Saturday, September 11, 2010

Classroom Beginnings in 2010

This school year has started off well. I have 19 adorable sixth grade students. And a fabulous new principal. And a dedicated and funny and loyal and smart sixth grade teaching partner. And many colleagues that are also my close friends. Cross your fingers and petition the universe on my behalf please--I don't want to combine our two sixth grade classes into one or anything else drastic because of our small class sizes.

My heart and mind are far more calm and focused on teaching than they have been for the last two years. That whole divorce and custody battle and learning to trust another human with my heart again was a rough, frightening journey. I wasn't a horrible teacher for the last two years, and I had lots of support from people at school and from my family at home. But I am so much better at teaching when my heart and mind are at peace. I was a little worried last year that I needed to change professions or go back to school or something. But right now I feel what I've felt most of my teaching career: that I hope I get to do this wonderful work for the rest of my working life. This is where where I belong---in a classroom, with children, brewing magic learning elixirs.

Some of the best reading highlights of the first 3 weeks:

I've used many ideas from Igniting a Passion for Reading, a professional book that I read over the summer. The books is full of specific ways to create a book-loving classroom culture. I have a giant chart on the wall with my own reading log. I am doing book talks every day. I've had my students write very specific and personal goals for the number and genre of books they want to read by the end of October. We had a "Back to Books" party last Friday. I taught them how to preview books. I do a "status of the class" check in on their independent reading almost every day. I'm getting to know each of their tastes and reading interests.

The guided reading group (aka Book Clubs) part of my reading instruction this year is going to look a little different. Everyone's "job" is to read assigned book selections and short stories, to record several observations, questions, and ideas, and to share this thinking with their groups when they meet on Thursdays. I'm having them use sticky notes that they code with the category of the responses. They refer back to these when they have their Thursday discussions. Their responses to the short story we read as a whole class this week were amazing, but I haven't figured out how to get them to be more brave about sharing all of their amazing ideas with me and with each other. After a rather disappointing whole class discussion I read through all of their sticky notes and I was stunned to see tons of thoughtful responses. Open ended questions, astute observations. Lots of great responses that I hadn't though of when I read the story. I read a bunch of these responses to them and teased them about being such big chickens. They laughed and I am actually confident that they will be more brave and generous with one another as more and more time goes by.

Here is the coded sticky note system that I'm hoping will generate thoughtful responses and discussions:

N-NICE! (scenes, sentences, descriptions--any part of the text that makes you say WOW!)
F-strong Feeling
Q-Question
A-dialog with the Author

They write the letter and a few words or a sentence to remind themselves of their question, observation, or idea. (This also is a nice record for me to see how they're doing.)

The final reading highlight from our first three weeks is the novel Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie. This has been such a great read aloud to start off the year. I don't get super preachy with my students very often, but there are moments in this book when I can tell them exactly why I'm so passionate about books. Great books can teach us how to LIVE, how to live with integrity and love and courage. And books can also help us figure out who we are and what to do when scary things happen that are beyond our control. And what to do about imperfect parents and complicated friendships. These are urgent issues for 12-year-olds and I don't believe in Final Answers to such big questions, but I do believe we can learn how to be more thoughtful and aware, and this alone can help us live more peaceful and joyful lives.