On NOT setting up the classroom library

Finally getting in to school to set up my classroom. First things first, the library. Done.

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You might notice that this picture shows empty shelves and books in boxes (not the leveled book kits – those belong to the reading tutors). This is part of the plan for class this year that I am most excited about, and most stressed out over. I have decided to set up the library WITH my students rather than for my students.

No, this is not a strategy to keep me from working in my classroom too much. Trust me when I tell you that it would be way more simple to drag my girls in for a few hours and sort books into bins. All the biographies would be together, Kate DiCamillo would be given her own bin, science books on predator and prey animals would be safely separated and every box would have a label. I would always know where to find the latest in the Amulet series.

At the start of her book Teaching with Intention, Debbie Miller asks us to picture our perfect classroom. When I do this, I see a space that belongs to kids, that they worked together to create in a way that serves our collective needs and learning goals. I see students moving about on their own to get what they need, independently solving problems because they know what resources are in the room and how to use them. So I have to ask myself, what if Kate DiCamillo is not deemed important enough to rate her own bin? (I know, right? but it could happen.) What if what they need is a bin dedicated to books on the Underground Railroad because we read Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, sparking a full on obsession with resistance to slavery?

In order for kids to create resource collections throughout the year to satisfy the demands of a project, they have to start with both a familiarity with the collection as a whole and a sense of ownership that allows them to manipulate and pull together texts that serve their needs. As Miller advises, I need to start with this goal in mind and work back to see how I can support children in reaching it. In order to give the students mastery over the library, I need to start handing it over to them on day one.

Thus, the empty shelves.

My plan is to start our first Readers Workshop by looking at the books. Each group will have a box of texts from all different genres. After first oohing and ahhing over cool titles, and maybe even squirreling away a few for their own boxes, I’ll ask them to start sorting them into categories. No guidance – I will try very hard to keep my opinion out of it and let them talk through ideas and come up with their own categories with only clarifying questions from me. After comparing how different groups sorted, we’ll launch into a review of genres and make some genre posters as reference tools for the library. Then, looking at these larger categories, and using their sorts and some of the “get to know you” data we collected in other activities, we can begin to subdivide books in a way that’s helpful to this particular class (which may, or may not, include a fan of Kate DiCamillo). Once we put the library together with labeled bins and sorted shelves I need to somehow instill in them that this is not a one and done sort of activity. As our learning needs grow and change, so must our library bins. The Writers Workshop section might contain some great narratives at the start of the year, but we’ll soon need some examples of persuasive writing there. Our Science bins might focus on animals and habitat to match the Fall lessons but by Christmas we’ll need to know about landforms and how they change over time. And our engineering challenges throughout the year will always need its own set of resources.

The initial organizing I described is a several day activity. Our first two weeks of school are only 3 days each (due to some weird primary election day interruptions, plus the Labor Day holiday weekend) so I imagine taking most of that time for the library work. It feels like a good way to spend those days.

I’m still pretty anxious about leaving so much “unfinished.” I took the cardboard book boxes I have home so I can cover up old writing and apply blank labels and I’ll certainly  tidy things up around the shelves. I’ve even decided to designate areas of the room for Science, Social Studies, and Writing since I have non-book resources to put away. And I will probably set the tall shelves aside as the fiction library but with a flexible mindset, ready to adjust my plans based on what the kids come up with.  The shelves in all of the areas will remain empty. I will have as many unlabeled bins as I can find.

Tune in next month to see how it turns out.

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From Professor to Mrs. LA

A year and a half ago, I left my full time job teaching elementary ELL and since then I’ve been working part time at the university. But now I am ready to go back to full time, so I sent a quick note to a couple of people I used to work with to let them know. My thought was to plant the seed so that, as they made plans for the next school year, they would have me in mind. I never expected to be offered a position so soon. Within twenty-four hours of sending that email, I spoke with my former principal about a position she was trying to fill.

Since talking with her about the possibility – the possibility – of taking on this classroom, I have been teaching imaginary lessons in my free time. I spent an entire car ride presenting a mini-lesson on adjectives and planning center activities that would allow for creative exploration of the topic in a few different ways. By the end of that ride, I had a photography exhibit, a poetry collection, and a student-produced dictionary all planned, complete with connections to science and social studies objectives.

I didn’t realize how much I missed elementary school.

It’s more than just the energy and enthusiasm of young students, though the snarky 18 year olds have been getting to me this week. No, it’s that integration of concepts throughout the academic day; the demand for overlapping curriculum. When I conceive of writing workshop lessons for elementary school students I do so with the entire school day in mind. We learn process writing so we can describe how to complete a Math problem. We practice careful, objective description in science labs and later turn those images into poetry with figurative language. Since I am involved in all the subjects, I can tailor our writing to support our learning in all areas. That’s just not possible in the current college level curriculum.

So, a week or so after that first conversation, it looks like we can make it work. As soon as my college semester is over, I’m jumping right into that second grade ELL classroom. Before I’ve even posted grades for my freshmen, I expect to be checking on reading levels and language proficiency. By the end of January I may not even remember a single snarky comment about the uselessness of college writing; I’ll be too busy creating opportunities for writing all through the day.