4 Questions To Help You Inventory Your Classroom Wall Space

Every day of 4th grade, I stared at the gigantic poster stretching across the top of the whiteboard: “Common sense is not so common.”

I had not the slightest clue what it meant.

Other than a back-to-school lecture, my teacher never referred to it directly (or perhaps she did, but because of the above-mentioned non-comprehension, it probably just didn’t register).

I spent the year wondering about it to the point of distraction. I sensed that it was important to my teacher, so I spent time trying to crack its cryptic riddle. “Sense. Sense that is common. I think a sense is what you use to smell and taste and stuff. And common means a lot. So smelling and tasting that happens a lot? That doesn’t seem right. Especially since it’s also not common, somehow…

Today, I look back at this memory and chuckle at the sheer bafflement I experienced that year. But as a teacher myself now, reflecting on this does provide a bit more than just a laugh. It makes look inward to examine what kind of experience [intended or not] my walls have given my students.

In my first classroom, the teacher before me had left behind all sorts of posters on the walls, including posters on 6 traits of writing or motivational quotes.

But as the months moved on, I realized that they may as well have been wallpaper for all the benefit my students were getting from them. I did not integrate them in any meaningful way, and eventually, we decided we’d rather make room for student work.

Since then, I’ve found other messages and resources worthy to go on my walls that are the few exceptions to my student-created-only rule. But now I filter them with a mindset that wall-space is valuable real estate; tenants had better pull their weight. I’m not currently in the classroom, but plan to be back in a few years, so meanwhile, here are questions I ask myself as I bookmark, download, & log away ideas for future wall content:

  • Do I find this personally and genuinely inspiring? Some of you may be thinking, wait, aren’t we trying to inspire the kids, here? True. But I’ve found that displaying personally enlightening messages to be much more valuable than any cute monkey-face “you can do it” sign. Here’s why: If it causes me to elevate my practices, and if I regularly communicate to my students how and why it does so, it ultimately inspires students because I’m modeling to them ways I’m trying to become a better teacher for them.  I shared a few examples here, but Brene Brown print-outs are always my favorite:
Via www.BreneBrown.com
  • Is there a trace of lecture involved? If looking at a quote even faintly makes me wonder, “What’s the deal with kids these days!” (ie, the “common sense is not so common” poster) most likely, a) it’s not going to help my students as much as I think it will and, b) it runs too high a risk of damaging relationships with students.
  • Is it an intentional, interactive display designed to help students see themselves as authentic readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc? This one is a little more abstract, but luckily, I found the perfect example last week on Nerdy Book Club. It’s bookmarked, tweeted, and had better stay in my memory for when I return to the classroom.
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise
via NerdyBookClub by Jillian Heise

This particular display is meant to share progress on Donalyn Miller’s fabulous #BookADay (also see #ClassroomBookADay) challenge. To me, this isn’t just a bragging-rights kind of display–it’s also a beautiful and handy way to recall individual reads throughout the year that have been meaningful and instructive.

  • Does it bring some rapport-building humor to the mix? In the middle of a grammar unit? This kind of light-hearted and memorable fun would be a must-share.

Whatever you display, remember that there’s a reason that the physical classroom environment is called the “third teacher” — decide now what kind of teacher you want it to be!

What about you? What are your requirements for what goes on your classroom walls? Please share!

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Provocation Into “Outside the Box” Thinking

This week’s provocation that, at face value, may seem a little more abstract, but that has a wide range of applications. You might be beginning a unit about inventors, or perhaps one on algebra, or maybe even some creative writing. Whatever the case, there is power in beginning a unit in a way that is a little less obvious, and a little more mysterious. The intrigue not only helps to hook our students’ interest, but it provokes deeper questions. This in turn leads them to broader concepts that tend to carry more relevance, meaning, and universality (at least, more than the compartmentalized memorize-and-forget content they might otherwise prioritize).

So with this introduction, I share two resources on thinking outside the box!

#1: “It’s Different From What you Expected” Video series by  Daihei Shibata

For a compilation of additional videos and photos, visit The Kid Should See This.

#2: “1+1=5” Picture Book by David LaRochelle

My 7 year old was absolutely delighted with all the possibilities, and loved predicting them based on the pictures before turning the page.

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to “think outside the box?”
  • What does “thinking outside the box” have to do with perspective?
  • How does thinking about the world in unexpected ways help us as learners?
  • What is the value of perspective to our communities?
  • What is our responsibility to think outside the box?
  • What are ways “outside the box” thinking has helped the world change and grow?

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What Happens When The Author Becomes A Person #TeacherMom

I admit it: when it comes to reading to squirrelly toddlers, I’ve cut corners. I’ve condensed paragraphs. I’ve skipped pages. I’ve proclaimed happily-ever-after’s within 17 seconds flat.

For the sake of packing in as much story as possible before a cardboard box won over audience attention, I even used to omit reading the author’s name. Fortunately, as my oldest’s patience for storytime grew, noting the author’s name was my first step in making literary reparations.

I would never have guessed the ramifications of such a small course-correction.

First, I noticed that my daughter started “reading” the authors’ names, too.

Next, she started memorizing said authors’ names and would make requests at the library accordingly (“I want a Kevin Henkes book! Can we read Mo Willems? How about Steven Kellogg?”). She started trotting right over to their shelves, recalling the location of those authors’ books even though she was a long way yet from reading.

When she eventually started writing her own stories, she was always sure to list herself as the author, too. And the illustrator. And she made sure everyone in her world knew that she wanted to be an author/illustrator when she grew up.

These days, the author is often as much a part of the conversations about books as the stories they’ve written. I tell her that I think she’ll love Clementine because I read Pax and loved Sara Pennypacker’s style. I show her other Shannon Hale fairy tales when she kicks off Princess in Black. We even got excited when we saw that Brendan Wenzel was the illustrator and author for the first time with “They All Saw a Cat,” (having already enjoyed his illustrations in “Beastly Babies” and “One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree”).

In short, the authors and illustrators have become people. We admire not just the work, but the people themselves — people with unique voices, styles, and humor. We get excited when they write a new book, not just because it’s a new book we enjoy, but because it’s something new from that beloved writer.

This practice of spotlighting the author carried over into my classroom, too, with discussions like, “Did you see what Charlotte Zolotow did in that poem?” or “How did Gail Carson Levine’s use of a super comma work there?” We started to notice the deliberate strategies and craft behind what made the writing magical. As a result, we started to see ourselves as capable of developing those strategies, too, recognizing the fact that every author once started where we are now.

When authors come to life, so does our own self-identity as writers. Because if they are real people instead of an abstract idea, then we can see the possibilities for ourselves, too.

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10 Favorite Board Books #TeacherMom

As I geared up to attend two back-to-back baby showers, the familiar gifting dread gathered. I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and my practical taste never looks very cute in pastel tissue paper.

Just when I was about to go the gift-registry route, it hit me. Books. BOARD BOOKS! I might not be able to pick a onesie that gets me terribly excited, but books have me geeking out on a regular basis.

In the past, many board books have tended to just be sturdier versions of regular picture books, sans several pages. Or else they have consisted of overly syrupy or didactic text paired with equally uninteresting illustrations. In short, most board books just haven’t been fun to read.

But as long as babies tend to be skillful paper-shredders, we need board books, and we need ones that will make parents and babies actually look forward to storytime together.

Here are ten of my current favorites:

The Epic Yarns books by Jack & Holman Wang (and especially the Star Wars books for my Force-loving family) are delightfully unique. Each page consists of a photo of a detailed set crafted out of wool, along with a single word to capture the essence of that moment.

All Board! National Parks: A Wildlife Primer by Kevin & Haily Meyers is perfect for all parents who want to cultivate enthusiasm for the outdoors from the cradle. Each page takes you to a different national park, also featuring animals found in that location. I also love how the last page displays their animal tracks.

No list of board books would ever be complete without Sandra Boynton. Moo Baa La La La has delighted all three of my kids with its bouncy tempo, hilarious farm animals, and of course, pigs singing instead of oinking. The “No, no, you say, that isn’t right!” with enough high-pitched expression even gets the infant grinning every time.

Angela DiTerlizzi published Some Bugs a couple years ago, and I was delighted when the board book version rolled out last year. It includes every one of the delightful original pages filled with gorgeous illustrations and fun rhymes. Given the spare text, it includes a surprising amount to learn about bugs, too!

Jennifer Adams’ BabyLit books have me especially geeking out. They are the perfect way to introduce young readers to classic literature as they share passages with gorgeous illustrations. I’ve read most of them at my local library, but The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Midsummer Night’s Dream top my list of favorites.

Ashley Evanson’s Hello, World books, such as this London Book of Opposites, are fresh concept books with a colorful view of the most iconic features of cities around the world.

Eric Carle‘s books are classics that aren’t diminished in board book form. I don’t see the cadence of Brown Bear, Brown Bear ever wearing off.

A is for Atom by Greg Paprocki is a nostalgic walk down memory lane, both with the ideas that defined the 50’s, and the mid-century-styled illustrations to match.

Is Your Mama a Llama? by Deborah Buarino and Steven Kellogg is one more classic treasure that will never get old. My kids love guessing the animal to match the rhyming clues as the baby llama talks with various animals to find his mama.

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A 2 Year-Old’s Favorite “Things That Go” Books #TeacherMom

You know your local library rocks when even your two year-old can access his favorites with ease. One such accessibility detail includes sorting the high-interest books by category, such as ABC’s, colors, dinosaurs, princesses, potty training, and above all (at least in my son’s eyes), “Things that Go.”

Every week, he makes a beeline for that section, quickly piling books on tractors, buses, cars, boats, planes, and bikes (and every week, we face the immortal struggle as he refuses add his books to the bag, but he can’t carry his entire selection. I can’t be the only parent that has failed to convince their child of the purpose of the book bag, can I?).

20161109_105628

Over time, I’ve come to notice he has definite preferences. So, for other parents of “things-that-go”-loving kids out there, I thought I’d share those for today’s #TeacherMom post. After all, every book in their hands that helps them make significant personal meaning is what it’s all about. And right now, for my son, most of that significant personal meaning revolves around “things that go.” So here we go:

construction

His absolute most-selected “things-that-go” book is Sally Sutton’s “Construction.” It might be the attention to detail in constructing a building. Or the variety of tractors and construction vehicles. Or perhaps the fun rhythm and abundant onomatopoeia. Or all of the above.

night-driving

This is probably the most my son has enjoyed a black-and-white illustrated book. “Night Driving,” by John Coy depicts a special nighttime road trip with a father and his son.

sheep-in-a-jeep

Sheep in a Jeep” by Nancy Shaw has now brought multi-generational delight to my family. The spare rhymes offer endless laughter with hilarious illustrations to match.

the-plan

Alison Paul’s “The Plan” is an instant classic. For now, my son just enjoys the process of a child constructing a plane, but eventually, I’m sure he’ll come to appreciate the deeper themes, along with the simple literary construct of shifting one letter per page.

flight-1-2-3

“Flight 1-2-3” by Maria van Lieshout is another frequent choice. The graphic design and use of actual airport symbols engage my son every time.

axel-annie

A bus + an enjoyable story-line of perseverance = another favorite read. “Axle Annie” by Robin Pulver will have your child wondering what’s next!

little-blue-truck

Alice Schertle’s “Little Blue Truck” gets double points with my 2 year-old as it brings farm animals into the mix. And I love that it addresses what kindness really means.

who-sank-the-boat

Another oldie-but-eternally-goodie is Pamela Allen’s “Who Sank the Boat?” It’s always fun for little ones to guess who, in fact, will sink that boat!

on-the-move

“Little Explorers: On the move” by Ruth Martin is a recent nonfiction discovery that has also become an instant favorite. My son spends a good deal of time checking under every single flap.

little-reds-riding-hood

“Little Red’s Riding ‘Hood” by Peter Stein is a delightful vehicular fractured fairy tale. Little Red the scooter meets the big bad Tank–what’s not to love?

old-mcdonald-had-a-truck

“Old MacDonald Had a Truck” by Steve Goetz is another fabulous vehicles-meets-farm story, with an ending that reveals what Old MacDonald and Mrs. MacDonald have been working on all along.

duck-on-a-bike

In “Duck on a Bike” by David Shannon, Duck shares his bike-riding antics with all the other farm animals–and finds out what happens when a bunch of kids park their bikes.

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Meeting Your Students’ Authentic Reading Needs with Goodreads

I recently started reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. Two quotes stand out sharply to me. The first:

“I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.”

Amen!

“I am a reader, a flashlight-under-the-covers, carries-a-book-everywhere-I-go, don’t-look-at-my-Amazon-bill. I choose purses based on whether I can cram a paperback into them, and my books are the first items I pack into a suitcase. I am the person who family and friends call when they need a book recommendation or cannot remember who wrote Heidi. My identity as a person is so entwined with my love of reading and books that I cannot separate the two.”

The best literacy teachers I know of are these kinds of readers. And they do it without the “corporate machinery” of literacy instruction.

It’s obvious why, isn’t it? For one thing, they are able to give timely book recommendations tailored to students’ needs and interests; their kids don’t need those drill-and-kill comprehension worksheets when they are already talking excitedly about that book you helped them find! More importantly, these teachers have thoroughly shaken off the hypocrisy of teaching students to embrace something they themselves do not. They keep literary enthusiasm front and center, regarding books as familiar friends, rather than as benchmarks to “pass off.” They are the embodiment of those “not the filling…a pail, but the lighting…a fire” (William Butler Yeats). Our literacy teachers should be the best readers around.

Yet, for me personally, I admit that I have felt overwhelmed by these prodigious teacher-readers. I love reading, but I have limitations that make me worry that I wouldn’t be able to meet my students’ needs as well as they can.

For me, those limitations here boil down to problems: #1) I’m a slow reader. #2) I have a terrible memory for book titles.

Enter Goodreads. Though I’ve had an account for years, I’d always considered it to be too cumbersome to use regularly. But the two features below have at last shown me how my efforts there can be richly rewarded and magnified to meet my students’ and my own reading needs.

Problem #1: Slow reading 

I don’t read the volume of books that these teacher-readers that I admire do. Without that volume, it’s difficult to offer suggestions that sufficiently meet their needs and interests. But as I sort books that I have read into custom digital shelves on Goodreads (see below), it generates recommendations based on the genres/levels of those shelves. This allows me to leverage the reading/reviews of millions of other readers to help me get that perfect book in my students’ hands.

Problem #2: Memory for titles

For the still-many books I am able to read, the titles tend to swirl together over time, making it difficult to pull one out for a timely student recommendation. Goodreads solves this problem by allowing me to sort and “shelve” these books into a personalized library with custom categories.

To an outsider, my many shelves may seem like madness, but for me, I know they will help me pick out the trees in the forest, so to speak. Some of my current shelves include:

  • 5th grade: Friendship (titles like WonderFlora and UlyssesThe Inquisitor’s Tale: Or the Three Magical Children and their Holy Dog, Three Times Lucky…)
  • 5th grade: Other-Worldly-Whimsical (The Magician’s Elephant, The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas, The Wild Robot)
  • 5th grade: Overcoming Odds (Rules, Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller, Holes)
  • Picture books: Challenging Status Quo (“In Mary’s Garden,” “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” “Cinder Edna,” “Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music”)
  • Picture books: Loss and Emotion (“The Heart and the Bottle,” “Boats for Papa,” “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgois”)
  • Picture books: Unexpected Endings & Humor (“Stuck,” “The Skunk,” “The Wolf’s Chicken Stew”)

Bonus feature: Integrate your search with your local library’s database!

Today, I added a button to my account that takes me from a book page on Goodreads directly to the book on my library’s online catalog. This allows me to check availability and to place a hold that much more easily! Here’s a link to help you learn how to add the button. If you run into any trouble, just contact Goodread’s customer support and they will add your library for you so you can select it from their list! 🙂

Whatever your strategy–whether through Goodreads or more regularly scheduled library visits–our students will reap the benefits when we choose to commit to move toward greater authenticity as readers ourselves.

featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto

Hunting For Good Nonfiction Picture Books (10 Ideas) #TeacherMom

In the middle of a long speech about her favorite books, my 6 year old recently said something that surprised me: “But learning books are boring.”

I paused, not quite sure what she meant by “learning books.” Then I asked, “Do you mean nonfiction–books about real people and places and facts?”

“Yeah, I don’t like those ones very much.”

As I thought a bit more, I was transported back to my own elementary school years–I could almost feel the musty dinginess of the nonfiction corner of the library again. I honestly didn’t like nonfiction very much as a kid, either.

So I told her, “You know what, I have a hard time liking learning books sometimes, too. They often don’t really tell a story, do they? And I’ve noticed that a lot of time, the pictures aren’t as fun. But you know what? There are WAY more fun nonfiction books now than when I was a kid. How about we hunt together for the good ones?”

Since then, we’ve been working to shift her opinion of nonfiction.  I try to forego even telling her a book is nonfiction until we finish reading it–then it’s all the more a pleasant surprise when she finds out how much she liked that “learning book.”

This is just one of several strategies to help students become better readers and enjoy the process of making meaning for themselves–which, of course, is what reading is all about.

Since we started this expedition, here are a few of our favorite discoveries. If you have any great “learning books” to share, too, please add them in the comments–my 6 year old and I will thank you!

swan

Laurel Snyder’s biography of dancer Anna Pavlova had us both mesmerized. The beautiful illustrations and vibrant storytelling felt like a dance in and of themselves. My daughter spent days afterward creating her own versions of “Swan.”

in-marys-garden

I love the way Tina Kugler shares Mary Nohl’s love of making art for her own enjoyment. It’s a beautiful and important message for kids everywhere.

 

luna-and-me

My daughter couldn’t wait until the end of the story to find out if this was a real “learning book.” We were both eager to learn more at the end of Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s book about Julia Hill’s conservation activism.

 

some-bugs

A simple and charming read by Angela DiTerlizzi to get us thinking about all the different types of bugs and their functions.

over-under-the-snow

Kate Messner’s Over & Under the Snow was really an eye-opener to get my 6 year old considering what happens to animals in the wintertime.

actual-size

Both my daughter and my 2 year old son loved Steve Jenkins’ Actual Size, comparing the images with their own hands.

 

finding-winnie

Lindsay Mattick’s story of this loveable bear is an instant classic. You’ll be surprised to find out whose origin story this is…

 

im-trying-to-love-spiders

Despite Bethany Barton’s best efforts in providing all the facts that show what useful and loveable(?) creatures spiders are, my 6 year old still wasn’t convinced. But she did walk around afterward for a while telling people that she was trying to love spiders.

 

water-is-water

Miranda Paul does a beautiful job introducing the water cycle in a way that will captivate any audience, sparking our imagination for the many forms and uses of water.

 

look-up

Already an avid birder (following after daddy’s footsteps), it wasn’t tough to get my daughter to love this one. But I was impressed at just how engaging and informative Annette LeBlanc Cate’s guide on bird watching was. And best of all, it resulted in my daughter creating her own birding field journal.