Several years ago, one of my students purchased a book for me to keep in my classroom library. It was a popular new release and I was happy to have it in my room. Many of my students read it that year but, for whatever reason, it never made it to my To Be Read pile.
Sometime in the past year, this book adapted to a made-for-TV movie featured on Nickelodeon. Around the same time, Time for Kids had a special supplement all about this book and movie. As a result, my students were very excited to realise it was sitting right there on one of my bookshelves in my classroom. That meant, of course, that I would finally read this book that had spent so much time waiting to be read by me.
The book was Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.
As an avid bibliophile, tabletop gamer, and former library loiterer, this book seemed to have all of the pieces to make perfect story for me and, I hoped, for my class. We were not disappointed! Wacky adventures, clever clues, visual puzzles, book trivia, appealing characters, and great pacing made this a fantastic story to read aloud and share with one another!
I will admit that there were some plot elements that I wish had been developed a little bit deeper, such as all of the characters’ back stories, all in all, I found this book to be well worth the read and would absolutely recommend it to others! I’ve also since realised that this is the first in a series so now I am going to have to track down copies of those, too!
Of course, I also find myself wondering if the author would have time to do a Skype chat with my class. Hm… maybe I will look into that. I think my students would love talking to him about what he wrote, why he wrote it, and how he did it!
In the meantime, we are off to another reading adventure, going from present-day libraries in Alexandriaville, Ohio, to the midst of the Great Depression in Gary, Indiana.
What are you reading right now?
As it may be apparent from the majority of my blog posts this academic year, I have been focusing a lot on positive social skills that promote restorative practices and changes to my classroom management approach that will help students be more successful members of a community of learners. One phrase that has often come to mind has been that of the peaceful classroom. (If you have the time and are interested in going down a rabbit hole of articles and suggested books, just Google that phrase and check out any one of the 30,500,000 results that appear in 0.54 seconds! Two I found particularly relevant were this blog post and this PDF. )
What is the peaceful classroom? While there are many different ideas about the nuts and bolts of it, I think all can agree that the peaceful classroom is both one where others feel peace and also promote peace. I will be honest and admit that this is still a lofty goal for me; Room 31 is not the epitome of the peaceful classroom yet.
That “yet” is an important caveat, though. We have had moments of peace throughout each day; today I saw a particularly astounding example, which is what I am going to focus on for the rest of this particular post.
During Reading Workshop, many of my students seemed to momentarily forgot our mutually designed expectations for literacy rotations (stay in assigned spot, use appropriate voice levels, respect others by letting them work without distraction, and work the entire time). When our reading workshop block ended, I realised that we didn’t have enough time to start a new task, but, at the same time, there was still a large enough chunk of time remaining before lunch that we needed to do something worthwhile.
I led a brief discussion with students about how well the class had done at meeting the expectations they had established for literacy and they concluded that only about half of the students were fully focused and attentive on their tasks as expected. I observed that I knew that my students could successfully do this, and I knew that they knew this, but they had forgotten. I then suggested that everyone in the classroom read independently for fifteen minutes. I emphasised that “everyone” included both myself and my student teacher.
I turned off half of the lights in the classroom and allowed the natural light streaming through the windows do its job of providing illumination. As soon as every student was reading, I started the timer and sat down and began reading, as well. What happened next has not happened since my second year of teaching. For fifteen minutes, every single person in the room was reading to him- or herself. When the timer went off, nearly every student quietly sighed and asked if we could continue; I gratefully obliged.
When we finished, and just before going to lunch, I asked the students to think about how they felt right then. Words I heard included calm, relaxed, happy, and peaceful. I observed that much of the tension in the room had gone away and that it seemed like everyone felt comfortable and at peace and asked the students to think about how they could keep that going through the rest of the day.
That didn’t happen.
After lunch, some students were agitated about a disagreement during recess, others were agitated about wanting drinks or needing to use the restroom, and others were just not ready to stay fully on task for the afternoon. But we are still working on it and I am confident that my students can indeed learn the skills necessary to be peacemakers and positive contributors to a community of learners. It starts with the desire to do so and builds from there.
I am grateful that today we saw a brief glimpse of this truth and I hope that we can indeed build from here to becoming a truly peaceful classroom.
Today was an elementary inservice day in my district, which means that while students did not have school, teachers and other staff still came to work. Rather than write a post about this day, I decided to do an update on my personal 2017 Reading Challenge, which I blogged about here about 10 or 11 months ago. (And if you really want to read about elementary inservice days, you can check out this post from way back when. While not every inservice day is the same, this is a pretty good summary of what the days are like. Just exchange “Common Core State Standards” with “Illinois Social Studies Standards” and “Safety Net Skills” with “Restorative Practices” and you’ll be good to go.)
My reading goal for this year was 62 books. So far, I have read 45 books. Here is how they align to my unique challenge to read:
- a book published this year: The Leader’s Guide to Coaching in Schools
- a book read in one day: Conscience of a Conservative
- a book on my To Be Read pile for more than a year: A Snicker of Magic
- a book recommended by a librarian or bookseller: CSS for Babies
- a book I should have read in school: A Nation at Risk
- a book chosen by my wife: n/a
- a book published before I was born: The Conscience of a Conservative
- a “banned” book: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- a book I had previously abandoned: Lost at School
- a book I owned but had never read: Meet the Beagle
a book that intimidated me: n/a
- a book I’ve read at least once before: The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- 5 autobiographies/biographies: The Secret Soldier, Phoebe the Spy (2/5)
- 5 selections of classic literature: (0/5)
- 5 fantasy novels: Castle of Wizardry, Enchanter’s End Game, Frogkisser! (3/5)
- 5 graphic novels: The Tenth Circle (1/5)
- 5 selections of historical fiction: The Cay, Timothy of the Cay (2/5)
- 5 mysteries: (0/5)
- 5 nonfiction books (not related to education): The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Compassionate Conservatism, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (3/5)
- 5 picture books: Rocket Science for Babies, General Relativity for Babies, I Love You Stink Face, Love Is, I Wish You More (5/5)
- 5 selections of realistic fiction: Picture Perfect, Class Dismissed, The Pact (3/5)
- 5 selections of science fiction: There Will Be Time, The Host (2/5)
So, I am actually doing pretty well with the first half of my challenge, but I am a not doing so well with my genre challenge. Here’s what I need to accomplish before the end of the calendar year:
- a book chosen by my wife:
- a book that intimidates me:
- 3 autobiographies/biographies
- 5 selections of classic literature
- 2 works of fantasy
- 4 graphic novels
- 3 selections of historical fiction
- 5 mysteries
- 2 nonfiction selections not related to education
- 2 selections of realistic fiction
- 3 selections of science fiction
So it looks like I have 31 books to go, even though I’ve actually read 45 books this year! (I guess that’s what I get for reading a lot of work-related books.) If you have any recommendations, I will gladly accept them. As should be apparent, I read a wide variety of books!
[NOTE: This post has also been published on MiddleWeb, a site dedicated to teaching and learning in the middle grades. This is my fifth book review for them. I had requested to review this book as part of my new role as a new teacher mentor. From my previous post about mentoring, you may recall that new teacher mentors are encouraged to use a coaching approach.]
It was not many years ago that I was first introduced to the concept of instructional coaching. My school district had created several coaching positions at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, with initial funding connected to our participation in the Race to the Top competitive grant program run by the Obama administration. I had vague recollections of other districts that used coaches, but I wasn’t really sure what they did. Even when my district moved several amazing teachers into instructional coaching positions, this new role was somewhat still nebulous. (Ironically, coaching as an instructional practice actually pre-dates athletic coaching, with the term first being used at Oxford University in the early 1800s to describe tutors who helped a pupil move from a place of not-knowing to a place of knowing in much the same way a horse-drawn carriage, or coach, moved passengers from point A to point B. It wasn’t until about three decades later that the term began being used in an athletic sense and the instructional sense faded away until the late 1900s.)
I recently asked some of the instructional coaches I knew how they would define their jobs and most struggled to come up with a concrete answer. The most definite response was that “instructional coaching in classroom-embedded professional development for teachers.” Other teachers chimed in with comments on what instructional coaches had done for them, but being able to identify some of the things that these coaches do is different from having a clear definition of what makes one an instructional coach.
Around the same time as I was trying to understand the role of my district’s instructional coaches, I was asked to take on a new role as a formal mentor to new teachers in my district. During the new teacher mentor training I attended, we were encouraged to use a coaching approach when working with our protégés. This definitely got me thinking: what is an instructional coach and what is a coaching approach?
Fortunately, I am not the only person to ask that question. In fact, it is a hotly debated topic in many educational circles, and so John Campbell and Christian van Nieuwerburgh, two educators on opposite sides of the world who happened to meet and discovered a shared interest, set out to define coaching and describe how it can be used in school settings, both in a formal way through instructional coaching and through a more informal coaching approach.
One of the first things i realised while reading their book is that, even when trying to give a concise definition of coaching, there are still dozens of ways to define it depending on the context of the role. At its heart, the authors define coaching as “a one-to-one conversation that focuses on the enhancement of learning and development through increasing self-awareness and a sense of personal responsibility, where the coach facilitates the self-directed learning of the coachee through questioning, active listening, and appropriate challenge in a supportive and encouraging climate.”
With that definition in mind, Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh layout their view of coaching and how it can be used in different school settings. Starting with the Global Framework for Coaching in Education, they identify four broad areas of interest for coaching: student success and well-being, educational leadership, professional practice, and community engagement. They argue that all of these areas can benefit from coaching skills, the GROWTH model, and establishing a coaching way of being. The GROWTH model is an eight-step process that can be used to guide coaching sessions: after establish trusting relationships, the coach and coachee discuss Goals of the coaching process, Realities of the current situation, Options for change, what Will be done first, the Tactics for accomplishing tasks, and the sustainable Habits needed to ensure success, with a celebration of positive results at the end.
In addition to formal coaching, the authors acknowledge that a coaching approach can be used by school leaders to establish more meaningful discussions among teachers or other staff and for teachers to communicate with families in a way that establishes and reinforces a shared responsibility for student success. Finally, they demonstrate how a school leader can adapt a formal performance evaluation by using a coaching approach so that the employee can work on agreed-upon areas of growth without fear of judgment or negative consequences.
As I read this book, I realised that one common pitfall of school leadership is the urge to present solutions to others instead of guiding them to coming up with their own solutions. This is a key element of instructional coaching: the coach does not identify what needs to be done; that is the role of the coachee. The coach provides resources and guidance once the change has been identified. This is the heart and soul of the coaching approach and the coaching way of being and a mindset that will benefit teachers, students, families, and school leaders.
Throughout the book, the authors provide tips for coaches, QR codes that link to videos to see coaching in action, and questions for reflection. With just ten chapters and approximately 125 pages, this quick read is a great resource for new leaders, new coaches, teacher mentors, and those who have been in any of these roles but are looking for a fresh take on an old idea.
Classrooms have a lot of ambient noise in them. I once used a decibel meter on my iPad and found out that the average level of noise in my room was about 65 dB if everyone was present and trying very hard to be silent. Once we add movement and activity, the noise levels increase dramatically.
This can be especially challenging when I am trying to teach my students to engage in different tasks at the same time during Reading Workshop. Some students will be reading independently, some will be doing individual practice on Chromebooks, some will be working on writing, and others will be meeting with me. The size of these groups vary depending on the activities, but it almost always results in an increase in noise, even when we are trying to work as quietly as possible.
Today we added to the mix our Drama teacher who came in to work with the students on an arts infusion project involving narratives and plays. Even though she was only working with a relatively small number of students at a time, the ambient noise was enough that many were distracted and struggled with staying focused on their own tasks.
I realised this afternoon that what may help my students the most is a simple tool to reduce distractions: noise-cancelling ear muffs. I once had a massive classroom supply of these that I picked up at Harbor Freight nearly six years ago. In fact, I had 30 sets, because I had 28 students that year and I figured a few extra would not be a bad idea.
Over the intervening years, however, that collection has dwindled down to just one pair. Some of the original 30 were borrowed and never returned. Some were damaged, either accidentally or, sadly, intentionally, by students. One way or another, I have lost most of my collection. So now I am contemplating devoting a portion of my wonderful district-provided classroom budget to restocking. (I usually use this money to purchase new books for my classroom or to pay for subscriptions to educational websites to support learning.) While Harbor Freight still sells them, I can get them for much less through Dollar Tree where they are, of course, just $1 (although I have to buy them in cases of 12, that’s really not a major concern).
The question really isn’t, “Should I buy them?” though; it is simply, “How soon should I place an order and provide a simple tool for my students to work with fewer distractions?” I am thinking tomorrow is a good idea.
The first 20 days of literacy instruction in my building are set aside for helping students build stamina and establish regular routines. We also ideally begin our literacy assessments during this time so that, after the first 20 days, we can start working with small guided reading groups.
The purpose of spending the first 20 days on routines and strong work habits is so that the remaining 160 days or so of school can be spent on learning and growth. I need my students to be able to stay focused on their tasks so that I can focus on mine. If students are supposed to be reading independently while I am meeting with a small group, for example, I need to know that they will actually be reading independently. This allows me to focus my energy on working with my different groups.
To this end, I began introducing literacy rotations to our reading workshop time. I divided my students into three groups and assigned each group a specific location and task: the first group was on the carpet for independent reading; the second group was at their desks working on Front Row ELA tasks; the third group was assigned to read self-selected articles from Wonderopolis at the back of the room. Every 20 minutes we would pause and rotate so that each student had the opportunity to work at each station by the end of the literacy block.
The first 20 minutes went great! Everyone was focused and working on what they were supposed to be doing. The second 20 minutes were good, but not great: there were a few brief snippets of chatter and a few students who were getting up and walking around instead of staying focused on their tasks. The last 20 minutes were just okay: more chatter, more distractedness.
So we now have a plan for our stamina: 20 minutes, 20 minutes, and 20 minutes, with 5-minute breaks between each rotation to let students move and talk before getting back to work. (My goal is for the students to work through the block with fewer breaks, though; I am hoping I can have four rotations total, with one break at the halfway point. But we still have lots of time to build up to that.)
At the end of the literacy block, I shared a video from Flocabulary about finding the main idea of a text, which we watched twice. (I will likely use videos like this at the start of the literacy block in the future to tie in to the mini-lessons of the day, but today it was used in part to give the students time to get up and move around before we switched to the last part of our morning.)
All in all, it was a good start to using rotations in literacy. Tomorrow it will look a little bit different, but we will continue to work on building stamina and establishing routines day by day until the students can regularly and consistently maintain the focus they need to be successful in developing their literacy skills.