Reflecting On a Day with the Heinemann Fellows

I have just spent a day feeding my teacher soul.

For two years now I have had the absolute privilege of being a part of the Heinemann Fellows group. Being a part of this group has led me to feel many things. At times my membership in this group has made me feel unqualified, inadequate, and terrified. But today it made me feel inspired, empowered, hopeful and joyful. And I am now certain that I had to go through feeling that first set of emotions in order to feel what I felt today.

Today I sat in a room full of some of the most passionate and motivated educators and I simply basked in their brilliance. In being a part of the conversations taking place. In feeling completely honored to be able to think along with these people. Somehow an entire day flew by without a moment of feeling as if I wished to be somewhere else.

I wish I could capture what happened today. Around that table. In that room. But there was no time to even capture what was taking place because we were all too busy simply being engaged in the moment and being present in it all. And even taking a moment to stop and document what was happening would have felt as if I was missing out on something great.

Today no one needed his or her voice to be any louder than anyone else’s. Today no one needed to convince others that he or she had all the answers. Today no one needed to argue that he or she was right and someone else was wrong. That is not what today was all about.

Today we talked about what it meant to be a child-centered teacher. Today we talked about how to engage in difficult conversations. Today we talked about how to continue feeling successful when we so often feel like failures. Today we talked about the action research that we were doing. Today we talked about our plans for the future of our action research.

And any of those things, on their own, don’t really sound like very much. Except in that room, around that table, there were simply amazing things taking place. Things that gave me so much hope for the future of education. Things that made me feel so proud to be an educator. Things that managed to make me feel that though there is much to be frustrated about and angry about, there is also so much to be hopeful about.

The power of the educators sitting around that table. The power of our stories and our voices. It is no small thing.

And it all made me crave more of this. It made me wonder why this doesn’t happen more often. It made me wonder what would happen if we, as educators, were given more time to do just this. To sit. In a room. Uninterrupted. Uninterrupted by discussions of test scores and new programs to implement and new technologies to learn and new behavior management systems to use. What if we were given time to just sit and discuss the current state of education and the current state of the education taking place inside the classrooms right in front of us? What if we had time to discuss what we wished for our students and what we hoped for our students and what we wanted for our students and how we might possible begin to achieve all of that? What if we were given time to reflect together and discuss together and grow together?

I believe that if we had this time then others would feel what we felt today. And what I felt today is something that I wish, so badly, every educator could get to experience. It is something that I wish, so badly, that I would get to experience more often.

I also believe, that if we were given this kind of time, then we, as a country, would be in a much better place. We, as teachers, would be more willing to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to talk about the parts of our teaching that just don’t feel quite right, to think about the areas where we want to get better. Because when you are a part of a community that has these kinds of conversations, then you cannot help but want to get better. To do better. You cannot help but reach out to others to help you grow.

And that is one of the most powerful things that I am walking away from this day knowing. These are people who have allowed me to feel insecure and then helped me to move on from that place. That these are people who have helped me to grow and it is my students who will benefit from all that this group has given me.

This group of people. These are people who hearts speak the same language as my own. And I am so incredibly grateful to have met them and grown with them and shared with them and learned from them and been inspired by them.

 

Our Blogs

Writing to Deepen Our Thinking; Writing to Share Our Thinking With the World (Action Research Part 4)

This is the fourth post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here. If you are interested in reading part three, just click here

For years, I have asked my students to write in response to their reading.  I have asked them to write reading response letters to me, I have asked them to write paragraphs in their reading journals, I have asked them to write letters to each other about their reading. None of it ever gave me what I wanted.

Look back on it now, I realize there was one HUGE reason that I never got what I wanted.  And it was this: I had no idea WHAT I wanted.

I didn’t know why I was asking my students to write about their reading. I knew that they were supposed to write about their reading, but I never really stopped to give much thought as to why.  What could my students gain by writing in response to what they have read? Why should I ask my students to do this kind of writing?

So the place that I needed to begin this year was not with fixing my students’ thinking, but with fixing my own thinking. I needed to figure out my purpose in having kids write about their reading. And here is where I landed: I believe that when we write about our thinking, our thinking deepens. In the same way that conversations can deepen our thinking, writing can deepen our thinking too. Often when I write a blog post, I end up in a different place in my own thinking by the end of my writing. I want this for my students. I want them to know the power that they have to deepen their own thinking by writing it out in words across a page or across a screen. I want them to feel the power of using their own words to bring them to a new understanding and a new place in their thinking.  This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to deepen their thinking through writing.

But there is more.  I also want them to be able to share their thinking with others. So often, I am in awe of the thinking that my students share with me in our one-on-one conferences. I don’t want to keep this incredible thinking just between us. I want their classmates to be able to learn and grow from their thinking and I want people beyond the walls of our classroom to learn and grow from their thinking.  I want to show my students how they can use writing to share their thinking with the world. I want to show my students that this world has something to gain by reading the words that they write about the thoughts they having inside of their own minds. This is why I want them to write about the thinking they do as they read. I want them to share their thinking with the world through writing.

Once I had a better understanding of my purposes, then I was better able to create a task for my students that would be able to meet these purposes. Here is what we have done so far:

I have already talked about how I have changed the way that my students use their reading journals this year.  This year, their reading journals are a place to take notes on the careful observations they are making and the investigations they are doing as they read. Their journals are filled with charts and bullet-pointed lists and drawings.  Their journals are filled with the pieces of thinking that they are gathering as they read.

This year, my students’ journals are not where their writing about their reading is taking place. Instead, they are a place to gather that thinking.  One of the complaints that I heard from my students in the past is that they felt that when I asked them to put together a weekly written response about their reading, they were just rewriting the things they had already written in their reading journals in order to hand them in to me.  They felt this was a waste of time. They felt it held no meaning and no purpose. They felt that they gained nothing from it.

They were right.

And so, as the purpose of our reading journals shifted, so did the purpose of our writing.  Now, the writing that I would ask them to do would be a putting together, a synthesis, of the notes that they took in their reading journals.  And I couldn’t just ask them to do this work and expect them to understand the purpose.  I quickly realized that I had to explicitly show them the purpose of this kind of writing.  They are used to writing for an audience.  They are used to their writing serving the purpose of entertaining, persuading or informing the reader. They had never been taught that sometimes, writing is for the writer. Sometimes, we write in order to deepen our thinking. Sometimes, we write in order to end up in a new place in our thinking.

So I spent a lot of time modeling for them how I took my own notes from my reading journals and I took those notes and started writing about what I realized from my notes or what patterns I noticed in my notes or what understandings I arrived at from putting together my notes. And I modeled for them how sometimes as I write, I end up with new thinking and that new thinking becomes a part of my writing as well.  I had to show them how to write for this new purpose, because it was not something that they had been asked to do before.

Too often, I assume that my students will just “get” things and then I get frustrated with them when they don’t. And so often, when I stop and reflect I realize that they don’t “get” things because I have not done enough modeling or guiding.

So once I began to show them this new purpose for writing, once I began to show them how writing could deepen their own thinking, then it was time to ask them to give it a try.  But, I didn’t want this writing to happen in their notebooks because that would not serve my second purpose, which was that their writing should help to share their thinking with the world.  When I ask students to write in their notebooks, I am sending the message that this writing is only worthy of being seen by me, their teacher.  I am sending the message that this writing is only worth doing so that I can see it and assess it.  Instead, I wanted to send the message that this writing has value to others, to the world.

Enter our blogs.

This year, for the first time, each of my students is keeping his/her own blog on Kidblog.org. It’s been an incredible learning experience for me and an incredible opportunity for my students. I have seen so many benefits in asking my students to blog and I know there are so many undiscovered opportunities for me to still realize.  These blogs also provided the PERFECT place to ask my students to do their writing about their reading so that they could share their thinking with each other and with the world.

Like everything else, I began slowly with this work.  I first shared a blog post about my own reading that I had written.  I showed my students my reading journal and the notes that I had collected in it.  Then I showed them how I took these notes and synthesized them into a blog post.  Here is the first blog post I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/this-week-as-a-reader/

As a class, we analyzed my writing. And my students created a list of the kinds of things that they might want to write in their own blog posts.  The list that we began with was:

1) A brief description of the book you have been reading

2) An explanation of your reading focus: what you have noticed and what you wanted to pay attention to

3) An example or two of the things that you have collected so far in your reading journal

And this is where we started.  After reading their first reading blog posts, I was blown away at what I was getting. Their writing had voice, it sounded so natural, they were sharing deep pieces of thinking instead of listing a myriad of unrelated, shallow pieces of thinking.  They were great!

I also realized that I had not shown them yet how they should be coming to NEW realizations in their blog posts. Things that weren’t already written in their reading journals. So I wrote another blog post where I tried to do just that.  Here is the second blog post of mine that I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/my-reading-work-with-the-witchs-boy/

After reading this blog post as a class, we added something to our list of what the kids should include in their own posts. Here is what we added:

4) A new realization or understanding that you have reached as a result of looking at the notes you have gathered and writing about those notes.

When looking at my students’ second round of blog posts, I saw that some of them had already started to include this kind of thinking.  Before writing their third round of posts, I shared one more of my own reading blog posts. Here is the third one that I shared with them: http://kidblog.org/MrsLifshitzAMClass/7dca61ad-b26d-4a15-a791-0f8dc327cec2/the-paper-cowboy/

Again, we looked at this as a class and we realized that we could also try to include some writing about what we were learning from the books that we were reading.

What I noticed is that each time I modeled a new way to write about our reading, there were kids who went off and tried to do those things in their own writing. Of course, there were also a lot of kids who weren’t able to do those new things just yet and that simply provided me with teaching points for those students.

So we have now reached a point where the kids know that they are expected to write one reading blog post every two weeks.  At first, we all wrote them on the same day and submitted them on the same day, but now, the kids have the set expectation of needing to write one blog post every two weeks and they are able to choose when they want to write that post. In this way, they can write when they feel they have something to say.  On the final Friday of the two-week span, anyone who has not yet submitted a blog post is asked to write one during independent reading that day.  This system seems to be working well for us.

I do not grade these blog posts.  Instead, Kidblog.org allows me to write private comments that can be seen ONLY by me and by the writer of the blog post.  The kids LOVE getting this kind of feedback.  I often point out things that I notice the student doing and I also offer suggestions on how they can push their writing and thinking next time. I have loved seeing that most of my students respond to my comments without me ever asking them to do so.

Another wonderful thing about these blog posts, is that they provide ANOTHER opportunity for the kids to learn from each other. We take time in class to read each other’s blog posts and leave comments for each other.  The students often choose to leave comments for their classmates filled with incredible feedback.  I am also able to use the kids’ blog posts as mentor texts and as a class we analyze what we notice writers doing well so that other writers can try to do similar things.

I realize how incredibly long this blog post has gotten. If anyone is still reading, let me begin by saying how surprised I am by that! I really just wanted to solidify our journey with our reading blog posts so that I can look back and realize how far we have come.  This new way of writing about our reading has really energized my students.  I even overheard a reluctant reader and writer saying to her friend, “This is actually fun!” as she was putting together her first reading blog post.  It warmed my heart to hear what a change in attitude these kids were experiencing as we began to change the way that we wrote about our reading.

And finally, if you are interested, here are a few examples of my students’ blog posts that have really blown me away and impressed me:

Danielle’s Post on Rain Reign

Morissa’s Post on The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Sari’s Post on Unstoppable

Drew’s Post on Breaking Stalin’s Nose

Brady’s Post on The Unwanteds #3

IMG_4570

Getting Out of the Way and Letting the Kids Lead the Learning (Action Research Part 3)

This is the third post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here. If you are interested in reading part two, just click here

After a few weeks of working one-on-one with students, modeling the kind of thinking that I was expecting in their reading journals in whole class lessons and small group lessons, each of my students was working on specific reading focuses in their reading journals.  Each student was paying attention to something and collecting his/her observations in a way that worked for that particular student.  And I was so proud.  And then I realized that we had a really, really long way still to go.

While I was happy with the work that my students were doing, I realized that they were still pretty much completely dependent on me to help them find a reading focus.  They were not yet noticing their own observations and they were not able to craft these observations into something that they wanted to know, something that they wanted to pay attention to, something that they needed to discover.  Instead, they patiently waited for me to come and meet with them to figure out what they should be paying attention to and how they might pay attention to it.  While I was thrilled that this work was taking place, I was unsure of how I would ever break their dependency on me.

Enter my students.

One day, one of my students asked if he could share the work he was doing in his journal with the rest of the class because he was really proud of it.  This year, I began the year with a goal of talking less and allowing my students to talk more. I wanted them to create ideas that worked for them. I wanted them to take ownership over their own learning.  And one way that I had started to try to do that was to really listen to my students’ ideas. Not just listen, nod and then forget about the idea. But, listen, agree and ask them, “What do you need from me in order to do that?” I quickly found that as I put their ideas into action, they trusted that I wanted to hear their ideas and they kept coming up with more and more of them to share with me. It was a wonderful cycle.

So when my student asked me if he could share his reading work with the class, I said, “Of course!” And what began that day was perhaps the most powerful piece of my action research project so far. Because that was the day that I finally got out of the way and allowed my students to teach each other.  And that was the day that the “share” part of our reading workshop finally became valuable and meaningful and purposeful for all of my students.

What I saw that day was that a “share” session could be more than just one student talking about his work in order to make that student feel good about the work he had done. What I saw that day was that the last few minutes of our reading workshop could be the most important because they could allow my students to learn from and be inspired by each other.  I wasn’t the only one who could help show them how to notice their own thinking and use it to come up with particular reading focus and a way to keep track of the observations that came from that focus.  They could share their work with each other and learn from each other.

But they had to really learn how to learn from each other.

One of the first things that I did in order to revamp our reading share, was that I asked my students why they thought teachers had students share their work. The answers were, again, so honest and so eye-opening.  One student said that he believed teachers had kids share their work because then people got to talk about what they were proud of.  One student said that she thought it was because it motivated kids to do good work so that the teacher would choose them to share with the class.  One lovely, and oh-so-honest, child told me that she believed that teachers let kids share because it took up time at the end of the class. I love hearing the reasons why kids think we do what we do. And who knows, maybe for some teachers, this last student is right!

What I noticed right away is that not one child said anything about having kids share so that other kids could learn from the brilliance of the work being talked about. Not one child seemed to realize that they were supposed to listen in order to learn from each other. And who could blame them? I, certainly, have never bothered to explain to my students the purposes for sharing our work. Yes, I told them they should listen to each other. Yes, I told them to be respectful when other students were talking. But, I never even thought to tell them that they should listen to each other in order to be inspired by each other and to gain new ideas for their own work.

And so, we started to have these conversations. I started to share with them ways that I heard ideas kids shared and thought about how other kids could use those ideas. I started to share with them that when I heard a good idea, I often asked questions to help me better understand how I might be able to use this idea too. I started to share with them that when I heard an idea that I liked, I often made sure to tell the person with the idea a specific thing that I thought would work for me. And as I started to share these things with the kids, I noticed that they were beginning to do them as well.

And every single time that I noticed a child was listening in a way that allowed her to learn from someone else’s ideas, I complimented them and pointed it out to the class. When a student shared how he might use someone’s idea in his own work, I made sure the class knew what a huge deal that was. When a student said that what she saw one child doing in one book could be something that she could do in her book, I made sure to acknowledge just how smart that student was being. And the kids began to notice and our sharing time began to change. It had more meaning and it had more purpose and it was actually helping the kids to begin to break their dependency on me.

As our reading share began to evolve, I noticed that kids were stating how they planned to use each other’s ideas in their own work. I noticed that the feedback that they gave each other became more specific. And, most importantly, I began to see the students trying out the ideas of other students in their own reading journals. I had proof that they were learning from each other. I had proof that I was officially not the only teacher in the room any longer.

I also noticed another exciting change in the way we shared our reading. In the past, my reading share quickly morphed into kids providing five to ten minute summaries of the books they were reading. Other kids would ask questions about the plots and maybe, just maybe, the child sharing would talk about a prediction they had.  However, now, our sharing time has finally become more about the thinking that the kids are doing as they read than about the books themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having kids talk about the books they are reading with each other. It’s just that I think there are more effective ways to do that. We share the books we are reading through a Google Doc and Google Form that one of my students created for the class. We share the books we are reading through the QR codes we create that are linked to 30-second audio recordings of book commericals that the kids have made. We share the books we are reading through the informal conversations and book talks that the kids are constantly having. We share the books we are reading through the blog posts that we write about our books. There are many opportunities for the kids to talk about and learn about the plots of the books that we are reading.

And now there is also a time where we get to learn about the thinking that we are doing as we read. This reading share has become such a purposeful and meaningful time of our reading workshop. Where it used to be the first thing that I cut out when we didn’t have enough time, now it is something that the kids really demand because they are eager to share AND they are eager to learn from each other.  Now it has meaning. Now it has purpose. Now my students have a chance to learn more from each other than they do from me on any given day. And we still have a long way to go in order to break their dependency on me, but changing our reading share was a huge step in the right direction. Getting out of the way and letting the kids lead the learning, has been one of the most powerful changes I have made this year.

IMG_5043

Changing One Small Question, Opens Worlds of Possibilities (Action Research Part 2)

This is the second post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here

In past years, I began every reading conference that I had with my students with the question, “What have you been reading about?” And because kids try to always give us what we ask for, I often then received a 5-7 summary of the book that they were reading.  This told me very little about the reader sitting in front of me.  It told me a lot about the book, but the book wasn’t what I was trying to teach.  It was the reader who I was trying to teach.  But I started with a question that put the book front and center in my reading conference, not the reader himself.

This year, I tried different ways to begin my reading conferences. Many of them caused my students to sit in silence and to just look at me with eager eyes waiting for when I would ask them to tell me about their books.  And then one day I stumbled onto a question that worked well with a student. So I tried it with another student. Again, it worked well. And I quickly saw that there was one question that seemed to work wonders with most of the readers in my classroom.

So now, every reading conference that I have with a child begins with the very simple question, “What you have been noticing as you have been reading?” And I don’t know why, but this question has been so powerful for my students.  For me, it worked better than asking, “What have you been thinking about as you have been reading?” It seems to put less pressure on my students. It seems to be a more authentic question for them to answer. It seems to lead to a greater willingness on their part to share with me the things that I have always known are going on inside their heads, but that I haven’t been able to access before.

And when I asked them to tell me what they noticed, when I asked them to begin not with the book they were reading but with the thinking they were doing, then they told me all kinds of things. They told me that they noticed that their characters would say one thing, but mean another thing. They told me that they noticed that each of their characters had problems, but that they all approached those problems differently. They told me that they noticed that the author was including information that didn’t seem important at first but that became important later on. They told me that they noticed that a relationship between two characters was beginning to change as those two characters learned more about each other.  There were so many things that they noticed, it was almost as if they were just waiting to be asked.

Once my students started talking, really talking in this deep way, then I needed to work on doing a better job listening.  I had to listen for the golden nuggets that they were sharing and help them to put them into words that they could hold on to.  Because the thinking that they were doing was often complex and abstract and their ten and eleven year old minds often had a hard time managing these thoughts without putting them into words that they could understand.  So my first task was to listen. I had to learn to listen in a way that really allowed me to hear what my students were saying and not just to listen for what I wanted to teach them. I had to recognize and value what they were ALREADY doing before asking them to do something new and more difficult.

So in each conference that I have with my students, I try to pick up on one observation that seems like it excites them and interests them.  The goal is to use this observation to create a reading focus that they can use as they navigate through the rest of their text.  The reason that it is so important that the reading focus is rooted in their own thinking is because it needs to be something that will motivate them to launch an investigation into a deeper understanding of an element of their text.  They will then go back to their book and read through the lens of their particular reading focus in order to understand something in a deeper way.  And if this focus is something that I give to them, then it loses its authenticity and its meaning for the child.  I want my students to keep track of the thinking that they do as they read because it is something that they truly want to discover or find out or understand.  I want them to feel an urgent need to keep track of their thinking so that they can better understand something that has meaning and purpose for them as a reader.

Once the student and I have decided on a particular reading focus, then we decide on what he will pay attention to as he continues reading.  So for example, when one of my students told me that he noticed that his character was brave, we decided that it might be interesting to pay attention to the moments in his text that this character demonstrates his bravery.  That thinking came from the child.  Once the thinking is rooted in something that the child observed, then I can push the child a little bit to think of things that he might not have thought about on his own.  In this case, once the student decided to pay attention to moments that showed bravery, I then asked if he thought he might also be able to keep track of this own thinking about what allowed the character to be brave in each of those moments.  Because this was connected to his own observations and investigation, he was willing to take on this more complex piece of thinking.  I knew that by pushing in this small way, this child would be learning how to think more deeply about the things that motivate a character in a text.

Not only that, but this child was also learning a process for deeper thinking. He was learning that when you make an observation, you can then look for evidence in the text to prove that your observation is correct, and then you can push yourself to think about why that observation is occurring in your text. This is the kind of thinking that this student will, hopefully, begin to internalize and eventually be able to accomplish on his own no matter what text he is reading.

Once we have settled on a plan for what the child is going to pay attention to, then we need to come up with a way for that child to keep track of what he notices as he reads through the lens of this reading focus.  Again, this is a place where I need to allow the child to lead the conference.  I need to know what works best for the child and what works best for that particular child with this particular reading focus.  Sometimes a chart works best. Sometimes a bullet pointed list works better. And for other children still, a collection of drawings is the best way to keep track of the thinking the child is doing.

Often, this is where I am able to push the reader the most.  If a child has noticed that she often disagrees with the actions of the characters in her book and has decided to pay attention to the moments in her text that happens, she might first decide that a good way to do this is to create a two column chart. Perhaps she wants to label one side, “action of a character that I disagree with” and the other side, “why I disagree with this action.” This would be a fine way to work through the text. But I might try to push the child and suggest that we add a third column labeled, “Using what I know about this character, why might he/she have done this?” In this way, the thinking is still firmly rooted in the child’s initial observations, but I have had the chance to show her a way to push her thinking a little bit further.  If I can do this, then usually the child doesn’t even realize that she is being pushed and she is still invested in the work ahead of her.

And when I send my readers off, I know they armed with a mission. Not only have they set a reading focus or goal for themselves, but they have the urgency that is needed to stick with that focus because it is something that they want to know. Their reading journal becomes a place where they keep track of their investigation into a text and what they come up with is so much better any task I could have placed in front of them.

IMG_4133

Empowering My Students by Changing the Way We Talk and Write about Reading (Action Reseach Part 1)

Several months ago, I came up with a plan for my action research project. This is the first time that I am writing to talk about what has happened with that plan. It is scary to share because I always worry that what has happened, won’t live up to what I planned to have happen.  But as I shared in my last post, I know that it is time to write about it. It turns out, I had a lot more to say than I imgained. So here, is part one:

By the time most of my students get to fifth grade, they have grown a deep and very serious hatred of writing about their reading.  They have been asked, for several years, to keep track of the thinking that they do on post-it notes, in reading journals and through reading response letters.  And to be honest, they hate it. They have hated it for years.

And for so many years I would tell them things like, “Writing about your reading is sort of like eating brussels sprouts. You may not like it, but we know it is good for you.” Honestly. Those words came out of my mouth. And at the time, I thought I was doing a good thing for my students. Teaching them that sometimes we have to do things we don’t like because it is good for us.

But when I reflect back on those words, I realize that I was sending my students a much more harmful message.  What I was telling them was, “I don’t really care about your feelings towards this task. I am telling you to do it and so you should do it. It does not matter that it does not seem meaningful and purposeful to you. I am telling you it will help you to be a better reader and that should be enough reason for you to do this.” And my kids hated it. They hated the task that I was giving them. The task changed from weekly reading response letters, to post-it notes, to writing in sentences and paragraphs daily in a reading journal, but the idea remained the same,  And for many years I ignored the fact that no matter how I changed the task, they still hated it.  I just kept doing what I was doing because I believed it was good for them.

And that’s the thing, so many of us are driven by incredible intentions. We do what we believe is best for our kids or what we are coerced into believing is best for our kids. Because we love our kids. We want them to do well. We want the very best for them.

But what I am learning this year is that we might want wonderful things for our students, but if we continue to take our students out of our equation, if we continue to ignore their feelings about the work that we are asking them to do, then we aren’t really doing what is best for them.  Because they know what is best. They know what is meaningful and purposeful. They know what motivates them and what drives them to push themselves towards deeper levels of understanding.  And they are so willing to tell us.  They tell us with their complaints, they tell us with their glazed over looks out the window, they tell us with their misbehaviors, they tell us with their smiles and their hugs and the speed with which they run or walk into our classrooms in the morning.  But we must listen and we must act on what they have to say.

And my students were telling me loud and clear that how I was asking them to use their reading journals, how I was asking them to keep track of the thinking that they were doing as they read, and how I was asking them to write about their reading, all of that was not working.

With that information in mind, I began my action research project this year to find a better way to help kids work with their texts in a way that would deepen their thinking. My goals were to:

  • Help students to notice the thinking that they were doing as they read
  • Help students to take what they were noticing and use it to come up with a plan of what they would pay attention to as they continued reading a text
  • Help students to create a system to keep track of that thinking that worked for them as a reader and as a thinker
  • Help students to take all of that thinking and synthesize it through writing that would allow them to deepen their thoughts and share them with the world

The place I chose to begin was with the very students I was hoping to reach and to help. We started our year as readers together by talking about the reading work they had been asked to do in the past. I asked them to tell me about how they were asked to keep track of their thinking in previous years and I asked them to tell me how they felt about it all.  And because they are good and honest and wonderful and because in our first few days together we had already built a community of trust, they told me.  They told me about the post-its and letters and journals of the past years. And they also told me about how those things often stopped them from enjoying what they were reading. They told me how they found little purpose in the tasks that they were asked to do. They told me how the work they did in those journals and on those post-its was not helping them to be better readers.

Right from the start, I knew that one of my first obstacles was going to be overcoming their negative attitudes towards writing about their reading.  And by that, I do not mean that I needed to teach them to be more positive. No. What I needed to do was work to find a way to show them something different. I needed to prove to them that writing down their thinking as they read could actually enhance their reading experiences.  That is work that I needed to do in order to help them to feel more positively. I could not expect them to change their attitudes if they believed that I was going to ask them to do more of the same. If I was going to continue to demand of them work that lacked meaning and purpose, I could not fairly expect them to change the way they felt about that work.

So in the first few weeks of school, I did not require any of my students to write about their thinking as they read. And at first, that felt wrong. It felt like I was losing valuable time. It felt like they should be doing more than “just” reading. It felt like I was letting them take the easy way out.  But, of course, that is not what I was doing at all. What I was really doing was beginning by building a culture of joy around reading in my classroom. We talked about books that we loved. We talked about how books could make us feel less alone in the world. We talked about how books could help us to better understand people in this world who are vastly different than we are.  And then I began my conversations with my students. Slowly, I began to meet one-on-one with each of my students in reading conferences. And that is when the real work began.

And When the Doubt Settles, You Remember Who You Are

I am now back home after my three day trip with the Heinemann Fellows. And of course, now that I am home, I can recognize what my doubt really was. It was the feeling that comes when you find yourself surrounded by incredible people with incredible ideas.  I wish that you all could have heard the conversations that we had. I honestly do not know if I have ever been lucky enough to be surrounded by such passionate and dedicated teachers before. It is a gift. And a gift that is easily tainted when I allow myself to let that genious make me feel inadequate.  But, I tell you, it is hard not to. It is hard to be surrounded by that kind of brilliance and not feel a wee bit unworthy.

And now that I am home, and now that I look back on all that I have gained because of this group and this experience, I realize that I am just so lucky. And I remember that the biggest gift that I have gotten from this group is the inspiration to try and make a change.  I have been inspired to imagine what my ideal classroom might look like and I have been inspired to work towards making that ideal a reality.  That is the true gift of this group. Inspiration.

Up until now I have let my fear of not being good enough stop me from writing about the work that I have been doing around my action research project. I have not written on this blog about it for fear that it just wouldn’t measure up. And then today, I remembered.  After talking about this with my wife, she reminded me of who I really am. She reminded me that I do what I do for my students and not for anyone else. I work the way that I work for my students. All of this is to make me better for them. And they have been better. I have seen it with my own eyes. This work that we are doing together, it is changing them.  It is changing my classroom. And that is why I am doing this all.  I am not trying to be as good as anyone else. I am not trying to convince the world that I know what I am doing. I am not doing this to prove that I am worthy. I am doing this for my kids.

And our work should be shared with others. Not because it is the best way to do things. Not because I have thought of anything that no one else has already thought of. Not because what I have done will work for anyone else besides me and my students. Our work should be shared because it is worthy. Because I have seen something that wasn’t work and I am trying to make it better. And that is enough.

So the floodgates have been opened.  I sat down to write about my action research today and pages and pages of writing spilled out.  And I want to post them here, in pieces over the next few days, because I believe in the work that we are doing. I am going to begin to share the work that we have been doing and as I told the Heinemann Fellows this weekend, I usually post things with the belief that mostly just my mother will read them.  But should anyone else happen to come by, I would love to begin a conversation. I would love to hear what you have to say and what you have tried and what has worked for you. Because I am proud of our work and I also know that we have so much futher to go. I look forward to any feedback you might be willing to give.

Doubt

I am getting ready to end my three day trip with the other amazing, incredible, inpsiring, and energizing Heinemann Fellows. And I want to sit here and write about the powerful learning that I have done, what these passionate teachers have shown me, and the ideas that I am bringing back to my classroom. But I can’t. Because the thoughts that are consuming my brain at this moment aren’t those wonderful thoughts. They are thoughts of doubt.

Doubt that I am up to this challenge. Doubt that the work that I am choosing to do is good enough. Doubt that I have anything worthy of sharing with this group. Doubt that I am doing enough for my studnets. Doubt that all the changes that I have made this year are really all that important. Doubt that I have any idea what I am doing.

And those thoughts of doubt, they so easily crowd out the more productive thoughts. They so easily monopolize my brain and stop me from getting everything out of this experience that I could possibly get.

So I am hoping that by writing this I will be able to quiet some of that doubt. Because often when I am able to acknowledge what I am feeling, when I am able to own it, then I am better able to move on from it.  When I am able to say that this might not be what I want to be feeling, but there it is nonetheless.  When I am able to remove the guilt of feeling and emotion and just allow myself to feel it instead. Then, maybe, I have the hope of moving on.

So here are these words: I am doubting just about everything I know right now.

I will let that sit. I will let myself feel that and hopefully I will be able to move right on past it.  And so the next time I write, I promise to tell you all about how much I have learned and how much I have gained from being with this group of people for the past three days.

The Very Beginnings of an Action Research Plan

Since my planning session the other day with the incredible Ellin Keene, I have been working hard to put together a rough plan for my action research.  Because writing helps me to think more clearly, and because I am hoping that my plan will get better as I write it out, and because I so very much value the thoughts of anyone who happens to read this plan, I am devoting this post to attempting to write out the very beginnings of my action research plan (hence my very creative title).

So let’s start at the very beginning. My question, which seemed really simple at first, but then led me to so much more than I would have imagined, is as follows: What are the most effective instructional tactics to help students to develop their own goals in narrative texts?

What led me to my question was my own reading.  I was reading the book We Were Liars for a book club.  As I was reading, I started to notice that the main character was FILLED with contradictions.  So as I read, I decided to pay attention to moments when she expressed drastic contradictions in how she felt.  By paying attention to these moments I hoped to better understand why she had these strong, opposing emotions all the time.  And as I read, having that specific goal, really helped me to read the book in a different way and allowed me to better understand the main character.  When I went to my book club, many of my comments were focused on the goal that I had been working on and I thought about how powerful it would be to help students learn to do this kind of goal setting as they read.  So I began to formulate my plan.

The first place I started, before thinking of any instructional tactics or ways to measure success, was to think about my criteria for success.  How will I know when my students are able to do what I want them to do and what is it exactly that I want them to be able to do anyway.  Here is what I have so far…

Students will be successful when they are able to:

*independently generate meaningful reading goals that will help them to better understand their texts in some way.

*work independently, over a period of time, on these goals.

*keep track of their progress in their reading journals.

*use the work they have done on their goals in order to explain what it has allowed them to better understand about their text.

*articulate what they have done to their peers and guide others to do the same (through blog posts and through teaching lessons to their classmates).

Great! So now that I know what I want my students to be able to do, I have to try to figure out some way to teach them how to do that.  Honestly, I don’t know what will work.  What I do know is that I truly believe that this is something that my students are capable of doing and that will allow them to be better readers.  What I also know is that the most important thing for me is that I find a way to help my students to set their OWN goals, not just to effectively work on the goals that I set for them.  I want them to learn to notice the things that they truly find captivating about their books and to pay close attention to those things. I believe that by doing this, by learning to read in this way, they will be able to create more meaning from every single book (and article, blog post, website, etc.) that they read. But it HAS to come from them.  And that will be my biggest challenge.

Like I said, I don’t really have any idea how to do this, but here is a list of some possible ways I might try:

*Whole class mini-lesson on reading goals, what they are and how they can help us to be better readers. Creating charts on what makes a good reading goal and how to come up with them and how they will help us.

*Use guided reading to help teach students how to set goals with focus on, “What do you want to pay attention to as you read?” Model my own reading goals. Read part of a story or a first chapter and talk about what you might want to pay attention to if you were going to continue reading.

*Provide time for students to teach each other what goals they have been working on and how it has been helping them and how they have been tracking their progress. Shorten MY mini-lessons to provide more time for THEIR lessons.

*Create a class chart of reading goals. Perhaps an actual chart (to hang on the walls) and a virtual chart (using a Google Form) for students to refer back to and to gain ideas from.

*Take students who have similar reading goals and put them together into groups so that they can discuss their progress and provide feedback to each other.

*Use reading journals as a place to keep track of goals and progress towards goals.

*Have calendars hanging up for students to schedule conferences with me and to schedule times to teach the class.

*Focus reading conferences on setting goals and asking how goals will help the students to be better readers.

*Perhaps have students try using the following language:

1st: “I have noticed that…”

2nd: “So I want to pay attention to…” or “So, I want to look for moments when…”

3rd: “In order to help me understand…”

*Students work in their journals on their goals and when they feel as if they have reached a good place, with new understanding, they will use the notes in their journals to write a blog post explaining the work that they have been doing. They will publish this post to share with others so that others can learn from them.  This might be a good step to know that they are ready to teach the class.

I have also started to think about data collection.  For me, this is going to be one of the hardest parts, as data collection is not something that honestly excites me all that much.  I will obviously be collecting samples of students’ work from their reading journals, recording our conferences (and perhaps our guided reading groups, literature discussion groups and the teaching sessions that the students lead), using comprehension rubrics to track their growth as readers, and then some type of student surveys or interviews.  That part needs a whole lot more flushing out at this point.

Phew!

So that’s the start of my plan.  Even sitting alone at my computer, thinking about this plan excites me.  I am genuinely curious to see where my students lead me on this one.  I feel strongly about the importance of this work and I am excited to share the journey with anyone who might choose to tag along!

Conversations that Inspire

My wife took my daughter to the zoo, which means that I am sitting at home…by myself (well, except for the cat who is sitting on the table next to my computer and my dog who is sitting directly on top of my feet and the other cat who keeps wandering by hoping I will stop what I am doing to pet her on the head).

This is a rare occurrence.  I find myself with time.  Time to do anything I want.

And all I can do is think about the conversation that I had yesterday with the incredibly smart, unbelievably passionate, and unendingly generous Ellin Keene.  Our district has been lucky enough to work with Ellin for the past few years.  She has done countless hours of professional development with our district as we work to better our literacy instruction.  And besides all of that, she is just amazing.

I recently read Meenoo Rami‘s book Thrive (which I highly recommend to all educators!) and in it she talks of the importance of finding mentors.  People who will inspire us, people who will push us, people who will see the things in us that we often do not see in ourselves.  In every possible way, Ellin Keene has been one of my most important mentors.  She has made me a better teacher, she has helped me to be a better person, she has guided me toward thinking deeply, toward always putting the children at the very center of what we do, and towards being the kind of reflective teacher that always thinks of how we can do better for our students.

And yesterday I got to steal a little bit of her time to discuss my action research for the Heinemann Fellows.  I will admit that I had not done a whole lot of thinking about my project since I returned from my trip to New Hampshire.  I can say that it was because I was busy running after my 18 month old, but the truth is that I just wasn’t feeling very inspired.

Knowing that I was going to meet with Ellin, I spent the past few nights pulling together a very, very, very rough beginning plan for my action research.  I tried to refine my question, think of possible ways to gather data and think of instructional strategies that might help me to help my students to do what I hope that they can do.  And I felt okay about it all.

And then I spoke to Ellin. I am assuming that anyone reading this knows the feeling that I am about to describe.  It is what happens when you sit down with someone you respect, someone who “gets it.” It is the feeling of being excited by the possibilities that you start to imagine in the course of the conversation.  It is the feeling of wishing that, for that one moment, summer vacation would end and that you could run back into your classroom full of kids and just get started.  It is the feeling of being inspired. And. It. Is. Amazing.

Recently, I have had more opportunities to feel this kind of inspiration.  It has been brought back into my life by Twitter, by this blog, by my work as a Heinemann Fellow and by my conversations around the action research project I am undertaking.

And still, I can’t help but wonder, “Why don’t I feel this way every day?” Why don’t I feel this way after face-to-face conversations with my co-workers? Why don’t I feel this way when I leave a PD session from my district? Is it just because we get so bogged down with the stress of the day-to-day stuff? Is is because when we gather face-to-face with co-workers we are more likely to slip into conversations that revolve around complaints?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I crave conversations that inspire.  I feel so lucky to have found opportunities to have those conversations and now I want to push myself to create situations in my day-to-day work environment that lead to those same kinds of conversations.  I don’t know exactly how one does that, but I know that I going to try.

As for my conversation yesterday with Ellin…that gets tucked away in a very special space in my heart.  It will be there when I need to pull from it for a boost of inspiration.  I want to sit down and write about my action research plan, but that can wait for later.  What I needed to capture today was that incredible conversation and what it made me feel and my desire to replicate those kinds of conversations with the people I am surrounded by every day.

Back at Home, The Real Work Begins

Yesterday, I flew my tired self home from the three-day meeting with the Heinemann Fellows group. It was a true, “AND” not “BUT” kind of moment (if that doesn’t make any sense, read this). As I said to my wife upon my arrival in Chicago, that was the SINGLE most powerful educational experience that I have ever had.  The excitement continued to pulse through my veins hours after our meeting had ended.  AND I was terrified and overwhelmed at the work ahead.  

One of our last moments as a group involved going around the table and sharing our take-aways from the three days spent together.  There were two major common themes that were shared by almost everyone: 

1) This gathering of passionate educators did wonders for our souls.  We had each been feeling the isolation that I have spoken of in earlier blog posts.  We each had been feeling as if we did not have enough people around us to discuss things with or enough opportunities that invited the type of discussion that we had experienced over our three days together.  We were all craving connection.  Connection to those who thought like we did, connection to those whose experiences were vastly different than our own, connection to those who believed that educators have the power to make our classrooms and schools better places, and connection to those who believe that a small group of people can create big changes in this world.  We found that connection as we came together as a group and it was so powerful. Some were even moved to tears by it.  I don’t think any of us expected it to be quite as powerful as it was, but I know that I was incredibly grateful for just three days of that kind of work. 

AND

2) Most of us felt completely unqualified to do what we were about to do.  It was so funny to hear that each one of us sat quietly in our own self-doubts and assumed that everyone else was feeling just great.  Until we began to reach out, to be honest, to be vulnerable.  That is when we all realized that most everyone was feeling completely overwhelmed at what lay ahead.  Most of us have never done action research in our classrooms in this formal way.  Most of us are still unable to visualize what our projects are really going to look like.  Most of us are swimming in an ocean of, “What if it just doesn’t work?” or “What if I don’t find anything to help answer this question?” and most overwhelmingly, “What if I am just not good enough (or smart enough or connected enough or savvy enough or whatever enough) to do this?” 

So we walked away with both of those things.  Power in our connection and fear in our self-doubt.  What makes those two things manageable, what makes it all workable and doable is that we are not alone.  We’ve got this incredible little group of Fellows and this incredible team at Heinemann next to us and behind us and in front of us. That’s what makes it all so much more okay.  

I have to remind myself to take this one step at a time. One foot in front of the other.  I have to remind myself to be okay with not knowing exactly how the path is going to unfold in front to me.  As I tried to sit down today and figure out a plan, I realized that I have more questions than answers at this point.  How am I going to go about starting to help kids set their own goals and then work towards those goals in reading workshop?

I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that I am so motivated and rejuvenated from these past three days that I am going to figure it out.  It is isn’t going to be perfect, these are children we are working with after all, but I know that I am committed to figuring this path ahead of me out. AND I know that I have got some great people along for the ride.