Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Not So Ordinary Mentor Text

Summer always seems to get away from me.  I have been doing so much reading and planning to prepare for my new role as a Literacy/Instructional Coach that I let my blogging slip a little. (Insert the sound of me slapping my own hand here.)  It wasn't until I saw Kelly Gallagher again last week in Madison that I was reminded of this incomplete entry. What I am about to propose is a great way to start students off writing small pieces right from the beginning of the school year. Not to mention, an excellent opportunity to get to know your students and have them get to know you!

Every time I get the opportunity to listen to Kelly Gallagher, I come home with a whole new batch of ideas.  [Two things I love most in life--Kelly Gallagher (one of my many professional crushes) and a "whole new batch of ideas."] When I had the chance to hear him at WSRA last February, he had recommended some great titles to use as mentor texts to model writing with students.  One of the books, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal was particularly intriguing. It is a pseudo-memoir of her life--organized alphabetically by topic.  She also places some of her life tid-bits into charts, graphs, and even bubbles of random memories.  For the low, low, price of $.01, I was able to order a used copy from $3.99 for shipping and handling. Using sections of her book to model, I quickly learned that the results were anything but ordinary. However, I recommend reviewing the book and pulling out parts to use in advance as there are some that may be considered inappropriate for middle school students. Overall, though, the concept is a good one and can be used in both middle and high school.

After spending time with Mr. Gallagher, one begins to find she starts to read everything a little bit differently.  The fact that I am constantly finding sections of text that I want to use to emulate with my students can be quite distracting.  I just never read anything the same anymore.  I subscribe to People magazine and noticed a fun column usually found in the last pages of every issue.  It is entitled "One Last Thing" in which they ask a celebrity to answer the "last thing" about 5 topics. (The last thing I texted...The last time meal I cooked...etc.) I started collecting this page from every issue I receive.  We used the copies I had provided in class to compile a list together of topics as well as add some of our own! It became another model that I emulated and incorporated with the activities I used from the Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. My students then used this to practice writing about themselves in small anecdotes that qualify as narrative writing. 

I have included a Flickr slide show of some of the texts I used to model from, some of my own examples--which I completed right in front of my classes--and, of course, some student examples.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Classroom Libraries Create Readers

There is plenty of research available about the correlation between creating a classroom library and student reading improvement. (Be careful though, there is an art to creating an attractive and functional classroom library.)  My own "research" has also proven this to be true as I developed a classroom library of a little over 800 books and I was still in the process of adding to it before I took a new position.  Usually I don't limit how much I spend on books, (shhh....don't tell my husband) but recently I was forced to be a bit more frugal and play around with my Scholastic points and use those more sparingly. But let me tell you, a visit to Barnes in Noble always resorts in me having to hide what I spent in the checkbook. (I easily justify it by saying "Honey, it's for the kids!")

For those of you who are wondering, I arranged my classroom library by genre as the students usually flock to a particular bin to see what is new or what they hadn't read from my library yet.  I encouraged my kids to read as much as they could recreationally, yet still tried to guide them to other genres as well. I shared my struggles with trying to read historical fiction as well as my new found excitement for sports fiction and fantasy with the students. (At one point, I refused to read anything from those genres-bad Mrs. R!)  My passion for YA literature has seriously evolved over the years and I keep track of what I read with a Goodreads account.  There I can mark the books I want to read, what I am currently reading, write reviews, get recommendations and share this information with others. (I can easily make updates with an app I've installed both on my phone and on my Kindle.) It is important to surround students with books and I often rotated books on my front display.  Students would easily notice the books I placed there.  I even took the time to rotate books from my bins to the front that were popular or recommended by past students. This is picture from the front of my former classroom.

It becomes an interesting phenomenon as students begin to talk about the books they are reading.  When I encouraged one of my female reluctant readers to read the Hush, Hush series by Becca Fitzpatrick, her friends began fighting to read it as well.  Not only were they reading, but they began having discussions about the characters, what they liked and didn't like about the plot, and even about the writing itself.  I overheard a deep seventh grade conversation about the writing of Becca Ftizpatrick versus the writing of Stephenie Meyer--and I didn't have anything to do with starting it.  (Except for providing the books!)

Do I have a check out system? Yes. I use the old "card in the pocket" because that works for me.  Each book has an index card and I take the time on the first day of school to train the students in the process and we practice it together. I require them to write their name and the date on the card and place it in a card box on my front table. Books are also returned in a basket on that same table and not by the classroom library.  It helps me take notice of what they are reading.  (Keep in mind that students are often willing to help with the "check in/check out" system.)

The fact of the matter is, if you, as a teacher, begin reading young adult literature, take the time to get to know what your students like, and then put the two together, it creates a simple equation that equals students who will read. I've always said, the only time it should be completely silent in my classroom is during Drop Everything And Read aka DEAR time. It was almost always silent.  Don't believe me? Watch this video of my students reading in my classroom! I just quietly pulled out my phone and started taking video of them one day.

And check out the same class on another day!

Yes, this can happen in your classroom too! :)

Here are a few helpful tips to get students reading at any age:

1. Purchase or find the money to purchase a variety of books from different genres including non-fiction topics written at a variety of levels to house in your classroom. Yes, one could argue that there already is a school library, but it kind of goes along with the theory of "If you build it, he will come."  If you have the books right in front of them, they will read! (Also, in a sad era in which Library Media Specialists are being cut or eliminated, teachers must take charge and add yet another thing to their already overflowing plates.) I mentioned the Scholastic book order points.  I would also often purchase from Goodwill or Savers (when it was still here).  Believe it or not students were also willing to donate their books to my library when they were finished reading books they purchased on their own.

2. Model yourself as a reader.  You need to read and share your excitement and struggles with reading.  It doesn't matter what it is. The students will notice and ask you about it.

3. Do Book Talks! Lots of them! Also, let them know when you have added new books to your collection.  Even if you haven't read them yet.  Share the title, the author, read the back and offer the chance to preview. (Steven Layne shares his process for teaching students how to preview books in Igniting a Passion for Reading.)

4. Allow CHOICE. Let the students pick what they want to read. Do not limit them to lexile range or to how many "points" it is.  (This is the quickest way to turn student off to reading.) At times, students will need a little guidance or a nudge.  Some like fiction, some like non-fiction.  It doesn't matter.  Just let them read what they want to read and always allow the option to abandon a book. I certainly don't force myself to continue to read a book I am not enjoying. Do you?

5. Provide the time for the students to read.  If you do it at school, they will (sometimes--fingers crossed) do it at home. (And they will if they are deeply into a particular book.) My argument was I can only control what happens in my classroom.  If I can provide 10- 15 minutes of uninterrupted reading time, I am guaranteeing that kids are reading.  The only way to become a better reader is to READ! (I also reminded them of this repeatedly!)

Furthermore, be realistic. Expect and accept that some books from your classroom library will get lost or stolen.  It happens.  I really emphasize the importance of sharing. They are for ALL OF US!  I purchased them myself and they are not the school's books.  Sometimes students need a little re-training and a few reminders on how to treat the classroom library.  They also knew that if they treated it well, I continued to add to it!

Friday, June 29, 2012


I know it has been awhile, but I've been busy. In between several meetings and a week long conference, I had to pack up 13 years worth of teaching materials---including a huge classroom library. It is so weird to even type these words, but I am leaving Maplewood Middle School. I took a position as the Menasha High School Literacy Coach. Same district: new office, new principal, new staff. However, I won't be leaving Maplewood completely as part of my job is to help bridge the two schools. The best part is I still get to work with Barb Novak, the current Literacy Coach at Maplewood! Love her!

Now that I have had to condense a classroom and decide what to bring to my new 8 ft by 12 ft office, my home office is overflowing with young adult literature. I left some books behind for my former colleagues but I have a plethora of great books that could be used at the high school and am donating most of them to English teachers who expressed interest. I would rather my former students have the opportunity to read them than sell them at a garage sale or even to Half-Price Books.

So now that my belongings are moved from one school to the other, the new furniture has been chosen and picked up by our wonderful district maintenance staff and is resting peacefully outside of my new office--which is waiting to be painted and re-carpeted., I have another list to tackle. My summer reading list. It has taken a different spin.

My summer reading list:

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck (Just finished!)

Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction by Jim Knight

Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach for Dramatically Improving Instruction by Jim Knight (Amazon says it is arriving today. Note that this title says "Dramatically Improving Instruction" and the first one by Knight just says "Improving Instruction.")

Coaching Conversations: Transforming Your School One Conversation at a Time by  Linda Cheliotes and Marcela Reilly.

Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines by Doug Buehl (I started this one back in March or April and the book binding fell apart, IRA sent me a new copy and I just haven't gotten back into it yet.)

Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading By Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp (I also started this one but haven't been focused enough to finish it.)

I am both overwhelmed and excited--and not just because of my reading list!  This blog may end up taking a tiny spin in a different direction, but I do have several blog posts that I had been working on with activities and ideas that I planned to develop and will still share.  Rest assured that through this blog I will continue to share the lessons, the struggles, and the learning that develops from this new endeavor!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Share This! Connections, Myths, and Other Randomness from my Basement.

Sometimes I am not very quick when it comes to making connections.  When I began my obsession with Twitter a few months ago, I started following @ProfessorNana also known as the "YA Goddess."  Not long after, my school Literacy Coach told me I should check out a "really great blog" full of book reviews and recommendations by a woman named Teri S. Lesesne.  Imagine my surprise when I put two and two together and realized I was already following her and reading her blog. Teri S. Lesesne IS @ProfessorNana.

Anyway, a few years ago, I borrowed a really good book from a former colleague entitled Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers (Stenhouse Publishers, 2006).  The reason I bring this up is because I was cleaning my basement. (I have since halted that task so I could distract myself with THIS one.) Due to my phenomenal organizational skills, the book had somehow fallen into a random bin--and I swore I had returned this book to that former colleague. (Sorry, Heather.)  Guess who the author is? Teri S. Lesesne.

Flipping through the book, I noticed I had a few pages tabbed.  (It's what I do.) On one tab I had written "Share This!" Unfortunately, I didn't note who to share it with and since I certainly like to encourage myself to follow my own directions--I figured it was imperative that I take the time out from cleaning the basement and share it with YOU.

Exploding Some Myths About Reading 

Myth #1 Kids must read only "good" books and not be allowed to wallow in popular fiction. She adds that another myth often follows this one and that is: "It is not quantity but quality that matters in reading.  How much we read does matter."

Myth #2 Readers are easy to spot; they always have their noses in books.

Myth #3 Readability (reading levels, lexiles, etc.) is a good way to match books to kids.

Myth #4 Canned reading programs can create readers.

Myth #5 Once kids are independent readers, reading aloud and shared and paired reading should become activities and strategies of the past.

Myth #6 Kids can automatically distinguish between good and bad literature.

Myth #7 Reading is a science that can be broken down into component parts easily for quick consumption.  (Blogger's Note:  Once upon a time we actually tried to do this as an English department.  I am so ashamed, but in our defense we didn't know any better at the time.)

Myth #8 Reading is the same no matter what we are reading or why. So wrong it it almost laughable.

Myth #9 Having grade level lists is a good idea.

Myth #10 One size fits all, and the corollary: one book is good for all kids.(p. 3-5)

She adds the word "WRONG!" behind each of these myths and explains why they are indeed so.  It's worth the read and I say this because I have several more tabs and nuggets from the book I deemed as important.  However, I need to promptly review the tabs of my thoughts so I can return the book to its original owner.

Fact:  Sometimes cleaning your basement can lead to something completely random and cause you to make strange connections. However, it can also lead to a blog post that forces you to avoid cleaning the rest of it altogether!

By the way, you can find the link to Teri Lesesne's blog here.

Naked Reading

More information about her book can be found here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Fun

The fact that it is a Friday is usually enough to make me smile.  The weekend gives me time to decompress and re-energize myself for the learning that will take place the following week.  However, today one of my colleagues posted a video on Facebook that made me smile even wider.  It was made a few years ago but I've never seen it until now.  I LOVE IT!

I hope it makes you smile too!

It turns out that Dowell Middle School recently published a new video.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


This year our district implemented a one-to-one technology initiative with our seventh grade students.  Every seventh grader has his or her own HP net book.  Although it was quite a learning process and we continue to experience some growing pains, it has been an overall positive experience not only for the students, but also for me as an educator. I love new knowledge and learning!

When it comes to technology, I probably know more than the average person as I enjoy tinkering with tools, sites, and apps. I'd assess myself as proficient, not advanced. (But I know WAY more than my beloved husband who doesn’t understand the concept of a Google.doc and cannot even begin to appreciate my fascination and deep love for Twitter. Sorry, Honey. It's true.)  In order to become more adept, you have to be willing to take the time to play, to think and to learn.  As educators, this is what we SHOULD be modeling anyway, right? I finally was able to take the time (strongly encouraged?) to devote myself to the activities I have always wanted to pursue, but put off for one reason or another.  As a result of some uncharacteristic gumption, I now have a blog, a twitter account, and a few Wikispaces.  (Shameless plug:  Check out our school Literacy Team Wiki here but please keep in mind that it is still under construction!) I use Edmodo, Goodreads, and Evernote daily. I have even figured out how to take screenshots and post a powerpoint on my blog as well as put together video on YouTube and photos to music on Animoto, Picasa, and Flickr. (Yay Me!) As our district library media specialist stated the other morning: “We’ve created a monster.”  

Recently, I attempted to put together what some would refer to as a “digital kit.”  I used a Google Presentation to design the kit and then shared it with the students.  Think of it as a text set but without all the paper or container! (If you don’t know what a text set is... sigh...well, we will have to talk later. Or you could check out this informational handout I found on text sets.) I collected several articles, portions of texts written at different levels--which I converted to pdf files, links to websites, video clips, and photos on the topic which happens to be fast food. The students use this kit to extract information and then synthesize it for an argumentative product they are currently working on.  (In addition, I am reading portions of a book Chew on This by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson aloud to provide additional background information.) There is a lot of modeling and guidance provided by me as we all go through this process together.

A digital kit can be used in several ways and modified for different purposes.  My first attempt is a test run and I have been making modifications to it as the students and I use it.  This format can certainly be incorporated into any content area. One could also include instructional modifications to scaffold directions and prompts and to aid in processing the information. This is very helpful for those who struggle or need more guidance. 

Because this is the first time I am trying this digitally,  I chose the topic and am guiding the argument. (Normally, I would allow the students choice and plan to do so in the future.) Eventually, I would like to use this same format to allow students to put together their own digital kits and create their own compelling question or argument. (Now that I have gone through the process and have one of my own to use as a model.) I think it would be interesting to have the students add their own videos or use that as an option for a final product, but I'm still working that out in my head.  As always, it is a process and I continue to tinker, think, learn, and grow--increasing my knowledge. I embrace technology! Bring it on!

(I would share my digital kit with you, but I have to take some time to play around with and figure out which app or tool will best allow me to do so! There also may be some copyright issues. I will have to look into that. Please be patient and stay tuned.)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

RtI and the Adolescent Reader

I'd like to thank my guest blogger, Barb Novak, Literacy Coach at Maplewood Middle School, in Menasha, Wisconsin for today's blog entry. 

Anyone else have a giant stack of unread professional books? Anyone? Anyone? (Blog Owner's Note: Um, yes. Have you met me?)

I can’t possibly be the only person who buys them faster than I read them. (Blog Owner's Note: Seriously, have you met me?)

I usually pull books from the pile on an as-needed basis. I consult my favorite authors for advice about challenging situations or to push my thinking. I read a particular section because it was referenced at a conference or by a colleague. It’s not incredibly often that I carefully read something (highlighter, Post-Its, and Sharpie pen in hand) cover to cover.

William G. Brozo hooked me, though. My copy of RtI and the Adolescent Reader: Responsive Literacy Instruction in Secondary Schools (Teachers College Press & International Reading Association, 2011) has gotten plenty of love lately.

Brozo makes some important points about the implementation of Response to Intervention at the secondary level.

  1. RtI isn’t a quick fix. To be successful, RtI must be part of a “comprehensive adolescent literacy program that seek[s] to respond to each student’s literacy and learning needs with responsive instruction” (p. 55). Such a program builds on the strengths of adolescents, utilizes comprehensive literacy, provides supports in inclusive environments, values more than basic skills, and hinges upon the effectiveness of teachers.

  1. Middle and high school are unique. Research about best practices for RtI at the secondary level are limited. Brozo writes, “. . . there is little evidence that elementary-level RtI-like approaches can work in middle and high schools” (p. 62).

  1. You don’t buy RtI. RtI is not about products. The law requires universal screening, progress monitoring, and tiered interventions. Schools need to create or select products and systems that meet their needs. Available products should not dictate how RtI is implemented.

Brozo is openly skeptical about commonly used universal screeners and interventions, writing, “Wilson and READ 180 can never deliver truly responsive literacy instruction to each individual student. Only a caring and knowledgeable teacher can” (p. 115).

Doesn’t that just make you want to stand up and shout an “Amen!” or at least give a round of applause!?

4.    Do this with – not to students. The clientele at the secondary level – adolescent learners – need to be involved in the design process for any literacy program, including RtI. The design needs to mindful of adolescent identities, interests, and challenges. Feedback from students needs to be an integral part of each step in design, implementation, and continual review.
5.    RtI is part of something larger. Brozo leaves his reader with recommendations. These recommendations are not for the implementation of RtI. These are “recommendations for the literacy development of youth at the secondary level” (p. 138).

  • Don’t allow RtI to define the secondary school reading program.
  • Don’t fixate on foundational reading skills for adolescents.
  • Don’t become paralyzed by evidence-based practice if it isn’t working.
  • Honor youth literacies.
  • Channel resources into professional development for general education disciplinary teachers so that prevention gets the lion’s share of attention.

All educators need to be knowledgeable about RtI. We each need to have a voice – a loud voice – in advocating for universal instruction, intervention, and progress monitoring that meets the needs of adolescent learners. Our students cannot afford to be victims of our ignorance or disengagement, and Brozo’s RtI and the Adoelscent Reader is a great place to begin developing our understanding.

(Blog Owner's Note:  I would just like to add that Mr. Brozo had me hooked as well.  We have had A LOT of interesting conversations about this book! I highly recommend it for those who are discussing RtI at the secondary level.)

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Power of a Good Book Talk

Sometimes I assume that all teachers of English/language arts understand the power behind talking about books. The sad reality is that not all of them do.  (Well, you know what they say when you assume...) I love having conversations about books with our library media specialist, my assistant principal, my colleagues, and especially with my students.  From these conversations, I learned that one of our Spanish teachers is an avid reader, as are several of the math teachers. I used to throw historical fiction books at the social studies teacher to read because I didn't want to. He would tell me if he thought they were any good. One of our science teachers raids my bookshelves on occasion or asks me for a recommendation. Sometimes I just barge into her classroom like a mad woman shouting "YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!" and she does. So, the teachers that I mention don't just READ, they read Young Adult literature!

Though I wonder: Do these teachers talk about what they read with their students?  If not, they should be! Students need to see that it isn't just the English/Reading teachers who read and talk about books.  Imagine the message it would send if that science teacher took one minute our of her class to talk about the great book she read last weekend. It shows her students that she is not just a science teacher--she is also a reader--and this is just another great way to connect with students.

A couple weeks ago I finished Wonder by RJ Palacio and the day after I finished, I "book talked" it to my students.  There are a lot of easy ways to do a book talk but the first rule is, you must actually have the book on hand to show to the students. (You should also be willing to loan it to the students to read otherwise don't bother.) I gave a little background about the main character, August, and told the students that he is severely deformed. (That got their attention.) I also told the students how sections of the book are told from different characters point of view--August's sister, some of his classmates, his sister's boyfriend, etc. I mentioned there was a part in the book that made me cry and want to shout out angrily at the cruelty of society.  (If you read it, I'm referring to the e-mails.) By the end, I cried because I was so happy that my faith in humanity had been restored. (The students want to hear about our emotions. It makes us, as educators, more human.)  Lastly, I took a few moments to read page 88 to the top of page 89 aloud as well as page 120. (From the hardcover version.) They were hooked.  Some of the kids were begging me to read the entire book aloud and I just may do that starting next week.

The students know my rule--no one can check out any of the books I "book talk" until the end of the school day--after I've presented to all of my classes. (First come, first serve.) You would think this would give my last class period of the day the advantage but we have a "Homeroom/Connections" block following last period so whoever makes the effort to come back gets the reward! :)  

Wonder will be a great read aloud for the middle school classroom, but it will also be a great book to have as a choice to read in Book Clubs (Some call them Literature Circles--I call them Book Clubs.) I am anxious to order a set of 6 or more for my students (or for our Book Room), but am patiently waiting for it to come out in paperback.  It's a powerful book and several interesting conversations will come from it not only among the students, but also among teachers. Everyone should be "talking" about it. ;)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Starting with the Notebooks

**I am going to mention several titles and authors in this post, but keep in mind that I have combined years worth of information and experimentation into my classroom, and I must give credit where credit is due.  Don't overwhelm yourself and run out and purchase and read all of these titles.  That is too much. Start small and build on your own knowledge. My recommendation is to begin with Aimee Buckner's books as they are well-written,  fairly short, and will provide you will some great ideas.  If you can fit in time for Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, I would read her book next.

When I began experimenting with Reading/Writing Workshop, I started with the "Notebook." (Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling had nothing to do with it--I'm referring to an actual 100 page, wide-lined, cardboard bound notebook and I prefer composition notebooks.  They work for me and for my students, but you should use whatever works best for you and yours.)  My first step was to determine the purpose of the notebooks, their set up,  and how I would assess them. Keep in mind, my ultimate goal was to get my students reading and writing. The students use their Writing Notebooks for daily strategies and practice, drafting, and documenting their thinking. They use the Reading Notebook as a place to keep track of their reading and thinking about their reading.  (And we spend a significant amount of time at the beginning of the year practicing reading response strategies in the Reading Notebook!) I model all of this and share from my own notebooks too!

When I began this process,  I used Aimee Buckner's Notebook Connections and Notebook Know-How as my guides. (I also began reading, thinking, and planning well before the start of the new school year!)  If I remember correctly, Ms. Buckner teaches 4th graders, but believe it or not, I was able to use several of her ideas even with  my 8th grade and English 9 students.  For writing,  I use several of her strategies including "Best and Worst" and "Lifting a Line."  Last year I added  an "I wonder" and "Inquiry Page: Topics I'd like to learn more about" (an idea I lifted from Harvey "Smokey" Daniels and Stephanie Harvey) so when student were stuck, they could always go back to these pages, add to, or expand on ideas or thoughts from their lists. (The Inquiry Page was helpful when we began informational writing and research later in the year.)  Prompt boxes are also available on my writing table for students to browse if they are still struggling with writing ideas when they are assigned "Daily Pages."  Buckner also offers several tips for getting to know your students as readers as well as comprehension strategies.  I love the "Fab 5" and the students use it often.

As I continued my professional reading, I experimented with other ideas and best practices. I begin the year with combined ideas from Steven Layne's Igniting a Passion for Reading and Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer with those of Buckner in the Reading Notebook. I added a "Shopping List" inside the front cover and a "Student Reading Record" (modified from Mr. Gallagher) on the back cover of the reading notebook and we started the year talking about how to preview books, how to find books we will enjoy, and our current habits as readers.

It should also be noted that I begin the year with talking about all the books that I read over the summer. My first mini-lesson is about how to preview books (borrowed from Layne). In that time the students fill out a reading interest analyzer and an interest survey which I use as data and compare to over the course of the year.  I modified these surveys from Donalyn Miller for my purposes.  Students start adding to the "Shopping List" on the very first day as they peruse the new and student recommended books I pull off of my shelves and have strewn about the tables.  The kids walk around the room, talk to each other, and I do this with them too in an attempt to understand my new students' reading tastes.  (We talk about how this should look before I let them out of their seats, as procedures should be modeled and discussed from day one. More on that in another post.) We also begin writing in our Writing Notebook and I model my own writing with them. One year, I began by writing a letter in my notebook to my students introducing myself and displaying under my document camera to my SMART Board,  reading it aloud,  and then having them do the same as their first writing notebook entry.  This could even be used as a first writing sample/assessment! But that is just one idea, you do what makes sense in your classroom.

Obviously, all of my first day (and proceeding) activities are planned to send a very strong message to my new group. Reading and writing are important and necessary--and we will all be doing a lot of both in this classroom!

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If you would like copies of any of the documents I currently use in my classroom (shopping list, reading record, interest survey--which I have also made into a google doc form, etc.). I will gladly share if you send me an e-mail request at

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A Quick Shout Out to West Bend Middle School Teachers!

I would just like to give a "Shout Out" to the ILA staff from West Bend's Silverbrook and Badger Middle Schools. It was a great day of learning today--not just for them, but for me too!  They have inspired the topics of my next several blog posts (still adding ideas to my list as I type this!) They will center on a how I run Workshop in my classroom--including set up, resources, mini-lessons and other tips and tricks I wasn't able to elaborate on in today's presentation. Your passion and your excitement was contagious and inspiring!

I am happy to announce that Barb Novak will be a guest blogger soon too and will offer more thoughts and guidance as well! (Barb Novak and Andrea Reichenberger---the next Fisher and Frey?  Daniels and Harvey?  Hmmm....)

Please continue to send your questions and thoughts and use me as another collaborator! It was a true pleasure and I hope to hear from you all soon! A copy of the PowerPoint presentation from today can be found below.

West Bend April 3

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Evernote is Ever So Wonderful.

How I stumbled upon this handy dandy tool, I cannot recall---probably through Twitter--but I am completely in enamored. Evernote is my new favorite or at least until something new comes along--I'm so fickle! :)

Once you install the "web page clipper" (which takes about five seconds) you can "clip" any pictures, websites, articles that you want to save and organize off of the Internet. (Yes, even from Facebook and Twitter for those of you who believe these are not part of the Internet.)  But wait, it gets better.  I was also able to install the application on my smart phone, my Kindle Fire, and on all of my laptops, so no matter what device I am using, I can clip to my account--even a photo from my smart phone. Then I have the option of organizing my clips into "Notebooks" that I create.  For example, I am currently teaching argumentative writing and as I find pieces I can use as mentor texts in class, I clip them and save them to my "Argumentative" folder.  I also have notebooks for lesson plans by date and I can move my articles of choice into that folder for the day to show on my SmartBoard.

Wait, it still gets even better.   Using my classroom document camera (because honestly, it is kind of crappy), I can take pictures of student work, text from books, or articles I have saved and clip them to Evernote account too. I like doing this as I can make these documents larger for the students who sit in the back of my classroom to view through because (just a reminder)--my document camera is crap. At any time, I can create a "new note" in which I keep detailed lesson notes to myself.  It is also a  place for me to store writings I have done in class with the students. Please don't tell our district technology peeps, but I find it much less tedious, more user friendly, and easier to organize than using the SmartBoard Notebook software.

Another advantage--I can share any of these items with colleagues or students through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc. and ever link to my contacts from my Google account. However, I am not going to lie, this particular task hasn't worked too smoothly for me yet.

Evernote offers a "Noteworthy Blog" with updates about new features as well as "Tips and Tricks" on how to use the program.  The Evernote Trunk includes lists of other useful applications, hardware and notebooks that you can combine "to enhance your Evernote experience." (Personally, I am enjoying my Evernote experience at the moment and feel no need to enhance it at this particular time.) Although I am still a novice, I will continue to investigate and evaluate the use of these additional options in the very near future.

I have started using Evernote as an online lesson planner. It's free, but I am seriously considering paying the $45 a year upgrade fee as I have found myself using it on a daily basis.  I can also use it for personal organizing, not just for education. (I'm thinking home improvement/decorating ideas, grocery lists, wine lists, wine lists...)

My district should be thankful as this gem has saved it quite a bit of money on copy paper in recent months. (Merit pay?)  I don't have to print a copy of every article I find and put it in a safe place (blue binder or my "to be dealt with later" pile), forget which safe place (pile or binder?) I originally placed it, and then print it out again because I don't have the time to search for it.  (As it turns out, I have 7 blue binders.) All in all, it's a great organizational tool for me and that I LOVE!

I am anxious to hear from you if you decide to try it!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (aka: Collaboration)

There is nothing I love more than collaborating with my English/Language Arts colleagues. We have time built into our daily schedule to do this, but that time is often robbed from us without our consent or input.  So, when we do get that time--either as a grade level department or as a school department, we often struggle with what to collaborate about because we aren't usually provided with time to prepare in advance.  I cannot express how much I value my time in general, but collaboration for educators is an absolute necessity.  But there is also something to be said for doing it correctly.   Over the years, I have been able to develop and implement several new ideas from these interludes, but not nearly as much as I would like because time for conversations was limited, separated by months in between and therefore forgotten, or simply cut short by a bell.

I have several colleagues whom I often collaborate with informally. We drop by each others classrooms to share ideas, ask questions, or to vent about something (others would probably deem) trivial.  This often takes place in the three minutes we have between classes or the five minutes left over from collaboration-turned-staff-meeting-time.  I know that not all schools have collaboration time and we are fortunate that we do, but mixed messages are often presented as to how that time should be used and who gets to control it.

After some of that informal collaboration mentioned above, and in an attempt to be part of the solution rather than the problem. We, as a small grade level department team, implemented an idea that we felt was a valuable use of our time.  It meant taking chapters from our favorite professional literature, making copies of those chapters, and then setting a time to read together silently (in our case--about 15 minutes). During that time we annotate what we read and we are left with about 20 minutes for discussion.  In our first attempt, we chose chapter 4 from Cris Tovani's So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning.  The results were inspiring.  We discovered we were having  REAL CONVERSATIONS about teaching and learning!  Best of all, we were collaborating.  (Insert the angels singing here.)

The following are questions, statements and "a-ha!s" that resulted from our discussion:
  • Ms. Tovani has a ninety-six minute block for her English class.  What do we do if we only have 48 minutes?
  • It's okay to have the same learning target for a week.
  • What is the best method for organizing and keeping track of conferencing notes with students?
  • We found a reference to Rick Stiggin's book which was the title used for a district Assessment Literacy course several of us took a few years back. (Ta-da---CONNECTION!)
  • The Reading/Writing workshop structure easily lends itself to many opportunities to differentiate.
  • Differentiation is not about an elaborate individualized project. 
  • Model. Model. Model. And then model again.
  • Background knowledge is imperative to better understanding. Many of our students do not possess this and we need to create it for them. 
  • Should we or shouldn't we teach a whole classroom novel? (Much debate on this one.)
  • What are some strategies we currently use for assessment that guide our instruction for the very next day?
  • Choice is huge--but it is okay to control or limit the choices.
  • Text complexity is in the Common Core State Standards and must be addressed in our teaching.
Okay, so this all came from TWO 20 minute discussions, and I didn't mention everything.   We finally felt like our time was being used wisely and that we were all getting something valuable from it.

Although we learned that professional book examples don't always address the realities of our classrooms (right, Deb?), and that we don't always come up with the answers, we were able to share some of our own strategies--what worked well, what did not, and how we modified.  We also learned that keeping our discussion group small lends itself to being more productive than in our larger grade level teams where (unfortunately) very little gets accomplished.

I believe my friend and colleague, Melissa, said it best. This time gives us the opportunity to address "the good, the bad, and the ugly."  We've proven this to be true in more ways than one.

I am eager for our next meeting when we can finish reading and discussing the chapter we have started.  The plan was to do this tomorrow, but guess what?  We cannot as that collaboration time has been robbed from us again.  (Groan.) Maybe next week? :)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

40 is Just a Number...

A year and a half ago, I read Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer.  I loved it.  It was a great reminder that it is my responsibility, as a teacher of literacy, to encourage students to read; but most importantly, to model myself as a reader.   I was also encouraged to force myself to read books from genres that I have never been comfortable with or a fan of.  As a result, I can have a lot more conversations about books with my students which also allows me to guide my students to more appropriate reading choices.  (By appropriate, I mean books that will hook them or keep them interested.) I've even read sports fiction!  I hate sports, but I found Tim Green's Football Hero very enjoyable and since reading and doing a book talk on it--Carl Deuker's Gym Candy never gets a rest on my classroom bookshelf! 

The point of this entry is not to review Donalyn's book--although I highly encourage all teachers of literacy to read it.  The point is to inform readers that I decided to try Donalyn's "40 book requirement" approach as an experiement.  Now that the end of the first year of the experiment is approaching, kids are asking me if they are going to get a "bad grade" (we don't use grades, we use standards based grading)  if they didn't reach the 40 book requirement. So far, almost every conversation has gone something like this:

Student:  Um.  Mrs. R.,  I don't think I am going to be able read 40 books this year.  Does that mean I'm going to fail?

Me: (smile on the inside/serious look on the outside) How many books have you read this year? 

Student: (hesitation or sigh) I've only read 22.

Me: How many books did you read LAST year?

Student:  I don't know.  Like, 5?

Me:  You read 5 books last year and you've read 22 THIS year?

Student: (confusion)  Um.  Yeah?

Me:  Let me get this straight. You've already quadrupled the amount of books you read last year?

Student: (still confused) I guess so.

(Awkward silence)

Student: Wait a minute!  Are you telling me that I didn't HAVE to read 40 books?

Me: I'm not telling you that.

Student:  But I don't HAVE to read 40.  I could read another 10 books and I'd still be good.

Me:  (smiles) What do you think?

Student: Yes?

Me:  Some kids already read 20-30 books a year.  It's about getting you to read more than you ever have before. Does the number really matter if you have increased the amount of reading you've done in a year?

Student:  (Jaw drops.)

Me: Have you improved? Have you grown as a reader?

Student:  (Jaw still open but gives me a small nod.)

Me:  You certainly have. Now, if I had told you that at the beginning of the year. Would you have tried to read more than you ever had before? Be honest.

Student: Probably not. No.

Me:  Right.  So, let's keep this our little secret for now. You learned something really fantastic about yourself today.

Same Student: (pause) I'm glad you didn't tell us. That's actually pretty smart of you to do that.

(Yes, a student actually said these words to me.)

Me:  Yes, (Student's Name), that is why they pay me the big bucks! (Smile and wink.)

Overall, I'd say this experiment was a success.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Learning Experience

So, I decided to try something new today. I am was am on my blog, in my classroom, modeling how I write my writing in front of my students.  The experts say this is one way in which good student writing evolves.  However, I am quickly learning that this is not necessarily true at this moment. Maybe it's because it is Friday, or maybe because there is a strange shift in the energy equilibrium---I can tell you, by looking at them and listening to them my boisterous bunch that they are completely uninterested.  I have heard "I hate blogs" muttered at least four times in the past few minutes, but I also hear chuckling as I type this, so someone is paying attention.

Luckily, in one of my later classes, a one of my students stated states that "Blogging can be interesting if you have a great topic." And as the day went on progresses, more of my students were seem appear interested in starting their own blogs. (Yes, you can start a sentence with the word "and" as long as you do it correctly and sparingly!)

I am modeling my thinking (and remind them who my audience is), my writing, my random thoughts and some of my revisions.  Even as I create several drafts, this entry is definitely not an example of my best work.  (Did I mention I'm in the middle of reading Kelly Gallagher's new book Write Like This?) In the very first chapter he makes it clear that that is the point.  "We want our students to understand that writing well does not happen by osmosis..."(p. 16).

As I continue, I am also demonstrating how to use Blogger features.  I change the font, the font size (I make it huge so the students I the back can see it as I type), insert a link and insert a picture. (Mrs. R, who is THAT guy? So now I just provided a little background knowledge, even though most of them probably won't remember who Ray Bradbury is.) I also showed the students some samples of blogs they are definitely more interested in than my own.

Problem #1:  Blogger is very overwhelming to middle school students.  One of the students suggest  After checking it out and playing around with it in class, this seems to be an easier blog site for the students to use. Many of them are familiar with it due to use in another class from another using it in other class and I watch in pleasant surprise as familiarized students guide their peers.

Problem #2:  Pay attention to computer/classroom arrangement.  I have a SMARTboard and it is connected to my classroom desktop computer. As I was typeing in my first period class, my back ends up being is to the students.  Once I turn my back, the students see this as permission to no longer pay attention to me and begin their what-are-you-doing-this-weekend conversations.  Before my next class, I move the desktop (luckily it is on a table with wheels) so it is was turned the opposite way and when I sit down at the computer the students never lose site of my face and vice versa. Lesson learned. Complete chaos averted in following class periods. (Though, Still some chaos still present though.)

Problem #3:  I should model some type of drafting of ideas first.  I am going cold turkey--which I believe is good to model too but I had difficult time which took too long.  In the age of technology, some of us can draft as we type, but some of us need more guidance.  It hits me that a graphic organizer or brainstorming strategy should be provided for some of my students. 

Problem #4:  I didn't emphasize the notion that "all first drafts are lousy" in all of my classes.  I've stated it in past writing lessons taught in the beginning of the year over the course of the year, but I know I haven't hammered it hard come back to that enough.  I am confident that if I make this my classroom mantra, it will produce better results and students really will see that a first draft should never be the last.

Insert loud sigh here. 

All in all, this was quite the learning experience and I vow I will try it again--but not on a Friday.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Deeper Reading

I just finished reading Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts 4-12 written by one of my favorite boyfriends in all things literacy--Kelly Gallagher. The book was published in 2004, but it has been sitting on my "To Read" pile for about two and a half years.  That pile seems to miraculously reproduce on its own every few weeks as I purchase yet another professional book here and there. (Translation: I am obsessed with Barnes and Noble and

It took me awhile, but it was only a few years ago that I learned a very important lesson.  Those of us who teach English/Language Arts need to see ourselves "less as literature teachers and more (as) literacy teachers."  (Quoted by my boyfriend and additional evidence as to why we are made for each other.)   Every teacher of literacy should peruse this book either as a reminder or as a new discovery. (It's actually a quick read and you also learn that my boyfriend has a sense of humor! BONUS!)  On a serious note, Gallagher offers several strategies for teaching students how to read challenging text, to focus readers, to collaborate, to use metaphors to deepen comprehension, to encourage meaningful reflection and to create critical thinkers.  However, he reminds us that our students must be able to see the relevance of the reading assignment--to care about it. We, as educators, must offer the answer to the student question "what's in it for me?" This will provide some motivation and engagement, but it also highlights how crucial it is to provide background knowledge and relevant connections for the students.

With the advent of the Common Core and new discussions about text complexity, this oldie but goody also provides a model for teaching challenging texts as well as a guide for how to plan an effective reading lesson.  (Gallagher hangs this right above the desk where he does his own lesson planning.) He also emphasizes the importance of backwards planning.  Instead of trying to assess whether our students understand every layer of a a complex work, we would better serve them if we consider the one or two areas within the text we think to be the most important and target those areas for our students' consideration. (p. 210)  Knowing the questions that will be asked on the final assessment not only leads to better instruction by the teacher, but it also encourages deeper reading for the students.

Lastly (but only for the purpose of this entry as there are several more great ideas in the book), Gallagher generates the questions we should all be asking ourselves in our teaching no matter the content area.
  • What do I hope my students will take from the book (or reading)?
  • Have I provided my students with a reading focus?
  • Are my students willing and able to embrace confusion?
  • Can my students monitor their own comprehension?
  • Do my students know any fix-it strategies to assist them when their comprehension begins to falter?
If you haven't yet grasped the concept that we are all teachers of literacy, you should do so quickly--as it is inevitable.  If you have already embraced this notion, I recommend you spend some quality time with my boyfriend. You won't be disappointed!

      Sunday, February 19, 2012

      A Haphazard Early Morning Book Review: Where She Went

      where she went by Gayle Forman
      Hardcover, 264 pages
      Published April 5th 2011 by Dutton Juvenile (first published November 4th 2010) 

      I have been reading since 4 am and I think am seeing two computer screens through my sore, crusty, drying eyes, or maybe due to my lack of solid rest as I write this. Forgive me if it doesn't make sense.

      You know how it is when you get caught up in a book and you read it so fast you feel like you never got a chance to really enjoy it? I do it all of the time, but I loved this book so much that I had to mentally force myself to watch my pace. In most books, I skim over the things like the quotes under chapter titles, but in an attempt to model good reading (for no one other than myself at this hour), I even devoured Adam's lyrics placed at the beginning of every other chapter. (I noticed this pattern shifts near the ending. Purpose? Meaning? I will investigate and see if I can find the significance of this after I've had a nap.) 

      Yes, it's a sequel.  The first book is if I stay.  (See link below.)

      The story of Adam's and Mia's relationship three years after the accident can be appropriately referred to as my personal reading vortex for the past few hours. (Vortex is a great word--I am almost certain I stole it from the author.) I had to stop and re-read episodes from the book in an effort to catch my breath, hiccup through sobs, and grapple with Adam's emotions while completely enveloped in his story. I was thankful that I had finished the first book only a few weeks ago. I enjoyed this book more than the first and without trying to spoil the story, I was satisfied, prepared, and able to come to terms with the ending that I originally thought was meant to be. Even though I was on page 191--still 69 pages away from the end, I trusted the author would help both Adam and I through to the end. If this was how it was going to be--it made sense. It was fair. Oh, but I was pleasantly surprised with the direction that it took. I sobbed all over again as I finished.

      I am such a sucker for a good love story. 

      Check it out here!

      Wednesday, February 15, 2012

      Twitter: My Strange New Addiction

      Okay, I had heard of Twitter, and I had seen plenty of television tickers and websites with tweets scrolling across the bottom of the screen.  One of my reading education professors even required us to create Twitter accounts to follow her for updates, but that was more than two years ago.  Unfortunately, she was the only one I ever followed and I never took the time to actually tweet. (Which is strange as I usually have PLENTY to say.) I was completely satisfied using Facebook, my favorite social network, to obtain the latest news, status updates and gossip.  After all, it was through Facebook that I first learned of the death of Whitney Houston.  (May she rest in peace.)

      Admittedly (and probably unsurprisingly) I am/was a Twitter-verse neophyte. It was only a week or so ago that I set up a new account (of course I could not recall my username or password on my original account.  It WAS two years and several usernames and passwords ago!) and began following some of my favorite reading peeps such as Donalyn Miller and my boyfriend Kelly Gallagher (my apologies to Mr. Gallagher, his wife and to my husband as they are all completely unaware of our phantom relationship). It was from viewing who THEY follow and viewing their followers, that I began following several other teachers who are experts in this wonderful world of education.  Suddenly, I find myself checking Twitter more often than I should be, yet I am completely enamored with the wealth of information, ideas, lists and links provided to me with every one of those checks.   Who knew you could obtain so much information  from 140 characters or less? (Apparently, from the looks of it---just about everyone!) 

      I know there are some of us who haven't discovered the realm of Twitter.  If you haven't embraced or even attempted to use this medium, I highly recommend it.  Don't overwhelm yourself and feel as if you have to start tweeting, but do take the time to search for and start to follow your favorite authors, celebrities, politicians, friends, and maybe even your students. Eventually, they could follow you too! You could post reminders, assignments, links to articles, etc. I suppose that reading professor of mine was trying to model this for me.  (Unfortunately, I STILL haven't taken it that far yet. Stay tuned in future posts...)

      Anyway, today I read an interview on Education Week's Teacher Professional Development Sourcebook with Will Richardson, a teacher turned technology expert. There were several points made in the interview that resonated with me, but when asked what traits he would look for in teachers who embody what is needed for advancements in technological literacy, he offered the following:

      I would want to see that they have a presence online, that they are participating in these spaces, and, obviously, that they are doing so appropriately. Also, I’d want to know that they have some understanding of how technology is changing teaching and learning and the possibilities that are out there.

      My mind is spinning at the possibilities! I believe that Twitter could, in fact, help me to be a better teacher because being a good teacher is no longer just about teaching--it's about learning.  

      The irony here is that this article was originally published in October 2010 and I never even saw it until today. Guess how I found it? Yes, my friends, through Twitter.

      You can view the full article here.