Sunday, September 14, 2014

3 Tips to Help You Survive as an Innovative Teacher

Recently I saw the fantastic movie Chef.

I am not a big movie-person, but this was my kind of upbeat, feel-good movie (with a super-cute kid).
I would have liked it no matter what, but it especially touched me because I really identified with the chef.

He was passionate and creative, but not everyone appreciated his passion and creativity.
He had innovative ideas about food, but his boss (Dustin Hoffman) wanted the same old, same old. Ultimately, chef realized that he could not be true to himself while cooking someone else's menu.

I am the chef. My beliefs about learning and literacy are strong and passionate. I can not, in good conscience, serve up the chocolate lava cake just because it has always been on the menu. But I realize that, while I was rooting for the chef,  this was not a battle of good and evil. The chef was not right. He simply had to follow his passion. The people who wanted the boring, traditional food were not wrong. They wanted what they knew would give them comfort.

Everyone got something to eat, and everyone was satisfied. As a diner, I would never eat the exotic food the chef cooked, no matter how beautiful it looked or smelled, no matter how many rave reviews it got. That kind of food is out of my comfort zone;  I'm not going to try squid tentacles or animal innards. This perspective helps me have compassion and understanding for the parents and colleagues who want learning to be served up as worksheets and spelling tests. It's familiar. It's comfortable. It may even, for some students, get the job done.

As a teacher, I want everyone to be excited about my "cooking." Like the chef, I work hard to create fresh, innovative and delicious learning opportunities for my students. Like the chef, I pour my heart and soul into my work and feel devastated when the haters hate.

How do we, who believe in kids over content, stay strong despite the fact that teaching is one of the most disrespected professions of all time?


I've been advised to smile more. I am pretty serious! I'm working on smiling, even if it is fake, because I believe in fake it til you make it. I think of it as a yoga pose. Turn corners of mouth upward. Breathe. Calm the mind. When I have to deal with difficult people, it does no good to argue with them. They want chocolate lava cake! I am not going to change everyone. I can smile and try to stay calm inside even when people are rude.


It's bizarre how I can feel so crazy in one setting and so normal in another setting. It's all context. When I am talking to the chocolate lava people I start to question myself. Give kids a wide selection of books and time to read? Try to meet individual learning needs? Am I insane?  It would be so much easier to have closed-ended, easy-to-measure goals. I could "cover" what's in the book (created by someone who doesn't know MY students!) and call it a day. I could go home and have a normal life. It wouldn't matter that my students would wait passively for me to tell them what to learn. It wouldn't matter that some students wouldn't be challenged. Life would be simple. 

It is only when I connect with other educators that I feel that what I am doing is right. Twitter chats are an amazing place to find your people. Critics call it the echo-chamber. Maybe,  but there is something fortifying about spending time with people I respect tremendously and seeing my work reflected in their ideas. It gives me the strength to go back to my "real world" (which is NOT the echo chamber and where I feel like #1 freak) and carry on. 


We know so much about why we do what we do. Most innovative teachers spend hours and hours (and hours and hours and hours) reading, writing, listening, learning, presenting and connecting with other teachers in the never-ending honing of our craft. It is frustrating when people who know little about education have strong opinions based on nothing substantial. I have started parent education sessions at my school, and I believe they are as important as the work I do with kids in the classroom. Most parents are interested in learning more, as well as experiencing the type of learning their children are experiencing. 

Being a teacher will never be easy. Being a teacher who thinks, questions and pushes against the status quo requires great perseverance. Never will we all agree on the best way to educate or the purpose and meaning of an education. Remember, we all eat differently. As long as the food is healthy, it's ok. Education is as basic as nutrition; it's a building block of human life. 
Do your best, keep learning, and stay true to you. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Daily 5: Implementation Checklist & Other Resources

Use of The Daily 5 for literacy learning continues to evolve at my school. Like anything new, there are questions and concerns, pushback from various stakeholders. As a leader who brought the Daily 5 to the school and a teacher who believes in choice literacy and meeting the needs of individual learners, my response has been to create resources that might help.

I share some of those resources here, with hopes that other teachers and schools might find them useful. For more resources, follow my Literacy board on Pinterest.

I also just made this video showing a little of the intro to read to self with my 5th graders.

This infographic can be used as part of parent education.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mentor Sentences: Teaching Language as an Art

We are very fortunate to have an amazing art teacher at our school, Shana Gutterman. There are many reasons why she is amazing, but one of the most easily noticeable is that she gets all of the kids to create impressive artwork. I have been able to observe her teaching process, and she often uses a "mentor piece" (I don't know if she calls it that though) to inspire the students.
image used with permission: Shana Gutterman
For example, in this lesson students look at self-portraits created by Van Gogh and Rembrandt, with attention drawn to what makes those mentor pieces exceptional. Then, they are invited to create their own self-portraits, using the same technique used by the masters. 

Many teachers of writing also use mentor texts to inspire students' writing. I have some favorite mentor texts that I use for certain types of writing, and sharing quality examples is always part of my process for teaching writing. However, I became more interested last year in the idea of using mentor sentences for the teaching of writing conventions, as well as writing style. 

I tried having students search for wonderful sentences during their reading, but it didn't catch on. I don't think I set it up properly, and the idea just didn't make sense to 4th and 5th graders. But the idea still had a grip on my mind. So when I discovered this video of Jivey using mentor sentences to teach grammar and writing to her 4th grade students, I purchased her mentor sentence lessons, and I began using the lessons and notebooks on the first day of school this year.

What I like about this approach:

  • I love that it focuses on what is right instead of what is wrong with writing.
  • I like that it is a holistic approach that explicitly connects grammar to writing and, specifically, to sentence structure.
  • I like that the notebooks give students some practice with note-taking, as well as handwriting. Last year, with the iPads, my students got very little handwriting practice, and I felt that they needed a bit more of that. 
  • I love the way that this elevates grammar lessons to the critical-thinking exercises that they truly are instead of the memorization of series of rules.
What I am wondering/worrying about:
  • I am spending a lot of time right now on the daily mentor sentence activities. I am always worried about the best use of time. I am hopeful that, with practice, the process will become more routine and will take less time. 
  • Some students are struggling, which is ok. This is thinking-intensive, and I find that thinking is stressful for many students. They look for a work-around such as one student who, for Monday's "invitation to notice" what makes the sentence exceptional wrote, "I don't think this should be a mentor sentence." 
  • I am wondering if it is too much whole-class, frontal teaching. Again, I hope that with more practice, it will become quicker and more student-centered. 
  • I am wondering how to reinforce the practice of particular concepts for students who need more work. I have been looking at different tools, and I think that noredink holds great potential. You easily create assignments and quizzes focusing on specific concepts. Students are guided with hints as needed, and teachers can easily see who has mastered the skill. I am excited to start using this.