Sunday, August 28, 2016

Establishing a Culture of Reading

In my Twitter profile, one of my self-descriptors is "reading evangelist". In my view, the most important skill for kids to master is reading. Reading is the foundation for most learning. Reading also feeds the mind and the soul. So how do we get kids reading in a world where the competition for time and attention is so stiff? After all, kids have access to so much technology these days. Middle school kids especially are social beings and reading is a mostly solitary venture. How do we nurture a culture of reading in our classrooms, schools, and homes?

Kids have to see reading as "cool". Kids have to experience reading books that they love. If our students choose books, read them and love them, then they will be more inclined to pick up another book. Once they are hooked, we've done our job. I feel that I have done the most I can for a student if I've gotten them to love reading. I've set them up with a crucial, lifelong habit.

In our class, we are constantly talking about books. We don't talk about them in the traditional "school-y" way. We talk about the stories, the building excitement of the plot, the kookiness of the characters, and the surprises in the story. We talk about books the way we talk about movies. "Oh, man, that was so good! I loved the part when..." We have to harness this natural excitement and curiosity about books and use it to spur kids to read more.

Kelly Gallagher, a reading and educational researcher, talks about kids' reading in his book Readicide. One of the most staggering points that he makes is that volume of reading is one of the most important things for kids. The number of words read per year has a direct effect on kids' learning and even on their standardized test performance. I take his research to heart.

From Kelly Gallagher's Readicide

I know that the most important thing I can do for kids is get great books for them and give them time to read those books. However, I have never, in 29 years, told a child that they had to read a particular book. When we teachers assign a book for kids to read, we have already tarnished that book for the kiddo. No one, child or adult, wants to be told that they have to read something. When we are told that we have to read something, we immediately think that it won't be very good because if it were so good, then no one would have to force us to read it.

What I do is recommend books to kids, talk up books for kids and leverage the kids' peer groups to recommend great books. I get a stack of 10-15 books that I think a student might like and I let the student browse through those books. The student chooses and that is the key. I can recommend, but the student has the final say. When we give that power of choice to the students, we do two things. We allow the students to see themselves as responsible for their own learning and we help them become more independent readers.

When kids choose their own books, they become excited about reading. In class, we show book trailers and give book talks. Kids see the cool stories inside these books and they want to read them. It's really that simple. All we have to do is let them. So everyday in class, we read for thirty minutes. That is our one non-negotiable in class. Their homework is to read for thirty minutes as well. Each student should be reading for at least one hour per day. All of that practice reading, in addition to the common activities that we do in class each day, gives kids the volume of reading that they will need to be successful at the next level and in life.

We keep track of kids' reading in their response journals. These are simple spiral notebooks that have three sections: reading log, reading journal, "to read next" list. Kids always have their "to read next" list out when we watch book trailers or listen to book talks. They become excited about the books and write down the titles that interest them so that they never have to say, "I don't know what to read." Now, all of the kids in class are excitedly talking about books. This kind of talk is crucial for our reading culture. Suddenly, reading is "cool" because everyone is reading, sharing titles and talking about the books they have read and the books that they want to read. Even our reluctant readers are jumping on board. They see everyone else in class talking about reading in a way they have never heard before and they want to be part of that conversation. Once this culture is established, it snowballs. The kids should continue to grow as readers and see themselves as independent learners. I push that snowball a little here and there but for the most part, the kids take over and continue to build that culture for the remainder of the year.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Every Kid Every Day

Getting used to a new school and its culture is never easy. We have to learn new procedures, new rules, new building geography, new personnel and new kiddos. Frankly, we have to learn new everything. It was quite a change for me, moving from Webster Groves, a small (4100 students) suburban St. Louis school district, to Collier County School District, a massive (45000 students), incredibly diverse district. I wondered how different things would be in my new environment. After all, I was in Webster Groves for 24 years and knew the lay of the land pretty well. Here in Naples, I knew nothing and no one.

Working with the kiddos for the past week, our first week in session, has reinforced something I've known and preached all along. Kids are kids. It doesn't matter where you go, what role you have, or what grade level you teach, kids are kids. Their wants and needs, expectations and goals, are universal.

Kids want to know that we care about them.
Kids want to know that we value them.
Kids want to know that we have their best interests at heart.
Kids want to know that our environment will value their differences.
Kids want to know that they are safe, both physically and emotionally.
Kids want to know that we will push them to be their best.
Kids want to know that we want what's best for them.
Kids want to know that WE are there for THEM.

All of my kiddos in Webster Groves wanted these things. All of my kiddos in Naples also want these things. In order to get the best out of our students, we have to give them our best. Every kiddo. Every day. When we are able to create the culture and climate that values each child as an individual and intelligent learner, they will respond in kind. They will start seeing themselves as unique individuals who are intelligent learners, even if they didn't view themselves that way before. 

Teachers rightly note that we have so many students and so little time with them. While this is true, we must carve out pockets of time to visit with each student daily to make sure that they have many positive interactions. We have to use our influence to show students that they are bright, hard-working kids with talents and skills. Many kiddos have not been told about their strengths and talents. We have to. We have to make sure their self-image is boosted, helping them gain the confidence they will need as they move on through school and life. That happens in our classrooms. Every kid. Every day.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Hello East Naples Middle School

Two months after walking out of Hixson Middle School for the last time, I walked into East Naples Middle School for the first time. I have always held that you can tell the vibe of a building within the first thirty seconds of entering it. Well, East Naples Middle has a great vibe. Each staff member that I met seemed to enjoy being here and everyone was incredibly helpful. There is a clear sense of mission among the teachers and top-notch leadership at the administrative level. The building itself shines. There are wide hallways and lots of natural light. While this is not a new building, it is extremely pleasant and very functional. If my first few days at East Naples Middle School are any indication of how this year will go, then I know that this will be a great fit for me.

Next week, the kids come to school. No matter how much time we have to prepare, we are never truly prepared for that first day of school. My new group of kids may be different from my old group of kiddos, both in background and geography, but at the end of the day, kids are kids. I cannot wait to dive in and get started. I will spend the rest of this week getting our learning environment ready for my new group of kiddos. I get the sense that it is going to be a great year!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Goodbye Hixson. Goodbye Webster.

I don't think that many people can say that they loved going to work everyday. I can. Every day that I have spent at Hixson Middle School in the Webster Groves School District has been a pleasure. I love the kids, my colleagues, the climate of the district and the growth I've experienced. Webster has always been a district that encouraged teachers to take risks in the classroom and try new things if we think they will help kids learn. In that kind of environment, teacher autonomy is nurtured. It is empowering, meaningful, authentic work. It is the same work that we ask our kids to do. While it is time to move on, I cannot help but think that I am the teacher and person that I am today because of my time in Webster Groves. For this, I am eternally grateful.

Ten years ago, Melissa Hellwig and I started our journey together. We were a half team at Hixson and we became fast friends and work mates. We complemented each other well. My strengths were her weaknesses and her strengths were my weaknesses. Together we created a climate that was second to none for our kids at school. We think alike: kids come first, treat everyone well, advocate for what is best for all. I could not have asked for a better teaching partner and friend. She is the reason that I flung open my classroom door and shared more of what I, and we, did. She made me a better teacher and a better person. I owe a lot of my growth as an educator to her and I appreciate her as a teacher, colleague and friend. Our kids were so lucky to have had Melissa as their teacher. She is amazing.

Melissa is symbolic of the incredible talent in Webster Groves. Webster teachers are amazing. Going the extra mile for kids is the rule, not the exception. They are talented, caring, intelligent and compassionate people. When you work in an environment with teachers like that, you take on the best qualities of those people. It made me better.

Now I am moving on. I take with me the values of Webster Groves. I will continue my mission for children in the Collier County School District at East Naples Middle School. While I will never have another teaching partner and friend like Melissa, I know that because of my time in Webster I am better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Thank you, Hixson. Thank you, Webster.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Gratifying Teacher Moment

During our 20% Time program, kids come up with amazing project ideas. Sometimes they want to build, sometimes create, sometimes innovate and sometimes fulfill a lifelong goal. One student from last year, Rosalie Garzia, decided last year that, as part of her 20% Time project, she would write a novel. She'd always wanted to write a novel and now she had the chance. She worked on her book all of last year and when it came time for Student TED Talks, the culminating learning event of the year, she talked about how she made a lot of progress but was not ready to publish yet. That was the last we'd heard.

Well, earlier this year, Rosalie did indeed publish. She worked all summer and fall and published her book this spring. So, on April 7, 2016, The Island by Rosalie Garzia hit Amazon! We are immensely proud of her and the work she put in even after 20% Time was officially over for her. The other day, she came up and gave Melissa and me our own copies of her book. She signed them for us and we also discovered that she dedicated the book to us. What an amazing feeling to know that we opened up a door for Rosalie that had previously been closed to her. We were blown away.

The Cardboard Boat Regatta

Sometimes we come up with a learning experience that is so engaging to students that we can just step back and let the kids go. The Cardboard Boat Regatta was one of those experiences. In science class, kids were charged with the task of building a boat out of cardboard that could be raced in the city pool with students in them. Kids could have between one and three students in each boat. They had about one week to build a prototype, draw a pattern for their boat and construct the vessel out of the cardboard that we had been collecting for the last two months. It was on!

Kids LOVED this experience. They were talking about weight, buoyancy, water distribution, and a host of other principles of shipbuilding and science. The boats took many forms and the kids had a day to decorate and give their ship a theme. Needless to say, these groups of kiddos worked during the allotted class periods, before school, during lunch and after school for about a week. This morning, we walked to the city pool to have our races. The following are pictures and videos of the entire experience. Enjoy!

Here is some footage taken by Mr. Rambach (@rrambach) with his drone.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Track Day 2016

Every year in May, the Phys Ed department puts on a track and field day for the kiddos. Kids run events, participate in field events and also take part in crazy, fun events. It is a great time for the kids to run, jump, cheer on their friends and have a great time! Below are some pictures from Track Day 2016.