I’m Not Their Only Teacher

You don’t truly understand a concept until you try teaching it to someone else. While reading Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder, I noticed how much the main character, Jinny, struggles to teach her younger “Care”, Ess, about life. She struggles with taking everything she knows and figuring out how to actually teach it. She quickly realizes that just because you know how to do something, doesn’t mean you know how to teach it. Other children on the island offer to help, but she refuses. As the oldest, she thinks she’s the only one that can teach Ess everything she needs to know.

This got me thinking about how learning is less overwhelming when it’s viewed as a collaborative effort. As an ELA teacher, I forget that my class is not the only one students attend each day. I forget that there are 5 or so other hours of learning taking place each day. I forget that I’m not the only one responsible for their learning.

Teaching is the collaborative effort of students, teachers, administrators and parents. No single person is responsible for all of a student’s learning. Sure, we all have our focus areas but we’re in this together.

As I sit and plan for the upcoming school year, I need to remember that I’m not the only one helping my students grow. I’m not the only one they read with, or write with. I’m not the only one they speak to or listen to. I can’t possibly teach them everything there is to know about reading, writing, speaking and listening in 180 days. No teacher can. There’s far too much to cover. I need to focus on certain areas that are most important and teach them well, rather than overwhelm both myself and my students. This isn’t anything new. Most educators know this, but sadly, I need to keep reminding myself.

I also have this idea in the back of my mind that every student must master everything we attempt. Part of it comes from the demand grades place on students to pass everything. Mistakes and failures are still viewed negatively but that’s a topic for a future blog post.

While having high expectations for my students is important, I need to be realistic. If a student doesn’t completely grasp an understanding of comma usage during their time with me, I have to trust that they will learn it from someone else. I’m not saying I give up on a student when they don’t understand a concept, but I strive for progress, not perfection. I have to accept that students won’t leave my room with everything there is to know.

Showing students how to enjoy reading and writing is my top priority. It’s more important than any standard or topic. I know I won’t be able to teach every grammar convention or literary device, but I can focus on creating a love for reading and writing. I can show students how to find books worth reading and that reading isn’t something we just do for school. I can show them how keeping a writer’s notebook helps them better observe themselves and the world around them. I can show them how writing can give them a voice when they want to be heard.

Showing students the power of reading and writing isn’t something they will easily forget. It’s something they will carry with them. It’s something they will continue to learn from. It’s something that will help them grow as individuals in this crazy world.

At the end of this past school year, one student told me she no longer hates reading, she just dislikes it. Do I wish she loved reading? Yes, but I’m happy with her progress. She gained some enjoyment from reading in my class. Hate is a strong word. If students leave my room hating reading and writing, I’ve failed.

While I finish my summer planning, I’m focusing on what matters most, rather than try to teach everything there is to know about ELA. I’m letting go of the overwhelming feeling that I won’t be able to cover everything. I’m reminding myself that teaching is a collaborative effort of many people and not just me and the student.

 

 

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Make Learning Relevant

On my end of year survey, I asked students to rate my class on a scale of 1-5. At that point, students knew to be honest when giving me feedback. They knew I wanted the truth as much as it may hurt. I was happy to see that 98% rated it a 4 or a 5. That’s a stat I’m proud of. I work hard at creating my classroom. Some days I feel defeated. It’s encouraging to see such feedback. And don’t worry, some of the other questions showed me the honest truth about certain lessons they didn’t enjoy.

I believe one of the reasons they enjoy my class so much is because of the relevance it has to their lives.

“When they discover the relevance, their energy for and attention to the task will soar. Getting their attention is about interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”

Beers and Probst, Disrupting Thinking

Our students beg for relevance. Whether they shout out “why are we doing this?” or sit and comply, students need to see the relevance of what they’re learning.

When I became a teacher 5 years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I was inexperienced and overwhelmed, but my intentions were right. I wanted to create an interesting, relevant and enjoyable experience for my students. I didn’t want them to experience school as I had. I played the game that we’re all too familiar with. I read for school. I wrote for school. I did my homework. I answered questions the teachers asked. I memorized facts, took the test and then forgot them days later. In other words, I was compliant.

Compliance does not lead to learning. Being forced to do something you don’t enjoy is bad enough. It’s even worse when you to have to do it everyday and get a grade for it.

As a child I was intrigued by computers. I started playing around with them, building my own, and learning everything I could by just doing. No one told me to learn more about computers. No one graded me or checked my comprehension. It eventually grew into a set of skills that I use everyday, even as a teacher. This knowledge is a product of my curiousity. It’s a product of learning about something that mattered. Something I found relevant. It’s not something I learned in school.

When we find something relevant, we have this urge to get better and better at it. It’s what drives me to read and write so much about education. While many people look forward to relaxing during the summer, I find joy in reflecting on the past school year. I revise some things, get rid of others, and plan out new ideas.

Anytime I’m planning out lessons or activities, one of the first questions I think about is, “how can I make this relevant for my students?” It’s more than likely the first question they’re thinking about. In my classroom, it means allowing students choice in what they write or read. It means showing them real world examples of how a certain skill will help them. Sometimes it means scrapping a lesson and creating something new. Sometimes it means going against what I’m supposed to do, because I know it’s in the best interest of my students. And because I know students learn best when they see relevance in what they’re doing.

Earlier last year, we wrote Amazon reviews. We spent the beginning of the unit figuring out how important online reviews, how influential they are and why they matter. I knew we couldn’t start writing until they saw the relevance. Luckily, many of my students use Amazon to purchase things. Plus, they had the chance to write about an item that meant something to them.

Creating lessons that all students find interesting is time consuming. Creating relevant lessons requires a lot of effort on our part. Unfortunately, some of us have less autonomy than others. Some of us have preset curriculum we must follow. Others are stuck in their old ways. But despite the challenges, despite the effort required, despite what we’re “supposed to do”, we need to create learning experiences that students will find interesting and relevant. Our students deserve it.

When there’s a lack of interest and relevance, students see no point in trying or caring. Some will comply and do their best, others will just coast by with the bare minimum and even worst, some will act out and eventually get labeled as problem students.

Relevance makes our jobs easier. It creates engagement. Cuts down on disruptions. It creates a connection between what we do in school and students’ lives. Most importantly, it makes them excited to learn.

The Pressure of Grades and Success

I presented a scenario to each of my classes a few weeks ago. They had to imagine they were taking a test in math; a subject they struggled in. They had studied for the test and felt confident. Everything was going well until the last problem (worth 20% of the test). They blanked and couldn’t remember how to solve it. Luckily, the answer was right in front of them in the form of a someone else’s test. This someone else was a math wiz, so they knew the answer was right. I asked how many would cheat if no one would ever find out?

Most of my students raised their hands. I appreciated their honesty.

“Why cheat?” I asked.

“Because no one would know.”

“Because it could be the difference between a good grade and failing grade.”

“But can’t you revisit and retake any quiz or test if you don’t do well?”

“Yeah, but still, we don’t want to fail.”

A student who hadn’t raised their hand chimed in, “But I wouldn’t feel good about the grade because I didn’t really earn it, and plus the teacher would think I understood something that I didn’t really know…”

With their responses focused on failing and grades, I asked them the same question, but this time I told them the test wasn’t worth a grade. It was for the purpose of seeing how well they understood certain concepts. Only 1 or 2 students raised their hands.

“So why the sudden change? Why not cheat anymore?” I asked.

“It’s not worth a grade anymore, so there’s no reason to cheat.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t feel the pressure of failing the test and getting a bad grade, so why cheat?”

“So comparing these two scenarios, what’s this tell us about cheating?”

Awkward silence.

“That we tend to cheat when there’s a grade involved. We’re afraid of failing, so if the answers right there and no one will know, might as well cheat.”

“But if there’s no grade and we cheat, then we’re showing the teacher we understand something that we really don’t know.”

“Exactly,” I said. “So the pressure of failing, or getting a low grade tends to cause us to cheat.”

I went on to share my opinion on cheating. Every single student was focused on me, no fooling around, no side conversations, they were locked in. They were listening to every word I spoke because it was a topic they were a part of.

Cheating is something that most students will do, regardless of their status. Some studies have even shown that high achieving students are more likely to cheat due to the pressure of succeeding. I told my students that I cheated in school as well and for the same reason. Luckily, most of them understood the negatives of cheating: it’s misleading and doesn’t lead to actual learning.

What stood out to me the most, is that all of the teachers on my team allow for retakes if a student does poorly on a test or quiz. Despite this, students still feel the need to cheat. It shows just how crippling a low grade or failing can be. Students don’t want to fail. They’d rather steal someone else’s answer than make a mistake because of a numerical value.

But can we blame them for wanting to succeed so badly in a world that values A’s and 4.0 GPA’s above all?

The purpose of an assessment is to measure or check a student’s understanding. I don’t give tests or quizzes. I don’t like them as a form of assessment. I know firsthand how stressful they can be. I know how misleading they can be, especially if a student cheats.

Instead I give an assessment and ask students to show me what they know or how well they can perform. I explain the purpose of it and how making mistakes shows us where we can grow. It removes the temptation to cheat. Not entirely, but for the most part. There’s little reason to cheat when a grade isn’t involved. In fact, I asked my students earlier in the year if they ever cheated in my class and the consensus was “No because we don’t really have tests or quizzes; there’s really no reason to cheat.” While I’m sure some still cheated at times, I believe it’s far less than other classes.

As an ELA teacher, another common form of cheating that comes to mind is fake reading. When students read for a grade, especially a piece of text they could care less about, they tend to fake it. They’ll seek out answers online or read summaries rather than the actual text. I know because I fake read my way through high school.

Failing or making mistakes is unavoidable and for good reason. It’s how we learn. Students need to understand how to fail, reflect and grow. Unfortunately, the fear of failing still paralyzes our society. We treat failures harshly. Students are expected to pass a test the first time or else they feel dumb or stupid. They’re expected to say the “right” answer the first time. They’re expected to pass everything ever given to them.

As evident from our discussion, part of the problem is grading. We don’t need grades to learn. This isn’t anything new. We’ve know this for a long time. Remove them from education, and yes things get more difficult for us as teachers, but the end result would be a shift towards more learning and less “So how do I get an A?”

Grades are an easy way to label a student’s effort or ability. I cringe every time I have to assign a numerical value to student writing. Grading has never felt right or natural to me. Grading has never felt like an accurate reflection of a student. Not to mention everyone grades differently. An “A” student isn’t the most intelligent. Often times, they’re the one playing the game of school correctly, the one cheating, the one doing the extra credit, the one studying until 1AM the night before a test.

Instead of wasting time on grades, we should be giving students more feedback. Showing them how mistakes allow us to grow, how they shouldn’t be avoided. Most things I try in the classroom only get better over time. I reflect on what went well and what needs to change. Without this reflection, I would be the same teacher I was during my first year.

Removing grades takes many teachers out of their comfort zone. It requires more than adding up points on an assessment. We rely on grades far too much. Remove them and you’ll have parents and students still ask what their grade is. They’ve been a measure of success for far too long.  It’s unfortunate. It’s crippling. It’s wrong and it needs to change. Not tomorrow, not next week, but right now. I don’t care how much effort it requires. I don’t care if grades are how we’ve always done it. I do care that grades cause high levels of stress and unnecessary cheating. Worst of all, it labels students inaccurately and in extreme cases brainwashes them into believing it’s who they are.

Let’s face it, education isn’t about learning, it’s about the grade and that’s a huge problem. Because now more than ever, students need to know how to learn, not how to obtain an A.

 

A Jaw-Dropping Book-Talk

I watched as her jaw slowly dropped open. Her eyes widened, moving faster and faster. I knew what was happening. Her jaw continued to sink towards the floor. I waited. She slumped back in her chair. Her arms dropped by her side, one holding onto the book. She stared into nothingness, trying to process what she just read. Her eyes looked over at me and I smiled.

“Whaaaaaat!” she yelled.

Everyone else looked away from their books to see what was happening. The class had just settled into their 10 minutes of reading, and normally I wouldn’t like such a disruption, but this student was experiencing one of those oh-my-god moments. One of those I-can’t-believe-this moments. One of those this-book-is-awesome moments. It’s the moments we live for as readers. The ones we never see coming. The ones everyone should experience.

“Surprised?” I asked her.

“This is the second big twist. I can’t believe it.”

“I told you it had a few surprises, don’t spoil it for anyone else.”

Another student, waiting to read the same book, looked on with jealousy; envious of the experience.

The book in her hands was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. A book that disappeared from my classroom library a couple months ago. With the recent movie release, it seemed like everyone was asking me if I found it yet. I couldn’t resist giving my readers what they want so I purchased four more copies. They were gone the minute they came in. There’s now a long list of students waiting for those four to finish.

Typically whole-class disruptions or yelling out can cause problems, but today’s disruption served as the best book-talk there is. Everyone watched and listened as one reader experienced the true joys of reading.

A Writer’s Notebook: Life-Changing

Writer’s Notebook, Day 1: I stared at a blank sheet of paper. My mind searched through topics worth writing about, dismissing one after another. I placed the pen to the page, stopped and lifted it back up again. I was in my third year of teaching ELA, struggling to write in a notebook. Doubt crept into my thoughts. Part of me wanted to quit already. I finally scribbled some prose onto the page, the actual ideas long forgotten. My inner voice laughed at each word I wrote down. Writing froze my thoughts on paper. It was awful. I didn’t want anyone to read it.

This day marked one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

A little over a year ago I sat down to read The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. A book that showed me what it meant to be a writer. It set me down a path of discovery and lead me to keep a writer’s notebook, or as Don calls it, a daybook.

When writing about his daybook, Don wrote, “It’s a private place where you can think and where you can be dumb, stupid, sloppy, silly; where you can do all the bad writing and bad thinking that are essential for those few moments of insight that produce good writing.”

He made it sound easy: get a suitable notebook, sit down everyday and write. A simple process that looked effortless from the outside. Don stressed how much bad writing needs to happen before we can find the good. Yet, when I first started keeping one, it was a struggle. It felt awkward writing for myself. Most of my life I wrote for academics. I’d include an intro, body and conclusion; I wrote whatever was required for an A.

I started waking up ten minutes earlier to write in my writer’s notebook. I reminded myself that it was a form of thinking on paper, that it was for me and no one else, but I still criticized every word I wrote. I didn’t like recording my thoughts. Writing them down made them visible, almost tangible. This paralyzed me.

Don’s words showed me I had much to learn about writing. I read more books on the writing process, or books about how writers write. Most agreed that they wrote because they had to. They used their writer’s notebooks as a way to experiment with language and thoughts. I was envious.

My morning writing sessions quickly disappeared, instead I wrote in my notebook whenever I felt guilty about not writing. I could feel less resistance when putting pen to paper. My inner critic eased up a bit and although I wasn’t writing in my notebook everyday, my mind was starting to shift towards that of a writer’s. Throughout the day, I caught myself randomly asking “should I try writing about that?”

A few months after my first writing entry, I listened to Linda Rief speak about her use of a Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook in her 8th grade classroom. I read over pages from her students, mesmerized by not only the quality of writing, but the level of thinking they were producing. They were asking relevant questions about their lives and writing to discover the answers. I quickly devoured her book, Read Write Teach, in which she thoroughly describes her amazing classroom. It invigorated me. I wanted to show my future students the power of a writer’s notebook. I thought, if I want them to keep their own, I first needed to improve mine.

WRN PageI started writing about anything and everything. I wrote about the books I read. I wrote about any question or idea worth exploring. I wrote about writing. I wrote about not having anything to write about. I wrote about how I was taught to write in school. As the days went by, the pages of my notebook filled up with my language experiments. Most were random, but let to some kind of discovery. Such as realizing that if I had such difficulty writing when no one else would see it, my students couldn’t be blamed for sometimes sitting and staring before they write, or even not writing anything at all.

Last month was the first time I wrote in my notebook every single day. I wrote because I needed to. Even if it was just a line or two. I’ve traded in my inner critic for a teacher.  Now I’m an observer, searching for things to record or explore.

I also look at words differently. Whether on a billboard or spoken out loud, I find myself paying closer attention, even recording them. I view pieces of text through a writer’s lens, noticing the craft the author used and it’s effectiveness. I record down pieces of writing worth imitating or that I wish I had wrote.

Writer’s Notebook, Day 414: My pen struggled to keep up with the thoughts pouring out of my head. Paying little attention to structure, organization, or conventions, I wrote about failures. Eventually the words lead me to my writer’s notebook and the amount of times I failed while attempting to write in it. I reflected on the year long struggle to find my voice as a writer. It’s the entry that lead me to write this blog post.

Keeping a writer’s notebook has forced me to better understand how writing works, but more importantly, how to better help my students identify as writers. Writing is about discovery and learning. It’s not something we do for academics. I used to believe that being a writer meant having published a successful piece of work, but that’s better defined as an author. Everyone can be a writer, or rather, everyone should be a writer.

Looking back on the process of keeping a writer’s notebook, it’s one of those things that I thought I would never accomplish. It felt like a chore, like something I was forcing. Day by day, I felt little change, but now, a year later, I know that keeping a writer’s notebook is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It’s the reason I’m the person I am today. It’s the reason I’m the teacher I am today. And it’s the reason that I’ll continue to grow and learn.

 

 

Students Reflect on [Forceful] Reading Experiences

“Thank you,  Mr. Santurri, for letting us pick our books so I don’t have to go through this again this year.”

This refers to forceful whole-class reading, or as this student described it “one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.” A little exaggeration, but it’s still how they chose to describe reading a book together in 5th grade.

Recently I asked students to reflect on their past reading experiences. I was influenced from a few blog posts I had read on the topic. My students brainstormed a list of the following:

  1. A book that deepened or changed your thinking
  2. A book you disliked or abandoned
  3. A book a teacher read aloud to you
  4. A book you “had to read” for school
  5. A picture book from your childhood
  6. One of your all time favorite books / a book you just couldn’t put down
  7. Bonus: A book that changed your mind about reading/got you hooked

Next, they each chose one of the books from their list to write about. Not a summary, but a reflection. I didn’t want them writing about the book. I wanted to know how it felt to read the book. What did it look like while they read? What did it feel like? Why does that book fall into a specific category from the list.

I provided students with two of my own models. I wrote about forceful reading in high school and a book series that opened my eyes to reading. Using my model as mentor text, they drafted their own.

While reading through their writing, one thing stuck out: most students wrote about books they were forced to read in school. Much fewer wrote about books that changed their thinking or that they thoroughly enjoyed. My forceful reading model may have influenced their decision, but it wasn’t the only one I provided.

Here’s a few excerpts that really stood out.

“I always hated forced reads to the core and the worst one ever was called Esperanza Rising. It didn’t matter which way i looked at this book, up, down , sideways, backwards, it was still the same old boring book…This book was such an eyesore to me, that i searched up on the internet what happens in the book so i didn’t have to read it.”

“But here’s the thing if you’re not interested in the book you’re reading, you won’t understand what the book is about.”

“This [the act of forceful reading] goes to show that making someone read, isn’t showing someone what the value of reading is all about. I lost my interest in reading that book, and I hope I won’t be forced to read a book ever again.”

“If we didn’t finish the questions we’d do them for homework, so I would just search the answers. Eventually I found a website that had every answer to every question/ page of questions we did for the book.”

“All elementary years when we did reading the teacher chose what we read. This is why my reading has increased by far this year. Before this year I never enjoyed reading, now I do it all the time.  But there’s only one difference… I got to pick the books I read!”

“Some wouldn’t read and some just wouldn’t care about the book so we ended up taking up to 3 months to finish what was a really boring book. Even if Maniac Magee had its twists, it didn’t seem like it when you had to read about the same exact thing over and over. Just to make sure that everyone “got it”.  It was a problem that ruined my opinion on this book.”

While I think there is value in whole-class reading or read alouds, these reflections show how easily they can turn students off from reading. No one likes being told they have to do something, especially read a book they have little interest in. When implementing whole-class reads, they must be well thought out and executed. I personally enjoy much shorter text (short stories, flash fiction, poetry, articles, etc) for whole-class reading. Depending on the grade level, I think 1-2 whole-class novels is appropriate.

This year I’ve given students complete choice in their reading along with ten minutes of daily reading time. As educators, we know just how precious time is. I’d rather spend our time on independent reading and creating life-long readers than reading the same book as a class. These reflections have reminded me just how important choice in reading is. They’ve reminded me of how damaging whole-class novels can be for students. They’re reminded me that if students aren’t interesting in what they’re reading, more often than not they will fake their way through.

 

I Became a Reader at 26

I was a junior in college when I first realized I wasn’t a reader. I sat in one of my education classes staring at a list of books. I went line by line, searching for something known to me. My mind scrambled. I recognized some of the titles, but not much more. We had to choose one to read independently for an assignment. I heard one girl say, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an awesome book, I read it a few times. Well worth it.” Another classmate mentioned something about how much she read in school. Others were discussing books they disliked reading. The more I listened, the more I started to panic. I stared at the list, realizing that I was studying to become an English teacher, but didn’t read. I was mortified, embarrassed and ashamed. How could everyone around me have read so much? Why hadn’t I read anything?

I thought back to my reading experience in high school.

The teacher would choose a book for the class. I had weekly comprehensions questions, some group and whole class discussion, maybe a pop quiz, and typically an ending exam to prove I read and understood. All the while, everyone read the same chapters each night. Except, I never actually read any of those chapters, nor did any of my friends. Instead, we read online summaries. It was easy, simple and less time consuming. Plus, we passed most of the work. All without reading the actual book. A perfect time-saver.

But there I sat, a soon-to-be English teacher, surrounded by readers discussing their love of books. I enjoyed writing, but reading was just something I had to do for school. I couldn’t recall one book that I had actually read, let alone enjoyed. I wasn’t a reader. I wish I could say I just started reading more and more and fell in love with it, but it wasn’t that easy. It took me 6 more years to become a reader.

From that moment on, I stopped fake reading. I tried to get through every book assigned to me. No more online summaries or Googling answers (well, okay, maybe just a few). It was difficult to sit and read. There were so many distractions calling my name. It wasn’t as entertaining as watching a video, movie or TV show. It wasn’t as flashy or hands on as playing video games. It wasn’t as fun as hanging out with friends. It was all mental and I didn’t see a reason to put so much time and effort into it.

Luckily, I fell in love with teaching from day one. My constant desire to grow as an educator led me to books written by other teachers. Suddenly, I didn’t need to find an interest in reading. I wanted to figure teaching out and those books held the answers. I started to understand what it meant read for enjoyment.

I kept at it and discovered that too many students do exactly as I did in school. They fake read because they’re blind to the relevance or importance of reading. It’s just something they’re forced to do for a grade. I had no interest in forcing kids to fake read, I wanted to show students the value of independent reading and how beneficial it is.

Last summer, after my third year of teaching, I became serious about reading. I started reading middle grade appropriate books as fast as I could. I discovered a hidden interest in stories and the words that form them. I built a reading list. I bought as many book as I could afford for a classroom library. I wrote about books in my writer’s notebook. I started collecting lines or sections that stuck with me. I read more education books about reading. Most importantly, I placed independent reading above any and all standards I was required to teach.

And so far, it’s working. My students are reading far more than ever. Recently, while reading through Q2 reflections, one student wrote “I think maybe you could be a little less obsessed with books.” I laughed out loud and felt proud of my obsession. I felt proud that I could finally identify as a reader.

Getting every student to enjoy reading is a true challenge. I don’t have all the answers and I’d be lost if I weren’t constantly reading about what others are doing to promote life-long readers. Week in and week out I struggle to reach the most reluctant readers, but I won’t give up.

As educators, we need to do everything we can to create and foster actual readers. We need to share an enthusiasm for reading. We need to talk about books we read. We need to provide students access to high interest text. We need to keep trying even when a student resists book after book after book. We need to forget about the grades for a second, put down the assessments and show students the joy of reading.