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The Students Become the Teachers

One of my favorite parts of the end of the school year is watching as the students become the teachers. All year, I have modeled for my students how to read like writers and how to learn from the writers we love. And now, this is something that my students know how to do on their own. So it is time to let them show me.

Our final writing work of the year involves informational writing. Our first project was to create our own, student-written website that resembles the brilliance of the website Wonderopolis.  As we did this work, my students had a chance to select their own mentor texts, analyze those mentor texts and then teach the writing strategies they discovered to their classmates. You can read about that work HERE.

For our next unit, we started to work on creating longer pieces of informational texts.  As we began this work, each student selected his/her/their own mentor text. Here is an explanation of that process.

As the students got farther along in their research on the topics they chose to write about, I knew it was time to start thinking about how they were going to write. One of the biggest challenges that I have found with my 5th grade writers is helping them to do more than write a giant list of organized facts and instead write something that is interesting, clear and even evokes an emotional response from the reader.

The best way that I know how to help my students learn to write this way is for them to look to the incredible informational picture books that we have in our classroom and in our library.  So as students started moving from researching into writing, I asked them to pull back out the mentor texts that they had selected. I asked them to especially pay attention to the mentor texts that they had selected for writing style.

I began by sharing my own mentor text, RAD American Women A-Z. I put a copy of a page from this text under the document camera and also gave a copy to each child. We read through the page together first without stopping. Then I told them I was going to go back and look for any parts of the writing that seemed like MORE than just a listing of facts. I was looking for places where the writer did something that helped make the information clearer to the reader or that helped make the writing more interesting or that helped the reader to feel some kind of emotion. I marked the writing strategies that I found and I asked the students to do the same thing.

Then, I told the kids that they were going to look more closely at their own mentor texts in order to find the writing strategies that their writers used. I shared with them that if they were no longer feeling inspired by the mentor texts they had chosen, then they should go choose new ones. Find something that moves you and then figure out how that writer did what he/she/they did. We discussed that while we cannot steal the words of other writers, we can indeed steal their strategies. That is how we become better writers.

So the kids headed off to analyze their mentor texts and to discover new writing strategies.  They kept track of what they found HERE.

The next day, I pulled out another one of my mentor texts. I reminded them that on the first day of my work, with the mentor text RAD American Women A-Z, I saw my writer use stories to show something important about the topic.  In my second mentor text, Incredible Inventions, I saw a totally different writer, using the same writing strategy to write about a totally different topic. I told my students that this was important because it helped me to see more than one way to use a writing strategy. I told them that as they looked at their own mentor texts today, I wanted them to see if they noticed two different writers using the same writing strategy. I asked them to mark this on their charts.  And off they went again.  This seemed to help them move from simply finding interesting content, to actually finding the strategies that writers were using to make the content more interesting.

On the third day, I told them that it was now time to select a writing strategy that they had seen used in their mentor texts to teach to their classmates. We had done this in our last unit, but I realized that when we did it the last time, I did not provide nearly enough support in helping them find effective ways to teach others about their writing strategies.  So this time, I wanted each student to come up with a lesson plan.

I began by explaining to my students one possibility for a structure for an effective writing lesson. I used this chart to help explain the gradual release of responsibility model to them:

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I also shared this chart with them in order to give them some ideas on how they could show how they might use a new writing strategy and to give them some ideas on how to have the students they would be teaching practice using this new writing strategy as well:

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I then told the kids how teachers create lesson plans so that they know how they are going to teach their students.  I told the kids that to help them to be better teachers, I was going to have each of them fill out a lesson plan as well. THIS IS THE LESSON PLAN EACH CHILD FILLED OUT.  After creating a lesson plan, I asked each child to create something for their students to look at.  Once this was made, I collected the visual aid and the lesson plan.

I did allow students to work together because I know that for some kids, leading a group of other students by themselves feels like too much.  So the kids who worked together turned in one lesson plan and one visual aid.  If the visual aid was a handout, I made copies for the students and if it was something on the computer, I just checked to make sure the teacher knew where to find it.

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It was amazing to see what a difference the lesson planning sheet had made.  The last time I had the students teach each other new writing strategies, it was a bit more of a free for all.  Some of the kids did a great job and other kids just weren’t quite sure what to do.  And that was my fault.  Of course they don’t know how to plan a lesson. I also didn’t give them enough time to plan a lesson in the past. I just sort of threw them into the work.  Having the structure of the lesson planning sheet gave the kids the direction they needed.

It took the kids about two days to plan their lessons. Some students needed more time to go back and find examples of writers using their strategies and other students needed more time to find ways to use these strategies themselves. While they were lesson planning, they were also using some of our writing workshop time to continue their research and drafting.

Today, they were ready to begin teaching. I created a sign up sheet so that we could keep track of who was teaching, what strategy was being taught and which students would be attending which lesson.  Just like the last time we did this, I only allowed five students to sign up for each session because I didn’t want there to be one session that had 12 kids while another one only had 2.  Here is what our sign-up chart looked like:

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When I asked for volunteers to teach on the first day, almost every single hand went up.  I ended up having to randomly select popsicle sticks with names because everyone was so eager to go first.  The three teachers were chosen and went off to set up. I told the rest of the kids to think about the three writing strategies being taught that day and to think about their own topics.  I told them that they should sign up for a strategy that would work for their own topic.  This way, they could learn something that would actually help them in their writing.

Here was our chart after everyone signed up:

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After signing up, the students went off to their groups with the things that they were told they would need.  When they arrived in their groups, the first thing that they had to do was add the writing strategy to their build-your-own revision checklist.  In our classroom, we often use revision checklists to help the students to be more independent in the revision process.  For most writing units, I create the revision checklists by listing all of the writing strategies that we have learned in a unit and then asking the students to select a certain number of strategies that will work for their own writing in order to revise.  But for this unit, the students would all be learning different writing strategies, so I created a build-your-own revision checklist. THE REVISION CHECKLIST TEMPLATE CAN BE SEEN HERE. 

After the new strategies were listed on everyone’s revision checklists, the teachers in each group began teaching.  It was incredible to listen to and incredible to watch. The language that we had used all year to talk about writing and to talk about the texts we were reading was now coming out of the mouths of these students who were assuming the role of teacher.  I watched as kids redirected the students in their groups. I listened as kids asked the students in their groups probing questions. I heard students encourage each other and make writing suggestions to each other. It was clear that these kids felt ownership over the writing process and over this writing work.

Next week, the rest of the students will have a chance to teach their lessons.  As students finish up their first drafts of their informational writing, they will move into the revision process with at least three new writing strategies to apply to their own writing, on top of the writing strategies that they have discovered on their own from their own mentor texts.

I think about how much quicker it would have been to choose four or five writing strategies  myself and to teach them to all of the students at once on my own. Some kids might have even learned the strategies better if I had taught them.

But then I think about how much the kids would NOT have learned. They would not have learned that they can learn new writing strategies on their own. They would not have learned that some of the best writing teachers they will ever find are the books that they read. They would not have learned that they have the power to learn from and teach each other. They would not have learned what it feels like to know something well enough to teach it to someone else. They would not have learned that learning from each other is one of the best ways to solidify a community. They would not have learned that they do not need me to be writers.

And all of that is so much more important to me, and for them, than the efficiency that might have come from controlling all of the learning myself.

 

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Sources of Information versus Sources of Inspiration

We are well on our way into our informational writing project. I explained with our first work with informational writing, I wanted to make sure to find ways to give more power over to my students as we began one of our final writing projects of the school year.  When we were working on our wonder writing, I saw the power of asking students to choose and analyze and learn from their own mentor texts. For so long, I have seen the power of mentor texts to turn children into better writers. But, only recently, have I begun to realize that if I really want to teach my students to become lifelong writers, then I need to teach them how to learn from the writers they are surrounded by in their lives.

This means that instead of choosing all of the mentor texts for my students, I needed to do more work in teaching my students how to select their own mentor texts, how to analyze these mentor texts and how to apply what they are learning from these mentor texts to their own writing. So this has become a major focus of mine for this unit.

We began our unit by attempting to expand my students’ ideas of what informational writing is.  Unfortunately, by the time kids make it to fifth grade, they have been exposed to a lot of bad informational writing. They have seen textbooks and inauthentic informational writing whose purpose is purely to cover content and not to connect with readers. When we began our unit, I asked the kids to tell me what they thought of informational writing. Almost half the kids used the word, “boring.” Many of the kids said it was writing that was done in school or that it was writing that a teacher made you do.

I asked my students if they ever noticed that half of any book store that you walk into is reserved for nonfiction writing. They responded that those kinds of books were not informational writing.

Ah! So that was our problem.

So I brought it four different books that were written in four extremely different ways and we did some work to look at the topics of these books, the formats of these books and the reasons why these formats made sense for these topics. And then every day in writing workshop, for the first week of our unit, I gave the kids half an hour to simply explore the nonfiction books that we had in our classroom and to notice the things that interested them.

It was AMAZING to watch the kids dive into these books. To excitedly share the information that they were learning. To whisper in small groups about the cool ways these books were set-up. To be energized by informational writing.To laugh at the informational writing they were reading. Every day, I checked in with my writers to see how their understanding of informational writing was starting to change. And every day I was pleased to see the growth that we were making. On our final day, I asked the students to choose three books that they were extremely interested in and write about the topic, format and the reasons why this format made sense for this topic.

 

Once we had spent time exploring, it was time to think about our own topics. To help us determine what makes a good topic for informational writing, we looked back at the author’s notes, source notes and introductions from the four books that we examined all together for topic and format.  We pulled out the different reasons that these authors gave for why they chose to write about the topics that they wrote about.  Then we read the beautiful book, Ideas Are All Around. 

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I then put the students into writing groups to discuss their topic ideas and to receive feedback. Like in our fiction writing unit, I wanted my students to have a constant group of peers that will serve as a source of feedback and support throughout our entire writing unit.  By the end of this writing unit, these writers will know each other’s writing well and will be a wonderful source of support for each other.  In their writing groups this week, the students discussed their potential topics and made a decision on what they wanted to write about after listening to feedback from their writing groups.

Once this decision was made, I wanted to make sure that I gave my students time to just grow their understanding of their topic. Too often, I rush into having my students plan out their writing and decide on subtopics, before I have given them enough time to just learn about their topics. In this way, their plans often limit their writing because they did not have time to learn the big picture first before worrying about the smaller parts.  So each day this week (the second week of our unit), I knew that I wanted to devote time to just letting them explore their topics. No note taking. No planning. Just time to learn about their topics.

In addition, I wanted each child to begin selecting their own mentor texts.  As I said earlier, I did not want to be the only person in charge of choosing the mentor texts that would help us learn to be better informational writers.

In the past, I have selected two or three authors for us to study. I have found the writing strategies that we would learn to use. I would select the passages that showed those strategies. When I did that, I was the only one learning how to be inspired by the writing of others. And then I was simply pushing my own inspiration onto my students.

This year, I wanted my students to find their own sources of inspiration. I wanted my students to learn how to learn from the writers around them and not just from me.

But to do this, I really had to step back and teach my kids how to locate and learn from their own mentor texts.

So I began by sharing my thought process with the kids on how I went about selecting mentor texts for my own informational writing project. I plan to write a book alongside my students all about chocolate. My students had already heard my thought process in selecting this topic, so now I shared with them how I selected my mentor texts. After that, we built the following chart to help us think about the many different reasons why a text might become a mentor text for a writer:

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And then I gave the kids time to just go and explore again, but this time with the specific purpose of finding mentor texts.  Again, it was great to watch the kids look at the books that we have had in our room all year long that often go ignored. It was also great to listen to the conversations that they were having about these books as they looked at them through the lens of writers searching for inspiration.

 

As children found texts that inspired them in some way, I asked them to simply grab a post-it note, write their name on it and list the reason(s) they wanted to use this book as a mentor text. Then we began to pile these resources together. Some favorite books became mentor texts to multiple children and some books were dug out of the bins that I never would have expected.

And I guess that is just it. When I do all of the selecting of mentor texts, I am the one who is controlling the image that develops of what informational writing can look like. But when I allow each child to select mentor texts that work for their own writing, then they are able to select the best resources for themselves as writers and for the kind of writing that they want to do.

Not only that, but this also gives me hope that my students’ learning will continue without me. When we can teach our students how to learn about writing from every text that they read, then the learning can go on whether we are there or not. And ultimately, that is what I want for my students.

By the end of the second day of searching, we had three bins filled with mentor texts. And we also had a chart where we summarized the differences between our sources of information and our sources of inspiration.  We will now begin to return to these sources as we put together knowledge of our topics with knowledge of how to be a better writer. I am excited to see where these mentor texts take us!

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Inquiry Circles Week #1: Topic Selection

Recently, I wrote about beginning inquiry circles for the first time in my classroom. The work that I am doing comes directly from the amazing book, Comprehension and Collaboration by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey Daniels. This book lays out not only the reasons why inquiry circles are so important for our students, but also provides a roadmap to follow when implementing them in classrooms of all levels.

So this week we began our inquiry circles. We started by looking at how this work fits into our reading unit on questioning. We talked about the purpose of questioning. We looked at the purpose of questioning both as readers and as human beings in the world outside of the classroom. Through our discussion, we created this anchor chart: FullSizeRender (13)

I told them that this week, our work would be to brainstorm and select concerns and questions that we wanted to focus on in our inquiry circles. I told them that the final phase of these inquiry circles would be to take some action toward creating positive change and because of that, the only requirement that I had in terms of what topics they could chose was that it had to be some problem that existed in the world.

I then told the students that they might want to begin by thinking about concerns and questions that affect their own lives and then ones that affect the world. This comes right from Harvey Daniels in Comprehension and Collaboration. I then modeled for the students some of my own ideas. I created a two-column chart and wrote SELF on one side and WORLD on the other.

I began by talking about how one issue that affects my own life, affects me as a mom. Recently, as my own daughter has been getting more and more presents that seem to come in pink boxes, I have been wrestling with the idea of toys and gender.  The question that I am left with is, “How is the marketing of toys affected by gender and how does this affect young kids?” I added this concern and question to my chart in the SELF column.

I then thought out loud about the current refugee crisis.  I shared with the students that I didn’t know too much about the details of this crisis, but that it is a story that actually makes my heart hurt and so I know it is something that I need and want to learn more about. The question I wrote down was, “Where are these refugees coming from and what is the best way to help them?” I wrote down this concern and question in the WORLD column.

After modeling these ideas for my students, I gave them some time to think quietly and add to their own charts that they created. I knew that some of them would have no trouble thinking of questions and concerns, but I also knew that for some students, this would be the first time that they had been asked to think of issues on such a global scale. So I wanted to make sure that I was providing enough support for every student to find a topic that he or she was interested in.

So after a few minutes of quiet thinking, I shared with the kids, an end-of-the-year video that Google had made about the questions that were asked in 2015. As we watched the video, two times, the kids continued to add to their lists.  After the video, I sent the kids to their own computers and led them to a Google Slideshow that I created. The slideshow contained the video we watched together and many other photographs and photo essays that I thought would help them to spark more ideas.  I gave them more time to work. FullSizeRender (9)

After the students had time to look at all of these resources, I asked them to get into groups and share the topics and questions that they wrote down.  I asked them to pay attention to what topics came up from more than one person or what topics more than one person expressed interest in. It was amazing to hear the things that the students wanted to talk about.  They were focused on their discussions and there was not one group that needed to be redirected.

We then came together as a class and I asked each group to share with me the topics that were brought up more than one time in their discussions.  Here are our initial lists of possible topics, one for my morning class and one for my afternoon class:

And yes. These topics are huge. And yes, I was extremely nervous about asking 5th graders to look into some of these topics. But here is the thing, these topics came from my students. These topics are the ones that my students wanted to learn about. And of course I worried about parents and if they would understand our work or not. And of course I worried about what resources we would find and if my students would be able to handle them. And of course I worried about some of these topics bringing up issues that I wasn’t sure how we would talk about.

But I decided to trust my students.

I decided to have faith in my students.

If these were the problems in our world that my students WANTED to learn about, how could I possibly stand in their way.

So I asked them to think about these topics. I asked them to talk at home with their parents and bring back any additional topics the next day. And I told them that I was not sure how we were going to go about learning about these very big and very real problems, but that I was incredibly proud of them for wanting to learn about them. I told them that I was going to do everything that I knew how to do to help them learn what they needed to learn in order to be able to learn about what they wanted to know.

So the next day, a few kids wanted to add a few more possible topics. We added these to our lists. Then I asked the kids to write down on a notecard, the three issues that they were most interested in learning about. Once they had their three issues, I told them that we would be mingling together as a class to further discuss our topic choices. I wanted them to talk to every single other person in the class, in one-on-one conversations, to find out what topics each person had chosen. I asked them to notice the topics that they heard come up over and over again. Again, this is an idea right from Comprehension and Collaboration. And it worked beautifully.

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After the class had a chance to mingle, we created one final list of topic choices. Each class had between 6 – 8 topics on these final lists. We talked about all the things that they needed to think about in order to select a good topic for themselves. We talked about how it must be a topic you are interested in, a topic you feel is within your “reach of understanding” (those were words directly from one of my students), a topic you think you will be able to find information on that you will understand, and a topic that will not be too upsetting for you to learn about. These were all considerations that came from the students themselves.  I then asked the kids to write down on another notecard their top three choices in order of which topic they wanted to focus on the most.

The next day, I took these notecards and WITH THE KIDS, I made our final groups. And our final topic choices are:

For my morning class: animal abuse, police brutality, video game violence, LGBT rights, and terrorism.

For my afternoon class: child’s rights, animal abuse, LGBT rights, video game violence, terrorism and hormones in food.

As I said to my students, I know these topics are big. I know that some people will say that I should not be allowing my students to learn about these topics. And, to be honest, I have wrestled with this myself.

But here is what I know. I know that kids take in what they can take in. I know that by allowing my students to select their own topics, I was allowing them to self-differentiate and find topics that they truly cared about. I know that kids are capable of way more than I sometimes let myself believe. I know that it is often my own fears and my own uncertainties that stop me from allowing my students to investigate the issues that really matter most.

And what I also know is that nothing is ever going to get better in this world if I don’t help my students learn how to follow their interests in the issues that pull at their hearts. If I don’t show my students how to challenge the way things are through the questions they ask. How to put together multiple perspectives and multiple sides to an issue in order to gain a more complete understanding of why things are the way they are. How to learn about a problem completely so that you can then work to change it. If I don’t help my students to learn how to do these things, then there is little hope that they will ever start to make the kinds of changes that this world so desperately needs.

I was so proud of my students this week. I sat in awe as I watched them so bravely tackle the issues that they wanted to work to understand. I thought often about how much more willing my students are than many of the adults they are surrounded by to confront the things they do not understand.

I don’t know what will happen from here, but I know that I am about to learn more than I ever could have imagined. And my greatest teachers on this journey, will certainly be my students.

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Old Habits Die Hard

The following conversation took place between me and a student during writing workshop today:

Me: Find a place in the room that works for you as a writer and get to work.

Student: Can I sit on a floor chair on the carpet?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at a different table spot than where I was first thing this morning?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit on the chairs in the classroom library?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit at your desk?

Me: Yes.

Student: Can I sit in the hallway?

Me: If you will be able to work successfully out there, yes.

Student: So really, I can sit anywhere?

Me: YES.

I am not exaggerating. I cannot begin to count the number of times that I have told my students that this is our classroom. That there are multiple spaces to work because I want them to choose the spots that work best for them. That they can move spots as many times as they need to during the day. That there is a variety of seating options because I want them each to work in a spot that feels comfortable to them. That they can sit. ANYWHERE. that works for them.

And no matter how many times I say it, my students still continue to ask for my permission to sit in a spot that they think must be an exception to the rule.

Old habits die hard.

It seems that the first few weeks of the school year often involve some changing of old habits. The things that our students walk into our classrooms believing that they must do. The ways of teaching and learning that our students believe are simply the way things must be in school. And while I am constantly amazed at just how long it takes to break some of these habits, I know that my students just need time. I need to show them that I really do mean what I say. I need to prove to them that I really do value their ideas. I need to help them to believe that what I believe is that there is no one way to do anything that works for every learner in our classroom.

They just don’t know me yet. I have to give them time. I have to let those habits fade away only when my students realize that they are not needed here.

Here are some of the habits that I notice that my students are having an exceptionally hard time letting go of:

  1. They seek permission for everything: I understand that we have drilled into our students’ heads that they need permission to do just about anything in school. I just forget how hard it is to undo all that drilling. On the very first day I explain that my students do not need to ask me to do the following: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  And from the very first day, here are the things that the continue to ask me for permission to do: eat snack, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, get something from their lockers.  I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I also am saddened that they think that I mistrust them right from the start.  We do have a system for all of these things. A way to let me know who is where. A way to make sure that the entire class doesn’t leave at the exact same moment. The kids know the system, mostly it involves places a giant rubber duck on your table spot to show that you have left the room. And yet. Still. My kids continue to ask.
  2. They worry about what is good enough: In writing, the most popular question is, “How many sentences do I have to write?” In reading they ask, “Does this book really count as reading?” In every aspect of our day, my students worry that the work they are choosing, the work that feels right to them, the work that fits their needs at that moment, they worry that work just isn’t going to be good enough.  They worry that their writing will be too short. They worry that they are reading the wrong kind of book. They worry that instead of getting to know them, to know where they are and then pushing them gently to new places, that I will instead try to catch them, get upset for not doing the right thing and then give them a consequence because they didn’t guess correctly what I deemed worthy. They do not believe that what works for them is good enough for me.  They do not believe that I will get to know them and know what they need and help them get there from wherever they are right now.
  3. They believe I am trying to catch them doing something wrong: I sat down to confer with a student about what he was reading. I knew that he took home the third book in the Legend series over the long weekend. I noticed that today he was reading a historical fiction graphic novel, so I asked him if he finished his book over the weekend.  He immediately jumped up from his seat, ran and got the Legend book and told me that he was sorry and that he would go back to reading right away.  I was so confused at what had happened and so it took me a minute to realize that he thought that my question was a way to catch him doing something wrong and make sure he got back on track. There I was trying to make a connection with a child, trying to show him that I remembered what he took home to read over the weekend, trying to show him that I was so interested to know his thoughts on the final book, and all he could think was that he was getting in trouble for reading a graphic novel.  When I figured it out, I had to chuckle to myself. Then I told him that I was thrilled that he was trying one of our new graphic novels and that I had just been dying to know what he thought about this last book in the series.  He looked at me skeptically and as I was getting ready to walk away, I heard him ask quietly, “So is it okay if I keep reading the graphic novel?”
  4. They think that a teacher’s rules are more important than what works best for them: My students are still afraid to abandon books when they don’t like them. They are afraid to tell me that a writing strategy doesn’t work for them. They are scared to respectfully speak up and let me know they need a break when I have been talking for too long and they know that no one is listening to me any more. These are things that by the end of the school year, I take for granted. These are the things that I assume they know that they can do and I quickly realize what a terrible assumption that is. So they just don’t do them. They sit there and do what they think I want them to do, even when those things clearly do not work for them.

So we have a lot of work to do. We have a long road ahead of us to travel. I know that we have time. And while I wish that we were already there, while I wish these habits would find their way right out of our classroom, I know that my students need more proof that it is really okay to abandon them. So i will continue to gently reassure them. I will remember that it is not their fault that they don’t believe me. I will remind myself that we were the ones who did this to them. We created a school system that counted on these habits, that thrived on these habits. And now, we have the job of slowly trying to reverse those messages and ask them, beg our students, to trust us and believe that we trust them.

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The Good News is They Don’t ACTUALLY Hate Reading: They Only Hate What School Has Done to Reading

Over the first few days of this school year we have had several powerful conversations. Conversations that have had an impact on what I believe as a teacher and conversations that have changed the way I thought about reading and writing and school in general. Already this year, my new students have taught me so many things. But this has only happened because from the minute that they walked in this room, I let them know that I wanted to hear what they had to say. I have asked them, over and over and over again for their thoughts, for their input, for their ideas. I have listened when they have made suggestions and so they know that they can share.

I am so thankful that they are willing to share their thinking with me because it is what led to our incredibly powerful conversation about reading yesterday.  At the end of the first week of school, I asked my students to fill out this survey.  Before they began, I asked them to please be honest with me.  I reminded them that we cannot fix things if we can’t even talk about what exactly needs to be fixed. I asked them to trust me. And they sure did.

Over the weekend, I read through all of their responses and I noticed a disturbing trend. Multiple students said that they HATED reading. Not that they didn’t like to read, but that they HATED reading. I was surprised. I don’t often find this kind of hatred for reading in fifth graders. But it came up in several surveys and it matched the responses that parents gave on their surveys. Many parents spoke about a gradual decline in a love of reading over their child’s school years.

What all of this told me was that I to dig deeper to find out what was going on.

So yesterday, our reading lesson was simply to talk about what we loved about reading and what we hated about reading. I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to make a chart that had two columns. One to list what they loved about reading and one to list what they hated about reading. Again, I asked them to be honest and I asked them to try to be specific. And then I sent them off. As the groups worked together, I circulated around the room asking questions and pushing the groups to be more specific on their charts. Here are a few images of what the groups came up with:

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After the groups were finished, I asked each student to walk silently around the room and read the words and the thinking of the other groups. I asked them to look for trends and patterns that they noticed and to be ready to share them with the class.  After a few minutes, the kids worked their way back to the carpet and I asked them to share what they noticed.  Based on what they shared, we created the following anchor chart:

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As we were wrapping up, my heart was experiencing all sorts of mixed emotions. I wasn’t ready to share them all with the kids yet because I needed to think about them more. But what I did say to my students is the following: “Well, good news everyone. None of you actually hate reading. You only hate what school has done to reading.” I saw heads nod in agreement.  I then went on to share with the kids that I hear them. I hear what they are saying and it gives me a lot to think about. I told them that no teacher EVER wants to make kids hate reading, but I think that we may have been doing that accidentally. I told them that I cannot promise that I will NEVER ask them to do the things that they have shared that they hated, but that I will think carefully about my purpose for doing them and I will make sure to check in with them to see how those things are working.

And then we moved on. Then we read. Then I watched my students happily gravitate towards the books that they had chosen and I watched them find a comfy spot in the room and I just watched them read.

But my mind and my heart did not easily move on from this conversation. The charts that my students made stayed with me all afternoon and far into the evening. I woke up still thinking about my students’ words.

I woke up thinking about what we, as a school system, have done to reading. I woke up thinking about the assignments we give whose only purpose is to check up on our students and make sure they are reading. I woke up thinking about how little choice we give them when it comes to the books they read or the kinds of books that we deem worthy or the ways they think about those books and document that thinking. I woke up thinking about all of the things that we do that get in the way of helping our students to become life long readers and not just readers who read because they feel that they have to.

And after all that thinking, here is what I have come to. I am hopeful. Yes, I am so sad that this is what my students have had to deal with. Yes, I want our current ways of teaching reading to change. Yes, I wish that more teachers would just ask their students how their instruction is working for them. Yes, all of those things exist and I am angry and sad about them. And yet, I remain hopeful. Because what I walk away with is how much power we, as teachers, have to change the way our kids feel about reading.

I can give my students more choice. I can ask my students how they want to share the thinking that they are doing with me and with their classmates and with the world. I can ask my students how they want to talk to others about books. I can give my students the freedom to read the books that they love. I can trust my students to tell me about their reading habits instead of asking them to time themselves and have a parent sign their reading logs. I can take away any worksheet or packet or task that does not serve the purpose of growing readers who love books and who think deeply about what they read and talk about their thinking with others.

These are all things that I have the power to do or not do. There are so many things that I can change. There are so many ways that I can help my students to begin to fall back in love with reading.

And that is a really powerful thing.

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Starting the School Year With Wonder

Last year, I completely rethought the way I handled the first day of the school year.  This year, I hope to keep many of the same elements in my first day of school plans because I love the way they started my year off and the messages that the activities sent to my students.

But there is one thing that I want to change.  I want to leave space, on the very first day of school, for wonder.

This summer, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop all about informational texts run by my incredible literacy coach (and a very dear friend of mine). She is brilliant and her message was brilliant as well.  As teachers of reading, we have a responsibility to share not just wonderful works of fiction with our students, but also to share wonderful works of nonfiction. And if we choose these works of nonfiction wisely, then they can spark wonder and joy and passion within our students. If you are interested in seeing her wonderful recommendations of nonfiction texts, I put them together in a Padlet that you can find HERE.

When I think about my past school years, as a teacher of reading and writing, I do not remember sharing any nonfiction books with my students until much further into the school year. Yes, I read them nonfiction books as a part of our science and social studies work, but in reading and writing I just don’t ever start my school year off with nonfiction books. And often this means that I am missing incredible opportunities to start my school year with wonder.

And that is a shame.

So this year. On the very first day of school (or maybe the second since I always seem to run out of time) we are starting with nonfiction books and we are starting with wonder. Because I think that one of the most amazing things that can come from sharing more nonfiction books with our students is that they can reignite a sense of wonder that is too often lost in the early years of a child’s life.

I see it with my own child. My child is a quintessential toddler. She is feisty and energetic and she just doesn’t ever stop. Ever. And that goes for her questions as well. A walk to the park takes five times as long as it has to because we have to stop every few steps for her to ask, “What’s that?” And it is amazing. She is so curious about the world. She is so interested. She wonders all the time. Every second of every day brings new discoveries for her. And it is incredible to witness.

And it is also exhausting.

And sometimes, the exhaustion gets the better of me. Sometimes, I don’t want to answer one more question. And so sometimes, I tell her to stop asking questions. Or I tell her I am only going to answer one more question. It is often at the end of a long day. Often as we are reading our final books before bed. Often as a moment’s peace is so close I can hardly stand it. It is understandable. And it is also just so sad.  So quickly, as adults, we start to suck the wonder right out of our children.

I do it with my own child and I do it with my students. Because often we are in such a rush. We are in such a rush as parents and we are in such a rush as teachers. We have to get through this lesson, we have to get through this unit, our mini-lessons are only supposed to be so long so we have to keep moving. We have too much that is important to us that sometimes we forget to stop and listen to what is important to our children, to our students.

And whether we realize it or not, we often stop leaving any space for wonder in the craziness of our school days.

So I want to make a promise to myself. And I am sharing it here in the hopes that it will keep me accountable. I want to leave space for wonder in my classroom this year and I want that to start on day one.

My plan, for the moment, is to start a Padlet wonder wall on the first or second day of school.  This is a brilliant idea that I first heard of from the inspiring Katie Muhtaris on her website Innovate, Ignite, Inspire. I will introduce the Padlet to my students as a way to share with them my hopes for wonder in our school year.

Then, I am going to share with them the book Just a Second by Steve Jenkins. This is a book filled with fascinating facts about the amazing things that happen in the span of just a second or slightly longer periods of time. What I love about the book is the way a quick snippet of text can lead to incredible conversations. I also love how many questions the text leads to.  I want to read the book with my students and just allow them the time to write up their wonders on our wonder wall. I want to give them the time to talk about the things they learn from this book and the things that this book makes them want to learn more about.  I want to give them time to wonder. From the very first day of school. So that my students know, from the beginning, that in this classroom their thoughts, their ideas, their questions, their passions are valued and worthy and will have a place in our time together.

From there, I am not sure where we will go. I hope that our wonder wall starts to fill up and that it will be a place that we can return to. From this wall, I hope to find investigations that we can dive into together as a class. From this wall, I hope to grow more wonders. From this wall, I hope to find authentic reasons to seek out new nonfiction texts and journey together into inquiry and research. From this wall, I hope to grow a larger space for wonder in our classroom and in our school year.

I can’t wait to try this plan out. I can’t wait to see where my students will lead me. I can’t wait to fill our room with wonder this year.

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We Seem To Be Forgetting Something (Or Someone)

It has struck me as of late, that we seem to be forgetting something.  Or someone. Or many someones. Ones who should be at the front of every single thought that we have and every single action that we take.

It seems to me that we have been forgetting about our students.

Not about teaching them, providing them with rich curriculum, instructing them in the ways that are most effective, giving them the tools they need to connect to the global community they are a part of. These things we have not forgotten. These things seem to occupy much of the time and space of our discussions.

But it seems to me that we have been forgetting about the students themselves. The human beings sitting right next to us. The living, breathing, dreaming, hurting, crying, hoping, wishing human beings that are the reason we all got into this job in the first place.

These thoughts began to swirl around in my brain this past Tuesday as I read the incredibly brave and honest posts on the struggles with mental illness that made up the beautiful and courageous #semicolonEDU landscape. I read and listened to stories, some of which were like my own and some of which were so very different. And what I heard throughout so many stories was the authors’ need to raise awareness on mental illness issues for the sake of educators and for the sake of our students.

And I started to wonder why we needed so many movements that asked us to remember the struggles of our students and the issues in their lives. #LGBTeach is begging for educators to think about the struggles of our LGBT students. #EduColor is begging for educators to think about the issues of race and how they are intertwined in every aspect of our students’ lives. And now #semicolonEDU is begging for educators to think about the issues of mental illness that are present in the daily lives of so many of our students.

Why do we need all of this?

And then I realized. It is because it is so easy to forget. It is so easy to forget the children who we teach and the struggles that they face when we are constantly surrounded by demands to think about other things. We are asked to think about test scores, we are asked to think about technology, we are asked to think about instructional strategies, we are asked to think about teacher evaluations and policy and funding and textbooks and so. many. other things. And while these things are important, they will never be as important as the beings that walk through our doors every day and look to us to notice them.

And it is so easy for us to forget.

We work in districts that will spend countless days and countless hours and countless dollars on professional development to ensure consistency and to ensure we are ready for the big standardized tests and to ensure that we have the latest technology or the most comprehensive assessments and yet our districts relegate topics like suicide prevention and sexual abuse warning signs to ineffective online training just to meet state mandates.

We spend days and weeks and months talking about curriculum, instruction and assessment. We spend so much time on these topics that many teachers begin to ask, “Well what else is there to think about?” And that question makes me want to scream. That question breaks my heart. What else is there to think about? What about the students? What about their well-being? What about how we can see the many ways that they are hurting and how we can help to make that better? Where is our professional development on that? When does that get figured into the budget?

And when we don’t set aside time to think about our students, as humans, then we find ourselves spending our own time talking about things that just don’t matter. We waste time talking about the right titles for school principals. We waste time arguing about whether or not teachers were cliquey at the last conference that we went to. We waste time shaming other teachers for not doing things the way that we do them. We waste time arguing about which instructional strategy is the more effective than any of the others. As if any of that matters if our students are hurting. As if any of that makes a difference if our students feel as if we don’t understand them or understand their lives. As if any of that makes one iota of difference if we have forgotten to think about our students first.

So, for me, it is important every once and awhile to remember to take a step back. To refocus on what is truly important. To listen to the students sitting right next to me and to realize that the words coming out of their mouths are the most important words that I could ever hear.  To take a second and just remember that nothing is more important than loving and accepting the students who walk through our doors every day.  And as we gear up for another school year we have this amazing chance to do it all better this time.  From day one we get to start over with a brand new group of students and make them feel as if they are the most important thing in our world inside of that classroom. And THAT. That fills me with tremendous hope.

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Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 2)

In my last blog post, I wrote about my own personal awakening in terms of the need to bring discussions of race into my classroom. I shared some of the earliest discussions that I had with my 5th graders regarding whose voices were being heard and whose voices were missing from current event articles having to do with protests in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere. I also shared how this led us to begin to think about the messages on race that are surrounding us in the media.  Finally, I shared one student’s question about whether these messages on race also existed in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question led us to our next phase of study on the messages that surround us.

Race is a REALLY hard thing for 5th graders to think about. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that race is a REALLY hard thing for any of us to think about, especially those of us who have the privilege of NOT thinking about it every day.  As with any new concept in teaching, I knew that I had to start with where my students were before I pushed them to think in new and more complicated ways.  So before we tackled the messages on race that exist in picture books and novels, I wanted to begin with messages on gender.  This concept is more concrete and I knew my students would be able to get a good start here before I pushed them to think about race.

So that is where I started. We would work to look for messages on gender that are present in texts that we read.

In reading, we were currently in the middle of a unit on inferring.  Our reading units are focused around comprehension strategies.  Too often, we teach comprehension strategies simply for the sake of teaching comprehension strategies. We teach children to infer as they read so that they can infer as they read. We know good readers infer and so we want our students to know how to do that.  But what we often miss, is the reason WHY. Why are we inferring? What larger purpose does it serve? So I decided that as a class, in our reading unit on inferring, we would first work to infer the INTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what is the author TRYING to tell us?) and then I would push the kids to infer the UNINTENDED messages in the texts that we read (what messages are present even though the author might not have any intention of sending these messages to us?).

By embedding this work within one of our reading units, I was taking care of a problem that I too often fall back on when looking to find a space in our busy day to teach concepts I KNOW are important for my students. I am too quick to say, I don’t have time to do that. But by working within the structure of our reading units, I was able to find time to work on inferring AND to work on helping my students to realize how many messages they are being bombarded with that are shaping the way they think about people of different genders, races, classes, etc. I was able to do the important work to make my students better human beings and more responsible citizens WHILE also making sure I was meeting all of the learning targets that were laid out in my curriculum.

The first place that we began was at Pottery Barn.  I put my students into small groups and had each small group go to the Pottery Barn Kids website. From there, I had the groups click on the separate boxes for “Boy Rooms” and “Girl Rooms.” I asked the kids to look at the website for a while and just talk about what they were noticing.  After giving them a few minutes to discuss, I pulled the class back together and asked them to share some of their thoughts. I that point I stopped and thought out loud for them that I was noticing two types of thinking being shared.  I noticed that students were talking about things that they actual SAW on the website (this was what was actual IN the text) and then they were talking about what they INFERRED those things meant (this was their own thinking that they were adding to what was IN the text). I told them that this was inferring just like when they added their own thinking to what an author wrote in order to better understand what they author was really trying to say. So we began a chart and I asked them, in their groups, to write down both kinds of thinking that they were sharing. I asked them to write down what they actually saw on the website (or in the text) and then I asked them to write down what messages they thought this was sending on gender. So for example, one group said that they noticed that in the boy rooms there were several science themed rooms but there were not any (other than some butterflies) in the girl rooms.  That was their actual observation. They thought that this sent the message that boys were more likely to enjoy science than girls and maybe even that boys were smarter than girls.  That was their inference on the unintended messages on gender.  The groups quickly got back together and came up with many observations that led to many inferences on unintended messages on gender.

It was amazing to hear the conversations that were already unfolding. One of the biggest realizations that my students made, that would become INCREDIBLY helpful when we moved over to looking at written texts, was that messages are sent without being explicitly stated.  So, for example, Pottery Barn does not need to come out and say that they believe that girls do not play sports and boys do in order to send the message that girls don’t play sports and boys do. That message is sent by having multiple boys’ rooms filled with sports object and no girls’ rooms filled with sports objects.  This concept was new for many of my students and it was one that we would continue to build on.  I never stopped to think about how many of my students thought that the only messages that could be sent were the ones that were explicitly stated.

After noticing MANY messages on gender within the Pottery Barn Kids website, we then moved on to another place that is rich with gender messages: Fairy Tales.  As I wrote earlier this school year, I had the absolute privilege of attending a workshop with Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman on their book Falling in Love with Close Reading. I had yet to find the right place in my reading workshop to use what I had learned with Chris and Kate. One of the big takeaways for me from their workshop was the importance of using close reading for a purpose. And I had not seen a real purpose until we got to our study of unintended messages.  I knew that I needed my students to read texts closely in order for them to see how the words that are chosen and the actions that are described with a text can send strong messages on gender.  My students had to do more than just one reading of a fairy tale in order to see these messages and so I decided to use the close reading ritual so brilliantly described in Kate and Chris’s book.

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The first thing that I did was to read Sleeping Beauty out loud to my students.  I asked them only to notice the way male and female characters were described.  When we finished reading, I had them write their observations.  The students shared these observations and I quickly saw that they were extremely general and missing some of the big concepts that I wanted them to see.  So. We reread.  This time, I asked the students to split their paper in half.  On one side I asked them to write the words FEMALE CHARACTERS and on the other side I asked them to write the words MALE CHARACTERS.  As I read the story to them a second time, I asked them to write down words and phrases that were IN THE TEXT that described male characters or female characters. Borrowing language from Kate Roberts, I told them to write down whatever felt important to them.  Here is one sample of what a student’s paper looked like at the end of the second reading of Sleeping Beauty:

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The next step in the close reading ritual is to look for patterns in the words that you wrote down on your paper. So I began by modeling for students how I circled all of the words that described how a character looked in a specific color. I had the kids do the same and then I asked them to look for more groupings of patterns that they noticed.  Here is what our class chart looked like in the middle of this work:

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Some of the categories or groupings that the kids came up with were: words that described how characters looked, words that described actions characters took, words that described internal characteristics of characters, words that described emotions and words that talked about characters’ futures.  Each student had slightly different categories and slightly different words written down, so they had time to get together to share their work with others.

The final step in the close reading ritual was to make observations based on the list of words and the categories that you had in front of you and to then push yourself to make interpretations of these observations. So for us, that involved looking at what we noticed about our categories and then making interpretations about what kind of gender messages were being sent in the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. This was by far the hardest part of the process for my students.  So I created this template to help them to organize and express their thinking.  We summarized some of our thinking on the following class chart: IMG_6197

After going through this whole process as a class, I wanted my students to have some practice doing this work on their own. So I split the class into groups and allowed each group to pick one of four other fairy tales to work with. They could choose: Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel, or Beauty and the Beast. I made sure to have fairy tales of different lengths and difficulty and the groups were made up of a wide range of reading strengths and weaknesses.  This allowed each group to select a text that would work best for that group.

The students were able to work at their own paces because they now knew the entire process to go through. I had two charts displayed to remind them of the steps that we went through.  I only have a picture of the first chart: IMG_6073

The final step involves creating the observations and interpretations using the template that I explained above.

When the groups were finished, each group created a poster to share their observations and interpretations with the rest of the class. Here are some of their posters:

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The last step of our work was for each group to display their posters around the room. I then gave the kids time to view each of the posters from each of the groups and think about the commonalities that they were seeing in terms of the gender messages being sent.  I then gave them time, in their groups, to write their observations on a class Padlet. Here are the Padlets from my MORNING CLASS and my AFTERNOON CLASS.

The discussions that came from this work were simply incredible. I really saw my students’ understanding of unintended messages grow and deepen. They were really beginning to see how messages that come from what we read or from the media have a profound affect on how we view the world. It was an important step in getting my students to really think about how their ideas about groups of people were formed. They were starting to see that how we view the world doesn’t just come from nowhere and it doesn’t just come from what we hear our parents say. Our ideas on the world come from every single thing that we see or experience and often our ideas are shaped without us even realizing it.

Once we had completed our work with fairy tales, we were ready to move on to picture books and from there, we would expand our thinking to include more than just gender. We would begin to also think about race and family structure as well.  I will write about that work in my next blog post.

Asking Students to Think About the Messages That Surround Them (Part 1)

I remember so vividly the moment that my eyes were ripped open.

The moment occurred while I was watching the coverage that followed the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I remember being horrified by the story. But sadly the story alone is not what finally dragged me out of the ignorance I had been living in.  The moment that truly sent shock waves through my entire being occurred as I was listening to a black woman talking about how she taught her son what he had to do in order to decrease the likelihood that he would be shot by a police officer for nothing other than being a black man.

I didn’t know that happened.

I honestly did not know.

I am ashamed that I didn’t know. I am so saddened that it took something this awful for me to begin to understand. But the truth was that I did not know.  I did not realize what black mothers had to tell their children. I did not bother to seek out the stories of black men and black women who were afraid of not just being treated unfairly, but who were forced to be afraid of being killed because of how others saw them.

But once I started to know. Once I began to understand. I knew that I had to learn more. I knew that my own ignorance was part of the race problem in America. I knew that my ability to NOT know about these fairly common truths was a signal of my privilege and my complicity in a racist system.  And so I started to listen and seek out the stories of others. And I also started to see all that was being presented to me that created the biases that I was operating under. And I started to realize just how much I did not know and just how much racism and how many racist messages existed in our world that I had simply not been seeing.

Because after Trayvon Martin, then it was Michael Brown and then it was Eric Garner and then and then and then. There were the stories that made the news and there were oh so many others that did not.  And the media coverage alone was enough to prove how racist of a world we are living in.  And then, it wasn’t just the media who was saying things that made me cringe. Then it was people in my own life. It was my colleagues. It was my friends on Facebook. It was my students.  So many people operating under incredible ignorance. So many people conveniently hiding in their own privilege.

And I was one of them.

And then. Then I started to think about those who were doing the shooting and the killing.  I thought about what they had been taught. I thought about what they had not been taught. I thought about what kinds of messages they had been exposed to that they did not even realize were shaping the attitudes and beliefs that they held about people of color.  I thought about what kind of classrooms they had sat in as they grew up. What kinds of conversations about race did they hear in those classrooms?

And that’s when i knew. I knew that if their classrooms were anything like the classroom that I teach in every day, there were no conversations about race.  Sure there was teaching about the Civil Rights Movement.  But that was the teaching of history. Ancient history in the minds of the young children I teach. But there were no conversations about the role race plays in our world today.  If their classrooms were anything like my own, their teachers were too afraid, too unaware, too unsure to bring up conversations of race.  I know that I have been.

Until my eyes were ripped open. Then I knew I could no longer stay silent. Then I knew that I had to begin to help my students see what I had only just begun to see.  Because what I know is that the only hope we have in making our world a better place is in helping our students to grow up knowing more than we knew so that they can do better than we have done.

I was so unsure of how to start. So I had my students start where I was starting.  I knew that my students would follow where I led and if I led them into a territory that was so important and yet one that I did not fully understand, I knew that they would still work with me so that we could all reach a better place of understanding.

So this past year, I started with some news articles.  We read about race. We read about the protests in Ferguson and in Baltimore. We read about the way people were using social media in order to protest the way things were in our country. We read. And we thought. And in these small actions, we made ourselves a bit braver to tackle the conversations that still scared us. Suddenly, we were having the conversations that I said I did not know how to have. We started so small. But at least we started.

As we read these articles and watched these news clips. I started to ask my students to think about whose voices were being heard in the media and, more importantly, I asked them to think about whose voices were NOT being heard. These questions alone led us to some incredible conversations and some incredible moments of learning for both my students and for me.  This led us to analyze how different groups of people were portrayed in different news articles and in the media in general.  And this led us to think about who was not really being portrayed at all.

And what my students were showing me was that the most important place for us to start was in simply recognizing the messages that were surrounded us about race.  The vast majority of my students are white and they just had no clue as to how much the outside world was influencing the way they viewed themselves and other races. As we did this work I began to see that I had a huge responsibility to begin to help these kids think about race so that they did not grow up believing that race didn’t matter. I wanted to help them start to unpack their own concepts of race, their concepts of what it means to be white, what it means to be black, what it means to exist in a world where there is so much work still yet to be done before we can ever claim that we are all being treated equally.  I didn’t have all the answers, but what mattered is that my students and I were starting to at least ask the questions.  We were starting to pull apart and look at the messages on race, gender, ethnicity and class that we were surrounded by so that we could question them, push back against them and fight them.

And one day, one of my students asked if these same messages were present in the picture books and novels that we read. And that one question, led my students and I into a four week study of unintended messages present in the picture books that we read. I will share more about the work we did with picture books in my next blog post.

Please Stop Insulting My Students and Me

Yesterday morning I walked into school feeling great about the energy that has been surrounding the end of the school year. My students have been working hard, using everything they’ve learned this year, wrapping up the year with a few important-feeling, student driven projects.  As I passed by the front office, I noticed that there was a large binder sitting in my mailbox.  As I got closer, I saw that the binder was filled with a tightly shrink-wrapped, thick package of paper covered in images and text.

And then I knew.

This was our brand-new, fresh out of the box, “easy-to-use”, prepackaged social-emotional curriculum.

And my heart sank.

And it only got worse.

I made the mistake of taking the binder to my desk and ripping off the plastic shrink-wrap to get an idea of what I was supposed to teach next year.  And it. was. awful. Not only were all of the lessons written as if I was too dumb to be able to figure out how to teach something on my own, but the lessons themselves were terrible.  They were the kind of lessons where the kids very clearly get the message from the very start that they should sit and listen and answer my questions in the one way that this program thinks that they should be answered.

The lessons were insulting to me.  The lessons were insulting to me because they assumed that I was not smart enough to know how to teach. They assumed that I did not know my kids well enough to talk about real situations from their real lives and so they provided me with situations about Pedro and Kristin and Anton. They assumed that I did not know quality literature from which to learn lessons from characters that we love so they provided me with poorly-written scenarios and scripts to feed to my students instead.

But the lessons were also insulting to my students. It assumed that they were not smart enough to be engaged in real discussions about the real issues that face their lives. It assumed that they were not powerful enough to be able to grapple with the issues affecting our world. It assumed that their priority was learning to be a compliant student and not learning how to be a better human citizen of this world. Every lesson I read was an insult to the children that I teach every day.

In fact, this program COMPLETELY took my students right out of the equation. It didn’t take into consideration their emotions, their struggles, their unique strengths and weaknesses.  It didn’t because it couldn’t. Prepackaged curricula never can. They can never be written for actual children because they are written to be used with every single child, in every single classroom, whose school has purchased the prewritten lessons.  Whoever wrote this program does not know the pace at which my children learn. They do not know the topics that are relevant and meaningful to the specific group of children sitting in front of me. They do not know the challenges that we will face in a year that we need time to grapple with together and learn our way through. They do not know the books that we have read and the characters that we have loved that have given us more real-life lessons than any program ever could. They do not know who we are and yet they are trying to tell us how we should learn.

And every time that a district puts a prewritten unit into the hands of teachers, it is taking away a powerful opportunity for us to learn.  Every time a district puts a unit into the hands of teachers, it is sending the message that it is not our job to figure out the best ways to teach our students.  Every time a district puts a unit into the hands of teachers, it is telling us that we should not reflect, collaborate, struggle, innovate or create.

It is a dangerous thing we are doing to teachers. Because when we have a written out unit that we believe we are “supposed” to follow then we start to lose the skills that make teaching an art.  I love sitting around a table with my coworkers and looking at the targets, objective and standards we are supposed to meet and discussing possible ways to meet them. I love talking about how each of us has tried to meet these standards. I love talking about what has worked and love talking about what was a huge failure.  That is how we learn. That is how we reflect. That is how we get better at what we do.  And every time a unit is placed into our hands, we lose a little bit of our passion to do just that.

So please. Stop insulting me. Stop insulting my students. Stop giving me prewritten, prepackaged curricula.