Charming Gardeners

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With Thanksgiving comes reflection, and this year my thinking was informed by French novelist Marcel Proust: “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” And while my family most of the time naturally brings me a world of happiness, as do my friends, there are quite a few “charming gardeners” in and around my classroom.  

First, the disclaimers. I am not a doe-eyed, fresh-out-of-grad-school teacher out to change the world. My eyes were never doe-like, and my Myers-Briggs type told me that changing the world was simply impractical. On the contrary, I am an old a seasoned teacher who still finds joy in what happens after the bell sounds. That alone (well, that and my kids’ future college tuition bills) tells me that I’m not ready to move on just yet.

Instead, I find myself reflecting on those who have made my soul blossom. Here are just a few* of the charming gardeners who have contributed to my field. 

TILL.  Jenn was in my class last year. The day after her state test scores arrived this fall, she swung by to thank me. If you aren’t in education, you might not fully grasp the magnitude of this.  But in almost twenty years, I can count on one hand how many students have done this. While I know there are a myriad of factors that played into her increased scores, the fact that she took time out of her day to say “thank you” absolutely made my soul blossom. 

DIGAfter hearing about how much choice-reading Kayla would be allowed to do this year, she asked, “But what if next year’s teacher doesn’t let me? What if it goes right back to nightly chapter reading and reading check quizzes and multiple choice tests and [insert gasp] even busywork?” (Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild addresses this very question.) I told Kayla that next year most likely will look a lot different–and that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love the autonomy in teaching: We are all tasked with teaching the same skills but approach the teaching of them differently. I am thankful that Kayla is excited about this year but also that her instruction looked different last year and will look different again next year.

PLANT.  When I started Project Classroom Library last year, David asked, “Why are you buying all of this stuff?” When I seemed confused, he clarified, “I mean, no offense, but why are you buying all of this stuff with your own moneyfor us?”  I explained that the classroom library was my personal goal and not the district’s goal. Building this classroom library was something I wanted to do–but it came at a cost. And I am thankful David recognized that.  

WATER. John is a colleague with whom I work, off of whom I bounce ideas, and from whom I openly accept feedback. He leads as an educator first and remains immersed in the classroom. Refreshingly, he knows the struggles and triumphs that I face on a daily basis because he is in the trenches right alongside me. He also has read–and taken to heart–the same literacy texts that I have and knows the importance of creating authentic, lifelong readers. None of this would have been possible without John’s tolerance support of my educational risk-taking. He keeps me grounded, for which I am incredibly thankful.

HARVEST. Ella Wheeler Wilcox reminds us that “with every deed you are sowing a seed, though the harvest you may not see.” And because we teachers only have a 180-day sowing season, we won’t be privy to all of the greatness our students will actualize.  However, I am thankful for them today.

And I can only hope they’ll have books on their nightstands tomorrow.

*All names have been changed to protect the fabulous.

 

 

 

 

The Classroom Library (Yes, Even in HS!)

 

Classroom Library
I’m officially the Crazy Cat Lady–but with books.

My husband says I work for free–although, if we’re counting this past year, I may have actually paid to come to work. The reason? You’re looking at it: the classroom library.

After being inspired by the likes of Kelly Gallagher (Readicide), Penny Kittle (Book Love), and Donalyn Miller (The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild), a colleague and I set out to reintroduce our students to the love of reading. The three biggest paradigm shifts included allowing our students to read anything during the opening ten minutes of class (every day), letting the students choose at least 50% of their texts throughout the year, and, in my case, surrounding my students with books. Lots and lots of books.

We have a fully functioning school library nearby, and our media specialist enthusiastically supports the literacy work we are doing in our classes. Both libraries function in tandem, but in the same way that the ELA teacher could never recreate the magic of a full media center, the full media center could never do some of the things that a classroom library can. Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s  Edutopia piece affirms this notion.

I believe that a classroom library is the heartbeat of a teacher’s environment. It is the window into an educator’s own personality, and it reflects the importance of literacy in the classroom. I believe that every teacher — no matter what subject he or she teaches — should have one.

And I couldn’t agree more. So, last year, as I awkwardly clamored my way onto the shoulders of giants, I began building my library. After all, I want to convey to my students that reading is the absolute most important thing we will do together all year. Plus, countless studies have shown that reading will more effectively improve my students’ reading, writing, vocabulary, communication, and usage skills–and more so than any kill-and-drill worksheet or warm-up exercise ever will.  (The ten minutes of reading alone exposes these readers to approximately 1,000,000 words in a year, and they are more apt to return to their books later in the day–exposing them to even more words, because “Ms. Hughes always stops us right at the good part!” Keep in mind, these are the same students who have fake-read their way through much of middle and high school.) What better way to sound this message than to surround my students with books?

It started with a handful of books from home that I placed on a lonely bookcase, and it has exploded into twelve bookcases (which I found at second-hand stores and on Craig’s List) that house over 2,400 books! While some of these texts were generously donated (including 100 titles from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation grant), 95% of them came from library sales, Amazon, eBay, and second-hand shops. (And if you’re trying to do the math, I’ll tell you what I tell my husband: “Let’s not ruin a good night.”) The texts are arranged alphabetically by genre, and are organized and signed out to the students via Booksource.  Seeing what my students are reading–whether it is via Booksource or Goodreads–allows me to perform what Teri Lesesne considers the educator’s most important job:  “leading our students from where they are [as readers] to where we’d like them to be.”

The result? Every student last year read more books during the school year than they ever had!

Every. Single. Student.

While it wasn’t entirely due to the classroom library, many students shared in their exit interviews that the classroom library indeed played a role. It was impossible, they said, not to find something engaging to read. (They realized they didn’t dislike reading; they just disliked how we teachers have been assigning it over the years.) And for those reluctant readers–who would never grace the doors of a library, having a collection of differentiated texts within arm’s reach made all of the difference.

Every student learned to become a reader last year–even if it was just during English class with the Crazy Book Lady.

That’s a pretty great start.