Books, Character Education, Creating a Community, Distance Learning, Education, Leadership, Reading, Self Care, Teamwork, Wellness

I don’t know what to say…

Anybody who knows me personally, knows this is an extremely rare phrase to come out of my mouth. Generally, I always know what to say, or think I do, or just say something regardless… I am a talker!

Right now though, I find myself not knowing what to say. I don’t know what to say to my own children, my family, my students, my friends and co-workers, my friends on social media, and to myself. We are in such unprecedented times. Right now – we are experiencing a global health pandemic on a scale I have never seen in my lifetime. Right now – America is the most divided, bitter, and angry nation I have ever known. Right now – the legacy of racism in America continues to rear its ugly head forcing all of us to determine what we will do to change this crisis. Right now – we see corruption, dishonesty, and plain unkindness as the norm…just another day at the office.

I don’t know what to say in response to all of this. So, I try to share my thoughts with meaningful social media posts that focus on spreading honesty and goodness. I try to teach my children and my students the value of each and every human being regardless of color, creed, background, or any other unique attribute. I try to live a life where my actions match my faith and values. But…sometimes it all seems woefully inadequate, like I am a tiny pebble in a giant pond.

Then, I remember… I AM a tiny pebble in a giant pond. That is what I need to say… Let me explain.

One of my favorite read aloud books is Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson. The book is about how every thing we do creates ripples out into the world. Unkindness, denial, participation in the bitterness they spread like ripples in a pond. But kindness, love, care, empathy, courage, and hope spread too. Here is a video of the book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlNgYno4W14

At the start of every year, I read this book to my class and we discuss the way we treat each other. They are always horrified that the story doesn’t have a happy ending…that it doesn’t end well. I explain that too often, our unkindness, simply can’t be taken back. Words said cannot be unsaid. Mean actions cannot be taken back. But, we can learn from them…we can do better.

So, here is what I want to say that I hope will ripple out into the world. Our actions matter. We are part of a global community of humans. We are part of a fabric woven together and our responsibility is to each other.

As educators, we have a pivotal role in dropping little pebbles and trying to get our students to keep spreading the ripples. Whether we are in distance learning, in a classroom, or some other version of school we are unable to imagine right now, we have to spread what is good. So focus your teaching beyond your subject onto these things:

  • Being good human beings.
  • Creating curious and open minded students of life
  • Fostering a sense of Ubuntu (I am because you are).
  • Teaching history – where we have come from, the mistakes that have been made, and the lessons that can be learned.
  • Your role in your family, community, nation, and world – they must be active participants in making the world better.
  • The values of disagreeing and challenging each other with RESPECT while continuing to learn from each other.

So, in these times that seem overwhelming, and you just don’t know what to say that could make any of it better… remember the ripple you can make by your actions both positive and negative. I wish I had better words to say to people about these horrible situations we find our nation in. I wish I knew the right thing to say, but I don’t. So, I am going to focus on saying things and THINKing. This poster is in many classrooms, but really needs to be said right now in today’s world. Before I speak… is what I am saying true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind. If we all THINK – we will send out some pretty powerful ripples. That is the best thing we can say when we don’t know what to say.

#Classroom Community, Behavior Management, Books, Creating a Community, Education, PLC, Reading, Self Care, Teamwork, Wellness

Giving Thanks

We are just a few school days away from Thanksgiving and every teacher and student is counting down the days. For some of us the countdown is all about “the break”…getting ready for sleeping in, using the bathroom whenever we want, drinking HOT coffee out of a regular coffee mug, eating food at a table at our own pace and other basic joys of the teacher at home. We may be excited about family, friends, and a big feast. Our students may be ready for no homework, video games, travel to distant relatives, or long days spent doing what they want.

For some children (and some teachers), the break is not a break they are looking forward to. 5 days is a long time to go without consistent food, experience domestic violence, addiction, or family fighting. For some it is 5 days to survive until the safety of school returns. Many children will escalate their negative behavior at school to prepare for the transition to this tumultuous environment. Studies have been done that show that our most challenging students must create chaos at school to mentally prepare for the chaos they may experience at home. So, as teachers we must pay attention to these needy children and help them these last few days before break with a little extra kindness and patience.

This year, our team of teachers, has started a “wellness plan”. Each month, we set up 2 – 3 wellness based activities a week to keep us as healthy as possible. We share food, take a power walk together, practice the calm app in PLC, schedule nights out, and every Friday after school meet for Gratitude Friday. This has rapidly become the most important part of the week for me. We share some candy, cry, vent, laugh, and then we each take a moment to write things we are grateful for. We read them aloud and then pass our books around to write for each person present what we appreciate about them. I enter the room miserable many Friday afternoons and leave the room ready to go home and be mom. So, let’s give some thanks and gratitude for all we have. Here is my list of things I am grateful for:

  1. My family and its good health.
  2. The students in my class are growing in many areas.
  3. I have made a difference in people’s lives – a true gift to me.
  4. I have friends who I can laugh or cry with.
  5. Teachers have a voice growing with unity across our state and nation.
  6. I have food on my table, a warm house, and all I need to live a comfortable life.
  7. I am constantly learning new things because I am teaching new things.
  8. There are endless books to read that give my life meaning.
  9. I have health care… which is a surprisingly important thing that almost wasn’t… here in NC.
  10. I saw 2 former students working at fast food restaurants in the last 2 days…their joy, excitement, and enthusiasm when they saw me made every hard day worthwhile.

What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving season? Share your list here or on our social media sites! Let’s start a gratitude chain! Wait and see how powerful it can be!

#Classroom Community, Child Development, Education, Guided Reading, Higher Level Thinking, MTSS, Reading, Small Group Novel Study

A link in a chain

Being a teacher is truly one of the most essential roles in a child’s development. As they move from childhood to adulthood, a series of significant and necessary changes must happen for them to become healthy, functioning adults. Our job is to be a link in the chain towards this development of higher level thinking and functioning. Parents, siblings, family members, community members, and other caring adults have a role to play in this chain but teachers must recognize their role and act on it.

The human brain is a pretty amazing thing. As we develop and learn, the brain changes, grows, and alters with us. I love to tell my students about “growing synapses”. First, because it makes me sound really smart, but more importantly it encourages them to understand the growth mindset causes ACTUAL GROWTH. In the human brain, small neural pathways form as we learn new things. These pathways carry the electrical impulses throughout the brain that give the world around us meaning. When we learn something new, new synapses are formed connecting new information to existing in our brains. This is why if you learn a new word, suddenly you see it everywhere. The word was always all around you – but you literally had no pathway for the word to connect to meaning. Once you learn it, “POP”, a synapse is born causing a link between new information and what you already knew. Try it…the word canoodling is a verb that means hugging and kissing with someone. Bet you see the word canoodling now in lots of places! 🙂

So, how can you be a link in the chain of development for a child? Here are some important things to keep in mind as you work towards this:

  1. Recognize the importance of words – A pivotal study was done that examined the number of words between poverty, middle class, and upper middle class homes spoken to children by the age of 5. The gap between children living in poverty and upper middle class homes was nearly 30 million words. This article links this study to the growth mindset. It is a must read! https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/03/the-32-million-word-gap/36856/ In your classroom, value words. Read to them all the time, talk to them all the time, expose them to words all the time! Make the development of language essential in your classroom. Here is Authentic Teaching’s vocabulary contract on Teachers Pay Teachers which supports the use of vocabulary in context. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Vocabulary-Contract-4956632
  2. Don’t let fluency stop you from developing thinking skills – Fluency in reading and writing is an essential step in developing the foundation skills kids need. However, we must explicitly teach our kids to develop their thinking WHILE teaching fluency.
  • I love guided reading groups for this purpose. Guided reading allows students to talk about their thinking in a safe place where there are no right or wrong answers. Check out Authentic Teaching TPT for details. https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Small-Group-Novel-Study-Guided-Reading-4836948
  • I also find ways around the fluency by using read aloud for non-assessment activities allowing students to access text and demonstrate their THINKING without fluency in the way. Readworks, Storyworks, ActivelyLearn, RAZ kids, and Newsela all have read aloud features to support students.
  • Voice typing which is free on most platforms allows students to demonstrate their written thinking skills without their writing fluency stopping them.
  • I sometimes have really low and reluctant writers record themselves in a video of their story (Flipgrid is an amazing tool to support this) to get their ideas out. Then, we work to move the story from the video to the page by listening, pausing, and writing each sentence.

3. Explicitly teach higher level thinking – Inferencing and Drawing Conclusion reading skills are the most challenging and essential skills in developing great readers. However, we rarely teach these skills explicitly. Both need to be taught the way we teach a math skill like adding fractions with uncommon denominators – in steps that build on each other. However, we rarely teach the steps to students. Check out these resources on Authentic Teaching TPT on both skills broken down: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Drawing-Conclusions-Flow-chart-4956576 https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Introduction-to-Inferencing-4956564

4. Be aware of the impact of childhood trauma on learning – Brain development is altered by adverse childhood experiences (ACE). It literally CHANGES a child’s brain. Our students that have experienced this childhood trauma learn differently, need different supports, and literally REQUIRE US TO PROVIDE SAFETY, STABILITY, AND FOSTER RESILIENCE. This is an incredibly challenging prospect, but can literally save a child’s life. I was absolutely floored by this article and corresponding study from the CDC/Kaiser Permanente. I encourage you to carefully read this article and study to impact your students who experience trauma. It happens in all socioeconomic groups, in all commmunities, and we must be aware of its devastating impacts on brain development. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

5. Develop the social skills and behaviors required for their age – Understanding social cues and having the skills to navigate appropriately in the age group they are in is ESSENTIAL for a child. As a teacher, we must create a classroom that has high expectations of behavior in all areas: academic behaviors, emotional behaviors, social behaviors, and personal behaviors. Some students require explicit instruction on these skills to help them develop the self control to demonstrate these behaviors. If we do not teach the appropriate skills and behaviors to our children, we stop them from being able to function in the world. Stop and consider what the student who demonstrates the most appropriate age level behaviors in your classroom does in all areas. Now, start intentionally teaching ALL students in your class how to achieve these behaviors. Just like our academic instruction, we have to differentiate for some students and find alternate ways to help them on this growth.

Being a link in a chain of development is a daunting task. As a teacher, we can often lose sight of the pivotal role we have in our student’s lives. A friend of mine worked for years in high poverty schools. Each year at the end of the year, he would write a letter to each student in his class telling them what he hoped for them, admired in them, and what he celebrated in their growth during the year. He would frame these and give them to his students. Over the years, many students have found him on social media and shared the letters that they kept. They thanked him for being an essential link in the chain of their lives, helping them build resilience to overcome adversity, and for linking the broken parts of their lives with his teaching. We can all strive towards this kind of impact in a child’s life….THAT IS THE REASON WE SHOULD TEACH! Be a link in a chain for every child in your class…somebody’s development depends on it!

Books, Character Education, Guided Reading, Reading, Small Group Novel Study

A teacher’s most powerful tool

I am, basically, a one trick pony. I am a reading teacher! I also teach writing, vocabulary, social studies, character education, current events….but all through the lens of reading. I have, in my career, taught math and science…shivers. I will leave that to my expert educator friends. I teach reading because I LOVE READING!

I love reading because it is every teacher’s most powerful tool to inspire, educate, broaden horizons, and teach tolerance. Reading can change the world. I do not say that lightly or as a platitude. Reading is the cheapest, most effective way to make a difference in the lives of your students so they can make a difference in the world.

So, how? How do you get kids to read? How do you teach reading when you don’t love it yourself? How do you inspire reluctant readers? How do you help students with reading disabilities? I want to preface this article by saying the tips are focused on improving reading comprehension NOT reading fluency to emerging readers. Although these ideas DO work to develop a love of reading in your beginner readers in K-2. Here are my best tips for teaching reading and changing the world as you do it!

  1. Read great books! This is a simple concept…if you want kids to love reading, read great books. There are so many books available today from every culture, tradition, genre, you name it. I make it my mission to only have my kids read books that make them feel something (joy, sorrow, inspired, an uncontrollable urge to laugh). I also strive to read really diverse books that appeal to all different kinds of students in my class who may be moved by different things. Common Sense Media https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews is an excellent website to not only find books for each age group, but if you select the book it will give you a detailed summary AND tell you what content you may find inside. Then for each category, it will give you specifics (a super important tool as a teacher and parent). Side note – you can also use this site for movies, video games, etc. to do the same. Find great books that YOU love, to allow you to share this love with your students.
  2. Talk about what you read! I am a huge fan of small group novel study or guided reading to allow students to really explore their higher level thinking and build skills as a reader. Check out Authentic Teaching Teacher Pay Teachers for materials to support this in your classroom: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Small-Group-Novel-Study-Guided-Reading-4836948 (This includes a book list of some excellent 3rd – 7th grade novels that I love). There are lots of ways to talk about what you read – whole group discussions, Socratic seminars, online class discussion groups, and individual conferences. Kids who talk about their reading and thinking are more excited to read. They develop higher level thinking skills. You will be amazed, if you have never had discussions on books, just how powerful, exciting, and influential this can be with your students.
  3. Read Out Loud! I believe that every PERSON (not just children) innately craves oral storytelling. It is in our DNA to sit around a campfire and listen to stories. Reading out loud to your students AT ANY AGE fosters a love of reading that is impossible to replicate. I teach 5th grade and regularly use picture books to teach concepts and my students LOVE it. Kids from homes where they may not hear books read out loud, soak in a book read aloud. Kids who hate reading are often infatuated with a book read aloud. Many online reading programs have read aloud components (Storyworks magazine (my favorite reading resource), ReadWorks, Activelylearn, Newsela). I believe that if you are focusing on comprehension, allowing a student to hear the text read aloud in every setting except assessment will begin to build BOTH their fluency and comprehension. This will build both at a much faster pace than fluency drills alone while also allowing them to access the joy of reading without the fluency in the way.
  4. Have kids read for a purpose NOT A LEVEL! In my 17 years in education, the most significant damage I have seen done to reading instruction was the introduction of Reading Levels as the marker for what books a kid should read. Please read this blog post from Fountas and Pinnell (the tool that I have seen most closely associated with this practice) and their belief that a reading level is a teacher’s tool not a student’s reading label. https://fpblog.fountasandpinnell.com/a-level-is-a-teacher-s-tool-not-a-child-s-label I have had parents and students cry at the first conference in the Fall when they learned that their child could read any book they chose for free reading. They recounted the damage it had done to their child to hear “they were not able” to read a book of their choosing. Teachers had been taught to NOT allow a child to read a book above or below their assigned level and had misguidedly passed this information on to students and parents. Lexiles, F&P levels, etc. are meant to help you as a teacher select INSTRUCTIONAL materials that are appropriate for a student. If you have been told to have your classroom library set up by lettered bins of books at each level or to limit what books kids can read based on this – go and speak with your administration about the blog I shared above. If you want kids to love reading, it is counter intuitive to tell them NOT to read a book they want to try because they are simply not “good enough” level wise to read it. Let a kid try any book, give them tools to know when to abandon it and when to use supports (like read aloud) to read it.
  5. Get ready to gasp – The second most damaging impact I have seen on reading instruction is this phrase “The only effective way to teach reading according to research is….” There are HUNDREDS of curriculum models, methods, and tools to teach reading. Maybe thousands…. Children for HUNDREDS of years have learned to read using all of these tools and more. Years ago, I had a group of 5th grade students (4 boys to be precise), who were Kindergarten and 1st grade level readers in 5th grade. I had developed a weekly method to help them improve ( Monday we watched videos, looked at websites and discussed our passage topic to build background knowledge , Tuesday we discussed the tough vocabulary and used multi-media tools to understand the words, Wednesday and Thursday – get ready for it….WE READ ROUND ROBIN, and Friday we took the assessment to practice comprehension questions). Yep – you heard me right – we read round robin. These boys needed practice reading aloud, prompting each other through tough sections of the passage, and smoothing out their fluency. Round robin reading made that happen. It was a taboo, bad word, dirty concept when I did it. I know without a doubt, that my students grew to the level they did (2 passed our end of grade standardized test and 2 came within the standard deviation of passing) because of this rejected practice. Great reading teachers pull from a variety of resources, tools, and models and MATCH them to needs of the students in front of them. Remember, most reading curriculum is being actively promoted and sold to school districts with the intent of MAKING MONEY. So, if I convince people it is the ONLY effective method, I make more money. It is a shocking concept to consider reading can be taught in a variety of ways, but it is the truth.
  6. The best way to get better at reading…is to read! This is a quote from my husband about teaching reading. It is also a fact. If you want kids to get better at reading, they need to read. At home, kids can and should read ANYTHING that is interesting to them. Comic books, articles on video games, makeup tutorials, etc. all help to develop a love of reading. All of us read in our down time for pleasure IN OUR INTEREST AREAS and many times we read in snippets, not full novels. This is still good reading and helpful. At school, kids should be reading in every subject area as much as possible. Reading should be woven in to every possible corner of the day (books, passages, magazines, online articles, etc.) Now – here is another shocking concept for most reading teachers – I believe that NIGHTLY READING LOGS DO NOT ACHIEVE THE GOALS DESIRED. It is my firm belief that simply telling a child to read each night for a set number of minutes does 2 things (1) causes stress for parents and students that ultimately leads many people to simply “falsify”, for lack of a better word, the reading log and (2) causes reading to be a timed, miserable experience. Find a tool that uses how and what you are teaching in class in authentic reading practice at home. I use Storyworks magazine as my homework and it has consistently fostered some great reading homework. Message me if you would like the details. However, here is an excellent blog post with details on how to move away from nightly time based reading logs: http://www.giftedguru.com/the-problem-with-reading-logs/
  7. Read to teach, reinforce, or change a child’s world view. Our world today is in desperate need of tolerance. We need to explicitly teach our students that there is a big, beautiful world out there full of every shape, size, color, creed, or group of people. Having trouble in your class with unkind talk? There is a book for that. Need to expose a sheltered population to the experiences of people in a different community? There is a book for that. Want to develop empathy? There is a book for that. Get the point??? There is a book, article, passage, or online resource that can help you accomplish any character, community, or world issue you want to address with your students. I simply google the topic I want to discuss and the phrase “children’s books” (ex. empathy children’s books). We need our students to develop tolerance and understanding of those who are different from them, so that they can change the world one person at a time.

Reading has been the one of the most powerful tools throughout history. People risked their lives so that they themselves and/or their children could be taught to learn to read. Reading has been against the law because oppressive governments knew that knowledge was a weapon. Reading truly changes the world because reading provides you with the world. Foster a love of reading with your students by any means necessary….because our world depends on it.