August 27, 2018

5 Tips for Keeping Your Passion for Teaching

Keeping passion for the profession you are in is a key in order to be successful in that profession.  Any person who is passionate about his or her career will work with a mission, feel compelled to make a difference, and have peace in knowing they are in the right place.  So how do you keep that passion for teaching?  How do you stay positive in what can be a very negative culture?  Below are my five tips for doing just that.

1.  Do You

Do you take sheer joy in decorating every inch of your Pinterest-worthy classroom?  That's great!  Do you focus more on curriculum and throw your room together at the last minute?  That's great, too!  Comparison is the thief of joy, and as teachers, we need to just STOP IT already.  While you have co-workers, a principal, and work for a school system, you ultimately are the boss of what happens inside the four walls of your classroom.  So whether you stand on your classroom stage and lead incredibly creative chants while your insanely coordinated students bop along with the beat, or you teach using cooperative learning, it doesn't matter.  Your students will respond to what you're teaching them if you are being authentic and REAL.  In the age of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, we can literally see inside the walls of classrooms, and this can stir up insecurities and even jealousy.  Our thoughts immediately go to: "That would take forever to do," "I could never do that," "I don't have enough money or classroom budget to buy that kind of stuff," "I'm not as engaging as that teacher."  The list goes on, and on, and on.  Please remember, the rules of social media apply to teaching, too.  What you see on social media is one blip in time, one perfectly-staged picture, etc.  There is no need to be jealous or insecure because we perceive another teacher has more than we have.  Be happy for them and realize you're on your own journey, and you don't have to compare your journey to theirs.  Find your strengths, learn more about a teaching topic that intrigues you, try, fail, and then try again.  Your students will respond better to a real teacher versus a teacher who is trying to be someone he or she is not.

2.  Be Open to Change

It's the beginning of the year in-service, and your principal lists off the five new initiatives you will be tackling as a school this year.  He promises they all fit together and won't be that much extra work.  Stop right here.  At this moment in time, you have two choices.  The first choice is you can roll your eyes, put your head down, think about how much unnecessary work this is going to be.  The second choice is choosing to be open by accepting that a school must continuously improve.  Because you know what?  Just like a person who is on a weight loss journey is either losing or gaining weight, a school is either improving or getting worse.  The only thing you can count on as a teacher is that there will be continuous change.  Being open to change and staying positive about the potential impacts new initiatives could have on your teaching and students is one of the biggest things you can do to keep your passion as a teacher.  In my first few years of teaching, I had the pleasure of working with a teacher named Loretta.  Loretta was at the end of her teaching career.  Each time a new initiative got rolled out, she put a smile on her face, stayed positive, and jumped in.  We often think new teachers are open to change, and "older" teachers are not.  I think this is absolutely NOT true.  I have seen brand-new teachers completely closed to new initiatives and teachers years from retirement embrace new things, learn, and continue to improve.  It's all about individual mindset, and the choice is yours alone.

3.  Students First

Look at the names on your class roster for this school year, learn their stories, read their IEP's, have conversations with them, observe them, imagine how you're going to impact their story this year and beyond.  Don't think about how your students should be, how your class was 10 years ago, or the students you wish were in front of you.  Embrace the unique students that walk through your classroom doors this year.  Don't ever let anything else about your job come before them.  There is so much outside noise that goes along with the job of teaching.  By outside noise, I mean anything you do as a teacher that doesn't directly impact students.  We can let outside noise drag us down or we can let students be our ultimate focus and use it to lift us up.

4.  Postive Co-Worker Relationships

Let's just throw out the elephant in the room.  A school can be the ultimate place of gossip.  And I'm not talking about gossip from the students, I'm talking about gossip from the staff.  If you want to burn out as a teacher, then surround yourself with co-workers who gossip about anything and everything.  I can guarantee to you, it won't take long before you dread going to work, have a negative perception of the students in your classroom, and think teaching is an impossible profession.  This tip does not come from a place of judgement.  I have been there.  Oh boy, have I been there.  That is why I am telling you, find your people.  Find the co-worker who is positive, works toward solutions, advocates for students, and cares about people.  Stay close to those people, learn from them, and be that person for someone else.  This right here, can change your entire mindset.

5.  Prioritize

I'm going to say something right now that may make to-do list makers out there shed a tear.  Your to-do list will never be done.  You will never get to the point as a teacher where you will get all of the pretty little items crossed off and then get to take a mental chill break.  Accept that you will always have a to-do list and you will never reach the bottom of it.  Know how to prioritize what needs to be done, give yourself small wins, and be okay with leaving some items for another day.  If you find yourself working an obscene amount of hours as a teacher, it might be because you are trying to reach the end of the to-do list when you don't have to.  Share with a trusted co-worker what you are doing, and have that co-worker give you honest feedback about where you could cut back and what are the most important things you need to spend your time on.  Make sure what you spend your time on and give the most effort to will have a direct impact on students.  I recently listened to Amy Porterfield's podcast episode, "Why You Aren't Taking Action with Brooke Castillo" on a topic completely unrelated to teaching.  However, Brooke Castillo stated, "Don't be afraid to do B- work."  As a bit of a self-proclaimed perfectionist, this was a hard piece of advice for me to swallow.  Her point though was: some things just need to get done.  We have to be efficient with our time, and sometimes if we are too worried about being perfect, we don't do something at all or let one task absolutely consume us.

So as you dig into this school year, think about how you can be yourself, adapt to change, keep students first, find positive teaching besties, and prioritize your to-do list.  I know these five tips can bring a world of change to keeping a positive mindset and keeping that passion for teaching.  Let me know below what you think of these tips and what tips you have for teachers to help keep their passion for teaching alive.

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July 31, 2018

Planning for Reading Workshop Across the School Year

You have decided to make the jump into using a Reading Workshop format at the middle school level to teach reading.  But now, you're wondering what you need to do in order to plan for success across the school year.  I've got you covered.  Check out the tips I have for you to ensure you are entering the school year prepared and ready to see your students grow as readers.

1.  Center Yourself In "The How"

How do you teach reading?  You can't decide to use Reading Workshop without understanding how to use a few very important instructional contexts.  If you are part of a team of teachers, it is important that you're all on the same page as to what these instructional contexts mean.  Interactive Read Aloud, Reading Minilessons, Guided Reading, Literature Circles, and Reading Conferences are all important pieces to have a common understanding of before moving forward.  A book I love that lays these instructional contexts out clearly is Teaching for Comprehension and Fluency by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.

2.  But Don't Forget About "The What"

As I reflect on how my middle school implemented Reading Workshop, I realize that we focused a lot on "the how" and not as much on "the what."  As the literacy coach, all of the professional development I provided was on how to do an interactive read aloud, how to plan a guided reading lesson, how to use the gradual release of responsibility as you take students through a reading minilesson, etc.  What the professional development lacked was what skills we should intentionally stop and teach for during the interactive read aloud and what minilessons should be taught across grade levels.  It's easy to say, "Align your teaching to the standards."  What does that even mean though?  You can't take a standard and make it into a minilesson statement.  A standard is a huge goal for students.  It's important to take a standard and break it down into small manageable bites for students to experience.  A middle school should function as an effective system.  This means that across grade levels, there should be a scope and sequence of reading minilessons that teachers use at the universal level to ensure that universal instruction is solid.  This is the piece we were missing, so I'm hoping that by writing this blog post I can encourage teachers to make sure this is a critical part of the conversation.  If as a school, you're ready to have this conversation.  I would highly recommend checking out this resource: Reading Workshop Minilessons Guide: Create Fiction & Nonfiction Scope and Sequence.  It will give you the starting point needed to create a reading scope and sequence for your grade level and/or middle school.

3.  Make Text Sets

I often get questions about how to plan out reading instruction for the year.  A game-changer for me has been to think of reading instruction as a series of reading units across the year.  My reading units are driven by the books that I put into Reading Workshop for my students.  Creating text sets is a great way to do this.  The perfect text set is where the interactive read aloud you choose to read to students and use for your modeling during the reading minilesson matches the 5 books you select for small group reading instruction (guided reading or literature circles) in genre and/or themes.  That way when you read aloud and model your think about reading to students through reading minilessons, it is applicable to the work they will do independently as readers through their small group book.  My favorite text set currently is using free verse books.  A great read aloud for this is Booked by Kwame AlexanderThe small group book used were The Red Pencil by Andrea Pinkney Davis, House Arrest by K.H. Holt, Under the Mesquite  by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse,  and Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott.  In the resource mentioned above, Reading Workshop Minilessons Guide: Create Fiction & Nonfiction Scope and Sequence, I include 9 text set ideas for fiction and 9 text set ideas for nonfiction.  Generally, a fiction reading unit lasts 4-5 weeks and a nonfiction reading unit lasts 2-3 weeks.  Because I teach reading and writing, I plan how many reading units I know I can get in across the school year and make sure I am using text sets with a variety of genres and themes across the school year.

4.  Alternate Small Group Instruction

Along with planning out the text sets I want to use with each reading unit across the year, I also plan out what type of small group instruction I am going to use with each reading unit.  What has worked best for me is making sure I am using a variety of small group instructional contexts across the school year as I go from reading unit to reading unit.  This allows a perfect balance of teacher-led reading discussion where students are grouped homogeneously by their highest instructional reading level in guided reading to student-led discussions where students are grouped heterogeneously and reading grade-level texts in literature circles.  Using this structure, students reading groups are continuously mixed up, and I am able to observe students as readers in a variety of contexts as they apply reading minilessons across different texts.  For me, I am able to fit in 6 reading units and 4 writing units across the year because I teach reading, writing, and word study to students with 75 minutes daily.  This allows me to only get in one workshop per day.  I decided to go to one workshop per day because when I tried to fit in two I felt like I was continuously rushing and cutting out what was most important (giving my students time to independently read and write).  I now alternate my instruction by unit, but I still make sure my students are reading and writing every day.  During a Reading Workshop unit, my students are doing a ton of writing about reading (reading response) and always have the option to free write in their Writer's Notebooks once they're done with the Reading Workshop minilesson application.  During Writing Workshop units, students always have the option to independently read a book of their choice after they're done with the writing minilesson application.  This is the perfect time to incorporate completely free choice reading because during the RW units, students have an assigned book for small group instruction.  My year looks like the sequence below.
1.  Reading Unit: Understanding Each Other-Fiction, Guided Reading
2.  Writing Unit: Persuasive
3.  Reading Unit: Learning About Me-Nonfiction, Guided Reading
4.  Writing Unit: Informative/Explanatory
5.  Reading Unit: Books in Verse-Fiction, Literature Circles
6.  Writing Unit: Narrative
7.  Reading Unit: Science-Nonfiction, Literature Circles
8.  Writing Unit: Research
9.  Reading Unit: Books Turned Into Movies-Fiction, Guided Reading
10.  Reading Unit: Coming of Age-Fiction, Literature Circles

*If you want further ideas about how to structure your daily time, check out this free download.

5.  Keep a Consistent Daily Routine

Even though each reading unit is a different text set and you are using a different small group instructional context to teach, the daily routine for reading workshop should stay the same.  I love to start out Reading Workshop with Interactive Read Aloud, follow it up with a reading minilesson, go to my small group reading instruction (students not meeting with me are applying the reading minilesson to their independent reading), and finish off with a whole group share to discuss how students applied the reading minilessons to their independent reading for the day.  I go deep into how to plan a daily reading minilesson in the resource Reading Workshop Minilessons Guide: Create Ficiton & Nonfiction Scope and Sequence.

I hope these tips were helpful as you map out what you're teaching students this school year for reading.  Be clear on your how (instructional contexts) pick the what (reading minilessons), select your text sets, plan your small group reading instruction, and get a clear daily routine.  Let me know below how you plan your reading instruction across the year, and if you have any other tips to share.
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March 29, 2018

Writing Workshop in Middle School

Writing is a skill that will serve all students as they navigate life.  There is really not many professions where writing doesn't come into play at some point in time.  From my experience, writing is also something that students show the most resistance to in my classroom.  It seems even my most reluctant of students will build their reading stamina across the year, but writing stamina is a whole other ball of wax.  It's time to reflect and share what I have come to know about using Writing Workshop in the middle school classroom.  Here it goes...

When students are in Writing Workshop in my classroom, we are all working on the same genre and type of writing.  For example, a 7th grade crew I am currently working with is doing persuasive writing and specifically a persuasive letter to a stakeholder to convince them of their viewpoint on an issue that's important to them.  Regardless of the genre and type of writing, we go through the same writing process.  That process goes like this:

  1.  Exposure: We start the writing process through reading as many examples of mentor texts in the genre we are about to write in.  Students read and notice, read and notice, read and notice.  I passionately feel students need to understand the genre, purpose, and what authors who write in this genre do as a beginning step.  At this point, the only writing I would ask students to do is to write down noticings about the mentor texts they are reading.  The mentor texts can be from published authors or even examples of students' writing from the previous school year.
  2. Pre-Writing: Now that students understand the genre, it's time to start exploring ideas they have about the topic they want to write about within that genre.  Having students complete pre-writing for several possible topics is important because students may surprise themselves with what they know/don't know about a topic.  They need to hash that out before proceeding in the writing process so that the topic they choose is one they will feel good about all the way through.  For narrative writing, pre-writing might be giving students some prompts that will get them to explore their ideas, experiment with sensory language, etc.  For persuasive writing, pre-writing might be asking students to think about topics they're passionate about and free writing about why they're passionate about them.  For informational writing, pre-writing could be doing some preliminary research on several topics and writing down what they find to see what topics they will find the best information about.  A final step of pre-writing is getting students to select the topic they want to move forward with.
  3. Outline: I'm a big believer in graphic organizers to help students sequence and build ideas before writing out a draft.  The type of outline students would use for this step completely depends on the genre.  For narrative writing, outlining might be a quick step to jot out a plot triangle.  For informational or persuasive writing that involves research, outlining may take longer if you want students to include research on their outlines.
  4. Draft: The next step after outlining is drafting.  This is the point in the writing process where I just let my students go, using their outlines to guide the draft they create.  For writers that need more support, sentence starters are a great scaffold during this step so that students are able to get their ideas out as quickly and naturally as possible.
  5. Revising: This is where I think about what is most important about the ideas, organization, and voice of the genre we're writing in and select 3-4 minilessons where students will go back into their drafts and revise with the focus revision minilessons in mind.
  6. Editing: Now that students have their draft finalized with the ideas they want in the order they want, it's time to focus in on a few minilessons geared toward editing.  Once again, I think it's important to consider the genre.  If students are doing a narrative piece, a minilesson on dialogue conventions would make sense.
  7. Publish and Share: This is not a step in the writing process to skip over.  The ultimate goal of writing workshop is for students to see themselves and have an identity as a writer.  It's also a time to create a community of writers in your classroom through sharing and thinking outside the box to share student writing with an authentic audience.  For example, with the persuasive letters I shared above, students will actually send their idea to the stakeholder they're writing their letter to.

The writing process listed above gives the big picture of writing workshop.  The teacher guides students through the writing process with different genres and types of writing within the genres multiple times across the school year.  I personally aim to bring students through six writing pieces using the writing process (two narrative, two persuasive, and two informational).  Below zooms in on what writing workshop looks like on a daily basis.  Here is what an average writing workshop day looks like in my classroom:

Author Talk: Begin Writing Workshop with an Author Talk.  So many famous authors have blogs and video clips of them sharing tidbits about their writing process.  Students react well when they see that "real authors" go through a writing process and have struggles, too.  An Author Talk doesn't have to be from a published author, it could be from a student, another teacher, or even yourself.  If you notice a student has done something great in their writing that you'd like to highlight to the class, share it (with their permission of course)!  Even better, record a quick video clip of them talking about something they did as a writer to share.  The author talk should be short and sweet (think 2-3 minutes) and relate in some way to the focus of the minilesson you will be doing that day. 

Minilesson Statement: Each day of Writing Workshop should contain a specific focus that pertains to the point students are at in the writing process and the genre they are writing in.  For example, if students are in the pre-writing phase of an informational writing project where they are researching an inquiry question of their choice, the minilesson statement could be, "Writers explore what they wonder about to see what answers interest them the most."

Modeling: The best way to illustrate to students what you're asking them to do as writers each day is to model the exact step in the writing process.  I have found that this works best for me if I go through the writing process as a writer alongside students.  It has helped me anticipate needs and teach writing from a vulnerable place where I can share tips that helped make me successful as well as places that tripped me up.  If students are pre-writing, I share my pre-writing.  If students are outlining, I share my outline.  I even have my own Writer's Notebook.

Using mentor texts from past students, current students, and published authors writing in the same genre is a great option as well.  Bringing back mentor texts from the exposure stage is a great strategy because students are already familiar with the piece of writing.  I also love to get mentor texts and modeling examples into students' hands as often as possible so that they can refer to the modeling during the application of the daily lesson.

Have-a-go: This is the point in the minilesson where students get a chance to get ready to be successful with the application.  I like using this step of the minilesson to have students orally share with a partner or a small group what they plan to do as a writer that day.  Getting to verbalize their writing ideas and hear others' ideas gets students ready to accomplish the application on their own.  This is also where I am trying to get as much information as possible about what students are going to need extra support from me during the application.

Application: Students apply the minilesson focus of the day to their independent writing as they move their writing piece through the writing process.  Expectations of student behavior need to be crystal clear during the application portion as many students need a quiet atmosphere to do their best writing.  I meet with guided writing groups or individual students for writing conferences during this time.  There is also a space available in my classroom where students can set a two minute timer and "work it out with a partner."  Clipboards are available so students can spread out across the room, too.

Share: At the end of the class period, we come back together to share out our progress as writers for the day.  I like to mix this up and do partner, small group, and whole class shares.  One of my favorite ways to share is with a "symphony share" where we form a circle and all share our favorite sentence we wrote that day.

There is a recap of all things writing workshop.  What works well with your writing workshop?  What are you still wondering about writing workshop?  Let me know in the comments below.

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September 20, 2017

Reading and Writing Interventions: Making Them Work in Middle School

I'm just going to say it.  I believe the United States education system right now is obsessed with the word intervention.  It's the answer for everything.  A student is reading several levels below grade level?  Let's put them in a reading intervention.  A teacher notices one of her student's writing skills aren't up to par?  Let's put them in a writing intervention.  I'll be clear: I don't disagree with having interventions.  However, after teaching and being the literacy coach at a middle school who is entering into the fourth year of a universal intervention period, I have some thoughts and non-negotiables about what is going to make the time and effort a teacher/a school system takes to plan out interventions worthwhile for all involved.  Also, as I'll point out below, an intervention alone is not enough to "fix" students' reading and writing deficits.

1.  Know the purpose of the intervention.  The middle school level is unique.  We have students just out of elementary land, and we're preparing other students to enter into high school.  This may create different reasons in some teachers' minds for why students need an intervention.  Is this intervention for (a) to increase reading and writing abilities in a student or (b) to increase reading and writing productivity in a student.  There is a big difference between (a) and (b).  Doing an intervention to help increase abilities is going to involve knowing everything about that student as a reader and writer and using specific strategies to help fill in deficits and build on strengths.  Doing an intervention to increase productivity is a behavioral issue that is going to focus in on student motivation and organization.  We must be clear on the purpose because a student who needs an intervention to increase reading and writing abilities but is in an intervention to increase reading and writing productivity is a waste of time for all involved and vice versa.

2.  Provide Teacher PD and Intervention Resources.  As a school system, if you want high-quality interventions done, you must make an investment in teacher expertise and intervention resources.  My school, for example, has purchased Fountas and Pinnell's Red, Gold, Purple, and Teal Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) Systems.  Several of the teachers using LLI, including myself, have attended LLI professional development instructed by Fountas and Pinnel themselves.  We also do a beginning of the year refresher and alignment each year.  A school simply cannot expect teachers to provide magical interventions without resources or training.  A significant investment must be made in both teachers and resources in order for interventions to be effective.

3.  Don't Ignore Universal Instruction.  Before any student is placed in a reading or writing intervention, the question has to be asked: What is happening at the universal level in the classroom?  If a student is receiving ineffective reading and writing instruction each day at the universal level, that problem needs to be fixed first.  We have come so far as educators as far as differentiating at the universal level to meet the needs of all students in our classroom.  Every English Language Arts classroom at the middle school level should have a balance of whole group, small group, and individualized instruction through whole group minilessons, guided reading/writing, literature circles, and reading/writing conferences.  The gradual release of responsibility should also be used during each minilessons so that students are exposed to a specific learning target, modeling of the learning target, a guided practice, and an independent application.  Minilessons should be focused on reading and writing skills that can be applied to how reading and writing works again and again versus specific reading and writing tasks teachers want students to do.  These are non-negotiables.  If these things aren't happening on a consistent basis, then going down the path of intervention is silly.  Universal instruction must be fixed first.

4.  Don't Replace Universal Instruction with Intervention.  If you were to ask me what the biggest mistake would be when implementing an intervention for a student, this is it.  Students needing a reading intervention are taken out of reading class to complete that intervention.  It sounds logical right?  Doing this is a total system mistake.  Students truly in need of a reading or writing intervention need universal instruction plus an intervention.  They need that double dose.  Replacing universal instruction with intervention gives that student, who is already struggling with reading or writing, less than other students in the classroom.  Their instruction at the universal level will be choppy and confusing because they're in and out to complete intervention, and many teachers don't adjust their expectations of these students even when they're missing significant chunks of class to attend the intervention.  This will just put already struggling students further and further behind and also leave them feeling more isolated and frustrated.

5.  Consider a Universal Intervention Period.  My school utilizes an "all hands on deck" approach to intervention by taking the first 40 minutes of the school day to provide interventions and extensions to every single student in our school.  There isn't a "you're in an intervention" stigma that students are worried about because every student participates.  Every staff member is involved in providing either an intervention or an extension.  No student has to miss universal instruction to receive his or her intervention.  Also, teachers are more aware of strategies they can use to help struggling readers and writers at the universal level.  It really seems like a win-win for everyone involved.

6.  Programs Aren't Always the Answer.  Earlier on in this post, I mentioned the importance of investing in resources.  My school has invested in LLI resources and training for staff as one option for reading intervention.  Here's the thing.  Purchasing a bunch of boxed programs and computer intervention programs isn't the answer either.  The biggest return a school will get on intervention effectiveness is to invest in the professional development of the teachers teaching the interventions.  Purchasing a professional development book, having teachers do a compensated book study of the resource, and giving teachers time to discuss implementation strategies of what was learned will go a lot further than purchasing every fancy intervention system out there.  The reps for intervention systems are extremely persuasive, but a program is just a program when there isn't teacher expertise to back it up.

7.  Ditch the Computer Intervention Programs.  There are great interventions out there where there is a computer element to a teacher-led intervention.  That is not what I'm talking about here.  I'm talking about the intervention programs where students walk into the classroom, grab a computer, and sit and complete a reading or writing intervention with zero connection to a human being/teacher.  My observations of students in an intervention like this is they might start out strong and learn, but there is a quick burnout rate where students become unmotivated and start to despise reading and writing, even though computerized passages and writing prompts are not what authentic reading and writing is, this is what students begin to associate with reading and writing.  There is nothing that any one could say to me to convince me that this is a better option than setting students in front of a highly qualified teacher who knows specific strategies to use with struggling readers and writers.  A teacher like this can observe what a student is doing and make a decision about what direction to take that student.  A teacher performing an intervention can smile, encourage, motivate, and explain.  A computer can do none of these things in a meaningful way.  Students spend enough time in front of a computer, television, or cell phone.  They don't need any more meaningless screen time added to their day then what already exists.

8.  Focus on Transfer.  The universal reading and writing instruction in the classroom should complement intervention reading and writing instruction.  If there is not a connection between the two, it is highly unlikely that the classroom teacher will see an improvement in students' reading and writing.  Classroom teachers and intervention teachers (who are sometimes one in the same) need to get on the same page as far as what good reading and writing instruction looks like and make sure already struggling readers and writers aren't getting complete mixed messages that will confuse them more.

9.  Give Teachers Time to Collaborate.  So much can come from allowing a struggling student's intervention teacher and classroom teacher time to have a conversation about that student.  If these two teachers can get in the same room and share their noticings about a student with one another, there is no doubt in how much more powerful the classroom teacher and the intervention teacher's instruction for that student will be.

10.  Use Multiple Pieces of Data to Re-Visit Intervention Placement.  A student should not be placed in a reading or writing intervention based on one piece of data from a 30 minute computer test.  Placing a student in an intervention is a big decision, and in order to make the best decision, teachers, interventionists, and principals need to be looking at multiple pieces of data.  I recommend using something like this Middle School Literacy Profile which includes looking at a benchmark assessment, computerized reading test data, a spelling profile, a writing sample, and a sentence dictation.  If your school uses Fountas and Pinnell's Benchmark Assessment, know that there is so much information a teacher can pull from that assessment beyond the level the student tests at.  I have created these Benchmark Assessment Helpers to help teachers break down the data they receive on this assessment and get the most out of it.  By far the most important piece of student data though is teacher observation and anecdotal notes from the universal level of instruction.  Also, just because a student is placed in intervention doesn't mean they should stay in that intervention for the entire school year.  Intervention placements should be flexible and reactive to student data continuously.

Please realize that the ten suggestions for interventions listed above are for ideal circumstances.  I know that schools struggle with money and time.  It saddens my heart that more money isn't invested into schools so that ideal situations are possible to help provide high quality universal instruction and intervention.  As leaders in schools though, it is still our responsibility to do what we can with our knowledge and the resources we are given.  I hope there is something from my thoughts above that get you thinking about how intervention is used at your school and how you could work to improve it.

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August 25, 2017

Sentence Stalking: The New DOL

In Jeff Anderson’s book Mechanically Inclined, he credits Vicki Spandel for coming up with the term “sentence stalking.”  Ever since I read about what it meant to be a sentence stalker, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.  It just made sense.  Sentence Stalking is described as showing students a great mentor sentence (from a book, newspaper, student writing, etc.) and having students notice what the writer did to create that sentence and why. 

I grew up with the traditional DOL system where at the beginning of language arts class each day the teacher would ask us to examine a sentence that contained an obscene amount of errors and identify what we would do to “edit” this sentence.  This practice doesn’t make sense on so many levels.  We are literally giving students a daily picture of what it means to be a horrible writer and then expecting that this practice will turn them into a successful one.  It would be like showing students the wrong spelling of a word over and over again and then asking them to spell it correctly.

Our brains soak in every visual thing that we see, and if we see these horribly crafted sentences with ten errors in them over and over again during DOL, doesn’t it just make sense that this would have the potential to harm our writing instead of help it?  This is where sentence stalking comes in.  I have scoured novels and nonfiction books that middle school students love in order to pick out “sentence stalking worthy” sentences.  These sentences contain rich words, strong writing craft, and creative sentence structure.  These are the sentences we want our students to study and take mental images of so that they try out these same types of writing techniques in their writing.

After years of trying out Sentence Stalking in my classroom, I am beyond excited to share this resource with you.  I have used Sentence Stalking in a variety of ways, and I am proud to say that the way I have structured this resource brings together my most powerful takeaways from using Sentence Stalking and puts everything I know into one practice that students will respond well to.  It is my sincere hope that your students will respond to Sentence Stalking in a way that transfers what they learn about sentences into their own writing, and that it also enhances their understanding of grammar and writing conventions.

The resource is designed so that each day, students study a new mentor sentence.  Each mentor sentence is accompanied by focus questions to get students thinking about the sentence on a variety of levels.  The focus questions deal with the following types of topics: parts of speech, punctuation, spelling and spelling patterns, capitalization, analyzing the writer’s craft, sentence structure, vocabulary, using context clues to find word meaning, denotative and connotative meaning of words, root words, prefixes and suffixes, figurative language, and more.

Each day contains a teacher answer-guide along with ideas for teaching points to coordinate with the daily mentor sentence and focus questions.  It is the perfect way to teach grammar without having to lecture or do drill and kill worksheets to learn one isolated grammar concept at a time.

You will never see sentences the same, and your students will never see sentences the same.  Sentence Stalking takes the sometimes intimidating, sometimes completely dry task of teaching about grammar and writing conventions and makes it into what is sure to be one of the best parts of your class period.

View this resource on my TpT Store here

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August 14, 2017

Nine Ways to Increase Reading Quantity for Middle School Students

Dr. Seuss once wrote, "The more that you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."  As teachers, our hearts pitter-patter when we hear this phrase because we know it's true.  Students who are "true readers" tend to exhibit some or all of the following generalizations in our middle school classrooms:

1.  Strong, unique writing skills
2.  Higher academic vocabulary
3.  Faster and higher comprehension of nonfiction content reading
4.  More creative
5.  Can think within, beyond, and about the fiction books read and discussed in class
6.  Can share their thinking about reading with partners, small groups, and the whole class
7.  Brings a plethora of ideas when it comes to a new project, task, or assignment
8.  Scores average or above average on state and district testing
9.  Not likely to be a behavior issue in class
10.  Responds thoughtfully to written reading responses

Being a language arts teacher and literacy coach, it has been my honest observation that students who like to read and are constantly devouring books show qualities from the list above.  So of course this brings up the question, "How can we get middle school students reading more?"  We know that knowledge is power, but let's face it: it's not enough.  Just because someone knows doing something will create a desirable result, it doesn't mean that person is going to do it.  If life were that simple, everyone would change their choices and lifestyles to get the results they desired.

What if I told you though that I have specific methods you could use in your middle school classroom that would increase the reading quantity your students read this school year?  My hope is that at least one of these strategies resonates with you and that you're able to try it out.  By trying these strategies, I'm not promising that every student in your class will love reading.  I do promise you, however, that with an increased volume of reading, many of your students will shift their attitude about reading (at least slightly).  This, in turn, will create students who are true readers.

Strategy One: Independent Reading Check-In

Before giving students time for independent reading, take time to ask students what they're reading and the page number they're on in their current independent reading book with this independent reading tracker.  This strategy is quite simple to set-up and execute, and it has several benefits.  First of all, by asking students to publicly state in front of the class what they're reading and what page they're on, we are assuming they have a book.  One of the most frustrating things for teachers is when students don't bring a book to read to Language Arts class, where they know they will have time to read each day.  Assuming the best in students is a good thing, and most will bring a book every day for the simple reason that they know you are going to ask them.

This is also a great time to identify students you need to check in with for a reading conference.  Who is starting a new book every few days and continuously abandoning books?  Who is making snail-paced progress in his/her IR books and needs a push or a book with an easier reading level or more familiar content?  Who is flying through books so fast you want him/her to pause and check-in with where his/her comprehension is at?  Who never seems to be able to find a book to read?  Who always reads out of the same genre and never mixes it up?

Keeping these check-ins in your reading conference binder provides kick-off points for reading conferences based on students' actual reading habits.  The daily check-in also does something else unexpected: it helps create a community of readers in your classroom.  Students hear the books other students are reading and hear their daily reading progress.  This opens doors to initiate conversations about reading.  You might hear students say things like, "I just read that same book?  I was thinking about reading that book, too.  What do you think about it?"

Strategy Two: Interactive Read Aloud

Make the "Books We've Shared" one of the first anchor charts you create at the beginning of the school year.  As the school year goes on, continue to add the books you've read aloud to your class on the anchor chart.  We can't make kids read, but when we do a daily interactive read aloud, students really don't have a choice but to sit back, listen, and engage.  Being read out loud to is one of the most enjoyable educational experiences we can gift to students of any age.  For middle school students, they are guaranteed to finish several books across the school year simply through interactive read aloud.  These books often spark an interest in a particular author, series, topic, or genre that lead to increased independent reading.

Some key tips for reading out loud to middle school students include:
1.  Select a variety of genres across the school year.  What you choose to read out loud could be short stories, newspaper articles, entire novels, etc.
2.  Make the reading interactive without "killing" the reading.  Do this by setting aside 10-15 minutes to read out loud to your students.  Within that 10-15 minutes, pick 2-3 stopping points where you will give students the chance to respond to a question, turn and talk about a specific topic from the book, respond to prompt about the book in a sketch or quick writing response, etc.  Take 2-3 minutes after the reading is over to have students discuss 2-3 debrief questions.
3.  Allow students to listen and respond during the interactive read aloud.  They do not need a copy of the text during the read aloud.  This defeats the purpose for this context of reading instruction.
4.  To make interactive read aloud "worth it" in the tight time constraints many middle school language arts teachers face, you must strategically intertwine IRA into other instructional contexts.  Your IRA text can be where you get a sentence for a grammar activity, a common text you use to model your thinking about a reading minilesson, where you teach vocabulary from, and a mentor text for writing instruction.
5.  Use the IRA for writing about reading responses so that you're able to check students' reading comprehension through a common text.

Strategy Three: Book Talks

Start out the school year by making it your goal to give a 2-3 minute book talk at the beginning of Reading Workshop every single day.  Use books from your classroom library to highlight this as a resource and have a place where students can easily access the books that have been highlighted.  Make books talks informal and quick.  Once you feel like students understand what is involved in giving a book talk, ask for student volunteers to sign up on a blank monthly calendar to give a book talk.  Don't have any rules around it.  Allow students to sign up multiple times and don't make students sign up if they don't want to.  By putting in this process without formalizing it into a big book talk project, books talks will add to the reading atmosphere in your classroom and get students interested in new reading material.

Strategy Four: Small Group Reading Instruction

In my opinion, basing reading instruction only on class novels or only on independent reading just isn't enough.  Teachers need to know their students deeply as readers in order to help them become better readers.  This happens at the small group table, not when lecturing to the whole class.  Guided Reading and Literature Circles should be part of every middle school language arts classroom.  Guided Reading is homogeneous groupings of students reading a common book at their reading level.  The groups meet once-two times a week with the teacher, and the discussion and teaching around the book is driven by the teacher.  Literature Circles are heterogeneous groupings of students reading grade level texts and coming together to discuss these texts.  Students reading books above their reading level can listen to an audio version of the book.  The main point of literature circles is to get students discussing grade-level texts with one another.  This discussion is driven by the students.

Once I establish all the instructional contexts of Reading Workshop through a Reading Workshop Kick-off at the beginning of the school year, I continue holding a daily Reading Workshop where during the application time of the minilesson I meet with a small reading group.  I meet with one group a day so that I'm able to see every student every week.  I alternate between a round of Guided Reading (one novel or NF text for each group spread across 3-4 weeks) and a round of Literature Circles (one novel or NF text for each group spread across 3-4 weeks) back and forth across the remainder of the school year.  By the end of the school year, students generally have participated in 3 "rounds" of Guided Reading and 3 "rounds" of Literature Circles increasing their reading quantity by 6 books a school year.

Strategy Five: Give Time to Read

We cannot depend on students' independent reading to happen at home.  We just simply cannot.  If you want your students to read more, but you never give your students any time to read, then you are off base.  Human beings show what they value by where they give their time.  You can preach all day long to students about the importance of reading, but until your actions match your words, they are just words.  Give students time to get lost and hooked into a book.  The students who "hate" to read surprisingly seem to like it (at least a little) once they give it a try.  Use independent reading (minilesson application) time to hold reading conferences, lead Guided Reading groups, and observe Literature Circle groups.

Strategy Six: Partner/Trio Sets of Books

Two years ago, I had three students in my class that enjoyed reading the same book at the same time for their independent reading material.  Our school librarian and I were constantly helping them find three of the same book so they could do this.  They would make a reading plan and discuss their reading whenever they could find the time.  It was truly a beautiful thing.  Last year, I took a cue from these students and ordered doubles of popular books in my classroom library.  I then encouraged students to pick a book to independently read at the same time as a classmate was reading it.  Students LOVED this.  I witnessed actual, unprompted conversations between students reading the same book before and after class, during morning duty, by their lockers after school, etc.  Middle school students are social, and making reading social is just another way to hook them into loving it.

Strategy Seven: Make your Classroom Library Accessible and User-Friendly

Forget about reading level when organizing your classroom library.  Reading levels and lexile scores are a tool teachers can use to provide their best instruction during Guided Reading.  When organizing your classroom library, organize books by genre, author, and/or topic so that students can grab a tub of books they're interested in and look through them quickly.  I would also resist the urge of a classroom library organized like the school or public library (by call number, alphabetized by title, etc.).  The bins create a quick and easy way for students to identify what they're looking for and find it without feeling overwhelmed, intimidated, or making an excuse of they don't know where to look.

Strategy Eight: Give Time for Students to Decide What to Read

I don't know about you, but when I choose a book that I want to read for my own independent reading enjoyment, I want it to be worth my while.  I spend time researching, looking at ratings, looking at books by an author or a topic I've enjoyed in the past, etc.  If we like to do these things for ourselves, what a great thing to teach and give time for our students to do, too.  In my students' Reader's Notebooks, there is a page titled, "Books I Want to Read" for students to write down books that have interested them from book talks, social media, conversations they've had with other students, etc.

At my school, we have a monthly "Rec Reading" time where students get to go down to the LMC and check-out new books.  Our library is open all of the time for students, but this is a set time that we go down there as a language arts class.  Before this time each month, I like to give students about 10 minutes of class time to discuss with friends books they want to read next, give an open forum for whole-class book talks, and also let students go on computers to explore websites like What Should I Read Next? and Goodreads.

Strategy Nine: Document Reading

Have students keep a reading log across the year of the books they've read.  Students can document books they're finished, books they've abandoned, the genre of the books they've read, how long it took them to read each book, etc.  I have my students put all of the books they've read across the school year in their reading log, including books we read as a class during IRA and books they read in small group reading instruction.  When I hold reading conferences with students, I like to take a peak at their reading log to help discuss their reading habits with them.  Students also use their reading logs to access their progress toward reading goals we create.

So there it is!  Nine strategies to get your middle school students to up their reading quantity this school year.  If you try any of these strategies out, make sure you venture back here and let me know!  Good luck!

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June 5, 2017

The Emotional Roller Coaster of an End-of-the-Year Goodbye

For teachers, the end of the school year can bring up a lot of emotions.  The thing about feeling emotions is there is really no right way or wrong way to feel because emotions are a bit out of our control.  As an ode to the end of the school year, I'm dedicating this blog post to breaking down some of the common emotions I have felt in the hopes of getting anyone who is reading this to reflect on the current school year, get in touch with where they're at in saying goodbye to their students, and know that feeling a rainbow of emotions is okay.


Each year, I build a new story through my students and my classroom.  A story that I've poured my heart and soul into from September through June.  Everywhere I look in my classroom, I see a different story.  The anchor charts around the room remind me of all the different topics we've covered and learned about across the year.  The bulletin boards and classroom decor bring me back to those sweaty days in August before students even stepped foot in my classroom when I stressed over the placement of the rugs, the comfy items, and the visual appeal of the colors because I wanted everything to look perfect so that my students felt comfortable and intrigued from the moment they walked in.  Even as I clean out my files (at the request of the tech department) I see Smartboard lesson after Smartboard lesson that I've mentally sweat and toiled over each day.  Because I get a new group of students every year, I think it's only fitting that they get new lessons every day that were designed with their needs as readers and writers in mind.  Seeing these things create sadness because the classroom needs to be torn apart for the summer cleaning crew to do its thing, and the files are no longer relevant.  All of my hard work has served its purpose, and that chapter in my book is now closing.

The real sadness though, like the sadness that tugs so hard on your heart that it brings tears to your eyes comes from thinking about students.  I see the girl that doesn't have enough food at home and relies heavily on school breakfast and lunch every day, I see the boy who has a father who frightens him that he still has to go see every other weekend, and I see the girl who has lost herself this year and taken up the habit of cutting to numb the pain.  When they were at school with me and their other teachers this school year, they were safe, they had food, they had adult support.  I don't know what their summer holds for them now.  I want to stay positive and hope that things in their life will turn around and change, but I know that the reality for some of my students is they will not have a fun and enjoyable summer with their amazing families.  This is by far the hardest burden to bear when saying goodbye as a teacher.


What other profession do you get to have a clear beginning and end every single year?  Many other professions require the day-to-day grind where it is hard to step away, reset, and return fresh and renewed.  One of the greatest blessings of being a teacher is that every year is a chance at a new beginning.  At the end of every school year, I write down 3-4 things that I want to change or do better at the following school year.  At the beginning of the school year, I reread that list and figure out how I'm going to make that happen.  If I have a difficult school year, I know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and that my current reality isn't my forever reality.

The end of the year brings to a close the crossing off everything on a checklist that just months, weeks, or even days ago seemed impossible to complete.
-Grade all of the things and submit final grades...check!
-Submit your final SLO and artifact reflection...check!
-Meet with your principal to discuss your SLO, artifacts, and classroom observations...check!
-Dismantle your classroom to get ready for the summer cleaning crew...check!
-Return all materials you've borrowed across the year to the correct places...check!

I could go on and on and on, but the point is that the end of the school year is an absolute whirlwind of things to do, and there is such a satisfying relief when the last day of school hits and that checklist is complete.

To continue with the whole relief thing, this blog post is meant to be completely transparent, and if I am doing so there is relief in saying goodbye, too.  There are moments across the school year where my patience gets tested more than I think others not in the teaching profession can even begin to imagine.  Dealing with 25 middle school students at one time can get trying.  They test limits, they make the same mistakes over and over again (even after they're told a million times), and some can even be extremely disrespectful.  The end of the school year brings with it elevated behaviors, dress code violations galore, a depleted student work ethic, and a classroom that feels more like a sauna than a classroom.  There is some relief in being able to have a retrieve from it.


When I look back to who my students were at the beginning of the year as readers and writers and people and who they are now, it makes me want to do a happy dance.  When you're in the day-to-day, growth can seems slow and at times feel like it's going backwards, but when you're able to take a step back and see growth as a big picture thing, it is so awesome.  Teachers should be excited about this and celebrate the learning journey they've taken their students on across the school year.

Excitement also comes from a sense of freedom to get caught up on all of the things that have fallen into the "I'll do that during the summer" pile.  Summer to me means time with family on Long Lake, getting time to plug back into my other passions (such as blogging and creating resources for TpT), and a time for relaxation and renewal.  That is quite exciting.


No matter how hard I try across the school year, there always seems to be that little wisp of regret that remains as I say goodbye.  My mind flashes back to the student who moved away in the middle of the school year that I never got to say goodbye to and tell how great I thought she was because she was suddenly gone.  I think about the student who didn't improve as much I wanted him to as a reader and writer this year and wonder what it was that I could have done differently to reach him.  I think about the topics that I wanted to cover that I simply did not have time to and wonder if I spent too much time on a unit that wasn't quite as important as what I missed.  As a teacher, I feel like I am making decision after decision after decision all day every day.  Sometimes I choose right, and there are other times where I know I chose wrong.  Regret lingers because of those wrong decisions and because of the mysteries that I didn't quite get around to figuring out.


It's the final emotion I've listed on this post because it is my prayer for any teacher reading this that of all the emotions you feel at the end of the school year, you are overwhelmed with a sense of hope.  Hope that your students have a bright future ahead of them.  Hope that you will reflect on this school year and bring new and exciting changes into your classroom next school year.  Hope that your voice and the lessons you taught your students stuck with them, and that every once in awhile, when they are making a decision, they will remember something you told them and choose the right path.  We are teachers of content, but we are also teachers of life.  Keep the hope that you made a difference this year in the lives of many.  That is, after all, the very best thing about being a teacher.

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