Saturday, October 22, 2016

How Loud Is Your Classroom?

Next week is my first formal observation (we have two per year as tenured teachers). The administrator observing me is pretty new to our building. I’m getting to know her and she’s stopped into my room a few times just to chat with the kids, but she’s never observed me before. When completing my pre-observation questionnaire, I always pause at the question: “Is there anything else you want me to know about your classroom?” but I especially give pause if it’s a new administrator coming into my room.

After a few moments, I write, “My room is kind of loud. In the forty minutes you are with me, you will experience periods where there is lots and lots of talking. Please know, that this is how I like it. When they are talking, I know they are learning. Yes, you will hear, ‘What are you wearing to the dance on Friday?’ and ‘Are you going to the game tonight?’ But, if you focus on everything they say between those statements, you can see that their talking leads to learning. They are sorting out their thoughts, using the words of their peers to build their own thinking, using others’ ideas to fill in the gaps of their own understanding. They are looking for assurance that others think similarly to them. They are learning to gain confidence in and defend themselves when someone doesn’t agree. This cannot be done in silence. Please know, I create and encourage the space where this can happen. I know it can get a bit loud at times and I know that for some, the noise level can be a bit… uncomfortable. Sometimes I worry that it looks like I don’t have any control over them, but I’ve watched my classroom for years now and I know FOR SURE that their talking is a good sign that learning is happening.”

Two students reading and "text-mapping" together.

I didn’t always feel this way…

For a million reasons, my first few years of teaching were difficult. Looking back, I attribute much of that difficulty to my interpretations of my students’ behavior. See, I went to a small, Catholic school. One class each of grades K-8, with no room having more than 20 students. We wore uniforms. We went to weekly mass. We were issued demerits. We wrote our spelling words 3x each nightly (more for cursive practice than spelling practice). We all stood and greeted every adult who entered the room in unison (“Good morning, Sister Melanie”; “Good afternoon, Father Frank”). We walked in lines everywhere. We had no special education/basic skills/ESL (likely a result from no teachers or programs for such rather than a true assessment of our student body). And we didn’t talk – ever! Like ever, ever – unless directed to do so.

When I started my first real teaching job – 6th grade – in a public school, it was a bit of a shock to my system. My grade school experience, combined with that tricky little filter known as “nostalgia,” made me pretty uncomfortable with what I was seeing, or should I say hearing. In a word, my kids were LOUD. Loud, and with a seemingly endless verbal word count for a school day!

It didn’t seem to matter what I did: shhh-ing, asking politely, giving “the eyes,” reinforcing positive behaviors (“I like the way Johnny put his math books away and got out his reading books without talking.”), yelling, threatening, punishing. There seemed to be nothing that I could do that made the talking stop.

Now, I want to explain that it wasn’t that my students were being disrespectful. They weren’t ignoring me when I was standing in front of the class giving instructions. They’d sit quietly for that. They didn’t talk during tests (at least not often!). But, anytime – and I mean anytime – they saw a break in my talking, their mouths were moving.

And this drove me absolutely crazy.

You see, somewhere along the way, I fell under the impression that all-day-long silence meant I was in control, so therefore, their talking meant that I was not. And more than that, I believed that silence meant engagement and so their talking meant a lack thereof. As a teacher, especially a brand-new one, this was just simply the worst. I mean here I was, working my tail off to do a good job. I was staying at school until 6-7pm at night; I spent all day on Sundays lesson planning; I was reading professional books and working toward my Master’s. I was trying so hard, and I was failing. My students, though sweet as could be, were disengaged and running the show in my classroom.

I was so bothered at what I was seeing, that I invited our districts’ TLFs (Teaching and Learning Facilitators) into my room to observe. I wanted some help on getting them quiet, especially during their independent working time when I was pulling small groups. Instead, what I got was one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a teacher.

After observing for a few hours, we met to discuss what they saw. “You know,” one of the TLFs said, “I know the noise is bothering you, but have you ever stopped to listen to what they are saying?”

“Um, no,” I said. “Does it even matter? They chatter all the time. It’s got to stop.”

“Yes,” she replied, “I know that it’s making you uncomfortable, but I think if you stopped and listened to what they were saying, you’d be much happier about the noise level.”

The other TLF spoke. “I was walking around listening to the kids doing their workbook page while you met with your small group.” (This was during a math class.) She continued, “They were not off-task. In fact, each and every student I watched and heard was completely ON-TASK. They were working through the problems together. They were talking out their ideas on how to solve one complicated problem in particular. They were trying different strategies and comparing their results. They were using each other as tools to help them problem solve.”

“This is what you want to be happening in your classroom,” the first TLF responded. “What you are hearing is the sound of learning.”

The sound of learning. How does learning have a sound? I thought learning could only happen in your head, in silence. How can this be?

Students working on a Venn diagram and constructed response question together.

The next day, I didn’t pull any small groups. Instead, I gave their kids their independent work tasks and walked around listening. I was so surprised by what I heard. Sure, there were off-task comments, but a lot of what I was hearing was relevant to the activity they were doing. They were learning! They were engaged! And more, when I came across a kid who was sitting silently, more often than not s/he was staring off into space, completely disengaged from what was going on! Oh, the irony! The kids doing what I had thought was “right” were actually the ones that I needed to be worrying about!

My classroom hasn’t been the same since. Yes, there are times when the noise makes me uncomfortable… it’s so hard to shake a belief that’s been with you for most of your life, but mostly the noise makes me happy. I know now that the noise is what learning sounds like.

Two students writing collaboratively.

So, tell me about your classroom? What does learning sound like in your room? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

"The Whole is Less Than the Sum of Its Parts" - Focusing on the Small Stuff

A few weeks ago, we received our students’ PARCC scores (PARCC is the standardized test we take here in NJ). Thankfully, I work in a district where TEACHING is celebrated over TESTING, so opening the email was not a pressing matter. Rather, it’s there for us to check out, at our convenience, in the hopes of sparking reflection on how last year’s students performed and gaining a bit of insight about our current students.

Nevertheless, that email took my breath away. My legs started to tingle and my stomach got queasy. I vowed that I wouldn’t open it, but my resolve lasted no more than 20 minutes. Before I knew it, I had printed it out and was pouring over it, with highlighters and Post-Its at hand. There were some great surprises! Kids who I knew had it in them, pulled it out… maybe not hitting it out of the park, but holding their own. But, unfortunately, those surprises could not wash away the letdowns. 

Those kids. Those kids who – despite our best efforts (mine and theirs) – just couldn’t hang come test day. They tried. Oh, did they try. I watched them. Taking their time. Making little notes on their scrap paper. Using every minute of the testing window. Oh, did they try. But… they only “partially met” or just “did not yet meet” expectations. (I do applaud PARCC for putting in that little “yet.” Kudos to appreciating the value of a growth mindset!)

Although I can honestly say that I’ve never felt any direct pressure about my students’ scores from anyone in particular – not my students’ parents, not my colleagues, not my administrators – the pressure is there. It is always there. It’s hard to explain… in fact, as I write this, I’m struggling to put into words what our “testing culture” has done to me, to my practice.

When I first started teaching, standardized testing was around, but it was of little concern. Every year, come May, we’d spend our mornings filling in some scantrons and our afternoons playing kickball outside. It was slightly inconvenient – the testing, not the kickball! – but really, no big deal. The following October we’d get our former students’ scores. Again, no big deal. Maybe (if we really looked) we’d find a pattern that might lead to a little reflection on our practice, but mostly, we’d look at the scores, nod in agreement – because honestly, any good teacher can tell you exactly how their kids will perform after knowing them for about a month! – and then file them away somewhere safe, waiting to be shredded when we clean out our desks the following June.

My how things have changed.

Despite my district’s belief that teaching matters more than testing, for whatever reason, I feel squeezed. Not a day goes by where I don’t think about how well I’ve covered a standard, or if that assignment was “PARCC-like” enough to provide adequate practice for the big test, or how I can improve their typing skills. Not a day goes by where I don’t stress over how that answer would be scored by PARCC or if that response could be deemed “off topic.” And not a day goes by, where I don’t look at a kid and think (gulp!) about all the things that he CAN’T do yet, rather than celebrate how far he’s come. Ooh, admitting that hurts. But, it’s my truth.

I’d say that maybe it’s just my ultra Type-A perfectionist personality. But, pretty much every teacher I meet – even those enviable Type-Bers who manage to maneuver seamlessly through the day despite their desk being covered, literally covered, in papers – these days feels the same.

Recently, I was talking to one of my favorite mentor/colleagues and she commented that, in her 30+ years of teaching experience, she’s come to find one thing to be true: in teaching, when it comes to kids and their performance: “The whole is LESS than the sum of its parts.”

I reflected on this idea. And before long, I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is absolutely true. When I think about all the papers and tests and projects that I’ve graded over the years, they pale in comparison to what I watched a kid learn in the process of writing/taking/creating them. Final products, I realized, are always a bit of a letdown when you compare them to journey you watched a kid take to put it together.

Immediately, I refocused myself. I decided to be present for those little moments that occur along a kid’s journey and to stop staring at the destination on the horizon. The test is the test is the test. I can’t change it. I can’t beat it. I can’t fight it. It’s there. But, I don’t have to make myself crazy staring at it looming in the distance. Instead, I can focus on all those little wins throughout the day and celebrate all the things my kids CAN do.


When she wrote this, I overheard her say, "I wish the bucket was bigger. I have so many hopes and dreams!" Agh! My heart strings! So what if she struggled to write about every.single.idea that she had listed here! It sure was fun and eye-opening to listen to her dream about them.

And this...
Despite the fact that their final papers were just so-so, watching these two initial strangers work together, help each other, and become friends in the process, was everything. Overhearing things like, "I like your opening. Can you help me with mine?" and "It's cool how you started all your paragraphs with one word. I'm gonna do that, too!" is why I became a teacher!

And this...
Student: "When I was leaving my house this morning, I got the best idea for the last paragraph of my paper. I didn't have any real paper so I just grabbed this from my counter and wrote it down so I wouldn't forget."

Me: "Today is the day you became a writer."

It doesn't even matter how her paper will turn out! From this day forward, she is a writer, and nothing, certainly no grade or PARCC score, can ever take that from her.

* * * * * * * * * *

These moments... these PARTS are most certainly greater than their SUM. These everyday lessons, experiences, moments... no test score could ever measure them. And so, from now on, I simply will not let them.

Hope October is treating you all well. I have progress reports due next week. GAH! Where is the time going!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Power and Purpose of Bell-Ringers

Years ago, at a workshop, I was introduced to Jeff Anderson's Power Writing. The basic idea (or at least how it was conveyed to me at the workshop) is this:

Round One: Give students two words (I used "school" and "vacation") and have them write the words at the top of their page. Then they need to circle one. Set the timer for one minute and tell students to write as fast as they can about that word or a story that includes that word. When time is up, have them count the number of words they wrote. Record their word counts (you can see how I used the chart and tally marks).

Round Two: Same directions, only with two different words (I used "chocolate" and "pizza.") Record word count again.

Round Three: Repeat with two more words (I used "summer" and "winter") and record again.

Now, ask students to summarize the "data" on the board and see if, from the data, they can form a generalization about writing based on what they observed. (I usually let them work in groups or at least with a partner.)

Most students will be able to conclude that with each round, they got faster. Then some will generalize that maybe writers need to get "warmed-up" when writing just like athletes do when playing a sport. Eureka!!

We discuss that most practices or work-outs will begin with a warm-up to get the body ready for exertion. I explain that writers need to do the same thing! They need to get their hands and head warmed-up for all the writing that is about to come in class that day. I tell them that that is why will begin each and every class with a 10-minute bell-ringer: a quick write that will get us ready for the real work ahead later in class.

Each day, when my students come into class, they need to write for 10 minutes without stopping. They can write about whatever they want, but I always have a prompt on the board just in case they need some motivation. Usually it's one of these prompts, or a fun picture.

It's a quiet and peaceful way to begin class, and, as our research shows, the perfect way to get our hands and head ready for all the writing ahead!

What are some of your favorite bell-ringers? I'd love to hear from you!!

Happy Teaching!!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Generating Writing Topics

At the start of each school year, I always talk to my students about their previous writing class experience. I want to know what their favorite and least favorite parts of class were. Without fail, almost every student will tell me that they like writing best when they get to write about what they want. And they dislike most when they are told what their writing topics must be.

My response is always the same: "Well then, you are just going to LOVE this writing class because in here, you get to pick your topics!" (Cue cheers, fist pumps, and smiles.) Then I say, "Okay, turn to your first page in your brand-new writer's notebook and get writing!"

Kids will open to the first page, get their pencils in gear, and then... freeze. About 15 seconds in, some will start to look around. Others will put their name and date and on the top line... unnecessary in their own books, but they at least feel they are starting something. Many will just stare at the page, peeling their eyes away only for a second to look at me and see if I'm readying myself to give more instructions. After a most uncomfortable, crickets-in-the-air minute, a brave soul will raise his/her hand and say quietly, "Well... what do you want us to write about?" With that, every eye in the room will be on me waiting for some guidance.

"Anything," I respond.

More silence. More uncomfortable glances. More crickets.

Same kid's hand goes up. "But... what is the topic?"

"Anything you want it to be," I say.

Lots of eyes. Lots of silence. Lots of crickets. Certainly no more cheers, fist-pumps, and smiles.

I look at them. "Didn't you all just tell me that you like writing best when you get to choose your topics?"

A few nods.

"And didn't you say you hate when teachers assign topics to you?"

A few more nods and now a couple of murmurs.

With this, I end my little game. I know that they love to write about what they want, topics that mean something to them. But, without time and guidance on brainstorming those topics, most kids are at a total loss. They need help to get started, and that is where list writing comes in.

All my favorites, Atwell, Calkins, Fletcher, Gallagher, advocate the creation of lists to help kids generate writing topics. The lists hold a special place in our writer's notebooks and we will turn to them again and again and again throughout the year. Lists give kids a place to store their ideas - people, places, things, events, passions - that mean the most to them.

That is why in September, we spend most of our time creating lists and then practicing writing from them.

We will create a list of things we can't imagine life without:

And a list about things we just cannot stand:

And a list about things we can't wait to do in our lives:

The list of our lists goes on and on :)

Once students have their lists finished, we practice writing from them. I model how I can take an idea, something like the beach in Sea Isle City (my hometown and favorite place on Earth), and write about it in lots of different ways:

modified from Kelly Gallagher's Write Like This (Stenhouse 2011)
Through this entire process, kids are able to see that there are limitless possibilities for their writing. And each and every time they write something, they can tie one of their "passions" into it in some way.

For many kids, this is a transformative experience. When I tell them the story of a former student who centered every single writing piece that he did for me on the WWE - from a personal narrative about his first time attending a live show, to compare/contrast of the legend John Cena to current star the Miz, to a biography of the Hulk, to an argumentative piece as to why WWE wrestlers are some of the best athletes in the word - my students who've spent years dreading writing class, are suddenly excited. The kid who spends all his time trying to become a BMX superstar and the kid who has planned to dedicate her life to becoming the next YouTube sensation suddenly find that maybe writing won't be so bad this year. In fact, not only does the idea of spending 53-minutes each day writing about the thing in life that means to the most to them not sound BAD, it actually sounds pretty great. Awesome even!

And now, I have them.

October comes and kids are writing, writing, writing, filling their pages with narratives, comparisons, and arguments. Hands that never even liked holding a pencil are flying across pages and then wiggling in the air when I ask for volunteers to share.

It's a beautiful thing... and it all starts with a list!

Do you have students write lists in their notebooks? How does it work for you? I'd love to hear about it!

Happy Teaching!!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Here's a blank copy if you'd like to use this in your classroom!

Saturday, September 10, 2016


Ladies and Gentleman... we officially have the first week down in the books!!

And what an AMAZING week it was!! #BestFirstWeekEver!!

My kiddos are just awesome. We learned a lot and laughed a lot! My own children also had a great week (aside from a quick bout of a stomach bug that kept one home for a day!). My oldest, Drew, started 1st grade. My middle, Quinn, started Kindergarten. And my toddler twins, Addy and Chase, began two-mornings-a-week preschool. Additionally, Mr. Musings from the Middle School (my husband Dennis), started a new school year, too!

Phew!! My head is spinning!

Anyway, I hope everyone is having a great weekend and recovering from this busy time of year.

This post is mainly a pictorial of some of the goings on in my classroom this week. As we settle into our routine, I'll be back with more "meaty" posts (and hopefully some new videos, too!).

Teach your students all about having a growth mindset with "The Paper Challenge!"

One of my favorite activities from the week was this Growth Mindset lesson that I adapted from here. Basically, the kids had to create the image on top using just a piece of paper and scissors. It was NOT easy... but that's exactly the point! As the kids worked, I wrote down some of the comments I heard. Things like, "this is impossible," and "I give up!" After I let them struggle for a while, I brought them back together and discussed the activity with them. It was eye-opening to see their words. They all agreed that their attitude was too negative so of course they would never have been successful. Then we read the Growth Mindset posters hanging in our room and discussed what each one meant. I closed with this video from Khan Academy. It was a fun and powerful lesson.

Fun icebreakers do with big kids on the first day of school.

One of the BEST purchases I made from TpT for this school year is the Icebreakers that Rock bundle from Cult of Pedagogy. This product contains three PowerPoint activities that allow students to talk to each other in an easy, comfortable way. What is great about these is that you can use them as one, big activity, or you can break them up, showing just a few slides here and there, as "brain breaks" through out the day. That is how I used them.

So, on the first day, I did a big "Find Someone Who" activity with them. This allowed all the kids to learn each other's names. Next, I assigned them all their lockers and we practiced opening the combination locks (super-stressful for these first time locker users)! After that, we did a few slides from Icebreakers that Rock. Then, we went over the syllabus. Next, a few more Icebreakers that Rock slides. After that, I handed out and went over all the paperwork that had to go home and be signed (oh, the paperwork!!!). Then, a few more slides right before lunch. And then a few more right after lunch. Next up, a tour of the building. Then a few more slides before trying our lockers again. Finally, another slide right before dismissal. It was the perfect break/filler/attention-getter/distraction to use throughout the day... actually, I used the slides throughout the whole week! Run to TpT and pick this product up today! Totally worth every penny.

(Some of the slides can be done silently. I LOVED these slides!!)

We always begin by numbering the pages in our notebooks. It's the easiest, most difficult task we do all year :)

Of course, we had to number our notebooks to get ready for ELA next week. I always tell kids that this is the easiest, most difficult task that we do all year :)

Anchor poster to use with Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note

I really the love smell of a Mr. Sketch anchor poster in the morning! This year, I'm starting with Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. My thinking is that it will really help with getting started with Article of the Week. Here is one of several of the posters I'll be using to teach these strategies.

Jump on the #ObserveMe bandwagon!

I'm jumping on the #ObserveMe bandwagon! Read more about it here. I'll keep you updated on how this goes throughout the year!

Okay... that is enough for now! The beach is calling my name... nothing beats September here at the Jersey Shore!

Hope the back-to-school season is treating you well! I'd love to hear how your school year is going so far.

Happy Teaching!!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Back to School 2016!!

Well, we are not officially back to school. Teachers report on Thursday and Friday for in-service and kids arrive on Tuesday... so we still have a few days!

But, I have been in my room for the past week working like mad trying to get ready! I'm using a lot of the same stuff I used last year, but did make some new additions.

 These are all back up from last year:

 Photo Display

Article of the Week (you can read about that here).

My "While You Were Out" board (read about that here).

Daily Agenda

My Objectives Wall (read about that here).

And here are some new displays:

 I freshened up the library with some inspirational signs and fun marquee lights!

 I am in LOVE with my Growth Mindset Posters! I could not get a great picture with decent lighting and no glare! But, trust me, they look amazeballs!!

Here is where I'll keep the kids posted on what I'm reading. 

And this is where I'll keep track of all the books we do a Book Talk about!

Well, that's about it for now... I'm exhausted and I know the next month will be crazy!! But, I've got a ton of great blog posts on tap for the 2016-2017 school year. Last year, I spent a lot of time talking about writing and this year I plan to focus on reading... teaching novels & short stories, working with nonfiction, developing reading comprehension, implementing guided reading (yes, even middle schoolers need it!), and reading workshop... so stay tuned!!

Hope everyone is have a great back-to-school season!

Happy Teaching!!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Back to School 2016!

Are you back to school yet? Here in NJ, we have about two more weeks, but on Wednesday our district opens the doors to teachers so we can start getting our rooms in order.

I'm excited for this year! If you remember, last year I moved to a new grade level in a new building. It was an awesome change for me, but nerve-wracking to say the least. Anytime you make a big change like that, even if it's for the better, it's stressful!

Anyway, I had the BEST year last year and now I feel so much more confident in my new spot. I'm so excited and ready to begin this school year!

Back-to-school prep has been in full-swing in my house for the last week. Last year, I put most of my focus on my writing lesson plans.

I was able to get my writing plans together last year (available here) and over the summer, I Brooke Brown-ed my curriculum.

This is what a full year of organized writing instruction looks like!

Each case is labeled and full of beautiful pink and turquoise file folders that contains each day's lesson and materials. (Laminated anchor posters included!!)


(Here is one of my cute little helpers :)

So, now that writing is all ready to go, my focus this year will be on reading.

This year, I'm beginning by introducing nonfiction with Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Beers and Probst). This will lead us into Article of the Week, which is a big part of my program (and the only homework I give). 

My hope is that after working with nonfiction and the Notice and Note signposts for NF, the kids will get a lot more out of the AoW.

Next, I'll spend most of October introducing Reader's Workshop and the Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. This will set the kids up for the rest of the year in Reader's Workshop (which constitutes a little less than half of my reading period).

Then, come the end of October, I'll be ready to dive into my reading lessons :) 

I'm excited to work on my reading program this year! We teach with great short stories, poems, literary nonfiction, and novels, and now I'll be able to give them my proper attention.

So... that's enough from me! Are you back to school yet? How is it going? Or are you prepping at your kitchen table like I am because you've still got a few more weeks? I'd love to hear from you!

And by the way...

This is happening tomorrow!! So many great deals for one day ONLY!!

Happy Teaching!!

(In reading this post back to myself, I can't get over how many times I used the word "year." Annoying, right?!? But how else can you say it, lol!!)