I have been listening to the signs of the twitter and educational universe and the moments in my classroom and the theme of Equity keeps coming back and reminding me of it’s importance. It is funny as I was sitting thinking up a title for the blog this week the amazing Whitney Houston song, “I didn’t know my own strength” just popped into my head and primarily this piece of the beautiful song,

Found hope in my heart,
I found the light to life
My way out the dark
Found all that I need
Here inside of me
I thought I’d never find my way
I thought I’d never lift that weight
I thought I would break
I didn’t know my own strength
And I crashed down, and I tumbled
But I did not crumble
I got through all the pain
I didn’t know my own strength
Survived my darkest hour
My faith kept me alive
I picked myself back up
Hold my head up high
I was not built to break
I didn’t know my own strength

Whitney Houston “I didn’t know my own strength” written by Diane Warren 

I am going to come back to the song but I wanted to discuss a few observations around equity and then swing back around. 

So this all started when I was listening to Kylene Beers discuss the Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations. The idea that as teachers we place limits on our students through our instruction. Limiting the opportunities to show higher level thinking by sticking them in “basics” until they can “handle” the harder work, the implication being that those who are already struggling never can make it out because we have already categorized them as struggling and struggling learners couldn’t possibly be higher level thinkers…right? The further issues become when people categorize a group of people (different races, socioeconomic level, family structure…) as typically lower achieving and thus less worthy of those higher level tasks. Of course, this is just garbage and horrible teaching practice when looked at but the fact is that it is happening without much of a second thought. Consider your own classroom, is there a student that you might jump to alter the work, “dumb it down” without giving an attempt at success? Do you find that your opinions of the student impact the assigned work and that you think they could do more but do not ask them to? The ” I guess this is good enough” approach to student assessment is robbing our students of that great gift of curious learning. We should be pushing ourselves as educators and pushing our students to challenge the limits others have set on them as well. Our day is made of purposeful decisions (or at the very least it should be) let’s make sure that it is not doing the opposite of our mission statement by placing limitations on learning and students reaching higher despite struggling in other areas. 

I continue to be inspired by these posts on equity and while at the gym listening to a podcast on the Cult of Pedagogy I heard a line that I just loved, 

Challenge the normalization of failure

Dr.Pedro Noguera

I thought that this tied in beautifully with Kylene’s original claim on the bigotry of low expectations. The normalization of failure is a very real problem in education. I notice this even in the small communities I work in different groups of students are not challenged for lower performing work. Even at the youngest ages, these students are just accepted as lower performing and failure in their work is less and less questioned. Sadly things like family history, race, and poverty are used to normalize failure, “they do worse because….” “Our demographics just mean we produce lower results…” these are comments I have heard in data meetings. This permission that we are giving ourselves to fail students because believe me that is what the normalization of failure is really about. We, as teachers, are normalizing our failure to help our students in need. We turn to programs that give us an easy to follow script. We accept whatever is passed our way that guarantees success with minimal if any inquiry into how students feel about said program. Teachers are turning over what makes us great, the unique things we bring to the job in favour of a shared program because then when the kids do poorly we can place the blame on that forced program rather than look at our own teaching. The normalization of failure. 

SO I ask what do we do? And I go back to the wise words of Diane Warren sung by Whitney. We need to be a light in the dark for our students, we need to be there to make sure when they stumble that we help them up, that we do not accept failure as an end but as a beginning. It is very likely that our students do not know their own strength. We need to help them get there. Like a spotter in the gym we need to be ready to take that little bit on to help them move forward instead of being the voice that says it is ok to quit. That voice that normalizes failure with a list of excuses to remove any ownership teachers should have in the learning process. We don’t just get to claim the great like so many instagram teachers do to gain some likes. We need to be getting into the tough stuff with our students we need to give them chances to show they are more than than a struggling grade and that one area of struggle does not indicate all areas will be. 

Let’s be the support for our students with great teaching, let’s provide the support they need to know they are able to do hard things and that failure is not bad if the next move is forward towards solving the problem. I love this quote from Mary Howard that I captured during a Twitter chat. All of our students deserve our best, they deserve a shot at displaying all of their thinking and we should never make failure permissible as a holding place. 

I have the smartest friends 🙂 

Lesson 1

I am not a basketball coach and yet I am learning how to be one. This year I offered to help with basketball fully acknowledging that I know nothing about it but I had coached football for years and have a rather successful record and they needed some help so help was offered. The first few practices I really questioned if this was a mistake. I did not understand the plays, the symbols are all different, the movements are quicker and less procedural than I ever felt football was. I brought no knowledge of basketball to the equation and thus am very little help to my players. Luckily I have great coworkers that are trying to teach me. I am learning a little as we go, I can identify a play here or there, especially if they are going a bit slower. I can see issues where the players understanding is breaking down a bit more as we continue to work through things. In short, I am learning to understand basketball. Just like Math, Science, Social Studies and other subjects basketball has its own unique literacy. That system that helps us to understand it.

When I think about this I can’t help but think of the classroom, students learning at different rates, increased frustration as things just don’t seem to make sense, and that need for specific feedback to help bring about those needed understandings. 

This is why I think it is so important for teachers to keep learning. For us to read and research and build our playbook. When our students come to use for help we need to be prepared to help them, this might mean looking for research or asking a colleague but something must be done. Watching my frustrated players, not knowing how to help them was a tough experience. You try to be positive just like in a reading conference supporting the strengths but once that frustration hits an unmanageable level the kids don’t see their own strengths, they don’t see the good moments because their vision has been clouded by failure.

If it is on a Basketball court or in a classroom when things are going wrong we need to have the tools and skills to help make them right. As teachers or coaches, we need to work to be as prepared as we can be to serve those in our care. I am enjoying the learning process and the reminders hidden in the experience of what I need to continue to do in my classroom. 

December 6th 2018

Books aren’t written to be taught. They are written to be loved.” 

-Kylene Beers

I am constantly reminded of this post by Kylene Beers that was a simple twitter response that just resonated with me so much. The world of teacher social media seems more and more each day to fill with requests for activities to teach a book, assignments that people use to show accountability and understanding of the text. Cute Pinterest or Instagram posts of Teachers Pay Teachers activity booklets and novel studies. I know I have talked about this a lot lately but I think it is so important that we notice what we are really doing when we ask our students to do so much with these texts that we claim to love.

I love whole class novels, I love the shared reading experience of our extra large book club. I just finished the fabulous Restart by Gordon Korman. We had a wonderful time reading the book, laughing at the hijinks of Brendan Espinoza and discussing the characters in small groups and then as a whole class. We had lessons on theme and notice and note strategies using this wonderful text to practice our skills. In the end the students had 2 culminating assignments. One looking at elements of the book from a chosen selection of questions I knew they could answer because they were based on our class discussions and one full choice where I gave them suggestions but in the end it was up to them. Yes they could pick a diorama of a scene if they wanted but they could also recreate a scene and record it as a youtube video in tribute to the video club, they could write poems they could create things. It was up to them. The days following the books completion they worked hard on looking at the different themes they created board games to play with classmates but mostly we celebrated the book. A quick search on TPT brings me to 40 different options some free some for sale to study the book, task cards, literature circle worksheets, one seller titled Novels over Basals has “over 100 different extended response prompts” for sale for only $3.00. I am not hating on or shaming any of these people but I am questioning why we feel the need for 100 prompts, and the irony of the name “Novels over Basals” that reduces a beautiful books to “over 100” extended response questions is not lost on me. 

I wonder why we as teachers feel so strongly the need to justify our work with worksheets, why we feel we must “teach” a novel instead of teaching the skills with the novel as support. My curriculum says nothing of “Students will appreciate the character dynamics of the story Restart by Gordon Korman” but it does ask them to analyze theme in a variety of text. So we “teach” theme, we “teach” Signposts, we “teach” character attributes and then we apply that learning to discussion and reflection and hopefully not task cards, workbooks and novel studies. There are better ways to engage our students in reading beautiful stories than by fill in the blanking them to death and reducing these works of art to activities.   

This year as I have mentioned previously I started exploring TQE, a concept introduced by Marisa Thompson over on theunlimitedteacher.com. It has been a wonderful way to look at my students understanding, see if they have done the reading and watch their engagement with the classroom. I have moved even further away from photocopied work, further away from cute “canned” assignments and close to the authentic process that reading really is. Closer to what I do now with my friends as we look at a text together. Further from the things I had to do as a student that pushed me further away from the joy of reading.

It is my hope that I can continue on this road, we are talking books and literacy on my facebook group “Talking Books, Teaching and Literacy” we are working towards more appreciation of the author’s words and work in the classroom. I still have an assignment at the end of a text, I get that is something we are likely required to do, I just don’t overdo it anymore. 

Podcast Episode 7

Practice means “to try things that we can’t already do-to take chances, to make mistakes, and in short, to learn”

 -Gravity Goldberg in Teach Like Yourself quoting Trish Huston.

December already?

So I am sitting in my classroom working with The Chilling Tales of Sabrina playing in the background. Snow is starting to fall outside and I just finished going through reading notebooks. 

Notebooks or Journals… Just a name 

My students are required to use their Notebooks to practice the skills we use in class to help them become better readers and writers. I understand that there are some that would claim this work contributes to Readicide and I would have to disagree. I started using Notebooks (I call them journals) a few years ago. I saw some on social media and I loved that it collected the students work and also illustrated their year of growth. I have spent the last few years grappling with the idea of how best to apply this practice without making it TOO MUCH.

Choice…Assigned…A mix?

I have tried to be a free spirit and give 100% of the choice of “how” to my kids. TO let them tell me if they need to practice or not. That did not work as they rarely wanted to record any thoughts on paper. I went the opposite direction and required it for all reading both class and independent and well…that was TOO MUCH. So we restructured again. Now I feel like I have found a balance that works. We practice in the notebooks with shared texts and discuss our thinking, our writing in discussions in small groups, maybe adding to the TQE process and at times we work individually putting our reflections in to support later work. 

Independent work without fear

My fear was not about going up high but of falling.

-Gravity Goldberg “Teach Like Yourself”

The practice time is perfect for not getting things quite right, for sharing our ideas and making strategies fit our needs instead of making us fit the strategies. It is already December, we have finished our first round of practice looking at the wonderful story Restart by Gordon Korman and short stories like Fish Cheeks by Amy Tan, Poems like Mama by Jacqueline Woodson and the North Star by Peter Reynolds. We practice, practice, practice because in these moments we grow, we climb higher and then when we approach a text alone we are less afraid of the potential fall. Because, well, we know we can get up to climb again. 

Here are some examples for this last month in room 157. 7th Grade Journals with general reflections, different summary strategies, visualization strategies and BHH at work. 

The start of a thought

As I continue to reflect on the amazing experience that was NCTE and all the fun that was had learning and meeting my friends, mentors and idols in the literacy world a common theme stuck out to me in the sessions I attended. That being the need for students to be able to access text.

Now I am not talking just about the idea that they need to be able to connect to text be it as a mirror or window or door as is often mention I am talking about the limiting factor that some text can be for our striving or as Nancy Akhavan referred as extending readers. 

In one of my favourite session of the week, Kylene Beers talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The fact that when our thinking of a student is limited to what they can’t do we give up on teaching them skills beyond the basics, thinking, “If they can’t do this they surely can’t do that” This limiting of access to critical thinking strategies not only stunts the future potential of our students it also dishonours them. My dear friend and mentor in the joy of literacy Mary Howard discussed once on Twitter the fact that it is indeed our student’s birthright to receive the education and support they are in need of saying, 

“SUCCESS FOR EVERY CHILD IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY. SIMPLY GIVING A CHILD WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH YOUR TEACHING A GRADE THAT WILL SERVE ONLY TO MAKE THE CHILD FEEL LIKE A FAILURE  IS REALLY JUST REFLECTIVE OF YOUR FAILURE TO DO WHAT YOU ARE THERE TO DO. SUCCESS IS NOT RESERVED FOR A FEW BUT IS THE BIRTHRIGHT OF EVERY CHILD NO MATTER WHERE THEY MAY BE IN THE LEARNING PROCESS”

So as I listened to such amazing voices as Kylene Beers, Mary Howard, Bob Probst, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kate Roberts and so many more I started to ponder on what simple things we can do as teachers to close the gap, to help our students extend past where they are. To grant them access to the conversations that so often, sadly, are left open only for those already at the top.

Think Aloud

I feel like the answer, at least to start, comes in 2 simple steps. I have started looking at the work of Dr. Molly Ness regarding Think Alouds. I used them a lot in elementary school to guide students and model thinking as we approached a text. As I moved up in school I started to abandon the process mostly because I felt silly (a great reason to end good practice). When we look at the think aloud we need to remember that students that do not yet have the tools to internally do the thinking need the model, they need the steps but that little assist can yield huge gains. Yesterday I was reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my grade 7 class. As we read through the story I paused to discuss my thinking. We practice Notice and Note Signposts as a way to discuss our stories in class. This is a skill that at times is difficult for our extending learners, so we do it as a class. We point out the reoccurring elements the “Again and Again” and wonder about what they mean. We ponder on the words of the wiser, out loud, together. They start to notice without me, I step back and let them lead. It isn’t about levels when we think together and discuss our thoughts. It is about all being a part of the conversation, about my students witnessing that I too struggle with thinking it through at times.

Read Aloud

  I love to read aloud, mostly because I love to see the Aha moments my students have when they realize something important has occurred, the whispered lean to their shoulder partners or table groups as they predict, the writing of beautiful lines that stick out. Reading aloud to my students opens up a text in a different way. Students get a chance to focus on skills while I get the joy of focusing on words, on emphasizing just the right parts and leaving them hanging as a close the book at the “best part”. My favourite part though of a read aloud is the chance to do strategy work together, to move from the text into the talk. The moments before during and after where the class is discussing a shared experience and the different perspectives. Striving and Extending students often times gain access to an otherwise inaccessible experience when the reading is removed and the thinking can be amplified. I sat reading The North Star on Thursday and at moments I would just ask a simple question and wait for the discussions to roll in. I was not wondering about the sequence of events or the first animal the child encounters. It was not about right answers it was about many answers, many thoughts and many discussions. Read Aloud gives the teacher a chance to invite so many more to the table, to see what our students really can do not just what an assessment says they can. It is also just plain fun. 

Conclusion

Two simple steps. They require work but they are not complicated. They are not something that removes the teacher from the equation, they put us smack dab in the middle surrounded by curious, inquisitive learners developing the skills for themselves. You are not going to find some great read aloud or think aloud on Teachers Pay Teachers. You are not going to notice its star rating. Hopefully, you won’t be attaching some assignment that does the opposite of the beautiful intent of a read aloud. Your students will never fondly look back on the workbooks or quiz of the week but they will remember reading Scar Island or Restart or The Outsiders or Refugee or Freak the Mighty or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or any other title you share with them. If you need an assessment just look around the room at the kids eager to think with you, eager to discover with you and eager to hear what is coming next.

Just Read, Just Think it is that simple. These simple things open up the door for all learners. Why would we limit students to the basics when the world requires so much more? Read Aloud and Think Aloud provide the opportunities for all students to succeed and grow. 

I spent the morning in my classroom doing some cleaning and organizing bookshelves. So often while I reshelve books I pause and wonder which ones to feature, I think about past lessons that I have used the books as some instructional inspiration. Organizing picture books into different groupings like Peter Reynolds, Notice and Note and BHH, Mindset and Life Lessons, Social Studies and “Additional Awesome Books I just like to share with kids”  I just love all the different concepts that can be taught and explore within a picture book.

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I look over my comic books and know that there is a great movement in education right now incorporating all the amazing themes and character work in comics and I get anxiety over the “new” way to explore within these wonderful texts.

I am not a huge fan of front faced libraries when it comes to novels, I just don’t have the shelf space and find it is messy (yup a bit of a control freak) but today I thought about just front facing some titles as a bit of a showcase. For my reluctant readers, to add some diversity to the suggestions and just show off some of the titles I love (A few I have not read but they are authors I love or recommended by some pretty awesome people).

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I see this line so often, “How do you teach… The Giver, How to Kill a Mocking Bird, Outsiders, Refugee… the list goes on and on. I always think that it seems so impersonal when the words that an author puts on a page are just the opposite. So incredibly personal. You hear JK Rowling talk about her love for her characters, the tears she shed as some died throughout the books. I can’t imagine she ever envisioned a 225 page Novel Study to “teach” Prisoner of Azkaban. For only 25 dollars you too can own it on TPT. Or heck why not get the MEGA PACK covering Books 1-3 for all your teaching needs for only 60 dollars. I can’t imagine reducing a story of redemption and perseverance like Azkaban to a workbook but hey we gotta teach the books.

I can’t help but wonder how much our students learn to dislike reading because of the “teaching” of books. We can explore books, we can use them to help illustrate a concept but breaking them down to a page by page workbook is disrespectful to the stories, to the characters and to the authors. Buying the workbook is likely some form of copyright violation as the author probably gave no permission for their intellectual property to be sold off to teachers who are desperate for a way to “teach”. Finally, these workbooks rob us too. They rob teachers of the opportunity to read with their students, to enjoy the moments together.

Many of the leaders in literacy I have the chance to learn from discuss multiple factors to creating a classroom of kids who love to read. Passionate teachers sharing titles, access to books, removing levels as a tool for segregation and time to read and apply knowledge. None mention workbooks, none mention a teaching really just “teaching” a book so hard that readers are born. They don’t mention it because it doesn’t happen. Readers are not born in the pages of workbooks. They are born as a Patronus Charm explodes over a lake, they are born as a Wild Robot returns home, they are born in the final moments of Refugee as the story is so beautifully woven together.

We need to stop being so concerned with how to teach books. We need to get back to the business of helping students love them.

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I have always wanted to use this quote

Please bear with me as I use one of my favourite movie moments to set the scene for this post. I loved the movie The American President as a kid. A scene has always stuck out to me between President Shepard and one of his advisors. A particularly tense moment when the advisor played the amazing Michael J. Fox speaks out about the Presidents lack of aggression in getting his message out there:

Lewis: People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Sheperd: Lewis, we’ve had Presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, Lewis. They drink it because they don’t know the difference.

I look at this quote often when discussing teaching practice and trying to answer the question of why teachers continue to use and defend online reading programs and activity booklets from Teachers Pay Teachers. I am going to take a bit of liberty here in making the connection but It should be a fun little ride.

First, let’s apply this scenario of being forced to drink sand to two different groups. Students and Teachers.

When we take out leadership from the quote and replace it with authentic engaging literacy work the same applies. Students crave to have work that engages them, they will dive into books that catch their imagination that light that creative flame that fills the room. When they are presented instead with only drills in isolation, program readers and books that are outdated but the teachers have taught for years and are comfortable they will still do the work but the enjoyment will not be there. They are trusting us to give them that promised water as they work through the desert and instead we give them cups and cups of sand. They choke it down but they will know better for next time. They are less likely to be lead through the desert with the promise of something better at the end. We must be prepared with all that amazing life-giving water at the end.

That brings us to the teachers. I am not here to condemn all teachers, not by any means. I think many of us (myself included for a time) are being tricked by the mirage of easy literacy instruction and when we get to it and realize it is sand we don’t know any better. The promises of a quick assessment on a computer that will level your students for easy grading, the novel studies and units that you can download at the click of a mouse for the low price of 5.99, but the high price of deep meaningful instruction purposefully tailored to your unique class.

In both of these scenarios, we can easily correct our path we just need to make a commitment to do it.

Steps to Replace Sand with Water

Sand -Accelerated Reader as Assessment or Accountability tool: The common argument that I hear often is that AR is a good quick assessment or accountability tool. How else can we know our students are reading and understanding a text?

Water– Conferencing: In minutes I can tell if a student is truly reading a text when I am talking to them. We can set goals for book completion and I can get a handle on their comprehension. The best part is it takes moments and you get a more complete picture over time than any “point and click” test with low-level knowledge questions will ever provide. I have never had a student request to do AR tests, I have never had a student come and talk to me about why AR being removed from their life has made their reading journey less enjoyable. Never.

Sand – Class Novels with little to no choice. I think this is a tricky one because some will argue against full class novels completely, others embrace them fully and there is a large group in between that use them in different ways. I will completely show my cards on this and say that I am in the third camp, I use them but with options. The sand of the full class novel tends to come with text choice. Students with no connection to a book, books chosen because “we have a set” or unfortunately the “well I read it when I was a kid”. All of these reasons come up and none of them has to do with the students.

Water- Whole class novels can be a great tool to build a community of conversation around a shared text. The text and how we use it is the difference maker from sand to water. A text that students play a role in selecting, a text that is relevant and a text that provides opportunities to be a mirror, window or door are the kid of whole class novels that students really “thirst” for. Classics are great, my students loved the Outsiders last year. I loved reading Lord of the Flies in 9th grade. I didn’t love The Grapes of Wrath. Sand vs Water.

Sand– Trading Cute for Content with Teachers Pay Teachers and buying into programs to simplify the process. I see the comments made a lot, “I love this unit I bought on Teachers Pay Teachers it made teaching (insert book) so easy, the kids just read through and do the workbook” There is so much that qualifies as sand in this statement I don’t know where to begin. How about “this is so cute and fun I want to make it my room theme” and it takes up the space that student work should have in the room. The Instagram classrooms selling out our students for some flexible seating sponsorships, this IS the mirage, the distraction that pulls us all in and in the end all we have is sand.

Water- Beautiful books and meaningful strategies to make text accessible. First, let me just repeat the words of a great educator, Kylene Beers said: “Books aren’t written to be taught, they are written to be loved”. This statement alone has been water in the desert for me but beyond that, it helps to shift the focus away from teaching tools and towards books. We should be making the text accessible through strategies, talking about them celebrating them having conversations that deepen our understanding. Maybe it is Signposts and the discussions that come from them, maybe it is TQE and magical moments it has already lead to in my classroom. I know for certain it is not fill in the blank questions and vocabulary tests.

When faced with nothing else students will drink the sand. We have to make sure that we are providing meaningful literacy work that makes the mirage a reality. The provides students with wonderful books and the means to enjoy them, think about them, talk about them and understand them without jeopardizing their reading futures.