Creating a Happy Place

I think about this a lot when I’m driving.  What can I do to make sure my students think our classroom is a happy place? What kind of environment can I create that lets them start to associate reading and writing with a positive experience (if they don’t already)? I have a room with no windows and one shared foldable wall.  (Luckily, the math teacher on the other side is very understanding about my Kagan cheers and music playing!)

I started with how the room looks.  I love teal and lime green and I have no idea why, but it soothes me.  Whenever I have to pick color for crafting, I gravitate towards those two colors.  Maybe it’s earth, sky and water – let’s go with that. I also needed to brighten things up because of that perpetual HGTV phrase, “not a lot of natural light”.

So here is one corner of the room. We actually manage to  use only the lamps, no fluorescents, for most of the time, and that helps with atmosphere.  You can’t see in the pictures but the chairs say ‘READ’ on the backs, an idea I got from pinterest.com.  The small lanterns are from Pier One.  The bulletin board shows the settings of the books we are reading.  We have almost all 50 states represented.  Second semester we are going with a world map!

The students are in color coded teams with a desk in the center to hold team bins and books, etc.  Although I like the idea of this extra desk, it does take up a lot of room so I’m not sure if it will continue. 7th graders need all the help they can get with organization, though, so it may be worth the extra space it takes.

On the other side of the room are the bookshelves with a rug and pillows for reading.  These are some of my homeroom kids reading before classes start.  I had no idea that 7th graders would enjoy this area so much.  I have to rotate (and keep track of) who gets the chairs and who gets the rug so they won’t mutiny!

The green and blue bins hold picture books that coordinate with what the kids are studying in math and science. The shoebins have different genres of chapter books. On the top are magazines for those days when they just finished a book or feel like reading something short.  Also, the plate holder displays show recommendations from other teachers on the team with signs that say, “Mrs. Eden recommends…”  Eventually the students will start supplying their recommendations as well.

So, that’s my start at creating a happy reading place.  I would love to hear your comments or suggestions. Next time, creating a happy writing place…

Time for Teamwork

Last night was a great night.  I spent time with some of my favorite people on the planet; a high school teacher, an elementary principal, a reading specialist, and a retired art teacher. We met officially as members of the Northern Virginia Writing Project- Satellite in the Valley- Board to discuss the important work of getting Project services to teachers and children in our area of Virginia.  We did what we always do at the Board meetings – talked about kids and what they need as writers and learners and talked about teachers and what they need as writers and teachers.  Imagine – a room full of educators talking about our profession and how to make things better for students and their teachers.

After the meeting, I went out to dinner with the group named above.  Gayle, the retired art teacher, is the one I have known the longest.  When I first moved to Virginia, I taught K-2 Resource in a rural school where Gayle was the art teacher.  I loved her right away when she said my special education students could come for ‘extra art’ whenever she had a free block.  We were soon collaborating on a book project where I worked with the kids on writing their books and she worked with them to create art to illustrate them.  One of our students was an elective mute. The day we presented our books in a circle on the art room floor, she proudly read her book to the assembled group.  It meant that much to her.  It might never have happened were it not for our teamwork, as my art skills are limited to awkward stick figures.  Gayle’s passion for art inspired all of us. She made the kids believe they could do it.  And they did.

I often think of that moment. We have relatively few moments in teaching where we absolutely know that we made a difference to a student. Most of the time we hope, we pray, we want to believe that what we do matters. But that moment on that floor was a gift to Gayle and I and we will never forget it. One of us always mentions it when we are together. It’s a touchstone moment for us.

Being with these passionate educators at dinner made me realize that we don’t do this kind of teamwork enough.  Sure, we go to professional development and meetings and workshops and inservices and…but sometimes real teamwork comes from sitting around a table in a restaurant and sharing ideas and concerns with other people who ‘get it’.  People who want to help you and your students do better…get better…be better. People who listen, really listen, sometimes hearing what’s behind the words to the hurt or fear underneath.  People who understand the frustration of having people who know absolutely nothing about teaching and learning be the ones in charge of…everything.  People who know the power that writing can bring to a life, how knowing that you are a writer can make everything else in life possible, even with our youngest students. 

So let’s have more of this kind of teamwork.  Let’s make time for these informal gatherings that leave us recharged and ready to battle for our students once again. Let’s honor one another and what we each bring to the table and meet again soon.  I need the teamwork.

Priorities

When I went to see my Dad last weekend, he cried when he saw me.  In 50+ years the only other thing that brought him to tears was missing my Mum.  That’s when I realized that because of his stroke, his sense of time was distorted and it felt like a really long time since I had been to visit.  In truth, it had only been 2 weeks but I had skipped a weekend and gone to the beach because of reservation deposits I would lose if I bailed and because my lovely children offered to cover for me and spend the weekend with him.  I should have gone to see him.  He should have been my priority, not deposits. 

That experience and the upcoming Back to School Night made me examine what my priorities are for my students this year. I thought and thought about it, made lists, looked for quotes, and came down to two simple goals.  I want them to leave this year knowing they are readers and writers.  That’s it. As I told the parents, many of them come to me already knowing they are readers. (I can tell because they hide their books in their desks so they can read when I’m not looking.) Maybe 2 out of 120 consider themselves writers.  I intend to change that.

It started yesterday with our first official Writer’s Workshop.  This year, like every one previously, the kids are amazed that they get to write about whatever they want.  We’ve spent the first weeks of school brainstorming possible topics so no one could say, “I have nothing to write about.”  Yesterday we looked at some gorgeous black and white photographs from Africa for inspiration. http://www.nickbrandt.com/Category.cfm?nL=0&nS=0 Their pencils couldn’t move fast enough.  We wrote for 10 minutes straight and many said, “Can I work on this at home?” to which I responded, “Do you think real writers work at home? Of course! Go for it!”

The bureaucrats in Virginia and D.C. want my priority to be having my students pass a test in the spring.  For people outside of education making these decisions, that single test score is the only thing that matters.  They don’t see Gabe reading a historical fiction book for the first time and really liking it, thus opening up a world he might have missed.  They don’t see Ryan discovering that he can make people laugh out loud with what he has written and what a difference that made to his sense of himself.  They don’t see the kids excited about publishing a novel for NANOWRIMO and ending the month with a pin that says “I am a first class novelist.” and knowing that it’s true.

Next weekend, one of my former students is reading her original work at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.  She is published in a book called ‘Falling for the Story’ and she will be attending the festival with the likes of Walter Dean Myers, Patricia Polacco and Avi.  There’s no place on any answer sheet for any test to note this accomplishment. But Courtland knows she’s a writer, and that’s good enough for me.

If not us, who?

I read an article recently that talked about the importance of kids learning to work together.  Several years ago I read in U.S. News and World Report that the # 1 request of Fortune 500 CEO’s is that their hirees know how to work with other people effectively; not to be good spellers, good communicators, good writers, reading on grade level, but to work well with others.  This got me thinking…if we don’t teach them these skills in school, where will they get them? 

You don’t learn this in families, typically. I was an only child so I know I didn’t get that training at home.  I learned to obey and negotiate and occasionally whine, but not how to get along with my peers.  Even in families with siblings, getting along might mean staying out of each other’s way for the most part, not working together to achieve a common goal.

There is on the job training but from my experience in the classroom, these skills are complicated, require a great deal of ongoing practice, and greatly improve with specific feedback about what’s going right and what needs improvement.  What company is set up that way? 

When I began this school year, I was determined that cooperative learning was going to be a cornerstone of my instruction.  Teaching six different classes on three different levels meant that the students were going to need to help each other when I wasn’t available.  I didn’t think 7th graders would like it, really.  That whole boy/girl awkwardness and kids feeling self conscious 24/7 doesn’t really lend itself to group camaraderie. 

I was wrong to doubt them. Here’s how I know.  The kids have been in colored coded teams since the beginning of school  The first week and a half, they could sit where they wished (until I got to know them better) and then I placed them in 2 girl/2 boy teams wherever possible.  My class of 17 boys and 2 girls is the exception.  I will NEVER split up those two girls! 🙂 

 If one of the members does something great, they get points for their team.  When one of the boys brainstormed a list for writing of ‘The Ten Greatest Steelers of All Time’ he got 10,000 bonus points for his team.  Do something kind for a teammate = points.  Say encouraging words to your team = points.  Clean up your team area = points.  Here’s the thing, though, they haven’t even asked what the points are for!  That tells me that the team is the important part.  I think maybe building the future workforce is the important part.  And it’s really, really fun, too…

Fluency Matters

So the first week is under my belt and I have not only survived – I’ve loved every minute! No one ever told me that 7th graders are hilarious.  They get my jokes. They like my cheers.  They thank me for making the room look pretty.  If I ask them to sing, they do it.  If I ask them to shake their heads when we go into the madman phase of writing (brainstorming) they do it.  They like to get points for their teams, even though they don’t know if they are getting rewarded for it or not.  They give each other sparkles when someone says something profound or hard to say out loud.

I know that I was not this agreeable when I was in 7th grade.  I know this because it is the only time in my life that my Mother hit me.  We were stopped at a traffic light outside my junior high (back in the Stone Age) and I must have mouthed off just one time too many and she backhanded me across the face.  It made an impression. Forty years and counting and I still remember it vividly.  I wish I could remember what I said!  I don’t know who was more stunned afterwards but we both burst into tears.

Surprises this last week – too many to count.  The people at my new school and really kind and welcoming.  Both my grade level team and my English team are open and helpful.  (We are only allowed one ink cartridge for our printers for the whole year but nothing is perfect, right?)  There does not seem to be a hierarchy here which I’ve seen at many other schools.  Everyone seems to get along really well. 

Here’s what was not a surprise.  We did goal-setting the past 2 days.  The kids had to decide if they wanted to work on fluency, comprehension, or author’s craft (reading like a writer). The vast majority of my 120 students (including 3 sections of Honors and 2 sections of Inclusion) wanted to work on ‘reading better out loud’.  This has been the case for as long as I have been asking my students to choose goals.  How they sound to others and to themselves matters.  They want to be the reader that delivers.  They don’t want to be the reader where everyone groans when the teacher calls on him to read aloud.  And that’s OK. That’s as good a starting place as any to build readers.