Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ten Ways to Establish a Reading Culture

This year  I'm teaching 5th grade, and I enjoy developing the curriculum for all the subjects. I feel like it's my second chance to deepen my understanding of certain content areas such as math or science. However, as a former 6th grade content teacher of Language Arts and Reading, I take my greatest joy in transforming my classroom into a reading and writing room.

There are certain strategies that work with both contents so I will focus on each. Let's begin with reading for this week's post.

First, I'll say that I love Donalyn Miller's work, and she has influenced me a great deal, or maybe it's just that she affirms everything I already believed about reading. I'm always surprised though at how many teachers have never heard of her work. Visit to learn more. The following are some fundamentals I've found effective in creating a reading culture.

1. Develop an awesome classroom library. : Many teachers have classroom libraries, but they are sad....very sad. They are sad in the sense that their shelves contain outdated, dusty, torn books that wouldn't entice the most avid of readers. Why have a classroom library if no one wants to read the books in it? Money can be an issue. However, the answer to that is strategic thinking. Every summer I've worked to get exciting novels of all reading levels that my students will read by visiting garage sales, consignment stores, the dollar tree, and calling on recently retired teachers. I require certain standards for the books I purchase or take even for free. The books must not be damaged or smelly. Also. beware of buying books in a series. Make sure it's a series that students will connect with, and is appropriate for their age. Then, create a great way to display your books that will appeal to students in the classroom.

2. Get a book in their hands on day one.: In most schools, the school library does not open until two-three weeks into school. This is bad news for developing a reading culture. So, on day one, discuss what you as the teacher are currently reading, and check out a novel to every student from the classroom library. Then, find a time to read together, only fifteen minutes is needed. Finally, discuss as a class. Beyond having a book in their hands on day one, it's also important to discuss what they read in those fifteen or twenty minutes. As a teacher, there will not be time to get to every reader. But, you can hit a few readers, and then ask throughout the day, when moments of transition arrive or as an extension activity.

3. Introduce an author and his/her work: I've learned that one of the most motivating ways to grab potential readers is to show a video of an author discussing his books, then pass around some copies of the author's works. Just enjoy the discovery of learning about someone new together as a class. This is a great thing to do right before going on library trips. By doing this, the students get pumped! They want to read that author's work! I believe this connection demonstrates the humanness of reading, and our desire for connection to the writer.

4. Set Visual Goals: I am encouraging my students to read 40 books this year. That on average is four books a month. Students have their own chain link at the back of the room, where every link represents a book they have read. Now, I've instructed that this is not a race, and forty books means different things to different readers, so I determine who has met their goal on a case by case basis. Students do read in class, so I know who is really getting it done. Some areas are up to the teachers discretion. The point is that the goal is there, and we must encourage each other to make it happen. Once a monthly reading goal has been met-- Celebrate!

5. Keep the Reading Going Despite Obstacles: I've found that once I've established momentum in student reading, it's time that I must let go a bit. Some students are faster readers than others, and will need to go to the library more often to check out a new book. This can be overwhelming! However, if I suddenly say, "No!" I've just killed their motivation. The solution is to have a certain time that works for you as the teacher to send students for a new book. Also, as the teacher, you will know who's truly read their book, and who's just trying to get out of class. Make judgements accordingly.

6. Discuss Reading Daily: In my experience, nothing creates more accountability than classroom discussion of books. I do believe reading logs as an accountability measure are effective to a point. (I do utilize reading logs w/daily comprehension question) However, nothing is more effective than asking random students about their current book in front of the classroom. They must discuss what they read. I know whether they are reading, and being accountable in front of the entire class keeps them on their toes.

7. Create a Reading Instinct: From day one it's important to teach students to read as their backup activity. As soon as their done with an assignment they should be reading. This is a great habit to form, and it gets them that much closer to their reading goals.

8. Conduct Read Alouds: Find ways to include picture books to introduce subjects across content areas. There are many wonderful books on math, science, and social studies contents. Students love to be read to at any age. Honestly, I love to be read to, and I'm pretty old. (Ha!) It's a comforting and loving act. It creates less tension and stress. Many students will grow closer to you as their teacher and the content by incorporating read alouds. It becomes part of the classroom culture of learning.

9. Never Fear About Wasting Class Time: All of these ideas actually take a small amount of time. It's about sprinkling it in over the school day, and establishing routines. All this effort is needed though if you, as their teacher, want to create a classroom reading culture. It's never too late to create and foster a love for reading. It will always be necessary in life, and the more joy students get from reading the more sophisticated they'll become as readers, which will lead to greater achievement and lifelong prosperity.

10. You Can Still Teach the Classroom Novel: I'm not against the classroom novel. However, it does hinder individual reading goals. After all, there is only so much time in the day. The ideal situation would be a novel for every child, so that they could read at home, and be prepared for daily discussion in class. Until that happens, I'd say continue the classroom novel if desired, just make sure to find time to sprinkle in personal reading discussion, and continue trips to the library. Keep talking to kids about their reading.

Reading enriches lives, and it's magical to see students fall in love with reading. It's worth the effort to make what is hopefully a lifelong impact.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Reflection: Staying Fearless in the Midst of Change

The first weeks of school are always challenging. There are ups and downs. It's funny because exactly this week last year I wrote the post, "New Teachers: What Happens When the Honeymoon Ends." Read it here: 
Ha! I have to laugh at myself a little bit. At the time of that post, I truly felt that my passion for education was suddenly waning. I feared I'd be unable to connect with my new students as I had with my previous ones. So, I woefully cried out upon the blogger page only to soon learn that it was nonsense. I went on to have a fantastic and fulfilling year with my students full of passionate teaching!

However, with every new year comes new challenges....

Outside of new students, new curriculum, and an entirely new grade level of standards I'm learning this school year, there's also a new teacher evaluation system and standardized test coming down the pike for teachers within the state of Georgia. All this change has left many teachers (me included) feeling a bit cranky, uncertain, or off balance at times. So, for my reflection this week, I'd like to highlight a few ways in which I plan to stay fearless in the midst of change in the school year ahead. 

1. Stick to My Personal Mission: I promised myself when I began my career as an educator that my students would always come first! I would never become so absorbed with worry over my students passing the standardized tests that I'd lose total focus on the fact that I'm teaching humans, not robots. That doesn't mean I avoid preparing students for success on the test. It's just not the central motivation for what I do in the classroom. 

2. I Won't Quit When the Going Gets Tough!: There are teachers I've met who've decided to leave public education due to their frustrations over the strong emphasis on standardized testing. They're fed up. I understand their concerns, but at the same time, I wonder, "Who's left to teach the kids?" I REFUSE to throw away my life's mission as a public educator due to frustrations over a simple test. What is the worst case scenario of students not doing well? I assume it would be losing my job. I've lived through job loss within my family, and although tough--there are worse things in life. I'm confident I'd find gainful employment elsewhere. In the meanwhile, I'll stay fearless, and teach on!

3. I'll Be Consistent and Do Things the Right Way: I'll strive for excellence every day. That means: offering units, lessons, and assessments that will prepare each student for academic success which will lead to strong yearly growth; collaborating with teachers within my grade level, across grade levels, and with other schools; pushing students to reach their academic goals-teaching them not to quit; tutor--provide scaffolding outside the normal school day; communicate with parents consistently and help them to be partners in their child's education; continually learn--attend conferences; be a positive force every single day with my students, colleagues, and parents; help other teachers to feel safe; reflect on my teaching weekly; daily professional dress; and always help someone else's day be a little bit brighter. Excellence is about doing the right things even when you're tired. It's about bringing--it--every day. Did you notice I repeated--every day--several times? Excellence only comes from being consistent. 

I know that if I do these things with integrity, I won't have to worry about the end of year test results. Strong scores will be there, because I took the steps to ensure the success of every student in my classroom. As a result, I will have happy, successful students, and a fulfilling and gratifying school year.   

Wishing all educators an excellent and passion filled year ahead! 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Collaboration: A Recipe for Excellence

Teacher collaboration conjures up different emotions in teachers. Some teachers thrive with it, and some find it a bit stifling. However, I believe the best teachers know that by working together everyone achieves more.

For today's post, I'd like to explore the benefits, and possible challenges of teacher collaboration.


1. You are NOT alone: Requiring teachers to collaborate, to work as a team offers the individual teacher a feeling of connectedness. If the instruction falls flat, the team evaluates and redirects. Discussions surrounding the curriculum, the student learning objectives, and the standards all fall on the shoulders of the team, not the individual teacher. That builds reassurance, confidence, and purpose.

2. Quality of Instruction Improves: I love the saying, "feedback is the breakfast of champions". If the majority of feedback you receive only comes from students, you may find yourself floundering. Working collaboratively with a team of teachers allows opportunities for giving and receiving feedback about your instruction, and student performance. This is vital, because it offers a different kind of feedback than you might receive from students or administrators. As a result, the instruction develops depth.

3. Effective Use of Time: Planning together opens up more time, and takes a bit of the weight off. Delegating  jobs, and then having everyone bring his or her piece to the table creates a constructive use of time, which allows for more work and life balance. A vital necessity for any teacher.

4. Role model for students: Students who witness teachers working together, seeking their personal best, will emulate and feed off that momentum. Team is not just for students, but for the school as a whole.


1. Keeping Teacher Relationships Strong: Passionate teachers believe in their practice, and their ways of offering instruction. Working as a team, can feel like a bit of a constraint at times when passions or visions collide. However, there is give and take in any relationship. There may be times when letting go of the reigns is best, while there may be other times in which it is necessary to hold your ground. As long as there is a mutual understanding and respect for each other's contributions, then teacher relationships can stay strong, and the students benefit as a result.

Conclusion: Collaboration is a recipe for excellence.:

The  benefits of teacher collaboration outweigh the struggles. As a developing teacher, I'm blessed to learn from the seasoned teachers that surround me every day. Everyone bringing their personal best, working together as a team, produces the necessary ingredients for a successful student, a happy teacher, and a school of excellence.

The following are some videos that highlight the importance of teacher collaboration.

When a Lesson Goes Wrong-- Teaching Channel

Reflections on Practice from the National Teachers of the Year

Collaboration Generation--Edutopia

Friday, August 1, 2014

For Everything There is a Season

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; Ecclesiastes 3:1-22  

Today, I completed my first week of pre-planning in a new school, as a 5th grade teacher. I've spent time this summer reflecting and preparing, but nothing truly prepares someone for a new undertaking, you just have to get in there and do the work. However, this week did bring to mind this one important scripture: "For everything there is a season." It's important to know what needs to be planted, what elements need healing, breaking down, or building up. That's why reflecting is so important. It offers the writer an opportunity to clear up the muddled thinking that often comes with change.

The following are some questions that I will reflect on as I begin my new journey:

1. What needs to be planted?: Above all, setting the foundation for strong relationships with students and parents. The students are why we strive for excellence. As educators, we want more for them. We work diligently to build them up to greater heights with the hope that they avoid some of our own past bumbling failures. We need to know them, and make that connection. Parents need to make that connection, too. We do this through personal phone calls, letters, and face to face interactions. Planting these seeds will lead to greater academic heights and overall school success as the year progresses.

2. What needs to be healed?: Relationships. It may have been with a student or fellow colleague, but if there is an unsettling feeling, then find a way to work it out. Just as an example, have you ever seen two parents who were not getting along, and always seemed to be bickering? Did you notice that their children seemed to be stressed out, tense, or quick to fight as well? This dynamic can happen in a school, too. If teachers are not getting along, and fighting with each other, the students feel it, and stress heightens. Don't harbor resentment in a new school year. Find ways to work well together, and everyone will excel as as result.

3. What needs to be broken down? Anything and everything. Sometimes, we need to go backwards to move forwards. It may be that for certain areas, you need to learn and grow, while other areas need your leadership. It's important to think on your strengths, and look at what you've been called to do by your administration. Personally, I know there are areas in which I've been asked to lead, but there are other areas of my instructional growth that I need to breakdown in order to build back up. As teachers, we can be models for our students, demonstrating to them that there is no straight line to success in any worthy endeavour. It requires constant learning, growing, and patience with the process.

4. What needs to be built up? As educators, we all have areas in need of growth. Once I step back and realize I may be slipping in a particular area, I think on it, knowing this area needs to be recognized. At that point, I can go to others who I know are strong in those areas, and ask for help. We are all beginners at something. It's important to know when to follow and when to lead, while understanding and believing that you are doing your personal best each and everyday.

I'm looking forward to this school year. I know there is tremendous growth ahead. I wish all educators a successful journey, knowing that for everything there is a season.