Even a Great Cook Starts With a Basic Recipe

When I last posted to this blog, I was living my own teacher dream.  I was working in the district I had sought-out the moment I graduated college.  I was blissfully designing my own daily schedule and my own daily instruction from scratch.  Very few textbooks or mandates clouded my dream, and I felt a lot like a chef, “cooking up” fun and engaging lessons and activities for my students.  I lived the promise I had made when they hired me – I was the person who came in early and stayed up late and showed up on the weekends because I loved doing this job and having this freedom to do it the way I wanted to.

I was one of quite a few teachers in my district (after all, they had “raised” me into the teacher I was) who could practically hiss and spit when the dreaded “P” word was spoken….p-r-0-g-r-a-m. We were always a little paranoid, and would speak in hushed whispers about our fears that someone above was going to try to push a program on us.  We knew we were lucky to have the freedom and flexibility to be so creative with our work, and very few other schools operate this way.  It was what drew most of us to the district in the first place, and we had become fiercely loyal to our way of doing business.

For a long time, our paranoia was just paranoia, but eventually, the reality was upon us.  We were asked to review some sample materials for reading instruction.  Thankfully, one of the products that was provided was the Units of Study for Teaching Reading.  Many of us fierce, passionate, creative teachers had been using reading and writing workshop for years.  We had read the professional books, gone to the Saturday reunions at Teachers College, and sought out workshops when they were available.  The Units of Study product was based in the philosophy that we were already using, so if we had to spend our precious budget dollars on something other than children’s literature, THAT was what we wanted to spend them on!

When I was one of the teachers clawing and biting because the “P” word had been used, a colleague made a comment that stuck with me.  I had shared a Facebook meme (originally from John Spencer’s blog) that read, “Telling a Teacher to Use a Boxed Curriculum is Like Forcing a Chef to Cook Hamburger Helper.”  This represented exactly how I felt about “programs” and everything I loved about teaching.  However, this colleague’s response was, “Yes, but sometimes Hamburger Helper is what you need to get started…” I remembered her words when it was time to bring the Units of Study reading materials into our school.  One of the reasons our reading and writing workshop program wasn’t as robust as it had been was because we had quite a few new teachers join us and other teachers change grade levels.  There wasn’t any common training, materials, or expectations, and everybody was trying to do the best they could with the situation they were in.  As a young teacher with no children, no health or family issues, an overabundance of enthusiasm, and a reading specialist degree that led me to a lot more training in this area than my peers, I had the special knowledge and time on my hands to do this kind of work from scratch day in and day out.  But not every teacher is in the same situation as me.  The Units of Study were the common ground we needed for each teacher to build something great in their own classroom.

Lucy Calkins said it herself in the Guide to the Readers Workshop that comes with each grade level’s Units of Study kit.  It’s just “professional development in a box.”  It’s not a program. It’s not a script.  It’s a way for teachers to learn the philosophy I’ve always subscribed to, build a school-wide curriculum based on that philosophy, and “cook up” a class full of readers.  There are many different ways to whip up an outstanding chocolate cake, and each chef will make it differently based on his/her specific talents and preferences.  But in the end, there are a few key ingredients and steps to the process that have to be present in that recipe.  Likewise, there are a few key ingredients and steps to the process that we can all benefit from learning in order to grow a generation of readers.

Words of Wisdom From Mem Fox

This week, in the midst of a crazy-busy school schedule, I somehow found some time to read a couple of articles in the September issue of Reading Teacher.  The first article I came across was an article by Mem Fox, titled “What Next In the Read-Aloud Battle?”  This article was a little dose of what I needed this week.

Mem Fox asserts that the best thing we can do for our students – ESPECIALLY the most needy students – is to simply read aloud, with passion and joy and enthusiasm, as often as possible.  We don’t need to kill the text with questions and responses.  We don’t need expensive basals or programs with big names.  We shouldn’t be sacrificing read aloud time for the sake of worksheets or test prep or any of those other “fixes.”  Mem tells us that the real “fix” is much simpler than that – JUST READ!

While I’m not ready to abandon my entire curriculum and just read aloud book after book for seven hours every day, I was just so pleased to read her article.  Read alouds have been an important part of the curriculum for me for the eight years I have been teaching.  I can remember when I was in elementary school, read alouds were  a privilege, a reward, or something “extra” if we got all our other work done.  But really, read alouds are where we model great reading and students get to hear rich language.  They are vital to any elementary school curriculum….perhaps any grade!

I also made a connection between this article and other trends in education.  We seem to have a need these days to keep everybody busy.  Teachers have to be kept busy by administrators with meetings and paperwork, even though what’s really best for students might be to just let teachers determine what needs to be done to meet those students’ needs.  Students need to be kept busy with projects and writing assignments and homework, because it looks more rigorous.  But looks can be deceiving – in the world of reading instruction and elsewhere in education.  Sometimes, what’s best for students is just the most simple, obvious thing….read!

Reading Like Readers

It has always been important to me to teach children how to read like real readers.  That sounds like an obvious or even redundant statement, but really it is not.  In many schools, and in the school I grew up in, reading was taught through the use of a basal series.  Children read short stories and answered three or four questions about each story in writing.  Basals have come a long way since I was in elementary school (I know, it wasn’t THAT long ago!), but in my opinion, they still do not teach children to develop all of the reading habits and skills that real readers need.

One of these skills is simply the skill of choosing a book.  If every text you read is always prescribed for you, how do you learn what you like and don’t like?  How do you learn what’s easy and what’s hard?  I’m still finishing the chore of cataloging my classroom library with the app Book Keeper (see my post Classroom Libraries), but at this point I already have over 700 books cataloged that live in my classroom.  I want my students to have a wide variety of choices so that they can learn which books they find interesting or useful.  Hopefully, this skill will transfer over into their outside-of-school lives now and carry on through adulthood.  Students most likely will not become lifelong readers if they only read what’s prescribed for them.

There are important habits that are developed when children choose their own literature for independent reading, too.  They learn that it’s OK to abandon a book that is awful, but also that sometimes sticking with a seemingly awful book will pay off.  Students develop reading stamina when they have to stick with longer chapter books over longer periods of time.  Like adult readers, children start to form “wish lists” of books they want to read – because the teacher or another student recommended it, or because they saw another student reading it, or because it caught their eye in a book display.  One of the most important habits that kids need to develop to become “real readers” is the ability to discuss what you are reading with others.  Reading real literature gives students lots of fuel for those discussions.

I am very fortunate to work in a school district that has a proud history of a balanced literacy program.  We do not subscribe to any basal series.  Instead, our “textbook” money is spent on updating the quality children’s literature in our classrooms.  My fourth grade students will read three “core books” over the course of the school year.  These are books that all students in my class will read at the same time.  We also do 2-3 sessions of literature circles over the course of the school year.  The rest of the year is done readers’ workshop style, with students applying what they are learning to books of their own choosing.  There are no hard and fast rules about reading only chapter books. I have a huge selection of worthwhile and challenging fiction and nonfiction that is not in chapter book format.

Even within our balanced literacy framework, I am always looking for ways to improve my instruction and enhance my students’ experience.  This year, one of my goals is to increase the amount of discussion that happens about students’ independent reading selections.  I’ve always debated on the usefulness of a book log.  In the past, I didn’t think that was something real readers did – at least I didn’t!  But today, we have some great websites and apps, like www.goodreads.com, where lots of readers are logging and reviewing the books that they read.  So, I have asked my students to keep a book log this year in the back of their readers’ notebooks.  It is very simple – date, title, and one, two, or three stars for a rating.  There is no requirement on how many books need to be read by a certain date.  I find that such a practice simply encourages students to lie.  Instead, I’m hoping the book log will be a great springboard for discussion between students and with me about the books they are reading.  It’s something I will have to make a point of discussing with them when I confer.  It’s also something I want to make time for within reading class – maybe every Friday – where a few students could share the most recent book they rated and engage in a discussion with their classmates about these books.

Reading is something I am truly passionate about, and is probably my favorite subject to teach.  I hope that my enthusiasm and efforts are helping to produce a generation of lifelong readers.

Essential Questions


After three days of in-service, my head is spinning from information overload.  We’ve done everything from reviewing the faculty handbook to having debates about recess to learning new procedures for getting substitutes to realigning our curriculum to fit the CCSS.  The curriculum work was the bulk of our in-service time.  We spent a lot of time talking about the elements of a good curriculum, including essential questions.  This was not the first time I had heard about essential questions.  In fact, we have been working with essential questions for the last several years as we’ve been working to improve our curriculum.

Today, as I was sitting at my desk trying to finally get myself ready for students on Monday (today was a “day off” for teachers….AKA the only kind of day where we actually get to work in our rooms and prepare for students), essential questions came back into my mind.  I was preparing my lesson plans for the first week of school, and I found myself questioning the same elements of my planning over and over again.

“How often have I planned to have students actively engaged?”

“Have I planned to talk at my students too much?”

“Am I providing enough modeling and explanation for students to be successful?”

“How can I make this more student-centered?”

Maybe it’s because I’ve just sat through three days of mostly being “talked at,” or maybe it’s because I am rejuvenated from my summer off, but I always seem to be better at asking these questions at the beginning of the school year.  Then, as the days get busier and busier, and deadlines start sneaking up out of nowhere, I lose sight of these “essential questions.”  For my students’ sakes, I am going to post these questions right on my desk and try my hardest not to lose sight this year.  While they may not be true “essential questions” in the context of curriculum, I think these questions are essential for ensuring that my students get the most out of their experiences in my classroom.  Can you think of any other “essential questions” that we as teachers should be asking ourselves as we prepare plans for our students?  Thanks for reading!

Doing My Homework

This summer, I have spent more time than ever reading the children’s literature that I will be adding to my classroom library this fall.  It started with a Barnes and Noble gift card given to me by a student on the last day of school.  I went out and bought a bunch of books for my classroom with that gift card during the first week of summer vacation.  Here they are:


I started reading these books while floating in the pool each afternoon, and quickly worked my way through the bunch.  But my work wasn’t done!  In the mean time, I had purchased a couple of Kate Messner’s books as my “fee” for her free online summer writing camp for teachers (check it out here:  http://www.katemessner.com/teachers-write/).  Not to mention, the scores of books I picked up from our neighborhood yard sales.  Have you ever gone yard-sale shopping for kids’ books?  In my town, books that sell for $3-$5 in the Scholastic book order are re-sold, having mostly been read once, for 50cents – $1.  And since I live in the same town where I teach, a lot of these books are coming from students I taught.  I feel a little guilty knowing I got the bonus points for all those purchases and then bought the books back for 1/3 of the price or less!  But just a little guilty…

So, as I’ve been finishing up these books, I’ve been working on a written assignment as well.  I’ve had a book review block on my Moodle page for several years now.  It has one or two entries that I posted and one or two entries that my students posted, and that’s it.  I had hoped students would get interested in this tool on their own and start adding more reviews, but it never happened.  So this summer, after reading each book, I am adding a picture and a detailed review to the book review block on my Moodle page.


In each review, I start with a one paragraph summary.  I try to give the reader a good idea of what the book is about without revealing too many important details.  Then, I add a second paragraph that tells what I liked about the book, what kinds of readers it might be good for, and a rough estimate of difficulty (e.g. “This book would be easy for most fourth grade readers.” or “This book is a good match for kids who like to read more challenging books.”).  We don’t do leveling in my classroom, because by fourth grade, I think the great majority of students have the skills they need to read just about any book.  Some would have an easier time than others, and some would enjoy the read more than others, but they all could get through these books if they had to.  I don’t like the idea of leveling in fourth grade, because I don’t want my students to feel locked in to a small selection of books – I want the whole classroom library to be theirs for the reading!

The last little bit of homework that I just worked on recently goes beyond my own classroom.  A love having a Twitter PLN (Professional Learning Network), and I have discovered a lot of great things through Twitter.  Recently, in #4thchat, a link was posted to a google doc where fourth grade teachers are sharing their favorite fourth grade read-alouds.  What a great resource!  So, I’ve been taking a few minutes here and there to add to this document in hopes that others might discover new favorites from me, and I’ve been reading through the updates looking for new ideas for my classroom.  Here’s the link:


What kind of “homework” do you do over the summer for the purpose of getting your students connected with books during the new school year?  I’d love to hear your ideas!


Classroom Libraries

My classroom library is something I am constantly tweaking and improving. My first year teaching, just having a good selection of books and places to store them was enough. Then, I was moved to second grade, and I started leveling my library using the Fountas and Pinnell guided reading levels (A-Z). When I was moved back to fourth grade a few years later, I felt that leveling the books was too restrictive for older readers, so I sorted everything by genre. Then, I started pulling some “specialty” baskets out that were sorted by author (especially the authors we read for core books) or by series (does anybody else find that there aren’t as many good series books for fourth graders as there are for younger readers??).  I also started using a book sign-out sheet to try and keep better track of my books.

Well, these last two weeks, I’ve found myself tinkering around in my classroom a little here and there, and I am back at my classroom library again.  One thing that I’ve wanted to improve on is my method for keeping track of books.  Right now, I have one or two “classroom librarians” who change every week as part of my weekly helper board.  They are supposed to be responsible for making sure students are checking books in and out of the classroom library.  It has not been used faithfully, and that has resulted in students “hoarding” (but not reading) particular books for extremely long periods of time and books disappearing from my classroom, never to be seen again.

bookcrawler  Last spring, I discovered an app called Book Crawler that I am hoping will be the answer to my struggles with classroom book sign-outs.  With this app, I am working on cataloging all of the books in my classroom library.  Talk about time consuming, but I think it’s going to be worth it!  Actually, it’s not even as time consuming as it seemed like it was going to be.  The app has a great feature where you can scan the ISBN barcode of a book, and that book will automatically be added to your database with all of the information (title, author, genre, series) automatically populated for you.  Another feature I like about this app is that you can sort your library into “collections.”  I use this feature to label what basket each book belongs in – Realistic Fiction, Nancy Drew Mysteries, Patricia Polacco, etc.  I am hoping that this will help students keep the library organized over the course of the year.

The function of this app that has yet to be thoroughly tested is how well it will allow students to sign books in and out.  Within each book’s list of info, there is an area called “Loan.”  When you touch this link, it brings up a text box where you can enter a student’s name.  It’s not as efficient as the programs a real library would have, but I’m hoping it will be good enough to get the job done for my classroom.


What I like is that not only will this help keep track of what books are moving in and out of my library, but it will also be a great resource for students to browse the books with.  Hopefully, it will get more of my books circulating.  In the past few years, I’ve found that most students go for the books I have on display or the ones that are right on top of the counter top.  The books that are in bins on lower shelves tend to get ignored.  Students rarely go searching for specific books.  I am hoping that with access to this app, students will start to discover books that they wouldn’t have otherwise realized were in our classroom library.

Like with any other tool or procedure, it will be my job to make this system effective and worth my while by keeping it on the students’ radar.  I’ll need to demonstrate the app several times at the beginning of the year to teach students how to sign the books in and out as well as how to use the app for browsing.  To keep it on students’ minds, I will want to bring it back into our conversation frequently.  I’m thinking when I do a new read aloud, we can check the app to see what other books we have in our classroom that are written by the same author or are part of the same genre or series.  When we have book report projects each quarter, I can show students how to find what books are available within the assigned genre.  Using the app frequently with the whole class will help it continue to be a meaningful part of our classroom, and will reduce the likelihood that the students – or myself – will forget about it and let all that time and effort spent cataloging go to waste.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m always tweaking my classroom library and making improvements that will make it more user-friendly for my students.  I hope you’ll take a moment to leave a comment about features of your classroom library that you are especially happy with or mistakes you’ve made and learned from along the way.  Thanks for reading!