When I Was Young . . .

In my previous post I wrote about Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s visit to my middle school earlier this month. In this post, I’m sharing another lesson I taught last week that was inspired by her.

During the writer’s workshop Bartoletti conducted with some of our students, she read the children’s book When I Was Young in the Mountains written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Diane Goode. On Friday I read the story to my students as an introduction to our poetry unit. The book is technically not a poem, but the style is poetic because of the imagery and the repetition of the phrase “When I was young.”

First, of course, I read the book on my own. I knew that I wanted my students to pay attention to author’s craft, particularly how she creates imagery, but I was not sure how I wanted to reach that aim. Someone once wrote (I wish I could remember where I read this.) that the 40 minute period is the death of creativity. I agree. I find that 40 minutes is just not enough time to teach anything in depth, but in the end, I achieved my goal (I think).

  1. First, I read the story aloud to the students. They all grabbed carpet squares and sat around me while I read to the elementary school style. I asked them just to listen and visualize the story as I read. The story is chocked full of imagery, even on the first page: “Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
  2. Then I read the story to the students a second time. This time I asked them to record, in their writer’s notebooks, three words from each page that helped them create a mental image.
  3. After the second reading, the students worked with their seat partners to discuss their lists. I asked them to draw an x and a y axis on a page in their writer’s notebooks to create four quadrants. Each of the quadrants was labeled with a part of speech: adverbs, nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.
  4. The students then shared their lists with each other. Together they chose two or three words from each page that they thought were the most powerful. They then identified the part of speech of the word and placed it in the correct quadrant.
  5. After they had worked on this step for about ten minutes, we discussed our discoveries as a group. Of course, ten minutes is not enough time to analyze their entire lists, but they had compiled enough information to notice a pattern.
  6. All but a few groups realized after organizing Rylant’s words that the nouns and the action verbs were the words that were most effective in creating imagery, not the adjectives and adverbs, as they had suspected before doing this exercise. For nascent writers, this is a powerful realization, and it reinforces the idea that word choice is paramount in engaging your reader.
  7. I ended the lesson by asking the students to complete the following sentence: When I was young _____. As often happens, they surprised me with their answers. Some of the best ones included:
    • When I was young in America.
    • When I was young, I was free.
    • When I was young, I explored.
    • When I was young, I wore a uniform.

I love that their statements created a bit of mystery about their personal stories. On Monday, we will continue this exercise and see where it leads. I am excited to read their first poems of the year!

For those of you who were wondering: The feature image is a picture of my brother and me in our backyard in front of our swing set. I don’t remember how old I was, so take your best guess. ūüėä

Here is my version of “When I was young . . . ” that I will share with my students on Monday.

When I Was Young

When I was young

I longed to be older.

When I was young

The sky

envied my imagination,

its vastness

its colors,

and its unpredictability

When I was young

My mother could fix anything,

and my father was the best looking man I knew.

When I was young

My grandmother

baked lemon meringue pie on Saturdays,

and I thought it would be so forever.

When I was young

I knew grass

and pond

and swamp

and snow drifts

as tall as the trees.

When I was young

I had everything

but wanted everything else.

When I was young

I dreamt of you

but never believed you existed.

When I was young

I had a dog that I loved.

When I was young

I ran because it was fun.

When I was young

I soared high

and fell hard.

When I was young

I didn‚Äôt fail–

I explored.

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3 Somewhat Simple Hacks That Will Change the Classroom Environment: Making Learning Safe, Engaging, and Authentic

The new school year has given me little time to write: I’ve been busy unpacking Lucy Calkins’¬†Units of Study ¬†for 8th grade and preparing my students for the writers’ workshop model. They are not quite ready yet, but we are getting a little closer every day. In this post, I will share with you some easy-to-implement strategies that have helped me and my students prepare. These easy hacks also create a safe and engaging environment for learning.

Anchor Charts, Anchor Charts, and More Anchor Charts

I was first exposed to anchor charts when I attended my first TCRWP Saturday Reunion at Columbia University last March. I have to admit that some of the fancy artistry intimidated me a bit. I was not used to making thinking visible. I am an English teacher, so explaining comes more naturally to me. I’ve realized, though, in the past few weeks, that these visuals are extremely helpful to my students. I know . . . Some of you may be reading this and thinking ,”Well, no kidding!” but the connection was not obvious to me until I implemented the practice. The charts that are relevant to our current studies are hanging around the classroom, and the students often leave their work stations to review the material on them.

I borrowed my first design from Kate Roberts. It shows students how to zoom in on a moment in narrative writing. 

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The example at the bottom of the image is an exact replica from Kate’s blog post on¬†A Teaching Life¬†in regards to format; I changed¬†the story to describe my summer vacation. The example on top is the design adapted by one of my students. She found this model more workable for her. It’s not much different, but my version gave her the idea to create an ameliorated visual representation of her thinking process.

I’m not sure that I’d call this next example and anchor chart per se, but I refer to it every day when the students ask me how their work is going to be graded. I’ve adopted a four point scale for classwork and quizzes. It look like this:

20160914_095028

I snagged this idea from eberopolis on blogspot. It makes grading a bit simpler and gives the students a clearer picture of their progress in meeting the standards.

Conferencing

I have not mastered this art yet–I’m still a novice, hopeful that I am on my way to understanding and managing this routine better. For the first few weeks of school, my students and I have been working on close reading and annotating texts with a focus. I’ve been monitoring their progress and evaluating their skills levels at different intervals. The short two to three minute conversations I’ve been conducting with students may be the most valuable time I have with them. When I take the time to meet with them individually, they take responsibility for their work, which in the long run, actually makes less work for me because they are holding themselves accountable for their success.

Mentor Texts

Once again, I am getting better at utilizing mentor texts, but I would probably consider myself a practitioner at this point. I have a discerning eye for good writing after all these years, but I am no Jeff Anderson! I began this practice like so many teachers do: by reading¬†Everyday Editing. When I was reading the book last year, I used the examples that Anderson includes in his book and slowly progressed to using examples that I’d found in my own reading of young adult novels. Right now I am using Gary Paulsen‘s¬†Man with the Iron Heads, which is one of the novellas in his book¬†Paintings from the Cave. The book is rich with figurative language and description; plus, the students LOVE the story. A teacher knows when she’s made a good choice when she hears students exclaim in the middle of reading, “I love this book!” and “I wish we could keep reading!” Hahahaaa! Those moments are what make teaching so savory and delightful.

paintingsfromthecave

Acknowledgments

I must say, and I would be remiss if I did not mention that Angela Stockman, the founder and executive director of the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, has been an vital resource in helping me develop my skills through the change process.¬†If you are not following her (which you can do on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google+), you are missing out. She has been one of the most valuable contacts in my professional learning network this past year.¬†She also writes a blog where she posts many valuable resources. I personally grab many of her resources and ideas from Facebook, but she is willing to connect with educators from all experience levels.

Another source that I am indebted to is the Two Writing Teachers blog. Maggie B. Roberts and Kate Roberts are doing incredible work with young writers and writing.

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 3 of 3)

Even though this is the last installment of this series of posts, I doubt that this will be the last time I write about poetry because I absolutely love teaching it. Nothing creates a stronger fire in me than sharing my appreciation for this art form with kids.

In this post I will share a three activities that I experimented with this week. Some of them worked better than others, but all of them ask students to think about the world in a different way, experiment, and test their own limitations.

4. Imitating Structure and Form

In the past two weeks (since I wrote my last post) I asked students to imitate two different poems:¬†And the Ghosts by Graham Foust and¬†Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.¬†

And The Ghosts

I ran across Foust’s poem searching for poems to share with my 8th grade students. It’s unique because it is a one-line poem with a title. I chose it because no matter¬†the writing assignment–essay, story, or poem–they always ask the question “How long does it have to be?” Instead of giving the students a line minimum for each poem, this year I provided the following answer:

An poet is the paren of his work, so the poem is his child. Every parent does what is best for the child. (2)

  1. Take time to notice. 

    And the Ghosts

    they own everything

    Before asking the students to interpret the poem, I asked them what they noticed. Probably the most important observation they made was that the poem would not have much meaning without the title. I’ve been trying to reinforce the idea all year that the title of a work–a news article, a book, a poem, a short story, a painting–is the holy grail. It is the key to understanding the purpose and theme of a piece. This poem provides students with ann example of that truth.

  2. Look for meaning.

    ¬†After giving students time to observe the structure of the poem, I asked them to look for meaning. What does the poem mean when he states that the ghosts own everything? Some said that the ghosts symbolize the past, and your past controls controls you–it makes you who you are today. Some said that the ghosts were memories, and your memories are an integral part of your consciousness. Remember to give students time to contemplate the difficult questions. Don’t expect them to raise their hands immediately. Sometimes I find myself waiting a minute or more for students to raise their hands. When teachers give students time to think, they know the instructor is serious about the question and expects them to come up with the answer. Too often teachers give the students answers to the difficult questions if students don’t answer right away.

  3. Imitate. 

I gave students two choices. They could either:

Create a one-line poem with a title

OR

Use Foust’s poem as the start of their own.

Paul Revere’s Ride

I am not a huge fan of Paul Revere’s Ride¬†because of its historical inaccuracies, and–I’ll be honest–I don’t really understand its purpose. The poem, however, is a part of our school’s curriculum, and I am expected to teach it when the students are studying the Revolutionary War in social studies. I needed to get excited about teaching this poem to mask my indifference from my students, so I decided to create a parody. I had the students do the same. They could choose any subject matter for the poem, but I asked them to model the rhyme scheme (AABBA) and meter (four beats per line, a mix of iambs and anapests) of the poem’s first stanza:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April in Seventy-five:

Hardly a man is now alive,

Who remembers that famous day and year.

I’ve only completed two stanzas of my parody, but it was enough to use as a model for my students. I did not require them to write a full-length poem–I just wanted them to experiment with Longfellow’s form and style. Some of them decided that they wanted to turn their drafts into poems for their portfolios that they will submit on Wednesday. Here is the example I wrote for my students:

The Ballad of a Samson’s Ear

Listen, my cats, and you shall hear

Of the awful tale of a bitten ear,

One one Fall morning when dawn was nigh

I saw Loopy Lester, sleek and sly

Turn the corner like a buccaneer.

He said to me, “This is my domain!

From trespassing here you shall abstain!

Or I’ll claw your eyes and bite your tail,

And chase you to the nether vale,

Where snakes abound to slither and maim.”

After this lesson, I received the best compliment a teacher can get from a student: “Miss Raub, I never liked poetry before, but I think you are converting me.” Boom! That’s my reason for showing up every day.

5. Creative Prompts

Good questions will ask students to think about the world or themselves a little differently. With middle schoolers, I like to ask them questions that invite students to look inward. Here are my two favorites that I used this year:

  1. If you had the money and the influence to buy a digital screen in Times Square, what message would you share with the world?
  2. What are the five things that you know to be true? (Another nod to Sarah Kay–In her TED Talk,¬†If I Should Have A Daughter, she mentions how she uses this prompt with her students. Her version asks students to write ten truths.)

For each of these questions, I, of course, created my own answers that I shared with the students. Sometimes I share before the students create their own; sometimes I share after. When I share depends on the class. If I find that the students are struggling with the concept, I may share my example in the beginning of the lesson. If students seem comfortable or ready to create without a model, I let them. In general, I find that students are much more creative if I let them experiment before sharing my models.

My digital screen: Listening > Speaking

Ten Things I Know To Be True:

  1. I am alive
  2. The world is small and colossal at the same time.
  3. I love my husband.
  4. Kids are fun.
  5. Birds are fascinating creatures.
  6. A leisurely breakfast is happiness.
  7. I can’t imagine a world without music or books.
  8. I love new learning.
  9. I know nearly nothing.
  10. I love my pets.

If you have ways that you’ve inspired students of any age to write and read more poetry, please let me know! I don’t know yet what the topic of my next blog post will be, but I do know that the end of the school year is drawing near. I hope you all finish the year robustly and vigorously. Stay enthusiastic to the very end–your students deserve it.

 

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I posted Part 1, which included two examples of poetry lessons that students love. This week, I am sharing two additional ideas that I hope you try in your classroom before the end of the year. Go for it! State testing is over, so now it’s time to play!

3. Love Letter Poems

I was honestly astonished at how much my students enjoyed this lesson. When a colleague of mine, JoAnn Welsko, first presented it to me. I thought, “OK. I’ll try this, but I think it’s kind of corny.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that I trusted JoAnn’s instincts. This type of poem is my all-time favorite out of all the different lessons and methods I’ve experimented with over the past 20 years. Believe me when I tell you that you, too, will be astounded–even the students who are reluctant writers had fun.

The first step is watching Sarah Kay’s¬†performance of her poem, “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.” I’m going to explain to you what she does, but trust me, you have to watch the video to understand the ingenuity of this idea.

Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay: “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire”

So Sarah chooses two completely unrelated inanimate objects. One, the toothbrush, becomes the narrator, and the tire, is the one to whom the narrator speaks. Her poem is clever, witty, and fun. What the students liked most about it is that the poem sounds like it could be from one human lover to another–it carries authenticity.

When I modeled Sarah’s poem, I chose two related objects because they¬†were easier for me to conceptualize. I brainstormed a list of 14 pairs and ended up choosing the fourth idea on the list. The narrator: a raw egg. The object of the egg’s affection: the refrigerator.

 

 

Love Letter

My colleague, JoAnn Welsko, also wrote a love letter poem. I think hers is a better model because she chose to unrelated objects like Sarah did.

%22Love Letter%22

Even though my students loved this idea, some of them still had a difficult time getting started. Here is what we did together:

  1. For three minutes we brainstormed in our writer’s notebooks. We listed all the inanimate objects we could think of.
  2. We looked at our lists and chose the two objects we thought might work well together. Some students had difficulty choosing, so they asked their peers or me to help them with their choices. In this case, don’t be afraid to tell students what you think. They want assurance from you that they are on the right track. Some of them need your approval to feel comfortable about moving forward.
  3. We created T-charts in our writer’s notebooks, using the two inanimate objects as headings for each column.
  4. We made a list of adjectives to describe each item.
  5. We circled or highlighted the words that lovers would use and crossed out the ones that were not applicable. Here is an example:

Love Letter Poem T-Chart

With this little bit of prep, they were ready to go. I gave them 15-20 minutes to write a first draft, and then they each chose a classmate with whom they wanted to share. My students are currently in the middle of crafting their pieces, so I will share a student example next week. In a few days, I will also post Part 3 (the final installment) of “4 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry.”

Happy writing!

Quote of the day:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

–Francis Bacon

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 1 of 3)

I love, love, LOVE teaching poetry more than I enjoy teaching anything else, so I thought I’d share four of my favorite lessons about writing poetry with middle school students. I’ve shared two in this post, and I’ll share the other two in my next post, which will be published in about a week. All the lessons can be easily adapted for any grade level.

1. The Found Poem

  1. The whole class creates a poem based on a text everyone has read. If you are not familiar with found poems, this video from the Teaching Channel is a good tutorial. (Click on the link in the caption below the image to watch the video.)

 

Found Poem
Teaching Channel

Here is the found poem one of my classes created using My Brother Sam Is Dead.20160422_104201

2. Then students create their own found poems using their favorite books as inspiration.

3. We share our creations with partners, and then volunteers share theirs with the entire class.

2. The Photo Poem

  1. Students to bring to class a photograph or picture that they like–one that means something to them. Here is the picture that I used as inspiration.

Talking with Ghosts

First, I project my photo on the interactive whiteboard and let them react. Inevitably, a few of them say something like, “Hey! That’s you!” Then I ask them how they know it’s me. They respond, of course, by saying, “It looks like you” or “You both have short hair.”

After they share their immediate observations, I ask them to look at the picture more closely, looking for¬†evidence that I am the one in the photo. Once they begin looking more closely (some classes need more prompting than others), they realize that the picture looks old. They also notice the clothing the women are wearing–it’s not from an era in which I was alive. Then they may notice the “28” on my grandmother’s sweater. ¬†When they realize the 28 stands for 1928, the year my grandmother graduated high school, they can then draw some logical conclusions. Ahhhh….So who might be in the picture? My grandmother. Here is the poem I wrote as a model for¬†my students:

Talking with Ghots

2. Some of my students need no interventions or prompting and start writing immediately after they read my poem. Other students have difficulty knowing how to begin, so we use a T-chart¬†to gather ideas. (You can access the T-chart here.) I provide some students with copies of a T-chart that I created using Worksheets.com, but other students prefer to create one in their writer’s notebooks like this student did.

3. In the right-hand column students list the details in the picture–their observations. For example, they may list the colors they see, the objects, any shadows, the setting, the people and their expressions, the action that is obvious or assumed. In the right-hand column students list the emotions they feel looking at the picture and the emotions that may be expressed by people or animals in the picture. Once they’ve completed both columns, I tell them to begin combining the words from both columns to create a description of the picture. I remind them to pretend that the person reading the poem has never seen the picture, so it is their job to pain a vivid image with words.

Here is an example of a T-chart that one of my students created in his writer’s notebook:

20160502_140552-1

 

Yes, it’s messy–but writing is a messy process. Here is what this student created in about 30 minutes of class time. It’s one of the best spontaneous poems I’ve ever read from an 8th grade student. I included a typed, readable version below the image.

20160502_140432-1

Photo Poem

Below is the image he used as inspiration for his piece. I hope he reads it during 8th grade poetry tea at the end of May!

bicycle
Picture shared by Katy Wischow

Tomorrow my students and I will begin writing some imitation poetry, using Gary Soto’s poem “Oranges” as a model, and later in the week students will write love poems with a fun and playful twist.¬†I will post Part 2 of this topic in the next week!

Establishing a New Tradition: Root of the Day

1 Apology

My bad–(mostly to Angela Stockman, a loyal and tolerant supporter and encourager since I started this blog)–for being off the grid for so long. My husband and I took a mini-vacation for a few days for a friend’s son’s wedding, and then the drudgery of PSSA testing began. My blog post, however, is not about state testing because we’ve all heard enough about it, and we’ve all formed our own opinions, including me. Mine can be summed up in one word: Ugh.

Now on to the real purpose of the post.

2 The Literacy Cookbook

Have your read Sarah Tantillo’s¬†The Literacy Cookbook? If you haven’t, you must order it right now from Amazon. I have found many immediately useful strategies in this book to help students become better readers. I am going to share a one of them with you today and a few more over the course of the next month.

Tantillo begins the book explaining that the Achievement Gap¬†is actually a “literacy gap.” “Students who struggle to comprehend also struggle to perform in every academic area: they fail to absorb information, fail to solve problems, and fail to express ideas effectively.” In other words, if students are unable to comprehend what they read, they will not be successful in any subject–not math, not social studies, not science, or English/language arts (Tantillo 7).

I know I am probably preaching to the choir here, but all subject teachers should be skilled at teaching reading and writing. All teachers need to be trained in teaching literacy skills. This postulation is not yet part of the culture in my district. I know that most ELA teachers hold the belief that reading and writing need to be taught across the curriculum, but many other core teachers do not hold the same understanding.

“Root of the Day”¬†is a tradition I am going to integrate into my classroom next year. If you are not using this strategy, maybe you would like to give it a try. I would like to hear about your successes and failures. Please share!

3 Root of the week

Many ELA curricula may use vocabulary texts to teach students a large volume of words. Other schools may use a “Word of the Day” to increase vocabulary usage and understanding, but both of these strategies have a major flaw: the chosen words are random, maybe even irrelevant to the other material being studied, and they also have no association with each other.

Tantillo suggests teaching a “Root of the Week instead. She writes in her book, “Think of it this way: if you learn a word, you only learn one word. If you learn a root, you could be learning a¬†dozen words that use the same root” (14-15). My brain popped when I read about this strategy for the first time. Why didn’t I think of this? I’ve been teaching vocabulary, roots, suffixes, and prefixes for years, but I never thought to simply teach a root a week all year long. If students can recognize roots, they can figure out the meanings of words on their own. Tantillo recommends repeating the target root “five times in five different words throughout the week.” That way when the students see the root in an unfamiliar words, they can infer its meaning (15).

Here are my favorite websites about root words. The last two come from The Literacy Cookbook:

Each page contains roots with their meanings and words containing those roots. You can quickly glance at each card or root, or you can read about each root in detail by clicking on “Read More.”

I use this site if I know exactly which root I am looking for, but I think it is a little less useful than the “Word Root of the Day Archive” because it is not as easy to browse. It set up for people who know which root they are looking for. The interface of the “Word Root of the Day Archive” is a little bit more versatile because you can browse all the roots or search for a specific one. I also think the archive is much more visually appealing than the dictionary.

Learn That Word

I like this site least of all because you need an account to sign up, and sometimes I have difficulty getting the site to work properly in Google Chrome. It does, however, as you can see below, provide some additional resources that the others sites don’t. For instance, you can search for roots, idioms, synonyms, antonyms, or rhyming words.

Screenshot 2016-04-24 10.18.20

4 Final Comments

What I like most about teaching “Root of the Week” is that it doesn’t just teach kids roots and vocabulary. It also teaches them how to inference. Many students have difficulty with extended reasoning, and teaching them to utilize this skill in a concrete and repetitive way will increase their comprehension, writing, and speaking skills. I hope you give this strategy a try. Maybe you even have time to try this a few times before the school year comes to an end. I will write a post at the beginning of next year to inform you of my successes and struggles.

 

A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short. ¬†Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time.¬†I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.

Writing, Pacing, and Reflection

 

About me:¬†This year has been for me, in two distinct ways, a new beginning. How cliche, right? Well, maybe so, but it’s true. First of all, I am a cancer survivor. This school year (2015-2016) is my first healthy one since 2013. Second of all, after teaching high school for over 15 years, I am teaching 8th grade again. Honestly, even though I have experience with 8th graders, I feel like I never taught them because so much has changed since I first taught 8th grade in 1997.

My Goals: I set three goals for myself at the beginning of this school year:

  1. Write on! Students are using writer’s notebooks (see Ralph Fletcher) as a repository for ideas.
  2. Pacing: Depth of coverage matters more than amount of coverage. Slow down and be present!
  3. Reflection: I vowed that I would reflect more on my practice, BUT students would also be reflecting more on their learning, particularly in the area of writing.

Writing:¬†Overall, I feel as though I am meeting my goals. There is only one area, which I discuss below, where I am still falling short. My students are writing more, and it’s intentional and purposeful writing. One of my biggest challenges is finding the time to read their writer’s notebooks as often as I would like. I have managed to review them once a marking period so far, but with 120 students, it’s a daunting task combined with the other more formal writing assignments. If anyone has suggestions in this area, please share them! I constantly struggle with the proverbial “paper load.”

Slowing Down: In regards to goal #2, I feel as though I have mastered this art. I have learned how to focus my lessons to make learning more meaningful for students. As a high school teacher, I had the pressure of covering the content hanging over me on a daily basis. At the middle school level, I feel the pressure of the PSSA tests, but I have a bit more freedom when it comes to time. Yes, the students need to be prepared for the standardized test in April, but the ways in which I get them to that point are not as prescribed as they are at the high school level. I can be more creative, and I can also take the time to differentiate.

Teacher Reflection:¬†Goal number three is the one that I am constantly working to improve. I have always reflected on my lessons, either during lunch, in the car ride home, in bed at night when I can’t sleep . . . You get the idea. I have never been very good at actually composing written reflections. At this point, I am failing a bit in this area. First I vowed to write brief reflections in my plan book. Then I tried writing daily reflections in a Google document. After a few days, I forgot about it. It was months before I even remembered that I had created it! Today a colleague suggested that I start a blog, so here I am.

Student Reflection: I have asked my students to reflect more. On Monday, I asked them what they learned from writing their research-based argumentative essays. Some answers truly surprised me. Here are just a few:

  • “I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”
  • “I learned that sometimes it’s better to stay off your phone and not use technology.”
  • “I can write six paragraphs, no problem!”
  • “I learned to manage my time and ask questions.”
  • “Argumentative essays are not so bad to write. They are fun because you get to write about both sides of the topic.”

The first response is the one that meant the most to me. If you knew this student, you would realize what a break-through this realization was for him. I am very proud of him and his effort. He has come a long way since he entered my class in September.

Asking students to reflect on their work has helped me get to know them better, and it has helped them get to know themselves better. As a result of reflection, I believe they are more aware of their learning styles and capabilities. As teachers, we can learn so much from our students by asking them to reflect more.