Saturday, 20 August 2016

Searching for Balance

I have been doing a lot of soul searching over the last couple of days. 

And, I've come to the conclusion that I must change my attitude - shift my stance - so I can assume a new perspective. So that I am more aligned with what's important and may add value to my life.  

Focusing on the negative is not making me stronger or healthier. In fact, I am often stressed because I worry a lot about unimportant things. I obsess over situations out of my control. I dismiss positive experiences that would help lift my spirits and align my focus towards what's important. 

I need a distraction from my own thoughts.  

I need balance in my life. Not because I work hard to prepare my classes. Not because I read a lot of professional literature. Not because I wrote a lot this summer and will continue to do so now that school has started. But because I have been obsessing on the wrong things. Mostly, I obsess about what someone said or did and what it says about me as a teacher. I obsess about my worth as a professional. And, I have to stop. I am not a new teacher. I have been doing this for a long time. I love what I do. All of it. But, my lack of balance is hurting me. 

So, this school year I will find balance in small and big ways by taking better care of myself both physically and emotionally. 

I will drink more water on a daily basis. I know this may sound insignificant and obvious. But since I haven't been practicing this simple habit, it is not an insignificant change for me. 

I will stay focused on the positive, especially what happens in my classroom. My students are always a source of joy for me as a teacher. 

I will not imbue a casual comment with anything beyond its face value. It's not always about me! 

I will exercise on a regular basis. 

I will eat well. 

I will write down positive events that happen throughout the day in a small notebook and refer to it when I'm feeling down. Hopefully, this will help feed my soul. 

I will stop worrying about what others think of me. My opinion of myself is much more important.

What will you do to find balance during this new school year?

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

In anticipation...

Today was my second day back at work.
The students haven't started yet.
Their first day is next Tuesday.

At this time next week,
I will have met my new students.

I looked at my class list yesterday,
and again today.
I studied my new students' faces.
None of them are familiar to me.
A new class.
Not my old class from last year.
I let myself be sad for a moment.

I loved my class last year.

I swallowed hard.
I took a deep breath.

This is the new group that I will love.
As much as I loved last year's group.

I have a lot to think about
as I organize my classroom.

I make sure that everything is in its place.
I lay out the flexible seating choices.

I think about the first day.
The first week..
The first month.

I sit at my desk - 
yes, I have a desk - 
and look out across the room.
I can see the cozy reading area - 
two couches, 
two chairs, 
an individual desk against the wall
(to give kids the choice to work alone),
a bench,
a large bulletin board,
a white board.

I look over to where the window seat will fit,
and I can already picture my new students 
reading by the window.

I look at other seating choices across the room:
A rectangular table at standard height,
another one low to the ground,
three round tables,
two individual desks - side by side.

I look over to the wall behind me,
where the SmartBoard will rest.
My eyes sweep over the red, crimson rug.
I am there with my students.
During read aloud,
mini lessons,
class meetings,
and celebrations.

And, as I write this,
I can feel my excitement mounting,
waiting for next Tuesday to arrive.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Back-to-School Ruminations

I would be lying if I said I didn't have mixed feelings about admitting that I'm looking forward to the start of school in a couple of weeks.

Mixed feelings about admitting that I'm looking forward to returning to school in a couple of weeks?


I am looking forward to returning to school in a couple of weeks!

There. I said least in this blog...because saying this out loud in some circles may sound nerdy.

After all, who wants to return to work after a vacation? Who wouldn't want to extend their vacation if they could do so?

Admittedly, summer vacations are my favorite time off from school. But, what teacher doesn't look forward to summer vacations? They are stress free and rejuvenating. They provide a time to refuel, relax and reinvigorate for the new school year. They allow for extended travel time, reading - novels (adult and middle grades books for me!) and professional books - and for spending more quality time with family and friends. They are also a time to connect with other teachers through book studies, courses, and conferences - nerdy or otherwise.

First day of summer in June!

Best buds! 

So, yes, I've loved being on vacation, especially this summer vacation, which has been particularly memorable; my oldest daughter recently celebrated her wedding at the end of July and we hosted many out of country guests for about two weeks. The feelings generated from the wedding linger on and I hang onto them as summer officially winds down.

The day before the wedding.
Breakfast with my son-in-law's family!

My daughter throwing the bridal bouquet at La Casa del Árbol,Baños, Ecuador.

Yet, I contain my excitement about checking out my new room, getting a hold of my class list (have to wait a little bit longer for this) when I try to imagine the person behind the name, gathering new school supplies, and figuring out how to incorporate all of the (free and online) professional learning I have done this summer.

Some of the new books I got this summer!


I contain my excitement about the unveiling of the new furniture I requested that will make for a flexible learning environment for my students.

I contain my excitement about a new teacher in my division who is also interested in flexible seating and may make for a new partner in crime this year. Shout out to Nicole!

My first read aloud of the year!
Source:Wonder by R. J. Palacio

I contain my excitement about the first day of school when I get to greet my new class of 5th graders who are probably equal parts eager and apprehensive, as I am.

I contain my excitement as I anticipate getting past the formalities and awkwardness of that first day as we adjust to learning and living together.

I contain my excitement about my son moving to middle school because I know how fast that goes.

I contain my excitement about finally starting my field research for my doctorate. Since my research is happening at my own school, I look forward to making an impact in my school's collaborative and professional learning environment.

I contain my excitement about the new middle grades and professional books I ordered at the end of last year.

I contain my excitement about organizing my classroom library so that it's pleasing and accessible for my students.

These are some of the books my students read last year and
that I am eager to introduce my new students to this year.

I contain my excitement about getting back to the teaching I know how to do and weaving in new learning ideas from this summer. Think DIY Literacy, Who's Doing the Work, The First Six Weeks of School and other mentor books that I will be leaning on this school year.

I contain my excitement about the possibility of sponsoring the newly minted Student Leadership group that was formed last year with the passion and hard work of some of my former students.

I contain my excitement about #GRA16 and reading Pax, a book one of my students recommended I read aloud to the class last year; it was a huge success. Thanks, Willa!

And, finally, I can't contain my excitement any longer! Bring it on!

So, don't contain your excitement any longer! What are you looking forward to this school year?

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


My daughter got married a little over a week ago.

I am now a mother-in-law and eventually will become a grandmother.
It's a lot to wrap my head around.

Although the title of mother-in-law does not scare me, 
the label of "grandmother" is a bit more than I can chew.

To make light of this, I have been polling my friends for names other than "grandma" 
so I can train (not really, but yes really) 
my grandkids not  to call me grandma. 
Of course, I am joking...sort of. 

The idea of being a grandma is scarier than being a "mother-in-law" despite all of the latter's negative connotations. I love my son-in-law and couldn't be happier that he is my oldest daughter's husband.

So, what do I do about becoming a grandma? Although this is not an imminent situation in the least, I am still thinking about it. And, although I joke about it, I recognize that this worry is all about getting older and coming to terms with what that means for me. After all, I'm not the first person to ever grow old or the last one; everyone grows old and many of us go through these life stages. 

Nevertheless, something's holding me back from enjoying this stage of my life fully. I know I will need to grapple with this sooner or later, so this is a first attempt, but certainly not my last.

Is it because of society's expectation that I should start to think about retirement that I am feeling this way? Perhaps.

Or, is it because I don't consider myself "old", just growing older, that I am at odds with myself? I have a lot of energy and feel like I could put in a lot more years in the classroom.

Most likely, it's the realization that a person's life is just a split second moment of time in the universe. It's part of coming of age, so to speak. The only path I can take is to embrace this new stage of my life gracefully and joyfully. 

I love the woman my newly wed daughter has become. It is a happy time for my family. 

Life is sweet. Life is good. I am grateful. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

DIY Literacy Chapters 5 & 6

This is the last in a series of blog posts for the #CyberPD16 book study on DIY Literacy, Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor and Independence by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts. This post will address chapters 5 & 6. You can read my previous posts here and here.

Chapter 5 is all about differentiation. Kate and Maggie ask, "How can you make sure your teaching matches your kids" (p. 71) so that your relationships with students are not compromised? In other words, how can we sustain high-level teaching practices that generate vitality for us and for our students? To me, these are powerful questions since teachers' energy level in the classroom is often derailed due to a myriad other demands out of a teachers' sphere of control.

In order to provide some perspective on this issue, Kate and Maggie make an analogy between the scaffolding provided by yoga instructors and the role classroom teachers can play to address students' individual needs. The authors describe the yoga tools (folded blankets while sitting to ease movement, blocks for keeping the body stable during certain positions, or ropes for stretching) used by instructors to allow all students to access the instruction provided.

As reading and writing teachers we need to make similar supports (tools and strategies) available to our students so that they can access the instruction we provide. The yoga students choose from a variety of tools offered by their yoga instructor in order to perform challenging poses with the goal of eventually discarding these tools altogether. According to Kate and Maggie, "By giving students the tools they need, the instructor is helping the students to differentiate for themselves. It is no longer necessary for him to observe and directly teach each student in order for them to make progress," (p. 72).

It is our responsibility to provide a range of supports (tools) in the classroom to our students so that they can learn how to use them to further their learning. These supports or teaching tools (repertoire and process charts, demonstration notebooks, bookmarks and micro-progressions) assist students as they continue on their individualized learning path. One-on-one conferences or small group instruction then become a place for teachers to elevate student learning beyond what they are currently able to do alone. The instructional tools allow students to proceed along their learning path preventing them from becoming stagnant or bored as they wait for us to instruct them further. In a sense, teaching tools serve the role of surrogate teachers leading our students towards greater and greater independence.

In the remainder of this chapter, Maggie and Kate describe several lessons that illustrate the main intent of this chapter: how to differentiate instruction for our students without creating 20, or more, different lesson plans. Teaching tools provide just-in-time support as students read and write freeing us up to address our students’ individual needs. The tools are stand-in teachers that students learn to use to enhance and support their learning. However, they are not meant to replace the teacher or to serve as props that hold up students temporarily or indefinitely. Consequently, it is important to continuously observe and confer with students to help them determine when they have internalized these strategies and don't need the concrete, visual support any longer.

In chapter 6, Maggie and Kate remind us that the purpose of these teaching tools is to address the multiple dilemmas associated with helping students remember what we teach them so that they can use it intentionally. By making instruction and tools vigorous (rigorous) enough to meet the individual needs of our students, teachers are able to address the issue of how to differentiate so that all students are able to access the instruction we provide at a level that is appropriate for them.

Maggie and Kate encourage us to use the following approaches to preserve the novelty of and interest in teaching tools for our students:
  • Pop culture – references to sports, music, video game characters
  • Metaphors, such as comparing the writer's revision process to how a gamer revises (p. 91)
  • Keeping charts and other tools fresh by moving them to high traffic areas or simply taking them down when they are no longer being used independently by students
  • Soliciting student feedback as to the usefulness or placement of the tools
  • Co-creating teaching tools, as a class, in a small group or one-on-one with students
The authors also provide words of encouragement and tips to those of us (me!) who feel challenged as artists and therefore may hold back from creating charts and other instructional tools. For example, they suggest selecting color combinations that can be used repeatedly for charts, such as always using black for titles. They also offer ideas for how to use space effectively on a chart by making the writing BIG so it's visible from all points in the classroom; using simple icons over and over again to minimize the amount of text on charts; using capital letters if your handwriting is sloppy or illegible; asking for help from other teachers; and finally, ‘embracing our inner Picasso’.

Although the ins and outs of creating charts may seem trivial, it is something that has previously held me back from using charts extensively and effectively as a teaching tool. I worry too much about how they look and fluctuate between creating them any old way and taking too long to do them in front of my students. Both of these approaches end up defeating my purpose, which is to create a tool that students will use and refer to as needed. In the end, I have often given up despite having observed my students struggle to apply a lesson because they can’t remember what we did and have no visual cues to help them.

Thanks, Kate and Maggie, for taking painstaking care to write this book. I will keep it close as I continue to make plans for the new school year. Thank you to the #CyberPD16 group - administrators and participants, alike - for making this a memorable book study.

I'd love to hear others' reactions to these last two chapters or any part of DIY Literacy in the comments section below.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016


It's July 19th.

In a month's time, I'll be running around frantically trying to get ready for the first day of school.

We start August 23rd with students.

I am enjoying my summer. It's going to be hard to get back into a teaching routine. 

Here are some of the things I'm going to have to give up sooner than I'd like:

Quiet mornings. Not that I don't have quiet mornings when I'm working, but summer mornings are quieter and seem to last longer. They're not rushed and they are peaceful.

Late nights watching movies. All kinds of movies. By myself. With my husband. With my son. I have watched so many movies this summer. I will miss my movie nights.

Reading until my heart's content. I have been reading a lot! Professional books. Middle grades books. Novels. Blogs. I will miss not being able to steal an hour here and there to just read. What a luxury!

Writing and writing and more writing.

Spending time with family. Not only have I had a lot of quality time with my husband and son, but we are getting ready to celebrate my oldest daughter's wedding this weekend. My son-in-law's family arrives in the morning and my second born daughter flies in at night. After months and months of preparation, it's finally time. I'm excited, nervous, and joyful all at once. More to come next Tuesday...

So, what will you miss when you return to school in the fall?

Saturday, 16 July 2016

DIY Literacy, Chapters 3 & 4

In their recently published book, DIY LiteracyKate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts

guide teachers in the development and practice of four literacy tools that they claim will help students recall and apply the lessons we've taught in the classroom - repertoire and process charts, demonstration notebooks, micro-progressions and bookmarks. In particular, they pose the following questions: "How can I help students remember and use what I have already taught?" (chapter 3), and “How can I support rigor [read: “vigor”] in my classroom?” (chapter 4). Maggie and Kate offer the four previously mentioned tools as potential responses to this question. 

We’ve all had teaching moments when we felt confident that we'd done a good job, yet students were not able to demonstrate what they’d learned, at least not without extensive support and coaching from us. Sometimes students don't even remember the lesson! Although we hope these instances are not a regular occurrence, they may happen often enough to make us pause and consider why this may be happening. More often than we’d care to admit, and because as teachers we are super busy juggling a ton of issues while we’re teaching, we’ve continued on with the next lesson, painfully aware of leaving some of our students to muddle alone in their confusion. However, in my case, this momentary pause didn't always lead to solid teaching strategies that I could successfully use multiple times to solve this dilemma. In fact, much to my chagrin, I’ve expressed mild annoyance at my students because they just didn't seem to get it. But I taught it, right? And, I probably taught it more than once. Yet, for some reason, my students didn't learn it. This is where the tools that Kate and Maggie have developed and perfected can facilitate student learning at higher levels so that our teaching truly “sticks”. In their words, "this process – of learning things so that they become automatic – is a more complex one than simply memorizing some information. Instead, we find that students need support, time, and repetition to make learning stick,” (p. 39). Moreover, students need to understand that what we teach isn’t just for that day, but needs to carry over to their reading and writing lives, eventually leading to a personalized repertoire of skills and strategies. To me, this is a powerful lesson to impart to our students over and over again.

Charts assist students to remember our teaching. They are visible and created with students. Charts list a series of steps in a skill or a list of strategies to try when reading or writing. Bookmarks allow students to create an individualized list of skills or strategies that they have chosen to remember and practice. Micro-progressions highlight essential skills and strategies with increasingly sophisticated levels of what that skill or strategy looks like with real examples that students can then emulate. Demonstration notebooks are just right teaching for students who need extra support through one-on-one or small group coaching to reinforce what we may have already taught in a whole class lesson.

Kate and Maggie describe a predictable and easy to follow procedure for developing each of these tools. First, teachers need to research what is happening in the classroom through observation of student talk, writing and other artifacts that we deem relevant for demonstrating that our teaching has in fact influenced our students to a high degree. Then, we need to decide what skill or strategy we want to emphasize because it’s important or essential to long term learning. Next, we need to choose the tool that we think will best do that work for our students and teach a lesson using the selected tool. Finally, we formatively assess our students to determine if they are indeed applying our teaching. Ultimately, Kate and Maggie recognize that we need to wean students from these tools; they offer several signposts to help us decide when a particular tool is no longer needed.

The authors emphasize the importance of getting our students to work hard and move beyond “good enough” in order for them to break through to higher levels of thinking. And, I agree. We always want our students to push themselves, to raise the bar, to take on new challenges. We don’t want them to stop too quickly or too early because usually this means they’ve barely scratched the surface. In this sense, micro-progressions, the focus of chapter four, offer students a visual support to do this “harder” work. Micro-progressions start with what most of the class can already do on their own (level one) and gradually shift to more sophisticated levels that would require intentional teacher support in order for students to achieve them. We develop the micro-progressions because we intuit that our students are capable of moving to the higher levels with support. The idea here is to hold students accountable for this vigorous work. The authors assert, “As we move up the levels of the micro-progression, we want the kids to become increasingly active, while not completely removing their support,” (p. 57). The word “active” is key for me here; we are asking students to engage in more challenging work, most of the time, that will eventually result in little or no scaffolding from us. Micro-progressions, like the other tools previously mentioned, offer students necessary support for a limited amount of time. After all, we don’t want our students to become overly dependent on these tools. We want them to transfer the teaching offered by these tools in more automatic and deliberate ways. How we accomplish this is in the art of teaching and learning.

There is a delicate balance here: the tools we offer students have the potential to become crutches that work against the development of independent, self-reliant learners. This is something I am personally struggling with as I engage in professional reading this summer. When does scaffolding stop being just enough support for our students to move forward in their learning, and instead becomes a prop that stops them from trusting themselves to solve problems of learning? I think this is a real issue and not just a rhetorical one for teachers. I will be thinking about this further as I continue reading professional books this summer. 

My recent participation in two other book studies - Who’s Doing the Work, How to SayLess so Readers Can Do More by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris and The TeacherYou Want to Be, Essays About Children, Learning and Teaching, edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene (this last one is just getting off the ground) -  have prompted me to question some of my classroom practices. I continue to wonder which teaching moves have the potential to push students towards becoming independent learners who problem solve and apply what we’ve taught in the classroom. How do we offer sufficient support that tells our students we believe they are capable of becoming ever more independent and sophisticated learners without being co-dependent with them? When is the support we offer our students sending the message that without us they can’t do the work? The tools that Maggie and Kate have lovingly and carefully constructed support students in learning with independence, retention and vigor. However, we must continue to be vigilant that these and other tools we use in the classroom contribute to the advancement of student thinking, particularly for those students who don’t seem to know what to do unless we tell them point blank.

Furthermore, how and why students retain some, but not most of what we teach may also have to do with our beliefs about teaching and learning, and whether or not our practice aligns with those beliefs (see The TeacherYou Want to Be, Essays About Children, Learning and Teaching). For example, do we believe that our classroom is a place where only our teaching counts? Or, do we subscribe to the belief that in the classroom we are all teachers and learners? Are students doing work for us or are they doing work for themselves? Although you may think that the answers to these questions are obvious, I'm not sure that is the case. Therefore, we must engage in continuous reflection about our teaching for the benefit of our students.