What I would have told my beginning-of-the-school-year self

Hello, dear friends! I hope your year is going well! I have had a little bit of a bumpy fall, truth be told, but I finally feel like things are starting to really get in a groove. I’m still swamped, don’t get me wrong 🙂 but at least I feel like things are going decently well right now.

Looking back, I had one of the bumpiest beginning of the years that I have ever had. I’m a little bummed out that I haven’t been able to write any blog posts because I actually love writing them, it’s a great way for me to process my thoughts and it’s so therapeutic. It’s kind of like reading…it doesn’t really feel like work, it feels like something fun that I get to do for myself. (Hopefully that’s also what our students feel about reading/writing when we’re able to hook them!) Anyway, I’ve been wanting to write this post for several weeks, but life has just gotten in the way. I’m excited to be able to finally get my thoughts on paper, hopefully they will encourage you, too. 

It’s funny how sometimes the class we are the most nervous about, or the most scared about,  can become our favorite class. As you might remember, Mary Beth got an awesome job this year as our curriculum supervisor for World Language, and that means she teaches less classes, and…long story short…it means that I am teaching the 11th grade heritage class for the first time. I was suuuuper nervous to teach that class because I always teach the 10th grade classes, and I was pretty sure those kids who had just spent a whole year with me in 10th grade were, well, sick of me. 🙂 Don’t get me wrong, I know they like me and they know I like them and they learned a ton in class. But…it’s a tough class. They work HARD. (Side note: Writing is hard. Baring your soul is hard. Doing something that could always be better but takes a lot of emotional work and a lot of time is hard work.) I think at the end of last year they were happy to be done with me and my class…and they didn’t know that come August…they would be with me again. Not only that, but I was worried that in a program like heritage, they would simply drop the class.

But…I was wrong. I think they were relieved to see a teacher they knew and trusted, and that they knew what to expect from me. Over the summer they must have forgotten how much work my class is 🙂 and they were excited to jump back in. Honestly, they have been such a pleasant surprise and honestly the highlight of my year, and I feel SO lucky that it worked out this way!

My 11th graders with their finished personal narratives, and a little early Day of the Dead celebration. We’re missing lots because of the snowstorm 🙂

Because I had them last year, I knew I would have to work to retrain them on a few things I wanted to go differently this year than last year. The first main thing I wanted to get better at this year was actually having kids work in partnerships, more effectively. When I say something like, “Turn to your partner and share…” I wanted them to ACTUALLY TALK. When I say something like, “Read your partner’s writing and say one good thing about it,” I actually wanted them to do it! Imagine that 🙂  So...I decided to give up on seating charts. I let them choose their own seats (even my 10th grade classes). My rules were: they always had to be sitting with their partner, and if their partner was gone they had to either find someone to work with without me or tell me so I could match them up. With this 11th grade class that I knew so well, it’s gone great. They are chatty, yes, but it feels like it’s a worthwhile risk. With my 10th grade classes of heritage students (that I didn’t know before this year), it nearly killed me at the beginning of the year…but it’s really starting to pay off now. I always threaten to mix up partnerships if they can’t stay on task and keep their partner on task, but I haven’t actually followed through on that yet. But I’m definitely getting much higher engagement in mini lessons and kids seem much more free to want to share their writing. 

Another thing I wanted to get better at was the process of mini-lessons. I really wanted to make mini-lessons like actual huddles in a PE class. It’s not that effective to be the gym teacher and to be yelling information or tips across a big gym…it’s more effective to bring in all the kids for a huddle, share some good info and maybe let them try it out, then send them out. In the classroom, this looks like my kids dragging up their (extremely heavy) chairs to a small area at the front of the room for the first 10-15 minutes (after FVR) for a mini lesson, and then hauling their stuff back to their desk to work independently. Last year, I tried this a million different ways and couldn’t really ever get it to work, so I gave up. This year I wanted to get it right, at the beginning of the year, and retrain my kids who were in my classes when I gave up. 

The first day of writing workshop was like day zero. I laid out the rules for where they had to sit for the mini lesson: you must be with your partner or request a partner, you must be sitting at the the same height of the your partner (both on the floor, both in a chair, or both sitting on a desk), you must always sit in the same spot, and  you must have your notebook/pen. Then, we practiced getting to the mini lesson area with our stuff, with our partner, in an “orderly” fashion (whatever that looks like for you). I even timed them and tried to see if they could beat their time or the times from the other class. Of course, they were annoyed at it. And I felt like an elementary teacher. But it worked!! I can’t believe I wasn’t doing it before. How could I expect them to do something I’d never really trained them out to do? No wonder it wasn’t working. To finish up day zero, I did an actual mini lesson about the format and the “why” of the workshop model, and for their independent writing that day they had to write a response about how they were feeling about it and why. It went beautifully!

If you have high absenteeism or are worried about what partnerships might look like in a longer unit, there are a few ways to handle it. In some of my classes, I had a group of three, so if someone was missing a partner, they were assigned to work with someone from that group of 3. Otherwise, the student without a partner would just join in with a pair they felt comfortable with. As long as I remembered to ask at the beginning of the mini lesson who needs a partner, I was pleasantly impressed with how the partnerships worked during the mini lesson.

I also wanted to hold them more accountable for their participation and effort during both the mini lesson and the independent writing time. I was already using a “professionalism” rubric since my classes are dual-enrollment and the community college requires us to do so, so I went ahead and tweaked it a little bit to get more leverage out of it, and I’m much happier with it this way. Here is the final version, if you’d like to see it. For example, for the mini lesson section, they have to reflect on how well they got to the mini lesson, if they sat where they were supposed to, if they solved the problem of an absent partner, if they were on task when they were talking to their partner, if they volunteered to share out, etc. It was incredibly effective so far this year as a tool; the students turned it in at the end of the first big unit (personal narrative for 10th graders and realistic fiction for 11th graders), and I ended up stapling it to their quarter progress reports and sending it home for a signature. One thing I will change in the next unit is doing a mid-unit check using the same sheet, as a formative grade, to give students feedback about where they could improve before the summative one goes in. My school has also been working on how to teach the soft skills like self-management in an effort to level the playing field for all students, so rubrics/grades like this have fit right into that important conversation. (For those of you that are CI teachers and have something like the interpersonal skills rubric or the participation rubric, I see this professionalism piece as the parallel thing in a heritage class, and use it the same way: kids first self-assess and then I go over and agree/disagree.)

I think one of the most unexpected highlights of working with that 11th grade class this year has been seeing how far they’ve come, and to appreciate how the curriculum we are using spirals so well. At the beginning of a unit (or the year), I always do an on-demand piece; their personal narratives this year were utterly fantastic! I really could tell how much they’d taken away from class last year, even though it was a full calendar year ago that we studied that. As I worked through the new unit, realistic fiction, it was really exciting to see them try their hand at a new genre and to get so passionate about it. It’s like they’ve finally realized that they have a voice and they can use their words to tell whatever story they want to tell! They are so much more confident and self- assured, and so much more independent. They even coach each other, but I have done absolutely zero coaching to get that setup…it just sort of…happened. And when I read their final realistic fiction pieces, I was utterly blown away. It was like reading a good book, I’m not even exaggerating 🙂 I’m so excited to help them publish them and share them with the world…and hopefully all of you! I will post that information when it becomes available 🙂

I think the big idea I’ve taken away from here is: trust the process and don’t give up! It’s easy to teach a beautiful five paragraph essay that has all the components and checks all the boxes…it’s easy to teach the writING. It’s harder to work with each writer, where they’re at, and push them to become a better writer…it’s much harder to teach the writER than it is to teach the writING. And it’s much, much messier. It’s not always a linear process, and it’s not always easy to track, or easy to check. Last year, I was happy with what I was teaching (I think), but it was easy to feel like maybe I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t always seeing the fruits of my labor, and I feel lucky to get to see some of that this year! (Again…if you are CI teacher in your language acquisition class, I see a lot of parallels here, too. It was much easier to teach verb conjugations and practice random decontextualized vocab, and it was easy to assess. But it wasn’t leading to real acquisition. Teaching with comprehensible input is a much messier process and you might feel like it’s not working, but we just have to trust the process!)

The last thing I would tell myself? Keep on taking risks that you think are worthwhile. This year my goal was to add in one reading unit (in addition to the three writing units I do during the year, and daily FVR). But, I was pretty intimidated. I was trying to figure out what reading workshop really looked like. If, during most of the writing workshop, kids wrote…would they seriously just be…reading…all period? I was worried my kids couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do that. And I was wrong!

I was stuck on adding in reading workshop because I had seen the amazing benefits of writing workshop, and I wanted to see what reading workshop had to offer. On top of that, I was looking for more ways to do more reading in more intentional ways. I chose to do “Deep Study of Character,” since it could be done as students read any book during FVR, and supported our work in narrative writing and literary essay writing (about characters and theme). One big thing I learned is that, especially when you are adapting materials from English, you may never find the EXACT equivalent in Spanish. I remember that, at one point, I was looking for a short story that showed a change in setting and also a “mob mentality” and also how a character changed. I was panicking I couldn’t find one!! But then I realized…I might not find one. And that’s ok. I can find one for each thing, and I can make it work. It doesn’t have to be an exact equivalent for it to work. (By the way, if you choose to teach this unit, hit me up and I can tell you what mentor texts I used for the mini lessons!!)

And you know what I discovered about reading workshop? It’s amazing!! And I wish I’d started it earlier! I couldn’t have, for many good reasons (mostly because I would have been overwhelmed), but that doesn’t stop me from honestly saying that it is an asset to my classroom and my kids. The first thing I did was have my kids calculate their reading rate in the book they were reading (I waited until October so most of my kids were in the middle of a book they liked). It was easy, because we read for 10 minutes every day, so they have great records. Apparently the goal for fluent readers is ¾ a page in a minute, so I shared with them that my goal is that they were reading about 7 pages every 10 minutes. They did a reflection about their reading rate and if they thought they should pick an easier book, and I met with them individually to talk about those reflections. 

A shot of my board after a reading mini lesson. We read “Mi Tocaya” from “El Arroyo de la Llorona,” by Sandra Cisneros.

In case you’re curious, in a nutshell, reading workshop in my room looks like this

  1. FVR – Read for 10 minutes at the beginning of class and record on reading log. 
  2. Mini-lesson for 10-15 minutes where I tell them about a new strategy or “thing” they could be looking for while they read, we add that strategy to their toolbox (anchor chart). 
  3. Independent reading time usually for 30 minutes, the idea is they jot for 1 minute every 10 mins. With 30 minutes, they should read for 9 minutes, jot for 1, read 9 minutes, jot for 1, read for 9 minutes, jot for 1. Thus, they should have approximately 3 jots (post it notes) about their book (about what? Anything from the anchor chart), and they should have read their reading rate times 3 (so if they are reading 7 pages/10 minutes, then they should read ~21 pages that day). They record the minutes read, pages read, and post it notes in their reading notebooks (we share books so they can’t leave them in their book or take the books home), and then I just conference with kids while they are reading and look over the past few days of work, give them credit, and we set goals. 

Every couple of days, they write long and/or create a more creative notebook page that synthesizes some of their ideas, instead of reading. And that’s it! So far, we love it! I have been so impressed at how much they are reading and how easily they settle in to continue reading. 

Whew! If you are still reading, thank you!! I’d love to hear what advice or big ideas you’d tell your beginning-of-the-year self 🙂 I hope to get another post out soon about Mary Beth and my’s awesome time attending MCTLC in Minneapolis! Also, we are working on finalizing info on our Heritage Teacher Workshop this summer (dates are June 24-26, 2020, in Fort Collins, Colorado); spots will be limited this year, so make sure you’ve signed up for our mailing list to get an email as soon as registration is open!

Happy teaching!!


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