Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sharing Our Stories

I've held back for so long. I've tried to figure out the best way for my voice to be heard. And then the Immigration Ban came along. I can be silent no longer. 

My family immigrated here from Poland, many of them refugees from a tumultuous time in Poland. Unrest was widespread as Russia controlled part of the area, and borders continued to change between Russia, Poland, Germany, Austria, and more. From the research we've done, it appears as though many of them came here in the early 1900s, from about 1903-1913 for the most part.

My Great-Grandparents, immigrants from Poland
My family came here seeking asylum, seeking what they hoped would be a better life. They were forced to leave loved ones behind in order to do so. And this all came before both World War I and World War II, where things would become even more volatile. 

Loved ones who were left behind in Poland were lost. We know that my great-grandfather's sister and her husband were killed by Nazis, simply because they were Polish. 

In later years, we know my great-grandmother refused to speak of her family back in the Warsaw, Poland area. When one of her daughters won a trip to Poland, she begged her not to visit or look up family (for fear of putting them in danger.) To this day, we know very little of the family connections we have in Poland.

My Great-Grandfather
My great-grandfather immigrated here in the early 1900s. He worked as a carpenter and miner in North Dakota, Michigan, and Wisconsin before settling down in Chicago. 

What if there had been a ban on immigrants back then? What if we disallowed certain nationalities or countries from sending us their refugees? What if, for all intents and purposes, one man declared war on one particular religion? Oh, wait...

Yes. We must take action and make our country safe, but to what end? Sadly, many of our terrorists are "homegrown" or come from countries not outlined on the recent Executive Action banning immigrants. And to specifically ban refugees from one particular country blows my mind. Do we need to take further steps to increase the safety of our country and our people? Yes. But I believe doing it in such a "blanket" way will only bring more problems to our doorstep.

We need to know these stories. Bana Alabed should be a household name. She's a 7 year-old peace preacher who has managed to escape the horrors she lived through in Aleppo. How can we say she's not welcome here?

We must also resist the urge and fight against the danger of a single story. We all have stories to tell. Pay attention. Listen. Resist.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Messy Learning!

Earlier in the school year, I remember reading this blog post by the always-thought-provoking Franki Sibberson about how she approaches introducing new topics to students. In this particular post, she explained how she let kids "have a go" at something before she provided any explicit instruction or modeling; doing so can send the message that she already thinks they don't know how to do it. Not only does this provide time for productive struggle, but I believe it also serves as a formative assessment tool to determine what students already know about a given skill or strategy. Franki's words have played over and over in my mind as the year has progressed. I've tried to find a way to build in that natural inquiry process of letting them start to figure it out on their own. 

This week, we threw caution to the wind as we started wrapping our minds around the idea of nonfiction "text structures." Rather than simply introducing each possible text structure and expecting kids to somehow magically absorb that knowledge, my teaching buddy Maria and I decided we'd give kids time to dig in and try to figure it out. We gathered stacks of informational texts and provided butcher paper. As we explained the task at hand to our classes, we simply told them it was their job to figure out how authors organize their thinking in the books they write. Once they figured that out, they had to provide proof (text evidence, if you will.) 

About 15 minutes into the task as we were bouncing from group to group, nudging and pushing them to keep trying, I looked at Maria. "You hate me right now, don't you?" This was definitely messy, messy learning. We both laughed and agreed that this is exactly the kind of deep learning our kids need to be doing.

Shortly after that happened, we noticed a few groups starting to talk in terms of "fact and opinion" and "ABC order," while asking questions like, "Isn't that a main idea?" Slowly but surely, they were making sense of it. We quickly pulled the groups together and asked just a few to share out what they were currently thinking. You could see lightbulbs popping up around the room as kids shared. We sent them back to continue working on the task, armed with this new knowledge. Pretty soon, we were hearing about lists, comparing and contrasting, chronological order, and more. 

On day two, we only gave kids about 15 minutes to review the previous day's thinking before we gathered together for each group to share one book and its structure. Truth be told, our 4th grade learners came up with some possibilities I hadn't even considered! We created our anchor charts together so these ideas will be visible in our rooms. After seeing the list they generated, I am confident this was way more effective that the traditional "sit and git" instruction!

Where do we go from here? We invited our learners to use these structures as they are working during Readers' and Writers' Workshop time. It also opened the conversation about the possibilities of presentations for our next student-led EdCamp (more on that to follow!) 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Digital Reading Options

In the four years that I've been teaching in a school with 1-1 devices, I've continued to investigate options for sites and apps that will allow my kids to read books digitally. My school uses Destiny e-reader, but kids didn't seem to be using it very often. This year, we've discovered two new options that have become wildly popular with my 4th graders!

The first option is the free site Epic Reads. There is an option to pay for access to the site, but I signed up as a teacher and was able to add all of my kids to my account. I love that it features REAL books and gives kids the option to read it themselves or read with their ears. It has a good mix of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as mixed formats (picture books, chapter books, graphic novels, audio books.)
Binky the Space Cat is even offered on Epic Reads!
From My 4th Graders...
I like the options of books on Epic! On Epic, you can see the books you've read and you can read them again if you want. There's long books and short books. - Sienna
I like Epic better and the variety of books. I don't like, on MyOn, how you have to take a quiz and remember every last detail about the book. - Max
I don't really like either one, but if I had to pick, I'd pick Epic. It has shorter books and longer books! - Ella

The second option is MyOn. My district paid for this one, so it is available on all student devices (Chromebooks.) Just like Epic, it offers a good variety of genres, formats, and possibilities. Again, this site provides access to REAL books. Actually, we've added books to our classroom library based on what they've read on MyOn. Three of the most popular finds have been the Spine Shivers series (great for Goosebumps fans!), Mighty Mighty Monsters graphic novels, and Sports Illustrated Kids graphic novels.

My 4th graders love the Sports Illustrated Kids graphic novels!

From my 4th Graders...
It is easy to search for books. It keeps track of how many minutes and hours you've read each week. -Gianna
There's a lot of choices! I like to listen to the books. There's better books than on Epic! - Eric

One word of caution. There is an option for kids to take a quiz on the books they've read. This does not fit with my philosophy of free choice reading and discussions as a means of determining comprehension. Right from the beginning, we figured out how to ignore the request to take a quiz. However, some of my kids find this "fun" and choose to take the quizzes occasionally.

I'm excited that we've found a couple of digital reading options that are engaging and appeal to middle grade readers! What's even better, in my opinion, is that the sites feature real titles from real books, rather than books that are made specifically to be placed onto a site. Which sites are your favorites?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


I've firmly planted JOY in the center of my classroom world this year. Making learning joyful has always been important to me, but amid the crazy stressful education world we live in today, it seems more necessary than ever.

Lucky for me, I have a partner in crime in this endeavor. Maria Vallejo teaches across the hall from me and has become one of my greatest sources of inspiration. She has fully embraced the idea of infusing joy into everything we do. Our conversations leave me richer, happier, smarter.

Together, we are going back to basics, if you will. We are making sure each and every day offers plenty of time for choice reading and writing. We are focusing on depth not breadth with our lesson plans. We are drinking from the waterfall that is Twitter and coming to school ready to try something new on a whim. We are pushing kids to dig deeper and think more.

Reading this article from the Moving Writers blog has reminded me that I enjoy being a risk-taker, a trailblazer. I also thought it was a telling sign when I grabbed a Dove chocolate from my cabinet and was given the message, "Why not?" Why not, indeed.

Of course, there are moments when I falter. There are days when I have my doubts. But then Maria comes along with another mind-blowing suggestion, and I'm back. My Twitter people are also such a great source of inspiration for keeping me grounded and nudging me to do more. Scott Fillner, Aliza Werner, Jess Lifshitz and Stacey Reidmiller move me daily. I can't (or maybe won't?) tell you how many times they've posted a lesson, idea, or chart on Twitter... and I've promptly stolen it for an upcoming lesson.

Going back to my summer professional reading is something that's also kept me moving forward. UpStanders by Sarah Ahmed and Smokey Daniels has catapulted me into doing more with how we treat each other and infusing social issues into our learning. DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts brought back my dedication to anchor charts.

My 4th graders remind me to make the most of every moment and to embrace the fun in every situation. They've given me so much to ponder as we've redesigned our learning space to include more flexible seating options. This year especially, they've shown me what happens when I step out of their way and let them soar.

In this season of giving and a time when we see "joy" written everywhere, I have to give thanks to the people and ideas by which I am inspired. And a special thanks goes out to Peter Kupfer for asking me yesterday why I wasn't writing on my blog any more - it was just the nudge I needed to finally publish this post!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

#pb10for10 2016

Hooray!! It's one of my favorite, favorite days of the year. Unfortunately, like many others have said, it tends to be an expensive day as well. Thanks to Cathy Mere and Mandy Robek for hosting the yearly event!

After last year's #nerdcampmi, my fourth grade readers and I embraced the idea of a classroom picture book a day challenge. We were inspired by Donalyn Miller's original #bookaday idea which then inspired Jillian Heise to create the #classroombookaday challenge. (I know that isn't the focus of today's event, but it is definitely related and definitely a worthwhile endeavor!)

At the end of the school year, I asked my fourth graders to do some reflecting on which picture books were their favorites. We also took a vote for which books were the ones we remembered the most. So this year's #pb10for10 list is actually their list! Without further adieu...

Number 10...

Number 9...

Number 8...

Number 7...

Number 6...

Number 5...

Number 4...

Number 3...

Number 2...

Number 1...

And their top pick...

As I look at their list, I know we read a wide variety of picture books that included informational texts, poetry, historical fiction, and more. However, judging by their list, they were clearly drawn to the humor in picture books! And, yes, I do know I actually snuck in 11 books. (Oops!)

And now the best part... I get to go read other people's lists and attempt to not break the bank! Thanks again to Cathy and Mandy for providing this spectacular opportunity!!

Friday, July 15, 2016

#cyberPD 2016 - DIY Literacy Part 2

As I begin writing this, I cannot help but thank our incredible community for nurturing this event and helping it grow into ways we never thought possible! Cathy, Michelle and I are so impressed with how everyone is jumping in, trying new ideas, and supporting the work of each person. Our weekly conversations and comments on our Google community have certainly brought us to new understandings as well. 

My Thoughts on Chapters 3 and 4...

Creating an educational climate that elevates the level of thinking, discussion, 
and performance is ideal when raising the next generation. (p. 54)

As I began reading chapters 3 and 4, I started thinking about how repertoire charts are the teaching tools I am probably most comfortable with. Most comfortable... and yet, I still haven't utilized them consistently with my 4th graders. While reading more, I continued to think about how those charts around the room really do support the work of my readers and writers. I'm excited to also try out the other tools as other means of scaffolding, supporting, and stretching our learning. 

On page 42, Kate and Maggie list a few ideas for keeping a chart "alive" for students. While fairly common sense, these really stuck with me. I also really appreciated their advice for narrowing the focus and assessing whether the tools worked. The bookmarks will be an incredibly powerful tool for students as far as agency, independence and "stickiness" are concerned. They tie in well with goal-setting and keeping kids accountable for their own progress, too.

The focus on what rigor really means was incredibly helpful. Not only does it link to difficulty, but it also has a lot to do with motivation and kids' desire to work harder. I love the quote I listed earlier for this reason. Isn't that our ultimate goal? It ties in so well with another fabulous professional read I'm loving, which is Upstanders by Sara Ahmed and Harvey Daniels. We want our kids to want to learn and make a difference in this world.  

The Conversation Continues...

Credit to Rachel Harder for creating this!

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

#cyberPD 2016 - DIY Literacy Part 1

Let's get this party started! Cathy Mere, Michelle Nero, and I are delighted to be celebrating the 6th annual #cyberPD event with all of you. As you probably already know, we'll be focusing on just a few chapters each week and culminating our event by the end of the month. While you are certainly welcome to comment on people's individual blog posts, we would also highly encourage you to hop over to join in the conversation on our Google Community and on Twitter.

If you are new to the event, Cathy has written a super helpful post about the basics of #cyberPD. We encourage imagination, too! If there is a way you're thinking about participating, feel free to give it a whirl!

My Thoughts on Chapters 1, 2, and Bonus...

DIY Literacy was a wonderful companion for a cabin in the woods and by the shores of Stockade Lake (both in Custer State Park in South Dakota.) Both places gave me plenty of time to really dig in deep and wrap my head around what Katie and Maggie were teaching us through their new book.

"We crave these results as we teach, and yet often we get trapped in the hamster wheel of breadth - of being sure we have gotten to everything - rather than centering our work on depth." (p. 3)

I will admit that I've fallen victim to the hamster wheel. Especially as I've been learning the ins and outs of 4th grade, I've felt myself spinning in circles as I try to "cover" everything that is expected of me. I took a step back last summer during our #cyberPD event around Digital Reading (and again when I read this quote) to think about how I can address this and not feel the pull of that hamster wheel. Focus on what Maggie and Kate suggest throughout the book (memory. rigor, and differentiation,) Add these to Franki Sibberson and Bill Bass's authenticity, intentionality, and connectedness... WOW! That packs quite a punch.   

Another trap I've fallen into lately is creating very few anchor charts for (or with) my students, opting for pre-made or digital versions instead. As soon as I saw page 4, I knew that would have to change. Kate and Maggie explain the four different types of teaching tools (repertoire or process charts, demonstration notebooks, micro-progressions of skills, bookmarks), and I could immediately see how these will fit into our classroom. They go on to describe how these tools both influence learning and make it stick. Makes perfect sense! I also appreciated the step-by-step descriptions in chapter 2 - I'm totally the kind of learner who is grateful for those!

Being that I am in a 1:1 Chromebook school district, my students have information at their fingertips at all times (including at home, too.) While I do want more of our co-created anchor charts visible around the classroom, I think I'd also like to continue to provide them digitally as well. We use Haiku LMS, so it would be logical to take pictures of our charts and include them online. I'm also a huge, huge fan of Padlet, which could also work beautifully for this purpose.

What really struck me in the bonus chapter is how intuitive Kate and Maggie were to their readers' needs. As I was reading chapter 2, I did start to think, "Wait - do I have enough information to come up with these charts on my own?!" I finished the chapter, and then BOOM! Our authors were right there to set my mind at ease, offer more helpful hints, and provide resources for us. I love that the book is written like a conversation between the reader and Kate & Maggie. It's the perfect blend of new knowledge, affirming what we already do, and an enjoyable conversation!!

The conversation continues...
Thanks to Rachel Harder for creating this for us!

We've all learned that the real power of our yearly event lies in the conversations and connections we make surrounding the book we're reading. Heading over to our Google Community will help you add your voice to the dialogue! I'm looking forward to hearing what you all have to say!