Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reflection, Slice of Life, Writing

Slice of Life 2018, Day 29: What It’s REALLY About

Writer’s Workshop this morning looked the way it should look: 25 kids scattered around the room, some typing furiously while others wrote furiously across their pages.

Writer’s Workshop this morning sounded the way it should sound: typing, whispering, music playing softly (Harry Potter again) from the overhead speakers.

Writer’s Workshop this morning felt the way it should feel: energized, productive, positive.

But as I walked around to confer with students about their fantasy stories, I quickly realized that something was just slightly amiss. Something wasn’t the way I thought it should be. It took me a few conferences to figure it out: most of the fantasy stories my students were writing had fantastic characters, strong plot lines, great detail…and almost no fantasy to them whatsoever.

One girl was writing about a pair of friends who are split apart by the infringing friendship of a new girl. Another was writing about a pair of friends who have an argument that ends their friendship. A boy next to them wrote about a day with no wifi.

Where is all the creativity? I wondered. Where are all of the things I’ve taught them?

We’ve worked with two questions over and over in reading and writing across the school year: What is this about? What is this really about? I paused and asked myself these same questions.

What is this writing experience today about? I thought it was about writing fantasy…

What is this writing experience today really about? It was about developing a story arc. It was about including dialogue and developing characters through action and conflict. It was about focusing in on small moments and making them seem authentic to readers. It was about finding the joy in writing and expressing oneself through written words.

On that note, today’s Workshop wasn’t quite so “off” after all. My students were learning–just as they should in a workshop setting–in their own way and at their own pace. And they taught me something today as well: the value of remembering to look beyond the obvious to focus on what’s really at the heart of learning.

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Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reading, Reflection, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 28: What I Read

They rushed into our classroom first thing this morning, backpacks heavy, smiling widely. Both girls instantly made a beeline for me, seeking me out ahead of their classmates.

“Mrs. Valter!” The first one announced, words tumbling out of her mouth as she paused to catch her breath. “You’ll never guess how many books I read over Spring Break!”

I know this reader. I know the time she puts into reading, and I know the types of books she usually tackles–thick fantasy stories, the kind you can get lost in for hours.

“Five?” I guessed.

“How’d you know?” Her face lit up even more as she showed me her stack of books while she hauled them out of her bag, incredibly proud that she’d finally read Twilight.

The other girl grinned. “You’ll never guess what I read!”

I paused for a few beats, knowing she would tell me before I could even begin to guess.

“I reread some of the Harry Potter books!” she exclaimed (not a surprise at all).

Then it was my turn to tell them what I read over break and how many books I had finished. While we chatted, I marked my books off on the #MustReadin2018 list that’s taped to the window behind my workspace, noting my progress and how far I still have to go to meet my own goal.

As they went about their day, I paused to wonder: How can I get all of my students this excited about reading? How can I build this kind of relationship with every single reader in my classroom?

While I know I may never reach 100%, I also know I won’t stop book talking, sharing my reading life, or listening when they share theirs. Just because I might not reach them all today or this week or this year doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop trying. After all, you never know which day they will wake up and realize they, too, are readers.

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Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reflection, Slice of Life, Writing

Slice of Life 2018, Day 27: My Writing Identity

This morning, fresh off of Spring Break, I stood in my classroom as our Writing Workshop time began and I watched. The melodies of the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone soundtrack competed with the rain beating against our classroom windows to set the tone for fantasy writing. Some students were already lost in their own worlds, furiously typing or scribbling across their pages. Others let their eyes roam around the room, taking a few minutes to think and plan. Some had worked on their stories over break. Others had forgotten we would even be writing fantasy stories when we returned. Each and every one of them, however, ended our “fast and furious flash draft day” having produced writing. Every single child, at their own pace and in their own way, wrote a piece of a fantasy story. And each one of them developed a bit of their writing identity today.

At the risk of sounding much older than my mid-thirties, I can’t help but think Why, back when I was in school… We didn’t have choice in our writing. We were taught the mechanics and the structure, but never the creativity or the passion. We sat in rows and outlined and drafted and made sure each paragraph met a specific set of requirements so that the teacher could easily assign a grade. We developed writing routines, but never reflected at all on why we wrote and who we were as writers–or who we could become.

As I think about myself as a writer today, I realize that my writing identity is still a work in progress (as I believe almost all writers must think). Yet over the past four years, since beginning the Slice of Life Challenge, I have realized many truths about myself as a writer and my writing identity:

  • I seldom write out my predraft ideas, but I rehearse them endlessly. I catch myself playing with words and ideas in my mind all day long. I plan out my writing in the shower, during my drive home, and while I put my kids to bed in the evening. By the time I sit down to write, I almost always have the words I want to begin with waiting on my fingertips.
  • Revision is not my strength. Though I always reread my work, I rarely make any drastic changes. Maybe this can be attributed to my rehearsal process, or maybe just my overall stubbornness. Whatever the reason, this is a part of the writing process that I know I have to focus on most heavily as a writer because it simply does not come naturally to me.
  • I am a late night writer. Late in the evening, once the kids have gone to bed and the house begins to quiet down, I am finally able to sit down and write. This is where I release the ideas that have been building all day and capture the stories I don’t want to forget.
  • I, like all writers, thrive on feedback. I’m incredibly shy about letting my family and friends read my writing, but Slice of Life has shown me the power of building a writing community and having critical friends review your work and provide support. This is a gift I really focus on passing on to my students, regularly setting aside opportunities for them to blog and share their writing with peers.
  • I have so much to learn from other writers. The more I write, the more I know I need to grow. I feed this need regularly by reading others’ blogs, reading published books and magazines, and thinking critically about where I am as a writer and where I want to grow.
  • Writing is an act that requires routine and dedication from me–and is worth every moment. Life has a way of becoming overwhelmingly demanding and busy, and writing is often the first thing to take a backseat for me (or to be pushed out of my life altogether). However, as I once again turn my focus toward writing and the joy and fulfillment it brings to me throughout the month of March, I realize that writing is more than just something I do; being a writer is something I am.

I have taught children to write for a long time now, and I myself have been learning to write for much longer than that. As I think about all of the things I have done–and all of the writing my students have created–writing identity is at the center of everything. It keeps us focused, helps us get through the difficult parts, and gives us a vision for where we want to be.

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Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reflection, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 26: From Now Until the Last Day (Back to School Promises)

Tonight is the last night of Spring Break. I’m already missing the lazy mornings, the time to read and write, and especially the time with my kids and husband.

The weeks leading up to Spring Break were a challenge. Report cards were due, final papers had to be written, and drama between students seemed to be nonstop. I was worn out and my patience was worn thin.

As I step back into my classroom tomorrow, I realize I have a choice to make. Testing is coming. Spring is coming. The end of elementary school is coming for these kids. And I have a huge role to play in all of it. The question, then, is this: How do I want our classroom to be from now until the end of the year?

In thinking and reflecting for the past few days, I’ve made some promises to myself:

  1. Don’t forget that they are kids. This seems so easy, yet so many of them want to act older, feel older, look older than just ten or eleven. So often they are venturing into conflicts that are adult in nature, yet they are dealing with these issues like kids. I can’t forget that they are just children, even when they don’t seem to want to be anymore.
  2. Let them make mistakes. It’s difficult to step back and not intervene when you can see what is going to happen. Mistakes are messy and complicated, yet they are necessary. So, with that in mind, I need to allow more mistakes to happen in my classroom and trust that it will all work out better than OK in the end.
  3. Focus on the learning, not the test. No teacher will tell you that this is the best part of the school year. It seems that everyone gets a little anxious as mandated testing gets closer and closer. Yet I’m working every day with a group of learners, not a classroom full of test takers. In my heart, I know they will do well on the test if they have learned this year. I just have to keep learning as my why and the rest will fall into place.
  4. Focus on the “forgotten” kids. The school year is almost over and as I head back to school I realize that there are still a few kids in my classroom that I have not gotten to know as well as I should. These kids need to be my focus over the coming weeks–especially since these may be the kids who need to build a positive relationship with an adult more than anyone else.
  5. Have fun and play. Spring brings mixed-up schedules, special events, and lots of excitement and anxiety about the coming summer months. As I think about this time of the year, I want to make sure it is a celebration of the work we have done together since August and an acknowledgment of how much each child has grown, not a countdown of the days until we are “rid” of each other and the routines of school. I promise to keep my sense of humor, my desire for adventure, and my focus on these kids until the last day of school–after all, these kids deserve nothing less than my best.

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Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Read Alouds, Reading, Reflection, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 15: A Recipe for Lifelong Readers

Yesterday I wrote about the beauty of just sitting back and watching several of my readers in class this week. Many people commented about sharing how I got to this point in the year with my class, so I decided to turn my thoughts into a fun little recipe for Growing a Lifelong Reader. Bon appétit!

Ingredients:

  • 26 fifth graders of varying abilities and interests
  • Hundreds of books in a variety of genres, lengths, levels of difficulty and formats (make sure to pick out some strong graphic novels and picture books–they will not be wasted)
  • Plenty of time each day
  • 1 teacher who is a passionate reader

To create lifelong readers:

  1. Spend the summer before the new school year reading as many books as you can get your hands on. Stock and organize your library in a way that is accessible and exciting for kids. Focus on making this space appealing instead of driven by letters and levels (the kids will find the right books, trust me).
  2. Welcome students on the first day with a smile and a read aloud (if you’d like a suggestion, School’s First Day of School is a great way to kick off the year). This will become the first book of your daily #Classroombookaday read aloud.
  3. Give the kids space and time to explore the library. Notice their interests while they browse by observing closely, chatting casually, and paying close attention to which books are snapped up right away. An interest inventory will also give you valuable information about reading attitudes.
  4. On the second day of school, haul every bin of books off the shelf and set them around your room. Create an assembly line of kids and make sure every student browses every bin to make a “Must Read in 5th Grade” list. This will allow them to get their hands on every single book in your classroom to see new prospects and old favorites.
  5. Dedicate non-negotiable time to reading. Give the kids an opportunity to sit and read a book of their choice every day. Talk to them, listen to them, watch them, notice them. But don’t deny them access to this time. It’s crucial.
  6. Establish routines: #Classroombookaday (a picture book read aloud every single day); It’s Monday! What are you reading? check-ins once a week; Status of the Class; and digital Padlet walls to celebrate every book a student finishes.
  7. Book talk as often as possible. Allow the kids to see you as a reader. Be honest about the books you love and the books that didn’t resonate with you–and reinforce that each reader gets to form their own opinion about a book.
  8. Don’t forget to give kids opportunities to talk about books, blog about books, do their own book talks, and share recommendations. Developing that social reading identity is critical.
  9. Read aloud the best novels you can find. Give kids a voice and a choice in which books are selected, making sure to select various genres and main characters. Check to make sure that this is as important to the class as it is to you by seeing how angry they get when you have to skip a day.
  10. Around mid-November, host a book tasting to re-ignite the excitement for reading. Create ambiance with some cheap tablecloths and battery-operated candles and bring in some snacks. Snacks, obviously, are essential for the success of this experience.
  11. When you return from winter break, set new year’s goals–and model your own with a #MustRead list. I recommend making your own list visible in the classroom and crossing off each book as you read it to show students how you progress toward lofty goals over time, too.
  12. Get yourself through the doldrums of March with a March Madness book challenge. Encourage students to nominate their favorite books, then savor the competition as the book battle begins.
  13. By Spring Break, celebrate the growth you have seen. Not every reader will become a lifelong, passionate lover of books overnight, but with a strong example, plenty of time and books to choose from, and a cheerleader providing ample access to books, most will turn out just right.
Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reading, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 14: Readers

Today, on a sunny Tuesday morning when we’re all counting down to Spring Break, I decided to forego reading groups, skip conferencing, and let go of accountability. Instead, I positioned myself at the perimeter of the room and I watched my students read.

I watched Autumn*, who took the whole first quarter to finish a single book, set down Echo with a sigh of contentment. This is the third novel she’s read since the beginning of February.

I watched Brian, who reads slowly but surely, get lost in his latest Mike Lupica novel. Though he is far from my strongest reader, he refuses to abandon books, knows what he likes, and thinks so deeply about the characters–almost as if they become more real to him by savoring every page.

I watched Breanna, an avid reader from the day she arrived in our classroom. Today she was racing through the pages of The Parker Inheritance, devouring every word. She was completely lost in her own world, and I was glad I had read the book a few weeks ago so we could talk about that world later.

I watched Mary, who arrived last August having perfected the art of avoiding reading. I didn’t see her look up from her Babysitters Club graphic novel once.

I watched Chase–a boy who never sits still–not move a muscle as he dove into Sunny Side Up for the third time this month.

I watched Aaron read his first lengthy novel of the year. I never thought he’d stretch himself beyond the graphic novels he dearly loves, but now he has his nose buried in a hefty mystery.

I watched them all, each of them a Reader today. Not Good Readers, Bad Readers, Strong Readers, Struggling Readers, or At Risk Readers. Just Readers, each spending a sunny Tuesday morning lost in a book in my classroom.

*All names are pseudonyms to protect privacy

Posted in Classroom, Reflection, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 5: If You Really Knew Me

A little over a week ago, my team received an email from our assistant principal:

I think a lot about our 5th graders and how we can help them. I ran across this tonight and was wondering if you all would be interested in this. Easy to do, but think it might have a powerful message. 
At the bottom of the email was a link to this Tweet, an activity in which students simply complete the line “If you really knew me…” Pages were done anonymously and posted publicly in the hall for peers and teachers to read.
Constantly seeking ways to make this group of kids get along, show respect, and build community with one another, we jumped on the idea.
By Friday afternoon, I had a stack of half sheets of paper printed up in my hand (courtesy of the amazing teacher next door). I stood in front of my class, exhausted from another week of drama and conflicts, and could see the same tiredness across many of their faces. I took a deep breath and launched into my explanation, sharing a few ideas of my own, personal things I had never told them about myself but felt they were ready to know.
I could see anxiety written across a couple of faces, prompting me to add to my directions, “If there’s something you want to tell me that you want to keep private, simply fold your paper in half.”
“But Mrs. Valter,” a girl in the back replied, “Then we won’t have one in the hall.”
She was right, of course. So I thought on my feet and adjusted the plan. “If there’s anything you want to tell me, just add a post it to the front of your paper. I promise I’ll keep those notes confidential.”
The papers started arriving in my basket faster than I could read and keep up.
If you really knew me, you’d know I love to play softball. 
If you really knew me, you’d know I have two dogs. 
If you really knew me, you’d know I talk a lot. 
It only took a few minutes for the first sticky note to show up. Then another. And another.
My parents argue. A lot.
I get in trouble all the time.
The thing that worries me the most is not having any friends. I hear the people I think are my friends gossiping about me when they think I can’t hear them. I’m scared of being alone because I’m not like everybody else.
My dad is sick. I worry all the time that he won’t wake up one morning.
All of these kids, so tough on the outside, so vulnerable within. So many with something to worry about, with problems too big or too complicated for eleven-year-olds to fix. Every single one forced to grow up a little too fast, a little too soon.
I had as many quiet conversations as possible the rest of the hectic afternoon. I gave hugs, dried tears, offered support. A few I sought (and received) permission from to share their worries with the counselor. I couldn’t make false promises to fix anything, but I did my best to let them know I’m here. I care.
And, if they really know me, they will know that at school they are safe, they are loved, and every single one of them matters.
Posted in Classroom, Literacy, Reading, Reflection, Slice of Life

Slice of Life 2018, Day 2: New Books

There is a magic to being the first one to read a new book.

When I was a little girl, my teachers religiously sent home the Scholastic flyers each month, covers of joke books and adventure books and picture books and trinkets jumping off the front page. Most of the time, if I was lucky, I was able to choose a book or two to order.

There was nothing like the day those books arrived, the order slip neatly tucked into the cover of the top book on the stack. The covers were always shiny, not yet worn or dulled by fingerprint smudges. They smelled of ink and paper. The words were ready to be read for the first time.

I haven’t outgrown those book orders. Yesterday, as I sat down to lunch, I noticed a telltale white and red Scholastic box wedged into my mailbox, a box that arrived much more quickly than I anticipated.

Inside the box were brand new copies of books I’ve been waiting anxiously to add to my classroom library: Raina Telgemeier’s Babysitter’s Club graphic novels, Rita Garcia Williams’ Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, and, best of all, Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe, the cover not yet adorned with the Newbery medal awarded only days ago.

There was a time when those books would have gone straight into my library, but not today. Today was a day for celebrating new books.

As my class returned from P.E., chatting about the latest fifth grade drama and joking with one another, my kids were struggling to settle down. Until, that is, I brought out the stack of new books and began talking. I told them all about how Ann M. Martin’s Babysitter’s Club books had captivated me as a child and how excited I was to read the graphic novel adaptations. I shared with them how I read Clayton Byrd on my summer trip to Florida last year and how Clayton’s escapades sucked me into his story. I introduced them to the characters in Hello, Universe, inviting them into the book to get to know each of them a little better.

As I held up each book, I could feel tension building in the room. Eyes darted this way and that, sizing up the competition. A few students simply stood up and walked to the front of the room, unable to wait until independent reading started to get their hands on one of the books. Others whispered to one another, “I call that one!”

When I finished book talking each of the titles, hands shot up in the air. Unable to devise any better system, I randomly drew class numbers to simultaneous shouts of “Yes!” and groans of disappointment. Within moments, each book had been claimed and noses were buried inside. Most already had post-its fastened on the covers, lists of the names of those waiting for a turn with each book filling the small squares. Hello, Universe had found its way into the hands of my most reluctant reader, who didn’t pause until page 20.

Yes, there is definitely magic to being the first to read a new book.Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 6.09.23 AM