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September Snapshot: Bye Bye Teacher Desk

Lauren Heimlich Foley

Last year, I found myself traveling between three different rooms after nine years of having my own classroom. With increased enrollment and a school too small to handle one classroom per teacher, I braced myself for the challenge and welcomed the change.

What I experienced shocked me: I loved moving around the building. I got to see more people, tried out different flexible seating arrangements, and learned the importance of traveling light. Most days I only moved with a backpack that held my laptop, water bottles, snack, YA novels, and clipboard. Our district’s one-to-one laptop initiative and wireless projection boards helped make this nomadic teaching style work.

Even more shocking: I realized that I no longer used a teacher desk. I carved out space in my apartment for my professional books and left a container in my car with school supplies. In each classroom, I had closet space for necessary materials and a shelf for a class library. On my prep and after school, I did my work at a student desk, in the library, or in our traveling teacher office.

This year, I am sharing a classroom with another teacher. We worked together over the summer to set up our flexible seating, bringing in a small kitchen table, a donated library table, two rugs, a handful of pillows, a high-top table and stools, short stools, and wobbly stools. It is a menagerie of furniture. We love the room, and our students are enjoying the seating.

The layout would never have been possible if we kept the two teacher desks we found waiting for us. Although we immediately got rid of one, I suggested getting rid of the second. Once we realized that the flexible seating would not all fit if we kept even one teacher desk, we decided to have both removed.

Since starting the year, I have not missed the teacher desk once. Not only was it an eyesore in the past with papers and books piled high, but it took up so much space. I never sat at my desk during class, so I am not looking for it during instruction. Whole-class directions and mini-lessons are taught from any open seat in the room, and I do have a stool that I like to use for conferencing. At the end of the day, I sit in my favorite spot in our classroom: a desk that overlooks our courtyard. It has a great view of a tree, waterfall, and pond.

Getting rid of the two teacher desks in our classroom was the best decision of September! Our room is more student centered and feels larger. I enjoy facilitating the learning that happens there. Moreover, our classroom reflects the fact that we are all readers and writers within our workshop.

September Snapshot: Flexible Seating and Classroom Management

By Nicole Coppola

How can flexible seating be utilized to support classroom management? This September, I made some positive changes by incorporating flexible seating into my 6thgrade writing classroom.  The writing workshop model requires students to “come to the writing area” for instruction. Last year, students were dragging chairs to the instruction area from all over the room, creating chaotic transition times.  

Through a grant for flexible seating, from my district’s parent association, I purchased “Bolmen” bathroom step stools from IKEA, eight blue and eight white.  With the help of one of my district’s literacy coaches, I mapped out a routine and a seating chart for the transition to the instruction area. Designated students unstack stools and move them to the center of the instruction area, surrounded by benches and chairs.   The transitions have become calm and efficient routines. 

The IKEA stools also provide the students a choice to make their independent writing space more comfortable.  Because the stools are only about 10 inches tall, they are versatile.  Some students sit on the stools, lean against them, or use the stools as little desks while sitting on the carpet.  During partner activities, my directions are clear and simple, “The students on the blue stools share first. The students on the white stools listen.”  Student helpers stack stools at the end of each class.  Flexible seating has made a positive difference in my writing classroom. 

September Snapshot:Character Creature Creation

What would It look like if you combined a bear, pig, chicken, snake, and monkey? The possibilities are endless, as new species are developed in the minds of middle schoolers.

While diving into the characterization with short stories students take a hands-on approach crafting their own creature. My students completed this activity after we read and annotated the short story “Charles” by Shirley Jackson. Charles is quite the troublemaker causing chaos when he enters his kindergarten classroom. Needless to say, there are tons of ways to characterize Charles. Rather than having my students answer questions about Charles or write a paragraph describing Charles I get them thinking outside of the box and bring the makers space into the language arts classroom.

After reading the story I ask that the students come up with five-character traits to describe Charles. For my students who may have a difficult time coming up with character traits I provide them with a list of positive, negative, and neutral character traits to pull from. Once they have their five-character traits picked they then need to decide upon an animal that depicts that character trait. For example, if the character trait was conceited, I may choose a peacock, who are always displaying their feathers. Students continue this process until they have an animal for each character trait. Ideas bursting, laughter echoing, and risk-taking fill the air while working students spontaneously collaborate giving ideas about animal possibilities or explaining why that animal or character trait could possibly work.

Once the brainstorm is complete students begin designing their creatures assembling one body part at a time. Some students draw, others print pictures and cut them out, while a couple use online tools. The mode is up to them- the products are anything but monotonous. Once their creature is molded to their liking students provide it with a name.

The last part of this process is writing about the emergence of this creature. Students must write a response explaining how this character came about. They must also explain what each animal part represents and provide an example of how the character displayed that characteristic from the story.

Students infer, demonstrate an understanding of characterization, find text evidence, and hone their writing skills without even blinking an eye! This activity could be used for any novel or text.

When students are provided hands on learning opportunities ownership surfaces, creativity flows, and engagement prospers.

September Snapshot: Embracing Disruption

Homecoming week- a week of fun as recent alumni return home and current students sit in class, dreamy-eyed about a Friday pep rally to cheer on the greatest achievements of the school and our undefeated football team. The sugar plums dancing for a school dance on Saturday evening as fingers tap to the anticipated tunes that will fill the gymnasium with a liveliness only school dances can bring.

Though teachers look towards this potentially disruptive week with a sense of uncertainty and trepidation, I decided to approach this week with an aura of comradery with my students. Just like most of you in this boat, I understand the weaknesses that our students succumb to when the change in routine hits them. They are antsy, a tad rowdy, and less likely to fully pay attention. They look doe-eyed at you when you try to get them to focus on the deeper meanings in your lesson and you know instinctively, that when Monday comes around, you are rehashing Friday’s materials when they are better equip to handle learning.

So I embraced the spirit of homecoming week with a review football game on our hectic schedule. The class is split into two teams and are asked to create a “playbook” order. Each student receives a number and it is that order that they answer questions. When a team has the ball, they can choose to try to move 5, 10, or 20 yards. The questions they get are progressively harder based on the yardage they want to go. If the student gets the question right, I move their pawn piece across the projected football field (but if I catch a teammate trying to give them an answer, it is an illegal move and automatic loss of 5 yards).

The students have to try to make it across the football field into the goal line for 6 pts (there are no extra points for my game). If a team gets two questions wrong while trying to get their first down, it is a turnover on the down and the ball moves to the other team. If a teammate gets an answer wrong and the next question has not been given, the next player on the other team is allowed to stand up and shout the answer proudly. If it is correct, they can get an interception and the ball moves to the other team.

The kids have a blast playing a game on a Friday morning when they are still groggy and they love playing a game when the pep rally is getting closer (even if it seems achingly slow). And, in all honesty, I figured, why fight it? Why fight the inevitable loss of attention I will have from a number of students? This way, I know that my students are engaged and I can estimate their knowledge at this point in time. They feel like they are not doing anything and I feel like they are using their memory banks. Honestly, a win-win situation to me!

September Snapshot: The English Language Development Chameleon

So far this year I have jumped in enthusiastically to an improv game called “Bunny, Bunny” in an 8th grade class. This game encourages students to work as a team as they pass the words, “Bunny, Bunny” around, while standing in a circle.  The class kept erupting into laughter as another component of the game is to keep the rhythm going by chanting, “Goocha, goocha,” continuously. Then, I was off to a fairly new teacher’s classroom, who was sternly reviewing the rules of the class with a Powerpoint. I shed my “Bunny, Bunny” demeanor, stood up straight and donned a serious face to show support for my new colleague. Next, I went to a seasoned 4th and 5th grade teacher’s room and sat down with a table of students who were cutting out emojis that represented their identities. I relaxed into the seat and talked to the students informally about the choices they were making.

As an English language development teacher (previously known as ESL teacher), I don’t really run the show during the first weeks of school. It is a time for me to observe and notice as much as I can about the students and teachers with whom I will be working. As I move from classroom to classroom I adapt to the environment that the general education teacher has established for the start of the school year.  Until my caseload is finalized and I have some time to co-plan with teachers, this is my role and I believe it helps all the students to view me as a positive and natural part of their classroom community. That way when I begin to focus on the multilingual students to develop their language skills, they are not stigmatized and their classmates feel comfortable coming to me for guidance as well.

From the Classroom: Student Leadership Opportunities During Mini-lessons, Book Talks, and Quick Writes

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

8th Grade English

Over the last few years, my students and I have experimented with using independent reading books as individualized mentor texts. While students studied their books individually or in small groups, I wanted the entire class to benefit from the rich examples of word choice, conventions, style, and craft. I also wanted to highlight exemplar student writing.

What I Did

From October 2018 to December 2018, I invited students to help teach mini-lessons based on their individualized mentor texts and writing pieces. When deciding what skill to teach when, I considered several factors: students’ writing needs and strengths, their Self-Selected Writing Pieces, upcoming whole-class genre and novel studies, and curriculum requirements. As I read student drafts and conducted one-on-one conferences, I noticed techniques that would benefit the entire class. Occasionally, students volunteered a specific skill that they wanted to share.

After asking students to present, I met with them as a small group to practice what we would say and decide who would read the mentor texts. These pre-meetings took place during independent reading or writing time.

During the co-led lessons, each student shared an excerpt from their book and talked through their observations. If a student used the technique, then they discussed their example and writing process. Usually, two or more students taught the mini-lesson with me. As students presented, I helped explain the technique and provided the examples for the class on our Learning Management System (LMS).

Below are two examples of co-led, student-teacher mini-lessons from last year. All names are pseudonyms.

In early October, repetition emerged in my students’ writing pieces, so I asked them to co-teach a mini-lesson with me. During our sixth period class, Emily shared how she repeated “I’ll come back for you” three times with the font getting smaller to mimic the father leaving his daughter. She wrote, “My mind flashed back to Papa’s words, ‘I’ll come back for you . . . I’ll come back for you . . . I’ll come back for you.’ I remember him fading farther and farther away from me, until his voice disappeared into the darkness.” She wanted the visual to help her reader hear a fainter and fainter voice. Next, Elsa included repetition to emphasize a scary scene in her story: the moment a Nazi soldier captures the main character’s sister. She hoped the reader would feel the intensity as the crunching leaves got “louder. Louder. LOUDER.”

In seventh period, Jack employed repetition to emphasize the impact of his character losing an important object: “Oh no. No No No NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! Where is it? I swear I put it right here! Where is it?!” For Pat, he repeated “No mercy” to reveal the struggle his soldiers experienced during the battle in his sci-fi story: “‘Get to the guns. No mercy,’ he says. We run forward, hopping into the seats, powering on the cannons. I hear a loud boom then a scream. . . . The words no mercy ring in my mind. No mercy, no mercy, no mercy.” For these students, repetition established voice and emphasized specific moments. By sharing their craft moves with the class, they took on leadership roles, increased their confidence, and served as writing role models for their classmates.

Then, at the beginning of November, I asked students to observe the em dash in their independent reading books. Three weeks later, I approached a number of students who had experimented with the technique in their writing and located the em dash in their books. Ten students participated in the co-led mini-lesson (four in one class and 6 in another). The students shared their examples and explained whether their em dash cut off dialogue, interrupted an idea, accentuated a point, or replaced a comma. Sam read the following example from This is Where it Ends, “The silence from the auditorium is tense and loaded. Except it’s not silence. All around me there are sobs, prayers, and curses—friends are trying to calm each other” (Nijakamp 62). From Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Brad added, “‘I heard you speaking Parseltongue,’ said Ron. ‘Snake language. You could have been saying anything—no wonder Justin panicked, you sounded like you were egging the snake on or something—it was creepy—you know’” (Rowling 196). All the examples were available for the class to review on our LMS. After the mini-lesson, the class worked in groups to practice adding em dashes to their own writing. The student presenters acted as leaders within their small groups, guiding their peers’ writing process.  

My Plan

These co-led, student-teacher lessons prompted my students to take a front-row seat in sharing their writerly observations and explaining their writing process. Overall, these lessons and procedures proved successful, but I wanted to increase the number of co-led mini-lessons while streamlining the collection of student writing and mentor texts. I also wanted a way to collect titles for book talks and excerpts for quick writes.

Step 1: For the 2019-2020 school year, I am in the process of creating an assignment that will ask students to submit text excerpts for mini-lessons, book talks, and quick writes.  They will collect and post their observations by the last day of each month in our LMS. Students will submit in one of the following four categories:

  1. Independent reading book mentor text excerpt
  2. Student writing mentor text excerpt
  3. Independent reading book excerpt for quick writing
  4. Independent reading book for a book talk

Step 2: During the month of September, students read like writers, completed quick writes, and listened to book talks. We also reviewed MLA In-Text Citation and Works Cited. The first monthly assignment will launch in October and be due on October 31st. Students will be able to submit their work during class or at home. If they find more than one excerpt, technique, or book that they wish to share, they may do so.

Step 3: Each month students will submit a reflective assignment that includes:

  1. The category they chose
  2. The except from the text or their writing (either typed or a picture)
  3. The reason (specific technique, craft move, idea) why they selected the book and excerpt
  4. Works Cited

Step 4: As students share their work, I will schedule the mini-lessons, book talks, and quick writes as they fit into our Writing-Reading Workshop. I will approach students a few days before their lesson to review their assignment submission and prepare them for their book talk, quick write, or co-led lesson.

Step 5: Before the selected students present their findings to the class, I will upload the necessary materials to our LMS. Depending on the mini-lesson’s content and the class’s ability, the co-led mini-lesson will require varying levels of teacher support. Students will be able to present their book talks and quick writes independently.     

Next Steps

I am excited to see where this new initiative leads. The LMS should streamline my ability to collect student work. The assignment puts more onus on my students because they submit their mini-lesson, book talk, and quick write ideas. As they assume these new leadership roles within our workshop, I hope it builds confidence in their abilities and offers opportunities for peer collaboration. I will continue to model successful book talks and quick writes as well as share texts that foster their abilities to read like writers.

If you have tried something similar or have questions, please share your thoughts below. I would love to hear from you! Take care for now and have a great school year!