Exploration and Discovery

Exploration and Discovery
The Outdoor Classroom

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Classroom Libraries are an Ongoing Adventure Story

     Trying to decide what genre books fall into is not easy. There are mysteries set in the Depression or pre-WWII England; Mystery and Suspense or Historical Fiction? If a narrative story is loosely based on a real event from an earlier time, does it belong in Realistic Fiction or Historical Fiction? And what about Dan Gutman books that are about sports but have spaceships in them? Or Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza series which is actually based on his own life?
     This is my fourth year teaching and my third year working on my classroom library. I am proud of the number of volumes I have acquired, the range in reading level within most genres, and the visibility of where to shelve the books upon return.  Last year I leveled the majority of my titles, no small feat since I have well over 500 titles. I placed a large number of titles in book boxes according to level, sorted my non-fiction by subject matter, and left a good number of titles to be found by author's last name, like they are in the public library. This year as I have been sorting, taping, and discarding, I have noted a great many things about myself as a reader. For instance, I have a lot more Fantasy titles than anything else, followed by Historical Fiction most of which have a female lead character or narrator, and a great number of Classic titles, in part because it is the one genre I actually assign a focused book report on (theme). I now know that I need to get more titles that focus around Sports and a larger variety of Animal Stories.
     I have also decided to sort the majority of my books by genre rather than reading level and only have buckets of certain authors with no part of my library according to author's last name. I know it is somewhat ridiculous to spend two summers in a row setting up different systems, but I DO have my reasons. Last year I gave multiple mini lessons on how to choose a just right fit book; open to any page and read for a few minutes- can you follow the action? are you interested in reading on? do the words make sense?, the five finger rule, read the blurb on the back of the book. I definitely got more good fit books in the hands of my students, especially my reluctant readers, than I would have before hand. But I had some readers, particularly a number of boys, who would stay close to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books or Graphic Novels.
     What I found was even though I had been successful in finding a book that interested them, and they read it and enjoyed it, they wouldn't seek out another book on their own or even with prodding. They did not like the "label" of a reading level box, yet they didn't want to start a book and have to admit it was too difficult for them, so they stuck with what they knew until the next time I put a title in their hands. I try to get the kids reading independently and this system didn't support that as well as I had hoped.
     My hope for this year is these same kinds of readers will find their genre box more readily since it doesn't advertise what letter level they are reading at. The books are still leveled, I placed a sticker on the cover, but it is far less visible than the colored tape which identifies the genre. First and foremost I want students to think about what it is they like in a book before they go to the shelves and then use what they have been taught to pick a good fit title. That way, they'll be able to find books in the public library long after they have left my classroom. Fingers crossed. I would really rather NOT spend next summer redoing my library again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summer Resolution- Check; Setting a School Year Resolution

Now that I am back from New York, I am going into the classroom every other day to poke things into place, level and label the library, and just generally think through my plan for the year. This will be my fourth year teaching in the same 5th grade classroom, with the same wonderful teacher partner, and a whole new slew of kids. I have received test scores and class lists, so I am beginning to imagine the initial table groups and pairings for workshops. I went to Ikea today and picked up new book boxes (best price ever!) and just printed labels. It is so fun to sit in my big recliner, listening to my own children play video games, my hubby cooking, and get things ready while I sit here reading and writing, and sip some wine before dinner. I am one lucky lady and I know it.

My summer resolution was to make time for reading and I have; go to New York and train at TCRWP and I DID(!); reconfigure my library (AGAIN!) and I am; get up to date on all my medical exams- all clear; spend time with my boys, not near enough, but more than during the year; enjoy time with my husband and have some talks about finances, the future, and make each other laugh- we have and continue to; get regular exercise and lose weight- well, I have done the exercise and watched my meal size, but the weight loss is slow going- so be it, I feel better and I know I am stronger; all in all I am pretty well on track.

My school year resolution is to be patient and trust while I: grow my hair out- that will take eight months at least; lose 10 lb.- just keep on doing what I am already doing, exercising and eating less; and become a more effective teacher, growing kids into passionate readers and capable writers, by getting them reading and writing early, often, and with a whole lot of encouragement, praise, and a few pointers. I am excited to test my resolve to keep mini lessons short and have both Reading and Writing Workshops four days a week, without letting scheduling, testing, or even field trips get in our way. I hope I am can be as successful with my school year resolution as I have with my summer.

But now, I can feel the pace changing; I can feel the vacuum of "the school year" pulling at me. I think my success this summer lies in the "keep it simple" mentality and the Nike mantra of "Just Do It"; my 2014-2015 goal depends on maintaining that consciousness and pace for 180 days, one day at a time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading like a Writer

The first week in New York was the Writing Workshop intensive and the second week was the Reading. I have become very aware of my own "bad" habits surrounding both. One of my most profound take aways from the Writing Workshop was the need to stay in your own skin when you are writing as narrator. The example that Lucy used was when she was washing the dishes at the sink, with her hands deep in the sudsy water,  and the phone rang and her sister answered. When she first wrote about this experience she said, "It was my mom on the phone and she had been to the doctor."
If her hands were in the sink, how did she know that? When she stayed in character all she could see and hear were her sister picking up the phone and half of the conversation- "hi, mom. What? What did he say?"
By staying in character the story is real. You are storytelling not summarizing. Such a powerful lesson and it has made my revision process much more meaningful and productive.

Reading though has been REALLY eye opening. I have always been an avid reader. I love language and appreciate great imagery. I came back from the Intensive with plans to start a book blog for my classroom. What I am finding is ,I tend to race through books wanting to know what is going to happen, rather than lingering and appreciating the language. I think that is fine, but it makes me aware that a number of books warrant a reread. I notice and appreciate craft as I am reading, but I am a plot junkie first and foremost.

Friday, July 11, 2014

We are not the enemy

I happened to go to Office Depot today to recycle some ink cartridges and pick up some labels for leveling my library. When I got towards the back I saw that they had Composition Notebooks on sale for $1- college ruled!- but there were no more on the shelf. When I asked the sales person if there were any in back, she went to check and brought out a "case" of 12 notebooks.  When I told her that I was looking for 64, she told me there was a limit; teachers could not buy more than a certain amount. I told her I hadn't seen any limit on the sale sign, so we went back together to check it out. No Limit. So she went into the back and got me what she said was her last case; bringing me up to a grand total of 24, hardly enough for my 2 classes of 32 students. I bought them anyway. As she assured me that I could check back later, that they would have more at that price, I wondered why there would ever be a limit set on teachers. A sale is a sale; isn't it? Do they think that teachers are trying to take advantage of the price point or something? Why should it be cheaper for my student to buy a notebook than for me to buy one for all my students?

What does our city/state/country have against teachers?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Summer Intensives Coming To An End

Every night I have the best of intentions of recapping all that I learned and posting here for others to read, but after dinner and homework, I brush my teeth and fall fast asleep. This morning I swore I would make up for crawling into bed early with my current read, Mark of the Dragonfly, but here I am after breakfast with only a few minutes until the muggy trek to TC>

The truth is, I am so incredibly grateful that I got into the TCRWP summer intensive, and on top of that to have been able to attend the conference in June/July, so that I have the rest of the summer to digest what I have learned, finish reading all the materials, and make plans for what and how I will incorporate more of the workshop best practices into my classroom.

for anyone who wants to make heads or tails of my notes, here is a link to my evernote in class notes

I have a lot of photos of charts and links to videos, but that will have to wait. I have left myself two days to be in New York after the Workshop ends. I had originally planned to do some sightseeing, but I think a walk to Strawberry Fields, to "Imagine" my classroom next year is all I really care about doing. I will just have to come back another time for the tourist trip.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wow it is already Day 4!

I had to wake up especially early this morning in order to make my blog entry. After the full day session, rereading notes, and doing homework, I have no more strength to comb through the entirety of what I learned and identify the most important or significant gem; there are so many. So this morning with my STRONG cup of coffee I can say that understand so much better what I have been doing well, or at least been on the right track with, in my teaching and where I need to be more intentional, but mostly, where I need to pick up the pace.

Lucy tells many stories of what it was like growing up with eight brothers and sisters and how there was no dilly-dallying in that house. If her mom wanted to get everybody to church on time, she had to set the pace. In my classroom I have 33 children at any given time, and I have got to set a much tighter pace if we are ever gonna "get to the church on time".

IN our whole group session yesterday we moved into essay boot-camp; jump starting with opinion, transitioning into persuasive, and diving right into literary essay. Unbelievable. Lucy emphasized a certain structure in essay for fifth graders, acknowledging that some very smart people who she highly respected didn't agree with her. She explained that her experience as a parent of children who went through middle school, high school, and beyond affects her decision; she knows the kind of writing that students will be asked to do in the upper grades and feels it is important to prepare them. As a parent of three boys, two in college and one in high school, I agree and know that is why I have done the same in my classroom since I became a classroom teacher three years ago. Lucy is confident that it is this emphasis on structure which has allowed the NY School District to embrace so much about Writers Workshop in that supports students success on high stakes testing.

Our home work for my small group session with other fifth grade teachers, led by Garrit, had required that I prepare a mini lesson on one aspect of writing narrative and be ready to pair up with a classmate to teach it. I found that creating stories to model the strategy was the most challenging part of planning the lesson. Lucy and Garrit had both made it clear that it was FINE to use the stories in the Units of Study to start with, but it is hard to tell someone else's story as my own, so I knew my lesson would feel better if I thought of a personal example. I am glad I did. I felt good about the way the lesson went; I known there will be times when I will need to rely on the script to improvise from, but I also know that over the years I will be developing my own stories.

I had my second workshop with Meghan Hargrave yesterday and was once again impressed by her style. I can only imagine how much her fourth grade students must idolize her. The previous day's workshop focused on Materials, Routines and Accountability. Meghan is incredibly organized and high energy, reminding me once again of the need to run a VERY tight ship with the kids. She shared her Powerpoint, but so far the file has been too big for me to upload- I will continue to try and incorporate a link here. Yesterday's session was instruction on how to run strategy based small groups. I volunteered to be one of her guinea students for demonstration and I am so glad I did; I had a real sense once again of the need to assess what the kids need, get them writing, and sending them back out to do their independent work.

Off I go to Day 4. I remember at the end of Day 1 being afraid that I would be so overwhelmed with information by Day 3 that I wouldn't be able to take anymore, but this moring I find myself afraid for how fast the Workshop has moved and want more, More, MORE. I am SO glad and grateful that I am able to stay for next week's Reading Workshop Training. The two are stronger together- the sum being an exponent of the parts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Day One and we are off!


Seeing Lucy Calkins for the first time in the doorway was definitely a "Rock Star" moment. Being jet-lagged and overwhelmed by the number of teachers who already had their canvas bags in hand did not take away from the moment. After wending my way to the beautiful Riverside Church, sitting in pews that have witnessed many historic events, listening to her keynote speech I was even more impressed by the depth of this woman's knowledge and the generosity with which she shares it. 

My first session was Whole Group 3-5 and also led by Lucy- YAHOO- how did I get so lucky? We wrote, learned and laughed for nearly two hours. I won't try to summarize all that I heard and learned here, but I will link my notes after I have transcribed them. One image that stands out was her description of something that Katherine Patterson refers to as "pearling"> "cupping your hands around a moment and building a story around it" or "growing meaning around the grit", that it is this building significance from moments, lives, and texts that makes a writer. Lucy impressed upon us the importance of getting kids to write a volume of work, to have them writing fast and furious in order to for them to learn how to write with fluency, to write with an oral quality. Not only do I feel confident that I will leave this week a better teacher, I am sure of becoming a better writer. 

One key take-away for me yesterday was the importance of "staying inside a point of view" when writing narrative. Lucy told two versions of the same story of a young boy riding his bike down a huge hill, hitting a gravel patch and crashing: in the first telling the writer stayed inside the point of view and the other, after crashing the writer describes what other people, not the injured boy, are seeing. It was the first time I had so clearly understood why some student's story felt like they went off the road. As I continued to write for "homework", I was very conscious of each time I slipped out of my own point of view, and as a result the piece is more powerful and more personal. Thank you Lucy!

SO much more to share about the day- the small group session with Gerrit Jones-Rooy and the closing workshop, "Eight Books that can become CO-Teachers..." with Grace Chough, but it is Day Two and there is more to come.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

TCRWP Summer Intensive Here I Come.

I leave for New York tomorrow. I have been excited for months, looking forward to the learning and the change of scene. Now I am nervous. I don't know why. I am not afraid to fly, I love being in school, and I love New York. Whatever is causing this feeling of anxiety in my chest and stomach has to do with my expectations of myself in a learning environment; I hate being the least informed and I dread being a know it all. Somehow these are the only two ways I see myself.

In writing the proposal for the Fund For Teachers grant through the SF Ed Fund that would allow us this two week summer intensive at the Teacher's College Reading and Writing Program,
we were asked to explain why we wanted to go, why we were good candidates, and what we would bring back to our classrooms and school site. I both love and hate the exercise of articulating my thoughts and hopes about myself as a teacher and the importance of reading and writing well. I reread my reflections and thought they sounded trite and too universal. But I was sincere and earnest in trying to put into words what I hope to bring to the students I have the opportunity to teach.

SO, enough of the angst. We got the grant and tomorrow I leave for a two week adventure of learning at the source of much of what I have been reading and trying to absorb for the last three years. Wow!

Once we began the application process it became clear that if we were awarded the grant, we had better secure some affordable accommodations before everything was booked. Since the grant would only allow each of us $3300.00 for tuition, room, board and our flight, and I wanted to use SOME of that money for books while I was there, I knew we had to find VERY inexpensive housing. Fortunately, the New York Hostel, which is a one mile walk down Amsterdam Ave. from Columbia Teacher College, still had rooms for the full two weeks, and at $60 a night I wasn't going to find a cheaper bed at a place where I wanted to sleep. So I secured my lodging, taking my chances on losing a $50 deposit if worse came to worse. I was not as willing to book airfare in advance with tickets being non-refundable and non-transferable, so I waited to hear and watched airfares skyrocket as summer approached.

The day I got the good news about the grant, I booked my flight. Nonstop would have been wonderful, but the flights left too early in the morning or flew through the night, neither of which appealed to me for the higher cost. Virgin had the best fares, and the times weren't horrible even with a brief layover in LA; so I will get in late (10 pm), but I will have a few more dollars in my book allowance. According to the hostel's website there is an on demand shuttle with an 800 number that I call, and it will pick me up at JFK and take me to the door of the hostel. I will write in a couple of days to report how that goes.

TCRWP has been communicative, sending us emails about what to expect and what to bring. Now, if I can just wake up in time with the time difference, but that is another angst and I don't want to feed it.