Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Starting a New Year

Today was my first official day back to school.  I have been working in my classroom for about a week and had learning team meetings last week to write the School Improvement Plan, but now I have to get back to the routine.  The beginning of the school year always makes me think of New Years Day and resolutions.  I think I make more resolutions each time school starts than I do at New Years.  This year, thanks to some great professional reading, my biggest resolution is just to BRING IT in the classroom.

I also am super excited because someone in the district office finally listened to us and the super strict mandates for curriculum and instruction have been lightened this year.  I will be able to teach with Reading and Writing Workshop models and not have to figure out how to connect it to the mandated structure.  I have the most coherent and connected plans for instruction that I have had in the last few years.  Of course, there are still millions of things on my to-do list that need to be done before next Tuesday when students start school.

I am so excited to be setting up our reading community.  Here are a few pictures from the work-in-progress.

The book sorting process. It is much more organized than it has been in the last few years. I love the genre classification stickers from Demco!
I am so excited about this reading door!

My reading door display is much bigger this year.  I had a small display last year and it really started conversations.  This year, I have it up before the staff meeting that will be in my room tomorrow and before Open House.  I can't wait to see what kind of buzz I can create with this display.

For now, I need to take things a step at a time and get ready for the best year ever!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Being a Pirate and Finding Inspiration

Ruth and Stacey at Two Writing Teachers
host the Slice of Life every Tuesday.

In the last week, I have read two professional books that gave me endless inspiration for the coming school year.  Both books ignited a fire in me and made me look at some hard truths about myself and my school.  

First, I read Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle. I had read Book Love earlier this year so I knew I would love Penny's writing.  What I got out of the book was exactly what I had hoped to find.  The very clear explanations of how she structures her classroom and what units she chooses to teach gave me some direction that I badly needed.  I have been doing Writer's Workshop for more than ten years now.  I started in first grade and moved to fourth and fifth grade and then up to middle school grades.  I have never felt like I got a handle on middle school writer's workshop.  I know we probably do better than I give myself credit for, but I know I can do much better.  

My first a-ha came in the section of the book where Ms. Kittle describes the idea of choice in workshop.  She tells of an interview that Tom Newkirk did with Don Graves in which Don said, "Unlimited choice is no choice at all."  

She goes on to say:

 "I had missed that part. Choice has to be taught: I needed to learn how to help students discover their topics. Students of any age will get discouraged if they just sit and think, trying to find an idea that feels big enough to write about."  

I love when I read about teachers who have had the same struggles as I have had and have found a solution.  I love the way that Kittle balances quick-writes with mini-lessons and now I have a good plan for the daily routine in my classroom.  

The other quote from this book that really jumped out at me was this one:

"I don't have a lot of patience for teachers who stand behind their twenty-year-old lesson plans with the admonition that, 'I'm giving them good teaching but they don't take advantage of it and learn, that's not my problem.' Teachers have to adjust their work to meet the needs of kids. If the kids aren't learning, the first place to look is at the teacher and the curriculum. All kids can write well; I just don't accept anything else to be true. I will work every day (weekends, too) to make it happen for whoever walks through that door. That's professionalism. That's responsibility. I won't pretend this work is about anything less." 

I really appreciate the candor in this. I agree whole-heartedly and I am glad to see that there are teachers who are willing to take their stand in a published work.  This gives me a swift kick in the pants to consider my own professionalism and what I can do differently to help students become good writers.  I am not saying that I haven't already been doing some of this and thinking this way, just that I have room for improvement and I will make it a priority to improve.  

The second book that I read this week that really hit home is Teach like a PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator by Dave Burgess.  This was a truly motivational and inspirational book.  It just made me really think hard about what I give students in my classroom.  I thought through my passions and really evaluated my own teaching as I read through his ideas.  One thing has been really bugging me for years.  This idea of professional jealousy that exists in our worlds. Maybe you are lucky and work in a place in which everyone is completely supportive of one another...that is very lucky.  In this book, Dave Burgess discusses the awkward moment that happens in his seminars when he asks the question, "Do you want to be great?" He says:

"I'm sure a certain portion of my audiences want to say 'yes' to the greatness question. Unfortunately, the snide comments and eye rolling of their peers keeps them from admitting what they really want. People who are comfortable and accustomed to traveling with the pack, always riding in the peloton, often resent those trying to escape in search of something more...Believe me, plenty of people will try to drag you back. That's why you must have a goal worth fighting for."

This section hit home.  In 2006, I was fortunate enough to be given a Milken Educator Award. Each year, there are two Milken Educators named in Wisconsin (as well as about 100 educators nationwide) and I was lucky enough to be recognized in this way.  The award comes with a $25,000 prize.  The state superintendent and a whole bunch of other dignitaries showed up at my school for an assembly.  Part of the deal with the Milken award is that the assembly is a complete surprise.  We knew we were having a bunch of important people come to our school but not what it was about.  When my name was called after all the build-up and explanation about the award,  I remember two things.  First, I remember the cheers and screams of the kids in the auditorium.  I have a fabulous picture from the local newspaper of two of my students jumping up and down as if they had won the award themselves.  Second, I remember the scowls on the faces of two of my colleagues.  I was at the microphone, completely shocked and awed that I had been recognized in this way and I faltered in what I would say because I saw these two people glaring back at me.  How awful is that?  I got this completely unsolicited recognition and they could not be happy for me.  My pleasure and celebration that day was tainted by the rumors that I knew would be flying all day. 

This section of Think Like a Pirate brought me back to that day.  I was able to shake off the negativity and continue to strive for greatness, but I really shied away from any opportunity to share what I was doing in my classroom because I let that criticism get in.  I will not let the negativity of others keep me back anymore. There are many ideas I really like in this book, but the best thing that I got from the book was a new motivation to continue to seek greatness in my classroom and a great resource of guidance to help me do it.  

It was the perfect blend of professional books for me to read this week.  I love this time of the year when I start to dream about the possibilities for the new school year.  This year I will go into the school with a renewed spirit and commitment to professionalism and greatness.

I hope all the other teachers out there are finding their inspiration to go start a great school year.  How are you finding your inspiration?  Are you going to be like a pirate too?  Please share in the comments.