The power of a positive phone call

This week my students wrote an essay in which they argued that they should be allowed to chew gum in school.  They had to pull evidence from a pair of articles that I provided from CNN and The Guardian.  Argument writing has been our focus this quarter, and with the quarter winding down, I wanted to see how well they could craft an argument on their own.

One student in particular did a phenomenal job of creating a well-organized essay, which is such an accomplishment for her because she entered my 7th grade class reading at a 3rd grade level. For her to be able to complete this task is nothing short of huge. I had to pass this information along to her mother.  Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: I wanted to let you know how proud I am of Nakia for her work on her argumentative essay this week.  She worked really hard, and she put together a great piece of writing that used several pieces of strong supporting evidence that supported her claim.

Parent: Uh-huh.

Me: I’m just so proud of how much growth she has shown this year as both a reader and writer.

Parent: So…this is a good call?

Me: Yes!  Definitely a good call.

Parent: Oh, that’s so nice to hear! I thought maybe she hadn’t gotten something done in class.

Me: No, no, no. She’s doing fine.

Parent: That’s really nice to hear.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.  I try my best to call home whenever students reach milestones in my class, whether they finish a book, write an amazing essay or just improve upon their behavior.  For the most part, these calls are met with uncertainty because the parents at my school generally assume that if they are getting a call from the school, their child has done something wrong.

Now, I make my fair share of parent phone calls home when my students aren’t meeting my expectations, either academically or behaviorally. I’m sure, like most teachers, I make way more phone calls home of this variety.  The student that disrupts the learning environment in my room is going to get a call home that day; the other twenty-something kids who come to class and attempt to do everything I ask of them will not.  Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to call all of our student’s parents regularly to discuss positives or negatives.  It just isn’t happening. But we must make time to have those positive discussions with parents when their children are succeeding at school.  Here’s why:

Positive phone calls build currency with students

Teaching is all about relationships. Teachers that have strong relationships with their students are going to have classes where those students are engaged and ready to take the academic risks that are necessary for true learning to occur.  Making a good call home for a student when it is warranted is an important step in cultivating that teacher-student relationship.  It rewards the student for his or her accomplishment, and it shows the student that you value that accomplishment so much that you wanted to share the good news with someone at home.  Students will work hard for that sort of praise.  Plus, a teacher that makes a positive phone call home for a student now has currency that he or she can use when they might have to make a phone call home to discuss a transgression.  Students, like their parents, naturally presume that a call home means that they’ve done something wrong.  When a student knows that his or her teacher calls home to discuss both the good and the bad, that student will see that their teacher is invested in them.

Positive phone calls improve parent-teacher relationships

Being a parent of a student who struggles at school has to be difficult.  Getting phone calls to discuss poor grades or behavioral shortcomings cannot be easy.  As teachers, we all have those students that are regularly not meeting the expectations of our classroom, and if you are like me, you spend a decent amount of time on the phone with those parents. I believe it’s critical to make parents aware of what their child is doing in my class when that child is not performing well.  If I were the parent of that child, I’d want to know.  However, having these discussions is not a simple process because emotions are involved.  Whenever I call home to let a parent know that his or her child had a slip-up behaviorally or academically, I am cognizant of the fact that I am speaking to someone who loves this student for better or worse.

However, when I make a genuine positive phone call home for those same struggling students, it begins to change the narrative of my relationship with that parent. They see that I am not just another teacher that focuses on all of the negative attributes of their child. Those positive phone calls show those parents that I celebrate the positive contributions that their child is making to the class as well, and that communication can be transformative.  The parent sees that I am observing their child fairly.  They know that I care about their child’s well-being.  It’s a big step in fostering a relationship with that parent that says to their child that the parent and I are on the same team.


Helping students master argumentative writing

On Friday I was in a professional development session, and the speaker asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves by saying our name, what book we are currently reading and a recent success from the classroom.  I shared that this quarter my students are working on argumentative writing, and I have been pleased with the progress that they are making in being able to explain their reasoning when using text evidence and details their responses.

By the time the students get to me in 7th grade, they are decent enough at finding relevant text evidence when I present them with a text-dependent question.  Where they struggle is being able to explain to the reader how their evidence relates to their ideas.  At the beginning of the year, most of the responses that I get from students on questions that require text evidence usually JUST include the quote from the book or article that we are reading; for the most part, they do not make an attempt to connect that evidence to their topic sentence or claim.

However, my students are now working through that step, and they are showing me in their writing that they understand why they are using the evidence or details that they have selected, and how that evidence supports their ideas and thought process.

I use an argumentative writing model called CSET that I learned in a professional development training at the beginning of the previous school year.  The (C) stands for the claim that that student is trying to make.  The set-up (S) shows the reader where the information is coming from, whether it’s a book, article, movie, etc.  Examples of set ups that I provide my students are:

  • “Article Title” says that…
  • <Author> said that…
  • <Author> reveals that…

The evidence (E) is just that, evidence that the student is using to support his or her claim in the topic sentence.  The last part, the tie-in (T), is the hardest piece for students to master.  This is the part of the paragraph where students have to show me that they understand how their evidence connects and supports their reason(s).  I usually give the kids the following sentence frames to use in their tie-in sentences:

  • Generally, when people…
  • Usually, when people…
  • If people…

I instruct them to use this sentence to show how their evidence supports their claim, and how this is true not just in this one instance, but across a broader societal spectrum.

The first time I teach the kids CSET, I use the following cartoon:


My students and I will co-construct a CSET that answers the following question: How does Slylock know that Shady Shrew is lying? 

I have done this activity with students several times now, so I cannot remember the exact CSET that my students and I put together this year, but it generally looks something like this:

(C) Shady Shrew is definitely lying.  (S) In the cartoon, (E) there is water on the table from a glass that got knocked over. (T) If someone had been gone for three weeks, then that water would have already evaporated; he couldn’t have been away on vacation that long because the water is still there.

Once the kids have the model above to reference, I have them create another CSET using a really short passage.  My students were not amazing CSET writers right off the bat.  They struggled with the tie-in piece because it forces them to think critically about why they are using the evidence that they are using.  But through repetition and practice, they are getting better and so is their writing.

As my students master this concept, I can push them to include multiple pieces of evidence in a paragraph.  Or, if I want them to produce a longer piece of writing – I just tell them to come up with several reasons and write multiple CSETs.

Argumentative writing can be tricky for our students, especially that critical portion where they have to connect the evidence they are using to their claims.  The CSET format gives students a model that helps them convey their thought process and reasoning in an academic fashion.

The first 10 minutes of class

I realize how cliché this statement sounds, but I’m trying to write more this year about my classroom experiences.  I know that writing more will improve my writing, which is an obvious plus.  And I’m an English Language Arts teacher, so I should be practicing what I preach and writing on a semi-regular basis.  But more importantly, I don’t want to forget all the wonderful things that go on inside my classroom daily, and this seems like a decent way of preventing that from happening.  So without further adieu, here are my highlights thus far from 2018:

The first 10 minutes

I’m a firm believer that students need time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I’ve been implementing this approach to literacy for over 3 years now, basically from the moment I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  For the past two years (and half of this year), I’ve always blocked out several work sessions a week to allow the students 15 to 20 minutes of unobstructed time to read a self-selected book.  The problem that I’ve wrestled with for some time, though, is that there is never enough time to do all the things that I need to do with the kids.  They can’t just read their own books; we have to have mentor texts that we can use together so that the students can work in small groups to practice all the skills that go along with being a good reader (making inferences, learning new vocabulary, recognizing and understanding point of view, explaining how setting affects both the characters and the plot, conflict, etc., etc., etc.).  If I give them two to three days a week to read their own books, then that only leaves a couple of days to work on all those aforementioned skills. Oh, and I have to teach them how to write the following genres: narrative, explanatory and argumentative.  There just isn’t enough time. I always feel like I’m taking away from something else, and that makes me feel guilty as hell as their teacher.

This week, though, I stumbled upon a podcast called Teach Me, Teacher that offered me a solution to my aforementioned problem: read at the beginning of class.  In the first episode that I listened to, the host, Jacob Chastain, interviewed THE Donalyn Miller, and he divulged to her that he has his kids reading from their self-selected texts for the first 15 minutes of every class.  Chastain claimed that using this opening portion of the class actually helped him to reduce wasted time in his lessons because his students were on task as soon as they walked into the room. His class periods are slightly longer than mine, so I couldn’t reconcile using 15 minutes, but this week I started off all my classes with 10 minutes of independent reading time followed by a “Status of the Class” update and a short reading response in their journals.  Then we moved into whatever skill I wanted to cover that day using either a newspaper article or our class novel.

I’ve only been implementing this strategy for a week, but so far I am loving it.  The kids know that as soon as they come into the room they are to find the book that they are reading and get to their seat so that when I walk in they are ready to begin.  Historically, I had what we call a “Brain Crank” or “Warm Up” question on the board that the kids are supposed to answer when they come into my room.  Typically, this could be a quote from a book we are reading or something else that requires them to make an inference.  The problem, however, is that I teach 7th graders, and they get very little time to socialize throughout the day other than the two minutes when they are in the hall transitioning to their next class.  So when my students enter my room, they are not all going to be 100% committed to sitting down and starting my warm up question.  Inevitably, several students will not have even remembered to grab their composition notebooks on the way into class. Several more might have managed to get their notebooks, but by the time I enter the room they are still resting closed on their desks.  And generally anywhere from 3 to 10 kids are in need of a pencil, hence, the name of this blog.  By the time all of those issues get resolved, we’re a couple minutes into the lesson and my students are just now attempting to tackle the question.  Four to five minutes later, we go over their responses. All and all, this task can take anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes.

However, the process of getting a book and starting to read limits most of those roadblocks I mentioned above.  Plus, while the kids are reading, I can knock out all the little house-cleaning tasks that teachers have to go through before class can really begin: take attendance, hand out pencils, pass out handouts or articles, etc.  This also gives me a chance to jot down what titles everyone is reading and notice who’s sticking with a book and who’s giving up on what they read the day before (which means I know who I need to talk to ASAP).  I can already tell I am not wasting as much time as I was before when I had the warm up question routine.  My lessons are tighter and the kids are reading more on a daily basis.  Also, they are reading from multiple texts in one lesson period, which helps them to recognize the similarities and differences in content and style that exist across books.  One other perk of this new strategy is that having the students begin a class by reading independently is a great way to chill everybody out, and it sets everything up for a productive lesson.

Mini book club

I have about eight students now spread out amongst my five classes that have read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on their own.  Each of them was frustrated with the ending.  They didn’t understand why the author didn’t provide them with a clear-cut solution that neatly wrapped the story up at the end.  As I alluded to above, middle school students do not have a lot of unstructured time, and nor do the teachers for that matter.  If I were a high school teacher, I wouldn’t have to eat lunch with my students, and I could host small groups to discuss the books that we were reading or that we had recently finished.  Alas, this is not the case for me, but I wanted to get these students together so that they could vent about the book in the same place.  So I snagged them one by one on Friday and brought them into my homeroom and let them go at it, which was awesome!  They all expressed their frustrations with the book’s conclusion, and then looked to me to provide them with some sort of comfort or solution to this transgression by Mr. Reynolds, to which I just shrugged my shoulders (which led to more arguing).  I want these little organic book discussions to happen more amongst my students who have read the same book, and I’m going to make a goal for 2018 to figure out how to make this happen on a more frequent basis.

Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament

Someone that I follow on Twitter last year posted that they hold “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournaments in class to give their students a quick mental break, and I wish I could remember who that person was because I would gladly send them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.  This year, I’ve held regular tournaments in my class, and I have found them utterly delightful.  First off, they take no longer than 3 minutes to complete, assuming you don’t go best 2 out of 3 (even with twenty-something kids in the room).  Second, they get the kids out of their seats for a few minutes, which is always a bonus.  Lastly, they are a refreshing break from the content and they are absolutely hilarious.  I’ve yet to host a tournament that didn’t involve at least one kid that couldn’t seem to grasp that it’s “One, two, three – shoot!”, and after several failed attempts the entire class is usually in stitches.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!



Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.

Three tips to creating an engaging classroom library

I cringe whenever I think back on the pitiful shelf and a half of books that I had in my classroom during my first year of teaching middle school.   I couldn’t even fill up both levels of a small two-shelf bookcase.  The books that I had were castaways that I had hastily grabbed during preplanning from the 7th grade book room.  The titles were dated and unappealing.  There was a reason these books had been collecting dust in a large, glorified closet.  This meager hodgepodge of antiquated literature sat tucked away in the far left corner of my room.  I wouldn’t be surprised if half of my students weren’t even aware it existed.  I was a language arts teacher, yet my book collection looked like the dregs of a yard sale that was coming to an end.  What message did this communicate to my students regarding my relationship with books?  The only excuse that I can offer is that I was a novice teacher.  I have improved my classroom library tremendously since then, however, and it is something that I take great pride in.  It’s the hub of my classroom; the most visited place by all of my students.  Below are my tips on how to create such a space in your classroom:

Actually finding the books

Unfortunately, teachers have to go out of pocket for most of the materials in their classrooms, which includes books.  I have acquired a number of titles in my room via a “Striving Readers Grant” that my school received due to our Title I designation, but most of the books on my shelves (yes, I have more than one now) came out of good ole’ Mr. Smith’s paycheck.  I have, though, found ways to acquire books in a way that still leaves money on the table for things like food, rent, bills, etc.  First, find out when your local library has used book sales as this is a great way to obtain a lot of titles for a low cost.  The library where I live – Athens, Georgia – has two such sales per year, and for $10 patrons can fit as many titles into a box as they can carry.  I’ve gotten loads of popular novels like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Twilight for a fraction of what they might cost new at a Barnes & Noble.  Another great way to get books on the cheap is through AbeBooks and Amazon, though I prefer AbeBooks because it tells you how many copies of the title the seller has in stock, and you can contact the seller to negotiate shipping costs when buying more than one of a book.  I always try to buy more than one copy of each title in case multiple students are interested in it; plus, this can allow student-led book conversations to happen organically both in and out of the classroom.

Choosing books for YOUR students

My school’s student population is just 12% white, yet in my first year at the school 3 of the 4 whole class novels that we read featured white authors and characters.  Nowadays, my students regularly read independently during class, and my library features books by diverse authors such as Jason Reynolds, Sharon Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Pam Munoz Ryan and Ann Jamarillo.  All American Boys was wildly popular amongst many of my African-American boys this year because they said they found both the characters and the dialogue relatable.  The Skin I’m In was passed around by half a dozen African-American girls who told me they shared similar insecurities as the main character, Maleeka, regarding their skin tone.  However, do not assume that just because a student is black or latino that he or she will gravitate to titles featuring characters that resemble themselves.  I had a number of these same students devouring just about any graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier as well as After Ever After by Jordan Sonneblick, a novel that highlights the struggles experienced by two very white 8th grade boys from the suburbs outside of New Jersey.  The best bet is to offer a variety of choices for your students, but make sure that you have books that reflect all the various backgrounds and ethnicities that are present in your classroom.

Helping students choose books

I’m not trying to brag, but I can give a heck of a book talk.  I make dramatic facial expressions and use theatrical body language.  I constantly shift my intonation for effect.   However, no matter how good of a show I put on, it pales in comparison to the feedback that my students receive from their peers.  Each student in my class gets a sticky note that they personalize as their own bookmark.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, sparks a student’s interest in a book more than when they notice that one of their friends is already reading it.  Plus, I can use those bookmarks to help recommend books to students as they finish titles when I know that a friend of his or hers is currently reading it.  Another great way to use peer pressure for the greater good of enhancing student literacy is by having students fill out a quick book review whenever they finish a novel.  I put the reviews in a binder next to the library so that students can use their classmates’ opinions to help guide them through their next book choice.

The summer is a great time for teachers to review and revamp their classroom libraries. Next week, I’ll be discussing how to prioritize independent reading and student choice in the language arts classroom.

We read a lot in Mr. Smith’s class

Hi, my name is Matt. I’m a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, and my classes do not finish our whole class novels together. I can hear the collective groans of my colleagues across the country.   To many Language Arts teachers, not finishing a novel with a class is down right blasphemous; it’s an act of treason against English teachers everywhere. However, if I’m going to prioritize independent reading in my classroom, I had to make a choice: I could read one book in its entirety with 80-something students, or I could have 80-something students reading 80-something books on their own. I went with the latter.

I didn’t just come up with this idea all willy-nilly on my own. Two years ago, I received a copy of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller in a professional learning session at my school. Some of my colleagues held reservations about the effectiveness of Miller’s approach, and they questioned whether her successes could be replicated at a school like ours.

Allow me to provide some context to some of my coworkers’ concerns. I work at a rural Title I middle school in which over 90% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.   Most of the students at my school have parents that did not go to or finish college. For a lot of these kids, reading is not an activity that occurs regularly throughout their households. I usually start the year with 5% to 10% of my students reading on grade level, with many of them reading several grade levels below where they should be. Near the beginning of every year, our school tells parents that their child should be reading for 20 to 30 minutes a night. However, how likely is that going to become a routine for a child that doesn’t have access to books at home and rarely sees an adult modeling reading for pleasure?

After reading Miller’s book, I decided that if my students were going to learn to love reading, if they were going to learn to navigate genres and if they were going to realize that they could in fact spend twenty to thirty minutes of their lives reading, I was going to have to provide them with a chance to do it in my classroom.

I had no idea how I was going to be able to tell if they were actually reading or not. I also wasn’t sure as to how I could assess them on what they had read, since I hadn’t read every book in my classroom library. I also wasn’t totally confident that they could sit still and focus on a book for nearly half an hour.

Despite all these unknowns, I went for it. Independent reading became a regular activity in the “Work Session” portion of my lesson plans. My first year of implementing this approach was not without its struggles and shortcomings. But by and large, the kids bought in. They finished entire books on their own, something that many of them had never done (we didn’t count whole class novels in that category since many times their previous teachers had read a great portion of the book aloud to the class). Students began to discover the kinds of genres they favored as well as the different writing styles that they preferred.   A lot of kids came to the realization that they actually enjoyed reading, and they saw themselves as a part of a greater reading community.

In addition to all of the emotional successes that my students attained, they also realized substantial gains in both their lexile levels and end of year test scores. Since I began making independent reading a significant part of our daily routine, my reading and test scores gains have continued to be higher than both the county and state averages.

Teaching 12 and 13-year-old kids how to become independent readers is hard, if not exhausting, work, but it’s also invaluable. This blog will be a place where I hope to share with other educators the journey that my students and I have taken into the world of literary exploration.