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Top Five Posts of 2017: Teaching for the Whole Story

As 2017 comes to a close, so does another year of blogging—a practice that's been a privilege, a learning tool, and a wonderful challenge for me for almost a decade. My top five posts here at Teaching For the Whole Story speak clearly to the direction my blogging has taken—practical, focused on teaching practices, with plenty of reflection.

When I first started blogging back in 2008, my writing focused a lot on my personal story. I processed experiences of the moment in my writing, as I was navigating the teaching profession. It turns out that personal blogging was popular across the board at that time—not just for educators. It's what readers were most interested in reading. Now there's been a shift toward spreading useful information efficiently to readers. This is probably because there is just so much of it on the Internet now, and we carry the Internet with us all the time in our phones. As a profession (and population), we seem to be doing less sitting and thinking about other people's stories, and seeking more immediate solutions to problems or questions we might have. Both are important, but I'll leave that there for now.

This shift is convenient for me, in a way, because as I progress in my career, it feels much more difficult and sometimes not quite appropriate to process my experiences and professional decisions publicly. Starr Sackstein recently wrote about this tension as a blogger in a new leadership position—To Share Or Not Share, That Is The Question.

At the same time, I have learned so much in my thirteen years of teaching (and keep learning) that I have no shortage of lessons and helpful tidbits to share--and I can support those practical pieces with stories and reflection that led me to the lessons in the first place. In those cases, the personal and interpersonal parts are things I've already processed myself and am now comfortable sharing.

Any which way, I'm happy to share excerpts from my top five posts this year.

Here's to continuing to find lessons and pathways in 2018 that work on a practical level AND bring us closer to our deepest purposes as educators.

#5: Three Tips For Planning the First Day

"I've taken a big step back from feeling like I need to rush toward anything on the first day of school... On day one, I want students to get a sense of how a class period will flow--this may be more important than any other objective. Structure is calming, and my structures support everything else I want to accomplish, so they are top priority... The first day is a time to both teach routines and emphasize values. Students are very receptive at this point, so no need to overwhelm them with an overview of the whole year or with filler material. Jump into the good stuff, a little at a time."

#4: Simple Way To Hold Students Accountable For Bringing Materials

"Finally, I have cracked the materials riddle! This summer, in a productive reflection and planning session with my ELA colleagues I came up with my new plan. I let students know on the second day of school how it would work...

As I entered grades for first marking period earlier this week, I realized that the lowest grade for preparation was a 93. Most students got between 97 and 100 percent. I wondered if I had...made it too easy. And then I remembered what it used to be like! I hadn't made it too easy--it had just been an effective motivator, and the students had done the work to stay organized! They deserved these grades, and hopefully they will continue to do the work." 

#3: Five Steps To Revolutionize Whole Class Novels

"1. It may seem counterintuitive, but a thriving culture of independent reading directly leads to stronger participation and outcomes in whole class novel studies...

2. Using development to guide novel selections will likely rule out some of the classic texts often associated with a given grade level and readily available in the book room. That's just the kind of revolution we need...

3. Imagine being asked to analyze the corner of a painting without having seen the whole painting. Imagine that the person asking you to do so has seen the whole painting and keeps asking questions that hint at the meaning, which only becomes clear when you have seen the whole picture.  That would be rather silly.  It makes much more sense to see the whole picture (ie. read whole story), and then go back and look closely at pieces of it, now with the whole in mind. That is what I mean by a whole novel approach.

4. Offer differentiated supports to students as they read.

5. Let students drive the content of discussions, analysis and writing pieces... In whole-novel discussions, I do not create discussion questions. I don't even ask students to generate discussion questions...

#2: What Do We Do About the Whole Class Novel?

"What I really want to say is that there is a way (probably more than one way) to develop and support independent readers who choose books to read for themselves, and also read and discuss novels as a class.  There is great value in doing both, and we need to start talking a lot more about how that looks."

#1: When Real Reading Isn't Happening--Four Ways to Respond

"Reading is a special and complex activity.... No one can do [it] without a great deal of focus, especially children who haven't yet developed the attention controls we as adults generally have. When students are choosing behaviors that prevent them from entering the text, it's crucial to take action and change conditions so that students will make the choice to read. 

Here are some strategies for doing so. They are all connected, but looking at each one individually can help us focus our next steps."

Additionally, here are my two leadership posts from 2017, published at Education Leadership and Middeweb--also written to be practical and useful, but with plenty of blood, sweat and tears to get there.

Empowering Teachers to Respond to Change (Education Leadership, June 2017)

"We cannot know exactly what's in store. But I know this: Where top-down leadership has fallen short under "normal" circumstances, it will fall even shorter during tumultuous times. To survive, schools must create structures that position everyone--especially teachers--to respond thoughtfully, purposefully, and quickly to difficult situations. When such structures exist, empowered teachers, supported by administrators, will be willing and able to continue their meaningful work with students (and one another) as challenges ramp up."

 Two Lessons Worth Sharing About Teacher Coaching (Middleweb, September 2017)

"The transition from teaching children to supporting teachers has introduced me to new challenges and helped me to grow as an educator. For those beginning this transition, I hope these two lessons I've learned might be a helpful frame.

First, we are all in this profession together. Coaching happens in the context of an interactive learning relationship, not a one-way street, and it's so much more interesting and positive that way!

Second, teaching is a high stakes profession. You will have to reflect on your core principles, those that you would be willing to risk discomfort to maintain. Then you'll need to find your strong voice and recognize those moments that require you to respectfully speak up and not go with the flow. This way, we are creating real connections, based on the messy, rewarding process that is human learning."

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