Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Silent Day Takeaways

Almost halfway through the school year, I got laryngitis. No voice whatsoever; in fact, my friend & colleague told me that whispering actually made it worse. So, there I was, three days shy of winter break, having to unexpectedly rely on my students to run things. And they did. They took over, working together, figuring things out, communicating with each other and with me to continue learning and growing. It was awesome.

Then winter break arrived and, with it, time to actually dig into some professional reading that seems to get pushed to the bottom of the priority list during the school year. My goal was to read Learn Like a Pirate (TLAP) by Paul Solarz, on the recommendation of several teacher friends both in the building and in my PLN. I chose it because, while my class was humming along pretty well for mid-December, there were a couple of things that were bugging me, things I knew I could do better management-wise, but couldn't quite put my finger on them. Reading TLAP and reflecting on my practice helped me identify those "things," and I returned in January armed with ideas to give my crew more control and responsibility in the classroom.

The kids ate them up. Giving them more voice - they ran the mornings, getting each other ready for specials, and the afternoons, setting goals and getting us ready to go home - really helped them feel like the room was theirs. I had been preaching this idea all year, but the students hadn't felt it, because I hadn't given them the opportunities to do so. They took this new responsibility and ran with it. I talked less (and smiled more.) I had more time to connect with students in the mornings and afternoons, rather than wasting that precious time doing lunch count and filling out assignment notebooks. The more control and responsibility they had, the more they respected me for trusting them enough to give it to them. It was a win-win.

Our tribe on the last day of school
Enter Silent Day. According to Solarz, Silent Day is something the students work for all year, a day where they run the classroom from bell to bell. While the teacher is present for supervisory purposes, she is silent. Problems? The kids figure it out. They arrive at school, transition from subject to subject, move around the building, and solve any problems that arise. It is a day of celebration: a responsibility they've earned. To be honest, I didn't think they (read: I) would be ready to tackle a Silent Day. I hemmed and hawed throughout February and March. Then, in late April, I threw caution to the wind, quietly mentioning Silent Day to a group of kids who were with me at the end of the day as the rest were at after school band. Naturally, they loved the idea, and word spread that it was a possibility. We had a class meeting, and I shared with them the philosophy behind Silent Day and that, if they wanted it, they'd have to earn it.

We embarked on a month-long Silent Day bootcamp, knowing that it'd be messy because I hadn't prepared them for true independence for a full year. I sprang unexpected things on them: not picking them up from a special, ringing the transition bell but saying nothing, coming in from recess for math but saying nothing. The less I said, the more they led. They were ready. The day before Silent Day, we had a meeting. They had asked for a plan. I had one ready for them: what you need, who would lead, for every part of the day. I shared with them that I didn't expect perfection, just effort. My biggest concern, addressed in several class meetings, was "bossiness" versus "leadership." We'd see how that played out. (Side note: my administrators were super supportive when I told them what the kids were preparing for.)

Silent Day commenced on the Wednesday of the last week of school (the days leading up to it bought me INCREDIBLE behavior during a time of year that kids are traditionally coming out of their skin. Bonus!) Throughout the day, I spoke only twice: when we were at our local library on a walking field trip (and that was as a fellow book fan, not as a teacher), and when a tech snafu meant a change in formatting that the kids weren't sure how to tackle. That situation took about 5 minutes, then I melted back into the background to observe the kids in their leaderless habitat. They worked hard, they struggled. They succeeded.

I have a tremendous amount to take away from Silent Day, and I want to write it down here before I forget. Much to celebrate, and a lot to do differently. First, the celebrations:

  • They did great! They were a bit uncomfortable at first, feeling a bit rudderless, I think. But they took that discomfort and went with it. 
  • They were flexible! I had a math quiz on the books during our pre-meeting. I got rid of it, opting for them to have more time to create their Civil War website. They saw my note on the board and were good to go.
  • They were really on task! I daresay they were more on task then when I was actually involved. They wanted to succeed at this. They wanted to own it. And they worked SO HARD to accomplish that goal. I'm incredibly proud of them.
  • 100% of the class - despite their discomfort, and despite things they'd do (or want done) differently (see below) - voted that they'd want to do Silent Day again if given the chance. This speaks to the mindset of this group: always wanting to give it another shot, see what happens, see what they could learn from it.
What I'd do differently:
  • As I alluded to a little earlier, I'd give them more responsibility earlier in the year. They still tried to ask me things they need to be doing for themselves:
    • Student: "Where do I put this?" 
    • Me: *cocks my head, waits* 
    • Student: *whispers the answer to her own question* 
    • Me: *smiles*
  • I gave most of the instructions they day before. Why not leave it for them on that day? That was still me trying to be in control.
  • The bossiness versus leadership thing was a biggie. Interestingly, it was during the transitions to and from lunch and recess that this became an issue. When we had our Silent Day post-mortem the following day, this issue was the one that affected most students. Interestingly, even though we didn't use any names (so as not to make the meeting accusatory, but more problem-solving in tone) the students who veered more into bossiness than leadership were uncharacteristically quiet during the meeting. I'm hoping that they were reflecting on the affects of their behavior on their fellow classmates. This one is something I'll need to continue to reflect on as my teaching continues to shift. I knew it'd be an issue going in. We talked - a lot - about the differences between a boss and a leader. But I don't think I gave the kids - neither the bosses nor the boss-ees - enough opportunities to feel or internalize those differences.
All in all, Silent Day - and our movement toward a more student-led classroom -  resulted in huge shifts for me as a teacher. I knew that student-led classrooms were successful, but I hadn't actually experienced what it would feel like as a teacher. My job was actually easier this year. I was less stressed, less overwhelmed with the weight of all the daily decisions on my shoulders. If I wasn't sure about something, I'd ask the kids. Their 10- and 11-year-old brains would come up with creative solutions to problems that my 43-year-old brain hadn't thought of. They became a resource. I became a facilitator. Now I can't imagine running our classroom any other way. I am grateful to Paul Solarz for sharing his ideas in his book, and for my colleagues - both building and virtual - for their collaboration as we continue on this crazy journey called teaching and learning.

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Thank you to the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my Slice of Life. For more slices, click here!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poetry Cafe

At the request of a Twitter colleague, I thought I'd share some details about a 5th grade tradition at our school: Poetry Cafe.

Nate performs his original poem
In a nutshell, the Poetry Cafe is a poetry slam. The students spend several weeks of writer's workshop creating poems in all different genres. We teachers go about this differently: some have our students create anthologies around a topic and themes, while others focus on figurative language and/or poetic form. Students go through the writing process (generating ideas, drafting, revising, editing, publishing), this time with the grammar-rule-less freedom that poetry allows them. All students also choose a variety of poems that they will perform, "poetry slam" style, in front of their peers, staff members, and invited guests. Students choose 3-5 poems of different genres, and then we organize the slam so that poems are performed by genre, with a narrator to introduce the genre, what makes it special, and who will be performing a poem in that genre. The slam always goes quickly.

Parents seated for the poetry slam
Once the students select, revise, edit, and practice their poems, preparations for Poetry Cafe begin. You see, in addition to being a poetry slam, our students also transform their classrooms into cafes. They are in charge of how the classroom should be arranged. They decorate. They invite family members to watch them perform (see the invitation here.) They choose jobs to do before and/or throughout the poetry slam: set up crew, hosts, servers, and chefs (see the jobs list here.)  Invited guests have snacks and drinks that I bring to school that morning, then, once the hosts have seated the guests and given them a menu and program (you can see it here), the servers and chefs work together, taking and filling food orders.

While all this is going on, students are working together - silently - to be ready to perform their poem. Students help each other get in order, and they make sure each has his or her poem ready to perform (memorization isn't a requirement; expressive performance is) for that genre. As I was watching the slam in action on Friday, it reminded me of a ballet. Students were working in synchronicity, quietly and confidently moving about the room serving food or lining up to introduce a genre or perform a poem. Each knew his part, and everyone worked together. It was a thing of beauty, and I was in absolute awe of them. This year, students performed 85 poems in under an hour while operating a cafe filled with over 20 guests. I ran a slideshow (you can see it here) that the students requested to help keep them organized. Really. That's all I did.

When the students finished slam, took photos together, and hugged their parents goodbye, we debriefed. The feedback is always the same, yet still incredibly powerful: "I loved running the cafe!" "It was so fun to serve guests!" "This was just like real life!" "Performing was easier than I thought it would be!" Poetry, and by extension, The Poetry Cafe, offers students experiences they've never had before. They have the freedom and the opportunities to take charge, make decisions, and collaborate to make an event a success. The looks of pride and accomplishment across the faces of each and every one of my students were so great to behold. The post-slam confidence was palpable. Postures were straighter. Heads were held higher. And witnessing that was worth all the preparation and practice.

Poetry Cafe has evolved over the years, based on the needs of the students. Some years, the kids want to make the slideshow; this year, they didn't have enough time. I'll be sure to make time for that next year so the cafe has more of the students' visual stamp on it.  Next year, I'd also like to have the students write their own "poet biographies," like the author bios we see on book jackets. We can incorporate them somewhere in the classroom or even in the program. Finally, I'd like to make more time for rehearsal. We had an entire morning for it, but some students could have benefited from more than one run-through.

While we teachers are  always thinking of ways to be better, we also know that this experience is one of the most important that we give our students. It is worth the time, practice, and preparation to see it all come to fruition. Creating poetry teaches kids in a way that other writing genres can't. It's vital to upper-middle grade literacy, as a form of expression and communication for those students who might struggle with prose. Poetry can be a gateway to confidence as a writer, and I am grateful that we, as a team, see its necessity in our literacy curriculum.

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I am so grateful for the wonderful crew at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me a space to share my Slice of Life.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Foot In Two Oceans

Lots on my mind these days, as it's an interesting time in the school year. This is the time where teachers have their feet in two oceans: class lists, supply orders, and professional development are all springing head to the next school year. But my mind is still making a concerted effort to remain in the present. With these kids. This class. Right now.

So, while I'm making a list of next year's read alouds (what to buy, what to read first to set the tone), I'm also remembering Last Day Blues by Julie Dannenberg. Will it be too sad for this year's class? Will I be able to get through it without crying?

So, while I'm planning how to incorporate deeper student thinking and writing about reading into those class read alouds next year, I'm also conferring with students about their writing about reading and how we can still grow as readers and writers even though there are only 9 days left in the school year.

So, while we're getting a new math curriculum next year and I'm already planning for adjustments and differentiation based on what I already know about my new group of learners, I'm also stretching my current group, exposing them to algebra through hands-on work and problem solving.

And while we're talking about changes in our social studies curriculum, courtesy of the new social science standards, I'm also keeping this year's group engaged through a Civil War reenactment, so they can continue to learn through doing.

And though I'm book shopping, reading ARCs, and planning book talks for next year, I'm also knee-deep in the final week of Book Madness (Wonder vs. Home of the Brave - how does one choose?!?) and helping my kids create summer book stacks so they can continue to love reading throughout the summer and, hopefully, for the rest of their lives.

Having my feet in two oceans is something I'm used to now, as I finish my seventh year of teaching, my fourth in this wonderful district. But I don't ever want my kids to think that I've checked out, that I've already moved on, that I'm planning for the future at the expense of the present. They deserve all of me until that final bell rings on May 26th. And I'll be honest, they'll still have me after the year is over, too.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

5th Grade Book Madness: The Final Four


We're getting down to the nitty gritty, folks! The Final Four of our Book Madness Tournament of Books was revealed to the 5th graders this morning! The buzz in the hallway was palpable. A few students from other classrooms actually asked if I was okay (my all-time favorite book series and room theme-inspiration, Harry Potter, was defeated by the amazing Katherine Applegate's Home of the Brave.)

Here's where we stand:
The Final Four: The Lightning Thief vs. Wonder and The War That Saved My Life vs. Home of the Brave
Some observations from the past two weeks as we went from sixteen to eight to four:

  • Students are REALLY passionate about the books they love. Everybody loves a Cinderella story. For this tourney, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's The War That Saved My Life fits that bill. Making this year's Illinois Bluestem list is the only reason this book is on my students' radar. In our class, Kyle has been its champion. He has written persuasive pieces and made a book trailer promoting the book to his fellow students, and openly chats it up throughout the grade level. 
  • The stress level is increasing as we continue to cut the books in half each week. I wish you could be in my room when we vote on Google forms. "Do we HAVE to vote for each pair?" Drew asked me last Friday, simply unable to choose between The Lightning Thief and Telgemeier's Ghosts. (He went with Percy Jackson, having read the entire series with his fantasy book club. He's currently working through The Son of Neptune, clearly bitten by the Riordan bug.)
  • Students are REALLY attached to certain books! "How did Harry Potter lose?" Devyn whispered to Abby, who shook her head mournfully on the way back to our room. Both are knee-deep in the wizarding world, Devyn moving through Prisoner of Azkaban, while Abby is half way through Goblet of Fire. They - and so many others - were actually sad that Kek had bested Harry in this competition. I empathized, fondly sharing that I struggled to find another series to read when I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the summer of 2007. I was feeling what felt like a bad breakup: constantly thinking about the plot of the last book, remembering all the small moments while reading the series, plotting an immediate - and much slower as I TORE through it - reread. The cure for the worst book hangover I've ever had turned out to be Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. When we returned to the classroom, the students DEMANDED to see the online results of our Google voting form, wanting to see the margin by which certain books had won or lost. 
  • The aforementioned buzz is spreading. Our school librarian is voting. Our principal now has skin in the game, and wants to read The War That Saved My Life (at Kyle's recommendation.) Our instructional coach was wide-eyed at the Final Four, shocked that the Potter juggernaut had lost to a refugee from Sudan (seems fitting.) Fourth grade teachers are reporting buzz in their classes, as their students also see the giant bracket in the hallway outside the bathrooms.
The bottom line? Students are talking about reading. They're debating books, reasoning why their peers should vote one over another. They're upping their creativity, finding new, authentic ways to share their love of books (this Padlet has some great examples of book trailers, Vokis, and Powtoons.) And they're EXCITED. This experiment is doing all that I hoped it would do, and so much more. 

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Thank you to the wonderful group at Two Writing Teachers for allowing me to share my weekly school Slice of Life! Other slices by wonderful teacher-writers can be found here!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Teacher Who Cares...

A former student got in touch with me on Snapchat a couple of weeks ago. I never think students from previous years remember me. I'm wrong. This young lady, a member of her high school's graduating class of 2018, and her fellow students were my very first solo (read: non-long-term sub) class. They were in 6th grade at the time when the sections grew too big and went from two to three. I was hired to teach the third section in December of the 2011-2012 school year. I was TERRIFIED.

The year was a profound learning experience. I learned that relationships are EVERYTHING. As 6th graders, they needed to trust me. They needed time with each other. Friendships were vital - and volatile - as they figured out who they were during a time of tremendous growth and change. They were a MAGNIFICENT group that will always have a huge part of my heart.

The end-of-year gift
I didn't have any idea of heart permanence can go both ways, until today. Today, this same wonderful young lady sent me a snap of the end-of-year gift I made for all three of my writing classes that year. I had each class write one positive character trait for each of their classmates. I then sorted them and made a Wordle for each student out of the traits their classmates said described them best. Finally, I added a quote and a little note from me. On the last day of school, I presented each student with their gift, feeling both joyous and teary-eyed as they left elementary school for the last time and continued on their journey toward adulthood.

The last thing I expected was that snap. I replied, saying it made me so happy that she kept my gift all these years.

Her reply?

"It's been on my wall since you gave it to me."

Wow. Just wow. I was so moved. I told her that in my next snap.

Her reply?

"A teacher who cares is not someone you forget."

Even sitting here now, rereading those words has sent me from teary-eyed to the ugly cry. As a new teacher, I didn't really know if I made a difference. I survived. The kids survived. Hopefully I did more good than harm. A more experienced teacher friend told me that it's incredibly moving to have former students come back, get in touch with you, or reach out later in life. You see them again, full of pride, knowing that you played a small role. Now that I'm almost done with my 7th year of teaching, I get that feeling from time to time, when young men and women, who now tower over me, come in for a hug and let me know what they're up to. My teacher friend was right: it's fantastic.

But THIS. This feeling is profound. I've never experienced anything quite like it before. Maybe it's because Jhen is from my first class. Maybe it's because they're graduating next year. But I'm overwhelmed with love, pride, gratitude. I did something right. I cared.

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