A Reflection on the First Three Weeks

I always spend a ton of time planning the first few weeks. It seems like there is way too much I want to do, and I go over my plans again and again, trying to fit everything in without overscheduling. Between introductory activities, establishing the routines of our workshop, writing lessons on process and craft, and our opening reading roundtable discussions, it’s a challenge to provide enough time for the most important things: writing and reading. Somehow, no matter how much planning I did in past years, I never seemed to get it right. Days were too busy, and we never had as much time to write and read as I wanted.

As we began this year, I made three major changes to how we started the year, the first two of which were intended to free up more time:

 

Wait a couple days to start writing: This freed up more time for booktalks, browsing the library, and choosing their first book. 

 

No craft-related writing lessons for the first three weeks: This allowed us to focus on routines and process the first few weeks, freeing up time previously spent on early lessons on craft. This also means that the first piece each student finishes will show what they can do without the influence of any craft lessons, making it more helpful in reflecting on growth later in the year. During all my writing conferences, then, I haven’t made suggestions related to how the piece is written. Instead, I’ve made sure to point out positive things I see and, when necessary, help them navigate what to do next. 

 

Giving them a specific way to respond to the poems we read at the start of class: We start class most days by reading and talking about a poem, especially at the start of the year since free-verse poetry is the first genre we study as writers. Even with a list of options, it was always hard for students to respond to and talk about these poems at the start of the year, so this year, instead of giving students the whole list right away, I chose one to go with each of our first six poems. It was only after they had used each option once that I gave them the whole list and allowed them to respond however they chose.

So, now that three weeks are finished, did these changes work? 

Sort of.

Focusing exclusively on reading the first couple days was good as those days didn’t feel nearly as busy as they usually do. We had more time to talk and more time for students to select and start reading their first books. 

Students also seemed to be better able to respond to and talk about the poems we read together. After reading seven of them, most students have shared at least once, and they’ve been able to comment on them better than in previous years.

The biggest negative, though, is that I still haven’t consistently provided enough time to write and read. Moving all craft related writing lessons back a few weeks would have worked except I added a couple of new things this year that took up too much of the time we were saving. I began Classroom Book-a-Day, reading a picture book a day with my students, and I also added a couple of discussions that we had not had in previous years. Inspired by Pernille Ripp’s idea, we discussed when/why writing and reading are great and when/why they are awful. From this, students created the lists of their rights as writers and readers that is at the top of this post. I’m glad I added each of these things; it’s just unfortunate that I didn’t cut enough to compensate for adding them. So, looking ahead to next week, reading and writing time start becoming the priority they should be. Starting on Monday, there will be at least 20 minutes to write and 15 minutes to read everyday, with the writing time increasing as we build stamina. 

I’ve also already started thinking a bit about next year, about which things from the first three weeks can wait until later and which things we maybe don’t need to do at all. I might combine the first two roundtable discussions, about how we choose books and why we abandon books, into one discussion, which would free up some time. 

Another possible change next year is that everyone will make their first book choice and start reading on day one. In the past, I’ve given them a couple days in case someone couldn’t find a book, but after reading about Colby Sharp’s first day, I’ve decided, why wait? I’m thinking about it almost as a chance to test out a book for 8-10 minutes. Everyone can choose a book, start reading it, and then afterwards I’ll do my first booktalk(s). Anyone who likes a title from a booktalk better than the one they chose can switch, and if anyone doesn’t like the first book they pick, they can choose another the next day. I’m actually excited thinking about doing this on day one next year.

I’ve also thought a bit about the students’ first piece of writing. While we start with a genre study of free-verse poetry, I’ve started wondering if I should allow students to write whatever they want for their first piece. If I’m waiting to do any craft mini-lessons until the fourth week anyway, maybe I should let them write any genre they want, and then shift to free-verse poems starting with their second piece when we really start diving into our study of the genre. This is something I’ll think more about next year when I begin planning for a new year.

 

Classroom Book-a-Day: Week 2

This was another four-day week for us with our 7th and 8th graders off campus for our “Unity Day” activities and competitions on Friday. During the first week, each of our books led into a discussion that we were having. This week, each one went along with something that we were doing in either our writing or reading workshop that day.

 

Day 5: I Have an Idea by Hervé Tullet

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I came across this book at the library while picking up some titles I had placed holds on. Students were finishing up Heart Maps and choosing a topic for their first piece of writing, which they would be starting the next day. This book, which, of course, explores the nature of ideas, was a fitting book to read as they came up with and chose their first one.

 

Day 6: Poetree by Shauna Lavoy Reynolds, illustrated by Shahrzad Maydani

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I found this book during the summer when someone read it for their summer book-a-day challenge. I love the way this book celebrates the power of poetry to connect us to others. We start the year with a genre study of free-verse poetry, so even though the poems the main character writes in this book are not free-verse, I knew I wanted to read this one on the day students started drafting their first poems. 

 

Day 7: The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires

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This was another book I found because of someone’s summer book-a-day challenge. I originally got it to read with my daughter because of how it shows that we don’t have to do things perfectly the first time and that making mistakes can actually be valuable. Feeling the pressure to make something perfect can be crippling to writers, so this was an opportunity to talk about this and encourage students to just write, especially when drafting, knowing that they can come back and make it better later.

 

Day 8: How This Book Was Made by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex

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I found this book on one of Pernille Ripp’s lists of picture books she reads with her seventh graders. This funny look at process of writing and publishing one book went perfectly with our class this day. During the first portion of our writing workshop, students were interviewing me about a poem I recently finished. They had spent some time the day before studying the plans, drafts, and revisions of this poem, coming up with questions they wanted to ask about choices and changes I made, as well as anything else about my process. While I responded to their questions, they recorded their observations in response to this question: What things might a writer do when trying to write a good poem? (A list of their compiled answers can be found here. This will become an entry in their writing-reading handbooks next week. I also wrote a post about doing this with last year’s students.) This book paired well with our focus on process, and was also fitting as students made decisions about what to do next with the poems they started this week.

 

So these are the four books we shared together last week. Again this weekend I’ll be going through my stack of books for the start of the year and planning out which ones to read together next week.

Classroom Book-a-Day: Week 1

Last year, I dipped my toe into Classroom Book-a-Day, reading one picture book a week to my seventh graders. I was interested in doing it more often, but for years, we have read and discussed a poem at the start of most classes, kind of Nancie Atwell’s version of Classroom Book-a-Day, and I didn’t want to lose that. I wasn’t sure if I could make time for both. This year, though, I’m trying it. I’m hoping that with good planning and a focus on making my writing mini-lessons shorter and more efficient, I can create the time we need without sacrificing independent reading and writing time. 

One of my other goals this year is to be more purposeful in the books I choose and how we use them. Last year, some books were chosen for specific reasons, such as the ones that fit with the Global Read Aloud, but many others were chosen without a reason other than I liked them. Now, there’s nothing wrong with reading a book just because it’s good, but I also think we can do more with them than we did a year ago. As I was reading some of Pernille Ripp’s favorites for the start of school, I started thinking about the conversations I wanted us to have that first week, and I chose titles that could lead us to those topics.

 

Day 1: The Pigeon HAS to Go to School by Mo Willems

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Seventh grade is a year of transition at our school. We tend to get a lot of new students in seventh grade, and for our returning students, they are leaving the elementary wing and heading down to the junior high/high school end of the building for the first time. They rotate classes more, and there are many other changes to get used to. In this book, the pigeon talks a lot about his feelings about starting school. After reading, we talked about the same thing. It was great to hear students who were brave enough to explain the reasons why they were scared or nervous or excited for the school year.

 

Day 2: We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins

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Last year we read this on day one. This year, it was moved back a day. In this book, Penelope is obviously not a great classmate, at least at the beginning. Eating your classmates is definitely not going to endear yourself to anyone. So, in addition to giving us a chance to laugh together, this book led to a conversation about the expectations students have for each other, what they need from each other in order to have a productive and enjoyable year. 

 

Day 3: Book by David Miles, illustrated by Natalie Hoopes

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I found this one at a library book sale a couple years ago. It celebrates books and the experience of entering another world when we read. We used this as an entry point to discuss the experience of reading. While Miles shows the wonderful side of reading, we also know that reading isn’t always great, especially for some students. So, borrowing an idea from Pernille Ripp, we discussed these questions: “When/why is reading awful? When/why is reading great?” More on this in a bit.

 

Day 4: What If? by Samantha Berger, illustrated by Mike Curato

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Another beautiful book, What If? celebrates the art of creating stories of all kinds and in all ways. While not just about writing, we used this to lead into a conversation that paralleled yesterdays, again borrowed from Pernille: “When/why is writing awful? When/why is writing great?”

 

The conversations we had on Thursday and Friday this week are ones that for years I avoided having. In the last few years I did begin to talk to students about these topics, but it was usually one-on-one. I’m not exactly sure why we didn’t talk about these things sooner. Maybe part of it was my concern about allowing students who didn’t like writing or reading to have a platform to spread their views to others in the class. Now, of course, this fear is silly. Nobody is going to start disliking writing or reading just because someone convinces them too, just like nobody is going to start liking it just because someone tells them to. The other reason this was silly is that students are already having these conversations. If a teacher gives students an assignment they hate, we can bet that students are going to talk about it. By bringing these discussions into our classrooms, now we as teachers can be a part, and we can also work together to find solutions to the bad sides of reading and writing.

I’m looking forward to seeing what else becomes possible because of the picture books we read together this year. I have a couple titles in mind for next week, but I also have a big stack to sort through. I’m looking forward to reading through them with my daughters this weekend to try to decide which ones we’ll read next.

Student Surveys

Like many teachers, I have my students fill out surveys at the start of the year in order to start getting to know them as quickly as possible. When I first started doing this, I simply copied the reading and writing surveys Nancie Atwell included in In the Middle. Since then, my surveys have changed a lot. I still use some of her questions, but I’ve also incorporated questions from Donalyn Miller and Pernille Ripp, and I’ve also added many questions of my own. There’s so much I’d love to ask my students, but I also don’t want to overwhelm them at the start of the year, so I spend a lot of time each summer deciding which questions are the most important to include.

Currently, I use three different surveys, one about reading, one about writing, and one asking for other information about students. I have two big goals for the surveys. One, of course, is to help me get to know them. The second, though, is for these surveys to become a reflection tool later on. Students will complete these same surveys at other times during the year, and they will then compare their responses, noting changes and areas of growth. This is one of the ways I decide what questions to include: Which ones will help them to reflect later in the year?

As I read the surveys, they will help me create stacks of books for every student to preview. They will also help me discover which students are likely to need more assistance or attention early in the year as we choose our first books and start reading. And they will give me insights into conversations I can have with students early in the year. Ultimately, I hope that I can use the responses to help build trust.

This year, we’re filling out the surveys a little differently than before. After reading this blog post and also looking at my schedule for the first couple days, I decided to split up the surveys into parts. We’re filling them out this week according to this schedule:

  • Tuesday: Getting to Know You #1-5, Reading #1-10
  • Wednesday: Getting to Know You #6-10, Reading #11-end
  • Thursday: Writing #1-9
  • Friday: Getting to Know You #11-end, Writing #10-13
  • Monday (of 2nd week): Writing #14-19

As with my parent letters, I benefited greatly from reading the work of the teachers mentioned at the beginning, so feel free to use any of the questions from my surveys as you create or revisit your own.

There are links to my surveys within this blog post, but here they are in list form:

Introducing Myself and My Class to Parents

When I first started teaching, my basic strategy for communicating with parents was to do it as little as possible. I hoped that if I didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother me, and I could just teach my students. Obviously, this was not a great strategy.

The purpose of this post is merely to share what I send to parents at the start of the year. When I began writing these letters, I found the writing of others to be a huge help: Nancie Atwell’s letter about reading workshop, which she shares in her book The Reading Zone, was the first one that helped me. More recently, a letter by Pernille Ripp about her classroom library (if you go to the link, it’s towards the end of the blog post) and another by Joy Kirr about assessment helped me as I reread and revised my own. Since the writing of others helped me so much, I wanted to share mine in case they might be helpful to anyone else. 

I send home three letters at the start of the year. The first is about reading. About a week later I send out one about our writing workshop. Finally, last year once I stopped grading individual assignments and made significant changes to how we do assessment, I began sending home a letter about that too.

I’m sure that some parents don’t read all three letters; maybe some don’t read any of them. But for those who do, they provide a great overview of the different aspects of my class and also give me a chance to promote the benefits of my different methods and sell my vision for what our workshop will be like. This year, I’ll also be compiling every letter and other communications into a blog so that parents don’t have to keep track of lots of emails. This way, if they ever want to look back at something I sent home earlier, they can find it at our blog.

Last summer, after seeing the survey that Pernille sends to parents, I decided to create one of my own. I had always invited parents to send me information about their children, but with such an open-ended invitation many didn’t reply, and of the ones who did, only a small handful provided any meaningful information. This survey did two things, though. Way more parents actually took the time to respond (about 60%), and their responses were so much more helpful than most of the old ones. I make the survey into a Google Form but also attach a list of the questions in case anyone prefers to respond a different way. Here is the list of questions I’m using this year. 

Finally, I have one new item that I will send home sometime in the first couple weeks. One of the biggest roadblocks to helping students worry less about their grades and more about learning is the pressure they receive from home to achieve certain grades. So this summer I created a guide for parents: how to talk to their kids about school without talking about grades. I do hope the questions I listed out prove helpful for some parents, but even if they don’t ever use the questions I’ve listed, I hope the act of sending this document can be one more strong reminder to not worry so much about grades and to focus more on what matters. Some of the questions in the guide are specific to things we do in my class while others could apply to almost any writing-reading workshop. If anything in any of the documents here can help you, please don’t hesitate to use them.

Reflections on a Year (Mostly) without Grades

With the school year over, I think it’s so important to take some time to reflect. So this will be the first of several posts designed to help me think back on the year: what I noticed, what I learned, and what I want to think about or change next year. This first post is going to focus specifically on the new assessment plan I implemented this year.

First a brief recap of the changes I made. First, I stopped grading individual assignments, focusing instead of providing feedback along the way. Then, at the end of each quarter, I met with students to determine their grades for reading and writing. First quarter, everyone had the same criteria. For the last three quarters, their grades were based on their progress towards the reading and writing goals we had set together at the start of the quarter. The exception was that during 4th quarter, I tried something a bit different in writing, which I write about here.

I kept parents informed by using the Notes section in our school’s online gradebook to post shortened versions of the feedback students were getting and to post weekly updates for writing, summarizing something we talked about that week in a writing conference or what the student was working on that week. At the end of each quarter, then, I typed up a Teacher Evaluation Form, where I wrote out notes on the students accomplishments, progress, and other notes from their work that quarter.

Overall, I was happy with how the system worked. Only talking about grades for one week a quarter instead of them constantly consuming so much time and attention was a vast improvement. I also think the system for communicating information to parents, if they took the time to read it, provided them with much more information about their child’s progress than they were getting before. Most students, at least by the end of the year, liked having the opportunity to be involved in the grading process, and some even mentioned that they liked how they were forced to justify their grade with evidence from their work that quarter, that it gave them a much better idea of how they were doing.

For the most part, the assessment conferences went well. Most students, as I expected them to be, were pretty accurate in terms of how they graded themselves. There were a few who tried all year to make the evidence say what they wanted it to say (i.e. to make it say they should get an A even when it didn’t show that), and another student or two who consistently graded themselves much lower than the evidence said they deserved. But overall, at least 90-95% of the time, my assessment was pretty close to that of the students.

The thing I didn’t like the most is, unfortunately, the only thing I can’t change about this system: the fact that we still had to attach a grade at the end. As we went through this process this year, I was repeatedly made aware of how much better this whole process would be if we didn’t have to decide on a letter grade. Because I don’t want this process to consume too much of our workshop time, I’m limited in terms of how much time I have to sit down with each student. That means that every minute we spend talking about a grade is one less minute we get to actually assess how they’re doing. I would love to be able to sit down with each student, talk about how they’re doing in the different areas we assess, examine the progress they’ve made towards their reading and writing goals, discuss what they most need to work on next quarter, and create new goals for them to works towards next. And then just stop there. Unfortunately, we don’t get to dig into all of those areas in as much detail as I’d like because we have to spend some of that time deciding on what the students’ grade will be. Now, as the year went on, I did start finding ways to work around this. I went through the students planning sheet and evidence ahead of time, and if it was obvious that the student had earned an A, we didn’t bother talking about the grade. I want to do that more from the start next year.

The other problem with this system is that no matter how much I try to deemphasize this grade, this is still the way that too many students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. No matter how much self-assessment they do, these grades becomes their validation. If a student gets an A, then he can feel good about the quarter he had. If a student gets a B, then she can feel okay about it. If someone, GASP, gets a C, then that student feels like he had a bad quarter. I hate this, that a stupid letter has the power to decide how students feel about their quarter. And it’s not just students who feel like they did poorly. I hate that students who did great don’t feel good about all the amazing things they accomplished, only that they got A’s.

This year at the end of the year, I asked students what they achieved as readers and writers that they were most proud of, and I created certificates that I handed out on the last day (an idea based on something Pernille Ripp does in her class). I was also so impressed with the thoughtfulness so many students put into the final reflections they wrote after we had finished all of our assessment conferences. I asked students to answer this question: Think about yourself when school started in August compared to yourself now. How have you grown or changed as a writer and reader since then? What helped you? What changed you? What made you the writer and reader you are today?

I have to find as many ways as possible to help students not just be aware of what they’ve achieved, but somehow to help this become what they focus on. I also have to be more intentional about regularly encouraging parents to not focus on the grade so much. I’ve already started thinking about ways to do that next year, and I’m sure that will become a blog post later this summer.

Eventually, we will be implementing a standards-based report card in the junior high and eliminating letter grades (this type of report card is making its way up our school’s elementary now and will get to us at some point). Until that happens, I want to continue finding more ways to help students and parents put their focus on the right things.

Communicating Feedback to Parents: One of My Challenges with Eliminating Grades

When I made the decision to move to feedback only, with a grade determined in collaboration with students at the end of each quarter, I had to figure out the best way to keep parents informed and updated on the progress of their kids. In our reading workshop, this has proven to be fairly simple. When it comes to students’ letter-essays and the paragraphs they write to prepare for our roundtable discussions, all the feedback they get is in writing. As I go through and type that feedback up, I add a shortened version of it to my notes, and then, using the idea I got from Joy Kirr, I copy and paste this into our online gradebook where parents can see it.

The more challenging class to keep parents informed has been our writing workshop. Here, most of the feedback students receive is given orally, in person during our daily writing conferences. This quarter, when we completed a genre study of memoir, I used our online gradebook to list all the different steps students might complete in the process of writing their memoir, and I filled each one in as students completed it. This lets parents know what their kids have completed, but it doesn’t provide them with much information in terms of how their kids are doing. At the end of the quarter, they will get a detailed report on their student through the teacher-evaluation form I’ll fill out, but still, I want to provide more information during the quarter.

I still have some more thinking to do about this, but one of my current ideas is, every two or three weeks, to enter an update where I list one or two things each student has been working on as a writer during the previous couple weeks, something we’ve talked about in a conference or something the student has been focusing on doing. I would love to provide more information each week or two, but I know I don’t have the time to provide detailed updates to parents every couple weeks. I think this idea is doable, though, and it at least lets parents know of the main areas in which their kids are trying to improve.

In addition to this, I’m also planning to solicit feedback from parents. Next week I’ll be sending home an email along the lines of this blog post, explaining the issue I’ve encountered so far and my current ideas for addressing this. I will also be including a survey that I’ll invite parents to fill out, asking them for the information they would like to be getting about their kids’ performance but aren’t currently getting. I know I might not be able to provide everything they want, but I hope this will give me some more direction for how to share writing and reading feedback with parents when we return from Christmas break. I’m also betting that some information they’re looking for could easily be gotten from their kids, so this will provide a means for me to explain this to them.

I’ll be honest, the idea of soliciting feedback from parents makes me a bit nervous. Who knows what some of them might write? If I hadn’t seen Pernille Ripp’s parent survey that she printed in Passionate Learners, I probably wouldn’t be taking this step. But even though it makes me a bit nervous, I think this is an important step to take. The major changes I’ve made this year in terms of how students are graded has provided a great opportunity for me to keep growing as a teacher, to recognize what’s working and what needs more work in my classroom, and to find ways to improve in the areas that still need work. Just like feedback is one of the main ways in which students grow as readers and writers, it’s important for me to get feedback too. I’m hoping that what I learn will help me continue to grow.

Making (More) Time for Students to Write and Read

One of my weaknesses as a teacher is that I plan too much. I don’t mean that I spend too much time planning; instead I try to cram too much into each class period. I love to learn and get new ideas that I can experiment with in my writing-reading workshop, but the problem comes when I try to do so much that it begins to compete with the most important part of my workshop: students’ time to write and read and my time to confer with them about their writing and reading.

I have 85 minutes for each block, which seems like a lot. But when you subtract my goal of at least 30 minutes to write and 15-20 minutes to read, it doesn’t leave as much time as it seems for everything else. I also tend to underestimate the amount of time things will take, which again leads me to schedule too much.

Even more than in years past, I’ve started wrestling with what I can cut out or shorten to free up more time to write and read. Before I continue, let me give you a brief glimpse at my weekly schedule. These are the basics and don’t include booktalks, which I try to make time for at least a couple days a week, and lots of other things that come up.

  • Monday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; go over notes from previous week’s reading roundtable discussion; time to read
  • Tuesday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; time to read
  • Wednesday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; introduce the week’s reading roundtable discussion topic and teach mini-lesson as needed (this is for the two classes who aren’t writing letter-essays that week); time to read
  • Thursday: writing workshop: read aloud of a poem or current genre (maybe), mini-lesson, and time to write; time to read
  • Friday: weekly reflections; picture book read aloud; reading roundtable discussion (in two classes); time to read

One problem that was new for this year was that we participated in Pernille Ripp’s Global Read Aloud for the first time. I’m glad we did it, but I know that I didn’t do a good enough job of figuring out how to fit this into our normal schedule. Students’ time to read their own books was cut too often while we read this book aloud. I’ve have to plan this out better next year.

I’ve also thought a lot about our writing lessons. I liked Katie Wood Ray’s idea in Study Driven about making students’ observations even more central to our genre studies, but the more students are involved, the longer it takes. I’ve wrestled with finding the right balance of mini-lectures, which I can keep short to get us writing more quickly, and lessons where students compile observations about the texts we’ve read together. I’m trying to identify the concepts and techniques that are worth the time investment and also the ones that are better for me to just teach.

I’ve also tried to cut back a bit on some of the other work I’ve asked students to do. For example, with our weekly reading roundtable discussions, which are whole-class discussions where students use the various books they’re reading individually as evidence to answer our question for the week (e.g., How do authors create effective, engaging, memorable protagonists?). Students used to write two paragraphs in preparation for each discussion, each one about a different book. I’ve cut this down to one paragraph for most of the discussions now, in order to free up more time to read.

This whole issue is something I want to continue wrestling with all year in order to make the time we spend together as productive and efficient as possible. For anyone who’s reading, I’d love to hear ways that you have found to free up more time for students to write and read. Please share.