If a day ever comes where I stop learning, it will be a sad day indeed. Like any good teacher, I believe in the revolutionary power of education, and I know that learning drives progress. But how do we continue to set professional goals during summer break and battle teacher burnout?
If any of you are like me, the first two weeks of break involved as little intellectual stimulation as possible. Pleasure reading, playing with my daughter, online shopping, and countless episodes of Call the Midwife have dominated my summer so far. But, as inevitably happens, as we near the midway point of week 3, I find myself needing to be productive.
We all know that professional development is important. And for many of us, it’s mandatory, so whether you like it or not, sister you’re learning something new (or brother… we don’t discriminate here!) But my introductory exposure to PD has led me to see that the options for approved professional development don’t always align with what we want to learn. Rather, we must try to find a course that has something we can grasp onto that might align with next year’s goals. Or, if we do find something that perfectly aligns, it may conflict with other obligations, which means we have to bypass it.
Summer is a time for catching up on your Next List or traveling or chasing after kids, etc. It’s also really easy to waste all of those weeks doing nothing productive, then looking up with the new year looming just a few days away and realizing you are in no way prepared. So how do we battle this? Here are some tips and tricks to help make sure you stay on track this summer.
Make a List
The first thing you need to do is to decide what you want next year to look like. Are there new strategies you want to try? New classroom norms you want to implement? Do you need to create a Donors Choose for something your classroom desperately needs? Making lists is such an easy place to start. And, the great thing is that a list will give you some direction when you find yourself floundering in all of that newfound free time.
Set a Schedule
Now that you have that list, you need to put it to use. Which means setting a schedule. If it’s a Donors Choose, you know you need to have that created ASAP or it won’t be funded in time. If it’s something that requires research, you can set reading goals and determine a finish date. Either way, setting a schedule will help prevent that dreaded monster we fight with our students all year–procrastination.
Read the Books
If there’s something new you’re thinking of trying (and if you haven’t tried anything new in a while, then it’s time to revamp!) then seeking out the expertise of those who have gone before is never a bad idea. Ask your PLN for book recommendations (maybe that PLN includes us. And if it does, we are always glad to offer up what we’re reading/studying). Peruse your shelves for books that maybe you’ve read, but you could revisit for new strategies. Maybe you have books that you’ve been dying to read but just haven’t had the time. Or maybe your Audible que if full of the recommendations you’ve been stockpiling throughout the year. Whatever it may be, there is no better time than summer for reading. So. Read the books. Learn the things.
I don’t know about you all, but I am very stingy with my personal time. Having to pick my daughter up at daycare insures that I leave work by 4 every day, and once I’m home, I try to be home. Which means I need to make the most of the hours I have at school.
This also means that if I use my summer wisely, I can better prioritize my time during the year.
Obviously, I can’t plan my whole year to a T (read my Back to Basics post for the importance of adaptability), but I can produce an outline of what I want to cover when (ex–180 days by Kittle and Gallagher). I can roughly decide how I want to approach concepts. I can brainstorm and develop creative, engaging activities that will (hopefully) get my students excited about learning.
By putting in the work now, I’m saving precious time later, so that school doesn’t dominate my life when I’m not there.
Summer should not be dominated by work. With the time and energy educators put in during the school year, you’ve earned this break. And, realistically, for many of you this is a time of second jobs (or third jobs) so you really don’t get much of a break at all. So I’m not saying you should dive all in and monopolize time that should be spent with family or on self care.
I do think, however, that by being proactive, we can set ourselves up for a little less stress later. I hope the tips listed above help, and if you have anything that specifically works for you, please share below.
So set those Professional Goals. But remember to take care of yourself too! Happy summer.
Since I’m home with my daughter this summer, I’ve decided to make it my mission to teach her how to read. We’ve always kept a text-rich environment in our home, and recently, she has been showing me signs that she’s ready. So for the past two days, we’ve been doing “school”–setting aside about 20 minutes to work on the basics.
Primary education is not my forte. I do NOT do well with other people’s small children, and I thrive more in an environment where I am just as intellectually challenged as my students. But lately, I’ve been considering the possibility of homeschooling my daughter, and I thought teaching her to read would be a nice little indicator if this is something she and I can do successfully together.
It’s funny. Working with a three year old, I realize in some ways, I do not have strength in some of the skills needed to be that rockstar teacher for her. On the other hand, I feel like teaching secondary last year is helping me in ways I wouldn’t have realized.
Teaching her to read is kind of like coming full circle–going back to the beginning, where my love of literature started, and hoping that passion transfers to her. And this whole process has made me look at teaching in a new light. It’s refreshing, and it reminds me of some of the things I think it’s easy to forget.
Individualizing Instruction Makes All the Difference
J. is three. This means she has a short attention span, boundless energy, and endless curiosity. I have to switch gears pretty quickly to keep her engaged, involve technology, and practice patience as she wriggles and moves during one of our lessons.
We all know that every kid doesn’t learn the same. And with a system created during the industrial revolution, we know that many of our students are not in an environment that is conducive to optimal learning. As class sizes grow and teachers fall under more strain, it’s difficult to keep up with everything we have to do. But there are few things that can compete with individualizing instruction for our students. Obviously, we cannot create a custom learning plan for every student that comes through our classroom. It’s just not possible. But we can incorporate strategies that focus on choice and self-directed learning, through which we can help guide our students so that they receive the best education we have to offer.
Adaptability is Key
I can try to plan a lesson. I can script what I’ll say, do hours of research, and create amazing activities. But all of that means squat if I can’t be adaptable. We all know that with toddlers, you must be able to shift gears quickly, but the same goes for the seniors I taught last year.
Yes, do the research, write your script, go crazy with adorable supplies you found at your local craft store, and create those truly incredible activities. All of these things are important, and I’m a firm believer in approaching teaching in a way that makes you feel energized and excited. BUT none of those things take into account the fact that our students are human. That they wriggle, fall asleep, have angry outbursts, will not (for the love of all that is holy) quit trying to sneak in time on their phones, and ask questions we could never in a million years anticipate.
It doesn’t matter how many hours you put in. At the end of it all, if you can’t roll with the punches and adapt to the needs of your students, you are not going to be able to reach them.
Students Know When You Care
Are you excited about your subject? Do you radiate enthusiasm in your classroom? Or have you lost sight of why you began teaching in the first place and dread going to work?
Students can tell. No matter what society may tell us, students are intuitive. They know when you’re there for them versus when you don’t even know why you’re there anymore. They know if you care about them and their learning. They know if you love (or hate) what you teach.
If they don’t like you, kids aren’t going to work for you. That’s the truth. And if they know you don’t care, then they’re definitely not going to. Your energy in the classroom is infectious, and students are going to give back what you put in.
Sometimes, we have to forget the standards, forget the obligations, forget the mountains of stress and just show up for our kids. At the end of the day, if my students have learned something from me, even if it doesn’t fall under a state mandated standard, I feel I have accomplished something. We spend more time with our students than anyone else. We have more influence than we realize. So when we show that we care about what they’re learning and if they’re learning it, we can make a difference.
The tips listed above may seem obvious to you. At first, I wondered if they were even worth writing down for you all. But I think in the midst of everything educators have to worry about, we sometimes forget even the most basic things. We fall down that dark hole of obligation, crushed by the expectations heaped on us by the state, by our communities, by our colleagues.
I’m hear to tell you that when you feel lost or overwhelmed, take it back to the basics. Remember why you stepped into the classroom. Remember your mission. Because in the end, we are there for our kids, and they are what’s important.
Before starting year one, I see-sawed back and forth on the idea of becoming an educator. On the one hand, I loved the idea of having a job where I could make a true difference. Where I could change someone’s life through education. I know this sounds idealistic, but I relished the opportunity to have a space to affect change, no matter how small, rather than working in a mindless 9-5.
On the other hand, I spent a semester of grad school teaching developmental English to college freshmen and I hated it. Of course, I spent half the semester displaced with no classroom, working another part time job and writing my thesis. I had a 30 minute commute to the university, one way. I was stressed to the max and had no time to prepare my lessons. All of this could have contributed to my distaste for the profession, but just in case I loathed it for another reason, I teetered on the brink of decision. For a long time, when people asked me if I was getting a degree in English so that I could teach, I rebelled against the idea.
There are several events that finally led to my stepping into the classroom. I won’t bore you with them, but they spurred me into a desperate action that resulted in obtaining my teaching certification.
I walked in on my first day as an idealistic dreamer . I thought I had a relatively accurate view of young adults and what we could accomplish in class, but after that first week…nay, that first day…I knew I had been viewing everything through rose colored glasses.
I came home after my first day knowing that I had made a mistake. I knew it to my core. I counted the days left in my head, and the distance between that first day and the end of the year seemed insurmountable.
Then I got to know my kids. I realized teaching was something I was a natural at. I readjusted my expectations and had small successes. I grew comfortable in my role as educator.
That’s not to say that this year has been perfect. My first novel unit was a disaster. The end of my first semester left me seething as students railed against the grades I was giving them, even though those grades were justified. I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with my seventh period that left me shaking. I can count on one hand the number of times I have stood in front of the classroom for the last eight weeks. I have graded with more grace than I probably should have, trying to compensate for my own lack of knowledge, despite knowing that this is crippling my students.
I say all of this because there is one thing I’ve noticed about life. People tend to sugarcoat their experiences, highlighting only the good and leaving out the bad. Or they sit in their misery and refuse to acknowledge all of the positive things that have come out of their situation.
I experienced this after having my first baby, blood boiling because no one told me all of the hardships that come along with adding a new member to your family (outside of the obvious demands of a newborn). I experienced it when I began taking care of my body, with friends who tried to guilt me because they couldn’t (wouldn’t) carve out time in their own lives to do the same. And I experienced it when I went through my teacher training program, trained to deal with a perfect world scenario rather than reality.
People rarely give you the whole picture, and it’s frustrating.
Year one has been a mix of good and bad. I have had moments of euphoria and I have had days that have left me in tears. I have reached some students while some will always have that brick wall I can’t break through. I have sparked creativity in some, while others could not think out of the box. I have been thanked for being considerate, while others critique me no matter how far I bend.
Teaching is not perfect. Teaching is hard, because we deal with hormonal human beings on a daily basis and that creates an environment of unpredictability. Teaching means choosing between family time and grading, taking a lunch or planning a lesson. Teaching means getting thrown into subsequent roles you aren’t qualified/prepared for, and having to figure it out. Teaching is having to cover for a coworker, when you really need that conference period to work.
Teaching also means inspiring students. Teaching means saying the right thing to the right person and watching their eyes light up. Teaching means showing your passion for your subject so that your students can see something they hadn’t realized was there. Teaching means preparing students for the next phase in their lives. Teaching means making a difference in a system that seems to suffocate your efforts.
To any first year teacher who may be reading this, I want you to know that I see your struggle. And I have some advice for you.
Know your kids
Know that your kids are human. They have problems at home, they’re over-committed to extra-curricular activities, they work at least one job, they haven’t always had consistency in their education. They are just as tired and stressed out as we are.
Does this mean we should allow excuses? No. But I do think that students appreciate it when we recognize that our class isn’t their only commitment. Respect their schedules. Respect them as people. Bend when necessary and remain firm when they need it.
You are going to feel like you’re drowning this year. Between navigating a new profession, planning lessons, grading assignments, and just trying to maintain a hold on your sanity, you are going to have a lot to juggle. Respect your limitations.
If you let people abuse your willingness to please, you are going to end up overworked and burning out by year three. So say yes to the things you feel you can’t live without, and politely decline the rest.
Leave it on your desk
There are going to be times you have to grade at home. That’s inevitable. There are times when you have to plan a last minute lesson. As educators, we can’t always leave work at work. As an English teacher, this seems to be even harder to do. After all, we are told students should be writing every day, right?
But if you’re getting to school at six and working until eight every day? Take a step back. If you are wasting your weekends grading? Stop it. Talk to your team, or send a message/Tweet out to your PLN and get some advice on strategies you can adopt to lessen your workload. Find what works for you.
Leave it on your desk. This is, at the end of the day, just a job.
You don’t have to take all of the advice given to you
Some of the advice I’ve been given this year by veteran teachers has been fantastic. My team has helped me so much, and I know I can always go to them for help when I have a problem.
Some of their advice has just not worked for me. I tried implementing strategies during my first week that felt foreign and counter-intuitive. And you know what? I dropped those strategies early on because they weren’t working. They were tailored for personalities drastically different from my own, and I couldn’t bring myself to consistently implement them. And that’s okay.
You don’t have to follow all of the advice you have received. Find what works for you and stay with it. But if it doesn’t work? Drop it and find something that does.
Show your students how to fail gracefully
Guess what. You’re going to fail at something during your first year. It might be one something. It might be multiple somethings. But you. will. fail.
During that first semester, I had housekeeping meetings fairly regularly. I would tell my students if something wasn’t working and we needed to fix it. I would recognize my own mistakes.
I would admit that I was human.
I created a dialogue about our learning and showed them that education is messy. I showed them I wasn’t afraid to mess up. I showed them I could also succeed. And my biggest hope is that they absorbed some of those lessons, so that they won’t be afraid of failure in their own lives.
Wow, this post is long. I just scrolled back through and realized there are A LOT of words here. But I wanted to speak on this subject because I felt that I couldn’t find anyone being real about teaching as I was coming in to the profession. So I wanted to give you my thoughts, share what I’ve learned, and to tell you this:
This is going to be hard. You’re either going to love it or hate it. You will fail, and you will shine. But at the end of the day, your job is about the kids in your room who need someone to believe in them, someone to push them. And you need to believe in yourself. You can do this. When you feel like you can’t, reevaluate. Be honest with yourself. And if you need a friend to talk you through, send me your thoughts and I’ll be that person. Don’t be afraid to fail, but don’t be afraid to succeed either. You got this.
Inspiring Learners (Pernille Ripp) is one of those books that just makes you want to be a better educator. As I read it, I was constantly highlighting sections I knew I would want to return to as I begin preparing for next year. But my favorite thing about this resource was not necessarily the inspiring message. Instead, it was the questions it left me asking myself by the end. Important questions. BIG questions. Questions made only more relevant as I prepared to proctor the STAAR test this week.
As I observed students taking this state-mandated test, I was struck with what I noticed. There were students you could just tell would do fantastically well. They knew all of the right things to do, had all of the right strategies in their tool belts. There were the students who didn’t care–the ones who sat there drawing on their tests, then quickly scanned the material and haphazardly bubbled in answers. And then there were those students who, no matter how hard they tried, were just going to be defeated by a score assigned to them that has nothing to do with their actual ability.
And this is what students think is the point of school. This test, in which they have no say, and which seems to determine so much.
In April 2015, The Guardian published an article about Ken Robinson and his ideas about the standardization of public schools:
“As a result, we are at risk of inculcating an industrial education system producing compliant, linear pupils. ‘The emphasis on testing comes at the expense of teaching children how to employ their natural creativity and entrepreneurial talents – the precise talents that might insulate them against the unpredictability of the future in all parts of the world.’ “
Rather than nurturing the diverse talents of our students, we are pushing them through a mill of standardization and sameness. Which just doesn’t make sense. In response to this idea, Pernille Ripp begs us to reflect on our own learning. How many of us did well in the public school system? If that answer is very few, then why do we continue to teach in the tradition of those who came before?
Now I want you to ask how many of us thrived. Because there is a major difference in a student who has figured out the system, and one who truly thrives in the academic environment we have created.
One of our jobs as educators is to prepare students for success in life outside of school. And something we should be aware of is that the job markets of the future are rapidly changing. Advances in technology, an era of start-ups, and the rise of importance in entrepreneurship are creating job markets where certain skill sets are valued above others. According to youthpower.org, the top 10 skills for 2020 are as follows:
Complex problem solving
Coordinating with others
Judgement and decision making
Let that list sink in for a moment. These are the skills needed for high school students that will be entering the job market in the next five years. What do you notice?
I notice that students need to be adaptable, creative, team players and problem solvers. Then the big one–cognitive flexibility. I look at these words and I wonder at a system that routinely crushes creativity and curiosity. If we want our students to thrive, we need to reconsider our strategies. We need to create environments that celebrate individuality within the learning process. Environments that challenge, require students to problem solve, include real-life application for the standards being taught. And I, for one, feel like standardized testing weakens this system. We need something in place that helps to foster an infrastructure that empowers students to think on their own, based on their intellectual strengths.
How do we do this? I don’t have the answer. But I do know that it starts in the classroom. It starts with what and how we teach our kids. It starts with us.
I write this to raise this issue for you, but I also write it for myself. As a first year teacher, I have let a lot slide. I am not always proud of the decisions I’ve made or the way I’ve handled certain things. As I prepare to start year two, I know I want something better for my students…and for myself. And by going into planning with all of this information in mind, I’m hoping I can create an atmosphere where students not only succeed, they thrive.
So before I outline Week 3 for the activist projects, there are a couple of things I would like to talk about in regards to what’s been going on in my classroom.
First, I would like to take a moment to discuss something I’ve struggled with all year…the dreaded apathetical student. Despite giving abundant opportunities for choice, providing diverse mentor “texts”, and working alongside my students, I continue to struggle with this.
This week, I had a student ask me why we had to work on the projects. Why we couldn’t just have vocabulary tests, worksheets or quizzes. Another refused to do his annotated bibliography and has repeatedly expressed dislike for the project in his journal and in his attitude. These are only two examples, but I take the time to highlight them because, as excited as I am about this project, I don’t want you to think that I have achieved that perfect world scenario in my classroom.
I think so often, people only show the highlight reel on social media, giving us unrealistic expectations for our own lives. Which is why I try to level with you as often as I can…because I can assure you my classroom is FAR from perfect. More often than not, I feel like I am failing my students in multiple ways.
But then something happens, and I think maybe I’m where I’m supposed to be.
This week, I had something pretty incredible happen. A moment where students were doing exactly what I had hoped for when I began planning this project.
On Thursday, I received the following email:
This particular group of students has really impressed me. They have been enthusiastically involved since day 1, and they have shown a passion for the project that makes my heart sing.
A group of three, these students are raising awareness about rape culture. Each is personally invested in this topic, and they have agreed to work collaboratively to make something amazing happen. They are working to create a movement through a Twitter hashtag, and have also met with our principal in an effort to get approval for a school-wide presentation to educate students about rape. Another student has volunteered to work with them, and I have heard talk of their presentation throughout multiple class periods.
I have been so impressed with this group, and I really hope they keep their momentum throughout the six weeks. I’ve noticed that, while their enthusiasm is insane, their actual classwork hasn’t been up to par. I think they are so focused on the end result that they aren’t so invested in the baby steps…So, we will see where it goes. But for now, I am celebrating these students, and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish. They are the victory that makes this project a success, no matter what else may happen.
Now that you’ve had to sit through my rambling, here is the outline for Week 3…I hope you enjoy 🙂
Day 1: Students finished watching “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind”– I highly recommend this movie. Overall, I had very positive responses from students about this film.
Day2: I needed a test grade for progress reports, but I still wanted it to be something that tied back to research and project preparation. So, I decided to have students create an annotated bibliography as a formalized record of the research they had done so far. I uploaded an informational link and a sample from Purdue Owl to Google Classroom to show what, exactly, an annotated bibliography was. I also outlined the following criteria:
Bibliography must include five sources
these sources must be formatted into MLA citations
each citation must be accompanied with a 100 word annotation
Overall, I kept it pretty simple. My students had never done one of these before, and I didn’t want to overwhelm them.
Days 3-5: The rest of the week was spent gathering sources and working on the bibliographies, which were due on Day 5.
To show an example of art as activism, on Day 4 I showed students a clip from one of my favorite movies, Across the Universe. The clip I chose is linked here, and the great thing about this clip was that it allowed me to discuss the power of music and film to raise awareness or advocate for a cause.
This week was pretty simple. I want students to have autonomy and to take responsibility, so I am providing guidance and then stepping back and allowing them to work. This is an insane time of year for my students. It’s also “sick season” at the daycare, which means I’ve been out a lot. I mention this because life happens, for me and for my students, and this project is structured so that they can work with or without me.
Next week, we will be moving past research and into the actual project, so stay tuned.
How I’m Incorporating Activist Projects in my Classroom
I first heard about activist projects from Bridget, who mentioned them when rehashing all she had learned at NCTE this past November. My interest was immediately piqued–I had been trying to figure out what my second semester was going to look like. And, I was desperately trying to come up with a plan that would engage my group of seniors, all of whom have come down with severe senioritis.
I already had a few ideas of what I wanted:
Something with high engagement.
Something that would celebrate student voice and choice.
Something that wouldn’t be hampered by the near constant absences of second semester high school seniors.
Something that would include a creative element.
Something with a real world application.
An Activist Project seemed like the way to go. It checked all of the boxes, with the added bonus of bringing social consciousness into a classroom often plagued with apathy.
I’m not going to lie to you. I did not do a whole lot of research before diving in. And here’s why–at this point in the year, I feel like I know my students pretty well. As listed above, I already knew what I wanted to accomplish. And, since this is our research unit, I knew it would involve them digging in. Other than that, I didn’t want to hamper them too much…I wanted them to surprise me. So, I gathered basic ideas and guidelines, but I left a lot of it open to adaptation, so that I can incorporate what my students need, when they need it.
So far, we are only two weeks in to the project, and with it all being so new, I thought I would detail my journey here. You will find outlines for each week, commentary, and perhaps some belly-aching or over-the-top celebration (based on what happened that week). But, my goal is to provide a week-by-week look at this project so that you can see what we’re doing and adapt it for your own classroom.
So the first week was our basic introduction to the project (obviously).
On Day 1, I started out with a Google Slides presentation on activism. In it, we talked about what activism is. I then went over the five steps to taking civil action based on a TED talk by Elizabeth Robbins (I found this info here). I wanted those students who would struggle identifying what they wanted to do by giving them a step-by-step process toward taking action. One important distinction I did make while going through this intro was that we were focusing on how to peacefully advocate for change. Extremism was not going to have a place in this project.
Day 2 began with this Natalie Warne TED talk (which is Ah-Mazing! by the way). I decided early on that each week, I would feature one visual clip of some type of activism. This may be a TED talk, it may be a music video, it may be a clip from a movie. But I wanted visuals that would be interesting and showcase different forms of activism.
After the TED talk, I had my students take out their devices and begin exploratory research on the topic they were considering. If they were having trouble coming up with ideas, this was a time for them to do some digging and see if there was something that stood out to them. I was also available to help, which I would do by asking what they were interested in, what they were passionate about, if they had heard something in the news or in the hallways that made them excited or angry, etc.
Days 3-4 (this was a short week for us) focused on drafting a project proposal. Since this was a research unit with a real-world focus, I wanted students to do something more academic than merely saying, “Mrs. Brown, I’m doing (insert issue here).” So, I had them draft a project proposal, where they would pitch me their ideas. Since we had never done anything like this before, I kept it simple:
summary of project
objectives and goals
list of organizations/movements already advocating for your cause
They had two in-class days to work on this. These days were also given to more exploratory research, if it was needed. Even though we may not have all of the details worked out, I still wanted them to have a general idea of where this project was going for them. After all, we only have six weeks to accomplish some rather lofty goals!
On Day 4, I also gave them a handout outlining the guidelines for the five different options they would have for the final product they would be turning in at the end of the six weeks. They could choose from:
Create a website,
Create an original video,
Curate an original artistic portfolio, with a minimum of three art pieces and one informational piece, or
A research essay.
I wanted to make sure I had plenty of options that would play to individual student strengths, and I felt like this list had something for everyone.
On Day 4, I also did something I think is incredibly important. I had students give me feedback. We do journaling at the beginning of class pretty regularly, and on this day, I had students write down what was working, what wasn’t, if they had been confused about anything so far, and if doing exploratory research had helped them in guiding their project. After giving them a few minutes to write, I had them share out. Since this is just as new for me as it is for them, I thinks it’s incredibly important to keep them involved in the process. They know I don’t have everything figured out. They know I plan a week, sometimes a day, at a time, and that I’m constantly learning right along with them. And, (I think I’ve managed to achieve this with most of my students) they know that I care what they have to say. I can’t highlight the importance of this last step enough…giving students voice and choice is, after all, central to the success of this project.
It’s funny… no matter how long you spend with your students, they can still manage to surprise you. And what I loved was the surprise of finding a vast array of things my kids actually cared about. I have Nadia, Krystyn, and Zion who are planning to attack rape culture with ferocity. Joy, who is advocating for women’s reproductive rights. Ivette, who is shedding light on domestic violence. Zack, who cares so much about the quality of his and other’s school lunches that he’s trying to find a way to change the system. Carlos and Rex, who are passionately advocating for Pro Life. And Chris, who is bringing attention to Skills USA, a school program that has changed his life.
The beautiful thing is that all of these students came up with their topics with no prompting from me. And when they’ve spoken to me, they’ve had that spark that shows me this is something they are passionate about. I feel it’s my job to provide the space for that spark to ignite a fire–and if I manage to do that, I will have considered this year a success.
And, that’s it–the outline for week 1 of our activist project. I can say that even from the first couple days, I saw some of my students really amping up about this assignment. They were talking it out with me. They were talking it out with each other. They were passionate. They were digging in. I won’t say this happened with 100% of my students–if you’ve ever managed to get 100% of your students engaged in a lesson, please share your secret!–but I will say that it happened often enough that I feel very optimistic going in to this.
And, that’s a wrap! I’ll be posting week 2 next week. Until then, if you have any suggestions, comments, or questions, please leave them below!
Over the course of my 12-year career in education, I have spent a great deal of time and energy marinating on what is truly important for students and teachers. To say this path has been arduous would be a vast understatement. In a sea of test-mania and ever-intensifying waves of demand, it is often difficult to swim through the state mandates and requirements to grab onto the life raft of true literacy practice. We can sometimes get lost along the way; I know I have, time and time again. In my career, I have often lost sight of what is necessary and what is simply nice to know.
When that happens, I try to come back to my core principle, the thing that–to me–is the most pressing in this role. My greatest responsibility is to to help create independent and empowered readers, writers, and thinkers. My measure of success as an educator is not if students pass or fail a test. Rather, it’s if I randomly run into a former student at Barnes and Noble. That is the greatest teacher win I could have.
So how do we do that? How can we impart lasting literacy love and understanding? How can we ensure that what we teach them doesn’t stay inside the four walls of the classroom but, instead, follows them throughout the course of their lives? These questions–and many like them–have plagued me since I started this career. And boy, have I failed famously at times when trying to answer them! But I’ve also succeeded. And when success happens, I get to see students fall in love with books and writing and thinking. I get to see students raise their voices, some for the very first time.
So what are the answers? I certainly don’t have them all; if I did, I’d be making a mint and living in a mansion. But, I do think I can speak from what my own experience has taught me about some of the most beneficial practices. The practices that can truly aid teachers in moving literacy beyond the bell.
If you could pick just one thing that seems to make the most difference in students’ reading and writing lives, choice is it. For the longest time, I have considered the importance of student reading to be tied to student engagement and motivation. And certainly, that is an important and happy byproduct of allowing students to choose the books they read in class. When students get to explore the things they love, they are more motivated. When they get to make important decisions about their learning, they are more motivated. When they get to choose books that mean something to them, they are more motivated.
This year, though, my understanding of the importance of choice had a dramatic shift. At NCTE I had the great pleasure of sitting in a roundtable discussion with one of my literacy idols, Pernille Ripp, writer of Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child. In our discussion, she said these words:
“When we remove choice, we teach helplessness.”
Let me say it louder for the people in the back: “When we remove choice, we teach helplessness.” Suddenly, I was faced with an urgency I’ve never had before. By always selecting the texts our students read, we are inadvertently rendering them incapable of making book choices in the future. If they never have the opportunity to meet a book they like, how can we ensure they will pick up another one in the future? If we don’t teach them how to select books they’d enjoy, we’ve ensured they are helpless to do so in the future.
I want my students to feel empowered and confident in making decisions. All decisions. Not just book decisions.
In conjunction with choice, book access is another key component to lasting literacy. We must have lots of rich texts for students to choose from. Not just the classics, but texts that speak to kids and give them an opportunity to explore their passions. Books about basketball and art and racial inequality and science and sexuality and culture should line our shelves, their spines aching to be cracked wide open by feverish readers! I am a firm believer that every student has a gateway book–a book that unlocks their desire to read more and opens their eyes to possibilities never known. The trick is to find that book. For me, I can’t remember what that gateway book was because I fell in love with books and reading very early in my life. Some students have never felt that. It is our great privilege and responsibility as teachers to help students find that book in our sea of books.
To be sure, the library is an invaluable resource when surrounding students with books. But, it is equally important to surround students within our own classrooms. Access isn’t just about availability; it’s about easy reach. Sometimes a student will grab something from our shelves when they wouldn’t make the trek down the hall to the library. Especially when a student is a non-reader. To non-readers or reluctant readers, the library–with its vast amount of titles and topics–can sometimes be threatening. In the comfort of our classroom, however, students are free to peruse and ask questions and grab and put back books. With a culture of book love, our students can feel comfortable asking for books they might not feel comfortable pulling from a library shelf. A student once told me that he didn’t like going to the library because he wanted to be able to put the book back easily if he didn’t like it, and he didn’t want to be judged by the book he selected. It’s not that the student didn’t want to read; he wanted freedom to make reading choices while being surrounded by those people he was most comfortable with.
I’ve had some teachers tell me that they don’t like having a classroom library because “students take the books and don’t bring them back.” To that I will quote Donalyn Miller, “I’d rather lose a book than a child.” Because some of my teachers were unafraid to let me steal books from their shelves, my home library is filled with well-loved books that have teachers’ last names on the inside cover or on the spine. (Thank you Ms. Whiddon and Mrs. Terry!)
Space for Dialogue and Discussion
Think about what you do when you finish a great book.
I am pretty sure you did not say, “Call up a friend so we can round robin read parts of it together!” Or, “complete a cut-and-paste of vocabulary words.” Or, “make a graphic organizer of the story sequence.”
When I finish a great book, the first thing I want to do is find someone else who has read the book and TALK! And talk. And talk some more. I cannot wait to share my thoughts on the book. I want to know if they fell in love with the characters the same way I did. I want to know if they thought the language was beautiful or jarring. I want to know if they’d read another by the same author.
Finding space to talk about reading is supremely important when leading students toward lasting literacy. Contrary to popular belief, reading isn’t a solitary act. Rather, reading creates connections that no other activity can–across cultural lines and political lines and poverty lines. It can teach us about how to better love each other despite our differences. Through books, we are able to see inside another’s head and heart. There must be a space for students to discuss those things. By stealing a question from Kylene Beers and asking kids “what’s worth talking about,” our students are able to explore themes and topics that have resonated with them. Allowing students to speak about their reading perspectives isn’t just a recommendation, it is vital to humanity. Sadly, in our test-crazed society, it seems that this is the first thing to go. There seems to be this vast misconception that students aren’t working if they’re simply talking. Wrong. Some of the best learning comes from speaking to another human who may or may not think similarly to you.
Time to Read (IN CLASS)
In one of my all-time favorite quotes, Nora Ephron said,
There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he resurfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I resurface from a book.
Every student should have the privilege of experiencing the “rapture of the deep.” To enjoy that, time must be allotted for that opportunity.
Choice is awesome. Book access is awesome. But neither mean anything without allowing students time to read those books–in class. It takes time to get into the action of a book–to fall in love with a book. “But, Bridget, they should read at home!” Sure, they should. But most won’t. In this super-connected world, kids have the option of surfing social media, watching Netflix, or making YouTube videos about them unboxing shoes instead of reading. More than that, the kids today are more over-committed to extracurricular activities than ever before. Basketball or baseball or dance consumes many of our youth. For others, time after school is to be spent working a job or babysitting siblings. It is no wonder, then, that reading becomes an afterthought. That’s why it is so incredibly important to provide time in class to read.
Penny Kittle recommends at least 10 minutes a day.
“But what about the fact that there are only 45 minutes to most class days? Isn’t reading 10 minutes a day wasting a ton of time?” Sure. If you consider reading practice a waste of time. I would say that those 10 minutes are some of the most precious moments a student can have in your class! In The Reading Zone, Nancie Atwell wrote, “A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy or, more significantly, marketable teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader.” So yeah. Maybe it isn’t super flashy when the administrator walks in, but it is the most valuable way for your students to begin the process of lifelong literacy.
Moreover, Richard Allington said that reading is less about ability and more about opportunity. It isn’t that kids today can’t read; it’s that they are not given ample opportunity to practice doing so. In the classroom. With teacher support. Reading regularly builds reading muscles, ensuring students have the stamina to read a book from cover to cover. After all, the most significant number tied to a students’ reading ability shouldn’t be their Lexile level or AR points; rather, it should be the volume of their book stack.
To be sure, my journey as a literacy instructor and leader has been one of many missteps and failures. But through those failures, I have learned that what is right for kids is not always popular. That I have to care less about what others think and more about what is truly important for my students. That, Like Toni Morrison, I can’t “be consumed by or concerned by” the gaze of others. So, I will leave you with this:
Students, even those who find reading challenging, thrive in classrooms that are filled with books at different levels, where the teacher celebrates books, and students are given choice in what they read, as well as time and support to read it.