Rubrics: What My Students Had to Say About Them

We are nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit. My students have been working for many weeks to learn about what good persuasive writing looks like and sounds like and even feels like. They have read examples of persuasive writing that are better than good. They have tried out new strategies, they have applied new skills when they have needed them and they have reached a pretty good understanding of what a persuasive piece of writing should include in order to make it better than good.

We have a few more weeks to finish up the pieces that we are currently working on and then it will be time for them to chose the piece of persuasive writing that they believe represents the best of what they have done and the best of themselves as  persuasive writers. Now, this is hardly the only time that my students have been assessed. I assess them everyday, they assess each other every day and, most importantly, they assess themselves every day.  I offer feedback in one-on-one conferences, in small group meetings, in whole class work time.  Students offer each other feedback as they have side-by-side conversations and small group conversations.  Students assess their own work every time they use one of our persuasive revision checklists and choose at least two ways to make their writing better.

So there is a lot of assessment and a lot of feedback going on.

But, towards the end of any of our writing units, I want to give the kids a chance to choose the piece of writing that they believe shows the very best of what they have to offer and I want them to use what they know in order to complete a formal assessment of that piece of writing.

The problem is always how to do this in a way that values who they are as individual writers and values what we have learned to do as writers in our classroom.  I have found that most of the assessment tools out there for teachers to use don’t often reflect the unique learning that goes on our classroom (or any other classroom other than the one that the assessment was created for).  And in the past, when I have created my own writing assessment tools, I have felt as if my students felt completely detached from them.  I would spend so much time crafting a checklist or a rubric and then I would hand them out all excited and I noticed that my students’ eyes would glaze over as I read through each bullet point on the paper in front of them.  And then when it came time for the students to use them to self-assess, they simply went down the list and checked every single item or circled the highest number on the rubric. They were meaningless.

So for the past few years, I have tried to get my students more involved in the assessment tool creation process.  At the start of the year, our assessments look pretty simple. For our narrative writing unit at the start of this year, our assessment was a simple yes or no checklist, but the students created the checklist so that it reflected what THEY thought was important to have in a piece of narrative writing. Here is what we came up with.

Before beginning our work on creating an assessment tool for our persuasive writing, I decided to begin with a discussion on the way that persuasive writing is often assessed in our district.  For years we have used the rubric that was created for the writing portion of our old state standardized assessment, the ISAT. There has not been a writing portion of the ISAT for several years now and, of course, this year there is no longer even an ISAT because we will be taking PARCC instead (this is obviously a discussion for another post, I do not want to waste the energy on that now). Anyway, I decided to begin by having the kids look at the rubric that is often used in our district and ask them what they thought about it.

As always, my students’ feedback was incredible.  My morning class began with a collective groan. They then got a bit more specific about what they were groaning about and said that they often felt sad when they had put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then discovered that it was only worth a 2 in the eyes of their teacher.  Some said that it was overwhelming to them and that it made them feel like they had to do so many things in order to get a good score.  Some kids did acknowledge that it was helpful for them to know exactly what they had to do in order to do well on a piece of writing.  Other students said that while it was helpful for them to know what they had to do, it also felt limiting. In my afternoon class, several students spoke about how it made them afraid to try something creative because they didn’t think that was what the rubric was looking for. Others said that they felt like there were many things missing, like a category for creativity, connection with the audience, emotions, relevance of chosen topic, etc.  And to me, the most eye opening comments were the ones that expressed that while the rubric that we use helped them to know how to get a good score on a piece of writing, it didn’t really help them to know how to create a good PIECE OF WRITING that would be read outside of the walls of our school. It was amazing how much they had to say.

At the end of both discussions, we decided that while this assessment tool was helpful in some ways, it really was more detrimental to our writing because it was missing some important characteristics and it made us feel limited in what we could try with our own writing.

So we decided to create our own assessment tool.

The first step in our creation process was for the kids to work together in small groups to create a list of all of the qualities of better than good persuasive writing that they could think of.  Here is one of the final lists that they came up with. In order to come up with this list, I asked them to think about all of the mentor texts that we have read, all of our writing strategies that we have learned, all of the work they had done and all of the work they had seen their classmates do. I asked them to think about what common elements existed in all of those better than good pieces of persuasive writing.  They added them to a collaborative GoogleDoc and I did some cleaning up at the end to merge some similar ideas and remove any repeated ideas.

The next step that we took was to get back in our small groups and to begin organizing these listed qualities into categories. The kids were free to have as many categories as they wanted and to create the kinds of labels for each category that made sense to them.  Here is one group’s work that is still in the middle of the process.  And here is one group that has finished with the sorting process.  It was so exciting to hear the kids having discussions about the kinds of categories that they wanted to see assessed in their own writing.

It was powerful for them to talk about the things that they believe needed to be in a piece of better than good persuasive writing. And what I found especially helpful was hearing that even though some of my students were not yet able to do all of the things that I would expect a fifth grade writer to be able to do, they still knew what things SHOULD be in a piece of persuasive writing in order for it to be better than good. It helped me to understand that while they might not be at the target yet, they know where they need to be heading.

This is a far as we have gotten in the process so far, but I have been so excited about it that I just had to put some thoughts down.  This week, I am planning to print out all of the organized qualities and ask the students to create a draft of a possible assessment tool. We will talk about how some groups might opt for a yes/no checklist, other groups might opt for a checklist with point values, other groups might opt for a rubric or other groups might simply opt for some form of written assessment.  I want the groups to think for themselves how they think we can best assess a piece of persuasive writing.  After the groups share their drafts, as a class, we will choose one assessment tool, or create a combination of several of the shared ideas, to use on our chosen pieces of persuasive writing.  The final assessment tool will be completed by the students on a piece of their writing that they believe best shows what they know as a persuasive writer.  As they complete these assessments, they will need to highlight and annotate where they find evidence for each descriptor in their own writing.

One of the things that is most exciting to me is that all of this work (in creating the assessment tool) will be taking place as my students are working on their final pieces of persuasive writing.  So they are going to be able to use these tools in order to make their current pieces of writing better, even if those aren’t the pieces of writing that they choose to assess formally.

It’s been great to hear the energy in the room as this work is being done and I am so excited to see what our final product will look like. I will make sure to share a copy here as well so that you all can see what we end up with.  No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much I wish that it was a little bit different, what I will know is that it is a true reflection of the learning that my students have done and a true reflection of what they believe is most important in a piece of persuasive writing. And that matters so very much.

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.

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.

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.

Why I am Pretty Sure I Have Been Accidentally Stopping the Most Authentic Book Discussions Taking Place in My Classroom

Every so often, I am struck by the fact that I have been making a huge mistake as a teacher and I suddenly wish that I could run around and gather up all my former students to apologize.

Well this morning, while on a family walk, I had one such realization. My wife and I had taken our daughter and our dog out for a Sunday morning walk.  My wife and I were chuckling as we watched my almost-two year old struggle to hold the leash of my rather unruly lab-mix. And I was struck at the “conversation” that was occurring amongst the three of us.  I say “conversation” in the loosest sense of the word because my daughter has a whole lot to say, but only about 10% of it is understandable to any other human.

Anyway, I realized that all of these words that we had been trying to get her to say earlier in the day, were suddenly flying out of her mouth because she needed them and they were useful to her. She didn’t say them when we wanted her to say them. She said them when she had something that she needed to say.

And then it hit me.

For some reason, this moment, this walk, this authentic use of language by my daughter, it all made me realize that I had been making a terrible mistake.

You see, I have always said that I valued authentic talk about books in my classroom.  I have always said that one of the most important things to me was that my students were able to talk about the books that they are reading with passion and enthusiasm.  I have always said that, for me, one of the greatest markers of deep reading comprehension is that students can be engaged in conversations with their peers about their books.  I have always said that these things were important, but today I realized that I might have been putting a stop to THE most authentic conversations about books that my kids have been having.

Let me paint you a picture and see if you can catch this mistake that I have been making for years. One specific image that says it all sticks out in my mind. This image is so clear in my mind.  It is independent reading.  There is a silence that fills my classroom. A silence that I am proud of, that makes me feel as if really important work is being done.  A silence that I have worked hard to create. A silence that I have demanded of my students, because I can’t think if there is even a quiet buzz in the room, and so obviously neither can they.

I then gather a group of students and purposely break the silence because I have a lesson I need to teach to this group of students.  It is, of course, okay for me to break the silence. That is different than if the kids were to do it.  So I am leading my small group of readers, in something that I am sure is really important. And all of a sudden I am distracted.  There are two boys over in the pillow corner. They are curled up amongst our collection of pillows and they are both reading Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. And they are whispering. GASP. That’s right, they are whispering and gesturing in an exaggerated manner.

I am appalled that they have interrupted my work with my small group and that they have potentially interrupted the other students who are trying to maintain my demanded silence.  So I give them the look.  They ignore me.  I try again. They ignore me. They are way too wrapped up in their conversation to notice my looks. So then, I apologize to my small group of students, I walk over to the two offenders, I bend down next to them and explain that when they talk during independent reading, it stops the rest of us from being able to think as deeply as we need to and want to.  I smile. They smile. They look at me. And they say, “But Mrs. Lifshitz. We were talking about the book.” I smile. I nod. And I say, “That’s great boys, but not during independent reading.” And I walk away. And they are good and kind and respectful so they do what I tell them to do.

And they stop talking about the book.

And. It. Is. All. My. Fault.

There you have it. This scene has repeated itself in my classroom over and over again throughout my many years of teaching fifth grade.  I have been the one who has single-handedly stopped what could have been THE most authentic book discussions that have ever taken place in my classroom. The discussions that spring from a genuine NEED to talk about a book.  The discussions that come from the very heart of my fifth grade readers. The discussions that are caused because a reader is so overjoyed or so dismayed or so disappointed or so angry, that he or she MUST talk to someone about it right at that very moment. The discussions that are 100% motivated by the students themselves and not because it is their scheduled time to talk about their books and not because I told them that we are going to be practicing talking about our books and not because they have been assigned to talk about their books. They are talking about the books because they have thinking that they must share with someone else. Because they have thinking about their book that is too good to keep to themselves.

And I have stopped that.

I have stopped that because it wasn’t time for book discussions.  I have stopped that because I placed silence as a priority over authentic conversations about books.  I have stopped that because it wasn’t our scheduled literature discussion time. I have stopped that because in my classroom, in the past, I have been the one to say when we will discuss books and how we will do it.  I have stopped that because I felt the need to teach my students how to have literature discussions correctly before I trusted them to actually have those discussions.  I stopped that because I didn’t know what exactly they were talking about or if they were doing it in a way that would allow them to build off of each other’s comments.  I stopped that because I wasn’t in control of it and I didn’t think it was the right time.

And I look back now and see how very wrong I was.  These kids were itching to talk about books. They were so motivated to talk about book that they defied the silence of our classroom even though they knew they would be risking my very serious teacher look.  And I put an end to it.

I just can’t get over it. How did I not see what I was doing?

But here is what I know.  There is no point in lamenting what I have done in the past. I have recognized that it was a bad choice and now I need to look ahead.  Now I need to think about how I am going to do things differently. Now that I know what I know, I must think about how I am going to run my reading workshop so that it nurtures authentic discussion about books instead of hindering it.

Of course, as often is the case, I have no real idea. But I know that I am going to start by talking to my students.  I want them to know that if they are so moved by a book that they need to talk about it, I want them to feel like they can do that. And then, together, we will come up with a way for them to have those conversations so that it does not stop those around them from their work and so that it does not take away from their own time to read. I think that we will find a way together for there to be more conversation when the students authentically need and want them.

And if nothing else, I know that the next time I hear students talking during independent reading, I am going to think twice before giving them any sort of serious look. I am going to start by trusting them and giving them a chance. I am going to start by believing that the work they are doing is helping to make them better readers.  And then maybe, I will pull up a chair and just ask them what it is they are talking about.  I have a feeling that more often than not, I will be genuinely pleased with what they have to say.

Am I Losing Points for Empowering Students?

My principal completed the first of my two required formal observations this past week.  This year’s observation felt incredibly different from past years’ for several reasons.  The first and most obvious reason was that the lesson that I did this year while he was in the room was not one that ever would have been possible in the past.

My students have been engaged in a study of questioning.  We have been focusing on how to craft better questions in order to provoke deeper, more critical thinking and discussion.  We have been looking at the questions we ask and analyzing them in order to put them into categories that have created types of questions that we know will lead to good, deep and critical conversations.  In order to put my students’ newly acquired skills to use, I reached out to some of the incredible fourth and fifth grade teachers who I am lucky enough to be connected with through Twitter. I asked them if they would be willing to join in a Twitter chat that my class would host. We would all read the same picture book, my class would craft some questions and we would all meet at a certain time in order to discuss the book and my students’ questions.  Because I am connected to the most wonderful and generous teachers, many of them agreed to join me and were willing to do it when my principal would be observing.

I wanted to use my observation as an opportunity to show my principal what is possible when we use technology to reach out to students and teachers outside of our own building. I wanted to show my prinicpal that because of being connected, my students realize that they are a part of a global network of learner. I wanted to show my principal that we can use technology for more than just creating fancy end products. We can use technology to connect our students to a community of readers and writers that is so much bigger than the small corner of the world that we live in.  We can motivate them to read and write by making them feel a part of somethign bigger than themselves and bigger than our classroom. And I could not have done this last year, because last year I didn’t know that this was true.  And now I know it is true and so now I want more teachers at my school to know it is true and I figured that showing my principal would be a great place to start.

So the lesson I was doing was new to me this year because I could not have possibly had my students host a Twitter chat last year, mostly because I had no idea what one was.  But now, we have participated in several Twitter chats this year, we have hosted two chats ourselves and my students know that when we are a part of a Twitter chat, our work has meaning beyond the walls of our classroom.  As my students worked to craft good questions for this Twitter chat, they knew that people were depending on these questions to be good.  They knew that their work mattered. They knew that if they did not do their very best thinking, reading and writing, then they would be letting people down in the world outside of our classroom.  There is no letter grade or prize that I know of that could rival that kind of motivation. And so the work they did was phenomenal.

But beyond just seeing a new lesson this year, my principal saw something else.  Student empowerment. Our Twitter chat began at 10:15 and my observation began at 9:55.  When my principal walked in, the students were in their small groups setting up for the chat. This meant that they were opening up the collaborative Google Docs they had made with all of our questions for the chat written on them.  They were opening a second tab with Tweetdeck and getting logged in to our class account.  And when they were done with the work they knew they needed to do, they joined me over in our meeting area.

I had written a question on our chart paper before the lesson began. It read, “How can we build on to the responses of other students in order to provoke deeper and more meaningful discussion?” As the students gathered, I explained that as hosts today, we not only were responsible for sharing answers to questions, but we were also responsible for building off of the thoughts of others to promote more discussion and conversation. I asked the students how they thought we could do this. And then, one of my students took my spot in my rocking chair because it was her day to be the discussion leader. Another boy said that he was supposed to lead yesterday, but missed his turn due to a doctor’s appointment.  The two students had a quick discussion and compromised by deciding that he would call on students with their hands raised and that she would write down the responses that were given.  And then the discussion began. Kids raised their hands, my student leader called on people and the other student leader rephrased what they said so that it could be added to our chart.

After all thoughts were shared, the kids knew it was time to start and they went off to their computers and got started.  Each group was responsible for sending out one of our questions.  Each group was at a computer sending responses and looking for ways to build on other people’s thinking.  I mostly walked from group to group to quickly confer with kids about what they were doing and how they were building on to other people’s thoughts.  When I noticed a group using a new strategy to provoke discussion, I shared it with the class and my student leader went and added the new strategy to our chart.

When the Twitter chat was over. The kids gathered back together and one of my other students led us in a debrief discussion about how we did and what we want to work on for next time.

And that was the end of my observation.  I could not have been happier. The kids did great work, as they always do, and I was so proud of all that they had accomplished.  I have not yet had my post-observation meeting with my principal, but I know that he was pretty blown away by the whole thing.  At one point he looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea how to capture all of this in my notes.” He also completed the entire observation while sitting in one of our new balance ball chairs (which the kids loved and you can witness for youselves in the top image).

Can I stop here for just a second and tell you how amazing my principal is. Seriously. I won the principal lottery big time.  This man is 100% student centered.  The kids love him. The teachers love him. The parents love him. He has made our school an incredibly happy place and one that we all feel lucky to work in.  He sees us for exactly who we all are and he values us for what we bring to the table.  He knows that I sometimes say things in meetings that I probably shouldn’t and he knows that I often say things in meetings in a way that can be less than polite. And he also knows that I do all of that because I care about kids. He is just amazing.  And I never worry when he is in my classroom because I know that he gets what I am trying to do and he respects me for it.  He allows me the freedom that I need to try new things and find out what works best for kids.  And I could pretty much write my own evaluation at this point, because I know what he is going to say. And it will be lovely.

But as I was reflecting on my observation lesson, I was struck by a somewhat awful thought.

What if I had a different administrator? What if I had a different administrator using the same evaluation rubric? Would I lose points for empowering students?

Because here is the thing about the lesson he observed. I, myself, didn’t do much. The kids did all the heavy lifting.  I didn’t say very much to the class. I didn’t even say very much to the small groups of working students. I didn’t lead the discussion. I didn’t ask any probing questions. I didn’t give much feedback other than to gently push the small groups of students as they worked. I, myself, did very little. And so if my principal were to simply take the actions and words that he saw and heard during this 45 minute chunk of time, would I lose point for giving my students a large portion of the power in this lesson?

When I am no longer the strongest voice in the classroom, will I be marked down for the things that I am not saying? Where does student empowerment get figured into my evaluation as a teacher?

As I looked carefully at the rubric used to evaluate teachers in my district, I couldn’t help but notice that the vast majority of the descriptors begin with the words, “The teacher…” Other than the one section on student behavior, everything else written on the rubric begins with a description of teacher actions.  When we think about the tools we are using to evaluate our teachers, I think that we need to think a bit more carefully about what we really want teachers to be striving for.  Is it enough that we, as teachers, learn to ask good questions and promote discussion or should we be asking for more? Should we be asking for teachers to be giving the power to the students to do those things? Does the system of evaluation that we have demand that teachers engage students in the learning they are doing? Or does it say that it is enough to go through the motions, teach the good lessons, and hope that our students are feeling valued and important.

I have to say, I took a second and more careful look today at the rubric used to evaluate me. And I realized that I don’t have as much to worry about as I thought I did. In the “EXCELLENT” categories on the rubric, there is mention of students taking ownership and control over their learning. As I dug deeper, I found descriptors such as, “Students formulate many questions, initiate topics, challenge one another’s thinking, and make unsolicited contributions. Students themselves ensure that all voices are heard in the discussion.” I also found, “There is evidence of some student initiation of inquiry and student contributions to the exploration of important content; students may serve as resources for one another.”

Those words made me feel better, but I still believe that we can do better. I still believe that we can create systems for evaluating teachers that take the students and the amount of power they hold into consideration more. I believe that we can demand more from ourselves. Because student ownership of learning shouldn’t just be an option. It shouldn’t be something that “might” happen or “may” happen. It should be an expectation in every single classroom we are a part of. I honestly believe our students deserve it.

And if any of you have made it through this very long-winded blog post, I would love to know how your systems of evaluation deal with student empowerment and ownership. Do you feel as if you are rewarded for giving students power and control? Do you feel like your district’s system of evaluation still expects the teacher’s voice to be the loudest one in the room? I would love to hear anything that you are willing to share!

I Can Feel the Power Shifting

There is a lot I am uncertain of this year. As I attempt to hand more power over to my students, I am uncertain that I am still teaching them all that I want to be teaching them.  As I attempt to let my students take the lead in the classroom more often, I am uncertain that I am still able to teach them the specific reading and writing skills that I believe will make them more successful in this world. As I attempt to help break my students’ dependence on me, I am uncertain that I know them as readers and writers as well as I did when I asked them to check in with me more often and gain my approval on each step of the process they were moving through.  That is a lot to be uncertain about and I want to be honest about all of those things so that no one starts to think that trying to shift power to the students is has been some easy thing for me that feels right all the time.

So now that I have been honest about what I am UNCERTAIN about, let me also be honest about what I am CERTAIN about.

I can feel the power shifting in my classroom. I can see it. I know it is there. And it is. so. exciting.

It is amazing to me that as I have worked to move out of the way a little bit, the students have been eager to step up and fill in that space. As I think back on the changes that I have made so far in my classroom, nothing seems too earth shattering. I know that I have a long way to go in making my classroom a place where the students feel truly empowered, but here are some of the small things I have changed to try and start shifting the power balance in my classroom:

1) I let the students lead discussions. As we debrief activities, as we share our thinking about a text, as we talk about our plans for writing, I have been letting the kids take over these discussions. Often that just means having one student sit in the rocking chair instead of me or letting the students do the writing on the chart paper to create our anchor chart instead of me or letting the students call on other students to share their thinking instead of me.

2) I let the students find ways to use their reading journals that makes sense to them. I do not ask that every child write in one certain way about their thinking. I ask that every child think about what they read. I ask that every child keep track of their thinking so that they can share it with others. But I no longer demand that we all do that in one way. Some children find charts more helpful, some children find it more helpful to track their thinking on GoogleDocs instead of in their notebooks, some children use pictures to track their thinking. As long as students can show me how they are keeping track of their thinking, I am okay with it. It has to work for them.

3) I let the kids choose where they sit. It seems so simple, but having the power to walk into the classroom each day and make a decision about where they are going to sit, makes a real difference to the kids.

4) I listen to their ideas. When a student comes up to me with an idea, I listen. I really listen. I don’t listen just to humor them and then tell them that I will think about it and then just really walk away and forget what they just told me.  I listen to their idea and then I ask them, “Well, how are you going to do that?” And then they do it.

5) Our sharing time has become a time for the students to teach each other. I am not the only one doing the teaching this year. At the end of reading and writing workshop, I ask the students to share what they have done that day that has worked for them as a reader or a writer. Sometimes that means kids are sharing how they have used their reading journals meaningfully, other times that means that kids are sharing a writing strategy that they used and how it worked for them, and other times that means that kids are sharing a struggle that they had and how they worked through that struggle.

6) I am asking them more often what works for them and what doesn’t. Before making instructional decisions, I have started asking my students what is working for them and what isn’t. And then, I actually listen to what they are saying and I change my plans accordingly.

7) I have started to name strategies after the kids who come up with them. In writing, if a student I am conferring with has done something brilliant with his or her writing, I stop the whole class, share the strategy and then ask the other kids to see if they can find a place to try “The Sarah” or whatever name matches the brilliant child who came up with the idea.

So those are some of the ways that I am trying to give more power over to my students. And how do I know that it is working? Here’s how:

My kids have started to actually have more ideas of their own. And they are believing in their own ideas.

My kids have started to create things to share with the class. Sometimes they are giving up recess or their time at home to do this.

I had one student who created a slogan about the importance of editing a Tweet before sending it out and then she stayed in for three days during recess to turn her sign into a poster that we have now hung up in the classroom.  The entire class will now be reminded to, “Reread it before you Tweet it.”

I also had a student who thought of a solution to the problem of too many kids needing me to recommend books to them at the same time or needing me to recommend books to them when I had to do a reading assessment or conference or guided reading group instead. So, she went home and created a Google Form to share with the entire class so that kids could share their own book recommendations and everyone would have access to a list of peer-recommended books and descriptions of those books. She then taught the rest of the class how to access the form, how to fill it out and how to find the results of the form.  By the end of reading that day, 11 students had already added book recommendations to the list.

My kids have started to make more decisions for themselves. They are more willing to try things on their own before they ask for help. They are more willing to believe that they are capable of doing something without me holding their hand through it.

My kids are not afraid to make suggestions.  I think that in the past, I unwillingly sent the message that I was in charge and I did not welcome their ideas. As I have worked to change that, I notice that they are more willing to share their voices and ideas with me because they believe that I am actually going to listen to them.

So I know things are working.  Yes, there are things I still need to figure out, lots of them, but it is so exciting to see these kids starting to feel the ownership that I was so desperate to help them discover. These kids are showing me that if I give them more power, they are not going to abuse it. Instead they are going to take that power and create incredible things with it.  And that makes all of the uncertainty completely worthwhile.

That One Student

I assume we have all had, “That one student.” That ONE student who you just couldn’t reach. That ONE student who just couldn’t see how smart he really was. That ONE student who hated school no matter what you did to make her happy. That ONE student who was not going to enjoy reading or writing or whatever it is you teach no matter what you did.

Well, my one student turned up pretty early on in the school year.  He spent most of the first few days of school drawing elaborate robot characters on post-it notes.  He didn’t say much as we took our turns opening up and sharing ourselves with our classmates.  And he didn’t seem excited about the things that the rest of the class seemed excited about.

And then our big moment of truth came on the day when the rest of the class began writing their very first stories of the year. As I have explained before, I spent a lot of time rethinking our first writing unit this year. We are working on writing memoirs, but this year, I worked really hard to make sure that the work that I was asking the kids to do was meaningful and purposeful. So I asked the students to write these stories as gifts to give to people in their lives. To show these people what they meant to them.  The kids were really excited. I could feel the energy in the room as we began to brainstorm possible ideas to write about and possible audiences to give this writing too. Everyone was eager to begin.

Everyone, except my one student.

As the rest of the class was happily brainstorming ideas and chatting excitedly with the people around them about their possible story ideas, my one student sat quietly, with his head down, staring at an empty page.  When I first noticed this, one of our special ed teachers was talking quietly with him, so I kept my distance for a while.  After a few moments, I headed over to see what was going on.  As I sat down next to my student, I noticed that his eyes had now started to fill with tears.  I asked him what was going on and he looked at me and said, “I just hate writing. I hate writing in school because nobody ever lets me write fiction. I love writing fiction. I hate writing true stories.” He was so earnest. He was not at all disrespectful. He was telling me his very honest truth and he was waiting to see what I was going to do with it.

And my honest truth was that I had no idea what to say to him.

The stressed out, overwhelmed, anxious teacher in me wanted to say to him, “Well, I am sorry that you feel that way, but we are working on memoirs right now and so that is what you need to do.” And, if I am being honest, I was REALLY close to saying just those words. I would have said them nicely. I would have smiled at him when I said them. I would have used a tone that would have showed that I was understanding and kind and still loved him.  But I would have said them.

Had I not spent all summer thinking about, reading about, and hearing about how important it is to value what our students have to say and to allow them to follow their passions, I would have told him that he has to write memoirs because that is what we are all working on and it is my job to help him to be a better writer in a variety of genres. That is what I would have told him if I hadn’t already, very boldly said on this very blog that I was going to be a different kind of teacher this year.

So I knew I shouldn’t say what I thought about saying, but I honestly didn’t know what I should say.  So I was honest and I told him that I was going to have to think about what he just said. And he spent the rest of our writing time, staring sadly at his paper. That night, I wrote his mom an email, just letting her know what had gone on and telling her that I was going to find a way to honor his voice and his passions, but I just wasn’t sure how yet.

His mom wrote back such a beautiful email about how her son was coming off a fairly bad school year. He had spent a year feeling as if his gifts weren’t valued in the school setting. She explained how creative he is and how imaginative he is and how worried she is that her son has started to hate school. She spoke of the many gifts that she sees in her child and how she just hopes that he can find a way to use these gifts at school. She also told me that she spoke to her son and they brainstormed a list of story ideas together for our memoir unit because he told her that he was just upset that he had disappointed me.

I cried.

And then I thought about what I could do to help this boy love to learn again. And I thought about what everyone has said about Google and about 20% Time and Genius Hour and Passion Projects.  The truth is, these are not things that I have been able to work into my classroom yet. I am just not there yet. I brought on a whole lot of new this year and I needed to get my feet wet a bit before I moved over to Genius Hour. But as I thought about the concept, I thought about how perfect it was for this student.

I do believe that it is important for students to learn how to write the stories of their lives.  I believe that if we are to tell our students that their lives have value, we also need to help them learn how to share the stories of their lives with others in a meaningful and powerful way.  So I want him to learn these lessons. I want him to learn how to write true stories from his life because it is a simple way for this middle child of SEVEN siblings to feel heard and valued and that is important to me. So I want him to write these stories with the rest of us.

But there is also space in our writing workshop for him to follow his passions and write what he loves.  Of course there is room for both.  There has to be room for both.  And so, Fiction Fridays was born.  This is something that I will allow all of my students to take advantage of eventually. But for now, this is just for him.  Every Friday, he will get to write a part of his fiction story and publish it to his blog.  He will be in charge. I will stay out of his way and just let him write. I will not correct his spelling or his grammar or tell him what he should change or add (unless he asks for my help). I will just let him write.

Last week, I presented this plan to him and his face instantly lit up. He smiled in a way that made me certain that I had gone in the right direction. And after he knew about Fiction Fridays, he was infinitely more willing to work on his memoir every other day of the week. He was even able to weave his creativity right into the writing of his true life story. It was beautiful. And when we got to Friday, he had time to begin his newest fiction story. He wrote about a Golem.  It was only a few lines, but he was happier during those moments of writing than I had seen him in all the first days of school combined. And when he published it to his blog post, he was just so happy. And so proud. And he was, in every single sense of the word, a writer.

And when I reached out to the lovely, lovely people on Twitter to possibly read and comment on his writing, they did. So beautifully. I would say that they have no idea what their comments are going to mean to my one student, but that would be unfair.  Of course they know what their comments will mean. That’s why they wrote them.  Because they are good and kind and they know what their feedback will do for this child. And I thank them from a very, very deep place.

So already, this boy, this one student of mine, has taught me so much about being a teacher. He has taught me what can happen when you allow a child’s voice to be heard in the classroom and what can happen when you step aside and let a child lead. I am so grateful to him and what he has taught me and I cannot wait to see what else he will show me this year.

This one student of mine. He is a special, special kid.

If you might be interested in checking out his writing and perhaps even leaving a comment, you can find the first installment of his story here:

What’s Your Sentence?

Twitter has brought some incredible teaching ideas to me, but this one has to be my very favorite so far this school year.  Cara Cahill, also known as @CaraCahill is one incredible educator that I have been lucky enough to have met through Twitter. She did an activity with her class called, “What’s Your Sentence?” After seeing what her students did, I promptly stole the idea for my own and I could not be happier that I did.

We started by watching Daniel Pink’s video, asking the question, “What’s Your Sentence?”

Then we watched the responses to this question that came in from around the world. 

And finally we wrote our own sentences and created this video.

I was so proud of my students and what they created that I had to share. Enjoy!

I Want to Be the Teacher That They Want Me to Be

This first three days of school are in the books. And. They. Were. Awesome.

I have two amazing groups of kids this year. They are eager and kind and appreciative and funny and quirky and all the things that I would want for them to be. It makes me feel like I should be working even harder because these kids (all kids, really) deserve so much from our year together.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the plans that I had for these first few days were quite different than the plans I had in years past. One of the most powerful uses of our time together in the first few days came from their answers to the question, “What kind of classroom do I want to live, learn and grow in this year?” I asked the kids to think about what they hoped that the other students in the classroom would do and I asked them to think about what they hoped that I, as their teacher, would do in order to help them to become the best learners and the best people they could be. The answers the kids gave made me wish that I had started asking this question years ago!

And as kids got together to share their thoughts and as groups began to formulate visions for our classroom that they presented to the class, I found myself wishing and hoping and promising that I will do everything that I can this year to try to be the teacher that they want me to be.

And you know what amazed me the most? What they want is fairly simple. And still, I was left thinking about how easy it is for us, as teachers, to let them down.

So, from the mouths and minds of my students, here is what they want from me as their teacher:

*They want a teacher who listens to them.

*They want a teacher who asks them what they think about things before making decisions for the classroom.

*They want a teacher who makes them think.

*They want a teacher who helps them to find great books.

*They want a teacher who smiles a lot and laughs a lot.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t give lots of meaningless homework.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t make them sit in one spot for a really long time.

*They want a teacher who lets them take breaks when they need them.

*They want a teacher who introduces them to new things.

*They want a teacher who will encourage them to do things that they aren’t sure they can do.

*They want a teacher who is kind.

*They want a teacher who is patient.

*They want a teacher who teaches them at their own pace.

*They want a teacher who will help them when they are struggling instead of getting frustrated with them.

*They want a teacher who doesn’t embarrass them in front of the class when they do something wrong.

*They want a teacher who helps them to do their best.

That’s it. They didn’t ask for much. They didn’t ask for me to give them parties all the time. They didn’t ask for me to let them play games all day. They didn’t ask for me to never make them do any work. They knew that those things wouldn’t help them to become better learners and better people. They didn’t ask for anything that isn’t exactly what our students should receive from their teachers.

And so, I will keep these words close to my heart this year. I will also keep these words clearly posted on our walls, so that I will see them often and remember what these precious kids want from me. And I know there will be days when I will not be all of these things for them. On those days, I will apologize and ask them to give me another chance. On those days, I will take a step back and read this list and remember how simple these requests really are. On those days, I will promise them and promise myself that I will do better tomorrow. Because that is what they deserve.