Monday, November 23, 2015

Reading in the Wild: Curating a Classroom Library

While at the IRC this fall, I was lucky to hear Donalyn Miller speak with many of my wonderful District 100 friends and literacy groupies.  I read her book, The Book Whisperer, years ago and LOVED it!  Miller, along with Penny Kittle, Richard Allington, Christopher Lehman, and Kelly Gallagher are a few of my reading heroes! They all really understand the importance of creating life long readers.

After the conference, I was invited to participate in the book study of Miller's new book, Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer's Keys to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits, with some of the phenomenal reading teachers throughout my district. So, first, thank you for including me in this awesome, unique and informative experience! Next, welcome to the blogging book study party! I hope you enjoy the ride!

I was given a smaller section of this book focusing on curating a classroom library. I was excited for this section (not just because it was a bit shorter than others!) because my classroom library is something I am constantly working to perfect.  I learned a lot from Miller through this vignette, but also felt validated.  It's reassuring when you realize you're using the same library app as the Book Whisperer!

Miller starts off this vignette with a line from Lemony Snicket: 

Call me Disney obsessed, but this quote immediately reminded me of Belle from Beauty and the Beast.  When Belle enters her local library, and again when she sees the library at the Beast's house, she dives right in! Searching through the books, making a mess, falling in love, one book at a time. When people love books, the surround themselves with them. For years after college, when I couldn't afford a proper book shelf, I piled books from the floor as high as I could reach - playing a delicate game of Jenga every time I went to grab one.  Starting off with this quote, Miller reminds her readers that reading is about a love of books, and like most love stories, it isn't always pretty. 

She continues by sharing another piece of sage advice - Ranganathan's Five Laws of Library Science. I'm not going to lie; I've never heard of this dude before, but he seems very wise!  

Miller continues by explaining why a classroom library is so important for students. Some may argue that students have access to public libraries and school libraries.  Without mentioning that both public and school libraries are under attack and constantly being neglected, Miller focuses on the research of the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress Report. This report states that students with access to well designed classroom libraries "interact more with books, spend more time reading, demonstrate more positive attitudes toward reading, and exhibit higher levels of reading achievement." 

She goes on to quote Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen:

"Children must have easy--literally fingertip--access to books that provide engaging, successful reading experiences throughout the calendar year if we want them to read in volume."

And isn't that what we all want? For our students to read, and read, and read! But we can't put obstacles in front of them.  Personally, many of my students already have so many hurtles blocking them.  Some have to babysit after school, while others live in crowded, loud homes, not conducive to quiet, alone, reading time. 

 For those newer teachers, or those just beginning to create their own classroom library, Miller continues by discussing a few factors we must keep in mind when building our libraries. She believes they must include a range of titles, genres and topics so students with a variety of interests and abilities can all find something.  One warning she gives is to not only rely on award winning titles. While some may be good for your kiddos, others may be outdated. If they lack "kid appeal", they don't belong in your library.  Personally, her advice reminds me of the good old "good on paper" rule - the book may have a lot of great awards, but if kids aren't interested, you won't get them to read it!

The next section of Miller's vignette brings the students into the mix.  She introduces her students to her library by creating a "book frenzy" in which she invites them to go into the library and choose a book they might like to read. She helps those who need more guidance finding a book, and lets others browse freely. This gives them time to explore, but also shows them that Miller is serious about giving them choices about what they read.  This opportunity also helps students realize that this is THEIR library too, and they are free to wander and find the books they want to read.  Kids can't feel like they are part of the reading community unless they have a book in their hands!

But if you are even slightly type A, like myself, the idea of having your students shuffling through your meticulously organized library might make you just a smidgen anxious.  And even worse, the idea of losing your precious books may even bring you to tears! But have no fear! Miller and I use the same amazing app to keep our libraries organized and our minds at ease.  The Classroom Organizer app from Booksource is amazing (!!! You can scan in books, check out titles to your kiddos, and even get a weekly "Overdue" list emailed to you.  It is easy to use and a huge time saver!  You can also enlist a library assistant to take on these responsibilities.  I posted a "job opening" on our school's digital platform and received numerous responses for this position.  I'll let you know who gets the job soon!
Once you have your library organized, it's a great idea to set up rules to keep things running smoothly.  To make kids feel like they have a voice in this process, you can develop the rules together.  Miller shares her list from a previous year in the book, but I found many other similar lists such as the ones on the left.  If students help make the rules, and commit to taking care of the library, you start off on a great foot!
There are many ways to organize your library, but Miller organizes hers by genre - and so do I!  Personally, I feel like it is less intimidating to approach a bin or two of books of a genre you know you like or are familiar with, rather than staring at an endless row of books on shelves that reach the ceiling.  This technique also lends itself to a great lesson about genres. The first year I set up my library, I spread all of my books out on my tables and had my students sort through them.  They created all of the genres that still exist in my library.  Over the years, I have added more genres and many more bins. But it was a fun experiment!  Miller uses picture books, short stories, articles, and poems at the beginning of the year to expose her students to a variety of genres. Depending on how well your students understand genres, you may want to do something similar.

The last section of Miller's vignette discusses a term I was previously unfamiliar with - MUSTIE. No, this does not refer to that musty smell my grandparent's house had for years and years.  These are books that don't belong in your library.

MUSTIE is short stands for:

M = Misleading (nonfiction books that contain factually inaccurate or outdated info)
U = Ugly (books with stains, torn pages, split bindings, or funny smells)
S = Superseded (That Guinness Book of World Records circa 1999 - get rid of it!)
T = Trivial (books you bought for particular students' niche interests that are regularly untouched)
I = Irrelevant (They were once totally chic, now they're totally geek!)
E = Elsewhere (older books no one reads anymore that a student can still find elsewhere)

Now you are presented with the question - What do I do with these MUSTIE books???  I know it might be hard, but throwing away or donating these books will honestly benefit your students.  Miller sums it up well by saying, "We cannot offer our students meaningful book access with damaged, outdated, or uninteresting materials."

Don't worry - you're not alone. I will be cleaning out my MUSTIE books soon. Miller has inspired me!

I hope you will continue to follow our book study. The next post will be up November 25th on Leah's blog at

Thanks for joining me on my never-ending reading journey! I'll leave you with one last lovely, library quote:

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Heritage at Heritage

Disclaimer: This was written WEEKS ago.  Pressing the publish button seems to be a real issue for me.  More delayed blogs to come!

For the past few weeks, the ELA team at my school has been implementing a new poetry and vocabulary school-wide program.  Every week, all students in the building are introduced to the same poem and three new vocabulary words that are loosely connected to the poem.  As the week goes on, we read, reread, reread again, annotate and discuss the poem.  We also study the vocabulary words, the connections they have to the poem, and how to use and understand the words in a variety of settings.  Some of the words are extremely important academic terms that will help them navigate difficult assignments and test questions.  Others, are simply fun, unique and more complex words that boost their vocabulary!

This week, we read the poem "Speak Up" by Janet S. Wong.  This poem discusses the issues of race, cultural identity, and stereotypes in out society.  Here is a link to the poem.

In addition, we also discussed the word heritage. Besides this being the name of our school, it is also a very interesting concept.  We were able to make great connections between this term and the poem in our class discussions. I also asked my students to write about an aspect of their heritage that they were particularly proud of, interested in, or thought others should know more about.  So, students created a blog to share some of this information.  If you're interested, their blogs are posted under the "My Kiddos" tab on my blog.

Some students brought in foods, pictures, money, artifacts and games... But most students wrote a blog post about their own heritage.

I also shared some details about my own heritage.  This came at a great time since I just celebrated the Jewish high holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I was out of school these days.  When I returned, I was met with many questions from my very inquisitive group of students.  For most of them, I am the first Jewish person they have ever met.  This is one of many reasons why I love working in Berwyn!  I enjoy exposing my students to new perspectives (not just my own) and experiences.  Some people may feel uncomfortable in this position, but I feel honored! I have only been met with honest interest and kindness when teaching students about my heritage.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Starting Over

I guess I fell off the blogging wagon for awhile, but I am back! And I am trying to focus on this new school year, new goals, new blogs posts, and my new students!

So, here goes! I am excited to get back to blogging for myself, but I am even more excited about blogging with my new group of students.  At the end of last year, I gave my students a survey about their blogging experience. While not every single student had glowing remarks, many commented that they believed blogging helped them become a better reader and writer!  This was a totally anonymous survey, so I am going to take this as a major win!  But, like most teachers, I want to work on improving this practice for this year.  I want to find some ways to make blogging more fun, especially for those negative Nellys that had nothing nice to say about blogging (there were only a few, but man, the kids that hated blogging, REALLY HATED blogging). And, although my first instinct is to dismiss their criticisms as nothing more than unfounded complaints from a few crabby, lazy, unmotivated slackers, I know that I need to take this opportunity to reflect, refine, and redevelop how I use blogging in my classes.

(Maybe they would have liked blogged more if Ryan Gosling was reading and commenting on their blogs.)

My first and, if I do say so myself, best idea for the new year is Blogging Buddies! One of my favorite writing memories from my own childhood was having a Pen Pal.  Remember those?! How exciting it was to get an actual, physical letter in the mail from this semi-mysterious individual, somewhat like yourself, but also seemingly a world away.  So, I am trying to recreate this for my kiddos.  I posted a message on Facebook, putting out feelers into the social media world, to see if I could find any other middle school teachers willing to embark on this journey with me and my new classes.  I was pleasantly shocked by the immediate response! Within hours, multiple friends had reposted my message, offered to reach out to their colleagues, and responded showing interest in participating themselves!  I was overwhelmed by the offers!  One of the many people who reached out to me was a friend I met in nursery school - about 28 years ago! She now lives in Arizona and is also a middle school teacher. It's amazing how small the world can feel at times!

Then, just this past week, I was lucky enough to attend the Illinois Reading Council Conference in Peoria - also known as Disneyland for reading teachers! As I was walking to have breakfast with Donalyn Miller (I'll get to her and the other amazing presenters at the IRC in another post), I ran into my 8th grade ELA teacher!!! Mrs Joyner has always been one of my favorite teachers! Mrs Joyner, along with my 7th grade ELA teacher, Mr Gilman, helped mold me into the life long reader and learner I am today.  They challenged us with Shakespearean texts in middle school, encouraged us to write poetry on furniture, exposed us to the world outside our classroom! Every day was an adventure in their classrooms! So, you can imagine, I always geek out a little whenever I see them! I'm still in awe of their ability to inspire.  But I am extremely lucky because Mrs Joyner has agreed to try blog buddies with me! I can't wait!

(Me and Mrs Joyner at the IRC - Clearly, I'm terrible at selfies.)

I really think my kids will feel much more connected to their blog posts knowing they have an audience, besides me.  I'm also hoping that connecting to another middle school student will inspire them to express their voice in a new way. In addition, we will be blogging beyond the books. Students have already posted about their heritage, which was one of our school-wide vocabulary words that we discussed in conjunction with the poem Speak Up by Janet S. Wong. Take a look at their posts under the "My Kiddos" tab on my blog.

I have a feeling this is going to be a great year!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Be a Happy Warrior

The best part about a new year is the focus on reflection, growth, and change. I'm lucky because I get to do this twice a year, which really increases the likelihood that I will actually do something with my new found inner wisdom! For those of you who think it's cheating to celebrate twice (once for the Jewish new year and again on January 1st), I welcome you to join me.  Some cultures even celebrate the end and beginning of each new week, taking time to appreciate all the goodness that came to them, while also acknowledging the challenges that they faced.  This gives them an opportunity to express gratitude, but also an opportunity to let go.  I think it is very easy to get bogged down with the challenges and hardships of life, but starting each week with a clean slate my help us all get past these bumps and find a smoother path.

Another great part about this new year is that it comes as I am about to return to school for a new quarter with my kids.  This is also the halfway mark in their 8th grade year.  Although it may seem more like an ending (the end of the year, the end of their middle school experience, etc...), I'm thinking about it more in terms of preparing them for a new beginning.  I don't just mean in terms of the work load they should expect in high school, or the types of teachers they may encounter (none as wonderful as me, of course). I mean preparing them to be part of the discussion.  To know what's going on in the world, and ask questions when they don't.  To speak up when they have an idea, but also to listen so they can learn from someone else's ideas.  To not just "play" the game of school, but to be calling the plays.  And this is my last shot! I have two more quarters, and then it is up to fate. Ok, that may be a bit dramatic, but I do feel some pressure.

A major roadblock in helping kids get to a point where they really feel capable of joining the conversation and taking charge of their educational life, is self esteem.  I was in an amazing yoga class a few days ago, with one of my favorite instructors, who was talking about the difference between a new year's resolutions and a san culpa.  She explained that a san culpa is an intention, but that is stems from something that is already inside of you.  She continued by discussing the idea that yogis believe we already have everything we need inside.  The challenge is discovering your inner strength, and finding a way to share it with others.  I want my kids to realize that they are knowledgeable, capable and strong enough to do whatever it is they dream to do.  I want them to learn that they have more inner strength than they could possibly imagine.  And that they were put on this planet to do something with that knowledge and strength.  I hope that as we continue learning about injustices that plague our world, as well as the upstanders who fight to make change, my kids will realize they are part of this discussion.

So, now for my san culpa.  At the end of the summer, my mom shared a letter with me and my sisters that my Grandpa Milton had written to her when she was 13 years old.  She shared this with us on what would have been his 100th birthday.  In this letter, he shares his thoughts about the world, which was not looking so good at the time.  The Cold War was taking place, and it seemed that they was very little to be optimistic about.  Amidst all of this negativity, he shared his ideas about how to live a positive, happy, worthwhile life. One particular thought stuck out for me. He wrote:

 "Be a happy warrior. Fight with your heart and your soul and your might, but never become bitter." 

This is my san culpa - to be a happy warrior.  I know I already have this in me.  I am happy, and I have always been blessed with a level of inner strength.  But this year, I will be working to bring this out of myself.

I hope this year brings excitement, happiness, adventure, joy, learning and love to you all!