Matchmaking with Books

When I first started building my classroom library, I only had one copy of each title. My classes didn’t do any independent reading during actual class time way back then, so there was rarely a need for multiples of any one book. At most, I would have to replace The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it inevitably disappeared again.

Even as independent reading and choice became a bigger part of what we did in our reading classroom, it was still only by accident that I would end up with multiple copies of a single title.

Later, I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, and she mentioned something about having multiple copies of a single title so that students could recommend books to each other. “I want to read that book,” a student could say, pointing to a classmate’s book, and you could pull out your extra copy of The Hunger Games or Everything, Everything.

Several years ago, I ended up with several copies of Thirteen Reasons Why in my 8th grade classroom. This was long before the book became a Netflix series. One 8th grader read it, then another, until it seemed like an entire section’s worth of 8th grade girls had either just finished or just started reading it. And so each class would begin and end with my students discussing and debating Hannah and her choices.

Aaa photo

My current school’s ELA curriculum explicitly recommends matching up readers in pairs and small groups. This is a lot about comprehension—students can help each other clarify confusing parts as they read the same novel—but I think it’s okay to do a little book and student matchmaking here as well.

I’ve done this two different ways recently.

When a student said she wanted to take a break from her long read, I asked her neighbor, who had read two different graphic novel trilogies recently, to show her where those books were hidden. (I’ve replaced titles within one of the trilogies multiple times, so now they’re in the reserve section.) He gestured vaguely in the direction of my desk. “Tell her about the books,” I coaxed. “Help her choose.”

The two girls above were stuck between books, reading and discarding several titles. “Want to read a book together?” I asked. I showed them some titles that I had multiple copies of, and they picked one and decided how many chapters to read by the following week. And for a few days they read side-by-side. While they both ultimately decided the book was a little boring (and I agree), a few days later a different pair of students decided to read The Fault In Our Stars together.

I’m glad that I picked up two copies at the used bookstore instead of just one.

Vulnerable but Invincible

Way back on August 22, educator Steve Kukic spoke to our faculty during our August Professional Development. I have a few pages of notes from his day with us, but one particular set of information has guided my thinking about my work with students these last few weeks. (I’m basing this on my own incomplete notes, so any mistakes are mine.)

Quoting from the study Vulnerable But Invincible: High Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, Kukic cited three factors for the resilient kids who succeeded despite the roadblocks in their way:

1. High expectations from home, school, or community,

2. Future orientation (not focused on past or now), and

3. “Unconditional positive regard” from an adult.

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Sophomore reading with kindergartner.

Reading conferences are often tough during the first few weeks of school, especially with students who are new-to-you. You feel like you’ve recommended the same book twenty times. A new English teacher lamented the number of times she’s asked “What’s your favorite movie or video game?” when students say “I don’t read” when she’s helping them find books.

When this has happened to me this year, especially with juniors and seniors, I’ve asked what they want to do after high school. A counselor I worked with used to mention how surprised she was that no one ever asked students what they want to do after high school. Many students have tough and even horrible pasts and presents, pasts and presents that are utterly beyond their control. The future, however, can be within their control, and we can help them with that.

This year, a student told me he might want to join the military, and when I asked him what he would want to do there, he said he didn’t know. He thought that flying sounded cool after I listed all the things that one could do in the military. Since my brother is a pilot, I then told him every possible thing that I know about learning to fly airplanes. Did my student run out and sign up for flying lessons? Of course not. Does he now realize that flying is actually something that ordinary people can do? That he can sign up and take lessons and learn to fly before he graduates from high school? He knows all that now. The more interest we show in our students’ futures, the more likely they are to turn their focus in that direction.

I’m still thinking about how high expectations play out in my classroom. I don’t think it means academic rigor, or strict expectations for classroom behavior, or inflexible grading policies. High expectations isn’t “We all must read William Faulkner together” when 40% of the class is still working on decoding and academic language.

I think that when it comes to high expectations, what we really need to communicate to students is a high level of belief. It is not that I expect you to read at this level; instead, I believe that you can read at this level. I believe that you can write this narrative. I believe that you can pass Algebra.

I believe in you.

In a meeting this year, someone said “But he can’t—” and one of our instructional leaders interrupted with “He can’t yet.” An English colleague repeated it later, and I remind myself to remember the power of yet. He can’t read that yet. She can’t do that yet. But I believe that my students will do it. It’s not that he can’t read single and double consonant words, it’s that he can’t read them yet. Even better: “He is working on single and double consonant words.” You can learn to do this, I say to my students, and I know that it is true.

And, of course, we work to practice unconditional positive regard every day. On this blog a few weeks ago, Angie Huesgen wrote “Be damn nice to kids. All of them. Every single day.” This isn’t as obvious as you think. “Don’t smile until Christmas,” people say. “You’ve got to be tough, make them respect you,” others might add.

But I agree with Angie. Be nice, damn nice, every day. Even to the mean kids and the kids who ignore you. You might say hi twenty times before students respond, but they do notice when you say hi.

At my school the secondary teachers supervise buses loading while our elementary colleagues walk the little ones to their buses. A lot of the time this means walking around while students work hard to talk to anyone but a teacher. I know from personal experience that walking around saying “Get on your bus, get on you bus” does not work. So last year I started saying “See you tomorrow” if I didn’t know a student. If I knew their name, I said “Good-bye” and their name and that I would see them tomorrow. That works better.

We then stand by our stadium and wave at the buses as they pull out, all twenty-four of them. The little kids wave and shout good-bye, smiles huge. The high schoolers ignore us, and sometimes they even give us a school-inappropriate finger.

But they know we’re there.

And they know that we’ll be there tomorrow.

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(Yes, that is our view. When it isn’t raining.)

A New Reading Community

For blog
He was reading to find new ways to describe how awesome he is at basketball.

This year I’ll be leading four sections of what I’m going to call Reading for students who need additional time and support in that subject. Our school is committed to 30 minutes of independent reading in school every day and an additional 30 minutes outside of school, but the school reading is a challenge in our 45-60 minute class periods, and outside-of-school reading is a work in progress. So this year, for the first time, students with the highest need will have an extra period devoted just to independent reading and expert coaching.

Personally, I would have loved nothing better than to have an entire period devoted to reading when I was a student, but I worry about how some students who already dislike reading will react to an extra period of reading. And no matter how hard I try to sell the class as a way to grow more quickly as a reader, many students will view placement in this class as reinforcement that they are not good at reading, or at school in general. So even as I organize books and track down intervention materials and debate how to set up the classroom furniture, I know that two things will have to happen before they can embrace this class.

One, I will need to build strong relationships with my students. Many students will be new to me this year since I’ll be teaching a wider range of grades than I did last year. Some of them have spent the majority of their time in school struggling with reading (and thus with every class that requires reading), and I’m going to be asking them to read a lot. I’m going to be asking them to get better when they may have spent years thinking, or even being told, that they’re just not good at reading.

Which brings me to two, mindset. It’s going to be tremendously important that my students believe that they can get better at reading, that reading isn’t some magical power that you either have or you don’t. If no one taught you that “-ch” makes a “-k” sound in the word “stomach”, then a lot of the reading that you try to do in middle and high school is a lot like when I try to read extremely basic French. I recognize a few of the words, but the rest is a mystery.

So how will I begin?

Our school is Pre-K to 12, and our reading curriculum emphasizes that at the earliest reading level, Read-to-Me, students need to have a background of 500+ books read to them. So my reading classes will spend as much time as we can reading to our kindergartners in September. Reading is reading, so even time spent reading a simple book of sight words will build confidence and fluency in my older readers (and build relationships with our youngest learners).

We will also build reading relationships between students in our class. Even though the class is primarily independent work (at this point, no one is reading the same book), we will be sharing and talking at the end of our reading sessions. I’ll use academic scripts and sentence frames to help my students to turn and talk about their book. Since our classroom reading environment will depend on cooperation among students, building confidence and trust will be key.

I loved Andrea’s post “What Are You Superpowers?” on Saturday. I immediately wanted school to start so that I could find out all of my student’s superpowers. To apply my reading teacher lens, I wonder who will be my experts on certain books or subjects? Who will know the backstory for every Marvel comic? Who will be the best at getting the quietest kindergartener to read with them?

Most of all, I’ll build our community with a lot of kindness. This is a scary course for students. I’m going to be asking them to get better at something that is currently very hard for many of them. They may not have had a lot of success with reading, or it’s not something they like. This is not a class for tough love or rigid behavior expectations. I’ll feed them. We’ll celebrate birthdays, and reading milestones. We’ll grow together.

I’ll keep my eyes on the prize: Reading community for all.

Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind

I didn’t know very much about trauma-informed practices until I started at my current school. While I’d taught in both public and private schools, I’d spent most of that time in a school filled with very fortunate children and their families. While trauma can (and does) exist in all communities, it’s far more prevalent in some than in others. Many of my current students, unfortunately, have experienced a great deal of trauma, and since I now teach in a tribal school, the intergenerational trauma is also in their very DNA.

At the start of last year, I handed out index cards so students could ask questions about me. It’s a pretty typical get-to-know-you sponge activity for the end of a class period (“What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” “Do you like the Seahawks?”). This time, though, I was asked a new question.

“How long are you staying?” many wrote.

“When are you leaving?” one student continued to ask as fall turned into winter.

“Are you coming back next year?” an advisee asked for the fifth or sixth time during the last week of school.

My students didn’t think that I would stay because a lot of teachers hadn’t stayed in the past. So I told them, every time they asked, that I would stay, at the very least, for the entire school year. When things got hard, and they did, I reminded myself that I would not be one more person who left these kids. Later, when they started asking if I was coming back the following year, I told them that I wasn’t looking anywhere else, and that I would come back if it was within my power. I told my 9th grade advisees that I wasn’t going anywhere until they graduated (“and everyone is graduating!” I added).

I did my best to miss as few days as possible. When I went to visit another school to see our then future curriculum in action, I told them where I was going, and yet some were still suspicious that I was visiting another school. “Where were you?” they asked accusingly when I had jury duty and later missed a day for a family gathering to honor my grandmother, even though I’d announced it weeks in advance. I took to posting my weekly schedule of meetings and other commitments on my door so that students would know why I was late opening the classroom or why I couldn’t meet with them after school.

To earn our students’ trust and build relationships with them, we have to be present. The most important thing that we can do is to show up every single day. Obviously this isn’t always possible; new teachers will be especially susceptible to every single germ that walks in the door. A few pieces of advice: Get your own stapler and keep it separate from student supplies. Invest in hand sanitizer. Wash your hands a lot.

One winter when I still lived in Chicago, the flu was so bad in my building that I sprayed down my classroom and all the lockers and door handles with Lysol almost every day. People complained about the smell, but eventually we had to close down the entire school for a day because so many teachers were out. I never got sick. Now, my recommendation is to get as much sleep as possible and take a double dose of Emergen-C daily, especially if you’re a new teacher. Super Orange mixed with Tropical is my favorite. (Seriously, every day.)

Some people call this self care, and it is. But students who have been exposed to trauma need consistent, caring adults in their classrooms, and we can’t be that if we’re sick and tired, and we definitely can’t do that if we aren’t there. Students might not understand why you hand them a new pencil instead of sharing yours, but they will notice when you come to school every day.

Thanks for staying
A sophomore wrote this in my yearbook last year.

In the introduction to Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, Kristin Souers writes that strategies are “a reminder that as the adults, we should, to use a quote from the Circle of Security project (Marvin, Cooper, Hoffman, & Powell, 2002), be “bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.” (3). Even as I set the book aside for a few weeks, those four words continued to run through my mind.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

We’re asked to be a lot of things to our students. We’re teacher, coach, mentor, friend, taskmaster, fashion consultant, alarm clock. We provide lessons, books, supplies, lunches, snacks, band-aids (so many band-aids!), tissues, bathroom passes. We teach students to read, to write, to think, to calculate, to measure, to dance, to sing, to trust. It can be overwhelming, especially when you’re also trying to be the safe, trustworthy adult that Souers is writing about.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Teaching students suffering from the effects of trauma isn’t easy work. Many students don’t enter the classroom ready to learn; my students don’t do compliant. It can be a struggle every day, and it’s discouraging when students push back at every opportunity.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

I’m excited for school to start in two weeks; I wouldn’t want to do any other job, and I wouldn’t want to be teaching anywhere else, but I don’t fool myself that the second year will be easy. My new 9th graders, especially, will surely want to test their new teacher.

Bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

These are the words that I’ll use to guide my work this year. This is how I’ll build relationships with a new group of students. Every day, I’ll strive to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment

I struggled with how to introduce this list without telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. Last September I asked the new principal of a local high-needs school about her new job. She said it was “good work.” I used that phrase whenever someone would ask about my new job. “It’s good work,” I would answer. How to explain that in a blog post?

I finally realized that it doesn’t matter if your school is high-needs or not. As Kristin Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, “Because the statistics are so overwhelming, I encourage you to view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or is exposed to chronic stress” (2). Here’s my incomplete list of how to begin to build what Souers calls a “trauma-sensitive learning environment.”

1. See students as more than their story.

In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers writes that we should focus on the effect that events have on our students rather than on the details of the events themselves. This shift in focus encourages us to “see students as more than their story” (16).

What does it mean to see our students as more than their story? Aren’t we building relationships? Isn’t it important that every single student in a school be known?

Yes, we’re building relationships, and yes, it’s essential that every student in a school be known, but we don’t have to know every detail to teach the student. Nor does the student have to reveal all of her or his life story to every single teacher. While a student’s story is important, it can also be shorthand for a set of assumptions that might or might not be true for that student.

It is helpful, for example, to know that a student suffers from crippling anxiety, or needs kind words, or doesn’t get support outside of school. In some cases, I am the teacher who knows the story, the one the student confides in. Just as often I’m not, and that’s okay too, because the changes I make for the crippling anxiety or the need for kind words or the support someone isn’t getting at home? Those are changes that benefit all my students, whether I know their story or not.

As much as we believe otherwise, the more we tell the story, the less we see the student. My students are more than their ACEs.

2. If they can, they will.

Many of us, as Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners, “associate behavior with choice” (32). If you only read one more book between now and the start of your school year, it should be Ross Greene’s Lost at School. Greene writes that behavior is a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems rather than a decision by a student to misbehave. For me, the key change is to think about challenging behaviors as a problem to be solved rather than a choice that a student has made. If they can, they will.

When we see challenging behavior as a problem to be solved rather than a choice made by a student, it completely changes our relationship as teacher and student. Imagine that a student walks out of my class without permission every day. If I view this exit as a choice that the student is making, then the solution is obvious: the student needs to stay in class. On the other hand, if I view this exit as the demonstration of a lagging skill, a sign that my student is facing a problem that he or she lacks the skill to solve, then the situation is very different. I still want my student to stay in class, but if I remember, as Greene repeats, that “Kids do well if they can,” then I’m more likely to work with my student to identify the problem and master the lagging skill. (I’m only touching briefly on the content of Greene’s book. You can learn more about his work with Collaborative and Proactive Solutions here.)

3. Every student, every day.

File Jul 21

Sometimes, simple is better. When we returned to school after break in January, I set a simple focus for myself each day. Greet every student by name. Look and see their faces. Ask questions. A few weeks later, I wrote Connect in my planner on a Monday and Connect again on a Tuesday. At the very end of the school year, one of our instructional leaders tasked us to meet with every single reader before the year ended. It seemed an impossible task, but I met with as many students as I could. Tell me about the book you’re reading. What are your plans for next year? What do you want to do after high school?

I know we can’t confer with every student every day, but how many students do we stop and talk to each day? Do we take a minute to really see every student in front of us, or do we simply launch into our lesson after a cursory glance so that we can take attendance? I know that I can look without seeing, especially after I’ve taught a few periods in a row. I know that I need to stop, breathe, observe, connect. I might not get to everyone, but the goal remains the same.

Every student, every day.