I just returned from NCTE 2013 a few days before Thanksgiving with much to be thankful for. I felt so lifted by all of the presenters, authors, publishers, educators and colleagues that I encountered and talked with during the session. My mind is still spinning as I try to distill some of the most salient thoughts into my Top 5 Lessons that I took away from the conference. Here are my thoughts at this moment in time:
5. Schools are communities
Our classrooms are communities of learners. Communities are by definition a body of people with common interests and activities who share joint ownership or participation. I think at some theoretical level I’ve always believed this, but my time at NCTE got me asking a lot of questions.
- What do we do as teachers do that helps to foster a learning community in our classrooms? Do we approach it with intention or do we rely on luck and circumstance to transform our classrooms year after year?
- As teachers, do we consider ourselves learners as well or simply the dispensers of knowledge?
- How do we invite students to take a lead in their own learning and that of their classmates?
- Would I choose to move to this community? Would I want my own child to ‘live’ in this community?
4. Choice is vital to engaging readers and writers.
Over the past few years we have done a lot to support students independent choice of ‘just right books’. We’ve scaffolded their understanding of what it means to get books that are a good fit for decoding, comprehension, fluency, etc. Children who can choose books that interest them will stick with them and connect with them. They will build stamina, acquire greater vocabulary and increase their comprehension more easily.
So Ralph Fletcher posited, “What about the power of a ‘Just Right Topic’? When kids find a topic they really care about, that they know a lot about, they can really write well about it.” That seems so simple, and it makes so much sense. How often have teachers redirected students from topics because they have already written about that, or because they are topics that we don’t find appropriate (I am not talking vulgar or hurtful)?
If a child has written about his video game as an expository, “how to”, why not let him write a review of his video game, or a fantasy about his video game, or a narrative about his video game, or research the backstory of his video game. A topic can be recycled with a variety of purposes.
3. Read like a wolf eats.
If you want to get better as a reader…READ. Sounds simple, but how much of the school day are kids actively engaged, I’m talking Face-In-Book with reading? When I asked Donalyn Miller for some words of advice for my teaching friends she shared Gary Paulsen’s words with me READ LIKE A WOLF EATS. You can picture that, can’t you? It leaves a powerful image in your mind. Do we set up classroom environments that let our children read like an eating wolf? Do we let them become engrossed and immersed in books until they are satiated or do we let them nibble here and there?
Do we as teachers, practice what we preach? Do we read? Do we share our reading lives with our students? Do we discuss our interests, struggles and opinions with our students? Do we have a passion for reading that our students cannot ignore?
Devour books with and in front of your students. Be the alpha of your pack of readers.
2. Ask yourself what is YOUR core?
Lester Laminack expressed to me, “Right now everyone is scared to death of what is happening in the common Core. I would like to encourage you to look inside yourself, figure out what is YOUR core and teach from that. Teach from your heart.”
Now, I cannot believe he means for us to ignore standards and do whatever we feel like. I think he is challenging us to stay true to what brought us into teaching, what feeds us as we work with our students, and listen to what our heart tells us is best for our students as interpret the Common Core and implement standards into our OWN teaching.
As Lucy Calkins shared last week, “What I have done in all my years, is to take the winds that are blowing, and figure out how to let my sail out and use those winds to go where I want to go anyhow. The Common Core are very strong winds.” So as we ask ourselves what OUR core is, we are letting our sail out and using the winds of the Common Core to take us where our heart is guiding us.
When is the last time (beyond a job interview) that we have thought about our Core. What do we believe about teaching and learning? What does our heart tell us? Maybe we need to ask ourselves again. And then stay true to that core. We are the interpreters of the Common Core for our students. We are the artists of that medium.
The most profound message for me at NCTE 2013 was truly the simplest. Listen.
It was at a Heinemann breakfast honoring Donald Graves that we saw archived footage of the master working with students during writing. What he demonstrated very clearly, was the power of our silence. The time we give students to think, share and talk while we listen is potent. They are able to better shape their own thoughts, reflect on their own words, respond to their peers and reach their own conclusions and insights.
Now he didn’t simply assign a task and then sit back. He set up the conditions so that students did the lions’ share of the work. He would ask what Kylene Beers termed, ‘dialogic questions’, ones in which the teacher did not already know the answer. Ones in which there is NO right answer. He then let them discuss and reflect. He gave them time to do this without undo influence. The results were staggering conversations and revelations about writing and thinking that surprised many of us.
And so a challenge for myself was to come back to school and hone my listening skills, not just with students though, with my colleagues as well. My silence invites their participation in the conversation, values what they have to say without my ‘spin’ and allows me to learn as well.
slow down. embrace silence. and then listen.
I think we’ll be amazed at the results.
What’s on my Book Radar!
Inspired by Donald Graves, I was eager to revisit this book. The premise is that Donald interviewed teachers for eighteen months asking, “What gives you energy, what takes energy away, and what, for you, is a waste of time?” He then analyzed how highly effective teachers deal with the demands of teaching and offers some techniques that offer encouragement and strategies for one of the most rewarding, but equally draining careers out there ~ teaching!
A new first grade teacher in our district introduced me to this little gem this week and I LOVED it right away. Cleverly written, heartwarming message about acceptance and coming into your own. Great for a mentor text on punctuation but also for encouraging us to embrace our differences for the gifts they really are.
Would love to hear some take -aways and tips from other NCTE attendees or from other inspired teachers as well! Have a great week.