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September Snapshot: Shared Reading to Build Community

As many elementary teachers know, a shared read aloud can be an effective way to set a positive and welcoming tone in the beginning of the school year. For many years, the first shared read aloud in my class was the course syllabus. I would pass out the copies of the syllabus and highlight the most important points, often to a room of blank or confused expressions staring back at me. This did little to set a positive and welcoming tone.

While it’s no doubt important to establish expectations for the course, building a sense of community—finding ways to communicate to students that they are seen and valued—is perhaps the most important thing and, really, the only thing we need to do in those opening days. Reading off a list of rules on the opening day also sends students the message about whose voice is valued (the teacher’s) and establishes a power dynamic that prioritizes what a teacher wants versus what students need. Consider the difference between a teacher reading a syllabus and teachers and students unpacking a shared reading: the former tells students, I will tell you what we will do while the latter communicates, Let’s read and learn about something together.

Two shared texts that I’ve found particularly useful in my classroom are Clint Smith’s TED Talk, “The Danger of Silence” and Dr. Margaret Wheatley’s essay, “Willing to be Disturbed.” Because we will likely discuss some contentious or controversial issues over the year, I begin the with both of these texts as a way to remind students to keep an open mind when engaging critically in issues with multiple perspectives.

The Danger of Silence


In Smith’s TED Talk, he outlines four core principles for students that he believes are necessary in today’s world:

  1. Read critically.
  2. Write consciously.
  3. Speak clearly.
  4. Tell your truth.

We watch the TED Talk in class and then discuss these principles. I ask students to write individually about what they think each of these principles mean. We then compile our ideas using sticky notes and large poster paper for each principle (Figure 3.8). After a gallery walk to view the posters, students return to their seats to write again; this time, I ask them to reflect on what they’ve read and to write a personal commitment to themselves about how they might abide by these principles. I also post these four principles on the wall in my classroom so that we can return to them throughout the year.

“Willing to be Disturbed”

In this essay, Dr. Wheatley argues that in order to foster a more civil discourse in our society, we need to start from the position of being open to being disturbed — in other words, to listen to the opinions of others with whom we disagree, even profoundly.

Before we read the essay, I first ask students to consider the denotations and connotations of the word disturbed. We brainstorm synonyms, and as you might expect, most students conclude that the word is negative, especially in the contexts that are most familiar to them such as “disturbing the peace” or “mentally disturbed.” We discuss how each of these instances prioritizes maintaining the status quo or what is considered “normal.” I then ask students to consider contexts or situations that might need to be disturbed: When might the status quo be harmful? When is disturbing the peace necessary? Why?

We then read aloud Dr. Wheatley’s essay as a class, with every student reading one sentence at a time. This shared experience not only allows all student voices to be heard, but my hope is that reading the words aloud, students may begin to internalize some of its key points. Students read it a second time quietly to themselves, this time marking the text for the lines that stood out to them as particularly powerful. Each student shares one line they found powerful so that we are able to hear what has resonated.

Here are just a few of the lines that students often choose:

Curiosity is what we need.

We do need to acknowledge that their way of interpreting the world might be essential to our survival.

When so many interpretations are available, I can’t understand why we would be satisfied with superficial conversations where we pretend to agree with one another.

But when I notice what surprises me, I’m able to see my own views more dearly, including my beliefs and assumptions.

When I hear myself saying, “How could anyone believe something like that?” a light comes on for me to see my own beliefs.

But the greatest benefit of all is that listening moves us closer.

We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused.

The beauty of using a shared text like “Willing to be Disturbed” and “The Danger of Silence” is that they become touchstones that we can return to throughout the year. When we begin our formal study on argument or when I know that we’ll be discussing an issue that is particularly contentious, I remind students of these texts and our shared understanding that we need to be “willing to be disturbed” if we are to “read critically, write consciously, speak clearly, and tell our truth.”

What other types of read aloud can middle and high school teachers use? Consider the type of community you want to build in your classroom and the issues or content you’ll discuss. What attitudes or dispositions will be necessary for students to be prepared to engage in those conversations? Is there a line of inquiry or essential question that drives the course you’re teaching? Then find a brief text—something that can be unpacked during a single class period or two—that invites students to think about these ideas and their application to learning.

September Snapshot: For the Love of Literacy

by Eileen Hutchinson

To instill a spark for wondrous words and lifelong learning, I READ.

To seek the truth and secrets that swim my in the pool of my soul, I WRITE.

To learning something new every day, I LIVE.

      As a passionate (K-5) reading specialist at East Bradford Elementary in the West Chester Area School District, I service all grade levels including English Language Learners and Title 1 students. After weeks of assessments and data meetings, groups are created based upon strengths and needs. My ultimate goal is for all my readers to make increased gains based on working their personal BEST. Mindful learning practices, with positive mantras, goal setting, brain breaks, or focus breathing are assimilated into lessons for productivity. 

     As I launch my groups in late September, I really work hard to build trust and community by fostering reading identity. For each grade level, I carefully select poems, songs, mentor texts, and quick writes to reflect on literacy attitudes and habits. For some groups, bi-lingual poems and twin texts are utilized to honor and celebrate diverse languages. Interactive read alouds, word play maps, poem chants, and meaningful text discussions facilitated by me are integrated to stem quality thinking for varied literacy purposes. Listed below are the mentor texts and prompts I employ at each grade level.  Below is the reading motto/mantra I post in my classroom.                          

Today I will:

Be an active reader with a great learning attitude

Do my personal BEST as a mindful thinker and problem solver!

Read to Succeed!!

Grade Text Quick Write/Writing Prompt
     KHedgie Loves to Read  
Douglas Wood
Chicka, Chicka, Boom! Boom!                                           Bill Martin, Jr.
This is ME
Self portrait/
Name Writing
     1Yes, I Can!  
Sam Mc Bratney
Bucket Filler poem
Yes, I Can….
I  fill a  bucket when I
     2I am the Book
Lee Bennett Hopkins     
I love _______books that…..                 Readers can….
     3Wild About Books
Judy Sierra
Hey, World Here I Am  
Jean Little
When I read a book,                      Today I will….
Peter Catalanotto
What is a book? (poem)
Book is…
Come, Come Reader….
     5 Song-This Is Me 
*The Greatest ShowmanSong
I Live– One Republic
I AM (Bio poem)       Reasons Why I Read/
Why I Write

**Stay tune for student pieces-I will gladly post in a few weeks, once I complete these literacy launch prompts!!

September Snapshot: Building Community Expectations

The start of the school year is always filled with community building and “getting to know you” activities.  They are critical to establishing a rapport among students and teachers and are a great way to ease into the new year.  Along with the fun and games, many classrooms also want to start with routines and procedures- including those very important classroom rules! While it is very easy to make a list of rules and expectations or purchase a ready-made poster with classroom rules and hang it on the wall before the students arrive on the first day, consider the impact of allowing students to create those rules together.

To think about the way we wanted our second grade classroom to function, my students and I began by reading a lot of books. img_2660

The titles shown address our differences as people, the desire to create a welcome environment, and some silly stories about the beginning of the school year and the chaos that could ensue if everyone just did whatever they want.  These stories invited a lot of conversation about what it means to be a part of a classroom community and how to craft our beliefs so that we can be safe, happy, and successful throughout our day.  Instead of creating an endless list of rules that begin with “No ______” we thought about what we believe and how to demonstrate those beliefs.

This is what we ultimately decided:


This has become our class creed- and we review it every morning and refer to it if there is a defugalty during the day.  Because the students had a hand in creating the document, it is more meaningful to them and they are invested in making our community a nice place to live for the next 180 days.

From the Classroom – Celebrate Banned Books

Want to get your students fired up about books? Get them talking about banned books!

In honor of banned books week, I invited by students to take a closer look at some of the books that made it to this year’s list of the most challenged and banned books. This resulted in a vibrant and at times even heated discussion.

To start, I asked students to partner up and choose from a display of books that had either been challenged or banned in the last year. But before I released students to select their titles, we discussed the difference between these two terms together as a class. Once students realized the books on the back table were there because someone thought they were inappropriate for them to read, they were practically jumping out of their seats to make their selections.

On dry erase boards, they worked together in pairs to quickly use their book selection strategies to investigate the book and make a list of guesses about why it might be challenged. Guesses were surprisingly accurate and included reasons like bad language, racism, inappropriate pictures, and gay characters.

In an effort to provide some background on the issue, we read a recent article about the topic titled “Banned Books: Librarians Push Back Against Censorship“. As we read, I asked students to annotate the text according to what surprised, confused, challenged, or confirmed their thinking. We then discussed some of their key takeaways from the article: 1. parents are the ones challenging books, not teens 2. most challenges are because adults think real life issues like LGBTQ topics and racism are inappropriate for teens to read about 3. some books get banned without anyone even knowing about it. As we noted these takeaways the noise level in the room continued to increase because students couldn’t help but comment on how unfair or ridiculous they thought it was. One student even asked if we could hold a class-wide debate on the issue.

Finally, I capitalized on the incensed enthusiasm and asked students to join their librarians in pushing back against censorship. Students returned to the books they selected at the start of class and used a Marshall University website to research the actual reasons those books were challenged by adults as inappropriate for students to read. Then they came up with their own list of reasons why teenagers should read those books anyway. This week, their assignment is to put those reasons to read the banned book out there in the world in some way – create a social media post, a poster, a letter, etc. I am excited to see what they come up with.

How do you celebrate banned books week with your students?

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.