Friday, August 31, 2012


I did it. After fourteen years of teaching I got rid of my teacher desk. Many of my colleagues did so years ago and I have looked at their rooms in amazement. I couldn't figure out how to do it myself. Where would all my stuff go? How would I stay organized?

Then I read Debbie Diller's Spaces and Places. She generously never said, "Get rid of your teacher desk." Instead, numerous times throughout the book she gently suggests that the reader should consider why they have a teacher desk. The first few times it came up, I moved right past it. I figured I had already thought about this question many times thanks to my colleagues so I didn't need to do so.

Thankfully Debbie Diller is no fool and she hits this issue again and again throughout. I finally had to admit to myself that the purpose of my teacher desk was so I had a place to dump stuff. Basically just a horizontal surface to collect papers and other junk. Sigh.

For several years I've had a trapezoid table for meeting with small groups. My chair stays there all the time now. My space is now beside my teacher cabinet and filing cabinet. I added this one small bookcase which now stores everything that used to be in or on my desk.

Right now I'm really happy with this. In two weeks, we'll see... My concern is that I'll dump junk on the floor back there. I may have to take weekly pictures to document for myself how well I do, or don't, stay organized and on top of things.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Week Before Kids Arrive

I've got a low, round table in my classroom. This is what it looked like yesterday.

As I unpacked boxes, organized, and cleaned other parts of my classroom, this table became the catch-all for the things that would take too long to deal with, that I didn't know what to do with, or that I simply didn't want to tackle. It was depressing me.

By the time Open House started at 2:00 this afternoon, it looked like this.


While this feels really good, I still have a lot to do in my classroom before school starts on Tuesday. In addition, I need to have some plan for when the kids arrive on Tuesday!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Getting Over It

Cranky, cranky, cranky. That might not actually be enough crankies to describe how I've been feeling for the first two days back at school. I'm really good at coming up with excuses for why this might be but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that I need to get over it.

This is my resolution: focusing on the positive. I got my class list today with sixteen new little first graders. They're what matters. Focusing on the positive isn't that hard when I think about them.

My goal is to write here (and on twitter) positively. I don't expect that to be 100% possible, but it is a good goal.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Advice for Working with Pre-Service Teachers

As the year begins there are many pre-service teachers starting their student teaching or internships. I'm curious to know what you have seen or done that can make things smoother or better for pre-service teachers. Any ideas, tips, thoughts...anything! Please share!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Opening Minds: Chapters 4-6

Chapter four in Opening Minds focuses on feedback and praise. One thing Johnston writes about is a pet peeve of mine. He writes about teachers using the phrase, "I like..." This is something you hear all the time in a school. "I like how you are walking so quietly in the hall." "I like how you spent a lot of time on your work." "I like how you worked together to solve that problem."

The problem with "I like..." is that it sets students up to do things to please their teacher rather than because they are the right things to do. It does not help students gain agency.

From page 44:
Praise is related to power and control. The more important the person offering praise, the more powerful it is. Praise is also related to insecurity. The more secure a person is in what he is doing, the less impact praise can have.
To my mind, the easiest way to break the habit of praising all the time, is to switch to asking questions. I want to ask students how or why they did something rather than tell them 'Good job.' I want them to think about it and to verbalize for me their process or what they are proud of and why rather than me doing so.

Chapter five is about dialogue and uncertainty. Having my students talk - to each other, to me, to the class - is something I try to do all the time. I believe that talking about our thinking and our learning helps us better understand it. Reading this chapter I questioned whether or not I am giving my students enough opportunities to talk. Fortunately, it also did also reinforce my belief about this.
Students in dialogic classrooms come to value their conversations because they are engaging and because they learn from them. Indeed, when Terri Thorkildson asked children in such classrooms how they viewed conversations, the children thought that the conversations were essential, particularly because of their learning. When she asked them about tests, the children felt that tests simply interfered with the conversations. When she asked the same question in a direct-instruction classroom, the children thought the reverse. Without the tests, they could see no reason to learn, and the conversations would just take up time when they could be being taught.
That's from page 57. I've read that quote several times now and it alternately thrills me because of the power in students talking together and depresses me to think of how some children are being socialized by tests. First graders don't ever think the reason they need to learn is because of a test. They are curious and interested in anything. Somehow in our society we take that away from them and replace it with tests and grades.

Social Imagination is the title for chapter six. Johnston explains this as being made up of 'mind reading' and 'social reasoning.' Mind reading has to do with the ability to understand others' emotions from their facial expressions. Social reasoning is the ability to take different perspectives.

After giving many academic reasons for the importance of social imagination, on page 75 Johnston gives another, compelling reason to help students in this area:
Indeed, a poorly developed social imagination is related to misbehavior at home and at school, and to angry responses in personal interactions. Underdeveloped social imagination and moral reasoning are also linked to aggressive behavior in children.Children who regularly behave aggressively tend to have less well developed, and often distorted, social imaginations. They persistently imagine hostile intentions in others.
A lot of chapter six is dedicated to how to help students develop their social imagination, mainly through books and discussions of them. I've ordered a couple of new picture books as a result of reading this chapter.

I'll end with a short quote from Johnston on page 76. He is writing in reference to having students talk about feelings, tensions, beliefs and such in books. To me, the sentence sums up a major challenge of teaching, far beyond simply Johnston's example.
The hardest part for most of us is then keeping our mouths shut and not judging what children say.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Still More Thoughts from Opening Minds

As brilliant bloggers shared about Opening Minds (while I was still rereading Choice Words) I noticed again and again a focus on the word yet. Even before reading the book that word was rolling around in my mind and I was discussing its power with other teachers and parents.

On page 27 Johnston gives a darn good explanation of the wonder of this word:

We want to inoculate the children against infection by fixed theories; we want them to say “I’m not good at this yet” and to take steps to change that. Indeed, yet is a key word that we should regularly encourage children to add to their narratives.
Not being able to do something yet shows a belief that you will be able to do it at some point in the future. Not being able to do something period does not show that same belief in the ability to learn and grow.

If you are interested in reading the thoughts of many wonderful teachers who read this book and wrote about it this summer, Jill Fisch's post will give you a place to begin.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Even More Opening Minds Thoughts

One of the things that has stuck with me throughout reading both Choice Words and Opening Minds has been how powerful just a few words can be. Johnston analyzes the language teachers use to show how much is said and suggested in phrases or words we use frequently.

One example from Opening Minds is on page 3:

And yet, when she said, “I just made a big mistake as a reader. I got distracted when someone came into the room. So I’m going to reread this section here,” she did two really important things. First, she leveled the power difference between teacher and students. She said, “I make mistakes just like you.” Second, her comment began to explain the meaning of errors. When you make a mistake, it means nothing more than that. Fix it. Learn from it. It does not mean you are incompetent, stupid, or not a good person.
I know I have said things like this to my students. In my mind I was modeling for them what to do as readers. The idea that it 'leveled the power difference' and that it also modeled ways to handle mistakes had never occurred to me. So much more is happening when we speak to students (or when we speak in general) than we realize.

Another example is on page 31:

She immediately apologized, "I’m sorry, Shatara. I just did your job.” With a single utterance, she apologized, reviewed the normality of making errors (and of apologizing when they are social ones) , and implicitly recognized that Shatara (as everyone else) is a person who takes her responsibilities seriously.
Again, I have said things similar to this without recognizing how much is being heard and/or understood. It's wonderful as I read these books to notice the sorts of things I do well with language. It's depressing to think about the things I do poorly. Right now I'm noticing that with my daughters (I'll notice it with students soon enough when school starts) and it is frustrating. Hopefully it is also a chance to grow.

One more brief example in an area in which I struggle, from page 38:

We only have to mark one end of the proud/disappointed conversation for the children to be pulled into that conversation. If we say “I’m proud of you” when they’re successful, they will fill in the other end of the conversation and infer our disappointment when they are unsuccessful. We don’t have to say anything. They are learning that, in this domain, we judge people.
I don't think Johnston is saying we should never tell children we are proud of them. I do think he wants us to recognize the underlying message such a phrase sends. This is similar to telling students they are smart when they do something which sends the message that they are dumb when they do something else. We need to understand that the words we say convey much more than we typically realize.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

More Thoughts from Opening Minds

Reading Peter Johnston's Opening Minds has struck some chords. This quote, from page 19, did so the most strongly:

Within a fixed-performance perspective, people can be judged quite quickly. Indeed, people who take up fixed theorizing form stereotypes more quickly than those choosing dynamic theorizing, they are more inclined to apply trait thinking in describing group members, and they make more extreme trait judgments, whether positive or negative. In fact, people choosing fixed theorizing focus on information that confirms their stereotypes, ignoring disconfirming information. The more information goes against their stereotype, such as a poor, low-achieving boy doing well on a test, the less attention they give to that information. Within a fixed theory, once a student in judged as lazy (or friendly or learning disabled, etc.) we start to see evidence of it everywhere in their behavior. Their situation and psychological processes, such as intentions and feelings, take a back seat.
If you didn't read that really carefully, go back and read it again. That is profound. 

I wrote last year about a student that drove me buggy. It seems pretty clear to me that I had a fixed theory about that little girl and I was just lucky to be jarred out of it by the notes her kindergarten teacher had made on a form. I hope to be hyper-aware of this sort of thinking in the future.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Opening Minds: Chapters 1-3

Opening MindsHaving finally finished (re)reading Choice Words, I got rolling with Opening Minds. I'm glad I spent the time with Choice Words first as reading them together is really powerful.

To begin, possibly because I am a musician, I love the way Peter Johnston describes teaching and the choices we must make constantly (p. 4):

Teaching requires constant improvisation. It is jazz. A child asks a question. Do we answer it? If so, how? How long do we wait before we answer it? If not, what do we say? A child successfully accomplishes something – or fails to. We have another opportunity to say something, but what? My intention with this book is to offer a basis for choosing more productive talk – how to make the most of those opportunities children offer us. Most important, I hope to show you that, given that we are playing improvisational jazz, it is important that we choose a productive key in which to improvise.
I'm back to thinking that every word I say (and even those I don't say) can have such a significant impact. While I'm grateful for the chance to make my words count, I do feel some pressure as a result.

A lot of what Johnston writes about in Opening Minds (at least so far) seems to be influenced by Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. If you haven't read her book, it is well worth the time. The key quote for me here is from page 10:

We might even point to the child’s successes as evidence that he is smart. But if successes can be indicators of smartness, then failures, errors, or struggles can be evidence of stupidness. Heaping such praise upon these students to build their self-esteem won’t solve the problem, it will only deepen it.
The point being that when we tell kids how smart they are it also tells them, that at times when they do the opposite or different from what they are currently doing, they are dumb.

Reading this I wondered how our students view athletes at the Olympics. Do they think the athletes worked really hard to get there or do they think the athletes are just naturally talented? It would be an interesting conversation to have and, I think, a pretty good insight into some kids' thinking.

On page 21 Johnston writes about why these different mindsets (dynamic as he calls one vs. fixed) can impact how students view one another:

When faced with transgressions, people holding dynamic theories try to understand the thinking and the context of the transgression, to educate and forgive the transgressor. They think the misbehavior is more likely temporary and they are inclined to help make it so. In a classroom, this position leans toward a restorative justice stance – repairing an error rather than simply judging and punishing the perpetrator. This view is consistent with all error in the classroom. When a child makes a spelling error, the idea is to understand what went into the production of the error and to educate.
Suddenly, helping students have a dynamic or growth mindset can significantly impact the classroom community, the way students interact with one another, and the level of risks they are willing to take. If I can control all those things simply by being thoughtful about my language choices that is a small price to pay.

One of the ways Johnston suggests that we help students think dynamically rather than in fixed ways is when talking about characters in books. On page 29 he suggests looking at how characters change rather than fixed character traits:

If we are going to resist searching for fixed “character traits” in the classroom, we probably shouldn’t search for them in the literature the children encounter in school. Rather, in discussions of books we should cast characters not in terms of stable character traits, but in terms of internal states, feelings, intentions, contexts, and change.
As a family we are currently reading Peter and the Starcatchers.  For the past few nights, since reading this, I have been pushing my girls to notice how different characters have changed and grown throughout the book. I don't know what that will really do for them longterm but it isn't costing me much and I'm fascinated by what we, all of us, are noticing as we do this.

A final thought is about what I keep seeing as one of, if not the, big ideas in both of Johnston's books, agency. He writes, on page 26:

I chose the particular examples in this chapter to emphasize the fact that much of the feedback children experience comes from their peers. We have to remember that we are not just giving students feedback; we are also teaching them to provide it. In a way, we are teaching them to teach.
Everything we do is, I would hope, geared toward helping students be independent thinkers and learners. We want them to do this all without us. Not only do they need the skills to do this, but they need the sense that they can and belief in their right to do so. In short, they need agency.

Friday, August 10, 2012

10 for 10 Picture Books

It's August 10th (I'm squeaking in!) so it's time to share favorite picture books again. I spent the morning in my classroom unpacking boxes, many of them full of picture books, so this is fresh on my mind.

My favorite book from the last year is Mo Willems' We Are In a Book! I shared it during the Northern Virginia Writing Project's summer institute and it was well loved by all. The Piggie and Elephant books are always popular with my first graders and I love this series as much as the kids do. This one, with Piggie explaining to Elephant Gerald that a reader is reading them is still my favorite.

 Rhyming Dust Bunnies by Jan Thomas makes me laugh every time I read it. Like We are in a Book it is deceptively simple. In reality, both of these books require young children to step back and think about what is happening.

One Mo Willems' book would not be enough on my list, so I also have to include The Duckling Gets a Cookie. It's as much about The Pigeon as it is The Duckling. When I read it last year we had quite a talk about how The Duckling handled The Pigeon.

This is a title that has likely shown up on many lists (I haven't read any of the other posts yet in order to not be swayed on my thoughts). I have read this book to my daughters (ages 8 and 5), my first graders, and fifth graders. It has been fascinating to see which students immediately understand what has happened as the bear gets his hat back and how many are uncertain.

I've got to have some nonfiction and my current favorite nonfiction author is Steve Jenkins. It is nigh on impossible to choose one title but Move! is well loved by my students.

Piggie and Elephant, the Pigeon, and Froggy are all characters we get to know early in the year. My students love to write their own stories about those characters. Another favorite is Hi Fly Guy. It's not uncommon for me to conference with students about stories that include multiple characters we love. Reading about Fly Guy and the Pigeon have adventures together is a hoot.

 Like every other group of kids everywhere, my first graders last year loved Pete the Cat. This is another great book for the start of the year because it is one they can all read, at least after I've read it to them, and it's a great mentor for them as writers.

I call my youngest daughter Little Miss and she is a snuggly little one. As a result, when I saw a proof of Plant a Kiss at ISTE last year I knew it was a book we had to own. This year at ISTE I got Peter H. Reynolds to sign it. It is a beautiful book with a sweet message.

On September 15th kids all around the world will celebrate International Dot Day. They will, in a wide variety of ways, celebrate their own creativity, individuality, and make their own marks. My class will certainly be reading and celebrating!

The final book on my list is not one I read to my students. I give a copy of this book to each new mom or dad when they return to work. It tells the story of a mom dropping her son off at day care and shows them each going about their days with the message that they may be apart but their love is always there. Each page has a heart worked into the illustration, a fun thing to look for with your child.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Why We Need to Write Poetry

On several occasions during the ISI this summer we talked about poetry. Sometimes we did some really deep reading of poems, sometimes we were writing our own poetry, sometimes it was a mix of both. I enjoy poetry, at least to some extent. In my classroom we read poems and songs regularly and each student has a poetry binder with their own copies of the poems and songs.

That's about as far as I go however. We don't dig very deep with the poems we read and I haven't done any poetry writing with my students since I switched to teaching first graders. My experiences during the ISI have me thinking about why this is and if I need to make a change.

I think the reason I've avoided writing poetry with my students is a mechanics issue. I work so hard to help my students understand the basics of using capital letters at the beginning of sentences and ending with punctuation that I am hesitant to throw in poetry which flies in the face of those conventions.

After studying poems and writing my own this summer I don't think that's going to cut it anymore. Poetry offers so much to readers and writers in the way of language use, word choice, and phrasing. We need to really study the poems we read and do some writing of our own. We need the freedom to experiment with language and form. We need the push to show rather than tell. All of that will make an impact on their prose writing as well. We can iron out the mechanics eventually.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Defining Writing

Yesterday's post touched briefly on how I define writing. I began to question this early in the summer when I participated (at least to some extent) in ds106. That course had me telling stories through images, sounds, design, and more. It pushed the way I view telling a story or creating meaning. I began to wonder what this could mean for my students.

Then I spent four weeks with brilliant teachers in NVWP's ISI. The room we were in from 9-4 Monday through Thursday and on Friday mornings was a cave. It is a basement room with no windows. The walls were lined with lockers, cabinets, and drawers full of maps and other things used by the geology department. It was crowded. One participant referred to it as a bunker. A friend and I decided before the ISI even began that we would have to do something to make the room feel comfortable and like we belonged there.

We hung up quotes from writers and work we did each day. On the first day we looked at several different short texts in unusual genres and had blown-up versions of each one. Those were hung up for the lesson and remained up til the end. Another day we each wrote haikus on post-it notes. Those went up and stayed up. We made a graffiti wall where we wrote quotes from the summer, said by participants and presenters. Some were serious. Some were not.

We also set up a mind map that said, "What is writing?" in the center. This didn't get much attention. It clearly didn't capture the interest of most of the participants. It went up because that question has been burning in my mind. I still don't have a good answer. If you have thoughts I would love to hear them. If you've read something on this idea I'd greatly appreciate knowing about it.

What does it mean to write something? Does it require paper or a computer? Does it require words? Does it have to convey meaning? Are there other ways to view writing that will still help a person become better at the traditional idea of writing?

Does any of this make any sense?

Saturday, August 04, 2012

To Choose or Not to Choose

As I reflect back on the Northern Virginia Writing Project's Invitational Summer Institute I have a few big idea take-aways that will directly impact the choices I make as a teacher this year.

The first one that stands out as I reread my notebook from the past four weeks is student choice. I never tell my students what to write. We do study different types of writing (narrative, instructions, letters) and they must write in that genre at some point, but that's the most prescriptive I get. This comes out of a firm belief in the importance of choice, especially for kids.

I still believe that and I still intend to give my students plenty of choice. That said, I also want to do some more structured writing, similar to writing to a prompt. I found myself trying completely new things as a writer this summer when forced into a structure or prompt. I also heard a lot of stories about students who felt a need for this support rather than completely free choice. I'm not yet 100% sure how this is going to look, especially with first graders.

One thing I want to try early in the year is listening to music and drawing pictures. Most first graders can't write all the ideas that come into their heads from the music they hear, but they can draw it. Then we'll put those pictures into their writing folders (or just draw directly into our writers' notebooks) and use them to help generate writing ideas throughout the year.

One possibility is having them pull small items out of a bag and use them in a story or a piece of writing. This will likely require some oral storytelling initially to help generate ideas and organize them. Again, drawing pictures will likely help them tell their story as well.

I also want to think about how to push their composing of writing through means other than pen and paper. I worry that my students become stifled as they try to write all the great ideas in their heads and they can't spell the words and even forming the letters can be such a challenge. I want to make sure creating stories orally or through some of the tools and ideas from ds106 is an option for them.

Oddly enough, my hope through offering some choice and forcing some writing is that they will feel a new freedom as writers. I hope they will discover some new possibilities through what I force on them and it will encourage them to stretch as writers in all the writing they do.

I feel like I should be putting the word writing in quotation marks. For me, more and more, it means the composing of a story or text more than it does the physical act of writing it on paper or a computer. However my students 'write' I want them to be doing so as well as they possibly can.

Friday, August 03, 2012

The End (of the ISI): Thoughts Mostly for Myself

I have done more writing in the past four weeks than I believe I have ever done in such a period in my life. Not as much of that writing has been here as I would have liked. It is important to write publicly, at least for me. Whether or not anyone reads it doesn't really matter. Putting my writing and my thinking out beyond me pushes me to think deeper and to take things a step further.

I was a co-director for this summer's Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) for the Northern Virginia Writing Project. Last summer was my introduction to the ISI. I wrote some about it then, certainly more than I managed to do this year! Last year was an absolutely amazing experience and gave me a passion for the writing project that kept me involved throughout the year and brought me back this summer.

This summer was even better. We were a much larger group, more than double last year's size. Fifteen amazing people last year and thirty-two this year. When everyone is fabulous, having more fabulous people makes it better.

A typical morning at the ISI starts with thirty minutes of 'morning pages.' Just silent writing. I did a terrible job of continuing that throughout this past year and I'm aiming to do better this go-round.

After that we had demonstration lessons. Every participant gives an hour and fifteen minute demo lesson about writing. We had lessons on revision, mentor texts, multi-genre writing, persuasive writing, using rhetoric in writing, poetry, tone, journalism, nonfiction, voice, and more. Each morning we would have two of these demo lessons before lunch.

After lunch we had guest presenters (people who had done the ISI in the past and had stellar lessons to share), conversations, or our writing groups. We met in writing groups of about five people twice a week for the entire afternoon. We brought writing to share and talk about. At the end of the ISI we create an anthology with work from everyone.

I plan to do some serious reflection on this year's ISI and what I gained from it over the next week. My 'morning pages' (which might be written at 7:30 at night) will be a post about my thinking. I have a composition book full of writing from morning pages, demo lessons, and conversations to review. I think there's gold in there if I'll just take the time to sift through.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Final Two Chapters in Choice Words (Seven and Eight)

My husband, a college history professor, and I drove to Princeton, NJ this weekend for a wedding. On the drive home he asked for the highlights in Choice Words. I told him he didn't need me to give him the highlights because he reads my blog. He did not seem to think that was a sufficient response. I read him a few parts of chapters seven and eight. Reading aloud the book felt very different to me. It felt more academic, more intellectual. Reading it to myself I feel like I'm talking with an old friend. It was an interesting thing to notice.

Having now finished (re)reading the book, I am grateful that Opening Minds is waiting for me. I don't feel quite the same sadness as I finish knowing that Johnston has more to say to me, more to teach me.

Chapter seven is Evolutionary, Democratic Learning Community. In many ways all the other chapters have clearly been building up to this one. Here Johnston makes the argument that the language teachers use in their classroom creates (or at least helps create) the community in which the teacher and students live together. The importance of this is voiced early in the chapter, on page 65:
Some teachers are particularly good at building learning communities in which individuals feel valued and supported, and that sustain productive and critical learning. Children must have the experience of such communities if they are to know what to aim for in constructing their own learning environments. 
We're back, as always, to the idea of agency, just on a slightly grander scale. We have to model for students how to do what they will need to do for themselves. In this case, construct a learning environment that will help them continue learning outside of and beyond school.

A lot of this is more focused on the social aspects of interactions than the academic. Johnston talks about use of the word 'we' in building community. Other language pulls students in to thinking about others, how they feel, what they like. Another important role of language here is to encourage reflection. He writes about inviting students to reflect on the process of working together and solving a problem ("You managed to figure that out with each other's help. How did you do that?" p. 71). Reflecting on this helps students create a narrative for themselves about collaboration. Another example is on p. 72, "How do you know when a conversation is finished?" Johnston explains this reflection as a way to think about
how to manage not just one's own cognition, but the source of one's cognition in the learning environment
As reflection has been a big focus of mine I was especially interested in these ideas.

Johnston does a lot in chapter eight, Who Do You Think You're Talking To? More than I can begin to process here. One important piece is the idea that language doesn't stand alone. It is received in context of the situation, the past, body language, tone, and more. On page 78 Johnston writes briefly in a way that sums this up for me:
You have probably had someone talk to you in a way that made you think, "Who do you think you're talking to?" or, equally, "Who do you think you are?" When this happens to us, the other person has clearly communicated, by the way they talk to us, who they think we are. We become conscious of it because who they think we are conflicts with who we think we are.
As adults we are capable of dealing with this, often through immense frustration, but dealing all the same. Children, on the other hand, are still developing who they think they are and use all they take in to do so. Our language and all that goes with it, are often shaping a student's self-concept. That's a large burden but also a wonderful opportunity. We can, if we are thoughtful, help students see themselves as learners, caring individuals, writers, mathematicians, scientists, activists, etc.

One final quote on page 84 is, I think, a wonderful, one-sentence wrap up of this book.
If we want to change our words, we need to change our views.