My growth as a reader and as a reading teacher continue to evolve. Readers of this blog might remember the first time I opened my eyes to YA literature and drastically changed my reading habits to better serve the needs of the kids in my classroom. Then a few months later, I expanded my thinking and reflected on what our Independent Reading program was looking like at the end of the year– last year! Here we are in February and I feel an update is necessary.
A few quick things: We have, since the beginning of the year, established classroom libraries, adopted the TCRWP units of study and have hired a literacy coach, Ann-Marie Chow (a superstar) to help us learn how to teach our best in “the workshop” model. Kids are reading and writing at their best and I feel more comfortable with this approach with every passing week.
So like any proper edu-literacy-book-nerd, I was a bit star-struck to meet Penny Kittle this past Saturday for a great workshop at our school. As if meeting her and attending her session wasn’t enough, I was able, with my colleagues, to watch her teach a class, confer with kids and debrief her work for well over an hour afterwards. Needless to say, it was time well spent. If we think about teaching as a craft, and I do, then there is no better way to improve your craft than to watch a master crafts(wo)man do her thing. I took several pages of notes from her Saturday workshop as well as from her teaching today, and this post is a synthesis and reflection on what she said and did. I am not sure I will say anything that you will not find on her website or in her book, but I know my friend Ari will be curious for my notes, and who knows, you may be too.
Before I begin, however, let me say how refreshing it was to work with such a humble, passionate and sincere teacher. So many times when teachers achieve notoriety or success, they don their consultancy hat and forget that real teaching happens in real classrooms with real kids. Sure it is nice to have empirical data with which to draw upon, but I will take an in-the-classroom-teacher who refers to her kids and her own work, over a consultant years removed from a classroom any day. Penny was calm, understanding and real. And it was her gentle and supportive persona, which she displayed both with teachers and students that impressed me most. Okay, hopefully that is enough to get her blushing. Let’s get to the notes!
In order to get these notes published and shared with some level of immediacy, I will not wrap them in too much prose. I apologize for the bulletted format of ideas and the litany of grammatical gaffs and typos which I am certain litter this post. I will try and add some insight and annotations as I work through my notes and ideas, but I cannot make any promises at this time.
- Some Essentials:
- Be positive
- Build classroom Libraries
- Read everyday! Everyone- teachers and kids
- Confer with kids as often as possible
- Give choice. Choice. Choice.
- Don’t hand! Let them grab. Offer them three possibilities and let them choose books.
- Set goals.
- Build a school culture of reading
- Reading is the foundation for any writing program.
- Increasing stamina builds engagement (kids inhaling books), building complexity builds confidence= Independence.
- We Think in Narratives
- Persistence + Self-control + Curiosity+ Conscientiousness + Grit= Self-Confidence
- Try 6 word book summaries or Twitter reviews to get to the heart of thinking.
For me there wasn’t much new to what she shared, but it was reaffirming. Her workshop made me feel confident that the work we have been doing as a group and the enthusiasm I have developed personally are exactly the direction we should be heading. The time and money we have spent, along with the systems we have built to support our classroom libraries are worthwhile.
As a department we spoke a little about what is next in terms of building a school-wide culture. What would a humanities class library look like? Where are our books about science and math? What work are those teachers doing towards literacy in their fields?
Read. Write. Revise. Everyday.
That means everyone! My biggest take away from her writing session was that there needs to be room in a writing workshop for free, fun, undirected writing. Kids notebooks should look like Bubble Catchers not just skills based writing workbooks. There is room for practicing the skills explicitly taught through mini-lessons, but there should also be room for exploring ideas that may never be shared or published.
Penny shared several prompts and talked about the power of a short mentor text annotation and mimicking. She used this example by Devon Gundry from Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake.
Depending on when you met me, I might have been: a checkers champion, the kid who squirted Super Glue in his eye, a competitive Ping-Pong player, Tweedle Dum, a high school valedictorian, a fake blond, 1⁄12 of an all-male a capella group, a graduate of the Vanderbilt School of Engineering, a nomad, a street musician, or a pigeon assassin.
The idea was to use the structure of the list to explore some thinking that might later to lead to more expansive writing. I loved how she allowed us time to think and write during this time of the workshop. At first I found the structure limiting, but the more I tried to stick to its confines, I realized how it pushed my thinking and made me write in ways I probably would not have if given the freedom to write in whatever way I wanted.
Depending on when you met me I might have been a blue-ribbon-winning horse show participant, the kid who repeatedly lit himself on fire using Aquanet hairspray, C-3PO, or the underachiever on report card day, the blue-haired guy with too many piercings, an open-mic performer, or Columbia grad student, a Peace Corps volunteer, a wanna-be writer, or a leave-the-cockroaches-alone activist.
The more we write ourselves, the more we know where kids might stumble, and so we know how to anticipate their needs.
She also mentioned how important it is to write in front of kids and make your thinking public. Show them how you start with scattered ideas and how your thoughts and writing evolve. Revise you work in front of them too, so they see the process not the final work.
Penny Kittle’s workshop was a great use of time and I found it inspirational, but to watch her confer with actual students was something else all together. As a teacher new to workshop, I feel my conferences are awkward, rushed, uncomfortable administrative sessions, only done to see where kids are in their work. A notebook check-up. But watching Penny, I knew that with some time and practice, I too could hopefully use this precious time to actual teach kids while I sit with them for five minute sessions. Watching Penny Kittle confer with kids was truly a work of art. There was so many subtle devices she used, but here are some of the basics I was able to retain.
Smile. Be kind. Give compliments. Make eye contact. Relax. Breathe. Speak with a loving voice. Listen. Listen. Listen. Start where the writer is not where you want him to be. Talk about books, writing, ideas not skills, tasks, or work. Allow kids time to arrive at an idea. If they need to summaries the plot for two-minutes, let them. Do not rush their thinking. Listen. Say thank you. Don’t think about the next kid. Be present. Don’t fill the silences. Thinking takes time. Let them stew in the silence. Make eye-contact. Smile. Listen.
Ask, “How can I help you? What are you discovering? What is it you just did?” Teach a point and ask for examples. Name what kids are already doing and compliment them on being smart. Say, “I noticed that you……tell me about that.” Ask them, “If you did know the answer what would it be?” Encourage guessing. Risk taking. Revision.
Constantly remind students that you too use the strategies you are teaching when you read and write and think. Don’t ask about theme, but ask, “Why do you think this book was written?” Say to them, “I love this strategy. I use it when I read too.” Compare their shortcomings and failures to your own shortcomings and failures. Ask them to show you were they have revised their writing in their notebooks. Don’t have an agenda when you sit down. Tell them, “I want you to figure out what you need, so you don’t need me.” Ask them, “Read me something you love or something you want me to help you with.” Smile. Say thank you. Compliment.
Listen. Teach. Don’t administrate.
And always leave with a suggestion!
I hope this post was useful for you. I know it is not the same reading this on a blog or seeing these ideas on her website. Meeting people in person and seeing them in action is where so much of our learning happens. We all know these things. Right? But like Zen, it is a practice. We have to apply these skills over time to improve. I for one feel energized and inspired to get into my room tomorrow and try out a few of these things.
No agenda. Smile. Eye contact. Listen. Teach.
I’m on it.