Category Archives: Professional Learning Community

A Sneak Peek at the List I Sent to Santa

I’ve never had the winter break creep up on me like this.  Between coaching responsibilities, Student Council activities, and English IV team lead duties, I always kept an eye on finals week, not because I wished for the semester to be over, but because that week meant we were out of time and every minute up to that point better have been accounted for.

The changes in my responsibilities, duties, and campus freed me up, I’ve come to realize, to just flat-out teach. Thus, I find myself staring at one more week of school remaining in the semester, confident I’m living my best teacher-life.

So I thought I’d share a few items I sent to Santa in the hopes he’s thought I was a good boy this year.  I only included a few of the items from my list because I’ll probably just end up with a lump of coal:

Item #1 – A Really Nice Pair of Shoes

My wingtips are hand-me-downs and the soles are so bad that by the end of the day my knees and ankles feel like I’m almost forty years old. Wait…um…

Item #3 – Notebooks and Pens

I love notebooks and pens and after reading Amy’s list of teacher supplies, I’m hoping to see a Moleskin notebook or a pack of Flair pens in my stocking.

Item #7 – More Amazing Reading Experiences

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This is my book stack for the break.

I read a ton of books this semester, but most were assigned as required reading for my young adult literature class.  Since that class wrapped up, I’ve treated myself to Dry by Neil Shusterman and son, and I savored the immaculate The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.  I also snuck in the guilty pleasure known as a Lee Child novel. Past Tense, like all Jack Reacher books, ended before I was ready for it to be finished. Currently, I’m bouncing back and forth between Nic Stone’s new book, Odd One Out, and A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi.  I love both of these books and will be talking about them in my classes in January.

Item #8 – More Amazing Reading, Writing, Thinking, Talking Experiences in My Classroom

Thursday, I whet their literacy palates with the first three pages from Dry before we looked at the pairing of this piece by Leonard Pitts and “The World is Too Much with Us” by William Wordsworth.  I should have an Elf on the Shelf in my classroom so that maybe Santa will catch wind of the amazing thinking, talking, reading and writing that the kids are doing in room D120.

Item #12 – Organic and Authentic Professional Learning

Maybe Santa can bring me more learning opportunities like this most recent adventure with the whole class novel.  A Novel Approach by Kate Roberts is a great resource and I’ve read Gena’s post at least three times, but I can’t say enough about how my colleagues facilitated my exploration of the shared reading experience in a workshop setting. They handed me a blueprint and I took it and ran…away from boring, disengaging, traditional teaching practices.

Item #15 – More Experiences like NCTE

Co-presenting with a team from Three Teachers Talk is going to be one of those “career highlights.”  I may never get the chance to speak on a stage like that again and I refuse to take it for granted. I can’t believe I’m so lucky. My batteries recharged from meeting Cornelius Minor, receiving a giant hug from Penny Kittle, sitting slack jawed absorbing the power of Christopher Emdin. I run on inspirational people and those were just a few of the men and women I look up to. I’m flying solo as a presenter at TCTELA, and my session is about research writing in the workshop setting.  Bring your popcorn because this sesh is gonna knock your socks off. It will be fun, and a growth experience. ILA, in the fall, is the next big conference for which I’m crossing my fingers and praying.

Item #19 –  A Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl Win

Is that too much to ask?


Charles Moore loves watching college and professional football with his son, but he hates losing to his mother-in-law in fantasy football.  Maybe the third time will be a charm as they face off again this week in the playoff semifinals.  Perhaps an upset is brewing.  He’s so proud of his daughter’s Snowy Christmas Tree and his son’s tenacious love of reading.  

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NCTE: Sparking Hope, Equity, and Voice

Like so many educators who attended the 2018 NCTE conference, I am still reeling from the wealth of information and inspiration provided by some of the brightest and most compassionate people in the world. I listened with awe and determination as strong speakers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Elizabeth Acevedo stressed the importance of what we do as ELA teachers, and I carry with me a renewed sense of urgency about literacy instruction that empowers all students. No – not “empowers” – even that word has been transformed, as I now understand that it’s not my place to give them power; rather, it is my job to help students recognize and harness the power they already possess.1

The universal message of the conference did not so much present new ideas as it did combine them and clarify that we cannot wait any longer to act. We must reach each of our students where they are, provide them with the representation they need and deserve, and encourage them to add their own voices to the world. We have embraced diversity, equity, and representation in a variety of ways, but the time for the best practices to coalesce into purposeful change across schools is at hand.

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My book haul from NCTE 2018 – I can’t wait for my students to read these!

As I walked through the exhibit hall, admittedly searching for free books to take back to my students, I heard two main ideas – to quote Kylene Beers and Bob Probst – “again and again.” By absorbing the voices around me over the four days of the conference, I was able to discern what teachers, who attended a wide variety of sessions, thought. One of the most common ideas expressed was that NCTE presenters were “preaching to the choir.” Of course, this is true to a great extent. Teachers who love learning, who support choice, who engage their students in meaningful instruction, who believe in the power of writing workshop: these are the teachers most likely to attend the conference, and, more specifically, the sessions that explore these ideas. Teachers who believe in the humanities love the young humans we teach, and we will always seek to improve for their benefit and the benefits to society. This is no way diminishes the power of these workshops or their presenters, for they offer the keenest insight and carefully collected research to support best practices in teaching, and though I admittedly enter sessions predisposed to agree with much of what I hear, I always leave with new ideas scrawled in the margins of my notes. Like many others, I always leave feeling renewed, reinvigorated, and inspired, and I wish every ELA teacher could feel this way.

This brings us to the second most common idea expressed throughout the exhibit hall lines: how do we take these ideas back to our schools and inspire those who weren’t at the conference? I heard several teachers – both in sessions and while milling about – who said things like “I wish [so-and-so] from our department could hear this.” The truth is: we all know teachers who need to hear the messages from the conference, and the difficulty lies in how to offer the essence of what we have gleaned in a palatable manner. Some ideas are not well-received by teachers entrenched in established practices, and we must balance the urgency with which shifts need to occur with the tact and professionalism that our well-meaning colleagues deserve. I had the opportunity to speak with Amy Rasmussen about The College Board’s stance on shifting away from a focus on the canon to include more contemporary and diverse texts, and she offered an analogy that I wish all could hear: we don’t expect doctors to ignore research in favor of the practices they personally prefer, and when one of their primary research-based organizations like the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine offers guidelines, those are adopted as best practices. Can you imagine if they didn’t? We’d still have doctors bleeding us for pneumonia.

So, as I continue to synthesize all I learned at the conference and develop my own lines of inquiry, I leave you with these questions: why don’t we expect all ELA teachers to follow the research and vision of NCTE? Why can’t we confidently return to our campuses as ambassadors of ELA and NCTE and share what we’ve learned with our peers? Will we let the established system and soft bigotry continue to deny true equity to our students, or will we carry the spark of progress back to our campuses? I, for one, plan to stoke the fire.

1 I would love to offer due credit to the speaker who discussed the problematic idea of “empowerment,” but I cannot find the connection in my notes. If you can offer proper attribution, please add it in the comments.

Amber Counts teaches AP English Literature & Composition and Academic Decathlon at Lewisville High School. She believes in the power of choice and promotes thinking at every opportunity. She is married to her high school sweetheart and knows love is what makes the world go around. Someday she will write her story. Follow Amber @mrscounts.

NCTE 2019 Pregame- Gearing up our Action Plan!!!

Why am I so nervous?

The lights and the stage don’t scare me.  The topic of our presentation is something I’ve lived, day in and day out, for a few years now.  The faces in the crowd, the silence begging to be filled, the words I’ve rehearsed over and over…none of that scares me.

Is it because I want so badly for ears to hear our message? Is it because I’ve been afforded this massively important opportunity to share this message?

Late this afternoon, at the NCTE Conference, I will share the stage with some very important teachers.  These women, like me, believe that inclusivity is something that we must address intentionally.

I’ll spend every second of my allotted time sharing how I’m moving my classroom library from something that reflects traditional, mainstream texts to one that is more inclusive.  One that invites students to read books that give them a better opportunity to see themselves on the pages and a better opportunity to see themselves in this world.

Please join us this afternoon at 4:15 in 361 C.

NCTE 2018- shared slides

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all

On Sunday, my friend and extraordinary literacy-leader, Billy Eastman, and I got to giveBookTweet away books. We presented at the Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas (CREST) fall conference, and Follett Learning gave us 30 books, six signed by the authors, to raffle off to our audience. It was kind of an Oprah moment: “You get a book, and you get a book.” Oh, the thrill of book giving.

But giving books is just part of the thrill. We know this. We ‘give’ books to readers and students we hope will become readers often. We model our reading lives. We read aloud. We line whiteboard rails with new titles. We do book tastings and speed dating with books. We celebrate our readers and exhaust our arsenal of book-loving ideas.

And some would-be readers still don’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Here’s three ideas that have worked for me:

1. Never give up. When we set high expectations, when our students know we are serious about Book Love, when we practice keep-on-keeping-on with all the things I listed above– and we relentlessly share our joy, passion, and commitment to their reading lives– even if we never get a student, or a handful of them, to read a book, we have succeeded.

2. Believe in #1. Often we focus on the one student who just won’t budge. She chooses books, flips a few pages, fakes reading a chapter, bluffs her way through a conference, and we get discouraged. Keep trying — but do not let her be a black hole. So often we find ourselves gravitating to the one over and over again when we need the energy to keep encouraging, moving, and celebrating the many.

3. Make it okay to not read novels (yet). Anthologies are awesome. Sometimes

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“… this anthology empowers the nation’s youth to listen, learn, and build a better tomorrow.”

students who don’t like reading just need to enjoy a good piece of writing. Many will then want to read more by a particular author. One title many of my students dabbled in, and often read in its entirety, is Flying Lessons & Other Stories with authors Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, and more. I’ve recently purchased Fresh Ink, which is similar and looks equally engaging. It’s got authors Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, and more! And I just read about this one this morning:  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. It’s now in my shopping cart.


In our session at CREST, Billy and I discussed implementing the new ELAR standards for Texas (We both served on the teacher committee that wrote them), and we shared the transformative role investing in teacher expertise and authentic resources has made in his district (We wrote about some of it in this English Journal article.). Access to engaging books like the ones we gave away in our session is just part of it. Knowing how to use them to teach thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills is the other.

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all.

Billy Eastman at CREST

We know the real thrill isn’t in getting a new book but in the knowledge, the empathy, or the know-how that books gives to us. This is the thrill we want for our readers. It’s the reason we do what we do.

 

Amy Rasmussen is a mother, grandmother, reader, writer, and wannabe sleeper. She spends a lot of nights thinking about growing readers, encouraging writers, and talking to her writer’s block. She’s back to working on that book she started five years ago, so if you’ve got any extra luck hanging around, please send it her way. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

Takeaways from Tyrolia: Four Days with Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief by @KarryDornak

Tyrolia Ranch
I still haven’t mentally returned from my time at Tyrolia, Kylene Beers’ ranch, in Waco, TX. My mind still thinks I am sitting at her dining room table, painting a watercolor picture while overlooking a pond banked with Cypress trees. Or nestled on one of her incredibly-comfortable couches talking about a podcast with a newfound friend. Or riding a Mule (the all-terrain vehicle, not the animal) with Penny Kittle and five other people who were just as giddy as I was. Or sitting around her living room chatting and laughing with Bob Probst and Linda Rief while the aroma of the evening’s dinner tempted our senses.

Scenic Tyrolia RanchIt’s amazing that a place of scenic tranquility and beauty could rouse such feelings of rebellion and determination.

But you can’t talk about rebellion without first talking about power, so let’s start with the power of literacy.

For the first time in history, power is no longer based solely on wealth. Power is a Tweet. A YouTube video. A social media post. Kylene gave a fascinating talk about the “ugly roots of literacy in America.” In Colonial America, “literacy” primarily meant one’s ability to sign a document or contract. Who held the power there? Those who could sign the document, or those who could write the document? During the Revolutionary and Civil War times, penmanship was valued as literacy. But who had the leisure to practice their penmanship? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. From the Civil War to World War I, literacy meant one’s ability to recite poems, monologues, and stories. But who had the leisure to practice memorization? Those with wealth, privilege, and power. Then we get to the Industrial Revolution, where the assembly line was born. And then our schools began modeling the assembly line design (can’t you just picture kids on a conveyor belt being carried from class to class?). From the 1950s to 1980s (and even in the present), literacy meant analyzing the meaning of what we are reading. But still, someone else held the power (it was the teacher — or CliffsNotes —  who determined if a student’s analysis was correct or not).

The point is, the definition of literacy shifts to reflect what is happening in the country and world. Presently, businesses see the value in synthesizing information and identifying potential problems rather than just solving existing problems. So what does this mean for our classrooms?

It means we abdicate the power we as teachers have held on to for decades and give it to our students. If we are only teaching them analytical literacy, we are preparing them for 1980. For this century, students need the same literacy skills they’ve always needed: to summarize, to retell, to articulate, to evaluate. But more importantly, they also need a willingness to see another perspective, the chance to take a risk, the ability to sustain their focus, an acceptance of ambiguity, and the self-confidence that allows them to identify as readers and writers. Because that’s power, right?

But the chances are, if you’re reading this, you already believe this. Chances are, if you’re visiting Three Teachers Talk, you are already subscribed to the belief that education has not caught up to the 21st century. And chances are, you sometimes feel alone in this belief. Or isolated. Like you are fighting a losing battle. Like you have found a great discovery, only to feel that no one else believes you.

That’s where Penny Kittle’s words ring true  — that courage is more important than caution. I understand not wanting to “rock the boat” or damage friendships with your colleagues, but at what cost? The risk of sending our students into the world illiterate by 21st century standards and powerless?

Kylene told us that to start [educational, metaphorical] fires, we must start with our best kindling. So find your tribe. Find your people. Those who value courage over caution. They may not be in your hallway. Perhaps they’re across campuses, across districts, across states, across international borders. That’s who I found at Tyrolia. I found my tribe.

And persist. Penny said that it is often the changemakers who take the lumps. And I don’t know about you, but I have definitely felt it. But our kids are worth it. Linda echoed this sentiment when she said that even if you just change one teacher, that is one group of kids who are benefitting. To add to the conversation, Bob suggested we focus on the 5%: the 5% of teachers who are ready and willing to make a change, or the 5% of our teaching that we are dedicated to improving. So ask: “What’s one thing we can change this year?”

For me, I am vowing to write more. Penny encouraged us to start the habit of writing for fifteen minutes a day. You know what I said to her? I’ve tried to keep notebooks and journals, but I always lose interest because I feel like what I’m writing doesn’t matter.

Dwell on that sentiment: My words don’t matter.

You know many of our students feel the same way. How can I show my kids that their words and voices matter when I don’t even feel that my own do?

But she told me that my words did matter. And then four days later, she retweeted this, and I can’t help but think it was for me:

PK notebook tweet

The truth is, words matter.  Everyone’s: mine, yours, our students’. The words we read shape our thoughts. So immerse yourself in the words of Kylene Beers, Penny Kittle, Bob Probst, and Linda Rief. Their words are life-changing.

Immerse your students in words of both the past and the present, so that they understand how we got to now, and how we can change the future. And the words we write matter. They help us reflect, learn, process, and discover.

I’m slowly wakening from the dream that was Tyrolia, but I hope that we all remain:

Determined to write.

Unafraid to rebel.

Revolutionaries for 21st century literacy.

On a mission to find our tribes.

The 5%.

As of today’s publication, Karry Dornak has continued to write, rebel, revolutionize, and seek out her fellow 5%. She is balancing life in Spring, TX, as an instructional specialist, teacher, wife, mom, and Pumpkin Spice Latte enthusiast. Follow Karry on Twitter @karrydornak

 

ILA 2018 Conference Run-down!!! (and an epiphany!)

Am I the only person who feels super awkward meeting new people?

So I’m standing in the “New to ILA!!!” section of the Austin Convention Center early Saturday morning.  Several well spoken women and men address the throng of newbies and supply us with important information about the conference.  Remarks concluded and we are encouraged to visit with those around us, meet new people, and hang out.

I’m there by myself waiting for Gretchen Meyer, my fellow literacy advocate, to arrive. She shared this conference experience with me and I couldn’t ask for a better guide.

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Can you imagine a more awkwardly handsome face?

So I’m scanning the crowd looking for familiar faces, assuming there won’t be one.  I’m an award winning people-watcher and for those of you who aren’t, teachers can be incredibly fun to observe.  Anyways, Marcie, an incredibly nice women with a bright smile introduced herself to me and we talked about the conference and how excited we were to listen to the speakers at the General Meeting that was to begin shortly.

Both of us, my new ILA friend and I, massively underestimated the level of brilliance that was about to wash over me.  I listened to Adan Gonzalez talk about his success in the face of poverty and bigotry and how he works to fight those demons today.  Nadia Lopez blew the crowd away with the statement, “I opened a school to close a prison.”  So…um…wow.  If that wasn’t enough, we got to experience the passion of Cornelius Minor and his charge to consider, “How can we not stand for our children…when the traumas of the world weigh them down in our classrooms?”

I had to pinch myself.  Was the rest of the conference going to be this amazing? (It was.) Was this euphoria and uplifting feeling of being re-energized going to fade as I left this hall and moved on to the other presentations? (It didn’t.) Was I ever going to see my new friend, Marcie, again? (I did, on the big screen, at the end of the general meeting.)

Marcie

Meet Marcie Post, the Executive Director of the ILA.

Even now, back in League City, I can’t stop reflecting on the lessons I soaked in at ILA.  Maybe the biggest realization I came to, and there were many, wasn’t about books or kids or literacy.  This realization encompassed all those ideas, but was really about me.

I realized that above all else, I’m a “culture” guy.

I’ve identified myself by so many labels over the years: Football guy, Coach that can teach, Book Lover, Literacy Advocate, Student First Teacher… all those things. But, when its all said and done, after 16 years in the classroom, culture means everything to me. The culture in my classroom is, obviously, important. Just as important, perhaps, and, for the most part out of my control, is the culture of the people around me.  I want to be around teachers that are happy people.  I want to feel like we are all in this together and that the kids will be the big winners in this world.

I think this seed might have been planted by this blog post by Lauren Ambeau, an intermediate school principal in my school district that posts on her own blog. Or it might reach all the way back to my first two principals, Marlene Skiba and Deanna Daws; two women that made me feel confident and valued in my teaching role.

I think, also, the people I learned from at my most recent, and longest, stay had a lot to do with it.  I have the honor of presenting with the brilliant Jenna Zucha next week and this woman took time out of her summer, twice actually, to visit with me about our upcoming opportunity to present about writing to the leaders and stake-holders of our district.  She guest posted on this blog back in May.  What’s funny about our second meeting, is that one of my best friends happened to be at the very same Starbucks. He’s a genius, and famous.  You might have heard of him… Ashton Kutcher thinks he’s cool.

bro

This summer’s Literacy Institute, our own sort of ILA, comes to mind as well.  Billy Eastman and Amy Rasmussen build a culture of respect, trust, and love that I try to recreate in my classroom.  The huge win came from spending three weeks with the beautiful souls whose teaching team I’m so looking forward to joining.   We laughed enough to get stares from the other groups and cried buckets on the last day as we bared our souls through our writing.  Sarah Roy guest posted about that process just two weeks ago and then Austin Darrow guest posted for Amy the next day!!!  Amanda Penny is one of the most fun loving people I’ve ever met. Looks like the culture I’m joining at my new place is strong, and, having gotten the opportunity to interact with the instructional leaders there, I know this is by design.

Kylene Beers, Sunday afternoon, said, “Our democracy requires that we hold onto our own literacy and not turn it over to a few pundits on this network or that one.”  This statement reminded me that I posted about this very same idea back in February.  Thus I’m reminded further that this blog, this digital workshop, is a culturally supportive space for teachers like me.

There is so much more to write about.  I plan to sprinkle those tidbits through my posts this year.

Understand this: I’ll fight for culture.  I’ll seek out good people and happy teachers for the rest of my teaching career.  The kids deserve it.

Charles Moore has his pool looking as clear as crystal.  He’s done a horrible job being a reader this summer. His kids spend most nights sleeping in a blanket fort in the boy’s room (thick as thieves, those two.)  He’s looking forward to sharing the experience of discovering a new school with the incoming 9th graders at Clear Creek High School.

Racing to the Finish Line: What Does Your Workshop Practice Need Most Right Now?

My Spring Break brain is still turned on. Fortunately, this means I’ve been very good at sleeping the past few days. Unfortunately, it means my capacity to focus and otherwise try to be brilliant is at an all-time low for April. It would seem my enthusiasm is likewise dormant, as I’m struggling to harness my usual oompah-pah for school, running, parenting, you name it.

What to do? What to?

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The view from my driveway during Spring Break.

 

I could stare at a thermometer and attempt to inch the mercury up with nothing by my sheer will and determination to curtail this never-ending winter.

I could establish a formal countdown of the school days as I’ve noticed several students and colleagues have done. (Ok, ok. I’ve done this already. There are exactly 40 days left of school.)

I could count and recount how many summative writing assessments I have left to grade, even if it’s likely true that I’m spending more time counting than I am actively providing feedback to my students.

So. There. Where does that leave me? Counting a lot, apparently, which is something I don’t particularly enjoy.

Still Thursday. Still 40 days to go. Still staring out the window at the 42-degree rain.

So. There. Where does that leave us?

For that, I look to you, dear readership of Three Teachers Talk.

help me

This is an all call for a bump in creativity, a burgeon to our daily workshop flow, a change of pace. Do you need more book recommendations for your classroom? Workshop friendly prep for an AP test? Ideas for mentor texts in a specific area of study? Blog posts that commiserate your struggles, or successes, or both? What can the writers and contributors at Three Teachers Talk focus on to help you most in the coming weeks? How can the writers at Three Teachers Talk help make these last few weeks of the 2017-2018 school year all kinds of amazing in your classroom?

When your inbox pings with a post from 3TT, what insight would tickle your fancy, make your day, or just help ease the stress of wrapping up the year in a workshop classroom? We’ve got writers who teach from Foundational Freshmen to AP Language/Literature, coach current teachers, prepare pre-service teachers, and everything in between.

We all need a little help now and then, so we’d love to hear from you:

Please take a moment to fill out this quick survey and let Three Teachers Talk help move your workshop practice forward to round out this year and/or get you rolling for the next.

And as always, remember the rich archive of posts on a variety of topics that you can search on the right side of the screen at threeteacherstalk.com. You can search by keyword, contributor, and/or topic. The special sauce for your next few weeks of teaching may already be right here!

As a collaborative community of educators, we look forward to hearing from you and pointedly adding to the amazing wealth of workshop knowledge that Three Teachers Talk readers and writers share. Have a great weekend!


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Also, a friendly reminder, if you would like to write a guest post for Three Teachers Talk, please send your ideas to me at lisadennibaum@gmail.com. We are always looking for fresh voices, ideas, and experiences. Thanks!

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