a quote from my favorite author

“The most solid advice, though, for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

-William Saroyan, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lessons from a Book Stack

Reading Ruth’s post today about the books in stacks around her house made me think of my own book stacks.  Just like Ruth, I have multiple book stacks around my house.  However, unlike Ruth, the stacks in my house all belong to one person: yours truly.

The first stack contains the books I have gathered as resources for my latest lesson planning.  I plan to pull some excerpts from these books for my 9th hour class.

The second stack is a tower of the books I recently purchased from Scholastic and Amazon.  These are books I want to read/review as quickly as possible and get them to my classroom shelves.   

The third stack is the stack I really savor.  These are the latest professional resource books I’ve gotten my hands on or started utilizing.  Most are books I purchased, but the Nancie Atwell DVDs are only in my possession for the weekend.  These DVDs were filmed the school year following my internship at CTL.  So, not only are they an incredible resource for middle school language arts, but they are also a personal reminder of the amazing 4 days I spent learning firsthand from Nancie Atwell herself.  I recognize many of the students in her class, who were in 6th and 7th grade the year I was there, which adds an element of familiarity beyond the connection to the physical space.

I started my weekend with Reading in the Middle.  Before moving on to Writing in the Middle, I stopped to reflect to avoid becoming saturated with ideas and inspiration.  By writing my reflections, I found I had a lot more in head than I had initially realized.  Here they are in raw form:

·      The list of what Nancie accomplishes when she conferences with students during reading on a daily basis is impressive.  I have these same kinds of conversations.  I need a method of documenting this—a way of showing others (students, parents, administrators, colleagues) how intentional these conversations are.

·      There is a lot of power in the booktalks that Nancie’s 8th graders do for the 7th graders.  Although I cannot use this technique in my own classroom, we could do this as a school.  My 8th graders would love to booktalk to the 6th and 7th graders.  I could also have students do video booktalks to be shared with next year’s students.

·      I have not paid much attention to her rating system of 1-10.  I love the idea of using this for shared reading, so that students have a frame of reference for themselves.  I think it would help remind them to hold on to these pieces.

·      I still want to work towards the self-assessment Atwell-style portfolio.  I still believe this is the best form of assessment.   I want to find a way to utilize it.

·      I did not want to spend instructional minutes on organizational tasks at the beginning of the year because so many visitors were popping in.  However, these tools are necessary and I need to stop now, go back, and put in place: Individual Reading Records, Individual Writing Records, maybe even a system to keep track of in the meantime writing, and Booktalk sign ups.

·      I liked the idea of doing two poems that illustrate the same point as the shared reading and allowing students to choose one to read closely.  This lends repetition of the same point without feeling overwhelming to the students.

·      I have a lot of the books Atwell has in her classroom library.  Her students read lots of young adult literature, some of what she calls “transitional” literature (more like grown-up literature with young adult characters or themes), and a small amount of grown-up and/or classic literature.  I would like to make a goal for my honors students that they fall in love with at least one classic this year (on their own).  My goal is to booktalk and share the classics I love this year, starting with my honors class and working towards a comfort level where I would be comfortable extending these expectations to all students.

·      It is difficult to see a “perfect” example of the way things should work in a classroom.  I want to achieve that.  We all want to achieve that.  It is tough to stay focused on what we are capable of changing and improving in the face of so much that is out of our control.  It is easy to think, “I am a failure.  I am not smart enough to do what Atwell does.  I don’t have the time to do what Atwell does.  My students aren’t like those kids.  The conditions of the system in which I work does not allow me to be successful by implementing Atwell’s ideas.”  However, it is necessary to move forward in this direction—to work towards a successful workshop approach to teaching reading.  Our students’ futures depend on it.  We can get a lot closer to an Atwell-style classroom than we think we can.

·      I belong in middle school language arts.  It is not easy.  It is not always rewarding.  But it is where my heart is, and it is what I want to be doing.  To stay here, I need to get better at documenting what I believe works so that I can make it visible to administrators who need to see that it works.  I need to make more time to collaborate with people who could help me do that.


  1. It's weekend and you are reading PD books and reflecting on your teaching practice. You are passionate about learning, teaching, and your students. I hope that your administrators, colleagues, students and parents know and appreciate it. I am thankful that you share your thinking with your blog readers. I hope that you will find a like-minded teacher at your school and two of you can create a power-team to improve student learning and help each other to achieve your dreams.

  2. It's the time for me to visit as you know, but I'll reply more later-much to think about!

  3. I wish we could sit down to have a nice long talk! It's wonderful to hear about your thinking with Atwell. She and Lucy Calkins have been such an influence in my teaching. What a thought-filled post this is, and the next one. I don't know what your exact circumstances are, but I've always had my students keep their own reading and writing records. I kept a small file box with a folder for each student where they accessed them as needed. I like the idea about booktalks from older to younger. We did those as a class and I had 6th through 8th in one class, drew names as to who went first, etc. Love hearing all you have to say!

  4. I usually have my students keep reading and writing records on forms in a folder. However, I skipped over some of my usual "housekeeping" at the start of this year. There is just so much pressure to have a learning target for every second and so many people were coming to observe so early in the year that it felt like we had to just jump in. I am regretting abandoning practices that I believe in. I am determined to set things right! Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement. It would be wonderful to get to talk to you about teaching! I am so grateful for even this blogosphere connection to remind me I am not alone and to push my thinking forward!

  5. Your last book stack of professional books looks a lot like mine. Don't you just love Kate's new book on revision. Here website is great too.