Chiller Book Clubs–Yes, I Went There

I’m with the kids–dolls are scary!

My school’s PTO is paying to have Johnathan Rand, the author of two insanely popular series (Michigan Chillers and American Chillers), visit our school in March.  Rand’s books have been a staple of independent reading in my classroom for several years, and a few of my students were excited to hear that he was stopping by.  And (as I do) I started thinking about how we rarely have author visits, and how it would be nice to really get kids revved up.  The short version–our principal coughed up the money for some small sets of Chillers, and now my class has begun a short book club experience.  I was not excited, because while I see the appeal of these series for many students…they’re just not my thing.

Thank goodness I ignored my personal tastes, because boy howdy!  Virtually every student is tearing through their books.  We had our first, very informal book club meeting today (they got the books Monday) and kids had their heads together, engrossed in conversations about main characters, opening books to share parts and arguing over the scariness factor (consensus is that monsters aren’t scary, but dolls that come alive are pretty creepy).

Yeah, I know.  We aren’t exactly hitting the complex texts with those close and critical reading lenses here.  But at the beginning of the year, most of the kids in this class self-identified as reluctant readers (and most of the parents identified their kids the same way).  So to see them engaged enough to argue about how big the ogre really could be, or whether the main character is too stupid to survive, is AWESOME.  So what if no Chillers made it into the appendices of CCSS?  We’re digging them up in Room 116!


Osu, or, Cultivating Empathy for My Students

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

My nephew has what the sensei calls strong spirit.

Last year I signed my nephew up for beginning karate and started carting him to lessons twice weekly.  And I watched a bit in between grading papers.  It looked interesting.  And kind of difficult.  The sensei was very patient, however, and the nephew responded to instruction and caught on well.  He moved up half a rank (to “white belt with yellow stripe”), and we were suitably impressed.  He moved up to the intermediate class.  And that is when I enrolled for beginning karate.

As a teacher, I’ve always felt that it is important to maintain a strong connection to my role as a learner.  And I’ve completed college courses, but that sort of learning is deep inside my comfort zone.  So I’ve tried to find learning opportunities that push me in different ways.  A few years ago I started playing video games, and while there are always new places to go with that, I’m not regularly pushed into cognitive dissonance at this point.  So I’ve spent the last four months taking karate.  And it is freaking hard for me.

I do not have the natural coordination of many other students.  I am out of shape, sweaty and out of breath with alarming frequency.  The instructors do not cut me slack because I am the old lady in a group of kids.  The kids do not cut me slack, although they are encouraging.  Just when I get the hand motions under control, I am told my stance is all wrong.  I fix that,  then my shoulders are telegraphing the punches.  I fix that, and my feet are pointing the wrong way.  I fix that, and now my hand motions are going wild–again.  Did I mention how freaking hard this is for me?

I think about quitting.  I think about my students–that kid who just can’t seem to remember how to round numbers.  That other kid who hates reading aloud, because she knows (she KNOWS) that she’s the slowest and makes lots of errors.  I so get that, I really do.  And karate is the latest pursuit that keeps the learner’s struggle front and center within me.  I watch the instructors cycle through the class, correcting errors, observing, giving encouragement.

And when I get that hand motion right, and the sensei tells me so, I feel that little rush of victory.  I hang onto that.  I say, “Osu.”  Depending on how you translate, this means different things.  One sensei described osu as perseverance.   I read another interpretation–push and suffer.  In teaching, we might frame it as productive frustration.  I want to teach my students like this.  Push, struggle, make a small victory, use it to fuel that next push.

My first belt test is coming up in a week or two, and I am nervous.  Deeply nervous.  I have tried to be the best learner I know how to be, but it may not be enough to pass.  What if I fail?  Yes, I know–if you give it your best shot, you can be proud of yourself regardless of the results.  You can try again.  (But don’t we all want to get it right the first time through?)  Being a learner sometimes means coaching yourself to the occasional hard truth.

So I need to go practice my kata instead of blogging about it.  Maybe next year I”ll take up knitting or learn to write HTML or something.  The task isn’t necessarily important–it is the benefit of feeling all the horror and glory–push and suffer–that is my true goal.  When I stop being a learner, I stop being an effective teacher. Osu!

Reflections on PD & Choice & Hope

I am not, as I recently heard a colleague say in reference to herself, a “Positive Polly”.  At least not lately.  The confluence of broken contract negotiations, laws and media that attack my profession, the retirement of a beloved boss, and a new teaching assignment (in addition to personal life stuff) has left me feeling…lost and afraid, I suppose.  But in the midst of winter, I found, if not an “invincible summer” (sorry Ralph Waldo), something to inspire hope.  I want to share.

District teachers and administrators met for a day of professional development on MLK day last week.  I have a rocky history with district-sponsored PD.  This time was different.  In advance of the day, our new assistant superintendent for instruction organized several folks from both within and outside the district, to offer conference-style workshops.  Even better, staff were given the opportunity to select the sessions that most interested them.  There were nearly a couple of dozen choices, and I found myself in the wonderful position of having to choose between multiple learning opportunities of interest to me.  I also  had a chance to present, which was a great learning experience.  This probably doesn’t sound all that groundbreaking to the larger world, but it was a big deal to me and many of my colleagues.

Being given choice is something that every learner, and most educators these days, know the power of.  The opportunity to choose confers an unspoken respect on the chooser.  The message I got was, “Hey, you are trusted and competent, and we’d like to offer you some opportunities to continue to evolve your practice in ways you deem most appropriate as a reflective educator.”  And it just felt really good.  Like a little ray of light in the dark.

dark candle by Wim Vandenbussche

And I’m going to try and hang onto that.  The professional development I signed up for challenged my thinking, and that is important.  And the way the PD was planned and implemented is also challenging me to re-frame how I see my circumstances.  For me, at this moment, that is of greater importance.

Missives from the Dojo

Back in November I wrote about using a couple of new tools for motivating students and managing/tracking behavior, Class Dojo and  We’ve been at it for a few months now, and I’ve learned a few things.

1.  I am pretty good with the whole Positive Behavior Management thing, and using the dojo helps me to stay on track.  Since every point that a child gets has to be immediately classified, I can give specific feedback about behavior–no “caught being ‘good'” scenarios for me!  And I’ve trained my students that, if another staff member hands them that kind of thing, they need to ask WHY they are being rewarded.  Because guess what?  Before I taught them to ask, most student did NOT know why they were getting little reward cards.

2.  I have some routine items that students expect.  Each day I pick one or two points that everyone gets a dojo point opportunity on–sometimes as simple as having first and last name at the top of assignments, other times showing reflective listening skills in partner talk.  Y’know, positive behaviors.  That keeps me from forgetting completely as we get immersed in lessons.

3.  I kind of suck at tracking negative behaviors.  I am not as consistent about making sure that these behaviors are recorded in the dojo.  It’s just so HARD to lose instructional time, even a few seconds beyond that already lost in giving corrective feedback and problem-solving these behaviors.  I haven’t got this part down.  Yet.

4.  So far students are still invested in the Dojo leveling process I’ve cooked up, and I haven’t seen any competitiveness or jerk-like behaviors.  Kids have their badges displayed proudly, stuck on their desks or on a binder.  We do a badge/dojo mini-ceremony once every two weeks, and the students seem to be invested in earning badges.

5.  The struggle is keeping each “level” fresh.  We’ve talked about how, in most games, leveling up sometimes comes with rewards, and sometimes just comes with the glory of achievement.  Students are at various levels, from Level 2 to Level 4, and most have earned some achievement badges that are separate from the dojo/leveling, for things like mastering math facts or visiting a local museum or planetarium on their own time.  I want to do more event-based badges, just for the fun of it.  Partly because, that’s how achievements in most games work, and also because I don’t want this to become a “grind-fest” for points and levels. (Non-gamers–grinding in a game is when you have to complete tasks that are repetitive and non-engaging simply to move forward in a game.)

I am still pretty excited about this aspect of our classroom community, and ready to take some next steps.  First, I’d like to have students design some achievements.  Second, I think I’m ready to invite parents into this experience more.  Class Dojo has a reporting form and classbadges has special logins for both students and parents to view achievements.

So this week, students will work in groups to design proposals for achievement and also perks for leveling.  I’ll get back to you on that.

One more thing.  I would not–no way, uh-uh, forgetaboutit–attempt classroom management/motivation stuff this complex without the support of these technology tools.  Time is an incredibly precious resource to all teachers, and I am so not an exception to that rule.  The dojo and badge systems are quick to use, easy to manage, and simple to communicate to others.

When is failure failure?

The Labyrinth of Failure, or Model of Organizational Politics? You decide!

As part of the 10,000 education reforms that seem to be rolling out in Michigan and elsewhere, each teacher in my district was tasked with developing a specific, measurable teaching goal for the year.  In future, this will be part of how I and other teachers are evaluated and compensated, but for now it is, I think, practice.  I’ll skip opining about the silliness of a single goal for a general classroom teacher.

Here is my goal for the year:  In two of my writing units (narrative and informational, respectively), all of my students will move up at least one level on the assessment rubric in at least two of the four assessed areas (content/ideas, organization, style/voice, and conventions).

I scored the post-assessments for my narrative writing unit.  I have already failed to meet my goal.

…So.  What does that mean?  That is what I have to figure out for myself, I think.  Certainly, my first moves were to carefully examine pre- and post data, to review student work samples (rough drafts and published work) from the unit, and to glance over anecdotal notes from the course of instruction.  When I look at all this information, I feel really good about the progress of each student in my class.  Everyone shows growth.  Some just didn’t show that growth in the on-demand prompt for the post assessment.  Clearly, this is what is important…but it doesn’t change the fact that I cannot meet my goal, the one that impacts my evaluation for the year.

…So.  What should I do?  I could just keep plugging away at narrative writing, trying to lift those rubric scores.  But narrative writing is only a part of the Common Core, and informational and persuasive writing will need many, many weeks of dedicated instruction.  Do I just skip persuasive writing, the way some of my colleagues just skip social studies or science instruction, and devote more time to the areas that most effect my evaluation (and, theoretically, income)?

And what lesson do I take from this?  I could set a far more modest goal in future, a sure thing.  Honestly, that may be what happens.  But it makes me queasy just thinking of it.  That’s just not who I want to be.  I want my goals for student learning to be both ambitious and reasonable whenever possible.  My gut tells me it is better to set a somewhat tough goal and “fail” then to succeed at not-very-much.  But there is now another voice in my head, a tiny voice that says that if my pay ends up cut because I don’t meet a single goal that I had a hand in setting, that it may be time to lower my standards.  I already miss the days when my focus could remain on my students and I didn’t have to think about this kind of stuff.

Am I failing?  Maybe.  But I am failing the system, not my students.  For now, I can live with that.

The kick-butt reading teacher rides again!


Many hours have gone into reshaping my classroom library to fit the new third and fourth graders who will be cruising through the door tomorrow. The above nonfiction shelf is just one part of that project, and things are looking…good.
As big as the physical job was, the really important work starts tomorrow when 24 new readers come together and begin a new learning year. Will they like using my new book boxes? Will I? Which books will set the class on fire with excitement? Who will be voracious, and who will need to be nudged and lured and led into reading? I can’t wait to find out.

There’s one big decision I haven’t made yet, and that is…what book will be my first read aloud??? I’ve narrowed down the list, but I am still debating. When in doubt, any book that I demonstrably love will serve. Good luck to all as we start a new year of reading and learning and reading and learning!

Hacking a Trail to Common Core Writing–Part 2 (Sort Of)

“Even while we focus on building a culture that supports change, we know that to date, tests are the tail that wags the dog.  They matter.”  (Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, p. 181)

Sometimes, the current climate about and within my chosen profession definitely makes me feel like a dog whose tail is wagging her to death.  And the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) could easily be interpreted as a piece of this–national standardization is a highly politicized issue.  But what I’ve been trying to do over the past year is separate that piece from the content itself.  When I read through the standards thoughtfully, reflectively, I agree with the shift toward informational and persuasive/argumentative writing.  It feels like a missing component in elementary curriculum and instruction, at least from my vantage point and experience.

So last year I focused on four main units of study–the first was a combination launch unit and test writing unit, since our annual state assessment, the MEAP, lands in October.  The second unit was a narrative writing unit, which was fairly similar to what I have done in previous years.  The third unit was informational writing, which again was similar to previous years.  Finally, I ended the year with a persuasive/argument writing unit, and that was different.  For the past several years I have ended with poetry and/or fiction writing.  While I missed some of the “fun” factor of poetry and fiction writing, I definitely saw the value of the persuasive work, and it really flowed naturally from and built upon the informational writing we’d been practicing earlier in the year.

I predict this shift will be hard for many elementary teachers, especially those who have been hanging onto things like holiday fiction writing (October = Scary Story, December = Christmas Story, etc.).  Some will try to do both, and maybe that will work for them.  Here’s the problem–the CCSS are designed with the idea of making all students the kind of writers who can produce quality work independently and on a regular basis.  The words I’ve bolded, when hung together, are a HUGE TASK.  This is time-and-resource-intensive work, and Calkins, Ehrenworth and Lehman emphasize the need for keeping a priority on writing time, rather than letting other parts of the school day  “outsource” writing.

They also emphasize how, with the focus on informational and persuasive writing, content areas like science and social studies need to be important parts of meeting CCSS in writing.  As I look toward the future, I will be interested to see how teachers embrace this in authentic ways.  I want my students to have enough choice in topic and theme to feel empowered as writers.  I want them to write for the world–in the past we’ve done digital stories and designed video games as part of our informational and persuasive writing.  Common Core doesn’t have to get in the way of what I most want for my students, but it does remind me of my obligation to use both the processes of writing as well as the products to grow my writers.  Third and fourth graders should be learning to construct what the CCSS call a “logical structure”–does that mean a five paragraph essay, or are there other possibilities?  That is still up to the teacher to decide.  For now, anyway.

At the end of the book, the authors devote a chapter to using the CCSS to guide school reform, and they encourage schools to view the standards as a revision of the curriculum rather than an addition to the curriculum.  They also recommend that schools choose one or two priorities as a learning community and commit to those priorities.  It may be that my school district or school building comes together for this work–or maybe not.  Still, the ideas are ones I can embrace as a single teacher–envision reading and writing guided by the common core, and choose a couple of priorities to embrace and work toward in my class of readers and writers.

At the moment, I’m leaning toward making a priority of bringing writing into  science and social studies in more meaningful ways than I have in the past.  My second priority is going to be advocacy for protected reading time both in my own classroom and in my school community.  Those are big jobs–wish me luck.

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