Let’s Spread More Book Love

pexels-photo-242261.jpegI have been blown away this year by the new bridges books have built in my classroom. Much of it is due to being inspired by other teachers in my building. We talk all the time about how to get more kids reading, and we celebrate kids’ successes regularly. This often consists of me seeing my colleagues in the hallway and jumping up and down excitedly when we see a mutual student take a leap and stretch as a reader in some way.

As a parent and a teacher, I cannot stress enough how important it is to give kids independent reading time EVERY SINGLE DAY, no matter what age. Reading books THEY choose, though we support those choices and also nudge them to push themselves, too. I’ve seen the difference reading time and choice makes. It’s taken a lot of work and deep breaths, and every single moment has been more than worth it. I’ll never go back to my old ways. I’ve seen so many bridges built between kids and books, kids and me, kids and each other, kids and other teachers, my colleagues and me. We’re going to keep building more bridges as well as strengthening the ones we’ve created this year.

Here are some of the tangible things I’ve done this year to change my classroom and build a reading culture.

-All three classes have a minimum of ten minutes of Book Love every class. Independent reading. They choose their books. Yes, every single day. My Language Arts kids get between 10 and 25 minutes since their literature and English is a combined class.

-I took on the forty book challenge. Read forty books in one school year. As of today, May 14, I’ve read over sixty books. Most of them are middle grade or young adult novels. Most of them are also in our classroom library. I hung images of all of the book covers on our classroom door. So did my job share partner. We ran out of room on one side and are on to the front part of the door. It’s the first thing our kids see when they walk in our door. BOOKS.

-Building my classroom library. This year alone, I have spent $600 on books for our classroom library. Currently, my job share partner and I have approximately 300 books in our classroom library, and we need more! What got me reading young adult and middle grade books with gusto was this. I focus on books I want to read. I try to read as many as I can before I put them on our shelf. If I’ve also read it, my conversations with kids are that much better, and it helps me recommend books more effectively and from the heart.  

-My job share partner has read many of the books in our classroom library. Many of her students use our classroom library. We’re both spreading the Book Love.

-I have spent at least twenty hours writing a grant for books for my classroom library through the Snapdragon Foundation. They fund books purely for classroom libraries. I asked for $3000. Why not ask for the moon? Even if I do not get the grant, it was a deeply reflective, powerful process for me. Even if I do not get the grant, I will keep finding ways to get books in my kids’ hands. I will find out in June. Keep your fingers crossed!

-I have recommended hundreds of books to my students. Many of them have told me the books I’ve recommended are some of their favorites they’ve read this year.

-I have seen dormant readers pick up and finish books. I have seen dormant readers ask me for suggestions. I have seen kids recommend books to their peers. I have watched kids connect with what they’ve read. I know it because we talk about it. I have seen avid readers grab books off my shelves and come back the next day claiming how much they loved it and couldn’t put it down. I cannot underestimate how much joy this brings me. Bridges everywhere.

-Two big leaps for me were book talks and conferring with readers. These may be my biggest areas of growth and where I’ve also seen kids grow most as readers.

Book talks. At first I was uncomfortable because I am not a salesperson! I feel like books come to me when I am ready. I don’t like to push anything on anyone. But then I just started talking to my Language Arts kids about books that moved me and why they moved me. From there, it got much easier. I kept referring books that I knew particular kids would like as well as books they may not have heard of. I keep an ongoing list in class of books I’ve booktalked. I get new releases like Kwame Alexander’s Rebound the day they come out. I show book trailers, and I read excerpts, backs of books, the inside covers of books. I just booktalked Jason Reynolds’ book, Sunny, and read his dedication at the beginning. “To the weirdos.” Because we’re all weirdos, right?! Sold.

Conferring with readers. I was also intimidated by conferring with kids because…honestly, I’m not sure why. Maybe because it felt new, and I wasn’t sure if I was “doing it right.” Now it is one of the best parts of my day! I am conferring with all three classes now, not just LA. I am following my instincts more. I am loving the thoughtful, funny, interesting mini-conversations I get to have with kids. Often, just asking, “How’s it going?” gets kids talking. Or “What will you read next?” Or “Do you relate to the main character at all? Why? Now I realize that conferring is FUN. It builds relationships. It connects us, and it is awesome. Once again, this is what I’ve done my whole life with my own three children who love books.

-I have read countless blogs about reading workshop. Mainly Pernille Ripp, Three Teachers Talk, and Moving Writers, which have tons of useful strategies and theories. I retweet them constantly, email articles to myself, and use their ideas almost daily in some way.

-Professional books: I have read The Book Whisperer by Donalynn Miller, Book Love by Penny Kittle and Disrupting Thinking by Robert Probst and Kylene Beers. I’ve also read Beyond Literary Analysis and Writing With Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell.

-Writing my own blog. Writing keeps me grounded, connects me to my students’ needs and processes, and it helps me reflect on my practice.books-education-school-literature-48126.jpeg

Next steps for next year:

-Building more classroom community by having kids share MORE with each other in partners, with the whole class, and with our school. I just read about using Goodreads or Biblionasium-both look like great possibilities.

-Figuring out a systematic way to have kids record what books they read, what books they want to read, and how many hours they are reading on a weekly basis.

-Figuring out a better system for my classroom library checkout.

-Celebrations of reading.

-Locating great picture books, graphic novels, and nonfiction to include in my classroom library.

-Figuring out more explicit ways to teach strategies: how to read more like writers and write more like readers without strangling the Book Love we are cultivating. Too much analysis kills it. I am also going to use mentor texts more effectively next year and will have kids make more note of when they run across strong writing or focus in on a mini-lesson (i.e. figurative language or sensory details).  

-Further collaboration with my colleagues. My colleague Leslie and I talk almost every day about Book Love and Writing Love and how to maintain and sustain it. We talk about how to get more teachers seeing the benefits of offering daily independent reading as well as the incredible benefit of classroom libraries. We’ve seen the impact this year. We’ve got way more kids reading, ya’ll, as my southern friend Leslie would say. She’s been doing some serious book whispering this year, and I am trying, too.

It’s been a great year of building bridges with books. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and I also can’t wait to dive into more summer reading!pexels-photo.jpg


Plant Seeds. Now Watch Them Grow. Don’t Give Up.

pexels-photo-133082.jpegWhen I read The Book Whisperer, by Donalynn Miller, I had no idea it would impact me like it did. Something clicked. Actually, it was more like a bomb going off.

I realized crucial things. The way I’ve taught my own children (all avid, passionate readers) to love to read is not how I’m teaching my own students to love to read. The way I am teaching my students to interact with books is not what I need as a reader. The way I am teaching my students is potentially turning them off to reading. This is hard to see, and it’s doubly hard to admit, but it is the truth.

My reading instruction contradicted my treasured beliefs about books, that one of our most beautiful freedoms is being able to read whatever we want. Lexiles don’t matter. Topics don’t matter. Time matters. Choice matters. Passion matters.

Time and time again, I’ve watched my most book-loving students disengage from our assigned reading or our whole-class novel. I would watch and reflect. Maybe it’s just the activities we’re doing. Maybe I’m not asking the right questions or being engaging enough. Maybe it’s my teaching.

Now I see it. There are no maybes. Reading is incredibly personal. Choice is incredibly important. Supporting kids to choose what they want to read when they’re ready is what truly empowers kids and sustains the path towards becoming lifelong readers. And they need time to make it happen. Every teacher worth their salt wants students not only to love to read but to read for their entire lives. Every teacher wants students to pass their love of reading on to their own children. Otherwise, what is the point?

The bomb blew up. I realized I needed to change.

Luckily, I had support. There are some seriously dedicated book whisperers in my school who helped me think about reading differently. They were already whispering to our students, handing them books, talking to them about books, and most importantly, being patient. They were whispering to teachers, too. One of them offered a book study on The Book Whisperer to give us time to read, talk together, reflect, and hopefully even make some changes.

It takes time to plant seeds. It takes even more time for them to take root, to sprout, to survive adversity, to grow tall and strong.

I took deep breaths and made change happen.

After implementing as much as I possibly could handle this year, I am seeing our seeds grow. I have seen massive impact. To sum it up, I’m reading more, my students are reading more, and they are loving what they read. We are connecting on a whole new level together about books. We are building book love. I am super inspired.

If you work with kids and books, check out The Book Whisperer. It may just change your thinking, too.

Don’t be too afraid to change what you do. It is never too late.

Plant some seeds. Then, watch them grow. Keep this in mind. You can always plant more seeds. The supply of soil, water, and sunlight are at our fingertips, and we are persistent farmers who never give up on our crops.

Thank you, book whisperers. I am working on becoming one, too.field-meadow-flower-pink.jpg

Opening the doors

pexels-photo-792032.jpegSometimes, I am all too apt to close my classroom door and teach. It gets noisy out there in that pod, though truthfully, I think the noise is usually coming from my exuberant, easily excitable learners. My classes easily win the prize for Loudest Class Breaks, which I realize is on me!

However, sometimes, we all shut our doors and forget there are opportunities out there beyond our four walls. I’m guilty of that for sure. I get in my own little routine and my own little head space. I forget who’s out there and what they have to offer us. It’s all too easy to close off and tune out. 

Yesterday, I opened our doors and welcomed the visitors. It just kinda happened! It enhanced my classroom, and it was a heck of a fun way to end my teaching day, especially because the rest of my day was spent on the dreaded standardized SBAC testing.

My neighbor teacher, one of the funniest, big-hearted women I know (and it is not an exaggeration to say our kids ADORE her), asked if I was doing a Fishbowl discussion any time soon.She was interested in observing one and seeing different approaches to discussion.  I hadn’t planned on one, but then I thought, “Sure, why not?”

My Language Arts students were reading different examples of conclusions for critical reviews and commented on their ‘noticings’ in Google Classroom. I was going to have them briefly discuss it in class anyways, so it was an opportunity to push their thinking more.

Just for the record, if you want the smiliest, most supportive, enthusiastic teacher to watch you teach, get my teacher neighbor. And follow her lead if you ever go and watch another classroom. The whole time, she grinned, leaned forward, smiled at the kids, and listened hard. She was a warm, open, curious presence. Afterwards, she made some observations, praised the kids, and asked some questions. It all took maybe twenty minutes. And she told me afterwards, “Now I get it!” She is doing all sorts of totally engaging activities with her social studies and reading kids, and I want to pop in and watch her in action, too.

It also made us both think, “Why aren’t we all observing each other all of the time?”

I have been hearing about schools who use professional development days to observe other teachers in other schools. I read about another school who has teachers visit other subject areas on a regular basis so that science teachers can see what’s happening in math, or English teachers can watch band (I can testify to its benefits, having observed our band teacher). And I also read about a ‘Pineapple’ chart. Every day in a common area, teachers can post a strategy or technique that might be beneficial to another colleague. It is optional rather than required. During prep time, teachers can drop in and watch another teacher instruct for a few minutes. Often, it’s all we need to get something great we can use with our own students. 

It’s good to be reminded of how much we can learn from each other. There are hundreds of years of teaching experience in my building. Okay. THOUSANDS of years…we’re on the old side!

The next cool visit came from two delightful former eighth grade students. Often, before class begins, they joke with me about wanting to come into our Language Arts class again. Before class today, right before my neighbor teacher popped in, I half-jokingly invited them to visit towards the end of class when my students are peer-revising critical reviews.

Lo and behold, there they were! I told the girls to ask my seventh graders if they wanted a Bless, Address, or Press, which is a National Writing Project strategy for revision. Basically,  the writer requests specific praise, asks for suggestions or feedback on a specific concern or problem area, or asks, “What do I still need to do to be done?”

The two girls jumped right in like professional writing coaches! They circulated around the classroom, sitting with my seventh graders, asking questions, gently pointing out areas of the writing that were unclear or could be worded more persuasively or effectively. My students were nodding, smiling, and making changes on the spot.

Afterwards, I asked the two eighth graders how it went. One girl exclaimed, “It’s so much EASIER to work with kids who aren’t my age! I look at their writing differently, and I feel like I can help them more. It’s fun!” I practically leaped for joy. 

My students commented after the ‘big kids’ left, saying the older girls helped them see things in their writing that they were missing. A few mentioned that now they have a clearer direction to keep revising. This all just makes my day, those little rays of preteen sunshine.  

I am curious about different grade levels mentoring each other’s writing. I am going to think more about this. I also keep thinking how much we benefit from leaving our comfort zones. As I read recently, “Leaving your comfort zone is where the magic happens.” It’s not just for my students. It’s for me. It’s for my colleagues. It’s for my former students, my current students, and my future students..

Yesterday reminded me to stay curious and flexible, to leave my comfort zone, and to  keep our door open.

Teaching is so hard, and teaching is so rewarding. Class periods like this remind me why I love my job.

Here is a link to the article about teachers observing other teachers. 






Some writing love for my wounded writers

Image resultOn the second day of school, I gave my seventh grade students a writing survey which asked them questions about their perceptions of themselves as writers. I was trying to learn more about their writing identities-who they are and how they perceive themselves when they write.  The vast majority of my new students’ answers sounded like this.  “Writing is hard. I don’t like it. I write best when I’m not writing. Writing in school would be better if I didn’t write.  I don’t write outside of school.” The vast majority of my students also said that they preferred to choose their own topic rather than be told what to write. This was not a shock to me. Maybe this particular year there are more kids who don’t like writing. Every year, some find the joy. But this is this group right now. Right now they are living in a galaxy that tells them that they hate writing. My whole year is going to be spent on changing my kids’ writing identities. When they answer those surveys again in late May, I want to see a different galaxy of responses.

The writing struggle is real. Our brains are on fire when we write-it’s an incredibly complicated process. I attended a workshop last year where teachers showed a diagram of what happens neurologically when we write. My bad memory for facts cannot recall the exact parts of the brain needed for specific skills. However, I do recall that multiple lobes, nooks, and crannies of our brain light up when we attempt to put words on the page and when we attempt to make it sound better. It’s no wonder that our first impulse, often, when faced with a blank page, is to shut down. Give up. Tell ourselves we can’t do it.

There are so many kids who don’t like to write, who think it’s a waste of time, who don’t think it’s important to learn how to express themselves in ways that speak to others.  I know this. While I try to be as supportive and positive as I can for my writers, I also know that some kids leave my class still feeling like they can’t do it. Most teachers I know try our very best to get kids to love to write, and most teachers I know are caring, supportive guides for kids. But I also think that offering some different avenues and pathways in the midst of our caring support can guide kids towards a different and hopefully more positive writing identity.

I realize that general praise (“Good job! Way to go!”) can do more harm than good. I also realize that specific, constructive feedback is totally necessary. We need other eyes on our writing to help us make sure that our message is clear, that our message packs the punch we want it to. We’ll get there.

But that type of feedback is not what my young wounded writers need today. Today, I want my writers to see what they can already do. Today, I want my writers to realize that they do have strengths. Today, they need some writing love.

After reading my students’  honest  responses on their surveys, I rethought my approach to our first genre study on poetry. Instead of looking at a whole poem-its strengths and areas to work on, we were just going to look at strengths, whether it was a mentor text I was sharing with them, a peer revising another peer’s poem, or if I was conferencing with a student about his or her draft of a poem.

It’s a mind shift for everyone, including me. It’s so easy to be critical. It’s so easy to point out what is not working in any given piece of writing. It is much harder to specifically name what does work and talk about why a particular moment is working, why  this moment is effective or powerful or memorable.

Of course, as a teacher who tends to be very hard on herself, I am already thinking, “How will I approach this differently and better next year, or even for the next unit?” For now, I am seeing kids pick up their pens and write. I am seeing a girl in my afternoon class run up to me to share a draft of a poem about how her family’s car was struck by lightning, but then the sun came out. I am noticing a quiet boy who constantly fiddles with pencils. He breaks them. He sharpens them. He resharpens them, even when they are worn down to tiny nubs of wood. A few days ago, he drafted a poem about different kinds of donations…some you can see and some you cannot see. I am watching us move forward and become even slightly more aware that our writing has strength. And I hope, as always, that by the end of the year, my wounded writers’ scars will heal. We’ll keep talking about what’s working and call it Writing Love. 

Note: I used Pernille Ripp’s “How Are You As a Writer?” survey. It is view only, and I am not very tech-y, so I retyped it for student use.  



Profile of a Librarian


It is seven thirty at Columbia Falls Junior High, and, already, five or six kids line the walls, waiting for the doors of the library to open. Chatting quietly, holding books, waiting. Now our librarian arrives fifteen minutes later, and kids begin to stream in.They gather in clusters around the library, talking, playing Legos, making bookmarks, draping on bean bags or rocking in one of the rocking chairs, watering plants, shelving books, dropping off books, checking out new books. Morning light floods the twenty-foot windows that look out onto the Swan Mountain range. It’s the best room in the school, but kids don’t go in there until they are welcomed, coaxed, invited to come and stay awhile by our amazing librarian, Kim Gange. In she sweeps with a smile, a joke, a giggle with a kid, a gentle reminder or encouragement. “You look like one of the kids!” she is often told. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and Scandinavian roots, she looks much younger than her forty-nine years.

When I asked Kim to describe what she does, she quickly replied, “I’m an atmosphere maker, and I’m a saleswoman. The very best part of my job is when the light bulb goes on. A kid connects to a book, and they come back and tell me about it. It’s even better when I’ve read the book. I love books. I love getting kids excited about books. I get to build relationships.” What more could you want from your friendly neighborhood librarian?

Full disclosure. I have known Kim since we were three years old. Our friendship spans forty-five years. We grew up down the street from each other in Duluth, Minnesota, and we moved to Montana together when we were in our early twenties. We have taught English at the same school for close to twenty years. We met our husbands here in Montana and are raising our children within ten miles of each other. One of the best parts is that Kim is my children’s librarian. As an example of her dedication, we were at the beach with our kids a few weeks ago, and she handed my son, who avidly attends every Tuesday lunchtime book club, a 1000 page Stephen King book she knew he wanted to read.

Now Kim is going into her third year as our librarian, and she has already succeeded at making the library a special space for kids and for teachers. But the path to working in a room full of books was a long one. Teaching English meant too much grading, too much planning, and too much stress. She would look through the windows of the second floor, look down into our library, see all those books, and think, I want to be the person who gets more kids into our library and get them reading more books.

To become that person took a whole lot of blood, sweat, tears, dedication, time, energy, and devotion. Kim returned to school, which meant two years of on-line classes. It also meant doing a practicum, where she left school most days during her teaching prep to observe and work with other librarians, who taught her about technology, how to weed book collections, and how to create makerspace, a place which brings people together to create shared projects.  

Sometimes it’s hard, she admits. Sure, she doesn’t have to grade any more! She never dreads going to work and coming up with that perfect lesson plan or grading 100 essays in a weekend. However, she misses the collaboration with fellow teachers, and sometimes, she wonders, “Does anyone really know what I do?” And, she wishes she could have more time with kids. Time to talk books. Time to sell more books. After all, reading is behind everything.

But now, Kim gets to know kids differently. Now she knows ALL of the kids, and some of those devoted readers, she gets to know more deeply than anyone.  She gets to work with everyone in the building and appreciates having a universal perspective, which shifts when you get out of the classroom and obtain the privilege of watching forty other teachers teach.  She gets a lot of peace now from her job. Instead of feeling all-consuming stress, she feels relaxed, stimulated, and excited by her work.

“I get to end my teaching career surrounded by books. I knew it was where I wanted to be.” As she gazed down at the library, filled with books, mountain views, and light, her desire to land there is our gain. Now students run in to show her what they’re reading. Now kids gather outside her doors early in the morning to gain entrance to a beloved space with their beloved librarian.

Libraries are one of the strongholds for freedom of speech, and finding our way into books is one of our ultimate freedoms. Don’t we all want kids banging down the doors of our libraries, clamoring for the newest novel by Jason Reynolds or Nicola Yoon? Don’t we want kids sitting around a round table playing chess and leaving their phones behind for those precious minutes of connection with each other and with books? We can only hope that Kim continues to build bridges, helping kids find that perfect book and coming back for more. After all, in the words of Maya Angelou, “Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else.”


Lovers of Books

imagesBF2MJ5NJEver since I can remember, I have been a voracious, passionate reader. I walked around the house reading The Phantom Tollbooth. I read and reread series-Narnia, The Great Brain, Little House on the Prairie. I soaked in the language of a good story, and when it was a good story, I was always transported.


The same is true today. I need to have a big book pile on my nightstand, or a list of books I want to read, scribbled on a scrap piece of paper, or fourteen books on hold at the public library. And now I watch my kids read at the kitchen table, in the car on a seven minute drive to the neighboring town, and at soccer games instead of watching a sibling play. Our kindergartner learned to read this fall, and now she joins us.  We filled a laundry basket with books which she drags around the house, continually grabbing piles of Berenstain Bears, Pinkalicious, and Mo Willems. All three children, like me, are voracious, passionate readers of books, all with discerning and different tastes.

My mom let me read Jaws when I was seven. I didn’t understand a lot of it, and skimmed a lot of it, but even then I knew it meant freedom. I could handle it. I was trusted.FINAL_NG_PASSING_TIME_FREE_DIVE-HD_00_00_18_00_Still001_640x360_453950531970

When my kids started reading,  I caught myself wanting to ‘direct’ their reading to certain books. My mom (another lover of books, a former elementary school librarian) said, “Your reading life is your own.” I catch myself repeating her words frequently. When someone steps in and tells you what they think you should…  or shouldn’t… be reading, maybe, just maybe, it takes away a little bit of the transport, a little bit of the mystery, a little bit of the fun and the journey.

I am not talking about recommendations from friends or from librarians, which is different. And, as a parent, sometimes my kids reject suggestions because I am their parent. When I see what books my children are reading, I occasionally bite my tongue. Then I remember my mom’s wise words. Your reading life is your own, and I honor it. This reading life is also a hard-fought freedom.be-free_wallpapers_1008_1280x960

My middle daughter reads graphic novels over and over again. Sometimes I catch myself wishing she’d finally finish the Harry Potter series after ditching it at Book 3. Then, I tell myself, “Her reading life is her own.”

My oldest son, is plowing through Warriors books. To his credit, he knows to tell his writing teacher mother, “Mom, they are VERY well written.” It’s kind of like when you dread that your kids will ever be toilet-trained, and some parent with older kids reassures you, “Don’t worry. They won’t go to kindergarten wearing diapers!” I remind myself to honor where my children are, not where I want them to be or think they should be.

When you find your own book, when you sit down to read it, and you love it, the experience  resonates. You may forget the words, but you don’t forget the feeling you had reading that particular, specific combination of words. You carry it with you, and sometimes, it even changes you. It is empowering to discover a beloved book all by yourself or, sometimes, with a hint of guidance.

Perhaps luckily for my children, I am terrible about recommending books. For me, reading is such an independent, situational experience. Books I read in my twenties resonated for me in specific, momentous ways as I navigated life as a free, searching, single person, as a thirty-something mother of very young children who barely had time to read, and today in my forties, a mother of three. As a result, sometimes I read my book club books, and sometimes, I do not. Sometimes I read classics that I was supposed to read back in high school where I faked my way through a literary analysis. Sometimes excellent books sit on my nightstand table for months because it  didn’t suit my mood at a particular moment.

One of my  colleagues teaches Title Reading next door. One day, she ran into my classroom, beyond excited, because one of her kids found a book he loved and spent all weekend reading. We talked about how sad we were for people to go through life unable or unwilling to lose themselves in books. I keep thinking that one of the greatest gifts I can pass on to my children is a love of reading. It is one of my greatest joys.

My kids and I will continue to transport ourselves in many unforeseeable ways. I am grateful they’ve found reading to be one of the great pathways to freedom. free-hd-desktop-wallpaper-background

A serendipitous visit


Last December, my husband and I were tortured by our own totally first world problems. Should we love our sweet, charming yet full-of-issues 1933 house, the house we’ve raised three children in, or should we list our house and start anew?

At the time, our basement was chock full of stuff-detritus from fifteen years of life, kids, and avoidance. At the same time, our garage, quite possibly constructed in the 1940s and not capable of housing a car, was stuffed full of more detritus. We were paralyzed by the thought of both moving or staying; it meant we’d have to deal with all of our years of accumulated couches, strollers, books, ski gear, and remnants of past lives stuffed in unlabeled boxes. No matter which way we turned, the task, and the decision, was overwhelming.

If you have ever visited our home, you will know that it is not an open floor plan so popular in all of the brand new houses. Everything happens at the kitchen table or on the living room couch-homework, art projects, pumpkin carving, games, story writing, map gazing, book reading, Barbies, snuggling, and chatting.The  five of us have a mountain of togetherness. Two kids must share a small bedroom. Pens and paper and and Legos and books are spread throughout. Even though we clean up, even though I have a good tolerance for disorder, there are always piles, and those piles haunt me.

Last winter, although I love our house and have lived here longer than I have ever lived anywhere else, I desperately wanted to leave. No space. Claustrophobia. All of us on top of each other all of the time. I wanted a NEW house, where I would not glance around and want to renovate the kitchen, add on a whole new story, or tear down the garage and build a new one. I wanted a new chance. I considered that we will have a house full of teenagers in just a few years. I dreamed of space.

My husband, on the other hand, wanted to stay, for many simple and complicated reasons. Our neighborhood is within walking distance of our kids’ school, the grocery store, the ‘downtown,’ the river. We live across the street from a city park, which is a second backyard for our kids and a gathering place for neighborhood kids. We are lucky enough to have a double lot, almost a third of an acre, and I tend the gardens overflowing with fifty year old irises, poppies, and peonies. We brought all three of our babies home from the hospital and bathed them in the kitchen sink. For all of its quirks and needs, this is our family home, and so, we decided to stay.imagesHJAEZDBK

This fall, when the sun was still cranking along, I went for a run and came home to an unfamiliar truck parked outside. When I walked into the back yard, it was one of the boys who had grown up in the house, who is now eighty-eight years old, and his wife. They were visiting briefly from California and drove by, hoping we were home. My husband had taken them on a tour of the house. He showed my husband the many lines etched into the wooden door frame and told him how he and his four brothers notched their heights, competing for who could be tallest. He slept in the uninsulated attic, covered in multiple blankets,  and snow fell on his cold nose. The mysterious wall in our basement turned out to be a massive boulder that they had to build the foundation around. His mother planted all those irises and poppies which I still tend every summer. It may be the last time he sees his childhood home, and his delight reminded us why we chose to stay. His stories reminded me of how we continue to carve out our own stories.

Four boys grew up in 700 square feet of this home, and they were okay. We will be okay, too.

We are, however, remodeling the basement, and as that takes shape, we run downstairs anxiously every day after the contractors leave to see what they have done. Often, I catch myself wondering. The five of us have a lot of togetherness. More often than not, we choose to be together. When our basement renovation is complete, and there is more space, will I miss the clutter of our day spread out over the kitchen table? Will it still happen, because that is what we love?

I do know that our visitor cemented what we had already decided and perhaps already known.

We are not quite ready for shiny and new. Staying put does not always mean stagnation. Our roots will deepen.imagesDIB9SNYC

Let’s pop bubbles.

I love our end of the year teacher staff party. It’s always on the last day of school, around four, once we’ve had a little time to throw a bag of chips and a six pack of beer together. Some years, it rains..a lot. Other years, the mood is mellow or sad as we bid goodbye to our retiring colleagues. Last year, we did shots, and teachers jumped in a freezing cold pond. Some years, our social studies teacher hosts it and my kids bond with her pony and check out the chickens. Or we bring junior high kids to paint faces and lead water balloon wars so that the adults can unwind. When my kids were small, I didn’t always go to the party. Too much hassle to chase a two year old around or try to feed them potluck fare. Now, I wouldn’t miss it, because every year I attend, I have memorable conversations. I’m not talking about life-changing moments, but I get to sit down with people I care about, who I rarely see during the school year, or if I do, it involves fragmented conversations as we stand on the sidewalk on outside duty or in passing. I cherish the time to laugh and reflect with my colleagues, and now, I can’t imagine ending the year without it.

This year, our mild-mannered band teacher was kind enough to invite us to his house which is currently for sale. He also invited a number of his talented musician friends who played jazz for us for hours. “This is my gift to you,” he said as we sat on the lawn drinking homebrew and lemonade and toasting the summer. It is light here until at least nine. Our unusually sunny June has kept mosquitoes at bay. Flowers are blooming early. It was a perfect gift.

After I spilled homebrew all over my hot pink camp chair, I sprawled on the grass and found myself in another great end of the year conversation with my Language Arts colleague and the sixth grade math teacher. The math department just agreed to adopt the same pre-AP SpringBoard curriculum. It is a leap of faith for them, just like it was for us, and we shared our perceptions of this experiment, which in my mind has largely been successful.

One of the math teacher’s biggest concerns is that she is a singleton. She is the only one teaching math at her grade level, and so collaboration is a real challenge.

The most powerful thing to come from all of us participating in the same curriculum is the collaboration between teachers. Both of us talked to our math colleague about how we have upped each others’ game. I help with writing, and she helps with reading.

Years ago, I existed in much more of a bubble. I didn’t know what other teachers were doing. Sure, we shared and talked about it…when we got a chance..which was often, guess when? The end of the year party!

This year, at least once a week and sometimes more, my colleague and I would call each other or run to each others’ rooms, and this is how the conversation would go. “I just tried this Socractic circle and it was awesome! Here’s what I did!”

“Oh, great! Can I have the rubric?

“Yup, I’m sharing it with you right now.”

Our collaboration is possible because we share a common prep time. We have the TIME to talk, gather ideas, share, evaluate, and, most importantly, reflect together. Teachers need each other. Why reinvent the wheel when one of my smart colleagues most likely has a solution? Why stay in my little bubble without knowing what my smart colleagues are teaching and how they are teaching it? But our days are already so long. We put in many extra hours on weekends. There simply isn’t enough time.

The schedule at our school is a formidable obstacle to common teacher prep time. It is an extremely complicated entity-any minor change to it starts any number of minor or major brushfires. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but finding common time for teachers to collaborate is not an easy thing to do. But I can attest to its importance.

Collaboration keeps me challenged. It reminds me of my strengths and weaknesses, and it pushes me to reflect more frequently and more deeply on my teaching practices. Plus, if I get better at it, I can teach my students how to get better at it, too. True collaboration erases ego, and it reminds us of our vulnerabilities, our strengths and most importantly, our passion for the job of teaching as well as our humanity as educators. We all want what is best for kids. It is much easier to pursue that goal together rather than separately, hunkered down in our own classrooms, trying to figure it all out.

I don’t just want meaningful, reflective conversations at my staff party every year, even though I do value them. Now that I’ve seen the power of honest, successful collaboration, I can’t go back to my bubble, and, nor should I. Summer is here, and my brain will slow down..it already has. But when I return to school next August, I will continue to push my boundaries and seek help through conversations with the people who know middle schoolers best.

Reflections on another teaching year

As the school year winds up..and down, I always look back on my year and think about what I’ve learned. I leave 2015 with many thoughts for what I need to do to become a better teacher. Some years, I leave with some quick notes to myself. “Impromptu speeches were fun! Do them again!” or “Start off the year with ‘Four Truths and a Lie,’ and then lead into personal narratives!” This year, I have pages of notes. Things haunt me. I want to do better.

This was a good teaching year, full of challenges and major shifts made by my students. It was also the year where I dove more fully into ‘rigor,’ that big teaching buzzword, more than I ever have, and I got knocked around.

When I was in high school, we wrote essays, research papers, and literary analyses ad nauseum. I appreciated it when I reached college; I knew how to focus and support ideas with clarity. I also reacted against these strict confines. Where was the personal expression, the voice, the creativity? A part of me rebelled. In college, I turned in a poem instead of an essay for a comparative literature class. I did not become an English major (which frankly is one of my few regrets in life), mainly because I was burned out on all that analysis.

When I began teaching middle school English sixteen years ago,  I did not want my students to suffer the same fate as me, especially those kids who are wired to write expressively. Too much analysis kills the writing joy. So we wrote self-portrait poems, short stories, and personal narratives. We wrote lifetime goals. We described favorite places and characters, and we emoted. Yes, we also wrote at least one essay a year. We analyzed and debated the merits of different writing, but mainly, we tried to figure out a little piece of our shifting identities. Who are you? I would ask, and my mood-shifting students would answer, very much in the moment, very much a work in progress, full of voice and passion.

This year, my seventh graders wrote two heavy-duty essays and one personal narrative with a poem thrown in. They also wrote in their writer’s notebooks every day and could use my prompt or write on their own topic, which was a little corner of freedom for them, where I wasn’t directly guiding their writing instruction. This year, I know my students are more well-prepared for academic writing, and I watched their thinking improve. But we lost some of that joy.

Writing is hard. I am the first one to admit it. It’s a vulnerable, complex task. I often tell my students that it’s like juggling twenty different balls at a time. But you need some joy to balance the rigor.

I stayed in our rigor-filled SpringBoard pre-AP curriculum all year long. We lived there, and much of the living was good. Some of the paths we took, however, led us away from that self-expression which is the heart of all writing. Writing helps us know ourselves and reveal parts of the world to others. It explains. It enlightens. Yes,  my students need to know how to write effective five-paragraph essays, and it’s not just for some test they take once a year. And, yes, they need a lot of practice using the art of argumentation or the skill of locating and using research to make a credible point.  But they also need time to explore who they are, and sometimes an essay is not the best outlet, at least one involving ‘rigor.’

My main goal next year involves engagement., and it involves returning to some of those activities I love doing because they lead to great writing-writing that I want to read. I was having less fun this year as I ran my kids through the paces. I missed saying, “Get up and act out verbs!” or creating skits or sharing twenty-five things about ourselves or writing stereotype poems or grabbing that teachable discussion moment. I always felt like I was racing through material, even though I was scaffolding, differentiating, and reteaching. Next year, we will slow down, and I will return to some of my teaching roots.

Next year, I need more of me back in my classroom. I need to recalibrate my own personal  balance between rigor and engagement. It’s different for every teacher, and it differs from year to year and class to class. This perpetual dance with balance lies at the heart of teaching.

One of the best things about the life of a teacher is that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to every year. There are always new opportunities and new beginnings with new learners. Next year, I am ready for transformation and growth more than ever. And that is what’s best for my students, too.

The art of listening

Here are some synonyms for the verb collaborate. Cooperate. Work together. Join forces. Team up. Pool resources. Work in partnership.

When we finish writing expository essays which analyze ads, we will have a series of collaborative discussions, otherwise known as a Fishbowl.

Every day for two weeks, one of my bubbliest seventh grade students bopped into class and asked, “Are we doing Fishbowl TODAY?”

“No, not yet,” I’d reply. “Friday is the day.”

“Awww….” she’d bemoan, every single time. Many, though not all, of my students love fishbowls.

A fishbowl is otherwise known as a Socratic circle. Most of the students form an outer circle; they are the observers, and sometimes they have specific tasks beyond just listening. The inner circle forms the discussion group. They talk; the outer circle listens. Then, we switch. The results are often amazing. For one thing, I get to be a fly on the wall. I stand back and observe, and I do not say a word except to facilitate the groups. The fishbowls are completely student-led. I just hang out on the sidelines with my timer, listen, and learn. Often, students have a particular topic or areas that I encourage them to explore, but they generate the direction, they respond to each other, and they decide how the discussion progresses.

Now that I’ve run many fishbowls in many different ways, I also know that you have to give it time. Last semester, I placed my advanced class in various permutations of fishbowls; they were engaging in ungraded ‘collaborative discussions’ which would eventually be graded. During the first go-round, most of the participants interrupted, or everyone talked at once, or no one talked, or one person struggled to keep the discussion going. It was all okay by me. I could see my students trying, learning, and growing. After all, I think that many adults, including me, have a lot to learn about the art of listening, too.

Then, my super smart colleague handed me a Socratic discussion rubric, and it was a game-changer. I know, a rubric, right? But it included things that I hadn’t thought to teach. For one thing, these were supposed to be collaborative discussions. The idea is not to be the best speaker, or to dazzle everyone with your brilliance, or to win. The idea is that you act as your best self with everyone else-your speaking and listening benefits everyone else. You invite someone to speak so that less assertive speakers get a chance. You respond to the ideas of others. You raise and push the level of ideas to a deeper level. This all takes focus, concentration, poise, and grace. It is hard to listen and not just say what you want to say.

On our last day, for our final collaborative discussion, the only one I graded, they collaborated. Every single student was better than the first day. They listened to each other and responded insightfully. They invited each other into the conversation. And they learned that all speaking is not a debate or an argument or a competition, even if your listeners believe something different from you. My students showed me the meanings of collaboration-they brought those synonyms to life.

I am going to sound like a total dreamer here, but I  believe that peace comes through those small moments where someone feels truly heard. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone agrees; it means their ideas were held in the highest regard by another human being. Putting my students in fishbowls and giving them permission to speak and listen to each other respectfully is a powerful life lesson, and it’s one that everyone can practice for a lifetime.