Category Archives: In the Classroom

In the Classroom: First Day of School Reading

Whew — coming back to school after being away on sabbatical is exhausting! I did expect it to be given the more leisurely lifestyle I had so it wasn’t a surprise, but still….  I hope I can keep my resolution to continue my writing even as the school takes over more and more every bit of my thinking.

The good news is that getting my room in order (and I am so so grateful to our building staff who helped me unpack and shelve my many books), reconnecting with colleagues, and learning about my new students has me excited for tomorrow, our first day.

As always, I’ve put a lot of thought into the first books I will read. There are the ice-breaker picture books I read right away to get the kids to relax and chuckle. They will be the same as last year: Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School, Jared Chapman’s Steve, Raised by Wolves, and  Edda: A Little Valkyrie’s First Day of School.  

And then there is the first read-aloud for the year. I’ve decided it will be Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth. I’m a huge fan of this author (who needs to be more embraced in the US) and have been reading his Cosmic aloud yearly for a long time. This new one is a total charmer (here’s a Q & A I did with Frank about it) and I can’t wait to begin.

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In the Classroom: Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom

Last week I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was incredible and overwhelming and I have been yearning ever since for a way to return as I feel I barely skimmed the surface of what was there. Then,  perusing the website, I came across a page featuring Professional Learning Events, one a week-long workshop titled “Let’s Talk: Teaching Race in the Classroom.” It is being held July 10-14 and I registered immediately. While I have done other workshops on equity and race I feel my learning and work on it is never enough so this can only help me to do this work with my colleagues and students. And since, at my school, we are continually grappling with the best way to teach the Transatlantic Slave Trade with our 4th graders I’m also hoping to learn how to do that better.

Here’s the description:

Race is an aspect of our American culture that is often ignored, glossed over or mishandled.  Additionally, to succeed in promoting equity, tolerance, and justice, childhood is the time to address these issues by understanding children’s development and encouraging positive feelings about their racial and cultural identity, as well as others’.  Working with youth makes it incumbent that educators are prepared to address issues of race whenever they surface such as in history or social studies lessons or when current events brings them forward such as events in our recent history.

Through presentations from researchers in the field, small group discussions, and reflective exercises participants will engage in conversations about race/racism, explore ways to address issues and topics that will meet students where they are in their racial development, and practice techniques for creating safe space for difficult discussions.

Educators will

  • learn and practice strategies for building a personal connections within their classroom
  • be introduced to and deepen their knowledge of racial identity development
  • reflect on their personal racial views, experiences, and implicit bias
  • practice facilitating interactions/discussions around racial issues by performing role-play situations
  • identify implicit bias and recognize how it affects teaching in the classroom
  • learn strategies for resilience and self-care

Due to the nature of the workshop material, the layering of activities and the sensitive nature of conversations that may develop, we require participants to commit to attending the whole week. 

 

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In the Classroom: Ralph Fletcher’s Joy Write

Some may have read or heard this story before, but for those who haven’t here it is again. It is what made me passionate that no young writer I taught ever had the same experience.

So my story. I loved writing as a child — until something happened. This was my high school A.P. English teacher telling my parents I shouldn’t take a role in the school play (my passion at the time) so I could “work on my writing.” He never told me what was the matter, never met with me to show me what I needed to do, and I never asked (as I was shy and he was a strong personality we admired very much). So I messed around and messed around with my school essays, clueless as to what was wrong. My mother remembered me up late at night and feeling so sorry she couldn’t help. I went to college worried and this impact my writing to the point where I was sent to a tutorial for help. I figured out that my problem lay in revision so handed in first drafts full of typos (this was the day of the typewriter) as they were still better than if I tried to revise them. The professor overseeing the tutorial told me it was all in my head and there was nothing she could do. So what I did was avoid all English classes for my undergraduate and graduate studies. (And, boy, did I yearn to attend them. Some sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t going to risk it. Instead I read voraciously on my own — classics, everything.)

In the early 1980s I became deeply involved with the burgeoning personal computer movement in schools, finally matriculating as one of the first classes for a program in computers and education at Teachers College Columbia University. I was surprised to find out that I was good at programming — doing it and teaching it (having been a miserable math student). And then, as one of my final courses, I took Lucy Calkins’ summer institute in writing. It was the second one and it was a revelation for me in many ways. The idea of the workshop — of a process — has informed my work as a teacher ever since.

A few years later I broke through my own writing phobia by writing an essay that got me a competitive fellowship to study children’s literature at Princeton. At the same time I was becoming more and more active online in children’s literature and educational communities. All of this made me finally believe I could write. And I did — books for teachers, articles, blog posts, etc. And a book for children that was lauded for its writing. I’m currently working on a new project and was elated when recently the editor I’m working with celebrated my ability to write fiction.

All of this informs my beliefs when it comes to teaching writing to 4th graders. These include:

  • Creating situations where students feel invested in their writing
  • That they have audiences
  • That they find joy in the work
  • That they understand that there are many different ways and reasons to write — some being completely private, some to figure out a problem, and more.

Of late my impression is that writing instruction in schools is highly driven by testing, common core curriculum, packaged programs, and consultants. Often these are highly scripted and allow little opportunity for children to write for themselves. As I work in a private school, I have far more freedom than many of my public school colleagues, but this overall approach affects us too as it is now presented in language arts communities and organizations as best practices.

What has struck me is that the focus in now on kids learning structures, on expository writing above all, and no consideration of audience or, worse, joy. And so I was eager to read Ralph Fletcher’s Writing Joy: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing. It happens Ralph was my writing instructor when I took the TC institute those many years ago and we have run into each other over the years. (His wife, it happens, was my instructor then too.)

Ralph is blunt about the reduction of joy in today’s writing programs. In the book he does a clear presentation of the history, of the current situation, and then makes some very smart suggestions. That is, find places for kids to write for fun, in ways that they truly care about, that aren’t graded, that can be full of spelling errors, etc He suggests “Greenbelt Writing” a sliver of a place in children’s daily school lives where they can play textually, away from the regular writing curriculum. This would be on the side, a sort of recess time (as I understand it), an enjoyable and relaxing place with the goal of kids having fun writing, of finding joy in it.

Last year I started a weekly BoB session to replace reading logs (see this post for details). The kids love, love, love this. They read, they update their BoBs (Book of Books), and chat with me. Sometimes we talk as a group about what we are reading. Mostly it is a quiet and serene time. (I bought a bunch of soft lights that we put on their desks so we can avoid the bright overhead.)

Reading Ralph’s book made me decide I want to do something similar with writing. It will be tricky taking over another period for it, but I’m determined to do so. I’d love a cool acronym for it that goes well with BoB. Any thoughts? I see it as a greenbelt time where kids will write whatever they want, to share or not.

This isn’t a regular review, but a personal response to Ralph’s book. It is a short book, to the point, clear, and may be uncomfortable for some, but also it is kind and offers some fabulous suggestions I hope others consider. As I already wrote, I sure am.

Thanks, Ralph, for writing what really really needs to be said today.

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In the Classroom: The Critical Importance of Teaching and Learning History

The people in the country now who are spouting hate-filled words don’t seem to know their own American history. There is enough blame to go around as to why. But when it comes to fixing what’s wrong with America, one of our priorities should be making more of an effort to put our history into our classrooms in the earliest years, and to educate our teachers, too. I want all of our people—even the haters—to know why we have needed that armor and how we can, while wearing it, remain open to one another.

That is from Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s TALKING TO YOUNG PEOPLE ABOUT TRUMP, WITH LESSONS FROM GWEN IFILL, an article that resonated with me because I’ve always thought teaching and learning history is so important*. Young people need time in school to engage with the past, grapple with it in all its complexities, and develop their own tools to think historically. While I use fiction and nonfiction children’s books in my teaching of history, I also use primary sources, and structure experiences for my 4th grade students to be  historians themselves. For example, right now they are completing a study of the Europeans who came through Ellis Island in 1900. Next they will be considering those who came from China through Angel Island before and during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. After reading books, studying photographs and other primary sources, they will take a position on the statement often bandied about at the time that, “Angel Island is the Ellis Island of the West” and defend it with reasons and evidence. (Spoiler: they always say it wasn’t.)

*I’ve written two books (Seeking History and Far Away and Long Ago) on the teaching of history, articles (some listed here) and done presentations on the topic.

 

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In the Classroom: The Alice in Wonderland Radio Play

One of my favorite books is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Every year I read aloud the book with my 4th graders reading along from my large collection of illustrated editions. Along the way the children join the chorus of the songs, participate in a caucus race, and play a spot of croquet. Most years we end with a project and this year it was a radio play. My initial thought was to do a sort of audio book, but when I mentioned it to a colleague she said, “a radio play, of course” and I was immediately hooked.

First I found a 1937 script using language directly from the book and adapted it for my class. (I cut it way, way, WAY down and adjusted it so we had different scenes, each with its own narrator. Each scene was 2-3 minutes with the whole play under 20 minutes in total.) Then I introduced the concept to them. One of the most important element that would make this different from an all-cast audio book was sound effects and so I found a couple of fun videos that gave a sense of this. The children worked enthusiastically in groups to prepare and did a fabulous job. Not only are their sound effects inventive and clever, but they went beyond what I expected with their voices and accents. Indeed the whole thing is a delight. One of the thing I like so much about it is how well the children’s performances show their deep understanding and appreciation of the book itself. I like to think Lewis Carroll would approve.

To learn more about the project and listen to the radio play itself please go here.

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In the Classroom: The Problem with Reading Logs and What I Did About It

Long ago I was delighted when there was a strong movement to have students select and read their own books rather than teachers using those tomes known as basal readers. I happily jumped onto this band wagon. Wanting to be sure that all appreciated that reading at home was as important as the other homework my 4th grade students were expected to do, I had them, yes, log their nightly reading. I tried to keep it as simple as possible — they were to write down the title in their plan book once and then just write in the pages read (eg. pg 44-95) each night. Then I checked every morning, giving stickers to those who had done this.

However, over the years I discovered that doing this was most challenging for the strongest readers, the ones who read until they fell asleep. I suggested they leave the planbook open on their backpack and then log the pages in in the morning. But the whole thing, I have to admit, made me feel less and less comfortable. Other than accountability (a big buzz word in education), I didn’t see what this did for them. I had plenty of other ways to check in the weaker readers and this seemed a total pain for the strong ones.

Over the last few years I began reading more and more articles and blog posts decrying this practice, often from parents who were understandably disturbed that this practice was turning their enthusiastic young readers into kids who had to be pushed to read the designated time, to do the logging. (Here’s the latest of many.) Parents conspired with their children to lie — to write in fake numbers and then sign off. (I did not ask parents to sign off, but I gather other teachers often do.)  The result was I became much more relaxed about the assignment. I stopped checking every morning. I stopped giving out stickers. I had always been involved with the kids’ book selections, had been talking to them individually and as a class about their current reading, so the downgrading of the reading logging didn’t change what I knew about them as readers. The main reason I kept doing it at all was my colleagues all did and I didn’t want to rock the boat. And I wanted to be sure reading at home was valued — that student, parents, and teachers did not see it as a side activity — something to do if there was time after the other homework.

However, this year I finally decided it truly didn’t make any sense. For me to require this only because my colleagues did just didn’t feel right. So, at a team meeting, I told them that I was not going to do it any more (after getting the okay from my supervisor). I sent articles to them so they would understand why I wasn’t. They saw my point, but several of them still felt that requiring it was a way of being sure the children read. I should also say they were fine my not doing it — they saw it as an individual choice just as we did other things differently from one another.

What I did instead was have each child create and maintain a Book of Books (aka BoB), based on Pamela Paul’s, a journal of every book she read starting in high school. I thought it such a cool idea I wanted my kids to do that too. Not for accountability to ME, but for themselves. Additionally, I created a weekly BoB period where the children read, updated their BoBs, and met with me. At these meetings we chatted about what they had been reading and what they might read next. It was lovely. It was relaxing. It gave the information I needed about their independent reading. It gave me a space to check in with all my students. It did not single out the weaker readers. They all loved it as did I.

This past week I discussed with my class the summer reading requirement their 5th grade teachers are asking of them. They have one assigned book (A Wrinkle in Time because they will be reading When You Reach Me in the fall), are to read at least two choice books, and to record those titles. I suggested they do so in their BoBs with the hope that some may elect to maintain them beyond this year. One 5th grade colleague, seeing my post about this on Facebook, said she wanted to talk to me about it. Wouldn’t it be cool if she picked up the Book of Books for another year?

This coming week will be our final BoB period of the year. I’m going to ask the children to look through their BoBs and chose some titles to recommend to each other for summer reading. I’m also going to talk about Gene Luan Yang’s Reading Without Walls challenge as a way to select books to read over the summer.

The problem I have seen with progressive ideas in education is they start out being creative and flexible, but then are turned into orthodoxy. That seems to have happened with reading at home. What was initially such a great improvement over assigning specific books and pages has become as great a chore and not doing much for the intended outcome— turning children into life-long readers.

My students and I have loved our BoB experience and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

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In The Classroom: Book Graffiti

Some time ago my friend Susannah Richards, professor of education at Eastern Connecticut State University, told me about book graffiti, a fabulous way to share favorite books. Ever since I had wanted to do it and finally did a few weeks ago with my 4th graders. I asked each student to chose one favorite book from the current school year to feature. It could have been read independently or one I’d read aloud to them. They went off an found cover photos, pasted them on a large sheet of brown paper, and then — most fun of all— added in the graffiti.

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Thank you, Susannah, for such a great idea! (Now you need to fill me in on book gossip — that looks intriguing too:)

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