Book Reviews as Book Marks

I was recently strolling through my local super department store when I came across these notecards.

They are book mark cards.

 

 

As you can see, they have a flap on top. It allows you to slide the card onto a book jacket or a page.

 

They come in five colors, fifteen cards in each color.

 

 

 

I think these book mark cards would be great for writing book reviews. Students could get blank cards from their school librarian or from their teacher.

Before they had a card in their hands, it would be wise to model how to write a book review. For me, I like to keep reviews short and reveal just enough to tempt the potential reader. Brevity is a virtue.

My present format for a quick book review:

  • I (liked, really liked, loved) the book (the title) because (give reason to support opinion).
  • For instance, (use evidence from the book to support your opinion).

To differentiate for students who struggle with writing, the bolded words could be provided on the cards as prompts.

Here is an example of what a book review could look like on one of these cards, using the excellent Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

 

Books with attached student reviews coud be displayed on the top of the book cases. Featured books could also have their own shelf in the library or classroom. It would be similar to how book stores designate an area for staff to attach reviews for their favorite reads.

How do you a) encourage students to recommend what they read, and b) celebrate your students' writing? Your comments are appreciated!

 

Literacy, Leadership and Walkthroughs

I recently attended the Literacy and Leadership Institute in Madison, WI. It was hosted by Regie Routman, creator of the Reading-Writing Connection professional development series (which my building uses). This may have been the best conference I have attended. Everything was connected to best practices. A lot of what the presenters at this conference shared is based on research and publications by Richard Allignton and Peter Johnston.

Summarizing all that I learned into one post would be like trying to stuff an elephant into a foot locker. Instead, I attempted to synthesize my thinking by creating a walkthrough checklist connected to best literacy practices. It is based on an article published by Richard Allington in Phi Delta Kappan in 2002, titled “What I've Learned About Effective Reading Instruction From a Decade of Studying Exemplary Elementary Classroom Teachers” (a straightforward if not catchy title). I condensed his findings about what exemplary teachers do into twelve statements.

 

Time

  • Students are actually reading and writing around 50% of the time.
  • Students are reading independently, meeting with the teacher for guided reading, and/or reading and writing in the content areas.

Texts

  • Students are reading texts that allow for high levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension.
  • Classroom texts reflect a broad range of interests, diversity and levels.

Teaching

  • Teacher gives direct, explicit demonstrations of thinking strategies that good readers and writers use when they read and write.
  • Teacher assigns work that is responsive to students' needs and fosters a transition of thinking strategies to independent use.

Talk

  • Teacher facilitates lots of purposeful dialogue – both teacher/student and student/student.
  • Classroom talk is more conversational than interrogational.

Tasks

  • Teacher assigns activities that are substantial, challenging and complex.
  • Students are allowed some choice and autonomy in work to promote ownership and engagement.

Testing

  • Teacher evaluates student work based on effort and growth rather than just achievement.
  • Students take responsibility for their scores with the help of clear and visible academic expectations.

Using this checklist as a Google Form on my iPad, I could walk through classrooms and document how often best practices are occurring. Teachers are already used to me being in the classroom to read aloud or just observe. Is this a logical next step? It was suggested that if a checklist is used to document frequency of best practices, it needs to be sandwiched with positive feedback, probably in the form of a written note and verbal praise before leaving the classroom. I will defintiely need to reference Choice Words and Opening Minds by Peter Johnston often as I begin providing feedback. A hybrid of both a checklist and a written narrative may work best for my staff and me.

If I was the teacher, would this checklist along with a short observational narrative have the potential to help me improve my own practices? Would I feel defensive and nervous, or wonder what my principal's motivation is?

As the principal, will this type of walkthrough give me a reliable set of data to help determine where we are growing and where we need to grow? Could I eventually expect the teachers to use this process and observe each other, using a peer coaching format?

 

I need to sit on this draft of an idea and come back to it later. I would welcome any feedback!

I Read (and Wrote) to the Principal

When I moved into my new office last August, I found approximately 800 green pencils with “I Read to the Principal” printed on them, left for me by my predecessor.

Save that thought.

In my last blog post The Principal as a Writer, I wrote about how I modeled writing for my students and staff using Moleskine notebooks and a document camera. The modeling component of instruction is essential, but so is giving students the opportunity to practice their skills. As I have learned, student work should be authentic and relevant to their own lives.

I hoped that the students would be as motivated as I was to write about books I enjoyed. With that, I purchased one Moleskine journal for each classroom in which I regularly read aloud. Once they had seen me write a review, I handed off their classroom journal, with the following expectations:

1. They only put books in the journal that they truly enjoyed (four out of five stars or better).
2. They had to write to an audience, namely their classmates, their teacher and me.
3. They had to include their name as the reviewer. The idea behind this is classmates would presumably read the book review journal looking for their next great read. When they found a book that interested them, they could talk to the reviewer to get more information.
4. When students completed a review, they were encouraged to read their review to me in my office. Their purpose was to convince me to read the book they liked, as I had limited time to sort through all the literature out there.

Moleskine journals were now available in an opportune place in the classroom. Student book reviews commenced! Some classrooms used them more often than others. When I had not recently received a visit from a room, I again modeled a book review for that class in my own Moleskine journal, then encouraged the students to do the same.

Here is a third grader reading aloud his book review to me back in April.

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This is the book that he was trying to convince me to read through his review.

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He had me at “gruesome”.

After sharing, I gave each student one of the “I Read to the Principal ” pencils. What was nice was that they read to me their own writing. This practice corresponds with a number of my building’s beliefs we unanimously agreed upon as a staff, including:

Young children do not need to know all their letters and sounds before they can write stories and read back their own writing.

Shared writing text involving common experiences are often the easiest text to read.

A Couple of Reflections

– Writing for an authentic purpose is so critical. I couldn’t imagine writing this very post if I didn’t think I had an audience to read it or an opportunity for some constructive feedback. I imagine students feel the same way.
– Book reviews are a form of persuasive writing, an essential skill for students and for informed citizens.
– The reading-writing connection is a concept stressed by Regie Routman and other literacy experts. Reading makes better writers, and writing makes better readers.
– As a principal, this is another opportunity for me to visit with students in a positive context.

“Making meaning is good. Doing meaningful things is better.”- Peter Johnston, Opening Minds

The Principal as a Writer

As much as I love technology, nothing replaces putting pen to paper. I may be revealing myself as a digital immigrant. Regardless, whenever I am in a book store I find myself walking over to the journal section. In the bigger book stores, Moleskine journals have their own shelf.

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The draw for me is each one of these notebooks are a blank slate, new territory in which to be filled up with fresh ideas. With Moleskine, they tailor some of their journals for specific areas of interest, such as recipes, travel, wellness and music.

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Here is the link to the Moleskine website: http://www.moleskineus.com/

As you can see, the sky is the limit for different purposes for writing. For me, I regularly use three Moleskine notebooks to help me document my thinking for later review and to reflect on actions I have made.

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Red Moleskine: Read Alouds

I spend about 10% of my day reading aloud in classrooms. I find it to be a great way to connect with kids, to be more present in the classroom and to share great literature. To help me recall how each read aloud went, I write out a brief lesson plan for the book. I follow the basic format a teacher would use for guided reading: Before Reading Aloud; During the Read Aloud; After Reading Aloud. On the back of each page, I mark which classrooms I read a book to and when, so I don’t repeat (although rereads aren’t a bad thing, especially when the book is good).

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To better aid my organization, I keep my K-2 read alouds in the first half of the notebook and my grade 3-5 read alouds in the second half. I also “tag” the read alouds with special themes on the upper left hand corner, along with an approximate duration to read each book.

Black Moleskine: Book Reviews

Some of the classrooms in my building regularly post student book reviews on their bulletin boards. Great practice! To connect with classroom instruction, after I read aloud a title I write a review of said book in my review journal for the students. I model this type of persuasive writing using the document camera.

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This is not the best example, as this was our first entry and we didn’t actually write a review. Still, these 4th graders had lots of memorable quotes that they wanted to share and get documented in the book journal page we completed together via the document camera. To wrap things up, we voted on how good the book was based on our evidence and thinking. I was not surprised that Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein got five out of five stars.

Moleskine Knock-Off: Memorable Quotes

I got this calendar journal at a local book store around the time I signed up with Twitter last fall. Once I saw the amount and the quality of educational information that this social media helped send my way, I realized I needed a way to curate it before I lost it. It is not a Moleskine, but my wife was kind enough to spruce it up with a Moleskine pen.

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Anything and everything goes into this journal. The only criteria is that it is interesting and important enough to remember. Many of my PLN’s tweets have taken up space in this journal. As with all my journals, I regularly refer back to what I wrote to help current and future writing and decision-making.

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Digital Journals

Moleskine does have a journal app for the iPad and iPod Touch, but it is as bad as their paper
journals are good. I do journal using a variety of digital tools, all with slightly different purposes.

Evernote – Not so much a journal as a tool to store and organize information, such as conference notes with audio. This application has lots of potential for student portfolios.
Notability – Somewhat similar to Evernote, but information is stored via Dropbox. Doesn’t have the same accessibility as Evernote, but you can draw and handwrite within each note.
One Day – A very simple yet effective eJournal app for the iPad. I keep more confidential information here because it is password protected. If anything I write had to be considered a diary, this would be it.
WordPress – No description needed

What’s My Point?

I hope I have not wrote a post without much purpose.

As I reflect on my position as an elementary principal, I can think of a variety of reasons why I write and why all educators should be doing the same.

– Writing is a reflective act. It helps me coalesce seemingly disconnected ideas into one focus.
– All educators need to be modeling writing if they expect students to write. Kelly Gallagher, author of Write Like This, aptly stated that the teacher is the best writer in the classroom. To model this skill, we need to keep our own skills honed.
– Writing is thinking made evident. Concrete thoughts such as goals and opinions are much harder to ignore than thinking alone.
– With the Common Core State Standards, writing is expected to be taught across the curriculum. It’s about time.
– The medium for writing is not as important as the act itself. Some students are more motivated by pen to paper, while others prefer blogging. Ideas are ideas and should be shared regardless of the format. If technology can enhance this experience, I say go for it.
– Writing needs to be regarded with the same level of reverence as reading and math. As an example, many schools (including mine) annually spend thousands of dollars on books but expect students to bring a $1 notebook for writing.
– It is okay that different forms of writing demand different formats and mediums.
– Writing is meant to be shared.

What reflections do you have regarding writing in education? Please share in the comments as I am always looking for new ideas.

Using the Document Camera for Reading Aloud

(Thanks to Tia Henriksen, @henriksent, for better post title suggestion)

I left the classroom in 2007 after seven years as an elementary teacher to become a dean of students and athletic director at a junior high school. At that time, the overhead projector was the tool I used to display anything visual. SmartBoards were just starting to be installed. The only hands-on part about overheads was when a student had to run to the main office to get a replacement after the bulb burned out mid-lesson. In fact, that was one of my students’ classroom jobs. How technology has changed in such a short period of time is amazing.

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With all of these choices, it can be daunting to decide which device best supports the instructional needs in a teacher’s classroom. Focusing on reading aloud, I find the best technology to be the document camera. Used in concert with a voice amplification system, the document camera has taken this essential part of a balanced literacy program to a whole new level. It is a key tool for teachers to model the learning process, an essential step in Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model and similar frameworks for instruction.

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While I am still trying to figure out where this technology tool belongs on the SAMR ladder, I have found that the document camera can augment read aloud time in the classroom.

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Reading Aloud Becomes Interactive and Shared at the Same Time
Rather than having different literature and separate times for reading aloud, for shared reading and for interactive reading alouds, a teacher could combine all of these practices into one activity. I often place the picture book or novel under the document camera so students can see the text as I read. Students can ask questions about text features as I read, even coming up to the book or SmartBoard to point out the specific item they wanted more information about. For example, a 2nd grader asked what the little symbols between paragraphs meant while reading aloud Tumtum and Nutmeg by Emily Bearn (to switch scenes during a chapter). These teachable moments can be documented by snapping a picture of the page to review later.

Previously “Unread-aloud-able” Books Can Now Be Read Aloud
I am referring to the books that you would love to share with students, but cannot because they do not work when just reading the text. A perfect example is Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, a book I read aloud to 4th graders this school year. Prior to document cameras, I would have had to hold up this bulky book and display the pictures when the narrative transitioned from Ben’s story (told through text) to Rose’s story (told through illustrations). My arms hurt just thinking about having to do this. Instead, I was able to lay the book down and take my time as we perused the pictures. What’s even cooler is I can zoom in on certain parts of the illustration or text when we notice something important, which previously only a student reading alone could do.

My Thinking Becomes More Visible

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I have always tried to use a lot of reflective language while reading aloud and identify the spot in the story that caused me to think. Now with a document camera, the potential is there to make the thinking in my head while reading more concrete. For instance, I use Post-it notes while reading aloud books at the primary level to document my thinking. Before reading, I state my purpose for reading a book, whether just for pleasure or to gather information. Sometimes it is the same book read twice, once for each purpose (see: Mentor Texts). Owl Moon by Jane Yolen worked great at 1st grade. After reading it aloud to enjoy the story, I came back a second day to highlight some of the great descriptive language to help me with my own writing. After modeling this with Post-it notes, students raised their hands to share their picks for great examples of descriptive language in Jane Yolen’s book. I acknowledged their input by writing down their suggestions on a Post-it next to mine, for later reflection at the end.

Reading Aloud Becomes Instantly Differentiated
As a colleague of mine was apt to state, you could through a rock out in the hallway and hit someone with attention deficit disorder. While recognizing this as hyperbole, I would agree that many students lack the stamina and practice of listening to the written word spoken aloud. What the document camera does is give that visual in addition to the auditory.

I don’t always use the document camera when reading aloud. In fact, most chapter books I read aloud at grades five and up are from a comfortable chair with zero technology. But when a book begs to be supplemented with a technology tool that enhances the read aloud experience and allows the student to better attend to its message, why not use it?

Not to sound redundant…the document camera is a great technology tool for all areas of instruction. I recommend the following resources for using the document camera in the classroom (you may notice a theme):

58 Ways Teachers Can Use the Document Camera

50 Ways to Use a Document Camera

25 Ways for Students to Use Document Cameras

Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!

Have you noticed that the call number for poetry books is 811? And that it is similar to the more familiar number 911? Neither did I, until I became principal at Howe Elementary School this year.

One of the many cool things that occur in my school is the concept of a “Poetry Emergency”. Developed by Liz Ottery, reading resource specialist, and other Howe staff five years ago, the school spends April recognizing National Poetry Month. Before the month begins, Liz asks staff members not teaching in the regular classroom to “adopt” a grade or class. I snapped up 5th grade, which happens to be the former grade level I taught before I entered the principalship.

During this month, we were expected to spontaneously pop into our classrooms and read aloud poetry. Liz gives us a sign in red; on one side it has the numbers “811”, and the other side reads “Poetry Emergency”. Before reading aloud, we hold up the sign and announce “Dial 811: It’s a Poetry Emergency!”. We then share our favorite poems with the students. In my case, I chose to read aloud Judith Viorst’s If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries to my 5th graders. These poems speak well to this audience, hitting on topics such as peer pressure and making friends.

During this time of the year, the classroom teachers also teach a variety of poems to their students. They can range from diamant√© in 2nd grade to free verse in 4th. What I enjoy as I walk in the hallways is reading all of the students’ poems hanging on the walls. Taking time to celebrate our students’ efforts is so critical in building the idea that everyone can be a writer.

At the end of the month, Liz sets up Poetry Cafe in the cafeteria. This is an opportunity for students to read aloud their favorite poems to their classmates, teachers and families. As you can see, Liz creates a great environment for this parent involvement activity.

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Once classrooms are signed up to present, family members are invited to school to listen to their children read aloud poems they either discovered or wrote themselves. In this photo, a second grade teacher kicks off the cafe.

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This idea for promoting poetry writing in school is just too good not to share.

A Reading Principal’s Office

The principal that hired me as a teacher back in 2000 made it a point to read aloud in my 5th and 6th grade classroom. I got to see him as more than just the principal. I observed how he managed a classroom, facilitated discussions and integrated different subject areas as he shared quality literature with students. These are some of the essential components of a read aloud.

When I became an elementary principal twelve years later, I made a point to follow his example as a reading principal. For instance, I have heavily invested in books, shelves and other materials in my office. As a principal, I don’t have time to stroll by the library and pick up a book to read aloud in a classroom. I have to have materials ready and a schedule to follow to be intentional about sharing great books with classrooms.

Before the school year started, I took a purchase order with me to a local children’s book store, The Book Look in Plover, WI. I sat and took notes while the owner, Mary Lou Manske, rattled off one book after another that she felt were read aloud-worthy. Below is the spreadsheet that I developed to organize my read alouds by grade level and subject area.

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The four categories on top are based on Regie Routman’s resource Teaching Essentials. She agrees that read alouds are teachable moments that require planning and intent. Working in a school with a lot of diversity, it is vital that I represent multiple cultures when I share important literature with students. To note: This spreadsheet is a living document. As I find better read alouds I switch out books. However, I am getting to the point where a new list will be needed.

Having these books at the ready is necessary. With the help of my custodian, I have my read alouds on display in my office.

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Some of the students’ favorites adorn these shelves.

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The books I am currently reading aloud in classrooms sit in mounted magazine racks for easy access.

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Novels and more picture books have a home on this shelf.

Anyone who enters my office can look around and immediately know how much I value literacy. Much of my dispositions go back to the early mentoring I received from my first principal. I hope that same attitude is made evident by me with the faculty in my own school.