Friday, November 30, 2012

Nerd Out: It's Not All About Leveling

Oh standardized testing, how you have ruined us!  How you have forced us to do things that deep down we know are not the best for our little friends!  How you have been abused yourself - used to measure things that you were never designed to measure!

I think we all need one big support group.  I'll meet you at the bar...

Anyhow, one fallout of testing, testing, testing and more testing is our obsession with data, accountability, measuring, and all things one can put on a graph.   One huge casualty besides you, me, our friends and collective sanity?  Our classroom libraries.

I don't know about you, but I have always had a love/hate relationship with my classroom library.  I loved the neat, organized and colorful labels.  I hated that lurking pile of books that I didn't know where to shelve.  I loved the bursting baskets, filled with books books, glorious books!  I hated when books were put back in the wrong place, carelessly and without thought.  I loved the rug, the pillows, the little lamp, the cozy feel of my classroom library.  I hated vacuuming and maintaining the space.

As you already know, I can make most things in life into a full fledged drama.

Getting back to my trend I have seen in classrooms (and a trend that I do NOT believe is the fault of the teacher, don't get me wrong) recently is making the classroom library into a wall of leveled baskets.  Whether you color code them, number them or Fountas and Pinnell them up, it is still a huge wall of leveled books.  And nothing else.  No genre, no topic, no author, no nothing.  Just levels as far as the eye can see.

I often wonder what this looks like from the perspective of the little friends in that classroom.  Do they imagine the books mocking them - all you-can-look-but-you-can't-touch-me?  Do they push readers to work harder?  (My guess is no.)  Do they make readers feel bad about where they are and limit their choices? (My guess is yes.)

Levels are fabulous.  They are a great tool and have shaped my own teaching of reading.  HOWEVER, as the eloquent Donalynn Miller writes in chapter 4 (I know, chapter 4.  Could we be doing this book club thing any slower?!  I swear, you guys, I am totally not a slow reader.  Seriously.), "I never want my students to feel that they are roped into a book...I believe that students should be empowered to make as many book choices as possible..."

Is it really a choice if you are told to pick one book from the basket labeled "DRA 28"?

This chapter goes on to detail the ways in which Ms. Miller expands her students reading lives and helps them to form a reading identity.  Now, I love the smallest of small fries down in lower elementary and for these new readers, it is essential to have leveled books.  But leveled books and being labeled as a "level x" reader certainly isn't the answer.

Can you imagine if someone yanked the People magazine out of my hands and told me it wasn't my level?  It wouldn't be a pretty day, that's for sure.


If you want to chat more about our The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, check me and my fellow nerds out over on our book club's Facey Face page.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

To Gift or Not To Gift

Assuming that none of you out there was the lucky Powerball winner (I mean $500M??  Can you imagine how much that will buy you at The Container Store or - gasp - Staples?!  The organizational possibilities are ENDLESS.  Don't even get me started on the shoes I could buy...), the question I'm thinking about today is to gift or not to gift. 

Every year at this time, in addition to keeping the lid on my boiling pot of friends who were oh-so-over-excited about the holidays, I began to think about putting together a gift to give them before our vacation.  A Holiday Something from me to them.  As with many things in my life, I have found that this situation is also a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Let me explain...

In my early years of teaching, I used all my bonus points and extra pocket change to buy each student two books I just knew they would love.  Joy!  Giving! 'Tis the season! 

Inspired by my own generosity (I have never been afraid to toot my own horn), I followed that gift up with At Home Kits Of Fabulous.  Each child got a new pencil box filled with fun art supplies and ideas for at-home-fun-while-on-vacation.  Ooooo!  Aaaaaa!  Fabulous!

Then I found one At Home Kit of Fabulousness discarded carelessly in the entry way of the school building.  Boo!  Hiss!  And a hearty dose of WTF?!

The next year, you got a pencil with a bow on it.  Blerg.

Then there was the year I began my doctoral work and had to pay for books, classes and, you know, food.  Hershey Kisses all around! 

But do you know what?  (Here's the part where I whip out that janky mirror and hold it up to  my old shriveled heart a-la-the-Grinch and you get to watch my heart burst with the joy of giving.  Consider yourself warned.)  When I gave out the books?  The kids flipped out and practically fell over themselves to hug me.  When I gave out the At Home Kits of Fabulousness?  The kids flipped out and practically fell over themselves to hug me.  When I gave out the pencils?  The kids flipped out and practically fell over themselves to hug me.  When I gave out the Hershey Kisses?  The kids flipped out and practically fell over themselves to hug me.

For real.  Of course, there were a few party poopers who could have given a rat's ass (hence my kit of fabulousness discarded on the floor), but you can't win them all right?  Bottom line?  My friends could have cared less what I got or how much it cost?  They were just thrilled that I thought to give them a gift - from me to you.  Nine times out of ten, each thoughtful gesture I extended to them was met with so much love and appreciation that I was blown away.  Every single time.

What about you?  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Nerd Out: Living the Life of a Reader

Can I just say I love the idea of teaching students to "wear a reader's clothes?"  Freaking.  Love.  It. 

In our current Common-Core-standards-frenzied-insane-accountability times, it is very easy for us to lose our way and over-emphasize the teaching of skills, skills and more skills. 

Let me tell you a ridiculous story from the days of old which may help to illustrate my point.

Picture it.  My classroom.  First thing in the school day.  Twenty lovely little heads are bent, deeply engaged in their reading.  The stars had aligned, the mood was right, the moon was only so high in the sky and all my friends had found a book they loved and were deep into loving it.  At the same time.  Yes, it was a thing of beauty. 

In walks Ms. Cocktails Before Noon.  (Remember her?) 

Ms. CBN: What are your students doing?
Me:  Reading.
Ms. CBN: What is their Do Now task?  I see that you haven't posted it. (She turns and indicates my blank white board upon which I am supposed to dutifully scribe an activity for students to complete each and every time they transition back into the classroom from another activity.)
Me: Uh, their Do Now task is to read.
Ms. CBN: What skill are they working on?
Me: I'm sure they're all working on a number of skills depending on which book they are reading.
Ms. CBN: So no higher order thinking skill in particular?
Me: Well, if they're all engaged...
Ms. CBN: (interrupting): How are they supposed to know what to do if there is no Do Now task?
Me: We always read first thing in the morning, so they don't need me to write it down, it's our routine.
Ms. CBN: And what's the point of this routine?
Me: To enjoy reading.  To practice their reading skills.  To...
Ms. CBN: (interrupting again) How can I hold anyone accountable when there is no clearly laid out task that I can check up on?
Me: So is the Do Now for me, for them or for you?

I might add that I began writing "Enjoy a book" on our Do Now board each morning just to appease the Administrative Powers That Be to leave me the hell alone.  I was told that "enjoying a book" is not a task supported by the standards.

And I shall pause as you pick your jaws up off the floor.

I know.

I know.

So, yes, I loved the idea of reading the clothes of a reader that Donalynn Miller puts forth in chapter 3 of The Book Whisperer.  And I appreciate her acknowledgement that living the life of a reader involves a variety of behaviors and attitudes that  must be explicitly taught and modeled by teachers.  For example, how to use a library, how to behave in a library, how to carry a book with you, how to find places to read in your life, reading is a priority, reading is a pleasure and reading is something that is cool to do in public.  

One of these key behaviors is stealing time to read taking a new, more positive spin on constant classroom interruptions and organizational nightmares, such as Picture Day.   (You know how I feel about Picture Day.  If you don't, take a deep breath and click here, here or here.)  "Replacing warm-ups with reading time and stealing as many stray moments as possible, I calculate, gains twenty to thirty minutes of reading per day."  Say wha?  That's amazing.  I think a fun experiment would be to chart how much time your kids spend actually engaged in a book each day for a week.  What did you find?  Can you squeeze in more time?  Steal any more moments or create/teach any new habits?   

Another general comment that I think is important for us to reflect on is Ms. Miller's unfailing positive view of her students and their abilities.  Granted, girlfriend is writing a book and I'm sure has blown a fuse in the moment every once in awhile like the rest of us.  Regardless, it is clear that she respects, loves and maintains a positive attitude toward each of her students.  She writes, "Students rise to the level of their teacher's expectations..."  And again later, she states, "Building a trusting relationship with students is easier when you expect them to do the right thing instead of assuming that they are not." 

I couldn't agree more.  Some may write this off as utopian bullshit, but I think she's right on the money. 

Interested to hear what you all thought about chapter 3...please post your comments here or on our book club FB page (whether you read the chapter or not).  Also, I think we're going to pick up the pace a little.  It might be a bit embarrassing and somewhat hypocritical if we only read one book a year! 

Until the next chapter, stay nerdy, my friends.

Monday, November 12, 2012

But I Don't Waaaaaant To....

The other day, I wrote about struggling to always see what there is to love about teaching.  I guess you could say I'm kind of in a funk right now when it comes to teaching.  I think I resent it.  Basically, right now, teaching is being a douche bag and mocking me every moment of every day.

It has taken over my life.  My brain.  My "free" time.  My desk.  My wallet.  My library card.  My posture.  (Have you ever stopped to think about what a typical teacher bag weighs?)

Don't get me wrong.  I love teaching.  Teachers.  Students.  Books.  I love planning new units of study, coming up with ways to spice up my classroom, discovering a new incentive to pump up my friends.  I will gladly nerd out with the best of them and talk educational theory, practice, policy, you name it, I will talk about it and talk about it with a smile on my face and a pocket protector in my heart.

But do you know what else I love?  Shoes.  Cooking.  Reading.  A good cup of coffee.  Drinking cocktails.  Being outside.  Feeling in the moment without the constant tug back to the classroom, back to teaching, back to all things education.   

Do you know what else I would like to do?  Finish the painting I started for Mini's birthday.  (It was five months ago.)  Finish my book.  Finish a conversation without feeling guilty that I'm not doing something education related.

I am aware that when we accept this job (dare I say accept this "calling?") into our hearts and minds, we accept it with the knowledge that it will quickly come a defining part of our identities.  It is who we want to be, who we are and can't deny.   But for the love of all things organized I want to be able to do something else without feeling guilty about the stack of books, the pile of papers, the unfinished articles that sit mocking me from my desk.

What is it about teaching and feeling guilty?  About being a teacher and feeling like we have to be a super hero at every moment of every day?

Let me paint you a picture.  My house.  Sunday afternoon.  Mini is napping away.   Mr. Mimi is sipping coffee and enjoying the latest DVRed episode of No Reservations.  (He loves him some Anthony Bourdain.)  Despite being an incredibly hard worker who recently began his own successful company, he is relaxed.  I want to sit with him.  I want a cup of coffee.  But the idea of taking the time to get a cup of coffee when I could be at my desk working on the latest unit I've agreed to write makes me want to claw my eyes out with that sort of insanity!  Why that's two minutes I could use to get something done?!?  The waste!

And then what do I do?  I sit at my computer and throw myself a pity party and get next to nothing accomplished!

This post should come complete with a downloadable violin solo to play while reading because I acknowledge that I'm whining, but eeeeeeeeeehhhhhh.  (That was my attempt to spell what whining sounds like.)  When I get this out of balance, I can't get anything done.  When I'm balanced, I could negotiate a peace treaty, finish the laundry and organize a fundraiser for displaced cats all while shopping online for fabulous shoes and without batting an eyelash. 

Must.  Find.  Balance. 

Now somebody send me a cup of coffee.  I have work to do. 

Here's hoping you are having a much more balanced weekend.

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