A Compelled Tribe Post – October Reading

Even though I am an avid reader, whenever someone asks me to reflect on books that have influenced me in some way, I am not often ready with titles or takeaways. And I wonder why that is. Sometimes it might be because when I read I am in the moment. And then the moment passes. When I’m reading, nothing else matters. Then, when I’m done, I take a moment to savor the book before picking up a new one to read. And, then I am in the moment again with a new situation, a new set of characters, a new idea to consider or an old one to reimagine.

When I read books, I will sometimes write a brief review on @goodreads as part of my personal yearly book challenge. I rarely mark up novels unless I know I will be discussing them with a friend. But when I read professional books that belong to me I tend to mark up the pages with notes and commentary as I read. If I don’t own the book, then I take notes in a notebook, notepad or on sticky notes. And, while all of these ways of documenting my reading are helpful to me as a reader, they are often in-the-moment and later become context-less. I think what’s missing for me is documenting the takeaways, the lessons or the important ideas that a book brings to my life.

And, this reflection brings me to a new practice I’m going to engage in with my students and by myself. After finishing a book, I will write down the takeaways or applications to my life from the book. It could be the “so what?” and “now what” thoughts that are an important part of what it means to reflect on experiences, books and life, in general.

So, as part of the common blog post topic of #TheCompelledTribe for this month, I will mention some of the books I’ve been reading lately and why I consider them influential to my personal and professional growth. It will be my “so what” contribution to celebrating books and reading.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds – My takeaway: we all deserve second chances.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno – Home really is what you make of it. It’s not the place or the comforts, but the people that make a home a place we want to return to time and time again.

Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation by Monique Gray Smith – Canada started on the path to reconciliation in 2008 with an official apology by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper to the survivors of residential schools. My school board is heavily invested in education for all that includes recognizing and celebrating the contributions of indigenous and aboriginal peoples, as well as recognizing and educating students about the violation of the basic human rights of this segment of the Canadian population. This book offers an important contribution to the education of all students in the middle grades with respect to Indigenous peoples. I absolutely loved it. I will be referring to it all year with my grade 5 students.

Although I typically read a mix of professional books, middle grades and adult novels, this list reflects a small portion of the books I may be reading in any given month. Nevertheless, they are representative of the kinds of books I gravitate to as a reader.

I look forward to reading about your reading takeaways of the moment. Please leave a comment below.

Writing Workshop – A Collaborative Writing Experience

I’m doing something different in writing workshop this year.

I didn’t plan it. It just happened. Or maybe I had been planning it in my head without being aware that’s what I was doing. Or maybe, I seized the perfect moment to do this with a student, and it went so well that I ended up repeating similar moves with other students.

During the month of September, we worked on personal narrative writing. I know I could always do a better job teaching this genre of writing. I make the mistake of thinking that it’s an easy genre for students to write. After all, they’re writing about themselves. But I have discovered and rediscovered that it’s not my students’ go-to genre.(You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now!) In fact, it’s the genre they never use unless it’s to write a list story or a breakfast-to-bed piece of writing.

Yet I choose to start out the year with personal narrative because it seems a perfect way for students to introduce themselves at the beginning of the year. (Note to self: teach personal narrative later in the year and consider if it makes a difference in the quality of students’ stories.) But maybe it’s OK to start off with students’ least preferred genre. And, maybe it’s OK to make that the first unit of study for the year. Since my students don’t choose to write personal narratives on their own, then it might just be a good genre to expose them to.

Nevertheless, year after year, my students and I struggle with getting to the essence of personal narrative writing even though I teach strategies and read books that serve as mentor texts for teaching small moment writing. Even though we write entries in our writers’ notebooks about small moments. Even though we talk about some of the elements of personal narrative. Even after all that, we struggle.

So, this time around I decided to sit side by side with my students as they tell me their stories and I write them down. As I write, I ask questions. My students respond. I keep writing. I am hoping that my students will envision what their personal narrative story could look like and sound like. For example, after a student read a paragraph about a trip to his grandparents’ cabin listing all of the things that he did there (tubing, finding a turtle, swimming, etc), I said, “This is a great beginning, but you know what? You have several small moment stories here. Which one stands out for you? How can you stretch it out a bit more?” As he talked with me, I wrote down what he said, asked questions, wrote some more and offered the resulting (unfinished) piece of writing as a possibility. A possibility because students always decide whether or not and how to take the feedback they are given. It is always the students’ choice.

Since that first time, I have repeated a similar process with other students. I am discovering that, for some, their storytelling is so much more powerful than whatever they write down on paper. At first, this felt invasive and as if I was taking away student choice. But now I think this way of writing makes sense: a published piece of writing is rarely written by one person. Even though there’s no one here as I write this blog post, I have the voices of other writers in my head. They help me write better than I ever could write by myself. So, I’m hopeful that students will internalize this side-by-side collaborative writing experience in order to become more confident and effective writers.

If you’ve tried something like this, I’d love to hear how it went. If you have another suggestion for pushing students to do the writing on paper that’s in their heads, please share. If you would like to pushback, bring it on!

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

Inquiry Teaching and Learning

When you hear the word inquiry what comes to mind?

Do you envision kids studying abstract topics without teacher guidance? Do you imagine they are left “to figure it out” on their own? Do you picture a chaotic room where kids don’t know what to do? Or worse, do you think that the kids in an inquiry focused classroom are not getting the basic facts they need to address and solve higher order problems? In other words, are you a cart-before-the-horse kind of teacher? Do you think that before we can “let them loose” they need to have a bevy of facts under their belt?

Hmmm…Hopefully, I am preaching to the choir here, but if you’ve ever had a tinge of self-doubt about teaching from an inquiry stance, like I have because of external pressures and uninformed judgements, let’s make a pledge here and now to let go of those doubts in order to embrace inquiry in the classroom.

Letting go of doubt doesn’t mean that we will not critically examine our practice. On the contrary. We need to be hyper aware of what students are doing and how they are learning because teaching in this way means assessing will look different, as well: focused and intentional conversations with students that demonstrate respect for them as learners.

This takes a lot of courage. Sometimes we falter. Sometimes we revert to less than stellar versions of ourselves. Sometimes we rise above even our own expectations. But the point is that we are always striving to do better. To be better. Because once we know better, we must do better. It’s. That. Simple.

Every time I think that we have evolved to a higher level of thought as a profession, for example being able to juggle two seemingly opposite ideas at the same time, I am blind sided by the inability of some educators, that I respect, to juggle ambiguity. And, inquiry requires ambiguity. It demands faith. Faith in our students. Faith in the process. Faith in the future because we many not easily see the results of this kind of teaching and learning right away or ever.

So, I find it interesting that people still think that inquiry teaching and learning is about letting the class go unmoored. No captain at the helm. The kids without the necessary foundation required for higher order thinking.

An inquiry approach is the place where facts can be embedded in big ideas through the study of important topics.

Inquiry is a stance. It’s not a method or even a methodology.

Inquiry is a mindset carefully orchestrated by the teacher and students in a classroom. And although the teacher may have a global understanding of what students are expected to learn during the year, she or he is open to what students want to learn and figures out how to help them get there. Not because parents are demanding proof, or we have to tick off a district wide box that says we’ve done x, y and z, or because we don’t know how to support teachers to improve their practice. We’re open to what students want to learn, and act on this information, because it’s the right thing to do.


Cross posted Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday

Homework – Yay or Nay?

I am taking @IanAByrd’s challenge to create a personal philosophy about homework, or at least to have a clearly developed argument for when students and/or parents want to know why I don’t give homework.

This has become a topic of interest recently as other teachers at my school start assigning homework. All I say to my students is: “Remember to read in Spanish and English every night.” Even though I know this is enough, in fact I know it’s way better than”enough, I still ask myself: “Is this enough?”

In grade 5, students should not spend more than 20 minutes studying, ie homework. Kids need to go outside. Run around. Read, play, create and more. Students’ schedules are too structured and regimented by the adults in their lives.

So, here is my (short) list of beliefs about homework and why I will continue to say: “Read in Spanish and English every night.”

(1) Kids are in school for 6 – 7 hours a day. Some of them may be on a bus for up to an additional hour in the afternoon. It seems to me that burdening them with homework that I’m then supposed to check and/or correct is cruel and unusual punishment after a long day in a classroom with 25 other students and one teacher. Although this scenario may vary, it is the reality for many kids.

(2) Typical homework assignments, no matter what the grade level, often translate into worksheets. Is this really a good use of students’ time at home? The kids who know their number facts, for example, may breeze through assignments, while others may struggle with the work or may simply spend more time on it than can reasonably be expected. Homework that isn’t fast to complete and easy to check, becomes a burden for families and teachers. Not to mention the policing that inevitably happens when students don’t do the homework. And, even when we implore families to let their children do the work on their own, most families won’t heed our advice especially if they are the parent of a child who does not do school well.

(3) I value family time. I know how hard parents work to juggle work and family obligations. Let’s not add to an already full plate. Let’s instead encourage conversation about topics that are of interest to children. But let’s not turn that into another school assignment.

(4) My job is not to prepare kids for the next grade level. My job is to teach the kids I have in my class now and to be culturally and linguistically consequential with them. My job is to help students be mathematicians, readers, writers and thinkers so that they can extend this at home through unstructured play, books, art, words and conversations.

Although I’ve been around the block with respect to the disagreement around assigning homework, it seems like there are still teachers who may feel that they are not good teachers unless they give their students homework.

I’m hanging up my hat. Been there and done that. I am moving on to the next important topic in education. I don’t know what that is yet, but it’s sure to find me soon. This one’s had enough of my attention.

What about you? What is your thinking with respect to homework?

Cross posted to the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

Stepping Back So We Can Move Forward

This afternoon didn’t go well. Here’s a list of reasons why:

  • I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been.
  • I had a headache that started in the morning and never went away.
  • I was teaching something the kids weren’t ready to learn, at least not all of them and definitely not the way I was doing it.
  • I struggled to accept the examples they were sharing after the mini lesson.

So, I took a deep breath. I reminded myself that this is what they know and what they can do at this point in time. My work is cut out for me. I have a direction I need to go in.

I will take small groups and address specific needs. I will give kids lots of partner practice before I ask them to write down anything. I will slow down.

I overreached and I need to take a step back.

And, that’s what I love about teaching: as teachers, we get do overs every single day. And, so do the kids.

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.

State of the Class – Day #6

We’ve been in school for a total of six days and even though everything still feels new, many things are starting to feel familiar.

We’re staying close to the bell schedule…most of the time. Except for this afternoon when the music teacher showed up at our door to pick up the class because I was already five minutes late. I know this may seem petty, but I struggle with sticking to a schedule. I’ll often go over the time I set for a task or a mini lesson and then berate myself for dong so. That doesn’t mean I’m not flexible. On the contrary. If something comes up in class and I need to change the direction or the order of things, I will. I want to feel that we’re taking advantage of the time we have to accomplish important work every day.

Students are asking, “Can I…” and I’m responding with, “Yes, you can.” Sometimes it’s hard, but if I’m really about student voice and empowerment, then how can I answer otherwise? I will check in later with them to see what they’ve done and how it went.

So, we’re intentionally moving slowly; I’m not trying to speed up. On the contrary, I’m going for even a little more depth than breadth this year than last year.

Even though it has only been a few days, I think I have made some visible progress in my quest to get my new students to love reading, writing and math, in particular. They seem not to have a problem with science and social studies.

I am sharing lots of new middle grades books and authors with my students. I want to immerse my class in great writing to help them become great writers.

I’ve been able to sit back and read and write with my class before going around to do one-on-one conferences.

I’m still working through my note taking procedures, but I’m always doing that. I am never completely satisfied with whatever system I’ve set. Maybe that’s the nature of the beast. It seems like I’m always experimenting some more.

Not a bad start to the year!

Cross posted to Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday.


It’s 11:35 p.m. on the night before the first day of a new school year. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be though, from time to time, my mind hovers over the thought that maybe I should have worked in my classroom this weekend.

There must be things I’ve forgotten to do, I tell myself. Labels I should have made. Signs I should have put up somewhere. Copies I should have ready for the first day. Or even the second day.

But when I finally stop obsessing over the mental list of all the things I think I should have done, I stop and remember what’s most important – to focus on the kids. Preparing for the first day all the way to the last day is really about being willing to take time, no matter how much, to build relationships with my students. How? By stopping whatever I’m doing to look them in the eye and to listen to them with an open heart. As long as I’m prepared to do that, everything will be fine. Everything will sort itself out.

I’ll be ready for whatever happens.


Crossposted to The Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Tuesday