Crossing over

The first week back to school after winter break is usually a tough one. Take for instance, my homeroom. One would have thought they had walked into a busy 20-something bar (minus the alcohol), with all the varying conversations, yelling over each other, and water bottles flipping so hard that they resembled hard-core bass being spun by a stocking-hat wearing D.J.

I was never a fan clubs in my 20s. In my mid-thirties, I have less patience for noise, especially at 7:55 a.m. on a Tuesday. But, I get it. Students needed to hug their friends, gossip about all that had happened in the 10 days since they last saw each other, and generally, be a kid. So, for 25 minutes, Club322 was open for business, that is until breakfast was over and we reverted back to Room 322, Literacy Class.

Engaging students after a break can, flip or flop (HGTV fans, get it?!). My goal – flip students from their vacation brains back to their engaged, critical-thinking school brains. Easy, right?!

Of course, nothing is easy when it comes to middle school students! I knew I had to “hook” them and I had just the tool – Kwame Alexander‘s fantastic novel, The Crossover. Seriously, if you have not read this one, I encourage beg you to do so.

Reasons why I love The Crossover (and why your students will too!)

  • It’s written in poems. Most students (and some teachers, including myself) struggle with writing poetry. Thus, teaching it usually makes me utter things like, “Ughhhhhhhh” – let me just say, the struggle has always been real. Until now.  The Crossover allows students the opportunity to read various types of poems, which obviously lends itself to teaching poetry – it’s a win-win for teachers! My students are so engaged in this book and I’m even learning that my spoken word is pretty on point (a student told me this, so it’s clearly true). I mean, just look at this poem and tell me you’re not dying to read more…img_6593
  • Sports. If you’re a middle schooler, chances are, you’re hype about some kind of sport. If you’re a middle school boy, that sport is probably basketball. The Crossover is about basketball, which will already appeal to many students. But of course, there are those who sit at their desks and glare at me, thinking, I hate sports, therefore I will hate this book. This is where I say, “Not so fast, because aside from basketball, this book also has…”
  • Drama!!!! Lots of drama. Back-stabbing friend/family drama. Girl/boy drama. Sports drama. Rivalry. Okay, now most (if not all) of my students are engaged.
  • Creative opportunities. I assigned a Poetry Book as an ongoing assignment while we read the novel. Alexander does a great job incorporating a variety of poems in this book, so why not use it as a teaching tool?! img_6592
  • Annotating text. My students have annotated and close read text this year, so poetry is a great way for them to practice utilizing those skills. I’m sure they’ll come in handy on some state-wide assessment later this spring, so this is my way of “teaching to the test” without “teaching to the test.”img_6594

I’m using Socratic Seminars with this novel – more about that in another blog post. So far, I’m pleased with how engaged my students are and I’m even more excited that my school got me a class set of Alexander’s novel, Booked! Some of my students spied this in the back of my room and can’t wait to get their hands on it. Now that’s what I call motivation!

How do you engage students after a long break?

 

 

 

Reflecting

Perhaps the most important aspect of teaching is reflecting. There is no “perfect” teacher, which is probably why I spend most of my sleepless nights thinking of ways to improve my craft. It’s not surprising that I am unable to catch a few zzz’s because my brain is forever on teacher mode. Thankfully, I’ve discovered melatonin works wonders when I actually do want to get some sleep!

Even though I’ve been teaching middle school for over a decade, I still lament on what I can change to make the educational experience my students receive the best one I can give them. I knew this school year would be special, in that my sixth graders will be the first ones to graduate eighth grade from my school. Also, I could potentially be their teacher for three years. Looping with students is a great way for teachers to see just how much impact they have made with individuals and while I’m excited to see my students grow, I’m also proud of the growing have done as an educator.

Some things that worked in 2016:

  • Classroom Library Fixer-Upper: As a literacy teacher, a library is perhaps the most important space in the classroom. However, for years, my library lacked books, character, seating and was what the kids would call a “Hot Mess.” So, I began the task of sprucing up and organizing my library and I hoped it would cultivate a classroom full of readers. And…it worked! I even made it look appealing, which makes all the difference to a classroom of pre-teens. My students are book-crazy, which makes me enjoy purchasing books for them. Over the break, I bought all the Twilight books because many of them read the Twilight graphic novel I bought and requested the print books 🙂
  • Tracking Reading Progress: I began using this reading log as a way for students to track their progress with books. Not only were students excited about creating (and achieving) their reading goals, they were reflecting on their reading. With a hearty curriculum that doesn’t always lend itself to specific writing instruction, the reading logs ensure that my students are writing every day.
  • Assigning Homework: I used to assign homework every night. Then, I would spend my entire planning period the next day checking homework and writing homework notices for students who did not do the homework. I would then spend a good portion of class reviewing the homework. Sound exhausting? It was. So I stopped. I now only assign homework a few nights a week. I’m still trying to step away from worksheet-type homework and only use it when it reinforces a skill from class. My goal for 2017 is to have students write more for homework and do so on Google classroom, where it’s easy for me to give the instant feedback they crave.

2017

Some things I’m excited to try in 2017:

  • Mentor Sentences: I read this blog post and realized that mentor sentences could definitely fit into my practice, especially since my students do not have a designated writing class or grammar curriculum. I have always struggled with teaching grammar because grammar is rarely in anyone’s curriculum anymore. Some teachers graze over it, some teach it in-depth, and some avoid it. Thus, by the time students get to me in middle school, their grammar knowledge is all over the place.
  • Reading Workshop: I have typically taught whole-class books (although every section does not necessarily read the same book). However, while whole-class novels can be a great way to engage readers at the beginning of the year, the whole-class novels are difficult to sustain. I always have students who finish the book early, those who never finish it and those who actually follow the assigned reading. With reading workshop, I could do more literature circle activities with small groups of students and still do a whole-class read-aloud. While I have implemented literature circles in the past, reading workshop also allows space for guided reading groups. This semester, I will have a student teacher, a special education support teacher (and her student teacher) and possibly a reading specialist. With all of these adults in the room, I’m more confident that reading workshop will be a success!

Overall, the longer I teach, the more I learn that it’s okay not to be perfect. I’ve learned to slow down and not rush through materials just because the state or school says I have to. I take time to reflect and I give that same consideration and time to my students. Because in the end, I learn just as much from them as they do from me. Here’s to 2017 and all of the learning and reflecting that will come along the way!

 

What my students are reading

One thing I’m super proud about this year is my classroom library and the fact that I allow students to read whatever they want from my library. Student choice is super important, especially for pre-teens.

I recently ordered some more books for my library and during book talks one day, I mentioned this to my students. They immediately began calling “dibs” on specific books. Each morning, they came in asking if the books had arrived. When the books finally did arrive one day after school, I walked into a colleague’s classroom (which is also used to house homework detention), Amazon box in hand. “Are those the books?!” a student shouted excitedly. I opened the box more quickly than a kid unwrapping Christmas presents. My students looked on with suspense and amazement and launched themselves at the box’s contents. Usually, I do not allow books to leave my classroom. However, I made an exception for these few detention-goers who wanted to read during detention. I didn’t think the detention monitor would mind (and I was over-the-moon thinking to myself, This is the reading culture I have created!)

So what are my students so excited about reading these days?

1.) The Baby-Sitters Club Graphics I recently bought numbers 3&4 to complete my Baby-Sitters Club graphic collection (they only make 1-4 in graphics). My students are now begging me to get the “original” books because after reading the graphic novels, they want to know what happens next! While many teachers have qualms about graphic novels, I see them as a gateway to more difficult texts.

babysitters

2.) Dork Diaries I only have books 1-3 (just ordered 4), and my students (especially girls) LOVE these books. I think the content really speaks students about life as a pre-teen.

3.) Mike Lupica My boys especially enjoy Lupica’s books, which have themes centered around sports, friendships and difficult decisions teens face.

Recently, I made a “Book Wish List” on my whiteboard. Students add books they want me to get for the classroom. Aside from the ones listed above, a student wrote “More LGBT books.” At the beginning of the school year, many students did not know what LGBT was. Now, they want to read more stories with protagonists who are LGBT.

This year, my students are curious and excited about reading. No matter what state test data says, this is a win in my book.

 

Spruce up your classroom library

Last year, my classroom library was anything but a library. It consisted of one bookshelf and lots of leveled book bins. The bookshelf was always in disarray and the leveled book bins were never accurate. Students did not respect the books because, why would anyone respect a trashy space?!

As I’ve stated in a previous post, this year, I sought out to make my library an inviting place for students. A place they would never dream tossing books onto shelves hap-hazardly. Just the other day, a student noticed dust on top of my bookshelves and asked if she could clean it. I thought to myself, students are taking pride in books!

This year, my library is an organized, cozy haven for tweens. Each day, I allow three students to sit on fancy chairs during silent reading. I rotate through every student before starting over. All students should have a chance to read comfortably, so I do not use the flexible seating as a reward or incentive. Keeping track of who goes on what day has been difficult for me, so in the future, I intend to put that in the hands of students (who always remind me whose turn it is anyway!)

Book bins by genre
Book bins by genre
Cozy seating
Cozy seating

What does your classroom library look like?

 

 

 

Reading Logs

I’ve used a myriad of reading logs throughout my years of teaching, most of which went by the wayside and were eventually “deep-sixed” into the recycling bin.

In order to cultivate a classroom of readers, I knew that this year had to be different. I wanted to allow students to reflect on their reading and to hear what their peers were reading. I also wanted the reading log to be purposeful and not seem like “busy-work” to students.

reading-logs

The reading log I use (adapted from this reading log) asks students to create a reading goal for when they want to finish the book. I tell my students that if they do not reach their goal, it’s okay; however, I also want them to experience how amazing it feels to reach your goal. Already, many students have finished their book before their intended goal and they are super excited, proclaiming “I’m finished!!!” Having only been in school three weeks, seeing students finish one or two books so early in the school year makes me smile 🙂

I modeled how to fill out the reading log on the first day I showed it to students. The log requires students to add up the total number of pages they read each day. This was confusing for some of my lower-level learners, so extra modeling may be needed. After about 15 minutes of reading, I give students about four minutes to circle a sentence starter and write their reactions. They circle a different sentence starter for each day.

Afterwards, I allow two students to share what they wrote. This serves as a mini book-talk and I walk around the room Vanna White style showcasing their book. At the end of the week, students fill out the goal reflection portion on the back of the log. They add up the total number of pages read that week, which usually results in some students shocking themselves by how much they’ve read!

There is also a space for their grade (each day is worth 5 points) and teacher feedback. I tell my students the reading log should be an easy 100% as long as they follow directions, as I grade based upon thoughtfulness and completeness.

As the year progresses, I will likely change the sentence starters and make them more advanced. I may also increase the response length from 3-5 sentences to 5-7 sentences.

Keeping routines consistent is key for middle school students and the reading log is a fantastic way to hold students accountable for their learning!

Do you use reading logs? What do you find useful and effective with your students?

Library Battles

I’m two weeks into the school year and so far, it’s pretty great. For the first time ever, it feels as if I have my sh*t together. This is likely because I began planning and working on my classroom in late July. People who think teachers spend their summers relaxing should know that a teacher’s idea of “relaxing” is organizing his/her library for the upcoming school year. And laminating. Definitely laminating.

One of my goals this year was to have a library that looked and felt inviting. To accomplish this, I did a few things:

1.) Labeled my books by genre/theme. Looking for books has never been easier when I have theme-coded bins. All of my Goosebumps books are in one place and if students want to read books about Middle School, there’s a bin for that. I recently added a LGBT book bin and plan to add a Scary Stories/Halloween in the coming week.

2.) Comfy Chairs. I acquired a gently used rug, a few bean-bags, a moon chair and a funky, multi-colored lamp. I have a rotation of students who read in the library daily so everyone gets a turn. Students are not only excited about the books they are reading, but they learn that reading is a pleasurable act.

While my Type-A library organizing has completely changed the vibe of silent reading time in my classes, I also attribute that to allowing students to read books regardless of book levels. In the past, my students were so focused on their book level and would be scared to stray from it. This meant they were possibly not reading the books they wanted to read, all because the book was not exactly a DRA 40, for instance.

When I told my students they could read books based on their interest, some of them actually cheered. I explained that sometimes they may be interested in a book that, once they begin reading, they find is too difficult. At that point, they can make a mature decision to choose another book. I highlighted the fact that I sometimes have to change my book after reading the first few chapters because it doesn’t hold my interest or it’s too difficult. Some real-life advice and the power of choice with middle schoolers is key.

Of course, I also step-in if I see a student who needs some guidance in this area, but for the most part, my students are really enjoying reading silently. In fact, many of them will ask me to get their books so they can read during times that are not SR times. If you’re a teacher, you know how HUGE this is (and when they ask, I of course, say “Yes,” while beaming a smile ear-to-ear!)

Speaking of books of interest, as stated above, I recently created a LGBT book bin. I read along with my students and was reading George. I gave a quick book talk about it (we also do this every day – more to come in a later post) and students were immediately calling “dibs” on the book when I finished. So I went home that night and ordered a good amount of LGBT books from Amazon. When they arrived a few days later, students were literally running to the LGBT book bin and proclaiming the book they wanted to read when they finished their current book. One student spied a book in the bin she desperately wanted to read, so she told me that she made a goal to finish her current book by Friday. Friday afternoon, she bounced up to me and proclaimed, “I’m finished!” Can I get a new book?”

So what are these books my students are fighting over? Here’s a list of few:

1.) George by: Alex Gino

A book about a fifth grade boy, George, who identifies as a girl.

george-book

2.) Being Jazz by: Jazz Jennings

My students saw this book and immediately knew who Jazz was. Little did I know, she has a television show! This is a great high-interest non-fiction read.

being-jazz-my-life-as-a-transgender-teen-hardcover-book_1000

 

3.) Totally Joe by: James Howe

Joe comes to grips with his sexuality and questions gender roles in this middle grades book about being gay.

 

joe

What books have your students fighting battles in the library? Share in the comments!

*Many of my library’s books and furniture were generously donated through DonorsChoose projects.

Up next on the blog: Pictures of my library and how I’m using bookmarks to help students track their reading.

  • Book talks and reading logs

 

 

Teaching the class novel

As a teacher of literacy, I have always enjoyed teaching whole-class novels. With novels, one can teach skills, vocabulary, writing, history – the list goes on and on! When the school year begins and students see the class novels lined up on my bookshelves, they ask me daily, “When are we going to get our books?” For me (and I would like to presume, many of my students) having a physical book to call their own is something magical; a feeling of ownership; a relationship with text.

However, choosing to teach the class novel brings up a myriad of questions for me:

  • Is “teaching” even the correct word to use when using a whole-class text? Shouldn’t students read it organically and have rich discussions about the book’s themes, characters, etc.?
  • How do I select books that everyone in the class will enjoy?
  • When do I use novels as anchor texts or for close reading
  • In a perfect world, each novel would correlate with a larger, interdisciplinary unit, but when will I have time to plan with my colleagues?

female-_reader

Thankfully, I am currently in a situation where I am able to create my own curriculum. I consider myself extremely lucky, especially because in the past, I have not had as much autonomy with what I teach.

Designing my own curriculum is fun – don’t get me wrong. I honestly enjoy it, especially since I can tweak it from year to year and class to class. However, I’m a perfectionist, so I’m constantly wondering how I can make things better.

One year, I used curriculum on Engage New York. Everything is laid out in modules and all of the resources are done for you. Day-by-day lessons are organized so all you have to do is review and print! The convenience of Engage NY is great, especially for new teachers. However, I often found that I was modifying the lessons extensively to meet the needs of my students. I also found that not all of the units were appealing to me or my students (The Lightning Thief is one of the novels used and this is quite a difficult text for nearly all of my sixth grade students).

There were pros and cons to Engage NY and I like that I can pull resources from there to supplement my teacher-created curriculum. (My students loved reading Steve Job’s commencement speech, which is a great resource for teaching students how to provide evidence to support claims.)

So will I teach novels this year? Definitely. However, the way in which I do so changes with every text and every class. I’ve had to scrap some of the novels I taught last year due to lack of student interest or reading levels.

Here’s a look at novels I used last year:

Here’s a list of novels I am contemplating for this year:

Some of the books listed will be in literature circles, so students will have a choice as to what they prefer to read. I enjoy starting off the year with Freak the Mighty because it’s high interest (and there’s a movie!) This year, I want to offer more of a variety in the types of stories my students are reading. The Red Pencil, a story about a young Sudanese girl, Amira, who struggles with her village being attacked and the journey to a refugee camp, will hopefully lead to rich discussions about worldly events.

While I’m still in the planning stages of the upcoming school year, I like to think that each year is better and that through novels, my students not only learn skills (theme, character development, etc.), but I also hope that they come to appreciate the stories that are being told. And maybe, learn something about the world or themselves along the way.

What are your favorite novels to teach? Tell me in the comments!