Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why Teaching is Still My Dream Job

                “Sometimes I look at teachers and I think, ‘How do you live with yourself, knowing how much you matter?’”—Lucy Calkins

                Here lately, I feel like every time I turn around, I see another article that talks about a teacher who has quit his or her job because education has gone down the toilet.  (Here's links to two of them: and  At first, I thought it was a rallying cry for everyone in this country to wake up and realize what we are being forced to do to these children in the sake of “progress.”  I was excited that teachers were finding their voice, letting others know that we don’t just sit at our desks and eat candy all day while children diligently do problems out of their textbooks.  Now, I’m not so sure that it is a good thing.  I can’t help but feel like instead of gathering people behind us, these posts, letters, blogs, and interviews with people are perpetuating an idea of public education that I don’t think exists.  Furthermore, teachers are being painted as useless puppets with their hands tied behind their backs.  I refuse to support that notion. 

                If we listen to others, it would appear that teachers have no choice in anything that happens in their classroom.  Instead, we are being told by administrators and policy makers what we must do.  Our classrooms are not avenues for learning, but are instead torture chambers where our students don’t do anything except state-mandated tests.  We don’t smile, play, think creatively, problem solve, or dear god hang up anything in the room that won’t help you remember your math facts.  To make things a little clearer, think of Miss Honey’s room when The Trunchbull comes to visit.  Apparently, our rooms are like that because any sense of teacher autonomy has been taken away.  We drag children through assignment after assignment to satisfy the upper echelons of the education system. 

                It’s a lie.  Do I give tests that I wish I didn’t have to give?  Yes, I don’t care for them because I feel like they are often developmentally inappropriate and are but a single snapshot of a child who is so much more than they can standardize into a test.  Do I have things that I do that I would rather not, all for the sake of satisfying the Department of Education?  Yes, because I know that my children’s success will be partially determined by those tests.  Do I have people who tell me what to do?  Yes, because I am a working person who has bosses and that is just life.  Do I complain about the things that I have to do?  Yes, because I don’t agree with all of it.  Do I give up?  No, because I believe that I, along with every other teacher, am so much more.

                I teach because I hold the fundamental belief that what I do matters, and that what I do changes the lives of children.  It is why almost every teacher enters this profession.  I think of my fifth grade teacher, who encouraged me to read as a student and loved me as a child.  I think of my 10th grade and 12th grade English teacher, whose passion for teaching and caring heart solidified what I wanted to do in my life.  I think of my college reading professor, who to do this day makes me want to be a better teacher every time I am in the same room as her.  All of these people have changed who I am, and none of those experiences looked even slightly similar to the kinds of experiences that people use to describe public education today.  (And just so you know, I am young enough so that standardized testing was a part of my education.)

                I wish everyone in the world could feel the blessing of being an elementary school teacher, even if for only a day.  Don’t get me wrong, there are all sorts of things that I wish were different, but there is so much I love.  Everyone deserves to have a first day of school where 23 little faces look at you apprehensively, hoping that you are going to love them as much as they already love you.  You don’t really know life until you receive incorrectly-spelled, heartfelt notes from a child who says that you are the best teacher they’ve ever had.  It’s amazing seeing the light in a child’s eyes as they finally understand something they’ve struggled with for days.  And don’t get me started in the joy of helping children learn how to read.

                There’s so much wrong in education, but we can’t forget all that is still right.  I recently heard Lester Laminack speak, and he talked about how teaching used to be a revered profession.  Now we have teachers telling others who want to be teachers not to get into this profession.  He says that we have not lost this respect in a day, and we aren’t going to get it back right away either.  When we write articles about how teachers have no power today, we are degrading our profession to everyone around us.  At the end of the day, it is not the administrators or the policy makers or the freaking President who are in the classroom with the kids, it is me.  Lucy Calkins is right—we matter immensely.  I am the one who gets in front of the children every day and chooses the words that will come out of my mouth and the way I will help my children learn that day.  I have restrictions, but I am not completely restricted.  Somebody has to teach these children, and I would much rather it be someone who cares about them than someone who feels helpless.  If you have given up faith in the education system in America, then we don't need you to be a teacher.  You keep helping people lose faith in teachers, and the rest of us will keep restoring faith to the children whom we help raise.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Essential Books for Writing Teachers

                I have a serious problem, and it is one that many people around the world share and virtually no one who has this affliction is trying to change it.  I am completely addicted to reading—sometimes I am fairly certain I have a healthier relationship with words written on a page than I do with actual human beings, but that’s another story.  This summer, I participated in the Eastern Virginia Writing Project.  During those five weeks, I read every professional book I could get my hands on about teaching writing.

                As I was reading, I found a lot of things seemed disconnected, and I was rereading information and sorting through conflicting information.  I’ve decided to write a road map for those teaching writer’s workshop.  It’s the order I wish I had been introduced to books about teaching writing and writer’s workshop.  I think that all of these books are essential to writing teachers, but that some just make more sense to read first.  It goes from the very basics to the nitty gritty details.  I hope that it helps someone out there!


  1. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins.  This book is intimidating, I know.  At 540 pages, it’s not exactly a quick read.  (Enter Hermione’s line of “I checked this out ages ago for a bit of light reading.”)  But you’ve got to start here, even if you only read a chapter or two.  There has never been another textbook written that reaches you on such an emotional level.  It is a textbook that speaks to your heart and to all those beliefs you held when you entered into this profession.  Of all the books I’ve read about teaching writing, this is the most convincing one for the kinds of beliefs I hold about writing.  The best thing about Lucy Calkins is that she understands how incredibly hard it can be to teach writing.  She lets us know that we will do everything just right, and it will all still come out wrong, wrong, wrong.  But that it is okay, because we are fighting the good fight in the name of teaching our children.  Above all, she teaches us to teacher the writer, not the writing.  This book was originally written before I was even born, but the central beliefs in it are virtually timeless and will, without a doubt, change your mind about teaching writing to children.

2. Launching the Writing Workshop by Denise Leograndis.  So you believe in writer’s workshop and are ready to take the plunge into this chaotic world, yet you have no idea how to start?  Two years ago, that’s exactly where I was at.  I had all these ideas about how I wanted to help my students become better writers, but I had no idea how to go about it.  All I knew was to teach writing the way it was taught to me—with nothing but writing prompts and papers covered in red ink.  Launching the Writing Workshop gives you a place to start.  It takes you through the first twenty days of a writing workshop and gives you pictures and clear directions.  You can read this book in an hour or so, and it is worth it!  It is easy to read, and it is immediately applicable to your teaching

3. Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi.  I wish I had read this book when I was first getting started.  The term “writer’s workshop” is thrown about and yet there isn’t often a clear definition or any sort of guidance as to what it all means.  This book is, as it says, an “essential guide.”  It takes you through every aspect of the writer’s workshop, from mini-lessons to conferencing to what in the world do you do about teaching skills?  This book brought some clarity to my somewhat muddled mind.

4. A Writer’s Notebook by Ralph Fletcher.  The writer’s notebook is the most important tool we can give to our students.  This book is not aimed at teachers, but instead at the growing writer’s themselves.  I’d say that middle school children could easily read it.  I read it this summer and was able to get some really awesome ideas about how to make writer’s notebooks meaningful to my children.  I think that my children are learning to live different lives as writers because of their writer’s notebooks.  This book deserves a lot of the credit for that.

5. The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts by Katie Wood Ray and Lester Laminack.  I didn’t think there was anybody in the world that could write a textbook that reaches you inside you like Lucy Calkins, but dear goodness Katie Wood Ray is right up there.  I adored this book.  If you have been sold to the idea of writer’s workshop, and you have been implementing it and need a boost that what you are doing is right—read this book.  This book isn’t like Lucy in that it isn’t trying to convince you of certain beliefs: it assumes you’ve already come over to this side.  Katie Wood Ray knows how hard it can be, and she uses this book to give you practical tips and encouragement.  When nothing seems to be working right in my classroom, I imagine Lucy Calkins and Katie Wood Ray there next to me, whispering words of encouragement.  This book is the pep talk you desperately need.

6. Craft Lessons and Nonfiction Craft Lessons by Ralph Fletcher and Joann Portalupi.  Buy both of these books and keep them close by for when you are writing lessons.  The great thing about Ralph Fletcher is that he isn’t just an author who writes professional books—he is also a children’s book writer.  He uses his experience with writing to create these two awesome books.  Both of these books are full of different mini-lessons you can use to help your students.  You don’t have to read the book straight through—just open it up and find a lesson that fits the needs of your children!

7. The Writing Teacher’s Troubleshooting Guide by Lester Laminack.  The setup of this book is modeled off of the 70s Beetle troubleshooting guides.  Seeing as I am 26 and have no frame of reference for this, I will just have to tell you why I love it as a writing teacher.  This book goes through all the problems that you will find in the writer’s workshop—things like kids who have nothing to write about, children who resist revision, and the hard work of crafting leads and endings.  It is just great, practical, quick advice you can use to help raise the quality of your children’s writing.  I feel that the tips he gives on the pages can easily be used as strategies to teach in mini-lessons and in your writing conferences.

8. One to One: The Art of Conferring With Young Writers by Lucy Calkins.  I couldn’t just put one Lucy book on here (Yes, we’re on a first name basis, even though we’ve never met).  Conferencing is the thing that I struggle with the most.  This book is aimed towards conferences with writers in Kindergarten through 2nd grade, but can easily be applied in the upper grades.  I think I need to start rereading this book, because I know how incredible it is.  If you are struggling with conferences, I would go here!

 9. What You Know by Heart by Katie Wood Ray.  I couldn’t put just one of Katie’s books (also on a first name basis) on here either.  What You Know by Heart is a book that is all about developing curriculum.  She doesn’t advocate you going out and buying some boxed writing program (although if you do, I would suggest going with Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study).  Instead, she tells you that all you need to know about teaching writing can be drawn from your own experiences.  This book is definitely worth the time to read to enhance your writing curriculum.

 10. In Pictures and In Words by Katie Wood Ray.  This book is meant for primary grades, but this 4th grade teacher adores it.  It is one of the best books I have read all year long.  Its primary thesis is that allowing students to use pictures in their writing does not detract from their writing development, but actually supports and enhances it.  Sometimes children cannot use the written word to express their ideas, but they can draw a picture.  This book includes 50 different lesson ideas for helping enhance student’s writing with pictures.  I have every intention of implementing a picture book unit so that I can apply these techniques!
I should probably mention that all of my pictures come from  Because, well, let's face it: there's no need to buy books from anywhere else.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Why I Can't Give Up

                Some days, writing workshop just doesn’t seem to work.  In her book The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (and They’re All Hard Parts), Katie Wood Ray talks about how, in order to have a successful workshop, we need to realize that it is always going to be a little bit beyond our control.  That’s a hard thing to think about.  It is hard when you have done three weeks of mini-lessons on generating ideas, only to still have children who can’t think of anything to write about.  It is hard to have children who come up to you and say, “I’m done” even though you have done everything but brand them with the phrase “When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun.”  It is hard when you are giving a mini-lesson and despite several polite admonitions, there are children still doodling in their writer’s notebook or tearing it up and throwing it on the floor (and you think they may as well do the same thing to your broken heart!).  It is hard to have 66 different kids every day, all of whom are at a different place, and all of whom you are determined to help as writers.  Some days, it doesn’t feel a little bit out of your control: some days it feels like the floodgates of chaos have been let loose in your classroom. 

                There have been a few days in my classroom when I have felt that way, and I have left at the end of the day feeling dejected and useless.  I convince myself that the children aren’t internalizing these strategies and I second-guess everything I have done.  Then there are days, like today, when I realize why I do this.  One of my favorite Lucy Calkins quotes is that, “We cannot assign brilliance, but we can create conditions in which brilliance has occurred.”  Over the past month of school, I have seen children who have all but given up on writing, and many of them are starting to turn a new leaf.

                The work the children have done decorating their writer’s notebooks has left me just breathless. I wish that I could post pictures of the things that have done, because it has blown me away.  I’ve never let them decorate them on their own before, and now that I have, I have had children who have put pictures, pins, magazine clippings, letters, duct tape, and all sorts of things into their notebooks.  They are beautiful, and the kids love them.  I honestly wouldn’t care if all they did was walk around and write in their writer’s notebook like it was a journal, because we have accomplished the most important part: the belief that writing is special and that I can do it.

                Last week, I had a conference with a boy who confessed he just didn’t like to write.  He tended to write about things that he thought I wanted to hear about, and didn’t think he had anything to write about.  I noticed that he had some toy cars he was playing with on his desk.  Instead of doing what was my first reaction, telling him to put it away, I asked him to tell me about why those cars were so special.  He then proceeded to tell me all sorts of things about cars that I have never known before, and told me how his dad fixes up cars and he gets to help him.  I told him I was amazed at how much stuff he knew about cars, and that he could teach all of us so much through his writing.  Needless to say, he had a story, and he had a story that he was excited to tell.  Have I fundamentally changed that child and turned his life around?  No, I haven’t, but then again it is only October.

                We have done heart maps in my classroom, which are basically just hearts drawn onto papers that we fill in with all of the people, places, things, memories that matter to us.  The idea has been around for a bit, but it originated with Georgia Heard.  I’ve taught my kids that above all else, writing should matter.  Today, I had a girl come into class and tell me that she was talking to her sister about heart maps over the weekend (I know right?  I felt like I had won the lottery just right then.).  Well, her sister and her decided that they should do “world maps” and write down all the stuff inside of it that they want to know about the world.  It was brilliant, the idea of a blank world and you could think “What in the world do I want to know about?”  Absolutely brilliant—I mean, she should market this idea and sell it.  That right there is the brilliance you can’t assign: it comes from having faith that these children can write and can do amazing things as writers.  That moment today reminded me that I am doing the right thing. 

                I have had so many of these wonderful moments, and I don’t want to let the negative ones overshadow that.  I have to keep reminding myself that these children are nine and ten years old and I am asking them to author their own writing life.  I am getting them to create a world for themselves as writers, and that is some serious work.  It has looked like, and it will continue to look like, a mess. But it is the most amazing, most special, most endearing mess that anyone has written down on paper.  And I absolutely love it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

"First Day Jitters"

                “Funnest first day ever.”—One of my fourth graders.

                Well, the reviews are in folks.  It has officially been the “funnest first day ever.”  My first instinct is to say that I am completely exhausted, but it really doesn’t fit.  I’ve decided to invent a new phrase—I’m in a state of “exhaustive completion.”  I’m tired yes, but it feels so great.  I want to hold onto this feeling that I have right now—of hope, anticipation, love, and excitement for my new kids and our year together. 

Today was far from perfect.   I actually taught the kids the wrong procedure for coming to the carpet and I had to reteach it to them later in the afternoon.  I had to follow two kids onto the bus because they weren’t sure where they had to go.  Our transitioning felt like a revolving door of children and at recess I had a hard time remembering who was my student and who was one of the other teacher’s.  I walked around the day desperately wanting to have absolute complete control over everything because Harry Wong told me I needed to and failing at it.  But I left the day, and I think the kids left the day, with the feeling I wanted to instill.  Several kids told me they didn’t want to go home, and I wasn’t ready for them to leave either.  Things will fall apart at some point, I know that, and there will be days when I just want to go home, sleep, and cry.  What I want is to have this feeling written down, to have this hope to come to again and again when I feel myself fraying at the edges.  Remembering this pivotal moment in the life of these little kiddos—that’s what I want.

I wish I could read this!!

Besides the children, what do I think worked well?  The read-aloud.  My first two years I despaired.  Being a fourth grade teacher, EVERY SINGLE child has heard First Day Jitters.
Just once I want to be able to read that book to my kids and revel in the last page together.  But alas, it is not to happen. 
The past two years I read Mo Willem's City Dog, Country Frog. Most kids are familiar with the Pigeon books, but in the past two years none of them had read that one.  It’s a great story about a frog, a dog, unconventional friendships, and a serious life lesson.  Last year it was a VA Reader’s Choice, though, so that is out the window now.  I also read Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes and A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon.  I have serious issues with the retaliation aspect at the end of Chrysanthemum and most kids have already heard A Bad Case of Stripes.  When I began to think about my read-aloud this summer, I wanted to pull my hair out.  Having a first day of school five years into their school career makes it hard to find something new and original.

This year I decided to do Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull as my first day read-aloud. 
I’ve read it to my kids the past two years, but also in the middle of the year.  I am so glad I did.  If you have never read it, it is the true story of Wilma Rudolph.  When she was a child, she was stricken with polio and told she would never walk again.  The book takes you through her struggles and ultimately to her three gold medals that she won at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  I love this book for so many reasons.  First, it introduces an African American protagonist and we need more of those in great children’s literature.  Secondly, it just shows you what you can do if you put your mind to it. We talked about the word “unlimited” and how it applied to her.  When we were done, I told them about my hopes and wishes for them this year.  I tried to help them see that they are as unlimited as Wilma and that no matter what has happened for them in their past years, this year can be different.  As I was driving tonight, I had the idea of writing a poem for them in the second person called “You, Unlimited.”  If you’ve never read the book, please do.  I promise you that you won’t regret it.  I get chills every single time.

The first day is done, and I guess so am I.  I’m off to write a poem of hope for the children whom I will spend the next 10 months of my life and every bit of energy I have helping them be better than they were on this first day when they walked through my door.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Let's get it started in here

  My floors have been waxed.  My green carpet that matches my pink and green room d├ęcor has been shampooed.  Apparently you can use Sharpie Paint Pens on desks and remove it with Expo markers, so now I have 23 desks, with kids' names written on them, that are waiting for the kiddos to come sit in them on Tuesday.  It's time.  I've been wanting to write a blog for over a year.  Originally, I wanted to write a book blog, but my passion for reading simply cannot outweigh my passion for teaching.

So what to share, on my very first blog that nobody besides my mother and possibly my reading professor may ever read?  I want to write a blog where I don't focus on things I cannot change--home lives, paperwork, bad attitudes--but on the things that I can do.  I operate on the fundamental belief that reading and writing can change our lives and it is my job to help my students see that in themselves.  My goal is to have my children orchestrate their own reading and writing lives, makes their own choices as readers and writers.  No one should leave my class thinking they are not a part of this literacy community.  I want this blog to be about living and learning within the reader's and writer's workshop.
  I guess I've got to start with my room.  Helping my children see themselves as readers and writers will happen within these four walls, so I should start with how those four walls (err, five-ish) look.  This is the first time I have felt like my room is really prepared the way I want it.

The best part of my room, hands down, is my library.

Fabric on the bulletin board, $8 chair from Goodwill, donated green carpet.  Fits me perfectly!

For the past few years, my book baskets haven't matched.  I finally took the plunge and bought out all the pink and green baskets from Big Lots in three different counties.  It was expensive, but it was well worth it.  And the baskets are really, really sturdy!  When school supplies go on sale in a few weeks, I plan on going back for more!
I wish I had never bought these white bookshelves.  They are sturdy, but they only fit two baskets across!
This is how I organize my library.  Each book as a yard sale sticker on it with a code.  The baskets range from genres like Fantasy, to things like Easy Readers (ER), Jerry Spinelli (JS), and Books with Boys as the Main Character (BB).

My room is pretty standard.  I don't hang up many posters or really anything commercially-made, because I think it is important to build up the walls of the classroom together.  By the middle of the year, my room will be wall-to-wall with anchor charts and powerful words.  Last year, I would let my kids take home the anchor charts when they started to become wallpaper.  All of them would fight over who got to take home the "powerful leads" chart or the "homophones" one.
So here it is, the start of a new year.  My room that seemed so big a few weeks ago will seem extremely cramped as the 24 of us begin to live our lives together.  My room is ready, and as much as possible, I am ready.  The next ten months will be a great journey, and I appreciate everyone who comes along for the ride.  Even if it is just you, mom.