Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blank Walls and Anchor Charts

As I mentioned a few times, I like to start the year with primarily blank walls and bulletin boards, like this:

Empty bins = most popular summer titles.

I'm a big believer in making your charts in front of your students, even if I often have to go back and clean them up (or choose new colors). They still recognize the thinking and talking that we did in class on the walls.

I'm also very much against isolated grammar instruction. I don't do worksheets or sentence diagramming. We don't color code parts of speech. However, the reality is that I teach 8th grade, and some of my students will have cranky grammarians for high school teachers. My students need a grammar vocabulary that isn't necessarily useful in the world at large, but will be essential in the next few years.

If you haven't read Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson, then go get it right now. Even though his students in the book are 4th graders, it will help anyone who is trying to integrate writing and grammar/mechanics.

I use the book Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing Approach by Don Killgallon with my students. The grammar is pretty fancy (gerunds! absolute phrases! appositives!), but instead of endless drilling, we practice using new types of sentences to expand our skills. (I need to write a longer post on how I use this book when I have more time. I definitely don't follow the order of sentence types in the table of contents.)

I realized a few years ago that this would only work if my students memorized the difference between a phrase and a clause. Even if they still struggle to recognize or use them well, I needed the definition to be automatic, like math facts. I wrote a simple, nine-question test, gave them the key, and had them commit the answers to memory. Last year they ended 7th grade with this test, and so on Tuesday (and Thursday as I have a slightly goofy schedule this year), they took it again. When they were done, I had them switch pens, and I wrote the answers on chart paper on our easel. (They were messy, messy charts. I'm sorry I forgot to take a picture.) Once both classes were done, I spent some time after school copying the messy info into something that they can copy into their writer's notebooks.

I'm not capable of making charts fancier than these.

I will leave these charts hanging until the test next week, and then put them up again until we need the space for something else.

This is much better than anything I could have done with butcher paper.

Messy anchor charts start here.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Close Reading

I love close reading. I can pick a book apart, a sentence, even a word. I have theories about my favorite books, both adult classics and contemporary YA. (Really, ask me sometime, and I'll tell you, in great detail, complete with textual evidence, my thoughts on the end of Mockingjay.) I would teach The Great Gatsby every year for the first chapter and the last page alone.

But I really hate that close reading poster that I keep seeing on Pinterest.

You know the one I'm talking about. There are eight steps, four of them reading. Sometimes the teacher reads, sometimes the student reads. There's lots of annotating and, of course, text-dependent questions.

I hate that chart.

Monday we started our first read-aloud of the year, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. We'll start A Tale of Two Cities next week, and discuss it on Mondays, but I wanted something lighter to balance how lost they will feel for the first few (many?) weeks with Dickens. Unlike A Tale of Two Cities, they won't have their own copies of Dairy Queen, but I'll still stop as we're reading and ask clarification questions.

Sometimes we'll do more.

For today, I copied a few pages from the second chapter for everyone, and wrote a few questions. They're slightly more difficult than simple comprehension, and ask the students to make some inferences and back them up with quotes. We'll underline and mark the appropriate passages. We'll practice writing some meatier responses.

And we'll move on.

I won't do this activity with every chapter, or even every week with the same book. Sometimes I'll use a picture book (This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen is great for this) and sometimes we'll use a magazine article or part of a reference book. We will never use a random passage unrelated to anything we're studying or reading, though sometimes we will make a piece fit just because of its sheer beauty.

Close reading is a wonderful skill, one that my 8th graders need to practice for high school and college. I use it in my life every single day. I probably close read that status you just posted on Facebook. I definitely close read that Tweet. But beating the same passage to death with 5th graders, rigidly following the steps and spending a week on the same one-page story? Annotating everything all the time?


Currently Reading: Infinityglass by Myra McEntire and Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
Why: Because I love time travel books (Infinityglass) and I love DJ Schwenk (Dairy Queen).

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What We Did on Day One

  • We made big changes to our middle school this year. We moved to the building that used to house our first and second grades, and moved student lockers out of the classrooms and into the hallway. This is a HUGE change for us. The kids love it. We love it. It's very different.
  • We're in the process of replacing the windows that make up one wall of this hallway. This means we can't (don't?) open them at the moment. It was 90 today. Middle school kids smell like. . . middle school kids. I spent some time holding open the door at the end of the hallway to air it out.
  • During 3rd period, we handed out combination locks. Most of our students had never used one before. Combination locks are hard, but twenty years after high school graduation, I'm still awesome at combination locks. I opened approximately 826 locks today. I might have rounded up.
  • I gave a quiz on the first day. I'm that teacher. I was going to give two, but I ran out of time, so I'll be the teacher that gives a quiz on the second day, too. Do you know the difference between a phrase and a clause?
  • My new room was my students' classroom when they were in first grade. I taught first grade tech that year. I am Mr. Feeny.
  • The furniture arrangement is working so far. I spent the day wandering the room and teaching from all sides. I liked this.
  • In addition to our Middle East and a North Africa geography quiz, we started to set up two notebooks (social studies and reading) and numbered some pages. Today we will make charts. Using rulers. I have lots of rulers.
  • We talked about books. I recommended some, and they recommended books to each other. It was good.
  • With one group, I was able to start our first read-aloud, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock. I love this book. Two pages in, and we already had things to talk about.
  • It was hot. Today will be worse. The radio keeps describing it as "uncomfortable." That's not helping.

What did you do on your first day?


Monday, August 26, 2013

Reading Community

Last night I finished a book that I'd been waiting months to read, a sequel that friends and I had discussed and debated since we read the first book last November. This time I was the first one to read the advanced copy, so when I finished I tweeted the author's agent, a college friend, to tell her that I loved it, and we happily exchanged a half hour of tweets and direct messages about our mutual love of the books, our favorite lines, the endings to both books, and so on. We were a reading community of two.

Today, my reading community returns to me full time, full of students and parents and colleagues. The community never goes fully dormant, as evidenced by the many students who returned books to me on Friday, excited to share how much they'd enjoyed the titles. A few immediately checked out more books. A mom and I gushed about Maggie Stiefvater's books, and I told her The Dream Thieves is even better than The Raven Boys. Another parent came in, pointed at the classroom library and said, "I just love this."

This year, I know that I will kneel next to a student's chair, and we will talk about Manchee in hushed voices. We will debate Gale versus Peeta. They will gasp audibly when Sophie doesn't evacuate with the UN. They will sigh over Sidney Carton. Someone will ask me what I think it means when Clay follows Skye instead of going to class, but eventually enough students will read the book that they can discover the answer together. We will wish that Thisbe was a real place. We will wait anxiously for our local bookstore to deliver Allegiant on release day. Someone will spoil a book for me in their reading responses. Someone else will try to convince me to lend them the book that I'm reading while I'm still reading it.

I can't wait to get started.

Just Finished: rereading Pivot Point and reading Split Second, both by Kasie West. They're terrific. Split Second isn't out until February, but you can (and should) read Pivot Point now.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Almost Time

Last day of empty seats.

Today our students arrive.

Our first day isn't actually until Monday, but today the 6th graders will have orientation, and everyone else will have the chance to drop off supplies and visit their classroom. This has been a popular day in the past, though it wasn't required. We're anticipating bigger crowds this year as everyone is curious about the new classrooms and other changes.

For the first time since we started letting students drop off supplies early, my room is ready. Every book is in a bin and the supplies are either put away or ready to distribute. I've done very little planning at this point, in part because we don't have schedules yet, and in part because I'm trying very much to put my students at the center of what we do this year. I know some things: We'll read A Tale of Two Cities, we'll practice fancy grammar through imitation, we'll study geography. I've already copied two "quizzes" for the first day. I know what worked last year when it came to classroom management and expectations, and I'd largely like to do that again.

This year, though, I'm not running off copies in advance, or polishing my prose until it shines. Instead, I'll share my draft with them, and together we'll commit to it.

We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Classroom Update: Ready?

Yesterday was a good day.

When I arrived, the room looked like this:


My priority was the classroom library. I wanted every book in a bin, or out of the room. I had new books to be added. For the last few years I've had some overflow books left behind by a colleague; they either needed to be in use or be gone.

At the end of the day, the library looked like this:

Series and authors.

I still have some work to do, and books to bring from home, but the bulk of it is done. Many books were borrowed over the summer, and some will need to be replaced. There are four big bins of random books on the counter; I'm going to have students go though them next week to decide if they stay or go.

I also continued to adjust the front of the room.

Skiing poster purchased in 7th grade in Bend, Oregon.
View from one door.

The big addition yesterday was the blue typing table. My mom bought it years ago and painted it; I actually used it at home the last two years to cover composition books while watching TV. I needed something that I could use when I write in front of my students, but I didn't want a desk or podium up front permanently. The cart is on wheels, so it can move next to the IWB cables when I need it.

Vintage typing table. New book truck.

That's most of it for now. I have a full day of meetings today, so it was worth staying late the last two nights to get this space cleared. All I have left is my filing cabinet and my supplies. And, you know, what we're going to learn this year.

Finally, the good stuff.

View from west door.
View from east door.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Classroom Update, Again

My classroom is a disaster.

It started so well. I came in last week, worked two days, and made good progress. I picked up some things that I needed (commercial size hooks for the closet organizer), I spray painted some drawers, I brought in more things from home. Yesterday the rest of my classroom library was brought over, and so a space that had looked clear earlier in the week. . . looked like it had been ransacked. (No, really, it did. A friend who saw my room last week approached me and said, "Your room, I just don't understand, it was so. . . and now it's. . .")


This is, I think, what happens. We order supplies. We count chairs. We hang posters. And every day something falls down, or gets lost, or is in the wrong spot, and so we adjust and start again.

After a meeting yesterday I asked two teacher friends to help me adjust some furniture for both fire regulations and aesthetics. We cleared space in front of a window. We moved a bookshelf. We put something in front of a map, and then moved it back. Someone suggested we move a shelf to a whole new location, and two of us wanted it to stay where it was. And all three of us knew that nothing could be finalized until there were actual students in the room, and even then things would keep changing. My classroom never looks the same on the last day as it does on the first.

Today I need to sort the classroom library and get all the tables cleared off again. I need to hang one more poster. I need to find my label maker, and I need to make a lot of labels. I need to number things. I need to order novels.

I need to clean up this mess.

Wednesday morning.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why Reread?

A friend sent me this message on Twitter the other day: "Wait, did you reread MIND GAMES? In preparation for PERFECT LIES?" The answer was yes. I read an advanced copy of Kiersten White's Mind Games last October, and it's a twisty tale, so I read my finished copy last week before diving into the sequel, Perfect Lies, out next March. I just reread (with my ears) Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys before reading The Dream Thieves, and I after I finish rereading Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan for a review I need to write, I'm going to reread Kasie West's Pivot Point so that I'm ready for its sequel, Split Second. And, of course, I'll be rereading both A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock as I prepare to read them with my students this fall.

Part of my 2012 Rereads Shelf

I wasn't always this kind of rereader. I've only read each Harry Potter book once. But as a kid I read and reread my favorites. I have no idea how many times I've read L. M. Montgomery's Anne and Emily books, or Jane Austen's novels, or Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel. I wish I did.

More tomorrow. I'm at school, and we're using spray paint. That's normal, right?


Monday, August 19, 2013


Today we officially begin meetings and back to school prep. I went in two days last week to unpack boxes and set up my room, and I've spent a few days at home working on our reading and writing notebooks. Our contracts officially started on the 15th, and some of our teams started meeting then. We have a full week of meetings and work time this year, with an orientation/open house on Friday.

I wonder what is the best way to prep for the school year. My first school had very few before school meetings; we sometimes had one day of PD, but our only contracted days were days with students and official learning improvement days. I went to graduate school in Vermont each summer, and rarely got back with much time to spare. I have friends that have a week or two of prep time before a kid even walks in the door. I have personally come in three weeks early, and only one day early. One year I missed the first two days of school for a wedding.

One more week to get ready for students.

Perhaps most typically, a school that has time before school starts begins with a mix of meetings and PD, with time to work in classrooms and on planning fit in around the edges. There's often pressure, I think, to justify the time by bringing in an expert to present a new program. If teachers are in a meeting, then they aren't goofing off somewhere.

Some of this thinking, though, is indicative of a lack of respect for teachers as professionals. (And, sadly, some teachers fail to always act like professionals.) As experts in our fields, and in classrooms, there should be no more important work than what we do in planning specifically for our classrooms. I'm not talking about covering bulletin boards and organizing classroom libraries, though that's important too. I'm talking about sitting down and deciding what to teach on day one. And after day one, sitting down and reflecting on the day, and on the kids, and deciding what to do on day two. This is our most important work outside of working with students.

So why is that time often so hard to come by?

Note: I wrote this before my school started our prep week. Nothing here refers to my current school or colleagues.

Just Finished: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater
About to Read (Again): Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Classroom Update

Yesterday I went back to work for the first time since June. We don't officially start meetings until Monday, but I'm in a new room this year and wanted to unpack the moving boxes and get my furniture in place so that I have a good place to work next week. I actually like getting started a week early in August, but in the past I've let myself get bogged down trying to plan units and set up my room at the same time. This year, I decided to get my room "finished" before I did anything else.

When I got to school, my new room looked like this:

20+ boxes. 1000+ books.
Lots of shelves in my new room.
New shelves replaced lockers, which moved to the hallway. Unfortunately, this means computer carts in the rooms. For now,

I quickly realized that I was missing about half my classroom library and a few odd boxes of tech gear. Fortunately, it was all waiting in my old room and will get moved by the end of the week. In a way, this was to my advantage because it kept me focused on unpacking boxes. I also don't have a key to that closet yet, so I haven't been able to set that up.

Here's what I got "done":

Picture books.

I moved this freestanding bookshelf into a front corner and filled it with picture books and poetry. This unit was in pretty much the same place in my old room. I like the visual of a bookshelf in front of the room, and I also like that it's separate from our main classroom library. (The poster is covering where the backing was ripped off, which is probably why it ended up donated to our rummage sale.)

Comfortable and cheap.

I'm pretty excited about this chair, a $15 purchase at the hardware store. It's actually a bright blue without the filter. The unit next to it spins, and I picked it up free at our rummage sale a few years ago. It desperately needs to be painted bright white. Maybe next summer (she says for the third year in a row). For now, it's holding books the students can't borrow without permission and class reads. It used to be behind my desk, but it got in the way, and it was silly to put too much on top because then you couldn't spin it.

Temporarily storing everything still lacking a place.

This will look a lot different by the time school starts. For one thing, I can't get in the closet yet, so there are supplies all over (and boxes that still need to be unpacked on the ground). I also don't have all of my books in the room yet, so I'm not sure how much of the fiction section will fit on the white shelves. My hope is that I can use the first two or three sections here for non-fiction, award winners, oversized books, student portfolios, and reference materials we only use part of the year (like Shakespeare), and keep my professional materials and books in the last section. These shelves are really deep, so I can also store professional books I use less often in the back. I'm also not sure what to do with that bulletin board behind my desk (the posters there now are temporary and usually go on the door). Hmm.

Yup, that's Nathan Fillion watching over the room.

Today I'm going to have help moving furniture, so that filing cabinet will go near the door and we can try some table arrangements. I'm hoping to put the teaching table near the window (between the reading chair and my desk) and then set up the four round tables so that we can have a tiny floor meeting space around the chair/easel/bookshelves, and still have room to use the smart board. My first instinct was to put the teaching table in the back, where it's out of the way, but I want this table to be a space that we use daily. I want it to be at the center of of what we're doing. I also want students to be able to access all the shelves and the computers/printer without going behind me. I guess we'll have to see how it fits.

First, though, a trip to the office supply store for wall tabs. It's time to hang some maps!


Monday, August 12, 2013

Setting Up the Classroom

Today I am finally going in to set up my new classroom. In June, the classroom I'm moving into looked like this:

Furniture belongs to second grade.
Some of my classroom library moved early.
The lockers were (hopefully) torn out over the summer. Also, not my furniture.
I will also have to think about how the room looks from the street.

I want to focus this week on setting up the room before I do anything else, so that I can do my planning and prepping next week in a room that is basically ready (or at least clean). I also want to take the opportunity of a new room to rethink some of the ways my old room was set up. I need to think about traffic patterns, but some of that won't happen until we have middle school meetings next week.

For the last few years, I have purposely started with a blank space. The only thing on the walls has been my READ poster with Nathan Fillion and the calendar/schedules/emergency procedures. I like this. I like that the students and I fill the space together, and that it reflects our learning. I like that our space is clean and fresh when we begin, and I also know that by the end of the year it will be full. This will be the first year that the middle school doesn't have lockers in our classrooms, and I LOVE that I'm getting back all that wall space. I look forward to filling that space with our sentence strips and anchor charts.

I've been thinking, probably too much, about some of the really beautiful, tricked-out classroom reveals that I'm seeing on Pinterest. The spaces represent hours and hours (and hours!) of work by really dedicated teachers. As someone who trained for high school and not elementary instruction, I've never really understood classroom themes. It's not my thing, I guess. But the more I try to put students at the center of my classroom and my curriculum, the less comfortable I am with those spaces. If our students are the curriculum, then how can I have a finished space when we begin? How is there space for every child when the room is done, and the child gets a desk and one clip for best work on the wall? How does that work?

Still Reading: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. It's terrific. I also took a little break this weekend and read a few new romances. Brain candy.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

Why Poetry?

For several years we read a poem in my class every single day. I primarily used Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, edited by Billy Collins. When I took over seventh grade, I tossed all the classics and whole class novels and went all in on contemporary novels and choice. I didn't question my decision, but I did have to defend it one summer morning before school even started.

It was my ten year college reunion, held eleven years after graduation. A friend and I had gone for coffee while our traveling companions were on conference calls for work. (One advantage of a career in teaching is that I am almost never required to be on a conference call during vacation.) As we stood in the crowded coffee shop I recognized the shaggy intellectual next to me as a friend and greeted him. My traveling companion looked surprised until I introduced him to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet that I knew from grad school. He was there with his wife, a friend of mine who had graduated a dozen years ahead of me but was on the same reunion cycle, and so we joined them at an outdoor table for breakfast.

After some good natured smack talk about whose college threw a better reunion (my poet friend is a professor at a rival university), conversation turned to schools and teaching. My friends' son was in middle school at the time, and they asked about my plans for my classroom. "I'm changing the reading list," I declared. "All new YA, no classics. What kid wants to read Tom Sawyer?"*

"No Tom Sawyer?" the poet asked. "Really?" (You have to imagine this said in a terrific Irish accent. You can hear him read one of his poems here.) He added that he and his wife, a writer herself, wanted their son to be in exactly the kind of classroom that did read books like Tom Sawyer.

I was momentarily stumped. Plenty of people question what we teach: parents, students, administrators, colleagues. You have to develop a thick skin, and I had. I was educated, I was trained, I had done my research. I knew I wasn't wrong, but for the first time I had to defend myself to two people I very much admired. I knew the reunion would be full of fancy finance jobs and the competitive parenting of toddlers; this breakfast was a rare meeting of nerdy intellectual types (and my traveling companion, a fancy finance guy whose wife was back at the hotel on a fancy business call). These were my people. This was my moment.

"Poetry," I said. I took a breath. "We're going to read a poem every day."

I don't remember how the conversation turned after that, but I did keep to my promise. We read a poem every day, usually from Poetry 180, but sometimes I pulled from other sources. We read two poems from my friend. Poetry was the backbone of our understanding of literature, and when it was pushed aside by a grade level change and the switch to humanities, I missed it.

I think this year is a good time to bring it back.

Currently Reading: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Why: My favorite high school teacher recommended it to me. It's the best kind of "assigned" reading.

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*I paraphrase the conversation, of course, as it happened five years ago. We definitely discussed Tom Sawyer specifically.