New beginnings (again).

Classroom2018

I didn’t write a lot last year.  

The last two years were the most difficult of my entire career.  While I formed some great relationships with students and colleagues at that school, I am so glad to have moved on.

Someday, maybe I’ll write about my struggles over the last few years in more detail than this.

But for now, I’ll just say:  It’s only been a few weeks in my new district, and I feel like I’m home again.  

 

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I hiked 13 peaks in 23 days.

Change is good.  Change is hard.

My transition from a completely competency-based school to a school that’s still in transition has been a challenge.  My students made measurable gains and rediscovered the joy in reading, but I still ended the year feeling defeated.   And tired.

I just didn’t know how to deal.

boots

I’m not sure what I’ll do when the soles on these babes finally wear out, since EMS discontinued them years ago.  (Are cobblers still a thing?)

So I went hiking.  

Yes, I am a gigantic cliche of a woman by dealing with my feelings in the woods.

I’m blessed to live in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire, and even more blessed to live within ten miles of most of the trailheads in the Belknap Range.  I discovered that I could earn a patch by hiking all twelve peaks in the Belknaps, so I did.  In 23 days.  Because I’m a psycho.

The mountains in the Belknaps are small, by New Hampshire standards, ranging from 2384′ (Belknap) to 1670′ (Anna).  But small mountains can still be tough.  Hiking is hard, even when the peak seems small.

I did about 75% of these peaks solo, and about a quarter with my husband.  The hikes with my husband were great.  We laughed and complained and sang stupid songs together.   We ate granola bars and picked blueberries and danced together with our hiking poles.

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We were the only people on the top of Mt. Major, which I’m sure hasn’t happened since 1876.

My solo hikes were a little tougher, not because I’m afraid to hike alone; I don’t mind it at all.

But my phone died at the beginning of the month, and I was waiting for my map to arrive in the mail, so I had to hike these first peaks with handwritten directions and a compass, like ye olden days.

Sometimes, I had no clue where I was going and had to just figure it out.  I had nobody to sing to, and nobody to laugh with.  I had nobody to dance with but my hiking poles.

•••

Yesterday, I hiked my last three peaks:  Anna, Klem, and Mack.
9.3 miles.   Alone.
Literally:  I did not see another single person on the trail all day.

I started the journey up to Mt. Klem via the Round Pond Trail.  One of the toughest things for me to do when hiking solo is to pace myself so I don’t burn too much energy too quickly.    I am very bad at this.

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View just before the summit of Klem.

I always try my hardest to move slowly, but I’m end-driven.  I focus on a goal, and I (thoughtfully) get there as quickly as I can.  

There was a beautiful view just before the summit, but when I got to the summit of Mt. Klem:  nothing but trees. 

I refueled on some blueberries, and continued onto Mt. Mack.  I knew there wouldn’t be a view there either, but I was hopeful that I’d see some vistas on the way.

Nope.

Once I got to Mack, I had a choice:  I could hike 2.8 more miles out-and-back to my last peak in the Belknaps, Mt. Anna, or I could call it a day and head back to the car.

 

I’m nothing if not an overachieving psychopath, so I decided to keep going.

But as I started on this last leg, the trail started descending.  Quickly.
Which meant that I’d have to climb Mack all over again on my way back.

I was all in, though.  I sang songs to myself that included lyrics like, “I don’t want to climb this/damn mountain again/but I have to/if I want to go home!”

The descent continued.  And continued.  And finally, the trail started climbing again.

To another viewless summit.   

anna

Number 12!  I reached my goal!  I’m psyched!

mack again

Reaching the summit the second time was not as exciting as the first.

The climb back up Mack was brutal.  The trail was steep, and I was losing steam quickly.  I had to force myself to take slow, baby steps, because otherwise, I knew I’d burn out.

I’ve never had to reclimb a peak I’ve already climbed on the same hike, and man, it was just as tough as you’d imagine it could be.

All of the same obstacles were there, and I had to navigate around them.  But this time, I stumbled around a lot more.  Because I pushed myself too hard at the start, I was tired.

So tired.

•••

I had the goal of conquering the Belknaps in a summer, and instead, I did it in 23 days.  

As I hiked down to the parking lot yesterday, I thought about how much this last school year was like reclimbing Mt. Rand.

Because I’ve been teaching in a competency-based school for so long, I’d forgotten about how difficult the journey was to get there.  I forgot about the obstacles, the challenges, and just how exhausting it can be.  I forgot to move slowly, and to take baby steps.

I only remembered the view from the summit, and it was glorious.

As July comes to a close, I’m ready to continue this climb, because it’s what’s best for kids. 
All the same obstacles will be there, and I’ll have to navigate them all over again.
There may not be beautiful vistas along the way (but I bet there will be).
I may have to rely on handwritten directions.
I may not even have anyone to sing and dance with. 

But I know that it’s all up from here.

TL;DR:  Teaching is hard and so is hiking.

 

 

We made a cool podcast and it was hard.

 

boysreadin

A few of my senior boys, reading Last Stop on Market Street.

I was welcomed into my new writing course by the best damn group of students.
The bad thing about that?  Last week I had to say goodbye to them for the semester.

Our class was Introductory Writing, and was composed of students in grades 9-12.  At first, the idea of teaching writing to students who had either (1) just started high school, (2) were in their last year of high school, or (3) somewhere in the middle was completely and totally overwhelming.

But we jumped in.  The best thing about choices?  Everyone works with their own strengths and weaknesses and improves, regardless of their ability. These students were excited and motivated (most days, anyway) and willing to take risks in their writing.

For their final project, I knew that I wanted my students to create and market their writing in professional blogs and through a professional Twitter.

I also had the tremendously overwhelming idea that we’d create a podcast together, featuring our best works of the semester.  

I had absolutely no clue how to do this, but I listen to a lot of podcasts, so I figured that as long as we had recordings and background music, we’d pull it off, somehow.

It was hard.  I’d reserved the last two weeks of the semester for our devotion to recording, and I was glad I did.  On our first day, we ran out of working mics. Then, we discovered that most of the places on the Internet we’d wanted to use were blocked by our school filters. Then, my students suddenly became too nervous to talk in front of one another, which halted our recording progress.

In short, most things that could have gone wrong, did.

 

We pulled it off, somehow.
We used SoundCloud, voice memos, and all sorts of other strange means to record.  I used Reaper to produce the show, and my genius-musician husband provided the music.

My students named our production The Blank Page, which will become part of their legacy as students at our school, as we’ll keep adding episodes each semester.

Check out our first episode here and please SUBSCRIBE and rate us!  

TL;DR:  We made a cool podcast and it was hard.

 

The mobile teacher and her classroom library.

 

At my new school, we don’t have our own classrooms.
We know that providing students with a classroom library is essential to building their literacy skills.  Having easy access to high-interest books is the number one thing that has helped me promote choice reading.  So when I first found out that I wouldn’t have my “own” classroom, I worried about how I’d be able to provide classroom library access to all of my students.

Luckily, I spend half of my teaching day in the same classroom, the giant American Studies room, which also homes my giant classroom library.

These books are all organized by genre or category, helping students navigate on their own if I’m not immediately available to help.

classroomlibrary

Our classroom library, before/after a book pass.

 

Classroom library on wheels.
My writing class meets in a different room, which is only a few doors down from the American Studies room, but it’s far enough away that the classroom library doesn’t feel like our classroom library.  Since many of my students don’t take American Studies, they’re a little nervous about walking into the room and interrupting a class to browse our books.

My school is very supportive of choice reading and helped me problem solve, purchasing a mobile bookshelf that I use to cart my book-talked books, new books, and most popular books with me into the writing lab.  Books are organized by category and genre on the cart too, and this moves back in the American Studies classroom with me in the afternoon.

But even though I have our most popular and talked about books on the mobile cart, I still find myself leaving the room to pull more recommendations from the larger, classroom library.  (Thankfully I have a paraprofessional in that class who can hold down the silent reading fort for the few minutes it takes!)

Being a “teacher on a cart” has made the implementation of a successful choice reading program a bit more challenging, but I’m navigating!  By  next year, I’ll be a champ.

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My bookmobile.

 

recommendation-pile

Choosing a new book from a pile of instant recommendations

Why can’t students just use the school library?
The school library and the classroom library work together.  One is not better than the other…it’s just more access to books!

My students still use the school library to check out books!  Our librarian is awesome and really helpful.  But…most of the kids who go down to the learning commons to check out books already have an idea of what they want.

My classroom (or mobile) library is a place where I easily pull out ten books that I know a student will like.  I can support them through their struggle to find the right book.  Even though I’m still getting to know my students, I’m getting to know exactly what they want to read, and being able to instantly pile ten books on their desk that I think they’ll love couldn’t happen without my classroom library.

Hopefully, in a few months, those struggling readers will build confidence and author-interest to navigate our learning commons on their own.

readinginwriting
TL;DR:
Last summer, many teachers told me that it would be impossible to incorporate choice reading because they didn’t have a place to hold a classroom library.  It’s not impossible.  It’s difficult and takes creative thinking to provide immediate access to books, but it’s possible.  

Getting started with choice reading.

book-passImplementing a successful choice reading program takes so much freaking work.
This year, since I’m teaching in a new school, it’s been even more work to get us started.

I’ve known quite a few teachers who give up on choice reading when they see that their students aren’t reading at home, or that they’re just abandoning books, over and over again.

We need to help our unmotivated readers find the books that they want to read.
They don’t know how.  That’s why they don’t read.   If every book you’d ever tried was too hard, or too boring, would you read for fun?  Me neither.

We need to read, too.
If you’re an English teacher who hasn’t read a book for pleasure since 1994, how the heck can you inform recommendations for students in 2016?  The first year that I implemented choice reading in my class, I read 85 books during the school year.  I read for ten minutes every night, and instead of killing time with my phone, I brought my choice book instead.  Because I read so much that year, and continue to read so much each year, I know exactly which books fit which students.

And guess what?  YA Lit is REALLY GOOD these days.

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Our first book pass in American Studies.

Getting started.
I don’t know this community or students as well as I did in my last school, which makes matching students and books a lot harder.  I started us off with book talks and a book pass in my writing elective right away, but it took us a bit longer to get started in my co-taught American Studies class.

Despite waiting a few weeks to kick-off choice reading in that class, students had already started noticing and perusing my bookshelf, anxiously asking when we’d start reading their “private books.”

(Side note: Isn’t “private books” the cutest term for “choice books” you’ve ever heard?  They came up with it, and I’m going with it.) 

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Our reading log.

We read for the first ten minutes of class.  I check in with them and monitor for understanding.  (Sometimes I model, but I usually don’t have time to!)

 

They do have a reading log, where they track their pages, but I don’t grade it.  It’s data for me to inform recommendations and conferences.

Some students have tested the waters and tried just not reading, but when they realize that I’m just going to keep suggesting book after book after book, and they see that I won’t give up…they keep trying new books.

Some students have already finished a book (or two!), and others have already abandoned a book or two.  But the best part?  They look forward to our reading time.  

After they finish a book, they don’t do a project.  They don’t write about their choice books.  We just celebrate their reading achievements with a high five and a link on a paper chain.

We read to get better at writing.  We read to get better at reading.  We read to build competency in reading the things we might not like, or that we might not understand the first time around.  We read to reread, to connect, and to learn new things.

We read to remember what it was like to love to read.

sept-chain

After just a week, we’d already read 13 books! 

 

 

 

 

#ILA16

twitterfeedcopyMan, social media is great.
On Saturday morning, while sipping on my morning coffee and scrolling through my Twitter feed, I saw that many of my Heroes of Teaching were using the hashtag #ILA16. I was curious, and after a quick Google search, I found that the International Literacy Association’s annual conference was taking place in Boston at that very second.

I put down my coffee, hopped on a bus to Boston, and by 1:30, I was registered (Thanks, Olivia!) and ready to learn.

 

 

Sessions

millerschu

Donalyn Miller and John Schumacher’s featured session

The ILA hosted many of my faves this weekend: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Donalyn Miller. But the best thing about conventions like this? You get to meet new heroes, like Debbie Diller, who quickly became one of my faves during her featured Saturday afternoon session. (Did you know that classroom clutter is responsible for many problems in misbehavior and inattentiveness? I didn’t ! )

 

Donalyn Miller and John Schumacher were the featured speakers early Sunday morning, presenting on the role of the reading ambassador in schools. Miller admitted that, “It can be challenging to be the voice of independent reading in your schools,” which is something that I struggled a lot with last year.

She also made that point that, “Students should be spending more time reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing than reading and then building crafts.” So true. Many times as educators, we think about the cool and crafty end product, losing sight of actual literacy goals: teaching students how to read and write. Crafts are fun, and I love giving students freedom to build during our performance assessments, but we have to remember that our job isn’t to teach them art; our job is to teach them literacy.  

kittlegallagher

My heroes in education:  Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher

By far, though, the highlight of my ILA experience was seeing Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s session on “Reimagining Reading.” Penny Kittle actually teaches at my former high school (sadly, I graduated before she arrived!), and I’ve heard first-hand from community members and my younger siblings how she has reshaped literacy in our small New Hampshire community. I’ve written a lot about how Gallagher informed my writing instruction this year, and Kittle has inspired so much of what we do in relation to choice reading.

 

Both Gallagher and Kittle are supporters of giving students choice in their English classes, informing us that they aim to “give experiences every day that call students back into reading: the joy and ride of a book.” Over this last year, they joined their classes together, bi-coastally, with one “big picture” goal: to increase engagement/volume, increase complexity, and to help students develop an allegiance to authors and genres. This project will turn into their next book, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Exhibitors
Look, I love the National Council of Teachers of English, and their convention is filled with great professional development, but the exhibit hall can be a total a nightmare to navigate. It’s not the fault of NCTE or the exhibitors…they are great!  It’s the greedy attending non educators who make it difficult, pushing their way into booths to snag any and all available ARCs, loudly declaring that they’ll be selling them on Amazon later (which, by the way, is illegal). There wasn’t anything like that at ILA.

upstairsThe exhibit hall at ILA was so much more relaxed than at other conferences I’ve been to. There were ARCs available, but everyone took their time checking them out and making sure they’d be a good fit for their student population.  I didn’t see anyone pushing through the crowd to grab any and all ARCs, and I didn’t see any rolling suitcases, which was refreshing.  I was able to chat with the people at Booksource, who make my favorite classroom library organizational app, and chat with representatives from my favorite YA publishers: Penguin, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster, who also had author signings throughout the day.  I even got to watch a presentation in the exhibit hall by the author of the Pete the Cat books!

(…and I got to meet and chat with Kelly Gallagher at the Stenhouse booth!)

In all, ILA was such an unexpected treat of a weekend.
They’ll be in Orlando next summer.  So grateful and thankful to ILA for welcoming me into this conference at the very last minute!

Reflections.

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We read 777 choice books this year.  Each link = one book!

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This student had never read a book before entering my classroom. This year he read four.

This has been the best year ever.
By moving my class into a workshop model, my students have read more than ever. They’ve liked and understood what they’ve read.

They’ve not only written more than ever, but they’ve actually enjoyed what they’ve written, and their writing was the best I’ve ever seen.

We have a curriculum, but they’ve been given choices all year.  When presented with a literature unit, they’ve picked the book.  When presented with a writing assignment, they’ve picked their topic.

As I continue in this model, I’m contemplating changing the structure of our year with the first semester focused on our writing workshop, continuing to use poetry and smaller texts as models.

I’d like our second semester focused on literature in the form of genre studies.  I’ll still weave writing throughout the semester, but I’d like to see my students build more stamina in their choice reading before tackling some of the harder, assigned texts.

 

choicesI taught a few stories from J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories in these final weeks of school, and I’d love to use that book as a mentor text during that first semester.  Despite what my students call its “old-fashioned talking,” those short stories are complex and perfect for analysis practice.

Next year, I’d also like to have my students build blogs at the beginning of the year.  During this last month, my students were encouraged to publish their work to earn “Exemplary” grades (one student even took to Twitter for publication!), but we definitely needed a lesson on how to build and market a blog earlier.  If we had done this at the beginning of the year, it would have sunk in…but in these final weeks, it didn’t.

chartThat said, this has been the most rewarding year of my teaching career. 
When given permission to really take my class full-press into a reader/writer workshop, I was prepared for a lot of work.

It was a lot of work.

This isn’t easy. Building a culture of competent readers and writers takes very, very hard work.  

On top of planning and grading, you have to conference with students every day.
You have to read a book a week to inform recommendations.
You have to write your own essays and bring them to workshop.
In a genre study, you have to read four books at a time, write discussion points, and guide groups of students through the text. 

You have to truly, genuinely know every single student that sits in your room.

And it’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.