ambulance, Fire, Police. I can never tell the difference and living beside a highway you tend to just notice it and move on. I noticed it and moved on. Julie called me a few minutes later audibly upset to inform me there had been an accident, students from my school, my community. Students that I visited with in the halls, work out with at the gym and cheered on at their football, basketball and volleyball games had been in a car accident and it was very serious. The details slowly came in and then I remembered. This community, the one I live in and have grown to love, has dealt with tragedy before. Seven years ago our community lost 4 students in a car accident and a week later my dad and his football team and their community lost 4 students in another tragic event.

I did not work in my community at the time of the first tragedy. I did not witness how teachers and community members came together to strengthen each other. I saw the struggles through my dad and his community but hearing the news last night that some of our student body where being airlifted to hospitals other transported through ambulance I ask myself the questions, “How do we teach tomorrow?” “How can I be there for my students to support them?” “How can we focus on anything but this terrible accident and the lives being affected?” “How can I help?”

Community it seems is the answer to all the questions I was asking. A leadership team at the school and a Principal, that unfortunately has been through this before, that were there to support their staff, a staff that was there to support each other and students and families that displayed resilience. The school was full today, at first of students comforting each other and then of students laughing as they focused more today on relationships and joyful learning than the tests and other activities that might have been originally planned. At one point I had to check the commotion in the hall and discovered kids balancing sticks on their hands in some apparent contest with bubbles. I don’t know what the learning objective might have been but I do know what they were learning.

Community is how we get through tough times. It is the rival sports teams showing up wearing your colours to stand together or taking a moment of silence to respect those who could not be there. It is the muffins in the staffroom and high fives that continue in the hallways because it is what is always done.

I am not an overly emotional person in public. I remain guarded. My students supported me today as much as I supported them. We had moments that were tough and we continue to pray and hope for those students from our wonderful community as they heal. That is what a community does. We support each other, we hold each other up when we need to and we sit together in those quiet moments too. I am incredibly grateful for the community I live in. I am incredibly grateful for the students I serve and I pray for the recovery of my students that are in need of those prayers tonight. If you feel as though you could add to those prayers it would be much appreciated.

After all, we are all part of this community.

We Are Magrath

 

This weekend my friend Mary sent me a link to the very brilliant Kate Roberts and Tricia Ebarvia discussing finding balance in our literacy blocks. I have not watched the full learning session yet but fully intend to. One part did cause me to pause reflect and write down however. Kate mentions the need to be ruthless in our choices of how we spend our time.

There are so many amazing ideas out there, from Notice and Note to the Teaching of 180 Days, we have quick writes and literary essay writing, research projects and opinion pieces. Book Clubs, Literature Circles, Whole class Novels, independent reading, deep discussions and joyful celebrations of writing. We have so much to cover in a literacy period so where can our Ruthless decision making come in and best serve our students?

So Ruthless decisions here we go.

This year I started pushing more authenticity and flexibility in writing. We are starting classes with quick writes, using mentor texts to guide us and then writing about ourselves and our interests. The goal, of course, is to become writers before taking on tasks that require us to dig deeper into the skills of writing. Today I watched a few students in a different class struggle with a piece of writing and shut down, the idea was great but the authenticity for them was not there. I am sure I will encounter this at some point this year in my class and since it hasn’t happened yet I am sure it will come sooner than later but for now, my ruthless writing decision has been to cut the manufactured “connect the dots” writing assignments of the past. The typical assignments and move towards the interests and choice of my students that celebrate their voice as they writers they are becoming.

In years past my reading instruction has been very formulaic. I have strategies I like and know work, I push Notice and Note and Reading Journals. We look at strategies that help us dig deeper into books. When I think about my ruthless decision making regarding reading instruction it is in the reflections of actions I have already taken. The other day I had a few run ins with people who like to utilize TPT novel units filled with pages of comprehension questions and vocabulary lists and “activities”. In my own teaching, I had to make the decision after talking to my students that I needed to remove those types of items from my reading instruction. I needed to learn to support my students as real readers. Not as readers for information only, to fill the blanks and find the answers but as readers who read for joy, who learn through discussion with peers and observations of what a text does to them, how a story can help them discover their own. I was ruthless and cut out the easy, the quick fixes and the photocopied “expert teacher created resources” (A term TPT fanatics like to apply to themselves) and replaced them with conversations across a table, Book Commercials and Reading. Reading as many books as we can and talking about them.

Teaching is hard, time is precious. We have a responsibility to be great for our students. To provide them with an experience worth getting up for because they don’t have choice, they have to be there.

This week, this topic became too personal. Our students deserve more than, “If it is easy I will use it” They deserve more than a search for handouts in a file folder. They deserve ruthless, they deserve a teacher who values them more than easy. We are all tired.

Imagine how the kids feel when faced with another booklet printed off instead a book. This isn’t about shaming, it is about looking at what we are doing and trying to be better.

 

We are entering our fourth week of school on Monday and we have spent the last few working on different strategies as we prepare to introduce the bulk of Notice and Note. Having a great time discussing things and at times the reminder to write it down to save a record of our awesome gets forgotten in the discussion but that is kind of the point isn’t it? We want to get students thinking and talking and that has to start somewhere.

So with yesterday being orange shirt day, a day to recognize the students who had to suffer through Residential school, we looked at the story I Am Not a Number and I introduced quadrants of thought as a strategy to help with our reflection of the text.

The story chronicles a girls time from being ripped from her family and then coming home to them after a year at the residential school. For a picture book, it does touch on some of the more disturbing events that occurred in the time of residential schools.

We have been practising BHH as a tool for reflection and so this was not new. I added Quadrants of Thought as we look at how the author promotes visualization, uses powerful language, combines the 5 senses and draws on emotion. Students listened and reflected as I read and then took time afterwards to quietly write. Then we discussed as a class and it was really excellent to see and hear their thinking. I feel very strongly giving students multiple access points to try and understand this difficult topic as well and to really understand their own reaction to it really helps to increase the critical thinking and the empathy that is required when looking at this time in history. Here are a few examples.

I am a firm believer in Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. I am also a firm believer in letting students read with no strings attached. Some might claim that these two positions are at times in conflict.

As my students read I ask them to note their thinking if it is in the margins of a printed article or in their notebooks in a style of their choosing. We pay attention to the Big 3 Questions that I have rephrased as What Surprised Me, What Confused Me and What Challenged, Changed or Confirmed my thinking. We look at the text and our thinking and our feelings within the BHH framework and we look for those breadcrumbs that authors leave for us in the signposts. We pay attention to our reading with paper and pencil to unlock the skill that we continue as conversation and internal noticings.

Students need to be guided as we explore digging deeper into the text. A balance needs to be found in how we teach these skills, like all skills, it is a fine line between helping students learn and being complicit in Readicide. The idea that everything needs to be direct instruction, that every minute of our day much be devoted to teaching with no time to freely explore a book is crazy to me. The balance that can be achieved where students have enough time to just enjoy the art of reading but also the instruction that supports them through the tough parts, to clear up the fog that sometimes gets in the way of seeing where we are in the text that is also important and really when I think about it I feel the instruction is the most important and at times does have to encroach on uninterrupted reading time.

Looking at the balance I see conferencing as a happy medium. I spend far more time working on strategies in my class and addressing areas of weakness than I do with independent reading. My students learn and practices skills together and then show their understanding through their notebooks and independent reading time. I check on their work through conferencing and address the gaps that I see. Despite the idea that is floating around the internet I don’t think there are a lot of teachers that spend their time with their feet up and nose in a good book during that independent reading time. They are beside their students, guiding them, providing some one on one work so that they can better utilize the tools provided.

We start with making our thinking visible so that we can see the connections we make, just like learning the layout of a house so we can walk in the dark we need to learn our way around the different elements of reading with it right in front of us before we can do it from memory.

I don’t see it as work and my students are starting to see the benefits to their understanding of text by putting it on paper in front of them.

We discuss what surprises us and why. We clear up the confusions and we challenge the thoughts we have or that others present and weigh them against our understanding. I love the process that we have started this year and am inspired by the steps my students take.

 

I don’t really remember much about my Language Arts classes growing up. I can’t even remember the books I read in class. I remember writing essays I think and some stories but there is nothing that stands out to me, nothing that I would share with my students today. I grew up a Social Studies fan. I remember those classes, the mock UN, the debates, the experiences.

As a teacher, I started out working in third grade and became fascinated with reading comprehension and how students were understanding the texts they were encountering. That fascination led me to look more into different strategies, the endless sea of strategies out there and I dove in. Strategy after strategy and students becoming more and more frustrated with the “work” reading was becoming.

We look for balance and try again. As a 6th grade teacher, I was blessed with the discovery of Notice and Note and the brilliance of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst. My students were learning to be thinkers and the search for practice in this area brought me to Pernille Ripp and her most excellent blog. Inspired to continue building my literacy beliefs I was lucky again to read Donalyn Millers The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild and my practice continued to evolve. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and Disrupting Thinking another Kylene and Bob text made me question everything again in the best of ways. I became a teacher that realized I needed to work with a purpose that my students needed to experience joyful literacy work as my friend Dr.Mary Howard champions.  My students needed to see what literacy was in a real-world way. We read for joy and used strategies to meet outcomes, we wrote about real things because it was not only easier to connect to the stories of our life but because it taught others about who we were.

In the end, I have realized literacy is not about the tasks, the assignments or the tests. It most certainly isn’t about an endless list of strategies or computer programs. If I want students to be readers, to be writers, to be thinkers we need to do just that. We need to read, we need to write, we need to share the beautiful words we craft with each other and celebrate the books that make us wonder and imagine a world beyond our own.

We Read -We Write – We Share

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I love bookstores, I love picking up a never before heard of book and reading the back and just taking that chance.

Nightbooks is a twisted fairytale fantasy but it is so much more than that. Alex loves the dark things, the monsters, the zombie movies, the stuff others think is creepy. He collects his stories in his journals that he calls his Nightbooks. I don’t want to spoil a single moment of this story so I will stick to some basics. The writing is so vivid and creates this edge of your seat feeling. A boy, some friends, a witch…and adventure. This is a story I will read again and again. One thing that I really liked was that the book has writing advice woven into the story. A unique addition that I just loved.

As I read the story I often had moments where I thought about the “Alex” characters in my life. The ones that are misunderstood, categorized and judged because they do not fit the mould that society or their fellow students expect them to fill. Alex struggles with his dark thoughts, with the shame he feels because others think there is something wrong with him. His realization that he is not his thoughts, that he is so much more than people see him as was a powerful moment in the book and a reminder of my duty to help students find that in themselves.

Kids have a lot to deal with. Their life outside school, their life in it. There is just so much, they shouldn’t have to worry about being anything but themselves. As teachers, we need to help students see the light that they contain, especially when others can’t see past the “dark”.

Odd what one takes from a book about a boy and a witch.

Last year I was greeted by 3 classes of self-proclaimed non-readers. There was the odd student here or there that liked to read but years of workbooks, Lexia, AR, Crossroads textbooks written before they were born and a lot of time perfecting fake reading while their teachers sat back and planned during Independent reading time really did a number on their reading love.

I was prepared though because I had read books by Donalyn Miller, Pernille Ripp, Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I had learned how to help develop a joy for reading and been given the tools through these experts to help my students become not only joyful readers but thoughtful ones. What could go wrong?

Well, pretty much everything haha. They were very resistant to the idea of free reading, they pushed back when presented with the idea of choosing to read novels. They looked at me as if I I had tentacles growing from my head or I had really bad breath when I tried to conference with them over their reading ( I didn’t I checked). There was not a culture established and so the reading habits that I loved to celebrate were going to be a long road to arrive at.

I stuck to my dreams and worked through the resistance, we book talked, I overdid celebrations when books were finished. We talked in groups, we shared and then amazing things started to happen. I student connected with “Some Kind of Happiness” by Claire Legrand. That connection became a recommendation to a friend and then another. Another student read Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds another “Orphan Island” by Laurel Snyder. They started to share and pass the books between friends. More reluctant readers were picking up books after watching the newly discovered readers come asking for new suggestions. What started as a trickle grew into a stream of students wanting more books. Was every day perfect? Nope. Were the students always on task reading every day? Nope. But there was growth and it was exciting.

Some educators do not believe in independent reading time in school. The position is that the time we have is too important to not be directly instructing our students in whole class or small group setting. Add to that the belief that books should always be controlled while in school. Students need to stay within their level. These people claim if kids are taught to read and told to do so at home they just…will. It is really that easy. I had no idea. I wonder how easy it is for the kids who don’t have books at home? This is not some imaginary nightmare that teachers who favour time for independent choice reading in the class have made up to scare teachers into adopting a similair mindset. When faced with bills or books, parents will pick bills, and they should. Groceries or books to read…a hungry learner is not a learner buy the food I can cover the reading time. My mom and dad once went to help a family in need. They were moving and a tragic situation had limited their ability to pack and clean. My parents and their friends went over to help. My dad later reported to me there was not a single piece of writing in the home. No magazines, no books, no newspapers. No words. If the teacher of those children sent them home to read because it is not important enough to read choice reading at school they were sending them home to a place void of reading. This is not an isolated case. In schools around the world children go home to a place that does not have the means to support independent reading.

We then hear the, “Well ever heard of a library?” remark. Yes, I have and my response is, “Ever heard of late fees and check out limits?” A student that has fines in many situations can not take a book home from the library, those same students can’t pay the fines in many cases and thus… no more books. This again is not a nightmare scenario. I have been in multiple schools and talked to the librarians and it is the policy in more than it isn’t.

Finally, in many households around the world, we are sending kids home to an empty house. Parents are working multiple jobs or do not make at home reading a priority and so the students continue to suffer. And we can provide a solution.

Time for choice independent reading in school levels the playing field. I can make sure my students have quality books in their hands, without limits because they are late returning them and am there to help support as they need and we discover through conferencing. The argument that lazy teachers just sit around while student read independently is a sad attempt to control what teachers do in their classrooms, by people that would rather our students be sitting in desk working in some anthology textbook that wasn’t engaging when it was created let alone 20 years later for the students of today.

I started this post with the statement “Why we take the time” The why is found in the students who I thought about over the summer. The ones who left me readers and I worried that a summer without my booktalks and recommendations would result in no books read. I made the time for them and magic happened. Students I no longer teach came to talk to me about their summer reading, kids who told me they would never be readers came and asked to pop by my library for a new book, one student excitedly told me they have read 76 books since the start of grade 8 because of all their summer reading.

We take the time because we value it, we take the time to make sure our students have a chance to experience great books and joyful literacy. We take the time because we can’t control what happens outside our walls but we can control what happens in.

Independent reading combined with meaningful conferencing will develop lifelong readers far quicker and with lasting results than any workbook that promises to teach students all they need to know. Students will never discover who they are as a reader by working through a bunch of packets. They will just learn they hate packets. We need a balance but if your equation does not include independent reading we are not going to solve the problem.

The reading culture does not change in a day but a day at a time, a book at a time a student at a time it will and with that we raise readers and thinkers.

Our jobs are to guide not limit.